Search

Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

Tag

West Virginia

city mud

The cold bites and the wind blows hard and he pulls his gray wool coat together at the front and his eyes water and the sidewalk is a moving blur and the city is alive, as it always is, with people, now just huddling masses, their faces down and wrapped in scarves, silently pulsing along on the wet concrete, and the only sound he hears is rush of air past his ears.

Two more blocks.

Snow is pushed up against the buildings and mounded at the curbs making the path he shares narrow, and though no one in the city walks slowly, on days without snow there are those with the energy of youth, and dreams unsullied and they walk with intent and dart and dodge and walk the curb for a few steps like a walker on a tightrope with no fear or hesitation because they can and tomorrow is for losers. But on this day, it isn’t so.

He’s on the wrong side, next to the street, and he begins to angle toward the buildings, stutter-stepping behind a man in a dark coat, though he’s not really sure if it’s a man. Another moving bundle sidesteps around him and he imagines it is a woman with no real reason to think that other than instinct. Not that it matters. The sidewalk is anonymous.

There are three steps up to the door, a grandfathered anachronism in a world where all are equal and everything is for everybody. One day the owners of Brewsters will be sued and because there is no practical means of providing a ramp, they’ll go out of business and move to Jersey and start all over again. He grabs the wet rail with his gloved hand, thinking for a moment that he’s wearing his dress gloves, and pulls himself up to the first step, then the second, before pushing open the door at the top.

He blinks, clearing the tears from his eyes, and he inhales deeply, relieved to have escaped the outdoors. He takes off his gloves and stuffs them in the pocket of his coat. He runs his fingers over his hair, tamping down the strands that he knows are wandering, as they have started to do as of late, even after he has adopted a more conservative style more suited to a man his age. Not that he is old. Far from it. But his rakish twenties are far behind him and middle age is on a distant horizon because it’s not really a function of life span divided by two, but closer to a traditional retirement age, which is at least twenty years off.

The line is short. In fact, there is only one person in front of him, hidden under a polyester parka, and as he/she moves to the left, the barista confirms his order without even asking and two minutes later he is putting on his gloves and pulling open the door. The wind again assaults him and he is walking, trying to keep his coat closed as coffee sloshes out of the drinking slot and onto his calfskin gloves. He takes the coffee in his other hand and slings the coffee from his glove and then wipes it on his coat.

He turns left at the next block and crosses the street and the buildings block the wind, at least most of it, and it’s no longer strafing his face but now seems to come from random directions as it’s buffeted in the man-made canyons of office towers and condominiums. Another block and he reaches his building.

He takes off his gloves while juggling his coffee, which he has yet to even sip. Gloves in the pocket, he reaches inside his coat for his proximity card. Inside the elevator, he touches the reader with his card and pushes the button for the fortieth floor. The elevator is crowded, shoulder to shoulder, but it might as well be empty.

The meeting will start in twenty minutes, just enough time to hang his coat in his closet and check his emails, then on to the conference room. He’s the first one there.

“Good morning, Breece.”

Anthony, his assistant. He returns the greeting. Anthony places a copy of the summary documents at every place at the table.

Anthony stops, points to Breece’s feet.

“You’ve got a little mud on your shoes.” Anthony goes to the sink at the bar and wets a paper napkin and hands it to Breece.

It’s not much, just a dark brown smear, but it stands out against the burgundy leather of his Edward Greens.

Mud.

Where would he have tracked through mud?

Not really mud, of course. City mud. Just ordinary grime. Dirt. Grit washed down from the buildings. Decomposed crumbs from the food carts. Spilled coffee. Pigeon droppings. Rat feces. A disgusting layer of dregs that wash away with every heavy rain, but when it snows, there is no cleansing, and then a sprinkling of salt, and the dirt turns to a chocolate batter and sticks to everything it touches, even a thousand dollar pair of shoes.

Boots. That’s what he ought to be wearing. Not polished leather with brass eyelets and buckles. Boots like his grandfather’s. Scratched and worn, mismatched laces. They were always covered with a thin dusting of light brown soil, but in the spring, when his grandfather would walk behind the Gravely and till the garden for the first time, moist earth would gather in clumps on the soles. Young Breece would follow behind, breathing in the rich aroma of life in the ground that had been buried under the long, cold winter months. Earthworms wiggled and squirmed, not at all pleased that their slumber had been disturbed. Breece would look for the biggest ones, pull them from the newly formed clods and drop them into the soil-filled coffee can where they would later be sacrificed to the small-mouth in the Coal River.

He wore sneakers back then and didn’t care about dirt or mud or anything else on his shoes or under his fingernails or the ever-present dark stain on the knees of his jeans. He was always digging through the earth or building a dam across the creek at the bottom of the holler and breaking apart the claystone in search of fossils or playing games of full-contact tackle football in the vacant lot behind the junior high school.

It was best when it was muddy, as it usually was in late October, just after the leaves had changed. And it was cool but not cold and they had played on the field so much that the grass was worn and the least little bit of rain made puddles, and a good tackle was when you brought down the kid with the ball and you slid another five yards after hitting the ground. You weren’t really playing tackle football if you were clean, and it was understood that you had to let the mud dry in thick cakes and then knock it off only after your parents yelled at you and then sprayed you off in the back yard with a garden hose.

Mud. Beautiful, glorious, thick, West Virginia mud.

And then the explosion at the plant. Five men were killed, including his father.

Shortly after, he and his mother moved to Connecticut. She remarried. He went to prep school. His grandfather died of cancer. They went back for the funeral, but didn’t even spend the night. There was no family left.

After prep school, it was on to Princeton for his undergraduate degree, then Harvard Business School. Then New York City.

He wipes the smear from his shoe and looks at the brown stain on the napkin. Anthony has left the room. He raises the napkin to his nose and breathes in, hoping to get a sniff, a hint, of what he has forgotten, what he remembers, what his sterile, well-kept life has sheltered him from all these years.

Nothing.

He looks at his manicured hands, the clean, crisp fingernails so short that he couldn’t get mud underneath if he tried.

Anthony has re-entered the room, along with a gaggle of similar well-bred elites ready to negotiate the deal that will ultimately enable them to buy expensive shoes and live in upscale apartments and summer on the island and hire a gardener to mow the lawn and trim the trees and dig the soil and plant the shrubs and let the gardener’s fingernails be the ones marred by years of honest toil and the richness of all that is basic and good and pure.

Breece looks out the window. Glass towers as far as he can see. Somewhere beyond are mountains and valleys and rich, fertile soil. Real dirt. Real mud. Real life.

He folds the napkin and puts it in the inside pocket of his suit.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2019, joseph e bird

Featured post

zeb

This, my friends from around the world, is what Appalachian music is all about.  Not that I don’t love other music.  Just check out my Music page.  (Note to self:  Post some Foo Fighters, man.)  But everything about this video speaks to my world.  Zeb in his ball cap and his very non-millennial, non-hipster, Appalachian beard. The sled leaning against the wall.  The wood-burning stove.  Even the name.  Zeb.

And how can he be so good?  So easy?

The best part is Zeb Snyder and the Snyder Family Band is coming to my little town of St. Albans in June for the first ever YakFest.  Can’t wait.

it’s a west virginia thing

The temperature and humidity were rising as she drove farther south and just outside of Montgomery she stopped for gas at a convenience store, filled her tank, and went inside for a cold drink. When she came back out, she paid no attention to the car parked at the pump behind her.

“West Virginia, almost heaven.”

She turned to look. A black man, about her age, wearing a tattered ball cap. He was smiling,

She gave him a friendly look and unlocked her car.

“Your license plate.” He pointed to the back end of her car. “I’m from there.”

She stopped. She couldn’t resist.

“Where?”

“McDowell County.”

It was a West Virginia thing. If you’re from southern West Virginia, you’re identified with your county, not your town. Mingo County. Boone County. Lincoln County. McDowell was the poorest of the poor. She didn’t have to ask why he left. The decline of the coal industry affected everyone in southern West Virginia. As the jobs left, the drugs came in. Anybody with any hope for the future left. At least that’s the way she saw it.

“I’m from Charleston.”


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel, Heather Girl

Stairway to Almost Heaven

top of steps for web

I’ve been rehabbing my latest running setback (adductor tendonitis, a particularly uncomfortable malady) by biking.  But in search of something that will approximate running, I’ve discovered I can run steps without aggravating my injury.  The best steps in my neighborhood are at the cemetery.

The view from the bottom can be intimidating.

stairs for web

But once you get to the top and turn around, it’s worth the trip.

Almost Heaven, West Virginia.  Even more true in the cemetery.

a different country road

I have a special needs brother-in-law who has lived in Logan, West Virginia for the past few years. More specifically, Whitman Junction, which runs along the holler formed by Whitman Creek. And yes it’s holler, not hollow. The houses of Whitman Junction – some ramshackle, some very nice brick ranchers –  sit so closely together that you could sit in your kitchen and hear your neighbor’s cat purring next door, and so close to the road that a misjudged first step off the front porch could put you directly in the line of traffic.  It’s what you would call a tight-knit community.

My brother-in-law has been in and out of Logan General Hospital recently, and is now recovering from a serious illness.  Because of all of this, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time in the Logan area over the last few years.  To know about Logan – and southern West Virginia – you need to know about the state in general.

Economically, West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in just about every category. At one time, though, southern West Virginia was a booming coal mining region. But as mining has declined, so have the fortunes of southern West Virginia. Communities like Logan have been hard hit.

The geography and geology of southern West Virginia, specifically, the coal formed in the mountains eons ago, is what spurred the boom times of yesteryear. Those same mountains also tend to isolate southern West Virginia.  The terrain is rugged. Check out this photo of the main highway leading to Logan. That’s a major cut through hard sandstone.  And the next photo. It took a massive earthwork project just to build another Walmart.

logan highway cut for web
The rugged terrain in Logan makes for expensive highways.

 

fountain place for web
Even the shopping centers are carved out of the rock.

Add all this up and you get people who are different. I know I talk with an accent, but it ain’t nuthin like the accent of southern West Virginia. It’s also the land of camo. As in camouflage hats, camo vests, camo shirts, camo pants. You also see a lot of miners in their work clothes, easily identified by the bright orange reflectors.  Yeah, the people are different. And they seem to have a little bit of a hard edge.

The other day we stopped to get a bite to eat and saw a couple coming out of the fast food restaurant holding hands. They were thin and wiry. He wore a scowl. So did she. Tough love, maybe? I’d be afraid of either one of them.

But maybe I shouldn’t be.

We had driven to Logan that morning, a Saturday, and were listening to This American Life. It was an old episode about a prison production of Hamlet. It was one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever heard on that broadcast. They interviewed convicted criminals who were trying their best to be actors.  One of them acknowledged that his tough guy persona, the very thing that had landed him in prison, was an act. It was who he thought people expected him to be. It was, for him, a cloak of protection.

The people in Logan have had it rough. I’d probably scowl, too, if for no other reason, than to keep the world at bay.

And there are many, many good people in Logan. You can tell by the way the old guys wear their camo ball caps tipped back on their head.  You can tell by the way the young girls in the stores go out of their way to make you feel like a long, lost cousin.  You can tell by the 10-second conversation in the hospital elevator where a stranger tells you about the heartbreak she’s dealing with. Just like people all over the world.

If you lived in Hawaii, you’d probably smile a lot. Perfect weather, beautiful people, laid back attitude.  If you lived in Logan, it would be tougher to smile. And yet they do.  Even the scowling couple probably find contentment when their guard is down. They were holding hands, after all.

Wherever you go in your travels, you’ll find good people.  It might take more of an effort to find them, but they’re there. Look past what’s on the outside, and find the goodness within.

 

 

 

 

no passport required

hawks nest for web

The New River, one of the five oldest rivers in the world, is an hour away. If I count the hike to get to the overlook at Hawks Nest State Park, make it two hours.

Clear Fork for web

There are rivers like this everywhere.  This one is in Raleigh County, an hour and a half from my front door.

greenbank for web

ET, phone home. Green Bank, West Virginia is home to the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world in the heart of Pocahontas County.  If you wanted to pick one place to go in West Virginia, Pocahontas County would be a good choice.

alban fresco for web

No, it’s not New York.  Just another small town Main Street in St. Albans. When I was a kid, we watched Frankie Avalon and Anette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo.  For a while it was a Jehova’s Witness Kingdom Hall.  Now the Alban is a theater again featuring plays and concerts.

So ends the tour of picturesque West Virginia.  Tomorrow we go to Logan.


all images copyright joseph e bird

Why this hillbilly wears shoes.

I’ve got a few ideas I want to tell you about, but there’s something distracting me right now and I need to get it off my chest. (That’s a weird expression. Remind to look that up.) You may not be able to relate to this, but I live in West Virginia, and most of us don’t wear shoes, what with us being hillbillies and everything. But my office has a dress code. We’re required to wear shoes, except on casual Fridays when pert near anything goes. I just threw in that “pert near” as typical hillbilly lingo to add some local flavor to my story. Most of us don’t really talk like that.

I’ve had my shoes on all day. And my knee’s been hurting from running too much. Either that or just one of them getting old things, so I didn’t run today. So I really have had my shoes on from about 7:12 this morning until now, which, according to the clock Steve Jobs gave me, is 8:13. I’ve been home since about 5:24. I stayed a little late because after everyone left the office, I wanted to try out my new guitar amp. There was a guy who used to work for us, but he got tired of having to wear shoes all the time, so he got himself a job in Florida where all he has to wear are flip-flops, or as we used to say back in the olden hillbilly days, thongs.

Rob – that’s the name of the guy who went to Florida to wear thongs – I mean flip-flops (don’t want to plant any untoward images in your mind) – was a guitar player, too, and he had an electric guitar in the office that he’d play around with on his lunch hour. When he left, I told him he had to leave his guitar. Since I was his boss, he had no choice. So he left me the guitar and a pick. But no amplifier. I went up the street the other day to the Fret N Fiddle. That’s what we call music stores here in hillbilly West Virginia. I asked for the smallest amplifier they had. The young feller (more hillbilly lingo) showed me one for $40. Said it ran on batteries. Well, that wouldn’t work, so he showed me another one for $100. I’m way too cheap to spend that kind of money. Then I saw a little amp on the way out that had vacuum tubes. I should have known better. $500. I blame that on the millennials. Even in West Virginia, we have millennial hipsters.

I ended up getting an amp from an online store for $25. I know what you’re thinking. It couldn’t possibly be any good. But I forgot to get a chord. So today I went back up to Fret N Fiddle. They’re closed on Thursdays. Just some random day to be closed, I reckon (lingo). Up the road I went to Gorby’s Music. I had time since I wasn’t running because of the aforementioned sore knee. Gorby’s has been around forever. I got my high school trumpet there, I think. Or maybe it was Herbert’s Music.

I asked the guy at the counter, who looked like a Gorby, if he ever got any Harold Hayslett cellos in the store. Harold Hayslett is also a hillbilly from nearby (actually, he’s the furthest thing from a hillbilly, but I have a theme going here, so we ask that you bear with us) who makes world class cellos and violins out of gopher wood. Just kidding about the gopher wood. The rest is true. I know this because my sister has a cello that he made when he was starting out. The Gorby fellow says he hasn’t seen one in a while and tells me old Harold is still up on the hill. I told him I thought he died. There was a piece on the radio the other day about Hayslett and I thought they said he died but I was wrong. He’s 99 years old and still going strong. It was John Lambros who died. Lambros was another prominent figure from my sister’s cello days in the area and I guess I got them mixed up. Lambros was 98. There might be a connection between music and living a long life.

So I said my goodbye to Mr. Gorby and went back to the office (still wearing my shoes). My lunch hour was over but I plugged in the guitar to make sure my $25 amp worked. It did. At one point in the afternoon I was tempted to take off my shoes and stick my feet under my desk, but at the time, it just seemed like too much trouble. At 5:02, most everyone had left the office so I plugged in the guitar again. At 5:13, someone hollered from the other side of the building to see if I was still there. In West Virginia, we holler, even when we have telephones. I hollered back and said I was, then he left. I had the whole place to myself, so I cranked it up. Then pushed the little button on the amp that made the distortion sound. All of sudden I sounded like a rock star. It was so cool that I kept playing for another fifteen minutes. Then I went home.

I kept my shoes on even then, because once, a few years ago, I took my shoes off at home and was going around in my socks (it must have been winter). And believe it or not, I stubbed my toe on my shoe. One of those freakishly bad stubs. On my shoe. Ironic, yes? Kind of like throwing your back out when you pick up a pillow, which I’ve done. I thought I broke my toe. The big toe, of course. Ever since then, I always wear some kind of shoe until I go to bed.

Ok. I’ve been writing this little story now for 26 minutes. It’s 8:41. My socks are all bunched up in the toes of my shoes and it’s driving me crazy. I can’t wait for that moment, maybe an hour from now, when I get to set my toes free and they can breathe again and escape their leathery prison. I might write a poem about it. No, I won’t.

I sat down here to make some New Year resolutions and I couldn’t get my mind off my uncomfortable feet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not.

You didn’t remind me to look up “get it off my chest.”

8:58.

Good night.

the great white north

cranberry-glades-for-web

Actually, no, it’s not Canada. This is the Cranberry Glades in West Virginia. They say that eons ago a glacier created a geographic and climactic anomaly in the high mountains of Pocahontas County. As a result, plant and animal species are found farther south than conventional wisdom would suggest. There are, in fact, cranberries growing in the bog, but if you’re expecting those two guys in hip waders surrounded by thousands of red berries, you’re going to be disappointed. Still, the scenery in this area is spectacular.

And watch out for bears.


copyright 2016, joseph e bird

Our Exotic World

Many of you who stop by here for a word or two are from this area (West Virginia) or near enough to be familiar with the locale. Some of you visit from lands far away. This occurred to my friend, fellow writer, and neighbor a few doors down, Larry Ellis, and he has written a nice little essay about our neck of the woods. You might enjoy getting to know this area through his words and photos.  If so, click here and jump on over to his site.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑