Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bridge House

By the turn of the century before last, Cornell had finished building its main quadrangle on what used to be Ezra Cornell's high pasture between two gorges, but the campus was still separated by Fall Creek Gorge, from the undeveloped heights on the North. The side-gorges and steep glens made construction projects a special problem in the Heights, but Cornell wanted to reach across and put some women's dorms over there.
So the University held a design competition for a bridge to the Heights.

Oliver Fast, a post graduate student at the time, submitted a design for a full -span, stone arch, supporting not just the road-way, but also two stories of class rooms and prominent observation posts . Stone stairs wound down through the abutments to more rooms and chambers. Despite seeming archaic, the bridge would have been a feat of modern engineering, using Fast's own twist on the new iron-assisted, fero-cement, construction techniques, which the Ithaca architect Clinton Vivian and others were pioneering at the time.

The Fast proposal was just too new, too old, too crazy..... and to nobody's surprise, the competition was won by the steel bridge you see there today: radical then, but an antique now. They don't build steel erector-set bridges like that any more. And simply maintaining them has become a branch of historic preservation.
The barbed cable , tension core construction, which Fast invented never did catch on anywhere, and the next bridge across that gorge will likely be a spider-tech nano-fiber sequestered-carbon based, double-reflex, tension/ suspension system, which will itself weigh less than a city bus, and will be quickly reeled in for redeployment elsewhere.

But on the same day back when the design competition winner was announced , Oliver Fast wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, declaring in unprintable language, at unreadable length, and with no chance of having it published, that he would blankety blank go somewhere and build the blankety blank thing himself. for himself, and if necessary, by him blankety blank self.

Oliver Fast never went far, but this was at a time when professors were so poorly paid that they had to be rich already to take on a Professorship. so the exposure got him commissions to design mansions in the Heights. Each of the best Heights estates had its own dwarf-glen, or was a winding eminence between two border gorges.
Portuguese and Italian stone masons left over from the Cornell blue stone boom easily shifted to laying up houses like follies in Jane Austin Country gardens... or like mausoleums in her cemetery.
Homes with hundred yard, pounded cobblestone driveways and stone gate- posts the size of smoke-houses.
And then came the junior-faculty houses, closer to the curb , like ornamentally disguised gate-keeper cottages.

Fraternity houses became his particular speciality . Many Fraternity Trustees payed to go with some kind of fantasy historical theme, often Gothic or Medieval, with secret chapter rooms, and winding stone stairs connecting levels. Fast was good with that. The fraternity work made him rich.
Fast isn't known to have had family, or even any romantic affairs, or any social interactions outside of chess games, but his success allowed him to buy his own land in the Heights.
A deep, dwarf gorge cut through the middle of it.

Fast never drew any real plans for his Bridge House. And there was never even a point where we could say he first started.
Before he could think of beginning, he had to make extensive pick-and-shovel explorations into the structural stability of the abutment areas.
And then he kind of had to install the footings and cassons, so that the exposed shale didn't crack and collapse.
Cayuga Heights , Forest Home, and County Court record show that , although he never did get a building permit, the village boards were not able to stop Mr. Oliver Fast from continuing what he argued was essentially only maintenance of and improvements to natural stability
Just the temporary timber frame support for the abutment and the arch must have taken more than one season to construct..... and after that, things only went slower. The unique barbed-iron cable which he installed under tension in canvas tubes for the cement cores he had poured through the stone work, must have frustrated and slowed the traditional mason a lot.
Up the years, as the structure rose to a second story of rooms above the arch, the few stone masons who hadn't moved on or gone back to the old country, died off or became too old to climb. He kept his last old stone man around strictly as a chess partner, until that one got to be too old to stay awake at the board.

Fast finished hoisting and installing the thumb-thick, tray-sized, roof slates all by himself, one dark day a week before the fiftieth Christmas of his life.
He climbed down from the roof the last time that day and walked into the main foyer of Bridge House....into an empty chamber.... on what he must have suddenly realized, was a bridge to nothing....and him with nothing but nothing to do ever again.

Because, within a month of hanging the last roof tile, Oliver Fast attempted suicide by jumping off his bridge. But the scale was too small to kill him. He was lucky that it was early winter with two feet of snow and oak leaves drifted into the gorge. And lucky to have worked so long as his own earth-mover and stone mason, because, although his legs were paralyzed for ever, he was able to haul himself up out of the gorge .

After six months in a sanatorium , Fast still had enough money that he could return to Bridge House, supervise some remodeling, and then spend the rest of his life ( and the money) being cared for by a live-in Scottish nursemaid/ cook/ house keeper, and her husband the butler/gardener/ nurse's aid He had allowed them to bring their little rat terrier at their insistence that it was a working dog. There had in fact been a rat problem, but the dog spent most of it's life after that in Fast's Lap, which was fine with the dog and the man.. The Mrs. was a great cook, and . McRobbie himself was a chess player, and a busy amateur wood carver.
That is all,according to the day maid, who lived down in town and walked up to Bridge House each day. She testified that the two men sat around in front of the fireplace for as many hours carving chess pieces and arguing about books , as they did playing chess. Arguing and waving their carving knives, the men never went for each other's throats. Fast gave the maid and the milk man big tips at Christmass, and Mrs. McRobbie gave them scones and macaroons throughout the year.

In short....they were jolly happy for most of a a dogs age.
Then, following a particularly jolly Christmass dinner attended by the milk man and the day maid ( who were later married ) , Fast died of sudden heart failure .

He left everything to his dear McRobbies, with left overs for the maid and the milk man, although at that point, the real estate was most everything, and it's legal status was in question.

For reasons never made clear, the McRobbies disappeared a few weeks after Fast died. And they never did reappear to claim the questionable estate .

Some things will always be a mystery, and that is just fine, because we have to move on with history, and the point is: here for a time was a happy family. And, whatever you may have heard, happy families are not all the same.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Davey Weathercock and Olive: Cold Snap

As Davey Weathercock, with Olive the hen, I have a regular gig for Tiny Town Times, improvising a weather report from here on Pumpkin Hill. My nominal brother Davey Warren who edits the blog, used his photo manipulations software to squinch up my face for the blog profile picture so that I look more like the gnome you maybe imagine me to be...knowing I am so very short shanked.
So no, folks, there is no Davey Weathercock. It is only me: William Bonaparte Warren. But let's suspend disbelief for five minutes please.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Her Red Guitar

Gee is gone off again, but she didn't take her little red guitar with the door in its back. You open the door with a finger hole that has a painted morning glory vine twining out of it. The flowers are the pale blue of Gee's eyes. She pretends to play the guitar some , but mostly it is a portable cabinet for her big French knife, with the stone and steel.

The last time I wrote, she'd gone to Ithaca, just to pick up some smoked salt ... and to look in at Bridge House, she said.
I expected her back that night, but she was gone for a week...stayed overnight with the raccoons and graffiti at Bridge House, then took the rest of a week getting back. She makes a friend and professional contact every five miles.
She says travel is how she focuses.
I'd say even if she goes nowhere, she is always several places anyway. Or several people in one place. She says she's my Muse, but it's Davey who's supposed to be a writer. Why doesn't she amuse him? They ignore each other.
I don't know exactly what a muse is supposed to do, but it seems like mostly she just wants to be in the blog.

Like any aspiring actress in any town, tiny or big, Gee has usually been without a stage, and has mostly worked in the hospitality trade.
The overhead, tray-flourishing, side-steps she performed during her early restaurant gigs made Gee well known in Ithaca as the Zobo Waitress, but most of her acting jobs were with a few up-stairs theater companies which entertained fewer people than they employed, and payed only the land lord. That was before Missy Hooligan came through town.

A year or two after I myself had left town, Gee went off with Missy Hooligan's Tall Animal Review - a funky and eclectic bunch which included pseudo-apes on stilts and skates, a peg-legged, tattoed hog, and a coordinated shoplifting team, and also offered a wide range of theatrical improvisations.
When Gee joined the Hooligans, they began to include the little "dinner theater" productions, in which Gee was the star.
And she earned the two ee's in her name with her billing as the Mystic Miss Gee, the Palm Reader.
She has a nice professional way of taking your hand, while catching your eye with her own eyes - with those pale blue, nearly transparent irises that make you think she could look into your head. because it seems you can look into hers........ and and then she looks at your life line, and shudders at what she sees, turns away briefly and thwn offers a pleasant and vague prediction about travel and friendship. Or at least that is what she did for me. I'm guessing that her regular customers tipped her generously, for not telling them more.

The Missy Hoolahans , or Houlians, or Hooligans ...... by any name and in any era, or current mix of hippy, beat, and gypsy..... are a bunch of fellow travelers you wouldn't likely bring home for lunch: all artists of opportunity. They own very little, and sleep with their chickens , cats, dogs, and children, in or under vans and homebuilt trailers. Mostly, they launder their clothing without removing it. But they were artists and didn't need any license.

When the convoy made camp in some hidden place... often in a well located cemetery..... she could walk up to the door of just about any inn, restaurant, or bar, and talk the management into exchanging some dinner theater, for dinner itself.
She was all sincerity and enthusiasm...still is...without any acting.
Until the final acts, never more than three of the Hooligans appeared in the dining room during their productions. But twelve or twenty would be out back, busy writing themselves into the play, and they would each troop through at some point before the group bow and chow.
They were all charming...or entertaining....or distracting enough that they were usually well thanked and fed......but occasionally they were chased away or arrested, and they sometimes disbanded....for a while.
Once, for a Christian Businessman's fund raiser, they staged a Murder mystery robbery which, as far as the robbery part went, only pretended to be pretend. Not all of Missy's crew were involved in planning the robbery, , but those three got several years each in prison, and the Hooligan's dispersed for five whole years.
That was more than fifteen years ago. They have been seen around here again, only recently.

When they didn't get busted or otherwise interrupted for a long stretch, Gee would tire of that life.
So after the caravan arrived at some place where she wanted to stay for a while...she would just walk up to an Inn and tell the manager that, for no money at all, she would gladly clean a bathroom top to bottom ... as a demonstration..... and what's more, she would do it in fifteen minutes flat as they watched.

She would go over the place on all fours, sometimes plonking around on two inverted buckets with the bales over her feet, and scrubbing the ceiling with her hand brushes . She had a special pair of bushes with leather straps which, as the last step, she buckled onto her feet, then flooded and skated the floor clean This was all done with more ornamental movement than was practical....but she did do it quick as she said, and on the basis of her performance, maybe mostly on the basis of its entertainment value, she could get up to thirty dollars each to clean additional rooms.
I guess most people were so charmed they didn't stop to think that if they paid her thirty dollars for fifteen minutes of work, they were payiing her a hundred twenty dollars an hour.
No problem..... they would soon bring her into the kitchen, and before long hand her the general hospitality functions, and weeks of Inn sitting, especially for inns with multiple, demented and demanding pets.

She looped many times around the country between New Orleans and Nova Scotia, usually taking several years to complete a loop. Ithaca was not in the loop.
Somewhere along there she somehow gained a daughter, who split off on her own, a while back.

Oh I guess I don't want to know everything about her life between then and now.....or even between the time she left here for the smoked salt and when she straggled back.

After that, Gee was here again for about a week.... or maybe it was two or three short ones.
My housekeeping and personal grooming had gone a long way down a steep slope since she'd been away, and I was glad to have her home . it seems like most of the time she was back here, I spent in the bathtub .
This trailer is small enough that one of us has to be sitting somewhere if the other is only going to move around...... and especially when she's cooking or cleaning, launching around on my dry-wall stilts to do the ceiling, or wielding that big French knife of hers.

One day when she had been chopping and mincing for her portable pancake pies while thinking about other things, she powdered her face with some New Hope Mills pancake mix.
I was sitting in the bath with the old IBbook clam shell open on a board I had put across the tub,
When Gee walked in, her face all white with that pancake mix, I couldn't even see the oak leaf tattoo on her cheek.... I grabbed the edges of the tub knees jerked and knocked the board.... and tipped the IBook into the water.

I snatched the clam shell out of the tub, and Gee hung it over the towel rack, but we both knew it was dead.

She was only interested in getting me to guess who she was made up as.
In the dewy, overheated atmosphere of the trailer, the New Hope pancake mix was already rising and bubbling on Gee's face.
She was being who?
I guessed Michael Jackson, which pissed her off. Jackson Pollock; not funny. I guessed Michael Jackson again.

The correct answer was Cameo White. If I hadn't been more concerned with the dead computer, I might have guessed it; she had been talking about Cameo White ever since coming back from Bridge House.

Why exactly Gee would identify with someone who died alone and was partially eaten by her dogs..... I can't say, but she tells me she wants to play the role of Cameo White in a movie set at Bridge House. Not that anyone is planning to make a movie.

Gee went yesterday to help her friend at the inn with a pet-wake they were hosting, and said she might stay over night to help with the breakfast ......then I know she was going to help with some tastings at the winery up the road for a string of wine tour buses coming through.... so I don't know when I will see her again exactly. But I've got the red guitar.