The Friday Morning Listen: Tom Waits – Mule Variations (1999)

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Things are looking up around here, so they say. Something good must be happening because one of the highways I drive on is so often clogged with traffic that I can catch up on my reading over the course of the crawling ten-mile traverse. It’s a silly way to spend time.

But then there’s the other side of the story. Out in the country I drive through neighborhoods that have been flooded with waves of abandon. The for-sale signs have become so ubiquitous that a lengthwise glace up the road can bring to mind those swarms of political signs during the campaign season. But it’s winter that brings it all home. This is when, after a snow storm, you discover just how many houses have been left to rot. The driveways are unplowed, the windows frosted over.

Many of these places — and I’d say that around here the number easily exceeds 75% — are very old, kindly referred to in the real estate literature as “antique.” Just around the corner from us are several houses clustered around a town war monument, all for sale, all unoccupied, and all built in the early 19th century. It’s almost like a model community might look like if built in 1825. A little creepy…and very sad.

I guess I’ve been driving by these houses for years now, so it’s not like a sudden realization whacked me upside the head. There is, however, one instance that kind of set me off. I’d been driving by this particular farm house just about every day. It was a small New England rambler with an attached barn. There was a horse corral beside the barn. I’d never seen a horse in that thing and given its rapidly decaying state, I figured it must have been the previous owner who had put it to use. Right around the time I noticed the sagging fencing, I began to really see the house and barn: gravity was not being kind to either structure. The house had a few missing windows and a big blue tarp had been attached to the roof to keep the elements out.

But there was one bright spot in this.

Maybe once a month my morning timing would be just right and I’d have to stop in front of the house as a man walked a horse across the road (to a small corral down the hill). The horse was a beauty. I know absolutely nothing about horses so my description will have to end at “stunning chestnut brown.” The man’s clothes were pretty shabby but he seemed in good spirits as he smiled and waved to me as I let him cross.

And then the for-sale signs showed up. And then the driveway went unplowed. About a month ago the signs disappeared and some trucks and dumpsters were positioned in the door yard: somebody had begun to dismantle the barn.

I’m not sure why I called that a “bright spot.” I think it was a bright spot for me. I’m almost embarrassed about it now. Here I was feeling sorry for myself about my own goings on and a slice of nature’s beauty was there to cheer me up. Now I’ll never know what happened to the man or his horse. I suspect it wasn’t good.

The transition of that farm house from home to salvage operation really upset me…for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s best to not dwell on it. It’s a silly way to spend time.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to, and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at
Mark Saleski
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