The Olla Podrida of Ogden Avenue


    (Hey!  This post contains some standard adult situations— e.g.:  a flasher, some euphemisms for body parts, and some implied curse words.   Don’t worry—  nothing too awful, but if this were a movie, it might be PG.  Read on, readers!)     Three months into my freshman year of college, I moved into a small carriage house on Ogden Avenue. It was not sumptuous digs. A small porch overlooked a green backyard, which was the only luxury. The porch was too small to actually put out a chair, and enjoy the view. You had to lean against the support poles in order to enjoy the surroundings. The whole year felt like that porch— beautiful, but makeshift. The interior had two rooms. The first room was the living space, which had a hotel-style air conditioner that pumped out little rotten poufs of cold air— no comfort in the Texas humidity. Ugly brown wall-to-wall carpet dimmed what could have been a charming poet’s retreat. The second room featured a bathroom, a cramped kitchenette, and a sad big closet. The place looked, and felt, like a child’s playhouse. But I chose that location specifically because it was a three-block drive from my apartment to a new coffeehouse in town called Froth. Walking to Froth was questionable because the neighborhood had some dangerous late-night elements (more on that later.)     As for Froth, I drove there every night after class or work, stopping at my apartment to change into my latest costume du jour. At nineteen, I wore bobbed black hair and red lipstick. I had spent most of my life around adults, so my mannerisms were obnoxious — more appropriate to a hackneyed 1940’s ingénue than a nineteen-year-old college student. When I look back at those years now, I see only static pictures of myself: a jittery girl in a faux leopard print jacket, a clumsy coquette in a too-short red trapeze dress; a faux debutante in a brown camel hair coat and gold lamé gloves. When I consider the way I felt about myself, those images move me— I was a goofball in vintage secondhand clothes trying to figure out the next phase of my life and I knew it.  I drank way, way too much coffee.    My brain was sloshing over with Important Thoughts.  What I had, was three jobs and a full load of classes, but what I needed was a three-day nap and a fully-loaded hug.     Instead I had Froth. Froth was a one-room coffeehouse with tall ceilings and yellow walls the hue of an English Regency library. Each table had a lamp: my favorite was a plastic world globe that gave off a warm blue glow. College students crammed those tables with books, coffee and sandwiches. The first Cranberries CD played over the speakers on infinite repeat. I went there to write. That’s not new— I’m always writing.  But my writing that year had become more effusive, frantic, grabby. I detailed everything— I was afraid this moment of beauty wouldn’t last. But really, every ending is a bow to every beginning, and every beginning starts with a reverence to its natural father— the ending that sired the now: our new beginning.    

    This is the beginning. Tony worker the counter at Froth. He was a former biker with a bald head and a sweet disposition. The owners themselves looked like they had been cut out from a Pottery Barn ad with mother’s good scissors. The owners were not your typical coffeehouse people, but they were effusive and funny and hopeful. At first, the owners worked every night. Next, they stopped by, but didn’t stay. Then, they weren’t there at all. But Tony and his bike stories fit right into the gawp-faced college ambiance, so he was there always. I liked Tony. Tony always made my coffee extra black and extra large. He walked with a slight limp from laying down his bike on a freeway. He explained what road rash was to me. Apparently, he had lots of it. Across the street from Froth, sat a klatch of mechanics who would drink beer and listen to Tejano music while quietly checking out the pretty college girls entering the coffeehouse. They were harmless, but they kept an eye on a neighborhood that barely contained an ever-changing song of strangers. We, the customers of Froth, were merely a chorus of kazoos in this much greater song during one swift year.     I was consumed, then. School and work consumed my days. At night, I was consumed again, writing in a fever at Froth. Then I drove the two blocks to my apartment to sleep because I was consumed by exhaustion— only to wake and be consumed by a self-punishing routine the next day. Froth was consumed by the neighborhood. The coffeehouse developed a costly problem— a flasher in a wheelchair that no one could catch. The flasher’s set-up was genius in its perverse use of physics: Every few nights, he parked himself in the shadows by the side of the building where the concrete alleyway provided a natural launch to the street. A pretty girl would pass by; he would expose his wares, and before anyone could do anything, he would release his break, roll down the curb and zoom down the street.  I had heard the rumors about his activities, but didn’t see them firsthand. Not right away, anyway. But the flasher lived in my neighborhood. The owners of Froth were consumed with catching him— And the flasher was consumed with perfecting his hobby.    
    In the dark, I walked up to Froth with a handful of schoolbooks. “Hey,” the flasher said from the shadowed alley. I was thinking. I was tired. I wasn’t really there. “Hey!” He said again. I turned around. At first I stared at his face, expecting him to ask me for spare change. He indicated downward with his eyes. Cupped in his hand were the tiny manifestations of his manhood. Startled, I laughed really loud, walked to the door and went inside. “Tony! The flasher.  The FLASHER.” I tossed my books on the counter, and we sprinted outside.     On seeing Tony, the flasher released his parking brake and rolled into the street. Tony loped after him, limping like an epileptic puma. As he limped, Tony yelled “Mother—f—, I’m gonna get you when you least expect it. Mother—f—, you’d better stop right now, so I can pound in your head. Mother—f—!” The wheelchair flasher wheeled himself faster and faster away from Tony, from me. Tony stopped and bent over in the street, winded. Meanwhile the wheelchair flasher was now a rolling dot five blocks away. The flasher slowed down, looked over his shoulder at poor Tony, and shouted “F— you, man!”    
    Life spun fast in the spring. I wore hot pink dresses and wrote in my notebooks and drank more coffee than anyone should. I returned to Froth night after night to soak up the light refracted off the yellow walls. But when I look back at the things I actually wrote at the time, my notebooks are splashed with gibberish. It the writing of a frantic nineteen-year old in need of sleep, and nothing more.       
    Here’s the part you won’t believe. One night, a boyfriend drove me and one of his roommates to Froth. We got out of his car, and that’s when I heard the first shots. (POP!) The mechanics that sat outside the garage across the street jumped up from their chairs. One of them reached inside his windbreaker. Unfortunately, I had seen that gesture before, and while I appreciated the spirit of the thing, I had no interest in getting hit with someone’s well-meant stray bullet. (POP-POPPA-POP!) I dropped to my heels in front of the bumper of my boyfriend’s car. Then I came up again long enough to pull the boyfriend and the friend down by their shirts to the bumper with me. During a brief lull between rounds, we crouch-walked into the coffeehouse where we found the brand new post-wheelchair flasher coffeehouse regulars with their faces pressed against the windows. The three of us ordered coffee at the counter and skulked to the back of the room.     The new regulars, all college students fresh out of the cellophane package, counted off the shots in a sing-song voice as the unknown person fired them off. “Seven, eight nine!” They trilled.  (POP!  POP! POPPITY-POP!) I sank into my coffee.  I have always had an unpleasant genius for dangerous absurdity; here was proof of it.  (POPPA-POPT!) “Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen!” The college students squealed. (POP. POP! POP!) “Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen!”   This kind of evening was my oeuvre, really. I closed my eyes again and quietly sighed. (POTTA-POP!)     Real events were happening elsewhere. While I brooded and sulked and the boyfriend goggled at the roommate who was freaking out and the other customers giggled and counted shots, a SWAT team pulled up and blockaded the whole neighborhood and was attempting to negotiate with the man with the gun. They ushered all twenty of us out to our cars in thirty seconds or less. As the three of us got into the boyfriend’s car, one of the SWAT team members told me through the window I had to stay somewhere else that night. The man with the weapon had barricaded himself in the alley right in front of my apartment. I went to my college boyfriend’s apartment where his six roommates were playing video games and drinking lemonade. I was very quiet Those boys loaned me pajamas and a dubious-looking toothbrush, both clean, but old, and left me alone to brood.    
    And this is the end. The last thing I remember from my apartment on Ogden Avenue was staring out the kitchen window as I put my few cooking supplies into a cardboard box. I peered into the dappled heat of late autumn. The wheelchair flasher wheeled down Ogden with his eyes fixed on a distant point. He looked different in the daylight— more frail, less ominous. His long, brown hair floated behind him like a worn flag in the thin breeze. Those tempestuous fingers of his slid along the wheels of his chair. I watched until he was a speck in the distance, admiring the agile gestures of his body, and then I quickly continued to pack.       In the old fort built by the French, Frederiksted, Saint Croix, Virgin Islands (LOC)       *This is a reposted story from November 16, 2011. Bluebird Blvd. “went live” on November 7, 2011— ten days earlier. I wrote this true story when I was in graduate school, but didn’t touch it until I started Bluebird Blvd. It’s been through a great number of revisions— because, and I believe this absolutely, the truer and freakier the story is in real life, the harder it is to make it seem believable. If you read this piece and then some of more recent Truer Than True Confessions, you can see the formality of my language dropping away. Hope you enjoy! Go here for an explanation as to why we’re reposting this week. (Hint: It’s all about you!)       PHOTO CREDIT: These photographs are by the wonderful FSA/OWI (Farm Security Information/Office of War Information) photographer Jack Delano, which are reposted here courtesy of the Library of Congress Commons.       THE BLUEBIRD BLVD. GENUINE PHOTOGRAPHY/STORY CONTEST CALL FOR ENTRIES: The GENUINE call for photos/self-portraits/100 word stories is open! See the link for deets and rules. Here’s something new about this event— A PRIZE!— The most GENUINE photograph and story will win an original-run, hand-pulled by herself in her own darkroom, signed photograph from Courtenay Bluebird! No joke! Some of these photographs are worth hundreds of dollars! See above link for examples of the kind of original photograph (really original— as in shot by me on film, printed in an actual darkroom by me, first run) you might win.


About Courtenay Bluebird

Courtenay Bluebird is the creator of Bluebird Blvd. and The Bluebird B-Side. She is a published writer, career journalist, and professional photographer who likes books and sweets. She laughs loudly and sincerely both in public and in private.
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  1. “Tony loped after him like an epileptic puma”

    These are the turns of phrase I live for in your writing.

    Inhaling all at once, indeed. Excellent stuff.

  2. Enjoyed this very much. Wonderful imagery…you have a keen eye for personality and detail and the spaces around you (even if the flasher did manage to sneak up on you). There’s something inherently peaceful about reading a memoir…whether good or ill, what happened is safely in the past, and you can voyeur to your heart’s content with no damage to your calm. And depending on the types of memoirs one reads, there is peace in the knowledge that the writer was alive at the time of the penning — had survived intact and is somehow “safe” as you read.

    What was it you quoted? “Nostalgia is the desire for things that never existed.” In some ways that is true, but looked at in another light, nostalgia for a place in the past that impels one to write about it is an antidote to the wearing away of a memory — something that haunts me somewhat. What did a time or place actually feel like when it was occupied: how did it smell (my most treasured sense), what sounds reverberated, what zeitgeist of emotions percolated?

    Your experience mimics my own. Captain Quakenbushes on Guadalupe in Austin was my coffee haven. We had our moment in the sun (1984), and then I stopped going…the staff changed over; too many ex-boyfriends about. There I journaled and wrote and thought and talked and met so many people, all the same age, all thinking and living so hard. Thank you for the key to memory!

    • Thank you so much for your lengthy, lovely comment. I love memoir, especially memoirs of a certain type— humorous, a little laconic, domestic. Shirley Jackson wrote two that I go to again and again. (In fact, I read a little of Jackson’s “Life Among The Savages” this morning, a memoir about raising children that never fails to crack me up. If she sounds familiar, she wrote a lot of psychological horror, i.e. the short story “The Lottery.”) (Another side note: I think you’d love “Life Among The Savages.” I was planning to write about her exclusively for an upcoming post, also.)

      For the last two years, I’ve given a lot of thought to memory. It’s essentially a false construct. There’s a lot of great recent studies to support this hypothesis, and if you’re interested, there’s a blogger named “Bakadesuyo” that does a lot of writing on scientific studies, statistics, and their real life application. (He’s great!)

      The way I think about memory, and memoir, now is that no matter how hard you try, your brain is going to frame what it remembers according to what you know now. Although I can remember what happened and how it felt, current me is going to have to step in to stitch these items together so that they make narrative sense.

      For instance, if late 30-something me met 19-year old me at Gaia’s, I would tell her to put down the coffee, go home and take a much needed nap. In fact, I’d insist on it.

      One thing I hope you do is sit down and write your own coffeehouse story. I bet it would be amazing, and funny, and full of your special brand of sweetness and comic horror. If you do, I’d love to read it.

    • You should have been a teacher…you’re always telling people to “do” and not “think”. “go start your own band!” “go write about coffee yourself”. I like being nurtured in that way.

      I am very familiar with Shirley Jackson…one of her novels scared the living crap out of me: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (you have to say the title in a flat, dreamy, far away voice…just typing the title gave me chills). And “The Haunting of Hill House” still gives me nightmares (oh my god, whose hand was she holding…). I did not know she wrote non-fiction. I am so on that like white on rice. Also this blogger Bakadesuyo. Am intrigued.

      You flatter me that my work could contain comic horror. I didn’t even realize that is my favorite thing until you pointed it out. Thank you!

  3. Love the HTML additions. Typesetting RULES!

    • YAY! I’m so glad you like it! (I LOOOOOOOVE typesetting.)

      I figure, if I’m going to be writing longer posts, I need to know at least as much HTML as I can.

      I like line breaks and pop quotes because they add needed breath between thoughts, you know? (I also fixed “The Five-Dollar Fistfight.”)

  4. I loved the nostalgia of it, and the descriptive phrasing, and the interspersed references to remind the reader they were seeing this through sleep-deprived and heavily caffeinated eyes. I especially liked: “his long, brown hair floated behind him like a worn flag in the thin breeze” and this one: “tony loped after him like an epileptic puma”. And I, too, like the spaces between the beginnings and endings. I almost forgot that I was here to see an example of profanity (not) in action, but that part, too, was appreciated.

    thanks for pointing me in this direction …

    I never even set foot in the place, but I surely do miss it

    • OH! The last sentence of your comment made my eyes brim with happy tears. That is the sweetest, kindest, most thoughtful sentiment, so, so kind!

      When I write about my own version of the past, I always keep in my sights how fragile memory is and how much it is affected by the way I perceive events versus the way someone else perceives them. (Joan Didion, one of my touchstones, wrote early and well on this exact subject in her first two books of essays.)

      In longer pieces of writing, I do try to give as much visual breath as I can between sections. Thank you for noticing this breath. I’m just now figuring out new ways to use html to increase the variety of the ways I insert breathing points.

      The style of the em dashes were the profanity would go is an old one. Most of the big writers of the 20th century (and all I can think of are the men, which is kind of lame) used this device so that they could convey the profanity without saying the profanity.

      Wow, for doing a single read of this memoir-essay, you noticed a lot of the mechanics going on here. You’ve got a sharp eye, Invisible Shadow, for structure and detail. Any trained writer or editor would have caught the same things you caught to examine in this piece. I’m seriously impressed!

      (And thanks again for that gorgeous last line. Breathtaking.)

    • one, you earned it … (my comment on the last line)

      two … sorry to disappoint, but nope, not an editor or trained writer … I once joked to my sister that if I could hire a staff to take care of all the marketing and editing and submissions and such, and I could just write and write and write, then maybe someday I’d be famous … I simply don’t possess the discipline or know-how required for the business side of writing … I write because I can’t NOT write … I’ve tried to stop writing lots of times, but it always comes back and grabs hold of me

      three … usually if I am leaving a comment, I try to say the first thing that comes to mind, so that the author is getting my honest feedback … when I read this piece, and then it was finished, I really did feel as if I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to go there again and inhale the sounds and aromas. Well written, and compliment was well deserved. Thanks again for sharing this piece. You are quite a writer!

    • Hey! Sorry for the delay in reply! I’m having computer problems. I’m looking forward to replying to you later today!

    • Thank you so much Invisible Shadow! I’m thrilled you think I’m quite a writer. That makes me feel wonderful, especially on a day like today when I am trying to type this reply on a borrowed computer that keeps sending me hurtling into cyberspace.

      I am sitting here and thinking about whether the business-end of writing is something that comes naturally, or something that writers develop. Some of it, especially when you’re just starting out has to do with your own initiative, but the rest, I think has to do with the “many hands make light work” axiom.

      Meaning after you’ve sent out a few submissions and made some queries, if you have something that an editor can use, they will guide you along at first. That said, I think writing for writing’s sake is the first thing any writer should do, and the blog medium lends itself to this pure form of expression.

      In fact, I think the best writers are focused heavily on the writing part– including the process of writing as well as the realization that writing is communication. In my humble and funky opinion, if you step to far away from writing and its processes, you lose that essential spark.

      What I mean is, some writers, especially new writers, are overly focused on the publishing gauntlet. Though there are some obvious things that editors and agents and publishing houses are looking to find, a lot of it has to do with some pretty undefined factors. So, writing is the thing, I think. The rest comes after. (That’s been my experience, and I’m one person, so… my two cents, wooden nickels, and all that hoo-ha.)

      Often, when I’m reading another person’s blog, I do pause before I write, especially if it is a writer/artist that is new to me. I love to leave comments, but sometimes I do get nervous because I can be utterly and completely socially awkward at the oddest times.

      I’m so glad you’re writing and so glad that you’ve found a way to work through some of the big themes and stories that form your history. What you’re doing is difficult, and yet you’re doing it anyway and doing it well. I’m happy for you in a way I cannot quite describe this morning. (This may have something with me trying not to hit random keys on this borrowed computer.) :)

  5. You write so very well. Establish the mood – can almost here era/ plot appropriate music playing along.
    “When I consider the way I felt about myself, those images move me— I was a goofball in vintage secondhand clothes trying to figure out the next phase of my life and I knew it.”
    Somehow the way this is phrased reminds me of Audrey Hepburn movies.
    Quite wonderful read. Thanks

  6. “remember” then “peered”, followed by “floated” and his second cousin, “slid”. Both punctuated by the matriarch, “watched”. So frickin outstanding!! Makes me wonder if Joy might just live in the space I occupy when I don’t even know I’m holding my breath between the in and exhale of the moment. This is a most excellent homage to the silence in your frantic in that snapshot in time. Froth I don’t know, but in Chicago, my spot is Moody’s on North Broadway. Some of the best bleu cheese burgers and home-made onion rings on the planet. I’m just sayin… Dan

Hey there, cupcake! How are ya?