Gimme Shelter: Mid-March diary

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO

Monday, March 16: Wake from a dream. Stopped at a light. Young guy approaching the passenger side window. I notice it’s my old high school buddy, John Fitzgerald, killed at Khe Sanh, long ago.

“Venom?” Fitz asks.

“What?”

“Do you have venom to sell?”

“No,” I say.

Not a good question for a person in my profession. Fitz disappears down a crowded street.

March, I remember. Fitz died in March

Tuesday, March 17: Liz called last night. She asked if I’m going to City Hall today. I paused, thinking the Town Board work session is tomorrow afternoon, and how does my sister in Queens know my Tuesday schedule? I’m about to tell her we call it Town Hall here, but then I remembered the date and laugh.

In my family on March 17 you ask people of Irish descent if they’re going to City Hall. When they inevitably ask why, you tell them it’s to get their butts painted green. A gentle but firm reminder to never stray into the precincts of the ethnic stereotype.

“Better get down there early,” Liz said, “before they run out of paint.”

Mary made soda bread last night. The sweet, simple aroma filled the house. Connections to the old country, which at times seem frayed by age, need only a voice with tender mischief in it, or the smell of bread baking, to become as solid as steel cables.

I’m making my way through a two-part, 15,000-word article in the New York Times Magazine by Karl Ove Knausgaard on visiting America to discover traces of Viking settlements and Norwegian immigration. Sounds interesting but, oh, God. The dour Norwegian writes about every cigarette he smokes, every cup of coffee he drinks along with flat descriptions of his motel room. The most exciting event so far has been his panic after clogging up a toilet.

It’s like being a coal miner, reading Karl Ove.

I’m taking it slowly before my real work begins, asking myself after every paragraph — Why am I spending mornings with this guy?

But now and then during the day I’ll remember a turn of phrase, or an expression on a face he’s seen. It’s like something another equally gloomy Scandinavian, Søren
Kierkegaard, wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Wednesday, March 18: These early mornings the sky near the horizon is sometimes pale purple streaking the lightest of blue. With snow ceding territory every day, deer have returned to the backyard, staring at me, and the little mad dashing chipmunks going about their serious business of making a living.

Karl Ove is now driving around Minnesota worrying, at length, about how he’s going to write the article I’m reading. His boredom is like a bad companion he can’t lose.

On the way to work I park the car and troop 100 yards across the field toward the tree. I’m ready for my boots to sink ankle deep in the snow, but it’s frozen, so there’s just a crisp sound and the lightest of footprints. I’ve been looking at the tree on my way to work for two years. Stunted, bone-white, solitary, standing in the field. Today I decide to capture it.

After shooting several angles — fortunately the office camera is idiot proof so I don’t injure myself operating it — I walk back across the crunchy surface. In the distance down the road a tall figure in a hoodie appears out of the milky morning light. Peter Waldner.

We chat about this and that. He tells me the field is preserved land. I see him on the road all the time, at all hours. Mary and I will say now and then when we’re passing a window, “There goes Peter.” For some reason it makes us feel good. Island entertainment in the middle of March.

Thursday, March 19: Karl Ove goes to a bar in Duluth! He talks to a waitress!

A guy came in the office today, shook my hand, and my only thought after he let go is that my doctor will just prescribe a splint and not surgery. What is it with some men? Is it insecurity with their masculinity or merely sadism?

My father, who died 20 years ago this month, had a varied career including politics and sales so was used to shaking hands day and night. He held to the theory that the vise-grip men were trying to tell you that theirs was bigger than yours. He taught me to grip the guy’s hand all the way in, not giving the jacked-up macho man a chance to crush your fingers. It didn’t work today.

Friday, March 20: The FIT Center just after the 6:05 a.m. opening on the first day of spring. The regulars at this hour are a quiet group, moving slowly like happy sleepwalkers from machine to machine to weights to treadmill.

Before I dragged myself here I finished Karl Ove’s saga. He ends by writing: “… that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire … Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this.”

From a small window of the gym I see dawn filling the eastern sky. It’s so beautiful that some of us go out for a minute in the cold to try and get closer to it.

The forecast is for snow this afternoon.

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