Places I Remember (part X of N): SPBS


Company Logo for St. Paul Book and Stationery


When T and I met, one of the things that I knew guaranteed that we would be in love forever was the fact that we had the same kind of enthusiasms.  Some people drool over cars or furniture; T and I drooled over office supplies.

For much of this, I blame St. Paul Book and Stationery, an enormous place on County Road E, not terribly far from the home of my youth in St. Paul suburbs.

You know how these days people go into a store and tap the keys on computers?  In those days, it was typewriters–manual, electric, and–at the top of the heap–IBM Selectric.  But there were so many other things.  Different kinds of papers (bond, erasable, drafting, carbon, onionskin).  Different kind of rulers (for many years, my pride and joy was a 6″ aluminum ruler divided not into silly 1/8″ markings, but with superior 0.1″ markings).

SPBS had desks, filing cabinets, folders, labels, all kind of good stuff!  And I loved it all.

I fell in love with other stationers–especially those near universities (I still visit college bookstores when the opportunity presents).  Clever folders still turn me on.  When I was in Germany and England in 1983, I would wander from shop to shop in search of cool things.  When I lived in Chicago, Crate & Barrel often had interesting stuff (though, being imported from Europe, it often didn’t play well with US paper).

The last decent stationery store I was in was in a town in western Wisconsin.  I had gone to that town to interview for a job, and I needed something to write with, so I bought a small pad and a decent mechanical pencil there.  I got the job, and four months later, after I moved to town, I went in one day and they remembered me!  But that store has been gone for twelve or more years now, swallowed by the Big Box retailers.

Staples and Office Depot and their ilk serve a function.  But it’s not the same.  In the old days, you could talk to people who knew their stuff–and there was variety.  Does anyone even make onion-skin paper anymore?  I’m quite sure that erasable typing bond is no longer.  Fountain-pen ink, sold in bottles, is a specialty product that requires ordering on the web.

The other day I almost bought a small pocket calendar to use for scheduling.  Almost.  If the kind I used for decades could still be found (academic year, blue weekly pages, soft brown cover, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket without peeking out, wire-bound) I might have.  But I didn’t.

T and I still visit office supply places on occasion, but they’re not quite the same.  That’s not all bad–I wouldn’t give up computers for typewriters, even Correcting Selectrics.  No way.

But I do miss them.


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Stuff and Nonsense

My father is thinking a lot about dying these days.

That’s not unreasonable, since he suffers from ALS with a poor prognosis, and since my mom passed away at the beginning of November.

So my brother and I have been discussing what happens next, and the will, and all that sort of stuff.  Ghoulish, but if you find yourself in this kind of situation, that’s what happens.

So anyway.

My parents have moved twice in the past twenty years; first, to Wisconsin, to be near my family.  Next, to Florida, to be near my brother’s.  They’ve shed a lot of “stuff” along the way.  And that’s as it should be.

It occurred to me this evening, as I was doing dishes, that I don’t think of my parents in terms of stuff.  Partly, that’s because they didn’t have much.  They lived, instead. They could have afforded a painting by a famous artist, for example, but instead would spend weeks in Portugal, or would visit Thailand.

I have lots of bits and pieces of trivia from them.  Mainly photographs.  But I also have one item from each of them that I treasure.

From my dad, it’s a screwdriver that I’ve had in my personal possession for almost 50 years.  It’s not unusual.  It’s flat-bladed screwdriver with a knurled brass grip.  Unscrew the top of the handle, and out comes a smaller, but similar, screwdriver.  And the top of that comes off to reveal the third size.

As I said, not unusual.  You can buy hammers that have screwdrivers like this hidden in their handles.

What makes this one special is that my grandfather gave it to my father, and my father gave it to me, and perhaps some day it will go to one of my children.  Not a memorial, but as an every-day tool.

From my mom, I have a coffee cup.  She was a potter, and made it for me when I was in college.  It’s a gorgeous flat denim in color, slightly larger than the typical coffee cup (of the time) and it has her initials in the shape of a swan formed into the handle.

Here’s a photo of me in my college office, c. 1981, holding that mug:


So many things I no longer have–my beard, my youth, my “workers aesthetic,” that “Big Red” fountain pen in my pocket.  But I still have Mom’s mug.  It’s made for me, literally–I have big hands, and the handle is large enough to never cramp my style.  It’s held coffee, tea, herbal tea, water, it’s made multiple trips around the country, and I still have it.

Back to my starting point:  I don’t think of my parents in terms of stuff.  I think of them in terms of who they are.  I miss Mom; I’ll miss Dad.  But–whether or not I manage to hold onto these keepsakes–my parents are a part of me.

My brother and I will not have to fight over the good silver, the nice samovar, etc, etc.  They don’t exist.  But wonderful, wonderful memories do.


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Purple Clouds Limned with Fire


Yesterday, when I walked out of my office at 4:00, this was waiting for me.  A double rainbow.  It’s times like this when it’s nice to have a camera in your pocket.

But as I drove south, I was sincerely wishing that I had a camera connected to my eyes.  Along the horizon were dark clouds, verging on purple.  More than verging, really, these looked like purple jewels.  But more than that, the edges of those clouds were on fire.  Illuminated by the sunset, I guess, because the horizon was also burning.

I am 58 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of impressive sights in my life, but none that I can recall rivaled yesterday’s Connecticut skies.

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Long Ago and Far Away.

Sometime c. 1984, give or take, I was working in the University of Chicago Sociology Department’s new computer center.   And while I was in there, I noticed a small pencil sharpener (anyone remember pencils?) that had been abandoned.

I’d like to think that I later asked around about it, but I likely didn’t.  It’s just a little brass cone, about an inch or so long, made in Germany (well, West Germany in those days).  I was cleaning up some stuff recently and I came across it.  Still works.

It’s funny how we have things in our lives that travel along with us.  That sharpener has been in (at least) Chicago, multiple residences in Schenectady, multiples in La Crosse, multiples in New Haven.  And I still have it.

There are larger things that I can trace more easily–I still have (and play) a guitar that I’ve owned since the late ’70s.  But a pencil sharpener is something smaller, less treasured and less obvious.

Years ago, Jules and the Polar Bears asked a musical question:

Still relevant.


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Ohio, You’re Nothing Special

Yesterday, I think it was, I was driving and I heard an interview with the J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.  The interviewer noted that Mr. Vance now lived on the West Coast, and that his children would, consequently, be born there and become part of the “elite” noted (and decried) in his book.  At that, Mr. Vance said that he and his spouse were planning to move back to Ohio to raise their children.

Here’s a clue for Mr. Vance.  You can take the boy out of the country, and you can certainly take the country out of the boy.

This is the header for Mr. Vance’s entry on LinkedIn:


Moving back to Ohio, will not make someone who graduated from Yale law school and works for Mithril Capital Management LLC and the National Review any less a member of the elite.   Even owning a pickup truck will not make him any less a member of the coastal elite.

Nor does living in New Haven make my friend Chas a member of the elite.  Chas, a black man in his ‘50s, shares an apartment with five or six roommates, and is looking for a converter box so that his TV can be used to receive digital signals.  He works his ass off at whatever jobs he can find.  I know him from a food pantry where he came in as a client and now works feeding other people.

Chas is typical of the people I know in New Haven, and he’s as salt-of-the-earth as any coalminer or farmer in Iowa or Ohio.  His values are at least as real as those of any yeoman farmer.

And yet.  We put up with this total tribal bullshit story that somehow the values of the Midwest are better, more real, more geniuine, than the values of anyone else.  So, let me say something:

I grew up in the Midwest.  Though I was born in Seattle and lived for a time in Baltimore, I grew up in the St. Paul suburbs, starting when I was six until I was twenty-three.  Some of my friends from high school went to the University of Minnesota, Carlton College, or St. Olaf.  Some went East.  Some went West.  Many didn’t go to college, and worked as machinists or farmers, some work for UPS an some for the government.  Many went into religion (I have a friend who is proud of being internationally known for his Lutheran mission work).  Most people in Minnesota have never been closer to a farm than when they sit down to their dinners, and their sole connection to the land is poisoning the Dandelions that disfigure their lawns.

I went from Minnesota to Chicago (IL, Midwestern, y’all), lived there for nine years, hanging out with graduate students and janitors.  Moved to upstate NY and lived there for nine years, with unemployed engineers, academics, unemployed veterans.  Moved back to Wisconsin, lived there for nine years (could there be a pattern?) working as a software engineer and got to know farmers, homeless people, doctors, barkeepers.  Now I live in Connecticut.

Having experienced all of the above, I think that I can state in an unqualified fashion that there is nothing special about the Midwest.  And there is nothing special about the East Coast.  I have met equally wealthy and equally poor in both places.  I have met people who were snobs in both places.  Artists.  Farmers.  I can’t talk to someone and tell where they’re from.  I knew people like Chas in Chicago, Schenectady, La Crosse, Minneapolis.  I knew people like J.D. Vance in all of those places, too.

There is nothing elite about the East Coast and there is nothing “real” about the Midwest.

Recently, I heard an interview on the radio with a guy from Iowa who said something like “Thank God for the Electoral College—otherwise the coastal elites would run the country!”

Well.  Maybe they should run the country.

Not because the coasts are full of elites.  Because they’re full of people.  REAL people.  People who work in factories, make movies, make music, raise crops, sweep floors, argue in courts, shovel snow, try to raise their kids right, live and grow old and die.  People who are just as real as people in the Midwest.

The people on the coasts, like those in the Midwest, are pretty diverse in opinion.  Not all of us vote as Democrats, any more than all of the Midwest votes Republican.   We’re not all rich and prosperous, we don’t all wear designer fashions—any more than the folks in the Midwest all wear overalls.

When Mr. Vance goes back to Ohio, he will still be a member of the elite (even if he decides to wear overalls and a Carhartt jacket.  And his children will still be members of the elite.  Chas and people like him who live on the coasts will never be members of the elite.

We’re a thoroughly mixed bag.

Connecticut, you’re nothing special.  LA, you’re nothing special.  Ohio, you’re nothing special.

And, damn it, it’s time to stop acting like you are.


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Music for Airports

OK.  I wrote this post on Saturday (today is Monday).  I will play you a tune, then explain with a little background then get right to it.  So start the music and scroll on down:

A little over a year ago, my parents moved to Jacksonville, FL, where my brother (a doctor) had built an apartment for them above his enormous garage.  They have independence and care, and could enjoy life away from the Wisconsin winter.  That was the theory.

Shortly after they arrived, my mom started having breathing trouble.  And about a year after they arrived–during which she had barely had a chance to get to know Florida outside of their apartment and the hospital–she died.

That was November 1.  Back in September, my brother and I had discussed plans for the holidays.  He and his family generally spend every other Christmas in Arizona with his spouse’s parents, and he asked if I was willing to come down and spend Christmas with our folks.  I thought that would be great and cleared my calendar, then made travel plans.

After Mom died, I went down to Florida to spend some time with Dad and my brother and we talked again, deciding that it would be best if Dad came up to Connecticut to spend Christmas.  My tale from Saturday picks up from there.  I’ve edited it a bit, but this is essentially what I wrote, sitting at JFK on Saturday morning.  It’s self-pitying, yes.

About a month ago, I spent a couple of hours on the phone figuring out how to get my dad from Florida to New England. The only flight I could get involved a five-hour layover in DC. So I made plans to fly down earlier, meet his plane, and spend the five hours with him. I planned to be at Bradley airport at 7:00 this morning, plenty of time for the 9:00 departure.  It’s a 50-mile drive on I-91.

 At 6:30 last night, JetBlue cancelled my flight from Hartford to DC. Given that the weather is a bit rough, understandable, I guess. But this meant that if his flight wasn’t cancelled, he’d have five plus unaccompanied hours in DC. He’s 87, has some short-term memory issues, and other health issues.  My brother and his family were scheduled to leave Jacksonville at noon.

So I called JetBlue. It took me over an hour to reach a human.

 Do they have a lounge at DCA? No, they don’t. Does American (hereinafter AA) have a lounge at DCA? Yes, they do (I happened to have a day pass for American’s Admiral’s Club, and if they wouldn’t take that by phone, I could buy one there with credit card). Great! Can JetBlue do a meet and assist? Yes, But. Well, really, no.The Meet and Assist can take my dad between JetBlue gates, but not to the AA club. OK, does JetBlue know of anyone who can help? No, but I can call DCA and find out (it is now 8:45 pm).
If I want, I can cancel Dad’s flight and reschedule it for some time next week (except that my brother and his family are leaving for two weeks in AZ at the same time my dad’s leaving to come up here. In fact, that’s why he’s coming here, and booking flights this time of year is a contact sport).


I find a truly beautiful person named Lisa at the Terminal B information desk. It’s her first day on the job. She goes to work and finds Traveler’s Aid who, for free(!!) will pick up my dad at his arrival gate, take him to the AA club, make sure he’s OK there, and then get him from the AA Club to his departure gate. GREAT! She makes several calls, to them and to me, to coordinate things. We’re all set.

If you know anyone who works in airport administration at Reagan/DC National, please show them this blog entry and tell them that Lisa, at the Terminal B information desk, should be named Employee of the Year (but for 2017, because 2016 sucked).

All set.  Except for one little thing…

Six different numbers, including referrals by computer systems and agents, fail to get me through to the central AA club desk until—in spite of promises that it stays open 24/7—I reach the desk and it’s closed until 8:00 this morning. CLICK. At this point I lose it. I scream obscenities into the dead phone for a few minutes, then write that number down on top of my list of other phone numbers.

OK. Calming down, I figure I can call and take care of that no matter what it costs. Good. It’s 11:30 by now, and I hit the hay.

At 4:30 AM my brother calls. His one of the only numbers that gets through my “quiet hours” setting. He’s had an idea. He can get JetBlue to route Dad on a direct flight to JFK, arriving just after noon. I look outside. It’s snowing in Connecticut, but not too bad. We agree, he calls JetBlue, and I climb into the shower to wake up. Figuring it may take some time to drive the 90 miles south to JFK, I start immediately, pausing only to grab a bad cup of coffee.

I average literally 20 MPH on the way to JFK, well more than doubling the usual travel time. I see between 10 and 20 cars off the sides of the road, and in New York a couple of lanes are blocked with an ambulance and a pair of shattered cars. An idiot driving at 10 MPH on the line between lanes endangers all around themselves, myself included. A Jeep fishtales in front of me, and I keep wondering what one of those semis would do to my Honda Fit. I am extremely happy that I bought new tires earlier this fall.  Most of the roads (the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways in particular) haven’t been cleared of snow.

I have never been so happy to pay $33 for parking as I am that morning.

At the airport, I discover that Dad’s flight is now expected c. 3:00 pm.Oh! An update just now! 3:49 pm.

So I have a while to sit. At least I found a coffee shop with chairs.


Eventually, the board pushed Dad’s arrival time to 8:00 pm, but JetBlue managed to get a plane to Jacksonville, and he arrived around 6:30 pm.  His bag was misplaced, but eventually located

By this time, I had spent eight hours in the airport.  A word about airports, not specific to JFK:

At the best of times, airports are unpleasant places.  They are full of people, who are noisy, and small shops, many of which have loud music.  They are also full of hard surfaces and high ceilings (the latter, I suspect, to give a sense of freedom associated with air travel–total bullshit), which make the noise much worse.  In fact, I think someone must have turned up the Muzak in JFK, because the crush of bodies waiting for flights (probably twice to three times the usual number) would have attenuated the noise.

If you’re outside the gate area, which you generally are if you’re not traveling, there is nearly no place to sit down, and the food is lousy.  Dunkin Donuts was about the best on offer.

I spent a couple of hours walking around the terminal, took the train around the loop of terminals, and then managed to wankle a gate pass out of Jet Blue.  A gate pass meant that I was, on pain of being treated like a convict searched while being incarcerated , able to pass the barrier and wait for my dad inside the gate area.

Inside the gate area, there are small restaurants with chairs and tables.  There is WiFi (severely overloaded and insecure), and there are shops selling USB to micro-USB cables for $25.  And there are AC Outlets, so I am able to recharge my computer (the battery is good for five hours, but I had longer than that to wait).  And the noise!  Oh the noise noise noise noise noise!

Airports could be better than this.  They should be.

That is all.


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Places I’ll Remember

Yeah.  That one.

I’ve been getting the house ready for family to visit, and part of that included finding and putting away all the tools I’ve got lying around from fixing this, that, or the other thing.  So.  As I was down in my workshop putting things away, I noticed this big box of photographs that I’d seen before, but never really bothered with.  Here are a few things, people, and places.

This photo of horses, taken some time in 1968/1969 (the date on the photo is the printing date):


Some of the rockets I built before I was 13 (the big one on the left, an MPC Moon Go, was probably my favorite.  Yes, that’s a model Gemini capsule on top:


My cat, Miss Meow.  She was acquired when I was in second grade, IIRC.  She was supposed to be my brother’s cat, but she was really mine.  She lived to be 20…  This photo is probably from some time in the late ’70s/early ’80s, when she was 15 or so, and the location is the family home in Shoreview, a suburb of St. Paul:


In 1976, I started college.  The building in the background is the University of Minnesota’s Pillsbury Hall, home of the Geology department.  In the foreground is the building that was the campus bookstore, Williamson Hall, a massive, underground, modernistic structure that was subsequently turned into a computer center.  It was a great place to hang out in the winter–or actually, any time:


Next is Cedar Square West, c. 1979, a complex of apartment buildings where I lived for three years.  The tallest building was Building M, or McKnight Tower.  I lived on the top two floors (yep, a two-floor apartment!) of the lower unit in the foreground, Building F.  Building E is to the right.  The red brick buildings in front are/were part of Minneapolis’ West Bank culture.  They housed the Viking Bar, the 400 (see below), the Coffee House Extempore, Midwest Mountaineering, Belville Guitars, and–of course–the New Riverside Cafe.  This was literally the corner of Cedar and Riverside, the closest Minnesota had to the Haight.


Across the street from those red buildings was another set of red brick buildings, including the 400 Bar and Annie’s Parlour, simply the best ice cream I’ve ever had.  This view, looking at the back of those buildings, was my front yard when I walked out of Building F.  This photo is probably from 1980, shortly after the 400 burned down.  It was later rebuilt.  Lamont Cranston used to play there, IIRC.


Here’s the view from a pedestrian bridge than ran (IIRC) from next to the West Bank Coop Pharmacy, across Cedar, to an alley next to Palmer’s Bar.  You can see down Cedar, past the Cedar Theater, across Riverside.  The building on the right of the intersection, far side, was the New Riverside Cafe.  Numerous shops moving back toward the viewer on the right, including the West Bank Coop Grocery, which carried, inter alia, generic beer.


My bedroom, on the 13th floor of Building F (our entrance was on the 12th floor).  My first decent guitar (still have it), bed, posters.  I remember assembling the frame for that bed in an otherwise empty room that smelled of roach poison (yes, we had roaches) and almost crying for feeling alone.  I was 19.  I lived in that apartment for about three years, with two roommates–first Bruce, then Otto (who was the brother of an ex-girlfriend).


Another view, taken at a later (?) time (lafter Dylan released Live at Budokan–which I think I purchased at the nearby Wax Museum).  A few posters have changed.


Downstairs, same place, stereo to the left, TV to the right, 50-watt Peavy Pacer guitar amp and a briefcase containing my effects board in the middle.  This photo was likely taken late ’80 or early ’81.


And a couple of old Polaroids of yours truly, playing the guitar that went with the amp.  Both taken in the dining room of the house in Shoreview.  I think that second photo shows me wearing a University of Florida shirt.


After I graduated in the Spring of ’81, Otto and I went our separate ways and I moved from Cedar Square West to a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Dinkytown.  The block I lived on ended at a grain elevator and railroad yard.  Overall, the place was much quieter than the West Bank, and much smaller, but at $50 a month furnished, sublet, it was a deal I couldn’t refuse.

Here’s the outside (I was on the left, on the second floor):


The inside of the apartment which, as you can see, was crowded. Almost none of the musical stuff or furniture in that shot was mine!  That all belonged to the guy I sublet from.  The bike (a Raleigh Gran Prix, my pride and joy for many years) and the tie (ugly, ugly, very ugly) were mine, as was the music stand.


And a sticker I put on the Window.


Summer 1981 was idyllic.  I was 23 years old without a care in the world.  Not only did I have a cheap apartment, I had no bills to pay to speak of.  I had received a $1,500 cash award on graduation.  It was supposed to help pay for grad school, but since I had already received a graduate school scholarship, I decided I didn’t need to work that summer.  I hung out, rode my bike, read books, drank beer, went to concerts (Bonnie Raitt, who had a few albums out, but was not really well-known, and Arlo Guthrie, who of course was), went to a theater festival (The Gathering, in St. Peter), and generally had a very good time.  I have had many good times in my life, but if there’s one for which I get nostalgic on any kind of regular basis, it’s that summer.

That summer, I hung out a lot with, got somewhat romantically involved with, and hoped to but did not, get further romantically involved withl L.  She was part of the group with which I hung out, and we just sort of paired off.  We went to some friends’ wedding that summer, and on the way back, stuffed flowers into the muzzle of a tank on display outside a military base.  We protested, read, did our laundry together, she worked, we went to movies and shows (see Bonnie Raitt, above) and biked around the city.  We parted, more or less by agreement, about two weeks before I left for Chicago.

It was also one of the times I reread DhalgrenI know this was that summer because the keys are, respectively, for my apartment, my bike, and various University facilities, and the date on the cassette label is early September 1981.  From this I also know that this photo was taken after my apartment was broken into.  They took my typewriter and my camera (insurance replaced both) and a couple of boxes of cassette tapes–which lead to me re-recording tapes like mad, such as this one with David Bowie on it.  Ironically, the thieves failed to open the closet, in which I had my three very nice guitars, and they failed (probably because of the component-and-cable mess) to get my stereo, though they tried.


Two last photos from that Dinkytown apartment.  I never knew this cat’s name, but it hung around for a while.  It would come to my back door and I’d set out a little milk.  Not mine, but it sort of felt like this cat and I intersected for a while.  Kind of like me and L.

There are lots more pictures and way more stories, but this covers a time.  On September 23, 1981, I left Minneapolis for Chicago.  I never lived in Minnesota again.


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