Exit Stage West
…in which I am decidedly drunk and forgivably foul-mouthed.
NEW YORK – Last stand at The Patriot, the night of the Big Party. My work is done here. My locker is empty and my bags are packed, waiting patiently for me back at the office in Battery Park. It’s not my office anymore. “Not my chair, not my problem,” said the lizard.
I’ll be in California this time Friday night. I timed my arrival to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing because that’s how I roll, but tonight I’m free in the city with very few obligations, a savage thirst for Wild Turkey and a vague disdain for anything beyond this moment. Anything else is “out there”. I want to enjoy this sweep of the second hand, this measure of simple entropy.
The Patriot is a special place. It’s the only bar I’ve ever been in where I refuse to drink Guinness on tap. Witness the paint-splattered walls, the filthy neon signs covered in years of grime, the overall sensation of stickiness that permeates the building, the creaking floors and the frightening DIY painting of a roaring lion that dominates an entire wall over the toilet in the men’s room. The taps here are dirtier than the dreams of a high school gym teacher, which explains why I’m talking to the Turkey tonight; turning my concentration inward, tearing away chunks of self-loathing like feeding time at a pig farm. “I won at New York.” That’s the phrase Robin used. Seems partially appropriate here. I try it on for size. What did I win? Maybe I didn’t win, but I didn’t exactly lose. Sometimes it felt like everyone else scratched on the 8-ball when it counted most, leaving me with a hollow victory.
The downstairs crowd is eighty-five percent co-workers and colleagues, the best and brightest in our field gathered to NYC from the four corners to celebrate the end of an era, the retirement of a wild heavy. One of us, to be sure. The ceremony was bittersweet, the reception doubly so. There was plenty of praise and well-wishers told age-appropriate stories. This, then, is the after party — but without the groupies and zero concern for the red M&Ms. And, in some small way, it represents the end of Good Stories.
The laws have changed. Rules are in place now, things are respectable. Life is on lockdown. Fun for our crowd is on a tight ration. Think of this era moving forward as the straight-to-DVD sequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which a button-down dentist and his little league coach sidekick wear their seat belts on their way to a safety conference at the Sheraton, pointedly avoiding the minibar and taking time out to call their wives twice daily. I really can’t share any specific examples, but to those of us left behind, a “good time” might as well refer to a refreshing can of Coca-Cola® and a 7 p.m. curfew. Remember to floss, kids.
It’s a great party, but I can never stay in character for long. The third time I suffered through The Doors “L.A Woman” I knew it was time to hide, if even for a little while. Just then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. On the landing leading to the second floor stood a pair of ridiculously long legs clad in a pair of incredibly short shorts. They belonged to an Amazon of a woman with long curly brown hair, bent deep at the waist as she scrawled something on a chalkboard. When she stepped aside, I read the words YOU CAN HIDE UP HERE written in an unsteady hand. There was an arrow pointing left, further up. Had she read my mind? She turned, caught my eye and winked. Yeah, I know. She’s supposed to do that. It’s a bar. She wants me to drink copious amounts of alcohol and tip her generously. Still, it seemed like a good idea…
The louder the Led Zepplin gets, the further back in time I go. The music is definitely better upstairs. Memories of my youth swirl up at me, cheap summers spent in Cowtown’s Short North before it grew canker sores and turned all artsy. I was just a young peyote button then, stunted and struggling to grow up tall in the cigarette-littered soil of a white trash landfill. Gangly, tall, big glasses and a Warhol mop of hair. Yes, a true nerd long before it became a knee-jerk claim to fame on Internet dating sites. Honestly, I thought I was going to die in that town.
Enough of that talk. I have a craving for red meat, real sustenance and possibly more whiskey. How far can I push this? I have no real obligations tonight. It. Is. Done. My calendar is a roller coaster aimed up and out into the night, a gun barrel jammed under the startled face of the clouds. Let us plant a flag in this fragile moment: Radio back to Houston, tell them that everything is fine. There are no monsters here.
The candle flame at my elbow flickers rapidly like a Geiger counter somehow wired to detect alcohol. I feel propelled, if not by the honky-tonk car wreck of the jukebox downstairs, then certainly by this terrific yearning to write an entire fucking novel with my thumbs while hanging onto this barstool. I am a man in a star-spangled helmet, a faceless Japanese business man on his morning train crammed like canned fish among his commuting countrymen, buffeted by the jostle of the train as he repacks ancient tales of honor and bravery into something Round Eye can fully understand, one keystroke at a time.
Jesus, I think the barmaid is gonna be my next ex-wife, she of the Amazon build, the long curly brown hair, the shock white smile, the She-Devil who lured me up here with her siren’s chalkboard. Chinese Fucking Jesus! Just when I get to that peaceful place on the mountaintop where the flesh fire fades… when I again arrive at the basic understanding — successful relationships and I will always fish in different ponds… where it becomes glaringly apparent that we are all just anxious ageing flesh circuits in a dirt machine, the untold purpose of which is to compute the final answer… when I can finally relax my guard and live and let live and let… BOOM! My ape heart betrays me. I come tumbling back to earth. There is no escape. No one gets out of here alive. (Remember, when it comes your time, when the last bell is rung, you will go into the ground alone.) I’ve had two more glasses of Turkey while I sat here typing this, two too much perhaps. Certainly, I have crossed the line…
Focus, man! Say nothing. Just smile your poisonous grin with whatever charms you think you’ve got left as you watch the bartender bump and grind to Kashmir. Thin, elegant fingers describing the flight paths of fireflies, her muscled thighs rippling like the hindquarters of a racehorse. Her smile is warm like a campfire and her eyes sparkle like the stars you can’t see from the city. Some part of me desperately wants to ride her across the finish line and claim a large wreath of flowers for my very own, but no! This is not that kind of night. Not now, and maybe never again. I’ve learned my lesson. If I am at all successful, I will sneak out of here like Ghost Dog…
This is the time and this is the record of the time, when the charade of Final Wisdom is dropped to the floor like car keys and your limited peasant’s understanding of the real world is revealed. Nine, ten glasses of this stuff and you’re still obsessing over grammar and punctuation? Clearly you’ve been chosen, selected somehow to make sense of the No Thing, whatever that may be. This is what you do. You drink and you write. No one said you had to be good at it. Write drunk, edit sober. But wherever you go, don’t dare come back empty-handed. The room is spinning like a turntable. This is the time, and this is the record of the time. And it’s time to go. Say your goodbyes, pay your respects, shake the hands, kiss the babies and make for the subway by way of a halal cart…
16JUL2012 – The movers are here.
The stammered shriek of packing tape still sets my nerves on edge, as does the hiss of crisp cardboard boxes being folded into load-bearing cubes. I can almost taste the tape. I remember picking bits of it out from between my teeth. I’ve worn a knife on my belt since I was 21 but the work went faster when you simply bit the tape. I moved furniture for one summer after high school and again, out of sheer desperation, for a few long months in ’99. It’s not a glamorous job, by any stretch. I stage and group the boxes, knowing what goes where. I open the cupboards and leave the closets ajar. When the truck was parked and the foreman walked in, I give the him walk through. What goes, what stays. He nodded, sending his guys out to the truck for paper and boxes. And an olive drab six-pack of tape.
Moving your own stuff sucks. Moving other people’s stuff is far worse. At the end of the day, you can feel every joint, bone and muscle in your body. You feel your fingers hardening into robot claws, twisted by wardrobe boxes, and stretched by mirror cartons. You know what it means to be truly exhausted, spent and ejected as though fired from the Gun of Tired. Not from a long day at the shopping mall sucking down Slurpees and trying on jeans, or forwarding humorous emails in an air-conditioned office, but the kind of depressed effort that comes from packing and carting around other people’s worldly possessions. Sometimes you’ve got one job for the day. If God hates you — and he does — you’ve got two. It’s not a job that earns you a lot of respect. People tend to look down their nose at you. They speak slowly when they explain things, as though your title dictated your behavior. Like maybe your GED brain wasn’t up to the task. It didn’t matter that I’d graduated from Willy Wonka school, or served my country and lived in Europe for four years. I joke that movers prefer to be called ‘relocation specialists’ but I always felt like a fucking box monkey.
I’ll never forget how humiliating the experience was. The warehouse apes typically started their day with a menthol cigarette and a can of Mr. Pibb. Most of them were three rotten teeth shy of being able to give each other gum jobs in the bathroom, the walls of which were covered in crude depictions of curvaceous women in the Ready Position, framed by jagged arrows describing the path to glory. For a good time call this number, or that number. “For a good time?” What the fuck did that even mean? Were we gonna load up on quarters and hit the arcades? The guy calling the shots in the office drove a red Camaro and wore a beeper on his belt. Most of the drivers rocked cowboy boots and thin gold chains. They shuffled when they walked and spent their breaks trying to one-up each other with improbable stories of who could drink more Jack Daniels. Dick jokes qualified as the word of the day calendars. There is nothing so defeating as working a dead end job for people who are dumber than you, all the while wondering if you’ve already passed your mountaintop…
There were some up moments, but what I remember most is the pain.
People tend to move in the summer, so I spent sweltering days getting deeply dirty. The pads of my hands would develop a tiny neighborhood of dull yellow callouses, like hardened fallout shelter for incredibly small people. Rivers of stupid fucking precious bodily fluids raced down my back, soaking the stupid fucking company t-shirt with the stupid fucking company logo on it. I had a lot of time to think about this, that and the other thing while I was humping mountains of book cartons up a jangling metal load ramp, handing them off to the mastermind responsible for packing the truck as tightly as possible before running back to the basement for another load. Sometimes I was critical of the shipper’s taste in books, but mostly I just went to my happy place.
The customers, or shippers as we called them, always seemed to move into or out of enormous pristine homes with stark white carpet and freshly painted white walls. One afternoon, on my three-thousand and thirty-third trip into the basement for Christmas decorations, the foreman pulled me aside. “Hey, shipper toll me ta tell ya not to bump up against his walls. Says you’re gettin’ the place all dirty. You’ll have to paint it if it’s bad.” I looked. I looked closer. Yeah, there was a tiny smudge of manual labor on the wall. Kinda put my whole day into perspective.
Another time we were loading an estimated 23,000 lbs. out of a house in Chicago. It had been a long day; a pack and load for a massive farmhouse at the end of a gravel road flanked by drainage ditches. The road was so narrow the driver couldn’t get the truck backed close to the house so we had to shuttle everything out the main road by hand. We finished the job, but just barely… Darkness had settled in about two hours ago and the mosquitoes were practically fucking holes in my skin. I was looking forward to the jet-propelled air-conditioned comfort of the truck cab, a gallon of cold water and possibly a victory smoke as we hit the highway home. Just then the shipper’s blonde bombshell of a wife came to the door. For the record, she’d changed out of her jeans and t-shirt and into skin-tight shorts and a tank top just after the job had started — and after her husband had left for the day. We’d all been eyeing her, but the foreman had been muttering smack to us about her in the truck during breaks. Nothing serious, just playground trash. Wait for it…
Karma! “Guys? I’m really sorry, but I forgot to tell you about the gun safe in the basement! That needs to come up, too.” I watched five bone-spent and completely exhausted men strain and struggle to heave a fucking chunk of pig iron up a narrow grade of steps. “And please be careful of the molding on the doors! It’s original.”
There were always last-minute tool sheds to be emptied, picnic tables lashed to the doors of a 40-foot trailer already bursting with household goods, meddlesome shippers who’d follow us out to the truck with each and every item we carried, standing pissant-style (hands reversed on hips, a curiously popular stance among men in the South) as they directed the physics warlord in the truck where he was to stack each item. “Now, I don’t think that’s gonna fit, do you? Now, that box has my mother’s good china, I’d prefer if it went on last…” I will never forget the woman – the wife of an Air Force colonel – who offered us warm cans of Diet Rite as a “tip” but balked at our thirty-minute lunch break. She came out to the truck twice, and even ventured up The Ramp: “Aren’t ya’ll done yet? I want all this stuff loaded!” As she pointed toward the house with one pale chicken wing, I saw the fat beneath her arm swing like a barbershop sign in an Old West town. Five pairs of murderer’s eyes stared at her over flat Wendy’s cheeseburgers and half-empty French fry boxes. She blinked back, incredulous.
What finally did me in was a waterbed mattress. Second floor, somewhere in Chicago. I ran a hose out of the window to begin draining it while I packed the rest of the bedroom. Wardrobe box for the clothes, book cartons for the desk, lamp box for the computer. Piece of piss. When the mattress was completely empty, I would roll it up and manhandle it onto the floor. It needed to be drained before I boxed it, but this thing was a fucking monster. The foreman stuck his head in twice. “Hey, don’t let that thing kick your ass! I need you to pack the garage next.” The mattress was a two-man job and he knew it. Long story short, it rolled off the frame and came down on my knees. Not with any impact but with a cold, suffocating weight. It felt like being crushed by a plastic sea. I was able to slide it into a box and close the room, but I was tapped. Dragged ass the rest of the day, dirty looks from the rest of the guys, all that. The next day I couldn’t move. I woke up with my arms drawn to my chest like a preying mantis and my knees ached something fierce.
I decided to call in a sick day: “Don’t bother coming back. You can send someone for your check.”
In the end, I think this is what drove me be such a chronic discarder. If I don’t need, don’t want it, haven’t worn it, never watched it, never used it — fuck it, get rid of it. I don’t own anything I can’t carry by myself.
“But don’t you want to keep –?”
No, I don’t.
“Well, you should get a big-screen–”
These guys did fine. I gave them each twenty bucks.
Later, in the back of the cab, headed to The Jane. I swept the floors of my place and turned in the keys. The dispatcher’s voice crackles out of the radio all robotic and monotone. He’s saying something like, “Parrot Jones, Parrot Jones, Parrot Jones…” Over and over. I don’t know who Parrot Jones is, but I like the way this old Lincoln Town Car rides, hugging the turns as we make our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. I bid a silent goodbye to tags and artfully-done pieces of graffiti on the walls, to the corner bodegas, to the body shops listing window tint and stereo installation in giant orange letters, to the enormous black women hobbling along like Mondoshawans in Crocs as they push wireframe laundry carts before them down the cracked and crippled sidewalks. Funny what you consider your home after awhile. We cross the Brooklyn Bridge. The voice on the radio continues his airstrike: “Nikee. Nikee. Nikee…”
TO BE CONTINUED