Posts Tagged ‘Norfolk’

We drove through a storm that was like a precursor of our future under climate change on our way to deliver our older daughter to her new apartment in Boston. Somewhere on a highway in Connecticut, the skies opened up and lightning split the clouds. Torrents of rain followed us into Massachusetts.

The next morning we discovered that a tornado had touched down a few miles from where we had spent the night. Strange weather, but we can expect more of it in years to come the climate experts tell us. The weathercaster called for intermittent showers and temperatures in the high 80s on Labor Day, when we, along with a hundred thousand students and their parents, would converge on Boston for the city-wide move-in day.

The streets of the city were clogged with double-parked moving vans as we circled the neighborhood near Boston College looking for a place to park our overloaded rental pickup truck. Lucking into a spot less than a block from the apartment building on busy Commonwealth Avenue, we waited while the real estate agent showed up with the keys to the apartment, which our daughter would be sharing with two other Simmons College graduate students on the second floor of an attractive prewar brownstone.

We unloaded the truck for the next ninety minutes, making a few dozen trips down the street and up the stairs, jostled by movers and joggers, past Boston cops standing around welcoming new students and warning them about the perils of underage drinking while generally standing in everyone’s way. I was on the verge of heatstroke, my t-shirt as soaked as if it had been pouring rain, when the second roommate arrived with her mother, and we did it again.

When it was finished, I lay on the floor of my daughter’s large, high-ceilinged bedroom with a fan blowing across my limp body while the women unpacked and chatted in the other rooms. I thought about college and what it was like to be young and doing everything for the first time, the excitement of it and the anxiety. I remembered how it felt in the long ago days when I was I was a young student in Norfolk, Va., going to classes and hanging out at Ward’s coffee shop across the street from Old Dominion University with my friend Tim or drinking the thin brew you could legally drink if you were 18 in Virginia in the dark era of the Vietnam War.

Those days I heard from my parents in Florida once a month or so in a letter or an expensive long distance call. The technology boom that would put computers and instant messages in everyone’s pocket was still decades away. But I heard its first ticking on a new machine perched on the counter in Ward’s coffee shop in the form of a video game called Pong – a black screen, a white ball bouncing between two thin white lines that moved with a knob on each side of the machine. Students -like Tim – lined up to play it. I scoffed and read the English poets.

And then the war was always with us, a storm on the far side of the world that pulled us toward it while we held on by our fingertips and a thin piece of cardboard in our wallet called the 2-S student deferment. The excitement and the anxiety of it is read on my daughters’ faces and in their texts, heard in their phone calls, and in the other rooms, where the women come and go. I lie among unpacked boxes while the fan blows me away.

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Road Trip

My daughters are off on their first road trip without us this week, visiting the colleges they are interested in applying to. They left Thursday morning for Boston, where my older daughter is interested in the graduate school at Simmons. They planned it all out ahead of time, booked their lodging, wrote down directions to nearby restaurants, checked bus routes, arranged meetings at the colleges.

On Friday they drove across the state to Amherst, one of the liberal arts colleges my younger daughter is interested in. Last night they texted their mother that they loved both of the schools, that Boston was exciting and Amherst was beautiful. They attended a class, visited the library and this morning will take a campus tour before starting the seven-hour drive home. Yesterday afternoon they visited Emily Dickinson’s grave at a little cemetery in the town of Amherst.

They get along well together. They like the same music and read the same books. They rarely squabble, unless the younger sister borrows her older sister’s clothes and doesn’t give them back. They are, I would think, best friends. If we were to suddenly leave them orphans, they would take care of each other.

I got along well with my older brother, and we took the occasional road trip together. Only we never planned anything ahead of time. One long weekend in Miami, we got the idea to visit Tim in Norfolk, Va., so we borrowed a car and drove across to the west coast of Florida to pick up Richard, then north for another 14 hours to Tim’s apartment on Stockley Gardens in the beautiful old section of Norfolk. Tim, who hadn’t known we were coming, welcomed the three of us and let us sleep on his living room floor. I remember the songs playing on the radio that night from the tiny FM station a few blocks away as I lay sleepless and happy in the darkness.

My daughters’ trip to Boston also had me thinking about a road trip from Norfolk to Boston I took with a couple of friends not long after college. We were all fans of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is a deranged tale of a road trip from LA to Las Vegas fueled by hallucinogenic drugs and tequila, and along the drive we took turns reading the book out loud, laughing insanely and feeling reckless and alive.

In Boston, we stayed with my friend Judy, a nurse at Boston hospital, rode the subway to Cambridge, had a beer at an Irish bar across from Harvard and visited their bookstore, named, as I recall, The Co-op. I spent an afternoon in the first and only all-science fiction bookshop I have been in, called, now it comes back to me, The Million Year Picnic. Judy took us to a famous seafood restaurant on the harbor, and we wandered around the Boston Commons, a lovely green space busy with families and students taking in the sun.

These road trip memories stay in the mind for many decades, as I’m sure they will for my daughters. They are a break from our ordinary lives, and they come to define a certain moment in time when we were different than we are now. We were on the road to somewhere, but we knew not where.

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We headed south on our annual pilgrimage to visit my mother in South Carolina, listening to James Joyce’s “The Dead” on CD as we passed through Virginia. It’s a good story, and even my high school-age daughter, encountering it for the first time, enjoyed it greatly.

The story takes place in Dublin around the turn of the last century, the gaslight era. Most of the long short story takes place at a Christmas party thrown by two elderly aunts and their niece and describes in detail the food and music and each of the significant guests. It is a vivid slice of the culture of a time long since gone, and it evokes an even earlier time when things were better, always the same time, always our youth. Gabriel Conway, the nephew of the old ladies, and his wife Greta return to their hotel after the party, and misunderstand each other’s moods. He is feeling tender and amorous, while she is reminded by a song sung at the party of the early death of her teenage suitor, Michael Fury. He had stood ill in the rain in her garden as she prepared to leave him to go to Dublin and caught his death of cold.

As we listened to the story, we looked at the beautiful Virginia landscape beyond the windows, and I remembered my youth in the port town of Norfolk, on the southern coast of Virginia. I felt the waves of youthful nostalgia like “The Dead” seep over me, and images of the friends I had then and places we had been together came crowding back, while the Blue Ridge Mountains fell off to the left amid clouds, like Galway in Greta’s memory.

Norfolk is an old city by American standards, with the good harbor that has sheltered ships since before the Revolution. Some of its streets in the old section are made of cobblestone, and parts of the city are sinking into the rising bay. In a few decades, parts of Ghent and The Hague where I walked with friends along the waterfront may be submerged at high tide, the water lapping at the museum steps.

I remember a Christmas party like the one in “The Dead” when I was 19 that took place in an old, tall house that had been turned into apartments on Fairfax Avenue near the museum. It was always cold in the big high-ceilinged rooms where Sam and Kit and their baby lived, the slumlord saving pennies keeping the oil furnace low. Richard lived in a small room up the stairs, and all of their friends from the Folk Ghetto were invited, the musicians and the waitresses, and there was singing and the air was blue with smoke. My brother and I were in the kitchen with a number of friends and guests, including the young woman who now reminds me of my own Michael Fury, as she stood dark and fading in the kitchen light.

I recall that my brother and I were acting out the opening scene from Cyrano De Bergerac, the swordfight scene, to much laughter, and the folk music from the other room was coming through the kitchen door. Richard was leaving in a few days for basic training and then for Vietnam. A dozen of us walked out into the street along the gray waters of The Hague, arm-in-arm, singing Christmas carols as the snow fell on our bare heads. I see them, old friends, fading ghostly under the old fashioned street lamps, shadows on the snow.

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We’ve been talking about showing films at the community center in Penns Valley almost since the day the doors opened five years ago. Now at last we have taken the plunge and bought the license that gives us the right to show most any movie we can find. The church that uses the community center for church services lets us use their projector and sound system, and we’ve invited local groups to sell concessions for their charity work.

If you are a certain age, you can remember the revival movie houses that showed double features of older films, usually linked by a theme. The theater manager would often put together a written synopsis of the films as a way to advertise, often with some critical commentary. My favorite of all of these movie houses was the Naro Theater on Colley Avenue in Ghent, the shabby genteel section of Norfolk near downtown and the university. I used to go there often in the old days when I lived in a little apartment a few blocks away and would walk there on cool Saturday evenings to see films like The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hunger, or Bladerunner and Liquid Sky.

I remember the excitement of not knowing always exactly what to expect. Would I see something I might like but would never have thought of on my own? Would I find it irritating or amazing, or in the case of Liquid Sky, incomprehensible? I loved the screwball comedies from the thirties and forties, when the dialogue sparkled with wit, and ate up the film noir crime and detective films with Bogart or Mitchum. I’d go see Casablanca any time it played, and enjoy it for the fifth time as much as the first.

And it was at the Naro where I would often run into an old friend I hadn’t seen since college or someone I had been friends with in high school, and we would go out together after the movie to a restaurant up the street that stayed open late and talk until all hours.

I can’t go to the Naro Theater anymore, but I’d like for Movie Night at the Old Gregg School Community Center to be something like those revival movie houses of yesterday. We’ll have a double feature with some kind of theme, a little write-up, and some great food. Maybe you’ll run into somebody interesting you wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s already happened to me in the first two months we’ve been doing this.

Back in 2000, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone bemoaned the loss of social connection in America. Our civic life is unraveling, he said; more people are bowling, but not in leagues. They are bowling alone. Opportunities to meet our neighbors are fewer, and we’ve become strangers to each other. And, of course, we can be entertained so much more easily than ever. We can watch movies instantly on our computers or pop a DVD into the box and watch something in the den on a big screen television. It’s all so easy, and we can do it all alone. But as someone said at last Saturday’s show, “Movies are so much better when we see them together.”

Our next Movie Night is Saturday, Feb. 23. You can email me for the details. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood, we’ll have the popcorn ready.

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I’m reading five or six books at the moment, picking one up and reading for awhile and laying it down to pick up another. The restless spirit of winter, with ice spitting down from a cold gray sky, and nothing can hold my attention.

The book I am most caught up in is Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America, which was published in 2010, just before the sad-eyed poet-troubadour turned 70. Hard to believe that the blue-eyed son who wrote that A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall could be old enough to collect social security. But he hasn’t retired yet. He is probably out on the road tonight, wrapping his (maybe) arthritic hands around the neck of a guitar and singing to a crowd of aging hipsters who think of him as the voice of their generation. At one time he was.

In high school, most of my friends and many at the periphery of our circle and at the middle of their own circles were big fans of Dylan. I knew all the lyrics to 30 or 40 of my favorite songs, songs like Desolation Row, which Wilentz informs me was based on the great Beat writer, Jack Kerouac’s, Mexico City Blues, and Mr. Tambourine Man, with all the verses that the Byrds left out of their famous version.

I would sit at the little desk my father had built into the alcove in my attic room and listen to songs about midnight’s broken toll on the record player and write poems that I would pin to the wall behind me when they were finished. Over on one of the twin beds, my best friend, Richard, would be reading a science fiction paperback or working on a poem of his own.

It seems remarkable to me now that Dylan, at the height of his fame and genius, was still almost a kid, just 23 or 24 years old, less than a decade our elder. He was changing from the folk singer he had started off as into something harder and wilder. He dressed in a black motorcycle jacket, with dark shades and his hair seemed electrified like his guitar.

For me the climax of the book comes at the top of page 118. Dylan is on his way to Nashville, in the midst of recording his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, with Robbie Robertson on guitar and Al Kooper on keyboards, with the backup of the best studio musicians in Nashville. You can hear the results in the layers of improvisations that achieve that “thin, wild mercury sound” that Dylan was after in those days.

Kris Kristofferson is there, working as a janitor while trying to become a songwriter. The sessions are going late into the night with Dylan struggling to write lyrics sitting alone at his piano wearing his dark shades. When he gets the words right, the band will come together, everyone serious and professional, and at four in the morning they will record the incredible eleven minute and twenty-three second Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands in a single perfect take.

On page 118, Wilentz writes that “Dylan came to Nashville after playing a show in Norfolk, having resumed his touring with the Hawks…” The Hawks later renamed themselves The Band, and went on to their own kind of fame. The night of that show I was 15 and in the audience, high up in the balcony of the Norfolk Arena.

I have loved many songs, and many poets, read a thousand books I cared deeply about, seen movies that I wept over, but nothing since has given me that thin, wild mercury feeling like Bob Dylan and the Hawks on their way to Nashville to record the greatest rock and roll album of all time, in late January 1966.

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