28 March 2015

The Woman in Black


There’s a woman I see almost everyday on the subway. She always wears black slacks and a blank jacket. She has very long jet black hair and dark eyebrows. She’s a French teacher (as I discovered one day when I sat next to her and noticed her writing a student recommendation letter) and often grades paper during the subway ride. I estimate that she’s in her mid thirties. I’ve never seen her smile. I find something sad about her. Yesterday towards the end of the ride she looked to be in pain, perhaps as the result of a headache.

Students called her Madame Jorgenson because she was the French teacher. The Jorgenson surname came from her idiot husband Greg whose parents were from Sweden. Sometimes she wondered why she took his last name, not that Madame Bartkowski would have rolled off the tongue. Her first name was Linda. She’d been teaching French for seven years at The Academy High School, a private school. Most of Linda’s students were from families that earned twice as much as a goddamned French teacher. Linda knew there was more money and more stability in teaching in public schools, but who wanted to deal with the kind of kids you come across there? Anyway being a French teacher was pretty cushy, especially compared to teaching other subjects. English teachers always had huge piles of essays to grade. History teachers were dealing with bored students. Math teachers, well they had to teach math for chrissakes — what a drag. And Linda could not even imagine teaching PE where you deal with sweat and showers and towels and equipment. Never.

When it came right down to it Linda thought she’d made a mistake going into any kind of teaching. The pay was for shit and the tedium of doing the same crap over and over and constantly dealing with snotty adolescents and their parents....Oh god the fucking parents. Always whining about something. Too much work, not enough work, the wrong kind of work. And then there were administrators who were the ultimate losers. They couldn’t hack it in the classroom and segued into desk jobs in order to collect a few more bucks. Her colleagues were generally okay although the young ones were ridiculously idealistic and the old ones were even more cynical than Linda.

But Linda felt stuck. At 34 she was getting a little too old for any radical career change and there sure as shit was nothing else in education she would consider. Her idiot husband was going nowhere in his job at the bank and everyone knew that but him. They’d be taking out a second mortgage soon because his salary had stagnated. It was four years since they’d been to Europe and the next trip might not be for yet another four years. Linda also was facing the possibility of never having a child though she was ambiguous about the idea on her best days. Greg would raise the topic from time to time though not with any more enthusiasm than she felt. The fact that they almost never made love anymore made the prospects dimmer. If her goddamned mother complained about not having any grandchildren one more time Linda thought she would scream.

Sometimes Linda would daydream about an affair. The new science teacher was cute and young and kind of flirted with Linda but he probably had some hot girlfriend or was gay. It excited and frightened Linda that she would sometimes imagine sex with another man, even to the extent of looking at those websites were married people hook up for assignations.

All this crap was going through Linda’s mind as she sat in the same damn seat on the same damn car of the same day train that left at the same damn time every morning and took her to within a two block walk of the damn school. It was making her head hurt. More than that her head felt like it was being drilled into. Like that one time in college when she had a hangover from drinking vodka. For a couple of years now Linda had been avoiding making any kind of big decision. She had been content with just making it through each day. Trudging through the same routine. The only variety in her life was what she decided to watch on Netflix. But she knew, deep down inside, that something had to give. There simply had to be a change of direction. Linda felt nothing significant had happened in her life since the day she started teaching. The job and her marriage had sucked her into a black hole and it was time to get out.

Well it was Friday so the digging could easily wait until she finished her work day. By 3:45 she’d be out of school and free. Greg would be home late because of some dinner meeting and he had a golf date the next day. He’d taken up golf about a year ago and that had meant they were together a little less. This was a decidedly mixed blessing as far as Linda was concerned. Anyway she’d have plenty of time to decide on an earth shattering move that would change her life forever and for the better. Just thinking this made Linda’s head feel just a little bit better. Well that plus the tylenol with codeine she’d popped. It was left over from a recent injury. Linda had needed only a couple after breaking a toe and carried the bottle around for nasty headaches -- or just to feel better.

Linda’s work day was spectacularly ordinary. The fact was that there was usually some hiccup, if not several, during the course of a normal teaching day. But today was as smooth as silk. No student incidents, nor angry emails from parents, no hassles with colleagues or staff. Linda loved such days. Linda hated such days. More to the point, she hated that about the best she could hope for from a teaching day was that nothing bad happened. Linda had noticed this year that she no longer got much of a thrill from seeing student’s learning French. At first it was a big deal to observe the improvement a student made over the course of a few months. But now she could give a shit. Oh sure it meant job security and fed her ego that she was good at what she did but she really didn't give two shits about the students. Most of them just wanted to fulfill a language requirement to get into Cornell or whatever. They didn't have any passion for French so why should Linda get all excited by teaching them?

So the school day ended and Linda did her usual “have-a-nice-weekends” with everyone and headed out the door for the subway. And yes, she was resolved to find a way out of her rut. Something, some momentous decision, some great change. She could do it. She would do it. Maybe the first step would be not to get on the usual subway train. No. Linda was going to deviate from the norm. She got out her cellphone and called Allison. Allison had been her roommate in college and they were still good friends, especially since Allison’s divorce which had given her more time and prompted her to move back to the area. Allison worked just a few blocks away and got off at 4:00 on Fridays. They arranged to meet at a nearby bar.

Unlike Linda, Allison was a pretty big drinker. Not like an alcoholic or anything but on Fridays and at parties and such Allison could keep 'em up with the best of them. On this day Linda found herself keeping up with Allison. They were drinking whiskey sours, which Linda had never tried before. By 7:00 Linda was pretty well swacked and hungry. They went to an Italian restaurant and had huge plates of pasta preceded by appetizers and accompanied by a bottle of wine.

Linda had explained to Allison everything she’d been thinking about that day which was really just the culmination of what she’d been processing for a good long while. Allison’s advice was clear: do something.

“You only get one shot. That’s why I immediately got a divorce when I could see things with Rupert were never going to work out. Why hang on when the end result is inevitable? Ya know what I mean? You need to make a clear decision about what you want to do and do it. And for crying out loud, don’t waste your time talking to some fucking counselor or shrink or anything. They’ll suck you in for years by which time your life is nearly over. You’re a big girl. Decide for yourself and trust yourself.”

Linda thought that this was brilliant advice. The fact was that Linda had long admired Allison's smarts and that she had always had the courage of her conviction.

The two friends spent most of the rest of their time together reminiscing and gossiping about old friends. It was nearly ten o'clock when a drunken Linda finally got on the subway. She fell asleep straight away and nearly missed her stop. Like the school, Linda's house was just a short walk from a subway station. She staggered home dropping the keys several times as she walked up the steps. Greg was home and heard her so he opened the door.

"Where have you been?" He sounded angry, worried and exasperated.

Linda just looked at him with a crooked smile.

"Why didn't you answer your phone?" he demanded.

To Linda, Greg, who was tall blonde and both All-American and boyish looking, sounded utterly ridiculous. He had no capacity for expressing emotion. Greg had always just seemed silly when trying to be angry. In truth everyone who had ever met Greg agreed that he was just about the sweetest man on Earth. Linda had fallen for how genuine and kind he was. He was the polar opposite of most everyone in her family. Okay he could be dull as dishwater but no one was more considerate.

"You're no good at expressing emotion. Ya know that Gregory," she slurred, still sporting a goofy grin and swaying as she spoke.

"You couldn't call?"

"Sorry." And with that Linda plopped onto a chair. She looked around the living room at all the furniture. She peered around Greg at the dining room and marveled at how big it was. Beyond it was the kitchen which was also much bigger than they needed.

"Why do we have all this space? Why do we need such a big house? Why don't we sell it and move into an apartment? We could...."

"I can't talk to you when you're drunk," Greg said.

Linda waved her hand at him and slumped deeper in the chair.

"Here, let me get you to bed. You were with Allison, weren't you? I've never seen you like this before. You shouldn't ever have more than a cocktail and two glasses of wine. Ever."

"I'll get myself to bed, thank you very much," Linda said. With that she stood. Linda undressed on her way to the bedroom just letting her clothes drop. She collapsed naked on the bed and was soon dead to the world. Greg walked in after brushing his teeth and peeing and saw her naked ass staring up at him. For the first time in months Greg was turned on. He was, in fact, very turned on. Greg pulled off his pajama bottoms and and without a moment's hesitation screwed Linda. Although she would never remember it, Linda became conscious and moaned with enjoyment throughout and even had an orgasm.

Linda spent the next day at home with an awful hangover. She watched TV and surfed the web. No great decision was made. Even thinking hurt. For many days after Linda felt chastened by her drunken behavior and was particularly solicitous of Greg.

A few weeks later Linda found out that she was pregnant. She was going to be a mom. Greg actually did a get a promotion at work. Linda gave birth to a baby boy nine months to the day after her husband gratified himself with her drunken body. She quit teaching.

25 March 2015

When Cobb Got a Job

Cobb, far right, with his buddies
Cobb got a job.

His friends liked saying that after Wendell Cobb got hired as a laborer by a construction firm. For a few weeks after they’d break out with the chant: “Cobb got a job, Cobb got a job…” After dropping out of SF State at the beginning of his sophomore year, Cobb had bummed around living off money some rich great aunt left him. He’d gone down to Mexico once and made several trips to Lake Tahoe plus he had this girlfriend in Stockton for awhile who he’d go out with and spend a lot of dough on, but Cobb had avoided work like the plague for what seemed to everyone like the longest time. In fact it was barely two years.

Finally the money was running out and Cobb didn’t want to move back in with his parents — who by this time had moved out to the suburbs, some burg called Orinda — or become a leach like Lester Coogan who everyone was starting to hate. So he looked for work and got hooked up with this construction firm that was building apartment complexes in and around San Francisco.

The pay was really good and there were benefits and best of all the work promised to be steady. The foreman on his job was a nice enough guy whose younger brother was an ex classmate of Cobb’s from Balboa High. That was all the connection Cobb had needed. And it didn’t hurt that Cobb was a big fella who looked the part of a laborer and in fact had worked one Summer helping build a church. Cobb had it made in the shade.

Then things went a little haywire. It started innocently enough. It was the weekend after Cobb’s third week on the job. Due to one thing or another the gang hadn’t gotten together for over a month and they were going to make up for lost time. Saturday night there was a big barbecue at Tucker’s place. His folks were pretty cool and liked having all the boys over. All they asked was that guests kindly respect the BYOB policy they’d enacted when Tucker and company came of age. His dad ran a butcher shop so there were plenty of meats of all variety to put “on the cue” as Old Man Tucker called it. Tucker’s mom made a gigantic potato salad and steamed some vegetables so they were all set.

Tucker’s sister Lana put on the hi fi and kept the platters spinning so it was a real festive atmosphere. Somehow nobody got too drunk at Tucker’s, maybe out of respect for his parents. But just the same everyone had a good time and they all ended up in the basement rec room playing pool or darts or just gabbing. There was some talk about the coming presidential election with most agreeing that even though they wanted Kennedy to win it seemed likely that Nixon would somehow steal it.

Next day everyone headed to Kezar Stadium to see the 49ers play the Browns. It was a pretty warm Indian Summer day so everyone was constantly stopping the beer vendor and slaking their thirst. Cobb was keeping pace with everyone. He was feeling particularly good what with the new job. The 49ers went on to beat the Browns on a late touchdown pass so post game everyone was in a celebratory mood.

Cobb said that whoever wanted could come to his place. They’d pick up some burgers on the way not to mention several six packs of Olympia.

Tucker, Jankowski and D’Angelo all made it over. There was a colored fella who lived next door name of Casey who was a big 49er fan so Cobb invited him over. No one objected, although if Berger was with them he’d have kicked up a fuss, Berger was an unabashed bigot and big fan of the John Birch Society. But he had headed straight home after the game on account of his wife being seven months pregnant.

Casey brought over some beer of his own although it was Hamm’s. That was fine with everyone. Sure they preferred Olys but to each his own and after you been drinking all day there’s not much difference, truth to tell.

Everyone was getting good and stinko and after an hour or so Tucker and D’Angelo made for home. Jankowski and Casey stuck around and it wasn’t long before another trip to the liquor store was in order. As they got in Jankowski’s Chevy, Cobb thought how it was getting kinda late and he had work early the next morning so maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But he also thought what the heck he was having a great time and he’d be fine in the morning.

The evening was warm and the three of them — Cobb, Jankwoski and Casey — sat on Cobb’s front porch. Before long they started singing. They sounded awful and Casey’s wife came out once and told them to keep it down so they finally went inside. No sooner had they closed the front door than Jankowski passed out. He fell face forward on the floor. Drunk as Cobb was he would never forget the sight of his good buddy just falling straight ahead like a tree.

Casey helped Cobb put Janowski on the big sofa in the living room. He was small enough and the sofa big enough that even with Jankowski sprawled across it Cobb and Casey had room to sit on either side of him. The two new buddies kept on drinking until Cobb finally fell asleep sitting up on the sofa next to his passed out friend. Casey took that as his cue to go home. It was 1:30 in the morning.

Three hours later Jankowski finally woke up. It took him awhile to realize where he was and what had happened. Once he did he went and took a piss then hopped into his Chevy and drove home.

Though dead to the world, Cobb must have sensed the absence of the body that had laid next to him because once Jankowski got up he sprawled out on the sofa. From then on he didn’t move a muscles for hours.

When Cobb finally started to wake up his first sense was total confusion. He had no idea where he was or what day it was. Once things cleared enough for him to think straight it was like an alarm went off in Cobb’s brain. This alarm wasn’t like the ringing of his clock but the loud blare of a danger signal. When Cobb looked at his watch and saw that it was half past ten he could feel the panic coming straight from his ass up his spine. He actually began to shake and did so for a few seconds.

“I don’t know whether to shit or wind my watch,” Cobb said out loud. He finally decided on a cold shower and a change of clothes, then he’d hop into his his car and head for work thinking up an excuse for being late on the way. In between the shower and leaving the house Cobb wolfed down a couple of pieces of bread and made a sandwich for lunch.

Cobb alternated between feeling pure dread that he would be fired and absolute confidence that it would all be fine. After all, people had been late to work before and if they had a legit excuse there was nothing worse that came of it then a warning and a little loss in pay. But Cobb was pretty new and maybe the foreman wouldn’t be so forgiving. The drive to the work site would take about 15 minutes, ample time to concoct a story.

The second Cobb stepped outside he could tell something was wrong, that something was missing. His car. Oh goddamn it the car was gone. His car had been stolen! It was a beat up old '52 Dodge hardly worth a nickel and someone had stolen it. Cobb was totally screwed. Cobb was scared. Cobb was outraged. Cobb didn’t know what to do. Was it even worth calling the cops over? Hell yes it was. This was his transportation. Plus it had his tools in it. The world was falling out from under Cobb. He wanted to cry and he wanted to kill someone. He paced around the front lawn for a good minute trying to decide whether to catch a bus to work — he wouldn’t even know which one to take — or call the cops. Cobb thought of calling a cab but all he had on him was some loose change.

Finally he went inside to call the cops and saw that the damn phone was off the hook. Oh hell, he thought, they’ve probably been trying to call me from work and haven’t been able to get through.
Cobb put the phone back in the cradle and sat down, shaking again. He’d have to steady his nerves. Then the damn phone rang. Oh hell, Cobb thought, it’s work. I’ll just tell 'em I’m sick.

“Hello.”

“Hey Cobb, it’s me.”

“D’Angelo?”

“Yeah lissun your car is still over at my place. You gonna pick it up or what? I’ve been trying to call you but the line’s busy.”

“Oh thank merciful God,” said Cobb who had heretofore not been the religious type. "Sorry,  I’ll be right over.”

“Cool, see ya.”

Cobb felt like dancing a jig. He’d never been so relieved in his life. With all the drinking the day before he’d forgotten that he’d left the car at D’Angelo’s house, which was only three blocks away. Why the hell had I left it there in the first place, he wondered.

Running the whole way Cobb got to D'Angelo's in five minutes.  He waved at D’Angelo, who was in his garage, and drove off to work determined to think of the best excuse ever. First he thought of saying he woke up sick but that would seem too close to a hangover, he’d also have to explain the phone not ringing. Then he considered saying it was a family emergency. Mom was in an accident and when he got the news he was so shook up he must have dropped the phone. Cobb hated the notion of using his mother for an excuse, especially when he’d just tied one on, but it seemed his best option.

Cobb got to the work site and immediately found the foreman. He was confident that the excuse about his mom being in accident would work, after all, who lies about their mom?

“Cobb!” The foreman barked. “Where the hell have you been? We tried calling you and couldn’t get through so we called your folks and they didn’t know what was going on neither.”

Shit. That’s right, his parents were listed as an emergency contact. Good thing he didn’t spout out his phony story before the foreman spoke. Cobb stood there without an excuse. He felt about two feet tall and weak as a kitten and naked and awful and what could he do?

“Well? Speak up!” the foreman said.

“I…I was sick. Sick as a dog. I woke up with diarrhea and vomiting and chills and…” Cobb thought of how he felt when he had the flu last Winter and just described that. “Plus I guess I knocked the phone off the hook last night. I’m real sorry.” Cobb felt relief. He’s spit out an excuse and it was plausible and best of all it was over with.

“Well Cobb you look like hell. You sure you well enough to be here?”

“Yeah I feel a lot better now. Might have just been something I ate.”

“Sure it wasn’t something you drank?” That question scared the hell out of Cobb for two seconds but the foreman followed it with a laugh and a pat on the back. Cobb was in the clear.

Mid afternoon Cobb was sweating profusely even though the fog had returned to San Francisco. He’d become buddies with a guy named Lancaster (like Burt the actor, he'd say) who asked if he was hungover. Cobb admitted it and Lancaster said he knew the only cure.

“What’s that?” Cobb asked.

“Hair of the dog,” Lancaster told him.

“You mean drink again?”

“Just a bottle or two of beer. Not enough to start another bender. Just so’s you can take the edge off.”

Cobb hadn’t gotten drunk too many times in his life and had only had a few hangovers but he’d never even thought to drink when he was already hungover. It seemed crazy to him but he was feeling pretty miserable both physically and mentally so figured once he got home it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Sure enough there was still a six pack left in the fridge so after a TV dinner Cobb downed a beer. It went down surprisingly smoothly and gave him a bit of a glow. But Cobb still had a little case of the blues so he drank another. After the second beer Cobb was feeling really good for the first time all day. It was great to be so up after having been down for the whole day. Cobb figured it was only logical that a third beer would really top things off. He was right, problem was that he couldn't stop, he finished off the second pack.

Cobb was on top of the world but knew that more beer wasn't going to keep the good times rolling. It seemed logical in his sotted brain that it was time for some hard stuff. So Cobb took his checkbook and headed for Al’s Liquors down the street where he bought a pint of whiskey. Not wanting to wait until he got home, Cobb took a couple of pulls from it right there in the parking lot. A few seconds later the world went blurry. But Cobb liked this feeling. He staggered towards home singing a current Bobby Rydell song, but after going a few yards he lost his balance and started pinwheeling into the street.

The truck was going the speed limit, it had its lights on and the driver was obeying all traffic laws. He was not at fault. Coincidentally a police car was coming towards the scene of the accident and saw the whole thing. The police officer, a veteran by the name of Ralph McIntyre, watched Wendell Cobb get smacked by the truck and fly several feet in the air. An ambulance was there within seven minutes.

Cobb suffered a broken leg, broken arm, broken ribs, a concussion, various contusions and lost a few teeth. Bad as it was, the cop, and later the doctors ,thought he got off lucky. Cobb was in the hospital for three weeks. His job was gone and bills had piled up. He had no choice but to move back in with his folks. He vowed never to drink again.

It wasn’t until mid January, just a few days before John Kennedy’s inauguration, that friends could once again chant, Cobb has a job.  He hadn't been well enough to look until December and construction work was out for a time until his leg was 100%. So what Cobb got was a work as the night counter man at a liquor store in San Francisco. Cobb was never tempted to take advantage of the employee discount, at least on booze.

He was sleeping in a spare room at D'Angelo's house until he saved up enough for an apartment. Cobb had a job and this time he was determined not to screw up.

22 March 2015

Victory of the Bland - Thoughts on Corporate CEOs, Mafia Bosses Inspired by the Bob Durst Story

Like a lot of people I was fascinated by the  recent HBO six part series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst about multi millionaire Robert Durst. This is the chap who killed a man and dismembered his body but got off on the claim that it the killing was a combination of self defense and an accident. Durst is believed to be responsible for the murder of his first wife who disappeared in 1982 and for assassinating a friend in Los Angeles in 2000. Some friend.

If you haven’t seen the series I highly recommend it. Its compelling on a number of levels not the least of which being that Durst is making the news right now with his recent arrest. As has been reported, he seems to have accidentally confessed to murder in a recording that can be heard at the end of the final episode.

Durst was extensively interviewed for the series by the makers of the documentary with director Andrew Jarecki asking the questions. It’s fascinating stuff on many levels. Durst seems at once repulsive, likable, weird and not the type of guy with who would going around killing people.
He’s also clearly a liar. For instance he tells of being led to a window by his dad to watch his mother jump (or fall if you believe the family) to her death when he was but seven years old. If it sounds unbelievable that a father would casually take a child to watch mom teetering on the edge of a roof its because it never happened. Then again it did happen in Durst’s mind. In fact in his mind he’s an innocent man who’s a victim of a bizarre string of mishaps. The worst lies you can believe in are your own. They become a person’s narrative, their new reality. Crimes, excesses and conversations can be wiped from a person’s memory. Just as new stories, alternative realities can be added. Someone living in their delusions is pretty hard to deal with.

Douglas Durst
Jinx is intriguing on a number of levels including the fact that it is full of interesting characters, in addition to the main one. One of them is Durst’s brother Douglas who upon the death of the family patrician, Seymour (Doug and Bob’s dad) took charge of the family business. That business is in prime Manhattan real estate. The Dursts are loaded. We see Doug a few times in Jinx but he never sat down for an interview with he filmmakers. That’s not his thing. We do see him on tape giving a deposition and also Jarecki crashed a ceremony where he was given an award for charitable work. It was enough to get an idea of the type of guy Doug Durst is. On the surface there's nothing particularly interesting about Doug, certainly not compared to other personalities we meet in the series. And especially as we only catch glimpses of him. But he reminds me of Michael Corelone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather Part II (1974).

No, I’m not saying that Doug Durst is a mobster. But he is, like Corleone a businessman and more than that a CEO. Indeed he is the archetype. Like the true Mafia boss, the CEO is an insulated figure. He does not give interviews. He does not engage in chit chat with strangers nor even acquaintances and rarely with friends and only sometimes with family. He is has a wall around himself and his immediate family and other than official company policy and major decisions, people do not have access to his opinions. Any embarrassment within the family or organization is to be dealt with swiftly with official statements that are as insipid as possible. The family/company holds no controversial positions, is fiercely private and neutral whenever possible. They do not engage in dialogues, they release terse statements. They have channels and layers to go through. They have specific people with specific tasks. They are protected. They are serious.

Doug Durst said as little as possible about his brother’s legal woes. He sent lawyers. The CEO loves his lawyers, they protect him. The family stayed as far away as possible from the case of Bob’s first wife’s disappearance. They didn’t lift a finger to help “look for her.” (Okay, so maybe they knew or figured Bob had killed her so what would be the point.) It was the same way in which they claimed that Seymour’s wife had fallen to her death rather than jumped. Suicide is embarrassing and raises questions. Accidents happen. Regrettable but nothing to sully the family name.

In Godfather Part II Michael is the quintessential Mafia boss (not the flashy John Gotti type who loves headlines and pays dearly for it) who stays in the background. He is cool, detached and in total control. As his father advised, he never let anyone outside the family know what he's thinking. All his moves were designed to protect the family business and the immediate family. Nothing else mattered. If he had to kill a sibling to protect that family by god he’d do it. Michael’s rages, his emotions were all kept out of sight. Doug seems similarly cool, detached and in control, similarly never letting others know what goes on inside. He too makes sure that ever move is calculated to protect and further the family name and business. He is also a quintessential CEO who stays out of headlines (not the obscenely obnoxious type like Donald Trump).

Michael Corleone
It must be a frightful existence. Lonely. Unnatural. Trapped. To constantly follow such strict rules of conduct to constantly have one’s guard up and to constantly depend on others to keep the facade going. It is the death of personality, spontaneity and creativity and the victory of the bland. I wonder if Bob Durst, despicable as he may be, is at least happier than Doug? I wonder if Fredo (the murdered brother) enjoyed his life more than Michael enjoyed his?

Both Bob and Doug suffered the childhood trauma of their mother’s death. Perhaps as a consequence Bob turned into an amoral killer while Doug cleaved closer to his father and emulated his leadership style.

The further you go up any corporate or government hierarchy less interesting are the people you meet. You see men in plain suits, freshly tailored, recent haircuts, manicured nails, perfunctory smiles and medium strength handshakes. They say little and mean less. Their souls are tucked safely away in storage. Their desks are clean with an obligatory framed family photo. They seem but empty vessels. How mannered and polite and desperately dull they are. How far from their true natures.

Anyway I started out about Bob Durst. No empty vessel he. Then again he probably murdered at least three people so nobody’s perfect.

18 March 2015

More From the Tortured Genius and his Views on Superstition and Ghosts and His Learning About an Ex Classmate



“Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”  - From the novel V by Thomas Pynchon.

"Run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" - from Howl by Allen Ginsberg.

Yesterday I wrote about my bizarre contention that knocking on wood serves no real purpose and that I also see no scientific basis for a belief in astrology (as none exists). I’m reminded now of a friend recent telling about his niece having a baby. It seems that when she and her husband got to the hospital and took what she would need out of the trunk they found a $100 bill in said truck. The conclusion drawn by one and all in the family was that it had been left there for them by one of the niece’s grandparents, my friend’s parents. Never mind that these two people are deceased. My friend and his three siblings discussed whether they thought the money was placed there by their mother or father.

This assumes that there are banks in the afterlife. Not to mention that the dear departed can make withdrawals and place money wherever they choose. Questions arise. Why don’t all dead people look after poor living descendants by dropping them some money? Is it possible for ghosts to cause inflation by leaving too much money in this world? Why just a c note?

Well if someone firmly believes that her or his dead parents are leaving cash around or indeed if people just want to believe that the deceased walk among us that's their privilege. I can’t prove a negative so I better just let it go. Mind you I did not contradict my friend’s story no more than I would tell a religious person that their belief’s are a lot of hooey. Strange things and the unexplained do happen. For example for decades I futilely rooted for a particular baseball team to finally win a World Series and they’ve gone and won three in the last five years. Okay, maybe not the same thing.

But speaking of sports I do things all the time for “good luck” when watching one of my favorite teams, whether on TV or in person. I walk a certain route, I wear certain clothes, I’ll sit in a certain spot. I always know that nothing I do impacts the game in the slightest. But the thing about watching sports is one feel so powerless. Sure you can be part of crowd noise but even at that you’re just one voice among perhaps tens of thousands. Really you’re just stuck looking and hoping. So you fool yourself into thinking that you can impact the game. It’s universal too. Sports fans all over the world are the same in this respect and have been probably since the first competitive sports were played.

Also yesterday I shared a story I wrote about a high school romance that was derailed before it really began because the girl in question didn't like my astrological sign. I prefaced the story by saying that the subject of the story is deceased. After publishing the post I googled her and learned nothing other than she died at age 43 and was living in Berkeley at the time. That was it. In looking for more I found about the death of someone else in my high school graduating class. His name was Joe Feller and we were regular classmates from about seventh grade through senior year. I don't recall us ever hanging out together but we were always quite friendly. He was among the many classmates I got along with famously who was Jewish although, I don't know that he was ever devout or ever even entered a synagogue. Joe had black bushy hair, was tall and slender, smiled constantly and was kick ass students. I doubt he ever had many if any enemies. While I was off with others getting high he was hitting the books. While I drank and partied through my 20s he was, well here's what I read about him:

He received a bachelor's in physics from Harvard University and a PH.D in physics at U.C. Berkeley. Joe next served as a physics professor at Columbia University. Realizing that his true passion was environmental law, he left Columbia and attended Harvard Law School, where he served as editor for the Harvard Law Review, a distinction he shares with President Barack Obama. From 1987 to his death in 2013, Joe was a law professor at Arizona State University, where he taught and mentored many students in the field of environmental law. He made and kept friends wherever he went and from all walks of life. Joe was genuinely modest and few people knew of his many achievements, which may have been his greatest achievement of all.

I subsequently read more about Joe and watched a slide show from his memorial that revealed a life that may have been cut short but was certainly not wasted. He was a great outdoor enthusiast who loved nature and travel and seemed to have a close family and large group of friends. The photos in the slide show reveal the same smile I remember, the same slim figure, though by the last half of his life the hair was considerably shorter.

Joe was killed crossing a street. It wasn't the driver's fault, Joe was crossing against the do not walk sign. Damn it! Discovering all this was a good sharp slap across the psyche.

My obituary will say: the idiot had a blog and somehow managed a wife and two children. His hobbies included grumpiness, grouchiness and general irritability. He'll be remembered for colossal mistakes and falling ass backwards into way more good luck than he deserved. He liked dogs though he didn't have one.

Anyway I may have time to beef up that obit although its kind of late in the game to make it really shine.

Son of a bitch, poor Joe.

17 March 2015

Maledictions and Malaprops -- A True Story I Wrote that I Publish Here Proceeded by an Introdution

Main setting of the story.


Oh no love! you're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you're not alone
No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain
You're not alone 
- From Rock and Roll Suicide by David Bowie

I am a tortured genius who suffers for his art.

Sometimes the torture is sublime. A masochistic orgy of painful rumination and all I’ve come to understand all I’ve felt and all that remains beyond my grasp. I reach, reach, reach and exert my brain and slump. Lost among the turgid thoughts of daily trivia.

Or so it seems.

Recently I mentioned to someone that I have never suffered either a major illness nor major injury. (I have more than made up for this with enough mental and emotional woes enough to satisfy a small city.) So anyway this chap says that I had better knock on wood. I refused pointing out that knocking on wood will have no influence on my future health. He suggested that I was tempting fate and indeed seemed somewhat agitated with me for not following the rules. This just served to make me more adamant. I was not going to give in to any silly superstition.

A co- worker was recently talking about liking to cook and said it was typical of Cancers, referring to people born under a particular astrological sign and not sufferers of the disease. I asked, “what’s the science behind that?” He did not answer but another co-worker, a learned man who has studied the great philosophers of history suggested that there “seems to be a lot there.” Yes, a lot of hokum.

I believe that whenever someone mentions astrology in a way that suggests that it has any basis in reality, a scientist somewhere sheds a tear.

All this serves as an introduction to a story I wrote a few years ago that has never before seen the light of day, or the internet anyway. Every word of if it is true. I didn't even change the girl's name, she's dead now anyway.

MALEDICTIONS AND MALAPROPS

The world, my existence felt as if I was viewing and experiencing from the depths of the ocean. Water. Lies. Perception thrown off, depressing like a bad day following another bad one with another one coming and for all time. No escaping. Was it the drugs I’d taken? Was it adolescence. Was this real life and all before had been fantasy? Had I been drugged? Surreptitiously. I stood suddenly quite alone and confused trying to recall what existence felt like from the inside. I was all out of whack. 

Teenage wasteland. With or without the drugs. Mind zapping itself and here comes Danza. A mad crush. Spring day junior year high school. I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing. I just play along. I do know how I feel most of the time and I know that I’m mad for Danza. “Hi, Richard,” she offered with a beaming smile. For me? This happy smile this warm greeting as she walked right towards me. Her long dark hair swayed. Her breasts poked against a light white sweater. Danza’s face was just this side of perfection. Just.

I was scared. Scared of a girl. Not because she was so beautiful, not because I loved her from afar, but because she was being so friendly. This could be a devastating experience. I could find out once and for all the awful truth that no male ever wants to know of an object of lust -- that she wanted to be friends. And friends only. Or not. Consider if she liked me. I mean LIKED me, even half as much as I liked her. The pressure would be enormous, the potential for a disastrous fall was incalculable. 

“Hi,” was all I could muster. Saying her name felt dangerously personal, like we were old buddies, neighborhood pals who’d grown up together and knew each other’s families, like we were practically cousins and romance was an impossibility. 

Then she did it. She stopped right there in front of me and started to chat. This had never happened before. We’d been classmates several times thus far in high school and had exchanged friendly glances in the hallways and at our lockers. But now Danza was stepping outside of the role of acquaintance and being friendly. 

My palms were wet. I rubbed a thumb and index finger together nervously. “How’s it goin'?” she wanted to know. She. Danza wanted to know how I was doing. Me. 

“Pretty good, how are you?” it was too formal sounding, but worse I wanted to add: so why the hell are you talking to me. You’ve got all the power here, you initiated this and I’m scared and confused and every second is like a minute and what the hell are you going to say next quick say it before I spontaneously combust which would be just my luck.

“I’m doin’ great” she said as if truly touched that I would take the time to ask. How do girls do this? How do they make us feel so special, so wonderful, so very happy just through the inflection of their voice and how they tilt their head and look at us. Then she added a question that I shall ever forget: “So is this your lunch or do you have second lunch?”

It was not my lunch I did have second lunch but I suspected that if I told her that this magic would end. “No, I’ve got lunch now,” I said in a voice more squeaky than Mickey Mouse's.

Then she uttered a sentence I shall never forget: “Well maybe we could have lunch together."

I felt a power surge through my body as if I had been granted magic powers and could levitate. “Sure, that would be great.” I suddenly sounded like Cary Grant. I suddenly felt I must be handsome as Danza was beautiful. I felt bullet proof.

Let us now move ahead in the narrative. Danza and I are sitting in the little park across the street from Berkeley High. I am wolfing down my lunch, she nibbling at hers in the way women mysteriously do. We had chatted about teachers, music, movies, classmates and shared vignettes from our home lives (mine were airbrushed to eliminate any ugliness about a wacko mom and ensuing complications). All was going wonderfully and if I had been able to step out of my body for a moment and watch the unfolding scene I would have boldly predicted that the seemingly impossible notion of a romance between Danza and I was on the verge of becoming a reality. I had stepped up in class and was now officially the type of person who is visited by good fortune with the resulting successful career, gorgeous wife, handsome children and bulging bank account, not to mention athletic fame. 

I was figuratively not only on top of the world but doing summersaults over it. Then Danza asked me another question that I shall never forget: “What’s your sign?” To this point in my life the whole nonsense of astrology was a harmless matter that neither interested nor bothered me. That was all about to change. I said with confidence: “Pisces.”  

“Oh,” said Danza first as if receiving disappointing news. Then she poured it on with a soft but audible “ewww.” The sad “oh” had been bad enough. Now this, an actual “ewww” from the woman who I was falling in love with. Danza looked down at the grass, picking softly at a few blades. I experienced a sensation that would be repeated when not getting a job I wanted, or being fired from one or when an expected letter didn't arrive or when a woman tore my heart out.

Danza suddenly realized the time and that she had to get something from the school library before her next class. I let her return to school alone.

It was all over just like that. Because of when I was born. The disappointment I had feared cloaked me. Snugly. I got up and headed to the campus. But as I crossed the street I started to feel relief. It was over before it really started between Danza and I had done nothing to cause this abrupt end. It was her, her and an idiotic, superstitious belief that a person’s personality was shaped by the stars. I could now dismiss Danza as a "bitch" (a term I no longer use about women). Not because she had rejected me. But why she had cast me aside. From that point on when I saw Danza she looked anything but beautiful. Instead I saw only ignorance. She wasn’t even a “bitch” just a pathetic creature. And from that day on I have hated any reference to astrology wether playful or serious.

15 March 2015

Just a Reminder


Often people display a curious respect for a man drunk, rather like the respect of simple races for the insane. Respect rather than fear. There is something awe-inspiring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything.
- From Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Being sober for a long time you kind of think that maybe you could do it. Maybe you could actually just have a drink or a beer and not immediately go on a bender. You think that maybe you’re over it or that maybe you never really drank or used all that much. Not compared to some of the people you’ve listened to in meetings or some of those total dead end guys you used to drink with. Why the hell should you deprive yourself? Remember how nice it was to have wine with dinner? Or how good a beer on a hot day tasted? You could do that, you’ve learned.

Then you remember. You remember sitting at the end of a bar with a glass of scotch. You didn’t really need this drink, you’d been hammering away all night and done a few lines and smoked a joint, the drink you were clutching was totally superfluous. You didn’t even want it. You were high, you were on, you were with friends, you had more of the night left to go and it was only Thursday so you had the weekend ahead. So you didn’t want it or need it but there it was. Because. Because you had to have it. That was the beauty of your life. Getting high was a journey not a destination. You were in love with the process. Stopping, ending, finishing, having enough, these were not part of your getting high lexicon. That’s it. You were getting. You were still going and would until….

You're a superstar. You're the greatest. Your David Fucking Bowie. You can have any woman you want and you, my friend just scored the winning goal in the World Cup and won the Oscar and absolutely everyone thinks your cool. Oh sure in reality you're slurring your words and your zipper is down, your hair mussed, you reek of booze and tobacco, you're speaking gibberish and laughing insanely and all but your friends think you are totally obnoxious, but that's there thing, man. You know you can bloody well fly. 

So no, you can’t do it. You can’t have just a glass of wine or just a bottle of beer. Literally you could that first time and maybe that second. But that third or that fourth. You’d be off to the races again. You’d be true to your nature as a junkie. You wouldn’t care about anything else. Nothing. Feed the monkey.

And that thought, the one about how you could do it, you could have a taste and it would be cool, that only lasted a second. In and out of your brain just that fast. Never anything serious. But it was there nonetheless. All those years on the disease still pokes at you, little jabs as if to say: hey, I'm only sleeping, anytime you're man enough to wake me up we can go again. Cunning, baffling, powerful are the three words used to describe it. Ain't that the truth.

So what you do is show up. Even if not physically with others you do it mentally. Check in. Remember the new process the one that does not include using and abusing. Stopping was one thing, living without it a whole new ballgame. Like Robert Redford at the end of the The Candidate (1972) when he wins the election, "what do we do now?" Exactly. That's the whole rest of your life. Living without. Now what? Do today for starters. All you got. And when those notions of going back pop in, let 'em pop right out.

09 March 2015

My Encounter With an SS Officer

It was my last day in Berlin, a brisk November afternoon just less than 10 months before the Germans invaded Poland. I’d been in Berlin for two weeks to file some stories for my newspaper, but also out of curiosity. I wanted to see if this Nazi regime was as awful as some said or as benign as others said. I’d seen and heard enough to be pretty confident that the Nazis were quite bad indeed. I wasn’t convinced that war was imminent but I felt certain that ominous things were happening in the country and that they meant to export their twisted philosophy one way or another.

Just the atmosphere in Germany was quite unsettling to me. It was clean and efficient and under control but the rich cultural life I’d experienced in my first visit to the country ten years earlier had vanished. People did not seem unhappy but their was something robotic or resigned about them. There were too the many signs — literal and figurative — that life for Jews was intolerable. I recall feeling quite relieved that I was leaving and was looking forward to a few day in Paris before returning to the States.

I’d been wandering around Berlin for awhile that day as I had time to kill before my train left. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was and didn’t fancy getting lost. For one thing I didn’t want to miss my train but also I was uncomfortable enough in Berlin as it was without finding myself in parts of the city unknown.

I had just stopped at an intersection to try to sort matters out when I noticed that there was an SS officer coming out of a cafe. He must have noticed that I had a perplexed look. I’ve always had a very bad poker face, there’s never been any disguising how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking. In any event, he took a few steps toward me and asked if I was indeed lost. I spoke sufficient German to tell him that I wasn’t sure the way back to my hotel. He detected my accent and asked where I was from. I read nothing but curiosity in his question, even as I think back on it now all these years later. I told him I was an American and he said that he had a cousin living in Cincinnati who quite liked the country. I told him that I’d been in that city before and the area itself was very nice.

He asked about my visit and I told him. We chatted amiably for perhaps ten minutes. The SS officer couldn’t have been more polite or charming. He seemed to be what we used to call a gentleman. He was several inches over six feet tall, trim and -- not surprisingly -- blonde. While talking to him I momentarily forgot what his uniform stood for, what his leaders and peers had been doing and might be preparing to do. Finally I felt bold and — ever the reporter — asked him about his government’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. The SS Officer smiled politely and nodded as if my question were to be expected. He said (and here I offer my translation of his remarks in quotes because I’ve always remembered it well): “the Jews are treated in accordance with their needs and responsibilities and the manner in which they conduct business. Their is nothing done to or for them that is not just.” His answer seemed at once patronizing, polite and rehearsed. It was also bereft of meaning. But there was also in it the understanding that further pursuit of the topic on my part would be fruitless.

The SS Officer then told me he had responsibilities to attend to and asked if I was sure I could get back to my hotel. I assured him that I could and thanked him for his kindness.

I thought about that encounter a lot in the years since though for some reason I left it out of any future articles I wrote about my trip in particular or the Nazis in general. Of course I often wondered what happened to the SS Officer. Was he killed? Was he executed for war crimes? Did he serve Hitler throughout the war and survive then go on to a “normal life” and help rebuild Germany? I think, of course, that he was brainwashed. All those SS were in my opinion. Had the Nazis not come along he might have been a decent chap contributing to his country in any number of positive ways.

During and after the war I was much sought after for my opinion on various issues relating to Hitler and his gang of thugs. I was always willing to offer my thoughts, but truthfully I was just as bewildered as everyone else. It was a scope of evil that was not easily comprehended. When the horrors of the Holocaust came to light I had trouble sleeping. The images from the campus haunted my dreams and woke me up. And I couldn't help but think: did the SS Officer I spoke to participate in this barbarity? If he was stationed at a camp then surely he did.

Sometimes at a particular time of year or time of day or when the weather is just so, my mind will go back to that encounter with the SS Officer and the memory will be as clear as though it took place yesterday. And I often think, he seemed such a nice man.

08 March 2015

Like I Was Saying Before This Stupid Apocalypse

From Bergman's Persona, one of the films I've enjoyed of late.

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
- From Changes by David Bowie

I wanted to write something today. Something memorable. Something that would hang in the air taking solid form. Something I could climb and repose on and dance with and shimmy down the hall in the company of. I wanted to write something big. Something that The New Yorker would pay me double for. That Forbes magazine would take notice of. That would be featured on the PBS NewsHour. Something that pundits would discuss. I wanted something that anti intellectual right wingers would rail about. I wanted to write something that would be compared to the best of James Joyce and at the same time to Hemingway and somehow to Descartes and to The Beatles, of course. I wanted to write something that would be hung in the Louvre and would be credited with reviving literature. I wanted to write something that would cause a national holiday to be declared so that people could take the time to read it. I wanted to write something that was translated into 100 languages. I wanted to write something that would soar to the heavens. With wings. I wanted to write something that you could taste, feel, smell and hold.

I wanted to consequently be hailed a genius and awarded a special Pulitzer Prize and an extra special Nobel Prize. I wanted to receive long standing ovations and parades and I wanted to celebrated by the rich and famous and to have beautiful women throw themselves at me. I wanted to be hailed and feted and honored and applauded and acclaimed and extolled and given encomiums and kudos and hosannahs. I wanted the writing to earn me riches beyond my wildest dreams.

But

All I could come up with this:

If have pondered life eternal and suffered people infernal and moaned about moments lost and cried over great costs. I have been alive for much of it although at times I was a man under the influence or was brain dead from anti depressants —

I write about the same things over and over and never seem to get around to writing about films anymore. I watch a lot of them too. It makes me happy to watch movies and it enriches my mind and my soul and inspires to me greatness — I should say the illusion that greatness is ever in my grasp and the complimentary illusion that greatness can be defined and codified and explained and experienced and lived and that I am capable. Ain’t I a kick in the pants.

Also the watching is a wonderful escape. I get to into another world. I forget for awhile my life and my troubles and my past and my struggles and see the world through the people and stories in the film. I am not hiding from my life, just taking a respite. I am not bored with my life but I need to spend time away from it. I face my life head on so thoroughly and aggressively these days. I need to run. I need to read. I need to write. I need to watch movies. This completes me and encapsulates the world and brings meaning and trust and hope and happiness and relief and wonder.

But writing about movies is not something I’m feeling these days. Soon again I am sure.

So what else.

We’re in a terrible drought these days. There’s little worse. You literally can’t do anything about it. You can’t even write an angry letter to the editor. We’re also having a very warm winter and look here Spring is right around the bend. Me, I like what other people call bleak weather. Cold, gray days. Mist, fog, overcast, dampness. That’s my thing. These endless days of dirty blue skies feel apocalyptic.

Enough about me.

Now I’m reading Pynchon’s latest book, Bleeding Edge. I have trouble at times following the story but my god the way the man writes who cares? His earlier works deserve my future attention and shall receive it. I’ve only previously read The Crying of Lot 49 by him before. I am a reading junkie. I must always have a book that I'm reading. Sometimes two or three. I do not apologize for this. Not that I would expect anyone to ask me to.

The clocks have been moved ahead so I will literally have to get up an hour earlier than usual and will thus be even more tired and even more grumpy -- horrors! -- than usual. Can we dispense with this? Or at least go back to starting daylight savings time in mid October and ending in mid April as during my perfect youth? Unlike the weather this is something we can do something about.