Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Pulaski

Jon Spiegler

                We’re looking at the graffiti written on the guard rails between us and the “creek,” a sludgy mix of sewage, toxic runoff, and fresh water. It’s mostly written in sharpie, though one guy seemed to have used his key. TITO ‘N NENA 4EVA.
One schmuck, using a fine tipped sharpie wrote out some terrible poetic verse, something about the sunset and “her” eyes. I turn around and look out at either direction, the cyclists coming from one direction, the Polish grandmother from the other. She’s wearing a scowl on her face. She hates the kids who took over her neighborhood and I don’t blame her. More than anything she hates dodging bikes.
 I turn back and look out forward, squinting my eyes because the sun is getting ready to set and therefore bright as all hell. A cool breeze hits my face and blows the ash off my cigarette. This is one of the few places I can relax, suspended over the “water” and essentially floating in the air. I’m looking at the hospital I was born in from our bench, this amalgamation of wooden blocks that make for a clever seating arrangement. This is the Brooklyn/Queens version of a Lover’s Lane, I guess. You never really see anyone but couples on this bench, and besides that hipster poet, no one but couples are really marking up the railings. There’s BRAD AND ASHLEY for LIFE! There’s ANNIE AND JACKIE 2010… The surface under our feet begins to shake, there’s a tug boat coming from behind us, the horn cuts through you like a knife, we were so accustomed to the quiet white noise of cars and bikes zooming past us while we just sat, had a smoke, and took in the view. I take out my sharpie and think of what to write.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Make More

This is the vignette due on Thursday. I figured I'd put it up the second I finished it just for the hell of it. This story is true, the names have been changed of peripheral characters who are still very much alive and cognizant, unlike my subject who's only technically living.

Make More

“Make more,” said Mayer [Mayo Vish-nugh] as he tapped the bong with his shaky hand. I’d bought it for him one Christmas after he cracked the very expensive vaporizer I’d bought him. It was a shatter proof purple plastic with an ergonomic pistol grip design, impossible for him to break. “Make more, Jon.”
I grabbed a nugget off the quarter pound that sat piled on top of a back issue of WIN Magazine and packed it into the bowl. I lit the thing and let the smoke collect before passing it over. “Here, man… you were talking about Tom Forcade right when he was raising the money for High Times.
“Yeah, well we had umm, passed the pinnacle of our relationship… already starting to not get along. He trusted me a lot more than I did him, and he didn’t mind. He didn’t care about honesty. If he needed something from you he’d say anything and then turn around when he couldn’t come through and say ‘yeah, man, I lied.’ Well he uh, he was just a dealer then, or at least more than anything. And he rang me up at my storefront on 6th street and Avenue A and he, uhh, asked me to come over to this office he’d rented off of Union Square. When I got there he offered me a job as the managing editor for his ‘new magazine.’ I laughed him off and said ‘are you kidding me, man? I have a 25 dollar a week job managing a magazine with a 50,000 a month circulation and I’m gonna go and work for a Playboy rip-off about pot?’” He stopped to slap his knee and then shake his head and look down at his feet. “I’ve never been known for making the best predictions.”
“What did you call Springsteen?”
“Oh… uh, too frantic... At his New York City debut... Upstairs at Max’s Kansas City. I said he wouldn’t last.” He laughed again and looked up at the ceiling this time. “Yeah, well I laughed at the guy, Forcade…” He took his palm off the top of the bong which had miraculously stayed full of smoke. He raised his fist to the ceiling while he held the smoke in and then let the smoke out in a furious wet cough attributable to COPD. I grabbed his Advair off the table and handed it to him, taking the pipe with my other hand it putting it safely back on the table, far out of flailing distance. The bowl was already nothing but ash. “Jon, make more.”
It was a recent development that Mayer couldn’t light his own bong. For an old hippy, who’d lost most of his friends, his career and liver function; this was a final cruel insult. I hated the idea that one of the man’s few remaining joys was slipping away from him. Never the neat freak, he’d stooped to a new low: he’d only used the shower in the corner of his kitchen as urinal for the past few months and the whole place had therefore taken on a thick amonia smell. Compounded with the still bong water in the bottom of the sink, the smell smacked you in the face and held onto your clothes on the train ride home. His long yet pattern bald grey hair was starting to dread. He’d been wearing the same off-white Greenthumb T-shirt for a week, tucked into piss stained tighty-whities. His stomach was distended. His five oclock shadow was developing into a beard. The circles under his eyes took up a third of his face. The shaking was getting so violent that it necessitated his closest friends to meet one night at Veselka to come up with a schedule, ensuring he never spent a whole day unattended. We jokingly called the meeting our “Borscht Summit.” My days had become packed with errands. When I worked the night shift it was farmer’s market at 10, community garden to water the plot at 11, eggplant pizza from Arturo’s at 12:30, pick up his many prescriptions of benzos, antidepressants and inhalers from the drug store on Bleecker. I’d spend a few hours hanging out in his cramped apartment on MacDougal Street and then go to work stoned and already exhausted. This particular day I had off and didn’t have any plans until a little before midnight. I was content to sit in the kitchen and watch MSNBC until it was time to go. We were drinking fresh apple cider I’d just picked up in Union Square, his spiked with Stolichnaya. He’d been telling his greatest hits all day, in slightly higher spirits than usual; this is to say far enough from catatonic to entertain company. The place wasn’t looking too awful either, at least by Mayer standards. The week before he’d blacked out and “trashed” the apartment. I figured Elaine (one of the participants in our Borscht Summit at Veselka) had cleaned up as best she could. She had offered herself up to do the lion’s share of the cleaning, [historically] having the most intimate relationship with him, she had a way of moving the mounds of trash, papers, and laundry Mayer would generally protect with his body that would shame the most seasoned hoarding expert.  I “made more” in the pipe and repeated the process. “The place looks good,” I said to him with only a twinge of sarcasm.
“I think Elaine came over… my laundry’s done.”
“I did it.”
“Oh… Well I guess she packed it in the bag. I, uhh, don’t remember. You’ve been over here…”
“Since two. I worked the morning shift today.”
“Yeah, man. What time is it now?”
“7:30, the second Hardball. What, you want me to leave?”
“Not yet. I need you to look at something” He extended his hand, trembling wildly. “Help me up.” Once Mayer was on his feet he made it way past me, past the shower and into his bedroom. There had at one time been a wall between the kitchen and bedroom but the landlord and Don, the third member of the Borscht Summit, had demolished it in the 1980s when Mayer was living in LA, “turning around” the LA Weekly. All that was left was the frame. Though it was initially to open the tenement apartment up, it wound up suiting the retired alcoholic perfectly twenty five years later. The open space made for a perfect view of the TV from his preferred perch in the kitchen. Mayer sorted through papers stuffed into his underwear drawer and produced a Xeroxed packet held together with a binding clip. “I want you to read this... Then I want you to tell me your honest reaction.” He came back over, using the wall for support and dropped the paper on my lap, pivoting off my chair and back into his seat.
Anita and the Blowup Doll” I read out loud.
“By Paul [Krasner]…”
“Anita Hoffman?”
“Abbie’s first wife.”  
“I’ve read this before.”
“What did you think?”
“Are you asking me to kill you?”
“Then why the fuck did you just give me this?”
“Because I want you to be there... like Paul did for Anita.”
“She had cancer.”
“And I’m dying too,” tears welled up in his eyes. “I’m in just as much pain...”
“This isn’t legal, man.”
“Neither is the pot... make more,” he pushed the bong over to me and I packed it and lit it for him. I went one toke over the line and signaled that I was done smoking for the time being. “As you can see, things are falling apart over here.” I looked over at the wall behind Mayer, it was stained yellow like his underwear. Paint was peeling off the walls. An old clock was hanging onto a nail for its dear life, waiting to fall, yet another milestone in the decline of a brilliant man.
“It does smell like shit in here...” That’s all I really could say.
“Thanks, Jon.” Mayer stood up and reached over to his pantry next to the stove which was packed with vintage health food and bochilized cans of tomato sauce. He grabbed a massive bottle of aspirin and chucked it onto my lap. “I’m not ready yet... that’s why I bought this bottle as opposed to the travel size. But I want you to keep this in mind. I’ll finish these eventually.”
“So the aspirin is some sort of... you go when the pills go?”
“Something like that,” he sighed, resigned to the fact that he’d keep living a while longer. “You wanna stay a little longer?”
“Is this some sort of test of loyalty?”
“To see if I’ll stand by you until the end.”
“What if I said no?”
“Wait before you do.”
“Fuck you man, I’ll have to live with this. Not you.”
“I’m tired, Jon.”
The cramped tenement apartment was morphing into a prison cell. The smell was getting overwhelming.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I Write

I’ve always been writing. It’s the way I process information, it’s the way I organize my head. I love the written word the way some love their god[s]. It’s the linchpin of human history, it’s helped define us. These days it’s under attack, or transitioning, or collapsing on itself (depending on who you ask). All I know is it’s never been easy to make a living as a writer, but these days it’s damn near impossible. I know a lot of people who try to write. We kill ourselves to do it. We don’t eat, we pay the rent late, and we’re always tired... I hate being this way. Some don’t, but they were born lucky and just enjoying the ride.
 Paraphrasing Richard Price, kids come to the city to become writers or actors and they become writers/bartenders/waiters and one day are simply bartenders/waiters… it’s a modern tragedy and it happens every day. Every last one of them were promised by someone they were special, or talented. Somewhere along the line they started to believe it, schmucks that they are, and they moved here. Well, I grew up in this damned city and have watched my share of failures, those starry eyed little bastards from who-knows-where who come here to join the beat generation and wind up junkies. Somewhere between OTB Suburban and Williamsburg Casualty they work as bartenders and bike messengers, maybe dominatrixes or escorts [sometimes for “research,” sometimes not]. One or two gets published. Some get editing jobs. Some don’t and just keep working. Some move on, some like I said before get strung out and bitter. Those are the ones who never got over Burroughs, and Dr. Thompson, they live in Bushwick and blow rails off their copies of Infinite Jest or that Toa Lin book. Those people may have blogs or Flickr's. They may work at their novel while I make them coffee and try to chat them up about Bolano. They go home and feel terrible, I go home exhausted. No one wins, no one gets enough writing done.
So why the hell would someone do this to themselves? In the age of Twitter, who’s backwards enough to research something? To take the hit? It’s because writing may just be the last moral profession out there. I’ve watched true heroes give their lives to the written word. I’ve seen retired editors; shaking from Devil’s Springs, Boxed Wine, and blow from the Bronx, shut the whole world out because we loved him too much to help him die. That man was my hero. He was a founding Yippie, lifelong anarchist, and pathological editor. He was so damned anal that he wound up alone, an Abbie Hoffman memorial T-shirt tucked into piss stained tightie whities in an apartment on MacDougal Street that hadn’t been painted since the 1980s, (when he was in California to turn around the LA Weekly). I write and edit because the only honest people I’ve ever known were writers. They keep the bullshit on the page. I’m not saying I want to end up alone, such a grammar Nazi that I drive away my friends, but let me put it bluntly: I don’t believe in hell (and barely suffer people who do), but the closest thing I could ever imagine to hell would involve ending up that Richard Price case study, working at a coffee shop, telling the twenty something new hire about my great novel that I never published.
I write because there's a chance I won't be that unlucky.