Wednesday, January 12, 2011

But Will Jefferson [Jalopy] Be Playing Tonight?


"Memory it can't be bought'n, 
it can't be won, the carnivals for free.
It took me years, to get those souvenirs 
And I don't know how they slipped away from me." -John Prine

Among the things I'd like to do, sometime this year, is a retrospective of my writing on this blog and in my music in the last few years, or at least since Brand of Make Believe was begun a few years ago.  It wouldn't be a genuine retrospective... more a capsule form discussion of themes and subject matter.  Post by post.  It won't take terribly long... maybe five or six pages at the most.  I should hope.

What gets me thinking about this is what a wonderful forum for what is on my mind that the blog has turned out to be.  Something like a website of my day to day stuff, it is fun to go back in time, and it's easy to do simply by looking at the table of contents, organized by date!  For you, this holds little excitement.  For me, however, it is a diary and a great deal more.  Pictures, poems, essays, recollections... stories and happenings.  Only by the seamless tricks of our lying minds do we convince ourselves of a memorable past.  The truth, as we all know when asked for details, is that we can't remember, and are mighty surprised when anyone else can.

It wasn't till I was old enough to "know" how lousy I was at many things in life, that I learned from long-term relationships that I sometimes remembered things that other people did not.  It isn't fair, given the biological realities, for me to expect my Mom and Dad to remember as vividly my childhood as I do.  And conversely it isn't fair for my Mom and Dad to expect that I would have as nuanced a memory of the Iran/ Contra affair as they do.  Our memories serve different functions at different times in our lives.  

I have always had a peculiar memory.  I have always found it extremely difficult to memorize rote facts.  This, I know, is a problem for everyone.  And no, I do not think that I could not learn. It was just a fact that without a constant study companion, I could not, on my own, force myself to sit as a very young man and learn rote facts.  If anything, as an adult I find the discipline easier, but the memorization even worse.  I sometimes, even frequently, can't remember my phone number.  Out of seven routine bank accounts I only know three account numbers.  Sometimes, I am mumbling an account number (I go to the bank multiple times a day: as someone who used to constantly have trouble with money, it always seemed impossible for me to ever imagine myself as one of those guys who takes his kid with him to get US savings accounts, like in the Public Service Announcements I would listen to back in my wasted youth.  Well... those PSA's are one of the reasons, I suppose, that I enjoy bank transactions so much.  Besides, you are transacting your money in a manner just as consequential when you buy yourself lunch, or a haircut, or your weekly $200 groceries at Wal-Mart or Kroger.  At the bank the purity of my intentions, and the bizarre ease of access to "products" of the American banking system to which we citizens of my country have access (especially as opposed to some of my Asian, European, and Middle Eastern friends) definitely is on my mind; despite the incredibly crappy, airplane like aesthetics of what passes for a bank in my world.)    I was trying to say above, sometimes I am mumbling an account number correctly, as I pull my wallet out to look it up.  This infuriates me, since when I remember not to look at the number I almost never can remember it!  Only the chafing of the back of my hand, as it reaches into my wallet and the odd strain on my right rotator cuff allows my mind to say, "yes, it's 12345678910."  Oh well... you get the picture; my memory is terrible.

And yet... how often can I remember in exquisite detail, every last breath and supple bend in some landscape and/or emotional arc I've shared with a friend or lover?  Trust me, we all dwell on the past.  Especially the recent sad and lonesome past.  There is nothing so tawdry as the truth off the mouth of a friend who tells you how your suffering is necessary for your future pleasure.  In any case, it isn't unusual for a friend to tell me, between bouts of shock at me not knowing my phone number, ect.  that they are shocked that I remember that day, a few years ago, when they were doing such and such and I was taking them to Nashville.  Trust me... I don't know my phone number, but I know that trip to Nashville in Technicolor.  Even if it wasn't a romantic friend.  Even if it was a favor for someone I didn't even like much at all.  Your stupid beating heart is all my screwed up being needs for its mnemonic needs.

Of course, you might have seen those people on the news, a few months back, who remember everything they've ever done, down to amazing resolutions, back to when they were babies.  These people apparently remember everything!   Obviously,  if I remembered everything, I long ago would have demonstrated this skill to someone who would pay dearly to have a sidekick with such an ability, and retired to my farm, and warehouse full of laboratories and workshops by now.  No... my memory is not extraordinary.  It's only special when placed against my memory problems. 

And yet... certain things seem to interest a writer; in particular where memory and the hilariously inadequate term "living" are on speaking terms.  I wrote a poem in 1994, for example, December of 1994... late at night, perhaps one thirty or two in the morning.  I was living with my parents at Clarkston Rd in Zionsville, my last childhood home.  I was relaxing after work delivering pizza at Papa Johns.  At the time I had been working at the pizza place for only a month or two. I worked at least forty hours a week delivering.  I found it a bit intimidating due to the fact that the delivery area was at least one half riddled with bad neighborhoods, and incredibly neglected instances of commercial effort.  Thirty minutes prior to writing the poem I was sitting in a chair, in the North facing section of my parents living room, beside a large brass chest.  The chest had all over it little dimples with round things, like nailheads stuck into them.  I always liked that chest.  It actually occasionally needed polish.  Something to look for in brass.  Beware of polyurethane coated metals.  Just beware.  I was sitting beside my families baby grand piano, the big square chest, in a chair looking across the foyer of our house, through a slot above the front door that sometimes, being sheathed in a thin sleeve of metal, vibrated like a reed during certain winter storms.  One of many things in childhood a grown person wouldn't mind hearing.  Perhaps one day I will write a letter to the current occupants (whom my parents knew prior to selling the house to them) and ask after that braying front door, secretly hoping no handyman ever managed to silence it.

It was two weeks before Christmas, and I had decided to sit in this somewhat strange quarter of the house, due to the fact that I had many fine memories, sitting in that chair, reading, and sometimes, lying on the ground, reading as well.  My childhood, I knew, was over.  Hence the gangbangers, and otherwise awful storm clouds of feeling that seemed to surround you ten miles away where I worked everyday.  My childhood was gone... I knew... but for that brass chest, the carpet with its anarchic tassels, and the white oak floors, and braying front door.  The house seemed to remind me of my promise as a human being.  The promise that dropping out of college had marred somewhat.  The promise that failing to function as a normal adult outside my parents home had marred a great deal more.  So, here I was, late at night and abiding beneath the sheltering arms of a house that could not live my life for me: but seemed eerily lucid in its depiction of a life I no longer had.

The night before I had written in a journal, sitting in the same chair, before I went to my Mom's computer to type the poem I'd written.  The poem I wrote that December night, more afraid, nervous and anxious than, self reflective, was called "No Peace."  I have the poem, somewhere.  So do most of my family members, if they kept a sheaf of poems I gave them for Christmas one year.  It wasn't a terrible poem.  But it isn't one I feel anything for.  The poems I like from that collection I sometimes still look upon and wonder "what were you thinking?"  But really, I already know.  I'm not a thinker, really.  I'm a phenomena oriented guy.  A dude who is more or less a average thinker, but a decent feeler and processor of experience.  Especially what most folks regard as the spiritual and mystical sides of life.  That's why I have for years preferred all these journeys.  None of them amount to anything concrete, of course... their value to me, is that they are the only ways I have ever, in life, been able to attach meaning to my life.  Long hours in the snow drifts unplowed, beneath the mustard lights of the ghetto delivering pizza.  Sometimes ten and twelve hours a day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, taking a lousy meal to some very excited poor folks.  The kids would be jumping around, and the parents smiling (not for the pizza, but because they love their kids.  It was unmistakable.)  The snow would be deep and relentless in its defacing of easy divisions between the suburbs and the 'hood.  A lazy stream would reach beneath the snow, and lose even this fiery sodium plasma lights embrace, and be, for the evening, the only instance of rebuttal to all the flakes of water..... save the trees.  I'd have a cigarette in my mouth and be driving those snowdrifts, unplowed, at midnight, more miles and miles until the last of the pizza's were gone.  I'd listen to some unabridged book on tape... dreaming of the day when I could have an endless supply of non fiction to listen to.  Dreaming of today, actually.  But it wasn't so, back then.  Listening to James Mitchner, and if I was lucky T.C Boyle, or something.  Listening to everything, like an inmate within the jail library.  This book, or that bunk.  Those books or that car... with the endless madness of the commercial radio between sweet sessions of NPR.  I couldn't listen to classical music all night.  Though eventually, I'd turn everything off.  And skate in my Olds across the silent clouds of snow, back to my parents, where the end of a night, often meant a poem or two before bed.  After a minute or two in a chair to stare at the door.

The poem I wrote when I stood up after looking at the bleating reeds of the door, ended,  with a last line, "and a future so like nostalgia."  I suppose I liked that line, and still like it, for all wrong reasons.  It sounds cliched, which, if you are insecure enough, means you belong to a canon of some description, yes? If it must not be good, can you at least say it's cliched?  I hope so.  

"a future so like nostalgia"  I definitely still like it. I've never disliked the line.  The poem itself was never meant to mean something particularly romantic, or deep. It was a poem for the sake of being poetic.  A pretty irritating thing... like the fragrance of handsoap, or something.  Something demonstrably useful, but constructed with no thought to its place on a scale of meaning or time.  So, it was perhaps me fooling myself that I might take myself less seriously than I in fact did.  Something to that effect.  But, looking back, I was miserable, and scared, and I think I knew that as well.  There must have been something to the fact that I was working in this soul killing world of the ghetto, sometimes risking my life to take people food they could not afford that demonstrably kills them: and then writing about "a future so like nostalgia."  Maybe it was my way of saying that when things are much better one day (as they became, eventually) I didn't want to remember myself as some calloused fool.  Somebody pretending things were too terrible... or too good.  I'm not sure... but I do definitely remember liking myself, and my take on the world.  In many ways I loved those crappy neighborhoods where I worked.  The way they punctuated the end of the gifts and innocence of my childhood, and preyed on the very substance of my highest ideals.  The sheer certitude of poverty and disability.  The accelerated lifespan of a people who I shared everything with, but fate [mostly.]  The conversation, the siren like cooing that that fate had with me.  "Just listen to the softness of my voice, Andy," it would say.  "You, son, are here, 'cus you pissed your luck away."  I knew that wasn't true.  I was there for a job, and a chance to be tested in some way I couldn't explain.  Eventually I would leave some of the people I came to love in those neighborhoods behind... many of them have died.  One man in particular, Sheldon, is a character whom I have been trying to write about for fifteen years.  More than once he proved himself a more pure soul than me.  But it only took one night to bring him down.

"and a future so like nostalgia"

Last night, as I was falling asleep I laughed to myself, reading an article in a New Yorker sent to me by my father (the subscription, that is.)  I had to get out of bed and come and write down a passage from an article about the perceptions we have of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue early in the Second Gulf War. Big surprise, great article.  I think it more or less explains itself.

In "The Future of Nostalgia," Boym's book on history and memory, she described Soviet era monuments serving as "messengers of power... onto which anxieties and anger were projected."  The Princeton architectural historian Lucia Allais, who has examined the destruction of monuments during the Second World War, mentioned to me one of the most famous topplings ever-- of the statue of King Louis XV in Paris, in 1792, during the French Revolution.  The action was portrayed by its authors as a liberation from the power of the monarchy, but they put in its spot a symbol of a new sort of power: the guillotine.  These monuments destruction "are usually acts of monumental replacement, which hide continuities of power... behind the image of rupture," Allais wrote to me in an e-mail.

("The Toppling" by Peter Maass, The New Yorker; pg. 53, paragraph 2)

'cus she'll offer her charms to the darkness and danger of something that she's never known/ And open her arms at the smile of a stranger who'll love her and leave her alone-- K. Kristofferson The Silver Tongued Devil

What a strange sort of magic trick being argued here, by this social rearrangement. 
It's strange the sobriety that black words on a white page can claim.  And yet guilt, in such realms as the rhetorical is hardly unimaginable:
Wouldn't you know...
We poets have the motive.
And we poets have the weapon, too.

6 comments:

Old 333 said...

Really neat read - thanks for it, Andy!

I found the pure-white text a little painful on FoS's darker background - maybe a quick change to something more, like, bone - coloured...?

Thanks again - an excellent piece.

PG

Andy Coffey said...

Thanks Peter,

Made a lame attempt to fix it... ahem. Nice to see you.

Andy

Jeremy Blomberg (Sean Weathers) said...

very nice read, a lot of honesty and different emotions expressed in this piece. i especially appreciated the kris kristofferson quote at the end...one of my all time favorite singer/songwriters.

Andy Coffey said...

Thanks Sean,

Kris was my favorite singer and songwriter for most of my youth. It's been surprising the number of people of all ages who have shared with me an affection (oftentimes passion) for his work. And it's funny, he's still working. Thirty six years after Bobbie Mcgee, he wrote a song for Jerry Lee Lewis and was honored by Lewis naming his last album for the song. Amazing guy. His insistent leftism never broke my heart either... but I'm just saying.
Thanks Sean.

Old 333 said...

I like the new colours!

Andy Coffey said...

Thanks, Peter... I suppose your the only one who's ever had reason to say that to me on ANY matter of taste.
See how good for me you are?