Monday, November 21, 2011

Hail, Columbia! Part Three

A storm of short duration has swept through our area, turning the black oak leaves brilliant gold, filling the canyons with roiling mist and laying a distinct snowline across the eastern mountains. This is the time of year I love most in Columbia. The streets are empty, the buildings brood upon their darkened interiors and the smell of damp poplar leaves fills the air.

Wandering through town, I realize that each and every building holds an intimate memory. In the Wells Fargo building, for example, I had my first visceral experience of the Golden Mean. I was probably 11 or 12, the day I snuck under the counter through the baggage opening, and crept up the  stairs to the empty room at the top. To the right as I entered was a long, narrow window, set very low in the wall, so that a seated person could still see the street, below. The only other windows were in three sets of tall double French doors that stretched across the eastern wall, giving onto an cast iron-railed balcony.

I stepped tentatively into the room, trying not to make the floorboards squeak. The walls were plastered in a pale cream color and light flooded onto them from the hand-rolled glass of the doors. The room was square, almost cubic, because of its tall ceiling. There was not a stick of furniture.

I stood mesmerized by this simple space. I would swear, even to this day, that as I crossed the threshold I heard a distinct sound, like fingers being drawn over the strings of a harp. This was not a noise from the haunted past but a harmonic generated by the room, itself. Like a cat purring in the sunshine, the room was humming happily over its perfect proportions.

 I felt awed and yet embraced and comforted. It was my first inkling that geometry could so profoundly affect the human psyche. Many years later, when I began to explore the great buildings of France, I encountered this sense of perfect balance, again – and felt that those lavish Rococo rooms had nothing over a simple room, upstairs in Columbia’s Wells Fargo building.

The doors of that room looked directly across the main street and into The Rocks, from whence I could contemplate another of Columbia’s wonders, the people trapped in the marble. Depending on the angle of the light, these would appear and disappear, phantom-like. Here were caryatids and grotesques, dwarves and giants, faces bearing all manner of expressions, people bent under loads of the stone above them, and those, like the one pictured above,  stepping from the light of day into the depths of the rock, to hide their nakedness. There were animals, too -- a huge lion and an elephant, upon whose backs we delighted to ride, and more sinister creatures, unnamed and unapproachable. These days, I sculpt in marble and I wonder if it was not those forms, dancing through light into stone, that first inspired me to take up hammer and chisel.

The downstairs in the Native Daughters of the Golden West building used to house Columbia’s U.S. Post Office. I would wait there, after school, for my father to come after work and pick me up, for the long drive up the mountain and home. Because I spent long hours there I was intimate with the energies of that building. There, I did not mount the stairs to the top floor meeting room, because there definitely was a spirit who guarded that inner sanctum. I would make it halfway up the stairs and experience such a wall of forbidding  energy that I was forced to retreat. Only on rare occasions was that upper room opened, when Columbia’s NDGW ladies would arrive in their homemade taffeta formals and molting fur capes, to mount the stairs and disappear into their temple, there to perform their arcane rituals which were whispered by us kids to include a shocking veneration of the ancestors.

Here, too, I witnessed the daily arrival of the Columbia stage, a tick-shaped gray van from which the driver, Mr. Ponce, would pull the gray canvas sacks of mail and haul them into the post office. Rumor had it that he was the last man to drive the horse-drawn stage that performed the same daily ritual until the advent of the automobile. After making his delivery, he would walk, bandy-legged, down to the Stage Driver’s Retreat for his daily beer.

It was during these long afternoon waits that much of my social interaction with the Columbia kids took place, and here that I first played ball with mercury. Also known as quicksilver, mercury is an element used in the process of harvesting gold and, in my childhood, it was not uncommon to find softball-sized balls of it, rolling along the bottom of local creeks. We kids would fish these out and bring them to school, then spend our free hours happily breaking the balls apart, watching in fascination as they broke into smaller and smaller balls that rolled erratically across the floor, and as they merged flawlessly into perfect orbs again. It never seemed to occur to any of the adults who may have witnessed us at play that mercury is a deadly poison. That any of us survived our childhood is, I suppose, miraculous, since we would be munching treats from Eastlack’s grocery, all the while, our hands first busily shepherding mercury balls, then going straight to our mouths with candy or cookies.

Just a block away, at the corner of State Street and Parrotts Ferry Road is the Odd Fellow’s Hall. The IOOF was one of the fraternal orders of the Gold Rush, now sadly no longer active in Columbia. The upstairs of that building was used as a storeroom by the State, which took over Columbia and made it a state park in the early 1950s. There, when I was in my teens and working as a summer intern, I was ordered to sit, day after day, washing an army of high-buttoned shoes that had gotten mildewed. It was not an unpleasant task. In the dusky pre-electric quiet of the cavernous room, with a bucket of water and a can of saddle soap, I scrubbed away diligently, hour after hour, day after day. Slowly, a line of diminutive shoes, lustrous and proud, grew before me, as the crate of crumpled and musty ones emptied.

I thought about the women who had worn those tiny shoes. My own feet would not have fit in them, past the age of ten. I had already become acquainted with the corsets and dresses of the Gold Rush era, in the museum, and had drawn the conclusion that something strange and marvelous had occurred, making each generation larger than the last until I, even as a slender teenager, was a giant compared to my great-grandmother’s generation. Who had worn these delicate shoes? Were they housewives, shopkeepers and good church-going ladies? Prostitutes, washerwomen and cooks? Had they come around the Horn by sailing ship or across the vastness of the country in covered wagons? Whatever their individual stories, I was sure the sum of them was hugely diverse, intrepid and adventuresome.

Years later, when I was studying dream interpretation, I found that many women dream of black shoes—sometimes closets full of them, or masses of them in trunks, or even by the billions, circling the planet, like one of the rings of Jupiter. Something in the unremarkable everydayness of black shoes speaks in women’s psyches of foregoing generations, of women persecuted as witches or gassed in death camps, or simply working away the long hours of their lives in obscurity. Something in the collective unconscious was tuned in to the same kinds of thoughts I was having, during those hours scrubbing away with saddle soap.

Slowly, too, I noticed that I was feeling more and more unwell. One day, mid-pair, I became faint and nauseous and barely reeled down the stairs into the sunlight. My mother, concerned, took me to the family doctor who declared that I was experiencing a reaction to exposure to mold spores from the shoes. My boss at the park thought I was malingering, not realizing that I actually enjoyed the quiet hours in the upper room. To this day, exposure to mold makes me sneeze, and I can faintly hear those legions of ladies whose high-buttoned shoes I honored respond in unison, “Bless you, dear!”

Right across the street from the IOOF building is a small wood-frame building that used to be the office of our local dentist – He Who Did Not Believe in Novocain. I will not dwell on the torments we kids endured at his hands, except to say that I would leave sessions with him with bruises on my jaws, where he had taken a death grip on me. But behind his place was a far more delightful one – the field where the gypsies came to camp.

About two acres in extent, this field is home to a grove of Osage orange trees, the fruits of which, with their thick crinkled skin of bright poison green, look like little toxic brains and are said to be poisonous. We kids would handle them, throw them at one another in mock battles, but always wash our hands afterward – something, by the way, which we never troubled to do after handling the mercury balls.

Periodically, this field would suddenly become home to the gypsies. Without warning they would arrive in their lumbering old cars and pitch tents there, transforming an otherwise unremarkable space into a tract of exoticism, overnight. One gypsy man had a van, tick-shaped and gray, much like the Columbia stage, from which he sold all manner of goods. He would even wend his way up the mountain, where my mother would stand with him by the open rear door and delve into his wares, buying needles and thread, knives and pots, yardage and rickrack, but never the rarer offerings of perfume, bottles of rose water and rose petal jam, and sandals of stamped red leather from Spain. He was a tall man with long jet black hair and the wild, piercing eyes of an ascetic and, even though he tried to lure me with candy, I would hide when he came, in terror. Nevertheless, as far as I know, no Columbia child was ever ferreted away by the gypsies.

So I bring to a close this long reminiscence about Columbia – even though, as you may have guessed, I could wander on through town in this manner for days. Growing up in Columbia was a passage through multiple dimensions and times, a revelation of things not generally known and a most joyous adventure. Today one of my childhood friends, Walter Diaz, sent me the photo, above, to show that he, too, had encountered a ghost in his camera lens, in Columbia recently. The town has not lost its mystical resonance. It is simply that we, caught in the vortex of adult lives and compelling duties, have largely ceased to attend to the voices that still summon us to witness that past and present share a confluence in Columbia. In all the years of my wanderings and explorations there, I never found a single flake of gold. I have come away, nevertheless, with something far richer and more valuable and equally imperishable. 

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