The King of August

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds. —Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens

August Blackbird

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a bartender, a man named Mr. Fowler used to come in everyday and drink draft beer and quietly watch the ball game in the afternoon.  He would doodle on napkins making symbols from the hobo alphabet.  He had ridden the rails in the ’30’s and ’40’s and he was the one who introduced me to the hobo alphabet. He had some amazing stories about what he had seen in those years during The Depression.   One of the more resonant stories was one about him and his fellow travelers being run out of town and forced to sleep in the meadow in the August heat.  He remembered the music of the field birds being the only thing he could enjoy and he and the other jobless men,  filthy and hungry, sitting for what seemed like hours in the field, listening to songbirds until they felt like they, themselves, could take flight.  It was an amazing story, backed up by Mr. Fowler’s uncanny ability to imitate bird calls.  He could identify birds by sound and mimic them, even well into his seventies.  I think riding trains was maybe the only way people who had nothing could take flight.

My friend, Steve Earle, and I have talked about red-winged blackbirds before.  Many years ago, I was making etchings of birds and I’d done a red-wing and just for the hell of it, I sent him one, and he called me a little while later and told me that the red-winged blackbird was the first thing he had ever killed.  When we are kids, at some point we realize the horrible power we have over other living things.  Steve won’t even kill bugs anymore.  When he goes fishing,  he is content to merely humiliate the trout.  He throws them back now.  I think we reach a certain state of grace when we tire of extinguishing life, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I used to kill spiders and now I just chase the fuckers out of the house with a newspaper.

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Quiet Dust

They scraped and planted and prayed and saved. . .then the black blizzards would come and take it all away. . .and the banks moved in like vultures.”

— Coyle Case
Child of the Dustbowl, Oklahoma

Keep QuietHey–

The “black blizzards” were, of course, dust storms; and they ravaged the Great Plains with unimaginable ferocity in the early 30’s after the stock market crashed and the farmers had no one to sell their crops to.   Acre upon acre of American farmland turned to dust.  Many children of the dust bowl rode the rails, going west to pick fruit, or South to pick cotton; many stayed hobos. . .the restless ones who took to the peripatetic life.

My friend Paul Kahan, the James Beard Award-winning chef at Chicago’s amazing Blackbird restaurant, spent some time riding the rails between here and the Pacific Northwest, only to get grabbed by some railroad dicks at the end of his ride.   He has promised to share some of these stories with me in the coming weeks.  Kahan is a fascinating chef; his food reflects a hobo-like curiosity.  Paul kind of reinvented the idea of bacon as a dish and he finds transcendent tastes in simple fresh foods.  I’ve gotten fat on his food over the years.  What Kahan can do with a pig is nothing short of a miracle–he even makes the ears taste good.  It doesn’t surprise me that Paul rode the rails.  His food reflects a curiosity about other people and places; how they eat, how they work , how they live.  People who are good at anything seem to share these curiosities.  Paul and his partners, Donnie Madia and Eduard Setein, have become dear friends of mine.  I don’t cook, so I often eat at one of their joints (the wonderful Avec or Publican) where they let me eat with my fingers.

I am lucky.  I have never been hungry in my life.  Broke. . .yeah, lots of times; but never hungry.

Something about the way I see the world has changed over the last couple of years, since New Orleans.  The sight of hungry people in our country infuriates me.  I think of food as a human right, or at least it should be.  I also think medical care should be considered a human right. . .and education.

This is the Hobo sign for “Keep Quiet.”


Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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