Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Appearance & Attitude

A few decades ago, I was convinced being a writer was largely a matter of appearance and attitude. Tweed jackets, briar pipes, alcohol, a vaguely supercilious manner that, it was obvious, barely dissimulated my great pain and anguish. I worked on an aged Royal manual typewriter bought at a pawnshop, was convinced of my genius and talent, and, best of all, owned a complete set of Harvard Classics. Back then (I've since sold them) the books, trimmed with gold leaf and bound in leather, were my proudest possessions.

The Harvard Classics, 51 volumes in all, were known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf. Eliot was the President of Harvard University when the collection was first published in 1909, and he believed a well-bred gentleman could achieve a respectable education by reading this compendium of every major literary figure, philosophy, religion, folklore, and historical subject through the twentieth century. A few years later, Eliot created a separate 20-volume selection entitled the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. I owned that as well.

What's interesting about Eliot's 51-volumes of disparate selections is that many of them, exactly a century later, have sunken into whatever Stygian obscurity ill-fated writing goes to when it dies. Who nowadays has read Volume 18, Modern English Drama, featuring Sheridan's School for Scandal, and All For Love by Dryden? Personally, I never got through Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists by George Berkeley. Nor did I read the second volume of Elizabethan Drama, which includes The Shoemaker's Holiday (Thomas Dekker), Philaster (Beaumont and Fletcher), The Alchemist (Ben Jonson), or A New Way to Pay Old Debts (Philip Massinger).

In all fairness, there were of course important works in both collections, books every one should read, or at least skim--Aristotle to Dickens, Maupassant to Herodotus. Thousands of non-Harvard students read the Classics in their entirety and were the better for it. In time, Eliot's idea spawned other collections. After the Classics came Great Books of the Western World in 1952, and since then a host of other tomes have promised instant erudition for the common man.

I remember trying my luck with the 20 volumes of fiction, where I found--among other works--such deathless titles as Pepita Jimenez by Juan Valera, A Happy Boy by Bjornstjerne Bjornson and Skipper Worse by Alexander Kielland.

I mention all this because it's my belief that the majority of writing, like any other endeavor, is merely the product of its time. Some may survive, most does not.

Last September, a young man by the name of David Foster Wallace committed suicide at his home in California. Wallace, 46 at the time of his death, was the Great White Hope of modern American Lit. His work found its way into the New Yorker, Harpers, Atlantic and a host of other publications. Reporting on his death, the New York Times said, "the world of contemporary American fiction [has] lost its most intellectually ambitious writer."

When it first came out in 1996, I remember picking up what would become his best known work, Infinite Jest, with both hands--literally. It is a very heavy volume, 1,079 pages, footnote-filled, complex and, to me, eminently unreadable. Proust by way of Joyce with here and there some Kerouac and ee cummings; a touch of Howl and a whiff of Hunter Thompson.

Recently, The New Yorker published a vastly over-long article on Wallace's career, followed by one of his short stories, Wiggle Room. The piece opens with a 400-line-long paragraph. For the second time, I gave up trying to read Wallace's prose.

So I wondered, who decided this guy was great? I canvased my friends. Some had heard of Wallace, most had not. One had gotten to page 27 of Infinite Jest and dropped the book back into the library bin. Not one person I spoke with had actually read the work in its entirety.

So it stands to reason that one of two things is true, and both possibilities are frightening: either the New York publishing world is putting one over on us, or all my friends are dolts.

Here's installment 75 of Wasted Miracles.

Orin looked away. “Keep it. Maybe next time, it’ll remind you not to do something completely stupid.”
He turned, faced Colin again. “You know, they don’t make a book for sponsors, an instruction manual. I guess a sponsor is expected to wing it. Do the Big Book, and the Promises and all that other AA stuff, I guess that’s supposed to help keep you out of trouble. But the truth is, Colin, some people see a turd in the middle of the road and they’ll dodge traffic just so they can step in it. Which is what you do. You haven’t realized yet that it’s a selfish program. You’re supposed to help others, but you’re supposed to help yourself first. ‘Cause if you don’t do that, you’re gonna have a hell of a time being anyone’s white knight.” He looked sad, the first time Colin had seen such an expression on his face.
Orin’s voice turned uncharacteristically kind. “Well, shit. Come on, Colin. Get yourself cleaned up. Take a shower. Shave. Put on some fresh clothing. My night’s shot all to hell anyway and if I go home now, I’m sure not gonna get any sleep. We’ll go have a breakfast. There’s an early bird meeting at the Serenity Club and you’re goin’ there, tell everyone what you did last night. That should be kind of amusing.”
As an afterthought, he turned to Mamadou. “Thank you for helping out, Mr. Dioh.”
Mamadou bowed slightly at the waist, looked at Colin. “I’m sorry about your friend, more so than I can tell you. But he was a policeman, and he died getting rid of bad people, which is something policemen learn to live with.” He paused, squeezed Colin’s shoulder. “I’ll call you in a couple of days.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thorazine Nation

So where's the outrage? Where are the people marching in the streets, thoroughly pissed off and refusing to take it anymore? When did we become such a paralyzed nation that the President of the country cannot stop a company--now on the dole and receiving billions from the federal trough to keep it afloat--that has bankrupted tens of thousands from giving retaining bonuses to keep in its employ the very people who drove the company to its knees? When did the inmates take over the asylum?

My friend Paul says we no longer know what to do. The system has become so depersonalized that we cannot find a culprit. Also, we're too lazy... Most of us will take to the couch and not to the streets, unless there's a Starbucks nearby. There's truth to this. Personally, I no longer have an notion of how to influence the powers that be. Voting has little or no effect, and in any event, it's too slow--events are moving faster than we are.

My friend Christine--who knows how to thump bread to see if its cooked and told me about baby carrots (more later)--thinks it important that the company in question keep a base of employees who know what's going on so as to make things right. This morning's Washington Post agrees with her, as does the company's CEO in an oped piece. I'm just not sure. And, I suppose, since I'm hardly in the position of influencing such events, all I can do is sit back and watch the show. But I do miss the times a few decades back when outrage ran high enough to move people from their TVs and into the streets.

All right, now for the important news. Did you know baby carrots are not baby carrots at all but adult vegetables that have been lathed down to baby size? The agro-industry put one over on us! Now that's upsetting!

Here's installment 74 of Wasted Miracles.

Colin sat up. His stomach heaved and he made a concerted effort not to show it.
“I don’t think you got anything else to puke. It’s all in my van.”
Colin shut out the light with both hands across his eyes. “Sorry, Orin.” His voice sounded very small.
“Yep, so am I.” Orin’s tone was conversational but hid a deep threat. “It’s gonna take weeks for that van to smell normal.”
Orin leaned closer and Colin could smell a trace a salami, sour milk, cheap pipe tobacco. He held his breath. Orin took a turn around the living room, paused, lit his pipe. “Aren’t you the least bit interested in knowing how you got home? I would be.”
Colin’s face was even with Orin’s lap. He didn’t look up.
“Generally,” Orin continued, “I’ve found that it’s a good idea, if you decide to get plowed at a bar, to have some money. You had four dollars and change, mostly pennies. Your tab came to $67.55, without tip. You told the bartender to call me. Do you remember any of this, Colin? No? Well you told him to call me and even gave him my phone number. You know it by heart, I guess, and I should be touched but I’m not.” Orin drew on his pipe, relit it.
“So he called me, the bartender did. Marsha’s staying with your friend Josie’s mother for the night. It wasn’t sage to leave that girl alone yet, so they took her to the ARC earlier today. The upshot of it is, I had to drive here and you know how much I love driving, don’t you. It’s a lot of fun when you don’t have legs.” Orin paused for emphasis, shook his head in disgust.
“So I drove, double-parked, almost got a ticket. Went into the bar, paid your tab--you owe me a hundred bucks. You were in the john. Nice sight, man really looks his best when he’s passed out in a toilet stall with his dick hanging in the bowl. The bartender got you into the van. Then you puked, but hey, no problem! I just drove with the windows open.”
Colin said, “Jesus, Orin. I’m so sorry...”
“Just shut the fuck up, OK? So when I got here, there was this little problem, getting you out of the van. I tried to call Joe but there’s no answer. Came up here, used the key you gave me, called your other friend, Mr. Dioh. His number was on your kitchen counter. Mr. Dioh was kind enough to meet me. He carried your sorry ass from the van. That was nice of him, don’t you think?”
Mamadou came into view. Colin avoided his eyes, said, “Joe?”
Mamadou shook his head.
Colin looked at Orin. “Joe’s dead.”
It took a few seconds for Orin to understand. He said, “What? What?” Then he said, “That’s why you got drunk?” When Colin shrugged, Orin looked momentarily bewildered. “I thought you knew better. Really. I did.”
“It’s my fault.”
“You killed him?”
Colin looked at Mamadou for help. The black man turned away.
“Did you?” Orin was insistent.
“No. But it’s my fault anyway. I dragged him into it, I shouldn’t have. He didn’t know what he was getting into. I didn’t either.”
Mamadou broke in. “Colin is mistaken.”
Mamadou’s description of the night before was brief and to the point. As he went on, Orin’s body seemed to deflate, got smaller in the chair. He listened silently, blowing out clouds of smoke. At the end he threw Colin a disbelieving look, wheeled his chair to the balcony window, gazed outside. “You’ll never cease to amaze me, Colin. I guess that’s why I’ve been your sponsor all these years. It’s been... interesting.”
He drew a deep breath, shoved the still lit pipe into the pocket on the arm of the wheelchair. Smoke seeped out but Orin paid no attention. “So there’re four dead. Three nasties and one good guy. No police, right Mr. Dioh.”
“We were gone before they got there.”
“And it’s a shit neighborhood, cops aren’t gonna pay a lot of attention to a bunch of dealers offing each other. You kinda counted on that, didn’t you?”
Mamadou nodded. “I did.”
Orin looked at them both, then focused on Colin. “Marsha says the girl’s gonna be all right. Physically, anyway. Gonna need a serious detoxing, supervised. Whoever had her pumped some new form of nastiness into her. They’re doing tests. She seems to know what’s going on, at least some of it. Her mother’s a mess, though. Her father came by too. Jesus, what a shithead. Came in, looked at her, shook his head, left. Didn’t say a word.”
Orin reflected on that a bit, wheeled his chair back a couple of feet so it faced Mamadou.
“So you guys committed the perfect crime, it looks like. Congratulations.”
Colin rubbed his eyes with a thumb and index. “Except for Joe.”
Orin nodded. “Right. Except for Joe.”
“I’ve got his stuff. His badge, his ID. He left it here.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

18 Years & Counting--Part I

Huzzah for me! Yesterday, March 10th, was my 18th sober anniversary. On this date in 1991, I walked into a 28-day rehab in Northern Virginia. I had my last drink--a hefty slug of warm Popov vodka--in the parking lot, stashed the half-empty bottle into a nearby trashcan and, drunk and apprehensive, swung open the metal double-doors and changed my life. It was 7:45 in the morning.

I detoxed for three days. Detoxing from alcohol is dangerous; it can kill you outright, so generally it is done under observation. I remember none of it, save for a patchy image of falling down the stairs and being caught by a very large Black man who looked like Mike Tyson. I don't remember his name but he probably saved my life.

Seventy-two hours later, the in-house doctor looked me over and told me my liver was hardened, a bad sign, he said, but livers do recover if given time. I could not write. When I tried to, I was overtaken by a sense of dread so deep my hands and fingers refused to work. I had a patchwork of veins--gin blossoms, they're called in the vernacular--on my cheeks and beginning to invade my nose. I had lost the ability to smell anything save the most noxious odors; I shook; my eyes swam.

They kept me thirty days in all, and when I came out I really did not want to drink, except now and then. So I mowed my lawn in early April when the ground was still frozen, and then I asked my neighbor if I could mow her lawn, and she let me do so with a strange look on her face.

I went to meetings daily, and followed an aftercare program to steel me against relapse. I received a one-month chip, the medals given to people in recovery for time spent sober.

I was back at work, a strange place to be when sober. For the last year or so, I had needed a drink in the morning before work, followed by two Xanaxes to keep me on an even keel. Now I chugged coffee and diet Coke.

When at lunch with colleagues, I proudly refrained from drinking, but if anyone noticed, they didn't comment. I was aware before that most people I lunched with could drink a half-glass of wine and leave the other half. I would drink five glasses, draining each and every one.

My then-wife did not like that I vanished at night to go to meetings. She resented my attempts at taking control back. One time, she told me she liked me better when I was a drunk. Within a year we separated.

I began writing again. It wasn't very good or interesting.

Here's installment 73 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 19

The assistant sous-saucier had been harboring a low-level fever for three days. It wasn’t enough to go on sick call--not that he ever would, the saucier was a slave driver--but it clouded his judgment. He had added too much white pepper to the blanquette de veau au persil, failed to sample the remoulade de canard and been unable to detect an overabundance of ginger in the coquilles St. Jacques à la Vietnamienne. These subtle failures had annoyed his immediate supervisor, but not to the point of reporting the oversights to the chef administratif.
Jean-Marie Berger, the sous-saucier, felt his stomach rumble ominously. He swallowed once, twice, closed his eyes, breathed deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. That calmed him somewhat. He went about his business efficiently, checking on the work of the three sub-assistants for whom he was responsible, saw nothing amiss. He ducked out for two quick puffs of his cigarette, blew the smoke out through the overhead vent. The no-smoking rule was rigidly enforced in the galley; the chef administratif was a born-again teetotaler and reformed pack-a-day smoker with little patience or compassion for the unfortunate many who could not control their addictions.
Jean-Marie focused away from his stomach and concentrated instead on how he would feel two hours’ hence when his shift was over and he would be able to have a quiet smoke in the designated area before going to bed. He thought about his girlfriend in Brest, whom he would be seeing in two weeks, and how she would like the trinkets he had bought her at the ship’s gift store.
He glanced at his watch. Time to make the sauce marienere à l’ail des îles. He rubbed his hands together. Creating sauces always seemed to make him feel better. He went to his locker, removed the packet of spices he had purchased three days earlier at a small fishermen’s restaurant far from the tourist trade. The cook there had served a dish that had been spectacularly piquant, and Jean Marie Berger, ever on the lookout for undiscovered ingredients, had managed to secure a small amount of the mixed herbs that had made the cook’s food so distinctive. He shook a teaspoon of the melange from the plastic bag to the palm of his hand, smelled it, smiled. The diners would be pleased, the spices truly reflected a tropical personality.
In a large metal bowl he spooned the ingredients of the sauce mariniere without measuring, doing it by heart and feel. He added virgin olive oil, a cup of tarragon vinegar, sherry, garlic paste. His stomach rumbled again and he held his breath, willing it into submission. He dumped the island spices in, mixed slowly and evenly with a large wooden spoon. He wondered if he had picked up some sort of intestinal flue. He’d been feeling poorly for 72 hours, it had started on his return from the fishermen’s restaurant, undoubtedly would go away once it had run its course.
When the sauce’s consistency was to his satisfaction, he called one of his assistants, handed the man the bowl and told him to brush the mixture lightly onto the chicken breasts prior to broiling them. The man nodded and walked away.
A wave of sickening heat rose from the pit of Jean Marie Berger’s stomach, rushed past his chest, up his neck, lodged in his mouth. The intensity of it took his breath away. He staggered, held with both hands onto the edge of the large butcher block. His legs suddenly felt boneless and he crumpled quietly to the ground. His eyes seemed to swell in their sockets, his tongue felt like parchment paper. He took a deep breath and forced himself to stand, looked around. No one had seen him fall. Good.
A second wave of nausea swept through him and this time he was ready for it. With all the dignity he could muster, he walked slowly to the small toilet reserved for the kitchen employees. The light in there was very bright and hurt his eyes. He tried to focus on the sign admonishing kitchen workers to wash their hands but the words swam. He fell to his knees and vomited, tried to aim for the toilet bowl, missed. The chef administratif found him there two hours later. Jean Marie Berger’s hands were clammy and his breathing slight and rapid. He did not respond to the chef administratif’s questions. When two men from the medical dispensary took him away on a stretcher, they had to strap him down. His legs and torso were trembling spasmodically. One of the men, a young Ugandan from Kampala, had seen such a thing before. He commented that it looked a lot like a case of food poisoning he had encountered once in Mali, where the cook in a no-star restaurant had sought to brighten the taste of his creations with powdered mangrove root. Within 72 hours, fifteen people had suffered severe food poisoning, and four had been hospitalized. The man thought of telling this to the ship’s physician but did not. He had never cared for the physician who that very morning had made disparaging remarks about he state of former British colonies. The man was old, dour, and, the young Ugandan knew, did not well take to suggestions from lesser medical personnel.
He opened one eye, then another, closed them both. There were people talking in the background, the conversation rose and fell, seemed to stop, start, stop again like a faltering engine. He could identify two voices and tried to concentrate but what the talkers were saying was a mystery. His head hurt. The pounding came from inside and radiated out like a malevolent heat source.
“He’s coming to. Colin? Colin!”
He felt his head being lifted and scalding liquid hit his lips. He tried to turn aside.
“Colin! Drink this. Now. Don’t be more of a bother than you already are.”
He opened his mouth and the liquid seared his tongue. He swallowed and immediately felt sick.
“Way to go, hotshot.”
He recognized the voice and it filled him with dread. “Orin.”
From the corner of an eye, Colin saw the spokes in the wheels of Orin’s chair. The spokes whirled and made him dizzy so he closed his eyes again. He heard the wheels’ shushing sound get closer to the couch.
“Bang up job, Colin. Couldn’t have done it better myself. I always said if you’re gonna go out, do it in style.” The chair moved again. “Certainly hope a couple of those drinks you had, you had for me, considering I had to pay the fucking tab. Which, I might add, really pisses me off.”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

All Hail Omar Hassan al-Bashir

Today's Washington Post, page A-12.

Now here's a dictator for the ages, a man who has read Being a Dictator for Dummies and memorized the better parts. The Post photo is of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, President of Sudan, being driven in an open top car through a throng of admirers (?). He wears large sunglasses (a prerequisite of dictatorhood), a kepi possibly designed by Eva Braun, many campaign ribbons (the Darfur Meritorious Order of Starvation) and best of all, he is waving a stick in the air as if thrashing the faithful about the head and shoulders. In fact, he looks like what I imagine is a commanding officer in the Singaporean Urinal Police (SUP). You remember the SUP, stationed in that small nation's public bathrooms to make sure you flush after you pee. If you don't, they cane you. Omar Hassan is my kinda guy.

I'm generally not big on projects and causes. I've always believed that, if things get terrible enough, people will react and get the bad guy out either by killing him (Sam Doe of Liberia, whose body is rumored to have been eaten by his enemies) or sending him to the south of France with a suitcase full of money (Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti and Idi Amin of Uganda.) In most parts of the world, politics have a tendency to resolve themselves, though in some regions, it takes longer than in others. The Sudan may well be the exception.

In Africa's largest country, once a British-Egyptian protectorate, things have not been going well. In 2001 the government freed 15,000 slaves. That same year saw the first of a series of cataclysmic events, both man-made and natural, that have driven the Sudan to its knees. Starvation and displacement reign. With 2 million already dead , civil strife continues to rage. The best and worst efforts of Europe, the Americas and Asia have, in the end, done little to ease the country's plight. Hundred of millions of dollars and Euros have been spent with very little to show for it. Al-Bashir, who has ruled since 1989, is unlikely to alter his style and Sudan's sad day-in-the-sun is fast ending. Honestly, we are desensitized, have been since Biafra or earlier, and pictures of starving babies, emaciated mothers or stacks of bodies by the roadside have little or no impact anymore. People like Omar Hassan know this, of course. He may not be a likable guy, but he must have some street smarts--he wouldn't have lasted long without them. He knows the fickleness of do-gooder movements. Soon another country will massacre enough of its people to garner our passing interest, and Omar Hassan will be off the hook. It's a waiting game dictators know how to play all too well.

Here's a thought. Lets hire some Union Corse guys to kidnap the son-of-a-bitch and drop him off naked in American Samoa. Most Samoans are no-nonsense types and will know what to do with him. Then lets find a guy--or woman--willing to lead the Sudanese government and back him or her with the full might of the developed world. Lets get the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and FAO and whoever else we need in-country to rebuild without too much self-interest in the planning. Lets cut through some of the appalling BS that Part I nations have created to insulate themselves from the rest of the world and act in support of decency, humanity and common sense.

It's do-able.

Here's installment 72 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 18

In the final edition of the paper the next morning there was a small article about a house in Anacostia that had burned down in the early hours of the morning. Four bodies were recovered but none had been identified to date. The firemen had been unable to quench the blaze, it was an old house, the clapboard was dry and the nearest fire hydrant had been tampered with. It took minutes for the firemen to get water and minutes were all the flames needed. The next door neighbor, an elderly black lady, said there’d been no warning. The fire seemed to start spontaneously, and though she’d not known the people next door well, she would include them in her prayers.
Colin read the story and felt nauseous.
Not a word had been exchanged during the ride back. Colin had thrown a jacket over Josie, and she’d slept through it all. Mamadou had dropped them off at Orin and Marsha’s house and driven off, still silent. Marsha had taken over, a sad and serious expression etched across her face.
“She should be in a hospital, Colin. I think it’d be wiser.”
Orin had agreed. The sight of the girl had shocked him. “Jesus, Colin, she’s a walking skeleton, except she isn’t walking...”
Marsha had put the girl immediately to bed and rigged an IV. “She’s dehydrated, and it looks as if she hasn’t eaten anything in a week. Her pulse is steady, though, and it’s a good thing. But she needs more care than I’ll be able to give her here.”
So Colin had asked Marsha to call Catherine, but he’d left before she arrived. At home, he unplugged his phone.
Mamadou had said Joe was dead but Colin called the police station anyway, asked for Joe by name. You never knew, maybe he’d escaped. The cop on duty told him Joe hadn’t shown up yet this morning but he’d take a message. Colin said he’d call back.
There was no one to turn to, and that fact alone ate at him. He wondered if Joe had relatives, remembered him once mentioning a cousin who was also with the police force of a small town in Florida.
In the middle of the afternoon he fixed himself a sandwich, ate a single bite and threw the food away. He made a pot of coffee, picked up the phone to call Catherine, punched the first three numbers then put the phone down.
The fact was, the multiple killings would probably not elicit much interest, would be seen as part of the city’s never-ending drug wars. He wondered what the coroner would do with the discovery that one of the dead men was white. Probably nothing.
In the evening he watched the news. The fire had already been relegated to a mere mention at the end of the show. A three-second shot of the house showed a blackened and still smoldering ruin. The front porch had collapsed and the front door was gone. The camera panned to two children with very white teeth looking straight into the lens and mouthing, “Hi, Mom.”
He wondered how Josie was, found he really didn’t care. Her fate was out of his hands--if it ever had been there in the first place.
Shortly before 10 p.m., Catherine knocked on his door, called his name several times. He didn’t answer. After a few minutes, he saw a scrap of paper slide beneath the door. He didn’t pick it up, walked around it.
An hour or so later, he took a shower, shaved carefully, put a clean pair of jeans and shirt on. He selected an old hound’s tooth jacket he hadn’t worn for years but the thing didn’t fit, was far too tight around the shoulders, so he found the least tattered sweatshirt, put that on instead.
He remembered Orin’s admonition to call before he did something foolish but that didn’t seem like a good idea at all. Orin would probably try to talk him out of it and Colin felt he’d been waiting a lifetime for this moment.
The bar was a dark and cheerless place with neon signs advertising beer and a TV tuned to the all-sport station. Colin ordered a double vodka (Absolut), a shot of Glenfidich with a Michelob draft on the side and, just for the hell of it, a margarita.
He drank them quickly, waited a moment, ordered another round.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

True Grit

My Newsweek magazine came yesterday, a thin, shadowy version of its fat former self. I almost mistook it for a supermarket throwaway. This week's issue is 62 pages and if I were to take all the actual copy and do a paste-up sans advertisements, I very much doubt there would be more than 15 pages in all. And frankly boring pages at that. The cover, an alarming green and red remindful of cheap Christmas packaging, bears some Arabic writing telling me radical Islam is a fact of life. Really? REALLY? Is there anyone with the ability to read the back of a cereal box who is not aware of this? I suppose this is meant to sell the mag--a little fear and alarm never hurt the media--and it's ridiculous. I, and everyone I know, am (are?) already alarmed. My wallet is empty, the bills are due, I can't find refinancing and no one is hiring writers these days. Who at Newsweek, I wonder, decided that we need to be a bit more alarmed?

When I first came to the States, a newspaper called Grit ran large ads in all the kids' comic books encouraging youngsters to become Grit carriers. Grit was aimed largely at the rural population and followed an editorial policy outlined by its owner, Dietrick Lamade during a banquet for employees. He told them,

"Always keep Grit from being pessimistic. Avoid printing those
things which distort the minds of readers or make them feel at odds with the world. Avoid showing the wrong side of things, or making people feel discontented. Do nothing that will encourage fear, worry, or temptation... Wherever possible, suggest peace and good will toward men. Give our readers courage and strength for their daily tasks. Put happy thoughts, cheer, and contentment into their hearts."
Take heed, Newsweek.

Here's installment 71 of Wasted Miracles.

Comfort hated not being given choices but it had happened enough times in his life so he knew how to react. In his mind he had already decided that the three men were assassins. They had come to kill the Zulu, a not unlikely turn of event considering his boss’ occupation. They would kill him too, because that’s how things were done in this line of work, and the thought angered him. People like that had been given plenty of opportunities earlier to kill him. Now was simply the wrong time. Home beckoned.
When he heard the distinctive click of the safety, he rose from the grass like a black egret, every gram of his being intent on escape.
In slow motion he saw the round face of the white man explode into surprise, fright, terror. Comfort’s own arms, legs and fists moved with aching deliberation but he knew this was an illusion. Another part of him could feel and appreciate the swiftness of it all. He struck the man’s face, launched an elbow to the Adam’s apple, a knee to the groin. With the cutting edge of his right hand he smashed into the gun-bearing wrist and saw the weapon drop. His two legs and one arm still moving, he scooped the gun up, brought it to where the intruder’s head should be, fired three times. The noise deafened him and he felt his face splattered with droplets of something warm and semi-liquid.
In the brief passage between life and death, Joe the Cop had a flurry of thoughts. The first carried mild surprise that his gun indeed had worked. The second was that if he had been the one using the weapon, it probably wouldn’t have, such was his luck lately. The third was that he hadn’t led a very interesting life but that he was dying sober.
Comfort wiped at his face, stuffed the gun in his pocket and scrambled over the fence. He ripped his pants doing so. He cut through the neighbor’s yard and into the alley. When he heard the first siren, he decided it couldn’t be the police yet. Nine-eleven calls from this neighborhood were put on hold. As the sirens approached, he revised this opinion and slowed his running to a purposeful walk. A block away, he carefully wiped the gun and dropped it into an open dumpster. He made his way to a house he knew was abandoned and boarded up, entered it through a gaping basement window. He sat in the dark hugging his knees for warmth and waiting for daylight.
“Now, Colin! Now!”
Mamadou shoved Colin forward. Colin stumbled, felt Josie sliding from his shoulder. Her ankles bumped hard against a doorjamb and she whimpered once.
“Get to the car, Colin! Quickly! Quickly! I’ll get Joe.”
Colin nodded, ran up the stairs, Josie’s still form bouncing lightly across his back. He stepped over Howard who lay on the floor, arms outstretched. In the front yard he looked around quickly, noticed the window shades of the next door neighbor’s house were all drawn. He opened the car’s rear door, tried as best he could to arrange Josie on the rear seat. He heard himself breathing very loudly through his mouth, felt his chest heaving. The palms of his hands were sweaty and he wiped them on the legs of his pants.
Mamadou came leaping out of the darkness an instant later, slid into the driver’s seat.
“Where’s Joe?”
Mamadou shook his head. “We can’t help him.” He turned on the ignition and the engine caught. “Wait a minute! Wait a minute, goddamit! What the hell are you saying? You can’t leave--”
“He’s gone Colin. Dead. There’s nothing we can do. We have to get out of here.” Mamadou’s hands trembled on the steering wheel. Sirens wailed in the distance.
“Mamadou, we can’t--”
Mamadou turned to face Colin. His voice was just above a whisper. “You want to stay, you stay. There are four dead people over there. Stay and explain that. Be my guest.” He reached across Colin, moved to open the passenger door. Colin stopped his hand, “Four?”
“The Zulu. Another man upstairs, Harold, I think. Howard. Your friend Joe.”
“Howard’s not dead!”
Mamadou put the car in gear, slid away from the curb. “Yes, he is.”
Colin looked back at the house just in time to see flames explode out of the upstairs window. Glass shattered and fell like pointed rain, black smoke billowed.
“Jesus, Mamadou! Did you--”
“Yes. Now be quiet. Let me drive.”

Monday, March 2, 2009

Costly Convenience

At breakfast with friends recently, the conversation turned--as it often does--to addiction and its toll. One young woman, speaking of her brother, told us he was an addiction looking for a substance. That made a lot of sense. Many have a tendency to think of addiction as a moral shortcoming focused on a particular evil: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex and pornography... Those of us most intimately acquainted with the subject know different; addictions are shifty things: once one is defeated, another arises to take its place, and the common ground of those who recover is an attitude of constant vigilance.

Which brings up one of my favorite subjects: convenience stores.

Back in the days when I was a substance abuse counselor at a local hospital, I'd always stop for coffee at a Seven Eleven on my way to work. One day it struck me that these uber-American institutions and others of their type that sell everything from scented condoms to soda crackers, were really an addict's heaven.

Think of it. Under one roof, you'll find alcohol, over-the-counter-drugs (including my personal favorites, Robitussin and Listerine), caffeine and nicotine, sugar-laden snacks, nutritionally worthless foods, porno magazines, lottery coupons and other gambling incentives, and of course ATM machines for quick infusions of cash. Most establishments are open 24-7, though in some states you cannot buy alcohol before eight in the morning.

In other words, convenience stores are designed for people who do not like to plan ahead, who are reactive, opportunistic and impulsive. Does that describe your run-of-the-mill addict?

This is not to denigrate the usefulness of such places; for normal folks, convenience stores are lifesavers, but it does serve well to illustrate that what is one man's convenience is another's folly.

Think of that the next time you're craving a Slurpee.

Here's installment 70 of Wasted Miracles.

He retrieved the stick, walked down the stairs to the basement. It was dark but his eyes saw with amazing clarity. He cracked open the first door he came to. It was a bathroom, still steamy from someone taking a shower. A second door opened onto a remarkably neat study housing a computer screen with the omnipresent Windows flying toasters screensaver, a stereo glowing softly, books on shelves, a La-Z-Boy chair, a potted palm. The room smelled faintly of sandalwood incense. A third door across the hallway was ajar. Colin crept in.
Even in the dark he could see long blond hair splayed out. The room smelled like a dentist’s office. There was no mistaking her. She was frowning, knees close against her chest, hands balled into fists. She was bone thin, the skin on the back of her hands almost translucent. From where he stood Colin couldn’t see whether she was breathing or not and for a moment he panicked. Then she moaned and a bubble of saliva grew at one corner of her lips.
He shook her and she made a gurgling sound deep in her throat. She moved her legs slightly and the smell of dry urine wafted up to his face. She turned to her side, muttered something he couldn’t begin to comprehend, drew a small fist to her mouth.
Upstairs there were two sharp popping sounds. Colin held his breath, then lifted Josie up and slung her across one shoulder. She was remarkably light. The smell of urine grew stronger. Nightstick still in hand, he took the stairs two at a time and came face to face with Howard. The man was holding the back of his head with one hand, a large handgun with the other.
Colin swung the nightstick in a long arc that connected with a thud on Howard’s temple. The gun went off with an extraordinarily loud sound. Howard fell to his knees, then on his face. Josie yelped, twitched, struggled without strength. Colin held her tighter, struck out wildly at Howard again, missed. He kicked the handgun down the stairs, saw the black man trying to lift himself up, struck again, this time on target. The stick seemed to sing in his hand. Suddenly he felt himself engulfed from behind in a bearhug, heard Mamadou shouting, “Let’s go, Colin! Now!”
From a corner upstairs window, Comfort opened the curtain less than an inch to watch the car watching the house. He didn’t know who the three men were but doubted their presence meant anything good. In the dim light he could see that two were white and one was black, but that, in and of itself, didn’t mean much. Everyone was in the drug trade, color had little to do with it. Because they were in the trade, that was obvious. Who else would be surveying the place? They weren’t law enforcement, the car was wrong, the method of surveillance too obvious. Their very presence implied something bad on the verge of happening.
Comfort decided it was time to act when he saw the first man leave the car and vanish from sight, only to reappear moments later. He had no intention of confronting the strangers, this was not a good time to get shot at, not a good time to have one’s life plans altered by chance circumstance. In days--weeks at most--if things went right (and there was no reason to think they shouldn’t) Comfort
would be on his way home.
He was just opening the back door of the house when he heard two shots. The sound was unmistakable. He fell to the floor, reached up to push the door open, scuttled like a crab into the small backyard. There were no decent hiding places there so he crawled to the side fence and tried to become one with the shadows. He saw one of the intruders standing guard not fifteen feet away. The man, a white, had his gun drawn and seemed unsure of where he should be or where he should go. Comfort saw all this in a split second, hoped to stay unnoticed exactly where he was. When the man turned towards him he realized this was no longer an option.
When Joe the Cop heard the gunshots, he whipped his pistol out of its holster and, that defiant act realized, remembered the cellular phone. He took it out of his pocket, fumbled with it in the dark.
It had been years since Joe had drawn his sidearm. The weapon had no familiarity, felt foreign in his hand, an unwanted and useless appendage that would probably malfunction. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he’d shot the gun or cleaned it.
He turned to get his bearings, flicked the safety off, a sharp metal sound that filled the night. The shadows loomed large in the small space and he thought he saw something there, a shape that maybe had a head, maybe didn’t. He took a step closer to get a better look and the shape levitated from the ground, became a man that hit him in the face, the throat, the groin. It was like being attacked by a hydra. Joe reeled back, yelled, felt a sharp pain in his wrist, dropped the gun, dropped the phone. With his good hand he managed to grab a shirt collar and pull down. The fabric ripped, gave way. Joe swung wildly where he thought his attacker’s face might be, connected with something fleshy and satisfying.