Where I’ve Been
Where I’ve Been
by Mark Driver
“Are you the guy who was talking to the blonde girl?”
I don’t remember if I ignored him or if he just didn’t register on the considerably dim screen of the considerably narrow cone of my considerably impaired mental radar.
“Hey,” he said more loudly, with a calculated increase in anger, a slight reddening in his face, a throbbing vein between his eyes that threatened gory eruption, “I’m talking to you!”
He tried to grab my arm and I jerked it away with nonchalance, like I was used to it, like big oily goons grabbed me all the time. The truth was that I had been talking to the blonde girl earlier, flirting openly in fact, and before that I was talking to a stocky punker chick who couldn’t name any Crass or Discharge songs, before that I was sharing smokes and making eyes at a friend of a friend who seemed particularly stacked under the dim overhead lights, and now I was talking to another girl, a girl with long brown pigtails and a long black t-shirt. I was leaning into the girl, talking into her hair, breathing hot on her neck. The physical space between this lady and I had decreased considerably since my feeble pick-up line and her obligatory rebuff and things were going well, swimmingly in fact. I could feel that little rat body of hers pressed against mine, the knobs of her spine running under my fingertips and here comes this guy from two girls back, blowing my intimate moment and interrupting my Casanova flow. You can keep the blonde, I thought, I got this one now. There’s plenty of sweetie pies for everyone. Yet, even in my Pabst coma, it registered that playing Apology Boy to his Jealousy Man would not impress my new little friend, nor any of the commotion vampires vying for a view at what would undoubtedly become a very, very ugly show.
This was a month ago and I was at a rock club. It could have been any generic rock club in any generic city with any generic gathering of generic losers with generic tattoos and generic jackets smoking generic cigarettes and holding generic conversations, generic wheeling and dealing of generic projects, generic motivations behind generic faces of generic glasses and generic hair. The rock was over and the band was downing bourbons in a filth cloud of butt-smooching music nerds, stoking long metal hair and playing their fifteen minutes well. The floor was a frozen ocean of crushed plastic cups, drink napkins and cigarette butts, the lightbulbs all had halos. My shirt was soaked through with spilled beer and sweat and I was sleepily hammered and holding that worst sense stomach ache, pathetically staving off serious depression by charming the multiple jean jackets off of questionably attractive hipster wenches, the sort of girls who stop all personal development after finding the perfect product to make their greasy hair redolent of rutting wolverine, girls with puddle depth, no surprises, no true anti-social tendencies, no violent streaks, no interesting opinions or hobbies or jobs or anything, just a different brand of the vanilla nothingness that occupies the barren shelves of my hollow headed country. Afghanistan of the mind, you might call it. Single girls suck. I might as well be talking to a barnful of Nebraska corn queens, sheltered dames scrubbing their dirty knees in a farmhouse sink to remove the stink before the big senior prom.
Of course, one could politely inquire as to why, if I was so fucking superior, I was even bothering to engage them in my little courtful dances.
A boy’s gotta screw something.
But through all my risqué advances and cleverly constructed double ententes, there was, in the back of my mind, the squeezing talons of reality, the shadowy but inescapable image of all my earthly belongings, stacked in packed boxes three blocks away. My shit clogged all arterials in the apartment that me and The Girl had shared for the last three years. The inventory was ridiculous. Two tennis rackets, seventeen hundred books, a three foot tall ceramic cobra. Ten boxes of LP’s. Guitar amps. A Norelco foot massager. Two football helmets wired with walkie-talkies. A cracked snowboard. Dracula beer steins. A twice-used bread machine. A perfectly seasoned wok. One remaining pound of a ten pound bag of rice. A potato cannon. A seven foot tall classroom wall map of Alaska. All stacked and piled in radiating trash circles equidistant from the front door. It was all to be removed from the apartment, along with my carcass, and a call was out for a tractor trailer and forty thousand square feet of warehouse space.
I was not, as they say, holding my breath.
But, much to my credit, I hadn’t been dumped for 24 hours and I was already back on the horse, resharpening my once razory pick-up skills, skills rusted shut from nearly a decade of non-use. That’s smart, right? Back in the saddle, hair of the dog, only the good die young, one day at a time. The platitudes were coming in droves. Nothing pathetic about me. Nope. The dating population of Seattle had been deprived access to my genitals for far too long, and now, my loss was their gain. Top quality at low prices! Everything must go! Liquidation sale on my soul!
Oh, you should have seen me! Despite my sitch, I stank not of creepiness nor of desperation. The initial approach was directly sly. Every compliment was followed by an insult. I couldn’t care less about them, yet I kept asking them questions. In the course of thirty seconds I made them laugh and pissed them off and wandered away and came back with another beer. Just one. For myself. I was selfish, I was rude, I took cigarettes without asking, I was so into them, I was completely indifferent. I was on fire!
Of course, had I actually brought my banterious bicep-flexing to the level where the possibility of fluid transfer with a stranger would fall within my realm of reality, I would have monkey shrieked and, after confirming that there were no leftover pizzas in the stained refrigerators of their laundry clogged studio apartments, I would have run away from these strange women, sprinting into the safety of the night like a crazed baby gazelle. I was not after physicality, I was after shadows. Out for the illusion of something that once made sense. I was operating the heavy machinery drowsy and without purpose. The act of intercourse, clumsy groping on a burlap couch under musty blankets that never stretched down to my feet would’ve taken more constitution than I could’ve mustered. I would’ve shattered on contact. Broken in half. I did not want unfamiliar mouths. I just wanted to keep my mind occupied. Give my hands something to do. Forget forget forget everything that ever happened before and start over new.
Fuck. Here I was. Bummed. Unemployed again. Dumped and kicked out of my house for lack of smiling. Chasing girls I didn’t want. I had stopped writing, stopped listening to music, stopped nearly everything but sleeping and drinking.
It had been the previous months that did me in, working a seemingly endless shift pouring poison in a dirty bar. The dirtiest. It had scraped away my sense of decency, drained me of all sympathy, made me into a hate machine. That fucking place ate me alive, like drain cleaner in the guts, it burned me from the inside out.
I’ve always liked to hang out in dive bars. The yuckier the booths, the saltier the drunks, the more bacteria-laden the taps, the better. But I will tell you right now, it’s one thing to hang out in dives, to get hammered with the suffering, to make facial expressions that approximate sympathy, to humor rambling stories, to absorb the absolute pathos of the room and thank Vishnu that you were not born one of these sorry sacks. You feel tough and you feel like salt of the earth and you feel like you can hang with any mean bunch of crusty cunts and hold your own and then you get back in your shiny Honda Civic, crank the new Khanate record, and, holding hands with the cutie pie beside you, steer home towards the spacious one bedroom with hardwood floors and the cleansing sterility of digital cable.
But working in a dive, servicing those drunks, mopping up their puke and wiping up their abuse, looking at their sagging cracked faces ten hours a day six days a week as they drown themselves in self-created nightmares, this is not easy. Or pleasurable. Or healthy. Maybe someone’s built to withstand this and emerge unscathed, but it sure wasn’t me. I’m not tougher than leather; I’m more absorbent than Bounty, the quicker-picker-upper.
At first it wasn’t that bad. I mean it was bad (my first official duty bleaching fresh vomit off the front door) but in the sort of ‘this is tough but it will probably be good for me’ badness that I also attribute to broccoli and Thomas Pynchon and unprotected anal sex with strangers in Volunteer Park. Working under conditions like these would toughen me up. I was due for some serious discomfort. I had been camped in front of my laptop for a year, writing and living entirely in my own head and ignoring everything else, sleeping late and typing like an idiotic machine until 5pm or so, then meeting the lads and the ladies out and about for pints o’ plenty. Yes I was poor, but nobody was telling me what to do. One meal a day and someone else buying the pitchers. What life! What bliss!
But when you get to choose every single person you come into contact with, your view of the world shrinks. Without horrible challenges, you start to lose your imagination. You start relying on entertainment instead of being the entertainment. There is little that can be learned in comfort. Comfort is the warm bed at the end of a long journey. It was never meant to be slept in forever.
But, as much as I played the above paragraph up to those around me, this was not a case of ‘sensitive artist type takes spiritual vacation in the misery of others to find basic human truths’. I was, as they say, broke. Dead broke. Real broke.
Not the sort of broke I was used to where I had to choose between seeing the band on Monday or seeing the one on Tuesday, I was the sort of broke where I stopped leaving the house because I was sick of talking walks and kicking the soccer ball against the Opera House and EVERYTHING else cost more than I could muster. I was living on rice and drinking on record reviews and t-shirt sales (thank you thank you), being bombarded daily by collection skunks, getting a new credit cards to get the phone turned on, borrowing money from people I met at parties, shoplifting bananas, etc. etc. etc. It had been a fun free-fall, but the cliff floor was fast approaching, and, as timing is everything, economic recession in Seattle was in full force. Second only to Portland in the National Unemployment Rate. It was not good times.
So, it was four months of hard looking for work. First in the dotcom graveyard. Even with my considerable ability to smile in the face of terrible ideas I found no love there. Yes, I had written an article for the Seattle Weekly called ‘I’d Rather Shovel Dog Food Into Bags Than Ever Work at a Dotcom Again’, but seeing how I couldn’t even get a job shoveling dog food into bags, the Dotcom world was once again fair game – and totally not hiring. Nor could I find work doing any sort of writing, at bars or restaurants, at moving companies, grocery stores, minimum wage manual labor, asbestos removal, cable hookup, fish processing, old person bedpan clean-up, mopping up jerk-off booths at the Lusty Lady, or rubbing the corns off of lumberjack feet. I do believe the FBI was hiring snitches, but a boy’s gotta draw the line somewhere.
Despite my wranglings to keep the phone turned on, it did not ring. Not once. Desperation was there in that silly little dress it always wears but finally, on a hot tip from a hiring center employee who I threatened with physical violence, I got hired on the spot at the only place that would even talk to me, a shit bar gangster nightclub in South Seattle with a DJ that played the same mix of J-Lo, DMX, Mystikal, and Shaggy every single night in the exact same order, the only relief coming when the Mexicans brought their own salsa CDs from home and threatened the DJ with knives to play their funky Latin beats. It was a shack the size of an airport hanger with considerably less aesthetic appeal. The daytime manager hired me because I was over six feet tall. She appraised me as one would a horse. “Broad shoulders. Biggest guy to apply here in a while,” she said. “You’ll do fine.” Gulp. She was on days. I would be on nights. Everyone at the bar laughed when I took my first order. The average employment of a night bartender in this place was a week and a half. These were demanding drunks, and I had lied about previous bartending experience. And being fluent in Spanish. Gulp.
Within three weeks, I had seniority. Within five weeks I was managing the place. Not because I worked hard to get ahead: I was last man standing. The only person who lasted. Who would stay there? Pay was below minimum wage, abuse was currency, and the tips were nearly nonexistent. Run, I would tell new hires. Run before they stab you! But for me, quitting was not an option. I was a permanent member of the insanity ward. Me and the drunks. We were all trapped there together.
It was a scary place for sure. It stank of violence, of conflict, of awfulness. Various attempts by the owners at making it more festive via disco balls and blacklights only increased the creepiness factor. Plastic lawn chairs sat at all the knife carved tables because, as the day manager explained, “they weren’t worth much if stolen and did less damage when thrown.” Gulp.
Once I got over the initial shorts-soilings and stopped showing obvious fear, things mellowed a bit for me. I began to learn little lessons like:
- Keep a low urine level inside you at all times, because when someone lunges at you with a used hypodermic needle, your bladder will empty itself into your pants.
- It’s easier to throw a crackhead out before they smoke rock than it is to wrestle those red eyed bastards out of the bathrooms.
- Police officers are your friends 49% of the time. The rest of the time they’ll show up an hour late, tell you how rotten your bar is and, by extension, how rotten you are, and then write you a citation for bleeding from the head without a permit.
- Sometimes the cost of attempting to make large scary people pay for their rum and cokes is much higher than being $2.50 short on the till.
- When a man shows you a gun on his belt, gives you $20, and says “I was never here”, he was never there. Conversely, when a man shows you a gun on his belt, gives you $50, and says “I was here all night”, he was, amazingly enough, there all night.
I was slowly transformed from ‘temporary interloper’ to the ‘guy who won’t last’ and finally, after three weeks, I was simply: Mark. Or Marko. Or Matt. Or Rob. Or That Big White Motherfucker. While this familiarity certainly halted the amount of direct abuse I was subjected to, it opened the doors to a more insidious sort of personal erosion.
I worked six nights a week from 4:30 pm to 3:30 am. Most of my friends have day jobs, and the ones that don’t can’t get their shit together before dinnertime. So, in effect, I no longer had friends. Or a girl. My girlfriend worked at 8 every morning and even though we lived together, I saw her once a week.
The only people in my life were the people at the bar. My only human interaction was with inner city drunks. For all practical effects, my only buddies became the worst face modern city life has to offer. At least social workers got to see people who were trying. I got everyone who had given up.
Sure, there were some good bastards. Ex-carpenters and fishermen and concrete pourers and taxi drivers and guard dog trainers, working class folks who made good money and told good stories and drank like fucking pirates before swerving pick-up trucks home to their families. You get a guy or a gal who’s been working with their hands all day, who bust their asses and know they’ve earned their 5 o’clock Budweiser, these people are happy to see you. You represent the end of their day, release, the transition into leisure. They yell and break things and get each other in headlocks and knock over stools and smack each other around with wide smiles and big, calloused hands. For a few brief moments, things border on tolerable.
But then, as they glance to their wrist watches, all the working folks hug and shake hands go towards their trucks in the lot, home for dinner or at least the hell out of my bar before night fell. “Before the crazies come in,” they’d say.
I waved with a rag as the last one left. And then I was left to face the rest of them.
Them? Ex-cops fired on domestic abuse charges. Car thieves. Single moms who do shots of warm gin while their kids are in the car. Schizophrenic convicts off of their meds. Slow motion gang creeps. Dealers paying kickbacks to the bar owner. Packs of rotten kids from the projects three blocks up. White-collar weirdoes twitching for hookers or drugs. Mean old drunks at death’s door. Panhandlers paying in pennies. The death gaze of a lifelong alcoholic is like that of a seal who has ceased to struggle and is disappearing beneath the water in the jaws of a shark. Liquid up to the eyes. Beat-up sluts willing to do anything for a well drink. Check this dialogue recreated from my Kahlua stained notebook:
“Give me a free drink,” she says. She looks like Judge Judy straight outta Dachau and has been grinding on the dart machine for the past ten minutes.
“Sure. A free drink. You want anything else? Maybe some cash out of the register? How about a free steak? You want a free steak too?”
“No. I just want the drink.”
She leans in close with a quiet proposal. “I’ll suck your dick.” Bad breath rolling past the back of her liver-spotted hand.
“A blowjob with a $2.50 retail value. Now that’s something I want a part of.”
“Worth every penny,” she licks her papery lips to prove the point.
“You know that’s a hell of an offer, but I, sadly, will have to decline. I hope the lovely lady will not take it too personally.”
“What lady?” She’s got dead eyes and her mouth is hanging open. I see broken teeth and mercury fillings. “I can call my friend, if that’s what it takes.” Oh, yes. My erotic dreams have come true. I can finally have a threesome with some sixty-somethings.
“Oh look,” I say, “something on the other side of the bar needs some polishing.”
A Mexican guy charges into the melee and grabs me by the arm over the bar.
“How about me,” he says, “I pay for drink and she suck my dick?”
“How big a tip do I get?” I ask him.
“Good news Glenda,” I shout across the bar, “your blowjobs just went up to $7.50.”
I go get a drink for some businessman who wandered into this place randomly and, confronted with its internal ugliness, will either chug his drink and split, or will take one sip, leave me a two quarter tip, act like he’s going to the bathroom, and never come back.
The Mexican guy is still looking at me expectantly. He really wants a blow job.
“Are you fucking serious?” I yell this much louder than I plan.
“Yes,” he says, a little embarrassed. Glenda is sliding down the bar towards him.
“What’s he talking about?” she asks me. “Tell him that for him he has to buy me two … no… five drinks.”
“You suck his dick for one drink!” says the Mexican, undoubtedly about to speed dial community legal services to file a discrimination suit.
“Who sucked your dick?” asks little blonde Sandi, the blown apart part-time housekeeper with puffy bangs. She has decided that she is in love with me and hangs out during every single shift I work, flirting clumsily on her first drinks, gradually getting more jealous and agitated with each Malibu and pineapple because I’m not giving her enough attention. Eventually, she will begin the threats to take a boxcutter to my girlfriend’s face. She’s the only one who’s tipping.
“Look!” I yell. “No one is going to suck anyone’s dick and nobody’s getting a free drink!”
“Who getsh a free drink?” asks Carl. He’s got an oxygen tube clipped to what remains of his septum and is talking to the back of the Rainier beer tap which obviously holds some sort of resemblance to me.
And in through the back door comes Jarresh, the born-again Christian who has repented for his decades of being a drunken asshole and has come back to save us all.
“I used to be here every day,” he’d tell one of the regulars, “I used to be like you. But then I found a higher power.”
“You’re still here every day,” I’d say. “You’re just on a different drug now.”
“Don’t listen to the bartender. He profits on your misery.”
“Bullshit. Miserable people don’t tip worth shit. Drink up or get out.”
And then there’d be a “debate” where I’d say something to the effect of Christianity being nothing more than a constant string of apologies for the inability to live up to the morals of 1st Century desert nomads and then he’d start talking about perfect love and I’d say something mean about Jesus, and that would get the Mexicans yelling at me because even though they blew their child support money on high-stakes pool games and cases of salted Tecate, they had Virgin Mary prison tattoos and there was nothing worse than being an unbeliever.
“You are all fucked. I hate every single one of you.” I announced this loudly at least three times per shift. It’s OK. They hated themselves too. They hated each other. They hated me most of all. They hated me for handing them losing pulltabs, for not letting their 12 year old girlfriends drink, for cutting them off after throwing up on themselves, for not letting them get high in the bathroom, for not lending them cigarette money from my criminally impoverished tip jar, for not giving away free drinks even though every one of my moves was charted by three video cameras hard wired to the owner’s retirement community apartment.
The owner. In my entire employment, I never met the owner. He communicated with me through a daily barrage of poorly spelled post-it notes and incoherent screaming left on my answering machine at seven in the morning. “You’re pouring too heavy,” he’d growl. “Thirty dollars short on register will come out of your paycheck,” he’d write. “I saw you give away a bottle of Bud Light. Also, found broken pint glass in bathroom trash. Will take both out of your paycheck,” he’d write. “You left Galaga on all night,” he’d say on my answering machine, “how fucking hard is it to unplug a fucking video game? Jesus Christ, it makes noises! IT MAKES NOISES MARK!”
My only consolation was that he was old, covered in cancer, and would soon die. But not necessarily before me. I’m sure the dehumanizing distance between us was disassociative on his part, because he knew I was gonna get it at some point. I was gonna get shot or stabbed or poisoned or clubbed and the least contact he had with me, the better.
“You know Ted Bundy pulled three victims from this bar.” The same foam hat guy tells me this every single time he sees me, like I haven’t heard it from every other regular a million times.
“He should’ve pulled,” I count the heads at the bar, “about thirteen more.”
Yes, I hated them all. They’d stay until 2am and drink and fight and I’d call the cops and since they were all on parole they’d shake fists and shout death threats as they ran out the back door. Every shift was nothing more than me looking at the clock and saying “seven more hours until last call… six hours forty five minutes until last call… six hours forty two minutes until last call…”
And every night, locking that front door at 4am, I had the joy of walking, can of mace fully extended in front of me, to see which one of my car windows had been broken out. One broken window would cancel two days of work. I lost three windows and eventually began to park half a mile away, a nice hike through the projects twelve days a week. It’s the American Dream in action. Just work hard enough, have faith in your masters, and one day you’ll get an air-conditioned condo overlooking the freeway, and it shall be stocked with Amstel Light, Direct TV, and 100 vestal virgins.
Now perhaps in some Bukowski-esque fantasy, this would’ve been a good experience for somebody. Somebody could’ve looked at these people and earmarked them for short stories and character fleshing and all sorts of other things a writer might do if he wasn’t responsible for pulling the knives out of their hands.
Here are some characters I kept in my notebook:
No-tip Child Crier – Would come in and drink lots of Black Velvet and try to call his kids in Texas on the phone. He’d scream at his ex, she’d hang up and then he’d cry for the next two hours and try to walk out on his tab. Three times a week. Never tipped me. Not once.
Born in the U.S.A. – Fat white couple in late twenties who would come in once a week wearing matching patriotic sweatshirts, drink pitchers of Bud Light, order two plates of extra-large nachos (yes, I had to cook food for all these lunatics too) and run me ragged with bizarre requests. Ranch dip for ranch flavored Doritos they brought in from home. Celery salt. Thousand Island dressing in a Bloody Mary. First aid gauze. A pint glass of cocktail olives. They would sit, eat, drink, and play touch screen video games at the end of the bar for hours and would eventually tip $1.00 on a $40.00 tab.
Little Juanny Skinny Head – Ricardo Mantalban with a pompadour and a head fresh from a trash compacter, he liked his chicken gizzards half cooked, wore a black Members Only jacket three sizes too small and liked to smack his women around in public. Eventually blacklisted for throwing a plastic lawn chair at his cousin.
The Turtle – A big tough drunk turned cripple after wrapping a motorcycle around a tree and splattering his BAC 2.74 blood onto the pavement. Now hobbles around painfully in a plastic body shell, gets loaded, and pathetically tries to pick fights. Do not punch in chest. You will break your hand. Do not get fingers pinched in body shell while pushing the Turtle out front door.
Debbie Reynolds #1 Fan – A brown leather bomber jacket and fogged glasses mark this 50-ish man who comes in shitfaced and talks mainly about the music of Debbie Reynolds, occasionally her relationship to Bobby Fisher and their child Carrie Fisher. Routinely holds Yoga poses from the barstool, does some robot dancing, and then falls asleep in a booth.
Senior Octopus – A fat little Mexican guy about four foot one who buys drinks for women and then tries to squeeze their tits. After four or five beers begins to hallucinate and make up stories. Consistently reports a full grown octopus occupying the men’s room stall.
Julie – The largest man I have ever met. Samoan. Carries a gun. Very cool and mellow unless provoked in the slightest way, which, depending on the drugs he’s on, could be asking him if he needs another drink. Once grabbed me by the hair and told me he’d kill me if I ever told his name to any white people. Decent tipper.
Bombed Bomber – Claimed to be a Navy pilot. Showed me his Navy ID. Came in plastered and would list, in order of descending importance, the reasons why I could never fly a Navy A-10, some reasons being that I don’t understand radar, I wasn’t smart enough, I never finished high school, I didn’t have proper training, I didn’t have the proper certification, my eyesight wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t married, and I was an open homosexual. When I suggested that those might be the reasons he could never fly an A-10 he would start yelling about radar until one of the Mexicans would tell him to shut the fuck up.
Christ, there were a million of these fuckers. Too many. They did not inspire me to write, they inspired me to drink. They stressed me bad. Seeing these people once was entertaining. Seeing these same faces every fucking day was beyond depression. I don’t want to write about people like that. I don’t want to think about people like that. I’ve got friends who work for rape crisis centers and do domestic abuse therapy with battered women and children. They can handle it about a year before they burn out completely. The light leaves their eyes. It’s ugly business, very hard on the constitution. Well, I had the people on the other end. The rapists, the abusers, the sacks of shit with busted knuckles and joyless smiles. Fathers who just walked. Mothers who got high and punched. Every fucked up thing that comes with being poor and futureless, or human and heartless. The imagination dies first and the spirit soon follows.
The more I didn’t want to think about them the more they wouldn’t leave me alone. They were in my apartment, stuck in my head, shitting on all of my thoughts, banging ghosts that never went away. They took over my few hours outside of the bar too. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to listen to music. I didn’t want to have sex. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to laugh. I didn’t want to do anything. I started taking hour long showers where I just sat in the tub and stared at the wall. I woke up at 3pm, poured a 22 oz of cold Olde English in my huge coffee mug, and took it for my stupid commute. I slept. I watched TV in silence. I stopped eating. I lost 10 pounds. I wore the same clothes every day. I looked like shit.
In the little picture I used to paint of myself in my head, I had sympathy for all living creatures. I had understanding. I had patience. I felt bad for unhappy people because I knew that they did not have to be unhappy. Happiness was something within everyone’s reach if they just took the time to find it. But in the months at that bar, that picture of people was ripped off the wall, laughed at, torn up, and tossed into the toilet. I began to hate. Real hate. I hated people. Those people at the bar, I wanted them to die, even the people who were occasionally nice to me, for no other reason than I’d never have to deal with them ever again. For the first time in my life it became clear to me that there are people who are not worth saving. There are people who will bite you while you are trying to save them. There are people whose deaths will not matter to anyone anywhere. There are people whose deaths will benefit society, there are societies whose deaths will benefit the world, and I was beginning to feel like I was living in one of those societies.
And then, in December, around Christmas, it finally hit me. I had become someone I didn’t like, didn’t respect, and didn’t want to be around. Survival had made me mean. I didn’t like being mean.
Tyrol, this gang asshole in his early 20’s, always wearing one of those stupid pantyhose hats, was by himself and slumped over a drink. I fucking hated this guy. He complained about everything, didn’t want to pay, didn’t tip, would come in with four or five buddies and try to intimidate me into giving them a bottle of Hennessey from behind the bar. Tonight he was down about something. Good.
“Did you hear about Joey getting shot?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said, completely not interested.
“He’s in the hospital. Life support.”
“It’s not funny.”
“I’m gonna laugh when they shoot you too.”
“You’re cold, man.” He looks me in the eye. I look him back. He looks down first.
“Merry Christmas,” I tell him. I pour him a shot of Cuervo, but then pull it from him as he tries to take it. I knock it back myself. He pokes at his brandy with a little straw and looks up at the television with watery eyes. He gets up and leaves. I do another shot.
That’s the day I gave my notice.
On my last night, someone was stabbed in the parking lot.
When I went back the next Monday to pick up my last week’s pay, one of the house dealers followed me to my car and told me he had work for me. He needed some white hipster-looking kids for the downtown clubs. A thousand a week guaranteed. I laugh. Bullshit on a thousand. I mention that he’s white and that all he needs to be hip is to lose the mullet. He says he wants to build a little ‘family’ of guys he can trust.
I’m out of work again. In the middle of a recession.
“You could lease you a Lexus,” he says.
My ‘hell no’ came out automatically. An automatic response to hearing the word ‘Lexus’. Well, he said, if I change my mind I know where to find him. Yes, I certainly do. He shook my hand and smacked me on the back. He’s going to miss me.
My money lasts for a month. No one wants to hire me now that I look like a serial rapist and have a swagger like Captain Ahab. Not that there are any jobs in the first place. Further poverty ensues. And depression sets up shop. Not only am I broke again, there’s no sense of humor behind it. And everyone I know gets tired of talking to me over a thirty-foot high barbed wire fence, of buying my drinks, of buying my bullshit, of hearing me bitch about the economy, The Girl, money, money, money, money…
There is an anger and hatred that will not go away, hatred of people. Hatred of a fucked up system where I am worth more creating drunk drivers than quietly pursuing a harmless hobby. That everything has been stolen and owned and I have to pay for everything this side of breathing. All I want to do is write. I don’t want to write best sellers or be famous or even produce anything that anyone will ever read. I just want to write for the sake of writing, it’s the only thing that keeps me from killing, and all this world wants from me is to sell drugs or French-fries or beat people up for cash. America is an excellent place for someone to come and make money. You can do that in America. If there’s something you’d like to do besides that, well, you’re sort of fucked.
Do I expect someone else to pay my way? Fuck no. Never applied for unemployment, never applied for welfare. So is there a solution outside of blowing huge chunks of my life trying to earn little pieces of green paper redeemable at the corner store for life-giving food? Not that I’ve found, though I’m still looking. I know that I talk about over and over and over, but the most valuable thing I own is my time. I resent it being stolen. I have no solutions and I will fully admit that all I’m doing here is blowing off steam over the same frustrations that hawk over all of us. It’s just part of being alive in this century. Life has been stripped of healthy struggle and an unhealthy struggle of the market has forced itself into place. Fake challenges. Putting the square peg into the square hole. Congratulations, here’s your hamburger. And it’s making us all sick in the head.
A person needs to work. A few hours every day. We’re wired for it. In 2002 all the jobs are bullshit. Preposterous. Unrespectable. Embarrassing. The few respectable trades that do exist are being shipped overseas or, better yet, have been so perfected that they are self destructing. Putting themselves out of work. Outfished, overfarmed, overbuilt with ugly sprawl.
Maybe just me. Maybe you’re happy. Maybe you’re content in a little boat, putting your fingers in all the holes and cursing anyone who complains. “Stop whining. Get a job.” Or so the ubiquitous emails to me go. I don’t think this is a pathway to happiness. It’s a concession to comfort. A good plan for making babies. It’s what you say in the face of the possibility that life can be more than a series of paychecks and electricity bills. It’s the argument against the possibility that life is to be lived, not just survived with as little mess as possible. It’s reinforcing the walls against uncertainty and the fear of suffering, it’s a mindset that becomes more set with every passing year because, if untrue, you may have wasted your big chance at life. It is precisely for this reason that rulers have always promised an afterlife in trade for your cooperation in this one.
Humans Beware: you will become your job. And since most jobs are completely ridiculous, you will eventually become ridiculous and you will think in ridiculous ways.
You know that movie Cocktail? Where Tom Cruise and that old bastard from FX are flipping bottles of rum over their heads when they should be mixing drinks? There’s a scene in that movie that pretty much sums American sickness up. Tom’s in Jamaica, sitting with this totally gorgeous girl at a white-spread table right on the water on an absolutely amazing day. They’re eating delicious food and drinking big blue fruity drinks (I’m thinking rum, pineapple juice and blue curacao). Any pair of normal humans would look across the table, clink drinks with big smiles and say “life is fucking good, isn’t it?”. But not old Tommy Cruise, for he is a man of vision. He bypasses the tropical breezes brisling the palm fronds and starts picking up sugar packs and salt shakers and launches a monologue about the guy who invented shoelace grommets and how he’s probably a millionaire and how get rich ideas are everywhere, and, having this amazing moment on this beautiful day, they start thinking of ways to get rich, together. Fuck this sunny day – foot corns, brain tumors, cat vomit – there’s a fortune here somewhere.
You’re already drinking Mai-Tais on the beach in Jamaica, you dumbasses. What else do you want?
I want to cement this comfort forever. With money.
And these are the jackasses who’ll be knocking down your cool old apartment building to make way for their beige condos. They will turn you out and destroy history with vinyl siding because their project is all about the bottom line and they are going to be a success. They will become rich on their widgets and then, when the laws become too restrictive across their overfed bellies, they will become politicians. They will hold themselves up high, spread themselves with spotlights and announce over the loudspeakers, “this person in a success!”
And if you bitch about any level of this process, you will be told to stop whining and to get a job and the all suckers now clogging freeways and shopping malls will shout a resounding “Here! Here!” and get to work on time.
Fuck Iran. Iran is doing just fine. The Axis of Evil is right here, lodged right in our tiny heads: propaganda, prejudice, and profit at any cost. Fine, we blew apart Afghanistan and killed all the bad guys (and plenty of the good guys and plenty of people who never took sides), but before America goes on and kicks the shit out of everyone it ever had business problems with, I mean anyone who might be a threat to national security, it might wanna check it’s own underpants for stink. Maybe do a little load a wash with the endless supply of quarters it seems to have for bombs, quarters that become exceedingly scarce and argued over when slotted for ratholes, i.e. the throats of starving American children.
“If anyone is going hungry it’s their own fault,” you’ll say.
“That’s bullshit you’ve accepted so you don’t have to care about anyone but yourself,” I’ll say.
“You care so much about those bums, you go feed them yourself,” you’ll say. “Global terrorism is the #1 threat to my family and I support any draconian measure and billions of dollars in military industrial windfalls that might make a .08% difference. Plus, we’re winning these wars. I like to win.”
“If you’re so worried about terrorism, go invade Iraq by yourself,” I’ll say.
“I don’t have to,” you’ll say, “I put a flag on my car.”
“Yeah, and you’re destroying it. It’s in terrible shape. Frayed at the ends. Faded. Left in the rain, torn by the wind. Maybe you should treat it with some more respect. Reflect on its origins. Try to remember what it’s supposed to stand for. What it really means.”
“Nah, I’ll just buy a new one.”
So the final score of this big ugly game is that I have zero points and I lose. Everything. The Girl. My home. Employment. I’m back to square one. Like the past six years had never even happened.
I couldn’t pay the rent for the second month in a row. No apologies. No food in the fridge. No smiles. Another month of looking for work, no luck either. Just knowing I could make my rent for the next year with just one month of moving coke was burning a hole in my stomach. I was considering it. That’s fucking capitalism, right? Demand and supply? Poverty is the market’s way of telling you you’re doing something wrong, right? People are getting rich by breaking the laws every day, right? Poison one person with coke and it’s a felony, poison a million with dioxin and you’re Fortune 500. This is the way the world works, right?
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Partly because I always hated drug dealers for fucking up my neighborhoods, partly because I knew enough about the trade that moving into someone else’s area would get me shot or ratted out to the police. I could see the downward spiral staircase there before me.
I applied at Taco Bell. They weren’t hiring.
That was it. My last bit of energy. No more steam, no more fire. I couldn’t stay awake. I decided to sleep on the couch until things got better. I read ‘The Possessed’ for the third time. Brought the Browns to the Super Bowl on Madden 96. Gave some attention to the cats. Brought the Seahawks to the Super Bowl on Madden 96. Read Studs Turkel’s “Working” for the second time. Brought the Browns to a second Super Bowl on Madden 96. Played with the cats. My writing had devolved into long lists of things I wanted to eat and fake stalker letters to local newscasters with the return address printed on the business card of a particularly noxious manager at a seafood restaurant who had not hired me.
Oh yes, did I forgot to mention that I had stopped talking?
The Girl had had enough of my bullshit. I had two nights to pack my crap and get out. One of her friends was taking my place in the apartment for the rest of the month, and then they both were going to move to Portland.
Nice work, Mark. No job. No girl. No place to live. How do we deal with this? Oh, I know. Let’s get shitfaced and bullshit our way into a heavy metal show. Maybe we can find another girl to move in with.
So there I was, back at the rock club. I got all this shit on my mind and here’s this bozo trying to get a hold of my arm, drunk on jealousy and attempting to include me in some lousy little drama where his fairy princess was defiled by an offending ape and therefore I must be dealt with in a very public and masculine way. I am near to my breaking point.
“You’ve caught me on a rare day,” I tell him.
“Fuck your rare day.”
He says this and I want to kill him. I actually want to kill him. Send myself to jail I where I can write as much as I want and not worry about rent. I have no doubts that I can kill him. The guy’s big, but not too big. Motorcycle jacket. Shaved head. He’s nervous. Fronting. Bluffing. His eyes are scanning, his movements lack coordination. Even with a gut full of Pabst I can tell he’s total bullshit. In my boots, I roll my toes underneath their steel houses.
I have lost all fear of anything.
“We’re gonna have a talk,” he says, “outside, now.” He starts to walk, like I’m gonna follow him outside.
“Sure, so I can get jumped by ten of your pussy friends. Fuck you.”
He grabs me again and I jerk away again, more violently this time. Staring him in the eye. He tries to grab me again and I get his wrist, pulling him forward and then, as he braces himself against the pull, I push him backwards. He stumbles. He’s really red now. He turns and he loses himself in the crowd. I’m thinking it’s about time to split, but I’m also thinking that if I end up in the hospital The Girl will come and visit me and I won’t have to move out. She’ll cry and I’ll start wheezing apologies through my feeding tube.
He comes back with two big guys. Really big guys. Fuck it, I think. I’m going out in a blast of glory. I’ll gouge out the eyes of the two big guys and give Mr. Grabby a boot in the nuts. I’m ready.
And then it flashes in my head that I don’t have any health insurance.
And then I start laughing at how ridiculous a thought that is, certainly after contemplating the murder of a fellow human being over some girl I barely remembered talking to. You’re taking it all a bit too seriously, Mr. Driver. Mr. Driver, put down the fist. Mr. Driver there are larger problems that need addressing. Let this one go. Smile big. Walk away.
I’ve already made peace. But he doesn’t know it.
The guys shove through and surround me.
“Empty your pockets,” he says. He must really want a fair fight.
“Hey man, she’s all yours. I told you.”
“She’s unconscious. Maybe dead. Empty your fucking pockets.”
Whoa. Unconscious? Speaking of unconscious, I notice that one of the big guys has the word “Security” written across his chest. So does his big partner. And, now that I see it, so does the guy who’s been trying to grab me for the past five minutes.
“Unconscious?” I’m confused, pulling stuff out of my pockets. A wallet full of nickels, a Tecate bottlecap, two crushed plastic cups, my leatherman keychain — everything’s inspected.
“Unconscious. Her friends said she was with you right before she went out. That you could’ve slipped her something.”
“Fuck? Did you call an ambulance?”
“Yeah, it’s on it’s way.”
“Where is she?”
“You better stay right here.”
“Yeah man. OK. Whatever you say. That sucks. Fuck. I hope she’s OK. Fuck.”
“You sound guilty.”
“I’m just concerned, man.”
I look over and all of her friends are staring back at me. I shrug my shoulders. If they knew the real me, they’d know that Mr. Driver doesn’t poison. That’s not my style. I’m more of a lead pipe in the parlor sort of killer.
The girl I was currently hitting on is also giving me the “aren’t you John Wayne Gacy?” look.
“I don’t need fucking ruffies to get laid,” I tell her.
“Just cheap beer and jokes.” She nodded coldly and sipped at the beer I had bought her and all of a sudden I was back to reality. We had an honest look at each other. The appropriate physical space was once again established. “You’re really cute,” I say. She’s not that cute but I feel like I should pay her for her time.
“I’m not really up to this right now,” I say.
“Yeah.” She rubbed my arm. Hangnail.
“See ya around,” I said.
I hung around the front of the place and watched the blonde girl get wheeled away on a stretcher. They put her in the back of the ambulance and it pulled away with lights and no siren.
The first girl I talk to after an eight year relationship gets taken away unconscious in an ambulance. If that’s not a message from the universe, I don’t know what is. This was not abstract thought, this was happening in front of me. I was worried about her. That made me feel good. Enough time out of the pressure cooker and I was actually hoping that she didn’t die. Was I returning to normal? Not to the outside world. Her friends saw me standing there with my hands in my pockets, smiling.
So that’s the bad. Life can really suck. It can get away from you. You can have your Barbie dream house one day, and wake up on Mars the next. Your decisions affect you personally. They shape your brain. And that’s a great big “DUH” to most people, but life’s always been sort of a joke to me. Nothing too serious. I jump out of buildings without looking because I know there’s a swimming pool down below. I’ve quit jobs with $100 in the bank because I knew I’d find something else. I saw stupid people, I pointed and laughed. I drank beer and ate chicken wings and read good books and loved the companionship of all my great friends. There always seemed to be a few bucks around for vacation, so how could I give a fuck?
And now, as I gradually (and gingerly) remove life’s great boot from my ass, I appreciate new sanity and I appreciate the gutter for giving it to me. The things I’ve gleamed have not come from others, as I had assumed they would. They’ve come by seeing myself, someone headstrong and stubborn and stuck with idealism, become a bitter cuntbag over such a short period of time without really noticing or caring.
I learned from the bad, the sort of thoughts that come out of misery and poverty. Of course to equate what I went through with true poverty would be preposterous. True poverty stretches over years, lifetimes. The thought of permanent endurance is unbearable. I was a temporary visitor to the outer periphery and I got my eggs scrambled. I felt it on my neck: the anger, the helplessness, the willful self-destruction that appears as irresponsibility to the rest of the world. If I don’t give a fuck about what happens to me, how can you expect me to give one shit about you, much less your ideas of how I should behave? There are many people whose behavior threaten your mental comfort. Maybe they’re dirty, or loud, or put together all wrong. They’re just trying to get by. Stop being so fucking afraid of them.
This is a generation that, more than any other previous generation, demands absolute comfort, absolute safety, and 100% predictability in everything, including other people. It’s like an extension of fundamentalism: “To remain solid in my beliefs, I must control your behavior. It makes me more comfortable when everyone behaves in a manner that I can predict.” What we have forgotten is that life offers no guarantees, all that we have is temporary, and we should not spend sunny days talking about profit margins on shoelace grommets.
We’re mammals. We’re meant to get wet.
I also no longer think that depression is just a bunch of self-piting bullshit, it’s the logical result of living without control or choices. When everything you do is a struggle, you eventually run out of energy, and that saying things like “stop whining” to people without energy is nothing more that a way for you to put them out of your mind. To tell someone like that to stop whining is also a good way to get a boot in the groin, have your head pulled back, and have that same person put an ear to your mouth and ask, “is that whining I hear?”
The bad makes the good that much better. Things can only suck for so long, and yes, this particular adventure of mine ended well. There was a warm bed waiting at the end.
This is what happened:
I watch the blonde get taken away in the ambulance. I stumble home. I’m feeling empty. Drained. The Girl isn’t home when I get back. It’s almost three by this point. She’s probably taking on an entire football team in a locker room shower party. Or being flown on a Duke’s private jet to Vienna for luxurious seduction and opulent marriage. I can just imagine those pale and flabby European buttocks pumping away at my little Ukrainian sweetheart. If she gets to be a Duchess, I’ll kill myself.
I look at all my shit by the door and wonder which one of my friends I’m going to be burdening for the next year
Then I’m face down in bed and a cat climbs onto the back of my head. Snore.
And then I wake up to laughing. It’s Her.
“You got you a cat on your head.”
“I miss you.”
“Urmph?” I was awake.
“You shouldn’t wear boots to bed. It’s bad luck. Plus, they’re all fucking muddy.”
She’d been out at parties, talking to other boys and being bored. Grossed out at their slimy advances. Guys who had more expensive shoes than she did, guys who asked what products she used in her hair, guys who didn’t listen to Pentagram, guys who “couldn’t” drink High Life because they only drank good beer, guys whose boring jobs didn’t stop them from talking about them endlessly, guys with perfect teeth, guys who wore cologne, guys in bands who thought they were Iggy Pop, guys who wore vests, guys who were into The Strokes way before they were cool, guys who offered her coke, guys who tried to make her do five shots of Jagermeister, guys who had their entire lives already charted in drab and reliable cement, guys who lived with their parents. No puppet shows with cocktail napkins. No screeching dinosaur noises. No ‘freedom from tachometers of tyrannisis’ George W. Bush speeches. She misses me. Of course she does. How could she not? Other people are shit. I told her that the first girl I tried to pick up was currently in the hospital, possibly wired to a life support system. I’m not sure if she believed me but she lays down, rubs my head and smiles. I smile too. First time in a while we’re smiling at each other because of each other.
“Don’t move out.”
“You need to pull your shit together.”
“Did you really poison somebody?”
We both fell asleep with our clothes on.
Two o’ clock the next day (!) I get a call. A posh new lounge in the middle of yuppie central wants to know if I can come interview for the head bartender position. The owners were new to the business and admitted that they had no idea what they were doing. They wanted someone with bar management experience. I applied to twenty bars with my gang bar experience. These were the only people who called me back. They were interested by my cover letter. They thought I was funny. They said it made me stand out. They had no idea what they were doing. There was hope for me yet.
So life can be bad. But it can also get good again.
I got the job.
I got The Girl back.
The passed out blonde lived.
The boxes are still in the hallway.