Monday, April 30, 2012

Regarding 'James, Near Lathrup, Michigan. 1979'

I knew the guy was there with the camera. He was hard to miss. It was a big camera, and he was a white man with long hair and a funny accent. I didn't have a whole lot of experience with such things.

I don't know if that date is right or not, but if it is I was eight years old when he took that picture. I'm going to be 39 next year. If he said what it was for, I don't remember. I heard --this was much later, after the photo was in the newspaper in New York-- that it was in some magazine originally, but I never saw that. I never saw the picture at all until maybe three years ago when all this business came up.

I do remember that day, though. It was summer, and I had gone to stay with my grandmother in Michigan after school got out. I rode the bus with my older sister from Oakland. It was a long trip out there, and my sister was only four years older than I am, so we were  both children. My mother was working at a printing factory, and she worked the third shift in the summer when we weren't in school because she could make a little extra money. My father was in Detroit, but we didn't see much of him. My sister and me had been spending summers with our grandmother for at least a few years by that point.

My grandmother was originally from Chicago, but my grandfather's people were from Michigan, and the house where that picture was taken was his old family place. They went back there to live when my grandfather was dying --no rent, you know, and it was what he wanted. At that time most of the rest of the family had moved off to the cities --Detroit, Flint, Gary, Chicago-- for work. That place was old and I remember when it was a mess, but my grandmother was the hardest worker I ever knew, and she cleaned it up and made it her own.

I liked going there. It was a lot better than the place we lived in Oakland, which was a big, crowded tenement in a bad neighborhood. When we were in Michigan we could pretty much come and go as we pleased. It was still like a small town back then.

Anyway, the photograph. No, my name is not James. It's Robert. I don't believe the man ever asked me my name; I think he just put that on there: James. Which was my grandfather's name, and that's his old car I'm in, which was out back of the house and no longer ran. One of the cats that was around had had a litter of kittens. There always seemed to be a bunch of kittens, and I think I was probably messing around with one of them when that photographer came walking up the alley. For a while he just stood at the edge of the yard and took pictures. He didn't ask, but I didn't care.

That picture of me in the front seat of the car with the kitten in my arms and my eyes closed, that was definitely him asking. And then after he took some pictures he asked me to take off everything but my undershorts. I didn't think nothing of it at the time. No, he didn't ever touch me or anything. He just wanted the picture that way, I guess.

When I finally saw it at the museum in Chicago I mostly thought that 'James' on there was strange. But, yeah, he definitely asked me to take off my clothes. People probably thought that poor black kids just ran around in their undershorts all the time. Still, I wouldn't have said anything about it, or even seen the thing, if it wasn't for the fact that my sister saw the newspaper story and called the writer. After that I talked to a few people, I guess. Reporters. One of them took my sister and me to see the photo at the museum.

The picture was bigger than I expected. I suppose I can see why people think the whole deal is fishy, but like I said, the guy never laid a finger on me, and there's a picture of me hanging in a museum. How many people can say that?

That might be the only photo that was ever taken of me as a child. I don't remember any others. Other people might be upset, but I'm not mad about it. All I asked is that they change the name so it's right. If there's going to be a picture of me out there in the world I want my real name on it. My full name.

My sister wants the man to give me some money, and if he decides to do that I certainly won't have any objections. The rest of the fuss, though, I don't want anything to do with that.

The kid was wearing a white t-shirt and faded jeans. The interior of the old car --a big Chevy-- was very dark. The cat was all white, and there was murky sunlight pressing in on the cracked windshield but not penetrating. I knew the picture I wanted. The kid was on his back in the front seat and had the cat in his arms.

I wanted the white cat against his black skin. That was really it. I wanted all that darkness, all those shades of black, and the white of the kid's teeth, the white of the cat, and the sunlight on the windshield. Right then that was the best picture I could get. I was young and excited to be in America and making pictures. I probably had some exotic and stupid notions. I didn't then and I still don't see myself as a reporter, but I do regret not asking the kid's name. You could get away with it then, though. I was taking so many photos and was constantly in motion. Very, very seldom --even now-- would I take that much time trying to set up a picture, which is why I remember that day so well. I can even remember stopping for a hamburger and a Coke and sitting there listening to Jimmy Reed and feeling really wound up; I knew I was going to get some good pictures.

I hadn't been in the South yet, but that town was the first place that sort of had that look and feel that I associated with the South. A day or two earlier I'd been in Detroit, I'd been in Chicago, and then all of a sudden I was in this place that felt...I don't know, Faulknerian. It was a small town in the industrial outskirts, just barely, but it was old and rundown and still had a rural feel to it. It sounds corny, I know, but I was very excited to stumble into that place. This was the America I was looking for. Obviously Robert Frank had had a huge influence on both my visual imagination and my ideas about America, but I thought I could get somehow closer to the subject. I could be warmer. You know, I don't think of Frank as warm.

Anyway, yeah, I'd do things differently now, but the truth is that nobody thought anything about it or asked any questions for more than 25 years. It was just a good picture. I'm truly sorry there's been this controversy, and I understand it, but I still think it's a good picture. That kid was beautiful.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Postmarked Minnesota

Dear Friend,

I'm not quite sure how to say what's on my mind. I realize this is awkward, and I apologize in advance if what I'm about to say hurts your feelings. I certainly value our friendship too much to jeopardize it over something that I fear might sound terribly petty.

I can assure you I've gone back and forth on this question for weeks now, trying to look at it from every angle and turning it over in my mind in search of the tactful approach. I think --I hope-- that you know me well enough to recognize that I would never say anything to deliberately hurt you, and I have always been a man willing to bite my tongue if I thought it would in any way advance the cause of civility.

I've no doubt, in fact, that you are well aware of the perception of me as a man of no small reserve; that, at any rate, is how I believe the world sees me, and not without reason. I have rarely felt myself compelled or qualified to address another man's shortcomings or pry into his personal business, even when, as now, other people have been talking and I've been concerned for a friend's well-being.

I just thought perhaps...honestly, it’s not a big deal at all, but...well, I was wondering if maybe....

Oh, heavens, I'm sorry; I can see I've already alarmed you.

It's nothing, really.

Please forget I ever mentioned it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Remember April

Slow, lovely dog at the window,
hearing the old familiar sights
and remembering, by feel and
by habit, what he used to see.

In his dreams his ears
are pinned back, his legs
moving like pistons, and he is
running, running, running.

He returns every day to the glass,
still seeing behind his cloudy eyes
what he knows is there: the bright
life of other days --and this one.

The nose still works.
The ears are mostly fine.
He sees plenty with the things
that still work. A blessing.

The kind hands still find
him when he needs them.
He trusts the kind hands.
One more blessing.

He is still in this world,
an exquisite carnival of smells.
He trusts the world.
Again, a blessing.

These blessings are his
for being the one thing
he was sent here to be.
Good dog. Good boy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From Studs Terkel's "Working: The Uncut Edition"

I figured out pretty quick that I didn't have the goods to be any kind of a proper accountant, despite pissing away God knows how much money on what some fools would call an education. Maybe, actually, I should have said 'real accountant.' I lacked the discipline and the attention (and, frankly, the intelligence or interest) to make it at any of the big firms --or, for that matter, any of the small firms, at least the legitimate ones. I couldn't handle the hours or the office bureaucracy, and the math just seemed to get more complicated all the time. Every couple months or so somebody was dumping some fat book full of new regulations on my desk, and I couldn't make head  nor tails of any of it. When you shove numbers around for a living, after a certain point they stop adding up. That's been my experience, at any rate.

I don't know what I was thinking, to be honest with you. If I think hard enough I guess I could blame it on a lazy high school guidance counselor, a guy who probably just pulled the suggestion out of his ass without any real consideration of aptitude. I can still picture the old troll, hair coming out of his ears and a can of Diet Shasta perched on his belly as he sat behind his desk peering over his spectacles at me like I was a chess move. He was clearly just waiting for somebody to tell him he could finally hang it up and go home to die in his La-Z-Boy.

After I got laid off --okay, fired-- from my first job out of college I was unemployed for a long time. I choose to blame it on the economy even though I know damn well that things were booming then. At one point during this period of extreme indolence I went to see a career counselor, who actually did go to the trouble of giving me some kind of aptitude test. The problem was --and I'm not shitting you-- the woman told me the results indicated that I'd probably be happiest in "some kind of itinerant trade." What does that mean? I asked her.

"Oh, you know," she said, "something like a truck driver or carnival worker."

Let me assure you: that's exactly the sort of encouraging thing you want to hear when you're twenty-six years old and absolutely clueless about what your next step in life is going to be.

Out of pure laziness I ended up taking a series of temporary accounting gigs, generally as a tax preparer for one of these joints that gives people an advance on their returns in exchange for some ridiculous piece of the action. The last several years I worked for this outfit that did your taxes while you wait. Our customers were almost all service sector employees, students, and poor people.

Two years ago they started making us wear Uncle Sam costumes while we did people's taxes. It was a brutal, ridiculous gig, but I was desperate, and I'd pretty much parted ways with my dignity years ago.

The guy who owned this racket had like fifty of these places, and he'd rake in the cash for three months of the year and then spend the rest of his time on a boat in Miami banging escorts.

The final straw came this year, when I showed up for work and discovered that everyday one of us --the fucking tax preparers, for God's sake-- would have to go out front in our Uncle Sam costumes with a sandwich board and wander up and down the sidewalk trying to drum up business. There was a rotating schedule and I got stuck out there skulking around like a jackass the very first day. It was cold and drizzly, and people --go figure-- would shout insults and throw shit like hamburgers at me.

When it came time for my lunch break I ditched the sandwich board in an alley behind the Super America and walked the three miles home in the Uncle Sam outfit. I've got the damn thing for sale on eBay this very moment. It's a pretty elaborate get-up, and with any luck I figure I might get a hundred bucks out of the deal.

Then I'm thinking I'll start looking around for something in the itinerant trades.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wish List

I wish humans had never gone to the moon.

This world has tenderized me. I am up to my ears --we all are--  in fairy dust and horseshit and monkeyshines and snake oil and sucker-punching meat robots.

I want to be stunned. I want experiences that leave me howling with pleasure and wonder at the abracadabrant possibilities of this world. I want to feel my heart swelling in my throat until I'm choking with happiness and gratitude, until at the bottom of the day I’m alone in the dark and reduced to hoarse, hysterical stuttering and  laughter.

I don’t want to be alone in the dark.

I want magic. I want to see things that make me doubt my eyes. I want to hear voices. I want the life that is left to me to be pure astonishment, to return me to the epistemological ground zero of the confused and awe-struck child.

I want animals to speak, and I want them to tell the truth.

I want an mp3 of the laughter of everyone I have ever loved.

I want to come home late one night to find my parents slow dancing in my living room to a Jo Stafford record.

I want to be the gun on the table in the first act.

I want to be the mysterious stranger arriving in an unfamiliar town with a sack full of magic corn and stories of fabulous, faraway places.

I want to be the troll who lived under the bridge and the wise old man on the mountain.

I want to be the boy who was raised by wolves.

I want to be the voice in the croaking bog that sings the furthest into the damp morning.

I want to be the voice that calls you back to this world.

I want to be the match that lights the candle.

I want to be the candle that carries the light down into the darkness.

I want to be the frosting on the cake and the writing on the wall and the message in the bottle and the goose that laid the golden egg.

I want to be the truth that sets you free.

I want to be the keeper of your secrets and the secret you can’t keep.

I want to be the road to riches or the road to ruin, depending on who is traveling along me, and I very much want passage along the road to ruin to be exclusively limited to garbage wrapped in skin.

I want to be the canary in the coalmine and the genie in the lantern and  the key that opens the mysterious door.

I want to be the 'Yes' that rises through the murk inside the Magic Eight Ball.

I want to be the first record you ever danced  to.

I want to be the pen that carries you gamely down the page on a night when you have no words of your own.

I want to get my knees dirty, to claw at the earth with my fingers, to feel the sun on my teeth.

I want to give it away, all of it.

I want it all to be a dream, a good one. I want to recognize that that's exactly what it is.

I want what I really want, what I've always wanted, and I want it bad. I want it more than I've ever wanted it.


(Drawing by Wilson Zellar)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

Reckless and curious, a damn fool if
ever there was one, I married an elephant
old enough to be my mother, if I too
had been an elephant or if elephants
gave birth to human children, which some
book or another once convinced me they did.
This, I now know, is part of my problem:
I've read too many of the wrong sorts of books.

Still, the old elephant loved me,
and I love her even now.

We lived in Tanzania, where there
was very little for me to eat,
and where we were shunned by the other
elephants and I was constantly being
stalked by other wild animals and men.

You know what they say about married couples
eventually starting to resemble one another?
We were apparently a textbook case --or rather
I was. Despite having very little to eat,
I gained a great deal of weight.
My hair fell out and my skin grew leathery
and was covered with coarse bristles.

My wife's name was Tanika, or so I called
her --my lovely Nika-- and as I became
less and less a man and more of an elephant
I could not help but notice that Tanika
no longer looked at me the same way.

I gradually forgot the words to the
Johnny Cash songs she loved to hear me sing,
and my hands became so useless I could
no longer play the guitar, although
I could not have played the guitar
even if I were physically able,
as my guitar had been trampled
by other resentful pachyderms.

Even as I was feeling acute
disappointment at the fact that
I had not grown a trunk, it was becoming
increasingly clear that my bride
now regarded me as a freak.
She had fallen in love with a man
--that was her kink, I guess--
and could not disguise her displeasure
at the changes in my appearance.

Eventually there was some sort of
council of which I was not a part
(elephants only), and Tanika was
persuaded --I like to believe she
had to be persuaded-- to allow me
to be captured by one of the groups
of men that now always seemed to be
in the vicinity, studying me intently
with binoculars from the safety
of their Land Rovers.

The writing was on the wall,
and I didn't put up much of a fight.
I had once been an idealistic young man,
and had gone to Africa with the Peace Corps
to help people. To this day there's no way
to satisfactorily explain how a man falls
in love with an elephant.

All I know is that though
I had hoped I might be magically
re-transformed into the man I had been
before my folly, this has not happened.
I suppose I am tragic. Modern medicine
could do nothing for me, and I can't
deny that the transparent disgust with which
I am regarded by the medical profession
has caused me no small amount of humiliation.

I am not allowed to talk now.
I appear on stage for five minutes,
my legs shackled for dramatic effect,
preceded by a sad, sooty old dwarf
who breathes fire while standing atop
the shoulders of a giant who is
misrepresented as the "largest living
man in the world," a second-generation
Russian from New Jersey.

What, I often wonder, could I say if
I were allowed to speak? "Look at how
perilous love is? See the extent to which it can
make a man alien even to himself? Consider these
things and try to understand me when I say it was
worth everything I have suffered and will continue
to suffer to have loved and been loved, to have
experienced the extent to which love can transcend
the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of form
and transform a man in ways that are not even
visible to the naked eye?" But I do not say
anything, and take small comfort in the fact
that so many of those who gaze upon me
remain utterly convinced that I am not real.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hitting Repeat: The Gathering Of The Broken Dreams

There will come a day when the terminally disappointed and disenchanted will meet in a giant hangar somewhere in Kansas. Every dashed dream and broken heart from all over America will converge there on the edge of some dusty little town to awkwardly mingle and avoid eye contact. Just as in Vegas, in the hangar there will be no natural light and no clocks, and the only way to mark the passage of time will be by the exhaustion in people's eyes.

Among those who will make the discouraging trek: The man who once upon a time dreamed of becoming an astronaut and grew up instead to become an unhappy insurance adjustor. The woman whose naked body was never seen --let alone touched-- by anyone outside a doctor's office. The failed writer of science fiction novels who lived with his mother until her death and, oafish and sweating, stalked about his old neighborhood in camouflage and, well into middle age, raced remote control cars up and down the sidewalk in front of his house. The jilted lovers, brides left at the alter, and infertile couples. The boy who asked Santa Claus for a Dukes of Hazzard pinball machine and received instead a Slinky, a seemingly small and isolated letdown that nevertheless in time planted the seeds for a lifelong pathology of disenchantment.

Also present: Beauty pageant rejects, disgraced public servants, neglected children, actors that never got a break, persistent writers of ignored doggerel, congenital ingrates, bitter misanthropes and alcoholics, those for whom an adolescent crisis of faith became crushing and permanent, brooders and pipe smokers, and all manner of neglected or talent-less musicians, artists, and philosophers.

You can be sure the sleepless will be there, standing in zombie pockets at some remove from packs of the pathologically shy, the socially awkward, and the chronically fatigued.

Should you make the pilgrimage you will be joined as well by stalled middle-managers, the perpetually startled, orphans, gimpy quarterbacks, cheerleaders who grew old gracelessly, bankrupts, and scores of broken refugees from Nashville, Hollywood, and New York.

There'll be quite a crowd, to be sure, and you're virtually guaranteed to recognize all sorts of old friends, neighbors, and former co-workers, and they're certain to bitch ceaselessly, provided they haven't been made entirely mute by their disappointment.

God knows there'll be plenty to bitch about: It will rain every day, the food will be lousy, and the accommodations will be sadly lacking. Entertainment --for lack of a better word-- will be provided by an assortment of some of the worst garage bands, barbershop quartets, choirs, magicians, mimes, ventriloquists, and baton twirlers you've ever seen.

As the evening wears on a bullhorn will be passed among the congregation of the disappointed, and each person will be allowed to shout out one sentence or declaration.

It's interesting, if fruitless, to speculate what those present might make of this brief opportunity to express themselves. How many do you suppose will use their moment in the spotlight to merely blurt terse, general condemnations laced with profanity? How many, however disappointed, will declare some enduring love or eternal regret? You can certainly imagine that there will be a great deal of stammering, and many will simply attempt to articulate some already broken promise, ineffectual apology, or impossible wish. Others, of course, will have nothing to say.

Should you or I find ourselves there in that awkward crowd of the bruised and broken what words would we find to speak to the assembled? What might we say to the better, happier people we --all of us-- should have been? And do you suppose there will be even one among us who will have enough small courage or faith remaining to utter some message of hope?

Finally, at some point in the endless night, black and white balloons will be distributed, and on command they will be released to rise slowly up into the dark and distant rafters of the hangar. This gesture will mean different things to different people, and to some it will mean absolutely nothing at all.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The River Dreams

For quite some time after I returned from that place I was seized by horrors, great, quaking nightmares that shook me awake every morning just before dawn. It was almost foolish the things I imagined and was afraid of. I would hear the rain falling beyond  my drawn shades, and was certain in my sweat and insomnia and  liquored fevers that the heavens were throwing down blood, that if I would dare to crawl to the window I would see blood almost black in the lamplight, cascading in the gutters. Mahler's Ninth Symphony traveled again and again, all night, through my little bed stand tape player.

They had killed each other in such great numbers and flung the bodies into the river. I saw them huddled together and wobbling, bloated, slowly turning in the seething red froth at the bottom of the falls. We all saw them, the bodies, most of them clothed, their various bright garments swollen with gas and air so that they looked from a distance almost like something festive, balloons perhaps, or colorful balls that had gotten trapped there over time.

We didn't know a damn thing about any of them except that they were dead, and the killing had been brutal, blunt, Stone Age business. They'd used clubs, axes, machetes.

In the dark, with no moon, we'd toss and turn in our sweltering tents and hear them down there, slapping against each other. There was a smell, of course, but that was the one part of it that was more or less expected. That, and the flies. Eventually, sooner rather than later, someone was going to have to go down there and fish them out. First, of course, there had to be documentation, an investigation, some attempt at identification. We were told they were bringing in some experts and equipment from the capitol. There was already a team of French doctors on hand, setting up their big white field tents. They weren't going to save any lives, but somebody had to provide the grim corroboration. I heard one man talking quietly about the "facts of the matter," and the use of the word "facts" in such a context seemed to fall somewhere between absurdity and obscenity.

I don't suppose I need to tell you that you never forget something like that. I'd walk up the path to the camp to listen to the radio and smoke a cigarette with the others, but the next thing I knew I'd be going back down the trail for another look. I had to see enough of it, I suppose.

That was such a beautiful country --that specific place, even, was absolutely stunning, if you could imagine it without the bodies. Not, of course, that such a thing would ever again be possible.  

(Image: Abel Pann)