Hacking at the Root

An admission to myself

Often devoid of credit, but the desire for credit

Must be the greatest admission of all—how small

See the bases get covered,

The circular logic spinning itself

As if I didn’t pay the pattern maker

A seemingly impenetrable barrier

Of laundered and distressed awareness:

Too clean to recognize, but too dirty for display

The willingness to understand

Suppressed

By the thirst to be understood

How often can I arrive late to my own sluggish conclusions?

Before the invitations, themselves

Return to an oblivious sender?

You hear my alarm as if I remembered to remember

As if the memories were available

As if availability was there when I needed it

 

I was doing a lot less coke. And the cleaner I got, the clearer I began to think. I was still restless at night, scribbling in my notebook, but the verse actually seemed to be darkening. Something was happening to me in increments, something that I wouldn’t have noticed had I been using; because I’d always assumed that the drug taking had darkened me. But now that I was cleaning up, I was remembering that I wasn’t too cheery to begin with, so maybe the drugs weren’t the core issue. Perhaps they were a distraction—or more pointedly, a symptom. And I could buy nasal spray or whatever to manage the management, but clearly there was something inside me that required more effective handling. Psychological shrubbery grown wild, the leaves of which I’d been hacking away at when I should’ve been hacking at the root.

There’s a scene in a film called The Salton Sea that opens with a tracking shot of a drug den. It’s a group binge, the participants clearly enthralled, oblivious of anything beyond those walls. Then the drugs run out. Two are elected to go score, and as they head for the door one of them asks the time. “Twelve,” says the other. That means midnight, we assume, but then the door opens, daylight floods the room, and everyone recoils in horror. That it’s noon doesn’t jar anyone. It’s only the light—a literal assault on unadjusted eyes, but we get a metaphoric sense as well. Light is the unwelcome reminder of the world out there.

I used to go to these parties all the time. The only difference was that I was being paid, which provided a tidy excuse. If you’re using regularly, you’re probably spending a lot more on drugs than you’d care to calculate. You’re going out more and staying out later. Eating, sleeping and exercise habits are being compromised. You’re drinking more and smoking more cigs. You’re talking more, listening less. The only voices you really hear are the ones inside your head, and those voices are lying to you.

I remember one night at the restaurant, shortly after I’d moved back east. It was a particularly busy shift and I was struggling to keep up. Certain servers—I couldn’t tell which ones—were making it harder on me. When I was watching, they’d do their jobs: placing the forks and spoons in the appropriate cradles to soak, the plates in the bus tub, rubbish in the trash bin, discards in the compost. But when my back was turned, some would leave messes for me to disassemble: silverware, napkins, doilies, chicken bones—all jumbled together on shakily-stacked plates. The few seconds this saved them clearly outweighed any guilt. Sure, they weren’t dealing drugs. They weren’t dropping bombs or selling bogus derivatives on Wall Street, but that’s my point. We’re all for snuffing out insidiousness wherever it lurks, but we often overlook mindlessness and its cumulative effects. That’s how it was for me: a slow accumulation of rationalizations and transgressions, and I see it everywhere now. How often, and easily, convenience wins out over conscience, image over integrity. This notion that you’re getting away with something—it’s like being holed up in a room. It’s like hiding from the light.

The Wrong Rice

Jeannie was souring. She yearned for hairdressing work, her vocation of training, but rather than search aggressively, she was content to complain, blame the market. Then she “lost” her job at the clothing store. I was handling the bills, which suited her fine, but I was getting agitated as well. Jeannie was cute but she wasn’t exactly arm candy, which made her attitude all the more baffling. She spoke of connections she had—industry people—but the evidence didn’t bear it out. From what I could tell she had two friends, Nicole and CJ, her roommates from before she moved in. Theirs was a triangular friendship, built drunkenly at the Burgundy Room on Cahuenga every night. Now Jeannie seemed to be falling out with the other two.

I’d met Nicole and CJ. They had the funky hair and stylish clothes, but they were both brusque and unseemly. My theory was that Jeannie had always attracted more men, leaving Nicole and CJ to subsist on the runoff from last call’s panic rush. It’s the same scene at every club in Hollywood. The offensive house lights, having been forced upon the crowd so suddenly and so mercilessly, feel like a sexual death sentence. Bar patrons, looking like utter shit all of a sudden, scramble. Bedlam ensues. Bodies begin funneling through the bottleneck, spreading out into the night, regrouping on the waiting curb. 100 cigarettes are lighted. “So where’s the after party?”

With Jeannie becoming increasingly withdrawn, her phone stopped ringing altogether. I wasn’t surprised; surely Nicole and CJ were getting laid more. Jeannie was sedentary, sinking ever more deeply into my couch.

I’d dropped a few grams at the King King, and I was taking the surface streets home. I called Jeannie to see if she wanted anything. A burrito with beans and rice, she said, so I stopped at Machos Tacos on Vermont. When I got back she was on the couch watching Family Guy, my Homer Simpson slippers on the coffee table, her feet buried inside them. I handed her the bag of food. She thanked me flimsily and began excavating.

“Wait, you got me white rice.”

I just looked at her.

She presented me with a takeout container, flaps fanning out. “You got me WHITE rice from a fucking taco stand!”

“You asked for rice, I ordered rice.”

“I meant MEXICAN rice.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Whatever. Forget it.”

“Forget it? I don’t think so Tonya Harding.”

White trash equals Tonya Harding; my mind just went there. Missing the reference of course, Jeannie just called me an asshole. I agreed with a caveat: she was too dim to fathom the scope of it. She abandoned her food and began storming around, gathering belongings. I plopped on the couch and lit a cig.

“I don’t give a shit where you go, just leave the key.”

“NO!”

I got off the couch and went after her. “Give me my fucking key!”

She kept her back to me. “I’m calling Maus!” she said. She’d struck another nerve. Jeannie had been telling people that she’d befriended Maus at the Burgundy Room, which was patently false. She’d glommed on to Maus while I was living with her, and the two shared a superficial girl bond at best. I knew that Maus was a capitulator, though, and that she’d buckle to Jeannie’s rants. I figured my key had to be in the bag swinging from her shoulder, so I reached for it. Under its own weight, the bag bolted south, the strap catching the pit of Jeannie’s elbow. I was mortified, first at the thought of her being marked, then at the thought of my being implicated, and finally at the thought of having just prioritzed my reputation over her injury. I apologized effusively. Not only was Jeannie unmoved, she was emboldened. She left nearly gloating, key and all.

I went outside to brood over a beer. The skyline was orange, ominous, and I gazed for a moment, put a Parliament in my mouth. I patted my pockets for a lighter that wasn’t there, but I felt my blaster, so I pulled it out and bumped twice, maneuvering the scooper around the unlit cig dangling from my lips. There was work ahead: collapsible boxes to fill, locks to be changed. I hopped in the Geo and lit the smoke and headed for the Home Depot on Sunset and Western, the only one open 24 hours, the one that, because of the supposed aisle by aisle cruising code, my gay friends called the “Homo Depot.” I want to say that hardware was for tops and plumbing for bottoms, but perhaps that’s just a fanciful reconstruction.

Gone Daddy Gone (excerpted)

I’m thirty-six years old and I’m pacing the yard outside the house on Bright Street in Northampton, working up the nerve to call my father. It’s warm. I’m coatless. I could do this all day.

But we need to have the talk. I’ve been procrastinating. I know my dad; he won’t make the first move. I have to thank him for the money anyway; that’s my Trojan horse. I take a deep breath and dial 727. The light beats in my chest turn to those thumps: the ones I associate with anxiety, bullying, confrontation.

I’m relieved when he answers. I didn’t want to leave a message, prolong this, plus it soothes me to hear his voice: warm and crackly with age, like an old record. At seventy-five he’s mellowed considerably, seems content, and contentedness had never come easily to my dad. We have that in common. And then the divorce, his retirement, the move: all within such a short period. Everyone was concerned, including my mom. Maybe even her especially.

The small talk goes well, so I decide to regale him with the story behind my living situation. He knows that my brother Michael, his own divorce pending, has lost access to his house—a judgment that was handed down on the same day I left California—but my father is unaware of the effect that this has had on me.

I was permitted to leave Los Angeles on the condition that I continue formal probation in Hampshire County, living with my brother, a reputable businessman and homeowner. I was to check in monthly and find legitimate work, like any local offender, but now I had to explain to Hampshire County Probation that the housing, my transfer’s lynchpin, had fallen through. I contacted Chief Foley from my childhood home, pled my case. Foley was unmoved. He gave me twenty-four hours to land an address in his county—or else. That meant revocation of the transfer, and my LA-based PO had bitched about the paperwork. His final words were “Fuck this up and I’ll hang you.” I repacked some things and headed for the door, brushing past my mother on the way. “What if you don’t find anything,” she said, “where’ll you go?” Back to jail, I replied. There was no time to bullshit her. I drove straight to Northampton with the goal of targeting tattooed, wayward-looking women on Main St. I realized the outlandishness of that, but it was too late for Craigslist. That I succeeded can only be attributed to luck coupled with the Jedi mindset: that zone in which you simply cannot fail. A young woman named Teresa took me in, a situation that would sour soon enough, but I could tell Foley that I was living there, on Bright Street.

Dad likes my story, which I tell comically, leaving out the part about mom’s despair. He laughs easily these days, and in stark contrast to when I was young, he’s very attentive. He no longer talks over me. I thank him for the money, a much-needed two grand that helped tremendously with the settling process. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can, I tell him. Of course he rebuffs the offer. “You’ll inherit it anyway,” he explains, “why wait another ten years when you need it now?” I tease him about his optimism, reminding him that he’s already outlived his own father by several years. Again, he laughs.

I wait for the next lull, take a breath, and dive in. No amount of mindlessness or impulsivity could explain a drug business five years running, so I make no excuses. I just explain that I did what I did willingly, recklessly, methodically. I paint broad strokes, sparing him extraneous details. No point in defending my product line. That I sold only what I used, eschewing heroin and other opiates, probably wouldn’t sound cogent to him, I assume. To him drugs are drugs. I do explain, however, that while I broke the law, I broke no moral code of my own. Everyone involved was a consenting adult and no one was ever coerced, cajoled, etc. It’s very important to me that he understand, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and though I know how flimsy that sounds, I say it anyway. He stops me, tells me that he gets it: the temptation, the lifestyle appeal. He even uses the word “glamorous,” which I’m sure I’ve never heard him say before. I begin to realize that my nervousness had nothing to do with any perceived disapproval. It was about my father’s true feelings, and how I’d have to live up to them now.

Ever since his boys had grown he’d cherished every moment he could spend with us, in person, on the phone, and the divorce had only intensified that. Here I am throwing myself on his mercy, and all he wants is for me to feel better. As determined as I am to repent, I feel consoled, so I give in to it. “I just didn’t know,” I say. “The sales thing wasn’t happening, and then this opportunity comes along.” Again, he tries to comfort me, tells me that it’s okay. Now I’m the one talking over him. My new job (restaurant, kitchen), the writing I’ve been doing, the possibility of grad school. I’ll make things right, I promise! Then I feel the tightening in my throat. I’m trying to keep from breathing—no, I’m trying to keep from crying. “One day,” I say, “I swear I’ll make you—” and my voice cracks on “proud.” Now the tears come.

I can hear my father choking up. His breathing labored, he struggles to tell me that he’s proud already, that he always has been. We’re both crying freely now, yet somehow I can’t resist appealing to his manliness, for he ought to know: his boy was no punk. “No one fucked with me in jail, daddy. And the cops didn’t break me, either.” Again, he tells me that he’s proud, that I handled myself well, the way he would have. “You were always a good boy, James.”

Now I know. This man, the one I’ve wanted so badly to please my whole life, the one I’ve always suspected of having to accept my existence after the fact—he loves me regardless. And he always has.

That would’ve been September or October of ’09, whenever I got around to making the call. But I know that mom called in November. I was headed home from the gym, I think, but I was definitely going south on King St. She asked if I was sitting down. I said I was driving, which answered her question in the literal sense, I suppose. Actually, mom, I’m standing. On the edge of a cliff. Teetering. That might’ve made a difference, who knows? You can’t blame someone in shock. “Your father had a heart attack,” she said. “He’s gone.”

Dissolving a Decade

I met Lola at the Lucky Duck on La Brea. I was munching on the orange chicken she’d served me when she said, “You should come to my speakeasy. I run it out of my place on 10th and Broadway every Saturday.” She handed me a card that was busy with color. It featured a sexy-looking Asian girl and a 213 number. Call before you cum it said.

I went with my friend Vince. We lingered by the door while I dialed the number. Once inside, we were led around a drywall partition and into a loft space flickering with strobes. The place was huge, black-lit, and littered with vintage lounge furniture. There was a full bar with an Asian motif, so we ordered Tsingtao and lingered there, bobbing our heads to the techno and watching the go-go girls as they danced with their hula hoops on platforms in platforms.

Then Vince whacked me on the shoulder. C’mon he motioned with his head. I followed him to the bathroom where he pulled out a baggie. “You got a key?” he said. I handed him my set. Propping the bag open between his thumb and forefinger, he extracted a heap of powder, perfectly peaked, like a snowcapped mountain. He steadied it up to his nose and sniffled harshly. Then he did it again, sloppily this time, and a mist of white cascaded to the floor.

My turn. I snorted audibly. The bite was sharp. A bitter drip oozed down the back of my throat. I swallowed, quivered. It’d been nearly a decade, and I’d forgotten about the high, but I remembered the anesthetic quality, so I dipped my pinky in the baggie, put some to my tongue, and in an instant, that decade dissolved away.

We walked back out to main floor. The music was thumping and the strobes were fracturing everything to discontinuity. The dancing girls, short-skirted and knee-high-booted, seemed more elevated now, flashes of light hurling around them, their spasms reduced to a series of slow-motioned jerks. Everything looked sexy. People laughed and danced and drank and laughed and danced some more. It’d only been a week since the last gathering, but it felt like a reunion. It felt limitless.

A Luddite Weeps at the Gym

I once picked up a woman at Packard’s. She was heavily tatted and pierced, had the geometric, multicolored hairdo, some scarification—the prototypical gal I’ve been attracting since I was twelve. When we got back to my place, the first thing she noticed was a copy of Rolling Stone sitting on the ironing board. “Lady Gaga is the shit!” she said. This saddened me. It made me yearn for the old days, when we met at all ages shows: all sweaty with sticky hair and runny makeup. Ripped jeans, safety pins, Doc Martens with colored laces. Ten dollar T-shirts from Newbury Comics. We were like a tribe. Maybe we weren’t into the same bands exactly, but fuck pop music, fuck the radio (though we loved our college stations), and definitely fuck Mtv (unless of course it was 120 Minutes).

Well, I’m old now. And times have changed. The average freak is more likely to be into Katy Perry than Nick Cave. How the hell that happened, I can’t say. It probably has something to do with Madonna. (That issue of Rolling Stone, btw, featured a piece on Dennis Hopper’s final days, which is why it was on my ironing board. As for why I had the ironing board, I have no excuse for that.) I think everyone, including me, figured I’d outgrow punk rock culture. But not only do I still love it at forty, my appreciation for it has grown, perhaps because it’s always been there for me. For years I avoided downloading, for fear of it. There’d be nothing tangible there, and I was reticent about providing information,typing shit, and, like, committing to something.

Well, all that’s changed. I got my account with iTunes (way easier than I imagined) and I’m loving it. I even had my mother dust off my old cassette tapes and ship them to me, so I could see what I’d forgotten about. Dag Nasty. The Virgin Prunes. Anti-Nowhere League. All my old favorites at 99 cents a pop! I’ve been having a blast building my library. Syncing to my Shuffle.

I was one of those sensitive-type punks. (We didn’t have a name for it then, but I read that it’s called “emo” nowadays. I also read that emo-types, understandably, hate that label.) So what went along with all the thrash and hardcore was a slower, more melodic sound we called New Wave, which sort of morphed and mainstreamed, becoming “alternative” in the 90’s, but that’s getting off point. Among my latest downloads is a song called “What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs. It’s about child abuse.

With the shuffle, obviously, any song could play at any time. I was at the Northampton Athletic Club, doing shoulder shrugs real close to the mirror, when Natalie Merchant got to me. It was the crescendo that did it:

All these cold and rude things that you do, I suppose you do because he belongs to you. And instead of love and the feel of warmth, you’ve given him these cuts and sores that don’t heal with time or with age.

I’d forgotten about the passion in that vocal, so hauntingly beautiful. I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I worried that this might look odd: a grown man crying in the gym. I hoped that people would simply assume I’d had a blistering set, hence the puffy eyes and crimson face.

And then I wondered why it mattered. I was feeling something. And feeling felt good. It was that old friend again, the one I keep neglecting. The one who’s kind enough to keep giving me second chances.