norbert blei | minding faulkner | part 2 | writer-at-work

7 10 2009

William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable typewriter in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi in Oxford as a museum.

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 201 | October 7, 2009


Part ll

Norbert Blei

To take a full measure of a writer’s life, work, character, I relish the possibility and surprise of looking beyond the book, the style, the body of work he or she is most noted for.

Yes, Faulkner IS Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying… (Hemingway IS The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea; Tolstoy IS War and Peace, etc.) but could there be something else that might prove revealing?

I see within most serious writers both ‘the dancer’ and ‘the walker”–or the pedestrian. The dancer, in Faulkner’s case, is exemplified in the passage I quoted from his story “The Bear” in the previous entry (#200), Part I.

The dancer is where the art lies, where discovery lives, where everything comes together, words and ideas in a swirl…there is form, rhythm, movement…there is meaning and beauty and immense satisfaction. It’s the magic act, right before the writer’s eyes. He can hardly believe his own words—coming from where? He is in that zone again, where time has no meaning, the day disappears.

The ‘walker’ is more careful, deliberate, perhaps a little unsure of his steps … casting an eye before, around, glimpsing back at times. Leisurely. He checks his watch. Moves in a straight line. Time may be of the essence, but there is no hurry. He’s fairly certain where he is headed, that he will accomplish what he set out to do. He slows to examine a plant, stops to turn over stone, pick up a stick, check a bird in a tree…all the while proceeding toward his destination, almost within sight. Just ahead.

Here’s Faulkner, in that ‘pedestrian’ mode. Faulkner on Camus… Hemingway…Melville.

Great stuff. Insightful.

Albert Camus

CAMUS said that the only true function of man, born into an absurd world, is to live, be aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom. He said that if the only solution to the human dilemma is death, then we are on the wrong road. The right track is the one that leads to life, to the sunlight. One cannot unceasingly suffer from the cold.

So he did revolt. He did refuse to suffer from the unceasing cold. He did refuse to follow a track which led only to death. The track he followed was the only possible one which could not lead only to death. The track he followed led into the sunlight in being that one devoted to making with our frail powers and our absurd material, something which had not existed in life until we made it.

He said, ‘I do not like to believe that death opens upon another life. To me, it is a door that shuts.’ That is, he tried to believe that. But he failed. Despite himself, as all artists are, he spent that life searching himself and demanding of himself answers which only God could know; when he became the Nobel laureate of his year, I wired him ‘On salut l’ame qui constamment se cherche et se demande’; why did he not quit then, if he did not want to believe in God?

At the very instant he struck the tree, he was still searching and demanding of himself; I do not believe that in that bright instant he found them. I do not believe they are to be found. I believe they are only to be searched for, constantly, always by some fragile member of the human absurdity. Of which there are never many, but always somewhere at least one, and one will always be enough.

People will say He was too young; he did not have time to finish. But it is not How long, it is not How much; it is, simply What. When the door shut for him, he had already written on this side of it that which every artist who also carries through life with him that one same foreknowledge and hatred of death, is hoping to do: I was here. He was doing that, and perhaps in that bright second he even knew he had succeeded. What more could he want?

[from: ESSAYS SPEECHES & PUBIC LETTERS by William Faulkner, edited by James B. Meriwether, Random House, 1965. Originally published in Transatlantic Review, Spring 1961; the text printed here has been taken from Faulkner's typescript.]

The Old Man and the Sea

His BEST. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

[from: ESSAYS, SPEECHES & PUBLIC LETTERS…Originally published in Shenandoah, III (Autumn 1952)]


It is a difficult question. I can name offhand several books which I should like to have written, if only for the privilege of rewriting parts of them. But I dare say there are any number of angels in heaven today (particularly recent American arrivals) who look down upon the world and muse with a little regret on how much neater they would have done the job than the Lord, in the fine heat of His creative fury, did.

I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought “I wish I had written that” is Moby Dick. The Greek-like simplicity of it: a man of forceful character driven by his sombre nature and his bleak heritage, bent on his own destruction and dragging his immediate world down with him with a despotic and utter disregard of them as individuals; the fine point to which the various natures caught (and passive as though with a foreknowledge of unalterable doom) in the fatality of his blind course are swept—a sort of Golgotha of the heart become immutable as bronze in the sonority of its plunging ruin; all against the grave and tragic rhythm of the earth in its most timeless phase: the sea. And the symbol of their doom: a White Whale. There’s a death for a man, now; none of your patient pasturage for little grazing beasts you can’t even see with the naked eye. There’s magic in the very word. A White Whale. White is a grand word, like a crash of massed trumpets; and leviathan himself has a kind of placid blundering majesty in his name. And then put them together!!! A death for Achilles, and the divine maidens of Patmos to mourn him, to harp white-handed sorrow on their golden hair.

And yet, when I remember Moll Flanders and all her teeming and rich fecundity like a market-place where all that had survived up to that time must bide and pass; or when I recall When We Were Very Young, I can wish without any effort at all that I had thought of that before Mr. Milne did.


* Faulkner was one of a number of authors asked what book they would most like to have written.

[from: ESSAYS, SPEECHES & PUBLIC LETTERS…Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, July 16,1927]

norbert blei | minding faulkner | part 1

5 10 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 200 | October 4, 2009


Minding Faulkner…
Part I

Norbert Blei

today, this morning. Another rainy, overcast, cold dead morning …the trunks of trees darkened with rain water…the woods drenched in the scent of decay…the dying already on its way in the suddenness of wind, falling temperatures…in the hands of hunters spotting deer, surveying the forests after dark…yet the green prevails, momentarily…green leaves of maple, birch, beech…greener still, rain-washed, awaiting final falling act of color…those stretched out, singularly beautiful days of light spangled in braches, free falling in waves down to earth… before winter rearranges the landscape once more in starkness, sharp texture…

I carry three books of Faulkner to the coop from last night…books I took from the shelf at god knows what awkward hour of darkness, or why. Faulkner? Someone I’ve never been that close to in all my writing life…someone I turn back to upon occasion…an image…a remembrance of a story (“A Rose for Emily,” “The Bear”)…some recollection of the author’s life or words, suddenly brought to mind.

Maybe it was the beginning of Garrison Keillor’s, The Writer’s Almanac for September, 25th– Faulkner’s birthday…that I was remembering

September 25th….is the birthday of William Faulkner born in New Albany, Mississippi , 1897. He liked to get up early, eat a breakfast of eggs and broiled steak and lots of coffee, and then take his tobacco and pipe and go to his study. He took off the doorknob and carried it inside with him. There he wrote his novels by hand on large sheets of paper, and then typed them out with two fingers on an old Underwood portable. He was prolific this way — in a four-year span, he published some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Or maybe it was coming across those old books of his on my shelves…NEW ORLEANS SKETCHES by William Faulkner, which I purchased from my favorite used book dealer, Paul Romaine, back in Chicago…1959? The writer within me, just beginning to stir. Romaine placing this very early book of Faulkner (only 25 when he wrote it?) in my (about the same age then?) hands—saying, in effect: “Read this. Early Faulkner. When he met Sherwood Anderson (already a favorite of mine) in New Orleans.” This, a paperback edition, published in Japan, The Hokuseido Press, $1.50.– which I read that evening, thinking: This is newspaper work, apprentice stuff…(not realizing that some of the pieces were indeed freelanced by Faulkner for the Times-Picayune)…that this was the kind of stuff I was beginning to learn to write and publish for Chicago newspapers and magazines… And certainly not quite realizing at the time that this is where it all begins–or once did for young writers who fed newspapers, which in turn nourished young writers—Anderson, Hemingway, Faulkner, Sandburg, Masters…

Early Faulkner/New Orleans for sure (I see now)…no sense of what lies ahead, just the sheer joy of being in ‘place’, observing, listening…turning everything into words, scenes …’sketches’–in search of stronger forms, firmer language… heft, resonance, all that it takes to raise the voice to story—that stays

More birthday bio from Garrison’s Almanac:

He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. When he was 24, he went north when a friend got him a job at the Doubleday bookstore in New York. His uncle, a judge in Oxford, said, “He ain’t ever going to amount to a damn — not a damn.” At first, Faulkner was a good salesman, but pretty soon he started telling his customers not to read the “trash” they wanted to buy. He went back to Oxford and took a position as a fourth-class postmaster at the University of Mississippi, but he was forced to resign because he kept magazines until he’d read them, let holiday hams spoil before he delivered them, and closed down early to drive out to the golf course in his yellow Model T Ford. He went to New Orleans, where he met the writer Sherwood Anderson. In college, Faulkner had written poetry, but Anderson said: “You’ve got too much talent. You can do it too easy, in too many different ways. If you’re not careful, you’ll never write anything.” Anderson encouraged him to try fiction, and Faulkner moved into his apartment and wrote his first novel , Soldiers‘ Pay (1926).

I never read SOLDIER’S PAY. Never read much of his poetry. I re-read SANCTUARY and THE SOUND AND THE FURY a few years ago. Marvels, both. Yet neither book ‘comfortable’ to my reading nature. (I am not alone.) Still the writer, the work continues to nudge one—in my darkest hours? I promise to return to him more often…something there, in him, I need to know, to learn, to untangle the privacy (honor?) of his provincial (sophisticated?) art. (Heart?)

William Faulkner’s most violent book was probably Sanctuary (1931), which he first wrote as a potboiler. He wanted it to shock people. He said he wrote it after having “made a thorough and methodical study of everything on the list of best-sellers. When I thought I knew what the public wanted, I decided to give them a little more than they had been getting.” There are nine murders mentioned in the story, and a college student is raped with a corncob by a gangster. When Faulkner’s publisher read it, he said, “Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.” But Sanctuary was published, and it sold more copies in three weeks than The Sound and the Fury sold in two years. When his wife read it, she said, “It’s horrible.” Faulkner said, “It’s meant to be.”

William Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.”

[Source: The Writer’s Almanac, September 25, 2009]

Last night, along his New Orleans Sketches , I pulled a small paperback from the shelf: THE PRIVATE WORLD OF WILLIAM FAULKNER by Robert Coughlan, An Avon Book, 50¢. (1953).Though old, dusty, discolored, the book is brand new. A biographical portrait. Untouched—but for a bookmark only 36 pages in, beginning with Chapter 3: “The Artist as a Young Man.” As far as I read…all those years ago. I thumb through the slim volume and come upon this…

William Faulkner is a small, wiry man with closely cropped iron-gray hair; an upswept mus¬tache of a darker color; a thin, high-bridged aqui¬line nose; heavy-lidded and deeply set brown eyes in which melancholy, calculation and humor variously are reflected; and a face tanned and webbed, especially near the eyes, with the creases and lines and tiny tracings of advancing middle age and the erosion of many days spent in the open in all weathers. He is entirely self-possessed, with a manner easy, courteous, speculative, and deadly. He is a quiet man; yet when he is at ease, with his short legs outstretched and a blackened pipe in his thin lips, and perhaps a drink at his elbow, he is like a somnolent cat who still in the wink of an eye could kill a mouse. Faulkner does not look or act like what he is. He acts like a farmer who had studied Plato and looks like a river gam¬bler. In the way he looks there is something old-fashioned, even archaic.

I place the book next to my chair to read straight through, another night soon. “Ruthless” settles in. If I could sleep, I would. But the woods, the cold, the darkness, the “Time”…the end of summer, the persistence of fall, (the stalk, the hunt—THE END)…death in the woods/winter…all this and Faulkner got my mind going again…I go back to the shelf to find and feed on more of his work…Where was that beautiful rippling prose passage from “The Bear”?

He was sixteen. For six years now he had been a man’s hunter. For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:–of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any part of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey…. It was of the men, not white nor black nor red but men, hunters, with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and deer juxtaposed and reliefed against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and unmitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter; — the best game of all, the best of all breathing and forever the best of all listening, the voices quiet and weighty and deliberate for retrospection and exactitude among the concrete trophies — the racked guns and the heads and skins — in the libraries of town houses or the offices of plantation houses or (and best of all) in the camps themselves where the intact and still-warm meat yet hung, the men who had slain it sitting before the burning logs on hearths when there were houses and hearths or about the smoky blazing piled wood in front of stretched tarpaulins when there were not. There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and speed but in salute to them. Thus it seemed to him on the December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whiskey.

norbert blei | addendum

20 09 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 199 | September 20, 2009


to the Word Riot Interview, September 16, 2009

Norbert Blei

Let me begin by thanking everybody who responded to this interview via e-mail or in the commentary section of the Word Riot interview conducted by writer David Hoenigman. I’m humbled, appreciative, encouraged by the community of readers and writers out there—of all ages. Which brings me to the reason for this addendum.

There’s a question that David Hoenigman asked me in the interview that continues to bother me because I feel I did not give it enough serious thought. My reply seems too quick, a little ‘smart-ass’ bordering on arrogant, though that was not my intention. I was caught up no doubt in the momentary rush of “MY answer”—dismissing, in a way, the source and sense of the Word Riot website for something different, distant, more esoteric. Thus my reply, ‘More foreign than American’, instead of a more perceptive answer for “new authors,” American perhaps, though I have no knowledge if the interviewer had this in mind. Nevertheless…David asked (and I replied):

DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

NB: More foreign than American. And they are ‘new’ (most of them) only because I may have either recently discovered them—or finally gotten around to reading them.

As I study Word Riot’s engaging website more carefully, run through all the work and names of new, unknown writers (to me)…working/writing hard to be heard, I am reminded of my own long journey…how many little mags I submitted work to in the 60’s and 70’s, from mimeograph publications, to beautiful literary quarterlies. How I longed for a tidbit of recognition: “That was a good story you wrote.” How many early stories were rejected or occasionally accepted. Just how long this apprenticeship takes—or never ends. How many writers finally give up, drop out, start selling life insurance…settle for less, or something else. The whole process wears you down. Makes you angry. Bitter. Resigned. But you’re either a writer or you’re not. Only you and time can tell. Recognized, unrecognized. Success has nothing to do with it.

Writers are new and unknown. And just as many of them: older and unknown …forgotten… ‘successful’ (some of them) in that they may have established a good track record of publications through the years–books, articles, essays, stories, poems. But almost nobody knows their name. I try to be mindful of this with my own small press, mixing the new with the old … occasionally presenting ‘veteran’ writers such as the late Curt Johnson, his work, his dedication to the small press movement in America.

Though books by strangers arrive in my mail frequently, subscriptions to various little mags call for my attention, it’s clear I can no longer keep up with all the new writers, given the even wider distribution of work in our times: online writing, print-by-demand, YouTube. I can only look in awe at the whole process, catch hold of whatever drifts into my hands, before my eyes–often by pure chance. The same way Word Riot was passed on to me via a link by writer John Bennett—and an unknown writer (to me), David Hoenigman, wondered if I would write something, submit to a few questions.

That’s precisely the way the small press/little mag publication (now, online publishing) has always worked. That’s the lifeblood. The ‘underground’ circulation. Writers aware of each other—and spreading the word, if and when the spirit moves them. Of course there’s competition, jealousy, mean-spiritedness, maybe guilt…but there’s also generosity. People in the arts, especially, need to be reminded of this. It’s not always, just about ‘you’—but maybe that strange bird out there in Mississippi writing such real/raw/incredible stories, his sentences running on and on with no tolerance for punctuation, or that shy woman in Massachusetts, dressed all in white, knocking out those small, mystifying poems, stashing most of them in her dresser drawer till the day she dies.

I didn’t/don’t know David Hoenigman, who interviewed me, and still don’t. Though, because he asked something of me, I’ve since discovered a little here and there about him. He’s the ‘younger generation’ of that I’m sure. Probably ‘lost’—where every new generation of writers finds itself. Years galore no doubt separate David from me, though the beauty of the writing-life: this doesn’t matter. He lives ands writes from Japan, though how and why he (an American from Cleveland) landed there, I have not a clue. He has, to my knowledge, one book to his name so far. Not a book I know or have read—but will, eventually. And I’m going to BUY a copy—for his sake, a new writer.

You can learn more about David on two great websites/publications. The fact that he got some ink in Rain Taxi almost make me jealous. A superb publication. I’ve never appeared there—and wish now that I had tried. Time, time, time….

You’ll find an excellent interview concerning David and his work in Rain Taxi at

and can read an excerpt from his book, BURN YOUR BELONGINGS in Smoke Box at

Judging from the interview of him and the engaging excerpt from his book, I see and am reminded that David (and occasionally other new writers) seems taken with what we once called ‘experimental writing.’ Which I find a good and necessary thing. If you journeyed your way through writing-as-a-life with some success but never stopped to smell the roses of experimental writing—your education remains incomplete. It may be too late; then again, it may not.

While this remains a playing field for the young, for awhile…some of our ‘elders’ who stayed with it found such meaning and satisfaction there, they never left. But remained, sometimes confused, mumbling to themselves, their work perhaps unreadable/unread–or, turned over the soil so deep, reached new heights at such depths, blossomed in a way or a work or language exclusively their own. Let me throw out the name James Joyce. His one book which changed the course of modern literature.

But I’m getting carried away with the subject, with myself. Let me wrap this up.

For David, and other new, ‘experimental’ writers. I envy your interest and work in that area. I loved, and occasionally still practice it myself. It is a great teacher of narrative, of image, of patterns. It can open the mind like the breath of a fresh haiku.

However—-never think you have discovered anything new. It’s ALL been done before. From automatic writing to flash fiction to…you name it. Lit critics are as good as New York fashion folk in slapping new names to old concepts. Have you ever read Raymond Queneau? Jean-Francois Bory? Henri Michaux? Apollinaire? How concrete can writing get? kitasono katue’, Gerhard Ruhn, Carlo Belloli, ??? If you’ve never met Francis Ponge upon the page—you’re in for one hell of an introduction. He’ll steal your mind away. The diaries of Gombrowwicz will take you to places you cannot imagine. If essay is your calling: what’s a feuilleton (see Ludvik Vaculik) or a cronica (see Clarice Lispector)—which may be different names for things we already know, though conceived in different ways.

Bern Porter comes to mind too…once published by Something Else Press in the early 70’s—which was really something else. Both the press and the lively literary times. Find every Something Else Press book or pamphlet you can lay your hands on. Look up Dick Higgins sometime—boy, could he/did he set the table for a language feast. What else can a writer do and learn about us—experimenting with our everyday language of life?

No, you have not discovered something new. You are only fine-tuning the process but—with any luck, making it a little more your own. Which is no little thing.

Sooner or later, as I said before, it all comes back to story. Where it begins. If you lose that in the process of experimenting with words to make meaning, you’ve lost your reader and yourself.

ULYSSES is just an old, old story. Made different, anew, alive in the language of Joyce.

norbert blei | cabin fever

5 07 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.187 | July 4, 2009

Editor’s Intro to Summer:

This is the weekend of the 4th of July. Officially summer in these parts for many. Summer ends whenever school bells ring. A solemn note. A memorable sadness. Something akin to a judicial sentencing: time to be served.

But there is both essence and absence to the nature of time in summer. Measured, if at all, by a daily offering of sunshine, blue skies, perfect temperatures…the feeling you will live forever. This is what Eden must have been all about. Still calling us home

Summer here in northern, Midwestern America, and other parts of the world as well, is all about escape. From and to. And part of that destination (summer and fall/winter) remains the old cabin…in the woods…by a lake…

I don’t believe there was a cabin in biblical Eden.

But I do believe they are on the endangered local cultural habitations list. Almost extinct—the originals.

You may have to search the deepest woods, nameless little lakes, farthest reaches of True North to find what I’m talking about.

Lucky the person who does…whatever the season. Summer especially. –Norbert Blei

Cabin Fever

by Norbert Blei

As change makes itself seen, felt upon a way of life and place and work once rural…going, going, going…..gone…
Gone the way of the outhouse, the chicken coop, the windmill, the granary, the machine shed, the milk house, the corncrib, the root cellar, the cistern, the pigsty, the silo, the woodshed, the red barn, the white farmhouse, the home-made flagpole (hewn from a cedar tree) with American flag flying in a blue sky…
goodbye, too, “a cabin in the woods”.
Urban sprawl, urban folks, urban values
assaulting the spirit of the rural, the rustic, the real,

reducing open land and shoreline to NO TRESSPASSING `property’. ..
But welcome Mr. & Mrs. Moreanmore and their minions,
in their million dollar mansions with stone pillar entrances
studded with bronze plaques: “Innisfree”, “Sherwood Forest”, “Dreamthorp”;
gated developments;
class condominiums (Cottage Cove);
phony farmsteads, phony farmers, phony farm animals (llamas in Dairyland). ..
Give me a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ break.

Be mindful of the cabin, I say to no one in particular.
Look and you shall still find them, here and there.
A cabin beside a small blue lake in summer…

A cabin under a canopy of golden maples in autumn…
A cabin buried deep in the woods, deep in snow.
Pause, pay attention, your last respects. Circle the dwelling in reverie.
Peer into the windows.
Try the door. Take up a chair and sit down.
Leave everything untouched. And do not forget:

  • -one room
  • -in a woods
  • -facing water or within the sound of water
  • -made of pine…inside and out..
  • -a saggy pine wood floor that creaks with each footfall
  • -no insulation…bare studs, honey-colored with time…
  • -nails sticking through the water-stained walls inside
  • -a penciled note stuck through the nail sticking through the inside wall
  • -`Ernest’ it reads `firewood, eggs, tape, raspberry jam.’
  • -a wood stove with a stove pipe poking through a torn shingled roof
  • -the lingering smell of wood smoke in winter…soot marks
  • -a wooden screen door with rusty, spring action:
  • BANG BANG BANG. open/shut/open/shut/open/shut/open/shut
  • -a warped wooden front door that doesn’t shut …
  • -a back wooden door locked, with no key
  • -space at the bottom of both doors and around all the window to let the cold air in
  • -old coffee cans and a rusty bucket to catch the rain leaking in through the roof
  • -spider webs in the corners and most of the windows
  • -moths on the screens all summer long
  • -garter snakes under the cabin
  • -frost, ice, snow, on the window glass
  • -mismatched windows, one in each wall, two with muslin curtains, two without
  • -flies, fly swatters, sticky fly paper, dead flies … spiders … ants…mosquitoes …lady bugs…lightning bugs…bats…toads…field mice…wasp nest under an eave outside…
  • -a cardboard box of faded newspapers and kindling wood
  • -rag rugs
  • -a boxes of wooden matches, Diamond brand
  • -burnt candles and kerosene lamps…
  • -an overhead lighting fixture with a 40 watt bulb
  • -three windows with cracked glass
  • -a girlie calendar (1953) “Harold’s Auto Repairs” hanging near the kitchen sink
  • -open shelves above an old gas stove filled with Melmac ware, a couple of cracked China plates, and coffee cups, all but two with the handles broken off
  • -dripping faucet
  • -rust-stained enamel sink
  • -a tiny piece of Lux soap, almost translucent, resting on the windowsill above the sink
  • -a rose floral patterned drape of washed-out material hanging on a piece of string covering the plumbing beneath the sink and a new bar of Fels Naptha soap.
  • -a galvanized bucket
  • -a rag mop in the kitchen corner and a red wooden broom worn sharp to an angle, broken straw every which way
  • -three wooden Victory mousetraps, one still armed with hard old cheese
  • -a cabinet drawer filled with mismatched dinnerware: knives, forks, not enough spoons… a rusted church key can opener, a dull bread knife, a broken spatula, and a large chipped enamel ladle…
  • -two burned pot holder near a gas burner too clogged to light.
  • -a maple-armed sofa covered in a torn blue bedspread across the back and an Indian blanket spread put the length to sit upon
  • -a blue knitting needle and three pennies lost between the cushions
  • -a rustic, wobbly wooden chair, cane seat coming apart, made from branches and a small and an apple crate end-table beside it with torn covers of National Geographic, the Reader’s Digest and fishing magazines.
  • -an old army cot in one corner, covered in an old woolen army blanket
  • -a wooden kitchen table covered in yellow oil cloth with cigarette burns on two sides and three mismatched painted wooden chairs
  • -a flat rock from the lake to set hot pots upon
  • -a shelf behind the front door holding a black and red check flannel hunting cap
  • and four broken clothes hooks on the wall beneath the shelf, with three wire hangers one of them holding a navy blue woolen sweater filled with moth holes
  • -a small bathroom, just a stool, with just enough room to squeeze into and hook the door with an almost empty roll of toilet paper behind you on the tank along with a book of matches: “Ed and Rosie’s Knot Inn”
  • -or an outhouse, with an ancient aroma both nostalgic and non-describable, light streaming in between the cracks, a huge spider web in one corner, old newspaper and Sears catalogs
  • -some evidence of a dog…an old collar, a chain leash…
  • -more evidence of fishing gear: bamboo poles, rods, reels, tangled lines, weights, bobbers, hooks, broken lures
  • -a musty, moldy smell—till the windows are open in spring and summer, till a fire is lit, autumn and winter.
  • -a small, brown plastic radio (mostly static) to listen to news, weather, and Golden Oldies…Going to Take a Sentimental Journey…till bedtime…

-perhaps partitioned bedroom, with a single or double bed to sit upon fully clothed, removing your shoes or boots, your funny old outdoor clothes, thrusting the body back upon the bed in a full stretch against the bare wall or worn head-board…a mattress, you don’t ever want to see…alive, alone, listening in the cabin-dark to the wind, the rain, the insects, the snow falling against the windowpane…freezing, roasting, never enough or too many sorrowful looking blankets, positioning yourself on that unmentionable mattress somewhere between almost comfortable and too soft for a tired back…seeking firmness or a full body press …then sinking slowly into a free fall of partially sleep. The feet frozen, the nose ice…and you sending out a shivering animal call in the pitch darkness of closed eyes, registering all the frenzied pain of C O L D …Was that a scream? Was that me? Two, too small, too soft, unsupportable pillows, punched into shape, sinking the head first followed by body-sinking into sub-zero cold, cold sheets, cold, plastic-covered mattress, falling further into a fetus position harboring a hope of warmth, thinking thoughts of found-in-the-morning-frozen-dead. Ah but for the grace and beauty of frost upon the window glass, (eyes open and shut) in the middle of the night, the middle of the full moon shining through. Must I get up, stand barefoot in the snow, and relieve myself out the front door? How could I ever leaves this home-made hollow of warmth to hibernate through the night, through the long, cold, beautiful winter? Am I working up a sweat? Was I once cold but now fill a fever upon me? Shall I make eggs and bacon for breakfast in a black, cast-iron pan? Salt and pepper the yolks galore? Toast some old rye bread?. Cut the last red potato into chunks, fry it in hot bacon grease, salt and pepper, in the same cast-iron pan…toss in some chopped onion, bits of cheddar cheese, caraway seed. Boil a pot of hot black strong to sit up and take notice of everything, day and night…Listen to the wind in the trees. It must be 20 below…Reach for and pull up that second-hand-shop, fuzzy-pilled, beige blanket of tattered-stitched edge at the end of the bed, too thin to offer much warmth for bare shoulders kissed all night by sudden wafts of cold air stealing in under the door… o beige blanket of too much history, too many bodies engaged in too many battlegrounds of human misunderstandings, lust, or love…falling further into a numb tranquility…a cabin’s the right place for love, for passion, for a solitariness of soul…I don’t where it’s likely to be better…cabin dreams, cabin coffee perking on the cabin stove …come morning, noon, night…come fresh snow, winter birds, sunrise over the white lake, cabin love.

[from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241, $20]

norbert blei | acknowledgements

19 06 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.186 | June 19, 2009

Norbert Blei

“When the student is ready, the teacher arrives”—old Zen saying

To know, to recognize, to confess…

I tend to be overly critical of those who for whatever reason (usually ignorance) fail to say a simple Thank You for any goodness graciously bestowed upon them. A lesson, supposedly learned in childhood. But one too often forgotten these days, when every good act seems taken for granted—even worse, deserved.

If anything, I am usually overly thankful for just about anything anyone does for me, from a waitress pouring me yet another cup of coffee; a bartender ‘topping off’ my Scotch; a mechanic who makes a minor adjustment on my car and sending me off with a wave-of-a-hand and a “Get outa here,” as I open my wallet. Random acts of kindness, all. Thank you.

All of which leads to why I am so perturbed by my own inexcusable behavior, unexplainable action of failing to acknowledge an incredible act of beauty, wonder, and kindness bestowed upon me by a group of my old writing students from The Clearing, almost a year ago.

In an attempt to make both this and a long story short, I left The Clearing in June of 2007 after my annual writing class. I was unhappy with the new management, the new approach to an old, wonderful folk-school created in 1935 by an extraordinary man, a landscape architect, Jens Jensen, at the age of 75. And though I began working with writers at his school about twenty years after Jensen’s death, I felt I knew him intimately through his writings, through friends of his who became my friends, through the very setting itself, a landscape of woods and water, which became part of you as you became part of it, part of the greater wonder of the natural world which Jensen surely inhabited and wanted to share. To know this place was to know him.

But all of this, to my mind, seemed threatened by the usual forces of mostly well- meaning people, good intentions…and sometimes questionable personalities and deeds–though the board that governed it was a good one led, till just recently, by Tim Stone, who devoted a good part of his life attempting to honor the Jensen philosophy of leaving well-enough (nature) alone.

Still, it was not the place I remembered. (Irreconcilable differences.) And so ‘the teacher who arrived” in the 1970’s decided it was time to depart, much to his sadness.

[Ed. Note: Confirmed sources report that when present management is asked around The Clearing dining table: “Why isn’t________ teaching here any more?” The management response is: “He retired.” Correction: He never retired. He resigned. He left.]

A year after my departure, a group of my old (and some new) writing students decided to keep the class in session. If not The Clearing. Elsewhere. Too many bonds had been made that refused to be broken. As plans were being made, I informed these good people that whatever they wanted to do was fine with me—but not to count on me teaching. I made a promise to myself—and Tim Stone– that I would do no teaching for a year. Wait things out.

My old class met last year at the Little Sister Resort in Sister Bay, Wisconsin less than 10 miles south of The Clearing. A similar, beautiful setting. They organized their own class, did their own teaching, had one great time. I stopped by on the last night, for the usual Friday night party and reading. (I really missed these folks.)

The upshot of that week became a book from that class—A SLENDER THREAD –which they dedicated to me. And so here it is, a year later, I’m still searching for a way to acknowledge this, the gift of themselves, their words and images, their love for the small community of writers we developed over the years in a setting of peace and contemplation envisioned by one man search for community in a natural setting.

In fear of turning this into an Oscar “Thank you” marathon of everyone imaginable (including God)…I want each of them to know that this is it—the Big Thank You. A year late. I could hardly bring myself to open the book in all that time. I learned as much if not more from each of you that you may have learned from anything I brought to the table all through the years.

Few but the writers within these pages have seen this book. Which, perhaps, is as it should be. I doubt any library has a copy. I doubt the Clearing has one. It doesn’t matter. I suspect one might be borrowed from one of the contributors—or tracked down through the publisher, Ralph Murre.

Speaking of those contributors, my fantastic former students who appear in this volume, here are their names: Albert DeGenova, Alice D’Alessio, Bobbie Krinsky, Cass Hale, Catherine Hovis, Don Fraker, Emily Rose, Jackie Langetieg, Jude Genereaux, Karen Yancey, Kris Thacher, Maja Jurisic, Ralph Murre, Richard Finch, Sharon Auberle, and Susan O’Leary.

Seven of these students had their first books placed/published by my small press, Cross+Roads Press, and five others appeared in a best-selling, world-wide anthology of writing I edited and published in 2007, OTHER VOICES.

I thank my high-energy partner, Jude, with love-galore…a sort of house-mother to the group helping them organize/find the right location to keep the party going. I thank you all, in particular, Ralph, Sharon, Jude, and Susan for spear-heading the book, A Slender Thread. Susan, who became my teaching assistant/partner …is a special Eastern soul-woman of mine who breathes quiet in her very presence. (I was her high school English teacher many years ago. Another time. Another place. The wheel keeps on turning.)

I wish I had time and space to print everyone. Here are just a few offerings which lend, I trust, both an overview and an insight into who these people are, what they are all about. And why writing matters to us.

A Note From the Editor …

There was once a group of writers.

There was, for many years, a teacher.

There was once a school and times there that felt, to the writers, almost vital to their survival. They thrived in that school, learned, put out work even they didn’t know they were capable of. They were happy.

And then things changed, as they are wont to do. The teacher, for good reason, needed to move on to other things. The students were suddenly adrift, rudderless, lost.

Though the circumstances that had kept them close were gone, the group remained connected by a slender thread. They were supportive of, and inspirational to each other. This must not happen, we must remain connected, they all agreed, and so the Nota Bene Group was born—nota bene being Latin for note well, which is, of course, what a writer should always be doing. And a place was chosen—not the same place— changed things should not, must not, be the same. Little Sister Resort beckoned, drew the students in for a look. It was a warm and welcoming place, beautiful in its own, old Door County feel and the writers thought, yes, this could be the place.

Two teachers, former students of the old master, stepped up and offered to walk with the students. And the writers thought yes, this might work. And it did.

This book is the result. - Sharon Auberle


- for NorbertO’

Cool of a June-soft summer morning
aaaaaaathe Oven bird calls
“… teacher- Teacher- Teacher!-TEACHER!!”
aaaaWe walk the new road, find
same pearlescence of sky and light;
Spruce-poplar scent branding the air -
alimestone bluffs guard the bay, their
cedar arms encircle the fresh water sea
aaaarolling smooth the rush inside;
aaUnsure if this can be made right again
we search for the Way we thought we knew;
aaaabut that bird and I are still calling
… teacher- Teacher- Teacher!-TEACHER!!

- Jude Genereaux

A thread joins us
aaa slender enduring thread

no matter how many miles or hours apart
no matter those times we’ve circled each other in distance

as thread is wound onto a spool
in one unending line
following the sure pattern it comes to know
day by day
the thread has wrapped and held in our lives

it has worked in dailiness
in the simple straight stitch
that loops surely through our fabric
securing separate patterns
beginning and ending the day

and it has embroidered love
drawn our symmetry
met at our edges
chosen full color

as spools can sit unnoticed for years
lined up in a drawer
their own particular lavender
patient among azure among sage among linen
our thread has waited ready
to darn the hole
to mend the tear
we have found it each time

in missing you I imagine
that thread stretched heart to heart
if from this place I slowly unraveled a spool
brought it to the highway

and loosened it

it would in unfurling
in traveling those hundreds of miles to you
it would know its way home
it would hold the space
of the years we have sewn

Susan O’Leary

Night Poem

It’s too late,
Too late to call you.
It’s not just the clock.
I want to call
Who you used to be.

-Kris Thacher

Looking at Night Poem, the teacher, the writer in me senses:
There’s such a sadness in those three words, “used to be.”
There’s a story there somewhere.
A novel.
A whole life.

Norbert Blei

norbert blei | in memoriam

28 05 2009

St. Patrick at work at Gordon Lodge

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.182 | May 22, 2009



Norbert Blei

In the end, St. Pat died pretty much the way he always lived—chasing that rainbow, that horse to the finish line. Only this time the odds were against him, age…poor health. And both the dream and the man finally died.

I’ll keep this short and add some excerpts from a chapter devoted to him which appeared in the third book of the Door Trilogy series. There’s a fourth book in the works. The final end of St. Pat will be found there. You can bet on it.

For now, let’s leave it like this: St. Pat crossed the finish line in Ohio last Friday, May 22, at the age of 81. If you knew the man, be assured he went out in style, grace, never at a loss for words, a smile on his face, with a ticket to ride on a long shot: Win, Place, or Show.

I haven’t read this piece since I wrote it over 20 years ago. I was amazed to discover how it ended–then and now.

Excerpts from

“St. Pat—and the End of the Rainbow”

Ah, for the breath of some blarney in a confused world of too many serious people trying to make too much sense out of everything. And nobody serves it up better (straight or on the rocks) then St. Patrick (alias James Patrick Fagan), Door County’s father to fallen souls, comforter (Southern or name you own nirvana) to troubled and untroubled hearts, Grand Marnier Master of Ceremonious Nights on the Door. (He tells of one forgettable night in his particular parish—the Top Deck of Gordon Lodge—when Grand Marnier flowed in such abundance that the Saint himself seemed baffled the next morning to find all the money slots of the cash drawer filled with it.) A man of many miracles. Wine to water was easy. But a cold cash drawer to Grand Marnier? Only an un-canonized Irish bartending saint could do.

Smile, Patrick! (Which is his winning way with the world.) He’s always smiling. (Or will be again, he promises, as soon as he gets his teeth fixed. He’s made a deal at the bar with some dentist. And you can bet your own teeth that St. Pat will soon be smiling with his new ivories—high-tailing it to Chicago, to Florida, or back to Door—while the dentist will be wondering who took the big bite out of him.

He’s a rolling stone, a ramblin’ man, the veritable “condition” our elders warned we might someday find ourselves in if we weren’t thrifty and well-behaved: a man without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. Smile, Paddy! Your horse is in the money.

There he goes, snapping those fingers in front of your face, brushing that long wisp of black hair over his balding pate, flashing that smile, giving you the Irish: “I’m tellin’ ya! Listen to me!” Giving you his beautiful bullshit.

Dressed, always, partially in green, baggy pants hanging from his rather thin frame, his hands constantly fishing his front pockets for a cigarette lighter or cash. One of the biggest tippers of all time, he carries a crumpled wad of bills (his life savings) in his front pocket, pulling off fives and singles for the “help”—with whom he of course identifies. A single cup of coffee from a smiling waitress (say Denise Braun at Al’s) will net her at least a three dollar tip. Maybe five. The last of the big-time spenders. Definitely a city-type.

He loves children. Loves people. Loves charitable causes. More than a bit of the Irish in him. He’s definitely the guy who would give you the shirt off his own back. “I will donate to anything, as long as it’s a worthy cause.” Rich or poor, he’s been both. Sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Bless the fast horses, St. Patrick. And the long shots.

Of course there’s a bit of the con-artist about him. (Aren’t we all a little envious of the fast talker?) It’s the language of the survivor who must live by his mouth. A hustling life doesn’t come easy. And there are times the piper must be paid. Even moments of sadness around those black, beetle-brows and bright blue eyes of St. Pat. Bartender! Maybe just one more before I have another.

“Say,” he says to an attractive lady smoker, “Weren’t you at Gordon’s the other night? The Top Deck? Would you have an extra cigarette? Thanks. Did I hear Chicago?” he swings around toward another table. “Isn’t it beautiful here, this county? Stop by at the Top Deck for a drink.” He begins passing out brochures from his back pocket.

I manage to hustle him off one morning to a quiet picnic bench along the Lake Michigan shore for a few hours—definitely a fish out of water. St. Pat without a crowd—without strangers, without a bar to sit at or set up—is a drinker, a smoker doing cold turkey.

“Sit down, St. Pat, damn it! This is Mother Nature all around you. What you keep telling the tourists you love about Door County. Yes, I know, all it needs is a racetrack,” I tell him. Talk, say something!

But he’s befuddled. Frustrated. He’s on his last Camel cigarette. (Not that it matters what kind of cigarette at this point.) Already his flickering eyes are scanning the horizon, the empty picnic benches, the empty beach. St. Pat in exile. Who’s he gonna hit up for a smoke in this place?

“Don’t you have one cigarette on you?” he pleads. “Not one …’uckin’ cigarette? It’s OK. I’m alright. I’m telling you . . .” And he does.

His father, Peter Fagan, from County Cork, a railroad man, died when Patrick was 10. His mother, Mary Lenehan, lived to the age of 93. Cleveland, Ohio is home—was home. He doesn’t really have a home, except for summers in Door County, tending bar.

He lives in a suitcase, owns no car, no house, no bank account. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. A man on the run.

“I travel with a deck of cards, ten pairs of socks, five pairs of shorts, and a rosary,” he laughs. “I’m not afraid to go into any city without a dime in my pocket. I’ve never missed a meal. Willing to do anything. I’m at ease with the Vanderbilts and the bums on the street because I speak the international language—friendship. Money is nothing to me. Money is a kernel of corn the Indians used to trade. I’ve seen wealth in action—many, many unhappy people screaming over a few measly dollars.”

Like many a good Irish lad, Jimmie Fagan seemed destined for the priesthood. That was his mother’s wish. “And there I was, on my way to Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. I left Holy Name High at the age of 14.1 worked nights on the railroad as a switchman. But I loved horses too. I worked days at the racetrack—Ascot Park in Akron, galloping the horses. Exercise boy. And then the family threw this party for me, sending me off to the seminary to be a priest. I had the black suit and the sheets and everything. And I was on the bus, talking to the driver, and we passed a racetrack in Maumee, Ohio . . . 1945. And the driver knew! He knew! Let me out of here! And I was off to the races. Because of my Irish mother, I didn’t go home for three years. Nor did I talk to her.

“I knocked around racetracks all over the country, and I noticed how dressed-up the jockey agents were. Agents are solicitors for mounts for a jockey. You gotta know breeding, be an excellent handicapper—which I was. It looked like dream street. The end of the rainbow! (St. Pat is standing now, hollering, rummaging through his pockets for a cigarette. I offer him a pipe—no good. The stub of my cigar—no good.) I’m alright! I’m alright! Let’s go. I gotta sell some more damn tickets!

“Where was I? The end of the rainbow! But little did I know, little did I know” (lots of drama in his wonderful Irish storytelling voice, lots of facial expression) “that the jockey agents were mostly broke! But anyway, I moved out of the bam and into a hotel. And I met a jockey, Eric Guerin, who went on to win every major stake in the country. And I was with him for 14, 15 years. Hialeah, New York, the Jersey . . .

“Goddamn it! Doesn’t anyone have a cigarette? It’s alright.

“I learned about the fast life—booze, broads, the good times. A beautiful woman in every city. Nice ladies. Mucho women. But they weren’t promiscuous women. I made them that way!

“At one point my jockey couldn’t make the weight anymore. And I felt I never really wanted another jockey because we were such good friends. So I went to Palm Beach, Florida on a vacation and I met a guy, Joe O’Hara, who said he needed a bartender. I lied and told him I could do it. He put me into the service area that night. And all of a sudden here come 10 professional cocktail waitresses, and they all started ordering drinks I never knew existed. I said, PLEASE, GET ME OUT OF HERE!

“O’Hara asked me if I could make a Scotch and water. Hell, that’s what I drink! Anyway, he told me he would teach me how to tend bar, but I could not participate in tips, or salary, till I learned how. After 10 days, he came in one night all dressed up with his wife. It was a Saturday night. And he said, “You’re on your own!”

“I was in my 30′s then. I had black beautiful hair and white teeth. The women would just roll all over me. I love all women, and no particular woman will ever catch my eye. Marriage, no. Still … I love kids. I would have loved to have some kids.”

“Some of the famous customers I served . . . Bishop Sheen, a CC Manhattan with a water back. Jack Kennedy. I trembled when he came in. Dewar’s White Label Scotch on the rocks. Always some joke. The latest joke. Jackie Gleason and his beautiful wife would sit at the bar and make my day by ordering champagne, $75 a bottle, I was very low key with him because I was always nervous when he came in. And he always shook my hand when he left—with a crisp C-note for the Saint!

“The name! The name! Saint Patrick. How I got my name. There was a theft at the hotel of towels and sheets—I mean, more than usual. And Mr. MacArthur hired some detectives and a lie detector expert to case the hotel. One day he came up to me and said: ‘Patrick, you really are a saint.’ I was clean. The detectives had watched me, cleared me. Little did he know I have a 6th sense about strange people watching me!”

. “…one time this couple comes in and tells me about their beautiful resort in Door County, Wisconsin. Phil and Curly Gordon, I snickered to myself and said, ‘Wisconsin? Door County, Wisconsin?’ After the Gordons left, a real elderly bartender, Eddie O’Brien, told me that Door County was exactly like Ireland. The next year, 1971 ,I arrived. By bus, of course, I don’t have my own car. I keep my life savings in my pocket.

“I said to myself :’This is it, brother. The end of the rainbow for me. ‘And I’ve been happy, happy, happy ever since.

“Phil Gordon to me was a genius. At first I didn’t realize why he had separated the bar from the dining room, but everything he did was right. He even had the windows of the Top Deck set a certain way so we can catch a double sunset. Genius! The man was a genius!

” One night he came into the Top Deck, I poured him his usual Scotch on the rocks, and he said: “You better have one yourself. He probably knew I already had 20. The people from Milwaukee always bought the bartender a drink. They didn’t tip—but they bought you a drink. Sure! Always. It’s an inside joke among the bartenders. We call them the F.B.I, agents because all they ever leave are fingerprints. And you must drink it right there. You can’t tell them you’ll have it later. They insist you have it in front of them. You see what Milwaukee’s done to me? I love ‘em.

“Many, many a night Phil Gordon and I sat alone in the Deck and drank till 7 in the morning. We discusses the world at large. He liked all the philosophers, and I liked Tolstoy—because he made love to every woman in sight! I loved Phil, Curly, the whole family.

“Where’s a cigarette, a cigarette?” He’s pacing the beach now, a determined man. “A butt, a butt. Isn’t there one stinking butt on this beach? See how clean this goddam county is! Can’t even find a cigarette butt here!

“My kind of bar is a one-man operation. It’s hard to work with other bartenders. I take charge of the room. I can see any argument starting in any part of the room. I eject them. No crabby people. Strictly happy people. I try to generate love in the room.

“The Top Deck is a finger-touch control bar. Phil created it. The view is the mostspectacular view in Door County. But the magic about the bar is the customers. Not just the hotel people, but the people in the county. And Chicago’s Northside. My favorites. Because they’re outgoing, likeable people, and it’s easy to make them laugh. If crabby people come in, it’s a personal challenge to me to make them laugh and enjoy themselves—because they’ll come back and tell their friends!

When the doors to Gordon Lodge and the Top Deck swing shut in mid-October, St. Pat is on the move once more. Time to pack the suitcase again. Time to board the bus. Take the act back on the road.

“Then it’s my vacation time,” he smiles. “After the season at Gordon’s and before coming back up here from Florida, I always hit Chicago. With my savings from both resorts in my pocket, I become a bartender’s delight. I check in at the Continental Hotel off Michigan Ave. All the staff, the help there know me. Gratuities flow like buttermilk. I can get any girl I want in Chicago by saying three magic words: Here’s a hundred. I high roll it!

“After about 7 days—the semi-annual collect call goes out to the good father for the non-transferable bus ticket to either Florida or Door County.”

The “good father”? “The Rev. H.J. Fagan, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Madison, Ohio. My brother. I call him Harry. He’s a top fund- raiser like myself. Once in a while he tries to hit me up for something. And he talks almost as fast as I do.”

We’re heading back to town now. Lunch at Al’s. A pack of cigarettes for St. Pat. (“Camels! The humper. Five packs a day!”) He must open the Top Deck in a couple of hours, but from now until then he’s pushing tickets for the Roast. As for the origin of the Bartenders’ Roast…”…this will be the biggest Roast ever. Al Johnson—my kind of guy. I was dumb till I seen him work. I’ve copied him. He is the top restaurateur. That’s why I respect him—because I only like winners. His people all love him. Love him, are you kidding? How’s this when I help to introduce him: ‘Al Johnson’s driving up to Door County, and this beautiful hitchhiker stops him. ‘Say,’ she says, ‘Do you go all the way?’ And Al drove her to Washington Island.’ “

Later, that afternoon/night at Gordon’s, the conversation continues:

“A bartender must be a good listener,” he continues. “He must be able to listen to five different conversations at one time and blend them all into one so that you have 10 happy people at the same time. Never discuss religion or politics. Memory! You must remember their drinks. And sometimes you must remember to forget who they are drinking with! And for my beautiful, beautiful ladies, I give them titles: Countess, Princess, Queen. Because I really believe that’s what they are.”

The banter, the blarney, the bull—the magic of St. Patrick. It’s irresistible. As addictive as alcohol. A double-whammy: St. Pat and a drink of your choice. He’s working some out-of-town customers at the bar now, charming them all. One guy, who finds St. Pat’s hyper-delivery too incredible for words, finally asks: “How long can you keep this up? How long do you work?” “All afternoon, all night,” St. Pat answers. “Six days a week.” The guy shakes his head in wonder, and keeps drinking.

It’s the Irish in him, I suggest.

“Just like my mother,” counters St. Pat. “She was a fast talker. A politico. Banging doors. Dragging me along with her. Talk to the people. It’s our heritage. You’re brought up to be proud of being an Irishman. I’ve worn green all my life. Of course the Irish build castles in the air. They’re all daydreamers. It’s a magical feeling. The outgoing personality . . . sometimes overpowering to some people. I can’t explain it. A lot of dopers ask me what I take. I tell them I’m on a natural high. And I love it, this way. I’m like this from the moment I wake up. I’m down very rarely. Only for 30 seconds. Then I lift my bootstraps right away, and I’m off to the races! It’s another hill to climb—make that a mountain.”

And what’s the biggest tip St. Pat ever received?

“$300 one night here in the Deck. They guy smiled and said he finally met a bartender who, could high roll it. His tab came to about $600. He gave me a thousand—keep the change.

In and out the door many times, St. Pat reflects: “I’ve been fired from Gordon Lodge 36 times—and rehired the next morning.” And if by chance some day he awakes to find the door to the Top Deck closed to him for good? “I’ll come back and be a doorman at Al’s. Just to open those doors for the people, I’ll pay him a $100 a week! Or I’ll shine shoes. I’ve got a lot of pride, but I’d do anything to be here. I’m going to live to be 93 just like my fast-talking Irish mother. The man upstairs told me. So get used to me.”

Though there was some speculation that St. Pat might be a goner for good after last year’s season, he is on the mend. Amen. Off the hootch, since last year’s celebrated Door County Bar Hopping Trolley Ride (organized by who else but the Saint himself . . . purely for the benefit of good spirits).

“I tell you, if I drank one, I had 50 J.B.’s and water. I fell asleep…They thought I was dead. / thought l was dead! I don’t want to talk about health!

“The saddest time of the year coming up for me. The end of the season. The last two nights here. I miss the customers. Even the ones I don’t like! People drift in and out, ‘So long, St. Pat. See you next year.’ Next year! I mean, who knows? Who knows?”

One version of the end, according to St. Patrick: “We will all be greeted by a green police unit, for Sheriff Baldy will have St. Peter’s job. And for those who behaved— a clear path on clouds 42 and 57. I prefer 57.

“I will definitely be buried in Door County, and I hope the good people here will hold an Irish Wake Roast for me—with me in attendance, of course—and provide a shaded lot in a Catholic cemetery.

“And on my tombstone have it writ: He Carried His Life Savings In His Front Pocket To The End.”

[From DOOR TO DOOR, Ellis Press, 1985.]

Note: St. Pat requested that his ashes be scattered in Door County. There will be a gathering of friends this fall.

the writer, Coyote, Lovta DuMore X (the writer’s secretary) and St. Patrick, drawing by Charles Peterson—from CHRONICLES OF A RURAL JOURNALIST IN AMERICA, by Norbert Blei, Samizdat Press, 1990.


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