Friday, February 22, 2013

Origin Story


Origin Story


Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes, far in the distance.–Rilke

Jamiroqui Dream Engine was his nom de guerre, his war the days cobbled together into a mysterious, homeless squalor. We met when I tried to hang myself using the soccer netting I stole from the sporting goods store on Broadway Lafayette. I thought it would be a good place to do the deed across from Brooklyn College on the embankment leading down to the abandoned train tracks. Scrambling on the slope, I found purchase on a piece of newspaper and prepared to cast my net over the thickest branch I could find. I was in love with that place which welcomed the wilds of my own sorrow as a brother sorrow. The problem was that there was such a mass of netting it didn't really choke the life out of me but just made it difficult to breath. I dangled and thrashed and the branch broke, sending me tumbling down the embankment. 

 There was a guy beneath the overpass. He had a blond beard and wore a jester's hat. He hunkered low over a flaming red tire, a baking donut. When he saw me he stood, offering me his bottle of Bim Black. "I was watching you do it, ready to get up. But I knew the branch wasn’t right for hanging, and the basketball netting was funny." "Soccer netting." "Well, whatever." He told me a little story: "I used to work at the Fairway Grocery in Redhook. One day, I grabbed a sack of potatoes and jumped into the ocean. I sank to the bottom and just got bored because I can hold my breath for like five minutes. Then I became homeless." He sounded like a surfer dude or ski bum, but when I asked him where he was from, he said Staten Island. A mystery took shape around him. It was the mystery of his existence pointlessly varnishing the seconds. "But then, I made a discovery like the ancient explorers who sailed to forgotten lands. I discovered that when you get really miserable, you can see angels."
"What angels?"
"The angels everywhere."
"With wings?"
"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.” His voice unmasked itself, revealing inappropriate volume. “Just ordinary people. Snobs."
"Angels are snobs?"
"Yeah, man, it's like they can see you, but they're too busy. THEY’RE TOO BUSY FOR A FUCKWAD LIKE YOU."
"Like regular people."
"Yeah, but psychic. You can talk to them using your thoughts."
It was the germ of an original idea. At the time, before I had experiences of my own, it seemed more like madness’s rehash, scar tissue marking an old wound. Later I recognized that he told me things I already knew but never really allowed myself to think about. We are all high, all the time, on activity and the various chemicals released. Despair is waking to the reality that things are really as bad as you suspect.
"Good riddance is what I say," said Jamiroqui clutching his bottle of Bim Black with sleeveless knit gloves, his eyes a burning city.
"Good riddance in regards to what?"
"Shit, man, does it really matter? Good fucking riddance.” He hawked a loogie into the inner circle of a soul ablaze.
"Why do you think you can hear the angels?"
"The angels? Fuck the angels. Angels are bitches, dude."
"Yes, but why do you think they speak to you?”
"Maybe because I don’t give a shit. Maybe because I know something is going to happen."
"What do you think is going to happen?"
"Whatever it is, it's going to change things. People like me, down here on the bottom: we're going to be on top. And people on top, they're going to be down here. Or we're all going to be down here or up there or somewhere."


We sat together by flaming tires procured from from somewhere up in Flatbush. The evenings after my failed suicide attempt blurred together upon a tide of Bim Black whiskey. Time had reached a saturation point where discreet moments meant less. The days seemed to slide off the table like a mess of egg salad into the black garbage bag of night. And then night came and with it heat and cold measured out in babbling, elemental terminologies. Finally, I had my own experience. Finally, I learned what Jamiroqui was talking about. 

Riding the train my despair cameoing like cheap Nick Nolte knockoff, I had this distinct impression that I was covered in a layer of evil slime. Slime is how it starts. I had been slimed by my reality. Then I saw my first angel, a Muslim girl staring at me. A Russian with spiked blond hair looked at me from down the train car. They did not relinquish their gazes. I felt for my neck, for the marks left by the netting. They had long since vanished leaving me fully cognizant of my years of lonely failure. I had been wrung out and expunged of hope and despair, exuded into the moment. "Can you read my thoughts?" "Uggh, yes? Duh," they said.
"Why is life like this?" I queried.
"You're an idiot," said the beautiful Russian angel.
"Don't even, like, humor him," said the Muslim, also a valley girl.
"Would you love me?" I thought
"You're joking," said the Russian.
"It's nothing personal. It's just that angels only love the void”.
“The void is so hot!”
"So hot."


"They said they loved the void."
"Oh yeah, tell me about it," said Jamiroqui, taking a final gulp of Winter Palace Vodka. "The void."
"What do they mean by that?"
"I don't even know, man."
"Nothingness?"
"Like some gigantic dump." He paused, perhaps musing over his concept of absence, which he figured as an actual place. He snickered, cast the empty bottle into the flaming round.


"How do you survive, Jamiroqui?"
"I dress up in a gorilla suit in Times Square.”
"What gorilla suit?"
"This one?" he said, reaching under his blue tarp revealing black dead-dog fur.
"You're the Time's Square gorilla? I walk by you every day on my way to work." The menagerie of Time’s Square characters intruded as if they had been constantly cloying at the periphery of my thoughts, seeking entry.
"Breeze right by, man! You breeze right by like everyone else."

Tire fumes tied our time together like a carpet making a repulsive room logical. Walking the city streets, I felt myself on the cusp of something just short of death, like Jamiroqui's dump, a bearable, diminished blur. Passing through Times Square, the Apes and Elmos, Cookie Monsters and Chewbaccas held out their jangling bags of spare change. Down a side alley I saw a homeless man emerge from a large cardboard box. In his arms he carried a smaller box, a shoe box. Oblivious to my stare, from the larger box emerged a woman, a dirty visage, a Brazilian rain forest forever burning, forever rejuvenated. She was holding not a box, but a rib bone! They stood there for a little while as if posing for a photograph. The homeless Adam and Eve of the Theater District, dressed in garbage bags slung across their bodies like animal skins.

Taking the Q train back from work, I reduced to null. I could almost feel the serotonin emptying out of my brain, liberating me from chemical slavery. My despair gnashing about me allowed me to break down the barriers between myself and the angelic snobs around me. They were fat or thin, tall and short, and whenever I got down to the bottom, I found them waiting, egging me on for my measly desires. Breaking through to the other side of despair, I felt like a waking agent in a world of sleepers. If I wasn't exhausted from my long day of attempting to please people as a leasing agent, I visited Jamiroqui in the crawl space of the world.
"She was holding a bone," I told him of the homeless Eve
"You'll see a lot of bones," he said. All his utterances had taken on a prophetic quality.

One November day the air turned to ice and winter arrived. Christmas advertising cropped up. I met a young woman in Herald Square and showed her some studios she had no intention of renting. They were too big or too small, with the wrong view, the wrong location. They all had something she didn't like and besides, she didn't even have he money to begin with. I wanted to escape into that other space, like the city's voided bowl, where nature reasserted itself, where you could turn the tables on life and erect an inhabitable twilight. Returning to my neighborhood, I scrambled down the slope. My friend wasn't there. My heart sank. I sat on one of the cannibalized car seats and stared at the opposing wall. Was that writing? I stood. I approached. What I previously took to be soot were actually thousands of words scrawled with burning rubber. A story. It began like this. They come. They put some of our brains in jars. The rest of us have to leave the city.
Then I saw Jamiroqui approach, wearing the bottom half of his gorilla suit, pushing a tire in front of him.
"It's winter now," he said. "This is my protection. What are you doing? Don't read that."
"Did you write this?"
"Yeah, but don't read it."
"A story?"
"It's nothing. It's stupid."
"Brains in Jars?"
"It's a dream I've been having every night for the past 10 years."
"They come. They put brains in jars...who are they?"
“It's like a futuristic alien dictatorship where you have to toe the line, OK? But the line is like the line of your own inhibitions.”
"Do you ever meet any nice angels, Jamiroqui?"
He squeezed a spurt of lighter fluid onto the tire.
"Nice. What's that? Ever notice how nice people are mean as shit?"
As I watched him kindle the flame, in place of revolting against everything around me, my thoughts turned to the dead language of material concerns.


You sit there for a moment like a water strider suspended above a dark sea by the thinnest of biological pressures. Your slime layer manifests conditioning the dive into clarity. You are nothing. Your virtues are lost to be replaced by cosmic virtues. I arose. She looked just like Margaret, the lost love of my life, Sudanese black. She was staring right at me from across the train car. I was returning from an apartment showing in the Upper West.
"How are you today?" I thought.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Not big on the pleasantries? Why don't you just let me love you?"
The angel demurred.
She exited the subway at Columbus Circle. I followed her deep into Hell's Kitchen where, as a trick, she induced a police officer to intercede. The following few days are a blur, entering the penal system, gingerly shunted into a mental institution, perhaps the Bellview, although they called it something else. Here was the inverse of Jamiroqui's imagined oblivion. Here was a totally immaculate terrain of textures and tints, either electrically bright or totally dark. The daylight of health and the night of illness rendered with every spacial contour and protocol. Mushy or crunchy, pissed off or blank, totally silent or way too loud. 

 One day when we had just finished group gestalt therapy, the entire building shook. We were consumed, shot through and wilted by a light that wasn't a light, was more like an invisible blue wave of something flesh and bone is not designed to weather. And then the windows shattered and along with them our ear drums. An obscure but obvious emotional pain galvanized with a marrow level cosmic distress, rippling outward in a sea of golden light. I followed a train of people below ground, into the subway system. It was then that I saw Rose Mitchell, head of the psyche ward. She seemed irrationally swept up in regards to an event which, for me, felt more like a logical conclusion than some fearful aberration. Still doped, I couldn't help but smile and wave. When I did so, I realized I could take her distress in my thoughts, shape it, calm it. Rose Mitchell felt me in her head and screamed.
"Really, Rose, really?" I thought. "The head of the psyche ward?"
We delved deep, a limitless train of us marching into the earth. Some of us panicked while others gave speeches. There were no angels in our midst, or at least in my doped up state, I could not reduce to null to identify them. Beneath the sea and upward, into Brooklyn we momentarily surfaced into an ash storm. It was decided that the best rout was toward the Jersey bridge, to remain on the tracks, under the surface as long as possible.

I returned home, unlocked the doors of my apartment, made myself a salad. Then, I climbed to the roof and caught glimpses of a thunder storm that hung over the crumbling skyline. I did not immediately think of my down-and-out friend, but when I did, I approached the tracks with a mournful certainty that he wouldn’t be there. Jamiroqui Dream Engine, defying expectations at every turn, sat sharing a bottle with a black man dressed in an Elmo suit. I considered interrupting their discussion of childhood haunts, the rail yards of not-so-long-ago where, bearing their precocious burdens, they sought refuge. But before I spoke, the pointlessness of my every utterance peeled back revealing a profound desire for silence.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Sleeper

He was a champion sleeper and could knock off consciousness at a moments notice to descend into dreams thick with his waking joys and sorrows. It was a skill he always had, ever since he was a child and learned to manipulate the clock through dropping out of his waking state. He awoke for the sake of his hunger and thirst, or if he had a bladder about to explode. As he grew, he awoke for the sake of self-responsibility, for the stray lovers his slender frame managed to attract by virtue of measured silence and sound.

The sleeper worked in a glassy office on Madison since he was fresh out of Columbia. He managed to climb in the ranks by virtue of his uncanny reading ability. He didn't call it speed reading, but that's what it was. He read at a torrid clip, perhaps channeling his ability to slip into dreams into an ability to slip into a story. The other editorial assistants simply couldn't keep up. By virtue of his success, the city opened its social gates. The city requisitioned him to all kinds of parties attended by luminaries. At once such party, he met his wife to be. His wife-to-be took one thing and made it into something else. She took a so-so happiness and made it into a waking joy. Married life brought new and unprecedented waking delights so that the sleeper forgot about what he did best.

 For one thing, his wife was a beautiful woman in the way he preferred a woman to be beautiful. Perhaps not the model of every man's beauty, but someone who had all the pieces in place to slip into the shoes of his dreamed of composite. The edges overlapped but little. The first tragedy of the sleeper's life was when, at 31, they discovered they could not have children. There was something wrong with the sleeper. They visited several recommended doctors on the matter. When the sleeper told the doctors about his only known health defect, his ability to fall asleep for however long he wanted, they tried to connect the dots and piece together a puzzle. The puzzle could not be solved.

With little warning, on the heals of a complex verdict regarding the state of his reproductive physiology, his wife left him for another. Apparently, there were other unhappinesses associated with life with the sleeper. His wife was unsatisfied. It all came out in a conversation. He was not the image of her ideal mate. He was not the man who, laid upon the image of her dream composite, created no overlapping edges. She had always suspected this, but had managed to put the discrepancy out of her head. While she was still young, she wanted to go on a quest to find her ideal. When the sleeper asked her where she would do this, she said that she would travel first to Spain and then to Italy, where the men were tall and graceful. If that didn't work, she would journey to Iceland.

Several weeks passed until the fateful moment came when the sleeper put his head down on his desk at work. He slipped into a dream of India, of fruit stalls in an outdoor bazaar beneath an evening oil canvas sky. He sampled the most delicious plum, chewy and endless like the plums from his childhood. He dreamed of his beloved x-wife and her composite mate. Her ideal was tall and dark. He was wearing a tuxedo. She hoisted him up piggy back onto her back at which point he turned into a feathery white bird, flying her out over the dim and dangerous landscape. As he dreamed, he became aware of the time slipping past, the day ending, people struggling to waken him, lifting him onto a gurney, carrying him to the hospital. Fuck it, he thought as he explored a strange India, losing himself in a dream within a dream, the contented life inside a mansion inside blue eggshell. Midnight in the hospital. He awoke, laughed, got dressed, paid the whopping bill and went home.

 He lay down and slept some more, ticking off the minutes in his sleep as he propositioned aloof dream women in a fictional Union Square, the rickety skeletons of dead and dying sky scrapers crumbling in accord with a decaying civilization. The following day, he needed to meet with a famous writer, a celebrated dissident, a legend of southern Europe. Throwing his gangling arms out wide, the legend told the sleeper that life was a big joke. The question was the punchline. If you could find that, then you could do anything. If you could find that, said the legend, you could even sleep with the most beautiful woman in the world. When the sleeper tried to turn the conversation to the legend's forthcoming book, Veronika Decomposes, the legend changed the subject to Aspen Colorado, the only inhabitable American place outside of New York and San Francisco. OK, so the legend was a bore. That did not fully explain the bilious hateful feeling that arose from the sleepers gut from the space his ex-wife's detour had left. Sitting on a park bench in Central Park, he fell into a dream about losing his teeth. His gums were in an unhealthy state. Then he was living in an igloo in a wife swapping Eskimo community, only none of the wives wanted to sleep with him. Instead, he presided over the transaction of other men's exchange. He was the middle man of an arctic orgy. He recognized his wife's composite in the form of a tall Eskimo in a tuxedo who stood apart as if eternally posing for a photograph. As before, he set aside the urgency of the waking world, felt himself lifted onto the gurney, felt the waking world tilt its odd course toward the hospital. He awoke. He prepared to leave. This first involved removing the i.v. from his arm. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," said the man sitting next to his bed shrouded in darkness. "Why not?" "Relax. Talk to me for a little bit." "Who are you?" "Me? I'm you." "What the hell's that supposed to mean." "It means I understand." "Understand what?" "I understand your ability." "My ability?" "I understand what it is to sleep your life away. Only, I now use my powers for good and not for evil." "Your powers?" "Not everyone can put himself like that into an unbreakable state of hibernation." "Can you?" "No, not exactly." "So that you don't exactly have my powers." "Yes, but I understand them." "How do you know?" "I read your chart. My name is Doctor Nod." "You've got to be kidding me." "Donald, it's actually Donald Nostrand. The Nod part I made up." "Oh." Doctor Nod invited the sleeper to a facility on the outskirts of Washington DC. He flew him there in a helicopter. The sleeper mainly went for the helicopter ride, although he found the view drab. From a helicopter, the East Coast of the United States looks like jungle interspersed with highways and factory outlet shopping centers. When they landed on the roof of a tan building, Doctor Nod told the sleeper that this was where all the biggest sleepers worked out. Tests were done, the goal being a state of suspended animation which would someday make deep space travel feasible. That was the goal. This is where the sleeper met the larger than life personalities, the champion sleepers of the world. They reminded the sleeper of the writers he would meet now and then, only in an objective sense they lacked charisma. Before the sleeper returned to New York, Doctor Nod reminded him that he always had a place at the facility. "Only we understand you," said Doctor Nod. "Remember the mission. REMEMBER THE MISSION!" Doctor Nod shouted from the landing pad as the helicopter launched itself into the blue sky. The sleeper smirked and drifted off. There was no sense in staying awake for the flight. Word spread in the office building that the sleeper was a narcoleptic and was nodding off in the middle of dinner parties and being carried off to the hospital. An attractive woman named Josephine came to his office to comfort him. Josephine had the things the sleeper liked to see in women. She gave him some of her Adderall which she took for a disease called Addison Reeve syndrome which involved any number of minor seizures taking place in her brain making focus impossible. He thanked her, took the Adderall and suddenly began hacking and slashing the legend's new novel, Veronika Decomposes. He eliminated the first several paragraphs and the entire first chapter, which laboriously and pointlessly explained how life was some huge joke. He edited deep into the night and sent his draft to the legend who did not respond. That same evening, his propositioning of Josephine didn't go over very well. The sleeper was put on leave from his work. Several days later, laying in his bed, he decided to see how long he could remain unconscious. He went to the bathroom. He went back to bed and slept all day and all night. At the end of the following day, he began to receive urgent messages in regards to his physical well being. He felt himself pushing the envelope. He passed through dream after dream in which he was discarded for another man or else behooved to step aside in favor of a kindly ideal. He sadly acquiesced, charitably acknowledging the way of the world. When he couldn't stand it any longer, the pain in his back, his massive dehydrated headache. He awoke. His strength came back as he swallowed the water at his bedside. He was awake, alive. After eating a large meal, walking through the city, he never felt clearer. The colors, sights and sounds were crisp. He went to a liquor store and bought a flask of Bim Black. He walked around the city taking sips from his flask. Later that evening, piss drunk on a train, he decided to wake the sleeping homeless, to usher them into a new and uncharted state of clarity, only whenever he tried they brushed him aside in favor of their hard won dreams. He returned home. He dreamed of being invited to a grand ball somewhere in Europe only to realize that he was actually the valet and that he had dinged up someone's car. The sleeper figured his ability was good for acts of minor crime. The first of such acts was, obviously, stowing away. He could potentially express mail himself anywhere in the world provided there was someone on the other end ready to pick him up. He could stow away on a ship and sleep until they had reached international waters. He could attempt to become famous by sealing himself off in a glass box in a public space, a ticker counting off the minutes of his record sleep. Only how would they know he wasn't faking it? He could get rid of all his worldly possessions and travel the world, a mendicant sleeper requiring little in the way of lodgings. The sleeper would see the world. He flew to Paris where he spent his first night on the street before being transported at early dawn to a French hospital. He awoke in time to be served brie on a baguette with a glass of wine. He traveled to the south, spending a night dreaming in the misty Pyrenees before passing on foot into Spain. Walking the streets of Barcelona, in the back of his mind he kept a look out for his ex-wife. She would like this city of architecture and excess. It was her kind of place. Obvious and contrived, like a dashing middle aged maitre d who was also a musician. As he drifted eastward, he let his beard grow. He became familiar which each country's health care systems. France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland. Occasionally, less than pleasant things happened. He was robbed of his socks and so he stopped changing his socks for a time. A man who can sleep anywhere, for however long, required little in the way of attire. When it got cold out, he bought a pare of felt boots. He bought an old tank drivers hat on a street fair in Ankara. In Armenia, he was accosted by a man wearing outdoorsey clothing unheard of in the region. The man in the green fleece vest handed him a card displaying his first name and last initial. He said he wanted to recruit the sleeper to come and work for the Central Intelligence Agency. "How did you find me?" the sleeper asked. "We have our ways," said the individual in the incongruous vest. Stanislaw B. purchased a room for the sleeper in the most expensive hotel in Yerevan. They went clothing shopping together, although Stass could not be persuaded to part with his green vest and brown corduroy pants. They ate a great deal. Stass was interested in the ancient history of the Slavic peoples migrating out of a legendary realm, ever westward, ever further into waking misery. "We know about your unhappiness," he said. "You mean as a Slav? Or as a CIA agent?" "You could say that your unhappiness is famous with us. We think we know what you need." "What do I need, Stass?" "A true enemy. It worked for me. I was a man unhappy like yourself rejected by most women until I found my true enemy." "So who is your true enemy?" "Islamofascism." Late that night in his brand new clothes, his face still smarting from the Armenian shave, the sleeper sneaked out into the streets of the still sleeping city. He boarded a train for Georgia. After several days wandering around Tbilisi drunk, sleeping in church yards, he passed into Azerbaijan. From Azerbaijan, he stowed away on a ship to Turkmenistan. Traveling through Central Asia, he found it useful to be asleep most of the time. In politically unfriendly places, the sleeper noticed that, rather than take him to a hospital, they bundle him off sleeping toward the border. And so he was literally dumped in the dead of night onto a dirt road somewhere in Uzbekistan. He woke from a dream in which he charitably acquiesced to sleep at the foot of his wife's bed. Her lover's body was long, requiring a refined mattress to support his full deceptive heft. In markets and bazaars on his way into India, through Pakistan and Afghanistan where he disguised himself as a Persian Dervish, he often thought he spotted Stass B out of the corner of his eye. He was detained in Kabul and sent to a facility known only as Summer Camp, a place for questionable bearded individuals of American descent. He slept most of the time he was there, confounding his interrogators by dropping off beneath the oppressive heat lamps or in the middle of blaring music. He thought about teaching his technique to the other inmates of Summer Camp, but he didn't have a technique. He could only drop off at a moments notice. Sitting in his cell one evening, he resolved that his issue was his endless charity. He accepted the needs and desires of his dream characters, never once asserting his own will, never once bending people's caprices to his own needs. He resolved to be more aggressive. Finally one day Doctor Nod came to visit him. It was just like before. The sleeper awoke on his straw mattress to sense a shadowy presence. "Happy to see me?" "I can't really see you." "Is this better?" Doctor Nod moved closer into a stray sunbeam cutting through one of the wall slits. He lifted up his heavy sunglasses revealing his hazel eyes. "What are you doing here." "I've come to offer you a deal." "A deal? As far as I know I'm being detained here because of my beard." "That's not all." "Then maybe you could explain to me what is going on here?" "We want you back on the mission." Ah yes, the mission, the dream of deep space travel. But what was the point? To escape into a nothingness deeper than dreams? "I think I'll pass." "Then my hands are tied." "But I haven't done anything." "Done anything? Do you think doing something has anything to do with this? Hehe." The sleeper felt filled with a sense of anger and pity for himself. She had left him in search of her ideal man. Her ideal man had been discussed at length between herself and her mother. The ideal had been mapped out by another and by another before her. It was a mere form, a kind of tradition, and held no intrinsic virtue. Meanwhile, he was a man of talents. He lay his head back on the straw and fell into a dream of cloud piercing mountains where joyful children awaited, welcoming him into their secret mountain city. He stayed in the city, offering his services as a teacher. He felt the outside world using every means at its disposal to waken him. But no force in the world other than himself could awaken him. He worked in the mountain city of his dreams, setting up intricate games of nonsensical, free form basketball, lecturing on humanities drift out of legend and into a waking state slowly but surly mirroring the truth, beauty and justice contained within a dream dreamed long ago by a caveman. He felt his body demanding to awaken, his heart palpitating in his chest. But he refused to acknowledge its demanding rhythm. He held imperious sway over his sleeping state. Within his dream, he suddenly realized he was in love with a caretaker, a faceless composite beloved, the lost love of his early childhood. She wore crimson and black homespun and cradled his head in her lap. Her dark, glossy hair fell into her face as she laughed. He felt his heart giving up, pumping the blood through his body ever more slowly. He took a walk through the darkness of the mountain garden, holding his beloveds hand. He felt his sleeping body lifted and carried. He lay himself in the garden, let go of his beloveds hand, closed his eyes and opened them. He lay on a dirt road. Next to him rested a canister of Gatorade and a power bar. His arm shakily outstretched reaching toward the Gatorade. He restored himself to a sitting position. He was in the forest somewhere on a dirt road in India. The second life of the sleeper was different from the first. Perhaps it was only a change in location and occupation that did the trick. Then again, maybe his imprisonment at Summer Camp taught him the value of open spaces. He now gave himself to different occupations that seemed useful to him. He taught children how to write. He worked in Indian hospitals reading Rudyard Kipling short stories to people who cried out in the night, their dreams of love and rejection cut by the pain of living. At last he entered a Hindu ashram where one of its masters, M.S Ramchan Ph.D, taught him how to channel his sleeping ability to enter meditative states in which his conscious mind could scan his dream dialogues, as he used to scan manuscripts, and chart the point where his consciousness intersected with humanity's slowly awakening vision.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Table



My mothers family is full of people who don't know what to do. No one ever told them. My grandmother was a nurse who acquiesced and supported her taciturn, alcoholic husband, a seller of insurance. He didn't dream of selling insurance; nor did he fully embrace it as a way of life. He didn't know what to do because no one ever instructed him of the avenues a man must pass through to achieve happiness. He crunched beer cans into little circles, hiding them in the garage. When he grew old and demented, my grandmother resuscitated him multiple times, adminstering CPR, keeping his heart going until help arrived.

My grandmother's father, rumor had it, belonged to the Columbus Ohio Klu Klux Klan. My great grandmother read Emily Dickinson poems. Dickinson and the Klan only make sense within a certain context. Outside of a very particular environment, they don't correlate. They were Methodist hay seeds who did not blossom under the pressure of poverty, nor wilt under the dog star of excess. They simply subsided, year in and year out, back to their British Isles origins. Obscure religious impulses drove them to immigrate to America wherein they continued to enact the quiet and strange drama of subsistance. Methodists, insurance salesmen, secret Klansmen.

When my parents divorced, whatever harmony they once had totally annihilated. Not an ounce of friendship remained. All was enmity. Like atoms smashing. My mother was left with several of the few positions their marriage had accrued. A walnut shaker table purchased in a furniture store by my father's parents, remained.

The table was designed to last. It was pretty and varnished and as tasteful a product of New England religious mania could be. It was a real piece of furniture. We ate at it, all of us, for the years my mother dated David, the great anti-Israel Jew whose every shirt bore a political slogan -- Leonard Peltier, Big Mountain, Chernobyl -- who liked to decorate the house with sage smoke fanned by seagull feathers from an abalone shell. We sat at the table with David who had signed on with the Palestinians thereby perhaps de Jewifying himself or at least signing on with the ranks of the good hippy Jews. That, and he was an electrician and lived in California, pulled it all together.

He was an energetic man of sensitive nervous temperament. He taped the entire Iran Contra hearings using two VHS recorders stacked on top of each other. As he watched the hearings, he tssked and muttered. This is all true, mind you. After his vegetarian meal, usually consisting of spaghetti smothered in Kraft Parmesan cheese, he had one cigarette out on the balcony. One magnificent smoke a day.

We all sat around the beautiful table, his little girls, my brother and I, my mother. We held silent contests to keep from getting on David's nerves. We ate spaghetti with salads, sometimes chicken. My mother lived and breathed 80s red meat anxiety, so we had none of that. There was copious broccoli. There was green spaghetti, presumably reaping some of the nutritional content out of spinach.

David more or less had the direction and the charisma and the slightly annoying self-belief men named David usually possess. Little David, king of Palestine. Although he bemoaned the plight of the rock throwing Palestinians who, along with Yasser Arafat, clamored for a return of the land seized during the war along with an end to the great worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

The table, during this time, was like a remnant of my parents' marriage. In my mind, it was our one chief possession. It was clearly the best thing in the entire house. It may have been around this time my mother began discussing the table's sale. Or perhaps it was later, after David had moved to Berkeley never to be heard or seen again. (We only learned of his death years later. He passed of a heart attack during a second flowering wherein he had begun playing in a blues band and kayaking in frothing and dangerous waters).

We packed up everything, including the table, and moved away from California to Bellingham Washington. Here, discussion of the table's sale began in earnest. My mother showed the table to some glassy eyed people selling Amway. The table was not sold. Now, we sat the three of us around the table. On the weekend, with the visitation of Mark, there were four.

Mark wasn't like David. For one thing, he didn't have the dietary peccadilloes of David. Like David, he seemed uncomfortable with being Jewish. Perhaps his love of pork chops was an expression of this, although to be frank, he was raised by secular and successful Alaskans, one of whom wasn't Jewish at all.

By now, we no longer cared to try to preserve the shape of the table. We did things to it that one ordinarily wouldn't do to a prized table. Scratched its surface, gaveled forks, etc. My mother seemed to take delight in degrading the table, our only article of furniture. We put the silverware and plates directly on the table. Who cared? She often discussed selling it and downsizing in general, moving out of the small half duplex into a place even smaller. She discussed the idea of getting rid of everything.

For me, these were occasions of arguing counterpoint. I didn't want to get rid of everything. I was worried about what we would do without a table to sit at. The table was like an anchor. It was permanence. Plus it was a beautiful table, a legitimately nice thing. I didn't understand why my mother insisted on deriding it.

We sat around the table. With the vanishing of David, thus ideology more or less vacated. This was pleasant because it meant I didn't have to weather evenings with the McNeil Lehrer PBS News Hour on in the background broadcasting scary information about nuclear warheads and AIDS. Mark was strictly a-political, although once to his credit he argued the Israeli side. More than anything, he liked trashy mystery novels.

"He's read all the good stuff too," my mom said.

I was impressed that he had read all the good stuff. The literary canon loomed large before me. I was such a slow reader, I didn't see how I would get through it. Mark was a fast reader. Sometimes, we'd go to the bookstore where he would turn in a grocery bag full of cheap paperbacks for a selection of new cheap paperbacks. Mark made bathroom fixtures in a shop in Ballard where he lived and slept. Above his desk he displayed a full body plaster cast of my mother. He was better looking than David, taller. He was the kind of man you somehow think as a little kid you are destined to become. He was a ski instructor in Alaska, if that gives you any idea of anything. He was friends with a family in Portland OR. Fellow Alaskans. We occasionally went down to visit them. Down in Portland, he showed an effluviance of emotion he didn't show around us, around the table. I don't know if effluviance is a real word or not.

Then, I went off to college. I didn't know what to do. Like my forefathers, no one had ever told me what was going on in any sense. All my rhetorical positions were counterpoint. I majored in English. I never knew what to say about the books they made us read. What was I supposed to say about Mourning Becomes Electra or Shakespeare for that matter or Hilda Doolittle?

Whenever I returned home, I expected the table would at last be gone, but it wasn't. It was still there. Half its space was now covered with things. Mark had left and so the table now only seated one. Although its surface was scratched and wax covered in areas, it was still a beautiful piece of furniture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Case of Erich H.



1.

I study him for months in the big building on the corner of Frigate and Espinoza Ave. where LA cedes to an endless stretch of beige bungalows and convenience stores. The distances in those parts are too great for foot travel, hence the hackles they throw up on the shoulders of the human psyche. Hence my patient Erich H.. I can see him now in my minds eye through the barbed wiring on the roof of the complex raising a homemade astrolabe to the blue evening sky.

As the things of my marriage vacate, including the man himself, my daily trip to Taft House remains. My job entrenches itself. I feel needed. It is a good feeling, and I am lucky to have it. My co workers express their need for me with beseeching, hungry eyes. As my thoughts coalesce into perspective, the things my patients say cut less. They are an assortment of drug addicts, psychotics and schizoid personalities down on their luck. You have to always be in the proper mental state not to care. You have to be free from clutter in your own life so that words can't get their hooks in you.

I see more and more my marriage in their own wild claims and assertions. I see the old self struggling to maintain its scaffold of control up until the very last gasp. And even after the point where functionality morphs into a padded room, they continue to act as if they understand how the world works.

Sick minds know everything.

2.

As things with Bradley work themselves toward a legal resolution, I receive a new patient, a typical advanced addict, paranoid, dug into his world view like a soldier in a trench. His name is Erich H.. What separates him from the start is the level of filth he has accrued. They needed to pry him out of his little back alley where he used and ate and shat and wrote on yellow note pads. After a while, I manage to piece together Erich H's life story.

"I just wanted to have a little piece of pleasure. A little something for me after all that shit had finally washed over. Is that too much to ask?" Erich H. asks as he picks his nose, his tobacco-stained fingers rooting through his nasal locks. "A little something for me?"

Mundane psychological suffering comes from the same common place. You learn this. There is real psychological terror, the kind that rips at someone like a grease fire, the pain of the amputee, the rape and molestation victim, the mutilated. But the other side of suffering is embalmed and ritualized self-propagating obsession stemming from everything and nothing. Such is the case of Erich H. as he explores his hallowed hall of self-built pain fortified by a wasting addiction. Although he doesn't see things that way. Erich H. says the world has wronged him, his family has abandoned him, his ex wives have discarded him for other men. Muddled attributions of guilt. Tales of grandeur, of how he was before being crushed by the indifference of strangers. Drugs are merely a side note in his own special story.

"I got up at 6 am everyday made the commute," he says. "All that, I was doing all that for them." He reaches under his shirt, picks some belly button lint and fondles it beneath his nose.

"What are you doing?"

"What? Oh."

The self, if left unchecked, can be a dictator and dictators and infants are all ego, self-oblivious and self-affirming. They are monads, like early, primitive conceptions of God. They revel in their own smells. They do not stomach down time, empty moments, self-appraisal. They require a cataclysm of sensation and cascades of drama. Every moment is an uncommon terror. Consequently, Erich H. views himself as highly original: he is a writer, a graduate. He has held a day job that paid well.

"What then went wrong?" I ask, trying to coax an admission out of him. Of course, he has already told me the answer, but I want to hear it from him. After several marriages, coming into a small amount of money, he embarked upon an epic narcotics binge which left him in penury. I want to hear an equivalent narrative of some sort, an admission. Sometimes, you don't get what you want.

"I gave everything. I loved them totally and lost everything."

"That's addiction," I tell him. "That's what it does to everyone, not just you. And they probably still love you."

His look of sorrow overtakes him. He is a man of looks. Sorrow, wrath, glee.

"You think?" he asks me, making me feel like he is in dialogue with me, like he isn't totally set against the process.

I learn the basics of Erich H's story through 3 hour-long consultations in early November. I read between the lines. Erich H. is kicking cold turkey. He weeps but he does not break. He rolls cigarettes with the tobacco I charitably keep at my desk for hard cases. I'm not supposed to do that. Therea are certain things you can't do in public buildings. Taft House is also a public building even as it seems like a private nightmare. Not my nightmare. I love its groaning foundation, its peeling walls and nonsensical layout. It's like an art project representing the unwell mind in the shape of a building.

3.

Bradley Sucomb's gorgeous, crisp shirts and the way he had of always smelling OK - his lack of flowing, untamed body hair - invited me into his company. From there I discovered that once a certain line was crossed, I was in love.

Bradley Sucomb was the first well-maintained man I met after 15 years of UCLA. Unlike the men I dated as a student, candidate, whatever, he did not speak the language of double entendre wherein one's every word suggests a desire to be elsewhere. His silence was not, as they say, fecund. It was just well-groomed silence smelling of designer aftershave, imbued with the sound the wind makes as you glide down the coastal highway. He worked at a bank. He regularly slept with two other women as he married me. He continued to see them because he was a common garden-variety self-justifying sociopath.

"I didn't know what to do," he told me as he paced our flat, picking up his possessions - a glass angel, a wicker basket. He picked them up and put them down again. "Can't we go away from here for a while?"

"Going away isn't an answer."

"Then what is? What can I do to fix this?"

I often see my ex husband Bradley Sucomb in my patients, in particular, in Erich H.. They both have an addict's tendency to take a lie deep into its end game before scattering the formation beyond accurate recall. They both drink a bluff to its dregs until the bluff seems like the bluff. Men like this are good at turning your words around and making you feel like you are insatiable and demanding. Haven't they done enough for you? Haven't they given their life's blood? Did not the inmates of Taft House, that fine flawed Panopticon erected during the presidency of Howard Taft, also function as providers, consolers, and husbands? Were they not always there in some form? Did you not abandon and betray them even as you made it appear that they abandoned and betrayed you? Weren't they thoroughly fucked by destiny?

"I gave them everything," Erich H. likes saying. "You wanted money? Here, take it! You wanted to go on a trip somewhere? Go! By all means! Everything I did, I did for them!"

Erich H. rolls cigarettes spicing his morning phlegm sack which he relieves in my waste basket. I think it took him many years to evolve that, like a toad climbing out of his ancestral sea. Like with Bradley Sucumb's cigars, the way he can identify their special smells. They are men of secret olfactory interest. Erich is an artist; Brad is into cash and sex; Erich begs; Brad buys; neither has a clue why it isn't working.

4.

Taft House is five stories. It used to be a little country asylum back in the 1920s when the neighborhood was still orchard land. The bottom floor is intake. The men live on the 3rd, the women on the 2nd where it is marginally cooler. The hard cases, the one's that involve blood, shouts, and random alarming nudity, go on the 4th; isolation is on the 5th floor. In the basement of our little tower there is a recreation area with a ping pong table, some weights, a rowing machine and a television set embedded inside a wall behind plate glass. There is a little garden in the back. The unit houses 50. It should be shut down, closed for good. My favorite part of it is the roof where there's this little seating area. It's like the crow's nest. You can even see the ocean from up there on days when it's so hot the idea of the sea doesn't make sense.

I once met Dr. Hamm up there for vodka-spiked lemonade. We made a plan of it: I would bring the lemonade and he would risk smuggling in a flask of vodka. We used our ordinary coffee mugs. When he gestured out toward the horizon, mentioning the pollution of the coastal waters, the permanent demise of reef life, I felt a deep sadness well up. I asked to change the subject. This flummoxed him. He turned away, his delicately bearded profile catching the city light and embossing upon the meager, hazy distance like a souvenir photograph. That is how I knew that he had some emotional demand that I didn't want to know anything about.

At lunchtime, I walk down the street to Diego's convenience store where I buy something microwavable. Diego keeps all the meals in the same ice chest. There's a great variety of pot pies and turkey dinners and dishes people ate during the 50s as they watched Leave It To Beaver. The ice around the walls is permafrost. And then I return, running my little circle jerk in the afternoon or on alternate days doing one-on-one counseling for men and women who will not admit defeat.

These are the rudiments of my life at Taft House. When Erich H. arrives I am 39 years old and in the middle of separating from my husband. I eat a frozen meal everyday from Diego's. I do not aspire to travel. I enjoy reading in cool, open spaces like museums, churches and City Hall. I like the idea of the 1930s and 40s. I like a man's hands. I like washing the dishes and watching birds make their nests in clogged gutters. I don't vote. I don't watch what I eat. I have stopped craving sex like they say you are supposed to crave it. Sometimes I take drives in the LA hills where, hunkered between golden, grassy mounds, I feel an indescribable sense of peace. I realize that I have been seeking this peace all my life. Sometimes I didn't know that I was seeking it, but I was, always.

5.

I met Bradley Sucomb at Jennifer's wedding. Jennifer married Ted who had this thing with his voice, with breath control and posture. He was often smiling, his mouth flung wide in delight, the saliva on the inside of his cheeks like the waters of a southern sea laughing up at the sun. He and his groomsmen wore different color silk cumberbunds that reminded me of the 1001 Nights. I imagined them on horseback riding out from the secret cave, out to rape and pillage. Ted enunciated his vows and as he did so, I felt as if the world congratulated him in inverse proportions to the way in which my patients perceived themselves punished.

The contrived nature of Ted's Alexander Technique and my own failed marriage made me briefly question if my patient Erich H. wasn't right. The World of Teds did not specifically seek to crush an Erich H.. Crushing Erichs is just what Teds do. But then I brushed aside my brain and saw that both Jennifer and Ted were weeping on the altar and there was an open bar. After that, everything happened quickly. I found myself swept up. In those days, whenever I drank I drank Stingrays, their rummy sweetness leaving me in need of sangria, beer, anything to wash away the tropical undertow, depositing me on firm ground waiting for a car somewhere or back at home again in the muffled, ringing silence.

As the day turned to evening, I found myself on the beach with Ted's groomsmen. Although, I was friends with Jennifer, I gravitated to Ted's old college buddies. They were silent like me. They undid their ties, unbuttoned their shirts, and in the remaining refracted haze marched down to the clammy sea entirely naked as if to prove a point, to remind themselves of who they really were beneath their clothes. My former me would have congratulated such audacity, but now in the gesture I saw them reveal their inner Erich H.. When they returned from their swim, cocks dangling, I felt like a spartan maiden cultivated by glossy nudity into the simplistic philosophy of live or die. It felt good. I did not like that it felt good because I knew I was repeating an old pattern. We passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels.

"It's not like you would die for each other, right?" I asked, inexplicably, drunkenly. "It's not like you would even put yourselves in that position."

"Maybe that's the secret," said James, his voice carrying the pretentious steel melody of a knife cutting lies as Ted spoke with the rounded fullness of an ancient Athenian orator establishing truth. "We don't allow each other to assume that posture."

"But you've never even experienced failure," I said, chortling in my booze. After all, were they not all Harvard business school graduates? White, male, handsome, the mold of man? What transitory, laughable form could such failure take or, rather, fake? They grew cold to me, or at least I thought they did. They read in my comment my own inevitable decline. I did not play ball. Although I was a woman, the one they selected out of a slew of women on the basis of my taciturn drunkenness, they circled their wagons. All their impulses seemed crystal clear. We lit a fire. Someone rolled a joint. The joint sealed the quiet, subtle sanctimony of the circle of those men.

6.

Erich H. cannot cultivate such postures. That is part of the problem. Once his inner dictator rediscovered early childhood's outrage, he could not process the accompanying series of events leading him to me today, his face raw from a new bic shave. He spits a wad of phlegm into my waste paper basket, tucks his finger into his nose, withdraws and glances at it as if unobserved. "People suck!" he raves. "They just suck! And once you've given them everything you have had they will throw you out like garbage."

"But what about the drugs? What about taking care of yourself?"

"A little powder?!" he says in askance. "It's only a little pleasure in a shit fuck world."

I dream about Erich H. I dream he walks on a conveyor belt designed to carry luggage. One side of the conveyance represents the baggage of his father and the other the baggage of his mother.

"There are other ways of getting pleasure out of life," I say.

"If there are, I haven't seen any of them," says Erich H. "Did you know that Freud hated women? That your entire profession is founded on German Jewish misogyny?"

In another century, maybe Erich H. would be a bohemian revolutionary. Or maybe a court charlatan. Rasputin.

"There are many branches of psychology. Much of Freud's theories are now taken with a grain of salt."

"He thought all men want to fuck their mothers and kill their fathers."

Erich H. often puts things in the starkest terms.

"It seems like the things in your life have made you so unhappy."

"Not things, people. People suuuuuuck," says Erich H. elongating the word suck to emphasize an irrational certainty that reminds me of a prayer.

"Is there anything you can remember outside of people and writing that has made you happy in life, that provided you with any peace?"

"I don't know. Good question," Erich H. smiles upon me and a rainbow stretches from one mountain peak to another. That's the way it is with addicts. They pound your zone with rage and remorse until they lob a soft smile, opening you up, making you feel as if you have achieved something. "Let me think. When I was in college, I took some Astronomy classes. I really liked them."

"Why didn't you stick with it?"

"I don't know. Maybe I should have."

"Would you like some Astronomy books to read?"

"Get me some Astronomy books!" says Erich H. re-voicing my question in the form of a demand.

Erich H. does not come from an abusive family. As far as I know, whatever marriages he had collapsed of their own accord. His suffering is common. His error is common. the pain that fed it precluded the safety of decorous silence enjoyed by some. He is unstrung. I write "diagnosis: unstrung" in my Blackberry as I shop for Astronomy textbooks at the UCLA bookstore. He cracks open the first one I give him and starts to cry.

"It's so fucked up."

"What is?"

"Life."

It is 11:30. I release him to recreate and walk down to Deigo's to the frozen food chest. I root through the roaring cold. I select something and bring it up. There is a pleasant ease, a generous grace to this simple act. Tomorrow, Saturday, I have a meeting with my soon-to-be ex husband Bradley. That night I dream of the treadmill. It is the baggage carousel at LAX. I do not want to depart, but I must. I don't know where I am going. I have my tickets.

7.

"Can't we talk it over?" asks Bradley Sucomb my ex, phrasing the question as if further negotiation is only absurdly reasonable.

"We've already discussed this Bradley. There's nothing to discuss. We're meeting here today to agree upon the final details of our divorce. Pure and simple."

We sit in the outdoor patio seating of a TGI Fridays. The sunlight is too harsh and illuminates the gross foods too cleanly so that there can be little doubt of our own piggish appetites. I want Diego's frozen food chest, the echoing cleanliness of City Hall.

"Haven't I been good to you?" he asks me, his strong jaw hovering above the steak fajitas, pronouncing above the death of cattle.

"Brad, we aren't here to discuss what you are or aren't, but to simply resolve on these details."

"That is so like you! Clinical to the last drop."

I pause. The reason why I chose to meet in a public location was to avoid a scene. I understand the parallels. There is no reason to engage, and yet I prove human.

"Are you still seeing them?"

"No! No! I am not still seeing them. One! I am seeing one of them but only because she needs the support."

I lean back in my chair.

"Can't you see I'm nothing without you?" he asks. "I'm a mess. I need you to come home to. I need you to make love to."

I see the depth of his psychosis unfurl like a jumbo American flag at a used car dealership.

"Brad, you need help."

"I know, can you help me?"

"I can't help you."

"Dammit Sarah! Why do you have to be that way," he coaxes. "Can't you see, everything I did I did for you? I, look, I gave you everything! Even now, this, this. This is from me to you. I give you me."

Bradley Sucomb is Ted Lambert is Erik H. ad infinitum. I look around me, at the little Erichs and Erikas digging into their smelly platters. The only thing left is observation and very dry commentary. I boil down into an eye observing Bradley Sucomb shedding his vexatious tear. I love you.

"I don't think you know what that means," I say.

Our transformation into half lives completes itself among potted azaleas. He reaches out his broad hand from across the table.

"God damn it!" his facial expression betrays its underpinning of wrath, a wrathful inner tyrant. So, there you are.

"I mean, please! Please come back to me! Take my hand! Can't you just take my hand?!"

8.

"I'm an astronomer now!" Erich H. enthuses. "You know what I do all day? I read about the stars and about planets and light spectra and nebulae, the cosmic wombs. How cool is that?"

We sit around my desk as we always do when I think back on us, Erich and I.

"Pretty cool," I say.

"Damn straight!"

Some may call him an inverted narcissist, but I like to think of him as a little boy.

"So, what are you going to do when you get out of here?"

"Get out? I don't want to get out! I want to stay here and read. It's a great reading place."

"Maybe you could study astronomy at the community college? Plenty of older people going back."

"Study? What do you think I'm doing here? I am studying. I read two or three of these books a week. You keep buying them and I keep reading them. That's what we've got going on around here. You buy the books and I read them. We're a team."

"But you know, Erich, my job is to help you with your problems so that you can rejoin society."

"Society? Who needs society? Listen, can't I have something? Can't I have this? All I want to do is to sit around, read about Astronomy and smoke cigarettes. What's so bad about that?"

"That may be the case, but we can't keep you hear indefinitely."

"Why can't you? I mean, things are going so good! I'm the model inmate! I help with the chores and in the kitchen. Why replace me? Why not get more of me to populate this fine Bellevue?"

"You know it can't be that way."

"Why not? Why can't it be?"

Reaching my hand into the ice chest, I am cleansed of his flame. He was but a little loved spark. Once years ago a mother loved his spark until it turned into a flame, and the boy became a proud man that took from life as he had been taught to take. And for whatever reason a part of his child self remained. The screaming part. The self is problematic. People are problematic. Not just some: all. I want someone with whom I can share the little delights of Diego's ice chest. I do not want to travel. I want to stay. I want to sit in silence.

"Maybe this is something you could pursue once you get out?"

"Don't you understand? I don't want to get out! I want to stay right here, OK?"

"Erich. Listen. You can stay here for the time being, but I'm not going to bring you any more books until we start having a conversation."

"Do we have to go through all of this again?"

"A conversation about your drug addiction."

"Oh, please, OK. What do you want me to say?"

"I don't want you to say anything."

"Do you want me to say I'm sorry? OK. I'm sorry. Write that down. I'm sorry."

"Your drug addiction took your life away from you. It took everything you had."

"My drug addiction," he mocked. "All the sainted platitudes of psychotherapy. Did you know that Freud hated women?"

"You've mentioned that before."

"He thought all men want to fuck their mothers and kill their fathers."

"Yeah, you've mentioned that."

"My addiction. It's just a little powder. Can't I have some pleasure? Can't I have something?"

"But look, here you are. You ended up here on your own."

"I know!" he shouted, his face assuming its expression of wrath. "What do you want me to say? I know! I fucked up, OK? Now, can we talk about something else? Can we please talk about something else?"

For as long as he was there, Erich H. did not crack. We released him, begging to stay. For a long time, he stood out on the street by his box of astronomy books pacing and cursing. He did not know what to do. I did not want to give him a ride to the shelter because I did not want him in my personal space like I did not want Bradley Sucomb in my personal space like I didn't want to know anything more about Dr. Hamm and his environmental worries. I felt that I had given everyone so much time and that I no longer owed anyone my company. I gave everything. All mundane pain is more or less the same tangled web of self-propagating illusion. The thing about giving is there is always more left to give; there are always different ways to give.

Finally, Erich H. migrated to the park up the street. Several weeks later, he waved to me up the little hill beneath the looming Cyprus trees. He smiled at me. I guess he had been sleeping up there, star gazing. I felt a crippling feeling of connection in that smile. I waved back. It was all I could do. I knew that he was in one of his generous moods in which he wanted to speak to me about astronomy. Perhaps my mistake was always using those moments to discuss his darker side. At which point Erich H. would always say, "Do we have to discuss this now?"

Do we have to discuss this? Many men and women ride that refrain through lives of disturbed monetary and social success. The ones who crack are both lucky and in danger. Seeing how things really work is not fun. It is illuminating. Not everyone is capable of processing the information. Not my ex husband and not Erich H..

Thursday, February 2, 2012

New York is a city that still exists

New York is stuck in the shape of a mid 20th century vacation spot. Its chief allure for those who can recognize it is its anachronism, its chief attractions are objects and forms of the past, dilapidated and old that somehow still exist.

Of course, first stop for any tourist is Broadway. Broadway has a naturally mid 20th century feel. The heart of the attraction is a ritualistic observance of the past.



Fun!

Most great cities have nostalgic qualities. The difference between New York and London is that London is obviously very historical and very aware of this.

New York doesn't recognize what is and isn't historical about itself.

The older districts of New York don't have a historical feel. History does not append easily to them because it is as if the intervening years don't exist. They possess a unique feel: the feel of places that somehow still exist. They aren't necessarily rundown, but are literally as they were.



Coney Island Ave. possesses the mercantile atmosphere of another decade:



Most world cities possess some kind of futuristic exhibitive part of town. Take for example Berlin's Potsdammer Platz. Once riven by the Berlin wall, Potsdammer Platz set the tone for the 21st century.



In New York City, the chief structure setting the tone for the future is sadly and unavoidably a commemorative obelisk. But this fits the general tone of New York: the mournful quality that comes from failing to fully emerge from the past.






Entering the subway late at night feels like stepping into a set from Death Wish.




Another emblematic section of town is Cony Island. Everyone knows about the controversy of the old, dilapidated amusement park that is as much a part of New York as anything. Keep it? Or tear the whole thing down! There is no middle ground. Perhaps another city would resolve to invest some money in the area, to commit to some renovation. I can't imagine Seattle tearing down Pike Place Market.

To tear down the old amusement park and put up chintzy condos. This makes sense only in a situation where people are literally living in the past.



Also, New Yorkers like old time schemes. "We'll make a fortune in real estate, Frankie, just think!" It makes them feel like they are world wise movers and shakers with lots of new fangled modern ideas.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I ran into them years later



Dave

I ran into Dave years later in the financial district McDonalds. When I asked him what he had been up to, he said that he had been in space.

"In space?"

"Yeah, the international space station."

He said that he had been the supply officer, which meant that his primary task was to take care of the supplies. They launched him from Kazakstan.

We dug into our meals, him the quarter pounder value meal with a side of Chicken McNuggets and a large cola, and me the value menue cheesburger and a glass of water.

"Wow, what are you doing here?" I asked him.

"You can only do that kind of work for several years. It's like you're a gymnast. You're training really hard, and then after you just can't work your way back up to that peak performance level."

"Wow, that's insane," I said.

"Being in space takes a lot out of you. It's not natural."

Dave was looking fairly prosperous, with a nice button down shirt and slacks. I noticed some graying by the temples. I knew he had been a hard worker, but I never imagined he would ever go to space.

"Good luck with everything!" he said after he was finished.

Lance

I ran into Lance years later on the Q train.

"Lance, is that you?"

I couldn't believe it.

"Garret?" he asked.

Lance, someone I knew from Margaret Perrywinkle's Academy for the Exceptional had gained, like, 300 pounds. His ass was spilling over three seats. Plus, he was wearing a swiss alpiners hat with a big peacock feather sticking out of the brim. He had an amazing handlebar mustache and a long beard that had been waxed into a sharp tip. Aside from that, he was dressed in a fairly nice suit.

"Wow." I said.

Since the train was largely depopulated, we were free to talk. Lance was just returning to Manhattan from his warehouse in Sheapshead Bay. Turns out, he made a fortune in the manufacture of Swiss alpiners hats made by unemployable hassidic Jewish religious fanatics.

"You know what the secret to work is? Do what you love..." he said.

"And so you love hats."

"Not just any hats," said Lance, "Fine crafted swiss alpine hats made by the hands of fanatical Jews."

"Wow," I said.

I had to get off in canal street to buy dollar dumplings. Lance said that he was taking the train up to the upper east side where he had an expensive apartment. He declined to give me his phone number, but said that we might bump into each other again.

I was bowled over. I watched as the train departed, Lance, larger than life surrounded by everyday people.

Steve

I ran into Steve years later, if you will believe it, while I was at on a layover in Salt Lake city on my way to visit my mother.

"Dude, check this out."

He showed me a picture of his wife.

His wife was a knockout.

Steve was just someone I knew for some reason. I'm not sure why. It was as if the sole purpose of my previous experience with him was to establish the basis for our chance encounter in the Salt Lake airport.

"I, like, buy her plastic surgery. She'll get anything done I ask."

"Really?"

"When we met, she was just average looking, but I got her a boob job, a butt job, a nose job..."

"You basically got her all the jobs."

"I got her all the jobs, and now look at her."

She was really good looking. Steve had a bunch of pictures of her in his wallet. There was a picture of her in a swimsuit on the beach, a picture of her taken from behind walking through the streets of some city.

"She likes it," Steve said.

"Likes what?"

"Likes body modification. Were thinking about getting more extreme."

"Wow," I said.

"That's my flight. Good luck with everything!"

I watched Steve board his flight to Miami. He was looking good.

***

At some point in my 30s, I began to bump into all sorts of people. One thing these encounters had in common was that the people told me what they were doing, but never asked me what I had been doing. Was I just a good listener or something?


Susan

I bumped into Susan years later in the Union Square Barnes and Noble. We were both browsing the biography section.

"I'm actually looking for my book," she said.

It turns out that Susan had become the world's foremost authority on Alice B. Toklas.

"Here it is," she said.

The book was called, "Being Toklas."

"Wow," I said. "Impressive."

"I'm actually lecturing at the Sorbonne right now. Columbia has me lecturing out here. I've done more traveling this year than ever. I'm so sick of airports. Did you know Scott and I are married?"

"Scott?"

"Yeah, Scott Swank?"

So, she married Scott Swank, another person I knew. I had no idea.

"We have seven adopted Chinese children now," she said. "Scott has immobile sperm. Read my book!"

Then, without saying goodbye, she turned and walked away. Wow, I thought. It felt like she was the barer of news about her life that was at once commonplace and yet mildly mind blowing.

B.J.

I was somewhere, some kind of theater in the round. It was dark, except for the stage. There was a guy on the stage sticking needles through his face. Then I realized, it was B.J.!

His act was an extreme must see. Lots of needles, some feces, blood, pool balls. According to the flier, he had spent years in Amsterdam. He had come straight from Amsterdam to New York.

I waited outside to say hello. "B.J.!" I shouted as he passed, draped in some kind of white silky material.

He didn't recognize me or if he did, he simply had no time to say hello as he was bundled into a limo and swallowed up by the city.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Lunch With The Poet Bryzynsky: A One Act




Characters:

Bryzynsky
The Man
Giuseppe the Wine Merchant
Young Man
Young Man's Girlfriend
Pizza Maker 1
Pizza Maker 2

(Wide angle shot of a New York City neighborhood from the air. It is day. A Gershwin clarinet initiates, somewhat ironically abates. Camera, awkwardly, rapidly pans in on a single window, travels through the window, zeros in on a man in his underwear laying on a fetid mattress leaning up against the wall drinking from a bottle of wine. The room is chaos, a sea of bottles and clothes. The walls are bare.)

Man (thinking): I was living in a fleabag C street apartment, driving a yellow cab and drinking during my days off. They had this wine for sale down the street at Giuseppe's. IL Primitivo. Giuseppe had a limitless supply he kept in crates in the back. He showed them to me. "IL Primitivo, look!" he said. It had an almost too sweet start that suddenly dried up like a conversation with a woman you meet somewhere. Then once you think the interaction is over, there's this light bluecheese aftertaste, like an unexpected touch to chase away the long, dead years.

(The man takes a drink from the bottle. Camera pans in on the bottles label. IL Primitivo. The man wipes his mouth with his sleeve, stands, puts on a his pants which are lying on the floor the belt still attached, puts on a jacket over the incredibly filthy, wine stained undershirt and walks out into the steamy New York late morning.)

Man (narrating): I was going to meet my old NYU dorm mate Byrzynsky. Over the last 12 years, Bryzynsky has become something of a celebrity, very much as I have become an undiscovered country unto myself. It's funny what life hands you. I used to think I was more or less in control, but not anymore. You aren't in control of any of this shit.

(Man walks down the street, enters the subway, sits waiting on one of the wooden seats below. The woman sitting next to him gets up and moves severals seats down. The train comes...)

Man (on the train, thinking): We haven't seen each other in five years. I wonder if it will be awkward. I wonder if I look horrible.

(Man exits the train at Avenue J, passes out onto the street, joins Bryzynsky in line at De Farra's Pizza.)

Man: Is this the line?

Byrzynzky: Did I ever tell you about lines during the Soviet Period?

(Byrzynsky is tall, with long dark hair and a beard. Hip. Designer jeans with, a mid length coat, a gray scarf. An Eastern European intellectual dandy, with that macho Eastern European edge.)

Man: Maybe. It's been a while.

Byrzynsky: The idea wasn't so much as to produce a sense of order as it was to see how long the line could get. It was like the game Snake Xenia. Do you have Snake Xenia on your phone?

(Man digs out his old phone)

Man: Yeah. Snake.

Byrzynsky: The Snake Xenia: she is a female snake: that is her name: gets longer and longer until the only way she can continue to survive is to make a spiral starting at the outskirts and spiral in on the last morsel she will eat just before she eat's her own tail, and at that point the game will presumably end.

Man: What happens at that point? Do you win?

Byrzynsky: I've never gotten that far. It's all theoretical, like the end of time, or alchemy, or maybe communism. It's like communism. It's as if the game itself -- the totalitarian structure which is the programming -- ironically mimics in the architecture of the snake's journey the phone's ultimate fate: the fate of the obsolete technology circling down the historical whirlpool toward Fresh Kills. Have you been to Fresh Kills?

Man: The dump out on Staten Island? No.

Bryzynsky: After I published my first book of poems, caused the sensation and did the Larry King interview and all that, I started going out there. You take the train out there for as long as you can ride and then you get off and walk down this long road through the forest. There is no sense whatsoever that you are approaching the world's largest garbage pile. And then you start seeing seagulls everywhere swooping in, ane the forest is littered with stray plastic bags and broken television sets presumably people discard as if they can't tell where is the dump and where is nature.

Man: Why did you start going out there?

Bryzynsky: I don't know, man. To get away. I think at that stage I needed a journey from the familiar to the totally unknown, and there is nothing like this place. It's like: the end of the world. Like our own collective destiny. Piles and piles of trash. Of course they don't let you into the main garbage city, but they allow you to prowl the outskirts with the rest of the garbage lovers.

Man: Garbage lovers?

Bryzynsky: Or scavengers or whatever. Fresh kills attracts all types. You'd be surprised. Lots of Swedish tourists for some reason.

Man: Swedish?

Bryzynsky: Yes, Swedish. The Swedes are for some reason fascinated by Fresh Kills. Just find a Swede, say Fresh Kills and you'll start a whole conversation, they'll be like 'oh, that place! I love that place! It is the most American place!'. And then there are the scavengers, the metal detector crowd. Don't talk to those guys! They don't like it when they are interrupted because they are always just on the cusp of finding diamonds in the trash, gold, I don't know what. And then there are the people like me who go there to think.

Man: Are there lots of people who go there to think?

Bryzynsky: Eliot Spitzer

Man: Really?

Bryzynsky: I once met Eliot Spitzer out there, but he ran away when I recognized him.

(They enter the perfumed and sonorous atmosphere of De Farra's where those two guys, their eyes clouded by staring at pizzas too long, take their order.)

Man: what would you like Byrzynsky? A square pie or circular pie?

Byrzynsky: Pizza should be circular, don't you think? The dough naturally wants to take the shape of the circle. But why don't we go against the grain today and experiment with the square? Break the routine, eh? Shoot for shocking geometries. Let's have him make us a Octagon.

Man: I don't think they do that.

Bryzynsky: How do you know?

Man (to Byrzynsky): I wonder if they have any wine. (to the pizza man) Do you have any Il Primitivo wine?

Pizza man: Il Primitivo???

Man: never mind.

Byrzynsky: It's OK. You could use a release from alcohol. It's a cage, you know.

Man: I've never thought of it that way. More of a crutch. At times a pillow.

(They sit down at one of the little tables. They are surrounded by people eating pizza.)

Byrzynsky: Most things in life are like that. Liminal holding cells between one state and the next. I write about this in Flozinksy.

Man: I haven't read that.

Bryzynsky: You haven't read Flozinsky? He is this kind of Blakean God, except that he is a post-modern and lives his life inside a blue jelly bean.

Man: Liminal.

Byrzynsky: Lets extend the metaphor, shall we? You have made love to a beautiful woman and you are exhausted. Spent. It hasn't just been good: it's been great, OK? You've found your zone where control and lack of control meet and time stops like out at Fresh Kills dump, OK? Then, you lay there smoking your cigarette or joint or whatever you like to smoke during that time as you wait for your desire to rejuvenate. Recently, I have begun to smoke a pipe.

Man: what?

Byrzynsky: A pipe. (he takes a pipe out of his inside jacket pocket) I take out my pipe and have a smoke.

Man: In bed?

Byrzynsky: Yes!

Pizza man: Sicilian Square.

Man: I'll get it. (Gets the pizza, brings it back)

Bryzynsky: Did I ever tell you the story of my first poem?

Man: No. Not that I can recall.

Bryzynsky: Well, I was seven years old, living in, this pizza's really good! living in Poland. You know, that is where I am from. Poland. I am Polish.

Man: yes, I do know that. It's on the back of all your books. From Poland. Polish.

Bryzynsky: Yes, and so it is, and so it is. Well, we were quite poor in those days. My father was an engineer, and in those days being an engineer meant nothing, and my mother worked in a thimble factory. All the thimbles in the eastern block came from this factory. That was the decadent thing about the planned economy. They planned to have all the thimbles in the world produced in one factory. All the cameras or watches or whatever were produced somewhere else.

Man: Like Willy Wonka.

Bryzynsky: Yes! The Soviets would have approved of Willy Wonka's world wide schemes.

Man: All the candy comes from one place, the socks from someplace else. It is excessive. Clearly the workings of an addictive personality.

Bryzynsky: When I was a little kid I would go and I would look at the thimbles tumblling down these fantastic, science fiction like tubes and shoots, and it was like an amusement park for me. Going to the thimble factory was my favorite thing in the world. And we aren't talking about a little tiny factory here: some micro brewery. This was totally macro: like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory -- almost a metaphore, but not, stretching on and on forever and ever like Snake Xenia at the moment of her death or rebirth: the hypothetical end state, the dream, the veil.

Man: Bizarre

Bryzynsky: Imagine the difference of a Soviet and American childhood! On the one hand you've got thimbles: these little things women put over their fingers when they are sewing, and then on the other hand you've got these video games or whatever, the guts spilling out, the Japaneseness. Meanwhile, I was growing up in these extremely spare surroundings which were nevertheless somehow connected with infinity. Everything was stripped back, bare revealing the cosmic forces. We of course lived on the outskirts in one of those old Krushchev era complexes that were once sparkling white epitomes but became gray and sooty. The paneling attracts the soot turning them into these blackened depressing monoliths. But for a kid, I remember being quite happy, playing in the little courtyard with the other kids, although we did not play on the spider but around it, hunting cats with slingshots and setting traps for drunks whose routines we had memorized.

Well, and so I think it was at this time, around 7 years old.

See, this is when I became a poet: this is when I new I was a poet. It was all connected with the falling out of my parents -- my father was having an affair with a Lithuanian prostitute named Milda -- I learned her name when my mother shouted it, shouted this strange name again and again, Milda! Milda! It's Milda! Is it Milda?! Milda!

Man: Is it Milda?

Bryzynsky: So, anyway, I don't know what it was, but all of a sudden the idea of death as void, as nothing which it certainly is, hit me. I just couldn't wrap my mind around it, here today, gone tomorrow, and not just gone but forever wiped off the face of existence! The concept terrified me. It was all I could think about. I stopped playing with the other children and spent all my time in the dirty stairwell contemplating the void. My world was shaken. This pizza is delicious. Oily.

Man: Fresh basil.

Bryzynsky: Yes, the basil! I think we all must eat more basil. Basil on everything. And it was as if all of nature could sense my thoughts, my powerful awareness of oblivion, and at school the other children one by one began to forsake me. It was as if they wanted no part of the stark realities I was grappling with.

So, coming home after school, the apartment full of my parents screaming, the only place left for me was the stairwell. And the only other living creatures in the stairwell were the ravens that would fly through the broken window on the top floor and scavenge in the garbage bags people left out by the clogged garbage shoot. Have you observed ravens?

Man: just crows and pigeons.

Bryzynsky: If you haven't observed Ravens before, you don't know how intelligent these creatures are. They are feeling creatures. They think. They observe. Watching the ravens, I felt soothed by their presence. There lives were as fleeting as mine, and once more, I was practically sure they knew what I was going through. In fact, I got the sense that that was why they were ravens! As if their intimate knowledge of destruction had led them to incarnate themselves as little black bird men, little philosophers thoughtfully pacing around the eternal winter of communist Poland. The ravens knew! I knew they knew because they would actually come right up to me and gently peck like this at my raggedy old sweater produced in Bratislava because that is where all the sweaters came from. For some reason the pecking of the ravens soothed me, and so I took out my bit of chalk and wrote a poem on the wall, next to the scrawled phone numbers of prostitutes. Perhaps Milda's number was among them.

Man: What was the poem about?

Bryzynsky: well, it was actually a dirty limerick.

Man: Interesting. So your own first poetic impulse was lewd.

Bryzynsky: It was a protest. I wrote it as if controlling my own actions from a distance. The idea of writing a poem, much less a dirty one, had not been on my childish agenda, never. I never considered the idea of writing a poem, of even writing anything unforced, for pleasure, for myself. Up until that point I had never really considered anything except the void which I had only lately begun to obsess over. And now I was writing a poem and I had this massive erection, or at least whatever it was in those days. And now ever since, I know that I am writing a good poem when I get a...

Man: I see.

Bryzynsky: An erection, a stiffy, a boner. What do you call it?

Man: I see. So, what have you been doing with yourself? You've attained such notoriety. I'm really impressed.

Bryzynsky: This last week, me and my girlfriend, my girlfriend and I, you know Serena...

Man: How could I not. Serena James. English super model. She's absolutely beautiful.

Bryzynsky: Yes, she's gorgeous, isn't she? Serena and I visited Omaha for a fashion show. We found the domestic flight so odd. Even in first class, it felt like one of those long bus journeys you take when you are 13 and have absolutely no money and are being shifted to spend the summer with some relative in Massachusetts or somewhere, and so you ride through the great American no where, and the detritus of fast food wrappers and water bottles begins to build up around you. Well, United Airlines was very much the same thing; like the re initiation of some uncomfortable American journey you thought you had escaped long ago but never did because you were always on the journey, down around the rim of the theoretical gravity well. Like Snake Xenia. It was so odd. We felt odd. We looked odd. I mean, look at me. I'm not exactly normal looking. I'm 6 foot 7 and most days I wear Armani, and Serena, well, as you know she is quite stunning, and she was wearing these Louis Vuitton shoes, very catty, very sexy. Did you know she is only 45 kilos.

Man: 45?

Bryzynsky: Yes, 45! She is like a leaf. And so I am with this mantis-like woman riding a flying, accumulating garbage pile, and we felt like we were slumming it, really, and all of a sudden, mutually, we wanted to make love.

Man: how did you know?

Bryzynsky: We have this thing. This radar for each other. It's really weird. We know.

Man: Love radar.

Byrzynsky: Yes, love radar. The question wasn't, did we want to make love? But, where were we going to do it? Were we going to join the mile high club? I never thought of this sort of thing. I've never had the passion that makes you want to make love in unusual locations, although some people feel that way like they want to make love in the movies or on the bus and that's OK! I don't judge them, but I myself have never felt that way and so casually, as a joke I made reference to it -- reference to the mile high club -- and the flight attendant, someone named Courtney or Cody or Casey: one of those names that can go either way depending on which state you are from, actually motioned with her head, did a little head jerk toward the bathroom.

Man: No way.

Bryzynsky: It was absolutely scandalous! That's what it felt like: like we had discovered the hidden scandal of the United Airlines. We made love standing up in the United Airlines airplane toilet, Serena's legs with those sexy shoes up by my ears, and then after I covered the smoke detector with my Fedora with one hand and smoked my pipe with the other.

Man: Are you serious?

Bryzynsky: Yes! And then after, when we were leaving, the flight attendants invited us to some thing, an orgy they were planning in their hotel room in Omaha. But after we left the airport and were driving to the city, it was like all of a sudden the weight of the universe descended, and we just broke down in each other's arms in the back of the limo crying. And then, after checking into the Hilton, We broke down again. Guess where?

Man: I don't know.

Bryzynsky: The Hilton stairwell!

Man: what? Oh, the stairwell. Were there birds?

(Young man approaches with his girlfriend.)

Young man: Excuse me, but are you Stanislaus Bryzynsky?

Bryzynsky: Yes, yes I am in fact.

Young man: No way. Could you autograph our pizza box?

Bryzynsky: Sure, why not, I'd be happy to. (takes the pen and signs their pizza box.

Young man: I love Flozinsky.

Bryzynsky: Flozinsky.

Young man: Flozinsky (Byrzynsky and the young man stare at each other as if they have just uttered a password).

Bryzynsky: People love Flozinsky. You know what the secret is? It's the name! The word flow coupled with a Slavic ending zinsky.

Man: Is it all that superficial?

Byrzysnky (shrugs): You know what my favorite part of the female anatomy is? The back. I think it's because the back has the biggest surface area, and a nude back reveals so much by revealing so little, and it is also like a man's back: let's be frank, a back is more or less a back, except for the subtle refinements which make it dramatically different: the slight tapering, and then the soft quality of female skin as opposed to male skin. The delicacy of the shoulder blades, the spine. Nothing captures the absence of maleness so totally and so suddenly.

Man:I kind of feel like I've slipped through.

Bryzynsky: That's a very poetic conceit.

Man: You think so?

Bryzynsky: What happened to your poetry?

Man: what poetry?

Bryzynsky: Didn't you write poetry? I always thought you wrote poetry, or intended to write poetry.

Man: I was an economics major.

Bryzynsky: Really?

Man: Yeah.

Bryzynsky: Shall I get the check? Let me pay!

Man: We could split it.

Bryzynsky: Ok, let's split it.

(Wide angled shot of Bryzynsky and the man standing out in front of De Farra's Pizza. We can't hear what they stay but they exchange parting words. The next moment we see the man leaning his head up against the window of the train. The camera focuses in on the man's glasses reflecting the setting sun from out the windows of the train. You see him exit the train in Manhattan, walk to the wine shop and buy two bottles of Il Primitovo from Guiseppi and then walk home. On the way home through the dusky city, the man recites in his thoughts the last few lines of the Dylan Thomas poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion". He speaks slowly, sadly, as if he is deeply familiar with the lines, caressing their every cadence...

No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down...)

The End