Dead Men Riding Shotgun

City Paper

This is what rolled with me as I logged nearly 4,000 miles—Baltimore to the Great Lakes to Maine and back home to Crabtown—in a Toyota pickup this summer.

A blue heart for guitarist Johnny Winter, who died on the first night of the trip, giving up his ghost in Zurich on July 16 around the same time I read a short story about him at a Philadelphia house party, and a dusty work of art that, at most, means something to a half-dozen people. 

I lost a good friend this past June when local furniture maker David Klein, son of one of the last burlesque talent agents on Baltimore’s Block, died of cancer at age 71.

Klein’s wife of 49 years—the former Anita Novak (who now glimpses Lake Montebello from the couple’s front porch alone)—gave her charming, no-bullshit, pain-in-the-ass husband a great send-off at his Clipper Mill studio.

More than a hundred friends drank beer, ate crab dip, and enjoyed a long tray of flan that couldn’t touch the ones Dave made. We watched clips from John Waters and Steve Yeager movies in which Klein had cameos and toured his idled shop.

Hidden amid his drill press, miter saw, and dusty postcards of naked women was a still life Klein took everywhere he set up shop: a painting of a pizza box that looked like a record player by one-time Baltimorean and MICA grad Chris “Cotton” Connell.

In the late 1990s, Connell (fond of alter-egos, making primitive pictures of appliances, and reluctant to “commodify” his work by signing it) left the Baltimore of the past for the very possible Baltimore of the future.

The big guy moved to Detroit.

There, Connell worked as a millwright and a carpenter—hopping from one auto plant to another—all the while painting images of cats and cupcakes, leviathans and grocery carts on cheap pine.

The Motor City was on my itinerary (it always is) after a stop in Chicago to visit the graves of bluesmen Muddy Waters and J.B. Hutto and I asked Anita if I might return the painting to the guy who’d made it.

“Sure,” she said, buried under a lifetime of Klein’s worthless treasure—scores of metal Altoid boxes, nearly a hundred baseball caps, enough empty patchouli vials to keep a corner yo-boy in packaging for a year. “Take it.”

In the covered bed of the truck it went with a jar of peanut butter, disposable cameras, instant oatmeal, new notebooks, a case of Pellegrino from Costco, a small electric fan, copies of my books to give to strangers at gas stations, and a mattress for shut-eye on McDonald’s parking lots.

Toward the Arsenal of Democracy I spun, taking it easy in the slow lane of Interstate-94 east as Johnny Winter roared from the dash: “I’m takin’ that highway to meet my friend . . . it’s a long, long road and it don’t never end . . .”

In Detroit, in the shadow of the ruined Dodge factory and the company of Connell, I did something I’d never done before, one of those things you don’t plan when shoving off, the kind of surprise that rarely happens when you travel by air.

I ate czarnina, a black Polish stew made with fruit and the blood of ducks.

I’d heard about the delicacy often in the parlor of my Polish grandmother’s house in 1960s Canton, wrote about it many times, and asked old-timers to describe it. But unless you know a hunter and an old Pole, the ancient dish accented with string-like kluski noodles is almost impossible to get.

 There it was—a cup for $3.50 and $4.25 for a bowl—on the menu of the Polish Village on Yemans Street in Hamtramck, an independent municipality within the city of Detroit.

It was sort of like hooking up with that cutie-pie you were smitten with at the high school dance long after the music had stopped. Disappointing, couldn’t tell the blood from the prunes.

 Connell and I had made the date to tour locations in the stories of one-time auto worker Elmore Leonard and talked about Klein, whom we both loved. But we barely mentioned the handsome rascal beyond his pride in workmanship and appreciation for a well-turned derriere. 

Connell, a big man, hasn’t been working because of problems with his legs and feet. It was from the knuckles of Chris’s right hand that I was inspired to give Ziggy Sobotka similar tattoos—a doughnut and a cup of coffee—when I wrote for “The Wire.”

Connell seemed pleased to see his pizza painting after a quarter-century and expressed surprise that he’d once cared enough to frame it.

But he didn’t make a big deal out of much except to praise the dill pickle soup and fried blueberry pierogi; grumble over old and nettlesome encounters with his old man, and confess a persistent, apocalyptic foreboding.

I found the view reasonable, given we were supping in the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy and that 2014 might be the worst summer of violence and heartache since 1968.

Connell and I parted ways in Monroe, a town of about 23,000 some 14 miles south of metropolitan Detroit where his wife Chantelle works in a bicycle shop. A few years ago, before his feet went bad and Wall Street ran out of ways to trick working people, Connell bought a house in Monroe that immediately began hemorrhaging equity.

Not far from Connell’s house of cats and paintings of cats and a thick plot of backyard vegetables that my grandparents would have recognized as a Victory Garden in 1941, Chris and I took pictures of one another near a large statue of one-time local George Armstrong Custer—he of Little Bighorn fame—astride his steed.

It is called ‘Sighting the Enemy.’

The ride between Detroit and the Pine Tree State included a stop at Cooperstown, N.Y., where I wandered into this year’s induction ceremony (an Atlanta Braves love fest) and glimpsed the once-great and long-pathetic Denny McLain signing autographs on the sidewalk for cash.

Northport, Maine was one of my last stops before pointing the Toyota south for Crabtown. I went to meet the man who, at the end, was probably David Klein’s best friend. Making art out of recovered wood, fishing, and the natural beauty of Maine was the connection between Klein and Harvey Peterson, 64, the retired head of the Gilman School art department.

(The blue Johnny Winter thread went dark in Northport when Peterson said he never cared for blues/rock, confessing that he’d always “been more of a Simon & Garfunkel man.”)

“The last time I saw Klein before he got sick—when Dave was Dave—we went fishing on Peter Angelos’ horse farm in Sparks because he knew the guy who managed the place,” Peterson said.

Klein would come to Maine with fishing gear and go home with dozens of old planks and salvaged boards speckled with cracked and peeling paint. Many of them were still in the Clipper Mill studio when I rescued Connell’s artwork at Klein’s wake.

“Over in Brooklyn [Maine] is an old gothic Odd Fellows hall, three stories high with big windows and terrible disrepair,” Peterson said. “Klein would swoon every time we drove by.”

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