Archive for June, 2009

Baughman’s Mansion

June 24, 2009

I’m currently working on an essay that’s a kind of meditation on landscape, memory, and place or home. The focus of this essay is the experience I have of visiting my hometown of Frederick Maryland, where I haven’t lived for over 20 years. I get back fairly frequently, though, and each visit the town has changed yet also seems exactly the same. I have this image of the present as something that’s transposed on top of the past, layers and layers, and occasionally the past shines through, like a pothole in an old road that reveals the cobblestone still beneath it.

A major aspect of this essay involves my memories of an old mansion that was just at the edges of the neighborhood where I lived. By the time I was growing up in the 70’s, the building had been long abandoned and was beginning to fall in on itself. But I spent quite a few years adventuring through the old building, finding hidden treasures (yes, I know that I was trespassing and I and all the other neighborhood kids who saw it as a birthright to explore Baughman’s mansion were a perennial pain for the owners. If memory serves me right, I believe my older brother was once brought home by the local sheriff after having been found there, but we never really talked about it so I’m not sure if my memory’s right or not).

As I’ve been writing about my recollections, I’ve been sort of haunted by the place and tried to track down pictures of the building (I had once found some old black and white photos of the building in its prime in a box of old trinkets that had been left behind, but I lost them somewhere along the way). The trick was really uncovering that the place was not Baughman’s mansion as I knew it but Poplar Terrace. Anything I could learn about it was still fairly sketchy, but I was able to uncover some of its history and to find a few photos (with thanks to CC Hall, whose website these are from).  Here is an old postcard of the building:

poplar terrace postcard

And here is a photo from a different angle of the building in its prime:

poplar terrace 1

And, finally, here is a photo of the building in the era in which I explored it:

poplar terrace 2

There were plenty of old stories that older kids in the neighborhood had handed down. There was an electric chair, there was a slave hanging in the old tenant’s house, there was a coffin, there was blood on the stairway, etc.  Turned out the blood was a spilled paint can, the coffin was a huge chest, the slave was an ancient ham hanging from a meathook, the electric chair as near as I could tell was an old dentist’s chair. The place had been scavenged by the time I got there, but what always truck me was how much stuff had just been left there. I always had the feeling that people had just up and left the building.

Now, it doesn’t have anything to do really with the essay I’m writing, but this aspect of the building has become more curious to me. Frederick is a town that lives its history. Anything preservable is absolutely preserved; family histories are carefully recorded; historical sites are marked and documented to the nth degree. Why, I’ve begun to wonder, was this glorious building just left to ruin? I have learned that the Baughman family had a substantial influence in Frederick yet it’s fairly hard to track down. They were also connected with the Conley family who had several grandiose homes in the area which are now fully preserved and maintained on the register of historic places. So yet again I wonder what happened here? The history of this little corner of our town seemed like a vacuum when I was growing up and it seems even more so to me now that I can see some of the context. I tried to track down a bit of history through a local listserve and I got some very sketchy history and some completely incorrect info. For instance, several people told me it burned down in the 60s, but I clearly know that wasn’t the case–I was in my adventure years in the 70s and I know that it was standing when I first moved away in ’81 (I moved back for awhile, then moved away for good in ’87). It seems like an easy mistake of years except for two people to tell me this (one of them CC Hall whose pictures I have here) seems kind of odd. I also wonder if the 60s fire people are referring to is the burning of an old barn on the connected land–a fire I can remember from when I was 6 or 7, but definitely not the mansion. Now, I’m not trying to make some conspiracy here, just thinking. The building is important to the essay I’m writing as it seems a kind of metaphor for memory and history that I’m working with. But I find that I’m just curious now about the actual history of the place.  I know I have some readers from Maryland here, so if there are any of you who know anything or who had any exeriences with the building as me and my neighbors did, feel free to post a reply or you can drop me a line here.  I’d love to hear from you.

St. Louis

June 16, 2009

Last year at this point, MB and I were going to go to St. Louis for a long weekend but we got thwarted by the floods as almost all bridges to the east or west of us were unpassable.  We could have made it to Saint Louis but it was going to take us at least 3-4 extra hours and we bailed on the plan. It took us a year to try again, but we spent this last weekend in St. Louis. It’s a good town, plenty of good beer and food but also still a small midwest town at heart. What really amazes me is how quickly neighborhoods shift character, sometimes having a run-down neighborhood directly across the street from an upper-class neighborhood. For instance, we spent a good bit of time in Lafayette Park, an upscale neighborhood with a beautiful park and old townhouses like these:

lafayette#2 while only a few blocks away is some fairly run down sections of town. I’m not sure what to make of it really, but I find it gives the town a unique flavor. I know that all cities are really a kind of mosaic, but it seems even more so in St. Louis.  We spent some time chatting with Dylan, the beer guy at 33 Wine Bar & Tasting Room, and his take was that St. Louis is generally a pretty depressed town because it’s built solely on a river and rails infrastructure. But he sees the pockets of nicer neighborhoods expanding and his ultimate take is that there’s no city with more potential right now. In my limited exposure to the city, I think I get what he means.

We managed to hit two brewpubs, Schlafly and Square One. I’m already a fan of Schlafly beers and they were nice on tap (we were at the tap room, not the bottleworks) but the service was pretty bad I have to say. Square One’s beers were solid but unremarkable, but we had a great time there. We had a really good waiter and enjoyed the outdoor seating. Very comfortable place.

square oneJust down the block is 33 Wine Bar which has a pretty fabulous beer list. We had some Founder’s, North Coast Old Stock, Moylan’s Hopsickle (amazing beer). Great place that I’m already looking forward to visiting again. Found a good Ethiopian restaurant and pretty nice Thai place. We also made it to the Hill for some Italian. We were really tired and hungry at that point, though, so I’m not sure we gave ourselves the time to make the best choice (especially since all restaurants had about an hour wait at that point); we found a good and entertaining restaurant, but nothing that special. A really funky place we discovered (well, really, we were pointed to it by the Yellow Dog) was the Iron Barley, a small hole in the wall in a residential neighborhood south of town. We got directions from our hotel that were so wrong on so many levels that it was amazing how much of town we saw to get to this place, but that in itself was interesting–and then the restaurant itself was a real find.

iron barleyGood food, good cask ale on tap, good vibe.

We also got over to Clayton to go to the Wine & Cheese Shop to stock our bar for the summer. Plenty of good finds that we can’t get in Iowa. And Dylan turned us on to a few other places we should visit on our next trip and let us know about STLHops.Com, a blog that keeps a listing of all the different things on tap at the different bars–a nice and easy way to learn where to go to hunt down some of those hard-to-find goodies.

In general, we spent most of our time walking (which is what we really do in any city, walk until our feet can’t take it any more) through the parks and neighborhoods, a long time wandering through the Tower Grove Park and through Forest Park and the zoo. On our way back north, we stopped by the Columbia River Bottom at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Great birdwatching area with Dickcissels everywhere.

columbia bottomWe’re thinking about going back there at some point during spring migration.

A short but sweet little trip. Good food, good drink, some good walking and good birdwatching, all the stuff we love.

RIP Koko

June 4, 2009

The Street Parade is saddened to announce the death of Blues legend Koko Taylor, June 3, 2009. Taylor was born in Tennessee on Sept. 28, 1928, and later moved to Chicago where she became known as “The Queen of the Blues.”  She worked with the likes of Willie Dixon (who had discovered her, leading to her first contract with Chess Records; Taylor also covered many of Dixon’s songs), Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. After Chess, she became one of the internationally-known figures of Alligator Records. She influenced the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, and Susan Tedeschi and was still performing over 70 concerts a year when she died at the age of 80. For a listening/viewing tribute, here is Koko Taylor performing the Willie Dixon classic, Wang Dang Doodle with Little Walter. Enjoy!

Koko Taylor: Sept 28, 1928 –  June 3, 2009

More on Walt, and Benny Too!

June 2, 2009

I  believe my last post was really inadequate for Walt Whitman’s birthday. I was clearly too preoccupied with my own struggles as a teacher finishing up the year to really do service to this important date. Whitman is my hero; Whitman is the voice of contemporary American poetry. This is not to downplay the importance of, say, his contemporary Emily Dickinson who has also shaped American poetry in profound ways. But Whitman embodies the democratic voice, the inclusive, egalitarian voice that I believe American and its poetry strive for. Here is a section of his classic (to my mind his most important) poem, “Song of Myself”:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff
that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin
leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger,
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen
off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the
Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving
their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands
and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

Yes, I’ve heard it all before, the egotism that people hear in Whitman, both the audacity to publish and publicize his own work (yes, it’s true, he was known to write his own reviews) but more importantly to write an epic poem titled “Song of Myself.” There is certainly a strain of American imperialism at play here, but the self at stake is multiple and moves on many levels: Walt Whitman, America, the Globe, the Cosmos. His “self” reaches out to include everything, to speak the voice of a nation struggling for its own identity, a multitude. This is not just Walt Whitman egotism (though clearly he knew, as de Tocqueville had earlier suggested, that the American people would respond most viscerally to an art grounded in individualist sensibilities) but a poetry of democracy.  At another point, he states his democratic poetics and politics:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of
all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Whitman did not even believe that he was writing poems, but writing a language which would allow poetry to happen. Poetry was what happened after people read his work; democracy was what happened in the people’s hands, not in some authority’s. His poetics foregrounded the reader, the response, in a way that mirrored a political belief in the people: authority can only be invested in the people, not in any predetermined authority.

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

Yes, contact! Whitman’s is a poetics of contact, of intimacy even in the midst of such expansive inclusion. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Whitman opened up American verse to a new language, one that could be as large, as messy, as complicated as the new nation:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Here is a poetry as unwieldy as the idea of democracy itself. Yes, I will say it again: Whitman is my hero.  Yesterday, he would have been 190. I constantly wonder what he would have seen in the current state of affairs here in America. I’m pretty sure that he would have found more good in it than I can generally find.

But let’s not lose another important birthday in Whitman’s wake. Saturday, May 30, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin David Goodman, Benny Goodman, the King of Swing.  Besides being an amazing composer and musician himself, his bands over the years launched the careers of some of our most important jazz musicians such as Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Christian. He was also incredibly influential in his move to integrate American music, hiring African-American musicians when they weren’t allowed to share the same stage.  I believe Goodman had a profound influence on an integrated American society. For any Goodman tribute, just start with his 1936 version of Louis Prima’s classic Sing, Sing, Sing. From there you can go anywhere (or, like me, you might just want to listen to it again).