The photographer lived up the street from where M. and I were working, and she stopped us as we loaded the van one afternoon. “Do you have time to look at my door?” We did. We walked with her up the block a few houses, and she explained a problem with the knob. M. examined the hardware. I stood in the front hall and tried to get a look around.
“Do you have an allen wrench?” M. asked her.
She disappeared around a corner. She had smiling eyes and, in her mid-seventies, moved softly. Her work was familiar – Elsa Dorfman is known for her large format Polaroid portraits against blank backdrops of couples and families and bigdeals of the Beat scene. She’s photographed Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creely, Bob Dylan, Denise Levertov, Jonathan Richman, and more.
“Is this it?” she said, handing M. the tool.
“Exactly,” said M. “And do you have a Phillips head screwdriver?”
I’d spoken to Elsa on the phone some years ago, interviewed her for a piece that ran in the 40th anniversary issue of the Boston Phoenix. I told her so, and said it was nice to meet her in person, and she said, “Well at least you have a real job now and don’t have to worry about any more newspapers disappearing.”
She came back with the screwdriver and a hammer as well. “I’m finding all these things in the kitchen,” she said. “You can tell what sort of cook I am.” All of us laughed.
M. futzed with the knob and made things tighter.
“Wonderful,” Elsa said. “It’s a miracle.”
“It’s a temporary solution,” M. said of the door.
“That’s all right,” Elsa said, smiling. “Life is temporary.”
[All photographs by Elsa Dorfman]
These are my workpants. Paint stained, browned in the knees and thighs where sawdust has settled permanently, crusted at the pockets where I’ve wiped glue from my fingers and it’s dried as hard as seashells.
In a surreality which feels a little weird to talk about, Norton sent a photographer to Cambridge to take photographs of me for when the book comes out. He asked after my work clothes. I showed him these jeans. He said they’d be good for the shoot, but here, he said, running his fingers over some wrinkles, we’ll need to get rid of these.
So on Sunday evening, I laid my workpants on the ironing board. I licked my finger and touched the iron to see if it was hot enough to hear a sizzle. And I ran the iron across my workpants, wondering if the paint would melt, or the glue. And I thought about M. and how hard she would laugh when she heard about this.
"There is an old song that says ‘the brushwood we gather — stack it together, it makes a hut; pull it apart, a field once more.’ Such is our way of thinking — we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates."
From In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.
Photograph by Jon Creamer, who you should follow here.
Before, during, and after. Window work makes me nervous. There’s an urgency to it – once you open the house, you have to make sure it’s closed again before the end of the day. Yesterday, in a third floor bedroom of a tall house in Lexington, we took out one window to be replaced with another more than double its size. To put in a new window is to make a wound in a house, slice open its skin, yank, tug, pry, and it’s got to be done before night, else creatures come in, and wind, and rain. We sawed and cut and leaned out and lifted. “It’s going to rain tomorrow,” was said several times throughout the afternoon, as reminder, as motivator. We dismantled the house, like brutal surgeons working from the inside out, and fitted the window in by the end of a long, physical day. This morning, I can feel the work in my shoulders, neck, and back.
Months and months and months, and then a week ago I submitted the final draft of the book I’ve been working on, and this morning, it goes into production. Relieved to say: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter will be out early next year from W.W. Norton.
The mothers talked of paper towels. The three of them in the kitchen on a summer evening, gathered for a cook-out at our house. They leaned against counters in long skirts, baggy pleated shorts. The fathers positioned themselves by the grill out back, talking with their eyes on the meat. The teenagers, six of us, weren’t sure if we were flirting. I came in from outside, spooned pasta salad onto my plate and listened to the mothers as they talked pros and cons of different brands of paper towels. Brawny, Bounty, Scott, absorptive, expensive, like cleaning up with toilet paper. I turned away from the big yellow serving bowl of pasta salad and stared at them. I narrowed my eyes.
“This is what you’re talking about?” I said. I couldn’t help it. “This is your conversation?” I was sixteen. “You’re talking about paper towels?”
I was deep into a mis-timed Jack Kerouac phase, and their conversation provoked an immediate and ferocious indignation. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” That’s the buzz I was on, so you can see why the absorbency of paper towels didn’t jibe with me. The conversation struck me as an insult to existence, the epitome of suburban emptiness, representative of everything that ought to be avoided to achieve the sort of sinning adventurous lust-out life that appealed to me so much then. What could be more at odds with roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars than a cold paper towel soggy in the palm?
The mothers looked at me. I was righteous in my anger. If they rebuked me, I don’t remember. If they said anything to defend themselves, I don’t remember. I stormed off pretending not to see when a tortellini fell from my plate onto the kitchen floor. Let them use their paper towels for that, I fumed.
It wasn’t anger that I was feeling, though that’s how I understood it at the time. It was fear. Was this adulthood? Was this what awaited me? Was this the sort of conversation I’d be having when I grew up? Was this what would come to matter? I didn’t want this to matter. I didn’t want to stand with my friends in a kitchen and talk about clean-up. Burn, burn, burn, never yawn, never say a commonplace thing. Such is the limited mindset of a sixteen-year-old who didn’t understand that the mad ones die from abdominal hemorrhaging before they’re forty-eight, and for all that talk of being mad to live, sit writing at a desk alone.
There was a lot I didn’t know. Maybe I’d missed the part of the conversation about how one of them, with a blade at her wrist, realized they were out of paper towels and decided to wait as a courtesy to her family who would have to clean up the blood. What did I know of their lives? What context did I have?
And anyway, Kerouac had to wipe his counters, too, sop the vodka or tequila off the table, and maybe he considered which brand to buy based on pennies and how well the paper did its job. These conversations happen and there is value to them because as much as we’d like to always be desirous of everything at the same time, sometimes we have to wipe a splatter of tomato sauce off the top of the stove. Making yourself at home with that fact doesn’t exclude you from the parts and people that burn, burn, burn. Those small moments collect to make up a life, and for that reason, they matter. As much as the moments of sparkling fervent aliveness, and maybe more.
"The ground whirls with its own energy, not in an alarming way but in slow spiral, and at these altitudes, in this vast space and silence, that energy pours through me, joining my body with the sun until small silver breaths of cold, clear air, no longer mine, are lost in the mineral breathing of the mountain."
From The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.
[Photos: Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal, 2009]
The blue house in Jamaica Plain matched the color of the April sky today. From the outside, it looked appealing enough — a stately place, three floors, big windows. But then, another glance revealed the pealing paint, the crumbling stone of the foundation at the corner of the house, the threshold step up into the front door, badly chipped and rotted. And from inside, the now-and-then noise of the orange line train from the station stop across the street sounded like a ghosty doorbell. A cop sat in his car outside the house all morning and into the afternoon.
The odd-angled third floor condo of the house needs a new kitchen. The demo guys were there yesterday, tearing out a wall and taking down the ceiling. M. talked of evidence of rats. “I don’t mind mice,” she said. “But rats?” I’ve never seen rat shit before, but apparently there’s no mistaking rat shit for mouse shit. She pointed out places in the rafters where squirrels had chewed the wood. “Lots of critter action up here,” she said.
The stairs twist up and get narrower as you climb. Perhaps it was the dust from the demo done yesterday, but the air in that third floor had a heaviness, an oppressive feeling, like something vaguely wrong. “I don’t like the feel of this place,” I said after a couple hours of sistering two-by-sixes against the joists in the ceiling. “I’m really glad you’re saying that,” M. said. “I get a weird feeling here, too.”
We didn’t say much while we worked today. Both of us a little short, impatient with the hanging wires, the dusty strapping, all the rusted hundred-year-old nails that had to be pulled from hundred-year-old wood. The atmosphere shortened the length of our patience, dissolved our energy and optimism. I thought about ghosts. I thought about dark history. I thought about the bad things that had happened in this place, and how the trace of them remains like a bad smell or lowgrade hangover you can’t seem to shake, and I felt sorry for the young woman moving in.
My grandmother turned ninety-four on Friday. She used to be five-foot-ten, the type of person who, when she entered a room, changed its chemistry. She’s shorter now. She’s shrunk six or seven inches, maybe more. We don’t age like trees.
The broad board that makes this table comes from the attic of my grandmother’s house. It’s over two feet wide. The tree it came from was likely two-hundred years old when it was felled to make the house, which itself is over a hundred-and-fifty years. It’s only today that I realized that of course the wood predates the house, that the board that’s now a table and sitting in my living room could be three-hundred years old or more.
The house from where it comes doesn’t belong to my grandmother anymore, because it was sold this fall by my family to the rich man nextdoor. The architect in charge of the rich man’s renovations agreed to have some of those attic boards set aside for me. This is the first table, one of two I’m making for my brothers. The texture remains, the scars, the saw lines, the contours from where it was cut from the attic wall.
I don’t like to picture what that room looks like now. Insulated, plastered, track lit, all that wide old wood pulled down, discarded, covered up, smell of dust and pine and mystery and dry age and ghosts and years replaced with the smell of wet paper and fresh paint.
My grandmother’s poorly now, a relapse of pneumonia, and refusing antibiotics. “How’re you doing?” my uncle asked her. “I’m ready to go,” she said. “After all, I’m a hundred and ten years old.”
My favorite blog on Tumblr was accidentally deleted a week ago — two years’ worth of original writing erased with the too-quick click of a button. The good news, the great news, it’s been resurrected. If you didn’t follow eatdrinkdie already, you ought to now. If you followed before, re-follow. Jonah James Fontela writes about food, but it’s not the empty calories of bacon and cupcakes. He writes about food and its connection to the most essential things — family, nourishment, loss, ritual, tradition. Making meals, remembering them, writing about the act of cooking and eating and sharing, is a way to keep people with us who are gone, a way to keep people close to us who are here. I love Jonah’s writing as much as I love the food he makes. Both nourish. Both satisfy. Both are born of love.
Follow, follow, follow.