Monday, September 3, 2012

Listen To The River Sing Sweet Songs To Rock My Soul

Here’s a video about the restoration efforts currently underway in my old hometown on the old union railroad station that’s right next to the Mississippi. The videos only five minutes of your time. I encourage you to watch it.

For me, it merely hits home the fact that my former town continues to decay and crumble. I’m not being critical of the restoration efforts-far from it, in fact. The old depot building has always been a beautiful building and it’s seen much better days, so I’m grateful that there is a concerted effort underway that is trying to save it.

The cynic in me would like to point out that when I moved back to Keokuk some twenty years ago, there was a similar effort taking place. I remember there was a fundraising event that was held inside the depot, complete with a decent blues artist providing the entertainment. I went down there, paid my donation and marveled at the interior. It was the first time I’d been inside the building. All of that beautiful woodwork you see in the video was covered over in ridiculous lowered ceilings and the benefit I attended marked the initial stages of restoration where they removed all of that nonsense to give attendees a chance to see what beauty was hidden underneath.

I don’t know what became of that benefit, and there in lies the problem for me. Like a number of things in Keokuk, things never get done. There’s no real initiative to try and save buildings like these in the area, and the community is so poor now that you’ll find neighborhoods of majestic old homes that are literally falling in on themselves because the owners can no longer afford to take care of them.

This is so much different from when I grew up there. There was a sense of pride among the residents. People took care of their things. You could find these big, wonderful homes throughout the town and not just in the well to do neighborhoods either.

Of course, there were jobs back then.

I went off to college and moved back after graduation. I moved to another river town for a couple of years, but then moved back again eventually buying a house that was just down the street and up the bluff from the depot. I could see the river, the depot, the hydroelectric plan, all from my bedroom window. My parents used to live on the bluffs of the Mississippi river too, about two miles upstream from my house, so I’ve spent a large chunk of my life around those parts, coming of age in the same area as Mark Twain, who also used to live in Keokuk briefly when he was known as Sam Clemens.

The running gag was that Twain moved to Keokuk for one of his first jobs as a printer and as soon as he made enough money, the next thing he did with his first paycheck was to move away from the town.

The mayor in the video has a brother who used to live in Keokuk. He’d dress up and play Mark Twain, giving performances and essentially becoming our little version of Hal Holbrook. He was also a high school English teacher. A few years after I graduation, he was caught having an affair with a 17 year old girl. He was unable to use his Twain skills to weasel out of that controversy and he quickly was relieved of his teaching duties. The last I heard, he was working as a waiter at a Red Lobster in Cincinnati. That may or may not be true, as it seems like a tragic fall from grace to be viewed as a hip, tenured high school English teacher for so many years and then be forced to take orders for Walt’s Favorite Shrimp baskets to people who think Red Lobster is the epitome of fine seafood. With that being said, he was probably making more money doing that then when he was a teacher.

I vaguely remember that Vogel guy who seems to be some kind of knowledgeable architect dude now as a guy that graduated a few years before I got to high school. His arms were like huge tree trunks, if I recall, and he was a complete badass without having to prove it. Like my father told me once, “It’s the quiet ones you have to worry about.”

The guy playing the fiddle? He used to run the Disc Jockey record store in the mall. He interviewed me for an Assistant Manager position once as a favor to my Mom who managed a women’s clothing store in the same mall. I never got the job and the bastard never called me back to tell me that I didn’t get the gig. His record store went out of business when one of those F.Y.E. stores came in and ran his Disc Jockey out of business. Karma.

My old house on the river bluffs had a wall around the front yard that stood a good nine feet tall at its highest point. It was made with cut stones taken from the bottom of the river when they built the hydroelectric dam.

On one muggy summer evening, I was sitting in my living room when I heard a car zoom up the hill and try to navigate the immediate turn directly in front of my house. The car barely missed my wall, but it demolished my crabapple tree. The impact was loud, and I immediately went to my back door to investigate. As I turned on the light to the back door, I saw a young black male run past the door. I swung open the door and yelled “Hey!” but the runner made another right and ran towards the bluffs out front.

There was a stone entry way to my back steps, which we used exclusively as the front steps were numerous. Right in front of the entrance was a car. The lights were on, the front door open, and smoke was coming from underneath the hood. Apparently, my crabapple tree-which lay crippled on the sidewalk a few feet down the hill-had bitten back at the car that killed it, and did an admirable job of incapacitating it.

Suddenly, police cars came speeding up to the scene and I advised them of what little that I knew. They caught the driver later on, but they immediately caught the young black man that I had scene. When I positively identified him as he sat in the back of the squad car, he was sweating profusely and there were lots of cockleburs stuck on his hair and clothes, a sharp reminder of the bluff where he had chosen to hide.

The next day, I traced the car chase and found that it passed in back of the Union Depot. What pained me more than my dead tree was the fact that the two dipshits had plowed into the corner of the depot, causing some severe structural damage that went unrepaired for my remaining years in Keokuk. I’m sure that this wound was fixed during the recent repairs.

My tree was also fixed thanks to the restitution that the white trash driver had to pay for. I got a reputable nursery in Quincy, Illinois to come up and plant a new one. It lasted a week before somebody-I’m assuming one or both of the occupants of the vehicle that crashed-came by one night and pulled down nearly every low-standing brand on my new tree. I guess they didn’t like the fact that I had identified one of them. I was able to save the tree and I was able to restrain myself from jotting down the addresses of the guilty parties from my victim’s statement and enacting a bit of vigilante vandalism on their properties.

I miss that neighborhood sometimes. A really nice pastor lived alone across the street and he would often ask my ex-wife to go over a play his grand piano. It was one of the last artifacts from his dead wife, and my ex-wife was always happy to play on such a nice instrument.

The retired police chief lived across the street from us. He was a Vietnam veteran and a staunch Democrat. He supported Kerry during the ’04 elections while I supported Edwards.

Next to him was a French chef who lived in a huge 19th Century home that was used as part of the underground railroad. She made a remarkable Easter dinner for us and a few other families once. She barely ate anything, choosing instead to get drunk on wine in a box. She later filed bankruptcy and had to sell that wonderful home after I had moved out after my divorce. I’ve seen her name occasionally in the local food section of our city’s newspaper. She evidently drives up here and gives cooking lessons from time to time at one of the grocery chains around here. I’ve haven’t made a point to visit during those occasions.

And next to her was another huge home, facing due East, at the behest of the steamboat captain that built it. It was owned by a guy name Chuck Mitchell, a dude that all of a sudden showed up in the neighborhood with Wisconsin plates. He was always nice to me and admired my big Black Walnut tree that was a smorgasbord for the squirrels that nested there. He was a Howard Dean supporter, and he invited me to a campaign fundraiser for Dean a few times. I never went.

He became the town’s resident historian, tirelessly fighting to save some of the town’s decaying houses with historical significance. More often than not, he was not very successful.

I got to see one of his biggest personal projects once. It was an enormous three story brick house that he restored with a few friends, turning it into a lovely set of apartments that always seemed to be priced too high for most of our town’s renters.

It wasn’t until after I left before someone told me that Chuck Mitchell was none other than the first husband of one Joni Mitchell. She never gave back the name and he never talked about her.

Even though I miss my old neighborhood, I don’t miss my old town, mainly for the complacency that I described earlier. The town’s charms are the same as they’ve always been: the river that runs right in front of it. Nobody has yet capitalized on that fact, steadfastly refusing to improve the riverfront so that bicyclists and other naturalists could better explore it like I did as a child. There’s a sense of defeated pessimism that permeates its residents, and after a while-and after a messy divorce-I had to leave.

I would return after my ex-wife moved out, mainly to visit the folks and make repairs to the house in order to sell it. Each time it was a chore, a reminder of my own failures and of the dreams that I had in store for that ideal spot of the world. It dawned on me that, even though I had briefly found a bit of heaven on earth, I was surrounded by a community that didn’t bother to take pride in itself, which would have eventually brought me down too, I suppose.

It’s Labor Day. A day that I would have spent eating Catfish and Carp down at the Labor Hall in my old hometown. Instead, I’m visiting my folks in our state capital, as they too have moved from that same hometown years ago after I left.

At the very least, I guess that I’m a little thankful that some of the town’s remaining residents have put forth an effort to refurbish the old depot. There’s still a bit of pride running through these veins, but there’s also a healthy amount of reality that sees a town with a constant decline in population, high unemployment (Keokuk has the highest rate in the state) and the highest drop-out rate in the state as another feather in the cap.

Of course, all of this points to an even worse future for my old hometown, perhaps suggesting that Sam Clemens was right when he took that paycheck and loaded out.

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