Literati, Lyrics, and Langostinos at the Grand Finale

This was a favorite hangout of mine in Tallahassee in the early 1990s, when I had delusions/pretensions of being a short-story writer and was penning a column for the local paper. I spent many an evening downstairs in the restaurant eating and drinking with friends from the English Department and upstairs listening to fiction and poetry readings in the bar.

Joe Clark
Community Column #7
to run 5/26/92

Literati, Lyrics, and Langostinos at the Grand Finale

I have to admit it. Occasionally, something good can be found in the city. It ain't all out there in the sinkholes, or up in trees. Sometimes real things come to life amidst the asphalt and cinderblocks.
I'm talking about right down on the Tennessee Street Strip, that bar-bedecked place where in the evenings tipsy revelers stroll from juke to juke within inches of the humming traffic. Specifically, smack dab in the middle of a decaying block of buildings between Raven and Dewey. Halfway between the downstairs glitter-thump of Kahuna's and the espresso library of Yianni's.
I'm talking The Grand Finale.
'Cept nobody I know calls it that. It's just Finale's--two floors of bar and restaurant that offers great food for the belly, ears, heart, and head. And no, I'm not related to the owner.
Best way to approach Finale's (and a lot of other things, too, for that matter) is from the rear. Park and lock it in the lot out back. Look for heavy wooden doors surrounded by tropical fish, like guards outside Neptune's favorite honky-tonk. On your way in you can dodge or give audience to a panhandler or two, depending on your wont (I'm an inveterate sucker for a lively tale of woe), and maybe hear the strains of a street saxophonist echoing from the parking garage under McDonald's. Think of these as appetizers.
The ground-floor restaurant is a dim, cool place, low-ceilinged and heavy-beamed. A tavern. A converted gold-mine. Slip into a casual booth and in no time at all a relaxed but quite efficient wait-person will arrive with menus. Maybe it'll be Susan, raiser of squirrels--or possibly Mike, who has been known to cram nine people into his Toyota van and head for the sinkholes at two a.m. on a moonlit January night.
The staff at Finale's make every effort to avoid conventional dress. No barber-striped franchise fernbar aprons or hokey bow ties here. Shorts and T-shirts seem to be the rule for men, while the women's attire makes Stevie Nicks look positively prosaic.
And the food. Ashby Stiff I ain't, but this is definitely five-burp fare, especially if you're a lover of things that swim, crawl, or slither under da sea. Seafood gumbo so spicy you'll cry for joy. Crayfish, oysters, shrimp--fresh off the boat and still kicking, for the most part. Ah, new potatoes with etoufee. . . well, enough of that. Be sure to thank Joey and Jim and the other guys back in the kitchen on your way out.
But don't leave yet! After a dessert of Haagen-Dazs or cheesecake, waddle past the TV set and head upstairs to Tennessee-Street level, where the music plays and ice-cold longnecks are dispensed with alacrity by LeeAnn, known to sport a low-brimmed hat and steal surreptitious glances at Final Jeopardy on the set behind the bar--or perhaps Mindy, who will flatter you by asking for an ID.
And then? It all depends on the night of the week. Maybe it'll be a crash-and-clang band with a name apparently bestowed by an aphasic magus. Or perchance you'll have arrived in the midst of wailing guitars and crying harmonicas, played by lean men who smoke cigarettes between chords: the Blue Monday Jam. It's different every night, and you can usually get a preview by cocking an ear towards the ceiling while feasting on sea-critters downstairs.
My favorite night--especially since I've become something of a half-baked hanger-on of the creative-writing crowd at FSU's English Department--is Tuesday. They call it Poetry Night, but you're just as likely to hear a selection from someone's novel-in-progress, or a wickedly witty short story. Both local and imported writers brave the lurid red stage-lights and occasional mike failures to strew their words across a lively and receptive audience that grows church-quiet during the readings. You may hear mildly erotic poetry. Tales of the absurd. Ripping yarns and thought-provoking meditations--and hardly a black beret in the place. Some writers read quietly, plainly, almost shyly--as if any taint of "performance" would profane the pure force of their eloquence. Others fairly bristle with anger, love, and/or humor. And never--well, almost never--a dull moment, though there are plenty of strange ones.
Beats network TV, though, don't it?
Tallahassee could use a dang sight more of this kind of thing. Any place could.
Go on. Give it a try. You never knew Tallahassee was so literate. Tonight, fiction writers Rob McGrogan and Paul Laffan belly up to the mike at 8 pm. Better get there early. And next Tuesday, poet Karen Janowsky rides the muse, along with a certain community columnist who shall remain, as always,

Joe Clark, an admitted crustaceophile and shameless self-promoter, who is a writer/editor and instructional project manager at FSU.


Lifestyles of the Rank and Feral

Another "community column" from 1992; the title of this blog post comes from a comic that was taped to my fridge at the time. Those summers with my girls are some of the best memories of my life, though I was often running ragged and almost constantly out of money. It was a bit like this:

Joe Clark
Community Column #10
to run 7/28/92

Part-time Dads strip away civilization's veneer

I'm not sure how Dan Quayle feels about me.
That is, I'm a single parent this summer. Actually, I'm a single parent all year 'round, but I don't have the evidence with me unless school's out.
My daughters, ages 5 and 9, live with their mom in Pennsylvania nine months out of the year. They stay with me during the summer. It's a different twist on the usual alternate-weekends shared-parenting arrangement many people use, and it has both advantages and drawbacks. The latter is a doozy: I may not see my girls for months at a time. But on the plus side, I get an uninterrupted, industrial-strength dose of young'un just in time for beach season. And a chance to grow with my children through the day-to-day routine: drowsy cereal mornings, the angst of day-care and the frantic search for a supper we can all agree on, and chronically missed bedtimes at night.
I can't speak for the full-time single dads out there, but I know us part-timers have one driving goal for the custody period, whether it be weekend or quarter: DESTROY ALL VESTIGES OF SOCIALLY-ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR. It's true. Consider the following list of rules for the part-time single dad:
1. BREAK DOWN STIFLING AESTHETIC PREJUDICES. Always dress the children in mismatched clothes. (It's not that we do it on purpose. I swear red and purple look OK to me. With green socks.)
2. DEFY ARBITRARY DICTATES ON FREQUENCY OF HAIR-BRUSHING. You remember how much it hurts, and how it lasts longer than third period. My youngest daughter, Laura--who opted for a pixie-cut just before summer started--has inexplicably acquired the nickname "Spike" at the day-care center.

3. REMAIN AMUSEDLY TOLERANT OF PUBLIC ACROBATICS. They look so cute swinging on the rails between the checkout counters at the grocery store. Let the carts stack up in the next lane. Those people obviously have no sense of humor.

4. EXPOSE THEM TO NON-TRADITIONAL LITERATURE. At last, someone who shares your love of coprophiliac limericks and flatulence jokes. And they retain things so well! There's no telling when they might decide to recite--perfectly--the one about the monkey and the corncob. Usually, in front of guests. And in a related gutter,

5. EXPAND THEIR SOUND-PRODUCTION REPERTOIRE. The bronx cheer is for sissies. They must learn to mimic the sound of escaping gas through at least two of the following methods: a) Palm-Under-the-Armpit, b) Lips Pressed Against the Forearm, and c) Air-Bubble in the Cheek. I'm proud to report that my girls have mastered all three, and have also learned to make disturbing noises with balloons.

6. INSTILL IN THEM A HEALTHY SENSE OF THE SUPERNATURAL. This comes down to me from my grandfather, who used to tell us that "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" lived in his kitchen cabinets--and would we fetch him a glass of water, please? Now my kids twitch and shudder whenever they pass the warm-air return in the hallway. Simply because they've heard "Herman" lives there. Yesterday Lindsay, my oldest, spent hours on her latest arts-and-crafts project: garlic necklaces for each of us.

7. INSPIRE CREATIVE PLAY. Look at all the wonderful things we can sculpt with Play-Dough! Did you ever suspect there were so many fire ants in such a small mound? And who says Barbie can't be a Terminator? "Ell be beck, Ken."

8. DEVELOP A CLOSE UNDERSTANDING OF NATURE. "What are those two dogs (cats/toads/birds/lovebugs) doing, Dad?" "Was that poison ivy, Dad?" "What do you mean, 'spider-bite', Dad?" "AAAAAAGH! A BEE!! KILL IT, DAD!!!"

9. EXPERIMENT WITH NUTRITION. Why dirty up forks when you can use your hands? Nobody's looking. Laura doesn't even need a spoon to eat applesauce. Best conditions for brainstorming: seven-o'clock at night, with empty stomachs, in the chips aisle.

10. DEVELOP MOTOR SKILLS. Jumping on the bed is good exercise. "Horsie" is a great opportunity for free chiropractic treatment, and certain to be demanded of everyone who stops by--if the kids are conditioned properly.
Our path toward these lofty goals is not an easy one. Our opportunities are limited by lengthy periods of apoplectic tickling, mesmerized movie-watching, and soft-voiced bedtime story reading. Our minds are distracted by the helpless trust of small arms surrounding our necks, the joyous shrieks and giggles emanating from a pillow-fight, and the curious way a small child gains twenty pounds and fifty degrees when she falls asleep on one's shoulder. We become lost in wonder at the flowering of personality, the amazingly accurate observations, the piercing questions--and for long moments at a time we contemplate the thought that if children such as these are to inherit the world, then perhaps there is hope after all.
And we are dumbfounded at our role in all this.
Yet we part-time single dads must not lose sight of our ultimate purpose. We must keep to the narrow path. Must not yield to distraction, for in a very short time--as it is for all parents--our influence will wane. The next time we meet they will have undergone months of civilizing influences, and many of our efforts will have been undone. They may not even remember half the lyrics to "Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts."
I'll have to get busy. I think tonight's lesson will be a tactical overview of dirt-clods, rubber bands, squirt guns, and water balloons.

Joe Clark's name will probably show up on a computer list soon. Meanwhile, he is a project manager with FSU's new Educational Services Program.


Toujours le Plongeur, Previsited

I've blogged about diving before, and even wrote a poem about it, but had almost forgotten about this first essay of mine on the subject, written when I was a Tallahassee Democrat "community columnist" in 1992. My mind's eye was mostly recalling a spookily grand dive in Emerald Sink, south of town. I don't think I could do a better job of evoking the experience today. The photos are from freshwater dives since 2012 or so, featuring my brother Paul and his son Liam.

Joe Clark
Community Column #6
to run 5/5/92

Sinkhole Diving's Not In Living Color

South of Tallahassee there are portholes into a universe of water that extends for horizontal miles under the piney woods, beneath A.M.E. churches and convenience stores, in some places swooping hundreds of feet underground and in others just under the sandy surface, below a thin ceiling of limestone. On summer nights when the crickets and cicadas pause to change sheet music it moves with an empty, gurgly sound that makes dogs whine and scratch at the floors of house-trailers.
I am not a daring man. I'm no athlete, no great outdoorsperson. I drive a very slow car. Heights frighten me. Darkness makes me whistle. And yet I am drawn here, to these sea-haunted mansions. . . .
On many an occasion I can be found in the company of like-minded individuals, staring into a sinkhole that rests like a blue-green gem among the live oaks. Our eyes follow the white limestone walls that curve outward underwater, a gigantic brandy snifter, into emerald depths. There are no shallows in most sinkholes. Two feet from shore the bottom may be a hundred feet down. Yet even then, it is sometimes visible from the surface.
I and my like-minded friends shrug ourselves into scuba backpacks, check straps, and open air valves. Black-clad, tentacled with hoses for pressure gauges and extra mouthpieces, hissing like bipedal locomotives stirring from some fantastic train-yard, we approach the water with the heavy creak of neoprene rubber and the dull clank of weight-belts against air tanks. One part Darth Vader, one part Alien, and three parts stuffed sausage. We move with care, for we are as unnaturally leaden and labored as beached whales.
But once in the water, all that changes. We bob at the surface for a few moments, pulling on fins and hawking into facemasks. Then, with an aggregate sigh from the exhaust valves of buoyancy-compensation vests, we leave the world of air behind.
As we descend, bottom features emerge from the bluish haze below like returning memories, and each time I drift downward I recall anew that dreams of flying are, in fact, dreams of swimming. Memories of swimming. Recollections of flotations past: a few months in the womb and then, further back, through countless eons of seaborne ancestry.
And so quickly it returns: in the element of water you can rise and sink merely through attentive breathing. You move about in the endless pause of a sinkhole's depths with leg-kicks as nebulous as those of sleeping dogs, turning and banking with the lightest of gestures. As though you might think yourself from place to place.
But you can't really go back to the ancestral home again. There is the constant need to monitor your depth and air supply. Speech is impossible; communication primitive. A careless flipper-stroke can stir up enough moondust silt to reduce visibility from hundreds of feet to mere inches. You are indeed an alien here, kept alive by wits and machinery. A tolerated tourist. A furtive worshipper.
The beam of your flashlight, swallowed by the airplane-hangar entrance to a side cavern, reveals nothing but a grainy darkness through which motes of debris move like dislodged stars. Thigh-sized catfish gape in perpetual surprise from rock ledges. Sound comes from everywhere at once: the regular hiss-and-bubble of your breathing; clouds of exhaled air rumbling toward the surface; moody, far-off hums and sighs and feathery whispers.
Your eyes take in riots of monochrome: white limestone dappled in welcome sunlight, black tree-trunks like the charred beams of a burned-out cathedral, and gray silt that blankets everything like entropy made tangible, like lurking death, above which your exhaust bubbles trail in plumes of metallic smoke toward a circle of leaves and sky overhead--a blue-green heaven above a charred world.
What business is this of yours? you must ask yourself. What miracle or madness has placed you here? Why doesn't your heart stop when you crouch sixty feet down in a rock-lined tube no bigger than the interior of a Toyota, watching your spent air bubbles cascade up the sloping roof like mercury? How will you bear to walk the land again, to feel gravity again, when you have flown, a mechanical manta, across a hall the size of a drowned sports arena?
Sometimes, at great depths, I remove the mouthpiece of my regulator and scream with terror and delight and superstitious awe, but there is only the sound of bubbles. Sometimes, back at the surface, I inflate my BC, lean back, and bob like a great, rubber otter, drinking in the sunshine and air as if for the first time, yet already planning my next return to the ashy depths. Sometimes I wonder if it is life or death that draws people into the drowned caverns.
Yet diving the haunted rooms of the aquifer's domain eases something within me. It generates relativity; reminds me of things I should remember. Gives me back my fins, if only for a half-hour or so at a time, and permits me to worship the One True, firsthand.

Joe Clark, who has begun to notice little gill-like structures forming on his neck, is a Writer/Editor for FSU.


Badass MF Still Alive

My sister Sarah recently posted this photo to Facebook and it reminded me of something I wrote for the Tallahassee Democrat when I was a "community columnist" during 1992. I dug up the original file and it's posted below. Seems to hold up well enough over 25 years later. ~JSC

Joe Clark
Community Column #16
to run 12/1/92

Zen and the Red-Clay Art of Tractor Maintenance

The dog had got hold of the tractor and the result was not pretty.
You'd think a chunky little mid-size Massey-Fergusen and a lean, mildly hyperactive retriever mix would be pretty evenly matched, but that tractor never had a chance.
Hinson (the dog) had gone directly for the jugular, ramming her muzzle up beneath the simple dashboard and dragging out the wiring harness to tug at it like a hyena worrying an antelope's tongue. Amazingly enough, the tractor kept running, but everything else -- lights, horn, gauges -- became tragically silent.
So there I was in a barn on an unseasonably muggy November afternoon in Recovery, Georgia, with the patient opened up and a tangle of dog-chewed wires in my hands, wondering what it is that persuades an animal to mix it up with machinery. And how those twelve volts must've tasted.
Fortunately, the wires were color-coded, so for the most part it was a matter of unwrapping the harness, taping over the bite-marks, and splicing things back together. But for a long time I just stared at the mass of disconnected, frayed ends, not knowing where to begin.
If Life's hyperactive dog has ever gotten its teeth into your wiring harness and gnawed at it some, you know just what I mean. You could just sit and stare for weeks. But after a while you start to see how some of the old connections were made, and maybe try to splice up a few. Over here, red/green goes to red/green, like so. And on this side, here's two more that go together. Clip, strip, crimp -- that easy.
Sort of like moving back to Tallahassee was for me a few years ago: at first just a tangled confusion that didn't much look like the place I'd left. Like something'd been chewing on it.
Then the connections started to appear. Family to family. Friend to friend. Like I was splicing up things that had been severed, or at least soundly gnawed, by time and distance. Clip, strip, crimp.
Within twenty minutes or so, I had nearly all the wires reconnected. Hinson watched from a safe distance, mouth open and smiling guilelessly.
Then I hit on a snag: four of the remaining wires were all the same color: red. I suddenly felt like James Bond at Fort Knox in Goldfinger. Which combination would work, and which would result in a cataclysmic tractor detonation? Here I consulted the wiring diagram, but it was no help. Only a schematic, it didn't show how the wires were actually routed. Just where they went.
What to do? You've made all the obvious connections, but you've still got loose ends -- all the lights ain't on yet. Neither your eyes nor the books tell you how to proceed. And you certainly can't put the thing back together this way.
I fell back on scientific method: eliminated the clearly wrong choices, then tried one combination. Eureka! The tail light glowed cherry red. No sparks flew. No whiffs of ozone or melting insulation. That was it -- educated guesswork and luck. Two crucial elements of tractor repair, and other things.
Only one unlinked pair remained. There was no way to test this one without reconnecting the battery and starting the engine. I pinched the ends together, reached for the ignition switch, and squeezed my eyes shut.
It was a leap of faith. In myself, in the universe, in something. Whatever. Faith, alright? Just try it, faith says, and it's OK if you need to shut your eyes while you do.

As the diesel churned to life the dog's eyes widened. I began to flip switches and scrutinize dials. Lights? OK. Gauges? Check. Horn? Beep! Hinson jumped up and bolted around the corner. Yes, dog, I smiled from the driver's seat. Your nemesis is alive and well.
Moral of story, children friends? Life's a tractor. Check the oil every now and then, keep your PTO clean, and for God's sake keep the dog out of the wiring harness.
But what gets us through isn't the happy sound of that horn or the swinging needles of any gauge.
No, not at all.
It's that moment just before you turn the key, that instant when you squeeze your eyes tight shut and your palms go a little wet. When you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.
And you reach out and turn the key anyway.

Joe Clark, whose nose was recently severed in a tragic wire-crimping mishap, apologizes profusely to Robert M. Pirsig.