Summer of LoveSince May I’ve been touring Hank William’s “Lone Highway” actually—Georgiana, Montgomery, Alabama—and not quite making it to Canton. I don’t know why, just one of those intuitive coincidences I can’t explain, but feel might lead to something. Earlier this month I met my cousin, Vince, at the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame in lieu of driving to Loraine, OH to the Polka Hall of Fame. The Rock Gods Hall itself is creepy, like Madame Toussand’s without heads.  It’s celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love with exhibitions of stylish ghosts. I bought a commemorative key chain to help to help with our séance. We sauntered through Jimi Hendrix’s closet, paused and listened at the display of a Vocalion 78 of Robert Johnson and I saw my sixth or seventh pair of hand tooled boots alleged to be owned by Hank Williams. In the past I’ve stumbled past Electric Ladyland Studios and spent an afternoon driving around between Greenville and Rolling Forks looking in vain for Robert Johnson’s grave. So the Hank Williams tour of C&W attire seemed no stranger than visiting Keats House in Wentworth, Les Deux Maggots, or Ezra Pound’s grave in San Michele, it’s something I do…one of my ways of being in the world.  But the Cleveland Hall of Fame is almost seedy, like seeing the back of the carnival—everything looks cheaper and disproportionately small. Vince is considerably younger than me, but for the most part he was patient with my meandering through the fool’s golden age of rock. He didn’t care much about Jim Morrison’s leather pants, Brian Jones’ caftan or John Lennon’s handwriting. He asked me how crazy it was at Woodstock and seemed politely appalled at the psychedelic sense of fashion. We walked by the Michael Jackson mannequin already encased, like everything else there, in its special version of spot lit amber. Vince knew a lot about Motown (He knows a lot about a lot of things) and we had a passing argument about what the Sound of Young America symbolized and what Barry Gordy meant to the industry of music. We conjectured about what record producers, disc jockeys and executives had to do with the deep fundamental pelvic grab of Rock ’n Roll. Just asking questions that we felt might make the price of admission seem less steep. Probably the most prescient question we discussed was “If he’s the King of Pop…have you ever seen Michael Jackson or know anybody who has?” It took a week before we found someone we knew who had. And that included my daughter’s stepbrother, Travis who seems to have seen everyone in concert. Michael Jackson was a recluse in our collective memory before he was lost in Neverland.  Until suddenly, his heart stopped…

Our new cyber culture was electrified with a celebratory spirit like a drunken Greek chorus. Philippine Prisoners forced to practice reenacting their “Thriller” reenactments for hours. A friend sends me pictures of a memorial video dance at the Alamo Draft House in Austin. Anyone can watch versions of these flash mobs appearing on YouTube dispersed all over the world…collective mind appearting to raise a voice resembling passion with no purpose, but genuine frenzy.   Electronically there are thousands of living voices singsonging along “Billie Jean is not my lover”. There’s wild rush from work to the streets or bars with beers and camera phones in hand photographing themselves dancing in imitation of the creature who only yesterday was derided as Jacko.    

 I imagine Greece in it’s mythopoetic glory, when sleepy eyed Dionysus led the dance and the drunken wild Maenads tore Orpheus head from shoulders and Oedipus put out his own eyes.  Michael Jackson was like a character Sophocles might have written—punished not for his alleged pedophilia (like Orpheus) or eccentricities in parenting (like Oedipus), but for trying to outlive his youth.  Hubris is the tragic crime and punishment. What most separates the least recognized god from the most popular king on earth, is the god will never grow old. Dionysus disappears and returns in a hundred disguises, but always a form of a strangely beautiful youth. The King of Pop inflicted monstrous plastic masks of youth on himself trying to delay the departure of his Dionysian daemon. Like Oedipus his machinations to escape his fate turned cruelly ironic—he became inspiration for his chorus’ judgment by gossip. Jacko weds Bubbles, hyperbolic chambers…dangles baby Prince.

Now the chorus is laughing and screaming, running nowhere in particular just like the mob that dispersed Orpheus leaving only his lyre still echoing its master’s songs. Like so many of  my psychopomps Elvis, Hank Williams, Sylvia Plath, Garcia-Lorca, Byron, Marilyn Monroe, Keats, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix—gods grant mortals divine gifts only for a time, then they toss them into a wind coming out of the mouths of the mob celebrating their death like a summer festival.

 “…golden. …stardust and caught in the Devil’s bargain.”                                                                                                        “Woodstock” Joni Mitchell


The Old United Engineering & Foundry

I am, as the Brits say, “hanging fire” waiting for my appointment at the PMS Valley Clinic. Heartburn, severe enough to worry me for a couple of days. I ate more yogurt. Checked Web MD to calm myself that I wasn’t having a heart attack (the server went down while I was checking, which didn’t calm me). If I sit up I seem more comfortable. They can see me at 2:30. It’s 11:30. I’ve spent most of the morning listening to Radio Wimbledon. Impeccable Federer wins, Sharpova shocked…a difficult task, tennis on the radio. My concentration can suddenly tip to panic unless I keep myself calm. The phone rings. Birds squable by the window. My sleep has been tissue thin for weeks. I’ve been traveling, riding the interstates all over my past. Mostly I hope for a nap that doesn’t come.

This morning we closed on the sale of my parent’s house. From 1,500 miles away (and apart) my wife and I get e-mails from the realtor. It’s over; the check is in the mail. Here in the Jemez I’m alone and waiting for that too. Remembering my father died of a heart attack in the ambulance from his cardiologist’s office. I’m closer to his age than far away. My friend Linda says stress that isn’t released goes into the body…maybe that’s what happened. My body has been disintegrating for these last few months. I’ve just been pretending it hasn’t been. I’ve driven 5,000 vacation miles since June began. I broke a crown on vacation this spring. I’ve had a temporary bridge, so I haven’t been eating properly–digestion starts in the mouth. And I’ve been eating lots of vacation food, all variations of you can’t get this anymore. I’ve gone to the gym periodically—run my few miles here and there. Stayed mostly vigilant about my diet; taken my Vitorin every night, vitamins, Omega 3s. But I’m still waiting for my appointment, worrying and thinking about my father. 

He’s been gone more than ten years, but I think about him often. He died three years after he was laid off, in the first months of his actual retirement. A couple weeks ago my friend Jerry and I drove down by the old United Engineering and Foundry on Phelps Street in Youngstown. I wanted to take some photos of where the Old Man worked.  A century ago it was a good enough job to have brought my Great Uncle Angelo from Italy. In the Fifties when Dad was hired, Uncle Angelo ‘got him in’. He worked eleven to seven and four to twelve for twenty-nine and a half years of his life. Most of my childhood he was at work, asleep or just waking up. He was an honest, hardworking man. He did his best for my mom and me. I have no complaint. He was from the generation that honored their secrets. I doubt he would read this; I know he couldn’t have conceived of saying, let alone writing any of this for just anyone to read. 

Our family only owned one car at a time, mostly Oldsmobiles. For thirty years The Old Man shared the gas with guys named Mick, Scotty, Big Ed, or walked to work. When I was old enough to drive, I picked him up. I was late picking him up once; I never made that mistake again. Every shift change was a Le Mans start. The second the time clock went “click”, men with lunch boxes, grocery bags crumpled under their arms, or taking drags on cigarettes came running as fast as they could out the double door. Now, I can only make guesses what they were putting behind themselves. The Old Man never said a thing about it beyond “Garbage.”  They bowled together, cashed their paychecks and drank boilermakers for breakfast at Moore’s Tavern and showed up every day. When one of them died, the foreman auctioned off his tools and gave the money to the widow. I never met a single friend of his from work until the day of his funeral. They were who they were. It was what it was. That’s all they said about it.

 The working classes are addicted to brutish work, war and prisons. It’s how we see who we are. That we make money, make the world safe for democracy, or if we’re guilty or innocent—it’s all secondary to how we stand up to it—how we do our time. Jack Dempsey said “Champions are guys who get up when they shouldn’t.” The Old Man was that kind of stand back up guy. One day he showed me a 1” X 1” gray plastic box, inside was a bronze lapel pin, Fifteen Years Perfect Attendance. It had never been out of the box. When he got laid off, he threw it away. The day he died, he drove himself to the doctor. Now my chest is on fire and I’m alone waiting. Part of me wants to call a friend to talk, or come by and take me. But a more brutal part of me wants to hold the Old Man again, wants to be stand up, to take it, to shut up and drive. It is what it is.

Myopic Travels

June 23, 2009


Clovis, New Mexico

Crossing deserts, even high plain deserts in a car,
is still a spiritual experience. Yesterday traveling
stretched plateau landscape sometimes a world
so flat to see unobstructed horizon all directions.
Cloudscape a few hundred feet over me casual
drizzle, or sudden wind gusted rain oil slickening
the highway permits few distractions, the engine
straining long climbs past Santa Rosa. The last
section of highway I-40 to ABQ the worst. Road
shifts from four lane to broken lane construction
crowding the steep and curvy approach to the city.
No speeding, no passing, downhill trucks roiling
towards you. Then miraculously it changes, as if
I’d climbed out of a hole. I drive through town on
San Mateo Blvd. miles of one plaza—tire stores,
tattoo parlors, rock shops, Mexican restaurants,
massage parlors, Hooters, Pier One, Starbucks,
boot stores, tax prep, Wendy’s, custom made
leather, auto parts, fast check cashing, moccasin
and artifact shops, Ross, dry cleaners, McDonald’s,
and a boot and western wear barn. Finally I locate
the right to Whole Foods. There I go from speaking
to no one for hours to constant collisions and apologies
to and from shoppers wandering through their lists.
For me it should be simple, the same things I get
at the grocery any weekend. Do I have enough onions?
Do I like the look of that fish? Should I get wine
in case guests arrive? But I have to fight back
the urge to talk to people uninvited. I don’t want to
be the creepy super market guy—

Then the last 40 miles to the house—

ABQ fades in my rearview mirror as I get over
the top of the Rio Rancho hill on Rt.550 orange
mesas and the lavender Jemez Mountains, then turn
at San Ysidro and the Jemez River Valley of small
farms and Cottonwood trees. I pass above Jemez
Reservation, not western romantic and a speed trap
at 30 mph,without mercy for outsiders. Always a dog
or two wandering from there to somewhere else,
a cloud of yellow dust rising from activity; it knows
it’s own charm. Then I descend to round red rocks
the road still winding alongside the river. West-
side cliff faces rise to mesa tops. I drift into Jemez
Springs at 25mph (speed trap). A clutch of bikers
hanging around at Los Ojos, the cowboy bar. But
they’re not real bikers anymore, pleasant dress up,
a pageant so they can ride the same road in and out
of their dreams too. Just past the curve at Soda Dam
I turn at Redondo and toss up dirt and slide and rattle
up the rough graded road. All I can do is keep going
slower until I get to the top of the road. I look down
to see the valley, or look right and up to the house.
There are weeds all over the drive I worked so hard
to clear last summer…but I can’t care. I’m here.
I open all the windows, drag bags out of the car and start
putting away and finding and losing things. Around five
I start to saute zucchini for dinner. The telephone rings,
“Yes I’m here”. The wireless router doesn’t work right.
The television doesn’t work at all. The radio has periodic
static, but the DJ’s playing recordings of Van Morrison
live years ago, and happily there’s nothing left to do
but listen to Van’s plaintive searching for his soul
and invisible birds singing along out in the dark.
Then I don’t need Van. It’s just birds and the occasional
hum of the refrigerator. A sleigh bed surrounded by open
windows. I’m so tired I don’t want to go to sleep, not yet.
So lovely buried under the blankets, surrounded by white
silent arms of pillows…what dream could bring dreams
better than this gentle ceasing?