Fuck-You Money

There is a meme that’s made the rounds on Facebook and other social media. There are in fact a lot of them, but the one I’m talking about has a quote about how socialism never caught on in America because the poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

The quote is attributed to John Steinbeck and is accompanied with a picture of the author to clear up any confusion over what Steinbeck looked like. You have probably seen this meme and may have even shared it with an enthusiastic credulity common among meme sharers.

It’s a nice quote. I’ll grant you that. The only problem is that John Steinbeck never said it. Ronald White did. Not Ron “Tater Salad” White, another guy. Something similar happened with Martin Luther King Jr. with a quote about never rejoicing in anyone’s death. It’s a sentiment King might well have shared, but the actual quote belongs to one Jessica Dovey, a nonfamous American teaching in Japan. Steinbeck did have something to say about “temporarily embarrassed capitalists,” but it was part of a longer bit about how armchair communists seldom accomplish jack shit.

I was discussing this at Iron & Gold with my friend Ken, a semi-retired academic. Ken eschews most social media and is not very meme-savvy, but makes up for it by being knowledgeable about stuff that people actually said. I told him about the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” quote and he said it reminded him of what a German sociologist and economist named Werner Sombart had to say on the matter.

I had never heard of this Sombart character because I drank away my college years, but I made note of his name for future reference. The conversation then drifted to what famous people we each shared birthdays with. His claim to fame was HP Lovecraft and mine was Mink Stole, making us dead even when it came to bragging rights.

So the following Monday morning on the bus ride to work, I was googling Werner Sombart to find out what he had to say about why socialism has been a non-starter in the USA. I’m a Wikipedia scholar at best who’s had a short attention span before it became ubiquitous, so I was hoping to find something glib and pithy as an easily digested takeaway.

Alas, German scholars are not big on being either glib or pithy. They would much rather verbally beat the shit out of a topic from every possible angle. Sombart was no exception and in his 1906 motherfucker Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus, he dedicates over 150 pages to the subject.

I didn’t want to read all that, nor did I want to pay to download the PDF in its entirety, so I gleaned what I could by perusing the publicly available previews to each section. Sombart’s description of the American workers’ level of optimism falls in line with the Ronald White quote, but he also includes such points as the tendency of America’s most ambitious people to go into private business rather than public service and how two major parties dominate our political system.

From what I could see, Sombart’s arguments are valid and I can offer few objective criticisms of the work. On a personal level, it doesn’t all ring true. Part of that is because over a century has passed and his assertion that American workers are better off than their German counterparts is not as true now as it was then. It’s more than that though. My biggest objection is that I’m not nearly as optimistic as Sombart and White’s perception of the American worker bee.

I’m also kind of a socialist myself, but only kind of. I think laws to make sure workers are treated decently, and this includes a respect for work-life balance that goes beyond lip service, are both beneficial and necessary. I like single-payer healthcare and access to higher education that doesn’t cost a fuckton of money. There are some things the public sector is better at providing and since those things cost money, I’m OK with kicking in my fair share in taxes to pay for them.

It’s the nanny-state bullshit I have a problem with. If your ideal society is devoid of enjoyment of vices and unpleasant thoughts or words, I want no part of it. I’m kind of a libertarian because of this, but again only kind of. I believe that my life is essentially my own and no one else’s, but I don’t buy into the notion that unfettered capitalism makes the world a better place. Left libertarian is a fairly accurate description of my leanings, but that doesn’t seem to be an option in America these days. You’re given a choice to side with either the Pollyanna statists or the plutocrats with a selective appreciation of personal freedom. I choose to drink.

So what’s left? What possible light can be found at the end of this long, dark, and ugly tunnel? For me, the answer is fuck-you money.

I first heard the term “fuck-you money” from comedian Doug Stanhope, but I’ve been acquainted with the concept as long as I can remember. It’s that amount of cash you need to spend the rest of your life doing what you want.

The fuck-you part of it doesn’t even have to be hostile. You don’t have to say those words to your boss when you quit and you certainly don’t have to take a shit on his or her desk as a parting gift. If your situation merits that, do what you have do, but it’s hardly a requirement. In fact, you don’t have to quit your job at all if you enjoy it enough. Fuck-you money is about your own happiness, not obligatory rebellion. Personally, I’d make my exit and do it on friendly terms because I don’t want to be remembered as a complete asshole.

How does the dream of fuck-you money differ from being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire? For one thing, FYM may be a figure considerably less than a million dollars. It all depends on your definition of a comfortable existence. There are places on the planet I can afford retiring to right now. Unfortunately, they tend to be in areas where the local water supply comes from muddy tire tracks and paramilitaries periodically roll into town for their festival of rape.

The good news is that if I keep working for another ten years, I can retire in a place a little more civilized, like Oregon. I’ll also be 65 then so I’ll be eligible for Social Security, that is if people can keep a muzzle on Paul Ryan and his ilk.

What does this dream of attaining fuck-you money have to do with cockblocking socialism in America? Not a whole lot. It’s a lot more pessimistic than being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire so you don’t have the same enabler relationship with capitalism. You’re under no illusion that the corporate world that backhands you really loves you deep down.

On the other hand, diehard pessimists are less likely to work for positive social change. Nihilists like me are good at brooding, but we can’t be counted for much else. Viva la revolution. Tell me when you’ve won.

With people like me pretty much a wash as far as socialism goes, what is the impediment exactly? Werner Sombart might have had the answer and if I were a more diligent reader, I would have picked up on it. I must therefore look to Sombart’s contemporary and bestie, Max Weber, who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. OK, I didn’t read this either, but I’m willing to guess it discusses how the two things in the title have something to do with each other.

This is certainly true from my own experience. Sharing the religious aspects of puritanism may not be required in this day and age, but the nose-to-the-grindstone, killjoy element from those Mayflower buckleheads is still alive and well with the company you work for serving as a sort of surrogate god. You must stay busy and productive, but more than that, you must never shut up about how busy and productive you are. Part of this is self-preservation as you want to be spared when there is a round of layoffs because the shareholders (your god’s gods, in case you’re keeping score) get hungry and demand a blood sacrifice. It’s more than that though. I see this song and dance done far more than is necessary and through sheer repetition, it becomes second nature.

What’s even more pathological is the expectation of team spirit beyond what’s required to get your work done and not be a dick to your colleagues. This exists throughout a company, but is concentrated in areas where the accomplishments are less tangible (people in marketing and HR are particularly known for their pep). Critics of socialism are quick to point out its odious forced collectivism while conveniently forgetting how rampant that shit is in capitalism as well.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s the only viable game for me. Trying to change the world is not my nature. Creating my own little world is. For now, I’ll carve out a little one as time permits and keep checking my bank balance. Someday my money will hit the fuck-you threshold and I can retreat full time into my own little nook of resistance. I won’t need much, just the basic creature comforts. I neither need nor want a trophy room of possessions. I just need enough so the failings of the world are no longer my problem. Where I can live each day on my own terms. Where no one will take it all away from me.

Until someone does.

Origins of Aquaman

On September 4 of this year, a 25-year old woman working at a McDonald’s in Redwood City gave birth on the job then tried to flush her newborn down the toilet. It was an awful crime, inexcusable in every way, yet perversely fitting on Labor Day.

I did not know about this news story until almost two weeks later and might never have known if it were not for a link tweeted by comedian Anthony Jeselnik. I’ll be paying more attention to Jeselnik’s Twitter feed from now  on.

The story was on the website for Time magazine, a publication that may or may not be considered fake news depending on which side of the post-truth polarity you happen to slavishly adhere to. However, in this case there might be no contention as infanticide is roundly condemned on both sides of the aisle (Note to anti-abortion zealots: Shut up. Now is not the time).

This is the third atrocity from the Golden Arches that I’m aware of. Fortunately, each has been less horrible than the one preceding it. I don’t wish to trivialize what happened here, but there was a silver lining and it was her ineptitude at baby killing. Did she really believe that a newborn weighing possibly eight or more pounds would flush successfully? I’ve birthed bowel movements only half that big that didn’t want to go down.

The second atrocity in 1984 at McDonald’s in San Ysidro, CA was far worse. Unlike the third, there was a body count and an impressive one at that. Twenty one people died and another 19 were injured that day when James Oliver Huberty told his wife he was “going hunting humans” then drove to Mickey D’s to make good on his promise. If it were not for the eagle eye of a police sniper, the death toll would have been even more super sized.

The first atrocity was the McRib.

In meteorological terms, this third atrocity was a mere tropical depression compared to its hurricane-force predecessors, yet it is the one that looms foremost in my mind. It’s partly because the news is so fresh. More than that though, I ride the tech bus through Redwood City twice a day, five days a week.

I don’t know the exact McDonald’s where it happened or even if it can be seen from the freeway.  Still, I like to stare out the window when I think I’m in the vicinity and come up with little ditties like:

Crying, the baby won’t hush
Trying, it maybe won’t flush
Now society wants to expunge her
While I would have offered a plunger

I’m not proud of that. Poetry isn’t my strong suit, but what’s worse is that I’m being dishonest in my verse. If I had witnessed the crime (and never mind why I was in the women’s bathroom in the first place), I would be as horrified as anybody and I certainly wouldn’t be an accomplice. “Ma’am, that’s wrong,” I might even say.

You see, I’m not such a bad guy after all. The kid had a rough start, but I’m hoping he has a rewarding life ahead of him. In fact, I believe he should get a little something extra after all he’s been through. A superpower would be nice. I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

I’m thinking this superpower should be something Aquaman-related since his traumatic first experience occurred in the water. I’m no expert on DC Comics and I don’t know all the powers to choose from, so I’m limited to the ones I remember from watching the “Super Friends” cartoon show as a kid.

So what makes Aquaman so special? He can swim. Hell, I can do that. He can ride a giant seahorse. That’s not a superpower. That’s a possession. You don’t yell “Shazam!” and then drive down the road in a Lamborghini. What it takes is the money to buy one. So what else? He can also control the actions of sea critters with radiating concentric circles that come out of his forehead. Actually, that sounds pretty awesome. Let’s go with that.

Of course I don’t really think that’ll happen, but I’m growing increasingly weary of reality. Reality put a pumpkin-hued piece of shit in the White House. Reality tried to flush a baby down the toilet.

I don’t think I can call myself a realist now and I owe much of that to a Facebook friend I have known since we were 13. His posts are often an inspiration and by that I mean they inspire me to look them up on Snopes. The most recent of these was a shared meme about a heroic dog named Daisy who saved close to a thousand lives on 9/11, making several trips up a smokey staircase of one of the twin towers and not even stopping once to reward herself with Mohammed Atta’s charred penis nub as a Scooby Snack.

The story smacked of bullshit and a quick trip to snopes.com bore out my suspicions. Daisy was as big a lie as our reasons to invade Iraq. But here’s the thing. It’s not a harmful lie and I would even go so far as to say it does some good. Other than the great jokes it inspired on “Family Guy,” 9/11 was a real downer. Daisy the wonder dog lessens the tragedy with every life she saved. As fictions go, she is as comforting as God and not nearly so wrathful.

So plausibility be damned, I decided that I would one day offer to my services to help this kid come to to terms with his superpower. Be a mentor, and not in an El Duce sort of way. I don’t know precisely what kind of help I could offer, but there is plenty of time to work that out. Twenty years, I’m guessing.

I have no desire to approach him while he’s still a child. My intentions are in no way sexual, but his adoptive family and the law enforcement might see things otherwise. I don’t need that.  And to be honest, children make my skin crawl in general. Teenagers are even worse. They improve as adults, not much, but a little.

You might think such a gesture is out of character and you would be right. I’m usually less interested in giving back to the community than I am in getting back at it. Altruism usually doesn’t drive me and it isn’t what’s driving me here. You see, my death is far from imminent, but it’s not so far off in the future to render it an abstraction. I’m afraid that when the day comes, I shall die with four score and nothing to show for it. My plan for 20 years hence gives me some sense of purpose and if it works the way I want it to, renewal as well.

Between now and then, I have my work cut out for me. The biggest obstacle I’ll need to overcome is my lack of people skills. Don’t get me wrong. I can be quite witty and folks who know me usually consider me harmless. The problem is my lack of empathy, made worse by living in a world where empathy is worn like a politician wears a flag pin on a lapel. If yours is not clearly visible, there must be something wrong with you.

Maybe it’ll be different in two decades’ time. Maybe apathy will be the new empathy and uncaring shits like me will be held in the highest regard. Even if that turns out to be the case, empathy will be a valuable skill to have and I believe it is one that can be learned.

I imagine a lot of people are under the impression that empathy is this ingrained thing and you either have it or you don’t. This likely comes from a misconception about what empathy really is. More often than not, those who claim to possess empathy are merely in tune with an accepted range of thoughts, opinions, and emotions, and find themselves connecting with those who operate within that range. Empathy is not about common ground. It is about venturing into uncharted territory and that is what I intend to learn.

To reach that end, I plan to use every tool available to me. Psychology, hypnosis, mysticism, psychic projection, you name it are all on the table provided they produce results. I realize that my methods might raise some ethical questions, but I must remain undeterred. Getting a toe hold in someone’s brain, so to speak, is not something that comes naturally to me. And given what I hope to accomplish, the end does justify the means.

So let me give you how I expect this to play out. In 20 years, it will be 2037. Technology will certainly have advanced, but I have no idea how much and in what way so my actions will not be dependent on that. The planet will have changed to some degree. I’m guessing it will be warmer on average and the ocean level will be higher. Again, I don’t know how much on either front or how ecological steps like low-flow toilets that make babies harder to flush might slow climate change.

I too will have undergone significant changes by then. I’ll be 75 years old so that is to be expected.  As for how much, my estimate is to take the amount of decline over the past decade and multiply that by two. That should leave me frail but ambulatory and in possession of half my teeth but most of my wits. While not exactly spry, I’ll be in good enough shape to get the job done so here goes.

I am walking on a trail along Bair Island, a wetlands preserve on the shore of San Francisco just north of Redwood City. It is my first time here, but these marshes and islets are familiar to me because before I retired, I used to gaze upon them from the bus when traffic on my northbound commute had slowed to a crawl.

My septugenarian knees aren’t what they used to be, but I’m able to soldier on. At least I’m no longer a smoker. Quitting close to 30 years ago was the smartest decision I ever made. If I still smoked, I’d either be dragging an oxygen tank with me, or more likely, wouldn’t be here at all.

I see Bob in the distance. His mother was too busy trying to kill him to give him a birth name so the only one he has was provided by his adoptive parents. From a splendid evening spent in a bar with the father, who is a talkative drunk, I learned the name is unofficially short for “Bob for road apples.” Of course, neither parent let Bob in on the joke because it would hurt his feelings and they are good people.

Bob is standing motionless with his shoulders slumped, staring out upon the water. He is a large young man, brutish but not athletic. The water holds some fascination for him. Is he thinking about Aquaman? Unlikely. His earliest experience was a traumatic one involving water and even though he has no memory of that, he is unconsciously trying to come to terms with it.

“Have you ever seen any of the Sharknado movies?” I ask as I walk up to Bob.

“Look, you old perv. I ain’t gonna let you suck my dick unless you buy me a case of beer first and probably not even then,” he says.

What a charming lad he is.

“That’s not why I’m here. Let me assure you of that,” I say. “For one thing, my sexual orientation is…well, let’s just say that at my age it’s none of the above. So you haven’t answered my question.”

“What, those stupid old movies? Yeah, maybe I saw one or two. Didn’t they make like 12 of them?”

“There were 14 in total. And yes, I agree that they were stupid. You always knew that the sharks were going to lose because they had no strategy, no game plan. Now what if they had a leader like Aquaman and his fishy mind control to command them? Those sharks would kick some serious ass.”

“Yeah, I guess that would be pretty cool. So what.”

“What if you had the power to control those sharks?”

“Nothing, because sharks flying around in tornadoes aren’t real.”

“You’re right, but people go swimming. Isn’t there someone you hate enough to command your sharks to go in for the kill?”

“With my Aquaman powers.”

I nodded.

“OK, old man. You’re full of shit, but yeah, there are a few people I wouldn’t mind turning into shark chow.”

“Like who?”

“My boss at Arby’s. I’d love to feed his fat ass to the sharks. And that bitch in high school who wouldn’t go to the prom with me. I’d get a great white to bite her titties off. Bitch wouldn’t think she was such hot shit then. And maybe you because you’re starting to piss me off.”

“That’s the spirit, but there must be someone else. Like your mother, for instance.”

“What the fuck? No way, my mom is totally cool.”

“That isn’t your mom. Have you ever wondered why you don’t look like either of your parents? Your mom, your real mom, tried to flush her baby down the toilet at a McDonald’s in Redwood City. You must have have heard about it at some point. That little baby was you. She’s out of prison now and it’s high time for you to get even.”

“You shut the fuck up.”

“You won’t be able to do it alone. You’ll need lieutenants to command the sharks at all the beaches she is likely to go to. They’ll need your powers, powers you don’t even realize you have yet. Like what happened to you, you’ll have to hold them under water. If it doesn’t drown, you got yourself a little Aquaman.”

“You shut up right now, old man.”

I walk up close to him and spit the following words right in his face.

“You can steal them while their parents are at work. Their nannies making minimum wage aren’t going to care. I’ll even abduct the first few just to show you how easy it is. You can dunk them in the water right here. Nice and secluded. No witnesses except for me and I won’t tell. Don’t be squeamish, Bob. You know you’ll love it. After all it’s in your blood.”

Two meaty fists grab me by the shoulders and I am pushed down into the water. He is as angry as I hoped he would be. Now comes the hard part. What I had spent the last two decades studying how to do had to work now. I wasn’t completely sure it was even possible, but it’s too late to turn. I can only hold my breath for about a minute so there isn’t much time. I concentrate and go through all the steps with an unwavering clarity of purpose.

I see my face below the surface of the water. There is a brief look of surprise in the eyes before they go lifeless. Bubbles trickle from the old man’s mouth. I let go of him and stand upright.

I look around and there is not another soul to be seen. My lungs fill with the warm afternoon air. I haven’t felt this good in years. Walking away, I spot my reflection in a shallow marsh. I may not be much of a looker, but at least I’m young and healthy.

“Mama’s boy,” I say to the reflection and laugh. Bob might not have appreciated the joke, but I do.

Dunce Macabre

Rebecca and I arrived just in time for happy-hour prices. We each got a $2 pint of PBR and sat in a booth toward the back. We would have preferred to sit at the bar, but too many people had the same idea. I didn’t expect it to be this busy on a Tuesday, but there you go.

We were at the new Doc’s Clock, a couple of blocks from its old location. I don’t know why it moved. The owners probably lost their lease (which happens a lot) and managed to find another spot they could afford (which happens far less often). I’ve been told that most of the interior looks the same.

It’s a good look. Red lights illuminate the shelves with the bottles. A CD jukebox probably hailing from the 1990s sits to one side of the bar. Above it is a painting of a kneeling beefcake dude with a footlong shvantz and what looks a portion of the EU flag behind him. There is a divey vibe to the place, but a quirky and friendly one. If you want wood paneling, NFL calendars, and nightly fistfights, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

I made a mental note to come back here some day and get good and trashed. Take advantage of happy hour while it lasts and be too drunk to care about the higher prices after nine. It shouldn’t take much at this point in my life. Five or six drinks is enough to turn me into Ray Milland.

This is not the night for such shenanigans. Rebecca and I have just popped in before heading off to Alamo Drafthouse a block and a half away. They serve beer there, but no Pabst. I admittedly have my hipster side, but I’m far more of a PBR hipster than a craft-beer hipster, especially when they’re selling the latter for eight bucks a pint.

“Fuck that shit, Pabst Blue Ribbon,” a very wise man once said.

We were going to see Carnival of Souls, a movie Rebecca and I both loved but neither of us had seen in years. It was like going to a midnight movie though screening at a more sensible 9:45 pm.

Mission Street is less busy than Valencia on a Tuesday night. It has also held onto more of its past. Gates closed and locked for the evening have the same old stores selling identical knockoffs and plastic crap as dozens of others. Corner stores and taquerias have also survived gentrification in large part.

There have been casualties though. Apartments housing poor tenants have suspiciouly gone up in flames, sometimes with the people inside. Out of the ashes have come lofts and luxury condos too expensive for even middle-tier techie scum like me to afford.

We arrive at the local Alamo Drafthouse, which was once the old Mission Theater that had closed long ago and spent its intervening years as either a discount crap emporium or a Pentecostal church. Newly remodeled and boasting a full bar, it was an inviting place to walk into.

Rebecca had gone to see a movie there with some friends once, but this was my first time. We walked down to theater one and took our seats. There was a table in front of us with a menu and a pad to write down our orders if we wanted anything. It was all very civilized. A server came by, checked our tickets on my phone, and explained the ordering process.

At 9:45, a nebbishy emcee walked out in front of the screen to present the movie we were about to see. He had a disarming and lighthearted demeanor, like the kind of standup comic who is neither offensive nor funny. He enthusiastically sang the praises of the film. It was endearing to watch, but I also wanted him to shut the fuck up and show the movie already because I had to be at work the next morning.

A lot has been written about Carnival of Souls by people more knowledgeable than me so I won’t bore you with my assessment of the film. There is one detail I do want to mention though. The movie came out in 1962, the year I was born. Staring at the screen, I was reminded what a primitive place it was back then. It was still mid-century, post-war America. Cars were enormous and women who didn’t want to settle down were suspect. Also, so much of the technology I take for granted now simply did not exist. Oh I suppose they had computers of a sort, but they were the size of a house and didn’t do jack shit.

And yet it was an era that was living on borrowed time. Some of the changes were heartening, like the civil-rights movements. Other developments were scary, like getting an RCH away from World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’d make it through that only to have Lee Harvey Oswald and Vietnam waitng in the wings.

It is worth noting that my birth year was smack dab in the middle of the five-year run of “The Twilight Zone.” TV viewers, tired of the mundane, could tune in and watch mysterious forces knock people’s lives for a loop.

Carnival of Souls has been compared to “The Twilight Zone” and by this I mean a good episode and not any of that “Bewitchin’ Pool” bullshit. The broken reality here was of the menacing sort and zeroed in on an unlucky individual. The danse macabre toward the end has classically symbolized the universality of death (thanks Wikipedia!) but here it was something the protagonist had to face all on her lonesome. I loved it.

There is little surprise there. I watched an unhealthy amount of “Twilight Zone” marathons growing up and while a number of episodes now seem silly, the effect on me lasting. Many, and one could argue too many, of my own story ideas borrow from the show’s playbook. It’s magical realism of the semiliterate TV addict. I’m far too aspy to craft plausible human drama so I go for the mind fuck instead. Often with a gross-out element because that’s how I roll.

The movie ended and we were on our way home. I enjoyed the film immensely and part of that was the glimpse back into the time that spawned me. I knew it was neither a representational nor realistic depiction, but I was OK with that. I was too young to have my own memories from then so I have to go by what got captured on camera and didn’t get left on the cutting-room floor. And while the story was implausible outside its genre, the way people talked and acted seemed to ring true. But then again, I can only guess.

Of course the film was no mere artifact. The reason it has managed to hold up after 55 years is that it managed to do so much with so little. There was no star power and practically no budget to speak of.

However, it was the type of story it told that won me over. I’ll always be a sucker for malevolent forces being relentless and leaving a mark on the reality they wash over. It’s the kind of story I like and the kind of story I like to tell, albeit often less artfully and with more poo jokes thrown in.

We turn off Mission Street and start walking up 22nd toward Valencia. Streetlights hitting trees and houses cast a variety of shadows on the sidewalk. I look at the dark shapes and try to conjure an idea I can run with. I come up empty. There is no danse here, macabre or otherwise, just the mundane theatrics of the here and now.

9/11

The fall equinox is still a week and a half away, but the days are getting noticeably shorter. It’s darker when I leave the house, somehow more fitting with the hydraulic farts of an early-morning delivery truck I invariably hear in the distance. I take out my phone and snap a picture so I can hold onto a bit of the gloom to comfort me through the day. The camera autoadjusts, letting in more light for a clearer, brighter picture.

Technology is not always my friend.

I walk toward Muddy’s. My ass is dragging and I really need the coffee. I had a late night last night. It wasn’t in the same league as the kind of late nights I used to have. I was in bed before midnight. I’m older now though. I may not be any more mature, but I am more tired.

I make it a point to stay focused through my coffee-and-bagel ritual. My autopilot tends to malfunction when I haven’t gotten enough sleep. There was that time I poured half and half into the brown-sugar container instead of into my coffee. I’d rather that didn’t happen again.

At least there is no hangover to contend with. I was out at a show and I don’t like to drink when I go see a band, particularly one I’m into. Beer means needing to pee. Needing to pee means missing part of the act. It’s not worth it.

The band we went to see was Stiff Little Fingers. It was their 40th anniversary and I have been a fan of their music for 30 of those years. They’re a punk band from Belfast. Though there is no shortage of anger in their lyrics (especially in their early stuff), they are decidedly more pacifist in their outlook than you’d expect from that genre. In Northern Ireland, violence was the status quo. It’s not surprising they were sick of it. Today the band only has half its original members, but their frontman Jake Burns has grown to twice his original size so I guess it all evens out.

I chew my bagel and notice I’m a little deaf. My ears got pretty well blasted last night. No matter, my hearing would come back eventually.  Most of it anyway.

I keep thinking about how different I am from Jake Burns, and not just because I lack musical talent. I am not from Belfast. I grew up in Santa Barbara. Nothing bad happens to you there unless you do it to yourself.

The time is approaching 6:40 so I leave Muddy’s and walk to the bus stop two blocks away. It’s fully light out now and already warmer than I’d like. It’ll be hot as balls down in San Jose, but I’ll be in an air-conditioned office.

It’s my 9/11, I say to myself. It’s my inside job.

In some ways, 9/11 is America’s taste of Northern Ireland. Or maybe a crash course. We experienced roughly the same body count from terrorist violence as the Troubles. One major difference was that most Americans were never in any real danger. Another was that they spread their dying over decades and we got ours out of the way before lunch.

The suddenness of the attack kept me from processing it all. My behavior in its wake was certainly far from stellar. It wasn’t hate-crime bad. That’s not my style. It was joking in a crowded bar about rescue workers pulling disembodied vaginas from the rubble, blowing the dust off, and then having their way with them. That’s my style. The joking, not the violation of necrobits.

I felt pretty bad about that. I later regretted feeling bad. I lack tact and empathy is mostly an abstraction for me. I need to accept that for my own good.

I respect the hell out of Jake Burns for being able to turn his righteous anger into some great music. The problem is when I try to find similar righteousness within me and realize I don’t have any. It makes me feel shitty, maybe not kill-myself shitty, but think-about-it shitty. Not all the time, but sometimes.

At work, I try listening to some Stiff Little Fingers, but I’m not in the mood. Lunchtime comes and while I’m eating my microwaved phở, I start googling 9/11 pics on my phone. I find the one I’m looking for, the one of the explosion when the second plane hits the World Trade Center. Using my Meme Generator app, I add the caption “SO THIS HAPPENED” and upload it to Instagram.

Back at my desk, my spirits improved but I’m still not up for Jake Burns’ punk-rock earnestness. I put on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica  instead.

“My smile is stuck. I cannot go back to your frown land…”

If only, dear Captain. If only.

Hurricane Party Pooper

Harvey is a done deal, more or less. Some people’s lives are still upended and a few others, just ended. I’m unclear on a lot of the details. It seems like it happened a world away and the only effect it had on me was at the checkout line at Safeway when I clicked “No thanks” when asked if I wanted to donate to the relief effort (thoughts and prayers are more economical).

Meanwhile, there is another hurricane that’s bigger than Harvey and barreling toward Florida. This one is called Irma. It’s my understanding that there is an alphabetical progression in a given year when it comes to naming these storms, so chances are slim we’ll have any hurricanes named Yolanda or Zeke. With global warming, that could change of course. We might have to start giving them last names as well. When Zachary Zimbalist smashes into the Gulf Coast, you’ll know it’s been a stormy year.

We don’t have hurricanes in California. We have earthquakes and fires instead. North Korean ICBMs may soon be added to that list shortly, but for now my home state is relatively safe.

So it is with idle and somewhat morbid interest that I pay attention to Irma’s path and where it may make landfall. I’m not exactly hoping for death and destruction and am certainly not wishing for anyone in particular to get killed, but I am content to sit and watch it all unfold.  I cannot stop the hurricane nor can I bring myself to hate it. It’s nature. It kills people. That’s what nature does.

It does however give me feelings of nostalgia in an indirect way. In 1969, Hurricane Camille hit Mississippi and moved north as far as Virginia, leaving 259 dead destroying over 5,000 homes. I was just shy of my seventh birthday when it happened so it didn’t  appear on my mental radar. It was some years later when I watched an educational film about the hurricane in school.

A Lady Called Camille was made by the US Dept. of Agriculture in 1971 and I saw it the first time in ’73 or ’74. Today I found it on YouTube and gave it another viewing.

The twangy Mississippi people seem as brain damaged as I recall, but now the filmmakers do as well. I could understand the foreboding music when the title appeared in the screen, but why did the word “Camille” have to be rendered in a Malibu Barbie font? Also, there was some sexism in the narration that would probably not fly today. When the hurricane unexpectedly altered course, the explanation was that Camille was “…like any lady, perfectly capable of changing her mind.” Yep, even if hurricane form, bitches be trippin’.

The 27-minute flick ended with those who lost their homes vowing to rebuild and then an American flag filled the screen because of course it did. None of that conjured up any memories from when I saw it in grade school.

What did resonate happened much earlier during the dramatic reenactment of telling residents they needed to evacuate. One person opens the door, beer in hand, and says “Welcome to the hurricane party.” We later are told that the Richelieu apartments, location of the hurricane party,  was destroyed in the storm. Everyone died except for one person who floated out a third-floor window on a mattress.

It is a sad, cautionary tale. It also turns out to be complete bullshit. A google search established that. The building did collapse and some people died, but there was no party. The Richelieu was no den of sin, cardinal or otherwise.  The folks inside had boarded up the windows and thought they would be safe. They were wrong.

The truth can be a disappointing thing. I remember how cool “Welcome to the hurricane party” sounded to me 40 some odd years ago. I was just a wee pup, but my budding festive nihilism could already appreciate the idea of a hurricane party. Years would pass, however, before I saw it as metaphor and adopted it as a way of life.

Seeing Ghosts

“Scooby Doo” lied to us, but don’t bother telling your cat about it. It will neither comprehend nor care. That’s how cats are about most things, but here it is truer than ever.

If you’ve seen even one episode of the cartoon, you know how it always goes down. Scooby and his human friends arrive in the Mystery Machine (their rape van) to investigate a haunted amusement park, carnival, or whatever. They pursue the case with Velma providing the brains, Shaggy and Scooby the drug-addled slapstick, and the other two the bland good looks.

In the end, the villain is unmasked as a disgruntled caretaker who would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. There never were any ghosts, everyone’s fears were unfounded, and the little urchins watching the show are spared any risk of nightmares beyond what their childhoods already provide.

To a child’s mind, it all makes perfect sense. It takes many years on this planet before you realize that the message is bullshit. Ghosts are real. They’re just different from what you thought they were. You might not even call them ghosts, opting for the word “memories” instead. That doesn’t mean they can’t haunt you.

Cats have no concept of ghosts or even haunting. Everything that scares them exists  in the here and now because they live entirely in the moment. What little memory they have comes through recognition, not recall. They do not remember what happened yesterday. They have no idea what yesterday means.

I was more catlike in my youth. I think a lot of people were. My memory was far better being a human and all, but it was not an active narrative to compete with what was going on around me at the time. I was far more concerned with the creation of new memories than reflecting upon the ones I already had. Being young, the only way I knew to be noteworthy was to do things that were foolish and regrettable. Realizing regrets are no fun, I poured liquor down my throat so I would be too drunk to remember anything unpleasant. This is how I lived in the moment. It made a lot of sense at the time.

Alas, blackout drunk is never guaranteed even for the absolutely shitfaced. With the exception of a few nights involving copious amounts of Night Train, this has been particularly true in my case. The memories were a little cloudy when I first woke up, but over the next hour or two they would reveal themselves in a striptease of shame. As a result, the log books in my gray matter have grown over time with both the good and bad, the affirming and the embarrassing.

Now that I’ve reached the point where more of my life is behind me than ahead of me, the here and now often gets outvoted in what gets my immediate attention. I’ve lived in the same apartment for 20 years and in the same neighborhood for 27. Most of the places I go are places I’ve been to countless times before.

Walking up Valencia Street after my pre-coffee coffee at Trash Muddy’s, most of the storefronts are different than they were 20 years ago, but that doesn’t keep the memories away. My then wife Laura and I used to have weekend breakfasts at The Pork Store on 16th Street. My usual fare was the heart-healthy chicken-fried steak covered in creamy sausage gravy and washed down with a lot of coffee.

I can see myself in some shop or another while Laura looked around.  I would try to be patient, but the need to get to a toilet would increase with every passing minute. Finally I would say “Ooh.” No other words were needed to let her know that the time was nigh and we would be on our way.

Both Laura and the poo are gone from my life now, as are many familiar parts of Valencia Street. There was Val 21 and their heavenly habanero jelly on cornbread. There was Leather Tongue Video with the great cult-film selection and the owner, whom I had a crush on even though I doubted she was into boys. There was the bald, fat man who punched me in the middle of the afternoon because he was angry, drunk, and needed someone to punch.

I see myself in all those intersections of time and space, longer hair with less gray in it, more determined to live up to the attitude-heavy persona I had crafted for myself. I was a shit, but I was a younger shit, and I envied my previous self for that. Also, I was never truly wretched on Valencia Street so catching a few reruns of the Dave show should be pretty harmless.

Unless it’s not. One of the less attractive things about reality is that it’s a real attention whore. This is a lesson I learned in 1982 when I was riding my moped back to the frat house from a tailgate at what was once called Jack Murphy Stadium. I had just gotten into some kind of tiff with my ex-girlfriend and while I was reliving it in my head, I went off the road and crashed. My attention skills have never been stellar and I was completely stoned at the time. Though even without weed, I need to keep an eye on myself. I can totally see myself ducking into the past while my present self on autopilot steps off a curb and into the path of an oncoming car.

There is less chance of this happening in bars I used to frequent of course. When you’re sitting with a drink in front of you, the rest of the world can go fuck itself. It’s a constitutional right guaranteed by the 21st Amendment.

The memories  are more intriguing as well, though not always as pleasant. If another person were to step into the past to watch me perched upon a barstool, they probably wouldn’t see what the big deal was. Early on, I  knew to behave well enough to continue to be served. It doesn’t take much, but it’s the one skill you need if you’re a drunk who doesn’t want to drink at home. I played my creepy, entitlement, and self-pity close to the chest to remain outwardly tolerable. Inside I was a burning latrine.

I remember this all too well as I picture an earlier me, perhaps from the era of my unfortunate affinity for Hawaiian shirts, sitting in quiet desperation and waiting for that magical event that would whisk me away on a one-way trip to Awesome Town, knowing deep down even then that it was never going to happen. Watching this makes me feel exasperated. My life has been pretty easy in the greater scheme of things. Why couldn’t I just realize that and appreciate what I had, borrow a page from a cat’s playbook, and enjoy living in the moment?

It is at those times that out of the corner of my eye I notice that I’m being watched. When I turn to look, he’s gone. I can’t quite make out who it was. He looked a little like me, but older, grayer, and more displeased.