Thursday, April 28, 2016

Keep NC Gay... What? No. I Meant "Happy"

The fundamental driving force behind North Carolina's HB-2 is probably the great and hoary urban/rural conflict, wherein rural counties tend to be much more conservative socially, and urban counties tend to be more progressive and open-minded. We used to sing a song about this, which I learned the words to back in '72 I think, as it was one of the original songs on our set list back when we were playing places like the Endangered Species, a basement bar on Rosemary Street run by two lunatics, Big Dale and Little Dale. "I Wish I'd Bought Me A Half A Pint And Stayed In The Wagon Yard."

I am a jolly farmer, last night I went to town,
To take a bail of cotton, I'd worked the whole year round.
I hitched my team in the wagon yard and bought me a bottle of gin,
And went out to see them 'lectric lights, and watch the cars come in.

Now listen to me farmers, I'm hear to talk some sense,
If you want to see them 'lectric lights, just look right over the fence.
Don't monkey with them city duffs you'll find they're slick as lard.
Just go and get you a half a pint and stay in the wagon yard.

Now I'm a deacon in a hard shell church, down near Possum Trot,
if the sisters hear about my spree, it's bound to make them hot.
I went out on a party, I led the pace that kills.
When I woke up, that gang had gone and left me with all the bills.

I found them over on the corner, near the Soul Salvation Hall.
That drunken bunch was out there singing Jesus Paid It All.
They put me out in a dry goods box, Lord, my pillow was hard..
I wish I'd bought me a half a pint and stayed in the wagon yard.

[originally recorded by Lowe Stokes and his North Georgians, circa 1930]

I won't type up all of it here, it hurts my head to try to remember all of the lines. Al McCanless put in a nice minor chord on the first measure of the bridge, which spiffed up our version from the 78 rpm recording we got it off of. He and Tommy and Jim had been doing the song before the Red Clay Ramblers started, in '72, so it was easy to keep on at it. But we thought it was a funny song even then, and people laughed at it and with us, not only in the red nest of Chapel Hill, but up at Janette Carter's Carter Fold, in Hiltons, VA, which is as damn rural a place as you'll ever find anywhere within driving distance of North Carolina, and noted bluegrassers such as the Country Gentlemen have recorded it as well, even without a fiddle.

Now we got a guy running on the Republican ticket for Attorney General by the name of Buck Newton. He's from Wilson, NC, which is one of the places you can find the best BBQ on the planet, and from more than one fine eatery no less. Newton is currently an NC senator in the Legislature, and voted for HB2 of course, a preposterous piece of government dictate which in the Looking Glass way the Rethugs like to do it these days is being parsed by its authors and our weak-kneed Republican governor Pat McCrory as a sensible response to "government over-reach." Newton said in a speech this week, believing perhaps that sunspots were interfering with all recording devices, or perhaps that he was speaking only to the true believers:

"Go home, tell your friends and family who had to work today what this is all about and how hard we might fight to keep our state straight," Newton said during a rally in support of House Bill 2, the controversial measure passed in response to Charlotte's transgender nondiscrimination ordinance.

Buck. Of course that's his name, or at least the name he adopted before he ran successfully for state senator in one of our many predominantly rural counties, where for a century tobacco was king. When people from reality overheard Buck's remarks, they said, well, that's what we've been telling anyone who will listen. Because it's certainly right out there in Buck's timeless locution. The goal of this law is indeed to keep NC straight. It is expertly crafted by people with law degrees (and some of 'em surely get their ideas from the Koch's ALEC organization, which crafts all manner of laws ostensibly as an aid to over-strapped legislatures all over the country, and in fact as an aid to a successful state-by-state reactionary revolution which depends in significant part on fundamental flaws in the US Constitution, such as the tragic fact that representation is grossly undemocratic, e.g., Rhode Island gets two Senators, as does California.) How the law works is, a person who self-identifies as a given gender different from their birth gender is placed in an immediate legal quandary concerning which bathroom to use. To put it over-simply, use the restroom they "look like," or the restroom that corresponds to their genitalia at birth. There are already reports of persons removing themselves to other buildings where there exist neutral facilities rather than risk some sort of confrontation. The risks come with high stakes, obviously.

Buck just says "you Democrats are being sensitive, I never said anything about sex." What weasels the NC Republicans have become. They have a psychological problem. Having taken this short-sighted, un-thought-out position and made it into law no less, they are surely seeing, at least when they look in the mirror in the bathroom of their choice, the plain contradictions contained in the law. Making things worse, Ted Cruz, Presidential Candidate, has jumped on board. How can an authoritarian possibly back down? If only Pat McCrory had saved all of them from themselves! But the Governor is a party man, first, last and always. Possibly the advent of Trump will save the day, since he's maintaining a more common-sensical position at least at the moment. As soon--next week perhaps--as it becomes obvious that Trump is the Republican Presidential Nominee, good party men will be doing figure eights as grand as Jimmie Johnson's, or Junior's.

Hey Buck. Head on back to the wagon yard. You can explain to your agricultural constituents, over a nice G&T, why NC needs to somehow replace the millions in lost revenue which this vicious law has engendered. Maybe the Legislature can forego air conditioning this long hot summer to save some money.

[photo from WRAL-tv]

Friday, April 15, 2016

Moving Midway: A Documentary From My Home Town

I watched Godfrey Cheshire's terrific documentary "Moving Midway" twice. Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic. He started his career around here when he founded a weekly newspaper in the '70s called The Spectator and published his film reviews in it. In 1991 he moved to New York City and began writing for larger publications up there. It's obvious he learned, in the process of writing about films, how to make one.

Midway starts out as a personal story. Midway is a big plantation house, built in 1848 as a present from a father to a son. It was one of a number of plantation houses situated on a gigantic plantation, 26000 acres I believe the film states at one point, which lay in eastern Wake and western Johnston counties. Hundreds of slaves did the work. This area of central North Carolina has suffered an explosion of population growth starting in the 1970s, and what was once a rural landscape has become, at the time the film begins, an urban hodgepodge of four lane highways, new subdivisions, and shopping mall after shopping mall. Already just across US 64 (once and still called the Tarboro Road by the folks who live in Midway by inheritance) a big mall has sprung up, and fifty-five thousand vehicles pass the front gate daily. The current owner of Midway, Charles Silver, decides, he tells his cousin Godfrey Cheshire, to literally move the house and some of the outbuildings away from this impending juggernaut. One part of the story, then, is a literal engineering marvel: moving such a building successfully from where it sits to... somewhere else. When the story begins, the end point is not known, and one of the chapters in the tale involves the actual negotiation and successful purchase by Mr. Silver of a piece of land close enough and big enough to make the move possible. A feature of this move becomes something more remarkable in the process: the move is to some degree overland, not down a handy paved highway.

(This sort of move was accomplished back in 1999 down on Hatteras Island, when the Hatteras Lighthouse was successfully moved away from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean. In that case they used the same sort of hydraulic jacking system, and of course the structure itself was even heavier than Midway house. The best part of that move, however, was that they were able to lay rail and moved the lighthouse, inch by inch, on a path that was already engineered level and plumb, which limited the danger of wracking to an absolute minimum. It was a remarkable move documented in its own right. As I was driving down Hatteras to the Ocracoke Ferry on a semi-weekly basis back in those days, I could personally note the changes as the lighthouse made it's journey, across the horizon and the line of the road.)

So this is one part of the Midway story. But it turns out that it not the deepest part. That part belongs to the massive and ongoing denial which the South's white culture maintains, even today, and since the beginnings of this dark foundation stone of America: slavery. After Mr. Cheshire's initial engagement with his cousin Charles Silver and Mr. Silver's decision to move the house, he meets one Robert Hinton, a black professor of African American Studies at NYU who grew up in Raleigh and started his educational journey by graduating from Raleigh's segregated Ligon High School in 1959, two years before I graduated from Raleigh's white segregated highschool, Needham Broughton. As Hinton remarks, "I didn't have the money for psychoanalysis, so I studied history." He wrote his dissertation, from Yale, on the transition from slavery to agricultural labor in the South. Hinton, it turns out, is the descendant not only of slaves who worked on the Midway Plantation, but literally the descendant of the owner of Midway, who had a sexual relationship with the black cook. Hinton and Cheshire, Hinton and Charles Silver and his two younger brothers, are cousins.

As Silver's mother, and her sister Cheshire's mother, also relate: "I am certain we treated the slaves kindly. We are not a cruel family." Across this chasm stretched a tightrope, which the film pretty successfully negotiates. Robert Hinton is credited as the documentary's historian, as he should be. Just like Jackie Robinson, he sees the world aright. It turns out that there are black Hintons galore in the Midway area. Another is Algia Mae Hinton, a Piedmont blues singer and guitarist who was accompanied for many years by Libby and my friend, the blues artist Lighting Wells. Her music underscores the documentary, and there's a nice little "extra" included in the DVD featuring her singing and playing, with Lightning appearing behind her.

Cheshire also chooses to tell the story of the Southern "Plantation Myth," as part of the larger context for Midway Plantation. He reminds the viewer of Gone With the Wind, a film still given great prominence in our critco-historical story of American Film, and probably watchable sometime this year on TCM. He reminds the viewer, too, of Birth of a Nation, which memorialized all the myths of segregation and the southern fear of black people, which justified and indeed exalted lynching and the general terrorism under which black people lived once they had achieved "freedom" in 1865. Birth of a Nation, another extra notes, has been banned from view in some American cities including Los Angeles.

The documentary is riveting at every level. Towards the end, Robert Hinton admits that he doesn't care at all about whether this house is saved, and would like to see all of North Carolina covered with asphalt, as a memorial to the slave labor his people endured. He says, to Cheshire, "I'm kinda sorry I like you, it would have been easier to hate you."

It might be remarked that quite a few notable Republicans (and certainly some Democrats as well, even now) believe the convenient myth that black people were "happy" and well-treated back in those antebellum days. Cliven Bundy, point man for the mining industry, comes to mind, and also Sarah Palin. There's an ongoing battle right now in many places in the South to finally remove statuary that exalts Civil War "heroes" such as Robert E. Lee, not to mention Nathan Bedford Forrest.

[a hat tip to Lawyers, Guns and Money, who posted this picture]

That's part of an ongoing effort to deal with Robert E. Lee at the University of Mississippi. These myths, which perpetuate denial on a multi-generational basis, continue. Last year I got into an email conversation with some guy who was a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, on the question of whether slavery was the "cause" of the Civil War. He never budged. I finally thanked him for his time and gave up. When you quote long passages straight from the mouths and writings of the people who started the war and even then Southern apologists refuse to change their minds, you have reached the land of the clinical. I guess it's harder for the children of the slave owners to see what's true, but I really don't know why that is. Thomas Jefferson knew he had black children. White America didn't know until someone sleuthed it out with DNA study. His black descendants knew all the time, through all the generations. This question is even explicitly broached by Cheshire when he goes to a big reunion of the black Hintons. "Why didn't our families meet long ago," he asks. The black widow of a Hinton who had done a lot of research on the subject of his ancestors shrugs. "Well, we live in the South, what good would it do."

You can rent this film via Netflix or Amazon, or buy it for less than $12.00. Every one should see it. It explains a lot.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


I've about given up on the kind of "news" programs than come through the teevee. It's been obvious that the so-called middle of the road network fair is distorted when it comes to this election (and much else for that matter). We used to watch a lot of Ed Schultz, and we used to think Rachel Maddow was great, and that Rev. Al offered a voice to black citizens. Rachel is this spring a "star," and pretty much unwatchable if you want the truth. Schultz and Rev. Al have been entirely swept away. PBS, of course, offers us the stylings of David Brooks on a weekly basis.

This is all by way of explaining that last night I watched a fine hour-long documentary about a Southern Pacific steam engine (#4449) hauling a bunch of passenger cars up into the Cascades of Washington for a centennial winter games event. Beautiful shots of these great iron machines in operation, in a snowy February landscape. And it wasn't so long ago really: 1989. After than Ken Burns' documentary about Jackie Robinson came on. There's one more part to it, coming up tonight. You should watch. It's a reminder of how evil and deep American racism really runs, and how white America's ability to deny never flags. The Peewee Reese-Robinson statue, Reese with his arm draped over Robinson's shoulders as though it was his friendship and support that finally carried the day, the one "good" white man; the statue sits in front of a ball park even after Robinson's widow objected. Historians quoted on the documentary objected too. Because the incident depicted never happened. (This is not to say that Reese and Robinson never ever embraced, or didn't share some sense of being teammates.)

[photo by Gary Dunaier,]

As the documentary points out, it's not like this image is somehow "bad." Rather, the image enhances the myth that Robinson needed white help to complete his marathon through hate. After all the appalling racism he had to wade through, from his birth to the end of the '47 season (and of course beyond, through the rest of his life as well), Peewee, from Louisville, KY no less, reached out a hand from the top of the mountain and helped Mr. Robinson up.

There's another image that burned itself into my consciousness as I watched the documentary. It was a photo of how public waiting areas were set up in those days, and how every black person had to deal with this. I remember it vividly growing up in Raleigh, NC. Any public place you went in the '50s you'd find things like "White Waiting Room/Colored Waiting Room,"--two whole different rooms to wait for the damn train or bus. Bathrooms the same deal, and the picture in the Robinson documentary was particularly remarkable for it's contemporary resonance here in NC. There were a series of bathroom doors in some train station, all captured in one shot: "white men," "white women," "colored."

It kinda jumped out at me that here in 2016, sixty plus years after this old segregated world is alleged to have vanished into the dust heap of history, damn if we're not still back in it. This time it's not official racism. It's official sexism. Here in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago our Legislature, in "special session," passed a fresh new bathroom law which singles out persons of complex gender and pretty much tells them they'd better not go into any public restroom for fear of some police reaction or other, from pretty much any random person of either gender who happens to labor under their own misguided phobias and prejudices. God help you if you happen to be black as well. And eleven Democrats voted for this abomination and embarrassment. Here's who they are, if you happen to want to vote them out next November:

One guy said it was a "mistake." He's opening himself up for interviews even. Must be he detects a slight shift in the wind. He's not in my district, but if he was I wouldn't give him a pass.

What is it with this need, this ache, on the part of the powerful, to mess with the bathrooms? It's hard to believe it's even conscious on the part of many of our lawmakers, although that's not a pass either. If you're unconscious of your own blind spots, don't fergawd's sake run for office! Go to a shrink. (Mr. Trump may in the end have this lesson from reality; one can hope.) We get past our horrible, racist past here in NC, at least to some extent relative to say 1955, and here comes the right wing powers-that-be, now Republican rather than Democrats thanks to Nixon and the Civil Rights Federal Legislation of the mid-'60s, doing it all again, still aching for necks to step on, for heads to press into the muck with their shiny jack boots. And of course our limp Governor, who had yet another opportunity to save his Administration from itself, signed the damned bill as quick as it got to his desk.

Now I see other Southern states are leaping to the same sort of legislation. Tennessee is next apparently. A great and horrible "trend," with North Carolina at the head of the parade.

And of course there's another aspect of this bill that, because of the bright flames generated by this part, goes pretty much unnoticed except for a few liberal bloggers with some interest in the details. Turns out that down in the bill are dictates asserting that municipalities can no longer establish nondiscrimination ordinances, or higher minimum wages, no can anyone anymore sue an employer for alleged sex discrimination. All of this will of course now go to court, with nothing decided until some time well past November. As our Democratic Attorney General has already said the law is unconstitutional and he will therefore not defend it, the Legislature and Administration will pay millions more in tax dollars to private attorneys hired to defend the law.

Libby had a better and cheaper solution to all this, ummmm, crap. If you, Mr. or Ms random citizen, has some idea that a given public rest room might be occupied by someone you are suspicious of, for any reason, well, don't go in there. DUH. Libby, as usual, possesses more commmon sense than any Republican holding elected office. Meanwhile, a cursory Google search yields this bit of wisdom and common sense:

And as to the bathrooms? The provisions affecting public schools violate the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX, which could cost the state billions if OCR brings an enforcement action. Moreover, the bathroom-panic strategy is old and tired. Although Phyllis Schlafly denies ever speaking of unisex bathrooms, her anti-ERA strategy fueled a bathroom panic that might well have been the straw breaking the camel’s back in the 1970s when an insufficient number of states ratified the proposed constitutional guarantee of sex equality. Could we just agree to stop using bathrooms as a pretext for discrimination?

"... cost the state billions..." That has a certain ring to it.


I watched the second part of the Jackie Robinson/Ken Burns documentary last night. It's remarkable how in the center of the '60s he stands. He went to the flaming south during some of the worst of times, Birmingham, Spring, 1963. His son, Jackie, Jr., joined the Army and found himself in Vietnam early in the escalation, and was in the end broken by the horror of it. It makes me think of Merle Haggard's line: "back before Nixon lied to us all on TV." It wasn't just Nixon, it was Johnson too. Jackie Robinson, Jr., had the absolute best of families--of "homes" if you like. He was thrown into heroin by Vietnam, then, tragically, died on the highway after he'd just finally gotten away from drugs, just a damn accident in the night.

This was just one heartbreak for the Robinsons. Celebrating Peewee Reese's birthday, they flew the confederate flag at Ebbet's Field. Robinson decided to support Nixon because he thought Kennedy wasn't interested in civil rights. Neither was Nixon, and in the end the Kennedys at least interceded on Martin Luther King, Jr.s behalf to keep him off a Georgia chain gang which would likely have killed him. And then, by the mid-'60s, the black press was calling Robinson an "Uncle Tom" because he was a friend and political ally of Nelson Rockefeller, and believed (surely rightly) that a black armed rebellion such as the Black Panthers were advocating would lead to thousands of black casualties and terrible defeat for the Movement. Jackie Robinson was clear-eyed start to finish. He saw the world aright. He died, we must conclude, of a broken heart, like a great workhorse who never quit. What a life-story. What an indictment of white America.

I was reminded of how I felt during the early months of 1963, and why I became engaged in my tiny way in the Civil Rights struggle. I was reminded of the terrible turn Lyndon Johnson took when he waded into Vietnam, destroying in the end all the tremendous credibility and good will he'd built up after he became President in November, 1963. People who correctly see the choice between Hillary Clinton and pretty much any Republican as being a choice of lesser evils (of course I'd put the Clintons over under the "lesser" column, but see, e.g., are not seeing some new phenomenon in American politics, domestic and foreign. I saw a piece yesterday by a woman who is the daughter of one of the Berrigan brothers, who stood against the Vietnam war in the '60s. She opts for the Green Candidate this time around. I entirely understand, although I think that's a kind of mistake. At least her dad and uncle pointed the way to that path, right or wrong. There's so much blood and hate, then and now.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dan Hicks Too?

The Firm (Craver, Hicks, Watson, Newberry Combo) went on a road trip in early March. Stops in Portland, Spokane, Seattle, then Portland, one two three four, with a long flight going and coming. Out it was thick clouds till past the ole Mississip, then the clouds broke, and over western Nebraska I felt like the only difference I could see was apparently down there was atmosphere, as opposed to Mars or the Moon. By Saturday night, in Seattle, I was coming down with the flu. There was a late-night session at the place we were staying, an old friend from the music scene around here when I was just starting out on the fiddle, Bertram Levy had come down to see the show from Port Townsend and brought his wife and daughter, daughter Madeline being about 20 and an excellent fiddler, so the session was really a lot of fun, but it squeezed the last energy out of me, and the flight back was a blur. After that I slept for about a week, which worked out ok too, as it used up my vacation time before the joint closed down for good on April Fool's Day Friday a week ago.

Somewhere in there I recall someone, maybe it was our hosts in Portland, Nancy Conescu and Mike Doolin, noting that Dan Hicks had passed away. I didn't hardly believe it, but after I got back and more or less well I looked it up, and sure enough, Dan's gone. I'd have sent him a note. I've had a long relationship with Dan Hicks, even if he never was aware of it.

Back in '69 I took a permanent vacation from my first marriage and rode out to San Francisco with a couple of buds in an early '60s Chevy pickup. It looked like this as we started out on our adventure:

We drove out in four days, not stopping except for gas till about 30 hours into it, at Elk City, OK, where there was an inviting motel right on the highway--Route 66, which was getting replaced bit by bit with I-40. I have no idea what the name of that motel was, but there was an excellent Mexican restaurant with or very near the place, where I first had green salsa (it being 1969, these commonplaces were not such, back in lil ole NC where we started out). We pushed on after some damn good sleep, three of us on the bench, seatbelts? are you kidding. We stopped for a great breakfast in Flagstaff, and drove up to the South Rim, peered over the edge and into the abyss, then set out for Needles, Barstow, San Bernadino, with Bakersfield thrown in for good measure, where we stopped at the very apex of the famed "Bakersfield Grade" to lay a beer can on the center line to see which way it would roll, it being a quiet 3 AM or so. We motelled it again in Bakersfield, then drove up the Central Valley towards San Francisco, stopping only to put out a smoldering fire in the bed of the truck, so loaded down that the wood boards that had replaced the steel deck in spots had been riding on the exhaust pipe.

Anyways, after some days reconnoitering Height and figuring out how to hitch-hike over to Oakland to see my sister, I rode with Mac Benford and a a bunch of Oakland old-timey musicians over to the Family Dog Ballroom on the beach in San Francisco, where as I recall they opened for Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks. I'd never heard such music. Over a time I got all the records he'd made, two or three I think it was. By then I was helping to build the Red Clay Ramblers. RCR didn't do much obvious swing material, but I'd say my song Play "Rocky Top" had a lot of Dan's attitude, and was about as Django-ed as we could manage at that time. I've kept up with that one, and the Combo plays it better now than back then, on the Frizz LP, in my considered opinion of course.

I didn't know for decades what had happened to Dan. When Libby and I got together, after I'd left the Ramblers in '81, it turned out that she was a Dan Fan too. In the late '80s we worked up two of his songs, Evening Breeze and Reelin' Down. About 2001 or so Dan showed up on the calendar at the Cat's Cradle, the Chapel Hill music club that started about the same time as the Ramblers and has bounced around the streets of Heels Town, a variety of locations. I've seen some good music there through the years, and none better than that Dan Hicks show.

Libby and I had actually recorded those two Hicks' songs on our CD, "South of Nowhere." It was fairly fresh, so I brought a copy to give to the master, who was famously irascible. I spotted him at the bar, nursing a mineral water, well before show time, and approached him gingerly. "Scuse me," I said, "could I bother you for a second." The plan was to give him the CD, tug my forelock, scurry away to my seat near the front of the stage. "Naw," he said. That was that.

The show was fantastic. Tight, great playing, Dan's expected dry delivery. He put a stool out beside where he'd be standing, and put some picks and a capo on it. Deep into the show he picked up the capo and displayed it to the audience. "This is a capo," he said. "We're going to do 'I Have a Capo On My Brain' next." He put it back down on the stool, never to use it. It was a prop.

After the show I caught the fiddler and gave him the CD to give to Dan, telling him we'd covered his songs. "Hope you paid the royalties," he said. "Dan'll come after you." Fortunately we had. Possibly a letter from Dan's copyright lawyers would be of more value, looking back on it now. I'd frame it and hang it somewhere visible.

Now he's gone, this wry genius. Saw he lived for many years in Mill Valley and would say "hi" to Maria Muldaur at the PO. Here's one of his songs I never heard, performed on TV in the late '80s:

Baby Jesus is putting together a hell of a band this year.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Merle Haggard

Sheila O'Malley has a sweet remembrance up at her blog. Also Lawyers, Guns and Money has several posts and youtubes up. The loss is stupendous. Everest has crumbled, Gibraltar has tumbled, as it were. My way of looking at music is a lot like Pollock's way of looking at painting: the actual painting is actually an evidence of activity which is now past and over. Music is a doing, an event. The whole studio deal is a complex instrument for actualizing ideas which reside in the mind of the producing musician(s). So you can indeed end up with some weird shit, such as the two guys who are Steely Dan not even playing on some of their work, but still putting it on a Steely Dan LP. Or Laura Nyro creating tracks out of 50 bits of different takes played over a year (Dale Asnby, our engineer on "Chuckin' the Frizz," our live CD from 1979, told me that anecdote as we mixed the album up in his New Jersey home base studio--he'd been Laura's engineer too, and specialized in incredible remote location recordings).

So of course, my favorite bits of Merle Haggard are the live ones. This one is simply perfect, and gets better with every listen. I love Merle's singing, but I also love his extended break. He's going to do one time around, but then goes for one and three-quarters, leaving the last fourth for the great fiddler, who plays a perfect ending section. They'd probably done that whole arrangement before, given that Haggard and the Strangers were working almost constantly at that time, but there's still a life to it, a quality of in-the-moment. You shouldn't play it the same way twice, you should just confront the music in the moment. That's what I try to do when I'm playing, whether it's songs or dance tunes for a ten-minute contra-dance.

He left us so much we can keep on listening for a long long time. One of the folks at Lawyers, Guns and Money posted the Hag's "If I Could Only Fly," a Blaze Foley song of haunting beauty. Check that one out too, and also Merle's live rendition of "Long Black Limousine."

Sheila says in her post, apropos the fact that Merle Haggard died on his birthday: He went out of this world with his fans all thinking about him already. What a tender, heart-rending remark.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


The way I see a job is you just go do it. That's probably why I managed as a brick-layer. You come to the site on the first day and you see ten or twenty tons of bricks, all bailed up in one-ton cubes, and maybe there's a nice footing with lines tied up to corner posts, and maybe even some masonry nails driven into the footing plumb down from the X the lines make up there in the air somewhere (who am I kidding—I always did the plumbing down, and the pinning of the corners on the footing). If they've done the footing well, it's smooth enough that you can pop chalk lines off those pins. Then you have two references you can actually sight, lining up the string in the air with the chalk on the footing, which tells you if your layout is basically accurate. There's also the very good idea to measure up at various points, footing to lines, to see if the footing is fairly level, or where “hogging” has to happen (getting that first course level by splitting bricks here and there, or adding extra masonry if there are low spots). This is a nice beginning meditation. Nothing is yet set in stone. I have memories of quiet spring or fall mornings, no one around, just walking around the site, figuring this stuff out at my own pace.

Then there's the getting the bricks within reach, humping around with a barrow, making piles of bricks at the corners and so forth. On some sites they'd drop the cubes inside the perimeter of the building, which was normally quite the handy idea as long as there weren't going to be some cubes ending up on the wrong side of the building, marooned inside and ultimately underneath, which would never do. After a couple or three hours it'd be time to turn on the mixer and make some mortar, then start building those corners carefully, one at a time, with a lot of attention paid to the level and the lines, and be sure to count the bricks corner to corner so you know which way to turn the first one down, nothing much worse that meeting in the middle a couple of days hence and finding yourself with two halves, that definitely sucks, and almost as much as discovering that on one end you're on course 1, but on the other you're on course 0. (My very first solo job that happened and I had to tear out quite a few otherwise nicely laid bricks and start again, how embarrassing, but a fine lesson from reality.)

Anyways, that's what a job is to me. It's immersing and goes best if you don't be looking too far down the road except in the specific necessary ways I've just exampled above. And so as yesterday was my very last day at work, and the very last day the company was going to be operating as a retail business, I came to work as I always did and do, a tiny bit late because I had to stop to get an apple fritter from the Hess station that sells doughnuts as a sideline, because I was a little late leaving, because... Anyways I got there at five after or so, and started right in to my usual first task of the day, logging in the customers of the previous day, and after a while the first customer of the last day rolled onto the scale, and the day was commenced. When I got to lunch I found this in my lunch bag from Libby, who's made me great lunches nearly every day for the last eight years, and told me she had really enjoyed that connection, usually started after I was already asleep, and completed when I opened the lunch twelve hours later (unless we got a late customer, which happened now and again) and read the note she'd written in the deep night on the napkin. I saved this last one, it's so great:

I figured preserving it here on the blog is the best plan. It's really pretty hard to preserve a napkin for posterity. She'd put a thermos of Brunswick stew for the main course yesterday, her mom's great recipe of course. One of my employers, Joe, had also put a nice BoJangles sausage buscuit on my desk before I got in that five minutes late, so the whole fritter thing was quite unnecessary. I didn't starve my last day.

It got busier in the afternoon. The whole last week was much busier than it had been for months, which was why we were closing, and I wondered if we should have just done one of those “Going Out of Business” things a few months back, when scrap prices had fallen so low that people stopped bringing their steel to us, meaning we were in the red, the big scrap handing machines still burning diesel, the guys still getting paid. I think neither of the owners could stand to be tacky that way, but the past couple of weeks the place probably did get into the black again, week-to-week. It was still a big hole to climb out of, and particularly for two owners in their 70s.

The day marched on, weight after weight, scrap receipt after scrap receipt. The money still had to be counted carefully, each customer had to be treated with friendliness. A couple of days back, one customer, who was perpetually at odds with everyone who waited on him and seemed to view the world as a consistent, uniformly hostile place, was finally banned from using our services when I found him circling an employee, both men with fists up and at the ready. We'd already told this guy, a few months back, any more smoke from his direction and he would own the fire, no further discussion required. I ran outside and yelled, pointing at him, “You're banned NOW.” How exciting for a last week. One owner said at the end of the day, “we should have called the law on him years ago.” Probably so. We had a lot of sympathy for him, truth be known. He spent his days rifling dumpsters and finding bits of metal that sometimes would be worth next to nothing, and seldom yielded him more that $20. That's a grim life in my book. Urban prospector, and with that job description comes "badges, we don't need no stinking badges." He drove an old heap that had once long ago been a sports car, it's back window now lost to some shaft of pipe that had poked it out hitting a bump. He could have had little daylight time for anything else beyond his rounds, and came nearly daily and sometimes more than once. Sad he couldn't make it through the last week, to the end of the show. As usual his problem on banning day was his own obvious misunderstanding, plus a tendency he had to dislike people on the basis of race and ethnicity, in other words a man weighted down with prejudice and stewing in his own bile, living an existence you could find in a book of 12th Century Norse curses, or Dante's wheel. If he's not a Trump voter no one is, but he's probably not registered, or his chariot won't start come November.

At about 4:20 a guy showed up with a big trailer full of gutted appliances. He used to come a whole lot, but we hadn't seen him in months and months, probably because of the metal prices. He was our last customer. Last year he'd brought in magnetic NASCAR calendars for our refrigerators, and I asked him if he had brought new ones. “They've not come in yet,” he said, “but I got regular calendars with my phone number on 'em. I'll bring you one in.” He was obviously pretty exhausted from the loading of the appliances, and had parked outside the gate because he knew we wanted to block it with a big I-beam to mark the end of things. I walked out to his truck with him to get the calendar so's he wouldn't have to trudge back to the office, and we talked a bit about the cranes and who might get them, and why we were closing. He said he really liked working with us. “Other places make you unload yourself, your cranes make it easy.” He also felt we were very honest.

So when I got back to the office a number of the guys were already gone, and I didn't get the chance to shake all the hands of some excellent guys I'd been working with for a long time, day in, day out. A lot of it made me think of that great Hunter-Garcia song, Black Peter:

See here how everything lead us to this day,
And it's just like any other day that, ever been.
Sun comin' up and then, the sun it goin' down.
Shine through my window, and my friends they come around.

That's how it is. You lay the last brick, and if you're lucky and it's not quite dark you can sit down on a sheet-rock pail and drink a Pepsi and look at all of it for a few minutes. Then it's time to go.

That's the office, with the scale.

And this is Andy, who worked in the non-ferrous section. I did get to shake his hand.