To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest–Bob Dylan

The Case of the Black Pearl Necklace--fragment, early chapter

 

my mona lisa nero gray scaleI slipped into the self-inflicted gunshot wound line at the grocery store and waited for my mind to clear, pretending the pack of jumbo cotton balls was extremely heavy—well, it is to a dying man—as I placed them on the checkout conveyor with my food items.

Cashier’s name was, “Mylicia.” I’ll say. Wish she was MY licia…as I was bleeding out in line.

“Writing is easy; you just sit at the typewriter and bleed,” said the famous writer who killed himself with a shotgun to the head, holed up in his writer’s retreat cabin in some pristine wilderness….

To which I would add: facing the existential horror of being versus nothingness is easy; just stand in the checkout line and bleed.

Not coincidentally, a few happy blocks later, I heard a loud voice saying, “I’m just going to shoot myself in the head.”

Looking around, I spotted a young man, at least he was younger than me, over on the park bench here in the upscale shopping district before you crossover Market and get down to the nitty gritty…in the Tenderloin.

It was getting a bit chilly on an April evening, but he was wearing only a pair of underwear, some navy blue boxers, thank God for the choice of dark color, and nothing else!

“Of course, I don’t have a gun, “ he continued for anyone within twenty feet.

Obviously. You don’t even have clothes!

“But I could kill myself with a live wire, or something.”

Way to be creative. Or, you could just get clothes.

Some gray-haired tourists looked away, whiter than their hair. This sort of thing fits right into NYC—skyscrapers, lunatics, and everything.

But here?

Yes, here!

It just goes steadily downhill from there. Twelve  blocks later, nearing the metal filing cabinet I call home, a dealer I know—I mean I know, like I’ve scored off more than a time or two, mostly China, stepped on for days—scurries by like a slant-eyed possum.

He squints sideways at me and says, “Have a good night,” probably trying to trigger me so I’ll score.

I wanted to say, “I’ll have whatever kind of fucking night I want.”

But I just swallowed it.

Fobbed the lobby door and slipped into energy-saving gray glint of dilapidated furniture and half-dead plants.

Pressing the button on the ancient elevator, creaking down to the lobby like Frankenstein, I congratulated myself on my restraint.

“Yeah, don’t shit in your nest,” I said to the tropical plants clinging to life, “may still want to buy a balloon off him some day. But not tonight!”

The elevator groaned open. I expected Boris Karloff to be inside, sitting on a wooden stool, wearing a gray suit with brass buttons that matched his gray skin and yellow eyes. But it was just the usual filth and stains from getting cleaned only once a month.

Janitor just hides in the basement, smoking and reading Russian magazines. Probably some relative of the Ukrainian landlord.

I carry this weight all the way up to number 503. Open the heavy metal door.

If my window is open, I have to be careful not to let the door slam. If I do, another Russian who runs some type of party entertainment business—yeah, right, whatever—and who keeps strange hours, but I doubt he lives in his office, like me (which is a lease violation, but I know how to keep it on the down low)…Okay. What was I thinking?

Oh, yeah, Ivan yells at me, “Close the door with the handle. Okay! Can you do that?!”

Now, living on the fire escape, I usually remember to close my window, not that there’s much in here but paper clips, bus fare, and my alto, when it’s not in the pawn shop over on Geary. So my door doesn’t slam coming and going very often. Still, I used to not say anything, afraid he’d go Russian outfit guy on me.

But now that’s all changed. Living my life on a perpetual suicide watch, it’s fun, it’s easy. “Go back in your cave, Stalin, and leave me alone!”

But none of that is actually happening. Just thinking about it all so intently, my lips are moving as I mouth the lines.

I throw the six-pack of yogurt, ham and Swiss on rye, one quart of whole milk, two apples and one orange into my mini fridge.

My window out to the fire escape and all those dream weavers is closed, so, I pull it up and open. Heat’s included in my office and it came on tonight before I got home—old radiator hissing water heated by the converted coal-into-oil furnace down in the basement…of my mind.

This was an old Hotel, built in 1913, and revamped into offices during the 90s dot com craze. And a few years later, when it crashed after the towers were brought down with demolitions explosives, you could get an office here on a seven year lease for a song.

That’s what I did, transitioning from line cook to cabbie to California certified gum shoe.

Slipping through the open window and out onto my balcony, fire escape, mind escape, dream weaver, I sighed to the lone star choking through the Tenderloin haze like a cancer survivor.

Lit a cigarette. “It’s good to be the Cadillac.”

 

 

The Art Car

I’m worried about the Portland Gay Mafia, as I sit on the brick retainer wall in front of Trader Joe’s on Northwest Glisan in the heart of the new old gentry, strolling to and fro, glancing at the two of us  sideways, like, why are we not: shopping, texting, walking a dog, or wearing gay pastel organic cotton fibers.
     “Listen to me, Gary, I really shouldn’t have to be the one to tell you about this stuff,” he says, practically ready to go off on me.
     As he pauses to reach in his back pack and pull out his cheap white port, tilt it into his little portable wine glass he hides in his acrylic watch cap when he drinks in public, I spy a familiar book cover.
“Is that A Coney Island of the Mind?” changing the topic for the time being as he was getting a little unhinged.
a coney island
     “Yes,” pulling it out, as he tosses down the wine partiff in one swig.
     I was hoping he would offer it to me to hold in my hands and read it. Aside from that god forsaken Rod McKuen shit and the wonderful Wordsworth we were obligated to read in High School, plus some e e cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, “A Coney Island…” was the first real poetry book I ever dove into. In fact, it was gifted to me by my High School sweetheart for my 17th birthday.
     I love that book. City Lights. The Beats. “On the Road.”
     “Outside it’s summertime, milk and honey days, oh San Francisco girls with their San Francisco ways…’
     It all seemed so far away back in Pittsburgh, Pa in the late 60s. But I made it there…on my thumb, mothertruckers, in September of ‘72. This is chronicled in “Have a Nice Day, Man; tales from the dark side of the 70s.”
     So, I gave into the matter at hand, tossing the Beats out the window in my mind, and the whole reason I probably became a goddamned writer. Instead of a plumber. Or an astronaut.
     “So, who’s in this Portland Gay Mafia, anyway?”
     He started to list the names, many of which I recognized from the cultural or business community in Portland the last few decades.
     “Do they have an enforcer,” I pressed on. He couldn’t tell if I was serious or being sarcastic. Which is fine with me because half the time I could say the same thing about him. Let me add here, that this particular individual is one of my oldest Portland acquaintances who I met when I first blew into town like a summer breeze from the tiny town of Wheeler, Oregon, stopover from Boulder, Co, back in August of nineteen hundred and seventy-seven. I think there is one other person in Portland that I’ve known as long as him, who, like myself, is neither gay nor in the Gay Mafia.
     “I’m going to write a poem about the gay mafia and get booed off the stage at the next open mic,” I mounted another charge out into No Man’s Land, up and over the trenches these gentrified petrified masses yearning to be asleep, live and die inside of every damn day.
     “You do that,” he said. “But what do you have to say?”
     “About what?”
     “What do you mean, about what?!,” taking another good pull from his little glass crouching inside his stocking cap. “I’ve been sitting here talking to you about Portland culture, trying to fill you in on some things, and you say, ‘about what?’ Are you brain dead? What do you have to say about anything I’ve been talking about!?”
     “Well,” at this point I stood up. He was heading down hill at million wino miles an hour straight for me and I just felt like getting up and getting out of the way. “I really have to get into the store. And I have a another stop,” checking my watch. It was 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night in the very heart of the new/old NW Portland gentry, on the old brick wall in front of the grocery that used to be Thriftway.
     Hell, I got 86ed from that place back in the 80s for going off on management for towing my ART car from the lot.
     The Art Car was a gold, 1977 Chevy Malibu, the ones with the five-foot-long front doors that weighed a couple hundred pounds, and a 350 under the hood, with a tiny trunk like it had its ass chopped off by the Gay Mafia, or something. Mine was all twisted up in front with a sick sideways grin, and the back bumper was smashed in so you had to hold the trunk closed with piece of rope. I bought it off my neighbor, who was the night manager of a popular music nightclub that I also worked at as a bouncer.
DCFC0001.JPG
     He was also a coke dealer and was coming of a real good binge. He had just wrecked his car and offered to sell it to me for twenty-five dollars. Well, I just happened to have that amount of money on me.
     He said it didn’t drive cause the front end was pushed into the front wheel.
     Well, I fixed that shit with a crow bar and my bare hands, and drove that fucker with the infamous “Friend of the Bands,” Patrice Von Arden Ellis, “The Stray Cat In Lilac Shoes,” for at least eight months… until the day Thriftway had it towed.
     We had an understanding, I thought. I lived around the corner in a rooming house with aforementioned coke dealer on Flanders. Big salmon-colored house. Still there.
And I could park at the very back of the lot.
     Needless, to say, I didn’t bother to come up with the cash to get my no-insurance, no- registration Art Car, aptly named by Patrice (“It’s like a metal sculpture on wheels…”) out of the tow impound under the freeway overpasses on NW 16th near the old Slabtown club.
     On the other hand, I have another memory that says I sold the Art Car for $250 to get boozed up one night after my friend died of a coke overdose in ’82. I have no idea which memory is accurate. Maybe it’s both. Divergent. My life split down two different paths right then and there.
     Which one am I on? Or can I jump back and forth between them…to stay one step ahead of the Portland Gay Mafia…
     That’s what I would have said to him if I had stayed and taken his piss and vinegar flying at me in the, “Breathe Deep the Gathering Gentry Gloom, Intelligence Fades From Every Room.”
     But I didn’t. “Mala Noche,” brother.
     See you next rhyme, next open mic, next time these ships pass in the night…

My Dad’s Inferno

THe Jones and Laughlin Steel

SLUG: Steel Mills Exterior 1967 DATE: January 12 1967 LOCATOR: Pittsburgh Photographer: N/A, maybe H. Moyer Credit: Pittsburgh Press

He designed valves for nuclear submarines during the 50s and 60s Commie scare. But he secretly loved the tabloids—“Hollywood Reporter” and “National Enquirer” tucked away in his top drawer. But not so hidden from a boy like me, trying to find out about my father.

My grandmother called me a snooper: “Do you like to snoop?”

Well, yes I do. Show me your secrets.

Then there was my dad’s bottom drawer where he kept his starched white shirts for work at Westinghouse-Bettis Plant, top secret defense contractor in Pittsburgh, Pa. Underneath their stiff creases, he was heavy on the starch, was the real live 60s gold cache, the glossy periodicals, “Tip Top,” “Nylon Jungle” and “Leg Show.” I suppose you might call them fetish today, but they were really just an hobby-like interest—many featured no nudity, some were topless only—compared to today’s hardcore. But for a boy of 12 home from school over a third of his first year in Junior High, I was a sickly child, it was the mother lode.

You see, my father had a secret life more complex than anyone realized—except my mother—and by the time I was a freshman in High School, me too.

Donald Francis was an only child born of 100% Irish American parents in Chicago. His father worked a blue collar job in some type of manufacturing, of which there was no end to in Chicago from WW2 onward. His mother was one of those overbearing types who wore mink at Easter and a veiled hat that couldn’t conceal way too much rouge and lipstick. In spite of their working class, and his mother’s taste for finery, he never wanted for anything. I have pictures of him with a model airplane back in his youth, the early 30s depression era years in Chicago, that was almost as big as him. It appeared as though you could sit in it. He also was posed with a cute little Terrier, wearing fine knickers with suspenders, and a very nice, woolen cap.

His mother was a strict teetotaler who never had a drop in her life…which makes me suspect the alcoholic gene came from her side and skipped her only because she abstained. Hair-shirt Irish Catholicism has its benefits.

Do your penance and our Father will remove your impure thoughts and desires.

But my mother was a protestant, Lutheran, and did not want to convert to Catholic. So, my father left the Catholic church to marry my mother…and descended into the “Nylon Jungle.”

 

it's so sheer

The GI bill and his father paid for him to go to college, a Chicago technical institute, where he earned a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering. Starting off at Sloan Valve in Chicago, Il, he somehow  graduated into the top-secret work at Westinghouse-Bettis in Pittsburgh, Pa. Sooner than later, his job designing the first nuclear submarines started to pay off. We bought a new car every other year. A  Ford wagon. We moved into a big house with four bedrooms, a game room, and a double lot. My mom had a round rose garden, her lifelong horticultural dream, to attend to, adjacent the painted rose-color concrete patio. That’s where dad would burn the steaks, the chicken, the dogs, the burgers, and anything else that touched his grill. From age ten to fourteen my life tasted mostly like charcoal burnt meat.

One time dad doused the briquettes with so much lighter fluid that when he threw the match on it, my mom, who was not standing back nearly far enough for the pyrotechnic display, had her eyebrows singed off—the fire leaping into her face like an hungry lion. Good times, ala summer of 64 or so.

I knew mom made a mean barbecue sauce, but it was hard to taste it because dad turned everything into ground zero of a nuclear bomb. The poor chicken was so dried up you had to have at least two 12 oz Cokes to wash it down. Even the corn had to be overcooked to suit Dad’s tastes.

A lot of great sweet corn grew just outside the city. Mom would made sure we went for Sunday drives after Church, when we actually went, like six times a year, including Palm Sunday and Easter, so we could buy fresh fruit and vegetables, especially corn, tomatoes, and peppers, from  the roadside stands, mostly south of the city on the way down to Uniontown.

Salad was covered in so much dressing, mostly Thousand Island or Roquefort, that I had no idea what raw vegetables even tasted like other than they had an odd crunchy wetness to them. I, of course, was just following the lead of my dad.

During Dad’s bouts with sobriety that never lasted long, he would have Coke and popcorn in front of the TV down in our full-sized game room every night. Well, hooray for sobriety. Dad loved a good western and didn’t actually care much for anything else except Frank Sinatra movies. He and mom shared a love of anything Sinatra.

As we became even more affluent, my dad got a used car just for himself. It was a pink and gray Dodge that was over ten years old and had some ripped-up upholstery. But dad loved it because he could go out and tinker away on it every Saturday and get away from us all. I think he deliberately bought a car that old so he would have to work on it all the time. To say my dad was mechanically inclined would be like saying the ocean is wet. He could take just about anything apart and fix it…like our toaster! Who does such a thing?! My father, down on his wooden work bench in the garage.

Well, being a snooper, I decided to look around my father’s old Dodge one time. I got his keys, fished them out of the dish on top of his dresser while he was taking a nap one Saturday afternoon, and my mom and sisters were off doing something like grocery shopping, though I came to be my mom’s favorite co-shopper just a year or two later.

I rushed outside, knowing how he can sleep like a log, maybe owing to his emphysema, or hung over, or sneaking out with his girlfriend, Gail on Friday night. I looked under the seats, inside the glove compartment, and finally flipped open the trunk. Bingo, bango, bongos. Inside was a cardboard box filled with his other life: stockings, wigs, women’s clothing and more of the aforementioned magazines.

What the hell was this all about?

At first I assumed the girly under and over-garments belonged to his girlfriend, Gail. But why would it be in the trunk? Plus, it was sort of old and raggedy—holes in the dresses and sweaters, runs in the nylons, cheap wigs, and old make up.

Now I had really stumbled upon a mystery fitting of the crime novels my mother consumed like candy-on-the-couch every spare waking minute she had, now that the kids were older and she was working part time, owing to Dad hitting the big time at Bettis.

He had a high security clearance photo ID gator-clipped to his shirt at all times. Even at home after work, just in case they stopped by to check up on him and make sure he wasn’t a Commie spy, and we were the model all-American family: barbecues, baseball, and badminton.

custom_1966_ford_galaxie08 paint fx 144dpi

Sometimes on Saturday night we’d all pile into the Ford Galaxie wagon and head south on route 51 to the drive-in. I remember we saw “The Blob,” with Steve McQueen, “The Great Escape,” with Steve McQueen,” “Hole in the Head,” with Frank Sinatra, “From Here to Eternity,” with Frank Sinatra. Wait. I guess we only went to see movies that starred either Frank Sinatra or Steve McQueen with my father.

But that wasn’t the best part. Or tumbling out of the car and running up to the concession stand at intermission for grape popsicles, popcorn, cherry or chocolate cokes, ice cream drumstick cones, ice cream pies, and everything me and my sisters could cram into our stomachs until we were sick.

The best part was driving past the slag dump as the freight train was ejecting molten slag, hot from the steel mills, on an ancient evening in August, coming or going to and from the drive-in. Jones and Laughlin Steel works was going full bore back in the 60s. The skies lit up red at night. The humid air so thick with heavy metals–arsenic, lead, cadmium—that you could cut it with a knife. It stuck to your skin. You could take four showers a day and still feel gritty.

The slag was the left over millings of pig iron from the bottom of the furnace that separated out the impurities in the beautiful refined steel. About once a week, the furnaces, going around the clock, had to be shut down and cleaned out. The still-red-hot and molten metal filled up a mile-long train of gondola cars. With at least four engines pulling this behemoth—talk about heavy metal, think of the weight!—they hauled it out to the slag dump just south of the city, and just before you got to the Route 51 Drive in. The mighty train would creak to a stop. In unison, the cars would tilt starboard and release their red, white, yellow, and orange jewels of cooling, dirty iron ore down the side of the man-made mountain, creating a cascading flow of searing hot color that kissed the sky and our faces. The heat emanating from the dump slapped us giddy, pushing us down the highway.

The only thing I could do was yell, “Wow. There it is.”

An act of man that was as close to mimicking the flow of lava from a newborn volcano as you can get. At the time, that slag dump was touted as the largest man-made mountain in the world. I’ll say.

My father could explain everything about what we saw scientifically. And so my first love in life was to become some kind of scientist. I was rather gifted in physics when I was 17 and 18. But I lost any real interest in science after my father died.

dad mad scientist nero

Back then, I thought those summers would never end. It didn’t occur to me that my father would get worse, or my parents would divorce, or I could lose everything—my dog, my bike, my Lionel Train, even my dad.

But I did. We did. Loss was woven into our family somehow. Just like that beautiful slag lighting up the sky like Dante’s Inferno. It was really the horrible refuse from the bottom of a furnace that only sleeps once a week, and spews out poison into the air the other six days.

Taking a step back, I see the beauty in the pain, the loss, the sadness. I don’t understand people who insist on only light. How could this be. What you ask for is impossible.

At night there were so many fireflies we could hit them with our badminton rackets and turn them into glow rackets. There were so many monarch butterflies thick and happy on mom’s lilac bushes that I could easily catch one with my hands, put it in a jar, poke some holes in the lid, and watch it inside my room till I decided to set it free. Sometimes I waited too long and woke up to a dead butterfly inside its jar in my room.

At the height of dad’s drinking, when he was off on his benders, my dad used his considerable intellect to create a separate identity to kite checks and forge prescriptions for controlled substances like Valium, Librium and Seconal. The women’s clothes in his trunk were a big part of that identity. He was impersonating his own mother, who had passed away in ‘64, or so.

One sunny Sunday afternoon when he was off on a weekend bender, he wound up in the park, dressed as his mother, sitting on a picnic table drunk out of his mind. Well, there were Blue Laws in Pennsylvania, and one of them is no drinking in public on a Sunday, especially a man dressed as a woman in a public park…at Easter time!

He was thrown in the slammer. The sergeant on duty, recognizing my father’s place of employment, and being well-aware of the Commie scare, felt compelled to notify my father’s supervisor at Westinghouse Bettis.

My father was fired immediately without severance and never got anything more than an entry level engineering job again. Westinghouse was kind enough to send him over to their air break division, mostly for trains. But the salary was less than half and the work was not even that. It was grunt work, drafting, which all had to be done by hand, a steady hand, back then.

It’s disturbing that I knew so much about my father’s secret life at such an age when I should have only been focused on school, sports, and girls. Plus my bike and my dog. But it just wasn’t like that for me.

The night I learned my father died, I was home from Penn State on Spring Break; there, I buried the lead as deep as it can be.

Not too surprising, there was a big fire that night in the projects where I wound up living with my mom after she divorced my dad.

My Jewish friend Steve, who was a high school dropout and worked at the bagel bakery  in Squirrel Hill, was with me as we walked by the fire and gawked like a couple of looky-loos, hoping everyone got out safely.

At Steve’s mom’s apartment, identical to my own, including the bedroom he occupied, we smoked a few joints. We were marijuanaholics, we would joke with each other.

His mom knocked on the door. “Gary, you need to come to the phone; it’s your mother.”

I thought she was just going to tell me to come home. Or maybe I had to run to the store and get something for her, like cigarettes or pop. But it was that molten slag cascading down the black hill in the middle of the night.

Nothing that terrible can ever be beautiful. And yet.

“Gary, I want you to come home now.”

“Why?” I complained.

“Please, for me.”

Then I could hear it in her voice. “Mom,” terrified, “what happened?”

“Your father has died.”

He was found in a cheap motel on Route 51. He had been dead for a few days. Heart attack. He was 48 years old. The jobs had gotten much worse. He had been kicked out of the A.A. halfway house for starting a fire in his bed, falling asleep with a lit cigarette. He was living in a motel.

No one came to his funeral except us— mom, my sisters, and me.

And the next days continued the worst week of my life. My mom immediately bounced down to the booby hatch. She was afflicted with manic depressive disorder all her beautiful life. And my best friend, Jim, who lived down the hall from me at my dorm, was screwing my high school sweetheart, Joyce, my other best friend who had gone away to college with me.

Santana’s, “I Ain’t Got Nobody, That I can Depend On,” held a little more meaning for me than most.

I lived up on the seventh floor and I thought about it.

But the darkness that threatened to consume me also saved me—the glowing slag dumped down the side of the black man-made mountain comforted me in the form of drugs, good drugs, and lots of them, and rock and roll, good rock, loud rock, and lots more of that.

So it’s Father’s Day this Sunday, trying to remember a man I haven’t seen since I was 18. Like a good son, I carry my father’s secrets of submarines and killing machines and the levels he descended for his beautiful Beatrice, my mother. And I  am his radiance, his truth be told.

My Dad’s Inferno

    

THe Jones and Laughlin Steel

SLUG: Steel Mills Exterior 1967 DATE: January 12 1967 LOCATOR: Pittsburgh Photographer: N/A, maybe H. Moyer Credit: Pittsburgh Press

 

He designed valves for nuclear submarines during the 50s and 60s Commie scare. But he secretly loved the tabloids—“Hollywood Reporter” and “National Enquirer” tucked away in his top drawer. But not so hidden from a boy like me, trying to find out about my father.

My grandmother called me a snooper: “Do you like to snoop?”

Well, yes I do. Show me your secrets.

Then there was my dad’s bottom drawer where he kept his starched white shirts for work at Westinghouse Bettis Plant, top secret defense contractor in Pittsburgh, Pa. Underneath their stiff creases, he was heavy on the starch, was the real live 60s gold cache, the glossy periodicals, “Tip Top,” “Nylon Jungle” and “Leg Show.” I suppose you might call them fetish today, but they were really just an hobby-like interest—many featured no nudity, some were topless only—compared to today’s hardcore. But for a boy-of-12 home from school over a third of his first year in Junior High, I was a sickly child, it was the mother lode.

You see, my father had a secret life more complex than anyone realized—except my mother, and by the time I was a freshman in High School, me too.

Donald Francis was an only child born of 100% Irish American parents in Chicago, 1922. His father worked a blue collar job in some type of manufacturing. His mother was one of those overbearing types who wore mink at Easter and a veiled hat that couldn’t conceal far too much rouge and lipstick. In spite of their working class, and his mother’s taste for finery, he never wanted for anything. I have pictures of him with a model airplane back in his youth, the depression era years in Chicago, that was almost as big as him. It appeared as though you could sit in it. Wearing fine knickers with suspenders, and a very nice, woolen cap, he also posed with a cute little Terrier

His tour in the WW2 Navy earned him four years at a Chicago technical institute, where he received a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, courtesy of the GI Bill.

But what has that to do with his secrets and secret places? Well, nothing and everything. His mother was a strict teetotaler who never had a drop in her life…which makes me suspect the alcoholic gene came from her side and skipped her only because she abstained for life. Hair-shirt Irish Catholicism has its benefits.

Do your penance and our Father will remove your impure thoughts and desires.

But my mother was a protestant, Lutheran, and did not want to convert to Catholic. So, my father left the Catholic church to marry my mother…and descended into the “Nylon Jungle.”

it's so sheer

Sooner than later, his job designing the first nuclear submarines started to pay off. We bought a new car every other year. A  Ford wagon. We moved into big house with four bedrooms, a game room, and a double lot. My mom had a round rose garden, her lifelong horticultural dream, to attend to, adjacent the painted rose-color concrete patio. That’s where dad would burn the steaks, the chicken, the dogs, the burgers, and anything else that touched his grill. From age ten to fourteen my life tasted mostly like charcoal burnt meat.

One time dad doused the briquettes with so much lighter fluid that when he threw the match on it, my mom, who was not standing back nearly far enough for the pyrotechnic display, had her eyebrows singed off—the fire leaping into her face like an hungry lion. Good times, ala summer of 64 or so.

I knew mom made a mean barbecue sauce, but it was hard to taste it because dad burned everything into ground zero of a nuclear bomb. The poor chicken was so dried up you had to have at least two 12 oz Cokes to wash it down. Even the corn had to be overcooked to suit Dad’s tastes.

A lot of great sweet corn grew just outside the city. Mom would made sure we went for Sunday drives after Church, when we actually went, like six times a year, including Palm Sunday and Easter, so we could buy fresh fruit and vegetables, especially corn, tomatoes, and peppers, from  the roadside stands, mostly south of the city on the way down to Uniontown.

Salad was covered in so much dressing, mostly Thousand Island or Roquefort, that I had no idea what raw vegetables even tasted like other than they had an odd crunchy wetness to them. I, of course, was just following the lead of my dad.

During Dad’s bouts with sobriety that never lasted long, he would have Coke and popcorn in front of the TV down in our full-sized game room every night. Well, hooray for sobriety. Dad loved a good western and didn’t actually care much for anything else except Frank Sinatra movies. He and mom shared a love of anything Sinatra.

As we became even more affluent, my dad got a used car just for himself. It was a pink and gray Dodge that was over ten years old and had some ripped-up upholstery. But dad loved it because he could go out and tinker away on it every Saturday and get away from us all. I think he deliberately bought a car that old so he would have to work on it all the time. To say my dad was mechanically inclined would be like saying the ocean is wet. He could take just about anything apart and fix it…like our toaster! Who does such a thing?! My father, down on his wooden work bench in the garage.

Well, being a snooper, I decided to look around my father’s old Dodge one time. I got his keys, fished them out of the dish on top of his dresser while he was taking a nap one Saturday afternoon, and my mom and sisters were off doing something like grocery shopping, though I came to be my mom’s favorite co-shopper just a year or two later.

I rushed outside, knowing how he can sleep like a log, maybe owing to his emphysema, or hung over, or sneaking out with his girlfriend, Gail on Friday night. I looked under the seats, inside the glove compartment, and finally flipped open the trunk. Bingo, bango, bongos. Inside was a cardboard box filled with his other life: stockings, wigs, women’s clothing, and more of the aforementioned magazines.

What the hell was this all about?

At first I assumed the girly under and overgarments belonged to his secret girlfriend, Gail. But why would it be in the trunk? Plus, it was sort of old and raggedy—holes in the dresses and sweaters, runs in the nylons, cheap wigs, and old make up.

Now I had really stumbled upon a mystery fitting of the crime novels my mother consumed like candy-on-the-couch every spare waking minute she had, now that the kids were older and she was working part time, owing to Dad hitting the big time at Bettis.

He had a high security clearance photo ID gator-clipped to his shirt at all times. Even at home after work, just in case they stopped by to check up on him and make sure he wasn’t a Commie spy, and we were the model all-American family: barbecues, baseball, and badminton.

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Sometimes on Saturday night we’d all pile into the Ford Galaxie wagon and head south on route 51 to the drive-in. I remember we saw “The Blob,” with Steve McQueen, “The Great Escape,” with Steve McQueen,” “Hole in the Head,” with Frank Sinatra, “From Here to Eternity,” with Frank Sinatra. Wait. I guess we only went to see movies that starred either Frank Sinatra or Steve McQueen with my father.

But that wasn’t the best part. Or tumbling out of the car and running up to the concession stand at intermission for grape or blueberry popsicles, popcorn, cherry or chocolate cokes, ice cream drumstick cones, ice cream pies, and everything me and my sisters could cram into our stomachs until we were sick.

The best part was driving past the slag dump as the freight train was ejecting molten slag, hot from the steel mills, on an ancient evening in August, coming or going to and from the drive-in. Jones and Laughlin Steel works was going full bore back in the 60s. The skies lit up red at night. The humid air so thick with heavy metals–arsenic, lead, cadmium—that you could cut it with a knife. It stuck to your skin. You could take four showers a day and still feel gritty.

The slag was the left over millings of pig iron from the bottom of the furnace that separated out the impurities in the beautiful refined steel. About once a week, the furnaces, going around the clock, had to be shut down and cleaned out. The still-red-hot and molten metal filled up a mile-long train of gondola cars. With at least four engines pulling this behemoth—talk about heavy metal, think of the weight!—they hauled it out to the slag dump just south of the city, and just before you got to the Route 51 Drive in. The mighty train would creak to a stop. In unison, the cars would tilt starboard and release their red, white, yellow, and orange jewels of cooling, dirty iron ore down the side of the man-made mountain, creating a cascading flow of searing hot color that kissed the sky and our faces. The heat emanating from the dump slapped us giddy, pushing us down the highway.

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The only thing I could do was yell, “Wow. There it is.”

An act of man that was as close to mimicking the flow of lava from a newborn volcano as you can get. At the time, that slag dump was touted as the largest man-made mountain in the world. I’ll say

My father could explain everything about what we saw scientifically. And so my first love in life was to become some kind of scientist. I was rather gifted in physics when I was 17 and 18. But I lost any real interest in science after my father died.

Back then, I thought those summers would never end. It didn’t occur to me that my father would get worse, or my parents would divorce, or I could lose everything—my dog, my bike, my Lionel Train, even my dad.

But I did. We did. Loss was woven into our family somehow. Just like that beautiful slag lighting up the sky like Dante’s Inferno. It was really the horrible refuse from the bottom of a furnace that only sleeps once a week, and spews out poison into the air the other six days.

Taking a step back, I see the beauty in the pain, the loss, the sadness. I don’t understand people who insist on only light. How could this be. What you ask for is impossible.

At night there were so many fireflies we could hit them with our badminton rackets and turn them into glow rackets. There were so many monarch butterflies thick and happy on mom’s lilac bushes that I could easily catch one with my hands, put it in a jar, poke some holes in the lid, and watch it inside my room till I decided to set it free. Sometimes I waited too long and woke up to a dead butterfly inside its jar in my room.

At the height of dad’s drinking, when he was off on his benders, my dad used his considerable intellect to create a separate identity to kite checks and forge prescriptions for controlled substances like Valium, Librium and Seconal. The women’s clothes in his trunk were a big part of that identity. He was impersonating his own mother, who had passed away in ‘60, or so.

One sunny Sunday afternoon when he was off on a weekend bender, he wound up in South Park, dressed as his mother, sitting on a picnic table drunk out of his mind. Well, there were Blue Laws in Pennsylvania, and one of them is no drinking in public on a Sunday, especially for a man dressed as a woman in a public park…at Easter time!

He was thrown in the slammer. The sergeant on duty, recognizing my father’s place of employment, and being well-aware of the Commie scare, felt compelled to notify my father’s supervisor at Westinghouse Bettis.

My father was fired immediately without severance and never got anything more than an entry level engineering job again. Westinghouse was kind enough to send him over to their air break division, mostly for trains. But the salary was less than half and the work was not even that. It was grunt work, drafting, which all had to be done by hand, a steady hand, back then.

It’s disturbing how much I knew about my father’s secret life at an age when I should have only been focused on school, sports, and girls. Plus my bike and my dog. But it just wasn’t like that for me.

The night I learned my father died, I was home from Penn State on Spring Break, in March of ’71; there, I buried the lead as deep as it can be.

Not too surprising, there was a big fire that night in the projects where I wound up living with my mom after she divorced my dad.

My Jewish friend Steve, who was an high school dropout and worked at the bagel bakery  in Squirrel Hill, was with me as we walked by the fire and gawked like a couple of looky-loos, hoping everyone got out safely.

At Steve’s mom’s apartment, identical to my own, including the bedroom he occupied, we smoked a few joints.

“We’re just a couple of marijuanaholics,” we joked with each other.

His mom knocked on the door. “Gary, you need to come to the phone; it’s your mother.”

I thought she was just going to tell me to come home. Or maybe I had to run to the store and get something for her, like cigarettes or pop. But it was that molten slag cascading down the black hill in the middle of the night.

Nothing that terrible can ever be beautiful. And yet.

“Gary, I want you to come home now.”

“Why?” I complained.

“Please, for me.”

Then I could hear it in her voice. “Mom,” terrified, “what happened?”

“Your father has died.”

He was found in a motel on Route 51. He had been dead for a few days. Heart attack. He was 48 years old. The jobs had gotten much worse. He had been kicked out of the A.A. halfway house for starting a fire in his bed, falling asleep with a lit cigarette. He was living in a motel.

No one came to his funeral except us— mom, my sisters, and me.

And the next days continued the worst week of my life. My mom immediately bounced down to the booby hatch. She was afflicted with manic depressive disorder all her beautiful life. And my best friend, Jim, who lived down the hall from me at my dorm, was screwing my high school sweetheart, Joyce, my other best friend who had gone away to college with me.

Santana’s, “No one to Depend On,” held a little more meaning for me than most.

I lived up on the seventh floor and I thought about it.

But the darkness that threatened to consume me also saved me. The glowing slag dumped down the side of the black man-made mountain comforted me in the form of drugs, good drugs, and lots of them, and rock and roll, good rock, loud rock, and lots more of that.

So it’s Good Friday today and Easter this Sunday. You can say it’s only about the light. The resurrection. Easter Baskets and Bonnets and Bunnies.

But especially at this time of year, I carry my father’s secrets of submarines and killing machines and the levels he descended for his beautiful Beatrice, my mother. And I am his light, his truth be told .

Ride The Tiger

“The Case of the Black Pearl Necklace,” chapter 19…

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Mr. Skin took out the thin, gold-plated business card case with a Jade green lucky tiger crouching on one side. He clicked it open and lifted out two cards, one for me, one for Gabby.

“Here,” extending them in either hand to the two of us.

I took mine and glanced at it. The same lucky green tiger logo on one side, his name, in Chinese characters, on the other side, plus a phone number and an address.

“Not this address,” he said, “but my official import/export office and the telephone there.”

Gaby didn’t take his card.

He had no reaction to this, like it was expected of her.

“You will give this card to that smiling Jamaican, King Faces, when you see him and are about to kill him.”

“Um, we’re gonna need more than just the two of us,” I offered up the obvious truth.

“You got John, right.”

“Huh?” acting like I didn’t know we had a man lurking in the shadows who was as dangerous a bare-handed killer as you could ever meet, on loan from Brent’s father, who grabbed him up off the Company’s wet work and black ops wire.

Mr. Skin ignored my foolishness and pressed on. “Plus, I give you one of mine… A Red Pole. Fast riser. May take my spot some day. Good way to prove himself.”

“But how do we know that he doesn’t double cross us after we finish with your dirty work?”

“It’s not my dirty work.” Mr. Skin looked bored with me. “It’s you giving me a reason to let you live…and recover the black pearl necklace, which is all you wanted. Right?”

Gabby finally said something. “Since the first time ever I saw it.”

“That necklace is definitely not an it,” I corrected.

Mr. Skin nodded.

“More people have died in the pursuit of its beauty just in the last few weeks…” though no one needed to be reminded, so I let it go.

“Four man team,” Mr. skin observed. “She’ll get your foot in the door. You’ll make up some crazy story why you’re there. John and my man will make sure he dies…and I get proof. Just a little finger, post-mortem, should do the trick.”

“How did we get into this grim mess,” Gabby shook her head.

“Um, because you and your deceased boyfriend, Brent, decided to steal his necklace…who he stole from…” I said, glaring at Mr. Skin.

“Did not steal. Won it as a side wager playing high-stakes blackjack, invitation-only private game, in Singapore.”

“Yeah, right,” I shook my head.

“No matter!” the earth shook from the sound of his voice. “Your heads are still on your shoulders and you get the necklace as payment for your job. Do not disappoint! I spare your life and I pay you. What more you want. Handjob?!

“Now go to fortune teller. She not in fortune Alley. In the towering caverns of public housing, Hong Kong East, you’ll find her. My man knows the way. She know Faces; she will SEE how you can find him in Kingston…Now!

“I have been paid 360,000 USD; but now I want paid again. I am the Dragon Head! Tread softly and swiftly away. Do not return to Hong Kong. Ever! Faces will never see you coming. Innocents. Idiots! I have planned it all. Your fate. From first time I showed Laura the necklace, , let her feel its glorious weight adorning her throat, to the moment I gave Brent combination to safe, just in case something should happen—a typhoon, fire, Chinese Army…And told him I would kill him if he ever stole from me. Arrogant! Fool!

“In the mad realm of hungry ghosts he must be grateful it was swift.”

“But I thought you said Faces stole it from you, that his men killed Brent…” I tried to get out Mr. Skin’s earlier version of events.

“Does that make any sense? I tell you and everyone else what I want you to know when I want you to know it and not until. Now pay attention! You will take my Red Pole, plus you have John. The two of you—innocent couple on their honeymoon in Jamaica—will open the door easy, so the hell of John and my man can follow. You will tell Brent’s Father, the Colonel, that King Faces arranged the hit on Brent with his men…ordered by me. But you could only get near one of my soldiers and beat that information out of him…tell him it’s impossible to get near me in my fortress up on Victoria’s Peak.

“He will believe you. He will be satisfy…”

“But…”

He cut me off. “Silence. Fool…Listen. You must take King Faces by day…Voodoo in his heart. Very Black Magic. Before sunset he is weaker…”

Gabby bowed slightly as she backed up, years of good concubine training in effect.

I merely retreated and didn’t take my eyes off of him.

As we stumbled outside onto the busy noonday street and choked on the surprising April heat, a slight man, looking very Kung Fu Bruce Lee, dressed in black, nodding politely, joined Gabby, and I.

John stepped in a second later.

He looked tense. “How did it go?”

“Well, you’re not going to believe this.” I shook my head.

“Yeah, I will,” he said. “Who’s this guy,” looking at Mr. Skin’s man.

“Um, he’s on the team now.”

“Really,” John said sarcastically. “And why is that?”

“Trust me. We need him,” I explained.

“What the hell for?” This heat at noon could make anyone impatient. But John was crawling out of his skin.

“Mr. Skin doesn’t have my necklace, John,” Gabby jumped in, as we hailed a red and white for the fortune teller down in Hong Kong East…

Two cabs passed us by. “We’re not going to get cab,” Mr. Skin’s man offered.

“Why?!”Gabby shouted at him like she knew him, like he was the help and should not be speaking till spoken to.

“Sorry, miss,” he said, “But cabs all contract with big business at noon time to take executive to lunch meetings. We should take tram. It will be quicker anyway…”

“Fine with me,” John said. “I have to get out of standing in this heat.”

We moved off like the wizard of oz, Dorothy and her three friends in search of their heart, courage, and brain? tumbling down the mid level to the lower level where the trams and buses made their way on Queen Street.

“So where is the necklace?” John barked. “And why am I not taking care of things here for the Colonel?”
“Mr. Skin either did or didn’t win her back at the auction…maybe it was for show. Pre-arranged by Benjamin,” I tried letting out the half truth so John would follow our lead. If Mr. Skin was entirely to blame for everything up to this point, he would not walk away and skip off to another island over halfway around the world

“Yeah, so who won?” John was getting more irritated by the second.

“A guy out of Kingston, King Faces…and he’s also the one who sent the guys who smoked Brent and tried to add me and Gabby to their list as well.”

“Huh?”

I knew that John wasn’t the one who needed either the brain or the courage. But I explained it carefully for him anyway. “The way I figure, the Jamaicans grabbed it off of Brent, gave it to Benjamin. Then Benjamin holds the auction. Gets paid by Mr. Skin. Then tips off the Jamaicans so they can steal it back…and way we go…” I had to improvise the story so John could really sell it to the Colonel.
“But why the hell would Mr. Skin…never mind, he wanted us to come here so he can…” John tried but stumbled on this new twist.

Gabby saw my play and stepped in. “That’ right. Now you are beginning to see…the guy is a real Svengali. This whole thing is about giving us the ways, the means, the incentive to get inside and kill one of his most brutal enemies…in the skin trade,” Gabby, who also didn’t need a brain—well, she needed to go home—summed it up for her companions.

“Christ on a Cross,” John huffed, dodging the crushing noonday masses.

I almost felt like we should have our arms linked together as we skipped down the stairs. But that would require more room to maneuver. As it was, we were in double file—John and I out front, Gabby and the Dragon’s cleaver taking up the rear—Gabby behind me, and the Kung Fu master riding John’s heels quick as a cat.

“So, he brings us all the way here just to get us to take this job…eliminating his number one enemy,” I salted the final truth convenient to both tales.

“I get my necklace, you get revenge for the Colonel,” Gabby offered.

“ And what the hell do I get?” I complained to no one in particular.

“The girl in the end,” Gabby laughed.

“Oh, yeah, right…and my fucking fee, remember?”

“Maybe take that out in trade?” Gabby teased.

She was having entirely too much fun with my white knight sucker behavior.

“Okay,” John nodded as we skipped out to the little island in the middle of Queen’s Road to take the southbound tram. “But what about this fortune teller.”

“I know this story, well. So I tell it?” Kung Fu said.

“Go ahead,” John said.

“One time, we make it all the way to Kingston to find King Faces and finally get rid of him for good. Really making a mess for us in San Francisco. Stealing our girl. Making them go to work for him…across bay in Oakland. Bad, very, very bad…

“So, we look all over Kingston. No one will talk. Everyone, you can tell, they afraid of him. He start out as DJ and ganja dealer back in the 70s. Help make records for top Reggae stars. Put up money for movies, “The Harder They Come…” And he just get so powerful in Kingston…just like Mr. Skin in Hong Kong…but we find out he has an Chinese Fortune Teller he goes to down near the harbour. He see only her. We find all this out by putting threats and harm on good people, not criminal. This I don’t like much.

“We go see her. Mr. Skin is good Chinese man, believe in luck, fortune, honor. She tell him if he try to kill King Faces, he will die. Mr. Skin believe her. He not to trifle with luck, fortune. And he know King Faces not stop there. He will kill all of Mr. Skin family.

“So, he very frustrated…He say, ‘I want him to know how close I came. How lucky he is. I will take her, hide her in Hong Kong, and she will keep track of him, what he’s doing, where he is for me. And I will at least be able to know sometimes when King Faces is about to strike like a jackal and take mine away from me….’

“And she’s been here now for almost ten year…This has been coming for a long time.
And now it’s time has finally blossomed into this day, this time of fortune and luck, honor and duty. For all of us, even you, Mr. Whitecarol. Even you.”

“I don’t know why the tram waited until that exact moment to pull up and stop at our island, under the tinted Plexiglas shelter, a very slight, shy breeze trying to sniff us out, hurrying up from Victoria Bay, and all the joyous boats fishing, eating, feeding the huge lunch boats floating about with live eel enough to feed an army.

But it did. Dorothy and her men climbed aboard, went up to the upper deck. Walked all the way to the back.

As we pulled away from it all, things felt right. Super bright day, sun beating a drum on your tin head, sunbrellas and white suit fellas strolling everywhere. Hong Kong is a cloudy city, rainy and wet, humid and hot, except when it’s not. These super dry days can catch even the natives off guard. Close to 90F at the end of April, but humidity is below fifty percent, and buoyant blue sky filled with puffy white clouds like full clipper sails made it all feel more hopeful and less oppressive than it had any right to be… looking for the fortune teller. Forgot to pick up sunglasses when we were there at the mid level markets. Ray Ban knock offs. Ten dollar.

No cars in the tram lane, we glided along. The lights at each intersection were long. It seemed like all of humanity passed before us at each and every crossing.

Am I dreaming this?

We see the Dragon Dance on the way there. Good luck. Good fortune…riding on the Kennedy Town to Happy Valley tram

Eternity Diamonds, the sign says in English below the larger Chinese characters.

Heaven, Earth, Man. Linked by woman…the tram moans around the lazy curves like an harpooned whale in “Moby Dick.” Toyota cabs are all Royal Crown, and look so regal dressed in red and white. But they have traffic to contend with. We do not—tram has its own, dedicated lane.

We were all tired of it, of each other, of chasing dreams like tigers that let you think you might catch one by the tail. But you never do. And even if you did. Then what.

Then what!

I was hungry, tired, hot, and the sound and motion of the tram rocked me into a strange twilight. I knew she was waiting for me there—the black pearl necklace. We had not spoken in awhile.

My head rubbed against the window as my eyes fought to stay open. Gabby at my side. Something about fighting to stay awake made the twilight state more captivating and intense. Give into neither. Become both..

I heard a song I remembered from way back when I was in a grade school play, growing up in Westminster, sad suburb of Denver.

The peddler. There I was, singing, or was the necklace singing it into me…

“I’ve gifts to sell, I’ve gifts to sell, the finest in the land…” I sang out to the void…

“The price of this gift is incomparable,” she said. “It cannot be bought or sold. You know what it is, don’t you, James.”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“It is life itself…all gifts and gift giving symbolize this in some way.”

“Yes! My, my, James, but you are starting to catch on so quickly…”

Me Am Me, Meet Me, Part Two

Picture Postcard World
 
Working at the rock quarry, moving the pile, no one said this would be easy. I carried a stack of cinder blocks, two at a time, from one end of the site to the other. Building rows of homes in shifting sand, just north of Flagler Beach, I was lucky to have shoes-too-small, and jeans-too-big, courtesy of Thomas the bike mechanic. Jeremy had pitched in a belt—one of those macramé things that were popular for a minute before they died. I sweated a lot for one not carrying any reserves, like a camel, weighing in at a featherweight of 120 on a good day. So, I begged and pleaded for water breaks. Florida sun and the construction foreman born under it didn’t care. But I was smart enough to get the task of reading blueprints for laying rebar in the foundation ditches we dug out by hand all day . . . on my third day.
 
“Playing, playing in the band; daybreak, daybreak on the land.”
 
Thomas seemed to handle the work better than me . . . by doing less of it. Foreman was on my ass, not his.
 
“C’mon, college, two at a time! That pile’s not gonna move itself.”
 
“But why does the pile have to be moved over here?” I squinted through sweat stinging my eyes.
 
“Cause that’s where the concrete mixer truck is gonna park and pour tomorrow morning . . . I don’t pay you to think.”
 
“You don’t pay me to read blueprints, either, at minimum wage,” I muttered to the sand.
 
“What was that? Speak up, college, if you don’t like it,” he Lorded over me.
 
“I was just saying to myself, I didn’t realize that, so now it all makes perfect sense,” I gave him a sarcastic wink, unintentionally, as a big drop of sweat was about to roll into my right eye.
 
“Really?”
 
Yeah. Really. Welcome to Florida. It’s the picture postcard world versus the dark, savage underbelly of man vs. man, man vs. nature, and nature vs. man.
 
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By three, I had managed to move the pile. Longer tenured workers had been shooting the breeze since 2:30, waiting for Boss Man to send them home. Not me. Thomas helped me out, but he only had to carry one at a time—a much easier task since they weighed about 25 pounds apiece. Two were close to half my weight.
 
No quit in me. I would keel over face-in-the-sand before I let Boss Man best me. Like a Florida chain gang, sand in my shoes, my eyes, my crotch, my ears, my brain, but the Boss Man is not my problem today.
 
Just a few miles inland and the temperature climbs, especially middle of the afternoon. My brain screams, “I need water.”
 
But the water truck already came and went at two.
 
I can hear Onny laughing. “You jus’ a weak college boy,” carrying a stove on top of her turbaned head up the steep, pitch black, muddy hill.
 
No, Onny, I’m not a mule, a pack animal, and I can’t keep up.
 
I’m fantasizing about 3 a.m. sloppy joes at the College Diner, College Avenue, State College, Pa, stoned on hash, spreading around my social security and loan money liberally.
 
My friends in Pittsburgh and State College both ripped me off. That’s why I’m here. And broke . . . down. Yeah, I could have just gone to class and got the grades, save for March of 71. Dad died. Mom bounced down to the booby hatch. And my girlfriend since junior-year-high-school picked that week to start balling my best friend at old State College, living down the hall from me at the East Towers. No one ever congratulated me for not taking the dive, as others did, from my seventh floor window. Music on drugs saved me. Or drugs on music. No way I was going to let go and go down easy, then or now.
 
So, bring it on Mr. Boss Man and the beautiful billboard world that couldn’t care less. Give me your worst. Call me a worthless drug fiend. Dirty hippie. Bum. Yeah, I’m all that and a bag of shitty weed. And I don’t care.
 
“All right, college. Don’t have to prove anything around here. Tomorrow morning, seven sharp. We pour these houses!”
 
I collapsed right there, knees dropping in sand.
 
“Hey man, you all right?” Thomas blocked out the sun, putting his hand on my shoulder.
 
“Yeah. Just. Let. Me…for a minute. I…can’t move.”
 
“Sure. We’ll eat like kings tonight. No canned sardine sandwiches. Tomorrow’s pay day, partner. Whole weekend off! to fuck off, drive around, and get into trouble.”
 
“Thanks. Help me up.”
 
“Sure,” his hand scooped under my arm, pulling me up out of the sand.
 
“I’m such a burden to you guys.”
 
“Are you kidding,” Thomas laughed, bumping my shoulder.
 
“No.”
 
Thomas practically carried me to the parking area where Jeremy would be waiting by now. “You know we don’t have enough bread to make it back to Toronto, man. Without you, I’d be out here working this shit alone, and taking all the heat, too, as the only Canadian, “ he laughed.
 
“Yeah. This way I get to wear the target,” I shrugged, not quite ready to give up feeling sorry for myself.
 
“You’re just taking one for the team, that’s all,” Thomas gave me the Buddha perspective as he like to call it. “Karma gonna repay you some day soon, little brother. Make it right. Balance the scales back in your favor. Spinning Wheel…”
 
“Sure don’t feel that way these days with the kinda run I’ve been on,” failing to see how much of it had been caused by me.
 
As we stood next to the van and Jeremy yelled, “Get in, damn it,”
 
Thomas said, “You’re just trying to outrun the devil these days. For some strange reason no one understands, he got you up in his sight. But he isn’t gonna get you, man. It’s not that you’re the toughest one. Those are the ones that fall. It’s more like you’re too slinky for him to grab onto,” I had now received Tomas’s sermon of the day, a regular occurrence when he wasn’t drunk or sulking.
 
“So, you calling me Mr. slinky,” sliding open the van door and jumping in the back.
 
“Yeah,” Thomas said, hopping up into the shotgun seat and slamming the door. “Hey Jeremy.”
 
“Yeah?”
 
“Meet Mr. Slinky,” Thomas cracked.
 
“Pleased to meet you,” Jeremy smiled. “Where to?”
 
“Well, Mr. Slinky and I want cold bottles of Coke from the bait store, the tall ones, showers at the Trailer Park…and then…What’s it gonna be, Mr. Slinky.”
 
“I-talian,” I announced.
 
“And then Italian at a real restaurant,” Thomas relayed to Jeremy.
 
“Where’s that,” Jeremy laughed.
 
Flagler Beach was not exactly a bustling tourist trap.
 
“I don’t know,” Thomas was not going to give up that easy. “Maybe down at Daytona.”
 
“I’m not stepping foot in Daytona, “ Jeremy shouted, holding up his left arm, cast and sling.
 
“Okay. Fine. But we’re having Italian tonight,” Thomas would not let go. He was like that, too. “You should see the way Erik’s slaving away every day, taking all the heat from the boss so I can come in under the radar. As you well know, it ain’t legal for me to be working here.”
 
“I know,” Jeremy softened.”Okay. I’ll ask Marge back at the Trailer office. They’re open till four.”
 
“Maybe we can head up to St Augustine,” Thomas offered.
 
“Let’s just ask Marge. We owe rent tomorrow and I can’t pay till end of day after you guys cash your checks,” Thomas guided us out onto highway 100 and headed back to Ocean Shore Blvd.
 
Sleeping like a rock to the sound of the ocean, our bedding laid out on sand grass next to the camper. Stomach’s full. Picture postcard world, goodnight.
(Excerpted from: “Have a Nice Day, Man, tales from the dark side of the 70s.“)
 
 

Me Am Me, Meet Me

Donuts Are Forever
We camped out on the Florida Keys dependent on some mirthful god who would leave us booty on the beach. Or, maybe it was a carnie god—spinning wheel, chuck-a-luck—or some pirate god that leads you to treasure or protects the gold you’ve buried in shifting sand. I never saw a bluer ocean and whiter sand. I unrolled my sleeping bag on the scruffy ground cover under the trees as soon as the last joint was smoked, but before the fires went out. I was abstaining, mostly, since the guy died in the bus accident, sitting across the aisle from me one minute, lying under a bus in a snowy Pennsylvania field the next. Scared straight. Though I still drank my drank. Got to take your medicine as needed.
     The folks I was touring the Keys with were Canadians, but I liked them anyway. I had just done a month up in Ottawa and Montreal, back in the winter of 72, following the teenage guru Mahraji, who taught me a technique for releasing nectar. We sang, “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the lord…and we pray that our unity will one day be restored; and I’ll know you’re my brother by our love…,” and Elton John’s, “Love Song”, as we marched through the streets of Ottawa. I ate a lot of bananas. Classes were big, even bigger than Penn State, with over a thousand supplicants learning his meditation techniques. So, I had nothing against Canada or Canadians. Although they were from Toronto, which is like Detroit for French people. Hey, that’s what they said.
      Jeremy was a motorcycle racer and Thomas was his mechanic. They drove a wicked VW bus with a little trailer for the bike. The Keys were nothing but serious R and R for them to get ready for the motorcycle races up at Daytona. These races were on the big track, leading up to the granddaddy stock car race, the Daytona 500. Thomas was the serious one and Jeremy the trickster, and they could really work a crowd.
     Down at Key West in the parking lot, watching the sun set over the ocean at the southernmost point of the USA every night, Jeremy would juggle on the seat of his bike, while it was moving forward, no less, or do his Bogart imitation while cutting the tightest, boot-in-the dirt donuts I’d ever seen. He was a madman. Afterwards, Thomas would calmly swoop in and collect the ass, grass, or cash to keep their traveling side shoo going on down the road.
     “Hey, we’re just a couple of poor Canucks trying to show them how hard we can ride up at Daytona, so, every little bit helps us out,” Thomas announced, passing the hat after the show.
     Hey, how could you not help but help out.
     These were mostly college kids on the Spring Break before the official Spring Break, so, we all knew they had it to give.
     And we took. It’s a give and take world. That’s what I learned from them.
     If you got an act, a story, a shtick, well, you need to get up and put it out there. Everyone needed real, actual entertainment to take them away from the horror—Vietnam, terrorists, riots, crime, Nixon!, Agnew!, and all our heroes, Janice, Jimi, and Jim, now dead.
     So, they took me in on account of they liked my Jamaican stories. And I wasn’t afraid to open up and tell them around the fires at night.
 twinkies birthday
But early next morning, it was down to business. The importance of the morning Twinkie truck raid cannot be overemphasized. The entire day hinged upon this event. Failure was not an option. There were three of us, so we had two watches and an inside man. Me. The reason for this was threefold: 1.) I was their guest, earning my keep. 2.) I was very slight and light on my feet. 3.) I was American. They were Canadians with a race up in Daytona waiting for them. Deportation or jail could not happen to them. I ran track back in High School, so, I was made for this job.
     The Hostess truck parked on a wide skirt along route one, rather than entering the little shopette serving the state park. We were camped out, mostly—though we had to move around to stay ahead of the smokies—at mile 67, Long Key State Park. The rangers were much busier up at the Everglades Park, stopping gator and turtle poachers, plus any other living thing not nailed down. So, we were more of a nuisance than a priority.
     There were a million and one bait and tackle shops along route one and they all carried Hostess products. No time to linger at Bob’s Bait and Tackle, Long Key. In and out for the driver.Which was why we had two lookouts.
     Jeremy was positioned at the door to run interference and wave the first signal to Thomas, standing near the back door of the festive Hostess step van. The idea was, the minute the delivery driver had concluded his business and was headed to the door, Jeremy would give a huge wave to Thomas, standing about 50-75 yards away. Thomas would then give me a yell. At this point, I would throw my little gym bag filled with loot at Thomas, and he would immediately run across the road and into the state park. I would jump out and head across the road empty-handed, sprinting in a more southerly direction. First look out would stand pat and casually drift our way after the Twinkie truck had left the scene. Well, I was so fast that only once did we implement our getaway plan. And the driver was oblivious, anyway. I always got out with ample desserts for the day before the driver could even exit the store. Yep, I was made to rob Twinkie trucks.
     I knew what loot to take. No dozen donuts, too bulky, no Donettes, too weird, no Sno Balls, no way, just Twinkies, Ho Hos, Ding dongs and cupcakes, chocolate or golden. And I wasn’t greedy. I took about a one and half dozen packages total. Never more than about two dozen. Never less than about fifteen packages. It was plenty, and plenty to share or trade. Twinkies were an awfully good thing to have after the joints had passed around on the beach. The Canadians never carried, so our desserts were traded for weed, beer, and smokes. The mechanic, Thomas, smoked.
     Robbing that truck everyday for almost a week, you would think the driver would catch on. Don’t they ever take inventory?! Maybe it was just factored into the cost of doing business on that road. About one and half dozen individual treats will get pirated on the way down to Key West. Hey, it’s over a hundred miles. That’s not a steep toll. The seven mile bridge alone should cost that much. Granted, I was careful to tread lightly and not disturb the sleeping Ho Hos spread out upon the perforated metal shelves. When you’ve robbed a Twinkie truck by seven, it just makes the whole damn day feel that much sweeter.
                      (Excerpted from: “Have a Nice Day, Man–tales from the dark side of the 70s”.)