a hideous sibilance

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So the guy in front of me orders his accompanying sandwich sauce, and it’s that sauce I absolutely love, but whose delightfully tangy flavor I have long since had to forgo. The sauce has a name that can’t, or shouldn’t, be spoken aloud without blushing, so potent and spiritually crushing are its delicate, sibilant particulars, its phonetic suggestion of fey, doomed humanity. We didn’t claw all this way up from the trilobite just to stand in a little line and delicately ask that Sweet Onion dressing be applied with a squirt bottle to our Black Forest ham sandwiches. Did we? Who wants to be illuminated so strikingly on the Sad Mortality Radar? So I order mayonnaise now. The word is comparatively robust and avuncular, despite its sounding, on repeat murmurings, like the name of a little french village with a water pump in the town square. ‘Sweet Onion’ is an inapproachable sauce name so alive with sibilance it collapses the Moment.

“Sauce?”

“…mayo.”

But this guy in the line ahead of me – he just says it without stammering or blanching, because he wants it on his sandwich. As if that’s reason enough. He just wants to taste the good-tasting sauce on his sandwich, never mind that he has to pronounce the sauce’s name aloud to our common shame. He would rather have a great tasting sandwich than his pride. If only it were that simple.

For him though, this knapsacked specimen with his neck beard and staring inspection of chilled lunch meats through curved glass, it is that simple. There may be a lesson here. He isn’t afflicted with the crippling self-awareness that hobbles the rest of us when we are ordering sauces or buying chewing gum or shirts. What a grinding mockery our sauce orders invite! Our little sandwich predilections, the watchbands we lean over and choose with such deliberation, our carefully sat-through new haircuts and the mirror our beauticians hold behind our new hair or behind the reflected image of our new hair, so we can make sure that, even where our eyes can’t go, the hairs are arranged correctly and cut and shaped correctly, these micro-trunks of cracked dead protein sprouting out of our fool heads, so that people whose eyes CAN go there see what we are paying to have them see. Who do we think we’re kidding?!

“Sauce?” asks the wall-eyed kid in his visor.

“Sweet Onion,” the guys says, seemingly without hesitation. My skin jumps once and begins to crawl in earnest. I grasp the vestigial little ledge that is offered, like succor, by the Subway set designer. Who in his right mind would say that? Move on to another sauce, you dumb brute! Hearing the sauce-appellation spoken aloud I feel the tingle, the icy straight-pin piercing my groin. I’m about to double over. Who are these people who can say ‘sweet onion’, just like that, without a helpless, grand mal shudder? Who are these freaks? I ask you.

Gigolo Bibs

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Dave and I meet at a restaurant, the Famous Fish Enterprise or whatever it’s called, a few blocks up from the beach. The restaurant is thronged with the twenty-something species to whom this restaurant/club milieu is a first home; the carefully unshaven young professionals and Players who lean with hunched and easy panache over long glass-littered bars, or tables full of drinks and wrecked snack plates. They have vivacious but normal-seeming girlfriends and wives. A lot of the guys wear backward baseball caps. Those that don’t wear backward baseball caps wear suits that seem carefully arranged to look like unbuttoned after-hours business dress, and a few of the guys are sporting the Squashed Insouciant Beanie, that ubiquitous Where’s Waldo beanie that crushes and droops a little at the apex, suggesting bohemian disarray. The look doesn’t really speak in this environment because everyone knows Bohemia doesn’t watch televised sports, and so the beanie crowd look like fakes, and they are. The backward-cap guys and after hours business dress guys are in their element, though. They make easy eye contact and chit chat with bartenders and waitresses, and they all look like some version or hue of Ryan Gosling or Ryan Reynolds.

The deciding game of the World Series is all over the 30 huge flat screens in the place, it looks like Mission Control in there with all the glowing panels. The buzzed young guys and their significant others are wearing the collective ‘fuckyeahtheWorldSeries!’ mask and high-fiving each other, the men jerking their heads around and hollering every time one of the paunchy millionaires onscreen swings a bat or jogs a little across the televised grass. All the guys here tonight are sporting Establishment tattoos and heroic eyebrows and are laughing loudly. The ‘Im here straight from my important job in my unbuttoned suit’ guys laugh angrily, like Billy Baldwin or Tom Cruise overplaying drunk because some acting coach somewhere told them that a drunk Young Turk looks at his gathered posse and angrily whips his hilarity-contorted face from friend to friend while laughing. “Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw! haw!haw!haw!haw! oooh shit, man! Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!” Their girlfriends or wives could be the nameless and merely competent actresses on endless and interchangeable Law and Shooting shows and faux-funny internet ads; lookalike, neutrally beautiful young ladies with  radiant curtain-hair like polished rayon and cackling, nose-wrinkling support laughter accessorized with a possessing paw fastened determinedly on the tattooed forearm of the backward cap.

During this last game of the World Series (all the games of the world series, really. All baseball games, that is), doughy muscular men, some tallish and paunchy with a mullet-mustache set, throw the little white baseball around and occasionally sprint in expensive panic with their big fannies jumping. When they aren’t called upon to move they can be seen dramatically standing stock still while waiting for the little white ball to drop like a speck of cotton from out of the arc lighting. Often the live feed will show a moth or gnat or other innocent fluttering around out there under the lights, unaware of the Moment, and sometimes the wealthy outfielder will drop an incoming ball after having waved away his colleagues, “I got this!”, and when he drops the thing which it is his massively overpaid job simply to catch and hold onto, he’ll chase after it with electric anger, like it’s the ball’s fault, and he’ll pluck it up and throw it towards home plate with all his strength and it’ll usually get about as far as the pitcher who will snag it out of the air and then strut around with angry eyes, clutching the little ball and looking all around. The whole affair is wrought with oddness and ceremony. All the while the ‘after hours business dress’ and now even the backward-cap gangs in the restaurant are yelling and slapping hands and drinking and laughing and cavorting “haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!” and jerking their angrily laughing faces around to aim and fire their humorless barking at each other. Their potent little drinks have tiny colored straws in them.

Despite my misgivings I find myself wishing I were one of them. As I get older the desire becomes incrementally stronger and, I would suggest, more perverse.  Why didn’t God make me a guy who understands the appeal of sport spectating and occasional boozing and loudness, a regular guy who can lose himself in this tumult and tribe-think and freeing conviviality, back-slapping with a group of like-minded men and dissolving like a drop in the placid Testosterone Sea? Down another quantum pathway I would’ve played sports in high school and pumped iron, had The Stones on my bedroom wall and not a stylized cartoon poster of big-hipped Elton John peering like an elf from underneath a top hat, I would’ve had one of those thick paperbacks of sports statistics on my bedside table next to my State Championship trophy, and would have followed my dad in his daily brow-furrowed examination of column after column of tiny numbers in the Sports Section, like two guys following the stock index. Instead I sat by my Tensor lamp and pored over the beautifully bound and illustrated shiny hardcover of the complete lyrics of Bernie Taupin (thanks, Diana), surrounded by my Revell spaceship models and sketch pads and other such you’ll-never-get-to-first-base folderol. So on nights like this, and they are few, I fall into brief fits of reverie. Looking around in wonder at the backward baseball caps, I almost say aloud “how did I miss this boat so completely?”

Three guys at the table next to Dave and I are ordering drinks and being handsome and successful with their shaded jawbones and parted hair and general enviability. Enviability is a state, if not a word.  I spy on them in my peripheral vision and occasionally with one of those bold direct glances which, if intercepted, can be quickly reframed as admiration of the exposed duct work overhead. They’re watching the game with interest but no particular fever while they wait for dinner, chatting and laughing normally, holding their hands in Rodin shapes before their mouths as they cant their heads and exchange confidences, as men do in parlors and mahogany-paneled private libraries.

I turn back to Dave and we continue our conversation and about half an hour later I glance over at the guys at the next table and I gasp and I feel my face getting hot. Their dinner has long since arrived, it is lobster, and these three recent exemplars of mellow male reason and coolness are wearing enormous bibs which fasten snugly around the neck and cascade down and over the knees like the drop cloth on a picnic table. In the center of each bib, right over the solar plexus, is a grinning stylized cartoon lobster. I can’t tear my eyes away from these nitwits, and if they’re stupid enough to don gigantic fucking bibs in a mixed gender restaurant, they’re too far gone to notice my staring anyway. Did I not get the memo about the bib thing? I glance around and no one is staring at these disabled clods, these bib-proffering jackasses.

To my utter amazement the Three Baby Hueys, now tipsy and blinking slowly, their little freak arms reaching with difficulty out from behind their expansive plasticized bibs, begin making time with the black-haired, classily-pierced babe waitress when she comes to check on their inebriated lobster-destroying process. From what should be the genital-shriveling humility of their bib status, they blearily regard her with naked lust and start coming on to her! The guy nearest me actually leans out toward her and leers, and struggles to free his bib-ensnared ass-pinching arms. It’s just awful. This is not Robert Pattinson standing around at The Cape in an Alpaca sweater with a hip little bib like a necktie, hoisting a Heineken and laughing at the lobster held aloft in his left hand. This is three grown men made idiotic by their decision to put on enormous castrating bibs. And before my stupefied eyes the hot waitress receives the bib-guy’s advances and warms to him. She is flirting back. SHE IS FLIRTING WITH THE BIB GUY. This is the world I can never join, the world I can’t even comprehend. It moved on without me when they were handing out membership cards. While I was timidly romancing the trombone player in marching band, the hot girls who couldn’t even see me were just biding their time, waiting for these louche drunks to put on their huge fucking bibs and excite them.

“Dave, check this out,” I whisper urgently out of the corner of my mouth. “These guys are wearing bibs!” It’s less funny to me than fucked up, especially now that I see the waitress warming up. Dave is everything I am not and knows his way around, writes articles for Oracle, is built like a 23 year old and takes business trips. He haunts the cocktail lounges of Manhattan when he is called there by his urbane, yacht catalog-perusing corporate masters. He glances over at the drunken flirts in their man-bibs and turns back to me.

“Yeah,” he says. “They ordered lobster.”

Maddened Acolytes of Christ Nail Themselves to Merchandise

2nd Death of Christ

Anywhere, USA – Christ was scourged, beaten, nailed, mocked and speared again this morning, within easy earshot of a Christian nation’s murmured thanks over turkey and stovetop stuffing. On the heels of the traditional Thanksgiving banquet a Pavlovian bell was heard faintly to chime and the sea of believers poured into big box outlets like a filthy debris-strewn storm surge, swarming over police barricades, mashing humanoid dents into metal security doors and beating each other with Roman Centurion gusto, Praise Jesus. In a bid to outstrip the crazed Filipino Faithful, who during the holy month of December are known to ritually crucify themselves to honor Christ’s sacrifice, well-fed American Christians by the hundreds ran angrily amok and trampled one another in a pious attempt to imitate Christ’s passion.

“J-e!–e!-e!—e!-e-e!–e!-s-u-u!-u!-u!-u!-uh!uu!-u-uu!- s-s-ss!-s-s dad for our s-s-s-ss—s-s-sins-s-s-s-!” sang Mary Faversham in a jittery voice of praise while jogging at full speed in the direction of the flat screen t.v. bonanza in aisle 7.  Crossing herself very approximately with her free hand while straight-arming and clawing with the other, she hustled forward with the ardor of the Saved. The other faithful could be seen to surround the offered bargain merchandise, their Sacrament, climbing atop each other in His name, Glory be to God. The Lord took in this yearly repeat crucifixion from behind police tape, agonizing stigmata weeping with abandon.  When asked for comment He stroked His beard and spoke uneasily, His unexpectedly swarthy Middle-Eastern countenance furrowing.

“I died for this crowd, but grudgingly,” He said. ” AND I wasn’t told I’d be re-killed every December. It’s a tough game.”

Wo Dynasty

Could Be Worse

Woe the wand’ring little cloud
And woe the storm that brings it
Woe the stupid jingle
And the imbecile that sings it
Woe the little instances
Of love and life and laughter
And woe the need for terror
of our darkling numb Hereafter.
Woe to ev’ry tiny thing
inhabiting the daily
and woe to starlings sparring
and to manatees a’flailing.
Woe to paws that scrabble
and woe the speechless beagle
woe to poor Montgomery Ward
and dear tormented Spiegel.
Woe to those appliances
which maim and snap and crackle,
and woe to those who die at sea
while rescuing their tackle.

Midnight Plane to Houston

farrahknight

By 1973 I had a red Panasonic ball radio parked in the darkened little hutch that was built into the headboard of my bed and was discovering both the inchoate power of music, and words like ‘inchoate’. I’d bought my first LP with my own money, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, played McCartney’s RAM album till the grooves wore off, and would trance out to The Carpenters’ version of Leon Russell’s doomed groupie hymn Superstar while holding hands with my neighbor Cathy under the mesmerizing influence of my black light, which turned her skin to velvet and her teeth into lovely phosphorescent chiclets. At bedtime I would lie awake in a fever of imprecise and free-floating ‘feeling’, marinating in the weirdly deep and inexplicable reverie that overtakes certain insomniac, newly minted teens in their early throes.

Gladys Knight and the Pips singing Midnight Train to Georgia was a particularly potent intoxicant for me, and every night it would scrape out of the little ball radio just behind my head.  ‘L.A. proved too much for the man,’ Gladys would sing, already dolorous in her delivery of the very first line. I couldn’t stop thinking about the song and I couldn’t stop feeling it. Midnight Train’s struggle parable, the pure but domitable artist being crushed by both philistines and ‘impersonal forces’, rang my bell, as did my imaginings of L.A. The very idea of ‘L.A.’ (vs Los Angeles) made me swoon. To this wall-starer in Boulder, Colo, shut up in his room with his St. George and the Dragon poster and shelf of nicely bound Reader’s Digest condensed classics (4 to a volume), L.A. meant darkness and power and brutality and triage and unsung heroism and stardom and all the other variegated sorrows and glories of big cities and world wars; the dank brickwork of the bowery, the benighted rag people scrabbling like Morlocks in the pitch-black alleyways beneath a starry vault swept with the announcing klieg lights of a Hollywood premier somewhere downtown, not very far away at all. Holy shit. All this proved too much for the man. Holy holy shit. How many artists and lost souls had gone to ‘L.A.’ and been beauteously beaten down? Dragged to a soulless nub down Sunset Boulevard or burned to death trying to embrace the electric surge that ran through the town like a racing subterranean river? My ability to fall straight through to the middle of that song had everything to do with these totemic elements it so powerfully summoned, and my growing awareness, which I can mark to that year, that Earth is a rock swarming with a thrilling and finally incomprehensible cacophony of stories.

Because for some peculiar reason I’d always assumed the tune was a love song to a discouraged dad, sung by his commiserating daughter, I pictured Pop Staples on a train platform at night, bathed in flickering incandescence, holding a weathered little suitcase and wearing a too-wide floral tie as he boards the Julep Express to head back home to a Georgia I imagined as an expanse of leafy sunlit nature punctuated by houses with porches where the people, young and old, sat in rocking chairs and sipped tall glasses of antebellum iced tea. I knew both L.A. and the South like the sole of my foot, but the song intoxicated me with imaginings of a penetrating true story of artistic loss and its obverse, a complex recondite glory. When Gladys and the Pips sang that song, pictures resolved out of the dark with a clarity that could bend my spirit like a Uri Geller spoon. Of course L.A. proved too much for the man! You had to be a chiseled demi-god with a dimple like Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch and the son of a poor junk man) to even survive in ‘that town’.

Former football player Jim Weatherly was struggling. His songs were not lighting up the Billboard. He’d had some success with one of them, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”, which had scurried up the charts to the delight of Atlanta’s Gladys Knight and the Pips. Now as he labored to augment that happy accident with some solid gold, nothing was happening. Nothing. One night sitting alone in his demure little apartment in L.A. he telephoned his old college football buddy and fellow struggling artist Lee Majors, with whom he was now in a flag football league in the city, a league comprised in part of disaffected transplants. Majors had just come off four years on The Big Valley, a major T.V. western in which he’d played opposite the frightening Barbara Stanwyck. Soon he’d be a bionic prime-time heavyweight, lifting cars with one arm while both rescuing and scaring children, but for now he was between gigs. He’d recently begun dating another transplanted hopeful, a model from Texas named Farrah Fawcett. Weatherly knew Fawcett and got her on the phone when he called, asking if Lee were home.

“No, he’s out,” Fawcett had said, sounding impatient, and after some polite chit-chat she confessed she was in something of a hurry. “Look, Jim, I’m sorry, I need to get going. When you called I was just throwing stuff into a suitcase. I’m taking the midnight plane to Houston to go visit my folks.”

“..a little bell went off when she said ‘midnight plane to Houston’. Sounded like a song title to me,” Weatherly recalled later. He got off the phone, grabbed his guitar and let fly, writing the song in 45 minutes or so. He called it  Midnight Plane to Houston. “The line ‘I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine’ locked the whole song. I used a descending bass pattern, which was the song’s natural movement. Then I filed away the song.”

Weatherly’s publisher urged him to record an album of his own tunes, as a way to get more attention from the industry and from artists looking for songs. He did just that and in short order Cissy Houston and then Gladys Knight wanted to record Midnight Train. It was Houston (Whitney’s mother) who said something like, “Jim, do you mind if I change the title to Midnight Train to Georgia?” She was from Georgia, like Gladys, and added, “Where I come from we don’t take planes anywhere. We take trains.” Weatherly agreed, ecstatic the song was going to be picked up and stood a small chance of some radio play somewhere. Houston’s record got no support from her label and the track vanished. Gladys Knight heard it, and had a different idea for the song.

“I thought the song should sort of ride,” she said. “Like Al Green or something.” Her new label boss, Tony Camillo, gave it a new arrangement. Here’s hoping, they thought. It’s not known if Gladys and the Pips knew they were singing a soon-to-be timeless anthem of artistic surrender and loss, or that the future, star-crossed Farrah Fawcett-Majors was a balding black man in a floral tie waiting for a train.

Murderer Hair

Murder Hair_Just Not KellyYou’ve seen murderer hair.
Sure you have.
It is the hair of a murderer,
the tonsorial statement of a shotgun killer
or wee-hours blunt instrument-wielder.
By lamplight his arm is raised again and again
his maddened forelock swinging with the effort.
The assault on human tissue
happens out of frame, thankfully.
You’ve seen murderer hair on
the frightened and frightening
Midwestern boobs who cunningly
creep into farmhouses
and butcher the sleeping family.
The inevitable mugshot is suggestive;
anxious motion, stunted dreams
(I’m talking here about the victims)
and a fleeing do-nothing surprised
to find himself running, fast.
Apprehended some days later
the miscreant wears a necktie
with a heartbreaking
perfect knot
and glowers at his own misfortune.
Even at the mugshot phase
of his denouement
he wishes to frighten
but this is the bravado
of the fallen and could
under another sun
move you to tears.
The handsome pugilist freeze-frame
speaks to forces
only vaguely aligned with evil,
the enviably luxurious hair swept back,
a pompadour of failed flight.

Scared of Barbara Stanwyck

fear

At age 8 I was Stephen Hawking-like; schlumpy, collapse-faced and incommunicative, my bottom teeth jutting up crazily out of nowhere to make a mockery of my ability to see beyond time and space. In school we had begun to ‘learn’ about the Wild West, but it wasn’t sufficiently impressed upon us just how unknown and unknowable the frontier was, how the word ‘frontier’ stirred in those people something like the feeling of awe and mystery the word ‘frontier’ hefts when spoken in a show like The Outer Limits. To Boomer kids ‘frontier’ meant buckskin with fringes, Daniel Boone, Ed Ames (a terrific singer and recording artist, here dressed up like an Indian and throwing a tomahawk at a tree which splits obligingly to the delight of the sponsors), and remote military outposts whose tall outer defenses were long upright logs and sometimes Ken Berry. The barbarians who 1200 years before had brought down the Western Roman Empire would walk through these Lincoln Logs like a hot coal through margarine. So the New World was in many ways a foal on shaky legs; soon to exhibit real horsepower but in the meantime a timorous newbie. The westerns on t.v. didn’t really play this up, choosing instead to sell cereal by glamorizing gunfights, whores in huge dresses, and a bottle of whiskey that could be bought for a single largish prop-room coin, that coin always slapped noisily down on the frontier bar as if the prop man insisted his metallurgical handiwork be made known through the airwaves.

‘Make sure Connors really slaps that coin down!’

‘Shutup about it already, Carl!’ Connors fires back.

You never saw soil on these shows. On Bonanza the front stoop of The Ponderosa let gently down to what looked like poured maroon concrete. Then Little Joe would get punched and fall down and standing up would flap his hands angrily at his chaps and dust would suddenly appear as if he’d fallen in some dirt. On The Big Valley, a show whose See-Spot-Run title lifts the veil on what simpletons t.v. consumers were in that decade (a hard-won lesson in prime-time show titling probably learned at the feet of the bewilderingly titled Bonanza), the single indomitable Ranch Mom was played by the diminutive and doll-like and unnerving Barbara Stanwyck. No matter her frontier bravado and habit of wearing vests and guns, the fear she radiated was finally ineffable, I couldn’t quite make it cohere. But…Stanwyck! Even her last name has the stiltskin nomenclature of a ghastly post-Grimm gnome living under a bridge and sucking the marrow from the bones of passerby. Stanwyck’s cotton candy hair and savagely diminutive body vibrated with an otherworldly demon energy. To see her standing on a little sound stage knoll, all dressed in form-fitting cowgirl black, and her little black cowgirl hat tilted on her doll head – this is the psychic assault of an overly coiffed prancing gremlin in a fever dream.

Victoria Barkley and her three look-nothing-and-act-nothing-alike sons and single gorgeous daughter were always getting into one scrape or another, and after a couple seasons they could have been anyone anywhere, in that Jumping the Shark way that 60s t.v. shows eventually didn’t care where they were set or how laboriously some poor network pitchman had, years before, made his very specific situation comedy case to the network jackanapes. Two or three seasons in and the Space Family Robinson’s spat aboard the Jupiter II is more or less indistinguishable from the Barkley melee around an evenly burning smokeless campfire in the middle of an airless set of glimpsed maroon concrete. Kids notice when the Robinsons on the way to Alpha Centauri are saying the same dumb scripted junk the Barkley’s of 1874 Stockton are, and both families are walking around inside a giant fallen robot, so to speak. Very little was lost on us. The t.v. worlds which to the writers and entertainment lawyers were the result of profitable toil, were to we preteen 60s couch cripples actual, habitable ur-environments. We could see the writers’ wills flagging after a time and the dream would always become harder to sustain.

But Barbara Stanwyck was in any case unwatchable, was too like that radiation-spangled lady, the Terror from the year 5000, hypnotizing with her sparkly fingernails and making grown men scream. Stanwyck was once upon a time a delicate but slightly freaky beauty with reptilian eyes and, yeah, a too-small body. In her late-middle period she was selected by the Big Valley’s casting director or nepotist insider to be a symbol of protean American resolve and pluck, a single 1870s mom, about 4 feet tall, raising her three vastly different sons and radiantly edible daughter in the rough-and-tumble world of a big western city known for massive odorous cow slaughter and pistol-waving shoot-em-ups. Stanwyck, too often you had your weird little paws on your hips as you squintingly appraised a bad guy or flirtatious sheriff, your damnable little cowhat rakishly askance and meant to summon outback mettle but more often quoting the hell-monkey in its little pillbox cap, pulling its lips back and screaming while the organ grinder cranks his little box. That’s the way I felt during my Scared-of-Barbara-Stanwyck period. That’s the way I feel today.