Friends of Franz

June 1, 2009

You don’t need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Don’t even listen, simply wait.
Don’t even wait, be quite still and alone.
The world will come to you and let you
take off its mask.
It has no other choice.

These words, and the name Kafka were typed neatly on the back side of an index card and pinned to the wall in Herb’s kitchen. Herb lived “off the grid” in a borrowed house beyond a dead end road in a brush overgrown section of Block Island Rhode Island, in a place that no day-tripping moped rider or tax-assessor would ever find. He would leave his home every day, to go to Ernie’s Diner or the airport restaurant, the harbor, the post office, and once a week or so, the dump.

His house, which really belonged to an old time islander who owned the marina down at New Harbor, a man who hired him to do design work from time to time, was filled with furniture of all sorts, books, and all manner of interesting objects. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, engineering and reference books, books on art, history, biography, philosophy; old toys, strange tools, and well-oiled implements.

He had a large room filled with dressers and shelves all covered and filled with tools. Before I left the island he took me there to give me a hammer head as a parting gift. Every drawer of every dresser was filled with clean, oiled metal objects; one with files, one with rasps, another with screwdrivers, the old kind, a single spike of heavy iron with smooth rounded wood pieces fitted on either side for a handle.

“People throw these away,” he would say. “I find them at the dump. They are perfectly good. They just need a little filing to clean up the edge, and new wood pieces for the handle. I clean them and oil them. I’m not sure why.” One of the dressers was filled, every drawer, with assorted hammers and hammer heads; metal working, leatherworking, woodworking. He reached into a drawer filled with 16 ounce finishing hammer heads and handed one to me. “You might find this useful. You’ll need to make a handle for it. And put a little oil on it once in a while. It will keep it from rusting.”

Almost everything in his house came from the dump, even his fuel for the winter which was mostly construction debris. He was an engineer and designer and had built a beautiful and original windmill using sails and wood and nylon and bearings and car batteries — all from the dump. It was a work of art and turned smoothly, elegantly in the air above his workshop. The only thing it lacked was the inverter that would turn the spinning motion into electricity and charge the batteries. He knew where the inverter was, on the floor behind the desk at the car mechanic’s shop. His windmill waited patiently, for years, weathering in the sun and rain, its sails neatly coiled. “It will show up,” he said, “eventually, everything goes to the dump.”

One day Herb and I were visiting a mutual friend. We walked into his well-appointed living room, filled with matching, expensive furniture, shelves of sophisticated books, and artwork on the walls. Herb moved into the center and surveyed the room silently for a few moments and then announced, with almost sorrowful irony, “Someday this will all be mine.”

He found a letter from the Harpers Ferry insurrectionist John Brown at the dump. The Reverend Vail, an abolitionist minister who lived on the island in the 1800’s had corresponded with Brown while he was in prison awaiting execution. When the Vail homestead was finally torn down in the 1960’s the new owners sent boxes of old papers and items to the dump, consigned to its weekly bonfire. Herb found the letter before the fire did. “It was one of the last things John Brown wrote. I sold it to a collector for $300. I have always regretted that.”

Before he came to the island Herb had helped design the first shopping mall in the US, in Michigan I think, built in the ‘50’s He still had the blueprints and laid them out for me one day. He designed a toy, called it the Ubi, for ubiquitous, but the company that bought his idea changed it to Oobi, “more friendly,” they said. It was a “note in a bottle adrift in a sea of people,” made of hollow plastic, the size of an egg, only flattened somewhat, with a narrow slit for the insertion of a note, and a blank flat space where the sender would write the name and city or town of the intended recipient, ideally someone who lived far away, on an opposite coast or on a different continent — not the address, just the town, and country or general area. The sender would give the Oobi to someone who was headed in the direction of the recipient, who would then pass it on to the next person who was traveling farther, and so on, hand to hand, hitchhiking. “It’s not about the note,” he said, “but about the conversations, the connections, the long string of strangers that would meet and pass the Oobi along.” They paid him $7000 for the idea and spent another $10,000 developing it, but they didn’t produce it. At the end, if the Oobi ever reaches its destination, the recipient will need to break it to get the note out. The marketing people couldn’t swallow that. They didn’t think anyone would buy something that had to be broken in order to be used. He showed me the mock magazine ads he made to sell the idea. a little Oobi hiding behind a rock on a photo of the moon’s surface, on a VW dashboard, poking out of a hip pocket. “They didn’t get it,” he said, “they never understood the idea.” He showed me his prototypes, a few in wood, one in plastic. They were international orange with two big white eyes outlined in black. He put them back on table, next to a collection of antique toys and puzzles he had found at the dump.

He virtually never left the island, except I think, to die. He never got the inverter. He used to point at his kitchen table and chair and radio. “I’ve sat in that chair for over 25 years, Dan. The same chair. Same table. The same radio. The entire Viet Nam war, happened while I sat there listening to it, on the radio.

Herb was an Ubi who didn’t travel, a bottle who washed up on Block Island and never left. His messages, from Kafka and others, were pinned to the kitchen wall and read only by the small handful of guests ever invited in. The world did come to him, through the radio, the dump, in the broken seminarian who trapsed through his rooms. Whether it really let him take off any masks is debatable. He found things and used them and was good at salvage. He was largely alone. He cared about the world and could get very indignant about venality and stupidity and waste. He was an artist and a thinker. He gave me one more thing before I ended my two year retreat and moved to Vermont. An index card with a quote from Machiavelli, the Prince. He was worried about me, thought me too idealistic, too earnest, too sensitive (too much like himself). This is what it said:

the gap is often great between how one does live and how one ought to live
and the person who neglects what is done
for the sake of what ought to be done
learns the path to destruction, rather than preservation;
for a person who wishes to act virtuously at all times
necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.

That quote, and Kafka’s, and a 16 ounce hammer head (which I did make a handle for) have stayed with me and served me well. Thank you Herb.

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2 Responses to “Friends of Franz”

  1. Karen Fisher Says:

    Hi Dan,

    I’m Herb’s daughter and live in North Carolina. You probably didn’t know he had a daughter, and in fact, I didn’t meet him until I was 18 years old. I remember the Ubi prototypes too and always wished I had one. The sight and smells of Payne Farm will remain always alive. Thanks for sharing your impressions.

  2. brainard Says:

    wow, this is a small but interesting thread! Karen, did you come to block island often? I lived on block island for 10 years, published a magazine called the works, and new him. I saw a game called UBI today and he came to mind right away, but it is a different UBI game..


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