Thursday, December 17, 2020

And that's how it's done.


     The years flit by, irretrievable. But by jotting a quick gloss of the day's events, you can manage to preserve a teacup full of facts for future reference.
      Unlike you, if I want to get an idea what I did on, oh, Oct. 24, 1992, I have a way to find out. "Travel to New Orleans—took cab to Prytania House—enormous, decayed mansion with soaring ceilings of perhaps 20 feet. Walked around Garden District, then took St. Charles streetcar to French Quarter. . . Lunch on the balcony at the Royal Cafe. Seems like we had just been transformed there; so sudden."
     I think I meant "transported." But heck, I was 32. A pup, relatively. 
     Getting back to keeping journals. Of course the books must be jotted in, every day, ideally, which takes a kind of discipline. Honestly, in years gone by, I'd sometimes miss months at a time. But I've been better in the past decade or two. More alert at the end of the day, if you catch my drift. 
     The books must not only be written in, more or less regularly, but they also must be purchased once a year. That's a non-negotiable requirement. No book, no record. For the first 15 years, from 1985 to 2000, that involved a letter or, if running late, a phone call to Waterstone's in London. Then when Waterstone's stopped making literary diaries—no future in it, I suppose—I started buying a simple red Brownstone journal at Atlas Stationers on Lake Street. I would carefully take my old journal out of my briefcase, compare it with the new to make sure they were the same size—they make a range—and then conduct the transaction.
     Even with the pandemic, I planned to pick one up in person. I phoned in mid-November, and asked them to put one aside. If you wait until too close to New Year's, you risk Atlas running out. I did that one year, and they had to scramble to find one and get it to me. They did, because they're that kind of place. But it was a near thing.
      So I had one set aside. Then suddenly it was the second half of December, and I realized: I might not get downtown to pick it up. Not in this very strange Plague Year. Definitely would not, unless I made a special trip. Which seems silly, what with the postal service right here, despite everything. Maybe even risky too. So I phoned Atlas, and asked if they would mail it. Of course. I'll have to have the pleasure of chatting with owners Therese and Don Schmidt another time. They're doing well; online business is booming.
     When I got the box Wednesday, I cut it open, and found the new diary, just like the old diary. And something extra. 
 A post card, with a simple thick-lined painting of their store, under the 'L' tracks, with its distinctive cast iron pillars. Quite beautiful really.
     A lagniappe, as the Cajuns say. A little present that seals the deal. 
     See, that's why no matter how efficient Amazon becomes, or how big Office Depot grows, there will always be room for an Atlas Stationers. Because someone had to secure the painting from artist Kathy Los-Rathburn and someone had to print the postcards and someone had to scrawl, "Hi—So long 2020, Hello 2021—Bye" with a smiley face on the back, then tuck it in the box. Jeff Bezos will never cook up an algorithm to create and insert the unasked-for post card with a friendly little note at the end. Not without charging extra, that is. I don't know if everybody who places an order gets one, or just super special minor local media personalities, though I suspect it is the former.
     Anyway, it perked up a dark wintery COVID era day for me, and I thought it just might perk up your day too.


  1. Lovely painting, lovely gesture, lovely sentiment.

  2. Yes, it definitely perked up my day. I hope that Neil has occasion to use the word "lagniappe" more that it might stick in my head eventually.


    1. I first heard that word on one of my visits to New Orleans. It's a Looozianna French term...Cajun, if you will. A lagniappe is "a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase", or more broadly, "something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure." Like when you go to a bakery and they give you a "baker's dozen"...thirteen rolls or pastries instead of twelve. From which we get the expression "a baker's dozen."

      I've "journaled" for sixty years...jotted down daily events since junior high. I had those "page-a-day" diaries from age twelve to age eighteen, and filled over two thousand pages before leaving for college. They're difficult reads, because of the cringeworthy things I said and did and thought in my teens. So I don't look at them much anymore.

      In college, I entered my daily doings in those "course planners" that were supposed to remind you of the due dates of papers, and of tests and assignments. Post-college, I used the store-bought, spiral-bound, pocket-sized "daily reminders" that had several dates on a page. I learned how to "write teensy."

      By my thirties, I just started using wall calendars. Began with the ones put out by the CTA for over a decade. Later on, I bought the glossy commercial calendars from bookstores. Cats. Nature. Trains. San Francisco streetcars and cable cars.

      A few years ago, I punched holes in all those glossy calendar pages, and put them into oversized three-ring binders. The calendars became pages in ledgers. The Life of Grizzy. An accounting of everything I've done...or not done...since 1993. Historical? Probably hysterical. Obsessive and compulsive? More likely.

      When I want to know what I did twenty years ago today, or if my wife asks me when we went to a certain place on our anniversary, or when that big snowstorm or tornado hit, I can tell her. I try not to think of how tens of thousands of these "journaling" entries will one day come to a sudden stop, or how all of it will eventually go to a landfill. Where some future archeologist will one day look at the remnants and say: "Who was this nut? Whatta screwball!"

  3. I confess to greatly anticipating my first entry in the new year's journal.
    Good stuff!

  4. The Lake-Franklin Group has some of the oldest buildings in the Loop, built right after the Chicago Fire of 1871. IIRC they date to 1872.

  5. Just bought one for my 18 yr old grand daughter with an inter changeable leather cover with a personal inscription. Made a copy of your column and including the first couple of paragraphs with the gift. Love your columns.

    1. That's very flattering. If you do email, you might want, after she receives the present, to send her this post, from seven years ago, a deeper dive into journal-writing.

  6. As the Scots say? Better not claim that when you’re next in New Orleans; that’s a Louisiana thing.

    1. Ah. Sorry about that. I should check that kind of thing. Fixed now. Thanks.

  7. It did indeed perk me up. If inducing a tinge of regret for never having emulated Steinberg and Boswell in keeping a journal. About lagniappe, a fine word indeed but my good wife is Scottish born and bred and I've not heard it pass her lips. Ever. A bit of research indicates that its origin is a Spanish term somewhat transmogrified by French speaking New Orleans dwellers and passed from there though culinary channels northward. Mark Twain took note of it in "Life on the Mississippi."


  8. Wonderful follow up to your 2013 piece. Just reread. As someone who has also documented the last 33 years in a non-literary, impressions/key happenings/bits and pieces way, I totally relate. Since a fair portion of my jottings center on the kids (now young adults), I figure they might find at least some of it interesting. Plus, age and loss of brain cells in my long ago "lost years" make it wise to have written this history.

  9. Spent 40 minutes today, talking to a foreign call center confirming a repeat order for four medications . Had the company hired people who understood English, the task would have taken 5 minutes. Including a minute to compare baseball allegiances. Good to know that some businesses still value their customers.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.