April 13, 2005


Two weeks ago, I took Chapter 1

of "Peter's Story" down to Milwaukee to review with Peter. His eyesight is failing him, as I may have mentioned, and I read the chapter aloud to him while he was preparing a wonderful Italian supper for us - spaghetti and a long-cooked sauce, with meatballs and Italian sausage. Mama mia.

On Monday of this week, I took down Chapter 2 and read that to Peter. You can tell by his eyes, the nod of his head, his whole body assenting, that you've got it right. So - we're on track. I went to see Peter in the morning on Monday so he wouldn't fix me supper. He fixed me lunch instead!

I have a draft of Chapter 3 in hand even as we speak, and will take it to Milwaukee for review with Peter after Mary and I return from our trip to Iceland at the end of the month.

Chapter 1 is about 4000 words; it still needs to have material interpolated into it about the neighborhood in Milwaukee where Peter was born, the old 3rd Ward. Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are each 5300 words, and I suppose 5300 words will be about the size of the chapters from here on out. The end of each chapter introduces the story that opens the succeeding chapter, a kind of cliff-hanger effect.

The chapters I'm taking to Milwaukee for review are "drafts." Ninety percent of writing is revision, and we'll get to that part of it once I have a draft of the entire book put down and can see clearly what I've got and how it goes. You have to understand where things will end when you write the first sentence, I know; and I do know where it will end. I'm just not sure yet how we're getting there - which material in which chapters, and how many chapters, etc. In the end I expect I'll have to go back and tuck in some stories I'm overlooking now. And I know I'll have to re-imagine the whole book once the structure it wants is revealed and its theme has expressed itself in no uncertain terms. That's coming, I can sense that it's coming.

I think I can safely go off to Iceland for two weeks with Mary and feel certain that when I return I'll be able to jump right back into work on this story without a problem. In fact, the rush of putting the story together has already been creating an enthusiasm that makes me want to jump out of bed in the morning and get at it. What a blessing, eh?

March 27, 2005


This morning I typed the last

of my interviews for "Peter's Story," which covers Peter's life up through age 18 and which may be all of the story we wish to tell at this point. The total materials typed in? About 70,000 words.

I have the materials broken into eighty-two chunks, and each chunk is labeled as to what it covers. Sometimes we touched on the same topics two or three times, so a big part of the job early on will be sorting the like chunks into the same pile and integrating them, then putting them in the proper order. The order of the materials will be a little problematic, as there is much threading and weaving that will have to be done so this story makes sense. I've got a tentative outline already prepared; I call it tentative, because I'll be greatly surprised if it doesn't get changed several times before I'm done.

Okay - say WA-HOO. The interviews are transcribed. The transcriptions are typed up. It was almost spring yesterday. It will be almost spring today. Things go well. I feel MUCH better now than I did in January when we returned from Cozumel and I had all this transcription and typing waiting for me. We're on a roll!

February 20, 2005


In the midst of preparations I've needed to make

for presentations in Moorhead, Minnesota, and Fowler, Indiana, next week and the week after, I have had time to work at typing the transcripts of my interviews for "Peter's Story." Total word count for the typed pages now comes to more than 29,000, about 35% of what I've got to type. I continue to tinker with a possible outline. And I continue to type such passages as this one about skinny-dipping in Lake Michigan:

My friend Joe and I would walk down and meet some of the boys and we'd go down to Lake Michigan and walk around. All of a sudden there'd be about 30 of us. We'd go hide our clothes someplace, maybe a block away from where we were going, and then we'd walk bare-assed, excuse my English, that's the way it was - boys, girls, everyone. We didn't pay attention to girls, what they had, what we had. And we'd swim in Lake Michigan.

There was a dirigible that passed above us - I think it made a second round - looking at all these bare-assed kids, some 35 of us. All of a sudden the cops were coming to chase us away from Lake Michigan. We'd swim as far as we could, then run to where we hid our clothes. We'd run to the shanties where the bums stayed - no, they were not bums. These were people in 1929, 1930 who made shanties to live in, and they would go around looking for jobs and food. We dressed there. The cops never caught us. We did this so many times.

The men in the shanties - these were people who had been in the stock business and lost all their business; their wives divorced them. They were very educated men. They'd come and want to cut wood, and do some errands, painting.

February 06, 2005


Wahoo! This past week I finished transcribing

the last of my interviews with Peter, Side #23 of 23 45-minute sides. If you're keeping count, that comes to a total of 547 6x9 handwritten pages, or nearly 102,000 words of interview.

This next week I have to put my butt in the chair in front of the computer that knows how to write, and get great chunks of these interviews typed up. Then I have to figure out which stories we want to tell, in which order. I'll have to start massaging swatches of interview to make them interesting and readable prose.

What to leave in, what to leave out? Why should anybody care about these stories, anybody beyond me and Peter? How to transform this life into art and still keep it as true as is humanly possible? Those little challenges that writers face....

Here's another swatch from the interview, likely the last I'll share until we have final draft of some passages:

I was about 15 or 16. I'd been hustling, working. This was bootlegging time. I was driving to Indiana, getting alcohol, pure alcohol, and bringing it to Milwaukee. I was getting some from Canada. Sometimes you'd have men coming after you. They weren't federal agents but they were working for the government. They'd come with Model T Fords or a Model A, and you'd have this big Duesenberg that goes 140 m.p.h., or you'd have the Graham-Page. The seats had been taken out. What you saw looked like seats, but they were tanks for alcohol.

I was a little guy. I had cushions for my seat. Some of those fellows started following me; they couldn't come too fast. The Duesenberg was faster than anything. The mechanics really had to be on the ball with the cars. If they weren't on the ball, they were done. These beautiful Duesenbergs and Lincolns and Cadillacs - whatever - would purr like a kitten. You're a young guy, you've got a beautiful car, you're getting paid.

I was coming back from Indiana. I was coming up Highway 42 to Wisconsin. Here was a plain clothes car on the side of the road. I saw it, so I perked up my car and I was going and they were following. I put the throttle on. In those days cars had throttles. I steered the car with one hand and got out on the running board. I took the machine gun, started at the bottom - BRRRP. You didn't see them any more, and you were gone.

Another time I'm coming across the 16th Street viaduct. It was kind of nice - I was relaxing; the job was done, we had the alcohol. Here I saw this Ford V-8 police car with two cops in it, at the side of the gas station, a Mobil station. I was coming in from the south end on 16th Street. I saw them. WHOOM. I whipped up that Lincoln. I made this turn on Clybourn Street at the end of the viaduct about 45 m.p.h. I knew where to go, and I hid the car. And I walked. I walked back to the house. There were all the bosses. I walked to the kitchen. I didn't say anything. I went to eat. They knew.

January 31, 2005


I got more than my required 125 pages

of transciption done last week on "Peter's Story." Total pages transcribed now comes to 426; I'm on Side 19 out of 23 sides of interview. I also have in hand four tapes of reminiscence that Peter recorded on his own, and he tells me he has more waiting for me when I see him next. In addition I have a box of Peter's hand-written reminiscence, which is hard to read for Peter's hand-writing deteriorated about the same speed his eyesight did. I also had a little bit of time last week to continue typing up the transcriptions, to a total of about 6000 words now. As I'm going along, I'm transcribing the materials for both the first part of the memoir, "Peter's Story," and the second part, "Honored Guest." Thus far I've only had to type material for "Peter's Story," but when I come to pages for the second part, I may skip them and come back to them later.

I'm pleased with my progress, but not so pleased as to think this is going to be a piece of cake. I think I'll be able to use some swatches of Peter's story-telling from the interviews pretty much as is after tweaking it for reading on the page. Yet I also recognize there are other chunks of it where I'll have to cut and splice and paste and smooth and poke to make the story move and the material fit the narrative we're creating.

Here's a little patch of interview about the vegetable peddler Peter calls his "Grandpa Joe," from a time early in the dark days of the Depression:

When I was about eight years old I worked in the barn behind our house in the old 3rd Ward of Milwaukee and I would take care of Joe Renello's horse special. He started to take me peddling with him during the summer months when I wasn't in school. We would start out about 5:30 in the morning; we would go to the Haymarket on Fifth and Vliet and Highland and Galena - eight square blocks of open area. Farmers would come there and sell their produce. They'd leave about 8 o'clock the night before with horses and trucks; they were truck farmers or truck gardeners. My eyes were astounded to see all of this for the first time. There would be potatoes - someone had a garage with potatoes. Goldman, he had vegetables in his garage; he'd store them and sell them to different stores too. We could load the wagon up with fresh vegetables and then we'd go to breakfast on North Water Street between Clybourn and Michigan. For a nickel you could have a stack of pancakes, maybe two eggs for ten cents. I would always save a cruller for the horse.

Then we would go peddling. Joe Renello was my adopted grandpa. He was good to me. He fed me always. Bought clothes for me. And I would take care of the horse.

I was a little miser and I started cutting down on the oats for the horse in the morning. I thought I'd save some money. One day we were on 6th Street and Wisconsin, and the horse fell. And Joe knew right away I was cheating on the oats. I got slapped. Finally we got oats and fed the horse. After an hour of standing still, the horse regained its power. I learned a lesson.

One route would be north from Center Street on Humboldt Avenue. There would be German families with big homes, and they'd have women who cooked for them in the kitchen. And I'd deliver the big basket of vegetables they needed. They always gave me fresh home-made donuts. I'd go delivering the orders from one house to another. Grandpa Joe would give me the order. We'd get back about 2:00 in the afternoon and park ourselves on Wells and Marshall Street, until about 6:00 p.m. We'd peddle food around that area. It was like a grocery store, only it was a wagon, a peddler's wagon. That was five days a week.

There's another, much more detailed version of this experience later in the interviews, but these paragraphs provide a pretty good "thumb-nail" of those summer days.

January 23, 2005


Well, I got my required 125 pages

of transcription completed this past week. By end of day on Friday, the page count totaled 284 pages. I've had to start a second notebook. And I have just started typing up the very first pages of transciption, including the passage about Peter's earliest memory, a version of which I think will open the book:

I remember coming up the steps. I must have been about two-and-a-half years old. We were living on Clybourn Street in a black duplex. A carpenter lived downstairs, Mr. Linden and his fmily. I was coming up the steps yelling "I came from another world! I came from another world!"

We had lots of company in the dining room. They were all looking at me. And I was trying to explain "I came from another world." I didn't understand at the time what I was saying but as I was going up the stairs I knew there was something about my life.

I looked around and saw my Grandma, my aunts. They all had those high button-up shoes. The dining room was filled with food. People were surprised by the way I was talking. I was happy as I was saying it. "I came from another world." I looked around. I looked at all the expressions. They believed me.

Then I got in amongst them, and that was the end of what I was saying about coming from another world. I mixed in with them. Everybody was happy. They were eating, smoking cigars. There was music.

This is an early draft. A first version. A good start. I'm pleased to say: the project is moving.

January 21, 2005


I'd be the last guy to complain

about having to put my nose to the grindstone and write, write, write. We're home from Cozumel and I'm busier than hell. In the past, I've let my blogging and blog-reading slow down some other work I need to get done, so now I've made this rule: I have to transcribe 25 pages of interview for my Peter's Story project before I can spend any substantial amount of time answering e-mail, reading blogs, looking at the news, or any other work I have to do. That's the rule. Every day I have to complete twenty-five handwritten 6x9 notebook pages of transcription, about one side (forty-five minutes) of a ninety minute tape. I've just finished Side 11, and have a total of 250-some pages transcribed. There are twenty-three sides of interview altogether, plus several other tapes of reminiscence Peter has recorded, so I suppose it'll come to well more than 550 pages of raw material by the time I'm done. (I want to hear you now; come on, everybody shout: Go, Tom! Go! Go! Go!)

I met Peter in late 2003 when I was teaching my "Writing Memoir" seminar at the Northshore Library in Glendale, Wisconsin, and spent the next several months interviewing him. Peter wants to write his memoir, but his eyesight has failed him. He's eighty years old. He has had several heart surgeries. We don't know how much time he has to tell it, but I think he has an interesting story to tell.

Peter and I "clicked" when we met each other. When I saw him walk into the room, my head snapped to attention: I had to look at him. He seemed to glow with a shimmering aura. He told me later that, as he sat at the table while I was teaching, he would think to himself "Tom, look at me," and I would turn and look at him. Every time.

Peter's story is an interesting one, as I say, and I want to help him tell it. I've promised him I will. You don't know if there'll be any money in this work, of course. Certainly Peter can't afford to pay me: his monthly Social Security check wouldn't buy biscuits for a medium-size dog. Yeah, folks, I know: this is the kind of windmill I'm usually seen jousting with. St. Jude is my buddy - St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases. As William Clark might have said to Meriwether: "Lewis, why do we do this?"

But I do what I do. What can I say? So I've put my nose to the grindstone and I'm working hard. By the middle of February I want to be able to take draft pages down to review with Peter. If it looks like I've made myself kinda scarce in the meantime, that's why. I'm here, and I'm working hard.

Which is the sense that I'm getting from a lot of the blogs I read, that everybody is either busy or busier than busy. So I'm in good company.

Chow, as I say in Italian. (Peter is Italian, so he says "Ciao.")