Sorry I have neglected you. Here is a mixtape for a quiet winter morning: http://8tracks.com/whiskyandbutter/dreamstate-sailing-by-night
Always question collectivized authority.
With the repeal of DADT, this kid recording himself as he calls his Dad and comes out to him. Hits close to home and I was just as nervous for him as I was myself. We need more parents who accept and love unconditionally like this kids father.
There is something to be said about lessons learned. I suppose I learned quite a few of them in high school. That’s not to say I wasn’t a good kid, I was pretty much the ideal kid—only snuck out once and I left a note saying where I was and a number to reach me. Regardless, I seemed to find myself in scenarios that lent themselves to a life lesson.
One particular summer between school years I found myself looking for some extra cash, a pattern I have yet to break, and decided to take on a little job. I was familiar with The Spice House because my mother was a regular there—I should mention that this was a shop that sold spices, not adult materials. An elderly Norwegian couple, Bill and Ruth, ran the shop; you may be familiar with the brand, Penzey’s Spices, their children run this.
The shop itself was not much larger than a college dorm room, it used to be a cigarette depot back in the 60s. The walls were lined with jars of raw spices, exotic and rare, common and standard. Little jars and boxes filled every inch of the store, what wasn’t on the shelves was piled onto tables. The register was an antique in itself, a relic of the 30s, the kind of register where the numbers would jump up to show the charge; the kind of register where you punch any button and the tray “cur-chunks” open.
When you would enter the shop it was like walking into some strange and foreign market, the air is so thick and concentrated with smells of spice. You can taste the air, and you get this desire to want to make something. As a kid with ADD, it was kind of a wonderland, so many things to look at and smell and mix. Beyond raw spices, the shop also offered unique blends that were made right in the store and named for local streets and landmarks.
I should mention that working for William and Ruth meant literally working for them, not necessarily The Spice House. They were paying you for your time and intended to use you as they saw fit. My first day on the job, after hand copying William’s Religion of Spices Manifesto three times using carbon paper (no small task considering the manifesto was 4 pages) I was put to work patching a hole in the roof of their horse barn. Their home is considered to be one of the oldest in Wauwatosa, with the original horse barn in the back where lightning had blown the chimney out of the roof two weeks prior. I now found myself on my back in the rafters hammering scrap wood into place with a mallet and spare screws.
I digress, but it is important to establish the level of crazy we are dealing with. Mr. Penzey took his spices quite seriously, to a religious degree. He often spoke of their spiritual powers. In fact, reasoned that their shop location on Kavanaugh Hill was because of the natural spirituality of the geographical hill. It was apparently the original encampment of the Menomonee Indians in Wauwatosa, who would obviously had a sense of the spirituality, and today gives home to a convent, a church and a mental health hospital—all places of spiritual healing according to William.
Now, to bring this story back to lessons learned. Back of house in the shop was a space much larger than the front of the shop. The area however, was no less crowded. It was a space jammed with burlap bags billowing with bay leaves and nutmeg, roots and rhizomes of different colors and smells—the space as a whole had this earthy, damp, woody smell. They had repurposed an old walk-in freezer to be a sugar aging space. They would spread and age rough grain sugar with lavender and vanilla beans to create new and wonderful forms of sugar. I loved the days where I would get to work in the sugar room; it just had this wonderfully sweet smell to it, like working in some sort of dream state.
Today however, I was learning how to grind. William would pick different skills to teach when he felt you were spiritually ready to learn them. The first skill I had learned was how to sift pepper. What this says about me spiritually, I’m not quite sure, but what I do know, is that when sifting pepper into 5 different grades, even with the required protection, was miserable. You would stand there for hours with these sifters the size of small coffee table stacked on top of one another, shaking the pepper into grades from coarse to fine. You had to wear these old shop goggles, clouded from humidity and spices in the air, but the crown jewel of protection was the old gas mask. You had to look at this thing and wonder which war William had gotten them from and how many people had worn them before you, but truthfully the idea of sifting pepper without a gas mask made you put aside your fears pretty quickly. That said, there is nothing worse than sneezing in a gas mask.
William took me to the back of the shop where the spice grinder was and explained that we would be grinding turmeric today. In its pure form, or before it gets ground up, it looks kind of like ginger, a small rhizome that is light in color and smooth on the outside. Once ground it takes on that wonderful carrot-orange-yellow color that is easily detectable in Indian cooking. It has this rich, earthy yet somewhat sweet smell to it that coats your nose. William had begun by going over the physical grinding contraption—a machine that reminded me of that soul-removing machine from The Princess Bride, just think of it as a desktop version.
He moved from the machine to talking about the turmeric itself and what it is used for. He explained that it had extreme powers of purification and for that reason it was considered sacred by Indians—dots, not feathers. In fact, he continued, it was what was used for the Bindi worn by Indians for purity—an idea I never bothered to fact check or follow up on. He started grinding the small roots and explained that one must grind the root thoroughly, but not over grind. He clarified that if you over ground it; the heat of the machine would destroy the power of purity that it possessed.
It was this idea that the heat would destroy the power the spice possessed that caused me to roll my eyes. It sounded like the kind of thing that would be taught in a class taken by Harry Potter alongside lessons of Mandrake harvesting techniques. Mr. Penzey happened to look over at the moment that I rolled my eyes. Now, I admit, I should have known better. William turned off the machine and explained that perhaps I was not ready to learn the art of grinding, that it would best be understood when I was a few weeks older. You could feel another eye roll coming on, but I withheld. He remarked that the best way to reach the necessary level of enlightenment and understanding for the next lesson was through pure mind and actions.
I agreed, mindlessly, and waited patiently to see what he would have me do for the rest of the day. Instead, he reached into the bowl which had been collecting the ground turmeric and extended it to me. He asked that I take a pinch, thinking that he was going to have me taste it. He followed by telling me to rub it on my forehead and display it proudly through the remainder of the day, for pure mind and body. While I am not sure that it ultimately accomplished that, it did however, prompt many a question from children visiting the store.
I suppose it did make me more aware of my actions. Something like wearing a silly hat, which makes you more conscious of your head. I became more cognizant of how others perceived me, how I presented myself and in a strange way felt a sense of clarity. I wouldn’t say it made me understand William any more than I already did, and I certainly didn’t view him as any less crazy. But I did learn a lesson of self-realization, one where you must be conscious of Yourself, the you with a capital Y.
My brother and I may be 10 years apart in age and live two very different lifestyles, but nonetheless we do have a couple of things in common. The biggest common interest we have is books. Well no, not just books, but used books. I think we could both be happy getting lost for days in a bookstore so long as we had some snacks along for sustenance. Whenever we talk on the phone there willundoubtedly be a tip as to a new used bookstore that the other needs to check out. New used bookstore, heh. During the last conversation we happened to have, he offered that he had discovered a new place that I would have to check out. If you are familiar with Milwaukee, and further familiar with used bookstores, then you are familiar with Downtown Books and Renaissance Books, two amazing stores and borderline hoarders status. I actually got lost the first time I went to Downtown Books, it is a labyrinth of bookshelves spread out over three floors. I digress.
My brother said that this place would be like no used bookstore experience I had ever had. I asked for him to go into it, but he wouldn’t, he simply said I would have to go and experience this place. It was not just a bookstore, it was an experience. I was intrigued. Besides, I had a hankering to find some good obscure sci fi novels. I took down his vague directions and set off to find this place that following weekend.
It wasn’t too hard to find the place, it was essentially right across from the State Fair grounds, though the building itself was pretty indescript—something somewhere between an old Blockbuster and a dentists office. You may have noticed that I have neglected to share the name of this bookstore, but truth be told, there was no name—just a sign which read in all capitals: BOOKS–RECORDS-TAPES. They had me at books, but records would just be icing on the cake.
I was a little bothered by the large store picture windows filled floor to ceiling with faded children’s stuffed animals, what looked to be the final resting place for a small city of stuffed toys. I shrugged and entered. As you walked in you could not take 4 steps before running into the owner, she had positioned herself on a little stool in the corner surrounded by books and blankets—kind of in the way a homeless person may nuzzle down into a dumpster pile in an alley. I must say, she was quite sweet. She had to be pushing 90 and stood no taller than my shoulders. Her wig waseschew and getting pulled off by the neon scrunchy which she had adorned it with. It was one of those moments where you can’t help but think, “she’s gotta know its not fooling anyone, right?”
She greeted me quietly and asked if there was anything in particular that I was here to find. I mentioned that I had heard it was a great store and just was going to ‘poke around.’ She replied with the standard, “let me know if you need any help.” I thanked her and turned to enter what could only be described as a canyon of books—kind of like the entrance to those “tunnel of love” rides, but books.
The experience of entering this place is pretty overwhelming—not just for the sight of all of these books, or the fact that a very tiny, very old woman is there to greet you—purely overwhelming for the smell. Used bookstores, in my opinion usually have a great smell. Kind of an old, dusty, used, loved smell. This was the smell of death. I have had the pleasure of smelling dead rats before, having lived in NYC, and that distinct smell was what greeted me presently. Just as I began to enter the cave of books however, I felt the little old lady grab my elbow. Man, she looked straight out of a Tim Burton movie. I turned, looked down and listened, as it took me a moment to fully process what came next.
This sweet little lady with her crinkled cheeks looked up at me and asked, “do you enjoy adult materials?” She asked in a way that she might as well have been asking, “did you get rain by you last night?” My first instinct was to ask again, as I was pretty sure I had heard wrong. Sure enough, she asked again, “Do you enjoy adult materials? You know, magazines, video cassette tapes, DVDs…” and stared at me inquisitively. Now, I had no reason to be bashful, I am an adult and I was certainly the only person in the store, but still all I could manage to choke out was “uuuhhh I’m just browsing.” Without missing a beat, she politely replied, “Okay, well if you decide you would like some, let me know…I have quite a collection of adult material.” In my head all I could think was PLEASE stop saying adult materials. It was like hearing my mom refer to body parts.
Phased, I entered the collection. I was overstimulated, overwhelmed—the smells, the sights and the constant thought of how much of a porn stash could a little 90 year old lady really be sitting on? cycled through my head on repeat. There were so many reccords you really couldn’t even browse through them, they were packed too tightly. As I wandered disoriented through the aisles, I encountered a couple of occupied mouse traps, I cant imagine she bothers to replace them that often. It was actually startling after a little while to encounter a live mouse, as you got used to seeing the dead ones.
As I explored I heard the door chime, and was actually a little comforted to know someone else might get to experience this unreal place. A man, probably in his early 40s came up to me and a cautiously asked if I could help him. I’m not sure what about me said that I was the kind of person that works in that kind of environment. He asked if there were any toy models or just books. I directed him to the front of the store to ask the little old lady, as I did not know. I watched and listened as he approched her.
He approached her as though he was approaching a relic, she had dozed off on her stool. The man cleared his throat, she opened her eyes slowly with purpose and he politely continued. He pocketed his hands and asked, “Was wondering if you have any models?” She looked up at him and responded, “adult materials?” Watching him, I could now see what the look on my face was when I thought I had misheard her the first time. He cleared his throat and repeated himself, “no, I’m looking for toy models, do you have any?” “OH,” she gargled, “no we don’t have any toy models, but we have plenty of adult materials.” Wide-eyed, he thanked her and left.
I finished browsing, found a couple nice little sci fi books for my collection and worked my way to the front. I did see a cat at one point and definitely smelled what may have once been a cat, we may never know with the stacks and rows upon rows of books. I paid the woman for the books, and waited patiently as she sorted through coins in her fanny pack for a nickle. It was definitely unlike any used bookstore, store for that matter, that I had ever been in. In chatting with my brother after, apparently he had experienced something quite similar. I also learned that she keeps the store open til midnight monday-friday.
I suppose there is one thing that I absolutely took away from this. Its that at some point a collector no longer collects, the collection soon owns the collector. I felt for her ultimately. Is there family in the picture? When grandma mentions she love books, do they really know that she means she has a million of them? Perhaps my next trip there I will ask to see the adult materials, it must be an epic collection.