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PIXILATED, DROWSY, UNCLEAR
I’m coming to visit. Cruising down street after street of cookie-cutter houses, I need to locate an address, to locate someone. Instead, I’m going in circles. I’ve been here before, in this neighborhood, immediately after my target moved in. The place should be easy to find, but the repetition of grey houses and chain link fences and rectangular lawns lulls the brain into malfunction. Pixilated, drowsy, unclear, do you ever wonder just where the hell are you when everything looks the same? I do, often. To my head there’s nothing more confounding than that second or third housing development or a series of strip malls.
It makes me wonder, what if nature had made everything like a strip mall? What if the mountains and trees and plains and valleys and lakes and oceans were all the same shape and size? With everything the same, how would you find your way, or give directions? It’d be nearly impossible to relocate any place you’d been; meaning, our ancestors, unable to get back to sources of food, would have perished. Wow, come to think of it: what if all the animals were identical? And the people! Imagine, your mother and father and sister and brother and friends and coworkers all with the same body, the same hair, the same face.
Weird. Really weird.
My head spins but I keep driving. And I’m rewarded, at last, when my car pulls up to a distinctive house, one that is not just simply different—but really great. And different. I feel my senses returning.
“Is this their house?” I wonder.
I park next to the curb and phone to double-check. Yes, I’m told, this is the place. I climb out the car and walk up the driveway. Okay, okay, I’m on the case, now. The thing is, if this is their house, it’s been through countless alterations. Let’s see— about those changes.
For starters, the house has been painted, top to bottom. Check. Whereas once it was colored somewhere between powder blue and a big yawn, it’s now mossy green, with a muscular suggestion of organic matter, of life. That’s encouraging. Furthermore, I see that the stock garage door has been eliminated. (Thank god.) Check. A custom door, built from scratch, stands in its place. The new door’s fir planks, generous sized windows, hanging lamp, hefty bolts, and black metal hinges and fixtures—all reused materials—are clues as to their maker, the gentleman I’ve come to see. My target.
I turn the corner to the front walkway and spy a handmade address plate and a custom mailbox. Check. Check. There’s no doubt about it. This is the place. For the man of the house does not leave a deep impression on the couch; he keeps after things; that’s his signature vibe: production, production, production. It’s something one comes expect from this protean builder and former radio pirate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Santiago Diego Carmona Barrenechea is one of the most industrious people you’ll ever meet.
Call him Santi.
A MOMENTARY DETOUR
Hold on. Before checking out what else Santi’s been up to, I make a detour to an entirely different kind of household project. Not only have Santi and Mary-Rain gotten married and bought a house (check), but those things are just the preamble. After ringing the bell, I walk in through the front door and see that the most significant new project around here is plopped down on the floor and looking up at me. It’s a baby boy! One Sebastian Michael Barrenechea.
I get down on the floor for a closer look-see. Sabi has beautiful eyes, with long lashes and a smile that twinkles. He has a full head of hair and an easy way about him. He’s beaming the signal. At six-months old, the kid’s a charmer.
“He’s quite flirtatious,” says Mary-Rain, from her chair.
She might be his mother, but no kidding, it’s no exaggeration. The little guy is working it.
“Ah oh,” I say.
“Flirty guy,” she exhorts.
I asked Sabi if it’s true.
“Are you a flirt?”
He wiggles his feet.
A DINNER ROLL FLATTENED BY AN AUTOMOBILE
I take a seat in the living room. Santi approaches and hands me an odd-looking object, black and circular. A wonky circle.
“We got our first record,” he says.
I turn the object over in my hands. Although it’s hard plastic, the thing resembles a dinner roll run over by a car tire with an ultra fine tread, leaving it flat with tiny grooves. But it’s no dinner roll, in fact this is a ball of vinyl that was heated and dropped onto a record press and squashed. Which is just how a record press stamps out records. Yup, vinyl records that play music, the very kind from the last century.
Santi and his buddy Mariano Spina have designed a record press, or the beginnings of a record press. The idea for these tech cats is to make records, locally and on the cheap. And they mean cheap. Even their design and build process is low budget. Or, as Mary-Rain dubs it, “zero budget.” The thing in my hands is a proof of concept rather than an actual record. That comes later.
“We were testing,” says Santi. “We didn’t really mean to press it, the record. We weren’t sure it would really work.”
“At least it went from a ball to this thing,” Mary-Rain affirms, laughing.
Indie bands, of course, have been cutting records for decades. And many DJs still spin records. Indeed, there’s something of an underground renaissance of this older technology. Santi and Mariano already have had interest expressed in the project, including curiosity from local Portland music stores Mississippi Records and Music Millennium. Check.
Sabi takes a special interest in the object, reaching out several times toward the disk. All the while Santi, Mary-Rain, and I talk, Sabi seems to follow the flow, appearing genuinely into what was is being said. He smiles, those eyes aglow. Santi stares at him and makes a declaration.
“He can be a politician, alright.”
ACCESSORIZING A TRAILER
It’s time for a stroll outside. We’re gonna have a gander at Santi’s other recent creations. They are scattered everywhere, in the house—including a master bedframe and a crib and a stereo shelf and wooden blinds—and outside the house, in the front and back yard alike. In the past, Santi had projects like converting old cabinets into hybrid stereos and guitar amps; fashioning leather wallets; sewing hats; finishing converting his car to run on restaurant grease. These days, by contrast, many of Santi’s creations are directly related, in one way or another, to family life.
I go out the sliding glass door and around the side deck, passing the Santi-made deck benches, and arrive at the back yard. The yard is littered with all manner of Santi creations, among them: a picnic table, lawn chairs, rake, bike shed, hobbyhorse, and barbecue. Check, check, check. How can you keep up with a guy like this?
“I see Santi’s barbecue is getting plenty of use,” I say to Mary-Rain.
The barbecue, which resides by the fence, is no shinny silver store-bought gas stove, but is, instead, a structure made from red bricks, stacked tall and narrow, that opens to a cooking area at the top. Next to the barbecue, I see a large two-wheeled flatbed trailer with a hitch, so that it can be pulled behind a car. Santi, naturally, built the trailer.
“The trailer is for transporting the barbecue,” says Mary-Rain, sounding astonished at the volume of Santi’s output, though she sees it every day. She laughs. “The trailer—is an accessory for the barbecue!”
“The barbecue goes places?”
“Yes. The barbecue has always gone places with Santi. It’s gone to weddings. It’s gone to—” She pauses, thinks things over for a moment, and then simply sums up the situation. “Santi is very liberal with his volunteerism with the barbecue.”
ZZZZT- ZZZZT- ZZZZT-
In the front yard is a baby stroller—but you won’t believe it. This is truly a one-of-a-kind Santi original. The stroller is the spitting image of a covered wagon, save for the rubber wheels, in miniature. (Check.) Santi made it especially for a family day-trip to the Oregon County Fair. Sabi loves his stroller, and every day since the fair Sabi and Santi have taken it out for a ride, to the grocery, to Fred Myer, wherever. They often walk two or three miles at a stretch, a couple of Oregon pioneers. It’s a bit much for Mary-Rain, however. When it’s her turn, she busts out the generic stroller. “It’s just easier.” And, I imagine, attracts of a lot less attention.
They inform me that Santi has made a second covered wagon stroller, just in case someone wants to buy one. According to Mary-Rain, it was her idea. “Everywhere we take the stroller, people are like: Where did you get that? It’s the coolest thing.” It’s only a matter of time before strangers pop the question of how much does it go for.
In the front yard, Sabi also has a custom built swing. The swing has a motor—turn it on and the swing automatically rocks to and fro. But his parents hardly ever plug it in. They look a tad uncomfortable when I ask why. Mary-Rain expresses it best, however, when she tells me of concern that the swing might go out of control and shift into high gear—zzzzt- zzzzt- zzzzt- zzzzt- zzzzt—like some wacked out Disney movie, like the over the top technology in Son Of Flubber. A more likely scenario is that the only thing moving too fast has been Sabi.
He can climb—or fall!—out the swing faster than you can say Boo. They place him in the swing for my benefit. And we all carefully watch him.
A STINK TREE HOBBYHORSE
I’ve come here with question, however, and it’s about time I ask. Albeit, really, the question has already been answered. Still, I have to ask, so here goes.
“Hey Mary-Rain, now that Santi is a father, has it slowed him down?”
“Not at all,” she says, without hesitation. But being a father has “changed the nature of the work. It’s reached of new level of—” Mary-Rain pauses. “Of, um— I guess it’s of practicality. In a way. ’Cause all of these things are so useful for Sebastian.”
“Less abstract, now?”
“Well, it’s always been practical. I mean—it’s always been things that can be used. But it’s a new level of—inspiration.”
Our conversation is abruptly cut off by a question from Santi.
“What kind of animal is that?” Santi asks me, pointing to Sabi’s hobbyhorse, over by the picnic table.
It seems an odd question coming from the horse’s creator. In his defense, there is a certain ambiguity to the thing. It not only has an extra long snout and no eyes, but it was crafted from the wood of a tree that once stood in the front yard. A Stink Tree to be exact. Also known as the Tree Of Heaven, a fast growing and invasive plant. The burning wood of this tree, if you wish to understand its name, stinks to high heaven.
“I thought it was a unicorn,” I say without conviction. No one reacts. So I venture another opinion. “-Ah, if it had antlers it could be some kinda deer.”
“It could be a female deer.”
“At first I thought it was a rhino.”
My grandfather, Al, did not speak until he was four. He was roused into speech when the hoe (as in farm implement) went missing in the Arkansas cotton fields where he grew up—and having found it ("hoe"!), he named it, much to the relief of his mother. After such a purposeful entry into language, in later years, he often abandoned its more practical, humdrum uses, for the beauty and scope of the tall tale, fabulous fable, his own back-country mythology—embellished and mysterious and silly, for us, his captive audience.
His past, so he told us, was populated with saucer-eyed dragons in dark caves (who were easily tamed by sugar cubes) and adventures down side streets in Italy (where he’d never been). So it was perhaps fitting, many years later, that my aunt Alva decided to craft a tale of this wondrous life-time narration, with hand-colored slides of photographs of his kin and other fancies. The tale was set to a yarn I spun, which pieced together his many stories—from childhood to courtship to cockamamie—throwing in some of our own half-truths, for good measure and good fun.
While this personal fairytale, of sorts, was later turned into a video with old-time music, it was first performed at Christmas during the “talent” portion of the evening. It was Arkansas Christmas, in fact. We’d started a tradition, long ago, of foreign-country themed Christmas celebrations—some of which were downright irreverent—but that year, Arkansas, for my grandfather’s sake, was designated an honorary country. However, the centerpiece for the show, a slide projector, broke. And so the slide images, shadow-puppet-like, were marched across a lampshade instead, as I narrated in the best southern accent I could muster. My grandfather would call out "There’s Grandma Collum!" or "It’s Aunt Esther!” as their long-gone figures stepped in and out of the narrative. As to the part with the dragons (and other nonsense), he remarked, with an air of perfect sincerity, "Ah, that’s just how I remembered it." This stew of cross-generational fancy had met with something like recognition, united in the familiar fantastic.
And, so, Once Upon A Time. Welcome to Arkansas.
View the original video, with slide puppets, old-time music, et al, above.
Once upon a time, I lived on Phinney Ridge, at the crest of the hill. Man oh man was it delicious. The world fell away from my eyes, spreading out below. That‘s how it was.
Phinney Ridge was the hill, it was the neighborhood. It was also, significantly, a singular street, Phinney Ave. A voluptuous street that ran down and through the eponymous neighborhood. For five years, chances were you could find me walking Phinney, up and down, admiring the roadway and its vistas. I took photos of it, the way one might a lover, when the light hits just so and all of a sudden you feel glad. By day, I strolled here and there with this street as my anchor. By night, there I was, at the top, gazing down Phinney at a world owned entirely by brown-eyed contemplation.
From the windows of my second floor apartment, from which could be seen both mountains and bay, I surveyed the street and everything on it. Phinney began at the top of the hill and whizzed past the zoo and came swooping across 45th and jogged once, smooth and sharp, before descending swiftly to the bottom of the hill: a sluice cradling water to an ample spout. I could watch it all day. On occasion, you could hear the tigers growl and the elephants trumpet from the zoo.
Phinney is old. I recall the year when a City crew came through and tore a hole all down the middle of the street, out of which they extracted the ancient water main. The pipe, big enough to stand inside, was made entirely out of wood and held together with large metal bands. Watching the concrete pipe replacement being lowered into the gaping hole evoked a strange sorrow. Phinney was built wide and generous: to accommodate the trolley that once ran through. It remains wide, to this day. But now, it seems somehow that Phinney is no longer as deep.
Seated on my living room couch, I used to study the mustard colored building across from me. It was positioned right smack in the way of Phinney. The moment after Phinney crossed 45th, it danced a hard-right to avoid the building. And it could surprise a soul. I once witnessed a black Cadillac miss that turn and ram straight into the dry cleaners, the building’s sole occupant. I’ll never forget the sound of squealing tires and the impact, blam! That car disappeared its hood all the way into the façade, steam pouring out the radiator, giving the yellow building a touch of anger. That Cadillac did not love Phinney, otherwise, the driver would have slowed in making that turn, taking in the languid creaminess of the steering wheel, shifting right, then left, and straightening, the car cruising down the hill. I made visit to the street that day, to see the car close up, disdainfully strolling past.
I’m trying to tell you something… something personal. Though you may not think it so. You see, I’ve had a thing for streets and sidewalks, certain ones, certain aspects, for a long, long time. Ever since Phinney Ridge. Something in the way a street might hook and curve, or the momentum of the dividing lines. Or the way they cross each other. Or it might be their sidewalks, with people scurrying along, ordered rows and figure-groups hugging the curb-line. Sometimes it’s the arbor of trees, reaching over. Which is all to say, I once fell in love with a street. And have been in love ever since.
Check out our homage to Phinney Ridge and to sexy streets!
When going for a walk, all manner of things can happen. Or sometimes nothing at all. Which is its own special kind of happening. If you walk enough, it’s guaranteed that something will change. The leaves will brown and fall, the sky will light up with sun or darken with rain, people will come and go. Crows alight in trees and cats saunter over in greeting. It’s part of the trek. Kids wave. Even if you tread upon the same route every day, the seasons alone promise that there will be new sights and sounds, that your outing will be distinct over time. And if your neighbors are at all imaginative about their houses and yards, those too will vary, as with the seasons, for people have seasons, too. And the walker reaps the benefit.
Leaving the house for a walk can be like trailing a thread on the way to the proverbial wood. A connection is made between coming and going, a connection foreign to other transport. Something about having your feet on the ground; it’s always a round trip. It’s in the soles of the feet and their rhythm upon the path, one two, one two. In this curious way, when on a walk, the indoor and the outdoor are coupled. And thoughts often follow, falling in line, joining forces, and, in the end, upon the trailing thread, thoughts return from whence they came.
Architecture sometimes has been built like a walk, successfully blurring the lines between inner and outer, indoors and outdoors. W.G. Sebald writes about a place called Somerleyton, from the 19th century, “famed for the scarcely perceptible transition from interiors to exterior; those who visit were barely able to tell where the natural ended and the man-made began. There were drawing rooms and winter gardens, spacious halls and verandahs. A corridor might end in a ferny grotto where fountains ceaselessly plashed, and bowered passages criss-crossed beneath the dome of a fantastic mosque.” Imagine, in such a place, where “windows could be lowered to open the interior onto the outside, and inside the landscape was replicated on the mirror walls,” what thoughts might come to pass.
You see, it’s never just what you do. How you do it matters, too.
Opposite Day stars Lester, an animated columnist. He might look primitive, but Lester keeps on eye on the human animal. Each month, Lester makes a report — about the funny business, the niceties, the hypocrisy. About the "dilemma."
Lester has breaking news! A tragedy. Good lord, how will it end?