Monday, June 27, 2016

EXCERPT 7 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — COURTING THE HERALD


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Inexperienced, under-confident, if well-traveled twenty-four-year-old that I was at the time, I don’t know, to this day, how I plucked up the courage and audacity to unmercifully pester an editor and writer of the international standing of Robert J. Cox for months on end until he gave me a job, but somehow, I managed it. Maybe it was just the brashness of youth and the fact that I had a personal vision of my future as a writer laid out neatly in my mind. That, and the fact that back then, in 1974, the only show in town for an English-language 'wannabe' writer with a hankering for some experience in the trenches was the Buenos Aires Herald.
Cox looking very much as he did when I
met him, in a portrait on the cover of
son David's 2009 memoir, "Dirty Secrets,
Dirty War".
Born and reared in England, Cox had started working in provincial newspapers while still in his teens. By the time he was recruited to the ranks of the Buenos Aires Herald in 1959, he was already a street-tested twenty-six year old reporter for the Hull Daily Mail. He was brought into the Herald on a three-year contract and was promised that after his first three years in Buenos Aires, he would be granted three months of vacation and passage on a steamer to return home to England for a visit. He was hired as a copy-editor, but it wasn’t long before his writing ability and news sense moved him up the ladder to general news editor.
Founded in 1876, the Herald was one of Argentina's three oldest surviving newspapers out of about a dozen dailies that the city boasted. Originally created as a single-sheet maritime shipping paper, but later having grown into a full-fledged news daily, at a time of all but sovereign British power over Argentina's trade and transport interests, the Herald had since entered into a state of gradual decay, following the days of rekindled nationalist fervor that emerged in the 1940s and '50s, with the rise to power of autocratic popular nationalist leader General Juan Domingo Perón. Despite the best efforts of its latest two editors—both respected international newsmen—it had settled into being a rather pokey little daily that served the interests of what was left of an aging and shrinking English-language community. But its editorial and international pages belied that destiny, reflecting the professionalism and higher interests of Bob’s predecessor, Norman Ingrey, and then of Cox himself.
In Buenos Aires, Cox would meet and marry Maud Daverio, a young lady of considerable connections in Buenos Aires society, with whom he would have five Argentine children while rising to the post of Editor-in-Chief and, eventually, Chairman of the Board at the Herald. Such strong ties to Argentina had already made the English-language daily his most viable source of full-time news work. He would, however, also gain international prestige as an honored stringer for such renowned news organizations as Newsweek, the BBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others.  So it was that, by the time Ingrey retired in 1970, Cox was pretty much ensconced as a credible, savvy, foreign observer of political and social life in Argentina. His professional presence, in turn, was what kept the Herald from sinking further and further into oblivion and dying what could only have been considered a natural death. As natural, surely, as the one the 'old school tie' Anglo-Argentine community was dying as its youth decided that they were less Anglo than Argentine and began wanting to “mingle with the natives” in what clearly seemed to be shaping up as a post-colonialist age.
Bob Cox with wife Maud Daverio. (Photo published in Perfil.com)
Cox was aided in this task by the fact that, at around this same time, the Charleston Evening Post Publishing Company (Charleston, South Carolina) acquired a controlling share of the Herald, which, since the 1920s, had been an (Anglo) Argentine family-owned concern. There must surely have been some speculation at the time as to why on earth the Charleston group would want a foreign white elephant like the Herald, but if so, it was only among observers who had never met Peter Manigault, then President of that expanding media group and son of the wealthy family that controlled it. A true Southern gentleman and former naval officer of urbane tastes and education, Manigault was also a bit whimsical and off-beat. Add that to the fact that he dabbled in Spanish-language studies and loved South America, and this was enough to provide him with all of the justification he needed to purchase a quaint, colonial-style 'gem' like the Herald, even if cynics must surely have asked themselves if it wasn't, perhaps, a tax write-off.
Although when Bob first heard about the sale he worried that he might be fired and replaced by someone Charleston would choose as editor,  when Manigault and Cox met, they hit it off almost immediately—since if Manigault was an truly uncommon businessman, Cox was genuinely iconic in the world of old-school journalism. And he would very shortly evolve into the stuff movie-hero journalists are made of: the editor of a small paper fighting major battles in defense of authentic justice, human rights and the rule of law. And the bond between him and Manigault would clearly come in handy in the future when his authority was called into question by one of the local owners of the other forty percent interest.
When I first met him in early 1974, Cox was the clearly over-extended managing editor of a paper with plummeting advertising revenues and a shrinking readership. It could barely afford its skeletal staff and the third floor offices it rented in a shabby building (that also housed the down-at-heel English Club) in what was then, as I mentioned earlier, the red-light district near the old port. As such, Cox could ill-afford the time or money to make any major changes in the paper itself. The result was a rather quirky, provincial, outdated, ill-proofed little twelve to sixteen-page tabloid with an international wire-copy front page and translated local-wire news page, a sports section that featured international cricket and soccer—as well as rugby, bowling on the green, equestrian sports and field hockey—a few really good columns and stories provided by good-willed, ill-paid contributors and staffers, and an extraordinarily high-quality editorial page that made the rest of the paper look like a mere frame in which to publish it. And that, in fact, was what it was fast becoming.
Not that Cox wouldn't have liked to have professionalized the Herald. He tried as often as he could to impress on his tiny staff the importance of dedication to objectivity and professional care, but he was obviously overworked and just as obviously much more of a writer and investigator than a hands-on editor, so he dedicated more and more time to chronicling the nightmare that was unfolding in Argentina on his editorial page and less and less to trying to extricate the rest of the paper from the malaise of routine mediocrity into which it had slumped and now wallowed.
After struggling with myself for some time regarding how to go about getting an introduction to Cox, I one day simply decided to call the Herald and ask for an interview and, somewhat to my surprise, was given one for the following evening. When I arrived at 6 p.m., the advertising and administrative employees were bidding each other good night and leaving, as the editorial staffers were just arriving. There was no waiting room to speak of, just a worn green leather armchair wedged in at the end of the classified ads counter partially blocking the door to the editor's office and just a few feet from two big metal and translucent glass swinging doors that bore lettering reading Editorial Department. I was asked to take a seat and wait. When the last of the clerks and advertising staff had said good night and taken the elevator, a very prim, very English-looking middle-aged woman with whom I had spoken on my arrival shut off all of the lights except for one just over my head and said, “I’ve let him know you’re here. He'll be with you in a moment.” And then she added, “Good night,” and followed her fellow workers down on the elevator.
I sat there alone for quite a long time with just the buzzing drone of the neon light to keep me company. Eventually, however, the double doors to the editorial department swung open and a pleasant-faced, rotund woman bustled through on her way to the restroom at the end of the hall past the elevators. When she saw me, she stopped and said, “Hello, I'm Maggie,” and extended her hand. I stood, shook it and said, “Hi, I'm Dan Newland.”
“Are you waiting for Bob?” she asked. I nodded. “Does he know you're here?”
“I think so,” I said a little dubiously. “He's been told.”
“Have you been here long?”
I checked my watch. “About half an hour,” I said.
She said, “Just a minute,” and went back the way she had come, through the editorial department. I could hear the teletypes and manual typewriters chattering away in her wake, before the heavy doors swung shut again behind her and wanted nothing more than to be in there already doing a job I just knew I was made for.
I sat back down to wait, but within an instant after Maggie had gone, the editor's door burst open and through it rushed a man with an almost wild look about him. His brow was furrowed in an expression of genuine worry, His quality white dress shirt was wrinkled and perspired. He wore brown loafers that were in dire need of a shine and one was split along a seam so that you could see a glimpse of bright red stocking through it, in sharp contrast to his pricey conservative pinstriped trousers. He was slender and tallish and his thinning dark-brown hair swirled in erratic tentacles around his head as if he were in the habit of running his fingers through it repeatedly—or had just been in a gale-force wind. All in all, it was a look that combined an aristocratic air with the devil-may-care nonchalance of a talent too busy to be concerned with outward appearances. 
Cox at his desk in the Herald. (Photo published in Perfil.com)
“So sorry, so sorry...must be Dan...Dan, isn't it? Yes...lost track of time, please come in...Terribly sorry.” he muttered almost under his breath as we shook hands.
His uneasiness was somewhat contagious and I nervously launched into my pitch as soon as we were seated, telling him my life story in five minutes or less: former professional musician, just out of the Army, three years with the US Army bands, a little over one in Europe, married to an Argentine, always been a writer, what I want to do with my life, need a chance in journalism, fast learner, hard worker, etc., etc.
My uneasiness was hardly quelled by the surroundings. Cox's office was a truly extraordinary, but almost horrifying place. The room was cramped, hardly executive dimensions, perhaps twelve feet by seven feet, if that. The only light came from the bluish neon ceiling tubes, one of which had a bad starter and hummed nerve-rackingly. Every square inch of counter, desk and table space was trembling under mountains of books, papers, magazines, wire copy, radio-photos and files. Stacks of them, piles of them, heaps of them, in no apparent order, almost as if a dump truck had simply avalanched it all into the room. There were heaps of papers on the floor against the wall, a stack on the chair in front of his desk that he had cleared away for me to sit down, a mound on top of the radiator by the Venetian-blinded window, a veritable landslide on the overstuffed green leather couch along one wall, which, I noted, was the other part of the suit the armchair I’d just been sitting in outside belonged to. These lopsided heaps that leaned against one another for support dominated the tiny office and made Cox, at his desk behind chin-high bales of paperwork, look rather as if he had been bulldozed into a corner along with a load of wastepaper. The office bore no personal touches, no mementos, no hint of residence or proprietorship, except for the predominant influence of paper of just about every kind. En lieu of wall decorations, too, there was paper: rough drafts, printed articles, syndicated columns, notes, messages, invitation cards, scribbled reminders, underscored phone numbers and names, all scotch-taped to the plaster and all obviously pieces of information that were somehow more important to the editor than the general mounds of miscellany that were heaped all over the rest of the room, and thus deserved a place of privilege on the wall, where he was sure to see them and perhaps recall whatever action it was that they merited.
Finally, there was his “workstation”—a weighty, battered Olivetti Lexicon manual typewriter. Parts of the machine's housing had been stripped away, obviously so that the user could tinker with it and make it work whenever it decided to pack up on him. It sat atop a ramshackle wooden typing table on wheels that had probably once been a fine piece of office furniture but that now listed in two directions, slightly west and dangerously north, so that it had to be propped against the only tiny piece of empty wall in the room in order to prevent it from simply keeling over and dying, taking the moribund Olivetti with it. 
Cox had a polite and humble manner, not at all the kind of hard-nosed, disdainful cynic I had rather expected to meet. He listened patiently to my plea for a chance to “come in on the ground level” and “learn the trade”. I added that he wouldn't be sorry, that I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth and that I would be as dedicated as a monk. But while he was cordial and sympathetic, I noticed that sweat was beading on his brow, that he was almost compulsively scratching both of his forearms beneath the rolled cuffs of his shirt. He kept glancing furtively over at the piece of letter-size, yellowed newsprint rolled into the Lexicon, where he had obviously been working on something when I arrived. It was calling him even now and he had to get back to it.
“Okay,” I said, at last, “I've taken enough of your time. Please, just tell me you'll give me a chance and I’ll be on my way.”
“Perhaps you could contribute...” he tried.
“No, Mr. Cox...”
“Bob, call me Bob.”
“Or rather, yes, I will contribute, Bob, but what I want is a full-time job. I want to be a newsman. I want to write for a living.”
He looked a little pained, shook his head and said, “Look, Dan, this is a slave job. Nothing like what you'd expect. We do a little of everything here. And we all have to do other things outside the Herald to survive. We write for papers abroad to make ends meet. This is very hard...a lot of sacrifice, and frankly, I simply don't have anything for you—for anyone—right now.”
“Can I stop by now and then to see if something has opened up?”
He looked doubtful but said, “Yes, of course. Perhaps next time we can have a coffee at the bar around the corner. I'm just a little, uh, busy at the moment and um...”
Back then the Herald was a ramshackle frame for Cox's
extraordinary investigations and editorials and was upheld by his 
growing international reputation. Here Cox (center) talks with 
then-US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Argentine political 
commentator Mariano Grondona.  (Photo published in Perfil.com)
That was enough for me. I had his permission to come back. And come back I did—once every week or ten days for several months. Even though he sometimes had trouble restraining his irritation at my simply showing up unannounced, he seemed to admire my persistence. I would camp outside his office door for as long as it took. Sometimes he would stick his head out and say, “Sorry Dan, but I'm just too busy today,” and I would smile and say, “No problem, see you in a few days,” and leave, only to return as promised. It seemed to make him feel guilty when he rejected me and the next time he would be extra polite and we would nip out for a cup espresso at one of the bars nearby and talk for a while about journalism and what was going on in Buenos Aires, how Perón's return was affecting the country and about our favorite authors, among other varied topics. I told him that it was reading Hemingway and reading about Hemingway’s life that had made me want to be a newsman as well as a fiction writer, since Hemingway claimed he had learned everything he knew about succinct writing and economy of words when he was a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. At this, Cox lit up and said, “Back when I first started, we all wanted to write like Hemingway: ‘He sat by the window. The light streamed in.’ Wonderful stuff!”
Suddenly, I felt we were kindred spirits.  
I eventually contributed a couple of very lightweight vignettes to a weekend editorial page section called Saturday Sidelight, where just about anything went—although that was also where Bob, under the guise of light weekend reading, often got in some of his meatiest investigative work. Despite the frivolity of my first contributions, Cox liked them, liked the writing and tone, and assigned me a research article on the quagmire of identity documents, work visas and travel permits—government-invented bureaucratic stumbling blocks to foreigners, about which I was accumulating abundant personal experience. Still, alas, no fulltime job.
This went on for about five or six months, and although I felt that, to a certain degree, he and I had become friends, I eventually lost all hope that Robert Cox was ever going to give me a job. So I quit going to visit him at the Herald, simply resigned myself to having to continue to issue car rental contracts for Avis Rent-a-Car while working on my writing, contributing where and what I could, and hoping for a future break.
It wasn't three weeks after I quit visiting Cox, however, before the phone rang one evening at my mother-in-law’s home, where we were staying until we could afford a place of our own.  My wife answered, and told me with no little excitement in her voice that it was Robert Cox on the line.
“Hello, Bob,” I said when I picked up the receiver. “What a surprise!”
“Yes, uh, Dan, um, just calling to see if you're all right.”
“Well, of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?”
“Yes, well, bad times and all, so dangerous for foreigners, you know, and you haven't been by lately, I thought perhaps something...” he trailed off.
“Listen, Bob,” I said. “I really like visiting you but, pleasant though it was for me, I wasn’t just dropping by for coffee and a chat every week?”
“Yes, of course, Dan, I uh....understand, but um...”
“I want a job in your newspaper,” I interrupted. “I want to be a journalist.”
There was a pause. I could almost hear him thinking, deciding. I held my breath.
“Uh, yes, well,” he said finally, “Pop by next Monday, then...may have something for you. Cheers.”
And there I stood still holding the receiver and thinking, “Hey! Was this a dream, or did I just land a newspaper job?”


Monday, June 13, 2016

EXCERPT 6 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — LIFE IN ‘EL BAJO’


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.

I had started trying to find a job as a writer almost as soon as I started getting to know Buenos Aires well enough to get around by myself. I went after this goal with an attitude of entitlement based more on sheer ignorance than on any inflated opinion of myself and my budding craft. What I lacked in know-how, I made up for in unbridled enthusiasm, and pushed ahead blindly on the perhaps delusional notion that I was owed a chance to prove myself, to show what I could do, to demonstrate that I had what it took to write for a living. After all, I’d been writing pretty much all my life. What did it matter that I was basically the only person who had ever read or evaluated any of my stuff?
As soon as I knew the streets of Buenos Aires well enough to get 
around on my own, I starting knocking on doors looking for a job
as a writer.

So, while still working as a night bellhop at the Hotel Salles in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires, I had begun haunting the offices of correspondents from the major US publications and agencies—Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, AP, UPI, the New York Times and others—but to no avail. Most of the correspondents were not nearly as unkind as they could have been. As reporters, they obviously valued enthusiasm and persistence, even if they must have considered me at least impudent and a pest, if not insane.

All of them either asked about my 'experience' or wanted to know what “j-school” I had gone to. Ultimately, to a man and woman, they asked me if I had talked to "Bob Cox over at the Herald" yet. But for some reason, I kept avoiding this option, perhaps because my mind was full of stories about Hemingway’s cub reporter days with the Kansas City Star and his later work as a young reporter for the Toronto Star. I guess I wanted to get in on the ground floor with an organization whose name people knew, and who knew the Buenos Aires Herald? Many, I would later learn, since the Herald did indeed enjoy a privileged reputation among international news people dating back to the time when its editor had been Norman Ingrey—who had made a name for himself reporting in China and elsewhere before settling in until retirement at the Buenos Aires newspaper—and one that was being vastly underscored by its current editor, Robert J. Cox.

In the meantime, I had managed to land a slightly better job than the one at the hotel, this time as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car, working out of their office at Calle Charcas and “el bajo”, a section of town which, today, is touristy and full of shops and cafes, but which, back then, was on the down-at-heel edge of a shabby red-light district frequented by sailors from around the world whose ships sailed up the River Plate from the Atlantic to call at the Port of Buenos Aires a few blocks away. If the hotel, with its colorful cast of characters, had been an interesting enough place for a writer to work, the Charcas office of Avis Rent-a-Car was a gold mine of street scene impressions. And the best part about it, to my mind, was that it was located only a few blocks from the offices that the Buenos Aires Herald rented at that time in the very heart of that colorful, if unsavory, deep downtown area. That made it easier than ever to go bother Cox after work whenever the spirit moved me, something I had finally started doing, at first reluctantly, on the advice of just about everyone in the news business, while I was still working nights at the Hotel Salles. 
The Avis office was at Charcas and 25 de Mayo, a street that
was then part of the redlight district that began only a few
short blocks from the Cathedral, shown here in the 1970s. 

Mornings in the cramped little auto rental office were breathlessly busy pretty much all year around, since most clients picked up their rental cars during the hours from nine until noon. Returns straggled in throughout the day, but there were lengthy lulls, as well, veritable workday doldrums. Early afternoons were the worst and could drag endlessly if you didn’t have a pastime other than tracking the incoming and outgoing movement of the rented cars that we recorded in a big ledger book using a No. 2 pencil and an eraser—which our English-school educated Chilean boss, Mariela, delighted me by referring to as an “Indian rubber”. Luckily, I had a pastime (or vocation as I preferred to think of it): writing. And I made endless notes on the scenes unfolding beyond the floor to ceiling window and glass door that made up the tiny office’s facade.

A sort of continuous everyday drama was taking place right across that street. There was a dingy, nameless bar, worse than most others in the area—which was saying something—frequented (invaded, one might say) by derelict drunkards, most of them erstwhile street people, who took the place as both a home and a watering-hole for the hours that it was open each day. And, to be sure, it was only closed for a few. Above the bar there was a flophouse of sorts where those who worked occasionally and had a bit of cash could rent a room for as long as their money held out.

Watching the bar from my high stool behind the rental desk was a bit like having what today might be a wide-screen reality show on all day long. A lot of what went on was about who was “in” and who was “out” at the establishment. I got to “know” the patrons by sight and could tell when one of them was “in the money” and another was down and out by changes in that tavern society’s pecking order. The ones who could walk in and not be unceremoniously escorted out by noon had hit it big. The ones drinking outside out of shared bottles purchased at the grocery store around the corner had been marginalized from the indoor population but still cruised the fringes of that society with hope springing eternal that they would soon be invited back in. The ones slouching against the ramshackle front of the building just past the big front windows, glancing wistfully inside and toward their erstwhile drinking pals who still had the money to at least chip in and invest in a bottle from the store around the corner, were veritable exiles. These would only hang around until it became obvious no one was going to take pity on them and buy them a drink, and then they would shuffle up the hill from the bajo toward nearby Calle Florida to begin the hard, humiliating work of panhandling the price of a day-long drunk.

At the top of the societal pyramid were, of course, the drunks who could afford to both drink in the bar and pay for a flop above it. When days were sultry, the upstairs windows were flung open and I could see some of those skinny, sickly men drifting back and forth in the shadows of those dusty rooms, looking more like ghosts than flesh and blood humans. And yet, I reminded myself, these were the lucky ones, who didn’t have to worry about whether it would rain that night and, if so, which doorway they could curl up in without being rousted out or picked up by the cops for vagrancy. But no matter what downtrodden position they all held on the skids of this lower downtown society, they were all recognizable satellites of this bar, a social complex repeated in other neighborhoods and other similar bars around the city.

Sometimes there was a bit of excitement: boisterous arguments, bum’s rush evictions, the occasional shoving match or drunks’ slow-motion fight, events that enlivened my workday, especially during the dragging hours of the siesta when I was usually left alone to man the Charcas office. But as in any society, there were also landmark events, and I witnessed one of these.
Mid-morning of a dreary autumn day, the low sky ominous, the air dense and damp with drizzle off the River Plate, it was easy to see there was something afoot. The drunks were uncharacteristically anxious, standing out in front of the bar in little knots of four or five men, not drinking, but talking in hushed tones among themselves. As they talked, they would glance from time to time rather expectantly down the block toward el bajo, the direction from which traffic came on the one-way Calle Charcas. And then, alternatively, they would glance into the penumbral interior of the bar through the open door or windows, as if to see what was going on inside.
This "colectivo", the 119 line, was the one I often caught to 
go home, 80 blocks away on the West Side. 

At first I thought perhaps there had been a fire and that this was why the patrons had cleared out into the street. There could be little doubt that the place was a fire trap, especially when the owners cranked up the grill at noon-time and the smell of old grease burning off laid an odiferous pall in the air along the entire block. But there was no smoke, nor did the drunks seem to have the attitude of people escaping from a fire...although, they were, after all, I reasoned, career alcoholics, the kind of guys who could sleep through an earthquake on the steps of a crumbling cathedral and not be shaken awake.

Then, however, from the direction down the block toward which the gathering kept glancing, I heard the hoarse blare of a siren and in a few seconds, a dark blue, paneled, Federal Police morgue truck pulled up in front of the bar. And right away, I knew what had happened. For several days, I’d been missing one of the resident regulars, one whom I referred to as El Conde (The Count), a figure who lived permanently above the bar and seemed to command the respect and deference of the rest of the patrons. But I figured, as did the owners of the place, evidently, that he was either bingeing and too drunk and sick to leave his room, or that, perhaps he’d gone away for a few days, since a weekend had fallen in the midst of the three or four days that he had been absent from the scene. Now, however, two uniformed cops were being let in the side entrance by one of the bartenders, who handed them a pass key, rather than accompany them, and then they headed up the stairs, carrying a folded canvas stretcher between them.

By this time, my workmate Paul and I had stepped out of the office into the street to get a better look at the procedures.  We knew immediately when the police had opened the door to El Conde’s room, not merely because all of the patrons on the other side of the street quickly moved away from the stairway entrance and shuffled down to the other end of the front of the bar, but also because it wasn’t more than a minute or so before the stench emanating from the upstairs of the bar washed over us like a tidal wave, so strong and dense in the humid air that it activated our gag reflexes and prompted us to glance down at our own clothes, as if we might actually be able to see it soaking into the fabric.

Now the two policemen were exiting the building with the stretcher between them. The cadaver hadn’t been placed in a body bag but was merely covered with a blanket, and the stretcher left a trail of evil, slimy liquid on the pavement as they stepped down off of the curb and hoisted the body into the back of their truck, slamming shut and latching the doors behind it.
The drunks on the sidewalk stood staring at the trail of body fluids on the pavement, most looking sicklier than usual, some holding hankies over their noses and mouths, others turning away and gagging. The cops, in an apparent hurry to be rid of the decomposing corpse, hopped into the cab of their morgue truck, cranked up the siren and immediately sped off, hell bent for leather, sailing into the intersection at the end of the block without even bothering to slow down. But that was as far as they got, because just at that Murphy’s-Law moment, a five-ton truck loaded with bricks was also sailing from the left through that same intersection, also without slowing down, and the two collided with such a tremendous crash in the middle of the crossing that the bed of the freight truck with its five-ton load of bricks was knock up onto the sidewalk and the cab of the Federal Police morgue truck was accordioned against it. The driver of the police truck was hanging halfway out of the sprung-open door. He was covered in blood and appeared to be unconscious or dead. The other policeman had gone through the windshield and was lying halfway out of the cab with his torso on the crushed hood.  He too appeared unresponsive. The rear doors of the closed truck had burst wide open on impact and the stretcher with the body on it was hanging precariously out of the back end a couple of feet.

When it was all over, there was an incongruous silence as we all—drunks, bar and shop owners and employees, Paul, myself and passersby—all stood open-mouthed in disbelief, staring at the grisly scene we had just witnessed. But then we all recovered and sprang into action, some people rushing away, not wanting to get involved, others dashing toward the two trucks to see if they could help, Paul and I hurrying back into the office to call the police and then back out onto the street to wait for the squad cars to arrive.
It was then, standing there in the street that was now bustling with cops, photographers, curiosity seekers and neighbors, that I realized what I had been thinking the entire time that this incident had been unfolding. No matter what other feelings or reactions I’d had, at the back of my mind, I had been writing the story, describing the scene, seeking a hook for the first paragraph. I was, I realized, made to do this, to write what I saw and heard and felt. I was born to it. And now I was more desperate than ever to find a place to publish my stories.


Friday, May 27, 2016

THE TEMPLE REVISITED


When I arrive, my friend Jim Bowsher is, I can tell, busy, focused, into something big.  We’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner, but when I talked to him on the phone, he asked me to meet him at his house a couple of hours before because he wanted to show me something he was doing out in the yard.
It’s well into Ohio November but it has been unseasonably warm. Now, however, in the mid-afternoon of a lead-grey day, the weather’s changing. Last night and early this morning it rained, and now there’s a wind up out of the north. It’s stirring up the dry autumn leaves on the ground and things are growing chilly all of the sudden as I get out of the car, underdressed, in shirtsleeves and a light canvas vest, in front of Jim’s now famous house in Wapakoneta, our mutual home town.
Stones, boulders, masonry, ironwork and other symbolic 
remnants of Ohio's human and natural history.
I make my way past what looks like the remnants of an archeological dig in his little dooryard, and go up the steps to rap on his storm door. No answer. So I knock again, a little harder. Still nothing. So I go around back figuring he’s probably out in his incredible backyard doing whatever he does back there, working magic with rocks and stones and boulders, and masonry, and ironwork, and a gazillion other highly symbolic segments, chunks, pieces and slivers of Ohio history (both natural and human) spanning a period ranging roughly from the Ice Age to the 1960s or so.
I know the way. I was here a year before and wrote about the fantastic world of Jim Bowsher in a series of articles I published here in The Southern Yankee

But this time it’s different. I feel right at home, as if I belonged here, partly because of the friendship that Jim and I have forged practically “overnight”, but also, I think, because that’s the climate here, the spirit in which Jim created this extraordinary, surreal, almost insane homage to tolerance, a burgeoning rock garden that has now expanded obsessively to take up the entire heart of the block. Which is another crazy thing about Jim, how he manages to have his ever-persistent way, to get people to do things without resentment, to join him, in fact, in ventures that, if you or I were to try to present them, we’d at least get the door slammed in our faces and maybe even the dogs sicked on us, to say nothing of angry city fathers burning effigies and maybe even crosses in our yards.  
What's not stone is wrought iron culled from every historic
 demolition possible.
But yes, a climate of universal tolerance and peace and brotherhood, which he created for anyone with an open heart and mind who comes to call, but more than anything else, as a place where usually wayward kids feel they belong. A place where they know somebody cares, even if Jim can sometimes be a curmudgeon or even a bit of a pill, but always for their own good.
Like the kid who went to a job interview Jim had gotten him at a hamburger chain store on the edge of town and came back to Jim’s place later complaining that he hadn’t gotten the job. In fact, they hadn’t even seemed to want to talk to him. Jim looked up from the book he was reading at the kid and said, “Well, were you wearing that t-shirt?”
The kid looked down at his t-shirt and back up at Jim and said, “Yeah, what’s wrong with it?”
“It says ‘Eat Shit’ on it,” said Jim without losing his cool. And when there was no reaction, he said, “What kind of an idiot goes to an interview for a job in a restaurant wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Eat Shit’ on it?”
“I like this shirt,” says the kid, looking hurt. “My dad gave me this shirt. He thought I looked okay.”
“Okay, couple of things,” Jim tells him. “First, that shirt’s inappropriate...for interviews, for school, for just about whatever. Second, I know your dad. If you want to know anything at all about fishing or hunting or tromping around out in the wild, he’s your man. Ask him for advice on those subjects anytime. But he’s been in prison twice, so no advice on life. In fact, you tell him that. Tell him Jim Bowsher says it’s okay to ask him about hunting and fishing but no life advice.”
“You want me to tell him you said that?” the kid asks dubiously.
“Yes, you tell him Jim says no more life advice because he’s not qualified, then tell me what he says.”
Next day the kid comes back and Jim says, “Did you tell your dad what I said?”
“Yep.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said you were right.”
You don’t think about kids having these kinds of issues in the mostly white, mostly middle-class, highly protected environments of the small-town Midwest, but Jim knows better. In the incredible rock garden outside his backdoor, he sees it all. People, especially fellow writers, think of him as a kind of hermit, somebody without a cellphone or computer—he still writes on a manual typewriter—a guy who’s built a personal world where he can shut himself away and live and write in the relative isolation of small-town America. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jim Bowsher is one of the most socially connected and sociologically savvy people you’d ever want to meet, even if he will, yes, go to just about any length to protect his privacy. But his backyard—which he has turned into a public space for solace, healing and meditation—is a veritable magnet for kids in trouble.
Jim's amazing creation is a magnet for wayward kids. 
Like another kid he told me about the last time I was here. This was a teen he started seeing at just about any hour that he ventured into the sprawling yard and he quickly figured out that the boy was homeless. Or rather, that things had been so bad in what he had once called home that, as soon as he felt he was old enough to pull it off, he plucked up his courage and lit out on his own. He drifted from place to place until a ride he’d hitched with a trucker deposited him on the eastern edge of Wapakoneta, next to I-75. He asked around trying to find work, a place to stay, somewhere to make a little money and to get out of the elements awhile.
Long story short, somebody suggested he drop by the rock garden and see Jim. Typically, Jim went to the mat for the kid, pressing him to get his story off his chest, to talk over what was bothering him, and then began the work of trying to make a better world for him. Eventually, Jim not only found the kid a job, but a place to stay and a surrogate family all under one roof.
So everything went along fine until, one day, Jim hears from the kid’s employer cum guardian. The guy says he doesn’t know what to do. He’s reached an impasse with the kid on the subject of garbage. Garbage? Yes, the guy says, garbage. The kid flatly refuses to have anything to do with it. When he’s asked to take the garbage out, he says no, on no uncertain terms.
“How’s he doing otherwise?” Jim wants to know.
“Oh great! Don’t get me wrong. He’s a great kid, a hard worker, responsible. I have no complaints. And, personally, we’ve become friends, I think. It’s just this one thing. We can’t get past it.”
Garbage, it seems, is a sticking point, a frontier, a limit the kid refuses to cross. So Jim says, “Let me talk to him.”
In the safe haven of Jim’s backyard, he and the kid get together. “What’s going on with work?” Jim asks the kid.
“Nothing,” the kid answers. “It’s all good.” He likes the work and he really likes the boss. The guy’s solid, like a father to him, he indicates.
“So what’s this about the garbage?” Jim asks.
Suddenly, the kid’s expression turns dark. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“But you’re going to have to,” Jim says. The guy doesn’t know what’s going on, Jim explains. He’s baffled.
But the kid insists he doesn’t want to talk about it. If they make him take out the garbage, he’ll leave.
“Do you think you’re above taking out the garbage?” Jim asks.
“No,” he says, “I just don’t want to do it.”
“Why don’t you tell me the real reason?” Jim says.
After a lot of back and forth in which the kid is adamant that if he has to handle garbage detail he’ll leave, he finally overcomes his embarrassment and shame and tells Jim the real problem: “If I have to take out the garbage,” he says, “I’ll end up eating it.”
There’s a pregnant pause. Even Jim, who has seen a lot—worked in the prison system, worked, indeed, on death row in intimate contact with the inmates and their horrific stories—is taken aback. But as the kid explains further, it all makes sense. The kid says it’s that he spent so much time fending for himself from a very young age that dumpster scavenging has become a habit, an obsession. In that world, one person’s waste becomes another’s fortune, nutrition on which to survive another day. It’s crazy all the perfectly good food Americans throw away, he indicates.
This, Jim realizes, is a separate reality, a world of unimaginable emotional pain, sorrow and abandonment, one far too few people in the Western World want to think about, and one that people in a small, relatively prosperous, Midwestern town like Wapakoneta can simply not fathom. But here it is, reality “live”, in Jim’s backyard, in the warm embracing shadow of the Temple of Tolerance that he has built stone by stone and story by story, in the name of anyone who has ever felt oppressed.
The stone from the swimming hole in the Auglaize.
Now, Jim and I meet up in the backyard and after a brief greeting, we take up practically where we left off when I was here a year ago. He’s preparing to inaugurate a new section of the garden, he tells me, and he’d literally been stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’d managed to haul in a huge new boulder as a kind of centerpiece for the new section, he tells me, but once they’d gotten it off the truck and onto the ground, things had been so dry that they hadn’t been able to get the thing to budge. So he had been delighted when it rained because he and his crew (usually his brother Walt and whoever else they can get to volunteer) had finally been able to get the giant stone to slide and had shimmied it, little by little, into precisely the right orientation.
What was the story on this stone—just that, in my eyes, a great round rock with a somewhat flattened top—and why was its orientation so important? This, he tells me, was the rock that used to sit on the edge of a deep swimming hole in the Auglaize River, which runs through our town. My own childhood memories of the river were written a mile or so downstream on the other side of town. But this rock was from a part of the river on the east side, before the Auglaize flows around the big bend and cuts west past the back of downtown. All the kids on his end of town used to use that rock as a kind of landing or diving board, as a place from which to swim. Jim’s aunt, who would later become a swimming instructor, had learned to swim from that rock, and so had he and Walt.
Jim excitedly shows me the initials brother Walt and his friend 
Rick 
carved into the "swimming stone".
He’s suddenly excited. “Look at this, Dan,” he urges, ushering me over closer to the huge boulder. “These are my brother’s initials, and these are his friend Rick’s,” he says, showing me the letters crudely carved, probably with pocketknives, into the relatively soft surface of the sedimentary stone. Getting the heavy stone set just right in the yard was important, Jim explains, because he wanted it to be oriented exactly as it had been in the river on the edge of the swimming hole. During some recent dredging operation, it had been hauled out of the Auglaize and placed on the bank. Jim decided to grab it before somebody decided bust it up or something.
But there are lots more surprises in this new section of the garden: big blocks of Ohio sandstone culled from the demolition of the Williamson School (torn down before Jim and I, now in our mid-sixties, ever saw the inside of a kindergarten) set like benches near a wrought iron fence that once bordered a local cemetery, and an iron gate from a nearby farm that doubled as a social club during the Prohibition days. My gaze also lands on some elaborate tinwork, of the sort found on the walls and ceilings of high-quality
Jim stands by masonry from the Williamson School and a gate
from a farm that doubled as a roadhouse in Prohibition days. 
architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I get out my reading glasses for a closer look and hear Jim chuckle under his breath as I try to decide what the strange gargoyle-like figure etched in relief in the middle of each tin square might be. “People think it’s a demon,” Jim says, “but it’s not. It’s a vampire! See the little fangs? They’re from Ma McGrady’s house of ill-repute,” he says with apparent pride.
Jim explains that when the oil boom came to the area in the late eighteen hundreds, Ma McGrady’s place did a booming business of its own with oilfield roughnecks. And the city fathers felt it was a good idea to turn a blind eye on the establishment, since its existence meant transient oil people weren’t hanging around town trying to pick up what townsfolk referred to as “decent local girls.” Not surprisingly, however, Jim says, many of the city fathers themselves soon began frequenting the place as did farmers from the surrounding area. And Ma’s position became even more secure thanks to the secrets she guarded. She would eventually become a bit of a local personality.
Tinwork from Ma McGrady's house of ill-repute
When Ma McGrady fell ill in her latter years, it was rumored that the person who had taken the greatest care of her had been a local Lutheran preacher. He had been, the story went, the only person to visit her regularly and to take her nourishing soups and home remedies. Later asked in a rare interview if it was true that the only person to care for her during those dark days had been the preacher, she responded, according to Jim, that “No, he wasn’t the only one...but he was the only one who didn’t ask for anything in return.”
We continue walking together through the maze of stones, pillars, slabs, gates, fences, façade ornaments and millstones—scores, hundreds, maybe thousands of them—but incredibly, each of them with a story of its own. Jim knows them all and every time he recounts them, it’s with the enthusiasm of a first telling. But now the sun’s setting and it’s getting really chilly. As we go up his back steps into the house, I glance at my watch and say, “Hey, what time were we expected for supper?”
It's a vampire!
Evading the answer, Jim says, “Yeah, don’t worry, we’re fine. We’ll go in a minute.”
But inside his incredibly jam-packed museum of a house he sees me glancing at an item on the coffee-table and asks with a grin, “Know what that is?”
Looking at the heavy glass object with a kind of basin molded in the top of it, I say, “An inkwell.”
“Not just any inkwell,” Jim says, “Trotsky’s inkwell.” And so he tells me the amazing story of how he came by this rare piece on a visit to Mexico, where exiled Russian Marxist icon and enemy of Stalin, Leon Trotsky, was murdered in 1940.
In point of fact, Jim admits that when he first got the piece, he had no real way of corroborating its authenticity. But precisely because of how he came to possess it, he was sure in his own mind that it was the real deal. Suffice it to say he didn’t barter for it in a bazaar on some backstreet in Tijuana.
Trotsky and Frida: The inkwell she gave him? 
Typical of Jim, however, he couldn’t let it alone until he was able to find hard evidence and dug through every picture of Trotsky in Mexico that he could find anywhere until he finally came across a rare image of the Marxist ideologue sitting at his desk in the studio where he would ultimately be mortally wounded by Stalinist assassin Ramón Mercader. And there, on his desk, was the inkwell. It’s an interesting piece, not your run-of-the-mill ink bottle, and, according to Jim, a perfect match with the one in the picture he came across in his research. The chances of this not being the same one, then, were slim to none. Jim is further enticed by the probability that this is the same inkwell that Trotsky is rumored to have received as a gift from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who, it is also rumored, took Trotsky as her lover for a time.
For Jim, there’s no such thing as an inanimate object. Objects, to his mind, absorb history, sentiments, images, DNA. They tell and keep stories. They are magnets for the business of life! Practically everything in his house bears testimony to this credo. There is almost nothing here that doesn’t have a story behind it.  
“Do you know what this means?” Jim asks me excitedly. “This inkwell was a witness to Trotsky’s assassination!”
And a particularly gruesome assassination at that: Mercader slammed an ice-axe into Trotsky’s skull while his back was turned.
“The inkwell witnessed that,” Jim says. “The killer may even have been reflected in it as he sneaked up behind Trotsky!”
And from the inkwell, we go to his late great-grandmother’s scrapbook that she keep from age eleven until well into her teens, and here Jim summons up all of his incredible storytelling power and for a moment he almost literally turns into a ninety-year-old lady, clutching the precious scrapbook to her breast and proclaiming in a weak and scratchy voice, “I want you to have this, Jim, because I know you’re the only one who will take care of it and keep it safe.” And along with him, as the scrapbook opens, I see the child and the adolescent in this elderly lady come to life again.
It’s as we’re perusing the pages of the scrapbook that our mutual friend calls my cell and says we had better be on our way to her house because if we’re late, everything is going to be a soggy mess.
In the car, on the way to her house, our non-stop dialogue continues and finally Jim says, “Gol-darn-it, Dan, there’s just never enough time.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” I say. “And it seems like there’s less all the time.”