May 2010

Michael Schaub

nonfiction

Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch

In the eight months that I've lived where I live now, I've probably walked around my neighborhood hundreds of times. I have dogs; my neighbors all know their names, but not mine. I have memorized every front yard, every awning on every business, from the plumbing supply store ("The Water Heater King") to the deli with the big Oregon Lottery sign in front to the punk-rock strip club I live behind. But I don't really remember these walks, or most of them. I remember walking back from buying cigarettes one night when a drunk old man in the Masonic lodge parking lot yelled, as I recall, "You're not the Scandihoovian!" to me. But every other one kind of blurs together. I haven't even lived here a year, but I have become automatic. I look down when I'm walking, and talking to people, and usually at pretty much all other times. I feel like I wasn't always this way. For the past several weeks I've been trying to reconstruct conversations with someone I used to know. I've been trying to remember the last one, in particular: What are the last words I said to this person who is now gone? What are the last words he said to me? So I look down and I walk down sidewalks I've memorized.

I've read Ten Walks/Two Talks three times now, once before something sudden and awful happened in my life, and twice after. I don't know if I would have even thought about how I walk in my city if I hadn't, or if I would have tried to commit every conversation with a friend I have to memory even while I'm talking, afraid I'll lose it like I've lost most of my first 32 years of conversation. This is a small book: ten brief accounts of walks in New York City by Fitch, and two transcribed conversations between Cotner and Fitch, the first in Central Park, the second in a grocery store. Things happen:

By Reade I'd turned woozy -- passing a Bento Box cart covered in Grand Opening signs, then caught between a rottweiler and an aggressive cocker spaniel. Someone screamed at the spaniel's owner Move! Walk Away! I'm trying, the woman said, I don't know what's happening!

...

As always when I'm in a rush downtown I passed a sandwich shop that looked appealing. With a pulley-system someone dropped planks through an apartment window (no sound). With a tiny broom a custodian steered hissing water along the curb. Somebody else wrapped a deli display-case in blue plastic. Someone wiped the demonstration slicer he had whirring on the sidewalk. I wondered why everything in restaurant-supply stores looks dusty. A white truck double-turning (does that make sense?) stripped the fender off an old black woman's sedan. Pedestrians winced.
All of Fitch's walks are like this, filled with quotidian moments that become minor miracles as they happen. Fitch's prose is a minor miracle in itself, playful and unaffected and determinedly joyous; his unadorned observations give grace to, and come close to reclaiming, every small event that happens daily. It's easy to believe, reading his breathless and excited accounts, that you're walking with him, that he's some kind of manic tour guide of the every day. Nothing bores him, it seems; his writing is contagious and angelic.

So too are the conversations between Cotner and Fitch. "What do you think of this New York lavender sky?" asks Cotner, and so the first one begins, and is almost immediately sidetracked. Cotner and Fitch distract each other, their sentences overlap, they follow every tangent. They discuss, among very many other things, architecture and philosophy and tea and goat meat and friendship. Like the accounts of Fitch's walks, the transcripts approach poetry, even -- especially -- at their most distracted and unguarded:

A: I'd guess we both learned to drive in expansive department store parking lots?

J: Yes.

A: Folks might consider that a luxury of space -- not realizing it presumes a detachment from culture, and by culture I mean near-accidents.

J: Right. I myself learned to drive in a public high-school's lot. I'd got trained on two stick-shifts, jolting...

A: I had my first oral-sex experience in a high-school parking lot, yet was not um the recipient. Um, this tea Jon, has started to develop a mace flavor? A bold spicy flavor? Will you often find that near the bottom of the cup?

J: It...
There's shades of Harry Mathews-style sly humor in there, of course, but nothing about it seems unreal, and nothing seems forced. And while Basho seems to be the inspiration for this project, I was reminded mostly of films like Killer of Sheep and Old Joy, where nothing much happens, but where every moment, every word are significant and shining and somehow outside of themselves.

This is a simple book, though it's not, really. It's difficult to describe, even harder to explain how Cotner and Fitch's reverence for the small miracles of life in a city is so remarkable, so comforting and revelatory and, in spite of the authors' humility, profound. I've noticed more since I read it. I've listened more. It's made me feel better. But all that is hard to explain, and I don't know if I even can or will be able to anytime soon, so I'll just say that this is a gift, a beautiful book, and nothing in it is forgettable.

Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN: 193325467X
88 Pages