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Sad fact is that there are few things more repulsive than other people’s neediness….

So the plumber came by yesterday. The bathroom here in my little cement bungalow looked like the Earl of Darnley’s torture chamber. Well, hey! I was brought up in New York City where landlords are remote, other worldly entities, never to be petitioned or importuned unless dead alligators start flushing up from your toilet. But the bathroom had reached the point where you’d basically rather risk fecal impaction than take a dump. So I called Tom, and instantly a very jolly plumber showed up on the doorstep. There’s a moral object lesson in that somewhere.

Plumber spent about 10 minutes replacing the commode and 2 hours regaling me with the history of industrial Cortland, a small city thirty miles to the north. Founded by the same family that had the “Van” in their name when they lived in the Bronx. First there was the Wickwire steel mill – they invented the screen door. Then there was the Smith Corona Typewriter Company. Then there was Brockway, a company that made high-end fire engines.

Point is all these companies came but none of them stayed. West central New York remained what west central New York has always been for the past one hundred and fifty years – a kind of geographic ghost that doesn’t realize it’s dead, drifting on the miasma of a manufacturing past.

You go somewhere, you look around you and you think: Why is this here? These buildings, these roads, this railroad depot. Why here? Why not fifty miles down the river?

There’s never really any answer.

###


So the Census work is drawing to a close which is really kind of a pity. I enjoy going out, knocking on strange people’s doors, peering through the cracks into their lives. I’ve been canvassing Groton which is another odd little town with absolutely no reason to exist. Groton has a number of these huge moldering mansions, fallen on sad times. I did one yesterday and the owner – a grey-haired lady with strange watery hazel eyes – invited me to come inside.

Inside was really rather horrible. Subdivided into warrens, the better to cram more people into. False ceilings, black beetle rot. A weird malfunction with the water pipes that had resulted in a constant, never-ending gurgling sound as though the house was sucking the souls of its inhabitants.

“This was Ben Conger’s house,” the owner said proudly. “He had another one, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. When he moved here he wanted a new house just like that house so he built another one. It’s the Ben Conger Inn now. But he died as soon as the house was finished, before he could move in.”

“That happens a lot, doesn’t it?” I said. “People building grand houses and then dying before they can move in.”

“It does, doesn’t it,” mused the owner.

When I got home, I googled Ben Conger. State Senator, died in 1922. New York Times obituary unavailable. President of the Corona typewriter company.

That night I dreamed

There was this odd wild flower that only grew in central western New York State. Kind of an oversized peony head on a fleshy stalk. Locals referred to it as Decennium. It only appeared every ten years.

There was also a town called Decennium, and it too only appeared every ten years – just in time to be counted by the Census. I was the enumerator charged with verifying the population of Decennium which was an odd hodgepodge of 18th century Revolutionary War soldiers who’d been promised land tracts, and slaves who’d been escaping on the underground railroad and bootleggers and men in grey flannel suits – refugees from every time period imaginable. Even old Ben Conger himself. Thing was that when the Decennium flower finished blooming, the portals to the town closed – so I was desperately trying to finish my count before the town disappeared for another ten years and I was trapped there forever.

###


Last week I fell in love. In Groton. I knocked on a front door and the man inside greeted me as though I was his oldest and dearest friend miraculously returned to him. “Come in, come in! Can I get you some wine? From South Africa, very good. You stay to dinner, no? I am barbecuing ribs.”

“But I’m just here to complete a Census Intake form,” I said, startled.

But he continued to beam. He was a tall man, taller than me, with a big potbelly, indifferent teeth, brown eyes. He spoke with an accent.

“Did you or any of your household members live here on April 1?”

“Yes, yes,” he said. “We move here in December. We rent. We have a house on Elm Street that we own but you know, the bank tells us, ‘You sell or we foreclose.’ So we sell.” He shrugs.

“Do you mind if I ask you what country you’re from?”

“Bosnia,” he said. “Sarajevo. We spend a decade in a refugee camp, my wife, me, my kids. And now we are here and my kids are American! We could have gone anywhere, Australia, Canada, France. But we come here. America is the greatest country on earth.”

We ended up chatting for over an hour which goes against every federal protocol, I’m sure. But there was just something so compelling about this man, about his story. He worked as a machinist; his wife was an employee in Cornell’s dining hall. I knew they’d been educated for something more professional but he didn’t mind it at all – “I like to work with my hands,” he said. “And the object of life is to be happy, no? I know many rich people. Most of them –“ He shrugged. “Not happy. Me, I am happy. I have my family, I have my garden, I am barbecuing ribs with my own rub – why won’t you stay and eat with us?”

“Well, I can’t,” I said. “The job doesn’t really allow me.”

“But I will not tell!”

The object of his and his wife’s lives had been to send their three daughters to college – and they were succeeding. The oldest had just won a full scholarship to a prestigious art school in Manhattan.

“Naturally I prefer her to be a doctor, to be a lawyer,” he said. “But in the end it is about what makes her happy, yes?”

In 1968 I spent two days in Sarajevo. I had taken all my UC Berkeley scholarship money and decamped to Europe for six weeks. I had met up with a caravan of Brit boys in Tangiers; after two weeks there smoking hashish, they’d decided to drive to Katmandu where it was rumored you could buy meth and heroin and no one would hassle you. I had seduced the youngest, tenderest, least spotty of them. He was too scared to sleep with me, which I found very odd. Instead he wanted to spend all night kissing and staring at the immutable stars which were so bright, so pulsating, so all-enveloping on this trip that I felt as though the constellations had been invented to showcase episodes from my own life.

Their van broke down in Sarajevo. I spent a day or so wandering around the city center. As with all unfamiliar places, I needed to compare it with some place else in order to tame it – and as it didn’t look anything like San Francisco, I decided it looked like Brooklyn or maybe Oakland – multistoried skyscrapers superimposed against a backdrop of tired brown Belle Epoque architecture, there were even hills in the distance. It was a real city. There were buses, people spat on the streets.

The fall of Sarajevo twenty-four years later absolutely blew my mind. Because, see, Sarajevo was not some remote Third World outpost. Sarajevo was a modern, Westernized city. If it could happen in Sarajevo, it could happen… well. Anywhere.

“Well, you know the problem was that Yugoslavia wasn’t a real country,” I told my new friend. “Any more than Iraq is a real country. It was a political invention, six countries really, kept in place by the force of one man’s personality. And when that man died…”

“Like here!” my new friend grinned companionably. “Only here it is 50 countries and no one is keeping it together.”

There was a glint in his eye that was my first clue to the fact that the Noble Savage routine was as much an act for him as Ingenuous Census Girl was for me. Still we understood each other – even better than before perhaps.

“You will not stay? No? But perhaps we will see each other again. Perhaps we meet before in Sarajevo. I feel as though I know you,” he said.

Though of course he didn’t.

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Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
nokomisjeff
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
You are an awesome writer, but this is one of your best posts, ever:)
mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)
Thanks!
(Anonymous)
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
Wow! This last entry was fantastic! I'm a fan and follower of your journal and I am continually amazed and in awe of your writing and your strength. Powerful, interesting, heart tugging, personal, unique......thank you for continuing to share your journey. You should expand your census dream into a short story.
mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:24 am (UTC)
You should expand your census dream into a short story.

Well, it would need a plot. I suck at plotting.
sulphuroxide
Jun. 2nd, 2010 10:56 pm (UTC)
everybody wants to go to iraq
i like that dream. write it as a story, please?

mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:25 am (UTC)
Re: everybody wants to go to iraq
I'm gonna try.
a1icey
Jun. 2nd, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC)
glad spring is affecting you the way it should ;)

There was also a town called Decennium, and it too only appeared every ten years – just in time to be counted by the Census.

this reminded me of big fish
mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:26 am (UTC)
Never saw Big Fish. Gave up on Wes Anderson after the weird NY movie.
a1icey
Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
i believe it is a tim burton film!
mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
Ah. HATE Tim Burton.
hotelsamurai
Jun. 3rd, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
There was also a town called Decennium, and it too only appeared every ten years – just in time to be counted by the Census.

This reminded me of late William Burroughs... Cities of the Red Night? The Place of Dead Roads? The Western Lands? One of those.
hotelsamurai
Jun. 2nd, 2010 11:45 pm (UTC)
I wish everyday life more closely resembled your dreams.
mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:26 am (UTC)
Heh! :-)

No, you don't...
alumiere
Jun. 3rd, 2010 06:46 am (UTC)
The Census story is beautiful. I adore your writers voice; the way it makes what seem to be normal, simple interactions as vivid and unexpected as a totally invented world. I'm not good at much these days, but if/when you want first readers and/or editors/copy editors I'm slow but I'll nitpick the shit out of your work to help; I so want to see your stories published.
mallorys_camera
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:29 am (UTC)
simple interactions as vivid and unexpected as a totally invented world.

That's a very trenchant bit of literary criticism. I had absolutely no idea that's what I do when I write til read that, but you're right -- that's it in a nutshell. What a great eye and ear you have!
datura3
Jun. 8th, 2010 06:02 am (UTC)
What an incredible dream!

And the encounter, too. I wanted to do the census this year just to meet people in New Orleans, but ended up not having time.
mallorys_camera
Jun. 8th, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
Well, the encounter above is very much the exception to the rule -- you don't really meet people doing the census, you harass them.

You have a vivid and marvelous dreamlife yourself.
dabroots
Jun. 9th, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's some seriously good writing, there. I haven't yet read all of it, but it looks quite tasty, so far.

I worked on the 1990 census. That was during my time in North Carolina. Specifically, I was knocking on doors in a somewhat rural area outside Winston-Salem. A few people were clearly intent on not getting counted, and then there were also the dogs--the dogs were a bit intimidating.
old_cutter_john
Apr. 10th, 2011 06:14 pm (UTC)
Looks like a few other folks have already said this but WOW!
egg_shell
Aug. 7th, 2018 10:27 pm (UTC)
Reading your LJ is the high point of my morning reads.
mallorys_camera
Aug. 7th, 2018 10:32 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow! I feel honored. Thank you.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )