Saturday, September 04, 2010

wash day

Flat on my back in the Great Salt Lake. The water isn't cold, in fact I barely feel the temperature. It is less than a foot deep here, just a wide puddle on top of a white flat crust. The salt is infiltrating me, my hair, my shoes, my business suit that I bought from Moe Lesh my first year in New York City.

It's not just salt. There is something greasy about this water. I take a handful of hair on the back of my head and squeeze. It feels slick and muddy, but it's not muddy. I lay back again. My friend Chuck is snapping pictures. I am happy like a pig. No worries about the suit. No worries about the water, or the day, or my performance. I can splash all I want. I can wallow in it. I can just lie here and soak.

I've dressed up in plenty of suits in my life. Since I was probably three, when they were tailor-made for me (by mom). I have been waiting decades for this. Balance is being restored. I am rehabilitating the suit. The boy. The man.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007


It is midnight in Europe, and I am lying in the compartment of a train between Budapest and Prague. It’s just a regular compartment, but no one else is here, so I’ve made it into a giant bed. At the border, the conductor rouses me for my passport. I didn’t have a visa for Czechoslovakia, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

It is midnight in India and the second largest spider I have ever seen in my life is in my room. Lucky for me, I don’t know it yet. I’ll find out soon enough. What is he thinking? Does he think there are bugs in here? Or is he just taking refuge?

It is midnight in Thailand and the pigs and the chickens are quiet beneath the house. My fellow trekkers are still stirring. Eric must have gone out to puke. I think the opium is wearing off. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep soon.

It is midnight in Laos, and the men playing cards outside have gone away, but there is some kind of animal in my room. I shout at it and it scrambles out the window. Was it a monkey? This is why screens are important. I should always make sure my room has screens or windows that close.

It is midnight in China, and the managers are shouting at us. A girl is not allowed in the men’s dormitory, whether she is a foreigner or not. Whether she is wearing a ski cap to cover her hair and make her kind of look like a boy or not. Perhaps we should stop pretending to be asleep.

It is midnight in Japan, and we are approaching Tokyo. We are hauling glass for a skyscraper downtown. I’ve been sleeping in the compartment behind the driver, but it’s time to stir and get ready. He’ll be dropping me off soon at Shinjuku station.

It is midnight in Nevada and the coyotes are yipping in the distance. It sounds to me that they are having fun. The moon is shining in my eyes. I scoot behind the shadow of the Joshua tree. It is standing guard for me.

It is midnight in Utah, but I can’t tell. It always looks like midnight in a cave. I can’t sleep. How can I sleep with the rest of the troop running around everywhere. To hell with my flashlight, I’ll use a candle.

It is midnight in Indiana and I am in the “Holiday Out.” It is stormy outside. That doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Aunt Mary is a terrible cook, but she is puffy and kind and her bed is cozy.

It is midnight in America. It is midnight in Asia. It is midnight right here. I am warm. I am dry. I am safe.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Moving On

I’m standing in the middle of a hot parking lot at KEO apartments on Main Street, Brigham City, Utah with a broom in one hand, a can of wasp killer spray in the other. Before my mother and father built these apartments in the early 80’s, this lot was empty, but for an old abandoned house and a shack which served as someone’s clandestine Blue Boy magazine archives. Now it’s home to twenty-four “households,” many of whom receive government assistance for their rent, and until my father sprayed them last week, also home to several hundred wasps.

The wasps had been living in my grandfather’s pickup for several years, keeping it company and serving unawares as a low-cost security system while the truck waited in the corner of the lot in the sun, rain and snow for someone to make it legal again and take it out into the world of pavement and dust and other vehicles.

Like all well-designed chemical weaponry, the bug spray kills the inhabitants, but leaves their dwellings intact. There are still dozens of small nests in the nooks and crannies around the doors and in the frame and larger nests under the hood and fenders.

The first time I saw this pickup was the summer of 1972 when my family was visiting relatives in Chinook, Montana. We were sitting out front of Grandma Opprecht’s house when grandpa Haugen drove up in a shiny red Ford half-ton with grandma Haugen by his side. “Ah, that must be Harold’s new truck,” someone said, and everyone generally agreed that it looked sharp.

In the rural west, your vehicle is your calling card, visible from a distance, and an indicator of where you are and where you’ve been, even if you happen to be out of sight. Three years after grandpa had passed on, I spent the summer of 1994 in Chinook, living on the farm and using the pickup to get around. Grandpa’s reputation came with me everywhere, for better or worse. People who didn’t know me instantly knew something of what I was about because that was Harold’s truck and they had seen it on the dyke road and maybe out on the highway.

Grandpa could be an ornery cuss, but he was an honest rancher with a big heart and he and I got along just fine. I felt good about having the truck and using it as a truck, making trips to the dump, or hauling lumber and supplies for fixing up the farmhouse.

Still, it is only a truck, and it surprises me how much it tugs on my soul to see it there among drifts of leaves in the corner of the lot, kneeling, as it were, on its flat front tires. Today I have come to replace the tires, the battery and anything else that might keep this old guy from passing Utah safety inspection and emissions requirements.

I’m not sure why I want to go to the trouble and expense. The engine is a hefty V8 and it gets roughly ten miles to the gallon. There is only an AM radio and certainly no air bags or air conditioning. There are older trucks with more graceful curves. The finish has long since lost its shine and it’s barely even red anymore.

There is a utilitarian beauty to this model, though, embellished by the dents and scratches that come standard with twenty years of farm life. And the finish now is a priceless pale orange matte that could never be reproduced in an auto body shop.

But I’m neither a collector nor aesthete enough to justify restoring any truck to working order. There is something I don’t fully understand, something deeper in my psyche behind all this. This big red truck features in recurring dreams, as does grandpa. I suspect it represents the macho side of myself that in my literary life and times I’m not willing, able, or permitted to be.

The no-nonsense pickup is the standard-bearer of the spirit of the modern American West. It’s a powerful machine, fueled with essence of dinosaur. Just driving such a vehicle, let alone owning it, confers enough testosterone caché to turn city girls’ heads or get that nod of respect from the corner cop.

I’m an unpublished novelist with no wife, no real job and no real estate. My permanent address is an apartment in Manhattan, and our family sold the Montana ranch five years ago. It’s my psyche that needs this truck, and who am I to stand between the two of them? Besides, I do need transportation.

Dad comes back from collecting rent to find me in ready combat mode, eyeing the circling fighters that had been out on a run and survived last week’s assault. “I’ve been known to knock these out of the air,” dad says. I hand him the can of spray, but keep the broom.

After the air battle is over, we get to work on the tires, the engine, the battery, the tail lights. A few days later we drive it through town for a brake job and to have some tests run. The next week, we take it to a specialist who runs a compression test and we get the bad news. Twenty pounds in cylinder five, ten pounds in cylinder six, zero in cylinder eight. It will need a new engine, at roughly four thousands bucks, all in.

While the news is soaking in, the mechanic diplomatically suggests the truck must be of sentimental value. He is experienced in these matters; there is enough unsaid there to bring his meaning the rest of the way home.

Our bonds to material possessions aren’t always tied by greed or laziness or the need for comfort. We invest our inanimate objects with personalities and memories and we make talismans out of them. But they are burdens, nevertheless, and they ultimately will stay behind with our bones and the suit they bury us in.

I’m afraid to let go of the truck, but it’s clear that the time has come. I’m tempted to hold on, to put it in a lot somewhere, but ironically, now is the time to “be a man about it” and let go of one of the things that makes me more of a man.

Next week, I’ll take it to a junkyard, where other men with trucks they care about can take the parts they need from this one. And no matter where they put it, I know the wasps will find it again.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Rock Hard Solitude

Zion National Park

Deeper and deeper, higher and higher until there is no other sound than the wind over the rocks and through the trees that sprout from the stone walls or battle for territory in the sand of the canyon floor. It is cool and there is water. You can wedge yourself so far into a mountain they'll never find you.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Angelo's - Ogden, Utah

Ogden, Utah

Like a twelve-year-old kid racing his bicycle on the edge of the subdivision and dreaming of motocross, Angelo’s would dearly love to be full of bikers. There are posters of big hair women in bikinis posing with shiny bikes; bright red, white and blue ads from mainstream American beers; and stickers on every surface, with messages ranging from the mechanical to the politically poignant, “If guns kill people then spoons made Rosanne fat.” Bud and Bud Lite on tap. Bud, Bud Lite, Coors, Coors Lite and Miller Highlife in bottles. The bartender appears to be a 40-year-old single grandmother who doesn’t bother to act friendly, and I appreciate the honesty.

Who says this isn't a biker bar, and who says there's any really difference between the kid on the bicycle and the man on his hog? The real difference is the bike. I don't see any serious bikers here tonight, but every so often a wide gravely faced man in layers of unwashed cotton and leather slogs through as though Angelo’s Tavern is a dull passage from one side of his life to the other. There are no yuppies here, no trend setters, no students, and definitely no beautiful people.

I’m sitting on a stool in the back with my friend, Becky, head cheerleader from my high school class who appreciates the chance to be out of her home town where her husband awaits inevitable divorce under a restraining order. She and I are half playing pool, half listening to the house band, “Easy Street,” as they put a valiant effort into some of the easier-to-play hits from the seventies.

It’s a big bar, and we’re not alone. A young couple plays 8-ball on the other table, and at least six fellow drinkers, one of them in an Arby’s Roast Beef logo tiara, watch from the legion of kitchen chairs lined up in front of the bandstand. In the middle of the joint, an amateur softball team in matching red T-shirts has taken over two tables and a few pitchers. The name on the back of the shirt we can read from here is “Poop."

Why are we here? There certainly are nicer places where we could get a beer, even in Ogden, Utah. Is it an elitist pleasure we get from hanging out in a dive like this? I’d be disingenuous to deny it, but any of that is really just a bonus. We’re comfortable here. It would be against the nature of Angelo’s to cut it any finer than that.

Becky and I have plenty of high school memories to ruminate, but we’re kept from going overdeep into the seventies by a skinny man with a patchy salt-and-pepper beard who comes around every twenty minutes ostensibly to pick up empties, but obviously to talk with Becky, under the pretense of telling me how nice I should treat a cute girl like her. His breath smells of vomit, but he’s harmless enough and he’s got his own memories of the seventies to regurgitate, most notably his kiss from Stevie Nicks at one of Fleetwood Mac’s Salt Palace shows.

Mr. Salt and Pepper’s innocuous demeanor, however, does highlight the only thing missing in this bar, the latent menace. There is no menace here, but there should be in a place like this; for a skinny guy from out of town with a good looking girl in summer heels and a halter top.

The only hint of anything to be avoided came about an hour ago, in the men’s room, where the women posing with bikes are topless. The middle-aged drunk struggling to pee at the urinal next to mine hit me up for a ride to his place on Monroe, five blocks up 25th street. I was tempted to say, “You have a home?” But instead I said, “I’m sorry man, I have no idea when we’re leaving.” I left him to his job at hand, and heard no more from him.

Easy Street is playing “Dead Roses.” A huge pitcher of Bud is six dollars and the pool is fifty cents a game. Becky and I are just friends; there truly is no place better to go.

MP3 Experiment - Improv Everywhere

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A clear, crisp, windy autumn day. I’m one of a couple hundred people walking like a zombie with arms outstretched toward the big rock in the corner of the Sheep Meadow. Just like the others, I’m following orders from the voice in my ear. I don’t know the others, but I figure they’re probably imagining, as I am, how this must look to the people who came to Central Park for an ordinary autumn day.