I think I do have a pretty good excuse for not blogging nearly as often lately—I’ve been doing a lot of fun stuff with Misty and my housemates and just enjoying life in general. But anyone who’s been reading for a long time knows that, even if I leave a long lacuna between blogs, I’ll always come back eventually. I’ll try and find enough time that my radio silences are shorter. Anyhow, here are two stories from recently, a long one and a short one. I’ve got a couple more, too, but for now I’ll just write these and go to bed so I don’t have to go to bed and come back and finish this some distant day when I actually remember to.
Last week, Mike, the seventy-something engineer who works in the same room with me, was browsing stuff on the internet and called me over because he’d found something he thought I might be interested in. I don’t know what he was basing that guess on, but he was right: the Iron Pour. Some of the art students at the U of M spend part of their year making molds for iron sculptures, and then, once a year, the University fires up its own private forge and casts all the sculptures. The strange and wondrous part, though, is that they invite anyone in the public to come on down and stand in the foundry for free and watch as the students on staff maneuver around big pots full of twenty-five-hundred-degree molten iron, many of them clearly doing this for the first time.
Which is how Misty and I ended up in a big room smelling harshly of iron particulates and full of college students bustling around wearing thick aprons, fireproof boots, and welding masks. One woman was wielding a lightsaber for unclear reasons. The Iron Pour happened on a weekday and wasn’t very highly publicized, so besides us, it was mostly a small crowd of family members of the art students and the people manning the forge. It was a strange idea for a date, I have to admit, but I offer no apologies for that, and if I started trying to make our dates normal, I suspect Misty would start to seriously wonder about me. And anyhow, she agreed that it sounded like fun, or we wouldn’t have gone together.
There was a lot of preparation that went into getting the foundry ready. When we showed up at around 11:30 to a room with few spectators, the bustling students were busy spreading a thick layer of dirt on the floor, bustlingly. It keeps the floor from catching fire when you miss the hole you’re aiming for, and the molten iron from making a big puddle that you could step in and catch your fireproof boot on fire. The melting pot in the corner was on full blast and shooting an extremely serious jet of flame through the exhaust hole in the top of the lid, up into a duct leading outside, but apparently there was no actual iron in it yet. Someone told us the actual pouring would happen in an hour or so.
So we wandered around and crept behind the kilns in the courtyard to get a good look at them and looked at art in the gallery. There was some interesting and good art, and some inscrutable art, like the exhibit that was just a bunch of clips of a woman being distressed in various ways: being smacked, having a clothes iron thrown at the wall behind her, failing to jump high enough to reach something on top of a wall (while shirtless with her back to the camera, naturally). When we came back, the crowd had accumulated and was pressed up against a second-floor railing. Next to us there was a mom with a toddler and a baby, and over from her was a retirement-age guy. We settled in to watch.
For a while, all there was to see was more bustling. It fluctuated in location and intensity as they got the pouring pots in place and the molds all lined up, and heard their final instructions and pep talk. Then, sort of abruptly, a gaggle of them went over to the melting pot; one guy climbed a ladder to be able to reach into the pot, and when he was in place, someone else pulled a lever to open the lid. Instantly the temperature of the room rose about ten degrees and the inside of the pot incandesced almost too bright to look at. The guy on the ladder uneasily emptied several buckets full of iron scraps into the pot. By the last one, he was definitely looking a little worse for wear and fumbling the bucket a little. But he got it all tossed in and hastily headed back down to terra firma, and the other person closed the lid.
We all chatted amongst ourselves for fifteen minutes or so. There was a lot of speculation in our peanut gallery about parts of the process that we had no actual knowledge of. Then the students went back over to the melting pot, guiding with them the large pouring pot, which was dangling from the ceiling on cables connected to a moving beam that could take it anywhere in the room. Someone opened up the gates, and the light poured forth. That’s what it looked like: it was unrecognizable as iron, and had become pure liquid light, arcing smoothly from the melting pot into the pouring pot and warming the room as it did.
Once the pouring pot was filled, they guided it over to the first of the molds. I expected that the pouring would be fairly automated. But other than the machinery guiding the beam on the roof, all the maneuvering of the pot was done purely by hand. A student grabbed hold of the big metal rods connected to the pot, parked it above the mold, took aim, and tipped out the iron.
It arced into the funnel on top of the mold, and mostly went in, but also spluttered, splashed, and shot out volleys of fiery iron. They kept pouring until light welled up in the other funnel attached at the other end of the mold, and then poured some in through there to make sure they didn’t leave holidays in the sculpture, and then moved on to the next. Some of the pours went smoothly, and on some of them the pourer missed by a little. Wherever the iron got onto the dirt on the floor, it started a fire that would sometimes keep burning even after it was covered in dirt. Every time, the sight of the arc of liquid light was transfixing. I think every one of us up on the balcony was staring right at the iron as it came out. There was something immensely satisfying about it.
They finished out the pot, and once their second batch of iron scraps had melted, they filled it up again and cast some more sculptures. Around then Misty and I decided that seeing another potful of iron get poured was finally no longer a more attractive prospect than getting out of the sharp, caustic iron fumes. So we left and got fresh air, and had a little lunch, and that was it for our date. And you know what, she said she enjoyed it, too.
The other night, after house dinner, a few of us hung out at Seward Cafe for a little while. Seward Cafe is a highly-loved neighborhood institution, not too far from where we live. It’s collectively run and eclectically decorated, and has food geared to practically any diet, and it’s open till midnight. It makes a gathering place for all sorts of people, though skewing toward a certain countercultural, anarchistic type. Last year I bought a lavish long graphic novel from an artist selling them at a street festival, and it’s about hobos in the year 2137. They’re from Minneapolis, and when they come back to town again for a while on their robot train, the first place they go is the Seward Cafe, still in business as the world’s longest-operating collective restaurant. Anyhow, five of us sat at the picnic table in their fenced-in backyard and talked for a while, and then we all peeled off one by one to head back home.
I walked out the door to my bike, and met a man there on the corner. “Can you sign my jacket?” he asked. He held out a marker and turned one shoulder to me, a somewhat clear spot on a cotton jacket otherwise covered top to bottom in handwritten names. “Right there,” he said by way of explanation. I took the marker and looked closer. Many of the names had wellwishes next to them, or hearts drawn, and they clearly spanned a long time. The spot he was offering me actually had a name on it already from a long time ago, faded faint enough to free its space for a new name. I signed my first name without hesitating and drew a heart and shook his hand. The thick calluses on it and his gray beard and the thick, long-worn coat said he lived on the streets. He told me his name was David, and encouraged me to look up at the night sky. Love, he said, is what unites us all, and the stars seemed to remind him of that. He wasn’t asking very insistently, but I handed him some cash I had. It seemed like a very small way to pay him back for a moment of amazement and feeling genuinely connected to humanity.