|Jul/Aug 2009 Salon|
Blessed Be the Ties That Bind
I'm in a nudist camp in this one. And here's the thing. I'm not all that mortified. I'm walking around naked as a jaybird, and I got a smile on my face like a man with a satisfied mind and a cigar.
And everybody else is walking around naked, too. In the nudist camp. And we're just looking at each other. All the men looking like Walter Matthau. And the women like Mrs. Wilson from the Dennis the Menace comics. We're all wearing shit-eating grins. And nobody is acting like they're not looking. They're just taking it in. And it's all fine.
I don't know what came over me. I went all Babbitt. I started flicking guys with a gym towel. I shouted things. I initiated group sing-a-longs. I was naked and middle aged and sloshing around like a water balloon.
There was a sudden still-shot. And it was of that Rousseau painting of the guys in leisurewear playing volley ball.
I had no shame.
And then I woke up.
Smiling. I woke up smiling. Heh, heh. Like a goat.
The Krishnas were out of control. They dressed in clown costumes with big red noses and prop-paint cans that said ISKON on the side. They were making a lot of noise.
Hinduism was like some flooding river.
I saw Pure Land Buddhists carrying placards. I saw wealthy young ladies with boyish flapper bodies in love with Krishnamurti.
The storefront Bishops and 125th St. Music Store Prophets were selling Casio keyboards. They had mimeographs and high smelling dittos full of testimonies and witnesses.
There was this guy in front of the Wurlitzer store in the mall. He was playing "The Entertainer" real slow.
The Jews were wearing hats and cracking wise.
The Muslims were weaving obligatory/ecstatic patterns which kind of riled up the Irish rug makers. There were controversies and questions of authorship concerning labyrinths.
I was dressed in my baptismal robes. I was washed whiter than snow.
I asked them to quiet down. I stood at the mike and tried to call them to order.
Joseph Smith was right there in front too, challenging any one who would come, to two falls out of three. The Zoasterians did the wave. A marvel of mass coordination. And out there somewhere behind the bleachers a couple of Carthusians refused to shout.
I tapped the mike. I read the public service announcements about the brown acid. And reminded people to hydrate frequently.
All that was going on.
But time stopped and split. And a whole other movie started to play on a different screen.
I can't tell you what I saw on the other screen. It would mean erasing everything that was on the first screen. The screen with the mike and the veiled Jains and Rastafarians and African Exorcists and old ladies who attend lectures at the Ethical Culture Society.
And you can't see what I saw without the first screen. The screen with the Methodists and Thuggees and hash-crazed Assassins and twirlers of Mother Ann Lee. You gotta have both screens if you're going to stop seeing double.
Aw what the hell. That lady up there on stage from Jefferson Airplane, she just keeps yelling about "morning maniac music." And the silence coming from beyond is intoxicating. It speaks like a lover gasping.
I'll keep my eye on both screens. And trust that I am watched.
I was at the Second Avenue Deli before it moved to Thirty-Third and Third, eating a corned beef sandwich with brown mustard on rye and a root beer. (You gotta take half the meat off to eat it.)
A waitress with shaved eyebrows and a wig asked me how I liked my sandwich. I adjusted my toupee, stroked my Van Dyke, and swallowed.
"Fine," I said.
"Glad you're enjoying it," she said.
"You and me both, sister", I said.
She pulled up her bra strap and gave me a wink.
I winked back at her.
We were on the same page.
"Hey baby," I said, "when you get off?"
"Who wants to know?" she says.
"Me, myself, and I," I say.
"You don't say?" she said.
This was getting us nowhere.
"You going my way, baby?" I asked.
"I guess I got to take the next train, soldier," she said.
"That's the way the cards fall, doll."
"You said it, mister."
"You're alright, sister."
"You're okay, mister."
Corned beef on rye. Man, it just melts in your mouth. Eat a pickle. I'm just saying. It's good.
I was riding with the invisible Jesus. Riding with the King. And boys. Let me tell you. We were bad.
Communiqué # 91863
Nothing to report tonight. Or at least next to nothing. All the technical boys and girls went home. Nobody here to dress the actors or set the stage. It's just us. Beneath the lights. On the boards.
And we are losing the signal. Late night radio. We're almost out of bounds. Beyond the reach of the great transmitters. On the edge of town.
There are reports of fires. On the outskirts.
It's all static and signal. It's all about turning each and every way. Like a Heliotrope. And standing by the TV in certain positions because the antenna can't. You move your arm into position. With a certain touch. And signal comes clear.
We're in the borderlands, boys. We're in Twilight.
And a voice comes over the air.
"Can you hear me Radio Free Europe? Come in, Radio Free Europe. This is Jesse James."
"Copy that, Jesse James, we read you and we clear you. Go ahead Jesse James."
And a voice comes over the air.
"Radio Free Europe. This is Jesse James. Communiqué Number 91863. Ready to commence."
"This is Radio Free Europe. Go ahead. Jesse James."
"When it comes to these things it's a matter of, "you frame the question, you own the answer.'"
"This is Radio Free Europe to Jesse James. Does this complete your message?"
"This is Jesse James to Radio Free Europe. Yes. Yes, this completes our message."
"When it comes to these things it's a matter of, 'you frame the question, you own the answer.'"
"Over and out."
"Yes, this is Jesse James saying, 'over and out.'"
Then we lost the signal.
So that's what we got. I can assure you our agents will be on it promptly.
The security of the homeland will not be compromised. We've got agents in every sector. And they are monitoring the transmissions.
Beyond this I got nothing to report. Reception was fuzzy. There is lightning over sector seven. There is weather in the Midwest. But the front office just won't leave off.
Signing off now. Buck Rogers of the Twenty-First Century. On this endless night. Wilma, you look great. Don't forget we got that thing on Thursday.
I got bubkis.
There were no more heroic movements left. No more postures. Tai Chi was out the window.
It was a little unnerving to see the flesh without the shell. Quivering. Vulnerable.
I thought about oysters. Delmonico's in the spring. Garlic and butter.
They say they've converted the old Minetta's Tavern into a five star steakhouse. Had a big write up in the Times. Right there on MacDougal Street.
How you gonna get a prize fighting palooka to eat arugala, would you tell me that? We're talking mobbed up welterweights in the forties.
It was just so naked though. The flesh. Vulnerable and hungry.
How they gonna prosecute us for our conch shells, would you tell me that? All those Mad Priests and Jargon-Intoxicated Ones? Judges, Professionals, and Car Dealership Owners?
Our flesh so naked. And quivering?
The sea gulls are hungry. And they are very efficient.
I Woke Up and I Couldn't Find My Michigan Driver's License
I was walking among the unfinished statues. Michelangelo was in one of his moods. Couldn't work.
There were souls waiting to be born.
That's not it.
There were souls waiting to be revealed.
Remove what is not necessary. Let stone marble dance.
It's the least we can do.
Anyway. There were countless masterpieces just sitting there. Unfinished. The actual amount of material to be removed was prohibitive.
And you could feel the insistence of the souls. And you could feel the resistance of the stone.
Fuck it. Let's go with the plastics. (Insert here stock footage of Dustin Hoffman.)
Aw Jeeze. Let's just say it out loud. That was kind of heroic. Some American thing. We have become accustomed to breaking with precedent. In the long-shadowed sixties. When Mrs. Robinson wept. We are always three steps toward the door, sir. Just give me three steps. Like Stagger Lee. Like Andrew Carnegie.
The gravity plagued stone. Unfinished masterpieces. They needed to be stored. They were in the way. We had to store all our stuff.
If we were going to actually make a stand in our own time. And make a run for it.
Anyway. I'm going to keep chipping away. Removing what is not necessary. On the hunk of plastic stone I got. My plastic psychedelic hunk of stone.
It is a goal of mine to be naked on the day I die.
I sing the body electric.
I let go. I let slide. I take up. I hang on. Come on baby, do the locomotion with me. Never mind the bollocks.
Either way. Michelangelo is going to be pissed.
I don't really see what else I can do, though. I'm still here. In New York. And I'm driving on an out of state license.
I'm Not Dreaming
You take your clothes off and you're naked. Water down hill. It has got to go that way.
If you look long enough, you can see the stage hands.
I got full of myself so that I could be empty.
I emptied myself so that I could taste fullness.
Either way, it's about liquidity.
Either way, it's about plumbing.
An honest day's work for an honest day's pay.
If you look long enough, you can see them moving the scenery.
Awe jeeze. It's a command performance, ain't it?
Listen here, Father.
I'm still here. Milking every ounce of absence for all its worth.
I got jazz hands.
But there are other things afoot. There are other imperatives. Water running down hill.
My character is going to develop. Like a ghost in a Polaroid.
As I lay down my burden, down by the riverside.
Blown away—point blank—by Presence, blood on the saddle.
It hurts so much, it must be true.
Jesus in the Trees
There was a swampy field by my house, and in the middle of the swampy field was a dead tree. Vertical driftwood. This was in Michigan.
I knew this kid from the subdivision. We did stuff. Used to steal hood ornaments and sometimes pry off the letters from cars. You know. Like FORD and PONTIAC. The letters used to just pop out with a screwdriver.
We used to do this stuff in the shadow of the Motor City and the UAW and I don't think either one of us understood why or what we were doing—except for maybe the thrills.
We did other things too. Like light bottle rockets. And tie strings to garbage cans on either side of Becker Road—all dirt and fireflies—and whooped and hollered when they smashed the sides of unsuspecting speeding cars at night. The tied trash cans. And ran like hell because the smash and crash was something to behold.
There was a swampy field and in the middle of it was this dead tree. It was something else. Eerie and iconic. It stood there like the sacred.
Anyway. It felt that way to me. The tree was a signpost. Like a Joshua Tree. But in Michigan.
I'd seen other signposts. One was in Illinois. It was an upside down tree. Hit by a tornado. Half its roots dangled and reached in the air. The tree had major mojo.
This kid and I from the subdivision were out in the swampy field by the dead tree. There were really, really pissed off jaybirds dive bombing us. Warning us away. From the sacred.
We wacked the dead tree with sticks. We were being cavalier. And tough.
But then the kid from the subdivision starts pushing the trunk and the dead tree kind of cracks. And it became clear that you could maybe actually tear that old building down. Snap it at the weak spot. Break it at its roots.
Something happened to me. When that tree cracked and the air was filled with its musty smell. I turned on my friend. Kid from the subdivision.
I told him to stop.
He wasn't listening. He'd heard the crack as well as I had and it had felt good to destroy. I knew that feeling too. There was a joy in destroying.
But I didn't like this. I told him to stop.
He didn't and I hit him as hard as I could. Right in the face with a closed fist.
Every lunge against the tree felt personal. It hurt. I mean. Physically.
I hit him again. Until he started to fight back but then stopped. I think I must have freaked him out. I could feel the heat in my eyes. My mother had it too. The heat in the eyes. He just stopped and went home.
We never talked about it again and we even continued to hang out afterwards. Like it had never happened. Even continued to light bottle rockets.
I found a foundation beneath which I wouldn't fall. I hadn't known it was there.
The swampy field. The dead tree in the center. It was a signpost. The incarnation of the sign and the signified.
Anyway. It was the summer of Three Mile Island. Jesus was in the trees like the high trilling of cicadas. My sister was imploding. Running away from home and plunging through windshields. He was calling. He was calling.
And my scuffed knuckles had already disqualified me. Condemned me. I was abject. Had not turned the other cheek.
I went home confused and excited. Tainted.
But the following night he was out there in the trees again. Jesus. Like he didn't care. High lonesome. High trilling. Calling to me. Calling to me.
I heard the Toby Tyler call of the circus. I heard the Huck Finn call of the open road. Let the dead bury the dead. Like playing the Devil's music. The lonesome whistle of Illinois freight trains in Michigan.
I felt ashamed. And redeemed. I felt horny and expectant like later when I was a little bit older and would drive to Ann Arbor all alone and prowl the city in my Dad's army fatigue jacket. I felt the sanctity.
That night, anyway. I was too scared and ran back home to Mama. Or to her presence. Her nest. I ran back to homes with sliding glass doors. I ran back to Michigan.
Something like thirty years later, I'm here in New York. No sleep tonight. No dreams. I still hear Jesus in the trees. Calling. Calling. Here in the city and across the continent.
He's calling me to come join him out there in the swampy field with the dead tree in the center. He's calling me to the places you're not supposed to be. This house is haunted.
I used to think that there was something that lived in the trees that doesn't love you. I was wrong. It does love you.
And that is the most frightening thing I know.
The Next Best Thing To Eden
In this one I was sleeping with Bonnie Parker—as in Bonnie and Clyde—and I was sleeping with Bernadette Dorhn. And I was waking up. Waking up each morning with Sarah Palin.
(I'm a happily married man. This dream was meant to disturb. God, if nothing else, is a provocation.)
I was intoxicated with ruin. I was enthusiastic about no way out. In this one.
It was as if my soul were showing late night movies. "Shock Corridor". "Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!"
There were large hunks of California. And Jimmy Cagney in "The Public Enemy". There was Nathan Detroit. And Arnold Rothstein throwing the 1919 World Series. There's a sucker born every minute. And Meyer Lansky. I saw Bugsy Siegal and the lost children of Las Vegas. Crystal Meth. And a water shortage.
I saw skateboard punks in Bergen County and gangland Disciples recruits on the basketball courts of Oak Park and Berwyn in the 90's.
"The Wild Ones" and Altamont.
I saw Tammany Hall and Mayor Daly. I saw Labor Goons. And Mobland Enforcers. I saw Pinkertons and the National Guard.
I saw John Dillinger shot down in an alley right there by the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park. And Joey Gallo in some clam joint in Little Italy.
I saw P.T. Barnum and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. And Sitting Bull.
I saw Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly. I saw Ma Barker all stupid with a bullet in her head. Dead. And Alvin Karpis teaching Charlie Manson to play guitar. And Al Capone with his soup kitchens.
I saw Efrem Zimbalist Jr. starring in "The FBI", sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, and Faye Dunaway looking sexy in a beret. And J. Edgar Hoover in drag.
I saw it all. In my dreams. And in my dreams. I kept waking up with Sarah Palin.
Like maybe the point was that it just don't add up to much.
In this dream. This American dream. In which Richard Nixon keeps walking as bold as you please like Senator Joseph McCarthy or Father Coughlin or Rush Limbaugh. Rick Santorum.
The Rosenbergs were guilty as hell.
And I kept waking up with Sarah Palin.
None of this does justice to my actual dream. In fact. The same dream or dreams that awakened each and every one of these ghosts. There was more that could not be expressed in facts. More like Michael Jordan impossibly hanging in space. And hitting the basket.
I shot Abe Lincoln in the back and then I jumped from the balcony shouting "Sic semper tyrannis".
And then I woke up confident that this time it would be different. Next year in Jerusalem.
I could find no place from which it was okay to be contemptuous.
I was implicated. I was awake. And then I woke up.
A citizen. Always looking for the next best thing to Eden.
You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows
The king commissioned a new state portrait. And the PR boys came up with a humdinger. It was a mirror. Everybody saw what they wanted to see. And I shit you not. It was a slam dunk.
It was all high fives and you-da-mans.
Like we'd made the cover of the Rolling Stone. Time Magazine's Person of the Year.
Anyways. I was chewing my juicy fruit—and let me tell you boys, this was when I was still dating the Doublemint Twins—and I started looking at the new official state portrait.
I was just chewing my gum and looking at the king.
Damned if I didn't see Richard Milhous Nixon.
Bubblegum all over my face and ugliness in my heart.
It was then that I knew that the king must die.
I woke up and I was all bloody. I mean. Head to toe. Like I was implicated. Blood of the Lamb. And this was important. Being all bloody.
I really do have very delicate hands.
But I was covered in it. All that blood. Like there just wasn't a good explanation. My naked body was sticky and stained and my hair was matted.
The dog was desperately trying to clean me off with his tongue. He was frantic and personally affronted. He was kind of going berserk. Desperate with devotion. Trying to protect me.
He's a good scout. The dog. Though I knew the blood was making him crazy. Blood of the lamb. Stirring up old ancestral memories and the call of the wild.
So I was having trouble just standing there naked and bloody. Like a newborn. Just dripping with afterbirth and blood. The dog was anxious to bring everything back to normal.
Dogs are inveterate conservatives. They take change as a personal insult and do not condone from the pack acts of recklessness or innovation.
Nonetheless, there I was. As if fresh from the scene of a murder. Guilty as hell. A man without an alibi.
It felt good. A long time coming.
I'll make it up to the dog later.
I just wanted to stink in the sun awhile. All born again. And implicated.
Jonah and the Whale
I feel like a wrought iron fence, properly anchored in cement, slowly twisting like a screw.
When I was younger I used to dream of stone statues becoming animated. The screech and stretch of stone moving into motion was horrible.
You don't want to hear that sound.
The other day walking down Broadway up near Columbia, I saw a man drowning in slow motion in hardened concrete. He was just there and no one was paying attention. It was horrible. The descent was so slow. But I could hear the concrete sucking on his ankles like quick sand. It seemed personal.
On another occasion I saw Walter Benjamin's angel of history. Always being blown backwards into the future. Arms extended. Hands grasping. At the flotsom and jetsom.
It was on Woodhaven Blvd., by the Home Depot. He was calling my name, like some panhandler.
Man, I resented it. It felt like a cheap shot.
And then on a Tuesday down in the Fashion District Elijah tried to sell me a watch. It was made of buttons. His face was on fire and ravens were pecking out his eyes.
It was right there by the Garden. I was good though. I pretended like I didn't see it.
But then, yesterday, I saw St. Francis eating Halel on the steps of the Queens Center Mall. His teeth were sharp and the blood streaming from his five wounds mixed with lamb grease and ran into the gutter and I vomited. Just puked my guts out. Right there on the street.
I seemed to remember some time with the carnival when I drank the blood of chickens, two shows a night, for a pint.
You just can't get lower than a carnival geek.
It's enough to make you a vegetarian.
I saw myself scarfing up dirt when no one was looking because I was hungry. Just shoving clods and dirt and mud into my mouth like I was afraid someone would take them away from me. Rutting deep in the soil. Furtive. Growling. And panicked.
I saw everything I was afraid of. Down at the crossroads. And just looked at it.
And it looked at me. Everything I was afraid of.
Licking its lips. Some horrible devouring God. Some racing engine. Waiting for me to fall. Like a locomotive. Like an Octopus. Leviathan. One more sinner in the hands of an angry God.
And we were just standing there staring at each other. Me and everything I was afraid of.
And I stood my ground. At least for that moment. I stared back and gave all the heat I could to my eyes.
And after awhile, having given notice, I averted my eyes.
Sometimes the peace that passeth understanding isn't really a peace at all.
Through the cracks I could feel the warmth and love. It was welling up like tears. Like everything that has been promised. Like everything that has flowed through me.
And then. For the first time. I was really frightened. There was no place to hide. Not even a costume. Or a fig leaf.
I woke up trembling. Truly, truly, disturbed.
In this one I was pumping water at the well. Priming the pump. And then waiting until the water ran clear. Pump. Pump. Pump.
And it came clear.
And I couldn't find a connection between the Americans before World War II and the Americans after. Much seemed to depend upon this connection. In the dream. Entire family histories and contests between fathers and sons. Mothers and daughters. Cain and Abel. Lives in the balance.
The victors write history.
I was pumping and my arm was getting tired. Waiting for the water to come clear.
I got bits of clotted Steinbeck and great hunks of John Dos Passos ripped from midsections. The water was running rusty.
There were chunks of Mark Twain that looked like Gefellte Fish in a jar and Jay Gatsby strolling across Long Island lawns.
America came in a parade. A succession of floats and Cadillacs. She was proud and matronly. She danced low down and moaned the Georgia Crawl. She marched for Suffrage and tended the hearth fires. I saw Carrie Nation and Sarah Palin. I saw Mata Hari and Little Sheba in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Then came Wild Bill Hickock and Doc Holiday. And John Dillinger and this guy who killed two people holding up an Edward Hopper gas station in Utah in the early seventies.
I saw the Oddfellows and the Rotarians. I saw the Eagles and the Shriners. I saw the Klu Klux Klan and the Daughters of the American Revolution. I saw business men on Main Street in Short Sleeved Shirts. I saw the Knights of Columbus and the Masons. I saw the Good Citizens.
And then great big chunks of Cyndi Lauper videos and Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls having a Personality Crisis. And the Moral Majority. And Operation Rescue. And credit cards.
I saw Romper Room and Tom Terrific. I saw the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and my father panicking in Ann Arbor during Hash Bash in 1980.
I saw the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee. I saw Action Figures and Market Segments. I saw purchasing power and Pokemon. I saw Rock and Roll and the Twist. I saw for myself that there ain't no cure for the summer time blues.
I saw George Wallace and Fred Hampton. I saw the Lesbian Collective march down Main Street in Seneca Falls dressed in topless womb costumes in 1989. (They were installed in a permanent protest against nuclear weapons just outside the Army Depot where the frogs turned white and deer were born with five legs—and were surprised when the locals focused on their topless lesbian marches more than the fact that frogs were turning white and deer were being born with five legs and their children were drinking the water.)
My arm was getting tired.
I couldn't find the connection. The volume had been turned up. Rush Limbaugh was getting loud. In the 90's.
I saw pictures of my ancestors. Old photographs. Guys in overalls and women haunted by childbirth. Gaunt. Fierce. Avaricious as the sea.
We don't look like them. We aren't that hungry.
It woke me up.
The water ran clear. Like one more escape from Eden.
I woke up laughing. Laughing until it hurt. Really enjoying it too. Just a really good dream.
Like a bloody cut under cold water and direct pressure. Running clear.
They tore up the roots. There is no connection.
We're on our own, children.
Time to dream ourselves up a new America.