CCSU students attended the California Dreaming exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art at the charge of Professor Mary Collins. Her goal was to inspire students to capture the essence of their respective hometowns.
Collins writes, “This was an abstract assignment for students to experiment with their text/image combinations. As a nonfiction author, I am always interested in how to craft good angles, so this assignment also required students to think intuitively about ‘angles.’ The items are not a declarative summary of information about their town, but about the meaning and energy of the place—a very abstract concept, but just the sort of thing artists seek to capture in all mediums.”
Blue Muse collaborated with the class and below are six of our favorites.
Main Street Diner | Daniel Bates
Well since my baby left me
Well, I found a new place to dwell
Well, it’s down at the end of lonely street
At Heartbreak Hotel
The soulful vocals of Elvis Presley radiate from the jukebox as I make my way through the trolley car type diner, the hands of time turning backward with each step forward. The cracks of the analog vinyl alternate with sound of my strides over each crack in tile, creating a second rhythm. Gleaming blue patent seats line the left side of the car, the silver stripes paving a road to my desired table. Black and white photos line the upper wall behind the counter, depicting a Plainville of a different time. I scooch into my booth, jeans squeaking as I slide, and order my breakfast. As I look out the shiny metal window at railroad tracks and surrounding brick and mortar, glory days of locomotives barreling through this old manufacturing town speed through the crossroads of my mind.
I realize that I am not in a diner, but a time machine.
Fading Village | Christopher Caceres
My town is dying a slow kind of death. Sailboats and yachts still occupy the harbor, lawns are still mowed, frayed open flags still wave outside mom-and-pop shops, but an ominous breeze blows through Main Street like the falling leaves of autumn. A sign of the approaching winter—a grey death.
Essex Village, or Essex for short, is a small town on the Connecticut shoreline. With its long “s” syllables, it seduces visitors with what was. Like most small towns in New England, it’s frozen in time, desperate for a time gone by. When I moved here I found the reflection of a 20th century America almost comical, as if Norman Rockwell had painted the backdrop of my life: Sunday morning mass, men driving Model T’s; women in Ralph Lauren summer dresses planting sunflowers and daisies outside their pristine off-white, blue shutter, red door, tire swing colonial homes; children playing fetch with their retrievers and hounds; grandpa reading the paper while grandma prepares a light picnic of turkey on rye with soda pop. It doesn’t take long to realize Essex invokes a subtle, distinctly American, beauty most of the country has forgotten.
Almost everyone my age has moved away. Progress is hindered by a rigidity to change. A devotion to affluence and antiquity supersedes a need for opportunity. Old men ignore the ideals of the rising generation, hopeful their words become echoes lost at sea. Businesses are disappearing, too. Hollow storefronts line downtown. Most residents walk past, ignoring the decay, imagining the past.
Local fishermen sit on the dock during the early hours of the day, their silhouettes caught by the rising sun. The river has a distinct smell during those hours: the sulfur and dew mixes with hints of cedar, cherry blossom, and coffee from the local café.
I sit with the fishermen, watching sailors glide by on the Connecticut River. Sailing has long been a part of Essex. During the Revolutionary and Civil War over 600 wooden vessels were built in Essex, eclipsing the rest of the country at the time. A sunburnt man pulls out a cage of crabs from the river. He grabs one, holding its thin jagged shell towards the sun. “Puny little thing, wouldn’t feed a mouse,” he says, before throwing it back into the water.
On Monday nights, I head for the Griswold Inn, the oldest inn in America. Weathered sailors with long, rough beards, college students in Nantucket red shorts on break, and aging women with weathered voices, embrace and drink pints as they sing along to the same sea shanties sung by the earliest of Essex settlers. Their lives unsustainable, fleeting, like the place they call home. I sing a little louder tonight, not knowing when I’ll be back. A graying old man with rigid eyes and an anchor tattoo on his wrist grabs my shoulder. “Have a drink, my boy. What could be better than this?”
The Downer Building | Ryan Curcio
Windsor Locks—former buzzing factory town—is now home to the river rats. Industry once stood titanic here, now it cradles a metallic and concrete haunt house, warped by the crushing weight of time. A perfect symbol of joblessness, the Montgomery Building houses the neglected ghosts of productivity, which hide in the dusty corners of this long abandoned, electric tinsel, and fabric manufacturer. A place that makes the heart sink six feet beneath the earth.
A friend once told me that inspectors of the decaying structure found “All n****** must die” spray-painted on a water-stained wall in one of the many rotting rooms. Ostensibly, the ghosts are not alone. No, the specters of industry’s past hold the company of someone who shares their late, nineteenth-century opinions on race. Their misguided fingers both point in the wrong direction.
When I listen closely, I can almost hear the steady hum of warp machines weaving tough cassimere into union blues. The eater of minutes, hours, and days has reshaped the Montgomery building into a homeless shelter. Yes, the needy are not at all disappointed with this skeletal eyesore; it is a place to sleep when the cops aren’t waving NO TRESPASSING signs in their faces.
The drug-afflicted inject heroin behind the dilapidated walls of this five-floored heap, which mirrors all the other defunct businesses in America. As their brain cells burn and bubble, I notice scorch marks on the mill’s frame from all the attempted arsons. A fixer-upper? Try a downer to encounter. We the citizens stand firm in our place, holding a 146-year stare, as the structure slowly tumbles into the canal. Maybe that’s what it will take to finally be rid of it.
The Great Pretender | Cyrus dos Santos
With a faint, unplaceable accent I ordered port wine and slices of pizza, a dram of Sambuca natural to finish, and then returned to the valley for the last class of the day. My secret trips to the city café hidden under smoke and woodsy cologne.
High school lunches, senior year, allowed an escape in my rusted beater. Driving and smoking Pall Malls like Ray Liotta in that movie, clad in pleated pants and opened-chest dress shirts, singing to the oldies for no one and everything. Longing to plant roots near the origins of a family torn, the café became part of the springboard into theater and a viewfinder of the life of those before me. Sipping wine and staring into the past, searching for answers from ghosts, how we arrived at that present, foolishly believing I’d find them at the bottom of a glass.
On days with deception in my heart, curious adolescence pretended until he became who he needed to be.
Bigfoot Loves Fried Shrimp | Kathryn Fitzpatrick
The cast of Finding Bigfoot stops at Crabby Al’s to hold a meeting. They eat shrimp with townies, talk about possible sightings.
Each episode features them at some remote location—typically Wyoming or South Dakota—chatting up locals and exploring the forest. They make loud, whooping noises and hit sticks against trees, but they never find a Bigfoot—they’ll never show one, at least. This would kill the allure.
Today they’re visiting inland Connecticut. Thomaston.
“A real New England seafood restaurant,” they say. “Right on the coast.”
The camera angles are careful, strategic. They capture oysters with too much chopped parsley, chowder in bowls like cupped palms. There are sailboat models tacked to the walls and pencil drawings of sand dollars.
People are laughing. They lean over the waxy table, describing Bigfoot in full detail. Maybe a bear. A coyote. Coupla dumb punks. (Really, they aren’t certain what they saw.) They describe the smell (hot garbage), the glistening oil coating the Bigfoot’s fur. The red eyes.
This is what the TV audience won’t see: bald men on Harleys who storm the sidewalk like moths at flickering light posts. Alcoholics sitting outside—bullfrogs—croaking and rubbing their heavy bellies.
The drizzle of water that runs beneath the bridge, choked by empty tuna cans and plastic bags, Diet Coke bottles. The swollen dumpsters next door.
Maybe Bigfoot, crawling out from the alleyway, sucking discarded shrimp tails the way homeless men suck cigarette butts.
Off Center | Randy Johnson
Drivers exiting I-84 at Park Rd. in West Hartford confront The Center sign, its up-arrow pointing skyward. Is The Center a heavenly destination? Drivers barrel head-on toward Mecca. No coincidence that I live in the other direction, a multi-ethnic section of town south of the interstate—the 21st century equivalent of living on the wrong side of the tracks.
I am not who you think I am. I am someone else. I am off-center. I shun the center. Sometimes I walk laps around the center with a friend who lives near the center. Then I drive home and disappear into a West Hartford not West Hartford, of shrunken houses and neighbors become exotic. My children’s elementary school has imploded—literally—and been replaced with a brick and glass extravaganza. I am in this place but not of it. Precariously located, I do not inhale its center, called as I am to so-close yet so-strange ethnic destinations down New Park Avenue: a Vietnamese bakery—named KT—luring me with balloons and oversize GRAND OPENING banner, Apple Tree market where I ogle four-foot lengths of sugar cane, the Royal Indian Grocery with occasional misspelled produce signs—squesh $1.79, snake guard [above empty gourd bin]—that pique my curiosity. Dare I try the new 0 Degree Thai rolled ice cream on Park Rd.—a bit closer to The Center—even though the price is West Hartford-right but gut-punchingly wrong at $6.59 plus tax for a single takeout serving?
Series Editors- Jack Waterfield, Emma Roth, and Madison Sundwall