Monday, November 10, 2014

Kingdom of the Grackles

I keep hinting around about some project like it's some big secret, but it's not a secret and it's not a secret project, it's just a project, I guess it's a project. Hey! Remember when I went to an auction of Bob Hope's personal effects and then I wrote an essay about Bob Hope's ice buckets, and ice buckets in general, for THE ATLANTIC, and this was before the "Ice Bucket Challenge" became popular (remember the "Ice Bucket Challenge"?) so now my article is totally obsolete? Well, that essay series is related to a series of books that Bloomsbury is putting out and they asked me if I could think of an object I wanted to write about - another object - and I scratched my head and said "Cigarette lighters?" And looking back, I think I only said that because I had a lot of leftover notes about Bob Hope's cigarette lighters. But anyway, now I am writing a book about cigarette lighters and that is my so-called "secret project." So I flew to Oklahoma City to view a large private collection of cigarette lighters. (The lighters are actually in nearby Guthrie.) But I'm not going to tell you about that or it would spoil the book! Ha ha, you're not going to read that book, are you? TELL ME THE TRUTH! But here, let me look at my famous little notebook of famous jottings I always famously jot when I travel and see how many jottings are useless for the book and thus safe for me to share. Well! As always the question was what to read on the airplane. I looked around the shelves here at home and I just wasn't feeling anything. So I went to Square Books and leafed through Martin Short's autobiography again. I would never buy Martin Short's autobiography! I don't know why! Sorry, Martin Short! I like Martin Short. And I'd sit in a bookstore and read his autobiography for free - no better than a thief! - but I just can't make myself buy it. On the cover of his autobiography his head forms the "O" in "SHORT." But! His mouth is wide open, so maybe his mouth is the "O" in "SHORT." Or maybe his head is the solid part of the "O" and his mouth is the emptiness in the middle of the "O." I read some stuff about how he met Danny Thomas and Danny Thomas always carried a pistol in a holster on his hip! And then I put Martin Short's autobiography back in its proper place and went upstairs and started looking for a small paperback suitable for airplane reading. As I described some of my likings to the booksellers Kate and Kaitlyn, Kate exclaimed, "Do you like vampires?" Now, there is no way that Kate could have known I am currently working on a Marceline story for ADVENTURE TIME - a meeting about which story was to take place later that very afternoon! - so vampires and all their peculiar habits had been particularly on my mind.
(That's not a spoiler, is it? You know Marceline the Vampire Queen is a character on the show, right? Besides, Adam Muto himself recently tweeted these drawings of Marceline from the thing we've been working on - sketches by Hanna K.) So Kate and Kaitlyn tried to get me to buy a book called THE QUICK by Lauren Owen. "I'm a hundred pages in and there are no vampires yet," said Kaitlyn. I replied that that was fine. I reminded Kaitlyn of a book I had recommended to her, THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters, and how you had to wait a long time for the ghost, and Kaitlyn said, "There ARE NO GHOSTS in THE LITTLE STRANGER!" (This is an argument I've had before with other people.) So Kaitlyn and I argued about that in a friendly fashion while Kate thrust the vampire book into my hand. A big clunky hardback! Too big and heavy to carry through airports with my fragile arms. But I opened it up to page one just to be nice and the first sentence is this: "There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy." AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS! So I said, "Sold!" And I left Square Books fully convinced that I would grit my teeth and lug this monster of a novel (523 pages, that's not so terrible) onto all the airplanes. BUT! I stopped by Ace Atkins's office and he had a nice, light paperback copy of LABRAVA by Elmore Leonard on his desk because he had been wanting me to read it. Ah, that's more like it. Sorry, Kaitlyn and Kate! But you almost had me. The vampires will be here for me when I get back. Ace urged me to stay at the Skirvin in Oklahoma City (he was there a lot when he was researching his Machine Gun Kelly book). Ace said the Skirvin was famous for being haunted and he sent me a New York Times article (!) about how professional basketball players who stay at the Skirvin get most especially haunted (!!). But I had already made reservations somewhere else. Ace also told me about a good steak place, but I had already - on Wright Thompson's recommendation - made reservations at Junior's, which Wright described in a tweet as an "old school 80s oil money cocaine rich dark red leather whiskey and T-bone joint."
And yes, that was a recommendation! So I guess my unintended message to Ace was "Screw your thoughtful suggestions!" Though I did bring that book he loaned me. I looked up the Oklahoma City weather on the "internet" and asked Dr. Theresa if she thought I should bring my overcoat. I wanted her to say no! We had an overcoat debate. Then it was time for my ADVENTURE TIME meeting. Kent popped up on my computer screen and started agreeing with Dr. Theresa! They were ganging up on me. But I didn't want to drag my bulky overcoat through the airport. Finally, Pen joined the meeting. "How many degrees should it be before I wear an overcoat?" I asked him. "Overcoats are fun, so I say any degrees," Pen replied. I explained that I prefer to travel light. One carry-on messenger bag, one book, and the clothes on my back! That's it! Pen suggested turning the overcoat into a hobo bindle and putting all my stuff in it. I said, "Yes, that's what they like to see at airports." When Pen found out I would ALSO be wearing my blue smoking jacket (under the OVERcoat) he had second thoughts and came around to my side! "I've seen Pen walking around with no jacket when it's FREEZING!" Kent objected, hinting that Pen was no judge of when to wear an overcoat. Now let's get to the jottings you've been craving. I'm skipping some good stuff because I'm tired. Too bad for you. 1. Went to Junior's on my first night in town, just as Wright had suggested. The cab driver, Cecil, took me past a strange building. I couldn't get a really good look - it was a pale, imposing lump in the dark - but I was intrigued enough to ask him what it was. Cecil said it was the "Gold Dome," a vestige of the glory days of Route 66. Cecil also mentioned the "Milk Bottle Building," but I didn't see that and don't know what it is.
I was reminded of the only other time I've been through Oklahoma City. It must have been 1988 or so. I got fired from my job and my friend Tony and I decided to drive across the country, often sticking to the old Route 66. When we drove through Oklahoma City it was literally covered in a white fog, the whole city. We didn't see a single thing. I later turned that incident into a short story for the fine Oklahoma literary magazine THIS LAND. We pulled up at Junior's. It appeared to be an office building! I walked into a sterile corridor with many doors and wasn't even sure I had the right place: it looked like the door to a dentist office waiting room. But as soon as I opened it up I was in Narnia! I literally walked into a different world. (I may as well mention here that Junior's was the second Oklahoma City restaurant I had walked into with "NO WEAPONS" etched in frosted glass at the entrance.) 2. That publicity picture earlier in this "post" can't do Junior's justice. I felt like I was in VERTIGO, TWIN PEAKS, THE SHINING and a Megan Abbott novel,
all in the best way, and I ate a princely meal that James Garner would have eaten in THE WHEELER DEALERS. 3. My table! They put me at a weird table, which felt like the best table in the house to me. It was a two-top nudged right up against a plate glass window, and on the other side of that window, inches from my left, was the blackness, flecked with gold and red, of a dark bar, with people wearing bolo ties and fur stoles and laughing and SMOKING! It was like a membrane through which I could see another time, and because it was soundproofed it really had the effect of a dream, a thin membrane providing a tempting glimpse of a whole other existence I could almost reach out and touch. 4. After dinner I had to go through that looking glass. It smelled like smoke! I never wanted to leave. 5. I spilled rye all over Ace's copy of LABRAVA. 6. I met three nice women who were out for a night on the town together. One was a realtor, one was an aspiring poet and one was drinking expensive cabernet and studying from an enormous textbook entitled HUMAN ANATOMY at the end of the bar! 7. The next day I went out to Guthrie to visit my contact with the lighter collection. I hired a driver named David to take me. He was born in Ethiopia. He said he works at the Skirvin a lot and Ace will be pleased to hear that he brought up the ghosts. Many of David's passengers have told him about being haunted at the Skirvin. David thinks it's a bunch of baloney. He doesn't believe in ghosts. He is a believer in science and evidence. He had a lot of very interesting psychological theories to explain why and how people fool themselves into thinking they see ghosts at the Skirvin. David's a big reader so we talked about books a lot and he told me interesting stories of his mother and father back in Ethiopia. 8. I can't tell you anything about the lighters because I'm saving it for my book. But I just stared at one of my notes ("Frankenstein nose" is all it said) for several minutes in total panic, thinking, "Oh my God! My notes are useless! I can't write this book!" But then I realized it was "Frankenstein noise." One of the lighters made a noise like the machines that brought Frankenstein's monster to life in the old movie. That's what that note meant. And that's all you're getting out of me! 9. My friends Sarah Marine and her husband Bayard Godsave live in a small town an hour away from Oklahoma City and they were nice enough to come all that way to meet me for dinner. As I stood outside the hotel waiting for them I saw a large group of young women approaching from a nearby park. Their leader was wearing a tiara and a satiny black sash! But they turned the corner before they got to me and I could not read the sash. It was not a parade of any kind, just an informal gathering or stroll with a tiara and sash. 10. Like Dr. Theresa and myself, Sarah Marine and Bayard are early diners. So early, in fact, that the restaurant wasn't open when we got there. We had some minutes to wait. Sarah Marine suddenly realized that we were very close to the memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. So we walked over there and it was a very moving and deeply solemn place to be. I heard a solitary bird make a an eerie and prehistoric but, I thought, weirdly beautiful sound. 11. Sarah Marine pointed out the bird in its tree and told me it was a grackle. 12. Boy, let me tell you, Sarah Marine is down on grackles. "They don't fly, they run," she said disdainfully. "But that one is in a tree," I said. Sarah Marine said, "I'm talking about the REAL grackles, the parking lot grackles." She said no two grackles look alike, they're all ragged and mangy in different ways, missing different feathers, slovenly, and she seemed to resent the grackle in the tree as a poser, I guess, a pretentious grackle that thought he was too damn good to represent his squalid kind. And yet I detected no affection for the punk grackles she apparently considered more authentic. She talked about a grackle standing on a corner gnawing on a chicken bone. She saw this same grackle eating discarded chicken wings in an ugly way in the same spot on two separate occasions!
Bayard kind of tried to take up for the grackles a little bit, but had to admit that they stand around chewing on cigarette butts. Bayard and Sarah Marine quoted an ornithologist who hates grackles. An ornithologist! (More on this later.) I could not help but recall the poor cormorant, and that book I have about how everybody hates cormorants. 13. Bayard, on grackles: "Our friend says they look like gasoline." Sarah Marine: "They're shimmery." Bayard: "They're the color of gasoline in a puddle." I must say all of this sounded kind of exotic and tantalizing to me, but Sarah Marine would have none of my sympathetic grackle talk. Sarah Marine: "They sound like something broken." Bayard: "A broken toy." Sarah Marine: "A broken toy of nightmares." I remarked that I kind of liked the way that one grackle sounded. "You haven't heard them when they start grinding," said Sarah Marine. 14. It's a cliché, but the walk back to the restaurant in the gathering darkness took on a Hitchcockian feeling as grackles gathered all around us - I guess I should call them a "flock" but they seemed more like a swarm or a horde - numberless grackles! - and they did make an uncanny racket, and it may have been terrible, but it struck me as unearthly, and for that reason kind of thrilling. INTERESTING SIDE NOTE! Just before I hit the button to publish this "post" I received an email from Sarah Marine: "I'd been thinking that as we stood at the edge of the glimmering reflecting pool at the Oklahoma City Federal Building Memorial, I may have been unfair to the grackle in my musings. Then, I pulled Fifty Common Birds of Oklahoma by the ornithologist George Miksch Sutton off the bookshelf & again feel mostly disgust and pity for the Common Grackle. I've attached a section from the entry on the Common Grackle. Sorry, not sorry, grackles!"
15. At dinner, Sarah Marine told me there's a statue of James Garner in Norman, Oklahoma, and the waitress said, "It's all covered in flowers now," referring to Mr. Garner's fairly recent passing. 16. The restaurant music (before it shifted to "Tears For Fears" mode a bit later in the evening) consisted of popular tunes with a "surf guitar" twist. The theme from GOLDFINGER was one. I mentioned that it was Dr. Theresa's go-to karaoke number. Bayard asked whether I had ever seen the FRASIER episode when Frasier and Niles sing "Goldfinger." I had to say no! Bayard said that the old piano player in the episode can only play "Goldfinger." With Martin's encouragement, Frasier and Niles sing along - reluctantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm. That sounded like a good one! I was sorry not to recall it. I mentioned an episode of FRASIER that had recently disturbed and troubled me and Sarah Marine said, "I have a problem with an entire era of FRASIER." We discussed it. "Why did they give Daphne bangs?" is one thing that Sarah Marine asked plaintively. 17. Sarah Marine said their hometown consisted of "a grain elevator and an intersection." Bayard added, "We have a liquor store that sells Samurai swords." 18. The bottled water in my hotel room had a Bible verse printed next to the expiration date! Not the whole verse, just a citation: "John 5:15." I made a note to myself to look it up in my Geneva Bible when I got home and see what it's all about. "The man departed, and told the Jewes that it was Jesus, which had made him whole." Hmm. Gee. That's what it said on my bottled water! 19. David drove me to the airport the next day and proved himself once again a delightfully wide-ranging conversationalist. He had much of interest to say on the subjects of Christopher Hitchens, Agatha Christie, Karl Marx, Field Marshal Rommel, asceticism, tribalism, and democracy. He was proud that Ethiopia (which he called "the second oldest Christian country in the world," and gave me some history on that) had never been colonized. He told about having to kill goats and oxen as a young man and how his people hardly ever eat a female animal - they eat the rooster, for example, instead of the chicken. "Meat is for rich people," he said. He described being a poor child and - as a kind of entertainment - watching strangers eat meat. "That was our window shopping," he said. 20. I forgot to tell you about the earthquakes! I wasn't in one. But when I was looking at the lighter collection, the collector showed me where several of his lighters had fallen and some had been damaged, and he said, "That's what happens with the earthquakes. We had five earthquakes last week." I think that's what he said. It was something like that. I haven't transcribed the recordings yet. But he is 82, and I thought maybe it was just a strange hyperbolic thing that an 82-year-old man might say. On the drive back to the city, I asked David whether Oklahoma City has a lot of earthquakes and he said, "We had 4,000 earthquakes last year." WHAT! I haven't looked up anything to corroborate that, but Megan sent me an article from THE ATLANTIC detailing a large number of earthquakes in Oklahoma. I didn't see a number so mind-boggling as 4,000 (I haven't looked into it very carefully) but the article did mention a single recent weekend in which Oklahoma had SEVEN EARTHQUAKES! Seven earthquakes in one weekend, I said! David says that the oil men try to tell everybody it's just nature at work, but David knows it's the fracking. 21. Announcement at the Oklahoma airport: "Will the passenger who left the big bag of money at the eastern checkpoint please come get it." 22. "He told Cundo, watching him pick at his cole slaw, he ate like a ******** owl." - LABRAVA