Sixty-Three Pounds Of Books

The first time I ran away from home I was twenty-nine. The second time I ran away from home I was thirty-five, but I do not want to go into this here. When I was twenty-nine I had used up all of my luck. I had failed at my job, run out of money and succumbed to a bleak depression that chased all the positive energy out of me. I had to surrender my beloved studio apartment that I had lived in for three years and return home to my parent’s mansion with nothing but garbage bags filled with clothes and a U-Haul filled with a very large collection of books. Within a day’s time I had gone from living in an edgy, bohemian ghetto to returning to the quiet, gated country club where even the squirrels had to be a member. I spent my days loitering on golf courses, eating hot dogs by the club pool and playing tennis against a backboard that was always better at tennis than I. Then after three months of looking for work and being incarcerated in a gated community with nothing but my future in front of me- I decided it was time to run away.

My younger sister was living on the other side of the country in a small town called Washington DC. I had never been to that part of the country and decided that it was as good a place as any to try and start my life over. My sister was working as an intern on Capital Hill for Senator Tom Lantos who represented California (the state I was living in). Maybe she could hook me up with a job on Capitol Hill and my future would involve a great political career? My decision to run away filled me with unrealistic dreams and aspirations and made me feel like I had grown a pair of wings. My sister agreed to let me sleep upon her marshmallow couch until I was able to make “independent” living arrangements. I assumed that this would not take longer than a month. The night I ran away I ordered my train ticket over the phone using a credit card that I could not afford and snuck two very old suitcases out from the cobweb drenched attic.

The old suitcases that I used belonged to my great-grandfather. When I say old- I mean these suitcases were old enough to be ruins from a previous civilization. They were in terrible condition. The leather was faded and ripped and getting the zipper open was like wrestling with an alligator. All I would take with me on my adventure was what I could cram away into the belly of these aging beasts. I knew that these suitcases carried the lint of my ancestors and I was determined to make them proud.

The first suitcase was easy to fill. Since I did not own many clothes at the time- I filled the suitcase with my entire wardrobe: underwear, socks, jeans, t-shirts, a warm jacket and my black boots. The other suitcase was not so simple. I wanted to fill it with books- books that I could not bare to be apart from. I had a collection of over ten thousand books all of whom I loved equally. I had carved my life out from the pages of these books and being apart from them was like leaving one half of my body behind. I spent hours trying to decide which books would come along. Once I had made a final decision I would doubt myself and start all over again. It was madness- but I had to finish the task before the sun came up because I wanted to run away before my parents awoke. Finally at four in the morning, with twenty-eight hard and soft cover books neatly stacked inside the suitcase- I had no more time to decide. I wrestled with the suitcase zipper for ten minutes, got some final things together and was ready to go.

I left my parents a note in their mailbox explaining to them why I had run away. I then took a cab (the cab driver refused to lift the suitcase filled with books) to the train station and boarded the Amtrak train for Washington DC just as the sun was coming up. When I sat in my seat I felt just like Billy The Kid. Like Billy I was making a run for it but instead of a gun as a weapon I had a suitcase filled with books. Also like Billy The Kid I felt frustrated by the injustices that occurred everyday in our self-centered, greedy society. I had just had to pay thirty-five extra dollar for my suitcase filled with books to be loaded onboard the train because it weighed sixty-three pounds. Every pound over twenty-eight pounds was a dollar extra and my choices were to pay the fee or to leave some books behind. I sneered and growled at the woman behind the counter who could not understand the price I had already paid for my dedication to books. I would never abandon these writers who gave me life. Like Billy The Kid I knew when a battle could not be won, so I paid the extra cash and escaped on my train into the new day.

Three days later I arrived in DC. I found myself standing in the middle of nowhere with two suitcases by my side. Once I got off the train I took the Metro train to the neighborhood where I thought my sister lived. Instead of finding the middle class neighborhood that I knew my sister was shacked up in I was standing in one of the worst ghettos I had ever seen. Hopelessness drifted out of empty windows and behind every locked door I knew someone had a terrible story to tell. I was not used to the humidity, which caused my heart to bounce around like a pound of ground turkey in a zip lock bag. My clothes were swimming in sweat and I carried my suitcases through the inferno like Washington DC streets.

I had no more cash on me and just enough change to make a phone call to my sister from a pay phone. I have always had a good sense of direction and like a hero on a journey I figured I could carry my suitcases and allow my sense of direction to find my sisters home. For miles I felt bad about dragging around Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Tolstoy, Lessing, Rimbaud, Artaud, Woolf, Kerouac, Pessoa, Camus, Hegel, Bataille, Celine, Ginsberg, Morrison and Blake; whom I knew were suffering from darkness, heat, claustrophobia and turbulence in the tightly packed suitcase. But I was determined to find my way and to not abandon any of these great writers into the anonymity of the poverty-stricken ghetto streets. I had to take several breaks along my pilgrimage and let my arms, heart and legs rest; but at the age of twenty-nine I still had a superhero’s physical disposition that would allow me to get away with physical feats that I could not even imagine attempting today. Oh the irreplaceable riches of youth, where have you gone?

By the time I made it to my sister front door I felt as if I had left my arms, bones, blood, breath and legs behind. I had just dragged two suitcases, one filled with sixty-three pounds of books across Washington DC. My clothes had become stained, crisp and sun-dried because my body had no more sweat left to release. My pupils must of been dilated because the first thing my sister said when she opened her front door was “I knew you would stop first at the bar.” I looked at the albino kitty that purred around her feet and asked her if she would not mind helping me in with my bags. We hugged and she said “welcome to your knew life in Washington DC!” When she went to pick up the suitcase filled with books she released a sigh of distress. “What do you have in there, a dead body?” she asked as I handed her the lighter suitcase to carry. “Sixty three pounds of books,” I replied with a hint of accomplishment in my voice. My sister looked at me as she shut her front door and said, “What the hell do you need sixty-three pounds of books for?” And thus began my doomed three-week stay in Washington DC.

At The End Of A Rainbow

 

Ever wonder if there is really a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?

It had been raining for a week straight. Streets had become shallow rivers and plants were drowning in excess water. A dusty shade of gray had colored in the sky until yesterday, when the clouds decided to break. I was sitting at my desk trying to keep my mind off the dismal weather outside. A pen drawing of a nude woman sat unfinished on my desk for hours because I was having difficulty staying interested in it. I had the radio on and repeatedly looked up from the drawing and stared out the window. I watched the rainfall and my spirit took delight in the birds that I saw sliding across the wet sky. Then it happened. The sun began cracking through the gray colored sky like an eye that was struggling to perceive the divine when off to my right I noticed something that I was not used to seeing through my window. What was taking shape right before my tired eyes- was the birth of the most resplendent rainbow I had ever seen.

The colors of the rainbow began to form gradually and then grew into bright vibrating hues of red, yellow, blue, green and violet. I sat mesmerized at my desk watching this creation of nature unfold in front of me. For a moment I was reminded of the rainbow flag that was used in the German Peasants war in the 16th century as a sign of a new era, of hope and change. So much awe overcame me that I had to go outside and watch the birth of this rainbow without the obstruction of a window. I noticed other residents of my neighborhood coming outside their homes and observing the same thing that was mesmerizing me. Bicyclists, dog walkers and joggers all stopped to watch the uncanny sight. The luminous rainbow covered the entire length of the city in which I live and owned the sky like a majestic doorway into some unknown place.

After ten minutes or so of staring at the rainbow, I slowly lost interest and decided to come back inside and finish the nude drawing. Even though what I should have been doing was spending my day looking for a job, I am a master procrastinator who will find the most obscure ways to distract myself from what really needs to get done. As I worked on the women’s hips the idea that there is a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow, popped into my mind. As a child my mother, my grandmother, a baby sitter and several of my teachers had often told me this but as I grew older other adults told me this idea was just a myth or a superstition. I believed these adults without ever really checking for myself to see if they were right or wrong. Now, however, I was in a different predicament. I was a thirty-eight-year-old man, a victim of the great recession who was out of work and unable to pay next months rent if I did not find some money fast. When the thought occurred to me that I should go check and see if there really was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow– I said to myself “what the hell- I got nothing to lose.”

I am an average, lower middle-class man. I am a dull man with very few friends, who would rather not work be left alone so I can read books. When I found myself putting on warm clothes to go on a long journey in the cold and emptying out my backpack to take with me (just in case I did find gold) the thought did occur to me that maybe I had lost my mind. “Maybe I already lost my sanity months ago and this is the real reason why I am broke and having a hard time finding a job,” I thought to myself. I tried not to listen to this judgmental voice of mine and just focused my attention on what I remember my grandmother saying to me many years ago when she showed me my first rainbow. “The end of the rainbow is further way than you think, but if you keep on walking really far you will be rewarded by finding the most beautiful pot of gold right where all those brilliant colors touch the ground,” she said to me.

It must have been below fifty degrees outside when I began my “end of the rainbow” search. I threw away the naked drawing I had been working on and fed the cat before I left. I had an empty backpack on my back, thick gloves on my hands, a wool hat covering my ears and the anticipation of an excited child inside my rapidly beating heart. As I walked I imagined to myself what my life could really be like if I found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I would be able to not only pay my rent next month but also never again have to spend sleepless nights terrified by what I was going to do if I ran out of money. I would not have to eat beans out of a can anymore or tell my wife that I cannot afford to meet her for lunch or dinner. No more frozen food. No more ripped socks and old underwear. No more jobs and bosses I cannot stand. No more suffocating anxiety every time I spend more than a dollar. If there is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, I told myself, I will be free.

These thoughts caused me to walk faster. I could feel anticipation in my feet. As I walked I noticed more people stopped in the streets, watching the rainbow in a state of awe. I however did not bother to look up. I had both my eyes set on one place, and one place only- where the colors of the rainbow touched the ground. My grandmother was not wrong when she told me that I would have to walk really far. The closer I thought I was getting to the end of the rainbow the further away that it seemed to be. When I finally felt as if I had reached the end- the rainbow moved a little further from me. After an hour or so of walking frantically I was exhausted but determined not to give up. The thought did not occur to me that the end of the rainbow could be an optical illusion, like a pool of water in the middle of a hot desert. Had that thought come into my mind- I may have given up.

One belief that I have never let go of is that all perseverance is rewarded in the end. It must be! With this belief buried deep in my heart I kept on walking towards the end of the rainbow no matter how many times it seemed to shift. I walked off road and went through horse stables, ravines, cornfields and forest areas with thick overgrown shrubbery. I felt like a warrior on a mission that I would never surrender when in reality I was just a man who really needed money.

As I walked out from a claustrophobic cornfield that threatened to burry me alive, I finally came upon the end of the rainbow. There it was before me touching down in the middle of a dirt field in the middle of nowhere. All around was nothing but miles and miles of wide-open farmland. The end of the rainbow was not more than half a mile away from me and without a moments hesitation I began to run across the field with the slow speed and tight muscles of someone who has not exercised in months. I was willing to die for what could be at the end of that rainbow. I felt terribly out of breath as I ran but I forced myself to run faster because I was afraid that the end of the rainbow would get away. But all my determination paid off, because right when I could run no more I stood directly in front of the radiant colors of refracted light. I had made it to the place where “the brilliant colors touch the ground.” But my grandmother failed to tell me about what would happen next.

It was not until I was finally able to catch my breath that I was able to see what was in front of me. A young woman, no older the twenty-five, was rainbow bathing in the nude in the center of the rainbow. It took me a moment to see whether or not what I was seeing was real or just the result of an exhausted mind. Sure enough, when she sat up and looked at me with a bright smile I could see that what I was seeing was not an illusion. She was lying on a red towel that had the word “Hawaii” all over it. She watched me as I watched her until I finally got the courage to say to her, “excuse me. Ah….I do not mean to bother you…. but did you by chance…. find a pot of gold in there?” I knew that what I was saying must have sounded ridiculous, a little insane but she did not laugh or seem in the slightest bit surprised by my question. She just stood up and said to me “why don’t you get undressed and come in here and see.”

I felt my throat tighten up. I was shocked. The young woman was too beautiful, so perfect in every way that I felt like something had to be wrong. Things like this just do not happen to me. I was much older than her and could not understand why she would want to see me naked. I was slightly embarrassed but again I reminded myself that I had nothing to lose. The young lady stood there in all her nudity, patiently waiting for me to make up my confused mind. I was still thinking about the pot of gold. I so badly wanted the money. “Maybe it is hidden someplace in there, maybe she is hiding it,” I thought to myself. So like any desperate person would do- I said what the hell, got undressed and walked into a rainbow. She reached out her hand for me and I walked in just as naked as the day I was born- except for my wedding ring and the backpack in my hand (just in case I was going to find the pot of gold).

I remember reading someplace that the ultraviolet light put off by rainbows was beneficial for skin cells and blood. The light was filled with vitamins D, K, E, C and numerous antioxidants. I was comforted by the thoughts of these health benefits (since I have been struggling with some health challenges) as the young woman held my hand and escorted me towards her red towel. One of the only things she said to me during our time together was “there is no need to talk. Just feel and allow yourself to let go.” When we sat down side by side on the towel I tried not to stare at her naked body. I could not tell what mesmerized me more- being besides an exquisite naked young lady or being inside a rainbow. I also could not tell if it was the warm rays of a rainbow heating up my body or if it was my nervousness that was making me warm. The young woman started to rub my back with the palm of her warm hand and then whispered into my ear “lay back, let go and feel.” It was at this moment that the thought- “maybe she is an angel,” ran through my mind.

I followed her directions since I was in no condition to argue. I was a little concerned about getting an erection but I took my mind of off any sexual thoughts by visualizing a pound of ground beef. She lay down besides me- so close that I could feel her skin breathing. Together we lied there, not saying anything to one another, just feeling the warmth of the rainbow. Slowly I felt my eyes close and my heart slow. For the first time in months I felt my mind become still and my body felt at ease. I was hovering someplace between bliss and relaxation, feeling the individual colors and mist of the rainbow nurturing my skin. I was not cold and there were no thoughts about needing money frantically swimming around in my mind. I could swear the sun was shinning and the sky was a brilliant shade of blue. I did not worry about anything. For the first time in months- I did not think about how I was going to find a job or what I was going to do. Everything seemed to become silent except the exquisite sounds of the vibrating rainbow. The last thing I remember saying was “wow!” before I finally let go, let go, let go, let go.

When I opened my eyes I was lying naked in the middle of dirt field. I did not know if an hour or days had passed. Cold rain was falling on my body and there was no longer any an inch of sun in the sky. I looked around and all I could see was miles and miles of farmland. Besides me was my empty backpack and a few feet from me were all of my clothes neatly folded and placed in a pile The young girl was gone and so was the rainbow. I was shivering from the cold when I got up to put on my wet pants, shirt, sweater, and shoes. I looked around me to see if anyone else had witnessed what had just happened. No one. I put on my wool hat, gloves and backpack and started walking out of the dirt field. I did not feel sad, frustrated or confused. In fact I did not feel any negative emotion at all. I simply felt each step I took and listened to the raindrops as they fell all around me with a deep sense of satisfaction. When I finally made it back to the road I turned around and looked at the field that I had been lying naked in. It was at that point that I thought to myself, “so that is what they mean by a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.” I smiled, took a deep breath and began my long journey home.

Writer’s Block

Currently, I am suffering through a bad bout of writer’s block and maybe even a bit of winter time blues. The thought of lifting a pen, typing on a key board or editing feels akin to lifting a heavy weight or going for a long, uphill run (neither of which I want to do). I get tired just thinking about it. The thing about writing is that the author is often a servant to “the whims of a creative breeze.” When there is no breeze blowing the authors way- there is little he or she can do to force it. Such is the hazard of the writing trade. I do not like this state of things but I realize that good prose can not be forced or contrived. So, patiently I will wait, go about my day to day life and return whenever the breeze once again decides to blow my way.

The Wedding Photographer

1.

I probably should keep this to myself but it is a story I have to tell. In order to assure that I do not offend this friend of mine who is the subject of my story, I will disguise his name and refer to him as Giovanni, or Gio (I have given him this name because it sounds similar to that of his favorite artist Caravaggio). If you, Giovanni, happen to read what I have written here, I hope you will understand that I worship at the altar of literature like you worship at the altar of photography. I must feed these literary spirits with stories that need to be told, just like you must take pictures. It would be a sin for me to remain silent.


2.

Giovanni is an artist whose medium is photography. He only takes photographs of his various body parts, which others and I have always thought to be a vain preoccupation. But like I said, he is an artist and some artists have vain predispositions. Unlike a lot of artists, Giovanni’s work has been published in various art magazines and he has had a few gallery shows in which he managed to sell a few things. However, Giovanni is still yet unable to escape from the ravages of that damming stereotype that haunts most artists- he is a starving artist. He starves more than any artist I know simply because he is fully committed to his craft and refuses to do anything else for pay.

At night Giovanni wonders the city streets with his camera under his arm like a gun that he will use to keep himself safe. He sits in bucolic cafes and writes in paper journals about his philosophy of art. He writes like a man who is writing a great philosophical treatise on the nature of the artist. From what I have read of his philosophy, I gather that Gio believes that the only thing an artist should pre-occupy him/herself with is the mystery of life. No television, movies, newspapers, books, friends, lovers or theatre should ever occupy more of an artist’s mind than the mystery of life itself. Since Gio feels as if he himself is the greatest mystery of all- “he himself” is his main subject. By pointing the lens of his camera upon his body, he is interrogating the nature of his material reality. He is asking the question, “What does it mean to be me?” and trying to make sense out of something that is impermanent (subject to the ravages of time) and unexplainable. This he believes is the ultimate purpose of his art.

This may also be the reason why he is poor. I try to explain to Giovanni that we are no longer living in Caravaggio’s time where an artist could be completely dedicated to his craft and still earn a meager living. We are aging men living in an age of technology, which demands that we learn how to compromise. Not many people are interested in buying photographs of an arm, foot, face, nipple, underarm, nose, eye, strand of hair, mouth and toe- I try to explain to him. However, he refuses to listen to reason. Gio is convinced that when he is long departed from this cruel world his work will greatly increase in value. “People will want a piece of me when I have crossed over into that other realm from which no one ever comes back,” he often explains. For now, Gio believes that living for his art is more meaningful than earning a living doing something he does not really want to do. But I understand that survival in our modern world costs money- so as a concerned friend, I was able to connect Giovanni with a gig as a wedding photographer.


3.

The wedding was a good opportunity for Gio to make a few extra dollars, $375 to be exact. I knew that he desperately needed the money to pay his rent, buy some food and get a creditor off his back. I was also hopeful that this one gig as a wedding photographer could lean Giovanni towards other opportunities in the profession.

Instead, this may have been the final gig that Giovanni will ever get as a wedding photographer. Giovanni not only failed to get dressed up for the wedding (he wore a black t-shirt with a Salvador Dali print on it of three naked women dangling above a table) but he also managed to take photos of only himself during the entire wedding. He snapped photos of himself besides the bride and groom, besides various guests, in front of the Torah and with the Rabi (it was a Jewish wedding). He even took photographs of himself wearing nothing but his boxer shorts in the bathroom. At one point towards the end of the celebration, the bride’s father caught on to what Giovanni was doing. He approached Gio and pointed out that Giovanni was taking photographs of himself. The father of the bride became enraged and Gio yelled back, “I am a true artist and I do not compromise my artistic vision for anyone!”  There was a few seconds of silence between them. The father of the bride was confused and caught off guard by Giovanni’s strange response. “But you have been hired as a wedding photographer?” the father replied. “Well then, I quit!” Gio screamed and walked out.

“How could you put me in such a situation?” was what I heard Giovanni drunkenly repeating on my answering machine later that evening. I knew something went terrible wrong. When I called him back he was drunk and enraged. I explained that I was only trying to help him out. “You have humiliated me not helped me! How could you? You know that I am an artist…. not a fucking wedding photographer!” Gio yelled. He repeated the word artist several times. “Okay Gio, but you need to eat, pay your rent and we live in a time that even the artist has to martyr themselves if they want to remain alive.” Giovanni then hung up on me.


4.

I have probably made the mistake of making this too personal already. If I were absolutely certain that Giovanni would never read what I have written here I would tell you more. Some things are so sacred that not even the sword of a writer’s pen should offer these pieces of information up to the altar of literature. Like my grandmother often said in response to my constant need to say too much about myself, “some things are better left unsaid, my little babushka.” I will tell you this- I have not seen Giovanni in over three months and we have not spoken since that belligerent phone call. I have heard from a mutual friend that Giovanni no longer wants to speak with me. He is locked away in his studio, taking continuous pictures of himself, which he tapes all over his brick walls. He has only been seen in public once, and at that time I am told he looked frighteningly pale and thin. Even though I have written here about one man’s private madness, there is no question in my mind that Giovanni is right about one thing. Years after Gio is dead his photos will be studied by art historians, shown in galleries around the world and collected by the rich (such is the absurd nature of the world in which we live). It is my hope, that at this future time, what I have written here will be of some help.

My 89 New Year’s Resolutions

1) eat more walnuts and pistachios

2) impregnate wife (with her consent, of course)

3) work on overcoming anxiety

4) buy new underwear

5) recycle and compost most of my waste

6) recite a daily mantra

7) build something

8. spend more time with birds

9) spend less time on-line

10) drink less booze

11) be a better lover

12) leave less facebook status updates

13) have sex more

14) cultivate a daily meditation practice

15) make a new friend

16) get rid of a few old friends

17) contemplate the real meaning of freedom

18) be free

19) work as a Teacher

20) read more poetry

21) learn to enjoy doing the dishes

22) listen to my heart more than to my head

23) row a boat at least once a month

24) read everything Richard Brautigan has written

25) read everything John Fante has written

26) get a dog

27) become financially independent

28) remain healthy

29) continue to pursue dreams and do not be discouraged by those who have given up on their dreams

30) pay off credit card

31) grow vegetables

32) consider finding a mistress (with wife’s consent, of course)

33) spend less time alone

34) write more poetry

35) self publish a novel or book of short stories

36) practice compassion and gratitude

37) eat more (organic) hot dogs

38) bring my own shopping bags to the market

39) use less plastic

40) grow hair long (n0 haircuts)

41) ride a horse

42) participate in a protest march

43) save $2,000

44) be honest even when you feel like lying

45) publish a few poems

46) figure out where all my lost socks go

47) start feeding cat more regularly

48) sleep less

49) visit a farm

50) dance more

51) smile more

52) laugh more

53) stop listening to voices in my head

54) stop talking with the voices in my head when in public

55) surrender all need for control

56) listen deeply

57) socialize more with people even though I do not enjoy socializing

58) play board games with wife

59) volunteer someplace

60) buy more socks

61) find true self

62) hug and climb trees

63) accept my life fully without needing anything to be different

64) love

65) help others when I can, but do not sacrifice myself for others who want to get out of me whatever they can (for their own gain)

66) plant a tree

67) stop eating so much cheese

68) learn how to fix bicycles

69) cultivate a relationship with someone over the age of 75

70) buy myself a gift once a month

71) drink more herbal tea

72) plant a garden that grows dollar bills

73) embrace growing older without fear

74) go on a meditation retreat

75) iron clothes more often

76) eat less white flour

77) swim

78) let go of the future and the past, simplify

79) work towards being able to bend over from waist and touch fingers to feet

80) visit a dentist

81) get a foot massage

82) be comfortable with being weird

83) build up arm muscles (preferably, the result of having more sex)

84) work on improving my marriage

85) buy a kitchen table

86) drink more water

87) spend time with a river

88) keep fresh flowers in my home at all times

89) do not get upset with myself if I do not accomplish all these resolutions, instead remember that I did the best I can