In the city, it’s not unusual for one to have only the vaguest of acquaintance with one’s neighbors. My current next door neighbor is an excellent example. He moved in perhaps two years ago, three years ago? One loses track, and our paths cross maybe two… most certainly not more than four times a year.
His arrival had been hardly noticeable. One day the old resident’s name disappeared from the mailbox. Then, some weeks later, a new name appeared. And oddly, a smudge blossomed above his doorway, as if someone had held, for a time, a candle too close to the ceiling. Or had it always been there? When we finally met, I didn’t ask about it. It was hardly important, after all, and that it had anything to do with him was pure speculation.
Over time, he was always cordial but closed. “Working hard,” he would reply to “How are you?” “Going to work,” he would explain if we met on the landing: an older, quiet, always neatly dressed gentleman with a vague accent that somehow evokes the eastern Mediterranean.
Some months (how many?) after he moved in, the smudge became an X… or is it a cross? When did that happen? I hadn’t noticed, but the possibilities seemed amusing somehow. I entirely missed the appearance of a second ‘X’ some indeterminant months later. When a third ‘X’ appeared, I was a bit flummoxed. When did this happen, or had there always been three?
Oh, but it isn’t my imagination. A few weeks ago, there were suddenly four.
The turbulent wind of an open convertible at highway speed rattled the envelope in his hand. It shook and bobbed like a leaf on a tree. From the driver’s seat, Maeve looked across the car. Soft spoken, her voice was hard to hear against the wind: “It’s from your father. Aren’t you going to open it?”
Was he? Dad could have called. He could have emailed. He could have knocked on their door. And he could have done that months ago. But now, a letter? What could that mean? With Dad, the medium was often the message; did he really want to know? Instead of answering, Dan sighed. After a moment he awkwardly torn the end off the envelope and extracted a sheet. It said:
Four months have gone by since we last spoke. I am doing something that I hadn’t planned to do, and that is, to make one more try if you will do the same thing also. I shall offer you what you wanted for a starter, so here goes. I apologize. Now, I expect you to come through with your part, namely, a two way, one on one, thoughtful, equal, sensitive and not insulting start at communication with an end goal of bridging over the gap which separates us. Agreed? Otherwise, J’ai fini, this time for real.
“What did he say, Dan?” Maeve asked.
Dan held the letter between two fingers while it gyrated in the wind. After a moment he let go and it flew away.
For all pedestrians who’ve had to negotiate lawn sprinklers.
Ah’m sorry, Ma’am. Ah gotta water the sidewalk. Ifn you don’t water the sidewalk, the concrete’ll juss turn brown and blow away! But lissen here. With proper irrigation and a judicial application of dogshit fertilizer — Why, Ma’am, come Fall, we’ll have a FINE harvest of gravel. Juss you wait ‘n see!
And while we’re celebrating America’s birthday, let’s remember a truly remarkable early PBS television series:
The Great American Dream Machine did not assume an audience of distracted idiots. Amazing. This particular clip was a promotion for a retrospective anthology program on the 40th anniversary of the series. It played on the TV station that had produced the series.
I do believe the series (1971 to 1973) is available on DVD, but you can find clips of various episodes on YouTube and (a few) on Vimeo.
Several years prior to this, there was the “Public Broadcast Laboratory,” a sort of beta test for the Public Broadcasting System. If I remember correctly, the archive of episodes of “Public Broadcast Laboratory” ended up at a division of the Indiana University system where no one saw them. They were available for rent, however, and I did so twice. Apparently the Corporation for Public Broadcasting retained copies as well and in the 1990s donated them to the Library of Congress. No one sees these, either. There are one or two episodes posted on YouTube that I was able to find. More on this later, perhaps, because it did have a big influence on my politics.
I can’t quite remember the last time I watched TV. The last TV set that I owned died in the early 1980s. The Chicago DSA office had an analog TV set for which we never bothered to obtain a digital conversion box. On those get-up-from-the-desk breaks, I would often turn it on briefly. I learned that the programming was actually interesting provided the sound was entirely muted. The visuals were usually artful and engaging and were sometimes even decent story-telling. With sound, the experience almost always threatened brain damage. We left the TV set behind when we moved the office from 1608 N. Milwaukee. By then, there were only three stations left broadcasting in analog format.
This, of course, is broadcast TV. Friends of mine had cable. The expense was far outside what I was willing to pay, sometimes far outside what I could afford if I wanted to eat as well, plus there were all those commercials, frequently more than on broadcast TV. Does anyone remember the early days of cable when they promised a commercial free experience because, after all, you’re paying a subscription? It seems that, beyond the obvious selling point, it was mainly because next to no one was interested in advertising on cable then. Gotcha! Bait and switch.
I can turn into a couch potato with just the internet, thank you, no need for TV.
This is a postcard that I ran across while reorganizing the hall closet. I’m not sure of the photo date, though my guess is sometime in the 1940s though maybe it could be as early as 1937 or as late as the very early 1950s. The Rock Island Railroad was fairly aggressive about changing from steam locomotives to diesel-electric, especially on passenger trains as early as 1937. The process was interrupted by World War II, but the Rock Island’s steam locomotives were all retired by 1954. There is a coaling tower and water tower in the background (behind the baggage carts).
The photo is of Bureau Junction, Illinois, where the old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad threw off a branch line to Peoria, Illinois. The photo looks southward down the Peoria branch, and the arriving train (note the blur) is probably the Peoria Rocket. (The Peoria Rocket made it’s first run in September of 1937, diesel-electric powered.) You’ll note a fellow standing beside the locomotive. He’s handing up train orders on a long pole to a crew member in the locomotive cab. On the near right, you’ll note a fellow standing next to a small shack. The shack was for a crossing guard, something that was common before automatic crossing gates and lights. I don’t know if the fellow alongside the shack is the guard but if you look closely, he’s wearing quite the hat. The Rock Island’s double track mainline is on the other side of the station, and it curves away west. For a while, there was also an interurban trolley line that entered Bureau Junction paralleling the Rock Island mainline. Even mainline passenger trains would stop at Bureau Junction as it was a transfer point for passengers for the Peoria branch and for the interurban. After the trolley line was abandoned, buses would arrive before train arrivals and depart after.
Bureau Junction was also the departure point for the Illinois — Mississippi Canal (aka Hennepin Canal) that provided a short cut between the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. Most folks no longer remember that the canal ever existed, but it was completed in December of 1907 and remained in operation until 1951. It still exists, mostly, as a small waterway and as an Illinois state park.
Incidentally, the photo makes Bureau Junction look Illinois flat, but the town is in the Illinois River valley. The Rock Island mainline wiggled more than a little both west and most especially east of Bureau Junction as a result. It is flatter, though, than I remembered it.
Even though it was multimodal transportation hub, Bureau Junction at its peak was always a small and mostly sleepy town: maximum census no more than 700 in the 1920s but less than half that now. The Rock Island went belly up in 1980 and its assets were sold to cover its debts. The lines through Bureau Junction were acquired by a new railroad, Iowa Interstate. Much of the Rock Island’s network is still operated by one railroad or another. Some of them, including Iowa Interstate, still play off the old Rock Island brand.
This is how the same location looked in 1993. The view is almost opposite from the postcard, looking north along the Peoria branch to where it joins the mainline. Most of the tracks have been removed. The red Ford Escort is approximately where the crossing guard’s shack stood. The station remains though there is no passenger service. From rail fan videos, I can tell you that in 2018 the derelict signal bridge has been long since removed and the tracks are in much better condition.
My mother’s parents retired to Bureau Junction. Grandpa had worked for the Rock Island as, I’m told, a coal-chute operator though I’m unclear what he did after the Rock Island retired their steam locomotives. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was just across the street from the Rock Island mainline. The time I spent there is basically why I became a trainspotter. It’s also probably how I came to possess the old postcard. When I was last in Bureau Junction for a nostalgic visit in 1993, their old house was still standing. It was probably one of the better houses in that town. Bureau Junction, alas, is a small village version of Detroit. (I’m sure the natives would object to the comparison, but it is.)