Friday, April 24, 2020

Shells: an essay about collecting

I open the lid and find a handwritten label inside the nearest 2" x 4" compartment, one of about 15 inside this clear plastic case the size of a placemat. It reads “257 Immature Fighting Conchs, Sanibel I.” There aren’t 257 conch shells in the compartment now, most having been given away; perhaps two dozen remain. They are beautiful, and like anything that has come to rest in our terrestrial world but doesn’t truly belong here, they have an alien feel about them. All were collected by my father, in the nineties, mostly from beaches on Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf coast.

What else is in the box? All of these little compartments once had proper and neatly written labels, in black ballpoint on matchbook-size rectangles of plain white paper. Some are missing, but some remain: “40 Nutmegs,” “44 Olives,” “12 Limpets – mostly from Sanibel; one (possibly) from beach at Choroni, Venezuela.” That one gives you an idea of my parents’ travels after retirement. But I don’t know who he was making these labels for, if not himself.

There are many more shells here, including “124 Juvenal Conchs.” (I’m pretty sure he meant “Juvenile,” and it’s an uncharacteristic goof for my dad, who was typically more careful about the things he wrote that might be read by others.) Here are several larger conchs, butterscotch-colored with streaks of white, some banded tulips, pure white coquinas, and jingle shells, what some people call “giants’ toenails.”

It’s a nice assortment, but it’s only a small part of his original collection, which consisted of many such tidy containers with dividers, plus bins and boxes and bags and finally bushels of shells, all categorized according to type.

My parents went to Sanibel for many years, usually in early March, always for about four weeks. They went because someone back home had recommended it, and they grew to love it, driving the whole way down from Boston, eager to escape the final month of winter and bask in the famous Florida sunshine. They always drove the same route, and stayed at the same motels along the way, arriving at last at the West Wind Inn. The first year, my father didn’t know about the Sanibel pastime (and business) of shelling, but he soon found out. He came up with a satisfying routine: most mornings he would get dressed right after sunrise, and join the other shellers patrolling the long beach behind the inn, peering and poking at what the waves had washed in the night before (the early-bird rule applying to shells as it does to worms). The shellers were careful not to get in each other’s way, almost always working by themselves, sometimes for hours, bent at the waist, eyes on the tidelines, in the distinctive posture known as the Sanibel Stoop. He would carry a bag to bring back the keepers he’d found, and over the days and weeks and years, he brought back thousands.

Conchs, sand dollars, and jingles were common and plentiful. What everyone was looking for, but few found, was the butterfly-shaped coquina that still had both “valves” attached and intact, and the exquisite, even rarer, junonia. Both would elude my father.

When my parents moved to an assisted-living facility a few years ago, many of their possessions, including most of the shells, had to be left behind. They kept a few of the best, which my niece mounted in a frame for them, visible proof that they had once “wintered” at an island paradise. So the memories of Sanibel were kept alive a little longer.

The rest of them went to relatives, one or two boxes each. I’m probably not the only one who’s been storing his share of the shells in a dark corner of the basement. Someday I will take them out and scatter them by our side door, where visitors enter, and where we already place shells and beach stones from our own journeys. The more delicate ones will end up in our compost pile, where they’ll slowly break down and, in time, become soil for the gardens that we, or others, will make.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Harry's Story

Not that I believe in them, but I had angels on my mind the other day, and after a while I got to thinking about something that Harry had said. At least, I think his name was Harry. It might have been Edwin, or Ralph, or George, some old-fashioned name like that. He used to get up and speak during the Sunday service, the part known as “joys and concerns.” This was back in the early nineties, when I was still going to church. I didn’t know him, but as a church regular I recognized him, a “gent” in his early eighties, about. Word had it that he lived alone, a widower, in a big antique colonial not far from the church green. There were things troubling him, that’s for sure. It wasn’t unusual for him to talk about them. He seemed, at times, beset by troubles. At one point I was curious enough to ask our pastor about him. Bill looked away for a moment, then said, Ah, Harry. You know, his sons are trying to sell that house out from under him.

During joys and concerns, worshipers are invited to stand and make a brief announcement about something that recently gave them joy, or, more frequently, something sad that touched them personally. It takes courage to get up on your feet and fill that room with your unamplified voice, those hundreds of expectant faces watching you, heads tilted forward to try and catch what you’re saying, as you burn through these few precious words that you’ve gathered up.

Harry rose from his pew and turned to face the crowd. I’m asking for your prayers, he said. One day last week, he went on, he had had to go out in his old Chevy to run a dull errand, perhaps to a drugstore for a refill. The weather was chilly and gloomy with a steady rain coming down, deep puddles everywhere. And what with neither Harry nor his car being in very great shape, and the line at the counter being endless, and the cashier being grouchy, it was already turning into a trying afternoon. As Harry got ready to pull out of the parking lot, he became aware that one of his tires had gone flat, completely flat. Well! He knew there was a jack in the trunk all right, he’d stowed one there years ago, but now he didn’t suppose he had the strength to use it. And in the pouring rain! A cold web of despair began to settle over him. What was he going to do now?

He got out of the car to look around for a pay phone. (But who could he call?) He tried to think. The rain drummed on his hat, on the roof of his car. About that time, he noticed a dark-haired, lanky figure approaching, a man of about 45 maybe, wearing old coveralls and work boots but no hat or coat. He moved deliberately but with weariness, as if he had been walking a long way, or a long time. His hands, Harry saw, were grimy. For a moment, Harry thought the man was going to hit him up for spare change.

Got a jack? he said to Harry, indicating the trunk. Harry opened the trunk, then stood back as the man took out the jack, the tire iron, and the spare, and knelt beside the car to go to work. In a few minutes, the repair was complete. By this time, Harry was enjoying the rare feeling of being the luckiest man in the world and was digging around in his pockets for some cash. The man closed the trunk and turned to face Harry. Do you believe in angels? he asked. His abrupt question surprised Harry but what could he say? Yes, I do! The man hesitated for a moment, rain streaming down his face. Then he nodded and asked, Would you please pray for me? Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked away into the downpour, and was soon lost to view.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Take a Look at That Painting!

It began last year with a ramble through Pinterest. I was looking for some fresh inspiration (because I paint), and I had written something like “nice paintings” in the search bar. You never know.

Among the results was “Beached” by Dennis Miller Bunker. Hadn’t ever heard of him.
But I liked the painting very much. That is, I was taken immediately with the drama of the subject, the artist’s craftsmanship, and the unusual hues and tones. I also found it moving. I wished I’d painted it.

Let’s talk about that drama for a minute. What do we see here? A two-masted wooden ship sits on dry land beside a stream running through a salt marsh. It lists awkwardly on its keel. The ocean is nearby, but out of reach. The ship is stranded, a fish out of water. Our viewpoint is to its right and below it. The bowsprit lurches forward and upward out of sight; likewise, the masts and rigging reach up and out of the picture frame. The ship could almost be charging forward through the waves, aiming right past us; the foreshortening makes that happen. Instead, it is stuck in the sand. Before it stretches a patch of dune grass that it will never sail through.

There’s that foreboding sense of arrested motion. Why is the ship here? Maybe it washed up on the beach during a storm. Its rigging appears to be in place, though worse for wear overall.  We see that the sails are gone, except for a scrap of canvas wound around the bowsprit, and something’s amiss with the boom hanging over the port side. She’s an old boat then, a broad-beamed boat, a working boat. A fishing boat, maybe, or a small freighter. There’s no person depicted, no bystander or sightseer or artist’s friend, which would have given it scale.

In this view of the painting, which dates from 1881 or ’82, sepia hues predominate. The effect can seem elegiac, to us in the present time, because old photographs, often sepia-colored, tend to depict objects, places, and people that have passed away. The scene may strike us as antique. But in Bunker’s time, sailboats were common workhorses of everyday commerce, and a beached one might have been a fairly ordinary sight. What’s uncommon is the way he rendered it.

So now’s the time to say that there is another view to be had of this painting. That’s the way things turn out sometimes, when you’re doing all of your research online. Here it is:

Both images have the same brushwork, so they appear to be the same painting. This version has more realistic daylight hues. Which is the real one? I prefer the painting I saw first, the sepia one, because I was accustomed to it and, until recently, I didn’t know there was any other. Besides, with its somber, shadowy cast, the sepia version looks more haunted, and less like some cool find on a pleasant beach day.

In the second version, it is easier to spot critical details. The hull has an irregular hole and is missing sheathing below the waterline on the starboard side. So it’s apparent that this ship will never sail again, and now awaits the scrappers, the looters, and the pounding waves of storms to come. In the sky, one of the cloud forms has oddly straight edges, evoking the vanished sails.

There’s one detail I can’t identify in either version. What is that curved gray articulated business along the base of the hull? There’s something troubling about it. Is it part of the boat or is the boat resting on it? It doesn’t seem to belong, yet there it is. It seems to be a fabrication of some sort that is marine in nature, but it also calls to mind a human spine.

Notes: the brushwork is quick, and, except in the rendering of the ship, no more than it needs to be. I imagine Bunker seated on a folding chair in the sand, under a broad-brimmed sun hat, making his oil sketch and several pencil roughs of the rigging and other details, on loose sheets of paper that keep blowing around in the breeze, before packing up and hoofing it back to the village to catch a train home to the city, where he’ll finish the piece. (At the risk of spoiling the experience, I did do some reading about “Beached.” The location is almost certainly somewhere on Long Island, in New York. Bunker painted the picture when he was 21 or 22. Of great promise as an artist, he would die of meningitis at 29.)

The daylight version resembles other nautical pictures by Bunker, so I guess it’s the “real” one. The greens function better in this view: the darker hues of the uplands beyond the distant shore, and the paler hues of the dune grass in the foreground. In the sepia version, the greens are all muddied. I suppose that someone took a photo of the painting years ago when it needed a good cleaning, and that image survived to enjoy a life of its own online. Either that, or someone obtained a photo of the daylight version and gave it sepia hues in PhotoShop, just because you can. I still prefer the sepia version, though: the sickly yellow sky, the drab dune grass, the dark, slightly menacing, thoroughly tragic hulk of the ship, none of it offering viewers the least comfort.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

In Which Dave Plays a Police Officer: an essay about doing the right thing

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead person, or what looked like a dead person. (I ought to warn you. Don’t be eating something when you read this. There are a few icky parts.) That time was almost 50 years ago, at the UMass/Worcester Medical School, where a college friend, who had decided in her mid-twenties to study medicine, was giving me a tour on a slow Sunday afternoon. We walked into the aptly named Gross Anatomy Lab, a large, brightly lit room with many tables and a cadaver on top of each one. Kathy’s cadaver for the term was lying on a table near the center, with its white plastic storage bag off to one side. She had already been working on it for some weeks, and it had been incomplete to begin with, lacking limbs, so at first it didn’t look as if it could once have been a living human. The colors and textures were . . . off. I had expected the discoloration of preserved skin, and perhaps some dried puddles of blackened blood. But it struck me that what the cadaver mostly resembled was a cold leftover roast turkey. It was, initially, no more disconcerting than that. Kathy picked up a stylus and began to point out various features: the lungs, the larynx, the cavity where the brain had been. I noticed that there were many layers of thin tissue lining this cavity, softly nesting against each other like an old book’s yellowed pages, or maybe like leaves of . . . baklava (no, not turkey now). And without being aware that my senses were being overwhelmed, I began to feel lightheaded. Not sickened, really, just . . . woozy. My brain (still safely within its own cavity) wanted to draw the curtains against what my eyes were seeing. Kathy had seen this reaction before and asked me if I’d like to step outside for some fresh air. I nodded vigorously.

Generally I’m not a person who reacts quickly in adrenaline situations. A purse-snatching happens, and I stay rooted to the spot, trying to figure out if I’ve really seen what I’ve just seen. If a toddler were to fall out of a high window, I wouldn’t be the hero to rush forward and make a diving catch. I just don’t make decisions that fast. (In somewhat the same way, I’m easily baffled when I listen to two people having an argument over something like politics or policy or religion; first this one’s views seem so reasonable, and then the other one’s views seem even more reasonable, but they can’t both be 100% right. It makes my head hurt, and I have to take time to think it through, for days, or weeks, or even years, trying to decide what it is that I believe, or ought to believe.)

And yet. One sunny summer morning about 20 years ago, I was driving with my wife Annie in our sensible Toyota sedan up the main avenue in our small suburb, headed north through the downtown neighborhood. Here, another road from the east intersects with this principal north-south artery, called Washington Street. There are gas stations here, and churches and the library and several blocks of stores, and crosswalks as well. Today, there are clusters of traffic lights here too, black-bodied and long-limbed like an alien race of police with brightly-colored eyes. But they weren’t here back then, only some rudimentary signals that were supposed to protect the crosswalks. Drivers often ignored them.

As we shuffled through this major intersection, I became aware that the SUV in front of me had stopped in the middle of it, though the lane ahead seemed to be clear. So I stopped too. A moment later, the driver threw his door open and leaped out, with his cell phone clapped to his left ear. He was talking excitedly to someone on the other end and looking all around him, everywhere but at the piece of street right in front of his car.

Did I mention that I process things slowly? It seemed to me that this man must be having car trouble and was calling for help. So that Annie and I could get out of the situation and continue on our way, I carefully turned my car to the left and tiptoed around him. When we got past his front bumper, I looked to the right and saw a body lying in the street.

It was a man, and he was prostrate and motionless. His head was turned to the right, his eyes were shut, his legs were bent. He looked somehow crumpled, and there was a shadow on him. I could see no blood pooling on the street around him — that at least was a good sign. But in that moment I thought he must be mortally injured, or already dead. And of course I remembered the cadaver.

As it happened, no police, fire, or emergency people, on-duty or off, were in the town center when the accident occurred, an unusual thing for our small town. No sirens sounded, no blue lights flashed. I could have hit the gas and gotten out of there, but without hesitating I pulled to the curb and got out, strode past the man lying in the road, and began directing traffic.

I don’t know how to direct traffic (and I know even less about emergency medicine), and though I’m tall, I don’t emanate an air of authority. But I thought, maybe this guy’s not dead yet, but before long, somebody is going to come along and not see him lying down there and run him over, and then he really will be dead, and that will be too much of a shame. Looking up, I saw there were workers painting a building nearby, standing on scaffolding, unmoving now, just staring down at the body in the road, their paintbrushes dripping on the sidewalk below. They made no move to clamber down. I didn’t know it at the time, but Annie had also left our car and run out into the street, to stand protectively beside the injured man. No one else was stepping forward.

I planted myself, facing south, in the northbound lane where the man lay, and stuck my palms up and out at the oncoming cars and trucks. STOP! Then I waved both arms to my left –– go down this side street, go away, get away from here! I kept making these stopping/waving gestures, wondering how long it would be until help arrived. Most of the drivers did turn away or at least slowed down, but in the confusion not everybody wanted to play along. Cars honked at me and tried to squeeze by to my left, quite close to the body in the road. One car in particular came on into the intersection, straight towards me, and I realized that people in their morning driving routine can see you right in front of them and yet not see you at all, or the life-and-death scene unfolding right in the middle of their lane.

The fact is, I’m not the only one who takes time to process things. Folks can react far less quickly than they might have imagined. Miffed, some of them, to find you in their way, only gradually do they realize that they have to change what they’re doing. I was never so glad, after what seemed like many minutes, to hear the sound of approaching sirens. The professionals were finally on their way, and soon I’d be able to take a deep breath, and stop trying so hard to do the right thing.

The Very Thought of It: an essay about nostalgia

Oh sure, I remember that like it was yesterday. 

My mother would give me and my brothers a few dollars to spend at the lunch counter. The doughnuts were the best. They came in one flavor: plain. That made it easier. No coating of sugar, never any icing or sprinkles. Just an O of solid dough, cooked up in a bath of hot fat. For energy, I guess, although we didn’t lack that. For a little celebration, perhaps, a pat on the belly for all of us making it to the boat on time. Could be it was mostly to keep us busy.

Somehow everything tasted better on board the ferry from Woods Hole to Nantucket Island. (Nantucket was our happy place. There was no other “island” we would ever be referring to. Not too many people went there, the rich folks hadn’t found it yet, and the kids at school in their stupidity would sneer at you for supposedly mispronouncing Nantasket, a fading, not-so-happy, carny-on-an-icewater-beach in Hull that they did know about.) Don’t tell me the ferry doesn’t go from Woods Hole to Nantucket. Not anymore it doesn’t, I know it doesn’t. This was Back Then, when Life was Better. The ferry used to run all the way from New Bedford, you know, quite a long ride. I think that was before the Bourne Bridge and Sagamore Bridge were built, and here now you see them talking about replacing those bridges ASAP, they’ve both quickly gone somehow from OK Just Fine to Maybe Falling to Pieces Pretty Soon, what a waste, but what’d you expect, oh well more jobs for construction guys, and people’s relatives up at the State House, “state worker” an oxymoron, know what I mean?

But maybe, then, the big ferries will run from New Bedford again, if only for a few summers. I’d take that ride. That’d be something!

Anyhow, the doughnuts. Sure they tasted better! With the salty air, the restless green sea, the crying of the gulls, and the sunshine and excitement on our once-a-year trip to the island, there’d be no comparison with sitting dully eating this same doughnut at our kitchen table at home. We never actually had doughnuts at home, and we didn’t actually have a kitchen table either, friend, I’m just trying to help you out here. Our kitchen was tiny, with barely room for one person (my mother) to work. The house, like all the rest in this post-war development, had been designed at drafting tables somewhere by men, who rarely visited their own kitchens except to raid the fridge, and accordingly made these kitchens no bigger than they thought they had to be, you could say. I did say! I’m the creator of this goddamn Cherished Memory so what I say goes! Our kitchen featured the main telephone for the house and all of the food (except for a stack of canned items that sat for years under the basement stairs, in case of nuclear war or some other disaster, so we could dip into them and perhaps survive a bit until help arrived). Our kitchen also had a busy back door, for getting to and from the garage and driveway; it functioned as the main entrance to the house, worn from use, endlessly opening and shutting. The electric range sat right next to it. In the winter, with people coming and going all day long, icy breezes and sometimes snow would blow into the room any time the door was opened (“Shut the door!!!”), and you’d have a hard time heating up a saucepan of soup.

Anyhow, back to the ferryboat. This boat I’m talking about, a ship, really, it was the steamship Nobska, built at the Bath Iron Works in Maine in 1925. It had a most mournful, hair-tingling whistle. ( If you ever got bored during the trip (and you did get bored), you could go down to the car deck (the ceiling was too low for modern tractor-trailers) and peer into the engine room below from one of several doorways, and watch the steam engine at work, the crankshaft shiny and flashing as the four great pistons turned it over and over, the beating heart of the ship. Off to one side of the engine was mounted one of those telegraph-dial gizmos for relaying orders from the bridge (Full Ahead / Stop / Slow Astern) like you see in the movies. They don’t let you go down there anymore and besides the engine is a diesel and there’s nothing to see and the crew runs it from the bridge like a car and the whine in there would make you deaf. I don’t know why everything has got to be ruined.

Back to the lunch counter. The Nobska had a well-varnished wooden counter with rounded corners and a curved lip, like a bar you’d see in some classy restaurant. There was just enough opulence, the way there were just enough doughnuts of just the right kind. There were also hot dogs. (The menu board might have called them “frankfurters.”) They were short and plain (and hot) in their oblong buns. Each was handed to you in a sleeve of stiff white paper to make it easier to carry, and to keep the ketchup and mustard off your fingers but I never used any of that stuff anyway. You’d inch the hot dog along, down the sleeve toward its open end as you ate it bite by bite. By the end of the trip, the deck would be littered with empty hot dog sleeves crushed flat underfoot. As with the doughnuts, the hot dogs tasted much better on the ship.

No! It wasn’t always the Nobska! The steamship company had other boats too, including the Islander, the Martha’s Vineyard, and the Nantucket, but that one was an ugly one, and hard to steer as it turned out, a real tub of lard that had “low bidder” written all over it. You didn’t know what boat you were going to get until the family car pulled up to the wharf. It could determine whether your trip got off on the right foot. In my memory, it is always the small-scale, gently-breathing, gently-rolling, little-old-lady Nobska. That’s the thing, when you get down to reminiscing. Some of your best memories are of things that kind of didn’t actually happen.

Other things come in too, like ants to a picnic. I remember seeing a tip jar in a corner of the lunch counter. Years later, I read a news item about a pair of teenagers, one carrying a big, floppy shoulder bag, who approached the Nobska’s lunch counter one day and ordered some coffee. While the counterman’s back was turned, the one with the shoulder bag casually raised it and plopped it on top of the tip jar. Sometime after they had paid and left, the counterman noticed that the tip jar was gone.

I don’t know why these things have to happen! Bittersweet memories, they’re supposed to be pleasant, basically. The bitterness ought to arise simply from the fact that the good old days can never return. Who willingly dredges up unhappiness? Why does it have to butt in where it’s not wanted?

Still. My parents, I recall now, while they were good at making reservations, and prepping and packing (and paying for everything), had trouble getting places on time, especially my dad. We were usually running late by the time we left our house for Woods Hole, and it could get very tense inside that car as time ticked away. More than once, we came close to missing our boat, a potential disaster since space on the ferries was strictly limited and had to be booked months in advance, same as today. I felt this anxiety keenly, keenly, especially in my stomach. Saying nothing, I would use the pain in my gut to push us ahead to get to the boat on time. Please! No more stalled traffic ahead, no more red lights! Please hurry it up, I would silently urge my father, as he bent over the steering wheel, gnawing on the side of his index finger.

Wait! Stop that! Why can’t I have my wistfulness untainted? How hard is that?

Here’s what you do. You settle into a comfy chair with the photo album of your mind, like you’re about to rip open a big old candy bar, one that promises to be exceedingly delicious. Yum! Your memories reveal themselves and they are grand, incomparably grand. They always taste sweet and never give you a sugar headache. There’s never any fuss. You’re a kid! Somebody else will take care of everything and think of everything and smooth the way, and there will never be any need to be troubled about anything, anything at all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Walking Home

It wasn’t a long walk – 5.6 miles to be exact, the distance between the Riverside trolley terminal in Newton and the house in Wellesley where I grew up.

It wasn’t a bad day for a walk – but not a great day either. The afternoon sky was overcast. It felt like rain, though no rain came. A dull and hollow day, neither hot nor cold. I didn’t want to be out walking this far, but I had chosen to walk, so that was that. I knew the way, I wasn’t going to get lost or anything, and I liked walking, in general. I was good at it. Most of the time, it guaranteed that I could be alone. But this time was different. Dressed in a scratchy wool suit, a collar shirt and necktie, and pinchy dress shoes we called brown rounders, from the shape of the toe, I looked and felt uncomfortably odd and out of place. I was 11, or thereabouts. 

What time of year was it? It’s hard to be sure. As I scuffed along towards home, I noticed how much sand and grit there was on the sidewalks; probably I kept kicking it up into my shoes. The front yards of the houses I passed seemed featureless, except for the drifts of dry oak leaves everywhere, with black earth showing underneath. All this makes it sound like a day in early April, though it could have been November. I do know there was nothing promising in the air, but rather a sense of emptiness and dislocation.

But what could you do? That’s what happens when your school tells your parents that there’s something very wrong with the way you’re reading.

Really, there’s a lot I don’t remember about that time, 4th or 5th grade. I must have been adrift. I did actually enjoy reading, up to a point. I liked to read certain books over and over, savoring the sentences. My favorites included science fiction, the encyclopedia, and books with plenty of photos, illustrations, and maps. But late in elementary school, I began to fall behind. I knew that I read slowly – I still do. Maybe a teacher somewhere picked up a deficit in my comprehension or something, I don’t know. The school began sending me down the hall for small-group sessions of “remedial reading.” That was OK, in a way; I liked the feeling of “remedial” on my tongue. But they pulled me out of class for it, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. What else was wrong that they hadn’t told me about? Was I now a “slow learner”? Was I going to be put into a “special class”?

I guess I didn’t make much progress, because my parents decided to send me to Sister Nila’s. I think it must have been one of our parish priests who gave my mother this idea. Sister Nila (with a long i) presided over a battery of Franciscan nuns who did testing and tutoring in a brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Supposedly, if you wanted your kid to learn to read, it was Sister Nila or nothing. I’m not sure I believed it even then.

On the day of my evaluation, my mother got me dressed up in a suit and tie (because she thought that Sister Nila’s was almost like going to church) and dropped me off at Riverside, with enough cash for the trolley fare, and a dime to call home for a ride when I got back (didn’t she?), a slip of paper with Sister Nila’s address written on it, and instructions to get off at Arlington Street. It was a different time, 1961. You sent your kid on his own into the city to have his reading abilities tested by nuns you’d never met, and trusted that it all made sense.

The front door of Sister Nila’s was tall and heavy. Inside, the lighting was dim, the ceiling high, the woodwork polished and thick. Nuns in full habits went briskly about their business. I didn’t get to meet Sister Nila herself; I’m not sure anyone ever did. Instead, I was taken to a room and seated in a chair that had a little tabletop attached to it, and given multiple-choice tests. I remember staring at the test forms, gripping my #2 pencil, and plowing ahead. The test material was confusing, and seemed antiquated. One question featured a drawing of an open-sided trolley car approaching you, the viewer, on curved rails that turned away to your left as they drew near; which of the two rails would be higher? I still think about that one.

I tried to do well. I tried to forget my too-warm suit and tight collar as I read each question. But the only reason I was here was that I had problems with reading in the first place. So how good a score did I think I was going to get?

After a few hours I was headed back to Riverside, feeling very mixed up about the whole experience. I tried to understand what I had done wrong, to cause all this. Because I must have done something wrong. I tried to imagine how these well-meaning grown-ups could possibly fix the machinery inside my head that was letting everybody down. Soon, I simply began to feel numb. When we got to terminal, I chose not to step over to the phone booth and call my mother. I still don’t know why. Had I lost the dime? Had I never been given a dime? Was I carrying no cash of my own? Perhaps, now that I think of it, I didn’t want to call. Perhaps I just didn’t want to have to do that. Why risk being a nuisance? Speaking of nuisances, why have to answer, all the sooner, her questions about how the testing had gone?

In my mind I can see this slight figure in the bulky suit walking steadily alongside busy Route 9, eyes on the ground, with the dry leaves rattling and the gray sky pressing down, and while it is not tragic, there is something amiss in it. For most people, an easy, companionable ride after a long day would be a given. Who would turn away from that? Who walks those miles of lonely sidewalks instead?

Maybe I didn’t phone because, for a few unchallenged hours, I wanted to be free of it all, as free as I could be.

Road Trip

For now, I’m going to pass up the opportunity to tell you about a van full of nebbishy college kids from Boston getting pulled over in Oakland one August night in 1971 by a squad of shotgun-toting plainclothes cops (“we thought you mighta been some Black Panthers or somethin’”). Surely this was one of the highlights of a two-week, pedal-to-the-metal trip from Cambridge to San Francisco and back, but it’s too obvious. Besides, it has a predictable development-climax-resolution structure, and today I’m looking for something different.

The trip I’m going to tell you about was a short one, also at night, also in the early seventies, over the stretch of Interstate 95 from Providence to Route 128 in suburban Boston.

The trippers were myself and my younger brother Ned. At the time, Ned was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and I was a recent Harvard graduate, living at home, driving a cab part-time, and looking for work in radio wherever I could — Albany, Portland, Philadelphia, Washington. It was autumn. Ned liked to work evening shifts at WBRU, the Brown student station atop College Hill, and I liked to drop down to Providence occasionally and sit in while he did his show.

It was past dusk when we walked out of the station, having decided to go up to Boston that night. Planning ahead wasn’t one of our strengths. Thinking back now, I probably had borrowed our mom’s car earlier in the day (“I’ll have it back by tonight!”) and parked it at the Riverside terminal off Route 128, taken the T into South Station, and the New Haven down to Providence. (Any excuse for a real train ride.) So Riverside was where we had to get back to. But we figured the next northbound train might not be until morning, and anyway, we didn’t have enough cash between us for the fare. So, we decided to hitch.

You’re not supposed to hitchhike. Everybody knows that. It’s illegal and it’s dangerous. And, two men hitching together, at night — who’s going to be dumb enough to pick them up?

But we were young and invincible. (Weren’t we, though. We were also acutely self-conscious, two privileged children from a posh suburb trying our best to be city-cool.) And so we made our way down the hill and over to the nearest ramp to 95 North. We positioned ourselves in the breakdown lane where oncoming traffic could get a look at us, and stuck our thumbs out.

Our first ride, a low-slung Chevy sedan, came along in minutes. Success! And so soon! We ran up and opened the passenger doors. At the wheel was a man of uncertain age with drooping eyelids and an impassive face. He didn’t speak to us, not at any point, or look at us, or shift his gaze away from the windshield.

We hesitated then, just for a moment. What really got me was the noise coming from his radio. Roaring out of the dashboard was a blitz of decibels with a heavy, merciless beat, a grating (to my ears) music of the urban night, and Mr. X was tapped into it at top volume and maximum distortion. It howled and scraped out of the open doors and into the night. Still we held back. Traffic flew by us, hissing cars and snorting trucks, headlights and taillights flashing stroboscopically.

Then we got in, Ned in back and me in front. We didn’t exchange looks. Mr. X pulled out into traffic. I noticed that he had arranged himself behind the wheel in a slouch so extreme that he was almost lying down. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to his speed, or the lane markings. He fingered the steering wheel lightly, carelessly, with two fingers of one hand, as the car weaved unpredictably from lane to lane. Why had this man given us a ride? If he was headed anywhere at all, Boston probably wasn’t it. I began to wonder if he was one of those fatally embittered people who was thinking about doing himself in, perhaps this very night, and had picked us up so as to have some company on his final ride.

After watching a few miles of Providence slide by in this way, and fearing that it might not end well, one of us piped up in his best well-mannered, college-boy voice, “Hey, this is good right here, mister — could you just drop us off, right over here?” And he did. We called out “Thank you!” as he slid away into the northbound flow, somewhere between Providence and Pawtucket.

There we waited in the dark wind of rushing vehicles with our pale thumbs out, for much longer this time, a half hour or more. Route 95 is a speedway at this point, and no one was stopping. We were starting to think about marching the five miles back to Ned’s dorm when another dark sedan pulled over, this one with three men inside. I opened the right rear door, and an empty beer can rolled out and hit the pavement with a sharp KLANG. If this was a sign, we ignored it. We were cold now, it was getting late, and we couldn’t afford to be choosy.

We both got in the back. The trio looked like members of a down-on-their-luck Grateful Dead tribute band. The driver had Pigpen’s beard, scowl, and Tex-Mex cowboy hat. The tall guy riding shotgun was mute and aloof behind thick glasses, like Phil Lesh. The skinny, wide-eyed guy in back looked so much like Bob Weir, I wondered who these men really were. But his eyes were fearful and his coat was worn and stained, and he shrank away from us into his corner. The car smelled like old beer inside, very cheap old beer. These weren’t celebrities of any sort.

Before long, Pigpen took a Pawtucket exit, and suddenly we were cruising the side streets of that broken city, looking for…what? This sure wasn’t getting us to Riverside! Soon, he slowed down near a house on the left, where we could see a number of women either standing around in the yard or lounging on the front porch, as if it were a warm summer evening. “Mm-mmm!” Pigpen said in a low but emphatic voice as he pulled to the curb. “Goin’ get me some o’ that!

Ned and I weren’t invited to join in. Before he got out, Pigpen flung one denim arm over the seat back and turned towards us. “See these train tracks over here? Just follow them along and they’ll take you back t’ the highway.” (He might have said, “Y’all jist follow them along...”)

Somewhere in Pawtucket, 95 climbs out of a deep, curving trough and ascends towards the state border on an incline, long and straight. It was there that we stood for some length of time, hoping for a ride that would maybe, at least, get us out of Rhode Island. It was now too far, and not at all safe, to walk back to RISD. The streams of headlights rose up and flew past, not stopping, never ever stopping, until, towards midnight, another old sedan pulled in just beyond us.

It was this carload of bespectacled students, all high on something but otherwise fully functioning, that got us the rest of the way to a turnout on 128 near Riverside. There’s no story attached to this third ride, other than to say that the drowsy driver drove too fast and had a hard time staying in his lane (the one on the far left). He kept encroaching on the median strip. His lefthand tires would kick up clouds of dust and sand from the roadside, and the car would wobble, like a motorboat plowing its way through choppy water.

But that’s 95 for you. To me, it has always lacked an appealing character of its own. There’s little to make you fond of it; maybe it was built that way on purpose. Unlike Route 66 or Highway 61, it has inspired no memorable songs. It’s just a thirty-mile ride that you have to get through and get over, and then your life can begin again.


Each spring along the New England coast, river herring come from far out at sea in large numbers to spawn in fresh water, pushing against the flow of streams large and small, sometimes traveling many miles inland. Mature fish are reputed to return to the same brooks and rivers from which they emerged in a past season as juveniles. If you stand in the shallows at night in just the right place and swing a long-poled net through the water, you will have fish to take home.

River herring are really two species, the alewife and the blueback herring. To a novice like me, they look the same: both are streamlined and silver-sided, about a foot long. The females and males can also be hard to tell apart, though it’s easier during spawning, when the females are plump with roe, the spongy mass of tiny eggs they are coming ashore to release.

Just as herring aim for the places where fresh water spills into the sea, people bearing nets have traditionally gathered there to meet them. No fancy gear is required, and herring make excellent fertilizer for spring gardens. With a little effort, they can be made delectable. You don’t need a permit (at least, no one asked to see mine), just access to the shore after dusk, for herring are most active at night. Darkness blots out the typically pleasant coastal scenery, making the fishery secretive, and a little spooky. Night fishing puts you directly in touch with certain strong forces of nature: the rhythmic tides, the ancient urge to hunt, the headlong rush of migrating fish out of the ocean and into your net.

Back in the early seventies, I was still in school and knew nothing about this. Late on a Saturday afternoon in April, a bunch of us were hanging around the student radio station in Cambridge when somebody’s girlfriend, who, it turned out, had grown up on the Rhode Island shore, began to lobby for a road trip to go “herrining” back in her old neighborhood. After a while it became clear that herring were fish that did something interesting in spring, and that she meant right now.

Curious, and having nothing better to do, I squeezed into the back of a car with some friends and away we went. Two hours and many turns later, we arrived after dark at a weatherbeaten old house, a seemingly vast structure that stretched up and away into the night. A single lightbulb illuminated the dooryard and little else. I could hear waves breaking on a beach nearby, but couldn’t tell how close they were. A quarter mile? A stone’s throw? I could smell salt water and rotting seaweed. A cool, insistent wind came off the ocean, and I wondered if I should have brought a warmer coat. I didn’t know exactly where in Rhode Island this was, but it was clear that we were down near the bottom edge of it, where the roads end and the land runs out.

A small crowd of local friends and relatives was inside, everyone getting ready for the herrining, though some would be satisfied to wait indoors in the warmth until we got back. Now came the mild chaos of searching through closets for fishing nets and rubber wading boots for everyone, plus extra hats and coats, the idea being to outfit ourselves as well as possible from a makeshift assortment of vintage, salt-encrusted gear. Please hurry it up, the fish won’t wait! Then back out into our cars and into the night. Our little convoy nosed onto the road we had come in on, then turned onto a side road, then another, until we were headed down a narrow dirt lane towards the sea. When our headlights went dark, there was only the glow of a nearly full moon, partly hidden behind clouds, to guide us. A couple of us fumbled with flashlights but were admonished to “Shut those off! We can see better without ’em!”

It wasn’t a long walk to the beach, or a wide beach to cross. The ocean was waiting for us, beyond a low slope of broken shells and coarse sand. I heard water percolating under our squeaking, wobbling boots, and realized that a little stream originating from somewhere up behind us made its exit to the sea right here. Here is where the fish would come.

In we waded until the water reached our knees. Though mostly still shaded by passing clouds edged with silver, the moonlight was strong, outshining the stars, and the sky all around us was a deep metallic blue. Gentle waves, less than a foot high, passed among us and broke on the beach behind, each with a soft swish. We were hunters now, a mysterious knot of dark, stooped figures, waiting for something to happen.

The wind rose softly. The waves became more frequent, and higher. Something had shifted. The shallows around us were dark as ink, and we couldn’t see anything at all down there, but a few of us tentatively swept our nets through the water anyway. “There!” Someone hoisted a dripping net against the sky; a lively fish could be seen flipping around inside. Now someone else had caught two, maybe three, one of which succeeded in flipping back out of the net.

Moments later, it felt like a powerful searchlight had been switched on and was pointed at us. It was the moon, now free of the clouds, bright as a young sun, it seemed, and exerting its pull on human, fish, and sea. The herring began to surge at us. The water around our boots bubbled and boiled. Fish fins broke the surface on all sides. Behind us, herring beached themselves and somersaulted up the slope, following the thin stream of fresh water. Each time we swung our nets we scooped up three, four, five or more. The plastic bags we’d brought began to fill up. What were we going to do with all these fish?

I don’t need to tell you that life is often messy, and this was no exception. The bottom was mostly flat and sandy but there were rocks here and there, and some of us stumbled and fell, or collided, dropping our nets and soaking our clothes. Often the mounting waves slopped icy-cold into our not-quite-tall-enough boots. There was shouting and splashing and laughter, and the honeydew moon rising over it all.

In less than an hour we had all the herring we could carry. We stumped over to our cars, threw in our gear and bulging bags of fish, and bounced up the narrow lane and back to the house. Bright lights shone in the high-ceilinged kitchen, and everything seemed smeared with seawater, excitement, fatigue, and fish scales. By now, the fish we had caught were no longer very alive, or alive at all. I found out that the next step was to sort them, skinny males over here, plump-bellied females over there. The males were going to be dug into the gardens (by somebody, some time), while the females were going to be gutted for their roe (by us, right now) with sharpened knives. That is, we were going to butcher them.

At this point, I began to be troubled by what we were doing. It seemed cruel and wasteful. What was the point, exactly, of all this catching and killing? Here was an inarguably beautiful fish that had traveled great distances along ancient pathways, using senses we didn’t possess or understand, and, seeking only to propagate, had run straight into our nets, and our knives. Was this even ethical? Sure, people had been taking herring here for a very long time, hoping and trying to catch as many as they could — but because their survival in some way depended on it, not for an evening of primitive fun. And most of our fish never got put away properly, I’m sorry to say, and instead were thrown into the yard, where they began to stink, and so ended up as a free breakfast for gangs of noisy gulls, out beyond the salt-streaked windows.

Yes, we stayed the night. There was room enough in the corners of the old house for all of us to sleep. In the morning, we took turns scrambling eggs over a venerable gas range, and those who wanted to fry up some roe, glistening peach-yellow and ruby-red, could do so. I did. It was fishy, naturally, with a grainy texture, one of those tastes people call “acquired.” Mostly, it simply tasted wild.

The following April, I came back to this place and once again joined an excited crew to go herrining in the moonlight; I guess I must be a hunter at heart. But you can’t re-create such fragile events. Even while they’re happening, you know it won’t be the same again. This time it was a colder night, and the herring, gathered offshore, knew enough not to approach the stream of fresh water, where their eggs would surely go to waste beneath the frosty air. We caught a few strays, and that was all. Before long, the old-timers in the group turned and left for home. After a while, so did the rest of us.