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Monthly Archives: January 2012


Image Source: Joel Meyerowitz

I dream at night, before sleep. In the dark, in bed next to the window, with the cruel, frigid winter night seeping in, I dream that the sound of the snow-blower is really the sound of a lawnmower, and that the sound of the whipping wind is really the sound of the surf. The cold tapping on the thin window is really a gentle afternoon sea breeze, wafting over the dunes to cool skin exposed to too much summer sun. I dream, and the endless winter becomes easier to bear.

I dream of the cabin, tucked just inside the dunes, not offering ocean views. I can’t see the surf from my bedroom, but I hear it, a mere two-minute walk away. And I hear the surf in the winter wind howling two inches outside my bed. The waves are just out of reach, but they are there. I dream of summers in the cabin, on the beach, laying in the sun, rolling in the cool water, the breakers crashing over our bodies as we lie naked before the world, before the summer. I dream of lying in bed at the cabin, the waves crashing, the windows open to a gentle warm breeze.

I dream of hair wet and matted with ocean water, and skin sticky with ice cream and slick with lotion. I smell salt and sweat and campfires and taste salt-water taffy and freedom, from school, from obligation, from our normal system of structure and routine. I taste and smell and feel the freedom of an entire summer next to the pounding waves.

And all winter the dreams of summer are just out of reach. But I dream, and the winter fades and the summer calls and the dreams of freedom see me to sleep and place me another day closer…

"Man's Best Friend"
Image Source: Meredith Kleiber

It’s a racket, ya know? Like any other job, really. Lots of people get in here, they expect Travis Bickle an’ gun fights an’ crazy stuff, but it ain’t like that. Nine out of ten fares, nothin’ happens. I pick people up, take ‘em where they wanna go, they pay me, an’ that’s it. Nine out of ten fares.

Most of my fares are real nice. Sure, I get plenty of obnoxious drunks, an’ rich old ladies that come in with a superior attitude. But for the most part it’s all uneventful. Sometimes my fares an’ I have great conversation the whole trip, an’ sometimes it’s silent the whole way. That don’t bother me. I gauge it out dependin’ on the vibe I get from the fare. They don’t want to talk, they don’t want to talk, an’ what am I gonna do? That’s fine with me, an’ I can’t take it personal-like. But it ain’t like some people think, like how people think I must spend the whole ride tryin’ to talk about every little thing an’ muttering about cheapskate fares an’ how I’m gonna drive off a bridge with a fare one of these days.

Not to say that things never get interesting, of course. I’ve been hacking nights for twelve years now, an’ just when you think you’ve seen it all, well…I ran out of gas on bridge-an’-tunnel jobs on two consecutive nights once, if you can believe that. I’ve had more near-miss bathroom experiences than I can count. An’ I once had a lady JUST missed havin’ her first-born in my back seat! Got her to the ER just in time.

An’ sometimes things can get scary. Had a guy once, got in, an’ I could tell he was tweaking. I was about to pull over an’ kick him out when he pulled a blade an’ stuck in into the back of my neck. Naturally this one night I got a cab without a partition. My insides was turning to goo, but I kept calm as I could an’ kept driving. Tough to do with a shank in your neck. I kept scanning the street, lookin’ for a spot where I could pull over an’ jump out, but all the meters was full up. An’ this guy was getting real agitated. Finally I saw a spot an’ pulled over, an’ the guy tried to make his move an’ jump me across the back seat. Let’s just say that I was glad that night that I was packing an’ knew what to do with my piece.

But like I say, that’s the exception. Nine out of ten fares, nothin’ happens. I pick up people up, take ‘em where they wanna go, they pay me, an’ that’s it. I go home in the mornin’, an’ I’m a husband and father, puttin’ my kids through school. One fare out of ten is a doozy, but for the most part it’s just a racket, like any other job, really.


Image Source: New York Times

1:17 AM: The percolator finished bubbling and Kevin Walton pulled himself away from the window to pour a cup. He had the cushiest day-job ever, working a four-hour shift schlepping credit cards, so he was free to keep whatever hours he wanted. And he was fortunate enough to have found an apartment in the back of a building, offering quiet and seclusion. It wouldn’t last, but it was perfect for the time. He often stayed up all night, listening to jazz, playing his piano and staring out the window at the action, or lack thereof, across the air shaft.

Hot night, windows open, Ellington on the stereo. “Harlem Air Shaft.” Kevin remembered a quote from The Duke that he read for an assignment in Jazz History class at U Maine Augusta. He still had it in a notebook. He found the notebook in a steamer trunk and flipped through to the page:

“Take ‘Harlem Air Shaft,’” Duke said. “So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft. You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee. A wonderful thing is that smell. An air shaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey. Guy-with-fish’s wife is a terrific cooker but the guy’s wife with the turkey is doing a sad job.” Duke laughed. “You hear people praying, fighting, snoring. Jitterbugs are jumping up and down always over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always over you. I tried to put all that in ‘Harlem Air Shaft.’”
The New Yorker, July 01, 1944, Pg. 26

Kevin read that quote several times, staring out the window at his own air shaft, listening to the song that inspired it all, amazed to be living that dream. He thought of all those times walking across the campus at UMA, with the wind tossing up cyclones of crystalline snow, heading for another warm classroom filled with music. He thought of reading that Ellington quote and how much it resonated back then, and the feeling of sitting in class and thinking of maybe having an apartment that faced an air shaft one day. And here I am…

He looked out the window at the warm summer air shaft. He heard the guy in 6B yelling at family in San Juan. He got a whiff of curry – maybe a bowl of Mulligatawny from the Indian joint down the block. Somebody was playing salsa music somewhere. The night was alive in the air shaft, as alive as the Duke had made it. And here I am…

He thought of the amazing and unknown that is serendipity, and how some things just present themselves at precisely the right time. No known reason, other than perfection. And he thought of all the moments of serendipity in his life, from far past to near, that had aligned so perfectly. And here I am…

It was one of those moments when everything solidifies, when every thought and notion and dream and plan that had come and gone before suddenly is realized and makes sense. Nothing revolutionary, but still monumental. The lonely night wore on and Kevin kept the moment close, savoring the feeling of being the most content son-of-a-bitch in the building.

Read the article that inspired this post here:

And listen to the Duke:


Image Source: Ashley Noelle

pace…pace…drag…pace…pace…drag…

Arlene McKenna felt that blissful rush of adrenaline before every show, but this time it was different. Much more pronounced. This show had been a long time coming.

pace…pace…drag…pace…pace…light a new cig with the old…stomp…pace…pace…drag…

First solo show. First step away from the band, the past, the shared legacy and the bitter end. It’s all me now…

Pace…pace…fidget….pace…

Nervous energy was nothing new, but it was always contained within the band cocoon before. Now it was all Arlene McKenna. No band to hide within, no safety net. All me, and I can. not. wait.

PACE…FIDGET…PACE…

She peeked at the crowd inside…full house. Damn, this was really happening! Arlene continued pacing, practically stomping through the sun-baked bricks of the patio outside Guthrie’s Coffee and Books. She picked up her Martin from the picnic table, strapped it on and started playing downstrokes, gently at first, not wanting to snap a string before the set, then harder and harder, finally giving in to a full Richie Havens/Pete Townshend banshee strum.

PACE! STRUM! PACE!

Arlene slowed down for some finger-picked arpeggios. House of the Rising Sun, just like when she was first learning how to play. A min, C maj, D maj, F maj…pace…A min, C maj, E maj 7…check the tuning, pace…

The past was gone …as Steven Tyler would say, ha ha… and her body of work would always be compared to what came before. But for Arlene that was the best part about stepping over the scorched earth and moving on. Then and now. Them and me. And now it’s all me.

She caught herself playing and singing the end of “Love Is All Around.” You’re gonna make it after all, da da dat daaahhhh (toss the hat, Mary!) dat! Perfect.

Now, just remember to breathe. It’s the first show. But it’s just the first. Breathe. Relax. Have fun. PACE! STRUM! STRUM! Let it flow…breathe and let it flow. It’s all yours now.

All yours…

GO GET ‘EM

Arlene McKenna stepped through the door, into her own new world, and counted off the beginning of her first set as her crowd roared.

-This piece was born late on Saturday night, 1/21/12, when Ashley Noelle asked if I could come up with a piece based around her magnificent photography. I was flattered and honored to be able to do so, and I suggest you click through and check her work out for yourself. I hope you will be as inspired. Thanks, Ashley!


Image Source: Larry Clark

You ever thought about it? Hah? Ever think you could? You ever think of how easy it would be? Just level your sights, just like you’re hanging a picture on the wall, and then a quick squeeze…easy as taking a shit in the morning, right? Hah?

Yeah, but you couldn’t do it. You got rules and order and structure. I use to have order and structure too. In boot camp. Then they handed me a fuckin’ M-16 and threw me on the front line on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Me, goddamn eighteen, fresh off a potato farm on Long Island, wasn’t old enough to pick my friggin’ nose right. And there I was, seeing my buddy’s brain explode into mush two feet from where I was just standing. Think you could handle that, tough guy? Yeah?

I humped the boonies and killed all the goddamn Cong I could while all the shit-heels in office today were getting deferments and trying to get laid on campus. Same sleazes that cut my VA benefits after their “Cost Benefit Analysis.” Welcome to the Home of the Brave, right?

Think your goddamn senator knows what it’s like to try to sleep in the shit, ten thousand miles from home, in the kind of heat that makes you feel like you’re suffocating just breathing? And not knowing when or where the next air strike is gonna come in from and who’s going to make it and who isn’t? Nah, they know all about playing records on the hi-fi and smoking dope and getting gonorrhea tests and spending daddy’s money at the mall.

They don’t know shit about me, after I came home through a shower of spit with a bullet in my thigh and the goddamn nightmares that don’t ever stop. You know what I got now?
All I goddamn got in life? I got a beer and a syringe. And a gun. That’s my life. Think you could handle that, you candy-ass punk?

And now I can’t even get a job at a Pizza Hut because they say I ain’t right in the head. Well how right in the head do you think you’d be, tough guy? Think you know how you’d handle it? Nah, you don’t have a clue. Not a damn clue, son.

And you couldn’t pull that hammer back. You couldn’t end it, for anyone else, or for yourself.

But I could…

Slight bit of hyperbole: my grandfather was not exactly the squishy type. Never mind that he drove a baby-blue Delta 88 (1979, used) with a baby-blue slipcover for the bench seat, and especially never mind that all farm work stopped every day at 2:00 PM so he could watch Another World. Other than that his default mode seemed to be exacting bastard, and seldom was heard an encouraging word.

I know he loved us (and we’ll get to that), but it was tough never feeling like anything we did around the farm was good enough. My grandmother always consoled my brother and I later, saying “Don’t mind him; his bark is worse than his bite.” But it was hard. If you were to do a mash-up of sound bites from people who played football for Vince Lombardi in Green Bay or Bear Bryant at Alabama, the running narrative would be “We hated the son-of-a-bitch’s guts, but he made us winners.” I never felt all fired up to beat the hell out of the Bears or Auburn, but I do know the feeling: I wanted to impress grandpa with everything I did.

But there were fissures in the wall.

Visits to the farm meant a wonderful haze of smoke from his Wm. Penn cigars, Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk and Dallas and The Rockford Files, all interrupted, upon his return from the kitchen, by a big Pyrex mixing bowl full of Jiffy Pop and the thwack of the peanut butter cups he would toss at us.

On snowy winter days he would be at the kitchen table, next to the woodstove, playing solitaire. While bundling up to go tobogganing, he would always offer the admonition, “Watch out for automobiles.” Always automobiles, never cars or vehicles.

He drove like a maniac, and I’m amazed we were never pulled over, or killed. Grandpa would take us the fifteen minutes into Gardiner so we could go toy shopping at Wilson’s Department Store. My grandmother would navigate, always saying, “ohhhKEY!” when there was no oncoming traffic, and those trips often turned unintentionally comical. Witness the time he bought a banana split, took one bite while driving and smoking a cigar, barked “This tastes like shit!” and flung the entire dessert out the window. Sorry, EPA.

As we were saying our goodbyes at the Portland Jetport after Christmas vacation 1982, grandpa leaned down and gave me a kiss on the forehead. You could tell he wanted to, but you could also tell he was kicking his own ass internally for doing so. But it was …nice. An all-too-rare and unexpected moment of unspoken mutual love.

The biggest crack in the armor came during his last summer, when I was twelve. It was July 13th, 1985, the day of Live Aid. I woke up on that blistering morning, turned on the Zenith and was blown away at the site of Ozzy reunited with Black Sabbath. Awesome! What a great day! Grandpa was off in the fields mowing the hay, and my brother and I spent the day rocking out. By evening, everything would be different.

He invited me along to the general store to pick up some smokes. I was feeling rather adult that day, for whatever reason, so I bought a Perrier. On the way back, I found myself becoming more adult than ever when my grandpa, the tough-as-shit bastard, said out of nowhere, “I guess I’m not much of a grandfather.” Heavy thing for a 12-year-old kid, already fragile in the presence of the speaker, to hear. I felt myself desperately trying to be adult and comfort him on his level, saying, “No, you’re doing a hell of a job!” I don’t remember the rest of the five-minute drive, the rest of the dialog, or anything else ever being said about it. And I certainly don’t remember the rest of Live Aid.

But I do remember feeling much softer toward him from then on, and I like to think that during his remaining eight months he felt a little softer toward us.

Not to get too squishy, or anything…


Image Source: Sonali Mangal

The bottle hit the floor with a thud, rather than a smash. Her hand had fallen off the side of the bed after she nodded off, long past giving up the charade of formalities and a glass, so the bottle had a short fall. But now a fine Argentine Malbec was spilling all over the floor. She got up, cleaned the mess, got back into bed and slugged back the rest, as the two hemispheres of her brain came together in hazy concentric circles. Diminishing circles, diminishing returns. It was over. All over. The last time…

A few hours later she dragged into work, dragging as always, made the call, got the reservation confirmed and left the office early. She got a ride and got dropped off. Paperwork, paperwork, more paperwork, interviews, questions, more interviews, more questions. Everything taken away, all possessions locked in storage. Hospital gown, hospital pants, hospital socks. Hospital bed with rubber mattress and ill-fitting sheets, a swing-out tray with a room temperature turkey sandwich and chips, a painting that was clearly done by a grade-school child and Jesus paraphernalia all around the room. No TV, no books. No clocks, no phone. Nothing but the sound of the ice machine across the hall and the beep of machines. Nothing but…

nothingness.

Nothing but fear and solitude. She tried to sleep, in spite of the late August afternoon sun streaming in. Then the first nurse arrived to check her vitals. And then she was strongly encouraged to go to her first optional meeting.

The room was full of kids. Not her. Kids kicking crystal meth and mainlining coke. Not her. She wasn’t that bad.

There was a woman, probably 40, who looked at least 60, with two shiners. Not her. She wasn’t that bad.

She teetered between indignant detachment and empathy.

I’m not THAT bad!

But I’m bad enough to be in…

The meeting began, two speakers, similar stories, common narratives weaving through both and connecting, touching where she was at and had been. More stories around the room, more connection, more empathy. And more indignant rage and snark since I’M NOT THAT BAD

There was an old commercial:

“Drinking made me lonely. Lonely, lonely, lonely!”

She used to laugh unmercifully at the overwrought off-off Broadway performance, but the sentiment was so true now that it was her life story, except I’m NOT that bad and the sentiment was there in all the stories being told…the same fuckin’ story over and over and OVER again and I’M NOT that bad she was able to plug her own life into the shared narratives…

not THAT bad…..

but bad enough…

Back to the rubber mattress which I’m not bad enough off to be sleeping in…(but I am), and back to the fear…loneliness…the woman with the shiners strolled in and took the next bed…she pretended to be asleep, not wanting to talk, not wanting to connect, to come to terms…nothing but silence, the silence of holding it all in and being terrified

and alone

and not that bad….right?

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