Monthly Archives: March 2015

Chapter Six – House of Coffee

My final stop was the city of Akron and the house where Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, two drunken Vermonters, met and where on June 10, 1935, Dr. Bob Smith took his last drink. From that date, Alcoholics Anonymous marks its beginning. The little house was built in 1915 and Bob Smith was its first owner, living there until he died in 1950.

I am sober since 1985. For me and many, the story of how Bill W. met Dr. Bob carries the resonance of a creation myth. The principles and history of AA all depend on the simple practice of two alcoholics sharing an honest conversation. Only that kind of intimacy can keep us from drinking. I believe this in the very center of my being.

Swooping over the dips and swells and dips of the red brick streets of the old suburban neighborhood, a fluttery excitement tussled with anxiety. I might get lost, really lost, hopelessly lost. My directions had me peering at each passing street sign and slowing down to make a turn every three or four blocks. The house would shut for the day at three o’clock. It was going to take hours to find 855 Ardmore Avenue. And then, there I was, parked at the leafy curb of a street like any other. The house sat high on a corner lot, white with yellow trim and a wide front porch with brick pillars.

I couldn’t help feeling just a little self-conscious, climbing the twelve steps (yes, the twelve steps) to the front door. Once inside, that sensation dropped away: the building enveloped me. From the vantage of the front hall, one could see, or certainly sense, the house’s four exterior walls; it was that small. This also meant it was full of light. A half dozen people milled around in the entry and living room; coming or going, it was impossible to tell. Signing the guestbook seemed like a good place for me to start.

A stocky, open-faced guy in blue coveralls approached and asked if it was my first time. I chuckled and he chuckled back. The name embroidered above his pocket read ‘TJ’.

“My name is TJ. I can give you a tour, if you want. We’re all volunteers here,” he said.

“I’d like that,” I said. “This is my last stop in Ohio. I’m here on purpose. Uh, I guess we all are. On purpose, I mean, Dr. Bob and all… TJ.”

“Uh-huh. Yeah. Let’s start upstairs, then.”

I poked my head into the bedrooms that had provided respite for countless drunks, often forcing the two Smith kids to bunk in the third floor attic. This must have been a lively place; both before and after Bob Smith stopped drinking.

On the ground floor was the kitchen table, around which Bob and Bill had their life-changing conversation. In addition to two half-full cups of coffee, on the table sat a plate of windmill cookies, the kind I see all the time at meetings in New York. The only other spot where I have felt the presence of such quietly turbulent spirits was Delphi in Greece in the early morning. Maybe that’s a metaphysical reach, but the restorative legacy of 855 Ardmore Avenue is unquestionable.

Eventually, we made our way down to the cellar, a whitewashed room remarkable for nothing in particular. Being so high up on the corner lot allowed the basement to have a set of double doors that permitted off-street parking. Even in 1915, being a doctor necessitated having a car. Photographs of Dr. Bob’s automobiles lined the walls.

“How much time do you have, TJ?”

“Seven years clean and dry in a month.”

“That’s pretty impressive. It sorta rolls along after a while, the not drinking and going to meetings,” I said. “This commitment must help. How often do you take people around?”

“Only once a week.”

“Only? How come?”

“There’s a demand. Some people say it’s the best job in Akron.”

“And you’ve got the Tuesday afternoon slot. Lucky me.”

We continued in this good-natured way – simple questions, simple answers, pauses, fencing, more pauses, sideways admissions, laughter – just gabbing on and on. His eyes welled up. I felt abashed. And then a big hug.

It’s all in the eyes. ‘AA eyes’, as my friend, Brigid, says: what Dr. Bob called ‘the language of the heart.’ TJ and I fell into an easy rapport in the course of a half an hour. We didn’t have much in common in the specifics of our lives, but we weren’t drinking and that took care of everything. I have never been happier, more at ease, more in my skin, than that moment in the basement of that little Akron house.

The pleasures of Ohio were unanticipated and unforgettable. But crossing Pennsylvania took forever.

Chapter Five – House of Rock

I approached Cleveland via a boxed-in interstate that gave way to a tumble of squat, banged-up factory buildings. All of a sudden, at a stoplight, a mylar-shiny baseball stadium ballooned into view on the left. An afternoon game would soon be getting underway. A beefy crowd clotted at the crosswalk, then streamed across, more likely to aggravate a melanoma than see the Indians win. After driving just fifteen more blocks, I could see the Lake and, jesus, another stupendous stadium. Cleveland – city of light, city of magic.

The Hyatt Regency hotel had been retrofitted out of a grand nineteenth century structure called The Arcade. In its original configuration, the five-story atrium was surrounded by lower floors of retail and, on the upper ones, offices. Now it was all hotel. The atrium ran the length of a city block beneath a glass canopy, so that the space flooded with soft, saturated light. Cast-metal gargoyles circled the fourth floor, leaning balefully into the vastness every twenty or thirty feet, each with a small incandescent bulb in its mouth. It’s a breathtaking interior. I was to meet my friend, Chet, there. He had driven up from Dayton to join me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A couple of phone calls and a knock on the door and there he was, lanky and gnomic, wearing jeans and a blue Indian-style shirt. Chet had flyaway white hair and a white beard that he tucked into the buttoned collar of his shirt for some odd reason. His features were large and well-formed; the ears had been pinned back many years ago, so it was up to his noble nose to give focus to the entire facial menagerie. He carried himself with the quiet aplomb of the professional actor. Chet was fond of me and I him. I offered him a seat and we proceeded to catch up – his search for community among the far-flung and long-lost, my writing process, the comings-and-goings of our children.

We adjourned for a dinner reservation nearby. A quick stroll along the ground floor canyon of The Arcade, out the back door, and soon we were seated in the noisy frat-bar front room of a highly regarded tavern. Though the decibels rose and fell insistently, we gabbed with enthusiasm. Chet recounted his curious method of decision-making, which involved a rubber cork on a length of chain that, held aloft, waggled one way for ‘yes’ and the opposite for ‘no.’ His technique had a friendly name I immediately forgot.

It developed that Chet had decided to forego the Federal Reserve Bank of Rock ’n Roll in favor of visiting an old friend from his days in the copy department of a greeting card company. His little rubber stopper jobber had advised him to alter his plans. I felt a twinge of abandonment, but quickly adjusted to the new normal. We agreed to meet for breakfast in the hotel and then proceed on with what the cosmos had in store.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has affixed itself to the shore of Lake Erie, a striking prism of glass, a bell jar of nostalgia and hype. A banner blazed across the marquee announcing THE ROLLING STONES, prematurely it turned out. First thing, the ticket guy proposed I take advantage of a photo opportunity by posing against a blue screen holding a red electric guitar with rockstar intention. At the end of the visit, 4×6 prints would be available for purchase. Oh, no thank you: not this time. I have posed as Elliot on his bike with ET in the front basket and nothing could ever possibly come close to the stupid magnificence of that.

Holy Shit! The Hall of Fame of Rock and Roll was a ridiculous, entertaining, exhausting place, crammed to the gills with minutiae, a lot like Ash U, but without the Republicans. In addition to a tsunami of ephemera, small print to squint at and presumably read, there was treasure – you could find pieces of the plane that took Otis Redding down, an ‘Otis’ fragment and a ‘Redding’ one; Jimi Hendrix’s sofa, an uncomfortable-looking section of a sectional; Michael Jackson’s glove revolving on a plexiglass pedestal, pinned by a spotlight, resplendent and dead as a butterfly; and CBGB’s awning that I used to see from my New York window until a couple years ago. The Hall of Fame sometimes had the feel of uniquely glamorous, museum-quality episode of Hoarders. The exhibit space in the basement was pitch dark, with labyrinthine, chronology-averse catwalks and cul-de-sacs that whipsaw you from Metal to Doo-Wop to Disco in an eyeblink. The whole thing was claustrophobic, over-reaching, and spectacular, like Aretha Franklin being squeezed into one of Diana Ross’ gowns.

On a higher floor, I stood in the back of a darkened theater and watched a compilation film of the famous inductees, beginning at the museum’s inception in 1986 with this bunch: Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Elvis. It played the soundtrack to my life. When it came The Band’s turn, they included a snippet of Levon Helm singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It lasted only a fraction of a second. Those seven words rang, my chest tightened, and my throat caught. I love this music. This place will always be just an attic full of stuff: fun, but really kind of beside the point.

Chapter Four – House of Baskets

More hill-and-dale driving, this time in search of authentic Amish baskets. Becca knew of a gentleman who set out his excellent wares in the parking lot of Shisler’s Cheese House on weekends. We stopped by, got his address, and then lit out on a GPS adventure. A half hour later, we beheld a hand-painted sign – baskets – in red lettering on a white section of corrugated metal nailed to a post. Abruptly, we turned left. I was in the back seat as we bucked down a dirt road. Out the side, I saw a pair of curious sheep pacing us from behind a fence. We stopped short of the house and chickens ran across our bow. No signs of human life.

I strode onto the porch and announced, “Hello?” through the screen door. The interior of the farmhouse lay deep in shadow. No response. I turned back to my friends with a shrug. The screen door creaked.

“You woke me from my nap.”

“Oh, hello there. Your nap?”

“After the noon meal. My nap.”

“We got your name from Shisler’s,” Becca said. “We’d like to see your baskets.”

“Baskets, yes. In the shed.”

He stepped off the porch and we followed quietly across the hardpack yard and through a dutch door. Spilling off a workbench and piled underneath, every conceivable form of woven container – breadbaskets, wastepaper baskets, pie carriers with leather handles (one-, two-, and three-pie), baskets that fit baking dishes of all sizes, and hampers with and without lids. The sharp smell of linseed oil cut through the dusty gloom. The basket man grew increasingly animated as he displayed his handiwork, which was very handsome and not without some quirky flaws. Before we knew it, he had disassembled the great pile basket by basket and I had selected four different ones for Christmas purposes. Well, three. The two-pie basket was for me.

The joy of beautiful, simple things, an encounter outside the bounds of my customary experience, made for a chesty exhilaration, a core happiness shared with friends. Back at the Amstutz farmhouse, I stowed my finds in the trunk of the car and bid Becca and Michael good-bye. The music of Cleveland beckoned.

Chapter Three – House of Spring

The conference did not provide breakfast on departure day, so I tracked down some to-go coffee, gassed up the vehicle, consulted the next page of directions, and then pointed the car’s nose toward Kidron, Ohio. My friend, Becca and her husband, Michael, had offered to show me around the Amish counties of eastern Ohio. She had grown up there, for all intents and purposes, on the family farm. Ohio is home to more Amish and Mennonite families than Pennsylvania. The centerpiece of the tour would be lunch with her grandma, Ruth Amstutz, who lives in the farmhouse built after the family emigrated from Switzerland in 1840.

I pulled into the yard on the dot of ten o’clock. It was a damp, soft-focus morning, somewhere between overcast and foggy. From the looks of it, there didn’t seem to be anyone home. Despite a smidgen of doubt, I reaffirmed my steadfast, manly faith in printed directions. I double-checked the address, then rang the bell. Becca answered. She stood in the doorway, always taller than I remember, her strawberry blond hair pulled back and a big, sweet smile on her face.

She tilted her head just a bit to the left and said, “V.”


We embraced.

Michael stood behind her and Grandma behind him. I was ushered into the fine old house, spotless and modest. Did I want lemonade or iced tea? Grandma Amstutz carried a pitcher of lemonade and four glasses onto the back porch and we fumbled joyfully through small talk. The chatty dachshund seemed to like me.

After draining our glasses, we departed for a pre-lunch exploration of the rectilinear byways of the Ohio countryside. The farmland was still bare or covered with new green. Proud barns with acolyte silos lorded over congregations of dusty outbuildings, casting nets of white fence everywhere. In the fields, mighty horses pulled plows, and in the yards, wash hung limply on lines. The farm folk always waved as we passed by. Kids were dressed identically as their parents. Walking beside the road, a man in overalls, navy blue long-sleeved shirt, and straight-brimmed straw hat held onto the hand of tiny, perfect version of himself.

They brought me to a rambling emporium called Lehman’s, which strives to meet all the simple requirements of the farm communities while anticipating summer tourists’ insatiable need for stuff. The practicality and impracticality of the abundance extended to fifty types of hatchet; psychedelic displays of seed packets; stiff, tubular denim trousers in every imaginable size except ‘fat’; and Amish romance novels.

I guess we had been working up an appetite. By the time we got back to the farm, Grandma Amstutz had laid out an epic meal – a plump breast of chicken accompanied by egg noodles, mashed potatoes, stuffing, asparagus, and crescent rolls. I had scarcely wiped my chin when appeared a mountainous apple pie and coffee. If I were heading back to the fields I would have energy to burn, however, after such a painfully hearty lunch I was predisposed to snooze.

Becca and Michael had other plans for me, but first, she beckoned – “V, come to the springhouse.” Behind the farmhouse, the whitewashed springhouse was tucked into a hollow, two rooms stacked one on top of another. Small windows flanked the thick door that opened with the gravitas of a bank vault. In the half-light hung a rich, chill dampness. The smell was elemental. A stone trough stretched against the back wall, filled with cold water of unearthly transparency. Opposite the trough was a great fireplace with a heavy kettle suspended above the swept hearth.

“Everything happened in the springhouse,” said Becca, “It was the center of existence.” “I see,” I said, really seeing.

We stepped out into the now bright May air.

Chapter Two – House of Words

I pushed on to Ashland, Ohio, site of the conference. Tedious interstate unspooled before me. I scanned my directions anxiously. Ashland lay between Columbus and Akron and I half-expected it to be the Ohio equivalent of those moribund New England mill towns, a hodge-podge of seen-better-days with a hollowed-out downtown and weary streets of unhappy houses. The new green on the trees that lined the streets provided a scrim of promise.

I picked up my room number and key and my sheets and towels. The dorm was a three-story, motel-style slab at a right angle to a busy intersection. The rest of the university sprawled across the street, in a mid-20th century industrial park sort of way. Lavish beds of tulips, generous swaths of color, softened the utilitarianism. Remarkably for a one hundred and twenty-five year-old institution, no building predates World War II. Ash U had nurtured a fine nonfiction literary magazine called River Teeth which sponsored this conference.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Ashland University was its rococo fetishizing of memorabilia. Every vertical surface of every building displayed framed and captioned photos, documents, posters, and tchotchkes, as well as trophies, beanies, balls, and plaques. Every corridor was a walk down somebody’s memory lane and every staircase a spillway of arcana to an end so trivial that all you registered were the bouffants, bellbottoms, and vaguely familiar celebrities. One could not help but observe a dismaying partiality for magicians and Republicans.

Back in the fall, when I submitted my ‘manuscript’, I asked for an ‘assessment.’ No one had seen the thing, a swiped-together collection of personal essays, since its days as a master’s thesis. I discarded about forty percent in favor of current writing. In addition to the many other stimulating aspects of a gathering of like-minded writers, the opportunity for someone of reputation to read my writing and proffer their opinion had me vibrating with apprehension. While I’m not shy about letting other people see my work, I can sometimes play a very self-manipulative game with fantasy outcomes.

We sit at a picnic table in the quad in the afternoon shade. Kate, my reader, says I have a book here. She points out areas that need expansion and whole pieces that should be set aside. But she says I have a book, if I want. How about that.

Chapter One – House of Earth and Sky

Some people say the most splendid thing about a road trip to Ohio is the road trip from Ohio. A month ago I might have agreed. However, if you follow this simple itinerary, you may come away with affection for benighted, rustbelt, flyover, swing state Ohio. Spring is a good time to go.

I had signed up for a two-day nonfiction conference at a small university in a small university town in the middle of Ohio. The keynote speaker, Scott Russell Sanders, was someone whose work I respected. He had written a wrenching essay about his drunken old man I could not get out of my head. Once I decided to drive, I started examining the road atlas for possible routes. There is no getting around Pennsylvania if you want drive to central Ohio from New York City. Two basic corridors exist – Interstate 80 to the north and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the south. Driving the full distance would take more than a day’s work: so, to break up the trip, where to stop? What’s beyond Harrisburg?



I could finally see Fallingwater – Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that sits astride a stream in the western Pennsylvania forest. I have been an architecture nerd since a college survey course and I believe Fallingwater to be one of the supreme achievements of twentieth century art. So I went.

I dropped my things at a B&B nearby, then found some very good sushi, and ultimately wound up at the multiplex in time to be disappointed by Star Trek Into Darkness. Early the next morning I wound through wooded hollows pillowed with ground fog to the invisible town of Mill Run, Penna.

Wright built Fallingwater as a weekend home for department store magnates from Pittsburgh. They gave him free rein and what they got was a glory, a stack of cantilevered terraces that stunningly recapitulated the cascade below. The rugged watercourse added music to the breathtaking geometries, while the yellow-green leaves of spring seemed to respond by scattering counterpoints of light over everything. It felt like there was a breeze. The terraces levitated, suspended from a supple column of stone and glass by good fortune alone. Standing the great room, the boundaries of inside and the outdoors dissolved. Somehow, gravity didn’t operate. The sensation was almost Cubist in the way the sights and sounds and smells and textures activated each other. But there was no mistaking it for anything but a family home. It served their needs as it elevated their spirits. Entering Fallingwater fulfilled a persistent daydream.