Monday, August 30, 2004

Satirius, Email 1 (Highlights)

As I said, these posts will be spaced out over the next week or so, and will consist of excerpts from Satirius' official record of the Image Node 2002 foray into the Wasteland. It's a ploy to keep some of you from wandering off, and also a way to sort of twist the knife in those of you who didn't go this year.

Franklin- I’ve been meaning to send this to you. It’s my narrative about Burning Man, for your eyes only (within this group). It was originally written as a letter to a friend, so please excuse any sappiness or misplaced asides.

Hello there-

So I thought I might give you a rundown on Burning Man 2002, in all it’s outrageousness, before my evanescent grasp of it all is lost entirely. The long and short of it is- it was great, I’m happy I went, but onward to bigger and better things next year. Kinda what I had expected- but in a good way.

[Bear in mind that Satirius and all of these people are traveling to BM from NYC, post 9/11. Also, I'll be adding a little bit of background in here since I'm having to chop this up a bit. In this instance, it's S's responsibility to travel with F to Reno, and hook up with the rest of the crew, who are flying in at different times or through other cities, so it's not as simple as it sounds.]

My hair a mop of blue and F in tow, we barely made it past security- which took about forty minutes since F travels with boxes and boxes full of strange little shaman like objects that really isn’t what airport security wants to be seeing. The most troubling thing though was a Sailor Moon (this is some sort of pokemon-like anime character) plastic knife and fork kit to be used by a toddler. This lengthy procedure is something important to remember that factors into things later.

F and I make it into Reno that night, and take the shuttle to the tacky Sands Regency Hotel and Casino, where we reconnoiter with Twin A and Twin B, C, B, S, and K. R is set to arrive sometime in the middle of the night- and Jefe's Image-Node laden caravan is en route from OKC we learn, with his right hand man Chad and the “legendary” John Osborn accompanying him.

[I'm going to leave my people's names alone, obviously]

Saturday is spent with me picking up I and Zora at the airport, renting cars, and securing a Ryder truck to haul water out into the desert, while R arrives to pick-up I so she and C can do all the food shopping. Twin A, Twin B, S, and B supervise check out at the hotel. Coincidentally, we run into Robin’s erstwhile roommate Maya at the airport, who is without a ride to Burning Man due to some cock-up. Maya is assimilated into our group forthwith.

The ensuing flurry of activities goes well for me and S in my Ryder truck, but Twin A and B’s car- which is driving around Reno looking for hardware supplies with Twin B and K, does not go well. B loses her keys, calling the rest of us in a panic. Eventually, after procuring 240 gallons of water in jugs, I am summoned to the Home Depot parking lot where some North Carolinian hippies driving a dilapidated Westphalia have asked us if we‘ll take the PVC components to their 32 foot dome to Black Rock City (the geographic location of Burning Man, two hours north of Reno) in our Ryder, since their vehicle is dying. We agree, since there is ample room.

[I should probably have pointed this out sooner, but Twin B is a completely different person from plain ol' B. Please pay attention.]

Man 2002 is “Floating World”, a reference to an artist’s colony that existed at some point in Japanese history. I think I remember hearing that Edo was something like this a thousand years ago, but I can’t really remember. The theme is actually much less foregrounded than in previous years; “the Body” being the theme during my year of original Burning Man antics, and Shakespeare’s “Seven Stages of Man” being the inspiration last year. Where the Body had had all sorts of geographic points corresponding to chakras laid out, and the seven stages of Man had had complex mazes meant to symbolize “youth” and other age-appropriate iconography, the Floating World was more low key. And more sea-aquatic, since the Heian Japan reference was a little obscure for interpretation. So far all I can see is the fact that off in the distance in the middle of the playa, the Man is situated atop a giant lighthouse, and the coordinates of places are given in a quasi nautical meridian system. The thoroughfares have names like “Bowsprit”, “Forecastle”, “Mizzen”, etc.

Another important facet of Image Node 2002 is that we are now officially part of a village, which is what I was alluding to when I mentioned how we would be camping with R’s friends and now with Ouchy. You see, over the course of the last few years, we as a camp have climbed the social ladder.

The first year, when we camped with Goldberg, we were basically just some people in an RV. Last year, after getting everyone organized, we went as Camp Image Node- which was considered a theme camp. This meant that the BMO (Burning Man Organization) extended certain privileges to us, like electrical power, while keeping us safely tucked away behind several rows of more experienced Burning Man camps. The real deal at Burning Man is camping on the Esplanade, sort of Burning Man’s Broadway- it’s the innermost of all the large semicircular avenues, that forms the perimeter of the several mile diameter playa containing the Man. Those who camp there must collectively, as sage old Yoda cries amidst the the fog of war in the recent movie, “around the perimeter, a circle create!”

What’s more, we have eschewed the offer to be part of New York’s village, Asylum, and opted instead for the older and more venerable village Disturbia. This association of western freaks is dominated by Camp Pyrot (they like fire and pirate stuff- get it?), which was R and T’s original group of Denverites. What all this means is that the bar is pretty high- we’re part of a village everyone in Burning Man knows about, and we have to be open 24 hours a day for the week, and ready to handle lots of burners coming to us, rather than just by us.

Our various vehicles converge at the rudiments of Disturbia, the effort to place vehicles logically is being stewarded by a tall, bald, epicene man named Daud who runs an ISP by day and presides over the Denver underground scene by night. He visited New York with his friend, Diablo- who I‘ll describe later, a few months ago- so it was the first time I had seen him shirtless- his chest was a big tattoo of what it would look like if his skin were peeled away to reveal that he was an android. Daud is the business and technical minded one and everyone else has destroyed their credit, hence, he is the leader of Camp Pyrot and by extent Disturbia.

R pretty much becomes de facto leader of Image Node at this point, since she’s the one that knows all the people and has camped at Image Node before. After everything becomes coordinated and tents are pitched, we all go to bed.

[There might be some squabbling about this characterization of Daud, but not from me.]

I am rudely awakened by the roaring, sweating, face of John Osborne in my tent sometime in the middle of the night.

As it turns out, the Jefe, Chad, and John Osborn trailer which contains all of Image Node, has just arrived then at about 4 AM after terrible delays from federal authorities while trying to cross the Hoover Dam. Osborn is determined to make the most of the night, guzzling something I think he calls “spear-toos” which tastes like a pulpy slurry of mangoes, cherries and very strong whiskey. He explains that it’s a polish liqueur. But there is pulp in it.

Sunday morning comes with R, Zora, and Twin A having made a makeshift kitchen in the back of the Ryder truck so everyone can have a hot breakfast. Everyone discovers that morning ablutions are impossible with so many people dealing with the back of the Ryder truck. The North Carolinian hippies arrive to retrieve their dome. Jefe marshals us to start unloading his truck so that the real work can begin.

Let me describe to you what Image Node actually is, since I guess you’ve never really seen it.

Jefe, who works at a landscaping company in Oklahoma, has over the years acquired a huge amount of infrastructure that forms what is considered Image Node. Two domes, both thirty feet in diameter, have to be erected and mounted and covered with cloth and vinyl respectively. These two domes form the opposing vertices of a four sided polygonal layout that includes a miniature pyramid serving as the main entrance to Camp Image Node, and the behemoth Space Station Prog at the rear- an enormous inflated mylar bladder used as a chill space. Both domes are to be carpeted, decorated, and wired so that electronic wizardry can happen in them, and everything is to be connected with tunnels.

Power is supplied from no less than four generators we have bought, which have to be maintained in a soundproof plywood shed we have to build, which involves much driving of postholes into the surface of the solid alkali gypsum. Also, we have to erect a pavilion to house the kitchen and private Image Node area, as well as build an enormous flat black tarp-lined pool about twenty five yards by three yards to evaporate the grey water we’ll create over the course of the week. Ultimately, several video and slide projectors will be set up in Dome 1 and hooked to a several laptop computers so that Image Node will be appropriately bathed in visual wonderment come nightfall. A mixer, power amps and speakers are set up for the beats. The snarls of power cords and cabling necessary for all this is staggering. Keeping track of the few ladders we have between us and the rest of Disturbia, who are also building three more domes of their own is also a trial.

Meanwhile, food and water has to be organized, a task R throws herself and her food team (C, I, and Zora) into during the heat of the day- zealously- her tension level rising from a 5 to about a 6. Fortunately, Twin C and M have now arrived, as have Ethan and the Saturnalians. Mr. “E” is a film/video artist from Santa Barbara who was part of the original crew that Todd and I befriended two years ago. The Saturnalians, also Santa Barbarinos, are a hodge-podge group of fire-spinners who pretty much exist as a unit, but enliven our camp with the appropriate level of fire spectacle. They camp out back.

A day of grueling and intense labor reveals many things.

First of all, this is a huge undertaking. No one but Jefe really had a mental picture of how many nuts, screws, washers, assembly bolts, machine bolts, pneumatic drills, bits, keys, adapters of various sizes and fitted for various brand names, metal benders, pile drivers, posthole diggers, anchor weights, metal jacks, galvanized metal long and short pieces (hundreds) this involved for the two domes. That in and of itself was fine, and with the help of the disturbians the two frames for the domes were erected over the course of the day. As night wore on we brought out the work lights and attempted to grommet and ziptie the smotheringly huge sections of the covering together while we cross braced the shed for the generators.

Second of all, Jefe is effectively the only one who knows the answers to many questions. No one knows where the tools are kept, or has a larger picture of what’s being done that would allow them to reasonably conclude where the myriad parts and pieces might have migrated to. The energy level of the group veers erratically from chaotic points where too many people are trying to do one thing, overwhelming Jefe- to eerie lulls of labor where everyone assumes they should back off and not get involved. Twin A, who I have interacted with little, is allegedly ignoring/being brusque with those that would interact with the whole electrical set-up. John Osborn, usually a wealth of cracker-barrel know-how, is strangely unable to function in such an alien environment as Burning Man.

[Satirius is way too kind here--what happened was that I was completely overwhelmed from the get go, because none of us had given much thought to exactly how all this was going to get done, so I had five to seven ongoing projects in which lots of soft-handed New Yorkers and Californians were constantly in need of supervision. Turns out, I'm not good at supervision, unless I KNOW I'm supposed to be supervising, but at this stage in my life I wasn't too hot at delegating or teaching anyone anything. I learned my lesson from this, believe me.]

[LARGE section of descriptions of camp disharmony deleted here. Deal.]

All this was more than enough for one day, and it would have been the end of the day, except that a strange and familiar tune emanating distantly from outside the dome seemed to suggest otherwise.

It was a slightly menacing tune.

I struggled to remember what it was,

Then I remembered...

That it was the Oompah-Loompah song, in all it’s methodically sing-songy evilness, and it was getting louder.

I dashed outside the dome with the rest of the Image Noders to see an enormous vehicle bearing down on us from not too far in the distance. The juggernaut was a two story disemboweled bus or truck or something, given shape by barbed and wiry twists of metal crudely forming a kind of lounge-barge. Two cruel looking giant metal horns the length of the entire vehicle stuck out of a mesh metal shield covering the front. Everything was a stroboscopic light show of angry red and oranges and some whites and blues. The driver’s pulpit also appeared to be a bar, as the driver was alternately steering and mixing drinks for wildly gyrating and shrieking people, except that these were not people clustered and crowded and screaming and dripping off the sides.

These were clowns.

Daud was standing next to me looking at this through his binoculars and made a sort of defeated, deflating sound as if he regretted some prior decision and only now was grasping the true meaning of the word regret and said to no one in particular “These must be Ouchy’s people.”

Saturday, August 28, 2004

What's Next?

I'm going to try and space out some stuff for you to read over the next couple of weeks, since I most likely won't be posting anything on here, and I want to keep you in the habit of coming back. What I'll be doing is posting bits of a LONG email sent to me by my friend Satirius, describing his BM 2002 experience. There's a lot of stuff in those emails that will mean nothing to you, and might just get him in trouble, so they'll be short--no more than a couple of paragraphs at max. But he's a hell of a writer, much better than me, so I'm glad he's given me permission to cut-and-paste his own work onto my own blog. This I might not do if I had any confidence he was ever going to do anything with his OWN blog, but hey, we've all got different priorities. I'll bring you the highly refined sense of horror that is the man behind Satirius, even if it kills him to do it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Fingers 3: I Hate Hospitals

I can't think of anyone who likes them, except for those who actually think of them as places that help people. Me, I can't help but think of them as places where massive numbers of people who are hurt get taken. Places where people die. Sad places.

There's no denying my sadness waking up on July 4th. I had the day off work, but spent most of it sitting with The Kid, talking to his "family" and Rojo's family, and noticed a weird kind of dynamic.

The Kid's adopted uncle, whom I'll call "Uncledad," was a real weirdo. His aunt, who was nominally his guardian until he turned 18, I'll call "Auntmom." Uncledad was convinced that my company was going to screw this kid over at some point in the proceedings, which is just patently not the case. Auntmom did her best, in my presence, to keep him calm and presented this bright, shiny, completely plastic smile to me whenever I came around. I was recieving intelligence to the contrary, though, from Rojo.

Turns out, the reason Auntmom and Uncledad were keen on keeping The Kid under their wing was a) he was obviously due for a big insurance settlement, and b) he was their freaking dope mule. More specifically, they had fronted him a pound of pot to sell, and they couldn't find it, nor was he really cognizant enough to tell them. The dude was taking full advantage of his morphine drip, and I don't know that I blame him. The whole situation was really weird, and made weirder by the fact that I wasn't really trusted by anyone in the room, which was odd, since I was the only one who didn't have some sort of agenda to work. I mean, really: if he came to work and said he hurt his back, there might be a few minutes of doubt as to how he really hurt it--but there's no question about this awful injury, so hey, it's a perfect case of "let the insurance company handle it." It's out of my hands, really. I didn't have to be there AT ALL, especially on a holiday, but I felt bad, and wanted to make sure he was as comfortable as possible.

The night before, they had attempted to reattach his thumb, which, if you sort of feel around on your hands, you can tell is a hell of a lot longer than it appears. This digit had been hacked nearly off, and was held on by a few bits of tendon and tissue--the bone was pulverized. I was amazed at how well it looked once they put him back together, but he was in a tremendous amount of pain, and doing a lot of crying all the while. It was hard, very hard, even being in the room, even though I hadn't done a damn thing wrong.

I made myself stay in that room for the entire day, not eating, and drinking hospital water. I felt it was a penance, I guess, to sit and watch the bright cheery Auntmom say things like "Jesus has a plan for everyone," while Uncledad sat in the corner and burned holes in The Kid's head, as if he could divine the secret of the missing dope by willpower alone. And then the horrible moaning and thrashing of The Kid himself, and his girlfriend's heartrending attempts to make him more comfortable.

And the smell. Hospital smells are awful, but towards late afternoon there came another one stealing about the room like whiffs of death. It was like a fart, only not a funny fart--it was one of those where you could tell when each invididual in the room noticed it first, as they casually began to look around to see what could be manufacturing that odor. And, of course, pretty well everyone but me and the girlfriend got up to go smoke a lot more often.

At length, a doctor came in and did some examining of the hand. Then he calmly asked me and the girl out into the hall, and asked us if we'd noticed the smell. We both nodded. He nodded back, and said "I wasn't sure if we could get enough bloodflow back into his thumb, and I think I was right. The tissues of his thumb are going necrotic, and tomorrow we'll have to take him back in to remedy the situation." Before I could grasp what he was saying, he looked at the girl and said "by necrotic, I mean his thumb is dying. We'll have to cut it off, after all." She began to cry. The doctor left me alone with her. Thanks, doc.

I couldn't leave. I couldn't leave her alone with him, and Those People. I stayed for a while, trying to console her while avoiding saying stupid shit like "it's not as bad as it sounds." Things were going to be tough BEFORE, but the prognosis was a lot more grim after the doctor's visit. Those People came back, which made things worse, even though the smell of cigarettes helped to cut what was now an unmistakeable smell of decomposition.

The Kid woke up, sometime around dark. I had been staring at his hand, to the point of ignoring everything else. It was near dark, and no one had turned a light on. When he stirred, everyone kind of jerked awake, and it was Auntmom, I think, who turned on the light.

I had to leave then, because of what The Kid said. In a voice that sounded like it came from the lips of some 13 year old boy, just waking from a dream, he said "what's that smell in here? does anyone else smell it?"

I thought I was going to cry, or scream, although at what I don't know. The thing that jumped into my head was "dude, that's YOU you're smelling," but of course you can't say something like that. I left.

It was possibly the most draining day I've ever had, emotionally. Not a good thing came out of it, and I didn't leave until well after dark. I just couldn't take it any more, frankly, and I had the feeling they were going to run us all out shortly. The girlfriend had a pallet made up beside the bed, where she could have reached his right hand in the night, if he'd still had one.

I had parked on the parking deck, which faces generally towards downtown, and as I walked out to my car, I wasn't really paying attention to what was going on. I was watching my feet, hands in my pockets, and thinking about how terrible and short our lives could be. How no matter how early this kid started fucking up in his life, he didn't deserve to be lying in that bed upstairs, smelling that awful smell, knowing how sick and vulnerable he was with what amounted to a pack of coyotes sitting around his bed, waiting for the check to come in.

As I approached my car, I heard shots off in the distance, towards Nichols Hills. I looked up, and saw fireworks going off above the parks where a day before, a kid had nearly died to make their parade pretty.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

OK, I Suck

I got a ton of BM stuff done, then got swept away to a party of sorts, for reasons that I'd rather not disclose. I did the right thing and left early, and I've still got one more night before leaving, so I'll do my best to get the last installment of Fingers to you before I leave. Sorry, so sorry. The lure of a Life is responsible.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Fingers 2: July 3, 2000

AS I WAS SAYING, we got behind because of one of the little known metereological phenomena that occurs in central Oklahoma: it always, always rains the week before what should be a three day weekend. This in essence fucks up any chance of a long weekend those of us in the landscape industry might have, unless you work for Total Environments, in which case you don't know what a holiday is to begin with.

More specifically, the City of Nichols Hills has a 4th of July parade every year. This is a big fucking deal, as you can imagine, and woe betide the mowing contractor who doesn't have all his Nichols Hills yards mowed by the night before the parade. And if you're the mowing contractor who actually does all the parks for the City, you might as well hang up your mowing shoes if you screw that up.

So that explains why, on Monday, July 3, we were out bustin' our collective humps trying to get this shit done.

See, my boss has a weird issue with July 4th. He refuses to have anybody work on that specific holiday. Now, I can understand this to a degree, but really--it's the one summer holiday that doesn't really get jerked to one end of the weekend to another, so in our cases, we'd much rather have off Labor Day or Memorial Day, and just pretend like the 4th didn't happen.

[and no, we don't take fucking Cinco de Mayo off]

But since it's not really our choice, we suffer through as best we can. Seems like when Bill Clinton was president, we were always getting the shaft, with the holiday falling on, like, a Wednesday or Thursday or Tuesday or something. That generally meant that we worked the Saturday before, the Saturday after, and every day but the Fourth in between. It sucked.

Furthermore, The Fat Man was actually Out Of Town, so I was in the rather unpleasant situation of enforcing this rather ridiculous work schedule. Of course, none of the amigos really gave a damn, but I had a minor riot on my hands with a couple of the white boys, specifically Rojo and The Kid.

For those of you not familiar with Oklahoma stoner culture, 3 day weekends are holy things, almost as much for the opportunity to get self-righteously huffy with the evil boss who makes you work on one of those days (or even late on the day before) as for the actual cheap-beer-and-hot-dogs-at-some-overcrowded-lake celebration of whatever we're supposed to be celebratin'. These celebrations always look the same, Gentle Reader, and I won't go into it now because they aren't really pertinent to the story, except inasmuch as Rojo was dead set that he and The Kid should have a four day weekend.

Not to be. So they started early, and drank their Coors all weekend, and came in all strung out on Monday morning.

Grand Boulevard in Nichols Hills is a nice big park--not Central Park, mind you, but still pretty freakin' nice. The only problem is that it contains, running right smack dab down through the middle, a large drainage canal. The canal is about 15 feet deep, 3/4 of a mile long, and the sides aren't sheer, but pretty close to it. It's obviously too steep to mow, and it's a real bitch to weedeat, but that's what you've got to do.

[Years ago I figured out that the best way to do it was to set two crews on it, one on each side, and put a case of beer down at the other end. Whoever finished their side first got the beer. Tell me I'm not management material.]

We also had several crews out mowing yards in that area, since we were way behind from the rain the week before. I try and make it a habit on Saturdays or odd work days (like this one) to grab a crew and buy them lunch, and I was just returning to the shop from doing this when I got a panicked call from one of the guys.

To this day I can't tell you if he was speaking Spanish or English. Leobardo didn't really know any English, but my Spanish isn't that hot, either, and we understood each other with a clarity you only find once the adrenalin gets flowing. It's one of those calls you do NOT want to get, and you know it from the first word out of the other guy's mouth. Something was wrong, and I was out the fucking door before I even had time to think.

"Grenas, come quick! Accidente!" Fuck, fuck, fuck. I've been on the other end of some bad radio calls, and I've been on site with some pretty gnarly injuries, but I'd never heard panic like this. I was out the door, folks.

I was about, what, 10 miles from the site? About 2 miles in I just called a fucking ambulance, which I've never, ever done, but this sounded bad--very, very bad, judging from the freaked out tones in Rojo's voice when he called me back. He wasn't saying anything terribly coherent, but I could gather that he was basically having to hold The Kid down in the truck seat, and I could hear The Kid screaming at the top of his lungs. Crying, shrieking "oh god oh god oh god," and Rojo shouting at him to be calm, be cool, everything will be OK.

Yeah, I probably broke a few laws getting there.

When I arrived, things didn't look any better. There were nine guys standing, watching the cab of one of our trucks, pale and silent. I could see blood on the white paint of the cab, and a couple of pair of work boots sticking out the driver's side. And I could hear that horrible, high pitched screaming--the screaming of someone who had completely and utterly given over any semblance of control.

I don't know what I would have done if Rojo hadn't been there before me. I know what I'd like to think I'd have done, but Rojo had it done before I even got out of my car. I approached the open door of the trcuk.

The inside of the truck was an abbatoir. There was blood everywhere, the door lintel was slick with it, there were sprays of blood on the windshield, dashboard, and bloody handprints on the seat and steering wheel. There was more blood than I've seen anywhere outside of a movie. Rojo was up in the cab, squatting on The Kid's belly to hold him down. Rojo's shirt was off, and wrapped around The Kid's right hand, but it was soaked through and I took mine off as soon as I saw that. The Kid saw the flash of white and focused on me long enough to recognize who I was.

He started to apologize to me, about fucking up and ruining the tractor and getting hurt and causing problems, and held out his hand to me, which is when we found out that his good hand wasn't good at all, but broken in a couple of places, and I took it and told him it was going to be OK, and to calm down, and everything's going to be fine. I've got not a lick of training at this, folks, but I know from freaked out, even if it is "just a bad trip." And I'm a pretty good liar, too, because one look at this situation and any idiot would know nothing was ever going to be alright for him again.

I tried to crawl up in the cab with them, and slipped on the bloody door lintel (that's gonna leave a mark), and then got to watch as the ambulance cruised by, one street too far to the north. I swore in such a manner that made a lot of the amigos go back to work right then and there, and streaked back to my car to chase it down. Which was fruitless, although it eventually turned back around and found the right spot. I grabbed the remainder of the boys, and got them back to work. Nothing to be done, really, and we were under a serious deadline, after all.

Then I grabbed Rojo and dragged him away. The paramedics had The Kid strapped to a trauma board (I hate those things like you wouldn't believe, but that's yet another tale), and were hustling him to the ambulance. Rojo's tale was a tale that was completely unsurprising, but sort of crystallizes in my head why you've got such things as paramedics and first aid kits.

The Kid was missing a few digits. I'd gathered this from seeing him flail around in the truck--not so much by seeing white bone or pieces of fingers in his lap, but just from the oddly small way his hand looked in the light. After all, it was wrapped in first Rojo's shirt and then mine. Furthermore, he was missing a couple of hunks out of his arm that probably would add up to a decent size steak in one of your finer French restaurants.

What had happened, I gathered, was that (despite my very explicit instructions) Rojo had The Kid driving a tractor that day, and The Kid had rolled the thing into the canal.

Let me describe to you how this came about, and then I'm going to end the post.

First, the mower has a 14 hp diesel engine in it. It has more power than just about anything any of you will ever use to cut grass, and that power is all used to cut a sixty inch swath. The blades don't stop for nothin', no matter how much you screech and holler--nope, unless you hit that kill switch, it's gonna eat whatever you put up in there.

Second, the mower comes equipped with both a roll bar and a seat belt--if both of these are used properly, YOU CAN'T GET HURT. You can't get hurt because you can't get off the machine, and the machine either can't roll completely over or if it does, doesn't roll over on the operator. Imagine doing a big cartwheel--that's what the ROPS and seat belt do for you.

But the ROPS (roll bar) is a pain in the ass, and so is the seat belt. And, when we get right down to it, is the Operator Presence Switch.

The OPS is the crux of the biscuit here, ladies and gents. It's the thing that makes sure you're on the seat when the blades are turning. If you lift your narra ass up off that seat, the switch cuts off and the motor dies. This, in turn, spins down the mower blades.

There's a whole nother screed about how people who can't keep their fingers out from under running mowers should probably not be coddled by manufacturers, but I'm going to try and stay on topic.

The problem with the OPS is twofold. First, it'll start to kill the motor if you bounce off the seat (which isn't really a problem if you're wearing your seatbelt, now is it?), and second, it's a very simple switch to circumvent.

So here's what happened: Rojo and The Kid, sometime during the morning hours, had disabled the OPS. Then, after smoking some fucking DOPE (there's a reason they call it "dope," you know), they got on their respective tractors and took off. The Kid left his roll bar down, and kept his seat belt off (we believe).

Then he got too close to the edge of the canal, and started to slide in. You could see the skid marks of the tires, where he stopped on the slope. Standing there, I could feel the confusion and fear The Kid must have felt. It made me sick--I felt like a failure, I felt like I'd been asleep at the switch with this kid, and now he was paying the price for my inattention.

A paramedic approached us, and asked us if we'd located any "parts." We hadn't, but we hadn't been looking. The three of us slid down the slope, around the mower, and started looking for fingers. There were 3 missing. We found one, the index, I think, but his hands were so thin and fingers so fine, I can't say for sure. They couldn't reattach it. We also found a little bit of just...tissue...lying in the algaed water of the canal, which made Rojo retch a bit, but just hammered home to me the immensity of my failure.

On the way back up, I saw what had happened. The Kid had jumped for it, and stuck his hand out to catch himself before he hit the ground. Unfortunately, the mower rolled (which, again, wouldn't have happened if the ROPS had been up), and before the blades could spin down his entire hand was up in there.

We followed the ambulance to the hospital, and Rojo used my phone to call his family and The Kid's family. They took him into surgery immediately. We sat outside in the waiting room, and I started to feel a little uncomfortable.

See, I'm kind of weird lookin'. I've got long hair, and pierced nipples and a tattoo of a four eyed horse on one arm. No, really, I'm not making this up. I was shirtless, sweaty and a little bloody, probably, and I was running a two million dollar a year landscape maintenance firm off of a Nextel radio in a hospital, which meant I kept having to go outside to use it, so I kept getting strange looks from all the other people around there.

The accident occurred about 1pm. I didn't get a shirt until sometime after 4pm, and he didn't come out of surgery til after midnight. What passed for The Kid's family was there--his mother was in jail in Lawton, his father was dead, and his aunt and uncle were more harm than help every step of the way. The only sane one, I believe to this day, was The Kid's girlfriend.

I went home, after he was tucked in to bed and I got to hear the doctor's prognosis:

index finger was history
middle finger was history
thumb had been reattached, but he didn't hold much hope for it
ring finger had been basically reassembled, minus the end knuckle.
pinky finger was pretty much OK.
forearm was missing quite a bit of meat, but with skin grafts and such would probably look OK eventually.

I went home, but I couldn't sleep. I kept seeing the kid's face in my mind, kept seeing the slaughterhouse that was the inside of that truck. I kept seeing Rojo's crazy green eyes, doing his best to remember what he was supposed to be doing but very, very close to breaking himself.

There's a scene in Apocalypse Now which I flashed to when we were in the cab of that truck. You know when the Air Cav guys are attacking the village (think Die Walkure, that Wagner opera), and they land in the town square? There's a whole bunch of just sheer madness going on, lots of shit being filmed at once, very quickly, and it's supposed to evoke what it's like to be in a real battle situation (whether it succeeds is not a matter for the comment gallery, either)...but there's one part where this guy's lying on the ground and a medic's tending to him, and you don't really see what's wrong with him, all you can hear is him screaming his lungs out and the medic yelling for a stretcher and some other poor guy trying to hold the first guy down, and it's not going to be OK, and that's all I could think about while I was holding this guy's broken hand and holding his legs still so he didn't accidentally knee Rojo in the nuts--how life, or what we think of as life, is so tenuous that it's a wonder we count on making it til nightfall anyway, at least with our bodies and sanity intact.

The Kid got up that morning, probably stepped over his PS2, which he might as well just pawn NOW, right, and headed out the door to come to work, driving like an 18 year old kid who was invincible. Five hours later, he was on his back in a slimy concrete ditch, missing for all intents and purposes his right hand, while the bugs whine in his ears and the clatter of a big diesel motor beat into his head and the hot Oklahoma sun burned his eyes.

You never know, right?

Saturday, August 21, 2004

OK, Some Ground Rules (For The Simpletons)

I've spent the last couple of days sort of simmering about this--that is, my feeling that this blog is the victim of a fucking hijacking, for no good reason at all.

I still can't bear to delete the comments of dman and hippie and freakin' beardking, as offensive as they are to me. So if you're dman or hippie or beardking, know that I value your input, no matter how insane it is, and I'm not small minded enough to just delete your shit. Although I should.

That said, let me remind you that this isn't a John Birch Society Chat Room. It's not anyone's chat room, really. The whole reason I put comments on this motherfucker to begin with is so that I can gather input on what I a three or four post comment on whatever it is that you want to talk about doesn't, uh, please me.

So, you've got the right to your opinions, and I'll do my best to avoid deleting them (as much as you raise my blood pressure by writing that, um, those words)...but if you want to post a thousand word screed on anything, start your own freakin' blog and link to it. I'm an eclectic son of a bitch--if you take an interest in the crap I write, I'll link to you, especially if you want to rant about my shit.

But really, kids. Eating up my comment space defending yourself, no matter how justified a defense you might think it is, is indefensible. It's just not an appropriate forum. Period. When I boil it down to remove all the hair and other extraneous bullshit, it comes out looking like this:

Get Your Own Blog

I can't say that I love you, kids. At least some of you. I can't say that I care too much about you, either--not because I feel like I'm some sort of blogstar or whatever, but just because I've emptied out my compassion and patience reservoirs over the last few months, for good and bad reasons...but really, sirs and ladies, what the fucking holy Jesus Christ on a stick do I owe any of you, at least w/r/t this blog? Not a damn thing, other than my own self imposed madness concerning telling you stories about my own life.

So, to get to the specifics, fuck you. Fuck you, you idiots that can't imagine anything beyond your next paycheck. Fuck you, you bitches who can't understand anything beyond the driving of an SUV from work, to Wal Mart, and home. Fuck you, you dipshits who don't understand that it's only yours inasmuch as you bought it and there are more important ties in the real world than a goddamn bill of sale, or treaty. There are things that supersede pens and paper and the agreements that treacherous bastards in Washington think are best. It's nothing==The feel of earth in your hands, the feeling of having dirt on your hands, and knowing it's your soil, your land, your life....

The IRA. Steinbeck, and anarchists and labor organizers and the motherfuckerst that truly understand what it takes to live a life on this planet, a life without getting kicked in the face by The Man, a life without getting bled dry by some asshole on welfare...

OK, I can ramble for days about what is good....but I've got someone already here to help load, and I've got another surprise visitor who doesn't know he's being suckered into helping load, so I must go and snaggle my snares. Extra good, since I've now found a second G and T that needed to be made.

Apologies to some of you for the bombast...but, remember, I've made rules:

1) no comment shall exceed one post in length. Period. Not hard, unless you have an agenda, which I'm not about. This is MY agenda, after all.

2) I continue to reserve the right to delete comments (although I haven't) that raise my blood pressure. For better or worse, I'm good at ignoring things, so I'll let this of ugliness....slide through the cracks..

Further digestion of the rules:

1) and only 1) no posting above one comment's worth. Period. I delete above that.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A Post I Really Didn't Want To Write

What occurred in the comment section below was inevitable, I guess, but I'm not going to tiptoe around both what I wanted to get across in this story (which wasn't a story about race to begin with, it's about personal responsibility, and how I still feel responsible even when it's not my fault) and what some of the folks who read this blog have said in the comments.

1) This ain't a public forum. This is my blog, and if you think I hold the 1st amendment rights of anyone in higher regard than my mood a minute after I get out of bed and read this ridiculous racist crap on something associated with me, then you're mistaken. Very mistaken, and if this becomes a problem, don't think I won't at the very least start deleting comments.

2) I feel very strongly about ad hominem attacks anywhere there's public or semi-public discourse. They're stupid, unproductive, and frankly, a sign of a weak argument. If you must insult someone, do it in a way that the Yalies who read this understand. Think of it as heightening the level of discourse--but lay off the "jerk off's," OK?

3) Finally, the language thing.

To clarify what I said in the previous post: I'm not talking about your mythical dude who comes to the US from Aguascalientes Mexico, files for welfare, and stays til he's forty, whistling out of beat up cars at your white women. I'm talking about the motherfucker who's got the guts to go to a foreign country (which, I think you'll agree, is a scary proposition to begin with) and work like a slave to feed his family back home. Because that's what they fuckin' do, kids. They do it because they don't have a choice. You think they'd be here if they could have graduated from high school and got a job at a help desk somewhere close to home? Sheeyit. Know why you see Mexican (and Guatemalan, and Honduran) flags all over the fucking place? Because they're homesick, kids. They don't want to be assimilated here because they're not Americans. They're Salvadoreans. They're Nicaraguans. And they got a family to feed, and no jobs at home. Do they want to stay here? Nope. Do they want to live on your welfare? No, and you know why? Because welfare don't feed babies in other fucking countries.

You know how many guys I got, living four to an apartment and working Sundays for some other lawn crew, that get food stamps? Zero. Z-e-r-o. Know why? 'Cause the state don't give single dudes welfare money, never mind that you have to have a freakin' Social Security number to apply. The "Mexican welfare" myth that you see isn't my people. It's Mexican-American families who are struggling (generally) just as hard as anyone else to make a life for themselves IN THIS COUNTRY. Think about it, Gentle Fucking Reader, would you want YOUR kids to grow up in a country they couldn't speak the language in?

And did it ever, ever occur to you that "no hablo" doesn't mean "I don't understand," it means "I don't talk?" As in, I don't want to talk to you? As an American citizen, can you somehow demand that everyone to whom you speak want to talk back to you? Arrogance, peeps. There are many, many days when I don't want to talk to a soul, including my friends--much less someone who obviously (and don't tell me it ain't obvious, yo) thinks you're not worth the boots I'm standing in?

And guess what, man. That attitude is inborn--I'm an antisocial son of a bitch, and I don't really know WHY. Imagine what I'd be like if I'd ever been fucked out of a paycheck, or arrested by a cop on trumped up charges (ask me, I'll tell you all about it), or freakin' held in lockup long after The Law that some of us hold in such high esteem requires that I be sent back to my homeland....

So this whole "he doesn't speak English when I want him to, so he's a bad person" sure says a lot about the arrogance of our citizenry, unless someone can convince me differently. That California proposition which required bilingual education showed how silly it is to stretch an already failing public education system by requiring it to teach in English and Spanish...the EU, I think, is being hamstrung by requiring everything it does be translated into every single member language before anything can proceed (I just read that somewhere, don't pick a fight with me on it). I don't know what to do with this, I really don't. If I knew what to do, I'd run for president, just to see which one of you rat bastards would sell out my anonymity to the incumbent party (whichever it is).

But you know what? I learned something years ago, something I think applies to all people who feel uncomfortable around others. If you hear someone speaking to someone else in a foreign language, there's a quick moment (if you're lucky) when you're sure they're talking about YOU. The smart people get over that--they realize they're being silly, or overreacting. The dumb ones get uncomfortable, and maybe do something stupid, which fulfills the punchline of "white people/arrogant American" jokes worldwide.

Look, ladies and gentlemen, I hate to sound like a fucking Burner here, but the shit is all the same color. The blood is all red. The words are different, but the ideas are the same. If you're down on someone because he didn't get the education you did, so he's got to have a pair of minimum wage jobs, think for a second why you have the education you do. Think about how, if you had spent the years from 12 to 25 working in Taco Bell's tomato fields, being paid just enough to survive, you'd feel the next time some gabacho bastard walked up to you and asked you a question. Think about how, and here's where you really should smoke a little dope and contemplate the situation, you would react given the same set of circumstances.

I'll tell you a little something about my boss, whom I've known for about 13 years now. When I started, he had 10 white boys, a black guy, and a visceral hatred of hispanics that I guess is just delivered into your hearts by drinking the water. The blood of the Alamo seeps into the aquifers, maybe.

Anyway, within four or five years, he'd lost the hatred of hispanics, because he was forced, by market pressure, to interact with some of them. Yes, some of them were bad people, but by and large they were better people than the white boys and black guy.

So for a time he "liked Mexicans, but hated wetbacks." This lasted a remarkably short time for him, considering that changing his mind is like making sandstone out of sand, but then, he spun off on a completely new tangent: black people.

Since I have a few black friends that wouldn't approve, I won't use the racial epithet he used...but once again, he had a universal dislike of blacks until, wonder of wonders, he actually started hanging around with them (at his kids' basketball games). Suddenly, and this is a dichotomy that persists to this day, there were "blacks" and there were "niggers." Sorry, kids, there's no way around that one--it's offensive to me, too.

But the people in the latter category was a hell of a lot less than it had been in the previous years, just like the people in the "wetback" category are a hell of a lot smaller in number than they were in 1991. Know what I'd extrapolate from this data, given my highly educated American brain? Maybe you can't tell good or bad people from the color of their skin, or (here's the kicker, in case you fell asleep) the language they speak.

Well, hell. I really intended to crystallize what Dman and Beardking and Hippie were saying in the comments, but I don't know that I've done it. After trying to list my points, I've decided to give up and just send this sucker out for you guys to tear apart (I'm also finishing my third beer, which is generally the signal for "publish and get the fuck out"). Point is, until you guys realize that there are no local problems anymore, you won't be happy. We found that out with Pearl Harbor, we found that out with 9/11, we found it out in a trade deficit that staggers the mind, which continues even today. We see it in blood diamonds and cocaine, and we saw it in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nothing's local. There are too many of us now, and we're connected in too many ways. That may be bad, and that may be good, but it's the way things are.

Look, I've hung out with and worked side by side with Mexican laborers my entire adult life. I've lived in Little Saigon. I try and eat Indian food once a week, and every time I'm in NYC I try and eat a shwarma at the Middle Eastern place down from Sackett Street. I don't resent these cultures, kids--I relish them. Different is good.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Fingers 1: The Kid

You can probably guess that landscape maintenance in Oklahoma isn't a year round deal. We keep employees year round, yes, but in the winter we have about half of the people we do in peak season. This works out great for guys from Mexico or other countries down south--they essentially take turns visiting their families for Thanksgiving/Christmas, then start trickling back across the border in February or March.

Thus, early spring is a busy time of the year, HR-wise. I like to get the same guys I had last year, but since we're talking about 25 people, that just doesn't happen. It's not like the coyote drives up big buses full of workers and lets me sort through them like bell peppers--you need people in spring, you hire the ones who come up that have all their fingers and can show you papers. If, two days later, one of your old hands comes in, you hire him too--turnover is high, and I can make it even higher if I have a reason.

But aside from the old guard, you get a crop of rather scummy white guys who mostly got laid off from their old company the year before, and didn't get picked back up again this year. Usually the reasons are obvious--but sometimes I either screw up, or just need people badly enough to forgive what I shouldn't, because mowers and shovels don't run themselves. And then you've got the guys who don't look like trouble, but are. I've figured out that if you ask the right questions, you can tell the blowhards from the guys who actually want to work--but who's got time to do that in the spring?

So I hired a guy who talked a good game. We'll call him Rojo, as the guys called him, because he had bright red hair. Rojo, it turns out, was straight outta Asplundh, which is the tree company that does all the power line work around here, and I was impressed at how much technical knowledge he had about both tree pruning and first aid. He was right about the first aid--I never did find out about the tree pruning, because we put him on a mow crew.

Rojo was a blowhard, it turns out. You know how a lot of short guys feel compelled to talk themselves up, so they feel taller (I guess)? Rojo was about 5' 4", and I had mistaken this braggadocio for actual knowledge, because I hadn't really been paying attention. Rojo knew more than anyone, about everything. And I'm not just talking about trees. I'm talking about emergency brakes on trucks. I'm talking about turfgrass. I'm talking about labor laws, marijuana cultivation, and Mexican culture. And he would expound on all of this, endlessly.

The good news about people like this is that you can ignore them pretty readily, once they're identified. This I did, but since he was a fellow longhair, and since he lived fairly close to me, I wound up giving him a ride home a few times. His wife was a great big fat harridan, who plainly ran the show when no one was around, and they had three or four young'uns running around the porch and front yard whenever I dropped him off.

So, this guy shows up at the beginning of crunch time, and I have to hire him because I need the fucking people. Three or four weeks later, he brings up a friend of his, The Kid, who was also looking for work.

The Kid was barely 18 years of age, which means he was barely able to work for us, according to the DOL. I was leery of him, but he seemed a) like he needed a job, and b) not quite as obnoxious as Rojo.

So I hired him--and when things like this happen, an interesting situation arises.

I'm too nice. I'm too concerned with people's well being for my own good (my current attitude notwithstanding), and this causes me no end of trouble. See, I've been where The Kid would have been. I didn't mind it so much, but I'm a weird motherfucker, and there's not much that really gets to me.

Working with a crew of people that don't speak your language is a daunting task, even if they're technically your inferiors. I'll probably go into the unique problems that come up when you're responsible for someone who doesn't speak English a bit later, but for now, imagine you're an 18 year old kid (and if you're younger than 18, you probably shouldn't be reading this anyway), MAYBE a high school graduate, probably still living at home. Imagine all of a sudden that you're thrown into what can only be called The Real World, because the toil and noise and sheer pace demands your full attention. It, and the people you work with, don't cut you any slack because you're a fucking kid (and if you don't think 18's a kid, you probably shouldn't be reading this anyway). The machines don't give a shit if you're tired. Your co workers only care about your blisters because your blisters slow them down--same thing with your confusion. Every misstep you make costs them time, and every misstep you make lowers you in their estimation. These guys don't fuck around, ladies and gents; when it's a hundred and five degrees out there, every mistake, every deviation from the pattern accepted as most efficient, is noted and resented. From past posts, you can probably guess that this is how guys get names like "La Gallina" and "Tortuga" and "Culero."

But before these guys begin to sound like a bunch of dour assholes, think about it from their perspective. You, at least, can get off work and watch TV that's broadcast in your own language. You, at least, can order something off the menu at McDonalds (the H2B guys we had, yet another story, had never seen an ice machine before) without having to second guess yourself. You're constantly bathed in a cocoon of familiar words and language. Even if you wanted to turn it off, you couldn't.

Now, imagine that not only are you functionally illiterate and basically deaf and dumb in this country, you're also here ILLEGALLY. Everything you do that elicits a laugh from someone might blow your cover. Cops? Fageddaboutit. Racial profiling? Yup. There's a whole criminal element that preys on the apartment complexes illegal aliens tend to inhabit, because hey, what are they gonna do?

So yeah, even if they're treated the same here as the white trash kids (with regards to pay), I can't really think badly of them for being envious of their status here--how easy it all is for Rojo, or The Kid.

The point of all this (because I know it isn't very clear) is that I knew The Kid wouldn't last a week without someone around to talk to. Spending the day alternating between the roar of power equipment and the maddening din of mariachi music (and don't even get me started on World Cup Soccer) is difficult for someone whose brain hits on all cylinders--imagine...well, imagine being The Kid.

So I put him with Rojo, because I needed someone over there. I put him over there with specific instructions as to what he could and could not do. I put him on that crew, ladies and gentlemen, and told that little red headed bastard to keep him off the big mowers. And for a couple of weeks, everything was fine. Then we got behind.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Robert Johnson 4: Story of Robert

Turns out Sammy's real name was Robert Johnson, and he had been homeless for about a year. Previously, he had been an x ray technician. He had a wife, and a little girl, and sang solo in his church choir.

The he was shot in a robbery. The bullet did some damage to his hip, so he developed a pretty bad limp. The limp embarrassed him, and apparently embarrassed his wife even more. According to Robert, she began to sleep around on him.

He began drinking too much, and ultimately lost his job after supervisor smelled liquor on him during work. Things began to spiral out of control at home, and at church. He was either ejected from the choir or from the entire church.

Robert also started having brushes with the law. He called the cops on himself after tying his wife to their bed and setting the mattress on fire. He couldn't understand why they arrested him. "Hell," he said, "I didn't hurt nobody. I call 'em as soon as I lit them newspapers." I think the bed burning thing was the final straw--he was divorced soon after, and she got everything (which might be justified--don't get me wrong. I'm telling this like Robert told it to me, remember). With no job, no church, and no wife, he was on the streets instantly, and had been there ever since.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, alternating swigs out of the bottle. Then he said "man, but things are turnin' aroun' for me. They got a new low rent housing project over on 30th and Shartel, and they say I got a real good chance of getting in, if I can get cleaned up and get a job. I just need some money to get off the street for a bit, get my hair cut, shit like that."

How did I feel? I felt like I'd been a shithead for my whole life. Here I was, sitting in an apartment drinking good whiskey and writing bad poetry about how terrible life was because I couldn't find a woman who met my specs, when outside was an entire crew of guys who couldn't even get fed every day. They had problems, yeah, but listening to Robert, I knew I was feeling sorry for myself. And that's something I can't countenance, yo.

I got up, went inside, and got my bottle full of change. We sat out in the parking lot and counted it out in the dark (it was almost all quarters, back then--I had a separate one for my small change). It was close to fifty bucks. He began to cry.

I didn't know what to do, so I spent the minutes it took to compose himself drinking bourbon, which was getting down to the bottom a lot quicker than we wanted. Finally, his eyes still shining a little in the dark, he told me that he'd pay me back somehow, when he got on his feet. He didn't have a damn thing now, he said, but he wanted to sing me a song, like he used to in church, to thank me.

It had never occurred to me...but he sang me a song, right out there in the dark, in a garage that smelt of dried up grass clippings and motor oil and cat piss. It was a song I hadn't heard before, called "Please Come To Boston." I don't know who originally sang it, but I know, six months later, that I heard it played on the jukebox at Edna's Bar and Grill, and I think I may have shed a tear or two.

David Allan Coe does a cover of it, and it's a weird cover song for him. Every time I hear it (I won't buy it on CD--I just go into Edna's), I think that life can't possibly be as bad as I think.

Anyway, after the song, the bourbon was finished. We shook hands like equals, and I thanked him sincerely for both the song and sharing my birthday with me. He looked me in the eye and thanked me for the whiskey, and told me that he'd pay me back next time he saw me--he was going to get cleaned up tomorrow morning, once he got un-drunk. We parted, if not friends, at least with a little better understanding of how things were. I felt good, and after my shower, I slept like a child until sunup, when I woke before the alarm clock went off--but not too much before the alarm clock.

I had a headache, but I didn't mind. I was living a pretty good life, after all. I worked hard, I payed my bills, I bought pretty much what I wanted. I had a car and a roof over my head. I dressed, brushed my teeth, and started my car. Hit the radio button, and my finger went into the dashboard.

Sometime after I'd gone to sleep, Robert had come back and stolen my stereo.

Monday, August 09, 2004

I Swear, I'm Not Slacking

Yes, OK, I'm slacking, but I just finished up the freakin' Robert Johnson story, and it got eaten by a fucking browser malfunction. I'm probably going to be busy tonight, but I promise I'll do it again tomorrow. My brain will probably be more amenable to stringing sentences along, after a night's sleep.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Robert Johnson 3: Happy Birthday

It was the night of my 24th birthday, in the spring of 1996. Truth be told, the whole week was turning out to be a bummer--first, I was broke; second, it was the one year anniversary of the Murrah bombing, so there wasn't anything good on television (that's a joke, people). Truth be told, I was feeling pretty down--perhaps it was the advent of another season of madness here at work: the end of days I got off before the liquor stores closed. Maybe I'm bipolar. I don't know, but I was pretty lonely--that kind of lonely I try to avoid nowadays, the "I'm lonely because no one understands me" lonely.

Spring had sprung, in other words, and I wasn't very happy about it. I'd left my liter of whiskey in the car, because it was just askin' for trouble to take it over to the Royal--but over to the Royal I went, for my two quarts of beer and a can of Dinty Moore beef stew (comfort food, if you must know). It was dark, around 9:30.

I was about halfway back across the Royal with my beers and my stew when I heard a voice: "hey! hey, cuz! happy birfday!" It was, of all people, Sammy. He was hookin' it across 23rd street as fast as he could with his gimp leg, and I stopped to wait on him. I was pretty fucking broke, but hey, the guy had pegged my birthday, right?

When he got closer, and got some of his wind back, I said "hey, Sammy, how'd you know today's my birthday?" He gave me this look that was half sly and half confused, grabbed me by the elbow, and started dragging me around the dumpster, away from the visible parking lot. His leg was hurting him, I could see, so I didn't mind that--especially since Nam Dude and Big Chief weren't anywhere in sight. Once we were out of sight, he turned to me and said "what the fuck you talkin' bout, YOUR birfday? It's MY birfday! I'm forty seven years old today!"

Wow. What are the odds? But he was still talking: "Man, look. I need five dollars to get into the Jesus House [a local transient hotel, for lack of a better term, that I don't believe makes you pay to get into]. Can you help a brotha out?"

I gave him what I had in my pockets, which amounted to about 20 cents, and started walking back out into the parking lot, talking to him about birthdays. He wouldn't follow me. "You see dat motherfucker over there 'cross the street? In the green Suburban?" Sure enough, there sat a metallic green Suburban...

"I was running my game on him, an' he said, Sammy, it's yo birfday? Here, have a drink. Well, hell, I know better than to drink somethin' that's already open, so I kinda made like I was drinkin' it, an' clocked how he was watchin' me. An' sure enough, he looked me right in the eye, and said 'Sammy, you like to fuck white wimmin?'"

This began to sound like a good story, so I started paying attention.

"An' I said awww, shit--I know how that always goes. Ever' time, ever time I get in there and start fuckin' some old white guy's wife, and he wants to go and stick his finger in my butt, or worse. I know better than that. So I says to him, hey, I'll be right back. That's my cousin over there." And pointed at me.

Now, I'm about as non-black as they come, but I guess it was dark, and Green Explorer Dude probably knew a "no" when he heard it, because when I looked up he was gone. But while I stood there with Sammy, in the dark, I really began to feel like my life was pretty good (which it was, and in fact still is)--despite my utter loneliness, I had a place to live, a shower, and a stable job. And hell, two quarts of beer that were slowly sweating their way through the thin paper bag.

I felt a little sorry for Sammy. And I couldn't help but feel like us having the same "birfday" was too weird of a coincidence to let it go with a "stay away from open beers and green Explorers, Sammy." Fate's as good an excuse to get in trouble as any, I think...

So I said "Sammy, I want you to come back in here. You got to promise me that you won't come back in here when I'm not here, OK? You're only getting back here because it's our birthday, and I've got a present for you." He concurred, and in a few minutes we were sitting in the garage, leaning back against my car, listening to the radio. I had retrieved the half bottle of bourbon from my kitchen counter, and I thought he was going to cry when he saw the label.

Now, Weller's isn't anything special. I like it mainly because it's good, without being outrageously expensive or harsh on the palate. It's good whiskey without anything that really separates it from the crowd. Jack Daniel's, for instance, you either love or you hate. It's got a flavor all its own, and if you don't dig that bite, you just stay the hell away from it. Same with Jim Beam, I guess, although Jimmy never treated me as good. Could be something to do with how we drank it, I guess, but something about the flavor of that stuff just puts me off kilter. No, Weller was in my price range (somewhere around $15 bucks a liter, back then), mellow, and easy on the throat.

But compare it to Kentucky Deluxe, for instance, and it's a most wonderful elixir. It's liquid sunshine, bubba, and after a slug or two the night doesn't seem as dark or as lonely.

So we sat there, in the dark, swapping stories and trading the bottle back and forth. We talked a little about my ex-girlfriend, and that "mean red headed bitch she live wit." And when we were done with that, he began to tell me his story.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Robert Johnson 2: Sammy and Doc

The other problem my landlord had, other than the armed crackheads across the street, was homeless people. There was literally an alley that ran behind my apartment building, and in that alley congregated bums. Transients. Dirty, crazy winos. And since there was a convenient patch of weeds and a bit of a concrete wall back there, close to the Royal, there congregated a very specific group of bums.

These bums were the lowest of the low, I think. There was a crowd of guys who hung out under a big mulberry tree across the street, behind 4 B's Food Mart (I'm not making this up), but I think those guys actually had homes, and would just hole up under the tree to smoke whatever drugs they could find and drink cheap wine. Pretty much the same crew, only my side of 23rd Street had fallen a little farther down in the social heirarchy.

In any event, the landlord spent a lot of time calling the cops on those guys, and I had a sort of love/hate relationship with them. I'm a big believer in helping out those less fortunate, so if one of them came up to me and tried--at least tried--to convince me he needed some money, I'd do it. I don't feel like I owe it to anyone, but if you would at least try and be mildly entertaining, I was perfectly cool for you.

I'm not talking "Bumfights" entertaining, either. I'm talking about harmonica playing. I'm talking about storytelling. I'm talking about, at the very least, being cool. I had a kind of running gun battle with a great big indian fellow who felt like he deserved everything anyone could give him, and more, and any cash he got went straight to the manufacturers of Thunderbird wine. Or maybe even Cisco--he was a pretty rough looking cat. I never would give him money, though. When he'd approach me (which was fairly often, since I made the trip to the Royal at least once a day), I'd ask him what the money was for. Invariably, he'd tell me "so I can get something to eat." I'd then go buy him a pack o' baloney, some bread, and some cheese (and myself a sixpack), pull my six out of the sack, and give him the food. This didn't go over well.

He was always the worst of the bunch. At one point he passed out across the driveway, or the access area between my concrete backyard and the alley. I didn't want to touch the guy, but we had to go somewhere, so Dan has the mental picture of me leaning over, screaming expletives at this poor homeless man, who was futilely pawing at the air as if to ward me off. I was just trying to help, you understand--anyone else would probably have run him over.

But I didn't have too many problems with anyone else. In fact, most of them recognized me as a soft touch, and treated me accordingly. This is how we originally met Sammy.

Sammy was a dead ringer for Sammy Davis Jr, except he had a really bad limp. He was a hustler, but hadn't been on the street for so long that his mind was soft. The first time I met him, he followed me from the Royal up into my back yard, which was absolutely VERBOTEN if you wanted any money from me (or, if the landlord saw you, if you wanted to stay out of jail). I explained this to the guy, and he actually APOLOGIZED--and I never saw him come up inside again, until I invited him.

Sammy's schtick was to tell me/us neighborhood gossip. My soon-to-be exgirlfriend LOVED the man, and whenever he caught her outside she'd listen to his stories until the other homeless guys started homing in on her. And in return, we gave him whatever we could (because remember, we were broke as fuck too--but maybe that's why we didn't mind them, because they reminded us of how good we really had it).

I probably saw Sammy half a dozen times over the course of the year, so I knew him pretty well (I mean, for a panhandler and his mark) by the time I booted my girlfriend out of the house. Once that happened, all the stories he told me were about how much she still loved me, and how wonderful a woman she was. Which she is, mind you--and I say that without a trace of irony.

Anyway, she moved out and moved across the street, into the 4-B's territory, and we spent the summer in a kind of uneasy standoff. I tried to stay drunk and absent as much as possible, and she...well, I don't know what she did. But by the time winter well and truly hit, I was broke, and I completely withdrew from everything and everyone. My place was warm and cozy, once you stapled blankets over all the windows, and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself (it was a rough breakup, I'm telling you), and I even started to write a little--which really didn't help matters, and in fact it's all been long erased. I think it has, anyway--Daniel-san might surprise me, though.

I was also reading a lot, and re-discovered my love of John Steinbeck.

Ladies and gentlemen, I knew my relationship was doomed to fail when I realized Liz didn't like Steinbeck. He's kind of a litmus test, I think--people who don't like Steinbeck...I can be friends with them, but there's something wrong with them in a way I can't really express without offending my friends who don't like Steinbeck. And before you protest, if you don't like Steinbeck because you had to read the fucking _Grapes of Wrath_ in the 8th grade (which, back when Oklahoma required you to be able to read before you graduated, was pretty well SOP for schools in this state, for reasons that should be obvious if you think about it), that's OK. You have to go re-read him, and find his writing sentimental or shallow, before I lump you in with those cold-hearted east coasters.

Read _Cannery Row_, kids. That's the one to start with. Unless you're a union organizer, or a fan of sprawling multigenerational tales a la James Michener, in which case you should start out with _In Dubious Battle_ or _East of Eden_, respectively. You also can't cheat and watch movies, although the movie titled "Cannery Row" is pretty good.

In any event, I was rereading _Cannery Row_ for like the 11th time, and beginning to identify with Doc, one of the major characters. Doc was a marine biologist, in the book, and was based a great deal on a friend of Steinbeck's named Dr Ed Ricketts, who was a marine biologist in real life. Doc was a lonely man (like I was), and next door to his place was a sort of vacant lot wherein resided a motley bunch of winos (like I had). Furthermore, across the street was a grocery store/protobodega run by a bunch of asians (again, like I had). Doc, in the story, would trek across the street every night and buy two quarts of beer, which he would drink while cooking his dinner over a bunsen burner or something. As you guys know, I drink a lot of beer, too, and since I spent a lot of time feeling both artistic AND sorry for myself, I soon started making that trek across the alley every night, bringing back two quarts of Budweiser in a paper bag.

That was my dinner many nights--until wintertime, when I'd go on payday and buy myself a bottle of Weller's bourbon.

I figured out early on that I was capable of drinking nearly a liter of bourbon in a week. nearly, but not quite. So, given that I'd buy a new bottle every Wednesday, but not open it til I'd finished the old one. In time, this weekly leftover grew to about half a bottle, and sometime in late March, when it started to warm up, I resumed my nightly treks to the Royal for beers. Since money was better, I kept buying the bourbon.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Robert Johnson 1: Crackville

Many years ago, I lived down crackville, specifically in a fourplex apartment building on the southeast corner of Hudson and NW 24th Street. It was a small apartment, but nice, and it had a fenced in area behind the building, which contained a carport. This part of the city is bad enough that I wouldn't have moved there if I couldn't have parked my car out of sight, but the garage was nice, and it was almost like having my own back yard to play in. During the two or three years I lived there, I dug flower beds, planted roses, and did all sorts of free landscaping. I knew the landlord (we drank a lot of beer together, and he barbecued pretty well every Sunday that it wasn't snowing), and I knew some of the local people, and it was pretty much OK.

But it was crackville. There was a smell that came from across the street, when the wind was right, that I didn't recognize until years later as the smell of crack being smoked. It was constant, and it was everywhere. The dealer's door was never closed, even in wintertime, and many times I saw large men standing guard. I didn't go over there. I tried to avoid even LOOKING over there--but they didn't fuck with me, and everyone needs a trade, so there was an uneasy peace.

The thing I liked most about the apartment was that it was across the alley from the Platonic form of bodega. The Royal Food Mart had everything from eggs to potatoes to spark plugs to Mickey's Big Mouths, and the vietnamese family who basically lived inside the place was friendly and always helpful.

This whole scene is set at the confluence of three big demographics: Little Saigon, or as the Chamber of Commerce likes to put it, The Asian District; the fucking ghetto, or rather the first tendrils of the ghetto beginning to creep over the highway; and Heritage Hills, a historical district containing many, many mansions (the blue stucco place from the Meghan story was eight blocks away from my apartment). We were very decidedly NOT on the Heritage Hills side of the tracks.

Anyway, I had been living with this girl for about three years--she was (and is still) wonderful, but ultimately I decided we weren't good for each other, and ended the relationship. She was completely heartbroken (who wouldn't be?), and still in denial somewhat. I made sure she understood that we were not to see or talk to each other for a long damn time (my first experiment with breaking up smart), and sent her on her way. She lit, quite literally, across the street.

Not in the crack apartments, mind you. She actually made it over towards the Heritage Hills side of things, where her friend Daria was renting an apartment. Daria, incidentally, was so dumb that she thought a pedophile was a foot doctor, but that's a story for a different blog. The important thing to remember is that my ex could literally see my back door from her apartment, which wasn't good for her in any way, shape or form. It was kind of creepy for me, too.

For the first several months of the breakup, she spent a lot of time driving around my block, or calling my friends to find out if I was there, and in general not taking things very well. I, for my part, ignored her--there's got to be a separation period before you can attempt to build a friendship after a breakup, and she was plainly still holding on to a relationship that no longer existed. Anyway, she eventually got the hint, and we're still friends, and she's very happy with the guy she's got now. But before that, there was Sammy Davis.