Death or Damage by Creosote

Sure, you are all tired of reading about this topic, I suppose (although you could cut me short by calling or writing to the iniquitous knaves concerned — numbers appearing soon below). But a horrible night of the cloyingly dry and musty fumes has left me… in research mode. And I have learned a few things. Thus todayʼs post.

And if you would like to help alleviate our dire situation, just contact the careless culprits and ask them to cease their nefarious malfeasance and impairments to our health and happiness:

  • Dan Schmidt, manager of miscreant Gasser True Value, Maquoketa (work phone 563-652-2446)
  • Brian Wagner, Maquoketa City Manager (work phone:  563-652-2484; e-mail by name at

Iʼm going to e-mail this post to both.

A busy week means I have to plan ahead (somewhat — and somewhat more than I am doing), meaning I need to churn out at least two blog posts today/Tuesday. Unfortunately, I seem to have nothing to say. Nothing particularly new anyway.

Gasserʼs vast stock of creosoted lumber vaporizing a noxious stink throughout our part of Maquoketa (up to a mile — more? —around)…

The weather does continue pleasant, even cool, but the atmosphere is heavily tinged with the stench of creosote. Yes, Gasser True Value remains high on my list of local dastards. On Monday night, trying to sleep was a challenge, even with the chill air attempting to to lull us into unconsciousness. Why? The hideous, gagging fetor wafting up from the hellpit to our north, wretchedly overpowering enough to drag me over the boundary of dreams into the mephitic reality of western Maquoketa. Dead in the dark middle of the night.

Thank you, sneering and self-important Dan Schmidt, too utterly uninterested in the welfare of anyone else to even be twinged with doubt if or when your black pile of annoyance and poison should ultimately work its destined doom on those (like me) illfated to dwell within the radius of your maleficent stench.

Monday night I forced myself back to sleep, but what unknown damage is wrought upon my lungs and circulatory (or even nervous) system with each detrimental breath? The horror is that we (particularly demented Danny boy) do not know.

When I first posted on the subject of being forced to constantly breathe creosote fumes, a friend and former student referred me to a judiciously chosen (if you are of the letʼs-all-mindlessly-support-the-widespread-use-of-creosote-in-any-and-all-situations clan mindset) internet link — here — by which he wished to assert that creosote is harmless. Click the link to read the first words of the JAMA response to the editor, all that we nonsubscribers can get.

The article does not say breathing creosote is harmless. It does say simply that in the case under consideration insufficient evidence has been provided — yet. And thatʼs the situation overall, I have been discovering. Evidence is limited. Thatʼs probably because too much study might reveal toxic truths the industry would rather never got clearly demonstrated. The Creosote Council (the PR/lobbying group for the creosote industry) has been very active in promoting their single-minded point of view that this coal-tar derivative is harmless; check this document, too), although the EPA has clearly not moved from the longstanding position that coal tars are very capable of toxicity. Unfortunately, most studies have been on skin exposure to creosote and creosote-in-water, not on the fumes (although, as you will see, I did find a few scary references). Creosote is a pesticide, first and foremost, after all…

First, check this link. (And we particularly notice the fumage in the heat of summer…) And from the little article we quote: “I do not think you need worry about this aspect, but you should certainly be concerned about the fumes given off when the sleeper is heated by your wood-burning stove. These vapours are a well-known cause of irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract, and you should take immediate steps to have the sleeper removed.” (I chose an easy-to-read article: there are more scholarly publications on creosote fumes, even available from the EPA, which strictly stipulates that creosote is only approved, being a known carcinogen, for industrial use and no residential exposure is recommended (used railroad ties are specifically listed not to be used for retaining walls or gardening dividers). But the clincher for me currently was the reference to creosote fumes and impariments of vision.

Breathing creosote fumes harms the eyes! (Hereʼs a link on just what keratitis is, and the picture looks a lot like Janetʼs eyes can get, hmmmm…) Is this the place to note that I have in the past several years noticed an increasing set of issues with my eyes (not to mention Janetʼs detached retina — probably unrelated, we hope), connected it seems to sensitivity to light. Twice in two weeks here in June (first on Fathersʼ Day and then Monday this week) I have suffered from strobing bright tiger-striped disruptions to my vision (both after working outdoors, where the fumes, by the way, are generally more obnoxiously obvious, the more recent on Monday afternoon after trimming the bushes in front of our house). These episodes begin with a small wedge-shaped brilliance roughly just offcenter in my vision that gradually grows and spreads to become a scintillating flashing semicircular radiance (on the right side of my sight) that (so far) over an hour to ninety minutes gradually fades. Furthermore, last summer sunbrightness seemed to dazzle me when running to such an extent that I kept one eye fully closed and the other slitted (even with sunglasses, which I also wore when working outdoors before the recent two incidents) to minimize the full light. I have similar distress while mowing here in the yard. Caused by creosote fumes? Definitely possible; I have after all been at home every day for a year, breathing more than ever previously the calamitous effluvium. Not caused by our neighborhood-wide creosote miasma? Unknown.

And I havenʼt begun to let myself consider the other mental/psychological and physical effects that are listed. Here are  some more links — one, two, three. Even more on creosote and health — four, five, six, seven, eight. You can do your own searches, too. Be sure to check the compounds composing creosote, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (which ones are never stated by the selfserving Creosote Council in its many publishings).

Hereʼs another EPA statement on creosote: “In regard to creosote treated lumber, we believe there is still a fair amount of uncertainty associated with the level of contaminants (e.g., levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons present in creosote) in comparison to traditional fuels. We, therefore, are requesting that commenters provide additional data on contaminant levels associated with these non-hazardous secondary materials relative to traditional fuels that are in use today as fuels.” The emphases are mine.

Unfortuantely, as I learn more, I grow more depressed at how both the business at fault and our sententious city manager in all probability have grossly misbehaved by hurriedly dismissing our complaints.

Creosote is only EPA-approved for industrial use. Our residential exposure continues night and day every day of the year (as therefore so should my open and public revelations of our  callous unneighborly attacker ruthlessly and unrepentantly assaulting us from the north). Sure, industrial use of creosote-treated lumber will continue (maybe it even should — the states of Oregon and Washington to the contrary), but stockpiling hundreds and hundreds of creosote-fuming logs just yards from our innocent but victimized homes seems criminal to me.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Just Some Stuff…

not quite our model? The remote is different

Just when I had been so proud of myself for getting our air conditioners installed, Janet decides the bedroom one is kaput (itʼs not, but…) and we must replace it. So we did, on Sunday. We enriched the Wal-Mart corporation yet again, acquiring a new GE climatiseur (the instructions came in three languages — English, French and Spanish — and I like that French word for the device) in preference to the identical Haier (more or less identical, interchangeable at least for Wal-Mart purposes) and left our local store several hundred dollars poorer.

Janet was spending most of Sunday making salads of various kinds (including some fresh guacamole, yeah!), so I got right to work extricating the old machine (available for sale, anyone, probably fifty bucks or less; itʼs a Quasar — couldnʼt have been my science/fiction side raising its head when we bought that one a decade or so back) and then lugging in the new one in its box. This one involved more assembly than any previous  device of its kind in our household, but it was all (as they intend) do-able and in less than two hours (I was deliberately being extraordinarily careful with everything, wishing to make no mistakes setting this machine up and in place and working). All it required were both a flathead and Phillips screwdriver and a pair of scissors (lots of wrappings to cut away). Naturally, we now have styrofoam padding to dispose, but it seems a valid purchase.

It does, however, come with a remote control. To me that is an unimaginably stupid extra. How hard is it to get up and turn on or turn off your air conditioner, huh? On the other hand, I put the batteries in ours, and it is sitting on the bedside table along with some books and my glasses case.

Although by Monday morning, the temperatures and humidity had dropped to wonderfully comfortable levels — and better for today and tomorrow, before gradually warming back up to summertime heat — even during the night, we still appreciated the vastly better cooling/drying capabilities of the new air conditioner. Of course, it has not been turned on again since Monday morning. But it will, it will.

Now I am tempted to fork over a hundred bucks for a (smaller and cheaper) climatiseur for the office, too… My only concern is the thirty-five foot fall to the concrete in back (and getting the screen out) versus the ill effects of putting it in right next to me in the western (therefore sunsoaked and heatbaked) window. However, as I realized Sunday, I never have dropped an air conditioner from a window yet (although I am not confident I could get the screen in — or eventually back in place — from inside the northern window, and I am not sure I want to extend our aluminum extension ladder, an heirloom from my father, up from the back patio to the office window just to get a screen out and then eventually back in place). Decisions, decisions.

Music Note

Monday also marked the arrival of a small package from — their newest archival live Dead release, this one from 1970, shortly before the release of Workingmanʼs Dead. This Fillmore East concert includes some of my favorite Dead tunes early-ish in their evolution and the Dead in acoustic mode, which I have liked from a Dickʼs Picks selection years ago (number 8). Although I have tried with some success to curtail my completist tendencies in collecting music, particularly in the late afternoon haze of retirement, some things (especially when you have been working to bring in extra cash, it seems) prove irresistible. So I succumbed, tempted by the only temporarily available Bonus Disk and a T-shirt (the Workingmanʼs Dead album cover).

Thirstystone® coasters with the Grateful Deadʼs “Stealie” logo were also on sale for about or less than half the going price, so I decided that the office could use some actual coasters to replace the cardboard ones Guinness sent out as a promotion years back. The one that my iced tea glass sits on has a distinct curl now, so a real absorbent coaster should be a good improvement, for not very much money (or thatʼs what I told myself as greed filled my gaze a few weeks back). Perhaps I will photograph them to illustrate a post as pointless as this one today another time.

A particularly annoying aspect of iTunes (what isnʼt annoying about Apple these days?), is the utter inability of the “Find Album Art” menu command to actually find the correct art for any music that you download or import yourself. Itʼs probably just one more tyrannical attempt to force us all to buy music from the iTunes Store, of course, where the scans have already been performed and the art matches flawlessly. But it is really annoying to have to go out searching the internet for already reproduced album covers or scan them yourself. As the Road Trips 3.3 release is new enough there are no online sources except the store itself, I scanned my CD covers, thus enabling me to illustrate this little portion of todayʼs post with my own scans. (Now maybe other people will be stealing the art from this site as I have located cover art elsewhere in the past.)

Maybe those new songs will play this morning as I deliver empty bottles and cans (500 of them — we kind of let everything collect until itʼs worthwhile to descend into the upper levels of hell at Can City, truly a most unpleasant smoke-fogged and underclass experience, to return stuff) and visit the dry cleaners to see if Janet is correct and we have forgotten to pick up (and pay for) some clothes for months now. If I get going early enough, maybe I wonʼt waste today.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Recollections of Travel: Vehicles

Janet and I have been discussing what to do on vacation. We haven’t come to any decisions of any kind. Yet. I think she’d like to do something dramatic as we did last year — Prague. She has brought up Budapest more than once, and the idea has some appeal for me. No discussion of when any trip will be (nor just how weʼre going to fund the adventure), but the whole deal has got me thinking about our travels, which is a topic I have not addressed on the blog really.

from brother Davidʼs website — David atop the camper

My family used to take a vacation every summer, generally long and torturous escapades in a car, meaning endless hours sweating in a backseat and usually feeling mildly carsick. We also used to camp out — probably more a matter of financial resources than a genuine pleasure in the outdoors (but I’m not sure about that). All I know is that my parents were generally moderately grumpy regularly during our vacations. It couldn’t have anything to do with what non-angelic angels we kids were.  Fairly early on, my father bought a pop-up camper — one of those fold-open, tent-topped, boxlike affairs (click the link for other pictures). The metal top folded back to each side, front and back, and the tent, folded up within the box when closed, raised over all of this, leaving the top flaps as two bed units when supported underneath by braces. The middle area had a sink and an icebox (truly: you needed ice to keep things cold) and possibly a cooking surface (because I think I remember an LP container attached to the basic box of the folded-up camper).

Later on, we also bought a tent into which my brother Paul and I were placed and which we had to erect on the campsites. Overall, although the ground was generally hard and lumpy I preferred the isolation of the tent to the communal issues inside the camper. Even later on, after I had stopped going along with the family (during my college years, I believe), my dad acquired an RV, a large buslike vehicle with a galley kitchen, a shower stall, a lavatory and a toilet, and several fold-down sleeping units. I never went camping in this thing, which actually made its way to Alaska and back —  although my youngest brother David, a great fan of our family vacations, would know for sure, the Alaska trip being one of his favorites. In retrospect it was foolish of me as a pseudo-independent college youth to shun the vacations in favor of time at home alone with girlfriends and friends because I’ve never been to the places they visited, Alaska in particular.

not really all that much like ours, but it stirs the memories

I got to drive the giant RV on several occasions, one memorable time being my second year of teaching when for some reason I do not remember I was assigned to take the thing to Cedar Rapids one weekend. The task was a pleasure on several counts. First, driving the huge bus northward on U.S. 218, even before that stretch of highway was four-laned as part of the Avenue of the Saints, was pretty cool to me, and I also enjoyed tooling around CR in the vast vehicle. Second, the girlfriend of the time was a freshman at Coe College, and the vehicle gave us a site for nightly cuddling without the cost of a hotel room (and sadly, I had more than once used the infamous Hotel Allison — not a location inspirational to romance however much it smacked of adventure and maturity to me from my student-teaching days just two years earlier). That massive RV was also my bedroom when I came home for weekends after beginning my teaching career, the basement dive I had carved out for my own domain late in high school and during college having been quickly reverted to something more acceptable to my father and mother (probably storage space for my fatherʼs collection, post-nuclear-holocaust in dimensions, of canned goods from Warehouse Market — you would not believe the quantity of canned green beans we were dividing amongst five unwilling offspring in the weeks after my dadʼs funeral). I still fondly savor the memory of playing The J. Geils Bandʼs Blow Your Face Out album on some rickety record player I had scavenged in that RV late at night some weekend while I was living in Ft. Madison.

the beetle, right year and color — even then mine didnʼt look this good

The RV or the camping experience also may have inspired my choice of second personal vehicle in my adult life — having been first persuaded into purchasing a VW beetle by my Volkswagen-loving father, a bug that leaked oil like a sieve and later collided massively with a runaway deer (leaving me with a crunched front end on the driverʼs side when I first moved to Maquoketa). The second vehicle, replacing the lemon bug was a two-toned blue Ford van, purchased in New London. It had two captains chairs in  front and nothing else behind, except the floor had been covered with three-quarter-inch plywood, oil-stained in some places. I built a “bed,” covered with foam rubber in the very rear, leaving an open space of about six feet between the “cab” and the “bed.” I thought I could go anywhere on my own and just sleep in the van. Ha! And I did more than once (learning that having toilet facilities would have been more than nice), sleeping on the streets in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Minneapolis, Chicago and other places (although I have forgotten how I arranged to eliminate waste or shower in any of these circumstances except when I camped in the parking lot of friend Kevinʼs apartment — sadly now trashed and flooded away, once down on the road by the river behind Hancher, the U of I theatre building and the onetime art museum).

mine had been repainted with a big dark blue swooshy arrow shape on each side

That blue van took three students (two of them sitting in folding lawn chairs! — it was another age indeed) to the International Thespian Festival at Ball State University in Indiana in the summer of 1978 (me thoughtlessly forcing them to listen to the 8-track tape of my newly acquired Bob Dylan album, Street Legal, among other music they probably didnʼt like at all; the 8-track player, not original equipment, I had “installed” myself on the drink deck over the engine housing). That was also the van that I drove repeatedly to Indiana (to a different college) along Interstate 74, with a full pump pot of (then unnamed) Snowy Evenings between the seats beside me for weekends of romance when the girlfriend of the Coe College days resurrected her interest in me for a while a year later. That van was the one that went spinning on black ice, well after midnight in the middle of nowhere (oops, I already said it was Indiana) on a February night, only to end up after two or three revolutions down the highway faced in the proper direction, so I foolishly drove on (successfully).

The blue van departed our lives (by then Janet having made my life “ours”) the autumn after my father died (and I had used some inheritance/insurance money to buy my only new car, the once-mentioned 1984 gray Ford Escort wagon) when two guys saw that it had sat in the same spot outside our house, the one on Arcade Street, for weeks. Desiring a fishing/hunting vehicle, they offered us $600 dollars for it (with an old refrigerator tossed in). I had bought the van for $2200 or $2400 in 1978, so whether it was a good deal or not, we took it, the Escort having greatly replaced the van in my affections. (Why we didnʼt trade the van when I bought the Escort I donʼt know, unless I thought the van would be useful for transporting theatrical stuff — for which it had been very useful and very much used — as the Escort would also prove to be. Maybe the dealer just didnʼt want the van, also.)

The Escort lasted close to a decade. Two pickups later (both used, the earlier Ford a costly mistake overall) brings us to the present.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

more on Judah of Sephard

So letʼs continue with Judahʼs reminisences as to how he came to get attacked one dark night in Sepharad, to be rescued by a new friend, Søren the barbarian. the earlier portion of this chapter is here, and the entire Sepharad saga, so far, is here among the longer Items.

continuing Chapter II of “Mistakes by Moonlight”

But two days ago, hope had appeared in the form of his least pupil — a dull, surly troll child, son of a medium-time gangster bullying and conniving his way up the informal echelon of power in the Blue Quarter. The illiterate brat came bearing a note scrawled on wellused antique parchment.

“What’s it say, Pedro?” he had asked, knowing the obnoxious dimwit had taken almost nothing from Judah’s instruction.

“You read it, Jew. Youʼre the smart one.” The kid tossed scrap at Judah. “It’s from Papa,” he added archly and fled.

Papa owed him money, not palimpsest, but one such as Judah did not attempt to extort what was legitimately due from one such as Pedro’s papa.

The note read: “Qabbalist — you need money. I have a task that will reward you richly, if you are as brave as you say you are learned. Come tonight to the Pomegranate after matins.” No signature, but the sour boy had identified the sender: Reynaldo the Persuader.

Judah did not list courage among his attributes (although others — even some who disliked him — did), but curiosity defined him. Curiosity dragged him to the tavern after dark, where Pedro’s father, at ease in this dive whose owner he owned, nodded the failed pedagogue to his table with a sneer.

“Jew, I have a client, an important — but anonymous — man, who wants something. He has asked me to get it for him, and I wish the deed done to put this nobleman in my debt.”

“A clever relationship. For you.”

“Yes. For me,” Reynaldo agreed. “I think from what I have heard about you that you may be the man to get this thing.”

“Why me?”

“The thing is in the possession of that witch in the Red Tower.”

certainly not our statuette, folks, but this one is jade

“Larissa,” Judah breathed the name lightly, as curiosity opened catlike eyes of interested surprise in his soul.

“Exactly, the godawful Green Witch…”

“Sorceress of the Red Tower. What’s she got that a nobleman wants?”

“A statuette of some kind. A green one, all of some Asian stone.”



“Jade. It’s the name of the stone.”

“You know of it then?”

“No, but I know what the Chinese call that stone. I learned in the East. Waterstone — Jade. And I still don’t understand what some petty lord wants with a witchʼs magic statuette.” For it had to be magic. If it were hers.

“What’s it matter, Jew? Youʼre to get the thing and bring it me. I’ll pay you. Well. And that’s the end of it so far as you’re concerned.”

“Sure. But… I am curious…” Always curious.

“Ah, well, the little lordling’s got a friend. You must have heard of him. Came to town months back. That wizard fella —”

“The Necromancer.” That explained much. This dark sorcerer had arrived in the city not long before Judah, so he and his reputation were still news for Judah’s ears to drink. A cruel wizard lately come from Christendom, exiled thence for his black magic. Reputedly avaricious and desirous of power and fame. He would desire anything to undermine the Green Witch. Indeed, some claimed he had come to the city intending to defeat her in supernatural conflict. Judah, a Kabbalist, however fallen from that true path, knew little of such things and thought sorcerous challenges silly, was curious about wizardry and its practitioners. Everything about this task intrigued him.

“So. How ʻwellʼ will you pay me?”

The gangster named a sum so princely Judah could remain at his ease here for a year or more — or travel in elegance and comfort. How could he resist?

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Weekend Update

I spent so much of Friday afternoon writing new words on old posts and new and old pages, that I am tempted to say I did a thousand words (and it was pretty close) already, and this post is done. But I wonʼt, not quite.

If you havenʼt clicked on Longer Items recently, I did an overhaul/addition to that page to link to (and create) Longer Items for most of the nonfiction I have posted here, as well as the fiction that had already resided there. The big project yesterday was revising and adding to the pieces of the Sam Spade critical essay that I thought I finished yesterday. (And I did, too; itʼs just that in writing that final portion, I realized there is a whole ʼnother theme to explore, one close to my heart in these strident Rightist days, one that arose from thinking about businessman Spade not as coldly heroic but as flawed or failed. One of these days…) Those who read the post early (say before 1:00 p.m. Iowa time) have some changes in store if you look again there or at the Longer Item complete essay.

I got back to work (employment work) the last days of this week as well, wrapping up the old NRFU operation by collecting my crewʼs bags and badges. I am busy this weekend, so I had to refuse a no-warning project on additional addresses that suddenly arose. But I go back and train again for the next/last operation next week. One of my crew members, in getting rehired, knew more about what was ahead than I do: s/he expressed pleasure that I was going to train and supervise them in this next task (all I knew was that my training is definitely scheduled now). Itʼs the government — information flows in mysterious and unpredictable paths.

my larger red notebook, containing all there is (so far) of the Sepharad story

I still havenʼt done any major new writing (or even dictating the still-only-handwritten parts of the Sepharad story into the computer). I should have taken a big lesson on getting the digitalizing of my hand-scrawled copy accomplished ASAP because of a near-(imaginary) disaster that occurred last weekend.

You may recall that on Saturday, with sister-in-law Diane visiting from Wisconsin, we celebrated their fatherʼs Fathersʼ Day a little in advance with a trip to the Potosi Brewing Company. It turned out that I got to be the designated driver (even though at lunch I enjoyed my complimentary small glass of their beer — I chose the IPA over the stout, amazingly, but appreciated the dry hoppiness of the brew with food). As I usually do, I brought along both my little Harrodʼs notebook (which came in handy to record a note on a community name*, stolen from one of the three villages that combined to become Potosi, which will now end up as a place in Quetzal County) and the larger one that I received as a joke gift upon retiring from the speech coach job at Andrew several years ago. I shoved some Google Maps directions for getting to the brewery into the larger notebook (and those directions were useful because my Garmin GPS once again failed to know the name of a community near us — earlier it couldnʼt recognize DeWitt, and last Saturday it had no clue about Potosi, thus frustrating my desire to show it off for the parents-in-law) and passed it back to Janet for the drive. She placed it into the pocket pouch on the back of the driverʼs seat once we arrived. And then we both promptly forgot all about it, and the notebook (and my only copy of the rest of the Sepharad story) went away with Bing and Betty once the day was done.

It worked out all right. On Sunday afternoon, once Diane had headed for her home again, I convinced Janet that we should go to Bing and Bettyʼs and get my notebook back (and her water bottle, which she also forgot in the car). We did, and it was lucky that we chose to go. Friday night had been another wild one around the area — furious thunderstorms with high winds. Bing and Betty had already lost one tree about a week earlier to wind damage, and on Friday night another, bigger one went down. As we arrived and passed through the parental garage, we found Bing in the back yard with a little hand saw, trying to clean the standing trunk of the rest of its height and of branches. It was too big a job for one 75-year-old man by himself on a step ladder. Although a chain saw would have been best (and a neighbor brought one over later that day, once Janet and I had gone home), between the four of us — Bing, Betty, Janet and I — we got through the twisted trunk and the extra branches attached thereto. Although covered in itchy sawdust, we felt good about helping out as we drove away a couple hours later (and with the neighborʼs help, Bing cleared everything and even took it all to their yard-waste disposal site in three loads on the neighborʼs pickup).

So good came of my thoughtlessness in bringing the notebook in the first place (I knew, should have known, that I would do no writing on that trip). But I still have to make good on the lesson about (almost) losing my only copy of the story. And I still have to haul away our own load of branches that blew down last Friday night, too! I also have the yard rakings from this Thursdayʼs mowing job, as well. I canʼt do it today because the truckʼs in for a regular oil change in preparation for driving plenty next week (those “Old Back to Work Blues”).

As that topic, going back to regular employment, brings me just about full circle on subject matter, it is probably time to close this one out. Tomorrow I think Iʼll add a bit more of Chapter II of “Mistakes by Moonlight,” and after that weʼll just have to see how it goes once I am a working man again.

* read the Wikipedia “Potosi, Wisconsin” article (clickable above) and you can probably spot the name I chose to make mine own

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Nobodyʼs Sap

About two months ago (here, here and here) I started and developed most of a planned essay on The Maltese Falcon. However, even though it may not have seemed like it back in April, I never finished it. Hereʼs the final set of thoughts on Samuel Spade (Bogart or not). I would like this critique more finished, more polished and fully argued. But itʼs time to post, and just now, this is all I have…

Spade seems heroic, but is he actually? His defiant loner attitude may not be what generations have falsified the tough guy private op to be. His individuality and independent strength may get him through his adventures, but they may also be his tragic weakness. Spade may be doomed to utter loneliness, unable to actually connect with another person.

Spade cannot trust anyone. Admittedly, Effie comes the closest to trustworthy as his employee, and he does give her important and subtle jobs to accomplish, such as sheltering Brigid OʼShaunessy (a chore which the secretary fluffs), taking care of Captain Jacobiʼs corpse and the cops, and finally fetching the all-important package from  the post office to his apartment. However, Spade never actually shares anything of importance with Effie, and in fact realizes she has misunderstood and misvalued Brigid right to the end. Effie can be a tool, an effective employee, for whom Spade might even feel a kind of strangely paternal affection, but she is not a partner, and one of his realizations in the course of the story is that her utility (not quite trustworthiness) has its limits; for him, in some ways, she is not much more valuable than the hotel dick at Cairoʼs apartment. And Effieʼs importance results not so much from the trust Spade doesnʼt put in her, but the fact that she happens to be around at some crucial moments, particularly Jacobiʼs deadman arrival. If she hadnʼt been there to use (and distract), Spade would not have revealed as much to her as he did. Effie is only human, and humans have shortcomings: they fail.

He doesnʼt trust his friend Tom Polhaus, the policeman, who is a part of the system, the government, after all, and Polhausʼs later assistance to his lieutenant and the assistant district attorney donʼt make him seem necessarily the best friend. But clearly the man tries, and in the film in particular he seems a better friend to Spade than Sam is to him. Itʼs just that unlike Spade Tom has allegiance to something more than himself — law enforcement (possibly even justice). Spade has to protect Spade.

Nor does he trust either his partner, Miles Archer, a weak man given to lustful mistakes in judgment, or Mileʼs adulterous wife. Spadeʼs clearest almost-moral choice is to avoid extending his illicit relationship with Mrs. Archer. And what was she doing the night her husband was killed, the night she lied about? Trailing Sam, she says, but even thatʼs an untrustworthy action. NO, neither Archer, although important in his life are genuinely friends, much closer than the hotel detective or other acquaintances. Spade has Archerʼs name off the office less than a day after Miles was killed; no more Spade and Archer — now itʼs just Samuel Spade, as he prefers it.

Obviously, our detective cannot trust the bad guys — Cairo, Gutman, the kid — although he plays at pretending he might reach a business understanding with each. Encountering Cairo, who attempts to hold him at gunpoint and search his office, Spade quickly determines the little homosexual must be knocked out to be checked out (and robbed). Spade actually screws up with Gutman, accepting and drinking the mickeyed drink during their second conversation (an act close to trusting), and  he awakes to realize (again) that he must stand stalwart, alone and mistrustful of all others. Humans have shortcomings, even Spade himself, and he must watch even himself for mistakes, for weakness. And the kid, well, Spade knows a violent nothingness when he sees it and treats the punk accordingly.

Most importantly, Spade cannot trust Brigid OʼShaughnessy. She lies to him at every turn, right up to the end. And he keeps catching her at it. Clearly, he is attracted to her: they even have a sexual relationship (as clear as it could be in the Twenties — or the Forties) for one night. But he secretly searches her room (the morning after that one night together, when we readers or viewers at least feel pretty certain that she is just trying to distract him from asking her more questions), and on the climactic night, strip searches her for the thousand dollar bill that he figured correctly Gutman had just palmed (a scene the original movie version emphasized, risquély). But he had to be sure: she had to strip, to prove that she hadnʼt taken the cash. He canʼt just trust her, evidently in particular after she operated as the ruse to draw him out of town to supposedly rescue her from Gutman. And in the end, he turns her in as a murderess, again correctly. He may have feelings for her (I think the Bogart version definitely does), but it isnʼt love because he knows sheʼs untrustworthy. He knows, after all, that she killed Miles.

Dashiell Hammett

Spade himself, however, canʼt be trusted. He clearly knows this about himself, which may help to explain why he doesnʼt trust anyone else. If Brigid slept with him from actual feelings of love (and we donʼt know that she didnʼt), he betrays her the very next morning and lies to her on his return about where heʼs been. He makes deals with Cairo and Gutman (multiple deals in the end), which he breaks (for good cause). However, if Gutman and Cairo left Spadeʼs apartment believing they were heading off to Constantinople in quest for the falcon again, theyʼre wrong — Spade calls the cops on them the moment theyʼre out the door. Yes, theyʼre crooks and the kid at least is a killer (like Brigid), but Spade is actually protecting himself. Thereʼs no fall guy if he keeps to the bargain and lets them go, and without a fall guy to blame for Miles and Thursbyʼs murders, the trouble all falls on Samuel Spade. So Gutmanʼs mob has to go down and so does Brigid. The case is cleared and Samʼs out from under the gallows. For now.

Sam, after all, has to watch himself as well. He has permitted sex to drag him into Mrs. Archerʼs clinging arms, a weakness not far removed from Archerʼs own lust beguiling him up the dark alley after Brigid the first night. Spade feels himself drawn toward Brigid, even knowing what  liar, manipulator and killer she is. Perhaps that is part of the reason for the humiliating strip search: he feels he has to force her through this test, otherwise he might be weakening, trusting her even on a small point. And how tempted is he by the vast wealth these crooks seem to be chasing? He would have kept the payoff cash (maybe?), if Gutman hadnʼt forced him to use the last bill as evidence for the cops. And he does all right financially over these few days, with moneys from Brigid, Cairo and (ultimately not) Gutman. He is in business as a detective and must keep the coffers filled to keep afloat.

Spadeʼs the independent operator (thoroughly so once Archerʼs gone). As such, he has to watch out for himself, protect himself. As he says several times in the story, “I wonʼt play the sap for you,” meaning I wonʼt be weak, I wonʼt give up myself for another. And heʼs very good at it. He does watch out for and protect himself very well. He comes out of the situation in good shape, paid pretty well, no longer encumbered by Archer (how easily Sam let Miles take that job the first night…), cleared with the law (and uncompromised on that front also), unsullied by Brigid (although probably more than tempted there), and perhaps wiser about many things (just as he starts having learned from his still ongoing mistake with Mrs. Archer, he shuns Brigidʼs femme fatale charms and even perceives the romantic weakness in Effie). Maybe he has even learned unfortunately about trusting himself too much. Sam Spade is nobodyʼs sap, sadly. In always watching out for Number One, he has doomed himself.

Listening to NPR as we awaken every morning, I recently heard a suspense novelist interviewed on Morning Edition about a new book of his on Greek resistance during World War II. The author observed that he was writing about real people with families and jobs and friends, people who had a lot to lose if caught and tortured by the Nazis, against whom all those loved ones and responsibilities could be threatened as leverage to get the resister to break. Traditional big-time fictional heroes donʼt have those connections, those weaknesses in the time of pressure  — not Spade, not Philip Marlowe, not Conan the Cimmerian. Hammett even in the act of creating the tough guy private eye understood exactly what that isolation meant: independence of action and utter loneliness. And Bogart, with that stricken look of horror and fear on his face near the end, giving up Brigid, reveals the same tragic truth.

And I worked more on this today/Friday, even after the post appeared early this morning. I like it better now. Those who get e-mail notifications or RSS feeds may want to look at this portion of the essay again. I have also put the whole thing, with further revisions and additions throughout, together as a Longer Item, here.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.


Clip Art, such a great concept…

As I write, itʼs growing dark again, indicating yet more rain. Itʼs Wednesday, 23 June 2010 (so yesterday for most of my anticipated readers), and we were supposed to have rain today/yesterday. Again. It was supposed to begin after midnight, probably about 3:00 a.m., continuing into the mid-morning. And it did exactly that. Glorified with incredible (and, for some, terrifying) displays of lightning interjecting the darkness and orchestrated with grumblings and crashes of thunder. The rain ceased darkly for a while about the time Janet went to work, although I believe she drove northward into what came down here about 8:00 and continued, at first with more flashing and rumbles, through most of the morning. And it rained quite hard both in the night and the day.

(At least weʼre not suffering the flash flooding further south and east.)

Then it was just overcast, and I actually turned on the light somewhat to read in the living room (the coolest room in the house) — The Return of Tarzan and Assegai (the newest Wilbur Smith — hmmm, do I perceive an African theme to my leisurely reading choices? Really profound stuff, too, I know — although I do have in mind a little discourse on the first Tarzan…). Then it began to clear, and from shortly after noon until slightly after three it was actually sunny (and of course started to get hot-ish — feeling pretty close and humid). But then the darkness closed in again, bleak enough to get me to turn on a light here in the office so I could see what I was doing, and then just like that, more rain (right now as I type).

But it lasted (so far) just a few minutes, and now at 4:00, the sky is even brightening enough to feel like day again. (In fact, later, by not-quite-five, posting time for me, there is a wide swath of palest blue across the western horizon.)

I wouldnʼt ordinarily profile rainfall so much, but rain has become a natural part of our Iowa lives on an almost daily basis for the past couple of weeks with only a sunny day every third day. I have begun to wonder if the dankness, darkness and nearly constant rain “helped” me slothfully vegetate into the nonproductive, barely exercising lump of something-less-than-humanity that I have become. Of course, every raining morning means I stay abed and donʼt arise before 5:00 a.m. to run, as I should have done.

Evidently, we have been caught on a stalled cold front along which storms have been regularly traversing like trains all the way from Oklahoma through my neck of the woods and Illinois and Indiana and Ohio to eventually pelt the Northeast. Right now I am hoping tomorrow is indeed, as predicted, a sunny day because I need to mow again (boy, do I ever). Neighbor Levi got his in yesterday (a moderately sunny day; the rain passed north and south of us in the morning on Tuesday, which is why I was able to get out and go aCensusing and visiting the old schoolgrounds), but I more than simply prefer to mow just once a week, and so far this summer Thursdayʼs become my day, so although I washed out our birdbath and tried annihilating bugs, as I told you, the mowing is saved for today/Thursday.

Unnaturally, tomorrow/today is going to be messed up for chores because the Census, after effectively dismissing my dutiful dredging for information Tuesday morning, called me back to service Wednesday afternoon: time to collect everyoneʼs badges, bags and paraphernalia. Just one hitch — it all must be complete by Friday morning. Nice short notice. But I called all my people and let them know I would be available at the office (as we called it) only this morning and more briefly tomorrow. I should be able (rainfalls permitting) to use up this afternoon going through my lengthening mowing procedure. However, that fullness of activity today (tomorrow for me, you know) also means that I should prepare a Friday post now (which is still after 4:00 p.m. Wednesday) because my Thursday just evaporated as far as free time goes.

Probably ending this and starting another more worthwhile post is what I should do.

But before I leave you to your own devices, donʼt forget: rid the western Maquoketa atmosphere of death fumes! Your culprits on call are:

  • Dan Schmidt, store manager, Gasser True Value [no truth in advertising there] (phone 563-652-2446)
  • Brian Wagner, Maquoketa City Manager (phone:  563-652-2484; e-mail by name at
©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.