A Writer’s Travels Through Anxious Times
“Don’t let them edit you, because you cannot be edited,” says the retired editor, a passing comment I never forget. Readers tell me all the time they are struck sharp by my passions while my friends advise me to submit to publishers and get edited and make tons of money.
This book is for readers who love to read great, passionate writing. I don’t give a toss if it make me a penny. A lot of my friends know how to make money, how to make that shit tessellate. They will think I have thrown away another opportunity with this collection, chasing pennies. My friends do not know how creativity works, so I can only say Ha ha.
First Candy is “A Tiny Bit About Life, Too” being a story about a coach and his soccer players which is about a lot more than sports.
Second Candy is “Romance 101: My Introduction to Love & Betrayal” being a story about learning to fall in love instead of getting laid.
Third Candy is “Falling Down the Mountain” being a travelogue about hiking to the basecamp of the Annapurna mountain in the Himalayas.
Fourth Candy is “Istmo, Baby” being about me in the City of Women, where every mother’s youngest son is raised as a girl, and where I encounter the man who shot Che Guevara.
Fifth Candy is “In the Tin Mine” being about my visits to the saddest place on Earth, in the peaks of the Andes, where the wives of miners scratch tin by hand from the mountainside to pay for a funeral for a grand-daughter who went to the big city and got a cold and died.
Sixth Candy is “Jaguar” being about the cat and its jungles and the temples of murder erected in its name.
Seventh Candy is “Why, Writer?” being a defense or explanation of why anyone writes as long as I do in an age of bytes and bites, my puny attempt to imitate Orwell, whose greatest essay was “Why I Write,” and I am not Orwell, even if I claim his molecules pump in my blood.
And many smaller sugars in the form of my photographs pepper these sections with sweetness for the eye and some small spices for the mind.
* * * *
This book is dedicated to the people who have inspired me to act beyond my capabilities and who are no longer here to see what I can do: Natasha Reatig, Michael Morrison, Jacques Morgan, Ingolfur Juliusson, and Nicola Thompson.
And this book could not exist without the constant belief and energy of Sandra Bishop!
I was twenty-one when the following story happened, and it took me another 20 years to write it. Why? The evidence is overwhelming that people who mull over their plans, who procrastinate, are much more likely to produce artwork of originality. You can Google that statement to get proof, if you need it. A writer who writes as he sees, in the immediacy of his senses, is a journalist and not a writer. There’s a fine line over which a journalist drops and can never become a writer. You can’t google that. I was trained in journalism and made a living from it from 17 years old to 26 years old, and I skittered along that edge, from reality into my imagination and back. As this piece about me coaching a boys soccer team fermented, I learned to write as a journalist could not.
The first story in this collection is proof that the key ingredient in a writer’s arsenal is time, and not time as in the aging of wine, but time as in patience.
When I was 21:
I am living in Oregon. I have gone there to become a writer. Not a reporter, which I had been doing for years already, but a writer. I tell Skipper I am giving up journalism. Doing too much of it would ruin the poetry I kept on my tongue. I am 21, and Skipper worries about me.
“Sports writing is a noble profession, Bub, it doesn’t mean you can’t end up writing a wonderful novel. Look at the guy who wrote the Poseidon Adventure. He started in sports.”
“Yeah, Paul Gallico is exactly the kind of hack I don’t want to become. He’s where writing about sports will take me.”
“But the Poseidon Adventure is a big movie.”
“It’s trash, Skipper. I don’t want to write a stupid movie. I want to write about people’s lives and how they feel and dream.”
He went along with it, as he always did at first, but couldn’t help pointing out that poets were famously incapable of making a living. I replied that I was more interested in making a life than a living. We talked on the phone once a year; he was 73 and married again, living in an apartment in the Costa del Sol with his Danish wife. We didn’t get too philosophical on the phone because the calling rates then were outrageous. We stuck to the news. Every call, the father would ask the son if he had a job. He swelled with pride at my stories of journalism and publishing houses. But now here I was in Oregon, about to commit financial suicide by creativity. How would the writer eat? How would the rent be paid?
I showed up at 8am at a grocery in Eugene to apply for a job bagging people’s shopping, and 18 applicants had already been and gone. I got six months of food stamps and wrote dead-end fiction every day until the unemployment people found me a job: soccer coach. When Skipper and I talked for the only time during my Oregon stay, I didn’t tell him about the food stamps but I bragged about the coaching gig. He wondered jokingly if soccer coaches got paid more than poets; and I replied without too much tease in my tone that this team would win. “Well, Bub,” drawled Skipper, “I am sure about that because you’re so darned good at keeping score, but I hope you teach your players a little bit about life, too.”
When we said goodbye and hung up, I was mildly irritated. I would write him a letter and keep him abreast with the team’s progress. I was too young then, just 21, to tell him that even this job with 8-year-old soccer players would be simply a chapter about my life. Every job I’ve ever had has become a story; every love, every voyage, every conversation has become a brick in a house I am telling. But what kind of house? A shelter for rhymes, or a hideout for the truth? A place where children learn that honesty can only happen when you learn how to lie?
Oregon was the place in the road where my walk with my father bifurcated. It wasn’t so much that he went his way and I mine, but that I stepped away from him and who he was and what he meant to me. The part of this story that you are missing, now, in these 80 hopeful pages I am making to catch a publisher, is the awesome teenage criminal that I became in Spain, a tireless vandal who threw off the protections of his father to make his statements about society in ruined property and surprises written with pain. I had already outgrown Skipper physically, long before, probably at the moment that the Guardia Civil interrupted my geography class and hauled me away at gunpoint; machine guns and police chiefs barely sobered the 14-year-old me but scared Skipper shitless. I had to leave Spain to keep him safe. But now in Oregon, I was ready for abandonment of my own. The molt we must all make, the rejection of our roots, happened to me in the furthest reaches of my thoughts: I wanted to wonder, and not just wander as my father had done. My escape into the future would be an arrival made of ideas, and I would get there exactly on time; Skipper used his legs to dance and golf his way out of the swamps, and everywhere he got turned out to be not quite the right place. Ideas, rather than dance steps, would form my map forward. He wasn’t the first skin I shed, or the last, but Skipper no longer cast such long shadows on my future. There would be dramatic Goodbyes between us, as you will see, but what mattered that summer was my own Hello.
Who I am now is of course influenced by a lifetime of fears and feeling. Show me the five year old and there is the entire person, says one school of thought. If I really wanted to evolve I would have to accept change, and that meant seeing every situation from all angles. If I would be the coach of a soccer team, I would have to accept lessons from the game, from the boys who would play for me, and from the methods I chose to teach. These lessons would matter for the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to teach the kids that, in soccer, if you hang onto the ball too long, you lose it. But what would I have to learn to teach them this?
Billy Gould’s father told me not to speak to Billy’s mother. This was the first thing he said to me, in the first phone call I received from a parent of a player. He said he would take care of all of Billy’s needs for the games and the practices. That was fine with me. I didn’t know Billy Gould’s mother and I didn’t know Billy Gould. His name was the first of fifteen names assigned to me as my soccer team of eight-year-old boys. I would just be coaching and their home lives were their home lives and not my concern.
On a grey Oregon day the kids showed up for their first practice, and a kid named Gavin sat on a ball in front of me and listened to everything I had to say about soccer and sports and was the first to raise his hand when I asked if there were any questions: “Are we gonna win, Coach?” I laughed and shook my head and didn’t answer and the boys must have thought that was a little odd, a coach who didn’t seem to care about winning. We played keep away. Me against 15 eight-year-olds. They learned in the first few minutes to rely on each other, because they were playing against a big cat who seemed to have eight feet and who called them all “man” and who tugged at their shirts or yanked their hair and thought nothing of tripping and catching them in one movement while roaring for the ball. I played the role of the big cat, and in one of my pounces I ran into Billy Gould and gave him a bloody nose. The kids continued on their own, banging the ball around like a loose rocket, while I walked Billy over to a pregnant woman holding the hand of a little girl who said as we approached, “Now what?” Billy Gould’s mother pressed a tissue against his face and tilted his head back but the nosebleed wouldn’t stop. I didn’t notice them drive away while the rest of us practiced, but I remembered the conversation with Billy’s father and thought it strange he wasn’t there for the first practice. Wasn’t he supposed to be taking care of everything?
Our next practice was two days later, and by the end of it I knew how parts of the team would function in games. Gavin with the upturned nose who sat on the ball and asked me about winning would be our darting bird on the wing, running along the sidelines where his speed and endurance could move the ball against the other team. Gavin’s twin brother Bryce was a philosopher, so I instructed him to be patient and sit in front of the goal and wait for something to fall off the table. “What table?” Just pretend there’s a table, I said, and wait for something to fall off and when it does be calm and hit it with the side of your foot toward the net. Our center forward, our bull thrusting into the opposition’s defense, would be Danny Foster, a tireless kid a bit bigger than the rest whose rouged cheeks were the only hint of his exertion; his mother was a lawyer, and seemed as busy and breathless off the field as her son was on it, and each practice would end with me and Danny Foster kicking the ball alone while waiting for Mom to close her deals. Along with Bryce and Danny Foster in front of the goal I placed Matthew, who showed up the first day dying of shyness, hiding behind his father’s legs. Matthew’s father was a tall, bespectacled military man, older, grey, and Matthew’s mother was a diminutive Korean lady who embarrassed her son each time she spoke; her accent chopped against the Oregon drawl. My defense would be anchored by Oliver, the son of a tall and big-boned German lady who instantly appreciated my own European upbringing and whose demands to her son that he do whatever I say led to just the kind of loyalty and concentration you need in defense, where trouble must be defused when the opposition has the ball, and where trouble must be started when the ball is ours. With Oliver were two slower but nimble kids, and behind them was Mike, the first to volunteer to tend goal, and whose father was then first to volunteer to be my assistant despite knowing nothing about soccer.
The middle of our team was J.R., whose family lived on the wrong side of the economic tracks, in Springfield, and whose adolescence I could guess would be marked by constant flight, since he was ticked with tricks, always jerked by the distractions of hyperactivity and dyslexia, and with J.R. would be Billy Gould, who had never played soccer but who emerged alone with the ball from our keep-away scrums more than any of the other kids, and who like J.R. was on the run from something, probably the disaster at home between his parents, who’d already made it clear to me I would deal with one or the other but never both. Yet it was only Billy’s mother who showed at practices with her dented Chevy van and swelling pregnancy and Billy’s little sister by the hand.
On the second day of practice I told them we needed to learn the other positions, so the defenders attacked while the forwards tried to stop the ball from reaching Mike’s goal. And all the time I flitted among them, cheating, tugging, pulling, joking, shouting, come on come on, and then we’d take a break and I’d ask them each what they thought about things, not about soccer, but things that they thought about because they were interesting to think about, and each time I called a break and we sat on the balls to talk about stuff, I’d make sure we were in a different part of the field, where the game was different from the other parts of the field, and we’d come out of our discussions ready to deal with just this part of the field, the center, or the goal, or the sideline, or the penalty box, and the parts of the field were emphasized to show that the game itself was the opposition, and not the other team. If we could do this series of things in this part of the field, and then this other series of things in this other part of the field, we would be cool, no matter what our opponents planned to do.
On the third day of practice a late signee dropped off his son, a red-haired pink-freckled cherub who heard nothing of my strategies and little of his teammates’ enthusiasms because he was studying a blade of grass or the color of the sky or just aimlessly looking toward where he’s seen his father last, and I realized by the fourth practice that Jeremy had a problem, which of course all the other kids had already realized, and I wondered what I would do about Jeremy’s problem, which seemed to me to be about the parts of Jeremy that weren’t there.
By the next-to-last last practice, the boys knew all the positions and all the parts of the field, and I was happy they’d learned something. The parents were also learning about their kids. The twins’ parents were astonished that I called Bryce a philosopher and Gavin an astronaut. I could see them looking at the brothers in this context, one so patient and one such a rocket. Danny Foster’s bustling mother didn’t hear it the first time I told her that her son was a natural athlete, and then was shocked the fourth time I said it and she knew me well enough to listen: “Is he really?” And from then on she saw her own bustle in his pace and distances. Mike the goalkeeper’s Dad made sure the eight balls we got as a team went home with different kids each practice, and all the kids learned how to play one-bounce, where the ball could only touch the ground once before it had to be kicked up into the air again, and J.R. could do it twenty times before the ball hit the ground twice. I could tell from the way Billy Gould touched the ball so lightly, so deftly and steadily, that he would be the best at one-bounce, and I told him so when none of the other kids could hear, and from then on it was him and J.R. increasing the number of times they could keep the one-bounce going. Both Billy and J.R. had little sisters, and I told their little sisters that I had a little sister, too, which meant they yelled out their brothers’ names a little louder, because each time they did I would look at the sideline at the little girls and nod my head in thanks. For them, I was not the coach but a bigger big brother. And Billy and J.R. were both sensitive to cheering, I noticed; enthusiasm is often the extra gear a kid needs to excel.
And Jeremy when asked to play one-bounce would simply stand among the kids with the ball in his hands, grinning, and Jeremy’s dad would apologize profusely and tell me he was too busy driving the taxi to really play with his son and encourage the soccer, but I would wave him away with a smile and claim that Jeremy was learning, even though I was still wondering what I would do about Jeremy’s problem.
At the last practice, Billy Gould’s dad showed up for the first time. He watched quietly, apart from the other parents. Even his car was parked some distance from the other cars. He was surprisingly big; Billy was lithe and quick, equally industrious and sly as he moved the ball toward the goal or his teammates. His father seemed too sluggish and sturdy to match his son and the son kept looking at his father during practice in a way he hadn’t when his mother and sister were there. But Mr. Gould simply shook my hand once and said nothing. I was grateful he stayed aloof, since I expected some interference after that first phone conversation when he’d signed Billy onto the Red Devils, the nickname Gavin insisted fit our team. Everybody instantly accepted the name when I pointed out it might make some of the parents nervous.
The night before our first game, I went out with my pals and drank rum and Heineken and got sick as a dog, which my housemate Wade explained as my nervousness before the game to the rest of our friends. But I wasn’t nervous. I was bored. Eugene was a city made for twenty thousand hippies, and it was crammed with four times that many. The unemployment dragged at every interaction and intersection. People my age worried about the future. Wade was a brilliant musician, but his band only got gigs if they played cover songs, and this compromise seemed to infuse every impulse for creativity. Artists were carpenters, civil engineers were waitresses, tunesmiths had to cover Blondie to make ends meet. I missed the competitive intellectualism of the East. I’d already begun to make plans to go back, but not before the Red Devils learned how to beat the sport which had soothed many bruises of my own childhood.
Just before kickoff of our first league game, I gathered the kids round me and told them something very important about sports: Wait for your opponent to make a mistake. The game is hard. If you try to get the ball away from your opponent and you miss, you make the game easy for the opponent. Let the other team do what they want with the ball, and wait until they lose it. Stay near them so when they lose the ball you can go the other way. But don’t go for the ball. The kids chewed their lips or scowled; what kind of advice was this, minutes before kickoff? Don’t go for the ball?
“Do you remember keep-away, when it was me against all of you guys? Do you remember what happened when I kept the ball too long?” Gavin shot up his hand and answered: “You lost it.” I nodded, and asked them: “And how did you keep the ball away from me?” The philosopher brother Bryce replied, “We passed it to somebody else.”
We scored four goals by halftime. My roomie Wade and our pals shouted and cheered the first goal, but then noticed how calmly the Red Devils returned to the center of the field to resume play. The kids knew they had to always be ready for both opportunity and their opponents; part of this is confidence, and no goal should ever surprise the player who scores it. Act normal and get ready for the next whistle. The parents and Wade and our friends folded their arms and cheered the kids for their hustle and not the score. I never shouted, said nothing about the game or strategy, and simply saluted the kids every time they got within earshot.
“Keep those passes low, J.R.”
“Cool, Oliver, way to be so calm.”
“You’re faster than everyone here, Matthew.”
“Do you think it’s gonna rain, Bryce?”
“Your sister wants you to score, Billy.”
Their glances back at me taught me everything I know about leadership. A face looking for approval or support needs a smile more than instruction. Worry should be fought with a nod. A question is best answered with a wink. Coaches who shout their adjustments during a game might affect the score but lose the chance to teach something bigger than the game. Acting confident makes you confident. That’s the nature of confidence. And a con man’s password is always a smile. The grins were there between the boys and me whether the goals came or not, and we were playing the game because it made us smile at each other and at our families and friends, and the smiles themselves made the game easier. This much, we can see, I’d learned from Skipper. My kids were happy to be on the Red Devils.
Billy Gould was our best player, and I told his mother this to her surprise. “But he hasn’t scored a goal,” she said. “You can tell he’s the best because he helps the other kids score,” I replied, “And he covers up for their mistakes. They need him.” The mother nodded, appreciating perhaps how his unhappy home made Billy protective of his family on the soccer field.
When it was his turn to play in our first game, Jeremy stayed blissfully unaware of the game, and wandered the field interrupted by a sudden gang of kids chasing a ball, to which he flinched in defensive dismay. The taxi driver, his father, was mortified by his son’s disconnection, seeing it so starkly in this context of a team of bustling boys. Jeremy’s father would call later that night and offer to remove his son from the team, and I adamantly insisted Jeremy show up for practice the following Thursday because if he didn’t he would be setting a bad example for his teammates.
Our bull at center forward, Danny Foster, scored at least two goals in each of our first three games, but his mother never seemed to see them; either she wasn’t at the game or she was in her car keeping out of the drizzle, or she was talking to somebody when her son simply crashed through the defense and ended up in the goal along with the ball. She beamed when he scored and accepted the reserved congratulations from the other parents, but I knew she didn’t understand her son’s prowess, and from his silence I knew that he knew his mother was clueless. But he didn’t mind, just as a bull wouldn’t mind. It was his nature to push ahead, alone, bullishly. What bull misses his mother? (They all do, of course; I miss mine now, I would like to read her something from this book and watch her eyes glisten in pride, despite the book’s title and subject, because a mother can’t help it, even the mother of a bull; go ahead, be a bull, but just remember that every bull was once a baby, and for every mother a baby is always a baby.)
The Red Devils never let the opponents get near our goal. We waited for the slightest mistake, and then stormed up the other direction, either into the center with J.R. and Billy Gould stepping around the defenses to feed our baby bull Danny, or out onto the flank, where Gavin dribbled the length of the field before angling the ball back into play to his brother patiently waiting, or to the two charging attackers, Danny and J.R., the two kids on our team who would rush to be first in anything, whether diving into a pool or ordering a hamburger after the game. And always Billy Gould was a few yards away from the ball. If our team or their team kicked the ball far out of play into a parking lot or another soccer pitch, it was always Billy running to collect it with his feet and steer it back to where the ball needed to be. He could run with the ball at his feet and look up at the rest of the players, a gift in life as well as sport: doing and seeing at the same time. Always, Billy was. That’s the best way to say it. Always, Billy was always.
In our fourth game, Danny Foster was with his mother in California, and without the bull we foundered through a half without much action in front of the opponents’ goal. At halftime Bryce told me we missed Danny, and I asked him if we had anybody who could pretend to be a bull. Bryce looked at his teammates and saw no horns. When he went back out onto the field he did his best to imitate Danny’s style, and this resulted in a penalty shot for our team when an opponent tripped Bryce as he charged toward the goal. A penalty shot. Who would take it? Our captain Gavin was in front of me like an accountant on a conference call; there was Oliver, who was big, and our goalkeeper Mike, who was big, but who on this team is faster than you, Gavin?
“Matthew is faster than me, Coach.”
“Yes, Gavin, but do you think he knows it?”
Gavin looked at me with a bulb lit in his head. Speed was the same as power. He ran out to the team, clustered around the impending shot, and announced that Matthew would be the shooter. “Me?” said Matthew, incredulously, his exotic eyes wide enough that I could see his reaction from the sideline. Gavin told him: “Just do it fast,” and as soon as the referee blew his whistle to indicate the shot could be taken Matthew raced up and put the ball into the net past a goalkeeper who hadn’t quite prepared himself for the situation. Matthew ran celebrating his goal and his teammates raced after him, trying to catch up. It would be the only goal our team openly celebrated. Even though it led to an explosion of goals in the last ten minutes of the game, the goal was celebrated because it meant Matthew’s speed made us a much stronger team than we’d thought. Matthew’s father on the sideline grinned and grinned and looked like he was about to pee; his mother kept her hand over her mouth to hide her pleasure and shock at seeing her shy son racing in front of the other kids, literally too fast for them to grab.
And in that same game, as the other kids ran around chasing Matthew, I called over Billy Gould and told him it was okay for him to score, too. Helping everybody else was just fine, but sometimes the best help for others is to help yourself. He paused before going back to his team to look at his family: His father was at one end of our group, foolishly still separated by ten yards, and still silent, while his mother was in the midst of our confident parents, with Billy’s little sister in hand.
“Don’t look at anybody for permission to score, Billy. You’re the best player, so it’s okay for you to score a goal. See Matthew? See how happy his goal made us? If you score, you’re doing it for us, Bub.”
Billy looked at me, the only time he ever made eye contact with me. He needed to hear something again which he’d never heard before, so I repeated myself, so only we two could hear, “You’re the best, Billy,” and he lowered his eyes and ran onto the field believing somebody believed in him and that was all Billy Gould needed. That’s all anyone needs. The goals came in a flood and Billy Gould’s gloomy father cheered each strike and stood a little closer to the rest of us. It was the first time I’d seen Billy’s mother and father at the same time, in the same glance, sharing the frame, and I recognized the distance they kept from each other as the distance my own parents maintained as they shattered my heart.
Nobody scored on us, and the goals for the Red Devils came in astonishing bunches, pushed in by Danny Foster or pulled in by the stoic Bryce, or raced in by Matthew who now used his speed as speed enjoys being used, without stopping, as he ran out of the shadows of his strange parents, older and foreign and beyond the Oregon drawls. And Gavin and Oliver and Mike also scored as I asked the others to volunteer to play goalkeeper, and in one of the games a miracle almost occurred when his teammates’ expectations and loud shouts made Jeremy aware of the ball and the goal and the connection between the two. Twice Jeremy kicked the ball when it unexpectedly came to him, interrupting his reflections, and for his second kick the opponent’s keeper had to make a save in a splashy mess in front of his goal, and all the Red Devils hugged Jeremy or slapped him on the back and said, “You almost scored, Jeremy!” and with the parents cheering on the sideline Jeremy linked the noise and the pleasure with him kicking at the ball, and from then on whenever he saw a ball he kicked it or at least tried to, and the taxi driver storming the sidelines with his hat in his hand kept shouting, “Thattaway, Jay! You got it, kiddo!” and soon that’s what all the rest of us were shouting, too. “You got it, kiddo” became our catchphrase. And each time it was shouted, Jeremy thought it referred to him, even as the message was meant for another player; any parent using the term would then look for Jeremy standing off to the side, and exchange a happy glance with the term’s creator. These secret exchanges made all of us feel better about ourselves, and Jeremy knew it. “You got it, kiddo” was a gift he generously shared; as its owner, he could give it away as he pleased.
At the rest of our practices and games, Billy Gould’s father and Billy Gould’s mother now stood together with the little girl between them, all three admiring the boy who stayed so calm and intent and yet played everywhere all the time, steering the ball where it needed to be. Soon the father was talking to me, profusely, and it turns out he was a fullback at a university in Oklahoma, a reserve but a star athlete nevertheless, and he’d always thought his son would be a football player, but now he’d caught the soccer bug, too, and realized his complex little kid with his silent rivers was designed just for this game, where there are so many little things to do well, rather than for a sport of power and repeated techniques like football. Billy Gould’s father told me he wished he could play soccer, so he could help develop Billy’s abilities, and to this lament I gave my very best as a coach: “Why don’t you let Billy teach you the game?”
Mr. Gould organized a Saturday afternoon game of the parents against the kids, a Red Devils scrimmage for family only. He made the calls and got the food together and made all the announcements where and what on the Thursday before, when we lost our first game and when I had to tell the kiddies I was leaving town before the season ended. This would be my last league game, I said, before I have to go home. I told the team the news five minutes before our game started, because adrenaline was high and I wanted the boys to get the news when they felt strongest.
Gavin broke the silence: “Who’s gonna be our coach?” Mike’s dad would be the coach, I said, which I’d already arranged with him and the other parents, “And the assistant coach will be Mr. Gould,” which took Billy’s father by complete surprise but which the boys instantly accepted since they’d seen Billy’s dad getting more excited every week and helping with the balls at practice and shooting practice shots for Mike. “Is this the last time we’re gonna see you?” asked Bryce. “No, my last game will be against you guys on Saturday, when I play with your parents at a picnic Mr. Gould arranged. But we’ve got this game right now so let’s play.” But Bryce had another question: “Why do you have to go, Coach?” I’ll never forget the referee, ready to blow the whistle to start the game, and the way he started to come toward us to say it was time to play but then stopping as he sensed something more important than a game was happening in the clot of players knotted around their coach who needed to provide an answer before they could play.
My home was on the other side of the country, I explained. And somebody I loved very much had a cat named Rochester who was the coolest cat in the world. He would chase me around the house and I’d never been around a cat who acted like such a dog, and this somebody who I loved very much was very sad because Rochester had fallen off the balcony and hurt himself very badly and she thought maybe I could help him get better by coming home to play.
This answer satisfied the boys because I was their coach and if the cat needed coaching then I was the person who should do it, but my answer didn’t satisfy me. Why was I leaving before the end of the season? I truly loved Rochester and he really needed me, but the season was coming to a close. What was my rush? We lost the game 2-0 to a team whose coaches screamed and exhorted and ranted their players into a rough conquest of the Red Devils. I could see the first goal coming, and I started to shout a warning to Oliver and J.R. to look left but kept my mouth shut because I knew they’d learn from the goal to look left from now on, and our team was just shocked when the ball was in our net, past Mike, and the opponents were leaping around in joy while their coaches screamed, “That’s the first goal they’ve given up all year!” We were still wondering how the first goal happened when a second came shortly afterward. The loss seemed perfectly timed. I kept thinking as the final minutes ticked away that here was a Greek odyssey for the kids; a winning season suddenly blemished and the compass knocked loose, a loss to say goodbye to a coach, lost.
We went out for hamburgers as always and soon the lads were giggling and tossing chopped onions at each other and the loss seemed inconsequential to them. We didn’t dwell on my leaving, but I noticed how Bryce kept resting his hand on my arm. By touching me more he would remember me better, the kind of insight philosophers are prone to, and I would smile at him and he’d smile back and we never had to say anything and the word games played that night I played with Gavin and Jeremy and Danny and Oliver and J.R., but not a peep to Bryce.
On my last Saturday in Oregon the parents brought salads and beans and chicken and cornbread and soda and J.R.’s little sister gave me a bag of peanut brittle she’d made herself for my bus ride across the country. And the kids were in the finest fettle, taunting me about how badly they would beat me and the parents. But the Moms and Dads did well, because they were so much bigger, so to even things up, I put Billy Gould’s father and Mike the goalkeeper’s father on the same team with the kids, and the last few goals of our family game were scored by Billy and Danny and Matthew, whose Korean mother was easily the best player on the parents team, and who alone among the parents scored the goals I patiently set up. Gavin wanted to know why I wasn’t scoring goals. “I’m too busy coaching your parents for that stuff,” I said, and then Bryce sternly said, “Coach would never score against his own players, Gavin!”
And on that last Saturday in Oregon the sun went down and the wet chill came and Wade came to pick me up. It was time to go. The parents had arranged a group hug, without telling me, and as I picked up my peanut brittle and my sweatshirt, I was suddenly enveloped by all sixteen Red Devils. I tried to hug all of them back at once and one at a time and told them to play well for their coaches and in the play-offs where they would play the team that beat them, and all the kids stepped back to watch me leave, except Billy Gould.
With his fingers clamped into my jeans, Billy hugged my leg with his face pressed against my thigh, eyes hidden from sight. I rubbed his head and said, “I’ve got to go, Billy-bean,” but he said nothing and gripped more firmly. Gently, I tried to pry his hands from my jeans, but his clasp tightened. The image of his parents at the last game came to me then, of them holding hands while Billy’s little sister wandered the sideline by herself, happy. I pulled my hands away from Billy as though I’d been shocked. Somebody else would have to pry him off my jeans, it wouldn’t be me, because now I remembered my own nightmare, the day my father cried at the post office when my mother sent him a letter to say she didn’t want to be his wife any more. My father cried and cried and I went by myself into the car and cried, too, completely miserable when only moments before I’d been happy and curious, and I was thinking of this as Billy Gould’s father gently disentangled his son’s fingers from my jeans, saying “It’s okay Billy, Coach will come back,” until finally he got his son’s fingers freed. Billy Gould never looked at me, not once, and everybody patted him on the back as he stared at the ground. I felt as if I was looking at myself long ago. “Look after Billy,” I said to Gavin, who nodded while his twin Bryce replied, “No problem, Coach.”
And while I sat on a bus for five days from Eugene to Washington, the cat Rochester died. When I called the kids a few weeks later to find out how the season went, they asked if Rochester was okay, and I lied that he was just fine, and then the kids told me that they were just fine, too, that they’d beaten the team that beat them and won the championship with Danny and Matthew scoring the goals and the coaches had been just fine but they’d missed me because the coaches didn’t know how to play keep-away, and they missed the stuff we used to talk about, and before hanging up I told Bryce one day soon I would write a story about the Red Devils, and Bryce told me to spell his name right.
Twenty years later, I still hadn’t told this story even though I’d written hundreds of others. I gave up the game of soccer, but its lessons are with me every day. When you hold onto anything too long, you lose it.
Jeremy’s dad told me his son was kicking everything, even footballs and softballs and tennis rackets. He put Jeremy on the line and I listened to his son’s cloudy points of view. I realized then that I had a learning disability, since I couldn’t understand much of what Jeremy had to say, and Jeremy had a lot to say. His father interrupted and apologized for his son’s verbal meandering. “It was just getting interesting,” I said, to which Jeremy’s father replied, “It’s always interesting.”
I never asked any of the kids about Billy Gould but Mike the goalkeeper told me he and Billy were on the same basketball team and that Billy was the best player and that the coaches were always shouting at him to shoot the ball instead of passing it all the time. I didn’t call the Goulds because I had two numbers for them, the father’s and the mother’s, and I didn’t want to choose.
Fantasy at my Fingertips
I was always the sabre-tooth tiger or the renegade cowboy when I played with other children in Beirut, but when my family imploded and I began to spend more time by myself, I was the center of my own inventions. Whole worlds were sculpted with my pens as I illustrated and wrote myself through a million heroics, of conquest, of athletics, of love and travel and drawing with hundreds of colored pens and pencils, which I still collect as other people hoard stamps or coins. Except there is nothing you can do with a stamp or a coin but wait for its value to increase, where a pen is license to create. The most trivial of the arts is photography, laughably easy in the digital age, and it has reduced the idea of the artist and of artistic merit to light homilies and borrowed impulses on social media. How to be different? When I find myself aping other images, I always get back to my pens and pencils and blank paper: make something up, do not copy, attempt originality even when it is bad. And being bad but original is also what I try with the camera in my studio. I make my living with cameras, one stultifying time-wasting assignment after another, endlessly chewing up my energies and existence, and devising small worlds of my own with characters I create is the escape which lets me keep imagining new projects.
all photography copyright seanieblue.com 2019
Yesterday my pal Will missed out on the Spirit award for best screenplay, which went to “Memento” instead. He came back to the hotel with Mexican food for his wife and son, and shrugged off the result. He hates these functions, really. He says nobody wants to talk to the writers, so he’s left in a corner, humiliated. He’s a taciturn guy, stingy with expression, choked by the twin effects of small-town Georgia and an abusive father. He’d rather watch the Oscars in a bar. He keeps saying this last thing even as everyone laughs at him. Not me, coz I know it’s true. He would do it not to see himself mentioned on a TV in a bar, but to lose in a bar, to shrug the possibilities away while winning the sympathy of the other losers near him, those lonely folks soaked in alcohol and caked with nicotine, their time swirling down the drain.
Will wrote “Monster’s Ball,” with a partner, exactly as it is on the screen. And it is beyond disappointment, on the other side of despair. Everybody’s yakking about it, including a bigshot black attorney who wrote on the op-ed pages in the L.A. Times that Will’s movie is a fantasy for a Ku Klux Klansman. I wanted to track the attorney down and knock on his door and say, Okay, Sir, how would you like the movie to end? Will giggled when I told him this plan, but he didn’t giggle for very long, coz he’s known me for twenty-five years and knows a little loose laughter is often construed by me to be permission wage war on the newest windmill insulting my horizons. Will’s been giggling at my battles since we met.
We worked as editorial gofers at McGraw-Hill. The company’s newsletter center was located in the old National Press Building, which is now posh and yuppie-proof, but back then was loaded with wild entrepreneurs and bad journalists and impoverished scam artists, all buzzed with twisted schemes and too distracted to notice me and Will in the stairwells every day at lunch, getting stoned. He was older than me, and told me stories about demented football coaches in swampy Georgia whose star quarterbacks shot heroin between their toes or under their tongues to avoid tracks, or about acid tripping on a supply ship in the Navy while signaling transport helicopters (one of which caught on fire after a collision and went overboard to douse the flames with an expert dip of its tail into the sea, sending Will and his pals into a guilty frenzy until the pilot stood up for them and said, No, these stoner freaks didn’t cause me nothin’).
Will’s stories were license for me to embark on my own adventures, and Will more than anybody I know watched me spin off into the distance clutching imperfect blueprints for exploring the world. He knew them to be imperfect, coz he’d been there, buzzed, as I drew them up with no expertise or design, drew them up with little more than enthusiasm and energy. For example:
At 19, I drove on a fat motorbike to Florida and went around the baseball spring training camps to write stories about young ballplayers trying to break into the major leagues. Every spring was an adventure, and three springs gave me the balls to cover soccer’s world cup in Spain for the Washington Times – from a tapa bar. Will got this report from an artist friend named Marcie describing my attempts to fast-talk somebody into letting me use their home phone to call in my story after Germany beat France in the semifinal in Sevilla. Then it was off to Ireland on a wild-goose chase after smuggling anti-Zionist pamphlets into London for a guy so rich all his first-edition books were upside-down in his Hampstead castle, but who gave me ten one hundred dollar bills because he admired writers, and in Ireland after the cash ran out, at a racetrack where St. Patrick lies buried in the infield, I wagered my last twenty pounds on a horse named Slate Quarry who the son of bookie supreme Barney Eastwood assured me was a tiger among kittens, and I made the bet coz you always follow a bookie’s inside advice, and besides the bookie’s son’s wife was making a terrific scene trying to get me hooked up with her younger sister, so I just went along with it, and at the first hurdle half the bloody horses fell over and then at the second hurdle another clot went down leaving Slate Quarry and two others to fight it out, with Slate Quarry winning by 13 lengths at 50-1 odds while me and one other hoodlum shouted ourselves hoarse in the crowd, egging on our thousand-quid treasure. And then I took that money, bought everybody drinks, and left when the bookie’s son’s wife tried to seduce me in a hotel owned by relations of her family except on the way there she reached over to slap her three-year-old son who started slapping himself and peeing in fright, until I demanded she stop the car and come to her senses, and when she stopped she broke down in unhappiness while her son shouted “Look, ma!” and slapped himself again to save her the trouble.
We went directly to the train station so I could scarper off to Limerick, where I hooked up with my pals who’d spent the summer with me in the Costa del Sol, betting on my ability to run faster than anyone on the beach (“Gwan, take ten yards if ye frigging wanta, Spikey-man will still run yer down before ye pass that pedalo, but give yer money to Isabel here, she willna thieve yer money because she’s still Cat’lic –” “Am not!” “Is too, and I’ll be telling yer Mam if yarnt”) and in the Spotted Dog in Janesboro word got round that an Olympian was in the pub and was willing to take on whoever fancied themselves fast, and I was like “Hey, hey, stop the Olympic stuff,” but soon there was a gaggle of people outside on the cobbled street ready to race the Olympian so I trudged out and we went through our marks, set, and shot off with every single little kid and his ma on wobbly ankles racing past me screaming their heads off waiting for me to rocket by, but I never did because the jets stayed dim even as I switched on the ignition, and I finished 51st out of 50, knackered, wheezing on my ass sitting against the wheel of a Mini Morris, while my perplexed pals went in to fetch me a beer so I might recover and then thought perhaps water was wiser when they found me upchucking my fool head off, listening to a redhead brat boasting, “Hey Mam, I’ve jest beat an Olympian,” and these stories I brought back to Will by the bucketful as payments in literary brotherhood.
Even as Will left to New York to become an actor despite my advice that New York chewed everyone to bits, my stories served as bookends to the real literature we devoured together. We advised books onto one another as we sat stoned between the 7th and 8th floors of the National Press Building at lunchtime. Erstwhile writer and actor, we were already certain that the constructed conceits of our bosses – suburban house, rugrats, two-hour daily commute, retirement plan – were nonsense to troubadours like us, boys of dreams and desires, fantasists, pirates unwilling to play by the rules for however long it took, even 25 years, until one of us, or both, might be able to claim the outtasight rank of Modest Poet.
When was the last census? Remember those people knocking at the door, asking about neighbors and how many residents are there living in the house with you? The census takers walked eight hours a day, sat only at lunch and during short breaks, and they did it in the summer. In New York, where the residents are always darlings with any question unless the questions get personal, Will trudged around jotting down the stats coz he needed the cash. He was 42 or 44 or something – you know actors – and his baby boy was the fire under his butt. Acting had long since dulled, not as a passion but as a profession, and now he was a writer, working the census and writing screenplays. “Monsters Ball” had already brought in some money, perhaps as much as a union bus driver makes, for several years, but nobody would actually make the stupid movie. He sold options to studios for the right to make the film. I’ve sold options on my own screenplays – to hopeful entertainment attorneys, never to studios – and the process is damned exciting. Once.
Before the census, he worked at law firms, as a typist, and starred in plays many offs away from Broadway. He came to the Imperial City for a role in one of my movies, and called me from the corner of Thomas Circle. I was in the middle of some sound problem – this might have been the moment my partner Eric and I learned a lot about movie directing when a scene was in tatters and the actors were watching us yak the possibilities around and I suddenly turned up the music real loud on the stereo; Eric asked why’d you do that with the stereo, and I said So they can’t hear us talking and realize we got no idea what’s going on – and I turned up late by more than half an hour on a cold night. Firetrucks and police cars were gathered around the circle. I saw Will on the corner and pulled up. What happened? “Man, a car came careening over the grass, hit the statue and flipped over and burst into fire and a guy got out in flames and ran around screaming and I thought, Jesus is that Sean, looks a little too fat,” and I apologized for being late, and Will said, “Cool, man, at least you’re alive.”
And when I met Will, I met Sharon. At the same time I learned to love literature, I learned how to love a woman.
Sharon was from a steel town outside Pittsburgh. When the FBI toured high schools looking for typists, they gave Sharon a phone number and told her to call if she ever got to the Imperial City. She graduated from high school and took Greyhound to a new job and a new existence as a young woman in the big city. She was the typesetter for the newsletters I worked on, and it was my job to go to the typesetters every Thursday and put the newsletters to bed. It was my exquisite pleasure to sit in the same room with Sharon for four hours while we worked the kinks out of the newsletters. I was eighteen. Sharon was 28. I was born on January 2, and she was born on January 4, nine years and three hundred and sixty three days before me.
Why do I say it was an exquisite pleasure? For most 18-year-old males, there is no diplomatic way to express a woman’s sexuality. You look at a woman and see an icon to get close to, and then when you’re close you hear her voice and listen to her desires and dreams and fill the role in the cinema of your mind of the boy who makes her smile, and as you watch and as you listen, a smell laced with the poison of pheromones cuts into your spine and you are left imagining the effects of Sharon on your other senses: taste and touch.
And Sharon overwhelmed my senses with a saucy pungency made half of stereotypical magazine looks and half of a chin-up who-me personality. How should I approach this odalisque? How could I make her see the “me” beyond the editor who fretted over statistics on fertilizers in Nebraska or coal mining accidents in Kentucky? No matter where I stood or what I said or what I wore, I could tell she wasn’t noticing my pheromones.
One late Thursday night I turned temporarily insane. Must have been a touch of tetanus, coz my teeth were clicking, jaw pulsing. Time to dive off the highest platform. As we leant over pages 8 and 9 of that issue of the International Fertilizer Review I asked Sharon if she knew what pheromones were.
Do you know what pheromones are?
She smiled: Something you use to grow corn?
Pheromones are what animals have to attract one another, a secret signal that it’s time to mate, and they carry these signals in their armpits and pubic regions and sort of puff them out into the air when they’re ready to have babies, I said.
What kind of animals? asked Sharon.
Oh, you know, monkeys and dogs and cats –
Dogs and cats have armpits and pubic hair, huh?
Well, yes, sort of –
Do humans have phermones? she asked, quickly.
Well, I said, scientists haven’t found human pheromones yet, but they will.
What makes you think so?
Well, you know, you’ve seen dogs and cats –
I have a cat.
Then you know what I’m talking about. Right?
From then on Sharon looked at me a little funny. In her eyes glowed suspicion that I was engaged in thievery, but she left her purse in plain sight. There was in her smile a suggestion of trouble, but I am naturally shy. There was in the skin of her arm gently touching mine the kind of turbulent electrical surface storms you see when you stick a CD into a microwave, but I was suddenly interested in exactly what the Malaysians were doing with diammonium phosphate that winter. I was too scared to act on the hints of her skin and the glints in her eye, but my blood raced whenever I caught her looking at me from odd angles, questions knotting her brow.
One night, Sharon said I smelled funky. I told her about the writers club in the stairwell at the National Press Building: me and Will and John Irving and Jerzy Kosinski and Frederick Exley and Albert Camus and marijuana. Sharon grabbed me by the hand and walked me out into the alleyway between 19th and 20th and L and M Streets, and we sat on the loading dock and got high together while the rats scurried beneath our feet. Just when I noticed the way the muscles in her arm flexed when she leaned backwards or forwards, just when I noticed the whorls of downy Italian hair on the nape of her neck, just when the tetanus moved from my jaw to my brain, just when . . .
“Can I tell you something, Sean?”
I smiled, drunken dog.
“You know I’m married?”
She giggled at my mortally wounded expression. “My husband’s in Lorton and he’s coming out in two months and how old are you?”
Prison! A husband. How old am I?
“Twenty-three,” I lied.
She was surprised: “You’re a baby.”
There passed a few moments of silence. Each moment was massive, concussive. Her arms were flecked with moisture, and I was drenched with sweat but thank my happy genes for my Norwegian face coz she told me later how surprised she was by my expression, that “you looked as if you were holding four aces,” and it was this expression which caused her to add, as if on stage: “You’re just a baby, but I liked that bit about the pheromones.”
There is a phenomenal essay by Lewis Thomas, a genius, written in 1974, wherein he asks: “But what if we have pheromones? What could possibly be the reason for us to carry such magic in tufts of hair around our bodies?” That’s not the exact quote, and it was either in 1993 or in 1996 that scientists identified human pheromones and confirmed their existence, thereby excusing a lot of silly (and hopeful) behavior between the sexes, but I know for sure that pheromones played a big part in what happened between Sharon and me, coz the next time we were near each other she sniffed the air like an Italian and taught me the most vital thing every boy should know about girls: The smell’s the thing, and Old Spice and deodorants and Hugo Boss perfumes will accumulate into a chemical nastiness every woman identifies as “dead cat” but is too polite to say to your face.
The night she seduced me, Sharon made a point of smelling my neck and ears and when she bit me all I could think was thank god for science, which is sort of an oxymoron, and the next morning casually spilling everything out of my wallet she went through the fake I.D.s until she found my driver’s license and said “Jesus fucking christ you’re only eighteen!” She stood on the threshold of the bathroom, puissant and sculpted, and all my senses were atingle; taste and touch having joined the others. She shook her head and walked into the bathroom and I buried my face into the smell of her pillows.
We went to breakfast and acted like adults and she held my hand and I remember all the big guys with square jaws and forty-dollar haircuts wearing loafers looking agog at Sharon in the shirt two sizes too small holding the hand of a punk, me, whose thought cognition was stuck on the miniature hurricanes on Sharon’s skin, maybe a million billion light years short of Steve, her husband, literally crossing the days off a calendar, looking at himself in the broken mirror, happy to see the resemblance of his face to Charles Bronson, happy to know that he was leaner and meaner than Bronson could ever be, camera or no camera.
Perhaps a month after our initial tryst, Sharon woke up one morning in a pensive mood. I was feeling pretty blissful, as I had been since that first night. We held hands, we kissed in public, Will shook his head in shock when I told him I was hanging with the bombshell typist from Pittsburgh, and more and more of my clothes were finding their way into her closet. She adored me, always hugging me and cooing into my face until she’d say, “Eighteen! I’m an idiot, Sean. Tell me I’m a fool,” and of course I’d say, “You’re a fool,” and she’d slap me on the shoulder in that curious way girlfriends have. I liked to dance, and this was heaven for her. And I would dance goofy as well as cool, and the cool dancing never seemed to get me anywhere but dance goofy and it was like throwing firecrackers into the grill. A month from being loose, the husband in Lorton might as well have been in another solar system. But on this pensive day of hers I thought maybe she was thinking about Steve and I’d better keep my mouth shut, until she said: “Don’t you see I’m moody?” I was lying on top of her in sunshine, I remember. “Whenever you see a woman acting moody, you know what to do, right?” I had no clue, but I nodded anyway. “When you see a woman moody you better ask her what’s making her moody.”
Okay, okay, what’s the mood?
“Don’t sleep with women just because you can.”
“Don’t sleep with women just because you can.”
“I don’t –”
“Forget don’t, it’s won’t. You won’t, in the future.”
“Okay, I won’t –”
She grabbed my hair and yanked my chin off her breast.
“If you sleep with everybody who wants you to, you won’t get to sleep with the person you want to sleep with.”
“Ouch, Sharon –”
“It’s too much to hope for, but the best thing you can do is refuse to have sex with anybody unless you’re going to love them.”
“Is that what you did?” I asked.
She pushed me completely away and sprang out of bed. Her eyes were blazing but she talked to me in a level, controlled tone:
“I’m talking about you, motherfucker. Don’t have sex with women unless you’re in love with them, and maybe you’ll be happy one day.”
“Is this what you think every man should do, Sharon?”
“Screw them. I’m only interested in you. Promise me you won’t sleep with women just because they’re willing to.”
“You mean, while you and I are together?”
“No! Forever, for the rest of your life.”
“Okay, I promise.”
She slammed the bathroom door shut and it took me an hour to realize she wasn’t coming out. I went to a tavern two blocks away to pee, and she was moody the rest of the day. She told me not to worry about it whenever I asked what was wrong. By the end of the day, though, I saw her looking at me from one of her odd angles, and knew I’d be okay.
Needless to say, I didn’t live up to my promise. I tried, I wasn’t crossing my fingers at the time. Each time I didn’t live up to it, I felt an ugly emptiness afterward, and gradually each love affair became a campaign of emotions and loyalty, building the one upon all the previous, until the point I met the romance writer, when three years had passed with only one passing affair, and the girlfriend before her also came after three years of refusing the possibilities.
I went to Spain when Steve was due to be let out of prison. An old girlfriend flew in from London, with Sharon’s blessing. We understood our affair would be over when I got back to the Imperial City. It was Christmas. The schmaltzy music on the airplane killed me. The first night in Spain with the ex-girlfriend from London was a nightmare, though of course I gave in to the sexual temptation and felt as hollow and soulless as I ever have in my life in the minutes afterward, when the ex-girlfriend insisted on playing “Hotel California” on the stereo while she clasped her arms around me as if two years apart had been nothing more than a dental appointment. I got letters from Sharon every day, and in one of them she wrote: “I spent the past two days cleaning up the apartment trying to get you off my mind and now I wish I could see all your stuff lying around the floor.” The ex-girlfriend asked me about the photo in my wallet: “Who’s the woman with the boobs?” I told her about Sharon and the ex-girlfriend fell on the grass and threw up. The lessons were coming fast and furious.
Steve wasn’t out of prison when I got back. Even my mother knew. Call Sharon right away, said Mom, coz Steve hasn’t been let out yet and she needs to see you. Sharon and I went to our favorite spaghetti place and they could have fed us barbed wire for all we cared. At one point, Sharon referred to my staying at her place that night, and I pretended to balk. Couldn’t do that, no no – She swept around the table and grabbed my face with her hands and said very coolly if I didn’t come home with her right then she’d kill me in the restaurant and the guys with the big jaws and the loafers looking on agog were whispering Just a punk and this time I had a nasty smile for all of them as we dashed out into the next exquisite three days before Steve was given fifty bucks and his jean jacket back to walk outside and see his fantastic babe in candy red nervous in the snow wondering how she was going to tell him about the punk who turned 19 a few days before.
Four nights later Sharon came to my Mom’s and told me she and Steve weren’t breaking up. She loved me, but she owed Steve a shot at a future together. She was his only chance at going straight. Of course she loved me and always would, but Steve had been her main squeeze for several years, almost four, and we just had to be realistic about those nine years and three hundred and sixty three days separating us. I was devastated. That night driving around in a shock I heard the newest song from Rod Stewart: “Do ya think I’m Sexy.”
The months ahead turned into years, and Steve kept a calendar on which he’d marked that week they’d delayed letting him out. “If I’d just gotten out before that punk got back, everything would’ve been different.” Because the pheromones kept leaking, and Sharon and I had to work together, and sooner or later Steve always screwed up and got her upset or treated her badly and even though she didn’t think it was right we’d be holding hands again and when Steve was incarcerated for parole violations Sharon and I fell into another level of passion, this time loaded with the memories of all that had gone before. Anticipation is to sex and sensuality the same as it is to hunger and eating. Four years of this! Steve in and out of prison, Sharon and I in and out of love, betrayal and deceit.
Sharon was pregnant, my seed. I was 21, just back from Florida’s baseball camps. In the alley behind the abortion clinic I pleaded with her that I could be the best father, that I was good with kids and didn’t blink an eye whenever my cousin put the apricot pit in the glass of milk and I drank it down by accident. Sharon agreed. But Steve was coming out in a few weeks, and she wasn’t sure how she felt. I was enraged. If she wanted Steve she could have him! She was surprised by my vehemence and instantly conceded that she didn’t really love Steve and that she loved me, but that I was too young to be a father. Would Steve make a better father? I yelled this at her. Steve didn’t make me pregnant, she said, and then she got sick and had the abortion anyway and got sick for the whole time before Steve got out with a final warning and this time I kept my distance and wished him bitterly good luck.
Six months later, Sharon knocked on my door. Any women around, she wondered. No, I hadn’t seen anybody I thought I’d fall in love with. Sharon was trembling. She had a bag with her. I didn’t say anything and she moved in. It took several nights before she could sleep without nightmares, and still I didn’t say anything. But I noticed that first night a huge welt on her buttock, a purple and yellow circle as big as a dish. For the first time, I saw Steve as an enemy and not my rival.
“This can’t go on, Sharon.”
“It’s been more than three years -”
“I know. He’s on the run. He’s missed parole and he’s been stealing and shooting up and next time he goes in it will be for a long time. Years.”
“Things have changed between us, too. I love you with all my heart but I want to go to Spain next year for the World Cup, and I want to travel around the world, start writing novels and stuff, and I don’t know how much I’ll be around.”
Sharon started to cry, cutting off the sobs until she was gasping in hiccups.
“I always knew you were going to go. I expected it,” she said. “Someday some woman will get you as a man and she’ll be a lucky bitch, but I already know it won’t be me. I’ve always known it.” I held her and felt that swirl of misery when you feel compassion but not the conviction to help a friend in desperate need. Not because you don’t want to, but because you are too helpless yourself.
“I didn’t mean what I just said, Sean.”
“You’re a man now, I didn’t mean you’d be a man later,” and for some reason this set her off to weeping as I stroked her hair and tried to soothe her.
“I know, Sharon, and so do you. Who do you think made me a man?”
But I wasn’t man enough to help Sharon the way she needed it. I was unwilling to trust her with my flaws any more, since I thought I could improve myself better, alone. She held no such hope for herself, and hoped privately, silently, that we could make each other better, if for no other reason that we would have each other as examples of self-improvement. I knew how much she’d given to me in love and energy, and perhaps I would always be like this, sucking the life-force from other people, but if I ever learned to give something to somebody, some kind of inspiration or motivation, even a well-placed kick in the ass, it was to this person I owed at least part of it, this person bruised and miserable, lying in arms which loved her but differently from before when all I believed was Sharon Sharon Sharon, more mother maybe than sister, but lover completely, able to seduce me into a man while able still to protect the child every male carries into his fearsome future, when he is supposed to fight and compete, to win those badges of masculine idiocy!
Sharon was always able to coddle the child in me, so I could deny the dreary responsibilities of modern life, but when did I recognize the child in her? How is it that every female is weighted so fully with the expectations of adulthood?
We moved into her apartment when the cops started looking for Steve in earnest, and she knew he wouldn’t be around. It was convenient for me, and my socks ended up in the dresser instead of on the floor. And one night we had Will over for a spaghetti I made, and we talked books and got a little high but Sharon wasn’t much of a reader so the talk stalled and she and Will shared their impressions of small towns in America, and Will left a few days later for New York telling me I should come visit often and soon. I told him he should come with me around the world, but he wasn’t listening to any magnet except his own.
On the night John Lennon was killed, Sharon and I made a curious sort of love, during which I would have been happier watching the news reports about the Beatle’s strange shooting. She sensed this, and insisted in greater passion from both of us. Making love to her would become a chore, although I didn’t know it quite then. In post-coital calm we laid together until Sharon shot out of bed. “It’s Steve, I hear his voice. Call 911.” What? “Call 911,” she said, double-locking the front door. He was on the pavement outside, six stories below. How had she heard him? Had her ear been cocked for his voice for these past three months? I put on my clothes and called 911 and looked at Sharon for further instructions, but she was by the door, listening, so I told the operator what I thought I should tell her and hung up. There was a soft knock at the door. More knocks. Sharon shook her head. “Go away, Steve. I called the cops and they’re on their way.”
“Come on, Baby, open the door.”
“Go away, Steve, the cops –”
“I just need to get some things, open the door.”
This conversation continued several minutes, and far away I heard a siren. I shouted through the door: “Listen, man, the cops are coming! Can you hear them?”
“Who is this?”
“Who cares who I am? Get going. Use the back stairwell or they’ll catch your ass.”
“Who is this?” demanded Steve from the other side of the door.
“Steve, get going,” pleaded Sharon.
“This isn’t right, Baby. This isn’t right.”
He banged his fist against the door, then left and Sharon held her breath. The building’s back stairwell was closed for repairs, so Steve would have to go out the front, where the cops waited. We heard shouting from the pavement and then Sharon started crying, panicked. We looked out the window and saw Steve rammed into the back seat of a cruiser. Sharon gasped. “He’s going away for a long time!” Tears streaked down her face. She was shaking and hardly heard the knock at the door. Police officers stood in the hallway, and two of them entered her apartment, asking questions and trying not to stare at Sharon’s body barely covered by a sheer bathrobe. Sharon said nothing to the police, and then they asked me and I shrugged and sat down on the couch. I knew nothing, I said.
“Ma’am, who is the man we’ve got downstairs?”
“D-a-v-i-l-a,” said Sharon, “Steve Davila.”
It took all her might to spell Steve’s name, and as she did it I saw it was the biggest accomplishment of her life. The anchor against her aspirations and industry was lifted from her neck.
And the cops said thank you and left a card which I took coz Sharon was shaking too much and they left and there was a silence in that apartment I never heard before, until the sirens went away wailing and Sharon started crying again. I stood next to her and put the palm of my hand on the small of her back, but she shrugged it off.
“You know what the worst thing about that was?”
“When I spelled his name your semen was running down my legs.”
She cried by herself, standing up with her forehead pressed against her arms, leaning onto the back of a chair. Her body heaved with sobs and after a few minutes like this I put out my hand to soothe her and try to get her to lie down but she snarled away from me like a panther and slammed shut the door of the bedroom, where she lay crying all night. I sat out in the living room and thought about what had happened, and about going back to Spain, I have to admit.
Steve stayed in prison three more years, got out, got cranked one night and smashed his car to pieces against a bridge. He wasn’t paralyzed but he spent the last year of his life in a wheelchair. Got his blood transfused, got AIDS, tried to call Sharon and ask for her forgiveness and then just gave up one day and told his sister and brother his life wasn’t worth living and passed away the next day, right there in the wheelchair, in the sunshine in the nursing home he was forced to live in.
Sharon and I broke up for good a few months later, and the very next boyfriend she had, a Chilean named Francisco, got her pregnant and this time she had the baby, and even though she had her suspicions about what kind of father he’d make she got pregnant again and had that baby too, and right after he went back to Chile to the horror of his family, who’d promised Sharon he would do the right thing. Typesetters went out of vogue and Sharon learned some graphics, I think. I saw her twice more. We went for drinks one night several years later and she wanted to re-ignite the old flame but I’d just met a young woman I would fall in love with and I used Sharon’s rule as a defense and then listened to her crying in her bedroom while I laid in front of her TV in a blanket, trying to sleep. The last time I saw her she came with three pals to a premiere of one of my movies in Georgetown. I didn’t recognize her until she was right in front of me, smiling. There was a crowd and a lot of noise and Sharon said, That’s all right Sweetie I’ll talk to you later, but I never saw her again.
And Will? He did not win for best screenplay. As he said would happen, the writer for the period piece from England won. Good thing, perhaps, because Will went to the thrift store and spent $38 for his tux. Maybe America needed to see that. On the other hand, the actress in his story won: Halle Berry’s acceptance speech was possible because Will wrote her a story to play in. She did a great job. But there’s no clapping without a story. We all know that, right? Isn’t a story the pregnancy of every performance?
* * * * *
My Own Private Country
I grew up on the run, son of a spy and darling of a mother escaping her mediocre past. They quarreled, and I spent a great part of my childhood living in a station wagon wandering the Middle East and Europe. I ended up with an odd case of wonderlust, fueled by my father’s odd history lessons that did not make sense compared to what we could see with our own eyes. The wandering became a way of life: the Himalayas, the Amazon, the Serengeti, the Indian Ocean.
In between I criss-crossed the country I made my own when I could choose from any: the United States, for all of its poisonous consumerism and capitalistic horrors, still the peak of freedom, a place where you are not just free to speak but also to imagine. But what feeds imagination? Curiosity. And in the USA there is plenty of room to take that curiosity out for a stroll.
I first drove across the U.S. when I was 21, with a Dutch school chum named Mike van der Meer. We ended up in San Francisco, got drunk on champagne, and we bought a Salvador Dali artist’s print of “Academy at France” for the last thousand bucks we had. Van der Meer needed his share a week later, when we sobered up, and I was broke as a result but the proud owner of a shitty Dali. Just a few weeks ago, in May 2019, I drive the Dali print from St. Paul to my studio in DC, where it now hangs by the front door, inviting theft. In between these two trips, I’ve driven solo or with friends dozens of times across the country. Inspired by Steinbeck and William Least Heat Moon, I drive slowly and talk to people along the way, and find a country nobody knows about in the Imperial cash centers of the world. If I live long enough, I’ll make my Main Street, populated with images similar to what you see below.
Slideshow below: look for white arrow either side of the image.
In the aftermath of an affair with a mankiller, I searched for something bigger than myself and found it in the skies of the Arctic Circle: the aurora borealis overwhelmed my sense of self, reminded me of my puny insignificance in anything other than my brief consciousness, and I took 22 separate trips into darkest winter and deepest cold to capture images of the cosmic dance overhead. Gradually, these trips and their images coalesced into a guidebook for lovers to mend their spirits when love affairs collapse, as the best ones do. I am always counseling young people: you do not know what you are capable of feeling until your heart is shattered in two. The project I have slowly cooked is called “Can the Aurora Borealis Cure Heartbreak?” Coming soon!
Slideshow below: look for white arrow either side of the image.
Spain has spoiled since I lived there as a child. Tourism rots the firmest of places, and the tourism of Spain is the most toxic on Earth. Worse than Florida. There are veins of pure enchantment in Extremadura and the neighboring nations to Spain: the Basques and Catalonia and Portugal. Given my choices of going anywhere on Earth, I would choose the small roads of Iberia if my goal is simply food and honest humor. And these two things are vitally important to anyone who spends time lost in wanderlust. No collection of pictures can adequately show Iberia’s charms, and neither can even the best of movies, but surely a book of encounters with the inhabitants of the country can yield the spirit of the place?
Slideshow below: look for white arrow either side of the image.
* * * * *
The Annapurna Himal is west of Everest, Katmandu and Pokhara. The Annapurna Sanctuary is at the 45th parallel, meaning it is further north than Miami but south of Maine, and we are traveling in October, weeks before Himalayan winter. The Annapurna Himal consists of two large ranges of mountains and more than a half-dozen peoples, chief among them the Gurungs and second among them Tibetan refugees. Our six-some is reduced by Jonelle’s job obligations and Raven’s decision to dance in Rajasthan. Our driver Mr. Singh takes us (Eddie Becker, Lucinda Vette, Sandra Bishop, and me) to a place called Nayapul and shakes my hand with both of his hands and looks me in the eye with fraternal gratitude; I have been fair, he has saved one of our butts, and maybe I have saved his, and this combination is pretty cool compared to what he must have expected when our group bubbled out of our Benares hotel in a spasm of giggles and hiccups. Then he is away, and we are left with the two guides I picked up two nights before from The General. One guide is named JHP, and the other is named Nar-wa.
You been here before, Mr. Sohn? says JHP. He looks like a European pop star who died in Vegas. A sort of poor man’s Tom Jones. He is wearing a long yellow t-shirt emblazoned with Bob Marley’s face framed in a cloud of dope smoke. I shake my head at his question: I can’t recognize anything. Last time I came here it was on a Russian jeep with sixteen gears and we drove along a riverbed to a place called Suikhet and then had to walk a whole day to get anywhere near here. JHP nods, he’s seen the changes.
Yeah, yeah, the place changes, but not as much as I have changed, you know what I mean?
Why are we stopping?
Nar-wa has to buy some shoes. Bad Chinese shoes. Two hundred rupees. One week, holes in the feet.
I’m surprised: He doesn’t have any shoes? And I see that Nar-wa does have some shoes, but they’re flip flops and won’t do so I sit on the bench made of grey brick slabs and wait, wondering mildly where my companions are.
Can I ask question, Mr. Sohn?
You have a question about Eddie?
Yeh, yeh. Sometime, I’m not understanding . . .
What he says?
You know why that is?
It’s because sometimes Eddie is speaking in Chinese.
Yeah. And you know what happens when you talk to somebody in Chinese, right? You gotta look them in the eye so you can understand what they’re saying with their heart and not what they’re saying with their mouth, you know what I mean?
But anytime you can’t understand what the Baba is saying, just ask me and I’ll tell you, okay?
Okay, cool, thank you.
JHP shakes my hand and smiles. He stands up to shout at Nar-wa, and I hear the phrase, ‘Chinese shoes, ma-chigne.’ What’s that mean? Chinese shoes means Chinese shoes, and ma-chigne is Nepali for motherfucker. You don’t like the Chinese? JHP shakes his head, no, no, it’s not like that, people all around the world are cool and beautiful, and he’s got nothing against the Chinese, it’s just their shoes that are no good. Nar-wa walks up. Nar-wa looks like a mini-Charles Bronson, his grin a little knife, something you pull out just for show coz you’ve already got your rifle handy, and I ask him how he’s doing and because his English isn’t as good as JHP’s he’s succinct: Bad Chinese Shoes. I stand up, time to move on, we got seven hours forced march in front of us and here we are 100 yards out of the taxi in a bazaar out of Kipling buying Chinese shoes. Let’s go, I say, and then I add like in Hollywood, Chinese shoes, ma-chigne, and Nar-wa almost dies laughing. JHP goes to find Eddie and the other cats.
We walk like retarded goats toward the hot sun. We pass rice fields scoured by the Gurung. The hills are dark green and massive. JHP points to a hut a million miles away and says, ‘We stop there,’ and Sandi says, ‘That’s it, the Sanctuary?’ and JHP says, ‘No, for lunch,’ and Sandi says ‘Oh.’ I don’t recognize any of it, and the me who came here 16 years ago is nowhere in sight. My frail knees were crippling me then, and my father had just died, and I was in a daze, tricked out of Amsterdam onto a plane bound for Sri Lanka by a high school friend, and, besides, the new highway hadn’t been built so we had to walk that extra day which almost killed me in 90 degrees swelter. The mountains and the clouds and the path and cowshit and the friendly smiling Gurung faces all look different now, not memories of mine.
The porters make $5 a day, and they carry our light packs in embarrassment. JHP carries maybe 12 kilos and Nar-wa maybe 15. That’s the difference in learning English, I tell them. Huh? JHP speaks English so he gets to be the guide, I explain to Nar-wa, which means he carries three kilos less than you about 200 days a year which adds up to 600 kilos a year, which is a small buffalo, and if you do that for thirty years it means JHP is carrying thirty buffalos less than you because he speaks English. Get it? Nar-wa flashes me a bit of Bronson: His expression says, The other fucker might be speaking Chinese, dude, but you are speaking poison. And I laugh and the Nepalis laugh and there’s that excellent book by Peter Matthiessen, ‘The Snow Leopard,’ which explains how the Nepalis laugh every time something goes wrong, like a man falls in the river and drowns and it’s ‘Hee hee hee,’ a tremendous difference from the street I live on, where a giggle at a man slipping off the curb gets you a shaft of cold hatred. JHP laughs at Nar-wa. Nar-wa laughs at Nar-wa. Hee hee hee. I remember this part of Nepal. Maybe it’s just that I remember Matthiessen better, and his whole book is about the Nepalis laughing at disaster.
Matthiessen’s wife had just died of cancer, my own dread friend, and he went off to Nepal to forget the sight of her gasping for breath, and I read the book by sheer coincidence a few weeks before I watched my own father asphyxiate on his Danish deathbed, and then ten years later I met Matthiessen’s son Alex in the warehouse at Blagden Alley, and was struck by his imperturbable personality. It his mother who died 300 times in ‘The Snow Leopard.’ Had he, like the Nepalis, learned to laugh at disaster?
Wait, what was that about $5 a day? Sandra is outraged. The General is charging us $10 a day and only giving you half? JHP nods, and Nar-wa spits. Don’t tell the other porters that we know how much our guys are making, I say to Sandi, coz somebody will get in trouble. It’s the old corporate trick: Don’t tell the other fool how much we’re paying you, coz then we’d have to pay you less. Soon we hear Sandi muttering, ‘Generalissimo, ma-chigne,’ and the porters bounce along happy for her support.
We’re hungry when we stop at a bit of Shangri-la for lunch, and I introduce Eddie and Sandi and Lucinda to dal-bhat, the perfect protein of lentil soup mixed with rice. We’ll walk six hours the first day and stay at a hilarious bustle of a place with ten rooms and a hot dining hall which we abandon to explore the town (Ghandrung), even though the proprietress yells after us ‘Double room charge if you eat other hotel.’ The other hotel tries to get us to eat there, but then we notice a similar notice: ‘Double room charge if you eat somewhere else,’ and we point this out as bad business but the hotel people just don’t get it. We go back to our hotel’s dining hall with a bottle of rotgut hidden beneath Eddie’s arm and soon we’re all rollicking and noisy, and JHP and Nar-wa hear Eddie speaking under the influence and realize, Holy cow, we got a revolution around every corner, because he’s blending together labor camps and pragmatic farming policies and the Gang of Four and the World Bank with Reebok sneakers and schoolteacher salaries and the role of the Polish Secret Police in the attempt to poke the Pope. (I just got an e-mail from my pal Sueraya back from the Congo, and she asks: ‘Have I ever met Eddie sober? Me, I mean, not him.”) And that’s the effect on JHP and Nar-wa, feeling as if they’re reeling even though they’ve managed to pass off most of the fishgut vodka on the Baba himself, who asks them: ‘Tell me, do you fellows who transport all the toys for the tourists have a union of some kind?’ And JHP looks at me in the dim glow of 40 watts powered by the river, eyebrows raised to make him look a little like an Asian Englebert Humperdinck, and I look back at him and signal in Chinese morse code, ‘Don’t give the Baba too much to drink or you’ll be carrying him up the mountain.’ JHP hides the fishgut gin. Nar-wa two minutes later is looking for the bottle, and Eddie is waving his sympathetic empty glass, but as I’ve already explained Nar-wa doesn’t speak enough English to risk carrying the Baba to the Annapurna Sanctuary and back, especially wearing those bullshit shoes he bought for $2 this morning, so we don’t say anything and Nar-wa laughs at JHP for drinking all the shit while we weren’t looking.
In the town of Kumyu, as high above the oceans as Denver, Sandra engages in a lovefest with a wizened old lady who dances and jokes and howls in laughter as Sandi imitates her traditional dance steps. The old lady sings, Sandi sings and adds a few winks. The old lady dances out of her wrinkles back into smooth youth, and her mimic Sandi dances with her eyebrows twinkling. The old lady looks like Georgia O’Keefe on ecstacy, and Sandi is her sidekick organ grinder monkey. The two of them howl at the mountains and the sky and perform love songs about worthless men. Everybody stops to bask in this collision of cultures. The foreign trekkers look at the old lady and are amazed at the sturdiness of her age, and the locals look at Sandi and wonder if they can pet the monkey or feed it a peanut.
Bear with me a moment while I grind the organ:
When I think of the immense anonymity of the universe, and my role as a speck of dust on one of its windows, barely noticeable among the millions of panes of glass which make up the glittery spaces of forever, I feel as tiny and unimportant as any dust mite might. But then I think of Sandra, of how much I love her, and of how big my love for her is, and suddenly it is the universe and its possibilities which shrink. I must be bigger than a speck of dust, if I contain anything like the love I feel for my friend, because what I feel is brighter than any star, than any civilization’s Sun, and the proof of my own bigness is evident every time I look into her bubbling eyes. If the brightness I feel in my heart for Sandi can be contained without choking the empty blackness of Space, then the universe must be limitlessly large.
Georgia O’Keefe’s Gurung cousin squeezes Sandi’s cheek and says ‘Beautiful,’ and Sandi squeezes the wrinkled cheek and says ‘More beautiful,’ in Nepali and everybody claps in appreciation. No, no, says the old lady, ‘I was beautiful long ago,’ and the little organ grinder monkey answers back, ‘Me, too,’ and more clapping and more laughter. The old lady twirls, the monkey twirls and adds a flourish, a little James Brown bark, ‘hah!’
I met Sandra almost ten years ago when she came to the Warehouse with a friend; we were making a movie, and a scene we were filming involved four (powerful) women dressed in jaunty tops that exposed the hair beneath their arms, and they delivered their lines with their hands atop their heads, as if to say, Can’t handle it, then look away, and my pal Eric was the actor who was subject to their misopeny, and me as the director had a problem with the set so I asked Sandi to wrap the mannequins in plastic and then ordered the scene shot with Sandra in the middle of it with Saran Wrap, dressing the dolls, while Eric got slapped around by women who ruled the world. I’ll never forget Sandra’s face when I said ‘Okay, cut,’ and she said ‘Wait, I’m still wrapping and you got me in the middle of the scene and what about continuity,’ and I said, ‘Continuity? What the fuck are you talking about?’ And we’ve been pals ever since, sneering at anybody who thinks entertainment is something that lasts for six minutes between commercials for automobiles or tampons.
When the cancer got me by the ass in 1993, Sandra was in Ecuador trying to figure out how to tell me she didn’t want to be my girlfriend any more, coz of the suffocation of my grandiose schemes [that’s how I remember it], and then the call came in the middle of the night that I was going to die [that’s how I put it] and she flew back the next day and then accompanied me through six months of chemo and rads every day while the doctors clucked and the nurses bit their lips, and she had the good grace not to mention wanting to break up, not once, and suffered along with me the whole way. We were never girlfriend-boyfriend again, and graduated instead to a sibling love in which we alternate the roles of snake and mongoose and play a game of ‘got you last’ without caring a bit whose shoes we scuff up. Lucinda is amused how I’m always making sure Sandi’s okay on the trails, and when I tell her if something happened to Sandi I would throw myself off the mountain right then and there, Lucinda is appreciative: There’s no point to being a snake if you can’t have a mongoose nipping at your heels.
I ask Eddie to film me saying something profound about Shangri-La with the scenery and the mountains in the background, since I am inspired by the crinkled Gurung O’Keefe: If you spent exactly half your life standing on your head you wouldn’t wrinkle one bit, because the droop of your jowls and breast and bottom and cheeks is caused by Earthly reality. That’s the point of sleeping, to get horizontal as well as to rest. But there is a wrinkling of the soul — a curdling of the personality, a waning of the spirit — which is worse than what my mother calls ‘falling-down ass,’ and that is the aging of your dreams. Not allowed to soar, a dream droops and crumples to the ground, no longer sleek enough to fly the skies of your imagination, and Sandra is a dreamer and loves me for my dreamy dreams. Together with our friends we hatch little dreams like bubbles against the twin tides of obligation and responsibility which cause premature maturity, that awful seriousness you can measure by the minutes lost in a lifetime of rush hours waiting for the traffic jam to clear.
I am thinking a wonderful refrain, one which has colored all of the Year 2000 for me, that sleep when young is a way of preserving beauty, but that sleep when old is a way of escaping pain. This little truism is coursing through my mind on the trail downward to the river when I sense that discordant signal of the outdoors, a sort of barometric warning of something amiss in nature’s symphonic splendor. Lucinda is sitting awkwardly beside the turquoise waters of the Kyumu River, with JHP and Nar-wa squatting on the rocks beside her, their packs all lined like Easter Island carvings on the sandy spit along the riverside. What happened? I scramble down the hill, heart sinking. Ghandrung behind us, two hours up, and Chomro in front, two hours up. Where are Eddie and Sandra?
‘I wiped out, fell down big-time,’ says Lucinda.
‘I slipped and bent my knee back.’
Is it swollen?
Did you hear a pop, or did you hear a crunch?
Can you put your weight on it?
Does it hurt?
The farmgirl tries to stand on the hurt leg and it almost buckles. We are hundreds of slab steps up in either direction. The lunch and monkeydance have made us late. The cool air is ominous with lack of shelter and solemn isolation. The knee, that mechanical wonder, is still mechanical, the wanker. We’ve got a problem, and the result for Lucinda will prove a disaster: She cannot continue. She will not drag us backward, and insists on at least hobbling up to Chomro. I tell her to walk on alone, and we wait on the riverbanks to watch her struggle 100 yards. Eddie can’t stand it, packs his camera and follows her. Sandi, our medical pro, catches up with Lucinda and watches Lucinda’s face for the pain with every step. Three hundred yards tells us that at least we’re not stuck in this river valley, and JHP and Nar-wa and I follow, JHP carrying Lucinda’s daypack strapped across his chest. It’s a struggle, but Lucinda makes Chomro.
The valley cuts deep beneath us, falling more than 1,500 feet to the river below. Our hotel is called the Excellent View. It has solar hot showers, as all these lodges do. A Snickers bar costs a dollar, and a Coke is 75 cents. A big heaping dish of rice with lentil stew and veg curry is two bucks. Half a roll of toilet paper is 50 cents, a pot of Nepali chai two dollars, and a double room (clean, austere, cold) is three dollars. Lucinda’s mobility is priceless, and gone.
Eddie tells a group of Belgian trekkers that there is no such thing as Gurungs, that the people the trekkers see are really just actors who wake up every day and troop up the mountain to provide a boost to the scenery, and, besides, the actors are really French. The Belgians guffaw, nervously. Since Eddie seems to think the Annapurna Himal is a suburb of Amsterdam, he is in rich form despite our somber moods, experimenting with alcohol and traditional herbal mendicants to achieve a bliss which the world’s conspiracies cannot cloud. I notice — alarmingly — that he finds Byron and Dot from Hawaii to be nice people to whom he impulsively awards his book on Indian mythology, even though the rest of us are horrified by these New Age miscreants who made their living bothering whales for tourism’s sake until the state outlawed it, and Eddie seems not to care when Byron strides out into the courtyard and bellows ‘Dot! Hey, Dot!’ while the other residents of the lodge inwardly cringe. One of the unfortunate aspects of social activism is the necessity of accepting all warm bodies into the front, as though marshaling forces for Gettysburg or Flanders, and then you get stuck with the twit in Philadelphia who enlists the help of undercover FBI agents to form the human shield which will choke the Republican Conventioneers. Eddie accepts them all, whether Hawaiian fools or lost souls with withered blue lines for windmills in their hands, and cheerfully he shrugs off the added burden. Onward soldiers, the people in charge are selling your social security numbers and conspiracies will never die even if anarchists eventually grow up to be lawyers, etc., etc., and when JHP spots Eddie coming out of the charpi (toilet) the next daybreak he asks me if the Baba’s stomach is okay and I say, He’s just left another revolution behind him, which potty humor leaves JHP giggling the translation to Nar-wa, who laughs despite looking like he ate forty young ponies for breakfast. They are partying hard, this triumvirate, the Baba and our porters, and I have reservations that we can make the base camp three days and seven thousand feet away.
Lucinda is disconsolate, and we wait in Chomro for a day to see if her knee will loosen up. It is not monstrously swollen, but she can barely walk. She is bombarded with health advice. She is determined not to be left behind, so she gingerly walks the steps around our lodge and we settle in for a long, cold day in a surreal setting. When the clouds clear we can see the unscaled peak of Machhapuchhare and one of the Annapurnas, glinting white. Much is made of the fact that the Fishtail mountain has never been scaled, and I have always been under the impression that it was left untramped for religious reasons. The Fishtail is always described as a ‘sacred’ mountain. I know it has a deep meaning for Hindu tourists who walk the hills around Pokhara and look at Machhapuchhare from a distance. But reading Chris Bonnington’s book about his ascent of Annapurna reveals that the Fishtail hasn’t been scaled simply because a British mountaineer named Roberts convinced the Nepali government to keep at least one mountain in the country unclimbed. This was in the 1950s. I wonder how many other spiritual lodestones around the world have this bureaucratic reality lurking behind their myths?
But, Chomro: The impossibly steep hills around us are olive green, sometimes terraced with rice, millet or potatoes, barely populated beyond the scar of buildings which make up the town, second in importance for the Gurungs only to Ghandrung. We read on our third day, me concluding the fairy tale majesty of Siddartha by Hesse, and Sandra with ‘Into the Wild,’ Eddie with his pamphlets on Gurung life and manners (‘A woman must not utter her husband’s name’), and Lucinda ‘The Tennis Partner.’ We socialize and wander the hills, and I listen to music and look stupidly out at the valley from the terraces of our lodge. Dulled by the beauty of our path, I have sharp insights into the ugly inner depths of my character, and I vacillate between self-flagellation and acceptance in the way Montaigne accepted Paris, “The city is so precious that even her blemishes are dear unto me.” We’re waiting, cooling our heels, adapting to the altitude, while anticipating our destination: the base camp in the valley in the center of the Annapurna Himal which is so beautiful it has to be called a Sanctuary.
From my journal:
‘For the first time in a decade I’m listening to Jean Michel Jarre, the same music (Oxygene) I brought up here in 1984. The mountains and even the music seem different to me, but I know it’s me who has changed, and the unfamiliarity of the mountains and the music is just a claustrophobic shock against my open, omnipotent past. There is less time left for me to live — quite possibly much less than the 16 years since last I was this way because of the stupid idiot cancer and the after-effects of its various cures. But I can’t blame cancer for the blown-out wicks at both ends of my destiny: There is less time left because there is more of me, more substance, more experience, and I am much more full. I would so much rather be more empty, a youth! Consider: my father was 13 years older than I am now when he started me and my sisters and my family, in the autumn of his life, and I grew up shadowed by his winter, waiting in the dark to make sure he was breathing in his sleep while the dog watched me, tail wagging. He died at 77. How can I possibly live that long?’
And when I put down the journal and gave in to the music and the clouds and nature’s benevolent passions, I could feel my father inside me, where he has always been, apparently never feeling the need to speak in the same way I feel the need. Or is he speaking in a way I can appreciate more than words?
The first thing I remember him telling me was that I was a baby of the water, that I would always be here where I was born and raised, in this sea, in this water he sprinkled on me. I was born in a hospital in Nice which is on the Sea, and stood for the first time to chase a fellow two-year-old girl on the beaches of Cannes, learning as we played in the sand that where there is a smile there is always a friend, and we crossed the sea to Beirut and lived on the Corniche, and then we lived in a series of apartments in the Costa del Sol, with all our windows looking out onto the Mediterranean, the sea where I was born. When I was ten years old and we drove around supposedly following Alexander, my father told me to remember that this Sea is where Man comes from, not physically but in his imagination, and You should always keep that in mind, Bub, that Man is not an animal but a thinking Being. When he died and my pal Steve and I walked three weeks later into Annapurna, the locals kept talking about the heat wave, and I remember panting along with my creaking knees that first day, wanting to turn back for a swim on a beach filled with bikinis. But when your dad is just dead you don’t make decisions so I ambled along in Steve’s wake, up the hot mountain. This time, the water is everywhere, little streams and raging glacial torrents, and when a shy Irish rain leaks out of the Himalayan sky and I’m left on the terrace alone before all that mountainous majesty, thinking of Skipper, my own tiny rain begins to fall. Here is my father, speaking to his water baby, and when my tears reach my lips I can taste the Mediterranean Sea.
3000 steps up and down
We leave Lucinda in Chomro. Despite her practiced walks the previous day, she can’t go on. We carefully divide up our power granola bars, toiletries and batteries, and leave her one of the two mini-disc players and most of the MDs, including Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ and Fiona Apple’s ‘When the Pawn.’ In addition, since she will be immobilized, we leave her all the books. Tough decisions. Now I’m left with my own head and the second mini-disc player, but I’m going to the Annapurna Base Camp and she’s not so I feel badly and she feels badly and when all of us hug early the next morning and say our goodbyes I can see the hurt in her sparkling eyes: The trip in a way means more to her than any of us, because it represents the greatest leap of faith any of us made to leave the comforts of home.
I met Lucinda at New Year’s Eve when she was out with her sister and Art Attack’s Alberto Gaitan and they were all so smashed their comedy routine was operating with a wheel missing. I came sober and two hours late, a trick I learned growing up among discotheques in the south of Spain, and noticed that Lucinda was a Listener. I suffer from a lifelong case of verbal diarrhea, but when it’s necessary I listen to the whole story . . .
In Tabatinga in the Amazon in a town where everybody had a gun but me, I needed to change a hundred bucks and found myself in a building filled with ten thousand bottles of one kind of shampoo, interrupting a transaction between bored-looking men trading heaps of money (with their guns politely leaned against the wall), with Ali the head guy looking me over before asking in accented Spanish, ‘Is it true you are from Lebanon?’ and when I told him my childhood had indeed been spent in the glory years of the Paris of the Middle East, he sent out the bored-looking men and told me the story of his life for two whole days, at times crying, at times laughing, offering me drinks but not touching a drop himself and at one point, talking about his mother, he simply began to weep and covered his face in his hands and I realized he was trapped in this absurd confluence of river and coca leaf and moreover had never been to Lebanon himself, despite being Lebanese. While he wept I told myself to Shut up and be stoic and when he wants to you’ll get the rest of the story, and finally I did: His mother had left him here in the jungle and the water and gone back to the Cedars to drop dead, and he was alone in the world, and I learned then that it doesn’t matter if somebody is Arabic or Amharic but you’d better be able to hear everybody as a human being, especially when their smiles and eyes leak telltale squeaks of pain. Ali would not let me spend a dime in the Amazon, and got me onto a mail carrier that barely cleared the trees but got me to Iquitos, and when I tried to give him the original hundred bucks in exchange he waved it away in irritation.
Ever since then, people walk up to me out of the dark and gab away. But Lucinda kept her thoughts to herself that first night, and I kept mine to myself, and it became a sort of competition, each willing the other to speak. In the past year we’ve been listening a lot to each other but also to the rest of our pals and most importantly to the curious strangers you barely notice unless you’re on the lookout for ways of escape. And Lucinda is in the act of escaping herself. Not just the person who needs to get a job and make a Living, but also from the past skins in which she slithered through law school and college and romance and horse riding competitions, and through the childhood and infancy strangled by the sturdy security nets only families can build. Torn between her own wonder at the world around her and the expectations of friends and family, Lucinda has been frozen in action a dozen times since I’ve known her. Bustling between poses, she’s in training for that breakout run that leaves you on the train knifing across the rice paddies or in the hills above the patient waves of the tireless ocean, which like the wind knows the only way to break your opponent is not with a fist or a hammer or a tornado, but with a lifetime of gentle caresses, a billion tiny hugs which in the ocean’s lifetime will leave the planet as smooth as a billiard ball, despite the best intentions of the geopolitical champions whose scars of development carry legacies, for sure, but of indictment and not the glory they’re expecting when they spit on their hands and dig their shovels into virgin territory to begin the process of building something meaningful. The joke they don’t get! Well, Lucinda is seeing through the best intentions of her friends and family and counselors and bosses. She sees treasure available to people who listen to their own imaginations.
And the ultimate treasure is freedom. Not just to do what you want, but to speak and think the same way. That’s why Lucinda appreciates my hatred of clichés, and why she laughs when I sneer at brand names, especially when my friends wear them on their shirts or jogging shorts. When I froth about my plans to build the Gadfly Thinktank, with Eddie Becker as a sort of Failure Emeritus, Lucinda totally gets it and wants to schedule the first graduation ceremony. Because what could the Imperial City with its hallowed gasbags use more than a collection of needle-nosed whiners and misguided pricks? She sees that the struggle to decide between a Volvo or a Honda is a conflict which delays or hides the resolution of the Self, which involves not just admitting addiction to chocolate but admitting that real education and curiosity require a discipline akin to an Olympic pentathlete’s.
The night before she left Nepal, Lucinda’s sister Jonelle articulated a lament about how we live our lives in bondage rather than in the ideal, and then provided her own ideal:
‘Wouldn’t it be great to spend two hours a day reading something difficult, and then two hours practicing music, and then two hours exercising, and then two hours writing, and to do it every day, endlessly?’
Not on anybody’s schedule but your own? Wouldn’t it be great?
Jonelle can say it because she’s got a steady income and is caught in the harness of somebody else’s scheduling, but I can see from the face of her sister Lucinda — the listener — that such a life is not as lamentably far away as everybody might think. Lucinda was still thinking about her sister’s ideal life formula as Jonelle’s Cosmic Air twin-prop lumbered down the highway toward Katmandu while the rest of us waved at all 16 windows. Maybe such a life could come as soon as we got the Baba from Brooklyn up and safely down the mountain.
Try to live that life, though. I can’t, and I’m comparatively free to do what I please. I’ve experienced a constant, grinding poverty most of my life which required some witty hustling for me to jet all over the world in the name of science and art. Now I’ve got the cash flow fat, and my time is violated only by my own whirlwind plans, and I still can’t approach that ideal. People with means can’t either, especially rich people who can live dashing lives around the world without ever finding anything valuable. It’s not money. It’s not time. It’s a blending of desire with the imagination, and Lucinda has been working on this trick in between despairing the useless and wasteful routines and responsibilities many of us describe as a full life. So when I told her five months ago that I wanted to show Eddie a town in India where people go to die, and then take him up the mountain to recover his intellectual energy and vim, she signed on without question. The trip for her had nothing to do with being on some intellectual balloon crash. It was a chance to break out of her own definitions for living, and find a cure to those two chief pollutants of the soul, boredom and mediocrity. For her sister Jonelle and for our snake-charmer Raven (who is now in Rajasthan and reports 4,000 offers of marriage which leaves me wondering if there is a link between declining self-esteem and marriage, but this is a delicate and complicated subject, so —) the trip has offered an escape from a situation rather than to a situation, and for Sandra the trip was undertaken out of sheer loyalty to speed, as in, Lookit this train is zooming by and see how easy it is to jump on? Expecting something conclusive, Lucinda risked returning from this trip to find herself in the same situation she’d left behind, and the summit in the Sanctuary was a metaphor for stepping out of herself into something higher.
And now Lucinda is frozen again. Left behind in Chomro with four books and six hours of music and a revolving door of trekkers passing each other up or down, with the mountains green and the hot springs below. Her friends get to trudge up to the glaciers and peaks only partly glimpsed miles away peeking out of the clouds and the foothills. What bitching, dratted bad luck.
We leave at daybreak and descend to old Chomro, which I passed through sixteen years ago but cannot remember from Saturn. The roads through Chomro are huge slab slates pieced together in muddy avenues between stone walls which hem in milk-producing buffalo and chickens or which support terraces of millet or rice. A small temple signals good-bye as I walk carefully on its left (keeping my right — purer — side closest to it), and then a pagan crèche appears in the last wall where the town’s gremlins and witches hide, and at this crèche are a few cigarettes and hay and ribbons and knick knacks and I start thinking about a super-natural plotline involving a sportscaster trying to find his biologist brother in a small town where the women turn into leopards, etc etc. All I have to do is scribble some shit together and call it “The Sanctuary” and describe just like in this sentence and some lawyer in Manhattan will give me five thousand bucks so he can brag between real estate contracts that he’s getting into the movie biz.
The Gurungs came from the north, farther than Tibet, hundreds of years ago. They killed animals and ate them until they realized there was nothing left alive. They moved because it’s in the nature of humans to shit until you have to leave home behind and start all over again, and they came south toward the sunshine and perhaps toward the hills to get away from some man-made enemies. They developed their own caste system, which is most rigid in its regard to marriage. The Gurungs don’t care too much about virginity or the sanctimony of marriage — a young woman can ‘marry’ three times and walk away from all of them and still be choice marriage material — but they care a great deal about keeping the caste pure and strong, and in this sense the word caste really means neighborhood or, better yet, barrio. For 500 years, the barrio has slowly changed from meat-eating multi-theistic democracies to veggie-cultivating multi-theistic dependencies as other cultures have encountered the Gurungs and told them, You are poor. The caste business is always disheartening to me, because at its upper levels you can make a case for its usefulness in keeping neighborhoods in balance with each other and preventing homogeneity, but the system ultimately depends on the Untouchables, who are treated like shit because shit is all they have left to deal with after everybody higher on the scale scarfs up the tangerines and goats and railroad directorships.
A young girl walks with buffalo shit gathered in a basket on her head to make fuel, and she is an untouchable. An old man comes to a house full of tears with his platform rickshaw and removes a dead body to the embalmer or to the firestarters at the pyres at the holy houses on the river, and he is an untouchable. A young boy at the bus chowk cleans out the toilet stalls with a water hose and collects the buckets filled with toilet paper bearing cholera and dissenting amoebas and all the hepatitises in the alphabet, and he is an untouchable. (And the toilet paper comes from the foreigners; the vast majority of the subcontinent uses the left hand for wiping, and there’s always a little spigot to the left as you sit where you can clean your hands.) Two thousand years from now, society will pay the biggest salaries to whoever is willing to clean up the greatest amount of shit, instead of the way we have it now, where the CEOs get the bucks and leave behind the Superfund sites. Unbelievably, in this part of the Earth where Nirvana is simultaneously so close and distant, it is we, the educated and wealthy foreigners who are the most untouchable of all, and I’m delighted to see that Eddie Becker ignores the sign ‘No visitors in the kitchen, please’ to stroll into the kitchen with buffalo dung smeared over his Vasques and socks as he rubs his unwashed hands together to inquire, ‘Alright, what do we have cooking in here for dinner?’
Becker makes a point of hanging out with the porters and grilling them about government graft and international financial corruption, and to the porters’ amazement they actually find themselves understanding 20 percent of what he says. Then Eddie excuses himself, trudges out of the warm and fetid dining hall into the icy cold to retrieve from his $2-room an illustrated book on the culture of the Gurungs. He gives the porters the book and then sits back wearing his provocative grin. JHP (who looks like Englebert Humperdinck) and Nar-wa (like Charles Bronson on Quaaludes) are beginning to understand that the Brooklyn Baba is a special case, unlike the other tourists they’ve escorted up the mountain. On this night he is wearing a woolen skullcap, and a single thick orange strand of wool falls from its peak across his face, but Eddie could care less because he’s finding out that the elections in Nepal are indeed fixed. The hippie in him who was 19 in the summer of ‘69 still probes every ambiguity for evidence of conspiracy; his friends sneer at this trait, most of them younger and yuppier, but they pay attention when Eddie uncovers exploitation or cruelty instead of a conspiracy, and this he does with astounding regularity; his fitful scratches draw blood, and a society drunk on swollen 401-Ks swat at him as they might at a single hungry mosquito.
You have to be careful with that string, I tell JHP, because Eddie thinks it’s attached to his brains. JHP looks at the Baba, No shit?
He pulls on the string every day to decide how much of his brains he’s going to use. JHP looks at me and knows I’m lying. I know you know I’m lying, I say, but you know what? What? Tell everybody else about the string, they’ll believe you.
Later, Eddie waves at me, You gotta hear this, the elections are fixed, he says, but I’m about to pee laughing at the way all the porters are looking at that goddamn string while discovering they know how to speak a little Chinese. The next day, Eddie and I bitch at each other because an American Economics student at the university in Katmandu who Eddie befriends on the trail declares that 95% of the World Bank and IMF money coming to Nepal ends up being skimmed off the top, at least according to his economics professor at the institute in Katmandu. At one point the graduate student from Nebraska declares that Nepal is the world’s second-poorest country and I feel like throwing a stone at him because of the callous way he says it, as if the Nepalis around us are too stupid to hear the conversation. I ask Eddie if he believes for a moment what a jealous academic in Katmandu estimates about aid money graft, and before he can answer I ask him what his own figure is, and Eddie says, Well, it’s just another theory, so I’ll stick with my original estimate of 40 percent.
You think 40 percent of the aid money coming into Nepal ends up being stolen? Well . . . he says, ready for a discussion, but I interrupt: If it’s four percent it’s a fucking scandal, I say, remembering my pal Gonzalo and the wrecked heel he lived with for three years because he stepped off the plane wrong in the Central African Republic with five gallons of drinking water on his back, carried only because his boss at the IMF told him there’d be nothing else safe to drink while Gonzalo personally walked the aid money around the country.
Eddie starts to argue and I blister him again, Do you really think Nepal is the world’s second poorest country? Well, it’s relative, he says. I storm off in a huff. No question the IMF and the World Bank do some spectacularly stupid shit, but thieves and CEOs (them again!) thrive on innuendo and leftfield accusations from people like us which do little but distract from the ethics of helping poor people. I’ll never forget Nelson Mandela shaking Bill Clinton’s hand with tears in his eyes while saying, This is the first world leader who’s ever said Let’s do something with Africa instead of for Africa, and while I’m the first person to admit that our Prez is a horny scuzzball let me also say that Nelson Mandela is a fucking stud and whatever he says everybody can shut up and stuff it coz I don’t know anybody who would spend 27 days in prison for something they believe in, never mind 27 years, and I’m so riled up thinking about all of Eddie’s good intentions and Mandela’s sterling soul that it occurs to me to look into changing my name when I get back to America, from the ghastly anglo handle I’m currently branded with to something meaningful and cool, like . . . Biko Mandela.
I see myself being called to the ticket counter in airports, ‘Will Mr. Biko Mandela please report to the Cathay Pacific Information Counter,’ and when I show up they’ll look me over and say get the fuck out of the way coz we’re trying to help Somebody Important. I try out my name on a Nepali porter resting beneath a tree beneath the white glint of Hiunchuli. The air is thin and spearmint cold, so I’m sort of breathless when I say, My name is Biko, and the Nepali nods his head and pronounces it perfectly. Biko Mandela. The Nepali smiles, Like the African? And I smile and say, Yes, but really let me admit it right now that even if I go through with this stunt and do the back taxes and visit the Baltimore office of the Social Security Administration, let me admit: it doesn’t matter if my name is Abraham Lincoln or Lauren Bacall, I’ll never be worthy of carrying Nelson Mandela’s jockstrap.
But I’m surprised by my anger, which the cancer was supposed to have cured.
Nobody — nobody — is better than Becker at finding the bits of paper that incriminate the proper people, so that’s why I lay on him about the forty percent. He’s shown me the actual papers of the Chase Manhattan Bank getting the travel documents together for a guy named Puhl who was a Nazi war criminal so he could come to the U.S after WWII and raise a family and buy a Buick in the suburbs. And I’ve got my own experiences, especially one in Bolivia involving the United States government and the IMF and the tin miners in the world’s saddest town called Llallagua and a dictator named Banzer who was audacious enough to have a political opponent murdered by bazooka in downtown Miami. And there’s more, about Turkish militants in Bulgaria who I swear to God (or whomever) I talked out of going into Sofia with their homemade bombs by giving them a short lesson in American civics which I’ll be the first to admit is a hazy subject to me. Etc. The gadflys weigh down society in opposition to the financial types and real estate agents and lawyers and doctors barreling toward their blossoming mutual fund payouts. We gadflys are our own caste, the worst in most people’s eyes because we don’t do anything useful like picking up shit or dead bodies. We’re rather saintly in our own perceptions, secret Brahmins, almost, because we think, We Get It, which thought of course makes the gadfly as much a fool as the expert.
So Eddie and I are at loggerheads about the evils of the world, and I can’t stand the way our enlightened discussions seem to explore what the natives Think rather than how they Feel, especially when we’re talking right to their faces. This is a racism we commit as visitors to other cultures, whether we’re educated or not. Who cares if the elections are rigged? What I want to know is how it feels to carry 110 pounds up and down 4,000 stairs in one day when you weigh only 130 pounds yourself and at the end of the day you’re given three bucks’ worth of rupee notes for the task. How does it feel in the phlebotomical bulges inside your bowlegged knees? How does it feel to your arthritic neck? How does it feel to walk in stony silence every day of your life, brain-dead, transporting bottles of Coca-Cola or Snickers bars? How does it feel to hear the gaiety of foreigners on the trails you’ve worn, yakking about your King and your gods and your children’s bare feet, knowing they’ll never hear a thought of your own?
Eddie and Sandi and I walk the 3,000 steps in an atmosphere of dwindling oxygen and energy. Eddie tells me he’s taking aspirin for his bad heart and 170 cholesterol and I’m like Oh shit and there’s a twinge in the little muscle that connects my outer left ankle to the sole of my foot as well as a hot spot on the ball of my foot, a blister in the offing. And that’s down. There’s up, too, another 3,000 steps, and at the end of it we are dogged by a heavy mist. All grey, no mountains no sky, just the river rushing like a school bus falling down a cliff. The rain turns into sleet, and then improbably into hail, and the porters leap from their card games at the lodges in Dovan to see the phenomenon. Outside, a bevy of bedraggled Yanks makes the decision to continue to Chomro despite the lessening light and worsening conditions — one of them is a lady in a slicker and she looks over 60. There is no room at the lodges of Dovan at just under 10,000 feet. Perhaps in Bamboo, say the Yanks, though the Bamboo lodges looked full when we passed by on the way up. I understand their decision, which I overhear while standing in the dark, and an hour later, when the rain pounds the Earth with icy effluent, I am glad their decision was not mine.
In the middle of the night, I stumble out of my room to pee. The river is raging but the rain is gone and the sky has cleared. The only man-made light is the flashlight in my hand, and I keep it off. The mountains are ghostly towers blocking the stars; they are reflecting the reflected light of the Sun off the slight Moon. The smudge of the Milky Way splits the small sky above my head. The stars ferocious deny the empty space, and give me a keen visual metaphor:
The stars are treasures of imagination trying to stay alive in the darkness beyond a lifetime.
The mountains are huge. I’d forgotten. Now that I am among them, I think I’ll never forget their gigantic beauty, which I shall see in the morning and to which I have still a day of heavy walking to get close enough to touch. If only I tackled the ethereal beauties of my memories with as much enthusiasm as I commit to the trek upward! Why have I abandoned writing about my experiences while searching for new methods of expression? I’d rather paint a stage set or organize an orchestra or write a song or take a picture or even write a business plan or a legal contract than write about the sordid, extravagant tornado that has been my life. Is it because writing requires solitude? Am I lonely? Or am I alone?
I wake up Sandra and insist she come outside. She is speechless when faced by the sky, and we stand together in the silence of the roaring river. We listen to the creaking sounds inside our heads, to the splinterings and cracklings of our expanding imaginations. When we wake up in the morning, the world will look a little different. We thank our lucky little stars, and hope that we, too, can be different the next time we awake.
When the clouds clear we can see the unscaled peak of Machhapuchhare and one of the Annapurnas, glinting white. Much is made of the fact that the Fishtail mountain has never been scaled, and I have always been under the impression that it was left untramped for religious reasons. The Fishtail is always described as a ‘sacred’ mountain. I know it has a deep meaning for Hindu tourists who walk the hills around Pokhara and look at Machhapuchhare from a distance. But reading Chris Bonnington’s book about his ascent of Annapurna reveals that the Fishtail hasn’t been scaled simply because a British mountaineer named Roberts convinced the Nepali government to keep at least one mountain in the country unclimbed. This was in the 1950s. I wonder how many other spiritual lodestones around the world have this bureaucratic reality lurking behind their myths?
Eddie Becker, Sandra Bishop and I got off to an early start for the last leg up the valley to the Annapurna Sanctuary. The steepening trail had us all limbering ligaments and joints before we started walking, and on this morning I felt a decided difference in my body in terms of power and endurance. My shoes and socks felt more snug, my legs rigged with more spring, and even the constant ringing in my head (tinnitus) had cleared. (I was reminded of my year on Bleecker Street, on the fifth floor without an elevator, and how gaily I shot up and down the stairs into and out of the Village. At the end of a year in New York I found myself constantly rubbing my buttocks as I walked, admiring the svelte horsepower I could cup in my hands; and this was in 1999, when I was 39!)
The fishtail peaks of Machhapuchhare showed new snow from the night before. No clouds marred the shimmering sky. Our timing would be perfect. The trekkers descending as we rose had been disappointed by the cloudy views of the Annapurna Himal, but already what we could see was the stuff of dainty poems and epic prose.
We’d slept at just under 10,000 feet, and the moraine edge in the middle of the Sanctuary is at around 13,000. Altitude sickness is most probable over 10,000, and people don’t know they are prone to it until they’ve got it so we advance with our inner gyroscopes tuned to nausea and headache. JHP is nervous now, because this is the point in the journey where even a tiny mishap can become a major disaster, and he’s responsible for us not because of the rules of employment but because he likes us and wants us to enjoy the views and the heights he never takes for granted. He almost has a stroke when I tell him Eddie has a bad heart, which I mean as a bit of a joke, and JHP spends the rest of the day keeping Eddie in sight, as though the power of his own concern will help the Baba’s spirit ward away bad karma. Four nights ago -- in Ghandrung, where the Baba and the porters scrummed like piglets at the teat of a fishgut vodka bottle -- I insisted on paying for a room for JHP and Nar-wa. The other porters in the lodge regarded this luxury askance. But now that I have a little money I treat it like the garbage it is and throw it around without expecting to see it again, so I just wave the monopoly notes and order two of everything and tell JHP I grew up poor and somebody always paid for me so now it’s my turn, and in the morning JHP politely took me aside and said, Thank you for the room Mister Sohn but give the money to me and Nar-wa and we sleep with the other porters, because the rooms are too expensive. I agreed, and Nar-wa shook my hand later in the day, on the trail, when nobody else would see, all over an extra 150 rupees per day, two lousy greenbacks, the price of a small glass of orange juice in Manhattan. And then of course as often happens with me, by the time we get to the base camp we’re out of money and JHP and Nar-wa have to loan us their rupees, and they do so with cheery faith in my declarations of restitution; I’m reminded again of the national character of Nepal, where laughter is raised as a shield against misfortune. But now the country has Peter Jennings and CNN and the Los Angeles Lakers, so numbing apathy can’t be far behind the news of earthquakes and floods and the Ebola cooking again and the cricket scandals and the Brittney Spears implants and the circle jerk on Wall Street.
The route is no longer up and down over slate slabs or muddy amalgamations of rock and pebble. The path stubbornly rises now, and our legs and lungs stretch to accommodate the deceptively mild inclines and the increasingly opaque atmosphere. Hurried breaths lead to frequent rests; I’m bouncing to a dance tape I mixed in the Imperial City. Despite my collection of hypochondrias, I’m always amazed by how quickly my body adapts to wherever I put it. Too much sun? Not enough air? No problem. (In the Kalahari Desert last year, I insisted that my angelic pals Mikey and Ronnie accommodate my special medical needs -- which amounts really to being able to find a bathroom if I need a bathroom -- and I kept on making demands while Mike and Ron nodded along, Yep, yep, cool, cool, whatever you need to have, Seanie, and then off we flew and the first night in the wild I’m running around barefoot cooking dinner for four while a black scorpion strolls through the campsite with his stinger raised like a marine’s sabre and Mike and Ron insist on sleeping in the car while I put my tent 100 yards closer to the lion roars and I hear Mikey say to Ron, “Jeez we’re traveling with Mister Africa!”) So I bop along fueled by the tunes on the rocky path, where vegetation is stunted and trees rare. The walls of the valley are too steep to let in much direct sunlight, so we travel in forty degrees of chilly shaded light, but it’s fine by me. My battery is charging as I drink in the sights.
Imagine a small road, wide enough for you and a donkey, cut out of the side of a mountain falling as steeply as the side of a tent. And then imagine a riverbed slowly drifting away from you with every passing fifteen minutes, until the roar and the spray you’d woken up with were no longer visible but just a hint of echoes in the chasm separating you and your mountain wall from the other mountain walls across the valley. And imagine being able to throw a rock from one side of the valley to the other, and then imagine also falling from the top of the Eiffel Tower or from the Empire State Building to the river out of sight below. And this relief is broken by long flutes of turquoise-tinted water spilling from the peaks along the mountainsides, beginning the watery rush to the valley and then to the plains of Northern India to mix finally with the salty tides of the ocean at Calcutta and Bengal. And then the relief is broken by a large glacier cleaved in two by relentless time, and you stand beneath the glacier and face skyward and feel two-hundred-year-old flecks of water drip onto your face or hair or hands or camera, while your companions begin the shallow gasps for breath at an altitude no body is designed to accept for very long. Imagine the sky so blue and heavy it falls toward you if you look at it too long. Imagine stark black and tan layers of compressed rock, topped by new jags of broken cliff, all of it powdered by a snow which the winds puff off the planet’s youngest and most energetic geological rupture.
Imagine not thinking about your family and friends and the telephone and the computer and the cat and the car with the slow leak in the back right tire and the Radiohead concert and the appointment with the dermatologist and the G-man submarine from the Italian deli. Imagine yourself in a moment broken off from the petty histories of a lifetime.
Imagine Mother Nature unveiling her bosom without vanity in such a way your breath is caught by the beauty of what you’re seeing, and your mouth shuts in concentration as you freeze the images around you in synaptic wirings that will come back to you not just as pretty pictures but as emotions in time, as reminders of who you were then, at that moment, when beauty’s gentle embrace and the Earth’s atmospheric pressures combined to form a feeling deep within you, a feeling triggered later by a comment or a melody or even another memory, something as sweet as a kiss or as sour as a lemon plucked too soon and pressed against your kissing lips just to remind you that this taste, this texture, was meant just for this moment among the mountains, was meant only for this moment in which you are no longer yourself with your unique recombinant digits and interlocked membranes but simply a part of what you are seeing, as permanent as time allows for any permanence, as permanent as the mountains themselves, as permanent perhaps as forever itself, because that is what this glimpse of nature’s unlimited beauty will be, a momentary flavor of forever, fresh on your tongue but already frozen in your mind.
The brain is burned with the moment, never to be the same, and I continue happily trudging up the trail, knowing I have something I’ll never forget. For all mankind’s cleverness, for all the joy of holding the hand of a friend, for every sense of accomplishment and every accolade, for all these things . . . There is always the fantastic improbability of being here in this moment, spinning through space, realizing that the act of being alive is the art of appreciating your surroundings. How can the men and women of religion pretend to anything greater than the paradise we live in? My heaven is here, beneath my feet, on the Key Bridge or on Bleecker Street or on a water bus in Venice as much as in the Annapurna Himal, and as far as I can tell the only evil in heaven is religion.
I collapse in my tiny room in the tiny lodge which is one of four lodges at the Machhapuchhare base camp. I’m shivering as I undo my sleeping bag and get out my down vest. Sandra and Eddie and JHP are far behind me, and I dance to the music on the headphones as the sunlight pulses out and worry until I see them walk up the last hundred yards of umber tundra into the collection of tents and lodges which are man’s last stop at the edge of the sky.
There is nausea and belabored sleeping and panic yet to come, but after six hours (and four days) of determined marching I don’t care. I put on my mittens and zip up my vest and order a lemon tea and see Nar-wa sitting on his haunches, as he is always doing, and I squat beside him and ask him how he feels. He shrugs, Okay. Does he need anything? He shrugs again, and I remember what JHP told me the day before when I found Nar-wa sitting on the edge of the trail staring into space: He just likes to look at the view.
I stand up and look around me, at these eleven massive peaks scratching the roof of the world, and cannot believe what I see.
Just as I did almost exactly sixteen years before, I woke before the sun shone and walked up to the edge of the moraine which cleaves the Annapurna Sanctuary in half, and saw the pink swells of morning tint the towering mountains. They have personalities, these masses of rock, because we recognize the expressions in their clefts and bumps. One of the Annapurnas is the Ganesh mountain, because its south face resembles unmistakably the broad forehead and jutting trunk of an elephant. I recognize each peak -- I can see eleven of them from the edge of the moraine -- and they fit perfectly into the relief of my memory. The tundra, with its tufts of dried blond grasses and tough loam, is familiar to my feet. The sounds of the Himalayan rats squeaking in the underground warrens is also familiar; I remember hearing the ubiquitous screeches on my first trip and thinking that my brain was undergoing some kind of high-altitude shrink. The sky, of course, is always the same, sturdy blue, winking seductively to the dreamers who grasp at every possibility of escape. I am back to the day I spent up here so long ago, a quarter of a lifetime away (if I am lucky!), when I walked along the moraine’s scary edge and sneered at the puny river gurgling beneath me, two thousand feet straight below, like something out of a cartoon, the kind of landscape the wily coyote would plunge into while the roadrunner cooling her heels giggled in sadistic delight. On that day I walked the moraine and laid in our two-man pup tent and laughed through Gogol’s “Dead Souls” trying not to think of the death of my father, not once, but of course being enveloped in its concussive shock, wherein every moment of self-awareness dragged the memory of his last breath searing into my brain.
Sixteen years ago Skipper called me from Spain and started crying on the phone. I was living on a Florida island made of seashells, with the great-granddaughter of the English composer Edward Elgar, who wrote “Pomp and Circumstance,” a dirge you have heard if you’ve ever witnessed that gasbag British comedy called ‘royalty.’ I was a sportswriter for the Fort Myers News-Press, and to lance the stultifying stupidity of my job I drove home at night on the world’s biggest motorcycle and periodically closed my eyes for twenty seconds and dared disaster to happen to me. I did this as a sort of misguided existential litmus test, of both the world’s potential malevolent chance, and of my own bravery. (One night it rained, and I borrowed my landlord’s Beetle, which I drove with my eyes open, and not fifty yards before the causeway a possum darted from the underbrush and I hit him. I could feel the poor fellow rolling beneath the thin tin of the Beetle’s floorboards, and I cursed the rain for making me no different from the elderly car drivers in the Sunshine State who run over small animals as though they are reading a serial killer’s wildlife manual written in braille.) I was trying to write Literature, but mostly I rejoiced in the loving comforts of Sir Edward’s progeny. I spent my spare time water-skiing across Fort Myers’ choppy sound, hours and hours slaloming until my knees quivered like jelly. For mental sustenance, I read Camus and Kafka with more sympathy than understanding, and followed the Go-Gos during their Southern tours and felt sure that Belinda Carlisle was singing directly to me, even if I was in Row 43. I had a letter from the White House saluting the job I’d done at a Presidential Commission on government waste; my commission salary at 23 years old had been an astounding 37 grand, accomplished in 1983 without a single day spent on a college campus. Life was sweet with money in my pocket and a girlfriend with brains. Until my father called from Spain, and started crying while saying idiotic things like, “Jeez, Bub, I don’t think I’ll ever see you again” and “I just want to tell you how much I love you,” and I would say, What the heck are you talking about, you’ll be okay, and he would cry a little more, “God, when I’m dead the thing I’ll really miss is saying ‘I love you’ to you kids” and I would say Come on, Skipper, I’ll be in Europe in three weeks and you’ll be okay, and every time I said something he’d emit strange sobs I’d never heard before, and even though I said I thought he was saying silly things I was scared to hell deep down inside and when I hung up the phone I was choked with a doomy foreboding that got worse even as the composer’s great-granddaughter held me in her arms and said, over and over again, “Everything will be okay,” and I knew with the certainty of childhood that no it wouldn’t.
Skipper hung on for another two weeks while I disengaged myself from the sports department. He hung on while I flew to New Jersey and then to London, and he hung on while I took a boat to Amsterdam and then the train to Copenhagen. He hung on while I dawdled my way through denial, all the way up until I walked into the room where he lay dying, and in the shock that followed of my seeing my old man like this, practically a skeleton, with me and my sisters weeping and carrying on, I saw him twitching with the need to speak and holding his hand tight I said to him “Skipper we’re all here, we’re all just fine, the three kids, and we love you with all our hearts and you did a great job, a fabulous job, because we’re all just fine,” and he calmed down and I kissed him and he died, fifteen minutes after I came to say good-bye. And a little bit of me died, too, and a little bit of both my sisters died, too, and the three kids went outside hugging each other in the Danish chill, alone in the way a child always dreads being alone, with your compass broken. And some inner magnet pulled me a few days later into India, and then up to the Annapurna Sanctuary, where the beauty of the Earth brought me back to life and slapped me awake with the joys of being alive. And that magnet pulls me still around the world, to beautiful reminders of the joys of being alive, and as I get older the magnet gets stronger, just like the magnet in my father which kept the flame in his heart ignited until his beautiful sights were back around him one final time and it was safe to let go of his life.
Sandra is overcome with emotion when she and I and Eddie Becker sit together on the top of the moraine and look at the glorious peaks surrounding us. She tells Eddie that she came here because two people she respected claimed it was the most beautiful place on Earth, and now here she is and when she looks around and sees how beautiful the Sanctuary is, she has to agree, and she can barely get these last words out as a choked whisper, and we fall into silence bathed in Nature’s beauty, which can’t be fotografed or viddyed or printed or even seen, but only felt, felt with a fire in the belly which has warmed human beings since they were living in trees, a warmth which reminds you how connected you are to the water (of which you are made) and the dirt (to which you will become) and the sky (the physical metaphor for your mind), that no matter what happens in your lifetime you are a part of this process of wind and fire and flood, that you are a microcosmic representation of the entire existence of the universe, that you contain in the fibres of your flesh all the histories of the world and all the long echoes of the womb of its enormous encircling space, that you are both everything and nothing and not some half-baked item in-between, and that you exist as part of an explanation of why anything exists, not so that scientists and mankind can know the purpose of life but so that the Universe itself can answer that fundamental question: Why?
There is a piece in the song “Rescue Me” on the Black Hole Buddha (the opera I wrote with my friend Peter to cheat cancer six years ago) in which the lead vocal says “Why am I me?” and this is repeated several times with backing vox doing the same, “Why am I me?” until the last instance, when the chord changes and the tempo shifts and the backing vox take over and sing “And not someone else?” And I’m sure you’ve often experienced that mental twinge about the improbability of it all, of how you are you and here you are and not somebody else somewhere different, and how would it all have been in some other shoes. Did I thank my lucky stars today that I was born with the blue passport in my crib? Did I think about the kids selling chiclets in the mountains outside Beirut for five piastres a box, and how my old man would bring me up to them face to face to show me kids working for a living? As we walked away he’d shake his head and drawl about how poor the little bastards were, to grow up with nothing to look forward to.
Poor, Skipper, like they don’t have any money? Or poor, like in too bad for them?
They looked pretty tough to me, those fellow eight-year-olds, even barefoot and covered in dust, and I envied the boys their cool tattered clothes, but now when I see these kids selling junk for pennies in any country in the world it just chokes me up coz their barren future isn’t fair and there’s nothing I can do about it except block it out. When we drove into Aleppo when I was ten years old, my father, the nanny, the dog, my sisters and I, we parked the car to run an errand and when we came out my father showed me the long fat nail somebody had propped against our tire. He told me how badly the people in Aleppo needed money, that the nail propped against the tire was meant to lead to a job with a mechanic, and I looked around and saw a kid peering at us from around a corner, snickering. My father put the nail in his pocket and checked the other tires, while I continued to look at this snickering kid, dressed in sand-colored rags, and as I remember it now I looked at him in sheer admiration for his entrepreneurial spirit, though probably then I was about to pee in fright. Is that kid forty years old, walking around in the mountains, listening to Jean-Michel Jarre and asking Mr. Becker to pass the hot sauce? Does that kid remember me, and does he write to his friends to describe the day I walked around the car with my father looking for booby traps, and does he remember how I looked at him? Did he see me sneer, or salute?
The night before in the thin air we joined the usual hodge-podge in the dining hall. A table ten feet long covered with a thick blanket had a kerosene stove aflame beneath it, and our feet stretched toward the only source of heat for miles. Two Polish kids write in their diaries (one tells Becker “I’m trying to,” when he asks if the kid is keeping a journal, and Eddie has to turn away from this Gdansk Adonis to bother somebody else because Eddie can glean from the Pole’s curt manner that silly conversation is not on his menu), two different sets of Americans read the menu like treasure hunters, and a Danish/Australian couple luxuriate in each other’s blond beauty at the far end of the table, but tonight the scene is different because the dining hall is where the porters will sleep so all the porters are there with us, and Eddie looking around for a cat to poke is soon engaged in a round of conversations with each pocket of people in the dining room: He’s talking Nader to two loud Coloradoans (ex-San Francisco), then it’s the history of slavery economics in Holland in the 17th Century to a skeptical Dutch quartet, then it’s a cheery smile and a series of friendly, spastic winks for the Danish-Australian lovebirds, then spinach and greens and kale to the cook (who thinks the Baba is a professor the way he talks so much about
food, says JHP, smirking in a whisper to me in the murky kerosene heater light), and then weather bulletins to JHP and the blissed-out sidekick, Bronson, who would smile for the Baba to show he appreciates his enthusiasm but keeps his mouth shut coz of all the baby horses he’s been eating and still has shredded in his teeth, and then it’s the World Bank in general, not explicitly laid out as befits a rep from the Gadfly Thinktank, but alluded to in dark terms as “the money at the top filtering down” (the porters don’t get the word ‘filtering’ but they keep looking at the roof as if the Baba is doing a trick), and then it’s on to an oatmeal or grape compress the lodge owner should employ to cure the nasty boil he’s got in the middle of his face (which luckily Sandra diagnoses as herpes zoster and tells the man in no uncertain terms to go to the clinic in Ghandrung), and in the waves of Eddie’s Yankee enthusiasms I feel compelled to explain to JHP in pictures and written words how the United States is as cool as everyone says but has its terrible troubles too, like the northeast corridor between Washington and New York City, where the soap-makers and perfume barons have thrown so much chemical shit into the air that a hole exists in the sky between the land and the Sun, and I’m in the middle of drawing an elaborate diagram of the atmosphere cradling the Earth when the trekker from Colorado (ex-Castro District) interrupts loudly and says, “You really think New York city is more polluted than Katmandu?” and I feel the twitch of pain in JHP beside me, and the twitches of pain in all the porters as they are slighted when the capital of their country is paraded out for its filth and leaded gasoline fumes as a place dirtier than the dirtiest city in the world, my beloved Manhattan, and I want to kill the guy. His voice is pregnant with twins of incredulity and disrespect: Obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about, and how in the world could I believe such a ridiculous thing, that New York and New Jersey could be worse than Katmandu? I summon up all the venom in my heart and ice it over my words as I reply:
“There is no place in the world as carcinogenic and as toxic as New York . . . except, maybe, Amsterdam, and that’s just scientific fact.”
And the silence hangs over the hall, waiting for contest, but there is just a silently suffered embarrassment, and I turn back to the page and lower my voice and continue privately with JHP, explaining the cracked sky above I-95, and JHP is smiling and closer to me, our relationship somehow cemented by the rigidity of my belief and by my apparent willingness to strike at my own to defend his country, and thereafter JHP is eager to explain all the details of his life to me, from his diet to his dreams, from his work opportunities to his inability to save money, from his illiteracy to his caste legitimacy. We become friends, then, the employer and his porter, in the kerosene-choked dining hall at the roof of the world, and spin the details of our friendship on the way back down the mountain, which results in the solemn pact for me to buy the materials for a Nepali-style house which JHP will construct for me as well as tend its garden when I am away, and we’ll find a spot in the shady part of town where the whole project can be done for less than two grand U.S., and I am reminded vividly of the way my father made friends, through his curious and constant habit of petting the underdog. But there is a vital difference: My father excused the downtrodden from their role in destroying the world (i.e., the poor farmer in the Amazon doesn’t know what he’s doing when he chops down a tree for firewood), whereas I seek always to lay blame for the world’s ills at the feet of the corporate champions who blaze forward in an explosion of profit (i.e., there shouldn’t be poor farmers in the Amazon and if it takes a great wall around the jungle to preserve the rainforest let the companies who sell us cars and gasoline pay for its erection). And I want to explain this difference between generations to JHP in my own terms, that all the protesting in the world doesn’t mean squat if we still buy our shampoos and soaps from the Johnson & Johnsons and Procter & Gambles, or even our coffees from Starbucks or our news from ABC and NBC and CBS, that the future of the future depends on the individual refusing to be branded, and JHP listens politely before pointing out that he would never buy all these brand names because he can’t afford to, and then I feel like a fool.
That night, bothered by thoughts of my dead father and my belligerence in the dining hall at dinner (when I sounded just like him, gadfly lecturer), I walk out into the night to curb a swell of panic. How clear the night, and how bright the faraway pin-pricks of starry light at this altitude, at this distance from the oily grinding cogs of human industry! I hear somebody talking, and I think I hear the phrase, “Good night, nature,” and it sticks in my head instantly. The constellations twinkle their legends and explanations as I think of this phrase, rolling it nervously like worry beads for the brain. Good night, nature: Where better to look for the majesty of terrestrial nature than in the sky? After the disappointments of the sea, and the mountains, the pastures, woods, rivers, towns, highways and storms, none of which provide enough escape for people who dream, the sky seems limitless. At night, when the world is like a darkened cinema, and the mind like a projector unspools a story against its emptiness, the sky is like the fire escape, and it is easy to read the reassuring glow of our fundamental hope in the face of mortality: EXIT. But to walk through that door is to say good night to nature, and like a victim in a love affair I want never to see the end of something as lovely as the Earth in her naked beauty, free from humanity’s costumes of profit and consumption.
The sun whines light against the contours of the mountains, and two dozen Japanese tourists snap their shots in a joyous volley: their cameras are two yards outside their tents and have been pointed at the peaks for three days, and not two minutes into their shot-making the order is given to strike camp, and their packs are gathered and transported to the helipad, where they have paid $300 a head to be flown by copter back to Kathmandu, and not one of them bothers to walk the tundra or lift his face into the modest morning breeze because the real experience will be back at home, unveiling the photos and regaling the neighbors, and it is more likely the enraptured moment will come over the dinner table, with nostrils aquiver in the vapors of Miso, than here in this cold outpost of humanity in the empty middle of wilderness. But then Home beckons to me, too, and we have a long walk on this first day down, so we breakfast and leave and I shoot down four thousand feet in a couple of hours charged by the toxins of a Snickers bar and the fevered genius of Chumbawumba (about the rioting at Woodstock: “I’m not sorry, I was just having fun”) and arrive in Chomro two nights later with an angry rock star sneer etched across my lips; it’s amazing how music colors the movement of your memories: Sixteen years ago it was the GoGos singing about a boy asking his brutal chick why she broke him and why she had to be such a mercenary, and now I’ve got Fiona Apple in my ears saying what a terrible thing it is for a woman to break a man just because she can, and it’s in this swim back to shore, this feathery drop back to the familiar, that I realize my battery is charged fully and the ideas and inspirations I’ve carried up here have got their fertilizer and will sprout anew whenever I am ready to record their details.
You know how it is when you get on the road and think long uninterrupted thoughts, radio off, scanning the recesses of your thinking for the rare amalgamations of intent and passion which we recognize as inspiration? That’s where I am in the blissful descent toward reality and responsibility, aware of the scenery but thinking faraway thoughts sparkling like stars across a sky unpolluted by the lights of habit and industry. In a sort of cruise control, I fall as a breeze toward crippling civilization, thoughts pell mell, inspirations blooming, happy, the taste of ambition a sugar on my tongue.
Back in Chomro, we find Lucinda with her still-locked knee and new Tibetan friends but also an urgent request: Can Sandi look at the son of one of the Gurung ladies up the hill, coz the little boy fell on a gate and impaled his hand and you can see down to the bones beneath his palm and it turns out the boy’s whole family has been hoping modestly that Sandi will come down soon. There is one doctor for every 387 citizens in the United States. One doctor for every 4,361 people in Thailand, one for every 2,165 in India. In Nepal, there is one doctor for every 12,612 citizens, the worst ratio in Asia.
The foreign trekkers staying at our lodge warm themselves with a cup of sweet chai as Sandra prepares her medicinal kit. They sit on a terrace of stone facing a wall of steep mountains across a valley too deep and too far to see the river below. They can’t hear the water rush. They are deeply satisfied with their progress that day through the wet mists and through the long walk. They can’t wait for the Sanctuary, or they are on their way back down. But discomfort pinches them as they watch Sandra repair the young boy’s ripped-open palm. The usual talk of kilometrage and menus is muted. The boy quivers in fear more than in pain, but we can’t doubt the pain alone because there is definitely a hole in his hand. The Nepalis gathered around him buck him up and tell him to spread his hand out so the nice lady doctor can make him well. There are Tibetans watching, too, and Lucinda upon our return told me many things but first among them was the law against Tibetans owning Gurung land, that they could sell trinkets but not plant roots. So I watch the Tibetans watch the operation but cannot tell them apart from the Gurungs because they have all been worried about the kid’s hand for days and fear makes fellows of anyone.
I’m queasy while Sandy works hard and raises not one whimper from her little charge in the 45 minutes she works on his palm. I scamper away to dig through my belongings to find the kid a gift, and come out with a peanut butter granola bar I’ve brought from home. And when I give him the bar he slowly closes the fingers of his good hand around it and politely looks away in pain and embarrassment, and I see his little pal who’s been watching the operation like a referee and how the pal looks at the granola bar and forgets the injury, and in these boys’ pangs of jealousy and fright and camaraderie I remember once being them but cannot travel back to be with them now, not because of laws of physics and time -- these are overrated -- but because there is the “Me, Now” who can’t help wondering whether these kids will ever read about Narnia or the Little Prince, whether they’ll follow a baby green sea turtle into the turquoise depths until there is nothing but me and the turtle corkscrewing gently around me, bulbous eyes checking that I don’t come too close, until my lungs scream at me for air and I realize I am lost among the corals and not sure where the surface lies but heading for the warmth of the Sun, instinctively. “Me, Now” wonders if these boys will watch boats passing in the canal while they hold hands with someone they admire as well as love, whether they’ll look things up in the library (such as the laws of physics and time), whether they’ll have a chance to tell the world what they stand for and what they believe before they no longer exist. And of course they will, I think, but then I remember those loads of stone carried by rope borne against the forehead, one hundred and ten pounds’ worth of slate rock, and I remember the hacking coughs and snotty noses and bow-legged village elders, and I’m not so sure.
The boys run off to share the granola bar with the injured hand speeding like a rocketship toward recovery. The gossips and appetites swell again as the scene around us at dusk devolves into a prettiness impossible to picture. Sandi puts away her medicine kit and throws away the wrappings; she smiles without conditions at the men who thank her politely and formally, and then smiles again later at the women who say nothing but nod their heads and pat Sandi’s arm and shoulder, like mothers and sisters.
Children and illness, that chill in the belly.
In the cancer ward in Baltimore, I made dozens of friends, but the person who cared least for my advances was a three-year-old named Adam, and the little bastard ignored my charms until I overheard his mother and the doctor talking about pizza and how they shouldn’t give it to him coz of indigestion and I saw him slyly watching this conversation and understanding it in that essential way of children, where all factors boil down to a Yes or a No, do I get the pizza or not, and I interrupted and said, Give him the pizza coz the pleasure of having it will be better for the tumors than the heartbreak of being forced to eat more apple sauce, and the Mom and the Surgeon promptly agreed, so Adam realized I was influential in delivering pizza and after that I was the only person in the ward he would bother to acknowledge, especially when his little body was full of the poisons of chemo and fatigued by the daily grillings of radiation into his brain, and of all the people in the ward it is Adam whose memory is the strongest to me, because cancer in an adult is stinking terrible, no question about it, but cancer in a kid is a pain everyone feels, hot, as if the glowing coals are lodged in your own head.
Little Adam, pizza eater, dead at three, who was he? If he’d lived as long as me, what would he have stood up to be? How different my impression of him would have been, and I would have quickly forgotten the image of him stuck in my memory: He’d gaze at me, his tumor baking, while the adults wondered how they’d fool him into doing the apple sauce, and written across his pout I’d read the words No Way in capital letters, and every time now I have pizza I’m reminded how much how keen how fierce I hate the apple sauce.
We tumble down the mountain, stopping at a hot springs where Eddie insists on drinking the steaming waters straight from the pipe. He does it, he says, “for the minerals,” but then rolls along the path toward the valley floor like a beach ball on a windy day. By the time we reach Syauli Bazar, three miles short of the main road back to Pokhara, Eddie is barely able to stand and the sun is descending and JHP tells me no way we’re going to make Pokhara tonight. I’m surprised by my frustration at this forced stop. I’d been lusting for the CNN and pizza and Internet. Instead, I’m stuck in this little town on the riverbanks, one more night with the drab food . . . Gotta make the best of it.
I sit in the glassed-in food hall by myself, and catch a fly in my journal to join the plants I have pressed there and around the artified fly I draw a red circle and write, “In Syauli Bazar,” to remember my annoyance at being stuck here instead of back in Pokhara with the TV and the hot showers. JHP pays me a visit but then hears a stringed instrument and steps out -- he is addicted to music-making, and would rather sit by the side of the trail with a drum between his slapping hands than continue towards any summit or according to any plan, but isn’t that the way it is for all of us, unable to dance to the beat of our inner drums, slowed to a standstill by the torque of our industrious hives? The hike is done, JHP can let us go, so here’s the music on cue and soon I hear him slapping the sides of a long conga which sits sideways in his lap. I try to write a few more lines, but then a Belgian couple is at the next table talking balderdash about the waterproof quality of their boots, and I am driven outside. JHP is sitting on the rock bench in front of our lodge, a kid on either side of him, facing a motley crew of urchins who have two banjos and two drums between them and a shaker of dry seeds, and just as I step out a dozen children start singing and one little guy solemnly high steps through a dance which might as well be out of Appalachia, and I lean against the wall beneath the terrace of the lodge and listen with a smile as the dying sunlight pips the blue from the sky and leaves me squinting through evening’s murky grays.
One by one the kids come out to the front of the group for their serious dance, while the trembled chorus of voices sweeps like a tiny whirlwind against the stony silences of the village. When each kid has done a dance and each kid has sung the lead, they stop to catch their breaths and plot the set list, and JHP grins at me and shakes his head for me to join but I can’t coz I’ve got the tone deafness and if I start to sing it will bring the rain and I tell this to JHP and he laughs and says a little rain won’t hurt and the kids would just keep right on going in the rain because this is their christmas, and this is the first song which they do for you, Mister Sohn, and soon there will be other kids and more of an audience but for now it’s just me and the group launches into another ditty which we’ll be hearing over the next three or four days everywhere we go in the festival of gift-giving and loveliness which is the Deepawali, and JHP excuses himself and starts banging the drum and the process spins along into this second song, a siren of lilting voices calling all children from the fields and millet paddies and from the kitchens and the washbasins and the river, and all the children come, including the children of long ago disguised as glitter in the shiny eyes of the village elders to whom this ritual was once the chief manner of courting, the excuse to fall in love, dancing and singing, when holding hands is encouraged and hugging whoever you want to (especially whoever you want) brings no censorship, no accusations of ruptured propriety, and Christmas swirls like the miracle it is everywhere when people are reminded of how good we all are deep down, and of how good we can be to each other, and JHP is just grinning like crazy and Nar-wa is clapping and laughing and at one point drapes his arm over my shoulders while the cobbled street explodes in a frenzy of smiles and giggles and rhythm, even the dumb dogs are grinning, and I hang onto the moment because I know CNN is coming from Atlanta and ZTV from Bombay and the other TV sewage from Singapore and Europe, guns and gore to replace the primitive joys of simple lives everyone feels the need to edify, and it’s the ones doing all the edifying whose lives become simplified sipping gin and tonix poolside with the nannies and chauffeurs from San Salvador. And who can put a stop to this swill?
This is an irony, since I am the creator of an entertainment called Bad TV, and another resolution is born in the pillow of these Xmas songs to remind our viewers to turn off the TV and stand up and go smell the daisies or tear up a street and plant a rose, but if you’re brain-dead or crippled by your routine and have an excuse for rotting on your butt don’t touch your remote coz no matter how many channels you flip through it won’t get any better.
Christmas lasts all night in Syauli Bazar. In my freezing little room I huddle into my sleeping bag and watch the teeny candle throw brave shadows across the plaster walls. The kids who sang the first song of Christmas for me have moved to another neighborhood, and their songs drift prettily in time to my candle’s loud shadows. I know there is something to be angry about, some cause to champion and shout, some sked to keep, but instead I remember that once long ago I believed that the clouds in the sky were all different flavors, some sour and some sweet, because that was a story which rocked me to sleep. I think of the clouds I saw today, and one was the color of lemons, and another was pinked with raspberry, and that one there above my dozing head, that one is definitely melon or mango or do you want to bet?
Where are the langurs? These chattering white apes with charcoal faces used to be in the woods along the Modi River, and now there are none. The first significant glimpses I ever had of truly wild animals occurred along this route up to the Sanctuary: one afternoon Steve and I stopped at a small pond with crystal clear freezing waters to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and have a quick spitbath. Two smooth otters were squabbling in the pond below us, and I watched them ‘hah’ and ‘hnh’ and ‘?’ for ten minutes before they suddenly looked at me with the timing of synchronized swimmers, scowled, and sank from sight. And then later that day I saw a langur, peering at me through the forest. I’d heard something and stopped walking, then knew I was being watched. It took more than a minute to see the ape, maybe twenty yards away, and the moment our gazes collided it fled. Now there are none. I don’t see any otters, either. Ten years ago, I would have felt the cooking of anger in my intestines at this obvious change. The crumble of wildlife habitat was my adopted cross, and led to the two years of unbelievable public soul-searching at the warehouse in Blagden Alley which grows still in legend as party central even as nobody realizes what idealistic nightmares unspooled there. But comfort is on the horizon for us eco-yuppie sufferers: The tide is running back out toward the polluters, and one day civilized society will cede most of its urban presence back to trees and flowers and weeds, not because of the dangers of global warming but for simple reasons of aesthetics. Anyone knows the Earth is Eden if less than half a billion people populate its terrains, and what we haven’t despoiled is already being left wild and free if for no other purpose than to give pastures to our bottled-up imaginations, because while we might volunteer to spend half our lives working on the PC in a room with 100 people farting, our imaginations will do no such thing, and an imagination is as obedient and predictable as a kitten, to whom ‘outside’ or ‘around the corner’ are not merely expressions of physical places but extravagant parallel realities into which we are meant to leap with all four paws, blindly.
And . . .
I used to have dreams of being the only foreigner in a small town in the mountains in an Arabic country. I saw myself walking to the bread shop on the first day to buy a loaf and find out how to say the word bread in Arabic, and then the word water, and then the words thank you and how are you feeling and then sooner or later I’d find out the word for love and that’s when I’d feel like I was at home, in a place where I would be forever the stranger.
And . . .
I want to walk the shorelines of a small island for days until I know the boundaries intimately, I want to sit up to my neck in crystal clear water while a storm sweeps out of the horizon to pelt my hat with cold rain, and I just want to think about where I am and how I feel and entertain myself without caring if I write something down or draw something up or plan something out. I wonder if this is possible?
And . . .
One curious little thing: I stared at a map the other day and counted the oceans and the seas I’d swum in, and from how many countries for each. For example, the Caribbean: I’ve been in it from Mexico and Belize for a total of two countries. The Atlantic included Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, the USA, Brazil and Uruguay. The Pacific included the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile and Ecuador (and Galapagos). The Mediterranean, the sea of my youth, has seen me enter from France, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy, and Malta for a total of seven countries, and until I looked at the map I thought the Med would be the leader for me in this listing of water baby memories. To my surprise, it is the Indian Ocean into which I’ve walked from the most countries. India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Indonesia, Madagascar, South Africa and now Thailand and probably Malaysia. I hadn’t really thought about Thailand and the Indian Ocean until today, caught up with the mountains and with ancient civilizations, but now I’m beside myself with excitement: the shifts of light at dusk and dawn in the Indian Ocean have always paralyzed me with delight, and the prospect of more is too gratuitous to believe. But I don’t care what I’ve done to deserve it; I will enjoy the water before returning to more wintry climes.
And . . .
Nepal has 23 million people. 80 infants out of 1000 die before age one (in the USA it’s 7 per mil). The country exported 600 million dollars’ worth of goods last year, but imported 1.2 billion for a deficit. After India, it seemed to us bright and uniformly prosperous, without the depressing division of wealth that demarcates the haves and have-nots of the subcontinent. Now we go to Thailand, and there will be telephones on every corner, with calls to the USA for one-seventh the cost of Nepal, with the Internet for pennies, with highways and paved side streets (it takes an hour to crawl out of Pokhara’s potholed main highway on the way to Katmandu), with ravishing artists and dashing princes of commerce, and then to Malaysia, even more of the preceding, before Tokyo, the electronic city, the zenith of impeccable order and civilized manners, before our return to the Imperial City, which I always identify to anybody in the Third World who asks as The City Where All the World’s Problems Come From. That line once rescued me from at least a night in jail and probably a beating from the police in Nairobi, but that’s another life and not this one. So we’re climbing the social ladder. We probably should have started our trip in Mozambique.
And . . .
And where am I now? What is it about Katmandu that is so attractive to the traveler? It is a physical outpost, for sure, more than 24 hours overland from any major town in India. Inscrutable western China lies above, tinged with the denial of Tibet, and to the West is north Pakistan and other troubled lands, so it’s sort of the end of the line for the gringo trail, and at this sweet node the tourists cling like confused bees.
And . . .
Touts playing tiny mandolins or selling Tiger Balm muscle relaxants or imitation Swiss Army knives or disposable razor blades walk timidly among the fox-eyed desperados muttering hashish or marijuana just so only you can hear it, while the twisting streets of a barrio called the Thamel wind around innumerable shops selling Tibetan prints, jewelry made to order, tie-dyed tee-shirts, tie-dyed sheets, tie-dyed skirts and shirts and suits and pantaloons which billow around your legs and give your private parts a freedom and coolness unknown to the cramped penguin uniforms of Wall Street, and these shops are punctuated by the oddball anachronism like the butcher which has sold buffalo meat for a family’s generation and has no intention of yielding to the forces of tourism and from which the pungent stench of spoiling goat meat or lamb shanks mix with the sandalwood incense from next door and the spat-out betel juice on the street and the petrol fumes of tiny cars and wild motorbikes on hire even to the gung-ho gangs of Swedes or Aussies or Brits who see the crowded streets as a gleeful maze and bump each other aside to be first to figure out the path of least resistance, and then these in turn are just a part of a larger stream blocked by momentary jams of people and machines and stray dogs and touts, when language even shouted is muted by crests of panic and your friend is either stepping in front of a taxi or into the sewer and you cannot hear anything or see anything except a sign which says Tibet Tours or Massage Sticly Thailand Style, and beautiful young foreigners warily swim around the jam you’re in to rejoin the flow of beat-out hippies re-living or refusing their pasts, and of fifty-year-olds denying their futures (which I suppose is the same thing), of pensioners from England or Italy finally arriving thirty years too late to a place they were told to go years ago except marriage or the bus driver’s benefits kicked in, and all of this is nothing to the sturdy temples and holy places which litter the streets by the block, each looked after by a straggly group of caretakers who don’t even bother to beg any more, and thank goodness the cows have all been moved out, not by people who cared to move them but by their own good sense to stay the hell out of the way of so much enterprise and consumption, a runaway Christmas on acid, with everything for sale and all of it cheap, with the Brooklyn Baba buying 15 marionettes and Sandra buying six BadTV.com shirts all personally embroidered for just $2 a pop and Lucinda wearing her nine-dollar custom-made moonstone ring, and me squabbling with Rakesh, Lookit it’s fifteen hundred rupees for six sheets of the high-quality kind and that’s it I say, and he says but there is no profit, and I say then there is no sale, and then I shrug and walk away and it’s Oi Oi Oi, and the bargaining begins, and the touts, you want hashish, no thanks man, you want hotel, no thanks man, you want trekking, no thanks man, you want hashish, you already did that, what do you want, all while Bob Marley and Tracy Chapman, those neutered de-politicized voices, pulse from windows or record stores, interrupted by horns and screeching tires and bicycle bells of the rickshaw-wallahs who perform circular ballets in search of their prey, you want hashish, and it strikes you the whole place is like Amsterdam compressed into just pleasure and appetite, that if there is a geopolitical world in Nepal it is very far away, leaked out to the masses in high-school newspapers in English announcing that the Maoists are out of patience and ready to take over, to which Mr. Becker always responds that he’s ready to organize the next trip if it means interviewing the Maoists in the Inner Dolpo or wherever it is they do their business, to which I always respond if it’s a scandal or journalism you’re after why don’t we come back here and do something on the Dalai Lama whose mask is slipping right here in public, and the Baba and I leave it at that, unexplored possibilities, though to his credit he goes out and tracks down the sex-slave experts and leaves the story in the good hands of Lucinda, who stays behind our Bangladesh-bound group to go overland to Delhi with a Polish kid with a mouth-watering build and silver ball-bearing eyes which remind me distinctly of the blind angel Jane Fonda makes love to in the movie Barbarella in a bed of moss and feathers, and then a single voice intrudes, that of a tourist, who says something like, Hey they got mayonnaise or I paid only fifty bucks for this antique or I gotta take a shit right now or Lookit that old guy with his face painted must be a priest or Jesus all these people can you believe this, and unlike the mountains when I look around of course I can believe it, that it’s always Christmas in Katmandu, that if Santa Claus flashes across the sky the locals will simply shrug and assimilate the event into the pantheon of gods and goddesses and divine events which already glitter the local culture, a billion excuses to believe in something beyond the cricket scandals and buffalo shit and endless days spent hawking sheets and shirts and crotch-cooling pantaloons with purple and lavender dyes stained permanently on your hands, like bloodstains on a murderer who whispers buy buy buy before digging his knife into your wallet, which turns out to be a heart and the knife not a knife at all but you must be on acid and seeing things coz now the knife is a smile and the murderer turns out to be a pretty young man or lovely young woman with head slightly bowed, not asking you to buy at all but bathing you in the glow of that magical word of friendship and greeting and concern, pronounced Na-ma-ste, accent on the last syllable (Na-ma-STAY) which leaves you smiling and warm and walking like in the movies through the thrush of bright intentions on streets not paved in gold but gilded nevertheless with kindness and rather saintly beliefs, such as hurt nobody and remember everyone, or anything can happen and home is not necessarily two weeks away, and in the midst of all this two powerful messages come through, one from my friend Jyl, back home, who writes to tell me that she’s working late, inside, and all she wants to do is run around outside and she can’t understand why on Earth I’d want to come back, and one from my friend Neeta who e-mails very thoughtfully her love not just to me but to Eddie and Sandi and Lu and to JHP and Nar-wa, and it is this last which leaves me walking the streets of Kathmandu in tears, blown away by this salutation and respect for somebody unknown, a possible friend, to whose being I am only a conduit, a node relaying a message that JHP and Nar-wa, you guys, you have a friend in America, into whose house you can walk as my friend and find comfort and friendship and the same meticulous affectionate concern you paid to me, as you made sure my fingers didn’t get caught in the rope, that my seat was the softest, that my pack was the lightest, that my body was warm and my belly happy, and I can’t continue writing about it coz it rips my heart to pieces to be so lucky like this, among friends, in Katmandu, with oceans and mountains as nothing to messages of love and kindness soaring out of the mundane.
Vid: Two Weeks Before My Suicide
Sandra Bishop on the Edge
Five people from varying artistic disciplines are shown at work or in their creative spirit. Their agendas are different: a writer, a comedienne, two musicians, a painter, all of them versed in different creative disciplines, all trying to complete ambitious projects. One of them is struck by a rare stroke of the spinal column, and finds herself struggling to stay alive rather than simply making art. Does she impact the other creatives in the movie? Or is she helped by her own creative urges, refusing to be stopped by her sudden health crisis? Sandra Bishop, about whom you have just read in the previous section about her trip to the Himalayas, loses her agility and mobility at a young age. But she is a healthcare professional and cannot be surprised by her stroke of bad luck. It will happen to everyone. Complex, creative people are proven to be more adept at surviving life-threatening conditions. How does creativity improve a desperate person’s outlook?
Nobody has given filmmaker Seanie Blue permission to use their talents or images for this documentary, so the movie has not been shared even with the people involved. There have been two edit sessions, and there is enough material to make the movie 30-40 minutes long. Another session or two filming and creating with the principals in the movie might push it to feature length. It is posted here with a password to see what the five people portrayed in the movie think of moving forward to complete it.
The picture of Sandra with her two dogs at the head of this section was shot by photographer Vincent Ricardel.
In the Restaurant Casagrande in the town square of the city of women, the man who took Che’s picture looks at my friend Sueraya as she walked to my table from the bathroom. He looked at her butt, and then immediately craned to see her face, as men do. My radar set at that moment, not with hostility, but caution.
Why do they do that? asks Sueraya in a whisper, as the man who took Che’s picture peers from the shadows. Not that she minds, she says, but what is so interesting about my ass? I am about to explain the hard wiring of a man’s brain and the relationship between his eyes, his testicles, her hips and her waist when the man who took Che’s picture calls out to us in perfectly manicured English, “Have a very good evening” as he leaves, lingering, hoping for introductions, and he is annoyed when I answer him in my perfectly mangled Spanish. He splits, we do not know he is the man who took Che’s picture, and Sueraya isn’t interested in my explanation of the wiring of the male brain because she’s very excited to meet the man who took Che’s picture at the reception we are to attend in an hour. We don’t realize it, but the celebrity we have traveled far to meet has just judged Sueraya’s figure worth meeting. Sueraya has come with me to shoot my adventures in the City of Women, the world’s only matriarchy, and is ecstatic to find we have come at the same time that the local casa de cultura will fete the shooter of the world’s most iconic images: of Che Guevara pensively exploring ways to kill the rich. When she found out, Sueraya says: “Typical, Sean, you sell me the matriarchy, and we run into the maker of the ultimate male hero.”
At that reception for the man who took Che’s picture, a Cuban poet stood up and pointed at me and said, I imagine you grew up in a meadow, in yellows and greens, a fawn from Hollywood, and no harm happened in your world until you decided one day to leave the meadow, am I right? Except she said it in the fullest flower of Cuban poetry, and Sueraya was flirting elsewhere so the video was turned off and we had a tiff, tiny, about it later. At the end of this odd declaration, the poetess began a bawdy song about the phallus and mescal, scandalizing the polite Zapotecans and Mexicans, and the Cuban party steadily erupted further while the owner of the restaurant pulled up a chair next to me and whispered, Would you like to have a baby with me, as the man who took Che’s picture sat in his cigar smoke, pale eyes aglitter, staring at me, thinking: Who is this guy, ruining my party?
The Velas (or fairs) began that night, and so did the rains. The city of women filled in a slow flood. Sueraya saw the pictures taken of the town’s transvestites by the restaurant owner and said, Okay let’s go home no point in me staying, because the pictures were luminous black and whites, shot on the restaurant owner’s vintage Leica, but the restaurant owner shook her head, No, you can’t go, not while Korda is here because he would like to meet you. I tell Sueraya that I watched Korda appraise her asset but she brushes me off and says, “We’re talking about Che Guevara,” and I reply, No we’re not, we’re talking about the guy who took Che’s picture, but Sueraya has laser beams for ambition and is determined to make a good impression on the man who made a Mona Lisa of a small-time rebel.
Korda took the picture of Che. Never made a penny. Taught him right for sticking with Fidel. You know the picture, on stickers and t-shirts everywhere, maybe the world’s most common photograph, stolen by an Italian publisher and then stolen from the Italian publisher a gazillion times. Not even Bob Marley or Ali have a signature image as powerful as that shot of Che Guevara.
The restaurant owner is married, and her husband is a very nice fellow. Or he was, until he died a year after this story occurs. I spent an evening talking to him, interviewing him about the first public concert of Zapotecan music on the shores of the river, which the town cleaned up for the event. He asks if I have seen Korda’s original photo of Che hanging in the Casa de Cultura. No? Che is standing next to a potted palm, and the picture shows him bored and stiff, out of his element since there is no dirt to stand on or busty broad to hang onto. Korda didn’t even notice Che when he snapped a wide shot of the event. When he developed the negative, he didn’t notice Che, either. Because Che was nobody, not somebody you would notice. The asthmatic son of a rich doctor, a notorious womanizer who took indefensible liberties with his father’s female house staff, Che accidentally grew into a rebel. It was his wishy-washy phlegmatic persona trapped in difficult conditions that eventually proved to his comrades his worth as a revolutionary: He must have longed for a revolution in Sweden, because his career was spent in matted jungles, gasping for air and swatting mosquitoes, but he made no concession when his wealth and connections could have kept him comfy and cooled. Determined to survive the elements, he became the quiet glue binding his peers. If some rich brat can slog through this, well, then we have to do so as well, admitted the guerillas. But Che wrote nothing in flames, spoke only in private, and was not a noticeable profile.
Until the Italian publisher cropped Che’s face out of the picture after Che and a guy named Willy got shot up in a shack in Bolivia. I am surprised to hear this, because that image of Che makes it seem as if he is the center of the Universe, but now the restaurant owner’s husband has something much more important to tell me:
And my wife, says he, is the greatest singer of Zapotecan music in existence, and one day she will be a star, bigger than Lila Downs. “You should help my wife,” whispers the husband, “She needs a Yankee to market her voice, and I have already seen that you could sell me a snake.” Something to this effect, to my surprise given we don’t know each other. “Che Guevara’s time is finished, the revolution has been won, but my wife has a future, and she sings in the voice of the only people who have not been defeated by the European. She just needs some marketing. Lila Downs, in her songs, who do you think plays that electric guitar? A Mexican? A Zapotecan? No, my friend, the guitar player in Lila Downs’ band is from Hollywood. And you are from Hollywood, I can hear it in your accent, and you must be the secret of my wife’s success!” Something like this, but more mellifluously spoken.
The husband a year later was poisoned by the wife, according to town rumors. And when I am standing in the restaurant, years later, in the city of women looking at his picture hanging on the wall, next to it is a picture of Korda hugging him, and then another of Korda laughing loudly while the husband kisses him on the cheek. Korda, too, has died in this time, less than a year after this story occurred. And the wife has moved to Oaxaca with a new baby from some stranger, opened up a bar and sings there for the tourists from time to time. The police will soon go to investigate, say the rumors. Except the wife, Zapotecan chanteuse, leaves Oaxaca behind, too, and takes the baby she offered to have with me to Munich or Hamburg, where she sings Zapotecan songs to the one group of people on the planet who can never understand her words or her tides. (This is hell to the urbane Dane: the beer is brewed in Sweden, the food is cooked in Norway, and the Germans provide the entertainment!)
The Zapotecan singer steps out of the swimming pool the day the fair started, but not before asking me to hold up a towel to hide her see-through bathing suit. Wolves around the pool, drawn to the fair, are looking at her and waiting for her emergence. As she stepped out, she tells me later, she liked the way I looked at the wolves instead of at her skin, and that’s when she decided I was “either gay or a gentleman” and if it was the latter she had a proposition to make. Would you like to have a baby? “I don’t need a father or a husband, since I already have both,” she would tell me as she bustled the tables at her popular restaurant, speaking in daggered whispers each time she passed me, “But I will do anything for a baby.” By the time she brings a dessert, this proposition has turned into dark comedy: “I feel as if I could become pregnant if I looked at you hard enough and long enough, but I want to be sure, so let us make an arrangement for my next baby.” And all of this with no flicker of a flirt, just urgent business, lust with no tricks played for long-term results. I smile, a bit confused, and of course this is petrol on the flames; the restaurant owner’s waitresses are now wondering if I am engaged to Sueraya and if not perhaps I’d like to go out with them for an ice cream tonight. But where is Sueraya?
Korda liked the Zapotecan singer, too. Some anthropologists came from Germany and wrote a book about the city of women and its custom of raising every last boy in the family as a girl, and they met Gabriella and made her the focus of their studies, because she was smart and shrewd and dressed like Frida Khalo but looked like Salma Hayak. But the Zapotecan singer, the Queen of the Zapotecs, as Gabriela came to be known, was only half Zapotecan, the only child of her mother, who mated with an outsider, a cowboy from Michoacan. And more than liking Gaby, Korda loved women. All he wanted to shoot was a woman as an object, and his shots of women are uniformly cheesecake. He leers at them the same way, as we have seen when he saw Sueraya, and now he is looking at Gaby as she is whispering in my ear in her restaurant on the night of his reception.
She says the following:
Are you gay?
We’ve never discussed your sexuality.
My husband is from another century.
He has nothing to do with this, of course.
But you should come here, and stay.
The baby doesn’t have to be yours, but I need a little girl to go with the boy you have already met. My son likes you. He thinks you sound like the cinema.
Don’t answer me now, but maybe before you leave tonight, you can grab my arm and kiss me on the cheek, but intimately, roughly, your hand high under my arm, so Korda sees you and you can look at him as you did at the men staring at my culo in the pool. You have the power to remove his eyes from my soul, do you understand?
And then you can answer me after the fair.
What do you think? You can even ask Sueraya what she thinks, since she will give you good advice.
In her hotel room later that night, I am in despair as I tell Sueraya about the turn of events. What am I going to do? Well, says Sueraya, you can’t do nothing or everyone will go berserk. I didn’t really hear this advice, which turned out to be a big mistake. Sometimes when you are consumed with a problem you do not see the larger picture in which the problem has multiplied into many other, newer problems. Listen, if it helps you out, I’ll flirt with Korda, says Sueraya. What? What are you talking about? But Sueraya is smiling, her plan already hatched and not designed to be re-packed.
And the next day at breakfast I am talking to another character who will figure largely in this story when I continue it sometime in the future: Amaranta, the muxe, raised as a girl since she was a little boy to be her mother’s helper in the city of women, where every mother is judged by the gold thick on her wrists and chest and by the genuine femininity of her youngest son, who will become part of a sorority of boys allowed into the market where no other male is welcome, the better for the women to mind their cash. I am talking to Amaranta about doing a shoot of mothers and their muxes, and Amaranta is insisting that I accompany her to the tent of the mother of the city’s federal judge, but that I had to make sure to walk into the fair with Gaby first, since I had long blonde hair and the big cameras and the assistant and speaking of this assistant I see Sueraya, made up like a Zapotecan, flirting with Korda at a nearby table. Amaranta is saying something to me, and the fawn looks up at the slaughter to see Korda staring at me in surprise, Sueraya’s mouth near his ear. Why is he looking at me?
I practically drag Sueraya from her plate of melon and mango, and in the ladies’ room she tells me to keep cool, that she told Korda I took pictures of models or advised them or cast them into Hollywood or who knows what Sean does with them and if Korda played his cards right maybe I would cut him a piece of this action. But you don’t speak Spanish, Sueraya! What are you talking about? She coolly tells me Korda speaks English, fool, and he had no problem understanding when I pointed at you and said “foto” and “chicas” and “Hollywood.”
Back at the mango and melon, Amaranta raps her glass suddenly with a knife and calls for attention. Everyone might have noticed the Americans at the table, she says, and the Cuban poetess and her husband and Korda and two Norwegian photographers holding Leicas like limousine signs at the airport, and Gaby and Gaby’s second, Lucy, and half a dozen others stare at me and Sueraya as Sueraya adjusts her gold tiara and its fake roses. You may have noticed our American friends, here to do a documentary about the city of women and a stage show on Broadway where Gaby sings in Zapotec and I tell stories about becoming a girl in Spanish, and I ask of all of you to participate without censor in this production, because I am not sure about the rest of you, but I need a break.
Or something to this effect. Not sure of the exact words, since I was busy playing poker with the man who immortalised Che Guevara, two eyes each, except that I had the card every opponent dreads: While he tried to weigh what I could mean to him, I didn’t care. This is infuriating, in both love and jealousy.
Even if I knew then what I would know a year later, with Korda dead and the Zapotecan singer’s husband dead, and Gaby on the lam with an Italian photographer’s baby in her belly, and Amaranta in the hospital with her arm cut off after a gruesome accident on a bus before she ran for the Mexican parliament on basically the freak ticket and almost won, even so, I wouldn’t have cared.
Korda must have sensed this, and my lack of caring that he was the man who shot Che got under his skin and drove him crazy several days later, which Sueraya bless her soul captured on video somewhere on one of the tapes between 661 and 673, we don’t know which, because she can’t be bothered with sequence, and I can’t be bothered with research.
* * * * *
Shot: Still Lives
Flowers & Ice
My first photo exhibition was a collection with the pompous title of “Flowers & Ice,” at the biggest Barnes & Noble outlet in the country. Over 25 prints of mine hung above the shelves of new books, and the store manager told me they would stay up until an equal or better collection appeared to replace them. He thought I should plan on having the pictures up for a couple of months: they stayed up for almost two years.
* * * * *
all photos copyright seanieblue.com 2019
Alana Nason writes me a note on Facebook: She is about to jump off a boat in Mexico and asks advice about what to do and where to go, and I write her this note:
I think the height of anyone’s intellectual development is the acquisition of language. You already have your Alana-speak, and it is developing quickly and profoundly, and this might be the only tongue you really need. But I doubt it. Spanish is a huge horizon, and since you are there it seems wise to tackle it, no? I would avoid any language schools on the gringo party trail, as tempting as it might be to go to Antigua, Guatemala or to Costa Rica and enroll in language classes. I met a Swiss woman who learned to speak Spanish in six weeks (6!) by working as a dishwasher in a tiny town in Guatemala, for no pay. She read Spanish every day, and was fluent in less than two months.
If you got as far south as Nicaragua, I know a clown and pantomime artist who was once the cultural attache for the Sandinistas, and he is in the north of the country, in beautiful land. He can teach you Spanish pretty quickly, and get you immersed in a life without gringos. You cannot really learn a language in an atmosphere where people are still talking in your own words. Isolation is key.
But why bother? Well, of all the things that have happened to me in my silly life, no action commands as much respect while simultaneously keeping me humble as my ability to suddenly switch languages and turn an illegal immigrant or a Hispanic academic into an instant, loyal friend. Everyone who thinks they know me well is surprised when this suddenly happens. It’s a critical part of leadership, which I don’t care a hoot about despite your nickname of “Manson” for me, but this ability to identify and cull stories from the “lower” socioeconomic classes puts me in rare company writing-wise, since I can speak for a people who have no voice, and none of my yuppie pals can raise an argument against me. For a writer, this sort of confidence is gold.
So that’s my recommendation: drop out of Gringolandia for two months, and add a new point of view to your arsenal of emotions and expressions. It doesn’t have to be so far as Nicaragua, perhaps, but there is a level you have to reach without the interference from people like oneself to grasp the meat of what people are saying about their hopes, dreams and fears. The added benefit of acquiring confidence as a writer makes the learning of a language super-critical for anyone who pretends to speak for others. We all do, the writers, and the false ones don’t really have any idea of what their subjects feel if they cannot read the inflections and secrets of somebody’s voice. Learn Spanish. I’d rate it as more important than learning the camera. Certainly more important than seeing new places without comprehending the mood of the inhabitants, given in their own words. It’s the very height of the mind, to split into another person who hears and speaks and loves and coaches in a voice you learn on your own, speaking among people who do not have our language of privilege and comfort. That’s my two cents, over-wrought and mistimed.
I am off to Iceland on March 23 for probably my last encounter with the aurora. Back April 9. I would very much like to revisit the tin mining community in Bolivia, in case you make it that far south. That was a heart-stopping story in a magical place, two kilometers into the center of the Earth. I’ve got somebody to look for, a ghost. If you made it that far, I’d change a lot of plans to hook up down there and do a story about Llallagua’s tin mine, which I visited 20 years ago, and which changed my life’s direction dramatically. Take care my dear friend. I wish often that you were in the neighborhood so I could regale you with my latest crazy aspirations. The price I pay for my ambitions is this curious loneliness as the people I admire travel a trajectory firmly away from me, on their own spoke from youth to wisdom, and I get no satisfaction at all from being near the center of their self-discovery: I’d rather be out on the rim, about to collide with your orbit, to observe who you are becoming, and to report to myself my surprise at your evolution. You know the steps you take across the planet are nothing compared to the inner distances you travel. Think, walker. It’s your mightiest trip.
I met Alana in one of my circus warehouses in the Imperial City. She was wearing a strange hat, looking like a flapper girl from eras ago, when it was obvious she was as modern a creature as I could hope to encounter. Not modern, but futuristic. She would fall into reality TV, that garbage of titillation, living in a small shack in the wilds of Alaska, and effortlessly she would wander the same paths I’d explored a lifetime before. She has the gift of observation and empathy, and I am like her coach, I suppose, grilling her to condense her thoughts into the long forms of literature. It is one thing to think, and another thing entirely to write so others can think as well. It’s a trick. Not many people can do it. She calls me Manson when I talk to her like this!
And then years later, after she’s written copiously about her adventures traveling the world and living in Alaska while in a reality TV show, I notice a post she makes about deciding to stay in one place and have a home, and how she means to make the most of it while she is in town, settled. I can’t help myself: the writer jumps to a defence of wandering mind and limb, and I post a quick response, full of vim:
The person seeks comfort and love, doesn’t she? The human grows roots and waves her fronds in the breezes of family and affection and community. You grow, you feel, you are. But the writer kills herself to say something she thinks. Your year in the imperial city honoring your place and state of mind would turn into an act of self immolation if you address the most interesting subject you’ve got: You. The hardest act of all, that continuous examination of self and soul will steal every moment you’ve got if you begin to write who you are and why. Kill yourself doing it, now, without care for any tomorrows and you will have a story everyone will read to find out more about themselves. How many people do I know with an untold story like yours? None. If you have to kill yourself to get it out, says the writer, do it. The noblest pursuit of all is that surrender to destroy oneself to let the story be birthed without interference from its author. You can make poetry out of disaster, and remember we talked about love as something only understood in heartbreak, and those were writers speaking. The life you have in that delicious mind is something to kill for even if the victim is yourself. Who are you man? People are anxious to know, so wait for nothing and commit the killing of ego necessary to bare your thoughts the way only you have known. Stories will kill their host, and all we can hope for is to speak, to write, to emote, while dying. Leave the safety nets to dilettantes: you are the real thing, a story walking. For love you walk? No, you walk to tell, writer. And nobody is my equal in this sense, you know, and I told you long ago that you are my superior. What writer would dare say that? Murder, describe it as the story wants you to, not honestly, no, but so your listener can sense the spirit in the poem. Xoooooxxoo
5th Candy: In the Tin Mine
With the Miners Wives in the Saddest Place on Earth
When the nurse Mirinda came up on the bus from Oruro, one of the miner’s wives took her to the home of Sabina Imes. A dozen ladies, dressed in tattered black, sat huddled for warmth on the beds in the one-room shack. In their midst lay a body covered by a blanket. Sabina’s daughter had come on the same bus a week before, and after six days of coughing blood the girl had died the previous night. The miner’s wives were glum, debating tearfully the funeral arrangements: there was no money for a coffin, there was no money for a death certificate, but worst of all there was only a handful of potatoes for the mourners expected to pay their respects at Sabina’s home. Mirinda was introduced to Sabina, and listened to the story of Sabina’s daughter. The girl had begged her mother for twelve months to be allowed to travel to La Paz to be a nanny in the house of a rich family. The mother had her misgivings, but yielded to the girl’s petition and was soon surprised by the single dollar bill the girl sent back. A dollar bill came each week for almost two years. When three weeks passed without a dollar bill, Sabina knew something was wrong and she called the rich family in La Paz to find her daughter had the pneumonia. The family sent the girl to the hospital, and reluctantly agreed to pay her bus fare home. The girl choked through the week, which itself was a heartbreak but not a novelty: Sabina’s husband’s lungs the year before lost a similar engagement, dying two days before his forty-fourth birthday.
Sabina told Mirinda of the strange thought which crossed her mind when her daughter breathed last: she’d held her husband, too, in her arms when his lungs finally collapsed, and Sabina had seen at that moment a disquieting vision of the future, but with herself in the arms of one of her six children.
Mirinda quietly offered to pay the ten U.S. dollars required for the coffin and the death certificate, but Sabina’s protest overrode the sudden joy of the other ladies in her house, who exclaimed over the offer and blessed Mirinda for her kindness.
“You can’t pay,” said Sabina. Will you pay for the burial of every child in Llallagua? This is our situation. Your money will mask the truth, but cannot change it. I know you are here to help us in other ways. You cannot take the sting from death, dear girl, by paying for the funeral.”
Mirinda went into the town center to buy some food for the wake instead, and bought the pastries from the bakery which had no bread. That afternoon the ladies in Sabina’s house mourned with potatoes and pastries, and then in the evening they walked in the autumn chill to a pit in the hills above the mouth to the mine. They would bury the girl wrapped only in a blanket her grandmother had knit in the wonderful year of 1952, long before the girl was born, when Sabina herself was a ten-year-old dreaming of one day living in a house with grass surrounding it in Oruro. Several miners came by the house, refusing the pastries and potatoes, and stood timidly amid the ladies. One of them cursed La Paz and the way things were in the country, and left a brown bottle of beer by the doorway as he left.
“We’ll save the beer for a day we need it,” said Sabina. “We’ll save it for a sad day, the day we realize things can’t get worse because we have reached the bottom.”
“We are there now, Sabina; today is that day.”
Sabina, reluctantly, opened the bottle and the ladies after the burial of the girl sipped the beer as daylight ended. It was a scene Mirinda would remember each time she was confronted with the victims of senseless violence in the civilized countries of the world. A nurse medicates with memory.
Siglo XX: The Tin Men
Fast woke before the alarm sounded. He shook Mirinda’s shoulder.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“They won’t let me in,” she said, eyes still closed.
“I talked to Lino last night, Mirinda; I’ll get you in.”
“Women are bad luck in the tin mines, Jon.”
“So are priests.”
“Well, they don’t let priests go down either. I’ve tried.”
It was dark still when Fast and Mirinda walked down the steep hillside to the train tracks at the entrance of the mine. They stood outside the equipment building, sipping whiskey from a flask, and waited for Lino. There was no wind but the air was thin and sharp at 14,000 feet, cold as steel on their bared skin. Lino joined them and they stood in the dark watching the miners, glowing in their yellow boots and hat lanterns, march up the valley from the settlements below, dark also except for a handful of tiny pinpricks of light.
“It’s amazing, Lino,” said Mirinda, in Spanish, That so much happens so quietly in the dark. How many miners are going in right now?”
“Two thousand,” said Lino, sipping from the flask. “What is it?”
“Straight from the Miami airport. Have you ever had any before?”
Fast passed Lino the flask again and exclaimed when he heard the unmistakable bouncing of a basketball on a concrete court nearby.
“Now, in the dark? How can they see?”
“They know every inch of the court,” said Lino. “Every morning somebody plays there, but during the afternoon when we play games in the square nobody seems to have improved from years ago. Maybe if we had a game in the middle of the night, whoever it is who bounces that ball now would be unstoppable.”
The equipment room was opened and Fast and Mirinda were issued yellow coats, hardhats with lantern with the lantern’s batterypack on a waistbelt, and black rubber boots. “Put up your hair, Mirinda,” said Fast.
“Lino, should I go down?”
“I don’t mind, myself, but some of the older men can’t accept it. A priest went down for the first time anyone can remember last summer and in February the main elevator line broke and killed six men.”
“I’m not going, then,” said Miranda.
“Of course you are,” said Fast, “How can you know this community if you don’t breathe the same air they do? Lino, the men you and I spoke with last night didn’t object and everyone knows Mirinda is here to help the town. How could they deny her?”
“I agree, Juan. Don’t worry, Mirinda.”
The three of them walked across the tracks to the flatbed train loaded with miners, all lying down.
“Keep your heads down,” said Lino, as the flatbed lurched toward the rock. They rode for more than five minutes the two kilometers into the mountain, the rock lit by the glow of their own lanterns, the rock enveloping them, the rock threatening, leering, challenging, wounded and anxious about this hole that leaked to the outside.
“Lino,” whispered Mirinda, “Why are women and priests such bad luck in here?”
“Because the mine belongs to the Devil.”
“Why to the Devil?”
“How long have you been in Llallagua?”
“Almost a month.”
“Have you seen anything here that suggests God is doing a good job of looking after us?”
“But what about when the tin was valuable, and when the community was prosperous?”
“Then we feared coming in here, because of the accidents and the death. We didn’t want to offend the Devil because he owned the tin that made us rich. It’s different now: we fear being left outside, in the town, where life is hell. We don’t want to offend the Devil now because he is our friend.”
“Not all the miners think that way, do they?”
The flatbed stopped and Lino led Fast and Mirinda into a small briefing room with a map of the mine spread across a wooden table. The air was pungent, warm, stifling. The roof of the mine was barely six feet high and glistened with moisture. Brown drops of ore chilled whatever skin they fell upon, and would rot whatever metal they stained. A foreman described the mine and the procedures for extracting the tin from it.
“Will either of you ever come back from the North?”
“To this mine?”
“Yes. I ask because if you do you might bring something back from Pittsburgh. Have you heard of Pittsburgh?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Have you heard of the Mine Safety Appliances company?”
“If you come back bring some respirator masks from them, and we’ll pay you for each. Bring as many as you can carry. They are a few dollars each. Please. Why are you smiling?”
“Because of how perfectly you pronounced the name of that company in Pittsburgh.”
The manager smiled. “Ah, for us Pittsburgh is heaven. Isn’t that right, Lino?”
“Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, yes,” said Lino, smiling. “I’ll die dreaming I wake up as a dog, even, in Pittsburgh.”
The sound of explosions and a soft change in the pressure of the air -- detected in the ear -- meant the blasting had started with the new shift. Fast looked at Mirinda and they noticed the tiny panic in each other, the claustrophobic paralysis that always accompanies a first visit deep into the ground, especially when the ambience brims with minerals that barely hint of thin oxygen. Both of them flushed the manager with questions about the mine, Fast shakily scribbling notes while Mirinda picked at the hem of her coat, and they concentrated on the detail of the mines and refused to admit the absurdity of their situation and the clawing anxiety which demanded a polite request to be returned to the familiar nourishing environment of the outside, where the sun was rising.
Lino shepherded them from the room just as a blast sounded nearby, and the rush of air and the tang of the smell shook them from their anxiety: the mine was suddenly the dangerous place, wet and coldly suffocating, it had seemed in the stories of the town and the clothes of the miners. The danger was omnipresent, but impersonal, random. Curiosity overcame the claustrophobia, as it always will if the phobic has any wonder in him at all. Lino instinctively let his guests lead, relieved by their first steps to know he wouldn’t have a fearful flight from underground to contend with.
“How many visitors do you have in here, Lino?”
“In a year, maybe twenty.”
“Do any of them panic?”
Lino smiled at Fast, and looked away when he replied, “Yes, the Europeans, especially. The Asians and the Hispanics never do, nor the socialists, though I think they are the most frightened. A Pole in March broke his leg running over the train tracks shouting about god. What do you want to see? The danger? The boredom? The cold?”
They walked to a tunnel where explosives were being set. The block cave method used in Siglo XX employed a series of tunnels connected by shafts dropping twenty meters at a time between the different levels of the mine. After the tunnels in a single block had been rigged with dynamite and abandoned by the miners, the charges in the block were detonated and boulders of tin were loosened from the mountain. The boulders fell naturally into the shafts or were subsequently pushed into them by the miners, but often the falling rock jammed a shaft and required clearing. Lino took Fast and Mirinda first to such a shaft, where miners milled on the edge of the chimney-like opening above them and shone torches to examine the blockage above them. The shaft was blocked by an enormous tin rock about five yards above the tunnel floor.
A miner gingerly placed a ladder into the shaft and prepared to climb to the blockage and attach dynamite to the belly of the blockage. “This is what we fear most,” said Lino softly. “We detonate explosive several times right here on the ground hoping to loosen the rock, but if it still sticks we have to put the explosives directly onto the rocks above us. You never know when the blockage will give way and fall on its own, perhaps as a result of all the explosives we’ve tried from the ground. If the rock gives way when the miner is beneath it, attaching his dynamite . . . disaster.”
“How much rock is there above the blockage?”
“It could be tons.”
A miner with gold in his teeth slung a bag of dynamite over his shoulder and careful as a panther started to climb the ladder. The other miners backed away from the shaft and stood silently out of sight, waiting his return.
“The most important thing is his descent, when if he panics and jumps from the ladder to race the last yard from beneath the blockage the movement could jar the rock and cause it to slip.”
The gold-toothed miner was gone ten minutes and his companions drew in their breaths when they saw his boots gently emerge down the ladder, bringing him into the shadows of their headlamps. He was smiling, teeth gleaming. The miners chattered together in relief and prepared to light the fuse. Lino took Fast and Mirinda to the chimney and they gazed upward to see the sticks of dynamite attached by putty to the blockage. The three-yard fuse hung along the side of the shaft.
“Do you detonate it now?” asked Mirinda.
“As soon as everyone is out of the way.”
“Why don’t you just keep blasting away from the ground to loosen the rock rather than have somebody climb up to it to attach the explosives?”
“Dynamite is expensive. The owners will only allow a certain amount of dynamite to be used to unblock the chimneys. The lack of money determines everything here. There is no ventilation system other than the elevator shafts leading to the Glory Hole at the top of the mountain; there are no respirator masks; there is no modern equipment. It’s cheaper to pay the miner’s family fifty dollars compensation if he gets killed.”
Mirinda shouted suddenly and Fast turned to see the fuse lit, the sparkle rising along the black wire toward the orange dynamite sticks. He turned to look at Lino, whose eyes glistened wickedly, playfully, before Lino joined Mirinda and the other miners running and laughing down the tunnel away from the shaft. “Come on, gringo!”
Fast ran after them, thrilled, laughing. Behind him the fuse writhed and before him the yellow boots flashed in the light of his headlamp. The miners were ducking into side-tunnels, giggling, and Fast found himself lifted from the ground, running suspended in midair like a cartoon character, buffeted along the tunnel by a gust of wind hurled from the exploding dynamite. When he fell to his feet, still running, stumbling and laughing, pebbles of tin flew against and past him, and for a moment he couldn’t tell if the miners were laughing at the sight of him or if he was ready to be torn apart by a mistake in the TNT because all noise was robbed by pressure in his ears; he couldn’t breathe until the clouds of the explosion billowed past him and left him alone in the tunnel amid the hooting of the miners and the mischievous grins of Mirinda and Lino.
“Hey, gringo! What would they have said about you in your country?”
“That you died in a hole in Bolivia!”
Fast laughed. “If I died, you bastards, in my country they would have claimed I was never alive to begin with.”
“Then you should be here working with us,” said Lino, emerging from his cover into the explosion’s aftermath. “If you die here, nobody will question whether you existed. To die here between birth and death would be proof you lived in the Earth.”
“In our country, Lino,” said Mirinda, “We also have people who do this.”
“Are they buried in blankets or thrown over cliffs when they die?”
“Then its not quite the same, is it? Look at us, laughing, playing with dynamite. When the horn blows in the manager’s office we go home and watch our families starve. Sometimes I think a day will come and we will refuse to leave the mine.”
“The most fun you’ll have is if you get me blown up down here,” said Fast, amused.
“What would your family say?” asked Lino.
“He doesn’t have any family,” said Mirinda.
“And your friends? What would they say?”
“They would deny I was dead.”
“And your enemies?”
“My enemies would congratulate themselves for knowing I’d always wanted to destroy myself.”
“Then your enemies,” said Lino, as they left the miners at the shaft and continued with their voyage through Siglo XX, “Your enemies should see you down here, playing with destruction.”
Mirinda laughed and Fast shot her a glance of playful caution.
“Do you know what this is?” Lino held a rock in front of Mirinda.
“It’s tin,” she said.
“It’s worth less than two dollars a fine pound on the international market, but two years ago it was worth more than five dollars a pound. We thought we’d get some of the money the International Monetary Fund gave to La Paz, but the tin miners know we’ve been left to fend for ourselves. Even our subsidies for rice and corn are gone. The unproductive mines are being closed and half the country’s tin miners are being asked to look for new professions. What new professions?”
Lino led Fast and Mirinda to the elevator shaft and they boarded the bucket that served as an elevator, accompanying four other miners.
“This is the primary cause of accidental death in the mines,” said Lino, as the elevator dropped suddenly. Fast and Mirinda felt their stomachs weaken in the rush down. “The cables snap and an overloaded cargo takes a half-dozen miners 100 meters to death.”
“How can you tell if the elevator is overloaded?”
“We can’t. We stop loading when it feels right.”
The bucket slowed and stopped, and Lino led his guests to a shrine at the bottom of the mine, of a grotesque wood figure with its back against the mine wall, arms outstretched, its doglike snout snarling, and its huge penis erect and protruding. “Here he is. We call him ‘El Tio.’”
“This is the devil that owns the tin?” asked Mirinda.
Cigarets had been placed in the devil’s mouth, and other small gifts littered the statue’s feet. Lino saw Mirinda looking at the cigarets.
“We were paid last Friday; when we run out of money, those cigarets, with apologies, will be taken back.”
“How much are you paid, Lino?”
“I get fifty dollars a month, but I’m an assistant to the manager. These other devils are lucky if they get forty a month; enough to buy a hundred bottles of beer. How many beers can an American worker get for his month’s wages?”
“With the minimum allowed by the government, a worker gets six bottles of beer an hour; he could buy more than two hundred a week.”
“On the minimum wage in Washington?”
“But it’s not very good beer.”
Lino snorted. The group boarded the elevator again and shot upward, disembarking at the doctor’s office. “Why with all your riches can’t Americans help other countries?”
“We try,” said Fast, surprising Mirinda with his earnestness, “But the people in charge of our country are weak and eager to protect themselves, while the people in charge of your country are murderers and thieves. It’s a terrible combination.”
“I read about Americans assassinating people all over the world; why can’t they kill our dictator?”
“They support your dictator, Lino,” said Fast, laughing.
“Lino, not everyone in America thinks like Juan,” said Mirinda. “Some people want to use the system to help the Bolivias in the world free themselves of tyranny.”
“Then why does it persist? Juan is right; we have a murderer in charge of lambs in this nation.”
“But who would replace him? Other murderers. If you put people in charge, or let them seize authority, murder is the consequence, because people disagree about issues but all are capable of greed and prejudice. We are intelligent, but act as animals would.”
Mirinda looked in dismay at the shelves of the doctor’s office: empty, except for tubes of antibacterial ointment, bandages, smelling salts, a bottle of mercurochrome.
“Do you not have splints or tranquilizers?” she asked of the doctor. “No ice?”
The doctor shrugged.
“Are you trained, even, to be a doctor?” she asked.
“Then why are you the doctor?”
“Nobody else wanted to be.”
They boarded the elevator and rode to the top of the shaft, emerging into bright sunlight at the top of the Juan del Valle mountain. The Andes filled the horizon around them, and the air at the peak was crisp and cold.
“I love it up here,” said Lino. “You can’t see any human beings, no evidence of towns or cities.”
The three of them looked over the mountains, awed by the silence, the lack of any noise but the thin shrill of wind.
“The manager wants me to go to Santa Cruz and look after some property he owns there,” said Lino as he lit a cigaret.
“You don’t want to go?”
“Can I live with the guilt of leaving these poor devils behind, the men I’ve known since childhood?”
“Do you have children?”
“Could you live with the guilt of leaving them here?”
“The property is for coca leaves; I’ve seen the American tourists in La Paz acting like horses in heat.”
“What they buy in La Paz for three dollars costs them a hundred in the United States, Lino. The cocaine wouldn’t be your fault; every high official of the Bolivian government is involved in some way. It makes the entire nation operate, though the profits have a way, as in the rest of the world, of not trickling down far enough.”
“But I don’t like the people involved. The coca leaf is very important in the Andes; God put it here so the people wouldn’t get tired, so they wouldn’t feel hunger, so they wouldn’t feel the cold, and when He put it here God promised that any foreigners who came across it would be ruined.”
Fast laughed. “It’s the story of Yatiri, who looked for help from God to deal with the Conquistadors.”
“Yes,” said Lino, startled, “You know the story?”
“Instead of giving you a plant to withstand your pain, Lino, why didn’t your god tell Yatiri to kill the Spaniards? Look at the control the foreigners have over you: your people are prostituted, betrayed and murdered by the agents of foreigners who exploit for themselves in the name of humanity and divinity. It’s not just Bolivia. The entire world, Lino, every helpless bastard in it, is victim to the whims of the people in control, and if the people in control choose to poison themselves with self-indulgence and avarice, then we are all expected to manufacture and consume those poisons.”
Mirinda started to reply but Lino cut her off. “But the penalties are too great for the individual, Juan.”
Fast raised his hands and assumed a posture of submission. “You’re right, Lino. Absolutely. The penalties are too great for the individual who dares to protest. You’re right.”
The conversation ended and Mirinda looked at Fast in perplexity. Lino smoked his cigaret nervously, while Fast climbed to the top of a crop of rocks and stared moodily into the valleys and ranges before him. Mirinda shivered.
“Are you cold?” Lino asked.
“I’ve known him almost all my life,” said Mirinda. “He was my first boyfriend, the first man I slept with. I’m the first woman he had sex with. We’ve kept in touch for fifteen years, but he’s never come closer to resignation in the face of opposition than I’ve seen him recently. It disturbs me.”
“Aren’t you a nurse?”
“Yes . .
“Can’t you help him?”
She stared at Fast atop the rocks, alone, as he looked down at the Andes swelling like a shout beneath him. “I can’t give him what he needs.”
“He doesn’t seem that bad off to me,” said Lino. “He does what he wants to, apparently . . .”
“No, Lino, that’s the problem; everything he’s doing he does in spite of himself.”
“And what would he rather be doing?”
“I think he wants to be happy, nothing more.”
Lino looked at Fast and grinned. “Then no wonder we can’t give him what he needs.”
A dog in Bolivia
Fast woke and turned on the light. Mirinda stirred beside him. He had been dreaming when he suddenly found himself awake with an image in his mind which he thought described Hispanic America.
“Are you okay?” asked Mirinda.
He clambered out of bed, ignoring the chiII of the floor on his bare feet, and opened the window. He could hear the bouncing of a basketball in the dark, on the opposite side of the small valley and the train tracks. The sky was clear, moonless, punctured by stars and swept by the soft smudge of galaxies.
“Jonathan, it’s freezing. Are you okay?”
The image wouldn’t melt in the dark: he was in a small car, cramped, in the passenger seat, being driven along the outskirts of La Paz, when several cars ahead a mongrel with a long tail stepped into the road; the car ahead on the left slowed, letting the dog pass in front and into the path of an oncoming car on the right, which also stopped, scaring the mongrel and turning him back in the direction he’d come from, straight into the side of the first car, now moving since the dog had initially passed from sight; the mongrel’s face was struck by the side panel of the first car, and then the dog was turned around by the force of the impact to have his haunches struck again by the same car, momentarily forced into an agonizing squat. The dog managed to recover its footing and raced toward the right of Fast’s car, in the original direction it had been headed, its snout ripped and bleeding. The mongrel shot in front of Fast and gained the freedom of the dusty lot beside the highway, where a group of dogs stood watching the attempted crossing of the street; the largest dog of the pack immediately set on the injured mongrel, snapping at his tail and haunches as the mongrel dashed along the road more terrorized than before, until the larger dog’s teeth sank into the thin tail and crunched mightily, when the mongrel turned left and sprinted into the traffic once more, again into the path of Fast and the car he rode in; the dog disappeared and Fast felt a bump and series of thuds on the floorboards beneath his feet as the car crushed the mongrel. The driver exclaimed in surprise and looked in the mirror as Fast turned to look behind: the other dogs rushed onto the road to tear the mongrel to pieces, but before they did Fast saw the mongrel, dazed, in a sitting position, unable to move its crushed hind legs, not noticing the advance of the pack but confused for the condition he was in, not looking after the car which had hit and immobilized him, but staring blankly forward as if at a beetle on the pavement negotiating a slow crossing without similar trauma. Fast turned his gaze away when the first dog in the pack seized the mongrel’s head in its jaws.
“Are you coming back to bed, Jonathan?”
Fast had told the story to the Hungarian assassin Zita Strucc one night and asked if she could see any way to compare the mongrel with Latin America, the car with any science of the world, and the pack of dogs with any human emotions. It was the last time he would see Zita. Before he left the next morning with a knapsack full of explosives and his cheek wet from a soft kiss at the subway stop where she
dropped him before going to work, she said she didn’t have an answer for his story, and when he made love to her that last night she was as placid and uninspired as she’d been each time before.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Mirinda now.
“A woman who denies herself passion thinking by doing so that she can help the world.”
“Do you ever think of me when you are with other women, Jonathan?”
“I try not to, Mirinda.”
She turned her face away from him when he slipped beneath the covers beside her. She wanted him to snuggle up against her back, but he fell asleep with his face pointed at the ceiling.
Llallagua Town Square,
They walked through the marketplace and Lino pointed out the shortages.
“Basketballs, tennis shoes: we have loads. But rice?”
They walked through the miners’ union building. the men looked at Mirinda in surprise, interrupting their games of dice and cards.
“You don’t notice any old men? There are no old men in Llallagua. It’s an impossibility. If they aren‘t crushed by rock dropped like bombs down the shafts, they drown in the tin powder lining their lungs. They sit in the Sun when it shines, and take ten seconds to draw a good breath that doesn’t sting. If the retired miner tries to talk, he wheezes between his syllables. Then later they are taken to the sanatorium in the valley, and if somebody pays to ship them back they’re laid out in the coffin paid for by the mining company. Their friends and family whisper ‘Silico-tuberculosis.‘ A man‘s fiftieth birthday is really a cause of celebration! And look at us, all of us: to ward the cold when we get out of the tunnels we light cigarets and puff with paper lungs. A Danish scientist came here five years ago with a piece of a miner‘s lung — the whole town knew whose it was — and she shook it at us and told us what would happen if we didn’t give up the tobacco. She knew we couldn‘t give up the tin. But do we mind? No, something has to kill us, I suppose, and if that bastard up there in heaven doesn’t have a reward to give all who have lived through this, then than God will have a revolt beneath his foot.”
They stopped at Lino’s home and Lino gave his small snort when he saw Fast staring incredulously around the house.
“A one-room shack divided by a curtain, Juan, with six children who look at a geography of the world at school and see Bolivia still is on the sea. The hot water we must pay for at the public baths so we bathe once a week; it’s too cold for anybody to smell badly. But we have possessions: a basketball, a radio, and my oldest daughter has some pictures of Madonna cut from a magazine. I like Madonna’s music. It’s happy. When I think of America I think of happy people, healthy, surrounded by green grass, and houses with paint on the inside walls. I don’t blame its politics and its repression on its people. I see it in the movies: there are good people in America, concerned about the world. There are Americans who buy land in Bolivia so we won’t ruin it by cutting down the jungles and making the soil dry. It’s cheaper to do that, I know, than to try to teach us how to live with trees and keep water in the soil. But do you know: it’s not America all of us want to run away to. America would destroy us, because we’re not big enough for it. Our hearts couldn’t stand the loneliness there. Our hands and feet aren‘t agile enough for the money or the shields; the most beautiful flower on the Earth couldn’t grow on Mars, after all, so we here in Llallagua aim not for another world but for an escape to La Paz, to operate a small family business, or to Santa Cruz to grow the gringos‘ coca leaves, or to Lake Titticaca to titter at the tides and hope the flood stops at the potato patch. We wish to escape only to a life fit for Bolivians, a life in which we can claim we are proud of whom we are. Here in this place, the rock in our veins, the needles in our lungs . . . there isn’t any room to survive. For anyone here younger than a teenager, pride is as exotic as a fruit from Asia; nobody in his right mind would bother with the expense and sweat of bringing any pride her. To show it to whom?”
Mirinda invited Lino and Fast to a beer at the bar in the town square, and Lino was soon running his hands through his combed hair as he listened to Fast talk quietly about America. When he looked at Mirinda, Lino saw that things between his friends had changed, just during the course of the day. She looked at Fast as if seeing a man she didn’t know and wasn’t sure she liked. Fast seemed unaware of anything, thought Lino, except pursuing the idea that the state of the world was bad and nobody was willing to do anything about it. Lino couldn’t understand Fast’s preoccupation; any listener of his refused to take exception with Fast, but his intensity increased, until it struck Lino that Fast was arguing with himself, asking for proofs or illustrations of his points from his listeners, who themselves were too enthralled by the topics of discussion to demand a chance to put forward their own impressions. Lino’s words throughout the day were bricks in an architecture Fast had drawn, though Fast denied the plan of any building. He proposed landscapes, but instructed bricklayers to let the bricks fall where they may. Lino longed to crystallize his own observations but the words wouldn’t mingle properly, leaving him instead to hoist more bricks. He wanted to demand that Fast relax, that he spend a day thinking of nothing, that he idle and ignore the decay of twenty-four hours, but to achieve his desire Lino would have to learn how to turn off the machine of bothered thought, and when he looked at Fast he saw too many buttons to press.
“It’s late,” said Lino finally, outside his friends’ hotel. “And I promise not to get buried by tin rock tomorrow. You‘ll have to do this again. Ah, but Juan you are leaving soon. You will look after Mirinda, and years from now she’ll tell you of the depth that life sinks to here. We don’t have the illusions of your country in Bolivia, my sweet friends. We can‘t drive a hundred hours between dreams. We don’t have even a hundred roads. We can’t stop to think because there is always rock falling. We can’t see our aspirations or our suffering because there is none among us who can chronicle them, and further none among us who would care to note our tragedies should a visionary prove able to capture it,. Not from our own choice: we haven’t the price of admission in our pockets to our dreams. This place is a quicksand, it needs a magician and a memory, not a film camera, not a chapter in a book somewhere, not a formula on a blackboard. The reality of Llallagua cannot be seen by the outsider.”
Lino ran out of words,
Mirinda and Fast embraced him, all of them tipsy from the chuflay and beer, and then Lino suddenly was alone in the street, swaying. He watched the light come on in their hotel room, and waited for it to go out and leave him beneath the stars, hardened by alcohol against the cold of June. He was strong because of the whiskey, and would become weaker later, when he slipped back onto the Earth.
“I wonder what it would be like in America, if I could unlock the words in my head. I wonder what it would be like in America, Juan, if I could be there beneath your wing? Could I appreciate the reality I would have there? Its a funny thing, Juan: I had something to tell you, about bricks, about the lovely Mirinda who knows the buttons on your machine better than anyone, but who also knows well enough not to disturb the architect. I had a little construction of my own I longed to show you, but the opportunity has passed. I am like everybody, Juan, lacking action! I can’t make the words act, I can’t bring them to life . . .”
Lino stumbled down the hillside to his home and rummaged through the house, waking the children and sparking the ire of his wife, until he found the basketball. He took the youngest son with him, back into the cold, and together they walked toward the basketball court.
“You can’t stay here, Linito,” he said, holding his son’s hand. “You can’t work the mine when they close it, you can’t sell the gringo his coca, and you can’t drink. Bolivians can’t drink, Linito; if we do, the world comes up to slap our faces. The Earth doesn’t like Bolivians who drink, because then we damage the soil and poison the water. Let’s bounce this ball, learn this game, and maybe one day you’ll survive in America.”
Lino Junior, the son, has heard this before. He’s played the game for three years, and as usual with his first shot the ball goes into the rim without touching metal. Two points old man, he says, and it’s still my ball, and father and son continue like this until the son lets the father score a point or two at the end of the contest. The father will bitch that the son is being passive.
“Shit, boy, play like you know you can and do not patronize me, or I will change the rules of the game,” barks Lino. His son flies by him and scores the final baskets that make his father the loser.
* * * *
From the novel “Generation Zero” ©1987 Seanie Blue Moon
A page from my notes at the Llallagua tin mine, with stains from dripping tin:
Shot: Edifice Complex
Buildings & Structures Along My Way
I took up photography because I needed pictures to accompany my words. I’d made movies beginning in 1990, and knew a bit about framing and composition as I invested more time in video cameras, but it wasn’t until I traveled regularly into Iceland’s pitch-black winters to shoot the aurora borealis that I really learned how to capture light properly. In the company of many photographers, I picked up the technical tricks needed to make images sparkle, and as a teacher of photography for three years at a trade school run by Boston University I learned how to make a living with my camera. I sometimes wish I’d stuck to working in bookstores, since I can write a novel about how tiresome and soul-sapping professional photography can be. And of all the things a photographer does, there are two disciplines that suck the most: weddings and real estate. Not buildings and structures, which is my subject here, briefly. The textures and forms of architecture and artifice are fantastic to light and capture. This is a small sample of what I chase with a camera if I am left to my own devices, without a fucking client to bother me.
You can start the slideshow below by clicking on the dim white arrow to the right of the image below:
Walking wounded in the jungles of the Peten, two years after this picture is taken, I find a jaguar in a cage. Sharon Matola, zoologist, cautions me not to get too close. “The way she’s looking at you, enraptured, means nothing if she gets the slightest chance to attack. A jaguar is not a leopard to put on a leash and teach circus tricks.” Sharon shows me her mangled arm, scarred rivets from elbow to wrist. “A jaguar did this to me, and I thought she and I were quite friendly.”
The jaguar watches me with bright attention. I remember a hunter telling me jaguars are not much fun to stalk: “You just walk up to them and shoot them in the brain because they don’t run away.” Their skins are in bodegas on the border between Guatemala and Belize, hanging on the wall, easily caught. It is too simple to paint Ananda in this feline guise, but I look into the jaguar’s eyes and see this picture. Let me out, she says, bring me the key, and we can play.
Temptation, so tricky, always tantalizing to a thief like me. I show her a scar and think I hear her purr; then I tell her the scar is from some other person’s claws and she is suddenly snarling against the bars of her cage. Where is that key?
I can only stay on the island for so long, reading and swimming with the sharks and rays every day. I read a novel about a love affair which happens because of a small coincidence, about a series of small coincidences, a series so improbable the coincidences loom larger with every page until by page 80 I flat-out don’t believe a single word out of any of the characters’ mouths. The novel is called “Message in a Bottle,” and it is a piece of shit, and the movie made from it with Kevin Costner is a piece of shit, too, which I can say confidently even though I’ve never seen it. But I stick with it to the end and read the last page in disgust before I fling the book against the slats of my shack, get up and pack, and fly the 8-seater to Belize City.
Don Armando is at the boat station and recognizes me. Have I come to go fishing with him and his brother? No, I say, I need to drive to Tikal. Let’s go, he says, and we take off. The day is beastly, one hundred degrees and growing more humid by the km as we drive into the Peten, the second-largest jungle in the western hemisphere after the Amazon. Don Armando talks non-stop about the english-speaking Belizeans, and he is starting to say some nasty stuff when I interrupt and point out the english-speakers have got the music and he agrees, Yah, de bastards have da riddims.
I’ve been to Belize City a half dozen times, four times to sell a car and four times to fall in love, and the last time I did both and Tanker Gogh came down from the Imperial City to shoot the Punta Rebels, and I have to digress a moment to recount what it’s like to see these guys live: Think Fishbone or Living Color, eight dudes in rap sweats with mikes and keyboards with bass and drum, with a stupid light scheme and distortion in the sound delivery, but no matter, because in front of the stage are three dozen women, crunching hips and buttocks as the boys on stage, some of them young teenagers, jerk their erections to and fro in baggy white pants, singing their hearts out. It is an eye-popping sight, wild, raucous and innocent despite the flapping pricks.
The route to Tikal is bandit territory, patrolled by a jeep or two filled with a small squad of military with guns at the ready, but these jeeps patrol uncertainly and with great distance between; the road to Tikal is no place to get a flat or have a balky engine, and I sense that Don Armando is sweating a bit extra despite the handgun under his buttocks. No bandits dart out of the fronds to stop my flight, and my stomach unknots as we pull into the outskirts of Flores, the town on the lake of Tikal. Don Armando is faint from the the heat and his hunger so we stop to eat. But even this is difficult because every eatery has the skin of a jaguar hanging on its wall and I flatly refuse entry to the shadow of this cat’s death.
“Que te pasa, Juanjo? Dese cats been dead long ago. Nobody gonna hunt dem now.”
“That’s because there’s no more left, Don Armando.”
“Nah, da people dem educate now. The hunter is retired.”
“No hunter killed these cats.”
“How you mean?”
“Nobody hunts a jaguar because they’re not afraid of anything. You walk up to them and blow their brains out. That’s why there’s only 28 jaguars left in Belize.”
We find a place and eat meat. Don Armando drinks half a beer and his eyes are hooded, loaded by the time the chica gives me the cuenta. He trundles into the passenger seat and I drive to the visitor’s gate at Tikal. Dusk is not far away and the park is closed but twenty bucks and some Hollywood charm lets me slip in as the last herd of bovine-rumped Yankee tourists leave the premises. Don Armando is snoring in the shade. In five minutes I am at the base of the Jaguar Pyramid, and in another two minutes I’m at the top, one of my favorite places on Earth. The horizon 360 degrees around me is a soft hedge of verdant jungle. From my perch I look down on the fate of all civilization, onto the detritus of civic hubris. What did these Mayans think was going to happen? Where on their calendar of Suns and Moons is the day indicated when the rules crumbled because of greed and violence? Where in their hieroglyphics is it written that men who terrorize others are bound always to be unhappy? I am reminded again, of my silly slogan ten years ago: The only growth industry is vegetation. And here it is, the vegetables swallowing the marketplace. And make no mistake, this marketplace was not the construct of simpletons romanticized by starry-eyed academics; when Bernal Diaz came to Mexico with Cortes in 1500, he wrote copiously about the superiority of the Aztecan market to anything in Seville, then the Babylon of Europe. The Aztecs once upon a time had Gotham.
A bright yellow and green bird flutters onto the steps beneath my feet. It cocks its head and I think it is looking for a handout. I am about to wave him off, doing my small thing to keep nature natural, when another bird flutters up and then another. They are looking at me like penguins. “Whaddaya think, you’re in the library, you little fuckers?” It occurs to me that maybe it is I who disrupts their routine, and I get up to leave, respecting their congress. I expect the birds to scatter, but they barely move as I start walking down the steep stairs toward the ruined city. I’m halfway down when I realize with a shock that these birds are Quetzals, as rare as snow leopards. How many are there? A dozen at least! I think about the task I have at hand, and rush to it.
“Ey, where we go now?”
“The zoo, Don Armando.”
“What zoo dat?”
“There’s a zoo on the other side of the lake.”
“You drive as you know the route, son.”
The keeper of the zoo greets me at the gate and starts to explain that the zoo closes at dusk, that I should come back the next day, but I press twenty bucks into his palm and in I go for a quick look at the cats. The keeper trudges along behind me, giving me the facts and the nicknames but I ask him only how many years the cats have been caged and he’s a little sticky with his reply, yanking at his sombrero and clearing his throat.
“You told me years ago how the wild cats come here every night and tease the ones in the cages.”
“Oh, you been here before?”
“I told you I couldn’t imagine how shit it must feel to be a jaguar in a cage and see some wild cat come piss on all the fences around you.”
“Oh, you tell me dis before?”
“Give me the keys to the cages, Boss.”
I push the keeper suddenly and he falls onto his side, squealing. The jaguars watch us, unmoving. I can tell by the roundness of their pupils that they are keenly aware of something amiss, but otherwise they betray no anxiety. I search the keeper’s pockets and find the keys and he clutches his pocket so I can’t get them out until I tell him in the flattest tone that I will kill him if he doesn’t let go and if he doesn’t stop whining, and his grip surrenders as his lips tighten.
It takes some fumbling, but I get the keys straight and open the cage doors and the jaguars of course have backed up into the corners of their cells, nervous. One snarls at me as I bang on the coarse links of chain between it and the jungle. Get the fuck out! The cats shrink, spilling their dishes of water and bowls of pet pellets and scattering their scarred horse bones. I grab the keeper’s shirt and drag him like a drunkard to the gates of the zoo. We aren’t twenty yards from the cages when the cats like falling stars flash into the forest and freedom. I swell with happy delirium, pregnant with satisfaction, and tell the keeper to keep the twenty bucks and he replies that each of the four cats is worth five times that much and I tell him to wait a moment. Don Armando is behind the wheel of the car, sensing the time has come to leave, and he watches wide-eyed as I pull four $100 bills from my bag. I give the money to the keeper, and tell him if I ever come back and find the cats back in their cages that I will take his life from him as easily as I press this cash into his hand, and does he understand, and he nods with vigor, yes, he understands.
Don Armando is chirpy, wide awake, as we drive back through the jungles and the thin farmland for four hours to the Belize border. He tells me some hilarious fishing stories, especially a few where the fish get away, the best kind of fishing story. The bandits do not get us. Our tires do not go flat. We get away.
And a wild jaguar tonight will piss on four empty cages. I don’t give a shit whether the escaped cats can figure out how to catch a mouse before starving to death. That’s their problem, not mine.
* * * *
This piece is part of the novel “Generation Zero”
by Seanie Blue Moon, © 1987, 1999 and 2018
On my way to the Lost World I fly in a four-seater from the Orinoco River, stopping every half hour to drop mail in a mining camp in the Savannah. At one stop I see a skin stretched against the wall of a wooden shack: jaguar, drying. Even here, the cat is bothered. Along our way south the pilot flies us up Angel Falls, climbing into its mists until he runs out of power and falls back into the valley and away from the waterfall, but I do not hear running water. Instead the sound is the hiss cats make, moments before the claws or fangs sprout. The longest and loudest hiss is the jaguar’s, so fearless and so wiped out. What can I do for this animal?
Nine miles north of the Brazil border, in the tiny town of Santa Elena, we meet Michelle. She is nine years old. She tells me she wants to be a doctor. Everybody says that, says me, but if you could be whatever you wanted to be, anything in the world, and don’t worry about your father here in the jeep listening to you, tell me what you would be.
“Anything? Anything? I would be a jaguar.”
Oh, I say, me too. There is nothing cooler than a jaguar. We shake hands and agree to be jaguars immediately. Michelle’s father is a Pemon who snuck over the border from Guyana into Venezuela for “economic” reasons. And he is allowed to own land and vote, and this is before Chavez, so he will be part of the shocking change in South America, where native people are voting for native people and “kicking the rich bastards out at last,” to roughly quote Peter Garrett.
For two days, Michelle is in my wake, growling and hissing as the Sabana’s most ferocious feline. And you know what, Michelle, a jaguar is so tough that it isn’t scared of anything, so people walk up to about as far away as that doorway with their guns and shoot the jaguars to hang their skins in the local bar or in the living room. A jaguar can’t be tamed, I tell her. I know a woman who has a zoo and a cat she knew for five years mangled her arm one afternoon, and we went to visit the jaguar and the woman told me, “A jaguar is not a leopard, sitting around on a chain to make TV.”
In the jeep on our way to Roraima, the enormous tepui on which Arthur Conan Doyle based his fantastic “Lost World,” where we will hike for a week to a land still not cataloged by biologists and geographers, Michelle sits next to me and snarls as I point at her and say, “This will be the president of Venezuela.” I say “La Presidente” over and over for the cameras, and emphasize “La” because of course the Latins could never imagine anyone in power being anything other than “El.” The language does not allow for a feminine president. Everyone laughs, so I say when she runs for office I promise to come back and work for her, and this injects instant sobriety. Before we head into the Lost World, I tell her, It’s up to you to save the jungle because your Dad and me and every other man in the world can’t do it. We shoot jaguars. It’s in our instincts. How many girls do you know go out and kill a jaguar? None, says Michelle, but I thought you said you were going to be a jaguar, too? I’m just dreaming, girl. I’m depending on you. The jaguars are depending on you. We shake hands again, solemn, two cats ready to kick out the dogs.
We leave for the tepui the next morning. Roraima. The magical setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World.” It is three days walking to reach the top, where it has its own biome, fogged and fringed with unknown fronds, and I go out for a walk alone to a swimming hole. We are the only people on the top, myself, a force of nature named Mara, our guide (Michelle’s daddy), and two porters, and I walk out of Venezuela into Guyana, on top of this slab of rock, and find a young woman with a bow and arrow and a smile. She speaks Spanish, and is waiting for an airplane to pass overhead so she can shoot it down with her poisoned arrows.
“Foreigners, miners, coming to take from the soil what they can sell as a cure for broken engines or bad skin or blood that won’t boil. I must stop them with magic.”
Her body is painted in a shaman’s patterns and though she looks young and nimble, sprite and fecund, she is ancient, older than any tree in the jungles below us stretching as far as they eye can see. She tells me secrets that I cannot repeat here, and I promise I will write about her only vaguely. What does she dream, this 127-year-old doctor from the trees? That somebody follows, or that she must hide to preserve her thoughts and private paths of being? Who wants to touch her? Why? She lives among the last unknown people on the planet. Is my city ready to force itself not to interfere, to leave the last bit of human wildness alone, softly sprouted in the petals and thorns adorning the river’s edge? What are the intellectuals planning to write when the last savage is tamed? What anthropologist can stop himself from parachuting into this undiscovered community to report how wild people think and fuck and eat breakfast? Who of us can resist the urge to be the explorer with firm chin and pointy mustache, opening the tombs of our imagination?
“In exchange for their youth and their prostate therapies, the foreigners want to give us everything they have, offices and gas stations, and all the rubbishy plastic packaging we need for the garbage they will sell us,” says the Shaman, as we swim in an enormous crystal lake, bejeweled with quartz and purple minerals even the Shaman cannot identify. “But we will also take all your trash, anything that glows, all your radioactive shit, if we can keep our paradise a paradise, and live in harmony with the seeds and the bees and the blooms, speaking the language of dolphins, reading the rhymes of the soil.”
It’s quite a choice. Can I give up my photoshop? Surrender my bright red shoes? Cellphone and Starfux, iTunes and baklava? Am I prepared for life in a jungle?
The shaman asks if I can imagine a new frontier, a new horizon, whatever cliché I wish to name it, where the point of discovery is not to know, not to look, not to grasp, but to imagine instead, and allow mystery to guide your footsteps and flavor your impulses. Can you do this, asks the shaman, can you deny your basic desire to acquire? I say to her:
“Our fingers itch, designed to pull triggers.”
She laughs and floats into the deep end of the pool, dives, disappears, and finds a tunnel that takes her to a private path off the rock, back to the river’s edge, where the tiny pink dolphins swim in tangerine waters.
I get back to the camp and do not tell Michelle’s Dad about my swim with the shaman. The father has a gift for me: he gives me a forbidden piece of quartz. Tourists are not allowed to take quartz out of Venezuela or off the top of Roraima. “It’s my land, not the government’s, so I can do what I wish,” he says simply, as he presses the quartz into my palm. I have the quartz still.
When we get back from the top of the Lost World, Michelle gives me the rainmaker she made. “To bring the rain, so the jaguars stay covered and out of sight of the guns,” she says. Often, I flip the rainmaker she gave me, it’s here in my studio, and the singing stick scares the hell out of my friends’ dogs, who run for their lives. I don’t hear raindrops. I hear a free cat’s snarl.
I tell Michelle a story about being in the jungles of the Peten, near a temple called Tikal, where human beings bundled their slaves into balls of string and let them roll down 200 stone steps to see how long it would be until they were nothing but broken bones, when they would be left in the sunshine to slowly expire as reminders of the power of their gods, and how I found a tiny zoo on the shores of a lake with three cages full of jaguars, and how the keeper told me about the wild jaguars coming in from the jungle at night to piss on the bars of the captured jaguars’ cages, to laugh in the faces of the jailed cats, take that, and I talked to my pal from Colorado who drove me to the zoo from the temple and got him all excited, so we went back and jumped the zookeeper. Kept a knee on his mouth so he couldn’t cry out, grabbed his keys and unlocked those padlocks and banged on the bars (with the keys! Making music like percussionists in Rumania!) until the orange cats speckled in black flashed out, silently, too scared to snarl, into the cool and dark forest, and I made sure to keep the keys as I drove away after the guy from Colorado told the zookeeper to keep his mouth shut at the price of his own breathing, and we drove through Flores and like bandits to the Belize border, hearts on our tongues, making our own escapes, wondering if those freed cats would make it in their old terrain, or had they got too fat and slack? And somewhere in a puddle by the side of the road to San Ignacio, those keys lie still, unable to work their padlocks, but probably replaced by another hardware. And this is your world, Michelle, where every jaguar has a home and a job and some baby cats to raise without letting them all get shot in the brains.
Little girl, in the Lost World, in the jungle, says “yes” and nods her head when I ask her if she understands me. Of course she does.
It worked. The king of chocolate built his tomb for himself and instructed his son to finish it upon the death of the father. Nobody knows the son’s name except archaeologists, but we know the king himself as Ah Cacao. The temple is called the Jaguar Temple by the gringo tourists, and the graces of this fantastic cat throughout the jungle in which the temple is isolated means that this modern label will stick: who cares about long ago kings?
At the last minute in the Imperial City, in a rush of choices, I decide to leave my heavy 14-24mm lens at home. This proves a fatal mistake, as we can see from the left-hand lower corner, where the picture blurs. And from the softness of the stars, even exposed for thirty seconds, and I spend my time clambering over the Mayan ruins cursing at my choice, until the seducion of my location reminds me to make the best of what I’ve got. At the moment that I press my trigger with this admonishment, Self, calm down and shoot straight with the tools you have at hand, a falling star rips through the stratosphere and adorns the picture. It’s not a star at all, of course, but a chunk of dust or a tiny rock, smaller than a grape, that causes the swift electric arc across our night skies, bringing the chance to wish wildly to every witness. Technically, these are meteors, or meteoroids, and only become meteorites when they land on the ground. A lady in Alabama was hit by one after it came through her roof and bounced off her radio, and a kid in Uganda was harmlessly clocked on the head by a bit of space dust after it tore through the fronds of a banana tree. I make no wish when I see this one, though, since I am in the trance of the temple.
This is Tikal, as dramatic an ancient civilization as any on Earth. Set deep in the second-largest jungle in the western hemisphere, it is made up of 4,000 buildings in a city that fought with Calakmul for supremacy in the Mayan culture. This particular building was built before the Vikings existed, three centuries before William the Conqueror and all that, six hundred years before the Renaissance, 800 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and more than 900 years before construction started on the Taj Mahal. The Jaguar Temple is an amazement in every sense of time: the past is so unknown and yet coughs up its secrets to any willing explorer, the present is so lovely in the journey required to get here through sweltering jungle and imperfect tourism services, and the future so gratifying to think that Tom Cruise a decade after he is dead will be known by nobody. Perhaps somebody can look him up electronically, as we can find a line about the soon of Ah Cacao, but nobody will care to search. Dizzy fans of celebrity protest: but who knows Douglas Fairbanks or Joseph Cotton, and who will know Sophia Loren or Bill Clinton or Damien Hirst or any other fool who acts in the name of posterity midway through the next generation’s expiry? You teach a few teenagers and you realize nobody gives a rat’s ass about Frank Sinatra or Hedy Lamar soon enough. These sorts of thoughts bombard me as I work my camera in shocking darkness. I am headed into the same void that claims every thinking existence, the inevitable disaster of Never Having Been. This picture, and its frothy essay, is my shout against oblivion, I suppose, my own small protest at my impending doom irrelevance. But that’s not my point.
The moment unpolluted by the drag of other moments creates a joy that is discharged slowly by the battery of your personality. By trekking no matter how hazardly into the bush to bask in the wonder of the past, you are swallowing a radioactive impression that escapes through your smiles and sighs in the company of the people who wish to hold your hand or feel your hot breath on their necks. Climbing the steep Mayan steps for better purchase of an image, you coil the energy of your intentions into that battery of Self, and the dreams and schemes that come out as the electricity of ambition provide a beacon fro both friend and stranger: Look who is coming, a dreamer, prepare a cup of hot chocolate!
And let me tell you, before coming here, I didn’t want to. My plate is full. The fatigue of promise keeps my feet glued to my routines. Like the soldier who wakes up in dread, I plead “Please Mr. Custer I don’t wanna go.” What wipeout do I fear on the roads that have been so kind to me all my life? Spearpoint, knifepoint, gunpoint, judgepoint, you name it and I have been there, but most of my scars have come from soccer. Is the reluctance to go really just trepidation of new experiences, or of new promises? Or is it a performance anxiety borne from knowing there is only so much time in every battery, no matter how it’s powered, and that in fact the stars that burn brightest die quickest, and that I should crawl like a lizard into the shadows of a comfy rock and count the moments left to me and my quizzical nature? Because I know I cannot come to Tikal and fondle the tomb of Ah Cacao in the name of my favorite cat, the Jaguar, without making more promises, without burdening the kite of my flight with more useless cargo, more witless accomplishments of camera or marketing, all in the name of paying for my lunch.
And here is one more “and”: And let me tell you, I am at the point where the lunches come freely and I grow ever more reluctant to eat.
I am the shyest person who ever lived. To compensate for this, I’ve developed an outsized personality that is almost circus-like in its impact on an audience. If I choose to be, I am always the most intense personality in the room, but only if I can crawl out of that shy skin I still wear. And as I sense my time dwindling, without any hope for god or heaven to extend the thrill of being, I cannot waste my energy on being the act that entertains while I could be creating in private. The loom of death and nothing means that I am addicted to cheat it by creating. If we thought about what being dead means, we would be shattered into a horrified panic, and the infantile religions we take out as insurance would be ballast heaved overboard as we strike out for new shores of expression, of love, of anger, of beauty and murder. So I am becoming more hermit-like at just the moment I have chosen to put these writings into the public. Why?
I’ve made movies and musicals and shot more than a million photographs and written 75 songs and made TV commercials and documentaries, all to avoid writing. The investment needed to write is enormous, an ongoing cost (or waste) of time. You’re a reader, or you wouldn’t have got this far, so you know what I’m talking about: one book inevitably leads to a dozen others, and you can spend a life reading and still not have drunk enough wisdom from everyone who ruined their existence by writing. My anxious sense of timing, of forever as this thing that goes on for millions and millions of eons, a gazillion years of never having been, of no conversation or kisses or music or chocolate, demands that I live now as much as I can, so I have moved through more than 80 nations in various states of adventure, looking for some truth I can share in a few minutes of creativity, or finding new voices to paraphrase and promote, look at this movie or listen to this song or read this amazing story and wake up, enchanted, to make the people you love better citizens of the most beautiful place in the Universe, the Earth, fat mother.
But through all the travels and the books I’ve consumed there has always been a promise to get the writing done, wrapped up and completed in a chunk that can be called a book or even just a story. In 2008 alone, I promised myself on the first day of the year to write one million words by year’s end. A novel is 75,000 words, an epic is over 200,000 words, and Tolstoy’s silly War and Peace is a half million words, and here I was hoping to write a million. I counted up every note and every story, and in 2008 I reached over 730,000 words. The verbal flow for 30 years has been astonishing, but it doesn’t mean it’s any good. Except that the intake has been equally prodigious: bits of five different books every week for 25 years has its lasting impact on curiosity and imagination. And I had no problem completing things, even if I gave the impression sometimes of always coming up with new material and abandoning solid ideas for the shiny possibilities of the unknown. And furthermore, I was trained in journalism in the best possible ways starting at age 16 and continuing as a freelance writer until I gave up the journalism for art at age 30. The result of all this has been an enormous catalog of written creativity that I’ve kept to myself while pursuing the easier and more immediate rewards of composing songs or shooting movies or taking photographs. And as I go through that catalog in bursts of interest, I find pieces of writing that shock me, even as the writer himself, partly because I can’t remember what I wrote and partly because the voice of how I wrote still seems so full of vim and vigor. And as a reader, I find that voice stretched comfortably over a wide variety of themes and styles, and this is the spark that brings me to the keyboard to collect some raw writing to put out to readers who don’t want the cynical gloss of romance or real-life adventure that comes with the warning of ‘Don’t try this at home.’ Publishers want us to remain spectators, and at the heart of everything I write is counsel to the reader that if you get out of your nook and talk to strangers about your own curiosities then my experiences could happen to you, and this is always the reaction I get from whomever reads me: I am speaking to you about something you already feel.
Writers go back through our memories when we smell bread baked a certain way, or when a certain song comes on the radio, and we think, instantly, like this:
On my second day in Beirut I get in a taxi and go to the neighborhood south of the Corniche to look for the building in which my family lived. All the buildings look familiar, and they all have something missing. I find the pillar which I walked into when I was six or seven and ripped open my eyebrow, when Maurice the concierge carried me in his arms up to the sixth floor and home. Clear as a bell I remember the mask of gas placed over my face and the smiling doctor who stitched me up, and the weird pale green of the walls in the American Hospital where my youngest sister was delivered. I use the word delivered instead of born because to this day I refuse to admit she is human; dropped from outer – outtest – space, my littlest sister is an alien too strange even for this book. And now that I think of her I’m looking for the sidewalk and the road where Smokey got run over by the truck when I was playing with a ball of some kind, and I think I find the place and the chills go over all over me remembering the way the dog licked the alien’s hand even as his life ebbed out of his squished little body. Where was the balcony where my sister Nicole stood crying, saying “Goodbye Smokey,” with the hills south of Beirut in the background?
And my childhood in Beirut is not easily found, because of war and snipers as well as real estate developers, so when I return there I look for my nanny, a German girl who could never leave, so that I might write something about being a ten-year-old, devastated by my parents’ horrific separation and the kidnapping and the Reward ad in the Herald Tribune that ran for years while my father took me and my sisters into hiding, and missing more than anything the company of the women who raised me quiet apart from my mother, who was not designed for parenting:
I tell my friends when they ask me Where Next that I am on my way to Beirut, and they freeze in mock shock. Beirut? Lebanon? Are you kidding me? Why? What can I say? The truth? That the novel I went to Mexico to write kicked my ass and spat me out? That I have too much money to be the way I was when I was broke and the fire raged in my belly? That I have become addicted to the moment and no longer respect the process, that I can create right here in the Now but only with explosive metaphors or cunning aphorisms in my hands, and not with the mortar and patience of literature?
I’d like to have a party and burn a hundred grand in front of my friends and say, Lookit, my chains are aflame, but I wonder who would get it and who would think, What a bloody shame because that cash could bribe away a lot of my own problems. Striking that match would ignite a vein of my character which I have lately ignored while I pursue filthy money. I was lucky that the lies and exaggerations of my life mellowed into vivid stories with age. Somewhere in the evolution of each story was a seed of truth, and for a while it looked as if I could survive off these kernels, as though I were reading what I sowed. But now I cannot deny that I pull the wool over the fact that I am living with all the purpose of a jellyfish. And the tides of profit are only fooling me, washing me against a purposeless shore. Literature was to be my vessel of escape, but I have scuttled that boat and beached a few dreams, which I’d promised when the cancer came almost ten years ago that I would never do.
But of course I don’t say anything like this when I am asked “Where next?” I stand there like a minstrel caked with the mud of faraway places, stellar in my own puny theatre. Why, I am off to Beirut to find my nanny I haven’t seen in thirty years and to write about my weird childhood as the son of a gentleman spy and maybe finish my memoir so I can brag my life has not been an empty exercise of greed and survival!
(Actually, I don’t say anything more than the bit about the nanny I haven’t seen in thirty years, and this has impact enough. The reply usually boils to two astonishments: You lived in Beirut? You had a nanny?)
But only a few years pass before I write somebody who asks about traveling in Central or South America and wonders where I might advise her to go, and I cannot help giving advice as a writer would, with poisoned bard aimed at his own spine in an effort to write as he should in a longer form than a letter. Because I am a sprinter, I write fast and on fire, but to what end, for what purpose? The reader of this wondered, too:
You wrote that I seemed to have “the art of living down,” and you cannot imagine how convoluted my life is. I am still relying on cunning and charm to succeed, but paying an awful price, since the diamond in the jewelry of my creative skills still escapes me. When do I break away from the details of my existence to spend my time on myself, and with myself? It is absurd to think I need to travel to some far off beach or mountain to write what boils me inside. So why don’t I sit and sustain my urges and make a book like no other, a book which links love and time to energy and imagination? Why do I rush off to see the gorillas again, speed away to Iceland to make a movie about an assassin in and out of her clothes like Jane Fonda in Barbarella, agree to represent a Czech singer who I want to make a cross of Isaac Hayes and Nora Jones? So I took a guitar into the Congo to give to a pygmy, big deal. So I am becoming the fantasy for a pin-up internet model who is the fantasy to millions, who cares? So I am an angel to the singer, so what? Except that I adore all these things, and am addicted to experiencing and expressing them.
But then my advice to her to head for the thick wilds of the Amazon provides another brilliant short sprint, tied to Beirut, the place that I am from but can no longer find, and to one of the world’s oddest crossroads where mighty rivers meet in the middle of a jungle we are hacking to pieces but is still in many ways impenetrable:
In Tabatinga in the Amazon in a town where everybody had a gun but me, I needed to change a hundred bucks and found myself in a building filled with ten thousand bottles of one kind of shampoo, interrupting a transaction between bored-looking men trading heaps of money (with their guns politely leaned against the wall), with Ali the head guy looking me over before asking in accented Spanish, ‘Is it true you are from Lebanon?’ and when I told him my childhood had indeed been spent in the glory years of the Paris of the Middle East, he immediately sent out the bored-looking men and told me the story of his life for two whole days, at times crying, at times laughing, offering me drinks but not touching a drop himself and at one point, talking about his mother, he simply began to weep and covered his face in his hands and I realized he was trapped in this absurd confluence of river and coca leaf and moreover had never been to Lebanon himself, despite being Lebanese. While he wept I told myself to Shut up and be stoic and when he wants to you’ll get the rest of the story, and finally I did: His mother had left him here in the jungle and in the rainfall, and had gone back to the Cedars to drop dead, and he was alone in the world without a passport or family, and I learned then that it doesn’t matter if somebody speaks Arabic or Amharic but you’d better be able to hear everybody as a human being, especially when their smiles and eyes leak telltale squeaks of pain. Ali would not let me spend a dime in the Amazon, and got me onto a mail carrier that barely cleared the trees but got me to Iquitos, and when I tried to give him the original hundred bucks in exchange for his bagful of cruzeiros he waved it away in irritation. “I am not a moneychanger,” he told me. “I am your friend.”
These tiny pieces, tacked onto this collection of stories, a collection meant to test the new front row electronic books you can buy for a couple of bucks, represent far larger works in each instance. I’ve got a dozen novels and two dozen memoirs tucked away in binders, and then there is the recent stream of wonders about the aurora borealis and traveling in the Arctic and the odd love affairs that have left deep scars still enjoyable to touch since the pain brings back memory, just like the smell of baking bread or the sound of a favorite melody. I am a writer, speaking, and have never been that terrible opposite, a speaker, writing. Even as a teenager I sneered at the older editors at McGraw-Hill, where I worked, taking a sabbatical to go into the woods to write the next great American novel before coming back to their jobs empty-handed and just as half-witted: How can you sit down to write if you haven’t stood up to live?
I sent out an e-mail the other night to my list of pals, the subject of which was writing and going away – going somewhere else – to do it, and of course a flood of responses came back with admissions of fear of writing. I’m not sure there is anything more distasteful than writing, whether heroic prose or a business correspondence. Why would anyone choose to make verbal expression a way of life when there is so much to absorb, so much to touch and feel? Remember that Indian dinner we had with my friend Vas, when we talked about reading, and I made my little speech about how the benefits of reading are so tangible, so undeniable and heavy, and yet the cost so steep? I’ve found myself listening to time ticking as I read, and find myself more reluctant to pay the price for the fruits of literature and knowledge, and wishing I could stay more in the moment. I watched a pair of butterflies swirl around the garden yesterday, my last day in my writer’s paradise for at least two weeks, and found myself appreciating their aerial dance in words and symbols, rather than as, literally, a ballet of nature. Thinking ruined the encounter, because I can’t shake the self from my thoughts. Watching the butterflies yesterday was always: “I am watching butterflies mate,” and “do butterflies mate,” instead of simply empty fascination, the way nature was for me for years and years, through the Galapagos and the Serengeti and the Amazon. The nuances of flight, the tiny differences of body language among butterflies have become too difficult to grasp; I’m left with newspaper headlines, “Butterflies Mate While Writer Toils at Desk and Screen.” Then even this sort of insight is immediately attached by thousands of others, strands of imagination adhering like weeds to the riverbank while the experience of the moment flows by, a harmless water on its way back to the sky.
And yet just days ago I waxed on about the ignition, the cognition, the pistons of creativity, of how I love the process. Art is never in the profits, but always in the process – my little motto, worn around the collar of my dreams like a cat’s bell. I am only pretending to leap after the prey, only pretending to be hungry; I’d much rather spend the day scaring the hell out of little birds! Under the volcano, writing for my life as I am doing now, is meant to be a commercial test, a litmus of my relativity to the entertainment marketplace. I am certainly under no illusions that the chief goal here is writing for writing’s sake (or for the writer’s sake). The purpose is clear: Can I say something with resonance, a keepsake? Can I write something that sells? This prostitution of the process I love so much bothers me not one bit. Perhaps because I am my only client, my own john, but also perhaps because I’m comfortable enough with the flow of words to open up a shop and put them out for sale. And this is the razor’s edge I’ve chosen to live on for the next few months, knowing full well however I am sliced and divided is just fine with me, as profiteer or processor, it doesn’t matter.
And that last section was written ten years ago, and what I wrote then I never put out for sale. I love to read them now, the words I sat down to write after having sprinted so much to live, because the ingredients of my lifetime are so densely packed, so vividly remembered and so rhythmically joined, a little world of my own making, a tiny existence that anyone who peers into it can recognize as a longing for longer time and wider spaces and deeper loves. These traps we put ourselves in and then pretend to be keyless! We howl our poetries about escape, but must admit that we enjoy the comforts of our limits. Sushi, Starbucks, plastic containers by the dozen every day, we are measured as consumers, but creativity, the raw stuff, the words that wound us or give us wonder, are what we crave most, the escapes we have always imagined.
In the Imperial City, September 2016
Version 3.3 (May 2019)