So It Goes, Part 35: The Ogre

October 14th, 2009

When I thought about my mother at all, I thought of her as an ogre. She was a figure sitting in the living room, rubbing her arthritic knees, and harping at me. One time this changed was when I took the young woman I was dating—the one I had met on the el train—to Evanston, the town on the swank North Shore where I was felt I was supposed to grow up all along.

We walked down the sidewalk where I had played as a little tyke and looked in the windows at 913-1/2 Sherman Avenue. We couldn’t see anything. A guy walking past asked if we were looking for someone. “No…no,” I said. I felt the urge to tell him I used to live there, like a famous writer come back to the humble home of his origins, but I did not, because I was not famous, and I was barely a writer at all.

“You used to zip past that basement window on your tricycle as fast as you could,” my father told us when we returned. “Your mother and I used to wonder where you were pedaling so furiously.”

“I used to push you in your carriage down Main Street, visiting the bakery and the other shops,” my mother told me.

I felt a fleeting rush of maternal love for her, a feeling her as my mother, and not some figure endlessly complaining and nagging and watching dumb situation comedies on TV. But such feelings were rare; I seldom had the time to feel or think in her presence as she was constantly asking me to get her something, telling me to put something away, complaining about something I had said or did earlier.

She worked at the insurance company on Northwest Highway, where she was a stenographer, recording interminable reports transmitted to her by agents talking into a mysterious device called a Dictaphone. She would sit with headphones on her head typing 100 words a minute, for hours at a time. Usually she typed out the details of some disaster or other that had nothing to do with her but that fed into the dark cloud of anxiety that hung over her all the time. “Damage to the front end of the car was extensive…occupants were thrown forward, hitting their heads on the windshield…” or “The origin of the fire was determined to be a pile of rags in the garage…”

Usually the reports she typed were of no consequence to the public, but once, she did tell me about a report she had typed that she thought would be of interest.

“Why is everyone so angry with me?” I asked. “All I did was cut a few roots.”

Farkus sighed. As he shook his head, a few grains of dirt fell into the cracks in the ancient leather seat covering. “No, you do not understand.”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Let me see. I didn’t cut just a few roots. I hurt the whole network, all over the place, everywhere.”

Now he looked up at me, happily, and touched my arm for the first time. “Now you see. You see.”

We made some more travels through the network. We went to the cemetery where my grandmother was buried. We could practically feel her presence and that of the people all around her. We went to her home in the city, and then to the historic home in Des Plaines that had burned down. After a while I yawned, and Farkus took me back to where we had started. But this time he showed me another way to descend into the Rootweavers’ world, through another manhole cover.

“Go down this passage twenty steps, then open this door,” he said. “You have to squeeze through. Keep yourself thin.” He patted me on the stomach. I wish now that I had followed this advice.

When I came up through the street and put the cover back with a loud clatter the dawn light was just coming up. It was a quiet Saturday morning. Yet as I turned the corner there was activity on Orchard Street. It was my mother. On weekends she and her sister, my aunt Willamae, went to flea markets to sell the things they had found at garage sales during the week.

“Greg-o-ry,” said my aunt in her nasal, singsong voice. “Whatcha doin’? Just comin’ in after a night on the town?”

“Actually, I took a little trip,” I said, yawning.

I knew my mother would ask me for help. Whenever I was in her presence, I was at her disposal. I was like a second pair of arms. “Oh, could you bring those boxes out to the car?” she asked, pointing to some boxes on the front steps.

“Come on, I’m tired,” I said.

“What were you doing out all night?”

“You couldn’t possibly understand.” As quickly as I could, I carried all three boxes at once and plopped them on the ground by the car, then hurried away to escape further demands on my precious time and energy.

“Don’t drop them, they contain valuable antiques!” she said.

“Stupid junk,” I muttered.

“Do you see how he talks to me, how he treats me?” she said to her sister.

“These kids, they just don’t care about their mothers,” said Aunt Willamae.

Now I look back and think: I wish I could put those roots back together. I did not know how difficult it would be. But I would find out soon enough.

Now that I was following my little guide through the pipes with only a crystal light to guide me, I was no longer afraid of being lost under the streets. We walked for a mile or more, then stopped. “Here, above you, is the home where your woman lives.” Woman? I thought. What woman? He took me through a doorway that led to a ladder, where we came to a manhole. I climbed up. With one hand he gestured that I should push it up. I discovered that manholes are incredibly heavy, especially when you are pushing with one hand and holding on to a rickety metal ladder with the other.

When I was able to raise the manhole an inch or two, I looked out: there was the house with a 1962 Buick Imperial in the driveway and debris piled in the yard. It was unquestionably the home of the young woman I had met on the train.

A car came down the street; I let the manhole cover down hurriedly and it bumped me on the head. “Ow!” I hurried down the ladder again.

“Come,” said Farkus. He took me on a much longer journey: we went to the home of the blond-haired girl I used to date. We went to a wooded place by the river: “This is where the dark ones lived, the ones that lived here before you,” he said. “They never cut any roots.” We got on a car and took the upside-down train to my grandmother’s house in the city.

“How do you find your way around?” I asked him. “Do you have a map?”

“It is here,” he said, pointing to his head, his huge eyes looking up at me like those of a Basset hound.

“How do you know that all these places are important to me?”

He looked down and shook his head. “You do not ask the right questions. You are too young. You do not understand.”

“What is it you’re trying to show me?”

“All are connected. All are here. You worry that you will not find us. You destroy the roots to try to find us. You do not have to find us. We are here already. Here.”

He reached up and tapped me on the forehead. “Here. You are here,” I said stupidly.

“Yes. Everything. Stop looking and you will find what you seek,” he said. He waved his arms, which bumped against the sides of the car in which we were riding.

We passed other Rootweavers, who glared at me as we went by. I heard them mutter the word Rootcutter as I went by. Apparently this term was a high insult to the people under the ground.

Yosemite Sam

October 10th, 2009

In my mind, Farkus looks a little like this guy, but perhaps with a beard instead of a moustache.

“I’m so glad to see you!” I practically yelled to the dirt-covered, bug-eyed, bushy haired three-foot-tall creature before me.

Farkus grabbed his ears. “Not so loud!” his voice resounded inside my head. “Did you bring gum?”

I fumbled around in my pocket: nothing. “I dropped some gum by the opening where I came in,” I said. He led me there immediately. To my surprise, I discovered that I was at least thirty steps from where I had started.

I felt around on the ground and found the single stick of gum. It was covered with mud. Nevertheless, he popped it out of the silver wrapper and popped it in his mouth. His eyes rolled up in his head. “Mmmmmm…” reverberated through my mind.

I looked out through the hole into the black night, and he did too. Then Farkus looked up. “Who did this?” he said, pointing toward the broken roots, his eyebrows knitted together in distress.

I felt like I was six years old, and my father was standing over me, pointing to a stack of Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons 78 rpm records that I had been breaking like so many toys.

“Um, I really wanted to see you all again, so I…”

A great angry roar resounded through my head this time. “All of our work! Why did you…?”

“I didn’t know how to find you,” I said, resisting the urge to yell the words out loud.

He wiggled a surprisingly pale finger at me. “You do not understand,” he said. “Have you not learned anything? Come. Let me show you.” He led me off into the darkness.

Today I talked to John Jacobs, CEO of Artfire.com. This marketplace is notable for a number of things I will detail in AuctionBytes. But the thing I am impressed by is their Facebook Kiosk. Members who pay $12 per month to Artfire for hosting and other services have the opportunity to set up a kiosk for a “fan page” they have already set up on Facebook for their company. The page displays their Artfire store logo and a selection of their inventory on Artfire. Shoppers who are already “fans” of the business can click a Buy button and complete the purchase–all within Facebook. It’s a way of turning Facebook into an online store.

Artfire also said they actively do “reputation management.” They monitor blog posts and other mentions of their company, and they respond and comment and clarify. They “scrape” Web sites for mentions of their company and see what’s being said of them. It sounds a little Big Brother-ish. Let’s see if they comment on this.

The cold enveloped me and I immediately knew I had done the wrong thing, climbing down into the network of storm sewers. Even with the flashlight on it was pitch black; I realized that if I got too far and the light went out I could easily get lost. And yet I sensed I was not alone. Perhaps it was the presence of the roots that hung from the top of the drain and crept in from the sides like so many ghostly hands and fingers, seeking to grab me.

I took one step forward, then another. The flashlight went out. I had to bang it with my hand to turn it back on. “Farkus?” I called. “There must be someone here,” I said to the darkness. Look at all the roots.” I reached my hand up and fingered one of them in the darkness. I felt along the walls, when my hand encountered a root that was thick and soft like a human hand. I jumped back. “I’m not going any further,” I told myself. Then there was an audible noise. “Farkus?” I said.

There was no response. I banged the flashlight again, hard, with the palm of my hand. I gasped. There was a figure in the darkness, but it was not a Rootweaver. It was a man who looked oddly like my father, but taller and thinner, with thick black hair, and dark eyebrows that glowered at me. “Who are you?” I said.

“I am your grandfather, Charles,” he said. “I’m keeping an eye on you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I have nothing else to do,” he said. “It’s damnably boring being dead. Besides, you’re interesting. You do all this writing. But you don’t do the writing you should.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to ask, so I said, “Where are the Rootweavers?”

“The little people? Who cares about them, always scurrying about to no purpose. That brings me to you. You’ve got to start doing nothing, or you’ll waste your life away.”

“Excuse me?”

“This business of work and school you are doing. Forget it. Get out and see America and write stories. You’ve got your whole life to work. Light out for the open spaces. I did. Look where it got me.”

I stumbled back the way I had come. I had to get out of here. But that way was dark too. The flashlight went out and I banged it again. There, sitting in a chair, was my Chinese grandfather Lau, petting a cat. His white hair pointed up away from his forehead like that of Ronald Reagan. “Why you down here?” he asked. “You stay with family. That better.”

“But you live alone,” I said. “You never see your family.”

“Nobody perfect,” he answered.

As I feared, I had become lost. But I was hardly alone. There in the darkness I encountered many relatives. Perhaps they had been shaken out of their slumber by the roots I had disturbed. There was my Cherokee ancestor, Keziah, a solid, thick woman with a man’s stern face waving a wooden spoon at me and saying nothing; there was her daughter Louisiana, in a great hoop skirt, hands on her hips, one hand holding a fan, looking like Scarlett O’Hara; there was Simpson, the Civil War cavalry officer; Peter Edges, the dry cleaner turned father. All looked at me quizzically. “Why do you ignore us?” Valentine Giesler, the German farmer, asked me. “Write about us.”

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I said. I frantically pointed the light at the top of the sewer. I saw no opening. “I can’t have gone this far,” I said. I decided to count my steps. I counted to ten. Still no opening. I turned back and counted to ten.

Now, many of the people I written about in my columns—people who were not dead at all—came at me out of the darkness. There was the mayor, and the chief of police, and the fire chief, and the Hispanic boy who had been caught for shoplifting, and my black classmate at school. There was my friend Chip, and Ernie the pharmacist, and Mrs. Aulert, smiling, a scissors and roll of crepe paper ribbon in her hands, ready to make another window display. “Why are you all here?” I asked. “Am I going mad?” I held my head, as though to keep all the people from slipping out of my head into the sewer.

“If I get out of here I’ll get a real job,” I said. “I’ll get out of this town. I’ll find a direction. I’ll support myself. I’ll be good.” I sat down, pointing the flickering flashlight up at the roots that hung down like a witch’s hair. Breathe, I told myself, breathe. Now I was really lost. What if a storm came up? Would I be washed away?

When I felt a hand on my shoulder I jumped up and nearly hit the roof of the sewer. The flashlight went clattering and the light went out. Another light appeared, the salmon colored light of a crystal: “Why did you cut the roots?” Farkus asked, looking at me. His voice in my head was like a breath of Vicks Vap-O-Rub: refreshing relief.

A shiver ran through me: for a moment I had actually been connected to the other men of my home town. I had a glimpse of their world and, to my surprise, it wasn’t the awful place I expected. I was frightened. Was I destined to become a painter, a plumber, an insurance agent, swilling PBR and cheering on the Bears and passing out on the couch each night?

I walked from the garage to the house and felt I was in a foreign country. The crickets mocked me, the cicadas tormented me. I couldn’t be one of these people. I was never meant to be here. I was only meant to observe, to comment sardonically, to look on from the outside as a journalist, but not to become one of them.

I walked through the back door, hearing the hiss of the device that kept the door from slamming. I smelled the spaghetti mom was making, shuffling back and forth in the kitchen, the radio blaring, munching on a Ritz cracker, immediately talking to me: “Where have you been? You know you could hurt yourself with those tools…” There was Dad, sitting in his chair, tuning the radio. He was not one of those redneck monks. He seemed, at the time, to my restless and inexperienced young mind, like one of those mild suburbanites dressed in polyester and bright colors, as insubstantial as a soybean milk shake, or wax paper.

Upstairs, in our shared room, my brother was listening to his stereo, his headphones on. There was a hole in one sock. I packed up a pair of socks, some underwear, some pants, a T-shirt. “Going somewhere?” he said.

The Simon and Garfunkel song popped into my head: “Somewhere they can’t find me…”

But I just said, “Away from this place.”

Once, I had a very vivid dream about an airplane crash. I was not home, but somewhere else, and very hungry. I just sat down to a big wonderful dinner and was beginning to gorge myself when I heard the news on the TV. Where? I cried. Someone called out the address: it was my own house, where my parents and brother and sister still lived. I grabbed my camera and ran over to the scene. I couldn’t get inside for all the smoke. I tried to take pictures but the camera wouldn’t work. I felt nothing but frustration about the camera.

It was getting dark outside. I crept into the basement and found a flashlight. When I got outside I needed it just to find the hole and the opening I had cut in the roots. I pointed the light into the hole. There was the stick of Juicy Fruit gum, untouched. This worried me. It was different when I knew someone was down there. Where was I going? I dropped down. Immediately, my shoes sank into mud. The roots I had cut scratched my head, as though trying to punish me. I could see nothing in either direction.

“Hello? Farkus?” I called into the darkness. There was no response. An inspiration popped into my head. I grabbed the roots I had cut and shook them, tore at them. Like spiders, I thought, the Rootweavers would sense a disturbance in their network and come after me. Unfortunately, I was right.

E-Commerce Trends Point Upward

October 7th, 2009


Yes, e-commerce is down in 2009 compared with 2008. But if you take the long view, you realize that the overall trend is up. Not only that, but heading up in a pretty straight line. This is illustrated by this image from the U.S. Census Bureau.

I climbed into the hole in the street, surrounded by the circle of construction vehicles that partly shielded me from view, and started cutting. The roots were remarkably difficult to sever. They seemed to be stronger than other types of wood. Perhaps it was because they have so much moisture and are somewhat pliant, perhaps because they were connected to so many other roots.

After a few minutes I was sweating. To my horror, I noticed someone standing at the edge of the hole. It was a neighbor from across the street, Ray, the guy who worked in his garage on his Mustang while blaring country music from his boom box, the guy with the two German shepherds that barked, one after another, at any human in the vicinity. “Whatcha doin’?” he said, hands in his pockets, puffing on a cigarette, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“I lost something down here…my wallet,” I thought quickly.

“Oh yeah, I hate when that happens.” Only later did I reflect: how many things had he lost down the storm sewers? “You really could use some power out here. I got a reciprocating saw that would cut through them roots real quick.”

“I’ll be OK,” I said, but too late: he was already walking back toward the garage. That’s the problem with tools. Tools, and work projects, attract guys.

As I stood there wondering what to do and looking down at the roots it seemed I saw a gray shape moving quickly in the even deeper darkness beneath the roots. “Farkus? Are you down there?” I whispered loudly.

“No need to swear,” said Ray, who had returned amazingly fast with his saw and a long extension cord—and a friend. “This is my cousin Chuck,” he said. Chuck nodded and said nothing, sipping from a can of PBR, the sleeves of his plaid flannel shirt rolled up to reveal the tattoo of an eagle on his left arm. “Here you go.” Ray handed me the saw. “Just pull on that trigger like a gun.”

I was already having second thoughts about whether I should be cutting through the roots at all. Now that people were watching there seemed to be no choice. I pulled the trigger; the blade moved in and out quickly. I had the rush of satisfaction like a warm flood of adrenaline in my arms and chest that comes from the response of a power tool. I felt the approval of all the men: cut, cut, destroy, destroy, they seemed to chant like a circle of redneck monks. I went back to cutting. Now I was making progress. I cut for a while and then stopped.

“Hey, do you need a flashlight?” It was the guy from next door, Ken, the one who spent an hour each day trimming, weeding, mowing, and otherwise fussing over his plot of earth.

“Uh, sure,” I said.

“Hey, what’s going on?” It was a guy I had never met, dressed in the white overalls and hat of a painter, his steel toe work boots pointing at eye level.

“Dropped his wallet down there,” said Ray.

“Howdja do that?” said the new guy.

I shrugged my shoulders and started sawing again so as not to speak. The men stood above, talking, as I suppose men have done for eons. Probably there were men in togas standing around while slaves paved the Appian Way. Natives stood around on Easter Island while someone chipped away at the huge stone blocks. So it is today, whenever someone undertakes a project.

Pretty soon I realized that this was fruitless, that I could never get down in the hole. However, I had created a little opening I could squeeze through later. I took the flashlight and pretended to look. I took a stick of gum out of my pocket and through it down the hole. “Nope, don’t see anything,” I said. I handed the saw back up to Ray and climbed out.

“Well, thanks,” I said to Ray. He nodded. We chatted for a moment, the way men do awkwardly, and dispersed, back to our own toolboxes and individual projects, ready to create and destroy once again.