Thursday, May 22, 2014

You don't have to move that mountain

I walk around town in a daze, dizzy, fat, unalterable, faltering at the corners when I have to step off the curb, trying to keep my back straight and move along before the lights turn red. Heavy traffic even now, at midday. People with dough burning up the planet.

Somebody is walking next to me. Is it Jesus ushering me to heaven, whistling “Angel Band?” Nah, it’s some teenage kid on one of them scooters. He rides with one foot balancing his weight upright and the other foot pushing against the pavement, getting up some good speed with each thrust. It’s like he’s got two wings on him the way he weaves along the white lines. Making me envious, with my tired legs wobbling away. Watching the kid exercise his freedom is about as close to worshipful as the city makes me feel, remembering Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the funny movie the Coens made out of it. Nothing to the story except the big deal allure of drugs and money. Then the reclusive geezer writes about a father and son walking through an empty apocalypse and gets a gig on Oprah. Who knows what to make of it? I guess people think it’s gonna come to pass like that, the last days of man on earth.

The arid waste -- Texas, Arizona, Mexico -- may have its own beauty -- I’ll acknowledge Ed Abbey’s view of canyons, cactus, and flash floods -- but it freaks me out. The wasteland stretched out below Jesus when Satan performed his temptation routine. Turn this goddamn desert into arable land and the world will bow down to you. That shite’s not for me. I’m a city person, despite my love for woodland critters, taking comfort in the shadow of the Vampire State Building on a sunny day, costumed hawkers looking to sap my dough in exchange for a view. They should know by now that I’m a native unlikely to pay twenty-nine bucks to go up top looking for the big ape.

Listen poot, you worked in midtown, you existed in an urban bubble, you thought you were so cosmopolitan, standing in the center of the civilized world. Multi-lingual shutterbugs behind every street sign. Piles of restaurant trash waiting for pick-up. Good-looking young turks smoking twenty feet away from the entrance to their scaffolded building. You were working in a comedic bowl, breathing in and out like an effin mammal in water, trying to keep from sinking, desperate to keep your nostrils clear. Eating prepared foods, riding underground trains. A midlevel executive in the media business. Hah. If it wasn’t for the kids, you would’ve sunk like a pair of cement galoshes and settled down there, under the Hudson, along with the jumpers and sewage.

After the rain, the river is brown. The mud and slime look like my digestive tract after a lasagna dinner. Hard to see anything. Groping blindly for remnants of our famous literary culture -- books, magazines, commemorative programs handed out in once-full auditoriums, convention badges, posters, postcards, ticket stubs -- buried in the sludge. Ah yes, once this was the center of it all, this gilded island, now way past its prime, where the young and foolish could remain so and get paid for it. Now it’s a rest home for the rich, kept tidy by their police. You don’t belong here any more, you were just lucky to have stepped in the stream when it was still moving, when publishing was still a game one could play with a certain insouciance. Now it’s drudgery.

Even the rich care about sales figures -- Amazon this, Amazon that -- unlike the old days when they could sit on their fortunes and act like benefactors. I listen to people talking about Anthony Doerr’s new novel -- the excitement is real, but I’m not sure if it isn’t more about the potential sales and less about the book itself. Booksellers need a big hit for summer, one they’d prefer wasn’t schlocky. Doerr is a class act. I remember the attendant noise surrounding Harriet Doerr’s second novel because of her age and the success of Stones for Ibarra. Those most excited at the prospects for Consider This, SeƱora were those who hadn’t read it. That didn’t stop them from recommending it wholeheartedly. Sales are sales.

Now I walk around town and let angels pass me by. I’m nowhere near as old and tired as I seem on this humid late May afternoon. I turn up my hearing aid, cock my head so my good ear faces the harbor, and listen for something fateful in the breeze -- another chance? another stab at life? another list of titles? Shh. Shh. Not yet. All I hear are the excited gulls following a trash barge out on the quick-running river.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Two sentences

Ah to live in splendor, not giving a shit about money, that romantic fiction, because all one’s days are so full of light and life, and money isn’t worth the plastic it’s embedded in. I know, poot, it’s much easier to pretend the world ain’t nothing but a big ATM. But gimme the benefit of the doubt on this fine morning.

Every so often, I come across a sentence that makes me stop reading. Then I try to think about that sentence, though it isn’t easy, here in the U. S. in 2014 where most thinking is just a sub-species of feeling. Effin emotions. Here are two such sentences, from very different sources.

The first is from A. O. Scott’s review of the latest Godzilla movie which I have no intention of seeing although I raptly watched the 60th Anniversary edition of the unedited Japanese original at the Film Forum last month. It made me sad to realize that the defeated Japanese could only raise their fists against the fiery destruction of the atomic bomb by making such a movie, having a man in a rubber suit destroy a model of Tokyo.

In describing the latest remake, Scott writes: “It is at once bloated and efficient, executed with tremendous discipline and intelligence and conceived with not too much of either.” I stopped and thought, “what a fine description of so much of today’s commodified entertainment.” One can admire the technique without giving a shit about the content. Score one for Scott.

The second sentence is “Farms are well ordered, prosperous, but a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass.” It is from J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine, appearing early on as he describes the part of England he inhabits. I don’t quite know what the strings of words denote -- “neglect” has a fragrance? -- “fallen grass” can linger like a ghost? -- if I treat the sentence purely as prose. If treated as poetry however, it conjures up an uneasy feeling of impending loss, an ache, a tilt toward emptiness, thus preparing a way for the reader to place peregrine falcons in our word-created world. Precariously.

Which is how I read most everything these days -- intensely aware of the noxious atmosphere in which metaphors breathe and die. Especially when I get lost because my attention has strayed from the text.

(Getting laid off in publishing is like waking from a protracted dream in which you discussed marketing books with a bunch of people who knew as little about it as you. You congratulated each other when a book sold, but you had no idea why.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014


At first glance, it seemed insignificant, a mere annoyance: this morning I went to four national chain retailers in Jersey City looking for Eureka MM vacuum bags. Home Depot, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Sears. All four list the bags on their respective corporate websites. That means nothing.

The Home Depot near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel had a tiny vacuum cleaner department on the store’s second floor across from the elevators. I doubt if anyone had shopped the area recently -- it was dusty and disorderly and the selection was miserly. They had a few Dyson filters, a couple of Hoover bags, and that was that.

The Best Buy is a five minutes walk from the Home Depot in a strip center just to the north of the Newport Centre Mall. The store had lots of vacuum cleaners on display -- the vast majority Dyson uprights. But they had only four or five packs of bags, none for the Eureka Mighty Mite. The staff was invisible.

Bed Bath & Beyond is in a different strip center on the other side of the mall. It shares its parking lot with a Shop-Rite, a BJs Club, a Wells Fargo bank, and a Pep Boys auto supply shop. A typically ugly American landscape. This morning a thin Asian man was emptying his white Econoline van of full garbage bags and leaving them in one of the shopping cart corrals. Presumably for the bums and seagulls to ransack. No one stopped him. The Bed Bath & Beyond had a welcoming young staffer ask me what I was looking for. When I said Eureka vacuum bags, she made a face. “Sorry,” she said. “We only carry Miele bags here.” I protested that Eureka bags were featured prominently on the BB&B website. She chortled. “They have lots of stuff on the website that we never see here in the store. But I’m sure they’ll have those bags at Sears.”

Sears is one of the anchors of the Newport Centre Mall. It used to stock a good deal of essential household appliances and hardware, mostly carrying the proprietary Kenmore and Craftsman nameplates. Now those essentials vie for space with “fashion goods” and lots of high-margin impulse items stacked tall at every cashwrap. Sears carried fewer vacuum cleaners than Best Buy and had a wall rack filled with empty slots where packs of bags should’ve been merchandised. No Eureka MMs, of course. I asked a courtly gentleman standing near the large appliance cash desk if all items were out on the floor, or whether some might have gotten stuck in the stock room. He answered thoughtfully, with a strong Jamaican accent. “No, I’m certain all we have is on display. We have been waiting for a resupply delivery. Perhaps it will arrive today.”

Four tries, four misses. I walked down to the light rail station, figuring I’d better get home before the rains came. When I got home, I went online -- many sites, including Amazon, showed the bags in stock and ready to ship. So I ordered two packs even though I hate online shopping. It feels like kissing a mirror.

An insignificant occurrence, to be sure, the case of the hard-to-find vacuum bags. But really? A quarter of a million people live in Jersey City, some of whom vacuum, and some of whom probably possess Eureka Mighty Mites. More are moving in all the time, judging by the number of new buildings going up all over downtown. And yet one cannot find replacement dust bags for one’s vacuum cleaner in a shopping “enterprise” zone featuring a full-scale mall and scads of strip centers with their big box stores.

You know what? Home Depot, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Sears deserve to go out of business. Their supply chain doesn’t work. They don’t have the goods people need. They are bad retailers. They continue to exist because the greatest force influencing the marketplace is sheer inertia.

I know all that but still I tried -- hoping against hope -- thinking that they might carry something as easy to stock as vacuum bags. No dice. Strange country we live in, dontcha think? We essentially stopped manufacturing goods a while ago but now we can no longer even sell them without recourse to the almighty internet, that cesspit of commerce, entertainment, and faux friendship. Now I’ve got to go vacuum -- "the dust in here is rising by the minute," he said as he pointed to his head.

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


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.