The Bottle, the Tin, and Five Small Books

Rummage is a satisfying word. I like its nautical origins, its debt to the Old French arrumage and Middle Dutch ruim. I love the connotations of “the arranging of casks in the hold of a vessel” or “miscellaneous articles, lumber, rubbish etc.”, and not least “bustle, commotion, turmoil” or “fish out or dig up by searching”.

In my study I have an old bureau, inherited from my Grandparents. The top section is compartmentalized, an ideal place for small books, for the ordering of miscellaneous articles; no lumber or rubbish here. When I write at the down-turned leaf, all polished oak and rich warm patina, I scan the spines and fish out recollections and more intimate significances. Here stands The Dairyman’s Daughter, no taller than my thumb, bound in black calf, a wedding gift from my In-Laws, dairy farmers in Somerset. And here A History of Primrose Prettyface adorned with Thomas Bewick’s charmingly naive wood engravings, an early discovery from my York rummaging days.

As time went by more old volumes displaced the little books of my childhood and youth, and so the modest collection of Observer’s books were relegated to some other bookcase, some other hold. Reluctant evictees of the now-crowded bureau; all bookish bustle, commotion and turmoil.




Last week, for no other reason than to rummage, I opened the top drawer of the bureau. In a strangely Carter-esque way I peered in at a moment of myself, at a selective though rich layer of a previous me. I held the small bottle in my hand. Swan Last Drop Ink read the label; the base of the bottle ingeniously forked to ease the retrieval of the “last drop”. Beneath it, in the lower strata, from an earlier timeline, a slim flat Kensitas cigarette tin. I opened the lid and found inside a collection of Brooke Bond Tea cards on The History of the Motor Car; No. 36 the 1934 Lagonda 4 ½ litre saloon, No. 24 the 1924 Morris Cowley Bullnose. I closed the lid.

An image of a waiter is printed on the lid, resplendent in white tie and tails, holding out a tray on which rests the tin of cigarettes “Your Kensitas Cigarettes Sir” he says benevolently. And then the connection was forged, from bottle to tin to books. A long-repressed spike from my past compelled me to reunite the three. I ran to my daughter’s bedroom, retrieved from her bookcase five small volumes, and placed them alongside the bottle and tin.




I remember the act distinctly, though not the trigger. I remember that day (was it day?), when youthful rage got the better of me. The bottle, it would seem, was the innocent partner, a receptacle for the ink, a dependable filling station for the fountain pen. Then it struck, that long forgotten impulse to harm, to destroy, to mindlessly scar even the fondest belongings. The pen dealt the first blow. In a moment of uncontrollable frustration it splattered those undeserving spines. And shame the hand that took the coin from my pocket and obliterated the waiter’s face upon the tin. In a witheringly disgraceful act of self-pitying pique I indelibly marked both, and regretted it bitterly within the second.

The sun has been kind to the Observer’s Books. Over the years it has faded the ink splatters on the spines, though the vestigial traces remain. No such mercy for the tin. It rests, scarred to this day, a lasting victim of youthful iconoclastic rage. And what was that rage; that yin to the yang of my usual calm self? To this day I have no recollection, no understanding of what she, he or it stirred me to this senseless act. But I stare though the thick lens of the ink bottle, and wish I could turn back time.


( First published 28 January 2014 at Steven Hobbs Blog )



© Steven Hobbs 2014

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Just a Little More About Ferguson — Then I’ll Sit Down and Shut Up

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson is tragic and, I think, should not have happened. I think that there were other peaceful ways to handle the situation. Even if Michael Brown was involved in the theft of a bunch of cigars from the convenience store, that is not a capital offense. I also do not condone or lend support to the rioters. They were not there for Michael.

I do support the protests as long as they are reasoned and rational and focus on the issue of law enforcement officers’ unwarranted use of deadly force. We don’t yet know the full story of what happened on that street in Ferguson. More information needs to come out and I think it will.

I don’t know what the reason is for the increased use of deadly force by police officers. I do not think it is all race based. Race is not always the triggering motivation; however, race can be an element in the mix that results in these incidents.

These shooting incidents have not suddenly appeared. They have been going on for some time. I was raised in and around Ferguson but now I live in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Police in Albuquerque have shot and killed over 30 people in recent years…about 25 since 2010. Some of these persons were mentally ill and not totally responsible for their actions. Some were attempting or threatening suicide. Some were dangerous criminals and were a threat to police officers and the public. But, because of a veil of secrecy, not much information was shared by the police. The local police department managed to keep case details confidential through an interpretation of the state open records statutes. The Albuquerque residents have calmly accepted the status quo even though the families of the victims tried to pursue cases through the courts. Some families won settlements and even then things were kept pretty quiet.

Last spring, James Boyd, a homeless and mentally ill man holding a pocket knife was shot multiple times up in the Sandia foothills where he was illegally camping.  He did not confront the police; he was asleep when they converged on him with rifles and dogs. There was a lengthy and confused confrontation and he ended up dead. Video of the event has been all over the internet. This was not the last deadly force incident in Albuquerque….there have been several more since then. The James Boyd death incident did wake people up and brought them out to the street in protest….finally. Some of the protests went over the top and there was property damage and protestors briefly interrupted traffic on the interstate.  It was more of a running game of tag with the police than a riot. The US Department of Justice issued a report after a lengthy investigation going back several years that stated that the Albuquerque police displayed a pattern of excessive force. There were many examples given in the report — not all were deadly force incidents.

My concern is why is there passivity on the part of the public?  Isn’t anyone keeping track or listening to the families of the victims? Where are the cub reporters? Holding a pocket knife that can’t do any harm to a police officer unless they walk into it is not a capital offense. Stealing cigars isn’t either. I worked in criminal justice for twenty years in a correctional agency — both institutional and probation/parole. The police behaviors documented in the DOJ report on the Albuquerque police department would not have been tolerated in a modern prison system for six months let alone six or more years. The landslide of lawsuits would have almost buried the prison administrators and changes would have been made. Incarcerated inmates are not passive people. They will raise a protest and file lawsuits and gain the ear of federal judges if things go wrong. (That is not to say that every lawsuit is worthy of serious attention. Many are frivolous but they have to go through due process. Someone will read the case.)

What about police training? You can Google “criminal justice degree” and come up with every shape, size, length and variety of program.  From my time in criminal justice I know several former administrators who are teaching classes. Some have had good career experiences and some have not. They have a certain perspective because they only dealt with people who were judged to be guilty of a felony. Are they the best people to be teaching future law enforcement officers? I don’t know. Some are very good….but I don’t know.

So what about Michael Brown? It looks like what happened to Michael has happened to others before him. Trayvon Martin was not the same situation as Michael Brown but how many Michaels, James’s  and Trayvons are waiting in the wings? How many Zimmermans or other frightened and heavily armed citizens are out there? How many rattled and confrontational police officers? Is there a “shoot first, ask questions afterward” mentality that needs to be addressed?

And what about race? I don’t know what the statistics are but I would not be at all surprised if national statistics show that Blacks are being shot in these incidents at a high level. I think it is more complicated than that. How many homeless or mentally ill people are being shot? How many are just frightened kids running away? Is it a power and authority issue? Is there a militarization issue? It doesn’t look to me that race is a huge factor in Albuquerque. Rather it seems to be an inability or unwillingness to try to defuse situations and sometimes a confrontational attitude.

I have been saddened and in some ways educated by the Ferguson situation. On several different occasions involving different interviews I’ve heard it repeated that Black parents have to sit their young boys down and explain the correct passive posture and role they must take if stopped by a police officer. I’m White and grew up where the shooting and riots took place and my parents never had that talk or even thought that they had to.

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The Memory Jar

The memory jar fell over yesterday.  One memory spilled out, spun to a stop and lay still for inspection.  

Don't know how my memory works or why this memory came out.  It was summer.  I was in sixth grade, living in Penn Hills, outside of Pittsburgh, PA.

We had a neat little gang of children on our street, about a dozen of us in 'our neighborhood' that were one or two years up and down from being the same age.  We were classic American suburbia middle class as defined in the early 1970s, neither wealthy nor poor, with enough money to have clothes, food and shelter but lacking the money to go places and do things except as special treats.  Our parents were mostly professionals or small business owners but each managed their dollars.  No child was spoiled by their parents' wealth.

Our neighborhood of ranch, split levels and two story faux colonial homes had no playgrounds or parks.  We did have a wide street and it was pretty level.  All the houses featured two car garages and driveways so no cars parked on the street.  We took the space and made it our space.  The asphalt street became our playground, baseball and football fields.  We marked it with spray paint as needed to define goal lines and bases, arguing and agreeing upon ground rules, like what happened when the ball went where or when a car came by.  A car's interruption meant an automatic do over.

I was an excellent athlete at that age, with wonderful strength, speed, reflexes and coordination, so all these games were fun for me.  The street games with their threats of houses, telephone poles, cars and delivery trucks were an excellent proving ground where I could practice and improve my skills.  

Not every home in the area liked our impromptu set up.  There was one family...the aged white man and his matching wife...who did not like our games at all.  They had no children and were retired.  Their brick ranch home's front lawn could inspire songs about meticulous green suburbia lawns.  A ball into their yard, which was essentially short right field, was an automatic out.  Worse, if the ball entered their yard, someone needed to sneak in and get it before the homeowners flew out to seize it and hold it.  They didn't want apologies, they were just annoyed and passing on their annoyance to us. 

It was a neighborhood cold war.

On the fine summer afternoon that spilled out of the memory jar this weekend, my sister was pitching and Bruce was batting.  The game was softball, four on four.  Sis laid it in there and Bruce nailed it - a line drive, not just toward the Miller's yard, but heading for the Miller's front picture window.  Yet, somehow, from the moment Sis released the ball, I knew where it was going.  I'd begun my motion before Bruce swung his bat.  

Time slowed.  The ball left Bruce's bat. I raced across the asphalt and into the no kid zone.  The ball was coming on a fast, waist high arc.  I ran hard, then pulled myself in and leaped horizontally, laying myself out, stretching out my arm and glove, snagging the ball in my glove's upper webbing.  I can still see the glass behind my glove.  

Momentum carried me on.  Without understanding how, I managed to twist, avoid the bushes lining their home's front wall and the house, land on the ground, slide into a tumble, and roll back up onto my feet.  I was now in the side yard and just continued on to the next property on the right.  It was my cousin's house so it was safe.  My knee and elbow were skinned and bleeding and my limbs and clothing were grass stained.  As I strolled up out of my cousin's side yard with the ball in my hand, old man Miller stormed out of the front door, slamming his aluminum screen door behind him.  He rushed to the scene and glared at his window, bushes and grass, and then glared at me from behind his steel rimmed glasses.  I nodded at him but didn't speak.  He didn't speak or nod but whirled and marched back into his house.  

Smiling in victory, I returned to my friends.  The game was suspended as they shared their version of what had happened.  Bruce and John related that, fearing the window was going to be broken, they were already running for sanctuary.  They couldn't believe I'd caught the ball and that I got away unscathed from Mr Miller.

It's a fond reminiscence of a joyous and innocent age.  I don't know why that recollection spilled out this weekend but it's pleasant to discover that not everything stored in the memory jar is a dark moment.  The nostalgia it cast carried me through my day.

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