Friday, April 16, 2010

The Hit And Run

I came to Los Angeles several times before moving here. Two days after Cash was born I was flown out on a callback for a beer commercial. That was my first time in LA. The second time I came I booked myself into an Extended Stay hotel for a couple of weeks and tried to scare up some meetings. The third time I came...well, that's what this post is really about.

Earlier that year, 2000, my cousin Mike had been visiting New York. As usual, debauchery and comedy ensued. This might have been the beginning of the 'Law and Order' skit that we've been amusing ourselves with, whereby a regular civilian when faced with homicide detectives, continues vigorously polishing silverware or stacking cantaloupes instead of sitting the hell down and answering the questions.

And Mike played me Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. I remember we were riding in a cab somewhere, it was already quite late, and Mike said in that insistent tone I've come to expect great things from, "Dude, you've gotta listen to this album."

The Clash had been the template for the band I'd been in in high school. As much as I love The Replacements, The Clash are the true height of rock and roll. Some famous quote called them "The Only Band That Matters" or something to that effect. And I think in many ways that was true. For my friends and I their breakup was as crushing as The Beatles had been to the Baby Boomers.

And then Joe Strummer disappeared. Mick Jones pushed the boundaries of popular music with his rock/rap outfit Big Audio Dynamite, music that is still influencing the scene today. If you check out their stuff you'll not be able to believe it was recorded in the '80's.

But Joe Strummer? He was our Springsteen. Imagine that for the next TEN YEARS Bruce Springsteen was silent. Well, that's what Joe Strummer did. That's how punk rock that fucker was.

He'd put out the excellent 'Earthquake Weather' in 1989, he'd done some work with The Pogues, but it all felt like after-thoughts, like he'd decided to have some fun.

But when 'Rock Art & The X-Ray Style' snaked out of those headphones into my ears in early 2000 in a cab shooting up 6th avenue, I knew this was no after-thought.

Cut to LA. I'm again visiting knocking on mostly closed doors. This time, due to financial considerations, I'm staying at Cashel's uncle, my former brother in law's house. But I'm spending most of my time with Mike and Lisa in Venice. Mike excitedly tells me that Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros are playing The Troubador, the famed West Hollywood club. Mike immediately snaps up tickets. The next night I'll be seeing a hero.

I shoot up the 10 in my teeny Ford Aveo rent-a-car. In some strange fit of fiscal irresponsibility I've paid for every bit of insurance one can buy, even though my credit card supposedly covers me anyway. I am jazzed about the prospect of seeing one of the few heroes I have.

I exit the 10 onto Crenshaw. At the top of the ramp I skirt right through the tail end of a yellow light. It's about 2AM so traffic is slight. About 50 yards up Crenshaw is the ramp from the 10 going in the other direction. As I take my left onto Crenshaw that light turns green. I continue through it, thinking about Joe Strummer.

As I cross under the light, I see out of my peripheral vision a car barreling up the ramp. I realize they are not stopping at the light. They've come off the highway and must be going close to 50MPH. I brace for impact.

All is quiet. I spin, lights trace, wheel turns. I whip the wheel to keep myself from flying into the oncoming traffic of the other lane. I do either a 360 or a 720, I'm still not sure which and I come to a stop in the lane I was in but facing in the opposite direction. Imagine a car parked in a lane facing the wrong way. My brain is boggled.

The car that hit me was a giant American model. They'd taken a left onto Crenshaw, plowed through me and now pulled over on the overpass.

Here's where things get kooky.

In my head I can see the driver get out of the car and take a few steps in my direction. They are maybe 20 yards away. They are either a tall skinny black man or a short fat black woman. Both images are equally real in my memory. Perhaps there were two people in the car but I guess I'll never know. Because he/she got back in their damaged car and took off.

I sat stunned in my crumpled Aveo. An SUV was stopped at the light in the lane going the other direction. We were separated by the divider. The woman leaned out of her car and said, "You should get out of the're gonna get hit again."

I thought that seemed like a sensible idea so I put the hazards on and stepped out of the car. I walked around it onto the median strip. I felt soft and over-inflated. I sat down on the ground and called 911. Then I called Mike. He said he was leaving immediately from Venice and would be there in 20 minutes.

I could now see the damage to the passenger side of the car. It was considerable. The car had struck my car right over the back wheel well, which had saved my life. If it had hit me a second sooner it would have caught my car right in the middle and pushed me into oncoming traffic where I'd have been hit head on. As it was the whole left side was punctured and indented from the impact.

More kookiness ensued.

As I sat there, a car came chugging up from the ramp where my hit-and-run attacker had come from. This car was on fire.

A small white car, perhaps a Toyota Celica or something along those lines. It rolled to a stop directly across the street from me and the driver got out. He was a small Mexican man wearing a baseball cap. He ran across the street to a house yelling, "Agua! Agua!" Another man, perhaps his father, came running out with a bucket of water and proceeded to douse the engine. I knew this was a bad idea but I was still too shocked to try to communicate with them. The hissing from the water hitting the hot engine block sounded heinous.

The fire truck came and put the car out. It took a few attempts to explain to the firemen that these two cars were completely unrelated to one another. They asked if I was hurt and I didn't think that I was. Although my head was ringing and my ears were stuffed with cotton.

Mike came. He waited for me until the cops came which was quite some time. Apparently, if you're ever in a car accident in LA and need assistance, you have to say that you thought the other person had a gun. Then the cops will rush right over to you. But if there isn't a gun involved they have better things to do.

Needless to say it was pretty cut and dried since it was a hit and run. The extra insurance paid for the car which was totaled. I went back with Mike to his apartment and gingerly went to sleep, but not before I terrified Melody by leaving her a voice message which said something like...

"Hey babe. Got into a car accident. I'm at Mike's and I'm just gonna go to sleep."

She freaked out! Pictured me like the folks in the movie who just want to lie down after head trauma. But no, it wasn't that severe. However, I was rattled to a very intense degree. I was sore all over, very emotional, spacey, name it.

We didn't go see Joe Strummer because of it.

I don't care about the car. I don't care about the occasional aches and pains I still get. I don't care about the shudder when I cross that intersection again, which I do at least 10 times a week.

No. I care that those fuckers drove up the Crenshaw ramp and killed my last chance to see Joe Strummer in person. He'd be dead in a year. They didn't kill me, though.

You hear that whoever the fuck you are? You didn't get me.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Toenail Of The Living Dead

I was fired from the first job I ever had. As a janitor. Not exactly an auspicious debut in the workforce.

I was hired by the school department to clean up Hazard Elementary School over the summer with the custodial staff. They got there at 7, started work at roughly 9:30 after reading the paper and smoking assorted cigarettes, and worked sporadically throughout the day until cutting out early.

I immediately adopted their routine. When the district supervisor came down on them for their lack of progress they sold me down the river and I was fired.

Less than a week later I started working at Belmont Fruit, a small market that stocked fresh fruit and vegetables in their retail store and also sold wholesale produce to local restaurants. This job would define my summers for the next half decade as I continued to work there through my college years.

I began as The Corn Boy. The Corn Boy is a fixture in South County. Each morning somewhere between eighty and one hundred bags of fresh corn were loaded off of a truck and onto three long low tables that sat in front of the market. As Corn Boy I was the keeper of the cob.

I donned a thick heavy white apron. Customers would tell me they needed a dozen, two dozen, three ears, five small two large, nine magically perfect cobs, whatever. I would take a brown paper bag and quickly pack the desired amount.

This job was murder on your hands because you had to quickly peel back the silk to make sure there weren't worms or earwigs or small mammals hiding in the ear. By the end of each day my hands would be destroyed.

Then there were the personalities. People get crazy about corn. They were born with some instinctual genius and special knowledge about what makes a good ear. Even though you handle roughly 75,000 ears a DAY they assume you know nothing about it. They'll try to convince you that you can find a dozen ears of white kernel corn when the entire shipment is yellow. They give you tips on shucking. A rhyming ghost of "shuck you" was constantly haunting my tongue.

After a few months of this job I could tell a tourist from a local in point five seconds.

I transitioned to my next job at Belmont, The Trimmer. Instead of being parked out front of the store I was now buried in the back where the Wholesale operation was housed. The Trimmer prepared every head of lettuce that wound up on the Retail floor. This was a considerable amount. They stocked red leaf, green leaf, iceberg, romaine, Boston (both hydroponic and ground grown), red cabbage, green cabbage, chicory, and any number of seasonal varieties and exotic additions.

The heads arrived in cardboard boxes direct from farms or distribution centers. Often the farm dirt still clung to the stems. The Trimmer took a sharp knife and sliced the rough end of the stem off, washed the head in water if it called for it, and placed it on a counter to dry for a short period. Then when you had an adequate amount you loaded it all into a shopping cart and went out and restocked the shelves.

The iceberg had its own process. It was not washed. We had a machine with a hot metal rod, a roll of plastic and a hot plate. You enveloped the head in a sheet of plastic, dragged it over the heated metal rod to cut the plastic and then melted it closed on the hot plate.

I have one visible scar on my hand from cutting myself with the trimming knife. My hands were so cold from washing the lettuce that I didn't know I'd cut myself. I looked in the shopping cart at the heads of iceberg that I'd wrapped and noticed that there were three dark red heads. It took me a second to realize what I'd done.

After a summer of being The Trimmer I moved to another position, one that I would continue to hold for the rest of my time at Belmont Fruit. I became a Wholesale Delivery guy. I packed vans with orders placed by local restaurants and then took "runs" in which I drove all over Southern Rhode Island dropping off boxes and boxes of produce to every variety of establishment.

This is where I condemned my toenail to eternal damnation.

I used a hand truck to move the vegetables around. You stored it in the truck with you and pulled it out as needed. Very quickly I became like a samurai with the thing, whipping it around without even thinking about it.

One day I was trying to get a case of cabbage around the back of the van. Chen's was a local Chinese restaurant that I vowed never to eat in again once I saw the kitchen. Their parking lot was very awkward for deliveries. They also used infinite heads of cabbage. Which is HEAVY. Especially when there are four or five cases of it stacked on top of one another.

Well, I tried to hop a curb with the weighted hand truck. The metal sheet which the cases rested on came to an edge below a ladder like backing. I often put my foot in the lowest rung and used my leg to lift the burden. This time the wheel caught the curb and the metal edge came down on my toe.

Even through a heavy work boot it hurt like a mother. I jumped around yelling as various inscrutable Chinese stared at me from through the screen door that separated the kitchen from the parking lot. I cursed them for their damn two hundred pounds of cabbage and the suspicious meat boiling in some barely cleaned bathtub. I shook off the pain and went about my business.

When I got home later that day I took off my shoe. That poor toe looked like a crime scene photo. I iced it but it stayed purple for almost the rest of the summer.

Now, I've known people who have crushed a toenail, or a fingernail. What usually happens is the nail dies and then is pushed out by a new nail, a better nail. But my toe must have made some pact with the Foot Devil because that didn't happen.

No, MY toenail turned black, back to purple, then it dulled down to a dusty gray. It has been that way for over two decades. The nail doesn't grow. I don't have to cut it. But it doesn't fall out either.

It hovers between ours and the underworld, waiting to seek eternal revenge on some deep orthopedic level known only to digits, cursed to forever exist in limbo, the toenail of the living dead.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Case Of The Governor's Limo

When my parents realized that a third child was on the way they moved into a neighborhood known as Rolling Acres, a quarter mile loop of modest houses off of a small thoroughfare that connected Peacedale and Kingston. It was 1972.

Til then we'd lived in a small apartment in the heart of Peacedale and I have memories of that time that mostly come from photographs I've seen. The old lady across the street. The dusty courtyard that served as a playground. My mum cutting my dad's hair and snipping a tiny bit of his ear. But I was three when we moved and I have a feeling that these memories are anecdotal, told to me, not intrinsic.

The new house seemed like a magical place. I quickly made two great friends in Billy Hodge who lived directly across the street and Brian Quinn who lived five houses down on the same side as ours. Now, as I've said before, I dreamed only of a career as a professional athlete. The irony? My childhood neighbors would both grow up to be two of the best athletes ever to go to South Kingstown High School. By that point I was limping along and slowly realizing that if I was ever going to be an athlete I would have to play one in a film.

We raced around the loop of our world on bikes, on foot, shooting each other with imaginary guns, throwing real rocks at each other, climbing up and falling out of trees, up ramps, down bush laden hills and in and out of each others kitchens.

Brian and I were born three days apart and both of us were tiny babies. Brian was a twin and both his sister and he were so small they had to be put in incubators. No giant myself I was one ounce over the incubator weight limit and was not given that extra boost. I always secretly believed this was why Brian grew up to be 6' 1" and blindingly fast and I stayed average on both counts.

If Billy wasn't around I would run down the block to Brian's. Soon I was riding a small bike the short distance. For quite awhile after learning to ride I couldn't start or stop, I could only pedal. I would go crashing onto the Quinn's lawn and then either Mr. or Mrs. Quinn would give me a push to get me started on the way back home.

If we wanted to get back to my house fast, sometimes Brian would pedal and I'd sit behind him. Soon I began to be annoyed at this. It was my bike, why did he drive? Finally I insisted that I should drive and he should sit behind ME. I think he knew something I didn't because he skeptically agreed. He was already much bigger than me and somehow this didn't factor in to my appraisal of the situation.

Now comes the larger context that must be explained. Also across the street from us lived a nice family called the Driscolls. Mr. Driscoll was a high ranking member of the State Police who much later would go on David Letterman to show off the prize winning uniforms of the Rhode Island State Police. At this time his duty involved accompanying the Governor as a security detail. The limo used to pick up and transport the Gov was often parked on the street in front of the Driscoll's yard. They'd have parked it in the driveway but their house was actually on a steep little hill so fitting the long limo in there was tough.

Brian and I set out from the Quinn's. I struggled mightily to get the bike going fast enough. We wobbled back and forth crazily. If we'd been in a car we'd have looked like a couple of drunks. Brian hung on for dear life probably ruing the decision to let a pipsqueak like me try to pedal him around. As my house loomed I began to lose control completely.

We careened from one side of the street to the other. No sidewalks were present to bounce us to a stop. No cars came along to force us into a premature cessation. Somehow our speed increased in spite of my inability to control the trajectory of the bike. The wheel was jack-knifing under my guidance, handlebars whipping to and fro.

Somehow my house seemed more distant than ever even though we were quickly approaching. The black limo sat across from my house and was the only car in sight.

As the handlebar scraped along the door it made an ungodly sound, like some underworld beast dragging his filthy clawed fingernails across a Hellacious blackboard. We bounced off of the black metal, returned to it as if it was magnetized, bounced away again and fell against it in a heap. I had a stinging pain in my right hip where I'd hit something, the ground, a twisted pedal, the car itself, I don't know.

We slowly stood up and looked at the Governor's limo. A giant scrape ran down the length of the car. It looked as if Paul Bunyon had keyed it.

Brian told me to stop crying. I should only cry if I was bleeding. I stopped immediately but there was still the question of our impending arrest to deal with. The cover-up started immediately. We rushed my bike into my back yard and hid it in the basement so the cops couldn't run forensic tests on the handlebars and match the paint. We had a hushed intense conversation in the basement about who might have seen us, what we would say when we were interrogated, and how we would come up with the bribe money we would need to keep us out of prison for the rest of our lives.

After getting our story straight we went upstairs to the kitchen. My mum was busy doing something. I was still stifling the tears I shouldn't be crying because I wasn't bleeding. Then I went to the bathroom.

My hip was torn to shreds. It was as if I'd been shot. There was a deep gouge, a hole. My shorts were soaked with blood. It ran down my leg from underneath them. It is still a scar, a raised pucker of flesh. I came out and triumphantly showed it to Brian and promptly resumed my well-earned tears.

I only tell this story now because the Statute of Limitations has expired and I cannot be prosecuted for my heinous crime.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Seventeen Year Blue Rose

Pleurisy is a glamorous Gothic ailment known mostly by its theatrical nickname "Blue Roses", a handle given to it by the immortal Tennessee Williams in "The Glass Menagerie". Young Laura mishears her diagnosis and romanticizes the result, transforming a pulmonary condition into a strange and wonderful flower.

I have twice had the misfortune of falling under its spell.

The first came on the heels of my appendix surgery as I recuperated at my parents house. My system was quite weakened from the surgery and I tried to come back to work too early, resulting in a near total collapse at a middle school in mid-performance.

I've never been good with spare time. I was at loose ends. I was too young and dumb to do everything I needed to do to get healthy. I drank. I smoked, both legal and illicit material. The mental aspect of my convalescence was non-existent. There was a profound disconnect going on, my pessimism surrounding my health kept me from making any real effort at getting better. This would continue long past this episode, seventeen years into the future to the second time I got pleurisy.

But back to 1993. I began having massive chest pains. Earlier in the year I'd been diagnosed with a cartilage tear in my sternum from doing push-ups. So for a week or so I ignored this deep ache, thinking it to be the result of resuming light workouts. But it soon was keeping me up at night, which wasn't hard to do as I'd become a determined insomniac by this point.

I slept on the couch in my parents living room even though there were three open bedrooms at my disposal. This drove my father crazy. He would bark at me in the mornings to get in a bed for chrissakes but something about the transience of the couch felt more accurate. I channel surfed for hours at a time and took cigarette breaks on our back porch, staring out into the quiet dark hush of our gorgeous back yard.

A quick word about me and cigarettes. I am always tempted by porches, balconies, rooftops, fire escapes, or exposed stairwells. If I am not on the ground, if I am raised at all above the landscape, I instantly want a cigarette. Thankfully I've been off the sticks for a couple of years now and will never go back but a nice balcony can give me that nostalgic urge.

The weight in my chest seemed to deepen considerably one day and I reluctantly went to the doctor. My reluctance isn't out of any fear it is simply that I have been so consistently plagued that I have emotionally trended towards a Christian Science attitude towards medicine. Not out of scorn or disbelief but simply out of annoyance at how much TIME I've spent in some tiny antiseptic office with a puzzled doctor drawing at straws.

When the doctor said the word "pleurisy" it rang a faint bell. I'd of course seen "The Glass Menagerie" and performed scenes from it but I mostly connected to Laura's limp, probably because of The Wheelchair Storm Tableau.

Pleurisy, by definition, is an inflammation of the lining of the lung. People complain of stabbing pains that worsen when they take deep breaths. This was what it was like for me. I was given anti-inflammatory and anti-biotics. I was told to rest which was ironic since I'd been sitting on a couch for a month already.

During this time I was suffering great pain and uncertainty in my personal life. I was trying not to hope that Maria would break up with her husband and choose me. This made the complications my romantic life had cultivated in college look like junior high dance intrigue. I felt guilty just thinking about it. It forced a new-found sense of morality out of me, made me see how much I craved a real relationship, one based on trust and mutual attraction.

The ache in my chest seemed to be an outgrowth of this heart pain. I burrowed deeper into the couch and wondered if I'd ever have the kind of ache that would come from a heart bursting at the seams instead of encroached upon by infection.

Like a locust the pleurisy dug back into the soil.

When they say "the more things change the more they stay the same" I am inclined to agree with them. In 2009, I was still trying to get healthy. I had quit smoking on January 1, 2008 and lost almost thirty pounds by taking up swimming. But I was still shooting myself in the foot. I let unchecked anger rampage on a regular basis. I had quit cigarettes but I had regular cigars and occasional happy grass. The pattern of self-abuse continued, much like it did as I stood on my parents porch and smoked cigarettes in the dark. I refused to truly believe in my ability to achieve a healthy constitution so that let me off the hook in much of my choices.

I tend not to talk in terms of regret because I prefer to accept whatever choice I make as the best one I could make under the given set of circumstances. But I regret that flaw in me, that inability to perceive a different reality for myself. In quick succession, as I made effort to get healthy, I inhaled myself into pneumonia and a second blooming of Blue Roses.

The double whammy was terrifying. I spent weeks in bed, exhausted to the core if I had to so much as go to the bathroom. I simply could not shake it. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Once I began to feel ill I wasn't lighting up Cuban cigars and saying, "What the hell does it matter?" No. I took my medicine. I drank loads of water. I desperately wanted to heal.

But the cumulative damage I'd done made any kind of quick recovery difficult. This was the last straw for me, the final health camel that broke my bad habit's back. I've vowed never to inhale smoke again. If I am hired to do a part that requires cigarette smoking I'll use herbal cigarettes. It hasn't been hard once I closed the door.

I still struggle with my health. I might always. Just last hear I had shingles, for fuck's sake. But I won't do anything to impede the machine anymore. I refuse to court disaster. If there is a blue rose I want to smell it, not suffer under its symbolic implications. I don't think that particular locust will crawl up out of my forest floor again.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sliver Of White

Elementary school is for me a paradise of sorts. The classrooms are filled with interesting books. The playground has a steel dome that functions as an alien planet. The other jungle gyms are placed at intervals across the yard and make for perfect action trajectories.

Nowadays playground surfaces are all soft synthetics and safe havens. What looks like pavement is actually more akin to rubber matting. Sandbox borders are padded heavier than a flat chested teen cheerleader with an inferiority complex. If your kid gets hurt on the modern playground your lawsuit will be thrown out in about thirty seconds and they'll force your kid to be tested for depression instead.

But in my day? The playground was dangerous and that is what made it fun. We courted disaster daily. Swinging on a swing was all well and good but we had something different in mind. I vividly remember getting up to maximum height, maintaining it for a few swings just to make sure I could go no higher, and then hurling myself off the seat and out into the void. We measured how far we could jump.

The dome was made up of interlocking steel bars that met in isosceles triangles. For a good four years this was heaven for me. We scrambled up and onto the top of it, hung into the interior with our feet and hands hooked onto the bars, bowed towards the sand in a daredevil curve. One rainy day my hands slid off the bar and I plummeted face first into the sand below, my U-shaped body flattening into a straight line, belly hitting ground first followed shortly thereafter by pelvis, shoulders, knees, head and finally feet and hands. I lay gasping for breath as the recess bell sounded, unable to move. The playground aide had to help me to my feet and even then I was enjoying myself, wind knocked out of me in the fearless pursuit of fun.

Back to the differences in the physical properties of ancient and modern playgrounds. At South Road Elementary School, each jungle gym or parallel bars or swing set sat on a slightly raised sandbox. The sandboxes were lined with a meager padding, something like old industrial carpeting folded over the gray wood underneath and stapled on.

Many areas of the makeshift padding had faded or ripped or simply been torn off. So certain areas were exposed.

In kindergarten I was running ferociously. Perhaps away from some real girl, perhaps towards an imaginary dragon, perhaps out of a dream Red Sox dugout. Whatever the impulse I was at top speed. I was about to leap over a corner of the sandbox that held the horizontal ladder, you know the one, where you grab onto a bar and go hand over hand across the abyss (a three foot abyss, yes, but an abyss nonetheless!).

It must have been late in the school year because I was wearing shorts.

What happened next is so clearly imprinted on my brain that it is almost like a short film. My back foot dragged just slightly as I made the leap. It scraped across one of the un-padded areas of wood that surrounded the sand. I felt a flash of pain and ran for a few more steps before I had to stop. I bent down to investigate the wound.

A vertical gash directly on my left inner ankle. No one knew I was injured yet and in my mind the whole playground went silent. Slow motion as I peeled back the bloody sock.

There, winking out at me, was a strip of white. It took me a second to understand what it was that I was seeing. It was bone. I had carved out every bit of skin that separated my ankle bone from the atmosphere. There was surprisingly little blood and I don't remember crying. In fact, I was fascinated. I don't know if I'd even learned about the concept of bones yet but I knew exactly what I was looking at.

Did I gain some insight into human frailty that day? Would I have been better served if my play time had not been interrupted? If I'd merely bounced my ankle off of some harmless synthetic?

Or does the appearance of an ankle bone where it ought not to be offer some truer picture of reality to an expanding mind?

I don't know. I do know this, though. The physical scar is dwarfed by the memory of that sliver of white peeking through my skin, the psychic emblem of some eternal secret I'd somehow instinctively known about well before I ever saw it.