Saturday, May 28, 2005


Something About Lileks

I often mention that I think James Lileks is the best writer on the web. (I am gratified to see him referred to that way from many illuminaries I respect, so I believe I am in good company.) I also admire his lifestyle choices, stay-at-home columnist and newspaperman (mediaman? mediaperson?) and dad to his Gnat.

For free form prose, he's idiosyncratic, which I enjoy, but he's also precise in his imaging. He has this ability, in my view unique, to string together sequences of otherwise disparate thoughts or tableaus, and by his very construction create resonance, one to the other. He makes connections, in the sense that they weren't there before he built them.

He writes in a way very reminiscent of the way he collects. I am fascinated by the sensibility that can gather together (and make somewhat immortal online) everything from WWII training posters, clips from C grade films, freakish '50s kische, pinup art, and somehow end up creating an almost hallowedness about his subjects.

(No, really! I think he gives his subjects a certain dignity they wouldn't otherwise reflect. That, and they'd likely never see the light of day if he didn't dust them off and post them.)

From his Institute of Official Cheer to his postcards, matchbooks, old newspaper ads, and my personal favorite, Patriotica. Unusual, exotic, the kind of things you get mesmerized over at antique barns, what little of it you find. Odd things, things that can make you smile and you don't even know why.

But it fits somehow with everything else Lileks writes about, is devotion to his so called flotsam and jetsam, that he carries around with him like an old family suitcase, full of grandpa's treasures or what was left in old Aunt Ruth's cabinet in the dining room or what Cousin Hank kept up in the loft in the garage.

Maybe I just like his humor and devotion to all things nostalgic, but I think it's more than that. And his post from Thursday I think helped me to understand.

Lileks gave it away, talking about Minneapolis:
I see the town in terms many wouldn’t recognize – either the history long vanished my own history no one would know, or particularly care about. In New York or Chicago or any other large city there’s so much history you can explore it forever, but sometimes it feels like there’s not enough here to keep me going forward. Every place I go is thick with history, and half of it’s meaningless, the result of the inevitable accretion of tracing the same route for too many years. The history that actually means something is a phantom, and somewhat of a bother. What would it be like to live somewhere and not see what had been there before?
And he threatens to leave for Arizona, but even as he says it, something in him resists. And I don't think even Lileks knows what that's about.
But of course you’re running away from yourself when you do something like this, right? Well, no. Wherever you go, there you are. But at least in Arizona, you’re warmer, and CRIMINEY JUDAS I’m tired of being cold all the time. You oughtn't be cold in May. I walk outside to the gazebo – can’t sit down, the seats are wet – and I can see my breath. Which is nice, because it means I’m alive. But still.
Despite his complaints about the cold, Lileks loves this city too much. He's too connected to it to be able to turn away from the history he feels compelled to preserve. It's not history that most people would recognize, but it's the history of neighborhoods, of greasy diners and forgotten souls. It's 5 bars on a single block, with Catholic and Presbyterian Churches a block apart like Monastic book ends. It's knowing streets and buildings by the business that was on the corner two or three proprietors ago, before they tore down the big sign and built the addition in the back, butting right up to the back of the Savings and Loan that isn't there anymore.

He carries this flotsam of memory, some his, most collected from others or part of a verbal history that "newspeople" often absorb just from being around a copy room in any old city. I know this feeling well.

I've experienced this first hand, but second and third hand too, in places you pass through, Scranton, Springfield, Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, fading factory towns that made it big in the 19th century and struggled in a downward spiral through the 20th, and Lord only knows what will come in the 21st. Certainly industrial parks and business friendly zones and lots of tax incentives, but no future you can be sure of.

First hand, I know it from Binghamton and the "Triple Cities," as they called it, Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott, but it was really more like a dozen cities, the Maine, Endwell, Vestal, Vestal Center, Appalachin, Port Dickenson, Kirkwood, and on and on. I spent 6 years working in one part of town or another, and had the good fortune to work for one of the last old time shoe stores before it went bust. Maybe some of you remember them: a pair of brothers, usually Jewish back then, started up a Shoe Store, selling Floersheims, maybe later Bostonian, and they would get really angry if you tried to just buy your shoes. They wanted to get out the shoe scale, and measure your arch as well as heel to toe, and even visually inspect your foot to see what kind of last (shape and placement of arch relative to rest of the foot, how high the arch, how long) would be best for you. (This was serious business.)

But just like the guys who worked down at the old Binghamton Press (before it merged with the old Sun Bulletin sometime after Gannett scooped them both up), when you work in an 80 year old retail store, you get exposed to a lot of city history that has otherwise vanished from view or public discussion. Except for the old timers, and you have to want to listen to them or you don't hear the history. You don't connect the people or the stories.

If Lileks experienced Minneapolis like that, and I would bet as a newspaper reporter he did, he's carrying around a lot of old city history that is entrusted personally to him. And if he turns away, or forgets, or says, forget all this cold and heads for Arizona, then that history is lost forever. I think he feels that weight of responsibility, like the Last of the Mohicans, or some droid with a hologram message left by some dead guy waiting for just the right person for whom it was intended.

Does a city ever really exist that way? The way we remember it and imagine it is, even when half of what we think we know is a recollection, or a story, and not just ours but everyone we ever heard tell about it?

It's a funny thing, this attachment to a place and time that is really an attachment to a place somehow set out of time and preserved.

Lileks straddles the fence (Back Fence, yet another good feature available from Lileks), and keeps his options open:
If in five years I discover that the Minneapolis I love is a thing of fiction made of old photos and postcards, it’s time to till the soil. When I came back here the thought that I’d drive these streets as an old man was a comfort, and it may well end up so. It’s also possible I end up braking into a skid on some March sleet and get broadsided as I pass through Lake Street for the 95,933rd and final time, and my last thought will be: so much sun you could have had. So much sun.

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