Posts Tagged ‘Anatole France’

My Big Trip, Part One

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.” Anatole France

In 1976, when I was twenty-six and working as a landscaper in southern Oregon, my big dream was go to New York and meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, and also say hello to the magazine editors at Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Gallery who had bought my short stories; and to rub shoulders, I hoped, with others of my kind. For those of you unfamiliar with Gallery, it was a low rent offshoot of Penthouse with lots of raunchy photos of naked women and quasi-pornographic letters-to-the-editor and the occasional marvelous short story by Todd Walton. I was somewhat embarrassed to have my stories therein, but thrilled to be paid for my writing.

Standing in the way of my dream was lack of cash. When I worked as a landscaper, I made six dollars an hour, which was good pay for physical labor in those days, but the work was sporadic and I often made just enough to cover my rent and groceries. Then one day my boss called to say he’d landed a contract to landscape both sides of a freeway overpass in Medford and would need me fulltime for two months, and since it was a state job he was required to pay me ten dollars an hour. So I moved out of my room in Ashland and into a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house in Medford where I could live for free and only have to pay for food. I figured to clear over three thousand dollars and be able to fly to the Big Apple instead of hitchhiking. Little did I know the job would last three months and not only finance my trip to New York, but also keep me solvent for the next two years.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Martin Luther King

I remember two things most vividly about those three summer months of landscaping that gargantuan freeway overpass—the remarkable increase in my physical strength, and the heartbreaking young prostitute who worked the northbound on-ramp from early afternoon and into the night.

I dug over eighteen-hundred-feet of deep ditch by hand, and I climbed up and down steep inclines carrying heavy loads for hours on end, six days a week. I went from being a trim 165 pounds to a heavily muscled 180, and by the end of that job I could pick up a ninety-pound sack of cement as if it was a modest bag of groceries. I slept the sleep of the dead from eight every evening until my boss roused me at six every morning, except on Sundays when I would sleep into the afternoon.

And every day that beautiful young woman with long auburn hair would come walking up the hill from the Motel Six—strong and graceful—dressed as the college girl she was pretending to be, with sensible shoes and long stockings and a knee-length skirt, a well-ironed blouse, and a sweater to match her skirt, her hair in a ponytail. She carried a notebook and what looked like a textbook to complete her disguise, and she did not hold out her thumb to simulate hitchhiking, but simply stood there waiting—and she rarely waited more than half-an-hour before a car or pickup truck would stop beside her, the driver—almost always a single man—would roll down his passenger window, and the young woman would come closer to talk business. And sometimes the young woman would get in the car and drive with her client down onto the freeway and have him take the next exit and circle back to the Motel Six, and sometimes the client would drive away without her and she would walk down the hill to meet him at the motel, and sometimes the man was dissatisfied with the price or whatever limitations she imposed, and he would drive away and she would resume her waiting.

We were intrigued by her, my fellow workers and I, and when we’d take breaks for snacks or lunch, if she was waiting there, we would offer her a cookie or a drink of water or a handful of nuts (no pun intended), and sometimes she would graciously accept, and sometimes she would politely decline. And one time our boss brought us cheeseburgers and fries and shakes from the nearby MacDonald’s, and when we told our girl we had more than we could eat, she sauntered across the road and ate a quick lunch with us.

“You guys are great,” she said, revealing a slight lisp and a sweet southern accent. “I like having you nearby. Makes me feel safe.”

To which I wanted to reply, “How can you ever feel safe having sex with strangers, so many strangers, so many men you know nothing about?” But I was speechless standing close to her, marveling at her beauty and bravery, so I said nothing and spent those moments memorizing her face and figure so I might never forget her.

“What things are the poem?” D.R. Wagner

About a month into the freeway job, Dorothy Pittman called to say my editor at Seventeen wanted to commission a Christmas story for which she would pay me five hundred dollars. She needed a three-thousand-word story as soon as possible, and I almost declined because I was so tired every day from my physical labors I didn’t see how I could muster the strength to write anything good. But I didn’t want to burn that little publishing bridge, so I accepted the commission and hoped for the best.

Now one thing about ditch digging, especially the digging of very long ditches, is that the mind is largely free while the body works, and so I used that laboring time to tell myself Christmas stories until one of the stories took hold; and then I told the story over and over to myself through the hours and days of digging, refining the tale with every telling until I had each descriptive passage and every line of dialogue just as I wanted them, the story memorized. And on a Sunday afternoon I typed the whole thing up, shipped the manuscript to New York the next day, and thought no more about it.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to visit family and friends in and around San Francisco before flying off to New York in mid-September. Weary of hitchhiking, and feeling flush, I took the Greyhound bus, which in those days was an inexpensive and relatively comfortable way to travel, with stations and stops in thousands of towns and cities where today the buses no longer go.

My companion for eight hours of the ten-hour journey was a roly-poly guy in desperate need of a bath. He was forty-something with a baby face and curly brown hair and crooked brown teeth. He wore shiny brown polyester slacks, a faded T-shirt featuring green parrots, and red high-top tennis shoes. After we introduced ourselves and I learned he would be getting off in Sacramento, he launched into a discourse on the origin of humans on earth, his voice gruff, his narrative punctuated by bouts of coughing and chuckling.

“So the smartest advisor to these highly civilized aliens on a planet way over there says to the emperor, ‘Sire, all these barbarians do is kill and kill, no matter what we do, your lordship, and so I ask you to let me transport them to the planet of the dinosaurs where they will be eaten.’ But then the dinosaurs got zapped by a meteor and humans bred like gerbils and…here we are.”

“Could those aliens who brought humans here,” I inquired, “travel faster than the speed of light?”

“Of course,” he said, nodding emphatically. “Through molecular reconfiguring. The military sees their ships all the time with infrared fiber optics, but they don’t want regular people to know about the aliens because the government is a front for the secret warrior clan that has ruled the world since before the Pharaohs and are at war with the aliens.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “As a matter-of-fact, the aliens gave me mathematical proof of molecular reconfiguration in my dream. The equation is X over Real Time minus the Weight to Mass ratio per pound of Nega-Gravity doubling in Reversed Space in which slow is fast and vice-versa.”

“Nega-gravity? How…”

“I went to a psychic once,” he said, interrupting me, “and she said the main obstacle to my happiness is my mind and the gateway to freedom is to tell the world my dreams.” He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I haven’t slept in a couple weeks because they follow me everywhere since I got back from Vietnam because they know I know about their secret operations, so I’m gonna take a little nap and talk more later. Okay?”

To my great relief, he slept the rest of the way to Sacramento, waking when the bus driver announced, “This is Sac-ra-mento. We’ll be stopping here for fifteen minutes before continuing to San Francisco.”

“Do you remember the four things I told you?” asked my odiferous companion as he got his battered suitcase down from the overhead rack.

“Tell me again,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Acceptance, forgiveness, love and logic,” he said, frowning gravely. “These must be taught through all the media to ignite a revolution of thought to repel the forces of darkness.”

“Amen,” I said. “Safe travels.”

“Won’t help,” he said grimly. “I’m destined to meet the warlocks. Any day now.”

“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” George Carlin

My United Airlines flight to Newark, New Jersey was scheduled to lift off from San Francisco at midnight, but a few minutes before takeoff we were herded off the jet and told we would have to wait for another jet to arrive from Los Angeles because our first jet was experiencing mechanical difficulties. Thus we did not take off until three in the morning, and shortly thereafter my seven-mile-high snooze was interrupted by the announcement that “we will be landing in Chicago at O’Hare Airport in fifteen minutes where this flight will terminate.”

“Excuse me,” I said, trying not to panic as I hailed a stewardess. “I thought this flight was going to Newark, New Jersey. That’s what my ticket says and I’ve got a friend waiting for me there.”

“Sorry,” she said with a pleasant shrug, “they’ll fix you up with a new flight once we’re on the ground.”

O’Hare Airport is as big as a medium-sized city with myriad terminals located miles apart from each other, or so it was in 1976. When I was informed by the harried person at the United Airlines counter that if I wanted to continue to Newark I could do so on an American Airlines jet leaving in twelve hours or I could do what most of my fellow travelers were doing and change my flight to some other New York or East Coast destination. But since I was bound for New Jersey to stay with my friends Dan and Janka, and not being a savvy air traveler, I took the ticket he gave me and set out on the long trek across O’Hare with the intention of bivouacking at the appropriate American Airlines boarding gate until summoned to board.

Then a funny thing happened, and by funny I mean odd and perplexing. As I entered the vast American Airlines Terminal, I looked up at one of the many television monitors announcing flight arrivals and departures, and I noticed one of the departure announcements was blinking to indicate that flight would be departing in just a few minutes. And the number of the blinking flight was the number of the flight I had been told would be leaving in twelve hours—destination Newark, New Jersey.

So I ran as fast as I could for a good half-mile, thankful to be in such superlative condition from three months of grueling physical labor under the hot Oregon sun, and I arrived with my briefcase and knapsack at the appropriate boarding gate just as a dapper fellow in an American Airlines uniform was about to close the double doors to the ramp leading down to the soon-to-depart 747. He took my ticket, pulled off the appropriate pages, and sent me down the ramp to a smiling stewardess who ushered me into the virtually empty jumbo jet, empty save for me, four other passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, two stewards and five stewardesses.

Now that was a fun flight. Once we had attained cruising altitude above a vast sea of snowy white clouds, a stewardess invited the five passengers to move up to the First Class section—my one and only experience of such airborne luxury. We dined lavishly, were taken into the cockpit to say hello to the pilot and co-pilot, and I enjoyed a rousing game of Hearts with three of the stewardesses. Everyone was curious as to why I alone of the hundreds of United Airlines passengers had made it onto that jumbo jet that had been called up expressly to take us (and our hundreds of pieces of luggage) on the second leg of our journey to New Jersey.

And I said, “Just lucky I guess,” though in truth I felt angels were actively taking care of me.

Fiscal Cliffs

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

So…immediately following and ever since the re-election of President Obama, we have been told day and night by the various media that we, America and her people, are approaching a fiscal cliff. Are we approaching this cliff from the bottom and looking up? No. According to the latest diatribes, we are moving inexorably toward the edge of a cliff over which we will fall to our fiscal doom if the Republicans and the Democrats can’t agree on how to proceed with taxing the American people (while barely taxing the corporations who have most of the money.)

Hmm. Whenever our overlords trumpet something like an impending fiscal cliff or constitutional tsunami or economic donnybrook, I think of Dorothy and Tin Man and Lion and Scarecrow trembling before the scary projection of the Wizard on the gigantic movie screen in Oz, trembling until they discover the projection is the creation of a wimpy old man hiding behind a curtain bellowing, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Which is to say, I wonder what we’re not supposed to be paying attention to while the mass media and her propaganda pundits scare us with fiscal cliff hocus pocus, and by hocus pocus I mean illusion.

America is awash in money. Last week a new kill-as-many-people-as-you-can video game was released and took in close to a billion dollars in just a few days. New iterations of the Iphone and Ipad and Imac rake in billions and billions for Apple. Americans spend billions of dollars a year on lottery tickets and gambling, and the latest beyond-stupid teen vampire movie will gross a billion easy. Meanwhile, America continues to spend trillions of dollars on military operations around the world for the benefit of multinational corporations and continues to hand hundreds of billions of dollars in interest to the owners of our national debt, while many of the largest American corporations and most of America’s wealthiest citizens pay little or no income tax. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of us hand trillions of dollars to amoral health insurance companies that should have been replaced with Single Payer Healthcare a generation ago. So I’m not buying this fiscal cliff nonsense. What we have is yet another charade to keep us baffled and bewildered while tens of millions of Americans who long ago fell off their personal fiscal cliffs are suffering terribly and many more millions are on the verge of falling into bankruptcy and poverty.

“Money often costs too much.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The American economy today is in large part a consortium of extortion rackets, the largest racket being the oil gas automobile industry, otherwise known as the great engine of global warming. Speaking of which, could the man behind the curtain be global warming? In a report written for the World Bank and published last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, the authors declare that humans must immediately impose radical limitations on carbon emissions or prepare for the collapse of entire ecosystems and the displacement and death of hundreds of millions of people. If we do not undertake extreme ameliorative measures, the report concludes, then the planet will inevitably warm by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, with unimaginable disasters wracking the earth long before then.

To quote a bit from Chris Hedges writing for Truthdig, “The 84-page document Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided paints a picture of a world convulsed by rising temperatures…a mixture of mass chaos, systems collapse and medical suffering like that of the worst of the Black Plague…and the tepidness of the emission pledges and commitments of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will make such a temperature increase almost inevitable…causing a precipitous drop in crop yields, along with the loss of many fish species, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. There will be an explosion in diseases…Devastating heat waves and droughts, as well as floods, especially in the tropics, will render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. The rain forest covering the Amazon basin will disappear. Coral reefs will vanish. Numerous animal and plant species, many of which are vital to sustaining human populations, will become extinct.”

But, hey, surely extinction can wait while all the Chicken Littles rush around screeching, “We’re approaching a fiscal cliff! Here comes the fiscal cliff!” and the bozos in Congress argue about whether to raise taxes a teeny little bit on wealthy people or to keep screwing the middle class and the poor. What a dilemma? Meanwhile, the governor and other top politicos of New York are asking Congress for 32 billion dollars to pay for the damage done by super storm Sandy, money that will no doubt be used to rebuild archaic housing and transportation systems guaranteed to exacerbate global warming and spawn more super storms. And where will Congress get the money for New York if we go over the fiscal cliff? Maybe on the way down the cliff, you know, as we’re falling and falling and falling, our wily representatives will find little caves in the cliff full of money for New York and for waging endless war and stuff like that. Sure. Yeah. Little caves full of money. Okay.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” Anatole France

For much of my life I lived on the edge of a monthly fiscal cliff that necessitated my coming up with enough money to pay my rent, my utilities, and for buying sufficient groceries to keep me alive. The fiscal cliff was the last day of every month, which was when my landlords required me to pay what I owed them. I did not own a car, did not have health insurance, bought my few clothes at the Salvation Army, and rarely traveled outside my local watershed. I patched together a living as a laborer, editor, and babysitter, and I tried to give myself a few hours every day to work on my writing and music, which occasionally brought in a bit of money.

When I had an especially good month, I would squirrel away anything extra in my savings account to give me a leg up on the next month, and every once in a while I would get two or three months ahead and allow myself even more time for my creative pursuits. My great fear was that I would hurt myself or get sick and not be able to work, and the few times that happened were frightening times, indeed, times I only survived with the help of friends.

In other words, I lived as many Americans live, one paycheck away from homelessness. For a few years I supported a friend and her daughter and thus needed to treble my income, a feat I was able to accomplish by giving up my artistic pursuits and doubling my workload. The largest expense was always rent, far more than half my income, and I was constantly worried that sickness or injury would render me incapable of working.

So when I hear politicians using the metaphor of a fiscal cliff to keep the American people frightened and unresisting, I am filled with sorrow and anger. There is so much we could do right now to transform our society into a wonderful system for everyone, a system of living and working and learning and sharing that would swiftly reverse the environmental damage done by the current system of senseless greed and plunder. There is plenty of money. There is no fiscal cliff. There are merely choices to be made. Do we use our fantastic collective wealth in ways that will benefit everyone and mother earth or do we continue to flush our wealth down the toilet of greed and selfishness and over the cliff of monstrous stupidity?