L’Essene du Danks
Last year, an independent theater in Los Angeles began a three-year run, one weekend at a time for consecutive autumns, of all of Frederick Wiseman's films. My favorite of the early group was Essene, which takes place at a monastery in Michigan in 1970. The location and the inhabitants often put me more in mind of a back-to-the-land commune than any kind of Episcopalianism I'd previously been aware of. Wiseman's website describes the film this way:
Essene is about daily life in a Benedictine monastery and the resolution of conflict between personal needs and the institutional and organizational priorities of the community. In the Order, where the focus of life is the relationship of individual work and worship to the community as a whole, the brethren must cope with the same issues that arise in any community: rules, work, worship, values, love, and play.
Those conflicts manifest in little of what you might normally recognize as conflict, especially on film, and more of what you might recognize as griping. The abbot seems to spend more of his time soothing egos (the topic of his sermon that closes the film, in fact) than performing either the deep spiritual tasks of being a monk or the intensely practical tasks of being the leader of a small organization. The brothers whose conflicts need mediating are only human, though, and there seems to be a hint of a divide between some of the older, more traditional brothers and the younger men. Those latter often appear to be burnouts looking for an escape, any escape, from a world they found too rough, too harsh to be dealt with on that world's terms.
The Last Show
By: Patrick Dubuque
The tile of the large room is checkered and scuffed, lined with the erosion of dozens of folding tables assembled thousands of times. Men stand behind those tables, often old men in windbreakers and baseball caps, sometimes men my age with indecisive stubble. The walls are unhelpfully draped with the necessary decor of the elementary school gymnasium: school posters, lunch etiquette. Customers hover over cardboard boxes and displays while the vendors chat congenially and emptily with each other. This morning, there is one topic.
“I can’t believe this is the last show,” I hear one say to a mother, while her son scans the pile of football cards on the table for a glimpse of his favorite Seahawk, whoever it may be.
“Oh?” she says. One learns quickly here that it’s easiest to let the old men do the talking.
“Robert, see that guy over there? He runs these shows, but he’s retiring. Oh, yeah, there’ll still be the two Twin Oaks shows a year. And we’ll still have the ones in Factoria Mall, and Portland. But still, this was quite a thing.” Longest-running continuous show in the U.S., one says. Wistfulness comes easily at shows like this.
Adorning the tables are memories: magazines of the Seattle SuperSonics, newspaper clippings, autographed glossy photographs of Willie Mays and Dale Murphy. Everett Aquasox jerseys, the local rookie-league affiliate, game-worn either by the players or the rec-league softballers who came upon them later. And there are the baseball cards. Some offer the same case of gorgeous rarities, Mantles and Robinsons, from show to show, hoping to sell one. Others put out boxes of 2016 cards for a dime apiece, the leftovers of last year’s crop.
One owner sells a stack of 1990 Pro Set football card boxes, perhaps the most overproduced set in existence. The price is five dollars for 36 packs; $4 of it is for the privilege of ripping open cellophane, the other $1 derived from the nostalgia of seeing Bo Jackson in his youth. The cards themselves are worthless, neither justifying their volume nor shipping weight.
The vendors often walk away from their stations to chat with their old pals. They see each other often, traveling to the same shows; they know each other’s wives. Most of the time, they joke about buying product from each other. When someone “gets out of the game,” the conversation takes on a tone of both mourning and envy. Sometimes a spouse will draw a line, or a garage will grow too full. And yet they return each show, a symbol for a dying hobby that has somehow never really died.
The baseball card ambles along; Topps is in its 66th year of production. The junk wax bubble could not kill it, nor could the internet. The statistics on their backs are superfluous in the age of Baseball Reference, the photographs produced en masse by a single Google image search. The tangibility of memory, the joy of finding and then recalling a moment, is timeless.
I am not helping the card show stay alive. I wander from table to table, picking through the cheap, unwanted cards, the ten-for-a-dollar boxes. I find a 1975 Gates Brown, his final card, wearing a smile bored of all the times he’s made bored smiles for baseball cards. I buy a 1983 Gaylord Perry, grinning unapologetically under a cap bearing the ridiculous Mariners trident. And I feel a thrill at discovering a baseball card with the words “Piazza” and “Pizzazz” on it, the subject to an old piece I once wrote that was even dumber than this. These and others cost a quarter each.
You could think of it as basically nothing to spend, or receiving basically nothing for any money at all. For me, it’s a rare moment where I can feel like a kid again, with all the weightless freedom from responsibility, as well as the time-wasting and awkwardness, that such time travel entails. Baseball cards are worthless things, ink on cardboard that we pretend is worth money; they’ll never go away because there’s no reason to really stop pretending.