On assignment, not grounded, mind racing, pumping my legs, pulling my feet, watching, importing, analyzing, wanting to get it, get to the bottom of it, the unbroken, tumbling narrative.
Fleeing fear in the deepest dark, after midnight, stars strewn from horizon to horizon, Little Dipper cold and unreachable, singing Beatles songs into the wide open universe, waking up sleep-numbed neighbors, before 24 hour news cycles, the haunting hunger to be in touch, but not too much.
Culture like an endless Thanksgiving dinner, details like helium-filled marbles, distracting, detaching, distancing, all talking, none saying.
Never guessed, never prepared for it.
Bookmark anchored in a gritty sidewalk, soot between the cracks, pressed against the curb, stuck, on Upper Court Street, Binghamton, New York, circa 1965, just before the whole fucking, too placid edifice got torn down, masks torn away, repression busting out, future looking familiar, but gone, thrown back.
Walking too fast, mind moving too fast, it pops into my head that the force navigates me, I’m not flowing with it, ferrying me across a sea of mysteries, unknowns, pleasures, dangers, love, hate, connections, understanding, mostly foreign languages.
It can scare the living shit out of you to go so fast without directions.
I’ve been afraid for as long as I can remember, tipped from a nest, tumbled into a world alone, no maps, few guides, surrounded by others also lost.
To survive, I think.
Up a dirt embankment across four lanes of traffic, railroad tracks, mostly idle, doubling to hold back seasonal swells that transform the murky Susquehanna.
No grace, no rhythm, no brilliance, just tracks and soot leaning toward extinction, trail once walked by native Americans believing the world was theirs, gift from spirits, learning magic is just magic. It cannot hold.
It’s our way through history to destroy what we can’t use.
Ahead, a low railroad bridge harks back in time, announces a sharp turn snapping off the dreary East Side, rejected by an unstructured downtown fringe, where few live, just poor families stuck in flats above businesses, taverns and pawnshops.
My intermittent girlfriend lives in one of the flats. Her squalor’s seedy reality, sitting in a rubbed bare, overstuffed chair in the living room, her fat mother in a permanent bathrobe says, “We want our Vi to have a steady boyfriend. She gets pregnant, we know where to go.”
Improvised social security.
Outside, traffic echoes flat across the night on Henry Street. We can see the very top of the bar downstairs, neon sign out the window. Dumbass TV show distracts Mom while I feel Vi’s tits under her sweater, crooked in my interface with reality, evidence that I’m broken, not to be fixed, and I know, I know.
Vi, a little later, her pants bunched up at her ankles, breathing heavy under me on a wooden platform in the Erie Lackawanna yard across Henry Street, near midnight, coming like there’ll never be any tomorrow that matters, an hour after kissing my too good for me fiancée, saying goodbye before she climbs the steps onto a Greyhound for a weekend excursion with friends.
Do we really connect? As she drifts into sleep, any remembrance of Mom watching brainless shit on that cheap, black and white screen, offhand explaining the advantage of her daughter fucking just one sequentially?
Multiple worlds blend like pools of paint, some thick with pigment, some thin as dishwater.
I cheated on all of them, whenever I could get away with it, never emotionally, can’t really do that, and paid for refusing to make the distinctions demanded, finally deciding the battle was not worth fighting. But till then, skirmishes and drama like a civil war played out with a single soldier.
I never saw Vi again. She was crazy about me as I should have been about her. Nearly released from gravity when she unexpectedly saw me at her door after one year, hungry again, falling back off the fidelity wagon. Neither of us had enough binding us to the earth.
Both of us filthy.
I’m, what? Nineteen? She’s younger. Would my family’s grimace go ashen in an instant? They like the fiancée, may save me from predicted ruin, and our liaisons are expected to lift us out because we deserve better than broken squalor, middle class respectability at least.
The future’s a scary blank I’m trying to think my way into.
Love failed me, never as magnetic as we’re promised or, as first blush tries to convince us, inescapable.
You don’t make the choice, you don’t evolve, it goes.
Can’t count on it to save me, think instead.
It’s Thursday, and downtown, shoppers will be out. I’ll see friends. We’ll smoke Winstons, look for girls.
Turn the curve out from under the railroad bridge, the city brightens.
Where industry once muscled up to the sidewalk, cleared gravel-surfaced lots swell to the river, smells and filth gone, city in transition.
Stupidly optimistic about our peaceful hometown, then, promises of forever and ever. Endicott-Johnson, IBM, Link…
Urban renewal transforming Court Street into a shoppers’ Mecca, department stores, specialty shops selling clothes, selling records, selling flatware, selling the American Way, selling images, selling forever war, selling diamonds just a few whacky years later, salesman criticizing my dirty fingernails, unfit for the wedding band, my fiancée tensing beside me, pushing back second thoughts.
She’d have been damn well better off if doubt knocked her off the rails, drowning the pending emotional wreckage of me. We learned from the harm we could do to each other.
The best break of her life came when I skipped town before wedding bells sunk us both.
I put up with plenty of shit from jewelry salesmen because I wasn’t as good as they were, not yet. They were ahead of me as was my fiancee, who could and eventually did do better than the dirty Henry Miller devotee who couldn’t keep his zipper up, who had this unbroken stream of thought navigating the planet, separating him from it, hooked on cynicism, powering up with self-reliance because, because, because… you could never count on anyone else to be your gut or your armor.
A poet exploits anything to clear the way for the verse, ends up humbled at the borderline of words. Twist, strangle and recolor, getting to the verse, the clear sentence, the way to say it, and good luck with that. Words in order fail to achieve flight, but they can set you fast down the runway, that’s for sure. The poet counts on words to force more off the page than letters, commas, periods and line breaks. He watches but can’t make it happen. He watches it soften bodies, legs spread a little farther apart, connections open, and if he’s lucky, the poet is soon fucking his muse.
Why not? Car salesmen do it with commission checks turned into dinner dates and dancing. Baseball players do it with speed and muscle. Poet does it with verse, with emotion evoked in words. Poets are trusted. Poets are sincere. Poets are genuine. Poets are sweet. Poets are just trying to get in your pants like everyone else.
Was once a valid point of view, but the world’s too stretched now. Passion’s like the good old days.
My first full wife, our tangled up disaster of a marriage loosening into chaos, called me “Poetry Man,” after Phoebe Snow’s song.
I liked it. The unflattering parts too, the sweet talker who ends up going home to his wife between dirty weekends. Entitled. Henry Miller-like, from the Brooklyn days.
Flattered because it implied license to bend the bars, but reality was ungainly, going nowhere, doing nothing that lasts, playing hours of volleyball and meeting friends that never stick, going to impromptu parties and falling for girls and drifting apart, on and on.
Poetry Man, the lyrical, buffed up version of going nowhere fast.
Well, I was going into debt fast. When you spend without earning, unpleasant shit happens. I was finding out how hard it is to get paid for writing anything.. Fast.
Years after it washed out, the hippie dream left me too sad to connect.
You practice disconnection, detachment, scorn for the ordinary, the conventions, the glue… Come to think about it, there’s no good reason I should’ve been so fucking happy.
Wake up every morning well-rested and cheerful. Off for a long breakfast with my best friend, swapping wisecracks, picking on everyone else, certain we were better than this revolving world of losers.
Another morning not to go to the office, not participate, not sell, not prospect, not earn, not belong anywhere but in the cocoon, the ego a deux, an unworkable mechanism soon to spill apart.
God, I loved those days…