Friday, 23 May 2008

The Chekhov Carver American Trip - Part 1: Seattle-Yakima, 16-17 January 2004

(In 2003, the American-born/Newcastle-based writer Margaret Wilkinson,  the Northern Stage Associate Director and Designer Neil Murray and I started working on what we called the Chekhov-Carver Project. The idea was to commemorate the centenary of Chekhov's death in 2004, using Carver's story Errand - in which he imagined Chekhov's death - as a departure point. The more we read about the two writers, the more parallels we found between their work and their lives. We were extremely lucky that we also managed to obtain Arts Council funding for research trips to the Carver Country (the State of Washington) and Russia and Ukraine...)

The American Dream-Travelogue 


Part 1


First of all there’s all the stories – Chekhov and Carver. All quite similar but – different time-zones, different languages, different periods. And it’s all rather sparse and simple and poignant. Perhaps a portrait of a couple falling apart silently in an unstated way; over a cup of coffee; while perhaps some birds or horses are shuffling around in the background. There’s one, for example – Carver’s – about a man pouring whiskey over the belly of his wife who wants to jump out of the window of the hotel where they work as caretakers because he’s screwing a Mexican maid in between fixing the taps and cleaning the swimming pool. In the minutes before she leaves him forever they remember how they drove out of the town called Yakima and stopped at a farmhouse and asked some old couple for a glass of water and the old couple invited them in to their gazebo. And then there’s several about people drinking alcohol; or people in snowy, hilly or watery landscapes; or people telling each other strange thin

gs that are not at all what they mean but that depict much deeper levels of meaning.


So we’ve been binging on these stories for months now and are revisiting some of them while sitting on a transatlantic plane. At least Neil and Margaret are revisiting them in between Neil’s taking pictures through the window and Margaret’s grappling with an idea for a play. I’m wearing a nicotine patch, which is quite an absorbing experience, actually. An identity crisis, almost. Predictably I can’t concentrate on reading or writing or thinking a complicated thought. Neil’s warned me I could even get ‘hysterical’. So I go to sleep across two of the six seats in the middle row. Sandwiched in between Margaret and some Russians. An American and some Russians, that is. Across several different time-zones. In my slumber, I’m getting all sorts of thoughts about time travel and what would happen if we went around the globe enough times without stopping…– when suddenly Neil comes over to us from his window shouting: You’ve missed Greenland!


Eventually, Margaret and I are frantically stuffing blue silicone screws into our ears to prevent them from getting painful and blocked during the landing, and I recall my GP telling me ‘we are not designed to do this, we’re not designed to fly’. I’m eager to discover America for the first time ever, but everything that happens in the next three or four days will be completely unanticipated, will completely defy all expectations.


Just to get us all off to a dramatic start, I get harassed on arrival by immigration authorities. I offer to leave my fingerprints hoping that that would dispel their concerns about my accent and my name, but even though they take my offer, they also send me through a sinister hurdle race involving sarcastic remarks, mysterious smiles and an embarrassing surgery (with latex gloves!) of my luggage content. Neil and Margaret are waiting for me at the finishing line and we quickly try and forget all about it.


We spend several hours at ‘Sea-Tac’. The Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s a beautiful afternoon and some winter sunshine streams in across distant landscapes and through the giant airport windows. Neil obsesses about hand luggage trolleys while Margaret and I are trying to work out how to use a public phone. A young black man wanders over to us and just gives us a 50 dollar phonecard. We ring home realising that it’s actually after 10PM. When we settle down to our take-away Starbucks coffee we are both tired and full of anticipation. Neil and I munch on newly discovered pretzels; Margaret is reading; then Neil pulls out his video camera and starts killing the time we have to spend waiting for a delayed commuter flight to Yakima. We are going to visit the place of Carver’s childhood (he spent some 20 years there from the age of three, and his first wife was from the same place).


Several hours later we are in a snowy mountainous landscape. We’ve been scattered all over the plane. The air steward has been making surreal inarticulate announcements, Margaret has been chatting to a peacekeeper, Neil has been forced into conversation by Dr Bob Plumb and I’ve been trying to imagine the terrorist that I might have been in the immigration authorities’ imagination. On our descent Dr Bob Plumb introduces us to his partner Alfredo (Fred) and insists on us giving him a call tomorrow and coming over for drinks. We say we would.


Yakima is a really small, provincial town at a relatively high altitude, historically renowned for apple orchards, and recently also re-invented as a wine region. The hotel driver who picked us up from the airport couldn’t think of any important cultural sites in the town; didn’t know who Raymond Carver was; recommended Mexican restaurants and told us that Yakima (or Yakama) comes from the name of the local Indian tribe. They live in a reservation across the river. There is another town that Yakima grew into and/or out of Union Gap (everyone has their Newcastle and Gateshead). We are driving through Yakima in the dark and the houses remind Neil of Carrie, the movie. He likes some of them and wants to come back and photograph them. From the outside, the hotel looks quite OK. Once through the automatic doors however, we are in for a few surprises. At first we think that the reception manager who’s just moved back from San Francisco is amusing. Then we realise that our rooms are actually accessed from the outside – just like in some 1980s thrillers. There is an outdoors swimming pool in the courtyard and we have to wade through some dirty dry snow surrounding the footpaths in order to make shortcuts. I think my room is very cold, but I’d always think that (especially if its entrance is exposed to the elements). We all meet back in the bar where Neil is drinking his wine and complaining about the average age of the guests he’s registered in the hotel restaurant. We contemplate finding another place to eat but are reminded of the fact that we’ve been up for 24 hours now and settle for the delights of the Red Lion hotel’s chef.


At the table, for some reason we are discussing American toilets. Probably just goes to show how tired we are. And another thing – in America, everything’s possible, you can really get chips with everything. Margaret enjoys the details and the flavours she finds familiar and we just enjoy the food. Because I can’t resist having a cigarette after the meal, I take my patch off and go into the bar for five minutes. The customers are all very strange looking, stuck in some different time, or just plain eccentric – a couple of men are wearing cowboy hats and three middle aged women are dancing to Santana’s Black Magic Woman on an empty dance floor.


We go to sleep and I have terrible nightmares which basically amount to being besieged or attacked.     



There’s fruit and yogurt and porridge and pancakes and French toast and all sorts of omelettes you can choose from for breakfast. Over a cup of coffee we are looking at the telephone directory, looking for Herb Blissard, a local Carver enthusiast who also happens to be Bob’s remote colleague. He was recommended to us in an email by Tess Gallagher (Carver’s widow and a poetess). She also recommended another guy whom we can’t find at all. Margaret’s drawn up a list of places to visit. They include a couple of fishing ponds, a lake or a creek (some of which occur in Carver’s stories or in Carver’s life), Carver’s first house in a trailer park, a gazebo/band stand in Central Washington State Fair and some wooden houses. Margaret and Neil’s objections to ringing Dr Bob Plumb amount to a slight feeling of unease about the man we only just met and the effort of politeness the whole thing would require. Plus why would he want to host us? We are probably just exotic and interesting to him because the place is so boring, and we might be a good dinner party story – is Margaret’s elaboration of Bob’s motives. Neil just finds him creepy. As nobody likes talking on the phone it eventually falls to me to ring Bob because I’m the only one up for the idea. Besides, we can’t get hold of Herb either. Bob offers to come and pick us up in his car at midday and I put another nicotine patch on. We decide to go for a little walk around the hotel which is being invaded by various war veterans with strange caps.


On our walk we get as far as the Mexican supermarket across the road. By comparison to England, all buildings in Yakima look rather lonely, there being a lot of space around them. The supermarket is just a plain barrack-type thing with several drive-ins and take-aways scattered around it. For some unexplained reason, Margaret and I feel compelled to buy strange things – she picks a bag of pork-scratchings and I get a jar of sourkraut. Meanwhile, Neil is photographing cactus leaves on the vegetable stalls. We then marvel at some washing boards and Neil says Emma Rice would now be buying hundreds of these if she was here. We spend a surprisingly long period of time wandering aimlessly around this big but rather basic grocery store and I wonder whether this is what jetlag actually feels like.


After cheerfully announcing that Fred is making lunch for us, Bob asks what we want to see today. When Margaret gets to the gazebo on her list, Bob remarks: ‘Oh, I wonder whether that’s the gazebo in our garden’. Somehow it sounds like a Bob remark, but we are intrigued. I pull out the story called Gazebo and Margaret finds the place in it where it mentions an old farm and Terrace Heights – which actually is Bob’s address. All traces of initial reserve instantly disappear and turn into unflinching enthusiasm. And there it really is, a tiny little gazebo behind the fence and a couple of wire dancers sticking out of the deep snow. Bob’s dogs greet us at the door while Fred shouts hello from the kitchen. The house is quite interesting – a labyrinth of rooms with all kinds of tables, antiques and art objects in them. Bob gives us a walk around the house first and shows us a dresser from Jakarta that their handyman who is banned from driving has fixed with little lights, a big painting/wooden collage that their friend Leo has made and refused to sign until they redecorate the wall which they hang it on, a cold room with a sowing machine in it, a room with a square breakfast table and a portrait of a woman on the wall, a bedroom which Bob called an S&M room for some clever reason which I now forget, and lots and lots of other dining tables of various shapes and sizes in the central part of the house and in the adjacent conservatory. We are told there is an equivalent labyrinth in the basement but we don’t get to see it. For lunch, we have omelette with raspberry yogurt and champagne in the conservatory. Then Bob’s ex-student and her daughter (both apparently Hispanic) come round and help us identify the fishing ponds we’re after on the map. Just after lunch we go out into the garden, wade through the snow past a swimming pool – once again – and get photographed with and without the dogs in the gazebo. Margaret wants to write a story about it. When we get back, we find a big fat cat on the table eating Margaret’s yogurt – I do feel like Alice in Wonderland, and it’s only just starting – we put our coats on and set off on our tour of Yakima.


Some of the sites, like the wooden houses, we only film out of the window of the moving car. We stop off at one trailer park which reminds me of a temporary Gypsy settlement somewhere in Eastern Europe. We spend quite a bit of time at the Washington State Fair – wading through snow, of course – to get to the bandstand. This is followed by a visit to Walmart as we need the toilet. Once there, we all swoop on bottles of Melatonin – Neil’s favourite catchphrase prior, during and following this entire trip. While being recommended as a sleeping aid in cases of jetlag or insomnia, the said product is banned in the UK. The cashier however doesn’t know this and is thoroughly puzzled and semi-amused having served all three of us, one by one, each holding his/her own bottle. Obviously, my strip search at the border hadn’t deterred me from committing an act of drug-smuggling.


Next, we drive past Carver’s first house in another trailer park which now looks more like something out of the film 8 Mile. In fact, I’m glamorising it a bit but squalor is so hard to associate with the esteemed subject of our research trip. None of us seem too eager to get out of the car, so Bob jumps out and takes a quick snapshot. Within minutes we continue onto the exploration of fishing ponds. Interestingly, even though we visit two fishing sites, we see absolutely no water anywhere as these ponds dry out in winter. Still, we have some fantastic walks. Eventually, on our way to a gallery which we were informed also sells books on Carver, quite by accident, Margaret spots a running advertisement at the top of a building mentioning a Raymond Carver conference. We park the car, and armed with the video camera, Neil goes to investigate the advertisement more closely. We turn out to be just a week to early for the conference which is due to happen in Yakima College and we resign ourselves to quietly contemplating the notion of fate. We could’ve been a week too late…


As a special treat, Bob and Fred decide to take us for a visit to their friend Leo Adams’. Yet again we get to something which resembles a Gypsy quarter. The road ends and we find ourselves on a dirt track. To our right there is an expanse of naked apple trees, neatly positioned in endless rows stretching into the dusk. Margaret mentions a story by Chekhov or Carver in which somebody makes a fire in an orchard. Bob and Fred explain that we are in the Indian reservation and the orchard belongs to Leo. The house belonging to Leo however is something like a tardis. On the outside it looks like a shed (there’s a window above the entrance through which we can glimpse an old chair leaning at an angle in amongst other reject stuff). There is a series of entrance doors which Leo – an American Indian Lindsay Kemp look-alike – opens for us. We find ourselves in the kitchen first, greeting Leo and Noel’s dogs. Then a whole new world of carefully thought out, carefully arranged space and objects opens up in front of us. To the right there is a Japanese style seating area which you have to step down into, like a jaccuzi made of cushions. This area has a TV set which is hidden away, it has its own fireplace and a blue painted metal washing tub hanging over it. Strange as it may sound, the washing tub never actually looks out of place. Straight through, past a small stove and behind a Japanese style rice paper wall, there is a bedroom with a giant four-poster. This is a typical magazine item, so detailed, so luxurious and so complete that you can only ever take in the whole thing, not knowing where to begin taking it apart mentally so to register the detail. There is a door leading out of this room onto a wooden porch which runs all around the house. Russian olive trees shelter some of the porch and there is – a swimming pool! – at some point down this particular labyrinth. Neil goes out to explore the exteriors and other parts of the house, while Margaret and I go into a huge room on the left of the kitchen which I remember as being a massive space dotted with Leo-restored salon furniture. There are some dry flowers with very long stems on the floor which Leo was obviously going to arrange into something interesting and the walls are lined with pieces of wood – something like a wall parquet. It is a genuinely sigh-provoking space with drapes and unusual yet supremely elegant pieces of interior decoration. By the time we return to the kitchen Noel – Leo’s partner – has poured out some wine and there is a big piece of smoked salmon fillet on the table. I don’t remember Leo saying much at all for a long time while we are arranging our awe-stricken impressions around the table. Bob and Fred lead the conversation and Noel sits quietly with a glass of wine on a wooden staircase facing us. Leo’s neutral expression strikes me as being semi-displeased, with the corners of his mouth turned tensely downwards (when I later relate this to my mother, she observes that indeed this is a typical expression we see on the portraits of Red Indians). The conversation is lively and it doesn’t take long for it to branch out into several simultaneous ones. Margaret is explaining the project animatedly, Fred is getting drunk, Bob is getting excited and Neil and I are praising the salmon. Then all of a sudden, Leo turns to the three of us: ‘You all have very interesting noses!’


We laugh and soon afterwards Leo is telling us the kind of stories that are just as heart-warming and elaborate, just as authentic and luxurious, just as mind-boggling and puzzling as his designs. (‘I’m a Scorpio, that’s why I’m so earthy.’) He was born a twin, but while Eric was liked and became an heir, Leo was cursed by his magician grandfather on his father’s side. He survived the curse delivered at his birth and was cursed again at the age of ten. This time his grandmother on his mother’s side who was also a magician spent three days and three nights trying to remove the curse. He was cursed because he was an unusual child he had all this creative energy and he was also quite feminine. Once, on his way back from school, he found a shawl under a bridge and wrapped himself in it, thus sauntering home in a feminine attire. (He speaks with a slight endearingly effeminate inflection as well.) He visited his grandfather at his deathbed in a hospital as well. And his grandfather just issued an emphatic prolonged hiss at him. His brother got the 40 acres of land. As a young man, he got married to a friend of his. They believed it would help her because ‘she had problems with her legs’. They got a baby girl. He hasn’t seen her since she was five. His wife was vile to him in court, telling all sorts of lies to defame him and get custody of the child. She is very rich and spoilt. He’s heartbroken and pining after his daughter. 


On our way to a Mexican restaurant which everyone suddenly insists on going to, Bob and Fred fill us in on the rest of Leo’s story – he won various scholarships thanks to his remarkable talent and studied in France and in Japan. He has worked as a consultant on many rich and famous people’s interiors and was recently an honorary guest at Ray Allan’s (former Bill Gate’s business partner) party.


When we get to the restaurant it is a disappointment, but anything would have been. The food is also quite unremarkable although served as seemingly authentic. At the table, I listen to Bob’s story. He was married to a University professor. She was a sociologist/English lit. specialist and has published a book on Djuna Barnes, I think. They had a son. Fred was a friend of hers. He had come over from the Philippines at the age of 15 and went to the University of Seattle to study chemistry. He was ahead of his class and never quite fitted in. He was always gay. He participated in Bob’s family life from his son’s early childhood. Bob’s wife encouraged Bob to come out. She was teaching at Pennsylvania University when Bob and Fred started living together some ten years ago. She never found anyone else although she had a couple of brief affairs. She died two years ago from a brain haemorrhage. Bob and Fred gave her a magnificent funeral and Bob just recently became a happy grandfather.


In the restaurant I’m surprised by the presence of so many people. Our general experience all day out on the streets has been of Yakima as a rather ‘underpopulated’ town. We did see a parade at one point (it was a Martin Luther King memorial day), but the place as a whole looked quite post-apocalyptic. The restaurant is packed, and on our way out we notice a young Hispanic guy standing in a corner singing famous Spanish-American songs. He looks shy and very much out of place, his face is expressionless and his eyes fixed on some distant point, yet his voice is extremely professional and mature, almost disembodied. I’m still thinking of Bob’s wife, of her loneliness, of this Spanish boy’s loneliness in this corner here and how much less lonely everybody else is thanks to their selfless sacrifice, and it all makes me really sad.


We take a long time to part, it’s quite cold and we make hasty arrangements to go to another Indian reservation for breakfast tomorrow. On the way to our hotel, Bob and Fred tell us an amusing story about Bob’s facelift some years ago and how it all went terribly wrong because he stumbled down some stairs at a party and started gushing with blood, and his surgeon was very cross with him for ruining his work. There is something quite Chekhovian about the story, something terribly embarrassing about having to listen to it, but then again it has actually been a day for generating dinner-party stories and I think we’ve actually ended up with quite a generous doggy bag. The actual doggy bag from the Mexican restaurant we donate to Bob and Fred’s dogs before we wave goodbye.


In amongst other things, that night I dreamt of having a cappuccino in the foyer of the new Northern Stage building, which felt a bit like Victoria Arcade in Leeds. Some dogs were frolicking in the snow outside, and the interiors were all very much ‘Leo Adams’.


To Be Continued


In part 2: Duska and Neil going ‘hysterical’ on the way back to Sea-Tac. American Blackpool. The dreaded meeting with ‘capricious’ Tess Gallagher. Sleeping in Seattle. And more… and more dreams…

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