Sunday, April 6, 2014

In words

Stretching, nothing in mind, here I am: ensconced in mediocrity for sixty years -- not a bad thing, don’t judge me, I try not to -- witness to a morning more beautiful than anything I can imagine, in words.

To be here now, in a world made weightier by the accumulation of human waste is to dance between diamonds and dreck like a jazz artist on his last legs, in a former rubber factory on the east bank of the Vistula. Blowing thoughtless scales on his sax while the Poles go crazy, thinking Warsaw is only a plane ride from Chicago.

Lord there’s only one way out.

Right now I give thanks for the chipmunk sunning itself on the rocks next to the woodshed, the robin pulling fat worms out of the front lawn, the geese tentatively walking across Lakeside Drive on their way to the water, and the lady driving a Hyundai Santa Fe waiting for the geese to make up their mind before she can go on. Infinitely more beautiful than anything I can imagine, in words.

Maybe she’ll be late for Mass.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Natural

Sissy wonders if the ice is melting or it's freezing rain coming down. What the hell is a fifty-seven year old woman doing calling herself Sissy? She tells me about her daughter's New Year's party.

"She is going to one party and her boyfriend is going to a different one. Both in the same town. Can you believe it? They've been going out for three years, but it's not going anywhere. That's their generation -- nothing like us back when we were their age. We couldn't wait to hook up. They can't stand the idea."

I wanted to levitate out of the barber's chair.

"What are you doing for New Year's? My boyfriend and I are going to the Elks uptown."

Me, I was going to stretch my money and go down to my favorite pizzeria and get a fucking special pie, the one with three cheeses and four meats. Fresh basil and charred crust. Sit there and listen to my neighbors congratulate themselves on making it through another year with their faculties intact. Bring a bottle of Vitiano. I can get that shit from the A&P for less than a dime. Jamie once claimed that it's the best red sauce wine you can slug. My days of collecting Barolos are over. What are you gonna do when your pockets are empty?

This hair cut was gonna set me back twenty bucks. Sissy droned on.

"How long have you lived here?"

Since the days my hair grew down to my arse and the Puerto Rican nationalists set off molotov cocktails on Third and Willow. Before the crooked landlords started burning tenants out of their apartments. You gotta love this place where greed is its own reward. There's purity here.

When I get a hair cut I want to enter the slipstream and let the thin white strands fall from my shoulders like fucking snow. I don't want to talk. And I sure don't want to listen. But Sissy is good with the clippers and I figure I should be able to put up with fifteen minutes of jawboning. I'm not that much of a curmudgeon yet, am I?

Sissy asks me whether or not I want her to wet it. I tell her, "No thanks. Just leave it the way it is."

"You're just a natural guy," she snorts. "Hope to see you again." Give me a thousand such encounters and I'll give you a life.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The broken clock

In ruins, the abandoned greenhouses of Florida, and beyond the messy cottages, the black dirt lies fallow. The onions are gone and I feel like a man carrying a clock that no longer tells time. I put the car into low gear coming down the slick hill and hold steady to the right near the drainage ditch. The clock makes a flurry of uneven ticking sounds then stops. What a burden, to live so near such fertile soil used so sparely, so close to the big city. In the distance, a group of Mexicans huddles near an old van. Mamacita selling tacos in the cold. I am torn between believing I belong here and knowing full well that I am the alien, a man who has lived among words and business plans more easily than on the land.

In the hills above the watershed young people are skiing and snowboarding, their Jeeps filling the parking lots, their laughter and monosyllabic conversation echoing amid the evergreens. Young and alive and heedless of the weather. Soon the lights will come on, illuminating the slopes, and they will continue to jam on into the night. Ride up and slide down, again and again. Reveling in the healthy fatigue that follows, the bone-tiredness, no mind at work. Clean, the physical activity better than meditation.

It's supposed to get cold as the year turns over. Flurries and a close-hooded low sky. Anxious planes headed into Newark before the big storm hits. I drive on toward Unionville and beyond that, Port Jervis. I once tried to visit the salmon smokehouse on Jersey Avenue in that distressed town but the business was closed for the weekend. It remained a magazine article, a myth, purveyor to Russ and Daughters, Fairway, Whole Foods, the owner a guy from Africa. It was hard to credit the incongruity of its location.

Jersey Avenue runs parallel to the Delaware River up toward the Port Jervis train station, the last stop on NJ Transit's Main Line, more than a two hour trip to New York. There are people up here who have never been to the city. The tri-state town looks stricken today, half the commercial buildings vacant, sidewalks empty, Pennsylvania across the river with its bustling Walmart and car dealerships, loud and ugly I-84 running from Newburgh to Scranton, two disorderly towns inviting avoidance. Drugs, poverty, chaos. I spend a few minutes each morning reading the Sussex County police blotter -- Christ there are so many heroin addicts and blasted lives up here. No wonder kids with expensive college degrees flock to Brooklyn. It's effin safe down there, even if they're talking that mannered, incomprehensible jive of theirs.

Perhaps too safe. I'm tired of the enervating culture surrounding the production and selling of books. I'm tired of lists. Of pretending that we are witnessing the death of literature -- yet again! -- or, worse, its morphing into something as trite and evanescent as Twitter. I don't want my sociability mediated. I want to see who I'm talking to. I want to hear them and smell them and touch them. I'm sixty years old in the flesh. For me, there is no mind-body problem except death, the death of both, the death that keeps coming closer. With Lanier I declare, "I'm not a gadget." I'll never be one to meld with a machine. Life is tragic except when it's funny. Machines are neither.

There's nothing doing in Unionville or in the savage hills surrounding it where people like you and me keep trying to live in a cold inhospitable world, their little dwellings braced against the wind, their cheap vehicles half-filled with gas, ready to escape when the shit hits the fan. Provisional lives. Immeasurable griefs. Gathered around the kitchen table staring at a stack of bills -- Christ the mail brings so many bills -- wondering how in the world they're going to make it through another month, let alone a year. Maybe get a job working for the bank. Clean out foreclosed houses and auction off the contents. Take the good shit and try to make an extra buck or two. If we can only get through the winter…

I feel like I'm driving around with a corpse in the trunk. The end of the year. And no where to bury it except in my bloody heart.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Snow squall

Stop. I can't fit anything more into my head. My brain is oozing factoids like a 24-hour news channel. I'm done. My mind screams bloody murder. My brain, my mind -- who knows if they're the same? All I know is this -- it's full. I've taken in enough content to fill a lifetime! Its once seemingly endless neuronal paths -- oh, those golden opportunities for making connections! -- blocked by equally numberless bits of shit. Fucking plaque. The arteries of a very sick man. Jammed networks, digital detritus, call it what you want. I can't take any more of it in. The beast is fully engorged, like the snake that swallowed the sow. I remember Vincent Price stuffing Robert Morley's maw with cooked dog in Theatre of Blood. And you think pop culture doesn't leave its mark. Just look at the poor critic's distended belly and imagine yourself in the same position.

Ah! to be living in the age of engorgement! No sleep and no real wakefulness, just a dull-eyed stupor. The ground is hard, the plants play dead, and the mind wanders like a drunk stumbling over familiar ground, looking for somewhere to rest its head. What do you want? you want something? You looking for a way out? Music will only take you so far. Bach or Blood Ulmer, it's the same road. Fucking rocks. Travel? The banality of traversing oceans and finding yourself lost in the same way you were lost before. The locals speaking a foreign tongue amongst themselves but speaking some kind of broken English to you. And laughing behind your back.

Just like the women you fell in love with. The initial swoon lasted just so long, then came the long trudge uphill, with you beginning to suspect that common spirituality was doomed to be trumped by individual biology. No way to get inside another's soul. No fucking way. And yet the body felt so good…

Now, at sixty, the mind -- whatever it's composed of -- is full and you sit at the kitchen window, looking at the falling snow and try to empty yourself. Zazen. Deep breathing. T M. Kundalini. And somewhere in your stuffed gut, a gurgling voice says, Give me a break, you ex-Christian, you. The world may look like a white whale but you're neither Ahab nor Ishmael. You're just a reliable third mate, like Flask. Gotten fat on taking orders. Doomed from the start. And yet the body feels so good -- eating, drinking, making love, chopping wood, walking the Long Trail. An animal amongst animals. Celebrating the kinship of all living creatures, calling it religion.

Just like the kids who used to come to your Wednesday night prayer meetings out in Passaic. Truck drivers, grocery clerks, landscapers, babysitters. Getting by on charity, seasonal work, and compassionate landlords. Listening to Dwight Yoakum sing, "Sun never shines through this window of mine…" Walking miracles all. Always generous to a fault. Living in the great confraternity of hardship. "Hold on to God and not the way of the world." Saturday night Popov Vodka. Sunday morning the bloody chalice. When choosing your mode of prayer is a big deal. When falling down is only the opportunity to pick yourself up again. All done with the Lord's help. It's something I can't see, can't you see? M. told me about getting high down in Pat O'Brien's at Universal City Studios. Cripes! I couldn't stand up. Effin room spinning round and round. Effing obliterated. Felt so good…

Snow still coming down. Jesus, I can't see the forest for the trees. My old man thought the idea of a grand pattern was bullshit and lived out his last days in anger. Sweating the details until only the details were left. The bursitis, the little strokes, the Parkinson's, the thyroid run amok. Psoriasis. Incontinence. Cataracts. So many stumbling blocks on the way uphill to Calvary. One way of thinking about the journey. Stop. If you give yourself half a chance -- loosen your collar, breathe evenly -- it'll come back to you. That poem of Hardy's. The one about the kneeling oxen. Living in the present with the half-certain knowledge that Christmas belongs to childhood. When the mind has room in it for belief.

The snow has stopped. It was just a squall. What did you want? A blizzard?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Birdman

“…the period of incarceration proved a welcome respite from responsibility.” I read the fragment and my fuckin nuts got themselves in a bind like someone had squished something in my drawers -- walnuts or Brazil nuts or some other kind of fruit that Bukowski would've registered and written down for posterity. Me? Call me leaky deaky. The quote was laying there like roadkill, in a biographical essay on the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, in a square book. Thank god there are still square books around. For a square person, like me.

Not much of a quote, you're probably thinkin. Me, I wasn't thinkin bout nothin much. Maybe just one thing kept comin to the surface: my job and the bone-wracking boredom that attends all those days in the office playing with paperclips, sticking my arse out the window, or surfing the internet, too distracted by distraction to spend more than a few seconds on each landing page, as though all this web-based shite was a big revolution in human consciousness. Some revolution. And what a world -- too few important books, far too many minor moldy ideas masquerading as newly hatched innovations, bound and cloaked like the real thing. And being sold as such. Just read any one of the end-of-year "best of" lists and shrug: how did it turn out like this?

Isn't it amazing how many buyers are out there? Where in hell did they go to school? Wasn't the street, I'll tell you.

How can I tell? You know me, poot, I'm one of the salesmen. A hired hand. One for whom a great sadness like a shadow sits upon the shoulders. It's the dark side of midnight when you can't explain the pain. All you can do is bleat -- bah bah bah -- and bullshit your way through another day. Imagine this, that the sky stays forever blue -- and that you can make one person, just one person, happy. Even if only for just a little while. What a feeling. So good, such warmth down in the solar plexus, a nice spin on the familial serving board, or maybe you're just lying to yourself and in the morning you'll find yourself as cold and stiff as a corpse. Down in the murk and the weeds, eyes wide open.

Pretending to be Albert King fingering the Flying V, singing "If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all." When you gonna go up to the fourth, you sonofabitch? Hunkering down on the G like that, shit. You tryin to be somebody? Just some scrawny dude -- sportin a fuckin harelip -- sittin there pretending to be a man. A kid, weak-kneed and snotty. Acting like he can sing this shite. The brat couldn't sing it even if he used his intestines. My buddy Tony would've scoffed and said sourly, "An exultation of the irrational." And that would've been that.

Eyes wide open but unseeing. Christ the river is so dark. I want to go and choke the cormorant until he gives up the goddamn fish.

Those romantic Germans, giving up responsibility to pursue the inner life of the mind. Hah. My old man admired Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz. He didn't have to do anything. Just sit there in solitary and mind his ps and qs. Trays of food, a cot, and a squat-hole in the corner -- everything he needed. Who gives a hoot that there was a big old world beyond the bars? That world wasn't all that pretty. It still isn't. Illness, bills, crowds, bad weather, bouts of depression, occasional unforeseen violence, the full gamut of circumstance, none of it under his control. Behind bars he gave it up for good. And this was considered an exemplary metaphor for living, tending to a little bird, while fires raged and generations came and went, ignoring it all, while the story of one man got confused with the history of his age. In a square book shelved in a square library that hardly anyone visits any more.