Saturday, July 26, 2014


One day there was this guy working in a field, chopping weeds all day, hot work, tired and thirsty. He had a big field, chopping weeds day after day, and he got tired of it. There must be a better way, he thought. He's the guy who invented Round-Up....

But there are other ways to avoid the problem of chopping weeds all day. Like hiring poor people from 3rd world countries to do it for you......

Or you can keep chopping weeds but make it more fun with better pay, nice clean field bathrooms and shady rest areas.

Or you can plan your tillage and planting to avoid the worst of the weeds.

There's actually several ways to solve this problem. And none of them work too well.

None of them work too well, so we go back to the Bible and read that we are condemned to work by the sweat of our brows. And dream about gardens where there is no work to do at all. Besides the Bible you have several visions of paradise to work with, depending on your religious and cultural persuasion -- a favorite of mine is to imagine it was so much easier when we were all hunter-gatherers in small tribes wandering --- "the fish just jumped into the boat!" .... "the fruit fell off the tree" ..... "there were tasty roots in the meadow" ....

Penny Jennings, from her farm in Oregon, responded. "We're experiencing the weed issue here on the farm. But I refuse to pollute the land with Round-Up. Instead, we are putting about 5 inches of compost and bark mulch and planting plants that eventually will replace the weeds. But they are relentless. It may just be my fantasy...."

I wrote back to her -- "The key to understanding the weed problem is that nothing works. We face this hopeless moment and then we move on."

The Reaper.

Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper in 1837. It was soon widely adopted. You can make a nice nostalgic painting of happy workers reaping the grain with scythes and sickles, but a million farm boys and farm girls were pretty happy to be relieved of that labor when the mechanical reaper came along......

Round up and Reapers are some of the machines and chemicals that do the work for us --- you can say that's good or you can say that's awful -- it depends on who you talk to.

It Might Have Been Different

David Ben-Gurion attempted to enlist in the Turkish army at the beginning of World War I. He and the other Zionists hoped to form a Jewish regiment that would fight on the Turkish side. But their offer was rejected..... Imagine how different history would be if Ben Gurion had fought for the Turks. With Jewish help, the Turks would have defended Jerusalem and Damascus against the British invaders...... But no, the people of the Middle East consistently and stupidly reject the potential of Jewish "help." And what good does it do them? We in America had the good sense to welcome millions of Jewish immigrants - to our benefit.

A History of Hovels.

My life in a shack. I hope I never live in sub-standard housing again. I guess that's what I remember most about the Skagit Valley -- slum housing amid natural splendor........ Other people excelled in shack management -- you know, chop wood and carry water, all that lovely vision of back to the land.

Not me. My experience was blowing into a funky wet fire on my hands and knees, trying to get the fire going in some damp cabin...... You think I could even heat a wood stove -- lots of people did good at that. Not me.

And work. Menial manual labor. You think I might have picked up a marketable skill, like the friends I knew who became carpenters and boat builders and made decent money. Not this space case. Unskilled minimum-wage labor -- that was my specialty.

Loading the truck. I was good at that. Once me and Jim Smith unloaded an entire railroad box car full of surplus government cheese.

Once Singin' Dan and me dug a 200-foot long 18-inch deep ditch to put in a water line -- at least it wasn't raining when we did that.

And not forgetting the natural splendor of the Skagit Valley.

But other people did better, just fit into the landscape better. Years ago we camped beside Steve and Katy Philbrick on Illabot Creek. They lived in a warm and snug two-story tepee, with clean glass kerosene lanterns, sitting next to a carefully stacked and dried pile of alder wood.

They were cozy. We were cold and wet. And Steve and Katy still live up there. They moved out of the teepee, bought land, built a house, had children -- the whole nine yards.

What I'm saying is that the Skagit worked for them and I'm glad for their happiness, and I'm sure they had tears and tragedy along the way.

But it leads to my saying and this is it. "You don't pick the place. The place picks you."

You might want to live in some place very badly, but that doesn't mean it will work out. Then you end up somewhere else and things start to click -- and that's where you belong because that place picked you.

Santa Barbara. It's festival season in Santa Barbara. The Greek Festival is this weekend. Next weekend is the Fiesta -- celebrating Old Spanish Days with lots of parties and dress up and the grand equestrian parade with hundred of horses. I love the parade and seeing all the horses. There might be a few hundred thousand visitors and no place to park, but it's a lot of fun. and if you don't like parades and parties, you can always go to the beach.

Here's my toast Santa Barbara, Viva la Fiesta!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Fagin is Still with us

I finished reading Oliver Twist. It was such a good book and it helped me. I resent most writers and that’s not an attractive disposition. I compare myself to other writers and that’s odious. But Charles Dickens elevates me. Dickens has plenty of room on the cloud where he roosts, so I have joined him there.

I will keep going on this Year of Dickens, and the next one I will read is Nicholas Nickleby.

Fagin. Fagin is the most interesting character in Oliver Twist, and the most enjoyable although I cannot detect any redeeming virtues in his character. He is the Jew. The Jew walked. The Jew talked, The Jew stood up. The Jew sat down. The Jew. The Jew. The Jew. Dickens said “the Jew” at least 300 times in the book.

I can explain that. Fagin was a Jew, so that is what Dickens called him. You can read your own prejudices into that as many readers have done, or just sail right past it as I did. I mean, if someone called you a Jew, would you be insulted? I would not be insulted given such an appellation., although I might point out the contrary -- I am not a Jew.

But Fagin was more than interesting to me. There was more than the appeal of such a delightful villain, I even liked him and I could not understand the source of my affection until yesterday when I was transplanting tomatoes at the greenhouse where I work part-time. This is what I remembered:

Seymour. It was early April, 1972. I left my editorial position at a small magazine in Chicago. I flew to New York and went to visit Mark Mikolas and Judy Capurso in the West Village. They lived in a converted storefront down the street from the White Horse Tavern.

I decided to try my hand at living in Manhattan, Mark and Judy loaned me their couch for a couple of weeks with the understanding that I was to get established and fairly quickly.

Well, I didn’t give this a moment’s thought and I had no plan -- travelling lightly you might suppose -- I just figured something would work out.

Mark said I might want to talk with Seymour, he could fix me up with a gig.

“Who’s Seymour?”

Mark said you can find him at the White Horse Tavern and they told me who to look for. “He can fix you up with something,” Mark said a second time.

Seymour came into the tavern and there was no mistaking him. He was a cripple, probably polio, with gimpy legs and metal crutches. He had massive shoulders and a broad muscular chest. He heaved his crutches and legs along in a methodical way making dull thuds on the tavern’s planked floor.

He was neither old nor young. He had a huge, bushy black beard, coal black eyes and a balding head. I would say he had a twinkle in his eye and a merry look about him, but that was not so. He did have a smile, and it was friendly, but that was only one layer. There were hidden layers beneath that smile, there were deeper concerns in his eyes. You might read his face and you might be wrong in the reading.

Nevermind. Mark said he could fix me up. “Are you Seymour?”

“I am. How can I help you?”

“Let me tell what I need.”

We took a table. Seymour’s table. Where he sat. A cripple. He knew how many steps from the door to the table, and from the table to the bar and to the pay phone on the wall. Measured steps for his strong arms and weakly legs.

He unfurled his crutches and set them aside. I told him I had just come into town from Chicago and I needed something.

“You mean you want some kind of hustle.”

Seymour was the Jew. Of course he was. This was the West Village in 1972 and he was the Jew, the cripple, the hustler and he was going to do something for me. He was the Jew.

“I have some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them? Yes, good. You can make the most money running numbers, this is some hundreds of dollars in a day and it’s not a long day. Nobody knows you because you just got into town and you have a clean record. You look like a college student. If you were carrying the bag it would look like your lunch. You might do for a runner.”

“In Harlem?”

“Not just in Harlem, all over town, down to Wall Street. I could set you up on a cleaner route. A lot of respectable people play the numbers. You’d be surprised…… Can you keep your mouth shut? You don’t want to talk too much. You don’t want to know too much either. Just run the route and you’ll get paid. Sound interesting? ……. Okay, probably not ….. the numbers …. You don’t really want to know…… But I have another way, you could run a gypsy cab. You would have to put up some money for this gig. I can fix you up with an unlicensed cab for under a $1,000. You gotta pay to get into this racket. You could be a cab driver, you take drunks home at 3 a.m. You meet all kinds of people. The money is good. The cops won’t bother you. But you gotta know your neighborhoods.

You can establish a route, like from downtown to the Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem. You have to get to know people. They respect the right kind of white guy, and if they respect you, you can make a living. You won’t get ripped off. I know some people up there, so I can put in a word.

Nah, that won’t work…… Look, pardon me for saying this, but you strike me as kind of a lightweight.”

I heard all this. I was waiting for the catch. Seymour wasn’t doing me a favor – no warm-hearted smile, he was more matter of fact. So if he was offering me something, then what was he expecting from me? But honestly I was too dumb to worry about stuff like that.

“You might try selling balloons. It’s easy and you can make money. You’d be surprised. The money can be very good. I know a spot in Central Park, right across the street from the Plaza Hotel. The other vendors know me, so you can work there. If they don’t know you, they run you off, or steal your stuff, or let the cops hassle you. But I can talk to them. It’s not exactly legal, but it’s been going on for a long time and it’s lightweight.

I’ll meet you in the wholesale district where they sell toys. I’ll show you where to get the balloons and a pump and the other stuff -- it won’t cost you $50 bucks to get started.”

That was Seymour’s offer.

There was no catch. I met him in wholesale the next day. I bought the stuff. We went up to Central Park. On a beautiful spring day in Central Park in Manhattan you feel like you’re on top of the world.

We sold the balloons. Seymour worked the crowd. He was the cripple. He had a sense of humor – if it would help him make money. A spiel, a patter, and the mommas and poppas lined up with crying children to buy balloons. Seymour was like Santa Claus with a cash agenda.

“You talk with them, but not too much. You talk with them, give them a balloon, take their money and shut up. You don’t talk to them for free.

We sold a lot of balloons and the next day I was on my own. It was too much fun, spending the day in Central Park, sparking at pretty ladies, watching the horses and the carriages, watching the swells stroll out of the Plaza Hotel, eating hot dogs off the cart – and making money. Having fun and making money, thanks to Seymour.

I sold balloons in the park for two months, but you can’t ride in that good-time parade forever. After a while you get tired of smiling at small children and you want to throw rocks at them. I got a regular job. My friends fixed me up with a rent-control studio apartment on East 54th Street.

The funny thing is that I never saw Seymour again. There I was making a living in Manhattan and I owed him, only he never said so. There was no catch. So why did he do me this favor? I don’t know. He was the Jew. He was a small-time crook and but this was a mitzvah just the same.

Seymour was who he was. You could take it or leave it. He knew the prayer, Thank God I am not a Gentile, Thank God I am not a slave, Thank God I am not a woman.

He didn’t say the prayer but he knew it. He had no ironic affection for God. He knew who he was with the crutches and how people looked at him when he walked. That’s who he was and sometimes he did you a favor without calculating the interest.

In time I forgot about Seymour, but the memory came back to me yesterday while I was transplanting tomatoes. Fagin reminded me of Seymour and that’s why it resonated. Dickens never remotely hinted that Fagin had a good side, but I imputed a small amount of Seymour-style goodness into Fagin’s character and liked him for that.

You can do that with a generous author like Dickens. He gives you his characters, then you can play with them as you like.

Visiting Ballard, Anacortes and LaConner. I will be visiting my daughter in Ballard the week of July 17-23, also staying a couple of nights with Fred and Nora Winyard in Anacortes, and spending a little time in LaConner as well. I hope to see some old friends while I am there.

Fred Owens
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Fred Owens
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