318. Pine Street

I lived upstairs on Pine Street in Richmond for a year or so while I was in my sophomore year of college. That whole block has since been torn down and redeveloped into modern campus buildings. Back in the 1970’s it was a bleak block of row houses. Ours was a wood frame with an add on kitchen out the back. Our kitchen had been built over a sloped first floor roof. The resulting floor was so slanted that, even when quite sober, you’d toddle downhill in agreement with gravity. If you were intoxicated, everything was fine; you just had to lean again the house lean. Simple. The back kitchen door/ fire escape from the death trap led to a steep set of wooden stairs facing due east and busy Belvedere Street. From the top step I’d sometimes smoke a cigarette and laugh out loud at the huge sign over the used car lot on Broad Street. It featured a slick mustachioed sales cad, Mad Man Dapper Dan the Used Car Man and the saying, “I’d give them away but my wife won’t let me.” His face seemed to view all of Richmond, as if he were some Middle Eastern despot watching for moral failures in the populace.

“Dan, you are the man. I trust you, Dude.”

It still cracks me up to imagine an evening in Dapper Dan’s company, cigar in one hand, bourbon in the other, telling tales of great car deals and trips to exotic Roanoke. “Boy, the things I seen and dun can’t be cataloged  by a million monks in a million encyclopedias in a million years. You know, I just love that word, MILLION.” Fading like old black and white photos, my memories sort of bleed into one another as my neural pathways move in together to cut expenses in retirement.

AbandonedHousesFinal

We had no air conditioning, of course, and the Richmond summers were the equivalent of hippopotamuses in weather terms– big, fat, wet, sloppy, and dangerous. The wiring would likely have melted if we’d tried an a/c window unit. So we would climb out on the porch roof facing Pine Street on hot nights and drink a few cheap beers while we listened to music blast from inside. It was often a pathetic portrait of perspiring almost, nearly, slightly, okay dammit-ghetto ennui. Our porch roof aligned with the rest of the row house porch roofs all the way down the block, until the line jutted out to the sidewalk at the up and coming new restaurant and potted palm tree bar called Bruce’s, with skylights in their roof. Well, it was not out of the ordinary for one of my crew to walk down the porch roofs past sleeping neighbors to wave in on the diners through the skylight. Later, the diners might see us as they came out to get in their cars. We were not hassled as much as we deserved to be but merely shooed away like annoying city pigeons. College communities have a high tolerance for the ludicrous, I have learned.

Often while listening to Clapton or Hendrix or the Beatles, we could watch people doing things on the street or sidewalk that they thought no one else could see. We had no television and this was in the dinosaurlike pre-personal computer age. One boring rainy night my roomie Jeff and I were in our porch roof positions beneath metal awnings as a couple came out of the above cited restaurant/bar, walking slightly sloppily. It was clear that they were tipsy. The man opened the door of the dark sedan in the rain and his Betty Boop jumped in to the passenger seat, giving me and Jeff a clear view of what was about to go down. The tipsy strange man started the car and the windshield wipers began flapping. The car remained in park while the passengers got into gear.

Jeff was picking along to the Beatles “I Want You” on his black and white Fender and amp as we glommed on to the steamy car action unfolding in front of and below us.  We laughed as the couple began some rather heated making out and mutual fondling. Jeff cranked up the volume and continued picking, “I want you, I want you so bad, Babe. I want you so bad, It’s driving me mad, it’s driving me mad.” Though the impassioned couple could not see or hear us, they complied with clumsy choreography on the beat. It was amazingly synchronized even though this was in the pre- music video era. All live action.

Let’s just say that the steamed up couple reached a crescendo as the guitar raged into the curtain of droning summer rain, pounding out an urgent beat on the aluminum awnings above us. Jeff shifted with the bridge to “She’s so heavy, heavy, heavy, etc.” while the wipers worked in time like a metronome.

We thought it couldn’t get any funnier as the song ended and Jeff set his guitar down. We stood up and clapped for their performance. I suppose our dual stand up against the stained yellow light behind us caught Betty Boop’s eye. She lifted her head up and made a most amazing face.

We couldn’t hear the scream but we saw her mouth open and her teeth bared. Obscenities were mouthed through the steamed up window.  In just a couple of seconds the sedan lights came on and the car peeled away without looking any which way. I can imagine it was an awkward verbal ending to a their gymnastic achievements.

Well, that is a great story to tell when folks mention compromising positions, but I feel like Mad Man Dapper Dan when I repeat this double indiscretion. I have no cigar or bourbon, but I feel like a sleazy used car salesman anyway. I suppose that conviction is caused by some decency knocking on my conscience’s door. If I answer it, I might wind up in jail. Just turn the lights out and stay quiet. (In a whisper voice… “I’d give them away but my wife won’t let me.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

181. Sleet slides down the foggy Russian window pane

Yuk, yuk, yuk!!! The poorly lit gray world outside my warm office setting is dripping down my wide windows. It’s impressionistic sort of, except there is no gorgeous light to set the drizzles dancing with crystallized fire. I expect to see Fyodor Dostoyevski at any moment, mumbling about the Double Man in each human heart, stumbling about in his great coat muttering about civil service clerks in Imperial Russia. But it’s not St Petersburg in 1869. It’s Chambersburg, PA, 2013, two days before Thanksgiving. The odd man at my door asks if the drug rehab place is still here. “Nope. Gone seven years now, my friend.” And he leaves for his equivalent of Siberia. Weird. Maybe he was a desperate soul seeking redemption and, not finding it, is on his way to murder another unfortunate soul in an unheated apartment he shares with 12 others. And away I go trying to make sense of randomness. If not legal or scientific sense, then at least I try to pull things together into a barely plausible narrative.

Illustrations of I.S. Glazunov to the novel “The Idiot” by F.M. DostoevskyWow, how lost can a guy get? (I am referring to the guy at my door not me or Fyodor or you… but you don’t know that.) The Trans-Siberian rehab train left the station about the time Bernie Maduff came off the rails. Wonder how Bernie is doing in federal prison? And then I wonder which side of reality is more drizzly– the near freezing street scene on this side of the guy’s pupils or the backside where his optic nerve almost connects to his burned-out brain’s mother board? The same question can be asked of Bernie– which side is worse B? The prison around you or the prison inside you? And have you seen Fyodor lately? Muttering, always muttering.

I think of eccentric things when I am left unsupervised. My mind is like a shopping cart that randomly rolls along aisles collecting Pop Tarts, borsch, dental floss, pork loin, coffee, peach yogurt, light bulbs, and witch hazel rubbing alcohol. What am I going to do with all these disparate items? Not sure, but I am sure that something will turn up. A turnip, for instance, gotta get one of those. My mind is extremely associative. I glom onto anything that will stick to my throbbing fuzzy gray matter Velcro mass blob-organ. Well, here you go. My blog has hits from foreign countries. You know which country is second to the USA in traffic on my eccentric blog? The Russian Federation. True. Is True, Comrade Blogovski. My stuff is odd enough in the native tongue; I can’t imagine what Russians think. No, actually I can.

My default impersonation voice is the Russian guy. A long time ago my youngest daughter cried out in frustration to my wife, “Mom, why did you marry this man?!!” I gave her my best Kiev accent, “Yessica, it vas long vinter. Your musser vas very hungry, desparrot even. I vas last husband on shelf.” To which she screamed even louder, “Mom, he’s doing the Russian guy. Make him stop!!!” Those were good days. Now she just hits me with a pillow or a puff of contempt.

My wife’s cousin’s ex-husband grew up in Armenia. Conveniently his name is Armen. He used to talk to me at family gatherings, usually in lugubrious Solzhenitsyn-like complaints about American life. He’d sometimes end in a rhetorical question for me. Here’s an example.

“You know in old country, if you vere sick, you got aspirin. Vun aspirin. Now, here, if you get sniffles or aches, you go Valmart and they got pink bubble gum or grape, cherry, or fruit punch Advil, Tylenol, Motrin, ibuprofen, aspirin, and so on. So many you can’t see all of them at vun time. Tell me, Burrito, vaht is bayter?”

Why he thought I had an answer worth hearing, I’ll never know. People often think I am someone or something that I am not. Still, I feel compelled to answer even rhetorical questions… “Ya know, Armen, I think it’s about the heavy burden of freedom. We have a lot of choices, and a lot of choices means that you have to think more. In Old Country you had one doctor, one aspirin, one option. No mystery there. But in America we have a flurry of options. Too many it seems. But I’d rather have too many than only one. In fact, one is not an option, cuz there’s no opting besides nothing. It’s one aspirin or no aspirin. Here we have baby aspirin, 200 mg. aspirin, 500 mg. aspirin, all sorts of combinations with flu or cough medicines, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and flavors out the butt. It’s daunting, true, but at least you get to think.”

“Huh. In old country you got choice as long as you listen to Beeg Brother. We vere Leetle Brother, always. Russia vas Beeg Brother. You no make Beeg Brother mad.”

And some things never change. Our Big Brother is Big Government or Big Wall Street/Corporate America. They set the menu from which we choose. It’s freedom of a sort. What would that look like if everyone drove a black Ford Escort? Everyone had corn flakes and whole milk for breakfast?

Dull, deadly dull. So I want to celebrate creative individualism, the full color spectrum of cough syrup and analgesics. Praise competition that drives performance. Congratulate the visionaries who sorted through thousands of options and arrived at the best one.

On the other side of a free society is dull, drab conformity driven by fear. It’s similar to being addicted to opiates. If you stop or reduce your levels, you get dope sick. Marx claimed that religion was the opiate of the masses. Well, Karl, I’d like to suggest that rigid dogma of any flavor is the opiate of the masses. Whether it’s communism or consumerism, humans drink it down and can’t pry themselves from it. It’s fun watching China these days as they wrestle with their manmade dragons. The coerced conformists give all for the state while the state’s big honking plutocrats drain off billions of free market money for themselves… hey, they’re only human despite all the hogwash dogma.

So if you see Bernie or Fyodor, Karl or Mao, wish them a Happy Thanksgiving/Hanukkah and Black Friday from me.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.“

—Steve Jobs, “Commencement Address at Stanford University“ American Rhetoric (delivered June 12, 2005)