Tag Archives: East River Pipe

Half Dreams of the River and Everything It Gives Us and Everything It Takes Away


That Monday, as usual, I picked up my daughter Maggie from school, then drove over to my son Julien’s school, where she and I waited for him in the queue of cars. When the queue started to move and we picked Julien up, he sat in the back, buckled his seat belt, and asked Maggie, “How was your day?”

“Ah, it was good,” Maggie said.

“Did you make any bad choices?” Julien asked.

“Er, no,” Maggie said.

“Are you sure?” Julien asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.

When Maggie and I asked Julien if he made any bad choices in school that day, he just laughed, which means that although he doesn’t know how to say something that sounds like an answer without actually being an answer, he does know how to act as if none of this is important. With the school year soon coming to a close, the questions, of course, have changed. Me, I always feel a sense of relief at the end of the school day, and even more so at the end of the school year. And I wonder how much less I’d know, even at my age, if I’d never made at least a few bad choices.

The next day, when Julien got in the car, he asked, referring to the music that was playing, “What is this?”

“You know what this is,” I said. “You know who’s playing.”

“Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” he then said, meaning that although he may forget the sources of inconsequential information, he doesn’t forget what’s worth remembering. So, even though he may not request the music of Miles Davis, Oliver Nelson, Serge Gainsbourg, and Lizzy Mercier Descloux as much as he used to, he still remembers their names and the sounds they made and the notes they hit with elegance and skill.

Last week, Heather heard that a good number of people driving by the weekly Vigil for Democracy/Anti-Trump demonstration at the gazebo here in Front Royal were giving our side the finger. Sometimes it’s a young mother or father with kids in the car, driving by and seeing signs that say something like “Trumpistan: Government by Billionaires for Billionaires” or “Trump’s Agenda Is Toxic,” then flipping off whoever is holding that sign. We’re also seeing more and more pickup trucks bearing Confederate flags around town, which means that spring is slowly making way for summer here in the valley. We’d taken a break from the demonstrations since the big one Heather helped organize in March. “But yeah,” she said. “We need to start going again. While we’re still here.” And, it’s also something to come back for from time to time.

Last week, it rained most of the time. Last week, on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Winchester, we took Gun Barrel Road again, but parts of it were so flooded we almost had to turn around. Last week, I could hear our neighbor yelling at someone in the rain. Last week, I heard the sound of rain on the tin roof at night or in the afternoon or in the morning and the rest of the time, when I didn’t hear it, I was waiting for it. Last week I didn’t feel well for a few days. Last week the world seemed to smell sour and dank without interruption. Last week even laughter felt heavy. Last week was like that.

Later in the week, though, Maggie hooked her phone up to the car stereo. While we waited for Julien to get out of school she played East River Pipe’s “Life Is a Landfill” and Stereolab’s “Come Play in the Milky Night.” They were songs I would have played, too, but because she was playing them she was OK with them being played loud, so she played them loud and I was OK with that. I listened to the words, “Life is a landfill, baby/ All this garbage piled high/ Black dove filled memories/ Secret wishes to the sky.” They’re sad words, yes, and the music is sad, too, but it all adds up to something beautiful. “Come Play in the Milky Night” is a much more upbeat song, but it has no words. We listened as we watched the monster truck in line ahead of us.

“Don’t you wish I could pick you up from school driving a monster truck?” I asked Maggie.

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

“You’d be proud,” I said, and we kept on listening to the music. When the queue started moving, we pulled up to see Julien giving us that look that says the distance from wherever we are to home is decreasing. It’s a relaxing of the brow, that rapid eye movement from squint to revelation. It’s a smell of roses that somehow don’t make you sneeze.

On Friday, Heather worked from home. I took a break from work in the morning and sat down on the sofa right before Heather went out to do an errand. Pretty soon I was asleep. About an hour later I woke up to see some tiny girl walking in the door. I didn’t know who she was. She was as small as a baby, but she walked straight and smoothly like a girl on a box of salt, waiting for all that white stuff to dissolve. I started to get scared, though, wondering what this little girl was doing in our house. That’s when Heather walked in the door, and the odd little girl was gone. I figured that I must have been dreaming. Dreaming because we are animals. Dreaming because every story we tell is a story about ourselves, full of details we’re surprised we remember, details we know and details we don’t know. Dreaming because having a story to tell is like having sharp claws, and a quick swipe of language can draw blood. Sometimes I feel like I need a bandage all around me. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve just seen a ghost.

On Saturday, we found ourselves in Paris for a performance of selections from La Boheme. What was surprising about this was not that we were seeing opera out here, but that after living in the Shenandoah valley for ten years, this was the first time we had ever been to Paris. We hadn’t planned on it. We’d only heard about this performance an hour before it was set to begin. Maggie had spent the day with some of her friends from her old Montessori school. They were about to drive off from our house when one of them said, “Oh, do you want to go to Paris to see these opera singers?” A few minutes later, that’s where we were headed—east on John Marshall Highway, a left on Pleasant Vale Road after passing through Markham, then north on Winchester Road to Paris, Virginia. And though in Front Royal the rain had cleared, in going to Paris we were heading right back into it. But because we were going to the opera we were OK with that.

In Paris I took a photograph of Julien listening to opera for the first time. He was suspicious at first. It was like riding a two-wheeler for the first time—you’re not sure if you can do it. During intermission we all went next door to the Paris Apothecary. It’s run by our friend Susan, and she sells herbs, spices, tea, coffee, shrubs, wine, elixirs. It was a good place to take shelter from the week. When one of the opera singers came in and walked by we said hello. When she was gone, Julien asked, “Is she famous?”

“No,” I said. “But she should be famous.”

Heather and I shared a glass of wine and Maggie ate a banana nut muffin, but all Julien wanted was water. Like a river. Like the light rain that was still falling outside. All he wanted was water, and as he drank it he had a look in his eyes that seemed to say that the distance between here and home was diminishing with each sip.

-Jose Padua

Photograph (of the mist in Paris, Virginia) by Jose Padua

North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A City Named Elizabeth and a Million Other Ways of Resisting the Dream

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was getting tired and was annoyed with all the traffic after hitting the outskirts of Richmond right around rush hour. I also had to keep reminding myself this was Wednesday not Saturday—and that even though we were heading out on the road it was not the weekend.

We’d left Front Royal at around two and took, as usual, the slow way. Route 522 going south seemed like the way to go, but that day, as it wound around Lake Anna in Louisa and Spotsylvania counties, I started to feel this sadness. My American sadness.

Lake Anna. It’s a man-made lake, formed in the early 70s to provide a source of water for the purpose of cooling the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station. Since then it’s become a popular vacation destination in Virginia, and every summer it fills with people swimming, boating, fishing. Maybe not everyone feels this way, but I find the idea of frolicking on a lake that was created to cool a nuclear power plant rather depressing. Of course, with my obsessive-compulsive mind, there are so many things that can send my thoughts veering off in some unpleasant or frightening direction.

When we got off of the slow, winding dreariness of Route 522 and onto the fast-paced madness of Interestate-64 at rush hour, I was pissed. Right away Heather picked up her phone in search of an alternate route, and she found one. All we had to do was go south of Richmond on 295 and we’d hit Route 460.

It was a slower road, going through these small run-down and run-over towns with vaguely British sounding names like Waverly, Wakefield, and Windsor as well as more intriguing names like New Bohemia and Disputanta. As is often the case when we’re on the road, there were numerous places where I wanted to stop the car, though not necessarily get out. This was, after all rural Virginia, and as fascinating and oddly beautiful as it can be, it’s not always the most welcoming of places. So we drove on, passing by gun shops and ammo shops and sometimes gun and ammo shops; seeing home-made signs along the road blaming Obama for everything imaginable, including one sign that urged people to fight Obamacare using the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Thinking that this quote would be more applicable commentary regarding Obama’s drone war, for instance, or for the record number of people his administration has deported, I had to give this sign the finger.

We drove on and on down 460, and then we got to Suffolk, Virginia. This was one town I was especially glad to go through, because according to what I’ve read, this is the town where one of my favorite musicians and songwriters, Fred Cornog (who records under the name “East River Pipe”) was born. I would have stopped, but we were already running late.

Suffolk was also where we saw, for the first time that day, a Confederate Flag flying from the back of some dickhead’s pickup truck. Well, there were most likely others, but that was the first one we noticed. But it was in Suffolk when Miles Davis’s “Right Off” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson came out of the random mix on the car stereo. It’s a piece of music that always lifts me up, always give me strength, and, looking back, I wonder if this was when the music of Miles Davis first clicked with Julien, who at the time was just four. Now, yearly a year later, Miles Davis is the music he always asks to hear, and it’s not unlikely that his appreciation of this music is a revelation that occurred on the road. I know that for me, the road is where a lot of revelations ascend as well as a determination to get where I want to be (and by getting where I want to be I’m not necessarily talking about an actual place so much as a place where I want my mind to dwell).

After we’d crossed the state line into North Carolina and were driving along the southern end of the Great Dismal Swamp, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major came on. Listening to it, with the swamp on the left, Heather to my right, and Maggie and Julien in the seats behind us, I got that pleasant sensation that happens every now and then when I feel as if I’m riding slightly off the ground. Flying, as it were, but at the sort of low and comfortable altitude I prefer. And moving forward in such a way that wherever we were, the ground beneath us felt like a home of sorts, a shelter—if only temporarily so—from all the vicious American dreams that clash with our own more peaceful ones.

Then we hit a clearing. That’s what you see in this photograph—the flat of the land of North Carolina as you get closer and closer to the shore. In a little while, we were in Elizabeth City, which was where we were stopping for the night. As we drove up to our hotel I saw, standing around the entrance, about a dozen or so good-ole-boy types. As I let Heather out the door so she could pick up the keys to our room, they all stared at me. It was that blank look of barely restrained disapproval—a look that sometimes disintegrates into something worse. A look that can say, as looks often do, a whole lot of different things—none of which were “Welcome to North Carolina.”

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua