flips, flops, and fiddles
August 16, 2009
I think people are staring at my sandals; I hope it’s my sandals, and not the fungus under my big toenail. As I walk along Third Avenue to the car, or down to Hoy’s, or to the beach. They are all wearing Teva’s or designer flip flops, factory made imports with alert little logos. And they all (almost all) have little white plugs in their ears and cords that drape around their necks leading to some kind of rectangular monitor that they strap to their biceps or waistband. As they walk by, or run by (there are lots of runners here), if you are quiet, you can hear a buzzing sound coming out of their ears.
And amidst all the ear-buzzing and chattering and boutiques and all the young bodies strapped into bikinis and draped in jams … they keep looking at my sandals.
Allan Block made them for me a good 20 years ago. They are the kind of thing Jesus might be asked to wear if he was starring in a made-for-TV movie. Simple. Flat leather soles with one thin strap that loops and wraps my toe, foot and ankle and returns to end in a single knot. Functional. Well-made. Handmade. Not a logo in sight.
Allan is a fiddler and poet and singer. He was the sandal-maker to the Beat generation, and then the Folk Revival, at least the revival that happened in New York City, in Greenwich Village, on West 4th Street where he had his sandal shop in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and presided over a nightly old time music jam. He is an urban legend and now a New England one, living on Bible Hill Road in a town in New Hampshire, still making music and, I think, sandals. I first met him at NEFFA, the annual traditional music and dance festival in Natick, Mass. He was setting up his booth next to mine, laying out his samples and belts and bags, plugging in his buffing wheel and old floor lamp. He was thin, and spry, his body a little crooked, especially around his neck and shoulders, bent, I would soon learn, around the shape of a fiddle, which he played, hour after hour, with different small groups of old friends and new who would crowd themselves into his corner. Bent the way a vine grows around a tree.
I didn’t need to leave my booth, rush to this stage or that, to hear good music. I could just sit and listen to Allan and his friends: Old Time, Appalachian, New England, banjo, guitar, mandolin, voice, a steady and bank-sloshing stream of melodies and songs, blues, bawdy, nonsense, with Allan blazing away at the center, burning cool, hot, and delightful, just four feet away.
Between the Beats and the beats I just had to get a pair. He stood me on piece of stiff paper, a shirt cardboard I believe, and crouched down, Golem-like, and traced my feet with a thick pencil. He looked at my arches, made some marks and arrows on the cardboard and asked for a deposit. I wrote him a check, bought his one music cassette, and two months later, the sandals appeared in my Calais mailbox.
Twenty years ago. I am still wearing them. I’ve taken them to Boisvert’s in Barre a few times, soles reinforced, straps strengthened. I’ve taken them my forty year old wood and leather clogs, too. I hope they’re glad to see me come in the door. Restoring things, fixing things, making them last. Henry P. gave me the clogs in 1984. He was a friend from seminary days. “Those are great clogs, Henry,” I said one day. “Would you like them, Dan?” “Sure.” “Here, they’re yours.” Henry’s easy generosity is forever attached to those clogs. I think of him and his gesture every time I put them on. He’s retired now, from the priesthood, but the clogs aren’t; I’m still wearing them. I think of Allan and his fiddle and his lusty version of Barlow Knife whenever I strap on his sandals, and of the Boisvert clan and their skilled, challenge-loving, employees, who’ve stared and thought and turned it over in their hands and heads, searching for fixes for my footwear.
I see stories everywhere. Objects, things, are thick with them. When I look at my fancy $100 running shoes I see worlds of people I’ll never know. Anonymous Chinese faces and hands working at top speed, cutting, sewing, glueing, lacing, placing them in boxes. I see bigger boxes and fork lifts, trucks, big red containers and cranes lowering them onto great ocean vessels. Massive engines and diesel fuel being burned by the thousands (millions?) of gallons. Waste and oil glistening in the long shining wake. And I see the landfill where these shoes will someday (soon) lie, twisted, suffocating in ripped black plastic and stench. I see landfills almost everytime I walk into a large department or big box store. They are just highly organized landfills that don’t stink yet. Pre-landfills. It’s a curse, seeing all these pasts and futures, which perhaps explains my attachment to durable, handmade footwear and why, at the age of 52, I have picked up the fiddle.
Like his sandals the songs that Allan plays weren’t made in windowless factories, and won’t end up in landfills. They are full of life, energy, pathos, humor, and foot-pounding rhythms. They live in the moments that they are being played yet carry with them echoes of centuries of earlier playings, earlier dancings. They convey life and energy that extends deep into our past, into our bodies, our beating hearts, and lifts us up, makes us dance, laugh, and cry.
The Jersey Shore is a bit of a wasteland for the likes of me and my sandals, but flowers will bloom in the desert. Our second day here I met a fellow Vermonter, Liza, the vibrant, graceful fourteen year old granddaughter of our old friend Allan Mackay of East Calais. She is a fiddler and student of Vermonter Beth Telford who is herself a student and friend of Jerry Holland, the great Cape Breton fiddler who, Liza informed me, had died just two weeks prior. We spent an hour on her porch in Avalon, just three miles from our apartment in Stone Harbor, with me trying to play a couple of Appalachian tunes and her blazing through Scottish and Cape Breton melodies. “Shall I teach you one?” she asked. “Sure.” And she did, phrase by phrase, patiently, the A part, the B, over and over, from the beginning, to the middle, back to the beginning, to the end, until I had it, her tanned bare foot lifting and pounding out the rhythm on the old plank floor, her long, lithe fingers dancing up and down the neck. It was a new tune, one just entering the tradition, composed by Holland for a friend of his who had died. Liza couldn’t remember the title or find it in the little spiral notebook she carried, but she knew the melody, every interval, every twist, and she passed it to me, note for note, beat for beat.
The word this week is fiddle/violin, two different words with different connotations, but for the same instrument and from the same Latin root: Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy and victory… and partying. Her name itself comes from a root meaning to lift, to raise up, as in to shout for joy, to get up on your feet and dance, to raise your spirits, or a glass of spirits, to lift yourself up, and your friends.
We’re a problem species, that’s for damn sure, with our petroleum flip flops and dying seas, and buzzing earplugs; and we’re also a precious, vibrant, beautiful species, young and old, and open, telling stories, making up stories, longing for beauty and joy and a good life, and eager to share it, in a sandal shop in Greenwich Village, in a living room jam in rainy Montpelier, on a dance floor in Cape Breton, or on a porch in beautiful, summery New Jersey.