Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reading Your Work.

I maybe should have posted an announcement here, days, even weeks before it happened, that I was going to be in a reading on Thursday May 28 at 8 p.m. at Dog Eared Books. But no matter--the reading indeed happened and it went well with a very good crowd in attendance too. A lot of my friends would have told you that they had never ever seen me read before. And they would have been correct. It was the first time I've read anything, in that sort of context, for at least 5 or 6 or 8 years. I was among an esteemed group of fellow readers, including Maria De Lorenzo and Ali Liebegott. The setting, a bookstore, was both familiar and unsettling. There wasn't a podium, for example, so I felt the need to pace a little, or do a nervous toe dance. An incredibly bright light was above my head. No microphone either which I think helped me to enunciate more clearly and pause more effectively between suspenseful sentences. Since I had to talk louder, I felt more in control. I was also wearing my Mr. Peanut Death Head shirt which some people in the front row found distracting but to me was quite empowering.

With the ten minutes I had, I read two excerpts from stories that are essentially about the same thing: what happens when people, under economic, romantic, or metaphysical duress are forced to flee to an environment that is strange, difficult and alienating for them. Usually, I'll take a real place and exaggerate its most salient features. I'll give it a new name too. In this case, I thought of Oakland and parts of Detroit I've only heard about and called it Ashland. (Actually, that was my Mom's recommendation. Shout out to her, as Palin would say.) I think this is generally a good way to make a fictional world come alive: base it on parts of other places, combine, set to mix and pour out on the page and then throw in some out-of-left-field details that you completely make up.

The first story was more polished, had been edited a lot, workshopped into the ground. The second I wrote in a sun-blasted frenzy down in San Diego for the Memorial Day weekend. It was raw, somewhat obscene and in a crisper, more sardonic tone that a lot of my other pieces. No editing, drafting or any of that was involved. Most people seemed more impressed with that second story which, for better or for worse, I called Pictures From Ashland. I only read two pages of it. It's sort of futuristic, but not really. It's cataclysmic, but too absurd to be all that disquieting. It's about people like me who want to live cheaply and do desperate things to achieve that goal. Below, I've excerpted a part I didn't read, but came after the part I did read.

From Ashland Story:

So we left on the 5 cent ferry bound for Ashland. And the others inevitably followed. The ones who had come before came out of their crawlspaces to try and have sex with us. A whole new genre of pioneer was born. I was one of them. We put down cash from hot appliances on a place as big and rotting as a turn-of-the-century zeppelin hangar. The former owner had that circus look going for him. He wanted to bring in the “new breed” he said. Fishy-sounding language, a tad Mein Kamfian. We would sow culture and harmony to the bad places and for very cheap too. It would be kristallnacht every night, I thought meanly, deliriously. He was making me hate what I was so I, of course, had to hate him even harder.

Our compound, all decimated concrete, steel and glass, was on the edge of the poorest, most bullet-riddled stretch of housing in the West of Ashland, a post-industrial boondocks known as Yardage Town. Trash-can fires. Old ambulances on blocks. Soviet-style housing. Industry had died there just like the bison. Our zest for novelty already set us apart. Days felt longer at first, impossibly long, like how you imagine the Serengeti. I needed to know where to go, what to do. I had no bearings to begin with. I was mapping every inch with my eye. Slowly. One day, I went riding on my bike just to test out space. Already, near the Zip Town projects, some kids had tried to sidewind me with shopping carts. They came out of nowhere from behind abandoned semi's. Soon bottles from passing cars went by my head. The shattering of glass was like a strange, yet familiar bird call.

I got out to what I thought was a safer pasture, a landscape beaten within an inch of its life.

I rode leisurely through the former syrup works of the Mr. Pibb bottling empire. Now nothing but blown-out barracks, tree-eaten asylums and autopsied terminals. This was what they called “non-residential” but instantly I knew that was a joke. A hundred, maybe a thousand unseen people cuddled up in the wreckage, with flashlights for eyes and nobody to protect them. Here you were pretty much in International Waters. Nothing but scavengers and pioneers and kids. I scanned every compass point. But I wasn’t vigilant. How could you be? He ran out of nowhere, dressed like a jogger from the ‘80s, shirtless and wearing short, tight spandex. I hit him dead on with my bike and he fell into a pile of smashed window glass. It haloed his head like dazzling blue snow. I sensed danger the moment he reared back up with the beautiful shards jammed in his cheek.
“Oh my god, I am so fucking sorry,” I moaned.

“Not half as sorry as you’re going to be bitch” he said, and he clocked me in the gut with an invisibly quick fist. It knocked the wind right out of me. A miracle it only did that. I bent double, struggling to find a breeze. In that instant, I was in grade school again, a grass-stained tomboy who loved to dress like Scout, (you know from To Kill A Mockingbird) on the day that Kate Gallagher huffing and puffing in her piss-yellow pigtails, punched me right in the kidneys. This time, the man doing it to me had more force, both scrotal and historical behind the blow. I fell to my knees, my eyes dragging down his long, muscular legs.

“That’s what we do to wild dogs around here,” he added helpfully. I got back up, feeling no less than a million things at once. For some reason he was still laying there, right in the street, staring at me and grinning, half-in-the-shadow cast by a machine-gunned watchtower, his other half in the acid light of the noonday sun. Nobody anywhere could see a thing.

The story doesn't quite go to the worst possible place it could go. Instead, I played around with the idea that everyone, in times of general cataclysm, can achieve some kind of paradoxical equity based on fearlessness. The ending is surprisingly happy, perhaps unrealistically so.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A special perk about book work.

Down in San Diego for the weekend doing some family/personal errands, writing, and engaging in friendly reunions that might prove less frequent in the years to come. But hopefully not, especially with weddings and bachelor parties already being planned.

I finished The Brothers Karamazov tonight, set aside Thomas Hardy and Isak Dinesen and Thomas Disch, and pondered death, family and friendship after a late evening visitation from a good friend who is celebrating his one year wedding anniversary, and another friend (the parent of the married friend) back after a five-hour trip from an LA funeral for another friend's father.

I'm satisfying my sense of "work" by sending out stories to various literary journals that I'm told are amenable to unpublished writers. But mostly I'm thinking about the person I discovered recently at my job: Emily Hahn.

A neighborhood bookstore invites questions from eccentric yet affable connoisseurs who long to know about the tribes that may have existed in the remote region of the world that they are visiting in less than a fortnight. So they want the one and only book written on the subject. Written from the point of view of a "lay Jesuitical botanist who has been cross-trained in medical anthropology." Perhaps out-of-print. Perhaps published by a small Swedenborgian non-profit. Maybe it's not even listed. Or real.

And you search for it. And you learn more than your bargained for. And make promises that you can get it for them if they are interested. And they seem anxious for it, hungry for it. That hunger for knowledge that is so much more nuanced than other appetites. You get the hunger too. It's an addiction in the trade. And for what? For more things you'll never fully understand, only graze the surface of.

You discover people you've never heard of. And deeds you never thought possible. And biographies that lead to further associations. And then the potential to be plunged even further into some previously unheard of snake's nest. (The temptation also to buy books is pervasive and hard to resist. But I'm fighting that off heroically so far. Not that I have much money for anything lately.)

Or a person calls you and asks you to do a search for something. It's for a book club, she says. The book is called Nobody Said Not To Go. The title is interesting. She doesn't know what it's about, whether it's fiction or essays or self-help or animal husbandry. You look it up. Holy shite, you say. Why don't people know about her? It turns out to be a biography of an extraordinary woman.

Emily Hahn

How can you not be interested, if only based on the fact that one of her 52 books is called Love Conquers Nothing: A Glandular History Of Civilization?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Long Summer Of 2001: A Picture Story

The thread of this picture story begins simply enough: a text message to a sunburned man in the back of a van. It ends with a poignant virtual reunion on Mother's Day. And begins again somewhere else, like right now, in this room.

Two weeks ago, heading back from the Russian River I heard via text that my FAVORITE ROCK BAND EVER, The JESUS LIZARD, were reuniting for a show at the Fillmore in October. They are a band that I've never ever seen live (my only conscious opportunity, way back in the early days of High School, was thwarted because I had Catholic youth group commitments that involved crying and coffee). Ticket procuring was mandatory no matter the price. So I went home and bought them easily enough.

The Jesus Lizard
has been with me since the twilight of 8th grade. I used to go to the now defunct Tower Records in El Cajon for afternoon bouts of cultural scavenging. Their magazine selection was legendary. That was the heyday of the arty cut-up music and culture magazines Ray Gun and Bikini, which were each kaleidoscopic mishmashes of music reviews, video reviews, art, culture and film articles. It was in Ray Gun that I first heard about the Jesus Lizard. Timothy Leary was describing them as the best thing he'd ever seen live. So I went out to the Warehouse and bought a disc of theirs without having heard it first.

LIAR was the album. I was initially scared by it until I realized that its rhythmic yet demented noise rock was a perfect compliment to my nightly, free-form aerobic work-outs. The ancient hand-me-down speakers as big as jet engines pulsated with David Yow's glossolalial tales of pygmy violence, slaveships, whiskey, gladiators and holy men with evil intentions. Thereafter I listened to it repeatedly all through high school (and today and yesterday as well). Sure enough, Yow's imagery, delivery and the band's overall aesthetic of moonshine-induced roadhouse mayhem, seeped like lighter fluid into everything I wrote back then, which was mostly blasphemous prose poetry about things I really didn't know anything about.

But none of that is really important. I am sad to say that many of those notebooks from that era have been incinerated by a boy who was in the throes of adolescent shame and self-loathing. (My goal is to someday recreate these in a fictional form, to give life to everyone's long-since-destroyed adolescent diaries.)

Flash forward to Santa Cruz, a place that is the psychogeographic template for most of the fictional settings I create. I'm HUGE on SPACE in STORIES. I like CITIES that are characters. And characters that are as populous in their skulls as tiny, densely populated towns. The places that we make MAKE us just as much as our language does.

What's so special about Santa Cruz? I won't list all the many, obvious reasons but I'll just harp on a point I find illuminating, which has more to do with categories than anything else. My point: Santa Cruz is not a city OR a small town. It isn't urban, suburban, or rural--at least not thoroughly. OK, I lied: the word "town" partly defines it but only vaguely. It is a BEACH TOWN--one of the oddest social conglomerates that exists. But that too, for another time...

The summer of 2001, I was in Santa Cruz, heading into the home stretch of my college life. Well, almost. That was the summer I was sharing a room that was attached to a real house. From the front, you would have thought, "Wow, this is a real nice house on a sunny, flowery block." And therein you would have been fooled. My room was like an added-on trailer, or fledgling rumpus room, that had grass growing on its fringes and mold eating the desks, a room that had a broken futon in it and a revolving cast of roommates (well, two) and a wall that was entirely sliding glass that looked out into a burned-out, weed-stricken and derelict yard. In the kitchen, garbage overflowed onto the broken linoleum. The disposal was stopped up with the remnants of a shattered shot glass.

Beyond the yard: a dark, inviting alleyway. Rusted and warped lawnchairs lay like broken skeletons in the tall grass. A tree rubbed its branches against the sliding glass until they were chainsawed by the landlord. I was driving a car that was covered in mud and birdshit, its interior scattered with gyros wrappers and notebook paper.

Good stories started here.

Me and my buddy CJ found work that summer at Zanotto's Family Market, which is now a Trader Joe's. It was your standard high-end yuppie grocery store. CJ, a caustic. hard-drinking Alaskan, worked in the meat department despite his flagrant lack of experience. I was thrown in the deli adjacent to him and quickly took on something of a managerial position, a joke if ever there was one. I won't relive right now the long, dirty days of dressing raw chickens, sticking my arm shoulder-deep into buckets of pickles and mayonnaise, of evading the cameras that the managers trained on the employees, of being whacked on the thigh by frozen animal parts and having my pseudo-authority questioned by Aptos-bred, red-headed nymphets.

There were lots of hilarious parts about the job, including brazen acts of petty criminality that were fully justified and completely foreseen. I started getting a belly there from too many blackened Tri-Tip sandwiches washed down with beer. I fed a homeless poet friend of mine for days on overly-fat sandwiches. I was stained everywhere. I reeked of pickle juice and mustard. I experimented with mixing hummus with pastrami and found it to be an ingenious failure. I drank a lot of Guinness at the Poet and Patriot. I went home to my house that was full of my gallivanting, bookish friends. They were working equally ridiculous jobs. Evenings, Walken films and free food and Bacchanalia and books. And my work friends would come over too to hear about the attic ghost and steal some of our Natural Ice.

It was there, at Zanatto's where I met B., a Polish/Cajun/Texan punk-rock Bettie Paige look-a-like who became a close friend of mine, a friend that nonetheless I lost touch with for seven years.
When I met her, the first thing she said to me, in her thick, Texan accent was, "You like the Jesus Lizard! I LOVE THE JESUS LIZARD!" and a peculiar friendship was born based on working, happy hours, bars, music and talking and telling tales. Most of the tales came from her. I had nothing really to tell. The first thing I learned about her was that her tattoo on her right arm depicted a scene from the Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. (Of course, the amorous part of the friendship made it more serious than other friendships but predictable drama was somehow avoided. Strangely more of an un-predictable sort of drama, that was potentially threatening and yet the butt of endless bar jokes, took its place.)

B. was the first person I befriended who had seen and done things that I couldn't even imagine. Dangerous things. Seedy things. Glamorous things. And thus she was more real for all that. Her life, at times, sounded like the lyrics from unreleased Jesus Lizard songs. (Later, perhaps I would say she could have figured in a handful of Gun Club songs.) She had been through hard times and lost not a few loved ones. She had been betrayed, suffered setbacks and navigated the poisons of the city and the flesh with grace and humor.

But it was interesting, all of it, and she had clearly maintained a good attitude about it all. She laughed often, and musically, with that Southern lilt I had never heard before. She loved life in a less analytical way than I did. I envied her for that. I was just a wide-eyed college boy dreaming huge dreams and barely supporting them with my own earnings.

I kept a notebook then, one I would never have the fortitude to write these days. My penmanship was hysterically miniature, like that of an obsessive-compulsive scribe. Back then, I think I was more self-consciously "literary"--without having much in the way of finished works to back up my effrontery. I supplanted "experience" with lots of words and thoughts. I just had rambling, overly-analytical sentences in a big black book.

But that summer, my writing changed. It got looser, wilder, less of a tight and nervous, madman's scrawl. An avid scrapbooker ever since I was a little kid--one of the neuroses of the archiver-- I also started putting pictures in the books, usually on top of old outlines for school papers I had long since turned in. May B. forgive me this trespassion (if the chosen image is not to her liking) but I can't resist this photo of a photo from the same black book above. It's of her a year or two before I knew her, I think. Along side it, are my marginalia and my drawings of demonic angels. I just cracked the book open recently. It's barely held together.

Other photos in the BOOK had been mailed to me in suspicious parcels by friends of a more Dadaist bent.

A gift from the immortal Chris Sparta above. . .

That summer I was reading Hopscotch by the Argentine literary magician Julio Cortazar. This book is meant to be read in multiple ways. You can either read it in a linear fashion or "hopscotch" around the chapters, per the instructions he has at the beginning. (I read it straight through at first, the linear way--and then later, when I first got to San Francisco I read it again, this time hopscotching around. It wasn't exactly a different story, but a different tonal take on the same story.) This novel is a virtually plotless evocation of the Bohemian life of Argentine ex-pats in Paris. It is dense with conversation, philosophy, news clippings, quotations, eavesdroppings, observations and comical and erotic escapades. Of course I thought the heroine, La Maga, a beautiful, intelligent yet tortured young woman bore a resemblance to B. which maybe she did. I have since lost that copy of Hopscotch.

Reading Hopscotch that summer, I figured I had made it to some enviable place of hedonistic, pseudo-intellectual self-involvement spiced with absurdity, intrigue, easy romance and a drunkard's love for words. My friend B. validated these suspicions--but she also threw them into question and laid bare my naivete. I hadn't experienced enough, that much was clear. I was still learning. And not even that. I was pretending at learning. I needed to live.

A page from the diary of that long summer. . .obscenities excised.
Stand-out phrases: "pursued in the shower by a gang. . ." and "drinking Duvels by candelight"

The summer quickly became September. The job had grown more distasteful. I couldn't eat sandwiches all the time. The managers hated the thieving employees. The store was suffering too. Most of the customers were racist. Nobody was buying the expensive meats except for my Communist professors. My Born-Again shift leader liked calling us "scum-bags" with a medicated grin on his face.

B. and I's friendship became more platonic--a decision both mutual and beneficial. With my blessing, she had met a man who wanted to take her back to Texas with him. She was debating it seriously. She was in love with him. He was in love with her. I flinched at first at the news, and felt pain and fear and pre-emptive loneliness as the prospect of her leaving my life became ever more real. More than anything, I'd be losing one of the best friends I had ever made. And I certainly couldn't stomach another day of work without her laughter and mischief to keep me sane.

I went home to San Diego for my birthday to think things over, to celebrate. Two days later, I was awoken by my mother, as she tearfully told me that something bad, unspeakably bad had happened in New York City that day. People are attacking, she stammered. I stumbled awake and went to the television set and watched the signature event of my generation smoldering and replaying on the television screen. It was the first time in my life that an event had occurred that I was obliged to look at, over and over and over, until it had been singed into my brain. A Symbol as heavy and leaden as God had been born and I'd do well to memorize what it looked like.

Later that day, I walked to the park near my house with my notebook in hand. I found my usual picnic bench next to the golf course that had a decent view of the outlying lake and hills. I was joined out of the blue by three mailmen who were on their lunch break. They joked about the "attacks" as something "only a mailman could have done." I thought maybe that I was hallucinating. I went back to Santa Cruz with weirder, darker thoughts in tow, an involuntary member now of "Generation 9/11/," a prospective inheritor of crises I was too ignorant to understand.
Yeah, I guess I am...

Back in Santa Cruz, life was tense and rumbling. The job fizzled out. We threw a big party when it ended. Those days we were always throwing wild parties in the house, parties that spilled out into the yard and the alleways. And then B. left with her man for Texas.

I was sad for months when B. left. I was happy for her because I had the hunch that her boyfriend was a good guy and would make her happy. We wrote each other letters, and then one day, they stopped coming. I tried the telephone number she gave me. It worked a few times. And then no more. It had changed. A new one wasn't provided.

Life moved on. Relationships, jobs, houses: the triumvirate. I found myself in San Francisco one morning re-reading Hopscotch, feeling chastened by this new, difficult and profoundly beautiful city and wondering if I wandered around at random would I find La Maga standing on some bridge, just like Horatio does in the novel.

For seven years I heard nothing of her. And found out nothing. I actually was worried. And I tried many times to find her on the Internet. After all, if someone's not on the internet??! Then what?

And then, just last week, on Mother's Day I "searched" for her name and it came up on the facebook. And we talked and sent messages and tried to fill in the years with hastily written emails. I was relieved to know that she was indeed happy and had married the guy and they were raising a family in Texas.

Will the Internet be the thing that finally makes it impossible to forget our pasts? In this case, with B. I am grateful for it. Barring the internet, there would have been little conceivable way I could have found her again, short of hiring a private detective.

The Long Summer of 2001 became a text that took itself seriously, as Bruno Schulz would say. I have it to thank for the endless reams of prose that followed. I found inspiration in B., in my job, in the events around me, not just in Santa Cruz but in the world at large. Perhaps I could live after all, and not just dream and scheme about it. I could take myself more seriously. But not too much. Because that would be bad.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Job/New House/New News Hyperbolically Hyperlinked


Spring has sprung again. I've reconnected with my formative years in more ways than one. One of them is that I'm working at a bookstore now. The one below, God bless them.


I also got a new house! Or soon rather!
But seriously, seriously.... the REAL house, although forthcoming as of August, is locked, loaded and ready to go and only ONE block away from my work, which means a whole new life is manifest. A life of walking and biking A life in Bernal Heights. Which means no more of. . .
It also means I'll have to consider putting a cease and desist on The Excelsior Blog. But worse things have happened in the name of peace of mind and happiness.

Thanks to the combined efforts of Sarah 'Lucy Valiant' Rainier, Orion 'I can't think of a funny nickname' Elenzil AND Sethers P. Fischer The Extraordinary!

Thank you too all the good people at Goldstein, Demchak, Baller, Borgen and Dardarian, a tremendous, truly wonderful group that has tolerated my upheavals and personal mishaps and juggled houses for nearly three years now. And who I still help now and again.