Lamb of God

Poison Spur had lied about its age. From 2014 until very recently, the desktop version of the site proudly claimed to be “Serving the creeper community since 1999.” While the assessment of my readership is arguably spot on, the year was not. It has since been corrected.

Perhaps “lied” is an overstatement. I did not deliberately set out to spread a falsehood. I merely said what I believed to be true without any fact checking. In that sense, I am no worse than my idiot Facebook friends who share bullshit political memes without bothering to look things up on Snopes.

For the record, Poison Spur made its debut on August 1, 1997. It wasn’t poisonspur.com yet. That wouldn’t happen until the year 2000. It was part of what was then platypus.org, now dcjweb.com since selling the domain name last year. That’s another story, one that has bugger all to do with the point of this post I promise I’ll eventually get to.

Digging through my archives, I managed to find the nascent Poison Spur. It wasn’t a blog yet. It certainly wasn’t called a blog as the term was yet to be coined. It was a webzine, or tried to be. I wrote the content and with the aid of Microsoft Paint and some shareware that converted bitmaps into gifs or jpegs, created its crudely rendered graphics.

It was, all things considered, a piece of shit. There were three bits of writing and a simple message board I wrote in perl that invited visitors to submit dysfunctional haiku. Gaijin cultural appropriation of haiku for laughs was very big back then and my take on it (“The A-Team of Haiku Bastards”) was little more than jumping on the bandwagon.

The three writing pieces weren’t any more impressive. They were each written with a pen-name byline and assuming a separate persona in the vein of columnists in The Onion. These were:

  1. “The 2 am Report” by Drake Weber. This was the worst of the lot, pure frat-boy Bukowski wannabe dog shit.
  2. “Harassed” by Shithammer O’Toole. An uptight office worker has the moves put on him by his creepy, older, middle-aged, female boss. It was kind of amusing, but the reader quickly became aware that they were not nearly as impressed with the narrator’s cleverness as the narrator was.
  3. “Not Like Those Folks Down the Way” by Deborah Agnes Day. In this story, Ms. Day is quick to point out that those around her are nothing but trash then goes on to tell an unsettling tale about her visit to her dying father in the hospital. This one had promise and it was by far the best of the lot, but it was far from perfect. The biggest problem was one I had with a lot of my writing back then. If I liked an ending, I would rush to get there and attention to storytelling be damned.

So basically, I went one-ish for three on the writing pieces. The first two characters weren’t all that interesting because they were based on parts of myself that are not too far from the surface.  If you’ve met me, there’s a good chance you’ve already been exposed to my self-aggrandizing wastrel or my self-satisfied smartass so nothing new there. Deborah Agnes Day was a departure in that she was inspired by another person, a woman named Debbie I dated in 1991. I chose her fictionalized middle and last name because it was a play on agnus dei, Latin for “Lamb of God.”

I met the real-life Debbie at the Crystal Pistol, which was a bar on Valencia Street. She had been introduced to me as the sister of some famous actor with whom she shared a last name. It was pretty unlikely in retrospect, especially when you consider that she was 20 years his junior, but there was no harm in believing it so I did.

We drank until the bar closed. She asked if I had anything to party with. I told her I had some whiskey and acid. She said fine so we went back to my place to extend our first date with some Bushmill’s and LSD.

When the acid kicked in, I was content to rewatch my pirated VHS copy of Tetsuo. I wasn’t entirely sure what the movie was about, but I enjoyed the screaming and bits of metal being shoved into people’s bodies. Tripping made it even better.

Debbie, however, was restless. LSD was not enough for her. She wanted crack cocaine. I had none so off we went to score some at the Valencia Gardens housing projects about five blocks away. It was around 4 am when we left my place.

“You seem like a nice boy. Let me do the talking,” she said to me before approaching  the two men standing in front of the projects. They wore baggy sweats and neither of them appeared to be in a very good mood. I was happy to stand back and observe because I was frying on acid. Then again, so was she.

Words were exchanged. One of the men said something she didn’t like. She told him to go fuck himself.

“Watch your mouth, bitch,” he said and started moving on her.

Debbie jumped back, slid her hand into her jacket, and said, “Back off. I’ve got a gun.”

She had no gun. Meanwhile, I leaned back against the gate of a shuttered storefront and tried to convince myself that this was all just a movie. If it was one, it had a happy one because she managed to complete the transaction with no further flaring of tempers.

It was a lovely first date, but we never did capture that level of magic again. The problem with crazy is that a lot of it isn’t all that much fun, something I should have realized just from looking in the mirror. After all, this was the year when just a few months before, I was getting sloppy-morose drunk and slicing away at my wrist to see how close I could come to a major artery without actually hitting one. And Debbie was even crazier than I was.

At first, that was comforting. I have often sought out fucked-up situations and people so I could feel sane by comparison. With Debbie, I would close my eyes and relax as she told about her dysfunctional family or people she thought were human garbage and deserved to die (given her family, I was surprised there was no overlap). The problems began when my friends started getting added to her shit list.

She had spite in her heart, but no real violence, so no one was in any danger of bodily harm. I figured she sensed that some of my friends disapproved of her (some of them did) and she got defensive. I would say she got defensive a lot.

However, I think there was more to it than that. Having surrounded myself with broken people for much of my life and being one myself, I’ve seen different ways that we can cope. There are those who have put in the work and bettered themselves. These people are inspiring but hard to relate to as part of their transformation is losing the mindset I used to share with them. Then there are those who embrace what is broken about them and live it as performance art. There is a fatalism to these people, but god damn if they don’t bring joy to my heart. I try my best to follow their lead with mixed results.

Rounding out the list are those who combine the worst elements of the preceding two. They refuse to accept where and what they are, but make no effort to rise above it. Instead, they attempt to make peace with themselves by labeling those a little worse off than they are as trash.

On a societal scale, it’s what makes those on the penultimate bottom rung of the class ladder such eager consumers of intolerance and bigotry fed to them by those who profit from the windfalls of divisiveness.  But let’s not place all the blame on evil, manipulative fat cats. Human nature encourages us to be judgmental and backstabby all on our own.

I have certainly been guilty of this and perhaps I am guilty of it now when I say that Debbie was worse than I was by some measure. Then again, maybe she was just less adept at masking her pissy outbursts in the guise of gentle ribbing, heartfelt concern, or what have you. Instead, she would spit my friends’ names out with venom or act out at social gatherings. In the end, she was a once fabulous disaster that turned into a tiresome one so I called it quits after two months. I held no grudge against her after we broke up. As best I could tell, the poor woman never had a chance.

Debbie left school before or shortly after the  8th grade, never to return. Her father had no problem with this. Her education was a small price to pay for having someone around to fetch him a beer or rub his feet. This was by no means a full-time job, leaving Debbie plenty of hours in the day to cultivate drug dependencies that would chart her course through life.

Whatever one might have said about her father’s parenting skills, the man did enjoy a good cigar. Or maybe he chain-smoked White Owls. In any event, he enjoyed enough of them to develop cancer of the jaw. Debbie told me about visiting him in the hospital and the tale impressed me enough to include it in the very first Poison Spur.

When she visited him, the old man was already a goner. His lower jaw had been surgically removed, leaving him unable to speak and with one heck of an overbite, but the operation had failed to take out all of the tumor. And here was Debbie, the little girl whose future he was instrumental in ruining. She had bought him a get-well card. It had a picture of E.T. on it.

“Look,” she said, pointing to the picture on the card. “It’s you, Daddy. It’s you.”

It’s such a wonderful story of payback and I doubt she was consciously trying to get even. It’s a real pity. She should have been able to enjoy this.

As for me, I wish I had done the story justice in 1997. Not for Debbie’s sake, it turned out. There was no chance she would read it. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had already been dead for over a year. She was 38 years old. It was probably an overdose, but I don’t know for sure.

I found Debbie is listed on findagrave.com. There is photo of her grave marker. It is one of those lawn-plaque things set in the grass. It shows her name as Debra, not Deborah.

I didn’t even get that right.

A Frond Indeed

His name was Roger or something like that. It was a long time ago and I’m shit with names. I’m also shit with remembering details from that far back so I invented some to fill in the gaps and others to make the story more compelling. If you look at life without embellishments, it’s pretty pointless stuff.

Roger was older than me, ten years and change, and he was a semi-regular at Espresso Roma Cafe in Santa Barbara. He wore a corduroy sport coat that made him look like an academic, an impression that evaporated as soon as he opened his mouth.

There was something off about Roger, but for the life of me I could not say exactly what. He would stare with his eyes glazed over, spout some random gibberish, and then lapse back into his happy trance. Sometimes he would say something utterly bizarre and misinformed. Other times, it was fairly normal and banal, but with gravity the words did not merit. “This is some weather we’ve been having” would carry the same weight as “This is Britain’s finest hour.” Then there were the times his jaw would move up and down, but no words would come out like he was a dummy whose ventriloquist had laryngitis.

My guess was that he had one or more learning disabilities coupled with one or more mental illnesses. I didn’t know which ones and it would have been rude to ask. I was plenty rude in my 20s, but not that much of a dick. I did have some modicum of empathy. Let’s say, for example, that I saw some thalidomide dude running down the street with his T. rex arms gyrating like burlesque titty tassels. I would have laughed, but only on the inside.

I was never sucker enough for the magical-puddinhead trope to make the Rogers of the world inspirational to me, but he was nice enough and whatever his limitations were, none of them were my responsibility. If he asked me if I knew where the Chumash moved after they sold Santa Barbara to the Spaniards, I would shrug rather than attempt to educate him about the flaw in his premise. If he decided to eat all the packets of non-dairy creamer or leave the cafe and go wander into traffic, I would wish him the best of luck in either endeavor.

As for wanting to rock the college-professor look, who was I to judge? Who knows? If he sewed some elbow pads on his jacket and learned to shut up, he might have been able to pull it off.

I too tried to look like I was worth a shit. With my tie loosened and the sleeves of my button-down Oxford rolled up halfway to the elbow, I strove for the appearance of someone who had endured a rough day at the office. There was some truth in that. My job did require I wear a necktie and my workday usually sucked, but I wasn’t in any office. I was in a department store selling shirts and ties for $4.50 an hour instead of the usual $4 because I had a college degree.

I didn’t have enough money to hang out in a bar after work so I’d head down to the cafe where I would drink coffee and smoke. It was 1987 so cigarettes were cheap and you could smoke anywhere you damn well pleased. People asked me why I didn’t bother changing clothes before I came out and would tell them my place was depressing. It was, but I also hoped that my attire might impress someone who didn’t know any better.

I guess I was damaged too, maybe not as bad as Roger, but still. People who spend a lot of time hanging out in cafes usually are. They’re a lot like people who spend a lot of time in bars though less drunk. The regulars at Espresso Roma Cafe had formed a loose association like one finds in a group of cats. There was the comfort of proximity, but not a lot of camaraderie. Given an excuse to hiss at each other or scatter, we usually would.

The night where the trip to the beach would lead to a trip to the emergency room started uneventfully. Dave B. had cut out early with his teenage-runaway girlfriend and Holden was at the library, no doubt researching William Burroughs and Aleister Crowley to find some detail about either of them he had yet to put in his zine. There were few other familiar faces at the cafe except for Roger’s.

Roger was fading in and out of his usual stream of nonsense and didn’t seem to care if I paid attention, which was fine. That left me time to pour words into my spiral notebook. Like most of my writing from that era, it was a combination self-aggrandizement and self-loathing with an occasional undercurrent of misogyny. I wasn’t hostile toward all women, just the ones who failed to consider my need for validation to be a turn on.

As I scribbled away, I drank coffee and smoked. Coffee, like cigarettes, was cheap back then. A cafe au lait at Espresso Roma cost 90 cents with a 10-cent cumulative discount for each one after the first. You could theoretically drink enough so they would start paying you, but I never attempted it for fear that my kidneys would shut down.

As it stood, I often had so much caffeine in my system, I would likely spend half the night staring at the ceiling sleeplessly and agonizing over every bad move I had ever made in my life. I was only 25 and therefore somewhat limited in the number of mistakes I could have made, but the ones I did make were doozies.

Insomnia would come later. The first order of business was making sure I didn’t have to go to bed with an empty stomach. When the cafe closed at 11, they’d put out the unsold bagels and croissants for the hungry and homeless. I wasn’t homeless, but I was plenty hungry and none too proud.

Fortunately, you didn’t have to be homeless or even look that way as long as you refrained from pushing and shoving while getting your food. Physical aggression has never been my strong suit so I would ensure a decent share by making others lose their appetite. That night, I accomplished this by grabbing a spinach croissant, splitting it open, and saying “Check it out. Chlamydia snatch!” This visual representation was medically inaccurate, but the intended message came across.

People said “ugh” and backed off, giving me plenty of room to make my move. One person who was not grossed out was Roger. I saw him reach for another spinach croissant and he ate it blissfully, slowly chewing with his mouth open and his eyes shut.

A woman called out Roger’s name as she walked into the cafe. She was a little older than Roger and wore an aerobics getup that was a little dingy in spots. I guessed her way of dressing herself was to pick out an outfit she liked then wear it for weeks on end.

“We’re going to have a bonfire on the beach. You should come,” she said to Roger.

“OK, Doreen,” Roger said.

“Great,” she said and waved in her two friends, a man and woman of indeterminate age and matching perms. One of them carried a paper bag containing what I assumed was lighter fluid and perhaps marshmallows. They waved at Roger as they entered.

“We want to go to East Beach. How are we going to get there?” Doreen said.

Roger shrugged.

“I can give you a ride,” I said.

“Yes, thank you. Come with us,” Roger said. “It will be a good fire,” he added with resolve.

Doreen and the perm couple thanked me as well. My car was parked pretty close and we were soon on our way. Roger rode shotgun and the other three sat in the back.

I didn’t expect to be invited along. I just wanted to do a good deed so maybe I would feel better about myself. This seldom worked, which was why my good deeds were so few and far between.

I was happy to join them though. If Doreen and the perms were anything like Roger (and I suspected they were a lot like him), the conversation would be far from scintillating. I was OK with that. Normal, well-adjusted people talked a lot of bullshit as well and they were, if anything, more irritating because they were everywhere. Besides, there was something kind of cool about hanging out at the beach in a necktie and I would get to watch stuff burn. I was too wired on caffeine to go to sleep yet anyway.

It wasn’t a long drive, maybe a couple of miles. Close to half the time was spent waiting for a light to change.  Back then, the 101 stopped being a freeway as it cut through downtown Santa Barbara and there were traffic signals at four intersections. If you got stopped at one, you were looking at a four-minute wait.

None of my passengers said anything about missing the light. They didn’t say anything period, which was a little eerie but kind of welcome. It gave me a chance to think about my day at work.

It was one of the better days. Sure, I had to put up with rich Montecito dowagers who insisted I help find a shirt and tie to match the Rodney Dangerfield plaid sportcoats they bought for their husbands in a failed bid to breathe life into their failed marriages. All I had to do was hold up one combination after another and say “Hmmm” until they picked the worst of the lot. After the ordeal was over, I would often go into the stockroom and take out my frustration by kicking holes in the drywall or taking underwear out of its plastic-tube package and using it to blow my nose.

But that day, there was no need because something wonderful happened. The store manager, Frank Purcell, liked to make the rounds and remind everyone that he was in charge and we were not. If the condition of a sales display failed to meet with his approval, you’d hear about it and usually with some horseshit about “vision.” He sometimes did this with one arm around his underling’s shoulder and the other outstretched as if pointing the way.

Well, someone gave Frank something to get upset about that day. The PA was such that you could page the entire store anonymously from a phone at any register. Some inspired soul used the touch tone to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Frank was standing about 20 feet from me when it happened. He was livid, and better yet, he was powerless .

The light turned green and we were once again on our way. I drove down State St. to the end and made a left on Cabrillo Blvd. After a mile or so, I pulled over, parked, and we all piled out. There was a strip of grass with picnic tables, a line of palm trees, and the beach and ocean beyond that.

It wasn’t until then that I realized that no one had brought any firewood. That’s the number-one ingredient you need for a beach bonfire. What did Roger and his friends intend to burn?

I wasn’t wondering for long. The four descended on one of the palm trees started tearing it apart. They decided this beach had its own firewood supply and I decided it was time to leave. If a cop drove by, it would not have ended well.

“I just remembered I gave to be at work early. Have fun. It was nice meeting you,” I said.

They waved. I waved back and trotted off toward my car. I got in the vehicle and said “Crazy fuckers” to the steering wheel before putting the key in the ignition.

I could see Doreen walking toward the car waving at me. What the hell did she want? She tapped on the window and I rolled it down.

“Roger is bleeding,” she said.

“Bleeding?”

“Yes, he was pulling on the tree and part of it came loose and hit him in the head.”

“Is he OK?”

“Ask him,” she said, pointing past me. I turned and saw Roger on the other side of my car. He had his hand on his forehead with blood dripping between his fingers.

My first instinct was to start the engine, stomp the gas pedal, and get out of there fast. The problem was that Roger was standing real close close to the vehicle, close enough to have stepped off the curb and press his junk against the passenger-side door. If I drove away, I would have run over his feet. That might have funny, but only if someone else had done it.

Fuck. I motioned for him to get in.

“I think I better take him to hospital,” I said to Doreen.

“OK. Roger, we’ll be here when you get back,” she said.

“Palm fronds are sharp. I’m bleeding,” Roger said.

“Yes, all over the inside of my car.”

That was an exaggeration. Roger mostly bled on himself. He took off his corduroy sport coat and used it to wipe drops of blood off the glove compartment. I could see the wound now. His receding hairline provided ample room to showcase the four vertical punctures in his forehead from the frond’s thorns.

We drove off. Through my review mirror, I could see Doreen waving goodbye and the perms continuing to attack the palm tree. I wondered if they would eventually give up, hose down the tree with lighter fluid and set it ablaze. Would they stop at one tree? They might torch a big, long row of them and make East Beach look like the opening scene from Apocalypse Now. I was no longer there so it wasn’t my concern. They could do as they pleased.

I drove toward Cottage Hospital. The emergency room was probably unnecessary, but it was the only place I could think of that took patients at this hour of the night and I wanted Roger to be their patient, not mine.

“She doesn’t deserve it,” Roger said.

“Deserve what?” I asked.

“Her bad reputation.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Joan Jett.”

“Oh yeah, the song.”

“I met her at a party and she was very nice.”

“Joan Jett?”

“Yes, her reputation should be good.”

I hoped Roger was either lying or delusional. I didn’t want Joan Jett to be good. I wanted her to be bad, to be mean. More to the point, I wanted her to do mean things to me. I had assembled a list of those things over the years. It wasn’t very long, but it was specific. However, there was no point in sharing my thoughts with Roger on this. It was extremely unlikely he would understand so left it filed under Things That Were Never Going To Happen Anyway.

We pulled into the hospital parking lot and I got him into the emergency room. After sitting him down, I went to the desk and explained his situation to a nurse there. She said that someone would see to him, but since his injury was minor it might take a while.

That suited me fine. It could take all night. I had already done my job. I left the hospital without telling Roger goodbye.

I didn’t see Roger for some time after that, which may or may not have had anything to do with the events of that night. People come and go all the time.

I eventually ran ran into him one afternoon when I went for a burger at Wendy’s. Roger wasn’t wearing his corduroy sport coat because he was working there. There was a mop in his hand and he was cleaning up the floor where a child had vomited. He smiled and waved when he saw me. The holes in his forehead had completely healed.

Microchips

The ten o’clock hour was approaching. We would soon have to put away our phones and pay attention to…well, it didn’t matter what we paid attention to as long as it wasn’t our phones. On Thursday night at Aunt Charlies, that was the rule.

This rule was by order of the evening’s deejay. I’m not sure what the reason was behind it. Maybe he wanted to create an atmosphere of a simpler time. There is evidence to support this. His musical selection was disco and the posters he hung on the walls were scenes from cruisy bars in the pre-AIDS 1970s that featured men sporting Tom of Finland fashions and Barry Gibb hair. Then again, perhaps the deejay was just a fascist attention whore.

A bigger question might be why I was hanging out there. Not because it’s a gay bar. I already had that worked out. No, the question was why an unapologetic smartphone junkie such as myself would willingly deprive himself of his Wikipedia and Google fix.

There were two answers for that. One was that I had been going out every night so one more wouldn’t hurt plus I had just blogged so celebration was in order. The second was I wanted to write something scathing (or at least pissy) about these anti-smartphone scolds and figured close proximity to one of them might give me some insights.

I had been to Aunt Charlies on the first Thursday of January and managed to stay well past 10 pm. That excursion too came on the heels of posting to my blog. The difference was that on that night, I wanted to stay off my phone as I was fast approaching the limit on my data plan before getting hit with an overage fee.

On this past Thursday though, there was no data-usage crisis so insights be damned, I decided to bail. I took BART back to the hood and went to Mission Bar where nobody gives a shit what you do with your phone.

It should have been a slice of heaven, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t too far into my first drink there when I realized that I just wanted to go home. I had no complaints against the bartender or the bar. I had just hit my saturation point and was sick of it all.

That’s what launched me on my journey through the next four nights of near sobriety. I wasn’t completely on the wagon. I had a glass of wine at home on Saturday night and another one on Sunday, but there was no scotch, no bars, and no walking through the Tenderloin hoping its crusty denizens congregating on street corners would leave me the hell alone.

So what did I do? Mostly I hung out at home and binge watched “Bojack Horseman” with Rebecca. She was taking a breather from barfly duties as well so we got to enjoy each other’s company as homebodies.

I have a number of friends who have given up drinking for good. They each had their own reasons and from what I can see, it was a wise decision for every one of them. I may have to go that route one day myself, but I hope I don’t.

I enjoy the dissipation of seedy bars and drink. I just don’t have it in me to pursue it full time. Or even most of the time as was the case in my liver-spanking heyday. Now I need to periodically step back, let my triglycerides drop, and brace myself for what a lack of alcohol does to my brain.

For the most part, it’s the dreams that ambush me. I don’t know if the Terri Schiavo cerebral flatline of booze-brain slumber creates a backlog of things to dream about or if it just erodes my ability to deal with what my psyche throws at me when the dreams return. All I know is that first night has me jolted awake in the wee hours feeling a little traumatized by a combination of personal demons and plain old weird shit.

So I guess you could say I get high on life. Tripping balls on life also works. Overall, these little spells of sobriety or near sobriety do me a world of good. It’s like rebooting a computer. You don’t know what it does exactly, but it sure does something.

The benefits are subtle because the nights when I do misbehave are not too extreme. On weekends, this means getting up early and walking to Trash Muddy’s with a spring in my step rather than stumbling into the kitchen and get my coffee from the Keurig with its individual plastic containers to rape the Earth with each serving.

On work days, the current presence or absence of a hangover (really a hangover lite) has more to do with how I feel than any impact on my job performance. If I tied one on the night before, I may blink a few more times while putting a thought together, but that’s about it. Gone are the days when I would duck into the restroom and have the dying-allosaurus sounds of my dry heaves echo throughout the office.

I wonder if there is something akin to AA for people who want to stop drinking, but only for a short while. The Big Book would be excessive.  A flashcard would do. Much smaller poker chips would be awarded for staying sober a couple of days, or perhaps just a few hours. (The poker-chip thing has always struck me as a bit odd. Are members of Gamblers Anonymous awarded mini bottles of booze? But I digress.)

The funny thing about moderation is that it too should be done in moderation. Tuesday evening was upon me. Soon enough I would be perched on a barstool and having well scotch work its magic upon my brain. It would be worth braving the elements and the walk through the sketchy neighborhood to get there. I put on my boots and headed out the door, secure in the knowledge that a thousand miles of going in circles begin with a single step.