What the Knitter Said

On my left sat my friend Cindy, who warned me before the last presidential debate that she would be shouting at the television; to my right, a few seats away, a 60-something woman in comfortable slacks, Naturalizer shoes and a flowered blouse. She was the kind of woman who might wear a cardigan over her shoulders caught in front with a silver brooch. Her reading glasses pinched the lower bridge of her nose. And she was knitting: Two spools, one blue, one gray, wound together in a medium-sized stockingnette stitch (knit one row, turn, purl another). I assumed she was . . . well, you know.

From the start, it seemed risky — reckless, even — to watch the final presidential debate last Wednesday among strangers of who-knows-what political persuasion at the downtown Central Library. I have never been much interested in muffling my political rage, but as this Election Day draws near, my harangues have begun to resemble the early symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown. I have, in the last few weeks, chased down Republican-bumperstickered SUVs on my bicycle; flipped off, from the passenger seat, a woman in a beat-up Honda with the Bush team’s logo plastered across her back window (“You’re going to get us hurt!” screamed my friend in the driver’s seat); and even sent a vitriolic e-mail to a professed Nader supporter celebrating his shrewd decision to elect Bush and thus keep his job as a grassroots organizer. The challenge was clear: Watch the debate in public, and keep your loud mouth shut.

It was easy for the first two answers of the night: Kerry aired his now-musty saws about cargo holds and shipping containers; Bush did his “freedom on the march” thing, at which we’d already vented disgust in previous debates. Of the 20 people gathered in that early hour, a little after 6 p.m., some browsed the newspaper, some chatted calmly, others watched, staring straight at the screen.

But then came Kerry’s follow-up: “Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, ‘Where’s Osama bin Laden?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really think about him very much. I’m not that concerned.’”

And Bush: “Gosh, I’d — I don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden.”

And the Knitting Woman: “Oh yes, you did.”

She didn’t know it — she probably didn’t realize it was necessary — but the Knitting Woman set us free. Noises began to slip out of the audience like dirty little secrets; a groan here, a guffaw there, a bold peal of laughter. We were like children testing the boundaries of propriety, gleefully uttering obscenities to an amused adult. The Knitting Woman was our standard-bearer.

On Bush’s answer to the question about the contaminated flu shot, she laughed hard in the long pause after “Bob.”

On “PAYGO” (Bush: “You pay, and he goes ahead and spends”), she shook her head, furrowed her brow, and audibly harrumphed.

On “Senator, you sit on the far left bank”: She lowered her needles and hissed.

When Bob Schieffer posed his question about whether homosexuality is a choice, the Knitting Woman exhaled angrily before the candidates answered. I looked again and noticed her friend sitting next to her. They shared the same haircut. (And, by the way, did Bob Schieffer really mean to imply it’s okay to be queer only if it’s biological destiny? Or that gayness is a psychiatric disorder, like schizophrenia?)

By 6:50, the audience had grown to more than 60, and from what I could tell, every last one wanted Bush out. We were in it together now — the Knitting Woman and me.

“I sure hope it’s not the administration’s fault!” Bush said about health-care costs.

We looked at each other and sighed.

“We need electronic medical records,” Bush said.

What!?” the Knitting Woman shouted over her clicking. “So they can keep better track of how they’re killing us!”

“Veterans are getting very good health care,” Bush declared.

“Oh yeah, right.

“Our border patrol will be more likely to be able to focus on doing their job.”

“Which is?”

I half expected him to answer, staring, like he was, straight into the camera.

By 7 o’clock, the night had been given over to the troublemakers: the people who voted for Nader last time and wish they had that luxury again; the people who just can’t believe any sane person could vote for this character on the screen with his squirrelly wisecracks and cavalier idiocy.

“Make sure the education system works for everyone!” Bush said. The audience groaned. The Knitting Woman laughed out loud. A woman behind me, smartly dressed in a blue jacket, her white-silver hair just brushing her shoulders, leaned in: “This,” she said, “is from a guy who got through Yale with C’s.”

There was applause for Kerry, too. “You be the judge,” he said.

Said the Knitting Woman: “You bet. We will.”

—Judith Lewis

Ruff Night

It’s a heart-wrenching moan, a soul-shattering bellow; a plaintive plea in surround sound filled with the kind of tremolo and sustain an opera diva would die for. It starts almost every morning around 5 a.m. from the mutant-looking rottweiler mix that lives in the yard above and behind me. It’s one of several dogs residing in close proximity that are killing me, fraying my nerves to barbed ends, turning my psyche into a cracked mirror, changing me into one of the living dead.

I live in a neighborhood where I can count six people killed in just over a year from gang violence. Helicopters regularly hover, it seems, just above my roof. The crack of gunfire puts an exclamation point at the end of many a weekend night; an ex-drummer of a seminal punk rock band lives across the street, coming and going at odd hours in his mufflerless early-60s Dodge Van. My next-door neighbors are living inside a Fellini movie, and people are selling 800-square-foot cottages for more than a half million dollars. All this insanity I can live with, but the dogs . . . the dogs are going to kill me.

About a week ago I set out on foot at 3 a.m., determined to find the pair of Chihuahuas engaged in an endless yap version of “Dueling Banjos.” As I turned the corner of my block toward where I thought the racket was coming from, I ran into the piano-playing director of the Fellini movie going on next door, “Vinnie.” He was resplendent in a colorful three-piece suit and fedora, returning from a Feast of San Gennaro celebration, where I gather he was both entertainment and entertained. I was less resplendent in wife-beater and sandals.

“Joe, where are you going?” he asked, startled to see me out for a stroll at that hour.

“I’m going to kill some dogs,” I said, barely stopping my death march. I wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” Vinnie said, genuinely compassionate and uncomfortably approximating Roberto Benigni. But Vinnie understood; he’s used to me yelling “Shut that dog up!” over the back fence after several hours of uninterrupted barking from his housemate, “Tuna.”

A couple days ago Tuna drove me to the brink. I had to be up in three hours to drive my wife to the airport. She’s a dancer, and she says she’s going on tour with Evita, but I suspect she — who could sleep through a Who concert — is really just trying to get a break from her insomniac freak of a husband (I mean, Evita???). Actually, I wouldn’t really have been getting up, since I’d been awake all night listening to little Tuna, one of the orneriest and ugliest mutts I’ve ever known, growl and bay and bark at the shadows in his backyard. Somewhere into the second hour of his marathon session I sat upright in bed, pounded my fist on the dresser and screamed: “Vinnie’s going back to Italy!”

As I headed for the front door, my wife called after me: “Take a deep breath, honey, take a deep breath.”

When I reached Vinnie’s front yard that night, a guy who I seem to recall was wearing a fur trapper’s hat and might have been in makeup, was just pulling into the driveway. It was 3 a.m. — again.

“Are you staying here?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You gotta bring that fucking dog inside.”

“No problem,” he said, accommodatingly.

Around the neighborhood I’m becoming known as Dances with Barking Dogs.

I know, I seem like an obsessed, deranged sociopath, but try to understand that I write this sentence while most of you are sleeping and while the rottweiler lurking in the yard behind mine just let out a bloodcurdling howl for someone to end its misery.

My doctor has me home-monitoring my blood pressure. I think there may be a connection.

Many nights, with my head on my pillow and my brain trying to shut out the symphony of yaps, yelps, barks, growls, I lay there composing the flier I will one day distribute around the neighborhood:

Dear Neighbors and Fellow Dog Owners:

Your dog is not an accessory with teeth and fur. It’s a living thing that requires love, exercise and companionship. Its constant barking and moaning and yelping is trying to tell you it doesn’t appreciate being left outside all night. It wants to come inside and enjoy the comforts of home. And if you look outside your front window and see a large man padding around in his underwear with a faraway look in his eyes, you’ll see I want it to as well.

Love,

—Joe Donnelly

Diamonds in the Rough

When you walk out on the dry, brittle surface of Searles Lake, sunbaked salt crystals break off and blow across the ground, tinkling like ice on hard-pack snow. The salt flats cover 35 square miles of Great Basin desert that ranges from fields of crystalline dirt with the texture and temperature of a freshly baked pie crust to pristine reflecting pools of odorous effluence from the nearby mineral-extraction facilities. In order to keep ducks from landing here, electric hawk machines scream from power-line poles, and propane cannons fire off harmless explosives. Trona, the town of 2,000 residents that sits on the western edge of this landscape, is a rugged, lonely place that appears to be growing more desolate by the year.

Trona was founded on this plain between the Argus and Slate mountain ranges because of the borax, soda ash and potash that has been mined here since 1908. At its peak, the town’s population exceeded 3,000. But now people move away and leave their homes empty. A year or two ago, a serial arsonist began burning down the abandoned houses, and charred hulks still stand between sandy yards decorated with rusty desert artifacts. In one yard, a commercial fishing trawler warps in the heat. My guide, Jim Fairchild, is a semiretired chemical engineer working for Searles Valley Minerals, Inc., the company that currently operates the three plants in the area and which is the only significant employer for miles. He’s also the publicity coordinator for the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society (SLGMS). He’s lived here since 1963 and insists that the triple-digit summer temperatures aren’t that bad. It’s a dry heat, he explains.

The SLGMS’s annual Gem-O-Rama has been held the second weekend of every October since 1941. It’s Trona’s biggest event, the only time that the town serves as a destination for people not associated with the mining industry. Town matriarch Annie Pipkin, a woman known for organizing raucous dances and for the box of live rattlesnakes she kept on her porch, started it. This year, 21 vendors have turned the SLGMS building into a bustling marketplace of quartz crystals from Arkansas, trilobite fossils from Morocco and tourmaline from Brazil. There’s also jewelry, Native American–themed artwork and demonstrations of lapidary equipment. But the big draw for the nearly 800 pilgrims to this scorched stretch of desert are the field trips to the salt flats.

Vehicles start lining up in the SLGMS parking lot at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. Since there are no restaurants to speak of, everyone heads over to the Trona Community Church for an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. At 9 a.m., a caravan of 250 cars, trucks and RVs begins the slow, 5-mile haul to the Mud Piles.

A week or so before Gem-O-Rama, a fleet of backhoes digs up 50 tons of the briny mud from beneath the surface of the flats. The mud is then spread out into two knee-deep swaths. It’s into this mess that hundreds of mineral collectors plunge in search of greenish-brown hanksite crystals. Some wear thigh-high rubber waders and thick gloves; others wallow in cutoff sweatpants and ragged tank tops. They attack the mud with shovels and pickaxes, or sink their arms up to the elbow into the sticky sludge in order to haul out chunks of minerals. Steve, an environmental geologist from Arizona with a mighty gray ponytail, toils with his friend Tyler at scrubbing their 150-pound chunk of hanksite clean. One man wearing a silver jumpsuit crawls through the mess on all fours, his eyes scanning for the perfect mineral cluster.

A larger group assembles that afternoon for the Blow Holes field trip, an expedition to a constellation of 50-foot-deep holes that were drilled earlier in the week and into which explosives were planted. Upon detonation, thousands of crystal shards were thrown into the air and scattered about the plain. The day of the field trip, a huge steel tube is inserted into the most recently drilled hole and compressed air is pumped into the sea of brine that rests below. The crowd gathers in a wide radius around the metal tube, which spews a frothy mixture of toxic fluid and crystal debris. This goes on for a good 15 minutes while folks gnash their teeth at the sight of large hanksite and sulfohalite crystals tumbling through the air. Once the flow stops, the diehard rock hounds surge forward in a mad scramble. “Geezus!” exclaims one dad when his son presents him with a heavy bucket brimming with the nearly worthless gems. “What are you gonna do with all this stuff?”

Nearby, a little girl crouches next to her father, a muscle-bound desert rat whose tattoos are obscured by his deep-red sunburn. “Diamonds!” she laughs, running her hands through the minerals piled thick around her knees. “Precious, precious diamonds!”

As the field is cleared and the plant engineers grapple with the pipe, preparing to blow the hole again, one Trona resident turns to her neighbor and sighs. “Right now all the little boys are thinking, ‘I want to work at the plant when I grow up,’” she says.

“If we’re still in Trona then,” the woman next to her replies, “they probably will.”

—Daniel Chamberlin


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