That photo album's trip out of the garbage continues

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t about the photo album, don’t read this until you read that first.]

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Tucked into the back of the photo album I wrote about the other night were also a few odds and ends: a Soviet-era record of a Russian folk song, a yellowed photo of the dance troupe clipped from a newspaper, and then, from exactly a half-century later, three or four condolence cards in Cyrillic and a letter, also in Cyrillic, addressed to someone named Vladimiroff. Looking at this with my friends Jim and Virginia (where Roo and I have been camped this and the past three summers in Maine), Virginia noticed the name and said that she and Jim had known a Vladimiroff, a Vlad Vladimiroff. He had been a patient of theirs years ago. Perhaps this Vlad would know about this album. Virginia ferreted a phone number out of mutual acquaintances for Vlad and called him and told him about the album. Yes, Vlad said, his parents had both been ballet dancers. He came right over.

Vlad is a soft-spoken white-haired man of 75, born in Nazi-occupied France, brought to the United States as a toddler. We sat down at the dining table in the house, and he put his glasses on. Vera, the beautiful young woman whose album it was, was Vlad’s mother. She and her husband, both ballet dancers, were among the White Russians lucky enough to escape the new Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution. They made their way to Paris, which had a large population of Russian expatriates, and where they joined Ida Rubenstein’s ballet. The tour in the album began there, and that’s where the photo in which proudly point to the poster was taken. Later they came to America, where Vera and Serge had a ballet school in Manhattan.

The house outside of which I found the album was his family’s house until they sold it in 1983. Whoever bought and lived in the house for these past 35 years either never found the old album or just left it and the junk that was in basement alone. Who knows. The pictures were obviously in there all this time, judging by the amount of dust on them. Then they were piled in with the garbage and put on the curb. If I hadn’t taken Roo for a walk there, and if the letter addressed to Vera hadn’t been stuffed in the back, and if Virginia hadn’t noticed the name, and then been able to track Vlad down, the album’s connection back to Vlad and the Vladimiroff family would never have been made, and it would be lying in a landfill, the old photos of those young artists blowing away in the wind that has come here just now with winter, with crumpled Cheetos bags and bubble wrap.

Vlad had never seen the album before, and without a magnifying glass, he couldn’t make the pictures out too well when we were visiting in the house but he could make his mother out when she appeared in close-up. His father, Serge, appeared to be in some of them, too. The label on the album — that old piece of masking tape with VERA RUBENST — AUSTRELIA written on it — meant not Vera Rubenstein, as I thought, but instead Vera’s tour with the famous Ida Rubenstein. 

Vlad has a 45-year-old son. Serge, too. the album is back in their family, now. It’s the first rescue of that kind for me, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty good one.

The (almost) lost treasure of Madame Rubenstein

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Roo and I were walking on a street near downtown Brunswick just before sunset a few weeks ago when we passed a pretty old clapboard house that must have just changed hands. It was showing the first signs of rehab — unpainted wood on a replaced front step. Tyvek wrap on a rebuilt section of wall. A new Home Depot aluminum window that the surviving windows, with their distorted glass from another time put to shame. A few bags of garbage and junk were piled at the curb: old-fashioned venetian blinds, garroted with their own cords wound around them, were crumpled like the skeletons of herons. An old soda crate had tangled Christmas lights, stained coffee cups and mason jars without lids. A roll of old giftwrapping paper sagged where mold had rotted it away.

I wasn’t going to stop for any longer than Roo was taking to sniff something, but I am too curious for my own good (I’m pretty sure I’m one of the cats in the process of of being killed by it), and the frayed edges of a stack of black blotter paper at the bottom of the soda crate caught my eye. I suspected a photo album because it looked like the kind of paper people used in the oldest ones, and, once I lifted some of the junk out of the way, that’s what it turned out to be. It was covered with decades of caked and calcified dust, and it wouldn’t be until I cleaned it later that I could even tell that the album was tan leather with dark stitches. Affixed to the black sheets, were dozens, maybe hundreds, of small black and white photographs. At first glance, they appeared to be from the 1920s, but the album was so filthy that I didn’t want to handle it until I got it cleaned up, so I took it.

On the cover of the album is a piece of torn masking tape with, VERA RUBENST and AUSTRELIA, spelled that way, in an old hand using a dull pencil. Rubenst was probably Rubenstein truncated to fit the tape, which was torn at a messy angle but had been made to do. 

The album is about a grand voyage a group of twenty-somethings took nearly a hundred years ago. Whoever took the pictures didn’t really have any talent for it. For the most part, the pictures are the group assembled for a group shot in front of a door or on a lawn.

But then they are dancing in ballet costumes. And in one photo, some of them stand in front of a poster for Ida Rubenstein. Well, the name on the album was Vera Rubenst, so that was a lead. And a little research showed that Ida Rubenstein had performed with her dance troupe in Australia around that time. It could be a coincidence, but it doesn’t seem to be.

If you look online for Ida Rubenstein, you will find one of the great stars from early part of the 20th Century. Born into one of Russia’s wealthiest families, she conned them into letting her go to school in Paris, where she was declared legally insane by a brother-in-law when he learned that she had appeared onstage. She was placed into an asylum.

While her aristocratic family would have found her appearance onstage egregious, they did not think it merited her being locked up, and they had her released and returned to Russia. Ida continued her career.

Though Ida was loaded, it was her talent and presence that made her successful. She was the real deal. Her ballet training started too late in life for her ever to become a first-rate ballet dancer, but evidently she had such presence and was so stunning that she was able to earn her reviews and stardom in spite of it. She commissioned Ravel’s Bolero, and was the first to perform in it, sculptors sculpted her and painters painted her.

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But the photo album is not about Ida. It is about Vera and her friends. The only connection to Ida was that shot of them with the poster. I sent the picture to a scholar who has written about Ida. She wrote back to say she had never heard of Vera. Ida didn’t have any kids, 

Well, that should have been that. But then, today I was looking at the pictures again, and I noticed a shot on the first page of the album I had never paid enough attention to before. It is of a slender woman in an elegant fur-trimmed coat. And I’m pretty sure it’s Ida. Here’s a link to Ida on Pinterest. See what you think.

  The picture that looks like Ida Rubenstein in the album.

The picture that looks like Ida Rubenstein in the album.

If the young troupe was part of the Ida show, it would make sense that they were traveling in the Second Class rail coaches in some of the pictures, and would only have been in contact with Ida in work settings. Ida would have been in First Class, where no impresario would have booked the kids. In the one picture that I think is Ida, she is spotted from a distance, as if even the act of pointing a camera at her right have been presumptuous. And one did not presume upon a star of Madame Rubenstein’s stature.

  Vera in the foreground. Possibly Ida with black hair in the center.

Vera in the foreground. Possibly Ida with black hair in the center.

Maybe the name is a coincidence. Rubenstein is a common name, after all. Or maybe there’s some other story buried in there.

There’s another picture in which Ida might appear, though it’s hard to tell. In it, Vera is lying in front of the group on the sand of a beach, the woman who would one day scrawl her name on the album with a dull pencil. One of the people behind her looks like it could be Ida. She looks older than the others and she looks like she could be Madame Rubenstein and has her famous black tresses, but the photo is too blurred and faded to be sure. Maybe Madame was treating her troupe to a party at the end of their tour. In Austrelia.

I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I guess it’s because if you ask people what they’d rescue from their house if it was about to be burned in a wildfire, most of them say they’d save the photos. And here were Vera’s, from an extraordinary time in her life, when she was talented and beautiful, dancing on a world tour with a famous ballerina and a group of friends, on steamships and trains, being driven around Austrelia and Italy in flashy cars with running boards in the days when the girls wore cloche hats and the boys wouldn’t think of sprawling on a lawn without their suit and ties on. Here they were, ready to be carted off with the trash.

I guess everybody’s story eventually ends that way. At least this one won’t be, for now.

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Window shopping with Roo: Music shop on Maine Street

Over the summer, Roo started to agree to an evening walk instead of the 16 or 18 hours stretch between her last afternoon walk and her wake-up call around 11 AM. She only goes for these walks, though, if I take her someplace well-lit. She won’t consider it in the neighborhood where we’ve been staying, which has lots of trees and is too dark at night to risk it (of course, the darkness isn’t the issue, because if Roo detects the rustling of a mouse 2000 feet away on a moonless night, she can bolt through the densest foliage, scaling fallen trees and weaving through branches as fast as a falcon can fly, so it’s the night, not the dark, that worries her). So, getting her to go for these evening walks means loading her in the car at eight or so and driving the mile to the well-lit local main street, which, this being Maine, is actually called Maine Street.

There’s a music shop there that sells beat-up old records, phonographs, and, occasionally, musical instruments, and every night Roo insists on stopping there to look in the window. She stares at different things, none of them resembling a mouse or anyone else she would enjoy murdering, so what she must be sensing is a relationship between this music shop and her intense loathing of my mandolin. She looks at me from time to time or sits down, to see if I am getting the message she is transmitting, about the desirability of locking my mandolin up there, too, where it belongs with all the other offensive noisemakers. This, according to her thinking, would obviate the joke she has to endure late every night when I take it off the wall and say, “Oh, poor little Chiggi! I almost forgot to play you the mandolin!” Of course, what worries her is that I would not continue to forget. She raises her head from wherever she’s sleeping and gives me a look that could freeze a weasel in its tracks. The look she gives me is how I know what she’s thinking when she stares in the window of the music shop, because it’s the exact opposite. Instead of the dread I will come face-to-face with in our tiny camper later in the night, this is a look of hope. She is imagining how good it would feel to look up one night and notice that the mandolin has been magically transferred to its rightful place among all the other old junk, where, by rights, it is supposed to be, behind a locked door, on the other side of the glass.

I pretend to have no idea of what it is she’s thinking. The mandolin is my one remaining vice. I play it poorly, and among instruments that sound awful in the hands of an incompetent, the mandolin is a standout. The only tone I can produce reliably is that of the regret Roo wants me to experience with every note. But it is my one remaining vice, and possibly because I am getting old and, beside Roo, it is all that is left, I cling to it. It is our one bone of contention.

We’re moving on in a few days. Roo is sure going to miss that music shop.

SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH: Is dread disease TMDS finally conquered?

Though this post will mostly interest those of you who rely on TDITC to keep you up to date on science, it might also interest those of you who were reading this blog last year and recall the tragic onset of TMDS in Roo. While TMDS (Tadmouse Derangement Syndrome) afflicted only one dog, the scale and force of the illness on the sufferer, and especially its effects on her caregiver, elevated it to epidemic status in the scientific community.  

Early research suggested that TMDS had effects on the serotonin, endorphin and dopamine centers of the brain, with a force equivalent to approximately 100,000 doses of the benchmark crystal methamphetamine manufactured in the Walter White laboratories in New Mexico. The $75 million allotted to a combined team of Agriculture Department veterinary psychiatrists, Office of Naval Reconnaissance canine brain scientists and the Ringling Bros. Circus was inexplicably curtailed under the present administration. GAO records furnished in response to FOIA requests indicate that the remainder was transferred, with school lunches and volcano monitoring, to the Presidential Golfing and Russian-Language Study Expenses accounts of the newly legislated emoluments disbursements line of the FY 2018 federal budget, dimming all hopes for clear answers and dashing any hope of a cure.

One of the most disturbing effects of TMDS is the psychological condition it seems to produce on a biochemical level in the brains of the daddies of the afflicted, causing the utterance of repeated promises in the period leading up to tadmouse season that the dog will be returned to tadmouse waters. These in turn cause a classical feedback loop in which the dog’s doleful looks reinforce a profound sense of guilt, which then drive virtually all of the daddy’s energies in fulfillment of the dog’s expectations. The colder the winter and the smaller the camper in which it is endured when those guarantees are made, the more virulent the disease becomes. The status of clinical thought, therefore, was that the lives of TMDS sufferers could only be expected to spiral further out of control.

This may, however, be incorrect. As with many illnesses, the discovery of a cure was stumbled on in nature, a cure that, like a vaccine, draws on the cause of the illness itself to provide immunity.

The cure was discovered by Roo K. Beker when she finally caught a tadmouse. The slimy taste and feel of the tadmouse instantly alerted her to the inadvisability of further pursuing the tadmouse.

Follow-up treatment may be necessary, but for the time being, at least, it looks like Roo, and I, can say that we are recovering TMDS victims. It is a little melancholy, in the way recovering alcoholics at AA meetings describe all the fun they used to have drinking, even though they know that their newfound abstinence is the only way forward.

New York, where the angels gather at dog shows

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Many times, over the years, I’ve thought that if anything good has come from 35 years of intensive travel, it’s that I think — and hope — that I’ve shaken off some of my native New York attitude. That New York reputation for rudeness? It’s well-earned. There is an aggressiveness to lots of New Yorkers that I never recognized until I had spent a long time — years — around the more pleasant people just about any place else. New Yorkers are a special breed. Eleanor Roosevelt was the last of the greats.

We’re in New York now, after driving 420 miles from West Virginia. The last time we were here and we stopped for gas, I went inside the station for a coffee or something. As I was leaving, there was guy leaving, too, but he was at least 20 feet behind me — way beyond the cut-off distance for holding a door open for someone, especially someone 35 years your junior. The door could have opened and closed three times by the time he got there.

“Hey, asshole!” he shouted at me. “You don’t know how to hold a fuckin’ door or something?”

A little later, we stopped at a town park somewhere so Roo could stretch her legs and go for a swim in the pond. There was a huge, empty parking lot there. While I got Roo leashed up, a shiny convertible with five young guys in it pulled up. White guys, designer tank tops, jewelry, gold sunglasses.

“What the fuck is this?” one of them said, motioning at the camper.

“What the fuck is what?” I said. The New York groove was all too easy to find myself getting back into. “What the fuck is this?” I said, motioning at them. “Sopranos night at junior high?”

“Listen to this asshole,” one of the boys said to the rest.

“Ah, fuck him,” another one said. “Just some fucking asshole.”

Today, after the long drive and as the sun went down, I crosschecked the several apps I use to look for a place to camp. There was a place not far away and we pulled in. It’s a municipal campground in a cute town called Bainbridge, situated on the Susquehanna River. Other than one colossal fifth wheel camper with a fenced-in area set up outside with five standard poodles barking their heads off at Roo as she drove by, the whole campground was empty. I gave the owner of the poodles the usual friendly campground wave as we passed. She glared at me and didn’t respond.

I picked a spot far from her and backed the camper in and took Roo for a walk. I looked all over for the pay station, but couldn’t find it.

At one end of the park a loud knocking coming from inside a barnyard shed frightened Roo.

“That’s nothing to worry about, Chig,” I said. “That’s not a noise.” She believed me and relaxed.

A woman looked out from the shed and said, “Oh, what a pretty dog.”

‘Thanks,” I said.

“Hang on a minute,” she said. She was putting her goats away for the night. A couple of them bouncing off the walls was what scared Roo. 

She came over and said, “Are you part of the dog show?”

“No — this is a shelter dog, not a show dog. Is there a dog show?”

“Oh, yes. They usually have the whole campground reserved. But if they kick you out, don’t worry, you’re welcome to camp in my driveway.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s really generous of you. Thank you.”

We talked for a while and she told me about a 44-year-old horse she had who was killed last winter by a German shepherd who attacked him and tore his neck open. She found her horse and lay in the ice with him — it was nine degrees — for four hours while the horse died. The dog belonged to the brother of the town supervisor, so there were no repercussions for the murder.

“Typical small town stuff,” she said. “Forty-four years old. I had to feed him by hand every four hours. Lost all his teeth.”

You could see how much this hurt, even though she was tough and wasn’t letting on. No one could ever hide how much something like that would hurt, though.

When we got back to the campground I noticed a man in a pink and blue plaid shirt setting up a big yellow commercial tent. I went over to ask him if he worked there. 

“No,” he said. “I’m with the Saratoga Kennel Club.”

“Do you know who I can pay for a night’s camping?” I asked.

“Didn’t you just pass us down there a little while ago?” he said.

It was true. There was another camper parked in another part of the field, also with a fenced-in area with half a dozen pristinely-coiffed dogs of various breeds, representing all the sizes of the dog scale. When Roo and I walked past them the dogs went nuts jumping up against the chicken wire and barking at Roo. I told Roo that they simply had no manners, they were obviously New York dogs and not worth barking back at, and she didn’t. She strode past them with her tail held high and a little of her fur up between the shoulder blades. She made one pouncing jump to let them know what to expect should they broach their enclosure. I gave the two people sitting there — the man in the plaid shirt and a squat woman — the old campground wave, but they just glared back at me like the poodle woman did.

“Oh, yes,” I said, “that was me.”

“Well, you can’t stay here,” the guy said. “This campground is reserved.”

“Tonight? It’s stark raving empty.”

He told me to go talk to the woman he had been sitting with. Roo and I got in the car and drove down there. I got out of the car. The woman was standing way back by her camper on the other side of her dog camp, in which all the inmates were barking like fringe lunatics.

“May I?” I said, gesturing to ask if it was okay to come speak to her.

“May you what?” she said. She was about 65 and had a porkpie hat pulled down low over her face. She had dogs in every size, probably intending to compete in every possible category, or however it is they run those things. I don’t know the first thing about dog shows and have always been inclined to feel sorry for show dogs.

“May I ask you about camping? Your friend told me to come speak to you.”

“You can’t camp here!” she shouted at me. “YOU CAN NOT CAMP HERE!” She was ramping up quickly.

“Why not? The whole place is empty.”

She was horrified. “We have it reserved!” she shouted at me.

“Well, there’s no one there now. Are they coming in tonight?”

She hated being asked this question. She tried to lie that they were, but she wasn’t quick enough on the uptake.

“You’ll have to get out of here by 10 AM.”

“Fine, fine,” I said. “Where shall I pay?”

“Put twenty-five dollars in that box,” she said, pointing at a shed.

“It’d be twelve-fifty,” I said. I have a discount card that gets half off some campgrounds. I pulled this one off their app.

“Did you reserve through them?” she said.

The old New Yorker in me was running out of patience.

“No, ma’am,” I said. “You don’t have to reserve through them.”

“Yes you do! You have to reserve through them!”

“Lady, do you work here?”

“I do not! I — " she raised her head up to look down her nose at me " — am with the Saratoga Kennel Club!” she said. “And we have the whole campground reserved! Twenty-five dollars! In the box!”

The woman who had invited us to camp in her driveway had told me to pay down at the town clerk’s office. She even gave me directions, specifying which insurance office and bank I would pass on the way.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll go get a check.’

“For twenty-five dollars!” she screamed.

“Twelve-fifty,” I said.

“Not if you didn’t reserve, it isn’t! It’s twenty-five dollars!” she screamed at me.

As is my custom when dealing with incendiary personalities, I had been backing away throughout this exchange, but I stopped and said, “Lady, is there some reason you’re being so aggressive?”

“I’m just trying to help you!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “People are nuts these days!”

Her dogs were in a frenzy. Roo looked at them with a mix of deep pity and cold blood. She knew that every last one of them would trade the rest of their lives of being carted around in crates to be held on a noose and trotted around a ring for one day of being Roo.

I got back in the car.

The good old Saratoga Kennel Club. A gathering of angels.

Barreling across America

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The idea of fleeing the heat by going straight north was a mistake, for reasons previously described. We were eaten alive by deer flies and mosquitos. The other problem with Minnesota was that there are few trail systems — nowhere to let Roo run. There are some state parks, but Minnesota charges you seven bucks just to set foot in them and they're few and far between. It's surprising in a state with so much wilderness. There are lots of ATV tracks, but nowhere to walk a dog.

After the truck was repaired we had to leave the area because there was nowhere to camp. Everything was filled to the gills, thousands of campers lined up next to each other in dismal camps featuring Don’t Tread On Me flags. Dangerous weather was headed our way, with gigantic thunderstorms that would eventually drop 12 inches of rain. To avoid the worst of them, we went west. I didn't want to go west, but did it for the Kahoo. As the weather approached, I tried something we’ve never once done and phoned around for a motel, but they were filled, too, and even the cheapest was more than a hundred bucks. We ended up camping behind a city swimming pool somewhere. 

Even then, out of range of the worst of it, when I saw how badly we were going to get clobbered anyway, I tranqued Roo with a trazadone. I've only done that once before. I can't tell how much it helps. It seems to take the edge off a little and she also seems to recover more quickly afterward, but she's still terrified when doped up. I hate to give it to her. You just can’t tell whether they’d tell you they didn’t want it if you could only ask. It’s just another one of those questions I wish I could ask Roo that I can’t. 

We drifted west and into North Dakota. It was even more crowded there than central Minnesota.

I couldn't take it any more. Pulling the trailer in traffic in Fargo, the exact moment when I reached the tipping point came. I couldn't stay in this camper any more, even if there is no choice about staying in it. But at the very least there was no point in moving farther westward. The only point of it would have been to climb into the Rockies to gain altitude and escape the heat of July and August. But the idea of crossing the Dakotas, and then the scrubland of east Montana, was too much. I couldn't do it. The thought of it flattened me like one of the tubes of toothpaste I always try to squeeze one last dab out of before dropping the five bucks on another one. Between that and there being not one place to camp, I told Roo I was sorry, sorry Bearface, and turned around and drove the 140 miles back to a municipal camp on the Mississippi and we stayed there for a few days.

To head east required about 550 miles of going due south first because of Lake Michigan. On the way I thought of trying Madison, Wisconsin on for size, but thought better — or worse, I suppose — of it and we kept going. There was no alternative to having to pull the trailer through Chicago in a lat night rain. Around 1:30 AM we pulled into a Walmart parking lot and crashed for a few hours. 

The next day, we pressed on for another 400 miles to West Virginia. Both of us were on our last legs by then. Long haul driving is as exhausting for Roo as it is for me. To make it up to her I brought her to Tomlinson Run State Park, where we were last year, and where I knew she could run around unmolested and swim in clear creeks. It’s amazing how she not only recognizes any place she hasn’t been in a long time, but the way she remembers every little detail about a trail, the turn-offs, the spots she liked to check for mouses once, the palce where she found the fawn. She caught a mouse for the first time in a long time. That did a it to restore her mood.

We’ll keep going east tomorrow. The more I've seen of the country, the more disconcerted by it I am, and the less I want to see of any more if it. There is no country on Earth more beautiful or more endowed than America, but the depth of the bitterness is hard to take. You don't expect to see so many angry or zombified people against such a lush and spectacular backdrop. The Trumpsters in their wrecked houses, festooned with their old Trump yard signs, the cars in their driveways defaced with dozens of bumper stickers. If you ever need to find a solidly Trump hone, just look for the most dilapidated single-wide in the neighborhood. IF there are too many to choose from, pick the one with the most junk piled up outside.

The thing I've learned about America is something not one story in the media has reported, even though they're constantly printing stories about Trump loyalists. What drives them, what makes them stick with such an obviously and profoundly sociopathic con artist, no matter the damage he does to their own interests. The soybean farmers in Iowa whose farms are losing their value in the face of the new trade wars. The Minnesota dairy farmers saying they're going to have to dump milk in the fields. The defeated flying their Confederate flags and convinced that’s patriotism. There’s no remedying things with them. They want to be angry. They live for it. 

The New York Times just ran yet another front-page story trying to analyze why, and got it all wrong. They blamed it on the usual bullshit. Trump tells it like it is, they say, or Trump puts the working people first. Thins that are so delusional that trying to understand them is like trying to understand the chemical imbalances in the mind of someone who looks up at the sky and sees it shattering like a mirror and letting a rain of sharks fall with the shards. They stick with Trump for one simple reason: No matter what he does, if they hear on Fox that it pisses the libtards off, they're on board. It’s that simple. Cage babies? The libs really hate that, so get more babies and lock ‘em the hell up! Cut Social Security to pay for tax cuts for billionaires? Oh, man, that’s like feeding cyanide to libtards — cut ‘em! Hell, cut ‘em a little more! Tell them you're going to have to cut one of their legs off, they'll put it up on the chopping block as long as Sean Hannity tells them it'll the snowflakes will faint when they see the blood. Those are the mechanics of American politics at the moment. And they seal the deal with racism, the real American conservatism, the yearning for the days when Old Grandad could just sell someone before he had to pay a dental bill, but that’s just a way to make poor white slobs think they’re not at the bottom of the cracker barrel.

So, we're cooked. By we, I mean the all-of-us we. And we — the Kahoo and me — are fried. 

We'll continue to keep heading east, though I have a feeling it won’t be the end of it. Not if we can’t find some place to stop. It hasn’t worked before and I don’t see what’s going to make it work this time.