JACK SPADE PRESS

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The Quest, Rory Evans
NEW YORK CITY 09.11.00


Dear Paul,

You know how little kids with back-road lemonade stands, when they finally see a car coming, will stand up and hold up their posterboard sign, and then inch toward the middle of the road, hollering louder, desperately brandishing the sign, all but throwing themselves in front of the car to make a twenty-five-cent sale? I recently got the Daughters of the American Revolution’s equivalent treatment when I stopped by the Delaware State Visitors Center in Dover - Delaware’s unpretentious capital city - to ask a couple of very basic questions about the Legislative Hall and the Old State House. The three elderly folks staffing the desk looked up at me and blinked a few times, as though they couldn’t believe their trifocals, and then this smile just came over one woman, like, “Hey y’all, we got a live one! A real visitor!”

I’m sure you know that feeling of just wanting to escape as quickly as possible, and I tried my durnedest to avoid eye contact with the three of them and slunk over to a stand that held all kinds of pamphlets and brochures about the various buildings in the complex. (I figured I could not only answer my questions without having to engage them, but also use the brochure as some kind of proof that I’d been there.) Just when I thought I could make a clean getaway, that smiling woman piped up and asked me if there was anything they could help me with.

I tried desperately to play it all way down. I explained that I was “just passin’ thru,” as an eighteen-wheeler’s bug shield might say, and had wanted to swing by real quick and see the State House. Fatal error, since this basically clued Betsy Ross in to the fact that I was an out-of-stater, which I imagine in Delaware tour-guiding circles is considered big game. She pointed her thumb over her shoulder at a sign listing tour times, and told me that if I could wait ten short minutes, she’d bring me into the Old State House herself and let me bask in all its wax-polished splendor. I imagined myself being the only person on the tour, and feeling obligated, for her sake, to nod all the way through, and make noises like “Ooohhh” and “Hmmph!” over centuries-old quill pens and Windsor chairs. I just couldn’t do it. And it took every ounce of strength to escape her vortex of schoolteacherly scorn and grandmotherly guilt and admit that, yeah, I’d driven all the way from New York to Dover to see the capitol, but technically, I wasn’t required to do anything more than touch the outside with both hands. I actually said to her, “I’m sure it’s steeped in history and everything, but I have a drive ahead of me,” like I was some dumbfuck tenth-grade girl who wanted to skip the field-trip part of the field trip and just get back on the school bus and make out with her boyfriend.

Not that there was any boyfriend in sight, which was kind of the point of the trip to begin with. The State House in Dover was the twenty-fourth state capitol that I’ve visited in the last four years, since my quest began to touch all fifty. It all started after Chas dropped me on my king-sized can. You remember Chas. He’s the one who got so mad – like truly raised his voice and furrowed his brow – when I got confused for a  split moment and thought that Alexander Hamilton had been a president. He also got pissed and visibly disgusted when I couldn’t name the U.S. Congressman from my parents’ district in Massachusetts. So after he gave me the heave, I happened to find myself in Madison (job interview), then a month later in Austin (wedding), and an idea slowly started forming in my tiny illogical mind:  that if I visited all these capitols, really sought them out and learned learned learned about this great nation of ours, that I’d become desirable to him again, and he’d come beggin’, and I’d welcome him back, and then, and this is the most important part:  just impress the trousers off him with all my new knowledge of bicameral legislatures and statehouse charters and the like. 

It seemed like a sensible plan, because he really cared about all that crap. You know how some guys have an entire wall of CDs in their apartments, and know every last mind-numbing detail of the career trajectories of bands like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils? Chas was like that about U.S. history. Back before our whole thing happened, when we were still just friends who spent all our time together (and all our time apart talking on the phone), we’d driven to Deerfield, Massachusetts, to visit the historic village there. In the vestibule of one of the village’s austere, seventeenth-century clapboard houses, I flat-out asked the senior citizen manning the spool-legged info desk, “What makes you guys so historic?” Chas dropped his eyes to the floor and made a noise that fell squarely between scoff and laugh. I think he was appalled at how blunt I was, how uninitiated I was to the ways of soaking up history. Months later, that’s the exact kind of thing that would make me burst into tears, because it would signal to me that he thought I was dumb as a brick. At the time, though, it didn’t hurt. I was too in love to notice. Out in the parking lot, just before going into that house, I had asked him to lock me in the trunk of my Nissan. I’d always wanted to see what that was like but had never really trusted anyone enough to know he’d let me out.

The five months we were together were spiked with other little sojourns into The American Experience: to Fenway Park (the oldest stadium in major league baseball); to the Appalachian Trail (blazed as part of the New Deal); to the Delaware Water Gap, where we visited an old time mill house that employed teenagers dressed in floor-length skirts, aprons, and bonnets. We couldn’t walk two blocks in the West Village without stopping to read plaques on landmark buildings (On this site, Washington rallied his troops! Aaron Burr slept under this roof! Herman Melville went broke here! This place was originally a stable!). He was always encouraging me to rent Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and when it became apparent that I was never gunna get around to it (is there anything more boring than renting movies?), he took it upon himself to recount it in real time. And I gladly just sat there, uh-huh-ing him through every stirring scene. Much later, in a rare moment of courage and clarity, I said to him, “You’re so didactic,” and he got so upset that I immediately tossed it in reverse, like, “But I’m all the better for it!”

After he dropped me, I thought I was going to die, and was willing to do anything to be with him again. Having failed at phone calls and e-mails, I did what my friend Kerry calls “trusting the universe.” I would have patience. I would do penance. I would visit all the state capitols.

A couple months passed between Austin and the next stop, Santa Fe. But still, much as my friend John once called his two dusty snow-globes a “collection,” I considered myself on a quest to get my old boyfriend back. Then, about a year after that first stop in Madison, I met Trey, and everything about him kicked Chas’s ass clear off the map. Even so, when he and I were driving back through Albany after spending New Year’s in Vermont, I made him wait in the car while I ran across a pedestrian plaza to two-hand-tag the front door of the capitol. I wasn’t going to be one of those dumbfuck girls who forfeits all her own interests and hobbies simply because she has a new boyfriend.

Since Chas had been my first boyfriend as a grown-up, that relationship pretty much became a template for any dating that followed. Suddenly, I was the one setting the alarm for 7:30 on a Saturday morning, so Trey and I could hustle downtown and catch the first ferry to Ellis Island. I was the one who roped us in for a tour of the Woolworth Building (once the city’s tallest). But even though Trey and I probably took in more history, pound-for-pound, than Chas and I had, it felt completely different – maybe because I didn’t feel like the relationship was riding on my paying rapt attention, like on the way home I was going to get a quiz about, say, the invention of gearless-traction electric elevators (pass: let’s get dinner; fail: let’s break up).

Of course, we soon broke up for other reasons. And I picked up pretty much right where I’d left off with the previous break-up, in terms of miserable self-pity and monumental heartbreak. I went on a capitol-tagging tear:  That summer, I hit thirteen capitols, nine in the month of June alone. I drove through a tornado warning to get from Frankfort to Indianapolis. One Wednesday, I sped to Trenton and back between two meetings. In Boston, my sister drove laps around the Common as I ran through the statehouse, my sneakers making those loud rubbery, basketball drill squeaks. On a Sunday night, I left my car idling in the deserted parking lot of Hartford’s capitol, and pressed my nose and forehead to the glass of the front door. Its state motto could’ve been Latin for “drive-thru,” for all I cared to find out. In one forty-four-hour period, I drove from Lincoln to Topeka to Jeff City (to Kansas City for a wedding) to Des Moines and back to Lincoln.

Post-Chas, touching capitols had been penance (do this and get him back), but this time, post-Trey, it was pure punishment – nothing reminds me that I’m alone like driving vast distances over unfamiliar terrain with no one to hand off the wheel to. This became starkly apparent when I drove from Palo Alto to Sacramento to Carson City and all the way back to San Simeon in a twenty-hour stretch. I strongly believe that the people who rave about California’s Highway One are girlfriends who got to just sit there in the passenger seat, their bare feet out the window and resting on the side-view mirror, their eyes peeled for baby seals huddled along the beach.

Eventually, though, the quest kinda tapered off, for reasons that include: I’d hit a lot of the driving-distance ones on the east coast, I fell in love with cable television, the U.S. Mint started issuing those quarters, which seems like a much simpler way to collect something state-related. And, heaven forbid, I got less sad. I’m happy to report that when I was just in Dover, I exhibited none of the dumbfuck girl behavior that I used to at capitols: standing like a fleck beneath some massive rotunda, imagining how some guy might have liked the place. But it’s not like I was overcome with profound respect for William Penn, either (he designed ye olde village green, and don’t quote me, but I think he was also the architect of the state’s government). It was just kinda nothing, like my front teeth when I’m drunk. At this point, the whole capitol thing is nearly all pride and obligation: I said I would visit all 50 capitols, and I will visit all 50 capitols. So help me God. (I think it’s a more virulent strain of that Yankee grit that had me giving up movies, taxis, and certain escalators for year-long intervals.)

Just a few nights after my stop in Dover, and my double-tag of the old and new statehouses, I had this dream that featured me and my father stuck driving in all these cloverleaf exit ramps in Austin, trying to find our way to the brand-new capitol complex, which was situated just the other side of a ridiculously high and spindly bridge. I was car sick, the bridge terrified me, and there in the passenger seat of this dream, I started bargaining with myself: If I’d already visited the old capitol, taken a tour even, did I technically need to go to this new complex? Never mind that I was the one who made up the rules to begin with. Never mind that no one else is keeping score. Never mind that even I can’t say for certain why I’m still doing it.

But I’m not saying I’m ready to give up. In a few weeks, Kerry will have a baby in Kennebunkport. I know that after I visit her, I’ll keep driving north to Augusta, which will be my twenty-fifth, just halfway there.

Love from, Rory

Rory Evans lives in New York. Reprinted by permission of the author and Open Letters. Open Letters is a daily magazine, now sadly dormant, of first- person writing in the form of personal correspondence. The letters and conversations are archived and available at Openletters.net

(Source: jackspade.com)