Ashen’s is a very clear, insightful, reading.
Please swim on over and check it out!
Ashen’s is a very clear, insightful, reading.
Please swim on over and check it out!
Ryan finished his rebuild of my circa-1970 steel frame Raleigh bicycle. It is to Ryan (to wit, a wit) I’m indebted for the title of this post. He knows I think myself neither sophisticated nor gentlemanly – nor much of a bicyclist. There was a time indeed when the Raleigh did duty for an auto, but that was of necessity, hardly hobby or Edwardian privileged choice, and while there is evidence of bicycle chivalry in my bio, as evidenced by the call-in, for example, to the Bill Ballance radio show “Feminine Forum,” circa the old Raleigh days, the topic of the day “Is Chivalry Dead?,” the young lady caller apparently the same girl I had saved from a group of wine-drunk ruffians after an outdoor blues concert one evening on Venice Beach – and she never got a chance to thank me, she told Bill, as she rode south on her bike while I ran north up the boardwalk, chased by the ruffians, dashed east on Windward, cut through the vacant lot next to what is now Danny’s Deli, across the alley and through the apartment corridor to Susan’s aunt’s place, peeking around the corner of the building to see the hooligans searching for me around the parked cars on Windward, it’s purely anecdotal. The rude dude had made the girl cry, pulling at her handlebars and pestering her to come join his coterie sitting under a palm drinking wine. I had stepped up and grabbed the other side of her handlebars, surprising and startling the cad, yanking them out of his grip, and pretending to be her brother, I had said, “Come on, we gotta go, Dad’s waiting for us.” At which point we walked quickly off, and I asked her if she was ok, and I glanced back to see the bad guy stirring his buddies to action, pointing at me. The chase was on. In the picture right, taken by Susan, I am walking along the Venice Boardwalk in the early 70s. The two ladies I am with were capable of handling their own chivalric needs. And I still think of a bike ride as a paragraph lacking a unified topic. As in writing, you discover where you’re going in the process of getting there. The risk is that some readers may find this kind of bicycling writing annoying, just as some motorists would rather not share the road with parenthetical interruptions.
The characteristics of an upright, urban bicycle include casual step pedals and upright handlebars. A brass bell mounted to the bars gives the bicycle a voice to its otherwise smooth sail-boat-quiet glide. The photo above shows the Raleigh in minimalist set-up: no saddlebags, bar basket, lights, or racks. The kickstand adds a sense of responsible behavior expectation. The cork grips suggest the sophisticated gentleman knows his way around country streams and beaches as well as back roads to far away places within the city. In one of his ten blog-posts it took Ryan to complete the rebuild, or maybe it was in an email he sent me, as we went back and forth discussing parts and style, I remember him referring to the vision for the restored bike as an “upright gentleman’s urban bike,” and I remember thinking I was in trouble now. But etiquette of the road is not to be sneered at. And if I could not be grand, I at least would not have to be a spinet.
One of those far away places, though not too far to bike to, the destination, as it turned out (an urban bike ride usually revealing a flexible plan), of our maiden voyage on the rebuilt and reconfigured Raleigh, with Ryan riding co-pilot on his Handsome bike (a make, not necessarily an adjective), was Nick’s Coney Island, in the Hawthorne District. In the pic right, you can see Frank’s portrait framed, the original Nick, before he sold the place and the new owners built Nick’s into a somewhat sophisticated gentleman’s Coney Island, wearing a Nick’s shirt with a Coney Island Dog on it, above Ryan and me sitting at a refurbished booth with pints drawn to celebrate the renewed bike. Frank was a stout and diehard Yankee fan. I don’t know what Frank thought of bicycles or even if he was ever on one, but I knew him as a kind of blue-collar gentleman when he was doing duty tending bar and waiting tables at Nick’s, his royal red Cadillac parked at the curb outside the door.
Bicycle and urban are easily defined. Urbanity might get a little muffled in the noise of orbs and urbs (the city is surely a verb), but what of sophisticated and gentleman? Now we are in deep waters. And what is a bicycle as political semiotic as signified by Roland Barthes? The bicycle is a Beckett motif, his characters hardly sophisticated or gentlemen and often located well beyond orb or urb. What on a bike is a sophist, or a fallen gentleman? Benjamin Franklin walked, so did Thoreau. Franklin might have invented the bicycle but wasn’t in enough of a hurry, while Thoreau might have associated the bicycle as a product of the same forces that built the railroad, the unforgiving lineal track that prevented one from wandering.
The further one wanders often the riskier the route. Southeast Belmont Street does not for most of its distance provide for safe bicycle riding space. The Salmon and Taylor Street designated east-west shared roadway encourages a sauntering ride, which is a ride in which one takes the time to muse and wonder, even to wander, and there is no shame in dismounting and walking the bicycle. That is what it might mean in Southeast Portland to ride a bike, to write your own story, not necessarily against the commute, but on the margins of the commute. The sophisticated gentleman urban bicyclist is a marginal man, a reader around a town of text. His destination is never clear. His purpose is opposed to argument. His narrative does not follow conventional route expectations.
He might make a mistake. I wanted to show Ryan Tabor Space, the coffee house in the old Presbyterian church on the northwest corner of Belmont and 55th. But when we got there, the coffee space was closed. But having already secured the bikes (pic left), we went into the church and sat for a spell where it was cool and restful.
The sophisticated gentleman upright urban bicyclist may take liberties with his trip narrative. That doesn’t mean he ignores rules of the road, at least those that are not ambiguous. On the contrary, he rides clearly and concisely, if not precisely, and never speeds or travels too fast for conditions. He is, in short, in no hurry and not in search of a hassle. We caught up with Susan and had British fish and chips and bangers and beer at Horse Brass Pub while discussing bikes and comedians and films. Susan suggested we walk down to Movie Madness and rent a comedy to watch when we got back home. These are hard times around the country. For some, the time seems permanent. Platitudinous postings, retweets of bad attitudes, prayers without reflection, pandering of politicians to atavistic fears and wants, happiness confused with satisfaction – that’s all part of the difficulty; still, this sign in a business window on Belmont is a viable posting. Here, it seems to be a response to the Orlando shooting specifically. The sign it replaced said LOVE in bold red off balance letters, letters in love. Before the LOVE sign, there was a gold lettered GLORIA with stars in a Christmas display. The window display has become a kind of public service announcement. It exudes a good vibe. I’ve passed it in my car, on the bus, walking, and now on my bicycle. Were I in a Beckett book, I might crawl to a sign of love with that hopeless hope that motivates his characters. You can’t make love to a sign, though it sometimes seems all we have is signs for things, and not the thing itself. I have a bicycle helmet, but I can’t forget Thoreau’s dictum to avoid enterprises which require a new suit of clothes, so I’ll be eschewing the purchase of bicycle apparel.
On to Movie Madness, where we rented a Christmas comedy to watch back home, “Mixed Nuts.” So we’re watching a Christmas movie in July. “Mixed Nuts” was filmed in Venice, the Venice boardwalk a prop, along the same blocks in the Venice pic at the top of this post, with Steve Martin playing manager and owner of a suicide prevention non-profit hotline. Madeline Kahn is wonderful as Mrs. Munchnik.
Movie Madness is more than just a video rental store. It’s a film museum, displaying a collection of movie making artifacts such as the knife used in the shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” “Psycho” is on my reverse bucket list, which includes films I’ve seen that I never want to see again. One film I never tire of watching is the original “The Time Machine.” Movie Madness has on display the miniature table-top time machine used in the film, the one the time traveler sends into the future and so it disappears from the table. Presumably, it’s still time traveling. I also enjoyed the PSYCHOTRONICS sign to the thriller room. “More!”? What more could there be? I didn’t go in.
I wanted to visit with Ryan Cheese Bar at the bottom of the Belmont hill. We enjoyed a board of mixed soft and hard cheeses with a glass of wine before “Mixed Nuts.” We watched the film and the next morning we walked down to Coquine for a scone and coffee. Ryan took off and later I went for a ride up in the park.
In chapter two of “Penina’s Letters,” Salty is sitting at a cafe table outside Blubber’s on the Strand when Puck Malone rides up on a bicycle:
“I drank a tall glass of water and was nursing a beer, watching the walkers and the waves, when along came Puck riding up the Strand, grinning, playfully pedaling his royal blue bicycle, holding a surfboard under one arm, wiggling to and fro. He was barefoot and shirtless, wearing some baggy trunks. He was watching the waves, closed out, booming bass lines now in the spring high tide. He saw me and parked his bike and leaned his board against the wall.
Puck Malone’s neck was as thick as a telephone pole. His face was full and fat, with marble brown eyes spinning between freckled cheeks and straight, sandy-red hair, bowl cut with bangs down to his eyes. His tornado torso funneled down to two skinny legs. He had big surfer knots on his knees and feet from paddling in the kneeling position.”
I’ll leave it to readers to decide if there are any gentlemen in “Penina’s Letters,” but it’s a question of fact that there is at least a bicycle, and it gets ridden – a surfer on a Strand cruiser.
“Coconut Oil” is ready, the “look inside” feature enabled, paperback and e-version.
Forty years have passed since the close of “Penina’s Letters,” and Penina and Salty return to Refugio, a fictional beach town on Santa Monica Bay, in “Coconut Oil,” a sequel to “Penina’s Letters.”
Salty is again our first person narrator, and “Coconut Oil” continues an experimental narrative form – as Sal hands the mic off to several other characters and we are brought up to date on Refugio.
The themes of “Coconut Oil” include aging, housing and homelessness, gentrification, and how we occupy ourselves over time.
The style is experimental in a way a common reader might enjoy. And there is music! Songs, dancing, and some funky text features!
The back cover photo for “Coconut Oil” was taken from the northbound Coast Starlight train as it passed by the point at Refugio Beach, California, a campground 26 miles north of Santa Barbara, in the late 70’s. The front cover photo, more recent, shows the author’s shadow over a tree hollow holding mushrooms that look like bird eggs (where his heart should be).
The following excerpt is from the “On Television” chapter of Penina’s Letters.
I drove my truck with Malone down Vista del Mar and up Grand Avenue into El Segundo. The Chippys lived in one of the old refinery-worker houses just over the sand dunes. We turned off Grand and drove slowly down their street. Through the side yards we could see where the sand had been sliding down the dunes and spilling through twisted, wood slat fences into the back yards. We stopped at Tom’s house and climbed out and walked to the front door and knocked.
Mary Chippy, Tom’s mother, answered the door, looking distracted, but when she saw who it was, she gasped and threw open the screen door, coming out and grabbing me into her arms, and Tom’s dad came to the door to see what all the commotion was about. Mary held my face in her hands and stared into my eyes.
“Look, look who’s here, Ray,” Mary said, “home from the war.”
They invited us in, and Malone and I filled their living room couch. The little couch smelled of lavender, the pillows covered with fresh, ironed linen. The room was clean, and barely looked lived in, not a speck of dust or sand on the hardwood floor, as if they had been expecting guests. Mary sat awkwardly down in her rocker, across from us, pulling her short housedress down over her thighs. She was a narrow, small woman, all elbows and knees and ankles, but with the face of an overripe peach. Her fingers and hands were wrinkled and twisted with arthritis. Her long hair was tied up in a tight, grey bun. Next to her, Tom’s dad, Ray Chippy, fell heavily with a sigh into his overstuffed easy chair. He sat with his big hands cupped over the arms of the chair. He wore a buzzcut, and his big, tanned head looked like a bronze sculpture.
Tom’s mother said how good I looked, and his dad agreed, and said it looked like the war had done me no harm, but said of course he knew that was probably not true. I started off calling them Mr. and Mrs. Chippy, but they said no. They would feel more comfortable now if we called them by their first names. They asked how Puck was doing, and said they had not seen him since the funeral, but had read an article in a local shopping guide about how his surf shop was getting popular, but it was soon clear they wanted to talk about Tom.
“One night, we was watching the war on the television,” Mary said, “and that’s how we come to know he’d been hurt.”
“I used to watch the war on television every night, every night,” Ray said, shaking his head slowly back and forth.
“And then, one night, Suzie yells, ‘There’s Tom’! In the war, on the television.”
“I was sitting right here, and I saw him,” Ray said, pounding the arms of his chair, “camera right on his face. You wonder if something like that’s gonna happen, if you’ll see somebody you know, but you never do, but all of a sudden, wham, there’s our Tom.”
“They was carrying him on a stretcher, running to a helicopter,” Mary said.
“Stooped over, stumbling, weighted down with equipment.”
“One of them was holding up the bottle with the tube coming out of it,” Mary said, holding her hand over her head to show us.
“You could see the high grass,” Ray said, “blowing in the wind under the chopper blades and hear the blades spinning and all kinds a noise, guys yelling.”
“Then the camera went back to the news desk. And what could we do but just sit here, like we was knocked out, not knowing what had happened, how bad Tom was hurt.”
“We waited for something more,” Ray said, “but it was just another night of the war on TV, and as soon as we heard Cronkite saying, ‘And that’s the way it is,’ we turned the TV off and tried to make some phone calls. We got a hold of the Red Cross, and they called us back the next day.”
“They tried to save him, but it was too late,” Mary said, “too late for Tom.” She reached over and touched Ray’s hand, but he pulled it away.
“Poor Suzie,” Mary said, “she like to faint dead away, all that waiting around for Tom to come home, storing things up for when he got back, playing around in her hope chest, making all kinds of plans, and suddenly see it all come to nothing like that. She used to come over near every night and watch the war on the TV with us.”
“Hell, she’s already found herself somebody new,” Ray said. “But that’s the way things should be. I don’t fault her none, needing to get on with her life. You know what I mean. What the hell’s she gonna do hanging round here, spend all day unfolding and folding his letters?”
“I’ve saved his letters and his pictures and his flag, but we don’t like to display them out,” Mary said.
“But I do miss Suzie, too” Ray said. “Don’t get me wrong, now.”
“I miss them both,” Mary said, rubbing her hands together in her lap, rocking quietly back and forth for a few moments.
“I’m sorry Tom didn’t make it back,” I said, looking first at Mary then at Ray.
“Grab us some beers, why don’t you, Mary?” Ray said, and Mary got up and went into the kitchen.
“The hell of it is, Sal,” Ray said, leaning forward and whispering, “is that Tom got hit by what you call that friendly fire, you see. That’s the truth of things. That’s what got him. Not that it matters, but did you know that, Sal?”
“I don’t know. Things did get confused sometimes. But it’s hard to say.”
“Don’t say nothing about that to Mary. It would just open up her bleeding heart all over again.” He leaned back in his chair again.
Mary came back into the living room, her arms full with three beers and a Tupperware bowl full of potato chips.
We drank our beers and snacked on the chips.
“Tom, now, he’d of liked some of the jobs I been working lately, up in the canyons. You know what I mean,” Ray said.
“Yeah?” I said. “Have you been up in the canyons?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ray said. “Up Topanga, I been. Up Malibu. I’m just now on a job, we can see the ocean. I climb up to the roof and eat my lunch and take my shirt off to work off this farmer’s tan, you know. Tom used to always kid me about my farmer tan.”
“I don’t want you climbing up on no more roofs no more,” Mary said.
“Ah, hell.” Ray took a long drink of his beer. “And you can smell the licorice bushes up there, you know what I mean, the air full of the hot canyon smells. And the air so fresh and wet in the morning but by the afternoon all hot and dry. We work until the sun starts to go down, and we drive down to the highway and get us a beer at one of the bars on the water. Yes, Tom would have loved these jobs up in the canyons with me.”
We were quiet again, and the room felt smaller. Mary dropped her hand down into a basket of yarn next to her chair and squeezed one of the balls of yarn. Then Ray got up to go into the kitchen, and we knew he was crying. Mary stayed a moment then got up to go into the kitchen.
“Jesus,” Malone said.
“Yeah,” I said.
An onshore, late afternoon breeze was now coming through the house, drifting down the dune behind the house and coming through the kitchen window, curling through the living room, and passing out the front screen door. We could hear the Chippys whispering in the kitchen. We finished our beers, sitting on the couch in the living room in silence.
Tom’s parents came back into the living room. I did not want to look into their eyes, red and watery, their faces worn and worried looking.
I stood up before they could sit back down and said, “Well, we just wanted to come over and say hi.”
“Thank you, boys,” Ray said. “Thank you.”
Malone got up and said, “Thanks for the beer.”
“You boys are welcome here anytime,” Mary said, “anytime.”
“Tom was a hell of a carpenter,” Ray said. “Know that?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I do know that.”
“Why, he could drive 16 penny nails, sinking the heads flat in three swings, leaving no hammer mark, all day long,” Ray said.
He reached out and shook my hand, and his hand felt like an open-end wrench, hard but worn smooth. He did not fully open his hand.
We stepped to the front door and went out. We turned to say goodbye to them. They were standing in the open door. Ray went back inside, but Mary walked out to the truck with us.
“Sal,” she said, touching my arm. She stopped and looked back at the house.
“I just want to tell you.” She paused again, looking into my eyes. “There are no jobs.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What jobs?”
“Ray has not been working any jobs in any canyons. Ray has not worked since the day we met Tom’s body in his bag coming off the plane from the war.”
I looked at Malone. We looked at Mary.
“I just think you boys should know the truth of things,” she said.
She stood at the edge of the yard and watched us get into the truck. She took a short step forward and waved and brought her hand to her mouth and covered her lips with her fingers as we drove away.
…excerpt taken from Penina’s Letters.
Here is a very short excerpt from the “Wintertide” chapter of “Coconut Oil.”
Oh, and the jouissance of the creamy oil’s single flavor savors of favor, in the bath, kitchen, by the four-poster or berth, for dry skin, diaper rash, or when the dark knells for thee. No need to refrigerate. Oil squeaky hinges, refurbish dull wood finishes, fry Copper River salmon in cast iron skillet, remove warts (rub under duct tape), fly cats to the moon or snorkel under ocean kelp beds, race around the ceiling, the coconut salesman is at your door!
Be the first on your block to order a copy of “Coconut Oil”!
Paperback $8 … e-Copy $2.99
Salty and Penina, the war torn, young couple from “Penina’s Letters,” return to Refugio in “Coconut Oil,” a sequel.
They come home to Refugio (the fictional beach town located north of El Porto and south of Grand on Santa Monica Bay) in an attempt to retire a bit early. So forty or so years have passed since the close of “Penina’s Letters.”
Salty is again our first person narrator. But “Coconut Oil” continues an experimental narrative form, and Sal hands the mic off to several other characters as we are brought up to date on Refugio.
The themes of “Coconut Oil” include aging, housing and homelessness, gentrification, and how we occupy ourselves over time. The form is experimental in a way a common reader might enjoy.
The paperback version of “Coconut Oil” is available now, and the electronic version should be up next week.
The back cover photo for “Coconut Oil” was taken from the northbound Coast Starlight train as it passed by the point at Refugio Beach, California, a campground about 26 miles north of Santa Barbara. The photo was taken sometime in the late 70’s.
Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” argues a single solution to homelessness that Swift proudly suggests would provide a host of beneficial side effects. Satire is sometimes hard to get, or hard to take, the difference between satire and farce being that satire aims at a target. One might today imagine a certain presidential candidate coming up with a proposal like Swift’s that many might take seriously, missing the satirical target – and that would be farcical.
Of the critical reviews appearing for “Penina’s Letters,” several stand out for their clear and concise but right-on insight into the book. Lisa, a family friend from the Vatican Hill days, posted a picture of “Penina’s Letters” being read in a swimming pool in Cabo with the comment:
“So this was a great read – hit on some serious issues – but I enjoyed the ride – and still can’t figure out where 48th Street is located.”
Lisa’s comment hits on significant aspects of the book – how do we treat serious issues in fiction that is also intended to entertain? And she joins in the fun by wandering around looking for a fictional street she knows doesn’t exist.
My friend Dan posted a longer review to his blog, and when I thanked him in an email, he wrote back,
“It’s a very good novel.”
Dan’s a reader, suffers no delusions about stuff, and is thrifty with his complements.
Meanwhile, over at Youssef Rakha’s Cosmopolitan Hotel site, Philippa Rees has this to say in a comment:
“Hugely atmospheric, and sharply conveys the sightly abrasive affection, the wind and the sand papering the uncertainty. Enjoyed the drive to the ocean.”
And under the “Penina’s Letters” excerpt published by Berfrois, Philippa wrote:
“An underpinning of real harrowing tension in this. Could hardly bear the savage exposure of the truly private in a ribald public arena. There are some crimes of insensitivity that merit the return of the stocks!”
Also meanwhile, my Facebook friends had a bit of fun posting pictures of their copy of the book, being read or held or posed at various locations, including Mexico, France (on a Kindle in Paris), Montana, airplane to Los Angeles, dashboard of car in Sellwood, Studio City, Minneapolis airport bookstore, in the woods above Los Angeles, on an office desk near the Willamette, a deck in Bend, Voodoo Doughnuts, a pool room in Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood, a bike repair apartment in Seattle, outside the Mojave Cancer Center, a very cool San Francisco pad, a neighbor’s house on 69th, a laptop with Instagram photo in Aloha, another sitting out in the yard on a warm day on the west side, on a table with the rest of the mail in Ione, on a shelf at Em’s with her cookbooks, Warren’s place in North Portland, a desktop in El Segundo, on a quilt in Barstow, and please let me know if I missed one, because what a great marketing idea!
Anyway, I was encouraged by the reader response to “Penina’s Letters.” The novel may not be what many expected it to be. And most readers seem to intuit that we probably should not criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. It’s also hard to finish everything we pick up. I get that. I’ve nearly always got a dozen or so books and magazine articles in disarray around the house in the process of being read, but then there’s always something that pulls you to it, and you wind up finishing it before anything else. That’s maybe a good definition of a good read.
And I was so encouraged by the reader response that I’m now announcing the sequel to “Penina’s Letters,” called “Coconut Oil.” Please don’t think I wrote “Coconut Oil” in a couple of months. Like “Penina’s Letters,” “Coconut Oil” is a final (Beckett said abandoned) draft of years of writing and reading work. As Cornel West said in “Examined Life,” “Time is real.” So I finally decided to “light out for the Territory,” though unlike Huckleberry, ahead of hardly anyone else.
I’ll let you know when “Coconut Oil” is ready to launch!
Oh, yeah, that bit above about Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” That has to do with “Coconut Oil.” You’ll see.
Meantime, thanks to the readers of “Penina’s Letters”!