Friday, November 1, 2019

Exploring Chicago: Epiphany on Carroll Ave.

There are places where the city shares its own secret language with who know how to seek it out.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the process of saying good by to my childhood friend, Steve, and the process of saying goodbye to the city of Chicago became inseparably intertwined for me. As I committed myself to better knowing one (the city), at the same time I committed myself to better remembering the other. More than once I called his cell phone to try and memorize the voice I'd known for most of my life, a voice that I can still recall as I write this, but one that sadly I will not hear again. It was his voice I imagined with me as I made up my list of Chicago places and activities.

I set out to discover the place I'd been living. I chuckled when I went to visit Shit Fountain, and I was fascinated when Jen and I went to visit the button museum, but I wasn't truly or fundamentally altered until I walked Carroll Ave.

Visiting Carroll Ave. seems like such a simple task - it's just a street after all. You can spot it easily enough on old printed maps, google maps or any GPS system. But when you try to find it, even when you seem to be right there on top of it, you likely won't see any sign of it.

And that's because you are, literally, right there on top of it.

You see, the story of Chicago is one of buildings reaching ever higher, one alongside and on top of the next, ever upward into the sky. Which means that walkways and bridges and streets needed to be built up as well. Such is the case with Carroll Ave. from which one could, once upon a time, look up from and see the sun. Now however, looking up from Carroll Street, you'll only see the bottoms of shoes and the tires of cars through grates as they pass above you - completely unaware of your presence. The street has been devoured completely by the city and reborn as a secret subterranean tunnel.

To get there I went down an elevator to the Marina along the Chicago River - but rather than stop in to examine the boats, I kept walking and found myself in a long, dingy passageway. There were train tracks that had fallen into disuse. I passed the lower entryway to the House of Blues, and I continued walking until I was directly under the Merchandise Mart.

It felt like being one of the Goonies, discovering a wishing well from the bottom; as if, at any moment, I might stumble over the remains of Chester Copperpot or some similarly hapless explorer who had come this far, but no farther. It was a place I'd passed or walked over hundreds of times, but never once even wondered how anyone would get down there. Thus I had my first real taste of the vaguely subversive pleasure that is urban exploration. Carroll Ave was my invitation and indoctrination into a quasi-secret second city. A second, Second City, if you will. Clive Barker's Midian.

I could imagine Steve's presence there with me, just over my shoulder. Would he have had the foresight to tell me that this was what I loved and what I had been seeking without realizing it? Would he have seen the words as they formed, what was to be my newest iteration of self? It wouldn't surprise me - he usually grasped such things before I did. He knew me at least as well as I did, but without the subjective baggage and blindness.

I circled back and took a ramp back up into the daylight. I was on LaSalle Street. And I realized I'd looked at that very ramp so many times before without really once ever seeing it. It was the city's own form of steganography - hiding there in plain sight, a message to its inhabitants, and I was seeing it for the first time.

From that point forward I began to notice doors and stairways that seemed to lead to nowhere; windows where there was no logical reason for them to be. It opened my eyes at last to the place I was leaving and to all places I've visited since, making new those places I'd been before and making sacred those places to which I was new.

And it brought me back to one specific time when my friend Steve and I were no more than thirteen years old in the late summer afternoon sunlight and dust choked shadows of a barn loft where we witnessed something that made us pause and ask each other, did we just see that?

Was that, just maybe...


Saturday, October 26, 2019

Edgar Degas House

Halloween is a fun and fascinating time to visit any city in America, but it seems especially well suited to the Crescent City, which knows perhaps better than any other how to don wild costumes and throw a memorable party. Two years ago this week, Jen and I had the exceedingly good fortune to stay at the Edgar Degas House and it set the tone for what remains one of our favorite trips together. 

(The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The only home of the famous French impressionist painter open to the public is now a museum and bed and breakfast. 

Edgar Degas, born in France in 1834, is known around the world for his Impressionist masterpieces. Less well known is the short, but critical, period of five months from 1872 to 1873 that he spent at the Creole estate of his mother’s family in New Orleans.

Degas’s mother died when he was a child, but he still had family in New Orleans, including his uncle, his brother René, and René’s wife Estelle, who had begun by this time to go blind (a fear that haunted Degas for the rest of his life).

During his visit with his family, Degas produced 22 paintings, including “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” which depicted the work of his uncle Michael Musson and was the first of his paintings (and the first by any Impressionist) to be purchased by a museum. He also painted a number of portraits of his relatives, and it was during this time that he began to explore a looser style of painting that would evolve into what we think of as Impressionism.

The home he stayed in was built in 1852 by developer and architect Benjamin Rodriguez as one of the original homes in the Esplanade Ridge Neighborhood. Wealthy Creole families like the Mussons composed of many new residents in the city, which experienced a boom prior to the Civil War. Following Degas’s visit, René’s business collapsed, plunging the family deep into debt and the Musson home was torn apart, first figuratively when René left his wife for a close friend of the family, and then literally in the 1920s when the main house was cut in half with one wing moved 20 feet to the side, thereby creating two residences.

Today, both halves of the house have been reunited under the ownership of Degas’s relatives and Musson descendants. A major restoration was performed on the main house, which now serves as a bed and breakfast, while the other portion, which contained Degas’s studio and bedroom, has been restored to the way it would have looked during his visit.

A visit to the museum includes a documentary video with historical details on both the family and the artworks that Degas created while in New Orleans. The museum, breakfast, and mimosas are all complementary if you happen to be staying as a guest.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Autumnal Magic

Since childhood, October has always been my favorite month of the year.

All months, all seasons have their unique qualities, but October is the one for me. Of course, it all culminates with Halloween – our reinterpretation of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people wore masks and disguises to ward off ghosts and spirits. It was though that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was thinnest at this time, making it possible to pass through like simple diffusion through a cell membrane. Not even Pope Gregory the Third’s designation of November 1st as All Saints Day could succeed in dispelling the underlying pagan pageantry of it.

There’s magic in change, a reason that solstices and equinoxes mean something powerful in myth and older religions. And fall in the northeastern US is particular visually stunning as the leaves let out their collective final scream in shades of red and brown and orange. In the northeastern suburbs of Philadelphia, I remember it being always the first month where it became cold enough to see your own breath. The first month when the setting of the sun became noticeably earlier. The first month for wearing gloves.

A time for conjuration. For necromancy. The autumn leaves, the bare tree branches and the raising of the dead, were forever bound together for me the first time I saw a particular painting by TSR artist Jeff Easley.

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Nobody brings the undead to life like Jeff Easley.

I have good memories of October and Halloween.

On Sundays, my dad and I would watch football together, although I didn't really follow it. For me, it was all about the "Creature Double Feature" that would follow the games - old campy black and white horror films with Boris Karloff or Vincent Price or sometimes Godzilla movies (for the record, I always assumed that Creature Double Feature referred to some specific two-headed monster). My dad always pronounced Dracula with an extra "r" so it became "Dracular."

Then there was Shawn, who lived in the house on the corner of my street. He was a few years older and I thought he was the coolest. His older sister, Haley, baby sat sometimes for my sister and I, so we were young. I was maybe seven at the time. The first Halloween I remember Shawn gave me a set of glow in the dark stickers of the faces of the classic movie monsters – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf-man. I remember staying up late that night after trick or treating to watch scary movies in what used to be my father’s old den. I watched Silver Bullet based on “Cycle of the Werewolf” by Stephen King and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing starring Kurt Russel. It was the best kind of terror – the kind you can hide under your sheets from and make disappear. As I got older I loved horror movies – Steve and I would rent a couple almost every weekend of the school year. The original Nightmare on Elm Street series, Ghost Story, The Stuff, Return of the Living Dead, those were just a few of them. As we got older we would make more elaborate and monstrous costumes. By middle school his favorite was a cloaked skeleton costume and my preferred mask was of a fanged horror. I remember when I put it on there was the strong scent of rubber and it would become oppressively hot after just a few minutes as it filled with my own breath. When I took it off the sweat on my forehead felt good in the brisk night air.

I thought it was a lost pleasure, but New Orleans brought back a taste of it when Jen and I visited a couple years ago. Halloween was the perfect time to go – we came for the Voodoo Music Festival and stayed through the 31st. New Orleans seems to do Halloween pretty much year round. Where the gates of Guinee are perpetually at least partly ajar while Papa Legba and his fellow loa MC the endless night party. If you believe in such things, of course.

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The tomb of "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau

This year Jen and I joined various groups of paranormal hunters at Summerseat Mansion in Morrisville, PA. I was more interested in the history – two signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution lived there (Morris and Clymer). George Washington spent a pivotal week there, where he allegedly made the decision to attack Trenton, thereby changing the tide of the revolutionary war. Two British spies were said to have been held there briefly before their execution. If ever there was a historic home worthy of haunting, it would be this one. But I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief. The dancing lights of the various hunters' EMF devices seemed more like a nice visual effect than a message from the other side. The static on the EVP sessions seemed more likely to have come from the bonfire party going on across the street. The rattling, thumping and clanking noises, nothing more than water pipes.

Inside historic Summerseat Mansion for a paranormal investigation.

After just a couple hours Jen and I wandered outside. It was cold and dry. For me, it was refreshing – something I’ve missed living in Florida, although not as much as I thought I would. Jen felt no such nostalgia.

“Want to get out of here?” I asked.

She nodded vigorously. “Eastern State Penitentiary would have been better,” she frowned.

So, it seems, this October some portals have thus far remained closed to us. We’ll keep looking though. There may be magic and wonder and spirits yet to be uncovered, but we didn’t find any residing this autumn at Summerseat.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Exploring Florida: Three Sisters (and Two Cousins)

Cities as siblings.

In the three years now that Jen and I have lived in Tampa, I’ve struggled to understand and define its relationship with the adjacent cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater. My latest attempt at comprehension entails putting it into a familial context, as three sisters.

Tampa is the oldest, and most grounded. A bit of a cigar-smoking tomboy who grew up playing with trucks and frequenting strip joints with pirates, she’s turned out to be resourceful, reliable and resilient, even if she’s never quite been able to get that old criminal record expunged entirely. She’s got intelligence of the practical, actionable type. Even if she’s not most stunningly beautiful of the three, she is unquestionably the one you will call when your car breaks down. Or if, late at night, you find yourself needing to dispose of a body.

St. Petersburg is the middle sister that left home to get an education – specifically an undergraduate degree in musical theater, a Masters in Fine Art and most of a Ph.D. in Religious Studies (one of these days she'll finish that doctoral thesis on how geographic location and topography impact belief systems). You want to talk abstract art, literature, punk rock, craft beer, famous muralists or pretty much anything culturally significant, she’s your gal. The downside? Predictably, she’s got a bit of a thing for hipsters.

That makes Clearwater, city of star worshipers (of which the sun in our own solar system is just one popular option), the youngest. The prettiest of the three, but also the flightiest. Last week she was into astrology, phrenology and tarot, before that it was numerology, and as we speak she’s out on the beach with a metal detector looking for buried treasure. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, but just keep in mind that if you're joining her for dinner or drinks be prepared to have your birth constellation charted in detail.

The analogy could end there, but let’s extend it to include the Broadway cousin, Orlando/Celebration. She’s kind of a big deal these days and getting bigger all the time. It might be due to her insatiable appetite - after consuming both the Marvel and Lucas universes, she’s still hungry. As she expands, day by day, mile by mile, she’s getting closer and closer to her cousins until eventually, one assumes, she’ll be living right next door. 

There's also the quiet, understated cousin to the south, Sarasota. She ran off to join the circus as at a young age but has since become surprisingly sophisticated. Quiet but articulate, when she speaks it's more because she has something to say than to hear her own voice. You've got to scratch the surface to get to know her, but it's worth the effort.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Digging for Fire

Yes, this is the obligatory "musical episode."

I was part of the generation that grew up making mix tapes on cassettes - for friends, for myself, Steven and I even put one in our own private time capsule when we were kids. Consequently, almost every experience since then is connected for me to some song or album. Carpooling over the summers to Blue Bell day camp, I can hear "Invisible Touch" by Genesis issuing out from the speakers in the back seat of Dave's beat up car (the speaker on the driver's side was better). First crush - Crowded House. Teenage bus trip through the southwestern US - the Doors and Aerosmith. My teen later teen years - mostly punk rock and alternative. Designing and writing various zines - the Pixies, Bad Religion, Jane's Addiction and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Driving from Philadelphia to Seattle after graduating from the University of Michigan - Third Eye Blind's self titled album. My first year in Chicago - Dubnobasswithmyheadman by the Underworld. My brief return to suburban  Philadelphia - White Ladder by David Grey. My wedding - "More than This" by Roxy Music. And so on and so forth.

Having come lately and late to a passion for not just seeing and passing through but discovering my surroundings, it stands to reason that I'd eventually tie it back to music. My playlist has been a carefully curated selection of both memories I have and memories that I want to have - it's like selecting the right brush for the background of an oil painting or the right setting for a ghost story you're telling.

This particular playlist is almost two years old now, and it's served me well as the backdrop for the long drives that Jen and I and Tink have taken from Tampa as far south as the Keys and as far north as Atlanta and Savannah. We're planning a trip all the way to Philly now, so it's probably the right time to retire this particular list, but I thought I'd share it with and include a bit of commentary.

Josh's Exploration Playlist:

1) Dig for Fire by the Pixies - Isn't that after all, precisely what I'm doing? Seeking passion, seeking something that will move me, reconnecting with that elusive sense of wonder and awe? As an added benefit, when I hear this song, I think of working on the first couple issues of Driftwood magazine with Steve and Geoff.

2) Intro by The xx - The first time I heard this song Jen and I were visiting Tampa (prior to moving there), sitting at a table outside of Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe. When it came on, I thought it was maybe a song by The Cure with which I was unfamiliar, but I couldn't find it. Later, when it appeared in one of the first few episodes of The Magicians (when Julia is on her way to meet with the hedge witches), I was able to identify it. It is, for me, the sound of opening doors to hidden realms.

3) Lonesome Dreams by Lord Huron - A more recent discovery of mine, their music seems designed for exploring strange, wondrous and haunted places.

4) People Are Strange by Echo & The Bunnymen - do you recall the opening scenes of Lost Boys, when the family is relocating to the town of Santa Carla in California, while the camera pans past a menagerie of odd and uninviting characters along the way? I do.

5) Seven Wonders by Fleetwood Mac - Rather on the nose, this particular selection. I am convinced however, that it pairs perfectly with standing in front of the Buckner Mansion in New Orleans (the setting for American Horror: Coven).

6) Fascination Street by The Cure - Ever since I was a teenager hearing this for the first time, it is to my ears the sound of magic; the denizens of some secret, hidden world coming out into the night.

7) Africa by Toto - This song is just one of the many things we have Stranger Things to thank for reminding us of. As a kid I remember listening to with my mom in her car.

8) Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo - Quirky and endearingly off-kilter with just a dash of creepy. If a fiji mermaid and a wind-up monkey with cymbals and a dia de los muertos bobble head doll all got together and started a band, this seems like the kind of song I would expect them to produce.

9) Cities in Dust by Siouxsie & The Banshees - I challenge anyone to find a more appropriate song for exploring ruins and ghost towns than this one about Pompeii.

10) Humans from Earth by T Bone Burnett - From the Soundtrack of the Wim Wenders film, Until the End of the World. The twangy guitar sounds like something you might hear along the Mississippi delta, but the lyrics are about humanity's less than well intention colonization of space - creating a rather unique juxtaposition. It reminds me of all the movies I watched with friends in high school, and, at the same time, to be respectful as I travel and investigate lands that once belonged to others.

11) Pinch Me by Barenaked Ladies - Catchy and a bit goofy, but I am indeed trying to achieve that personal escape velocity and see the world beyond my front door.

12) Secret Journey by The Police - The journey of the mystic - it makes me think of the main character from the Razor's Edge trying to achieve enlightenment studying with Tibetan monks. While my own journey is far less secret, my objective is, in many respects, the same.

13) Building a Mystery by Sarah McLachlan - One of Jen's favorites on my playlist, about carefully crafting a mysterious, if disingenuous image.

14) Renegades by X Ambassadors - I guess you know you're getting old when you start finding new music by listening to car commercials. Be that as it may, I came to like this song so much that I incorporated it into a draft of my first full (unpublished) novel.

15) Walking On a Dream by Empire of the Sun - Another fairly recent discovery that seems to capture how I often feel on my "adventure days."

16) To the Shock of Miss Louise - Another selection from the Lost Boys Soundtrack. Given how much time I've spent at circus museums, carnivals and abandoned amusement parks, the creepy Wurlitzer carousel music just seems to work.

17) Carnival by Natalie Merchant - Seems a logical continuation of the amusement park theme.

18) Crawling on the Dark by Hoobastank

19) I Will Follow You Into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie - I first came across this song while looking for music for my wedding, and it stayed with me ever since.

20) Song of the Stars by Dead Can Dance - If there is a song that is more on point for exploring Tocobaga and Calusa shell mounds, I have yet to hear it.

21) Across the Universe by Jim Sturgess

22) World in My Eyes by Depeche Mode

23) Going South by the Monks of Doom

24) I Have the Moon by Lush

25) Soul to Squeeze by Red Hot Chili Peppers

26) Don't Stop Now by Crowded House

27) Very Cruel by POLICA

28) How Bizarre by OMC

29) Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf) by Pixies - the slowed down version that I remember from the old Christian Slater movie "Pump up the Volume."

30) Lonely Planet by The The - "I'm in love with the planet I'm standing on." Confessional, bittersweet, redemptive and just plain beautiful, in my humble opinion.

31) Ceremony by New Order

32) Pork and Beans by Weezer

33) Wandering Star by Portishead - A bit darker turn musically. Pairs nicely with a visit to The Seance Room at Muriel's in New Orleans.

33) Somewhere Only We Know by Keane

34) Meet Me In the Woods by Lord Huron

35) Digging In the Dirt by Peter Gabriel

36) Mmm...Skyscraper I Love You by Underworld - More of an urban exploration tune. Pairs well with architectural wonders and towers - unexpected beauty out of industrialization, conjured from steel, concrete and glass.

37) So Real by Jeff Buckley - "...And the wind blew an invocation, I fell asleep at the gate..."

Grave of William and Nancy Ashley

(This piece is pending publication on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

A monument to love and devotion that transcends class, race and death itself.

Within Oaklawn Cemetery, Tampa’s oldest public burial ground (established in 1850 “for whites & slaves alike”) visitors can find a plethora of fascinating monuments and tombstones, including those of Tampa’s first mayor, veterans of seven different wars, a Florida governor, cigar magnate Vicente Martinez-Ybor, pirates, pioneer priests, yellow fever victims and more, but the grave of one “Master and Servant” stands out above the rest.

William Ashley was a prominent white City Clerk and civic leader who moved to Tampa from Virginia in 1837 with his black servant Nancy. While they maintained the appearance of this relationship to the public, their shared tombstone made clear to the world that behind closed doors they preferred to live outside the law as husband and wife. The inscription on their tombstone reads:

Here lies Wm. and Nancy Ashley Master and Servant Faithful to each other in that relation In life in death they are not separated Stranger consider and be wiser In the grave all human distinction of race or cast mingle together  in one common dust.”

Some claim that their spirits still roam the graveyard, earthbound by their fidelity to each other. Most visitors, however, find their final message of love and tolerance haunting enough without involving the supernatural.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

A True Seattle Ghost Story

Greetings friends, it's been a while since my last post, but I've got plenty to share here in the coming days, not least of which is my deal with Reedy Press to author "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure." More on that later - for now please enjoy a Halloween throwback to the dreary and haunted year I spent living in Seattle.

A True Seattle Ghost Story

Seattle is a pretty strange city – it's really more of a small pacific town that woke up one morning and discovered hi-tech startup companies, sky scrapers, a population boom and MTV camera crews in its midst. But the city has retained its secret underground nature, literally. The original city was burned in a fire circa 1900, and since the city had been built too close to the water, rather than relocate it further up the hill, which would have been, perhaps a more rational solution, the hill was blasted and brought down to the water. The new city was built atop the old – what used to be ground floors became cellars, and what used to be cellars became sub cellars, thus spawning from almost its inception a vast network of lightless underground passageways, connecting building like a network of veins pumping unseen shadows through the organs of the city. The secret heart of Seattle, still beating to the pulse of hard house DJs spinning in backrooms and basements, under the endless folds in the pitch black cloak of Seattle night.

It's the kind of city that'll flash you a coy, waitstaff smile and wink while you eat French toast and Applewood smoked bacon over brunch and write an address on the back of the bill for you. So you show up late that night, navigating the labyrinth of back streets and alleys - the cracks between buildings, seeking out the whispered promise of some secret, sexy smoke-filled strobe-lit after-hours club of swank urban adventure. But you find yourself jumped by thugs in the alley, gut punched and mugged. No sweet sensual smiles or tongues gliding soft and alluringly over full ruby lips from across the bar for you. Instead you're vomiting up that morning's French toast on the asphalt, doubled over in pain, cradling your fractured ribs, with your vision tear-blurred while some punks run off with your wallet.

Suffice it to say, Seattle is tender and sinister, sexy and tough all at once. And most of all, it's the sort of town where few things are ever quite what they seem…

I was living in one of the most spectacular apartments I'd ever seen. I had a decent job over the bridge in Redmond. But all was not well. The rains and gloom had settled in, and Amanda and I had gone our separate ways for good.

Now, I should say right off the bat that I don't believe in ghosts. As much as I like a good horror movie and as many times as I've watched X-files reruns, it all just seems a bit far-fetched. Don't get me wrong, there are things that I won't ever be able to explain rationally (and generally I don't try to), but all the same I tend to file supernatural spirits in the cabinet somewhere between voodoo hexes and the Easter Bunny.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the place I lived may have been haunted. It certainly looked the part. From outside on the sidewalk, it had the malevolent splendor of a Gothic cathedral or keep. It still stands on the corner of East Roy and Broadway, if you're familiar with the area. With several unique design features, it was the brainchild of Annholt – a west coast designer of some renown. He was fabled to have spent his final days in the building, which was originally intended as a luxury hotel back in 1927, finally passing on from his ground floor apartment – like my own.

Complete with stained-glass windows, a wildly verdant courtyard, spires, spiral staircases, creaky hardwood floors, arched hallways with torch-like light fixtures and cavernous, cobwebbed underground passages behind wrought iron gates, the only things missing were gargoyles – sinister gray stone sentries perched on the rooftops, and a Lestat type vampire from one of Ann Rice's novels to lord over the estate. It was as beautiful to behold as it was daunting, and sometimes flat-out creepy, to live in alone.

When I shared the apartment with Amanda, it wasn't uncommon for me to have an elbow jab me in the chest, a small hand clamp over my mouth and a quite, shaken voice ask me, "hey, did you hear that? Did you see something move?"

At 4:20 AM and fast asleep just seconds before, I it was hard enough to remember my own name, let alone what phantasmal happenings I might or might not have been seeing and hearing. So we huddled close, her nails digging into my arms and wrists, waiting for odd sounds or flickering lights and shadows.

But, as I mentioned, Amanda had moved out and the only ghost still haunting the apartment was the specter of my recently-failed relationship. I was still a stranger in a strange town of strangers far stranger than I. So after work, when I would arrive back at my apartment at hours that now confound my mind, I found myself in the habit of lulling myself off into dreamless oblivion with a quick shot of Basil Hayden. Okay, maybe two shots, but only on the nights that were really rough for me.

It was on an October night early in three rainy season – which seemed to last two or three seasons that year, setting a new record for consecutive days of rain. I'd had my nightcap and was sitting quite content on my black and gold futon, looking out into the courtyard when I heard it. Faint and distant at first, it was almost inaudible over the staccato patter of rain against the stone walkway and leaves outside.


Maybe just the rain, I thought. Or may be some misheard snippet of a heated quarrel between the gay couple that lived next-door that had the unfortunate habit of getting into screaming matches at odd hours. But the tone was wrong for one of their pitched battles – mournful and sullen, not angry. And there was no lisp.


There it was again, unmistakable and much closer this time. It emanated from the center of the courtyard. It was a high, thin, quivering woman's voice, at just that pitch that sets your skin crawling and spikes your veins with shards of ice. Like some restless soul, pining for a lost lover. But from my view, all I could see the endless, soggy mist and rain casting halos around the few lights on the ground, partially obscured by vegetation.

Too curious now to ignore the voice, I pressed my face against the window, my breath fogging the pane.


I shot back from the glass, imagining myself almost able to feel and see the window vibrating from the sound waves. There I was, staring into the very space from which the voice originated. But all I saw was nothing. A disembodied voice, inches from my face.

I looked down at the bottle I was holding (actually, clutching, to be precise), promptly put it back in the kitchen cabinet, turned the lock and threw the key into a far corner.

And being the intrepid and courageous fellow that I am, I bravely retreated to the bedroom, pulled the sheets up over my head, vowing to spend more time outside of my apartment and in the company of others, while I waited for the voice to dissipate and for sleep to rescue me.

Which it did. Eventually.

And the pale light of the sun cast a murky light over Seattle the next day. Life went on, much as it always had. I managed to chalk the whole thing up to bad bourbon and loneliness-induced hallucination. Faced with the choice of accepting the possibility of ghosts or just losing my mind, I opted for the latter.

After a while I forgot about it. There were people to meet and lines of html code to check for errors. There was a life to build, and I applied myself to the task with a vengeance. Slowly all the specters,  real, imagined and self-created, faded into the background and dissipated like vapor in the wind.

Until, of course, it happened again.

After months, I had decided that it was safe once more to unlock the liquor cabinet and resume my occasional nocturnal ritual. It was near midnight, and now towards the end of the rainy season when I heard it again – slowly growing in volume and proximity. A crescendo from some nightmare choir song.


Electric blue shivers wracked all the nerves in my shoulders and spine. Every follicle of hair on my head and neck stood on end. That heartbreaking, lost voice without a body. And now it had reached the center of the courtyard again.


Now, last time I'd chosen flight over fight, which hadn't seemed to have done a whole lot of good. This time I decided to try a new tactic. I went to the closet, tossing aside pinstriped business suits and tee shirts until I found what I was searching for. My Louisville Slugger. Because everyone knows that no spirit or demon can possibly withstand the awesome might of a baseball bat – it's like a silver bullet doused in holy water, right? Okay, so my weapon of choice left a little bit to be desired, but it was going to have to do the trick.

I threw my robe on over my boxers and went around to the front door, bat gripped so tightly in my hands that my knuckles had turned bone white. I drew a deep breath and swung open the thick wooden door. The bat heavy, but something short of reassuring in my hands.

"Who the hell is out there?" I bellowed into the darkness, catching a face full of rain.

No response at first. I yelled again. And then, from the bushes right under my windowsill there was a rustling. Here it is, I thought, this is the part where Josh gets torn limb from limb by the talon-like, grave-stained fingernails of the ravenous dead in Seattle. I wondered briefly if my insurance policy covered this.

But instead of a horrid apparition, a pale, frail looking girl raised her head. Her blond hair was rain-matted against her face and cheeks. She looked at me with terror-widened green eyes, so timid that she looked like she was about to burst into tears.

"I'm… I'm so sorry," she stammered. "I was looking for my ferret, Sunny." I felt my death-grip loosen around the baseball bat as I stopped shaking. I began to chuckle. Then laugh hysterically. The bat clattered to the floor as I almost doubled over with laughter.

"God, you scared the hell out of me," I told her between fits of laughter.

Feeling a bit awful that I had nearly beaten to a pulp some innocent young woman, I invited her into the apartment. It turned out that there was a small hole right under my window which her pet ferret had a propensity for crawling into during heavy rain showers. Under any other circumstances, knowing that some slinky, elongated rodent was running around in the cellar beneath me wouldn't have exactly qualified as a relief, but it was definitely an improvement over the undead roaming the courtyard.

She eventually found her ferret and made her way home. I actually became friendly with her and her husband, sharing a laugh over beers and barbecues about how I had nearly taken a swing at her.

But that's Seattle for you; it's the sort of town where few things are ever quite what they seem…

Especially the ghosts.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Exploring the Future: Journey to the Shrine of the Mouse God

Journey to the Shrine of the Mouse God

“Well,” Glen said gleefully after scanning the oxygen levels in Jeth’s blood, “looks like it’s time for another trip down.”

Jeth zipped up his dive suite, activated the automatic compression and suction functions and then plunged into the water behind Glen, who had as little need for a suit as he did for a cooling off period between dives. While not by nature given to contemplating other possible futures, as Jeth watched Glen’s webbed hands and feet propel him effortlessly through the water, Jeth couldn’t help wonder what it might have been like to have chosen a career as a diver and been fitted with the same top of the line genetic mods as Glen – gills, salinity monitors and filtration, temperature regulation, and most noticeably, the detachable dorsal fin connected to his T7 vertebrae. But Jeth had chosen for his primary the path of an objective reporter, so all his mods (also top of the line) were related to storing, editing and transmitting data. Considerably less sexy, he frowned. As they sank into the lightless depths Jeth pondered the possibility that his fascination was bordering into something else – envy perhaps?

As they made their way lower the beams of artificial light revealed various ruined structures, the curves and loops of corroded and barnacle encrusted steel. The skeletons of civilization, from the first global era.

“As you can see,” Glen projected through his Psy Comm, “This was clearly a structure of some importance and prominence.” He gestured towards the ruined spires of a castle, which seemed impractical for either defense or occupation.

They swam in silence for a bit until they came upon a massive dome that looked like the cracked egg of some sea creature.

“What, exactly, was this place?” Jeth projected back.

“First era religious site, near as anyone can tell. Families from all countries would take their children here on a pilgrimage to the palace of the mouse god.”

“But I thought most first era religions, certainly all of those practiced in the former Union, were monotheistic?”

“Ahh,” Greg responded, “precisely why this site is so… fascinating. While they were primarily monotheistic, it appears that there were dozens of minor pantheons. You’ve got the epic heroic literature, of course, the bat, the spider, the iron suit, and so forth. But here you have a massive complex – multiple complexes, actually, devoted to an entirely different set of animistic deities.”

Jeth gathered as much information as he could – from the temperature of the water to the depths to the chemical composition and map of the structures. He tried briefly to imagine what it would have been like when it was dry and traffic consisted of petromobiles rather than schools of fish.

Jeth took his time, knowing that the window was quickly closing. Once the storms set in, it would be at least another nine months, if he was lucky, before he’d be able to explore the area again. Once he’d had his fill, he projected to Glenn. “Let’s head up, I want to parse this.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Don's Existential Dilemma

“… so the only real question, the most critical question…,” Don leaned in close, almost conspiratorially, for emphasis, “is do you choose to taste the Strawberries?”

I should back up from the table at Cava Java in Ann Arbor some twenty some years ago, where I was meeting for an independent study project on existential literature with my mentor and friend Don. He was the last in a long chain of sympathetic and philosophically aligned instructors and professors, each one directing me to the next like stops along some sort of underground railroad towards a degree.

The question he posed about the strawberries though, that was the key for him. I could tell by the way his dark eyes gleamed. It cast light on Don himself, who was maybe in his mid 30's at the time - younger than I am today. As an avowed hedonist, Don's answer to the dilemma he presented was fairly simple to discern. That theoretical dilemma went something like this:

Imagine for a moment that you’re camping somewhere remote. Suddenly, a tiger comes out of nowhere, sees you and starts to charge. It’s herding you up a steep incline and at the very top, there’s a sheer drop. You climb over the ledge and hold onto a handful of roots growing out of the side of the cliff face, but your hands start to slip and the roots are brittle. It won’t hold you for long.

At the bottom of the cliff happens to be a snarling, fire-breathing dragon, waiting to devour you the moment you slip. No way up and no way down. You’re doomed, with minutes, maybe just seconds left. Yet from the side of the cliff there’s a patch of wild strawberries growing. They’re perfectly ripe and ready for plucking.

So with the few remaining moments you have, do you savor the sweetness of the strawberries?

That’s Don’s dilemma, quite possibly his last and most enduring gift to me (although, to be accurate, it didn't actually originate with him - it's a zen story/meditation popularized by D.T. Suzuki). After more than a decade, I’ve come back to it time and time again, turning it over endlessly in the palm of my mind’s hand, like a rare coin.

My first reaction was no, of course not. Denial. I’d try to figure out some way out. There has to be a solution, right? I’d dig my fingers into some kind of a hold, I’d find a way to hang on longer. I’d struggle. I’d fight it tooth and nail. Like James T. Kirk, I’d bend the rules if I had to and find some way out of the Kobayashi Maru.

But that was a young man’s reaction, and while that person may still be standing over a philosophical cliff somewhere, the person I am now left that whole continent a long time ago. I've long since consumed enough bitterness to appreciate the value of the sweetness of a wild strawberry.

So resignation then? There were times when I thought, sure, why not? Enjoy the little time remaining and maybe even get a laugh at the absurdity of it. Enjoy the simple and unexpected pleasure before you instead of squandering those last moments trying to avoid the inevitable? No escape, but hey, here’s a patch of strawberries for you. That was Don’s answer, of course. To go proudly off into the next world, mouth stuffed to overflowing with the sticky sweetness.

It took me a long while to find my own answer, but I have it now. I know exactly what I would do with whatever time was left to me. It would be, of course, that one thing I always come back to. The only thing in my universe over which I've ever had complete control.

I’d grab a bunch of those strawberries and squeeze the juice from them until I had enough makeshift ink. And then I’d write something.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Witches' Tree

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

Locals place their offerings on this nightmarish gnarled tree so the witches won't summon another storm.

If you’ve walked past the corner of Sixth Street and Park Ave in Louisville, you’ve probably seen what can only be described as a natural monstrosity—a tree so knotted, tortured, and misshapen that it could easily serve as a portal to the underworld in a Tim Burton film.

Even if the tree didn’t resemble something from a nightmare landscape, all of the trinkets, baubles, and bead necklaces hanging from the branches would make it impossible to miss. They were placed there by locals to appease the vengeful witches.

According to local lore, in the late 19th century, this tree was the gathering place for a coven of witches. There they performed their ceremonies and generally didn’t create too much of a nuisance. Until, that is, a city planning committee decided to remove the tree ahead of the annual May Day celebration. 

This displeased the witches greatly. So much so, they cast a curse. And exactly 11 months to the day after the tree was cut down, the city suffered a storm so severe that it was generally assumed that the witches had made good on their curse and summoned a storm demon. During the storm, lightning struck the stump of the old witches tree and a new tree began growing there. Not a healthy, happy tree, but rather the otherworldly thing that stands there now.

Whether there’s any truth to the tale or not, it appears that the community has decided to err on the side of caution and leave small tributes on and around the tree to keep on the witches’ good side.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Anticipatory Nostalgia

This is a much older piece, a decade at least, but I think it's relevant to our current, shared trajectory. It's something I've felt often and in different ways in my travels and explorations over the past few years, and it's something I know I'll feel again. A sense, perhaps, that I'm on the right track.

Anticipatory Nostalgia

“What do you mean?” she asked without taking her brown eyes off the sky.

“Anticipatory nostalgia,” I repeated, doing my best as a teenager to sound wise. It was something I’d thought of earlier that day in the car with her and her friends. “There’s probably some multi-syllabic German word for it…” I’d been reading Milan Kundera at the time and he always seemed to be able to find just such a word. Even though of course he was Czech rather than German.

“But it just means I’m looking forward to remembering the moment we’re in right now.”

I could see her breath rise and disperse like miniature clouds. It was cold, maybe November, and we were lying in her back yard looking up at the sky, waiting for the first shooting stars that were supposed to occur around 11:40 pm, Central Time. I remember there being somehow both snow on the ground and the smell of fresh-mowed suburban grass. I was bundled up, wearing a burgundy scarf that she and her family had given me as a Chanukah gift the week before. The fabric scratched and irritated my neck, but I didn’t really care. There weren’t that many truly perfect moments up to that time in my life. Thankfully I’ve had more since then and more yet to come, I hope.

I could smell the frozen Michigan air, stinging my nostrils as we lay on the ground, looking upwards. The radio was playing from just inside the kitchen off the porch. It was “Don’t Dream it’s Over,” by Crowded House.

“It’s like listening to this song,” I said. “I know I haven’t really lost anything yet, but also know that I will. I somehow identify with the lyrics, with the music, it’s emotional but it’s about an emotion I’m not really familiar with yet. But I know I will be, one day. So I’m sort of nostalgic for the way that the song will make me feel sometime way out in the future when we listen to it. Does that make sense?”

She thought about it for a moment and then said no. And then she covered my mouth with her balmed lips and enveloped me in Altoid mint-scented warmth as the meteorites started to burn up in the atmosphere above us.

Looking back I got it part right, which I suppose means that I also got it part wrong. I do reflect on it years later, and I do feel a shadowy nostalgia when I hear that song. But it doesn’t mean what it did then or since then. It’s been infused and layered over so many times with other experiences. There were times when I thought back on it alone and it stung tears from my eyes. There were other times when I thought back on it from a place of contentment and it made me smile. And it’s not the one that I remember being with, with whom I remember it now. But those are just details for the editorial department of the heart.

Now it’s changed once again. The nostalgia that I once anticipated has occurred and has itself become a memory. It grows cooler as I grow more distant from it. It's faded now to being the emotional equivalent of having forgotten something you misplaced and only remembering that it was something of great personal value. You know, that gnawing sense that there’s something you should be remembering.

There’s probably some multi-syllabic German word for that too.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Travels with Tinker Bell

Is it really any surprise that a man dedicated to indefinitely prolonging his own childhood should end up living down the road from the Magic Kingdom with a diminutive, non-human companion named Tinker Bell?

I'll admit it, I haven't always had the easiest time making commitments.This is evidenced by the fact that it wasn't until my mid 30's that I got married, and it is only now in my 40's that I've become the newest convert to the religion of dog ownership.

Tinker Bell having a complimentary "puppy sundae" from Leopold's in Savannah, GA

I was reluctant. I hemmed and hawed and kept putting it off, but Jen was insistent. Having grown up with a Shih Tzu named Wonton, she made a compelling and heart-felt case for the necessity of having one here in Florida. For my part, I balked at the cost, at the commitment, at having to wake up at three in the morning to take her out in the middle of a storm, at all of the reasons you can think of not to have a dog. And then, after playing for just five minutes with a spunky, curious little ball of fur that wasn't quite two months old, I melted.

Maybe it's a bit of karmic retribution for having given my mother such a hard time about spending more time and affection on canines than on humans. Her own dogs, Portuguese Water Dogs and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, have collectively earned more titles and initials following their names than I will ever possess in ten lifetimes. But having now spent nearly two years with Tink, it is no hyperbole to say that her company has flipped my perspective on the matter and also transformed my daily life here in Florida for the better. In short, I get it.

Tinker Bell in front of Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine, FL

Since leaving corporate america to work for myself, from a home office, nearly ten years ago, it can get a little bit lonely at times. Isolation is a real challenge. But Tink gets me outside, interacting with the world outside my cave/tower. And more recently Jen and I have been taking her on our trips - Initially just within Florida but over the past year also to Savannah and Atlanta, and in the future probably all the way up north to Philadelphia. Our general rule is that anywhere we drive, we take her with.

Traveling with a canine companion (or "your royal fluffiness" as we sometimes refer to her) requires a bit of extra planning in terms of where we stay and what activities we bring her with for. Some hotels charge a pet fee, not typically more than $25, and we scout out doggie day care facilities so that we can give her time to play with friends while we explore museums and other places that aren't dog friendly. And we bring a folder with her medical records as proof that she's up to date on all of her shots. With this little bit proactive planning, the southeast has been surprisingly pet-friendly.

Tinker Bell paying her respects at the grave of Sideways the Dog in Atlanta.

We've even started looking for thematically relevant stops along the way - monuments to famous dogs and such. Tink's a remarkably well-behaved traveler as well. She loves the car - sleeping contentedly on Jen's lap for hours at a time. She's surprisingly adaptable regarding her food, not always the case with Shih Tzus from what I've heard. Jen's previous dog, Wonton, for example, turned her snout up at anything other than boiled chicken served to her on a napkin placed on Jen's parents' bed.

Can it be taken too far? I've read some travel articles that suggest some travelers would prefer that others leave their pets behind, and I understand and respect that point of view (hence the research into pet-friendly hotels and activities). Thankfully Tink isn't "typically" prone to late-night barking fits or other behaviors that would create a disturbance (all the same, we always have plenty of treats and a couple toys on hand for her). If/when bringing a pet impinges on the enjoyment and experience of others, than yes, boarding might be a better option. Should my travels with Tinker Bell ever prohibit Jen and I from exploring any of the items on our adventure lists or deter us from interaction with other humans, then it might be time to rethink things. Lastly, I've informed friends and family that should they see me pushing Tink in a stroller, I invite them to set up folding chairs in a semi-circle in my living room for a "friendly chat."

Tinker Bell visiting Brownie the Town Dog's resting place.

As I write this, Tink is curled up by my feet, waiting for me to finish my post so that I can get on to the day's more pressing matters which include belly rubs, playing with squeak toys and a long walk. Maybe chasing some squirrels and lizards up trees.

On a final note, I should mention that in addition to being my friend and companion, Tinker Bell is also my editor - any misspellings or errors in this post or others are hers entirely.

Tinker Bell and I at DeSoto National Memorial. 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Exploring New York: Shadows of the Original Trial of the Century

The man whose architecture ushered in the American Renaissance would ultimately come to symbolize decadence.

When I mention "the Trial of the Century" people generally assume I'm talking about the OJ Simpson trial, and the name Stanford White doesn't usually mean very much to them. It should though (and if it doesn't anything to you either, I encourage you to read "The Girl on the Velvet Swing"). You see, long before a back Ford Bronco made its famous dash for the border and into our shared consciousness, there was another "Trial of the Century." On the surface these two trials have a lot in common, both featuring the fall of prominent public figures, jealousy, murder and subsequent media frenzies. But scratching the surface reveals very different stories.

Stanford White seems to have had two passions. The first, for architecture, is the one that brought him wealth and fame. The second, for sexual deviance with an emphasis on corrupting young women, is the one that got him murdered - shot three times at point blank range during a play at the old Madison Square Gardens by Harry Thaw, who claimed that White had ruined his wife, model and actress Evelyn Nesbit. Spectators at first applauded, thinking it was one of White's pranks, but after a few moments, once they realized what they had just witnessed, panic erupted.

I'll leave off there, as the purpose of my post isn't to rehash the sordid story, which you are more than welcome to explore elsewhere. Rather, I wanted to see what remnants of White's rise and fall I could find in and around Midtown Manhattan.

I started off by walking to 160 Fifth Avenue, the old offices of McKim, Mead and White. J.P. Morgan, the Astors and the Vanderbilts were just a few of the many prominent clients served by the firm. Other projects included the triumphal arch at Washington Square, the Cable Building, the Bowery Savings Bank, the Judson Memorial Church, the Gould Memorial Library and the same Second Madison Square Garden where White met his end. One can imagine in the days following White's murder, his partners rummaging through his desk full of drafts and documents, seeking out any incriminating evidence that could damage the reputation of the firm and their own careers. Today though, you won't find any traces of the once great firm at what used to be their offices - just a Club Monaco on the first floor.

From there I took a short walk to 22 West 24th Street, which was the site of White's sex crimes. What Nesbit once described as a lavish love nest with heavy re velvet curtains as well as the infamous swing with red velvet ropes and ivy-styled green similax, is today just a gap between buildings.

Not finding any remnants of the seedier side of the story, I turned my attention instead to the higher qualities of White's legacy, with a visit to Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village. Modeled after the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate the centennial of George Washington's presidential inauguration, it is the structure for which White should be most remembered for, according to his great-grandson.

There's one other physical trace of White's story, which I plan to see in an upcoming visit, not to New York but to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to see the Golden Gal of Old Madison Square Garden. Once marking the highest point in the city, the nude statue of Diana with her bow drawn, is all that remains of the Beaux Arts masterpiece that White brought to life - and the very same building in which his own life ended violently.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Chihuly Collection

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

The first custom-designed building to showcase the works of Dale Chihuly is a wonderland of glass and light.

A world-renowned pioneer in the studio glass movement, for more than 40 years Dale Chihuly has created innovative, organic and large-scale glass artworks and installations. In 2017, the collection moved to a new space and the first building custom designed around the artist’s work.

Visitors enter the main body of the 11,000 square foot collection through a hallway of the artist’s works, which is not unlike wandering through a kaleidoscope.

On display are several massive chandeliers that look somewhat like a colony of crystalline giant tube worms decided to celebrate Mardi Gras together. Other works featured include the icy, electric blue Tumbleweeds suspended in its own room, the Macchia Forest of organic bowls and the bright, celebratory Mille Fiori as well as various Ikebana and Niijima Floats.

Also on display are many of the artists’ works on paper, as well as pieces from both his Sea Form and Venetian series. Interestingly, one of those Venetians on display was once stolen from the collection, only to be returned the following day in a crude, taped-up box. The work was unharmed, but it had also been wiped clean of any fingerprints and at the time of this writing, the case remains unsolved.

Know Before You Go
A thirty-seat theater runs a loop of interviews and information about the artist and some of his more well-known installations around the world, and the gift shop has original works available for sale. Tickets for the collection are also good for a free glass blowing demonstration across the street at the Morean Glass Studio & Hotshop.