In the End, Aren’t We All?

“I’m not the kind that needs to tell you
Just what you want me to.”
Bernard Sumner

When I was a child, my second grade teacher told my class-

“The world is your oyster.”

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

Of course she meant well, and was only doing as have teachers for generations: Perpetuating the ethnocentric notion the solar system revolves not around the sun, but Americans. Little did either of us know that some 20 years later I’d be a vegetarian. The point being, I won’t eat the Tournedos de Boeuf  at Le Relais, so I’m sure as shit not eating a wad of living, breathing snot that’s spent its entire life on the ocean floor bathing in toluene and mercury.

Speaking of 20 years ago.

One of the first classes I took at the University of Louisville was a writing course: Poetry. To this day, it remains one of my favorite, and most memorable.

The instructor, whose name I cannot recall at the moment, was a grad student. I do remember her telling us she made so little teaching she had to apply for food stamps. (I’m sure there’s a talking point somewhere in there). She reminded me of a young Mia Farrow. Petite. Cropped blonde hair. Wore those 60’s style mod dresses. The whole shebang. Damn, she was hot. Not a bad teacher in her own right either.

During the semester, we spent as much time at Magnolia Bar as we did in the classroom; ordering pitchers of nice German beer, reading poetry, and talking politics. Although I’m sure we believed ourselves avant garde, in hindsight, it was all so terribly cliché. I will say, however, in my defense, I never wore a beret or a mock turtleneck. Not even once.

Aside from the instructor, one of the more memorable people was Bob. Bob was quite the character. Fancied himself the reincarnation of e.e. cummings, which was ironic considering he also fancied himself the only “Real” poet in the class. In fact, Bob wrote several poems about how the rest of us were poseurs, and that he, and only he truly understood whatever the fuck it is he thinks he understood.

I guess in many respects, Bob was your typical 20 year old know nothing. But then again, not really. For example, Bob’s girlfriend, whom he often brought to class, was still in high school. And not in the “I’m about to graduate” kind of way. If I remember correctly, she just turned 17. And because Bob said they’d been dating for 3 years, that meant aside from being an arrogant tosspot and hack poet, Bob was also a statutory rapist (Oh, and he smoked. Marlboro Lights).

 

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

The only poem Bob wrote worthy of remembrance was one he wrote in response to me. You see, inadvertently I turned in a poem that upset the apple cart of what “Purists” consider “Poetry.” (I know, I can be a real cunt).

What was my crime? Well, I used a Thesaurus. And not in the, “I cannot for the life of me think of the word that’s right there on the tip of my tongue” kind of way. Nope. I used the Thesaurus as my inspiration.

It went like this-

I had a writing assignment due, and I was not having a great deal of luck.

 

Sure, lost/unrequited love is always a safe choice, but that’s been done a time or two. Right? So, I took out my trusty Thesaurus, opened to a random page, closed my eyes, pointed to a word, and used said word to write a line in my poem. I did this 20-25 times until I had a coherent, albeit surreal, poem. In other words, I made something out of nothing, which I thought, and still think, was extremely clever. I mean, let’s be honest, any tosser can write about a broken heart, but taking 25 unrelated random words and turning them into a poem?

No. That ain’t easy.

Carmen (That was her name!), although unsettled by my disregard for the convention, gave me an “A” because the truth was, and remains, the poem was damn good. Ah, but Bob. Bob was distraught. Offended. !OUTRAGED!
 

The crux of the biscuit is: If it entertains you, fine. Enjoy it.
If it doesn’t, then blow it out your ass. I do it to amuse myself.
Frank Zappa

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my closet, and I came across a box filled with old papers.

Quick digression-

While attending Hanover College (1992-1993), one of my closest friends was African (Actually, he’s still African), and he said to me one day (I’ll paraphrase as we were under the influence of some nice German beer at the time)-

You know the behavior that truly makes Americans such a strange species? It’s the fact that you’re the only animal on Earth actively engaged in collecting “Stuff.” You fill drawers, closets, rooms, garages with junk. You’re so obsessed with stuff you’re willing to pay a monthly fee for someone else to store it for you when you run out of space in your homes. I don’t think you understand how bizarre this behavior is to the rest of the world. In Africa, if an item doesn’t have a practical use, like a bowl for example, it’s garbage. Simple. Holding onto something because it has “Sentimental value” or because 25 years from now I may need it, makes no sense. We don’t have shelves for “knick-knacks” or “junk drawers.” You Americans are fucked in the head. (Around this same time, George Carlin did a bit on Americans and their “Stuff”).

Anyway.

As I’m going through my box of “Junk,” I happen to discover, of all things, Bob’s poem. Took me back. Not just to that class, but back to my early 20’s. A time, if I had time in a bottle, I’d love to re-visit. Alas. So, not being able to time travel (literally), I decided to do so (figuratively).

As I read the words, I imagined Bob’s smug face haloed by that cheesy white boy afro-

I

am a poet.

you.

<write>

with dictionary in

hand.

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

In the end, the joke was on Bob because as he read each sneering word, I was oblivious to the fact his poem was an intended jab at me. In fact, if not for my friend Jennifer, I’d remain oblivious to this very day.

“Why should I be upset?” I responded.

“Bob’s poem was about you. The ‘dictionary?’ Get it?”

“’Dictionary?’ What does that have to do with me?”

“You used a Thesaurus for your poem last week. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember. A Thesaurus. Not a dictionary.”

“Are you fucking with me?” she asked exasperated

Truth be told, I wasn’t fucking with her, I’m just not a fan of poetry. At least, not a fan of reading poetry. I find it Opaque, and pretentious. As a result, I generally skim through unless I find a particularly interesting line or passage. Otherwise, ten minutes later, I don’t remember a bloody thing.

This was especially true with Bob. I’d read his poems, make some inane comment-

 “Great job!”

 

“Super duper!”

 

“Didn’t e.e. cummings write this poem in 1933?.”

 

 “Your girlfriend is a child, Bob. Does her father know you’re 24, and after four years in college, still an undeclared Sophomore?”

 

And move on with my day.

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

But now, some 20 years later, I find myself not only reading Bob’s dis, but responding. Although not as I, nor he, I’m sure, anticipated (If we were rappers, I imagine my street cred would have evaporated long ago. Thankfully, I never went into the Rap Game. Although, according to my second grade teacher, there’s no reason I couldn’t).

 

Strapped with a Gat when I’m walking through Compton.
Easy E

When I lived in St. Louis, I spent my days in the company of gangsters.

Not exactly what Republican mom imagined for her only son, I’m sure, but one of the risks you take when you tell your child he can do anything he wants is- He may actually try.

So, after spending two years in Florida working as a counselor with “At-Risk Youth,” (Did I mention I worked as a counselor? Yep, did that for about six years). I moved westward. And in short time, found myself in St. Louis playing spades with car thieves, drug dealers, and drive-by shooters, hoping beyond hope that, at age 27, I could teach a group of young, mostly black males from the inner city, something, anything, to keep them out of prison and alive.

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

(Fast forwarding to the end)-

Truth be told, it was they who taught me. I learned how to dis Crips (Crabs) and Bloods (Slobs). I learned guns were “Burners,” and that it’s not uncommon for crack addicts (“Cluckers”) to temporarily trade their cars for crack if they’re short on “Scrilla” (Cash).  It also wasn’t uncommon for a crackhead to awake from their stupor, find their car missing, and call the police to report it stolen.

 But mostly what I learned during that year and a half, is that the world, even in the Land of Milk and Honey, for too many people, is a place where surviving moment to moment is pretty much all one can hope.

One of the more unforgettable kids (among many) was Desmond -“Des Loc”. (Funny, I say “kid,” but by the time I met Des, he’d already, at 15, experienced too much). Desmond was a Rolling Sixties Crip (RSC) with a fairly extensive arrest record. In fact, it was Des’ penchant for getting arrested that brought him to our program. You see Desmond was caught riding in a stolen car. Apparently, a “Clucker,” who traded one of Des’ friends (A drug dealer and RSC) his car for some crack cocaine, called the police because Des’ friend kept the car for three days, instead of returning it after 12 hours as was initially agreed (You’d be surprised how “With it” crack addicts can be when it suits them). Of course, Des had nothing to do with it, and didn’t know the car belonged to someone else. He was just along for the ride. The problem was, Des had already been arrested on two other occasions for, you guessed it, being in a stolen car. I told him because of his bad luck with cars maybe he should consider walking or riding the bus. He laughed, shook his head, and said

“Mugs ain’t never right.”

 Translation- “Fuck you.”

When he was 9, Desmond’s father was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Whether it was gang related or not I’m not sure, as Des rarely spoke of his father. He did tell me he hadn’t visited his father in years because he didn’t like going to the prison. What I do know is, at least three of Des’ family members also belonged to the Rolling 60’s, so, there was definitely a familial connection to the street gang.

The only time I saw Desmond’s mother was the day he arrived from detention. She dropped off his clothes. After that, I only spoke to her three or four times during his 60 days in our program (Always on the phone). She seemed a nice woman, and was the only one I ever saw arouse fear in Desmond. She worked second shift at a factory (12 hours), and like most single parents did the best she could for her family. Unfortunately, working second shift meant she slept during the day. As a result, Des lived unsupervised. (“Bad Neighborhood” or not, idle teenage hands are the Devil’s playthings).

To compound matters, two years after his father was imprisoned, Desmond severely scalded the left side of his face, and shoulder pushing his youngest brother out from under a pot of boiling water he pulled down from the stove top. Again, Des offered little information, other than saying he spent several weeks in the hospital, and that he had several skin graft surgeries. I remember attempting to put a positive spin on his disfigurement, telling him how admirable his actions were, but I don’t think it registered. All Des knew was, his face and shoulder were badly scarred. And he was a teenager.

Gangsta or otherwise, kids are cruel.

Desmond got in a lot of fights.

I can make more than that in a day selling drugs. I know it won’t last, and that I’ll eventually end up dead or in prison. But I’m willing to take that risk because right now I can buy my little brother what he wants. And I can help my mom pay the bills. The truth is, I just don’t give a fuck.

The last conversation I ever had with Desmond was the day he was released from our program (After his second go round). Although I was no longer working in the drug program, I cleared my schedule, and volunteered to drive Des home. I’m not sure why, other than to say I liked Des, because at that point, I’d only seen Desmond a couple times in the last year. During his second stint, I was working in the Youth Psychiatric Department, and although I tried to visit, I could never find the time. Not that I think it would have made any difference. He was much harder then when we’d originally met. His face chiseled beyond his 16 years. And he didn’t seem to smile much anymore. His caseworker (who also knew Des from his first time through) said he was a completely different person. Or he’d simply dropped the act, and was letting us see the real Des. The Des who carried a gun, and sold drugs, and rode in stolen cars. The Des who learned to survive by “Hustling.”

I must admit, it was somewhat of a blow to my ego when I realized Des had more than likely gamed us his first time through the program. You see, despite growing up on different planets, I really believed Desmond and I connected. Just as in the real world, when you work as a counselor, there are always clients (People) you like better than others. And Des was one of my favorites. I used to joke with my girlfriend that if they’d let me, I’d adopt Desmond and send him to a private college far away from Rolling Sixties Crips and Tree Top Pirus. Des was smart, which was why I liked him. He had “Potential.”

Sounds crazy, right? A Gangster with Potential. But it’s true. They’re really, once you get passed the persona, just kids. Sure, some of them are sociopaths, but so are some of you.

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

On the way to his house Desmond asked if I’d stop at a gas station so he could buy some cigarettes. I agreed. And even offered to pay.

Newports.

Des and some of the other kids used to tease me because I smoked Newports.

 “Why you smoke Newports Mr. D? You should be smoking Marlboros”

 “Marlboros? Those nasty things. Fuck that. I told you. My mom smoked Kool Milds, and when I started smoking, I’d steal cigarettes from her. I got used to the menthol. Can’t stand Marlboros. Those are white people cigarettes.”

 They’d laugh, and tell me I was crazy.

So, here we were, Des and I, one of the most deadly tandems in Spades you’d ever want to meet (“We be Smashin’ Mugs”), sharing a last cigarette as if headed to an execution. The entire ride I tried to think of something. Something inspiring. I know, in hindsight, I was being ridiculous, but Desmond, more than most, had a chance, if only there was a way to spark him.

But my mind was blank.

Finally, I said something like-

“You could go to college, Des. That’s no shit. You’re smart. Naturally so. You need to get your ass of the ‘Bricks,’ and back into school. Get a job. You’re wasting time. Time you’ll never get back.”

He looked at me with disdain in his eye.

“Man, fuck that job shit. I had a job. I worked two weeks and they paid me $200. Fuck that, cuz. That’s some straight up bullshit.”

The rest of the ride we sat in silence. Des played with the radio, and in my head, I silently agreed with his assessment-

Jobs suck.

As we pulled up to his house, he almost had the door open before we’d stopped.

“Take it easy, Mr. D,” he said leaning against the door in the “Set” position.

“You, too, Des. Be careful out there. At least think about what I said. You know you can call us any time. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the program or not. We’d love to know how you’re doing. At least I know I would.”

“Cool. Well, later.”

“Later, Desmond.”

We shook hands. He got out. Closed the door. Ran to up the steps and into his house.

I never saw Desmond again.

“Kill or Be Killed” was what the scribbled tattoo on his forearm said.

This is the United States of America.

Talk about “Bullshit.”

There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful,
that it’s going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
Frank Zappa

 

 I realize we’ve reached the point in the story where I’m supposed to fit all this nonsense together, and leave you, the reader, with a nice neat conclusion. Unfortunately, I cannot. Because that’s not how life works. And this is a story of my life. Or at least pieces of it. I’m working through it just as you are, and as of yet, I have no conclusion. Nor am I certain how these seemingly random events are linked. I just know they are.

 I can tell you I began this essay (If that’s what it is) in response to not only Bob, but to all the critics of the world. Those people who say “Don’t do that” or “Don’t do this” for no other reason than “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” People who tell us we can’t use certain words or inform us with little frowny faces on our papers that we’re breaking the rules.

You know- Fascists.

 But that is hardly sufficient, and isn’t even remotely close. Sure, I’m oppositional. I’ll use a word just because I know it will make you uncomfortable. Hell, your world of convention makes me uncomfortable damn near every day. Won’t kill you to taste a little of your own. It’s good for you to read/hear/experience what makes you feel oogly inside. If nothing else, it builds character.

 However, again, that’s only a sliver of the truth. I’m not that superficial.

Well, not always.

 I guess Desmond’s story offers perspective in relation to the absurdity of Bob, and to some extent Carmen, fretting over what constitutes “Real” poetry. I mean, what a sanctimonious twat he was. But I don’t want to cheapen Desmond’s story by comparing him to a sanctimonious twat such as Bob. Desmond’s story is real, and whether we like it or not there are thousands of Desmonds out there.

It is both comical and tragic.

The wealthiest, most powerful nation in human history has “Gangsters” running its streets, slanging drugs, shooting each other, dying for no goddamn reason other than people are busy obsessing over Janet Jackson’s nipple or “Real” poetry because those things are more palatable. Right?

 Shooting ABC or CBS a nasty email takes five minutes. And more importantly, you can do it anonymously.

 Confronting poverty, gangs, violence?

 Shit, now you’re talking about a commitment. About “Putting in work,” as they say on the Bricks. Who has the time for that? “True Grit” is opening this weekend, and I already promised the wife and kids we’d go. John Wayne was a “Real” American, you know? Alcoholic, racist, misogynistic. A man’s man.

 Besides, poor people don’t have to live that way. They can always get a better job, and move. Right?

Whenever I think of Bob, and the other drive-by censors I’ve encountered in my life, I’m reminded of a Colonel Kurtz’s words from the final scene in Apocalypse Now-

We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!

Ha! What a bunch of nonsense.

Ah, shit. You see, I’m getting on my soapbox. Feeling the righteousness. But I don’t want that either.

 Words matter. Without them civilization does not exist. Kingdoms are built on the backs of words. With words we convey love, anger, hatred, joy, and everything in between. Words have tremendous power. However, unto themselves, they are nothing more than characters on a page. They, by themselves, cannot topple civilization.

 But our indifference, and preoccupation with bullshit sure can.

 ************************************************************************

 The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.
George Carlin

When I was a child, my teacher told a group of eight and nine year old, almost exclusively white, privileged American girls and boys,

“The world is your oyster.”

I can only assume in her heart of hearts, she thought she was doing the “Right thing.” Or she had, at the very least, convinced herself that’s what she was doing. Either way, I know she meant well. She was merely trying to encourage us. What’s always bothered me about her declaration is, I can’t say, with any certainty, she wasn’t being deceitful. I mean, she had to know the notion anyone can do anything was/is Preposterous. Right? If not, she was/is (If she’s still amongst the living) a goddamn fool.

Of course, in the end, aren’t we all?

i am a poet.

i.

<write>

~ by fairlane on September 12, 2011.

4 Responses to “In the End, Aren’t We All?”

  1. As usual, clams get the short end of the aphorism stick.

    So are you alive, or is this a Zombie Fairlane gone horribly awry?

  2. well, nothing like an end of summer re-run. say, are you gonna eat that doughnut, or can I have it?

  3. r.g.-this be i, sir.

    ok-i think it’s a jelly. have at it.

  4. Okay, so it took me a few days to realize you might have made a flyby at JT but it’s good to read your snark again.

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