Everything happens for no reason whatsoever. Cause and effect are superstitions of a less evolved era. Whatever you call God exists all the better to do us over for fun and profit; the sad thing being that given such a sorry state of affairs, God remains among the good guys compared to the rat-bastard Republican skull-fucks (sorry, Paula--not you; you are wonderful and don't forget it) met by my colleagues and I this Summer, most of said skull-fucks embracing the logical contradiction and Manson mantra of such statements as “All life is sacred, from the first randy thought to long after cremation; hence, all terrorists must be annihilated, publicly humiliated, and pummeled in ways akin to the glorious holocaust.”
Boys and girls: wake up, and listen. The time for reactive liberalism has gone plunging down the turd pipes the other side—the smirking, sociopathic, inbreeding, evil side—slavers for your destruction and when that condition becomes inevitable—as it already has—how passive, sincere, forgiving and warm will you be when they come like a horde of rabid Reaganites to feast upon the flesh of your sons and daughters, their eyes watering over in orgiastic glee at the magnitude of the agony they get to inflict? This, friends and family, is the time of well-considered provocation, of inspired ridicule, of mean-spirited revenge in advance. The enemy lies fat and secure, snoozing in the corner, like Duncan the dumb ass.
As Spring wound down, I found myself scripting a horror-porno film called Liquid Sin. Brittany Murphy was to star as a beleaguered twenty-year-old who escapes the world’s problems by traveling to Aspen, on the outskirts of which she purchases and consumes a pre-opened package of chocolate-flavored X-Lax candies. Mistaking the laxative for a protein energy bar, she devours the bewitched contents immediately prior to ascending into the strident hills of Aspen. Once fully secluded, her bowels explode into a tributary of the Colorado River, the cool spring waters from whence Denali Bottle Water is manufacture. In short order, runners in the Rockies drinking Denali themselves transform into defecators of Liquid Sin and soon enough the entire bottled water industry is besieged by bacterially-induced M-80 compressions of chronic poison diarrhea. At long last, the President, played by Patrick Swayze, instructs furtive operative Brad Pitt to find and destroy every last liquid sin shitter, an adventure that culminates in a sexual liaison between Murphy and Pitt in which fluid feces becomes the fetish of choice.
As that idea never really caught fire, what I found instead at the Columbus, Ohio, field office of Grassroots Campaigns, an outsource engine of the Democratic National Committee, was a nice little group of people for whom I would quickly develop considerable fondness, people who believe in political solutions, who support the idea of beating Bush with a Kerry club, despite the fact that to this point, the Senator from Massachusetts continues to run on a record about as clear as a Chillicothe skyline. Most people know nothing about him, except that he stands for truth, justice, and the American free enterprise system. Personally, I don’t like the guy. Centrism empowers the right and alienates real Americans, like those of us on the left. College clearly muddled up Kerry’s thinking. Politics, he willfully fails to understand, is a visceral calling—a borborigmus, if you will—rather than an intellectual matter. This is, after all, the United States, not some well-reasoned terrorist state without borders, like, say, Halliburton.
Completely cold ass on the hot road broke, I sold all my non-essentials, along with truckloads of genuine necessities, all the better to make hasty retreat from Phoenix to Columbus, one step ahead of banks, hospitals, two ex-girlfriends, utility and cable companies, a dump truck load of grief over deceased parents, two leaps ahead of my landlord, and three dark shadows from AG Ashcroft and his pruney-lipped brown shirts. After a fifty hour drive, I cooled my motor in Ohio, where I met up with my old college chum. After two weeks sleeping in her guest room, I found myself the object of a precise analysis from this friend, who pointed out that—among other things—we weren’t in college any longer and that my abrupt change of locale was, to say the least, ill-advised. She was correct, of course, but that was hardly the point.
I interviewed with Jim of Grassroots Campaigns on June 3rd, 2004, a Thursday, in a mass meeting of six potential supporters of the DNC’s war to win back the White House. During the one-on-one interview, he assured me I would be quickly promoted to Field Manager, although for the moment I was to serve as a canvasser for contributions, launching the largest financial attack in the party’s history. Politics is big business, so big that Presidential election campaigns run in four year increments that parallel the terms of office. Over two billion dollars will be squandered in the foregone conclusion culminating this year, and while there’s no longer a need in America to legitimize the anachronistic concept of pluralism, the myth of populism somehow endures, leaving we DNC folks with some manner of employment. While our office—a facility slightly smaller than a major league ballpark—quite properly demonizes George W. Bush, we also quite properly refer to John Kerry in only the most abstract of terms, such as “Truth for a Change” and “The Real Deal.” McDonald’s has nothing on us.
Meet Jim. Fearless leader that he is, he candidly admits to voting for Bush in 2000. In the ensuing years, this Los Angeles transplant has clearly become a company man with more than a touch of big city savvy. He never complains about the miniature nature of local culture here compared to LA, probably because in the early days of our office, he and the assistant director, Kevin, have far too much work to do and haven’t yet noticed. And while Kevin is a sincere populist, Jim occasionally blurts out his over-taxed sense of authority, such as occurred one afternoon about two weeks into our adventure. Near the end of a crisp lecture on ways several of us could improve our efficiency, Jim paused, allowing Kevin to ask us if there we any criticisms we had of the office. Quick as a Hank Aaron homer, Jim snapped his head around and shouted, “That’s a stupid question!”
On my first day, ten of us set out in small groups to raise money with a plea that was, to be generous, difficult to memorize. Modestly, it seems, I raked in $75 from a combined total of five earnest contributors. Kevin, whom I observed for a couple hours, is an energized liberal from Chicago by way of DC. To my ears, his delivery of the “rap” comes a bit fast, but Bush-haters will respond to anything. Even that first day we encountered shattered lives, hollowed-out houses, and contributors who were unemployed, yet willing to invest in their own salvation. My legs throbbed, I ached from dehydration, but compared to most of the day’s donors, I had it made.
By the second day’s end I was congratulating myself on the $161 I’d brought in when I read in that day’s paper that the Bush team intended to raise one half billion dollars to retain their regime. Not surprisingly, they are already half way there. One thing that helps them is Reagan’s death. Because the great communicator is at last engaging in direct confab with his satanic majesty, the Kerry people banned door-to-door soliciting on the third day, probably fearing a timely resurrection. As a consequence, Joe and I found ourselves sent out to compete with the city’s finest panhandlers on the corner of High and Broad. There we stood, in the center of the central-most city of one of seventeen key swing states, quite probably one of three big mama election night melt downs, saying to random strangers and passersby, “Hey! Do you wanna help us beat Bush?” The responses came in alternating rhythms: no money and fuck you, somewhere in between which I managed to raise three dollars. All ten of us wore faces blistered from moist Midwestern heat. To our mutual amazement, Joe and I discovered upon returning to the office that we were promoted to Field Managers.
Meet Joe. His unfailing smile represented the least complex aspect of his character. He lived in a fraternity house and could consume vast quantities of alcohol in a wide variety of denominations, and yet unflaggingly trudged out every day with considerable charm to point out—no, wait. That’s not fair to him. Joe is a great debater; in fact, a state champ. He has been a leader in student government who eschews the safe route, favoring principles instead; an apparent libertarian; analytic; generous; and someone who will survive the outcome of this election, regardless.
One of the best aspects of my DNC experience came early and lasted long. At a time when I felt remarkably paralyzed in my estrangement from phony youth culture, I met dozens of people half my age who, while caught up in some minor accouterments of consumerism, nevertheless rail against the potential political apocalypse with great flair. One such individual is Jessica, upon whose floor I will sleep many nights before all is said and done. Prior to joining our merry band of indefatigable nonbelievers, she taught English in eastern Europe. She simultaneously studied graduate level work in Slavic Linguistics while working forty hours each week with the DNC. Her aspirations made the hard work even harder. After all, she speaks five languages, although Republican is not amongst them. Jessica treated herself hard, not only by hating herself when her efforts were short of fruitful, but by having allowed me to sleep in her apartment, a distraction only comparable to having a crazed buffalo loose in a fine art gallery.
With mates on the mind and one month before the convention, John Kerry tantalizes the populace with threats to name a running mate, such teasing in no way halting the Grand Old Party from utilizing its overwhelming resources to prepare a set of three attack ads on each potential VP Although Carolina pretty boy John Edwards grabs the popular support, mainstream rag wags wonder if Kerry can bring himself to nominate someone who the public understands better than they do the presumptive presidential candidate. Of course, this strategy also eliminates Wes Clark, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and my high school geometry teacher. Endorsing a Mexican-American like New Mexico’s Bill Richardson adds to the political division, which would be good if this weren’t politics American style. That’s why so many of us fear Kerry will select Dick Gephardt, a nonentity if ever such existed. JFK would be wise to pull in a liberal state governor, given the power that such a position brings about in stealing elections, which at this point is the only chance Johnny has. Face it, he’s tied with evil George at 42% nationwide support. While sucking up to the middle class, Kerry ignores precisely the most solid base of supporters at his disposal: the apocalypse neighborhoods. Day after day, our gang of what is now twenty-five shake hands and trade expectant smiles with rich, middle and poor, the only non-economic distinction being that the poor are not merely hungry. They are scalding hot and God damned pissed. George made them that way and John (so far) refuses to acknowledge their existence. Instead, he rants about the burden of the bourgeoisie. Of course, the median income in this country is $15.35 per hour, which means that the one hundred million people earning less than that amount don’t appear in either the Kerry playbook or the “likely voters” polls.
Bush, meanwhile, is taking no such chances. He only needs six of the seventeen swing states to win, and if the disenfranchised in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Arizona, Tennessee and Florida stay home after being burned in 2000, Diebold can retired early on November 2.
Lord, I wish I could write like Raymond Chandler, specifically the way he wrote in the collection Trouble is My Business. Reportage of this campaign requires—mandates— dark, hardboiled, booze-soaked bitter humor, the kind to make MacBeth envious, the kind to make Banquo’s ghost appear, the kind to make Philip Marlowe emerge from a gin-encrusted one-room flat, rolling up Sunset Boulevard as he awakens from the new Great Depression.
John Kerry selected John Edwards as his running mate, in recent retrospect a singularly logical choice given the latter’s history as a plaintiff’s attorney against all manner of southern corporate industrial crime. The DNC plans to use this much-ballyhooed announcement as a slingshot of excitement to carry them through until the convention, a huge mistake given the Bush family’s history of surprises. According to the more conspiratorially minded (like myself), the Bushes will launch a July Surprise of sufficient magnitude to divert media exposure from Kerry to some brouhaha about nationalistic security. This assault cannot lose because even the few suspicious troglodytes in the core news corps who recognize this as a ploy will only pay lip service to the possible preemptive strike rather than exposing it.
What would Chandler think about all this? I suspect he might actually celebrate it, for in a taciturn way, the new and improved Great Depression descends with every sunrise as the city across the street yawns in somnambulant discourse about nothing of substance, nothing more relevant than the latest Bukowski cheer of narcissism, or whether the Mom and Pop coffee shop delivers itself as superior to Starbucks, or if the Bush team will at long last publicly masturbate to their copies of the Reader’s Digest.
And speaking of Bukowski, meet Pete. Pete initially pretended to be a California wasteland, littering his language with a million “man’s” and “dude’s.” As his hidden ambitions revealed themselves, the real man emerged, one who never quit pursuing the Goals with a good-natured tenacity, one who often preferred reading books to swilling beer.
But after two months in the swelters of canvas fundraising, the soles of my running shoes are wearing thin, and I resigned, Friday, July 16th. Celebrating, fifteen of us barged into the Short North Tavern on High Street to bamboozle supporters into letting us cadge drinks. Hugs and kisses, solicited and otherwise, exchanged themselves, and several exclamatory hangovers later, I was loosely planted in Jessica's apartment off the High Street. The politics of culture remained my passion, despite applying for work as a staff writer for The Other Paper, a scaled-down version of the west’s New Times. I found myself caring about almost nothing anymore, other than writing, drinking, and being a public scandal. My meager attempts to convert liberals to liberation were ignominious, although some of the best conversations I’ve ever known happened over the last eight weeks.
Meet Emily. Sunshine, as I call her, never met a Republican she didn’t want to convert. Interpreting every NO as a YES waiting to explode, her burgeoning charisma appealed to us all. While we all wanted to take her under our individual wings, the immutable fact remains that against a stacked deck of family resistance reminiscent of the Borgias, Emily maintained an intense focus that lost nothing in the translation from the office to the street.
The same can be said for Robert, a young man for whom I quickly developed a keen respect. In addition to being one hell of a singer and guitarist—which he knows—he was also a good Field Manager and role model—which he did not know. Robert proved that Art is superior to Politics, yet that Summer, something the opposite of anarchy tried to solidify in him, offering to strangle up his creativity with its need for security.
The problem, you see, is that when no one was paying attention, the world went straight to hell. Those of us who thoroughly enjoy strip clubs because of the appreciation we have for the female form—as well as for the cheap thrill of exposed breasts pulsating against our crotches—found ourselves maneuvered into a position where such harmless shenanigans became synonymous with artistic expression and free speech. Those of us who make the occasional dip into drug-infested waters have been out-navigated into endorsing the greatest comeback cocaine has ever known. Those of us who revel at the sonic stagger of molten power chords and angry lyrics have swelled arenas to endure Quattro-drive quakings from bands too synthetic to live, even among the undead. Culture, at least the commercial variety, lies slabbing at the morgue, and at the forefront of this comcult swaggers Politics, wherein those of us who not so long ago yearned and fought for substantial changes in the ways people could experience political culture, nowadays simply hope that with a Democrat in the White House, maybe just maybe things won’t get any worse. We have become what we once abhorred: a reactive, lonely mob, diverted rather than engaged by sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
Some people, such as your humble narrator, consider this current malaise to be the inevitable weed-growth of the fact of the Allies secretly losing World War II. But even a less historically dystopian viewpoint must concede that the days when people might understand what folksinger Phil Ochs meant when he said “The only chance for a revolution in this country lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara” are definitely over.
When even against the grain organizations like Move On and America Coming Together join ranks to actually waste time giving a damn about Sandy Berger stealing documents from the Archives or Linda Ronstadt endorsing a political documentary, then it is absolutely time for somebody—probably me—to remind the youth of today that if you bother to get a permit for your demonstration, then your protest is stillborn, even if it is polite about the mess.
The young men and women I’ve met so far this summer are amazing, make no mistake. Flopping their sandals six to ten miles a day in Amazon-style humidity, paying seven dollars a day to park, having doors slammed in their smiling faces and being ridiculed for their trouble—it all fades back when someone like Jake returns to the office with $400, simply because he refuses to surrender (and because he is smart), or when Emily gets a check for $1000 from a Republican who actually understood what was going on. Or when Adam gets a dozen contributors of under ten dollars each, every one of which representing at least a vote, an investment in the process. Such little victories stave off the pre-apathetic depression against which we chronically anesthetize ourselves. I’ve watched Pete, whose metabolism would out-pace and eventually kill a normal man, cram his face with swine burgers and chicken balls until I thought he would explode on his way back to the counter for a large chocolate shake. I’ve watched Joe remain loquacious while chasing white rum with contentious gin and tonic. I’ve watched Jessica nurse her emotional solitude with a series of one-nighters guaranteed to only intensify the agony. Jessica did learn a lot, though, from a loneliness she waded through with a Marine, a Vietnam vet, who stood on crutches, his features covered in white, creamy skin medication, an ex-soldier unable to contribute financially, but hearty in his emotional donation. Some people don’t want her to leave their doorsteps, probably because they sense that she senses the power in their isolation. After all, everyone pilfers some kind of emotional connection from even the worst of jobs. This job, being relatively on the side of the angels, intensifies the glory of those connections, actually trumpets them, and leaves even the most shallow of us (me) with a spiritual advantage the GOP supporters can only envy.
The future stinks. The present isn’t much cheerier. And the past is a pack of lies. Only literature provides solace, and since no man is an island, much less a peninsula, hope in ourselves remains the only salvation.
Last night’s rain washed away most of the Republican dung up and down High Street. As everyone knows, Republicans are from another planet, probably Mars, and totally lacking in any genuine sense of humor, unless of course some little old lady takes a header down a flight of stairs and ends up paralyzed. Now that’s funny, they will tell you without blinking or laughing. We all got oursevles forty-eight Rolling Rocks during the thunderstorm, got silly-ass drunk and had a great time.
Having suddenly been shown interest in The Other Paper job, I am filled with a number of future-piece and ancillary ideas:
1• Carla Bley’s new album, The Lost Chords, is now in stores. Time for another interview and album review.
2• Who do other African American women date these days? You know, the ones who are not Halle Berry?
3• Living in my head: Gimme more Beatles Right Now!
4• Transforming Pigeons: the Real Story of a Reality TV Actress
5• Who Put the Blow in My Smoothie? A Brief Look at Red Bull
6• From Oslo to Kazan: Teaching American to a Bunch of Damned Foreigners—The English as a Second Language Industry
7• How to Kill Yourself Without Really Trying—Suicide on a Budget
While I’ll never get around to writing most of these articles, the good news is that only I can prevent forest fires.
The two big stories in Democratic politics, now that we’re one week from the Convention, involve Dennis Kucinich and Sandy Berger. Kucinich, who has been hell-bent on having a voice in Boston, finally gets to use that voice in exchange for officially dropping out of the race and conceding his seventy delegates to John Kerry. Those delegate supporters may seem paltry, but the larger strategy is to swing the left away from people like DK and Nader, all the better to focus on job one: getting Bush out of office. How’s this for cliché? “We have everything on the line in this election— healthcare, environment, foreign policy—so we’re pulling out all the stops to win back the White House.” This smacks of psychosis, naturally, given the anemia of the two party system, a degenerate coin toss in which sixteen percent of likely voters still claim to be undecided. Undecided? Some of them must be holding out for bribes, or else overestimating the value of their solitary votes. Even a scurrilous anti-establishment gadfly such as myself recognizes certain clear differences between the two major candidates: 1• Bush initiated the unfunded No Child Left Behind Act, requiring teachers to teach to the test, further widening the economic gap between public and private schools. 2• Bush proposed and signed off on the largest tax cut for the wealthy in world history, a condition he now wishes to extend. 3• Bush wants to encourage small businesses to provide safe working conditions for U.S. workers as a means of keeping healthcare expenses down. 4• Bush recognizes international terrorism by Arab countries to be a legitimate threat to American interests at home and abroad.
Contrast these four talking points to John Kerry’s positions. JFK supports all four issues to one degree or another. But he’s so much more polite about it.
Which brings us face to face with that most polite of all Democrats, Samuel “Sammy” Berger. According to Curt Anderson of the Associated Press: “The main investigative committee in the Republican-led House will look into allegations that Clinton administration national security advisor Sandy Berger mishandled highly classified terrorism documents…The documents dealt with…the threat of a terrorist attack during the 2000 millennium celebrations.”
While I’m certainly no apologist for Berger, I do find it convenient that (a) the Bush administration has known about the missing documents for months and releases the story now only when the 9/11 Commission report comes out, also taking the edge off the DNC Convention, as predicted, and (b) there were in fact no terrorist attacks during those mindless celebrations, although my next door neighbor suffered severe rectal burnings while attempting to light a fart. Given that until recently Berger served as an advisor to the Kerry campaign, will the John-John ticket collapse in response to the vague rumors and innuendos? Probably not. But something big is undoubtedly in the works as convention week draws near.
Operation Save America definitely has its act together better than the DNC. The anti-humanist group from Mars’ polar ice caps hit town last week, hoping in vain that they could provoke a police officer into shooting a few of their numbers. Alas, no such charm awaited the mob in their foot journey from Cali to D.C. Whatever one may think of these emotional Neanderthals, they are quite officious, all their permits ready and stamped with the seal of the city. Kind of makes me nostalgic for the good old days when permits were for pussies and people protested on principle. After all, OSA wanted to get arrested, so why bother with permits? Why not simply set fire to the fetus they cart around right on State Street and drag a few doctors out of their homes and give ‘em a public Abu Ghraib treatment? Why not, indeed. These self-knighted pseudo-religious cretins are messing with The Kid and know it. More harbingers from Hell, all in the right place and time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Pat Hobby Stories rocks the Casbah. Hobby is a semi-Fitz, sporadically working at The Movie Studio twenty years after talkies began, simultaneous with his career being placed on hold. These shorts appeared in Esquire in the early 1940’s and make me wonder what Chandler’s Philip Marlowe would be like if he were a hack writer in Hollywood.
All of this matters and relates to the issue at hand because of the political times in which we live. Almost every Democrat I meet insists that their party will landslide into the White House, a viewpoint that would be touching if it weren’t so ill-informed. Jump back to the 1976 election. After eight years of the terrifying Nixon-Agnew-Ford regime, America found itself primed for a left-leaning liberal to yank the country back on the right track. Instead, the Dems fed us a right-leaning moderate, Jimmy Carter, who squeaked by the idiot puppet-boy, Gerald Ford. We’re every bit as polarized today, probably more so, with a president just as morally corrupt as Nixon. Predictably, one day before the beginning of the DNC convention, the polls show a 42-42 split, with Nader already at 5%. The smart money holds that Kerry’s numbers won’t raise more than five points by week’s end, and there’s long shot action that the John-John ticket will actually drop by the first of August.
• AUGUST 1st-15th
I left Ohio on foot July 31st, a Saturday, lugging myself and a thin backpack crammed with fifty pounds of clothing and personal items. After hiking the nearly twenty miles out of Columbus, I was almost happy to see the Sheriff Deputy’s bubble lights signaling me to a halt. The Deputy, Ben Jones, ran a check on my DL and said with a smile, “I’ve got great news.” I chuckled. “You saved a bunch of money on your auto insurance?” He laughed and informed me that I had no outstanding warrants. A heavy rain was fast approaching, so Ben told me to get in the back, that he’d give me a “courtesy transport” to the county line. Those seventeen miles were revelatory, for here sat a member of law enforcement who declared himself pro-choice on everything from abortion to seat belts. Many of his political insights came straight from his own personal assessments, yet rang familiar from DNC analysis. He was, simply put, the pinnacle of what police in this country should be, just as the trooper in Arkansas two days later who shouted for me to get off the Interstate was indicative of the other type.
Ben and I got along well, in part because I neglected to inform him that the reason I was hitching was that my car had been impounded by the Columbus PD, and between fines and charges, they wanted $3,500 to release it, and would do so only if I first purchased Ohio tags, which I would have to replace with Arizona plates in about two weeks. Economics being the better part of finance, I took to the thumb.
Ah, but it was the sheer beauty of Louise that kept me going when all hope seemed but a futile childish yearning. Just outside the southwestern Ohio valley near Louisville, Kentucky, she pulled up in her Camry, her eyes bright, but her nose crinkled with caution. Who could blame her? She worked as a waitress to support herself and her college education in Huntsville, Alabama, and I existed—if at all—as a chain smoking reprobate addicted to low finance and all the thighs I could massage. She treated me well, Louise did, in spite of the apparent danger. In addition to hauling my tired ass all the way to Nashville, she fed me a BK veggie burger, fries and a Coke, all of which I devoured with the same delicacy a hyena brings to a slaughtered lamb. Louise and I talked about the future, music, politics, love and freedom. She was hot, but naturally attached to another struggling writer, on whose behalf I supplied some small amount of career advice. No other woman dared pick me up, but I miss brave Louise, who considered the eating of meat to be murder, and who had the uncommon courage to declare as much in front of what was at the moment the hungriest man alive.
Mind you, all this while, during and between rides, I stayed current on the political milieu. The DNC had had its convention, which I watched near constantly, and both friend and foe declared John Kerry’s speech a home run, the surest sign that it amounted to a foul ball.
As predicted, Kerry and John Edwards spent to convention amidst over-intellectualized handlers with no sense whatsoever about how to win this specific election. The convention amounted to nothing more than the development of a vague platform, the thoroughly and purposefully anti-climactic nomination process, and all of this capped by the most boring and tightly scripted speeches in the history of politics. Conventioneers and TV viewers alike want a chance to mindless emote about some tired catch phrase uttered to galvanize the populace, and so when Barack Obama came off quite eloquent, he also bored to tears everyone involved, as did Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Max Cleland. Only Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton chummed the waters, the former simply by representing how an attractive, intelligent woman scares the piss molecules out of the right wing, and the latter showing how an aging black minister accomplishes the same thing. So unpleasantly tight was the scripting otherwise that not even Kerry himself felt permitted to revel in the adoration the Bush-haters yearned to bestow upon him. The only time during his forty-five minute self-plug when he didn’t clip short the applause came at the very beginning, when he looked the most uncomfortable, declaring with a salute that he was “reporting for duty.”
I swear, all this emphasis on military phrases and terminology slides right by the corporate media the way baseball managers slide farts past interviewers. Everyone recognizes it, yet no one signifies the recognition, even with a nervous laugh. The other big gaffe in Kerry’s acceptance recitation occurred when JFK promised to require the United Nations to play a larger role in the military transformation of Iraq. While this was offered up to appease the convention delegates, ninety percent of whom stand opposed to the War, Kerry’s declaration that he wishes to internationalize the conflict strikes some people on the left as snake hokum, and others as a dangerous path that might further polarize the world. Ultimately, of course, there remain four positions on the terrorist threat: 1• annihilate all fundamentalist adherents to Islamic extremism; 2• continue the war, reverse the economic downfall, antagonize and resist; 3• stop antagonizing terrorists by colonializing their culture; that is, require them to allow America to join them in accepting the world; 4• stop pissing off the terrorists altogether; legitimize the resentment caused by our economic/spiritual support of the imperialistic tendencies of Israel; and offer war reparations.
These cannot all be correct, at least not at the same time, as L pointed out. I learned years ago to avoid making incendiary statements to the person offering you free transportation, so I changed the subject. But the fact is that all four of these mentalities dominate certain sectors of the world, each has some type of academic support, and each is well within the reasoned grasp of your average American and Iraqi, not to mention your average terrorist, be s/he Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
It may not even have been beyond the kin of my next big transporter, a 33 year old Kid Rock look-alike named Ricky. Rick was a major conversationalist, or perhaps more accurately, a great monologist. He didn’t have much use for other people’s opinions, but he did place a high value on his own. This didn’t prevent him from treating me well. After all, he bought me smokes, Cokes, food and transportation, and all he asked for in return was for me to listen to his every last word. His stories did impress me, but even more they gave me insight into certain features of the hitchhiking experience.
Since arriving back in Phoenix, I have discovered the unwelcome wonders of homelessness and starvation. After spending one horrible night in a shelter referred to as the 12th Avenue Retreat, I escaped the barbed-wire enclosure and walked seven miles to the Arizona Heart Hospital, where I collapsed. They couldn’t do much for me, of course, since they didn’t think my problem was cardiac in nature. I left there the next morning, a Sunday, and walked over fifteen miles in 110 degree heat to the next nearest hospital, John C. Lincoln, with three gashes in my right cheek and blood needle tracks in the crooks of both arms. None of my old friends can or will help me, and death seems very near. As I write this, it is Tuesday afternoon, 8/10/04, and I sit in the food court at Metro Center, out of the heat, waiting until 7:30pm, when I can call Christy about a place to stay. I’m very weak from loosing so much blood and having no food except water. The food court is a terrible place to sit because of the smell. But where else can you find a table and chairs? Better to think of politics for the moment. Besides, I’ve lost 31 pounds in three months.
This is such a stupid day. Not only am I starving to death, but John Kerry decided to give up any chance he had of winning the election by admitting that, knowing what he knows today, he would still go to war against Iraq. Much wiser would it have been to say “Hell, no!” than to risk alienating the 90% of all Democrats; that is, those who oppose the invasion. The Hell No response could and should have been delivered immediately, since it is the only way to defeat Bush.
And speaking of that evil-doer, today he announced Porter Goss as the nominee to replace George Tenet as DCI. This representative from Florida is a great choice for the Bush team. The Dems have already pretended to oppose him, but because they are all cowards, he’ll get a free ride into the CIA. Goss’ resume runs back as far as the Bay of Pigs, which is probably where he met Bush the Elder. This is a scary dude, and he’ll fit in well with Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice.
I finally caved in to hunger and told the girl in the customer service desk at Metro Center that I Lost $1.25 in the Coke Machine. She gave me the money, 85 cents of which I spent on a McDonald’s hamburger, and now I wish I had the soda instead, delicious as the burger was. Water fountain water just doesn’t cut it, not in this heat. I’ll have to call Christy in a couple minutes, collect. I don’t expect much. Nothing, actually. All I need is a place to sleep, a cold soda, and a washing machine.
Well, I hope God does see fit to help, because Christy won’t take my calls. Maybe I am getting religion. There’s certainly nothing else left. Right now I’m sitting in the waiting room at Banner Thunderbird, just to have a place to sit. If anyone asks, I’ll say I’m waiting for a ride. Then in the morning I’ll walk to the Arrowhead Mall, clean myself up, grab another free Coke, and see if my key fits in the lock of my old house. Again, what else can I do? Maybe throw myself on the mercy of some local restaurant and try to get a day gig as a waiter, which with the tips should give me some cash. That would help buy food and lodging. If I ever get out of this, my surplus money is going to the poor.
God (and I mean it) saw fit to spare me by another couple days. After getting kicked out of the hospital waiting room, I staggered to my old house on Pontiac. It had both a FOR RENT and SALE PENDING sign in the yard. I’m pretty stupid, but I had saved the house key and sure enough, it worked. The place was still big and deserted, just like when I lived there, and I slept from 2:30am until sun-up.
The next day I went looking for work as a waiter. Both Coco’s and Denny’s turned me down, probably because I looked like a bum: sweaty, aromatic, road-scars on the cheek, and thoroughly emaciated. I’m no better than them. I’d have turned me down, too.
I know this reads like a confused garden of thorny ideas. But how else can I sum up the recent experiences which have led me to this state of near demise? Who indeed will even read these words, or care? It’ll be decades before anyone even notices I’m gone. How pathetic, this self pity. I had truly hoped to survive long enough to see out the election, but I’m so weak now that standing up is as much of a struggle as walking. I don’t know how people endure years of this, but I know why it drives them insane.
After two hours on the library’s public computer, the system kicked me off. On the way back to the safe house, I scored $3.50 by telling three different grocery stores that their soda machines malfunctioned. With $2.17 of those proceeds, I bought a BK hamburger kids meal, which I devoured greedily. I arrived back at the safe house at 1pm, noticing that someone else had definitely been there. The front blinds were readjusted to an open position, and the back door was now locked.
Back in Columbus, Jessica is trying to locate me, and she has enlisted the local DNC office in her pursuit. Both she and they have sent emails to Perfect Sound Forever, a magazine for which I have occasionally written, asking the editor, Jason, to help them find me. Since Jason, one heck of a nice guy, thought I was dead, he is quite confused about the entire matter. Jason, if you’re reading this, I apologize. I did not die on February 14th, 2004, as it says on your website. I tried to die, but failed. And I was ashamed of my failure. The irony is that now that I want desperately to live.
When I began writing this back in June, I believed that life was just the result of cosmic indigestion. Now, today, I wonder if God is getting back at me for all the people I’ve screwed over. If so, my bad times are just beginning. I can imagine being beaten and raped in prison, turned into a mental vegetable, and left to drool and snort the rest of my life away. And it scares me.
These DNC folks are brilliant and have given me hope when there was no real reason for them to have done so. In addition to the other people I’ve written about, I should add that Melissa James, Erik Baxstrom, Jessica Van Dyck, Tony Andersson, Immy Singh, Mike Henry—you all made life better for me, as did my local hero in Phoenix, Barbara Brewer, without whose emotional support, I simply could not have survived. But more about her later.
Here’s a funny story. Jessica Van Dyck was such a good looking woman, it’s a wonder she didn’t bring in thousands every night. As it was, she brought in hundreds most nights, and not entirely based on her appearance. She was tough to disagree with. Her last day is a case in point.
After weeks of promises, the office finally lent us DNC T-shirts, big flashy red things with logos and slogans on cotton that did not breathe. We had to wear these every day and the very first day we gave one to Jessica. Holding it out with a look one might give to a hideous swatch of wallpaper, Jessica compared the shirt to her skirt, put a hand on her hip, recognized with horror that the two clothings clashed, and said flatly: “You have got to be kidding.” She resigned later that night, deciding to work for Bed & Bath, or Bath & Beyond, or Beyond the Valley of Bed & Bath. What will she be doing in ten years? And will she be happy?
What will become of Tony Andersson, a hard-fighting, gracious, quick-witted leftie who was so cool that he refused to cheat on his girlfriend when a saucy brunette tried to put the moves on him, a situation that apparently happens all the time?
What will become of Erik Baxstrom, a tall, lean student of a pleasant nature, who occasionally erupts with well thought out furies about whether he should pursue the career he wants or the career his family wants for him, financial support being a prime factor in the equation? Erik often drove my group out to our turfs. We never had an accident, and with all the distractions in the car, that’s remarkable.
What will become of Melissa James? Her upper middle class lifestyle allows her to go to Paris this Fall, and she’s as hard working as a beaver on amphetamines. Her deep, low voice is smooth as an emerald and when she looks at you a certain way, it feels like she sees parts of your life you were too embarrassed to see for yourself. Will she prosper and thrive?
Bill Westbrook is dead. If that name means nothing to you, I hope you will read this anyway, because Bill was one of my founding fathers, one of the psychological seed-bearers that induced a strange pollination which went a long way into making me what I am. That may be nothing to brag about, but knowing William Samuel Westbrook certainly is. And so I shall brag.
“We tend to get older, for one thing,” he said, when asked by a skeptical student what possible things about human beings could be reasonably predicted. If that sounds a little like Mark Twain, it is no coincidence. He bore—at least in the years I knew him—a physical resemblance to the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a fact of which he must tired of hearing, although he never let on.
He had his own style and his own thoughts, however, and he needed to make sure those issues did not get confused with the great writer from Hannibal, Missouri. “Correlation,” he said, “is not causation. There is a 1.0 positive correlation between the temperature of an east Manhattan sidewalk and the birth rate in Stockholm, but I’m pretty sure one does not cause the other.”
He taught Sociology at Marshall University for thirty years. He could be counted on to pierce through the hoopla on any given occasion. He caused a stirring, trembling moistness in more than a few gawking coeds. And his wit was the kind that would tap you on the shoulder and smile half an hour after he’d left the room.
“Theories arise,” he said in the introductory course to his life’s work, “because facts cannot speak for themselves.” He taught because it was a source of income for him as well as a job which kept him exposed to books and journal articles. I never knew Bill to prepare for a class, at least not in any conventional manner. He would walk into a packed classroom, either on time or just a minute late, tapping a cigarette ash into a Styrofoam cup of coffee, lean back against the large steel desk at the front of the room, whereupon he would sit our minds to ruminating. “A lot of people think that college students are free and liberated,” he would say, looking off into a far corner of the room, as if there were someone back there with cue cards. “If that’s the case, then why are you all sitting in your chairs facing the same direction?”
We became drinking buddies, along with Steve Winn and Hillary Harper, two other friends who have passed away. Our favorite bar was a place called Snacks Fifth Avenue, and one night we got so schnockered that we each ordered a huge plate of oysters on the half-shell, which none of us had ever had before. I remember trying to chew mine, without much luck. Bill scarfed his down as if they were goldfish and he was in a fraternity. And then for some reason he stood up on the bar, waited for the room to hush, and recited a poem by William Butler Yeats.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
In addition to being able to recite any poem he had ever read, Bill could also talk for hours about statistics, research, stratification, economics, conflict theory, classical writers and the latest trends, most of which he found insulting. The Hite Report was all the salacious rage on television talk shows at the time. Bill was offended, not by the explicit writing about clitoral orgasms, but by Sher Hite’s claim that her research reemployed a scientific method. “Opinion surveys in Cosmopolitan do not constitute science. But people will read that book of hers and use it to discredit our field.”
No one doubted Bill’s authority in making such a claim because the professor, it seemed, knew everybody worth knowing. He was responsible for getting journalist Jack Anderson to speak at our school. He also got us the radical Stockley Carmichael, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, a writer then at the top of his game named Stephen King, and a so-called researcher in female sexuality. As a recall, Ms. Hite did not stay around long enough to collect her fee.
I never met Bill’s wife, but he always had a coterie of the most attractive women in the school hanging on his every word. “How do you do that?” I asked, intending no offense.
“I get them to laugh,” he said. “They don’t know why they’re laughing, so I’m mysterious, too. That’s all it takes.” That may be all it takes, but I could never master it, through no lack of effort.
On one of our last drinking binges, when it was just Bill and me, I told him I wouldn’t be hanging out with him much longer because after six years I still hadn’t graduated and I felt it was time to move on.
“You’re right,” he said, ordering us each another gin and tonic. “What you should do is borrow Hillary’s motorcycle and spend a few days in each state in alphabetical order.”
The motorcycle broke down in Arizona. I’ve been here since 1982. Steve died of a heart attack. Hillary was slain by a stroke. Bill stayed around, preserved, I imagine. He sent flowers when my wife, Gina, passed away. Then about three years ago, I heard the news. Pancreatic cancer. He went fast.
What was it that makes me still mourn this loss of a friend I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years? It was the very fact that anyone, much less a Sociology professor at an undistinguished university in Huntington, West Virginia, could say things which over the decades would repeat themselves in his absence, could imprint upon me a value of both substance and style, and did inject me with self-confidence and a love of life, both of which conditions, to be sure, having defied reason.
In the end, it is not really for Bill Westbrook that I mourn tonight. It is for myself, in a state of loss anticipated by neither of us, that brings the tears. And if there are no points for self pity, I hope that honesty carries a little extra credit, at least from Bill. Either way, in the words of another friend lost around the same time: “Goodbye, baby, and amen.”
We will speak tonight of friendship. It may not have as many syllables as some words, but what it lacks in sophistication it more than compensates in importance. I am convinced that friendship is as dear to humanity as water. One can technically live without either (my own water comes carbonated and is mixed with what Coca-Cola calls "the compound") but it isn't much of a life.
Certain people, and I may be one of them, have on occasion tried living the life of a hermit. I have lived the overwhelming majority of my life in that self-imposed condition, despite at least one marriage and a vast number of concubines. That is to say, I have emotionally cut myself off, many times, from the rest of humanity. Everyone does this now and again, but I admit that I have done it willfully and often, and with some regret.
At present I live with my best friend. Her name is Lisa Ann and if you are a frequent reader of mine, you have crossed her name before tonight. We have been best friends since April 17, 1986, which puts it somewhere around twenty-five years. I will grant that there were times during that quarter-century when she could not stand the mention of my name within ten miles of her own presence, and I as well have on rare occasion been less than exultant with her. But for the most part, she and I have kept one another amused and enlightened for longer than many people have been alive. And this is strange to me because I am a hermit and she is a butterfly.
Lisa Ann loves to mingle with interesting people. She walks into a room of strangers, listens politely for several seconds, then bounds into the most promising conversation going with gusto and nonchalance. This type of behavior fits her quite well and no one ever seems to think it odd. What people do think odd is me. I walk into the same exact room and immediately wonder what the hell I am doing there. I stand up against a wall with a drink in my hand, only to be approached by youthful and lovely people who are dying to ask my opinion on all matter of politics and religion, and I stare back as blank as an X-Ray machine from World War I. Lisa Ann, sensing my discomfort, stutters out a high laugh and informs those swelling around my person that I am far too erudite for my own good. Well, I reply, I am too something for my own whatever. This inanity draws measured chuckling and thoughtful puffs on foreign cigars and soon enough I am either the hit of the party or else I have been properly banished to the kitchen where the maid can always use a hand with the silverware.
But, yes, we were speaking of friendship. For someone who has been a dedicated recluse for days, weeks, months, ad infinitum, I do love my friends more than anything or anyone else, including lovers, muggers and thieves. Whenever I receive a correspondence from someone I knew in high school or college, even if they are attempting to collect on an old debt, I am all the same mesmerized and freed up inside in a way I have not been on a regular basis since many years ago when I lived in the state called Ohio. To mention a recent example, just this morning I received a note via Facebook from a wonderful person who I knew as Paula Reichelderfer but who is now known as Paula Hopper. She reads this blog sometimes and gave me a very useful suggestion for one of the articles, one which I hope lived up to her expectations. The interesting thing, though, was how excited I was to hear from this young lady, someone I last saw on the day of my high school graduation. She has always been a fascinating person who enjoys laughing as much as anyone I have ever met. But I think that what delighted me so much about her sending that note was that for a few minutes there I was figuratively back in Ohio, back at the age of seventeen, back in some silly classroom, paying more attention to the curve of young ladies' legs than to the teacher's instructions, and the feeling I had for those few moments was the greatest thing in the world. You have had that feeling yourself, no matter who you are. The difference, I suppose, depends on how you deal with it.
I try to live every day just that way. All of the great friends I've had (and often not deserved) walk through life with me every day, at least, to the extent that they are never far from my conscious mind. As anyone who has ever known me can attest, I tell more than a share of stories during conversations and it is invariable that over the course of an evening I will bring up some episode in the life of a friend who I may have last seen yesterday or thirty-five years ago at graduation.
It is possible that all this chirping about friendship is so readily obvious to the rest of the world that anyone reading this may be caught in mid-yawn. If so, I hope you will grant me just a few more moments because I feel you will be glad you did. There is a reason why as children we are so transfixed with elements of magic. Some grifter pulls a penny out from behind our ear and we think the man is a genius and long to learn his methods and ways. I think that this is why many of the friendships we have as kids hold such a fascination for us long into adulthood. When we are kids, we do not think much about why we like someone or to what use our friendship can be put. We simply enjoy the person's company and could not explain why even under duress. When the friend or friends come around, we get silly inside and don't care at all how ridiculous others may see us. But as we age, we sometimes calculate. We think about what we are doing, about our social interactions and to what aims these activities can be put. As a result the magic we felt as children is missing. We stare into photo albums or randomly wonder what this or that person from our better days is doing with his or her life. And we relive the taste of that special magic that happened when we weren't thinking much about it, when all we knew was that things were right and would never end.
This is why the best films tend to have some sort of "buddy" angle. Movies are nearly as magical as friendship, if not quite as real. So when we think back on a favorite film, the odds are excellent that friendship and all its many offshoots will be a huge element. I bring this up now because in the days ahead I will be sharing some of what I consider to be the best films I've ever seen. I invite you to think of your own and to comment as you feel comfortable.
In order to do justice to the living, we have to go way back to a time before I even knew their names. I would have been five or six then. My mother would come into my room. Her countenance was sad but willful. “We’re going to a funeral,” she’d say. “Please put on your good suit.”
Great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and assorted long-time acquaintances departed every two or three months by the time I was old enough to accept the responsibility of making myself look presentable for such an occasion. By first grade I had a vague understanding of what it all meant. Someone who had been alive had died and gone to heaven. While we would miss them, we were to rejoice that they were now with the Lord. This information was a great comfort to those closest to the recently deceased. It also reassured those at the service who anticipated a similar journey very soon.
My concept of metaphysics in those days was entirely informed by television cartoons. Whenever Sylvester the Cat died from electric shock or by having his skull crushed beneath a falling anvil, the translucent image of his spirit would rise from his corpse, wings would sprout, and a halo would appear above his head. Once in a while the cartoon’s writers would get imaginative and send Sylvester to hell, which, based on my limited understanding—made a lot more sense. So one day my parents and I had gone to a viewing of a woman named Sarah. A tall, scrawny, red-faced man stood up front and wailed and beseeched, ending his presentation by saying that this Sarah person was now in another place. I didn’t realize until a few moments later just how quiet the room was when I said to my father, “Did she go to hell?”
Depending on the faith of the surviving family, the pre-internment service might include something they called a viewing. The dead person would have been placed in a casket surrounded by a cornucopia of floral decorations and sympathy cards. The eyes were closed to simulate the state of eternal tranquility and to quell any discussions of the mortician being a taxidermist on the side. Their hands would be folded, one finger often adorned with a wedding band. Their clothes suggested a regal occasion, somewhere between a Sunday school service and a coronation. (It was many years before I learned the men were put to rest with no back in their jackets and wearing slacks cut off above the knees.) It was the custom to form a procession, allowing the reverential and curious alike to take one last look, that image lingering with the mourners until their own time came. It seemed to me that a Polaroid camera would be useful here, but I had learned to keep to myself any suggestions about protocol.
Now and again over the years we hear social scientists and theologians plead that children must be shielded from much exposure to the final stage of life. My suspicion, borne of my own experiences, is that until a person is twelve or thirteen, he cannot conceive of eternal loss. Long after the illusions of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy have fled, a youngster will cling to the idea that the departed loved-one is eventually coming back. The discovery of this error is often slow, finalizing only once the discoverer is ready. A trusted parent or guardian can take a younger child by the shoulders and say with constricted emotion that little Jimmy is never coming back because he is dead, singing hosannas with Jesus and simply unable to return, and the child’s immediate response is irrelevant. Within a little while he will have convinced himself that perhaps the messenger is an idiot, or that someone made a mistake, or that, after all, miracles do happen because Lazarus came back, didn’t he?
By the beginning of the teenaged years, however, the ugly truth seeps in. The world is revealed to be just as rotten and hopeless as the cranky old men hanging around outside the drug store say it is. The child learns, sometimes to his horror, that not only is so-and-so not coming back, but that everyone else is moving on with their lives, almost as if the really tragic thing had never happened.
The first person with whom I’d been on a first name basis to die was my Aunt Florence. I remember that she lived in a big two-story house in the city. Every dress she wore displayed a subdued flower pattern. Her complexion was milky white, she disliked cats, and she walked with a cane. We visited Aunt Florence every week or two as my family made their rounds on Sunday afternoons. Her living room had a large burgundy rug laid over the worn hardwood floor and I smelled baked cookies every time we visited. I am embarrassed to admit that I remember little else about the dear old woman, other than that looking down at her in the casket, I wondered how she would get along without her cane.
One spring morning my parents and I were snuggled up around the breakfast table eating pancakes and sausage, listening to the local radio station. We lived in the suburbs of a town called Circleville, which only had one radio station. I knew something was up because the radio was not often on in the morning and it was always tuned to one of the Columbus Top Forty programs. I was about to inquire when my father said, “Listen.”
The Circleville station only played three songs an hour, the rest of the time being taken up with farm reports, local sports stories, weather-related school closings, Sheriff Radcliffe’s arrest reports, and traffic accidents.
You wonder how the news will affect you, what you’ll do with the rest of your day, how other people will react, and still you are never prepared. Four friends had been out the night before, driving up and down the rainy and slippery dark Circleville streets. A boy named Perry was at the wheel when the car went into a high speed skid, clipped a fire hydrant, spun, flipped, and slid on its top until it crashed into a telephone pole. Two of the passengers, Jan and Roberta, were dead. The other two, Perry and Chloe, were expected to be fine. The Sheriff suggested that the teenagers had been drinking. Jan, a pretty sixteen-year-old who lived up the street from us, had been decapitated.
For the next forty-eight hours, every kid I saw had the same look: devastation. I didn’t know anything about Roberta, but Jan had been something of a local legend. As I said, she had been attractive, was an honor roll student, played on the school track team, and went with a boy named Darrell who had the worst complexion I have ever seen in my life. The story in the neighborhood was that Darrell had gone crazy, stolen his daddy’s deer gun, and was looking to shoot and kill Perry, who just happened to live two doors down from us. I remember hoping that Darrell would be successful because Perry was a bully, a wise guy, and a drop-out who had two distinct advantages over my friends and me viz-a-vis the female population: he had a car and at age eighteen he was able to buy something called three-two beer, which was lower in alcohol content than the regular stuff, but still carried the panache of being actual beer. But Perry was creepy. He was the kind of guy who, when someone’s dog or cat disappeared, you suspected he’d had a hand in it. As a juvenile he had been arrested for grave robbing. And I would have bet that, even as a young adult, Perry still wet the bed.
So two days later, when I saw Darrell walking down the street, holding his father’s rifle in an almost relaxed manner, I actually had to contemplate the proper response. Rationalizing that Darrell might not stop with shooting Perry, I moved towards the telephone, only to be halted by the squeal of a law enforcement siren. The sheriff and his deputies tackled Darrell before he could get himself in any real trouble. Shortly after this, Perry enlisted in the Army, only to go AWOL during basic training. We didn’t hear any more about him after that.
The day I turned sixteen I began working in a restaurant called the Covered Wagon Steak House, later to be renamed the Blue Drummer Steak House. The division of labor there was gender-based. Girls worked food preparation, the salad bar, or the cash register. Boys worked the dish room or as cooks. Being a cook there was actually a bit prestigious because in that position a boy got to wear a chef’s hat and kerchief, interact with all the other employees, and received an extra ten cents an hour, the only raise Chuck Orr, the owner, had ever been known to give. Every boy employed there started out loading and unloading the dishwasher. Clean dishes were a definite asset in the restaurant business, so I could sense the value of the job, although I yearned to be a cook. The guys whose tongs and spatulas blazed above the four hundred degree grill upon which the steaks were seared with perfect criss-cross patterns were the essence of the operation. A customer might overlook a flat soda, soggy bread roll or wilted salad, but the sizzle was the steak and it had to be perfect. The dish room boys rode their bicycles to work; the cooks drove cars.
I begged Mr. Pauley, the manager, to let me cook and after a couple months he relented and set out to teach me. I took to it well, so well that Mr. Pauley cautioned me not to get big-headed about it.
The job was everything I’d imagined and much more. For one thing, that grill was hot. Way up above the rapturously smelling sirloins, rib-eyes and T-bones hung giant air filters which by the end of each day were caked with brown oily grease. A cook was on his feet for the eight hour shift. It was considered bad form to lean on anything, and doing so was a sure way of getting Mr. Orr to yell at you.
A lot of stories went around about what a tough guy Chuck Orr was. Most of those stories didn’t scratch the surface. During the two years I worked there, I saw him manhandle employees, in one case picking up a boy named Jim Heacock by the collar and belt and throwing him through the front door. I watched him fire Mr. Pauley on Christmas Eve. I saw him berate, chastise and intimidate people less than half his age. He ran that restaurant the way a despised drill sergeant runs a Marine barrack. But when it came to the customers, he turned on the charm, smiling and calling many of them by name, making sure everything was one hundred percent hunky-dory, as he liked to say it.
The only real disadvantage to being a cook there—and the one thing nobody had warned me about—was that the position made an employee constantly visible to Chuck Orr, which meant that whenever he was there, our performance needed to be one hundred percent hunky-dory. Given our ages and the thoroughly unrealistic job expectations, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Orr got around to each of us.
In the meantime, he was not there every day, and he sometimes disappeared for stretches of a week or two, so there were still times when I enjoyed the job. As a matter of fact, to this day it remains the most difficult and best job I have ever had. A temporary and genuine bond developed between many of us: Debbie Azbell, Roger Kellogh, Pam Martin, Mark Kiger and the others. I do not know how it is that I still remember their names, but short of Alzheimer’s, I always will.
One other name I suspect I’ll retain is Jamie Wellover. He started cooking there only two weeks before I did, we were born just a few days apart, we looked somewhat alike, and as much as possible, we each tried to have a good time with the job. For instance, Jamie had a knack for remembering what our customers usually ordered. He could look at a line of customers and at least half of them would have their meals ready three seconds after they requested them. This used to drive Mr. Orr crazy because he couldn’t figure out how Jamie was doing it, but at the same time he couldn’t curse the kid for doing his job too well.
“How you doing?” Mr. Orr asked him one day.
“Hunky-dory,” Jamie replied. “Whatever that means.”
The last time I saw Jamie Wellover, he and I were sitting in his black Dodge Charger listening to some of the soundtrack to the movie Tommy on his eight track player. We had just finished closing up the steak house, I was tired and sweaty, and I guess that’s why I declined his offer to go riding around. Well, the other reason was that I knew Jamie got high, just like he knew I didn’t, and I just didn’t see any sense in complicating my life.
I doubt I’ll ever forget how I heard the news. The next morning was a Sunday, so I knew we’d be busy. I arrived fifteen minutes early and stopped in the dish room to say hi to Ronnie Easter. I made a joke about something and Ronnie turned to me and said, “You haven’t heard, have you? Jamie was killed in a car crash last night.”
Ronnie told me later that from the look on my face he’d thought I was going to pass out. I stood there, gazing blankly at Ronnie. Neither of us could think of a thing to say. A few seconds later, the thin metal door that separated the kitchen from the dining room crashed open and in charged Ms. Bevan, Chuck Orr’s second-in-command and a person for whom the terms brown-noser and suck-up were invented. Before she was all the way through the door she started yelling for us to get busy, were we crazy, there was a line of customers out the door!
Even now I wonder why I didn’t hit her.
He was seventeen. We were all seventeen, Ronnie, Debbie, Mark, Becky, Roger and I. We staggered through our shifts like zombies. No one said very much. Chuck Orr tried to lighten the mood with a raunchy joke and none of us would even look at him.
I suppose that on one level the true story of a high school kid dying in a stupid car accident is the corniest thing in the world. But if it is, I’m okay with that because just possibly it’s good in this age of irony to hear something overly sentimental once in a while, just to maintain perspective. I am not here to make the case for sainthood for anyone. On the contrary, I am here to make the point that Jamie did not live to graduate high school, to decide if he would get married, or pick out a favorite location to take the kids on vacation, in case he’d decided to have any kids. Instead, one minute he was driving along with a song blaring at him, the wind blowing back his hair as he drove through the night, without the weight of responsibility that was only a year or two down the road. The next minute his belt buckle hooked on the top of the steering wheel as his head shot through the windshield, night birds scattered out of the tree, the engine shut off and the car’s horn began to scream.
A lot of other people died. There was Mrs. Cain, who had been a little girl in Nagasaki in 1945 and who died of cancer in Circleville in 1979. Steve Winn, a professor friend at Marshall University, dropped dead on the street of a heart attack at age forty-five. I’ve written elsewhere about Bob Gerke, Bill Sullivan, Randy McKay and Bill Westbrook. I miss them. They died.
I drove a taxi for three-and-one-half years, equating to thirty-seven years in human time. Therefore, I feel somewhat qualified to form and express an opinion as to what type of individual selects this profession. There is something very wrong with the majority of these people. As to the few who are not disturbed prior to joining the ranks of the perpetually late and lost, it may be safely assumed that they will have fallen from Grace by the end of the first week of transporting other people for a living. Gambling, drinking, doping and womanizing are—in that order—the most common addictions to lead one into the beneath-the-radar world of the professional hack. Anyone damaged enough to believe that the glint of reflection from a poker chip, an ice cube, a hypodermic needle or a stripper’s eyes in any way leads to long term happiness is well-suited for this business, as is the distraught fellow who cons himself into believing he can actually get ahead in such a racket.
I fell into the latter category. After being robbed three times in two months, I decided I needed a different sort of clientele than one tends to find by taking calls off the dispatch radio and so went out on my own. I became a gypsy. I bought a high-mileage Lincoln Town Car, swerved through the minimal bureaucracy required for legality in Arizona, and handed out stacks of business cards.
Nearby hotels were enthusiastic. What I lacked in experience I made up for in contrast to my distant behind-the-wheel colleagues by capitalizing on the unfortunate bigotry possessed by my new select clientele. First of all, I owned my own vehicle. That meant that I kept the car in good working order and took quiet pride in the fact that whenever the Check Engine Light came on, I actually checked the engine rather than using the typical taxi driver’s solution of applying a strip of electric tape to blot out the warning signal. Second, I was not addicted to drink or drug. Third, I prioritized personal hygiene far above getting my pencil sharpened down at Madame Leah’s House of Obedience. And finally, I did not appear to come from the country of Somalia.
Six hotels accounted for ninety percent of my business. Most of these were Marriott properties and the majority of their customers were exhausted business travelers, most of whom required very basic transportation to and from the airport. The next largest chunk of my customers were personals, or what the rest of the world would call local individuals who call one specific driver for all their transportation needs. After that came a small number of drunks and occasional mystery callers whose source of referral would be murky. This latter type often may have been infuriating, but also tended to yield the best compensation, so it was a rare thing for me to pass on one of these calls, just as it was unusual for me to enjoy it.
I was asleep. The telephone rang. I grunted a greeting. It was Bobbi Jo. She said, “One of the dancers has a customer whose brother has a friend who says he might need a ride Tuesday, sometime, he’s not sure when. Are you available?”
“Who is this?” I asked, hoping to stall until my brain returned to its normal alignment.
“This is Bobbi Jo! Come on, Phil. You know who it is. Are you free Tuesday?”
I asked my dog Roscoe to check my calendar.
Bobbi Jo would feed me business like this once in a while in exchange for a free ride home from work. I remembered that I almost always got the better part of these deals, so I said “Yeah, sure,” and went back to sleep.
Sure enough, Tuesday came and a voice I did not know said over the telephone, “How long will it take you to get here?”
Some small number of people presume that their taxi driver has mental capacities which allow him or her to know everything about the customer, every detail from what the anonymous stranger looks like to his or her present location. Much as I hated to dispel this illusion, I asked, “Where are you?”
“Residence Inn,” came the soulless charcoal voice. “Eighty-Third Avenue and the 101 Freeway. I’m going to the Airport. I’m wearing a blue leisure suit. Hurry up.”
I hate being told to hurry up. Nevertheless I arrived in seven minutes. The man was not joking about the leisure suit.
I introduced myself. He slumped into the backseat. “Can I trust you?” he asked as we roared off.
I told him I thought so.
Watching my expression in the rearview mirror, he asked, “Do you know the name Cokie Roberts?”
I told him I did. “ABC News? National Public Radio?”
I watched him nod. He said, “I’m her father. I find myself in a bit of trouble. The young lady who recommended you swears that you are reliable. Do you think you can help me?”
I know my share of history, even when I’m delirious from lack of proper sleep. “Cokie Roberts’ father, you say? That would make you Hale Boggs?”
“Correct.” Pure charcoal, no soul.
“Congressman Hale Boggs from Louisiana?”
I adjusted the mirror and gave my passenger a long, soft stare. “You disappeared back in 1972, you and a guy from Alaska.”
“Your plane was never found.”
“And yet here you are in the backseat of my car.”
“Here I am.”
The man plopped into the rear of my Town Car with only two briefcases for luggage certainly looked old and crafty enough to have been a politician. I smiled into the mirror. He smiled back. I said, “Hey, you know, a lot of people have been worried sick about you! Where the hell you been?”
The normal ride to the Airport took twenty minutes. This was not an ordinary ride. So I shut my sarcastic mouth and listened. He told me that he had made trouble for himself a year before he officially disappeared. “I’d been in World War II. I’d met dignitaries and the hoi polloi. So when that pipsqueak Director of the FBI tapped my phone, well, young man, I was mortified. I marched right into the House Galley and called for the resignation of J. Edgar Hoover. Only two people had ever done that before and both of them were dead: John and Robert Kennedy. Shoot, I’d been on the Warren Commission. I knew what these FBI bastards were capable of doing. Well, the excitement died out after a while. I calmed down and after a time I didn’t give the matter much more thought. Then one day I had a visit from a fellow in New Orleans. A public figure there. He gave me information that linked the then-recent break-in at the Watergate with the assassination of JFK. He wanted my help.”
I liked this. It was much more interesting than the guy who told me he was Paula Abdul’s illegitimate grandson.
My passenger pointed to the Freeway exit, which was not the way to the Airport. I followed his instructions. He continued with his story.
“October 16, 1972. I was scheduled to board a Cessna 310C in Anchorage and fly to Juneau. My friend in New Orleans called my hotel and said I should miss that plane. So I did. I learned later that night that the plane disappeared. The Coast Guard and the Air Force searched for thirty-nine days and never did find it.”
We hopped on Route 60 westbound towards Wickenburg. I was getting uncomfortable. I asked where he had been all these years.
“I took up with an Inuit woman and we muled for some Chinese heroin traffickers. Well, we did until Sak Red—that was her name—until she burned one of the Tibetan juice guys. Since then I have been holed up on Nogales, biding my time and watching a lot of TV.”
“That’s some story,” I said, following his instructions by taking the 303 Freeway southbound. “How may I be of service, sir?” This was where I expected to be asked for a donation. But he surprised me.
He patted my shoulder. “I’m old, son. May not have a lot of spare time left. I want you to take this Route over to the I-10 and go east. That’ll take us to the Airport. Long way around. I’m going to leave one of these two briefcases in your car. Cokie’s at the Biltmore tonight. You bring her the briefcase. Tell her it’s from Tom.”
“She’ll know. Do not ask her a truckload of questions. Don’t go into any detail. Just do this for me. Here, take this.”
He folded four one hundred dollar bills into my hand.
“I’m not happy about this,” I said.
He again patted my shoulder. “We’re public servants, young man. Happy doesn’t enter in to it.”
I dropped him off at Terminal 2, the United Airlines ticket counter. He left the briefcase with me.
I floored the gas and shot over to the Biltmore Hotel. I parked alongside the jogging path, turned off my top light, and examined the case. Oxblood, fake leather, not too heavy. I pictured myself getting arrested by federal agents for handing Cokie Roberts a case full of anthrax and dynamite. I pictured myself screaming at the TSA guys, “Wait! You don’t understand! This belongs to Hale Boggs, the missing Congressman!” That did not provoke much courage in me so I flicked open the dual locks and looked inside. All I saw was a manila envelope. I took it in hand and tore it opened. I found some photographs and a note that read: “Come to my garden at Trenton and Main where the crows and the alligators stick in the drain.” Dr. Seuss had nothing to worry about. As for the pictures, there were seven of them, all shots of Cubans, all of them with the faces circled in red ink.
It was very much out of character for me to buy into a lunatic’s delusions, having more than enough of my own to consume my time, but this was so bizarre that I wondered if any of it amounted to anything. While wondering, I parked the Town Car, walked right by the smirking valet and into the old world hotel. I approached the front desk, placed the briefcase on the counter and wondered what to say.
I read the name tag of the brunette behind the counter. Jennifer asked how she could help me. I told her I had a car service and that one of my passengers had asked me to drop off something for one of the hotel’s guests.
This Jennifer’s face took on the wide-eyed stare of teenage mania. “Oh my God! Is this the package that’s for Ms. Roberts on that TV show on Sundays?”
I told her it was.
“Oh my God! I could get in like just so much trouble for telling you this.” She stopped to breathe. “Ms. Roberts was delayed or something and she won’t be here for like hours. I can put this in the hotel safe for her.”
So surprised was I to learn that Cokie Roberts was actually staying at the hotel that I stuttered out my answer that what she’d said would be just fine. I gave Jennifer the briefcase. She inventoried the meager contents, placed everything in the hotel safe, and gave me a receipt. I tipped her twenty dollars. “Oh yeah,” I said, over my shoulder as I walked away, “Be sure to tell her that briefcase is from Tom.”
I watched the evening news every night for a month, read the local and national papers, and even called a guy I barely knew at CNN. There was no news on Kennedy, Watergate, a long-missing Congressman, or anything else besides a raging war in Iraq and a booming economy for two percent of the people who lived in America.
The truth is that I probably would not remember all this in such detail except for three things. First, I looked up Hale Boggs on the Internet and there was a faint resemblance to my passenger if you added thirty-five years and used your imagination. Second, it turns out the Congressman’s real first name, which he seldom used, was Thomas. And third, a black Mercedes 450 SLC stayed in my rearview mirror for a solid week. After that it reappeared on and off for another seven days. One morning it was simply gone and I never saw it again.
The day after I dropped off the briefcase, I called the Biltmore to make sure Cokie Roberts had picked up the item I’d left for her. The front desk person sounded bewildered and transferred my call to the assistant manager, a fellow named Jeffrey. This Jeffrey told me it was against hotel policy to discuss guests with anyone and certainly I could understand that, couldn’t I? He reckoned thus even though I was obviously confused because they did not have anyone named Jennifer working at their hotel and as far as he knew they never had.
I hung up and grabbed my wallet, where I’d kept the hotel receipt. It had apparently fallen out during one of my few financial transactions.
My only other clue was Bobbi Jo, a long shot at best. I called the bar where she worked. She had been fired. Nobody knew why. The world was crazy as a soup sandwich. I taped the message about crows and alligators to my car’s visor, just for old time’s sake.
I continued to take mystery referrals over the next couple years. They helped me pay the bills and buy a little relief here and there. I never did enjoy a single one of those mystery trips, but as a wise man once told me, happy doesn’t enter into it.
Through a series of odd events, I was in attendance at a Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains in the year 2000. Knowing full well I was making a mistake by doing so, I couldn't resist the opportunity to theoretically schmooze with writers, directors, actors, composers and possibly a gaggle of moguls. The woman who invited me earned her living repping a variety of hotshot musicians who provided smarmy soundtracks to medium budget romantic comedies. She had encountered me winning a game of eight ball at a star bar on Vine and thought my impression of Fred C. Dobbs was hilarious. (Note: Fred C. Dobbs was a character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The young man I was slaughtering at pool did not share her admiration and she thought it best that we get away before he carried out his threat to do to me what the bandits did to Dobbs in the movie.
The valet took the keys to her Lexus and together we strolled by the lush garden up the wine-colored walkway to what I suppose was the front door. She pressed the intercom and the door tilted open, revealing a room bathed in dark orange. It looked like a magnificent dark room where photographers might work, but it was actually just the entryway to the rest of the house, possibly the largest house ever to permit my humble entrance. Once we felt our way through this room, another door swung open and the brightness off the outdoor pool glared through the glass walls and I found myself temporarily separated from the agent. In such a situation--not that I have been in that many such situations--I did what I always do: I adopted a false persona.
I pretended to be the Warren Beatty character in the movie Mickey One. Please understand that I am no Warren Beatty. But I had seen the movie for the second time recently and it was weighing on my mind and the suit I had fallen into resembled the one Mickey wore, so that was what I did. And so no sooner did a horde of unemployed actors swoop up the agent woman than a couple young guys positioned themselves on either side of me and continued their conversation as if I was not standing between them. You know the type. Right. I introduced myself to the one on my left. "I'm Mickey," I said. "I'm the king of the silent pictures. I'm hiding out until the talkies blow over. Will you leave me alone?"
The two bozos exchanged a nervous glance and wandered away.
The agent returned immediately with an older woman on her arm. "Gladys, mah deah," she said. "I'd like you to meet--My goodness, I never did get your name?"
Sticking with the Warren Beatty concept, I switched movies. "Clyde Barrow. This here's Bonnie Parker. We rob banks. Now you might as well know, I ain't much of a lover boy."
Gladys didn't seem to know quite what was going on, but to her credit the agent picked right up on it and asked Gladys if she had a cigar, which, strangely, she did not.
It should be noted at this point that my memory is somewhat selective. Half the time I could not tell you my own middle name, but I can remember the words to any song I've ever heard and most of the lines in any movie I've ever seen. It's a curse. The curse, for me, is that the rest of the known universe does not possess this ability and so I often recede into my own social hole, which is fine by me, at least most of the time. In this case, however, I should have been projecting my own personality. Being vastly out of my element, I pulled the chicken switch instead and remained in various characters throughout most of the evening, much to the dismay of the people who were trying harder than they should have to be nice to me.
Word got around and I found myself standing at the poolside bar trying to teach my gin and tonic to stay cold. After a few minutes of watching the ice swirl in the glass, I realized a man standing next to me was looking at me as if I might be a science experiment.
I spun to face him. He smiled. "You like the women here?" he asked.
I wasn't about to let the Beatty fixation get away just yet. "You ever listen to women talk, man? Do you? Because I do, till it's running outta my ears! I mean I'm on my feet all day long listening to women talk and they only talk about one thing: how some guy fucked 'em over, that's all that's on their minds, that's all I ever hear about! Don't you know that?"
The man took me by the hands and said, "I'm Arthur Penn. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
If the name means nothing to you, I will explain. Arthur Penn was an amazing movie director. His credits happened to include Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, and--inexplicably--Penn & Teller Get Killed.
For a moment I thought that maybe this person holding onto me was as much a loon as myself and perhaps had deluded himself, or, on second thought, that he was some aging hipster who was playing the same kind of game I was. I studied his face a few moments longer and realized that I was in the hands of greatness and therefore allowed him to spin me around where I stood face to face with the man whose characters I had been embalming all evening.
He did not introduce himself, for there was no need. He just said, "I was listening to you earlier. You're good. I mean, I think you're good. He is good, isn't he, Arthur?"
Let me say this: Warren Beatty is and was one fine looking fellow. He looks just like he does in the movies. And he really has perfect hair. He is so good looking that even men want to sleep with him. I can't imagine what women feel.
Before Arthur had a chance to confirm or deny my goodness, I jumped into my own personality and revealed for all to see just why it is often more wise to pretend to be someone else. What I said to Warren Beatty--Warren Fucking Beatty!!!--was: "It all started with you and Arthur Penn. You guys completely changed the way people understand motion pictures. Without you guys, sure, I know, Godard, Truffaut, all that French New Wave stuff, yes, but they were just giving us back movies from the Forties. You guys took what they were doing and Americanized it and made movies real in ways they never had been before, at least before fucking Spielberg and Lucas ruined it for everyone with goddamned blockbusters."
Beatty smiled at me. He smiled the gracious smile one delivers to an orphan on Christmas. He said, "Arthur, do you have that phone number for me?"
And with that they were gone. I never did reconnect with the agent woman. I had the valet call a taxi for me.
It was said by those who knew me best that my most endearing behaviors reflected what might well be thought of as acute immaturity. On his point I must agree. A shift towards responsibility did begin after my father died in July 2002. As Ben Stone said to Adam Schiff in the TV drama "Law and Order," it is said that a boy never truly becomes a man until his father passes away. So it was with me, at any rate. Even after that most sad event, I clung to adolescence the way someone might cling to a knotted rope strung out over a pit of nervous crocodiles.
I would ask that the Reader keep that thought in mind while scanning the biography of a man unknown to far too many and known far too well by only a few. It has been suggested by those who care to concern themselves with such matters that I was often influenced by women far more than by men, or that my motivations were to gain favor with the feminine majority rather than with the hairy, barrel-chested brutes who often tried to enlist my company. The reality--at least, the reality I perceive--is that while I wished to be thought well of by everyone, regardless of gender, I imagined that I stood a somewhat better chance of being admired by women than by men. It is perhaps one curse of being an only child that the poor thing has no one in the family with whom he or she can bounce ideas with and so aims higher, often towards whichever parent provides the fairest opportunity.
To illustrate this point and to at long last begin the report at hand, I shall relate what may now be seen as a somewhat humorous anecdote of my early youth, one which, rest assured, I took little amusement in at the time, but which I believe will illuminate everything that has followed me in my life.
Mere days after my fifth birthday, I attended my mother (Martha Ellen Spradlin Mershon) to the Big Bear grocery store in the river town of Portsmouth, Ohio. This would have been in the year 1963, probably a month or so before the assassination of President John Kennedy. My mother entrusted me to wander off on my own, knowing full well that I hadn't any money and so could not waste said currency on what she considered to be nonsense.
This impulse towards nonsense was a reasonable concern of hers in no small part because of an argument that had preceded our visit to the grand ourse.
My breakfast cereal of choice in those days was Honeycomb [There is some argument about the possibility of this choice. According to reliable sources, the Honeycomb cereal was not available until the year 1965, and yet the author steadfastly maintains that his recollection as to the year and brand are beyond reproach.] I did not in fact so much favor the honey-flavored cereal bits in a honeycomb shape as I did the plastic automobile miniature replicas, i.e., toy cars, that came in the boxes of this brand of cereal. This promotion by Post Foods had been in process throughout much of the summer and was certain to be terminated soon, so I bowed to the psychological pressure brought down on my tiny head by the marketing department of the corporation and thus determined insomuch as it was possible that I would possess my own collection of every color automobile the Honeycomb people could offer. Green, red, blue, yellow and purple were the available options, the cars themselves all being otherwise identical four-door sedans without much else in the way of personality. At this time, I already had half a dozen green and a smattering of all the other colors except for one: I did not own a purple generic plastic automobile and I believed that failing the acquisition thereof, I might well fling myself into the tepid waters of Pond Creek and drown among the toad frogs and water moccasins.
And so this particular Saturday morning I strolled up one aisle and down another, giving my mother ample time to lose herself amid the anticipatory selections of coffee, meats and eggs. Of course I knew where the cereal aisle was. Every child in town--indeed the whole of the continent--knew where her or his cereal aisle sat. Mine was in aisle five and at long last I gained control of myself and sauntered as if I had no especial concern or desire when in fact what I aimed to do was to tear apart those boxes of Honeycomb until I found one with the very special toy surprise.
I had by this point already discovered that the cereal company dropped the cars into the bottom of the cereal box, presumably so the kids would have to eat all the yuck before being rewarded with the fabulous plastic prize. It had of course already been in my head to simply invert the box once I was at home and start at the end and finish at the beginning. But the bottom of the cereal boxes lacked any type of industrious flap that would allow the anxious child to reseal the rancid cereal product after extracting his prized possession.
My mother had made it quite clear, you may rest assured, that no more packages of Honeycomb cereal would waltz their way into our home until such time as I had eaten the other five boxes I had opened and then delightedly abandoned.
I stood next to the shelf with the hint of glazed sugar and flavor extracts dancing before my quivering nostrils. The yellow-colored box with a bowl the size of Utah on the cover smiled across the inches to me. Boxes of the cereal crammed the shelves, each with a special bulletin urging that I buy the box now because in no time at all those fabulous plastic cars in five breath-taking colors would be gone, gone, gone forever.
I grabbed the first box, turned it upside down, ripped open the bottom, shredded the plastic inner container, and pulled out--another green car! "Damn!" I shouted, just as I knew my father would have said had he found himself in a similar situation. "Damn it all to hell." Had there been prizes awarded for cursing, I believed my father would have had shelves of trophies and plaques. I was not so virtuous as to be beyond coveting such recognitions and had been practicing my own versions of swear words. "Shitty shit shit," I muttered, dropping the first box and seizing the next.
I availed myself of an impressive vocabulary of nasty words that morning before I at long last came upon a box that did indeed honor me with the long-sought after and heretofore never attained purple fucking car! That morning was I believe the first time I had used that word in public. My parents never uttered it whenever they believed me to be within earshot, but I had heard it all the same and had come to understand that it was a word to either be saved for the end of the argument or, conversely, one to be used to express the pinnacle of glutinous delight. Such delight I had to that point never experienced and I am certain I explored every conjugation of the verb that had ever existed.
It was while in the midst of doing my celebratory dance that I felt an unwanted hand grip my shoulder and spin me around.
I looked up at the face above the body and saw what looked to be a stock boy. I know he had blue thumbs from stamping products with his price machine. He also had a hint of acne and a somewhat unattractive haircut.
The stock boy shouted with what I can only describe as an unearned glee: "You! So you are the one who's been doing this! Caught you at last!"
The apprehending of John Dillinger had not been met with such self-congratulatory exhortations.
The little nit of an employee strong-armed me into the store manager's office, a tiny glass room that reeked of cigarettes and coffee. The two men laughed as I sat scowling in the ante-room, awaiting whatever fate awaits plastic car thieves.
At last the manager waddled his massive jelly frame out the door with his stooge salivating behind him. The big man leaned down towards me with his hands behind his back and said, "What is your name, son?"
"You go to hell."
It was a sentence I would repeat with some regularity the rest of the morning. In fact, every time someone--the manager, the stock boy, the eventual police officer--demanded I reveal my secret identity, I responded with the same four-word directive.
"Sour little snot, ain't he?" the cop observed. "Alright, then. Off to the pokey he goes, to be leered after by various hoodlums and ne'erdowells."
I held the jail cell bars just as I had witnessed many a convict before me in movies and on TV. I pressed my five-year-old face against those bars and as one after another disfigured officer of the local version of law and order would parade past me, I would grumble that he too should dance among the fiery blazes of the devil. Across the hall in the other cell, some putrid drunk wiped vomit off his chin and cried for his mommy. I told him to go to hell too.
"Funny thing is," said one cop to another. "He's a cute kid. Looks not to be the kind to get into trouble. Well-kempt, tidy. But what a mouth."
"Cute as the dickens."
"He is. He is just that cute."
"You go to hell."
"See. That's what ruins it."
In half an hour or so, my mother arrived to settle the score. Someone at the grocery had alerted her to my situation, she had taken care of the cost of the cereal boxes (a luxury we could have ill afforded at that time, though she never remarked about it to me), and drove herself to the local police headquarters, which, somehow, I recall as being on Second Street.
"Here's our master criminal in here, ma'am."
My mom did not acknowledge the officer's attempt at humor. She tapped the toe of one foot to add to the cop's nervousness as he unlocked the cell door. I ran out and resisted the strong impulse to fall up against my mother's leg and cry until I turned ninety. Instead, I reached up and allowed her soft, strong hand to engulf my own smaller one. We turned to leave and were nearly at the door when I felt my mother halt.
She turned and I heard in her voice a tone I had heard at home more than once. "Officers of the law, are you? You can all go straight to hell."