Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Africans in The Hippie House.

Our house in Mallorca went by many different names: Ca'an Descombros or Sa Cosa Nova, for reasons described here. Mayan calendar devotees who camped in our backyard for the Day Out of Time called it Temple 13. Other folks dubbed it the Hippie House, due to the various people we let live, conduct classes or throw parties there before we renovated. With a huge open entrada originally meant for a horse and carriage, a big terrace out back, no nice furniture (or nice anything), and plenty of privacy, it was a great spot for either a quiet group meditation or raucous New Year's Eve party. At one point we had two Muslim Moroccans living there (one devout, the other decidedly not), a homeless woman from Barcelona, and two Nigerians. The most interesting  interlopers though, were the Nigerians.
Bona lots
One big happy family.

Africans and Moroccans were emigrating to Spain en masse 10 years ago; their cheap labor helped fuel the housing boom sweeping the country at the time. My wife met a Nigerian at the large finca where she worked; he was living in a tent in a cemetery. She told him he could stay at our ramshackle house for the winter, since we would be returning to our apartment in the village when the cold weather came. Immigration laws were lax; a fixed address registered at a town hall was the only requirement needed to work. Two Nigerians lived at our house; 16 claimed residence. They were all God-fearing men from the Igbo tribe; the majority didn't drink, smoke or swear. Needless to say, I had little in common with them. We didn't charge rent due to the primitive living conditions, but were treated to copious amounts of delicious banku to eat in exchange.

A Mallorcan delicacy is baby goat, slow-cooked in a stone oven. The Nigerians claimed it was wasteful to eat such a small animal. To prove their point, they went to a farm and bought a six-year-old male goat, had it slaughtered and cooked it. The significance of bygone, quaint euphemisms like "You smell like a goat" suddenly became luminescently clear. Innocuous adjectives such as 'smell' or 'odor' are too timid--these animals stink to high heaven. A rutting male goat can be smelled a quarter-mile away.

We parked at the far end of our driveway and were walking to the house when the first noxious vapors wafted over. We immediately opened every window in the house. They were boiling the meat in large cauldrons of water. My wife's sister and husband took one look in the pot and made a quick exit. Insisting that we partake in the feast, I was served a plate overflowing with unidentifiable offal, assorted organs and animal parts; I could discern an ear with some remaining fur on it, along with billowy organ parts, valves and vital connectors still attached. Fortunately there was a bottle of wine; we immediately started quaffing with abandon. My wife took a few sips of broth and declared herself stuffed to the gills. Engaging in an intense mental exercise--mind over matter--I finished the entire plate, one awful bite at a time. It was by far the worst thing I'd ever eaten. Asked if I was ready for another heaping plateful, I insisted I was quite sated, incapable of ingesting another morsel.

urban trash, nigeria
Smoldering trash on the outskirts of Onicha.
Apart from that meal, we became enamored with the stories of Nigerian village life, and were determined to visit the country ourselves. We needed visas to enter the country, requiring a trip to the Nigerian embassy in Madrid. The consulate official didn't believe it was for a vacation; tourism was nonexistent. He insisted I was conducting business, and demanded to know what it was. After 10 minutes of redundant questioning, our meeting was going nowhere. I wondered if I was supposed to bribe him, and muttered in Igbo that we'd get to Nigeria with God's grace. The official paused, raising his eyebrows; he asked me to repeat the native phrase. Hearing it again, he was suddenly satisfied; he offered me something to drink, and said our visas would be ready within the hour.

Although I wouldn't call the trip a mistake, it taught me that experiencing a non-western reality can be a sobering experience. Lagos is one of the armpits of the world. Disembarking from the plane, the first thing I noticed was the dim light. It wasn't exactly cloudy, but the sun seemed to be obscured by a thin grey patina, with a feint smell of sulfur in the air. It was dense, impenetrable smog, permeating the city around the clock. Ancient trucks belched black diesel smoke, sitting hopelessly trapped in midday traffic. With no municipal disposal/pickup services, trash burned in large piles in indiscriminate places. On the major thoroughfares, six lane highways were reduced to two lanes; rusting hulks inhabited the other four. Traffic lights were smashed, presumably destroyed in some long ago riot or coup. Potholes were so large and unavoidable that drivers simply drove down into them, cautiously emerging on the other side. Side roads were unpaved dirt, which became large untraversable lakes during rainy season. All vehicles had every distinguishable panel and part etched with the license plate number, to avoid theft. Overburdened telephone poles sagged with the weight of hundreds of cables precariously intertwined; electricity in banks and other businesses flickered on and off all day. All buildings were walled off with doubled razor wire or broken glass shards. Even small fast food restaurants had armed security.

Local children always
gathered around us.
Children played in open sewers running in front of their homes. We saw scattered fist fights in the middle of streets. Through it all, crowds appeared immediately around us. Many had never seen white people. "White man! Welcome to Nigeria! You are welcome here!" Local children pressed in to touch my four-year-old daughter's hair.

We drove seven hours out to Anambra state, to the village of Igbo Ukwu. Every twenty miles or so, we'd encountered ad hoc roadblocks made from stones and old tires. Policemen holding automatic weapons stood solemnly waiting. For 10 or 20 cents, we were allowed to pass through. We passed through Onicha, another large, dirty city sorely lacking basic services. The village, however, was a revelation.

To be continued...

Friday, October 5, 2012

More Facebook comments I wanted to make, but didn't...

Idiotic pedantry
Now isn't that so very kind of you. And very smug. I doubt even in neanderthal times one individual could pass summary judgment on another caveman, without some repercussions from other clan members. 

Unqualified opinion
I have nothing against Woody Harrelson. He's a decent actor. But that's all he is. His opinion is no more valid or worthy of repeating than that of my car mechanic, the supermarket cashier, or the mailman.

Politically inappropriate
I no longer make political statements on FB, no matter how cogent they may be.  It's inappropriate.
Can you say redactive?  FB makes me tired...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Choking the Chicken.

Soller finca
Back view of Sa Casa Nova, chicken house on upper terrace.
We bought our house in Mallorca 12 years ago. The owner said it dated back five generations, making the finca over 200 years old. Like many subsistence farms on valuable real estate, it was subdivided a number of times before we purchased it. We own a little less than two acres.

Stone houses may last forever, but the building was abandoned and in ruins. A steel support post prevented the front archway from falling down and killing someone. Another post held up rotted beams in the kitchen, the floor beneath stained with rainwater. There was no hot water, a tiny hearth in the kitchen for heat, and an outdated electrical system. A rusted Seat 400 automobile graced the patio beside the front carriage doors. Piles of stones, cement rubble, twisted metal and rotted wood were strewn throughout the property. The small citrus orchard was choked with impenetrable thorn bushes. It was early spring, however, and the land was bursting with life. Everywhere we looked was a jungle of green, green, green--a bombastic orgy of fertile overgrowth. A navel orange the size of a large grapefruit was poking through some thorns; a fruit tree was hidden inside somewhere. I carefully reached in and plucked the fruit; giving half to my wife. We bit into the succulent flesh and looked at each other. It was the best orange I had ever tasted. The real estate agent was busy pontificating about rising land values and investment potential.

"With a little reconstruction, you'll have--"
"We'll buy it," my wife said in Mallorcean.

All Mallorcan fincas have names; there was a ceramic plaque beside the big front doors bearing the name of the owner: C'an Llopies, or house of wolves. My suggestion was to rename it Ca'an Descrombros, or house of rubble, due to the garbage everywhere. The name caught on amongst friends and family, earning me angry glares from my wife. Since it was our new house, that's what we named her: Sa Cosa Nova.

The old Llopies family subsisted by raising pigs; there were two small pens still on our part of the property, one intact, the other a crumbling stone foundation. I found small syringes and old medicine vials for months, along with an antique butchering cleaver that I restored. I chicken-wired the standing enclosure, and instantly had a hen house. I bought a few young hens for five bucks apiece at a flea market, hit the farm co-op for hay, feeders and a sack of corn, and was off and running.

Chickens are strange, jittery animals. My mother-in-law told me to pick them up and rub their bellies to relax them. I was hoping a chicken genie would magically appear and give me golden eggs. Otherwise, I couldn't imagine rubbing the belly of a chicken, but these things are good to know.

Chickens will eat anything except meat. Rice, pasta, bread, potato, cucumber or carrot peelings, cauliflower or broccoli stalks--I simply chopped everything up and threw it in their pen. They pooped all over the straw and shredded it into a rich fertilizer, which I used in the garden. And then there were the eggs. I don't care what kind of expensive organic eggs are available in the supermarket--they're nothing like the ones we had. Yolks had the color of a setting sun, egg whites were so thick they defied scrambling, with shells so hard they needed a clout from a chef knife to open them.

One morning I went in the coop to water the chickens, and found every one of them dead. There were some scattered feathers lying about, but for the most part they were physically intact, except for the heads, which were nowhere to be found. The gate of the pen was still securely closed. It was macabre and bizarre, something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Something horrible had occurred in the dead of night, but I had no idea what it was.

I returned to the house and asked my wife a series of pointed questions. "That rotgut your uncle drinks--it´s not Amontillado, is it? Do you belong to any satanic cults? Is this house built on top of an ancient graveyard?" She had no idea what I was talking about. I spied Jeroni, our snobby neighbor's gardener,  fumigating their citrus trees. Our huerto was the only one in the area that was pesticide-free, guaranteeing safe haven for every kind of insect within miles.
chicken killer
Very cute, throat-ripping vermin.

"All my chickens are dead. Can you take a look?"

He made a face like I had asked him to clean our toilets, but grunted and walked over. The Mallorcean language is a dialect of Catalan, but most native men prefer grunting. One glance seemed to tell him the whole story. "Mustels got in here."
"What's a mustel?"
"A little animal. From the woods behind your house."  Ever loquacious, he grunted again before returning to his orange grove, determined to chemically drench the one square foot of land he missed.

The human element was no longer a possibility, but I still had no idea what in hell a mustel was. I kept picturing Zero Mostel, the zany, chubby comedian, breaking into my chicken coop and biting the birds' heads off. I finally learned that mustels were small weasels. I examined all the chicken wire and found one solitary ring broken. It had fur on it.  I fixed the hole and bought more hens, but didn't feel secure. My chickens needed protection--some kind of enforcer. Enter Koko, rooster extraordinaire.

We were eating lunch on our patio one day when a friend arrived with the biggest, most colorful rooster I'd ever seen; he'd taken him from the farm he worked at. "They had problems with it."
Instead of asking the logical question, "What kind of problems?" we simply thanked him and threw him in with the hens, naming the colorful beast Koko.

It's true that cocks crow at dawn. Not just once, though. Koko embraced his mornings, serenading the dawn with an audacious, screeching overture. He also crowed mid-mornings, at noon, in the early afternoon, at dusk--basically, whenever the mood struck him. Our snooty French neighbor would occasionally lean over the fence and make a comment.

"Rooster makes a lot of noise, doesn't he?"
"Does he?" I'd say, trying to rub the sleeplessness out of my eyes." "I don't even hear it anymore."

During the day the birds ranged freely on the upper terrace of our property. I was repairing a fence up there when I noticed Koko observing me. He suddenly stood up very tall,  fluttered his wings a bit and charged at me. A small feathered animal shouldn't be able to intimidate a grown man. Except for Manhattan bike messengers, I'd never had anything charge me with the intention of doing harm. I ran a few feet into the woods, which seemed to satisfy him. He strutted back to his hens, clucking with contentment.

And so go began our little war.

Now whenever I entered the chicken coop with food and water, Koko would attack me. There was little room in there to sidestep or avoid him. I tried talking soothingly to him, hoping to win him over as my friend. Nothing doing. One morning, I tried a street hockey approach; I slapshot him into the wall with a shovel as he charged me. He simply bounced off the cinderblocks and charged again. Eventually I learned to enter and pounce on him before he attacked. I'd hold him upside down by his legs until I changed the water and fed the hens. When I was done I'd toss him to the far corner and make my exit before he could recover.

Savage Rooster
Picasso knew a psychotic
bird when he saw one.
The straw that broke the chicken's back was the day he trapped my five-year-old daughter and a young woman who was staying at our house. No longer content to cluck about on the terrace, the chickens sought our company; they'd jump down to our patio, with the rooster in tow. Koko charged the two females, chasing them into the house and cornering them in our kitchen. They climbed out the window, doubled around and locked the rooster in until I arrived home. Something needed to be done; I couldn't give him away in good conscience...

I had another problem; the chickens had started eating their own eggs. I asked the guy at the farm co-op what I should do. He grunted. "Very bad. Very hard to stop. Get new chickens."
"But what about the old chickens?"
He raised his eyebrows, grunted and said nothing, fetching hay bales for another customer.

I'd never killed anything bigger than a mosquito in my life; our pigeons were a good example. Pigeon (or dove, to be more culinary) tagine was my favorite food when I visited Morocco. I figured I could raise them as an occasional dining delicacy. For some reason, the pigeons took a shine to me, following me everywhere. When I was working in the garden, they'd be perched in a nearby tree. An hour later, I'd be cooking lunch on our patio, and notice them perched in a row on the roof, watching me. I didn't have the heart to kill the damn things, but they were multiplying like crazy, eating all the chicken grain.

I had no idea how to kill a chicken. Like everything else, I looked it up online. A chicken rancher's website suggested to hang them upside, put a pan underneath to catch the blood and slit their throats. My dad told me his mother in Sicily used to break their necks. He insisted one quick pull and twist was all it took. That sounded cleaner. Just to be sure, I took a cleaver and block of wood with me out to the chicken coop.

It may sound trite or contrived, but I thanked the birds for being part of our lives, apologized and explained that they had outlived their usefulness on our farm.

My dad's mom must've known where a carotid artery or some key neck joints were, because when I tried to wring the first hen's neck,  it didn't die. Instead, it started gasping for air. Horrified, I grabbed the cleaver quickly and put an end to it, wings flapping violently. It was terrible. I made short work of the next hen and eyed Koko. I tied the rooster's feet, hung him upside down from an overhanging tree branch, and watched him swinging there. I cut him back down. He was too noble a beast to die hanging from a string upside down. At the chopping block I made as quick an end of him as I could. As his involuntary convulsions drained his life force, I knew Koko had a truer purpose and integration with the natural world than I could ever realize.

I felt wretched about killing the chickens, but didn't regret it, and would do so again if the situation arose. I took the bird's lives without any feeling of dominance or superiority. As human beings, we are simply one more of nature's creatures, no more or less than any other living thing. To believe that certain animals occupy a lower or higher level on the evolutionary scale is an anthropomorphic error. All living things are disparate points of light on the greater, gaian map of the universe.

There certainly exists a food chain, though. I gave the dead chickens to some Nigerian friends, who promptly plucked them and made stew. It was delicious.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Joy of Slapping Small Children.

For some reason, I don't remember my parents yelling at me when I was a kid. Maybe I've blocked it out. I remember being lectured to death in my teens, for offenses like staying out all night or hiding the bloody crucifix that hung in the living room. Spankings dated further back, usually in response to torturing my younger brother, one of my favorite pastimes. My mother's long, delicate fingers seemed to morph into hardened hickory, her thin wedding band suddenly bulging into a tree knot. I would attempt my own mutation, trying to inhale my buttocks into the small of my back as she swatted my behind.

I knew my son for about six months when I first hit him. A year earlier, I had exiled myself to the Spanish island of Mallorca, to find my internal writing muse. Since my muse refused to pay the rent, I landed a job picking olives. In the shade of an ancient olive grove, while ruining my L4 lumbar disc, I met a beautiful Spanish señora.  She was the whole paella: untamed, flowing dark hair, hourglass curves, soft broken English uttered through full, red lips--all combined with a simple, earthy intelligence. Guapisima. She dressed simply, never wore makeup, and always spoke her mind. There was no artifice about her whatsoever; a million light years from the botoxed women I'd left behind in LA. There was one small, red warning tag attached to this beautiful package: the most hyperactive two-year-old boy I'd ever seen. We're talking evil incarnate, a three-foot cyclone, a savage, screaming, Chuckie-like entity, with no fears, boundaries or discernible decibel limits. He was a tiny black hole unto himself, a ceaseless core of energy that destroyed everything in its path. He would've made an interesting study for Stephen Hawking, until being knocked off his wheelchair.

Every night, when sleep settled upon this child, the ensuing peace flowed back into the universe. Supernovas ceased exploding, mercenaries and axe murderers gently laid their weapons down 'til the morrow, compulsive eaters stopped chewing. I hadn't bargained on a devil-child, but I was hopelessly in love with his mother. As I wooed my new sweetheart, I naively thought my abundant love vibrations would soothe the obstreperous little monster, rendering him harmless. A scant five months later, I married my Spanish belle. Ask not for whom the belle tolls...

By this time, olive picking season was over. My bride was cleaning houses during the day; I was washing dishes in a restaurant at night. Her three-year-old refused to get a job, no matter what I said. I couldn't discuss politics with him over tapas and a cold beer; he couldn't drive our Fiat through the mountains when I was drunk. What good was he?

dervish playground
I used to blissfully relax on this beach. Now? Forget it.
As an initial parenting exercise, my doting spouse suggested I take him to our local beach. I considered and dismissed all the potential dangers: there were no waves, no tides, no broken glass, no sharks or killer whales, no lethal jelly fish or floating radioactive waste. He would play and I would get a tan. I generously assented.

There was, however, a busy road right behind the beach. After splashing annoyed French tourists for an hour or so, he made a dash for the street. Leaping to my feet, I wrangled him under my arm before he hit the asphalt, hauling him back to our blanket while he tried to kick me. He couldn't crap in a toilet yet, but knew an amusing game when he saw one. He instantly made another beeline for the road, giggling his chubby little head off the whole time. I fetched him once again. Things were not going according to plan.

"NO. No road. Beach. Playa." My language skills were a shining testament to my immersion in local culture. I plaintively pointed around us. "Water. Agua. Aqui."

Four more sprints to the road and a punch to the scrotum chipped away at my patience. My voice was starting to rise. I bent down on one knee for a serious face to face. "No mas," I stated sternly.

He looked me squarely in the eye, measuring me carefully. Then he spit in my face.

Before the spittle settled on my cheek, before the clock struck high noon, before a pistol's hammer propels a bullet--I swear to God, faster than fucking light travels-- the chi energy of the universe channeled down my left arm.

I slapped the little bastard squarely across the face.

For a second we both stared at each other, equally stunned at what had just occurred. I watched in fascination as his little eyes squeezed tight; he took a small breath, and started bawling. My heart melted, but I held my ground. Fortunately, my hand had no superpower morphing ability; I had barely struck him. In less than a minute he stopped crying and was playing happily, shoveling sand down another child's bathing suit.

I told my lovely bride about it back at our sparse apartment; she was cooking one of her fabulous clay pot stews, over the blare of flamenco music. She simply smiled and kissed me dismissively; she would've been angrier if I tasted her food before it was ready. For better or worse, hitting a child in Spain does not instantly unleash the wrath of municipal agencies, child psychologists or daytime talk show hosts. Whenever my in-laws witnessed his out of control behavior, they unfailingly remarked, "You need to correct that child. Give him a little tock-tock on the coolie, he'll learn." So I tried it. For about a month, I spanked the hell out of that boy. It seemed to bother me a lot more than him. As soon as he stopped crying, he forgot all about it. I would feel horrible for hours, anguishing over the possibilities of psychological scarring and the basic fairness of hitting a child one tenth my weight. When I decided to stop spanking him, it wasn't because of a moral quandary, guilt or because my hand was friggin' sore. The spankings simply didn't work. They did absolutely nothing to alter his behavior; there was no Pavlovian association, negative reinforcement, no retention, nothing.

I tried other child-rearing nostrums, to equal non-avail: timeouts, reward systems, all kinds of reverse, inverse and neutral psychology. In the end, the best way to prevent him from destroying our home and sanity was to put him in a big open space and let him tire himself out. As fall passed and winter settled in, passersby of the local park stared at a small boy swinging from monkey bars in the dark, immune to the wind and cold.

My son is sixteen now, and no longer hyperactive. We have our disagreements from time to time, ranging from mild to pending nuclear holocaust. I can't spank him and the monkey bars no longer interest him. Although not technically a morphing power, I have discovered what can bend him to my will: the promise of a $20 bill for the weekend. God bless the almighty dollar--the real Captain America.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Wacky and Zany, You Are Not.

Four years ago, my marriage went through a rough phase where I thought my wife and I were quitsies. A few of the details were less than flattering to my ego; my self esteem took a gigantic kick to the cookies. Not quite so debilitating that my attraction to the fairer sex went away, though. After a few months, I decided I should get back 'out there', wherever that was. One snag: I hadn't dated in 15 years. Tom the Fireman advised me that a recently divorced, studly work friend was engaged in something called online dating. I'd never heard of it. This guy had so many women contacting him, he couldn't keep up with the correspondence. Women have a thing for firemen, though. Must be the smell.

You want a child cartoonI joined match.com, and quickly realized it was going to be a rough slog. First of all, I'm as superficial as anyone else; I wanted to date attractive women. That eliminated at least half the profiles. Second, most of the attractive women wanted to date focused, successful men that earned at least $100,000 a year, instantly knocking me out of the picture.

Lastly--and this was the biggest sticking point--most of the profiles bored the living shit out of me.
 "Friends and family chide me for my rapacious wit."
 "I'm equally up for a night on the town, or a quiet meal at home."
"I am passionate about life. I don't like games." 
Reading profiles while in bed guaranteed slumber within 10 minutes or less.

Do dating sites give away tours to Machu Pichu or the Great Wall of China? There were endless photos of women at those destinations; camel riding was big, along with winning triathlons and ski races in Colorado. I didn't understand how I would ever get a date, considering all these women had rich, rewarding careers, worked out at least five times a week, dined in Paris and jumped on planes to catch weekend sunsets in Bora Bora or Antigua. 

I decided to check out some men's profiles, to see what the competition was up to. I learned that it's possible to construct sentences without the use of punctuation, and that adding Ha! Ha! to the end of a sentence makes for hilarious prose. I now intend to employ this clever writing device whenever possible. Ha! Ha! I was also introduced to the new, modern, single male. Turns out men no longer want to get laid. They want to be friends first, slowly building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Men today are only seeking life partners. Superficial women looking for one-nighters filled with fabulous, uninhibited sex should just skip right over them. They're not built that way.

My conclusion? Online dating couldn't possibly be taken seriously. I used a photo of a potted plant as my main profile picture and wrote that all other photos were taken in 1937. Trying to make my intentions clear to any potential suitorettes, I broke down the main "About Me" portion to a series of bullet points, then filled out the other details accordingly:
A second later she asked for money.

  • I'm poor. I do have a crappy job I don't really like, so I can usually pay my bills. I'm pretty much broke all the time, though. Hope you like cycling and public parks. Don't worry, though--I know where all the cheap taco trucks hang out. 
  • I'm wearing sunglasses in my pictures...that guy must be hiding something. Would you believe I lost an eye in a chivalrous sword fight, battling for the honor of a woman? Neither would I. And who's the young girl in the photo? That's my 13-year-old daughter, who showers me with love and affection, until she asks for something and I say no. Then she HATES me.
  • So I was writing this and noticed a little box to the right..."Profile Pro." For $39.95, a professional writer can make me sound much more interesting and intelligent than I really am. Isn't that kind of deceiving? What if I'm totally illiterate? Why not have a "Photo Pro" that will touch up all my photos as well? Or "Life Pro" that will make my whole life look better. Think I'd buy that one...
  • I haven't seen your photos, but can already tell you to delete the third pic. Yeah, that one. It makes you look chunky (notice I didn't say fat). Chunky and a little insane. I told you not to wear that flowered print and you did anyway. You never listen to me.
  • Do you have any coupons for this site? I figure if I can stack enough of them I won't have to pay anything. BTW, I own a Rolls Royce and a yacht.
  • Everything else about me is private--I'm never going to tell you anything. Never, ever, ever. 
  • Quick--how many fingers am I holding up right now? See, you're wrong. We'll never be compatible--I knew it. 
Interests: Pornography, Jackass, any combination therein.

Sports and exercise: To be avoided at all costs. Interferes with my digestion.

For Fun: Pulling wings off insects, kicking people with severe disabilities, spitting.

Pets: Fluffy died when I was nine; I'm still in mourning. Any references to animals will set me off in unpredictable ways.

Hot Spots:  The underside of a recently used frying pan, an iron with the setting on Cotton, the conical point of a lit blowtorch.

Political views: Kill them all.

Sign: Yield, Keep Off the Grass, Sunny Acres Funeral Home.

Last read: Sugar, alkalized cocoa, beet juice color, caramel color, whey, and 1.5% or less of: natural vanilla flavor, salt, carrageenan, soy lecithin. MADE ON EQUIPMENT THAT ALSO PROCESSES WHEAT. Distributed by Nestle USA, Inc., Glendale, CA 91203 USA.

Amazingly, a lot of women responded.

P.S. I'm a glutton for punishment...submitting this to the inimitable bloggers at Dudewrite this week.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The whole Gay Thing.

Dumb Badge
Fashion police maxim: if you don't wear an article of clothing for two years, get rid of it. Bearing that in mind, I assiduously dredge up something from the bottom of my dresser now and then, no matter how hideous, worn out or ill-fitting, just so I won't have to give it away. After the day's wear, the article somehow burrows its way back to the bottom of the drawer without a fuss. Problem solved.

Like most true slobs, I have a reasonably diverse wardrobe, but feel no compunction to continuously draw water from that well. I could cite environmental concerns; laundering clothes dumps phosphates into our rivers and streams. Since I have no idea what a phosphate is, here's the real reason: rising from an evening's slumber, the first thing my crusty eyes encounter are the self-same, serviceable, comfortable clothes I wore the day before. Why not put them on again? They won't mind, and neither will I.

Yesterday it was a pair of drawstring sweat-shorts. I got them at Sally's¹ for a buck or two. They're a bit short, and a bit tight. What the hell, it's August in the Bronx. Combined with a standard wife beater, I was all set for an arduous of day of watering houseplants and smiling at funny kitten pictures that my not-very-close friends had posted on Facebook.²

My 13-year-old daughter eyed me suspiciously when I came downstairs.³
"What's with the shorts?"
"Why? What's wrong with them?"
"No offense, but you look kinda gay."

I laughed heartily (because I'm a hearty guy) and walked to the hallway, to self-consciously look in the mirror. I had to admit--if I knotted the the tanktop at my belly button and wore a pair of flip-flops, the look would've been complete: very gay.

The whole gay thing is no big deal to me, but it was at one time. My first job out of college was at a medical publishing company in Greenwich Village. Aside from a diverse full-time staff, the company had a 24-hour print shop that attracted a lot of freelancers--local people from the surrounding area, comprised of artists, musicians and gays in general. It didn't hurt that the two managers of the department were a gay man and woman.

Flaming suspenders
Never went as far with
the outfits as Freddie Mercury...
It was a time when gays were coming out of the closet. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Freddie Mercury, George Michael in denial--I was fascinated by the glamorous gay lifestyle. Commuting from an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, I had never been around openly homosexual people before. Of course there were closet types in our area while growing up. They got picked on, beat up and abused on a daily basis, enduring a veritable potpourri of vitriol and hatred spewed by the local intelligentsia: homo, fag, pansy, queer and the like. I wasn't a part of that, preferring to insult and demean fat kids instead. Every cruel child has a specific genre they should stick to, and weight problems were my forte. Nice, huh?

Downtown though, gays could express themselves freely, showing themselves to be creative and intelligent, and more than anything else, a lot of fun to be with. They seemed to know where all the good parties or trendy clubs were, living in interesting parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn that I wasn't familiar with. I wanted in.

Performers like Michael Jackson and Prince were always wearing makeup. I started experimenting, especially if I was going clubbing. For any man reading this, I have news for you: makeup doesn't just work on women. I looked fucking great. I had no idea how to apply it, but my best friend's girl did: she would apply a touch of mascara to my eyelashes, pencil in some eyeliner and add the slightest bit of blush. It made my hair look blacker, my gaze more intense, gave my gaunt cheekbones an angular look and hid any zits I had. I was sure men wearing makeup would eventually become mainstream, in the same way earrings are now.

Other days I went for an androgynous look. There was no dress code at my job. I'd wear colorful flowing shirts, baggy pants, ballet shoes or pirate boots, with big poofy scarves for a belt. There was a liberal company newspaper that came out once a month, inviting any and all comments, professional or not. I purposely made outrageous statements about a preference for latex or wanting to be licked head to toe. Predictably, a few gay men started hitting on me. Their advances made me vaguely uncomfortable, but I figured I could handle it.

I was mostly a post-punk though, into the Clash, Ramones and Chili Peppers. I owned a 1978 Honda 550 motorbike, with matching biker jacket and chains. I had spiky hair ala Sting; most of my clothes were black and torn.

Gregory Cole sat in the cubicle in front of me. He dressed impeccably every day in oxford shirts, pressed jeans and black loafers. With a strong, sharp nose and a conservative haircut graying at the temples, it was impossible to guess his age. He was very elegant, and most assuredly homosexual. I was jealous of his language skills; foreign phrases rolled off his tongue, perfect accents and inflections intact. If a European author neglected to send photo #36 of an atrophied testicle, I'd ask him to call the doctor for me. When Gregory planned on visiting Turkey, I asked him how his Turkish was. He dismissed the idea with a wave, saying, "No big deal. I'll pick it up in a day or two." We started having lunch together.

One day he invited me for a drink after work, with an editor named Suzanne. She had short hair, dressed like a man and had sexy photos of Cher plastered all over her cubicle. Walking towards the bars on Christopher Street, Gregory suggested we stop in somewhere for a cocktail. The place was sparsely populated with males chatting, but nothing really screamed gay bar. Gregory ordered the first of many Remy Martins, taken neat. Even after six drinks, he never slurred a syllable, had a hair out of place or lost his panache. I really liked him. He said the place was dead; we should try another bar further down the street, with a better happy hour.

We paused in front of a bar with no windows, called The Wicked Anvil or something.
"This place is a bit stronger," warned Gregory. "If you feel uncomfortable we don't have to stay."

Stronger was a mild adjective. Men were wearing leather chaps, some with thick handlebar mustaches. Two guys at a table were in a clinch, sucking face with gusto. Shock must have read on my face, because Gregory immediately suggested we leave. I had no intention of leaving; I didn't feel threatened, and wanted to see what this was all about. I was getting a glimpse into a secret world. We had a drink or two and left, without anyone approaching us. I was almost disappointed.

Back at work, there was a woman who intrigued me. Jean McPhee was a production editor with tri-colored hair and a few artsy tattoos on her wrist, rare for a woman at that time. She played bass in a band with Gordon Gano, of Violent Femmes renown. Nobody told me she was gay, figuring I already knew. She was 30, eight years my senior.

My entry-level job consisted of entering new manuscripts into an archaic DOS computer system. There were in and out boxes for manuscripts, with production assistants distributing them to the editors. I started specifically searching for her journals to enter, personally bringing the manuscripts to her desk when finished. Although I dropped them into her inbox with a loud thump, she never looked up at me. Nonplussed, I started writing little notes on the article photos. "Help me, Jean!" screamed neurons and protoplasm. I wasn't going to be ignored.

Boring pic
If you had to stare at these photos all day,
you'd find this hilarious. 
Mitochondria mutations successfully asked her to lunch; a nucleotide landed me our first date. Sharing sushi on Eighth Street, I guess she felt a need to set the record not-straight.

"You're the first guy I've dated in eight years. I've only been with women since then."
"Is that when you decided you were gay?"
"It wasn't a decision..I always knew. I've always been attracted to women."
"Then why are you here with me?"
"You got my attention. And you're cute."

Cute was very, very good. I was in, baby. I was sure her lesbian experiences were some experimental phase, something she could forget about now.

She met my parents the way most of my girlfriends did, getting caught in their house screwing. Jean had her own apartment in Fort Greene, but I wanted to show her the neighborhood I was from. My folks had their winter house in the Bronx and a summer cottage in nearby Lake Carmel. I lived at home all through college; being a commuter-loser, I needed a place to have sex with girls. It didn't matter to me which house I used, just as long as my parents weren't there. No matter how many times I asked when they were leaving, returning, coming back or whatever, they always managed to fucking catch me (or better said, catch me fucking).

It was about 11 am; we were on the front porch relaxing when the car pulled into the driveway. I had put fresh sheets on the bed; there was no need for panic.

"Mom, dad, this is Jean."
My mom smiled faintly and cleared her throat.
"How do you do?"
Jean took the intrusion in stride, smiling broadly. "Really good, actually. I've just given up drinking, so I feel a lot better."
This was not the salutation my mom was expecting. "Well, I suppose that's a good thing."
"My dad's an alcoholic.  I really don't want to end up like him."
I looked at Jean critically for the first time. She was wearing black leotards, leather short-shorts and Doc Marten paratrooper boots. With her tattoos and punk haircut, she wasn't exactly the girl to bring home to mom. I made a lame excuse about Brooklyn traffic and high-tailed us out of there.

Jean wasn't only direct with my mom; she was quite explicit when having sex.
"Fuck me on the table."
"Fuck me on the fire escape."
When we were in the act, as well. "Fuck my brains out!"
Still relatively inexperienced, I never had a partner talk to me that way before. I very happily complied with her instructions, but couldn't reply in kind. I just didn't have it in me to talk dirty. She asked me once how I'd feel if she invited a girl to join us. Like the honest, naive idiot that I was, I told her that I'd probably get jealous watching her kiss another girl. It was my first shot at a threesome, and I passed. Still haven't forgiven myself for that...

Otherwise, everything seemed to go great for about three months. We danced at underground clubs and ate vegetarian food; I went to all her gigs. One weekend I went upstate to hang with my friends, who I hadn't seen in awhile. Monday morning at work Jean avoided me, and didn't answer my phone calls later on. The next day was the same. Cornering her on Wednesday, she suggested we meet at the park after work. Something was up.

True to her style, she didn't waste time with trivialities.
"I went to a flea market on Canal Street over the weekend. I was looking at tie-dyed shirts at some stall, and when I looked up, there she was."
I looked at her blankly, uncomprehending.
"I met this girl and took her home. I was with her all weekend."

I sat there dumbfounded by the "there she was" part, like she had found a hundred dollar bill under a Dead Head shirt. I tried to wrap my head around it, but Jean was still talking.

"I don't want this to get ugly. I want to stay friends," she said. When I made no reply, she repeated the phrase.
"I really don't want this to get ugly."

I didn't understand this 'ugly' part, either. Maybe she was expecting me to lash out with some hateful metaphors about dykes. I was too hurt to say anything. It didn't matter whether she'd slept with a man or a woman. It was the first time a lover had betrayed me.

dump spot
Don't dump your lover on a park bench.
Try to be more original.
She feigned an excuse about having band practice and made a beeline for the subway, leaving me sitting there like an idiot. Dumping me on a park bench was the lamest cliche ever. It should've been in a souvlaki shop while yogurt sauce dripped down my chin. I could've thrown a gyro at her or rubbed babaganoush in her pink, straw-like hair. Anything but this.

It was funny...she had told me she was still getting over her last relationship; her girlfriend had cheated on her. Maybe it was some kind of twisted revenge she was taking out on me instead. I saw her sneak out to lunch the next day with the head of the typesetting department, an outspoken lesbian with a reputation as a man-hater. They didn't see me approaching.

"I mean, what was he expecting, anyway?" said the man-hater. The words rang in my ears as the elevator doors closed. I wasn't expecting anything, least of all my girlfriend cheating on me. I moped around the office for weeks, keeping a low profile for once. Everyone in the office knew about our relationship. I tried to immerse myself in stamping and entering, which required the attention span of a flower pot. I eventually did notice a cute, new-wavy looking girl in Subscriptions, who seemed to be using the photocopier by my desk a lot. I asked her out to lunch. With yogurt sauce dripping down my chin, I learned she had a steady boyfriend. But Jean McPhee didn't know that.

She magically appeared at my desk the next day. "Do you want to go see Robert Gordon with me on Friday night?" Robert Gordon was a rockabilly singer. I looked at her closely, surprised at the request. Although I heard every word perfectly, I made her ask again.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that," I intoned innocently.
She repeated the question word for word, as if she'd been rehearsing it beforehand. Not once did she look me in the eye. I knew this was an attempt at reconciliation, but I wasn't buying in. Not like this.
"I don't think so," was all I offered.
"Okay, fine," she said with a stammer. I watched her stiffly walk away. She quit a short time after, moving to San Jose. The man-hater told me she was delivering pizzas at night to make ends meet; eventually I lost track of her.

The gay community didn't hold quite as much allure for me after that. I was no longer interested in appearing androgynous, dropping hints about rubber products or watching men make out. In my heart I knew I was a straight guy, interested in dating straight girls. Although I really liked hanging out with Gregory, I stopped going to lunch with him. Maybe that was unfair to him, maybe not. I just knew I didn't want to lead him down a path and hurt him later, like someone had done to me.

I may be angst-ridden about a lot of crap, but thankfully, sexual orientation isn't on the list. I ain't giving those shorts away, though...

¹Hipster or Cheapster code for the Salvation Army.
²Silly anachronistic website for middle-aged people deluding themselves that they know the latest technology.
³Ibid..Ibid...Ibid, said the frog.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lopping Heads Off.

The other day I visited my mother at her 'assisted living' residence, a much cheerier syllogism than 'nursing home.' It's actually quite nice, at least until the bill arrives at the end of the month. For a cool $6,000 a month, management provides a two room apartment with small fridge, three meals a day, resident nurse, and a long list of daily activities: karaoke hour, arts and crafts, belly dancing lessons and scintillating group trips to the local Rite Aid pharmacy. Pleasant Jamaican aides scuttle about, pushing wheelchairs, changing beds and vacuuming the resident cat.

I never miss the jar of hard candies by the guest register. My wife always chides me about grabbing too many, but when I consider the monthly rent, I'm tempted to back up the station wagon to load up on Jolly Ranchers. My mom doesn't like the place, saying it's depressing, full of old ladies who sleep all day in their wheelchairs. This declaration is always uttered shortly after my arrival, once I've roused her from a catnap. She wasn't sleeping of course, just resting her eyes...

boy slays vatican
Oh, to be young and lop people's heads off...
She was actually awake the last time I visited, sitting on a sofa in one of the common rooms. A large flatscreen tv was blaring the Travel Channel at an earsplitting volume. Since a conversation was impossible, we watched the program, which featured the alpine wonderlands of Switzerland and Austria. The narrator was walking down quaint, impeccably clean streets, dotted with cheery cafes; well-dressed  natives sipped very good local beer and very terrible local wine. We drifted down the Danube River and into the national museums. Our illustrious guide seemed to quicken his pace through gold-leafed hallways depicting boring portraits of the Hapsburg dynasty, settling on hometown artists like Gustav Klimt and Paul Klee. Somehow Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath made an appearance on screen, a somewhat jarring image after frescoes of celestial cherubs. When the narrator pointed out that the head of Goliath was actually a self portrait of the artist, I laughed so hard it drew the indignant stares of two elderly women seated in the room. It seemed like a giant practical joke (literally) on the Church; I later read the masterpiece was an act of contrition after Caravaggio murdered one of the pope's soldiers.

Commissions by wealthy archbishops or nobility were keys for an artist to avoid starving to death. I'm sure Velazquez would've rather been painting a naked young woman lying on a divan in his studio, suggestively holding a plate of grapes. If only I could paint, or have fancy furniture...

The Entombment: Christ, you're heavy.
I love Caravaggio; one of his paintings provided my first real art experience. When I was about 20, my parents scored tickets to the Vatican exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Telling me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I begrudgingly agreed to go. We made some obligatory rounds before hitting the special exhibit, examining mummy's tombs and observing armless, footless or otherwise dismembered statues from a million years ago. When we finally reached the cordoned-off exhibit, there was a line; only a few people could enter at a time. Once inside, I wandered through the rooms, unimpressed with penis sizes on sculptures by Rodin and Michelangelo.

For someone who said he didn't want any other idols before Him, God was a real attention hog. There was even more Jesus stuff. I was wearily gazing at another Saint Somebody or Other the Martyr Tortured Unmercilessly, when I noticed a large group of people in the next room. They seemed to be transfixed, agape and staring at something hidden from my view. I walked in and had the same reaction; my jaw nearly dropped in amazement. Hanging in the center of the wall was a larger than life Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ. The figures in the painting seemed alive (except for Jesus), capable of stepping right off the canvas. I'd never seen anything like it, and have judged all great artwork by the same standard, regardless of the genre; a quality to the work that transcends the very medium used to convey it, an insistence on making its presence or point known to the viewer.

My own first attempt at the finer arts occurred in the third grade. Mrs. Muccigrosso (which means 'very fat' in Italian--those people shoot straight from the hip with their patronymics) walked into our art class one day with several large brown bags. There were 8x10 white canvases, tubes of acrylic oil paints, along with brushes and little plastic scalpels. The materials must of cost a fortune--at least as much as my catholic school uniform, which I promptly destroyed that day with Cerulean Blue paint stains. When I got home my mom had a heart attack.

"Whatever happened to finger paints?" she demanded to know. She had enough problems keeping me clothed. My favorite schoolyard game was Ringolevio, a rough game of group tag, or rather tackle. Captured players were put in a makeshift jail, but could be freed by a charging teammate. It was a great game for Mack trucks like Franco Biondi, who was shaving by age nine and had hair on his back at 12. Steamrolling into our jail at full speed, he'd bowl over pipsqueaks like myself trying to tackle him, shredding my pants on the asphalt in the process. All our team could do was grab his plaid necktie in an attempt to clothesline or choke him to death; he wore a clip-on though, rendering that tactic ineffectual. His bull rushes guaranteed himself a ripped shirt as we clawed at him; he never seemed to care. I'm sure his mother feared him too much to say anything.

Our goal with Mrs. Muccigrosso was to recreate Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. We were handed a cheap lithograph print as a guide. I wasn't impressed by Starry Night; it didn't remotely resemble any night skies I'd seen in the Bronx. I preferred the collection of Norman Rockwell plates in my Aunt's living room in Queens: perfect, white Anglican children with rosy cheeks, wearing goofy old clothes that didn't quite fit, adoring cocker spaniels at their feet.

Swirly painting
The stars don't really look like that...
I read the brief biography printed on the back of the lithograph. It mentioned that the artist had cut off his own ear and mailed it to his girlfriend. I promptly raised my hand and asked why Mr. Van Gogh hadn't just sent her a box of chocolates or a Hallmark greeting card. Mrs. Muccigrosso sighed deeply as if in pain herself, declaring that Vincent suffered from a troubled soul. I figured maybe his ear was the reason the painting didn't turn out so good; his head must've been hurting like hell after that.

My own rendering was a complete disaster. Mrs. Very Fat made the mistake of emphasizing the cypress tree in the foreground, saying it contained thick layers of paint to provide visual context. I promptly globbed all my paint onto the left side of the canvas, later smearing it with my forearm when I bent over to wipe up the turpentine I'd spilled on the floor. Upon arriving home, my mom threw my shirt in the trash, and insisted on hanging the mess on our kitchen wall. Now that's love.

One of my many regrets is that I never took an art history class in college; I can't tell a Monet from a Manet. I can however, regale anyone with the basic principles of cost accounting. I love museums and art galleries though, eschewing any breaks for food and drink, compulsively reading all the plaques while my company patiently waits at the exit. I actually don't like Baroque and have seen all the major Impressionists, preferring work that's more abstract. Some people see a Jackson Pollock as nothing more than a bunch of paint drippings. I couldn't disagree more. Somehow the paintings have an internal logic and aesthetic that forms a logical whole my subconscious mind can make sense of. Someone standing next to me looked at the painting below and asked, "What does it mean?" Art doesn't have to 'mean' anything, any more than life does.

Autumnal Post Nasal Drip
Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm.  Does it have a meaning? Who cares?
Our world is an immense kaleidoscope of geometric shapes, bright and muted colors, redwood trees, plastic foam cups, fleeting orgasms, acid reflux indigestion, satori, sudoku, soy sauce, skyscrapers, hand-made sweaters, tsetse flies and brass trombones. Our conceived ideas and overt manifestations of society collectively resemble a giant Jackson Pollock painting.

I look at the painting, I feel the painting, I steal the hard candies on the way out. It's all good.

Monday, August 20, 2012

World Champion Bleeder.

If Bono raises money in the middle of the woods and no one hears it, is he still a good person?

A cynical school of thought holds that true altruism doesn't exist; it's really selfishness in disguise. According to this theory, Albert Schweitzer/Brangelina types are either promoting themselves, acting out of guilt, or simply smuggling in good drugs, stuffing their newly adopted's anus with pure-grade heroin or Retin-A, whichever is in greater need. By this same token, surely one of the biggest ego blows is to have one's philanthropic intentions coldly rebuffed; a tacit, "Get lost" as our eager, helping hand is pushed away.
Sciency-type photo
Electron micrograph of either: a) blood cells and a platelet,
b) soft chewy candy and lint.

The Red Cross held a local blood drive last week; they wouldn't accept a donation from me. Spain, the fair country I resided in for 10 years, has a high-risk designation due to Mad Cow cases reported several years ago. The nurse filling out my questionnaire seemed chagrined; she apologized profusely, afraid I would be insulted by the rejection. I told her not to worry; my platelets, plasma and blood cells were perfectly content staying put where they were. I did swipe a container of orange juice and some cookies before leaving, so perhaps I was a tad miffed...

Losing blood on a voluntary basis would've been a new experience, having spilled more than a few pints throughout my accident-prone life. Most people chart the trajectory of their life through major milestones and achievements. "Oh yes, that was the year I got my doctorate" or "I remember now--I bought my first Ferrari that Spring." My vague recollections coagulate along the lines of when I split my head open.

My first major blood-letting was at the age of six. I had a huge toy chest in my room, sporting a varied collection of cars, action figures, army men, guns and pistols, plastic musical instruments, stuffed animals and blocks. There were also hundreds of random Lincoln Logs, Legos, puzzle pieces and bits of models. The boxes for these particular diversions had been lost, broken or discarded long ago, with the remaining bits cast into the all-encompassing chest. There was no caste system in my world of toys; everything was thrown in haphazardly, often from different corners of my room, with a gleeful recklessness. Being a somewhat cavernous container, the easiest way to access any particular piece was to overturn the entire box and spread all the toys on the floor. My mother never understood this, operating under the faulty premise that I was making a mess. Her simple-minded thinking further mandated that all toys should be picked up afterwards. For me, simple laws of inertia and thermodynamics dictated that it was more efficient to leave everything where it was, yielding ready access again the following day.

blood letterThe best toys I owned were Tonka trucks, indestructible metal vehicles that could be sat on or rammed into furniture with great effect, leaving deep gouges in armoires and night tables. Capricious safety laws regarding sharp edges or toxic toys were nonexistent at the time. The resident bunk bed was really my favorite toy. A veritable Jungle Jim of possibilities, I was blessed with a baby brother who's face turned crimson red when hung upside down by the ankles. The structure came with an obligatory ladder and top retaining bar; I had ditched those long ago. I alternately climbed up or leapt down from the higher berth without a second thought. The bedroom also contained two cast iron radiators large enough to heat a prison cafeteria; winter nights invariably roused me in a sweat, totally dehydrated.  Needing a drink of water late one night, I leapt off the top bunk directly onto the waiting plow blade of a Tonka bulldozer, opening an elongated, scalpel-like incision on my insole. Fortunately for me, screaming was one of my best skills, even managing to wake my father, no easy task. The event proved to be the first of many trips to the emergency room.

My next major escapade occurred a few years later, at our summer cottage in Lake Carmel. My older sister had invited a few friends over one evening to listen to a new album: Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. Once I learned the record contained only three songs, I lost interest. As far as my young ears were concerned, that group was going nowhere. More interesting to me was Stevie Bickerson's bicycle; I asked if I could go for a spin. He took a pull on his Salem cigarette, shrugged and told me to help myself, adding laconically, "Be careful, the brakes ain't so good." Momentarily considering his statement, "not so good" indicated a corollary of not so bad, either; some modicum of stopping power could be safely relied on. Considering that we lived near the top of one of the longest, steepest hills in town, further cogitation on his oblique warning was probably warranted. Instead I jumped aboard and raced straight down the hill, peddling furiously for more speed. Into the valley of death rode the Schwinn Hundred.

I was enjoying myself immensely, until the first intersection approached. I pulled the calipers intently, with no palpable result whatsoever. Nothing, zero. Luckily, there were no cars; I flew straight through the intersection without incident. Looking ahead, I began to panic. There were three more intersections to cross before arriving at Shore Drive, a heavily trafficked, scenic road encircling the lake.

I never even got close. An uneven rise in the landscape combined with washed-away asphalt to form a huge dip, looming directly in front of me. The town's transportation department couldn't afford expensive heavy machinery; my Tonka steamroller probably weighed as much as theirs did. As a result, road paving was a somewhat casual affair, patching a bit here and there or repaving only the top inch or two of tarmac. Whatever tar managed to stick to the earth below was considered fortuitous; whatever washed away was just fine and dandy as well.

rural utopia
Putnam Hospital: many a fine summer day spent,
having my bandages changed.
Beyond the wash out was an abrupt bump, where the asphalt had tenaciously clung to an underlying boulder. I managed to navigate the dip without falling, then struck the jutting abutment at full force. I flew over the handlebars several yards before slamming into the pavement, landing on my right elbow. Having increased my diaphramic capacity several-fold since the age of six, I let loose a piercing scream, easily exceeding the town's central fire alarm by several decibels. I had landed in front of one of the few winterized homes on our road, with a trimmed lawn and accompanying gnome decorations. Sprawled on the pavement, I noticed one had a scowl, holding a Keep Off the Grass sign in his little arms. A real, live elfin-like man burst out of a screen door beyond, scooped me in his arms and started running uphill, the only logical direction I could've come from. He was met halfway by my mother, sister and all her friends. My mom examined the wound closely, blocking it with her body so I couldn't see anything. Looking into the faces of my sister's friends told me all I needed to know; most of them turned away in revulsion.

My mom took me home and dutifully attempted to clean and dress my injury, tolerating my screams the entire time. She dressed the wound with gauze and bandages, and sent me to bed. The next morning we discovered I had bled through the covers, underlying sheets, bedliner and possibly the entire mattress, greasing the squeaky interior springs. She took me to the hospital immediately. With my elbow resembling runny mayonnaise, I couldn't even brag about stitches; there was no skin left to sew up. Due to the danger of infection, they wrapped my arm in soft bandages. My mom drove me to the hospital every three days to have them changed. There was no cool plaster cast that people could sign, and no more swimming in the lake, either. It was the worst summer I ever had.

I later learned that injury could engender felicitous pity from nubile females. At the age of 17, my friend David landed a job cutting grass and landscaping for a local allergist, who owned a small farm. Because God Is Great, the residence yielded six uninhibited teenaged daughters from two different marriages, along with a shiny new swimming pool. Three sisters hailed from England, and showed no compunction about sunbathing topless. Needless to say, I made my acquaintances immediately, and was soon visiting on a daily basis. The pool's stiff diving board proved to be a good diversion from other stiff things, resulting from staring at pert young boobies. By August I could do a swan dive, jackknife, cutaway, front flip, back flip, and a one and a half. What none of us could master was the elusive gainer, comprised of a hurdle forward and back flip. An especially bodacious cousin named Caroline was visiting from Great Britain that week; she decided to remove her top as I was attempting the tricky maneuver. Understandably distracted, I slipped on the edge of the board and bashed my shin on the edge of the board, falling into the water. The girls jumped from their recliners, waited for me to surface, and asked if I was okay. My friend Tom examined the diving board, extracting a piece of leg meat by the hairs. "I don't think so," was his expert analysis. That one put me on crutches for a week.

Crap Car
A Tempest in only slightly worse condition than mine.
The biggest scar I have is from a 1968 Pontiac Tempest,  inherited from my Uncle Jerry.

Uncle Jerry was my favorite relative, ever since I could remember. On holidays, he'd sit me on his knee and extract a shiny quarter from his pocket; better than my grandfather, who was only good for a nickel or dime. He always ate too much turkey for dinner, with even more spumoni for dessert. Shortly after, he'd  fall sound asleep on our couch.  Snoring loudly, his head would tilt back slowly until the air was cut from his windpipe, involuntarily jerking his head forward. The cycle would then repeat, over and over. It was fascinating to watch, like one of those dipping bird toys that sips water out of a beaker.

He chain-smoked and owned a succession of vomiting dogs; I never did get the smell out of the carpeting. Eventually contracting emphysema, he suffered a series of strokes, lost his eyesight and finally, his driver's license. Before reaching total blindness and bequeathing me his beloved Pontiac, he successfully crashed into a host of stationary objects, systematically dinging and denting every part of the exterior. One of the larger dents was over the driver's door hinge; it chafed loudly against the quarter panel upon opening, emitting a pterodactyl-like krawwk. A leaking rust spot over the back trunk ruined anything stored inside. The transmission pan leaked as well; God knows what living or inert object he had run over to puncture it. Other than those minor faults, the 350 engine ran like a champ; I was happy to have the wheels.

There was a magnetic Virgin Mary affixed to the dashboard, with little red carnations around it. My first day driving the car, David tossed the statue out the window. Watching the figurine skip along the pavement in the rearview mirror, I knew revenge would be hers one day.

sexy I'm not
To think, I could've
been a ballet dancer...
I woke one typical July morning to move the car, in compliance with Manhattan parking regulations. A car had double-parked too close for me to unloose the pterodactyl. Walking around to the other side, my leg brushed against a mangled steel bumper, instantly carving a huge slit down my leg. The wound was so long and deep that it caused the surrounding skin to sag and pull away, partially exposing my calf muscle. After a few fascinating seconds of watching my sock and shoe fill with blood, I drove to the hospital four blocks away.

Before entering Emergencies, I scooped some fresh blood from my shoe, smearing it onto my pants and shirt. Visible gore is a sure-fire way to avoid the waiting room. The admitting nurse took one look and led me into triage.

I tend to get chatty and make dumb jokes when nervous. Trying to remain casual about seeing my own dark muscle tissue, I wouldn't shut up, blathering on and on about backless smocks and cold stethoscopes pressed against tender skin. The intern on duty eyed my leg with a mixture of ennui and distaste, making no reply. Working mornings in the ghetto was definitely not his thing.

"Were you in a knife fight?" he asked coldly. He was holding a clipboard, with a ninety-part form to fill out. No wonder he was in a pissy mood.

I stared back at him in surprise. One part of me took it as a compliment; the idea that I looked tough enough to be mixing it up with a stiletto in some high-stakes, gangland turf battle. It also implied I was white trash, which although true, didn't sit well with me.

"It's eight o'clock in the morning. I prefer knife fighting after a cappuccino and croissant."
He was nonplussed by my bon mot. "Cause of injury?"
"I scraped it against my car's back bumper."
"No, really."

I proceeded to show him a few sundry scars: seven stitches in my thumb, after hacking into it with a meat cleaver. 18 stitches in my left hand, after chainsawing it with my right; 6 stitches on the ball of my foot, courtesy of broken glass at Rockaway Beach;  12 stitches on my other leg from a minibike mishap; 8 stitches from--

"I get it now," he said, interrupting me. "I believe you. You're a klutz."

That's right, baby. I wasn't any gangbanger, sliced up by Crips or Bloods or Banditos or whatever. I had earned my scars the hard way, by being an absent-minded, accident-prone spaz. It was just as well the Red Cross didn't taken my blood; I probably would've knocked the IV over and made a mess, unleashing Mad Cow antibodies into the atmosphere, akin to the last scene of Twelve Monkeys.

Better still, I could conduct my own sociological experiment. Me and Bono could walk into the middle of the woods and have a shin-kicking contest, just to see what happens. I may not be an altruist, but I know I can scream louder than him.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hazed and Confused.

Erect Tower
Jones Beach Lighthouse:
always glad to see me.
Hell hath no fury like a rough day at Jones Beach. I got my ass kicked thoroughly at the beach last Sunday.

I love the ocean. The salt water purifies me inside and out, clearing sinuses, disinfecting minor wounds and washing away any hair care residuals. The surf's vocal roar flushes out my bosses' voice, the insistent demands of teenagers and that crappy One Direction song my daughter likes. Once in the water, all that surrounding blueness instantly anonymizes me--I'm literally just another piece of flotsam in a vast ecosystem. The ocean doesn't discern, pick and choose or discriminate; with my head bobbing in the waves, the water is indifferent to wants, needs or any stubborn acne from eating chocolate.

I didn't plunge in immediately, though. The usual rituals were performed first: setting up beach chairs and blankets, slathering on the SPF 900, attending to the all-important umbrella in the sand anchorage. Sitting in my beloved rusty beach chair for awhile, I acclimated to sun, surf and any discernible bikini cleavage that could be viewed from a discreet distance. When the first bead of sweat rose on my chest, I ventured to the shoreline.

The water was rough, which I usually enjoy. With my son's boogie board securely tethered to my wrist, I was ready for some waves. I raced in, quickly diving into the shallow water to avoid that creeping penis-shock that slow-wading males are forced to endure. Beyond that point the breakers were towering and insistent; it took quite a few self-dunks to avoid them. I felt a vicious undertoe pulling at my feet, shifting the sands below me. Once past the breakers, I rested in the slipstream of bouncing headers and incoming sets, looking for a good wave. I didn't have to wait long.

A tremendous crest was gathering on my right; I quickly turned the board towards the shore and kicked for all I was worth, trying to gain momentum. The frothy tip of the wave was upon me in a heartbeat; for one or two glorious seconds, I was surfing in the Maui championship, briny breeze in my hair, water droplets glistening on the tv camera lens filming me--then suddenly I was airborne. Like a colicky baby tossing a pacifier, the wave spit me out of its crest, dropping me into the trough as it crashed on top of me. Pummeled to the sand and trapped in the churn, I helplessly thrashed, tumbled and bottom-scraped. The board had the good sense to remain buoyant, violently yanking on my arm socket. Finally able to surface and gasp for air, I was instantly pounded by another crashing wave, repeating the entire wash, spin and sandblast process.

When I finally staggered to my feet in shallow water, both lifeguards were standing on the steps of their chair, gazing at me with a mix of disdain and detached amusement. Satisfied their assistance wasn't needed, they sat down again, turning their attention to a curvy young thing modelling a tight one-piece.

I'm actually a pretty good swimmer, having learned my aquatic skills at a young age. Later trained by the Red Cross, I worked as a lifeguard for five summers at Lake Carmel, a rural community 60 miles north of New York City. I never had to save anyone.

Lifeguard whistle
My original Acme Thunderer--
not that I'm sentimental or anything.
I applied for the job at 15, lying about my age. At 5'11,'' 140 pounds soaking wet, I was hardly Muscle Beach material. My first day on duty, I stood on a floating dock, blissfully twirling my whistle on its lanyard. A flabby punk approached, wearing an oversized white teeshirt and cut-off jeans. He appraised me from head to foot and sneared. "You're a lifeguard? Dude, there's no way a stringbean like you could save me." My first instinct was to reply that I wouldn't dream of jumping in after him; our rowboat was equipped with a long-handled grappling hook, especially designed for spearing cooties-infested yokels. Instead I recited my soon-to-be-standard line: lifesaving was about technique, not size or strength. I declined to add that rotund, semi-buoyant objects like himself could be easily manipulated in the water and towed to shore, sans winching cable or industrial tugboat.

Due to the lake's tranquil nature, I had no fears about anyone drowning. As an added preventative measure, rookies like myself were teamed with more experienced lifeguards, known as regulars. Within those words resided my deepest dread--Lake Carmel had a vaunted history of regulars hazing the rookies.

Hazing hell
Lake Carmel. Looks peaceful, right? Sure...
At five and a half square miles, it was a big lake, boasting six beaches. We had a crew of about 20, entirely comprised of late-adolescent males. The focal point and main torture chamber was the Shack, a tiny, two story clapboard building. There was a room downstairs, a loft upstairs, and a revolting, fly-infested shitter. We met there every morning for roll call and beach assignments.

So why the hazing? Heck, it was tradition. It was pointless to argue that certain traditions rightfully landed in the dustbin; human sacrifice being a relevant, shining example. My own Jungian belief was that the need to debase and torture others resided deep within the cerebral cortex, a collective unconsciousness dating back to neanderthal mating rites and territoriality. Perhaps bashing in the skull of your neighbor with the jawbone of an ass was a jocular prank, eliciting a giggle from macho troglodytes...who knows? I soon learned that these and any other personal opinions I harbored were better left unsaid. As a result, I secretly formulated psychological profiles of our lifeguard crew, using the now widely-accepted CSPQS standard (Chuck Steak Psycho Quotient Scale):

Pacifists -- None, zero, nil. Perhaps existing in some remote, goat herding village in India, but certainly not in Lake Carmel, New York.
Run of the Mill Sadists - This comprised the great majority of the crew, in a casual, take it or leave it fashion. A typical conversation between regulars would go like this:

"We're sending some rookies out to buy breakfast. You want something?"
"Yeah...get me a bacon and egg on a roll. Salt and pepper, extra ketchup."
"Anything to drink?"
"Hey...whaddaya say we assign a few orders to each rookie. We send them to different diners, and whoever comes back last, gets paddled."
"'Good idea."

Presto! Just like that, the potential was born to have your ass beaten. It was nothing personal, just some offhand whimsy to pass the time. If Angry Birds had existed back then, perhaps hazing would've been avoided altogether. The whole trick to surviving was to act invisible; fairly easy for me, since I had little personality to begin with. All rookies without exception lived by one Golden Rule, though: avoid Billy Ritello at all costs. Which brings us to the final category on our scale: the Complete and Utter Psychopath.

In the same way that a lab full of test tubes and Bunson burners would be a wet dream for an aspiring scientist, our hazing environment was a heavenly playground for a sick fuck like Ritello. Being able to walk up and sucker-punch someone squarely in the face without recrimination was a dream come true.

Disgusting SyrupThere were six of us rookies. We had to follow three predictably pointless, mildly degrading mandates each morning. Wear a tie, address all regulars as sir, and lastly, kiss Grandma every time you entered the Shack. Grandma's was a brand name of molasses: a sickly-sweet, brackish syrup, commonly used in cookie baking and roof tarring. If any of the three mandates were forgotten, a generous dose of molasses was rewarded. Told to kneel on the ground, it was poured straight from the bottle from a precipitous height, with some intentional spilling into the eyes, hair and whatever clean shirt was worn. I eventually got accustomed to the taste, and would take my Grandma's without a quibble, fairing much better than another rookie named Ernie. Immediately dubbed Upchuck, poor Ernie couldn't hold the stuff down. The entertainment value of his eruptions automatically earned him a daily dose, mandates followed or not. A main rule of hazing was that there were no rules.

Big Toe Dismemberer
A fine specimen of a big toe remover.
Rookies were unworthy of the Shack's benches; we had to sit on the floor in front of the captain's desk. No one wanted to sit anywhere near Ritello, who had the unnerving habit of leaning forward to kick us in the face. He did serve one useful purpose for the greater community: champion snapping turtle wrangler. They usually roamed the swampier thickets of the lake, hunting frogs, fish and the occasional unsuspecting duck. Occasionally one would migrate to a nearby beach, assuming residence under the shady dock. Older adults weighed in at over 40 pounds, with shell sizes approaching a trash can lid. A rumor would eventually surface around town about a swimmer being attacked and bitten. It was always a big toe dismemberment; smaller toes or fingers were obviously too paltry for a discerning snapper to consider. Billy's total disregard for health and safety extended to himself, so they'd send him under the docks to catch the monsters.  He'd take a deep breath in the shallow water and disappear into the murky darkness, magically emerging with the ugly beast in his arms a minute or two later. The cops would be called to cage and remove it; they'd take it to a remote location and shoot it in the head. My recurring fantasy was for them to come and take Ritello instead.

The only rookie who Billy occasionally spared malice was a young burn-out named Tommy Briggs, solely because he was a reliable source of schwag, a low grade of Mexican pot. Ritello would take any drug, in any quantity, at any time. I once saw him pop five purple microdots into his mouth at 10 am, displaying them on his tongue to prove it. The tiny, hard pills were known as mescaline, but actually consisted of speed mixed with acid. Many years later, I found out that Billy Ritello had died from an overdose of heroin. He was 22.

The mortal enemy of a rookie was a rainy day. A morning downpour still had the potential to earn a half-day's pay, but we were obligated to hang around the Shack until noon, in case the weather changed. This left two and a half hours to kill, trapped in a room with 20 testosterone-pumping elders. It meant a morning of terror.

They would send us up the ladder into the tiny loft, board the window up and turn off the lights, until they decided what havoc to wreak upon us. Banging the rowboat oars on the floor in a rhythmic thunder, chanting all the while, I pictured my head on a sharpened stick, reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Flies. Sometimes they'd drag us down one by one, sometimes all at once. We might have to put on a talent show for them, or compete against each other; other times they would simply yell, "Rumble!" and leap upon us. In those instances, I'd try to find one of the McManus brothers, two older crew members who didn't quite relish beating up someone smaller than themselves. They'd simply tussle with me in a clinch until the captain declared the brawl over. First aid would be administered to anyone bleeding.
First Aid kit
My demise, my sore ass.

One dreadful rainy day, my luck ran out; I lost a competition. Part of a rookie's job was to check the first aid kit every morning before hitting the beach, restocking any supplies expended the day before. The kit contained an ace bandage, gauze in varying sizes, scissors, tweezers, a notepad and pencil, tubes of hydrocortisone and first aid cream, bottles of iodine and mercurachrome, along with a ton of band aids. It probably weighed about five pounds. We were told to assume the usual kneeling position; each of us were handed a kit. We were instructed to extend one arm, holding the box out straight. Whoever dropped it first was the loser. Simple and elegant. Within five minutes, we were all screaming in pain. I felt my meager strength ebbing away, unaware that other rookies were propping up their armpits with their other hand. Unfortunately I hadn't thought of that; cheating was always allowed and encouraged in competitions. Unable to foist the weight any longer, I watched my arm surrender, kit crashing to the ground. A momentary hush fell over the room; then the oar pounding and chanting started, with my anointed nickname ringing in my ears: Chuckles...Chuckles...Chuckles (don't ask). All other rookies were banished to the loft. I was to be paddled and windmilled, in short order.

The paddle of choice was a specially sawed-off oar, sporting a smooth, sanded handle and aerodynamic holes, to reduce drag, and aid swinging speed. One or two swats stung like hell, but were bearable. More than that hurt like a mother. Only the captain, co-captain and a few senior regulars could paddle rookies, which was just as well. Any additional turns at bat might've broken someone's spine.
The oar: innocent, laconic, innocuous --unless deployed as a torture instrument.
Still worse was the windmill. Regulars spaced themselves out in a long row with legs spread, each holding a wooden Lifeguard On Duty sign. These signs couldn't be swung as hard as the paddle, but still packed a collective wallop when multiplied by 15 guys. The goal was to crawl through their legs as fast as possible to avoid the brunt of blows. No matter; a few regulars squeezed their legs together as my torso passed under them, getting an extra swing or two. I took my beating in stride, without complaint. From one perverse, twisted perspective, I passed through a rite of passage that day, gaining some respect. It was little comfort to my skinned, sore-as-hell buttocks, though. Scabs stuck uncomfortably to my bathing suit and underwear for days. 

Why did I put up with it? Rituals of youth, I suppose. Besides, it really wasn't so bad. When not getting beat up, I actually had a lot of fun. Our crew played softball and volleyball together, drove down to Yankee games, and partied hard in general. The older guards lent me their IDs (not that I resembled Sean McManus) to get into bars with them, bought me drinks, and treated me like one of the guys. In retrospect, lifeguarding was the best job I ever had (which doesn't say much for my career choices). 

Life may or may not be a beach. But if you can get paid to sit on one, you're ahead of the game.

P.S. Trying something new...submitting this to a cool blog, http://dudewrite.blogspot.com/. Check them out!