Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Demise Of The Corner Grocery

Since today marks 2 years since the release of my book, The Portland House, I thought I'd take a walk back to the old neighborhood.

I saw a post recently on the Old Saint Paul Facebook site that triggered some great memories. It was on the subject of Corner Grocery stores. This post will likely date me because these places are a thing of the past. The Woodmans and Walmarts and Krogers of the world made sure of that. 

We had one near us when we lived on Portland Avenue in St. Paul. I'm not sure, but I think it was even called Corner Grocery. It was on the corner of Grand Avenue and Dunlap, about 3 blocks from our doorstep. 
Site of former Corner Grocery on Grand Av.

As kids we spent many summer days walking to Corner Grocery with our allowances or other change we'd begged from Mom by leaving her a note to read before she left for work everyday. We bled her dry one quarter at a time in the summer - nickle and diming she used to call it - all in the name of a sugar fix. Sometimes it required a chore like weeding the gardens for a dollar, but sometimes it was just out of sheer exhaustion she'd leave change.

The store was a mom-and-pop owned place, I'm sure, not much larger than the ground floor of my current house. It had shelves stocked with a few cans and boxes of everything. The place was a fallback whenever Mom needed a loaf of bread or a half gallon of milk in a cardboard carton. Gallons were too heavy to carry the full 3 blocks, plus back then, they were only packaged in carboard too. 

But more often, we never got too far past the front area near the register which was where the candy was kept. They had it all at Corner Grocery, candy bars, licorice, Dots, Whoppers, Boston Baked Beans, candy cigarettes, tootsie pops and Charms suckers. 

I remember the Charms the most, They kept them in a vertical holder and if you picked one that happened to have a red mark on the bottom of the stick, you got to pick another free one. I didn't really care for Charms much, but being a cheap kid, I managed to try my luck at it a few times. 

Along with the candy were the sports cards and collectibles, like Wacky Packages. This was my little heaven. At a quarter a pack, I almost always spent at least a portion of my money on football cards. Some marketing genius figured that one out early. Tease kids by putting one player from their favorite team in every 5th package or so, so they buy them until they're broke. I held up my end of the bargain for sure.

It's funny what you remember about those old places. I remember the smell and the cramped aisles and the friendly clerk who put up with our .50 sales one kid at a time, almost every day, as there was always a kid from the neighborhood doing the same thing I did. 

So it's kind of sad that these places went the way of the video stores and drive in theaters. I think they were a sort of cornerstone (pardon the metaphor) for our communities. They brought kids out of their homes and were a draw from blocks around for what they had to offer. This particular place was bought by a hairdresser, Ernesto. He styled Mom's hair once a week for years and probably did a much more lucrative business than Corner Grocery. 

Ernesto's was eventually bought out by something else, further proof that nothing is forever. It's a shame these places don't exist anymore, but it sure is fun looking back at them. I'm grateful they were a part of my childhood.

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Battle Of The Bays

Between the two teams I cheer for, Minnesota and Green Bay, today will mark the 17th NFC Championship game that I've watched actually means something to me. The Packers will meet the Forty Niners to determine who goes to the Super Bowl as the NFC representative.

Seventeen. That's a lot of games.
My copies of the XXI & XXXII Super Bowl programs

Of those games though, I've only been on the winning side six times, three each for the Packers and Vikings. That means my disappointments outnumber my euphoric moments by a margin of almost 2:1.

There have been some heart breakers for sure, almost too many to list.

For the Vikings there were:

  • The Cowboys Hail Mary pass
  • The Gary Anderson missed field goal in the Randall Cunningham years
  • The 41-0 stomping at the hands of the NY Giants during the Randy Moss years
  • The infamous Brett Favre interception versus New Orleans
  • The recent beating at the hands of the  Eagles
And as a Packer fan, I've had my heartbreaks too:

  • The pounding by Emmit Smith and the Cowboys
  • The infamous Brett Favre versus the NY Giants (I see a trend here)
  • The Seahawk meltdown of 5 years ago. What a disaster!
  • The 44-21 thumping laid on by the Atlanta Falcons
For the Vikings, their NFC Championship victories were so many years ago, I barely remember what I felt, but I am sure as a young boy, I was thrilled. I lived and died by Tarkenton, Foreman, Osborn, Gilliam, Washington, Eller, Page, Marshall and the rest. It was idolatry at a young age. 

I remember my mom, stepfather and sister once met Gary Larsen at a bar in northern Minnesota when we were at the cabin. (Gary Larsen was the relatively unknown "fourth" Purple People Eater lineman for the Vikes.) He was sweet on my sister and I was introduced to him. I shook his hand and stood there relatively awestruck. But I digress.

Because they are more recent, I do remember vividly the Packer NFC victories however. The first one was when they beat the Carolina Panthers to get to the Superbowl with Brett Favre, Reggie White, Edgar Bennet, Andre Rison, Don Beebe and Desmond Howard. I'd lived in Wisconsin for 10 years and most of them were with brutally bad to mediocre teams, so this one seemed like it was for real. 

That win over Carolina was a fantastic feeling, eclipsed only by the eventual win over New England in Superbowl XXX1. 

This year's Packer team has surprised me again and again. I picked them to go 9-7 this year and they proved me wrong, finishing 13-3. 

And while I realize it's a boys game played by men and the Packers are underdogs today, I will still watch in hopes that they can pull out an upset. They did it against Chicago in 2010 to go on and beat Pittsburgh in Superbowl XLV. Besides, I have a win/loss ratio that needs to be evened out.

Go Pack!

Blogging off...

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Booking Of Revelation

I was the featured poet last night at Mama D's in Wales. I've been looking forward to this evening for a long time, as it was a chance to showcase my two latest poetry books to a new audience.

When I scheduled it, I took the month of January for myself because I figured that if turnout was low because of the weather, I'd be the one to take the hit. I'd rather the other poets I schedule get a decent crowd than myself.

Well, as expected, the event was lightly attended. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated very much those that did come out, but to be truthful, as I started, it stung a little to see so few people.

But by the time I left, I had a different take on the evening. Like so many of these events, the best part of the evening came in the connections I made. For example, a middle school teacher I'd worked with on a student writing camp last year. Her name is Nancy and she came because she'd seen my posts on Instagram and had always wanted to come to a reading. She brought her kids and we had a wonderful chat about writing and its importance in the early years of students. I was touched that she thought enough to come out on a rainy night to hear me.

Another surprise was a woman, Grace, who's come to a couple of my readings now. She is looking to get into writing more poetry herself, so we had a great chat about the intricacies of getting a poem published and how that can pave the way for a book. A great connection with a person I hardly knew a few months ago.

Then, later, my friend and fellow author, Bob Goswitz came up after the reading and we caught up on his writing endeavors. Bob is a Vietnam vet who published a fictionalized account of his experience in the war. In talking to him about the ups and downs of writing, we both concluded that although we are both fledgling authors, we wouldn't trade any part of our lives. While we both are working on our next book, we agreed that if nothing ever came of them, we'd still exceeded our expectations by getting that first book published. He's a great guy and it was so great to see him.

On top of these folks - friends from my literary circles - the poetry reading experience is always one I treasure. With these small groups of people the setting becomes even more intimate, like people gathered in a living room. To me it is art of the spoken kind, meant to be enjoyed, and then it vaporizes. I love being a part of that process.

Furthermore, there were the familiar faces, Sara and Ed, Colleen and her husband, who come through thick and thin and support whomever is behind the microphone. They are the ones who keep me going when these doubts creep in.

As I said, I walked in with a set of hopeful aspirations. But, after the interactions transpired., I walked out with an entirely different outlook. Poetry has never been about selling the books. I need to get past that. It is about the art and creativity and immediacy of it all. It is performance and interaction and beauty and friendship and connection.

So, in that respect, it was a memorable night and I'm glad I had the opportunity to be part of it.

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Showing It, Not Acting It

Evidently, I'm not 23 anymore.

I sometimes forget that I am closer to sixty than to college. Sometimes this reminder comes on stronger than others. I'm not ready to admit my limitations yet, but the other night was a good example of the difference between my cerebral age and my actual physical abilities.

As part of our church's holiday party, we were allowed access to a gymnasium on the old Concordia College campus in Milwaukee. I'm told that the Milwaukee Bucks used to practice in this particular gym back in the early 70's when they won their championship. That statement piqued my interest knowing that I might be playing in the shadow of Kareem Abdul Jabbar - a long shadow indeed.


Anyway, I've determined that something in my brain snaps when I get in a gymnasium. I don't quite drool, but I feel an instant rush and a need to prove my basketball prowess. I was NEVER a good basketball player, but that didn't stop me from trying. People always assume with my height that I must be good.

Well, ya gotta shoot good too.

So after a half hour of random bucket shooting, I challenged Ben to a game of PIG. The game requires you to make the shot of your predecessor from the same spot, or suffer a letter. First one to spell PIG is out.

Ben and I are equally bad at hoops, I discovered, it must be a genetic defect of some sort. We struggled mightily and went back and forth. I decided to try a reverse layup, a bit trickier than a regular layup but nothing I haven't done a hundred times before.

As I approached the basket at top speed, my foot got caught underneath me.

This was the start of what seemed like a 3 minute fall. My ankle twisted and I landed hard on my butt, with limbs crashing all around me as I spun and fizzled. I broke my fall with my good shoulder and a shock wave went through my whole upper torso. My glasses fell off and skittered across the floor, as I narrowly missed landing on them. I lay there in an inglorious heap of humanity.

And the only thing I could think at the time was, "What is happening? It was only a simple reverse layup!"

Ben and a friend who witnessed the fall came rushing over and asked "Are you okay?"

I jumped up quickly, embarrassed by my ungainly shot, and said, "Yeah. Oww. I think so, yeah."

I went on to shoot a few more shots, but they were much tamer. To be truthful, I'm still a bit sore from the evening, some of it the result of the fall.

Now, in my defense, I was in bad sneakers, jeans and a long sleeve shirt, hardly the attire for a hoops star. But at the same time it was a humbling wake up call that I need to temper my enthusiasm and remember that I am closer to an AARP member than a Bucks practice squad member.

The hardest part is, I've always loved sports, ball sports or outdoor sports. So, I think I have to come to grips with the fact that I can't just go from 0 to 60 when I see a court like I could at 23.

Part of the issue though is recent effort to lose my winter weight. I have about 10 pounds to lose, which you may not see, but I do, and my clothes remind me.

The moral of the story is, while I've come to recognize my need to move in the winter months, maybe a better way to do it is to get a bike trainer, which I did. I've set it up upstairs and have used it the past couple of days. I feel better already, and chances are I won't break a hip putting my miles in. This makes my wife happier than crashing to the gym floor.

Blogging off...

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Raising The Literary Art Bar

Last night I attended a book launch for a poet friend of mine. Kathrine Yets' chapbook is titled, So I Can Write, and it is her first published book of poetry.

The event was held at Art Bar in Riverwest. I'd never been there, but I love the whole Riverwest scene, so was glad to be able to attend. Having lived on the East Side of Milwaukee many years ago, I miss the nightlife and eclectic crowds that were part of living in that area. The suburbs are so blase' in comparison.

The Art Bar features a lot of art within it, obviously, and was hoppin' busy when I got there at 6:15 or so. It was a diverse, youngish crowd with a great vibe. I'd say these are my people, but I'm probably a bit too old and suburban to get away with it. It's fun trying though. Despite my age difference I felt comfortable enough - I think the Riverwest crowd is cool with you no matter what your makeup is, old, white, bald dudes included. It sure seemed that way to me.

Anyway, I wanted to be there for her launch because she has supported me over the years. She is a talented poet currently teaching at the university level. I can also attest that a first book is pretty huge for any author/poet, so there's that as well..

She read from her work and then held an open mic downstairs afterward. There were a handful of people that read, young and old, including me. It is my hope to get down to the other open mic poetry venue in Riverwest, Linneman's sometime. Anyway, it was a cool evening all the way around. I'm glad I went.

If you're interested in her book, you can get it here.


And, finally, she and I will both be reading at the AllWriters' Friday Night Free for All event a week from tomorrow. Check it out here.

Blogging off...


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Comings and Goings

I have some public appearances and readings lined up that I am pretty excited about. And frankly, 10 years ago, I never would have thought that would be something I would be saying. I once was a shy boy - still am actually - but duty calls and part of being an author/poet requires reading/signings, so I try and honor that. Every time I do it I get a little more comfortable, so it's not as terrifying as it once was.

The first will be on January 15th at Mama D's in Wales where I'll be the featured poet. As you may know, I organize that event every month and after a few years since I did it last, my turn has come up again. I scheduled it after the release of my two new poetry books, Thoughts from a Line at the DMV and Genetically Speaking: Poems on Fatherhood

Mama D's is a quaint setting and a cool coffee shop in Wales. Attendance has been really good at the past few readings, but this being January in Wisconsin, I'm not sure what to expect. The event features an open mic afterward for anyone who wants to read a poem or two of their own work. There have been some memorable moments from some notable performers here, so it is a lot to live up to.

The second appearance will be a couple of days later on Friday, January 17th at Cafe de Arts for the AllWriters' Friday Night Free for All. I'll be reading with other local published authors and poets from AllWriters' studio.

The focus of my reading there will be my 2018 book, The Portland House: a '70s memoir.  Each of the readers at this event have different credentials, like first published book, first accepted manuscript, etc. My category is multiple books. I'm flattered to be part of this event and again, if you'd told me 10 years ago that I'd be featured as a multiple book author, I'd have laughed you out of the room.

The last event I wanted to share is actually an international reading. I will be part of a multi-poet event at The Poetry Cafe in London in September! When my publisher, Kelsay Press, mentioned they were forming a group to read in London, it piqued my interest, because we were thinking about taking a trip to Scotland anyway. As it stands now, we (my wife and I) will be flying into London for 3 days and then taking a train up to Scotland for 10 day afterward.

This trip is still being planned and fleshed out, but I am very excited about the prospect of saying I'd read my work in London. It is a bucket list item I'd never put in the bucket. The event happens on Saturday, September 26th at 2:00 PM. Stay tuned for more on that.

So, my writing life is busy again and that is good. I'd love to get a few more readings scheduled, so lets hope something cracks that way. Until then, I'll keep writing and working away. This gig is rewarding in ways it is hard to describe. When I'm not weeping and gnashing my teeth, it is a sort of Zen-like experience. LOL.

Blogging off...


Thursday, January 2, 2020

A Return To Routine

I returned to work today after a 9-day vacation for the holidays. I always look forward to those "break" weeks every year, but every year, by the end of them I'm pretty much ready to go back to work.

It's not that I don't like being home, nor is it that I wouldn't like retirement. It's more a matter of having a more complete plan for the break than "writing as much as I can". That goes great for the first seven days, but after that, I get sort of lost.

This past break I binge-watched the Netflix series The Crown. Well, when I say binge-watched I mean a couple of episodes a day for a few days. Watching TV is something I rarely do except when I have nothing else better to do. This week seemed to be a good chance to knock some of them out.  The thing is, I don't like myself when I do something this passive. It's not who I am. At the same time, I had to admit that it was a nice break from the things/goals I had set for writing and house projects.

The other thing I discovered is I have a bit of a vacuum obsession. I typically vacuum the whole house on Saturday morning, so it's always been my job. But when I'm around the house like every day is Saturday, I always see it as an opportunity to touch up the living room with a quick once-over with the Shark. I'm glad I know this obsession about myself, but it might be something to watch over time.

Dirty dishes in the sink is another habit I can't take too much of. All things must go in the dishwasher. So I scrape and rinse and load as I make them. It's not a bad habit, but again, something worth keeping in check.

I got some decent, normal, fun things done over break too - it wasn't all aprons and pearls. I managed to get to see the new Star Wars movie with my son, which was really good. I finished some poems and a bunch of edits as well as entering a few poems/books in contests and/or journals, and managed to get two late December bike rides of 10+ miles in. I slept in a couple of days and took an occasional nap as needed.

But it was a 9-day reminder that I need a plan for retirement - still a handful of years away - before I can safely say I'm going to retire and not drive my wife mad. I have lots of goals that way, guitar, fly fishing and maybe even pursuit of an MFA, but none of those are hobbies I much have time for until that day I hang up my real job.

So, while it was tough to go back to work today, in a little way, it felt pretty good.

Blogging off...