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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR JANUARY 2008

January  30,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

But the actual poetic discovery that came to me in London did not concern a living poet, but an artist who at that time was very much forgotten--William Blake, that lonely and problematical genius who, with his mixture of helplessness and sublime perfection, still fascinates me.  A friend had advised me to look at the books illustrated in colour in the Print Room of the British Museum, which was then directed by Laurence Binyon; "Europe", "America", and "The Book of Job", which, to-day, have become the great rarities at the dealers, and I was enchanted.  Here for the first time I saw one of those magic natures who, without planning their own way in advance, are borne on angel's wings by visions through all the wilderness of phantasy.  For days and weeks I tried to penetrate more deeply into the labyrinth of that soul, at once naive and yet daemonic, and to reproduce some of the poems in German.  I yearned to own a single page from his hand, but at first it seemed no more possible than a dream.  One day my friend Archibald G. B. Russell, already the greatest Blake expert, told me that in the exhibition which he was putting one, one of the visionary portraits was for sale--in his (and my) opinion the master's loveliest pencil drawing, the "King John".  "You will never tire of it," he promised me; and he was right.  From the ruins of my library and my pictures, this one leaf has accompanied me for more than thirty years; and how often the magic flashing glance of this mad king has looked down from the wall at me.  Of all that is lost and distant from me, it is that drawing which I miss most in my wandering.  The genius of England, which I tried tin vain to recognize in streets and cities, was suddenly revealed to me in Blake's truly astral figure.  And now I had added another to my many world loves.

--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

[N.B.: The World of Yesterday was published in England in 1943, approximately a year after Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil following his banishment from his beloved Vienna at the hands of Hitler's henchmen.  He died in despair, mourning for that world of yesterday, which is so poignantly described in the excerpt above--perhaps he loved "King John" so much because he also saw so much of himself in that pencil drawing.]

January  29,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Arthur Symons was the only one of England's poets whom I got to see.  He, in turn, arranged an introduction to W.B. Yeats, whose poems I liked very much and a part of whose delicate poetic drama, The Shadowy Waters, I had translated for the pure joy of doing so.  I did not know that it was to be a poetry reading; a small circle of select people had been invited, we sat fairly crowded in a not very large room, and some even had to sit on folding chairs and on the floor.  Finally Yeats began, after two huge altar candles had been lighted next tot he black or black-covered reading desk.  All the other lights in the room had been extinguished so that the energetic head with its black locks appeared plastically in the candlelight.  Yeats read slowly with a melodious sombre voice, without becoming declamatory, and every verse received its full value.  It was lovely.  It was truly ceremonious.  The only thing that disturbed me was the preciousness of the presentation, the black monkish garb which made Yeats look quite priestly, the smouldering of the thick wax candles which, I believe, were slightly scented.  And so the literary enjoyment--and this afforded me a new charm--became more of a celebration of poems that a spontaneous reading.  I was reminded involuntarily of how Verhaeren read his poems--in shirt sleeves, in order the better to mark the rhythm with him vigour arms, without pomp or staging; or how Rilke clearly, in tranquil service to the word.  It was the first "staged" poetry reading that I had ever attended, and in spite of my love for his work I was somewhat distrustful of this cult treatment.  Nevertheless, Yeats had a grateful guest.

--The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

January  28,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

What had escaped June's notice in recent weeks was that Popper had become a drunk.  The decline had been rapid, and she, blinded by affection, had failed to recognize the signs--the rheumy eye, the splotchy face, the trembling hand, the loss of appetite, the repetitive monologue, the misbuttoned shirt and, perhaps most conclusive, the use of ever smaller bottles, this being the pathetic buying pattern of many alcoholics.  She knew nothing of his solitary drinking, at all hours, in bed, on the street, in moving vehicles and public toilets.

--Master of Atlantis by Charles Portis

January  27,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

"We have nothing to tell you but this: to choose carefully

and if you must still obey, we are ready,

your fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, to find you

 

a place at our dry table, to greet you as soldiers

with a dry nod, and sit, elbow to elbow

silently for always under the sky of soil:

 

but know you are choosing.  When they begin to appeal

to your better nature, your righteous indignation,

your pity for men like yourselves, stand still,

 

look down and see the lice upon your hide.

--Excerpt from Song for the Heroes by Alex Comfort collected in New British Poets (ed. Kenneth Rexroth)

January  24,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Catherine also had a great fascination for dwarves.  She accorded a proper household to her troupe of them; they had their own footmen, apothecaries, laundresses, housekeepers, tutors and so on.  The Queen Mother kept her dwarves superbly dressed, wearing furs and precious brocades.  Among her favourites were 'Catherine La Jardinière', 'The Moor', 'The Turk', 'The dwarf Marvile' and 'August Romanesque', who carried a sword and dagger.  There was even a dwarf monk.  Catherine had two favourite fools, both of them Polish, nicknamed 'Le grand Polacre' and 'Le petit Polacron'.  They all received pocket money from her and she married off two of her favourites in a splendid miniature ceremony.  Catherine La Jardinière was the Queen Mother's best-loved dwarf and this tiny companion accompanied her almost everywhere.  Catherine had two other peculiar attendants constantly by her; one was a long-tailed monkey believed to bring good luck, the other a green parrot that lived to be thirty years old.

--Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda

January  23,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

"Mother doesn't cook," Ignatius said dogmatically.  "She burns."

"I used to cook too when I was married," Darlene told them.  "I sort of used a lot of that canned stuff, though.  I like that Spanish rice they got and that spaghetti with the tomato gravy."

"Canned food is a perversion," Ignatius said.  "I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul."

--A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

January  22,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

I didn't understand it.  He was decent to me, but I still didn't like him.  Some people you never did.  Maybe it was just that he was fool enough to expect his staff to care about the hotel, and fool enough to tell his staff that he expected it.   Working in pubs, or in any retail business, was at best a dreary and mindless existence.  To be merely competent at it--to refrain, say, from abusing forty or fifty per cent of your customers--often took a soul-destroying effort.  To have enthusiasm demanded of you, that was more than the job was worth.

--Praise by Andrew McGahan

January  20,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Nine Deplorable Social Habits

Drunkenness

Dirt

Shuffling

The Loud Voice

Scratching

Unpunctuality

Peevishness

Spitting

Repeated Jests

 

The Nine Admirable Social Habits

Relieving of Tension

Courteous attention

Discreet mention

Tenacious retention

Assiduous recension

Wise abstention

Calculated prevention

A sense of dimension

--A Chinese "Litany of Odd Numbers" from Selected Essays by Hilaire Belloc

January  19,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Nine Rules for dealing with the Poor

To be courteous

To be distant

To oppress

To exploit

To pay little

To pay exactly

To pity vaguely

To interfere

To denounce to the Authorities

 

The Nine Rules for dealing with the Rich

To flatter

To attend

To remember many faces

To love none

To hate very few

To attack only the defeated

To enrich others by counsel

To enrich oneself by all means whatsoever

To lie

--A Chinese "Litany of Odd Numbers" from Selected Essays by Hilaire Belloc

January  18,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

I wondered for a moment why I was bothering to prolong this conversation.  In the first place, no doubt, it was because Dilys was a girl, a fact not to be lightly set aside.  In the second place, it was because she was on the right side of the line dividing the attractive from the rest.  Nice, that.  What was in the third place, if there was a place so numbered?  Oh, the usual thing, presumably: when nothing's going on or likely to start going on, which is a lot of the time, I start practicing certain poses and tones and phrases, for no very clear reason.  Anyway, I often used to behave like that in those days--it's last year I'm talking of.  There must have been something to do with vanity in it, but vanity, if you train it with enough devotion, can be the best defense against boredom.

--That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis 

January  17,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

On Christmas Day, 1840, in the Eton workhouse, Elizabeth Wyse, a married woman, was allowed the rare privilege of being allowed to comfort here two-and-a-half-year-old daughter because she had chillblains.  (The separation of parents and children in the workhouses was automatic, and one of the things which even in the better-run establishments caused most bitterness.)  Mrs Wyse was allowed to sleep with her child for one night, but the director of the workhouse (like many of them a former sergeant-major) refused permission for a second night.  When the ex-sergeant-major, Joseph Howe, found Mrs Wyse in the nursery next day, bathing and bandaging her child's feet, he ordered her to leave the room at once.  She refused.  He dragged her downstairs, locked her in the workhouse cage, and left her in solitary confinement with no coat, no bedding-straw and no chamber-pot, in 20°F of frost, for twenty-four hours.  The following morning she was taken to eat breakfast, which was the remains of cold gruel left by her fellow inmates, and sent back to the cage and told to clean the floor--which was inevitably soiled--but with no utensils to do so.

--The Victorians by A.N. Wilson

[N.B.:  As Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens's A Christmas Carol famously remarked, "Are there no workhouses?"  To which came the reply, "Yes, sir, but many would rather die than go there."  And then came Scrooge's equally famous riposte, "Then they should do so and reduce the surplus population."  (of course, I'm misquoting this exchange from memory so go google it for the exact verbiage).  Many think Dickens intentionally exaggerated for literary effect the ills of the era immediately prior to his writing career.  As the squib above vividly illustrates, if anything, Dickens underplayed the worse excesses of that era.] 

January  16,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

 The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way--exponentially faster, unimaginably faster--when you're dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people's whole life flashing before their eyes as they're dying isn't all that far off--although the whole life here isn't really a sequential thing where first you're born and then you're in the crib and then you're up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that's what people usually mean when they say 'my whole life,' meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime.  . . . Dr. G. would later say that the whole my life flashed before me phenomenon at the end is more like being a whitecap on the surface of the ocean, meaning that it's only at the moment you subside and start sliding back in that you're really aware there's an ocean at all.  When you're up and out there as a whitecap you might talk and act as if you know you're just a whitecap on the ocean, but deep down you don't think there's really an ocean at all.

--Good Old Neon from Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

January  15,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Uncle Jules is as pleasant a fellow as I know anywhere.  Above his long Creole horseface is a crop of thick gray hair cut short as a college boy's.  His shirt encases his body in a way that pleases me.  It fits him so well.  My shirts always have something wrong with them; they are too tight in the collar or too loose around the waist.  Uncle Jules' collar fits his dark neck like a tape; his cuffs, folded like a napkin, just peep out past  his coatsleeve; and his shirt front: the impulse comes over me at times to bury my nose in that snowy expanse of soft fine-spun cotton.  Uncle Jules is the only man I know whose victory in the world is total and unqualified.  He has made a great deal of money, he has a great many friends, he was Rex of Mardi Gras, he gives freely of himself and his money.  He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble.  For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.  I see his world plainly through his eyes and I see why he loves it and would keep it as it is: a friendly easy-going place of old-world charm and new-world business methods where kind white folks and carefree darkies have the good sense to behave pleasantly toward each other.  No shadow ever crossed his face, except when someone raises the subject of last year's Tulane-L.S.U. game.

--The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

[N.B.:  Walker Percy was an amazing writer--of course, be warned, The Moviegoer is one of my all-time favorite books.  In the paragraph quoted above Percy brings one of his minor characters vividly to life while at the same time gently mocking him in Augustinian terms.  Indeed, goold-ol'-boy Uncle Jules epitomizes all that was wrong with the Old South.  As the Civil Rights Era continues to fade into the past, it is important to keep Uncle Jules vividly before us.   He might slap your back with one hand but would just as likely lynch you with the other.]  

January  14,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

The methods by which the undertakers propose to silence criticism and hang on to their enormously lucrative traffic in the artifacts of death were blueprinted early this year by Mr. Frederick Llewellyn, Executive Vice-President of Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  In a series of articles written for the American Funeral Director entitled, "Are Funeral Customs Going the Way of the Buggy Whip?" Mr. Llewellyn sets forth for his colleagues the major arguments to be used:

There is a great tide sweeping over America today, washing away at the foundations of decent memorialization. . . . . If the Communists can help undermine one of the most fundamental of religious rites, the way in which we care for our dead; if they can get more and more people asking, not "Is it right?" but "Is it practical?" they can undermine religion and along with it the laws of the land.  Then, as Mr. Khrushchev said, "America will fall like a ripe plum!"

Elsewhere in the series he quotes the famous Khrushchev remark "We'll bury you!"--perhaps fearing that Khrushchev was actually intending to move in and give Forest Lawn competition in this respect.

--Americans Don't Want Fancy Funerals from Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford

January  12,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Wafted through the sun-lit streets in his taxi-cab, the Earl of Emsworth smiled benevolently upon London's teeming millions.  He was as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can be.  Other people worried about things--strikes, wars, suffragettes, diminishing birth-rates, the growing materialism of the age, and a score of similar subjects.  Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth century's specialty.  Lord Emsworth never worried.  Nature had equipped him with a mind so admirably constructed for withstanding the disagreeablenesses of life that, if an unpleasant thought entered it, it passed out again a moment later.  Except for a few of Life's fundamental facts, such as that his cheque-book was in the right-hand top drawer of his desk, that the Honourable Freddie Threepwood was a young idiot who required perpetual restraint, and that, when in doubt about anything, he had merely to apply to his secretary, Rupert Baxter--except for these basic things, he never remembered anything for more than a few minutes.

--Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse

January  11,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Betrothals were so common in the Rome of our epoch that Pliny the Younger reckons them among the thousand-and-one trifles which uselessly encumbered the days of his contemporaries.  It consisted of a reciprocal engagement entered into by the young couple with the consent of their fathers and in the presence of a certain number of relatives and friends, some of whom acted as witnesses, while the rest were content to make merry at the banquet which concluded the festivities.  The concrete symbol of the betrothal was the gift to the girl from her fiancé of a number of presents, more or less costly, and a ring which was probably a survival of the arra or earnest money, a preliminary of the ancient coemptio.  Whether the ring consisted of a circle of iron set in gold or a circle of gold, the girl immediately slipped it, in the presence of the guests, on to that finger on which the wedding ring is still normally worn.  The French speak of le doigt annulaire (annularius) with no recollection of the reason why this finger was originally chosen by the Romans.  Aulus Gellisu has laboriously explained it:

When the human body is cut open as the Egyptians do and when dissections . . . are practised on it, a very delicate nerve is found which starts from the annular finger and travels to the heart.  It is, therefore, thought seemly to give to this finger in preference to all others the honour of the ring, on account of the close connection which links it with the principal organ.

This intimate relation established in the name of imaginary science between the heart and the betrothal ring he cites to emphasise the solemnity of the engagement and above all the depth of the reciprocal affection which contemporaries associated with it.  The voluntary and public acknowledgement of this affection was the essential element not only of the ceremony itself but of the legal reality of the Roman marriage.

--Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino (tr. E.O. Lorimer)

January  10,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

I would find myself pursued by the photographers, headed up by a scowling blonde with rat-colored roots and a howitzer-lensed Nikon who had pursued me since my plane landed in Broome two days before.  She kept shoving the camera in my face and clicking, clicking, clicking; she must have had two hundred close-ups of me by the end of the trial.  Never in my life before had I realized the exact truth of a remark by that greatest of documentary photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson: that photographic portraiture is always an invasion, and if done without the subject's permission it is a violation.

--Things I Didn't Know by Robert Hughes

January  9,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

In this book, the Cambridge University Press has placed the footnotes at the bottom of the page, and not gathered them up, as so many publishers incomprehensibly do, as endnotes.  This is a great relief, for Griswold has a sharp nose for intellectual quarry.  When interesting ideas start up from the thickets of his argument, he chases them to the bottom of the page and corners them like a pointer quivering at a fallen bird.  Some people might find this irritating.  But the high quality of argument and observation in the text is sustained equally in the footnotes, so that I set aside all resentment and forgave the author--on the understanding, however, that he will do better next time.  As for his persistent, sometimes confusing and never truly comfortable use of the feminine pronoun--well, that can be forgiven too.

--What Cannot Be Forgiven a review by Roger Scruton of Forgiveness by Charles Griswold in the December 14, 2007 issue of the Times Literary Supplement

[N.B.:  Great simile and raillery against the modern trend of endnotes.  As for pronouns, I've written elsewhere that I prefer using the plural "them" or "their" for the universal as opposed to the singular "he" or "she."  Oh well, to each his own.]

January  8,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

But for the children of our town, one frame alone contained the essence of our pictorial taste.  It was enormous, this canvas by an unremembered French artist, bold and brave--at least as far as the subject went.  It was a giant illustration of a gruesome scene, designed to make us shudder and have dreams.  A tragic lady in the middle, put to test--facial and otherwise--must drink a glass of blood, the nice warm fresh blood of an executed Huguenot (French for Episcopalian, my mother told me, as she gave me a feeling recital of Catherine de' Medici's atrocities against our sect), or else her father's blood is let.  The shaggy executioner holds out the glass of blood, which the wonderfully French painter couldn't resist making look like the best burgundy.  The lady shudders.  Grieving victims around her, by their expressions, sense her lot, but there's not one would disapprove her thirst.

--I Like What I Know by Vincent Price

January  7,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

His character, so eminently English, compact of courage, of originality, of imagination, and with something coarse in it as well, puts one in mind of Hamlet : not the melodramatic sentimentalist of the stage; but the real Hamlet, Horatio's Hamlet, who called his father's ghost old truepenny, who forged his uncle's signature, who fought Laertes, and ranted in a grave, and lugged the guts into the neighbour room.  His tragedy, like Hamlet's, was the tragedy of an over-powerful will--a will so strong as to recoil upon itself, and fall into indecision.  It is easy for a weak man to be decided--there is so much to make him so; but a strong man, who can do anything, sometimes leaves everything undone. 

--The Last Elizabethan [regarding Beddoes] from Books & Characters by Lytton Strachey

January  6,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

For a hundred years and more the monarchy in France had been absolute and popular.  It was beginning now to lose both power and prestige.  A sinister symptom of what was to follow appeared when the higher ranks of society began to lose their respect for the sovereign.  It started when Louis XV selected as his principal mistress a member of the middle-class, it continued when he chose her successor from the streets.  When the feud between Madame Dubarry and the Duke de Choiseul ended in the dismissal of the minister, the road to Chanteloup, his country house, was crowded with carriages, while familiar faces were absent from the Court at Versailles.  For the first time in French history the followers of fashion flocked to do homage to a fallen favourite. People wondered at the time, but hardly understood the profound significance of the event.   The king was no longer the leader of society.  Kings and Presidents, Prime Ministers and Dictators provide at all times a target for the criticism of philosophers, satirists, and reformers.  Such criticism they can usually afford to neglect, but when the time-servers, the sycophants, and the courtiers begin to disregard them, then should the strongest of them tremble on their thrones.

--Talleyrand by Duff Cooper

January  5,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

In feudal times the king had had to reckon with a free and powerful nobility, living upon their own land, and relying upon the support of their own adherents.  The struggle between king and landed aristocracy had resulted in France in the defeat of the aristocracy, just as in England it had resulted in the defeat of the king.  And just as in England the king had been allowed to retain all the outward trappings of sovereignty after he had lost the reality of power, so in France the aristocracy retained all their old privileges and the glitter and glamour of greatness long after they had ceased to take any important part in the government of the country.

--Talleyrand by Duff Cooper

January  4,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Whatever the importance of grammar in reading or writing, as an image of human life it seems to me out on its own.  I have never since had any patience with the apostles of usage.  Usage needs no advocates, since it goes on whether one approves of it or not, and in doing so breaks down the best-regulated languages.  Grammar is the bread-winner of language as usage is the housekeeper, and the poor man's efforts at keeping order are for ever being thwarted by his wife's intrigues and her perpetual warnings to the children not to tell Father.  But language, like life, is impossible without a father and he is forever returning to his thankless job of restoring authority.  As an emotional young man, I found it a real help to learn that there was such a thing as an object, whether or not philosophers admitted its existence, and that I could use the accusative case to point it out as I would point out a man in the street.  In later years George Moore fell in love with the subjunctive--a pretty little mood enough, though, as his books show, much too flighty for a settled man.

--An Only Child by Frank O'Connor

January  3,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

For, if he is a man of the least spirit he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid.  He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various

     Accounts to reconcile;

     Anecdotes to pick up:

     Inscriptions to make out:

     Stories to weave in:

     Traditions to sift:

     Personages to call upon:

     Panegyrics to paste up at this door;

     Pasquinades at that:----All which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from.  To sum up all; there are archives at every stage to be looked into and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:---In short, there is no end of it;---for my own part, I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,--and am not yet born:--I have just been able, and that's all, to tell you when it happened, but not how;--so that you see the thing is yet far from being accomplished.

--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

[N.B.:  Note that that digression on digressions encompasses a mere two sentences.  The second, and by far the longest, shows an imaginative use of punctuation far beyond the self-conscious ken of moderns such as Cormac McCarthy (don't get me wrong, I love his early work before he decided to take the money and run).]

January  2,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

"It is unfair" was a perpetual cry of the Radletts when young.  The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness.

--The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

January  1,  2008

Patrick: Lagniappe

Linda and I were very much preoccupied with sin, and our great hero was Oscar Wilde.

"But what did he do?"

"I asked Fa once and he roared at me--goodness, it was terrifying.  He said: 'If you mention that sewer's name again in this house I'll thrash you, do you hear, damn you?'  So I asked Sadie and she looked awfully vague and said: 'Oh, duck, I never really quite knew, but whatever it was was worse than murder, fearfully bad.  And, darling, don't talk about him at meals, will you?'"

"We must find out."

"Bob says he will, when he goes to Eton."

"Oh, good!  Do you think he was worse than Mummy and Daddy?"

"Surely he couldn't be.  Oh, you are so lucky to have wicked parents."

--The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

[N.B.:  Nancy Mitford was the most clever and the best writer of the famous Mitford Girls (the Mitford product is still being manufactured in some particularly squalid back room in the otherwise modern capitalist-college complex).  Nancy's two famous fictional fairy tales for adults, lightly fictionalized, that is, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, have led to some claiming her as the twentieth-century version of Jane Austen.  Oh, without the sense of plot and timing.  Or biting sarcasm.  Or proportion.  Or wit.  But, other than that, she does populate her books with a number of characters drawn from real life which are immensely entertaining, particularly Uncle Matthew and Lord Merlin.  If you liked the movie Gosford Park and English country houses, you'd love these two books.  And if you don't, you're just a sewer anyway and of no interest.  I'll have to write your name down and stick it in a drawer, right next to Labby's.]