Late nearly every afternoon in summer a light, soft rain descends over Bangkok. Allegedly, this is monsoon season but the weather here doesn’t correspond to a deluge of water, so much as the quick showers that affect the Mogollon Mountain range of southwestern New Mexico in midsummer.
After the rain abates and Sukhumivt Soi 11 feels washed clean once more, pedestrians gradually re-appear and wander along a street crowded with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and taxis. The hardcore food vendors with their improvised carts remain a permanent fixture, regardless of weather – only to be joined in mid-evening by the literal makeshift restaurants that serve as sidewalk cafés where space allows.
Several nights ago my favorite vendor for sweet-and-sour pork was on one side of the street. Last night, he setup his cart and the odd tables and the cheap plastic chairs on the opposite side of Soi 11. No matter, the food is good and for 100 baht (about $3), including a cold can of Coca-Cola, I was squared away for the evening – except for maybe some beef satay from another cart that specializes in this tasty snack.
When I’m at an impromptu sidewalk café, the entertainment value from the spectacle of humanity is ideal. Everyone in the world seems to traverse Soi 11, and yet this side street hardly compares to busier neighborhoods in Bangkok. Conventional couples pass by, a husband and wife who share any easy familiarity; young couples in their mid-20s in a pointless hurry; the older Western man (farang) and the younger Thai woman (katoey), who is equal parts prostitute and tour guide. Occasionally, a bedraggled Hindu man wanders by with a fake Rolex and makes a half-hearted sales pitch. On one side of the street, some passive women in their late 20s-to-early 30s sit quietly in uniforms to offer legitimate massages. On the opposite side are younger, aggressive women in their late teens-to-early 20s wearing casual apparel; beckoning and cajoling single farangs to enjoy dubious oil massages in dimly lit quarters lacking any ambiance.
Between the respectable hotels and the street scenes is a mile of contradictions, the air pulsating with back chat. Bangkok taxi drivers are always in full supply, but they ask too many questions; the aim is to learn something useful so they can drive you to a tailor or a blowjob bar for a slight kickback. I like to draw my own door and walk right through, but some times I prefer to become a surprise to myself. Shortly after the early evening rain, a taxi driver approached me. He was a stocky, broad-faced man in middle age, with a gold front tooth and a stash of self-rolled cigarettes in his breast pocket. He projected an air of warmth and openness. He was a con artist.
“Boss, you want pretty young girl? I know the best.”
“No, that’s fine.”
“Boss, no need go anywhere else. I take you to good place. The girls are clean and friendly.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“For you, my friend, a girl for 2,500 baht [$80].”
“No, I’m good.”
“I talk to the mamasan and get you better price. Girl will do whatever you like. All night.”
I don’t recall that my father gave me the same sound advice Nick Carraway acquired from his old man, but I’m sure that I was told to avoid taxi drivers in foreign cities pimping young women. Some times my self-defeating Gaelic recklessness takes over, and I succumb to dubious choices. This night could have been just one more example of a life motivated by the fat charms of degenerate sex – but I resisted temptation.
Afterward, in the small hours of the morning I decided to walk around the immediate neighborhood to check out the nightlife. Of course Bangkok is livelier at 2 a.m. than at 2 p.m. – and most neighborhoods are a bit ambiguous regardless of time. I quickly surveyed the nocturnal landscape and turned back for headquarters. As I passed a busy club, a dodgy Thai woman in her mid-30s blocked my path and made a bold inquiry about my appendage. She put her hand on my crotch and asked in slightly slurred English: “you have big cock?” I assumed that she was a crack addict, willing to suck cock for money, though I wasn’t entirely confident of the woman’s gender – not in Bangkok. Regardless, at my age I welcome sexual harassment from interesting people, but at 2 a.m. I wasn’t in the mood for a new acquaintance – and besides I didn’t have my magnifying glass with me to impress her.
Nearly a dozen hours later I took a taxi to Sukhumvit Soi 4, a flashy and seedy part of Bangkok about a mile from the hotel. Bangkok is an interesting mix of first-class and low-class, and sometimes the examples are side-by-side. This particular neighborhood features the notorious Nana Plaza, where anything goes and the going starts around 5 p.m. People barter and deal with each other on the streets for sexual favors and perhaps for the empty gestures of paid, yet lengthier company. The legendary Miss Annie’s features hardened young prostitutes on display through a one-way mirror, primping and strutting for the buyers at this peculiar sex auction.
This all proved too crass, so I moved quietly along the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare among the more conventional crowds of people. Most seemed oppressively normal, escaping the drudgery of their ordinary jobs. A few blocks away, I stopped at an imitative Starbuck’s on a Sukhumvit side street and bought an inexpensive drink to salvage a rag of pride; it was time to rest and I wanted an outdoor seat to briefly watch street hustles one more time. A coffin dodger stood close by with a small photo album of alluring prostitutes young enough to be his great-granddaughters. A friendly tut-tut driver also stood ready to lead willing victims to the neighborhood whorehouse; like sheep to slaughter and so many incorrigible human parasites jockeying for some trickle-down money. It seems that everyone in Bangkok has a perennially cash-strapped family in a remote village and this is the impetus for why so many people here sell themselves on the street.
As I disengaged from the sidewalk cafe, a peroxide princess sitting at a nearby table tried to strike a friendly conversation. A rough trade female companion, who looked like the daughter of Rosa Klebb (From Russia with Love – 1963) just sat down at the table and strongly exuded the L Word. The peroxide princess extended her hand and introduced herself by some phony name. Allegedly, she was Russian and very glad to meet me.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Mikhail,” I said. “Mikhail Mikhailovch Nabokov.”
“Ah, Misha,” she said, and smiled. “Would you like fuck me?”
“No, not really.”
“Misha, please. I do everything for you.”
And she offered a litany of standard suggestions, plus some amusingly perverted ones, as well.
“For only 1,500 baht ($50).”
“It is lovely to meet you, but I must be going.”
“Misha, let’s go now. Where you staying? Close by I hope.”
“I really must go. I’ll think about your offer.”
“Misha, please. Let’s go your place now.”
“I’m so horny, I can’t wait.”
Meanwhile, I noticed that her L Word friend had a face with a certain cadaverous grace and seemed bored by these lowlife shenanigans for quick cash.
We are only given one life and sometimes this is not enough, so it is necessary to multiply the possibilities through an overabundance of imagination, curiosity, and passion. In Bangkok, it seems that people roll from scene to scene, urged on by self-interest and desire, bumping against one another and building up steam to endure the lonely moments of life.
“Letting the days go by.
Let the water hold me down.
Once in a lifetime,
Water following underground.
Same as it ever was.
Same as it ever was.”
© Dancing at My Wake 2011-2012
Thank you for sending me the tributes to your husband, Donovan, offered by your immediate family at his recent funeral. I wish I had known him.
Letters that I generate during this period of your life are not meant to offer advice, insights – and certainly not wisdom. Yet you do not need sad-woe-is-me material, either – although it will likely read as such. My apologies in advance.
A few years before I met you, I was enamored with the writing of Charles Bukowski (Post Office, Factotum, South of No North), a minor literary figure from Los Angeles. His profile was on the rise in the early 1970s. While still in college, I wrote Bukowski and asked: “What is your advice for an aspiring writer?” Surprisingly, he replied: “Hell, I don’t have any advice. I still have trouble finding my way to the bathroom at night.”
And so it goes.
By nature I’m a crepe hanger. I really want to be an optimist. It is a very appealing ideal, but then there is reality.
The shadow of sadness first appeared to me on Thursday, October 12, 1961, when my mother informed me that “we” were leaving my father. There was no discussion, nor any elaboration. After 11 years of marriage, she had simply had enough.
My father was no Ward Cleaver, and he had difficulty holding a basic blue-collar job. There were some legitimate reasons, none of which my mother could accept. The fact that my father dropped out of high school during his freshman year in 1941 didn’t help (he enlisted in the Navy as soon as possible and shipped out for the Pacific during the early years of WWII). Regardless, my mother cancelled him like a bad TV show. Yet my mother was no June Cleaver, either. Also a high school dropout by 1944, her revolving door experiences with St. Louis mental hospitals did not enhance her credentials for stability. My mother was always a major flake and the last time I saw her, she was in the mental ward of Malcolm Bliss Hospital.
The end of my parent’s marriage meant, of course, that I had to turn my back on friends, school, and the neighborhood. By Monday we had left our two-bedroom suburban home in St. Louis County to share a cramped one-bedroom apartment with my grandmother in Dogtown. I sat dutifully in Miss Derby’s fourth grade classroom at Dewey School, surrounded by people who were strangers. I didn’t ask for these changes, yet this was my first lesson in how little control there is sometimes in life.
A month later I turned 10-years-old.
For years the divorce of my parents was the crucial demarcation of my life. There would always be “before” and “after,” and the resulting consequence of “I am changed forever as a result.”
However, my son’s death is the demarcation for all time. Of course I am not the same after Ryan died. This goes without saying. I am forever changed – and perhaps by design. In the immediate days following my son’s death, a well-meaning acquaintance said of the circumstances: “You either become a better or a bitter person.” Well, I now have insights that I don’t want … never wanted … don’t know what to do with. This disaster isn’t making me a better person. How could it? However, there is a sense of freedom unknown to me before Ryan died. It is simply: I don’t care. I try not to exploit this attitude as a license to do as I please; that sort of consideration is better suited for existentialism and nihilism – and I’m not interested in philosophical justifications because … I don’t care.
Every morning I drive ruthlessly through traffic in this foreign city of 10 million people – “no prisoners,” as T.E. Lawrence exhorted the Arabs in July, 1917, during the campaign against the Ottoman Turks at Aqaba. This is like running the gauntlet, and presents a demented challenge. Who am I kidding? I like it. This is also tinged with a slight death wish.
My first funeral involved my Irish great-grandmother in April, 1957. I was five-years-old, so I can’t say that I knew Colleen O’Keefe. My connection to her is based solely on family stories and a few black-and-white snapshots of me standing next to her in front of our family residency in Dogtown. Allegedly, Colleen O’Keefe was a decent woman. What I do remember about her death is a rather somber tone around the house and adult members of the family dressed formally for the funeral. Bad news was in the air.
Since that time I have lost count of funerals I have attended: for family, friends and acquaintances. All I can say is it’s been too damn many.
Immediately after Ryan’s death, I was absolutely crazed with grief. This did not give me license for inappropriate behavior, yet I couldn’t (and can’t) predict when despair might take the upper hand nor my response to such hopelessness.
As Ryan’s death has changed me, I’m not willing to take shit from anyone. The “better” person says: life is short; lighten up and be thankful for the important people in your life. The bitter person says: life is short; don’t waste time on assholes and douche bags.
As my mood vacillates, there are days when I can take Ryan’s death in stride and accept that I can’t change what happened; other times I can only think of escape from this unrelenting sorrow in any manner possible.
I can’t explain why I can let go, and why I can’t let go.
I can’t explain why I refuse to accept blame for my actions, and why I blame myself for circumstances beyond my control.
I can’t explain why I am proud, smug, and arrogant, and I can’t explain why I have such huge doubts and often embrace self-destruction to the point of masochism.
A colleague of mine buried his daughter late last spring. She was one month younger than Ryan.
As I do not recite my litany of misery at work, this colleague had no idea that we were now part of the same dreadful club.
First, I do not understand people who introduce themselves like this:
“Hello, I’m Gordon Murphy and I have Attention Deficit Disorder, I’m Obsessive-Complusive, I’m an alcoholic and I vote Republican.”
What ever happened to pride, discretion, a sense of privacy, a reserved character? Must everyone be a full-blown narcissist?
Although I did inform my colleague that my son had also died recently, I could not bring myself to say: “I know how you feel.” I didn’t know how he felt. I will never know how he feels.
My intent was simply to let my colleague know that – yes, I was distressed to learn of his loss … but to also say, when people at work tire of your grief (about a month after the funeral), feel free to unburden yourself to me. But I have no advice to offer. I can’t think of a sound reason for prolonging my life, except I do not want to hurt my wife any further – and, when it involves suicide, “conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
I am just an ordinary person. The only accomplishment that meant anything to me was to be a good father. I tried, but it all went to hell for reasons I will never understand. Subsequently, my life has been an exercise in futility.
For years I have read Oedipus Rex, the tragic king of Thebes who lacked obvious self-awareness. The truth is I’m stuck in a circle of hell where the sun is silent and there is no exit. The cliché says that the truth shall set us free, but I’m not so sure that I deserve to be free.
The arrogance that I know anything of value frightens me. I don’t consider putting out my eyes, like Oedipus, as a symbol of atonement. Yet the fact that I live in a foreign city of 10 million people who speak a language I can’t comprehend is a genuine punishment that makes me nearly mute. It’s as if I don’t really exist. I am the invisible man. Every gesture of mine is an act of the damned.
The truth of these revelations does nothing to set me free.
© Dancing at My Wake 2011-2012
By late afternoon when I return to my apartment in Seoul, there is not always a lot to do. Thirty years ago a weekday bachelor pad would have inspired some predictable mischief. A scandalous affair with a married Korean woman would have been an interesting diversion from impersonating a faithful employee. But now priorities have changed. I’m happily married, certain hormones have simmered down and my pursuits are strictly mundane.
Since the Korean landlady picks up the tab for WiFi and cable TV, I do have some outlets for amusement. Not surprisingly, though, most of the cable programs are Korean – with a few channels dedicated to bad American TV … like the monotonous David Caruso taking off his sunglasses to make smugs remark in CSI: Miami. For many of us pretending to be expatriates, Amazon.com is a vital link to the home culture – and I easily have a $50 a-month habit for select books and DVDs.
A few months ago I acquired all three seasons (94 episodes) of Steve McQueen’s Wanted Dead or Alive. I used to watch the series in prime time on Saturday evenings during the late 1950s. Obviously, my perspective is different now. The first episode features Nick Adams and Michael Landon as two scum-bag brothers. Later in the series there are brief appearances by William Schallart (three times), Martin Landau, Mary Tyler Moore, Cloris Leachman and James Best. Schallart, of course, is better known for his father-knows-best version as Martin Lane in The Patty Duke Show. The list is even longer of struggling actors who didn’t make it to the next level.
Part of the fun of watching an old TV series is taking note of established character actors, and up-and-coming actors. In the McQueen series there’s Edgar Buchanan as the grizzled codger – the sidekick tradition that dates to William Boyd and Gabby Hayes. As an aside: I always find an excuse to watch Blazing Saddles. Who can forget the Gabby Johnson parody? In Wanted Dead or Alive, there is also Ray Teal as a sheriff – who goes on to play Sheriff Roy Coffee in Bonanza – wearing the same outfit, more or less. But James Coburn and Warren Oates are the most fun to watch with McQueen. Each actor appears three times in the series, sometimes twice in the same season. While Coburn is always interesting and has that wonderfully distinguished voice, Oates always projects that he just doesn’t give a fuck and might do anything at any time.
Because access to American TV is spotty living overseas, the easy recourse is to buy a series and burn through it over a weekend or two. I can’t imagine watching Keifer Sutherland as Jack Bauer cap a few people in weekly episodes of 24. I would lose track of the plot too easily. After a bad week, it makes sense to settle down with the remote control and enjoy the entire season, in back-to-back episodes.
For where our house is located in the countryside, if we want a new American TV series, we drive to the Red Stairs. On the second floor are several tables with catalogues of pirated American fare. The place is always full of Americans. An entire TV series costs $10; no big deal – and the quality is first rate because everything is taped straight from the source. Fill out a piece of paper, hand it to the Korean behind the counter who steps into a back room and quickly emerges with your choice. What’s not to like?
Lately, I have been drawn to Justified – primarily because of Elmore Leonard’s imprint on the series. The dialogue is perfect. Timothy Olyphant is good – just as he was in Deadwood (although Ian McShane was brilliant), but the actor I like best in Justified is Walton Goggins – formerly of The Shield. He reminds me of a young Warren Oates.
After a while it seem relevant to acquire a box set of a particular actor or genre. Years ago I acquired a Steve McQueen collection featuring The Getaway, the Cincinnati Kid and Tom Horn – to name a few. The Getaway, with Walter Hill’s screenplay, is near perfect. Alex Baldwin as Doc McCoy in Walter Hill’s directed version just doesn’t cut it. Baldwin always overacts. McQueen knows the power of understatement like a zen master. The original cast is also near perfect. Michael Madsen was good as “Rudy Travis,” but Al Lettieri was better as “Rudy Butler.” I have to have my fix of the Peckinpah film about every six months. As for the Cincinnati Kid – just the fact that Terry Southern had a part in the screenplay is reason enough to give the film a special status.
But lately I have moved on to Clint Eastwood in both the Dirty Harry series (which are fine until Eastwood brings in Sondra Locke for Sudden Impact … it’s not simply that she can’t act, the plot is too politically correct and Callahan is tiresome … The Drowning Pool doesn’t even make the cut for a packaged series) and the Spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone (although Ted Post’s Hang ‘Em High is very good). An appealing feature of today’s DVDs is the backstory. If one watches both The Cincinnati Kid and the original The Thomas Crown Affair, Norman Jewison provides fascinating commentary about all facets of production. For Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More (1965) the commentator says that Leone met with Sam Peckinpah in London about directing the film. Allegedly, Leone only wanted to produce the project. But – obviously things didn’t pan out between Leone and Peckinpah. In For A Few Dollars More, there’s a great barroom scene when Lee Van Cleef antagonizes the wonderfully psychopathic Klaus Kinski, who goes through some troubling facial contortions – with very little dialogue. This reminds me of Bo Hopkins in the railway office of The Wild Bunch just before he starts shooting the staff.
A few days ago I picked up the biography of Steve McQueen by Marshall Terrill. Last summer I could not put down Life by Keith Richards. Next up I need to read Dylan’s Chronicles. The biography of Bruce Chatwin, a British travel writer (In Patagonia) who died in 1989, is also worthy of consideration. Otherwise, I seem to go between Anthony Burgess and W.G. Sebald for literary sustenance.
* * *
I have not been to the United States since July, 2010 and there are no plans to return any time soon.
Perhaps during July, we stayed around Oklahoma for a week or 10 days. But then we left the country for Quito, Ecuador and a seven-day cruise in the Galapagos Islands. Afterwards, we returned to Quito long enough for a connecting flight to Lima, Peru and a few days in Cuzco for a train trip to Machu Picchu. This was one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” vacations.
For the return trip, we began our day in Lima on Thursday, stayed overnight in Panama City, Panama and on Friday arrived in Tulsa via Houston, and met Lexi’s parents … went out for dinner near Woodlands Mall … hit the airport Saturday morning for the flight to Seoul, which put us in Korea by Sunday. So, three continents in three days. It was rugged.
Relative to the United States, there is no strong pull anymore. The important people in my immediate family are dead. I am the last one standing. I am neither in favor or opposed to the current American political scene. I have lived outside the country for 10 years now, and don’t quite know what to make of things, anymore.
Lexi is concerned about where we should call it quits. Presently, we do not own property anywhere. I guess this doesn’t bother me much – because who would benefit from our possessions once we kick it?
Meanwhile we keep on the move. Why not?
© Dancing at My Wake 2011-2012
During early summer, 1974, when Nixon’s untenable presidency made for great TV drama, I lapsed long enough to visit the Left Bank Bookstore near Washington University in St. Louis. To this day, I’m impressionable enough that I’m drawn to bookstores like a religious contemplate, hopeful that I might encounter a new writer who provides a truth I can use for salvation. I don’t expect a Damascene moment, but a small epiphany will do nicely. That particular day is when I encountered the works of Bukowski. And for my personality at the time (age 22), he was the right medicine.
These days, there is a small-framed area near each classroom door for teachers to post a photo of themselves. Are you fucking kidding me? Most of my colleagues are low-key malcontents; that is why we all ran away from home to join the present circus. Currently, my slot is blank – which signifies a certain message, though it’s nothing more deliberate than congenital laziness. Yet during my time in xx, I had an image of Bukowski in my slot. College students, being impressively self-absorbed, hardly questioned my choice. One or two students over the course of a year might have inquired about the image and, of course, my answer always depended on my mood. Some times I said: “he’s my father,” or “that’s what I looked like before rehab.”
Right after we moved to this present country in the summer, 2010, Lexi had a big-damn-deal conference in Los Angeles. So we stayed for a week at a posh hotel in the downtown area. Allegedly, the conference cost $2 million and this included airfare, shuttle fees, hotel rooms, overpriced food, and pep-talk specialists.
Since I don’t run with her crowd, this left me free all day. I had no interest in a $25 bus ride through Beverly Hills to see where overpaid actors lead lives of refined debauchery. Our hotel was really just two blocks from the Los Angeles Public Library – and a half-mile from the Mission District. I was in the heart of Bukowski country.
One morning an obese man and his undersized wife sat across from me on the #18 bus as we headed toward Skid Row on South Central Avenue. A Chicago Cubs hat perched precariously on his baldhead. He spoke to no one in particular about the present state of baseball in America. The fat man’s wife remained listless and unresponsive as any longtime couple. I have to admit that he circled around the issue of baseball like a deranged vulture, skirting it with an excess of repetition, obscenity and slang. This was colored by spasms, fantasy, rage, and frustration.
For some reason, this reminded me of Tom Clarke’s Champagne and Baloney, a book you once passed my way and I read cover-to-cover.
That morning I left the bus around East Sixth and San Julian, the beginning of classic Skid Row Territory, which features block after block of dejected, depressed and entirely down-and-out homeless people. In the absence of obvious hope, they cling erratically to rickety shopping carts stuffed with squalid rags and filthy shreds of cardboard that serve as pillows and makeshift housing. There was a block-long line of people waiting to acquire a slim sytrofoam container of shit-inducing food for the day, and this included wheelchair bound folks. For pure absurdity, a sound system played War’s anti-conflict ditty, Why Can’t We be Friends. I had not seen images like this since the classic FSA photos of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein.
It’s impossible to pass through this neighborhood in broad daylight without being overwhelmed by pure human stench; fresh piss stains drain down brick walls in the alleys and tattoo the ground surface; wheel-chair bound couples cling to each other even when it’s obvious they have not bathed in days if not weeks; others – usually men, walk aimlessly through the streets raging about dreams gone bad, the lack of dreams, or an incurably frivolous God who only answers with this version of Dante’s hell on earth.
The perversity of this is a group of well-educated professionals gathered in the hotel bar at the end of the work day to congratulate themselves on screwing the system, pocketing obscene salaries and advancing counterfeit entitlements while the very system teeters toward ruin.
I’m sure Bukowski was a shrewd publicist and deliberately cultivated the image of the poet laureate of Skid Row, as he banked away sizeable amounts of money. His estate is still cranking out titles and I recently bought a collection of his early letters just because of the title: Screams from the Balcony. I love that phrase.
All of us embrace certain self-myths just to keep from going crazier, a way to dodge the darkness and make our way toward some of the light. It makes sense that artists strike a pose. Some can juggle this with deftness; others are buried by the charade. I miss Hunter S. Thompson, who painted himself into a pointless corner with his gonzo façade. Who can ever match his scorched-earth approach to the absurdity of the American presidential campaign circus? I could never read Theodore White’s political journalism afterward. I’d rather suck dogshit through a straw than read that inferior material.
I have a special fondness for William S. Burroughs because he’s a St. Louis boy. Of the big three from the Beat Movement: Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac … the conservative junkie will probably have the most lasting impact because of his unflinching honesty rendered so often in elegantly intelligent satire – not to mention new words he coined. Naked Lunch sets Burroughs apart from Ginsberg and Kerouac, and everyone else – in some cases by light years. For at least 50 years, American high school students have been introduced to Swift’s A Modest Proposal as the modern standard of political satire. Perhaps some day, at the Advance Placement level, a serious excerpt of Naked Lunch will be required reading. Over time, Kerouac will only be remembered for On the Road, and Ginsberg’s fame will rest on Howl (especially the opening lines) and maybe A Supermarket in California.
When I was impersonating a college student, I lived on McPherson Avenue in the Central West End, about three blocks from Pershing Avenue (named Berlin Avenue until 1917), where Burroughs began his life. The family left the city for the suburbs and settled on Price Road in a neighborhood that is still considered very posh. To say that I drove past the Burroughs residence hundreds of times is not hyperbole. I just didn’t grasp the significance of the Beat writers during high school in the late 1960s. The jury was still out on their contribution to literature.
Down the road from where William Burroughs lived during adolescence was the John Burroughs School – no relation to the Burroughs Adding Machine family. This school was founded by Dr. Gellhorn, who also lived on McPherson Avenue in the 1920s – when William Burroughs still resided in the city on nearby Pershing Avenue.
Dr. Gellhorn started the John Burroughs school (named for the American naturalist) on behalf of his son and daughter. The daughter, Martha Gellhorn, went onto marry Hemingway in the late 1930s and was his third wife …. the first three all from St. Louis.
Martha Gellhorn never established herself as a successful novelist, but she was an extraordinary journalist, who lived most of her post-Hemingway life (the couple divorced within four years) in Kenya and London. She died at age 89.
I don’t think one can accuse Burroughs of being a shrewd publicist; that distinction goes deservedly to James Grauerholz, who still deals with the estate. How else can one explain Burroughs coming in off the exotic world travel routine and living out his days in Lawrence, Kansas? Yet Burroughs didn’t need a publicist so much as a secretary. He always seemed unapologetically authentic: homosexual, junkie, and if not a Republican – then certainly someone opposed to Roosevelt and New Deal politics. In January, 1982 – right before I edged on down the highway to Oklahoma, Burroughs appeared at the end of Saturday Night Live for a reading from Naked Lunch. The clip is on YouTube, like just about everything else these days. At the time, Burroughs was positively riveting. Of course I had smoked a joint when I immediately wrote Burroughs some goofy letter of endorsement (“loved your performance” … that sort of drivel), and sent it to his publisher. Not long after I landed in Ponca City, Burroughs responded with a postcard that he scrawled while passing through the Kansas City airport. I was floored … and, of course I have no idea where to find the postcard, anymore. I used it as a bookmark for a long time. Many years later I attempted to contact Burroughs again – in Lawrence, for the excuse of writing a feature. But I’m sure Grauerholz screened those requests very carefully, and I didn’t make the cut.
© Dancing at My Wake 2011-2012
“Writing is like taking drugs, you start purely for pleasure and end up
organizing your life around this like the vice of an addict.
– Antonio Lobo Antunes
Fiction is the best way of telling the truth. I have lately lost all my mirth and so confess that I’m infected with a profound destitution of spirit and inhabit a house in ruins. My conversations with the departed are more meaningful than many people I encounter in my Finnegan’s waking world. The road beneath my feet is covered with the shadow of a sacred heart, a dead son who makes me weep until I have nothing left because his death is the most lacerating experience of my life. A child is irreplaceable, but to the nagging question ‘Why him?’ the cosmos never bothers to return a reply.
The intellect dreams of its dream of absolute freedom, yet the soul knows of its terrible bondage.
Now my evening is in full decline, and I’ve become a sad and inarticulate wretch, competing for kinship with the great, misunderstood outsiders of the past: Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Voltaire and Dostoevsky. Some times I’m inhabited by intuitions that are not clear to me, and I plead with midnight to draw its mantle over my impoverished heart. Yet my petition goes unanswered and I arise every morning with a broken feeling, like my world has died Hiroshima style. These days I move neither fast nor slow; I am just another Old Black Joe, nibbling at the bait with other cloud chasers. “Yessir, massa. You right, boss.” And so I am borne back ceaselessly into a role I didn’t ask to play. Ever since I made my blood-smeared escape from the womb, I’ve been trying to understand the reason for existence. My odyssey started six decades ago, and I’m still on the fly.
Forgive me, but it’s difficult to collect my wits. The tendency for digression is magnified more wildly than ever before. Perhaps in this time of vain reflections and melancholy brooding, it’s appropriate to review the desires, agonies, small triumphs and all the varieties of betrayal that inform my character after so many years. Recently I turned 60, and I’m both stunned and blasé about the fact; stunned because I have not gained any useful insights for all my time on this mortal coil; blasé because despite well-intentioned efforts, I seem to have little control over my life. The best dreams I had for the people that I loved most have turned to nightmare, like a stumbling retreat across the annihilating winter wastes of Russia.
The only constant in my life remains the self-indulgence of writing. The contemporary Portuguese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes is correct: the pursuit of writing is no different than the vice of any addict. The escapism is important, but the ritual of organizing the effort is even more significant. In my early 40s, during a brief flirtation with Catholicism to assuage fear, doom and guilt, I watched with fascination as the priest laid everything carefully on the tabernacle for the sacrament of communion. Shaman, surgeon, carpenter, drug addict – one way or another, we try to impose order on the chaos of life through rituals.
These days I write to examine the impermanency of life and the desolation this has brought me. There are those deceitful times when a modicum of control seems possible. But this is like long lulling bouts of tedium before being devastated, wrecked and humbled by a crucial chair kicked out beneath me and the raw truth that everything is a mere fluke, starting with conception. Samuel Beckett, the second great Irish literary émigré of the 20th century concludes his classic stream-of-consciousness novel The Unnamable with “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Like James Joyce who preceded him out of Ireland, Beckett gravitated to Paris, the cultural capital for expatriates in the first quarter of the 20th century. Beckett, born in 1906 – two years after Joyce left Ireland for good (and the same year my grandfather Sheridan also left the Emerald Isle for America) – worked for the great man as a secretary in the mid-1920s. Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, became wildly smitten with Beckett before she gradually succumbed to schizophrenia and lived out her days in various asylums. She died at age 75. This scenario is similar to Victor Hugo’s daughter, Adele, who went loony for an uninterested British officer and followed him to Nova Scotia – disoriented, her clothes torn, and babbling pure twaddle. Hugo placed his daughter in a Paris asylum, where she died at age 85.
“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” By the end of my 20s I had abandoned neurotic introspection and simply accepted that I was flawed and full of contradictions. This didn’t mean that I no longer considered the mysteries of life, I just embraced the second half of Beckett’s invocation: “I’ll go on.” Why not? Now, with the events of the past few years, I have returned to the first half of Beckett’s statement. Yet “conscience does make cowards of us all.” And I am still here, which implies that “I’ll go on.” But I don’t know why.
When I hit the newest mark in my chronology, I asked my wife: “how did I make it this far?”
“You got lucky,” Lexi said.
I knew that she was being sarcastic. At least this is what I tell myself.
* * *
When you died, I was deep in the hell of my innocence. A week before my Fall, I thought I had finally achieved a version of paradise. Yet the joy in this world seldom lasts. Married to Lexi McCall for more than a quarter century, we had only you as our child for nearly 7,950 days – and each one was a grand payoff. We enjoyed careers, finally had a generous amount of money and traveled the world strictly for leisure. Could life be any better? And then this all vanished overnight, like a cruel joke played by a capricious deity. The news of your death was an extraordinary slash of a whip full in the face.
O Prometheus, Prometheus! wherefore art thou Prometheus? No one can save you now, not even Hercules.
Your death is the worst disaster in my life, and it has thrown me into an inconceivable inner turmoil, which is like a dark shadow crossing my soul every second of the day.
If you could see me now, I am a poor imitation of a man who gives a damn. I live in pretense of being an expatriate in a foreign country, on the 15th floor of a four-bedroom apartment in a modern high rise overlooking the city’s main river. Across the bank is the south side of this 10 million-plus bustling city with a dazzling nightscape that tries to match Shanghai and Tokyo. But this means nothing; less than nothing, really. I could reside in the penthouse of the Burj al-Arab in Dubai, overlooking the beautiful Jumeirah beach, and nothing is changed. I may as well gaze across the paleness of an empty horizon. Despite intent, I’ve become a connoisseur of isolation, living in the dusk of a melancholy punctuated by theatrical silences. You are gone from my life, and my heart beats a loud tattoo, the drum-call announcing that I have capitulated like the cities of Central Asia in the wake of Genghis Khan and the Mongol armies. No one recognizes me as I walk the streets because my face conforms to every mask possible to hide the tears that will not cry. No one knows how I feel grotesquely contorted because I don’t understand how a heavenly Father laughingly strews death in the twinkling of an eye. God is the worst tyrant in history.
Night offers no peace from the torments of your absence, and sirens, bells, and a hundred-and-one cannon shots may unleash daybreak for me – yet I continue to struggle with incomprehension and bitterness. From the depth of my soul, I smiled at you lovingly every day. Your life was an achingly beautiful gift. Why did you leave me? Now I am no different than a shattered contemplate in a Carthusian monastery, beating at the door of a small cell, rolling on the floor, shivering, shrieking mad with pure agony. Dangerous dreams swarm promiscuously through my vacant blue eyes, hollowed by the four winds in ferocious flight. There is no freedom from my anguished memories. I am finished and forever fucked. It’s all over now, bon ami. Hand me my crown of thorns and unchain this broken heart.
If I could see you now, this would be my Damascene moment and, like Saul of Tarsus, I would know lasting peace. I would stop listening to Hurt, that beautiful and haunted version by Johnny Cash about broken thoughts that cannot be repaired. I would stop dressing in black and instantly disavow my nihilism in exchange for your reappearance. I would stop riding through Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis at night in a black carriage drawn by a black horse, circling the small field of Sheridan’s who declined so quietly that by the end what should be tragedy has become only memory. I do not want to see you there, sleeping the churchyard sleep, nor place flowers on your simple flatstone. Yet in mourning for you, I am vertiginous, as motionless and silent as branches, slowly mixing fragments of the imagination with memories of distant times. I’m overwhelmed with delirium at the very act of taking in all the confusion that surrounds me. I’ve abandoned the human duty of thinking for myself and I’ve drifted, as to the depths of an ocean.
Resurrect yourself and I will say a thousand novenas.
what’s it to you?
Make my conversion a reality and I will stop dancing at my wake. I do not look to God, that demented deity who debauches man. I look only to you. I am so tired of leading a double life; outwardly charming and funny, a bon vivant and polemicist sans pareil; inwardly a palpable fraud, ready to anaesthetize the pain of living with the enthusiasm of a Mick quaffing his daily Guinness. People may think that the breeze of imbecility has touched me, but this is just a cry of pain on paper. I am a sad and secret creature like Roderick Usher, a hostage of bad dreams lighter than thought. I need a magic potion to diminish my vulnerability. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Mozart’s Requiem … dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla … because you always offered the coolness of a gentle morning wind, and maybe this dreadful nightmare will soon go away. I call your name so crystal clear. Yet you can’t hear me because I’m caught by the river and can’t reach shore. There are so few words to express this condition. No one can save me now, not even William Blake and the Sisters of Mercy. Meet me down by the water. Meet me at the end of the world. Let’s walk down the Champs-Élysées in spring, past the clipped horse-chestnut trees. Let’s walk in grand style and forget all the rest. You know what I’m talking about. My heart is ready to fly away. Without a history I do not exist, and you were my history. That’s how it goes.
© Dancing at My Wake 2011-2012
Writing is a way of speaking without being interrupted. Let me say that I’m sorry to hear about the death of David’s father. Even if we anticipate these circumstances, it never lessens our sense of loss and, of course, this always serves as a vivid reminder of our own mortality.
I happen to notice the recent obituary in The Evening News, a paper that I haven’t bothered with in 12 years. The fact that William Mugford still churns out such insipid material as publisher is reason enough not to waste my time.
Nearly three decades ago, when I was still knocking around Montana and New Mexico in a white Datsun pickup truck with a faithful beagle as my companion, I stumbled into River City, Oklahoma on my way back to the Rocky Mountains. As usual I lived on the edge with a nearly depleted bank account, no prospects and little ambition. I was already 30-years-old, and south of nowhere.
I drove straight from St. Louis on a Saturday morning to meet with Neil Mugford about a position as the newspaper’s photographer. I had never been through Oklahoma, and my only sense of the place was based on The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and the indelible images of classic Dust Bowl photographs from the mid-1930s by Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. I thought Oklahoma was a Dead Museum.
Once I passed White Horse and encountered the full display of the local oil refinery leading to Shaw’s Market on Easton Avenue, I really wanted to return to St. Louis immediately. Once I walked into the newsroom on Twelfth Street and saw Max Parker – bedraggled, fairly toothless, and reeking of second, third and fourth-hand smoke – I really wanted to get the hell out of town. I had already worked for four small-town newspapers, where many colleagues – especially the editors and publishers, were full-blown alcoholics and even kept whiskey bottles in their desks. Max looked instantly familiar. [To his credit, even though Max looked like a derelict almost every day, he was a very decent person, quite intelligent and never said anything unkind about anyone.].
Yet I stuck around to talk with publisher Neil Mugford, one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered. Mugford took notice of me because his current photographer, Jennifer Karan, was already seven-months pregnant with twins and intended to remain home after her delivery. Perhaps more importantly, it was because I had sent him black and white images of a leggy young woman from a photo essay on a Montana truck stop near Laurel … and because I was from St. Louis, where Mugford lived briefly in his 20s and married the first of his three wives. In retrospect, the photos of the leggy young woman clinched the deal. Although I was only around Mugford for another 18 months before he died, I approached him at his desk in the newsroom several times and he quickly shut his top drawer because he was scanning a sleazy lingerie catalogue. Even at age 72, he appreciated the young female figure – which is a kinder way of saying he was a filthy degenerate.
There were also stories of how Neil Mugford and J.R. Lawler both sponsored the college education of an attractive young woman and, if they both played the part of Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle in a half-baked version of My Fair Lady, they apparently had designs for some sexual recreation with her. Lawler approached Mugford in his office with a cane, as if he was going to beat him Andrew Jackson-style for his salacious intents, and the publisher pulled out his loaded .45 – the one he packed with him every week, when he made the three-block walk from Fairfield Bank with the entire newspaper payroll in cash. Obviously, the two men didn’t take the argument to the brink, but this only reminded me that I had entered the twilight zone when I signed on with the newspaper.
Of course I stayed in River City … for 18 years. I met Lexi McCall in late May, and we married six months later.
While I was never impressed with Oklahoma and can’t fathom returning there to end my days, I do have some pleasant memories. Unhappy families are all alike; every fucked-up family is auditioning for the Jerry Springer Show. My in-laws were just regular unhappy people on occasion. Yet they have managed to remain married for 60 years, an impressive accomplishment in the modern era, and I’m grateful that my son experienced one intact set of grandparents. They were wonderful to him. My own parents were kaput as a couple before the Kennedy assassination, they both fell by the wayside. Because of a Charles Dickens-inspired childhood, once I became a parent I wanted to be the father I never experienced. So I absolutely loved taking Ryan to school every day, and picking him up every afternoon during those formative years at St. Teresa’s.
Perhaps the fondest of all memories during my life in River City was my association with David. I will always cherish those afternoons outside St. Teresa’s as we both waited for Ryan and Justin to emerge from either school or scouts. I always admired David’s willingness to dedicate time as a coach for both basketball and baseball. He was always so patient, tolerant and fair. David was just a great role model for those boys, and consistently demonstrated that the approach of fathers like Warren Shaw and Lance Cookson were largely self-serving and paid no lasting dividends.
I appreciated many of the links through St. Teresa’s. Religion has no serious part in my life, but I thought it was important for Ryan to have exposure to a community-based set of morals. Family values are always the foundation, but it’s instructive to know how to connect this to a larger culture.
While I can say that I’m a cradle Catholic – baptized two months after birth, I was raised in the Protestant faith, as my mother sampled various franchises on her spiritual quest: Methodist, Presbyterian and lastly: Christian Science (which is just as wacky as the Mormons). We decided to send Ryan to St. Teresa’s. Despite all the criticism the Catholic Church deserves on some issues, it is rock solid on education and immune to fads. I acquainted myself with the Irish-Catholic side of my family. I’m not sorry I did this – but, after a while, human behavior is the same everywhere and members of the St. Teresa’s parish were no different. To state the obvious, there were good people in the mix, and there were some champion fools. At the risk of being unkind – though with age comes privilege, and one privilege I enjoy is the ability to be candid – the two people I had the most trouble with were Karen Thomas and June Donahue. I knew Cameron Thomas long before Todd was born, and I liked him immediately. He was around the newsroom frequently because of his initial ties to the YMCA. When Todd was born, I can’t recall a man so proud. Cameron almost did double-back flips as he handed out cigars for the occasion. And then a few years later Karen went on a business trip with George, her co-worker at the oil refinery, and that spelled the end of the marriage. Yes, people are flawed and make mistakes. I’m no angel, either. While Karen may not deserve to have worn the scarlet letter, she remains a cold bitch who loves to instigate problems for the perverse pleasure of creating trouble. I can’t forget what she did to Mary Visos, and how she helped destroy her career.
As for June Donahue, she was even more self-serving than Karen Thomas. I’m not sure why her husband Matt has tolerated her all these years; she’s certainly no trophy wife. Yet maybe he’s just as empty and vapid as his spouse.
Shortly after the end of SY 93-94 at St. Teresa’s, the Schwab family left River City; they had a daughter in class with Ryan and Justin. Carl Schwab enjoyed a moderately high-profile with the oil company, and spearheaded the United Way Campaign that year.
Allegedly, Matt returned home one day unexpectedly and found Carl in the master bedroom wearing only a necktie. His hard appendage was planted firmly in June’s mouth. Apparently, Matt was not amused. He agreed not to divorce his wayward wife if she converted to Catholicism, which seemed a bit like the Inquisition.
Again, people use poor judgment all the time, and there was no reason for June to have worn the scarlet letter. But she remained rather smug for a married woman caught by her husband murmuring slut lullabies to her necktie lover.
Years later I appreciated that Karen attended Ryan’s memorial service. That is an extremely uncomfortable situation because no one knows what to say, and there is really nothing to say. But a gesture of kindness, sympathy, solidarity – whatever adjective comes to mind, is a source of momentary comfort to the survivor(s). That Matt and June Donahue made no acknowledgement of our tragedy was hardly surprising. We were never friends because we could do nothing to advance their agendas. Yet our lives had once intersected for years, a long time ago. Everything is a long time ago. Everything goes.
This is to say that I had become disenchanted with the St. Teresa’s crowd long ago, just as I have with other groups, other people. Most everyone is ill-equipped to deal with the savage loneliness of life, and the hell inside each of us. What I’ve learned over time is that it makes sense to see the many, incongruent materials of everyday life as a highly organized nightmare. Cool determination is the only way to survive disillusionment, tarnished memories, dull needles, the silence of photos, the ruins of this house.
The newspaper publisher who hired me directly from Journalism School enjoyed impersonal bouts of sodomy with other men. At first I didn’t know what to think.
After college I decided to stop prolonging my adolescence. There was also a mountain of student loans to re-pay. For a variety of reasons it was time to develop my career as a groundbreaking journalist. I wanted to ventriloquize the voices of the damned. There was no chance of working for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch without impressive social connections. The only people who could speak on my behalf were douche bags. The truth is I wanted to distance myself from acquaintances that enjoyed an intravenous landscape on the weekends. I also needed money badly. It was time to leave St. Louis and old twilights that were my constant shadow.
Scott Remington offered me an escape as an entry-level reporter for his daily paper in south-central Montana. I had never experienced Big Sky Country. We made the deal over the telephone and I packed to leave immediately. I felt like I had joined the French Foreign Legion without the esprit de corps.
Driving across Missouri with all receding in the rearview mirror, I left behind everyone important in my life. There was no looking back. My longtime girlfriend had made me feel like a fly trapped in a blot of ink. I martyred our relationship so I could flee the moral recklessness of my early 20s.
The first time I met the Montana publisher he inspired easy comparisons to men drawn to the Upper Yellowstone River who fly-fish more to emulate Hemingway than for the trout. This judgment about Remington proved misleading. He was more than I imagined.
Despite a certain proclivity Remington didn’t advertise any affinity with the Broke Back Mountain club. He was tall, raw-boned and authentically Western looking. At 45, he had the face of a man who stoically endured hardships quietly and heroically declined to reply in kind. He belonged with Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison, Montana writers who knew where their moral compass pointed yet didn’t always toe the line. I liked Remington and enjoyed his contradictions, but I wasn’t interested in being like him.
Remington married the patrician Paige Matthews, a slim, immaculately coiffed woman with bright blue eyes who was occasionally unfaithful with hired hands. He was as blasé about her indiscretions as she was about his waywardness. The Remington’s saw no point in divorce and used Franklin and Eleanor as a template for modern marriage.
Remington was also the father of Kelsey, a lovely degenerate college-age daughter with defenseless thighs. She was popular around Billings in hotel rooms with tattered curtains. It’s true that Remington had a few issues, and perhaps that is why he had a steadfast enthusiasm for alcohol. Like any addict, he had about him the air of elsewhere, that he was looking through you to somewhere else he’d rather be. And of course he was.
In fact, Remington, who prided himself as a first-rate writer, held the lower-case romantic notion that alcohol made his prose better and other people less dull. As a functioning alcoholic he wanted to be delightfully eccentric and equal such illustrious boozehound writers as:
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Evenings after work Remington often guided me across the street to the Elk’s Lodge to hold court at the unofficial press club. I’m not sure I learned much about journalism from him, but I heard a lot of provocative stories about his quirky personal life. This is when I also learned that I could not keep pace with Remington’s passion for the grape and the grain, nor did I care to compete with him. At age 26, the days of unabashed drinking were already history for me. Yet over the course of several months I saw Remington become:
This marked the start of my apprenticeship as a journalist, a time when I learned there was no distinction between bankers, whores and clapping midgets. I lingered in this world longer than necessary because I forgot my idealism and became another seal in the aquarium.
© Dancing at My Wake 2011-2012