Monday, August 23, 2010

Up in the Old Hotel the title of an irresistible book by Joseph Mitchell I read more than a few years ago. Its about New York; its about characters, oddities, the buildings, neighborhoods, establishments, bars of the city; its about writing and reporting and a bygone era that was not yet bygone when the pieces were penned. It is one of those books I picked up because of the cover art, type set, and blurb.

But I kept reading, submerged in the sights and structure of the buildings, hotels, ale houses, traffic, and surroundings of Mr. Mitchell. Whenever we espy a hotel of straightforward architecture, few furbelows, a no nonsense front desk and a 'cafe' within, I think of Mr. Mitchell and I want to go there.
This romantic predisposition surfaced with a vengeance this past weekend as we finished a day at that most anachronistic of institutions, the State Fair. It seemed only fitting that a day that began with ham, eggs, and elbow rubbing with any politician worthy of a bumper sticker, continued with a stroll through the draft horse barns, and finished with social hour in the beer garden should conclude with a stop at a three story brick hotel sandwiched between the Boone County Courthouse and the Missouri River. Travelers we, with our carry on bags masquerading as carpetbags and no need to pretend to be wrinkled, sweaty, and in need of rest and refreshment.

I last stopped at the Frederick Hotel way back in 1977, I think it was. It wasn't an old hotel at that time; it was the Greyhound Bus Stop and pretty well down and out. I rode buses often back then and had low expectations of the amenities. As a matter of fact, I didn't ordinarily go in the bus stations if I didn't need to, so I can't report on the interior of the Frederick Hotel thirty years ago.

But I can tell you how delighted I was to pass through the arched portals, pass between the mismatched assortment of lobby furniture across the well worn, buffed white and black marble floor. There is a tall built in grandfather clock of oak. There are cubbies for every key. There is a lobby bar behind frosted glass doors. The hallways stretch into the distance, the walls hung with old maps and photos of old buildings. We didn't seek out the elevator, preferring to check out the second floor on our way to the third from the pine staircase. Each floor still has the guest restrooms at the end of the hallways, relics of the days before private baths. The wardrobes in the halls hold extra blankets. Ceiling fans move the humid air; the guest rooms are beautifully climate controlled, but I appreciate the good sense of letting the hallways in this monstrous building tend to the ambient temperature.

We drop our bags and head for the bar to enjoy the evening light from the west windows. A couple converses at the bar; there is just enough talk and music to put us at ease.

Years ago, we stayed at another marvelous old hotel, this one in Leadville, Colorado. Is the Delaware Hotel still operating? While not luxurious, the rooms were spacious and not spartan. We shared a walk through bath with a large iron tub with the kids in the adjacent room. I don't think the Delaware had television but we didn't miss it. We used our quilts that summer night at the 9,000 foot or so elevation of Leadville. We had an early wake up for the Leadville excursion train up the mountain the next morning. Leadville itself was too high, too chilly, too close to its mining past, to be too cute. But full of romance, the epitome of booms and busts.

And at heart, I guess I am a romantic traveler, always on the lookout for a vignette, a scene from a book, a cliche confirmed, a prospective memory to capture on film, chip, mind's eye. Something to tie into a lyric or a melody from the past or in the future. I save these like Scrooge McDuck hoards his coins. Memory is the guest book of my old hotel and the images come through the lobby like friends and family, settling in on the couch for a joke, a tale, a reminiscence, a cup of Irish coffee in Kildare, a frothy confection on Anegada, fried lobster at the Lake, or a lonely island rising from the rainy mist on Burntside Lake.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ben and Kenz in St. Lou

Happy Birthday, Ben

After a day in the dirt shed filling flats for pansies, then an hour in the garden picking tomatoes and swatting skeeters, it was time for a bath and a good hot one, too. As the tomato fumes lifted with the steam off the water, suddenly I was back two dozen years in memory.....

...We were in Washington, D.C. for a Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher meeting. We'd finished our meetings in the cool offices of the AFBF and had been photographed with the current Secretary of Agriculture. It was hard for me to take this photo op seriously. After all, was I REALLY going to prominently display an 8x10 glossy of Blake, Secretary Lyng, and me, 8 1/2 months pregnant? By that point, packing for the trip had been easy; I had one dress big enough to wear comfortably.

But I had been feeling pretty good the whole time; we had been working on our house and I had a decent garden that summer as well. A walk up to Dupont Circle and a bookstore there sounded like a good idea; we had lots to talk about with our friend in D.C. That expedition was followed by another walk to the Market Inn for a much anticipated seafood meal with our group.

Once there, though, the menu didn't look that good. I decided to skip the entree but couldn't shake an overheated feeling. Instead of a pleasant evening with friends, I finally asked Blake if we could just go back to the hotel without making too much of a fuss.

Once out of the restaurant, I told him what I thought was the source of the sudden discomfort: I thought baby three was on its way. That pressure, that weight, that pain: even though it had been six years, it felt like labor to me!

An hour in our room, two hours passed, but no peace, no quiet. I took that bath and worried. We were in DC without a car, without a doctor, without that little bag you're supposed to have ready, without a plan. It was long before cell phones, but Blake called anyone we might know on the hotel phone in hopes of advice. No one would answer. Finally, he called our Congressman, explained the situation and asked for a hospital number and recommendation. The good Congressman was aghast. I had an even bigger sinking feeling, visualizing the call to the grandparents.....and Lee and Ann at home. We felt isolated and alone in the Capitol Holiday Inn. Finally, sometime after midnight, we turned off the light and left the consequences, the mom, dad and baby in the Hands that care for all.

.....And then! It was morning! We were still in our room and I was still a pregnant lady. That particular morning, I was one of the happiest pregnant ladies around. Our tale didn't sound nearly as harrowing in the light of day, but our friends were still impressed. We decided to keep the whole episode on the qt from the folks at home. We flew back to family and farm with no further incident.

Polite and prompt and organized as can be, John Benton Hurst waited until after breakfast, on his due date, to start his birth. Blake was just outside, building a grain bin with his dad and brothers. We waited quite awhile to leave for the hospital, stopping for stamps at the post office. No rush at all when you are just ten miles from your friendly Community Hospital and the doctor coming to meet you has already delivered your other children. Ben took his sweet time, meeting his dad for the first time at 5:24 that afternoon. But, after that initial scare three weeks before, we already knew the best way to bring this child into the world was to take a walk. And walk I did, for four hours, up and down the hallway of the solarium, until he was ready.

And I was ever so glad that time came in Missouri and not the District of Columbia.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Princess, a Pea, and Dust Bunnies

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Short Cuts.....

...for hot days. Back in town in mid afternoon on Primary Day. Aaron and Lizzie came to vote with me, as they often do. Lizzie wanted to help, but seemed to take it in stride when I told her she would have to be older. She undoubtedly hears that often. Aaron asked first if he could put the ballot in the box. Thankfully, none of the poll workers shouted 'Voter Fraud!!' or ripped the ballot from the six year old's hand. Voter confidentiality is but thinly veiled in our little town. The workers do their duty, check our IDs and ask which ballot we want. But they not only know who we are, and which ballot we want, they could cast our ballots for us if we were deaf, dumb and/or blind. Blake is poll watching today. When we received the email with the unknown name and title "all you need to know for August 3", I opened it. What it included was a map of Atchison county with capital letters at the airport, Tarkio, get the picture. I thought, perhaps some dignitary is coming into the airport and the map is being sent as an unnecessary courtesy. Nope, the map is to direct Blake to the polling places. Really now!!! Sometimes the machinery of politics gets a little ridiculous when transposed to our very elementary level. Calling results in four times today is also probably overkill.

The Color Purple

Or, more accurately, that dark blackish hue of purple fountain grass, or 'Royal Tapestry' alternanthera, or 'Dark Star' coleus, or 'Black Pearl' ornamental is the irreplaceable hue of hot summers. Without that color, every other plant would look washed out by the time it has endured two weeks of ninety plus days and night temperatures that stay above 75 degrees. Chartreuse? It's looks chlorotic. Reds? Sunburnt. Blue? Ha! Find any blue flowers beside scaevola. But if you plant anything with a 'Black Magic' colocasia, it looks brighter as the deep velvet just soaks up all that sun. All of a sudden, your garden has contrast again, just as if you put polarizing sun glasses on.

The Shows Go On

We took a nostalgic family outing to Omaha earlier this month to hear Lyle Lovett and his band (Its not big, its large) at the Holland Center. The audience was composed primarily of folks well into middle age for which we could find just two possible explanations: either they are season subscribers, or Lyle, whose first recording came out the year Ben was born, looks younger than his primary audience!! But then again, if you have looked like a caricature of yourself for your adult life, you deserve the compensation of agelessness. The venue was spotless, the seating spacious and artistically curved. The performers were not just mailing it in and the star was entertaining and thoughtful. There was no intermission so we certainly got all our money's worth; it was a marvelous mix of new and old tunes.
And yet, and yet.....we have also spent the whole summer practicing and now performing in a community theater production of a musical; like music can, it has infiltrated our unconscious as well as our conscious moments. We dream the tunes from 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'; particularly catchy or difficult licks run over and over as I water like a scratch in a record. Sometimes I can't even remember which song I'm humming, but I can't think of anything else; it takes physical effort to sing any other melody in my memory. And we're just members of the pit orchestra, not actors, not singers, barely footnotes in the program! That commitment of brain power, dexterity, concentration is what music is really about...down at gut level, toe tapping level, shake the stage level. It is wonderful to hear the pros perform and I admire the perfection produced by mere humanity. But I wouldn't miss any opportunity to pick up my motley assortment of woodwinds and tackle the same score the pros play on Broadway. What a blessing to be part of the artistic community, even a peripheral part! I can't appreciate the genius that produces some art, but I know just how difficult some fingerings are. Thus am I joined to the marvels of musical theater by the common language of flats, sharps and rests. I will always recognize the score of the shows I've played and be thankful for the direct link from Rock Port, or Shenandoah to the genius of American theater in New York. Its great to be in the audience, but its better yet to play!

Heat Wave

Lightening in the distance...far north about a hundred miles. This is the August weather I remember as a kid. Lightening leaping from cloud to cloud in silence; maybe part of a thunderstorm, maybe just what we called 'heat lightening.' Whatever the meteorological cause, the bottom line was more heat, no rain, another day just like the day previous. I don't remember it raining during the summer when I was young, except for a double header at Comiskey Park that was rained out. But I clearly remember dry brown grass, running the sprinklers and the soaker hose, and fighting the horseflies and grasshoppers. For whatever reason, my genetic or cultural make up is such that I dread droughts more than overly wet weather. And believe me, while this year I have ample reason to change that predilection, I just can't... When I see the lightening up north, I still have to check the weather forecast and the radar. I just do.