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.