Sunday, November 27, 2016

Leonard Cohen's Inferno

An elderly man sits in a chair by the window in a hospital, gazing out on an unseasonably warm November day.  He wears a fedora and smokes a cigarette, despite an IV unit hooked to his arm.  While not emaciated, he is frail, a few dozen pounds underweight.  Another day in paradise, he mutters to himself: this is Leonard Cohen.  He would be on his death bed, but his prostate has him going to the bathroom every 45 minutes.  The past few days, he can feel death approaching, like an old friend to whom he owes money.  I always pay my debts, Leonard mutters to himself, with self interest.  It takes him a few moments to realize he’s just pissed his hospital gown.

He closes his eyes and loses consciousness.

When Leonard wakes up, he finds himself on a subway train, surrounded by six 55-gallon black garbage bags filled with detritus, dozens of copies of free newspapers and smelly, used clothes.  Oh boy, he says to himself, the morphine is really doing a number on me this time.  But he’s not dreaming, or lost in a sedative haze.  In fact, he feels more alive than he has in months.  He’s still smoking.  Oh, he thinks, only assholes smoke on subway trains.  But I am an asshole, he assures himself.

Not only is he a smoking asshole on the subway, he did just piss himself, the same stream he started in his hospital room.  He’s wearing a pair of dirty gray corduroy pants a few sizes too big, his belt a yellow police “do not cross” line roll of tape.  And a black sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.  No shoes.  He can still feel the trusty fedora resting on his head.  Christ, this is embarrassing, he tells himself … but it somehow feels right, like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

He looks down the subway car, which is packed, morning rush hour, commuters on their way to work in midtown Manhattan.  Some scowl at him, but most are too engrossed in their smartphones to notice him.  It’s not just that, Leonard thinks, they’re freaked out by me, by my presence, subtly ignoring me despite being completely focused on my presence, this stinking, insane prick who just pissed himself.  And they can smell it, I know.  They’re crammed in like sardines while I sit here like King Rat, surrounded by my movable kingdom of discarded winter coats and sweat pants, crazy shit picked from the garbage cans of Central Park West because they somehow speak to me.  The African-American Barbie Doll.  The packaging bubble wrap I like to pop with my fingers to pass the time.  The Stephen King paperback, Salem’s Lot, which I completely identify with, the vampires, not the heroes.  The blue football helmet with a red devil’s face on the side.

Just then an arm extends from over the heap of garbage bags and grabs the helmet.

Sid (in a light, nasally English accent): Hey, man, that’s my team!

A blonde haired woman with raccoon mascara eyes sits next to him, slaps his hand away.  She’s wearing a sleeveless red t-shirt with a swastika on it, black skirt, matching, torn tights and army boots.  He’s a punk rocker with spiky black hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, wearing a black leather jacket with no shirt underneath, a patch of acne on his forehead.  He pulls the football helmet over his head, finding it a few sizes too big.  The helmet rocks gently back and forth with the subway train’s swaying while he grins maniacally at Leonard.  He resembles one of those bobble-head sports figures placed on the backseat ledge in cars.

Nancy (in a thick New Jersey accent, a caustic shrillness in her voice): Sidney, put that back, you should know not to take what’s not yours.

Leonard hates her accent, how “yours” becomes “yew-ahz.”  I know these people, Leonard thinks, have met them before.  Unfortunately.  These punk kids.  His eyes are as vacant as a hotel in foreclosure.  She’s a nightmare, like so many of the groupies back in the 70’s who would hang out backstage in New York or Los Angeles, those annoying harpies who didn’t realize having sex with him was more a radical error than a grand prize.  But wait a minute, he thinks, this routine is decades old, not since the 1970’s or 80’s has he dealt with kids like this.  Back when he lived …

Sid: Leonard!

Leonard jolts to attention.  How does this weirdo kid know my name, Leonard asks himself.  Maybe he’s a fan who somehow recognizes me in this homeless person get-up?

Sid: Leonard!  Leonard Cohen!  Hello, mate.  My name is Satan.

Nancy: You’ll always be “Sidney” to me.

Sid: Yes, dear, but you created me.  To everyone else, I’m Satan.

Leonard: What do you mean “I’m Satan”?

Sid: I am who I say I am.  You just died in that hospital room.  As you always thought you would: all alone and pissing your pants.  You were right, Leonard, just about everyone goes that way.  Despite all the glowing obituaries of celebrities loved by millions muttering famous last words while fawning family members send them off like angels with harps.

Nancy: Fuck that shit!

Sid: Yeah, fuck that shit!  Everyone dies alone, baby.  Where you’re going, fucking nobody is going with you.

Leonard: Where am I going?  Is this hell?

Sid: Well, no.  We’re on a 1 train heading south from 125th Street.

Leonard: Literally, yes.  But figuratively?

Sid: Figuratively no longer exists.  Everything in the after life is literal.  We’re on the 1 train heading south.

Leonard: People get ready.

Sid (laughing): Exactly, mate, there’s a train a’ coming, you don’t need no ticket, just get on board!

Leonard: And I’m a homeless person now?

Sid: Weren’t you always?

Leonard: Yes, I guess so.  My way of life granted me nicer illusions than a subway car though.

Sid: You’ve always been smart enough to get it.  Illusions.  Exactly.

Leonard: So I accept the 1 train heading south.  What’s my purpose here?

Sid: Same as it ever was.  To make people wonder what the fuck is happening.

Leonard: Was that all it was?

Sid:  Pretty much.  And a higher calling than most.  You saw through the money and fame.  That was good.  Most people don’t.  You joined up with the Buddhists for awhile, who are nice people, but a little fucking crazy, don’t you agree?

Leonard: Well, yeah, but not in a bad way.

Sid: And that way of life was doing fine until you realized your manager had screwed you out of that million-dollar pillow you could always fall back on while living the ascetic life.  Always a nasty wake-up call.

Leonard: It surely did wake me up to my purpose in life.

Sid: Which, on the surface, was to sing your songs, like no one else ever had, or ever will again.  But your real purpose …

Leoanrd: To make people wonder what the fuck is happening.

Sid: Correct.  Save we’re working in the wrong tense here.

Leonard: To make people wonder what the fuck just happened.

Sid: You were always one step ahead.

Leonard: But … what the fuck did just happen?

Nancy: You died, man.  Happens to everyone.  Nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.  Unlike pissing your pants, you bad boy!

Leonard: So the afterlife is still a journey?  Some subterranean journey on a train with no last stop?

Sid: There is a last stop.

Leonard: South Ferry, if I remember correctly, although I got in the habit of taking cabs years ago.

Sid: That’s the last stop on the 1 Train, but we’re not getting off there.  And you’re not getting off with us.

Leonard: Am I getting off at South Ferry?

Sid: No, that would be too easy.  You’re going to ride for awhile.

Leonard: So this train goes under the water, into Jersey?  Through the rest of America?  Around the world?

Sid: Those places no longer exist for you.  I would say “in your immediate future” but there is no future in the after life.  There’s just now.

Leonard: How is this any different from what I’ve believed for years?

Sid: Well, your belief was in the here and now.  It should have been in the now and then.

Leonard: Then being life on earth.

Sid: Right.  And now being life itself.  When life on earth stops, which it must. 

Leonard: I always tried to appreciate life itself.  For what it was.  The simple act of breathing. Seeing things.  Hearing music.  Feeling emotions.  Having sanity.  Having health.  They were hard to find sometimes.  I knew their value.

Sid: And you were right to recognize that’s what really mattered, what all the fuss was about.  Not the money, fame or power.

Leonard: Punk rock.

Nancy: Yeah, man, punk rock!  Same difference!  I like the way your mind works!

Leonard: But I believe life itself just ends.  You close your eyes one last time, and that’s that.

Sid: I believe the same thing, too.  But shit happens, what can you do.  Your beliefs are irrelevant here.

Leonard: I can grasp that I’m not supposed to understand all this.  And that I answer to a higher authority.

Nancy: You mean us!

Leonard: I guess.  At least you’re helping me understand what the fuck just happened.

Nancy: Silly!  That’s your job now.

Leonard: I feel like I’m waiting for Godot.

Sid: Godot jumped in front of an Uptown D train last Saturday night, Leonard.  He came and went.  All this is what happens after Godot arrives, makes it clear he’s an enormous shithead, and everyone’s glad he left.

Nancy: Godot really was a shithead!

Sid: And that’s saying something in present company.

Nancy slaps Sid on the back of his bobble-head helmet, then wipes her hand on her skirt.

Leonard: You said you’re leaving me.  What happens after you go?

Nancy: That’s why we’re here.  Listen, Leonard. To put it in terms you’ll understand, you died and went to heaven and hell.

Leonard: Come again?

Nancy: They’re not always separate entities.  Sometimes it’s the same place for different people.  One person’s heaven is another person’s hell.  You’re an agent of good will, someone who’s been sent here to reward and punish.

Leonard: How do I do that?

Nancy; You see these people around you?  They’re dead, too.  Most of them are in hell.  Let’s face it, riding the subways in New York is much closer to hell than heaven.

Leonard: Literally.

Sid: That’s the ticket, mate!

Nancy: Your job for them is to do what you’re doing now.  I know you can’t sense this, but these other people on the train, they can’t see us.  “Us” meaning me and Sid.  They can see you.  And hear you.  And smell you.

Leonard: So the past few minutes, from their point of view, I’m just some homeless mental patient talking to himself amidst a barricade of trash bags.

Nancy: That’s right.  These people were meticulous in life.  Rule oriented.  Type A.  Driven.  Never deviated.  Did some awful things to get ahead.  Homeless people are stone fucking assholes to them.  Sure, they pity the homeless, but far more than that, they loathe them.  Partially because they feared suffering the same fate. But, let’s face it, mostly just because homeless people are assholes.  Crazy or not.  Rightfully so or not.  They’re just a pain in the ass.  Look around you.  It’s rush hour.  You’re taking up the space at least a dozen people could fill.  It’s borderline dangerous trying to get out of this subway car due to all the shit you have piled up here.  You stink.  You’re smoking in an enclosed public area where it’s been banned for decades.  You’re fulfilling your purpose just by being here.

Leonard: I’m “what the fuck just happened.”  I’m creating the conditions of their hell.

Nancy: Exactly.  And make no mistake, this is a long ride, and this is the fun part.  Some of these people are going to break down.  They’re going to yell at you.  In some cases physically attack you.  We’ll let them cut loose on you a little bit, but not do serious harm.  They’ll try to throw your bags of meaningless shit off the train, but will find each bag weighs hundreds of pounds and is immovable.  As you will be, too.  Hell is trying to throw some homeless guy off the train who just shit his pants ... and you can’t even lift him up!

Leonard: Sisyphus would be proud.  How could I possibly create conditions of heaven in this state?

Sid: That’s the tricky part, and that’s where your genius comes in.  I think it’s safe to say that you were an irascible figure in life.

Leonard: I beg your pardon.

Sid: You’re a funny guy, mate!

Leonard: Of course.  I could be a real dick.

Sid: Me, too.  It’s our nature.  Every now and then you will meet someone here who doesn’t quite grasp that he or she is in heaven.  Heaven for them is visiting New York City.  You might do something as simple as give someone directions to go ice skating at Rockefeller Center.  You’ll tell them.  But on a deeper level, you’re going to meet people who were plagued with self doubt, who didn’t think or even understand that they deserved to go to heaven.  You ever notice how nice it is when someone on a subway train actually gets the balls to talk to a homeless person and realizes there’s a human being there?

Leonard: Sure.  I got the same feeling when I met Lou Reed at a party once.  I thought we’d be gazing into a two-way mirror of self loathing, but we spent a few hours laughing and talking about our favorite doo-wop singers.

Sid: I met him a few times, too, and he thought I was a dick.

Leonard: He was a very wise man.

Sid: Ha ha!  You know what I’m saying.  It’s your job to affirm their sense of humanity by speaking to them, consoling them, letting them know, yes, this is heaven, and they’re free to roam and find themselves.  They will get off the train at various stops.  But you’ll send them off filled with a sense of purpose, and the feeling that they’ve just been told about the best possible thing they could ever hear.

Leonard: You’re allowing me to break the good news to them.

Sid: I’m not.  She is.  If it were up to me, I’d kick them in the balls and be on my merry way.

Nancy: Well, that’s why we are who we are.

Leonard sighed.  It was all making sense to him now.  He noticed the piss had dried in his pants.

Leonard: You said I won’t be riding this train forever.

Sid: You’ll know when to get off.  We’ll let you know.  And when you do, you’ll go to some place in life where you had a great time, when you were younger, making love to numerous beautiful, talented women, living a nice life of leisure and creativity.  Although you were such a sower puss, you didn’t quite grasp it at the time.

Leonard: Does anyone ever?

Sid: Not many people ever do, but they catch on way down the road … usually after they’ve pissed themselves in a hospital room!

Leonard: Where will I get off?

Sid: At our stop.  Look.  It’s the next stop.

Leonard looked up to see that subway doors close on the southbound 1 train as it departed the 28th Street station.

Leonard: 23rd Street.  You’re not going to the Chelsea Hotel by any chance, are you?

Sid: Yes!  Yes, how did you know that?

Leonard: I moved out a few years before asshole kids like you moved in.  Although I did have to hang around that annoying kid who was always shoving vacuum cleaner hoses up his ass.  And his ingratiating girlfriend.

Sid: Well, you’ll be glad to know, all the major players in heaven and hell live there in the after life.  It’s a pretty crazy place, but I think you’ll like it.  Your life will be exactly as you recall it from those days, and this time you’ll grasp how good it is.

Leonard: That’s something to look forward to.

Sid: There’s always something to look forward to, even if it’s a brick wall.  Oh, look, Nancy, 23rd Street, our stop.

Sid takes off the football helmet and tosses it back onto a garbage bag.  He and Nancy nudge the bag out of the way to exit the subway train.  As the doors are about to close, Leonard calls out to them.

Leonard: You said you were Satan.  Who is she?

Nancy looks at Leonard with a crooked smile.  He knows, instantly, that he is looking at God, and in that moment he feels peace like he has never known, as if all the garbage bags have disappeared, the subway train, too, and he's in a green field on a perfect summer day, like no drug he had ever taken, no emotion he had ever felt.  Not a care in the world, everything is all right, all bad memories forgiven, no expectations required. 
Automated Female Subway Announcer: This is a hellbound 1 train.  The next stop is 18th Street.

Automated Male Subway Announcer: Stand clear of the closing doors.
God quietly communicates to him that he will forget this moment of bliss when the subway doors close.  Which they do.  Leonard farts loudly as warm tears of joy well in his eyes.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Redneck Mystique #6: Right Turn, Clyde

I had a hard time getting to work in Manhattan this past Wednesday, what with the rain of frogs and brimstone on the city, the blood running in the gutters, the winged, laughing skulls gnawing on children’s heads, the fire-breathing minotaurs setting everything in their paths alight and the subway cars packed with hollow-eyed Jews on their way to re-education camps in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

What?  None of this happened?  Well, it felt pretty damn near given Donald’s Trump berserk “Dewey Defeats Truman” political upset of our lifetime.  Which wasn’t an upset so much as the media doing its thing: recognizing its own vacant beauty in the mirror as opposed to reality, like one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters.  I was as shocked as anyone but should have known better.  History repeats.  I went back and re-read those Redneck Mystique pieces I did a few years back, and I’ll stand by them.  They reiterate what’s happening now.  What will happen again after the next swing to the left.

You want a movie that captures what just happened?  Try The Gauntlet starring Clint Eastwood: everyone, including his own political party, was rattling semi-automatic fire at Trump’s well-armored tour bus, but he somehow made it to City Hall with his trophy blond.  (Of course, the next four years, you might want to watch Every Which Way But Loose to get a grasp of where we’re going.)

For a city that prides itself on being smarter than everyone else in the country, you would figure more people here could wrap their minds about the concept of working class white people.  But it just doesn’t happen, that same low hum of loathing persists, and probably will forever.  It’s a free shot for people who’ve constructed their lives on every other form of political correctness.  But even perfect people need to let their hair down every now and then and cut loose with some blistering socio-economic disdain.  It’s a much more convenient than dumping that same negativity on working-class blacks and hispanics.

Last weekend, I had a strange trip back to Pennsylvania.  Always love going back there in the fall, and this trip was no different: trees slightly past full foliage but still blazing yellow and red, just a pleasure to be back there this time of year.  But I noticed something odd on the way in.  Through most of New Jersey, the bus is on the interstate, and that’s all I see from the window.  But once we cross the border into Easton, PA we switch over to more rural roads leading up the northeast part of the state (where I’m going).

Maybe there was one or two Clinton signs around Easton, although I don’t recall seeing any.  But from that point forward, every road I was on back there, every town, was festooned with Trump signs.  I’d never seen anything like it.  That whole “populist” thing … triggered by a billionaire, who simply spoke his mind with no PR coaching or worries about repercussions … the way billionaires most likely speak throughout their work day while holding sway in their domain.

Did I like this?  Hate it?  Feel threatened? Get a kick out of it?  I’m fairly apolitical, and growing more so with each passing year.  I guess the emotion I was feeling was somewhere between mild amusement and shock.  Well, that’s cool, I thought, a lot of people back here are obviously feeling politically engaged this time around, but boy, how could Trump ever overcome that electoral college deficit, all these polls skewing more than a few percentage points in Clinton’s favor?

Just goes to show how much I know about politics!  But I’m surely not alone here, and lumped in with people who make a living at this shit but were just as clueless as everyone else.  (I’m not sure why it doesn’t occur to media organizations to fire columnists and poll organizers after something like this?)

The really odd thing happened on the trip back on Sunday.  As we were passing through Lehighton, PA I heard that horrible flopping/thumping sound of what had to be a flat tire, could smell the rubber burning.  I could tell by the look on the bus driver’s face that this was very bad news.  You don’t just pull out a jack and unscrew the bolts on a bus tire: a repair truck is involved with heavy equipment.  We pulled over by the side of road just outside of town while he called the company mechanic back in Williamsport (two hours away), who seemed to have a database of available garages along the bus route, the concept being get out the phone and see who’s working on a Sunday and can make the repair call.

Easier said than done.  Think about it.  How many garages do you see open on a Sunday?  Not many, if any, anywhere.  Surely not in rural Pennsylvania.  I guess the trick would be to find a garage where the owner essentially lives there, apartment upstairs, garage down, who might pick up the phone on a Sunday.

The company mechanic immediately found someone in Hazleton, the next town over, who could be there within the hour.  Great news!

An hour passes.  Hour and a half.  Two hours.  The bus driver’s phone rings: the repair truck broke down on the way there and had to be towed back to the garage.  The cavalry wasn’t coming.  At this point in our trip, we’d normally be nearing Newark, NJ, closing in on New York.  Not stuck by the side of the road in Lehighton.  More calls made: a mechanic who works for the company garage in Shamokin, PA (just over an hour away) will drive out and fix the flat.

This happened eventually, nigh on four hours by the side of the road … one of those heavily-trafficked rural/suburban roads leading up to an interstate, “Trump Digs Coal” signs all over the place, a few hundred feet from a forlorn strip mall, and the beat-up diner down the road that used to be the bus stop back in the late 1980’s (but apparently booted out the bus company, I’d wager because of the number of off-white customers who routinely wandered in from the bus).  It’s a crappy feeling to be stranded like that for an obnoxiously long period of time on a Sunday, the only saving grace, it wasn’t raining.

What made it worse was one passenger in particular: a white guy we picked up in Jim Thorpe, PA.  I’d say “young” white guy but his hair was greying.  Sprightly, trim, bespectacled, well-dressed … the kind of NYC tourist who routinely gets off and on at Jim Thorpe, which has all the rustic northeast Pennsylvania charm that its neighboring town Lehighton sorely lacks.  Nobody white water rafts in Lehighton like they do in Jim Thorpe: they just buy cartons of generic cigarettes at the Turkey Hill.

The bus, as always, was an interesting racial mix: white, black, Indian, Hispanic, Asian, and there weren’t that many this Sunday, about 12.  We were all stewing, some of the women asking the driver those pointed “you don’t know what you’re doing, do you” type questions, but the driver simply was following orders and waiting like the rest of us, keeping a cool head.  I think they expected him to pull out a jack and fix it himself, but it doesn’t work that way with large, dual-tired vehicles like this.

We were all stewing, but the white guy who got on at Jim Thorpe was losing his shit.  First he called the bus company and was lighting into the poor sap who picked up the phone with a patented “I’m smarter than you’ll ever be, but regardless of this, I want you to give me direct answers to all these unanswerable questions” speech.  It was an impotent person bitching his ass off to, I don’t know, assuage some inner desire to humiliate another human being in an impossible situation?  It was childish, garish, rude, selfish the kind of thing a prick does … the kind of thing I see routinely living in New York City!

He got nowhere with the underling on the phone who, on a Sunday, was the only person in the office.  This dude seemed to think he was dealing with Greyhound: it’s a small, privately-owned Pennsylvania bus company that runs charters, school buses and, gratefully, these two bus lines going into New York and Philadelphia daily.

After hanging up, he bolts out of the bus to harangue the driver, who’s smoking a cigarette by the side of road with a hangdog look on his face.  I know the driver – he’s a great guy who’s been doing the NYC run the past few years, very friendly, approachable, likes to talk with the passengers.  Well, the Jim Thorpe guy starts laying into him, I’m hearing the word “fuck” and “assholes” being bandied about, which is really bad form with someone you don’t know.  Did I mention the driver is about 6’ 3” and surely weighs more than 250 lbs.?

The driver remained calm while the spoiled brat huffed down the road to the diner to cool off.  I went out and asked him how it went: “Do you know how badly I wanted to kick that guy’s ass?”  Actually, I did.  The thought crossed my mind while he was verbally pissing his diapers on the bus.  But that would be just what I needed: get arrested for assault on a Sunday in rural Pennsylvania after my bus breaks down.  It just wasn’t worth it.  And you don’t lecture people like this: they don’t listen.  As noted, I couldn’t tell how old this guy was.  He looked to be in his 20s but had greying hair, so I’d guess somewhere in his 30’s with boyish looks.  The kind of person who imparts how “important” he is while subtly communicating how “less important” everyone else is.  He looked like he would start crying if either of us punched him.

Just then, the mechanic pulled up in his repair truck.  Window rolls down.  Massive brown streak of tobacco juice squirts down the side of the truck.  This guy was a hillbilly: no other word fits.  Large, hairy, homely, bearded, massive beer belly, pants that slipped below his waist and must have been held up only by his penis, ass crack showing even while standing straight up. In short, one from the “basket of deplorables”: a Trump supporter!

And he knew his job.  We watched him do his thing with his pneumatic impact wrench and arm-length tongs, yanking off the scaly, broken tire, like a snake’s second skin, and pulling the spare out from the compartment under the front of the bus.  It wasn’t a hard process, but you needed the right tools, and not the kind you can store on a bus.  He was good at it, too, could obviously change every tire on the bus in under half an hour if he had to.

Meanwhile, the Jim Thorpe terror ambled back to the bus, seemingly calmed down from his previous tantrums.  He didn’t apologize to the driver, but stood and watched the mechanic do his work.  I knew there was no way on earth he’d cock off to this grumbling, irritable bear of a man.  The guy worked for himself, didn’t answer to anybody and even without that sense of freedom, looked like he might derive great pleasure from laying a monkey wrench upside the head of “city boys” like us.

We got rolling again in a matter of minutes, the driver slipping the mechanic’s invoice into his shirt pocket, the mechanic giving us a weird, gap-toothed grin before gobbing out one last blob of tobacco juice and peeling out in a cloud of gravel.  The driver got us to Easton, where he had to stop due to daily drive time limitations.  We were granted access to take the NYC bus for a larger, Allentown-centric bus company, which was eye opening.  Nearly every seat was taken, and the passengers were mostly white, very urbane, much more so than our rickety coalition of wandering rednecks and black/Hispanic/Asian folk with relatives in the woods of Pennsylvania.  They didn’t have much luggage either which told me it was more "upscale southern PA folks transplanted to NYC" crowd, pulling short weekend jaunts back home.  I felt like the homely kid visiting friends at the country club … and Mom just pulled up in her shitty used station wagon.

In retrospect, it feels like something played out along that bustling two-lane blacktop in Lehighton.  An omen, if you will.  Wouldn’t even know if that mechanic voted, and for all I know the twerp on the bus voted for Trump.  But even at the time, it felt like something more was going on there.