Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Storm Blows Through the Centuries

The day after the election a northeaster struck the same piece of the globe that super-storm Sandy hit the week before. We were lucky with Sandy. We were lucky again.
But I don’t like feeling like a target for storm winds. The back of our house in Quincy, Mass., faces toward the shoreline, so we get pretty direct blows from winds coming off the ocean, and they came pretty good yesterday. Staring at this computer screen I got a face full of wind, rain, lashing trees, bending branches, premature darkness for hours yesterday (which is, of course, nothing like any creature human or otherwise would face out in the storm), and the final-phase autumn garden back there got blown around good.
All this wind and rain gave me a certain, no doubt exaggerated impression of a day so bad that I dreaded my late afternoon appointment in a shoreline town about three-quarters of an hour down the coast. Do I really have to go out and drive through this stuff? I asked myself. I kept checking my email, hoping somebody else had cancelled.
When I looked out the window faces north, the branches of the mulberry tree were bouncing in the wind but not so histrionically as those out back, and the storm didn’t look quite so bad. When I went to the kitchen and looked out front, the still orange-leaved young maple planted in the sidewalk strip was swaying rather delicately in the wind. Nothing much happening there. The house itself had blocked the winds, creating a zone of calm.
So it was hell in the back of the house, and just another day out front. It’s good to look at life from both sides now.
Nobody cancelled. Since it was my appointment, I had set it up, I could hardly cancel it without a really good reason. Except, as I now realized, by 4 p.m. on an overcast, stormy day it was going to be wicked dark. I had arranged for a photographer to be on hand to shoot the subject, and now he was going to be dealing with really terrible light.
I drove the three-quarters hour of rainy highway, everybody going about three-quarters speed, but traffic kept moving and I found the place with uncommon ease (I usually get lost going someplace new out of my wholly unfounded optimism that whatever location I’m looking for should announce itself in some conspicuous, hard-to-miss fashion: maybe a big flashing sign saying “Over Here, Bob!”)
I met my source in the parking lot and we trooped through the rain fifty yards or to the old, tired -looking shed enclosing a remarkable surprise inside, an 18th century workshop with an intact interior.
As I feared, though sunset is officially 4:30 p.m. EST, with a northeaster is squatting in your sky it’s pretty dark at four. Inside the 16x32-feet shed, light bulbs hang from the ceiling, but the power has has long been shut off. My source, and his friend, have flashlights and, happily, the photographer arrives and says, let’s go in while there’s still light. I am overjoyed with his optimistic, can-do attitude, because if it were me behind a camera I would be cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle.
Inside we find a beautiful white-painted fireplace surround, a big wood frontispiece with carved moldings resembling the ornamental designs on Greek columns. In the workroom, among other 18th century joinery charms, we find a faded colored image of a man sketched on one of the walls; he stands, back leaning against a wall, one knee lifted, hand extended. The painting was never finished and the color has dulled, but much remains. Nearby, pencil drawings appear open on the old pineboard wall: a bird, a goose maybe, sketched for the design of a weather vane. Cross-hatchings over a door sill show the tallying of some quantity: bags of supply, boards, days of work?
In the store room, a date is written in big, blackish lettering on a ceiling joist: 1789. Do the workshop’s origins go back to that year?
My source tells us stories of this place, read from the physical evidence, and the photographer shoots a great many photographs, playing with the available light, at one point telling the man holding the flashing “point it at me,” and concluding that the darkness would give the results an old “historical” effect. And so all comes out well in the end.
It was good to keep our appointment and do our work, even though the storm made me want to cower at home. And, frankly, once I got back there I had no appetite for venturing out again.
The storm blows, but we walk through it. Though, in my case, only as far as the car.