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A Young Man, Amost An Artist, A Failure
The last time we saw each other, I took her to a party at my cousin’s place. We argued on the way home, the last and only fight we ever had, a dispute so ridiculous I don’t remember what it was about.
“You were pretty stressed,” she reminds me. “Conning everyone must’ve gobbled up all your resources.”
“Living preposterously will do that. You know that Paul Simon song where he says, ‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now?’”
“America. ‘We’ve all come to look for America…’”
Val’s voice had not become more tuneful with age.
“Binghamton seems a mash to me now,” I paraphrased. “I guess I was falling back all the time, trying to find the America we thought we had.”
“None. You really can’t go home. The most important thing I ever learned in my life, and it applies to everything, is that there aren’t any do-overs, no Mulligans. You get one shot at anything, and that’s it.”
“Probably bigger than it sounds,” Val mused.
“A truth shrouded in a cliche.”
A certain ignorance is required, a fluffing of knowing, in going back to old rooms, thinking you can recover the empty coffee cups, the left behind newspapers or even the carefullest thoughts. If you’re like me, you might someday hit the skids so hard you’re hollow enough to try for it.
Recklessness served me well until I hit dry land. It had to. A kid without a mother in a family without enough resources to rebuild beaches after a storm, I bounced around, unable to drop anchor… No, wait. Make that unwilling to drop anchor. Then, the dry land got me.
Was it lack of trust in the official version or a passion for freedom? Maybe both, but the latter makes a better story. All my life, I left anything and anyone with too much ease, so much in fact I wonder if I ever really committed to anything other than awareness. Feeling it isn’t enough.
That doesn’t bother me much. The adventures recklessness got me were thrilling, even as reminiscence. I did, though, want to know why, if for no other reason than that I’d caused too much damage.
Once, when we still went to that big brick school house, one of the last with only two classrooms, the one parked on the hill with the huge yard around it, I fled early one day with my brothers. Only a short time remained before the yellow buses would flex open their doors to let us in for the ride home, but escape was on our minds. Mom’s boys, we ran full speed across the slight slope of the playground toward an opening between the trees, worn down by tire tracks on bare earth. My brothers held my hands, one on each side, to help me keep up, lifting my sneakers off the ground at top speed. We raced into the shade under the arch of free-growing limbs and out into the open spaces on the other side. We laughed, gasping for breath, traipsing along the dirt road, grass edging up past the stubble in the fields around us.
Mom’s freewheeling boys.
So, we got her love of freedom. We got her loving embrace. I don’t remember any time when we didn’t feel like we were champions, broken winners, of course, but always on top.
Then, the thick brick of glass broke up. Each of us became our own shards. Freedom changes season when no one holds your hands and no arms sweep around you when you need a secure landing.
By the time Mom called from Virginia, she had four more children, a second set of us, proving her reliability as a baby machine. She called from Richmond, a place I could drive to in a day now, but another universe then.
“How are you doing, honey?” she asked. “Is everyone treating you all right?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question when I was twelve years old. What did it even mean? I got through things. I got my three months of baseball and a nine month void. Every kindness, encouragement from a teacher, a girl who might like me, was a beam puncturing the redolent gray.
“I’m okay,” I said.
One day, a neighbor stopped me along the soft shoulder where our driveway met the road, imprisoning me with a stare in the way familiar adults were allowed to then.
“Your father’s so proud of all of you,” she cooed. “I saw him the other day after he got all your report cards. You’re all doing so well in school.”
“6B. I failed. I have to repeat.”
I remember the raw chill the first time I felt hatred. Not anger, cold, amorphous hatred. Imagining Dad, standing there, smiling proudly, sent icy pebbles bouncing in my brain. The worst hate is the cold one because you’ve already lost.
“I really think, Val, the only reason I went on living then was because, as far as I knew, I had no choice. When you have no choice, you have to try to make things better for yourself.”
My mind’s eye saw the Nietzsche typed on paper and taped to my teenage bedroom wall:
“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
Suicide was a raft until conviction surged back.
Surge back it did. The first time it powered up, I was sitting on a school bus on Robinson Avenue, watching the other kids leaving East Junior High. I promised myself that I would never make anyone else feel as bad and rejected as they made me feel.
“I don’t even remember, but it was the lowest low a thirteen year old can get. I just felt like shit. Nobody cared about me at all, but something inside me knew I could make it. I was better.”
“Look out world…?”
“Not just yet. I had a lot to learn, but look at me now, all these years later, all the great experiences, a marriage that lasted, money in my pocket…”
“Et cetra, et cetra et cetra…”
The thing is, when nobody loves you, you can go with the majority, throwing in with the spurning crowd, or you can love yourself with all you’ve got. The stew got frothy for a while, but I’m here because I decided to discover and appreciate the unique creation of me on a chilly spring afternoon in 1962.
Bob Dylan, for fifty years now, always seems to have something to tell me:
“Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide.”
A reckless seed planted, the other side of loving yourself is not enough left for everyone else. As a reservoir, love’s capacity is limited. There is not enough for every dry season. Some summer morning, sun on your face, the deep greens and soft wind may con you into thinking you have enough love with which to paint the world and have it last a lifetime. Don’t fall for it. It isn’t true, but bless you for wishing it were.
Riding shotgun, I listened with my boss outside a trailer while Jerry, a big, burly, rambunctious guy out of New York City did his pitch.
“This is the only time I ever come between a man and his wife,” Jerry bellowed, voice whirling through the screen door, spreading out into the night.
He was parking his big ass between a couple he’d charmed into submission, unfolding a pleasantly colored contract on a coffee table in front of them.
“If you watch closely, you’ll see that my fingers never leave my hands.”
Bill, our sales manager behind the wheel, and I joined Jerry’s customers in laughter.
Ten minutes later, Jerry thumped into the backseat, still stuffing materials in his briefcase.
“You got ‘em?” Bill asked, turning slightly toward the rear, sure of the answer.
“I got ‘em. Fucking yahoos. Had ‘em eating out of my hands. Didn’t know what hit ‘em. ‘Your encyclopedias will arrive in about ten days. I’ll come by to make sure everything’s just like I promised.’ Sure I will.”
“Fuck you, Jerry. You’ll be back in the garment district, selling cheap underwear, by then.”
Jerry’s encyclopedia selling career was a lark, a week long jaunt for easy money upstate. Even then, New York City was way more than two-hundred miles away.
When Bill invited me to play gypsy with him and travel to Springfield, Massachusetts, to sell books there, I was so loose I barely had to lift anchor. Springfield was where he hid his pregnant girlfriend while his wife and children got weekends in Utica.
On Sunday, I left my room at the YMCA for breakfast at a downtown diner. Without cold calls to go on, I went walking, stopping halfway across an old bridge over the Connecticut River, the full green foothills girdling the valley, much like my home in Binghamton, both spaces markers where I waited to identify myself in place. Like most of my past and many times again in my future, I was open to whatever was going to come. I had no direction and little that pulled me.
By week’s end, with Bill’s situation untenable and me like a deadweight on his tether, he delivered me back to New York, leaving me on the corner where Route 20 on its poor man’s track parallel to the State Thruway intersected Route 12. 12 angled 90 miles south through the farmlands and forgettable towns until spilling into Binghamton. I was going home.
I stood by the side of the road, putting my thumb out as cars crossed the intersection with the traffic signal. No hurry, nowhere to be.
“Well, man,” I said to myself as if there was a conversation waiting, “you finally hit bottom. Your friends are jerk offs who cheat on their wives, and the only job worse than the one you just lost is magazine salesman. What’s next? The circus?”
It struck me as funny with a wide-open future ahead of me, as a train wreck of a life might seem at eighteen, a comedy of my own ridiculous design. I’d hurt everyone who cared about me. I left Ginny to fend for herself, running off to distract myself by jumping the bones of just about every girl who got in the vicinity of “Yes,” until dwindling down to a graveled patch of “Maybe.” Joyce, I seemed to have assisted into the gutter. My family…? Mutually assured destruction, I thought.
You can look at yourself from every angle and never run out of angles. I should be patient with myself. I didn’t know which one of those people I was or, consequently, where I was going with my choices.
Tramps, we used to call them, idling, nothing to do but absorb life, unsure about living it.
The long, August dusk softened the broken down, reemerging forests and earnest farm fields around me. Inside, I still felt happy; outside, lost or unfound. There’s a quiet inside every humid summer dusk. Disruptions, cars — for instance, are exaggerated by the violence of disrupting it. At eighteen, the future is so vast, it either thrills or frightens the shit out of you. Cling to security and you’re a dead duck; don’t and you’re likely to cause some damage. You have to hope it’s recoverable damage.
Who had a map? Who could tell me anything? Had anyone been here before? Holden Caulfield came close, but he was so weak and envious. Would Holden have maneuvered his awkward way into Mary Jane’s bed, back in California, or looked away, saving it for wittily protective anecdotes? No, there was nobody else much like me.
Soon, Henry Miller would soak my brain with insights available nowhere else. Although I would never be an emigre banging my way through Paris, I recognized that same, hard oneness, me against the world, laughing at it, jabbing it, letting love take me over without falling completely for it, my own best resource. Friends came and got discarded. If I survived losing my brothers, a fate well on its way to completion, I could lose anyone and anything and still go on.
Like Henry, I stayed sane by writing about it, intellectualizing everything as a way of throwing a tarp over the convulsions, contents abandoned but neutralized.
On the cusp, I didn’t know this was coming as dusk deepened on the road south of Utica, but I felt goddamned happy. I was free. No one had been allowed to do more harm than I could survive.
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