Thank you for reading this year, and see you all in 2021.
Never forget that living well is the best revenge.
Thank you for reading this year, and see you all in 2021.
Never forget that living well is the best revenge.
Considering how much down-time 2020 has afforded us, I found myself surprisingly mobile this year. It turns out that driving across the country is a good socially-distanced activity, even when passing through states which are, with a lot of help from psychopathic governors and yell-talking Boomers who still think they have a shot with that 20-something bartender, COVID-addled nightmares.
Speaking of Florida, I found myself back in Mayo, the seat of the state’s thinly populated Lafayette County. The whole county’s population sits well under 10,000, and the Republican Party ticket dominated over 85% of the vote, among the most lopsided differential in the state. I hate to paint any state as “Red” or “Blue,” considering how Georgia proved that nothing is permanent, but Florida really feels like the quintessential nest for Trumpism (see previous paragraph). I’m still unconvinced that boats can operate in Tampa Bay unless they are flying at least two MAGA flags. Further into this tangent, the preponderance of Trump boat parades led some right-wing pundits to express sheer shock at their Dear Leader losing based upon this gaudy empirical evidence. It’s almost like they learned nothing from the 1936 Literary Digest election poll, but some a bizarre inverse version focusing on people whose identity and self-worth is expressed through boat ownership (that I’m not qualified to conduct).
Five years ago, I wrote about how some colleagues and I first wound up in Mayo in 2010 while interviewing locals about 2001 wildfires. In March 2015, my friend and I stopped through on a scenic drive between Tallahassee and Gainesville. A number of shops and eateries that I recalled from 2010 were no longer there, including one prominent smokehouse, which I believe had turned into a pizza place of dubious functioning status.
I only had time to grab lunch at a corner cafe (apparently defunct, even as of this writing 5 months later), take a few photos of the amazing Lafayette County Court House (and Chateau de Lafayette across the street, seen in this post’s cover photo), and stop into the Dust Catcher thrift shop, run by Vi Johnson.
I chatted with Vi for a few minutes before purchasing a one-time-use camera from 1999 and getting back on the road. Despite owning the building, Vi was hoping that somebody would buy her out, considering how many books and curios she had accumulated with no real hope for moving otherwise. Similar to many similar towns I’ve found via the Ben Irving Postcard Project (Belding, MI, for example), the Interstate Highways had long since redirected most traffic away from FL-27, sapping the tiny municipality of any real potential for sustainable economic gains. As if that wasn’t already an insurmountable challenge to any local entrepreneurs, she added, the opening of Dollar stores at opposing ends of Main Street “absolutely killed” her. Additionally, the biggest local company, a logging concern, had successfully petitioned to remove most of the parallel parking spots from Main Street in order to give their mammoth trucks unfettered access to tear through the mostly-vacant downtown. I’m not injecting any personal opinion here when I type that it’s a sad state of affairs.
Anyway, the last thing I want to do is look down my nose at small towns that are, through no fault of their own, aging out and clinging to life. I finally read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity this fall, and in it, he outlines the danger of romanticizing the struggles of those “left behind” in America. I also struggle with my love of small towns, considering how I have never really lived in one. As I’ve also written here, I grew up in a town that loved throwing that label around, but considering how much money (both New England-auld and 90’s nouveau-riche) swirls through the place, I would refrain from slapping John Cougar Mellencamp in the background of a video about it (more on that coming in 2021).
If anybody reads this and happens to know somebody opening up a retro-style café or bar, I have a lead on a functioning, vintage soda fountain for sale in North Florida. You can’t see much of it in this photo (below), but it’s under there, I promise, and it’s a classic.
Grab your $29, fill your jockey full of bourbon, and clap hands while whistling through the graveyard, it’s the NOT-BY-TOM-WAITS SONG-A-DAY CHALLENGE!
As I hinted yesterday, for most Tom Waits fans, the mere mention of Little Anthony and the Imperials elicits thoughts of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” one of the truly saddest and funniest and most beautiful songs ever written. It’s also not the only Minneapolis song I drew directly from for this challenge; “9th and Hennepin,” a standout track from ‘Rain Dogs,’ gave me an excuse to ask everyone for songs about intersections (the topic of one of the first episodes of The Casual Geographer). Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out his songwriting (and life) partner Kathleen Brennan, since she co-wrote or inspired many of these alluded classics.
In honor of Mr. Waits’ birthday on the 7th of the final month of a year in which we all felt, at points, like the Earth was dying screaming, I couldn’t resist this. DIG IN:
Per usual, there is only one rule, and it’s self-explanatory. Be careful with this one, though; Tom is all over pop culture in places you may not expect. Download the matrix, have fun, don’t forget to tag it #NotByTomWaits, and keep asking around regarding where Mr. Knickerbocker’s at (even if nobody’s sure).
I try to refrain from using profanity on this site, but as your special treat for this unveiling, enjoy my favorite Tom Waits Letterman interview, which is probably the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.
Thanks again to Courtney for coming up with the vast majority of these! I’m so glad to be able to collaborate with her, even from afar. Since I’m hardly a Broadway expert, I wasn’t at all tempted to break this month’s rule, but it also sent me down a musicological path where I started wondering “what IS a showtune?” Because you could make arguments that certain pop songs that were never technically in stage musicals are still showtunes in the sense that ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas movie.
Anyway, here is the matrix, for reference, and my list, below:
Thanks for playing and your continued support, everybody. The December Song Challenge will go up here tomorrow at 8am ET. Here is a clue to your December theme, below. It’s a bad clue, because almost everybody who loves the featured artist will immediately get it, but a clue nonetheless. NO (public) GUESSES.
“It happens on occasion that, unable to maintain the distance necessary for reflection, journalists end up acting like the fireman who sets the fire. They help create the event by focusing on a story (such as the murder of one young Frenchman by another young man, who is just as French but “of African origin”), and then denounce everyone who adds fuel to the fire that they lit themselves. I am referring, of course, to the National Front which, obviously, exploits or tries to exploit “the emotions aroused by events.” This in the words of the very newspapers and talk shows that startled the whole business by writing the headlines in the first place, and by rehashing events endlessly at the beginning of every evening news program. The media then appear virtuous and humane for denouncing the racist moves of the very figure [Le Pen] they helped create and to whom they continue to offer the most effective instruments of manipulation.”On Television (The New Press, 1998 Trans).
I’ve gone on the record, more than once, that I’m not a big fan of musicals. I especially dislike those “Oh, but you’ll like THIS musical, Tyler” musicals. The only musical I genuinely love is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Otherwise, there are a handful I will tolerate because people close to me love them, but even then I will still periodically wince when the belting begins. God, I hate when singers belt, especially with those assembly line vocal styles that the Andrew Lloyd Webbers of the world have forced us to agree are “good.”
But, I digress. This is why, among other reasons, that this month is a collaboration! My great friend Courtney, who lives in the DC area with her husband, small son, and slightly smaller dog, happens to be a Broadway fanatic. In fact, the last time we collaborated on anything, it was in the DC theatre scene, notably the 2008 Hexagon show (for which she did plenty of the heavy vocal lifting, and I hid in the chorus with my mic turned down).
Anyway, ye grande lockdown(e) of 2020 gave us an excuse to collaborate once again. Her sister Marissa (also a DC friend, with whom I bonded over Sunny Day Real Estate and the Dismemberment Plan) started a Facebook group in which these song-a-day challenges have assumed a whole new life. It only made sense that Courtney draw from her musical theatre past and create a 30-day-challenge. Also, it was her birthday this past Thursday, so…
Download this, share it with your friends, make sure to hashtag #NotAShowtune, and wish Courtney a Happy Belated Birthday! Her Instagram handle is next to mine under the title.
The only rule is… just as obvious in the past few months. And yes, musicals that became more famous as movies count, too. You theatre nerds should know!
In my half-decade of tracing Ben Irving’s path(s) through pre-War America through his postcards, I always look forward for opportunities to visit smaller towns left behind by post-War economic “progress.” Sometimes, that “progress” comes at a profound expense, usually as self-inflicted by local decision-makers as externally imposed by state and federal powers. Belding, a small city of roughly 5,000 in Ionia County, is a crystal-clear case study.
From what I can tell, Irving spent October 1938 in Michigan, bouncing around the lower peninsula while headquartered at the Detroiter Hotel. He spent much of the second week in the Southwestern corner of the Mitten, including stops in Benton Harbor, Muskegon, Ludington, Battle Creek (read about that here), and as one would imagine, the then-thriving metropolises of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. I’m actually well overdue for entries about his postcards from both Muskegon and Kalamazoo, but those will come in time.
Anyway, here is the original 1938 postcard image scan he mailed of downtown Belding (All Rights Reserved):
One of the first things I noticed driving into Belding was how sparse it felt. There were a few cool-looking blocks around the downtown area, and I saw plenty of cute neighborhoods on the periphery, but it just felt unspooled. I ate lunch at a café overlooking the river and went to get coffee and do some work at Third Wave Coffee, a great indie spot built into the street level of the 1913 Belding Brothers building at Main and Bridge. The owner and operator, Pete, told me a story (soon echoed by an equally helpful librarian) about an old woman who was struck and killed by a falling brick on Main St. sometime in the 1960’s. I found an article confirming that this happened in February 1966, as reported in the Petoskey News-Review (via UPI) on February 10th of that year:
The article gave no other identifying information as to who the two women were, but it does confirm that the incident occurred on Wednesday February 9, 1966. The chances were fair that Belding’s powers-that-were had been looking for an excuse to move on some development contract. Stories like these were all too common in post-War, deindustrialized Michigan. As you can tell from the postcard (and if you’ve spent time in any Michigan city that was less aggressive with the wrecking ball), that crowning lip was a common adornment atop commercial buildings. They were too shallow to provide additional shade or shelter from the elements, but they did look nice.
Unfortunately, as these buildings crumbled, the slight jutting adornments became a severe liability. Detroit, for example, seriously cracked down on owners of derelict buildings that were raining bricks on passersby. Some of these owners decided it made more sense to just tear the buildings down than deal with other potential lawsuits and fines, especially since it felt like everyone they knew personally had vanished to the suburbs.
In Belding, the town’s elders decided that the best course of action was to just rip out the entire two blocks of Main Street depicted and turn it into a mall. Gaze upon its majesty.
I would bite my tongue if anybody I spoke to in Belding, given their half-century of hindsight, expressed any kind of enthusiasm for the mall. I’m sure that COVID had an influence on just how dead that whole area felt across the street, but it appeared that the Chemical Bank building on the right (on the site of what was once the Hotel Belding) had been vacant since well before the pandemic.
Keep in mind that my progress from that postcard image to the repeat-photo I took above was hardly a straight line. Pete identified Main Street, but because most of the pre-War buildings had been torn out before either of us were born, we had no visible reference points to confirm exactly where the photo was taken. I walked over to the Belding Library, named for, just like everything else Gilded-Age in that town, silk magnate Alvah Belding, who spent the last 56 years of his life in Connecticut until his death in late 1925.
I’ve written before how much I love librarians and how they’re some of the best public service workers in the world. The ones at the Belding library were case in point. I walked in and showed the postcard to one librarian behind the reference desk, and within two minutes, she reached into a nearby file cabinet and produced the following photograph, which we quickly realized was the reverse vantage point of the postcard image!
As the caption on the sticker reads, “MAIN STREET LOOKING EAST,” and the postcard image was clearly taken around the same time period, and the orientation of the buildings helped me confirm that the picture was taken of the same block, looking West. She also produced what may be an original print of the earliest surviving photo of the Belding Hotel, possibly taken not too long after 1893, when the hotel was rebuilt following a fire.
One detail to note is the Victorian-style house which stood to the right of the hotel on Bridge Street, also completed in 1893. Naturally, it was also flattened. As the chief history librarian (who returned from lunch and joined in our conversation) confirmed, the Belding Hotel once stood on the corner currently occupied by that Chemical Bank building, and nothing else but a grassy expanse and a sliver of the parking lot.
So, to review: If you’re ever in such a position to make the decision, don’t do to your downtown what Belding, MI did, kids. It doesn’t feel like it even paid off for them in the short run.
A quick photographic lagniappe: the original chandelier from the Belding Hotel, now located and working within the foyer at the Belding Library at 302 E. Main Street.
Thanks for reading, everybody. I hope your Octobers are going well so far, and are sufficiently spooky. Stay tuned for a bunch of inevitable “REDUX” posts of old Ben Irving Postcard Project images, now that I can overlay them with the slider.
October. And kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall. But you go on and on…
Especially if, convinced that people are still demanding these song-a-day challenges, you keep on going and draw up an admittedly semi-obvious choice for October. But as Bono sang in 1981, “The trees are stripped bare, of all they wear [and] what do I care?”
This month’s challenge goes out to everyone’s favorite member of U2, Larry Mullen Jr, who was born in Dublin on Halloween 1961. Did Bono write “October” as a partial tribute to his bandmate? No, it was actually just a metaphor, if Niall Stokes’ book is to be trusted.
Anyway, download, re-post, like, and share this image, and have a great time. Apologies to any fans of U2’s more recent work, but and I don’t feel bad about the way I feel about “Songs of Innocence,” and they have billions of dollars.
Another month, another set of 30 song challenges, some clearly better thought-out than others. I admit this one was perhaps my most challenging and definitely the easiest to mess up, given what a wide berth of songs (many of which are boiled into our collective pop subconscious) were prohibited. On several occasions, I caught myself being that guy – commenting the year of an 80’s song’s release under someone’s submission – but I don’t feel quite so bad, since I saw people jumping in to sound that buzzer before I even could. To me, that just means that these challenges have been building followings of people who feel an increasing sense of ownership, which is flattering as much as anything. Or, many people still have too much time on their hands. A little from Column A, a little from Column B.
Alright; to the tape!
Thanks to everyone who participated on multiple platforms this month. Tune in tomorrow at 8am ET for your October Song Challenge. That’s right…this train is still chuggin’ along and only stops at zoo station!
In late July, I drove from Florida to Michigan. On the way through the Florida panhandle, I stopped through the one-stoplight town of Mayo, where I’ve paid a visit every five years since I wound up there during a filming trip in 2010. I stopped into a thrift store which used to be the town’s thriving pharmacy, striking up a conversation with Vi, the elderly woman who owns the building and runs the shop. I didn’t find any tapes, records, or books that I felt the need to own (save for a cool-looking yet too-water-damaged book on Sacco and Vanzetti), but I did find one of those old K-Mart one-time-use cameras. Vi asked me for one dollar, which I gladly paid for yet another analog experiment.
The camera itself was sealed inside a silver polypropylene bag inside a cardboard package, though one corner of the camera’s cardboard casing was beginning to disintegrate. The packaging suggested bringing it to my local K-Mart for the professionals there to develop once I took all 27 exposures, ideally by the latter part of 1999. As one might expect, I took this as a challenge. I made sure to keep the camera inside the poly bag to protect it from sunlight and (as much as possible) excessive heat in my car.
Over the course of my drive, I took most of the exposures, finishing the camera-roll when I was back in Central Michigan. The mechanism appeared to work fine, and I heard a definitive “CLICK” whenever I wound and then hit the shutter button. I tried to charge the flash to test the outside chance that it would work, but alas, whatever self-contained mechanism these disposable cameras use to generate a flash had withered over the two decades it spent sitting in the Dust Catcher).
Anyway, I contacted my colleagues in the CMU Photography department, who regretfully were unable to help me out, between workloads and COVID-related restrictions to darkroom use for people not registered in the program. I didn’t blame them, since I don’t recall being in a darkroom since around the time when my 35mm Disposable Camera was manufactured. However, they did direct me to Express Photo in Livonia, one of few (if any) labs in the state who still routinely develop consumer-grade 35mm film. I called them up, and they had me ship them the camera along with a very simple form to request processing and prints.
Within a few days, I got an envelope from them in my mailbox. I expected them to call me up and tell me that the film was too faded to be worth printing, but that was not the case. Here’s a sample of what turned out.
I scanned these photos using my extremely frustrating EPSON XP-400, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are given one (which I was). I did not color-correct or contrast-correct any of the pictures. Of course, no LCD screen is capable of fully recreating the original, no matter how high-resolution, but hopefully these images give you a good impression of just how rich the film remained over twenty years in the can.
I imagine that, had the one-time-use camera not been sealed in its poly bag, the whole thing would have been dust. Not to knock on K-Mart, but I don’t associate them (or anybody in the one-time-use camera market) with enduring quality built to last decades in a high-humidity area. I’ve found similar blogs that shoot and develop film that had sat somewhere cool and dry for 10-15 years, but shooting a roll of consumer film manufactured in the late-90’s was on the whole next level. Thankfully, I’ve always had a healthy skepticism of expiration dates on consumer goods, especially those which were marketed during the run-n-gun, waste-waste-waste late-20th century.
Also, despite my professed love of retroactive archives of 20th century culture like Scene In-Between and Dirty Old Boston (thanks to one of my GEO 350: United States & Canada students for the latter), I’m usually squeamish about scanning analog media and posting them haphazardly on the internet, which is why I’m only sharing a handful of the pictures. They’re nothing terribly personal, at any rate. I hope this may influence somebody to take a chance on a similar roll of film and not let it just go to waste, especially not throwing it into a landfill.