I’m in a cab headed to Logan airport. It’s 5:00AM on an unseasonably warm, Boston January morning. My neighborhood streets ooze middle-of-the-night-eerie loneliness: Normally bright kitchen windows stare back blankly: A kid’s scooter, dropped carelessly the evening before, lays on the sidewalk, at the shadowy edge of the street light’s throw: On the pond, ducks and geese huddle together for safety on the greasy-streetlight-reflecting water – a living island of prey-fear. It’s too early for a glimmer of sunlight in the east, or upstairs light snapping on to signal the start of a new day. All we get, the cabbie and I, as we glide through the streets, is the anonymous darkness of a city still sleeping.
The cabbie – African-American, heavyset, forty-whatever-ish, shiny-smooth baldy – maintains a slow-running-small-talk monologue in a squeaky-sing-song voice, and sighs a lot. He indulges in even more sighing opportunities than the many sighing opportunities afforded by driving a cab.
“Unbelievable weather fifty two,” he squeaks, sighing heavily. “Don’t know what’s happening seems like we don’t have no winters no more least not like two years ago maybe them planet warming people is telling the truth after all.”
The dash light’s reflection moves across the side of his head, just above his right ear, as he slowly shakes his head, emitting yet another sigh.
Before I can catch a breath to opine on my home-brewed-global-warming-theory, he’s on the phone, not the iPhone visible in the clip on the dash, but another phone he slips out of his shirt pocket.
“Yes,” he raises his voice, the squeaky-ness dissipating. “He’s on his way. Yes … .”
He listens impatiently, drawing in a breath, and sighing it out, drawing in again – armoring himself for a response.
“Let me call, …, listen, let me …, listen, let call him again. He said he was on your street. Thanks, thanks, let me call.”
Through the darkness, from the tiny ear hole on his phone, I hear a stream of anxiety.
He hangs up. Slips the phone back in his shirt pocket. Reaches forward and index-finger-dials the iPhone on the dash.
“Hub cab,” drones the weary voice of the overnight dispatcher, too loud for 5:00AM.
“Man what you doing to me?” my driver whines out long, sighs.
“That lady she still don’t have a cab 84 Waterbury Street what’s happening man?” he pauses for a sigh. “You got like five hundred cabs you’re the biggest cab company in Boston more cabs than anyone –” he squeaks even more harshly, as he draws in breath while still talking – “you’re the biggest cab company in the world and you can’t get me one cab?”
“Hang on, hang on,” the dispatcher snaps, his weariness now on hold.
Dark-windowed-low-slung-apartment-buildings, filled with sleeping humans, whip by.
“I’m looking at him on the map, he’s on Wateh-bury, but he’s not moving.”
“Ok man the fare’s been waiting for like thirty minutes I’m trying to do you guys a favor and you’re making me look bad.”
He leans forward, index finger stabbing the red hang-up-circle, switches phone, dials another number.
“Yeah he’s on your street he’ll be there in li …, yeah he’s on your street,” his squeak gets higher. “Yeah I can see him on the map he’s right on your street he ain’t moving maybe he’s out front have you looked ou …,” he sighs, draws in one breath …, then another, “yeah he’s like one minute away I mean sixty seconds and he’ll be … .”
Even I feel the hang up.
He sighs a big sigh, slides the phone back in his shirt pocket, shuffles the dash lights across his shiny temple a few times, sighs all over again.
“I mean like man I got this customer I gave her a business card so she calls my personal number but I got you as my fare right,” he pauses, sighing on the in-breath, “because I said I would and I did so I can’t go get her right even though she’s my private customer so I call the biggest cab company in the world I mean in the world I mean what else could I do they got like five hundred cabs and they can’t get a cab to her.”
We drive on.
The Charles River is a deep-black-stripe loomed over by the Cambridge hotels – surprisingly well lit for this hour; the MIT dome – warmly lit as a beacon; the still-sleeping old economy corporate office buildings, repurposed as dark-anonymous, multi-tenant, new economy office buildings.
“See drivers don’t want to be getting out of their beds early in the morning what with UBER and all them ride sharing” – he takes both hands off the steering wheel and shakes them – “people.”
The dash lights move across his shiny-smooth-baldness a few times. He sighs a deep one.
“They’re killing us man I mean we’re just trying to make a living driving people from here to there that’s all.”
He sighs again.
“We ain’t saving the planet from aliens nor nothing just trying to make a few dollars giving peoples a ride to the airport or the market or the doctor or wherever.”
The phone in his shirt pocket rings again. It’s got a soft, melodic this-is-no-big-thing ring.
“What he’s not there yet?” he gets his licks in early, speaking fast. “God damn …, I’m sorry mam I’m just so upset with my driver” – he speaks on the in-breath to keep the fare from interrupting, cranking the squeakiness to freakiness – “he was right on your street but he’s not moving on the map I don’t understand it.”
Darkness: Storrow Drive traffic building: The small sound of an anxious-angry voice rushing out words.
“Let me call him let me call him mam … let me call him.”
He switches to the phone on the dash.
“Hub cab,” the tired voice says.
“Man what you doing to me?”
Silence for fifteen long seconds.
“He’s on the street, I seen him on the map,” the weariness is back. “He’s still not moving, maybe the map is broken.”
“I mean man you’re the biggest cab company in the world and you can’t get me one lousy cab I mean it’s a woman a lady an old lady and she’s waiting like forty five minutes.”
“Hey, I’m doing the best I can,” a small flash of anger, but the weariness returns, “I sent a cab when you asked.”
“Well send another one I mean” – his shoulders rise as he draws in a deep breath – “you got like five hundred cabs I only need one of them you’re making look bad man I mean I’m doing you a favor and you’re making me look bad.”
“Ok, ok, I sent one cab, I’ll send another, and I got four hundred and …, and four hundred more if you need them, right, that’s what you think, I got all the cabs in the world waiting for your… .”
“Hey man,” his voice rises, “I’m doing you a favor I mean it’s a woman an old lady waiting for a cab that’s all there’s a perfectly good fare there waiting to be picked up and … .”
“He’s on his way, another cab, ok.”
The driver’s other phone rings – the pleasant tune sounding less pleasant with each ring.
It rings, and rings, and rings.
We dive into the central artery – a gaping tunnel that leads into an entire interstate highway hidden beneath an old city: A dual monument to American civil engineering, and Massachusetts politician’s political prowess at extracting funding from Washington. Since the cab picked me up, we’ve been driving at a fairly constant twenty five miles an hour: A cabbie strategy to avoid tickets? As we head down into the Artery, we’re preceded by a family van going even slower. The cabbie lays heavy on the horn.
“Goddamn-it where these people going?” He squeaks. “The beach it’s goddamn five AM in January we got places to get.
He gives the horn a long run at it, and sighs, the dash lights migrating over and back across his right temple.
See I feel bad for that lady that dispatcher is probably some fat guy his beard all white from eating donuts sitting there drinking coffee looking at his map like that’s the one most important thing in the whole world.”
“Why do you think a cab driver doesn’t show up for a call?” I interrupt his flow – fervently hoping I’ll learn one of urbanity’s true secrets: Why the fuck do cabs not come when called?
“I don’t know man,” he shakes his head.
“Isn’t the fare important enough, I mean they’re” – I get embarrassed at how I’m referring to his trade in such a cold third person way, but as someone who’s spent his share of time standing on a street corner waiting hopelessly for an allegedly-dispatched-cab, I have to know – “well, everyone’s just looking to make a living right, a fare is a fare is a fare, right, why not go get it?”
“I agree man I think it’s that fat dispatcher with his white donut beard I think he’s taking this personal.”
I’m flabbergasted. This is the secret – it’s just regular human-fucked-upedness.
“Are the dispatchers bad guys?” I ask – my-I’m-don’t-get-out-much-mind running immediately to Danny DeVito as the definitely-not-lovable Louis DePalma in Taxi – thinking I might be on to something.
“Not usually, …,” he start to squeaky-drone on about the intricacies of the relationship between driver and dispatcher and cab companies, and then somewhere in the middle of his monologue – he does it.
We’re entering the airport: Cars, buses, cabs, trucks all merging, at different speeds, off the two lane ramp onto the four lane airport loop. Without so much as a glance at the side mirror, still squeaking mid-monolog, indicator resting unbothered in neutral, with no change in speed, we drift – at our constant twenty five miles an hour – in front of an I’m-late-for-my-flight-get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way car.
The car, now suddenly immeasurably small fractions of inch off our bumper, lays hard on the horn – a drone that goes on for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. I imagine myself back there, veins bulging, brain scrambling for the most imaginatively damning combinations of expletives.
My cabbie pays nary a bit of attention. He ships no stress, doesn’t even acknowledge the encounter.
His phone is ringing again.
“Oh, it’s someone else,” he says happily, looking at his phone, pushing the answer button.
I hear the stream of anger-anxiety.
He sighs; lets the long-slow-outbreath run its course; then draws in a shoulder-raising-dash-light-dancing-deep-breath.
“Yes mam I just dispatch the cabs I can’t be there myself I mean I got one car on your street but he’s not moving for some reason so I got another car heading over there I don’t think there’s anything else I can do.”
We’re whipping past gates in Terminal B – an overly-bright-frantic-busy world of car doors slamming, shuttle buses’ screeching breaks, wheelie-bags bumping past scowling Mass State Troopers – when I get one of those moments of clarity that visit me at odd times: I realize that I’m a townie who lost his town – or at least left it behind him, three thousand miles and thirty years away. I imagine this is the reason I don’t travel much – no need to, I’m on the road all the time. I live a life heavy on habits – as a buttress against the unmentionable; if I do everything the same way every day, a new day will always come. So every morning, I arise early, meditate, write or work out; I eat the same foods at the same time every day; I drive to work jabbering on the phone about the same kinds of problems that constantly reinvent themselves in inventive new ways, and complete the return journey ten hours later – still jabbering. But travel cuts right through that. I now have somewhere to get, a short term goal, over which I have minimal control. The same qualities which make my regular day rewarding and fruitful – an intense, but heavily-disguised-as-not-domineering, need to control events, a fierce compunction to achieve goals, a thirst for torturously complicated challenges – become stressors in the face of travel. I don’t get to fly the plane; decide exactly what time we’ll leave; how the weather will behave; what it’s safe to bring on the plane; how much leg room is enough; just how bad will be the coffee; whether the mechanics and security caught everything they must.
Under the damn-near-surgery-bright drop off lights – with a stream of scathing-anger-anxiety still flowing from the phone’s tiny earhole – the cabbie processes my fare on yet another phone; this one with a dongle on top to swipe a credit card. I shake my head in disbelief, but give the you-won’t-need-any-caffeine-after-this-cabbie a good tip: He’s started a travel day well for me. As I leave the cab, the dueling “alternative fact” monologues blaze on, each side arguing the taxi industry’s reliability, or not: As always, the big questions go unanswered.
TSA is, predictably, very TSA-ish: Long shuffling lines; little kids acting cute: Older kids, on a continuum that runs from eight to eighty, and from sulky to obnoxious, acting out. The TSA agents are all in their twenties; all somehow simultaneously-high-caffeinated-viligant-and-droopy-shoulders-too-tired; and all quirky – but in the way millennials do quirky. One sports a waxed handlebar mustache, super-caffeinated-rapid-eye-movements, a quick smile, and a quicker, curt-directive tone. A BTW-I’m-really-loud young woman, in a black Kevlar vest, zipped up to her chin, swaying and half-clapping her hands, carnival-barks directions to “remove laptops, iPads, remove your shoes and hats, electronics in a separate bin, remove liquids.”
We, the highly-suspect-careless-middle-classes, slog through the routine, removing laptops and liquids from our bags, bitter-dutifully yanking off jackets, hats, and shoes, plodding toward the X-ray machine in our socks.
“I-suggest-the-belt-too … sir,” Handlebar says quick-curtly, quiet-helpfully.
Observing the shoe removal routine, I’m reminded of the rental line at a ski resort, when, as people started to remove their shoes, to get fitted for boots, my daughter – then seven years old – let out an exaggerated sigh and whined;
“Oh man, security here – too!”
I’m so early – type A2 – that I get on a two hour earlier flight to Miami. It costs me “seventy five dollars honey,” as the heavily-made-up-carefully-coiffured American Airlines employee tells me. Her vernacular, look and dress all combine into a suit of armor against the constant craziness of stressed travelers.
“Yes sweetheart?” the – similarly be-armored – American employee next to her, says to someone behind me.
I turn to see to whom she’s speaking: It’s a man in his eighties, cheeks hanging in folds below his jawbones, eyes red and moist – and supremely disinterested.
Silently, he hands her a sheet of paper.
“Do you want a wheelchair honey?” she asks, distractedly staring from the paper to the screen, tapping loudly on the keyboard.
A new – definitely lesser, but nonetheless needs-to-get-answered – question arises in my mind: Why do keyboards at airport gates always “clack” so loudly? Do the airlines program the “clack-clack-clack” sound function into the keyboards as a way to make us feel better that they’re actually doing something to help us; similar to the way Guinness puts chemicals in its stout to make the creamy head stick to the side of the glass – some focus group having indicated this brought a greater sense of authenticity to their product. Musing over such inanities, I take a sip from my roof-of-mouth-scaldingly-hot Starbucks coffee, eternally grateful to a corporate growth plan that puts, slightly overpriced, strong-hot-coffee dispensing stations in every possible urban location that a human might likely stop to catch their breath.
The Gate areas combine into a human-traveller-petri-dish displaying why, and how, Americans move restlessly around this continent. A continent, it must be noted, that we took control of from the people who got here ahead of us, but who didn’t have the organization and foresight to keep us out – the way we now keep everyone else out. The gate next to me – Dallas – is all blue-suit-businessmen, already-travel-stressed families, a few students, and two fit, young military service men in starchy-stiff dress uniforms. At the Miami gate there’s a smattering of Red Sox hats, a bunch of Patriots hats, a couple of Brady shirts. There’s four Asian guys; short, stocky, pitted-skin-faces, buoyant body language; one of them practicing his golf swing, eliciting quick-funny-snaps in their language, then peels of too-loud-for-the-early-morning-crowd laughter. Not surprisingly for a flight to Florida, our gate area is seventy plus percent over fifty, probably twenty percent over seventy. The younger travelers are make-up covered, yoga-panted, loose-tee-shirted young women, and sweatpanted, loose tee shirted, I-just-got-out-of-bed-hairstyled young men. A few old guys brave shorts – which they exhibit like varicose veined models, completing fussy-cranky-errands-of-no-consequence, on the winding runway created from the gate area seating. One older, my-soul-never-leaves-Miami, guy flaps around in shorts-tee-shirt-flip-flops, tucked under his arm, a heavily folded copy of the Lying New York Times.
An unlikely pairing up occurs between two farmers in their thirties: He’s shy, hulking, loose fitting real-jeans and sweat shirt, his veins like cords wrapping his forearms, reading a book named “Soil’s Secret Fertilizer”: She’s younger, tight-designer-jeans, cowboy boots, a black Cabot Cheese sweatshirt with a too-yellowy-orange wedge of cheese blazoned around the front and half the side, cocked at an excitingly new angle for cheese wedges on black sweatshirts. They talk farming with the same gusto that the Red Sox hats argue about David Price. (No one dare argue about the Pats’ strategy; the results – or worse, sour Bill – will track you down.) The Cabot Cheese farmer is off to “hook up with a group of dairy farmers from Pennsylvania who are partying down in Miami.” Because I don’t get out much, and my thinking constantly rummages for old-familiar images to make sense of the new, her words trigger a vision of Far Side cows, all udders, horns and huge nostrils, leaning against an umbrella-cocktail-glass covered bar, a scrawny palm tree visible in the background, as they knock back hard liquor, stumbling, laughing-to-loud, getting bovine-ly messy. He speaks quietly – so quiet that I can’t eavesdrop; an old farm hand’s trick? – nodding respectfully, letting her dominate the conversation in her eavesdropping-friendly-carrying-voice. All this, despite the fact that his first contact with her was a furtive, but unmistakable, longing stare at her ass.
When America travels, we do so in our own version of big. We touch down in Miami, the Friday morning of a holiday weekend in January, and the terminal is all about letting guards down. I walk the concourse to unravel the knots tied in my spine by the when-the-fuck-did-these-get-so-cramped airplane seat. At 11:00AM the bars are starting to fill up; some – for decency’s sake – nurse their drinks, tracing a fingertip through the condensation; others – for machismo’s sake – gulp down their drinks in jaw opening swallows. None of the concourse humans are TV ready: Faces unshaven, hair departing in all directions; everyone over forty is wearing when-the-fuck-did-these-become-a-good-idea-baggy-pastel-casual-pants; everyone under forty is wearing I-never-cared-anyway-sweats; all of concourse humanity is in oversized-maybe-that-was-supposed-to-be-tucked-in-or-not-pastel-ish shirts. There’s long lines at all the fast food places – white food prevails; whiter-than-white-bread chicken or tuna sandwiches; Caribbean cheese-pastry places wedged into what was originally a closet; everywhere has cake, pastries, muffins, all capped in white icing: My son would love this diet! At the counters tempers snap – the language behind the counter is rapid-fire-Spanish; the language in front of the counter is middle-class-cranky-privilege. On a 72” flat screen, jutting into the concourse, barely dressed, skinnier-than-thou-can-ever-be, Victoria Secret models – looking like a species apart from the concourse humans – prance around inelegantly, trying to excite a whole different set of needs. There’s a stall with a sale on pastel-ish golf shirts with “extra space in the waist and arms.” There’s an “Irish Pub” selling “Real Guinness” and “Long Ireland Iced Tea,” staffed by quick-witted, friendly, but could-hardly-be-more-languid Cubans.
I wander the concourse – like an “undead” – peering hopefully into the food outlets for a solitary piece of fresh fruit. Instead of finding even a blackened banana, I’m staggered to observe just how much America moves about. Out the floor to ceiling windows, the airport’s side runways are choreographed traffic jams, with planes stacked nose-to-tail, like Brown’s cows coming home to get milked – or heading off on the piss in Miami? I chuckle imagining my cabbie out there as pilot: Three phones going –“but mam I can see your plane on the runway map have you looked out your Gate?” – cutting off other planes with sudden-oblivious-ease; cranking a living, any which way he could. Service vehicles for the planes truck in plasticized food to be consumed – for an unhealthy fee – onboard, while others pump out its digested-plasticized-results; fuel tankers shimmer in the heat; a travel-anxiety-inducing mechanics bucket-truck zig-zag-zig reverses up to a jet engine on an airplane wing; luggage trailers twisting behind tractors scurry along like gi-normous centipedes. The drivers, in constant stop-start-stop traffic jams, yell joke-screaming out open vehicle doorways. On the airport tarmac, everything gets moved in a rush, under pressure to feed the beast that is the terminal teeming with cranky-anxious-busy humans. A 737 – a-twelve-foot-diameter-high-tech-metal-tube-with-wings – rockets skyward, at a seemingly impossible angle; banks oh-so-slowly; then it’s gone. I keep on un-dead wandering. On the Departures board there’s an unlikely socioeconomic-climatic stacking of Medellin, Mexico City, Montego Bay, Montreal and Minneapolis/St. Paul – each destination conjuring up a vastly different image.
St Croix – the Holy Cross – is a typical Caribbean island: A mixture of screaming beauty, abject poverty, and ultra-relaxed confusion – at macro and micro levels. Indeed St Croix has such a surplus of confusion that I – with my I-don’t-get-out-much mind – begin to wonder if this wasn’t the island Charlie Haughey bought off the coast of Ireland: I mean it is off the coast of Ireland – albeit 4,000 miles off it? They compete with, and definitively beat Ireland, in the game of keeping rusting hulks of cars and trucks in the front yard, ivy weaving in and out the broken windows. We pass a concrete plant that would bring tears of bitter defeat to the eyes of your average Irish I-am-not-out-of-business-this-pile-of-rusting-overgrown-equipment-in-my-front-yard-is-being-stored-for-the-next-big-job contractor. Back in reality – St Croix has the signature Caribbean azure colored bays, palm trees leaning toward the sun, pink corral sand beaches, glisteningly postcard-perfect. It’s also got a rocky coastline off which huge grey-white pelicans soar, twenty feet above the surf, plucking their dinner – seemingly at will – from the ocean. In the island interior, and at the edge of towns, poverty malingers, as it does in the eyes of the weary street-entrepreneurs flogging tee shirts, dodgy rum, and Made-in-China, Caribbean trinkets.
For reasons that can only be adequately explained by the tropics need to throw up some macro level confusion for snarky-uptight northerners, the St Croix-ans – the Holy Crossers, you might say; if you were a snarky-uptight northerner – drive American style left hand drive cars on Irish style right hand drive roads. The result is that basically everyone’s the mailman, the driver stuck off to the side, hugging the gutter of roads designed to the same specification as old west of Ireland roads, with a distressingly high incidence of suddenly appearing death-defying-curves. But the Holy Crossers’ roads have the added spice of their tight radius curves frequently terminating into Y-junctions – the ambiguous yielding rights of which, calls into question the average person’s competing desires for forward motion or preservation of life and limb. Even at the funereal speed of a typical Holy Crosser’s cabbie – slowing to a near stop and blowing the horn repeatedly in the middle of a cork-screw-hill series of hairpin turns – there’s still plenty of passengers for whom travel induces a wide-eyed-this-might-be-my-last-breath pose.
The cure for this – and all other confusions in the Caribbean – is rum.
St Croix has its own distillery, but our cabbie – a man of deep St Croix knowledge, amazing calmness and personal dignity – tells us the whole story in the way whole stories get told in Caribbean. The sugar cane plantations – worked by human beings abducted in Africa, and sold as slaves to be worked to death by the Happiest People in the World; the Danes – went bankrupt so many generations ago that no one could possibly remember. The cabbie just throws his hands in the air at the unknowability of plantation history. For some reason he dwells on the fact that there areone hundred and forty Happy windmills left on the island – my, albeit unscientific survey of a few of these, finds them mostly falling into unHappy heaps of rubble. The cabbie is definitive that the last crop of sugar cane was reaped in 1966, and that now nothing is grown commercially on the island. Still we see an occasional grove of banana trees or a herd of rib-protrudingly-thin goats mopping up what little greenery grows in their fenced off enclosure. The island now imports molasses to make rum in the traditional St Croix way; that rum is then sent to Kentucky for further distillation by the corporate owners – currently a huge Japanese beverage company who own everything from Jim Beam to Lucozade – and then sent back to the island for flavoring and final finishing. You can buy a bottle of this well travelled, highly globalized rum for a pittance on the island. Lots of such bottles are bought.
Myself, and about thirty others, are on the island for a wedding. It’s a heavily Boston crowd, and while I immediately try hard to grab the franchise on extreme sunburn, the gene pool is heavily Irish and northern European, and several people have gotten a running start on me. Still I wade fearlessly into the fray, creating the UV equivalent of a black hole on the beach, as I lay there sleeping off a hangover, hogging the sun’s rays, visibly transforming from bank-manager-pink to Maine-lobster-red to oh-my-God-he-must-be-Irish-blistering!
A wedding, like travel, has the ability to take me out of autopilot-living mode, force me to consider what life is all about. And this is a good wedding. The couple exude that loving care for one another that gives hope for humanity. We, the sunburnt-of-the-world, celebrate their union with the abandon of people who don’t often abandon. Ensconced in an island resort, no cell phone service, Wi-Fi as fickle as a Boston cabbie, there are no distractions, but the welcome sounds of the ocean, the rush of wind amongst the palm trees. As the sun sets, the water darkens to deep black, and the veranda lights take on a breezy-liveliness. We sit in community with the cool evening, wedding candles flickering, beaming with happiness. By the magic of eight hours travel we have captured summer in January – often our bitterest winter month – and dropped ourselves into a culture, just far enough removed from our comfortably-uncomfortable daily worlds to crack open our minds. This opening, infused the magic of happiness, gives us a glimpse of life as we would want it to be.
I’m walking the dogs around my neighborhood pond, four miles and two hundred and forty six years from the bloody birthplace of American freedom; not to be confused with American democracy – that didn’t come for until twenty six years later, when George Washington peacefully stepped down as president. It’s about 7:00AM on Election Day, a crisp November morning. The pond is glassy-flat, perfectly reflecting end of season orange-yellowing-to-brown trees, their color set off by tall-dour-apartment buildings; all capped by a mottled sky. The Canadian geese – one of the ugly manifestations of successive liberal, and pretend conservative, governmental polices that allow uncontrolled immigration – are busy shitting on God-grown-American grass, and hissing aggressively at my Confederate (Tennessee and Arkansas) rescue dogs. At the edge of the pond, mallard ducks nibble on weeds that grow in shallow water, heads submerged, bills chomping, their arses perpendicularly aloft, irreverently wagging their third eye at the passing electorate. I’m in no rush. I cast my vote, quixotically, a week earlier, for a candidate, who for all I know, couldn’t manage the slide in a kindergarten playground, but who at least gave a flying-fuck about the fact that 200 years of human industrialization has triggered a so-sudden-it-can’t-be-believed—or-stopped! climatic change on our ball of cooling rock that will mean misery and death for billions of animals – a good many of them less fortunate members of our own species.
A pudgy, I’ve-figured-out-humans-wasteful-habits squirrel disappears into one of the tar-barrels in the park that softball players fill with half devoured pizza-crusts and sucked-dry-beer-cans. My Confederates – their honor singed by the fact that they are leashed, while this bushy-tailed-rodent runs free – yank my arm, their nails scrabbling against the stone-dust path. From inside the barrel, above Confederate howls, I hear a pizza box rustling, beer cans moving. I drag the leash-straining dogs on. A few hundred feet away, in the middle of the woods that Olmsted planted more than a hundred years ago – so that the humans huddled in the city, scraping together a living, wouldn’t totally forget what the rest of the planet looked like – a squirrel with Amish-like traditionalist tendencies crosses our path, an acorn in his mouth, bounding-front-legs-back-legs-front-legs along, until he reaches a hundred year old oak. The squirrel scrambles up the trunk with ease; apparently not bound by the laws of gravity. I stop and stare as it claws-scraping climbs up-up-up the oak, all the way into the neck-disc-crunching tallest branches. There is its nest. To a human, it looks like a bunch of leaves that somehow got stuck in the spindly-branches of a tree. But to a squirrel, that’s home – or one of a few such homes; like any good investor, he’s diversified – that will help him survive the winter.
The Greeks were the first to elect their leaders. They turned to democracy, around 2,500 years ago, as way balance society by stopping the endless bloodletting to grab, or hold on to, power. They had theretofore lived under various forms of tyranny – either by one strong man or oligarchies (dictatorship’s waiting room) – a system of government that almost always devolves into bloody internecine war. The citizens of Athens could no longer tolerate the cycles of killing and economic disruption. With the citizenry of Athens collectively responsible for its defense – a matter then, as now, definitely not unimportant – fairly simple economics allowed democracy to germinate. By this era – around 600ish BC – to be effective as a soldier (that is to stay alive for more than ten minutes in battle), required that you possess your own armor and weapons; something beyond the reach of your average Joe-six-pack Greek. Thus, to meet your soldiering requirement as a citizen of Athens required that you be at least in the middle tier of earners. Every war season – the Greeks were damnably civilized about all this, and actually had a war season, basically after the crops were saved and before they had to be planted again – they would do battle against another city in Greece. It was sort of the European league of its day. The spoils of battle – as with the modern European league – were entirely gained on the battlefield. Dead bodies were stripped of their armor, weapons, and any other trappings of wealth; everyone went back home, drank too much wine, ate the hind leg of their fattest goat, and got ready for another season growing grapes, grains and olives. To survive, a city had to have a reasonably sized, outfitted, and motivated army ready to protect itself: In this way the citizenry forced their right to self-determination. No one faction was fit to stop them. Out of collective force grew democracy.
This early experiment with democracy had to reckon with the usual type of human personalities – I would characterize them as dysfunctional, but their prevalence seems to argue against that –fear mongers, sociopaths, psychopaths, just-plain-old-disconnected-from-reality, frighteningly-disconnected-from-reality, the controlling, the ultra-controlling, the hypocrites, the I’ll-say-anything-to-get-elected, and, the alarmingly prevalent (then, as now) tyrants masquerading as democrats. These Greeks were truly a great people – smart, inventive, more than willing to take risks, and make course corrections as necessary. Early on in the experiment, the Athenians appointed a man named Draco – like Brazilian soccer stars, ancient Greeks go by just one name: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates (employed by both great cultures) – to formulate a set of laws by which order could be imposed on society. Draco, as the gods would have it, was sort of a pre-Christian Christian Brother – hint; the word “draconian” derives from his name – who took lawmaking to a Christian-Brotherishly-ridiculous degree, imposing the death penalty for such petty crimes as the “theft of a cabbage.” (Is it conceivable that the Athenians had such incredible cabbage?) When asked, with the death penalty invoked for such petty crimes, what should be the punishment for greater crimes, Draco basically said, “I’ll get back to you on that one.” Shortly thereafter he was given a punishment, that he himself had heretofore considered too lenient, and that we, with our eye-for-an-eye based justice system, rarely ever use: He was exiled from Athens for life, and died on a nearby island. But the Greeks found some of his rulemaking useful as they persevered with their experiment, and ended up with what could be defined as a successful democracy; that definition arising from the fact that everyone was equally nonplussed by the system, but not so much so that they could propose any more lasting solution to the governance of our unruly species.
The Greek democracy experiment fell victim to the newly rebranded mode of tyranny: Royalty. King Phillip of Macedonia invaded, and, with the colonialist’s mindset, dispensed of anything that smelled like the right to self-determination. Thereafter democracy went on a long sabbatical, as other tyrants rushed to rebrand into the royalist model, turning their bloody trade it into a family business, that assured succession – even when ne’er-do-wells, or idiots, were next in line. Over hundreds of years, with tyr-oyalty inbreeding themselves out of relevance, and economies gaining more sophistication, the middle classes once again grew strong enough to force the right to self-determination. This was all done the way we humans do everything – in fits and starts, propelled forward, or stopped in its tracks, by the enormous energy, focus and beliefs of those who make human history.
Our innate desire for democracy is, I suspect, because true democracy affords the highest probability of justice in the myriad disputes, large and small, in which we continuously engage. Of all the elements that we believe sets apart and defines our self-centered species, justice – a generally nondestructive mechanism to manage our greed-fear-anger – has to be near the top of that list. Justice does not exist in the natural world; this provides the shifting moral backdrop for how we treat animals. The prey-predator food chain has no room for justice – just watch your local hawk clawing apart a mother squirrel who had been out foraging for her now doomed pups. Thus it was that when the Athenians, early on in their democracy experiment, started a system of trial by a jury made up of other citizens, they had what the bargain-basement business consultant might call a “quick win.” This inherent commitment to justice, that has been baked into broad based democracy’s DNA, differentiates it from other, often more economically and militarily, effective systems. No one fondly remembers the Soviet Union’s “amazing justice system,” but democracies, even those with histories of rampant colonialism and systematic repression of whole segments of their own citizenry (ok, that captures pretty much all of them,) can still produce – at least for those whom they clearly view as their citizenry – a system that serves up justice more often than not. That’s a pretty low bar – right?
It’s after work and I’m out with the dogs again. The pond’s animal population is fatigued from a day spent vying for the rapidly dwindling food supply; all that is except for the I-love-wasteful-humans-so-what-if-I-die-young-of-diabetes squirrels, who scurry in and out a trash barrels, their rodent brains gleefully choosing between high sugar or high fat snacks. An eternally-mournful crane stands in a pond inlet, his killing done for the day. The Canadian geese have fought themselves to a standstill, and float indifferently on the water. It turns out these Canadians never even saw Canada, don’t like ice hockey, can’t even claim John Candy as one of their own: US hunters captured and bred their forefathers in farms, clipped their wings, and used these human-modified-geese as decoys to lure their migrating cousins down to the ground – whereupon the cousins were promptly shot. So successful was this technique, that shooting Canadian geese got outlawed, the farms closed, the what-all-this-migrating-BS-about-let’s-go-eat-a-park geese got released, and now decoy the previous migrators into staying through the winter – to eat-a-park. A merganser duck dives under the water, startling myself and the dogs – we’re accustomed to the more pedestrian mallard duck dunking. We stare confused at the concentric circles wrinkling the water where a bird once was. But the merganser is back before we know it, wagging its pro-soccer-player-hairstyle to swallow a writhing-for-its-life fish.
We walk on. Walking around the edge of the water-earth-world refreshes my energy after a day of Sisyphus-ian phone-calls-emailing-texting-staring-earnestly-across-the-table attempts to push the rock up the hill. A red-tailed hawk glides past overhead, landing claws first on a branch thirty feet up. It shakes itself vigorously, feathers ruffling and falling svelte in a single graceful movement. Settled, the predator looks menacingly around for dinner. Above the hawk, the Amish squirrels’ nests cycle to-and-fro in the wind. When the north wind drags the temperatures dangerously low, the Amish squirrels will leave their fellow addicted-to-human-diet rodents rummaging through bags of frozen dog shit in the tar barrels, and head up high. Up-up-up, in the skinny branches, they’ll ride out the season that grows no food, lounging on a bed of leaves, its stash of vegan-locally-grown-organic-ultra-fair-trade-dolphin-safe whole foods just a squirrel’s-paw away. It’ll get whipped around up there, but it’ll also secure in the knowledge – baked into its DNA over the last 40 million years – that despite what threats the wind and snow bring, its evolved body, and nest, have been built so that should disaster visit even the strongest, most rigid tree, they will survive.
Survival of the political variety, back in 1169, by Dermot McMurragh, the recently deposed king of Leinster, brought the Normans to Ireland. He hired these highly effective soldiers as mercenaries to fight on his behalf, but in a prequel to the future dramas to take place on our sad little island, Henry II, Norman king of England, sent an even bigger army over to conquer the mercenaries, and prevent them from creating a renegade kingdom in Ireland. Once they had accomplished this task, this second Norman invasion decided to stay, kicking of 800 years of foreign rule. The governmental structure of this foreign rule started as traditional Middle-Ages-follow-my-rules-or-I’ll-kill-you style tyranny that over the years segued to wholesome-old-fashioned tyranny, then to democratic-tyranny-of-the-majority-by-the-minority, and eventually, in the early twentieth century, to, the then preferred governmental system of, pretend-democracy (with tyranny on the side.) For long periods of time, Irish Catholics, the vast majority of people on the island, either couldn’t vote or couldn’t hold office, and in truth, often had a problem staying alive or Catholic – and sometimes both. Then a few times a century, we’d slip into national character defining cycle of doomed-rebellion-means-extra-repression. Somewhere in there too, we threw a famine and a mass migration, not to mention deportations, enslavements – oh my, those were a busy 800 years. Then in 1921, we pried – with the business end of a gun; empires don’t come asunder easily – independence away from the British Empire. Well, kinda-sorta independence: In Northern Ireland a rake of people, who didn’t want to, got stranded in the Empire, and down south the Irish Free State – almost entirely a weak, British Commonwealth client state – further weakened itself by immediately launching a bad-TV-show civil war. From that point forward for fifty or more years, democracy in the part of the island not under direct British rule consisted of quadrennial, zealously-bitter, beauty contests between the sides who fought the civil war. With great irony – and, honestly, other than drinking, there’s not much we do better on the island of Ir-ony-eland – the losing side in the civil war went on to rule the country for the majority of the time, eventually shedding its client state status, and becoming the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the governmental structure stayed pretty much with pretend-democracy (with tyranny on the side) for fifty years, until that, most viciously divided part of our island, devolved into a forty year long, societal-PTSD-inducing, sectarian war.
Northern Ireland’s sectarian war arose from the brutal suppression a voting rights movement, which had been inspired by America’s own brutally suppressed voting rights movement. Both movements were ultimately successful – but in vastly different timeframes. In America the strong-flexible democratic structures, and will of the overall majority to return to a Mayberry-like existence (never mind that Mayberry existed only in TV-land), allowed for the resumption of a new normal, where the previously disenfranchised groups were accepted into the electorate: Which is certainly not to claim that things went easy for them from that point forward. In Northern Ireland, without any history of true democracy, or the democratic structures that such an environment nurtures, the situation devolved into war. That war pitched the Catholic-Nationalists against the Protestant-Unionists. The torch of Nationalist military resistance was picked up by the Irish Republican Army - the IRA. With public opinion on the islands of Ireland and Great Britain pretty much set in stone – in the Republic of Ireland it often broke directly along the now generationally-embalmed civil war line-ups – the IRA tried to use foreign public opinion, particularly in the US, as a tool against the British government. Thus some of their members invoked a hunger strike to protest the British government’s change in the IRA prisoner’s status from political prisoners to common criminals. Led by Bobby Sands, the hunger strike was formulated – with new hunger strikers joining in two week intervals – to ratchet up tension and keep the story in the media for as long as possible. It takes an average of sixty days for a human to starve themselves to death by refusing food. Twenty three people joined the hunger strike. Ten of them struck all the way to death by starvation.
The hunger strikes started when I was fifteen years old. I grew up well away from the shooting war in Northern Ireland. Our contact with it typically was the evening news, where we became connoisseurs of rioting and shooting footage: One night the British army might be shooting rubber bullets at rioters, a bus blazing smokily in the background, masked youth firing rocks and petrol-bombs at the riot-gear-clad soldiers. The next night we might watch the potentially booby-trapped body of a kidnapped and killed British soldier lying on the side of the road; a bomb squad preparing to approach the dead body of a fallen colleague, the tension on the their faces morphing them into cartoon characters. How many times does a ten, twelve, fifteen year old have to watch this kind of footage to get politicized. Everyone was politicized, even the dogs in the street could tell you who was right, and why they were the real heroes, and who was wrong, and why they should be shot. To add a little sauce to our politicization, two previous IRA hunger strikers – who had been the inspiration for Bobby Sands and his group’s efforts – had hailed from our county; Mayo. Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg both died on hunger strike in British prisons in the mid-1970s; both there on charges of IRA activity in English cities. Their bodies were returned to Mayo to be buried. I can still feel in my stomach the sensations of fear that surrounded Frank Stagg’s funeral.
The Irish government diverted the flight carrying his body away from Dublin airport, where his family, and a large group of IRA sympathizers, had assembled to accompany the funeral cortege across the country to Mayo. The government were trying to prevent his self-emaciated corpse from becoming yet another symbol of Irish martyrdom at the hands of Britain. Under the smothering repression of the British Empire, we brought symbolism to a fine art – Irish history is littered with martyrs like so many landmines. Frank Stagg’s body was instead flown to the other side of our then-small-bitter-island, from where it was taken by helicopter to Mayo, and then accompanied to the graveyard by a large convoy of Republic of Ireland soldiers – not to be confused with the Irish Republican Army (somewhere in this sadness, there’s a Monty Python joke, but don’t try to tell it in Ireland – the wounds are still too raw.) At the funeral, in the graveyard, there was a mini riot. I remember a friend – whose family were neighbors of the Stagg family, and attended the funeral as non-political attendees – telling how the crowd pulled small metal crucifixes off graves and fired them at the police; how a policeman in riot gear (the fashion of the day), who had foolishly left his visor down, had his “face split open like a can of beans.”
Being political, and unaffiliated to any side, in Ireland at that time was like being a smoker in an oil refinery: You walk around wondering where it’s safe to light the cigarette, but before you get the cancer stick lit, the chemicals have you already killed. In Northern Ireland, the fighting ground on mercilessly. It was said that the average bus driver in Belfast carried as much stress as the pilot of a 747 – his chances of having his vehicle hijacked and burned out from under him were that high. By the time I left Ireland in 1986, the Long War strategy – to grind out a pyrrhic victory by making Northern Ireland ungovernable and economically unviable – had settled like a deadly fog over the island. For their forty years of strife – at a recorded cost of three thousand human lives, and the unrecorded cost of lives shortened and unfulfilled by the stress of living through such a conflict – the people of Northern Ireland got an incredibly divided and tentative democracy.
Two years after I arrived in America, a small Greek-American man – whose previous combat experience had been fighting for a seat on Boston’s Green Line streetcars– strapped a helmet onto his head, climbed into a M1 Abrams tank, and made a complete ass of himself. Thus a man, who had learned, through hard experience, how to govern effectively, but most certainly without flash, let a man, whose strength was getting more people to believe in him win the US presidency. In doing so the man-who-could-govern-but-not-communicate succumbed to the franchise of presidential candidates who run well for office by simplifying pretend-solutions to our real problems into catchy phrases. Once elected, these over-simplifiers’ governing skills could be kindly described as putrefied shit. This is of course one of democracy’s great weaknesses. H.L Mencken’s line that “democracy is the theory that people know what they want, and deserve to get it – good and hard,” has never been truer. Our need to be governed with just foresight – the foundation, and sustaining force, of democracy – has all too often succumbed to our manipulated-fears; leaving us as a herd plodding behind a bullying leader.
As bad as is this weakness to periodically, and almost always ruefully, elect strong-simple leaders, democracy is continuously exposed to another – almost equally fatal – human flaw. That is the propensity of the few chosen by the many to routinely engage in corruption – of both high and low order – with such amazing consistency that many citizens consider all of democracy a sham, and lose interest in their right to self-determination. In other forms of government, wholesome-old-fashioned dictatorship, communist-dictatorship, monarchical-dictatorship, and gluten-free dictatorship, corruption is the foundation of the system which goes something like: I rule, I steal almost all the wealth you generate, if you question me in any way, I’ll kill you, or imprison you – and I’ll probably torture you too, if I have the bandwidth. If you’re chosen to participate in these gluttonous feasts of corruption, then you likely need to be born into a particular ethnic group, or hail from a certain region; then you have to nurture your sociopathic, and perhaps psychopathic, self, as you learn to steal, torture and kill for the big guy. For examples of these types of dictatorships just look, …, well just look anywhere; humanity’s history is jam packed with them, and today about half the countries in the world are playing in the Authoritarian League, which is led by such major clubs as Russia and China, but there are some difficult to beat smaller clubs in there, pretty much all the “stans,” Iran, and North Korea. Tyranny, it is apparent, is an entirely viable form of government.
In democracy, humans hold those same desires for rapaciously unjust self-enrichment. Some go right to a life of crime; others go into politics. The Greeks discovered very early on – so early that it calls into question whether this human trait can ever be eliminated – democracy’s susceptibility to corruption. When the Athenians stuck their toe into this whole democracy experiment, starting the trial by jury system as their first “quick win,” any citizen could bring a case against another. However, within one year of the start of their jury system, it was evident that the buying off of jurors to influence cases was so rampant, that a new policy of random, daily selection of jurors had to be put in place before the fledgling justice system devolved into a Soviet joke.
In the US – where, entirely bereft of irony, we hold up democracy as our national brand and assiduously practice corruption – in the last twenty years six governors have done jail time, and a further six more have narrowly avoided the definitive sound of the metal door closing on their career. Illinois – home to the gangster’s gangster Alphonse Gabriel Capone – leads the Corruption League with four of its last seven governors donning fashionable prison garb. The numbers of state reps, senators, county commissioners and city councilors who fill prison cells are too plentiful to mention. In Massachusetts (a state not unfamiliar with political corruption), our storied James Michael Curley was first elected as a City Alderman while in jail on fraud charges, and years later served five months in federal prison – while the sitting mayor of Boston. Corruption would seem to be an endemic human trait, and democracy, while not necessarily exacerbating that trait, needs to be alive at all times to its dangers. So with democracy’s twin propensities to elect people who run sophisticated beauty contest campaigns, and the fact that everyone knows the governor of Illinois is going to end up in jail (even the governor,) yet he still takes the bribe – why do we stick with this system?
As with everything to do with humans, the answer is complicated and simple all at once, but can be distilled down to the fact that while flawed by its inherent weaknesses, and requiring energy and focus to keep it vital, democracy is about as good as it’s going to get until humans evolve out of greed-fear-anger. The bigger problem with democracy is that those who live under this system tend take it for granted, and often don’t participate in it in any way. Indeed many of us treat democracy like an old raincoat. It’s hanging there by the back door should we ever need it, but honestly, it’s more convenient to take an umbrella, or just run to the car and use that, with its customizable, personal micro-environment, as protection from the rain. So, the old raincoat hangs there, getting covered by newer, more fashionable, coats, never getting used. And when the day comes for which only the raincoat will work – high winds drive the rain horizontal, the dogs’ eyes implore you for a walk, the living room rug screams under the double-dogged threat of spontaneous-canine-defecation – we’re a little impatient that such a tawdry piece of clothing is required to get us through our day. What’s more, we’re irked that the raincoat doesn’t provide us with a mobile rain shadow, or a personal micro-environment. But out we venture into the rain, wearing that old coat, and execute our duty – which, let’s put it into perspective, was walking the dog, not saving lives on storm-driven high seas. Nevertheless, when we return, we muse proudly at our hardiness, at our no-nonsense-that-had-to-done quality. We rehang the raincoat in the back hall, letting it drip from its hook, not to be used again for a few more years.
Over the last 200 years we have grown to revere democracy, with its rights to self-determination and justice. But, it must be noted, democracy is for humans only. All other species live under our general tyranny, as we simultaneously drive certain species toward extinction – gorillas, elephants, leopards – and mass breed others for human consumption – 50 billion chickens slaughtered every year. Democracy has displaced religion – our deep thinking on “where-are-coming-from-where-are-going” – with its right to self-determination – our philosophy of “these-eighty-years-better-be-lived-as-well-as-possible.” Homo Sapiens’ evolved as a distinct species 200,000 years ago with a sophisticated brain that grants us the ability to outwit, capture and kill all the planet’s other species. But that brain also gives us the double-edged-gift of self-awareness. So, it is worth noting that while our species is 200,000 years old, the ball of cooling rock we live on is 4.5 billion years old, and the universe itself 13.8 billion years old. To help understand these staggeringly large timeframes, imagine instead that they represent currency – Euros or dollars. Even such a working-man’s comparison of where we as a species fit into the known timescale of existence seems to beg the question that – as important as it is to understand our place in existence; whatever the fuck that might ultimately mean – have our belief systems led us to take humanity too seriously?
It’s almost the end of my election day, and I’m dripping sweat all over the carpet in the lobby of a hot yoga studio. It’s 9:00PM, and class is just letting out. The doors of the 100-plus-degree yoga studio are open, flooding the lobby with heat and humidity; the exterior door propped open, cold-dry-November-8th-refreshing-air gushing in. The lobby, crowded by exhausted-it’s-not-even-hump-day-my-sweat-is-cooling-too-fast humans is a mixing chamber where hot and cold, exhilaration and debilitation, blue and red, fight it out: Sweat-drenched-scalps steam; man-made-humidity condenses to a tenuous fog at the exterior door. The teacher, a young African-American woman – who a hundred a fifty years ago could have been enslaved in many of our United States, and up to fifty years ago did not hold the right to self-determination in many of those same states – sits at the check-in desk staring into the computer screen; un-phased by the micro-climatic war in her lobby. She taps away at the keys, already departed into the virtual world.
“Oh no Florida,” she gasps, bolting upright on the stool, her eyes narrowing, brow furrowing. “I don’t like the look of this at all.”
I’m standing in the asshole position – and feeling quite at one there. Around me stretches the lonely-beauty of Buzzards Bay; a section of the Atlantic sequestered by Massachusetts’ south coast, and Cape Cod’s under-arm, and further defined by a ribbon of islands – dropped off by the last glacier in town. To the south, Buzzards Bay gapes open to the nautical-near-infinity of the Atlantic Ocean. To my right – or “starboard,” as I’m frequently reminded – a tern hovers, wings flapping rapidly; it dives, fast-but-wings-everywhere-awkward, until just above the water, it tucks it all in, hits the ocean beak first, submerges, and then re-emerges with a tiny fish wriggling for its life. The little bird, wings flapping rapidly again, tweezer-like-beak clenched on its prey, turns for the no longer visible shore. It’s doing what terns have done for millions of years, before ever humans, out on the water hoping to de-stress, mused at its high-energy-parental-industriousness. The nature show over, I turn on my precarious perch-step, and look ahead at the nothingness of the horizon.
The asshole position is standing on the steps leading to the cabin on a sailboat. The genesis of this term is best left to your imagination. But I like standing there – perhaps confirming my asshole-ishness. It’s a cracker of an early summer weekday, and I’m a-low-functioning member of a four man crew sailing a boat from Marion, Massachusetts to Hyannis on Cape Cod. Our mission is to get the boat in place for the start of the Figawi (as in “where-the-fug-are-we?”); a sailboat race from Hyannis to Nantucket which will take place two days later. Wisely, we’ve built a lot of time for erring into our delivery schedule. Right out of the box we’re at it, with our charts safe and dry – and utterly useless – at home. A scramble around Marion harbor – on which floats a few million dollars’ worth of fiberglass, fashioned into sleek sailing vessels, and a few incredibly cool wooden boats that faux-harken back to the “boats of wood, men of steel” era – turns up a set a charts, and a blast of barely-humor-disguised-insults about our sailing ability, from a crusty, but nonetheless kind, old mariner.
And we’re off!
Oh, no, not quite yet.
First we need diesel for the engine: The weather gods, and the captain’s eventual impatience with our sloppy sailing, can’t always accommodate wind-powered conveyance. Thus, having a combustion engine as back up is a must; might even be required under Coast Guard rules – if only we could find that rule book! The fuel depot is all about rules for fire and environmental safety: These we follow with boy scoutish attention and formality. Lugging the fuel hose from an old gas station pump – with dials that rotate, clicking-to-the-pump’s-hum, recording the gallons sold – on the dock over to the boat is a surprisingly laborious job, calling for an especially large amount of mariner-ly grunting. We start pumping into what we believe is a near empty tank. A minute in, the pump knocks off, pink diesel rushes out. Panicked-ly, but efficiently, we mop up the small, but pink-running-everywhere-across-white-deck, quantity of fuel. We muse, with problem solvers’ joy, on why the tank filled so quickly: A faulty fill gauge? Old gas pumps kick new pumps’ ass – big-time? With healthy skepticism, we try again, carefully, to add more fuel. An older boat yard worker – well-earned-paunch, olive green work clothes, an unlit cigar jammed into the corner of his mouth – gazes at us with barely disguised disdain. The diesel flows, and we realize that one of us had leaned against the fuel tank vent, creating an air lock that sent the wrong signal to the pump. But then, aren’t we all about wrong signals.
Marion is an almost excessively cute, seaside town, home to about 5,000 heavy-on-the-sailorly-types’ humans, and an undisclosed number of other animals. The Puritans settled this land in 1679: Settling as in, violently chasing off the people who had been there before them, killing off the wildlife that impacted farming, and squabbling viciously about which white people owned which piece of land. The fun-hating Puritans – famous for their black-wool-clothes-heavy-on-the-buckles fashion, and self-tyrannical culture; though they didn’t do such a good job at keeping their tyranny to themselves – having well learned the dark art of the suppression of religion, at the hands of the Church of England, emigrated to North America, where they proceeded to suppress all other religions. But, in fairness, they did so without any self-pleasure; there was nary a laugh heard nor a smile cracked in New England throughout the 1600s. By 1852 the humans living in the area had settled back into their sinful-laughing-smiling ways. They were however still squabbling – as is the human way – this time about how to sort themselves into various towns and villages. The fishermen and farmers of this area incorporated themselves as a town, naming it Marion; after a hero of the American Revolutionary War.
It was somewhat of a fad at the time to name municipalities after Revolutionary War heroes: Francis Marion, not a towering figure in the war, has over thirty towns and counties named in his honor. Marion was a man very much of his time – take from that what you will: He shipped off to sea at age 15, his first ship sank (supposedly rammed by a whale – a twist that reeks of a good press agent), and he spent a week in a lifeboat getting to terra firma; he learned his military trade – and was exposed to the devastating effectiveness of guerilla war – while fighting the Cherokee in South Carolina, eventually burning their crops to starve them out; he was a slave owner – as were eighteen of our presidents – who held title to two hundred human beings; and he distinguished himself as the “Swamp Fox” by bogging down a much larger British Army in South Carolina in a heavy-on-the-atrocities guerilla war. His life inspired the Mel Gibson movie “Patriot,” and while Hollywood treats historical fact the same way a carpenter treats a 2x4 – something to be slung around with macho ease, and eventually cut up into pieces and used to support that which the paying customer wants to see – they went a small bit crazy on this one. So much so that Time Magazine promptly listed “Patriot” as one of its “Top 10 Historically Misleading Films,” but not soon enough to avoid stoking up the, decidedly not-Puritan-anymore-now-snippy, British media, who described Marion as “a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was, basically, a terrorist.”
Back on board our almost-certainly-not-going-to-be-rammed-by-a-whale-cause-we-nearly-killed-them-all-sailing-vessel, the captain is lying on the deck, his arm reaching into one of those very handy, but a small bit mysterious, cavities that one finds on a boat.
“Are you all right there cap?” I ask, with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety – trending-heavily-to-anxiety.
“Sure, sure, this is known as the prayer position,” he half grunts, from his unusual position on the deck. “You know, when the engine won’t start, you have get down here to try the back-up method, and you’re praying it will turn over.”
Sailing with sailing-challenged sailors sometimes requires tough decisions, such as “let’s start the motor and have a sandwich and a beer.” On these breaks, we debate deep topics in the vein of “is it a bad thing if the Coast Guard chopper stops right above your boat?”
Our captain is just the man for this crew: A veritable McIver-on-the-waves, he can fix anything on the fly, has been sailing since he bought his first boat off Captain Ahab (who needed the money to buy a new NRA inspired peg-leg-shotgun), and was gifted the patience of Job – and a salty sense of humor.
Leaving Marion harbor, we pass the somewhat unimaginatively named Bird Island, home to a colony of roseate terns; a delicate-beautiful species of birds endangered first by human profiteers (are there any other species of profiteers?) who slaughtered them by the thousands for their tail feathers – “necessary” to adorn ladies’ hats in the late 1800s – then by burgeoning human development that provides the sort of waste-rich-ecosystem that favors aggressive scavengers such as seagulls and humans; two species with highly expansionist tendencies. The terns’ high-energy-swirling-flocking, in seemingly countless numbers above Bird Island belies the fact that they are truly an endangered species. That designation makes more sense when you realize that the flock in front of my eyes represents a full twenty five percent of the species’ entire population in the Northeast – Bird Island is the roseate tern’s New York metro area. After a moment watching this scene – a moment, it must be noted, that I should have spent watching a landmark on the horizon to keep our bearing – I notice that the tern colony has arisen in defense against a raiding osprey, whom they pursue, untwisting their spiral-flock into an arrow-head flock, screeching and flapping violently in parental fear-anger. The osprey flaps along slowly, paying them little heed, or at least pretending not to – just another day at the office for the predator.
Sailing along, zeroing in on a new – and quite likely wrong – landmark, I muse as to why another Marion-related family never had a Hollywood-historical-fact-bending-movie made about their mysterious disappearance. About a million years ago, sitting next to a hissing-wet-turf fire (someone hadn’t closed the reek – again!) a very young me picked up a copy of Ireland’s Own magazine. Ireland’s Own is a publication that, defying modern media logic, has survived for over a hundred years by providing a steady diet of entirely uncontroversial content to keep the Irish people whiling away their lives in safe boredom, solving such questions as; “who was Larry, in the saying ‘as happy as Larry’?” That dark winter’s evening, I read an Ireland’s Own article about the discovery of the Marie Celeste. The article, which came with an inky, woodcut image of a sailing ship, floating listlessly on murky, extra-heavy-on-the-ink, waters, sailed dangerously close to controversy, as it described how the ship was discovered, essentially in the middle of nowhere, without any crew, the lifeboat missing, with little evidence to support what might have happened the crew. Gazing from the ink-induced-loneliness of the woodcut rendering into the smoky-steamy fire, I was frozen with fear of the unknown.
On board the ship had been the Briggs family – Captain Benjamin, with his wife Sarah and their two year-old daughter Sophia; whose safe-as-an-Ireland’s-Own-article home was Rose Cottage, Marion. The Briggs were no strangers to the sea. Benjamin had commanded vessels since age 27, and crossed the Atlantic frequently. He was, at age 37, considering forsaking the financially rewarding, but arduous, and sometimes dangerous, life on the water to invest in a hardware store – where he could have burnt out his sphincter muscle on all-day-coffee, and his brain on all-day-inane-DIY-talk – but, instead he chose to purchase an interest in a cargo ship. While shipping 1700 barrels of ethanol from New York to Genoa – so that Italians could burn the ethanol in lamps, while they held night-long-hand-waving-arguments about who was going to win the then fifty-years-off-in-the-future Serie A – something untoward happened to cause the crew to suddenly abandon ship: Or at least that’s the modern theory. A million years ago – in the ambience created by the deep darkness of an Irish winter, a hissing turf fire, an inky woodcut image – my mind jumped to the far more intriguing possibility of the paranormal.
The mystery has, in fact, never been fully solved – other than by those highly-self-opinionated people who “just know” what happened! The other owner of the Mary Celeste – like many others, Ireland’s Own preferred the more exotic sounding, but in fact incorrect, “Marie Celeste;” Mary Celeste, the ship’s actual registered name, sounds a bit too much like a nun noviciate, who, “‘twas as plain as the nose on your face, wasn’t going to hack it at the nunning!” – had a second tragedy on his hands when he ran into that most formidable of all paranormal obstacles: A Thick Man.
The abandoned ship had been towed to Gibraltar – that, was then, and, after losing Hong Kong, will forever remain, British territory – so that the captain of the ship which had discovered the abandoned Mary Celeste, could take full advantage of Maritime Law’s salvage provisions and collect for himself a handsome reward. However, as sometimes happens in the human world, in Gibraltar there lurked a Thick Man: A man whose small-mind is bursting, agitatedly, with pre-established-unsupported “facts.” Dealing with a Thick Man is entirely a waste of time and effort. The Irish well know this phenomena, for there may be no Thicker being on this planet with quite as high a ratio of pre-established-unsupported-weight-to-volume as a “Thick Mick.” Invariably, on encountering such a person (not gender specific), we make our excuses, and, without provoking the deathly-feared outburst of Thick-Mick-Temper, slide down the bar, to enjoy delicious silence. In this case the Thick Man was the Attorney General of Gibraltar, described by an historian as a man “whose arrogance and pomposity were inversely proportional to his IQ.” That would be the British variety of the Thick Man; for the Spanish version – visit the golf cart rental booth in the Barcelona Zoo; for the French – almost anyone in Paris will do; for the American variety – go to the White House after January 20, 2017 (puke-puke) or visit Texas.
This particular Thick-Brit did a great deal to foment the mystery of the Marie-or-Mary-depending-on-your-interest-level-in-fact-Celeste. He jumped on some clues – stains on the deck and on the Captain’s sword, deep cuts on either side of the bow, the presence of 1700 barrels of alcohol – that suited his pre-established mindset that the whole incident was was an instance of insurance fraud; in which he imagined the ship was to be abandoned, left to sink in the next storm, with the ensuing insurance claim set to more than cover all the expenses, including those of resettling the owners of Rose Cottage somewhere else in the world. Over the course of the next few weeks, all his theories were disproved – chemical analysis showed the stains were not blood; the bow cracks were naturally occurring due to the stresses on the ship; the alcohol was non-potable, a known poison in fact – but facts mean nothing to a Thick Man, or it seems to the writer at Ireland’s Own, who, a hundred years later repeated, more or less verbatim, the Gibraltar AG’s unsupportable claims. There is of course one stinging piece of irony to the Mary Celeste story, in that a decade after the Thick Man was so sure in his insurance fraud theory, such a crime involving this ship, under new ownership, did occur. This time the hapless Mary-or-Marie Celeste was deliberately rammed into a well known coral reef off Port-Au-Prince, Haiti – and there she still lies.
Despite having lived close to both sides of the Atlantic my entire life, I had put that majestic body of water to no greater use than the occasional beach day or fishing trip, a few puke-rich whale watching trips, and the cold comfort realization that when flying over an ocean you are availing of the Irish-pessimists’ best-double-jeopardy-situation that, should you survive the impact of the near inevitable crash, you will be devoured in limb-sized-bites by sharks. Then, at the end of five decades, thus complacently lived, fueled by the manic energy of divorce, I took to the water, and signed up for sailing lessons – in Boston harbor: This was somewhat akin to a for-some-unknowable-reason-non-flying tern signing up for flying lessons on Bird Island. I showed up for my first lesson with criminally un-sailing-fashionable clothing, but no worries, I’d likely never survive the ferries, tankers, Coastguard cutters, water taxis, and so-drunk-I-forgot-to-go-home-Friday-night-boaters blazing around Boston harbor.
“The first question a sailor must ask themselves is, what are the poor people doing today?” our instructor, a leathery-skinned-gin-and-tonic-is-my-drink, sixty-God-knows-what-year-old, says, laughing a self-deprecating laugh – and quickly adding:
“And the answer is, that this poor person is teaching a sailing lesson.”
We batter around Boston harbor for the morning in sailboats of the type used for racing in the Olympics; good to learn in as they are highly responsive, everything must be done by hand, one person can sail them – kinda-sorta – and, most importantly, they have no life-saving motor; so you damn well better learn to sail or you’re not getting home. As the morning progressed, the Sight-Seeing ferry traffic got more intense, a large cargo ship pulled in – so large that, all at once it seemed to move a lot, and yet not to move at all – the Coast Guard vessels went out to rescue drunks up and down the coast, the Boston Police, the Environmental Police, the State Police, all zipped around the harbor, propelled by Dunkin’ Donuts Big One’s and hundreds of fossil-fuel-burning horsepower. By noon, we’re on terra firma again, my nerves flittered, but my head gladly clear after three hours consumed with nothing more than how-the-fuck-do-I-get-out-of-there-alive. But I stuck with it, eventually learning to enjoy the busyness of the inner harbor and the navigational stresses of the outer harbor and islands. There’s no surer cure for stress, than more stress.
The finding, and keeping in sight, of landmarks to hold your bearing is key when you’re sailing across a body of water like Buzzards Bay. In my role as the control freak on board, I’m constantly looking at the charts. The other roles I could have chosen from were: The diligent sailor who’s always tightening-loosening lines, and ready to respond to the captain’s slightest requests; or the I’m-only-here-for-the-beer-isn’t-a-jibe-just-a-tack-with-a-bad-attitude sailor? I’m quite at home as the control freak, always wanting to know where I am on this planet, and it affords me lots of time standing in the asshole position, on the way to and from getting the charts. Occasionally I take the helm, and that’s where I realize the depth of our captain’s experience, as the boat zags and zigs under my uneven control. He gives me a bearing in degrees to follow on the compass mounted in front of the wheel. This, I fuck up royally, and with nausea inducing zag-zigging. So I scan the horizon for a landmark. That works better. I settle in on a white structure some miles off, and it’s easy sailing for a while – until I realize that I’ve set a bearing on another sailboat that’s moving – and with it our path. Soon, I’m back in the asshole position.
Cape Cod – or the Cod as a friend visiting from Ireland once called it (the same phrase-disabled friend referred to tailgating as “rear ending” – which we all know is the result of too much tailgating) was deposited as an alluvial outwash plain by the glaciers of the last Ice Age, for the sole purpose that Bostonians have somewhere to crowd out on the weekends. The early, highly industrious, settlers – the Pilgrims stopped in here first, but foreseeing the eventual growth of Provincetown, with its dearth of black-wool-clothes-heavy-on-the-buckles-fashion, moved on to Plymouth – on this elongated sand dune, unwittingly laid their newfound home bare. They cut down all the trees for firewood, grazed their cattle on the sand dunes – which, denuded, then blew all over the small quantity of decent farm land available – then as a final coup de grace, they imported sheep, who overgrazed every square foot of land. Then, they loaded up on covered wagons – the humans, not the sheep – and headed out west. The remaining, still highly industrious, humans set to emptying the ocean; first of whales, then fish – which they’re just finishing up now. Meanwhile the concept of becoming filthy rich was invented, and it became necessary for Bostonians to show just how filthy was their richness, by owning a home, an estate, or in the case of the so-rich-you-have-to-hose-$100-bills-off-them, the purchase a whole island, or even a chain of islands, “down the Cape.” Thus, to adequately display their wealth, the Forbes family – the filthiest rich of all the filthy rich; their money made from trade with China and on US railroads – bought that whole string of islands that hems in one side of Buzzards Bay.
Today “the Cod” is a tourist haven where people come to look at old stuff in the too-many museums; to look at truly beautiful stuff along the National Seashore; and to buy discounted stuff in-full-of-Brits-and Paddies-shop-til-you-drop-Outlet-stores that grow in tourist areas the way mold grows under the kitchen sink; and, most importantly for us, to boat. Thus it was that we pulled into Hyannis harbor, weather beaten (cause no sailing vessel can carry quite enough sunblock for a boatload of people with Irish DNA), exhausted (from ten hours of small talk and beer) and relieved to set foot on terra firma (where toilets are firmly attached to non-moving floors). We had to suffer the macho-sailor humiliation of being ordered around in our clunky docking by teenage girls whose dockage-expertize was unquestionably exhibited in their curt, shut-up-you-stupid-macho-male, directorial manner. We’re further humbled by the knowledge that it took us ten hours to sail the same distance it took two crew members forty nine minutes to drive that same morning. Nonetheless, a celebratory bottle of rum is cracked open; we sit back in faux relief, and cast our eyes over another few million dollars’ worth of fiberglass floating on water.
Three hours later – in a highly unlikely situation for an-uptight-about-his-health person – I’m sitting in a cigar bar, smoking a stogy and drinking a glass of port. The cigar bar is essentially a gay-bar-for-straight-guys, peopled by a group of heavy-on-the-nose-and-ear-hair, paunchy, splotchy-skinned men, puffing cigars and talking serious quantities of man-bullshit. The walls of the bar are covered in library-book-shelves wallpaper – scarred and peeling; worn pleather couches and armchairs, placed in clique-circles – public health hazards evolving in their creases; the ambience lighting smothering the smoke and pleather and fake bookshelves with a-touch-too-eerie yellow glow; the whole enterprise envelopes a volume of space so thick with second-hand smoke that even the bathroom exhaust fan is at high risk for lung cancer.
The barman alone, smartly dressed in a vest, white shirt, and bow tie offsets this let’s-plan-a-murder environment. He’s got a young-Mark-Twain-goatee, and an energetic, upbeat attitude, telling us, as he takes us into a room that has captured a small piece of the tropical climate and transported it to “the Cod,” of his dedication to the smoking life: He considers himself a pipe smoker, but is ok smoking cigars as an occupational requirement. In the tropical-climate-room he explains the finer point of cigar smoking, using terms like “soft-smoke,” “ingratiating flavor,” and “fine bouquet” – none of which I can absorb as my decidedly oceanic-climate-metabolism starts to sweat profusely.
“So what kind of cigar would Clint Eastwood smoke if he was here?” I interrupt his canned sales-pitch-to-the-uninitiated – simultaneously displaying my lack of interest in the finer points of cigar smoking culture, and my woefully behind-the-times intel on popular culture.
The barman extracts a huge – had-to-be-8-inches-long – cigar from the humidor.
Now, fully sheened with sweat, and seeking to avoid cutting too much time off my life, I ask.
“Ok, if he only had an hour to smoke what would he chose?”
The barman thinks about it, for just a second, then offers the rejoinder:
“Mr. Eastwood would still pick this cigar, and because he’s ‘Clint Eastwood,’ he would finish it in an hour.”
I walk out of the tropics, beads of sweat on my brow, carrying the type of macho-shamefully-small-cigar that Mr. Eastwood’s two-months-premature, newborn baby might smoke in the birthing room while waiting, crankily, to be bathed.
The next morning, I awake early in the, very thankfully, still floating boat; who knew a fear of drowning in your sleep could be a thing? The smell of cigar smoke permeates the cabin. I toss and turn a few times, check in on my phone on what craziness the human world is engaging in, and then retreat, guided by Marcel Proust, for an hour to nineteenth century, small town France.
Slowly the marina comes to life.
We wander out for breakfast, settling into a diner style restaurant that overlooks the ferry terminal. It’s about 10;00 AM on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and the ferry terminal is already hopping. Below us a couple of buses from New York unload with hefty African American men, some grasping fishing rods, all pulling coolers on wheels. They head over to a large deep sea fishing vessel.
The restaurant starts to fill up.
Three young men in buzz-cuts, shorts, muscle shirts – a-small-bit-ahead-of-the-weather-but-who-cares-when-you’re-twenty-five – take a table out on the large, and empty, deck, with its dark stained floor, white tables, white umbrellas with blue trim flitting in the wind. Smoke curls off a cigarette in one of their hands. Our waiter is a skinny white guy in his late fifties, tanned-hairy-arms, 1970s hairstyle (what did ever become of Barry Manilow?), white shirt, blank pants, black orthopedic sneakers. Like the roseate tern, he’s part of an endangered species; someone who can make a decent living, cheerily-skillfully waiting tables in a diner. With, what seems like too few pen strokes for our fussy order, he whisks away the menus, with a practiced smile. At the next table, four large middle-aged women of unknowable age take their seats; the largest, whose upper arm is the size of my thigh, moves by pushing along a two-wheel-two-tennis-ball-walking-frame. They move chairs loudly, the table eventually grating back, to get themselves situated.
“Good morning my darlings,” the waiter sing-songs; assisting with the final tucking-in to the table, distributing menus.
We drink coffee and watch the ferry load with the stultifying pace that ferries load. The fishermen shuffle aboard the day-fishing-packet, the coolers clunking onboard. On the deck a waitress serves two Corona’s and a Bloody Mary: The buzz-cuts angle back as the weekend starts.
“Jaaaysuus,” I sigh, nodding toward the early-morning-boozers. “Oh to be young again. How many years do you think we have on them?”
“A lot,” interjects the waiter, suddenly there, refilling our coffee.
Our order, heavy on pig parts, sugar, and sugar-disguised-as-refined-flour gets served.
We wolf it down like the hungry diesel-sailing-cigar-smoking-too-much-port-hungover mariners we’re pretending to be.
“Well Martha,” I hear a voice rising from behind a menu at the next table. “At least you’re not denying your body anything.”
More coffee gets consumed at our table.
Another round hits the table on the deck.
I muse at what lunch will look like for the buzz-cuts.
A rusted, commercial fishing boat pulls in from the Atlantic, black-diesel-fuming, its wake stirring the docked pleasure boats.
Seagulls start, big wing spans flapping, from seagull-shit-covered harbor building roofs, flocking the stern of the fishing boat. They hover, hooked-beaks open in, silent-from-behind-my-window, plaintive cries.
The fishing boat docks.
The fisherman embark with bitter speed.
The gulls invade the stern, but there is nothing to scavenge.
They’ve gotten their signals wrong.
Where No Murdered Ghost Can Haunt Me
I’m watching a trash barrel fill so fast with rainwater that I imagine the roof is in the middle of a full-on identity crisis. The biggest-bouncer-in-the-world – six foot eight in his socks, three hundred pounds – swaps it out for an empty barrel with an ease that frightens. The Paradise Rock Club is filled with a mix of extras from The Gangs of New York – scally caps, black-leather-bombers, pork-chop sideburns, scowling-faces, pints in both hands (even the pints are scowling!); a handful of hardcore, pierced with everything in the hardware store, tattooed-drunk-stoned, punks; a bunch of BC grads, junior- money-manager-types, in puke-green BC Irish tees; and El Loco – a fit looking guy in a too-tight white tee shirt, who lurches around too-much and too-fast for a busy rock club. We – this “diverse” assemblage of humanity particularly-heavy-on-personal-image, and anonymous me; a sheep at the wolves’ party – are gathered to see the Irish-drunk-punk-living-legend: Shane MacGowan.
The gods of weather – and the distinctly lesser gods of deferred building maintenance – have not smiled on MacGowan and the reconstituted Pogues’ tour stop in Boston. All day a tropical storm – that had gunned up the eastern seaboard with its legs crossed – pisses rain all over Boston. The roof of the Paradise – that hasn’t seen a maintenance crew since Elvis died – channels the water transported all the way from the Caribbean, into fifty-five gallon trash barrels (the ones they usually fill with empty beer bottles) placed all over the club, including three on the stage. Water literally runs from the ceiling.
The bar is four deep with this uneasy mix of Pogues’ fans. El Loco tries to push his way into the bar crowd. He’s repelled by a solid wall of black-leather-bombers. Around the club, there’s a high incidence of full-of-expectation-double-fisted-drunk young men colliding with full-of-Caribbean-rainwater-fifty-five-gallon trash-barrels. There’s only a handful of women in this white-male, dark-dank-a-little-bit-dangerous, world. The Irish-Irish arrive, late and drunk: A smattering of Galway, Cork, Dublin GAA jerseys weave their wobbly-double-fisted-way through the crowd, cigarettes dangling precariously from lips. A few of them gather in an opening around an overflowing trash-water barrel – a Paradisical water hole – and try to get a song going. This scene is set in 2002, long enough back in the history of humanity’s many attempts at mass-slow-suicide that smoking in the Paradise is not only allowed, but encouraged, with cigarette vending machines lining the dimly lit corridors, a cheap-cigar rack behind the bar; people share these svelte-cancer-delivery-devices as tokens of friendship. The hall pulses with drunk-white-young-men, Caribbean rainwater, nicotine-laced-second-hand-smoke, and the high-expectation of a night of raucous singing by MacGowan.
This is my second attempt to see MacGowan. In 1991, doing what young Irish men are wont to do, I had gone one Saturday night – drunk, and still in my rugby gear – to see the Pogues in Boston’s Orpheum Theater. As a measure of my then almost-perfected-cluelessness (twenty five years later, I’m still not quite there), and a throwback to how information was disseminated in that era – via newspapers and magazines which had to be actively sought out, and did not magically appear in front of your eyes while you were on the throne – I was unaware that the great Joe Strummer was the Pogues fill-in lead singer. MacGowan had been fired for too much drinking. At the time, that sounded like a soldier in battle getting fired for too much shooting!
The Pogues evolved out of the freeing energy of London’s Punk scene, Shane MacGowan’s powerful self-image as an Irishman, and the general cracking open of Irish culture. In 1977 – when MacGowan and Spider Stacy, another Pogues’ founding member, first met – Ireland had one radio station, that played one hour of highly sanitized, yet simultaneously demonized, “rock” music from 11PM to midnight (by which time all good-God-fearing-Gaels were safely asleep). Subversive rock fans would huddle late at night by their transistor radio, listening to a crackly Radio Luxembourg broadcast from mainland Europe to keep up to date Slade, T-Rex and Pink Floyd’s latest releases. The balance of the Irish radio day was filled with news (all bad; sectarian murders in Northern Ireland, massive unemployment, forced emigration), the weather (all bad, all the time), classical music (the then white-noise of Irish childhood), the Angelus at noon and six (a sonorous bell ringing that still reverberates in my memory), more news (not getting any better), cattle and sheep sale price reports (delivered with a speed and staccato that rendered them useless to all but the initiated) and Irish music; heaps of it, fiddles-accordions-banjos-whistles banging it out by the hour, including a sickly-sweet show sponsored by Walton’s Music in Dublin with the permanently haunting refrain, delivered in a stage-Irish accent; “If you’re going to sing a song, sing an Irish song!”
All of the Pogues’ founding members were born in England, but MacGowan lived in Ireland until he was six, and throughout his youth spent most summers in Tipperary with his grandparents. The family moved around various London suburbs, eventually ending up in the Barbican; a Brutalist, residential tower complex in London’s City. Brutalism was a post-World-War-II-reactive architectural movement that tried to express the gravity, moral rectitude, and innate rawness of human life through a full frontal assault on all existing architectural schools of thought. The Brutalist style, with its enormous, raw concrete buildings that often refuse to employ architectural nuance to hide their looming bulk or purpose – and, on occasion, seem to actually revel in their innate ugliness – is, in a crazed-realm-warping manner, a bedfellow of Punk. The Brutalist Barbican, now a must-have-address for London’s financial elite, was at the time the MacGowans moved in a barely breathing, urban renewal landscape of bleak, raw-concrete towers. Those towers had to look particularly tall and bleak if you had grown up measuring the height of a cowshed roof – that, like Everest, had to be climbed “because it was there” – by figuring out which pony you’d have to stand on to scale that red-oxide-peak. In that joltingly unfamiliar setting, the wheels fell off for the MacGowan family: Mother and son both succumbed to nervous breakdowns, followed by over medication. MacGowan recounts this time in his own inimitable phraseology; “Every morning, I’d have to go kick mom, to see if she was still alive, like, know what I mean?”
Shane’s intelligence and creative abilities earned him a scholarship to the Westminster school; alma mater to the poet John Dryden – in the 1640s! – plus a hopper full of British actors, artists, journalists, business leaders, and stiff statesmen – of whom they’re so very proud! – and also Kim Philby, the British-establishment-born-and-bred Russian spy – of whom they’re not quite so proud! MacGowan could likely have gone on to make a wonderful – even if a little Harry-Pottery-ish – drunk-eccentric English Lit teacher in some four hundred year old, cloistered school in the moors of Northumberland. Instead – back in real life – young Shane got expelled from Westminster in his second year (drugs,) and wandered off into the competing realities of London’s Irish-English-underworld, and the boozy-druggy-pre-punk-music scene.
The first sign in the Paradise that we might – at around midnight-ish – finally be getting to hear MacGowan’s famed voice, was when an aging roadie – with the bulked-up look of someone who could easily get his lead singer out of a lot of needless bar fights – wanders on stage. He spends his time meticulously re-taping some of the spaghetti of electrical and sound cords on the stage floor, and more tellingly, distributing white towels at each band member’s station – leaving a pile up front by the lead singer’s mike. A drunk young man, in a BC Irish puke-green-tee, jumps on stage and grabs a mike.
“SHANE MACGOWAN, SHANE MACGOWAN” he yells, pumping a fist into the air. “SHANE MACGOWAN.”
The roadie looks up from a particularly heavy-on-ripping-duct-tape-with-your-teeth job; his huge frame subsiding under a sigh, and starts across the stage. The biggest bouncer-in-the-world beats him to it; in a comically slow race of really-self-assured-in-their-physical-strength guys. The BC Irish tee shirt rips as a junior-money-manager-on-a-night-out is swung off stage, back into the crowd. Expectation rises further as bottles of water, already running with condensation, are placed around the stage. The crowd buzzes in drunken excitement, and, led by El Loco, surges toward the stage. The biggest-bouncer points a finger at him, but doesn’t do anything. Then a half full cup of beer hits the biggest-bouncer on the other shoulder. He doesn’t flinch, but turns slowly to the direction from which the cup came.
I take a deep breath; prepare for a huge rumble.
Another bouncer, looking like an old time pirate – all bone-and-muscle, incredibly-fit, in loose fitting sweat-pants and a sawn-off jacket, hair yanked-back tight into a tiny pony tail, making his face look even meaner – comes and stands ominously next to the biggest-bouncer.
A sagging-faced, fifty-something-year-old, in a crumbled blue suit, white shirt, no tie, with an I’ve-seen-it-all look, appears on stage, and grabs the first microphone he comes to. The especially clueless, or particularly drunk, let out a roar; it fizzles quickly.
“Three minutes lads,” he says. “Three minutes.”
Waving three fingers on his right hand, he surveys the crowd with road-weary-pride.
A full quarter century before that night in the Paradise, MacGowan met Spider Stacy in the men’s room at a Ramones concert (opening act: Talking Heads) in the Roundhouse in Camden, London. The concert venue had been built in 1847 as the “Great Circular Engine House,” built for no other purpose then to turn train engines around, and send them back to where they came. We’d have built one like that too, back in Ireland, but that year we were a small bit busy dying by the millions. It’s quite likely that the smell of piss, pot and puke in the Roundhouse toilets created the perfect aura for Shane and Spider to hatch the novel idea of an Irish themed punk band: Or maybe – back in reality – they were just broke young men, with artistic sensibilities which, when they weren’t drowning them in alcohol, were strong enough to smash a crack in our all-powerful perceptions. Plus they had a killer sense of humor – naming their first band the Millwall Chainsaws (if Millwall didn’t in fact invent soccer hooliganism, they at least perfected it); the second, Nipple Erectors (a name that prevented them getting gigs and had to be changed to Nips); and their penultimate, Pogue Mahone (the Gaelic for “kiss my arse;” which, supposedly, caused an outcry amongst conservative Scots Gaelic speakers, triggering a career limiting BBC ban on playing their music); leaving them with just the Gaelic for amorous lip action: Pogues.
As soon as we humans are old enough execute our first cogent thought, we immediately set to constructing a self-image – using the faulty supplies of confusion, insecurity and bluff – as a means to locate, or (probably more correctly) relocate ourselves in the human world. It’s worth stopping the flow here to note that, when you’re alone in the woods or mountains, self-images are not required. And while it’s not sustainable to stay with the animals and trees forever, it’s a strong break from the exhausting task, laid out by TS Eliot, of preparing a “face to meet the faces that we meet.” The more humans, the more faces that have to be prepared. As a society matures, self-image making matures. Humans in today’s world are bombarded by free-for-hire-self-images of all sorts. We can construct our self-images by drawing from a grab-bag full of ancient mythology, religion, philosophy; nationalism, capitalism, communism, socialism; classical, jazz, blues, rock, rockabilly, punk, ska, new wave, classic-rock, hip-hop; Man U or Chelsea or Liverpool or Leeds (a boy can dream!); Apple or Samsung? If in the end, a modern human is no more than an assemblage of these not-yet-fully-formed self-images, then MacGowan – steeped in Irish mythology, and full of the imagery of the Tipperary countryside, but growing up in the Brutalist reality of the Barbican – prepared for himself the face of an Irish warrior.
Punk – a kinda-sorta caustic-hippy-dom – that mushroomed to popularity amongst the moldy-middle-classes, was a movement designed to tear down others self-images, and replace them with wild-erratic-unsustainable-energy. A lot of disassociated-from-life young people, jumped on the punk bandwagon, plastering self-images over their existing barely-or-badly-formed selves, turning up one day with hair-shocks, facial-piercings, rip-torn-filthy-zippered-clothes, foul-mouthed-anger, and wandering around making a mess for the humans with boringly-responsible-and-bitter-about-it self-images to mop up. The germination of the spirit of Punk was a small part of one generation’s sudden-shocked realization that the human world is an entirely fucked up construction, which hides behind its “longstanding, respectable” institutions, while continuing to screw over its citizenry as its leaders see fit. In Ireland, Punk was seriously undercut by the fact that we weren’t so shocked by this revelation. In Northern Ireland we had had years of a full-on guerilla war – discreetly labeled, for safe consumer use, as “The Troubles” – that clearly, and repeatedly, exposed the fraudulence of what hides behind respectable human society. In the same time period that Punk grew to its adolescence, the Hunger Strikes – and the flesh-meltingly-high-voltage emotions that they were to unleash – bubbled just below the horizon. But meanwhile in London, Mohawked-and-pierced-punks raged with blind energy against their sudden-fierce realization that human society is all fucked-up. Like most such movements, the positive momentum got siphoned off – at the bottom in drugs, alcohol, and sex; at the top with money grubbing and sensationalism – thus allowing human society to get back to its normal business of being fucked up. MacGowan, already no stranger to drugs and alcohol, never did fully prepare a Punk face to meet the faces that he would meet. To this day, he continues to wear a dark suit and white shirt, looking like he has only moments ago been expelled from Westminster School. But inside, his self-image roils, while he struggles – in the words of his own song, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” – to find a place “where no murdered ghost can haunt me.”
The biggest-bouncer is back on the stage, joined by the pirate and three more beefy-bouncers; all of them scowling into the crowd, which teeters on the exhausting knife-edge of too-long-held-anticipation suspended in bodies too full of alcohol. Another couple of roadies stroll on stage, they glide carefully past the fifty-five gallon barrels still drip-filling with Caribbean water, pick up guitars and start tuning them. One puts the guitar strap over his shoulder and plays a lick – not a roadie, but a Pogue! The other guy does the same. Then there’s a drummer tipping away with percussive ease – where the fuck did he come from? Each one them so casual – just another day at the office – that before we know it the-then-Pogues, minus MacGowan, are all there. They start into a tune. The bouncers fade to the side. Then the big roadie is back, this time with a cheap box fan; the kind that anyone in Boston, who ever spent a summer in a cheap apartment, learned to adore. Working with surprising ease and care, given the proximity of the crazed-with-too-much-loose-energy crowd, he wedges it between the front speakers and the stage. He waves a bouncer over to protect it. The band is well into its rhythm now, on continuous loop replaying the opening to “The Irish Rover.” The crowd focuses its loose energy; moving as one, fists pumping, lurching-forward, falling-back to the rhythm of the song.
Then out of the back-stage darkness appears Shane MacGowan.
The crowd screams its approval; lurches forward; energy splitting the air.
MacGowan, in a black suit, white shirt, shuffles along at the pace of a seventy year old; his feet barely lifting off the ground.
He is – of course – drunk; a plastic cup of rotgut in one hand, a cigarette in the other. His suit trousers are split open in the arse, and completely undone in the front; miraculously they stay up, with the white shirt tails – kinda-sorta – saving the crowd.
He makes it to the mike stand, fires what’s left of his drink into the audience – the roving spotlights picking up the discarded booze as a brief flash of liquid-lightning. He draws in a deep drag on the cigarette, and with smoke gushing out his mouth and nostrils – electric-white-illuminated by the stage lights – he bursts into song:
“On the fourth of July eighteen hundred and six
We set sail from the sweet cove of Cork … .”
The crowd takes over, and roars the rest of the song – or tries to, occasionally lapsing into drunken-mob-confusion, or getting lost when the band switches rhythm or pace. In those moments of mob-fusion, what is left of MacGowan’s voice can be heard, slurring unintelligibly, through a song he had to be singing since he was a child. He hunches over the microphone, cupping it in his hand, his cigarette bleeding blue smoke into the already smoke-filled-room, his prematurely-old and too-drunk-for-too-long self belting out their old standard.
I stare hard at the stage. Somewhere up there, behind the smoke and the booze, in that hunched-shouldered, hard-living-thickened torso, amidst the slow-sloppy lurches, the ripped clothes, the scraped-throat voice, lives what is left of Shane MacGowan; the erratic bolt of Irish energy.
“The Irish Rover” finishes with the same falling-off-a-cliff ending every fast song ends with – leaving a moment of almost-silence.
The crowd roars, surges forward.
MacGowan steadies himself, using the mike stand as a crutch. He glances, drunk-absently-mindedly, into the crowd.
“Fucking Americans,” he slurs out.
The busiest-stage-manager-on-the-planet rushes out, hands him another lit cigarette and a new drink in a plastic cup – a good slosh of booze flies out of the cup in the transaction. MacGowan goes for nicotine first; the ash burning red-rapidly up the cigarette shaft. Then he slugs a mouthful of gin.
“SHANE, SHANE, SHANE,” the crowd roars.
Still hanging on the mike stand, and seemingly oblivious to the baying crowd in front of him, he goes at the cigarette again.
The crowd surges forward, knocking over the fan the roadie had so carefully placed to blow air up at MacGowan’s almost exposed midriff. The surge pushes the speakers so far forward that, the accordion player keeps his cowboy boot on the speaker, as an early warning system against a full stage invasion.
“Leave me fucking favorite fan alone,” MacGowan snarls, arms whipping back – gin flying.
He tries to fix the fan’s location with his foot; but instead almost falls into the crowd. The busiest-stage-manager magically reappears and rectifies both situations.
MacGowan scowls over the top of his drink as he downs it, but sends an invisible signal to the band, who start up another song.
Thus goes the rhythm of the night.
A two or three song set – all old hits, all Pogues-punked-up-Irish-trad. The band rattle out the beat for thirty seconds … a minute … ninety seconds; MacGowan hangs onto the mike stand like it’s the mast of his just-sunk-ship; then, without even a shoulder-raising-deep-breath-warning, he lurches into another song – only to have his slurred-words instantly drowned in the mob-fusion. Everything moves so fast, so loud, that the slurred-words are just mouth music to the crowd – who mosh and dance and fight along to the same beat, tossing their half-empty beer cups onto the stage.
The set ends.
MacGowan inhales; the red ash runs rapidly down the cigarette; he downs more gin; stares absently at the crowd.
Then unannounced, he tosses the dregs of his drink into the crowd; stubs his cigarette out on an over-adoring fan’s hand; launches into another song.
As young man, MacGowan dug deep into Irish literary history for influences, and found a few that fit the Punk era: James Clarence Mangan, an eccentric-depressed-alcohol-and-opiate-addicted Irish poet who, weakened by poverty and malnutrition, died of cholera in 1849, at the age of 46. Mangan was – tellingly – the son of a Hedge School teacher. Hedge Schools were kinda-sorta schools held in a barn one day, someone’s tiny cottage the next day, where, in the absence of an organized governmental education system, poverty stricken, rural Irish people could get their kids educated. This informal education system was an artifact of the Penal Laws, a system put in place by the English parliament in 1691 (the last vestiges of which were not removed until 1920!) to suppress Catholicism in Ireland. These laws were described by one of the very people at whom they were aimed, the Irish-English-Catholic-Protestant-all-things-to-everyone-super-smart-essayist-politician, Edmund Burke as “"a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” MacGowan had mined deep along Irish history’s rich vein of bitterness.
To soften the edges – kinda-sorta – he also read Brendan Behan, an Irish novelist and playwright who described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem.” Indeed, in the end, Behan’s fame derived more so for his televised, drunken wit, than it did for his writing. But music ran through Shane’s veins, a beat and rhythm never leaving his being. Like all, ultimately successful, rock artists, there were false starts, setbacks, back-stabbing-broken-deals, but MacGowan’s energy and voice rang through. The Pogues got an album released on, the aptly named, Stiff Records; who shortly thereafter went broke – stiffing everyone. It was the Pogues second album – whose title derives from Winston Churchill’s signature-grumpy-summary of the founding principles of the Royal Navy – Rum, Sodomy and Lash, that gained the group their initial critical acclaim. Melody Maker, the British music magazine – voted for several years in a row as the magazine “Most Likely to Get Crushed Under the Weight of its Own Self-Importance” – went to lengths to point out that the Pogues’ album was “dragging an oft-ignored folk tradition into the daylight with an altogether improbable potency.” Daylight and not-improbable potency were in fact in plentiful supply for Irish music, back in the old colony itself, and just a few miles from Melody Maker’s office in the Irish pubs of London – MacGowan’s natural habitat.
As with all tabloid-bait rock bands worth their salt, the Pogues ate managers, producers, record labels, and band members; they fought and made up, fought again, all in wave after wave of alcohol and drugs. Their tour manager tells a story of trying to check them into a hotel, when MacGowan – dead drunk, his pants down around his ankles – gets carried past him by two other band members. Exhausted, and stressed that they might be about to get kicked out of yet another hotel – this time before they had even gotten into it – he rounded on the receptionist.
“Well, I hope this sort of thing doesn’t happen here all the time,” he snapped indignantly.
But like all true musicians the Pogues genuinely, and desperately, wanted to make a mark, share their talent and ease a listener’s burden, at least for a few moments; if getting rich was a byproduct of that, then all the better. About fifteen years before that indoor-rainy-night in the Paradise, they had reached their creative peak with the work done in 1987 on their album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The Christmas single off that album – “Fairytale in New York” – still packs a punch today; it has made the UK’s top twenty selling songs every year for the past decade. The song itself had taken about two years to complete, with MacGowan writing the final lyrics as he suffered through the “delirium and shite” of double pneumonia that gave him “quite a few good images.” There’s a timeless pathos that arises in the song, with MacGowan’s punk-soulful-voice and way-too-close-to-the-bone-persona wrenching more meaning from his song character than mere lyrics could ever achieve. The accompanying female parts on the single, sung from deep in her soul by Kirsty McColl, create an edifice of heartbreak, viciousness and irrational hope. McColl’s-created-edifice is torn down, with alcoholic-carelessness, by MacGowan’s character, and then – beyond all rationality – knowingly-falsely-lovingly recreated in a rousing combined finale. All of this executed to a tune that exudes the would-be hope and joy of the Christmas season. It’s so incredibly fucked up, and yet entertainingly realistic, that, if it’s not in fact the best Christmas song ever, it might just be the truest.
The making of the video to promote A Fairytale in New York captures the contradicted reality and alcohol driven turmoil of everything the Pogues created. On a drunken tour stop in New York, the band met the actor Matt Dillon, who agreed to play a role in the video. Some of the video was shot in a real NYPD station in lower Manhattan, with the band getting so drunk and causing so much trouble, that Dillon –dressed for the video in a cop’s uniform – had to reassure the real cops that their lockup cells wouldn’t get destroyed. At another scene – recording the NYPD’s Pipes and Drums marching band (there is no such thing as the “NYPD Choir,” as the song says, but at least the Pipes and Drums had the right kind of uniforms) act-singing the old Irish tune “Galway Bay” (a song it turns out they didn’t know) – it was the real cops who got so drunk that they refused to continue act-singing until they were provided with more alcohol.
“You better like this song, ‘cause it’s my fucking last,” MacGowan slurs at the crowd in the Paradise, letting the dregs of his drink fly again above the throbbing crowd.
The band cranks up another tune.
The crowd goes the same wild it always goes.
The song finishes.
The band walk off like factory workers at the end of a shift, barely looking back, mopping their heads with white towels.
MacGowan shuffles along behind them.
The crowd stands still, unsure what to do. The bouncers move onto the stage, scowling. El Loco keeps moshing center stage as if his hero was still right there, where his “favorite fan” still blows. The pirate bouncer climbs off the side of the stage and starts to work his way through the crowd toward center stage. A few minutes into the all-but-one-standing-stillness, the Pogues wander back on stage.
The crowd surges.
El Loco tries to get up onto the stage, but is pulled back by a friend.
For the encore, the Pogues are joined on stage by a very unsteady on her white high-heels, forty-something year-old woman in a flowing, white evening gown. She grabs a microphone in one hand and leans on the bass player with the other. MacGowan forcefully finishes his cigarette, drops it, bellows a cloud of smoke; and leans into his mike stand, eyes closed.
“It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said
‘Son, I’ll not see another one’.”
The band light up the room with the song’s eternally hopeful tune.
The crowd goes wild.
El Loco makes another attempt to join the band on stage. The pirate is close enough this time to help pull him back.
“You were handsome,” the woman in the white evening dress cackles, her voice washed away by alcohol and time.
The crowd never notices: Scally caps bounce, BC Irish tee shirts mosh. El Loco starts another attempt at being a Pogue – even if only for a few seconds.
“You were pretty
Queen of New York City.”
Then El Loco is between MacGowan and the white-gowned woman. He waves frenetically to the crowd.
“When the band finished playing
They howled out for more.”
The pirate tackles El Loco, driving him further into the band. They go down in a flurry of fists, glancing off a fifty-five gallon trash barrel full of Caribbean water; the accordion player stepping aside nimbly to miss the falling heap of humanity.
The band plays on.
“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.” El Loco is between them now. The pirate comes hot on his heels. Takes him from behind. The accordion player steps quickly aside as they crash to the floor of the stage. Fists pummel.
The biggest-bouncer lumbers across the stage; leans over the brawling pair; draws back his fucking-huge arm, and definitively ends the fight.
“We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night.”
The biggest-bouncer takes a breath, leans against his thighs. The pirate rolls away and stands up. Together they scrape El Loco off the floor.
“You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead
On a drip in that bed.”
The pirate takes the Pogues-shortest-lived-member’s arm and twists it rapidly – and painfully, by the jerk El Loco makes – way up his back. The biggest-bouncer grabs his head by the hair, pulling it back hard and far, to prevent it becoming a weapon. They disappear stage left.
“Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last”
The woman in the white evening gown flings her head and shoulders too far back, singing passion-drunkenly; stumbles, drops her mike; gets saved by the bass player; stands unsteadily hands flapping.
MacGowan hangs on his mike stand; at home his now-normal-habitat of a smoky-dark rock club; eyes closed; surrounded by adoring fans; bathed in the sound of his own music. He is just where he needs to be – where no murdered ghost can haunt him.
He belts it out:
“The boys from the NYPD choir
Were singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day.”
I’m walking into the church in Kilkee on a sparkling July Sunday morning. The smells of childhood vacations gush out the door, overwhelming me in a miasma of careless west of Ireland freedoms of youth. Outside, the mass crowd approach the church, with the suddenly serious faces of congregants. They park erratically, and illegally, invoking the worldwide Catholic divine right of I-have-to-park-this-crazy-way-to-make-mass-on-time. Inside the enormous church I find the rest of my siblings. We’re there, as a family, or at least our generation of the family, for a memorial mass for my aunt, who had died about six weeks previously – the last surviving member of her generation. The priest enters stage left, lead by three altar boys; their sweat pants and Nikes screaming generational-change at the foot of their swishing cassocks. By the time the priest is at the microphone, his vestmented presence has silenced the pre-mass-Irish-whisper-roars, and replaced them with that strange fold-rustling sound that a few hundred people make when they stand in unsynchronized unison.
The priest is a few years older than me, and immediately my mind runs to what his life has been like, as a priest in a seaside town, population 1,000 (but probably three times that in summer) in the west of Ireland. As an atheist, searching for any meaning in life, such musings are a common waste of time. He moves us efficiently through the ceremony using a practiced-liturgical style: The efficient, but heavily inflected, delivery of a reading; a prayerfully intonated prayer; a deliberate, dramatic, pause during which he looks seekingly across the congregation. As the atheist amongst the mostly casual believers, I start to imagine he’s staring at me, but I’m rescued by my low self-esteem, which assures me, there are much more important souls – most likely down from Limerick for the weekend – than mine to be saved. The lay-reader – incongruent amongst the vestmented, in his purposely-front-faded, unfortunately-hanging, blue jeans and purple golf shirt – walks boldly up to the lectern.
“A reading from the Gospel of Luke,” he starts, on a loud, hopeful exhale, and then stops in a non-dramatic way that suggests the script is somehow awry.
There’s a titter amongst the knowing, that heightens my already full-on attention. It’s further heightened, when the priest suddenly stands and crosses the sanctuary; his vestments flowing back. He rectifies the stage management problem – whispered to me by one of the knowing – the good book left on the wrong page. The lay-reader monotones, with a notable lack of dramatic zeal, through a two thousand year-old tale, then returns to his seat.
Kilkee is summer vacation to me: Its wild and dangerous cliffed-beauty, its tacky, summer fun of plastic beach toy filled shops, glitzy amusements, ice-cream windows run by moody teenagers, chippers run by cranky-stressed adults, its half mile long horseshoe shaped, fine-sanded-beach, hacked out by rough Atlantic waves, that are still heavenly to ride to shore. It’s a town that, as soon as human development allowed for organized relaxation – the activity that has progressed into humanity’s sole purpose in this, definitely not-Eden, world – put itself forward as the place to go. A glimpse into the early life of the town as a resort is provided by Mary John Knott’s Two Months at Kilkee, County Clare 1836. Ms. Knott’s descriptions capture the excitement of visiting “Kilqui,” – as she claims it can be known; an early rebranding attempt to attract rich, idle Eurotrash? – as it had become one of the “most desirable watering-places on the coast,” being as it is only “fifty English miles from Limerick.” A smattering of the 19th century’s cool people – Charlotte Bronte, Aubrey DeVere, Alfred Tennyson – visited. Protestant and Methodist churches were built to accommodate the well-heeled hordes who came to rent houses with “sufficient accommodation (including stabling and coach-houses) for the family of a nobleman or gentleman of fortune.” Rent included a “plentiful supply of milk, potatoes, and turf;” Let’s not lose the run of ourselves; this was still in the west of Ireland.
As a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Ms. Knott makes repeated references to the town’s inhabitants as “the natives:” These are my people. My paternal grandmother’s family were of old west Clare stock; one of the same “natives” who lived in Ms. Knott’s “miserable huts” in the “hilly distance.” I have a photograph, taken a hundred years after Ms. Knotts’ visit, of my father in front of some her “miserable huts.” He stands tall and serious in a dark suit; some big occasion must have occurred. Behind him, are low thatched cottages and sheds, no windows are visible; the road between the buildings is unpaved, the ground worn bare; a hen looks on, suspicious at what foolishness now engages the humans. A few years before that photograph was taken, the Irish government had launched the first of its several credible attempts at fiscal suicide – declaring economic war with Britain, under the irresistibly catchy, but entirely irrational, phrase of “Burn everything British but their coal!” During that “war,” my father, not yet ten years old, witnessed farmers slinging calves off the cliffs at the end of their fields. The calves had to go before they devoured the grass the cows needed to make milk – the only regular source of protein for the “natives.”
Those same cliffs, beautiful, sulky defenders of our island against the Atlantic’s wild storms, have been the ruin ofmore than just calves’ lives. In 1588 – “just a few weeks ago” in Irish memory – they flittered the Spanish Armada. All told, twenty four ships of “The Great and Most Fortunate Navy” (as the Spaniards had mistakenly branded it) were sunk off the rocky coast of Ireland. About 5,000 Spaniards, who had most definitely not come to Ireland to learn English, were subsequently tortured – standard operating procedure at the time – and killed by the English colonists. Just a few months before Ms. Knott arrived in “Kilqui,” the Intrinsic, a ship sailing from Liverpool to New Orleans, was driven by an ill-tempered Atlantic into the cliffs just outside the town. The storm tortured the sailors for hours, dashing the ship repeatedly against the rock face before it eventually sank, drowning all fourteen crew members in full view of the helpless rescuers. Anecdotes of the dangers of life for the “natives” abound in Knott’s little treasure trove of west Clare social history. Small wonder then, when she writes that a “large Roman Catholic Chapel has been lately erected,” by the “natives.” For those living near the edge of land and life, with a clear view of where both suddenly end; staying in close contact with what might come next is not a middleclass-spiritual-feel-good luxury: It’s a necessity to get you out of bed each day.
“This, is a reading,” the priest enunciates, with emphatic good humor. “From the Gospel of Luke.”
Silently he looks over the congregation, his smile waning slowly, as he prepares to deliver the word of God.
“After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of Him in pairs, to all the towns and places He Himself would be visiting,” he pauses for breath, not looking up.
“And He said to them, ‘The harvest is rich but the laborers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to do his harvesting.’”
Now he looks up, takes a breath, quickly scanning the congregation.
He continues: The seventy-two were sent out in pairs with “no purse, no haversack, no sandals … as lambs amongst wolves.” They bade well to the men of peace, the believers, staying in their houses, and curing their sick.
“But,” he pauses dramatically, drawing a deep breath, his eyes surveying the congregation. “Whenever you enter a town and they do not make you welcome, go out into its streets and say, we wipe off the very dust of your town that clings to our feet, and leave it with you. Yet be sure of this: the kingdom of God is very near. I tell you, on the great Day it will be more bearable for Sodom than for that town.”
The congregation is awed to stillness.
When we were kids, my family – nine children and both parents – went to Kilkee every summer for two weeks to stay with my aunt and uncle. My memories from that time are of bursting out the door first thing in the morning, swimming everyday – regardless the weather – scrambling recklessly over the twisted and tortured rocks that define the Clare coastline, jumping off the pier, or, if the waves were up, body-surfing, before we even heard of body-surfing. Then, returning famished at lunch; repeat the dosage in the afternoon; fall into an exhausted sleep before the sun had even approached the enormous horizon afforded by the Atlantic. As a young teen I went for two weeks, with just my brother closest in age – everyone else had either moved on to cooler things, or was too young to be sent alone. By then, the late 1970s, my aunt and uncle were fifteen years returned from St. Louis – to where they had emigrated from 1957 to 1964 – with enough funds to buy the only shoe store in town, and the attached home. My uncle worked as a foreman in a pottery factory (remember factories?) seven miles away in Kilrush. My aunt’s line of business left her in the odd position of enjoying, financially anyway, a wet week; as when the Atlantic relentlessly shipped in rain clouds for days on the trot. The only option left to the vacationers staying in trailers – the most popular way to vacation at the beach then – was to buy wellington rain boots so the kids could at least go outside to play in the muck. The generally taken wisdom, then, as now, being that 2 parents + 2 kids, in 200 square feet, for 24 hours straight = familial disaster.
On those wet weeks, being a voracious reader, I would retreat into my aunt and uncle’s bookshelves. On those shelves lay a cache of books brought back from St. Louis. It was there, with the wind howling outside, that I read Black Like Me, a book written by John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who, through the use of medications and tanning technology, had his skin darkened enough to allow him to pass as a black man. For six weeks in 1959 he travelled the US South, a hellish, hate-filled apartheid state, experiencing life as a suddenly black man with a white man’s sensibilities. The results of his experiment – paid for, and then published by, an African American magazine – created shock and despair for anyone capable of compassion. The pages of that little red-edgestained paperback transported me from rain-pelted-Kilkee to the sweltering deep South. There, the blackened author – so darkened that another black man called him “an old Uncle Tom like me” – was hated, distrusted, demeaned, hustled-along by white police, and overwhelmed by how difficult – oftentimes, entirely wantonly – whites made life for “Negroes” as they are known throughout the book; though, tellingly, not in the title. Griffin’s experiment takes the reader inside the black community, to hear conversations with none of the affect that might come from having a white journalist at the table. The effect in the end was to make my teenage self despair – forty years later, I’m still struggling with this one – that humanity can ever rise above its lazy-proclivity for hate.
Depressed at this display of humanity’s extraordinary capacity for hate, I sought to distract myself with humanity’s capacity for evil: I tore into The Murder Trial of Judge Peel; a true crime book with the feel of dime-novel, that yanked me from the sofa on O’Curry Street, Kilkee to Florida’s criminal underworld. Joe Peel was a crooked municipal judge in West Palm Beach, where – for a small fee – he protected gamblers and moonshiners by informing them of the search warrants he had just issued. He also continued practicing family law, at which he was both crooked and incompetent. Amongst his lapses was having a former client brought up on bigamy charges after failing to complete her divorce, but misreporting it as finalized. This toxic combination of crooked-incompetence left him fearing he would get disbarred by the local circuit judge Curtis Chillingworth – a man with the sort of career that defines the “Greatest Generation:” Service in two World Wars, a brilliant legal mind, he was a judge at age 24, and continued living as an upstanding community member, until he was last seen leaving a dinner party on June 14, 1955. The book takes us into a world inhabited by people with nicknames like “Lucky,” who, in better days, had won a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge, but who now – for a small fee – committed dastardly deeds, and where cops were either “clean” or “dirty,” but they were all tough.
Peel hired Lucky, and a moonshiner-come-pool-room-operator, to kill Chillingsworth. They showed up at the judge’s house in the middle of the night, pretending to be stranded boaters, kidnapped the judge and his wife, and drowned them off a boat on the other side of the Atlantic from my Kilkee sofa seat. The accomplice clobbered the judge – a 68 year old man, already in chains and weighted down to sink, yet still somehow afloat – so hard with the barrel of a shotgun, that the barrel broke. For a couple of rainy days and nights, my mind lived in West Palm Beach and its surroundings as the mystery of why a respectable couple would, overnight, go missing from their home. As luck would have it, Lucky was a talker, and all that jaw-flapping got him set up for a three day booze-binge in a motel room, with cops in the adjoining room, recording his bragging-admission of guilt to the double murder. All the bad guys ended up in jail: A nice clean case – in the white world of south Florida.
With the benefit of fifty-years-later hindsight, we can see that other Florida cases from that era didn’t get the same resources devoted to their resolution. Less than three and a half years before judge Peel paid to have judge Chillingsworth killed, in a case that has never been solved, Harry T. Moore and his wife were killed by a bomb so powerful, that when it exploded in the floor boards beneath their bed, their bodies were driven into the wooden rafters above. Mr. Moore, a black civil rights activist, had come to the evil attention of Florida’s KKK by campaigning for the arrest of a white Sheriff accused of shooting a handcuffed black murder suspect. The good men in The Trial of Judge Peel – Chillingsworth himself, and the State’s Attorney, Phil O’Connell; another Bronze Starred “Greatest Generationer” – would likely all have individually, if quietly, this was after all still the 1950s Deep South, condemned this vicious attack. But, as Griffin makes plain in Black Like Me, individual white’s quiet efforts to be “fair and kind to the Negro,” further debase black people, who are seen as part of the “black mass;” whereas, in society, a white is always seen as an individual, someone whose opinion matters. More bitingly, he notes that despite individual white efforts to be “decent and good to the Coloreds”, whites as a group still maintained a society “that destroys the Negro’s sense of personal value, degrades his human dignity, deadens the fiber of his being.”
There was I, sitting on a sofa in 1979 west of Ireland, not a “Negro” or “Colored” or black in the parish, nor for the next five over, simmering with the hope deadening pain that comes from witnessing one group of humans shit all over another. At that time, the only imperative that could force me off the sofa, and out of the 1950s Deep South and into the near constant Irish rain was to go to mass. We were raised as strict, or at least strictly adhering to the rules and regulations, Catholics: No dust would be shaken from disciples’ feet outside of our humble abode. My mother started every weekday with 8 o’clock mass: We said the rosary every night; all nine kids summoned in from wearing out the street with endless games of soccer, tag, hide n’seek, or when all else failed – just plain old fighting. In our kitchen, everyone knelt on the tiled floor, elbows resting on chairs with foam bursting through cracked vinyl seats. Then, with the same gusto with which a bus ticket is sold, we rattled off Our Fathers and Hail Marys; completing one decade in Irish: A nod to the fact that we knew, deep in our hearts, that Jesus was in fact Irish. (It was only for marketing and metaphorical reasons that he went with the whole Middle-East-leading-us-out-of-the-desert stuff. It’s widely known in the pubs of Ireland that the Clare County Council put forward the Burren as a de facto desert to Heaven, but – as luck would have it – it rained the day the angels came to inspect it.) Every car journey was measured in the number of rosaries required: one for a journey of an hour or less; two for a journey up to three hours; a four hour journey might involve unlimited rosaries, and could invoke the stop-at-that-lovely-church-or-grotto requirement. In the house everyone owned a revered set of rosary beads. In the car we used little rosary rings that were kept in the dash; everyone, except our parents and the person leading the prayers, mindlessly twirling them around our fingers. Severe beatings – underwritten by fear of a vengeful God – were dispensed for misbehaving during mass or the rosary; without any hope that the beating covered as penance. The entire length of a Sunday revolved around mass, the highpoint, and in some lines of thinking, the only point, of the week.
Later, as a teenager I worked in the local church; sweeping and waxing the parquet floors; counting the collection money; laying out the vestments before mass; filling chalices with unconsecrated communion wafers from an enormous box of wafers delivered from a diocesan approved bakery; lighting charcoal to burn the incense, whose sweet-smelling-smoke wafted over holy water splattered coffins guiding souls to Catholic heaven. I was, in the words of the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, close to being “heaven assured.” The design of a Catholic church building, like the design of all great historical buildings, lives under the maxim that “form follows function.” Thus a typical Catholic church allows the priest to enter through a regular door, that lets him into the sacristy – the prep room next to the altar. The congregation enters the church through the tall, wide front doors that lead into the high volume space of the church interior, colorfully lit by tall, stain glassed windows. All this height and volume naturally, if barely subliminally, awes the congregation: They are now in a different space, a demonstrably different world, in which they are not the primary characters – God is the primary character here. Meanwhile, in the sacristy, the priest puts on his vestments; clothing which sets him apart from the rest of the people in the church, so much so that his human body is barely distinguishable beneath the flowing robes. On the altar, the priest – with access to all the scriptures, all the bells and smells of Catholic ceremony – is the communicant between God and the congregation; who sit in the pews, and participate in the ceremony by reiterating their acceptance of the words the priest speaks. These church buildings, originally designed for the Latin mass, did not seek to make the word of God accessible; it was something to be accepted unquestioningly.
The church in Kilkee – built to replace Ms. Knott’s “large Roman Catholic chapel” – opened in 1963. It’s a modern looking building, but one steeped in church design, with the Catholic cathedral in Coventry acting as the architect’s inspiration. It opened two years before the Latin Mass got disrupted – after 400 years hard service – by the congregation’s need to know what the priest was actually saying. It seats “1,100 people comfortably” the website says. You could get the whole non-summer-time-town-population in there “comfortably;” but on that Sunday morning in July, we had the added comfort of even more space. The priest solemnly, and deliberately, did his communicant-with-God piece, but when it came to the sermon his enthusiasm as the spiritual leader of his community burst forth and his humanity, his equality with the congregation shone through.
“When I used to travel, I would try to bring everything with me, nearly the kitchen sink,” he says with the collegial air of someone chatting on the street, in a pub, a coffee shop. “But RyanAir, with their baggage fees, they surely cured me of that.”
Immediately I sit up and pay attention; a story from another world.
“Now, when I go, it’s all hand luggage. I take only what I need. And do you know what,” he pauses, allowing our minds to prepare a reactive stance. “It’s the same in life. What are we doing bringing all this baggage from the past with us everywhere we go in life? Can’t we put some of it down, forget some of those slights, lop off that big baggy piece of ego that says “I’m much too important for this or that or the other thing.”
He pauses again and looks across the congregation.
“Just put it all it down would ye.”
He goes on to effectively, and not without humor, drive home his point: drop your baggage, leave it behind, wrapping up with an exhortation to:
“Go out in the world, with just the thought of love in your soul. And you’ll get there. You will, you’ll get there.”
He stares silently across the congregation for what feels like a long time.
By carefully not defining “there,” he had drawn me. He had stopped just short enough from preaching about the path – presumably his was through God – to “there,” that it was accessible to all. Each person could define their own “there” as everything the mass was already about; believing in God, or if not, then getting left behind in sorrow and pain; or setting that aside, and simply believing in your own consciousness.
My aunt spent the last few years of her life in a nursing home. Her mind had moved on to wherever is that human minds move to, leaving behind a relatively healthy, eighty year old, human body that needed to be taken care off by functioning human minds. The community in Kilkee realized her mind had wandered off, as she would show up at church, long after mass was over, and then sit for several hours, quietly waiting for it to begin. Because her mind had slowly, stealthily slipped off to its next phase, her house looked like she had just gone on vacation: Everything was still in place: The dishes on the shelves; the salt still drying on the stove; a dishcloth hanging by the sink, waiting.
Cleaning out the home for the last member of a family’s generation is to have the books, photographs, prints, newspaper clippings, bills, letters, ornaments, knickknacks and doodads deemed worthy of remaining in her personal space, silently narrate a biography. We find my aunt’s American Green Card – literally a laminated piece of green cardboard, that stipulated a change of address “must be provided to the US Attorney General within ten days of moving;” her wedding album, showing a beautiful young woman, marrying a gallant young man in St. Louis 1958; the menus from the ships they traveled to and from America on – the menu for October 17, 1957 for the Greek Line’s ship New York (among its offerings an entrée of “Fried Calf’s Brains,”) and the Cunard Line’s RMS Sylvania’s menu for October 7, 1964 (among its offerings “Braised Ox Tongue”); an unopened sewing kit – seven plain colors, two translucent white buttons and a needle – from a resort in Scottsdale Arizona; her mother’s memorial card from 1949; several pairs of rosary beads; photographs of old Kilkee, photographs I had sent of my children as babies; and of course, books.
It was in the bookshelf, now woefully culled by retirement downsizing, that my mind got lost, dragged back four decades by Judge Joe Peel. Black Like Me didn’t survive their move to a house the size of their former living room, nor did The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence of Arabia’s biography that I never brought myself to read. John F. Kennedy featured large on their these-are-the-books-to-bring-me-to-the-finish-line shelf; Why England Slept, Profiles in Courage, and Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes (the “book to which President Kennedy gave his warm cooperation” as noted on the cover). The Prison Meditations of Father Delph – a German Jesuit who was executed by the Nazis, peripherally accused in the final assassination attempt on Hitler, and who wrote the book by slipping out of his manacles in prison cell – gets a prominent, even if one suspects, unused, location. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle leans up against Machiavelli’s The Prince, both propped up by a hefty 1938 collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. Who knew that even before the human-madness of World War II, Hemingway’s frighteningly modern stories – The Killers, A Clean Well Lighted Place, Hills Like White Elephants, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber – had already been published, and then collected, begging the question: Were we always there, or have we devolved irreparably into human dysfunction?
Back in the church, one of the altar boys – with the thousand-freckled-wild-eyed look of a west Clare-man in full tilt – anxiously tightens the belt on his cassock. He’s getting ready for Communion: The ultimate connection between God and the congregation – a physical-spiritual communing between two worlds.
I don’t commune; haven’t for thirty years or more.
Instead I observe.
The Eucharistic Ministers, lay people commissioned to serve Communion, arise from the front pews, and approach the altar. They are mostly older congregants; dressed in solemn purples-greys-navies. They move with measured steps, some have trouble ambulating; they know well the ceremony of the mass, and all stand, patiently, in position on the sanctuary, waiting for their cue. The priest, fully back in ceremonial mode, enunciates deliberately into the microphone on which stations in the church will have gluten free Communion, where one can find the chalice.
I sit back, oddly relaxed, and watch the congregation muster itself, unhurriedly, to the various Communion stations. People of all ages move in that grave manner which the sacrament elicits; arms hanging, hands clasped in front; faces reset to the I’m-going-to-mass visage. The methodical movement, the low-slow-church-music captures my mind, and I start to see myself in the congregation.
I’m one of the fathers slow-motion-auto-pilot-shepherding his children toward Communion. I stare, trying to project myself into that role – into one that never left. Where does that mind go? Is there peace there? I shake it off, and transfer my musing to the teenagers; taking myself back to that tortured time, seeing myself in the Communion line, slouching, scowling, nourishing the bitter seed of realization – experienced and read – that the human world is stupid, dull, and ultimately cruel. I tire quickly of that hackneyed view, and transport myself even further back in age. There I am in the Communion line; shuffling along, eyes solemnly on the priest. It’s an uncomplicated, innocent me, diminutive, vulnerable, wide-eyed-open only to the binary logic of Heaven and hell; where making up sins for weekly confession is the heaviest load on my mind; my greatest possession is a small-brown-leather-covered – never read – St Martin de Porres prayer book; and the “kingdom of God is very near.”
I’m standing, with my kids, in a heavy drizzle, at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, staring at the male lion. The “king of the beasts” doesn’t so much stare back, as languidly turn his eyes in my direction. He sits, absorbing the rain, atop a promontory rock; one of the many boulders installed by the exhibit designers to try to create the illusion of an African landscape. The illusion fights hard against the realities of its location; on the side of a drumlin, 4,000 miles from the savannah, half a block from busy Blue Hill Avenue, in an urban area of a couple of million homo-sapiens. The exhibit – at about an acre or so, a little shy of the 100 acres which a lion pride would control on the Serengeti – has a handful of lioness-sized nooks and crannies, fashioned to provide shade and cover for the lions. The rest of the pride – selected, not by the alpha male to extend his line of DNA, but by humans, based on temperament, availability, and budget – lie lethargically in these hideouts. At the bottom of the hill, we climb into an open-topped-safari-jeep faux crashing through a one-inch thick glass wall into the lions’ enclosure; placed by the exhibitors to all the guests pretend they’re careening wildly across the Serengeti. To get the full effect, I try to zone out the rain, the siren-heavy-hum of the city, and the fact that I’m a middle-aged, risk-adverse, white guy who doesn’t even like driving his kids through tough neighborhoods. The rain drizzles down on the king of the beasts’ splotchy-golden-brown coat; his scraggly mane needs some serious Disneying up to even come close to a TV-show-ready-lion. I imagine the large predator’s brain examining this same scene – the rain, the city sounds, the walled-in enclosure, a gaggle of lumbering-utterly-defenseless-prey standing just beyond his reach – and wondering; “how the fuck did I end up here?”
I have a zoo problem, it’s a secondary one, but still almost impossible to shake: My daughter, who more or less runs what for others would be called their social life, but for me goes down as “free time” (as in time when I’m not working, doing laundry, homework-supervising-oh-ok-I’ll-just-do-it, dog walking, hunting and gathering in laid-out-to-maximize-my-ability-to-hunt-and-gather supermarkets, more laundry, finish-that-f#&*ing-homework-wouldn’t-ya!, more work before I fall into bed exhausted) requires that we use a large portion of that free time visiting zoos, aquaria, pet stores; basically anywhere that other species are kept under the guard – and sometimes arbitrary – control of homo-sapiens. I don’t get philosophical about this: I just see these places as depressing animal prisons. I’m sure others will disagree, arguing eloquently about zoos educational value, the protection of endangered species through breeding programs, yaddah-yaddah-yaddah, and that’s fine. All I would ask is that these eloquent-arguers make themselves available to live in a two hundred square foot exhibit space of a faux-studio-apartment, or some other zooish facsimile of “The Homo Sapiens Natural Domain” (a Starbucks? a bar? an office cube?), on exhibit for the rest of their lives: Lives, that will likely be extended by careful feeding, an indolent lifestyle, and protection from predators (though you may still be asked for your vote). Oh, and stay well back from any small humans who, unwittingly, end up in your Natural Domain; under these conditions, we won’t be able to predict your behavior, and as such your approaching the small human could prove lethal – to you.
As a frequent, if reluctant, flyer at zoos and aquaria (slightly less upsetting, although, there are very few sights on our planet quite as sad as a depressed penguin) I have walked for hours – caffeine-and-sugar radar circling rapidly, seeking actionable intelligence on the café location – wondering what the caged animals make of us humans. Do they hate us? Not their handlers, whom they may actually learn to like, as their unnatural source of food – and oftentimes the only comfort in their lives – but us; the carelessly-callous-middle-classes who saunter past, pointing melting ice creams or half-filled coffee cups at them, our mixture of body languages – over-stressed adults and over-relaxed kids – un-discernable to beings whose very lives depend on correctly reading body language. I put myself in their hoofs or paws or claws, and immediately, with the weakness of the human mind, I start hating. Why do we keep exotic animals – oftentimes highly efficient predators – locked up for our viewing pleasure? Is the random manner that lions and tigers and other animals end up in zoos – public or private – all over planet earth the manifestation of some human need to show dominance over all other species?
The history of humans keeping wild animals – usually the wilder and more dangerous the better – stretches back almost 6,000 years ago. At that particular time in Ireland, we were occupied with heaping stones one on top of the other to build the Ceide Fields – the first evidence of organized farming in Europe. I imagine those disgruntled first-farm-laborers stopping for a smoke, a look out over Downpatrick Head (the naming rights were still available – for a song – in 3500 BC) and dreaming of when pubs would get invented so they had somewhere to get in out of the rain, and away from the not-quite-yet-domesticated animals. Meanwhile in Egypt, humans were already capturing and keeping lions and other animals for the viewing pleasure of other humans; who, on a completely unrelated note, had very strange hairstyles. Ancient history thereafter is littered with references to the keeping of wild animals – lions and elephants in particular – by emperors and kings as all-important symbols of dominance and careless wealth. Marco Polo and Alexander the Great (maybe the Donald needs to add a moniker like this to his name? Donald the Greatest?) both reported seeing, or being gifted, “tame lions.” The Romans, fully at ease with their need to dominate-at-all-costs, brought thousands of lions to Rome to pit them against other animals and slaves in no-win blood paths. Julius Caesar, in fit of pique, ordered the slaughter of hundreds of lions in a single day: No question that day who was king of the beasts.
Things got slightly better after the barbarians had cleansed Europe of Rome’s “civilizing” influence. In the Renaissance era, the keeping of exotic animals for viewing pleasure started again – initially for the royalty and their lackeys, but eventually even the plebs were allowed in – and like all European fashions spread quickly, rife with bitchy-competitiveness. The Renaissancers named these collections of animals “seraglios” – a word subsequently used to describe both the living quarters for a harem in the Ottoman empire, and walled in Jewish ghettos in Italy: The human need to dominate by segregation and denomination is viscously persistent – look at our own “hoods.” The Renaissancers’ seraglios were used the way a $5M yacht is used today as an expression of dominance and careless wealth; when it’s moored, but deliberately almost never used, for the summer in Manhattan. Keeping a handful of lions, tigers, a couple of elephants, and maybe a giraffe or two in the backyard, showed your enemies – and the plebs – that you had power, not only over them, but also over the untamed world.
Back in Franklin Park, we’re exhibiting our middle-class-passive dominance over the giraffes. The giraffe enclosure is bigger than the lions – longer legs need more space – but still about 99.8 square miles shy of the average 100 square miles giraffes typically have as their domain in the wild. Oddly enough, we can’t see any of these majestically large mammals. But we’re well used to that: The pandas in the Washington zoo couldn’t be seen either; viewing the octopus at the Boston Aquarium is very much an experience in trusting that that ball of black flesh stuffed into the corner of the tank is actually that most curiously interesting sea creature. But what we do see in the giraffe enclosure is a scurvy-looking pigeon, hot out of a trash barrel down on Blue Hill Ave, remorseful at his indulgence in human-junk-food, and now pecking around the balding enclosure as part of a trendy new urban-pest-cleanse.
“Oh wow,” I say, with fake excitement. “Look, the zoo traded their giraffes in for a pigeon.”
“Shut up daddy,” I’m told by my already weary-of-her-father’s-bad-jokes nine year old.
“Poor thing,” I add, risking a foot-stomp. “I wonder if he even knows he’s a zoo animal now?”
When Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, designed Franklin Park, his plan for what ultimately became the zoo was a naturalistic New England landscape inhabited by native animals. This was part of his overall theme of a country park at the edge an urban area. He felt that large concentrations of humans, jammed into dense, over-built urban environments needed the occasional relief given by visiting the sort of landscape in which we had evolved. Others disagreed – not a lot of money to be made from people wandering, gazing longingly, around an urban countryside – and so a golf course and eventually the zoo were built to provide relief through distraction.
Zoos had evolved out of the Renaissance seraglios, and other, slightly less elegant, arrangements in which people kept wild animals, such as the Tower of London Menagerie. This zoo precursor had been started around 1200 by King John, who – when he wasn’t amassing a collection of exotic and extremely dangerous animals – spent his time auditioning for the part of the original stupid-villain-for-whom-nothing-works in Disney’s Robin Hood. By the 19th century, plebs were being allowed in as paying guests to keep the Tower Menagerie going . The, ultra-practically minded management, set the price of admission at three half pence, or a cat or a dog supplied to feed to the lions. I can imagine an Artful-Dodger type of character showing up for a date with two of his neighbors’ cats stuck up under his similarly thieved great-coat. The Menagerie concept was “disrupted” by the zoo concept up – more viewing, less taunting and feeding of domesticated animals – and thus in the 1830s, the Tower animals got shipped off to the London Zoo. That zoo in turn re-gifted some animals to the newly formed Royal Zoological Society of Dublin. The Irish outfit gladly accepted this donation, as – being made up primarily of members of the medical professions – they had some interest in studying live animals, but had an avaricious interest in studying their dead bodies, particularly those of the primates. This was, after all, the era when grave robbing was a highly prosperous, if entirely illegal, line of work with the corpses being sold to medical schools – who never questioned their sourcing – for the study of human anatomy. Holding clear title to a corpse, of any species, was deemed more respectable than obfuscating on the basis of your theories on how humans might be prevented from dying.
On our visit to the Dublin Zoological Gardens, there were no MDs hanging around in scrubs waiting for an animal to expire. Instead, we watched the penguins at feeding time. The whole scene has the surreal feel of a penguin orgy – imagined of course; I’ve never been. The tiny, wing and plumage deprived, birds got themselves into such a frenzy of excitement, that their comically personified walk morphed into a strut. They strutted ungainly, but not without some speed, around the enclosure, snapping at fish held in the handler’s hand, and plunging headlong into the pool, in penguin rapture, a sensory reminder that they have a beautiful and wild home 4,000 miles away. All of these small humanoid-like beings, moving around rapidly, with apparent great self-importance, filled the enclosure with so much energy and activity that it began to look even smaller than it actually was. The excitement was such that I hadn’t noticed a group of my kids and their cousins laughing and pointing.
“What’s up?” I ask with the self-evident-stupid-naiveté of a parent trying to cross through the all-powerful-invisible-membrane that permanently separates generations of humans.
In the middle of the enclosure two penguins appear to be mugging each other, lots of wannabe-wings flapping, leaning, pushing, standing on one another’s feet.
“Oho, they don’t show you this on the telly,” one of the Dublin cousins says, red faced, laughing too loud. “They always turn the cameras away when this starts.”
A few months previous to our visit, three young-adult male homo sapiens broke into the Dublin zoo and kidnapped a 10 year-old penguin named Kelli. They stuffed Kelli in a black trash bag, and took a cab from the streets outside the zoo – telling the cabbie they had caught a rabbit, and that’s what was jumping around inside the trash bag. They released Kelli on a Dublin street, presumably in their own neighborhood: All, apparently, as a prank, all to make other humans laugh. I imagine the pranksters are now known, in their local pub – where doubtlessly there hangs a photo of Kelli, helplessly lost on a nearby street – as real “characters,” up for anything for “a good ould laugh.” I’m not sure exactly how Kelli felt about all this. Was the stress of such a rough abduction worth confirming just how impossible a real escape might be? Perhaps, settling back into dreary prison life, behind a fence that keeps penguins in and humans out – mostly anyway – and where the day’s excitement is focused on the bucket of fish that comes at feeding time, might seem better after a few hours on the streets amongst humans.
Back in Franklin Park, we’re in the Gorilla House; where we keep locked up one of our species’ closest cousins – the Western Lowland gorilla, with their frighteningly intense silverback males. The gorilla habitat itself is a magnificent sight: A huge rock formation, sort of a Tarzan’s movie set home, it is visible from the outside –across the all-important moat that separates our species – and is also visible through a tunnel that snakes along the side providing access for close up views of the gorillas. The man made habitat is broken into little courtyards for the following good reason: Gorilla society is extremely hierarchical (not unlike their cousin-species,) with the alpha males ruling the group, and behaving aggressively when challenged (not unlike their cousin species,) roaring, walloping their chests, and throwing shit at the challenger; basically mimicking the average Irish father in a temper over not being able to get the game on TV “’cause of something them kids did to that damn box.” Understanding these same behaviors is easy when you consider we species cousins share more than 98% of our DNA. Understanding how we can lock them up in this small enclosure, to be stared at – an act of aggression in gorilla society –is a lot harder.
When you are in the business of keeping exotic, and oftentimes aggressively territorial, animals hard by major concentrations of the most populous species of mammals on the planet, things can get a little tricky. In 2003 Little Joe, a young male silverback, possibly tired of the alpha male’s roaring-walloping-shit-throwing behavior crossed the moat, that our 2% DNA allows us to build, and exited the Gorilla house – twice. The second time he did it the Boston Police dealt with it, in their own words, “using the same basic approach as dealing with an emotionally disturbed person.” They shot four tranquillizers into him, and bound his hands and feet. The zoo wrapped him in a net, put him on a stretcher, into the back of a van, and sent him off to solitary for four years. Dealing with a 300 pound, full of fear-anger gorilla – an animal that could, literally rip your face off your skull – is not an easy thing. I do not envy the police or zoo personnel dropped suddenly into this situation. But of course gorillas don’t have to leave their enclosure to get into trouble. Sometimes humans cross the 2%’ers moat – remember Cincinnati?
The Cincinnati Zoo is one of the oldest in America, and was famously – or maybe not so famously anymore – home to Martha, the last member of the once five billion strong species of Passenger pigeons. These pigeons were the native version of the now ubiquitous European pigeons; who were brought here by French colonialists – as a sign of their careless-wealth – from whom they subsequently escaped to the relative freedom of the North American trash barrel. Passenger pigeons – whose name came from the Anglicization of the French term “to pass;” they never carried a single passenger! – would gather in flocks so enormous that, as Audubon describes it, “the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow.” As a species, Passenger pigeons had one fatal flaw: Humans liked to eat them. Gathering in enormous flocks, for protection against the predators they had evolved with, just made it easier for humans. By 1900 they were essentially extinct, but Martha, the last remaining Passenger pigeon, lived on in the Cincinnati Zoo until 1914 – the loneliest bird on the planet.
Western Lowland Gorillas are now on the endangered species list – the waiting room for extinction. The Cincinnati Zoo has successfully bred them, but only for other zoo exhibits. Such are the complexities of gorilla society, that it’s not yet clear that a gorilla bred in a zoo could ever get re-integrated into the wild. On a warm Saturday in May 2016 a three year-old boy climbed through a fence that a three year-old boy could climb through, and fell fifteen feet into the moat surrounding the gorilla exhibit at the zoo. A young male gorilla got the boy, and, as you will be able to see on many online videos, alternately seemed to care for the boy and dragged him through the moat water. The humans present, including the boy’s mother, were – naturally – stressed beyond belief. The gorilla was, per the zoo, stressed by the human’s stress. After ten minutes the zoo officials, faced with what any reasonable person would have to call a difficult situation, made a difficult decision: they shot the gorilla. We humans – the species distinguished most from other species by our need for opinions – could, from the comfort and complacency of our 20-20-hindsight, likely debate what happened in Cincinnati for so long that we forgot the point: Winning that debate – on even a forgotten point – would remain all important to us. We would likely end up roaring and walloping our chest, we might even throw a little shit.
More Americans go to the zoo every year than fill all of our many enormous professional sports arenas throughout their seemingly interminable seasons. At the zoo we get to “experience the dangers of the wild from the safety of suburbia.” Combine that mindset with the fact that the only thing a member of the human species fears more than a rampaging gorilla, is a rampaging lawyer, and you can quickly see how this is game plays out for zoo animals. They’re held captive in enclosures, of all varieties, for the primary purpose of the zoo; which is to make enough money to keep animals on exhibit in enclosures, of all varieties, so that humans will pay enough money to allow for the ongoing keeping of animals in enclosures, of all varieties. It’s an odd business, no doubting that.
We’re in the Barcelona zoo. It’s a sticky Catalan day, grey skies, high humidity, a torrential downpour never more than a barometric sneeze away. The zoo has a particularly depressing feel to it. At the food stand the pigeons are so aggressive that we homo-sapiens have to respond with even more aggression to avoid the junk calories being awarded to the avian species. Like a lot of Barcelona, the zoo is at once beautiful, but confusing and punitive; lots of bad signage (and not in English either; wait until “Donald the Greatest” hears about this!) that lead to empty exhibits. Particularly disappointing are the missing dolphins. They appear – with marketers’ faux dolphin-ish happiness – on so many signs that we’re all more than a little pissed off by the handwritten sign on their exhibit (in a foreign language!) that doesn’t explain humanity’s favorite aquatic mammal’s “disappearance.”
We see a stand that rents golf carts to lazy Europeans to circumnavigate the zoo. I’m appalled that American zoos didn’t think of this idea first – this is just the kind of innovative thinking America needs to get back to the top of the “Most Obese Nations” list. We rent a cart from a stubby-balding-sweat-lathered Spaniard who, in another time would have been a sergeant in Franco’s army. He has that odd Spanish version of customer service, whereby he issues blunt edicts in Spanish, and then frustrates easily when confused foreigners stare back blankly. Observing him upbraid a too-tall-and-bossy-for-any-Catalan-compassion German family, I, with unsurprising ease, play the helplessly-stupid-but-oh-so-polite-non-Spanish-speaking-American-with-an-Irish-accent. It works: We get our cart ahead of the Germans, whose heavily accented-Spanish complaints are waived off impatiently in a guttural growl of what I imagine are highly-non-PC-Catalan-slang-swears. His only harsh communication to me was in pointing at my kids, wagging his finger vigorously and holding his hands on an imagined steering wheel; his gaze becoming oddly relaxed and happy while mock driving. I nod and lie-smile.
Once out of his sight my son, not a zooer but a driver, takes over at the wheel. We cover the main part of the zoo twice, feeling vastly superior to the pleb-estrians. Again, I’m amazed that this idea has not taken hold in America, until I remember insurance companies and lawyers. We drive down a zoo-side-street, expecting to be disappointed by yet more empty exhibits. Instead we come to row of cages, each about two or three hundred square feet in size, some of which are empty, but some which have smallish animals. We see a raccoon (hardly a zoo-worthy animal for us, as we see their asses sticking out of our trash barrels every evening,) a bunch small South American something-or-others huddled together in the corner of a cage. Half way down the aisle my daughter insists on driving: She’s very good at insisting; not so good at driving. She gets behind the wheel and immediately, not ten or fifteen seconds later, but the moment she puts her foot on the throttle, smashes into the concrete curb of one of the seemingly empty cages. I jump out and look at the cart, wondering how I’ll fare with Franco’s sergeant’s post rental review. When I look up, a pair of green eyes stare at me: A Black Panther. The electric-pale-green of his eyes offset his unfathomably black fur. I stare back unknowingly, not sure if I’m agitating him. His three hundred foot zoo condo seems on the small side when you consider in the wild his home range is about 25 square miles. We stare at each other for a few moments. I wonder what he’s thinking. Then he lays back down; a caged black shadow of a fierce predator.
It’s quite likely that zoos, like the poor and lying-sacks-of-shit politicians, will always be with us until we evolve into another species – then perhaps homo-sapiens will become zoo animals? Don’t scoff, we’ve already been there. In 1906 the director of the Bronx Zoo, had Ota Benga, an Mbuti pygmy man exhibited in a cage, displayed alongside chimpanzees and an orangutan in the Monkey House. The theme of the exhibit – which though protested vigorously by the African American leaders of the day, was wildly commercially successful – was the missing link between primates and the white man. Mr. Benga, had originally been bought from slave traders, liberated, and brought to America to be “displayed” in an anthropology exhibit at the St Louis World Fair. It was somewhat common practice at the time, amongst superior feeling white homo-sapiens, to exhibit aboriginal peoples to display the Caucasian’s place firmly on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder. While working and living at the zoo, Mr. Benga was encouraged to move his belongings into the chimpanzees’ cage. Once established there, the zoo placed his bow and arrow and some other belongings into the cage, and had some bones strewn around the floor – early zoo exhibitors’ authenticity techniques. They kept Mr. Benga in the cage for a few days until the hue and cry against a having human exhibited as a zoo animal finally gained his release. Ten years later, stranded in America, heavily traumatized and depressed by a life few would imagine could be lived just a hundred years ago, Mr. Benga put a gun to his chest and blew away his heart.
Homo-sapiens’ need to dominate the rest of the planet, and our voyeuristic curiosity about other species, underwritten by the all-powerful need to make a buck doing so, would seem to be enough to keep zoos going as an institution – which, after all, has grown and morphed alongside our civilization. Sometimes – as in an incident in Denmark where a perfectly healthy giraffe was euthanized, and butchered in front of a group of school children, to be fed to the zoo’s lions – the purpose of zoos, of their breeding programs, our need for total domination of other species, and to make money, all get mixed into a noxious stew that’s particularly hard to digest. That the Dane’s – “the 2016 happiest country in the world!” – could do this, seems to show that worldwide zoo animals live or die at the whim of zoo managers. But zoo managers have always had to have the bottom line as their major concern, because ultimately a zoo has to be run like a business.
In today’s Bronx Zoo, in the darkness of the reptile house, where humans go to get excitedly-repulsed by snakes – that could take our lives in a few desperate last minutes, but are thankfully kept behind thick glass – there is a zoo exhibit well worth the admission price. The snakes’ blank eyes, their seeming-all-knowingness, their place in the world’s culture all heighten my fear. And with that heightened fear and the dim light dilating my pupils, I’m more than ready when shuffling nervously from one scarily-repulsive window to another to arrive at the last glass display case. The writing on the exhibit sign says, “This Animal is Responsible for the Extinction of More Species than Any Other Animal.” When I look up to see the guilty party, reflected in a mirror I see my own two eyes.
I’m standing on the bank of the Erne-Shannon Canal in Leitrim Village, eating an egg and cheese sandwich, and sipping too-hot tea from a filling station a few miles back. It’s about seven on a misty July morning. Leitrim – the village and the county – is still asleep. My shoes are wet from the wet grass on the bank, sunken as it is below the road leading to the bridge over the canal. I take a sip of tea, burn my tongue again, and lean against the stone wall beside me. From behind the wall, in an unkempt field, two horses – one brown, one dirty-white – look up from nosing for grass amongst the weeds. They stare for a moment, their solid eyes holding me from afar. Then they start toward me, hooves gracefully cutting a dark track through the wet-green-weedy-grass. Instinctively I stand upright, holding my breakfast in close, presuming the horses are coming over to get their real food, having confused me for whoever put them in this excuse for a field.
I turn away from the horses, and stare at the impressively small canal that does, sort of, what seems otherwise impossible on our fractured island: Join Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Originally built – by canalizing the River Grainne (the “gravelly river”) – with £300,000 of the British colonizers money (only a small bit of which was stolen) in the 1850’s to link the Shannon and Erne river-ways, it made less than $20 in tolls in its first ten years of existence. But progress never stops – maybe – and so the young Turks of their day, the railroad, moved in to supplant the canal’s paltry traffic. The young Turks laid down track, built bridges over the freshly-tortured Grainne, rendering her un-navigable, and then promptly failed itself. Capital was withdrawn, wounds licked in Dublin and London, and Leitrim was left in the sort of putrid stasis that colonies often get left in – though usually after, and not before, the plundering is completed. It took American foresight and a cross-border-peace-initiative – along with £30M (only a small piece of which was stolen) – to finally get the canal up as a going venture a mere hundred and thirty five years after it was originally built. Grainne is no more, not spoken off. As a result of this modern engineering marvel – which, as progress would have it, finally facilitated the invasion of Lough Erne by Russian zebra mussels – people can boat amidst spectacular scenery, crossing between two different European countries (while passionately disputing that very fact,) getting progressively drunker.
Tied up against the canal’s opposite bank is a cabin cruiser, a moldy-grey canopy – complements of the two hundred and twenty five days of rain Leitrim gets every year – covering what would be the back open area. The boat speaks of long summer evenings, connecting not with Northern Ireland, but of long Sunday afternoons out on Lough Allen; of clinking glasses; of stories told and retold to peals of lake-water-far-carrying-laughter; of walloping down ham sandwiches; of more drinks – but not so many that the island which surrounds the lake can’t yet again be safely found. This tired-old-boozy boat has the sort of accommodating balance that creates longevity: Something we have not yet achieved as a nation.
I woke at five this morning, grey-too-early-to-be-awake-light streaming in the window, as I lay on the bed ruminating. What more than ruminating can you do, when you wake at five, three thousand miles from your own bed, and find yourself in your sister’s house, where everyone, including your own young children, are still sleeping. And what, more than ruminating – turning the same thought over and over, flipping it downside up, twisting and wrenching it – can you do, when you have to do, what you have to do.
As a mother she would have thrown herself in front of a train to protect you from that vision.
Was there some grand plan that made YOU the one?
Those words appeared on the screen a few days previously. The screen that magically connected two hurt people trying to heal each other using the only salve they can yet trust themselves to use: Words.
My aching-with-rumination-brain tackles this: Me, in a grand plan?
I am not a man of grand plans. I’m an ordinary man, extraordinarily ordinary. It was written all over the package when I got delivered into existence fifty years ago. The eight of nine kids; a biggish family for the time, but ordinary enough; my father had an ordinary job; the biggish family ate and clothed themselves in an ordinary way off his wages; we rented an ordinary house; and we all had an ordinary chance to get to the then Irish-heaven-on-earth: A government job. Had the gods of Ordinary Life seen fit, I would have lived out my life as semi-alcoholic civil engineer, pounding out a solid thirty-five hours a week for some County Council, and ripping up the pub with bitterly satiric commentaries on life. In short, the kind of installation found leaning against the pub counter that makes Ireland Ireland; the sort of character that illuminates our sense of a special place amongst the nations of this planet, because we see ourselves as understanding, in a way that others can’t seem to grasp, the folly of humanity, in our clear-sighted, funny-bitter, but rarely to the point of bitterness, way.
But Chance, who lords over the gods of Ordinary Life, flushed me out of that well ploughed furrow.
And now, even though I hadn’t known it, hadn’t had an opportunity to prepare the right kind of self-image, I had become a character in a grand plan: Albeit a character yanked from scene to scene: Now an eleven year old walking into a hospital ward to visit his dying mother and finding her uncovered, un-protected: Then a man-boy wandering out into the world leaning heavily on crutches of anger and alcohol: Later the father to a son who wouldn’t be fathered – in a partitioned off mini-world so crazed the crutches grew thicker, stronger, longer: Now the father to children who made him throw those crutches away, so he could grow again, and become the man he needed to be, to be a father. There it was: The grand plan I never knew; revealed by someone I never knew until the screens connected us as we untangled our pain.
In my ruminating brain I search for the image of her face, but today my stubborn-grey-organ serves only anguish.
On the hump-back bridge over the canal, an eighteen wheeler, engine-roaring-down-through-gears, passes with a whoosh of air, rattling house windows as he immediately gears up again, and speeds out of the village.
The horses stop in their tracks.
The canal is, as canals are, stunningly silent.
Leitrim rolls over, and goes back to sleep.
Standing on the wet grass, looking into the dark water, I do what I do best: Ruminate.
I burn myself again with the tea; sate my tongue with the last bite of bread so white it turns to sugar in my mouth. No excuses left. I give my rumination mates – the cabin cruiser; the canal; the wall; the horses; the darkened horse tracks in the field – one last look.
I turn to go, and there she is: Power walking through the sleeping Irish village; this woman’s build and pony tail and gait are eerily like the woman who cast a life line through the screen to me, a woman who is asleep, three thousand miles away.
From my stand below her on the canal bank, she doesn’t see me as she strides over the bridge; arms pumping; purple-hand-weights clutched in her hands – whitening her knuckles. I stare at this figure moving fast across the limited horizon of the hump-back bridge, the tiny stretch of street visible from my stand. The horses are moving again, I can hear their hooves sluicing through the wet weeds. One of them whinnies. The woman, almost out of view, turns, looks down, sees me and is startled – her grip on the weights releasing, her knuckles pinking.
I nod, and raise my free hand in the sort of awkward salute you give when you’re caught awkwardly staring.
My awkwardness and complete inertia calm her; her knuckles whiten, her stride resumes, she moves out of view.
I turn and look at the horses, they’re still loping over, cutting their dark green path through the field, black eyes staring at me like I owe them something – and I do. I pull long-wet-grass from my side of the wall that divides us, feed them a little, pat on the base of their necks gentle hello-goodbyes.
Back in the car, the sugar and caffeine taking temporary hold, I’m feeling better, feeling like I can do what I have to do. I start the engine, feel the power beneath me, pull onto the narrow road, and roar out of Leitrim; my eyes searching for the walking woman. But with the white magic that Ireland can make in a village that is little more than one short street – five pubs, two shops, a post office and a church – she’s gone: Vanished.
Moving up the gears, calming the engine, I rip out into the countryside, headed hard to a graveyard at the tip of Lough Allen. Once in the countryside, I glance at sheep nosing around rocky fields, a few black faces rising, staring accusingly at me, as I slice through their morning. The road is clear and I’m making such good time that I don’t have time to throw up any more excuses. I know I’m going all the way to that tiny graveyard; I’ve been going there for forty years without knowing it. But now I know. Shifting from fourth to third around a tight bend, the power surging beneath me, I retreat from my mind, and move forward only on instinct.
An Uncommon Spirit
I’m standing in Gormley’s Funeral Home in West Roxbury on a record-breakingly warm March evening. In the corner, stand two tall Kilkenny men; so tall they stoop forward; nervously awkward in white shirts and black ties; not sure what to do with their hands. In the front of the room there’s another tall – though we haven’t seen him standing for twenty-five years – Kilkenny man lying in the coffin. The dead-man’s makeup is so thick on the corpse that it barely resembles the face everyone in the room knew. It doesn’t matter, because, like all dead men made up for the living to see, his eyes are closed. Eyes that were portals into his uncommonly irrepressible spirit; a spirit that never lost – despite all life’s plot twists – its wonder and lust for living. The viewing room is full. The lounge next door is full too, with people huddled around a video montage of photographs that’s breaking a sweat trying to capture, in two dimensions, the depth of his life. The priest, with deft-priestly-acumen, calls the wake to order. The viewing room swells beyond capacity, spilling out into the foyer. We all stand awkwardly now – preparing ourselves for communal grief. For everyone contained by Gormley’s four walls, an era has ended: Punter is dead.
The priest, a short, bald man in traditional black-clothes-white-collar, adjusts the microphone down to his height. He’s a Galway man, who – by way of Africa, where he served as a missionary – has come to tend to the errant souls at the edge of a large American city. As, here in the first world, we excel in erring on matters of the soul, I imagine he sees a side of our world that we wouldn’t care to acknowledge, let alone accept. His voice is soothing, and as a funeral expert – with a hard continent’s worth of experience – he’s genuine, using clear-honest words and phrases which sate our need to have imposed some order onto the disorder of our thoughts. He moves into funereal-ceremony mode.
“I am the way, the truth, and the light,” he enunciates slowly, with the care of one who senses the power available in the delivery of words.
He pauses – looks up at his sudden-congregation.
“No one – can come to the Father, but through Me.”
Scripture-words. They may help some understand the meaning of dying – or living – and good for them. For me, these are words and cadences so baked into my being – from a childhood with the Catholic Taliban – that even though I haven’t practiced in more than thirty years, they are a comfort.
“When I was asked to come here this evening,” the priest says, in a more conversational tone; prayer-voice back in the box for now. “I thought there’d be twenty or thirty people or so.”
He gazes around the room; a look of vicarious admiration on his face.
“I had no idea,” he says quietly. “No idea.”
This is one of life’s situations around which it would be easy to have to no idea.
Twenty five years ago, we were all young men, crazed with the cash money and freedom that comes to well-educated, kinda-sorta-well-adjusted, Irish immigrants in Boston – the most Irish of all the great American cities. Everything seemed possible in a totally foreseeable – almost to point of being unimaginative – way. Every occasion could be turned into a funny story, another friend made, another way to move ahead, another root set down into this new-to-us ground. We were welcomed by the community, who accepted our slight differences with a sort of grim humor. Stories abounded of young Irish drunk drivers driven home by the police – to avoid any real harm being done – with no more than a stern warning. One young wag negotiated with the cops to have them drive his pickup truck home too – “’cause in the morning, I’d be entirely fucked without that thing.”
When Nelson Mandela visited Boston in 1990, two young Irish fellas, with hospital-grade-hangovers, came out of their apartment, seeking nothing more from earthly existence only a cure. But they found themselves hemmed in by Secret Service agents protecting the great man’s wife – who happened to be visiting their daughter in the house across the street.
“That fucking Minnie Mandela,” one of them scorched her image and butchered her name two hours later, eyeing a fresh pint of Guinness on the counter in front of him. “Keeping me from a hair of the dog.”
The same man nearly caused an international incident when, after a mid-summer rugby game against a team from a Royal Navy aircraft carrier, him now as drunk as forty-cats, back in the bowels of the enormous vessel docked in Charlestown, started spouting IRA rhetoric. The rest of the drinking-travelling party considered themselves lucky to get swiftly deposited back, unharmed, onto the then dangerous streets of Charlestown.
Every week was a grind-out on construction sites; every weekend we would eat, drink, be merry and play rugby until …, well until we couldn’t anymore. This was not an era of deep thinking.
Then, on a boozy summertime trip to Martha’s Vineyard, fashioned around a rugby game, but smothered in general hedonism, the unthinkable happened. I wasn’t there. Being the sort of bollox I am, I had committed to go, but then withdrew for some other summertime activity. I understand from those who were there, that it was a fairly regular situation in the game he loved right up to the end; no ego-crazed-aggression with tempers overflowing, just a normal ruck, players in a pile on the ground; Punter smashes in one end of the ruck – and comes out the other a quadriplegic.
People say they heard the crack of his spine snapping.
People say he said his legs were tingling – the last sensation he would ever get from those limbs.
When asked by the EMT’s how he was doing, he reportedly answered, “well I’m still single, so I suppose I’m doing all right.”
As crazed young men, living hard on testosterone fuelled energy, this was the ultimate horror. Trapped within a body that no longer worked to spec, isolated first in a hospital bed for months, then in a movable chair, with no way to project and produce that sense of confused manhood which we wore around as our masks: Tough, hard drinking, rugby men, dismissive of the rest of life as a necessary, but time-wasting, evil. Not naturally prone to processing any situation, this one was entirely un-processable over the few active circuits in our brains.
Endowed with a great sense of community, driven in part by its then pronounced minority sport status, the rugby community rose to the occasion. There were more fundraisers held than could be healthy for the average twenty-five year-old’s liver; people stepped forward to help provide access to public disaster funds; beds were obtained in the best facilities that Boston’s world leading healthcare could provide; a supported living community found in close to the city. It was then we started to see the Punter we all came to venerate. As a once highly active, vital man, now trapped within a broken body, he channeled his energy into keeping himself a full and active part his community. He never showed self-pity – not in public anyway. No doubt, he had to have experienced nights’ of darkness to a depth the rest of us might never have nightmared through. But if so, he didn’t share it with the broad community. When out in the world, and he came out often, those eyes showed that, whatever the night might bring; a day out, was a day to be enjoyed.
One day Dan Gottlieb, a psychologist, was driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the wheel of a trailer-truck unbolted itself, frisbeed across the median, and decapitated his car. The firemen who rushed to the scene, took one look at the wreck, and presumed they were recovering a dead body. They weren’t. He lived; but his spine was severed. Despite the trauma of living through such a sudden-horrific accident, Gottlieb describes the impact of that truck wheel snapping his spine as the “uncorking of his life.” Even after his wife had left him, his practice partners rebuffed him, he found – in his entirely-failing-to-function-as-before-body – a new, more powerful self: A self who could see so much more clearly than the free-ambulating man trapped within a self-image that grew ever more thicker and rigid on a diet (that so many of us live on) of self-generated-bullshit. I imagine that Punter, grinding through those first, brutal months, had a similar experience. Because the Punter who eventually came out the other side of that ruck was a new man.
I knew Punter for a long time, perhaps thirty years, admired him greatly, enjoyed his company when I happened to be in it; but I was not one of the tight cadre of friends who took such great care him. He had been a woodwork teacher in Ireland, and had started coming to the US to work as a carpenter on his long summer vacations. He was always a great man tell a story, and somewhere along the line in those thirty years, I heard him tell one of his first visit to the US. He had come by himself for a summer adventure in New York; there he was, a tall, handsome Irishman sitting on top of his suitcase in front of a bar in the North Bronx – up by Gaelic Park – when two young Irish-American women approached him and asked if he was ok? From there he had his first two friends, who got him in touch with more people, he got a place to stay, a job, and had the sort of crazy summer of which a young man dreams. For me, that story summed up his personality.
He was more than just a great personality, he was a good community man; traits that provided a solid foundation when life blasted its storm his way. On rugby trips, being a little older, he would, in the final roundup, show more responsibility than the rest of us: Not exactly a Herculean feat in what was generally, a personal-responsibility-devoid environment. Still, I do remember him on a particularly crazed Mardi-Gras-rugby-tournament-trip, spread – in way that happened to maximize the carrying of open containers in moving vehicles – across Baton Rouge and New Orleans. As we left the hotel for the airport – the final bill for damage negotiated, the bar drank dry two days previously (and smartly never restocked) – Punter helped gather everyone onto the bus. He bustled around, checking we hadn’t forgotten anyone or anything, until he fell on the last thing on everyone’s impaired minds.
“The jerrrsheys!” he yelled down the bus to thirty, entirely incapacitated human males of mostly Irish extraction, “have we got the focken jerrrsheys?”
Life twisting the plot for him did not take away his sense of responsibility, community or humor. From the wheelchair he became a leader, someone to whom people travelled when he hadn’t been seen for a while. During the 1999 Rugby World Cup, he watched, in a bar downtown, with disgust as Jannie DeBeer kicked five drop goals to win a game.
“Ah, all these drop-goals are ruining the game boy,” he shook his head, gave his chair a quick dart-forward-dart-back for emphasis. “What ever happened to the rolling maul, or a good push over try. All this hard work be the forwards, and then they flash it back to them blondie-haired-fly-boys to hoist it up and over the bar. The game is shagging ruined.”
I held a full pint of Guinness for him while he took a few drinks. When it got down to halfway, he could lift it himself. With exquisitely bad timing, I told him I had started writing short stories.
“I can tell you one thing O’Farrell,” he said, shooting me a mischievous grin. “They better be very fucking short.”
One night, probably twenty years after his accident, Punter regaled the table with a story of his going to see Muhammad Ali fight in Dublin’s Croke Park in 1972. It was July, and he was, with his uncle and brother, out making hay under the parsimonious allotment of sunshine issued to Ireland. His uncle pronounced a hay-saving goal, which, if met, would allow them to travel up to Dublin – about ninety minutes away – to see the fight. Now incentivized, raking and forking furiously, they all ended up in the uncle’s Morris Minor within the hour, thrilled at the sudden turn the day had taken. You can watch footage of this fight on YouTube; it captures a little bit of that time in Ireland. A young Michael O’Hehir, as trim as his build would ever achieve, dark-suited, hair ruthlessly greased back, stands in the middle of the ring announcing the fight in that distinctive cadence of his that lives in the memory of every Irish person of that era. The TV commentators are British and American; bemused by the spectacle of this most unlikely location for a heavyweight bout; they are the very epitome of political incorrectness. They butcher the names of everyone and everything other than Ali and his opponent, Alvin Lewis; they comment, almost lewdly, on the woman walking around the ring between rounds holding the round counter. The uncle’s Morris Minor took its time getting them there, and all the good seats had been taken; but undeterred Punter scaled a barb wire fence to gain a better view.
“By the time that shagging barbed-wire fence was finished with me, I was nearly fucking naked,” he continued his story, laughing that self-deprecating laugh of his that brought an immeasurable ease to those in his company.
“Oh, shirt, pants, every-fucking-thing ripped and torn. But by Christ, I got over it, and what’s more – I touched Ali’s arm as he climbed out of the ring.”
The YouTube footage shows the end of the fight – typical Irish mayhem, no sense of order, tempers flaring – a little – then subsiding into an “ah-fuck-it-anyway” attitude. With the final bell, the ring is invaded by the crowd, policeman pretend to be protecting the fighters, but more people come in, mostly teenagers. The TV announcers decry “this sort of thing” as being very dangerous, fearing the ring will collapse under the load, putting “journalists at risk.” Amongst the youth, their erratic energy barely contained by the ropes, I search for one, his clothes ripped to shreds, his eyes full of the wonder of life.
Humans have gathered together in tight communities to help one another for a very long time. The French scientist Xavier Pichon – he discovered plate tectonics – is someone who knows a thing or two about communities, living as he has for more than thirty years in an intentional community which brings together people of all ages with a variety of disabilities. A deeply religious man, his essay “Ecco Homo” (Behold the Man) asks the question why do we care for those who cannot take care of their everyday needs? His essay references work done by scientists on the one hundred thousand year-old fossil remains of a Neanderthal man, whose skeletal structure showed him both entirely incapable of self survival, yet living to the then great age of forty years. Neanderthals were a nomadic people, who lived moving through the land a few miles each day, hunting and gathering; not an ideal situation for someone whose entire right side was made up of broken and poorly fused bones – including a large skull fracture. Yet, they not only carried this early man along with them through their nomadic wanderings for forty years, but, upon his death, they undertook the, for them, very difficult task of burying him. At that time in early human societies, burial was granted only to people very special to the community. What made the Neanderthals take such great care of this member of their community – who was able to neither hunt nor gather for his own survival? Pichon asks: “What did they receive from him to continue doing this for forty years?”
Anyone standing in Gormley’s funeral that March evening could answer that question.
After the severing of his spine, after the months of health care, and years of coming to terms with his situation, there came about Punter a grace, ordinary in its delivery, yet extraordinary in that very ordinariness – because of who was delivering it. Here was an active, vibrant man, who lost his ability to act out that vibrancy, yet he didn’t let his condition putrefy and rot him from the inside out – in the manner, I imagine, I could have gone if confronted by a similar situation. He went on living. He went on communing. And in doing so he forced us all to think about the self-centered whining occupying our minds. We still had an ability to self determine our lives – no matter how busy we were fucking them up – but he didn’t. His absolute lack of self-pity, quietly – but oh-so-forcefully – shamed us into being better Neanderthals.
That grace kept Punter’s tight cadre of friends with him at every twist and turn – and a quadriplegic has their share of twisting turns. They took him to Ireland. Bought a wheelchair van in Ireland so that he could get around. Took him to the Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2003. Got him in, and out, of hospital more times than they probably can remember. It was the sort of difficult surgery that quadriplegics have to face that got him in the end.
“We thought we had him out the other side of this last one,” one of the cadre told me in Gormley’s; tears welling up in his eyes; Punter’s remains lying a few feet behind him. “But he slipped away from us.”
The room is full of people I played rugby with, but some of whom I haven’t seen for ten, fifteen, twenty years. I wave and nod across the crowd to different people, while a couple of Punter’s cadre tell “Punter stories.”
“So I go over to Punter the other day and I’m making a pot tea for him, and I come across this lovely fruit cake in a tin,” one of them says, stopping to draw a breath.
“And you ate the whole-fucking-lot of it,” another cuts in, smiling obstinately. “Go on now, tell the truth now.”
“I did, you’re right, I did,” the teller nods. “And it was gorgeous,” his eyes light up with hedonistic-memory-pleasure.
“And anyway, I’m back again the next day, in the door I walk, and Punter, who had found out all his fruitcake was gone, says to me, ‘I’m officially upgrading you from vary, vary fat to obese!’”
We all laugh.
I can hear Punter’s voice, see him tossing his head back with a toothy smile; I imagine him grabbing the controls of his chair, giving it a quick forward-back dart for emphasis – his gained, body language.
We start more stories; what is left of Punter lying ten feet away. I tell a joke Punter loved, about the hurler – Punter’s other great passion – who when asked for his opinion on a particularly great putt by Rory McIlroy answered: “Aragh now, easy enough, and no one marking him.”
The conversation veers down the Rory McIlroy road. Someone tells of following him at a PGA event – before his Majors fame – and how his girlfriend was also following along.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “You should’ve seen her, in yoga pants, you could’ve bounced a dime off her ass.”
That was a line Punter – always a good man for a racy-funny line – would’ve appreciated.
We stood there, ten feet from the solid remains of Punter, talking, nod-smiling across the room, bouncing dimes, laughing too loud for a funeral home, a whole community of modern day Neanderthals come together to bury one of their own: The one whose spirit had been the matrix that held together our community.
Up until that moment, I had never really understood the term “remains” as used for a dead body. What lay in the wooden box ten feet away truly was Punter’s remains: The oxygen-carbon-hydrogen vessel that once contained his spirit, in a form that we humans – for all our endless mind work – still understand so little about. The next day, his remains are to be flown three thousand miles in that wooden box, driven the same route he travelled in the Morris Minor to see Ali fight forty four years ago, lowered into a six foot pit dug in the surface of Ireland, and then covered with soil.
Twenty five years ago, as crazed young men, the crack of Punter’s spine snapping shocked our frenetic minds into stillness. That shock forced us to ask ourselves hard questions about the meaning of life, questions that would never have – before that ruck on Martha’s Vineyard – entered the frighteningly uncomplicated space between our ears. Over the next twenty five years, bumping into Punter – watching rugby games from his, now famous, corner at the Irish Cultural Center, or at a party, a funeral, a fundraiser or whatever other dogfight we could concoct to bring people together – forced us again to either ask those same questions or run from them. Sometimes we asked. Often we ran.
Twenty five years on from that ruck, as men well past our primes, families at various states of growth, lives in whatever state of array we have the energy to keep them, we’re in Gormley’s to give what passes, amongst us Neanderthals, as an emotional fare-thee-well to Punter. But, of course, the wise one has outfoxed us all again; because he’s already moved on from the body lying in the wooden box at the front of the room. This time, he’s truly gone.
Twenty five years hence, we’ll be old men, old Neanderthals; our knees, hips and shoulders – walloped over the years – replaced in titanium; our self-images calcified into clanking suits of armor that spout continuously re-edited stories from forgetful minds; some of us will have minds that have outfoxed us – and moved out of our bodies. Punter’s physical remains will have been with his birth family for a full quarter century by then. But back here in Boston, his old stomping grounds, for a wider, more distributed family what remains will be memories of his smile, his funny-cutting lines, his seemingly all-powerful ability to make us live our lives better than we would have without seeing in action his uncommonly irrepressible spirit.
I’m lying by an octagonal swimming pool at resort in New Hampshire – who but resort designers and teachers are given the opportunity to use shapes like these? I’m exhausted; physically, mentally, emotionally. A Saturday morning mad dash up I93 to make the most of the one night break, fighting summer-weekend-escape traffic, while modulating my kids’ relentless optimism for “the best time ever.” Then mountain biking, with my son, down spine-snapping trails; endless circumnavigations, in a shaky canoe with my daughter, around a storm water retention pond – which, with resort-ful cleverness, has been turned into a paying feature; the always-up-ness of a single-again-parent, looking to ensure his kids stay infused with just the right amount of crazy. And, naturally, I’ve been humping around my regular load of baggage, a little heavier than usual today; the fatigue – after forty years of carrying it – is somehow held in clearer relief by the beauty of the mountains, the fresh air, and my kids’ all-day-long-beaming faces.
The “best day ever” is done – for me anyway. I’m at the resort pool; a double height, framed by once beautiful huge timbers, over-chlorinated room. The pool deck is enclosed by condensation-fogged patio doors; one long-hot-sunny day away from sprouting mold. But long-hot-sunny days don’t come in the White Mountains too often. That’s what brings the people here – relief from the pressing humid-heat of the city. The people who come the mountains want cooler weather to allow them to engage in too much activity – or none at all. Thus there’s a disjointed community of spandex-muscled triathletes and obesity-flirting indolents floating around the resort. You’re as likely to have to side-step a mud-splattered, $3,000, carbon-fiber mountain bike in the corridor, as you are to have to two-step around a two-hundred-and-eighty-pounder shuffling to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Everyone’s consuming about the same amount of calories – the differentiator is in how, or if, you chose to expend them. The resort is primarily set up for the careless spending of the skiing season, but, with resort-ful cleverness, has adapted enough features to allow for summer activities: The cross country skiing trails become mountain bike trails; a long, winding sack-slide replaces a ski slope; the ski lift lets people – who want to hoard calories, rather than expend them hiking the mountain – pay a few bucks to open their minds with amazing views.
I lie poolside on a white plastic lounge chair – in a pretend relaxing pose. My mind fights to keep the wayward eleven year-old in me from grabbing control of my racing thoughts. Forty years ago, I rushed home from school to find my mother lying on a kids’ bed in my sisters’ room, staring blankly at the ceiling, her consciousness trapped behind an aneurism that would kill her three months later. Over the years – forty years – I have learned to anticipate attacks – a lot of attacks – by the anxious-angry eleven-year old, who, trying to talk to his distressingly inert mother, froze in place inside me that day. In three tense, depressed, and confused months my mother slid from emotionally disappeared to physically gone. Every one of those days, with every twist and untold turn, my eleven-year-old, as-yet-not-fully-formed brain got soaked in the tenuousness of life. Without ever being able to put the thoughts, let alone the words, together, I came to the realization that we live every moment on the cusp of disaster; every breath we take, just a gasp away from nothingness.
The kids play hard in the pool, baking memories of a happy childhood; happy – the eleven year-old tortures me – at least until the divorce. I summon what energy I have left, take away his control, and do what I do best in life: Observe lives other than my own. The only other life at the pool is an older couple with their adult son and girlfriend – tall-iced-drinks in hand – who had mistakenly come to the pool to relax. They sit with pudgy-pail legs dangling in the pool, sipping their drinks, eyes glancing around their own group, over to my kids playing rough in the water. After a few minutes dangling and sipping, they heave themselves back up and leave. In the now completely adult free pool the kids raise a huge splash against each other; pre-adolescence and unfettered childhood playing out in the water; the former’s burgeoning self-image versus the latter’s boundless energy. My body-lying is so effective, that I lapse into a thin sleep, permeated by the sounds of splash-happy-water-squealing-kids.
As I often do, I’m reading two books: The “definitive” biography of Hitler, by John Toland, and a book of memoir vignettes by the great American short story writer Andre Dubus. Hitler, as is universally accepted by any human who can string two thoughts together, is the very embodiment of evil in the corporeal person of a twentieth century, civilized European. Yet this “definitive” biography is all factual history, with the comments, and oh-so-funny-in-the-moment jokes, of minor diplomats getting way more ink than Hitler’s order to exterminate the mentally retarded. I’m two-thirds way through the book, and there is a distinct paucity of ink on his plan to eliminate the Jews from this planet. Having recently finished Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” – written by the brilliant survivor of the death camps – I’m flabbergasted at Toland’s obsession with cataloging minute details, down to arrival and departure times of diplomats and generals in their seemingly constant toing and froing to Hitler’s various lairs. Do these mundane facts reflect the man’s place in humanity’s troubled history any more clearly than his creating, in the woods of Poland, franchises of hell?
Dubus was a lieutenant in the Marines in the late fifties and early sixties; a Cold War warrior; a man forged by his time. A time when men were carefully modeled after the “reel men” Hollywood created. “Reel men” such as Marion Robertson from Winterset, Iowa, whom the studios fashioned into John Wayne – the model American male; tall, with craggy good looks; often cast as a gruff, uncompromising US Cavalry Captain, off-set on the weekends, Marion chased commies. Dubus grew up a sensitive boy in the Louisiana Bayou, had the sort of tortured relationship with his father that twists a life until the son believes he both is, and definitively is not, the father. Then, after the boy molded himself into the man he believed he should be – first a tough marine, then a tough writer – he was struck down by a car, the use of both legs distressingly yanked away from him. Somewhere in that timespan he fathered four kids, and got – painfully to him, and his self-image – divorced. The pieces in his Meditations From A Movable Chair ache with the pain of a man who knew and loved another life – that of a happily married, ambulating father – only to have it snatched away from him. Magically, he writes with image shattering clarity, albeit from the sometimes dodgy perspective of the man he had fashioned himself into, on life’s arbitrary capriciousness.
We had arrived late morning to the resort, and spent way too long checking in behind a large group of thirty-somethings there for an untraditional, looks-like-this-is-going-to-be-rowdy wedding. The men, muscular, bearded, wore pressed jeans, dark golf shirts and crowded the lobby with nervous I-need-a-drink-already energy. The women, also be-jeaned and tee-shirted, sighed and slouched, fatiguing of the need to register, as they held extremely-fabric-efficient, bright pastel dresses on hangers in their hands. I signed us in – badly, it turns out. The receptionist – a baldy, overweight, with beads of sweat forming on his forehead – was cranky and fastidious. He kept us there as he questioned me repeatedly on my scrawled entries, slowly forcing my handwriting – that even severe and repeated De-La-Salle-Christian-Brother beatings couldn’t fix – into a legible form. From down the hotel corridors came whoops and calls; nervous-too-loud-laughing; doors closing hard.
“Enjoy your stay,” the receptionist says with an automatic lack of emotion. He stares over my shoulder down the now empty corridor.
With so many choices of outdoor thrill seeking activities, we inevitably regret the choice we made half way through, and move quickly to the next – ever chasing the biggest thrill available. My sister has joined us, allowing us to split into two teams; teams that criss and cross, swap members, get lost, find each other, love-hate-could-care-less for different activities until we end at the octagonal pool. The hot tub next to the pool is, of course, too hot, almost unbearably so, making the pool water seem cold. Not at all surprising, as perhaps the one definitive thing I’ve learned – after rummaging around on the surface of this wet planet for fifty years – is, that humans have evolved to the point that we can’t stay in water for any length of time. Regardless, after my faux-nap, with complete disregard for my whining about being evolved beyond the point of joylessness, the kids press me into parental-playing duty. I find myself scrambling ungainly in and out of both bodies of water; alternating between too hot and too cold; but all the time begrudgingly enjoying my kids’ enjoyment.
The resort, for maximum dollar-capture purposes, is self-contained; it has its own restaurants and bars; a group of aging hipsters, in dark suits and white collar-less shirts, bang out classic rock in a square enclosed by tall condo buildings. The ground floor of the condo buildings have the requisite resort-retail-units. As this neck of our planet’s largest economy is entirely reliant upon tourist spending, trinket stores – selling “I Love NH” tee shirts (made in China) and Canadian maple syrup products – sprout up in the economy’s cracks. But we are not to be self-contained, and leave the resort to cap our thrill seeking best-day-ever by heading to a Dragway.
In the bleachers at the Dragway, we’re pretty much the only people not in jeans or work boots, nor do we have cigarettes dangling carelessly from our lips. But that’s ok, that evening our life-script gives us the role of naïve-khakied-tourists, gaping at a sight not available in our town. Below on the track two cars – a yellow Charger and a red Mustang – warm up, revving their horse-powerful engines at the START line until the scream almost hurts, their rear tires burning rubber into a cloud of dense blue-gray smoke that obscures all but their hoods. The light turns green. The engines release their power. The first few seconds are less a race, than a battle between the hundreds of horsepower of force and the inertia of two bodies of mass trying to have kinetic fun on our gravity and wind resistance subjugated planet. A few seconds in, the horizontal force wins out, and the yellow car streaks out of its own smoke at testosterone-inducing speed, passing the black and white checkered finish line a quarter mile away to claim – what its tires have to feel is a pyrrhic – victory.
We sit in the bleachers breathing a cocktail of second hand cigarette smoke and burnt rubber particles. The concession stand food is right out of the 1970s, before it was generally accepted – but, fortunately, not at the Dragway – that Onion Bombs are high return investments in too-young heart attacks. Teenagers – both genders in work boots, jeans, dangling cigarettes – move in fitful groups around the stands: Twos and threes growing suddenly to sixes and sevens and then dissolving into pairs, with one young, tight-shouldered woman left by herself glancing around anxiously. The lineup of cars and motorcycles – who get completely subsumed at the START line in a cloud of their own burnt rubber – looking to race each other down the quarter mile long high performance surface, gets longer and goofier as the evening goes by. A young couple in a pink Honda Civic beat a middle-aged guy in Porche Cayenne (who will likely need tell his wife that, overnight, he needs new tires.) The same motorcycle beats all the other bikes; untouchable over a quarter mile. Two Corrollas go up against each other, front wheel drives, unable to raise any rubber, they look like kids racing one another around a mall parking lot. We leave amid the giddy squeals of my kids pleading to enter our family van in a race.
“Next time,” I lie, and then, compounding the lie, add; “now that we know its here, we’ll get racing tires and come back.”
Back at the hotel, now truly exhausted, I lie on the bed alternating between Hitler, Ribbentrop, and Goring traversing the Europe they have just conquered, gloating, scheming and thieving; and Dubus’ tale Imperiled Men – the story of a CAG (Commander of Air Group) aboard an aircraft carrier headed from Hawaii to Japan in 1961. The Nazis – merely human, as much as they and we, with opposing reasoning, would like to think they were not – come off as almost comical by getting frustrated at their inability to completely dominate everyone they meet. Hitler loses his temper with Franco in a rail car at the base of the Pyrenees, angered that his fellow demagogue – who it turns out has a strong survival instinct; I still remember his death in 1975 being widely, and sometimes sadly, reported in Ireland – is unwilling to go all in to support of his erstwhile ally. The historically accurate, but entirely tone deaf, narrative typed up by Toland reduces everyone to the role of a player in an horrific drama with a too-well-known outcome – perhaps this is what separates the historian from the writer.
Dubus, mid Pacific on the aircraft carrier, buries a brief anecdote in his Imperiled Men piece about a Marine sentry standing guard on the deck through the middle of the night. The marines were on board to guard the nuclear weapons, and this “lucky” marine got sentry duty guarding the fast response jet left permanently on deck, loaded with a nuclear weapon, ready to scramble in response to the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. This shocks me back into reality. Here are boy-men (Dubus, at the time, was a twenty five year old officer leading much younger men) charged with the protection of, or sudden destruction of, what we know as human civilization. Dubus, as part of his officer’s duties, goes to check on his sentry. The darkness, the wind, the motion of the enormous vessel all confuse and scare him – he imagines himself getting blown overboard into the wild Pacific waters; no one would discover he’s missing until the following morning: Too late for a recovery effort. Eventually, he finds the sentry – a grown teenager – dutifully at his post, his arm wrapped around one of the cables that secure the plane to the carrier: Closing a bizarre loop of mutual dependence.
The CAG is an older, more complex man – a WWII and Korean war veteran, venerated by the pilots who fly for him – who, over a drink, explains to the young Dubus that Soviet submarines tail every US aircraft carrier (just as US subs tailed Soviet carriers), ready to sink them the moment it is apparent that World War III has started. The US plan (presumably the Soviet’s had a similarly excellent plan) is to have as many planes carrying nuclear weapons take off from carriers – which have been dutifully distributed around the wet planet’s oceans – before the carriers get torpedoed. The US planes would follow standing orders and fly straight to Moscow – wiping that city off the planet. The pilots flying that last, desperation stakes, mission are left with nowhere to land. Of course, by that time there’s probably nowhere left on our planet worth landing: The ultimate playing out of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
“Daddy,” my son’s voice penetrates the world of the young Marine Lieutenant and the CAG drinking hard, and talking harder at a Japanese bar in 1961.
“What’s up big guy?” I ask, again feigning relaxation.
“I have a headache.”
“Oh,” I say, without any easy answers to this particular challenge. “We don’t have any headache medicine with us. Try shutting off the iPad and closing your eyes. Maybe it’ll just dissolve.”
He does as I say.
He’s a good boy, who has been open throughout everything that has happened in his life so far – and a lot has happened. I can only hope all that happening will help make him into the man he believes he should be.
As he settles back flat on the bed, I return to Japan 1961 and the Cold Warriors’ hard living. But now it’s all fucked up. Just a few pages later, after the CAG’s words opened my mind to the inherent insanity of being human, he’s dead. Killed at the hand of the only one he could not protect himself from: The man he believed he should be. In his tiny cabin on the carrier, he puts his own service revolver to his temple and pulls the trigger – freezing in place the CAG, the tough, smart, respected Air Force officer who, in life, carried around with him an all defining sense of responsibility. The bullet that rips apart his brain keeps him one step ahead of the Office of Naval Intelligence whose pursuit of him for “homosexual activity” would turn him in anything but a CAG.
Dubus is rattled.
The pilots – whose plan for their final day of work it is to take out Moscow, and keep flying forever – are rattled. Tearfully, one of the pilots says; “We’d have followed him into hell.”
I put down the book, switch off the light. My body, my brain, my spirit, all ache with exhaustion from too much thrill seeking, from the realization of how persistently we humans come to mutually assured self-destruction, and from wrangling the eleven year-oldinside me – who will not let me be the man I think I should be. Thankfully, exhaustion yields a dividend of a deep sleep.
“Daddy,” the word penetrates into my deep sleep, and instantly I’m the wide awake parent to a child in need.
“Yeah, you ok?”
“My headache is still here.”
“Oh,” I search my fogged up brain for alternatives. “I’m not sure what we can do.”
Then I remember putting a hotel face cloth into the fridge beneath some fruit. I grab the – by now – refreshingly cold cloth and give him to him.
“Put that on the back of your head,” I say, as warmly as someone awoken from a deep sleep in a strange hotel room can muster.
“It feels better now,” he says, his voice drowsy.
I climb back into bed, listening for the sound of his breathing to get deep enough and regular enough that I can return to sleep. Images of fighter jets taking off from a sinking carrier, Hitler – Charlie Champlain like – fuming at a 1975 image of a stiff, old Franco in the rail car at the foot of the Pyrenees, crowd out my brain: So much effort by our species to mutually destroy one another. I work to clear my mind, imagining a restful scene, which for me is watching, from inside a warm, dry house, a roiling Atlantic Ocean crash into a rocky shoreline; the explosion of white foam hitting the dark rocks, the momentary pause, before the foam-water drains, with hissing inevitably, back to the ocean. I start to slip into sleep – but a thud, then a woman’s scream, yank me back to a worried wakefulness. I sit up thinking immediately of my daughter and sister next door. The noise is coming from directly above us. Heavy steps – a big guy lurching? – followed by loud voices, another scream; another thud; angry, loud voices; a woman crying.
I lay back down, tense on the bed.
Is she in danger?
What are the people in the rooms next to them doing?
Where are the hotel staff?
Should I try to help?
Will trying to help – and perhaps failing – be worse for my kids than not doing anything at all?
Does the woman’s safety count in my calculations?
I lie there, fearing irrationally – and knowing it – that the violence will come to our floor, our two rooms. Still I do nothing – but worry irrationally.
The crying turns to sobbing. Some angry, muffled words are sobbed out – she must be laying prone on the floor.
I immediately suspect the wedding crowd: Imagining an unbalanced relationship; too many social interactions condensed into too few hours; emotions loosened by drugs and booze; unleashing tongues to say what should have been said in a totally different way, at a totally different time; angers uncorked, with no hope of restraint.
Then the noise drama above us is punctuated by a final massive thud – a couple of hundred pounds of drunken-high-nasty-humanity coming down hard on a wood floor.
The wedding warrior has landed – his side of the mutually assured destruction contract executed.
The sobbing tapers off.
I lay on the bed with my dark angst.
“Daddy,” my son’s voice is smaller than usual in the tense silence in our room.
“Why are the people fighting?”
“Oh they’re silly. Go to sleep.”
“Ok. Tell the people to stop.”
“I will,” I lie through the darkness.
Wandering Out Into the World
I’m behind the bar in the Bank of Swans, Clapham South, London; Saturday night; mid-summer 1984; flat out with hard drinking cockneys, Paddies, Indians, Jamaicans – and at least two crazy motherfuckers. The beer taps snap on and off filling pint after pint after pint of bitter ales, lager, cider; a few Scotches, a handful of Vera and Super’s (gin and tonics) are gingerly handed over the suds drenched counter. The pub is rocking, smoky, and wedged. The voices in the lounge get high and harsh way too fast for Saturday night over-the-top drunken happiness: Happy-drunk faces wane to confused-alarmed; a culvert opens in the crowd running up to the bar where I’m pulling pints. Then I see it: A heavy wooden chair hurtling down the culvert towards me. It wallops into the bar, exploding the half-filled pint glasses on the counter, flushing a shower of glass shards from the overhead rack, as it jams between the bar and glass rack. My heart, which had stopped, now restarts – way too fast. I turn to the other barmen; one of them had been a London Metropolitan cop; he should know what to do. The owner, a tough Tipperary man, is missing – away on holidays in Ireland with his family. The lounge falls silent. At the foot of this human culvert, there’s a stocky, stoned-drunk man leaning sideways, gazing curiously at the bar. A couple of regulars, big, and small-big, men, step forward, and lead him by the shoulders toward the door. They make funny-threatening small talk, trying to engage and amuse him. But he’s silent, his anger spent, or confused. Behind them, a tall, skinny man, glaring hard at me, keeps pace with one hand – reassuring – on the stocky drunk’s shoulder. The travelling party makes it outside. The door is kicked closed. The good times swing back up. We start the cleanup. Another Saturday night in the Bank of Swans.
I wake with the sun in my eyes. Head sore, stomach sick, mouth dry; grey sky, ready for another London drizzle. I stand, look around; high grassed front garden, boarded up windows, the only rundown house on the row of tidy row-houses. I walk out onto the street, trying to remember the way back to the High Barnett Tube station, to the room I’ve rented a half mile from the Tufnell Park Tube station, to the sense that I still have some common sense left – even if only a smidge.
Unlocking the door of the Swans each morning, the pressure of a big hand pushing in opens it: Geordie – a small man in his sixties, with big hands, who once upon a better time made his living as a welder in the Newcastle shipyards. By 1984 he was pushing a broom for a living – or, rather, wasn’t. Instead, Sunday through Saturday, he sat in our bar drinking “Green Toby and IPA;” a sort of a working – or in this case sitting – man’s cocktail of bottled and draft ales. He dragged out two or three of these drinks over the whole day, sitting in the corner, rolling his own cigarettes, his dust cart chained up outside to a lamppost – safe and clean. He didn’t release many thoughts as words, and when he did, they had that considered anger of a man living a life he never wanted. All day long he sipped his bitter ales, rolled his cigarettes – lighting them like he was a cowboy riding the range – and stared into nothingness.
When I open my eyes there’s a Tube man shaking me by the shoulder.
“Come on mate, you can’t sleep here,” he says with the firmness of one who says those words too often.
I stand up, blinded by the carriage lights, and walk off what turns out to be the last train. Up on the street level, stranded now and knowing it, but with thinking tangled by beer and exhaustion, I just keep walking. Not knowing what else to do, not looking to attract attention to yet another drunk, lost Paddy in London, I zig and I zag until I’m off the busier streets where the cops might notice me. Walking along, unable to come up with a plan, out of the corner of my eye, I see the long grass and without thinking, flop down into it. A place to sleep on my first night wandering out into the world.
The Bank of Swans had three different bars. The “bar” bar, where Geordie – and other men, English, Irish, and Jamaicans, imbued with a strong sense of working-class-ness – sat drinking, mostly beer or lager. Occasionally a young upstart would come over from the lounge to chat with his father, and drink rough-rider (cider); but that was frowned upon by all, including management who charged twenty pence extra for a pint of cider because of its tendency – real or imagined – to start fights. On one occasion I served a glass of red wine in the bar to a man in an off-white rumpled suit, with a pork-pie hat and a pencil moustache. This man, not a regular in the bar, suddenly gained a lot of personal space, and one of the regulars had to fish Geordie’s eyes down from the top of his head. The other two bars in the Swan were considered lounges. In one of these; the “front lounge” a carpet – with a bacterial ecosystem worthy of its own WHO health warning – replaced the tiled floor seen in the bar; there was some built in soft seating, some heavy wooden armchairs –that occasionally flew – and flowery wallpaper on the walls in lieu of the dull green painted walls in the bar. The other lounge – the “back lounge” – was much loung-ier: It had a carpet – worthy merely of a London Board of Health warning – lots of soft seating, an area for a band, prints of hounds and horsed hunters in black jackets pursuing a tiny orange-and-white-dot-fox, and what might be imagined to be the wallpaper seen on the walls of a Georgian mansion. It also had an incredibly small bar, because, table service was de rigueur in such a fine establishment. Mostly people behaved in the Swans – occasional Saturday nights excluded – as it was the only pub for a mile. The “governor” – as the colloquial term went for the owner – was a tough Irish man who had cleaned up the Swans by dint of his personality, the courts and, occasionally, his fists.
As all these alcohol dispensing facilities were frequented by humans – the mammalian species with the all defining characteristic that most of it members spend most of their time, and all of their energy, measuring themselves against other members of the species – there were people who sneered at the thought of ever entering the bar; others who would never set foot in the lounge, and pretended not to even know about the back lounge; and yet others who walked through the front lounge like Lot and his family – eyes forward for fear of what grievous sins they might witness. A few personalities, large enough not to care about the social mores, could move freely through these three different worlds. And while, in the Swans, respect for the rule of law hovered somewhere between low and non-existent, these same people always gave their drinks to the bar staff to bring from the lounge to the bar, or back, because the separation between these two rooms in the same building was such that the public had to go outside to pass between them. Carrying a glass from the Swans, filled with their booze, on a public street could result in the fine to the governor – not the place anyone wanted to end up. Indian Mick was one man who moved freely between these worlds.
Despite the weariness of twenty fours of travel – bus across Ireland, a hard drinking ferry across the Irish Sea, train across Wales and England, shanks mare seemingly all over North London – and the wonder of two grown boys, discovering this great old city, we had, on our first night in London closed, the aptly named, Green Man pub. Turfed out on the street at closing time, we wandered, drunk and exhausted, down Oxford Street, and found a Tube stop. On board the train we flopped onto seats and looked around with the drunken suspicion of rednecks in the big city for the first time. The train started slowly, then, almost immediately hurtled into the subterranean network of tunnels that connects a city with a population one hundred thousand times that of our small town in the West of Ireland. I closed my eyes and enjoyed all the train sensations; the rhythmic rocking, the clicking-clang of the carriages hurtling along, the alcohol massaging my omnipresent anxiety.
Indian Mick was born and raised in Calcutta to an Irish mother and a cockney father. At some point he came back to London and was, to my impressionable eyes, the very epitome of a cockney. He was short, loud, funny, brash, opportunistic in making money, all knowing and over-the-top-proud in all things London. Plus, he did not appear to have a regular source of income. Like Geordie, he held office hours in the Swans most every day, sipping away on a half pint of lager, and though they were about the same age, Mick almost never sat, almost never stopped talking, and was tuned into any scheme that might yield “a few quid.” That summer, when he wasn’t selling tickets to Bob Dylan’s Wembley concert – with “a bit of a Mick-tax” added on; or “unofficial” Wimbledon programs, he was trying to offload a Tube man’s uniform; and every now and again he had to check which twenty pound note he wanted to pay with; wouldn’t want to pass a bad one and have to walk a mile for a pint – “roight?” Late in the evening, with a skin full of lager, he could get riled up, and retell tales of a religious riot in Calcutta where he, no more than a child himself, witnessed a baby thrown into the air and cut in two by a sword as it fell. Or he could fall into a deathly silence, lean heavily on the counter, and stare past his drink at seemingly nothing.
Mick occasionally drank with a heavyset Irish man from county Cavan who drank exclusively in the bar; his smile revealing a missing canine tooth, his hair unkempt, an unruly moustache invading his upper lip. He was gregarious, mostly jolly, and could consume massive quantities of Guinness without getting noticeably drunk.
“Do you remember when we were young bucks?” he says, one Saturday night talking to Indian Mick and another friend – also from Cavan.
“You were young mate?” Mick asks, his craggy face breaking into animated surprise.
“Indeed and I was, and a handsome buck too. And out we’d go of a Saturday night – bulling for women. All done up to the nines, hair washed, face shining, a nice shirt, and maybe even a tie. And we’d expect the best of women to be running home with us.”
“Hmmph,” the friend growls, barely moving his lips. “I don’t remember no ties, and no women running after you.”
“And then around one or two o’clock, above on Kilburn High Road, rotten drunk and desperate, home you’d go with some old thing – and she mightn’t even have any fucking teeth!”
“I remember that wan alright,” the friend nods, and drinks deep.
We found the Green Man while wandering around the Oxford Street area in central London. We’d gotten off the Tube at Tottenham Court Road – recognizing the name from the soccer team, and presuming something big should be happening there. There wasn’t, and after quickly tiring of walking around a closing-up-for-the-day commercial district, we sought out a pub. Sitting in the faux comfort of the Green Man’s lounge, we stared over our pints at London businessmen in dark suits, white shirts, ties loosened, downing some suds after work. Their faces were full of that worry and care that young people know of as the affliction called adulthood.
On we drank.
Calcutta Mick opened his office hours in the lounge mid-morning – waltzing in, waving or nodding, his eyes revealing the health of his wallet. A bon-vivant when the day required no work– holding his half-pint of lager up to “cheers” with others – he could be crankily intense, his eyes staring, calculating when funds ran low. He knew, or got to know, everyone in the Swans, and floated around the premises gathering information. On good, and bad, days the right piece of information could prompt an immediate departure, drink left unfinished, on “a-bit-a-business.” One of his cronies was a very tall, very gaunt Indian gentleman who spoke heavily accented English poorly, and whose eyes confounded their subject. Mostly he stayed to himself, with Mick the only regular who trucked with him much at all. He would drink all day, and by the end, the alcohol taking its effect, he could get frustrated when not understood, and served a couple of short term bans from the Swans for breaking a glass or knocking over a chair when drunk and nasty.
The Paddies who came into the Swans were from all over Ireland, and they had brought with them their carefully nurtured prejudices against the parts of Ireland. The English were alright – or most of them anyway – they individually assured me, but watch the Irish fellas from … ! They each had at least one opinion on who was to be trusted or avoided – and often a second, more carefully held, opinion that only got trotted out after a skin full of booze.
There was a great big Cork man, very friendly and soft spoken; but not to be trifled with, as I was informed – with a scary seriousness – by his Jamaican workmate. He came in a few nights a week after work on the buildings, dusty and tired, drank a couple pints in the bar, and chatted with everyone. On Saturday nights he came in all scrubbed and dressed up, ready for his quota of beer. He would get a pint of Guinness, and a Bacardi and coke, then disappear out the door with the Bacardi and coke. Every now and again, he’d add a few more cokes to the order – all but the Guinness disappearing outside.
“De family is outside in de van,” his Jamaican friend let me know, nodding a warning. “Don’t be saying nathing about it, he’ll only be gitting mad. Mary’ll bring back all dem bottles and glasses.”
We had started drinking early in the afternoon at a pub in Kentish Town. We arrived to the area around midday, got a grimy bed and breakfast for a few nights, flung the backpack in the corner of the rented bedroom, pretended to ourselves we had some sense of the lay of the land; the dole office, Irish pubs to go looking for work in, the Tube station. Then – kinda sorted – we started rooting around for excitement. We found it in a busy Kentish Town pub, with a punk rock band and half their fans lubricating up, preparing to rip asunder the concert hall a few doors down. We sat in the midst of their high-energy-hubbub as two not-yet-oxidized emigrants, soothing ourselves with pints of Guinness. I stared at the punks, in their garish, other-worldly costumes: Mohawks, with badly shaved heads, earrings and safety pins piercing their heads in all sorts of capricious places, their filthy tartan clothes, black eyes, scabbed-over knuckles. At the table next to us sat four old Irish men in their seventies, unshaven, hairy-eared, horn rimmed public health glasses, Guinness stains on the edges of their mouths. One of them read the cattle prices aloud from that week’s Connaught Telegraph – our hometown newspaper from back in Mayo. They head-nodded in wonder at the price of beef on the hoof. Suddenly, he stopped reading, and glared at the punks.
“Which one of them Beatles was it that went to bed and wouldn’t get up?” he asked too loud, still glaring at the punks.
I took a deep draught of Guinness, peering over the top of the glass at the punks – the old Mayo-men – the punks – the old Mayo-men – until my glass had emptied.
Clapham is next door to Wandsworth, and Wandsworth is home to one of Her Majesty’s Prison’s; the main lock up for all the petty criminals in the greater London area. Like any prison pressed into long service, Wandsworth has seen its share of historical figures. Its high walls could not contain Ronnie Biggs, hot off the Great Train Robbery, over which he fled in 1965 to Brazil, practicing for twenty or so years for his cameo with the Sex Pistols. Twenty years before Ronnie slung a rope ladder over the walls, Lord Haw-Haw – William Joyce; the voice of Hitler’s English speaking propaganda machine – was hung in Wandsworth for treason. Joyce, an American citizen by birth, was brought up in Ireland – educated in Galway by the Jesuits! It was actually an illegally obtained British passport that qualified him for treason. Upon his capture, there ensued some legal wrangling on fine points of law about citizenship, treason and fraud. But British justice won out, and appeals all the way the House of Lords proved useless. Thus he was hung; going to his death, spitting fascist vitriol the like of which we only hear now at soccer games and Donald Trump rallies.
Britain, like any great democracy that has survived continuously (the Thatcher years excluded) for hundreds of years is home to great contradictions. Thus we have Wandsworth Prison, into which the legions of London’s pickpockets, burglars, counterfeiters and scam artists are hurled, and right next door to it we had, at this time, public housing complexes held at the ready for the families of those serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure: The welfare state’s form of a noble idea. Of course turnover is somewhat high for petty criminal sentences, and thus the families – with their newly minted graduate from this veritable university of petty crime – must be relocated to make room for Her Majesty’s next guest. Clapham South saw its share of these relocations, and the Swans was a beneficiary of this public education program. Thus everyone behind the bar in the Swans was on orders to be wary of scams, and never cash a bank note any bigger than £20. But someone did – they cashed a counterfeit £100. The fake £100 note sat in the office for a week while we waited the owner’s return. The manager, the former policeman, knew it was a counterfeit the minute he saw it. No one owned up to cashing it. The manager put the word out through Mick and some of the other regulars, that whoever had cashed it needed to come get it, and refund the pub: No questions asked, no teeth broken. If the governor returned from Ireland to find it there, there’d be need for more than a dentist.
About halfway through an hour-ish long walk (likely 5-10 minutes by Tube) from Euston Station to Camden Town, hoofing along – equal parts curious and suspicious of every one and every thing – from behind a work van parked on the side of Hampstead Road emerges my friend’s uncle.
“Paul!” he calls out – equal parts curious and suspicious. “Is that you?”
“Oh, how are you,” Paul says, with all the nonchalance of one meeting a neighbor at their front gate.
“What are you doing in London?” his uncle looks suspiciously at the backpack, the map; at me, with my backpack, my map.
“Just over to try it out for a while,” Paul answers airily.
We exchange a few pleasantries; he casts a few more suspicious looks at us; and off we trundle, all backpacks, maps and curiosity, suspicion temporarily lowered at this one in eight million chance occurrence.
Later we’ll hear the uncle could only work a few hours before his curiosity and suspicion got the better of him. He rushed home and phoned his brother in Ireland to report the incident – presuming we were running away from home.
We weren’t running, so much as wandering, away from home.
One morning a regular, a loud-brash Cockney with the faded-fitness look of an ex-boxer, came in and ordered a pint of bitter. The keg ran out as soon as I pulled the tap. I took off down to the cellar, and hooked up a new barrel. Now at that time, it was customary to return the clean slops – from the drip trays and the early runoff from a new tap – to the kegs. The new barrel I tapped was just that, completely new, no slops.
“This is awful mate,” the customer scowled at me.
He took another sip.
“Bloody hell mate, this is terrible?” He scrunched up his face. “There’s something wrong with that keg.”
I stared at him blank-faced, unsure of what to say or do.
“Don’t be giving me none of your Irish smile mate,” he said, picking his terribly new pint up and walking off.
One evening the Cavan man drew Geordie into a conversation about his working at a house with “a big Rolls Royce parked outside.”
“And do you know what?” he asked – Geordie’s eyes filling with a spark of interest – as the Cavan man paused for a drink.
“Them bastards didn’t as much as offer me a cup of tea, and the bloody Roller parked in the driveway – mangy fuckers.”
“Oh that’s bloody awful,” Geordie flared – showing a rare sign of emotion. “You come to my house, to fix door or somethin’, you’d get bacon, egg, sausage.
They both drank deep – indignant at the ruling classes.
There was another Irish man – from Leitrim – who drank in the bar every weeknight, but on a Saturday night, wearing a shirt, tie and battered old sports coat, he graduated himself into the lounge. Having Leitrim connections myself, he allowed me past his all-powerful cone of suspicion, and reliably informed me of all the misgivings of the Irish clientele; the English were alright – well most of them anyway. Seeing him in the ill-fitting shirt, the battered old sports coat, he reminded me of the old bachelors I would have seen coming into my grandmother’s kitchen in Leitrim, home from England, in to see their old school teacher, a pillar of their small community and hear what little gossip she might let out. They’d make awkward small talk, with long silences made longer by an old clock ticking loudly in the corner.
“Everything in England is grand, grand indeed, the same don’t you know; home for the factory’s two week August holidays; didn’t bother turning on the electricity down in the old house, hardly worth it; the old house is a wee bit damp alright. But sure there you have it.”
Then they’d stand with the suddenness of a man gripped with an amazing revelation, issue their goodbyes with asphyxiated emotions, and wander over into the village for an evening’s strong drinking.
One rare Friday night, off from the Swans, rushing down to the Tube station, I met the Leitrim man stepping unsteadily off a bus. I greeted him with a joke and a smile. He looked at me through watery drunk eyes, completely unaware of who I was. I held my hand out in mock formality, but nothing was getting in past those eyes. He had his Friday-after-work-skin-full-of-booze, and London, Leitrim and the entire universe were entirely locked out.
Like millions of Irish before us, we arrived in Euston Station awed by the throngs of moving humanity. A short, squat African woman conductor took from us the tickets we mistakenly believed also covered our return.
“No return,” she said dismissively, in heavily accented English, casting the tickets carelessly into the bin.
“But Mr. Kilkel…,” I started to threateningly invoke the name of the travel agent – from a whole other reality – who had sold us the ticket.
“No return at all,” she snapped impatiently, shaking her head, looking over our shoulders at the next travelers.
Rattled at the outcome of our first interaction with the locals, we headed out to the street. It was about nine in the morning and the city was moving – fast. A hundred and twenty years previous to our historic arrival, the citizenry of London had decided that the optimal means to move the masses around their city was via the Tube. Indeed they had invested heavily in this system of trains scurrying beneath their streets since 1863, growing it to carry almost a billion people a year by the time we – with the unmitigated suspicion of rednecks – elected to snub this engineering marvel. Instead we would take shanks mare – our definition of reliable transportation – walking, maps in our sweaty hands, from Euston Station to the then capital of Ireland in England – Camden Town.
The governor of the Swans returned from Ireland; tired, almightily hung over, and ready to whip the business back into shape. It took him about three hours to solve the counterfeit £100 note case. Justice is practiced similarly in all fiefdoms, and so his punishment was swift and harsh. The counterfeiter – the tall, gaunt Indian man – was, with a near world record amount of expletive laced threats, delivered with closed fists, forced to repay the £100, plus a usurious interest of £20 if he didn’t fancy walking a mile for a pint. The stupidly guilty barman was fired in a second burst of expletive laced threats. In a country with six million unemployed, it was easier to find barmen than customers.
That evening, rattled by the day’s events, I sat on the roof deck above the back lounge that acted as the governor’s family’s backyard. I munched on a dinner of steak and kidney pie, watching the local kids play cricket with a tennis ball in the back alley. The Concord passed overhead; a flying white triangle headed to New York – a whole other world, that at time I couldn’t even contemplate. Sitting on that deck, I was only five hundred miles from my home, but feeling that I had indeed wandered very far out in the world.
Ten Years Recovered
“Ultimately, no matter the burden we are given – apartheid, cancer, abuse, depression, addiction – once whittled to the bone, we are faced with a never ending choice:
to become the wound or to heal.”
Mark Nepo – The Book of Awakening
I’m in pain. The sort of pain a middle class person calls pain: A prolonged yoga stance. My muscles and joints ache, sweat rises through my skin, as seconds turn into minutes.
“Welcome the strain,” the teacher intones, from her place in apparent all-knowingness. “Welcome the pain, don’t resist it, treat it like a dear friend come back to visit you.”
She paces deliberately amongst the class – her every step bringing her foot down slowly – toes-arch-heel.
“Through our straining,” her nasal voice rises again. “Through our paining we get to new places, new-old places.”
I hold the pose as best I can. I let the physical pain in as best I can. I allow it to take me to where it wanted: Ten years back – the summer of 2005.
Then too I was in pain, a pain most middle class people do not typically befriend. Most of the family and I were in York, Maine, in a small rental cottage, a seven minute walk from the Short Sands beach: A classic New England vacation. The plan had been to have no pain on this vacation. All was to be perfect for our almost five year old son who couldn’t yet speak, and our almost two year old daughter who couldn’t yet stop speaking. As an expert in short-term pain avoidance, I had engaged all my skills to ensure the vacation would be a good time: I was fine with paying for the pain – and even its usurious interest – later. The pain, from the one child who couldn’t be there, was intense; an emotional money pit where your investment got eaten and eaten and eaten, and then vomited up in a fury against a world, for which we – in all our middle class, struggling to conform, normality – were the perfect symbols. The missing child – a sixteen year old we’d adopted at age eight; full of the cure-all prescription of common sense and unconditional love – was now in residential program for teenage boys whose anger and destructiveness could not – and definitively; would not – be tolerated by the rest of society. His anger was a force of nature that uncapped at seemingly sudden moments sending everyone’s day sideways. But upon close study the anger was actually a storm that formed just like the broiling gusts of superheated air that explode into a tornado. The family that rented that beach cottage in York had a “No Tornado” policy, so the sixteen year old was not to partake in our extreme beaching-BBQing-Amusementing vacation.
Upon entering the cottage, I surreptitiously slip the TV power plug out of the wall. The excitement of a small new house, in which to play house, keeps everyone busy: The kids bouncing on the parent’s big-small bed, scaling the heights of their bunk beds, pillow fighting; the adults exploring the kitchen, the tiny fridge, the back yard alley; everyone finding their favorite junk food in the grocery bags. We unpack with the spirit one unpacks in a beach cottage, so many vacation hopes coming out of the bags with the bathing suits, the shorts and tee shirts, the books, the floatie toys, the sunblock. From my heaviest bag, the one that carries my books – and with them my whole self image – I take two books: One for morning reading; How to Meditate – a guide to transcendental meditation: The other for evening reading; Stand Up and Fight: When Munster Beat the All Blacks – a rugby book, that bares the human spirit in yet another David vs. Goliath fight. Over the next seven days I’ll finish both; the former leading me into the quality-of-life-saving practice of controlling the voice in my head that sends me down so many side roads; the latter re-igniting an old passion for the game of rugby, an endeavor I had – as a young man – once described as “not a sport, but a religion!”
On the vacation I alternated my mornings between a half hour jog, or a half hour of meditation. Before the jogs I controlled my vacation boozing, not liking the sour-stomach-jog, but before the meditation I imbibed without restraint. I devoured the meditation book over breakfast, the kids playing in happy bursts on the floor – the TV after all was “broken” – before their play broke down, requiring some UN style parental intervention. The rugby book I devoured beneath the dim patio light, fending off white-flapping-moths big enough to devour a page themselves; my skin a sheen of Deet and sunblock residue, a bottle of Molson by my right foot. Inside the kids were either asleep or pretending they were, with barely concealed giggles. Outside sitting on the sort of white-plastic patio chair that lives at beach cottages, I was in Limerick, Ireland, 1978, brought there by the voices of great rugby men – Ginger McLoughlin, Seamus Denison, Brendan Foley, Tom Kiernan. In my Deet and alcohol infused brain, besieged by bewildered mosquitoes and oblivious-to-imminent-death moths, I read on, and with the prose, alcohol, and the human male’s eternal longing for heroism, all taking me back to 1978. In that very confused brain, I’m the one tackling Stu Wilson – one of the greatest All Blacks – knocking him flat to Thomond Park’s turf, stopping the All Blacks dead, one man’s shoulder and grit showing that the team has arrived; I have arrived.
Of course I haven’t arrived.
I’m simply half cocked, thusly phonily-relaxed, and all too happy to be transported by Alan English’s writing to an heroic moment in the history of the civilized human spirit.
Meanwhile, in the quiet of the sleeping-house-mornings, I start to unlock a door in my brain. This I do by sitting on two of the sofa’s seat cushions, dragged down to the tiny carpeted space in front of the television (no one does space efficiency quite as well as someone designing a beach cottage on a postage stamp lot) and paying attention only to my breath. The meditation book was not peopled by gritty Irishmen and Kiwis with refreshingly frank senses of humor, yet its simple wisdom keeps me on the floor. The evidence of my being – my breath rushing up my nostrils, down my throat and into my chest-raising-lungs – will over the course of years reveal to me an entity separate from my all consuming self-image.
We spend the first few days in York right on script for a beach vacation: Hit the beach mid morning, apply sunblock, play in the sand, swim, eat fatty-salty-sugary-junk-food, apply more sunblock, rent a floatie, spend two hours in-out-in-out-in of the freezing Maine water, with the kids on-beside-and-occasionally-under the floatie, apply more sunblock, healthy snack, try to get the almost two year old to nap, fail after forty five minutes pushing a buggy around the precious few streets of York, apply more sunblock, more time in the freezing water, more fatty-salty-sugary-junk-food, clean sand from kid’s eyes, gather shells-rocks-sea glass, apply more sunblock, back in the freezing water, searching for starfish under the seaweed hanging from the rocks, look for another more interesting snack, is it too late for coffee, the almost two year old is delirious with exhaustion, walk the buggy looking for sleep for her and coffee for me, apply more sunblock, eat fudge, drink warm stale coffee from a convenience store, lie down and nap – everyone!
The weather obliges for several days, the sun walloping down on the beach, making the sand too hot to walk on, and raising the water temperature by a half a degree. My son and I absorb so much sunburn for the rest of the beach that random pale-skinned New Englanders stop by and thank us profusely. The kids stay in the water until the cold turns their fingers white, then purple – that’s the sign from the gods of the ocean and sun to get out and apply more sunblock. Every mid morning we arrive at the beach ready for another day of carefree fun, every day getting a little more washed out from too much sun, sand and saltwater, but every day loving all that time on the beach where play is our only work. Every evening, around five o’clock, we slope – exhausted but happy – up the road curving past the Union Bluff Hotel. On the hotel lawn, guests lounge in Adirondack chairs, sipping heavily iced cocktails, staring out at the ocean. We walk past slowly, pushing a buggy with the almost two year old sleeping way off schedule, everyone tired, everyone ready to whine, everyone ready for a shower and needing some shade. I’m ready to sign up for all that, and a cold beer – and finally a chance to get back to Limerick in 1978.
On day four the rain arrives. It’s almost a relief after all the sunblock. Sitting in a parking lot outside the outlets in Kittery, Maine; the kids conked in the back seats, their slow sleep-breathing comforting me; I flick on the radio to see what the other 6.5 billion humans on our planet are doing to each other. It turns out they are – as is usual, if not necessarily helpful – killing one another. On this day it’s the London subway bombing: Fifty-two humans blown to shreds by four other – viciously confused – humans. The radio story paints a picture in my head of the iconic old capital of the world with its grimy-stately buildings, plumes of black smoke billowing from tunnels beneath its streets; suicide bombers in the middle of a morning commute; one minute you’re looking at a pair of tabloid-boobs, the next minute you’re dead – atomized by a backpack bomb. Sitting there in my family van, a symphony of child-sleep-breathing being performed behind me, this intrusion by reality – the incomprehension of it all – jolts me. My shoulder muscles tighten. The thunder and rain that has driven us off the beach and into consumer-world, now seem all the more oppressive and limiting. Out there, outside the controlled, safe world of our silver grey family van, with its airbags and roll cage and ABS breaks, is a life where there is the real possibility of death.
I snap the bad news off, get impatient to move, to break this moment into pieces that can’t be put back together again. When we do get moving, we take refuge from the stormy day, and this world of terrible possibility, in the Portsmouth Children’s Museum. Every vacationing family in the region, with kids under the age of seven, are already there – seeking refuge from the weather, postponing the inevitable sibling civil war. We, with the small mindedness that is a big part of having a human mind, snottily compare the museum unfavorably to the Boston Children’s Museum. We kill a few hours, wear out the kids, pick up a ton of snotty-nosed-kid-bacteria, maybe a few viruses, and then go looking for a fish store. We’re looking for a real one, run by a cranky, arthritic old fisherman, with a stack broken lobster pots piled up out back, and a rusted out pickup truck parked erratically in front. It takes some driving in the rain, taking in the sights – the nuclear submarine repair facility! – but we find what we’re looking for. Next door to the real fish shop is a real liquor store – but aren’t they all real – and there we fill up on white wine and beer, looking for nothing more than a direct return to the cottage, a nice dinner, a quite evening full of shellfish and alcohol, and an awakening to a dry day on which fifty two innocent people are not to be slaughtered.
Driving back to our cottage, with nary a bomb, nor a bomber – the nuclear subs notwithstanding – for many a mile, the car filled with happy-tired children, I’m relaxing again, or as relaxed as I get. The anticipation of the quiet evening, the stomach gorging meal, some cold-dry white wine, some more time travel to 1978 Ireland, all massaging my nervous system to that floating place where the world can’t seem to bring it down – for a while anyway. The back roads from Portsmouth to York are lush and overgrown, the trees leaning in over the pavement, heaving and dripping wet from the storm.
My phone rings.
In 2005, when your cell phone rang, it was probably something of importance.
I look at the number: It’s the Program back in Massachusetts. I stare at it, calculating what this might mean; the musical tone of the ringer taunting me to answer.
Stopping thinking, I hit the green button.
“You tell these motherfuckers that I’m allowed to see my records. IT’S THE FUCKING LAW.”
My muscles tighten, breath shortens.
This is life.
“Oh, hey, how are you?” I ask, with the phony nonchalance I have learned to use to try to break up crazed situations.
“I’m allowed to see them. I’m allowed to read my record, some kids sued these piss-asses and made them show kids their records, but these motherfuckers here think they’re in charge, and think they’re going tell me what I have to do. I’ll fucking sue them, I’ll sue the whole fucking place, get them fired – ugly fat assed ….”
The phone goes dead.
My blood pressure rises.
“Oh well, he’s a little angry today,” I say, turning around and smiling at the two little kids in the back; body-lying outrageously.
They smile back at me, holding their arms out for a hug. I lean a little further back and pretend to tickle them. They squirm and laugh, tucking their arms in.
The phone rings again – same number.
“Mr. O’Farrell?” an equally phonily calm voice asks – in the background I hear an angry scream, a thud as furniture gets rearranged violently.
I imagine him getting restrained – something I had done many times.
In the pause as I wait to acknowledge the staff person on the other end of the phone, an all powerful image takes full control of my mind:
I’m restraining my son on Nantasket beach – a busy beach near Boston. He’s little, maybe eight or nine years old. I have him pinned to the sand, lying directly on him, his hands trapped under his body, my legs wrapped around his legs, preventing him from pony-kicking me; my head tucked in behind his head, to prevent him from head butting or biting me. He writhes in fury. Fury against me, against the world. His furious bellow is a mixed scream-expletive-exhausted-sigh. The sand is everywhere, making his every twist grind another layer off our skins. The heat between us is almost unbearable – but most unbearable is the audience: Beach goers walking by stop and stare; a couple sitting on beach chairs twenty yards away scream at us, the woman’s German accent thickening in anger.
“I aam psychologeest! This is verey bad ting to do.”
I hold on, four, five, six minutes; the heat rising; the sand paper action between us flailing my skin; the back of his head half-butting into the side of my head – doing no damage, just flaming off the craziness.
The “psychologeest” continues to yell. She stands up from her chair, slams her magazine onto the beach, but doesn’t approach.
And then his anger abates – his anger or his energy; hard to know the difference in that moment. I sense it in the lack of viciousness in his half-head-butts; in his tone when he spews insults; but I can’t trust it, not for a few more minutes of misery.
He starts to cry; deep, shameful tears – still glinting with anger, but shamed now at not having the energy to fight on; to fight his never ending pitched battle against the world, a battle that started once he realized the cards dealt him by that world.
Now the onlookers’ curiosity gets more verbal.
“Let him up,” someone says, but anonymously – not looking for a full part in this drama.
“Pick on someone your own size,” the “psychologeest’s” boyfriend yells.
I wait, still pinning him down, the muscles on the inside of my legs already aching from holding his legs.
“Hey you fucking weirdo,” the boyfriend yells, starting out of this chair, but stopping when I look up.
“You have no fucking idea what you’re doing,” he says, snapping his chair closed.
“Theese is children’s abuse,” the “psychologeest” yells, but she’s defeated, stuffing her bag with the flittered magazine, knocking over her chair in a temper.
I’m worried that he’ll get a second wind from this verbal encouragement. A second restraint is possibly beyond me physically, but is definitely beyond me emotionally.
I know it’s over when the sand on my arms – now drying – tickles rather than burns. The heat, the sweating, the writhing and twisting is behind us – for a few days anyway.
Exhausted, sore, emotionally drained, we both pick ourselves up off the beach. I sit on the sand, completely unknowing of how to react, what to do, how to, or if I can recompose myself. The curious onlookers have pushed their perimeter way back, and camouflage themselves as beach goers staring at the waves, glancing nervously at us. Slowly my world wants to replace itself, but I’m outside it now. I’ve travelled so far that home is never going to be the same now.
He had lost control of his anger in a game of pickle, he fought over the rules, threw sand in a kid’s eye, then lost any attempt at control. In a matter of minutes, I went from a pissed-off-parent to a concerned-parent to a freaking-out-parent to a protector-parent, holding my own son’s body so tight that he could not harm himself or anyone else. Now I am supposed to be back somewhere between a pissed-off-parent and a relieved-parent; but I can’t get there, I have no emotional energy left, and not enough physical energy to fake it.
Toweled off, chairs folded, bags barely packed we head for the car.
“Are we going to the fair?” he asks, pointing at the gaudy rides, the colored lights coming into relief against the setting sun.
“No, no fair today, not after what we just went through,” I answer, not even looking up, and knowing there’ll be a reaction, counting hard on it being self contained.
He starts to weep. The tears flow fast and intense, a mournful wail arising from his chest.
But he keeps walking.
He knows. He knows he’s crying not just for a fair missed, but for huge chunks of a childhood missed.
“Yes,” I finally answer into my cell phone, the green boughs of Maine’s wild growth leaning in as our family van whips along the road.
“This is Courtney at your son’s program.”
“Oh hi, sorry. We wanted to let you know that he is not doing well. We’ll try to de-escalate the situation, but he has not been doing well for the past forty eight hours or so, and it might require a hospitalization – just saying, not sure of course,” she’s talking fast now. A young woman, no more than ten years older than my son, and part of the web of committed, under-paid people who work to keep him safe, try to make small gains when his mind is in a place where gains can be made. Her voice carries all the worry and weight of the world that a twenty-something-year-old would naturally feel as the situation she’s responsible for managing is spiraling out of control.
I hear another thud, another scream in the background through the phone.
“We’ll keep you fully informed and you may have to come to the emergency room, to sign the necessary paperwork if he ends up getting committed.”
I listen to my exhale magnified through the phone speaker, and remember why I chased meditation as a possible path out of this impossible maze of misery.
“Yes,” I hear myself saying. “Just call this number and someone will come.”
That evening – safely back in our safe world of a too-small cottage under siege by relentless wind, rain and familial stress – the shellfish still taste like shellfish, the white wine is dry and cold, just as I like it, but the contentedness normally summoned by low scale hedonism never comes. The games with the kids are low energy, giggles instead of laughs, and they fall asleep to the sound of my voice rereading books they’ve heard so many times I do whole pages from memory; “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and ….”. I stop reading; listen for the sound of sleep breathing. I think of 1978 Limerick, but now I can’t leave this space that I’m in. I lay back, finally relaxed by the excesses of alcohol and food, and the comfort of having my kids next to me, entirely within my protection, breathing long sleeping breaths – safe.
Ten years and two states away, yoga class is ending. We’re on our backs in Shavasana – the corpse pose – the pose for which the entire class is preparation. Wring the stress out of your body; stretch and twist and strengthen the muscles until all the places we hoard our stress are discovered and cleaned out. With the body relieved – even temporarily – of stress, the mind can finally find clarity, repose. My Shavasana mind is flicking through vivid images of me barefoot on the sand in York with my two little kids; it’s feeling the heat and friction of restraining my son on Nantasket beach. Lying on the studio floor, all the pain receding. I feel the softness of a hand on top of mine. My fellow traveller in life; a friend, lover and soul mate all in one beautiful person.
My mind clears.
I am a corpse.
May the Farce be With You
I’m in a freaking enormous movie complex on the Boston Common watching the latest edition of the Star Wars saga. Somewhere else in the theatre – getting enough seats together on opening night was impossible – my son and his two buddies are sitting behind their 3-D glasses, loving every second of the almost exhaustingly non-stop action. Lucasfilm, with their considerable moving making skills, drop us right into action, using the barb of the to-us-unknowable, but seemingly incredibly important, piece of information that is right there before our eyes – but only for a few moments before it’s on the run again, barely escaping the bad guys. With the sort of careless abandon we imagine only an all-powerful empire in another universe could wield, a village gets wasted – though of course there are actually plenty of earthly village-wasting models to follow. But destruction is simply plot padding for sci-fi– it’s everywhere throughout the movie: Spaceships get wasted at a rate that would seem to call into question whether vehicular insurance is in fact carried in the future. Here on our planet, we can’t seem to fund a single rocket to send humans to Mars, while both the First Order and the Resistance (boy, don’t we love easy, corny metaphors in our movies) blast through several, incredibly cool – and incredibly expensive looking – spaceships, every time they encounter one another. Storm Troopers, in their natty white – but as the First Order’s luck would have it, completely useless – body armor, are consumed at about the same rate the theater is consuming popcorn. But the First Order never give a thought to their lack of luck. They are instead consumed with a blind desire for … ? I’m actually not quite sure what it is that they want? But who cares, because boy, are they up for a fight!
The whole complex was an intergalactic zoo before the movie: As we enter a young Asian man exits into the chilly December evening in nothing but a white bathrobe and flip flops. The extensive lobbies are full of people in ill-fitting – and possibly heat-exhaustion inducing – Chewbacca costumes; many Darths Fill-In-The-Blank in their flowing black robes (awkwardly reminiscent of the all-powerful De LaSalle Christian Brothers from my childhood – on what now seems like another planet); way more hapless Storm Troopers than their average life expectancy could reasonably expect; but nary a Jedi to be seen – obviously their dull, earth toned garb does not drive costume sales. Lines snaked every which way for different sorts of showings – regular, 3D, Omni-max. In the corner were two highly unlikely emissaries from Lucasfilm, or is it Disney – is that the alliance we should be “resisting?” – a couple of paunchy middle-age white guys flogging official Stars Wars tee shirts and guaranteed-to-last-at-least-ten-minutes light sabers. I bitterly muse over how many of those light sabers I’ve bought over the years; how much of my life I’ve spent trying to get them to work; and how many welts my kids have on their upper body from over exuberant Star Warring.
But for my $15.75 entry fee, I get to watch the real war being fought at the “concession stand.” Here the popcorn machines are spewing copious quantities of perfectly yellow, perfectly warmed and popped corn kernels – possibly the only source of fiber the kids will have today, and definitely the only thing behind the concession stand that passes as even close to what humans started calling food when we starting calling a few hundred thousand years ago. I stand and watch as humans of all ages, sizes, shapes and costumes (Star Wars, dude, cool-dude, too-cool-to-be-a-dude, boring old fart – that’s mine) concede with their slow moving feet that we are losing the war with Big Food on diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Gallons upon gallons upon gallons of high sugar soda get dispensed into what look like small buckets – but of course pale in comparison to the actual popcorn buckets. Slushies – colored the electric reds and blues that attract young eyes – are also sold by the small bucket. All the candy is, like the prices, oversized and over the top in the sugar or fats. Here on planet earth, without the First Order to control our every move, we are fortunate enough to retain enough free will that we could resist Big Food’s sub-liminal and manipulative marketing. But, that would require that we form our own “Resistance.”
In the bathroom, before the movie, two very white, very preppy young men ingest a seemingly nondescript off-white powder, gulping it down with splashing handfuls of water from the sink. They wash their hands using a lot of soap, slowly wipe their mouths with paper towels, dry their hands with explicit care; then one leans forward and takes another long drink, his coiffured hair touching the wet, white porcelain of the sink. The other young man spends a full minute extracting a huge wad of paper towels from the dispenser, then busies himself mopping their mess up off the sink counter. They stand back and free up one sink for my use. The cleaner-upper suddenly stoops over and takes a huge drink, the water gurgling, as he drink-sucks at the steady stream of lukewarm tap water. They’re polite, respectful, and completely stoned – their eyes like boreholes into their lack of consciousness.
We find seats as best we can in the very crowded theater. The previews have started. It would seem that there are many alien invasions planned for 2016. Fortunately for us, the aliens – despite their various mechanized, super-powered forms – will eventually, but inevitably, get repulsed by young, fit, good looking white men and women – mostly blonds. Perhaps aliens can’t clearly see a blonde’s skin tone, and thus their tight butts get to escape to fight another day, while the rest of humanity gets enslaved to mine precious metals on other planets, or are vaporized where they sit; staring stupidly, eating junk food, here on planet earth. This is the genius of the commercial movie industry: That they can spend millions to make the same plot over and over and over again; yet still get us to pay even more millions to go and rediscover an outcome we already know. On some level, isn’t that a definition of insanity: To complete the same actions over and over, and yet expect a different outcome? But movies are not about logic or outcomes, they’re about entertainment. The movie theater might be the last place we go to emotionally commune together. Sports events are too prone to chance and cynicism for us to be guaranteed a payback on our emotional investment. Live theater has not been attended by the steaming masses for almost a hundred years. Likewise religion. So that leaves the steaming masses more than happy to pay a few bucks to sit in the dark, all eyes focused on the only light source in the room: The Silver Screen.
And there we are, a theater full of earthlings, sitting on our overheating planet in the Milky Way, watching that same plot play out once again in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s an interesting place, that galaxy. The Lucasfilm people for sure know how to weave a tale, people it with incredibly interesting characters and create a whole fictitious world for us earthlings to enjoy. Clearly many people do enjoy this world, as the crowd frequently welcomes a character – human, android or other-worldly-creature – with a gasp of anticipation, a supportive jeer or even the spontaneous applause that greets the surprise entry of Hans Solo. Being Star-Wars-clueless, I’m completely unsure if Mr. Solo has appeared in many of the franchise’s eight movies. I think they made seven other movies. But Lucasfilm play a very clever game with the timing and sequencing of their movies; way too clever for someone whose only previous flight off this planet, other than the original Star Wars movie – which is actually now called Stars War IV; see their deviousness! – was a handful of stiff, black and white Star Trek episodes back in the 1970s. However, Hans Solo, a foible-filled human, entirely at ease amongst all the creations of the Star Wars galaxy, is clearly a favorite, and rightfully, gets the theater’s spontaneous applause.
The basic premise of the movie is that the impossible must be performed by the kind, morally correct, earth-tone clad Resistance: While the First Order – who rigidly adhere to the black and white evil humanoid look – in all its immorality use their almost bottomless resources to thwart them. In this case a ragtag (but then, aren’t the good guys always ragtag?) group of misfits (but then, aren’t the good guys always misfits?) with almost nothing in the way of resources, other than sharp reflexes, incredible intuition, and bodies to die for, beat out an organization that can only be compared to the child that would be sired if Big Food lay down in the shadows with the Defense Industry. We know the outcome before we sit down in the movie theater. Lucasfilms lead us through a plot that everyone in the theater could probably – sitting absent mindedly on the throne – weave themselves, but by skillfully triggering all the right emotions, with perfect timing, they keep us fully engaged, fully entertained.
And entertaining it is.
The First Order, sort of intergalactic Nazis, are shown in all their despicable glory rallying, beneath huge banners, in the rigid formations – as seen frequently in and around Nuremberg in the 1930s. For the sake of dramatic enticement, they are lead not by a diminutive, mentally ill Austrian, with a ridiculous moustache and an almost more ridiculous uniform. No, the First Order are lead by “The Emperor:” An enormous, holographic humanoid – and tellingly, the only member of the First Order not required to wear military garb – who, pro-rated for size and transparency, is every bit as demonic as, but much more dramatic than, the little Austrian. Their headquarters, an enormous spherical space ship has a distinctly Soviet look to it: Drab, confusing, and ultimately deadly. In headquarters, as in all HQ’s, the First Order soldiers, always in uniform, always tense, march everywhere– walking is prohibited, strolling quite likely a capital offence – moving only in formations of two, four, six, etc., clipping along with a marching sound that is reassuringly evil.
Meanwhile, the Resistance headquarters has the feel of a hippy commune – sort of cleaned up, and quite possibly now drug free – that has been infiltrated by overly intense Greenpeace activists, a great many of whom are MIT grads who, with remarkable (to someone from the Luddite generation) ease manipulate a computer so powerful that it can tell everything about First Order’s HQ – pretty much right down to how much toilet paper they have to order. Interestingly in science fiction, the use of the escape-while-the-captor-is-in-the-bathroom plot trick is almost never used. It could be that in science fiction our need to excrete has evolved out of us, perhaps thereby freeing the time up from all that unnecessary on-the-throne-browsing to take over the universe; or it could be that excrement is achieved via the use of cellulose laden dialogue? But for all the communal reassurance of so many good people in one place that the Resistance HQ exudes, there is true – well, movie true, so actually; false – concern about the First Order summarily blowing up several planets. Yes, it’s true. Lucasfilm has, in the space of a little over an hour taken us from dismay at the destruction of a simple village, to shock at the destruction of not just one, but a small flock of planets. That the First Order would behave with such recklessness would seem to indicate that the Emperor has secured the sort of umbrella insurance coverage for which modern day corporations would die.
Back at Resistance HQ, there are a lot of good looking, but tense, faces: Though everyone still sits around in their omnipresent collegial manner. At First Order HQ, the equally good looking, but evil, commanders prefer to stand, tersely emitting orders for destruction, while the less good looking, evil subordinates sit, executing the orders via keystrokes. The good, and good looking, leaders at Resistance need to come up with an idea just original and crazy enough to defeat the First Order’s utterly undefeatable defense system. As luck, and Lucasfilm, would have it, they do figure it out, and quickly too, as the plot is at the point that the audience don’t have much bandwidth left for discovery – it’s basically a few graceful keystrokes, beep-beep-beep (it’s the third beep that does it – every time) – and we’re off to another tense, will-those-crazy-kids-succeed ending.
If we can believe Lucasfilm – and there are less and less reasons not to – then, along with no need for human excretion in the future, all traffic problems will be resolved. This is, in my cranky opinion, the sort of true and meaningful progress I expect for all the money we spend on spaceships visiting other planets. I note this because throughout the two hours of Star Warring there is not a single traffic jam of any sort, not even when the First Order unleash, seemingly, hundreds of high priced spaceships (only to crash almost all of them – their fleet auto insurance rates must be high enough to make even a holographic-humanoid blanche) at some unsuspecting planet. In short both the First Order (in rigid formation) and the Resistance (riding like Hell’s Angels) can both cross the Star Wars galaxy in way less time than it takes a Boston cop, blues flaring, siren screaming, to get across the five blocks the narrow streeted the North End. Not to be too much of a fuddy-duddy, but it does bear mentioning, that BPD probably do have significantly lower fleet repair and insurance costs. I know, I know – relax, this is the movies.
The ending is as predictable as is our being both relieved and entertained that at the manner in which almost everything works out. Space ships race across the screen at frightening speed, explosions occur like popcorn popping, people in earth tones get chased by black and white clad villains, more explosions, more – costly – spaceships crashing, light sabers (that really work – all the time, not just for the first ten minutes!) slashing and severing. My heart rate increases, my pupils dilate and contract from scene to scene. Grunts of pained relief close out each separate thread of the good versus evil plot. As it should be, the good guys win; the bad guys lose, but – employing commercial sense – not so badly that a sequel is totally out of the question. In truth the First Order were lucky they went down before the insurance bills came in – I can only imagine the viciousness of that scene should it ever be shot.
The heretofore undernourished plot line of the “Resistance” looking for a certain Mr. Luke Skywalker now gets an almost back breaking dose of over attention. The missing piece of information in the search for this elusive, and seemingly thin-skinned (he is willing to let the entire galaxy perish due to some pedagogical dispute back at the Jedi academy,) hero is yielded up when the defeat of the First Order lifts Star Wars most memorable android’s clinical depression. Off they go further into the mythical galaxy with Mr. Skywalker’s original light saber – still working so incredibly well, so long after my kids’ replicas have long since broken that, as a petty minded, mere earthling, I cannot but feel a surge of bitterness. The darkness and dryness of the earlier planets are all shed for a grand clear day as the heroine of the movie alights on the Skelligs off the coast of Kerry. The space ships are seemingly now turned in for helicopters, as a 360 view of the Skelligs show their imposing beauty and otherworldliness. It turns out that all this time Luke was below in Kerry, licking his wounds, having a few pints down in the Bridge pub, and dreaming of light sabering Dublin fans up on Hill 16 when they celebrated their beating Kerry in the All Ireland football final. I half expected Mick O’Dwyer, the hoary old Kerry football manager – and kind of a sort of a Jedi in his tin-pot way – to appear on screen, bouncing a ball, his false teeth rattling around in his head. So it goes. You can look everywhere for a hero, but in the end they all end up below in Kerry.
May the farce be with you!
I’m in the waiting room at Essex County Jail. It’s me, about fifty Hispanic women of all ages, three older Hispanic men, and a few high-mileage white women. I am the only white man in the room – other than two corpulent Essex County Sheriff’s deputies. Almost everyone’s eyes show them as somewhere between pissed-off and severely pissed-off. A handful are too sad to hide behind pissed-off eyes. A large minority don’t try to hide their anger, letting it seethe out and fill the room. The built-in seats are uncomfortable, too few by a long shot, and spaced in a way that means most people have to stand in the wide aisles, or malinger in the small open area in front of the bathroom doors. It’s 3:20PM, but I’m already late for the 4:00PM visit: Get there early, because business is hot at Essex County jail.
“What the … ?” a pear shaped white woman – grey sweats, with a cigarette burn on the right thigh; a too tight, once-upon-a-time-clean pink fleece; greasy hair winched back into a tight bun – snaps at the sheriff’s deputy manning the metal detector.
He points a pudgy finger at the red and white, English and Spanish, all BOLD sign that lists the Do’s and Don’ts of visiting Essex County Jail.
She never turns to the sign. She glares hard at the deputy; drawing in a long, rattling breath, swelling the pink fleece until it seems it will explode.
My fight-ertainment radar makes me sit up straight in my McDonald’s-esque seat. Of course, I’m filled with Irish Catholic guilt at not giving my seat up to the twenty something Hispanic woman standing in front of me – but not actually full enough to sacrifice my vantage point in this room. My heart speeds up – expecting the familiar excitement of trouble.
The deputy shifts nervously in the face of her now too long, withering glare. He swallows exaggeratedly, his triple chins rippling, then cocks his right shoulder, and service pistol, toward her.
“Mam,” he says loud enough to be heard above the low grumble of the room. “Them are the Sheriff’s rules. I don’t make ‘em, but I for sure enforce ‘em.”
He squares off again; folding his arms, with some effort, across his torso; his eyes hardening. The other deputy, at the check-in counter, stands – nosily pushing back his metal chair– and stares over.
“Everything all right?” the check-in deputy – his bulk looming inside the counter – asks harshly.
She turns, and pushes, roughly, back out through the line of people behind her, her lips moving in silent County-Jail-visitor-prayer.
Because I’m type A2, I knew from my advance, online research and planning, completed several days before my first visit, that you can’t bring anything other than your license and car key in to visit an inmate in Essex County Jail. So says Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr.. That this is, or becomes, so widely known would seem to create the odd situation where the “bad guys” – who, perchance, are not in jail that day – could go shopping for wallets, cell phones, house keys, etc. in the parking lot. No one seems to care about. The general sense you get by visiting a jail is that this is a place where no one cares about others. It is a matter of extreme certitude that no one cares about the inmates – that is the basis of the very solution that jail would seem to offer society: Lock ‘em up; throw away the key. But no one cares about the guards, the visitors, the buildings, not even the parking lot – which on the day I visit is under construction and has no curbs, no striping, and no lights; something that anywhere else would be seen as dangerous or at very least poor customer service. The only part of this whole equation that “we the people” care about is that the prisoners remain in a facility, out of which they cannot get, and, seemingly, into which we can get only with large dollops of hassle, waiting and hostility.
On the drive up, for the few minutes I wasn’t stressing about a truly original place in a family van to hide my wallet, phone and house keys, I listened to radio. Sunday afternoons are a radio wasteland, and in my distracted state, I ended up half-listening to America’s Test Kitchen. It narrowly beat out the “BBC Whirled Service,” which, with frighteningly perfect diction – and boredom – was lurching from conservative voting trends in Indian provincial elections, to higher than average rates of gout amongst the long-term unemployed in North Wales. Shows like the Test Kitchen bring out the best in our delusion that civilization will win out in the end. Thus, it will be important that we all know way too much about how to perfectly prepare elaborate dishes, using the “finest ingredients, harvested in remote villages, valleys and islands” somewhere on our planet. The particularization of their recipes, with unpronounceable ingredients, from these far-flung valleys, and the ruthlessly enforced discipline around temperatures and measurements, all add up to one moment of ultimate hedonistic pleasure. Passing a mini-golf place – with a twenty foot tall orange dinosaur holding a putter – I imagine future barbarian hordes burning our aesthetically pleasing cookbooks as fuel to roast our pets.
Three Hispanic women in their mid-twenties walk up to the metal detector, one of them drops a car key in the plastic tray, they all saunter through, flashing their licenses to the – now smug again – deputy, and go stand in the line at the check-in window for the 5:00PM visit. They seem to accept all this as just another part of life.
After the first deputy allows you past the metal detector, you go to a window where you confirm that the prisoner you’re visiting is in a prison block that’s scheduled for visits that day – info that is available on line. Then the deputy servicing the window has to check that the prisoner is allowed to have visitors, and that they will accept you as a visitor. You can go sit or, more likely, stand and wait for your visiting group to be let in. Occasionally the deputy will come out, call someone’s name and say the prisoner won’t accept the visit: For that to happen, I presume, there has to be a large silo of all around hurt and anger.
“He calls all the fucking time now,” a twenty-or-thirty-or-something year old white woman – in a tank top, with shirt-sleeve tattoos running up the side of her neck – says loudly, from a few seats down the aisle.
She’s talking extra loud because her friend is in a seat across the crowded aisle.
Other than so many tattoos, she could be any, unremarkable, person in line at a coffee shop; wan face, bleached hair growing out brown, skinny-tank-topped torso, from the waist down she swells a pair of grey sweats.
“Yeah, mine too,” her friend, whom I can’t see, responds equally loudly.
“They’re so fucking bored is why.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to hear his shit. He wants to refight all these fights we had like, last year and stuff. And I’m like, enough already, shut the fuck up, tell me what’s happening in your day.”
“But they don’t have a day. They’re just sitting around whacking off, unless there’s a fight and shit. Or they get taken back to court for some other bullshit.”
“Well then, make something up – don’t be coming after me for some guy I did two years ago.”
The tattooed women laughs, loud and raucous, showing a missing tooth in her smile.
The check-in window deputy stands up, his chair going back noisily again, and scowls out into the room.
“Everyone all right?” he asks in a booming voice.
“They had a fight here last week,” the tattooed woman says in a regular tone to no one and everyone. “Some gang-banger piss-heads fighting like girls. So now they’re all uptight and shit now, can’t even fucking laugh here now … .”
Today on the Test Kitchen – punctuated by my swearing at too-fast and too-slow schmuck drivers on Route 1 – we’re baking a cherry pie. It is of course important to have fresh fruit for a pie, but in the absence of the luxury of fresh cherries in mid winter, fruit that was fresh when it was frozen will suffice. But, please use organic cherries, that way you’ll feel better about the pie, and, somehow, our world in general. The other important piece of this pie is the vodka. The smuggling of alcohol into food is an important part of our current civilization. I remember my father, a policeman in rural Ireland, bringing home poteen – Irish moonshine, that he got in raids during which he smashed illegal stills and poured the moonshiners’ product (hopefully organic!) into the fields – to our entirely teetotalling house for the sole purpose of making Christmas cakes and plum puddings. Once drowned in this – extremely hard! – alcohol the cakes and puddings would then spontaneously ignite if someone so much as said a harsh word. Vodka, or any 80 proof alcohol, is essential to the texture of the cherry pie crust, and imparts no flavor—do not substitute with water. Stressing over my potential need to substitute water – I don’t have any poteen now, and haven’t drank vodka since I was fourteen – I almost rear-end a grey van with a sign that says: IN THE CASE OF A DONUT EMERGENCY ~ CALL UNION SQUARE DONUTS. Recovering, I push the lack of vodka, poteen or any other 80+ proof alcohol in my life, to the back of my mind as a resource for when stress may be required in the future. On the radio the voice is insistently back to the fruit dilemma: If you are using frozen fruit, measure it frozen, but let it thaw before making the filling; if not – and he pauses here for effect – you run the risk of partially cooked fruit and un-dissolved tapioca!
It’s shift change at Essex County Jail, and no one is stressing about un-dissolved tapioca. Instead a steady stream of prison guards, mostly white men in their thirties, all crew cuts or baldies, almost all gone-to-seed former gym rats, file in through the same entry we visitors use. Every one of them has a clear plastic backpack in which can be seen their lunch –foot long subs, a bag of chips, a plastic liter bottle of Coke Classic. The deputy waves them through, and they huddle in groups of two or three in front of the eight foot wide, steel sliding door that is the first, or last – depending on your criminal status at that time – separation between Essex County Jail and freedom.
The activity of shift change alters the mood in the waiting room. Some get quiet and stare; wondering, no doubt, which guard has done what to the prisoner they’re visiting. Others talk louder, more raucously, as if taunting a guard to make eye contact. I’m in the staring and wondering group. The guards too look like any unremarkable person you could see in a line at a coffee shop. I imagine they have a wife, little kids, a house, a yard littered with what will someday be happy childhood memories. In exchange for a lower middle class income, we ask these guards to keep away from us the people we want kept away so badly, that we’ll have them locked up. Furthermore, in exchange for our peace of mind that the “bad guys” are locked up, we ask no questions – or certainly very few. Even further yet again, we presume the prisoners are generally bending, or even twisting, the truth when they complain about anything. We have just enough middle class selfishness to not actually care how bad things might be in a jail – for anyone. When it comes to this aspect of modern life, the majority of us seem to have our own personal version of the failed policy of “don’t ask – don’t tell.”
This is County jail. There are definitely some bad-asses here waiting for trial or on sentences of up to five years, but the majority of the people in “County” – as I learn they call it – spend a year or so for “stupid shit:” Street corner drug dealing, repeated drunk driving, bar fights, shop lifting. My son is a three month guest of Sheriff Frank G. Cousins, Jr. for a menagerie of “stupid shit.” State Prison is where the real bad-asses – including the ones that give us cold sweats – end up. The smarter, better organized criminals go to Federal Prisons – that’s where the movies get made. All that said, walking in through that eight foot sliding steel door with your clear plastic backpack has still got to be pretty stressful: No one came to this non-resort for a good time – everyone is pissed off. And when any human, no matter how “stupid,” gets near the end of their pissed-offedness, then watch out. Despite whatever we might like to think or say, jail or prison is not changing the inmates for the better – maybe it is changing the guards for the worse?
The guards all enter, shooing the visitors back from the eight foot steel door before it opens. The visitors back up, moving slowly, full of some-not-so-passive-aggression. I tire of sitting, staring. I stand up and walk around. Immediately my seat is taken. The woman in the dirty pink fleece glares at the backs of the guards as they disappear behind the sliding door.
“Fucking assholes,” she says quietly to no one, but then catches my eye.
Trying to remain ultra-neutral, I body lie as best I can. I’m not going to ally with her, but I’m also not going to get into an argument with someone so full of anger that her greasy bun is about to explode off the back of her head. My face is flat and unresponsive, my shoulders forced into relaxation.
“They beat the shit out of my boyfriend last week, for no reason, just because he called them assholes,” she says in a too loud whisper, taking a step toward me. “But they are assholes, so what’s the beating for – that what I want to know, heh?”
I walk away.
Back in the Test Kitchen, we’re buying rice cookers. The basic criteria is that at its most basic, a good rice cooker should make the task of cooking rice convenient and foolproof – just add the correct measurement of rice and water, press the button, and walk away. This is how I would like a lot of things in my life to work. Unfortunately, it’s really only in the kitchen that we can expect such compliance with our need to control every situation tightly. The danger of course, with the rice cooker, is that we try too hard and buy something with specialty settings and high-tech bells and whistles that will supposedly lead to superior results, but – in that special way that humans tend to oversell – doesn’t. Choosing the right rice cooker is important if you don’t want your grains cooked unevenly or blown out and far too watery, or worse – a bit too dry. You want a machine that can turn out large and small batches of rice, both brown, white and sushi, that are evenly cooked and have a pleasant, tender chew.
At 4:50PM, a female guard stands in front of the eight foot steel door and reads off names. Pronunciations are butchered; language barriers raised higher; people push through the crowd and hold up their hand for second consideration. She’s patient, and as kind as kind gets in the waiting room at “County.” There’s no use scamming here and jumping the line, as your prisoner won’t be on the other end if you get in with the wrong group. My name is butchered, and I line up dutifully. When the time is right, I follow everyone else through the sliding door, which closes behind us, trapping the entire group in an anteroom created by a second eight foot steel door. The guard waits for one sliding door to close before she passes through the group of visitors to go call for the other door to get opened. We leave our very short term – yet still disconcerting – lock up, and follow the guard out a regular door into the yard. It’s dark, but the intensity of lighting makes it brighter, and harsher, than daylight. Both sides of the yard are coiled with razor wire so high and wide as to convince an average voter considering Frank G. Cousins, Jr. for re-election, that only a seriously mentally ill person would consider using this yard to attempt to break out of – or into – his Jail.
I walk nervously through the over-lit yard toward a single story building that looks like it’s a temporary structure. We climb some metal stairs and enter a large room which surrounds another room, the walls of which are windows at seating height. Inside the prisoners sit in their prison clothes. Some are in pretrial orange jumpsuits; others in sentence serving khaki. Everyone is expectant. The visitors rush across the room to the windows, looking for their prisoner. I find my son, sit down and pick up the phone. Through the thick glass window, he looks good, a measure of how he was doing before he checked into “County.”
We talk over the phone, behind him a few guards mill around looking supremely bored, hands clasped behind their backs.
“The guards are all fucking assholes,” he says in an even tone. “They know it, it’s part of their job.”
“And now they’ll all know that you know,” I answer, wondering if I’m actually having this conversation.
“Yeah, sure, they listen to all phone conversations, don’t you – assholes,” he enunciates the last word carefully.
He continues to freely trash-talk the guards, tells me how inedible the food is, asks for some cash in his jail account so he can buy Ramin noodles to eat back in his cell. He and his “cellie” – as in “roomie” – get along well: This of course – I use my middle-class-caring-parent’s voice to point out – vital to fully enjoying your stay at “County.” He smiles. Then he assures me there isn’t much violence, not the way we see it in the movies anyway. A fight breaks out every now and again, often at meal times, but the guards are on it right away, before it can escalate. For this I’m genuinely happy, as one of my worst fears was his getting beaten to a pulp in there, or worse. He tells me half the place is on meds – uppers, downers, stabilizers, meds to zonk people out, meds to get people moving. Just correctly administering this slew of meds to everyone is a major job for the guards. But it’s got to be done, because that’s who populates our jails, and prisons: Those on the rough end of the continuum of mental illness.
For my son jail is primarily boredom: Unmitigated, unrelenting, soul-destroying boredom. He qualifies for a work detail, but there aren’t any jobs open. He’s on a short sentence so it’s more warehousing than rehabilitation. And, surprisingly, it works. Months later, on the outside, he tells me the boredom of jail penetrated far enough into his consciousness – my word; he calls it his “shit” – that he can feel himself pulling things together again when they could be getting away from him. We talk for a “County” hour which feels like thirty minutes but could have been forty five. We say our goodbyes. Then he slams down the phone; stands up; waits for the guard to acknowledge him, and stalks out looking tough.
Leaving the visiting room is slightly quicker, but no easier, with lots more waiting; doors having to be opened and closed individually by guards; the harshly lit yard; the bewildering – after seeing how lackluster the prisoners are – quantities razor wire. Leaving the waiting room, now busy with another group, I feel oddly liberated: My first time in jail, and even as a visitor, it wasn’t quite as bad as I imagined. I walk, through the complete darkness of the parking lot, back to my car. Miraculously the bad guys have not plundered it, and my wallet and keys and phone are still there – though I have hard time finding them; so esoterically had they been hidden. Then I return to feed the reverse ATM that serves as the source of jail funds for my son to buy Ramin noodles. This machine is located in the lobby outside the metal detector, thus allowing the seasoned visitor to deposit their money before the visit. As with everything in the world we have created, there’s a buck to be made by someone, and it costs me $3.25 to add $40 to his account. I presume the Ramin noodles will be sold at the same sort of extortion-rate pricing as food is sold at sport’s stadium, cinemas, or any other highly human controlled environment.
Essex County Jail has a 45% one-year recidivism rate. This means that a little under half of those not bored enough by being warehoused inside all that razor wire, will return for another dose of boredom – and incredibly bad food – within one year. Perhaps these are primarily the group that need meds the most? Whatever brings them back repeatedly, it remains a sobering fact that so many members of our species have a hard time living within – or gaming, if that’s what’s necessary for you – the rules that make it safer and easier for humans to get along in the large groups that make up our society. A lot of people, when we can afford to, self select to live in communities that send very few to “County” and almost no one to prison. That’s how human society works: We split into distinct silos, yet still remain whole enough as a species to dominate this planet.
I climb back into my car in the darkness. There are lots of people leaving now, and nothing about any car says “I have someone in County.” Outside the waiting room, beyond this parking lot, looking at these people, no one will know someone in their life is not free to walk the streets, eat what they can afford, see their family whenever they want. There’s a mini-traffic jam in the lot as all the cars try to leave at the same time, stopping for stray visitors slouching sadly back from “County.”
I start to put my key in the ignition, but stop – no point, no one’s going anywhere for a while. I stare out the driver’s side window at the campus of Essex Agricultural College, and I95 off in the distance. In the darkness, the highway is defined by three lanes of traffic hurtling in either direction: White lights: Red lights. Out the passenger window the “County” glows, its harsh lights glinting off the razor wire. It takes a few minutes, but the traffic clears; everyone heads back to their lives; the dark parking lot is empty. But still I can’t put the keys in the ignition. I stand out, lean against the car, and stare mindlessly down at I95: Red lights: White lights. I look up at the night sky. There’s a sliver of moon sending its light to us from nearly a quarter million miles away. Beyond that, somewhere further in the recesses of space, a star attempts to push its light through the glow coming off “County.” Standing there in the chill of the mid-winter night, my personal space is full of silence and darkness.
* “Grà” is the Irish language word for love or caring
It is Thanksgiving morning, and we’re walking – or trudging; depending on whom you ask – around Jamaica Pond. Everyone’s got their script down: I’m the grumpy dad; my teenage son is Google; my preteen daughter keeps up a continuous whine, punctuated only with cutting remarks – which she gleefully refers to as “burns.”
Jamaica Pond – an urban pond since back when humans urbanized this continent – is about a mile walk all around, and we live maybe another quarter mile from the start of the pond’s mile. But my script requires that I – as the somewhat responsible, and perhaps, somewhat mature, member of the touring party – stretch out the exercise portion of Thanksgiving morning. Thus we turn into, out of and circle around the manifestation of Frederick Law Olmsted’s imagination; out of which emanated the Emerald Necklace park system in Boston. This tramping through the woods elevates heart rates, oxygenates blood, and pre-consumes Thanksgiving feast calories – as well as maximizing opportunities for “burning,” and the dropping of interesting factoids into our self-consumed existence.
“Did you know that we make something like one pound of mucus a day?” Google asks – rhetorically.
How did we not know this?
We whine on, wandering the maze of paths Olmsted planned for carriages, but that work just as well for walking. I imagine a nineteenth century family – performing to their nineteenth century scripts – rumbling along, peering curiously out the carriage windows at what would then have been newly laid out paths, newly planted trees and saplings in a wide, open landscape. Now Olmsted’s carriage paths are all grown in, barely fitting two bipeds side-by-side, and sprinkled with abandoned lampposts; rusted, black, cast iron relics from back when manufacturing was a craft. These black ghosts, from the 1890’s, appear suddenly behind trees, incongruous symbols of nature’s ongoing battle with urbanization. But to the kids, who possess brighter imaginations than I, they are multiple – if perhaps a little shoddy – portals to Narnia.
The interest in the lampposts is quickly dropped. It turns out that, for some of our touring party, the path is too windy, too rough, and it “smells weird; weird and old like you.”
We walk on, stopping to examine a very old tree – perhaps an original from the 1890’s. We peer through the one-foot wide holes in its now crumbling trunk. Yet somehow the tree clings to life. Its only branch, rotted out and really no more than some thickened bark, pushes shoots of last season’s growth, bare and spindly, into the autumn sunlight. A single, yellowed leave dangles from a shoot. We all emerge from our roles for long enough to marvel at life’s resilience.
“I goin’ drink soup from a car,” a two-year old, standing on the path, tells us with the matter-of-factness of those who have learned early to use matter-of-factness to get attention.
He points through the trees, out to the street where there are no cars and no soup, but fertile ground for an opening imagination.
His mother smiles quickly, weakly at us, and then turns away.
We walk on, huffing up a hillock left by the glaciers over 10,000 years ago, planted with oaks and maples a hundred and twenty years ago at Olmsted’s direction, and now grown in with bushes and “weed” trees – those planted by natural processes.
“Oh my God this is like hiking,” a whine gasps out.
“This is hiking,” I grumble back – on cue.
“That’s exactly what I mean!”
As part of my stretching out, we circumnavigate the smaller – appetizer? – Hidden Pond; a kettle pond scooped out by the same glaciers that deposited the hillock. We marvel, not at the glacier’s work in creating a landscape which has become a refuge for nature to thrive in a busy urban environment, but instead study an “old” clay drainage pipe. This hundred-plus year old human artifact juts out of the side of the hill, which has been benched steeply to support the city street above. Evidence of our species supposed longevity on this planet always excites us humans.
And then my stretching out is exhausted. The flat surface of Jamaica Pond, with its undeniably, one mile long perimeter is in front of us. Those youthful eyes examine it, estimating how much whining it will take to complete one lap.
“Look at all that water,” I say – in the way that parents say nonsensical things just to be talking.
“Did you know that our brains are eighty percent water,” Google returns an appropriate response.
“Let’s turn back now,” the whining ramps up, with a new tone of urgency.
“What? And miss a whole mile of whining? You’ve got to be kidding.”
The eyes, with a mere twelve years of experience, deadpan back.
But we don’t turn back.
I’m a lot thicker than that.
We go left around the pond, the seemingly natural way to go.
The Pond is busy, very busy with families out exercising before they return home to devour one of the forty five million turkeys slaughtered for Thanksgiving dinners this year. There are families of all types and sizes out strolling, walking, power-walking and jogging around the pond. There is a handful of Asian and Hispanic fishermen sprinkled along the pond’s well defined edge; they’re hardcore, staring stone-faced out over the water. Other than the humans, and a few industrious squirrels, the only other species at the pond is the avian community: The self important Canadian geese (who never saw a Mountie in their life) bossing each other around; the ducks gossiping fussily; a gaggle of American Coots, in from summering in Maine. The Coots will head to the South, where they’ll winter, drinking sweet-tea and fretting about how the country has become so divided about silly shit, when we should all be worrying about climate change.
Jamaica Pond is also a gift from the glaciers, and at almost sixty feet deep is not a body of water to fool with – though some do, and it has taken its share of human life. An old Irish man, from his barstool bitterness, assured me the pond was named in honor of Cromwell’s invasion of Jamaica. He admonished me, with his beer breath, that I should avoid the pond for fear of celebrating the man who killed and enslaved so many of the Irish, four hundred years ago. The US Geologic Survey beg to differ with my very assured barroom source, saying the word Jamaica, in this case, is actually an Anglicization of a native American word meaning “abundance of beavers.” Both explanations fit a little too neatly to each source’s need to be fully trusted.
But the “pond” as it is mostly known is a great place, though neither Roundheads nor beavers can be seen there now. What can be seen there are all sorts of people from all sorts of ethnic groups moving at various speeds, walking, running, pushing the very young and the very old along, dogs pulling or being pulled by their humans, a man with a parrot on his shoulder (and parrot droppings down his back). In the summer I saw two Arabic women covered head-to-toe in their traditional black dress in one of the rental rowboats. One black-robed woman sitting at either end of the boat; a white tee-shirted man rowing from the middle seat; a little boy, no more than five, moving up and down the boat rapidly, ducking beneath the oars, his little arms flapping excitedly.
We walk on. Our dogs are happy – so many new dogs to meet and sniff. And I’m happy, walking with my kids, trying to tell them “boring stuff;” and even though they out-tell and out-whine me – I’m still happy.
“Did you know that there is like point zero two grams of gold in every person – for real!” Google exclaims.
“Wow, we should gather up a bunch of people, and mine them,” I offer.
“Stop being a weirdo,” I’m told.
We’re interrupted anyway when a pit bull – the approximate size and temperament of the Donald’s ego – lunges viciously at our dogs. We back up and around, my face full of the sort of social reprobation we think works effectively in highly liberal areas; the kids’ faces are outright scared; the dogs feign toughness, and look away. The owner, a slight, young woman leans back, both hands gripping the leash that her pet pulls savagely taut.
We walk on.
Heart rates return to normal.
It’s Thanksgiving morning and everyone, other than the pit bull owner, looks so happy. Teeing myself up for another “burn,” I let the kids know that everyone is giving thanks that we have a holiday that has no religion, no gifts, and little tradition other than face-stuffing: A perfect holiday.
“Not for Native Americans,” I’m snappily corrected.
“That’s right,” I retreat, with no good comeback.
“Ok, let’s turn back,” they sense a power shift.
I keep walking; doing my best thick-Mick-dad thing. I look only ahead, scanning for more crazy dogs, smiling at everyone, and dodging perfect-smile-families that jog by with enviable ease, and even more enviable joy.
We walk past the band stand, the clubhouse, the closed-for-the-winter boat dock. The pond water is high, lapping against the granite blocks placed to hold the footpath.
When I pretty sure we’re well past half way, I stop.
“We can turn back now?” I offer, with glaringly fake sympathy for the whining-masses-of-the-world.
“Just keep walking,” I’m told – young heads shaking.
We walk on, looking at two swans swimming gracefully on the water.
“You know in England the Queen owns all the swans,” I say.
“Really?” a rare spark of interest. “ Who says so?”
“The Queen does.”
“What? She just says, ‘I own all the swans!’ And then everyone has to let her just ‘cause she’s queen? That’s crazy. What is she? A pain in the-you-know-what?”
“Well it’s from way back, back from when they actually ate swans and they wanted to … .”
“They ate swans! What’s wrong with these people?”
“Yeah, they’re actually quite good, a little greasy but … .”
“You ate swans?”
“No, no, just kidding, but swans used to be a delicacy a long time.”
We stop walking, and stare at the swans.
The dogs take the opportunity to mark the spot.
“Did you know that we excrete fourteen times a day,” Google informs us.
“You know number one, number two, farting, bur …. .”
“TMI,” a raised hand silences him.
“It’s just natural,” he says, smiling broadly.
“Then we are disgusting. Is it just us or everyone?”
We walk on.
More families jogging, walking – smiling; more dogs – tails wagging.
“We can turn now,” I offer, completely disingenuously, at the three quarter way mark.
The young heads shake again, this time in disgust at a parental joke taken too far.
“Who owns our swans?”
“Barack Obama,” I answer. “He’s our king right?”
“I didn’t think so. But seriously, who does?”
“Well the Queen doesn’t really own the swans any more than one species can own another. I suppose it’s really just to protect them from other humans saying that they own them, and catching them to put on private ponds, or hunting them. Humans just make this ownership thing up. I mean, do we really own the dogs?”
“Yes we do, they’re our dogs.”
“Well, … ,” I struggle, thinking more of pumpkin pie than the philosophy of ownership. “Do I own you?”
“No way! Well, sort of, but you’re a very bad owner ‘cause I can do whatever I like.”
“That’s something to be thankful for.”
We’re almost fully around the pond. The walking-jogging-smiling family density is at its maximum. My face muscles hurt from smiling back – smiling does not come naturally to me. As a young man, working behind the bar in the Bank of Swans in Clapham, London – and learning about royal swan ownership – I earned the nickname “Smiley,” from the boozy patrons, for my pronounced deficit with that particular facial expression.
“Turn back now?” I ask, stretching the joke well beyond its limit.
“What are you? A full-on nerd, making the same joke all the time?”
Burned – again.
I recover quickly to tell them how in the past an ice company kept a few hundred people employed on the pond in the winter harvesting ice. Then, with the sort of disruption our generation has grown accustomed to, the whole ice industry got wiped out by the use of refrigeration. They seem interested in the idea that there was a time before refrigerators – and the impact of that on ice cream storage – and vaguely interested that we are living in a time when great new inventions are promised.
“Like what kind of new things?” I’m interrogated.
“I don’t know? Self-drive cars, robots that make things for us, do our work. You know, science fiction kind of stuff.”
“Will they do our homework?”
“How would you learn if they did?”
Silence in response.
“Did you know that more people are killed every year by vending machines tipping over on them than by sharks?” Google cuts in, triumphantly.
“That,” I say, shaking my grumpy-weird-old-head. “Is something for which we can truly be thankful.”
The Truth, and Nothing But
I’m in Buff’s Pub, Newton, Mass. It’s two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. It’s packed. The eight TVs are showing three different college football games and one college basketball game. People are drinking – hard. That’s the kind of place Buff’s is – a drinking man’s establishment, where lowering pints, bullshitting, laughing, and telling things you shouldn’t be telling, happens all the time. In other words – love or it hate it – a real pub. I’m both sitting at a table with my fourteen-two-weeks-to-turn-fifteen year old and standing at the bar. I’m at the table with my son, because I’m as close as his fifteen years of human experience will let my fifty-one years of human experience get to him. Plus we’re going to get skis for his birthday; he’s a good skier, and a really good son. And I’m at the bar – even though I never leave the table – because I know that feeling so well. The feeling of sauntering into a dimly lit bar, leaving glorious daylight behind you, giddy with nervous, expectative energy; then standing there drinking pint after pint after pint with a group of friends; waiting for new people to come in to keep the energy flowing; wondering what’s next? Even when you know that what is next is another pint.
Outside of Buff’s the world is passing us by – figuratively: ISIS or ISOL or IS or whatever fucking nut-jobs hate us now, are hating, having a bite to eat, hating some more, planning horrendous attacks, then hating some more, before they crack open Pepsi and check on the soccer results. In Paris two hundred countries worth of delegates are arguing about how long is too short to allow our planet to overheat and render huge swathes of current human habitat uninhabitable: The other species did not get to send anyone to Paris. Moreover, outside of Buff’s the world is literally passing by: The Mass Pike, just across the street from us, jammed with Saturday never-ending-shopping-errands-kid’s-sports-traffic, hums that familiar urban hum of people getting nowhere. In Buff’s all of this can be avoided – temporarily – by following the recipe for success: Add sixteen fluid ounces of six-to-seven percent alcohol solution every twenty to thirty minutes to a male human; expose their eyes to brightly colored college football uniforms, back-dropped by a perfectly green turf field, in a stadium full of countless other humans, all screaming and waving; cook at room temperature for an hour: The output is the perfectly content American male.
My son and I are seated in an optimal location to observe the American male in its favorite, if not entirely natural, habitat. From our table we can see a great many of the televisions, observe almost the entire length of the bar itself – the primary habitat of the as yet uncoupled males – and eavesdrop on several different conversations – though sadly, the conversations along the bar are jangled by the white noise of a busy pub. Our waiter wears a softball tee shirt for a team sponsored by Magners: Irish hard cider penetrating the softball pretend-adults boozing in the park after dark consumption market – Globalism at its most exquisite. He takes our order, and comes back with milk, with ice cubes, for my son, and a glass of sparking water for me. We marvel at the ice cubes in the milk. My son suggests a product improvement; making the ice cubes out of milk. We mull that for a few moments, fatigue quickly with the permutations for market outlets vs. the portability, and even desirability of such a product. Then we ease back into our observation of human behavior.
On the closest television, the bright red of Western Kentucky State is turning the tide on the golden yellow of Southern Miss. The jubilation in Bowling Green, Kentucky radiates from the ultra-white-toothed smiles of Western Kentucky’s cheerleaders. I wonder aloud if it weren’t for college football would we ever hear of any of these far flung cities and towns in America. Everyone in Buff’s stops talking, carefully considers my question, hands stroking chins and foreheads, then in an orderly manner, one by one square their shoulders and clear their throat to respond. Of course, this does not happen. No one hears, or if they did happen to, no one gives a shit about a throw away question like that. And why should they? They’re relaxing in a setting created for relaxing, the TVs are just accessories: No one will remember tomorrow who was playing, let alone who won, or how and why. This is the zenith of television as “chewing gum for the eyes.”
Next to us, there’s a minor skirmish for an empty booth. One guy by himself, breaks from the group standing just inside the front door, moves to occupy the vacant booth, but just then two other guys appear stage left, and claim it. Buff’s Maitre-D (who, later in the evening, may also perform some “bouncing” duties) – a short, stocky guy in his thirties, bald, goatee, sporting a black Providence College tee shirt – resolves the situation with a simple cocking of an eyebrow. The interloper recedes to the crowded non-waiting area inside the front door. The two guys sling into the booth. They’ve started into a couple of drinks; an IPA and a Coke. The Coke guy is in his thirties, shaved-bald, goatee, his physique conceding a little to the modern American diet, shorts, a green Notre Dame tee shirt, and a wool hat that barely nestles on his head. The IPA is gulped by a husky guy, a little older – a big brother? – with his own wool hat, the color of Western Kentucky’s football shirts – though he never looks at the television. They decline to order any food, waiting on the rest of their party. I look away before I’m caught staring.
We order our food. I foolishly order a salad. Buff’s is the kind of place where they can fry or grill any part of any animal, but you have to pay extra to get “greens” in your salad. That’s just the way it is in Buff’s. Don’t go there looking for an organic, dolphin safe, fair trade grown salad, with Vermont non-everything goat cheese, garnished with chives aquatically grown in reclaimed Everglades by blind monkeys saved from a failed circus: It’s not going to happen. You can get wings that will numb your taste buds for a month; a burger that could feed a platoon; or pork so well pulled there’s really no possibility left of an oink. My son, a teenage carnivore, wisely orders the pulled pork. But, as a committed herbivore, I go with the salad, even electing to pay the $1.50 extra for greens.
Earlier in the day, on my Saturday never-ending-shopping-errands-kid’s-sports-traffic jammed ride to pick up my son, I fake relaxed listening to the radio. The erudite voices on the radio pointed out an astounding fact: Human beings lie – and quite a bit it would seem. They backed up this outrageous assertion with hard research done by the Center for Something or Other at the “fill-in-the-blank prestigious university. I can add my own postulation here, that humans as a species do lie more than any other species on our planet. This fine piece of research is based on the single data point of my daily interactions with my very loyal, but – it has to be said – easily fooled, dogs. The radio people made it clear that as a matter of normal living, humans lie a lot and for different reasons; but the weight of the radio story dwelled on how often politicians lie, and more importantly, how they lie so outrageously.
Don’t worry, lying is not a new thing, something we – or the people we oh-so-lazily choose as our leaders – invented, or even perfected: Lying is endemic to humanity, and has a history that goes as far back as going far back goes. Basically, if you can talk, you lie, and probably around three to four times a day. With the careful precision an academic researcher uses, and the leaps of faith a news entertainer needs to engineer to keep everyone tuned in, the show quickly ran through major lies from the one that started the Spanish American war, to several presidents lying about everything from the need for still more wars, to where they placed their member, and whether that constituted sex or not, all the way up to “the Donald’s” every other sentence. The point they stressed most about politicians lying was their ability to simultaneously admit to a lie (once caught, of course), while never giving up the lie, because they believe so strongly in the reason for lying. This, I suspect, is not a habit restricted only to our leaders. “The Donald” was the big exception here; never admitting anything, simply believing every utterance his brain reflexed to his mouth.
I mention this solely as in Buff’s at two o’clock on this Saturday afternoon there is a commendable amount of lying being undertaken. I know this from observation, but also from experience. There’s lying over the phone as to where people are, and – perhaps more importantly – aren’t. I hear an “I’m on the way to the Depot for a new rake;” an “I’m just in for one;” and an “I almost never do this.” I suspect a large percentage of the texting at the bar is of a suspect nature when it comes to the realm of truth. A young woman comes in, walks up to the bar, and looks around; a guy at the bar immediately gives up his stool, with a barely suppressed lecherous smile, indicating with a swirl of the small quantity of beer in his glass that’s he’s leaving. She sits up on the stool: He orders another beer and turns to see if she would like a drink. There’s a hang-up on a smart phone, the guy stabs his finger into the screen, and slams the phone onto the counter: A failed lie. I know from experience that for all the third party lying, there’s even more self-lying amongst the men at the bar. Lying about their intentions for coming in; lying about how long they’ll stay; lying as to whether they can put down their drink at any moment, walk out the door, never to come back. I also know from experience that to start drinking in the early afternoon one has to engage the biggest lie of all: That this is the highest and best use of your relatively short time on this planet. And, for the first few times, that’s a pretty funny lie.
I closely observe three men at the counter; two in various stages of letting themselves go, one fit looking. They look vaguely familiar until I realize that in different circumstances I could be any one of them. They’re going at it hard; probably their first few drinks of the day, as their glasses don’t get to generate much condensation. They drink, and nod their heads as the heaviest – bald, goateed, tee shirted – guy talks earnestly, his index finger jabbing the air in front of his face for effect. After a few minutes subjected to this faux-seriousness, the fit guy makes a quip, and they all release with loud guffaws, heads and shoulders throwing backwards and forwards, the sudden movement foaming and bubbling the beer in their glasses. The lie as to why they’re in a bar, knocking back pints at two in the afternoon is exposed enough to let them laugh at it, before they close up again, and get on with that powerful lie. And, on they get, to a whole new round of drinks. The reset button is hit on the faux-serious conversation, again the finger jabs.
Western Kentucky are mopping the floor with Southern Miss now. The stadium hums, and I wonder that so many people live so many different lives in so many different places. Here we are in a dark pub with eight portals to the far away outside world, beaming in the world’s happenings – all of which happens to be sports entertainment. Somewhere outside of Buffs, on the other side of the planet – probably plenty of somewheres on our planet – people are bombing and getting bombed, shooting and getting shot at, sowing and reaping. And here we are, oblivious to it all – but oh no, not totally oblivious, Western Kentucky just got another interception. Bowling Green erupts, the rich red of the stadium crowd is set off by the rich green of the turf. A cheerleader beams a smile to everyone in Buff’s: Her perfect teeth are an orthodontist’s dream!
In the booth next to us the two men have been joined by a woman and two little kids – age five or six – both with hats that match their father’s red wool hat that matches the intercepting Western Kentucky’s colors. The boys don’t sit so much as hang out in, around and on top of the booth. The waiters are fine with this, lifting plates of wings high over the boys’ head as they pass. Their parents mouth ineffectual warnings, but it’s Saturday afternoon in Buffs, and no one is expected behave.
Their food arrives.
The mother sends the boys to the bathroom.
They’re back in record time.
“Did you wash your hands?” she asks.
They look at the floor, shoulders drooping.
“Go and wash your hands,” she says in a this-is-not-the-time-to-fool-with-your-mother voice.
They slouch off, faking low energy; then race one another to the bathroom door.
“See, that’s one thing the Irish can’t do,” the man in the Notre Dame tee shirt says, nodding emphatically.
“They can’t lie.”
He nods some more, looks down at the table, and takes a drink.
I take a sip of my oh-so risqué sparkling water, and begin to process this statement. For reasons unknown, images of Irish politicians start to crowd my mind: Charlie Haughey, Bertie Ahern, Ray Burke, Paraic Flynn. I delve back into my sparkling water hoping for relief –immediately recognizing that I’m lying to myself.
The waiter serves the boys’ table with plates of wings so spicy their pungency clears my sinuses and claws at the liquid membrane designed by evolution to protect my eyes from the earth’s atmosphere. He lays down enormous plates of burgers and fries. He moves with a busy waiter’s rapidity, clearing space, laying down the plates, dashing off, returning with more plates. The boys return, their eyes widen at the sight.
The waiter turns to go. The party in the booth – consuming the farmyard – came in after us, ordered way more food than us and are getting served before us. Feigning an I’m-still-cool-but-just-wondering attitude, I ask the waiter about our food. I can easily imagine that when our order made its way to the kitchen, my added-cost-greens salad elicited a string of expletives, followed by a further expletive laden set of directions dispatching the pot-washer to run out and buy a bag of greens for the weirdo who came in on a Saturday afternoon ordering salads – when it’s obviously feeding time for the carnivores.
Still, I’m an impatient person, and so ready to find fault that my daughter thinks that bitching about service or quality on the sidewalk outside a restaurant is “being Irish.”
“Our food, just wondering if it’s coming,” my feigning is particularly thin now.
The waiter looks down at me.
“Oh yeah, it’ll be right up.”
“It was around eleven o’clock Saturday night, and all I wanted to do was go home and have sex.”
Overheard at lunchtime while passing two women in their mid twenties sitting outside Boloco in Harvard Square.
“I don’t know about your day, but my tuna fish sandwich was excellent.”
A woman talking, very loudly, into her cell phone in Brookline.
"I feel dirty inside when I eat food that's not organic?"
A conversation in Whole Foods.
"He lost so much weight during his divorce that he actually might be able to find someone now.”
Some – less than fully supportive – neighbors commenting on a recent divorcee.
“So, don't walk with your hands down for too long or they will get fat. That's why pockets were invented, for rich people, so they wouldn't have to let their hands hang down and get them fat.” Some suspect information from my 11 year old daughter.
“Are you making this up as you go along, or do you and your friends really talk about this stuff?” My incredulous response.
“What? You think we talk about history? Of course I'm making it up.” Her – even more incredulous – response.
“Oh, that's my brother's ex-girlfriend's cat's name.”
The receptionist in the vet’s office responding – uber-chirpily – when a customer gave her name.
“It was our sort of a place, you know, you could get a cappuccino and a blow job.”
A man talking into a cell phone outside Arabica Coffee in Salthill, Galway.
It’s around four o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the center of Cork city. One man is lying drunk on the ground; a passerby stops, leans down asks him:
“Are you all right down there?”
“Jaysus, I’m grand. Who are you?”
“Oh you know, just a sort of concerned citizen – you know like.”
“Oh, … are you a barman or something?”
“No, no, not a barman.”
“Well fuck off then.”
It’s 84 degrees with high humidity at 7:00AM. A construction worker walks onto the jobsite wearing a winter jacket zipped up:
“Jesus Pete, aren’t you hot, you’ll die in that jacket today.”
He turns to look at his workmate, his eyes are glassy, unfocused – high on Oxycontin.
“I don’t know what I done wrong. I just done everything the way I should.”
A half remorseful man, who made a lot of money in his life, but ended it estranged from all his family.
“Listen to your parents,” the ice cream lady says impatiently.
“My adoptive parents,” the boy corrects her, snottily.
“Look kid, I ain’t a therapist; I just sell ice cream,” she snaps back.
"Everybody has their day when they can catch guys."
An overweight, gone-to-seed-too-young security officer – wired up with an earpiece and a professional-security-officer scowl – talking tough to a woman of similar build.
“He didn’t smoke or drink, but he was a man.”
At least one way the Irish measure manhood.
“He’s never been impolite to anyone, but it isn’t held against him.”
An observation on political style in Irish politics.
Talking on the phone to my then seven year old son;
“Guess who’s on my bed daddy?”
“Oh, what’s he doing?”
“Licking his penis.”
“Oh well, dogs do that sometimes.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they have no underpants.”
“Ain’t a they a well nourished bunch.”
A rodeo owner looking at his horses, bulls, calves in a pen at a dude ranch in Pennsylvania.
Also at the dude ranch:
The blacksmith is gentle, but firm with the horse. It’s an old one, calm, its brown haunches huge next to the humans.
The owner’s husband holds it’s head – he’s an old guy, dressed full cowboy; boots, jeans, vest, cowboy hat – and says not a word. His wife never stops talking.
The blacksmith works steadily and quickly, sneaking in a snort or a monosyllable, when she gasps for breath. His strong arms hold the horse’s hoof, as he expertly drives home a nail with three rapid swings of the hammer. He files the horse’s hoof; the shavings peel off to leave a white fringe by the shiny metal shoe. Then, with a sigh, he clips some loose edgings off the hoof with what looks like an enormous wire cutters.
All the time the horse is patient. Once or twice it tries to shuffle, but the owner’s husband tugs with his hand, and the movement stops.
His wife remonstrates the beast loudly and wordily.
She’s a trim woman in her sixties – dark hair, cut medium short; horse rider’s erect posture; her accent is non-descript rural – maybe West Virginia? She’s kindly and friendly. Her mouth never stops going.
“So Linda May was staying over my trailer, ‘cause her man – Bob – was on the town, and she was staying over and wearing my pajamas, a pair of yellow pajamas. And you know of course, Linda May was a little rounder in the middle than me.”
She demonstrates, moving both hands in quarter circles in front until they meet with a small clap.
“Anyways,” she picks up again, with even more speed. “Bob was going hard at it, and he come back late, well wasn’t Linda May out back of the camper having a cigarette when Bob come around the corner – and he was hooting by then. Well the next day, he says to everyone at breakfast, ‘but durned if I didn’t see the biggest canary last night I ever did see.’”
“Oh yes,” the blacksmith says, taking advantage of her need for breath. “I remember the canary girls.”
“Yeah,” she cuts back in. “That was what done it, Bob seeing Linda May in my pajamas out back the camper. And now they’re all gone, all dead, just me and Ken here left … . And our horses, but we don’t them ride hard no more,” she shakes here head, “no, no more hard riding.”
I’m standing in a small, neighborhood park. The sun has just gone down. The hundred year old oaks ringing the park are beautiful in the dusk; their canopies morphing into billowing, mysterious clouds of darkness against the indigo of the young night.
Me and the dogs: My Mother’s Day family.
I watch the dogs run with the furious energy of animals whose DNA screams “hunt-kill-eat!” but whose reality is the half-sated lethargy of a few cups of dry food, the sofa and three walks a day. Their lithe figures – the light brown one barely visible, the black one invisible beyond twenty feet – appear and disappear into the darkening dusk. The air is deliciously cool; the dew caressing my skin; the silence in park punctuated by the barely audible thud of the dogs’ pads hitting the grassy soil.
Mother’s Day: A day that could haunt me. My own mother, forty years dead – a jolting absence, never fully resolved. My kids, off celebrating with their mother. My current home, a rental apartment a hundred yards away is packed and ready for me to move out of this life and into another.
But standing in that darkness, the haunting doesn’t come.
The explosion of energy, from packing up my life in cardboard boxes, brought with it the poignant relief of the end of one era, the beginning of another. That relief, heightened by aerobic effort – I pack aerobically, as I seem to do any tension filled task – got me part way there. Then, on my way to the park, another heightening of relief: A text arrives from a woman who offers hope that there is a future: She has had a good mother’s day. The boxes packed, the text read, the exhaustion of body and spirit, and now the park’s cool darkness.
I start to walk around the park. This is a nightly ritual for the dogs and I; a cleansing ritual in the darkness. They, with the mindfulness automatically granted to all animals except humans, dash nose first into the darkness on a reconnaissance mission, stopping along the way to flush their bodies onto the planet: While I attempt to flush my mind into the universe – filling it with fleeting, self important thoughts.
We are three quarters done. The dogs’ shadowy figures bounding in and out of the envelope of darkness all around me.
I hear a scream.
I stop and listen; instinctively taking my hands from my pockets.
The night is quiet, save for the dogs’ footfalls, the tinkle of their collars and the low rumbling of a city trying to settle itself after Mother’s Day.
I turn and walk in the direction of the scream, slowly at first, then my sense of community hurrying me to get to where I can help.
At the other end of the park, I stop beneath a blackened oak canopy and listen.
Now the scream morphs into a yell: A woman’s voice, thick with anger.
“You never back me up. Never. Never, I’m fucking sick of it. Sick of you!”
The words are projected clear into the evening air; instinctively my heart beats faster.
I stand and listen. Protected by the darkness; unsettled by the yelling; encouraged by my helping gene.
The yelling comes from a Victorian mansion across from the park. A grand old dame of a building, now broken into condos, with hanging porches and striped canopies. Several of its tall windows are lit, lace curtains obscuring the view, but their height above the ground the real barrier to my prying eyes. Some weeks back, when I was searching for an exit from my current life, I had seen a condo in this building listed for over a million dollars. It’s the sort of place I would love, and hate, to live.
Unsure of how to react to domestic violence, a few floors – and socio economic levels – above me, I turn to go.
Then the yell again; more guttural and venomous this time, rising all the way back to the scream.
There’s a sudden pause in the scream. I know this sequence of sound: A hefty grunt, a further I-don’t-believe-this-shit-is-happening pause, and then gravity kicks in; the bottles hit the floor first – the thick glass exploding with a pop – then the spindly crash of wine glasses; no longer suitable for holding wine.
There follows the silence of the shocked and frightened.
A door slams. Then re-slams. The punctuation marks of a civilized human fight.
I turn back into the darkness. The fight is clearly over.
The sound of breaking glass has calmed my heart back down – that familiar crash I’ve heard a thousand times in bars I never needed to go into – or is it the strange community I’m feeling by witnessing other lives disrupted.
Whatever it is, I breathe deep, and walk on into the darkness.
The evening is beautiful again.
The dogs appear and disappear into the now near perfect blackness at the center of the park. They bound with the temporary abandon of mindful beings unconcerned with a woman’s scream, never needing to be calmed by the sound bottles breaking.
United We Stand
I’m in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I don’t remember the exact year, but it’s sometime in the roaring “noughties;” a time when money trumped common sense. Swept up in this dynamic – despite my naturally frugal instincts – as part of a team building a $400 million hospital extension, money, or more specifically a vendor’s money, meant nothing to me. In this case a furniture vendor, hungry to pre-emptively partition off our business from the rest of the market, was all too willing to fly too many of us out from Boston to visit their showrooms and plant. On the morning plane ride, the smell of Midwest Airlines baking their signature chocolate chip cookies competed with the aromas arising from the vendor provided care package: A miniature cardboard suitcase crammed with Wisconsin cheeses, sausages, chocolates, and – to relax the mood – a single serve bottle of Minnesota wine. Have I mentioned this was the roaring noughties?
We land in Milwaukee, and roll through the city in rental minivans, but are separated from the general populace by staying on the highway, and so did not see any of their famously fat and pasty white people. We were disappointed; we had hoped to see a genuine Milwaukee Tumor. This was a deliberate Northeasterner’s misunderstanding of the derivation of the common slang term used for a beer gut. We heard this term a lot on the enormous construction site through which we walked through every day, glad handing foremen, nodding to longstanding tradesmen. We watched the men – women were still rare on site back then – working hard, some shifting their Tumors to get to the work. We never did any of that physically grinding construction work. Our work was all done with Blackberries on whose minute keyboards we thumbed out threatening emails; fax machines that we sighed at impatiently (scanning was still a new innovation, still not as trusted as the physicality of paper); and computers on which we lost files with careless abandon, presuming the eager college intern would quickly retrieve them. But on this day, work was two minivans worth of uptight Northeasterners, careening down Interstate 43 making stupid-sassy-sympathetic comments about Wisconsin, a state that remains still in my memory only as green – something stupid-sassy-sympathetic for an Irishman to say. But that day I wasn’t just an immigrant Irishman, Northeasterner: I was the client.
We arrive at the vendor’s head offices. Entering the building we walk past a red 1976 Lotus. Inside we meet the owner of this family owned business – a tall, intense, focused man, with fading good looks and the keys to a red 1976 Lotus in his pocket. In their boardroom, the best Midwestern artery hardening foods await us: Bratwurst suffocated in fried onions, cheese curds, chocolates. We happy junketeers dig in, marveling at how anyone can eat like this. Our bellies sated, and a little weary now – air travel, even with comfort food and alcohol filled care packages, is hard on the uptight – we sit back and let our hosts start their marketing.
The lights dim, and I start to nod off as they being with their proud history of their company. My head, cradled in my hands, is a heavy load; full of cynicism, smart alecky comments, and fragmentary memories that pull and twist, taking me just far enough off course that things never seem to quite work out as my perfectionist personality would have them. I’d learned to live with this, creating a veneer as a funny guy behind which thrived my inertia. They ramble through the decades, flashing before our barely open eyes grainy black and white photographs, 1960’s chic marketing photos, until we arrive blaringly back to the roaring noughties marketing photos. The lights come up, and my veneer snaps back into place. I stand, pat my stomach, the solid mass of the honest-to-goodness food is still there, anchoring me firmly to the moment. I nod my fake appreciation at gaining quite so much knowledge of the mid to late twentieth century history of commercial furniture production in the Midwest, and slouch off toward the showrooms, eagerly scanning for a restroom.
This trip is the teaser part of the sale; show the customer the wares, pay for home field advantage, and build connections with the humans on the other side of the transaction – classic, good sales technique. For the rest of the day we’ll look at the whole of their most expensive line, sit repeatedly on everything, lie on the sofa beds, hook our feet around the stool legs, look interested, bored, excited, cynical, stare hard at a piece of furniture for sixty seconds (me thinking; “when the fuck can we get out of here?” the others thinking thoughts that I could not even guess at, but that I fear are not fiscally responsible,) and then look away, a hand rising, fingertips holding the chin thoughtfully. Full of fatty-salty foods – dreaming of both exercise and beer – I let myself succumb to this skillfully created sales environment. In this emotionally charged environment my disability – an inability to access emotions – is the very measure of my capability.
In the middle of this game, working our way around the showroom, we again meet the owner. His tall, fading good looks and intensity are directed to a relatively plain looking, but very fashionably dressed and coiffured young woman. She’s a designer working with the owner on the design of an ottoman that will complement – and thus be an accessory that can be sold along with – all the lines of chairs.
“You see,” he says, surprisingly languidly – for nothing about the intensity in this man eyes’ says languid. “My little genius designer, in from LA, is convinced one can have it all.”
He holds up his Blackberry.
“She thinks that one day my cell phone here will do everything for me – phone, fax, computer, CD player,” he shakes his head at us, his bright eyes full of the energy and intensity that I aspire to, but never seem to attain.
“In the meantime, we’re working on this ottoman problem. If we can solve it, I had planned on naming it for here, but she just told me she doesn’t want everyone putting their feet on her!”
We all laugh the dry laugh one forces out when a powerful person makes a joke a the expense of someone less powerful. The genius designer “in from LA” looks a little uncomfortable, but works through it by getting back to work, holding an opulently cushioned sofa in her gaze, hiding her face behind a pad, as she sketches us out of her world.
We trudge on, led by the sales team – indefatigably fueled by the excitement of the hunt.
We try every sleep sofa – a new amenity we will place in the patient rooms to keep family close, a proven benefit to the patient – lie on it, sit on it, poke the cushions, run our hands across the fabric, attempt to move it.
I kick some of the legs, stout wooden legs that kick right back with their inertia.
This how I measure things in life: Inertia as a measure of un-breakability; un-breakability as a measure of permanence.
Consensus, that elusive middle ground that enables civilization, is unattainable on what sofa is best. We as a group are looking for it all: quality, value, beauty, longevity. Perhaps everyone that enters this showroom – or any other showroom in the universe – is looking for it all. Isn’t that the underlying basis of the buyer-seller dynamic: The creation and maintenance – which is where the hard sales work occurs – of the perception that one can in fact have “it all.” With a near Lilliputian arrogance we – the potential buyers of an as yet unspecified product – agree to disagree on the finer points of sleep sofas. My dream of a high inertia, low cost, American made, guaranteed for life sofa is put on ice. We move to the seating section as one fractious mass.
There, consensus is no easier to attain: Our Nursing representative wants a chair with stylish looks; the Family Patient Services rep wants the ultimate in comfort; the Housekeeping rep wants ease of cleaning; and I want highest quality at lowest cost – but by then, mostly I just want to get to the restaurant, or more specifically get to the bar in the restaurant. My legs are tired from all the standing around and repeated-sitting-tests, my head hurts from alternating between fight-or-flight mode for so long. I cap my pissiness, and maintain a professional, near stoic, silence. We meander in and out of different discussion points; no conversation ever seems to get to anything even masquerading as a conclusion. I suspect this is the chosen sales technique for this point in the transaction: Keep everything open; work the non-budget oriented people with indications of style, beauty, ease of maintenance and force the budget guy into a corner, besieged by his peers’ perceived wants and needs.
At some point in this exercise, Maureen, our sassy-eternally-upbeat Patient Family Services representative comes up with the idea of combining the design elements from two different chairs to make one “absolutely perfect waiting room chair.” The troglodyte budget-bully radar buried deep in my brain suddenly bursts through my cranium and is apparent for all to see; I quickly camouflage it – albeit poorly – behind a burst of hard cost questions to the sales people.
“An innovative idea, combing the winning elements of two existing winners,” the lead sales woman says, almost smugly.
“Well worth exploring,” her second says – both their hands now thoughtfully stroking their chins.
I knew that exploration was now in our future: Whether we would discover anything or not in the high cost land of “specials,” was dependent on my ability to confound the explorers.
“We could have it drawn up this evening,” the second says.
They all look at me; my radar spinning fast.
“By a junior designer, draftsman – person,” the lead says.
“Absolutely!” I agree, beaming disingenuously.
I pause, realizing how disingenuous I must sound.
“And we’ll call it ‘The Maureen,’”
I pause again, this time for effect. I pat Maureen on the shoulder.
“And then you can have everyone assing you all day long!”
Everyone laughs, no one more than Maureen, who’s a good woman, with her heart in the right place. She’s looking to make the misery of an extended hospital stay a little less miserable for family members.
In their economy line showroom – which they recalcitrantly show us – there is markedly less energy from the sales team. Their attitude turns to a flat-barely-rising-to-plucky, “you could do some of the less prominent areas using this product, but should a prestigious institution like yours really be in this room?” They’re good at their job and know that if we end up ultimately buying out of this room, it’ll be a typical procurement dogfight, where they’ll end up sledging it out against much larger firms, that rely on volume to make their margin: Not a fight they’ll enjoy, nor do well in. This second round of reviews is mercifully short and we hightail it back to the minivans. The vendor has put us in Bed and Breakfasts – a nice Midwestern touch: One for the men, and one for the women – a nice Northeastern touch.
The men’s B&B is a red-bricked mansion, built in the early 1900s on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. The owner tells us the house was built back from the water due to the then prevailing belief that the wind off the ocean – and with guilt by association, the lake – caused gout. We are so much smarter than that now, and know that gout comes from trying too hard to be an Anglophile; drinking sherry, eating gobs of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The original owner had made his fortune shipping coal around the Great Lakes, literally fueling the economy that made America America. The house, as houses often do, says a lot about the people who had it built: It was a solid, almost defiant, structure on a promontory with a full view of Lake Michigan. It had style, but in the begrudging manner a coal merchant might use his domicile to say; “I know what style is, and I’ll tolerate just enough of it to show that I can afford it, but I’ll be damned if I play your style game.” The whole structure – the red brick edifice, the slate roof, the squat form of the mansion – bespeaks of a time when fortunes were less earned, than ground out of a life’s worth of toil and stress. I have an overwhelming urge to run outside and kick the red-bricked corner to experience firsthand the un-breakability of it all.
An hour later we’re in the busy bar section of the best restaurant in Sheboygan – we know it’s the best as our hosts have assured us so. The barman – with that Midwesterner’s calm; even in the midst of chaos – suggests I try a Leinenkugel; a beer from a small Wisconsin brewery. He calls it a “craft brewery” – my first time hearing that term. Dinner is excellent, and I eat more Arizona lamb than one mammal should be allowed to consume of another. Wine and beer flows freely; as do rambling conversations, which weave in and out of the omnipresent world of furniture to comparisons of the Midwest to the Northeast – with each side respectfully denigrating theirs in favor of the others. We love their friendly, easy going natures, their sort of low-energy joie-de-vivre. They love our efficiency in communication, considered responses, ability to seemingly cram in everything – work, play, personal growth – into the day. The designer “in from LA” is there, but she demurs from our Northeastern tendency to provoke an East coast – West coast compari-fight. She eats her vegetarian meal and engages in quiet conversation with the owner. The Midwestern-Northeastern love-in goes on – fueled by grain and grape alcohols; sugars, complex and refined; and fat, animal and plant – right through the post desert stomach patting phase of the evening. We leave the best restaurant in Sheboygan feeling like we have excelled in our American right to the pursuit of happiness.
I awake early the next morning in the coal merchant’s master bedroom on the other side of happiness: Which as the gods would have it is a hangover. Denying this, and determined to make the most of the junket, I arise, slug down a bottle of warm fake-spring, water from the desk, and sit down on the floor to meditate. I meditate every day; junket or no junket; two, ten, twelve drinks the night before or not. Meditation is the small window of time when I can watch myself as the actor in my life, and try to untangle myself from the plot. I find a location in my room, far enough back from the windows, that allows me to see the lake, not the shore, just the water stretching off into a blue-grey horizon. I can see the tops of the streetlights that mark a path along the water’s edge. On a few of the lights perch seagulls, one per fixture, their webbed feet finding purchase on flat metal, as they gaze out over the water. From the master bedroom, my ass muscles finding purchase on the cushion appropriated from the room’s armchair, I gaze out over the same water; water I’ve never studied before; the water of an inland sea. I’d never been to the Midwest before; other than as a young man – grinding out a coffee and Mountain Dew fueled Boston to Seattle road trip in a red Ford Escort, full of a young man’s idiotically blinkered urgency that prevented all stopping until the goal was attained. I’d actually never been so far – and stopped for any time – from the Atlantic, the ocean on whose either shores I had lived my entire forty or so years. I can’t believe I’m not overlooking an ocean, its size, the horizon lost in the blurry distance; and the seagulls throw me; their beady black eyes – so unknowingly mysterious.
I spend my meditation busily not meditating.
A knock on the master bedroom door snaps me back to my regular not-meditating. In our boozy goodnights, we’d committed to a jog along the shores of the Great Lakes, a novelty event that would help restore balance – or, more likely for me, a purgatorial exercise to sweat out the alcohol and food I had consumed with the careless abandon of a junketeer.
We run in the grey morning light. I watch the seagulls with suspicion, wondering if they too are acting; do they ever crave a salty fish, a scrambling-legged crab to smash onto the rocks; or have they gone native surviving on bratwurst and cheese curds from the trash barrels? The human body is a wondrous biochemical machine, and it only takes a few minutes of running hard for the hangover to come blaring through. My internal moral conductor directs a symphony of retributive pain and bilious nausea. As always, I slog it out until the physical pain resolves to the cloying sensation one feels while on the decline in the Sine wave of a modern highs-and-lows-filled-life: The Leinenkugel, Arizona lamb and camaraderie fueled evening were the quick ascent to the peak on the wave: The hangover is the sudden decline leading to the dreaded trough: The jog an effort to power through that zenith and on up the next incline. I pound on for twenty minutes, watching the body of water next to me, the waves, the beach, the seagulls all saying ocean, my – seemingly, incredibly small and inflexible – mind refusing to believe that it’s not saltwater. As we wind back along the shorefront path, turning into the inlet that will take us to the B&B, I let my fellow jogging-junketeer know that I need to feel more pain; but what I really need is more momentum to get through the trough and back up the feeling physically better. With an uncharacteristic burst of speed, I launch into a sprint, pushing hard, my feet walloping the asphalt; the trees, benches, trashcans passing by with a comforting regularity. I reach the steps sweeping up to the B&B: Stomach sour-retching, face blazing, head seemingly cleaved open: But I’m through; through to the other side the trough. I’ve compressed my perception of pain in time. I’m on my way back up the incline of life, slowly, slowly moving toward that feeling of endorphin driven happiness.
Later that morning, on a tour of the vendor’s plant, I see a sight every bit as strange as an inland sea: Americans working in a factory. Factories are simply not a part of our world; they were, for the greater part, vacuumed out of the Northeast fifty years ago. We, the junketeers, who know so well our own intense little world – of dense, overcrowded buildings full of the sick and dying; rooms that beep and chime with warning signals; hallways thronged with stressed clinicians, and over-stressed family members – are easily amazed at the friendly, interesting world of the furniture builder. They feed us more good – high salt, high fat, high sugar – heartland food for lunch, give us hearty-firm handshakes, and lead us back to the minivans for the trip to the airport. Our time in junketeer land is over.
Back on I43, the same fields whipping past us, with the same dairy cows, red barns, and silos we had passed less than twenty hours previously, it all begins to become a little familiar. The workers in the furniture plant had started to look like other humans I knew from other places, another continent even; a game the mind plays to tie our worlds together. The human mind needs a little time to adjust to a new world, and create some familiarity, break down the barriers of strangeness with a new place. Our hosts were experts at speeding along that adjustment; helping us feel at home so that we’d see them as familiar people; real people with whom we could, and would, do business. The minivan keeps going; field by field, silo after silo and the inertia settles back in: Blackberries are whipped out, email responses thumbed with sighs and groans, the sports news and the bad news perused. Outside the Midwest passes by, now unnoticed from inside our cloud of inertia; we had wirelessly beamed a little piece of our own world into the minivan, creating a Northeastern Hotspot moving down the shores of Lake Michigan – powering our all-powerful self-image.
We never did buy any furniture from the vendor. Coming as we did from the full contact world of a low margin, high volume, heavily regulated business, our purchase inevitably ended up in the economy showroom, where our hosts lost out to a high volume, low margin manufacturer. The “Maureen” chair did not get developed any further; sketches and renderings somewhere in hyperspace are likely the only memory left of that good, but brief, idea. We completed our building just as the financial system collapsed – yet again – under the weight of its rapacious greed. The opening of our building enhanced our ability as a species to repair the physiological human heart; even as humanity’s emotional heart got sorely damaged when the economic destruction shred the trust that someone, somewhere in the system had our back when it came to unfettered greed.
In the depths of the ensuing recession, with economic gravity reversed – Fiat buying Chrysler for pocket change! – our erstwhile host’s family furniture business succumbed to the reality of our new high volume, low margin world, selling out to one of its much larger competitors. Further heapings of regulations forced health care – the ultimate target for high volume, low margin cost control – truly into the practice of mass production: The product – doctor time with patient – being painfully subjected to the rigors of the market in real time. The term Craft Brewery went on to become so common that the high volume, low margin brewers bought up craft breweries – like Leininkugel – and now mass produce the product. Today large segments of the population stay away from high fat, high salt, high sugar foods – an obesity epidemic has scared us all into reading the labels, and pushing our plate away with a wry, poignant smile. Large, painful disruptions are the punctuation marks of modern human societal evolution.
Back in our world – where the people are friendly, if they already know you; the large bodies of water are saline and full of tasty (to a real “sea”gull anyway) crabs; and the work was all about a product that cannot be seen – we labored on through the recession in our stressful, but rewarding, way. With junkets banned under healthcare reform, sales people now came and presented in our air-challenged conference room. I listened to them all carefully, respectfully, understanding that their drive is to sell, just as mine is to buy. Much to the relief of the Arizona sheep population, I became vegetarian; finally seeing food as nourishment, an occasion to commune with others, and not a tool of inertia. Now a few – truly – craft brewed ales at the weekend covers my need for the third party enhanced relaxation. My knee finally burnt out from too many punishing morning runs – as my fitness increased, I ended up having to add hills to my routine to get the endorphins flowing. Much to the relief of my physiology, I replaced punishing my body into pleasure, with nourishing it through yoga. I still meditate, realizing that it provides my life with a silent, all powerful compass.
There are still days when I believe that kicking the product under review, to get the full sense of its unbreakability, its solidity, its inertia, is a good thing. I presume that’s only because, like many of our species, I suffer from the familiarity-means-permanence delusion. My inertia remains with me, like a childhood friend from whom I’ve grown apart, but don’t quite want to leave behind, so today I escape from that cloud more often than not. That escape is possible because I realized that my false sense of unbreakability was my greatest weakness, a deception as forceful and unsustainable as the one that drove our financial system to a fatty inertia that made its collapse so harmful. Hours, upon hours, upon hours on a meditation cushion opened my incredibly small and rigid mind to realize that solidity itself, and the inertia it breeds, is the great deception: Everything in our world passes, because we make that world, and ultimately, we pass.
The economy returned to its previous levels; though unemployment has stayed stubbornly high and wages in certain sectors remain low – making the recovery a divisive issue. Healthcare is now a bitterly divisive issue in our society; somehow, providing the entire citizenry with that one third of humanity’s omnipresent desire for “health, happiness and wisdom,” has been twisted into a social divider. But then, even craft beer has become a social divider, with what you hold in your hand at a cookout turned into a symbol on where you stand on so many of the issues that divide our society. Furniture is now entirely a commodity business, in which the golden rule is high volume-low margin; there is no room for divisiveness in that formula. The Midwest is still the heartland of the country; albeit suffering congestive failure a little further, with Detroit – one of its old crown jewels – getting auctioned off at an estate sale. The Northeast is still the anomaly it has been in this union of land and people since those fleeing their bitterly divided – religiously or economically – societies waded ashore hoping to make a new, better world. We are a curious herding species, who divide and subdivide our ourselves all the way down to our frail perception of individuality. Yet almost no member of our species wants to fully forsake their place in the human herd: The price we pay to live contentedly in malcontented divisiveness.
A Train Ride
“Leave him be Cheri,” Lynn said, rummaging about frantically in her pocket book.
“No, I’m just saying hello. What the hell harm could that do?” Cheri snapped back. Her voice was too loud for the enclosed space of the subway car.
A few passengers looked up from their phone, and out from behind tablets. Cheri broke a stick of gum between her tobacco-stained fingertips, and popped the two pieces into her mouth. She stared back pointedly at the upturned faces, and chewing hard on the gum, she worked her stare up and down the subway car until all the eyes had looked away. Her stare then turned back to the two men who sat a few seats down the car from her: one white, one black, both in their late twenties, both in dirty tee-shirts and jeans, and each with a large plastic bag of empty cans and bottles wedged between their legs.
“Hey, Andy,” Cheri said again, in her gravelly voice. “Andy Fox from Withersworth Towers, is that you, you old fart?”
“Leave the guy alone,” Lynn said. “Just leave him alone.”
The muscles in Lynn’s right arm flexed as she tightened her hand inside her pocket book. She looked up at the scruffy white man.
“It ain’t no one we know, ok.”
“Sure it is, it’s Andy; I’d know that goddamned jaw of his anywhere,” Cheri answered her back, wagging her head from side to side.
A young girl in dark brown robes and a Muslim veil – sitting next her mother, also in dark brown robes and a veil – looked up from her picture book straight into Cheri’s eyes.
“Something the matter, heh?” Cheri asked, staring down at the little girl.
She chewed hard and fast on her gum. “Can’t a girl just say hello to an old friend of hers, heh? An old boyfriend actually.” Her mane of bleached blond hair wagged from side to side as she spoke.
The girl’s mother took her head in her hand, turned it back down to the book. She patted the little girl gently on the shoulder.
Cheri turned her stare back to the end of the carraige.
“Hey Andy-boy, you too good to talk to the Jones girls now?” Cheri said, with a loud, forced laugh. In doing so she caught the black man’s attention. He looked up at her for a moment.
“Yeah, yeah, him, your boyfriend,” she said, laughing again. “Yeah, give your boyfriend, old Andy-boy an elbow for me.”
“Cut that shit out,” Lynn said. “Just leave them guys alone. We don’t know them, ok.”
The black man bumped his knee against Andy, and then nodded up towards Cheri.
“What the fuck Fred?” Andy asked, turning and looking blearily at the black man.
Fred nodded his head toward Cheri again.
Andy turned slowly, leaning his head back until it bumped against the window. He squinted his eyes at Cheri.
“CH-E-RI,” he slurred out her name.
She laughed loudly back at him. His red, puffed-up face slowly formed into a grin for her.
“Ch-eri,” he said, more clearly this time. “Cheri fucking Jones. You sweet thing.” He let out a little whoop and slapped his knee. “Come and give your Andy a squeeze – he’s been having a bad day you know.”
“Are you sure it’s just today that’s been bad,” she laughed her gravely laugh.
“You start something with him, and you’re on your own,” Lynn said. “’Cause I ain’t going through this again.”
“Hi Lynn,” Andy said, turning his gaze away from the two women, and into the space in front of him.
He paused, his head bobbed a little, and then he continued, “and how the hell are you too?”
Lynn tightened her face and looked away.
The train pulled into a station, and slid to a stop. The Muslim woman bustled her daughter hurriedly off the train and onto the platform. A group of four elderly tourists, all in khaki shorts and pastel golf-shirts stepped onto the car, smiling at everyone around them. They stood at the pole in front of Andy, and formed a semi-circle around a frail white-haired man who started to unfold a map.
“So where you living now Andy, Cal-if-ornia?” Cheri asked, with a snort.
The tourists glanced up, and then, still smiling, turned back down to their map.
“No, no, no, fuck no. I come back, no, no more Cali, a few months, years back. No more Cali,” Andy answered wagging his head back and forth. “I’m just getting set up back again. But it’s sucks now. In Cali I had everything.”
He threw both his hands wildly up in the air, exciting some attention from the tourists huddled around their map.
“An apartment, every-fucking-thing, my motorcycle, everything. Hey,” his voice raised, “you know here, you can’t get shit for shit – know what I mean.”
“Oh, oh, that’s too bad,” Cheri said. She chewed on her gum for a moment and then continued. “So where’s your little cutie now, Connie or Flonnie or whatever the hell her name was?”
“Cut it out Cheri,” Lynn hissed viciously.
Some passengers looked up at her. One of the tourists, a heavy-set, matronly type, turned around, and stared at Lynn and then at Cheri with pursed-lip concern.
“Or was it even a chick at all?”
“Cheri!” Lynn snapped.
The rest of the tourists looked up in alarm at Lynn.
“We split,” Andy answered, obliviously. “Split the fuck up.”
He gave a subdued little whoop.
“Split, split, splitsville.” He wheezed out a long breath.
“I don’t know where that crazy bitch is now. She left, one day. I don’t know, in the middle of the night she took off – gone wallet, gone woman, gone bike … no, no, not then I don’t think her, maybe that was somebody else, some other fucking place. Jesus Christ Cheri, Jesus that was way the fuck back, way, way back, in Vegas or some-fucking-place, me and you must’ve been….”
“No we wasn’t,” Cheri shot out the words. “No we wasn’t.”
Andy sat back in his seat, and looked up at Cheri, who turned away from his unfocused gaze, but immediately turned back.
“Come and give your old Andy a hug.”
He held his arms up; hands black-grey with dirt and grime extending up past his wrist to the mottled pink flesh of his forearms. The tourists, trying to move away from the outstretched arms, tightened their little herd around the map.
Cheri forced out a dry laugh.
“Not those arms pal, not them, they ain’t going hugging Cheri Jones and that’s for fucking damn sure. Take a look at them Andy-boy, they’re as black as your boyfriend’s ass.”
“Cheri!” Lynn erupted, teeth gritting together, jabbing her sister hard in the chest. “You been warned!”
Every head in the car turned and looked up in Lynn’s direction. The matronly tourist, spun around, glared at Lynn and Cheri, frowning hard, pursing her lips tightly together.
“That’s fucking nice,” Andy said into the forced silence created by Lynn’s outburst. “That’s real nice, real nice, real fucking nice.”
He breathed out loudly.
“Now I remember,” he nodded his head slowly, his puffed up face quivering. “It makes sense now, yeah, now I remember how you’re such a fucking bitch. How could I forget that? Such a fucking sun-shines-out-my-ass-bitch. That’s it. That’s exactly it, it’s all Andy’s fault.” He held one finger up in the air. “It’s all Andy’s goddamned fault, everything.”
Passengers glanced up, but immediately looked away. Only the matronly tourist, swiveling at the hips, kept watching them. The rest of her party stared hard at their map.
Then, Andy spoke again.
“Nice city we got here, heh?” he said, evenly, leaning forward and tapping the frail, white-haired tourist on the back. “Very history-oric.”
The old man gave a little leap at the touch of Andy’s finger, and immediately pushed his way to the other side of his group. The matronly tourist stepped into the void he created. Andy threw his hands wildly up in the air again, and shook his head. The tourists tightened behind their leader.
“Fucking bitch,” he growled, his eyes narrowing as he stared at Cheri.
“So that’s your new thing Andy, is it, heh?” Cheri said. She paused for a moment, chewing her gum rapidly, staring straight at Andy.
“Old guys, heh?” She said it calmly, so calmly that everyone nearby looked up.
“Shut up,” Lynn yelled.
“Yeah bitch,” Andy nodded his head up at Cheri. “Listen to your tight-assed sister, and shut the fuck up.”
“Old guys, young guys, young girls; you’re just all over the zoo ain’t you?”
“Lynn Jones,” Andy said forcefully into the air in front of his face. “You tell your cunt of a little sister to shut her fucking mouth, before I do it – permanent.”
“I warned you not to start anything, now shut the fuck up,” Lynn drilled the words out rapidly, her face pushed right up into Cheri’s. “All right, shut up, or there’ll be no more train rides for you.”
Lynn immediately turned herself around to face Andy. She stepped forward and placed her body fully in front of Cheri. She kept right her hand jammed down into her pocket book, the muscles in her right arm were taut. Cheri made as if to pass Lynn, but instead just leaned around her.
“Loser,” Cheri said.
Phone, tablets and free newspapers were immediately raised to passengers’ faces. The passenger sitting next to Andy stood up from her seat, and walked to the other end of the car – her heels marking time in the anxious silence of the car.
“Who the fuck are you to talk?” Andy finally replied, still looking straight ahead. “Heh, just the who the fuck are you to talk?” The rising anger in his voice sent the question booming around the car.
“I’m the mother of what would’ve been your daughter, that’s who!” Cheri screamed back at him.
The car flooded with light as the train emerged out of the ground to cross over the river. The water sparkled in the sun. The grass on either side of the river was lush and green.
“Get over it, all right,” Andy said, dourly. “Just get the fuck over that.”
The passengers stared out the windows at the water, at the grass, and up at the brilliant white clouds that set off the sky’s blueness. For twenty seconds the train was bathed in daylight, before it plunged back underground.
“Why the fuck did you bring that up?” he continued. “What fucking use is that, heh?”
He snapped his head violently from side to side.
“No use, that’s what, no fucking use at all. I ain’t feeling sorry for you. I feel sorry me, that’s the onliest one I feel sorry for in this whole fucking world. Fucking bitching on me about that, heh, about that. Fuck you.”
“Leave her alone Andy,” Lynn said. “We’re getting off at the next stop, so just leave her alone.”
“No we ain’t, no. Not just ‘cause this asshole’s here.”
“Shut up,” Lynn spun around and aimed a finger directly into Cheri’s face. “Just shut up, hear me?”
“Now you got me fucking going, why the fuck do cunts have to do that.”
“Hey man take it easy, come on, take it easy,” Fred said. “We’ll be at Bottle-Barn in a few, then we can get us something to cool down.”
“Yeah, yeah, cool, cool. I’m cool, I’m cool as a fool – that fucking dumb cunt, can you believe that, can you believe she pulled that shit on me?”
“Come on man, chill, we’ll be there in five, five minutes that’s all,” he held his hand up, with the fingers spread apart, in front of Andy’s face. “Five minutes, just hold on, no sense in starting a whole bunch of troubles now over nothing.”
“Nothing, nothing?” Andy turned fully in his seat to look at him. “You’re right Fred: she is nothing, a fucking nothing no good bitch-of-a-bitch cunt, that’s all she is. But now she got me going Fred, now I’m going, now I’m fucking going.”
He brought his hand down hard on his knee.
The slap sent a shudder through the group of tourists.
“Nothing!” Cheri retorted, spitting her gum over Lynn’s shoulder in his direction. “ Fucking nothing!”
“Shut up Cheri,” Lynn spun around again, and yelled in her face. “Please just shut up … .”
“Nothing. Well if I’m a nothing bitch, then … .”
“I said shut up Cheri.”
“… you’re a nothing cock-sucking son-of-bitch …”
“Shut … .” Lynn tried to grab her sister’s mouth with her free hand, but Cheri fended her one hand off with both of hers.
“Go on suck his dick. Suck your nigger’s dick just like you sucked that fag at the beach party, and the mailman guy too – some fucking boyfriend you … .”
Andy struggled up out of his seat. The tourists broke ahead of him, clutching their fanny packs. The frail, white-haired tourist moaning in alarm, as they tried to push past the Jones sisters.
By the time Andy started his charge, and despite having the tourists push up against her, Lynn yanked a canister pepper spray from her pocketbook. Andy raised his hands to shield his eyes, charged on, lunging head first at Lynn, knocking her backwards into Cheri. The three of them landed in a pile on the floor. Cheri screamed, a scream so loud and full of terror that it drowned out all the other noise in the carriage. As soon as the pile hit the floor, Andy’s arms started to flail, landing heavy blows to Lynn’s body.
The rest of the carriage shrank back from the melee, creating space where none had existed.
Lynn had protected the pepper spray, and now the canister’s hissing drowning out Cheri’s manic scream.
Then Andy screamed – his hands snapping back to his eyes, like a spider recoiling at the touch of a human finger. He rolled from side to side across Lynn’s legs, scream-moaning like a wounded animal.
Lynn pulled one leg free, then kicked at him; and sprayed again in the direction of his face; then yanked her other leg free. When she got herself up, she kicked Cheri hard in the back, and then dragged her to her feet, and down the car away from Andy and the pepper spray vapors.
As the pepper spray diffused throughout the car the passengers panicked. They crushed in on top of one another at either end of the car, crowding away from the cloud of vapor, pulling their shirts up over their noses, trying to keep their eyes closed, but too frightened to. The sounds of violent coughing, retching and crying were background noise as Andy screamed and Cheri moaned; the security call-box at the end of the car squawked as someone tried to get the Transit Police.
Fred moved to the other end of the car, away from Lynn and Cheri, and stooped down on all fours. He kept the two bags of cans tucked between himself and the seats, and then lay face down on the floor, his shirt pulled up over his head.
The train began to slow down. Lynn moved Cheri, firmly gripped by the arm and positioned the two of them in front of the door, despite the efforts of other passengers to get in front of them. They both turned their heads back to look at Andy, who still lay on the floor, his scream trailing off to a plaintiff groan.
Cheri sobbed loudly, tears covering her face.
The doors hummed and rattled as they tried to open. Then silence
“Andy’s hurt,” Cheri said.
“Shut up,” Lynn answered. “You done enough talking for today.”
“No he’s hurt bad. Look Lynn, he’s still down there, he’s hurt. That shit you sprayed is in his eyes. They’re hurt bad.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Lynn jostled Cheri up against the closed doors.
The doors hummed again.
“No stop it, he’s in pain Lynn, big-time pain, look at him.”
“Sure, he’s in pain, you’re in pain too. Everyone on this goddamned ride is in pain. Life’s a fucking pain – now shut up.”
The doors rattled opened. The passengers shrank back to let the Jones sisters go.
Cheri hesitated, turning to look back at Andy on the floor. Tears streaked down her cheek.
“But Lynn … ,” she started to say.
“Go on,” Lynn growled through gritted teeth.
She squared her shoulder in the middle of Cheri’s back, and pushed her onto the platform.
“Get off this fucking train.”
An Unplanned Stop
As the gods of travel would have it, the kids and I are stuck in a “family restaurant” in small town Maine, on a nasty commercial drag; an all too typical urban planning tragedy of modern America. Outside on the four lane, no sidewalk drag, auto repair, fast food, and bankruptcy-sales stores occupy their own oversized and underutilized lots, surrounded by seas of cracking asphalt. The buildings themselves are the typical menagerie of too much block, too little glass, garish colors applied with sharp angles to catch the passing traveller’s eye and craving. Two miles away lies a quaint, but eerily quiet, old New England town center: The white church, its steeple needling heavenward; the red bricked town hall, with an ageless settlement problem; the small Victorian mansions for the small Victorian big-shots of a hundred a fifty years ago rural Maine; all these symbols of a harsher, but simpler, past, now faded, disheveled, and nearly abandoned.
Two long blocks away, our car is getting the sort of attention that a family car occasionally needs – except that this is the wrong occasion. This is a reaction after a bad event – a flat tire that reveals all the tire work actually needed – instead of a proactive safety check before departing on a long car journey with my eleven and fourteen year old kids. We had stuck it out for two hours in the auto repair showroom as the freaks that read in auto repair showrooms. Being the first to dock in there that day, I had clicked off the television and taken out the kids’ summer reading books. The kids gave me the requisite cold stare of incredulity at such repressive parenting, but eventually read under the threat of vacation-water-boarding; killing the WiFi and TV in the hotel room. Other customers came in, looked at the TV, presumed it was broken and thumbed through the worn magazines on the coffee table. Unfazed, I read on, reading not because I had to, but for the nostalgia of when reading opened neurons for new, refreshing thoughts that I could stand behind for at least a few months without cynicism.
But this was not to be a day for refreshing insight: Instead all thought of non-cynical nostalgia gets stuffed down my consciousness by a story in the local newspaper of a woman charged, and then released, with running over her boyfriend in her own driveway, breaking his leg. The boyfriend is a lifetime registrant of the Maine Sex Offender Registry; the basis of this couple’s relationship does not get much shrift in the news article, which comes off a series of staccato-declarative statements on the boyfriend’s vicious history, and what happened that evening. On March 28, the girlfriend came home in a still snow covered landscape to discover her Registered Offender boyfriend sexually assaulting a 12 year old girl in their house. A fight erupts inside the house, gushes out into the driveway, whereupon the girlfriend jumps back into her car and runs the Offender over from close range – badly physically damaging a man who has badly psychologically damaged so many others. Later that crazed evening the girlfriend gets charged with aggravated assault and operating under the influence – but now, with the snow finally melted, those charges are getting dismissed. The Offender is given a brief stay in hospital, followed by what promises to be a very long stay in the state prison. There is almost no mention of the 12 year old victim – she’s a plot vehicle for the sort of news story that we can’t not read.
After two hours in that auto repair waiting room, we heard we were still two hours away from getting our auto repaired. So now, we’re sitting in a “family restaurant,” an institution which has become an unfortunate political statement that says “we are the type of people who eat oversized servings of this once wholesome – but now so full of fat, salt and sugar that it is slowly killing us – food; and more importantly, we don’t care a shit what you think of us. And by the way, we love the NRA, even though our obesity and diabetes make it highly unlikely that we will be able to participate in a militia driven rebellion against our repressively liberal government.” The kids get excited by the menu, but I’m already overfull of old fashioned parental guilt at driving my kids a few hundred miles on four tires that were beyond their use date; anxiety at the likely rapacious cost of replacing all four tires, balancing them, aligning them, replacing one tie rod that “had a little bit of play in it – enough to fail the Maine sticker test!”; plus a heavy dessert of guilt-laden regret at wasting precious family vacation time sitting in auto repair waiting rooms reading stories that show just how crazed a world we live in. This three-course meal of guilt, anxiety, and regret, all consumed in this very strange-to-us environment heightens my sense of why: Why the fuck are we? Not just here in this restaurant, not just in this town, not just in this state or country, but why are we humans here in our consciousness? Why did we make our consciousness, and why are we trapped in it? Why?
Our waiter approaches with speed and gusto.
He’s a middle-aged Irish-Gay guy: A condition peculiar amongst the Irish – perhaps to further distinguish ourselves from the British – whereby one can’t know, or can’t acknowledge, their sexuality; instead the Irish-Gay live out their lives as permanently single people, often living with a surviving parent, upon whom they equal parts dote and despise. Their sexuality – writhing beneath our Irish superhuman capacity for denial; honed in equal parts under the cosh of the British Empire and the Catholic Church – outrageously acts out one or more of the camp mannerisms, in tonality, expression, dress or gait which straight people ascribe to being gay. Thus Shane approaches, his Claddagh ring prominent, his pink breast-cancer tee shirt flying back as he crosses the dining room in what seems like an attempt at a table-waiting land-speed-record. He’s a good waiter and a pleasant person – the tension stored in his limbs notwithstanding. He refers to my kids as “young man” and “young lady”; and provides sound advice about the menu’s Clintonesque meal descriptions. All through our order, he never stops moving, his skinny arms and legs move at the direction of the puppeteer buried somewhere in his consciousness. He completes the order with a flourish of his Bic pen, whisks the menus off the table and disappears at high speed.
I survey the room: On the television at the end of the dining room the Subway guy – the man who became famous, and then presumably, in accordance with our culture, rich, by losing a few hundred pounds eating only Subway sandwiches – is being led from a courtroom in Indiana where he has just pled guilty to child sex offences. The mute, but glaringly CLOSE CAPTIONED television shows this dangerously-morally-and-psychologically-ill man; first in his heyday smiling at the camera staring confidently into the lens; then again, and again, and again being led down the Indianapolis courthouse steps, head down, handcuffed to a police officer. The toxicity of just how we live pours out of the television into the family restaurant. There’s golf shirted defense attorneys – just in from a thousand dollar a round on the you-name-it PGA course – spouting in Close Captions about their trade, wagging fingers and clasping hands alternately; there’s more facts – grim, sickening facts, delivered with TV-anchor-emotionless-faces – of sex purchased with “the younger the better” purchase requirement; there’s a solid as a rock Indiana State Trooper saying his piece, with the unmistakable sense of a man who knows he’s caught one of the thousands out there – he uses his camera time to warn the thousands still out there that their day will come. The eerily silent TV delivers this flood of malaise into the dining room, pouring it out over the just-north-of-clean carpet, over the fake wood tables covered in the slow-release poison food, into the consciousness of anyone wasting a 90 degree Maine summer’s day indoors. The question now trying to whip my mind away from the senselessness of all these situations is: Why? Why the fuck do we, the allegedly higher order species, act worse than wild animals when it comes to sexual urges?
The rest of the room is indifferent to the enormous question mark stretching my consciousness in all directions.
In the corner an elderly couple get seated: He’s bordering on obese with blotchy-paper-thin-skin, and a bad hair piece that looks like it could get liberated by a passing tray; she’s a tiny bird of a woman, wrist bones jutting through waxy skin, a chemically-resolute-hairdo, and way too much make up. In my cruel dining-room-malaise, I imagine that one or other will die in the coming year, and the survivor will never leave the house, dying themselves in months from – depending which one survives – obesity or malnourishment. At the table in front of them sit two guys in their mid-sixties sit with plates of good “family” food and a beer each. One of these is also in the obesity waiting room, the other has what we would have once called a normal middle age spread, but now might be classified as “dangerously inactive.” They’re keen on the toxicity spewing from the television; eating fast and drinking deeply from their beers; taking a break, the heavier guy explains loudly to Shane what’s happening, but suddenly gets quiet and mouths the words “child abuse.” All three heads wag in disappointed, confused bitterness. Behind these lunch-and-a-beer-friends are two Maine Game Wardens in their olive green uniforms, with equipment belts, radios, flashlights, and all-purpose tools twisted into odd angles in the seated position. They too are in the one fat – one thin set, with one fit Warden, bristling with muscle and the other pudgy, folds of skin layering three deep at the back of his shaved head. They’re talking lunch the way people, forced together for lunch, talk lunch all over the world; pithy news facts – personal and global – chewy-long-silences, punctuated by bitching about how work could work so much better.
The room and television depress me. My kids are in the middle of the time honored family practice of sibling subversive-war, with beneath the table foot-crushing raids being followed by kicks and tearfully vicious stares, leading to attempted pinchings behind a quickly erected screen made out of the menu. I issue the obligatory threat of parental sanction – NO DESSERTS FOR MISBEHAVING KIDS – and let my eye rove out the window. The window overlooks the “West Wing” of a cheap, rambling motel. The side door to the West Wing opens, and a very heavy, very made up Asian-American woman in her early thirties heaves out, luggage in either hand, an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. She puts the bags down immediately, lights the cigarette, picks up the luggage again and huffs toward her car; an import knockoff sports model with Connecticut plates. She opens the trunk, pulling deeply on the cigarette and reaches again for her bags. A small child – three or four years old – appears from stage left, runs to the woman and jumps into her free arm; the other arm holds the hand that holds the cigarette far from the child.
The father appears. He’s thin, but muscular, wearing a white sleeveless undershirt. He moves into the shade thrown by the West Wing’s two stories, his eyes harden as he drags deep on his cigarette – like a 1970s movie tough guy. He watches as the woman lets the child down – the red ash racing down his cigarette. The little girl is cute and happy in a bright summer dress, her eyes full of life and expectation. Her mother humps the bags into the back of the car with one hand, protecting the cigarette with the other. The little girl runs to her dad, the bright dress suspending in space behind her rushing torso; her face is hidden from me, but I can imagine those little eyes sparkling as she leaps against her father’s leg, clutching his blue-jeans tight with both arms, pushing her face into his thigh. Blue-grey smoke gush from his mouth and nose, he flicks the cigarette away onto the asphalt, picks up his daughter and walks to the car. Doors slam silently, the woman’s cigarette flies out the passenger window, and off they take.
In the dining room the toxicity continues to spew out of the TV. More repeated images of the Subway guy being led down the courthouse steps. The unmentioned irony that the policemen surrounding him on the courthouse steps have not – as yet – invoked the Subway diet to keep their girths within the range the doctors would suggest is prudent. The images just keep rolling, the Subway man, the police, the words spewing across the bottom of TV in unknowing, stuttering condemnations of how we live. Then the anchors expressionlessly read and reread a statement from the Subway guy’s wife, who understandably wants nothing to do with the media. Nobody on the screen, other than the solid as a rock Indiana State Trooper, seem to be able to experience the pain that has been and is being wreaked by this man who has now metamorphosed twice – or so we would like to believe.
At the table next to me a grandfather and grandson sit down. The granddad is on oxygen, two clear tubes run from a tank beneath the table, up behind and over his ears, across his face to his nose. His hair is dark and well groomed, his eyes intense as he peppers his grandson with questions about college and golf. The questions interchange without notice, making my eavesdropping difficult, but after a few moments, I get the clear sense that the grandson’s education and golf game are both going pretty well. Behind them in the corner, sits another man on oxygen – the Oxygen-Supported-Life Shuttle apparently having dropped off while I was staring out the window. The other man is alone and silent. He stares into space, his mouth opening and closing like a fish against the wall of a tank.
Shane buzzes around the dining room, ferrying overflowing plates to all the tables, ours included. The TV spews, and spews and spews. The two older guys down their beers, leaving a track of foam running down the glasses as they rest on the table. The Rangers shift in an uncomfortable silence. My kids are gleefully consuming the sort food they rarely get. A particularly difficult course is being discussed at the next table. The West Wing bakes silently in the hot summer sun.
I look slowly around this human fish tank – wondering where is the exterior?
Wondering, where is it that I should be wishing I can get to?
What Was Once
What was once a twelve year old me is standing in a bathing suit, in the rain, on the rough concrete platform that serves as access to the lake into which we are about to plunge, to save lives. The concrete platform has a second tier – up five feet above the base platform, even rougher, being more weathered – sticking out of which, what was once a diving board, but is now simply two rusting railway tracks jutting seven feet out over the dark lake water. The rain pings the skin on my torso, reminding me of the warmth of being dressed, but is unfelt on my arms and legs, which are used to rain as they are to the wind that seemingly never stops. It’s July 1977 at the town lake in Castlebar in the west of Ireland. The lake has a name, but we don’t know it, and won’t know it for another thirty years, until the town grows big, and finally proud, enough to feel the need to start naming its bodies of water. There’s a small group of twelve year old boys standing in the wind and rain on the concrete platform waiting for the start of a Life Saving Test. All week, we’ve toiled in that same rain and wind – complements of neighbor from twelve miles away; the Atlantic Ocean – in outdoor swimming pool built for what was then a town of three thousand people, but sized for a modest American suburban home. For five days we’d simulated panicked rescues, pulling hard on each other’s hair, as we frog leg on our backs up and down the thirty foot long and twelve foot wide artificial body of water known as the Pool.
“Are we going to the Pool?” someone would say expectantly, hoping it would stir an idea, a chance to crack the monotony of three hours straight playing rule-deprived soccer in the empty high school parking lot.
The Pool represented a small window into another world. In a small town nouns take on life, that beguiles the listener. The Cinema represents a portal into an exciting, heroic and just world that we desperately want to believe is real. The Complex was where all legitimate sporting activity was to take place – outside of there your activity was suspect at best. The Main Street was town; where people went to shop for what little they needed to get by on– consumerism had not yet been birthed in the West of Ireland. The Cop-Shop was where people got beaten into being better citizens; failing that cure, they got shipped off to Mountjoy Gaol; a form of shameful hell on earth. The Mental was where those who couldn’t get through a full day in our society – which in general, despite this frighteningly large exception, was decent and caring – were warehoused until death relieved them of what was diagnosed by their family, and occasionally a doctor, as mental illness. The River – a tortured and twisted body of water, canalized by prisoners in the seventeen hundreds into the oblivion of slinking through the backyards of downtown businesses – was a trash filled, polluted, afterthought in which those crazier than us fished with balls of dough as bait, and sometimes even ate what they caught. The Lake – though clean and natural – was a deep and murky body of water, nestled between the drumlins that formed our landscape; it had a sort of begrudging beauty which it seemed to shrug off in the same way the Irish can’t accept a compliment.
The Lake was somewhere to go for a change of pace; I would sit on the diving board’s concrete platform, and stare into its dark waters and wonder why we needed darkness, why we needed depth. Among all those nouns that described and defined our childhood life, the Pool – faux-supervised by a couple of unplugged, teenage life guards, busily impressing their friends with massive displays of nonchalance in the face of actual responsibility – was three hundred and sixty square feet of childhood fun.
In the eye-reddening-over-chlorinated water, you could tackle your friend and hold him underwater, his slithery-wiry limbs pounding your chest and arms until he had you under water, gasping for air in mock panic. Reluctance to enter the pool was a sign of weakness dealt with by a sharp shove, or, with a frienemy on either arm, a frog march off the edge into the three feet of water, squeals of delight rendering the air, rendering barely a glance from the lifeguard. There were races in all strokes, above and below the water, running races through the water, piggy-back races, floating endurance competitions, and fights. Fights that erupted and passed so quickly, the lifeguards couldn’t tell them apart from the rough play, except when blood was drawn and pinkened the water. Eventually everything devolved into a fight for us in the Pool – because we were boys, with egos that expressed themselves through nervous physical energy. To preserve the angelic innocence of childhood, the sanctity of marriage, the dedication of our lives, souls and bodies to the benevolent Catholic God who allowed the Pool to be constructed with money provided by the overwhelmingly Catholic populace of our town, access to this portal into childhood fun was strictly separated by gender. Boys: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Girls: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sunday: By the holy grace we all carried since our First Communion, and mortal fear of the vengeful God Almighty we all lived under, the XX and XY chromosomes, Venus and Mars, Adam and Eve were allowed to mingle in those precious three hundred and sixty square foot. To my knowledge those crazed coed Sundays did not lead anyone into a life of sexual depravity.
With Irish societal pressure to oh-too-quickly leave behind the trappings of childhood, we twelve year olds signed up for the first level of the Life Guard courses – the two pound fee being provided with a hard stare, a sigh and a wag of the warning finger not to fail. So for one week we applied ourselves in the clear, but eye burning – there were no swimming goggles for us – water of the Pool, saving a thousand souls from a faux-watery death. The seemingly omniscient, and definitely, omnipotent instructors two young women, hailed from Claremorris – a town fifteen long miles away from us. Claremorris, by dint of the sort of determination that colonized whole continents, had reached near Olympian heights in water sports as a result of having an indoor, heated pool: A luxury we outsiders got to enjoy the few times a year we would be driven over to an old warehouse in which a seemingly enormous bathtub of warm water – an above grade pool – was housed. In the comfort and shelter of the old warehouse, the good people of Claremorris could, and did, turn themselves in the people of Atlantis sending forth missionaries to the less fortunate, land-bound people of Mayo.
These instructors taught us well, so well that I am still somewhat confident – fortyish years on that I could save a “drowner” as we called them. The approach was the most difficult, and therefore exciting, part: To save a twelve year old faux-drowner, one had to force them into submission over their simulated fear of saying goodbye to life; to ensure early and complete submission required the implementation of some dastardly tactics. My favorite was swimming deep below the drowner – or in the case of the three foot deep Pool, simulating this – and arriving suddenly at their chest, my arms bursting theirs wide open, (a small head-butt aided here significantly), my hands roughly grabbing their shoulders, spinning them around, then with a vicious death-grip on their hair, my legs pumping the water (and their back, just a little) to get them flat. Then with the drowner subdued and floating, I towed them the fifteen or so feet to the safety of the pool edge – where occasional light concussions were incurred due to the drowner’s momentum hefting them into pool wall. I excelled at saving the hysterical drowner, turning it into a graceful – if somewhat bruising – aquatic-mugging, all done, of course, to save another soul from a watery grave.
The instructors – with merely twenty or so years on this watery planet, had already gained the skill of the red-faced angry glare, so often used by all the other adults in our lives – worked us hard. We swam more laps to warm up each morning than we would normally swim for a week; they weaned us off our self taught strokes, fixing the tics we’d given to ourselves to avoid the eye-burning water; they taught us to dive, or attempted to in my case, to reach the victim with maximum haste. The drowner was everything; we savers were nothing, mere agents of a humanity that needed to keep as many of its members alive as possible. That this did not coordinate at all, let alone well, with the images we saw every night on our televisions from Northern Ireland, where shooting and bombing deaths had slowed to a few a week, was beyond discussion. We were the boys of Atlantis, not the boys of Belfast. The hard work took its toll on our undisciplined, wildly-free spirits. With sighs and shoulder shrugs too heavy for what was once our twelve year old selves, we silently, but bitterly, passed judgment those who dropped out: Quitters –in an opportunity barren landscape – now forced to live life on a lake and river infested island at the edge of the capricious Atlantic, incapable of saving their fellow citizens. Our over-fertilized maturity had smothered our childhood.
On the Thursday, the instructors announced that the “Test” would take place the following day in the Lake. The surviving twelve year olds stirred with anxiety: The Lake! Last year’s “Test” had been held in the Pool – a body of water about which all was known: Depth - 3’-0”; fauna – none; flora – just a little green goop by the drain; weather – poor trending to passable outdoors, dry-ish in changing rooms; probability of meeting a monster while swimming under water – low to very low. Yes, we had all swam in the Lake, and even opened our eyes in its murky waters, wondering what lingered beneath us in the deep, darkness. The chance of being devoured by our very own Lake Ness Monster was indeed troubling, but the real problem was the Lake’s depth. Off the diving board platform, the water was deep, too deep all around for anyone, even a grownup to stand. The pressure of not having a footing upon which to cheat while executing a save – despite the uncompromising instructors’ reprimands – would render the “Test” un-passable. We complained bitterly, dragging excuses from every corner of our minds. The instructors’ wry smiles gave us our answer. We would complete the “Test” in the Lake.
Despite our anxiety ridden prayers, Friday dawned on the fifth day, as it does every week, and with the day came rain, wind driven rain; a typical Irish summer day. We pretended to presume, knowing all along the weakness in our reasoning, the rain meant something different; just as an Eskimo youth might pretend a fall of snow would change his day in any way. The morning practice session was held in the Pool. Watching the others practice, we held onto our eternally wet and heavy towels like blankies. The rain eased slightly, the wind picked up; the one-two punch the God used to remind us we were no longer in the Garden of Eden.
Lunch was picked at and pushed away before a harsh word reminded me of just how hard a “decent lunch was to come by.” Afterward, we assembled at the pool. One parent showed up – a doctor, who in his pleasant doctor’s way offered to drive us all up to the Lake, a fifteen minute walk away. After the reality of that offer was tested by comparing the number of humans vs. space in his small car, it was instead decided the twelve year olds would walk, and the adults go by car. A sensible suggestion based upon the respective wear-and-tear to date of our respective limbs.
On the concrete platform at the Lake, we changed, using our heavy, wet towels – stuffing our clothes into plastic bags to keep them dry – and waited for the “Test” to start. Further up the lake shore, about fifty yards away, stood a woman waving both arms and yelling for attention. The adults looked at each other, the doctor nodding thoughtfully as he offered to see if he could help. The instructors watched as he strode along the shore toward the woman, and then silently agreed that he needed their help.
“Wait there,” one ordered in the curt voice of one who knows their order will likely not be followed.
“No one in the water,” the other added, waving an admonishing finger.
The doctor, now up as far as the woman, turned and waved them on. They broke into a jog.
We watched in silence for a moment, then broke into a sprint behind them, our bare feet stinging on the rocky shore.
As we arrived at the scene, the woman rushed off, fast talking breathlessly to the doctor, who stooped down over a fully clothed man’s body – half in-half out of the water.
Dumbstruck, we stood and watched – the wind, the rain, the stinging feet all suddenly whisked away. On the ground lay an older man, heavy-ish, bald, his clothing – the sort of old grey suit patients from the Mental were issued – dripping water; his skin an alarming blue-grey-green: The color and texture of the underside of a fish.
The instructors swung into action right away, kneeling next to the body, one of them fixed the angle of his head just as they had instructed us to do; the other opened his mouth, did a sweep for vomit with her forefinger, and then pinched his considerable nose closed with her thumb and forefinger; placed her mouth on his. We watched in psyche-fracturing disbelief.
She breathed breath after breath of her life into what was once a man.
The breather leaned out. The other instr