Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Cracker Eater (circa 1998)

Well, it just so happens that I was eating Triscuits this morning when I had what Walt Whitman would refer to as a special revelation. I was sitting there at the table and picking crackers out of the box two and three at a time, breaking them in half, and then eating them. The salty taste on my tongue was pleasant as I chewed them, and the grainy texture felt good in my mouth as they broke up in there. I started staring at the box for some reason, reading all the words on it, just to do something, just to kind of pass the time I guess. I’d just woken up and I was kind of lightheaded and still caught up a bit in sleep. Everything started coming to me in a fugue. Every new thing that came to me, or at me, kept building slightly on the last thing. I read: “BAKED WHOLE WHEAT CRACKERS” “Improved Wheat Taste!” “Not for nibblers!™” “NET WT 9½ OZ (269g)” “NABISCO®” My eyes just kept reading everything. It all seemed really important and super interesting. The top flap on the box had this little recycling symbol on it, you know, with the arrows going around in a kind of triangle in the black circle, and it said on it, “Carton made from 100% recycled paperboard.” And under that in this really tiny print it read, “Minimum 35% post-consumer content.” I had no idea what this meant, but like I said before it all seemed extremely important. I decided to make coffee. I began to wonder about how the wheat taste had been improved. The crackers didn’t taste any better than I’d remembered them tasting before, but I really couldn’t be sure. Maybe the taste had been improved. It seemed really important that I figure this out. I wanted to be very sure of this fact. I grabbed a coffee filter from a box of coffee filters sitting on my table and put the filter, which was a superior quality brown-colored filter, into the top part of the coffee maker where the filter goes. The box of filters had these words on it: “Flavor Pores,” and, “FEEL the quality…Taste the difference!” and also, “FOUR TREES are planted for every ONE used in the production of our filter paper.” I wondered about these trees. Who was planting them? What kind of trees were they? Where were they being planted? How many trees does it take to make a coffee filter? Well, I scooped the coffee grounds into the filter with a little measuring spoon that I keep in the coffee can to measure out my coffee. I closed the tray with the filter and coffee grounds inside of it, and set the glass coffee pot under there to catch the drips of hot coffee. I poured water from my water-filtration pitcher into the back compartment until it went up to the 5-cup line on the thermometer-looking measuring device on the side. After doing this I sat back down and grabbed a few more Triscuits. I noticed that on the tab that keeps the box closed after it’s been broken open for the first time it read, “To open slide finger under the flap and loosen gently,” and under that flap it read, “To close insert tab here.” I inserted the tab and the box stayed closed. I was extremely pleased by this. Turning the box around I read the side of it where the nutrition facts and ingredients were listed. I wanted to find some significance in these things. It read, “No Cholesterol” “Low Saturated Fat (Contains 5g per serving)” “Good source of Dietary Fiber.” It also said on it that one serving size was seven crackers. I wondered who had come up with the number. Why not five? Or Ten? There was some deeper meaning there. Something spiritual. I read the ingredients: “Triscuit crackers are made by a unique process from whole wheat, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt.” It seemed odd to me that there was no, “and,” in there. I felt that it should have said, “and salt.” So again I pondered things. What was so unique about this cracker making process? Were there actually people specially trained to make these crackers? Did they go to school? Did they have a license? And how the hell had they improved the whole wheat taste? It seemed a mind-boggling mystery of infinite depths and immeasurable longitudes of thought. I listened to the coffee drip and gurgle, and watched the steam rise from the coffee pot. Then I turned the box of Triscuits over and looked at the bottom. It read in really tiny black print, “This package is sold by weight, not by volume. Packed as full as practicable by modern automatic equipment, it contains the full net weight indicated. If it does not appear full when opened, it is because contents have settled during shipping and handling.” For some reason I thought of all those bags of chips I’d opened over the course of my chip-eating life, and how there would be a popping sound and sometimes only like five chips in there when you opened the bag. There was some esoteric kind of language being transmitted in all this. All these words, all of this language being used. I felt like I was deciphering some kind of code, some kind of hidden world of symbols and wonderful mysteries. Why else would the folks at Nabisco go through all the trouble of putting this stuff on the box? It didn’t make the crackers taste any better. It didn’t change my opinion of the crackers. I’ve always liked Triscuits. I probably always will. And even if they keep improving the whole wheat taste, I’ll probably continue not to notice. I started to think of all the words on all of the boxes and bottles and crates and trucks in the whole world, all of that language out there being wasted, beating against deaf ears, all of this noise and distraction going unnoticed. I started imagining this giant cartel of word smugglers going from one town to the next with their cereal boxes and their ammunition of slogans and fine print. They’d go unnoticed just like their words. People wouldn’t even see them. They’d be overlooked. And they could communicate to each other through paper products and box tops and commercial jingles. Only they would know what the words really meant. And nobody would care. They could do as they pleased. Just what would they do? Who knows? Maybe nothing. But as I was sitting there this morning it seemed like I was on the verge of some miraculous breakthrough. Like I was at the mouth of a river of endless possibility. I fell into this delirium, this foggy muddled kind of state. I read the bar code on the bottom of the box. 04422903. The coffee pot stopped making coffee, and it kind of whistled like it does when it stops making coffee. The numbers made no sense. I turned the box over and over in my hand. I read the address of Nabisco: East Hanover, NJ 07936. It said that when writing to them one should enclose the top flap with the printed code on it. My mind flashed. That was it. That was how they did it. Finally, I felt like I was on to something. It was more than just words. Maybe the words were just a distraction. It was all bar codes. What else would they have all of those numbers for? They were communicating with box tops and cardboard flaps and numbers. But who was doing all of this communicating? Then it kind of just came to me. We all were. All of us who bought things and sold things and felt like we owned things and lived out our lives so cut-off from each other. We had found this new way to get our messages across. It was more than numbers and words or even symbols. It was more than blips and bleeps and digital beeps. We were talking to each other, comforting each other, and sharing our lives with one another in this new and profound way: by buying things. We were all partaking, as consumers, in something larger than own tiny selves, fitting into the whole, becoming a member of society, fulfilling our duty as a proud citizen of this nation. And we had somehow invented a new way of doing all of these things, of spreading our culture, of making ourselves feel like our lives were more worthwhile. It seemed really epiphanic at the time. Something like the essence of God was around in that kitchen there. So, I got up and grabbed my coffee mug and I poured my coffee into my cup and I blew on the hot coffee as it steamed there under my nose. I stood there sipping my coffee and staring at the clock for a long time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

From 'The CIA's Lost Transcripts'

Woman enters kitchen and finds man sitting on chair facing a pot of water. Pot of water is on stove directly in front of him.
She says—What are you doing?
He says—Testing the theory that a watched pot never boils.
Woman laughs and looks at table where they usually eat and tries to pick up a napkin from a stack of napkins in a partially ripped plastic packaging. Napkins are powder blue. She ends up lifting three napkins out of stack.
She says—Why can’t I ever get just one? They always come off in bundles.
Man continues to watch pot of water on stove. He does not say anything, nor does he move at all.
Woman stands with arms crossed. She holds three napkins in her left hand.
Man lifts his right arm towards the table. He continues to look unwaveringly at pot of water on stove. His index finger points to package of Top Ramen. Top Ramen is beef flavored. His gaze is steady and unperturbed.
He says—Hand me that please.
Woman looks at package of Top Ramen lying there on table and proceeds to pick up package and then hand it to man.
He says—Thanks.
She says—That pot is never going to boil if you keep staring at it.
He says—We’ll see.
Man places package of Top Ramen on sink counter with right hand. He does not move from his seat nor does he look away from stove. He breaks apart Top Ramen noodles in unopened package with his right palm, crushing noodles into tiny pieces. Then he sets now crushed and still unopened Top Ramen package on his lap while continuing to stare straight ahead. He opens package at one end using both hands and takes out silver flavor packet. Flavor packet has red letters on it: Beef Flavor. Setting flavor packet on sink edge with right hand he creases his brows as if in deep concentration. Package of crushed noodles still remains in his lap. Package reads - Cooks in Three Minutes - on front under picture of cooked steaming noodles.
Woman sighs deeply and rolls her eyes.
She says—I got a raise today. You know that? They finally gave in.
Man continues staring ahead as if nobody has spoken to him.
Woman pushes out lower lip and frowns sullenly. She then puts on a fake smile and pretends to light up her face with happiness.
She says—That’s great honey! You really deserve that! Good going! Yipee! Let’s celebrate!
Man is unmoved by woman’s playful sarcasm.
Woman walks away.
Man looks at her go.
Pot of water starts to boil.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dhammapada Idioticus

I’m just not intelligent enough to be that profoundly depressed, to know what it is like to not be able to take this life for one more moment, to not believe that other moments will follow, other moments that may or may not be good, but, most importantly, have that chance to be good. I don’t know. I’m basically a low-skill-level idiot. I just bide my time between despair and hope. That’s about it. There’s not much to me. We are all, basically, defined by our actions, by what we do, not really by what we think. Though what we think does determine to a large extent who we are and that in turn creates what we do as people in this world, you know, this place of things that we exist in. So, yes, we are what we think, but also we are, more so then, really, what we do, right? So, as I was saying, I am not smart enough to have all these engaging viewpoints and grand thoughts about things, and I really don’t exert any effort into making myself into, well, something. But what the hell is that something? Can you really be anything but who you are? And what the hell is that? Who you are. That seems like an absurdity. I have to know that I am me all the time to exist, right? If I stop being me then I stop existing as this thing, not only the abstract notion of what it is to be this person who I am, but also the real meat-and-potatoes part of what that constitutes, what that thing is in the flesh and bone, you know? So, I am always aware, you could say even hyper-aware, of what amalgamates into this temporal cohesive structure that I call myself, or would that be meta-aware? Anyway. I know that I am me. I am very sure of that. I walk around in this body and I know whom it belongs to, who is making it function and do the things that it does. All of these myriad parts making the whole that is the person I constantly can identify, and do identify, as being me. We all have to be aware of this at all times, sensitive to this fact that we are this person who is moving through time and space in such and such a way, in a very specific type of way too, and that helps us define this sense of our selves, this entity that is separated from all else. We have a self awareness, we have to, a self consciousness about us, that is just one continuous stream of thought saying over and over, “I am this.” It is always ringing somewhere in there behind our eyes. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m not too bright. I say, “nauseous,” when I mean, “nauseated.” And I use, “further,” sometimes when I’m talking about physical distance. But mostly people don’t care about such things. They’re all too busy saying, “I am this,” over and over in their heads. I do it too. It’s okay. It’s all going to be alright. I will do these deeds, make these acts upon the world while I am in it, and that will be who I am. It doesn’t matter. Sure, I fashion myself, but I don’t claim to be wise. Just like a bunch of trash piled up on the side of the freeway could have a nice smelling flower sprouting up from it, I could rise up and do some good stuff in this wrecked and diseased world. I don’t have to talk about it though. I’ve just got to do it. Just rouse myself I guess, shake my feathers a little. It’ll be okay. Everything will work out. Don’t worry. I get sad and scared sometimes too. It’s all just part of this thing here, see? We’re all in this together. Here. See? My hand? I am this. I am this.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Forever Undone (PARTS 1.5-2)

−−Tell me some more about the bricks in those buildings downtown.
−−I think I was talking about the Mills building at some point. The shadows creeping up its yellow-buff brick walls that have all of these very intricate designs done in terra cotta. The bricks just look old, kind of ochre colored, weathered I guess you’d say. But the bottom part of the building’s façade is all white marble, I think it’s from Inyo County or something, and the entrance arch is really something. It’s very high and grand, very Romanesque, with all these Doric pillars or columns and there are also these intaglios, or maybe etchings in bas-relief all over the top of the entrance, I can’t remember exactly. I was going to have the character walk around for a while just noticing things like this. I was going to have him walk by the old Pacific Stock Exchange building, which is now an Equinox gym, and sit around on the steps for a bit, maybe have him walk down to check out the Newhall Building with its rich red brick piers, the ornate cream terra cotta decorations, the eagles in the spandrels of the top floor, that wonderful Renaissance/Baroque ornamentation designed by Mr. Lewis Hobart way back in nineteen hundred and ten that is still standing ten-stories tall on the corner of Battery and California. Maybe he would start to wonder about what had happened to all those years, all that time, all those things that had been occurring for almost a hundred years on these streets and in these same buildings, all of it gone yet at the same time still there. Maybe he’d go and sit in St. Mary’s Square and stare up at the tall buildings that seem to be hemming him in from all sides. Maybe something would happen to him while he is sitting there, or he’d go off and look up at what he believes to be Grim Reapers glowering down at him from the 23rd floor of 580 California. Or he’d remember about Muriel Castanis and her ideas about “Corporate Goddesses.” He’d wonder about the certain way the sunlight would strike the windows across the street from his house, for just a moment, at a particular time of the day, so that he’d be suddenly blinded from where he sits and watches TV, and the way the sun had, as it was going down, of stenciling an ovoid shadow on the wall with the shapes of shutters that were like the bars of a jail cell. Or about how echoes just sound different downtown, car horns, the delivery trucks making all their noise, and the deep bellow of traffic and wind and rumblings from some mysterious place down below where sewer rats got fat on the leftovers of subterranean alligators.
−−I wish you had a better memory. You seem kind of hazy on details. All this limning. It’s kind of skimpy.
−−Well, you can’t put everything in there. You’ve got to leave a bunch of stuff out. That’s really what writing is. You spend most of your time paring things down, filtering out the unnecessary, separating the chaff of experience from the grain of life. What’s left is just a tiny remnant of what reality might once have been, a tiny pebble on the sands of experience. And if you’re lucky what you are left with will be maybe one hundredth of what you wanted to be there when you started off, and that’s if you’re lucky. It’s a very low percentage game, like baseball I guess, but even lower. I was even thinking of having the character wander into the Cala Foods on Hyde. The roof is so strange. It seems like it’s really warped and caving in all over, with all of these depressions or indentions of some kind, dimplings of the concrete like craters. It seems porous, or muddy, like wet plaster or stucco or something. Is there such a thing as mudcrete? I’ve always imagined that walking on that roof would be like walking on the moon. And the giant wall of the place on the north side with all of those rectangular windows arranged on it. He was going to kind of go into a trance staring at the those windows in that giant wall on the north side.
−−Oh yeah. All those rectangles lined up like some kind of, I don’t know, checkerboard?
−−No. But yes. Those windows. They kind of remind me of a bad piece of modern art you’d find on the walls of a dental office or something. You can see these rectangular pieces of the houses and buildings across the street through them. It’s like somebody’s been putting together a puzzle that is a photograph of the buildings over there when it’s done, but they’ve only been able to put together these rectangular parts and the rest is just the white of the wall. Does that make any sense?
−−No. Not at all. I just don’t get what you are trying to do with these diversions. Do you expect the reader to follow all of this nonsense? Who the hell is Muriel Castanis?
−−I’m not really sure. I guess it’s just something to pass the time.
−−I’d rather pass my time getting dragged through the street tied to the back of a speeding car by a chain.
−−If you had your druthers.
−−I’d rather.
−−You’d rather. D’rather. Druther. Get it?
−−Yeah. I don’t either. I think it has something to do with Bret Harte or something.
−−What the fuck are you talking about?
−−Nothing. Nobody cares.
−−You’re right about that.
−−So this character was going to go into this trance, start contemplating things, thinking some really odd thoughts. E.B. White type of stuff.
−−He wrote about a tree once. Which tree was it from the corner? The third?
−−No. The second. Anyway. He’s standing there in the vegetable section, you know with all of the tropical storm sounds going off and the mist coming down, and he’s starting to think about things like who invented the doorknob? Where do the pigeons sleep at night? What do lice sound like when they eat? When am I going to die? Do streetlights look like alien eyes at night or iridescent pearls on the long necks of headless swans? Where do all of my dreams go when I’m awake? Is the butterfly effect lepidopterous? What’s the greatest pop song ever written?
−−Okay so he’s thinking about all of these odd things, asking all of these stupid pointless questions. So what? Sorry for all the caviling, but I still don’t get what’s so great about all of this. It seems so unexceptional. So mundane.
−−It is. I guess that’s part of the point. Something for the botched and bored, the expendable masses, the grocery clerks and the janitors and the delivery boys and bellhops and the garbage men, the people who sew buttons all day and repair fire hydrants. Nobody wants to be reduced to a chemical reaction or a system of random particles, a hodgepodge of events happening for no discernible reason. Life is various and endless in all of its so-called jewel boxes. We all want to be real, to be something more than just ourselves, more than this person that other people see as being us, this fleshy thing that goes around wearing our name like an epaulette. I play along with other people’s assumptions about who I am, pretending to be this thing that they see and talk to, and in turn I expect them to feel a certain way about me, this “me” that is really just this thing I create, this social construction that I try to give these attributes to, this fake “personality”, this unreal person that I control like a puppet, though not in an unattached way, for I am an acting player in this game too, and sometimes it is hard to tell where my papier-mâché souled self begins and the reality of being me ends. People only see what I try to make them see about me. I am what I’d most like to pretend to be. I lose my self in the creation of this false self, and in doing so I somehow find a new self, a part to play that is the real “me” at the same time that it is nothing but emptiness. So I end up spending time cultivating this idea of being me, this image I create and that I imagine to be me, that is and is not me at the same time.
−−I am what I am.
−−What does that consist of? Money in your bank account. A nine-digit number. A job that defines what you are, that is what you do. You are what you do, right? Or are you more than just that? Let’s see. I think there was something I wanted to say about Alexander Pope. Something about how hope springs eternal because we are never blessed, but are always going to be one day. A soul must be more than the sum of its parts.
−−Words, words, words. Heaven. Earth. Philosophy. A world of words making a world of things.
−−It gets to be too much. I have all of these things that I keep on the inside because there is no place for them out in the world of things. So I dwell in squalor, live in isolation, collect junk mail, and keep making up this person whom I wish I could be. I was going to somehow use this poem by Cavafy in the story. It’s called As Much As You Can.
−−Oh great. A fucking recitation from memory. This should be fun.
−−Fuck you. This is important. It goes, “And if you cannot make your life as you want it, at least try this as much as you can: do not disgrace it in the crowding contact with the world, in the many movements and all the talk. Do not disgrace it by taking it, dragging it around often and exposing it to the daily folly of relationships and associations, till it becomes like an alien burdensome life.”
−−So, let’s say you just stay in your room. Sit around like Pascal and stare at walls waiting for your afflatus to come and galvanize your imagination. Stop taking yourself out and schlepping all over and exposing yourself to the world or whatever the fuck you call it. Is that really living? Is that what you want to do with the time of your life—this short thing we do while were alive? Fuck that. There is no being healthy and happy and kind and all of that Saroyanian shit you are always going on about if you’re just locked up in your dingy little room all the time. Hiding away from the world is no solution. You’ve got to go out into that D. Thomas night and burn burn burn and all of that shit, right? Just like your man Ehrmann says, with all of its drudgery and shams and broken dreams, it is still a pretty fucking beautiful world to live in.
−−I don’t necessarily agree with that. This lust for life, this joie de vivre, this hedonistic I-wanna-rock’n’roll-all-night-and-party-every-day attitude, it’s all just a front, a diversion, a compensatory gesture to ward off the demons lurking under the bed and writing their names on your back in the dark. There’s nothing golden about suffering. For the most part it isn’t even bronze.
−−Hey. I know that last part. What is that?
−−Just my faulty anamnesis. It’s a paraphrasing of something from Somewhere Else Rather Than Here Is Where The Horses Chase Rain. It’s from a poem called “The Eyes Of Pistol Pete” about the old basketball player Pete Maravich.
−−Now you’re getting all mythopoeic and self-referential. I can’t take this anymore. I can’t exist inside of your imaginary world anymore. You’ve got to let me out. Let’s at least go back to talking about buildings again.
−−You know the name Timothy Pflueger? He’s the guy that built the Castro Theatre and the Paramount in Oakland, among many other gems of the thirties and forties like 450 Sutter and the white terra-cotta-clad tower that is the Pacific Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery.
−−Sure, he built the YMCA building down by the Civic Center, right?
−−Yeah. He’s one of the great architects in San Francisco history. A. A. Cantin actually did a lot of the designs for the Pacific Telephone Building, but he worked closely with Pflueger and his company. Sometimes I go down to New Montgomery and sit on a bench across the street from that building and just stare at it for hours, taking in all the street sounds and people walking by not noticing things. I just feel like there is all of this beauty all around and people just choose not to notice it. Nobody ever looks up, and if they did I feel like it would significantly impact their lives, bring about a real change in the way they see things and the way they feel things too.
−−Hold on. So what? Big deal. People don’t notice things. You can’t notice everything. Distractions are everywhere, and you’ve only got so much time to just go around staring at things. And even if you do notice something, and you are able to somehow appreciate the beauty of it, which is probably a-whole-nother problem, what the hell are you going to do with that? Where can you put that in the suitcase of your life experience? You see something and you enjoy it in some way and then it is over and you move on. I don’t really see what it matters. To-morrows will still keep coming and flushing out the yesterdays and pushing them farther and farther away into the dustbin of your past. What’s it going to matter if you were plodding along down the street one day and happened to notice the old sooty verdigris opaque windows in the archway of an old building? Where are you going to put that? Where does it go? You just can’t do anything with it. You might as well just keep staring at your shoes.
−−I don’t know. You’re probably right. For some reason I just find these things extremely important. Maybe I’m just overcompensating for other things that are lacking in my life. Anyway, so I go down there on New Montgomery and they have these nice benches attached to the building across the street in front of these plate glass windows. Sometimes I think all I’m really looking for in life is just a good place to sit. And so I just sit there and lean my head back against the glass and stare up at that old Pacific Telephone Building that still has BELL carved into the floral decal molding over the entrance. The building is closed now. I don’t know what’s going on with it. There are a few tattered curtains in some of the windows still and there is a handwritten sign taped up on the front door that says the building is closed. I think it’s going to be turned into a five-star luxury hotel or something. At least it’ll be preserved.
−−No wrecking ball for now. What else do you do for fun?
−−Sometimes, like say on a Wednesday afternoon when the weather is agreeable and I feel hearty and hale and like walking around, I’ll just go around aimlessly ambling all over the city, running my hands through my hair and pulling it up in the front like Stan Laurel, just basically trying not to let the way the wind is blowing affect my mood. Maybe I’ll get a song stuck in my head like some guy in a Saroyan story, you know, whistling The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze and all that, or I’ll pretend I’m Philip Marlow out snooping around and looking for a lead. It’s not a completely uninteresting way to make time pass. Sitting on benches and smoking cigarettes is also a good show. I love watching smokestacks puffing up gray clouds behind brick buildings, and those silver cylindrical ventilation tubes that run up the sides of buildings, and the few remaining water towers all rusted and smashed and lonely on top of old tenements. Just stuff like that. Ordinary things. Things everybody does.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Shoeless Joe In Exile

Shoeless Joe didn’t think
That Ty Cobb would know him,
In a dry goods store,
Working behind the counter,
So many years after 1919 had happened to him.
Didn’t think he’d want to,
All those summers gone by
Between them.
Cobb had to bait him:
"Don't ya recognize your old pal Ty?"
Joe looked incredulous.
"I didn’t think anyone from back then
would want to remember me now."
The old exiled ballplayer
So far fallen from grace,
Everything so far away
All the time now,
Everything lost,
Still trying to say
It isn’t so.