Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Before I Went

After two years in Shanghai, I'm back in Montana. But, only temporarily, as the mail reminds me. Another letter from an editor, expressing regret, for not publishing a story that I wrote just before leaving here in 2005. This piece was written on assignment, lost in a shuffle of editors at one magazine, landed (safely, I thought) at another, then fell from the calendar like a leaf from a beech, tenacious but not, in the end, enough.

[Note: This piece, much revised and now retitled "When You Must Go," is forthcoming in the May 2013 Gray's Sporting Journal.]

Before You Go

What will you do when your time runs short? Let's say three months—and you're out. Not dead exactly, but gone away from the landscape you love. Gone from Montana.

. . .

Which, in fewer days than I dare to count, will become our former home. Not permanently, but for at least two years, and perhaps longer. In the metropolis where we will soon take up residence, everything will be different: the faces, the food, even the language. I am decidedly not looking forward to the move but am admittedly fascinated by the dislocation.

. . .

Perhaps that's why my next excursion had nothing to do with hunting or fishing. I wanted something to shake me up, a destination where I could not hide behind the familiar cloaks of silence and solitude. Mark Twain found an enthusiastic audience in this city's Grand Opera House—"compact, intellectual, and dressed in perfect taste"—while Jack Kerouac wrote that his whole concept of On the Road "changed and matured" there.

On the weekend of my visit, the same town, though not perfectly desolate, appeared so unpopulated that my eyes were drawn to any agglomeration of people: a foursome of travel writers laughing beside a rental car, a throng of grim-faced men quitting the Independent Order of Odd Fellows' Hall, a girl's 400-meter relay team in the window of the Uptown Café, each with a plate of chicken cacciatore.

This was Butte, of course, and the object of my pilgrimage was the M&M. Sam Martin and William Mosby opened the landmark saloon in 1890. Until just a few years ago, its only recorded closure had occurred in 1989, when the flow of alcohol was interrupted for two hours during a gambling raid orchestrated by an attorney general named Marc Racicot. Kerouac paid his respects in February of 1949, after checking his bag in a bus-station locker. He called it "the end of my quest for the ideal bar."

There was a time, as a childless couple in Missoula, when my wife and I truly enjoyed going to bars. We would lean our bicycles against a downtown parking meter and, depending on the mood, proceed from the Rhino to the Iron Horse, from the Bodega to the Boardroom, from Charlie's to Al and Vic's. At the end of the evening, suitably primed, we would ride no-hands along the leafy streets, a trick that I was too stiff to perform sober. Since those years, we also have changed and matured. We have children now, for instance, as well as mortgages: two of each.

Our third-grader, a daughter, accompanied me to the M&M. We enjoyed breakfast there one morning, then went back the next for a beer (me) and a Shirley Temple (not me). After a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and a Hollywood makeover, the M&M is nothing like it was in bygone days. Kerouac described "hundreds of men play[ing] cards in an atmosphere of smoke and spittoons" and declared that, on a Sunday night, in sub-zero weather, "everyone in Butte was drunk."

In Wim Wenders' 2005 film, "Don't Come Knocking," the M&M is transformed into a coffee shop, with Jessica Lange as its sober owner. I haven't seen it (who can find time for Cannes these days?), but Wenders' website bills it as "a farce, a family story, a road movie." Which means, I suppose, that the plot should resemble our daily lives—if our daily lives include entanglements with Sam Shepard and Eva Marie Saint.

The actual owners, though new to the business, are not new to Butte. Bud Walker is a county commissioner and self-described "Butte rat." Both he and his wife Vina stood behind the bar on the days we stopped by. The atmosphere was subdued, with not much smoke and absolutely no spittoons. In an interview with the Montana Standard, Bud remembers the M&M as "a security blanket." And that's what it felt like to me.

Behind the stainless steel façade—an Art Deco embellishment of the original brick—the talk was of education and politics, history and real estate. For example, did you know that Butte once boasted more than a dozen newspapers, including at least three dailies, as well as the Croatian World and Montana Socialist? Or that, two decades before statehood, by official census, the population of Montana territory was no less than ten percent Chinese? Or that the lot now occupied by a franchise pizza parlor was once home to Blonde Edna's House of Ill Repute?

To my mind, such stories are as integral to the Montana landscape as sagebrush and riverbeds. I cannot set foot in a high meadow without scanning the grass for elk sign, nor can I approach the water without searching for riffles and seams. In Butte, no matter how I try to locate myself in the here and now, I can't stop myself from contemplating the past.

The ghosts are everywhere: in a jumble of dusty adding machines, or an array of tinsmith's tools; in a faded sign painted on dry brick, and in the warm dank air that wafts from the mouth of the Orphan Girl Mine, 2700 feet deep. For some reason, I find the ghost signs particularly affecting. I don't know why they should seem any more emblematic than all the other artifacts of lost commerce: the black iron headframes, or the cracked glass of the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor, or the rising, purplish waters of the Berkeley Pit. But they do.

Looking out the ballroom windows of the Finlen Hotel, modeled after New York's Hotel Astor, you can see the mark of the friendly Miners Union Bar. The bar is long gone, and what few miners remain toil in a non-union shop. But there is something jaunty about the sign, defiant even, as if the present burden were no more than a veil.

It cheered me just to see it, in the same way that a sincerely sad song can lift you from despair. Our absence, after all, will be no more permanent than labor solidarity, a vein of copper, or the red-gold flash of a western tanager. With any luck, we'll be back with eyes hungry for the familiar and the changed, with far-fetched stories of far-off places, and with a fresh appreciation of the word urban.

If it is possible to make a career of itinerancy, we must be at least halfway there. Montana has never been our exclusive residence, only our favorite and most steadfast home. In spite of my sniveling, there can be no homecomings without leave-takings, no departures without returns. I am looking forward to this flight.

But first, I think I'll go back to the M&M. Not for the last time, but one more time, on the way to the airport if need be, one more slow beer safe behind that old façade, a tonic against homesickness, a fortification against forgetting.

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