Alex Gildzen sent me a matchbook in the mail late this January. Alex sent a lot of matchbooks out in the mail this January; and to say receiving one of the matchbooks made my week and cheered me up during a rather depressing few days might seem corny or overstated, but it's true. Here's the matchbook Alex mailed to me:
Before moving to New Mexico a few years back, Alex was curator of Special Collections at the Kent State University library. There was "one degree of separation" between us while I was attending college: I had two friends who were work study students at the library and worked for Alex in some capacity. As it goes, I met Alex virtually some years ago, but didn't know him while I was in college. It was a near-miss connection that I didn't realize until many years later. Similarly, another very interesting poet named Tom Beckett, who also happens to be a friend of Alex, lives in Kent. But I didn't meet Tom until five years ago, when I attended the last day of the 2010 Avant Writing Conference at Ohio State University. I lamented to Tom that day that I wish I'd know him and Alex when I was living in Kent because I admire both of their approaches to writing, though they follow different paths, and Tom said "well, sometimes we meet our influences when we're ready for them." I think of that comment quite often. I haven't met Alex in person, but I consider him an influence. His work seems so simple and direct as if to appear effortless, but there's a lot of genuine artistry and skill in seeming so effortless! It's never pedantic, disingenuous, or preachy work, and always strikes me as being distinctly personal, and matter-of-fact. I hope that this poem of Alex's from December 2012 about Buddy Guy, the great blues guitarist, illustrates more effectively what I am trying to say:
WIRES FROM THE SCREEN DOOR
his first guitar
the music inside
from getting out
An artist is going to use whatever materials he or she has at hand. There's no stopping the work.
I met Alex through his blog, Arroyo Chamisa. I'm glad that in these days of twitter, facebook, and instagram--applications or inputs or whatever they're called that make the internet feel even more ephemeral and untethered than it already is--that Alex still writes on his blog. Among the highlights of Alex's blog is a link to "MAKING CIRCLES: a collection of lists mail art & conceptual pieces." Alex likes collections and lists, but these are never materials to have simply to have them at hand. A coin might refer to a specific place, which usually refers again to people who were with Alex at that place at some time or had inhabited that place and its space in some way. Objects are never just objects--there's always a link to another person. Alex's collections strike me as being very human and loving. Though I know personally almost none of the people who are referred to in Alex's work, it doesn't matter. I know they're real people and as people they have a vitality and interest and life of their own. It's clearly evident in Alex's work, be it his poetry, mail art or collection or list pieces.
So when I received the R*E*A* Express Restaurant matchbook from Alex, I knew that it wasn't just a matchbook, but that there must be more to it than something pocketed during a visit to a restaurant in Akron sometime in the--I'll guess--early to mid-1970s. Here's what I learned: REA is the acronym for Railway Express Agency, and was a UPS-like organization the Federal Government created during World War I to ensure that goods were shipped quickly around the country. It had its ups and downs, but eventually became a leading shipper of refrigerated goods in the 1940s. By the 1970s REA had lost favor with the government, run into troubles with labor and UPS, and filed for bankruptcy in 1975.
Here is a photo of the R*E*A* Express Restaurant at Quaker Square in Akron, dated 1977, and available on the Cleveland Memory Project website:
Evidently, the restaurant is next to or perhaps was the terminal that REA used during it's years in Akron. And here's a photo of the inside of the restaurant, also from that time:
So that's where my new matchbook came from. I like the stained-glass windows. It looks like a comfortable place. I hope the food was good, but there's no way to tell from the photos. It seems good conversation was possible? That's important to think about. At least there's a specific place for me to imagine this matchbook having been at one time. A few weeks back, I took some photos of the R*E*A* Express Restaurant matchbook at my library job. I work for a bookmobile, and it's a very good job for me. A friend told me he thinks of a bookmobile as "an ice cream truck for intellectuals." At its best, that's one of the things a bookmobile is. It's a pleasure to drive it around and visit schools and the communities the system I work for serves. I thought since so much of Alex's life has been around libraries and collections--institutional and personal--that it would be fitting to show the matchbook he sent me at my library, a library I'm lucky enough to get to drive around a portion of southwestern Ohio. Here's a shot looking out the window over the driver's dash at my weekly evening stop in Darrtown, Ohio. The newly remodeled Hitching Post is in the background. A sign of our times is that I'm sure there are no matchbooks here. Patrons have to go outside to smoke. The owners, a young couple named Pat and Tasha, visit the bookmobile regularly with their daughter:
Here's a self portrait (of sorts) with matchbook in a convex mirror:
And, finally, a panoramic shot of the interior of my mobile library (it should open up larger if you click on the image):
Thank you for the matchbook, Alex. I appreciate it!