The History of Humboldt (Part II): Scenesetting

Nothing refutes the solidity of self-identity like Angus Fletcher’s assertion “to discover the scene is to discover the self.” Regardless of what our flopflopfearing politicians may say, the self is not solid stone; it’s shifting sand.

The act of discovering the self mirrors the creation of a literary character. And thus the idea of scenesetting plays a vital role in foregrounding Humboldt, or the Power of Positive Thinking. To illustrate the importance of scenesetting, I had to look no further than the sandsculpture of my own life.

While living in New York, I had no qualms about spending my nights drinking beer out of a can while discussing things like the performance art of Marina Abramović (“Nudity in an art museum? Who needs the internet!”) or bragging about how I once hungout with one-fifth of the band TV on the Radio (“He had a full face-fro! You couldn’t tell where the beard ended and the afro began!”) But upon returning to Southeastern Ohio, I discovered that such conversations were strictly verboten so I seamlessly transitioned into drinking beer out of a can while discussing the President’s mysterious place of birth (“Kenya? He looks Fijian Indian to me!”) and supporting the claim that Jesus rode a dinosaur (“I mean, it’s not in the Bible, but there’s gotta be something in one of those kooky Nag Hammadi texts, right?”) And these scenes differed greatly from the afternoons I spent along K Road in Auckland, ogling trannies and talking rugby (“Go da Blues!”), which differed greatly from those spent in Portland, Maine, where I ogled other bearded dude’s red plaid jackets, while vigorously insisting that lobster rolls are delicious and in no way resemble squirting Mayonnaise into your mouth and then flinging $12 into Casco Bay. And now that I live in Columbus, I happily wear scarlet & gray underwear, while assuring everyone that I’m NOT cheering for Michigan in this year’s NCAA tournament (C’mon Wolverines; beat Syracuse! I mean, get rabies and die, you prickly garbagefeeders!)

With the exception of Auckland, all of these cities appear within Humboldt, or the Power of Positive Thinking. The narrative also passes through Washington D.C., Iraq, Connecticut, Boston, prison, Houston, and New Orleans. And with each new scene, Humboldt’s shifting self assembles itself, developing over both time and space.

But here’s the dilemma: what to do with Ohio? How does an author go about scenesetting in a state that prides itself on being totally nondescript? What is there to write about? And how can an author avoid sounding like a condescending Opat or an opinionated Ohole?

Opat: (n) an Ohioan who has moved away from Ohio and frequently slanders his home state

Ohole: (n) Regional variety of asshole indigenous to Ohio

Within My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber dodged this dilemma by narrowing his focus. The book’s essays contain no lofty discussions of the Midwest, no lengthy dissertations on Ohio as a whole. His perspective isn’t vast; it’s microscopic in its precision. Thurber discovers his self through describing the mundane events of his life (his kooky family, his petulant pets, the day the dam didn’t break) within the small confines of turn-of-the-century Columbus, Ohio. In other words, Thurber allows the scene to construct the self.

Adopting Thurber’s approach, The Kid from Cambridge’s first essay, “Welcome to Cambridge”, surges towards its conclusion like a runaway Amish buggy. The essay ends where most Southeastern Ohio stories begin: Mr. G’s parking lot.

Here is the conclusion to “Welcome to Cambridge”:

Cambridge has numerous liquor stores, the most popular being Mr. G’s on Southgate Parkway. At one point in my life, I knew what the letter G stood for in Mr. G’s. But since such lucidity usually accompanies drunkenness and dissipates during sobriety, knowing what the G stands for in Mr. G’s remains as elusive as the proper pronunciation of Cadiz.

Mr. G’s on Southgate Parkway occupies a central position within the social fabric of Cambridge. In this regard, it is akin to a mid-century Quaker Meeting House or a Maori Marae. Yet the major difference between Mr. G’s flagship and such communal cornerstones is that seldom, if ever, do Quaker Meeting Houses have an attached Drive-Thru. Even the most liver-hardened drunk has to admit that the concept of a liquor store having a Drive-Thru sounds like a dangerous oxymoron.

I personally boycott all Drive-Thru liquor stores, with the exception of the ones that employ family members, but this boycott has nothing to do with ideology or political correctness and everything to do with indecision. For me, ordering alcohol has always been fraught with baffling complexity and I am forever asking bartenders questions like ‘Is your Pernod pastis?’ and ‘Can I smell your Lagavulin?’ While these questions are perfectly acceptable within a bar setting, they never fail to elicit looks of disdain at a Drive-Thru window. They also tend to elicit angry honks and shouts of “Hurry up, asshole” from the queue of cars beginning to take shape behind me.

Returning to story that I had begun to tell a few paragraphs ago, I had just finished dithering between buying a four-pack of Guinness cans and a bottle of Black Velvet, having chosen the Guinness. About halfway across the store’s ample expanse of parking, I heard the unmistakable clipclop clipclop of horse hooves on concrete. Hearing the clipclop clipclop of horse hooves on concrete is not an uncommon sound around Cambridge. The state of Ohio claims to be home to the largest Amish population in the country and Cambridge is almost in Amish Country. (In an unnecessary but humorous aside, in New Zealand, the word Amish is pronounced ‘AIM-ish,’ and can thus be used in the following sentence; “AIM-ish Hamish reads the famous Seamus Heaney.”)

The Amish and their beloved buggies are enough of a presence on Cambridge city streets that the local legislature was forced to strategically place yellow, diamond-shaped hazard signs around town emblazoned with the silhouette of a horse and buggy. Such a symbol is often humorously referred to by local teenagers as the universal hieroglyph for: ‘Aim for Amish.’

So while it is common to see Amish people walking around Cambridge (I almost hit one this morning while he was awkwardly trying to cross Wheeling Avenue in front of Cambridge Savings & Loan) and it is common to see ‘Aim for Amish’ signs around town (there are no such signs on Wheeling Avenue in front of Cambridge Savings & Loan), it is extremely uncommon to see an Amish buggy clipclop clipclopping down Woodlawn Avenue and turning into Mr. G’s parking lot. But as I stood looking dumbfounded in the middle of that very same parking lot, my four-pack of Guinness cans safely tucked under my arm, this is exactly what happened.

Once the horse had halted, I watched as a young Amish teenager dismounted from his perch and tied his buggy to the base of Mr. G’s neon sign that proudly proclaims: “Turn Here Cold Beer.” As the horse stood patiently underneath the gentle neon glow, the Amish youth sauntered past me, kindly tipping the broad brim of his silly-looking hat as if he were rakish Southern gentleman. He then entered Mr. G’s. I was so caught off guard that I forgot to say hello or unleash my usual Amish icebreaker: “May I tickle thee, friend?” Someone once told me that the Amish love to be tickled.

And to save anyone the time and effort of having to fact-check this story, here’s the blurry photograph that I rapidly snapped with my cellphone:

Mr. G's

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One Response to The History of Humboldt (Part II): Scenesetting

  1. The photo certainly shuts up any disbelievers.

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