The Things You Learn in Bars

I’ve been looking for a standing desk. There are a lot of benefits to working while standing, mostly due to the fact that you are not sitting. I’m a pacer anyway and I have to get up and move around when writing or typing or net-surfing so a stand-up desk seemed like the thing for me. Unfortunately they can be expensive. I thought about taking an existing table and mounting it on some crates or cinder blocks, the classic college kid furniture solution, but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the idea. About a week ago I had a flash of insight, one of those moments when the problem is instantly clarified in your mind, and the answer becomes obvious. It’s funny how sometimes you just need to ask a better question to get the right result. Instead of “where can I get a reasonably priced standing desk?” I asked “where do people do a lot of standing around by high tables?”. In bars, of course. Lots of pubs, bars, and lounges have tall tables that you stand at or sit on stools or long-legged chairs next to while sipping drinks and quaffing pints. It’s standard fare for those places. I’m not sure why, maybe bar patrons get drunker and stupider if they sit restaurant-style at conventional dining tables. Maybe the weird geometry makes customers thirstier. I don’t know. I do know that I spend enough time at my local pub that the high table is part of my social DNA. Soon after my burst of brilliance I got on Amazon, that mega-corp shopping site with tentacles everywhere, and searched for bar tables. I found a 42-inch high wooden table with a 36-inch square top for $125 bucks. Here it is:

table 4

Those are my brewing supplies underneath and to the right. Storage space is always at a premium. I don’t think this is the final configuration but it’s good enough to get started. I can put my laptop on there as well when I need to process words. When I stand with my elbows bent at ninety degrees (forearms parallel to the floor) they are about 44 inches high. I can lean comfortably forward and put my weight on the table top, or better yet, relax in a tai chi horse stance in front of either open side and my arms are at the right height for writing or typing. The top being a full yard square gives me lots of room:

table 3

This is in the small back room in my cottage which I have converted into my writing den. It doubles as my brewery, of course, that’s not going to change. My library in the main house with my desktop computer and wireless router and everything is too close to the kitchen and too distracting of an environment for me to focus and get my projects finished. Plus my lovely bride is used to me being out of her hair during the work week and now that I’m retired and home all the time I need to give her back the space she is used to. The cottage, which I’ve dubbed The House of Mark (or sometimes La Casita), will be my getaway. I’ve got a large room in there where I can do my workouts and I also have a conventional office chair and and standard size table when I need to sit and work. It was funny—I assembled the table in the big room and Sue came in to look at it and said “you sure it will fit through the hallway into the back?” Sure enough, she nailed it. There was no way to get the thing through the narrow doorways and past the refrigerator in the tiny connecting room. So, I took the legs off and re-assembled it in the back! The legs and top shipped in separate boxes and they gave you eight bolts with washers and nuts to secure them together. The bolts needed a 4 mm Allen wrench, which was in the kit, but the cheap brass heads wore down quickly and I thought I’d never get the the damn thing back together. Fortunately I had two stout wrenches in my bicycle gear that gave me more leverage and I found that a T25 torx head on my electric screwdriver could do much of the work as well.

Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, will soon be upon us. I hope all of you enjoy safe travels and good times!


SOHO Crime

We got a pile of freebies when we attended NoirCon and we have SOHO Crime to thank for most of them. If you’re like me, you have an endlessly growing “to read” pile and I thought I’d let you know about a few of the new arrivals. One of the books in our bag was Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat. Looks like this is the first in his Detective Yu series. Gary Disher’s Hell to Pay is next on the list, he’s an Australian crime writer. Next in alphabetical order is Leighton Gage’s The Ways of Evil Men, part of his Mario Silva series. The late Mr. Gage lived much of his life in Brazil where the stories are set. Timothy Hallinan checks in next with Crashed, the first of the Junior Bender series. The Danish duo of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis close out the set with The Boy in the Suit Case, the first of the Nina Borg series. Like I said these were all freebies and that was very generous of the SOHO folks.

One of the other things we were treated to was a presentation by Bronwen Hruska, SOHO’s Publisher. She talked about the challenges of being an independent in a world dominated by the big corporations. She was quite interesting, intelligent, and charming, as was her Associate Publisher Juliet Grames. I got to meet them both, just enough to say hello, and was impressed by how much they loved their work and how passionate they were about promoting their stable of writers. (One of them was Irishman Stuart Neville who was kind enough to pose for a photo and autograph his debut novel The Ghosts of Belfast for me—that one I bought!). They focus on international mysteries and have authors from all over the globe. They publish up to ninety titles a year under the SOHO Crime imprint. Ms. Hruska was presented with the Jay and Deen Kogen Award for publishing excellence at Saturday’s banquet. Seems well-deserved!

I found a bunch of other write-ups about the events in Philadelphia. K.A. Laity did a four-part series on her blog and Carole Mallory contributed a story to Huffington Post. Pulp Curry’s Andrew Nette added his thoughts to his blog and Marshall Stein chipped in on the NoirCon site. Finally T. Fox Dunham shared his thoughts about his participation in the Existential Noir panel (he also linked to my post for OOTG). I certainly had a stimulating experience and its nice to know so did some of the other attendees. 2015 will be my Year of Noir as I intend to write my own rather than just read other people’s stuff and blog about it. I’ll be happy to loan out any of the books I mentioned above so drop me a line if you are interested. In fact, I’ve got heaps of noir books that deserve a wider audience. Expand your horizons and start reading more degenerate fiction!

Post-trip post

It feels good to be back home in humble Yreka. The house is still standing and all the stuff still works (thank you, Otto, for tending things!). The leaves on the Japanese maple and the Liquidambar have turned to their autumnal hues of magenta and scarlet. The pointer on the thermometer outside dipped below freezing last night. It really is November. It was over 80ºF when we were in LA mere days ago! It’s pretty clear we’ve had some rain up here since we were gone, we sure needed it and we’ll need a lot more before the year ends. Living in what is close to a desert makes me appreciate rain even more than ever. Rain isn’t always a blessing, though. My friend Betty Rosen Ziff lives in Lomita, part of what Angelenos call the South Bay. We stayed with her and her husband Stuart on both sides of our journey and they have the misfortune of sitting on a parcel that floods when the rains come. A few years ago they were nearly wiped out—emotionally as well as financially—by the storms that hit SoCal. Some crappy engineering of the city’s storm drains, not to mention indifference by the powers-that-be, set them up for a huge, watery mess. And how about some proper disclosure from the previous owners, the real estate agents, the finance people, the title company, and the government inspectors who’ve got their paws all over the purchase of the home? Yeah, we all know about “caveat emptor” but our capitalist economy works better when ethics and honesty are part of transactions. So I’ll be tempering my prayers to the rain gods with “soft and gentle and a little at a time for my friends down south, please.” I’ve added the link to the Lomita Flood Relief Facebook page to my blogroll. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them to convince the City and County that they have a responsibility to residents to properly channel the floodwaters. Seems obvious, I know, but unresponsive elected officials are the latest fashion. They’ve also got lots of work to do on their place to prepare for future storms, and are always on the lookout for smart, creative types who can imagine potential solutions that won’t require a small fortune to implement.

We were only gone for three weeks on this trip, which is about average for us. Seems longer, though, as we were quite road-weary yesterday and still recovering today. In 2001 we went overseas and were gone for eight weeks, and we did a ten-week trip in 2005 which was my entire summer vacation. So this one ought to have been easy. I think the uniqueness of the train experience (which was mostly great) and the unusual event we attended (NoirCon) made this trip more challenging. The Giants being in the World Series certainly added a level of anxiety—only fans as emotionally attached as we are can appreciate that. I refuse to say it was harder because we are both older, I prefer Bob Dylan’s “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” refrain from “My Back Pages” when thinking about aging. Travel, for me, has never been about just getting somewhere. I’ve always appreciated the transformative nature of journeying and seek to learn more about myself and grow in new and unexpected ways. These things don’t show up immediately as they need time to percolate and I’ll be musing on them over the next few months. Speaking of musing, here’s me in an apparently contemplative mood: Mark on the train I notice when I don’t smile I look grim. I was far from grim—I was relaxed, happy, and eager, in fact. We were just about to de-train in Chicago when Sue snapped this. I smile a lot actually so it’s odd to see myself with a neutral look. One of the things I came home with was twenty pounds of books. You can’t go to a literary event without accumulating more books! I’ve too many books as it is, integrating the new ones into the collection will take some time. Here’s a picture of my new acquisitions: BOOKS That’s a signed hardcover first edition Walter Mosley on the upper left! “Easy” Rawlins is back at it in the mean streets of Los Angeles. Mosley is a remarkably versatile and accomplished author—crime fiction is only one of his specialties. The other hardcovers and the rest of the top row were all freebies. The bottom row were all purchases. I’m especially excited by the new Hard Case Crime (Samuel Fuller’s lost novel “Brainquake”) and the two in the middle from Jonathan Woods (“Bad Juju” and “A Death in Mexico”). Gutter Books, naturally, is also represented with the “Noir Riot” and “Trouble in the Heartland” collections. A surfeit of literary goodness!

Off ‘trak

I’m still moving. Being on Amtrak for nearly four days has set up a current in my cerebrospinal fluid that has me lurching westward even when I’m sitting still. I suppose I’ll get over it eventually. Meanwhile I’m dosing myself with simple molecules like CH3(CH2)OH. There are some perks to train rides: Moonrise in NM That’s a moonrise over the New Mexico badlands from the window in our compartment. Not bad for a quickie snap, eh? And we got a look at the Southern Rockies a little earlier: Southern Rockies Yeah, I know, it’s far away. Hey, we were on a train. Did I explain that already? Most of the goddamn country is flatlands. Seriously. Iowa? Kansas? Illinois? Fucking flat. We Californians have no idea how flat the rest of the nation is. The train to LA was late so we got to go through the southern desert in the morning twilight instead of at night. Cajon Pass from the Victor Valley to San Bernandino was goddamn amazing! I was too excited to take pictures. Get your own lazy asses down there and check it out. I can’t do everything for you, fer chrissakes. Anyway, it was awesome. The Joshua Trees and yuccas to the east, the fault scarps and exposed cliff faces near the summit, the broad vistas of the San Gabriels as we descended west, it was just beautiful in that sparse, haunting way that only a brutally arid landscape can be. Speaking of brutal, the train tracks don’t discriminate. They take you alongside both the hardscrabble hillbilly shanties and the gleaming boulevards of manicured lawns in front of multi-million dollar developments. The trash strewn barrios and the neat suburban cul-de-sacs. The strip malls and the freight yards. The shiny, freshly-minted school sports complexes and the battered, abandoned warehouses of once-thriving commercial centers. If you want to see the great bifurcation of American society between those that have and are getting more versus those that don’t and are watching it slip away, get out of your cars and off your airplanes and ride the ‘trak. p.s. If anyone can tell me how to do subscripts in WordPress I’d love ya forever.

Southwestward Ho!

We endured. That’s all I can say.The “C” in “Mark C. O’Connor” stands for “Christopher” and not “contortionist.” Because you’d have to be a circus freak to get a decent night’s sleep on a coach class train. We left PGH at midnight EST and got to CHI a little before ten in the morning CST. While the seats are reasonably comfortable and there’s far more leg room than an airplane it was really hard to block out the noise, especially as we were seated right next to the staircase which remained lit throughout the night and was filled with noisy passengers coming and going at each stop. Alas, it was a bit of bad luck, but I have to say that walking the cars it was pretty clear that even in the darker, quieter spots it was hard to grab some z’s. I got a little sadistic pleasure out of seeing the variety of goofy positions people were trying out! The comatose ones were either under the age of 25 or addled with drugs. I think we managed a couple of hours total between the two of us. Next time we go overnight anywhere we’ll get a sleeper. But that’s all in the past. Part of the adventure of travelling is enduring the tough parts and learning something for next time. You can’t anticipate everything.

Chicago was cool and blustery but it felt great to get out and walk around. We had several hours to kill so we went back to the South Loop where we stayed previously and enjoyed Grant Park and the Lakefront. And we had to hit Kitty O’Shea’s again as it was the setting for one of our favorite evenings when we watched the Giants crush the Royals in Game Four. I had a pint of Smithwick’s with my Cobb salad. We are now back at the station in the Metro Lounge which is Amtrak’s hangout for first class (i.e., sleeper car) passengers. Got some wifi going on so I can type this for you!

The Southwest Chief which will take us back to LA is due to depart at 3:00 p.m. local time which is in about an hour. Both of us are sleep-deprived and a little out of whack after all this time on the road. We had a lot of fun on the northwestward leg of the trip and I’m looking forward to the return portion. There was no internet connection on the 49-hour run and a few stretches were I couldn’t even get cell coverage. So I’ll say “sayonara” for now and post an update when we are back in California.

Ridin’ the Rails

It’s 2125 Eastern Standard Time here at the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh. That’s 9:25 p.m. And Pennsylvania. We’ve got a train to catch at midnight that will take us to Chicago. That’s assuming it’s on time, of course. Our scheduled arrival is 0845 tomorrow (Tuesday the 4th of November). Again, assuming it is on time. We were only thirty minutes late to PGH from Philadelphia. Train stations use those cool all-caps three letter designations just like airports. We’ll have another layover in CHI and get the Southwest Chief from there at 1500 (er, 3:00 p.m.). That’s Central Standard Time. Departures are pretty dependable. Arrivals? Flexible. Speaking of flexible, it helps. The chairs here are solid. Hard plastic with vinyl covers and seem devoid of all padding. When you are like me and have no butt, just skin over bones, your feet go numb from prolonged sitting. So, I get up and pace around the station which can’t be more than 100 feet in any direction. Gets old fast.

The ride from PHI was reasonably pleasant except for the bi-polar woman sitting behind us. She had two phones. One had an electronic chime that went sort of ping-ping-poodle-ding with a little rise at the end. The other had a two-second snippet of some horrid over-blown r&b tune, you know, the kind of r&b they play in a JC Penney store, not the good kind. When we left she had a half hour conversation with someone in which she would say everything three times. Other than that she seemed rational. A little later she had a pleading conversation with the phone company to extend the deadline on her overdue bill. Mind you, I didn’t want to know all this, but she had no qualms about allowing us to hear. Later she had another conversation with some medical outfit about her appointments.These conversations became increasingly more emotional and high-strung and even involved her weeping. Then she talked in low(er) tones to someone that seemed to be a family member and she described, now thoroughly distraught, a long chain of terrible things that had beset her. Accident, head trauma, back injury–it would have been heartbreaking if it hadn’t been so public. Not long after that she had a kind of transformational exchange with another apparent family member about how hard she was working to get her life back together and how she was stronger and braver than before. It was like Dr. Phil meets Oprah. I’m generally pretty sympathetic and don’t like to think poorly of folks or mock their issues but this had reached a the point of black comedy. Finally she was mostly silent for a few hours (it was a seven hour journey) but the phones kept going off every few minutes. When I walked past her seat to hit the head I could see her texting on both devices, one after the other. I was happy when she got off in Greensburg.

A few minutes ago a pizza guy showed up and delivered a “medium cheese” to one smart passenger sitting with us here in the station. Wish we’d thought of that. If they could bring a six-pack of beer too it would be even better. Speaking of beer, we had a lot of Yuengling when we were out and about in Philly. There was plenty of craft brew around the city, which was nice, but if there wasn’t you could always get a Yuengling. The station in Philly had a pub called Bridgewater and we had a pint of draught before we boarded. It was called Hofbrau Dunkel and it really hit the spot. Nice little pub, good beer (a Dunkel is a dark lager), a civilized way to travel. Man, I’m thirsty and my butt is starting to tingle. I need a take a few laps soon. The folks in the station seem OK. A gent across the way gave us his New York Times when he was done with it. A group of Mennonite girls are sitting in a row across from us. They look like two sets of sisters, four apiece. High school age. I suppose they are Mennonites, I’m not sure, one of those Pennsylvania Dutch sects. Cheerful bunch, lots of adolescent giggling. A guy saw me typing on my laptop and wanted me to Google something for him. Do you know which states in the US are Commonwealths? I knew Virginia and Massachusetts were, but it turns out Kentucky and Pennsylvania are as well. He explained that he “just gotten out of prison” and had to avoid states that were commonwealths. Something about extradition, I was friendly and didn’t pursue it. He was happy to know there were only four, he was sure there were five. I told him he might win some money on Jeopardy some day with his new-found knowledge. I’m not sure he caught my drift but he was nice about it. That’s all you can ask, eh?

Next time I ride the rails I will bring a flask of some delicious adult beverage. 100 proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey comes to mind. And an ipod-thingie with big, comfy headphones like Dr. Dre sells and plenty of good tunes for tuning out the world. A neck pillow and a blanket woudn’t be bad, either. Otherwise, we are having a grand trip. The Giants won the World Series and that makes everything better.

Only a few more hours. Talk to y’all later!

Reflections on Philly

I’ve chronicled some of our activity at NoirCon for Out of the Gutter on-line. Check it out here. Suffice to say we met a lot of interesting people and had fun socializing with nice folks who like and create deviant literature. Saturday we attended the awards dinner at a place called Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River. We wound up taking a taxi back with a young guy named Matt Cook who was a doctoral candidate at Penn who had just finished his first novel. It was out on the edge of the city and we clambered over train tracks to flag the taxi who turned out to have a broken meter but we nonetheless successfully negotiated a reasonable fare. We had been in a big group of partygoers who cursed us good-naturedly (at least I think so, these are crime writers after all) for “jumping the line.” Hey, that cabbie wasn’t going anywhere near the event and I think we might have made his night with some ready cash. Taxis are much of the theme for our stay—we rode the subway and did lots of walking but NoirCon events were spread out all over the city and the only way to get around was via cabs. The closing event was on Sunday at a bookstore called Port Richmond that was again out on the bleeding edge of town. It was more like a warehouse your crazy rich uncle filled up with all his stuff. There was a spectacular collection of used books that would have taken weeks to go through, but it was frigid in the place and we almost didn’t make it through the final discussion. We wandered around looking for a place to get lunch and a beer and finally settled in neighborhood bar that served pirogies. We had a great visit with British author Richard Godwin and his wife Paige. On the way back we shared a taxi with Charles Kelly who gave me a copy of his book Gunshots in Another Room, a biography of forgotten noir writer Dan J. Marlowe.

We had also visited, earlier in the day, a truly weird place called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens which features the unique work of artist Isaiah Zagar. It’s mostly mosaics, but a lot of found objects and urban debris as well. I’ll sign off with a few pictures:


Mark and Magic

We head west on the train starting at noon today!