Sunday, March 13, 2011

A failed education

I tried a bunch of different things to get out from under the mundane shite. I traveled overseas. I smoked dope and drank. I ate and ate and ate and ate. I buried myself in a woman and flung myself into the salty sea. I watched animals intently for a clue but they weren't meditating, they were just being themselves. I took painkillers, antidepressants, blood pressure medicine. I developed an exercise regimen. It began with a walk down by the river. The walk depressed me. The river flowed southward toward the Atlantic carrying garbage. I smoked two, three packs of cigarettes a day. Then I rolled my own -- that was pretty cool. I drove around the rain-slicked towns of northern New Jersey -- Garfield, Passaic, Totowa, Hawthorne -- looking for poetry in the ugliness. I sat in front of my computer staring at amateur porn and played with myself. I went to school, wrote papers, took tests, got good grades. I still don't know what I learned. When I had to, I learned to cook. After a while, I bought expensive cookware and installed an industrial-grade range in my kitchen. Pea soup tasted the same. I got a pet dog, a mongrel named Bert, watched him sleep, listened to him snore. It looked like my mundane shite had gotten inside him. I got a job loading freight onto trucks, boxes of frozen turkeys and lobster tails. I gave half my check away to Johnny Stash who played the numbers for me. I went to the movies, I watched the idiot box, I went to Broadway musicals and Shakespeare festivals. I frequented jazz clubs and bought season tickets to the New York Philharmonic. I read and read and read and read. I put on vestments and carried incense in midnight processions through shadowy St. James, an effin thurifer who thought he wanted to be a priest. I figured I was qualified. "I'm human," I thought, "I can do this." It didn't work out. Maybe I didn't have the right degree of frailty.

Finally I got a job selling books. I learned that there was no difference between Sidney Sheldon and William Faulkner. Two novelists, one a Jew working in television, the other a Southern squire working in movies. You could read one or the other, depending on the weather. People came into the bookstore on their lunch break, people who read for pleasure. Some liked Robert Ludlum, others Graham Greene, some Jane Austen, others Barbara Taylor Bradford. Sergeant Beef was just as good a detective as Porfiry. I learned that books didn't change people's lives. Secretaries looking for the latest Judy Krantz, ad account executives buying Trevanian, penurious New York intellectuals saving up their shekels for
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, all of them looking for a few hours out of the shit-stream. Pricks or saints, they would always stay true to themselves. Selling books, I made just enough money to buy peanut butter and pay the bus fare. I caught glimpses of happiness back then, but mostly I just felt virtuous, above the shite. I wasn't.

I tried bookselling and it was a good try. But it had its limits. I wasn't ready to be an organism, I wanted to worship something. I sought "meaning" wherever I went. A girlfriend pressed on a vein in my neck and I passed out. Afterwards, we split a bottle of blackberry liqueur and went to see a movie. Fellini's
Amarcord, traipsing through the snow to get to the little theater on the edge of town. When the snow melted, the mundane shite was still there. I tried getting away from it on Long Island, in New Jersey, in Connecticut, upstate. The city was full of it. I saw people carry it with them, in their coats, in their bags, in their effin fanny packs. When I rode the ferry I smelled it coming across the river like a low fog. I tried closing my eyes and picturing a tropical island, rum and girls, a steel band playing Jimmy Buffett songs. I squeezed my eyes as tight as I could, but when I opened them, nothing had changed. I volunteered at the soup kitchen on Third Street, I helped paint the parish house. I danced to Al Green, I boogied to Neneh Cherry. I tried sports: tennis, golf, soccer. When my knees gave out and my achilles tendon snapped, I bet on sports. I gambled. I went down to Atlantic City, out to Vegas, up to Mohegan Sun. I played the ponies at Belmont Park and Aqueduct and the trotters at Roosevelt Raceway and Monmouth Park. I tried living well is the best revenge and let's get lost. I tried how to win friends and influence people and the seven habits of highly effective people. I took notes out of Zig Ziglar and Deepak Chopra. I rode the Cyclone in Coney Island after which I staggered down the boardwalk and threw up. Pale red-headed people strolled by speaking Russian. I couldn't believe how many immigrants were moving to Brooklyn.

I stood there and crossed myself. I tried to articulate exactly what it was that ate into my heart. I wrote verses, manifestos, love letters. I painted little watercolors of sailboats and fishing trawlers docked in Freeport. I got a pair of binoculars and studied birds, their habitats and habits. I went to Cape May and counted hawks. I started compiling a life list. It's in a drawer somewhere. I tried gardening, like my mother before me. Roses, dahlias, peonies. Marigolds at the base of the stoop. I wept at the beauty of the blooms. I wept at their fragrance recalling the perfume of weddings, funerals, life's big moments. The scent of everlasting love. A vase on the end-table, a wreath on the door. Mint, basil, chives in a window box. I turned over the soil and raked cow manure into it. Earthworms wriggled over my bare feet. Songbirds sang. Real shit was good. Living things fed on shit. "This is where it stops," I thought. "I can't do this any more. The world is shite, accept it and go on." So I did. I can't say it's done my heart any good.

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