Tuesday, May 26, 2009


When I asked Alex Dawson, owner of the Main Street bookshop The Raconteur, about the superficial incongruity of Saturday’s unusual event, he was no longer wearing the sleeveless cowboy shirt of the night before. Instead, he wore a black crewneck emblazoned with blocky, blood-red letters that read “The Raconteur Motorcycle Club.” A fiery skull replaced the “o” in “Raconteur” and tongues of flame flanked the words “Metuchen, NJ.” He massaged his rotary cuff through the cotton of his club T and offered a circuitous explanation. “I like the idea of a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner grappling shirtless in the dirt with Rip Torn,” said Dawson, referring to a particular YouTube clip featuring Norman Mailer, “it’s unexpected.” In the same sort of macho, paradoxical spirit, Dawson not only sells half priced books and hosts more sophisticated cultural fare (2008 National Book Award winning poet Mark Doty will be there later this week), he also holds a George Bernard Shaw beard growing contest called The Un-Shavian (get it?), leads a series of rides for bibliophilic bikers, and sponsors an arm-wrestling competition named for the titular fisherman in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Inspired by the grueling twenty-four hour match in Casablanca between the marlin trolling Santiago and “the great Negro from Cienfuegos, who was the strongest man on the docks," The 1st Annual Santiago Armsport Tourney kicked off Saturday night with a theatrical reading from OMS by stage heavy/arm-wrestling adjudicator Jeff Maschi (who recently played Hemingway in an in-store production of Papa, and is set to play Wolverine, yes Wolverine, in an upcoming one man show at The Rac).

“They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight.” Sitting at the square bark brown “hand game” table, lit overhead by a single pale light, Jeff read about how the shadows jumped on the blue walls, and the fingernails bled on the black fists, and how the men changed referees every four hours so that the officials could sleep.

Then, against a backdrop of Beny MorĂ© and a handful of over blown pop hits by eighties icons Kenny Loggins (Meet Me Half Way) and Eddie Money (I Will Be Strong), Hemingway fans and Stallone stalwarts settled themselves into thirty folding chairs for a succession of blustery bouts between contenders like Roland (named for Charlemagne’s towering knight), a mountainous mash-up of George “the Animal” Steele and Over the Top’s burly “Bull” Hurley; James “Feel the Bern” Dudley, a husky dark horse; and long haul trucker, er, local bookseller, Alex Dawson. Yes, just an ordinary night at The Raconteur.

Bern baby Bern!

There were others. Leon, a cock diesel classicist who chops his own wood and reads Latin shirtless, showed excellent form against the sinewy, tentacled Tom, a recent Princeton grad/senior class prez with arms twice as long as everyone else's. (It was a match that forced Eva, sister of one, flame of the other, to make a difficult cheering choice: Beau or Bro?)

Fifty something jazz composer John joined the fray mid-way, wearing a sleeveless shirt that revealed two biceps, thin as butter blades, white as bar naps, ball-pointed with makeshift tatts that respectively read “Born to Torque,” and “Bud Don’t Budge,” the latter a nod to a knotty modal composition (of the same name) now available on his newly minted five CD album. John swiveled his hips, touched his toes, cracked his knuckles, and went up against the wiry lever of a college kid named Jess. The match was over in seconds, with John, who’d spent the day googling techniques, bemoaning “My research has failed me!”

Some people fight for money, some fight for glory, some fight for the love of their alienated son, but Dawson, who took on all comers, fought to avoid handing out the twenty-five dollar gift certs he’d promised the victors (“should they emerge”). Turns out, he’d been a dive bar champ during his days as a gutbucket bartender/bouncer and, though he hadn’t “torqued” in six years, his wrenches served him well. He wrestled eight without a break (including a Roland rematch), and won every one.

The tournament was followed by a free screening of the 1952 Oscar nominated Spencer Tracy film.

Note: The Raconteur posts all its events on Youtube. Look for a video tape of the tournament online in the next week or so.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


They say that smell is the strongest sensory trigger. While walking down to the shop this morning I caught a whiff of something smokey and iron. It immediately made me think of Sarge, a blacksmith/former navy man who had once worked the field trial circuit, which my stepfather ruled for decades with muscled dogs like Five Card Stud and Bootstrap.

A field trial is a competitive event in which hunting dogs track and point flocks (or cubbies) of quail clustered in the brush. The judges, trainers, scouts, and spectators are all on horseback, and Sarge's job was to re-shoe the horses when necessary. Sometimes my brother and I rode along with this herd of horses and handlers (called the gallery), but more often than not we were left to our own designs in the plantation parking lot, a big field bordered by barns, stables, lofts, sheds, and various other outbuildings. Sarge was the one lone adult left in the lot, and drawn to him by the charky stink of the forge fire we were unofficially put in his charge.

Sarge was as compact as the anvil on which he clamorously hammered and he wore an oil tanned apron that skimmed his ankles like a dress. He had egg white hair and the moony face of Mickey Rooney post Skidoo. Every so often Sarge would let us have a couple whacks on a spare shoe with his heavy headed sledge. He'd grab the hot iron with his tongs, hold it at the anvil with one hand, and indicate where it was to be struck by tapping the spot with a small hammer. It was then up to me or my brother to deliver the mighty blow that would shape the shoe.

One morning Sarge dug into his apple box of horse picks and starter rasps and trimming nips and fished out a slingshot. I had some experience with braided rubber bands and yoked sticks (that snapped if I pulled the band too far back), but never had I seen a device such as this. Black like his apron, it was made from metal not wood. Rubber as thick as the tire tube of a ten speed looped down from the yorks and a metal wrist brace unfolded from the the slingshot's contoured grip for increased leverage and power. "If Navy Seals used slingshots instead of sniper rifles," Sarge once barked, "they'd all have one of these babies hanging on their hip."

Good old Sarge. In addition to showing me how to mold hot iron and knock over upright shotgun casings with slung rocks, Sarge taught me how to stand, legs wide like the slingshot yorks, while "shaking off the dew," (and once my gaze slid over to what Sarge called his "lizard," which was short and barreled like his body.)

And so this whisper of smoke and iron on Main Street this morning makes me think of all these things: the extravagantly named pointers, their tails stiff and straight as rulers, the glowing horse shoes with their poker red tips, the slingshot with its molded pistol grip and thick garden hose of rubber, and last but not least, Sarge and his chunky, quarter roll Johnson, darkening the faded barn-siding to the color of blood or gushing like a horse into a bristling clump of broom sedge.