Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday night pity party

Permit me a self-indulgent post, and feel free to browse elsewhere if my troubles don’t interest you. They don’t interest me particularly, so I’ll understand.

My roommates are out ghosting and ghouling on this Halloween eve; I’ve elected to stay home and ponder my poor existence in quiet solitude. I’m four days into a month of alleged sobriety, a wrong-headed scheme cooked up by Yony to see if it helps with my medical condition. Since June of 2008 I’ve suffered crushing headaches on a daily basis, without reprieve. Not of a migraine type—those occur on one side of the head, and cause sensitivity to light and sound—these pains are concentrated in the front of my head, and are heavy and lumpy, as if a wet sock were balled up where my frontal lobe ought to be. 

My friends are mightily sick of hearing me complain by now, I’m sure; but they’re not as sick as I am of being in pain every waking moment, I’ll assure you of that.
Already the sobriety is out the window. Pot and drink are the only things which actually help me, not so much alleviating the pain as distracting me from it, in the style of my mother’s Russo-folkloric ‘grandfather’s cure’ (Toothache? Drop a brick on your foot, you’ll forget all about the tooth). I’ve smoked a pile of weed and am knocking back vodka-Squirts, and I already feel more human. It’s good medicine, the sweetleaf, and if it continues to be illegal it’s only because the pharmaceutical companies don’t profit from it.

I’ve tried nearly everything, in what feels like a tragicomic film montage: I’ve been to the ophthalmologist, had teeth removed, tried the whole spectrum of painkillers, quit painkillers and taken them up again, sampled an array of anti-depressants, consumed heroic amounts of water and leafy greens, tried nasal decongestants and antihistamines and myriad vitamins, gone to Chinatown in search of ancient remedies and made attempts at cutting caffeine and sugar from my diet; I’ve only barely stopped short of yoga, meditation and ‘clinical’ hypnosis, which seem about as curative as sprinkling flowers on a pile of hogshit. In my more self-pitying moments, I convince myself that I have a brain tumor—it would at least be a compelling narrative twist, and would lend your blogger-hero a bit more gravitas, my inebriated rambling reinterpreted as near-death prophesying—but having researched the subject it seems highly unlikely.

The only thing I haven’t tried is going to an actual doctor. Unemployed bloggers on foodstamps don’t enjoy luxuries like trips to the doctor. Until recently I considered this par for the course—the American Way, even; health care being a socialist construct, I’d overcome my medical problems through rugged individualism, quixotic trips to Chinatown, a pinch of internet savvy. I compounded this folly with a generous helping of guilt and self-flagellation: these headaches were punishment for my illegal and immoral lifestyle; if I wanted badly enough to feel healthy I’d bite the bullet and get a job, sign up for health insurance, quit smoking, join a gym and think happy thoughts.

My feelings have changed, and I’m beginning to drift toward the mad as hell and not going to take it anymore camp. CJ’s illness and death, first of all, have proven powerful fodder. Because she was broke, CJ did not seek medical attention for her brutal aches and pains until she’d already developed an advanced and rapidly-spreading cancer. Had she been able to afford it, she could have been diagnosed and treated far sooner, and would probably be alive now; she was essentially murdered by the greed and inequity of the American system. I don’t hesitate, trembling with rage, to point fingers.

I also made a point recently, while cooped up with a cold, of watching Michael Moore’s recent polemic on American health care, Sicko. It was gratifying to see my half-formed misgivings about our health care system writ large and legible, and it codified the fundamental contradiction of for-profit medicine, which is inherently invested in keeping people sick. This country of ours, which would sooner bomb Arabs than provide basic care for its own citizens, is a treacherous snakepit which I condemn with every fiber of my being, and I sometimes wonder if the painful lump in the front of my head isn’t just a malignant mass of American poison and confusion, a psycho-social tumor that might never be excised. For all these crimes and many more, I condemn it all to Hell.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Caroline Jaffe, 1942-2009

I had to get that last post out of my system before tackling the real subject at hand. I'm not exactly looking forward to it. My friend, the legendary CJ, died yesterday, after a fight with cancer. Those that know CJ, or have ever seen her play at the Gallery Cabaret, will be devastated; those that don't have lost the chance to see one of the greatest performers of modern times. Her residency at the Gallery was on a par with Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, the Marx Brothers in their early vaudeville days, Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, Bob Dylan at the Gaslight, the Ramones at CBGB's, Chicago's unheralded Nightwatch at the relentlessly seedy Lakeview Lounge. CJ was also, in a thousand ways, a divine comedian, a fountain of light, a cosmic hummingbird, a prophet of the sublime, a staunch naturist, the equine spirit incarnate. I feel pity and remorse for those of you that might never have met her.

In full disclosure: as CJ would have suggested, I think, I've been spending the evening smoking piles of marijuana. What you've got here, then, is drug writing--if you've got a problem with it, you're prowling around on the wrong blog. CJ was a also a heroic user of drugs, getting high to the very end. I'm proud to have snuck her pot brownies when she was in the hospital undergoing radiation treatment. Marijuana is, I think, a basically introspective drug, and those that fear or dislike themselves are usually averse to it. CJ certainly didn't fear or dislike her Self. Her inner world was an epic expanse of love, freedom, music and wildlife that I can't even begin to imagine. Marijuana was her simple sacrament in praise of the Divine.

I don't know how much I have in me tonight. I'm drinking vodka, getting high, chasing oblivion. My relationship with CJ was strangely, inexplicably intense. I met her only in July. In September, talking on the telephone, CJ said, "I love you." We began saying it regularly. As she got sicker, I began feeling a sort of phantom sickness, which I struggled to describe to Yony. "It's kind of like," I said, "The end of E.T., where Elliot and E.T. are pyscho-physically linked, and one feels the suffering of the other." Yony laughed. "I think what you mean is that you actually care about someone," he teased. "Maybe not a feeling you're accustomed to." A good point, but something seemed to run deeper than that. She told me, the last time I saw her at the hospital, that she wished I was her son. She had a son, in fact, at the age of 15, who she put up for adoption and never saw again. I told her, meaning no offense to my own dear mother, that I sincerely wished the same.

Strange, also, that I seemed to be the only person so immoderately invested in her success. Her friends and adopted family, I think, for all their undying love, consider her "our CJ." When she is, in fact, everyone's CJ, brought here to enlighten us, and give us hope and harmony. The world will not be robbed of her formidable music. I'll run myself ragged to ensure it.

Damn all this eulogizing and fancy talk. It does nothing. The beautiful woman, see, in the photograph above? Just yesterday she was breathing and laughing and singing. Now they've removed her glasses and put her in a horrible little box and she'll never get to sing again. Philosophize all you want, this is a piece of shit world where everything dies. I put the whole apparatus up on trial. I want CJ back.

Crying over spilt milk

The fusion of rock ‘n roll with High Art has produced some great successes; I think of Captain Beefheart’s deconstructionist concrete poetry, the Velvet Underground ‘s pop-art primitivism, even the Sex Pistols’ juvenile-delinquent brand of Dadaism. But this hybrid has also engendered many embarrassing flops, from Yoko Ono’s experiments in atonal scream therapy to the baroque wanking of high-concept prog-rock bands like Yes and Genesis. Art and Rock have always been uneasy bedfellows, especially when the one is deliberately grafted upon the other.

It was into this treacherous arena that my band, provisionally titled Harsh Realm, was foolish enough to venture for last night’s engagement at the Plaines Project. We’re barely a band to begin with. My dear friend John Bellows, with whom I’ve palled around musically for years, enlisted Billy Joyce and myself to serve as his band for a concert back in June. Calling ourselves L.B.J.F.K.F.C., we decided to treat the audience to the grandest and most ingratiating spectacle possible; dressed in golden robes, we plied the crowd with candy, tequila and ice-cream cones, employed a fog machine, and littered our set with lowest-common-denominator crowd pleasers, closing the night with a rousing cover of Garth Brooks’ Friends in Low Places. The drunken and raucous audience went wild, and we were able to masquerade, somewhat convincingly, as Rock Gods. It was a transcendent night. Then Billy left town for the summer.

When John reconvened the band two weeks ago, we felt strongly that in addition to learning some new songs, we’d have to cook up an even more ambitious spectacle, to outdo our prior effort. It was my brilliant idea to put on a Happening. For the modern reader, unschooled in history: Happenings were a type of high-concept sex party devised in the mid-60s—LSD was still legal!—to freak out the Establishment and indulge in Dionysian weirdness. Young waifs wandered around dressed in tin-foil; “You’re a cow,” they’d mutter provocatively, slipping a pill between your lips. “Give us some milk or go home.” High art—surrealist romps for the young and hip.

It seemed like a workable plan; never mind that we’d be performing not in Andy Warhol’s decadent Factory but in the cramped and dingy basement of the Plaines Project. If we succeeded in detonating enough high-octane freakiness, I calculated, the place would practically levitate. It would be a Happening. I’d seen it succeed this summer, at the Bitchpork Festival: Club Sashet closed out the night with a profoundly psychedelic performance, an epic riot of color and noise that culminated in the crowd of 50+ writhing around in an orgasmic stew of food, slime and glitter. For an exhilarating half-hour, all referents to usual reality were totally annihilated.

We’d attempt something like this, then, but also poke a bit of fun at the whole idea—performance art seemed ripe for satirizing. No one would no where the joke ended and the Art began, and a solid rock ‘n roll soundtrack would provide the momentum. What could go wrong? Best of all, we’d enlist our talented and uninhibited friends for the orgy-inducing absurdist performance-pieces. To add some gravitas to the endeavor, we adopted the Fluxus moniker—wearing the badge of a decades-old art movement would take care of our credentials. I made up programs, announcing the premiere of Harsh Realms: an International Rock & Roll Fluxus Happening. Included was the phone number for our Fluxus Hotline—the unsuspecting Patron of the Arts would reach, after several rings, the Lincoln Park branch of Chuck-E-Cheese. Where, y’know, a kid can be a kid.

Within this framework, the ideas came fast and furious. How about a sexy crucifixion? An army drill sergeant, leading the crowd in childish taunts? We were not setting the bar high for sophisticated artistic discourse—this was a rock show, after all—but were confident we’d at least set a tone of breathless bewilderment. And so we loaded Billy’s trunk up with gory props and Fluxus doo-dads, and headed for the show.

Signs of trouble came early in the evening; several of our performers seemed reluctant to participate, we were not well-organized, and Billy himself developed cold feet. “We didn’t plan this well,” he balked. I would hear none of it, so focused was my vision. “What could possibly go wrong?” I insisted—an ominous provocation, it would turn out. I could understand stage fright, but we were here for a greater purpose. Art would reign.

But, as soon as our set began, red flags began appearing that even I could not ignore. After our first song—direly out of tune, I’m afraid— Billy fired the first salvo, nailing a big, bulbous slab of raw chicken to the wall behind his drumset. It was meant, I suppose, as a sort of declaration, our Fluxus version of Luther’s 95 Theses. In this harsh realm, we demand: raw meat! That was the idea. But the crowd just stared dumbly, and indeed it did look kind of stupid—just a piece of chicken nailed to the wall. What’s so great about that? And a waste of chicken, no less. But we pressed on to our second number. The next performer was our friend Molly, a last-minute understudy for the part. She’d recently been banned from the Plaines Project, but we thought that in the forthcoming psychedelic love-in it this would be water under the bridge. Her role was a cosmic one: she’d sail through the crowd, wearing a long white gown and chugging a gallon of cold milk, shrieking all the while. A statement about femininity or something. “Do whatever you want with it,” I encouraged.

So Molly sailed into the room, only a minute or so off cue, and proceeded to stumble around the crowd, in a sort of hideous parody of voluptuousness, pouring the entire gallon of milk all over herself, her neighbors and the floor. Ripping her gown off, she writhed in mock-ecstasy, smearing herself with milk. I, for one, thought it was an admirably executed performance, but the audience seemed to recoil—with disgust? Boredom? Or simply wanting to keep their clothing milk-free? Regardless, the mood was not where we wanted it to be.

Another rock ‘n roll song, another “performance”. Chip was supposed to be draped in an American flag, reading the preamble to the Constitution—before he has a chance to finish, John shoots him in the head with a glitter gun. But, unable to find an American flag, we were forced at the last minute to dress him in a dollar-store Indian headdress. As he stood there, reading these hallowed words in his worst Sitting Bull accent, I began to wonder what sort of message we were sending, and realized I hadn’t the faintest idea. A bad sign. The crowd seemed ambivalent, or possibly hostile.

More music. The tone of our “art” would only grow crasser. For the next piece, we’d enlisted our friend Brett to re-enact the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke; with the exuberant support of the crowd, he’d attempt to eat a dozen hardboiled eggs. Only, just as Brett was beginning, Carter, a resident of the Plaines Project, stormed through the crowd, swiped the carton of eggs, and stormed back out of the crowd. Apparently furious over the spilt milk—the basement might stink for weeks—he was determined to prevent any further food-related messes. Brett, playing the clock, attempted a rather leaden stand-up routine. Then, during the next song (a George Jones cover, of all things), the power went out repeatedly. Nobody knew what was happening, what was Fluxus and what was just shit going wrong. The performance continued to deteriorate. Our Christ, dressed as a city worker and wearing a false beard, was having trouble holding onto her cross. Another Plaines Project resident burst into the room, screaming and flailing around in drunken fury. People began to leave.

Our last number was supposed to be a cover of John Lennon’s harrowing Mother, during which the grim reaper would emerge and smash a pair of giant pumpkins. We had the church-bell intro on Lennon’s CD all cued up, for full dramatic effect, but our friend running the CD player didn’t cut the intro on time and the recorded song pre-empted our entry. At this point the performance had become such a thorough embarrassment that Billy kicked over the drum kit and declared the show over. There was milk everywhere. “That was… weird,” I heard someone comment.

The Plaines Project residents were livid. None of our friends would look at or talk to us. Billy and John were mortified. I was mortified too, but also, strangely, exhilarated. Finally, some action! Not, maybe, the most constructive type of action, but something had happened, and people were angry and confused. Surely that was good for something! It wasn’t by any stretch of imagination good art, but I figured the “good art” end of things was already well-covered—there are always some great exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they even have a weekly free day, sponsored by corporate giant Target. We really just wanted to have some fun. It turns out that milk-fights and mock-crucifixions aren’t everyone’s idea of fun. Now we know. We’ve apologized profusely to everyone involved, and have sworn never to dabble in Art again.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ramon Fernandez, 1968-2009

It's been a banner autumn season, friends, for sickness and death. The people around me seem to be perishing at an alarming rate--first, my grandfather, the old lion of the family, who caught pneumonia in early September and died within weeks; my dear friend CJ, also, whose cancer will soon overtake her; and now this news, out of a clear October sky: my next-door neighbor, Ramon Fernandez, apparently jumped off a bridge onto the Kennedy Expressway last night, was struck by a fast-moving vehicle and presumably died on impact, at the age of 41.

I'll not attempt a heartfelt eulogy. I hardly knew the man, and from what I'd gathered about him over the last couple of years, I'd never have given him a glowing endorsement; to praise him now would be dishonest. Ray lived, on and off, with his mother Nydia, in the coach-house abutting our backyard. The Fernandez' can't have ever thought too highly of us, the two-flat full of noisy, would-be bohemians next door--the endless band practices and frequent bonfires which transpire spitting distance from their bedroom windows can't have been very charming for them, though I've never heard them complain.

The Fernandez' haven't always been the ideal neighbors, either, for that matter. I've grown to enjoy the highly sentimental old Puerto Rican ballads which Nydia blasts from a shitty stereo in the afternoons; I never warmed up as much to the screaming matches which Nydia and Ray would undertake, sometimes nightly, with increasing volume and fury in recent months. Ray was never anything but civil to me--though as a powerfully-built, heavily-tattooed, macho hombre, God knows what he made of me and my art-addled roommates--and certainly no rancor ever arose between us. Just two dudes from different worlds. But he definitely gave his mother a heap of trouble. They just couldn't stop screaming at each other, trapped in some primal mother-son feedback loop of rage and bickering. Limited as my Spanish is, they rarely seemed to be fighting
about anything in particular.

He'd steal from her; at one point she called the cops on him and he spent several months in jail. Far from rehabilitating him, the jail-time seemed only to whet his appetite for trouble and malingering. The unverified rumor around 21st Street is that Ray developed a hunger for cocaine. I don't know one way or another, but certainly by this summer things were coming to a head. One afternoon Nydia barged into our house, wearing her usual sunglasses and cigarette, weeping and cursing incoherently. It turned out that Ray had decked her in the face. She begged my roommate, Nora, to call the police. Nora, not wanting to get involved, gave her the phone and said,
"You call the police." It was a gut-wrenching decision for her to make--sending her own son back to jail--and by the time she worked up the nerve to make the call, Ray had long since split.

He came back that night, though--I remember it vividly, as I was camping out on the back porch and slept fitfully while they fought through the night. She'd locked Ray out of the house, and he pounded relentlessly at the door until well after daybreak, cussing her out and insisting that he needed to get his "stuff". It was intense. Read all the books you want, but if it's actual human drama you want, in all its gruesome depths, try listening to a desperate addict pound on his mother's front door for eight hours on end. If it doesn't break your heart, it will at least rob you of sleep.

The kicker is that
since that August of discontent, I hadn't seen or heard much from Ray and Nydia. They were around, but their domestic strife seemed to have mellowed. And get this: my roommate overheard Ray telling his drinking buddy Junior, during one of their under-the-porch swill sessions, that he planned on going to school to earn his GED. Something in him, perhaps, was beginning to bloom. And then this.

I don't have the faintest clue what happened, or why; I did find this extremely terse and dispassionate report on Fox news, but it doesn't say much. For commuters, Ray's death can only have meant a baffling late-night traffic jam: stop-and-go, at almost midnight?! Must be some kind of accident... suicide jumper on the Kennedy Expressway, a momentary fracture in the city's facade, another night's work for the coroners and police bureaucrats; certainly nothing newsworthy, just a dead Puerto Rican cokehead... I don't imagine his funeral will be much of a gala affair, either--his buddies from the block, a bitter and inconsolable Nydia...

He was, I think, a decent man. There's not much I can say, even less I can do... Tip my drink in his direction, say some kind of little prayer, and get rid of that damned talisman...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Goodnight ladies!

Relaxing after a weird and woolly weekend. I don’t go out socially so much these days, but when I do I tend to find myself in unusual places. Late Saturday night found me having drinks with the great smut-film director John Waters in a suburban hotel bar. This is just the sort of low-grade celebrity-grubbing, I later realized, that blogs were made for—and so I’ll recount, to the best of my ability, an amusing evening spent with cinema royalty.

Yony has spent the last four years working on a documentary film about the legendary pervert and Beat author William S. Burroughs, and in the course of filming has had occasion to interview and befriend numerous famous eccentrics. He doesn’t often make a big fuss about it, but after a recent trip to the Provincetown Film Festival he came back brimming with excitement over a wild night spent drinking and doing poppers at John Waters’ opulent home. One drunken and clueless reveler, he reported, accidentally drank an entire bottle of poppers.

I’ve never been close to an adoring fan; I’ve watched and enjoyed Pink Flamingos and a couple others, but never developed a particular passion for Waters’ movies. But when Yony told me he was coming to a suburban community college with his stand-up comedy routine, I was sufficiently intrigued to want to come along—dinner and drinks were further incentive. I packed up my poppers, and spent the afternoon getting high and making a pornographic collage to offer the famous director—whether as weasely favor-currying or a simple gesture of appreciation from one weirdo to another I’ll let the reader decide. I also, admittedly, started drinking rather early in the day.

The event was way out southwest, at an immaculately dinky community college in Palos Heights. Why Waters consented to appear here, rather than someplace hipper and more urban, I have no idea; perhaps he found the locale fittingly trashy, or wanted a chance to freak out the squares. And indeed, he was probably the most outlandish-looking fellow ever to walk out on the stage of the Dorothy Menker Theater, dressed in a bizarrely-tailored suit and wearing his trademark pencil-thin moustache, looking more than anything like a vintage carnie.

The show was actually pretty tame. He mostly talked about his films—to be expected, I suppose, as no one was paying $15 to hear John Waters expound on astrophysics or Victorian literature—tossing in some anecdotes from the pervert fringe, such as the time he had a party and some genius drank the poppers (“See?,” Yony grinned, leaning over in his seat). Actually, to be forthright about it, I don’t remember a whole lot of the act. I was drinking steadily, a vile concoction of vodka-and-something which we’d snuck into the theater. If nothing else, Waters’ ability to commit a 60-minute monologue to memory struck me as an impressive feat. To get up in front of a crowded auditorium and just talk for an hour—I know few people who could pull that off.

After the show, Yony took me into the bowels of the basement, where Waters was entertaining in his dressing room. A star, it seems, can never be rid of his sycophants, and there we were—a fawning little gaggle of admirers and hangers-on, including Rusty Nails, Chicago’s would-be film impresario, who I’ve known since my stoner-punk teen years and who never fails to give me the creeps (I’m verging, I realize, on gossip-column dishiness: Spotted! John Waters and Rusty Nails, relaxing in the basement of the Moraine Valley Community College!) I found an opportune moment to offer the director my collage—it depicts a young stoner-punk boy, with a torso made of chicken breasts, sitting in front of a gruesome, toothy orifice and masturbating contentedly. Much to my embarrassment, Waters more-or-less declined my gift (“I’ve got absolutely no room in my luggage,” he pleaded)—and then proceeded to pass it around the room, that the others might have a chuckle. I was mortified, but drunk enough not to care.

After a tedious and lightly-catered reception, the little gaggle decided to go off in search of a suburban watering-hole for a little nightcap. We ended up at the Marriott Hotel, drawn there by Waters’ radar sense of faux-luxuriant sleaziness (or, it was the only place open.) As if on cue for one of Waters’ grotesque fantasy sequences, the hotel bar was crowded with sagging, heavily-lipsticked old cougars, dressed in a blinding array of sparkly, sequined garments, all getting plastered and letting their hair down: some sort of corporate event with a—rather arbitrary, I thought— New Year’s Eve theme.

Nothing particularly interesting happened, actually. We sat around, talking and drinking—drinks were on the generous director, who I apparently insulted by telling him he looked like a “demented bellhop” (it turns out his bizarrely-tailored suit was in fact a chic artifact from some celebrated Japanese fashion designer). He also gave us his private, off-the-record assessment of the Roman Polanski case—being an amateur reporter of few morals, my ears pricked up at “off-the-record”, but I was at this point too inebriated to remember anything of what he divulged, thus squandering a potentially juicy headline: Roman Polanski Blah-blah-blah, Says Pervert Film Director John Waters.

And then the night was over—though not before I enjoyed a last, gloriously drunken moment in the hotel corridor. I was stumbling down the hallway, gleefully shitfaced, and when I passed by a group of the sequined cougars, I found myself loudly serenading them: “Goodnight ladies! Goodnight ladies!” Imagine my delight when they, equally shitfaced I’m sure, joined in unison: “Goodnight ladies! We’re sad to see you go!” Hideously attired, the women all resembled, in their own way, Waters’ cross-dressing anti-hero, Divine. It was, for me, a moment of near-transcendence—and then my mind’s camera faded to black.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A diversion

And now for something totally different, if only the sake of ultra-hip eclecticism. For today’s posting, a short story. Written by your devoted blogger, some time in the last half-decade or so, and never shared with anyone except my father and his wife, as part of a short-story collection I gave them as a wedding present—hey, I was broke!—and Yony, who found it while snooping around my room and gave it a drunken dramatization. The tone is borrowed heavily from whomever I was reading at the time, probably Robert Walser, but I like it nonetheless. And so.

________ was a forgotten town: neglected, overlooked and un-cared-for. The gas station, for example, no longer sold gas; no one wanted it. True, the soda machine in the parking lot was still stocked with soda, but the machine itself was long-broken. Pump in as many quarters as you like, you’re only throwing your money away. No, if you need soda, or gasoline, or anything else, you’d better head to the neighboring town of X, only ten miles down the road. Time has not been so cruel and careless to the town of X; over there, they have not one gas station but two, and not two working soda machines but four. The people there never go thirsty, they drink all the soda they please, and as for gasoline, there’s enough for everyone—a person can fill up his tank and drive away any time he likes.

Gas stations and soda machines were not the only amenities lacking in the town of ________. In fact, there was virtually nothing in ________. Restaurants: none. Grocery stores: also none. Taverns, movie houses, auto-repair shops: these simply did not exist, and if you went looking for them you’d only be wasting your time. A single place of business could be found in ________: Harold’s Junk Shop. Even this was not all it claimed to be. Harold, for instance, was dead; the shop was run by Harold’s bastard son, Lou. As for the junk, there was very little of it. On the one hand, there was an incomplete trombone, its mouthpiece long lost. On the other hand, there was an antique pistol, dating from the First World War. At this point the merchandise ended, and there was no more.

Lou’s job, then, was not a difficult one. At the beginning of the day he unlocked the shop door, and at the end of the day he locked it again. In the hours which intervened, he looked at pornographic magazines, purchased in the neighboring town of X—where, it seems, a person could buy anything and everything. Lest the reader condemn the shopkeep for his unwholesome taste in literature, it should be known that female companionship was scarce in town. In fact, there were no women at all. Neither, for that matter, were there any children. The truth is, Lou was the sole inhabitant of ________. As such, he also served as the town’s mayor, city council and chamber of commerce.

Can Lou possibly have been happy? the reader must surely wonder. Did he not get lonely? Fair enough questions, but don’t expect the author to answer them; it’s hard enough work filling the page up with words, I can hardly be expected to peer into the souls of other men as well, like a clairvoyant, and tell which secret feelings dwell there. Was Lou happy living all alone in the town of ________? Is anyone happy anywhere? On this topic you are as great an expert as I am. Perhaps we should consider our own happiness, before we go digging around in other people’s private affairs.

Am I happy, then? Even here, the answer is not so easy. I eat when I am hungry; I sleep when I am tired; when someone tells a joke, I laugh. Can I ask for more than this? Do I have a right to? The truth is, I eat but I am still hungry. I sleep, and am still tired. And when I am done laughing, then I am no longer laughing. Your author, if you must know, is a greedy little pig. He always wants more and more. Greedy people are rarely content or satisfied.

And you, are you happy? I truly and sincerely hope so; I pray vehemently for your happiness. No one’s happiness is more important to me, not even my own. If you, dear reader, are able somehow to achieve happiness in this cruel modern world, then I salute you warmly and vigorously, and ask only that you allow me to stand for a moment in the reflected light of your miraculous happiness.

But what has happened to our story? It was beginning to go places; Lou, I felt, was emerging as a peculiar and almost compelling character, and the town of ________ a setting ripe for drama and adventure. But then we started discussing happiness, God knows how or why. How often this happens! At the most inappropriate moments, a person grows pensive and contemplative; but am I truly happy? he asks himself. This has been known to occur even in the midst of copulation. I once had a friend who was known to cry while making love. But then, he was a very maladjusted person. This friend, of course, is neither here nor there, and the more we discuss him the more he becomes an obstacle and a hindrance to the story at hand. The story at hand! How it keeps slipping away! It isn’t easy, writing stories, I’ll tell you that much. Even the writer of advanced talents, which I am not, faces formidable challenges. He invents a character, for instance; he spends hours on this character, examining him from a multitude of angles, putting him through all sorts of tribulations, and molding him like a lump of clay. And then, presto! Somehow, suddenly, this character, this invention so carefully conceived and nurtured, has turned before the author’s very eyes into an insufferable bastard! The author simply can’t stand his presence—onto the trash heap he goes! Other times, it’s not the character that’s the problem; the character is perfect, but a plot fails to present itself. Let’s say the character’s name is Hank. The author can see him clearly: six feet tall, with thick black hair and a long, hawkish nose. Hank awoke one morning… the author begins. Damn it, then what? No, it’s a bad beginning, he scratches it out and starts over again. Hank was a big man, with thick black hair and a long, hawkish nose…. Oh, hell! What’s he supposed to do with this Hank of his? The author yawns, groans, scratches himself idly; “What I need,” he finally decides, “Is a good stiff drink.” And so it is that many writers turn out to be not writers at all but mere drinkers. For every Hank character who fails to wake up one morning and actually do something interesting, the author pours himself another stiff, consolatory drink. By the end of the working day, he’s completely smashed—and he imagines this to be a key part of the creative process! Yes, writing is an occupation fraught with peril. Even this author has been known to hit the bottle, here and there, on occasion. No one is perfect!

One day a customer appeared in Harold’s Junk Shop. Exactly the last time a customer had appeared in the junk shop, no one knows; possibly there had been some back in Harold’s day, but since his death there had been none. So this was somewhat remarkable—a customer, at last.

Lou looked him over thoroughly; he wasn’t from the town of ________, that was certain, nor did he appear to be from the neighboring town of X. His clothes were big-city clothes, his haircut was a big-city haircut, and he wore a sort of big-city expression on his face.

This customer spent a good long while examining the merchandise. Though the merchandise was scarce, as has already been discussed, it seemed to hold some great fascination for him; the trombone and the pistol, in turn, he picked up and examined closely, as if they held some tremendous secret.

“I’d like to buy the trombone,” he said at last.
“I’m afraid it’s not for sale,” answered Lou, in a tone of genuine remorse.
“Ah,” said the customer sadly. He stood and contemplated for a long while. What he was contemplating, you and I will never know.
“In that case,” he said at length, “I’d like to buy the pistol.”
“The pistol,” repeated Lou. “Yes, it’s a very interesting weapon. Dates back to the First World War, and the handle is inlaid with ivory. But, the truth is, I can’t bear to part with it.”
“Not at any price?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Ah, what a shame. It’s a very interesting weapon.”
“Yes, it certainly is.”
He picked up the pistol and put it back down again.
“Can you tell me where I am, exactly?” said the customer with the big-city clothes, the big-city haircut, the big-city expression on his big-city face.
“You’re in the town of ________,” answered Lou.
“What sort of town is it?”
“It’s a forgotten town: neglected, overlook, and un-cared-for.”
“Doesn’t sound like a very cheerful place.”
“Hm,” answered Lou.
“Are you happy here?” asked the stranger.
“I’m afraid that’s none of your business.”
What more could be said? They came from such different worlds, these two men, how could they hope to understand each other?
“Have a nice afternoon,” said the stranger. The bells on the front door jangled as he left the junk shop. He got in his car and drove off. He had a long way to go, and many miles to travel.

To where was he traveling? A more cheerful town, a big city even, where soda could be bought on a million street corners? Soda, and anything else a person might desire? Ah, you will never know. The author has chosen to end his story here and now; product of the modern age that he is, he believes in brevity above all things.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

By way of introduction

Why, first of all, should anyone give a toss about me or my thoughts? It’s high time I justify my presence to the reader—the modern internet surfer is not a patient type, and one must get right to brass tacks.
The reason—laugh all you want—is that life is all about sharing. Oh, it sounds like an old kindergarten chestnut, but consider it. We all share space, like it or not. We share resources. We share beliefs, and ideas. Human life itself emerges from a sharing of sexual juices. We might not go about it cheerfully, but sharing is our mode of existence. So, I am here to share. You’re very welcome.
My name is Liam. I’m a young and slightly troubled man, 29 years old. I live on the near South Side of Chicago. Having never embarked on a terribly serious or profitable path, I spend much time drifting in confusion. Sell it, Liam, sell it! I’m an unemployed drug user, a musician of middling talent, a pretty good cook and striving wordsmith—the type of writer who actually writes only when he tires of napping and getting wasted. I’ve made sincere attempts at being a journalist, but lack the careerist hunger to really make a go of it. I’m also battling serious depression and nagging health problems.
There, if you find my resume up to snuff, then I’ll proceed while I still have your attention. As stunted as I may in many ways be, I’m managed to hold on to a spirit of adventure. Let this online mudpatch then serve as not only a bastion of sharing but also the opening set for an indulgent adventure. Crawl up through my ear and into my skull and have a look around; admission is free, and one never knows what sort of sentimental or grotesque scenes may unfold. We’ll pretend it isn’t a blog at all, disguising it as a primeval forest, or a Chinese opium den.
Luckily, I’m not going to just purge my soul ad nauseum. I’ll tell you about my friend CJ. CJ—say the name out loud, it rolls right off your tongue. Sounds like an exotic bird—Sea-Jay. Her full name is Caroline Jaffe. She’s 67 years old, and she’s dying of cancer at the Methodist Hospital in Merriville, Indiana. The nurses there have no idea what a legendary woman they’re attending to; they smile politely when I tell them CJ is a rock star, but they clearly don’t believe a word of it.
She’s not quite a rock star, yet. She may achieve some degree of posthumous cult stardom, though her music is too unabashedly human to ever crack any pop charts. I’ve known CJ for only 3 months. I’d seen her playing on Sunday night open mics at the Gallery Cabaret since the summer of 2008, but was terrified to approach her, a clearly superior being. Her music reminded me of the folksinger Malvina Reynolds, who I remembered from my pseudo-hippie upbringing, if Malvina Reynolds played the piano and was an acid-fried horse goddess from outer space. She held court from her usual table in a dark corner of the bar, passing out pro-marijuana and horse-welfare leaflets to the robust Sunday-night crowd. I wanted, if only as a pretext for friendship, to interview her and write an article on her. I was utterly enchanted.
My friend Yony made the first move. He got her phone number, and after celebrating my birthday in Michigan this July, we decided to visit her at her home in Hammond, on our way back to Chicago. I had no idea what to expect from our visit. I half-expected her to live in a magic kingdom, accessible only by teleportation, and was taken aback when we knocked on her door and entered a crowded, slovenly basement apartment, strewn with obese cats—five of them. CJ was watching horse races on TV. We brought out some wine and a pipeful of pot, and with my tape recorder rolling, CJ was anything but shy in sharing her life story.
She was raised upper-middle-class Jewish, on the west side of Chicago, an only child. She started fooling around on the piano at the age of three—her indulging parents hauled her of to a music academy. She was a ridiculously bright child, skipping grades pell-mell and starting high school at the age of eleven. There’s an old painting of her hanging at the Gallery Cabaret—she’s 15 years old, wearing a jaunty red bow around her neck and with a swarthy, provocative look in her eye, as if she’s about to run off with a gypsy boy from the traveling spectacle. But, in fact, she enrolled at Northwestern University Law School, and at the age of 21 was one of the youngest people to ever pass the bar exam.
I’ll not detail CJ’s entire history here—I’ve done so elsewhere. In the late 70s, while tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, she fell off a horse and nearly died. She decided, at that fateful moment, that if she lived she’d devote her life to music. And so she did—“dropped out”, as the 60s lexicon would have it. She started playing around Chicago in the early 80s, and has been playing more-or-less the same circuit ever since—beer-and-a-shot corner pubs where hipsters dare tread only with great trepidation. To her consternation, and mine, she has never enjoyed a “big break.” At the time I met her, she’d resigned herself—quite gladly, actually—to achieving success only as some sort of “novelty act.”
Which might be a good point of entry; she has a range of topical songs, covering everything from pot legalization to her love of science fiction. But her music is so very much more than that! She doesn’t merely touch on the mystical and sublime; she cavorts ecstatically in it, like a horse out of bondage. I tried to get my friend Robert to release an album for CJ on his newly minted record label, Moniker Records. He ultimately declined. Where’s the market for this?, he pondered. To which I answer, belatedly: they are a select type of customer, few but proud—passionate connoisseurs of the mystical and sublime. I find myself greatly invested in CJ’s success, because on it rests my faith in humanity. If Emily Dickinson can have her sentimental poetry rescued from a dusty drawer and hailed as Great Art, then I demand love and recognition for my deeply poetic CJ. It’s only fair.
Around the beginning of September, my new roommate James rescued an eerie talisman from a neighborhood alleyway—a two-foot model skeleton, mummified. A stray Halloween decoration, perhaps, but an especially vivid and well-crafted one. He installed it on a shelf overlooking my bedroom door. When my grandfather fell sick and died later that month, I began cracking morbid jokes about the figure’s dark powers—like the proverbial bad-luck charm from a campfire ghost-story, it would continue spreading illness and death, and any attempt to get rid of the accursed object would surely fail. The next day, the evil wraith was right back on the shelf. In my case, it’s not such a far-fetched scenario. I might dump it in the trash, but the next day would probably see it in my upstairs neighbors’ living room. Check out what we found in the alleyway, they’d gloat.
It’s tempting to indulge in this supernatural fantasy, to blame CJ’s illness and impending death on some shitty, sinister toy which a roommate unthinkingly brought home. Tempting to deny the far sadder and simpler truth that people simply get sick and die. CJ is an atheist; she has no bedside Torah to take comfort in, no illusions about a life after death. What she does have, and it’s no small feat, is a stunning catalog of music, songs which deserve a prominent place in the Human Songbook. She talks to me, with pleading urgency in her voice, about keeping the music alive. Assurance that her time here meant something, and will reverberate as time passes. I touch her head and tell her I’ll do the best I can.