Wednesday, November 21, 2007

And While We're On Great Architects...

Just found this in the archive--and it fairly represents the mind of its sender--and wanted to post it, so all could see what I have had to endure in the way of personal correspondance. This came from our own great architect of the age, Patrick Michael Zampetti, sent in March of 1990. And the correspondance continues.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another Random Looking Up of Stuff

Thank you, PMZ, for setting off the next random looking-stuff-up obsession. Our topic today: Evelyn Nesbit and the Stanford White Murder.

Pretty girls get attention when they’re murdered, and even when they’re only standing near a murder. In this case the victim was the pretty girl’s boyfriend…manfriend…lecherous old bastard friend, Stanford “Stanny” White, an architect, who got popped on the roof of a building he designed. The details of the murder are pretty freakin picturesque, the personalities involved likewise, and the whole story occupies a place in the annals as the first great Crime of the Century—the 20th Century, I mean. There would be many more, of course.

This Evelyn Nesbit, though, was probably the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s famous Gibson Girl, and had a number of other notable attributes, not least was that she lived some of her later years in Northfield, New Jersey, one town north of me own auld sod. So sayeth Wikipedia. (She died when I was 9, and had probably left Northfield long before that, so chances are I didn’t interview her for the paper.) In youth, she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the country, with "the slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half-dollars, and a mouth made of rumpled rose petals," according to Irvin S. Cobb. She earned lots of money as an artists’ model, fashion model, and eventually an actress. The movie "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" was written about her, and she appears as a semi-fictional character in E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime," also the movie made from it.

As for the swing, god, who wouldn’t want to push a beautiful 16-year-old back and forth on a velvet swing? To reinact some arcadian fantasy. Sure, throw some grapes in there, and twining vines. Don’t you have a swing, Pat? You architects know how to have a good time.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I'd Rather Be In...

As long as I’m leaving Philadelphia…

I yearn to stay here, but only for nostalgia’s sake. Most of the people I came to know here have gone, leaving me to hold the lonely city by myself.

Some went off to get married, some followed jobs, and some just went the hell off.

Joe the skater, for example, just one day decided to take a year off and travel. He sold everything in his apartment, emptied the place out, and when the last knick knack went out the door he followed it by a brief interval. He started in South America and worked his way up into Canada and finally to Alaska, where he got work on a fishing boat. Meanwhile he kept in touch with the folks back home via the skate club listserve. Even thousands of miles away he knew the time of the weekend skating sessions, and their place of gathering. And later, when the information went up, he knew who had skated, where they all went, and who had how many beers afterward.

This skating club—I can hardly travel a street in Philadelphia and not think of it. Back in the late 90s when skating had taken everyone with a fury, the skate club numbered several hundred members. Any hundred of these might show up for any given skate, and where did we not go when gathered all together like that. There is something about skating in a big group you can experience nowhere else. We skated miles, miles, every week, down from the Art Museum, into Old City, down along South Street amid the stranded traffic, up to North Philly and Northern Liberties, back uptown and across the bridge to West Philly and Penn, all around up there amid the crumbling neighborhoods, then back over another bridge into South Philly, and never stopped again until we hit Lincoln Field. We were a flock of birds, all of us free and striving together, all of us set to flight on an impulse.

Of course we never covered all of that in one day, but our range was vast. Fifteen and twenty miles a trip was the average, at least twice a week, often more. Our legs were like steam pistons. We’d usually stop at some favorite eatery or water ice stand, take a long refreshing break around our Gatorades and ice cream, then leap into flight once more as the night came down.

You get to know people when you’re skating. Socializing happens with butterfly ease. Stop for a light and chat up a stranger, continue talking until the next light, drift to a new stranger, drift back to find some old friends, pause and watch the crowd skate around and around the stairs at Dilworth Plaza. Our leaders, veterans of many years on these streets, knew every surface worthy of skating in the city, and didn’t fear to push our vast mob through twisting alleys and along hidden sidewalks. We skated the subway concourse, going underground at 17th Street and resurfacing at 13th. with numerous twists and detours between. We rode elevators to the tops of tiered parking lots and whirled our way to the bottom. And the Art Museum steps…I never got brave enough to skate them, but many did. It got to be the opening ritual of our skating trips to watch Buzz or John or Ellen come screaming down bank after bank of those stairs, the tiers thrumming on their skates as they flew down, all the way from top to bottom. It was easiest to do it backwards, and so the uninformed witnesses to these events believed they were seeing the impossible: boys and girls flying backwards on roller skates down the largest bank of stairs in Philadelphia. Rocky only had to run up them.
That skate club created many durable friendships. Even though Nina has moved away and had a baby, even though Lynn got married, even though Tylis took a job in New York—I still stay in touch. And even now, hardly a sojourn in town will fail to show me a familiar face and a friendly wave. We all have skating in common. Like drum corps, it’s an experience that binds you.

But of course, Philadelphia is an experience that binds you, too. Sometimes not in a good way. But let that rest. I leave here knowing I had as good a time as anyone, and better than most. And the friends I made are friends still.
Live dangerously. Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.
--Frederick Nietzsche

I sometimes see my life as romantic. But then I remember where I live.

The “house” that I have rented for many years—an interesting structure—one of those bland fronts of a South Philly house that often shield peculiar and sometimes rich lives from the glare of public knowledge. Long ago my little place probably housed sailors or dockyard workers or longshoremen. Just a few blocks away are the great piers that once serviced ocean-going freighters, the street that was once a seething waterfront thoroughfare.

Photographs from the mid-19th century show this street a maelstrom of activity: the dusty avenue thick with horses and wagons, and thousands of carts bearing the freight of the tall ships whose masts tower above the piers in the background. It was a close, active street, the kind of street where the primary commerce of the international American trade once took place—among men and small-scale vehicles, not cranes and mechanics and diesel trucks. (I miss it, can you tell?) Now, of course, Delaware Avenue is no such thing, but a six-lane boulevard of stoplights and road rage, connecting the Sprawl Mart with the Home Repo and the Super Stash. It’s a strip mall stuck in the only place the city could put it, the only stretch of open retail-ready land within 10 miles.

But the houses around here remain largely what they were. I’m pleased to live in a place where a house can reach 150 years of age, and more, and still serve as a house, without making any great fuss about it. I live amid scores and scores of these houses, and not even a block of suburban-style mini-houses—vinyl siding, garages—can destroy the ambience.

However, I’ve known I must leave this place--the lust has indeed wandered—and have wondered what circumstance would permit me a graceful exit from this residence of six years. Last week I found it: The first floor wall, long bowed outward into the alley, has in fact collapsed. I didn’t realize this at first. My landlord spent the night here last week and we couldn’t figure out why the furnace, which had run all night, had apparently failed to heat the house by morning. Then we looked in the alley. A big brick wall really does make quite a pile. We had only a piece of sheetrock between us and the great outdoors.

This new development with the house takes its place alongside other, older quirks of the structure. For example, the hole in the bathroom floor that looks down into the kitchen.

Following the walll discovery came frantic calls to contractors, several of whom came to give estimates. And they confirmed what I’ve always told the owner about this place: Fixed up, it’ll sell at a huge profit. I think he believes it now, and plans to sell. Which means I need to find a new place to live.

Which is all right. I’ve decided, at least for now, that my only safety is despair of safety. I seem to be happy only when in flight. So once again into the wild blue yonder. So far the remaining two floors have not tumbled. Just give me another two days….

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What I Do On My Summer Vacation

Coming into the sailing job in 2004, I tried to drain the former director of the program for every scrap of information: How are the boats provisioned? Do the kids wear life jackets? How many miles do you cover in a day? Where does everyone sleep? I left no uncertainty untouched: How do you wake the kids in the morning? Who does the cooking? What happens if there’s a mutiny?

But nothing could have prepared me. Here was a program that put 10 people on a small boat for a weeklong sail around the Bay. The kids would learn how to sail, how to anchor, how to navigate, meanwhile trying not to sail into ships, piers, submarines, buoys, dolphins and the other boats in the program.

They would grope their way to the next daily destination, cook the food, clean the boat, plot the courses and do everything possible to prevent collision, sinking, drowning, exposure, sunstroke and death by flying boom. In theory this would happen. In practice what happened, what continues to happens, is: we all shove off and pray for the best.

Usually we get the best, but sometimes not. In four years I’ve seen two serious accidents. Two years ago I left a parent alone to steer while I went below. The wind was well up on our starboard side, the boom stretched out to port. I came back on deck just in time to see the boom swing across and crack another adult in the forehead, the classic accidental jibe, caused by not only by the skipper’s inattention, but also by the helmsman turning us more about 120 degrees to port without apparently noticing it. The victim rose from the deck with blood streaming down his face, and two hours later he was getting stitches.

Last year, lowering our spinnaker, one of the scouts let the halyard off the cleat and then tried to hold it while several hundred pounds of force tried to make it run. It eventually ran, but not before pulling several layers of skin off his palms. This was not an enjoyable event. At the emergency room, they cut away the lose skin, bathed his hands in ointment and wrapped them like mummies. For the rest of the week he could do nothing but order the other guys around, which indeed he did very well. But we’d have preferred he needed no such promotion in the field.

Aside from these, we have managed to scrape through, no matter what nature or the wiles of adolescence have thrown at us, and I make no presumption which of these forces is the stronger.

The season begins with the almost ceremonial shakeup of the boats, which have lain unused all winter and which have begun to develop their own strains of mold. This shakeup is usually undertaken in the sort of slow-motion melancholy that can only accompany the revisitation of things long played out and inanimate, much like seeing an ex-girlfriend.

Mold, old food smells, stains on the floor, perhaps the residue of an overflowed toilet are usually the only signs of welcome. There are sails to mend, ice boxes to clean, lights to test, deck leaks to fill. You got to change the oil, double check the fuel filter, pore through the sea strainer, keep a sharp eye on that fan belt. But things look brighter when the boss gives you the account number at West Marine.

This year, three of us managed to spend close to $20,000 getting our boats ready to sail. In theory, we acquired them in a ready condition. But you know how imperfectly theory sometimes translates to fact, especially when a West Marine account number enters the picture.

Oh, you have to have smoothly working blocks, mainsheet tackles that don’t twist, an easy-running furling line for the jib, sails spruced up and clean, and a radio that can be counted on to broadcast further than 60 feet. (My radio was so old I was hearing Fred Allen on it.) It means having bright new halyards and sheets, and fresh new waterproof chart kits showing in particular detail the shoals that we will probably run into anyway.

It means having fancy acid-based hull cleaners and steel polishes and—I still expect to get in trouble for this—an entire set of signal flags. It means replacing any compass that even looks like it’s thinking about deviation, replacing all the flares and life vests.

It means, in short, participating in a buying spree that is the Boy Scouts’ gift to you.

My boat suited me. Just recently purchased from an actual yacht broker--the scouts apparently robbed several banks this year, perhaps as a merit badge requirement—my Morgan arrived with luxuries I had never believed would ever surround my person on a small boat—a working toilet, for one thing, also a working water pump, a shower, and a heat exchanger that produced hot water. All of its lights worked, inside and out, as well as the heavy-duty anchor windlass used to pull up the very stern-looking claw anchor and 90 feet of chain. (I especially like this windlass, though it played me the clever trick of dumping 100 pounds of wet anchor chain onto the V-berth cushions the first time I tried it.)

This year for the first time the program ran out of a brand new camp just opened in Bayport, some 22 miles up the Rappahannock from Deltaville, where the river meets the Bay. This far up the river—actually, anywhere on the river—you can only reach deep enough water by building a dock more than 1000 feet long, as the Boy Scouts did, against all advice. Walking this kept us in good shape.

Great nervousness ahead of the first arrivals. So many things could happen this year. Booms could crack open young heads. Legs could tangle in life lines during a jump overboard, and break. Rope burns could scourge hands. And sunburn, lacerations, knife cuts, fabric whippings, broken bones, ripped skin, drowning.

Nothing looks so bleak, nothing carries a fuller freight of disaster than a season of sailing before it begins. When the scouts do arrive, of course, constant work, hard physical work, keeps you safely ignorant of those hovering calamities, and attentive instead to your immanent shortage of water, the fragrance from the head, the fact that some of these parents expect four star eating on a boat run by, after all, the Boy Scouts.

The kids finally do arrive and spend the first night learning about the boat, the simple skills necessary and where to sleep, then spend most of the night chattering like monkeys, calling to one another among their sleeping bags and from boat to boat, some of them slung in hammocks between the mast and forestay.

Next morning they awaken at 7, sometimes with assistance, and make ready to sail. The countdown enters the last frantic minutes. With encouragement, the scouts guide carts of food out that long, long walkway to the floating dock, cram the food into every locatable gimcrack including the inside of the oven and the crack in the cabinet beneath the sink, remove their wet towels and swimsuits, capes, loincloths, bibs, diapers and pantaloons from the lifelines, gather in the cockpit to receive one final pep talk and pre-packaged dressing down to be used as needed, and receive their instructions for shoving off.

They do all this under the fevered eyes of the adults, who are dripping with anticipation to go and creating puddles on the deck that I ask them to clean up later. Those scouts whose attention wanders are gently guided back to the present with a kind word. In the half hour before launch I let none of them visit the bathrooms on shore—first because the bathroom is almost a quarter mile away; second because they’d most likely forget the purpose of the trip and wander blissfully about the beach for hours, looking at fragments of broken driftwood and the shape of their own footprints, and I’d have to send a rescue party. The teenage mind is constructed upon turbulence.

At 9 a.m., we go.

For most of these kids, the first minutes off the dock are the first minutes ever sailed. They know as much about mainsheets as they do about medieval theology. Actually they know more about medieval theology, the precocious bastids, and will explain it to you at great length when you’re intending to do something else, such as pull one of their colleagues out of the water. The Rappahannock is wide, tranquil, scenic. Its banks look like the landscapes of Durand and Morse.

From the middle of the river, you can gaze upon mile after mile of orange beaches, misty forests, crumbling headlands topped with meadows of clover, enchanted streams leading off into quiet lagoons last viewed, it often seems, by the continent’s primeval citizens. It is open, untrammeled, wild. Stop at any point and there are small beauties to count and contemplate, burbling freshets and streamfalls, blasted trees mellowed by years and covered in vines, hanging moss, honeysuckle, wisteria, otters, beavers, badgers. Nose into any cove and behold a new slant on the transcendent.

But these mean little because the first of your crew are already violently ill.
The prevailing wind blows from the south or just west of south, the river itself runs east-southeast. With a good fat wind on your beam you can expect to travel far and fast, without troubling much about sail trim. The ride on a beam reach is smooth as it gets. But I have come to understand that just the thought of water brings seasickness to the predisposed. And many, so many, are predisposed.