Monday, January 31, 2011

demon summer

The summer of 1995 was a weird time in my life. I broke up with a girl. Shree Ram was her name. No joke. This is totally beside the point but when I took a yoga several years later, all of the instructor's incantations were punctuated with what sounded to me like 'shree ram.' The turning inward into the self, the achievement of a heightened level of self awareness, is a practice that enables you to feel more connected to the world around you, shree ram.’ Or, ‘your body is a sacred gift and should be treated as the blessing that it is, shree ram.'
I wondered what the fuck was up with this shree ram thing. Was it some kind of practical joke being played on me, like they used to do on Candid Camera, and then at some point the actual Shree Ram would appear from behind a curtain? …Shree Ram was a good person. Very sweet. We just weren’t right for each other. I’m not right for a lot of people, but especially not for Shree Ram. When we first got together, she said to me, ‘the thing about the two of us is that we’re both very good catches. It’s why we’re together. We deserve each other...’ How can you possibly take someone seriously after they've said something like this to you? I hated being brought into her wildly inflated self-concept like this. I looked at her with a pained smile on my face. ‘I’m no catch,’ I thought to myself, ‘and if I’m not a catch then you’re definitely not a catch either. Maybe that's why we're together.' But if I felt this way, why did I continue being with her? I don’t know. These things tend to take on a life of their own. Shree always had a hard time with my innate cynicism. When in doubt, the most cynical answer is more than likely correct. I've found this to be the case, and so Shree was too earnest to live comfortably in my world. She was also a very spiritual person, whereas I'm a materialist and an atheist. Somehow I always end up with women who take spirituality very seriously. I find the ability to believe attractive, even if I don't share it. Unfortunately, my inability to believe and unwillingness to participate often get construed as mockery or contemptuousness. It reminds me of the way people close to me always think I'm joking, even when I'm dead serious. I give off a detached vibe, I suppose, one that makes it seem as if I'm privately making fun of the things I don't believe in. And since I believe in so little, it seems like I'm making fun of almost everything...

I met Shree when I first moved to California. I was adrift and uncertain about my future. I knew I wanted to go back to graduate school, but where and in what field? I had a lot of great ideas about the things I wanted to do, none of them particularly practical. Why is it that the things that appeal to me most are always so impractical? I wanted to be some kind of intellectual universalist – read: dilettante – with far-reaching knowledge in the areas of literature, social and political science, philosophy, sociology, history, economics.

I imagined myself becoming a latter-day Max Weber, or C. Wright Mills. I wanted to be a generalist at a time when universities were increasingly training specialists with specific training in very narrowly defined areas. I felt then, as I still often do now, as if there just wasn’t a place in the world for someone like me, and I didn’t know if I could make myself fit in. But moving to California so I could get into a program at a UC school seemed like a wise thing to do. California was running on the last faint fumes of its mid-century glory. The demographics were changing so radically. There was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment swirling around. The feel was very similar to what we're going through in the present. The economy was bad, though not nearly as bad as today.…

Berkeley was my first stop on the West Coast. A family friend offered to let me stay in his guest house on San Juan Avenue in the Berkeley hills. Shree was the live-in babysitter for their young son, and she was very nice to me, driving me around town and showing me all the hot spots on Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues.
We were walking on Telegraph one night after dinner when a riot broke out in People’s Park. The one thing I hate about Berkeley is the way it refuses to let go of the 60s. It was 1991 and they were still rioting over People’s Park! For all I know, they’re still rioting over it today. I’m as nostalgic for the 60s as can be, just not the part where smelly middle class white kids live on the street with their mangy dogs, beg for change, and riot over the ownership rights to some shitty little park. Give me the Beatles. Give me the civil rights movement. Give me free love. Give me the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. But I can do without the smelly faux hobos starting riots.

During those first few weeks in Berkeley, Shree and I went to movies together, hung out, and laughed a lot. She got my sense of humor, and I developed a big crush on her. I felt understood. Understanding is a big turn on. But I lacked confidence, and she didn’t seem to like me in that way. Then summer turned to fall and she returned to college on the East Coast for her senior year. Eight months later, in spite of retard-level GRE scores, I somehow got accepted to UCLA’s graduate program in sociology and moved to Los Angeles, three days before the Rodney King riots…

I don’t really remember the circumstances under which I reconnected with Shree except that our paths crossed while I was visiting my family in New York after my second year at UCLA. We became romantically involved, but it was a long-distance relationship, Shree in Pennsylvania, working for some weirdo theater company, me in LA, working on a graduate degree in sociology. But long-distance relationships never work. They make the time you spend together way too fraught. After a year or so of long-distance lovin', Shree agreed to move to LA. She even had her stuff shipped to my apartment. But she got cold feet and never made it. She's one of those Bay Area people who hates the Southland. I can't stand the Bay Area, and I really can't stand people from the Bay Area who look down their noses at LA. Once Shree started to vacillate and express doubts, I put an end to things and cut her out of my life completely. I don't do well with ambivalence and ambiguity. I treat ambivalence towards me as a full-fledged rejection. I was actually kind of mean to Shree. She sent me letters, begging me to at least hear her out, but by then I felt like the toothpaste was out of the tube. I would never be able to trust her again. I did cruel things, like returning a letter of hers back to her with a red C- at the top of it. Something about her being uncertain about me brought out my nasty side. I didn't hear from her again until a few weeks after 9/11. She found my email address and wrote asking me if my family was ok. Like I said, she's very sweet. But she also wanted to engage with me, figuring that enough time had passed (six years) for us to now have a dialogue about why things went bad between us, or, more to the point, why I closed off communication with her in the midst of her uncertainty about moving to LA and having a life with me. I didn't really want to have this conversation with her at this point, so I wrote her back a terse note that made as much clear...

While my relationship with Shree was falling apart, so too were the 1995 California Angels. I had adopted the Angels as a kind of stepchild alongside my 'real' family, the New York Mets. The Halos were absolutely terrible during my first few years in So-Cal. I used to go to the Big A on Friday nights with a buddy of mine and there'd be less than 10,000 fans in the stands. The place was lifeless. But I didn't care. Put a baseball game in front of me under almost any circumstances and I bliss out. The season was cancelled in 1994 when the players' strike couldn't be resolved, but play resumed again in '95. The Angels that year had a very likable team and started playing well for manager Marcel Lacheman. I loved guys like JT Snow, Tim Salmon, Chili Davis, Troy Percival, Rex Hudler, Lee Smith, Mark Langston... Salmon in particular looked like some sort of Southern California Captain America Bible Study dude. Guys like that are at once repulsive and alluring to me in a way that I can't fully account for. You know they're probably religious simpletons with right-wing political views, and yet you admire them all the more because of it.. ...On August 16th of the '95 season, the Angels held an 11-game lead over the Seattle Mariners, but then they proceeded to go on two separate nine-game losing streaks and lost the division to the Mariners in a one-game playoff on October 2. It is widely regarded as one of the most epic collapses in the history of the game and was very tough to sit through. ...I have a recurrent dream in which I'm looking out the window of the apartment I grew up in, peering down at the New York street from 14 floors up. A station wagon is bounding down the avenue. My parents are in the station wagon. My dad is driving. From my perch I can see that he's about to accelerate through a yellow light. I know he's not going to make the light and that he's about to crash into a taxi cab. I can see the crash developing the split second before it happens, but there's nothing I can do about it. I'm powerless. This is how the Angels made me feel that summer. With each crushing defeat, and the lead in the AL West shrinking every day, I knew how the season would play out, and yet I watched and rooted for some reason.

One day, right around the time the Angels began to choke their season away, I was getting my Saturn polished at a car wash on the corner of Santa Monica and Federal in West LA. As I stood in line to pay, I looked up at a mounted TV tuned to one of the local afternoon news telecasts. The newscaster reported that Jerry Garcia had passed away at a drug rehab center up north. I felt my knees go rubbery and a knot tighten in my stomach. I paid my bill, put my sunglasses on, and stepped outside where two Mexican guys polished my car. I watched them but didn't really see anything. I was thinking about Garcia, in token rhyme suggesting rhythm. Shine through my window and my friends they come around. Across the Rio Grande-ee-oh. He’s gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back... I don't think Jerry's passing in and of itself was all that shocking to me. He had obviously been living on the edge, chasing the dragon for many years. But how sad that a man of such soaring talents could never conquer his demons. He had it all. The love and adulation of millions, riches, a life filled with beautiful music... And yet it wasn’t enough to fill some emotional void way down inside. I think I identify with this a little, the feeling of having demons that will always be a part of me. ...I left the car wash that day and drove around the city aimlessly. Everything is transitory, shree ram. We all die eventually, shree ram. All things must pass, shree ram. Except for those demons. They're pretty damn durable. They seem to stick around even when everything else is dissolving...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

canyon fodder, chapter 2

Jefferson White was born at the Santa Ana Veterans' Hospital to John and Clara White in the fall of 1950. For the first 14 years of his life, he lived in Huntington Beach, in the shade of the imposing oilrigs clustered along Pacific Coast Highway, and in the longer shadow cast by the City of Los Angeles, some 25 miles up the road.

John White had fought in the Philippines during the War, serving as a bombardier in the 21st Airborne. He was the only survivor when the Japanese shot his plane down over the Island of Leyte, but he parachuted right into the heart of enemy territory.

“The Japs put me to work at the point of a riffle,” he told Jefferson when the boy was eight years old. “Think about what it’d be like to have some slant eyed jap pokin’ you with a sharp stick every time you try ‘n rest for a minute or two.”

After V-J day, John received a medal for valor but then quickly devolved from war hero to just another one of the thousands upon thousands of faceless servicemen returning home to civilian life. He wanted to go into business for himself as a contractor in his hometown of San Diego, but he had no capital, nor anything to put up as collateral, and he could not obtain a loan in spite of everything the GI Bill promised.

“You put your life on the line for your country, for God, for all that crap they preach about,” he told his parents. “But in the end, all they do is piss on ‘ya and then tell ya to go fug yourself.”

"You won a medal for bravery,” his father said. “The country is very appreciative of everything you’ve done. And we’re all very proud of you.”

“The medal don’t mean nothin’ if I can’t earn a living, pop. You want me living in your house for the rest ‘o my life?”

Tom Hendrix, a guy John had known in the service, looked John up and found out things weren’t going so well for him. Hendrix was originally from San Antonio and now lived with his wife and baby girl in El Segundo, a sleepy little seaside town just on the outskirts of L.A.. Hendrix worked in regional management at the Standard Oil Company and had connections in the industry. He set John up with a good job at one of Standard Oil's contractual partners, Pacific Industrial Oil and Exploration. John had no experience to speak of outside the Airborne Division and no credentials other than a high school diploma. But he was a quick study and in a few short months he was supervising 40 men on two small offshore drilling rigs, about a half-mile out from the Huntington Beach Pier.

On an overcast afternoon in February of 1950, John made the rounds at rig no. 2 and approached four men talking amongst themselves when they should’ve been working. He had a pretty good idea what they were talking about, too. In company parlance, the men were ‘problems’. Sources had informed management that these men and others like them were having regular pow wows with pests from the Oil Workers Union, which was looking to gain recognition from Pacific Industrial, one of the last open shop hold outs in the oil industry on the West Coast. Even the mighty Standard Oil Company had signed a union contract. But Pacific Industrial, a relatively small firm with tight profit margins, was determined to keep the union out at all costs, a company directive communicated loud and clear to all supervisory personnel, and one to be backed up with force if necessary. “You wanna slack off, do it on your own time,” John barked as he approached the four troublemakers. “We’ll dock ‘ya if you don’t get back to work. Now!”

For a brief moment, the sun broke through the heavy clouds and fog, streaming down in a thin shaft onto one of the four men, Dexter Bodine, a stocky, silver haired worker who had been with the company for more than 15 years. “Get a load ‘o this, fellas,” Bodine said as he glared disgustedly at John and slowly placed a yellow hard hat back on his head. “Big time war hero likes to tell us all what to do.”

“You said it Dex,” another one of the workers added. “Maybe we should all stand at attention.”
The four of them stood up straight and gave John a mocking salute. John’s eyes narrowed and darted from one man to the next.

“At ease,” Bodine said. “It’s only Colonel White. He don’t have the balls to do nothin’, ‘cept tow the company line.”

The four men laughed derisively. John’s temples pounded with growing anger. The sun became completely obscured by the clouds again and the moist breeze stiffened. A motor sounded from out in the ocean. John turned his head momentarily and saw a transport boat approaching the rig, which meant he couldn’t beat the shit out of Bodine because his boss would be coming aboard momentarily. Still, he wouldn’t let the present conflict rest.

“You got somethin’ you wanna say to me?” John said, turning his attention back to Bodine.

“I’ll settle the score with any of you, any time you want.”

The motorboat docked at the base of the rig.

“Fuck you, White,” Bodine said. “I’m not scared of you. You’re just a pathetic company stooge.”
The four workers dispersed, leaving John standing by himself. For the rest of the day, John’s head seethed with rage and revenge fantasies. He replayed the confrontation with the four workers, and with Bodine in particular, over and over again in his head.

He don’t have the balls to do nothin’, ‘cept tow the company line…
Big time war hero likes to tell us all what to do…
Just a pathetic company stooge…

At the end of the work day, John rode back ashore in a transport boat with a dozen workers, including Dexter Bodine. The two of them made toxic eye contact several times as the boat rocked and bobbed along the waves. When the boat docked, John thought about pulling Bodine aside and doing something, but then he remembered his bills, his mortgage, his wife…

…just a pathetic company stooge…

That night, after serving John a dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes, carrots, and peas, along with homemade apple pie and coffee for desert, Clara White stood at the sink, rinsing pots and pans, losing herself in the caress of the Valium she swallowed right before dinner. John stood behind her, leaning on one side of the entrance to the kitchen. He held a J&B on the rocks in his left hand. A cigarette hung from his lips. His end-of-the-day stubble shadowed his shiny, sun-baked face. His black hair, combed back for much of the day, now fell freely over his right eye.
When Clara smelled the cigarette smoke, she turned around and faced her husband. She noted to herself that, although he kept the innate scowl on his face very much intact, John looked quite handsome this evening, fit and muscular in his white t-shirt and chino pants. They hadn’t made love in several weeks. They looked at each other for a few moments in silence. When John spoke, the running water drowned out his words.

“Say again?” Clara said, turning the faucet off.

“I said, it takes you a long goddamn time to clean those dishes, Clara.”

“W-what do you mean, honey?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean?”

“I’ll be done in a few minutes.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were avoiding me.”

“What do you mean?”

“There you go again! What do you mean? What do you mean? Do you know how stupid you sound when you ask me what I mean, especially since you know what I mean.”

“I’m almost done with the dishes, darling.”

John took a long, squinty-eyed drag from his cigarette. He jingled the ice cubes in his glass ominously and then killed his drink. Clara returned to her work at the sink and put the faucet back on. But in turning her back to her husband, she tripped a wire in the darkest part of his mind. In a sudden explosive motion, John threw his whiskey glass against the wall just beyond Clara and the sink. Clara started, but the sedative coursing through her body muted her response to the breaking glass. She turned again to face her husband. He walked towards her slowly, menacingly, until he was right next to her, staring her in the face with a razor sharp sneer.

“I’m so sick of you avoiding me, Clara.”

“Avoiding you? I don’t know—“ He slapped her face before she could finish. “Don’t—“

“Do you know what it’s like for me, Clara? Do you?”

“John, no I—“

He grabbed her by the arms and tossed her to the floor. “You’re not gonna avoid me anymore, Clara.” She looked up at him from the floor as he undid his belt. “I’m the man in this house, and you’re gonna pay attention to me from now on.” He had her trapped against the wooden door of the cupboard under the sink. He looked at her on the floor and unzipped his pants. As he began to take his pants down, she rose up and tried to dart through him to get away, but he caught her and he threw her back down, and then pinned her to the floor. “I’m the boss in my house,” he said.

“John, you’re hurting me!”

“This is what married couples do, Clara.”

“Stop! Please!”

“Shut up! Shut the hell up!”

John pressed her down on the kitchen floor and lifted her dress up around her waist. He pulled down her stockings and jammed himself in her with hard thrusts. “No, Please stop!” she cried.
When John looked down, Dexter Bodine was struggling on the floor. John thrust harder and harder. Bodine screamed and started to cry. John's cock moved forcefully, in and out and in and out, with unholy abandon. When John looked down again, Bodine’s head knocked loud and rhythmically against the cupboard under the sink.

“I’m not a company stooge!” John yelled. “I’m not! Do you hear me?”

He smacked Bodine with the back of his hand and stabbed him with his dick, again and again, and again, and again, and again…

When John came, he collapsed on top of Clara, and he lay on top of her with all his weight. He caught his breath for a few moments and then lifted himself off his wife. Clara stared up at him with haunting vacancy. He pulled up his pants, fastened his belt, and left the kitchen with his wife on the floor. The water continued to run out of the faucet.

Clara gave birth to Jefferson White on November 21, 1950.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

canyon fodder, chapter 1

When the elevator doors opened on the third floor of Sunset Sound in Hollywood, Zolie Wachs stepped out and felt a blast of frosty air conditioning against his face. Aural shrapnel from an Elliot Randall guitar lick cut through the walls of Studio 3D in the distance and ricocheted around the insides of Zolie’s ears as he ambled down the hallway towards the head. Framed Gold Records lined one side of the narrow corridor. On the other side, a glass window offered a view into a corporate-looking room in which Charlie Watson sat alone at a long table, looking disheveled with his long hair flying in all directions. But Charlie wasn’t sitting upright, and it took Zolie a few seconds before he figured out what the fuck the guy was doing in there. Hunched over, Charlie pressed his face against the table’s surface, his nostrils vacuuming freshly cut lines of Bicentennial powder.

Zolie pissed at a urinal. The image of Charlie was still imprinted on his brain when the men’s room door swung open behind him.

“Zole! You ready to do the harmonies?” It was Jefferson White, Zolie’s friend, producer, and savior, just coming off the Gold Record success of his own fourth album, The Man Behind the Mask.

“I’m hung over,” Zolie said.

Jefferson joined him at the next urinal. “None of that,” he said. “We’re gonna lay down some beautiful harmonies. Everybody’s here to do it with us.”

Zolie’s doughy 29-year-old body stood at about five-and-a-half feet tall. He had long, curly blond hair, thick glasses over his brown eyes, and he wore a cream-colored blazer with dark blue jeans and white tasseled loafers. Jefferson, a few years younger, dressed his tall, skinny frame in a faded red t-shirt and form fitting dungarees, which he wore with a pair of white and green Adidas Country sneakers. His light-brown hair grew to just above his shoulders, framing a face with well-sculpted features and handsome eyes of Pacific Ocean Blue.

When Zolie was close to being done, he closed his eyes, pointed his puffy face towards the ceiling, and wrung his dick out, as if it were a wash cloth, before waddling away from the urinal without flushing or washing his hands. Jefferson, on the other hand, gently tapped his corona, flushed, and then glided effortlessly towards the sink.

“I just saw Charlie,” Zolie said, pointing in a vague direction outside the men’s room.

Jefferson glanced at himself wanly in the mirror above the sink. “Yeah,” he sighed after a few thoughtful seconds. “Poor Charlie.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the summer of dirt

You may have noticed that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the past. It's always been this way for me, and it's why I'll never be a leader of men. People like myself who are habitually backwards looking can never be more than moderately successful at anything we do. Wildly successful leaders of men feel comfortable in the present and look forward to the future. I feel out of place in the present and spend much of my time trying to protect myself against the nasty things I'm convinced the future will bring, all the while clinging to some pathetic insistence that everything used to be better than it is now. I'm old school, meaning I can't or won't adapt to the way things are done today, can't break free of familiar patterns...

Ten years after the summer of Helene, and Sharon, and Mike Vail, and the house in Wingdale, and Green Knoll Day Camp, and my dad's music room... Ten years after all that stuff was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. When you're a kid, ten years feels like a century. But then when you're 40-something, ten years feels like a mere blip. I can't believe it's already been almost ten years since 9/11, ten years since I could at least entertain the idea of transporting a few joints in my coat pocket through an airport. Time seems to accelerate with age. It's been ten years since I started my current job, more than ten years since the hanging chads, since the Subway Series, since the dot-com bust, since none of my friends had kids yet, since I believed I could achieve something more meaningful in my career than simple survival. Time is a constant, and yet subjectively it gets more and more compressed with the attainment of perspective. Time doesn't heal all wounds. On the contrary, it becomes increasingly punishing as it picks up speed. And it doesn't spare anybody...

There's a splinter in your eye and it reads 'react.' I associate the summer of '85 with REM. I had become a 'New Music' devotee by then, spraying Sun-In in my closely cropped hair, sporting Chuck Taylors with rolled-up jeans, and basically dressing myself up like a Nancy boy. But it was cool to look a little bit androgynous and to live life with REM and Husker Du blasting through your Walkman headphones. My friend Drew had introduced me to REM the previous summer, and it was love at first listen. The chiming jangle of Peter Buck's Rickenbaker hooked me right in. I spent hours upon hours alone in my room, trying to decipher the cryptic meanings behind Michael Stipe's lyrics. I never did figure out what he was on about, but I knew the words somehow applied to my life, expressing all the promise and freedom of youth, and the loneliness and pain as well. REM was the perfect thing for me at the perfect time. Their music still makes me feel so damn good. It's mysterious and familiar at the same time...

Nowadays a lot of music from the 80s sounds horrible. It's not that the music itself was all that bad, but the in-vogue production style - tinny and brittle - has not held up well. REM was certainly not immune to this. Fables of the Reconstruction is one of their best collections of songs, but it sounds absolutely awful, buried under turgid layers of 'atmosphere' that only serve to make everything sound muted, distant, cold. But the biggest casualty of the way records were produced in the 80s was Prince. He was/is an amazingly talented little fellow, an incredible songwriter and performer with an amazing feel for melody, right up there with Paul McCartney in his ability to pack so much sweet stuff into 3 or 4 minutes. But try going back to a Prince record now, say Dirty Mind, or 1999, or Purple Rain, or Sign 'O the Times. Personally, I can't sit with those albums for more than a few minutes. They sound so murky, as if Prince is covered in thick tar and playing inside a small aluminum shed. The stuff's horribly overproduced and corporate sounding, lacking of any real warmth to latch onto. Perhaps the production value merely expresses what the 80s were all about? ...I'll have to think about that one...

Apologies for the long digression there. Sometimes my mind wanders. During the summer of 1985, I worked as a counselor at Camp Greylock in the small town of Becket, Massachussets. I had been a camper at Greylock for eight years and now returned as an employee. Having the tables turned in this way did not agree with me. As much as I loved the camp as a paying customer, I hated now having to deal with spoiled Jewish punks from Long Island and New Jersey as a worker. But there were some good times here and there... Baseball was, as ever, my constant companion. As a Met fan, one of the things I remember most about the ’85 season is Keith Hernandez testifying in a Federal case against several guys who had for years been supplying Major League ballplayers with cocaine. His testimony included an admission of his own cocaine use while he was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, including during the 1979 season, when he was elected the NL MVP, and during the 1982 season, when the Cards won the World Series. With hindsight it seems that uppers came into the Major League Baseball in the 60s and early 70s, and then were replaced by coke in the second half of the 70s and the first half of the 80s, which was then replaced by steroids and HGH in the second half of the 80s and 90s… I remember Keith testifying in ’85, and I remember the Mets not having quite enough to get the job done. They really should have won it all in ’85 and ’88, along with the championship the won in ’86. They could have been a dynasty...

At Greylock that summer I became friends with Rod, an arts and crafts couselor from Baltimore. We bonded over our mutual love of REM and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Some nights when we'd have nothing better going on, the two of us would sit in his little Honda Accord, listening to music and drinking Schaefer Beer. Do they still even make that stuff? They had the best advertising jingle ever. 'Schafer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one.' Genius. Rod and me usually had quite a bit more than one, as I remember it...

During the previous school year I had developed a lust crush on Adelle, a sexy and totally unattainable girl in the same grade as me. I call it a lust crush as opposed to just a crush because I think by then I was walking around with an image of myself as some kind of unlovable loser. I didn't really think about romance. I just thought about getting my cock sucked, though that never happened, of course. I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem, but you don’t need self-esteem to be horny, and I was very, very, very horny. All the time. All day long, every day. A veritable jizz machine was I. Many years later, a friend of mine told me that he had had sex with Adelle a few times back in the day, and that she never bathed or groomed, and that she smelled like rotting garbage, and especially that her privates smelled like throw up, and that he could barely concentrate on what he was doing at the time because her personal hygiene was so incredibly awful. This pleased me a great deal, needless to say.

I like having my illusions shattered, as long as they’re illusions attached to memories of things I wanted but couldn’t have…I mention all this because, during that summer of ’85, somebody other than myself or a doctor actually touched my junk. There was a girl’s camp affiliated with Greylock called Camp Romaca, which had lots and lots of Jewish girls from the Tri-State area, and especially from Long Island, with their accents that would hit you like a battering ram. A great many ugly girls went to Romaca and one of ‘em got her hooks into me, literally, if you get my drift. It happened behind the rec hall, on some balmy night, under cover of darkness. You could not imagine a more loveless, pointless encounter if you tried. I remember almost nothing about her, except that she was overweight and that I closed my eyes and imagined that it was Adelle’s hand. I don’t even remember where she was from. The only thing I can recall clearly is what she said to me upon completion: ‘You got your dirt all over my shirt.’ My dirt. I still love that. For many years afterwards, it became code for masturbation between me and my friend Charlie.

'Hey, what are you up to?'
'Not much, I just unleashed some dirt.'

I think this is how I will always think of the summer of '85. If 1964 was Freedom Summer, 1967 the Summer of Love, 1977 the Summer of Sam, then 1985 - well, how else? - 1985 was, at least for me, the Summer of Dirt...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

summer of '75

The gaps between my posts have increased. It's hard to get into a consistent rhythm with this thing. Real life takes over, leaving the life of the mind behind. Real life gets in the way of living. I spend so much time compelled to do things I don’t really want to do. I guess this is what adulthood is all about. ...I delayed being an adult for about eight years but eventually fell in line. Lots of people from my generation and demographic background seem to have deferred adulthood indefinitely. They dress like they’re still teenagers, what with their ripped jeans, 'ironic' t-shirts, baseball caps, sneakers. Deferring adulthood means, in part, maintaining a juvenile casualness in all areas of life, but especially in the way one physically presents themselves. There’s no propriety anymore. Do I sound like an old crank? I feel like one these days. I feel like one, for example, when I see young moms at the grocery store, sporting dreadlocks, covered in tattoos, and – quel surprise! - unable to impose any discipline on their kids as they go wilding through the aisles and throw tantrums if mommy doesn’t buy them their Lucky fucking Charms. ...I know quite a few people who’ve put off the serious business of growing up. I smile at them and make them think I respect their precious bohemian alternativeness, but their way of life disgusts me. They lead itinerant, rudderless lives. Two years in L.A., three years in Seattle, two years in Frisco, four years in New York, four years in Amsterdam...

I’m glad I was able to avoid this trap, however narrowly. My life history has played out in such a way as to imbue me with a very well-developed Reality Principle. I gravitate to safety, to adulthood. But being an adult in this sense means I never have moments of pure bliss. I fuck with two condoms on in case one of ‘em breaks. I haven't had an extended period of pure bliss since that magical summer, 35 years ago. I've had moments of happiness in the time between then and now, of course, but never another similarly uninterrupted stretch of days and weeks and months, cemented together by contentment and freedom from the fear of something unspeakably horrible happening to me. This is the trouble with me and my reality principle. Reality for me invariably equals the worst possible scenario, the most awful outcome. So maybe it’s not reality at all. Maybe its paranoid delusion. I think it comes from being abandoned. I don't mean this in the sense of a 12-year-old mom in the South Bronx dropping her baby down the garbage shoot. It's not that kind of abandonment. The kind of abandonment I’m talking about is much more subtle, not nearly as raw, but powerful nevertheless. ...My folks weren't around much. They were so immersed in themselves and their careers. And my biological father had already left the scene before I was even two. He couldn't deal with the dissolution of his marriage to my mom, so he just ran away from it all, fleeing for a bottomless bottle of Chivas and a dank apartment on east 66th street. I only discovered years after the fact that the guy died of liver disease. Poor fucker drank himself to death. After he was out of the picture, almost all traces of him were swept under the rug in my family. He wasn't talked about at all. There were no photographs of him anywhere. It was as if he had never happened. But if he never happened, then in some ways I never happened either. It's weird when you're a young kid and there's already all this denial about your origins. It's another kind of abandonment, the kind that leaves you with all sorts of unanswered questions about who you are and where you come from. You get to thinking that there's something wrong with you, and you expect that the world is out to hurt you because of it. You do what you can to protect yourself. You put your guard up. You don't let people in because you know that in the end they'll leave. You avoid risks. You remain closed off.

Helene, the grandmotherly woman from Belgium who raised me while my mom and dad were out conquering the universe, eventually left me as well, but that was two years after the glorious summer of my untouched happiness. ...My parents had a groovy country house in the town of Wingdale, New York, a little two-story place made of stone, very dark and cool inside, at the end of a long twisty-turny driveway that cut a path through a thick cover of trees and greenery. I spent that summer up at that house with Helene and my sister, who was three, while my parents were working in the city. In the mornings, a young hippie mom and her two daughters would arrive in a tan VW Bug - the cool kind with the engine in the back - and the four of us would drive to Green Knoll Day Camp, the radio blasting AM Gold. Dancin' in the moonlight... The new Mother Nature's takin' over... Ride, ride, ride, gotta let it ride...

I loved those drives to the camp, clapping and singing and snapping in the back seat of the Bug, no worries, nothing to make me scared or sad, no bills to pay, no buttons to push. Pure freedom, with a great soundtrack. ...At Green Knoll I'd play baseball, trade baseball cards with my friends, swim in the lake, eat ice cream, and listen to some hippy dude play Cat Stevens and Jim Croce songs on his guitar. Rollin' me down the highway... Nowadays when I see some hippy dude playing a guitar on a lawn or park bench somewhere, I'm automatically consumed with an urge to rip the guitar from his faggoty little hands and give it the full Pete Townshend treatment against the concrete. I don't know what happened to make me such a tortured and angry guy. Then again, maybe I do know, and maybe that's the problem...

...So there was a counselor at Green Knoll named Sharon. The memories are blurry, but Sharon was probably 15- or 16-years-old, and she was beautiful with long red hair and freckles. When you’re a seven-year-old boy and there’s a girl like Sharon taking care of you, paying attention to you, and giving you validation, it’s inevitable that you’ll fall in love with her. But the thing about Sharon was that she seemed to fall in love with me, too. I was a cute kid with wild blonde hair and brown eyes. She gave me much more face time than she gave to the other kids, or maybe this is just the way I choose to remember things. She’d hug me and kiss me and put me on her shoulders. The minute we pulled up in the tan Bug, she’d take me from the car, throw me in the air, and give me love and love and love and the love that loves to love. When I got a hit in baseball, she’d clap and cheer. When I swam well, she’d grab me and hold me against her fleshy bathing suited body and tell me how adorable I was. And I loved it. And I loved her. I wanted marry her, to be with her all the time...

But then one day another counselor, some guy I don’t remember much at all, took note of the love affair between Sharon and me. He thought it was funny, or cute, or both. “You really love Sharon, don’t you, Max?” he said. For some reason, when it was expressed so nakedly like this, the feelings I had for her filled me with instant terror, shame, embarrassment, and maybe even some anger. Who the hell was this voyeur, peering in at our amorous dance? “No I don't!” I answered. And that’s all I said. One small sentence. It came out instinctively. I didn’t want other people to know. I didn't want to own up to what was so obvious...

Sharon walked away. I guess she felt hurt or betrayed because she wasn’t waiting for me the next day when we pulled up in the tan Bug, and she was cold and distant when I found her and tapped her on the shoulder. She looked at me like I was a stranger. She wouldn’t swim with me, wouldn’t cheer for me in baseball. She found some other kid to love and adore and hug and kiss. I don’t remember whether I cried, but I do remember feeling empty and sad. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance. Sometimes you wound the people you love just by virtue of being who you are, or you do or say something irretrievably bad in one fleeting and isolated moment, and then that’s it. You’re done. There’s no way to get back what you once had. You’re just left with yourself, and you don’t even know where to go or who you can turn to for comfort. I wonder what ever happened to Sharon. Beautiful, unforgiving Sharon...

In spite of the trauma and heartbreak with Sharon, I still like to think of that summer as an unblemished time for me. When I wasn't at the camp, I hung out at home with Helene and my sister. One of the funny things about Helene is that, even though she was rather prim and formal when my parents were around, she would let me do almost anything I wanted, within reason, when they weren't around. She let me have TV Dinners, which were way too down-market for my mother to ever let me have when she was around. My favorite was always the friend chicken with mashed potatoes and apple pie. Helene would also let me stay up late watching Met games and The Courtship of Eddie's Father. My favorite players on the Mets that summer were Tom Seaver, Del Unser and Mike Vail. Vail was called up from the minors in mid-season and proceeded to go on a 23-game hit streak, which was a record at the time for a rookie. There was all kinds of talk that Mike Vail wuld be the next big thing, but he injured himself and never lived up to the hype. Baseball can be such a cruel game, which is probably the reason it affects me in such a deeply emotional way, ...One game the Mets played that summer against the Cardinals in St. Louis is still especially memorable for me because it went 15 innings and didn't end until after midnight, but Helene let me watch the whole thing. I must've explained the concept of extra innings to her in my broken French, and somehow it must've made sense to her. The Cards ended up winning the game when the the lightning-fast Bake McBride walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth, stole second, stole third, and then scored on a passed ball by John Stearns. The Mets lost a lot of games like this that summer... Bake McBride's name stayed with me forever. It's one of the great baseball names, along with Dick Pole, Sixto Lezcano, Amos Otis, Otis Nixon...

The other thing about the house in Wingdale was that it had a bedroom in one of its back corners, which my dad turned into a den, where he kept a fairly sizable record collection. He's mostly a Sinatra, swing jazz, Sondheim, WNEW AM kinda guy, but he had some great rock records, too. It was back in that den where I discovered Sgt. Pepper, and After the Gold Rush, and Tapestry, and The Band, and Beggar's Banquet, and...

Another thing I can say about Helene is that she let me be by myself. I can't really figure out whether she somehow knew that I liked solitude or whether her leaving me be alone, along with my parents being away, trained me to be self entertaining, but so many of the memories I have from that summer are of me being alone. I was alone a lot in the den, listening to my dad's records. And even when I was in the tan Bug with the hippie and her daughters, I mostly peered out the window, enjoying the music, and lived in my own internalized world. At least this is how I remember it. ...I used to play baseball by myself on the front lawn of the house in Wingdale. I'd watch a Met game and then go out there with a ball, a bat, and a glove, and I'd reenact the game. The only change I'd make in the script is that the Mets would win. Stearns would gun down Bake McBride trying to steal second. Skip Lockwood would retire the side. Dave Kingman would win the game with a home run in the top of the 16th. And maybe Sharon would even take me back...