Marcia and I just returned from three weeks in the outer world. We gave nine house concerts, two bookstore performances, and visited a couple dozen bookstores from Mendocino all the way to Lummi Island, Washington and back, with layovers in Arcata, Coos Bay, Astoria, Seattle, Bellingham, Port Townsend, Portland, Medford, Ashland, and Sacramento. Our concerts were a mix of guitar/cello duets, cello solos, songs, and short stories. We had audiences as large as fifty, as small as five. Since I rarely go anywhere outside of the Big River watershed, this was a monumental and highly stressful journey for me. For Marcia it was pure fun.
Here are some of the things I discovered en route.
1. Nearly all the independent bookstores that don’t have some sort of café component are going out of business. Astoria’s most popular bookstore is a commodious joint called Godfather’s, a kind of coffee saloon with books surrounding an enormous bar, and Village Books in Bellingham has a great café above the store that keeps the cash flowing when book sales falter.
2. Bookstore owners tend to be highly suspicious of authors hawking their own books, especially books not published by multi-national corporations i.e. the New York houses. This preference for mainstream guck strikes me as ironic, but then again bookstores have to carry what they think people want to buy, and people usually want to buy what the multi-national corporations promote through their strictly controlled mass media.
3. The New York Times Bestseller List is owned by Barnes & Noble, and Barnes & Noble decides which books go on the list.
4. The economic meltdown is happening in a big way in Oregon and Washington. We drove through many neighborhoods in small towns and large towns where half the houses had For Sale signs out front, often with the asking price affixed to the sign.
5. As you drive through Oregon and Washington, whether on the coast highway or the interstate freeway, clear cuts are everywhere to be seen. Whole mountains are scraped clean of their forests, then sprayed with horrible poisons to kill all life save for the kind of tree the lumber companies want to grow back on the scraped land. These poisons are then washed by the copious rains into the soil and rivers, rendering most of Oregon and Washington highly toxic, however green and bucolic the countryside appears.
6. One wonders what all the talk of the Greening of America means in the real world. Seattle and Portland are both obscenely oversized and dysfunctional urban areas with no thoughtful planning evident, and the outlying areas of these overpopulated cities are wastelands of auto-centric sameness. We looked for but found little evidence of green or solar anything except in extremely affluent neighborhoods.
7. Many towns throughout Oregon, Washington, and California only have chain stores. Talk about ugly and depressing. In some towns there are official Historic Districts, and therein one might find a few non-chain stores, an actual bookstore (as opposed to a mirage), and possibly a non-Starbucks coffee house. Historic means Before the Chains destroyed America.
8. In small towns everywhere, often in the absence of any other sort of food-getting place, stand little buildings offering drive-thru coffee and stale cookies and/or biscotti. These diminutive buildings are called variously: Drive-Thru Espresso, Espresso Depot, Espresso Express, Espresso Stop, Espresso Unlimited, Espresso Extreme, etc. Time and again we would see these boxcar-like structures and realize they were very possibly the cultural apexes of the towns we were driving through.
9. Cell phones make of the world a surreal place. We do not have a cell phone, and so in order to make phone calls to friends we had to find pay phones. The surest bet to find a pay phone is at an official rest area on the interstate. Otherwise, pay phones are a vanishing breed. On a number of occasions I asked people where we might find a pay phone, and it was as if I had asked them to succinctly elucidate the meaning of life.
10. At these official rest areas along the interstate in Washington, free coffee is provided to weary travelers. The coffee we sampled at two of these rest areas had to be the worst coffee I have ever tasted. I would not have known it was coffee if they hadn’t said it was coffee. Perhaps this is intentional so people will be inclined to patronize Espresso boxcars.
11. You cannot pump your own gas in Oregon. This provides thousands of jobs for surly men and women who would otherwise be fired for surliness from some other job.
12. No one seemed to notice that we were gone for three weeks. It seemed to me we were gone for several months, but not a single person said, “Where have you been?” or “Haven’t seen you in a while.” This, perhaps, is the most important thing I learned from our odyssey. That no matter how profound my personal experiences, no matter how enormous the changes wrought on my psyche and spirit by all the incredible things that happened to us, no one really cares.
13. And why should they? The world is large. Humans are everywhere, and it is the rare human who doesn’t make a mess of things upon this fragile earth. Cars and television and cell phones and computers have separated us from the earth, and the evidence of that separation was everywhere as we traveled from here to Canada and back.
14. Is there hope for the future? Sure. Why not?
Todd’s book Buddha In A Teacup just won the 2009 National Indie Award for Excellence in Short Story Fiction.