Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving Polaroid

Dad carves the turkey -

smoke in his mouth,

booze in his blood,

cirrhosis making plans.


Mom dishes side eye -

lightly sauced herself,

menthol smokes the light

and plans her germinating stroke.


Long shadows cast from both

on benders of their own -

stumbling Rorschach tests

splashing our dining room feast.


The aroma of pumpkin pie,

love and death

spreads outward from the kitchen,




Saturday, March 1, 2014

A March without Movement

I awaken to the ground hard,

vestiges of melting winter come at me

downward from the slate stricken sky.

I awaken to the dawn

of madness bearing down.

Of b-ball bracket worship

and faux celtic drunk-fests,

of emergence from snow-swept silence

and the last gasps of ice storms fading

while the boys of summer stir to life

in grapefruit cactus play

and the alpine calcifying snow-bound zombies

recede into the mud

of fool's days to come.

I arise from my slumber

through a fog into sunshine,

floating past in a quandry,

stuck in stasis along the way.

I feel close to south of empty

yet still somewhere north of broken,

smack dab in a permafrost

of the perpetual in-between,

swept into a March without movement

toward teasing promises anew.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

the frozen muddy

She is a whisper

of dawn

at midnight,

a sharp breath

of clarity


I dream of nothing

but blackouts

and madness,

she is the promise

of morning

come dawn.


She is a figment

of my

exhausted pointless,

the last filament

of desperation's


with daydreams of nothing

but delirium's



into shit storms

of shimmering sleet.


down South Street's

filthy drifts devoid,

she is gone.

Leaving nothing behind

but the frozen muddy.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Unfinished Madness and Other Walks of Life


This is a (freakishly long) summary post, weaved together from the individual ones that follow, in order to provide a chronological accounting of my life thus far.  These stories and poems are the truth but not necessarily the facts (not all of them anyway).  They involve me as I was becoming who I am but only to the degree necessary to tell such a truth.

Let me clarify.

Recently I was re-watching an interesting documentary on the life of Joe Stummer, the late leader of seminal punk band the Clash. What I found most fascinating were the reactions to Joe's days prior to the Clash. There were grumblings by more than a few punk purists that Strummer was a "poseur" because he'd been an art school "hippie" type performing in rhythm and blues bands before he "became" a punk.

Never mind that to be a "punk" in the late 60's/early 70's probably meant you were a prison bitch rather than a musician, I'm not sure exactly what these naysayers expected Joe to have been. I guess he should have been hanging out with the Velvets, Stooges and the New York Dolls, but I don't think he had the coin to pull up stakes and move across the pond to America.

Personally, I admire the guy more for his ability to invent and then re-invent himself. All the greats do it with perhaps Bob Dylan the grand master at that game. Declan Patrick MacManus, better known as Elvis Costello and perhaps my favorite musician, is another ever-changing chameleon. Being "true to one's self" doesn't mean you need to do it for the rest of the world; in fact, it usually means you can't.

To me, substance is far more important than "truth." Or, more accurately, truth is more important than "facts." One of my favorite books of the 21st century is James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. When it came out that this "memoir" was much more a melding of some fact and a lot of fiction, Frey got crucified (mainly because he fooled the lord god Oprah). But the quality of the writing didn't magically dissipate. On the contrary, I admired it that much more as it showed Frey had a sense of imagination alongside his way with words. That it seems Frey is a pompous ass or that thus far the book appears to be this particular pony's one trick has likewise not diminished the work in my eyes.

My ultimate journalistic hero isn't Edward R. Murrow, it's Hunter S. Thompson. Murrow is close to the summit but Hunter and his Sherpa Ralph Steadman have firmly planted their flag at the top of this world in my opinion. Hunter's "Gonzo Journalism" was based on the adage that you should never let facts get in the way of your search for what's true. It's the substance of the story that matters more than the traditional view of "truth" (and Hunter used all manner of substance and substances in his quest to bend reality to this end). Not journalism, you say? Bullshit. Read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 for some of the best political reporting you're likely to find before or since. How much of it is true? All of it, more than almost anything I've read. How much of it is fact? Who cares.

Maybe today's guru of the wise, Mr. Stephen Cobert, had it right when he coined the term "truthiness" in 2005 as that thing you know in your gut is the "truth" despite all absence of evidence, logic or fact. That he's being facetious doesn't make it less so.

With that in mind, here is a sampling of my life thus far, as fascinating as watching paint dry if you mistakenly bought the cheap kind that takes 51 years to do so.  It's in chronological order, told in a mishmash mush of styles - both prose and poetry - and with plenty of holes.  Like a fine swiss cheese gone bad.


Everett, Washington

I'm stained with the stench 

of my home town tearing,

from the Bel-Nes Cafe 

to the Sportscenter Lounge.

Viscous remembrances 

of paternal delrium,

dripping down Hewitt 

and Broadway and Hoyt.

I'm born from the edges 

of Herfy's and heartache,

from C. Van's, cirrhoses 

and China Doll strokes.

For me, no cruising Colby

only Wetmore and walking,

with my head bowed down, 

eyes burning holes through the cracks.

His revelry on Hewitt dries 

to Strand Hotel sickness,

let loose of his feelings 

into porcelain streams.

I'm the sour-mash scion 

of a Foster Brooks plumber,

in the shadows of a pulp mill 

and a hangar and a hate.



I was conceived sometime during the holiday season of 1961 in Everett, Washington.  JFK was in office and neither Dylan or the Beatles had been much noticed by anyone not deeply immersed in the music scenes of Greenwich Village or Liverpool/Hamburg, respectively.  Much closer to home, construction of the infrastructure for the Century 21 Exposition - better known as the Seattle World's Fair of 1962 - was nearing completion, including the glorious Space Needle and Monorail, both built to reflect the fair's theme of The Future.  I rode that Monorail many times as a child, enjoying the half mile jaunt from download to the Seattle Center.  I only ascended the Space Needle in utero when my very pregnant mother attended the Fair in August of '62 and again as a 30-something adult when I returned to Seattle for work in the late '90s.  My second ascent was made for the reason I often made my journeys in those days: they had a bar there.


Mid '60s

Cookies and Damnation at Grandma's

I don't have a lot of memories of the first several years of my life.  The first three were spent on the 1900 block of Hoyt in Everett before moving five blocks north to a new house on the same street, where I'd remain for the next fifteen.  My maternal grandmother lived just a mile away from us and I remember visiting her often as a child.  Her first husband, my maternal grandfather, died two years before I was born, and grandma's first child, Uncle Leif, passed away suddenly in 1965 having just moved with his family to Southern California for work, so in a few short years we - along with, or perhaps especially, God - had become my grandmother's world.

Grandma was determined to save my soul from eternal damnation, a fate she'd already resigned to my parents. I'd have a wonderful time visiting on the weekends as a child, with her Norwegian cookies and her home's quiet nature, free of the smoke and drama permeating my own homestead at the time.  Wonderful that is, except when she'd tuck me into the guest bedroom and tell me a bedtime story.  It was too often a tale of demons and brimstone, of pitchforks and blood curdling screams that go on forever.  Satan ruled over everyone here and my folks were pinned to the coals for infinity with Lucifer's forked toes firmly ensnared 'round their necks.  My primal lizard brain soaked this shit in like a sponge and try as I did over the years with booze and coke - Beelzebub knows I underwent this method of treatment with gusto - and of late with psychiatry, I haven't been able to ring it back out.

Now this particular piece of dysfunction is minuscule when compared to the heaping helping of shit ol' Mom and Dad ladled into my psyche.  And unlike some of the things the folks visited upon me, Grandma's tales from the crypt were told with the best intentions.  You see, she had retreated deep into fundamentalist Christianity toward the end of her life after having lost her husband and son in the space of a few years time.  Grandma was suddenly alone save for an aloof daughter (my Mom) and went looking for any raft she thought might save her from drowning in this strange sea that was America.  Oh sure, she had other relatives around - a sister even - but it wasn't the same.

Grandma never felt comfortable here in the US, out of place and phase with a culture both too diverse and too fast for her, despite having lived in the relatively slow-paced, white-bread world that was and is Everett, Washington since arriving on these shores from her native Norway in 1929 with her husband and son in tow and pregnant with my mother.  She was woman not yet 30 when she first gazed upon this land and yet already well set in her ways.  She'd always been a "traditional" Norwegian, meaning a staunch and very conservative Lutheran.  She'd been brought up on a farm and didn't comprehend or approve of the pop-obsessed culture that dominated this country and mesmerized her children, particularly her daughter.  Her fun-loving husband was, in his way, fascinated with this culture as well so there was no commiserating with him on the matter.  She'd spoiled my mother as a child to the point that there was no hope of reaching out to her and receiving actual understanding or emotional support when she found herself a widowed sixty-something at the dawn of the 1960s.  She then lost her son to a heart attack in 1965 and was "on her own" in a very real way.

Grandma eventually married again, a neighbor, more out of loneliness than anything else.  But she gave her all in those last years - her heart and, yes, her soul - to the Jehovah's Witnesses and with it accumulated the Armageddon-laden baggage that such a belief packs.  Thus came the images of my roasting parents and the possibility that my sister and I might join them on the rotisserie should I not stand straight and fly right.  As such, whenever somebody waves a Watchtower on my stoop, I never fail to answer such a greeting with a hearty "Hail Satan!" before slamming the door shut in their beaming faces.  Well, I don't because I'm a wimp.  In fact, I often pretend to listen to their rantings before begging off after some imagined task they're keeping me from.  But I'm thinking it the whole while!

My time with Grandma was brief - she died of bone cancer when I was not yet 9 - and as I mentioned, almost completely positive save for this one thing.  Still, even as a fervent non-believer in any accepted theism - I've been thus since I was old enough to form an opinion on such matters - it's there, festering.  Nightmares of demons and terror.  I can't even watch movies like The Exorcist or The Omen lest I cower in fear for the next several weeks afterward.

I believe that whatever the great truth about reality, the universe, the multiverse, etc., that it's something far beyond our current capacity to understand and the odds that any group of people have guessed it right is stupendously small, especially when almost all of them believe it relates somehow to kings and angels and devils, good, evil, punishment and rewards, and all the things that seem very specific to a time and place long ago on our little old planet.  But that's just me.

Sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite.


Cement Dreams

Cement dreams of a drippy cold faucet and filthy back alley keep me up at night.

Jittery flat on the ground staring skyward, cheek to gravel in the alley behind my childhood garage, a black boot heel lodged in my left temple. The assailant remains cloaked in my subconscious, gray as the sky and just as abstract.

The leaky faucet is connected to our hose, soaking down the elongated sheet of clear plastic that serves as a homemade slip 'n slide. But it's me who's doing the soaking and the sliding as a kid in our backyard. Though sunny there, a hard sleet rain beats down on the alley where "I" lay a mere twenty feet away. And the garage separating us is translucent (or at least becomes so when I strain my neck to see through it).

So who is this person lying bloodied in the alley, the one through whose eyes I now see? And the gray ghost with the foot upside this person's head? I strongly suspect they're both me at different points in life, just as the slip 'n slide boy is me as a child. All of me out of phase with time, location, and state of mind.  I open my mouth to speak but nothing comes out.  Who was it really that opened their mouth (me, me, or me)?

The slip 'n slides we'd construct as a kid invoke joyful memories of childhood. On par with flying kites, "poppin' wheelies" on my bike, and building fortified compounds in the foliage around the neighborhood. There is no dysfunction marring these happy times in my memory, so why do I introduce it in my dreams now? Why pollute that which has no subtext of angst when I have boatloads of memories that do? I'm by no means a Freudian and rarely have what one would call "symbolic" dreams but these certainly seem to qualify. What exactly they might symbolize remains to be seen.

The alley on our block served as a kind of social nexus for my friends and I growing up.  It was our "motocross" race track, the thoroughfare around which we'd construct our forts in the bushes that lined it, and the front line in snowball and squirt gun fights.  After watching Evil Knievel on TV, we'd run out to the alley and fashion makeshift "motorcycle ramps" from sheets of plywood and cement bricks.  Sort of like the picture on the left, except we were in the alley, didn't have helmets and our bikes were far more groovy (see above).  More than a few times I found myself on my ass with the bike on top of me in that alley; that I broke no bones is a testament to dumb luck.

But I'm not a kid and have no bike in this dream.  Well, I am a kid in my backyard, but he's me in third person. I'm pretty sure this is true of my ghostly oppressor as well, the being who has me pinned to the ground with his boot.  Sigmund would have a field day here.  Fuck Freud.  He might have had some keen insights into the human psyche but he also thought cocaine was a panacea with the potential to cure any number of neuroses.  Then again, so did I!  Well, not really.  I knew better but who was I to argue with Dr. F.?   Neither of us struck gold in that vein.  Anyway, back to the dream.  My unholy trinity of selves aside, the neighborhood is eerily silent.  No family and no friends.  Just sundry manifestations of me.

Not much happens in this dream.  It starts with me pinned and bleeding, my kid-self hosing down the slip 'n slide for a minute, going for a slide and then repeating this over and over. My oppressor stands silently over me, digging his heel into my head but remaining otherwise obscured from view.  And I watch from my vantage point in the gravel.  The end of the dream is always the same and is perhaps the most bazaar: the backyard melds into the back of a curtain, which then rises to reveal an audience of elementary school kids and parents.  I'm dressed as a monkey in the play that we students wrote and staged at Whittier in the 4th or 5th grade (I wrote the lines for my character, Mickey Monkey).  The play is over, the audience applauds and I wake up.

I've had this dream several times in the past two weeks and can't for the life of me figure out why.  I'm hoping that articulating it here will help purge it from my system.  It's tops on my list for discussion when I next see my shrink Monday ....


New Keds Shoes

glancing at the house

once holding me close,

keeping me sick

with wino bourbon blight.


my friends are gathering

in the cross corner lot

for remembrances of broken glass,

ghosts at play with new keds shoes.


i'm always almost with them,

dragging a bit behind

carrying shattered consciences

of errant kites fallen into power lines.


this gorgeous patch of suburbia

in its formative years

fills the caverns of my memories

with rosebuds and plum trees.


safe for a time

from our little house of horrors

where mom always said,

"don't play happy in the house."


or maybe she simply set the stage

for me to draw my own conclusions

of our depressive misdemeanors

with a fierce beauty all their own.


Plums are Tricks, Prunes are Treats

The Discovery Health channel has had Plum Smart (and Plum Smart Light!) commercials on heavy rotation of late.  Just can't wait the 14 days for yogurt to work for ya ? Then let Plum Smart come to the rescue! It is mighty fast reacting, often in minutes! (Get a two-for-one deal - a package of Depends with every six-pack of Plum Smart!)
I love how the Prune industry is trying to go after a 'younger', more 'hip' demographic by referring to their product as a 'Dried Plum.' Hence Plum Smart. Come on! It's fucking Prune Juice!! Now to be fair, 'Plum' is probably a more accurate name for the swill (prunes by definition have no juice or they'd be plums). But I'm a traditionalist here and this is clearly a shameless marketing ploy, a grab for the youth vote.
To add some color to my umbrage over the prune/plum dodge, as well as my love/hate relationship with Raisin's big brother, let me tell a brief story of one of my lasting memories of childhood, an event that scarred me in an indelible way. It took place during one of my first Halloween trick-or-treat runs so I was very young, just a pup.
Late on my rounds, I came upon one particularly evil looking home (though not due to any decoration - just year-round general-purpose creepiness). I was hesitant to visit, but the porch light was on and my chaperon (either my mother or sister, I forget) nudged me forward. So I knocked.
The door slowly groaned open to reveal a dark interior from which an irritated elderly crone clutching a huge wooden cane emerged. Real old. Wicked Witch of the West times twelve old (though she wasn't decked out in any trappings of witchcraft I was familiar with). Hunched over yet still towering above my tiny fraidy cat form, I recall clearly the feeling of dread shooting up my spine. "Trick-or-treat?" I hopefully half muttered my part of the bargain. She frowned, hard pursed lips. I was clearly not her first visitor. And it was apparent she had tired of this insufferable, rhetorical cry of spoiled children. "I don't have candy! I drink prune juice!" She waved her cane as I braced for the expected blow, frozen in my tracks. Then she slammed shut the door and it was over.
My first rejection. Bitch. Turn out your fucking porch light then. That's the signal! You're no babe in the woods. You know the deal!!
I hated prune juice from that point on, though I wasn't sure what it was exactly. I'm still not certain.
Fast forward 25 years and prunes had become my savior, my liquid plumber. The only thing standing between relief and misery. But this new alliance didn't extend to prune juice, that oxymoron of a beverage. And it never will, no matter what flights of linguistic fancy Madison Avenue types use to try and pull the wool over my eyes.
That autumn encounter of yore left an indelible mark that can't be washed away by some plum/prune shell game.


Late '60s

My first real memories of socializing with other kids in the neighborhood start around 1968.  I am six and we have been living at 1310 Hoyt for about two years.  My good friend Brian lives across the street and a new family, the Dwyer's, with four kids aged 1 to 4 have just moved into the big house on the corner.  My Dad continues to drink heavily but he and Mom manage to keep up appearances.


Racing the Neighborhood Now and Then Briefly

It's kind of creepy being able to tool around your old neighborhood courtesy of Google maps street view. It's too bad the technology wasn't around 40 years ago. I'd like to be able to cruise the homestead over time, watching it morph from how it was to how it is. I imagine in 30 years that this'll be a handy feature for future head cases (the ones being fucked up right now) as well as anthropology/sociology or city planner/architecture buffs. Then again, that'll play havoc with revisionist history (at least with some of the visuals your defense system might have since re-purposed for sanity's sake).

View Larger Map

My neighborhood has changed surprisingly little over the years. The biggest single difference seems to be the walling off of individual properties. Fences and landscaping were for backyards when I was a kid - now a good half of the homes on my old block have big ol' fences around the front along with trees, flowers and shrubs winding around and through the enclosures, all neatly trimmed and weirdly isolating. Everything was so open when I was young!

Other than that ... The same old plum trees still line the edges near the curb, the hospital and high school look pretty much frozen in time (okay, some minor nods to technology with the signage). Same corner stores and whatnot (well, they have new names and likely new owners, but look otherwise alike). More cafes and coffee shops, a vacant lot where we played pick-up ball kitty corner from our block is now a fancy little park.

It's easy to slip back in time. And out of the house, they were usually good times for me as a kid. Man, I can just see the Big Wheels riding down the street, the banana seat bikes with playing cards in the spokes, our Evil Knievel plywood jumping ramps over three(count 'em) trash cans (well, on their sides) in the alley, army forts built in the backyard thatch of bushes. Buying paper kites from the corner store and flying them all over the place. Building wooden hydroplane models. My best friend Brian lived with his grandparents and we'd use his grandpa's tools and paint to craft these hunks of wood into passable miniature replicas.

Hydroplane racing was HUGE in our neck of the woods, certainly back then anyway (this was '68 or '69). Miss Pay-n-Pak and Miss Budweiser were the Yankees and Red Sox of that particular universe. Remember, we didn't have professional football or baseball in our state back then. You had to go clear to Oakland, California to find such things and the A's were indeed my team as a kid (a great team to have in the early 1970s). But they could be only so much my team given their geographical distance. So we had Soccer (go, Sounders!) and Hydroplanes.

Brian was always the Budweiser and I was always Pay-n-Pak when we 'raced' each other on our bikes, dragging those hunks of wood we had lovingly crafted behind us, pretty much destroying them in the process. I hated the Miss Budweiser. When I started to drink, I always loathed Budweiser beer too. I'm pretty sure it was the red-neck image and awful after taste but there's something inside me that always harkens back to that rivalry. Turns out, the boat owners, drivers and crews were incestuous, with Miss Budweiser and Miss Pay-n-Pak pretty much interchangeable apart from the sponsor's name slapped on the sides. What did we know?

Any time you wanna race hydroplanes, Brian - give me a shout, if you're out there.


The Dyed In the Dermis Statue of Inky Naked Liberty

My father always had a lady on his arm and she was unfailingly naked. No, he was not a galavanting playboy or strip club devotee; rather, this was a tattoo that ran down his inner arm from elbow to wrist. It was one of the more visible, persistent reminders of the innumerable mistakes Dad had made while in the throes of alcoholic bliss. It was perhaps the single biggest source of embarrassment for the old man, who took to wearing long sleeve shirts at all times, even in the midst of a particularly noxious mid-August swelter. I'm guessing it was just too large to consider removal, at least with the means available back in the fifties and sixties when he might have been in the position to weigh such an option.

I never thought much of The Lady, and frankly don't even remember the details all that clearly. I think it adorned his right arm but maybe he had one on each; my addled flashbacks have been edited for sanity's sake and these bits must have been left on the cutting room floor. I do vaguely recall asking him about it as a toddler but the only really clear memories I've retained relative to this matter are the incessant threats my parents made as to just what they'd do to me if I mentioned "her" in front of others. The folks lived in terror of outsiders discovering dents in what they viewed as a lovingly crafted model of Leave-It-To-Beaverism. The truth is that dents were the least of this model's concerns when all that remained were gaping holes by the time the late 1960s rolled around, the ghosts of June, Ward, Wally and the Beaver flying off into the night in horror at being associated with our unique spin of familial dysfunction.

I think The Lady is the primary reason I never desired a tattoo of any sort and have never understood the appeal of body art in others, whether it be ink or piercings or like forms of self mutilation. In fact, I don't see the difference between a person with piercings or tattoos and the ragged razor scars of a cutter. Sure, there's an obvious difference in intent and the former might be more aesthetically pleasing than the latter; however, the psychology of intent can be many layered and not at all obvious to the conscious mind while aesthetics are, by definition, subjective.

A news recap this morning showing a group of Independence Day weekend revelers included a dude with what looked to be a very familiar tat running down the length of his Flexor digitorum and the hazy memories of Dad's ink-drawn Elke just sort of washed over me like a fog.

The 4th of July is often the time when my childhood remembrances come to the fore: it was my father's favorite holiday after Christmas and it is my mother's birthday. She'll be 84 this year. When Mom was celebrating her 41st birthday, my cousin Jennie (my Mom's niece) gave birth to her daughter, Lisa (who, if my highly advanced math skills have calculated accurately, will herself be 45 this upcoming Independence Day). Dad loved to buy and light off fireworks on our country's birthday and we did so each year until my Mom had her stroke in June of '72 and Dad took his final plunge into the bottle shortly thereafter, never to return again until his body bobbed to the surface for a toe-tagged gurney ride to the morgue a little over 5 years later. But prior to this slide into oblivion, I had a giddy anticipation of each Independence Day that was only bested by Santa's annual sleigh ride.

Where I grew up, "Safe & Sane" fireworks stands started popping up in June all over the town and we'd peruse the season's "new" offerings with excitement. Really, there wasn't much new year to year (sparklers and snakes intermixed with various pinwheels, rockets, and fiery cannons). No firecrackers or bottle rockets or M80s and the like. They were certainly available on the sly but Dad mostly stuck with the legal stuff. After the fireworks were expended and we were done running across the lawn with fists full of sparklers, finished watching the "snakes" melt into the sidewalk where'd they leave a stain lasting the rest of the summer, sick of going 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the pinwheels and sparkle rockets as Dad ignites their glory; after all that, we'd go to bed and wake up again into the usual drama that defined our lives outside of the spell of the 4th and Christmas (and, perhaps, for a few hours on Halloween). Thanksgiving sometimes dampened our dysfunction, but just as often accelerated it (sort of like a gasoline-based fire extinguisher, if their were such a beast).

The Lady on the Arm and 4th of July seem inexorably intwined, even if the random news clip hadn't jousted the Freudian gnome living on the European continent of my subconscious to change the reel of my yesterday-dreams to Scenes of Dad's Ink-stained Other Woman. I guess it's because pop did wear short sleeves while orchestrating the fireworks, likely because the fear of polyester melting into his skin outweighed that of the neighbors eyeballing his epidermis artwork.

In the end, when Dad was cremated, The Lady on the Arm went the way of the fireworks that freed her for an annual night unveiled. I guess it was her destiny.

Ooh, Ahh.


Toyz in da Hood - Christmastime

Christmastime puts me into a nostalgic frame of mind. Up with the birds this morning, I was able to catch a bit of Saturday morning TV fare with the very first flush of the upcoming holiday season's toy advertisements already breaking bread. Now to be sure, my toys of yore were a bit different. We're talking toys circa late 60s/early 70s. I think the most "high tech" item I ever owned was Hasbro's Lite-brite.

Hot Wheels were my longest running passion. I remember a few Christmases with them, and they're still alive-n-kicking in the 21st Century; in fact, they are one of Mattel's premiere brands to this day. Of course today Hot Wheels is all fancy and whatnot. Back in the olden times it was just a bunch of orange plastic strips of miniature road connected together in sundry ways (loops and ramps and so), with little metal cars you dropped onto said tracks. Gravity did the rest of the work, no electricity required. It didn't take long for the day-glo tangerine strips to outlive their usefulness as race tracks, but they went on to new lives as play weapons (whips, swords, etc.). I can still feel the sting those three foot hunks of rubbery plastic exacted when used in pretend anger.

Slot-cars. They were right up there in the pantheon of toy Christmas pleasures, along with Big Wheel and my black Sears Spyder five-speed "muscle" bike. I could be getting some of my Yuletide memories jumbled with birthdays here but I remember the slot-cars distinctly on Christmas, racing them all day long under the tree.

Looking back now, my favorite time of Christmas wasn't rushing out of bed to see what the unkempt fat man and his mangy venison chauffeurs had delivered but rather putting things together afterward. My parents - and later, sister - were often up until the wee hours stitching together my Kris Kringle loot but there were several items still wrapped come morning and many required assembly once opened. This was the shit "Santa" hadn't delivered (presents from people living south of the North Pole). Dad and I often set to work on this task together and it was one of the few father/son moments I remember fondly. The other was Sunday mornings with the paper and powered donuts. After that it drops off into the abyss.

Other items of note:
  • Unicycle. Not sure why my friend Brian and I learned to maneuver these things but I can tell you it's not like a bike: you do in fact "forget" how to ride as I found out not too long ago in a painful display.
  • Remote-controlled model car
  • Rock'em Sock'em Robots
  • Barrel full of Monkeys
  • Electric Football Game. Electricity vibrated the little players around the "field" - perhaps this was my highest tech toy.
  • Various Play-Doh toys (mainly used to carve up said play-doh into numerous shapes and sizes). My Mom used to make homemade "play-doh" as well, of wildly varying color and quality.
Man, reading all this now I see this kid was really spoiled as a child with all manner of crap. Somehow my parents came through with the goods come Christmas and birthdays, regardless of our financial straits. If only there were but two days in the year then things would have been golden all around.  Damn Gregorians.


Krofft Cruft

Thoughts of the Land of the Lost on Saturday mornings past bring back memories of all my favorite like-minded shows in the early 70s:
All were the work of Sid and Marty Krofft.  Sort of the Joel and Ethan Cohen of the 70's children's fantasy puppet genre.  God bless those guys.

In keeping with Hollywood's complete lack of originality, I see that a movie version of H.R. Pufnstuf is coming out in 2011.  More interesting is a 2007 horror-spoof of the show, H.R. Puffnsnuf.  I'll have to hunt that one down (though it might fuck with some relatively rare positive memories of childhood in disturbing ways).

Looking on IMDB, I discovered that Mama Cass Eliott played Witch Hazel in a 1970 movie version of Pufnstuf, though she wasn't on the series.

No sign of Papas Denny or John or Mama Michelle.  John would have been picture perfect as the father of the protagonist, little Jimmie.  He could have shown him how to smoke black-tar heroin from his talking flute.

Speaking of Jimmie and his flute, Jack Wild (who played our young English lad among puppets in Pufnstuf land) died of Tongue and Throat cancer just a couple of years ago.  There was no mention as to whether his magical talking flute had anything to do with his demise, though that thing was no doubt filled with all sorts of toxic pixie dust (all the reason why Witchiepoo was forever trying to get her hands on it).  I wonder if Witchiepoo or Mayor Pufnstuf made it to the funeral.  That would be a great premise for a reunion show!

Finally, for no particular reason, I'm left with memories of the show Shazam.  It was on, I believe, in prime time rather than Saturday morning and had no relation to the Kroffts (it was a live action show).  But my jumbled up memories scoop this into the Krofft pile.  I distinctly recall 7-11 coming out with Shazam Plastic Specialty cups when you got a large Slurpie.  There were several to choose from and I was determined to get them all.  I think, in fact, that I did.


Plumbing Supply Chain Blues

My father danced

from the gallows of life,

a Don Draper swinger

gone to advertising seed.

Should you find yourself in need

of plumbing supplies

or second hand cirrosis

and can wait out a Strand Hotel

bender or two,

come on down to North Everett cira 1969

and darken our door -

my daddy-o, he can oblige;

this hep cat pappy,

with his dad gone mad skills.

Sweet sounds of sickness

and Aqua Velva whiskey fragrance,

deep thrusts of indigestion

and tortured circumspect;

the fury weighed heavy

on this slightly animated corpse

but he'd be glad to help you out

for just a taste

of formaldehyde distilled.


Friends and Neighbors

My parents had what seemed to me as a child to be a lot of friends and neighbors, at least until the alcoholism my folks and them had in common rendered even dysfunctional socializing impossible.  They were in retrospect highly entertaining in a darkly twisted way ...


Bob and Ruth

Bob Douglas was all chest high plaid pants, wild eyes and eager ears, working the police-fire scanner knobs and his telephone dial with savage efficiency in the darkened room at the back of his house. This was his war room, his command center. The Information Station.

Hey, down there at 1310 Hoyt! Get ready for the fire truck! You, up there at 706 Grand! The police cruiser's coming your way! Yo, over there at 925 Rockefeller! Domestic Squabble just down your alley at 918 Wetmore!

He was wired into it all, hooked into the information grid of nineteen hundred and seventy. Everett, Washington's emergency dispatch signals surfing across his brainwaves, his thoughts tuned into their frequencies. Forever clearing his throat of the perpetual phlegm of ignorance, he thirsted for the knowledge that these crises and misdemeanors washed down into him. But it wasn't enough to obtain the wisdom, he was compelled to impart it onto others. And not gently either - no, this education was delivered to his friends and neighbors with a vicious ruthlessness. Mr. Douglas, you see, was a man both supremely impatient and utterly mad. He suffered neither fools nor the rational gladly.

A call would come over the scanner and his shock of curly hair shot straight up, his hairy ears throbbing with the details of this latest catastrophe. Incessantly tuning the signal to clear the noise from the necessary, Bob would focus, waiting - until, Bam! He'd catch wind of a juicy one through the static and hone in on the location. A picture would form in his mind's eye as he zoomed in for a close up. His gnarled fingers would then start clawing down the phone book white pages, mapping the dispatch address to a neighborhood and the 'hood to his acquaintances, however vague the connection. Match! Yes! Now he would make with the telephone dial.

Ring, ring.

Ignorant Acquaintance:

Bob: Ummmrrgghhh. Hey, down there at 1215 Colby, you got a heart attack one block down, 1314 Wetmore. Ummmeegghh.


With that said, Bob would abruptly hang up. He needed no reply from his pupils and had no time for idle chit-chat. They didn't even have names to him, his friends; he referred to them only by their addresses.  There was serious work to do, removing the blinders from the beleaguered citizens of this jerk-water town. How little they knew of these moments of consequence taking place right under their noses! But Bob, he knew. Strokes, heart attacks, burglaries, peeping toms. Bob had total coverage. He was the master of this knowledge. The great and powerful Oz!

This man was a god to me growing up, a giant. Fueled by Antabuse and aggravation, he was nothing so much as a raw nerve personified. All work and no play was not in Bob's vocabulary, though the definition of 'play' is subjective. For instance, he 'played' his long-suffering dog Wolfy into a quivering nervous wreck until the poor thing could take no more, finally succumbing to a fatal heart attack. Not satisfied with simply schooling his own pet, he worked the neighborhood animals into frenetic basket cases as well (they were unable to sleep for days after one of his visits). But unlike Wolfy, at least the neighbor doggies had times of relief when 'uncle' Bob went home. None of these unfortunate side effects were intentional, of course. Mr. Douglas was simply being Mr. Douglas. Wass a gooodd dooggg?!? yessyouare, yessyouare, wass a good dog!?!?! eh? eh?!?!? Was a good dog!?!?! Ehh, ehh, ehh!! On and on and on, he'd go. Bob would have them chase their tails, tug on rags, run down Frisbees, play chop sticks on the piano, clean his garage, mainline meth, and tear their own tongues out. And that was for starters. Waasss a goood doogggie!?!? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Errrmmmdddhh!!

This was simply Bob's way.

His bright plaid pants weaving to and fro, manic voice booming and the constant gurgling of phlegm in his throat, Bob just couldn't stop, had no sense of boundaries or limits. Luckily he was clearing his throat so much of the time that you couldn't make out most of his psycho-babble. His affliction was Turrets Syndrome melded with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and manic tendencies all rolled into one fifty-something package. Or was he sixty-something? It doesn't matter: he was ageless, beyond time.

Bob would also visit upon children what he inflicted on the town's canine population. I cowered in terror upon his arrival at our doorstep. As I said, he was a god to me. Sort of like Loki, the Norse God of Mischief. Or Satan.

Bob stopped drinking years before I knew him, though it took a few trips through treatment before the "cure" took hold. His regiment of Antabuse and terminal psychosis remained the only vestige of a drunkard's past. I have no idea why as a child I was cognizant of his pharmaceutical intake, probably because my parents kept no secrets, as long as they weren't theirs. As though taking Antabuse was a scandalous thing, especially when compared to the unrestrained active alcoholism my folks reveled in.

I had always assumed that Bob and my Dad had been drinking buddies and that was how our families became friends. Those two may well have been boozing pals at some point; however, Mr. Douglas sold insurance back in the day - before he retired to his role as town crier - and that was how our families originally came together. (We had insurance?!?) A television commercial come to life with your broker as best buddy and trusted adviser. His friendship, though, was more akin to Jim Carey's Chip Douglas in The Cable Guy: you'd have to pry your relationship with him from his cold, dead hands. He mated for life in this regard.

Speaking of mating, Bob was not alone. He came as a package deal, wrapped up in a bow with his stubby chubby swinging 60s red headed whack job misses, Ruth. Ruth had the unfortunate habit of wearing skirts sans undergarments on occasion, but was not blessed with the body of Sharon Stone, nor was she of an age - she was somewhere north of fifty - when that behavior might have been viewed in a different light (a black light was too luminous for her particular horrors).

Mrs. D would readily cross and uncross her legs with a silly, knowing smirk as she visited with our folks making gabby small talk, always sounding and acting to me like Sue Ann Nivens from the Mary Tyler Moore show come to life with a dye job. I'd see red and go blind. The carpet matched the drapes, though neither of any shade nature could have conjured up. What nightmares these visuals would give me! ("Join me for a crimson bath! Red-dye #5 mixes well with Mr. Bubbles! Come on in, the water is fine!")


My Mom - also a Ruth - cut Mrs. Douglas's hair regularly, though she had no training or 'natural' talent in the tonsorial arts that I'm aware of (certainly the results bared that out). This ritual would take place in our kitchen, the two ladies enjoying a beer or two while my Mom took the scissors to that red fright wig atop Mrs. D's head. I had my first taste of the suds in this setting, though I'm not sure why I was offered (I couldn't place my age, maybe 10?). A first initiation into the alcoholic profession my parents saw as the family calling. I was strangely drawn to watching this beauty parlor ballet unfold, my Mom hacking at Ruth D's head while they both got toasted. I shutter when I think about this today. Now that I am thinking of it, my Mom's services to Ruth also included regular dye jobs (though they were, to my knowledge, all on the "up and up").

Bob and Ruth spawned one child, Lee. An odd kid who became a cop, he was by some accounts a sexual deviant. The girls in the neighborhood all dreaded Lee's approaching swagger, as he put his moves on them in his best 70s Disco Stu style.

Nature, nurture - Lee had both going against him and probably didn't stand much of a chance. But at least Father Douglas could follow his son's adventures from the comfort of his back room courtesy of the trusty police scanner. Sometimes his son would be dispatched, and sometimes his son would be dispatched upon. Sort of a one-man game of cops and robbers (or cops and flashers, to be more precise). Who would Bob call during these episodes? Himself? But the line's forever busy! I imagine that after episodes such as this, a confusion of sorts must have hung for a time over Bob's Rear Window lifestyle.

So these are my slanderous memories of just a couple of characters from my childhood. An introduction. They will return. They were central to my upbringing in many ways.

It takes a village. Indeed.

[Postscript: my sister recalls once, back in the days when Bob had been drinking, he accidentally flushed his false teeth down the toilet. The mental picture of that event and the subsequent dental panic - Did they result in a clog? My dad was a handyman, did he break into the sewage pipes to retrieve the choppers? - was strong enough to me that I felt I needed to share.

My sister also recalled for me Bob's love of the pornographic (which explains his wife Ruth). For example, Bob liked to keep his extensive collection of Playboys piled high in plain view on top of his living room coffee table, in order to give all visitors the chance to pursue the interesting articles. He often left the mags open turned to the "article" spread. He went so far as to send my then teenage sister a fold out of a playmate pic because he thought it looked like her. He ratcheted up creepiness several notches in his day, claiming the word as his own. ]



Leonard was a hefty sort and a sad sack - the only overweight member of my Dad's rum buddies (or more correctly, whiskey chums). He was trapped in a miserable but inexplicably lasting marriage to the rarely seen "Bubbles," a hoity-toity gasbag forever berating him for simply being himself: a falling-down chronic alcoholic prone to balling his eyes out at the drop of a hat.
But Leonard had a vehicle - a truck - and to Dad and his pals, this made him very useful.  Mobility was a valuable commodity to this crew, most of whom no longer had ready access to an automobile (wrecked, repo'd, sold for liquor money; they all had a story).

Leonard's truck was a means to get to the state store or the bars, and was essential to his continuing inclusion in this band of boozers, since he rarely had any duckets to kick in for beverages. (Bubbles came from money and held tight to the family purse strings. She had long since put the kibosh on doling any out to her lush of a husband and he had to settle for scraps or whatever he could steal from the cookie jar when her back was turned.)

Leonard had mad skills behind the wheel as he weaved down the road bouncing from curb to curb, emphasis on mad. Terrifying, in fact. As one of the few people to ride with him sober in those days, my survival attests to his mastery of the art of lubricated locomotion. (I was 8, 9, 10 years old and wasn't prone to knocking back shots at 9am on a sunny August Tuesday like the others along for the ride in this deathtrap.)

Leonard had a six sense when navigating to the state store (the truck pretty much drove itself).

His visits would start with a knock on the door. He'd plop down on the couch, forcing Dad to sit upright from his usual semi-horizontal position. Leonard would start with a bit of small talk, all the while licking his lips and shooting glances plaintively toward the corner where the old man kept his bottle. Medicine for the sick. If the bottle was empty, he would suggest a road trip and if it wasn't, he'd suggest a glass (I think he used a glass but my memories are kind of foggy; Dad usually didn't bother at this point). Either way, soon would be the booze a-flowin' and the tears would surely follow. Bubbles doesn't understand, woah-is-me, yada-yada.
Watching that fat drunk waddle-stagger to our bathroom after knocking back a bottle with Dad was a treat. He'd have done Chevy Chase and Dick Van Dyke proud with his prat-fall antics, though perhaps Chris Farley would be a more apt comparison.

Leonard'd start out by invariably catching his shoe on the braided living room rug, nearly doing a header into the dining room. Next, he sluggishly danced with a leg raised in an attempt not to step on the tail of my sleeping dog Snooks (a failed attempt on several occasions I was present for - the damn dog didn't learn). Once past the dog for good or ill, Leonard would grasp for the dining room table and chairs to slow his stride lest the momentum tumble him into our 'china' cabinet. Safely through the worst of this journey, he'd stagger out into the hallway near the toilet, on two occasions tripping over the cord that coiled out from under the telephone table there, falling back on his ass.

Only once did Leonard alter his route to the can and he paid dearly for this deviation. For some reason on this one trip, he made the journey via our kitchen rather than directly through the dining room. Bad move. He was confused by this wrong turn, puzzled by the sight of a fridge where the hallway phone table should be. In a daze and about to topple over, Leonard made the mistake of using the stove for leverage and placed his hand firmly on a lit burner (I was getting ready to make coffee). You never heard such a banshee cry! It caused Snooks to hightail it out of the living room to safety under my parent's bed. I'm surprised Leonard ever went to the bathroom again in our house. Certainly he avoided the kitchen.

And that's Leonard. Glad ya got to know him.



His name was Hal Lambert. Hal-o-wishes. A charter member of my Dad's drinking entourage, he was forever decked out in his pork pie hat and dapper threads, a gentleman in the 1950's sense of the word. Kind of sophisticated for Dad's crowd. Sophisticated, that is, when he wasn't throwing up in the corner or crying like a baby into a pillow on our couch (both happened more than once).

Looking back, Hal reminds me a bit of William Burroughs. Did that make my Dad Jack Kerouac? Probably not. I think the resemblance ended with the gentile nature and omnipresent hat. And of course their mutual addiction to mood altering drugs. With Hal, it was booze while Burroughs was hooked on pretty much everything (opiates were his "drug of choice" when pressed).

The fog forever enveloping my childhood memories is usually as thick as pea soup, but if I strain my psyche particularly hard, things more or less come into focus for an instant, exposing my revisionist history. Then the fog rolls back in again, protecting me from things I'd rather not know. But it also has an insidious way of hiding the detail that is a necessary ingredient in the pictures I'm trying to paint here. I guess ya can't have it both ways.
I get the feeling that Hal-as-Burroughs is one of those false fog-infused recollections. My memories momentarily a bit more lucid, I see he most resembled Mr. Magoo (who, it should be said, was a sharp dresser in his own right). I'm pretty sure they attended the same Driver's Education class and shared a similar field of vision, Magoo's courtesy of two bum retinas and Hal's brought to you by the makers of Bourbon everywhere. Having experienced the spine-tingling terror of being the lone sober passenger on a liquor run with Hal at the wheel, I can attest to his routine Magoo-like supernatural escapes from the jaws of vehicular death.

Hal's wife Darlene was anything but gentile. Boisterous with the bluest of collar, Darlene was a "tavern jacket" type who could go toe-to-toe with the best of them when it came to knockin' back the sauce. She was tall, "big boned" and prone to strut, he was diminutive of stature and perpetually hunched over. Opposites who attracted, bonded by the booze and little else.

Darlene would have fit right in on the local bar bowling team. Hal would have looked more at home pacing the sidelines of a football game, Tom Landry/Bear Bryant style. Well, he would were they prone to vomiting into the Gatorade and weaving drunkenly onto the field at inopportune moments.

This odd couple often graced our home, to drink and talk and cry (well, Hal cried; that wasn't Darlene's style).

And then one day, Darlene up and died. It was a strange death, apparently in her sleep. Hal waited several hours before calling an ambulance (I think he may have dialed our home first and chatted up my Dad while awaiting Darlene's rigor to kick in).

Perhaps Hal had been drunk and was confused (that was always a good bet). But we often wondered whether he'd finally had enough of her noise and simply wanted some peace and quiet. As mentioned previously, Hal knew his way around a pillow and likely could wield it in anger just as skillfully as he did in sobbing drunken sorrow.

But this was merely idle talk; Darlene had any number of legitimate reasons for casting off this mortal coil at a relatively young age (I couldn't hazard a guess as to exactly how old she was - maybe late fifties). Booze and cigarettes likely played a starring role.

We saw Hal occasionally after this sad event, he prone to crying more than usual and just a bit more blind to boot, thanks to an amplification of his natural melancholy fueled by Darlene's passing and distilled (both metaphorically and literally) through the usual spirits that represented their life blood.

I can't say for sure when Hal joined Darlene and Dad in that great liquor store in the sky. I imagine it's just one of many details lost in my particular fog of time.


George and Arlene

George and Arlene Warfield were the Burns and Allen of our block growing up, but unwitting and without the humor. Their kitchen seemed to swallow the rest of the house whole, the action in their hovel centering on their breakfast nook at all times. Mom and Dad visited often back in my formative years.  My sister and I occasionally in tow, they lubricated their friendship with the Warfields around the table there with the aid of strong drink interrupted only by muttered mundane conversation (much of it forgotten before it was uttered).  I spent many an hour observing this ritual from my vantage point as a toddler in the corner, soda pop in hand and their cigarette smoke swirling around my head.

George was both deliberate and reserved with a working man's gait to match his garb while Arlene loomed loquacious, her cartoonish features drifting somewhere between Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and melting candle wax.  I remember with horror the times she bent down to kiss me on the cheek, the gobs of excess lipstick smearing across my face and the stink of her perfume burning my sinuses.  I can think back across forty years and smell it still.

In my earlier years our family made the trek down the block three houses to George and Arlene's place for New Year's Eve.  My sister and I watched the tube in the living room while the adults boozed it up in that kitchen, then we'd all rendezvous at midnight to bang pots and pans on the front porch.

George wore his blue collar like a priest's vestment, central to his being.  That being said, I wasn't exactly sure where he worked or what he did.  If George was reserved, Arlene was aggressively kind and this quality frightened me no end. I stayed over at their home for several days on one occasion when my folks went out of town and it was a surreal experience, much of that owed to this smothering affection, very different from my home life in ways even now I couldn't qualify.  It wasn't that my parents weren't affectionate (that wasn't one of their failings); rather, it was that the folks were specifically affectionate while Arlene (and George) did it as a general part of who they were.  They seemed alien to me, the Warfields; consequently, I felt ill at ease around them.

My parents grew apart from George and Arlene after my Mom's stroke immobilized her and my Dad's alcoholism spiked, his body abandoning him to the couch and the bathroom and stumbling distance between the two.  The Warfields liked to drink just fine but they weren't part of my Dad's bourbon brotherhood, weren't fellow travelers on his bullet train to Cirrhosisville (though maybe they occasionally rowed a slow boat on the journey in that general direction).

One of the things I found odd in this relationship was that I don't recall a single time the Warfields made the trek up to our house.  I'm sure they did, but the relationship didn't flourish in this setting. They were merely background fodder in our domain; others took center stage here.  No, the relationship was rooted in a single direction - south, down the block, their place.  And my folks just couldn't make the journey anymore.

George and Arlene have surely since gone on to their great reward but are forever frozen in time for me, suspended in the animation that was our neighborhood in early 1970's North Everett.   They represent that time and place in my mind along with a select few others, as surely as 8-track tapes and Lincoln Logs.

I might have been closer (in aspiration) to the Dwyers but they were practically another species on the evolutionary scale of families.  Foreign yet familiar, the Warfields were more within striking distance. The missing link up from our prehistoric depths of dysfunction.


Early 70s

The folks would maintain a semblance of normality for the first couple years of the disco decade; however, much like Nixon, things soon collapsed into shit amidst the polyester, pulling those of us caught within their event horizon down into the muck along with them.


A Moment Saturday in the Summer

Mom is gardening

in the summer sun out back,

smoking and probing

at what might one day be lettuce, parsley.

Inside, Dad's head bleeds sweat

through the couch cushions,

sweet stained remnants

of endless bourbon daydreams.

I am manning a lemonade stand

in the yard out front,

earning some coin

from kindhearted strangers,

though I'm the one drinking the Kool-Aid.

Sis is away with friends

trying to blot out homestead time bombs,

a normal teenage girl

trapped in the body of familial dysfunction,

trapped in the bailiwick of parental decay.

We are all in our own place,

frozen in a fevered fear of fate

not yet written but already carved in stone.


Pub Crawl in Oz Down the Yellow Brick Road

Dad was scarecrow stubble,

all jaundiced meandering mumbles.

He didn't look much at people

those last few years,

staring off into space

at scabbed tidbits

of pleasant small talk crippled,

slack jawed all wrong.

Watergate remembrances

of Colgate on the leaking sink

and Terry Jacks on the transistor

drowning out Mom and Dad in a fester

of afternoon numbing,

drunk and drained of the blister

that was morning father shaking

on the living room couch,

dry heaving over Barbara Walters

or sometimes J.P. Patches

but never Captain Kangaroo.

Pops, with his steaming wake up cup

of hair o' the dog that ate him whole,

barking up the pieces

of our fractured family photo album,

burying the remnants

of our torn and frayed lives.


The Ol' Neighborhood (Plum Crazy)

Violent trees of violet plums

stand guard over our homes,

carpet bombing bitter fruit

'tween the sidewalk and street of my childhood hallucinations.

I climb the limbs of our abode's digestive sentry

and survey the neighborhood's blossoming decay:

Look, there's a pickled Arlene Warfield three doors down

making quiet sick into her flower bed with grace.

Look, here's Father clumsy fumbling toward the curb

'neath my purple camouflaged catbird seat

before mounting his trusty Mercury Comet,

the sonic blast of mufferless combustion

signifying another cattle drive underway

'cross suburban prairies to liquor store ecstasy.

Dad, the shakiest gun in the (North) West.

Dad, slow drawing double barreled bourbon.

Dad, outmatched by six shooter cirrhosis.

I pick off a plum and suck out the pulp,

amusing myself with malignant metaphors

drifting nowhere and serving scant purpose

until nature absconds me to the ground,

rushing my ass toward the family confessional

that is our only and blessed toilet.

I learned, that day, two stark truisms

which have never wavered through time and tribulation:

human beings can be quite dead while busy living

and plums are simply prunes in hydrating disguise.


Camelot on Hewitt

I'm a bit slow.

Slow to learn, to latch onto new ways of doing things. And slow to come to grips with unpleasant realities. Which makes me a notorious procrastinator with a see-no-evil set of blinders on my psyche that you had better not fuck with.

I have, I think, finally accepted that my boat's already 'round the bend of middle age, driven by an unyielding current, try as I might to row against it (I had more success stemming the tide with the aid of my Dorian Gray complex but I haven't seen it much lately).

Of course, if you go by average life expectancy, I made that turn into the mid-life crisis several years ago. After all, I'm 51 now and though I'd love to live into my 100s, the oddsmakers say it's very unlikely.

But, Christ, there is some hope. My mother's still hanging on at age 83, a life-long dedicated chain smoker and practicing alcoholic. A stroke at age 42, no visible means of support. Yet there she is. Somehow preserved in the far reaches of western Ireland, perhaps with the help of the boys back east at St. James Gate. A woman of full-blooded Norwegian descent, yet with a single minded determination to be Irish. If that keeps her going, more power to her. Could that work for me? I've tried being who I can't and it nearly did me in.

And that's contrasted with Dear ol' Dad, who missed seeing his 53rd birthday by 19 days when he came down with a touch of Cirrhosis (it was going around - I think he caught it off a contaminated glass or bottle). Were I him sharing his fate, I'd have less than two years left. He was clearly a more accomplished alcoholic than Mom, try as she might. She drank beer and cheap fortified wine - he indulged in that kind of 'soda pop' only when he 'wasn't drinking.' Sadly, that is not an attempt at exaggeration or humor but simply how it was: he occasionally stopped drinking and when he did, he drank beer. She's become a willy veteran who can beat you with experience, but he had pure God-given talent, he didn't even have to try.

My Dad had a gift.

He was a local legend. The Prince of Hewitt Ave, regaling the denizens with tall tales of sorrow and shots of relief. The rest of us passed through that world but only he belonged; more than that, he ruled - as long as a paycheck lasted, after which he came home into temporary exile to rule again once the means allowed.

The Sport Center Cafe and Lounge usually stood in for the Prince's royal palace, Dad's Savings and Loan and the Port in his Storm. It was, to my vantage point as a child, a foul place. The only 'Sport' was hard drink in the Lounge, though they served food in the Cafe, required to rate a liquor license. "Booths for Ladies" in the window just to the right of "Paychecks Cashed." One sign unnecessary, the other essential. And cashed they were, his crown restored and a coronation celebrated all around once again. I see that the "lounge" portion of the Sport Center is now a biker heavy metal bar/club offering 'Booze, Grub and Rock-n-roll'. Indeed. Not so different, it all depends on how you define these things. The "cafe" portion is now The Whammy Bar, a name much more apropos, don't ya think?  The Sportscenter might have served as Royal Palace, but this Prince had several other estates from which to rule when the mood struck, the The Bel-nes further west on Hewitt, the London further east, and the Townhouse on Broadway being ready standbys.

But then the paychecks slowed, finally stopping for good. Hewitt and the bars became Broadway, the State Store next to the B&M.  Liquor store booze outlasts the stuff in the dankest of dives, it was the simple economics of the dole.

After Dad's reign, Hewitt sometimes came to him, the possibility of free spirits leading them to our door. The Prince with no kingdom was still a soft touch.

Our door. Our little middle class house on the 1300 block of Hoyt. The folks somehow kept up payments while living on Food Stamps, Government Cheese, Booze, Pills and Smokes. It mystified me then how we managed. But I didn't know what I didn't know and blocked out the rest. My sister kicked in, other family members too. The folks meanwhile successfully mined various social security, 'disability', and unemployment loopholes, squeezing the last drop from those sponges into our coffers. My parents rolled their own smokes, made their own beer, Mom even braided the living room rug from old coats. Frugal and budget minded in their own twisted but inventive way.

Our clothes and toys were often secondhand chic, even when Dad was gainfully employed (he was an early adopter of direct deposit, into his Sport Center Lounge 'savings' account). Back then, we made the Saturday thrift store shopping rounds while he "cashed his check." The shopping invariably finished long before Dad was done cashing his fill.

I remember what should have been terrifying rides with Dad to the state store, usually one of his free loading subjects at the controls, their contribution to the cause. Occasionally
Dad drove, at least back when he still had a car. Until a motorcycle broadsided him while he was passed out at a stop sign, signaling the end of his days behind the wheel. After that, usually Leonard drove, sometimes Hal - every now and then Darrell or Olive tagged along. A vague Night of the Living Dead tinge clung to them, which was ultimately I think their bond. You knew the clock was ticking.

Why was I privileged to join in their reindeer games? I'm not sure - perhaps I asked to. I was 8, 10, somewhere in there. Doesn't seem like something a prepubescent guy would aspire to circa the early 1970s but my motivations and memories of that time are fractured. I do remember I was the only sober one along for the ride, indeed usually the only one not completely blind drunk. And I have hazy images of us weaving through the B&M supermarket parking lot, scrapping shopping carts and pedestrians, practically plowing into at least one patrol car, before defiantly skidding to a halt in front of the promised land of big clear glass bottles and little brown paper bags.

These were carefree days before drunk driving lost favor with the public and the law. Back then, just "Tis. tis. tis." Sad smile/shaking of the head. "Everett's royal rummies are out and about, for shame." Then back to their lives, leaving us to ours. Hey, speak for yourself, pal. They weren't rummies. Unless that was what was available. Whiskey was the preferred stuff - 'you know what kind - the cheapest.'

For the last several months of dad's motoring days, you could hear him coming at good distance - mufflers were not foremost on his mind in those days: when it finally fell off, he didn't bother replacing it, or perhaps didn't even realize it was gone.

Sometimes he drove me to Carver Middle School on the way to his bottle/bag promised land - Rrrrgghh!, Rrrrggggh!- my dad the race car driver, muffler perhaps still hanging by a thread being dragged behind us. Once or twice I was greeted at lunch recess by the sight of him slumped over the wheel George Michaels-style, his snoring a distant echo of the car's unrestrained combustion. Hey, isn't that your Dad? Oh, um, yeah - he races at all hours - it's tiring work, clearly. My appetite for school, at one point my sanctuary, really started to diminish from then on in.

I was born into a lubricated lineage and given a craft, a calling.

Mom and Dad were, in their own way, like the Barrymores of inebriation (come to think of it, the Barrymores had that market cornered as well). A fermented dynasty. Long shadows to escape, big shoes to fill.

I didn't and don't have the gift. I have no kingdom or subjects, no Hewitt Ave and no Booths for Ladies. There is a dive near where I live now that has a bit of the Sport Center's royal majesty, and I fashioned it as a surrogate for years. But I didn't and don't have the gift.

I'm slow to come 'round to things, it's true. But perhaps now there's still time for me to be middle aged.


goodwill sunflowers (van gogh on the cheap)

the pale green plaster walls crack

to a nicotine ceiling sadly

coughing up our acrid interior

hazy through their shroud of putrid.

a thrift store van gogh muses

from his living room perch on high,

they lie catty corner to one another

in fading upholstered coffins

numb to vincent's goodwill sunflowers.

sick, smokes, and delirium

and never ending bargain basement booze

flow by the hand-me-down television

tuned to unwatched watergate hearings

whose treachery can't be bothered

in this netherworld of ours.


Stucco Green

Blue-black thoughts down the hallway,

stucco green bleeds to braided frayed through smoke and sunflower prints of the front room.

As decaying paternal, maternal afterthoughts meld into the yellowed fabric, smoldering drowned.

I walk through with my head bowed.

The dining room spins 78 revolutions of hard plastic music playing holiday meals while jig saw puzzle pieces cover the table almost done.

I walk through with my head bowed.

The kitchen coffee pot boils avocado on the burner percolating over meat loaf

dying in the oven while government cheese lies waiting on the counter near cookie dough raw for lunch.

I walk through with my head bowed.

Breakfast nook misnomer, dinner occasionally and beverages more often.

I walk past with my head bowed.

Through the telephone hallway ...

... Past the door to the basement stairs - pungent with jarred pickles, peaches, pears;

heavy with homemade beer and wine, vacuum packed fermenting foretells of drunken harvests to come and cub scout meetings gone by in back.

... Past the master bedroom - king sized cocoon of festering parental psyches and Johnny nightly through the walls.

... Past the bathroom - haunted by the ghosts of childhood croup humidification and stroke-forged handicapped baths for Mom.

Past all that and up the stairs to suffocating sanctuary.

Tangerine shag with Farrah Cheryl Clash plastering walls stained of summer heat.

Eight track punk salvation and Royal keystroke catharsis feed my aspirations a feast of anthemic illusions, hard bitten fidelity.

Carroll Bangs Thompson summer nights awake in bed devouring to bursting words come to life and love of language unbounded.

I lay down with my head unbowed at last.


Land of Endless Benderville

She didn't move much, having no patience for locomotion. He had no appetite for 'bon voyage' himself anymore, even if it simply meant stumbling to his precious toilet to "pray" (mixing bowls were now the exclusive receptacle for his reverence). A couple truly in harmony as they drifted into the third decade of marriage. Mom and Dad.
To be fair, each of these two frozen peas in their bath robed pods were crippled with disabilities by that point in their lives, he with the effects of prolonged alcoholism and she the aftermath of a stroke (followed by some sustained hard drinking of her own). As such, getting around was tricky for them, especially as the day wore on and their wheels got greasier. What's one to do when travel turns the stomach? Why take up camp in our living room, of course! Poised catty corner from one another on their respective sofa/caskets, they floated amidst a rich nicotine cloud while swilling their livers into banana cream pie.

Each day, the stench of death wrapped its gums further around those front room walls as I passed through, a kid just crawling into his teens made to play the proactive undertaker, prepping these cadavers perhaps a bit early. As it turns out, nearly 40 years and counting too soon for her; only a handful of months for him. (His banana cream pie exploded relatively quickly thanks to the extreme temperatures of the distilled fuel cooking it; hers continues slower roasting on hops, barley and grape of the vine.) Of course, the difference between the two is just semantics to me: she's been dead nearly as long as he has, the body just hasn't played its part quickly enough for my liking. That reads harsher than it's meant to.  I wish the woman no harm but simply yearn for the sort of closure I can only imagine her passing might bring. She's lived in Ireland pretty much since the early 80s and I've had no contact with her since that time. My sister keeps in touch and regularly sends her money even as Mom continues to needle her in ways she thinks are so sly yet are jackhammer brutal, about as subtle as a chainsaw to the chest. I can picture her smirk across 29 years apart as if I'd just seen it five minutes ago. Mother dearest is a hard person to like but challenging to forget.

I must admit I have a burning anger and resentment toward my mother that knows no bounds; that much is patently obvious to you, I'm sure. It goes well beyond the rational and as an adult I should be able to put it behind me. I know rationally that she did the best she thought she could and wasn't equipped emotionally or physically to do more. I'm aware factually that she had one helluva drunk for a husband and life certainly slipped her a mickey in the form of a debilitating stroke smack dab in the prime of her life. But the emotions I feel are nonetheless very real and rawly primal. I am trying to exorcise these demons in therapy - and on the pages of this blog - but they remain fresh as ever some 35 years after they first consciously surfaced (and some 51 years after they began to germinate in the recesses of my psyche).

Anyway, let's get back to the main stage: our living room circa 1975. I've illustrated the details of its ambience elsewhere on these pages so we'll focus instead on the corpses themselves; in particular, let's perform a sort of sociological autopsy, making our 'Y' incision back into time, circumstance, and personality. Of course, with my faulty memory full of mostly holes and well defended barriers, we won't be traveling all that far. Nor will I be reeling off facts like so many baseball box scores. The best I can hope for is "truthiness."

I've written elsewhere that my parents wanted more than anything for us to at least appear to be a successful family. You know the image for the time: Don and Betty Draper, before their divorce. Dad certainly drank like Don (and then some). Mom often dolled herself up Betty-style, if only in case she was seen by the neighbors. Of course, this was in the fifties and sixties when they were still mobile and made the occasional social call, back when they still had visitors over to the house who weren't necessarily also raging alcoholics stopping by for a taste of free booze.

My folks liked to fancy our brood a modern spin on Father Knows Best but internally we were more a precursor to Rodney Dangerfield's family in Natural Born Killers. And by the time the 70s boogied on in things were unraveling despite our best efforts at juggling shiny "we're normal" props to keep outsiders distracted from the spreading chaos. Mom was still socially active in the neighborhood at the dawn of 1972, going so far as to act the role of Den Mother for my Cub Scouts troop. But it was a taut-to-tearing tension-filled facade around a rotting core.

Then June of that year rolled around when the facade came crashing down and the rot permeated through to the surface, smothering us all.

June of 1972 rushed steaming into the Seattle area, unusual for early summer in the Pacific northwest. The first day of the month found my mother spending a number of hours out in the swelter, planting flowers or pruning shrubs; I clearly remember that she was pretty tuckered out that evening. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours of the next morning an errant clot which had formed broke free from its bonds and drifted up the blood stream until it lodged into a main artery neck-high, blocking off a good bit of oxygen to her brain as she slept. No one is sure exactly when this process began or how long her grey matter had been deprived of life's necessities but the condition wasn't noticed until my Dad awoke to her flailing about and turning blue. I remember the ambulance arriving and the subsequent panic I felt as they raced her away. It would be several weeks before she was back home again, after a lengthy stay at Northwest Hospital for physical therapy. She'd go back for several additional extended stays over the next couple of years.

The stroke took its toll on my mother physically (she was partially paralyzed down her right side and had to learn to speak and walk again). Had she stuck with physical therapy she'd probably have made a near complete recovery over time but she preferred to wallow in her misery. Certainly understandable initially, but she never made the swim back up to the surface again. The negative tendencies of her personality that had tinged the edges of her being - selfishness, vindictiveness, paranoia - were magnified by the stroke, making their way front and center. Her positive qualities - humor, streaks of generosity - seemingly disappeared, never to be seen again (well, her humor re-surfaced, curdled into viciously hateful jabs at whomever happened to wander into her sights). She always drank socially but that changed once she came back from the hospital: she took a nose dive into a gallon jug of table vino and has remained forever offshore in this noxious red sea. Well, that's likely not true; probably she's switched swimming pools out of necessity living in the land of the shamrock shakes, plunging instead into the black sea that is Guinness. She doesn't consider this drinking because beer and wine don't count (the mathematics of denial at work; I myself earned a Ph.D in the field). Mom eventually got somewhat better physically, though she seemingly fought any recovery tooth and nail and has herself refused to acknowledge progress. She can walk with a cane, but prefers - in fact, relishes - using a wheel chair. I liken her in this regard to a less funny variation on SCTV's Guy Caballero, who openly used a wheelchair "for respect!"

On the paternal side of the house, my mother's stroke could have sent Dad down one of two paths: 1.) toward the enlightened siren of sobriety so that he could deal with all the additional responsibilities something like this brings to bear on a family or; 2.) down the tubes into the Land of Endless Benderville. Wanna guess which direction ol' Dad chose? Well, in the beginning he tried reaching for the summit of sobriety's semblance before very quickly slipping off the crevice into his own personal bottled abyss for good, putting the onus of family obligations on my sister's shoulders while I ran and hid in my head (a very dark cavern indeed but my mind's eye has since grown used to the perpetual twilight within).

My sister was 17 when Mom had her stroke and I was a few months shy of 10. Sis had just finished her junior year of high school and yet was thrust into very adult responsibilities, not that this type of thing was new to her: as soon as she got her driver's license on her sweet sixteenth, Mom started sending her off to go drag Dad out of the bar and drive his ass back home. She was just a kid but was nonetheless the only one in the family with a steady job (working the register after school at a local pharmacy). My sister did her best to live in two worlds, one where she could be a typical early 70's teenager spending as much time out of the house as she could and the other where she acted as a sort of caregiver to parents still in their forties and a nearly psychotic baby brother.

Some parental background:

Dad was born in 1924 to an English mother and Irish father. Like me, he was raised with an older sister. We visited my aunt quite a bit growing up and I both liked and feared her (she had a caustic personality that held nothing back). Dad's father died just six months after his birth, so he ended up being raised by his Mom and step father. Pop apparently had quite the contentious relationship with his "new dad" (so it seems did most everyone else from all I've heard about the SOB). I have vague memories of visiting with my paternal grandmother and her husband once or twice as a kid (we weren't allowed to call him grandfather, which gives you a clue to his makeup). This grandmother (we referred to her as "Seattle Grandma") died when I was fairly young, though I don't recall exactly when. Dad married very young and had twin daughters, a son and a third girl with his first wife. His heavy boozing was already well underway even as a teenager and it left deep scars through this family just as it would the sequel I was to be part of. Marriage take 1 ended in large part because of an affair my father had begun with the woman who would become my mother. Mom and Dad married in June of 1952 and my sister was born 3 years later, followed 7 years hence by yours truly. I wasn't to learn of my half brother and sisters from his first marriage until I was older because of the circumstances surrounding ... well everything.

Mom was born in 1929 to a Norwegian couple who had recently immigrated from off the fjords outside Bergen (in fact, I believe my mother was conceived in the 'old country' though she was born here). Mom had a brother nine years her senior and by all accounts as the baby of the family, she was spoiled by the folks and big bro. I got the feeling my mother was quite embarrassed by her foreign-born parents: she always had a burning need to fit in and they were "different." My maternal grandfather died before I was born and my uncle passed away from a heart attack when I was not yet 3, so I have no first hand memories of them, but word is that both were fun loving guys. I did have a chance to get to know my grandmother as a child and visited her often. She was a very old fashioned woman but very warm. She most definitely disapproved of my father and of my parents' lifestyle in general (drinking, smoking, etc.). She had definite ideas on the concepts of heaven and hell and made it clear to me as to the direction Mom and Dad were headed. This was sort of disconcerting to a seven year old kid and I really didn't know how to take it (I had started formulating my own opinions on matters of religion which didn't jive with grandma's but I wisely kept them to myself around her). She terrified my father on several levels, I think. I'm told that Dad was on a several days in the making bender at a local dive hotel when my mom went into labor with me, so Grandma marched down to this fine establishment and dragged him out and up to the hospital by his ear like a naughty schoolboy. Or at least something to that effect. Grandma died of bone cancer in 1971.

Mom converted to Catholicism not long after the stroke. Actually, this process might have started before then, probably around the time my grandmother died (she would have had a fit over such a thing, a staunch Norwegian Lutheran turned born-again Jehovah's Witness; Catholics were barely above Satan Worshippers in her "enlightened" worldview). My mother was obsessed with all things Irish and the stroke accentuated these compulsions. In the end, once Dad died, she went the rest of the route in this transformation: changing her last name to Finnegan and moving to the far western edges of the Emerald Isle, attempting to live out the stories in her favorite novels. More power to her. Her dream was to become a writer herself, and she did pound out a good chunk of a novel back in the 70s that I imagine is still "in progress." It was a pretty funny read from the pages I had a chance to see, though sadly that was not the intent. Mom had been a "homemaker" most of her life, with some minor bookkeeping work here and there - in fact, she'd never even learned to drive - so how did she/does she make ends meet? Between my father's social security, whatever she's managed to wring from the Irish government, the charity of the families she's "rented" rooms from over the years, and my sister's contribution to the cause, she makes do. The fact that she's still alive at 83 years of age given close to 45 years of chronic alcoholism and chain smoking is a minor medical miracle and demonstrates the sheer power of denial over physics and biology. I learned at the knee of the master.

I realize I've been going on and on here without much of a point. Which means the post fits in with the rest of my "stories." And so, dear reader, with that I bid you adieu.


Radio Hour

My parents were

performance artists,

acting out a menagerie

of dysfunction

some called their lives.

Mom was Norma Desmond

without the showbiz pedigree.

Or a kind of Martha

Virginia Woolf fraidy cat

fortified juicing bookworm.

Dad was Don Birnam

without the suit

and writer repartee.

Or maybe he was Willy Loman

but with only the shaking

and his sick left to sell.

I had a front row seat

to shows played always,

the Sanislavski method

taken to extreme.

When my eyes tired

of this gray grotesque,

I'd listen to their broadcast

through my room heating duct.

I then languished in repose

from my poster plastered cell,

a coffee-stained typewriter

pecking dreams out of my nightmares.

My childhood pet beside me

growing old, confused, and heavy;

bestowing unconditional love

beset by uncompromising fleas.

My eight track

stereo punk soundtrack

cracking snide on the death dance below me,

harmonizing with the rain on the roof.

Finally I collapsed on my bed, out of life

and chanced to glance over at Joe Strummer

screaming from the wall and through the speaker wire,

never growing up

yet both old before we aged.


The Return of the Neighborhood Handyman

My Dad lay passed out in a neighbor's upstairs bathroom, in the tub. His toolbox had been propped open next to him, a half empty bottle of whiskey poking up among the pipe wrenches and other equipment in it. I stood over him, frozen. What should I do? Run down the stairs and out the front door, pretending I never came back? Try and wake him up? This latter move might just be worse if he's as in the bag as his slobbering snore indicates. The choice was made then: I ran.

And thus ended my Dad's very short career comeback as the neighborhood handyman. But it all started a month or so earlier. Well, not exactly. Really it had been ongoing for many years.

Dad had steadily become unemployable to the regular nine-to-five rank and file over the years leading up to the tub incident. It wasn't all that big a town we lived in and he managed to drink his way into and then back out of pretty much all the companies that needed a plumbing supply salesman.

Even the alcoholics among Dad's sundry bosses had gradually thrown in the towel with him after a few dances. And by the second or third generation of Dad's career transitions, a high percentage of his hiring managers were raging alcoholics (that's bound to happen when you go job hunting primarily from the vantage point of a bar stool). Those whose boozing buddy loyalty instincts outweighed their fiduciary responsibilities eventually either drank themselves to death or at least out of any positions of influence that could protect Dad's ass from the boot.
Dad drifted into odd jobs and seasonal work after his chosen profession up and ran from him. The only one of these part time jobs I remember distinctly was his stint as a 'peace officer' with Northwest Protection Service (I can still picture his 'police' jacket with company logo and fake badge hanging up in the hall closet).

He got minimum wage to sit in a chair overnight next to the outdoor summer sale merchandise racked up in front of Kmart. There was enough shit that I guess it was cheaper to hire a guard than to haul it in and out of the store each day.

I'm not sure what Dad could have done had criminal types decided they wanted to make off with the inventory (it's not like he had a weapon; not even a club or mace). I guess he could have taken his lit cigarette, dropped it into his ever-present bottle of whiskey, and heaved it after the would-be thieves, Molotov Cocktail style. (By day, mild mannered couch-bound lush. But when night arrives, he is transformed into Whiskey Man: crime fighting Northwest protector of truth, justice and the American swing set.)

Regardless, Dad sat vigilant guard over bicycles, patio furniture and lawn mowers. Lt. Columbo, Sgt. Friday, One Adam-12, Serpico. The one incorruptible cop. Dum Da Dum Dum. That's my Dad! Couldn't wait for career day at school!

The truth is, I loved Dad's Northwest Protection job more than all the others, simply because he often brought his work home with him in the morning in the form of pilfered toys for me. I was on the receiving end of a pitch-n-catch trampoline-style baseball backstop along with a number of other items we otherwise couldn't have afforded. He was a fountain of ill-gotten gifts all around for the family during this summertime blue-light sentry duty. Likely the store would have suffered fewer loses had they simply left the stuff unguarded.

But that kind of work wouldn't pay the bills and didn't last long in any event; he needed something steadier. One of our neighbors, Austin, was a commercial artist and he volunteered to draft up some brochures hailing the "Return of the Neighborhood Handyman" in an attempt at a career revitalization for the old man. It was very nice of Austin and I really wish I had kept a few of those pamphlets around as a keepsake.

Austin's kids and I distributed these handyman leaflets like newspapers to doorsteps all around our neighborhood. The picture on the cover was a caricature of Dad, a tall lanky fellow, staggering under the weight of an overflowing tool belt filled with screwdrivers, tape measures, pipe wrenches, saws, etc. It was a bit like the picture on the left here.

Austin should have sketched in a couple of fifths of booze tucked safely away in Dad's pockets on the front of those pamphlets if he had adhered more strictly to the adage 'truth in advertising.' Whiskey topped Dad's list of the most essential tools of his trade and it didn't even make the cover! Sadly, he'd prove that out in this failed attempt as an independent business man, much to my embarrassment and his continued economic decline. Which brings us back to where we started. The tub. Almost.

The first customer who came calling was a homeowner several blocks north of us, a person we didn't know who had nonetheless been taken by the unique advertisement placed on his doorstep. The guy wasn't disappointed: Dad fixed their leaky faucet quickly and efficiently, with yours truly by his side as faithful assistant. (It was summer and this eight year old was either bored or goaded into servitude, I honestly don't remember which.)

The second customer was not so fortunate. These were neighbors we were friendly with, just around the corner. I knew the kids there, as did my sister. Theirs was a big house, they were fairly well off as I recall (the father was a physician). They had a complex job for the old man, something related to the installation of all new fixtures in one of the upstairs bathrooms. It was monotonous work and I wandered off to do kid stuff after watching Dad for a bit.

That was a mistake.

When I came back to the neighbor house a few hours later to see how Dad was progressing, well ... he was tubthumping, but I already went over that. And then I ran. I'm not sure if the neighbors stumbled upon Dad snoring among the rubber duckies or if he finally came to and managed to slither away sight unseen. I do know that he never went back to the neighbor house to finish and never received any payment from them for services rendered prior to his siesta. The argument that ensued between Mom and Dad made it clear that no check would be forthcoming, and the phone never rang for his handyman talents from that point forward.

I felt guilty a long time afterward for leaving Dad to his own devices. On the off-chance I forgot, Mom made sure to remind me loud and often. I had left my post. That's why he got shitfaced and screwed everything up. Makes sense.

Thus became the Exile of the Neighborhood Handyman. A one hit wonder. We hardly knew ye.


The Puget Sound of Wayward Wasting

I walk down


of smoke and stucco,

my kicks scuffing

frayed braids

of thrift store bounty.

I float past

the ringing

of party lines calling,

through kitchens

caught avocado

and dining rooms

born singing silent.

I echo down


through backyards to alleys,

then trip on

corner curbs

to vacant lots

even the plum trees scorn.

A gray splash

of rain drops,

melting my remembrance

toward the Puget Sound

of wayward wasting


but no less wasting away.


A Thousand Innocuous Admonitions

A child's eye view of life's possibilities is expansive beyond boundaries at first, a vision bright enough to blind an adult's perspective long since relegated to the shadows.

But then slowly the light dims, the vibrant colors grow flat and muted; the edges sanding smooth, blending in.  A thousand innocuous admonitions handed down through generations combine to form an unseen family heirloom of dysfunction we all carry inside to greater or lesser degree.  Growing.  And choking.  Sewing a web around your dreams in translucent chains, hiding hideous across the expanse of your life.

Young childhood.  The unfettered joy washing over me with my hands on a new book, or a hot water heater cardboard box, or a kite.  The exhilaration in flying my bike up a plywood ramp over an overturned garbage can.  Happiness that trumps the best high I ever had as a grown up.  But it was a drug in itself, the flame we chase our whole adult lives, whether through workaholism, or alcoholism, or religion, or sex.

It's ironic we're so absorbed on tasting the pleasure again for ourselves that we end up unwittingly extinguishing this very ability in our children, our own chase futile thanks to our parents' rendition of the same sad song a generation ago.  The gift that keeps on giving.  Adam raised a Cain.  It's as old as history's introduction of the first vestiges of neuroses upon us in the form of predators, famine, drought, whatever.

The genesis of this particularly self indulgent screed was a mother standing in line at the supermarket today, yakking about some sort of marketing campaign on her cell phone out of one side of her mouth and telling her kid to shut up out the other side.  Maybe the child will emulate type-A obsessions the likes of dear ol' Mom one day, or perhaps he'll cultivate a drug habit instead, before he kicks that in favor of a fundamentalist bent aimed at beating down some target demographic vulnerable enough to curry his misdirected rage.  Now maybe Ma's just having a bad day and the kid'll emerge relatively intact from his youth.  Or it could be the brat's a born sociopath who deserves whatever tongue lashing he gets, though I'm not sure Mom even knew what she was yelling at him about.  In the end, I gotta bad feeling about this particular mother and child (re)union:  I think she's into herself pretty intently, he's mostly left on the outside looking in, and the prognosis for him isn't on the sunny side of life.

This parental watershed flashed me back to my childhood days.  My folks liked to try and put on a stylish face to outsiders, even when their world was obviously collapsing around them.  They remind me now of the Bouvier-Beale gals of Grey Gardens fame, all consumed with manners and close-ups and seemingly oblivious to the death, filth and smell that surrounded them.

Mom and Dad's plastered-on-smiles paranoia in mind, I was always told to shut up whenever we had company over.  In case I might point out to strangers the fact that Dad just finished his usual morning dry-heaves into the family vomit bowl an hour before their arrival. Or, "hey, didya know that isn't coffee Mom's sipping from her mug!?!"  In fact, when one of my friends spoke up out of turn in this setting, I would be the one who would be told to shut up even though I hadn't said anything.  It was comical in retrospect.  As though I'd developed expert ventriloquism skills and was throwing my voice.  Consequently, I've rarely spoken up in casual conversation from then to now.  I have a lot to say but am compelled to keep it to myself.  I make up for it with the written word, I guess, but my verbosity here does not translate to other forms of communication in my life.

If I had kids, would I have visited an innate shame of one's own opinion upon them?  Probably not.  My particular dysfunctions would likely have resulted in some other psychological damage, as unique as a snowflake up close and as depressingly similar from afar.  Some things aren't meant to happen, thankfully.  If Shirley McLaine is right, I guess there is some lucky soul out there who was spared my particular brand of self-absorbed parental neglect.

Or maybe I'd be a great parent.  It could happen.  And might happen still.   It's this last possibility that really gives me the chills.


Summer of '74

My hometown blooms

in twilight fading shades of grey

as the summer simmers

and then slips from my mind.

There remains only the house.

The room.


There, no sunlight penetrates

to disturb this tomb.

The dead don't notice.

But I do.


Leave It To Bitcher

Maybe it's the nostalgia jag I'm on with Mad Men, maybe it's memories of the thrill I had as a kid getting my first typewriter (I was a wannabe writer geek as a boy, still am), but the thought of these obsolete machines brings with it powerful recollections.

I wish I'd kept at least a few pages of the reams of shit I knocked out on that thing. It was a little plastic-encased jobby, still a manual but not nearly so onerous to use as the 1950s metal Underwood monstrosity my Mom had.

I pecked out numerous "episodes" of a family sitcom entitled 'Leave it to Bitcher' on that little machine. My alternative 'Leave it to Beaver' universe had June turning tricks, Wally selling smack to Lumpy and Eddie at the local high school and Ward as an end-stage alcoholic (but ever the ham, he never quite leaves the stage). The Bitcher - Theodore - was a pyromaniac who was being sexually molested by Miss Landers. It was a merry romp, to be sure - shot through innocent eyes, framed in the Eisenhower age of the nuclear family. With a healthy dollop of my twisted worldview melting down its core.

Now to be sure, my mother was not a prostitute, though she always gave me the impression she wouldn't be opposed to the idea, liking to brag that her paternal grandmother was thought to be a turn-of-the-century hooker in Norway. The truth is that my maternal grandfather did not know his biological mother - it's just speculation, rumor, gossip. But the point is made. Anyway, my sister didn't sell black tar heroin at Everett High (at least not that I'm aware of) and I neither set fires nor screwed any of my grade school teachers (from what I recall of them, thank God for that).

That leaves dear ol' Dad. He was the real deal and a model for my Ward in the Bitcher series. But Ward was mainly a supporting character in my teleplays. Sure, he'd stumble in and out of scenes, vomit caking his 'business suit,' always with a slur and a "honey, I'm home, ya goddam whassa, don't tell me, Christ! Blahhh." Still, he didn't generally stay conscious long enough to figure into any of the main story lines.

Ward did have one memorable scene attempting to show the Bitcher some fatherly concern and support upon hearing the news that Miss Landers was pregnant and the fire marshal was gunning for the boy. The old man leaned over his son for a pat on the head and a hug, but he mismanaged the distance and lost the delicate balance of his equilibrium, weaving to and fro. The next thing you know, up came his liquid lunch all over the Bitcher's face. Whatta mess!

And Ward always seemed to be involved indirectly.

For example, there was the recurring 'coda' bit that took place in the boys' bedroom after June walks by the door with a john and pauses to remind the Bitcher to do his chores "or there will be no 'fireworks' for you tonight, young man" before heading off to the 'working' bedroom to ply her trade.

The Bitcher then usually turned to his older brother for advice, complaining about one chore in particular. Wally would be measuring out his baggies of heroin as he provided some perspective to 'the Bitch' during this Taster's Choice moment of brotherly affection.
Occasionally Eddie or Lumpy were there, having stopped by in need of a fix. But they were simply background fodder here, tying off and shooting up quietly or already on the nod in the corner.

The sappy Leave It To Bitcher theme music softly, slowly plays in 'there's a lesson to be taught here' style:

Bitcher: "I really hate emptying out Dad's vomit bowel, Wally"

: "Gee, Bitcher, I know it's kinda nasty but shucks, I had to do it when I was your age. Just breathe through your mouth and look away from the puke. You're lucky, back when I was a little squirt like you, Dad could actually eat food and the stuff he heaved up was way more disgusting. I'll dump it out for you this time, I have to go down stairs anyway."

Bitcher: "Gosh, Thanks, Wally!"

Wally: "Sure. I remember what it was like to be a little goof your age. I gotta run down to the park now. Your pal Larry wants a taste and looks like he might be a potentially good customer of mine in the years ahead. Watch Lumpy, will ya? That's some potent stuff he's mainlining and Mom will clobber me if we have another O.D. in the house and have to call Dr. Bradley again. Remember that mess when Mary Ellen Rogers shot a speedball up here laced with fentanyl and died? Gosh, the medical examiner raised a stink and ol' Dr. Bradley almost lost his license!"

: "Sure, Wally. Ya know, for a degenerate drug dealer, sometimes you're an okay big brother."

: "Gee, thanks, Bitch."

Wally tassels his kid brother's hair with the usual goofy look on his face.

Roll Credits.

I'll admit, that particular scene wasn't taken whole cloth from my imagination - I have to tip my hat to Dad for some real life inspiration there. Thanks, Pops, I couldn't have done it without you.

The main story lines usually revolved around Bitcher's fires and trysts with Miss Landers or with June's burgeoning prostitution business. And boy was business booming, so to speak. Fred Rutherford served as her pimp and pretty much every other character regularly passing through Mayfield ended up as a client whether they be male or female, young or old.

I was 14/15 or thereabouts when pounding out these masterpieces. I miss the thrill of whacking the return/paper feed lever one last time and pulling the final sheet out of the machine, the mechanical moves putting an exclamation point on completion of my handiwork. Lots of strike overs and whiteout editing remained, of course, but still. I'd be all warm with either pride or the start of what became a peptic ulcer, my bare feet curled up under the desk in my room, toes lost in the orange shag carpet (hey, that was styling in the day and besides, I inherited the room and carpet from my sister).

I have no idea as to the quality of this shit. Somehow back then I was sure each piece was pure Gold, Jerry, Gold - goddamn genius in the eyes of this beholder. At least once I was done with the incessant editing, which I did to the point where you couldn't read the thing, with more whiteout visible than there was plain paper. Man what I could have done with a word processor.

Still, brilliant for sure. Had he started Inside the Actor's Studio (for you non-believers, not for actors only) back in the early 70s, I'm sure James Lipton would have killed for the privilege of asking me my favorite curse word. But alas, he was toiling on soap operas and I was a prodigy without a pedigree, destined not to be discovered.

Given I was the only one to ever see these masterpieces, and they are lost to the world now, we'll just assume I was right as to their worth and move on.

Lots of bad Dylan and Costello knock-off "lyrics" or "poems" also came off the Birnam assembly line on the rat-a-tat-tat machine in the late 70s as I perfected my touch typing skills. I guess that typewriter and the work it produced represented my Ignatius Big Chief tablets through that period. The 'wisdom' of a teen locked in his thoughts, barricaded in his room, blasting out Costello and the Clash on the eight track, fingers emptying onto those clacking keys work that would rock the world. Or something along those lines.

In the end I'm pretty sure it was all pure dreck, but that's sort of beside the point.
BTW, if you don't get the 'Big Chief' reference above, shame on you: go out now, purchase a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces and read it at once.

Sense memory is a strange thing. All this from a glance at one of them sleek cling clang machines.



The Mark of Catharsis

September, 1975. Dad lies stupefied on the couch, the foam padding exposed from rips in the cushions absorbing his sweat and bourbon-laced run-off spittle. The television in the corner talks to no one, some random game show host babbling on about the wonderful parting gifts. Mom is likely engrossed in her wine and a book on the love seat at the other end, but then occasionally and persistently calling to the dog for no particular reason. I feel bad for our mutt. Leave Snooks in peace, Mom; she's just trying to block this all out like me. I can hear these sounds faintly but still irritatingly clear, arriving with the smoke through the heating duct upstairs into my room. My Dad's wheezing under the game show noise is oddly comforting in its disturbance, letting me know that all is "normal" in my world. My world, where the horrific is soothing simply because anything else would imply abandonment. I aspire to Brady Bunch and Leave It To Beaver familial bliss only in the abstract, with the dysfunction I've come to depend on always bleeding through to balance my equilibrium (hence Leave It To Bitcher).
I'm lying on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. Trying to write smooth my barbed feelings with a number 2 pencil. It doesn't help. Bad poetry. Awkward imagery missing the mark of catharsis. Maybe I'll move to the desk and my typewriter; things always flow more easily for me from the keystrokes than they do by hand. I slug down the last of the cold coffee on the nightstand, jump up to flip over Meet The Beatles! and drop the needle on side two. George Harrison drowns out the sounds of slow death downstairs with his lead on the first track, Don't Bother Me. How appropriate, I think. And I smile.

I found Meet The Beatles at the Salvation Army Thrift Store two days ago and have pretty much been playing it non-stop ever since. I have memorized the liner notes (38 years later, I can still recite most of them from a usually faulty memory). It's as though they are a brand new band with a wholly new sound, exposing to me the doldrums that otherwise constitute the mid-70's music scene, at least as I was aware of it through Seattle radio up to that point.

I stumbled upon the Fab Four quite by accident, so in a very real way I am just now meeting the Beatles, though they broke up almost six years ago (and Capital first released this album to US consumers nearly seven years prior to that). It is a bit scratchy in spots but is a revelation to me nonetheless. And it will soon lead to the rest of their catalog, then to Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Ramones, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, The Clash and Elvis Costello (the crew that would collectively constitute my pantheon of rock and roll).
My rock and roll pantheon would later lead me to a promised land of musical magic, filled with thousands of artists coming from bluegrass to hip-hop and everywhere in between. But right now, in September of 1975, at perhaps the lowest point emotionally of my childhood, it is the Beatles alone who have saved me from bubblegum purgatory and early 70's "classic rock" hell. And in some ways helped to save me from myself.  Almost.
Waiting for Dorian Gray staring back at me in the mirror to start living this life. Sharing a bar stool in purgatory with the old man, on the breathing edge of oblivion.



Her Coffee Cup Bleeds

Mom would chain smoke, drink and watch, sometimes she would cry. Always she would read. Dad would drink, smoke and drool. And throw up into his mixing bowl; thank God for Tupperware and other small favors. Dad would sit up occasionally, unsteadily. And drink. Often this required a bit of help, during the shakier times. Wrapping a bath towel around his neck and tied to the wrist of his drinking arm, he'd pull on the terrycloth with his steadier hand and guide the bottle to his mouth, like a seasoned crane operator.

Turn up the volume on the TV! Did I hear that? Probably not - it was just my sensibilities imploring me to drown out the madness. I would spring from my perch over to the console set in the corner and crank the volume up to satisfy my sanity. In time, though, no sound could silence the sickness, and no flickering image could mask the claustrophobia of the room. Television, the thing which allowed me to escape the reality of that place, for the longest time could only be found in its midst, that room. Eventually I was able to watch my diversion for short periods in the local hospital waiting area a couple of blocks up the street. But you couldn't loiter around there for any extended length of time.

More often, when my psyche and stomach couldn't take another hit, I'd go to my room and read (Manchild in the Promised Land, Invisible Man, Outsiders, Great Gatsby, On The Road) or listen (Beatles, Presley, Cohen, Stones, Joel, Springsteen later Clash, Costello, Parker, Ramones). I became obsessed with all things music - albums, eight tracks and Creem magazine fed my addiction. And I'd put my thoughts to paper on my little typewriter. Thoughts and paper lost to time and trash.

Or I'd leave - run, outside - somewhere, anywhere, finally nowhere.

That room, it followed me. At school, until I couldn't go to school. With my friends until I had no friends, became an outsider, a loner, a weirdo. To the Navy, it followed me; to the bottle. It followed me into the bars, until I took the bars home. It was there in Chester and North Philly, following the trail of white powder into my blood stream. The height of the high was the only time I gave it the slip but at a price: when it picked up the scent it did so with renewed vigor and punished me for my elusiveness.

It's with me still, that room (that house) - out of sight, but never out of my raging mind's eye. That room. That robe, those books, that cup. The smoke, those bottles, that bowl, the vomit. Those people, melted into the furniture - my family, smoldering.

The Beatles Help! brings to mind my family more than any other music - I bought the album on August 11th, 1977 and found out my Dad had died of Cirrhosis later that day, so each of the songs invoke memories of the event. I remember being so psyched about getting my hands on that record, never mind that it was 12 years old at that point. For me the Beatles were a relatively new discovery in the mid-70s and I was gobbling up the shit. Hearing the news about Dad had an effect on me I wasn't expecting: overwhelming sadness, pain. I had been braced for it and was anticipating relief; it was a surprise. I lost myself in my room that day and played Help! over and over and over.


Northwest of Hell and Straight into Patti

My pace quickens to match my pulse. She hastens ahead into the darkness past the fading light while I follow at questionable distance down the alley, a block from home. Wracked with guilt and lost to the neighborhood, I'm now simply a strange shadow they catch occasionally from the corner of their eye. Where I was once a staple to the throng, straight forward and seemingly carefree, I'm now "complicated" and confounding, a sad mystery even to myself. Only fifteen and a half but exhausted by life, I feel more like a bitter, senile codger out of phase with time than I do a contemporary teen. Fear and self-loathing feed my dreams and rule my days.

I reach the end of the alley and stop cold, struck by a spiky-haired vision compelling me to paralysis: she has turned and is looking dead at me. I pray to the god I don't believe in that I might blend into the alley gravel. No dice. She calls out something enticing or insulting but I've already turned tail and miss the message. I'm halfway up the fence of the nearest backyard as her words echo behind me, falling onto the pebbles with an indecipherable rumble. I'm across the street and into my house before I realize I've moved, the flight instinct taking hold as it does so frequently these days.  I feel a strong kinship with the mouse running for the hole under the stove after an unexpected flick of the light switch catches him in the act of existence (for me, the kitchen is my town and the hole under the stove is my room).

Who is she? I'm not sure I know exactly. She's a contemporary, a "classmate" of sorts. But we know one another only vaguely. She seems a kindred spirit, but I'm psychotically shy and she's beyond aloof, so I can go only by her appearance, demeanor, and the books I've seen her read at the coffee/soda shop near the high school campus (Ginsberg, Kesey, Miller among her interests). She attracts and terrifies me: purple streaked raven-black hair matching her pre-goth ebony ensemble (nails, lipstick, outfit, shoes). Patti Smith meets Ari Up meets Edie Sedgwick. Or so I imagine. I do a lot of imagining but it rarely intersects with reality (fast forward to the present and it perhaps does so now only by happenstance).

And so goes a typical trip home from "school." In fact, I haven't been to class in a while. Instead, I spend my days in back of the second floor of the Everett Public Library. There I pour over back issues of Rolling Stone and read Hunter Thompson's entire catalog to that point, along with most of the 50's beat writers and more than a few of the classic rebels (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Chandler). I'd continue to do this into the spring before staff from Everett High come and get me. I'm not sure who clued them into my whereabouts. Likely it was the librarian. Maybe my sister. Certainly not my mom. In some ways it was a relief being nabbed. Truth be told, I love the education aspect of school (it's the people I can't stand). I don't fit into the social order (don't much fit into any order). I'd be sent off to Cascade High a few miles to the south to repeat my sophomore year come the fall (six months of my own "library schooling" apparently not enough to make up for lost credit). It would be my last year of high school, and not all that much more successful than the Everett High years. But all that is to come. Today, I'm back into the dank cavern that is my house, thinking about her.

Later that night, I'm shaking with cold though the heat is blasting, a stranger in my own home. I can't see my way clear to the door of my room so I crouch by the bed, next to my books. And I shake. Uncontrollably. I am listening to Horses on the 8-Track. "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine - my sins my own, they belong to me." Clearly not Them's Gloria. Or Shadows of Knight for that matter. Pure Patti. She lets me know I'm not alone in my madness. But it's an illusion. A mistake on my part. Songs and albums are heightened moments in time to strike a chord in the now or a remembrance of the past, not prolonged states of being or a way of life (unless you consider the musical a form of documentary).  But that fact of life never really sank in for me from then to now, though I knew it at some level even back sucking in the 70s.

And on the cycle droned, broken up for me by a singular "heightened moment in time" arriving in April of that year. As I said, I occasionally make it back to high school, or at least to the near-by kids hang-out just off-campus on 25th and Colby. I'd call it a coffee shop, but they don't really have such things in 1978; it is more a soda shop, I suppose. They do serve coffee, though, and I duck in just after school lets out once every couple of weeks to get my caffeine fix while I try to get a bead on teenage socializing (at least as an observer). She was often there and I admired her in silence in the corner, listening to the shitty top 40 usually rattling from the jukebox. Until April. I don't know what came over me that I'd approach her then. Perhaps I was hopped up on caffeine and Gonzo Journalism but it was mainly that she was reading Junky, which I'd just finished.

"I see you're reading Burroughs - can I ask you something?" She looked up, annoyed. "What?" She wasn't in a chatty mood, certainly not with me. "Do you prefer the realism of Junky to his more abstract work like Naked Lunch?" She looked at me for a what seemed like forever before breaking into a faint smile that for me lit up the room like an explosion. "They both have their uses. Now beat it, you're blocking my light." And that was it. I never talked to her again. But this was a moment, one I recall pretty vividly some 35 years later. For a brief shining sliver of life I was lifted out of doldrums of isolation into the warmth of a shared connection.  It was as though I'd fallen straight into Patti and I didn't want to get up again.

But the moment passes and my fears and weakness assert themselves once more, emphasizing that she did dismiss me in the end, the comment was fucking lame, and so on.  So in that sense, she and I have a lot in common after all: neither of us have much use for me.


Shiny Boots of Leather

It's a shame that two of New York City's most historic rock and roll haunts now only exist in cyberspace - namely Max's Kansas City and CBGB.

I was too young to have made it to Max's but was lucky enough to see several shows at CBGB, albeit long after its hey day as home to the Ramones, Blondie, Television, New York Dolls, etc. in the mid-70s (just after Max's first closed).

Max's was a regular hangout of the Velvet Underground, along with Andy Warhol and crew and one of the places to play in the late 60s and early 70s. Jim Carroll practically made it his second home as he illustrates in his book, Forced Entries. It's a deli today, which is a crying shame.

Why mention this? I was re-reading the Lester Bangs 'bio book' Blondie. Lester was, at least in my opinion, the best rock and roll writer the world has known, and one of the best writers of any kind. Not enough people know of him, certainly not those under a particular age. Sadly, Lester passed on much too young in 1982 and though he left a rich body of work behind, much of it is maddeningly inaccessible, save for a couple of compilations. The best of the compilations, and most commercially successful, is Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, put together by a buddy of his and another pretty good rock writer, Greil Marcus - if you haven't read it, I highly encourage you to pick it up.

Lester worked for a number of magazines in the 70s, including Rolling Stone (where he was fired at least once) but his voice really took root in the pages of Creem Magazine (God, I wish I had saved my copies from that period). Creem was an irreverent rag out of Detroit, 'America's Only Rock and Roll Magazine' it proclaimed on each cover. Creem now sadly also only has a life online (of course, it certainly isn't alone in that equation). Lester did get some posthumous exposure when Phillip Seymour Hoffman played him in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous but his work is largely incarcerated in those Creem back issues.

Anyway, I got off track again, as I'm wont to do.

What was I talking about?

Oh, yeah - Blondie.

Lester was was a subversive motherfucker by nature. The Blondie book he had been hired to write was supposed to be a typically shallow fan bio, published only to take advantage of their unexpected success in the wake of Heart of Glass. Lester, though, had other plans. He used this relatively high profile exposure as a bully pulpit in order to preach his special brand of punk religion. He confused and infuriated the publishers (not to mention Blondie) but it's a great read. He talks about the roots of punk and in particular the Velvets and Max's and Television, the Dolls, Patti Smith, Ramones and, yes, Blondie at CBGB.

Screw the boring ass Museums that dot NYC (with a sponsor's exemption for the Guggenheim, which is kinda rock'n'roll in its own right) - I would pay dearly to be able to visit this kind of history outside the pages of a book (no matter how well written it might be).

Ahh, but that's not right.

Rock and roll isn't like other art and maybe trying to fit it into that mold would be the worst thing that could happen: you become - well, you become the Hardrock Cafe.

Max's is better off as a deli. After all, what's more New York than that? Except for perhaps the fate befallen the CBGB building, once Patti gave the final concert there in October 2006 and the doors closed for good as a rock joint.

First CBGB was shuttered/abandoned and then it became a high-end fashion store. NYC is very well known for plenty of both. The fashionistos left the club graffiti and playbills in the bathroom intact as a shrine for the richies to marvel over when they need to take a piss while shopping for high priced John Varvatos clothes and fragrances.

Andy Warhol would smile. That's very NYC indeed.


A Toilet of Beauty

My father grows old in the toilet,

a desolate room

with the air thick as mold.

He works life there in perpetual sweat,

a captain of industry

building factories of sick.

Little bits of wonder found in claustrophobic vistas

often linger in his melancholy,

kissing the linoleum.

Even when repugnant to his hesitant eye -

even as the porcelain drains his dreams 

The mirror blissfully out of reach,

my father hugs his friend,

wrapping his arms 'round the cold white wet.

Yes, my father grows old in the toilet

amidst his softly sour splatter,

the holy cracking plaster,

and half finished caulking consecrating his divine.


So many contemplations,

so many toilets of my own

since a childhood spent listening to my father pray.

The eternally pungent confessional,

with a compassion beyond religion,

kneeling, catharsis, release ...

Until a trembling tug of the handle

flushes the misery for a moment from his mind.

And from mine.


Bicentennial Christmas

A stone drunk Santa

slow jams through our home,
his long white beard

reduced to patchy stubble,

rosy cheeks

gone yellow & hollow,

chubby physique

now stick figure thin.
Dad's lifelong passion for oblivion

once curtailed at Christmas

in deference to us kids

could no longer be,

such balance now beyond his grasp,

chased away by the ghosts of cirrhosis

gnawing at his liver.

This last Deck The Halls,

sipping Cream of Kentucky

libations through a straw,

when even prayers to the porcelain

or the rug or the sink

are unable in the end to stave off the slab

and a date with a toe tag

come the swelter of August.


Traces of Life in his Cognitive Dissonance

He lurches at me, yellowing eyes rolling in delirium, cane in hand as he rises from the couch, a distended disheveled shell in olive workman's slacks of fury staggering my way. I run through the kitchen down the back stairs, slamming the hallway door to the basement shut. 

"You goddamn sonuvabitch, you little shit!" 

Wham!  Dad falls against the door and throws it open, but I am already down the stairs and out the back into the yard. He is in no condition to follow - he couldn't even make it down the steps without collapsing; he knows that, even in his feverish state.  In the backyard, the rain soaking me through, I look up at our breakfast nook window and his face appears. "You stay out there, you bastard!" And then he's gone.  Back to the sofa and his bottle.

I don't remember what set Dad off in this particular instance. I might have turned the TV on or slammed a door or otherwise somehow disturbed his stupor.  He won't remember it in another hour.  It is the spring of 1977.  This cycle will repeat itself a couple more times over the next few months, the last of his life.

By the time my Dad lifted off this mortal coil in August of '77, he'd long since departed in all the ways that really matter.  A Francis Bacon painting congealed into jaunice-tinged whiskers, my Dad bled degenerate exhaustion onto the fabric of his couch.  The sheer energy of dying a slow death had finally caught up with him.  Only when whipped into confused fury directed my way did he perk up.  Perhaps I represented in too sharp a focus all those he'd disappointed.  Maybe in his feverish moments he foresaw my future and it reflected himself back like a mirror, unleashing his anger for the poisonous pieces of him that were to engulf me.
I look back fondly on those times Dad chased me enraged through the house, for at least in those moments he seemed coherent at some level, even if the cognition he displayed reeked of cognitive dissonance.  Still, he was awake, showing traces of life. After all, he didn't live much in 1977.  Not really. Until he wasn't alive at all.


August '77

Elvis is in rehearsal for his last show,

polishing the toilet seat

for an audience of one;

the king can see that final curtain

rising through the mist

of his deep fried fame,

singing songs to himself

no one will purchase,

gummy through the cobwebs

of pharmaceutical sadness.

My father is in rehearsal for his last sale,

dampening the sofa cushions

for an audience of us;

my dad can see that final customer,

yellow through the mist

of cirrhosis fever,

speaking words to himself

no one will fathom

as they drown into a jigger

of bourbon madness.

The king and my pops

never made it to September,

dissolving into nothing

in the flush of the Summer of Sam.



He lay on the couch 

with the worn gold pattern,

his head hanging off, 

a death grip on his bottle,

drooling on the rug braids 

with 100 proof spittle,

heaving into mixing bowls 

when drowning from withdrawal,

his beauty burning bitterly, 

corroding through our family.

His gentleness metabolized 

in ways his body couldn't,

gestating into madness 

simply hating for existing,

giving up the ghost at last 

in a joyless plunge to bottom,

looking past oblivion 

on the way to a toe-tag gurney.

But there was light mixed into darkness 

from a man who treasured Christmas,

sharing powdered donuts 

and the love of Sunday funnies.

Teaching me to ride my bike 

and breakfast made for dinner,

buying kites and Uno bars 

and Birch Bay beach trip summers.

Past a 52 year old 

cirrhoses crippled body

lived a joyous spirit 

trampled into viscous poison.

Maybe I can ferret out 

the diamonds in the dogshit,

shovel past the toxic bits 

and scrounge for fonder memories.

Fond remembrances, 

they clearly do exist:

it's just the smell of the rest 

that keeps me away.


The Final Dance of the Drunkard

The Wicked Witch of the West

was but a patsy

for the evil goody two shoes Gilda

perpetrates in perpetuity

on munchkins blissfully unaware.

"It's not easy being green"

is not Kermit's lament alone

and the companionship of flying monkeys

are a cold comfort indeed.

Thoughts of the shifting moralities

of these Ozraelites

haunt me needlessly,

like all good hauntings should.

Meanwhile, the cold rain

of February

bleeds wet upon the overcoat

as I remember Father

and his perpetual legs-akimbo

dance of drunkards,

steps as ageless as cirrhosis

scarring time

like the wizard that he was.

"Ignore the man behind the curtain throwing up onto his slacks.

The great and powerful Chuck has spoken."



The night stands before me, sick.

Dawn has seemed absent for eons in this moment;

forgotten, abandoned, broken.

The day lies behind me, blessed.

An abscess to its optimism, the dusk drains me off along with the light;

put down, thrown up, sticky.

My dad reached bottom on August 11th, 1977,

touching down into the morgue in the basement at Everett General.

Gastly, ghostly, jaundiced.

Everett General, the hospital of my birth, a stone's throw from our home.

His bottle from that point forever empty (just one more for the road, formaldehyde straight up).

Rotting, rigor, relief.

The worst hangover is, in the end, no hangover at all (in fact, is nothing whatsoever).

Not when you're staring up fish-eyed from a gurney 

at a "standard 'Y' incision"

slicing down to your belly revealing booze as your religion.

(the M.E. crosses herself: "we have a high priest among us today, my young interns.")

Not when you're cooking into ashes in the crematorium oven.

Not when your memories serve to brutalize the psyche of your children.

No. Soup. For. You. The bar is closed.



Darkness on the Edge of Life

My favorite album has remained constant since 1978 and likely will stay on top until I go down under (that doesn't mean a trip to Australia). Or perhaps not. One can only hope it'll change. Why hope for a change? Well, in a very real way this choice is a barometer of my growth as an individual. Or rather, in this case, a lack thereof.

I'm talking about my 'favorite album' and not 'favorite collections of songs,' so that counts out greatest hits and other compilations like The Jam's Snap!Elvis Presley's Golden Records and Sun SessionsBeach BoysEndless SummerPsychedelic FursAll This and Nothing and Elvis Costello's Girls, Girls, Girls.

There are lots of #2s for me, many of which are #1 on a given day:
But my number #1 has always been Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town.

It might seem a strange choice for me.

"Geez," you could say, "you seem to be a pretty cynical guy with a decidedly dark sense of humor. There nothing funny going on here. It's deadly, even stridently, serious. And no cynicism to be found. You don't seem to have any religious faith, something that seems to permeate each of these songs. What gives? Dylan, Costello, Stones, Green Day, and most of the others, they make sense. But Springsteen? Darkness?"

True, there's not a shred of humor on this record. It might be one of the most bleak albums ever made, unceasingly so. Yet it is filled with optimism and faith. There is plenty of religious imagery. It's core to the people whose stories are being told. In the end, though, that's just imagery and metaphor. This faith - these songs - are all about a fundamental belief in yourself. Faith in you. Faith held even in the most horrifying situations, and through the most numbingly mundane.

And there is not an ounce of sentiment on this album. Nothing to escape the dark heart of humanity. The words are basic, overly redundant, devoid of the purple prose Bruce was known for up to that point and fell back to again afterward. Some of the songs are almost unlistenable taken by themselves - they build on Lennon's Plastic Ono Band Primal Scream foundation, ratcheting it up several notches with blood curdling contortions - yet they fit into this world perfectly. Conversely, many of the tunes are my favorites even outside the context of the whole: Racing in the Street, Badlands, Adam Raised a Cane, Candy. All would be in my personal top forty.

Darkness is not a 'concept' album. Yet it is. A series of small moments, events that occur in small towns and cities across America. Rich and poor and middle class, they're all affected by the dissolution of hope and dreams and faith in yourself and in others. The bonds and chains of family.

It was released in the hey day of the first punk explosion and shares a lot with the best of that lot (especially the Clash, though they focused on the political element of faith perhaps more than they did the personal).

I look at Darkness as the first of a quartet of albums Springsteen recorded in this same vein, the others being Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. These albums share a similar core, a common conceit, but it is not a musical one; rather, it is thematic, and it is attitude. Sure, it might be fair to say Bruce covers this same turf on everything he's recorded. There's at least some truth to that. But the hard, unflinching, bleak, bare, milk-all-the-sentimentality-out-of-it attitude exists for me only on these Springsteen records, and not many others, of any artist. It lives for me on Darkness most of all. (Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate and the Velvet Underground and Nico live in this world for me as well. There were seeds of it on Born to Run in Thunder Road and Backstreets but I love that album for wholly different reasons.)

In the end, all of what I've written here is just a big load of pretentious bullshit.

None of this explains why I've been coming back to this record time and time again since 1978. Why I invariably play the thing from beginning to end each time. Why it's never just background music when I do. The whole thing can be explained by two verses on the record. They come from different characters and different songs at wildly different tempos and moods. One from the point of view of the protagonist's loved one (in this case, his girlfriend) and the other describing the protagonist himself (first person). They perhaps sum up two different, warring, sides of my being better than anything else I've found in art. The first pokes at my core, borne of my upbringing, and the second is aspirational, what I've been striving to get to ever since:
  1. Racing in the StreetShe sits on the porch of her daddy's house, but all her pretty dreams are torn. She stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.
  2. BadlandsFor the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive, I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me, I want to find one place, I want to spit in the face of these badlands.
The protagonist of each song on Darkness is always striving to live life, not satisfied merely to exist. Even in the face of devastation. Even when all of the others around him have given up.

I want to identify with those protagonists but I know I can't, not really. In the same way Jules wants to believe he's the Shepherd at the end of Pulp Fiction but knows he's still the 'Tyranny of Evil Men.' But I'm trying, Ringo, real hard, to be the Shepherd. Maybe if and when I finally make it, this record will fall by the wayside.

Until then, "Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland. Got a head-on collision smashing in my guts, man. I'm caught in a crossfire that I don't understand."


1979 - '82


The End Of School

Dipping one's toes into the murky waters of childhood memories is therapeutic, so I'm told. It's also pretty exhausting. Case in point, remembering life at Everett High School (that's it to the right). It was my first. It didn't take - neither did the second, Cascade High.

What's a family to do with an unmotivated 16 year old who'd rather play hooky at the public library, reading every book he could get his hands on? Why, have him get a GED and on to Community College, of course! That's it to the left. Guess what? It didn't take any more than the high schools, so off to the Navy I went.  Just after I had protested the recently mandated selective service registration by refusing to do so!

Story of my life with higher education, as I'd do that same dance at a number of institutions over the next 17 years trying to catch that elusive degree. And story of my life with sticking to my political principles. But my heart's in the right place.


'That man is fat!' and other parental pearls of wisdom

"That man is fat!" Mother lights a cigarette in the checkout line at the supermarket and points toward the flustered gentleman just ahead. My sister stands behind her, mortified. "Mom, that is just so rude. And you can't smoke in here!" Mother smiles sinisterly from her wheelchair and takes a defiant drag. She then raises an eyebrow in that all-knowing look. "Yes I can!"

Mom was not an elderly woman when the supermarket incident took place, probably just a couple years older than I am right now. A stroke at age 42 had debilitated her, though not nearly so much as she'd like to believe. Partially paralyzed on her right side, she could walk with the aid of a cane but generally chose not to (in fact, she fought tooth-and-nail against her physical rehabilitation). Her worst qualities had been amplified by the stroke and the good ones diminished (she chose to latch onto her inner spoiled brat and that aspect of her personality now clearly dominated).

Cut to a family get together, my mother's side of the family. She sulks smugly in the corner before seeing an opening. "My father never loved my mother. He had other lovers, you know - many lovers!" she declares to no one in particular. Aunt Jenny (her mother's sister) goes pale. Mother then adds insult to injury: "He visited prostitutes. His mother was a prostitute!" My sister is unfortunate enough to be the chaperon on this occasion as well. She felt like killing Mother that day, a concentration of all the embarrassments of a lifetime.

My mother-related embarrassments were for the most part restricted to my childhood, as she attempted to proposition my friends' Dads, berated me in front of the neighborhood kids for no reason and generally made fools of us all to the neighborhood. The stroke can't be blamed entirely as much of this took place prior to that blessed event.

My sister wasn't so lucky. She dealt with Mom into her adulthood and in fact still deals with her today. I cut bait with Mom many, many years ago. It doesn't mean she doesn't haunt me - she most definitely does - but simply that I don't recognize her right to continue to do so. Whatever ghost of her influence still clouds my dreams does so because of my unresolved feelings, not due to any fresh infusion of neuroses on her part.

Still, that man was, in fact, fat. So there's that.


1983 - '85 (The Navy)

As previously mentioned, my Mom sold our house in late 1981 and moved to Ireland.  I'll have to give it to her, she didn't know a soul but nevertheless pulled up stakes and moved across the ocean to a country she'd never even visited before outside the pages of books.  She subsequently returned in 1984 much to my sister's dismay but headed back again in '86 for good.  Social security provides her with a small income; however, Mom has mainly relied on the kindness of others.  Once she headed off to the land of Jamison and Guinness, I moved in with my sister and her husband for a few months before joining the Navy.  I had no prospects or skills, had dropped out of college due to lack of money and motivation, and quickly exhausted my energy toward picking berries for a living, figuring that my future must certainly lie elsewhere.  The Navy recruiter convinced me that they'd fix me up with a useable skill and college.  My initial choice of occupation - Navy journalism - had a two year wait so I chose the intelligence field since the brochure promised lots of writing opportunities.  In November 1982 I was off to boot camp in San Diego for two months of what turned out to be a relatively painless experience given some of the horror stories I'd heard.  Boot camp was easy for me because my childhood had at least trained me well in one particular skill: keeping quiet and blending into the background.  After boot camp I flew up to Denver, Colorado to attend the Armed Forces Air Intelligence Training Center at Lowry AFB where the basic intelligence educational facilities for all the armed services were then located.


Rocky Mountain Navy

Father time's goddamn Lunar calendar has shed its skin again and drawn another ring around my trunk, forcing me to symbolically drop into the musical fetal position of my early 20s. Well, very early 20s - 20, 21 to be exact. 1983.  The first year I recall being relatively happy most of the time.

Which is odd because I spent a good deal of '83 on what constituted a floating prison with 5000 other people, 4995 of whom I didn't know or, worse, really didn't want to know. Strangely, it might have been great because I'd finally felt free. Free of what? Of the 20 years that came before it, I guess. It was my first real job, I did it well, and it was interesting if morally abhorrent (thus began the compartmentalization of my ethics).

Maybe it was all the great music I could buy really cheaply there (for some reason, very few others on the ship cared for Nina Hagen, The Jam, Elvis Costello, etc. yet the ship's store always seemed to have cassettes of their albums available, marked down because they presumably couldn't get rid of them).

Maybe it was that I saw a bit of Europe for the first time: Italy, Greece ... well, Italy and Greece, anyway. Qaddafi and troubles in Lebanon put the kibosh on planned visits to Israel, Egypt and Spain that year.

Really, though, I think it was the four months at the beginning of the year I spent at the Navy Intelligence School and Oxymoron Emporium in Denver, Colorado. There wasn't a lot of Navy in Denver (that was Air Force country) and it was more like college than the military, at least from my perspective. Slam dancing Thursday's (New Wave night) at Thirsty's and Friday/Saturday (not New Wave nights, but we slammed anyway) at After The Gold Rush, both 3.2 bars where us under-21 types could drink. I saw Wall of Voodoo live and hung out with other New Wave aficionados for the first time. Good memories.

Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and The Jam's Snap compilation have been getting extra heavy play on the iPod, my feeble attempt to ignore father time's clock ticking off another year, one more I won't get back. One step closer to the proverbial grave.

These two albums bring me back to a specific year - 1983, in this case - more than any other music that I actually enjoy. There are a great many tunes that dredge up strong memories of the past, specific pinpoints in time; however, in almost all cases, they are songs I at least vaguely dislike and rarely have purchased (except when the memory overpowers the distaste and I need to hear the piece of shit jingle to help get me back to the moment).

Elvis and the Jam bring it all back home.


Club Med

May, 1983. I remember landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier the first time mainly because of the relief I felt after the nausea of the ride.

I'd been in the Navy for over six months by the time I touch down, two spent in San Diego at boot camp and the next four in Denver at the Navy intelligence training command on Lowry Air Force base. (Whatever happened to my "Rocky Mountain Navy" t-shirt?) I graduated in late April and I got my orders to the Ike, which had recently deployed to the Mediterranean Sea for a six month cruise. So they fly me to Sicily where I wait for transport out to the boat. That ride comes in the form of a Navy C-2 Greyhound "Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD)" aircraft, the ever reliable ferrier of mail and people.

After an hour or so of stomach churning turbulence, the C-2 makes a slow banking turn and a sickening dip to then fro. The seats face toward the rear of the plane and I'm strapped in tight against the backrest, cranial headgear and earplugs not really helping to muffle the whine of the props but making it impossible to hear anything else. There aren't any windows so I have to take the word of the flight crew member who shouts, "Five minutes!" Until the clown yells it again 10 minutes later.

Then suddenly, Wham! An instant of a few Gs sitting on my chest and the trip's over: I've just gone from over one hundred miles per hour to zero in the space of a second. The ending is anti-climactic. Taking off from a carrier in one of these lumbering beasts, I'd later learn, is where the real drama lives (you wonder whether or not the catapult has given you enough speed to straighten out and fly when it feels like you're nearly vertical and about to go tail first into the water ahead of the rushing ship set to run you over). But I wouldn't get to experience that joy for several more years, as a civilian software developer bopping around the Gulf just before Desert Storm.

Back in May of '83, the aft of the plane opens and the noise and heat of an active carrier flight deck hits me like a freight train. I go into sensory overload as I'm led out past a plethera of roaring jets and bombs and fuel lines being carted and dragged haphazardly in all directions by what looks to be an army of kids my age decked out in a rainbow of different colored jerseys. I know what none of it means but I do know I want nothing to do with any of it.

As I pass through the hatch into the island structure and the noise muffles, some joker sneers, "We'll see you back out here soon." No, no, I think. I'm destined for other things. Down into the air conditioning of the carrier intelligence center (CVIC). Closed off from the great unwashed. Just a bunch of us eggheads sitting around gleaming computer displays, tracking Soviet naval activity, wired on caffeine and gray matter. I quickly learned that we chosen few were merely the lesser unwashed, a shit hole within a shit hole. And the AC competed with a choking cloud of nicotine-laced smoke hanging perpetually in the air. The work itself was often fascinating, if morally frustrating (at least for me, somewhat of a rare animal: a died in the wool liberal working in military intelligence).

How in the world did I end up here? After all, I was just a year removed from protesting the recent federal selective service registration requirement, and vowing to defeat the evil of a Reagan-based growing military-industrial complex. Well, it came down to money and opportunity: I had neither and needed a kick in the ass to get my life moving. The plan then morphed into the thought that I'd go into the Air Force or Navy as a journalist (it was good enough for Hunter Thompson, after all). That hit a snag when I learned about the minimum two year waiting list for journalism training. The recruiter noticed my shrinking interest in things once that came to light and quickly began to spin Navy Intelligence as a "perfect" alternative. It was journalism, after a fashion. Top secret journalism, but that makes the assignment all that more exciting! The recruiter laid it on thick. The aptitude tests were pretty stringent but I somehow managed to make the grade, so off I went.

I despised but survived boot camp and actually enjoyed intelligence training in Denver (it was more like college than the military). We could wear civilian clothes and had university-style dorm rooms. But that wasn't the real Navy, isolated as we were in the mountains of Colorado and the seemingly more relaxed style of the Air Force. Now, though, I was thrust amidst the "real" Navy with a vengeance. Hard to get more in your face than an aircraft carrier at the beginning stages of a six month deployment, especially in 1983, with Beirut nearly boiling over, Libyan wacky monster Muammar threatening to sink my new home down to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and all manner of Soviet muscle buzzing beside, above and below us on a constant basis. But it wasn't boring, that's for sure.

As a Navy Intelligence weenie, I was privy to a lot of the goings on that my fellow shipmates were not. It certainly helped to know exactly why our port visits were regularly cancelled. I was eventually assigned to the Tactical Analysis Plot (TAP), an intelligence center within the intelligence center on the ship. You needed a Secret clearance to gain access to CVIC but better than Top Secret to get into TAP: what they called (and still call) Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). Typical government alphabet soup. This work center was subsequently moved to Flag (Admiral's) operations spaces and re-christened the Supplemental Plot (SUPPLOT). It might sound glamorous and the work was interesting but TAP was a hellish environment to exist in. It was a room about fifteen feet in length and barely three feet in width. Generally three people worked there per shift (twelve on, twelve off, seven days a week at sea). Everyone assigned there smoked but me and there was little ventilation. Large acrylic maps ran along the length of both walls, with little magnetic "pucks" marking various air, sea, and land-based entities (friendlies and adversaries). The particulars of these charts would vary depending on our current area of operation: sometimes it was the North Atlantic, sometimes the Caribbean, and often just off the coast of Norfolk, VA, but usually it was "the Med." I can still recite the names and characteristics of all the Soviet naval anchorages in that body of water, the manner in which their inhabitants communicated and what that chatter and their subsequent movements meant, though I have no particular desire to remember them (those memories are lodged permanently in my lizard brain, alongside every episode of the Brady Bunch, and certain tingle that's stimulated whenever I see somebody doing coke on TV or the silver screen).

We had a teletype machine in TAP that continuously printed out messages coming in from numerous sources on developments in the world, from strategic geo-political happenings to tactical operational force movements. The sound of its rat-a-tat-tat still reverberates through my subconscious some 27 years later. We'd analyze these reports and compare the data to historic behavior to predict actions, positioning and recommended reactions (or pro actions, if possible). I'd write up our findings and produce a daily briefing book for the Captain. I honed my typing skills, for sure. And learned a lot of stuff about shit that has since become obsolete, a master of early eighties operational intelligence trivia. No scandalous misuse of power or other egregious moral dilemmas of the type found at more strategic positions in "the community." What I remember most about all this was blasting Nina Hagen and Elvis Costello on the tape deck while writing up the Captain's briefing book on the nightshift, my eyes watering from the blinding ubiquitous smoke. Also the thrill of finding a link, a pattern, in the mountains of data, triggered by some obscure factoid I'd memorized. Like the kind of kick I still get running down an elusive bug in the software I develop today. The bugs were different but the process strikingly similar.

I spent many of my days (and many of my nights) in TAP through the summer and fall of '83, monitoring cat and mouse games with Libya, tracking the rag tag terrorist groups jockeying for position in Lebanon (we had a whole wall mapping out the dozens of shadowy organizations as they moved, shrank and grew, and switched alliances). And through it all, the ebb and flow of US/Soviet Navy's simulated war games against one another below, on and above the water. Mission planning for our airborne response to the October US Marines barracks bombing (well, really to a number of things) took up the final month of the ship's time in the Med, leaving it to the USS JFK and others to execute once they relieved us on station in November.

Sometime during all this, I spent a couple weeks cleaning our berthing and doing the division's laundry as most junior enlisted end up doing at some point, along with the constant sweeping and swabbing and buffing of passageways for the weekly inspections of same. We even got to visit a couple ports in our six and a half months of "club Med" that year (Taranto, Livorno, and the ubiquitous Naples, Italy and Athens, Greece). We made up for it next time we deployed to these waters in late '84/early '85, but the three straight months between port visits in '83 (mid-July to mid-October) was tough. To make matters worse, the Marine barracks was bombed just after we finally stepped foot on land again in Naples so they instituted an emergency recall and a few hours later we were booking through the very narrow and heavily trafficked Straits of Messina at 40+ nautical miles an hour on a beeline to Lebanon. That was an interesting sight (and navigational endevor).

Ah, good times. Somewhere in there, I turned a very sober 21.  It was well over a month on either side of a drink for me on the big day, but I'm pretty sure I've since made up for that deprivation.  And then some.


Norfolk Ballet '84

Echoes of my emptiness tear at my gut this Tuesday,

distilling into drunken numbing Huey Lewis hatred.


"Owner of a Lonely Heart" now soundtrack to my musings,

as "Lovely Lisa" takes the pole to creepy stage announcements.


I'm lost on Granby/Little Creek as Tuesday ticks to Wednesday,

then stagger out into the dark of early morning summer.


I hail a cab back down into my Pier 12 home and office,

tripping down the passageways toward berthing slumber solace.


Crawl into my bunk in back and pass out until morning;

rinse, repeat and hope to God this Groundhog's Day stops playing.


Some twenty nine long years gone by since stumbling into stasis;

still, Pavlov's Dog lives in my ear when certain songs sing to it.


Those wretched tunes I just can't stand, they take me back to Clancy's,

when optimism for my fate had not yet died exhausted.


I sit here now and contemplate my mindset in those shitholes,

and wonder why - just why the hell - I look on those days fondly.


It could just be the booze, or that I was finally free of Everett,

or fantasies of hearts of gold wrapped up in 80's muzak.


In the end I think it's probably something a bit more basic:

it was a time when the future held a promise now since broken;

it was a time that I myself was not yet - not quite - broken.

Quite broken - and facing the wrong direction looking to become whole again.


Baby She Lied

Baby, I lied. This is the title of a song country singer Deborah Allen released in 1983. It was apparently a hit and although I was never aware of this, the song nonetheless had a profound effect on me in the mid-80s. The rendition I knew was by some local VA Beach gal named Diana Ray. I was familiar with the tearjerker having watched this gal perform it on several occasions circa '84/'85 at Michael's, a tidewater area country-western two-step shitkicker dance club. I'm pretty sure Baby I Lied was the only number Diana Ray sang, offered up as an estrogen-infused change of pace to the male house band's otherwise Good Ol' Boy set.

Thinking back on it now, I don't believe I'd even heard the name Deborah Allen until yesterday when I googled the tune after experiencing a strange nocturnal flashback from this period in my life. I didn't follow the top 40 back then, happy to collect most of my music from the bottom of the discount bins in an era when punk and new wave had, for the most part, not yet found a footing with the public in the US (the "poppier" stylings of Blondie, Joe Jackson and U2 aside). My preferences weren't yet classified "alternative" by the marketing machine (that didn't happen until "alternative" was popular enough for them to bother with and by that time it meant mostly "mainstream"). My favorite type of music wouldn't be rescued from the bargain bin until Nirvana's sonic success nearly a decade further on down the road.

Given my musical proclivities, I was about as far from a country music fan as could be in the mid-80s so you might ask why I darkened the door of this yee-haw establishment even once to get out of the rain let alone repeatedly on purpose as a specific destination. It's a good question and one I'm not completely sure I can answer. I can tell you that it most certainly wasn't thanks to the crew I accompanied to the joint: I loathed those vermin one and all. They were merely my transportation. You see, these were my Navy days and I didn't have any means for getting around save for buses, taxis and my own two legs, which often posed a problem as mass transit took an ungodly long time to get anywhere and cabs were usually out of my price range on a sailor's salary unless it was a relatively short jaunt. As for my legs? Well, I wore down my fair share of shoe leather but it only gets you so far. The fuck-sticks with an all-important car were among my "shipmates," living and working in the same spaces on the same floating prison (a.k.a USS Dwight D. Eisenhower) but I couldn't have less in common with this particular group of charmers, made up as they were of equals parts racism, sadism, and abject idiocy. In other words, they were real sweethearts.

The first time I decided purely on whim to accompany them to Michael's, reasoning I could get drunk on the cheap, goof on the hillbillies - including my "buddies" - and gawk at the hot chicks that congregated at such establishments in southeastern Virginia back then (probably now too). But I went mainly because I thought it might kill the overpowering boredom I was mired in. I think I wore an Iggy and the Stooges shirt to my inaugural two-step dosey doe. Or maybe one that read, "fuck country music." Nah, it had to be the Stooges: I wasn't that ballsy. Certainly I wasn't decked out in the stetson, big belt buckle and cowboy boots my fellow travelers wore like a second skin.

I was vaguely aware that there was a chance I was gonna get my ass kicked courtesy of my dress and antics (shouting out requests for the Clash and B-52s, muttering "country sucks" and other such witticisms under my breath, attempting to pogo during a two-step; you get the idea). Maybe that was the point (I was and am nothing if not a masochist). And then Diana Ray sang that song and I was transfixed, my goofs melting away. All subsequent visits had one sole purpose: Diana Ray and "her" song. I'm not sure what it was that lit my fire: the song itself is a sub-par weeper and DRay was no great shakes in either the looks or talent department from what I recall. Together, though, it was magical to me. Ours is not to wonder why (well, of course it is but I can't for the life of me come up with a satisfactory answer). Where o' where are you now, Sister Ray? (Apologies to Lou Reed and the Velvets)

I immediately downloaded Baby I Lied from iTunes once I discovered it was in fact an actual hit my girl had been covering and not her own composition since lost to time. Hearing the original for the first time tonight brings back strangely powerful feelings. The song is now comfortably ensconced in my "80's Sense Memory Dreck" playlist, taking its rightful place alongside such charmers as Don't Stop Believin', Islands In the Stream, Hold On, Sister Christian and other slightly brighter dim bulbs I hate to love but can't quite hate: I adore the memories they invoke.

(Postscript: I've actually since overcome my own prejudices against country music and very much like some of it today, particularly the roots stuff that - along with R&B - helped to fuel what became rock and roll: I love the darker Hank Williams stuff, though I have little use for his son or most of the pop-gloss reactionary slop that passes for the genre these days. I also dig a lot of late forties/early fifties bluegrass and its drunken cousin, rockabilly. Of the contemporary variety, Rosanne Cash does it for me (and I'd be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to her father, Johnny). Thanks to the Elvises Costello and Presley with turning me around on this subject. It still might constitute a fairly small slice of my listening pie but at least I don't reject the whole spectrum out of hand when something I'd otherwise classify as "good" pops up on the menu.)


Mallorca Memories

It wasn't familiar at first, I was still half asleep. The sound rose up from the living room, the unwatched television on some random channel I'd forgotten to switch off when I went to bed last night. Then it hit me and the song registered.

And I drifted back through time and space ...

It's a warm early March in 1985. I am in some shithole Palma cantina on the island of Mallorca, Spain. Julian Lennon's Too Late for Goodbyes is playing on the jukebox, I've drained a glass or three of Sangria and am making out with one of the lovely young senoritas employed there for that purpose. Well, to be precise, they are employed so that I can buy them very expensive watered down champagne, or perhaps it is just water. Either way, I am not one to bother over the particulars of another's profession and in any case am not in the mood to talk business or to much talk at all.

I have a room in a local hotel and am in my old clothes, I'm just a traveler trekking across the globe. I am transported from the real circumstances of my presence here as a US Navy sailor stationed on an aircraft carrier anchored just off-shore for a short port visit. But that's no longer me. I am merely a tourist, like many of the others in this bar. Lots of Brits and other northern European types floating around the island. I am released from the shackles, unbound from any constraints.

In a very real way, I'm home.

I was truly in heaven that night almost 25 years ago. In fact, I think I've probably never been happier before or since.

Looking at the short synopsis above, it seems vaguely sleazy and not a little pathetic. Typical sailor adventure - acting all "ugly American" in ports the world over.

But it wasn't like that at all.

There were one or two other sailors there in this particular dive, but we blended in with the tourists pretty well (I chose an out of the way place for precisely this reason).

And the girls may have been on the payroll but they were not your typical working girls.

Hookers usually do pretty much anything that doesn't require intimacy or affection; these girls though were very much the opposite. "Buy-me-drink" girls are pretty common, certainly they were back in the day, and especially in port cities. But the ladies in this particular establishment were very different; it was their vibe. I've not come across their kind before or since and I've been to a lot of gin joints the world over, both very swank and awfully dank. If any single word captures it, the one that comes to mind is "lost innocence" (okay, that's two). Perhaps "sweet."

Whenever I hear Julian Lennon's music - and his success was fleeting, so it's not all that often - I'm transported back to Palma, that evening, that cantina. Perhaps iTunes can help. It's not that I actually much enjoyed his brand of tuneage - sense memory music for me is usually happenstance/background, the random soundtrack to moments in time.

I guess in this case, it's apropos - it is much too late for goodbyes.


A Fortified Look Through the Past

Let me present my new favorite web site: Modern Drunkard Magazine.

I came across this gem when attempting to google up some repressed childhood memories through good ol' brand association (in this particular case, Gallo Tavola Red jug wine: good for staining the insides of mothers and coffee mugs alike, at least in my experience). I really just wanted a picture for the dysfunctional family scrapbook I'm compiling. (What do braided rugs, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, a haze of smoke, cheap jug wine and whiskey have in common? My living room growing up!)

I finally found what I was grasping for on Modern Drunkard but it's tough to come up with an appropriately specific query for the product "Tavola Red" when it translates in Italian literally to "red table wine." As you can imagine, that's like looking for "pilser beer": there's gobs of it. Plus Ernest and Julio became yuppie snobs in the 1980s and cut back on a lot of their more, well let's just say 'foundational' stock (thanks a lot, Gordon Gecko).

My vino suppler of choice never wavered from their roots. I speak, naturally, of Mogen David, whose motto, "when nature needs a little boost..." captivated me from the get-go. Well, it should have been their motto. MD did get a little fancy with all the different flavors of 20/20: give me basic grape - no plum supreme or ... well, whatever you have in stock, but I preferred grape. I'd like one day to tour their vineyard, or their chemical processing plant (I think they may be one and the same).

My MD 20/20 phase was short lived, mainly played out in my early 20s in the Navy and then only when we were sufficiently broke to be priced out of clubs and bars. We could always scrape up enough scratch for a cheap room - can't bring the stuff back to the ship! - and a few bottles of Mogen David's fortified fun ('Tuesday' was an especially good vintage, I recall).

The mall arcades and movies took on an enhanced hue with a few swigs of the grape stuff. Since we couldn't afford bars and clubs - would we be drinking purple turpentine otherwise? - we terrorized the mall denizens instead.

I do remember one horrifying Saturday night around 11:45pm when we realized it was almost midnight and we were out of MD. We staggered across a heavily trafficked six lane highway at full stride, racing to beat the buzzer when Virginia's Sunday blue laws ticked into place, and the drug store booze fridge ("best served chilled") was padlocked until Monday. That would have put a real crimp in our Saturday night. We did make the cut but ended up dropping half the six bottles we purchased in our drunken glee (polishing off the others as we stumbled back toward the mall).

Sometimes we mixed it up and substituted 20/20 with Wild Irish Rose (WIR). WIR was an appropriate acronym as that was precisely the sound reverberating through your head the next day after a night ingesting that putrid shit (WWWWIIIIRRRRRRR!). When our first two choices weren't available, we just kept going down the list: Thunderbird, Night train, etc.

For whatever reason, beer was never considered - not enough bang for the buck, so to speak. We'd save beer for clubs, bars, etc.

Ahh, yes - Good times, indeed.

We were stuck without car, money or confidence in anything. Told time and again that our kind was despised by the townies before we ever set foot on dry land there (we jokingly referred to the town as No-fuck, Virginia). On top of that, we had the mark of the beast, the scarlet letter: our bad haircuts with the telltale taper above the collar, marking us as military. This was 1984 in a town where the younger locals grew their hair long precisely to 'clarify' such things. Some of the more creative among us attempted to wear "civilian" wigs, but that just made you look as desperate as we all felt anyway.

Wandering the highways and byways of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in groups of three, four, five with shitty clothes and pasty complexions borne from months in the bowels of floating gray prisons.

No wonder we became wine-o connoisseurs. Sort of a very low rent East Coast Sideways running on an endless loop, with the Military Circle Mall and its surroundings substituting for northern California wine country.

Yes, revisionist history is a fine thing, whether political or personal. Of course. Just like Sideways. Definitely. Memories should be like cars: you get new ones every so often.


Journey to the Center of the Members Only Decade

I've never owned a Steve Perry or Journey album and his voice is just this side of Geddy Lee fingernails-on-the-blackboard spine-twisting agony. But he's also a lead contributor to the soundtrack of the 1980s for me, probably much more than the songs and artists that I actually liked. Anyway, my tastes leaned (and still lean) toward late 70s punk and the first "new" wave. The 80s were kinda lacking in "my" kind of tunes and nothing much emerged again until Nirvana in the early 90s. The 1980s were destitute in this regard, even with a few bright spots along the way (early U2, the LA punk scene).

But when I hear 'Don't Stop Believing', I'm 21, in the Navy, and transported back to the shitty strip clubs and dive bars in Norfolk, VA or running wild through the heart (gut?) of Naples, Italy. Perhaps not everybody's idea of a good time - and in so many ways, not mine either - but I recall those days fondly now.

There was this 'us-versus-them' band-of-brothers vibe that was compelling, even as the nights of jovial revelry were in retrospect pretty pathetic. We acted as though we had been drafted against our will into war, when we'd really just volunteered to live on a big floating airport with a lot of people we discovered we'd rather have never known. Very few ever got the girl - not for free, anyway - we were generally despised by the locals in towns throughout the world, and even fewer of us actually owned a car, forever slaves to public transportation in towns with few options.

Lots of booze and tunes, though.

A bunch of other mediocre but popular 80s artists trigger these same memories - pretty much whatever was stuck on replay in the jukeboxes of the crap watering holes we frequented: Huey Lewis, Styx, Laura Branigan, Pat Benatar, etc.

This same weird melding of bad music and sense-memory is especially strong with Night Ranger/Sister Christian.

Sister Christian will always be James Sprouse.

Where in the world is Jimmy Sprouse now? He was the older, goofy next-door-neighbor-who-lives-alone type with rapidly thinning hair trying in vain to cover his scalp in the desperate wrap-around style obvious to all but those who do it. (Hey, waitaminute - I'm older and live alone! whaterya implying? I'm not goofy, at least, and still have my hair - bettercheckinthemirror...)

Jimmy worked as the intelligence division draftsman in a little crawl space of a room near the ship's foc'sle and lived to watch bad movies and bemoan the younger generation. I never understood why the intelligence division needed a draftsman, and I don't imagine he did either.

Sprouse was frozen forever in time, as seemingly old as the hills to us then but probably 15 years younger than I am now.

Anyway, how is Jimmy Sprouse Sister Christian?

It comes down to a specific moment in time for me. An epiphany. One of those surreal, how-the-fuck-did-I-get-here moments in life.

It hit me at a Night Ranger concert in Hampton, VA in 1985.

Scanning the crowd of wack-jobs 'rocking' to their groovy rhythms - Jimmy Sprouse 'jamming' harder than all the rest - scanning the crowd, it hit me dead on.

The question.

The question wasn't literally 'how did I get to this Night Ranger concert?' That much was easy enough: a bunch of others on the ship were going, I had nothing going on, there was an available ticket and beer was to be had before, during and after the show. In other words, a good time, riffing on the "uncool" and their "shitty music".

But that moment, scanning the crowd, with 'Sister Christian' in full swing and seeing Jimmy Sprouse playing air guitar and Dave "Rock Lobster" Ryan nodding to the tune like he was some strung-out jazz musician who had just shot up, I swear everything stopped and the urgency of the real question reverberated through my mind, drowning out everything else: How-the-fuck-did-I-get-here? And then: Find Something Else To Do With Your Life. Now. This place, this life, these people. It wasn't some grand conspiracy - I chose to do it and I could choose to do something else.

I'd met some great people - some fellow travelers, as it were - but this could not continue. The horror was that, yes it very well could. Sprouse was probably at some level thinking the same thing, 16 years earlier, and it did continue for him. Maybe he was, back then, even human. Now he appeared human only at odd moments such as this. What is your life when you can only express some kind of joy at a fucking Night Ranger concert?

Sister Christian took on another level of significance for me in 1998 when I first saw what might be the pivotal scene in Boogie Nights, set at a point in time almost exactly when my epiphany occurred - smack dab in the middle of the 1980s. For the most part the movie is silly, sharply, funny, riffing on 1970s porn and film.

But it takes a serious turn into the 1980s. Dirk Diggler, having become a has-been porn star turned drug addict and dealer, has exactly this same how-the-fuck-did-I-get-here moment, listening to Sister Christian. The camera focuses in on Marky Mark and his expression - well, I think it was actually a pretty fine bit of acting (who'd have thunk it?)

It was eerie. Different circumstances, of course, but the moment was singular. And Sister Christian was playing. He's motoring, for sure.

Watch it and you'll know the place I was at. And in many ways, how I got to where I am.

Where ever that may be.


1988 - 1993 (Cocaine Blues)

I was discharged from the Navy in November of 1985 and took a position with a defense contractor, Planning Research Corporation, as a trainer/technical writer/tester, specializing in an intelligence software system I used on active duty.  I moved to Philadelphia and quickly fell into the corporate lifestyle with other ex-Navy trainer/testers as well as the software developers, who were a mixture of college and military trained programmers.  It didn't take long before I was also developing software while going to school at night and hitting happy hours with my colleagues practically every evening in between.  I was as socially awkward as I had been my whole life.  No, that doesn't do it justice: I was socially developmentally disabled.  I still am.  I don't co-op the term "developmentally disabled" lightly either.  I mean it in the same way you'd refer to someone who was mentally challenged.  So I didn't date.

Instead, I drank.  

I drank to survive socially.  I also drank for numerous other reasons, not the least of which was alcoholism.  Drinking alone, though, did not help me socially nearly enough so I kept looking for something that would.  And then I found it,  a substance that would be from that point forward my drug of choice.  Thank God it was illegal and thus less socially acceptable and at least somewhat more difficult to acquire than alcohol or I most certainly would have killed myself.   Cocaine gave my confidence the boost I'd been searching for.  And it gave me a new feeling: concentrated happiness.  But my social anxiety eventually won out and I dragged this most social of drugs into isolation much as I did booze.  Coke in the end drained my dopamine dry, stranding me on an island where I'd work in solitary labor chasing after that concentrated bliss again and again.


A Snow blind Samurai (Tracking Hell through Aramingo on the Road to Oblivion)

1989. Summer.

My mind is screaming but my body is quiet, stomach churning.

And my brain is baking.

Parked and conspicuous on the side street of a neighborhood decimated by poverty, drugs and crime, menacing shadows seem to surround me as they pass by, turn/look, and finally, thankfully, move on.

I'm trying my best to blend into the driver's seat, scrunching down, wishing I could vanish. And fervently hoping it won't be too long even while logic and reason clue me into the futility of that. Then again, if logic and reason were my guides I wouldn't be here now. Somewhere west of Aramingo, a handful of blocks east of 3rd and Indiana. West Kensington. The Badlands. Waiting. Visions of the Velvet Underground's Waiting for the Man buzzing through my mind's eye.

My little Suzuki Samurai jeep is a bright blue beacon floating in the sea of the dirty gray that permeates the streets up here. Christ, I might as well have a big spot light shooting up from the vehicle into the sky, spelling out my intentions to the thieves and the cops alike.

Unlike the other bubble-gummers who dare to swing up into this area for their recreational party favors, I haven't arrived here as an outsider. I have my Sherpa, my guide. So no waiting in a line of cars at one of the outdoor drug bazaars catering to Joe and Jane Suburbanite for me. Those traffic jams are further east, closer to I-95. Instead, we pull into a dilapidated side street, kill the engine and lights, I give my Tenzing Norgay the money fresh from an ATM withdrawal, and he disappears into the hood while I sit there, alone.

It's plain to me that addiction does at least as fine a job eradicating judgement as it does dignity, money, a life, and the rest of what it takes. Even with all that, what it provides me, sitting here in 1989, is singular and compelling: glimpses of happiness or at least escape from my head for a few hours. In 2009, fifteen years clean of that particular indulgence, I've yet to find its equal. So, I sit there alone. Waiting.

Ten, fifteen minutes. Shadows and staring, aggression and hatred. Clearly, I'm not welcome.

Then suddenly Norgay emerges from the shadows, stupid smile and stoned shimmer virtually radiating from his being, already high on a large chunk of what should be mine. But that's the price I pay for his guidance up the mountain. I fire the ignition and we head out. Now comes perhaps the most terrifying part of this adventure through the looking glass: snaking my way through the burned out buildings and numerous patrol cars, an out-of-phase vehicle with an out-of-place driver and right-at-home junky sidekick nodding out beside him, a couple of bags of felonious powder in their pockets. Not a recipe for a happy ending. One slip and it's down the icy ravine, into the abyss.

Yet I always slip the noose and make it back down from the treacherous summit into base camp again, back to the comfort of suburbia. I drop off my guide, head back to my hovel, and drift off into sweet dreams of wide-eyed wired wakefulness. Fleeting happiness and escape. Only to repeat the cycle ad nausem, addicted as much perhaps to the russian roulette surrounding the hunt as I am to the consumption.

My tunnel vision eventually closes in on the fading point of light at the other end so completely that normalcy warps into the strange and this kind of shit into the norm. I even rope others into these kamikaze missions, keeping them blind to the destination and purpose until past the point of no return. A friend I hadn't seen in years arrives from out of town to catch up, hit the bars, have a few drinks and reminisce about the old days in the Navy together. I meet him at the airport with my Sherpa in tow, explaining we need to first take "a short road trip" before hitting the town. Great to see ya! It's been awhile! This'll just take "a few minutes." He's pretty shaken after the 20 minute Badlands park-and-sit scene. Afterward, I drop him off at the apartment and he's left to fend for himself while I drift off to wired island. When I get up the next afternoon, he is gone. And I haven't talked to him since.

Good times.

What tips the scale back to the land of the living for me? Enough mornings after. Enough afternoons after. Enough three days after. When the wired dreams morph into jittery, heart-palpatating waking nightmares. When the ATM is empty and the Sherpa goes missing in action. When the bills come due and the collection calls start at work. When the Samurai is repossessed. When my credit becomes truly fucked. When the blood from my nose turns my white pillowcase red, when it soaks through and covers my mattress in blotchy maroon patches. When my phone is turned off for non-payment. When booze no longer calms the shaking coming down. Coming down. Finally, the coming down. Finally, the coming down is simply that much more painful than the wired dreams are freeing. When all this comes to a head, I finally come to my senses. Four years after it comes to a head, anyway. After all, I'm slow to learn and a great procrastinator (I'll completely upend my world in the fight against any change to it, wise and at the same time oblivious to the irony of it all).

Then a year of living clean, 14 months, dissolves into a week back into the wood chipper when I spy my Sherpa "by chance" one weekend just prior to my 32nd birthday. But that week was my last, over 15 years gone by now. To be clear, that week busy getting my nose dirty included plunging my liver back into the briny deep as well. After all, it was the only way I knew to come down, slow the pulse to sleep. And keeping my nose clean thereafter didn't translate to pulling the liver back out of the river. In fact booze became a ready-made substitute for escaping the bonds of myself and I dove ever deeper across the span of the next nearly one dozen years. Time spent on the high seas before I nearly drowned making it to shore.

For those of us missing whatever it is we're missing, finding it even for a moment, and especially in concentrated bursts of what we imagine happiness feels like, is pretty fucking compelling. It carries with it a lot of weight, requiring that much more on the down side for us to run in the other direction, moving the scale back again toward the breathing end of life.

Many of us never get it righted and just keep going, going, going into oblivion.


Spring '90

Always there was the rain. Even when the skies were clear.

Blue/black and streaky at right angles to the ground, carried on the wind blowing into your face. You huddle near the door step, paint peeling onto broken shards of glass at your feet. Peeling, broken. That's appropriate, you laugh swallowing. The itching is incessant. The nose. Scratching. Distractedly with your palm, reddish/clear. The balled up tissues in your jacket pocket come out again.

Fully clothed, you feel naked.

The city is quiet in this predawn early spring morning save for the weather and distant sirens. And the occasional laugh of a drunken reveler staggering home from the bars. But she's 'cross the street, he's 'round the corner, door slams/quiet, never this block. And it's never him.

Your skin is crawling, eyes red and sore, nose running reddish/clear. More tissues. Shaking. How much do I have? Your mind races, hands paw the crunched up 20s in your jacket pocket. That's it, no more. Day? Saturday. No more 'til Monday, when the ATM 'daily' limit resets. But that's for later, worry about that later.

You wait for the footsteps, the singular silhouette, eyes darting hopefully toward shadows. Is that him? Need and sickness, anticipation and exhaustion. Check the time, always checking the time, blurry rain streaked face, wiped. 2:30. How long? An hour? Two? Seems like ten. Was it two or three hundred I gave him? Three. Maybe, head's pounding. Is he coming back? Is that money gone, down the shitter? Should I go back to the car? Did he? No, here - always here.

There he is! Walking slow, low voice, mumbling. Jeans frayed, green shirt tail hanging, dumb smile. Dilated slits. High on my dime, hopefully he hasn't completely screwed me. Quick exchange, "it's all rock, give me a bit for the effort, hook me up, yada." You hear nothing of his rambling.

As though he was doing this for charity, for friendship. As though he hadn't already taken the lion's share of what three hundred gets you, gets him. Friendship, friend? In some ways perhaps my best friend, mostly my physician, probably my killer.

Wordless, call me later, rush to the car.

Driving paranoia, the sparse traffic all cops/they all know, waiting to hit the lights/siren, end it.

Then suddenly, you're home.

Relief, euphoria, dreams, everything is perfect, wonderful. Hours like minutes. Wonderful. Like seconds. Perfect.

Until it's gone. And the racing, shaking, itching begins.

Then you better have options, better have come down, something. Something to stop the pulse from racing, heart exploding, head from pounding. You always make sure of that first, always plan for that beforehand. Except when you forget, it's not so important then. Until now. Good, it's there, six beers, twelve beers - slug 'em down, slows it down.

Sleep washes over you. It's over.

For a few hours. Until the cycle begins again anew.


Dopamine Unhinged


I clear my sinuses and swallow hard, leaning back with a smile as my throat goes numb. My brain is humming with good feelings and peace of mind; all is right with the world. I look around and admire this fine apartment, the bright and vibrant television on with a tape of Platoon in the VCR. This is a masterpiece; maybe the best movie ever, I think to myself. I am subjectivity, my own inner voice. I am intoxicated with concentrated happiness, itself a loan paid for with the torrent of sickness and misery to come. The interest on this loan is compounded by the minute with its dopamine drain, but payment isn't due quite yet. And nothing else matters "in the now."

You see a shaking man-child hunched over a rapidly diminishing mound of lumpy powder that lies on the CD jewel case before him. You observe him chopping up his happiness intently with a credit card, carefully partitioning off three thin lines and hoovering them up his nose with a blood-streaked rolled up dollar bill. You catch him occasionally mopping up the crimson dripping from his nostril with a matting of toilet tissue, the roll spilling out onto the living room carpet and the used wads littering his feet. You smell the stench of the place and feel the filth crawling. His hair waves wild and soaked with sweat. A damaged VHS tape plays on the TV, occasionally skipping over mid-scene, picture and sound coming and going unwatched, unheard. You are objectivity, the unseen fact collector; steely eyed sober, equally unaffected by life's ying and yang of morality and depravity.

I admire the costume I've assembled in the mirror: Charlie Manson, complete with fake beard, hippie wig and jailbird striped jumpsuit. I'm in the bathroom at my friend's Halloween party, a damp finger dabbed ever so slightly into the thumb-size baggie and then up the left nostril, white and anesthetized. I breathe in hard and deep through the left with the right pinched closed. But quietly! Flush the toilet; mask it! Ahh! An instant blast of life-of-the-party and contentment shoot through my toes and up into my eyeballs, closing the loop with a wonderful tickle around the inside of my skullcap. Be sure to check the Manson beard and make sure it's clear of tell-tale residue, I remind myself. Looking good, indeed! Now, back into the party! For once, I can nurse rather than chug my beer. And I can gab! I'm king of the small-talk, master of the back-slap, a gadfly personified. Conversation after conversation, I enthrall them with ease for hours. Oh, need to get some fresh air and blow my nose. Then it's time to reload my beer and my brain!

You see the wild eyes flashing from beneath his Manson get-up, all deep black pupil drowning out the white. The rat-a-tat-tat of his speech is aimed at no one, the telltale repetition of his thoughts in close proximity apparent to them all. He mingles staccato wired for sound and bouncing off the walls like a pinball. You bear witness to his sniffles growing more pronounced by the hour, an equation of addiction multiplied by bathroom breaks and tissue paper. You catch him dash to the back porch holding back his head, tissue pressed against the geyser exploding red above his lips. You hear him mutter, "Time to switch," as he stumbles for the bathroom. The left is shot for the evening, time to reload through the right.

And so it goes. Facts in clear-eyed 20/20 hindsight seem altogether different from their counterparts in the moment, wearing rose-colored glasses with dopamine unhinged.


The Cook

The blue white glow of the gas burner is central to the Cook's world. A world wholly crafted within the confines of his mother's house, narrower even than that: the back room, the kitchen.

The other denizens of this world - guests - huddle round the kitchen table covered in plastic baggies, lighters, spoons, pipes. A smokey stench permeates down into the foundation of the old row home. The fraying early 70s furnishings have long since given in to the activities of the kitchen, as has the ceiling and walls peeling paper, sweat and smoke. It can't be deodorized, fumigated, but there will be no such attempt: this ambiance is essential to the mood.

The Cook does his work at the burner alone. Bag to spoon over burner, powder bubbling to rock. His otherwise trembling hands steady in this endeavor, nimble fingers gingerly raising, then lowering the utensil over the heat. The others fixate on his mastery from the table, no one questions his craft, intervenes in his preparation. He is Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck. He is The Cook.

Beyond the burner's glow, the house remains bathed only in midnight's colors. Deep blue black shadows illuminate - quickly, a pulse - with flashes of the lighter, a flare of the pipe - rock softly crackling to smoke, inhaling: wwwoooowwww. Euphoria. Murmurs. One minute, two. Gone. Sad Shadows. Flash/flare, wow. Wonderment. Gone. Again. The Cook gently instructing his young charges: slow, slow down - never chase the flame. Disapproving glance, knowing mumble. The 'meal' is ruined with hasty consumption - savor, taste, let the flame chase you.

From the alley the kitchen window takes on the look of a lighthouse, the burner's steady glow punctuated by the table's periodic sweeping flashes. Wow, euphoria. Leading lost ships to its port for a price, fine dining on the edge of a rough sea. Cash or the raw ingredients gladly accepted. Absolutely no checks, cards or credit.

Sitting on the backyard trash can, a stray cat looks into the window transfixed, confused. Then jumps off and toward the Burger King parking lot down the way, more potential there for an understandable meal.


Pure as the Driven Snow

The sweat of my own futility drizzles down my back, cold. I'm lost in a weakness with no strength to shake it. Compelled back to familiar places as they continue to haunt my dreams, I unceasingly gnaw at this material like a nervous tic.

1990. I am heading down Providence in Delaware County, to where it intersects with Edgemont and I-95. The nexus of my pleasure, the gates of hell. Here, the Widener University campus on the western edge of the interstate represents safety and severe need. (Somewhat ironically, the rehab joint I ended up visiting to dry out from my wetter, more socially/legally acceptable proclivities some 15 years later also makes its home here, just up the street.) On this side of the highway I blend in as a milquetoast suburbanite, albeit one quaking with an endorphin thirst the likes of which only Bolivian withdrawal can induce. To the East, over the narrow bridges providing passage across the freeway's River Styx, lies Dante's Inferno.

For years those bridges represented a barrier I'd not dare cross, relying instead on an emissary in the form of my "pharmacist broker"/Sherpa to conduct these oh-so necessary transactions (for a hefty fee, naturally). Need and circumstance, though, eventually demanded that I show my face in person. It was a risky proposition, one that provided no guarantee of reward even if I didn't get robbed or arrested for my troubles (I narrowly averted both concerns on more than one occasion). These few blocks of misery and medicine did not compare to the North Philly badlands, but they were at least as scary to me because I was making the climb on my own. (I never visited the badlands without my Tenzing Norgay along for the ride to handle the currency/goods exchange.)

My dip into the underworld became routine, so much that I could navigate it round trip blind (on many occasions I effectively proved this out). Sometimes I had to make back-to-back runs in rapid succession, if I happened to get cheated the first time round. After all, there was little chance for taste tests on-scene to validate my purchase and the merchants weren't exactly registered with the better business bureau.

The premise was simple: hop into the Samurai and point it south down route 252 from my Media apartment, continuing on Providence as it became route 320 south and then the rest of the way to the Days Inn parking lot at the aforementioned nexus of pleasure. Six miles, ten minutes. Sometimes it seemed like a journey of days going down.

The Days Inn lot is where I'd wait for my Sherpa during the early years as he scaled the mountain top on my behalf and (sometimes) returned with the reward. Occasionally, he'd return with nothing and sometimes he wouldn't return at all. Later it became the spot where I'd park briefly to muster my inner guile for the push to the summit alone. Sort of a base camp, as it were. I remember this clearly, though I was rarely clearheaded, even on the first run of the evening (several hours of consumed liquid courage coursing through my blood stream was the norm). There were a couple of roads running over the interstate and into the snake pit, the most obvious being Edgemont/352. I preferred the road less traveled, Upland (plus I enjoyed its double entendre-laced moniker).

The boys would come running by the time my jeep crossed over Rose just east of the interstate. I'd ignore them and swing left onto 10th Street where I was assured of two or three entrepreneurs knocking on my windows on either side of the vehicle. This was where the risk of robbery was at its height: they could just as easily be shoving a gun into my face as a fistful of powdered pleasure. I never did see a weapon but often got a lot of pounding on the hood and shouts of "gimme your money, motherfucker." I never gave in until I had the goods. And then my window'd go up and I was off again, less than ten-seconds ticking by to complete the transaction. It certainly wasn't uncommon for the merchandise to be worthless (100% talcum powder or some other cutting agent). When that happened, I'd immediately make another run down. Sometimes I'd drive back to base camp and check it out to avoid having to traverse the whole way round from the apartment again but was usually too paranoid to risk prolonged exposure in public carrying what was presumably - hopefully - a controlled substance.

There were a few times when the boys would suddenly stop and move as one away from my car. Cops in the belfry. My mind would race, quickly running through a rehearsal of the "lost looking for the I-95 on-ramp" routine I'd planned to blurt out should I get pulled over. But it never happened. A patrol car even drove right by me on one occasion. I can't believe they didn't hit the lights and put me through the ringer. A white boy in a blue Suzuki Samurai on the east side of the freeway: I would have pulled me over. Perhaps they didn't want to deal with the paperwork (they knew I hadn't yet scored since they had to have seen the dealers scatter prior to reaching my window). The scariest moments for me were when I had my prize and was driving the four or five blocks to the I-95 north on-ramp, my passage to freedom. Not that I wasn't still filled with terror all the way back to Media, or that I wasn't nervous about the quality of my purchase and the thought of having to do it all over again. But the sickening feeling was concentrated with the spotlight shining on felonious Freddy here in the soft-top mini-Jeep cruising the wrong side of I-95. All these things reverberated through my mind seemingly at once. But never did I pause to ponder that the whole fucking trip (not to mention the addiction driving it) was plain madness. Which itself was crazy, especially for someone as prone to excessive introspection as I was and am.

This journey I made on a dozen or so occasions between 1990 and 1992 had its foundation in adrenaline and delusion, addiction and anticipation. Thoughtlessness in its most crystalized form. Instinct as pure as the driven snow I was driving toward but never found. Purity is an elusive state for most things in life and in particular when what you're hunting is pharmaceutical-based happiness. I stumbled closest to purity by happenstance, but it was inert: talcum, aspirin, or other like manner of subterfuge. Not the kind I had in mind.

I often think of the large circle I made driving from Media to Chester, surrounding the smaller, inner circle summiting the mountain from Days Inn to Upland. Vicious circles. Dante needs to up the ante a few notches. In some sense I'm still spinning 'round and 'round trying to break free.


1992 Heartbeats a Second

August, 1992. I lay on the couch with my heart pounding like a jackhammer.  The last of the coke gone and no alcohol in my hovel, panic had me in its grip. Boom, boom, boom.  Teeth chattering, freezing cold sweat, eyes all pupil. Boom, boom, boom.  Where were my car keys?  My eyes darted around the room, out of focus.  It was Sunday night, I needed to find a bar with alcohol somewhere, take-out beer to slow my heart down.  Boom, boom, boom.  I was living just north of Wilmington in Delaware but had just moved into this apartment from Media, Pennsylvania 30 miles to the North.  I wasn't familiar with what might be open on a Sunday in the immediate surroundings - my mind could only conjure up the Media establishments.  Boom, boom, boom.

I drove shaking, sweating, jittering raw nerves up I-95 and I-476 to Media.  Jack's bar, open every Sunday.  All pupil and sweating, jittery I pulled into the bar's parking lot and looked in the rear view mirror.  Jesus!  Like something out of Night of the Living Dead.  Thank God Jack's interior is good and dark.  Still, I needed to clean myself up a bit, comb the hair, get my squinting down pat to hide the wild eyes.  Slow the heart palpitations.  God, did I really drive here?  It's drizzling rain and I'm so wired out of my skin I can barely see let alone operate heavy machinery.  The force multipliers adrenaline and fear bring to the table are nothing short of amazing.

Inside, Jack's is dead on a mid-summer Sunday evening.  I manage to maneuver to the take-out case, grab several six-packs of brew and pay for it with minimal social interaction: head down, pass the barkeep sufficient cash, let him bag the beer and keep the change and motor on out into the night.  A half hour of terrifying action southbound behind the wheel of my shitty little black Mazda 323 with heart beating wildly caught in my throat and I'm back into Delaware, to my apartment.  I didn't kill myself or anyone else on the road this time only through undeserved dumb luck.  Boom. Boom. Boom.  But relief from the pounding and palpitations is at hand, thanks to Adolf Coors - at least that''s how it's always worked in the past.

But this time the booze did not keep up its end of the bargain.  This time, no matter how much I drink my pulse just keeps racing.  Did my heart skip a beat?  Two beats?  Boom. Boom. Boom.  I pace my apartment, gulp for air.  Fuck!  The alcohol has no effect.  I lay down on the couch, stare up at the ceiling fan, sweating/dizzy.  How long have I been up?  Two days, three?  Shit.  Boom. Boom. Boom.  My heartbeat echoes through my sinuses, up into the frontal lobe.   Looking around the apartment - torn drapes, faded carpet, TV unwatched on some random channel, blue walls into the white light of the kitchen.  My toes feel tingly, numb.  Boom, boom, boom.  My heart is - if anything - racing faster.

I make the decision: I need to go to an emergency room.  Shaky / dizzy, I jump back in the car and head down south to Wilmington Memorial.   At this point I'm gasping for breath.  Perhaps this addiction thing isn't all it's cracked up to be?  Are we having fun yet?  Then it's twenty minutes of chilly sweats and my ticker doing double-time at the pump station before I'm finally led in to see a doctor.

I describe my symptoms and beat around the bush to the ER resident for just a few minutes before letting on that - funny coincidence - I just might have ingested a very small amount of cocaine that evening.  Think it's related?   The doctor in fact is pretty sure there's a strong causal relationship between my heart nearly exploding and the Bolivian Marching Powder coursing through my veins.  You see, it's a stimulant.  Condescending smirk.  But isn't alcohol a depressant? I deadpan, ignoring his snide bedside manner.  Booze didn't work this time, doc!   Long story short, the rest of the conversation boiled down to a variation on Doc, it hurts when I do this!  Well then - don't do that!

The doctor gives me some valium and sends me home with written instructions to "stay away from cocaine."  Of course I will, Herr Doktor.   I follow those instructions to the letter just a bit more than two years later.  After all, I'm a bit slow.  But Deja Vu is a bitch in this context and even the slowest among us eventually grow wise to the weary.  Or we simply grow weary and die.


The Breathing End of Oblivion

For Brooke and her other aliases circa 1993.

Disarming not discerning, she softly cracks me wise.

I open melting repose in the corner, rising.

Fallen among the throng in this Passyunk go-go dive,

I drink away the dank and the military industrial blood on my hands.

Drowning out the shipyard with a chaser, warming.

She tends bar usually, though sometimes she dances;

always wry with her musing (bloody hands of her own, stained merely by her presence).

And with all that, her jukebox selection is singular, defining.

Wondering around her reflection in Absolut refraction,

a wide eyed drive toward desolation foregone, yet not begun.

I order another round silently, flying.

We share unlikely sensibilities: musical, political, magical, destructible;

cynicism burning us alive, aspirations chilled to the bone.

 She slides me one on the house, smiling.

We find we're both hiding from who we are, what we do to get by;

our ideals beyond reach, beyond our reason.

Reasoning it's for the best, swallowing.

She's post-modern Center City mostly: college and Revival, Khyber hipster friends;

in fear her South Philly ballet weeknights will come to light to them:

grunge-lit on-high disapproval.

She locks up for the evening, transposing personalities; shifting.

I live in her vicinity, in trepidation;

my workaday hypocrisy spilling into the rest of me.

I found her in one masquerade, she led me to the other, city weekends 

both wondrous and fleeting.

We were taut to tearing from the get-go, nervously.

It can't, doesn't last; turns to sand in my fingers, into dust.

Across the divide from Darien back to Monroe alone, empty; shivering.

Compromises personified, potential anesthetized;

she's at long last transcended these things, living.

I still languish within, haunted;

balancing off a bar stool on the breathing end of oblivion, waiting.



Torn and Sewn on Fabric Row

July 11th, 1993.  I'm walking double-time toward the pay phone on 4th and Bainbridge, around the block from my hovel on Monroe.  This particular summer night finds the heat and humidity particularly oppressive, soaking my T-shirt with sweat just a few steps out the front door.   Emerging from the arctic climate of the apartment's central air, the swelter hits my body and I buckle.  But I'm off to the races again after a curt pep talk: you've gotta feed me, fucker, and no piddly physical malady is gonna divert your focus from that -- now move!  Holed up in my little 3rd floor walk up the past week, there's clearly a powerful need to replenish.  In fact, I thought it was Thursday afternoon until I stepped outside into the darkness.

I live in the heart of Philly's Fabric Row, just a few blocks off the busy strip of bars and restaurants on South Street, which means the roads are usually lined with cars looking for parking on a Saturday night.  Night?  Clearly.  Unless I'm losing my vision. Saturday?  That's what the ATM receipt says.  Where did the week go?  Where it always does these days. A short reflexive pause to survey the landscape and then I'm back into tunnel vision mode: my mission, the score.

The roll of twenties in my pocket is slick with perspiration as I race to the rendezvous point around the corner past the Famous 4th Street Deli.  I don't recognize my connection but nevertheless make her out at once, not far from the pay phone.   Her expression - her demeanor - makes it clear she's no South Street reveler gearing up for the clubs; she's a courier, my Sherpa's intermediary, and her body language says as much.  Tonight, she's my lifeline and I love her more than she'll know.  (Random trivia note: Denzel Washington uses this very phone in one of the scenes from the movie Philadelphia.)

I walk up quickly but nervously to my new love, with an eye peeled always for the cops.  My paranoia unbounded, everyone smells like Five-0 out here tonight.  And there's a good chance they are, heightened fears aside.  So the exchange is made fast: currency for goods.  Two thumbnail plastic baggies chock full of lumpy white bliss pressed into my palm and my bank roll likewise into hers, passing the baton without acknowledgement in this felonious relay race.  She blinks, tucks it away, then picks up the pay phone and dials.

Having scored the primary supplies for the evening, a rush of relief radiates through my fingers.  A wordless au du to my new lost love in a rush, I quick-step across Bainbridge's double wide expanse to the north, veering left a bit in order to sneak through Leithgow, the side street that splits 4th from 5th.   Swinging into Phila Deli around the corner on South, a prescription is filled for several six packs of beer constituting the oh-so necessary brakes that'll slow my heart down to earth once I run out of blow.  I've long ago learned that waiting until the need arises to buy alcohol often leads to wild heart palpitations crawling out of your skin when you first glance at a clock and it reads 4am, long past closing time.  My connection's still glued to the pay phone gabbing obliviously as I pass her by again, this time lugging two large grocery bags of booze back to my humble abode.

How will this particular ride into heavenly oblivion distinguish itself from the countless journeys that came before?   Simply put, it was to be my last.   I'd stumble thereafter just once again, in September of 1994, but this trip would effective put to bed my particular cycle of addiction to cocaine.  What follows is a sketch of the events and my state of mind that finally put the kibosh on this slow motion suicide carnival ride.

I shove the key into the outside door and hurry up the two flights of stairs to my place, the "penthouse" of the three units in this converted multi-family house.  Back into the deep freeze, chilly sweat soaks my skin.  It was actually the nicest apartment I ever rented, narrow but deep with high ceilings, central air, and my own mini-washer/dryer unit to boot.  I also had a private staircase in the apartment itself that led up to the roof where I could sunbathe with a view of city hall and much of the rest of the city.  All for $525.00 a month from 1992 - 96 with no rent increase, two blocks from the heart of the South Street action.   The one downside?   It was so narrow that getting furniture of any size up the stairs and in through the door proved challenging (I ended up having to sell my larger couch prior to moving in).   Still, it deserved better than me, at least better than the me who inhabited the joint the first couple years.  In those days it was merely my cocoon, used to wall off the world for the drift into madness.   Other than being stumbling distance to a plethora of bars and restaurants with take-out beer and the fact that it served as a kind of midway point between the cocaine meccas of Chester and Kensington, I might as well have lived on the North Pole for all I availed myself of its vibrant surroundings and culture.

I rush into my place and toss the beer into the fridge.   That's just medicine, needed later to come down safely from the mountain.   But who wants to entertain such notions now?  It is time now to climb!  The cocaine experience started out socially for me with a dysfunctional sub-culture from which I learned much things I'd rather have never known.   As Jim Carroll would caution, they were a "constant warning to take the other direction."   In the end, it degenerated into isolation, much as it would later with alcohol.  Grabbing a CD jewel case already scratched/sticky from the counter, I get to work.  The door to my bedroom closed?  Check.  Blinds closed?  Check.  My body flailed out on the mattress?  Check.  Okay, we're ready.  Next, the contents of the first baggie are dumped out on REM's Reckoning (or some equally random case), the chopping begins, the separating, the lining up.  Finally, the snorting.  Eventually, the bleeding.  Rinse and repeat for the next 20 hours, with an occasional beer break mixed in to keep the blood pressure below bursting.

My highs are euphemistically described elsewhere in this blog as wired wakefulness and concentrated bliss.  They were certainly all that, but also something more.   It sounds so awful as recounted here (and believe me, I've held back the uglier details something fierce on these pages; my candor has its limits), but in the moment it was wonderful beyond description, all happening away from the horrors, up in the serenity of my head.   No other drug has ever come closer to bringing as much happiness to me.  It always arrived with a truckload of misery, to be sure; however, not nearly as much as alcohol eventually rained down on my life.   On balance, the happiness was artificial and short lived, the misery real and persistent.  Still, if that was all there was to this equation, I never would have stopped.   Happiness is happiness, who is to say what is artificial or real?  And long or short-lived, it was better than the alternative.  No, the kicker in the mixer that kept me clean was simple biology, chemistry.  I would be dead pretty quickly continuing down this path.  Cocaine isn't compatible with biological life, not for long, not for me. And of course, there were the finances.  You plunge into coke, you don't end up working a whole lot at a time when you need that income the most to keep the white stuff coming (well, you can work a shitload for long stretches at first, but not too effectively).  All that to say, it's expensive.   So coke didn't work for me chemically or financially.  But I digress, so back to that day ...

By the time the sun goes down on Sunday, the coke is history.  I'd licked the last of it off the jewel case, the baggies long since torn asunder in hopes of finding some long lost morsel hidden in microscopic crevasses within.  Without luck, of course.   It was then time to turn to the come-down beer in the kitchen fridge with gusto, slugging three in rapid succession just to slow the heart down to what I surmised was a safe jack hammer pace.  Thank you, Her Doktor!  That was an hour or so ago.

Two beers further into my come down routine now, bent over on my sofa in the living room.  Thinking about things.  Left my full time job back in March.  I'd been with that company for seven years but the consulting position I accepted paid a lot more and I could make my own hours, could choose when to work and when to "relax" (all dangerous things for someone with my proclivities).  Of course, I haven't been with a client for several weeks now, what with the marathon blow binges and all.  They really eat into one's productivity.  So, no real savings, no discernible cash inflow to help stem the outflow.  The result is that my phone will surely soon be shut off for non-payment in the coming days.  Next the cable.  Then the electric.  My credit's fucked.  I am almost 31 years old and have not yet begun to live life, afraid in fact of trying.  These ruminations reach a crescendo over my psyche and I stew.  The reason for this reflective mood?  I'd switched on the tube to kill time coming down and the movie Clean And Sober happened to be on HBO.

I tend to enjoy irony and often watch movies such as Lost Weekend or Days of Wine and Roses while drinking, fully understanding - even embracing - my condition and yet at the same time never giving thought to rectifying things.   I always figured heretofore that rectification for me would be death and death would be here soon enough.  This time, though, Clean And Sober is really getting its hooks into me. It's not a particularly wonderful flick.   You never get to see the protagonist on his slide (he's already pretty much bottoming out when we first meet him).  You do, however, see the consequences of his addiction pretty starkly.  And Michael Keaton is great in his first dramatic role.  All told, right movie, right time, right tone.   I don't believe in fate, or that I'm somehow special, an omnipotent being arranging this fortuitous chain of events just for me.  It is a happy coincidence.  In fact, the movie has been showing pretty regularly of late on cable and I'd caught pieces of it earlier in the week, coked up and drinking down just as I am this evening.  But it didn't strike me then like it's hammering me now.  An hour into watching, I feel light headed and look down to see a rapidly spreading little pool of blood on the carpet.  My hand goes up instinctively to my nose, warm sticky wet. I dash into the bathroom with my head tilted back.  Then I drop to my knees in the john and cry.

Cut to Monday late afternoon and I'm attending my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting.  I have a sponsor before I leave.  Thus begins the first year of real sobriety for me as an adult (hell, the first month).  I re-join my old employer within a week and stay put there for another seven years.  I stabilize.  For a while, anyway.

I'd stick with AA for a few months but the spiritual aspect of the program eventually had me searching elsewhere, eventually reaching out to Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)I've maintained my ties with SOS to this day, now with a successor organization, Lifering.   AA is great but there is never only one way to anything, including sobriety (if something works for you, keep at it).  My biggest misstep during this stab at sobriety was that I didn't get professional help for depression.  When I slipped in 1994, I quickly righted myself when it came to the coke (once and done, clean now for 15+ years).  Ironically, the only reason I drank again was to come down from that coke episode but the cork wouldn't fit back into the bottle.   No, the come-down booze that coke spurge necessitated was my full fledged plunge into the briny deep of chronic, progressive alcoholism over the next dozen years.  I think I've documented that swim and subsequent arrival back onshore sufficiently elsewhere on these pages.

This aspect of my experience has been exhausted here.  It's certainly exhausted me.  Perhaps it's time I attempt to dredge up some happy days for prosperity next.  It could happen.   But that'll take digging deep to find.  Until then, silence will reign on this blog.  With maybe just a bit of bad poetry to bridge the gulf.


The Drifting Fade

I'm blind to the brewing

of the great unwashed

though I am counted among them

in circles I avoid.

Jacked on coke,

candy and bile

and a gargantuan weakness

weathering time and tidal tears.


I'm railing rancor incandescent

at myself in unseen mirrors

reflecting my mind's eye

glaring back at me unforgiven.

Cracked and caked in piss stained

crimson gold and peeling

nicotine yellowy ceiling - walls - frayed,

unwanted and half betrayed,

at the feet of plaster knick-knack figurines,

arms askew, chipped and fractured.

Ghosts of my childhood,

haunted and haunting,

clotted from waiting

for me to arrive at some kind of solace,

gargling flesh and blood with lost animation,

vomiting memories of paternal delirium.

My seismic hungry

licks all the CD cases clean;

my perpetual panic

tears apart the couch for crumbs;

my inner chickenshit

grips the bedsheets slick with sweat

soaked sweet

from the gin and juice

of a thousand drinks gone by.

Summer some day is

a distant light from here,

the drifting fade.

Blistering angst cuts

on a rage lost in thought,

the angry call.

The mind blends to nonsense,

blessed chewing on my nerves,

the peptic turn.

My wisdom's stillborn stupid

with an instinct for fear

and guile and guilt.

It's what I have and what I am:

the drifting, shivering, sanctifying fade.


1994 - 1995 

My last romp with coke occurred the first week of September, 1994.  And it was a solid week of it.  After 14 months of sobriety.  I also fell off the drinking wagon as a matter of necessity in order to come down from the coke when it ran out each day/night/morning.  I vowed never to touch the white powder again and to date have kept to that.  But man, I more than compensated by plunging back into the briny deep of drink with a heretofore untapped vigor in the form of hard liquor.   Boozing with the hard stuff lasted the rest of the year, resulting in a number of week long benders and missed work.  But I managed somehow to ease back to beer and the functional alcoholism I had previously enjoyed prior to the Bolivian Marching Powder's introduction into my blood stream.


Splashes of Poison

My refrigerator sparkles

with splashes of poison;

my trash can is bulging

with remnants of pleasure.

My toilet, it whispers

to me, empty from nothing;

my heartache keeps throbbing

to punk rock religion

or perhaps simply finally, to regret.


Everlasting Delirium Shakes

dripping colors

of sunburned regrets

bleed through my dreams at night,

chased by daylight nightmares

of stumbling stasis

draped down in corporate ruminations

of my albatross.

she's always just off-camera,

gone from lost thoughts

out the corner of my eye,

a goth ghost

fondly remembered,

drifting toward existence

only after leaving me behind.

meanwhile, foreboding parties

of social grace failings

cut me screaming mute,

as though to peel away

the peptic perspiration

of conversations gone awry,

hemorrhaging reflux like museum wax figures melting.

i cling to my precious precipice,

balanced between the glory and the gored,

with my spiritual stupidity

up crevices divine,

twitching 'longing after' glances -

down toward echoes of elation -

at the normalcy i envy ...

... wandering giddy

into the warmed over death

of everlasting delirium shakes,

dissolving into the infinite past tenses

of hallucinating happiness,

shooting up idyllic confabulations

laced with imaginary days of yore.


1996 - '97 (San Diego and Breakdown)

May, 1997.  She looked at me quizzically, her face half hidden in the shadows. Then sadness, disappointment; finally, resignation. “I trusted you – and I can’t anymore.” We were sitting across from one another, lunch at Outback in Conshohocken a month and continent removed from my drunken, jealous explosion in San Diego on her birthday. A birthday ruined by a river of tequila overflowing my reservoir of self-loathing and suspicion, finally bursting the dam and fueling the outburst that precipitated our breakup.

So ended a torrid long distance relationship played out across six months of extended hotel sleep overs. We managed to manipulate things at work such that she’d travel to my city or I’d travel to hers on a nearly constant basis. It was easy enough to do: the company we worked for had us making the trek into each other's neck of the woods anyway; we just accelerated the frequency, stretched out each stay and coordinated travel schedules. It was hot and heavy and loaded with hysterics.

She started in the Philadelphia office right out of college while I had already been entrenched there for a decade by that time. I relocated to California just weeks after she came onboard in May of '96 so we didn't get to know one another until I traveled back east on business later that year. It was at an annual company outing during one such trip in September that we connected, when we were paired together as canoe partners on a little river run drunkfest. She made the first, second, and third moves and I didn’t recognize any of them. Finally she simply threw herself at me and that was that. Except "that" to her was something fun but to me it was something more.

My insecurities are always on the look-out for the acid rain lurking in puffy white clouds. The glass might very well be half full, but in my worldview it's probably half full of cyanide. All that to say I'm a bit pessimistic.

Due in no small part to a crippling shyness and social retardation, serious relationships seem to come along only every decade or two for me and tend to last not more than a few months, once it's clear we're operating at different speeds with divergent needs.

Usually the girl has to make sufficient moves to wake this idiot out of his emotional stupor and I don't exactly sport the Johnny Depp-caliber looks that might inspire such actions very often from the women I meet. But unless and until this occurs, my passionate side tends to go into a hibernation of sorts. To paraphrase George Costanza, "I'm a sexual camel." It takes a seismic event by a determined gal to jog me out of this slumber, but when it happens I awaken with force.

I identify in a sense - though not proudly - with the protagonist played by James Caan in the movie Thief. Caan's character gets out of prison after a lengthy stretch and methodically plots to romance and marry in very short order to make up for all the lost time. For me, the prison takes on a different form but the effect is the same. In brief, it doesn't work out all that well for him. In short, it doesn't work out all that great for me either. But this comparison isn't truly apt. Really I identify most completely with the 1970's Woody Allen persona: Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable... The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life ... The miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable ...

All of this whining background is meant to frame the emotional volatility seething under the surface on her birthday, six months into a relationship that had been on its last legs for at least the last two of them. It was a good crowd gathered at one of the cantinas we frequented for such revelry, the Old Town Saloon. Most of the group was on travel from our Philadelphia office save for me and a couple of others who were based on the west coast.

The margaritas flowed for all but they went down especially easy for me. As I got more intoxicated, I began to fixate on the fact she had seen some movie with another guy; it didn't matter what flick or dude, jealousy rained down on me like a tsunami. She caught that vibe and started peppering me with pin pricks through continued allusions to her boys back home. The long distance thing was really getting to me. She was on occasion dating other guys when back east and I couldn't handle the competition, figuring I'd lose out to whomever else might be around. It was a self fulfilling prophecy.

She was staying at the Best Western Hacienda Hotel across the street from our cantina and although I lived in San Diego, I was as usual staying with her. The rest of our crowd remained blissfully unaware of the tension between her and I; for the most part, they were unaware of the relationship itself. Unfortunately for those on travel staying at the hotel, they wouldn't be ignorant of it for long.

The tension between her and I during this birthday drink-fest grew as taut without snapping as could be, mixing the tequila-laced salt into unseen wounds in my psyche. She was largely unaware that the barbs thrown my way were being compounded and magnified in my mind through the booze; however, it seemed very much the opposite at the time to this soused and beaten clown. On the contrary, it seemed that each zinger thrown was more calculated than the last, calibrated with my intoxication to deliver maximum damage. Finally I could take no more and excused myself, stumbling out into the night with fear and rage burning my brain.

She stayed awhile longer at the cantina while I stewed and seethed pacing her hotel room. By the time she left the bar and I heard her keycard in the door, I was at the apex of my anger. Little of this was about movies and boys back home. It was all about expectations and reality annihilating one another. But there was no clear-headed analysis going on, just six months of frustration about to pour over her and then back over me again.

We ended up in a yelling match that spilled out of the room. I said some things that I couldn't take back, that made taking back beside the point. I spoke them again, I screamed them. Taking them back was beside the point. She threw my things out the door, over the balcony and onto the ground outside. So I did the same to her things. The bar was clearing out and the others arrived on this scene, her and I both in fits and tears.

One of the guys led me back to his room - I couldn't go back to hers. It quickly became clear that my words were a one way ticket out of the relationship and the plane was already in flight. But I needed to make things right in my delirium, so I tried to call her. No dice. I managed to slip out of my new prison, reel up the stairs and began knocking on her door. "Get out of here!" She called my new roommate/guard to walk me back down. I slept in his bathtub until I sobered up and then drove jittery/sobbing home the next morning to an apartment I had grown used to not living in. An apartment that would now become my prison once more.

I didn't go into work the next day. It was hell on Earth. It was the worst day of my life. I was hung over, I'd lost it and I'd lost her. I paced my apartment/prison. I threw up. I made calls to colleagues to try and figure out a way to fix it. Perhaps now that she's slept on it, things might be okay? Perhaps not. I met with the others that evening. She did not accompany them. They'd been at work with her, they knew her fury. I was truly fucked.

When I saw her the next day at work we talked quietly in a corner. Her deadpan tone and lost eyes destroyed me and I lost it, dissolving in this dissolution. It was over.
I ended the evenings for the balance of that spring screaming into my pillow until the noise quieted the silence of being alone again. Until the anticipated emotional hibernation took hold. The winter once more of my discontent had arrived and it's with me still to this day.

A winter of my own making, to be sure. I'd like to think I've grown some in the twelve and a half years since this meltdown in SoCal. I moved back to Pennsylvania only a few months thereafter and we became friends again even before then, in fact not long after our lunch at Outbacks where she finally aired her feelings at our breakup (my breakdown). Where she finally aired what her feelings had been all along.

Friends and no more. That's where we kept it, likely it should have never become more. After all, we had nothing in common except misguided passion in the dark, fumbling at cross purposes and rubbing vulnerabilities raw.


2000 - 2005 (Losing the Fun in Functional Alcoholism)

In early 2000, I quit the job I'd had since leaving the Navy some 14 years earlier, seduced a bit late in the game by the still expanding technology bubble.  Thus began my life as a software consultant, one I continue to this day.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), the transient nature of consulting made it easier for me to go on extended benders without worrying about getting fired: each consulting engagement was generally short - a few days to a few months - and there was often some natural down time between them.  In addition, since you were often working for new clients, you had a clean slate on which to write those same tired excuses ("I was sick," "I had a death in the family," and so on).   But for the most part I managed to hold it together, at least for the first few years of the 21st Century.


Remembrances (outside the Peculiar Pub, NYC '01)

The concrete seas melt to sunflower sour

as junkies fix on the tides.

Sweetened smells off sulfur ghosts

light small talk piss on ash and steel

with a sickness black to white 

to brown to gasoline combustion.

She can seldom know why it's never ending

as refusal licks clean the remains.

Darkened stains of abandoned thoughts

spread soft and steady down Bleecker

until it flowers green to gray to grime to through and through corrosion.


Booze Battered Bubbles of Toil and Trouble

The deep dark truthful mirror never seemed to penetrate the fog of Las Vegas and Atlantic City for me.

Those towns were havens, sanctuaries within which my alcoholism could let its hair down and slip into comfortable clothes. There, I didn't have to impress anyone feigning sobriety with my breakfast. A double gin and tonic ordered at the bar at 8am in Casinoville is generally looked upon no differently than one ordered at 8pm. Especially in Vegas. After all, this is the land of 24/7 party time, with folks constantly flying to and fro all corners of the globe. Time ceases to matter; it is in fact considered a distraction and its acknowledgement rude: there are no clocks in a casino and, for the most part, the outside world is invisible from within its depths for this very reason. The ambient temperature remains perpetually hovering around 65 degrees, the air circulation providing a quasi stripper-perfumed scent that mixes in with the cigarette smoke and represents this world's atmosphere. Ah, truly home.

I was loath to arrive into either of these destinations sober, though I always left that way. Broke, shaking, sick. But on the way in, oh Mama! With Vegas, that meant getting good and juiced on the inbound five hour early morning flight. They poured me out of the plane at McCarran and I'd stumble blind through the ring-a-ding ding of the welcoming slots down the terminal out to a taxi destined for the nearest casino and casino bar.

I've lived entire lives at the blackjack table. It was never about the game, the gambling incidental. No, the thing for me was a sort of strange socialization. Plowed, I felt free to interact with the dealer and my fellow players as I never did actual friends and relatives. What's your names? Where you from? Bam! Black Jack! Dealer busts again! I'll have another double gin and tonic!  On and on.  I romanced, married, fought with and divorced many a black jack dealer, with her never the wiser.  We vacationed with our good friends around the felt among the cards and I was free.  By the time exhaustion had overtaken me, and I had to retire to the hotel room alone, I was too blotto to notice it was all a mirage (no pun intended).

I've been back to both places a couple of times since getting sober, A.C. to see bands/comedy acts and Vegas for work. There's no allure there now: they seem like different places, ones that hold nothing for me except foggy memories. It's sad in a way.  The magic is gone.  In the right mood, I can almost make out the ghost of my former self stumbling down the MGM carpet, grasping at a slot for leverage before pushing off again. The blistering Vegas sun, when I had to venture outside, often produced a violent, nauseous reaction in me.  However, it was short lived, the time it took to step into one of the ever ready plethora of taxis and off I'd go in search of the next sanctuary.  I never did find my Sera there.  As a consolation, I did make it out alive.


Stone Cold Insomnia ('05 Summer Delirium Dreams)

I feel cold.

Another August daylight is fast approaching

but I'm oblivious to time

just as sleep finds no purchase

in any of my remembrances,

as the drip drop of sink filth

wets the toothpaste caked porcelain.

Dawn's noises outside are muted,

echoing emptiness nonetheless.

Or are they simply my disease

projecting out onto the street?

Stillborn, I starve on starlit sunrises

with world-weary pizza,

too drunk to dream (too cheesed to notice).

Too numb to scream.

But I do.

And I feel.


Straining through the condensation,

a summer drizzle of freezing sweat

steaming down my spine.

Can I have fries with these shakes?


Wonder of the Wenceslas Square KFC (Prague Dec 2004)

She got drunk on a feeling -

I wish it were mine -

then left me

without ever having come.

She's a never ending angst

to those she inhabits

with herself more at ease

than a child's imagination.

She's my lost love, the wonder -

working the counter

on the late shift

at the Wenceslas Square KFC.


2006 (Hitting Bottom)

My drinking took a turn for the worse in early 2005 when I switched from beer to the hard stuff.  At first it was a lark one weekend when I bought some rum to mix into tropical concoctions courtesy of my blender.   Then after a little while of letting out my pirate side, the blender broke and rather than going back to beer I made the decision to switch to gin and orange juice instead.  In all my years of drinking, I don't think I've ever ordered anything but beer from a bar (outside of Atlantic City and Vegas, as noted earlier).  Apparently, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay there.  Generally this foray into Liquorville was kept to the weekend with only the occasional week long bender passed off as the flu at work.  That balance fell apart in October of '05, though, so I simply quit my job and boozed straight on through to the New Year of 2006.  December was tough: my home heater, also the source of my home's hot water, died on me.  After surviving with space heaters and ice cold showers for a bit, I finally had to buy a new one and have it installed.  All this while maintaining my 24/7 boozing (okay, 18/7 - I passed out a few hours each day).  The installation took three days during which time I tried to maintain some semblance of sobriety around the workers without actually being sober.   Somehow I managed to pull myself together in the first weeks of January enough to get a new job with a consulting firm where I had previously worked.  I stayed mostly sober until May.


The Experiment

June, 2006. White coats, bright lights, devilish laughter. Everything is distorted. Clear liquid instruments blend into metal running through IV tubes out of my arm onto the tray. My body rises slightly; reacting, rough callused fingers pat my wrist, then push down on the syringe, the big fade. My head falls to the side hard on the pillow, nylon straps gripping me to the gurney. Whispers blue black, silence blood red. And always: white coats, bright lights, devilish laughter.

I'd been in the ER a few hours at this point, but if you told me I'd been here five minutes or three days, I wouldn't have been surprised.

Mike found me at my house at noon in hallucinatory madness, raving about my walking travels through Mexico the night before as though I'd strolled out of my home in Philadelphia through a wormhole into Tijuana.

I also regaled him with the exploits of a female basketball team living mostly in my attic the past week. The racket was grating on me, what with the bouncing of the basketball echoing through the ceiling and their laughter trailing after it. Except for their center, a very tall Asian player who stands motionless and silent next to my skis in the spare room the whole time. Mike took a peek and of course found nothing, no one but me in the house.

And the dog-size rats! With razor tipped teeth flashing yellowy eyes, shit they were flowing like a river of bubonic gray through my house and out the front door yesterday! The pro-rat crowd was out in force down the street, a spontaneous rally aimed squarely against yours truly, upset that I'd dialed up Pest Control. Man, you should have been here, Mike! They had a big parade with those same rats as Grand Marshall. Then the Pest Control folks arrived and the whole parade/rally exploded into a riot in the church parking lot! I went and hid in the church until the smoke cleared. Wicked!

Just the usual small talk between old friends.

Mike looked around and then at me, quizzically. I had red slits for eyes and jaundiced pallor, pouring sweat. Unshaven in weeks, matted hair uncut in months. Shower? Who needs those? Clearly something was very wrong, and I knew it too on some level, but not in a way I could communicate to myself, certainly not to others. Things were fine!

After an uncomfortable few minutes Mike quietly said, "You need to go to the emergency room, I think something isn't right. You're making no sense." I was agreeable, though I didn't know why. It was like an out of body experience, I was just sitting back in the darkened theater crunching popcorn and watching the show with the rest, wondering what was next for our intrepid anti-hero.

The next thing I 'remember' are the white coats, bright lights, devilish laughter.

You see, I was at the tail end of my own special experiment: let's take a medical leave from work and see what happens when you polish off the better part of two 70cl bottles of Tanqueray each day for the long end of four weeks and then .. just ... stop ... cold. Slow motion suicide. A month long gunshot to the head.

The first four weeks were easy enough - well, the first two and half weeks were anyway.

Gradually the challenge of making it to the state store in the morning without dry heaving on the guy at the register became a massively complicated effort, the hardest I think I've ever worked in my life. Trying to look as normal as I could, trying to walk, then actually drive. Man, I was soaked with sweat like I'd been hiking in an Ecuadorian jungle for a week dressed to scale Mt. Everest. And that's after I managed to make it from the bed all the way to ... the chair by the bed. Puts on pants. Slugs down a gin and orange juice, throws up, another, throws up, another, keeps it down - no, throws up. One more. Puts on shirt. Brush teeth. Slugs down another, back up, down, up, down, down. And so on it went. At least on those happy days when I had a little liquid normal left in the bottle. Some days, I wasn't so lucky.

The drives to the state store were the worst - two miles or so, shaking so uncontrollably I could barely grip the steering wheel, big beach towel in the passenger seat to wipe the pools of chilled sweat pouring down my face and arms. Yellow/clear sickness sticking to black leather upholstery and dripping down the driver's side window when I turned the wrong way.

But I managed to do it - not only the state store but a stop off at the Wawa Deli for a quart or two of orange juice on the way back. Then, finally, home. I made it! I had my supplies and life could go on. Well, not quite. After another round of drink, vomit, drink, vomit, drink, drink, drink ... (Three and a half years later, I still can't stomach the smell of orange juice.)

Finally I was straight enough to turn on the TV, check email, veg out and channel surf. Looking for anything that would divert my attention from the 800 pound gorilla sitting on my chest clawing at my stomach. And drink, TV and drink. Until I passed out. And then the daily cycle repeated itself.

Good times!

My trash cans were filling with empty gin bottles, I was truly the Tanqueray poster child for May 2006, though I imagine I wouldn't be their first choice as spokesperson. Sipping on Gin and Juice, laid back. Not quite, Snoop.

The final week was especially miserable, to the point where I couldn't move, open my eyes, or make a sound without heaving. The slightest smell, however innocuous, would kick off a chain reaction of nausea. Only an ever growing intake of booze would temporarily dull this effect, put the genie back in the bottle for a few hours, but less and less for shorter and shorter periods. Eventually almost all the booze ended up in the toilet as sick.

My stomach, never strong and already prone to severe bouts of acid reflux, finally said "no more." It just wouldn't accept anything. So it was time for phase two: stopping. It was a tough road for a day or so - shaking violent upheavals, icy hot chills. And then it seemingly got better, dreamy. In fact the most vivid waking dreams of phantom visitors, parades down my little street, trips around the globe, rats and razors, and human/rodent riots, all from the 'comfort' of the bathroom floor, eye level with the buttons on the bottom of the shower curtain, night and day gleaned from the indirect light reflected off the mirror above me.

Mike found me on day three of withdrawal and by that point, to paraphrase John Lennon, cold turkey already had me on the run.  And the race seemed over. I was pretty much resigned to death, even giddy about the prospect (no more technicolor yawns). Maybe the joviality was simply an outbreak of the delirium tremens, the DTs. In fact I know now that it almost certainly was, but at the time I thought the DTs meant pink elephants or giant imaginary bugs crawling up the walls and such. The Hollywood interpretation.

But I had gotten myself dressed and called Mike to see if he wanted to grab lunch. I thought I had come out the other side at some level. My masochistic experiment over, I kept telling myself. Fat lot I knew. The slight horror on Mike's face when I opened the door should have been a clue I couldn't gauge my condition properly. Then I opened my mouth and uttered the most nonsensical things. It was clear to him that I was off the deep end and plunging into the icy depths.

My delirium fantasies hit full stride in the ER. The staff there - sometimes doctors, occasionally nurses - hooked me up to a diuretic IV drip for what seemed like hours, force feeding me chocolate and corn. But they wouldn't let me go to the shitter. I tried to speak to them, pleading with them to stop but it seemed they didn't understand a word I said. They looked at me, laughed, and responded always with same two word non sequitur: "Kill Kirk." Never anything but that. "Kill Kirk"

What did it mean?

I wasn't particularly fond of the 60s Star Trek franchise, certainly no Trekkie. But I knew of no other 'Kirk'. I didn't actually hear this, so it came from somewhere within me. Maybe I misheard some critical care/medical jargon/phrase.

So, "Kill Kirk" and then he or she would invariably scribble something on a notepad, chuckle devilishly, and furiously hustle away, bent over doing the Groucho Marx walk with the hand out, fingers gripping the invisible Groucho cigar. Except for the last time.

The last visit I received from the ER staff was when they opened the curtain around my gurney and descended on me en masse. This time there was no "Kill Kirk" or scribbled notes. This time, they stripped me naked, pinned a big clear plastic diaper on me and carried me out into the middle of the street in front of the hospital, depositing me there to quite literally shit myself into oncoming traffic. Fade to black.

I awoke in a hospital room, arms and faces melting like wax around me, pricking and poking, talking loud, screaming. I was dying, I swore I heard that. I glanced out the window and saw palm trees. Quickly to the right, there - a motion camera with crew behind it. I was in Hollywood, on a movie set. Or TV. ER? Grey's Anatomy?

I'm not an actor, though, I'm dying!

Was I taking the Stanislavski Method to it's logical extreme? Or part of a documentary on the terminally ill? Somehow they both made sense. How did I get out of the street? Did I crawl back in? How did I make it to Hollywood? Do the ER staff know? They'll find me and fix my wagon for good. But that was in Philadelphia. If I was in Hollywood on a film set, those ER goons couldn't find me. Unless the film crew ARE the ER goons, making ER. This Philadelphia area 'hospital' I'm in was in Hollywood, always had been. The two worlds were one in my mind.

The faces huddled across from my bed, whispering. What is that they are saying? Liver failure? Renal Failure? Don't lie to me! Motherfucking liars! I wanted to go home to die, tried to break free. I jumped up and kicked at the face blocking the door but missed, slamming my foot into a metal cabinet, breaking two toes and collapsing on the floor. Fade to blur.

Dreams, I'm driving a car with a large sack of potatoes next to me, it goes on and on. I'm still running from death but it's embodied as a car full of doctors now, and they're gaining on me with humongous hypodermics sticking out of the roof.

Finally, lucidity begins to regain its footing in my psyche. Slowly I awaken, but in Philadelphia, in a hospital. Hollywood's gone. And I'm not dying, not immediately, anyway. I am securely strapped down to the hospital bed. For my own safety as well as that of the staff, a nurse tells me.

Confused, disoriented, I'd remain that way for the next several days, perhaps forever. But I knew where I was. Arms immobile in the makeshift straight jacket that binds me to a bed in a hospital with IVs coming out of my arm, sharp pain shooting through my foot and a dull, throbbing hurt all around my eyes. Deep black spots speckle my field of vision, an old man in the bed next to me gags, coughs behind the partition. A TV plays overhead - some soap opera I can make out through the bad reception. A doctor on rounds stands over me. What day is it? Monday. When did I get here? Saturday. Your sister is flying in. What happened? You very nearly drank yourself to death.

Ahh, yes.

I knew where I was. But not a clue as to where I might be going.


A Hospital Remembrance

On the morning of my fourth day in the hospital, I ask for scissors and a razor. I haven't looked at myself in a mirror for weeks, but have gone unshaven at least that long. And I can feel it: the patches of wild, stringy whiskers covering my bone thin face. They itch something fierce.

It is quite a process making the ten foot trek from my bed to the room's toilet, me hunched over and footing unsure as I drag along the bulky IV stand with my hospital gowned ass flapping in the breeze. I've only made this journey once before, to piss last night. It has been two days since they determined I was no longer a threat to the staff or myself, removing my restraints and catheter.

My body is acutely weak, partly from the ravages of alcohol abuse but mostly from the subsequent and sudden withdrawal. With legs the consistency of rubber, the knees threaten to buckle at each step. It doesn't help that I am out of practice walking, having only attempted the feat twice in the past four days: once for the aforementioned trip to piss and once within the first twelve hours of my arrival into the ER, when I lashed out kicking and screaming at the hospital staff in the throes of the delirium tremens (and, as it turned out, breaking my foot in the bargain). But the cherry on top of this shit muffin is the damn IV contraption. Hooked up to refuel my depleted supply of potassium and electrolytes, it would have been a bitch to maneuver even if I'd been at full strength. The nurse later allows me to temporarily disconnect from the IV tether, making the potty trips so much easier. But that is still to come. As it is, I can barely fit my tubular companion into the tiny shitter with me. Still, I have to clean up or I'll go mad from the itch and smell.

The light in the bathroom is mercifully dim. I look up slowly into the mirror and am shocked at the thing staring back at me. My complexion is gray/yellow and skin clammy cold while the eyes follow suit in jaundiced exhaustion. I touch the top of my head and it comes back damp, the scalp is soaked and hair matted, curling over my ears and falling into my eyes. Perspiration seems to pour out of every orifice and the resulting stench rings of some unholy blending of BO, vomit, and gin. Clumps of long gray/black whiskers twist out at crazy angles along my jaw line and upper lip interspersed with the large barren patches that mark the reason I've never bothered trying to grow a proper beard. My hands are shaking violently as I crank the sink's faucet on hot and let the water warm up. I then soak a washcloth, soap it, and rake the rag across my face and hair. Rinse. I do the same up and down my body, at least to those places I can reach.

I next reach for the scissors with my right hand, gripping the back of the wrist with my left to steady it, and hunch over so as not to tear the IV out while I clip the whiskers down to shaving length. Midway through, the dry heaves take me away from this work. My intravenous ball-and-chain prevents me from the instinctive drop to hug the porcelain god, so I lean as far down into the sink as I can and spasm the yellowy clear into the faucet stream. Fuck. I rinse the bowl and resume clipping, shaky chills and start-stop nausea making it an arduous task. I eventually get the job done, my hands trembling a little less than they had been. I hurry up with a quick shave before the shakes catch me again, trying my best to work the cheap plastic razor with a minimum of cuts and snags. A quick look in the mirror after my clean up, sad and small.

And then it was time to slow dance the IV back to my bed, accompanied by the sounds of the hacking cough and gagging of my hospital roommate, an elderly guy whose ailment remained a mystery to me. Whatever his condition, it required him to release a lot of phlegm in myriad ways, loudly (in turn usually triggering my nausea; we're quite a pair). Once I lay down on the bed and get the IV stand situated back into its usual position, I kill the light and am bathed in the darkness of the evening with the faint flickering of the TV overhead.

The stench is still there, in the sweaty sheets sticking to my skin mixing with the pungent odor drifting over from my roomie across the curtain. But I'm essentially clean for the first time in weeks on a number of levels. Unfortunately, this deliberate act of cleansing the filth off my body seems to have awakened the mind's consciousness out of the foggy twilight slumber it's been mired in lo these many weeks. I now repeatedly replay my life unravelling over the past month, watching it slide down again and again into a hole from which there is no light. Indeed, it had been unravelling for years, but the rope had clearly since grown taut until it finally snapped in May. In fact, I see now that I'd been actively digging that metaphorical hole deeper, fervently hoping to come out the other end. Until I had no strength left to dig and with China still nowhere in sight.

It was this during this act of making the turn back up toward the light that I realized I'd hit bottom, there in that hospital bed, clean on an evening in early June of 2006. Now those recent horrors had crystalized, becoming quite apparent. But so had a new sensation I had never before experienced: a steely eyed resolve not to relive the madness yet again.

Then I cried myself awake until the morning's sun rose.



June 3rd, 2006.  As previously mentioned, I was nearly dead and mad in the throes of delirium when my friend Mike found me at home and drove me to the emergency room; however, by the third day I was mostly lucid and on the fourth I started calling around to treatment centers to inquire as to availability and price (I'd be footing the bill myself since my health insurance wouldn't cover this eventuality).  My sister suggested the Sundown Ranch in Eastern Washington.  She was very familiar with the place since her then-husband Tony had gone through there a few times.  The rehab didn't take for Tony but that was no blight on its effectiveness; no treatment took for him because his "bottom" turned out to be death (and if he could have found a way to drink post-mortem he'd have done that too).   Still, I had no desire to travel across the country and was determined to find one in the local Philly area.   Finally, after a dozen fruitless calls from my hospital bed, I land on what I think is the perfect place: the Keystone Center in Chester, PA.  I liked the irony of its location, smack in the middle of the area where I used to buy cocaine in the late 80s and early 90s.  Plus it was relatively cheap at a couple thousand for a two week stay that I eventually extended into three for an extra grand.

I checked out of the hospital on Friday and into the Keystone Center the following Monday morning, June 12th. My sister had flown in and was staying at my house so she drove me down there in my car.  She'd be heading back to her home in Phoenix in a few days and I'd take a cab back to my place once rehab finished.   The Keystone Center organized its patients into four groups: two male, one female and a co-ed group called Freedom.  The architecture of this rehab was unique with a couple of relatively modern two-story buildings behind an old re-purposed stone and wood mansion.  The first floor of the mansion held the administrative offices that I only saw on check-in and check-out.  The second floor was home to the all-female group and the top floor was where Freedom men and women met for therapy and slept.  The more conventional buildings held the medical ward where prescribed drugs were dispensed and where new arrivals slept when going through detox.  The cafeteria, therapy rooms for the two male groups, a large conference room for all-hands meetings and the staff offices also called these buildings home.  There was another building across the alley which housed a group of juveniles.  These shared our cafeteria but otherwise did not interact with us adults, only really affecting us when they overstayed their lunch period, forcing us to wait longer in line. Well, the young punks were also responsible for the caffeine ban (only decaf sodas and coffee were available because they didn't want the tykes getting hopped up).  I hated them for this.

I ended up in Freedom Group.  It was, as I mentioned, co-ed.  It was also much smaller than the other groups and its members had less restrictions than the others.  For one, guys and gals could talk while in their meetings and in the shared TV room in our "penthouse" at the top of the mansion.   There were five bedrooms with either two or four per (these were obviously unisex and it was strictly forbidden to penetrate these walls if you were the wrong sex).   There was likewise two showers/toilets and a private laundry room. Finally, there were no locks on our doors or floor.  The women-only group on the floor below us had similar digs but the male patients not in Freedom lived in large dorm-style rooms with six to a dozen per room and the floors to these rooms locked after 9pm so if you wanted to grab a last cup of decaf or go for a walk, you'd better not get caught out after hours or there was hell to pay because you had to find somebody to unlock the doors, effectively ratting yourself out.  I know this because though I was assigned to Freedom, I didn't sleep there initially; at first, I was still sleeping in detox and then after I was declared clear was moved to one of the other buildings until a bed opened up in the Freedom "penthouse."   Naturally, the other groups resented Freedom and when we mingled together during meals there was no end to the name calling.  How did one rate such an advantage?  I'm not sure.  The people in Freedom were just as fucked up as the others, at least to my eyes.  I think it came down to money and choice.  The ones in Freedom were there by choice, mostly - at least the choice of parents in the case of the kids in their late teens and early 20s - and I think had the money and/or insurance to pay in advance.  Though that's not right either: we had more than a few who were there by court order and at least a few who were being gently/discreetly "reminded" by the staff to call their parents or spouse to arrange payment.  It certainly didn't seem to be divided along racial lines (Freedom had as healthy a representation of ethnicities as the other groups).   Maybe it was the luck of the draw but there was a pervading sense - at least on my part - that this was most certainly intentional.

So, Monday I arrive and check-in.  I pay up front and then after reviewing the medication I was on was told I'd be spending the next day or two in detox.  This confused me because I'd just spent a week detoxing to horrific effect in the county hospital and was quite sure I was as clean as I could possibly be.  The thing is, my gastroenterologist had several years ago prescribed me Nexium for my acid  reflux and Xanax to help me sleep but this latter drug is classified as an addictive benzodiazepine from which I must be weaned.   So they stuck me in a little private room off the Nurse's Station where I could presumably sweat out the withdrawal in close proximity to medical assistance.  There was to my knowledge only one actual doctor at Keystone, the department head, a psychiatrist, but plenty of RNs.  I only took the occasional Xanax so I experienced no withdrawal symptoms at all but rules were rules so I slept here fitfully, trying to ignore where others in rooms beside me were not so fortunate in their cold turkey dance.  During the day up to 9pm, I'd be allowed to go up to Freedom Group for the usual AA sessions/meetings, discussions/testimonials on addiction, and lectures by the various counselors assigned to us.

The Freedom group fluctuated between 10 - 20 people with about 70% heroin, coke or crack addicts, 29% alcoholics and one college age kid who was there for a gambling addiction.  The dude made a lot of money, so he says, but had been kicked off the college basketball team and eventually out of the school itself after the gambling ring he formed was discovered by administration officials.  Turns out Keystone Center had one of the few Gambling Addiction programs in the Philly area with our main counselor, Nick, himself a recovering GA.

The median age of my fellow Freedom riders was about 25, with several under 20 (the heroin and coke crowd).   Jeanie - 19, mother and white suburban upper middle class coke head who fancied herself an inner city gangsta girl - was the wildest, getting into fights during meetings and at lunch.  She was bi-polar so of course we nicknamed her Tri-Polar.  I was closest with Charlie (a drunk about my age) and Eric (the college gambler), thanks to similar senses of humor.   We'd bust on people waiting in line to eat (an hour's lunch would generally consist of 45 minutes of waiting in line and 15 minutes actually eating thanks to the large population and limited cafeteria seating) but mostly bust on ourselves for being there.  We had no illusions about what we were and this placed us in the distinct minority in that regard.  Most were just now grappling with the fact that they most certainly had a problem of some sort, if only because of the fucked up circumstances which landed them in this particular rehab (for many, this was not their first rodeo).  But an addict?  An alcoholic?  "Well, I'm just not sure about that."

Typical weekday Schedule:

7am, decaf coffee available; 8am breakfast, 9 - 10am, AA meeting, 10 - 11am; sober living education, 11 - 12pm, psychodrama (Tue/Thu) or nutrition/dealing with stress (Mon/Wed/Fri); 12 - 1pm, lunch; 1 - 2pm, AA meeting; 2 - 5pm, exercise/swimming/free time (work on writing up post-rehab goals, amends, etc.); 5 - 6pm, dinner followed by reciting of Serenity Prayer in all hands meeting room; 6 - 7pm, evening with counselor Nick on surviving sober or whatever he happened to pontificate on (he was a Jersey-wise-guy-style hoot and could sermonize on AA 101 with the best); 7 - 8pm, guest testimonial/AA meeting; 8 - 10pm, sometimes free time but occasionally a movie in the Freedom common room with addiction theme.

For Freedom group, psychodrama took place twice a week.  This was very interesting.  We walked across the alley to the Keystone out-patient facilities where there was a large room with chairs arranged in a circle around a central chair.  Once seated, a specifically trained "certified psychodrama facilitator" guided us through the next hour and a half.  The process was focused on one member of the group for the entirety of the session.  This volunteer - we were all strongly encouraged to do this prior to completing our stay - would sit in the center of the circle and act out a tragic/pivotal event in his or her life that involved or triggered addictive behavior.  The central player would ask other group members to improvise with them in the guise of specific people in their lives.  It was part theater, part primal therapy.  I surprised myself by raising my hand my last week there.  I had previously watched guys and girls act out physical and emotional abuse, rape, and other unspeakably horrific tales, including one going through Fentanyl-spiked heroin withdrawal.  (While at rehab, there was talk going 'round about a strain of heroin on the street that had been spiked with lethal amounts of fentanyl and while this frightened some of the addicts, two arrived mid point during my stay who had been deliberately seeking out this poison in order to experience the "ultimate high.")

I chose, for psychodrama, to reenact my recent experience with alcohol withdrawal and the delirium that came along for the ride.  I was quite certain at some point about 6 hours into my hospital stay that I was dying of a terminal disease.  I screamed at the doctors and nurses to save me and accused them of murder after they insisted that I was experiencing alcoholic delirium.  Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal if not treated with medication, they allowed, but my withdrawal was in fact being treated.  Lies!   So I re-enacted this with members of the group playing the role of doctors, nurses, my sister, and some of my friends.  It was cathartic,  if more than a bit creepy.  And it brought me closer to a few members of my group, most of whom I'd kept at a distance (I'm not good socializing).  Turns out I was much better at consequential socializing than I am at the normal small-talk usually required.  At a rehab, most everything is emotional and there isn't as much a need to talk about sports or the weather or day-to-day life.  Of course, as I left I promised to keep in touch with all of my new "friends" and then never did.  I certainly regret that now as I'd like to know how they're making out.  I know the statistics say most drank or used again - and some end up in a recovery/relapse loop for years - but you always hope for the best.

I flipped out on the day before I was to depart.   The Remeron anti-depressant the Keystone medical staff had put me on wasn't available once at the nurse's station after waiting in line during evening med call (twice a day you'd line up to get whatever meds you were prescribed).  I went off on the nurse there and continued my tirade with the Keystone director, Deb.  I apologized to both when I cooled down.  I'd only been on the drug for a few days and yet was still horrified at the thought of missing a dose.  I'm sure now that I hadn't been on it long enough for it to have any discernible effect, so I'm sure it was purely psychological.

I only met with the actual staff shrink once.  He was the "chief medical officer" and only M.D. on staff so appointments were hard to come by.  Most were only granted one audience.  I explained to him that I did not believe in a higher power and though I understood the value of AA and the 12 step program for others, I would not be following it per se.  Not strictly.   I'd take what I need and leave the rest, as they say.  I'd already planned to join Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S).  I liked their philosophy, the tenet of which is the Sobriety Priority (in short, sobriety is #1 priority in your life and everything else flows from that).  Needless to say, this went over like a lead balloon.

I ended up extending from 14 to 19 days mostly because I was comforted by the structure and insulation from "real life."  But my bank account wouldn't let hide there forever so it came to pass that I "graduated" and was discharged the morning of July 1st after which I took a cab back home and into my newly sober real life.


2007 - Present (Sobriety)


A March without Movement

I awaken to the ground hard,

vestiges of melting winter come at me

downward from the slate stricken sky.

I awaken to the dawn

of madness bearing down.

Of b-ball bracket worship

and faux celtic drunk-fests,

of emergence from snow-swept silence

and the last gasps of ice storms fading

while the boys of summer stir to life

in grapefruit cactus play

and the alpine calcifying snow-bound zombies

recede into the mud

of fool's days to come.

I arise from my slumber

through a fog into sunshine,

floating past in a quandry,

stuck in stasis along the way.

I feel close to south of empty

yet still somewhere north of broken,

smack dab in a permafrost

of the perpetual in-between,

swept into a March without movement

toward teasing promises anew.


Ketchup on Champagne (November 2009 Fever Dream)

I am floating on a giant pair of scissors, cutting smoothly through a boiling ocean of Listerine. I didn't realize scissors were buoyant but damn it they are in this adventure through the looking glass.

How, you might ask, do I know I am navigating through mouthwash (and how in particular am I certain it is Listerine and not, say, Scope)? It's a good question. All I can tell you is that in this dream the substance and brand are givens, as sure as the air we breathe. Several of my shipmates, it should be noted, are regularly dunking little cups into the antiseptic waves as they crest across the scissor blades, gargling with the stuff before spitting it back into the deep.

I am clearly captain of this fine vessel and I have the best crew you could hope for. Well ... not exactly ... My USS Scissors is manned with an odd assortment of team mascots (Phillie Phanatic and San Diego Chicken), Krofft characters of yore (H.R. Pufnsuf and Sigmund the Sea Monster) and Sesame Street regulars (Big Bird and Snuffleupagus).

This felt-heavy menagerie is fortified by the addition of Sally Struthers, a gaggle of Christian Children's Fund (CCF) kids (presumably tagging along with Ms. 'Gloria' Ginormasaur), and Rob Reiner, his Meathead 'stache glued to his upper lip and 70's wig covering his chrome dome. Archie Bunker's chair is tied down to one of the scissor handles for some reason but no Archie or Carroll O'Connor accompanies it.

Maybe the CCF kids are mine. I've been sponsoring them for some time now (no thanks to Ms. Struthers and her voracious appetite; in fact, visions of her grinning girth among the starving almost made me renege on my pledge, suspicious that at least a portion of my monthly offering went to feed her Pizza Hut jones). Mainly, that kindly grandpa looking guy in the TV spots shamed me into it. And I wanted to prove that some of us non-Christians can nevertheless sometimes act more in line with the teachings of that lean clean Nazarene than the supposed true believers.

Anyway, back to the nightmare recap, already in progress ....

The dream started out pleasant enough, as we sailed through the boiling mouthwash under clear skies and relatively calm seas. We were all singing ABBA's Fernando and eating from apple and pear trees that rise just above the tops of the gingivitis-fighting waves. I kept having to slap Sally's hands away as she repeatedly attempted to steal fruit the CCF kids had already picked and gathered for themselves. Get off your fat ass, reach out and pick your own, lady! But all-in-all, things were going "swimmingly" (in fact, the Phanatic was a bit drunk having swallowed too much Listerine during a brief anchorage taken to let the gang dive into the "wash" for a few laps around the scissors, mainly to rinse the stink off their hides).

But then the skies darkened and the seas grew rough, the clouds arrived blood red and the driving rain a blindingly bright day-glo yellow.

And now we are no longer alone in this aquatic wonderland.

Now there are wild Pterodactyl-style prehistoric birds of prey filling the hemorrhaging sky as they circle our craft, shiny from the banana-hued sheets of rain hammering down on us from the heavens. The mascots, Ms. Stivic, her CCF toddlers, the Meathead and I sit back on the scissor handles, raising our blades up into the sky to stab at them, opening the spears and cutting them shut as those filthy birds move in for the kill, dive-bomb style. We clip off a wing here, a head there - blood splashing into the Listerine like ketchup on champagne. (There's a picture - but that's the analogy my crew keeps muttering over and over: "like ketchup on champagne.")

Sally/Gloria loses an arm in this bird/scissor battle before it's all over and Rob/Meathead is stabbed in the eye by a Pterodactyl beak, knocking him back into Archie's chair. The San Diego Chicken is taken by the neck and spirited away, up into the clouds, never to be seen again.

Then suddenly, in the midst of this maelstrom, the bubbly greenish clear ocean turns thick and brown. A horrific smell slowly arises from its depths and permeates my nasal passages, finally enveloping my entire being. Listerine has morphed into shit. I take a whiff and get sick. And then I wake up, sick.

I make it to the bathroom, thankfully, and greet the porcelain receptacle with an early morning technicolor yawn. I often pine for the times I'm able to make regular and "productive" visits to my favorite "reading chair" given my increasingly severe "blockage"; however, it's a different cheek resting on the cold white ring with the flu 'round my throat. Nobody I know wants that (apologies to any bulimics reading this who might take offense; your company is excepted).

For a long time thereafter, I tried and failed to shake the dream. No tidy ending, no resolution, no reason for being.

It just was.


Family Guy

Family Christmas Party. Washington St. 12/12/2009.

I had a fascinating time with more of my relatives than I think I've been under one roof with before, discounting 1970s funerals. Dozens. Perhaps appropriately, those disco days included more than one close relation slipping off this mortal coil, including dear ol' Dad. My father is the reason most of us under said roof are alive. He's the memory that binds us together, and at least indirectly the reason some like me are damaged.

Most of those in attendance I'd never met before; of those I had, the previous get-togethers had been brief, mainly at funerals - there's that word again - one/two/three decades removed.

Everyone last night was very nice and down-to-earth, approachable. Kids of every personality, inclination and age abounded. Oh, and those kids brought their children too. :-). You can glean a lot about people through the behavior of their offspring and the young ones last night were each one terrific, many wise beyond their years and all filled with joyful life.

I had some great conversations with nieces and nephews and their families. I also talked at length with siblings I'd never gotten the chance to know growing up. That was fantastic and illuminating. Perhaps "talked at length" is a bit strong; however, I did a lot of gabbing for me. I'm generally pretty quiet at the parties I've attended sober, having never mastered the art of small talk.

Mostly I watched and listened, soaking everyone in. As the evening wore on, the holiday cheer took hold maybe just a bit, and conversations grew more animated, certainly the subject matter was eclectic and ran the gamut from the routine to the revelatory. Details of such things shall always remain out of bounds here (I spill my guts all across these pages but will leave it to others to do likewise in their own forums or to do it not at all, which is probably the smart move). Suffice to say this slice of my bloodline is as pleasantly screwed up in the ways all us human beings are (I would have been pretty suspicious if they weren't; I've been around "perfect" people putting on airs and for some reason that never fails to turn my stomach). Through all that, though, this crew seems to share a basic normalcy I've heretofore only seen en masse from people outside my family tree.

The fruits of the labor that forged that normalcy can be seen in the faces and body language of the next generation happily coloring and playing hide 'n seek last night in the back bedrooms, seemingly carefree from the entanglements I remember as a kid. And make no mistake: it is labor, real work put in over the long haul. That's a force multiplier across time as sure as dysfunction snowballs in the other direction.

This lively group is rooted by the children of my Dad's first marriage. I've been lucky enough to have gotten to know the youngest child of Dad's first family over the past few years as she lives in the Phoenix area where the sister I grew up with also resides (she and I represent the offspring of marriage #2, if you're keeping score). So I visit there often. But until last night, I hadn't really got the chance to catch up with my other two sisters and my brother, and certainly none of the children they've subsequently raised (now I've got great nieces and nephews to boot).

The stigma and pain of a crumbling marriage, infidelity and divorce in the early fifties with the subsequent bad blood between our father and their mother led to the circumstances of our unintended estrangement. I'm sure there were feelings of abandonment on their part. That's unfortunately a part of any breakup to some degree but here it was further fueled by the rancor of parents spilling over onto the kids and the manner in which it occurred. This too, unfortunately, is all too common but no less painful or affecting. I don't pretend to understand the depths of their pain related to this.

From my vantage point as the youngest of Dad's second family, born over a decade past the aftermath, I simply didn't know much about them. My "other" siblings (I hate the term "half sister" or "half brother") weren't talked about often in my presence and when they were, it was always using indirect, coded language meant to shield me from the confusion and unpleasantness of divorce (or so I surmise). I only wish my parents had chosen instead one of the litany of 800 pound gorillas squatting in our living room if they'd had a hankering for forging protective parental guardrails. "Shielding" a kid from the circumstances of a previous marriage with all the far larger gorillas hanging out in our particularly dysfunctional mist is like bringing your kid to a porno film shoot and covering his ears because one of the actors utters an expletive.

So I digress once again but what else is new?

Anyway, this has run on too long. In short, I had a great time and plan to make it back to the Seattle area again for the sibling get together next year, if possible. I've never been a real strong family guy but it's gotten its hooks into me just a tad as I get older. It would be nice to have (grand) nieces and nephews to buy Christmas and birthday presents for, absent any of my own (kids, not presents; the prospect of offspring grows dimmer each year). I do have my maternal cousins, who I love dearly, and little Leila, the newest addition there (she's adorable). Still, it never hurts to have too much family, they say. Of course, that's not a universal truism. Sometimes just a single family member can turn your life into turmoil in ways that friends just can't. I hope for me such turmoil remains in the past where it belongs.


The Future Past

The sticky sweet stench of horseshit and heracy permeates the landscape in my dreams.

It always starts with me walking in the early morning hours, the night hiding my sins in purple-black obscurity as I stagger down 13th Street from Hoyt east to Broadway. I reach the apex of the slight incline around Rockefeller when I see it: one tail-light of my dad's beat-up 1962 Mercury Comet aglow way off in the distance, the right turn blinker flashing for no good reason, stone cold dead at the curb near the Broadway 7-11. At first it appears empty, but as I inch closer I can make out a silhouette behind the wheel; really, just a disheveled clump of hair slumped over the steering column.

A siren in the distance grows louder, closer. Instinct has me accelerating from a stumble to a jog and then a sprint. The siren careens 'round the corner and just as I reach the passenger side of the vehicle, the officer rolls down the window of his cruiser and fires an automatic weapon at the Comet's windshield, the spray of glass knocking me to the ground. Johnny Law then aims squarely at the gas cap and grins: Bam! My dad's car is engulfed in flames now as I stare at the cop staring at me. He slowly removes a black leather glove and then his Ray Bans. Oddly familiar. And then I wake up, sheets damp, head pounding. This cycle repeats itself every few weeks and has for some time. There hasn't been any variance that I can recall, nor am I aware of this repetition during the dream itself, no anticipation or foretelling of events, it's as though each instance is the first time, every time.

Back in the waking world, I embarked on a journey into my ancestry this past week, both figuratively and literally. Jetting across the country to Seattle to partake in what has become an annual get together of my siblings this past Saturday. The sibling shindig has been going on for nearly a decade now, though it was my first. There are other opportunities to see them - holidays and such - but this is the one day that it's just us (no kids, grandkids, in-laws, etc.). And really, except for L., who I grew up with, and to some extent S., who lives near L. in Arizona, I'm just now getting to know this brood. It was enlightening, sharing stories and the drama of our respective lives, and it put me into a nostalgic frame of mind. Or maybe I was already there.

After the sibling thing, L. and I headed up north to Bellingham, WA to check out my father's early childhood hometown, peruse the landmark drug store our great uncle ran back in the day, and in general walk in the footsteps of dear ol' dad as a toddler, when he could still walk without weaving. It was enjoyable visiting an area that has grown and changed over the years - the Fairhaven section is a happening little hamlet of shops, coffee bars, and restaurants - and yet still pays homage to its history. Most places never seem to maintain that balance and are the poorer for it.

That's not why we came to Bellingham, really. The primary driver for this trip down memory lane was not simply to tip-toe through baby daddy's tulips but rather to locate and visit the grave of our paternal grandfather, who died less a year after our pop was born. We didn't pinpoint his final resting place at the Bayview Cemetery, despite diligently combing through the section their map claims was his. He died in 1925 and a lot of the tombstones from that period had decayed to the point of being unreadable, so we assumed one of those must have been granddad's. The following day, however, L. logged onto and discovered recent pictures of our grandpappy's slab in relatively fine shape, eminently legible. We were already an hour's drive back down south at this point, though, and weren't up for making a second pilgrimage just to see what we were already staring at online. Still, had it not been a Sunday the day before, we'd have stormed the cemetery office, demanding excavations and DNA tests! This was, after all, the man whose sir name we'd have proudly worn had my dad's stepfather not later adopted him, saddling us all with the putrid moniker weighing me down to this day ("putrid" is an appropriate adjective given our step grandfather's generally miserable, SOBesque demeanor).

Monday, I had a wonderful lunch with a childhood friend I'd recently rediscovered on Facebook. I hadn't seen him in over 36 years, so we had a lot to catch up on! These were my good memories of childhood, outdoors playing with the other kids. It turns out that we were both mostly oblivious to the acute dysfunction burning up the inside of the other's home, each fearful that it would boil over into the streets and expose our family's festering wounds to the neighborhood, unaware that we were in fact not so distressingly unique in that department. Domestic dysfunction might be as unique as a snowflake when viewed through a microscope; however, it's often sadly similar seen through everyday eyes. But outside, with the other children in the 'hood, I was free to be ... well, a kid. And so was he. We had some great times together and it was good to reflect on them.

After my lunch, L. and I visited the graves of our maternal grandparents. We had been there before as children, but still needed help to find the right "garden" in south Everett's Evergreen Cemetery. Luckily, it was Monday and the office was open. We eventually found grandma and grandpa, after some miscues and a personal escort to the location. (The escort got confused herself; the sections are not marked on the grounds, only on the associated map, and the map itself wasn't nearly detailed enough given the byzantine layout of the grounds.) This was the only grandma I knew (she died when I was eight). This grandpa died two years before I was born, but L. knew him briefly (she was five when he passed).

We drove through almost all of the streets of our hometown of Everett in between all this grave "digging." I had weaved a similar path a dozen or so years ago and have since made the journey virtually courtesy of Google but it's always revelatory making the in-person drive-by, interesting not so much because of the things that have changed but rather thanks to the things that haven't, and there are still quite a few falling into the latter category (probably the reason Everett hasn't been able to transform itself over the years, despite numerous concerted efforts toward that end).

Each time through Everett, I discover at least one thing I'd missed in previous treks. For instance, Washington elementary school is now a retirement home. The old brick building is still intact in the center of the compound, with newer structures surrounding it where the playground once stood. The iron monkey bars are long gone, though! As my sister remarked, we might one day come full circle and end up as child-like codgers, playing out our last days running around the grounds here just as we did in our youth. Ray's Drive-In on 14th and Broadway is still hanging in there as well. I recall eating out at Ray's on numerous occasions as a kid. In more adult matters, the Blue Moon - right across from Ray's - and the Doghouse Tavern still remain, though my dad never claimed either as favorites of his (taverns in Washington State can only serve beer and wine, you need to go to a "lounge" to get the hard stuff my dad used as fuel). Several members of his "posse" were known to frequent these dives on occasion, at least one of them - Darlene - enjoying the ambiance and denizens enough that she owned a Blue Moon "tavern" jacket.

So here I am now back in Philly, out of the cold dampness of the Pacific Northwest and into the sticky oven that is the Mid-Atlantic on this particular day in late May. The unofficial summer season kicks off tomorrow afternoon with the mass exodus "down the shore." And me? Well, I'm newly chock-full of my origins and now contemplating time's forward direction. I think I've finally hammered home to my psyche one unavoidable fact of nature: the future's the only past we can affect by our actions. In short, "Get over yourself and move on with life already." Amen.


The Deep Empty

I dive into an emptiness,

my soul spent to fill it.

I languish in a mystery

that coats my world in choking smoke.

Her breath rides crystal hot and hard,

my vanquished eyes surrender

a blackened purple aftermath

slicing through my psyche sweetly.

My hope's on fire of white teardrops

torn from words gone silky silent.

Her hatred pure - so singular -

no consequence but gorgeous madness.

I pour myself down drains of light

while all my dreams drown disappearing.

She swims the depths through fear and failure

while all her doldrums die debating.

I haunt the ever twilight tinged

waiting rooms of faceless nightmares

waiting still for an unknown something

and called on yet by nothing, no one.

She and I are all but spent,

bent twisted in a life conspiring

to rip it up all raggedly, senselessly, heavenly -

finally to tear it all down.

Living is waiting to die,

the rest is just distraction.


Those of us who dip our toes

into the rip tide of addiction

simply thirst for a fortified diversion

from this elephant in the room.

Now wandering the desert of sobriety,

I keep my thoughts scattered down other avenues,

the scent of childhood permeating

my present tenses sour.

The stink eye of Dad's Camels

looks up from his bygone ashtray still,

in a staring contest with my mind's iris

through a cloud of ghostly smoke;

rising up from the 1970s,

blending into Mom's Alpine

menthol haze of yesteryear,

echoing past a boy's living room dying.

It's sadly rot gut putrid

as distractions go,

but there it is nonetheless:

hanging on,

gripping tight,

claws out.


Timeless Wounds of Addiction

Addiction is a strange and strangely powerful thing; in its grip, time does not heal all wounds.  

For me it was booze and coke but not in equal measure: the Bolivian Marching Powder held its sway so much tighter.  I fell head over heels in luv with the dopamine rush, giving me what I imagined was a flavor of the happiness normal folks felt day-to-day.  I was alive for the first time.  I haven't touched the shit since September 1994 and yet just now - February 2014, nearly twenty years later - all it takes to trigger the old gut hollowing anticipation is a news special on street drugs where undercover reporters are shown buying dope in Philly on the very same corners I bought coke.  Those corners, those memories, that feeling.

Those pictures of Aramingo Avenue are ringing the old Pavlovian dinner bell and I catch myself salivating.  I've been dry less than eight years and yet haven't come close to the coke-strength craving for booze.  I was drinking every day all day in the bloom of my active alcoholism circa 2006 whereas my cocaine use was limited to a dozen weekends a year with a couple week long binges thrown in for bad measure during a mere six season run.  Almost twenty years ago.  But there it is, rumbling up smack dab in through my gut.

I write this just a few days since one of my favorite artists, actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, died of a heroin overdose.   He'd been clean and sober for over twenty-two years before falling back into the briny deep in 2012 and less than two years later is found dead with a needle in his arm surrounded by over fifty bags of dope.

Time does not heal all wounds.  

And certainly doesn't heal chronic diseases like addiction.  You have to be vigilant. Try not to let the "fuck it"s worm their way back into your life as they're the prime breeding ground for a relapse.  Get to therapy, get on antidepressants if needed, exercise even if you don't feel like it (it kicks your endorphins into gear).   Also, don't consider a relapse the end of the world.  This might sound counter intuitive to staying clean but it's very important.  A relapse is serious and something you must make a priority of avoiding; however, if it happens the last thing you want is an "I blew everything so might as well keep use to the point of oblivion" attitude.    It's a statistical fact that when addicts relapse after an extended sobriety they always never ease back into use but rather immediately plunge in deeper than they ever have.  I think this is usually because the addict wants to destroy the thoughts of having "failed" sobriety.

Relapse is not inevitable and if it happens you can get back on the wagon.   I was sober for 14 months in 1993/1994 but relapsed to my best friend cocaine, and subsequently to alcohol as a necessary come down when the coke ran out.  That binge lasted a week and I haven't touched the white powder since but the boozing continued for another dozen years.  Still, I managed to put a plug in that too.  It hasn't, for the most part, been a struggle for me this time around.  I'm pretty sure I'd have stayed off the booze entirely if I hadn't run into my coke dealer and knocked that domino down.  I can't say for sure what I'd do if I bumped into him today, though I'd like to think things'd be different.  The antidepressants I'm on would have a lot to do with making the right decision.  And let's face it: I didn't just "run into" the dude in '94.  I deliberately put myself in the old neighborhood and practically stalked him before making a "casual" encounter. 

No, time does not heal all wounds.

You have to keep treating them.