Monday, March 30, 2009

The things we say in bars. The way we use the phone. The things we say to teachers and to strangers on the street. Our body language at the museum. The things we say to plumbers and the things we say in planes. The things we write in instant messages. The way we talk to doctors. The things we tell each other when we're standing in the weeds outside a broken-down bus in Texas. The way we talk to children. The way we write in e-mails and the things we write in blogs. The things we talk about when it's time for bed. The way we text. The things we say in elevators and the way we talk to cops. The way we interact with car mechanics. The words we use in conference rooms and the things we say to waiters. The things we write on Facebook. The things we say in court. The things we say to ourselves. Everything we don't say.
I remember observing a couple on their first date at Kathy John's. He was burly, musclebound. She was slim, girlish, attractive. She ordered hot fudge, I'm not kidding. An entire fucking parfait glass filled to the top with hot, brown goo. It was the most disgusting thing I'd ever seen in my entire life and it must have contained 12,000 calories. He ordered a cheeseburger with bacon.

"Bacon on top? Where did you ever get that idea!?" she asked. This was in probably around 1982, before the great bacon cheeseburger revolution of the late '80s and the advent of the bacon cheeseburger era in which we now live.

"It's something I got used to having in the Army," he said. Honest to Christ, that's what he said. Can you make that type of shit up? No. He told her he got used to having bacon on his cheeseburgers when he was in the Army.

She coyly dipped her slender spoon into the chocolate muck and made sure to get a frothy dab of Reddi Wip on top. She plunged it between her pretty lips and pulled it out, leaving a slick, dark stain of goopy residue in the silver concavity. She held it like a lollipop and licked it clean, giggling. It was unclear whether she was laughing at him and his wacky taste in cheeseburger toppings or at herself for being so cute. It was a formidable quantity of unalloyed fudge.

Where are they now?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We spent Sunday at the horses. Syrupy, golden sunshine penetrated everything. There was a wind, and within it was the ghost of a chill.

"It's almost never like this in LA," Jesse said. "Sunny and windy like this."

Jesse pointed out the art deco magnificence of the grandstand and I tried to imagine how many men had wasted their lives in there, evading wives and children, looking for that one big win. Southern Californian men of the 20th century: migrant farm workers, lowlife barflies, stuntmen and junkie cabaret musicians. But good things happen too.

I drank gin and tonics and bet like a fool.

Suddenly you hear the horses when they turn into the stretch. You're momentarily ashamed that you've been gaping at the mute and sterile screen. You hear the pounding of their hooves and you can almost feel it. The vain and pleading hollers of the crowd.

We were in the infield, where there was a playground. We bet and watched and read the form and bet and watched. Odds shifting on the board. Always a scratch or two. The starting gate reappearing somewhere on the track. The kids held races of their own.

It was over and we walked back out the tunnel. Below the grandstand, men sat in disordered groups and watched the last remaining off-track races. Exhausting all their chances, putting off their journey home.
The flight out of JFK early on Saturday morning had a distinctly LA vibe. A commuter plane of Angelenos returning to their sunny home after the dutiful completion of errands back east. I spotted a woman I knew ages ago, when the band played New York City. She's an actress who's succeeded in the margins; she's just famous enough so that you'd probably recognize her but you'd never know her name. I made eye contact at the coffee stand but she betrayed no recognition at all. It's funny the people you see.

I watched the line to the Jetway, waiting for them to call my group. There was a very fat black man, shuffling and lurching in his orthopedic shoes. He pushed a wheelchair that was loaded with bric-a-brac, bag lady style. He was speaking into a Bluetooth earpiece.

"Sir, are you going to check that?" an airline employee asked.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, and returned to his phone conversation. I listened in.

"Yeah, so listen. I'm with a rapper who's having problems with dem 5150 boys. That's Tony Yayo's crew. He with G-Unit."

I looked around for the rapper. Eventually he sauntered up, a fairly inconspicuous youth, and took his place beside the fat man.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Planes taxied spectrally in the darkness out the window of Gladstone's at Los Angeles International Airport. A montage of NASCAR crashes played in the sky, reflecting a television high above the bar. The woman to my right ordered a gin and tonic. The bartender, a matronly woman who had once tried to act, asked for her ID.

"They make me ask everyone," she said apologetically.

"I'm two and a half times legal," the woman said.

"I'm three times legal."

A knife rested on the floor, blade pointing away from the dirty table where it belonged.

I peered out at the engine through the grated window up near where the Jetway met the plane, the turbine turning in the wind. Coming to a halt. Turning a little more. No one talks to you on airplanes anymore.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Binoculars

It was sometimes unclear if it was worth it. I peered through the binoculars, trying not to wobble them too much. When I did, they'd suddenly frame some strange and nameless space, a random sector in the field of shadows. Sometimes the view would eclipse entirely, that black circle with the slightly luminescent edge. I finally got a good bead on the screen when Jennifer tugged my arm.

"It's my turn," she said.

I handed over the binoculars. My eyes needed a rest anyway.

"What's on next?"


"Oooh! I love Seinfeld!" she said.

I got up off the couch and walked toward the other end of our railroad flat, where the fucked up RCA TV sat blaring on the torn foam cushion of a kitchen chair. I found it on the street a while back, took it up and plugged it in. We couldn't wait to know what could be wrong. Sure enough the volume knob was broken, stuck on ten. But we were too mad and lazy not to watch it.

I was about halfway down when I thought I perceived Jennifer addressing me. I turned around and there she was, mouth in motion, binoculars in one hand, waving with the other. In the din I imagined her complaining that I blocked her line of sight. I sidled to the wall theatrically, like a housebreaker in movies, or an escapee. I glanced over my shoulder to verify this satisfied her.

"Come back!" she yelled. "Come back!"

I walked back and sat back down and put my ear up to her mouth.

"Can you make me some toast?" she asked.

"Some English toasting bread toast?" I said. English toasting bread was the only type of bread we ever bought. And bread was the only food we ever bought. And sometimes strawberry jam.

"Yes. With jam if we have some."

I walked back toward the kitchen and the television's ceaseless, angry din. I put the toasting bread into the toaster and went to take a piss. When I emerged I saw down to the two glass eyes in darkness, gleaming slightly from the distant screen. The broken-ass TV was so loud I thought it might explode. I scraped the bottom of the jam jar and got just enough to cover one slice. I took the plate back out the kitchen, through the den and through the study, to the bedroom. Jennifer sat cross-legged on the bed, binoculars to her eyes.

"I dunno if it's worth it anymore," I told her as I handed her the plate of toast.

"Thank you, honey. Worth what anymore?"

"This. With the TV and the binoculars."

She took a bite of toast and thought for a moment.

"What are we supposed to do?"

"I don't know."

"Let's do the rest of our junk," she said.

"OK. After dinner," I said.

We finished our toast and I tapped the rest of the open bag out on the jewel case. Then I opened up our last bag and emptied that one, too. Kramer made a grand, swooping entrance. I cut the heroin into two little lines with my license and handed it to Jennifer to snort through a cut-off straw. She did hers and handed it back to me and I did mine. We pinched our noses to trap the flakes against our membranes, directing them to eager capillaries. We wiped up all the residue with the tips of our fingers and licked them, and we each tore open one of the little glassine bags and tongued the inside, making sure to get the creases, to savor each and every tiny bitter speck.

I began to relax fast. Was it the drug's effect or the anticipation of the drug's effect, and if it was the anticipation, was the anticipation better than the thing itself, in this as in so many other things?

"Do me a favor," I said.


"Every time I walk in the door, laugh uproariously and applaud."

"I'll do anything for you."

"I'm going to vomit."

I made the long walk toward the light and sound again.

I took a knee by the toilet, here we go again. A pleasant, cooling sweat formed on my brow. My mouth, my face, my arms aglow with pleasure. I was pretty sure I must be in the very arms of God. Suddenly, the chyme flowed up and out my mouth, not erupting so much as emerging. I directed it into the bowl: good, loving, beautiful vomit. Such sweet nausea. Such a soft, cool hand on my back.

I brushed my teeth.

When I got back to the end of the apartment, Jennifer was high enough to talk about kicking again.

"I'm pretty sure I want to kick tomorrow, Jim," she said.

"I do too, baby."

"You promise? Let's promise."

"I promise."

"I promise, too."

She got up.

"Wow, it feels good to stand up."

"Feels good to sit down, too," I said.

She laughed and climbed onto my lap, her knees wobbling precariously on top of my thighs. We clasped our hands together and she tried to balance. Soon enough, she fell.

We sat awhile in the dark. I had a half dream we were on a train. I knew where we were going but I didn't know. I knew it would be beautiful, that we'd have jobs we loved and we'd have friends; we'd have a big back porch that faced the woods and river. But I didn't know where it was.

When I came to I realized Jennifer had been speaking.

"Sorry, what?"

"I said what did you mean before, it's not worth it?"

"I guess I mean the TV. And the binoculars. Don't you think?"

"I think."

"I've got an idea, check it out. I could tear the speaker out from the fucking thing."

"And watch silent TV?" she asked, intrigued.

"And watch silent TV. Or -"


"Or. I could put the fucking TV back on the sidewalk."

She let some facts and figures play in her head.

"Put the TV on the sidewalk," she said after some time.


In the morning I did what I said I'd do, feeling a strange sort of sadness but proceeding all the same. When I got back upstairs Jennifer was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a piece of plain English toasting bread toast.

"You know what I was thinking?" she said.


"Now that we don't need the binoculars, we can pawn them and buy some dope."

"You're right. That's great. That's a great, great idea," I said.

"It's just that, I know I'm not ready to kick. I know that in myself. I'll know when I'm ready, and I'm not ready."

"You sure?" I asked.

"Jesus, I don't know," she said.

"Because I agree," I said.

"Let's make this the last dope we buy," she said, suddenly brightening.

"That's a very good idea, baby. The last dope we buy."

I went back to the bedroom and got the binoculars. I brought them back and wrapped the leather strap around the middle section and set them on the kitchen table. Gingerly. Guiltily. I went to pour some coffee. When I turned around again, Jennifer had the binoculars and was looking through them out the window.

"Do you see anything out there?" I asked.

"Hmm... not much," she said, scanning slowly from left to right. What I saw was a gray and blighted burrough, roofs and windows, cars and trucks below.

"Wow!" she said suddenly.


"Now I see something!" she said.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I was settling my father's estate in the assistant manager's office at the Chinatown branch of the very big bank. The assistant manager was scrupulous and cheerful. Resting on his credenza were a number of framed certificates from marathons he'd run: Atlanta. Philadelphia. Three hours and forty-seven minutes something. Signed by Mayor Street.

There was also a pile of pamphlets promoting the very big bank's credit card customer loyalty program. There were three messages in italics on the front of the pamphlets:

Shop online and watch as your savings add up.

Save automatically as you spend.

Use your credit card to earn cash back.

I was struck by the oxymoronic nature of these commands. We like to think we've come a long way, baby, since advertisers told us cigarettes were healthy. We like to think we once were treated like children - or worse, rubes - but that now they'd better all watch what they're doing, boy. In fact, we might've regressed to a yet more infantile state. They once had the gall to lie to us about what we didn't know - that smoking kills. Now they have the audacity to lie to us about what any child would know.

Shop online and watch as your savings add up.

Now they realize they can dispense with such subtleties as the spurious argument, the logical fallacy, the bogus expert. No more straining, no more unseemly exertions: someone had the bright idea that it'll all go better if they boldly, unblinkingly tell us the craziest nonsense they can.

Save automatically as you spend.

This, somehow, is what we're can't resist. Try to reason with us in bad faith and we'll shame you, scold you, ride you out of town on a rail. But tell us something crazy, something obviously totally fucking wrong and we're suddenly mesmerized, slack-jawed and drooling.

Use your credit card to earn cash back.

For Christ's sake.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

We sat in genteel postures around the conference room table. We had the Avenue of the Americas up and down outside and 52nd Street from side to side. There was something on the screen, a spreadsheet or a slide. There was text, and maybe numbers, too. We spoke, mindful to employ the syntax of white-collar politesse, with its tortured, passive-aggressive locutions.

Suddenly an electrical worker barged in, stood near the foot of the table, and fiddled with the wiring in the center power module. He was utterly oblivious to us or to the facts and figures now projected on his navy jacket. He appeared to be operating within another dimension, a figure from dreams or myth. The very molecules of his being may well have been vibrating in and out of reality at a different frequency than ours and it seemed entirely possible that we were invisible to him.

Protocol dictated that the owner of the meeting acknowledge the curious disruption with a disfluency of her choice followed by a clearing of the throat and, optionally, a smile accompanied by a goofy widening of the eyes, and she obliged.

The worker held a device of some kind, wires dangling. He probed the depths of the table with sensors and scrutinized the readout screen. Once satisfied, he left the room without a word or so much as a glance.

Medical Equipment I Have Seen

The Den-Tal-Ez AS3000.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

It starts out like a little, wheezy cough. It grows into an apprehension of frailty, a faint dizziness. My face and forehead are hot now and when I feel them it feels good and it feels good and suddenly I feel my pulse from inside and from out; I feel it beating on my hands and fingers.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I Was the One Who Left Open the Door

The elevator stopped and the door opened for a young Asian woman to walk in. Without thinking I walked out. I did not recognize the lobby as the same place I'd entered two hours ago. The hallway seemed unfinished. Walls patchily painted, floor scuffed and plaster-dusted. An undulating plywood sculpture lay on its side before me. A sign on a gray door bore a curious word I can't remember. Oxygen? Imagine?

I walked to the exit door down the hall and pushed the bar, expecting to emerge in an alley or on the street behind the building. Instead I was surrounded by the city, buildings up and down and in the distance, cars and people far below between the black slats of a fire escape. I tried to close the door again but couldn't. It stuck against the jamb and wouldn't latch. I left it like that and walked back to the elevator. I wondered if the elevator wouldn't come. I wondered if I'd been thrust sideways out of time and space, never to reenter. The elevator came. But I was the one who left open the door.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Hey Joe

While watching "The Future Is Unwritten," Julian Temple's documentary about Joe Strummer, it struck me to what degree rebellion, expressions of anomie and so-called countercultural movements are actually collaborations between the oppressive and the oppressed, between tyranny and freedom, between the mainstream and the margins. To think of these forces as antagonistic is almost absurd. They rely on each other, they desire each other. They need each other.

Hey Joe: Those dilapidated council flats - they weren't boarded up to keep you out, they were boarded up to invite you in. Society's inequities beg for the cleansing fire of scorn and ridicule, and society created you for just that purpose. The bourgeois in their cozy little homes, they know they're in for it. They wouldn't open up the paper if they didn't, dontcha know. They'd hardly recognize themselves but for you. They're grateful, though this little game does not permit them to admit it. Look how vital and alive the dreary city seems when a clutch of punks animates its ghastly, concrete paths. The cars, the cops, the buildings. The money and the food. They're not your antagonists in this play, they're your props. Downpressor man? He invented you to kill him. It's the ugliness in the world that lets you make it beautiful, the horror that lets you be the hero, the evil that lets you do good. This world was made for you, and you make it whole. But I think you knew that anyway. I think you found it out. I think you thought it was a bad thing, and that's why you ran away. But maybe it wasn't a bad thing.