Monday, December 31, 2018

Rabbit Rabbit

Or sometimes "Rabbit, rabbit rabbit" or "white rabbit" or just "rabbits;" the variations of the superstition are myriad, although its origin has been lost to us. If its the first phrase spoken on the first day of a new month supposedly it brings good luck. I don't know if it being the first words on the first day of a new month of a new year theoretically amplifies that good fortune, but maybe it can tilt the emotional scales in favor of sweet over bitter. Yesterday, December 31st, 2018 my friend Steve would have been 43. Tomorrow, January 2nd would have been my maternal grandmother's birthday. And the 7th would be my maternal grandfather's birthday. All now of blessed memory, or OBM, as they say.

But a new year means a renewal. Fresh calendar, fresh fiscal year for many businesses, fresh start - even if somewhat illusory. And yet, not surprisingly, I'm looking backwards as well as forwards, occupying a temporal limbo between the world that once was and the world that is yet to be.

This year Jen and I stayed in, which was quite pleasant. She worked all day, and Tinker Bell (our shih tzu) doesn't do all that great with fireworks. So we had a nice, quiet night. Watched some TV. Jen was asleep before midnight. Contrast that with last year, when we packed into Duval Street in Key West to witness the drag queen Sushi descend in her ruby slipper to welcome in the new year. That was really something to see.

Over the years I've had a full range of New Years experiences - in Times Square New York, in Philadelphia, in Michigan, Chicago, Seattle - sometimes alone and sometimes with friends and loved ones. My thoughts and feelings about all of these various and diverse experiences shift over time, but the New Years memory that has come most vividly to the forefront as my favorite was the one that I was initially the least excited about.

It's the New Years I spent with my grandparents on my mom's side. Marty and Selma.

I think I was maybe 12 years old - just at the point of being self consciously aware that spending New Years with your grandparents was uncool. I let go of my reluctance, not really having any other options, and resigned myself to an evening of wishing I was elsewhere. I recall bits and pieces rather than the evening in its entirety. I know we played monopoly (monotony, as my mother called it), as we did as part of most of our visits. I also recall that at some point, after an hour or two once all the properties had been acquired and the gave transitioned to making alliances and negotiations, my sister slipped away to tie a bandanna around the lower half of her face, arm herself with a pair of pop cap guns and push through the swinging doors into the 1950's styled kitchen to announce that she was robbing the monopoly bank. This had also become part of our tradition and signaled that it was time to transition to a new activity. I can still hear my grandfather's deep, whole-body laugh, the epicenter of which was somewhere in his belly.

I think it was at that point that we went upstairs to the den that I always think of as the circus room, with its slightly unsettling cubist clown paintings, burgundy carpet and red and white stripped lampshade. We probably watched Johnny Carson and at some point my grandmother brought up a bowl of perfectly roasted chestnuts, made all the more memorable for bucking the trend of her countless kitchen fiascoes (which regularly set of smoke alarms and on at least one occasion required that we all take cover from projectile hard boiled eggs). Just around the stroke of midnight I think I dozed off on the couch with tiny diodes and circuitry in my hands, trying to reconfigure a disassembled old radio that would remain forever mangled.

The following morning we watched the Mummers and the floats parade by on TV, after which I went with my grandfather to synagogue, where we somehow ended up with dozens of balloons which had been left over from a new years celebration the night before. Once we returned home I proceeded to tie them all together and wrap them around the legs of tables and chairs on the lower floor of the house, creating a web-like maze through which my sister and I crawled the rest of the morning.

Somehow, over the course of the stay I'd gone from wishing to be anywhere else to wanting to be nowhere else on earth, and for all the unusual and interesting new years experiences I've had since, not one can hold a candle to that new years eve I spent with my sister, the monopoly bank bandit, and my grandparents.

Jen and I and my grandmother at brunch in Jenkintown.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Florida Adventure List: Volume I

Given the fun that Jen and I had creating and exploring our Chicago Bucket List, we decided to create a new one upon our arrival in Florida. Even though we initially called it our Tampa Adventure List, it actually took us all over the state, from Key West up to Saint Augustine and plenty of places in between, which has led me to refer to it more broadly now as the first volume of our Florida Adventure List. It was ambitious, but after just over two years, we're down to the last handful of items and have already begun a second volume. Here's how Volume I looked when we started it:

Here's a list of the items we've completed:

  • Item #1: The Henry B. Plant Museum - What was once the Tampa Bay Hotel is today part of the University of Tampa and a museum which shows the city's transformation.
  • Item #2: Gravity Research Foundation Monument - one of a dozen such markers at college campuses throughout the eastern U.S. highlighting Roger Babson's battle against gravity.
  • Item #3: Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens
  • Item #4: Epcot - did you know that's actually an acronym for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow? In terms of iconic Florida images, next to dolphins and palm trees, the golf ball shaped "Spaceship Earth" is probably second only to...
  • Item #5: The Magic Kingdom. Or, as I sometimes refer to it, "Shrine of the Mouse God." I'm not complaining though, I've happily paid and prayed at that alter many times since becoming a Florida resident, and I'm sure I will do so a great many times more.
  • Item #6: Universal Orlando. We were there just time for their "Halloween Horror Nights," which are impressive enough to warrant the lines.
  • Item #7: Airstream Ranch. Essentially RV installation artwork. It has since been removed, but I understand that it may be replaced with an Airstream museum.
  • Item #8: Dysfunctional Grace Art Co. Taxidermy, surgical antiquities and occult collectibles. Warning, the stuffed kitten on display might make you cry. I'm not saying that happened to me. I'm just saying that, theoretically, if it did, it would be understandable.
  • Item #9: Hong Kong Willie. The beach version of an outsider and recycled art park.
  • Item #10: Hindu Temple of Florida. One of Florida's many remarkable architectural sites and, conveniently, the one that happens to be closest to where Jen and I live.
  • Item #11: Parque Amigos de Jose Marti. One of Ybor City's lesser known oddities as I'm pretty sure this is the only spot in the United States where you stand on Cuban soil.
  • Item #12: Spook Hill. A gravity hill located in Lake Wales.
  • Item #13: Bok Tower Gardens. Home to the most stunningly beautiful carillon tower I've ever seen.
  • Item #14: Whimzeyland. A home made into a mosaic and outsider artwork.
  • Item #15: Clearwater Beach.
  • Item #16: Big Bend Power Plant Manatee Viewing Center. On the day we went we must have seen as many as 50 sea cows enjoying the warm water discharged by the power plant.
  • Item #17: Gibsonton. A town circus and sideshow performers (go watch the old X-files episode "Humbug" for more detail).
  • Item #18: The International Independent Showman's Museum. The place where we discovered that Jen suffers from a rather acute case of coulrophobia, and consequently her absolute least favorite thing on this or any of our lists. I thought it was pretty neat though.
  • Item #19: Hand Rolled Cigar. While Ybor City would have been the obvious place for this, I actually had one at Cuban Paradise in Madeira Beach.
  • Item #20: Tampa Bay Lightning Game.
  • Item #21: Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe. Great food somehow tastes even better while sitting across from a whole wall of Elvis, Howard Finster artworks and a two-headed alligator.
  • Item #22: Weeki Wachee. Nothing says Florida quite like the live mermaid shows.
  • Item #23: SS American Victory Mariner's Museum. One of only three still operable Victory class ships in the US.
  • Item #24: The Dali Museum. We've been here now a few times, but the Frida Kahlo exhibit has been our favorite.
  • Item #25: Cleanse Apothecary. Jen loves apothecaries and frankly, after the International Independent Showman's Museum, she earned it.
  • Item #26: Gasparilla Festival. It's pretty much a pirate version of Mardi Gras complete with floats, beads and plenty of rum. For our first experience we had the good fortune of getting an invite to the pirate breakfast at the yacht club before they boarded their ship to "invade" Tampa.
  • Item #27: Columbia Restaurant. Florida's oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, according to their website. It has become our favorite special occasion dining spot.
  • Item #28: Tampa Bay History Center.
  • Item #29: Jack Kerouac House. This brought me back to my late teen Beat Generation fixation.
  • Item #30: St. Augustine. The oldest continually-occupied city in the United States is so wonderfully weird in all the best ways. There's so much to check out here that we created a St.Augustine Adventure List.
  • Item #31: Church by the Sea. Also known as the Chicken Church. You can see my Atlas Obscura entry for more information.
  • Item #32: The World's Largest Shuffleboard Club.
  • Item #33: The Ringling Museum. Actually, there are multiple museums housed here, each of which is worth a visit.

  • Item #34: St. Armands Circle. In recognition of Jen's fond childhood memories of Sarasota.
  • Item #35: Plant City Strawberry Festival.
  • Item #36: Old Tampa Book Company
  • Item #37: Lowry Park Zoo.
  • Item #38: Oaklawn Cemetery. Tampa's oldest public cemetery is home to veterans for 14 different wars, pioneer priests, pirates, yellow fever victims, Tampa's first Mayor, and much else.
  • Item #39: The Sponge Docks.
  • Item #40: Fantasy of Flight. The world's largest private aircraft collection.
  • Item #41: Shell Factory and Nature Park.
  • Item #42: Venice Beach.
  • Item #43: Harry P. Leu Gardens.
  • Item #44: Monument of States.
  • Item #45: Big Cat Rescue.
  • Item #46: Fort De Soto.
  • Item #47: Skunk Ape Research Center
  • Item #48: Ochopee Post Office. The smallest post office in the US.
  • Item #49: Key West. Like St. Augustine, there was so much to see and do that this item also got it's own smaller adventure list.
  • Item #50: Key Lime Pie. The Keys seemed the ideal place for this item - we had a slice at Blue Heaven and were not disappointed.
  • Item #51: Ed Leedskalnin's Coral Castle.
  • Item #52: Toss for the Cross.
  • Item #53: Museum of Science and Industry. This one was a bit of a let down - I think the Museum of  Science  and Industry in Chicago has set my expectations perhaps unfairly high.
  • Item #54: Tampa Bay Ballet. Just as my former life in Chicago led me to disappointment with Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, Jen's reaction to this item was "the Joffrey it is not."
  • Item #55: De Soto National Memorial. To be clear this is different than Fort De Soto.
  • Item #56: The Sea Hagg. You can see my write up on it here.
  • Item #57: Sea World.
  • Item #58: Phoenix Glass Studio.
  • Item #59: Canoe the Hillsborough River. Technically we were in a kayak, but I think it fulfills the spirit of this item.
  • Item #60: Angel's Diner. The oldest diner in the state of Florida.
  • Item #61: Caladesi Island.
  • Item #62: Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
  • Item #63: Cassadaga.
  • Item #64: Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise. Cheesy, but fun.
  • Item #65: Tupperware World Headquarters Museum.
We've still got six items left on the list, but I think we'll be able to knock them out in 2019:

  • Item #66: Wandering Eye Art Gallery. Even though it's closed, from time to time they do have shows.
  • Item #67: Daytona Drive-In Church.
  • Item #68: Bern's. Tampa's most famous steak house.
  • Item #69: Drive-In Movie Theatre
  • Item #70: OJ Tour.
  • Item #71: Shuttle Launch. Or rocket - I think shuttle implies a manned craft. This is the one that I'm most looking forward to.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Passages Leading Deeper Within

A few half-forgotten lines from a novel can be both a means of transporting us as well as the destination itself. 

That's how it feels sometimes - that the more I immerse myself in the strangeness of where I live and travel now, the closer I get to something I left behind, buried. Like a sudden epiphany that the secret coded message I've been searching for was written in my own genetic sequence all along. And that is the path down which I wish us to travel here.

I mentioned in an earlier post that looking up old adages and sayings had been leading me deeper into the uncharted parts of my own dream gallery / mind palace - to that place where the unlabeled things have been kept since long before I went through the mental effort of visualizing a structure in which to house them. I'm rediscovering passages from books and snippets of stories that once spoke to me - and I'm finding that while some have lost their luster, others now impact me even more powerfully than they did when first I encountered them. Truly, it seems, one cannot step twice into the same river.

One passage in particular, from the book Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon, which I must have read when I was fourteen or so, apparently resonated so strongly with me at the time that all these years later, in some ways, I've been inadvertently recreating it.

To be clear, I'm not talking about any conscious or malicious act of plagiarism. I'm in no way intentionally rewriting the work of another in order to claim credit for it. It's more like following in the footsteps of someone much more skilled and experienced - the literary equivalent of discovering the remains of Chester Copperpot as a sign that you're on the right path. And whereas McCammon's story was a fictional novel with a fixed destination, this blog is not. But he and I are quite clearly trying to describe the same phenomenon, with similar language - about the ways we lose and (attempt to) reclaim those faint and fleeting traces of childhood wonder. 

Here it is, in his own words:

“You know, I do believe in magic. I was born and raised in a magic time, in a magic town, among magicians. Oh, most everybody else didn’t realize we lived in that web of magic, connected by silver filaments of chance and circumstance. But I knew it all along. When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

After you go so far away from it, though, you can’t really get it back. You can have seconds of it. Just seconds of knowing and remembering. When people get weepy at movies, it’s because in that dark theater the golden pool of magic is touched, just briefly. Then they come out into the hard sun of logic and reason again and it dries up, and they’re left feeling a little heartsad and not knowing why. When a song stirs a memory, when motes of dust turning in a shaft of light takes your attention from the world, when you listen to a train passing on a track at night in the distance and wonder where it might be going, you step beyond who you are and where you are. For the briefest of instants, you have stepped into the magic realm.

That’s what I believe.

The truth of life is that every year we get farther away from the essence that is born within us. We get shouldered with burdens, some of them good, some of them not so good. Things happen to us. Loved ones die. People get in wrecks and get crippled. People lose their way, for one reason or another. It’s not hard to do, in this world of crazy mazes. Life itself does its best to take that memory of magic away from us. You don’t know it’s happening until one day you feel you’ve lost something but you’re not sure what it is. It’s like smiling at a pretty girl and she calls you “sir.” It just happens.

These memories of who I was and where I lived are important to me. They make up a large part of who I’m going to be when my journey winds down. I need the memory of magic if I am ever going to conjure magic again. I need to know and remember, and I want to tell you.”

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Portals Forever Sealed

"There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain"

Next to recalling absent friends, I can think of no activity more nostalgic than revisiting those places from your younger days which have vanished - like surveying craters where once stood the capitol city of self. Finding padlocks on the doors that once led through the portal to another world, some place that shaped you - well, it can break your heart. But I don't want to be maudlin about it. Rather I want to conjure those places back into being, just very briefly, so that you can experience them here (as you can no longer do so anywhere else). And in so doing, maybe you can get a better sense of what it is that I'm seeking to recapture as I scout out every wunderkammer and roadside attraction I can find. So here they are for you, just four of those points of interest that defined my most deeply personal Terra Incognita Americanus.

City Gardens - Trenton, NJ. I think it's probably safe to say that no one else on earth mourns the loss of what it would be far too flattering to call a dive. I can still feel and hear the sound of my sneakers sticking to floor and the olfactory assault of old beer and stale cigarette smoke as I entered. It was dingy and grimy - cutting yourself there on the busted metal paper towell dispenser in the bathroom would almost certainly require a battery of shots for tetanus and god only knows what else. But then the lights went out, a band took the stage, and suddenly none of that mattered - you were transported to a universe light-years away. It was there as a teenager that I saw my very first show - a little punk rock band called Mojo Nixon and the Toad Lickers. And it was the place where I got hooked on live music, which was one of the precious few things that made my high school years bearable. Over the years I saw more bands perform there than I could count, including the Ramones, Bad Religion, Rollins Band, Bad Brains, Ween and the like. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was a bouncer there. Jon Stewart was a bartender there before becoming a comedian. Danzig played their very first live show there. Sure, it may have been overshadowed by venues like CBGB's in New York, but it carved out it's own tiny place in punk rock history and earned a considerably larger spot in my own young life.

River East Art Center - Chicago, IL. When I moved back to Chicago somewhere around 2003 or 2004, I moved to a studio apartment in Streeterville. I came to know the neighborhood, not only for its unique story (which we'll get to another time), but also for the collection of astounding young artists that had studios down the street from me. The space itself was designed to impress - a glass stairway, an indoor waterfall, high ceilings with exposed wood and duct-work - it was hard not to feel creative or inspired there. It was more than just the place, it was the contents - home to such a brilliant collection of talent there: Terry Dixon, Rebecca Moy, Rory Coyne, Predrag Djordjevic to name just a few. In the same way that City Gardens was my introduction to live music, River East Art Center opened to me the world of visual art studios and galleries, which were so much more intimate than the museums I'd visited. From there I started to explore other artist studios and collectives, from the Fine Arts Building to the Cornelia Arts Building to a great many others. But River East Art Center always had a special magic for me - it was the first. And when I launched my own art leasing venture, some of the artists I had encountered there were among the very first I approached.

The Tin Angel - Philadelphia, PA. Funny how you can live somewhere for such a long time without ever really getting to know it. That's how I feel about the city of Philadelphia. I grew up in the suburbs there, but it wasn't until I moved back there in my late 20's that I began to explore it. My friend T helped open that door, introducing me in many ways for the first time to a place I thought I knew. Among the memories I treasure from this period, which was a tough time for me, was finding the Tin Angel. A small, urban acoustic cafe up a steep flight of stairs from Serrano Restaurant at 20 S. 2nd Street in the Old City neighborhood, with murals painted on both walls, dim, flickering lights reflecting faintly off the tin ceiling (violet, as I recall - the color I most associate with twilight and magic) and amazing musicians. My first time there was to watch Jeffrey Gains play on the small stage, transfixed by the sound and depth and broken beauty of his voice and guitar. Truly, it was like stumbling into some alternate reality. I came back a number of times to see various bands and solo performers, and it never failed to deliver. The way I imagine that the devout feel after attending a service or a sermon, that's probably the nearest thing I can compare it to. At that time, at that place, when I so desperately needed it, I had found a slice of creative salvation.

Iggy's - Chicago, IL. If there's an afterlife in which restless souls are bound to the one spot that they most loved in life, any who would wish to seek me out would be well advised to begin at 700 N. Milwaukee Avenue. I loved that place. I loved everything about it. It was my dark, urban swank Gen X version of Cheers (or Jeers, maybe). It was one of the first places in Chicago where I became a regular. If I close my eyes I can still picture the redheaded bar tender, Sherry, mixing a martini and talking to a patron above the murmur of conversion and the music (6 Underground by Sneaker Pimps, or maybe something by the Replacements, I'm thinking) about that year's motorcycle show, which the owner, Dion, hosted. And I can taste each item on the menu - while my friend Jake who introduced me to the venue was always a fan of their lemon butter bow-tie pasta, I always preferred the spicy chicken ravioli. I can visualize the edgy artwork on the brick walls, the curtains of chain links, and the small outdoor patio area where they projected cult films during the summer. I can feel the sweet bite of bourbon on my lips and tongue - Basil Hayden, on the rocks. When I moved back to Philadelphia, Iggy's also moved to a new location, in Bucktown. I never visited this second site, but I heard that it lacked the same feel, and so it closed. When I moved back to Chicago, it reopened for a third and final time, in a smaller space. It had the same menu, the same drinks, but still lacked that feel of the original. It did, however, have just enough magic left in it for one grand finale - it's where Jen and I had our first date, and it was at that location, years later, where I planted a knee on the cracked sidewalk and proposed to her. 

There are places that I came to before these and others I've come to since, but when I think of those impossibly, imperfectly magical places I've found along the way, these are the first ones I think of. Each of them, in its own way, is like the town of Spectre in the story Big Fish; inaccessible now they take on mythic qualities when viewed through the kaleidoscopic lenses of subjective and selective memory. The first time I came to these places, I was, perhaps, too early. To find them again today, certainly, it is too late.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Buckner Mansion

(This piece was submitted to Atlas Obscura and is currently pending publication. You can see it here.)

This New Orleans mansion is hauntingly beautiful… in more ways than one.

Built in 1856 by cotton magnate Henry Sullivan Buckner, this Lower Garden District mansion was intended to be bigger and grander than the most opulent manor at the time, which was Stanton Hall in Natchez, MS - the home to Buckner’s former business partner and arch-rival. Buckner commissioned architect Lewis E. Reynolds, who delivered a magnificent example of southern antebellum architecture that has been called “a landmark among landmarks” with 48 monumental Ionic and Corinthian fluted cypress columns, numerous verandas and a unique, ornate cast-iron fence, not to mention three separate ballrooms.

Buckner and his family lived in the 20,000+ sq. ft. home until 1923. Following the Buckner family, the prestigious Soule Business School moved in and occupied the property for the next 60 years before closing its doors in 1983.

Today the mansion is a private residence available as a vacation rental (if you’re willing to shell out roughly $4,700 a night). Keep in mind though, you might be sharing the property with Miss Josephine, who is seen from time to time on the stairs or sweeping the halls, often accompanied by the strong scent of lemon. Don’t be alarmed though or try to remove her – apparently she’s been there haunting the home since her death after the Civil War.

More recently, the mansion had a supernatural rebirth of sorts as Miss Robicheaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies – the setting for American Horror Story: Coven, where young witches mastered their arts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Apple of Eternal Golden Desire

Only that which is attainable ever gets old.

My wife started a new job this week, in a totally new industry for her. I’m proud of her for taking the risk and for achieving the escape velocity required to leave the gravitational pull of the retail industry. She was comfortable in that she had mastered the day-to-day requirements, but ultimately unfulfilled - overqualified and underappreciated in her role. Watching her make this shift has brought me to reflect on my own career – specifically, how profoundly thankful and lucky I am to have found my “forever job.”

I’ve been self-employed now for over a decade. It sounds strange to say that – more than ten years of being my own boss, setting my own schedule and priorities, and working mostly from a home office where I can wear fuzzy bunny slippers all day long. It works for me in ways that working for others never did largely because it allows for constant change and evolution. The phrase “I work for myself,” which is how I typically answer the question, “what do you do for a living,” is really a pretty broad catch-all, and in terms of what I’ve actually done on a day-to-day basis for the last ten years it has changed radically.  Because it turns out that my “forever job” isn't actually any one single, specific job at all, but rather a "forever search" for whatever I choose to do and whatever comes next.

Initially, when I left corporate America, I launched a fine art leasing business in Chicago, and after a few years I was able to get it to profitability, but just barely and not by a broad enough margin that I could really live a decent life. So, when one of my old colleagues asked if I would contract myself out to the large accounting firm they worked at as a proposal writer, I jumped at the opportunity. And when another old colleague asked if I could help write resumes for her clients, I said yes to that too. Six years later, those two things make up roughly all of my income.

They’ve been the right combination of revenue streams and the ideal fit for me. They play to my strength as a writer and a story teller; work that I’m generally pretty passionate about doing. But over the past few years, another, deeper passion has reemerged from where it was hiding out in my childhood’s backyard jungle kingdom. It’s what I’ve been documenting in this blog – searching out and exploring those architectural oddities, those roadside attractions and wonders (both natural and unnatural) that dot our world. Now I find myself seeking out and incorporating ways to monetize that passion as a third stream of revenue. Maybe as a tour guide, a travel writer, an amateur photographer, and maybe as a professional blogger (I’ll let you be the judge of that last one).

Is it something I could see doing forever? Even after I’d seen every taxidermied monkey/fish combo passed off as a Fiji Mermaid, after I’d passed through the gates of every DIY castle in the country, wandered through every junkyard turned outsider artist compound, after I‘d walked every secret street and garden, been on every ghost tour, examined every surgical museum, stood in front of every offbeat memorial, monument and marker, after all of that would I still crave more?

Yes, I’m convinced that I would – enough so that I’ll give it a go. Past as precedent, it may lead me to something else – old stone rubbing perhaps (an Etsy-esque craft phenomenon waiting to happen if ever there was one), possibly starting a soap museum with Jen, or maybe, just as likely, something I haven’t even remotely considered yet.

The search itself is and has, after all, always been my ideal destination. And after many years of trying (and failing) to crack the code from a cubicle identical to all the others in a downtown commercial high-rise identical to all the others, I finally figured out how to monetize my interests and creative endeavors.

It’s changing again now – my job description. You’ve been watching it happen here in real time, post by post. Steve’s death sprung the lock; leaving Chicago knocked down the door.

Nowadays I’m more of an informal anthropologist with a sub-specialization in the supernatural. I’m a Ballardian recorder of the next millennium’s archaeological finds and explorer of modern urban ruins. I’m a self conscious mosaic of highly curated, customized experiences. I’m a DM IRL. I chase dinosaurs and cryptids.

If anybody asks though, just tell them I work for myself.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Molly the Mollusk

(This piece was edited and published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The colossal squid's 27-foot-long corpse lies preserved within a Sarasota aquarium.

It's no secret that mysterious, tentacled creatures lurk in the ocean's depths. Molly the Mollusk, a colossal squid, gives people a rare chance to view one of these elusive underwater animals.

Molly was accidentally caught off the coast of New Zealand on March 15, 1999, by a fishing trawler. The 27-foot-long cephalopod was donated to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium that same year. Since returning from the traveling exhibit “Sea Monsters” in 2015, the “Exploration Gallery” (formerly the Shark Attack Theater) now houses Molly’s preserved remains. 

Due to the rarity of encounters with colossal squid, scientists are still working to fill in our knowledge about them. One thing that is known, however, is that these creatures possess the largest eye in the animal kingdom. One specimen’s eyes measured up to roughly 11 inches across—that’s larger than your typical dinner plate!

While Molly may be one of the more celebrated residents at Mote, there are plenty of other fascinating things to see there, including live manatees, sharks, jellyfish, anemones, otters, and rays. As of July 2018, there is also an art exhibit featuring sculptures constructed from sea plastic, a creative means of highlighting the threat that such human-made debris poses to our oceans.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Everything in Florida will Kill You

Welcome to the American Outback, swamp edition.

Having just completed my second year in Tampa, I am reminded every day of how ill equipped we as human beings are to live in certain areas and climates. Actually, pretty much all of them, if we're being frank, but Southern Florida's "Nature Coast" in particular presents some unique challenges. To most of the natural inhabitants, us humans must resemble giant, slow-moving Capri Sun juice bags - you know, the kind that your folks packed with your elementary school lunches - and most of the creatures down here are well equipped with fangs, claws or some manner of built in straw with with to puncture said juice bag. Put another way, pretty much every woodland creature you encounter down here, even the cute fluffy looking ones, will not hesitate to devour, envenom or maul you. And don't think that the list of things that may prematurely terminate you end with the fauna - the weather, the heat and even the earth under your feet can be become treacherous without warning.

So I've divided my list into the common dangers (the ones we're all familiar with), the lesser known threats, and lastly, the really rare special cases. The list is by no means comprehensive, so feel free to add or discuss in the comments section any that I've missed.

The Usual Suspects

  • Reptiles - specifically gators and snakes, each of which has been known on occasion to consume the other. Gators, crocodiles, caiman - all apex predators that have remained essentially unchanged since prehistoric times. A more recent arrival to the area is the Burmese Python, which can grow to terrifying lengths. Monitor lizards and even Iguanas can also be fairly vicious.
  • Sharks and Rays - Bull sharks in particular have been know to be aggressive towards humans (which is not to say that you should go taunting nurse sharks or really any type of shark for that matter). Rays are also fairly common here - at least enough so that on a recent trip to Caladesi Island, it was recommended that we perform the "stingray shuffle" if we chose to wade more than a foot deep into the water.
  • Insects - Ticks, wasps, biting flies, spiders (Black Widows and Brown Recluse Spiders being the most venomous) and mosquitoes (which carry Dengue, Zika and historically, Yellow Fever for starters) are common nuisances, but the newest and most unpleasant for me has been fire ants. Having always lived "up north" (suburban Philadelphia, Chicago, Ann Arbor and Seattle), ants were never more than an annoyance, but I can now attest that the ants here in Florida are something else entirely. While watching the Gasparilla Children's Parade pass through Hyde Park along Bayshore Boulevard, I noticed a burning and stinging coming from under my sandals. When I inspected my feet I discovered numerous ants biting them repeatedly. I quickly shook them off and thought the ordeal was done... but by later that evening each bite had turned into a maddeningly painful, itching blisters. "You didn't pop those blisters, did you," a friend asked me later on. "No, no, of course not," I responded, while very casually pulling up my socks so as to conceal a score of pockmark scars on my ankles.
  • Weather - Thankfully Jen and I were unscathed by Irma - we stayed with one of her coworkers in  New Port Richey, as we live in a Flood Zone A (the lowest elevation / first areas to be evacuated). The Keys were not so lucky and having seen some of the devastation first hand, I will not hesitate to leave town in the future. Of course, while hurricanes are generally confined to one season, lightning is not and Florida ranks first in the nation for lightning-related deaths each year. In fact, the name Tampa itself is allegedly from the Native American "sticks of fire," which some suggest is a reference to lightning (although another equally plausible origin is that the area was considered a good place to gather kindling for fire)
  • Other Human Beings - Perhaps it's not all that surprising that in a state shaped a bit like the handle of an AR15, we've seen more that our fair share of mass shootings (including Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County). But guns are hardly the sole concern - with more than 40,000 automobile-related deaths in 2016, Florida now ranks among the most dangerous states to drive in. The Sunshine State also has it's share of serial killers, the most infamous of whom is probably Aileen Wurnos.
The Unusual Suspects
  • Armadillos - Yes, I said Armadillos - those scaled rodents you've most often probably seen lying by the side of the road after an unfortunate encounter with an automobile. How, you may be wondering, can these harmless "roadkill waiting to happen" pose a mortal threat to Floridians? They make the list here because they are the only species other than humans that can carry and on rare occasion transmit mycrobacteriun leprae (better known as leprosy).
  • Brain Eating Amoebas - Naegleria fowleri is the culprit, found in warm freshwater such as lakes and ponds in central Florida.  While infections are exceedingly rare (138 cases), they are almost always deadly if not treated immediately (at last count I believe there have been a total of just three survivors). For more information, be sure to check out A Quick Guide to Brain-Eating Amoeba. Fun beach reading.
  • Sea Lice - Something new I've just been hearing about over the past several months, and the fact that these are actually stinging jellyfish larvae rather than actual lice doesn't really make it all that much better. Purple flags went up along Florida beaches along the pan handle this past summer indicating dangerous marine life, including these tiny invaders. While they are not typically life threatening, they were awful enough to warrant a spot on my list.
  • Sinkholes - Indeed, even the earth itself here will devour you if given the opportunity. I think an AP article summed it up best: "Sinkholes are as much a part of the Florida landscape as palm trees and alligators. Florida has more of them than any state in the nation. Earlier [in 2013], a man near Tampa died when a sinkhole opened up underneath his bedroom." You can read the full article here: Sinkholes: Why So Frequent in Florida?
The Really Weird Ones

  • Skunk Apes - Did you know that there's a swamp version of the Sasquatch? It's not all that surprising that Florida would have a cryptid or two lurking about, given that in addition to be being one of America's favorite places to vacation, the state also serves, conveniently (for those vacationers), as the nation's unofficial capital for releasing unusual and dangerous animals (that pet alligator your grandparents tell you they had growing up? Once it outgrew the bathtub it quite likely took up residence here in Florida). What makes the Skunk Ape distinctive, as you may have guessed from it's name, is the appalling odor it's said to emit. This malodorous monster is also said to become violent when confronted by those few who had the displeasure of an encounter. Even thought its existence is somewhat suspect, there have been enough alleged encounters over the years to warrant consideration and a small research center / roadside attraction near the Everglades.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion - The events that took place at the home of Mary Hardy Reeser in St. Petersburg on July 2, 1951 left the world with one burning question... is spontaneous human combustion real? To this day, as far as I'm aware, the actual cause of her demise remains unsolved. Theories to explain the completely incinerated body in the middle of an otherwise unscathed living room have included everything from ball lightning to aliens and government conspiracies. 

Please note, I share all of this not to discourage anyone from exploring the unique Florida wilderness, but rather as a gentle reminder that when you go off the path, the creatures you encounter are not happy, family-friendly Disney World animatronics and if the ground gives way beneath you, no one is going to come and stop the ride. So have a care, pack some strong insect repellent and maybe some antivenom too.

Saturday, July 14, 2018


"Music is the strongest form of magic." - Marilyn Manson

Ceremony, from the album Substance by New Order. Whenever I hear even the first few notes of the song, I'm transported back in time. I can see my younger self – I must be 18 years old, frustrated by being on the razor’s edge of change, feeling the bite of that metaphorical blade. I think it’s how Luke Skywalker must have felt being told by his uncle to be patient, to spend just one more season on the farm. I was chomping at the bit – already accepted into Michigan and just counting the days, the minutes, until I’d be into the next chapter in my story.

Waiting for my world to change. To be where I thought my life was.

None of it turned out quite the way I’d planned. But then little has, and most of what’s been unexpected has ended up being good to me, even if it didn’t always seem so at the time. But once the fragments get pieced together, refined and glazed over, once it’s in the rearview, then it can become a story and make sense.

Just a few notes of that song though, it brings me right back to that spot in my past – working with my friend Jason at the Exxon station his family owned just around the corner from the Montgomery Mall. Summer just around the corner, the air was already getting heavy and humid, and we’d be going different ways – he was off to Boston and I was heading for Ann Arbor. I was starting Summer term, not just because I’d heard it made acceptance a little more likely, but also because I was itching so badly for it. I can smell the gasoline on my hands, which I much preferred to the distinct scent of Kimchi fermenting in Jason’s garage. I keep trying to clean the grease of my fingers, but it’s the green and white checkered rag I’m using that keeps making things dirtier.

That blank impatient space between chapters – that’s was the song Ceremony makes me think of.

My painting "Ceremony," made while listening to the song

It was originally written when the band was still Joy Division, before Ian Curtis ended his life on the night of the band’s first world tour. They too found themselves between worlds – in transition from a strange new sound in basement clubs to becoming world renowned pioneers in electronic music. En route to becoming legendary. Post Joy Division but pre New Order, which is what the survivors would become – this one song seems to bridge those two different periods, without fitting comfortably into either. An interlude, and one to which I was particularly attuned at the time.

It’s up tempo, but still down. Minor chords played fast. The murky vocals and lyrics further shaping some new hybrid emotion. Angsticipation.

To be honest, I don’t know if the music made me feel that way of if I’ve just layered my feelings at the time over the sound. Or both. I don’t think it’s knowable, and I don’t think it matters either way. The music, the time near the end of my teen years and the internal emotional whirlwind I was going through are all inexorably fused. It has become one of the main tracks on the soundtrack of my personal history. It’s also impossible to if it will mean anything at all to you, but if I had to guess I would think that there is some song that does. All the same, here it is for you:

Here are the lyrics:

This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning
Turn again and turn towards this time
All she asks is the strength to hold me
Then again the same old story
World will travel, oh so quickly
Travel fast and lean towards this time

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it's got to be this time
Watching her, these things she said
The times she cried
Too frail to wake this time

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it's got to be this time
Avenues all lined with trees
Picture me and then you start watching
Watching forever
Watching love grow, forever
Letting me know, forever

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sears Mishap House Myth

(This piece was edited and published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

Local myth claims this is a Sears catalog home with its windows installed upside-down.

Savannah, Georgia, is rich with strange local tales. Many involve ghosts or other mysterious hauntings, but some involve something a bit less sinister: Victorian architecture.

How did this oddity occur? Pranksters blame it on the Sears catalog craze. Long before the advent of the internet, the Sears catalog provided people all over the United States with a single source for all of their mail-order shopping. You could purchase just about anything through the catalog, including, apparently, DIY home construction kits.Local guides will tell tourists that all is not as it seems with the peach-colored house with green shutters at 32 Habersham Street. Look at the house, and you’ll notice its windows have a unique decorative style to them, said to be due to the fact they were installed upside-down.

In reality, the windows were arranged in this way so that the top part could open, which better allowed the heat to escape to keep the house cooler.

Though this house is not in fact a Sears catalog home, that hasn’t stopped that particular myth from running wild. The house and its rumored construction mishap have become a quirky point of interest on city tours and have tricked many a visitor, despite the signs disputing the story hanging outside.

Correction: This entry previously stated that this home was a Sears Roebuck catalog house with the windows installed upside-down. That is an incorrect, though oft-repeated local tale. In fact, the house is a Victorian-era design and the windows are installed correctly.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Exploring Chicago: Carved in Stone

(This piece was originally written as part of an ongoing series for Tower Topics, a newsletter produced by and for the residents of Imperial Towers in Chicago. The publication was discontinued before this piece was published.)

The Chicago art scene is incredibly diverse representing all styles and mediums, from the cultural works on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art to the galleries of Pilsen, the studios at the Fine Art Building, installations at the MCA and countless iconic public sculptures like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka “the Bean”) and Picaso’s famous, whatever it is, in the courtyard of the Richard J. Daley Center.

As an artist myself, it’s no surprise that my adventure list led me to spend copious amounts of time in front of both public and private artworks, but what did surprise me was the commonalities between many of the works that impacted me the most. They were all lesser known public artworks, and all of them were carved in stone.

Eternal Silence
At the border between Ravenswood and Uptown is what may be one of the city’s most overlooked historical treasures – Graceland Cemetery. Amidst the remarkable statues and monuments, civic leaders such as Wacker and Altgeld and famous city architects like Burnham, Sullivan and Root share space with the pioneering private eye Alan Pinkerton and Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. In this serene setting the infamous George Streeter still squats on the same land as Pullman, Fairbanks and Palmer, where at last they seem to have found peace as neighbors. With a little research and a keen eye, you could learn the entire history of Chicago from a tour of Graceland.

But one iconic stone sculpture carved in 1909 by Lorado Taft left me awestruck and speechless. This turned out to be an appropriate response since the Dexter Graves Monument is better known as Eternal Silence.

Somber and haunting, this 10 foot tall hooded reaper-like figure has one hand raising a fold of its cloak over its mouth, as a grim and powerful reminder that though we may come to visit and speak to the departed, they are forever unable to hold up their end of the conversation. Somehow even the oxidization on the black granite statue only serves to make it all the more formidable.

Fountain of Time
After seeing my first Taft monument, I had to know if there were any others nearby. Sure enough, just west of UIC at the eastern edge of Washington Park is another larger work titled Fountain of Time. 

As the name suggests, this monument depicts the passage of time through a seemingly endless procession of all manner of individuals including soldiers, laborers, and even the artist himself, marching from youth to old age while across the fountain, the massive hooded figure of time is alone unmoved and unmoving.

Presented to the city in 1905, for more than a century this cement and steel-reinforced work has reminded all who gaze upon it that our time is fleeting. You may be detecting a theme or fixation in the artist’s work – the same point that Eternal Silence makes without words, The Fountain of Time drives home with a visual yell. Part of the inscription at the base of the fountain further illuminates the artist’s inspiration:

“A line by Austin Dobson had suggested the theme. Time goes you say? Ah no. Alas, time stays, we go.”

The Secret Mermaid of Burnham Park
After experiencing the existential profundity of two back-to-back sculptures by Lorado Taft I was in the mood for some something more whimsical. Hence the mermaid.

Keep in mind that not all public artwork begins with public approval or even public knowledge. The Secret Mermaid by the lake inside of Burnham Park is a prime example of this. Secretly carved in 1986 by four artists (Roman Villareal, Jose Moreno, Fred Arroyo, and Edfu Kingigna) while evading detection by the police, today the mermaid sunbathes happily atop the fish and waves chiseled into the stone that supports her.

When the work was first discovered in 2000 by the US Army Corps of Engineers during an effort to restore the shoreline, it seemed like a creative answer to the message left by the protagonist of the Shawshank Redemption for his friend, which is to say a rock that has no earthly business being there. The public was left to speculate on its origin with theories covering everything from a remnant of the World’s Colombian Exhibition to the work of a single artist working away bit by bit over the course of years.

Eventually the truth was revealed and after being locked away in storage for three years by the Park District in 2004, a group of students petitioned to have it restored and returned to its unnatural habitat. Currently you can find this lady of the lake along Oakwood Beach.

Other Public Artworks Worth Checking Out
There’s never a shortage of public artwork in and around the city to explore. If you walk across the street from Imperial Towers to Montrose beach and head south, you’ll come upon several notable works including the Kwagulth Totem Pole and Sharon Kilburg’s blue “Chevron.” If you’re up for a trip outside of the neighborhood, I highly recommend the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park and Jack Howard-Potter’s “Winged Glory” on the 4800 block of North Damen Avenue at the edge of Greek Town.

About my "Exploring Chicago" series: Chicago will always be the first city I really fell in love with. The history, the people, the food and just the feeling I had living there – it reminded me of what it means to be at home somewhere. But Jen had lived there her whole life and always wanted to move to Florida, and I agreed. After all, it’s a big world with a lot to see and maybe it’s possible to become too comfortable in one spot. So we made a bucket list of unique things we wanted to do before we left the Windy City and as a means of saying farewell to a place we loved, we devoted ourselves to getting to know it better, finding its hidden streets, its local flavor and its secret history. That urban exploration has turned into a passion that we’ve continued in Florida… but Chicago still occupies a unique place in my personal story. This series of articles allows me to share that intense curiosity and sense of wonder while adding yet one more dimension to my experience – that of fond reflection.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Seven Quotes

When I was young, the world was overflowing with secret wisdom, and everyone seemed to have some polished shard of ancient knowledge to share, from famous physicists to artists to religious and political leaders to someone you happened to sit next to on a train from 30th Street Station to Ambler. Song lyrics were scripture. I carried around a notepad and pen everywhere I went, a practice that had solidified into habit long before I became a staff writer at my college newspaper (the Michigan Daily, if you were wondering). Funny, I hadn’t thought about those scribbled notes and quotes for probably close to 30 years, but just the other week I found one at the indie flea market at Armature Works here in Tampa. It’s from Arthur C.  Clarke about technology and magic, and there it was staring me in the face from a rack full of typographic artwork – various famous quotes printed in visually interesting ways over pages from a dictionary.

I purchased it on a whim and I’m looking at it right now, as I write this. It’s just another reminder that if I’m going to chase down childhood wonder and wisdom, I need to do more than just put back on eyes I haven’t worn in a very long time, I need to revisit some small rituals that I long ago ceased observing. Collecting quotes, reciting a prayer before bed, making a wish on 11:11, avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk - you know what I mean, because you used to do it too, even if it's not something you would ever admit to anyone else.

And so I’ve been visiting the sub cellars of the mind palace, where under the layers of dust those quotes have remained as fresh as the day I first recorded them, stored in imaginary cardboard boxes alongside fifth grade science projects and cassette tapes.
Here are seven quotes that seemed most relevant to this journey and journal:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
This one is an old favorite from Arthur C. Clarke, and now a piece of typographic artwork in my small collection.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
I see this quote now frequently in the windows of boho boutiques and on hipster tee shirts, but I wonder how many recognize it as a line from the J. R. R. Tolkien poem “All that is gold does not glitter.”

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Yeates, who I like to think would appreciate my appreciation of his words and my attempt to sharpen my own sense.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.”
There’s some disagreement as to the precise origin of this quote – all I know for sure is that I heard it for the first time as a line in the film Magnolia.

“Children see magic because they look for it.”
Christopher Moore, whose books have on more than one occasion caused me to laugh out loud in crowded places, drawing quizzical glances from anyone nearby.

“Anytime you miss your friend who died, just say his name and he’ll be with you, even if he isn’t.”
Hands down, this has been the most valuable piece of wisdom I've ever received from any Chicago taxi cab driver. Like voodoo, it seems to work if you allow it to.

“Magic doesn’t come from talent, it comes from pain.”
Maybe you recognize this one from The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

Recalling these quotes have been a bit like discovering doorways to further doorways, leading me ever deeper into the vast structure I’ve imagined to house, catalog and recall my memories. Through winding, arched, cobwebbed brick tunnels illuminated by flickering torches, through secret passages I didn’t even realize that I had realized. Who knew this place had catacombs? But then, knowing the architect as I do, perhaps a better question is, how could this place not have catacombs?

Monday, July 2, 2018


Bodies of water such as lakes and oceans, according to Jungian theories, are often symbolic of the subconscious – light and images reflected off the surface while that lies below becomes progressively murkier and impenetrable. The lightless lowermost depths hold both terrors and treasures, populated (literally) by what appear to be bio-luminescent aliens, and (figuratively/symbolically) by memories and dreams.

Sometimes, either by design or by happenstance, things get dredged up from the bottom. Oarfish that show up dead on Bermuda beaches give credence to a belief in sea serpents, and personal effects from passengers aboard ships that vanished are found glistening in the sand and surf. So too memories, stirred from the Mariana Trenches of our personal histories, return to the surface.

I am thinking specifically of my love of aquariums.

When I graduated college in 1998 and moved to Seattle, I found myself needing, from time to time, a place outside of my home where I could collect my thoughts and find a source of calm during a somewhat turbulent point in my life. This led me to discover something truly marvelous – the Seattle Aquarium. Located on Pier 59 of the Elliott Bay waterfront, I discovered that watching the graceful movement of sea life put me into an almost immediately deep, trancelike state. Watching sharks and rays glide around their tanks, forests of brightly colored anemones swaying with the current, it triggered something in me. I found a little slice of aquatic nirvana, where all of the internal and external pressures in my universe melted away. 

I took this secret knowledge with me as I moved from city to city. In Chicago I visited Shedd Aquarium often. Here in Florida I’ve been to at least a dozen aquariums (my favorite of which so far has been Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota). I can sit in front of a jellyfish tank for hours, motionless, completely absorbed and unburdened by self-consciousness.

If I put any stock in astrology, I might chalk it up to my sign as a Pisces. But I don’t really subscribe to such notions (which, it should be noted, does not make me any less of a Piscean poster boy).

A number of years back I shared this with my mother, who responded with laughter. I was a little surprised (which is not to say that seemly inappropriate or incongruous responses are really all that uncommon in my family). She quickly explained that she hadn’t intended to be derisive. Rather, she asked me if I remembered the very first house I lived in, which couldn’t have been for more than the first year or two of my life. More than 40 years ago now.

I didn’t recall anything about it at all.

The reason she asked, she went on, was that, like any infant, every once in a while I would have a massive and prolonged crying fit. Nothing she did seemed to quiet me. Finally, she discovered that seating me in a stroller in front of the fish tank would cause me to go instantly silent, calmed at last by watching the fish in their tanks. Complete and utter tranquility. 

I too laughed when I heard this. I didn’t really have any other way to process this new intel. How fascinating and strange, that I should be composed of and driven not only by those things I remember from childhood, but those things even further back, forgotten fragments and vestiges of my pre-lingual world, when everything must have been a meaningless jumble of sensation. The machine language, ones and zeros, behind the very first lines of code written on the hard drive. Hello World!

The gemstone layered over and concealed by sediment at the very bottom of my private ocean. 

I think about this on the way to visit aquariums, which, as it has now been revealed, is also on the way to visit some of the first experiences meaningfully recorded by my senses. I think about it all the way up to and past the ticket counter, through the first set of interior double doors, and just up until I see the first fish tank. And then, blissfully, I think of absolutely nothing at all.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Key West Cemetery

(This piece was edited and published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The island residents are known for taking their quirky sense of humor with them to the grave.

It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people have been lain to rest in the 19-acre Key West Cemetery, more than three times the number of living residents in the island city. The cemetery was established in 1847 after a hurricane washed bodies out from their previous location, and many of the graves are above ground (similar to New Orleans) due to the high water table. Today, though, the cemetery is best known for its many unusual gravestones.

Other notable one-liners include “Jesus Christ, These People Are Horrible,” “I’m Just Resting My Eyes,” “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias,” “If You’re Reading This, You Desperately Need A Hobby,” and “I Always Dreamed Of Owning A Small Place In Key West.”Perhaps most recognized among the tombstones is that of local hypochondriac B.P. “Pearl” Roberts, which reads “I told you I was sick.” Literary references abound as well, with one tombstone reading “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish,” a reference to Douglas Adams’s book of the same name. Another reads “GROK – Look It Up,” from Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

There’s much more to the cemetery than just punchline epitaphs and conch-shaped tombstones. Key West is the final resting place of “Sloppy” Joe Russell, a well known local bar owner and fishing guide for Ernest Hemingway, as well as “general” Abe Sawyer, a famous little person who requested to be buried in the grave of a full-sized man. There are many Civil War and Spanish-American War graves, a section for Cuban freedom fighters, and a monument to the 260 sailors killed in 1898, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor.

There’s also a twisted—and true—tale of Count Carl Von Cosel, who stole and preserved the body of Elena Milagro Hoyos from the cemetery. The Count, using a combination of beeswax, silk, and makeup, was able to preserve the body, kept in a wedding dress in his bed for seven years. When the woman’s horrified and outraged family learned of it, they had Elena’s body re-interred in a secret spot where Von Cosel couldn’t find it again.

While exploring the cemetery, don’t be startled if you hear a rustling coming from just out of sight. The entire island is overrun with feral chickens, and a great many large iguanas also call the cemetery home, often sunning themselves on the stone markers during the day.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Chicago Bucket List

As I've mentioned in previous posts, when Jen and I decided to leave Chicago, we put together a list of 44 uniquely Chicago experiences we wanted to have before leaving. Some of these were things we had done before, and others were entirely new to us, spanning numerous neighborhoods and categories.

Our Chicago Bucket List as it appeared when we created it
  1. The former home of Nelson Algren: Chicago's literary history is not short on impressive names, but the first one I think of specifically in conjunction with the city itself is Algren.
  2. Wicker Park: I lived in the Wicker Park neighborhood for years and managed to never once actually visit the small park for which it's named.
  3. Nelson Algren Fountain: Inscribed with a quote from Chicago: City on the Make: "For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart.”
  4. Chicago Water Taxi: With cars, the L and the bus system, it's easy to forget about one of the city's most obvious means of transportation.
  5. Chinatown - One of Jen's selections, and something that's become a recurring theme in our adventure lists.
  6. Oz Park: One of Chicago's quirkier neighborhood parks, with statues of all the characters from The Wizard of Oz.
  7. Cafe Luigi & Toro Sushi: Two of our favorite restaurants, conveniently located side by side in Lincoln Park.
  8. Shit Fountain: One of my first finds from Atlas Obscura, I laughed when I read about this and just had to see it for myself.
  9. Greektown: I'd been here before, but it had been at least a few years, which made it a perfect date night for Jen and I.
  10. The Chicago History Museum: Another one of the City's great cultural institutions that I had never before explored.
  11. Money Museum: I probably walked past this a hundred times without ever being aware of it's existence.
  12. Graceland Cemetery: I took a tour with the inimitable Adam Selzer, after which we sought out the grave of Captain George Streeter. It was on this tour that I really understood for the first time how you can learn the entire history of a city by walking it's cemeteries. It was also here that I first encountered the work of sculptor Lorado Taft.
  13. Palmer House Hilton: In a city where almost every building downtown seems to be famous for something, this one is foremost among them. Also, allegedly, birthplace of the brownie.
  14. Chicken Vesuvio: Often mistaken for a traditional Italian dish, it's origins are actually none other than Chicago.
  15. House of Blues Gospel Brunch: Everyone knows Chicago for it's Blues, but it also has a long connection to Gospel music.
  16. Busy Beaver Button Company: Another item I found through Atlas Obscura, and one of my first tastes of the unusual collections in the city.
  17. The Untouchables Tour: a bus ride through Chicago's infamous gangland history.
  18. Carroll Ave: A street that has been literally swallowed by the city. It wasn't that hard to find, but finding it did something to me that's a bit hard to explain. It brought back to first living in the city, when every street seemed to connect to a hidden world and conceal some mystery.
  19. The Haymarket Memorial: The statue had been moved, so we had to seek this item out twice.
  20. The Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier: A most appropriate place for it, as the very first Ferris Wheel was unveiled at the Chicago World's Fair.
  21. The S.S. Eastland Memorial: Remembering the site of one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history.
  22. Volare: Our favorite local Italian restaurant and a memory of when Jen and I had just started dating.
  23. Piero's Pizza: Everyone in Chicago has their favorite place for deep dish. This is Jen's.
  24. Museum of Science and Industry: A truly extraordinary collection, including a captured WWII U-boat (U-505).
  25. Remnants of the White City: Not much remains of the city built within the city to house the Chicago World's Fair.
  26. Fountain of Time: Another sculpture by Laredo Taft. Less well known than Eternal Silence, but significantly more impressive in my opinion.
  27. The Livonian Wolves: An unusual sculpture in a small South Side park.
  28. The Art Institute of Chicago: Of all the museums and cultural attractions in the city, this was the one I came to know best.
  29. The largest corn maze in the world at Richardson Adventure Farm.
  30. Adler Planetarium
  31. Shedd Aquarium
  32. Apple Festival
  33. Lincoln Park Zoo
  34. Starved Rock
  35. Windy City Live
  36. Little Italy
  37. National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame
  38. Violet Hour Obsession
  39. Stan Mansion
  40. The hidden temple in the break room at the Field Museum
  41. The Sears Tower Glass Observation Deck
  42. The Burnham Park Mermaid
  43. Navy Pier Haunted House
  44. The Obama Kissing Rock
We've made it through item number 28, and we'll continue to chip away each time we return for a visit. It may take us some time, but then, isn't that why it's called a bucket list?

Of the items on the list, it's hard to say which was my favorite or which had the most profound effect on me. The process of researching and then exploring each item has changed the way I get to know a place, making even old haunts suddenly and surprisingly new. My intention was to create a list diverse enough to be representative of the city, and in that respect I think Jen and I succeeded. We got outside of our comfort zone (which is to say the 15 city blocks between where we lived and worked), and what started, for me, as a farewell exercise has become a passion. When I'm not working these days, you can typically find me seeking out whatever is unusual or unique about my surroundings. Or writing about it.

Our Chicago Bucket List as it looks presently

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Three Years, Eleven Days

That's how long you've been gone now, old friend. In that time Jen and I have moved to a new city, I've become a dog owner and the country has elected not just a new president but an entirely new type of president (America's first modern strongman is about the most diplomatic way I can think to put it). I imagine what you would say about all of this. I keep you with me as I write this, as I try to recount and recapture so many of the times that mattered most in making us. Your epilogue has become the prologue for readers here, and in such a manner your story continues. Maybe not directly, but as a root cause and driving force, as catalyst, in my current exploration. And so I've decided to share the hardest thing I've written thus far - in doing so, making our shared history opensource. I like to think you would appreciate that.

Remembering Steve

In the movie “Almost Famous,” the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who also left the world too soon, in character as Lester Bangs tells us, “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.” If that’s true, than Steven and I were like the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet of our childhood world. We were epically uncool. And this is before being uncool became cool, before it was ok to have a 20-sided die in your pocket at all times, or collect comics, or sit up in your room late into the night playing computer games like Zork and Loderunner or committing cheesy horror and sci-fi movies to memory, or writing and publishing zines. Back when we did these things they were not cool. They were more like a recipe for being insulted, getting a wedgie and sometimes having your lunch money pounded out of you. But even as introverts and outsiders, the one spot of redemption was that we had each other to share and endure the ordeal with.

We went to Bluebell day camp together where we both dreaded any sort of athleticism. When it came to baseball, I was the chubby kid, slow, an easy out at first. And Steve, he was the strikeout king – possessed, quite possibly, of the worst eye-hand coordination of any adolescent I’ve ever known. But one day, when all the outfielders had come in close, I remember hearing the crack of his bat, finally connecting with the ball as he drilled it way out over center field. Home run material, a triple at least. Once it sunk in, Steve dropped his bat, looked at all the stunned faces on both teams… and promptly ran the wrong way, from home plate to third base. And that right there is as perfect a snapshot of our childhood together as I can think of.

Without Steve, almost half of my own childhood vanishes. We came of age together, had dual residency in each other’s households, we would talk on the phone or push through the thin strip of woods that separated our developments to stay at each other’s houses, sharing our hopes and writings, our fears and visions of the future, of what we would become. And now we have, I became a small business owner, married, living in Chicago, and Steve found his confidence and the realization of his passions in family, as a devoted father and husband. Every time we spoke, he would talk to me about Benjamin or Rafi’s latest artworks or antics, about Benay’s love and support. He grew from an awkward and shy kid into a profoundly thoughtful and sensitive family man in a world that frankly seems to place too little value on such things. Whenever I was down, defeated, whenever I fell short of my often delusional grand plans and designs, he was the guy that reminded me, sometimes being a truly good person is a far more meaningful and important aspiration than being a great one.

We went from being childhood best friends to being that person for each other that you call in the middle of the night when you need to talk to someone who doesn’t just know you, but who knows every iteration of you that you’ve ever been. The inside jokes, the day camp memories, first relationships and breakups, bar mitzvahs and weddings, high school and college graduations, the words of encouragement to keep writing, keep being creative, and the visits we made across cities to see each other over the years. All of these moments somehow both remain and depart with him. One side of our late night conversations fallen silent.

It seems right to close with another quote from a movie. It’s from “Stand by Me,” which I remember watching with Steve for the first time from the beige couch in his parent’s family room. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”