Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Pale Brown Smoothie

“What about my gallbladder, Doc? Do I really need that one?”
“No, we can take that out, Champ. That just holds the bile overflow from your liver, and since we’re not gonna be leaving much of your liver- ”
“I ain’t the Champ no more,” the pugilist said, his head arched in shame, “especially after this.”
“Aw, there’s no time for that talk, Champ,” the doctor said, digging through his tan sack of anesthesia, “Now, come on. I count a lung, both kidneys, a few slices of that liver, your spleen, now your gallbladder. What time is that weigh-in?”
“Three hours, Doc. Where does all that stuff put us?”
“That’s only three or four pounds of you, Champ. We need to find more if you’re gonna make that fight. Especially if you don’t want your boy to find out about this.”
“It ain’t ‘ if’. It’s ‘gotta.’ I gotta make it, Doc,” Vince said, “Is the bladder inside the gallbladder?”
“No, Champ. It’s a whole other organ.”
“Well, look at that! I didn’t even really know I had it! So take that out, too.”
The doctor shook his head up and down, slowly. He might have taken the Hippocratic oath years ago, but the medical racket was the medical racket, and that game played out in the bright sunshine. This right here was the fight game, and a different game it was, for doctors and champions and fathers alike.

I was suffering over writing this sure-thing short story for Welsh’s class, but for some reason I just couldn’t seem to spit it up onto the page for the life of me. I couldn’t convince my head that my heart was in it, which led to no small amount of dawdling. This was the second time I had Welsh’s short story class. You could take it twice for your degree, via one of those pleasant Cal State loopholes that they allow us second-string academics, and I spent my two seasons with Welsh – who didn’t really give a goddamn what you had to say – early and then again late in my college career, which is when this all happened.
Anyway, it was a great hook for a short story, I just knew it: It was all about an aging boxer who, in order to make a particular weight division at the last minute, has all his lesser internal organs removed. In an ironic twist, he drops dead after one punch.
See, that’s the kind of thing that only works in a short story; you couldn’t write a novel about that kind of thing, unless the doctor is double-dealing the boxer and secretly only using him to harvest his organs, which I just thought of right now.
Anyway, not only was the short story sure to confuse the stupid ones and piss-off the smart ones in class, but I was able to work in a handful of Joni Mitchell references, which was key, because I had heard that the freshman redhead with the teeth in Welsh’s class liked Joni Mitchell, and I had plans to, if not actually sleep with her, one day at least have coffee with her – during which I could map out her features and expressions more clearly for safe-keeping in the masturbation file, where the shades of many young women I’d met through the years linger idly in the ether, waiting only for me to call them down to dance. With the heavy rotation I was giving them in those days, the best of them have never been allowed to fade.
But even driven by such base animus, for some reason, I couldn’t break the story’s back, and found myself disillusioned once again. It didn’t help that the thing was due in three hours, or that I had pissed-off Welsh by including all those willful stereotypes about his entire generation in the first story I had turned in that semester.
“You know something,” he had said, the first to break the silence after I had finished reading the story aloud to the class, “Before you write something, you better know what the fuck it is you’re talking about.”

I saw Welsh only one time after the end of that semester, when I was running my buddy, young Sid, up to Cal State Long Beach for his measles shot. Sid had taken most of my class and teacher recommendations, which I was very impressed with.
Anyway, in the English department elevator going up, Welsh looked right at me and gave me the ‘I’m-in-great-shape’ mini-smile that you give a vague stranger who you know will probably never see you again, in an effort to foist on them the idea that people in elevators are having a pretty good time.
Welsh had apparently dumped all memory of me the year before along with all the work I had turned in. Afterwards, Sid told me that the non-encounter was right out of The Paper Chase, and when I saw The Paper Chase finally, years later, I had to agree.

When I was going to school, I lived off-campus - in many ways. We lived on Spartan Avenue in Hermosa Beach in the mid-90s, all of us save young Sid in our early 20s, our Bottom Twenties, that last desperate wheeze of na├»ve freedom before the coming grey dawn that would soon force us all to choose between straight life, homelessness, or that strange netherworld where the aging hipsters who I worked with at the video store stooped, and where no sane young man would aspire to end up. I was the only one even kidding myself about school, clocking a few units here and there while relishing far-more my dead-end job at the store, hanging out with those strange mutant guys. My other Spartan brothers, Gram and George, had decided early on that college wasn’t for them, or vice-versa.

If you followed Spartan Avenue off of Pier in the mid 90s, you would notice how all the pastel condos and their re-zoned sidewalks had ruined and buckled the street itself. It looked more like a gutter now, a back-alley between impressive rows of edible buildings.
Then you would notice that even uglier and wetter than the warped pavement was the shack at 1140 Spartan, which seemed completely out of time. Eleven-Forty was clearly a relic of the Hermosa Beach-that-was when my parents had moved out there in the very early 70s, toting me along (I was known quite accurately in those days as Baby Roger.)
Hermosa then had been, at least from mushy memories, an unimaginable sylvan paradise of barefoot smoothies and second-hand booksellers, head shops and used blue-jeans dumps. Browned, eternally shirtless artists drew naked ladies and painted prog-rock album-covers on spec, then read Ray Bradbury on the toilet, on weed, in apartments right on the beach. Bungalows that the same kind of guy couldn’t rent out today unless he cut his hair, went to graduate-school, had his teeth whitened, worked-out for 3 hours every morning at 4, and sloppily sucked Satan’s dick.

Ah, but the shack at Eleven-Forty: It wasn’t just a shack, it was a little modern Hooverville three shacks deep, three rentals that someone had the jaw-dropping, record-breaking balls to describe as “peaceful cottages” in the classifieds, when I was scrambling to find a place to put my shit and my dad’s shit, along with his dog and the puppy. These must have been massive, Herculean testicles, these balls that hung-low off or whoever it was that looked upon the festering pile of rubble that was the back unit at 1140 Spartan and deemed it “peaceful”; tightly packed inside like baseballs, these testicles must be, one twice as big as the other, and laced with a straining network of varicose veins. Because the place, which we rented as fast as we could, wasn’t a house, it wasn’t a home , it wasn’t a “peaceful cottage”… it was a little piece of backwoods Vietnam, right there at the edge of the continent. Even Tom Joad’s mother would have turned up her nose if offered squatter’s rights to the place.
When the guys and I lived there, we lived in the back unit, which may seem “peaceful” unless you, like me and the guys, were prone to being somewhat disturbed by the view of the rear of the Hermosa Beach Police Station that the “picture window” in the back room afforded. These cops were a paranoid lot – even the ones who wore shorts - and they carried long sticks with mirrors on the end of them so they could check for bombs under their cars every time they got in ‘em. These guys were huge, hulking, muscled monsters, packed tightly into their Gestapo outfits.
For me, you could be six-hundred pounds and in a wheelchair, as long as you had a gun. If City Hall said could shoot me if I was a problem, I would do what you said and when you said it, even if you had no legs. But these guys apparently had some other shit going on where they had to be huge as shit even with the license to kill. This phenomenon was casually dismissed by us as “gay-cult behavior”, but it probably was a lot closer to witchcraft. When Sid had that back room, he got me paranoid when he said he often heard drums beating at their night rallies. It seemed that a grassroots fascist movement was constantly a-borning about 10 feet from where we slept, but you know what they say about young men and responsibility.
Ah, but, anyway, the back unit on Spartan looked more like Beowulf’s outhouse than a peaceful cottage. It was more asbestos than wood at that point; the interior had somehow been totally furbished with recycled dart-boards; the entire thing looked like it had been thrown together by two tubercular drunks on a survivalist dare; it met the definition of a house because we managed to live in it, not because of any built-in amenities or effort on the builders’ part to shelter those within from the elements. This would also describe a common hillside cave, but they don’t ask you to pay to live in one of those; to ask for and accept $900 dollars a month for loaning that Spartan roof out was immoral, but them’s the breaks.

The Spartan Place quickly devolved under our influence, not into your run-of-the-mill hellhole, but into the End Of Days. Even if you were looking for a simple shade to die in out of the sun, you might pass on this place. I think I’m making this point rather clearly.
I can explain myself, of course. Life with my father had been interesting, but “cleanliness” ranked about two notches below “I wanna fuck Jill Clayburgh” on his long-obsessed-over Things To Impart To My Son list. And I had just spent a startling six months watching my father stumble around his house naked, stricken mid-brain by a dread Glioblastoma that meant business, a tumor that all the while twisted his still-thinking brain into strange shapes, allowing for the oddest things to come out of his mouth, things that I had needed to hear years earlier but now couldn’t trust.
I have a feeling that other guys who lose their dads at twenty felt for a while like they had died, too. I know I felt that way. I was an absolute sorcerer when it came to convincing myself that I, too, was sick and dying. Couldn’t be long now, I figured. So I settled back into the worst of my father, and let the filth begin to awaken. That explains me. What the other three guys were doing there, well, you probably would have to ask them.

I don’t think we ever actually referred to the Spartan Avenue Place as “The Cave” at the time. But “The Cave” was its stygian name anyway, unspoken but effortlessly implied, whenever 1140 Spartan Avenue was stripped fully, finally, and again, of the final shreds of even our brand of phoned-in civilization. Oh, but those last three quavering filaments were so often, so casually – cruelly? – plucked on account of some unpaid services rendered.
Gone Electricity! Goodbye, Telephone Service! So long, Hot Water! Bring it on, Hermosa Beach! We’ll be waiting in The Cave, subsisting at such low levels as to amaze you, living poorly enough to shame God, like blind suckerfish surviving off their own waste, deep in some cave in the dread Amazon, where the sun has no business, no way in, no invitation! Maybe we did call it “The Cave” even then: What else can you call a filthy hovel with four young men crouching in there, in the dark, looking for a leg-up?

The four of us parsed the two bedrooms and living space thusly: George strummed away with my little dog Astrid in the Master Bedroom, sitting on his up-turned plastic orange crate and apparently managing to quietly get laid without any of us knowing it, at least once; The heroic Gram dallied away the long afternoons with the profoundly-titted Carla (here were two individuals who had the surprising ability to already be deep into loud fucking fifteen seconds after their door had shut, even if there were three dubious-minded dudes standing just a few feet away); young Sid, who had joined us there when he had found himself with nowhere else to go, had somehow adapted to sleeping next to the 60-inch projection TV. He would throw his Indian blankets down on top of jagged, snapped VHS tapes, themselves already dusted many times over with dog’s urine and carpet-deodorizer; and me, the aptly dubbed Poor Roger, sleeping on the couch with my father’s dog, Larry; I was no better off than young Sid in the withering self-suspicion department, no less able to fight for a proper room even though the inheritance guaranteed me the largest portion of rent.
And Larry, stout-hearted Larry, perhaps the gentlest soul I’ve ever encountered in any creature on this Earth, man or beast. He also was a pure-bred Black Lab from Palos Verdes, which unfortunately meant that in those later years, Larry had absolutely no hair anywhere around his ass, he smelled liked medieval death, and his dangling tumors had more tumors on them, which were constantly being tugged at in play after the arrival of Astrid the pup, which must have really marked the turn of an epoch for old Larry; this was a dog who once had the almost sole loving attention of one full-sized human, my father, and with whom he slept on waterbeds all his life, the better to echo the resounding slap as my father’s hand whacked away at the hollow cavity on Larry’s tummy. Something about that organic drumming sound, and the way other Black Labs can look so much like Larry when I see them now, these things explain something of the mystery of the dog, and of good old Larry, and of his master, long-gone even then.
As he lay dying, my father told me that he loved the dog more than he had ever loved my mother, which I could definitely understand from his perspective. And when he died, none of us assumed we’d have Larry around but for another year or two. My uncle, a doo-wop fan and a good Jew, had unfortunately and inhumanly suggested we put Larry “to sleep” (my ass) because he was ugly and because “a young guy on his own like Roger doesn’t need to take care of this dog.”
But, no, good old Larry, who would put his head on your arm and vibrate just to make you feel good, he lived a long life after his best friend died. It was The One Thing I Could Do, to make sure that I had my dad’s back and continue to care for Larry, the thing he loved most in the world. I feel a bad sadness when I think about that last act of Larry’s life, at Spartan Ave, with Astrid chasing after him and nipping at his ever-dipping testicles. She was just the right size to run up under his legs, new teeth flashing.

Inhaling one last drag, the Doc sat there next to the pile of the Champ that he had just wrenched out of the fighter’s barely-breathing body.
“More green in there than you would think,” he thought as he stared at the tower of ravaged organs. “And purple.”
It had been a fight itself, the removal of those last few organs. As expected, the Champ had gone into full-body seizure after the doc had yanked out that extra slice of liver, one more than they had planned.. The body had begun to close up shop in light of true, profound trauma. The bladder and gallbladder didn’t come easy after that, after the whole body tightened into a fist, spurred into last-ditch action at the spotting of oncoming death.
The gallbladder, especially, was an ugly scene. That extra slicing of the liver had pushed everything on the time-table back, and even the doc could hear that familiar beating of black wings, as the champ’s unwitting body prepared for nature’s final call to order. There just hadn’t been time for surgical niceties with the gallbladder. Just a few unloving tugs.
Slowly, with a pink-stained forearm, the doc shoved the pile of purple guts into the trash. It wheezed and farted as it went.

My first cars were Volvos. I loved my first Volvo, and I smashed the hell out of it and kept driving it with the windshield busted and the spectacularly bent trunk held down with duct tape. One day, that old car ended up breaking down in a one-hour spot at the Ralph’s/Mann Theaters complex, where it stayed for at least one-month – and even happily served as a brief shelter for Gram and I occasionally, should we need somewhere to stop and drink our sodas and discuss the latest movie before we completed the five-minute stroll home.
It was on one of young Sid’s ill-advised returns from his mother’s old Minnesota homestead that he saw my good Volvo being dragged away up Pier Avenue by a tow truck. That was only one of a half-dozen cars that ended up the property of the city, all in my name, not all of my doing, during those Bottom 20s.
In fact, there was a second Volvo, a real piece of shit that I made mine for about eight-hundred bucks from two black guys who purposely scared the shit out of me. It was stomach-acid green and lasted about three days. In fact, I have no memory of driving at all. Somehow, I must have known that none of that stuff was worth remembering while it was happening.
So, the piece of shit died spitting yellow, snotty spinal fluid out of its engine block, and after a short period where all I did was kick and smash it as I walked past, my 2nd Volvo was rededicated unofficially as our official Spartan Ave Mail Annex: Since the wooden mailbox for the three units hung just inches from the place where that piece of shit had broken down and died, all bills and unpleasant looking mail, including the junk stuff, was stuffed into the one-inch of dead-Volvo window we left open for just that purpose; by the time that whole era was over, by the time the three of us that were left ran from the place and ordered our jets to strafe anything behind us, that Volvo’s back seat was filled two inches from the top with avoided bills, empty collection agency threats, junk mail, and other people’s newspapers; I left that car right there when we left.

Vince lay there on the table, nauseously aware of what had been there inside him before, but no longer was. He certainly didn’t feel much lighter, what with the rest of his body swelled up in horror at the inner devastation.
“I don’t think I can walk, Doc.”
“Of course not, Champ. And we don’t just need you to walk, we need you to go the distance,” the doctor said, as he pulled out and filled two needles with a particularly mean-eyed strand of wild Afghan ragweed opium.
“Here we go,” he urged, as he plunged both needles into the fighter’s upper-flank. He had to work overtime to push away dark memories of a similar incident, where he’d filled Kid Munson’s system with smack before sending him into the ring against Sugar Ray Meinstein. Before they could stop that fight, the raging Munson had torn off Sugar Ray’s jaw in sheer drug-addled fury.

With that as its starting gunshot, I lost my place in the story, and Spartan Ave began its twilight conversion into The Cave. The exclamation could have come from any one of us, but in this case it was our pale brown smoothie, George, having just dialed the phone. Anyone listening was sure to wonder who had been on the receiving end of a phone call that started that way, but sad experience sluggishly snapped up and put the lie to that: George had tried to reach, perhaps, his old Vermont home – and been greeted not by the warm tones of Old Pa, but rather the tough recorded censure of the local telephone racket.
“The line you are attempting to use is no longer in service. If you believe there may be an error in the termination of your service, please call us at-“

Let’s take a moment and examine the cruelty of that taped message, reserved for only the nadir of couch-change hustlers like us. To start with, there’s the “no longer in service” bit, which is in and of itself a Draconian rebuke, even if you do own some stonewall corporation a couple-hundred bucks. And anyone who called in, including George’s Old Pa or Sid’s faceless Minnesota hooligans, got an even gloomier version of this same message; something akin to “the guy you’re trying to call is dead or in jail, whatever, all we know is he doesn’t need a phone anymore”; I carried on a tragic romance with a girl during the Spartan Avenue days, wherein every phone conversation was held at the rotten pay phone around the corner at the 7-11 because of a situation like this, and it never sat well with me that she heard about my phone service being out from The Phone Company first, every time.
Then we have the loving bit about “if you believe there to be an error,” which reads to me as “go ahead and give us a call, you pathetic fucker, we’re the only number you can reach on this dead phone anyway.”
Anyway, it’s a low industry that deals with those thuggish ladies and gentleman who record the voicemails for all the Big Eight collection agencies. In actuality, the very position of cold nasal phone-threatener is dying, at least for humans, and you wouldn’t want to run into the excess, aging, or unemployable professionals from that workforce on a grey Friday afternoon, after they’ve been replaced by steel robots.

“What’s wrong?” I said, my poor post-op Champ dangling behind the blinking cursor.
“Fuck! The fucking phone is out again!”
“Fuck! Seriously?”
Our surprise here was the most embarrassing part, really. Nearly every second we had modern conveniences up and running at the Spartan place was a testament to the laziness of underpaid employees in the Where-the-fuck-is-our-money department of the various service-rendering conglomerates. The charity of stonewall corporations extends only so far as they’re willing or unwilling to pay the slob who comes out to the place and actually, physically cuts out the line and puts a big red bolt on it.
The grim-visaged lifer who often cut our electric power actually cut our house power and the power of the video store I worked at on the same day, allowing me the most involved field study of dead-souled Zpower company lifers yet attempted by an outsider. Sadly, the man seemed hatefully smug towards both business and private-residence alike, so nothing was revealed.

The phone would go every three months or so until we paid in one big lump, including all the service fees; the gas would only get cut, shit, every six months or so. And the amount we were usually in arrears to the gas people for was a-hundred-and-thirty-nine bucks even then, so this goes to show you how little the gas was on our mind when it was flowing.
When the gas stopped, even, we’d go months before paying it. Gram and I had mothers in the area, with working showers; George might crawl to a friend’s place to rinse; Sid, I fear, would simply forgo the full hose-down, settling for sliding a cold bar of soap across his armpits, chest, crotch, and feet before calling upon his people or the local pornographer. (That poor kid, constantly on the lookout for a role model and a big brother, constantly having to settle for one or the other or the other of us three laughing degenerates.)
There was also a very desperate invention by Gram, to whom multiple daily showers were most important, because the women he ran with often left him with both a piece of their heart and a hunk of the guy-down-the-block’s mysterious, deep-rooted hacking cough. When circumstance demanded, and a balls-destroying ice-cold shower wouldn’t do, Gram made use of the small collection of tall Arrowhead Water bottles that guests of the Spartan place might notice cluttering the bottom of the tub, if they could have taken their eyes off of our memorably black tub-ring.
After filling four or five of the bottles with water and microwaving them for a minute or two, Gram would head in, strip down, stand in the tub, and open bottle-after-bottle of warmed tap water over his head. He’d heat up twelve bottles for a promising Friday night. Truly, Horatio Alger himself would have shit.
George eventually picked up this practice as well, but I never went for it, because my engines of self-delusion don’t hum that way. (In the interest of history, I’ll mention Gram’s second, similar invention, for emergency use when the toilet paper ran out: It involved the wetting-down and microwaving of the Los Angeles Times, for some reason.)
Point being, we could live well with no phone and no gas. With four of us around, someone was always on the verge of bottoming out, and that provided limitless organic yuks, the kind of homegrown entertainment that has proven true blue since long before the various idiot boxes sprouted antennae. Was this the worst The Man could do, in all his serpent-hearted square-dealing? We were young men!

The Champ sat listening to the roar of journalists at the weigh-in, his silk robe pulled gingerly around his horribly enflamed and ravaged torso. Tight paranoid energy hustled right past the pain meds and ran frantic gauntlets through his nervous system. He felt like killing somebody and laughing about it.
“Laughing and crying, you know, it’s the same release,” he thought. He’d heard that in a song somewhere, sometime.
Bad idea to eat all that Chinese food before heading to the arena. His body had no idea what to do with all that MSG and those red pork spare-ribs anymore, and it was working overtime to somehow shunt the greasy feast from what was left of his loins.
“Jeez, look at that,” he thought, as he noticed his eyes were all dull, dark pupils.

But, alas, when the electricity was ripped away from the Spartan place, all youth and enthusiasm was drained away with it. Heads sank, young men went to bed early, and – perhaps most tragically for me – I couldn’t watch a single laser disc. Only Sid seemed able to survive at this level with a smile, curling around Dickens with a candle and his Indian blanket. “Fuck that guy,” I would always think, “that smug asshole, pretending to be content.”
And when fate and absolute lack of paying-the-bills or even attempting-to-pay-the-bills convened, and all three lines of support were cut – the gas, the phone, and the blessed electricity – The Cave did its best to keep the rain off our heads in the darkness. They couldn’t take that away from us, unless we skipped on the rent as well. And no electricity meant a reprieve from me having to write that fucking boxing story.

Once the bills were paid, our old friends The Utilities were embraced as long-lost friends, and not for the traitors they were; The phone usually announced its return by simply ringing an incoming call to our great surprise and novelty; the electricity’s welcome resurgence was first noticed by the click-clacking of the awakened interiors of all our VCRs; but the gas, man, the gas was always a nightmare, even after the gas people had started pumping their stuff in our direction again.
No matter what we did, no matter how quickly we got ourselves back in good standing with the gas people, we were always guaranteed a trip into The Shed to restart the pilot light.

The Shed was an adjoining storage space that shared a wall with the house; it stood about three feet tall, and at the back was the water heater, battered in lots of places where dirty pink insulation peeked out. When Gram and I first moved in, I made the decision to house the comic-book collection that my father and I had cultivated over the arc of my childhood in there; The Shed made no claims of being rain-proof, and those with a feeling for comics and their value may feel a sickening tightening of the groin when I mention that my copy of Hulk #180 – the first appearance of Wolverine – was in there and got hopelessly water-damaged over the first few weeks of rain we had at Spartan.
The Shed’s inability to serve as logical storage space made stowing valuable shit in there a no-go, but that ten or so square feet of empty space wasn’t about to go to waste. This was a castle with four kings, after all.

So, we come to the point: Two dogs and very little maintenance equal one hell of a lot of dogshit. The main complaint our poor, besieged landlord had during our stay there was that the feces never got cleaned up, even after he begged us and even deigned to kick a few dried piles together to make it easier for us. Watching Rick, a peaceful, melanoma-addled, arts-n-crafts type when we rented the place, devole into a haunted and cranky landlord before our eyes over those years, mostly at our doing, was a singular thing. But really, it was understandable: We had expensive condos rising up on either side of us, and who wanted to pay $3000 bucks a month to stare out the window at a concrete yard pock-marked by little piles of shit?
Sure, it was funny, but it would routinely get to a point where just getting across the stone lawn meant a careful hop-skip among and between a thousand piles of dog crap. Any missed step risked kicking a fresh pile and sending about seventy-five fat flies up at you in anger. And the animals themselves would get to whining when it got bad out there. Even dogs don’t like to see a lot of dogshit, it turns out.
So when I was feeling particularly generous, and since they were my dogs anyway, I would head out with a plastic Ralph’s bag or two to gather up the dogshit. All of it: The solid piles and, as karma would decree, the occasional hot, handful-busting new arrivals. If I had really let it go, a cleaning session like this would result in five or six full-to-bursting plastic bags full of fecal matter, which is not something you see every day and can come with a certain strange pride.
But we were lazy young men, you see, and I’m sure you won’t be surprised by now to know that the simple dividing of all that feces into the plastic bags was not the end of the dogshit situation, not even for that particular batch. The trash came on Wednesday morning, or at least I thought so. Being that it was rarely on a Tuesday evening that I would reap that dark harvest, this presented a quandary: Was I supposed to bring the dogshit into the house and wait until Tuesday night? I don’t think you’re ever supposed to bring actual shit into your house. It’s meant to constantly flow in the other direction.
Or should I put it out front where the garbage went, and allow the homosexual couple who lived in the front unit to discover the payload on their own accord, and then perhaps live with it out front for days?
Neither was practical, of course, but stowing the bags in The Shed seemed a capital idea.
“I’ll just make sure to put ‘em out with the trash whenever that is,” I thought, not even convincing myself.
So the cycle would continue. Dogs would eat, dogs would shit, shit would get stowed in The Shed, trash days would be missed and forgotten, bills would be unpaid, utilities would go, and eventually the pilot light would need relighting if anyone wanted to wash their hands or take a hot shower.
As I mentioned, Gram was the one who needed to shower with the most urgency most often, so Gram was the guy standing in front of the shut Shed door with a plastic pilot-lighter every time. Behind him stood the rest of us, distancing smirks plastered on our faces, each one of us – me, Sid, George – affecting a stance that might hopefully convince any of our neighbors who might be looking down that we, and not one of the other three, were the sane one.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time we had needed to tickle the pilot light into starting, nor were the bags of dogshit in The Shed a new problem; but, sadly, past campaigns into the shed to light the pilot had climaxed with the placing of the dread Ralph’s bags back into The Shed after the light was lit for further storage. This was a decision that felt odd every time, but remember, how often is it Tuesday night?
Surely, by the next time one of us needed to get back to the hot water heater, saner heads would have long relocated the dogshit to the dumpster behind the holistic bookstore, or somewhere the same. Perhaps those same sane heads would even deign to pay the gas bill on time, next time. And little did I know that the following events would lead Gram to acquiring an actual large plastic trash can that none of us were allowed to throw trash in except he. Meanwhile, what had once been six bags of shit grown to thirty and fifty and beyond.

As Gram pulled the Shed’s door open, a wall of form-fitted Ralph’s bags greeted us. At least a hundred-and-fifty bags, which we removed one-by-one, until we had cleared a path to the water heater. Gram would pass a bag back to Sid, who would place it somewhere on the porch. This was all especially confusing to the dogs, who don’t expect to re-encounter their own dump months after it cleared their bowels. This very idea goes against every stated rule that a dog holds dear.
While the other guys were marveling at the sheer bulk of the bags, and the odd way that truly vintage dogshit had of going stark-white, I was more concerned about anyone discovering the bag with the dead possum that I had tossed in there one night after the puppy had brought the thing, wheezing and mortally wounded, into my bed – back when I had a bed, and not just the couch.
But a mental paradigm had been established for me: the only thing worse than opening a bag and finding eight pounds of shit was expecting to find that, and instead finding the rotting corpse of a possum, its face pulled back into an eternal wince. That poor possum. None of God's creatures deserve to be buried in dogshit, even if only for a season.

Once the bags had been fully excavated, and the front porch was entirely besotted with plastic bags straining against their organic payloads, it was time for Gram to cinch up his courage and head into The Shed. For him, this was the worst part. Not so much because of the unnatural stench we had all been slowly conditioned to by breathing, eating, and sleeping just a wall away from the growing pile, but because a troupe of ghastly Daddy Long Legs had moved in there with the dogshit and certainly would have been riled up by all the fussing over the bags. These weren’t your average, ethereal Daddies, mind you: These things were fast, six legs connected to a body the size of a nice peg of stomach-lint, all driven mad by living off dogshit and a dead possum chaser. Gram’s terror over spiders knew no bounds, but it apparently withered in the light of his desire to take a hot shower, especially after disinterring all that dogshit.
“They’re not spiders,” Sid said in an attempt at reassurance, “They’re arachnids, but not spiders.”
“Fuck you!” came the muffled report from inside the shed.
“I hear that they actually have the strongest venom of any spider,” George added, “but they don’t bite.”
We could see Gram batting at any of his exposed flesh, and the impulse to scream “there’s one crawling into your ear!” was overwhelming. That impulse was youth, and we squelched it, and one is only ever sorry for squelching youth.
“Goddamn it! Fuck! Shit!”
And then Gram emerged, all six-plus feet and two hundred pounds of him, beating himself down, jerking spasmodically at every lick of the wind. He pounded into the house, the pilot light lit behind him, and left a trail of his clothes leading to the shut bathroom door.
George, as was his wont, wandered back off into his room to spin his favorite Beach Boys records, the ones without Brian Wilson.
Sid and I stared at the scene on the porch, and somehow the better angels of our nature simply gripped us. Sid was, after all, the most besotted with youth and folly.
“Let’s just take care of this,” Sid said.
“Might as well,” I said, “It’s Tuesday, isn’t it?”
We stacked the bags out-of-sight for the evening, allowing the creatures of the night – vengeful possums, hunger-crazed and inbred Daddy Long Legs, and vile shit-lizards – one final feast.
The next morning, in the pre-dawn hours, and without any spoken consensus, the four of us trucked all the bags out onto the sidewalk in front of the 1st cottage. Mount Hermosa, it was, six feet high, ten feet wide, and accompanied by a renewed deep, dark smell, shaken to life within the sleeping feces. For myself, I was certain that I could smell the unknown possum in there, and that gave the whole endeavor a special personal shame for me somehow.
This was during the time that Sid worked in the fake blacksmith shop at Knott’s Berry Farm, and I can picture him now, trucking four bags of dogshit out to the curb with a smile on his face, cinched in his ridiculous rustic apprentice’s outfit, his puffy sleeves pushed up to avoid soiling, somehow all the while unaware that you couldn’t fake-out this kind of mess. He was guilty by association, branded for life, and his maniac smile made things worse, not better. These were not raindrops, and you couldn’t walk between them.
So the four of us headed off to troll Anaheim’s secondary theme-park for the day while Sid etched “Mike” and “Jennifer” onto ten-cent horseshoes, not returning again until well after dark. Mount Hermosa was gone, and somewhere a gaggle of garbage men had someone they could really feel superior to.

The moment for the fight was here. The crowd screamed for a show, and they were about to really get one.
The Champ could barely keep his screams silent as his manager applied pancake makeup to the still enflamed scars on his trunk.
“You got heart, kid.”
“Yeah, old man,” Vince winced, “that’s just about all I got left.”
“That’s all you need,” the old guy croaked, “Now got get ‘em”
Vince propped himself up and headed to the ring, towards the sounds of the cheers. “I wonder if I ever really used my left kidney,” Acorn thought as the flashbulbs popped, and the metallic taste returned to his lips, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?”

So, the story eventually came together just in time, but the printer was busted, so I put my fist into Gram’s car window and yelled at Sid. The story was late, I didn’t get to read it to the class, I never saw the redhead up-close, or any redheads like her, and I pulled a ‘C’ for the semester. But I’ll remind you, that’s a passing grade.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Were you out there?!?!?!?!"

This is the hysterical cry that Richard Burton explodes with whenever he's reminded that he is Roman who put Jesus to death and gambled in the shadow of the cross for the right to the titular cursed garment in THE ROBE, the second Cinemascope picture to be shot, and the first to be released in 1953.

It's a picture that has long been considered worthy only historically, akin to the Al Jolson version of THE JAZZ SINGER. But, as with that film, a belated viewing of THE ROBE reveals a fine entertainment, one that seemingly bristles enough with the excitement of its new technology to overcome the shaky, stiff mechanics involved with early dabbling in any new-fangled offshoot of an existing medium.

Beyond the 'Scope aspects, my enjoyment of THE ROBE is all in keeping with my general feeling that Hollywood Biblical epics (from INTOLERANCE to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) tend to have an inherent fascination, even if you (like me) don't subscribe to any Earthly religion with anything close to a whole-heart. I suppose it's the collision of big-budget spectacle and sincere spirituality that makes pictures like THE ROBE (or QUO VADIS or THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, to name a few other critically-ignored epics) so interesting, the mixing of the staid with the wildly speculative.

It's often said that Victor Mature gives a better performance that Burton (in his first picture) here, but that's meant to be an insult to the latter actor, not praise to the first. While it's true that Mature seems sincere in his starry-eyed lust for the messiah, you try to pull off what Burton has to deal with here: First, he's bug-eyed and cursed by the robe, then he's gotta convince us that he's hearty enough to join the Christian march on Rome. Frankly, anybody who ever plays "bug-eyed and cursed" is gonna get accused of overacting.

Okay, it's not a great picture, but it moves and it's creepy-cursy-religulous, and (like QUO VADIS), it has a lot of sexual double-entendre that the code only allowed in because the entirety of the meal was considered so nutritious. It does NOT have the glowing Deborah Kerr (like VADIS), but it has Jean Simmons and that should be enough for anyone who's seem Simmons in David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Her cup doth runneth over.

And the Blu-ray that Fox just released is startlingly good. Martin Scorsese opens with an intro, and he doesn't say he likes the picture, but he does seem to like the width of the picture. That facet of THE ROBE, the early Cinemascope action, is the main draw for this disc, as (among a horn o' plenty of extras, some film-centric and some blandly devout) there's a Picture-In-Picture track that allows a screening of the flat academy ratio version of THE ROBE (shot in case the Cinemascope version wouldn't play) down in one corner while the main version plays. This track is the best displayed explanation I've yet seen for the aesthetic rewards and give-and-take of the switch from 1.33 to 2.55. So the next time someone complains about those black bars, you make 'em sit through 130 minutes of THE ROBE and that'll shut 'em up.

I liked it.

Monday, December 29, 2008


I listened to the ancillary commentary track on the new WALL-E blu-ray disc the other day, the one where several lower-run Pixar artists and producers comment on the movie and the pop-culture references therein. There are three guys on it, and one woman. The guys go on and on talking about what is a reference to SILENT RUNNING and what is a reference to DOCTOR WHO, and the woman keeps laughing at them for knowing and caring about this stuff, and they all generally agree that the three guys are "nerds" and how pathetic it is that they know that stuff.

But I ask: Why? Is America so overrun by shallow puddles of milky DNA stacks and plain old stupid people that we now ostracize anyone who knows "too much" about anything? Was there not a time when such knowledge would have been prized in an individual? It's certainly not useless knowledge to the WALL-E commentators! They made that movie! That knowledge has certainly helped them along in life. There is a difference between passion and nerdiness, but that demarcation is less and less important as we continue to compartmentalize, label, and stow all human endeavor for the coming storms.

Here's the thing. As bad as "the jocks" were in high school, so were the nerds. As I recall, nerds were humorless tightwads who took things way too seriously, constantly broadcasted their supposed superiority, and never had any fun.

But slowly and surely, over the last decade or so, the term "nerd" has unfortunately arrived at a much broader definition: anyone who is passionately informed and excited about any subject not officially catalogued as "manly" by the RMAA (Raging Male Assholes of America) is supposed to accept the label of "nerd" - and be slightly embarrassed about it to boot.

For instance:
Person #1: That reminds me of the pickle dish in 'Ethan Frome'
Person #2: (laughing nastily) What? You're such a nerd!
Person #1: (sheepishly conforming) Yeah, I know.

But hey, I fully approved of the 'nerd' label as originally implied. If you humorlessly catalog plot loopholes in STAR TREK - and JUST that one topic - then you may be a STAR TREK nerd, and you might have need to broaden your horizons.

But how can someone be a movie nerd? There are sexy movies, funny movies, good movies, great ones, bad ones, deep ones, bleak ones, goofy ones... One who chooses film among his fancies is certainly choosing an appropriately varied field, and one that can certainly while away one's hours happily. Why, such a pursuit is akin to the pursuit of happiness.

But since everyone generally likes movies, and everyone feels a certain amount of ownership of them, then someone who stands apart and dedicates more than just a passing fancy to the cinema is a "nerd". And on top of that, it's getting easier and easier for young people to choose the path of least resistance, and on that path you laugh at the people who know more than you about anything - "What a bunch of nerds they are over on that OTHER path, what a bunch of wasted lives, it's so sad really."

So I am a movie nerd, and, I guess, a rock nerd. Which means I care more passionately about those subjects than the average carrier of the human virus. No, I am not an "expert" or a "go-to" guy on those subjects, as I might have been 30 years ago. Today, I am a uselessly informed loser who doesn't spend enough time thinking about cars, sex, and football.

Because the average American is bred to believe that movies are just a past-time activity, and that rock music is just background party noise, and that anyone who chooses to dig deeper into those subjects is an unhealthily obssessed stigmatic, missing out on 'the good stuff' while he's wasting time with his passions.

You'll notice, there are no 'football nerds' or 'Jesus nerds' and even less 'sex nerds' in America. As a point-of-fact, I would say that 95% of male America qualify as 'sex nerds', in that they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and quantifying and cataloguing different aspects of an act that is even less complex than 'Star Trek'.

American males are, overwhelmingly, sports nerds and sex nerds. They are also 'gun nerds' and 'infidelity nerds' and 'alcohol nerds'...But because they have the floor, they get to decide what's kosher. And who is a nerd.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Three Stars High And Rising

I’m hopelessly behind in catching-up with year-end studio releases, so any attempt to forge a true ’08 “ten best” list would be callow and wasteful. But in the spirit of lists blooming everywhere like toadstools, I had the thought of compiling a litany that you won’t find elsewhere: the best “three-star” movies of the year.

You know what a three-star is, and you know where it rests on the slightly ridiculous but formally accepted four-star scale. To my mind, a three is a movie that rises to no ambition at all, totally succeeds at being satisfactory, soars confidently below the A-list, etc.

To put a finer point on it: there is nothing wrong with these movies, no adjustments that need to be made. They’re proudly innocuous, largely un-controversial, mostly playing it safe on the path to home video – I’m deeply in “like” with these movies, we’re friends, but I know there’s no future. (Except maybe for the title at #1, which shook up my criteria for aesthetic horse-races like no other)

Here’s a movie that exists in the spaces between other movies. So tiny, so inconsequential, so definitively lost in translation … and yet loaded with fetching faces (chief among them non-actor Norah Jones, who has the most beautiful screen neck of the year) and lovingly photographed rivulets of ice cream cascading down mashed blueberry pie. MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS is the kind of guilty pleasure you have to earn.

9) LEATHERHEADS (George Clooney)
“Not so fast, hotshot,” the critical establishment replied when Clooney attempted to follow his masterful GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK with this utterly breezy charmer, kind of an old-school Barry Levinson thing right down to the perfect Randy Newman score. Quick-witted, nice to look at, and harmlessly in love with itself. It would seem a hard movie to dislike, but many did.

8) DOOMSDAY (Neil Marshall)
Utterly nuts. English horror auteur Marshall followed his terrific THE DESCENT with this mad John Carpenter pastiche (right down to the font used for the credits), but unlike most of the dreadful Carpenter remakes of late, this one gets the grime, bitterness, and playful nihilism. And lead toughie/looker Rhona Mitra makes for a fine Snake Plissken proxy. Just the kind of spirited mish-mash I dig.

7) IRON MAN (Jon Favreau)
First-rate second-rate moviemaking. Take away Robert Downey, Jr and his improvised laugh lines, replace him with Nic Cage, and IRON MAN would be unwatchable studio product. The script and story are deeply second-rate, especially once the movie clears the still-catchy Stan Lee origin story that makes up the first act. But, of course, add Downey (along with the best cast a popcorn movie has had in decades) and you’ve got the very definition of a movie that pleased everyone by offending nobody. Watch for IRON MAN 2 to be utterly excoriated by the Fanboy Nation for daring to exist, or for not being “dark” enough.

6) HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY (Guillermo Del Toro)
I was dragged against my will to see this one at the dollar theater. Turned out the price was right. While Del Toro’s initial entry in this wanna-be franchise remains rather lackluster, this sequel had enough of the dark PAN’S LABYRINTH pixie-dust sprinkled on it to rise above the standard-issue source material (Hellboy is an exact dupe of The Thing, from The Fantastic Four, in terms of huggability.) And the stand-off with the forest elemental is one of the stand-out scenes of the movie year.

5) BE KIND REWIND (Michel Gondry)
I couldn’t imagine I would have cottoned to this, but then again I couldn’t imagine artsy-fartsy show-off Michel Gondry would have invested the movie with so much warmth and soul (and movie love.) Like last year’s LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, this one takes a surprisingly warm-hearted view of a community coming together in support of something utterly ludicrous. It also contains the oddest allusions to Fats Waller since ERASERHEAD.

4) STREET KINGS (David Ayer)
I suppose people hate Keanu Reeves more than they like co-scripter James Ellroy, based on the reception to this underrated toughie. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to achieve, as self-consciousness tends to wear down on the organic bleakness of the original noir cycle, but STREET KINGS takes place in a particularly morally grimy Los Angeles. And Keanu works just fine. (Gravitas comes to everyone, if the career is long enough.)

3) THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Justin Chadwick)
Any sleazy historical drama that comes in at under two hours and features two of the most beautiful young women on the planet is already well on its way to three-star glory, but BOLEYN resurrects the trash-history genre in higher-style (and with a lot more fun) than the early-year reviews let on.

The Coens, coming off their masterpiece NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, slip back into their happy side-career of churning out three-star comedies; BURN is no different, and no weightier, which to some people reads as a punishable offense after OLD MEN’s heavy-lifting. But as with every minor Coen picture since O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, the true pleasures of BURN are in the precision and details, most of which only reveal themselves on second viewing. And Brad Pitt deserves an Oscar nom here, in an alternate universe.

1) MAMMA MIA! (Phyllida Lloyd)
Indeed. Here’s a movie-musical to separate those who take life too seriously, and those who love Abba. There are no other kinds of people, but if you love Meryl Streep like I do, add that ardor into the mix as well and you’ve a guilty pleasure that I’m feeling less and less guilty about. If every movie were as exuberant as MAMMA MIA, we wouldn’t need daylight.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Abba Daba Honeymoon

Can I say that Mamma Mia is a good movie? Well, that depends on your definition of what a “good movie” is. I liked it, almost enough to say “I liked it a lot.” But this one is a musical, so right there, I’ve lost a good number of you. And it’s not a post-modern musical, where its supposed to be odd that they’re breaking out in song, either. It’s of the traditional cheapie variety, and most people who don’t like musicals have seen very few, and very few that they’ve seen are of the "B-level" Mickey & Judy variety, where the production value is right there in those energetic faces, voices, and feet and nowhere else.

It would, however, be wrong to pretend that Mamma Mia is some kind of threadbare thing; truly morally inferior for me to try to get those with the desire to house independent-minded underdogs to adopt another cause. No, this is a big-budget (in terms of cast and location and material) musical that is not trying to sell you on the idea of the genre. It assumes you already are inclined towards it (as I mysteriously but happily am, being an otherwise graceless guy). It is not part of the whole “selling the irony kids on musicals” genre either, like the enormously popular but still-suspect Moulin Rouge – but not last year’s magnificent and growing Across The Universe, which is another argument.

Mamma Mia is not even as “good” in the objective sense as the derided film version of The Producers from a few years back. That one was good, better than it’s rep. I think people were just tired of the show by then, and many had been watching that movie for forty years at that point. And Mamma is certainly not VERY good, like last year’s terrific Hairspray. It’s good like Joel Schumacher’s Lloyd Weber Phantom film. That is, it's good, unless you hate musicals. Terrible, if you do.

And also “good” if you root for movies, if you’re on the side of movies while you’re watching them, especially ones like Mamma Mia, which start off on a purposeful but unsteady foot, and falter here and there, but hang together with verve, and deny cynicism. If you enjoy not enjoying movies, you certainly won’t enjoy this one. It is full of reasons not to like it, if that’s what turns your on. Much of the staging is uninspired, the plot is utterly kooky in a way that makes certain men uneasy, and – easiest target of all – Pierce Brosnan cannot sing, not even talk-sing like Rex Harrison. In fact, if you do like not liking things, I recommend this film to you, because you will have a great time fuming and thinking of ways to say you didn’t like it. It’s very screwy, silly, faux-gay, chintzy, admittedly.

So you’re thinking, there I’ve spent this whole blog entry talking about reasons you won’t like it, and I’ve already implied that I like it, so am I trying to make enemies of the void? Is this blog turning into one of those misanthropic things that get mysteriously deleted whenever things get shaky? Don’t worry, it’s not.

Here’s why I liked Mamma Mia. Firstly, two things. Meryl Streep is my favorite screen actor of all time, and she looks like she’s having a great time here in a role that is “beneath her” - but if we really feel so harshly about artists that we don’t allow them to have fun in roles we don’t approve of them taking, then do we really like them at all? Or do we hate them and own them, like unloved pets? So I like Meryl Streep as a person (who I’ve never met, but I’ve seen in a lot of her movies, which is more than I know about some people I’ve worked with for years), so seeing her happy makes me happy. She throws herself into this role just like she does any other, and she’s wonderful

Also, I’m a huge fan of ABBA. Yes, I know, for a long time rock critics were anti-ABBA, mainly because of the outfits and the tenuous connection to disco. But in the last, say, 15 years, the critics have come around (even guys like Elvis Costello) and recognized that the four Swedes produced pop music with inherent smarts; a deep understanding of what sounds good, and (adopted English or no) at least a few pop songs with weightier lyrics and themes than we sometimes find on the top forty.

“The Winner Takes It All,” for instance, may be the greatest break-up song I can think of. It’s obviously a creation forged in real emotion, and it has the arc and drama of theater, and it sounds great and sad. There’s a scene in Mamma Mia where my favorite screen actor of all time delivers this song in character and it’s one of the best scenes of the year, movie-wise. She’s delivering it to an ex-lover that we have to figure out is an ex-lover (the material the film is based on is smarter than it seems) of more import than two other ex-lovers also hovering about, not because we’re told but because we figure it out, which is the best way to do that. In fact, taken as an entry in the musical genre, Mamma Mia is rather wise and charming about sexual politics and old love. So, yeah, I liked the picture. It moves and has fun and everyone is happy and the plot is just silly enough that I enjoy watching smart people doing their all to pretend it isn’t.

Will you like it? I don't know. Are you me?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rental suggestions

I know most of us don't practice the ritual of picking out video boxes and bringing them up to the front counter of a rental store anymore, and neither do I...

... But if you ever did, and you ever practiced the art of trying-to-get-a-reaction-from-the-clerk-via-your-selection-of-titles, here's the menu for tonight...

THE HAND (Oliver Stone's middling-to-poor early horror film)
F.I.S.T. (Norman Jewison and Stallone's middling late-70s issue picture)
FINGERS (James Toback's electric early feature, with Harvey Keitel and Jim Brown)
DICK (The underrated 90s comedy, featuring a fine Dan Hedaya in the role of Nixon - which seems to be a role one can't miss at; even Steven Seagal might make a convincing Tricky Dick)