There was a night when the four walls couldn’t hold me, when listening to The Velvet Underground was too depressing. No tent, no car, no pillow, only my two hiking legs and a sleeping bag. Modern John Muir escaping the streets. I ambled my way to the base of a country mountain. 8pm dusk and me just sitting on the ground, my shadow fading into night. Long blades of grass, deer droppings, my new bedroom. Resting there I did nothing, no phone, no book, no flashlight. I wanted the hilly air to take me, absorb me, like only the earth can. There was no plan to sleep, there was no plan to not sleep, there was no plan. There was a her somewhere, out there, over there, without the zest of the World War I tune. But I had the full moon. I saw the moon and the moon saw me. I slept and woke and slept and woke, the moon so bright that I thought to turn it off, then realized where I was again and again. The evening went like that, blanketed in endless space, all the ground my mattress. By morning the her, the she, was a little less in me, nature said, let it be.
Writing words made (makes) him whole. Cleared out the zombies with meditation, confronting the addiction (addictions) again and again. On a boat bobbing with empty gangster dreams, streams of thought, thinking about tortured bodies, here and there. Homeless writer has a home in pages, roaming with parents now dead, alive in photographs, in words, in questions posed unanswerable. The bullshit, the ticking, the suicide, the fire. Somewhere over the rainbow, his rainbow, bright colors out of darkness.
Have you ever thrown a ring into Iguazu Falls? I have. It was a thick silver band that I wore on my wedding ring finger off and on for 2 years. I was 25 when I hurled it into the abyss. Love, the easiest most accessible word to describe the origins. But love is never just love; shield, addiction, identity, long distance longing, fulfillment, failure. She had a matching ring too, the she who wasn’t in Brazil with me, the she who was somewhere on the east coast, the she who was no longer a part of me. Not that anyone is ever really a part of anyone, even in those supine minutes (hours?), gliding puzzle pieces that must eventually disconnect.
We bought the rings at Isla Negra, Neruda’s home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Chile. You feel that you are destined for me, we believed together, waves crashing poetry, wet ghosts of Pablo. Love. Time passed, time finishing college apart, time in Spain together, then the Atlantic between us for months, then years. Over, done, but I kept the ring. Until that moment when we charged the cascading white water, the same water her parents watched on their honeymoon decades ago. Throw it! My friends urged. They knew I wanted to bury it forever. I looked at it for brief last seconds, dented, mostly smooth, then threw it like a high fly ball. Weightless now, sun, frothy water, glint of silver in the air, then drowned, dead.
Not until the screen in the hand becomes a screen in the head. Think inserted microchips storing relevant information, foreign languages, memories; as we go from unofficial to certified cyborgs. Apps to meditate, take pills, track the dog’s walk. We don’t know how to be free anymore. To just close our eyes, breathe in, breathe out. We need the screen to tell us when and how. Efficiency, the better way, more exact, controlled.
We sell it to each other, make ourselves dependent on it, use it to alleviate boredom, to entertain, to advertise. We text, rarely call, occasionally FaceTime, an image of person, flat on a device. But do we need it? Is it natural? Is it a tree? A sperm touching an egg? A summer rain shower? No. It is a bragger, a consumer of hours, a window into violence, a distraction from what truly is.
Where does technology end? Not until virtual reality is ours, all the time, as we become surrounded by curated unreality. It is our gold, our diamonds, our oil, extracting time and synapses, the new rich. I say no, watching the cursor blinking on the screen.
I’m on planet 3-inch mattress crashing in an East Village studio apartment with my old high school friend Patrick.
Two months earlier it was Granada, Spain with Elena. She, on a continual cosmic wander, a quest to see what was beyond the flamenco caves a mile past the Alhambra where the gypsies lived. She took me there and I danced, clapped like a gringo, heard the guitar, for fleeting minutes felt Moorish. Restless with the colder weather, my years of autumn instinct gnawed and probed, told me it is over, that her steps were not mine. Some tears, a bus ride to Madrid, a day at the Prado, then I left.
Here now, walking by a phone booth on Avenue A, I want to call, but she doesn’t have a number and I’m broke anyway. The cross-continental breakup is final, no email, no texting, no Skype, no looking back.
New York City is a whirlwind, my life like jazz, a cacophony of busy denizens intently darting fro and to. Frenetic taxicabs, the smell of pizza on every corner, the never-ending screeching of the subway. For six months I do it all, intern at Human Rights Watch, book bands, date an actress, write for a community newspaper, and bartend near NYU. I dabble in poetry and poverty sleeping on the floor in the East Village, then a few months on a futon in an apartment on West 4th Street near 6th Avenue. I never pay rent, make enough money to eat on $12 a day. I work at two bookstores, the first, Barnes & Noble at Astor Place, the second, Rizzoli in Soho.
Five days until Christmas 1995 and I’m holding a tray of hard candies standing at the entrance of Barnes and Noble. I feel like Judge Reinhold’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but without the pirate hat. Recent college grad from an elite northeastern school, with a phony smile and wrinkled khakis. The urbane customers wear scarves, leather jackets, sweaters with reindeer, most ignore me. I prefer shelving books, hidden in the poetry section, where I can find Marianne Moore for an NYU coed. But they hired me for the holiday season, so I’m standing here, an exposed, breathing ornament, placed at the front of the store.
A couple days earlier they had me doing bag check. Better than candy, I got to sit. Men and women handed me their Jansport backpacks and Esprit tote bags, I passed them a plastic number. A middle-aged man gave me his backpack, he was maybe fifty, George Costanza bald, with a red Polo jacket and matching Polo glasses. “Give me that back,” he said to me with a sneer. I handed over his bag and he removed his wallet, looked at me directly, “you people are the thieves.”
Three days before Christmas and I’m the candyman again, grinning like a dope, when I see her, the actress, Claire Danes. Her hand reaches out for a piece of the crinkly wrapped candy, she knows I recognize her, knows I’m a writer, an artist, like her. She smiles, I smile. Then she walks away, leaving me alone with my peppermints, listening to the instrumental version of Last Christmas by Wham.
The future is in my way, again. A double-parked quasi-taxi, stopped in front of a green light, passenger getting in, cradling a phone. Uber claims to bring safe, low cost transportation, delivering a complex, precise, advanced product, but all I see is another clueless driver almost causing an accident. Behind the wheel, they start and stop, eyes glued to Google map screens, barely noticing pedestrians and other cars. Mostly gone are the old timers in yellow cabs, guys who survived Vietnam, grizzled veterans who really knew the city. This future has younger navigators, better cars, people doing their side hustle for cash.
But no one knows where they are anymore. Sometimes when I’m in my Prius a random person will open the back door, expecting me to drive them somewhere, until they figure it out and vaguely apologize. Uber sums up San Francisco: connected, disconnected. Connected to technology, disconnected from people experiencing homelessness. Connected to tiny screens, disconnected from face to face community. And this is only the first iteration, a prelude to the Uber vision of self-driving car automation. Efficient future, people sitting in the laps of robots, free, captured.
I love it when friends tell me they are going to do a little writing, maybe spend some time thinking poetically. It’s like they are going to drink a glass of chardonnay. I’m happy for them. I am. For me, writing is the equivalent of starting with an IPA, then quaffing a bourbon, then a whole bottle of cab; I get obsessed, addicted even. I’ve tried doing Natalie Goldberg-inspired timed writes, but I just turn off the timer when it rings and keep going. You might find this impressive, but my wife and kids think I’m annoying. Even when I do turn off the computer, I’m still thinking; about words, sentences, plotting when I can sneak back on and write a bit more. It really can be a problem, which is why I stopped writing for 6 months. During that time I meditated, read, spent more moments with my family. But recently I got published in a magazine, won a prize in a national poetry contest, and the writing bug is itching.
It is a little voice whispering, you have some talent, nurture it, hone it, own it. And I have to admit, I do like identifying as a writer/poet. It is mine, something I control, something I can do alone, like meditation, but very different. But how do I tame the beast? I’ve learned not to blog everyday, I did that for awhile, it drove me crazy and the quality of my work was precarious. One day I produced something halfway decent, the next day I’m writing a recollection about eating sugary cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. The discipline of writing that way was great, but the self-induced pressure to publish something all the time was ridiculous.
There is also the intense reading involved with writing. To all of my friends out there who want to write, I adhere to Bill Roorbach’s adage, reading is writing. Meaning, time spent reading definitely adds to one’s writing mojo. I don’t mean like People Magazine or even the San Francisco Chronicle. You say, I want to write poetry. So who are you reading? Or do you create poems from memories of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein? Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not me. I have to take out volumes of Jane Kenyon, C.K. Williams, Li-Young Lee, Frost even, and actually read them, alot, before poems start to arrive. Yes, I can have poetic impulses, but full poems? That comes from me reading a ton.
So do I stop writing? The better question probably is, did I ever stop? If reading is writing, then one could argue that observing life is writing too. During those six months I didn’t stop reading, and I didn’t stop creating internal narratives to go along with people, observations, and experiences; they just weren’t going into a Google Doc.. What is the answer? The words don’t lie, fingers on the keys, ideas in the brain, I’m writing, can’t stop now.