The man who keeps Henry Miller alive
Photo courtesy of the Henry Miller Library / www.henrymiller.org
Reading him draws inspiration in the sense that you, as a reader, can live your own life, express your individuality. You don't have to follow convention. Life is great!
What does it say about literature when so much of what we read is crap? You look at what we have today in cinema, television, the drugs we take, and it seems the true spirituality of art, the wisdom, is lost.
Rogue of the month
The man who keeps Henry Miller alive
By Dell Franklin
Why do people love the writer, Henry Miller?
“His writing has a sense of freedom,” says Magnus Torén, curator (or executive director) of the Henry Miller Library off Highway 1 in the heart of Big Sur. “He was not bound by style, fashion, Or political correctness. Reading him draws inspiration in the sense that you, as a reader, can live your own life, express your individuality. You don't have to follow convention. Life is great! Do not ever take eating, drinking and fucking for granted.”
Magnus finds himself immersed in a culture that would be the envy of anyone whose passion is literature and nature, and a serenity drawn from the beauty and grandeur of an area that is visited by thousands of people yearly from all over the world.
“There was no plan that I end up here,” says Magnus, a tall, lanky Swedish man, as we sit near the stage in the fenced-in glade just off the Highway 1 where jam sessions occur every Wednesday night.
“I was sailing around the world, and I tied up here. I knew I would never end up in a big city, because I sailed. There was a romantic aspect to my search. I liked being out on the ocean, thousands of miles from land.”
Magnus ended up staying in Big Sur, where he is now a recognized figure from Ragged Point to Monterey, because he suffered a terrible motorcycle accident on Highway 1, not far from where we sit. It just happened that the woman who stopped and “scraped me off the asphalt,” as Magnus puts it, was the woman who not only performed first aid, got him to a hospital, nursed him back to health, and literally saved his life, but became his wife. This was 1984.
“How did you end up running the Henry Miller Library?”
“That was by chance, too. People would like to think I am a literary scholar and professor,” he says in perfect English, with just a tinge of his Swedish origin. “But actually I am just a person who reads a lot, and of course I knew of Henry Miller, I live up on Partington Ridge where he lived and wrote about Big Sur. When the opportunity came to run the library, I read all of Miller, and of course I love his writing. He represents so much of what I believe about life, and how it should be lived. At least from my perspective.”
“When did you take over the library?”
“1994. The place was a bit neglected. The previous curator was a wonderful writer, but he was not enough of a businessman in the sense that he was so in love with literature and the idea of literature that he ended up giving books away. This was the attitude of Big Sur, anyway. People tended to pass things around and share, rather than hold onto things. We in Big Sur look at ourselves as visitors.”
“What did you do for ten years before taking on the library?”
“I waited tables at Ventana, and did maintenance there, too, and later I worked at the Post Ranch. And my wife and I had a sewing business.”
“What is it like working here, if one can call it work?”
“I feel I am truly blessed. I speak French, Swedish and English and since many of the people who visit here are European and from other parts of the world, I have a wonderful personal life, or I should say a social life, right here. Besides the locals coming around for coffee, I have people to talk to every day. It is interesting these people loving literature and Henry Miller, and travel…a small percentage of people who come here are specifically on a pilgrimage. They actually kiss the ground, because Henry Miller has made such a huge difference in their lives. We even have interns, from Smith College back East, who live in tents on the grounds and study Mr. Miller.”
“What makes Henry Miller so special and such an inspiration? He seems to have a profoundly spiritual effect on his readers, and on other writers.”
“I believe it is his philosophy of life as he incorporated it into his writing. His writing was really without shape, or plot, or contrivances, or devices.”
“Is there anybody around today like him?”
“Are there any writers around today who inspire you?"
“What is it with Miller?”
“Well, you have to realize what time he wrote—the 1930s. He could not get published in this country because they felt he was pornographic. To me, he was not pornographic, as he was honest, and not afraid to break boundaries. Here he was, in the middle of the Depression, without a penny to his name, having to live off his friends and sleep on their floors and couches…he was this destitute, struggling man, and yet he wrote some of his finest literature, and he was the happiest man alive. Do we have anybody like him around today, celebrating life and art without a pot to piss in?”
“He returned to travel through America in 1939 after 10 years abroad and wrote of the joyless emptiness of materialism (The Air Conditioned Nightmare). He was sickened by it. Would he be sickened by what is going on today?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What would he think of what is being published today?”
“Speaking for myself, and understanding Miller, he would be disappointed. When you look at the catalogs of books that are available today, eighty percent are of some kind of New Age spiritual guidance and self help. The New Age stuff is overwhelming nonsense for the moss-brained. It breeds this increasing narcissism and self-absorption.
Now, Henry Miller might have had these traits, but he had a wonderful tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about himself, and much of his writing is hilarious. Being a writer, an artist, he was open and honest about himself. But what does it say about literature when so much of what we read is crap? You look at what we have today in cinema, television, the drugs we take, and it seems the true spirituality of art, the wisdom, is lost. Nothing I see written today is ‘current.’ Ezra Pound said, ‘Literature is news that stays news.’ That is why this library is stocked with authors that Mr. Miller read and was inspired by. He would have wanted his shrine to provide writers like we have here—Proust, Strindberg, Knute Hamsun, Dostoevski, Emerson, Thoreau…the classics, who remain current. Everything they wrote is timely today. If more people read them, instead of junk, we might have a better idea of how to deal with things.”
“How much money did those guys make from their writings, and how many talk shows and book tours did they go on?”
“Look, I think, today we shy away from good literature. Maybe it is too painful. People want to read HOW-TO books. How to lose weight. How to invest and make a million dollars. What pills to take to prolong your life. How to keep your body and face preserved. How to fuck. It goes on and on.”
“In the face of all this, how does this library stay alive?”
“Donations. We are a nonprofit. We do rent out to events, like weddings, or private parties, but only twelve times a year. We are already booked up. We want no more than that. We get donations from the NEA, and various organizations, and from people who love Henry Miller and want this place to survive.”
“It’s a golden day here. There is nothing like it.”
“Yes. Big Sur has hardly changed physically. Well, perhaps a bit incrementally.”
“You mean the building?”
“Yes, like most places with a coastline and a spectacular view, the old homes are going down, and wealthy people build mansions. Fortunately, most of them are hidden from the highway.”
“In your twenty-three years here, has this place changed as far as the attitude of the locals?”
“The will to embrace the notion that Big Sur symbolizes tran-quility is still here, along with the illusion we have retained freedom of a wild and rural character. But we have lost a lot of our inter-esting and eccentric characters who were here when I first arrived. There is a history of these characters, and Miller wrote of them during his stay on Partington Ridge. But because the prices of homes and rentals have grown so high, people are driven out. The business people here should think about building quarters for employees who live here and want to live here because they love the isolation. What is vanishing is the old philosophy of the Beatnik culture—live simply.”
“It seems like the same story everywhere you go.”
“Yes, there is a feeling of increasing frustration. I feel, the way things are going, that the only way to express our feelings about these things, and other problems, is through politics and art. Let’s hope it stays that way.”
“What is your favorite book by Henry Miller?”
“The Colossus of Maroussi.”
“I feel it is his most balanced work, it has a sentimentality and a religious quality.”
Henry Miller religious? Perhaps his religion was a devotion to spontaneity and to his senses, his taste and appetite for women, his appreciation of the foibles and follies of fellow humans, and his child-like gusto for being alive. Not to mention his delving into the human soul and psyche, which enabled him to achieve the purity and beauty and depth to eventually place him on book shelves alongside the finest writers our world has known and from whom he drew the essence of being.
As we do, too.§
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Vocie. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
HENRY’S COLLECTION The Henry Miller library in Big
Sur survives on donations from the NEA, and various organizations, and from people who love Henry Miller and want the place to survive.
Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here:
Mandy DavisCasimir PulaskiJim RuddellSteve TrossLori Lynn MeltonLong John GallagherBilly HalesIlan Funke-Bilu HalesBig Lou
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Cabby's Corner: Fast times with Grace Ivey
Photo illustration by Stacey Warde
She reminds me of a polly Puritan I was in love with in high school, a predicament that provoked self-loathing in me at the time.
Her face, though wintry, has fine features, and her grey eyes sparkle when her commentary or mine becomes barbed.
CABBY’S CORNER, 1987-1989
Fast times with Grace Ivey
By Dell Franklin
At exactly 3:45 in the afternoon of a Friday I am to pick up Grace Ivey just as I do every Friday, and I do my damndest to be on time, because Grace is a stickler. Grace is also a bookkeeper, and on Fridays I drive her to a department store in the big mall off the freeway where she does their books. Every cab driver has “regulars,” who prefer a certain cab driver. Old Sam Sanchez has several elderly ladies he takes to the bank or market, and a drunk he transports after a morning of boozing in McCarthy’s. If Sam cannot make it, or is off, this drunk requests me. Otherwise, Grace is my only regular.
Grace considers a ride with any of the other daytime drivers—Harley, Cal, Lyle, Nate, and Greg—as akin to eating lye. Grace is a mid-fifties divorcee who wears those old black clunky low-platform heels, thick flesh-colored hose, ankle-length dark dresses and ruffled white shirts buttoned at the throat. In cool weather she wears a top coat. Her hair is blue-grey and short but wavy and she wears rimless glasses. Her face, though wintry, has fine features, and her grey eyes sparkle when her commentary or mine becomes barbed. Her body is solid and must have been something in her day, and I wonder if she knew it.
She reminds me of a polly Puritan I was in love with in high school, a predicament that provoked self-loathing in me at the time.
I make it on time—exactly at 3:45—and feel good about pleasing Grace, who always nods understandingly when I’m late and blame it on the dispatcher. I never honk the horn, which would be rude, because Grace always lurks behind the solid white door and comes out the moment I pull up, turning to lock the door, then walking over the green astroturf rug that runs along the entire veranda of the 1930s white, woodframe home. There are little blue flower boxes at the blue shuttered windows, and one trusty rocking chair on the veranda. Thick curtains obscure any glimpse of the interior. The grassless yard is comprised of evenly graded pebbles and some evenly spaced cacti and succulents. Nothing is out of place. Nothing ever changes.
Grace comes through the low, white picket fence gate and I am instantly out of the cab like a millionaire’s flunky chauffeur to open the rear door for Grace to step in, who niftily tucks the front of her skirt and situates herself while I softly close the door and scurry to get back behind the wheel.
“Well, how are you doing this afternoon, Dell?” Grace asks.
“Hectic as always, on Fridays, Grace, but I’m bearing up. How’s it going with you?”
“Oh, about the same. I’m keeping busy.”
“I’m glad, Grace. The Lord wants no idle hands in his realm.”
She chuckles, places her hands primly on her knees. Grace and I usually have pretty much the same conversation, unless I have a humorous, passably risque story for her. Grace has long since told me about her ex husband—a high school sweetheart who by turns tended bar, drove a cab, painted houses, dug postholes, pounded nails, flirted with various other jobs and avocations, almost always quitting or getting axed, always late with alimony and child support, until there was no alimony and child support, so that she raised her son alone. The husband, a sometimes employed drifter drunk, still resided somewhere in Arroyo Grande—12 miles away—and supposedly drank in a bar called Ralph & Duane’s. The son is married with family and is an insurance adjuster in Seattle. “I’m still looking for a looking for a bar job, Grace,” I say, taking the usual route through sluggish Friday afternoon traffic.
“Well, I certainly don’t see why you’re not hired. You have the personality and the experience, God knows. I would hire you if I owned a bar, ha ha. Of course, I don’t go to bars.”
“I’ve been trying for over a year now, Grace. I worked in clubs for seventeen years down south, have excellent references, but they don’t want people from down south. They want local pretty boys, half my age, or young girls with big breasts for bartenders these days, not guys like me, with funny stories and an attitude.”
“Well, as much as I’d like to see you get the job you covet, and deserve, I would miss not having you as my cab driver on Fridays.”
“Yeah, but you survived before I came along, didn’t you, Grace?”
“Sam Sanchez took me for years, and I have no complaint. He is courteous and prompt, and his cab is immaculate, but there is something about him lately I’m not quite right with. I always get the feeling that he mocks me.”
“Sam wouldn’t do that. He likes and respects you.”
“Well, he’s changed his hours, you know, and likes to get off early, around three, so there’s no use worrying about it.”
As I negotiate the short, one-and-a-half mile ride, I say: “Well, there’s always Lyle. He’s not a bad guy.”
“The man never says a word. Never opens the door for me. He’s a writer? A screenwriter? Where does he get his material if he doesn’t talk to people?”
“He doesn’t talk to any of us, either. Very secretive.”
“Well, I don’t see how in the world he ever sells a screenplay,” she huffs.
“In any case, if I do manage to get hired, there’s always Nate.”
“Oh my God,” she grouses. “The man is so…full of it. I honestly wish HE would be quiet and secretive, like Lyle, instead of yapping. A real know-it-all. And he claims to be some kind of comedian?”
“From time to time he is booked at the local comedy club.”
“Well, they must be pretty hard up for laughs around here,” Grace chirps. “Unless there’s a demand for boring, off-color jokes.”
“Well, there’s always Harley Hunter. He’s an excellent cab pilot,”
“Cab pilot? Huh! Please, Dell, do not get me started on Harley! The man is forty-five years old and still lives with his mother! I already know his life story and his political beliefs, and I’ve had it up to here with his complaints about his step-father…”
“The retireee who listens to Rush Limbaugh all day and won’t trim the lawn, makes Harley do everything after a day’s work.”
“Oh, of course. Good God, why doesn’t he just move out?”
“You’ll have to ask Harley that question, Grace.”
“Harrumph! You ask him a question and he’ll never shut up…he talks more than that damn Nate…”
“Well, there’s always Cal. A very good driver.”
“Now that man, you know, he was the most evil drunk in San Luis Obispo before he got saved and quit drinking. There’s not a person in town who didn’t hate him, including his ex wives, whom he beat. And now, oh my God, so self-righteous, and he knows I know him, and we don’t talk. I just do not want to be in the same cab with him, Dell.”
“Well, I feel that Greg the golfer is harmless.”
“He’s tolerable, but he refuses to pick me up. Why, I don’t know.”
”Sam says all golfers are cheap. Greg’s on the satellite tour. Sam says all golfers are cheats. Greg won’t even buy a donut. We’ll offer to buy him a donut and coffee at Sunshine Donuts in the morning, but he won’t eat donuts, he’s a vegetarian, and I guess he feels that if we buy him a coffee he’ll have to reciprocate. So Sam always buys him coffee, just to make him miserable, because he knows Greg feels guilty about not reciprocating. But the poor guy, he’s so pathologically cheap he can’t bring himself to buy you a fifty-cent coffee, even if you buy HIM one every day of the week.”
Grace nods knowingly as I check her out in the rearview mirror, just as we pull into the mall. “I knew there was something wrong with that man the moment I sat down in his cab the first time. I can’t stand a cheap man. I will say one thing about my ex-husband—deadbeat that he is, when he had it he spent it, and the poor thing, he is anything but a cheat. Just a hopeless case.”
I pull up to the crystal-clear glass doors of a national chain department store, jump out and open the door for Grace, who totes her huge handbag with books and such. She always comes prepared with exact change—a five, a single, and a quarter for a $5.50 ride. I hear she tips the other cabbies 50 cents. I get the extra quarter, of course, because I’m special, and possibly for entertainment value. Yes, if I’m no good for women, at the very least I’m always amusing, I think.
“I’ll see you at six o’clock, Dell, thank you for the ride. I always enjoy it.”
I start my shift at 7 in the morning and am supposed to get off at 5 p.m., but since Grace wants me to return for her at 6, and has no more use for the early swingshift drivers than she does the day drivers, I hang around to oblige her, even though I’d rather get the hell out of town and return to Cayucos to drink with the Happy Hour crowd, bluecollar boys who like to hear the latest cab stories while we drink beers and shots.
About a year or so back, I informed Grace quite casually that I had not turned in my income tax in seven years. She was appalled and almost troubled. I told her that I felt I had some money coming, so Grace offered to do my taxes. I brought her a sheaf of pay vouchers and income tax forms, some of them faded and wrinkled, and the following week when I picked her up she handed me a neatly compiled form to send to the IRS, informing me I had over a thousand dollars coming. I was thrilled! When my money finally came, Grace did not wish me to pay her for her services, but when I insisted she told me "”to give me what you can afford.” I gave her a crackling fresh hundred dollar bill, and she was thrilled!
While the early swing shift drivers tool around with fares, I take it easy and get to the supermarket early for Grace, hoping she is not way-laid by a slow checker or long lines in the market. She is usually punctual and waiting beside her shoppig cart in front when I pull up. I get there at 5:45. If I can hustle her home early, get to the compound and log in and rush home, I can make the last fifteen minutes of Happy Hour.
I sit and wait, I get out and peek in the supermarket. It is jam-packed, and standing at the end of a long line next to her shopping cart is Grace. She is not happy with this. I suppose she has better things to do at home than waiting in line. She once, when late, complained of a slow checker whom she could not believe still held a job. We discussed how it was almost impossible to fire people these days.
Finally, at 6:10, Grace emerges, and I am out of my cab, opening the trunk, wedging the cart against the bumper of the car while Grace hovers near.
“Now be careful with the eggs, Dell,” she says looking worried.
I have picked Grace on this identical trip almost every Friday for about a year and a half, save a time or two, and not once has she failed to remind me to be careful with the eggs. A cracked egg discovered later on in her kitchen might be traumatic, so I am always very careful, making sure to gently place the eggs in the trunk, realizing Grace does not take me for a stupid person who cannot remember to be gentle with her eggs after having been told so after seventy some trips, but that it is her nature to be extra careful, and that she is certainly a habitual person who is obsessed with “making sure.”
On the drive home, in heavy traffic, Grace realizes I am tense and in a hurry to get her home and frustrated by pokey drivers and long lines of cars bottled up behind street lights. Grace herself, of course, wants to get home, too, I know, for there are many things she doubtless has to do, things I wouldn’t be caught dead doing.
When I finally pull up in front of her house, jump out, first to open her door, then to open the trunk and quickly carry her few bags to place on the seat of the rocking chair.
“Now be careful with those eggs, Dell,” Grace warns, fretting.
“Your eggs are in good hands,” I say, as I carry the bag containing her eggs up to the porch. “The other night I woke up in a cold sweat, Grace, around three in the norning. I have this recurring nightmare—somehow, again, I dropped all your eggs and every one cracked, and there was yolk everywhere, on the ground, on your shoes, on my shoes, in the trunk, on my pants…”
Grace’s wintry face spreads into a web of smile lines and her eyes twinkle. “God,” she murmurs. “It’s frightening. You remind me so much of my ex husband. But I know you’re really not like him, at all.” §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Read more of the Cabby's corner series, here:
Ode to Tobias WolffSisters from South CentralA soldier's storyFirst fare (hair of the dog)The good lawyerMr. HeadphonesLittle Miss SunshineA rainy New Year's Eve in the 'A' cabThe mayoral candidateOld blind LizzieCheerleaderA real winnerThe culture war
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Balancing with wind
The wind shifts. The kite taunts the power line just above us, touches the wire and jerks away, touches the wire and jerks away, getting closer…
Suddenly all of the kites I lost to trees or wind rise up from their forgotten graves and mesh with this moment. He’s going to remember this day for the rest of his life.Photo "Kite Flying" by Brad Knapp www.bradknapp.comBalancing with wind
Learning how to lift up,
let go and fly a kiteBy Amber Hudson“A kite in the sky is a smile of the wind.”
—Unknown Tao Master
Friday, April 27
While waiting for Sage in the passenger-loading crescent curb of the Del Mar Elementary parking lot, I notice several of the other children flying white kites with personalized marker pen designs as they walk to their parents’ cars. It’s kite festival day. I’m so glad I talked Sage into going to school when he thought maybe he was too sick to make it through the day—feigning sneezes and begging me to stay home from work with him; I knew it had to be a case of I-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed-just-yet-itis. And there’s my little second-grader now, flying his own kite—beaming a camera-ready smile as he sees me noticing him. Three mommies give him compliments on his “beautiful kite,” all in succession. Now I share in his radiance. That’s my baby who made that special kite.
Three boys and four girls waiting for their parents to arrive stand on the lawn beneath the flagpole, all eyes and hands tethered to their newly-designed kites swaying over the parking lot, as I coax Sage to wind down his kite. The boys’ kites look like they were in a contest to see who could draw their design the fastest, and from the looks of it, it was a three-way tie. The girls’ kites oppose the boys’ minimalist scrawl in every way; not a hint of white shows in their elaborate designs of blue sky with rainbows and smiling faces.
“Did you see my kite I made, mommy?” Sage tosses in the kite through the passenger-side window, laying it flat over a pile of textbooks I’ve amassed on the car seat, so I can see it better.
“Yes, I did, Sage. And I love your design, too.”
I go inside the house to make a smoothie, but Sage frantically shouts “MOMMY, COME HELP ME!” from the front lawn. Naturally, I run outside, thinking the kite is caught in a tree. I find him standing over a tattered ball of tangled twine.
“It got knotted,” he says sadly. “Can you fix it, mommy?”
It doesn’t look good. The tangled layers of string await me, and I can’t help but wonder how it got this bad so fast.
“How did this happen? You were just flying your kite two minutes ago!”
“I know, but then I let out a lot of string, and the wind went away, and the kite fell down and…I don’t know! It just happened.” He looks to me, flustered, like he wants to cry or feel hopeful, depending upon my answer to his resounding question: “Can you fix it, mommy?”
“I’ll try my best,” I say with the minimum muster of hope it will take to reverse the woven entropy, “but I may have to cut the string.”
“NO!” He wails defiantly.
We sit on the lawn together as I carefully loosen the knots in the string. Sage holds the red plastic spinner by the handles, winding it slowly as I work my mommy magic. I get a good look at his design now. There’s a large black X—symmetrical, yet convoluted—centered on it, dividing the kite into four sections. Sage tells me that the top and bottom sections have orange suns, the side sections each have pink and yellow stars. I tell him it’s a beautiful kite with an original design, and launch into a knee-jerk lecture on the importance of not tangling string, and avoiding the trees and power lines by staying in the front yard until we take it to the beach later on. He listens tacitly, just happy that my hands work detangling miracles.
Sage sounds the distress call again. I managed to get all of the string untangled, and now he’s managed to get it caught in the eucalyptus tree in our neighbor’s backyard. It’s nestled snugly in the branches as Stacey, my boyfriend, gingerly tugs at the string from the back porch; he shimmies it off the branch after a few minutes of sweating while Sage watches intently.
I’ve made a smoothie, and bring it outside to share. I find Sage across the street in the back of Stacey’s brown Toyota pick-up truck, Stacey standing beside the truck talking with him about kite flying. I hand each of them a smoothie, and discover Sage tethered to the kite string. The kite is now poised for imminent disaster between power lines on both sides of the street.
“This is not a good place to fly your kite, Sage. You should get it down,” I say.
“I told him that already, but he won’t listen. What did I tell you, Sage?”
Sage slurps smoothie through a straw and mutters without looking away from his kite, “I know. I know.”
“Power lines are death to kites, Sage. That’s what I said. And if you were listening, you would be reeling it in right now,” Stacey says, crossing the street back toward the house.
The wind shifts. The kite taunts the power line just above us, touches the wire and jerks away, touches the wire and jerks away, getting closer to locking on each time. I grab the line, pull it away from the wire, and command Sage to reel it in. He nervously gropes to wind the string. Thinking the kite is almost out of danger, dancing in the wind just below the power line, I let the string go, and it promptly wraps around the wire once, twice, seven times before it stops and looms over our heads.
“Say goodbye to your kite, Sage,” Stacey says from across the street. “I warned you that was going to happen.”
Sage pulls weakly at the string, and I tell him to let it go. “We can’t pull the kite down. It’s not like getting it stuck in a tree. It’s gone, Sage. We can’t get it down now. I have to get the scissors.”
I dread this moment: searching for the scissors while imagining him sitting out there in the truckbed staring at his beloved kite and praying for mommy miracles. I have no solution for this. I want to rewind time and keep my hand on that string a little bit longer, for us to wipe our brows and say whew, that was a close one. But not this.
Suddenly all of the kites I lost to trees or wind rise up from their forgotten graves and mesh with this moment. He’s going to remember this day for the rest of his life. What will he remember?
Sage sits beside the neighbor’s mailbox, directly across from the twisted kite on the wire. Tears well in his hazel-brown eyes. I sit beside him, attempt to embrace him. He’ll have none of it.
“Can’t we just call the power company, and they could come and get it down for us?”
“I already told you that they can’t get your kite down. It’s too dangerous. Like those shoes on the power line in front of the grocery store, remember? They’re not going anywhere and neither is your kite.” I want to come up with a better answer than this. Something profound. “Maybe god thought your kite was so beautiful that he turned it into a flag.”
Upon hearing these words, he turns to me and grimaces hard before running into the house to keep vigil from his bedroom window.
Calmer now that our neighbor John has assured him that his kite just might detangle itself over time, Sage confidently tells me that the rain will bring down his kite. “The rain will break the string, and the kite will be free,” he says.
Because I know I cannot rewind time to salvage his kite, I search online for a suitable kite kit to buy, and Sage launches into a song about how much he loves me as he thrusts his arms around me, and kisses me with emphatic smoochie sounds on my cheek.
I purchase a kite kit that looks just like the one he made at school, a Frustration-less Flyer, which comes in a pack of twenty. I always wanted to give Sage a themed birthday party just like the other mommies with more time on their hands. Why not a kite-making party? I tell him my plan to let him make a few of the kites and to save the rest for his 9th birthday party next year. He’s thrilled with the idea, but continues to insist that his lost kite will return to him.
Saturday, April 28
After planting sunflowers most of the day with Sage, occasionally glancing up at the twirling kite on the wire across the street, we drive to Ace Hardware for some supplies at the end of the day. As we’re checking out, the cashier at asks us if we went to the parade. What parade? Apparently the kite festival wasn’t just at Sage’s school. It’s all over Morro Bay, and there was a parade this morning, and a festival down on the beach next to Morro Rock all this weekend.
Sage looks to me longingly with the feigned expression of a perfect little angel. “Don’t worry, kiddo. We’re going tomorrow.”
Sunday, April 29
Sage roams the beach in gape-jawed amazement. We find ourselves repeating, “Look at that one!” The expert flyers launch gigantic wonders mounted to the shore, and I realize that this is the beginning of an obsession for Sage and for me.
There is something about seeing a kite floating in the air that brings me back to the giddying and simple sensations of youth, like the feelings of lightness I receive when I vicariously absorb my child’s joy and wonder with the world.
Wednesday, May 2
Last night I dreamt I walked outside and saw Sage’s kite, still clinging to the power line, tethered on each side. On the right, the kite was connected to an array of unfortunate shoes which one might see from time to time weathering away on power lines. The shoes dangled down from the wire, tugging on the kite, trying to pull it back down to earth. On the left side, the kite was linked to a bunch of colorful balloons soaring above the wire and tugging the kite towards the sky.
Monday, May 7
The fact that kites defy gravity by harnessing the power of the wind amazes me. I stopped flying kites when I was 10 years old, and didn’t take up kite flying again until I had Sage. He received a durable, high-tech box kite for his birthday a few years ago; sometimes we take it out to the beach on windy days. I’ve wondered how long families have engaged in this frivolous ritual. According to The Creative Book of Kites by Sarah Kent, kites have been around for more than 2,500 years, and their exact origin is debatable; The Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese all flew kites about 500 years before Jesus made the calendar shift direction. Long before power grids were erected, kites soared in the sky.
If kites can harness the wind to fly, might it be possible to use them to generate wind power? I was asking myself hypothetically, but my answer came on the front page of this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle; scientists are indeed seeking funding for experiments in generating wind power from kites they plan to launch six miles up, into the jet stream, where winds reach speeds of up to 310 mph. In the article, atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira said, “My calculations show that if we could just tap into one percent of the energy in high-altitude winds, it would be enough to power all civilization.”
The twenty-pack of Frustrationless Flyers I ordered arrived in the mail today, but Sage already stopped asking when they would arrive. It rained all day on Friday, and, just like he said it would, the kite came loose from the wire; it came back down to earth the very next day. And though he had kept his diligent vigil for a whole week, watching as the kite nearly unraveled from and then wrapped around the wire several times each day, he didn’t even notice that it was missing from its perch on Saturday morning. As I pointed this out, we bounded across the street to search for the kite that became a flag that became an obsession in the dry grass beneath its former place on the power line.
Kites defy gravity, and may one day, after ample funding and research, harness enough energy to sustain the world. Until then, we can feel the power of the wind in our hands. No wonder Sage and I feel so light when tethered to something so powerful. §
Amber Hudson is a Cal Poly student and an editorial associate at The Rogue Voice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Washing windows across America: On the Riverwalk
I find the need for work a sick fault in the human animal, where he doesn’t feel whole unless he’s busting his ass.
Maybe San Antonio wasn’t your typical big city, but it had the smell of one. You could smell the generations of great drunks who’d stopped to mark the concrete along the way.
Photo illustration by Stacey WardeOn the Riverwalk:
By Ben Leroux
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
I wouldn’t really advise anyone to live like I do. It’s not for everyone and there are few certainties to cling to, and sometimes your only friend is your own humility.
But were someone foolish enough to attempt it, I might be able to give them a couple pointers. I would tell them, for instance, that when entering an unfamiliar major city low on gas and funds, not to be a hero by going down strange boulevards in search of things like lodging, as one wrong turn could spell disaster. I would instead advise them to take the first freeway exit seen, chug into a convenience store or fast-food parking lot, kill the engine, and wait. You’re not late for any board meeting or flight departure or tee-time or check-in time, so just as if you were lost in the wilderness, stay put and evaluate your resources. Something will come to you.
It only takes a half-hour at a San Antonio 7-11 before my resources pull up in a sporty silver SUV. Two casually dressed black men of middle age get out and pump gas and nervously watch me approach. I could have gone to the two women behind the counter, but this is another thing you learn. It is rarely advisable to ask women for directions, especially when you are looking for the part of town where they keep the “lower end” motels. These well-meaning women will send you and your last ounce of gas out to a cluster of elegant Best Westerns, Econolodges, and Motel 6s. Way out of your league.
The two men know right away what I’m after and point up the freeway. “You want the Old Austin Highway,” they say, and look at me enviously. Men drive by these motels all the time fantasizing about laying low there for a while, hiding from responsibilities or going on a two-week sex and alcohol binge with some floozy. These perfectly good motels are normally located in a once-vibrant, but now fallow part of the city and are sometimes referred to as fleabags or flophouses, but are rarely either. They have character and history and brassy names like the Palomino or the Goldenrod or the Thunderbird. They are usually somewhat rundown, and empty except for three or four long-term residents and the live-in Hindu family running the place.
The men’s directions prove to be lean, logical, and linear, and posit me at a motel called the Sandman, near a gas station and mini-mart—all the urban survivalist needs for a weekend of luxury. In front of the Sandman is an empty swimming pool, rusting swings and toy horsies, and on the porches of a couple rooms are potted plants and lawn chairs and preening cats. The clincher is the pungent spice of the Far East coming from the family kitchen behind the office. It’s a mild October afternoon in San Antonio and I haven’t had a shower or slept in a bed for over a month.
After a shower I flip through the channels and catch part of a football game and some news. Ahead were two nights of no Wal-Mart, public restrooms, or the police.
I try to enjoy the privacy and cleanliness but the quiet makes me restless. So I go out and walk the Old Austin Highway. I look at windows. The dirty ones reassure me. I come back to the room and sit and stare at the blank TV and wonder if living in the wild has gotten into my blood and if I’ll ever be able to live under a roof again. I point the remote at the TV but don’t turn it on. There’s nothing to see. There’s a pile of books at my feet–about half as many as I left California with. I leave them in towns along the way–on a park bench, in a library, or in some motel room like this. I guess I’m getting some reading done. I hit a few chords on the guitar. It doesn’t sound like much.
Monday morning before checkout, I put on the only clean shirt I have left–a nice brown sweater from better days. It’s a cool morning so I should be OK. My plan is to leave the Plymouth at the Sandman, work my way up the Old Austin Highway on foot, away from downtown, circle back, then before it gets hot, drive downtown and enjoy a couple beers on the famous Riverwalk.
I come across an old uncovered mall early, and get a daycare center and an alarm systems company. I feel better once I start washing windows. It is out of character for me. I find the need for work a sick fault in the human animal, where he doesn’t feel whole unless he’s busting his ass. It gets imprinted early and irreversibly so that throughout his lifetime the beast needs more work piled on. He can’t go too long without it.
The main foot traffic of the mall comes from a state workforce agency that young black men and women file glumly into. The windows of the agency are dirty as most government windows are, because there’s rarely anything in the budget for windows. But sometimes employees are so flabbergasted by their pasty windows that they’ll pool their monies to pay a window-washer, so I go in. Plus, some of the girls I’d seen going in there were worth a second look.
I set my things down and wait at the counter. As I do, a couple white faces appear through a small square window of a door that looks like it belongs to a bank vault. There is a buzzing sound and the vault door opens, and a woman comes toward me. As she appears, three black girls get up from the their plastic waiting-room seats and rush her. They converge at the same time, talking over each other. In a recorded voice, the woman tells them to wait for their counselor.
“We already seen counselors,” one girl says. “We need our damn assignments.”
“Yes, I know. If you’ll just take your seats, we’ll call your number.”
“What about my benefits?” asks another. “I don’t want to lose ‘em. Cain’t I just get both?”
“If you’ll sit down please.”
“I bet’ not lose my muh-afuckin’ benefits, bitch,” the other says as they all walk back to the waiting area.
The woman gives me a white-to-white look. There are several variations, but this one is the “It’s sad, isn’t it?” look. She says she doesn’t think so on the windows but that she will go check, and buzzes herself back into the vault and latches the door shut.
Waiting, I look across the room at the bored, miffed faces connected to the slouching bodies of the young and the beautiful—strapping, smooth-skinned specimens in the primes of their lives, spending their mornings in this government agency, filling out forms, yawning, fidgeting, and waiting for counselors, the irony being the agency’s windows thirsty for a sponge and a squeegee.
The woman comes back out of the vault apologizing. There just isn’t any money.
I tell her I understand and leave. I go across the mall to a Tex-Mex restaurant and order chorizo and eggs. I sit where I can see my equipment outside and watch the young and unemployed passing it by with glances of curious disgust.
On her way to my table, my waitress spills a large pitcher of iced-tea and I reach down from my table as if to help, but there is nothing I can do. I feel responsible somehow, because she had gone to the extra effort to bring me a free sample of something I’d asked about on the menu. It was a nice thing to do and showed the way that San Antonio people seemed a little different than most big city folks.
Continuing to watch the parade outside, I think maybe I’ll grab one of those guys and tell him how that disgusting bucket could make him a hundred dollars in about four hours, and get him out of this miserable agency, jumping through hoops to get some miserable job for miserable pay, wasting time that can never be gotten back. I’ll show him the squeegee, the towels and give him a free lesson on the government windows. To the right guy I might even consider handing over my equipment. If he followed my program, in two months or less, he could have a thriving business and not have to come in here and fight snotty white women over a degrading job performing mindless tasks to pay the cable bill, numbing himself each day into believing it counts for something.
As my waitress rushes to my table with my bill, she swipes the side of a man’s plate with her hip and sends it crashing to the floor leaving eggs and potatoes and silverware on the carpet. I crouch down to help her but she looks up and says tersely, “It’s okay I got it.” The woman’s day wasn’t half over.
I don’t go out and approach any of the young men. I just keep marching up the Old Austin Highway. Everyone had their own journey, and at this stage of their journey, humility would only be a hindrance. The sweater starts getting warm in the early afternoon sun, and it’s good to know I’m about ready to circle back toward the motel and the Plymouth.
Mysteriously though, the buildings start getting bigger and traffic denser, and I see that I am not headed away from downtown at all, but standing in the middle of it. I’d been turned around the whole damn weekend and had been within walking distance of the Riverwalk. It could have been something to do.
Now I had to make the walk back to the Plymouth, put my tools away, dig out a musty old T-shirt from the bottom of my dirty clothes, drive back here, find parking, and search for the Riverwalk.
Or did I? I might risk looking mentally ill strolling the Riverwalk in a brown sweater and cutoff gym shorts, carrying, a bucket, poles, and a green, canvas duffel, but I was so close now. So I keep heading toward the towering buildings of downtown San Antonio, following the hot rank of urine rising from the alleys and walls. Maybe San Antonio wasn’t your typical big city, but it had the smell of one. You could smell the generations of great drunks who’d stopped to mark the concrete along the way.
My unseasonal attire draws a few looks, but I am too busy looking for signs of the famous Riverwalk to notice. I consider turning back. The sweater is starting to feel like a wool blanket. I stop a man and ask him for directions.
“How close am I to the Riverwalk?” I say, itching at the prickly wet heat of the sweater. The man, wearing a nice loose Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda slacks looks at the sweat dripping from my chin and nose.
“You’re standing right over it,” he says.
I look over the railing next to us and see the Riverwalk down there.
“In fact,” says the guy “with your poles and bucket, I thought you were going to try fishing along the Riverwalk. But now I see you’re not. You can’t fish along the Riverwalk. I don’t think there’s any fish, and if there were you probably wouldn’t want one.”
I walk down the stairs and sit on a shaded bench by some trees and just think. If I searched the Riverwalk shops I could probably find a T-shirt for 12 dollars or so, but there would go my beers. It was a problem. With car repairs and gas, it just wasn’t in the budget.
I start looking through my duffel bag for some ideas, and come up with the little razor blade I used for scraping paint flecks off windows. I look at the sweater. It had been a nice sweater that I’d worn places back when I was a member of society but now it seemed of little use in its current form.
I take the blade haphazardly around the sleeves, then around the elastic waist. A Riverwalk bum walks by and gives me a look. When I’m done, the sweater is a jagged, uneven remnant of a previous life. My cutting job has left parts of the sleeves up around the bicep and parts below the elbow, and strands of yarn dangling in places. But some breathing room now. I stuff the two old sleeves behind a tree, and continue up the Riverwalk.
My first beer sets me back $6.50 and I drink it on a patio and try to mind my own business. Eventually though, I catch two clean-cut pretty-boys, family-type men at the table across from me, having a private little laugh over me and my frayed, imbalanced sleeves and hemline. I glare them down but it doesn’t faze them. They feel confident, as they should. They are part of the majority down here—well-dressed tourists. So I start muttering to myself and twitching and giggling at nothing. The men lose their smiles and get up and leave. [Maybe they felt sorry for me.]
A tall, lanky black kid with close-cropped hair comes out holding a bus tub, and cleans up their mess. I see him checking me out–my sleeves and ragged, stained shorts. He’s curious.
“How’s that beer, man?” he says.
“Alright,” I say. He continues to stand there staring, holding his bus tub.
“Expensive though, huh?” he asks.
“Yes. Are they all in this price range?”
“Nah,” he says. “They vary.”
“Some are more ridiculous than others.”
“If you know what I mean.”
“I think I do. Thank you.”
“The farther you go up the Riverwalk, the—“
“Why don’t you just ask me about them?” I say.
“What’s up with them anyway?”
“I was hot.”
“OK, man.” He carries the tub of dirty dishes away, looking over his shoulder at me a couple times.
After the beer, I think about skipping the rest of the Riverwalk and the posh motels, casinos, and chain restaurants, and people coming from all around to spend their wonderful dollars from their wonderful careers down here, walking around in hordes. But I keep going, determined to have a full Riverwalk experience. As a diversion from the staring eyes, I gaze into the river and its lethargic, glaucomic, blue-green, water. I watch spoiled mallards skirt around bobbing vodka bottles and bits of Styrofoam to get to tortilla chips that people throw to them.
I find some refuge at a lone table that doesn’t appear to belong to any of the restaurants, and take a seat. It has a big umbrella which means I can hide my hideousness and, for a moment, relax. But before long an immaculate waiter in a white-pressed outfit is flittering over me, setting silver, and presenting me with a menu.
“Sorry,” I say, getting up but glancing at the prices on the menu. “I was just taking a little rest.” I see that the dishes are 18 or 19 dollars a plate but that the domestic beers are only $3.25 a bottle. “That’s a good price on the beer, though. I suppose you wouldn’t let me just sit here and drink a Budweiser and watch these ducks, would you? There’ll be no tip.”
He puts a hand on my shoulder and pushes me back down.
“Honey, you sit here as long as you want. It’s just one less asshole tourist I have to wait on. Want some chips and salsa?” He smiles flirtatiously. I think he has the hots for me.
“OK,” I say.
“This shirt is great,” he says, toying with the frayed sleeves.
“You think so?”
“Yeah, very masculine.”
For a moment I feel as though I belong on the Riverwalk. I eat chips and salsa and sip Budweiser and watch overweight pigeons peck at my sneakers and try to get into my duffel bag. I watch people pack onto gondola tours, thrilled to be going down this murky channel, all crammed together, about to capsize, anything to be on the water. They push off making sounds like “Whoo!” and “Here we go!” while a tour guide talks monotone to them over a speaker.
The next table over, a father is trying to make a Riverwalk experience happen for his family, but none of them are into it and he makes it worse by interrogating them over the level of fun they are having. He goes around the table trying to get a consensus but is ignored. Finally, his oldest son, too embarrassed, gets up and stomps away up the Riverwalk. The dad throws some money on the table, and the family absconds after the boy. Before the fat birds can swarm their salads and rolls, my waiter is there with great quickness, shooing them away with flimsy waves of the wrists.
“Assholes barely touched these,” he says, bringing a couple of the plates over. “You want?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” I say. “It wouldn’t be classy. Is that one a Chef’s?”
“Yes, and this one’s Chicken Caesar.”
“They don’t look bad, really.”
He looks around then slips me the Chef’s and the Chicken Caesar, and some rolls and pads of butter.
After the Riverwalk feast, I take my time walking back up the stairs and onto the downtown streets. It’s a beautiful late afternoon and the piss smell is lessening, and pretty girls are starting to jog along the bank. The Riverwalk had cost me a sweater, but what good is a sweater when a man is hot? There will be other sweaters. [Anyway, it was my journey.] §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of his Washing windows across America series here:
Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)Directions from Texas (episode 17)A bug you can't see (episode 18)The bigger they are (episode19)Life in Lockhart (episode 20)Slow grinding war in Lockhart (episode 21)
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After the shot, Thomas knelt above the deer that was bleeding out, then watched as his four-year-old niece slipped her index finger inside the bullet hole.
The third year inside the state penitentiary was 40 years in the desert, and Thomas longed for the Christmas tree farm and dogs of his youth, the smell of clay mud and Coastal Range lakes good for fishing.
By Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Thomas rubbed the scar on his middle finger, a scar the shape and size of a Brown Recluse. He remembered he had been a pro fighter for three years by that night, that night when he was twenty years old, and it was his reach that gave him power, an arm-span of his height plus eight inches. He was long for a welterweight. He also threw his right hook from behind his own ear so that opponents forgot to guard their chins and they went down in that well-known, face first topple, like trees leaning suddenly into a flooded river. Thomas had knocked fifteen of eighteen fighters to the canvas, and he thought nothing of the consequences and the other man, the possibility of his crystal chin and the fixed corner of a bar. He had not known the man would die when he hit him, that he was already dead when Thomas was finishing his last shot of Jack Daniels No. 7, and that the man’s friends were carrying the body to a waiting Ford, in the alley, a needless rush to the emergency room. Thomas had not read about the incident in the paper the next morning because he had never been taught his letters when he was young, but instead picked at the open knuckle on his right hand which looked to him like it had been shattered with a ball-peen hammer and might lose him his chance of an early June fight.
The third year inside the state penitentiary was 40 years in the desert, and Thomas longed for the Christmas tree farm and dogs of his youth, the smell of clay mud and Coastal Range lakes good for fishing. He noticed every sign of life then. Crows like businessmen grew fat on the rotten food at the top of the garbage heap. Starlings flew back and forth over the ribbon wire, nesting where the guards could kill them with bolt-action .22s. The triangle top of the lone pine tree beyond the west wall was limbed below its summit to look like the four stations of the cross.
Thomas fought inside no more than the average man and no less, though he was offered good money to fight on Friday nights for the entertainment of the other men, the guards, the warden, and the warden’s wife. Thomas did only what was necessary, like a bad union man, and his right hook, deceptive and strong on a lefthander, saved him from the worst of things. Some inmates were friendly to him after a while. They taught him how to play baseball, how to turn a double play from both sides of second base and how to keep his bat level through the hitting zone. So he played games when the guards allowed them in the yard, and ate at a common table, and was never alone during the daytime. But having company during the daylight hours did not help. Even Jesus cried in the dark of the garden, and Thomas, at night, would do sit-ups and push-ups until the top of his abdomen and the fronts of his shoulders cramped and would not go any more, would not respond to his mind’s urging and the longings of dissolution, and he would lie on his back on the cement floor, hands outstretched, feet together, and feel the slide of his sweat between his back and the cold surface underneath, and he would imagine that he had fought a good fight.
Writers said he struggled with resentment and indignation when he returned to the ranks after his three years absence but Thomas knew nothing of those words and only pugilized because his fists were hard from the walls of cement and steel that had closed him in, and he knew he could break a man in half with a hook of disappointment. Eight straight wins landed Thomas a title shot, but he met Robinson at the champion’s best and no one beat that boxer in his prime. In the fourth round Thomas drew the blood of the great Sugar Ray, opening a cut like a diamond above his right eye, but Thomas doubted his own faith and he was not allowed to take off his gloves to examine the wound and feel the interworkings of the indentation and so it was that Thomas lost his one and only opportunity as some talented baseball players fail to stick in the Major Leagues because they do not believe they can hit a twelve to six curveball during their September call-up. Thomas did not go down in the fight with Robinson, not once in twelve rounds, and lost only on decision, but he was never given another chance and fought the remainder of his career on undercards and with long sojourns between matches, long enough for the governing bodies to give him a ranking in the top ten but never again as the number-one contender. Thomas retired at number three, a strange position for retirement, and his record of 39 and 1 was stranger still for someone who was never a champion.
Thomas would not take the Junction City farm even though he was the oldest and it was his natural inheritance. Looking into his brother’s eyes, eyes the color of the flooded Willamette, Thomas saw the faith of a first born, and so he prepared himself to work as a manager after he was finished fighting. But pneumonia killed his brother the October after his brother’s wife had run off with a mechanic from Gipson Ford. A search for the mother proved futile, neighbors telling the police that they were sure the couple had run out of state, and therefore Thomas was asked to become a surrogate farmer and father, at the age of thirty-seven, in charge of five-hundred acres of Noble Firs and one four-year-old girl.
Thomas took the girl deer poaching in January, in what were now his own woods, logging hills behind the Christmas tree farm, towards Triangle Lake. The deer weren’t wary out of season, not recognizing that Thomas carried a lever-action.30-.30 across the crook of his left elbow like a gentleman sometimes carries a cane, and the girl held the other hand at the end of his long right arm. The four-point buck saw the girl first and thought nothing of one so young, continuing to chew the frozen stems of a sapling, looking very much like a man bent casually over a chessboard in a park.
After the shot, Thomas knelt above the deer that was bleeding out, then watched as his four-year-old niece slipped her index finger inside the bullet hole, behind the front shoulder, sealing the wound and returning the animal to innocence. Her arm hid the trail of blood to the ground, and it looked to Thomas as though the deer had not been shot but was only sleeping, breathing heavily as the girl stole an opportunity to pet its soft fur in the deep of her own backwoods. Thomas wept then, not for the deer, but for death in general, and he remembered the second death, in the ring, when he had been angry and seeking retribution for his three years and his one loss, and he had trapped a man against the ropes, in the corner, where it is hard to stop a fight in time, where a boxer knows the fight sometimes can not be stopped in time.
He had waited months before taking another fight and he wondered that they did not come for him this time, that it was accepted and understood, that he was sent notes of condolence and congratulation by men who sat ringside with their favorite mistresses and whores. Thomas remembered the smell of Cuban smoke and the single malt on their breath, stronger than the wreak of sweat, as they crowded into his tape room after it was over. They said, That was a good thing. You let that boy have it. You really did. We made a lot of money because you let him have it. And Thomas did not wonder about the other boxer because he knew. When his manager cut the tape off his hands he searched for a new spider, a new broken knuckle, but the scar from this injury would not be visible on his hands, hidden in the desert like Elijah. In the shower, he tried not to hear them talking about it. Their laughing could not be drowned out though and he told himself that it did not matter, that their laughing did not matter, that this happens sometimes, that a man can be called to God in the ring and it is no different than a matador spilling his intestines on the horn of a bull. Thomas read books about bullfights during his rest days, now that he had taught himself to read, and he thought that maybe a matador knows something of the science that is not called sweet by the pugilists, never sweet, but a life in front of the swollen crowd, drunk on whiskey and blood, death the only end to a great fight. §
Peter Brown Hoffmeister received the 2006 Oregon Literary Fellowship award for fiction. His stories have been published by Struggle, Ink Pot, Denali, Paradoxism, and VBouldering. He teaches English and writes in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Life in the cage: Shower time
In the prison shower, I reflect on the luxuries I took for granted at home: Being able to shower alone, without wearing shower shoes on my feet. Not worrying about a time limit…
Speaking of sexual harassment, you ever notice the new rookie female guard, Ms. Hewitt. She always seems to stand in direct view of us, when we are showering every afternoon.
Where prisoners roll the soap and size each other up
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
After a two-hour study session at the prison law library, I rush westbound down the long corridor to make it into my cellblock by 2:50 p.m.
Between 2:50 p.m. to 3 p.m. is the best time to take a shower since no one is there. At 3:15 p.m., yard recall takes place where about eight to ten inmates will share only four nozzles, in hopes to shower by the 3:30 p.m. hourly cell unlock.
I arrive to the cellblock on time, noticing only one inmate in the first tier showers designated for Mexican National inmates, Asians, and others (American Indians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Columbians). The second tier showers are only for whites and southern Mexican Chicanos, the third tier is for exclusively blacks.
My shower bags, containing my soap, shampoo, and shower shoes, hang amongst thirty other bags on homemade hooks. I grab it quickly, spreading out my things, undressing down to my boxers, placing everything on top of one of four available garbage cans.
“Whooo, damn dudes you stink!” says Huero, a paisa who looks like a white guy, with short blonde hair and blue eyes, bilingual, born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“I know. I wasn’t able to shower earlier after work. It’s too crowded at 11 a.m., I heard you can get athlete’s foot showering too close to people.”
“That’s what the shower shoes are for. You wear them to protect your toes,” Huero says with a slight Mexican accent while washing his boxers with a bar of state soap.
Stepping into the shower, turning the knob to “hot,” I gaze down at the shower shoes I’m wearing, thinking how silly I look with them on.
“The ones I have on are only one-inch high. I sometimes still get athlete’s foot, since the drain in here is always clogged,” I say.
“Over two-hundred men use this shower a day. Look at all the hair clogged up in there,” Huero says.
We both look at the drain in disgust, noticing the water level in the shower is about two inches high.
I lather my body with Zest soap, and slide off my boxers, washing them with both hands wrapped around a bar of state soap.
“You know Huero, at home, I would throw my dirty clothes in the hamper, wash them at the end of the week in a washer and dryer. Look at us, we are standing here washing our boxers with a bar of state soap.”
“Hey homie, you could just throw your stinky boxers under your bunk or in a bag, but you know how it is with our people. Every Latino is trying to stay clean, trying to show respect. If you were a gabacho white boy, I think you could get away with it.”
“I think everyone, even blacks, enforce the unwritten rules. Every man washes his boxers in the shower. Imagine a guy’s skid-marked boxers, how it would stink after a few days, under the bunk."
“We pick up a lot of weird habits in here,” Huero says, smiling.
“For sure, think about it. Do you wear shower shoes at home, while showering?”
A dark Cuban inmate nicknamed “Chilito” arrives, throwing his clothes on one of the empty garbage cans, entering the shower, using the corner nozzle.
“Damn Dave, I thought I wouldn’t make it. Mothafucka Jackson working in front of C-Wing, pulling guys over. He taking forever to search a mothafucka,” he says, with a heavy Cuban accent.
“Yeah, he’s been known to even pat down your nut sack,” I say.
“A lot of brothas have put in a 602 appeal on him, claiming sexual harassment.”
We all laugh.
“Speaking of sexual harassment, you ever notice the new rookie female guard, Ms. Hewitt. She always seems to stand in direct view of us, when we are showering every afternoon. What’s up with that?” I say.
“Shee-it, I rather have her looking at my shit than Jackson touching my nut sack,” says Chilito.
“I think she is checking out your schlong, Chilito; you are a black man—by all means,” Huero says.
Huero and I look quickly at Chilito’s penis, which is about nine inches on the hang, the girth of a baby bottle.
“Damn, how do you even get that thing inside a woman?”
“A lot of foreplay and Astroglide. You got to remember, it is very elastic; a baby fits through there.”
“It’s crazy that they call you Chilito, that’s a Spanish name for ‘small dick’.”
“They should call you Chilito, Dave,” Huero says.
They both look at my penis and laugh.
“You two ain’t right. Me and Huero are about equal size. We Mexicans seem to have gotten short-changed.”
As we wash our boxers, soap in hand, we look over at uniformed Ms. Hewitt, who is staring back at us from about twenty feet away.
“Hey, check it out. She is doing her thing, peter gazing,” I say.
“You think I should just hit it right here, in front of her, get her excited even more?” suggests Chilito.
“Nah, just act like you don’t notice her staring,” says Huero. “This is the closest you will get to any female that age for a long time.”
Hewitt is a 21-year-old white woman, with blonde hair and blue eyes, petite, 105 pounds, looks like a surfer chick.
An Asian inmate named Lee arrives. He is very skinny, short, has dark hair, tan skin, works as a clerk in the education department.
“What’s up, Lee? You only got four minutes man before the crowd comes in,” says Huero.
“Nah, we got about 10 minutes. Jackson pulled over Pookey; he got him up on wall. He is going to go off on Jackson, you wait and see,” he says in broken English. Lee takes off his boxers and begins to wash them.
“Hey, Dave, maybe we need to call Lee Chilito,” says Huero.
We laugh out loud.
“What is Chilito?” asks Lee.
“Chilito means small dick,” Huero answers.
“Why you guys have to clown me. You don’t know how big this gets when it’s hard.”
“Why don’t you stare at Ms. Hewitt, get excited, and show us how big it can get?” says Chilito.
“Shit, hell no! She might write me up for sexual harassment.”
An alarm sounds, loudspeaker blaring: “Code one, Code one, C-Wing, C-Wing!” Hewitt and the other two cellblock officers, who were hiding out in the office watching football, run to the scene.
“I told you. Pookey doesn’t like to be touched. He has priors for knocking officers out who touch him.”
The four of us continue to wash our boxers. Lee steps out of the shower and pulls out a week’s worth of laundry from his laundry bag, comes back into the shower, washing each item with soap.
“Damn Lee, why do you come in here like it’s a Chinese laundry?”
“We Asians, we try to be clean as possible. I wash all my clothes that I use, every day, not just my boxers.”
“Why don’t you wash it all in the cell?" I ask.
“My cellie has the cell looking like a museum. You ever see my sink? It’s like a bumper on a classic muscle car, sanded down to shiny chrome.”
“I can’t live like that, with a guy who is like a woman, bitching about a drop on the sink, a crumb on the floor, a blemish on the wall mirror,” I say.
“Shee-it, my cellie is a slob, I wish I could find a clean cellmate,” says Chilito.
The officers come back to the cellblock, the loudspeaker crackles, “Resume corridor traffic.” Hewitt stands at her spot, checking us out—again.
“Damn, I’d hit that if I saw her at a club on the outs,” says Huero.
“Shee-it, you would hit anything, even a man’s asshole,” mocks Chilito.
“I ain’t no puto!”
“Why did you live with that Latin queen for a week, last year, what’s up with that?” I ask.
“I was doing the vato a favor. He was from my colony in Mexico, and nobody would live with him.”
“Shee-it. I bet you got a little side actions a blowjob, handjob,” Chilito says enviously.
“A kiss maybe?” I said.
Huero is offended. He establishes a fighting stance.
“You both are disrespecting me. You want to talk shit, say it again! Right here to my face!”
“You take things too seriously. Relax. You all make fun of me, and you see I don’t get mad,” Lee says calmly.
“You Asians got patience. Like the elders in all the Bruce Lee karate movies. We Latinos, we are hot headed,” I say.
“That’s why forty-five percent of the prison population is Latinos. Only three percent of the population are Asian. We think before we act.”
“You know you wish you had a penis like Chilito,” ridicules Huero.
“If it were a sausage, I’d put it into a Top Ramen soup,” says Lee.
“I’d be hungry if I ate yours, it’s the size of a Vienna sausage,” says Chilito.
“Hey, check out Hewitt. You think she is just bored, or is she lusting over us?” I ask.
“Holmes, they call it Peter Gazing, plain and simple,” says Huero.
“If I worked in a woman’s prison, I would be checking out the females in the shower,” I say.
“Well there, let her look. Nothing wrong. Would you rather have her check you out, or faggot ass Jackson?”
It’s 3:05 p.m., and Lee, Huero and I remain in the shower, enjoying the hot water. Chilito steps out to dry off.
“Chilito, you are like a woman. Shaving your ass, putting all that lotion all over your body. Moisturizing your face.”
“Brotha, if you want to stay young, you have to take care of your skin.”
“Why do you shave your ass though, do you and your cellie got something going on?” asks Huero.
“I shave it to keep my ass clean. Why are you even looking at my ass?”
At this moment, I reflect on the luxuries I took for granted at home: Being able to shower alone, without wearing shower shoes on my feet. Not worrying about a time limit. Here I am, with three other men, having a coversation about another man’s shaved ass.
“Hey, you remember in high school, when you were embarrassed to take a shower in front of other men?” I ask.
“Yah. I never took a shower at gym class,” says Huero.
“What about you, Cuba? You shower in high school gym class?”
“Of course. When you are nine inches on the hang, you are not ashamed. You show it off.”
The loudspeaker blares, “Echo wing, Fox wing, yard recall.”
“Ah shit, here comes the crowd,” I say.
“You better get out now before they rush the shower!” says Huero.
Closing my eyes, I try to savor every moment, absorb the sensation of the hot water flowing down my back. I open my eyes and see the rush of inmates approaching, desperate to get a shower before the 3:30 p.m. cell unlock.
The words, “Quien cige [who is after you]?” comes out of their mouths in Spanish.
Suddenly, as six men jump in the shower with us—bringing a total of eight men to share four nozzles—the smell of ass, body odor, and underarm, permeate the small shower area.
It’s now nuts to ass, any way we turn. No man dares to drop the soap. I’ve finished washing my boxers and safely tuck my soap back into its bag. My shower time is over. §
Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit www.adamcarolla.com. Tito can be reached by email at email@example.com, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here:
Mischief in the prison chapelJailhouse prunoA momentary breath of freedomBreakfast ClubTrappedInstitutialized Evening dayroom Destination ASHSleepless in SoledadJailhouse lawyersIn the hole (part 1)In the hole (part 2)The idiot box
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Falling standards of poetic living
Poets have a different definition for the phrase, “standard of living.”
I keep 12 dozen extra quatrains in a non-taxable, offshore Caribbean account and have a closet full of hauntingly sleek haikus I’ve only uttered once.
By Dian Sousa
I work as a poet. Sometimes I even get paid for my work. This year so far, from readings and book sales, I have made 275 dollars. That’s approximately 45 dollars a month—twenty bottles of Two Buck Chuck and a bag of Cheetos. By the surreal standards of most struggling poets, this makes me rich—a high rolling, power elite. I keep 12 dozen extra quatrains in a non-taxable, offshore Caribbean account and have a closet full of hauntingly sleek haikus I’ve only uttered once.
However, as most responsible people know, this means absolutely nothing, except that poets have a different definition for the phrase, “standard of living.” There are two main reasons that cause the poet to deviate from the shared cultural/economic understanding of this term. The first one involves a pre-pubescent initiation into the sensuality of language spread out in imagery and metaphor like a sweet babysitter ensconced in a barely legal cotton sheath, leaning against a cellar door offering succulent spoons of caramel sauce. From this miraculous moment on, the poet (who will also develop a cotton fetish and a sugar jones) craves and responds to language on a visceral frequency. It is the same frequency that affects dogs who hear the universe speaking through a razor thin high whistle and howl, and birds who feel their lullabies in the air currents and ascend. Say the word “liquefaction” to the nearest poet and see what happens.*
The second reason which prevents most poets from having, sharing, comprehending the “normal” meaning of “standard of living” is that most poets practice an unsafe, alternative math. Tests conducted on participating poets in a double-wide, wide awake, dream state using algebraic textbooks identical to those used in Tallahassee junior high schools and Texas state prison camps, showed that even though poets recognize numbers, 99 percent of them do not register any soulful manifestations until numbers are forced into unnatural relations with words in order to form word problems.
Although I could not participate in the study because I was sleeping that day, I do understand enough basic math to quadruple the recipe for peach cobbler and, when absolutely necessary, I can also formulate an equation for measuring the rising velocity of my frustration in ratio to my mounting anger in order to calculate the force of their convergence and the radius of the ensuing detonation. If I take a high enough dosage of pain reliever, I can even write it down and try to solve it. From the soft, gently echoing chambers of Vicodin, here is my newest word problem:
If two men in pleated-front khaki Dockers and one man wear beige, no-iron Hagar slacks are sitting at an oval table somewhere in downtown San Luis Obispo fantasizing about their golf stats and stock dividends, while discussing cultural grants and how the city could gain more money for advertising by cutting the money previously used to pay poets and other artists, will the affect of their narrow, nincompoop vision make the whole city deaf, dumb, and blind? X=lack of imagination + Y/soulless chicanery. Quickly, before the thriving poetic community dies, solve for P=(poets)(artists).
For over 20 years the SLO Poetry Festival has provided this community with a forum for listening to the original voices of talented local, as well as nationally and internationally recognized poets such as everybody’s favorite Beat uncle, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the celebrated Irish poet Eavan Boland. For approximately 15 years, this non-profit festival has received a cultural grant from the city with fundable expenses allotted for advertisement and payment to poets. Paying poets for standing all alone on a little stage, summoning all their medicated or non-medicated courage to read the poems they worked on day and night, for weeks or months or years, muttering under their breath, rewriting the same line a hundred times, deleting the same word and putting it back in ninety-nine times keeps a community linked to its soul and a culture rooted in its humanity. Fifty bucks is a million dollars, is a Nobel prize, is validation for many poets diligently practicing “their art and sullen craft” while working their day jobs and doing all the other annoying things they are required to do in order to approximate the aforementioned semi-non-weird “standard of living.”
The promotional Coordinating Committee (PCC), made up by the three ecru nincompoops in the word problem, administers the city’s cultural grants program with money earmarked from the Hotel Bed Tax (HBT.) One of the purposes of these grants is the creation of local Cultural benefits for the residents of San Luis Obispo. An event receives a grant determined by its popularity, its accessibility to residents, its affordability and its uniqueness in the community. The incalculable amount of poetry whispered in hotel beds notwithstanding, the Poetry Festival is always well attended, is certainly—sometimes insanely—unique, and at $2 a ticket, always affordable (even for most broke and broken down, starving poet.)
So, what will the PCC in all its clandestine neo-connery advertise with money it steals from the poets? Pottery Barn? Tri-level parking? Gentrification?
I don’t know who the men on the PCC board are. I don’t know if they really do play golf or wear ugly pants. And most importantly, I don’t know how or why they have come to their unwise decision. Maybe they just love San Luis Obispo so much and are so exuberant about inviting tourists to fill hotel beds, they just forgot that the bottom line of humanity is not profit and that at the heart of every thriving culture beats a vibrant respect for its artists, philosophers, and poets.
The poet—doctor in his spare time—William Carlos Williams, wrote, “It is impossible to get the news from poetry, yet men die every day from lack of what is found there.” Dear PCC, before you die and before all the tender poets pack their little hobo sacks and jump the next blazing train in search of a more civilized terrain, please grant me enough money to advertise Dr. William’s anti-stupidity prescription on a 50-square-foot, 100-watt backlit billboard. §
*What poets whisper to each other in hotel rooms: “When in silks my Julia goes, then, then me thinks how sweetly flows, the liquefaction of her clothes…” —Robert Herrick
Dian Sousa is the co-founder of SLO Code Pink. Her most current book of poems is “Lullabies for the Spooked and Cool.”
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Like I say, he was difficult, but maybe all geniuses are, and he was, as a hitter, a genius, a wonder. It was our game, and Ted was royalty.
Ted Williams hit one-hoppers that would explode off the dirt and dehorn you, literally. He’s the only hitter I ever faced where I was concerned with how hard he hit a groundball at me, because he could embarrass you.1956 Topps Baseball Card
Baseball’s greatest hitter puts out his hand to a young prospect
By Dell Franklin
As a little kid, whose mind was on nothing but baseball and its lore, and having the advantage of a father who’d played in the big leagues before the war and later played in the Pacific Coast League for the Hollywood Stars and L.A. Angels, I was forever pestering him for stories about the guys he played against. DiMaggio. Lefty Grove. Jimmy Foxx. Bob Feller. Satchel Paige. And, of course, the greatest hitter of all time, and a notoriously difficult character, Ted Williams.
“When I was at second base, I used to play him in short right field,” dad said. “Toward the line. Our first baseman, Hank Greenberg, played him deep and along the line. He hit the ball so hard that if you were a yard off the line and he hit one over the bag, you couldn’t get it. He hit groundballs with an overspin that ate up infielders.
“He hit one-hoppers that would explode off the dirt and dehorn you, literally. He’s the only hitter I ever faced where I was concerned with how hard he hit a groundball at me, because he could embarrass you. He had a bitter feud with the Boston sportswriters that spread throughout the league. He called them the ‘Knights of the Keyboard.’ He hated them. If he was in the hotel bar with his teammates, and a sportswriter came in, he’d be drinking milk, and he’d pour it on their heads. Whenever he hit a rope that was knocked down in the infield at Fenway Park, and he beat it out, he’d look up at the scoreboard and wait for the error to go up, and then he’d glare up at the pressbox and spit. So they nicknamed him the ‘Splendid Spitter.’
“Look, the players, we liked him, despite the fact he could be an arrogant sonofabitch. He was a standup guy. He was who the hell he was. Like Feller, his political popping off was full of bullshit, a real crackpot, but God, could he hit. He was so good that, as an opponent, where you were supposed to bear down against him, you could do nothing but admire him, almost in awe. He was a perfect hitter, never swung at a bad pitch. Incredible eyesight. The umpires respected his eye. He didn’t show umpires up if they made a bad call at the plate he didn’t like. He’d wait until his next at bat and quietly tell them that he wore his socks low, and they understood. His swing was quick and fluid. He seldom struck out. That swing, it was a thing of beauty. He was born with it, and then he worked on it, perfected it, started his own strengthening program—ahead of his time. Like I say, he was difficult, but maybe all geniuses are, and he was, as a hitter, a genius, a wonder. It was our game, and Ted was royalty.”
Later, as a high school player in L.A., and a prospect, I worked out with the L.A. Angels of the American League before a game at Wrigley Field, and dad came to pick me up later at the ball park, and watched the game with me. He was 47; I was 17. The Angels were playing the Red Sox. There was a rumor Williams was somewhere in the park. It was 1961, and he’d retired the year before. Around the eighth inning we decided to leave. In the great dank cavernous confines beneath the stadium seats, the concession stands were closing and there was nary a soul. As we walked along, headed for the exit ramp, I spotted a tall tieless man in a sportcoat talking on a pay phone attached to a post beside a concession stand. I stopped, grabbed my dad by the arm. I pointed at the man.
“Dad!” I exclaimed. “That’s Ted Williams!”
He paused to stare, nodded. “Damn, that’s him.”
“He’s big, real big.”
“He’s put on a few pounds, but that’s him.”
“I gotta meet him, dad. You know him. Let’s go!”
“Dell, the man’s difficult, a real pain in the ass.”
“I gotta meet him, dad. I gotta!”
“OK, we’ll give it a try.”
We walked up to him as he talked on the phone. He spotted us and became immediately edgy, like a nocturnal animal caught in daylight. Paranoid. With obvious resignation, he signed off on the phone and faced us, uneasy, looking cross as a bear in his den. Dad stepped forward.
“Ted,” he said. “I don’t know if you remember me, Murray Franklin. I played against you with Detroit before the war.”
His entire demeanor and expression changed. His body relaxed, and his face softened, and he offered his hand. “Hell yes,” he said. “I remember you, Franklin. Line drive pull hitter. I played you on the line. Good level stroke. How you doing…?”
Dad told him he’d jumped the big leagues after the war to play in Mexico and Cuba and then finished out his career on the Coast League and now had his own business. They made a little small talk, and then Williams glanced at me briefly, nodded toward me, winked, and said to my dad, “Who’s the kid, Franklin?”
“That’s MY kid, Ted…”
“He a ballplayer?”
“Oh yeah. Good prospect. Worked out with the Angels before the game. A shortstop, got a great pair of hands…”
“Hands!” Williams exclaimed sourly, as if he’d swallowed something bitter. “Who gives a damn about the hands. Can the kid hit?”
“Helluva hitter, Ted. Got a double, triple, homerun yesterday and drove in six runs.”
Williams, whose obsession with hitting made him a bit of a defensive liability, turned to me, offered a glimmer of a grudging smile, and put out his hand. I shook it. He didn’t give me much of a grip. This was a guy who reportedly had such hand strength he could rip a phone book in half.
“Thatta boy,” he said. “Hell with the hands. Keep swingin’ that bat, kid.”
With that, he dismissed me, turned to my dad, shook his hand, wished him luck, and like a phantom in the night, took off and dis-appeared into the murky shadows of the ballpark.
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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