Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Very Good Day

For the past few years, I've been spending most holidays by myself. I don't like them, have a tendency to become anti-social. If I am ever rich and famous I will spend the requisite moneys to hire a shrink and learn from where my aversion stems. But that's not really important.

I had a wonderful Christmas eve. Went to an AA meeting that was SRO, which always happens around the holidays. Family, expenses, expectations all take their toll on alcoholics in recovery or not, and the holidays bring out both the best and worst of us all.

I changed the strings on my pedal steel guitar, all 20 of them, and re-tuned the damn thing. That occupied 90 minutes. I fooled around with some music-recording software and figured something out, and that made me feel very smart. I wrote a couple of pages of a novel I'm working on, did household chores and gave thanks that I was not in Bethesda, Maryland, where I lived years ago. A giant water main broke there, flooding roads qand carrying cars away. Thankfully, no lives where lost. I understand it made the top of Fox news nationally..

I wondered about the stupidity of some home-grown terrorists who decided to have a training video transferred onto DVD. They gave it to the engineer at the shop offering this service, and the young man, a high-schooler, took one look at the tape, heard gunshots and Arabic and called the cops. The bad guys were arrested. I wondered why the bad guys were convicted just yesterday when the incident happened in 2006.

I read that Obama exercises 90 minutes a day, and find that laudable. I cooked a superlatively good two-inch-thick filet mignon without burning it, (four minutes a side in the broiler, then four minutes in the oven) then watched an Englishmen (particularly sweet, that) making faces as he ate giant worms in Africa.I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated from the French and highly recommended to anyone who wants to deride Kant and/or the utter silliness ofphenomenology.

I drove around and thought I am amazingly lucky. I have friends and people who care for me. I live in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the wealthiest area in the country. The country, despite the recent economic downturn, remains the standard that most other countries aspire to. So I am blessed.

Thanks to all, and to all Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Animists, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Taoists, agnostics, atheists, and any and all other I may be overlooking, I wish you the best of the day and the season.

Here's installment 61 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 15

Colin dropped Catherine at her house. She hadn’t spoken much on the way back from Mamadou Dioh’s garage, had merely said that she liked the man, asked Colin, “Do you really think he can help?”
Colin had nodded. “He knows a lot of people. Washington’s a small town.”
He caught the last half of a meeting at the Serenity Club, bought a plastic container full of salad and a ham steak at the Giant. In his mind he planned an early evening--a quick workout, food, an hour or two ambling the Net. Weights and the Web, then sleep.
As he came through the door to his apartment, something stunningly heavy hit him across the forehead. He staggered, dropped the Giant bag. A second blow caught him just above the navel. He coughed, vomited. A fist bounced into the back of his head.
When he came to someone had a handful of his hair, holding his head upright. A voice said, "Looka that! Man done puked on my shoes! On my shoes... Man, that's disgustin’. Brand new shoes, my Momma gave ‘em to me for my birthday. That's white man puke and now I'm gonna have to throw those mothers out. Ain't nothin’ more revoltin’ than white man puke..."
Colin felt a sharp ache, confusion. He wanted to say he was sorry, because he was. If someone had puked on his shoes, he would have been unhappy too. Especially if they were brand new and his mother had given them to him. It was a terrible, insensitive thing to do. He opened his mouth to apologize but the hand jerked at his hair, stretched his neck, slammed his jaw shut.
"Whaddya tryin to do," the voice said, "get me mad? Get me angry? Ain't pukin’ on my shoes enough? You just shut the fuck up, hear? Else I'm gonna make you eat them shoes, puke and all"
But it seemed important to tell the voice how sorry he was so he tried anyway. His efforts were rewarded by another sharp tug, followed this time by a gentle slap.
"Yo! You ain't hearin’ me, man? You don't seem to understand: what we have here is a precarious situation." The voice--it was a man’s--pronounced it "preecarious," with the accent on the first syllable. It didn't seem wise to correct him.
"Very precarious," he repeated. "Cause, see, I'm just this far from really bein’ pissed off over my shoes and all, and you ain't doin’ nothin’ to make me feel better. And I don’ think Harold likes you much either."
A very large presence swam into view, a broad expanse of tight black shirt over what seemed acres of chest and belly. A second voice, deeper than the first, said, "Man! Yore shoes is a mess. I wouldn't put my feet in those shoes for money."
Colin couldn't understand why they wouldn't let him say he was sorry. He'd replace the shoes, buy the man a new pair if it made him feel better. He tried to move his hands, to show he understood how the man felt, but his wrists seemed to be tied to... He was seated straddling the torture machine from Wards. Belts held his wrists to the crossbar, which was loaded with every weight plate he owned.
The deeper voice said, "Maybe the man's got a pair you can take. Looks to be about the same size feet."
The first voice bristled with disgust. "You want me to wear white man’s shoes? You crazy? Put my feet in some sorry fucka’s shoes that’s probably got some sort of white foot disease? Rot your feet off or something. Naw, man, this boy’s gonna buy me a new pair o’ shoes.”
A hand groped at his pockets, removed his wallet. There was the small tinkling sound of something metal hitting the floor.
“Yo. What’s this?” Howard held the large brass coin up to Colin eyes.
Colin said, “Chip.”
Howard held it up to the light. “Worth anythin’?”
Colin tried to shake his head. “No. Chip. AA chip.”
Howard addressed Harold. “Now the man’s stutterin’. A--a chip. A--a chip of what?”
With his free hand, Harold took the chip from Howard. “AA. Alcoholic’s Anonymous. That’s what this is. Whoo! Looka this, boy’s got seven years of no drinking. My dad had one like this, only it was for one year, and I know the sorry motha lied, he was nevah sober that long.” He handed it back to Howard.
Howard asked, “So it’s ain’t worth nothin’?”
“Not to us.”
“Well, sheeyit.” Howard tossed the chip away, it hit a wall, bounced on the floor. “So how’s he gonna buy me new shoes?”
Harold grunted, said, "Let's forget the shoes, awright? Let's just ask this nice man a couple of questions, find out what we wanna find out. Cause I got other things to do than stand around in a room that smells like puke."
The hand holding Colin’s head up found a new grip on the hair, pulled at it painfully. "OK, lissen up. Watcha wanta know about the Zulu’s lady friend? Why you asking all these questions? You ask us questions, we can probably tell you everything you want to know..."
Colin croaked, "Josie?"
Harold said, "Yeah, Josie. The white girl. You been all over town asking about her, about that dumb fucka Herbie. What's you're problem?"
Colin took a deep breath. His ribs hurt. His eyes were still looking at the first man's sullied shoes. "Herbie? He’s dead."
Harold dropped to a squat so his face and Colin’s were on the same level. "Well, no shit. Course he's dead. If he weren't dead, we'd be someplace else than here and Howard's shoes wouldn't be all messed up. What I want to know is, what do you want with poor old Herbie? He done something to you? Owe you money? Owe you dope, maybe?"
Harold and Howard. For some reason that sounded ridiculous. Black people aren't supposed to be called Harold or Howard. Especially not black thug type people. Colin shook his head. Every word he uttered seemed to leave him breathless. He wondered if he was having a heart attack, decided he wasn't but probably did have a cracked rib or two. He remembered the dull ache from martial arts. "Her mother’s a friend. Josie, I mean. That's all."
"Oh, man," Harold said. "Oh man oh man oh man. This guy's a hardass. Lissen to me, Mr. Marsh. You ain't in no position to be no hardass. Look at you, all those muscles and shit, probably work out a hunnerd times a week and look where you be? You got two plain ol’ street niggers who just took you out, tied you up and you puke all over their shoes? There's somethin’ here you don't understan’."
"A friend. Really. Didn't even know Herbie at all." It came out hoarse, between a croak and a whisper.
"No man, no man. I think maybe you did. And I think I'm losin’ my patience with this shit, it's borin’ me and I got a whole shitload of things I'd rather be doin’.” To Howard he said, “Gimme that thing.”
Howard and Harold exchanged something silver, square, solid. Colin braced himself. This was it. He was going to die. A few wet drops hit him in the face.
Harold stood over him, pulled back hard at his hair until his face was upturned, jaws forced open. Harold smiled slightly, neither benign nor evil. In his free hand he held a slim glass flask. Colin recognized the label. Harold tilted the flask.
Colin saw the clear liquid move gently to the flask's opening, pause there. He saw the slight curve before the vodka's surface tension burst. He saw the stream fall in slow motion towards his lips, felt it bounce off his nose, into his eyes, into his mouth.
It burned.
He gagged.
He tried frantically to close his mouth but Harold held his hair in ones fist, pulling, pulling, tearing the scalp from his skull. Colin whipped his head back and forth, retched, spit, tried to rid his mouth of the saliva, of the taste, of the elation.
Howard leaped back. "Mothafucka! You think you gonna do my shoes too?"
Harold guffawed, loosened his grip slightly. Colin jerked his arms up as far as the belts allowed, felt the Ward torture machine lift slightly, pulled harder. The machine swayed. Harder. It tilted. Harold's hand abandoned its hold, went to protect his face as the butterfly bars flew toward him. The machine was at a forty-five degree angle to the floor. It stayed there forever for a second and slowly crashed to the floor taking Colin with it. Weight plates scattered. A small one, a twenty pounder, came off the high side, sailed like a frisbee and hit Howard just behind the ear. Howard crumpled. His head made a nasty sound as it hit the floor.
The butterfly bar had caught Harold squarely across the nose and flattened it. He held two fingers to his upper lip as if trying to hold back the blood that already flowed past his chin and down onto his chest. He said, "My shoes! My dose! Now you fucked up my dose!"
The fall had torn loose the belt on Colin’s left wrist. His left hand scrambled to free his right one. His mouth was still watering and he sprayed spittle across the room. There was a moaning sound it took him moments to identify as coming from his own throat.
He scrambled to the kitchen, the two men momentarily forgotten. He lunged for the sink, batted the water open, grappled with the dish sprayer, aimed it full at his face. The water was stunningly cold. It ran into his mouth gagging him and he vomited again, felt his stomach muscles roll and heave.
Howard was in the doorway. He was laughing. "Mothafucka! You are a piece of work, ain't you?"
There was a knife in the sink. Colin’s hand reached for it. His eyes didn't leave Howard's. Howard was still smiling. The gash behind his ear had bled more than it should have. He touched it with a tentative finger, rubbed the blood between thumb and index.
"Piece of work," he repeated.
Then he turned away. Through the door Colin saw him grab the back of Harold's shirt, lift him effortlessly to his feet. "C'mon, boy. Let's go home." At the door, still holding Harold, he looked back at Colin. "Man, you leave old Herbie in peace, OK? I really don't want to have to come back here." He shook Harold like a puppet. "And my man here, I don't think he's got another pair of shoes."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Too Much Information

Lately I've been doing a lot of reading on Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo. Both were highly talented artists whose works are found in the best museums and beyond purchase by anyone but the wealthiest collectors. They lived in Montmartre, a Parisian neighborhood known for it's Bohemian allure, almost all their lives. Both were drunks, which is neither here nor there, and Suzanne was Maurice's mother. She died in 1938; he died in 1953 and they had what can only be described as a strange relationship.

But that's not what I want to write about, since all relationships are strange in one way or another.

No, what I'm interested in is the critics' fashion of parsing an artist's work--and by artist I mean a writer, dancer, musician, sculptor, the whole gamut of people who cannot but be creative--into meaninglessness.

Look at a painting; read a book. What happens? Your imagination, and the writer or painter's creation work together to form an alliance. This pact moves you in a way--you feel joy, sadness, revulsion on occasion, pity perhaps, even lust or envy. You and the artist form a symbiotic entente cordiale. He or she presents their work for your consideration, with the understanding that the artist is powerless over the audience. You, the audience, are willing to make a gift of time to the work. You read, you listen, you watch. In the end, both parties are affected by each other's willingness to devote a small period of life to pleasuring the other. An artist without an audience ceases to exist, and with no art there are no spectators.

The critics want to take this process over by dictating their views--which are assuredly more learned and educated than yours or mine ever will be. An author, critiquing Valadon's Nude Girl Sitting on a Cushion, writes: "...Valadon's intense characterization is translated through the deliberate distortion of certain forms, the importance of which is enhanced by their unexpected size... Most of the time the children's alienation is expressed through reductive images whose effectiveness is enhanced through their simplicity."

I have no idea what this means. Obviously the critic and I are not looking at the same work. I see a small pencil and chalk drawing of a young dispirited nude. It's an evocative work, and I suppose I resent the critic's muddying of what is, all in all, a very basic piece of art.

For the past few years I've spent a lot of time reading autobiographies of some noted painters, and I have yet to find one describing his or her work in the same language as that of the critics. I wish those who write or broadcast opinions on the quality of things such as art, literary works, and society as a whole would do their own thing instead of parsing the works of others. That seems like a waste of time, a second-hand way of relating to creativity without adding any creativity of one's own. Maybe it's just that I don't like critics.

Here's installment 60 of Wasted Miracles.

When the Zulu put down the phone his face wore a thoughtful but not displeased expression. He had learned not to question providence, knew that occasionally events take place that are beyond human understanding, knew as well that only very foolish people fail to take advantage of such moments.
It had not been a good day after all. A police sweep had closed the Sparrow Club and Dance Venue on Georgia Avenue the night before. He had never been there and wouldn’t care save that the club is owned by one of his best customers, and that on a good weekend up to a half-pound of the Zulu’s products was moved there. The Sparrow’s owner was now in jail facing many charges, and that didn’t worry the Zulu either, since there was a large buffer zone between him and the club-owner, whom he’d never met face to face. Additionally, the club owner was a very wealthy man whose lawyers probably at this very moment were preparing counter-charges since no doubt the man’s civil rights were violated.
What worried the Zulu is that he was not apprised of the raid, and he should have been. When one spends a minor fortune lining the pockets of various people in positions of authority, such things should not happen.
In another neighborhood the Immigration and Naturalization Services nabbed ten illegal immigrants who were also dealers. There was a front page story in the paper about it, how the INS drove three unmarked vans and just picked these people up right off the street. The Zulu should have known about that as well. The reporter’s account said neighbors cheered when one elderly woman managed to trip an escaping dealer with her cane.
The citizens’ patrol in Shepherd Park was also becoming troubling. This was a recent development, residents forming their own posses to rid their neighborhoods of undesirables. The Zulu knew the dealers would find another block not far away and that business would proceed as usual--these concerted efforts were almost always short-lived, but they wreaked havoc with the distribution schedule, and this he didn’t appreciate.
He drummed the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. He looked at the notes he’d jotted while the caller was talking. Better safe than sorry, his great-great grandfather would say. Grasp the bull by the horns, anticipate rather than react. Colin Marsh, he thought. An Irish name? Or Scottish? Regardless of the man’s origins, the Zulu thought, there was no need for some misguided paladin to foul up the works. He picked up the phone, dialed a number.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Flag, Part Deux

So what happened is that at first I hung the Fleur de Lys flag upside down above my house, which I suppose would have made me an anti-royalist. It wasn't my fault.... It was dark and cold, my fingers were numb. Anyone could have made the same mistake.

The next day, when it was flying properly, my next door neighbor on the right side knocked on my kitchen door. He's a nice enough man from the former Soviet bloc who solemnly detests his other neighbor, who is from the same former SB country. He asked if I was not taking chances flying this odd flag; someone had told him such a thing was illegal and he didn't want to hazard having the secret flag police maybe making a mistake and knocking on his door. I reassured him that it was perfectly OK but he seemed less than convinced. I caught his wife, who is a dentist, and his two Goths kids starring upwards with fear in their eyes. I spent some time on the Internet looking for the Virginia law that might apply, but it's hard to find a law permitting something since most laws are designed to be preventative.

A fews days later there were men cutting down the bamboo in the vacant lot behind my home. The stuff, it seems, has invaded nearby storm drains and caused minor flooding. My neighbor came over again and asked if I was sure about the law because the guys with the chainsaws cutting down the brush were obviously setting up a listening/viewing post, and this made him very uncomfortable. He asked politely whether I would consider taking the flag down and hoisting the Stars and Stripes. I demurred. Then he asked how much I thought he might be able to rent out his home to people coming for the Obama inauguration.
Since we live a few miles outside Washington, DC and near public transit, many homeowners in my area have let their houses out to Obamites for thousands of dollars through Craig's List and eBay. I suggested he call a rental agency and he apparently has done so. He now wears a large smile and plans to go visit friends in Canada during Inauguration Week. He hasn't complained about the flag recently. The men with chainsaws have gone away. The secret flag police has not swooped down upon us. Is this a great country or what?

Here's installment 59 of Wasted Miracles.

It took one phone call, Mollie thought she was smart, made it from a phone booth next to the Seven Eleven on Gallows Road. There was a lot of traffic, people pulling in and out of the parking lot to get coffee or foot-longs and she kept her back to the door so the customers wouldn’t see her, wouldn’t wonder why this woman was talking into the phone and there was a handkerchief wrapped around the mouthpiece.
She thought the man had a pretty sophisticated voice for a black guy, kind of English-sounding like those movies on Channel 26. He didn’t ask a lot of questions, said, “I see,” two or three times as she fed him the story, said, “Thank you,” before he hung up, which she appreciated. She liked polite people. One phone call. One million dollar phone call.
When she hung up she was shaking and there was a fine sheen of perspiration on her upper lip. Her stomach was churning so she went into the store and bought a hot pretzel with mustard from the Pakistani guy behind the counter. And since she felt lucky, since she thought today was going to be a day that would change her life, she bought three Powerball tickets, the prize was up to $4.5 million, can you imagine that kind of money?
She waited at the bus stop and munched on the pretzel. It was a bit too salty and she wished she’d bought a Big Gulp to go with it. She thought about what you could do with $4.5 million and that was simply too large a sum to deal with. So she pared it down to a million, say $800,000 if you sold cheap, which she was willing to do. For $800,000 you could get a very nice car, say a fully loaded Jeep Cherokee, Cherry Red with a killer sound system and lights on the roll bar. And a really decent apartment in Ballston, with a pool and a sauna and a place in the basement to exercise. Should she buy or rent? She remembered a guy she’d spent two nights with, he’d tipped her a couple of hundred, he was into real estate and he’d said always buy, renting is like flushing the money down the toilet. So, OK, she’d buy, a two bedroom condo would run, what? 175 to 200 max. OK, so that would leave about half a mil.
The bus pulled up, she got on, found a seat in the back. When she sat she noticed her legs were trembling.
With a half a mil you had to be careful, not go crazy and buy a Lamborghini. Half a mil was a finite amount of money. There were houses that cost that much and more, and then you’d have to get furniture, too. But realistically, who would want a place like that? You’d need a housekeeper and some guy to mow the lawn. She knew there were houses like that near Great Falls where the Kennedies used to live, and the notion of hobnobbing with such people brought a smile.
No, realistically, you invest, that’s how people get rich. You try not to spend the capital, live off the interest. She’d read that in the business section of Newsweek and the idea had appealed to her. She made a note in her mind to go to the library the next morning and read back issues of Forbes and Money.
She would move the dope through Bennie, the bouncer at the club, who knew absolutely everybody. Give him twenty grand, he’d jump at it, he was always bitching about being a bouncer, always saying that if he had a nest egg, things would be different. But she’d have to devise some sort of plan so Bennie wouldn’t rip her off. She made another mental note, Work on Plan.
The bus snaked down Gallows Road, cut right on Cedar Lane, melted into the traffic on Leesburg Pike and passed the Tyson’s shopping mall, which got her to thinking that one thing she would do when she got the bucks was treat herself to a full day’s shopping at Tyson’s II where all the better stores were. Nothing too fancy, no mink coat, but maybe a couple of pieces of nice jewelry, like a decent watch, and a Gucci purse. Spend maybe eight or ten thousand in one day, wouldn’t that be a hoot?
The bus lurched, there was a squeal of tires, a blasting horn. One thing, sure as hell, no more public transportation. She changed the color of the Cherokee from Cherry Red to Midnight Blue. Cherry Red cars attracted cops, no sense looking for trouble, it generally came without an invitation anyway.
Maybe she’d scam a little of the dope for her own personal use. Probably no one would notice, she’d get a box of baby laxative, two scoops of that stuff in, take two scoops of the China White out, who would know the difference? And if someone bitched, she’d say it was Bennie, he did it, the cheating motherfucker. You want your dope? Take it out of Ben’s hide.