Jumat, 30 Desember 2011

GOING UPCOUNTRY

Q


Most farangs vacation in Thailand for the beaches food, culture, and temples. I had been to many.In 1997 a friend in exile from the UK off-suggested a visit to the Last Babylon. Pattaya offered love-lost western men a chance to meet a girl of their dream. Past and present are unimportant. Most men are astounded by finding someone who thinks that they are handsome or law. They spend an idyllic vacation on Koh Samet.

The disgust of fat western women on the beach rivaled the envy of these obese cows’ husbands. The Thai-farang couple make love five times a day, mostly to compensate for years of abstinence. Upon his return to Pattaya, she doesn’t mind accompanying the older man to go-gos. His and our blindness is almost comical, since we can't see that she doesn’t trust he out of her sight.

Pattaya has to be paradise and two weeks into the honeymoon his beloved says, “I want see my family. You come with me?”

Her offer seems like an innocent proposition and the old geezer agree to this journey to Ban Mai-mee-tee-nai.

Hearing these plans his bar friends exchange a knowingly glance.

“What’s wrong?” The newby really want to know.

“Nothing.” They smile like he brought a blind donkey “Have a great time.”

“Thanks.” The western man rents a car for several days and leaves Pattaya on a great adventure. Ban Mai-mee-tee-nai is not on the map. He asks his sweetheart for directions. She is about a minute from a semi-coma and points north. “Isaan.”

Isaan.

The mythic plateau of Northeast Thailand which has figured into his friends' countless jokes about the sick buffalo, blind aunt, feeding whole communities of bankrupt Thai farmersdrinking Lao-Khao whiskey till dawn. The farang suddenly realize that he doesn’t know what he's gotten himself into and his tilat isn’t explaining either, because she is scrunched against the door in a state of exhaustion.

Oblivion comes easy after two weeks of making love to a Viagra-crazed farang.

The highway turns into a two lane road. At one point his darling opens an eye and indicates a dirt road. By the time the car hits the first pothole, she has lapsed into another coma.

The electric lines disappear and dry fields stretch to a hazy horizon. Buffalo laze in a torpor. No cars. No people. Crossing a bridge over a muddy creek and his girlfriend opens her eyes.

“We here.”

“Ban Mai-mee-tee-nai?”

“My home.” She beeps the horn, as he pulls into a forested complex surrounded by bone-dry rice fields. Rain drops on the Isaan Plateau with a miser's wish for less.

A horde of Thais surges from several wooden houses. The old farang haven’t seen any place this ramshackle outside of a National Geographic magazine, but everyone smiles a greeting. He smiles back. Kids pull on your leg. An older man greets the farang with a bow. He wais back as directed by his girlfriend. Everyone laughs. He smiles. Food appears out of nowhere. Everyone sits down and eats on the ground. The old codger thinks this isn’t too bad, until his legs cramp up and everyone laughs at his uncomfortability.

His girlfriend’s ‘brother’ gets a chair dating back three centuries. Sweat pours from his skin. They offered beer with ice. He's never drank it like that before. Now it’s perfect. The heat is stultifying. More food is eaten. Some of it he doesn't recognize. He tastes a little. Your mouth is on fire. He drinks more beer. Soon it’s gone.

“Need more beer.” His girlfriend holds out her hand.

He reaches into your pocket. The girlfriend grabs 2000 baht and jumps on a dilapidated motorcycle with the 'cousin'. “Be back soon.”

The remaining crones clear the food and he's left to drink Lao-Khao whiskey with the male family members. They insist on his drinking, even though he's passed triple the legal limit for DWI an hour ago. His girlfriend hasn’t shown up and the farang peaks his ears for the sound of the motorcycle, only to hear the buzz of the early evening’s mozzies.

Several hours later he wakes on the floor of a house with three men aromatized by lao whiskey. He has no idea where he is. His wallet is still in his pants. Thais are very honest. Female voices babble under the floor. Nothing they say makes any sense. The farang climbs over the pile of sleeping men and descends a vertiginous set of stairs to the ground.

Over head stars blaze in their billions. A fire burns in the yard. Some of it is plastic. His girlfriend is sitting with a gaggle of women. She smiles at him. He smiles back, wishing a doctor could shoot him with an injection to get rid of his throbbing hangover.

Footsteps sound behind him. The men are carrying plastic bags of Lao-Khao whiskey. He protests against being offered a glass. His girlfriend frowns. The Lao-Khao goes right to his stomach and the farnag rushed into the bushes to heave like a girl scout drunk from sherry. Everyone laughs and that’s the last he remembers before waking to the sound of roosters cowing. It’s dark. He'll, it’s night.

His girlfriend is asleep and so is everyone else.

The farang tries to go back to sleep but his feet have been chewed by flocks of mozzies hungry for a taste of new blood. Soon dogs are barking and the sky is getting light. Before the dawn a loudspeaker crackles to life. For the next hour a man rants on in Thai. No one stirs from their slumber and the farang wish that he was back in his hotel room.

Air-con. Cable TV. Swimming pool. Mobile phone service. Western food. Chairs. Beds. Beaches. Go-go bars.

Of course his girlfriend doesn’t respond to any hint about a return to Pattaya other than to say that tonight is a big party, which ends up a repeat of the first night only with more family members. Everyone is having a good time and why shouldn’t they? No one has put a hand into their pocket since his arrival and he mentally calculates that he could have flown to Bali for the price of the last two days ie bar fine, car rental, and expenses.

And his girlfriend hasn’t as much as kissed him, as she has reverted to a village girl. Food, friends, family, everyone having a good time. And she knows how to play a man, farang or Thai, because at the night’s end, she comes up to him and says, “Everyone like you. Me, I love you, because you not make face.”

“Make face?”

“Yes, make face same dog, because you spend too much money.” She sneaks a kiss and everyone laughs. He too and he decides to stick it another day.

On the fourth day he wakes up and pack the car. Everyone waves good-bye, except for the three family members joining them for the voyage south.

Back in Pattaya he drops off the relatives without a word of thanks. He delivers the car three hours late for a half-day penalty. The farang is glad to be back in civilization, but his girlfriend cries, “I miss my family.”

They make love for the first time in four days and she cries throughout. He feels like he's having sex with a war widow and almost stop, except those years of abstinence have create a monster and he completes your mission, after which he leaves her in the hotel room watching TV to meet his friends.

The farang is happy to be missing them and later that night the gang at his favorite bar ask, “How was it?”

“It was great.”

And they nodded in unison because they’ve said the same thing too.We all do to save face. When in Thailand.

YELLOW TEETH by Peter Nolan Smith

I have been arrested several times in my life.Age 12 for vandalizing an abandoned missile base overlooking Boston HarborAge 21 for driving over a bed of flowers at a girl's college in Newton. Age 25 for running an after-hour club in Manhattan. Age 31 in Paris for grafitting the British Embassy wall. The gendarmes thought my words were an IRA tirade, instead of drunken verses to my girlfriend working across the street at the Azzedine Alaia salon opposite the embassy on Rue St. Honore.

None of these crimes deserved jail time. My violent streak never came to the attention of the police. My drug deals were strictly small-time. I avoided contact with the Mafia. They were as dangerous as the Hell's Angels, Hamburg pimps, Colombian cocaine dealers, and conniving transvestites.My mother had warned me about these people."If you see trouble coming, walk the other way."I was near-sighted, so trouble found me long before I noticed its approach.Luckily my Uncle Carmine told his wayward nephews the Golden Rule."Only break one law at a time."His advice stood us well and I avoided any serious complications with the law for twenty-two years, however no one's lucky streak can challenged the odds forever and in January 2008 I returned to Central Pattaya after a pleasant seafood lunch with my steady girlfriend in Jomtien.It was a good life.I was living alone in the most wicked town on the planet. My website selling counterfeit Ferrari and assorted F1 merchandise was # 1 in the Google search engines. The weather was cool and I had shipped a big order of McLaren driver suits to Germany. Another week of good sales and I would be out of debt, then I could get my yellow teeth whitened to a brilliant white.I entered my estate off Soi Bongkot and parked my motorscooter before my rented house. Another month and the mango tree would bear fruit. Everyone in the neighborhood waited the harvest with lip-smacking anticipation.A mini-van stopped behind me. At first I thought it was my brother-in-law coming for a beer and I wondered why he brought so many friends.

Why?Because it wasn't Pi-Wot but the Bangkok police to arrest me for copyright infringement. The oldest officer in a black suit presented a search warrant. The other cops were undercover in jeans, tee-shirts, and sneakers. I was wearing sandals. Running was not an option. I opened the gate, then the doors to my office.

They politely took off their shoes and entered my office. Twenty F1 shirts lay in plastic bags on the floor. They seized the merchandise and the ranking officer asked, “Where’s the rest of it?”

“That’s it.” Business has been off this year. A computer geek sat at my computer. He wanted the codes to my site. Refusal was out of the question. Cooperation was rewarded with leniency, but tonight looked like i would be spending the evening in a monkey house. They were never comfortable.“Can I go outside?” I wasn't needed for the dismantling of f1 shopping. The long-haired geek knew his business and his fingers swept over my keyboard like a tsunami.

The commander nodded and two cops accompanied into the garden and I hyperventilated, as a series of prospective scenarios played in my head. Most of them were finished in jail.One of the younger cops told me to calm down, “Jai yen. Jai yen.”"That's easy for you to say." I had seen MIDNIGHT EXPRESS more than once.He wasn’t being arrested in a foreign country.

“No big problem. Maybe 2000 baht.” He explained the fine would be about $60. “We take you Bangkok. You pay bail and then go home. Mai pen lai." American detective from Quantico Ltd. was supervising the operation. His company had been looking for me a long time. Rusty was a Yale graduate. HIs online persona had emailed that his mother wouldn't allow his use of her credit card and I had accepted a western union wire to my real name. I had mailed him merchandise, but had written phony addresses on the envelopes, thinking that might protected me.At least it was a comfort that my ex-wife hadn't sold me out to the tam-luau.How they had tracked me back to Soi Sawan was unimportant, but Rusty also said it wasn't such a big deal. "Not the first time. Next time you go to jail."

"Message well taken." I had been trying to quit for ages. "I don't want to go to jail.

Jail in Thailand is a bare floor with thirty-plus other misfortunates.

"You won't." Rusty had arrested scores of counterfeiters."You seem like a smart person. Why are you doing this?" I hated snitches."Why did you do this?" Rusty was in his thirties. HIs Thai was impeccable."So I could stay in Thailand." The other employment opportunities were either a low-paying teaching job or running a bar. "We all do what we have to do."

The old lady on the street came up to me. I paid her to clean my house. She had received perfume for Christmas. The police had questioned her about me several times and she had never said a word. I also hated people who didn't snitch."I tell police you good man." Thai police studied the ways of the Gestapo. Thailand had a long fascist tradition. The only up for informers were the police."Thanks." Her testimony was the best a woman in her position could do for a farang."These police not same Pattaya. Honest. Not worry.""Sure." I always worried when people tell me not to worry, but the police never cuffed me or confiscated my telephone. The older officer asked if i had any drugs in the house. I told him the truth."Ganga no problem. Get rid of it."He sent me into the house and I flushed the two joints down the toilet.When I came out, he asked, "You want beer?""Yeah." It couldn't hurt and I reached into my pocket."Mai, mai." He waved his hand in the air and leaned forward. "I talk with everyone and they say you good man. I will take care of you. I not like other farang."He was speaking about Rusty and his employers. The old lady had said that they were honest, but this arrest was unlike any that I had seen on Sophon Cable or read in the Bangkok Post.After two hours of checking my computer and packing the merchandise, they transported me to Bangkok in an air-conditioned mini-van.

Halfway to the Sathon Police Station they stopped for food and bought a bag filled with McDonald’s Happy Meal. This was not my last meal and I realized how fortunate I was to have been arrested by Federal police.

A Thai friend in Bangkok met me at the police station. His face said COP same as mine. Khim worked as a chauffeur. He explained the process and said, "Small problem. You get bail. Go home."

Strangely everyone was very polite to me. My holding cell was an office with AC and a TV with my choice of DVDs. I didn’t feel like watching anything as I was reading Peter Hopkirk's THE GREAT GAME.

Later TV crews showed up for a show. The commanding officer for copyright infringement pointed to a pile of two-thousand shirt. “This farang was caught with 4 million baht and 2000 shirts."“No, khun tam pit." I whispered under my breath. He had made a mistake and I pointed to a single bag down the corridor. "Those are these.”

“These?” Someone had properly not briefed him.

"Yes, 20 shirts. Nothing more."

He waved to the TV crew to shut off the camera. End of interview.

The arresting officers laughed at their boss.

I sat in an AC office watching TV. Movie of my choice. INSIDE MAN. I was fingerprinted and filled out an arrest form. When the cops announced bail of 50k. I said I didn't have it.

"40k?"

"Mai mee kap." Speaking polite Thai helps in situations like this.

"30?" There was no way they were dropping to 20 or 25.

30 it was. A little less than $1000.

Khim and I said, "Yet mah." or motherfucker.

We were short the bail. I had 15 k in the bank and Khim had 500. Nu couldn't sell a motorcycle until tomorrow. The monkey house loomed as a probability instead of a possibility. No beds, no blankets, cheap rice twice a day, and lots of mosquitoes. The antithesis of the worst Bangkok in Bangkok.

I made one phone one call. The Old Roue lived in on Soi Nana. I knew him from New York. I asked for 20K. He had 15K. Khim drove over to Soi 4 and picked it up. Without the Old Roue I would have been in the monkey house for who knows how long. I called him to say thanks every few days and also let him know I'm still broke.."No problem man, you get it when you get it."

The whole process from raid to release took seven hours with a two-hour trip to Bangkok thrown into the program. The Fed cops had me sign an affidavit confirming no one had asked for a sin bon or bribe.

After the money was paid they cut me loose. Khim spent 200 baht on 5 bottles of Khang. I drank 3 of them myself.I went to sllep happy that I didn't spend any time in the 'monkey house'. No chairs, no fans, and lots of mosquitoes as a prelude to the Bangkok Hilton, the Koong Toey jail.

I appeared on national TV that night. Channel 5. The Army station.  The police had said, “Not worry. Not many people watch Channel 5.”

Everyone on my soi saw the newscast.

Several Thai friends said I looked handsome. They couldn’t care less that I was arrested. It’s something that happens.

Everyone was astounded by this revelation of how much money I had. "You have 4 million baht."

My old lady who cleaned my house knew the truth. I was broke and wished I had the 4 million baht. I could get a job at the local school teaching English and make about $300/month. 10,000 baht. 300/baht a day is a big comedown from 3000 baht a day.

This story is far from over, since the cops said it would be at least 6-10 weeks until I go to court.

Another day in paradise has gotten a little less paradisaical, but it's always better to be free.

Kamis, 29 Desember 2011

CHOCOLATE MAN by Peter Nolan Smith

In 1861 Maine was the northern most state on the Eastern Seaboard. The distance from Portland, Maine to rebel lines of Northern Virginia was approximately 500 miles. The 20th Maine Regiment traveled south to engage the enemy. The troops were stricken by a smallpox outbreak in camp and missed the bloody battle of Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1862. The regiment was up to strength by year’s end and saw action for the first time as the last charge at Fredericksburg in the winter of 1863. Bullets plucked lives from the cold air and the commander ordered his soldiers to take shelter on the open field. Under the cover of night they returned to their lines chastened by the hailstorm of Confederate rifles and cannons.

Their next outing was at Gettysburg and historians have credited Colonel Joshua Chamberlain with the salvation of the vulnerable Union left with a desperate charge.

“At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.”

Chamberlain and the 20th Maine fought to the war’s bitter end.

At Appomattox a Confederate officer approached the 20th Maine under a white flag. He carried an offer of surrender from Robert E. Lee and the mayhem of four bloody years ended with a ceasefire. Three days later Colonel Chamberlain was present for the formal cessation of hostilities. As the rebel soldiers gave up with colors and rifles, Chamberlain ordered his command to attention. His memoir THE PASSING OF ARMIES captured the solemn dignity of that moment.

“Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the ‘carry.’ All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead.”

This gesture signaled the honor shared between combatants, although many northerners considered his chivalry close to treason. It had been a long hard war and the State of Maine commemorated the sacrifice of their native sons with bronze statues of steel-eyed soldiers facing south. They had saved the Union and freed the slaves, even though the black population of Maine was roughly 1300 freed men. By the year of my birth the African community had grown to about 6000 centered in the factory towns of Lewiston and Bangor, making the Pine Tree State the whitest state in the USA.

Falmouth Foresides, my childhood hometown, had two minorities; French-Canadians and Jews. When my parents were shown a house on McKinley Road, my mother asked the realtor, if there was a Catholic church nearby.

“Are you Catholic?” The real estate agent made a face.

The year was 1954.

“Yes.” My father answered with conviction. He had converted to the ancient religion to marry my mother. He liked this neighborhood. The two-story house was five yards from the bay. Portland’s Eastern Heights rose across the harbor. The air was scented by the sea and the smell of bread wafting from the Nissen Bakery near the Back Cove. Work was a ten-minute drive away from our front door.

“And a Maine native.” He spoke the words with pride.

“I guess it’s okay, we have a Jew living on the next street.”

The backhanded comment went undressed by my father and we paid little attention to our minority status. His ancestry in America dated back to the Mayflower. My brothers and sisters were blonde-haired and blue-eyed. My mother’s beauty was a homage to Hibernia. Her soaring singing voice could silence a choir and she was a welcome addition to cocktail parties in the coastal suburbs north of Portland.

When my older brother and I grew old enough, we attended a one-room schoolhouse in a pine grove. My best friend, Chaney Noyes, was a half-breed like me, although his non-Yankee side was Czech and not Irish. He was also a Catholic, but our faith was practiced at bedtime and on Sundays. The stigma of religion was never mentioned in school, however my mother told us to never forget our heritage and we toasted St. Patrick’s Day with the IRA call to arms, “Up the rebels.”

None of the French-Canadians spoke French in class and the single Jew, Steven Gordon, was a good baseball player. Falmouth Firesides was a world without color until my father brought home a Zenith black/white TV.

Our obsession with HOWDY DOODY, BOZO THE CLOWN, THE THREE STOOGES, and THE YOUNG RASCALS drove my parents crazy with the thought that their children were addicted to TV. Our height of funny was achieved by Three Stooges and Curly’s cry for cheese.

“Moe, Larry, cheese.” My older brother, my best friend, and I ran around the yard yelling these words until we were hoarse.

“Idiots.” My father hated my comic idols.

Sunday night was a family event and we watched CBS from LASSIE to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

My brother wanted to watch MAVERICK in the 7:30 slot. NORTHWEST PASSAGE, Kenneth Robert’s historical novel set during the French-Canadian War was my favorite. Our desires were secondary to our parents’ choice. It was their TV on Sunday night.

“Boring.” I muttered under my breath, as I sulked every Sunday night through the one hour of THE JACK BENNY SHOW. My parents laughed at the jokes about Jack Benny’s stinginess, the man who said, “Yeeee-essss?” and the tribulations of his love interest. The only bright spot for us was Rochester ‘s appearance on the screen.

“Chocolate man.” My brothers, two sisters and I shouted with enthusiasm.

Actually Rochester was darker than Nestle’s Bar, although the color of Hershey chocolate was merely another shade of black-and-white on our TV. Steven Gordon had a color TV. His father owned an appliance store on Congress Avenue.

“Rochester is not a Chocolate Man. He’s a Negro.” My father explained that the Negroes had come to America from Africa.

“Tarzan comes from Africa too.” I loved Cheetah. He was a funny monkey. That summer the circus had come to Portland and the sideshow had a barrel filled with monkeys. They looked sad in their cage and ate bananas without any joy.

“Tarzan is not real. Negroes were once slaves. The North fought a war to free them a long time ago.”

None of this made sense to us. Our universe was white. Moses had freed the slaves. He was a Jew like Steve Gordon.

“Did Moses free them?”

“No, President Lincoln did.”

“The man whose head is on the penny.” MY older brother was a year ahead of me in school.

“Yes.”

“But what are Negroes?”

“You know Amos and Andy?” My father believed in telling us the truth as he saw it.

“A little.” The weekly radio show was aired past my bedtime, but I had heard the voices. They didn’t speak like us.

“Those are Negroes too.” He went onto explain that their roles were stereotypes.

“You mean like better than mono.” We had a mono RCA record player. The Gordons had a stereo. The sound was fuller, but I couldn’t tell why.

“No, stereotypes are how people think about someone different.”

“Negroes are different from us?” My father had little patience for questions, so I kept mine short.

“Yes, they have different skin color and hair.”

“If blacks are on TV, why don’t they live with us?” I had never seen one in Falmouth Foresides or Portland.

“Negroes live in their own communities. It’s better that way. Everyone staying with their own kind.” My mother fielded the question with a disapproving look. She came from Jamaica Plain in Boston. Her neighborhood was Irish.

“You’re Irish and Dad’s English. Shouldn’t you have stayed with your own kind?”

‘That’s different.”

“How?” I had no idea about kinds.

“Just is?” My mother’s patience was worn thin by raising five kids. She wanted peace and quiet and most of all golden silence during these Sunday TV sessions. One stern look and what my mother wanted she got from both my father and us.

We ceased to call Rochester ‘Chocolate Man’ and somehow Jack Benny was less funny as before.

My classmates at Underwood Primary School explored the borders of ‘kind’ with special words. Steve Gordon was a Yid. Danny Benoit was called a ‘Canuck’. My brother and I were Micks. Chaney was determined to be a ‘Polack’. No one of us were ‘Chocolate Men’ and certainly no niggers. When Danny Benoit joked in class about “Micks’, Miss Stange, our teacher, lectured the K-2 students on the propriety of race.

“I don’t want to hear that word again or any of the other words.” Her stern voice warned any infraction of her edict warranted a meeting with our parents, who were the source of these words.

The older men had fought ‘Krauts’ ‘Wops’, and ‘Japs’ in World War II. The enemy of Korean War veterans was labeled ‘Chinks’. During our Davy Crockett phase we killed thousands of ‘Spics’ surrounding the Alamo. Negroes were niggers, even if the 20th Maine had freed them from the rebels.

Being a Mick I didn’t like either word. The Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell was a Negro. His stop of a Syracuse National player’s shot at the end of overtime had stolen the voice of Johnny Most, the Celtics radio announcer.

Steven Gordon had been to Boston Garden and informed us that the Jones boys were not brothers. They weren’t black either.

“More brown. Like different shades of chocolate. And they don’t like being called ‘negro’ or ‘colored’. They want to called ‘black’.” Steven went on to say that he didn’t like the words ‘kike’ or ‘yid’. He was bigger than the rest of us and his father let us watch Red Sox baseball games on their color TV. The entire team was white.

Only three teams in the American League had black players; Carlos Paula of the Washington Senators, Ozzie Virgil of the Detroit Tigers, and Elston Howard of the Damned Yankees. The Red Sox finished 3rd in the league that year and Steven Gordon’s father said that they needed a black player like Satchel Paige.

“Who was Satchel Paige?” I asked in total ignorance.

“Only the best pitcher of all time. He couldn’t play in the big leagues because of the color clause. No blacks. No way.” Steven’s father was a tall man with a big nose. He liked to fish by the dock at the end of the street. He gave his catch to the poorer families in the neighborhood.

“The first time he played for the St. Louis Browns in 1948 was as a sub for Bob Lemon. He took it soft on the first two batters, but struck out Whitey Platt, so bad that he lost touch the grip of his bat. Ended up down near 3rd base.” Mr. Gordon recounted the at-bat, as if he had been there that day “He would have been rookie of the year, except he was 42. Best pitcher ever was.”

Chaney, my older brother, and I accepted his judgment. Mr. Gordon knew his baseball. He was first pick in the neighborhood baseball games between adults. His pitch got across the plate with speed. Only Charleen Davis hit him with regularity. The 15 year-old girl was the best baseball player in Falmouth Foresides, except girls were banned from playing with Little League.

Every time my family went into Portland for dinner, I searched the streets for a black face. There were none downtown and the docks. My Aunt Sally said that Westbrook had a black postman and supposedly migrant workers from Jamaica picked apples in the orchard farms.

I never saw any, so I served as a substitute for our neighborhood. The summer sun failed to burn my skin and my tan was darker than that of my brothers and sisters. My mother called me ‘Black Irish’.

“After the failure of the Spanish Armada the galleons escape the English fleet along the coast of Western Ireland.” My mother was an endless source of Irish lore. “Many of the ship wrecked on the rocks. Some of the survivors were Moors from Africa. Maybe a little of them got in your blood.”

Labor Day Weekend families deserted the Foresides. Chaney went to Sebago Lake. Danny Benoit’s family drove north to visit his grandmother in Quebec. My grandmother had a cabin on Watchic Pond. Steven Gordon spent the long weekend in Boston and when he returned from his vacation, he said, “There are hundreds of blacks moving into Roxbury.”

He made it sound like an invasion.

“Why?” I thought blacks stayed far from the north, because the climate was too cold.

“Because the KKK are hanging them from the trees. Lynchings. Murder. Burning houses.”

“Why?”

“Because they don’t know their place.” Steven said with sadness. “The Nazis did the same to the Jews.”

“My grandmother had to leave Prague, because she was a commie.” Chaney’s grandmother was a sweet old woman. Her apple pie was spiced with cinnamon. It was good enough to be a sin.

“A commie.” Nothing was worse than being a commie in the 50s.

“Not really, but her name was on a list.” She had told us many times about escaping the Nazis by riding on top of a train. Chaney’s mother had been 10. My grandmother left Ireland at age 12. Nana told a story about an uncle shot by the Black and Tans. My mother had few good words for the British.

I watched THE JACK BENNY SHOW with a hidden agenda. Jack Benny’s character treated his valet more as a friend than a worker and with good reason. Rochester was smarter than the rest of the cast. My older brother and I laughed at his jokes. They were actually funny.

A few days short of the Columbus Day holiday my father, mother, and my younger sisters and brother traveled south to Boston. My older brother and I had school. My grandmother took care of us throughout the week. On Friday Edith packed a bag and drove us to Union Station below Western Promenade. She parked her new VW Beetle and we walked inside the granite building to buy tickets.

Only two.

“I’m not going with you, but don’t worry the porters will take care of you.”

Edith had met our grandfather in a medical camp during WWI. He had been a doctor and she was a nurse. Grandfather had been dead since 1952, but people still came to the front door for help. They said that he had been a good man.

“Porters?” Surprises were reserved for cheeseburgers at Simpson’s or a trip to Old Orchard Beach. I had never been with a stranger.

“Don’t worry, they knew your grandfather. He treated them like white people.”

Neither my brother nor I had the courage to ask the difference. My older brother and I were in a state of shock, as Edith sat us on a passenger car. There were three other travelers. The looked foreign, maybe Canadian.

Our tickets were stuck on the seat. Paper nametags were pinned to our jackets. Our grandmother handed us two Italian sandwiches without onions and peppers along with two bottles of Orange Crush. Napkins too plus $5.

“Your mother will be waiting at the other end. North Station. Think of this as your first adventure. You know your great-grandaunt sailed around the world when he was only 10.”

I wouldn’t be 10 for another four years. Our days were supervised by parents, teachers, family, and babysitters. This couldn’t be right. Someone had convinced our grandmother to sell us into slavery. This awful person must have paid here $1000. That was the price for a new Volkswagen.

Edith waved from the covered platform. The train pulled out of the station. My older brother clutched my hand as tightly as he had seized my body after our father threw us into the lake last summer.

His father had taught him the same ‘sink or swim’ technique off the same dock.

My brother climbed on my back. My head sunk underwater. He was in a panic and I fought to get him off me. My father came to our rescue and stood us up.

My grandmother, Uncle Russ, Aunt Sally, and my sisters and brother laughed as our discovery that the water was only shoulder-deep. My mother didn’t think it was so funny.

“6 inches is enough to drown in.” Mothers liked their children safe.

We weren’t supposed to be alone on a train and I turned around to see my grandmother. Instead a giant black man in a uniform was approaching our seats. His skin was the color of burnt coal. I tapped my brother on the leg.

“A chocolate man.” I whispered in the voice taught by older boys in our grammar school. The train was picking up speed. Jumping off was not an option.

“Ain’t no chocolate this dark.” His voice rumbled like the words were forged from thunder in his large belly. “I think of myself as the color of black coffee. No milk. No cream. But plenty of sugar. Black as Africa. You ever seen a black man before?”

“No, sir,” My brother and I replied with a machine gun stutter.

“The times there are a-changin’. White boys callin’ a colored man ‘sir’.” He pocketed our tickets and leaned over to check out the nametags. His over-sized body smelled different from that of my father.

Hard soap and cold water for a bath.

“We’re not supposed to call black men ‘colored’.” My answer straightened up the porter.

“And who told you that?” The hands resting on his hips were the size of my head.

“Me and my friends decided that. We don’t like what the KKK is doing.” My older brother usually spoke with better grammar.

“Is that so?” His yellow-rimmed eyes were taking no prisoner.

“Yes, sir.” My hands were trembling so hard that my soda was fizzling. The conductor snatched the bottle from my hand and wiped the foam with a snow-white napkin. “Sorry to scare you like that. You the grandsons of Doctor Smith. He was good to my people. I’ll be as good to you. My name is Leroy Brown. But you call me Leroy.”

His smile lit my heart afire like a nuclear bomb in the Nevada desert melting like frozen fear to molten metal.

“Good to meet you, Leroy.” I offered my hand. His swallowed mine. It was the first time that I had ever called an adult by their first name. Children were to be seen a little and heard even less. This family rule was not in effect with Leroy and I asked without any hesitation, “Do you know Bill Russell?”

“Do I know Bill Russell?” His laugh shivered the windows. “This train’s final destination is North Station. Above the station is the Boston Garden.”

“The home of the Boston Celtics.” My brother had found his nerve too.

“Champions 1957 and next year too.”

“The Jones Boys.” KC and Sam.

“You know your basketball. I see Bill Russell from time to time. He’s a warrior on the hardwoods and I’ll tell you why after this stop.” The train pulled into Old Orchard Beach. Gordon’s Fried Clams was down the street. The amusement park was closed for the winter, which was a long season in Maine. My brother and I stuck straws in our sodas. We unfolded the Italians on our laps. The smell was too enticing to wait for lunch. Leroy joined us half way through the sandwiches.

“I like them too. Good eating. Cheap too. Now where was we?” We lived the 1957 Championship season game by game through Saco, Wells, Dover, Exeter, Haverhill, and Woburn. He added an aside that Woburn was the birthplace of the fried clams.

“A trainman fried them up in batter. Woodman’s in Essex claims the honor, but we railmen know the truth. Your other grandfather was one of us. Trolley man out of Forest Hills. A long time and a small world. Anyway Game 7 a few seconds left in regulation. Inbounds pass to Coleman. Russell is on the baseline but somehow blocks the shot. Overtime only seven Hawks left on the bench. Game 127-125. Bob Petit’s shot rolls around the rim and out. Celtics win their first championship.”

The men listening to Leroy’s recounting of that game burst into applause. The Red Sox haven’t played in the World Series since 1918. The Bruins were exiled to the lower ranks of the NHL. One black man brought Boston the Big Win.

Bill Russell.

The train crossed a river.

“Only a few more minutes to North Station. Been good ridin’ with you boys. Your grandfather was a good man and they ain’t easy to find. You keep up his good work.”

Leroy escorted us off the train. My mother and father were waiting on the platform. So was my grandmother Nana. She thanked Leroy with a tip of $5 and then hugged us as if we had crossed the Atlantic. It was good being with family. I waved good-bye to Leroy. He waved like we would see him tomorrow.

Later that night my older brother and I fought over the $5 from Edith. We decided to split the money 50/50 and we went to sleep content in the knowledge that there were no Chocolate Men and black men were only a little different from our kind.

It would take a long time to learn how different, but better late then later for white boys. Even for the Black Irish.

Tsunami 2004 plus 7

Seven years ago on Boxing Day a tour boat dropped me the southern end of Koh Samet and I kayaked to a distant island. The idyllic isle was deserted, except for a single family. The father was a sailor and this post required his protecting the untouched forests from loggers. The family was there for the New Year holiday, since the island's water supply was limited. He offered to fill my canteen and I wai-ed him a happy New Year. The Gulf of Siam was unexpected rough on my return passage and I paddled through a sloppy chop. The sea was blue and the was bluer. The wind was at my back, but getting to shore took longer than I had imagined. My arms were noodled by the exertion and I returned to my hotel thirsty from my efforts. Ordering a beer was impossible, because everyone in the bar was watching a horrific movie about a big wave crashing into Thailand, then I recognized the location.Koh Phi Phi.These were no special effects. Even grimmer VDOs were aired from Indonesia, Phuket, and Sri Lanka. We later learned the death totals numbered in the hundreds of thousands, including the grandson of the Thai King.Nations mourned this disaster.For days afterwards friends emailed about my welfare.“I’m fine.”Few possessed a good sense of geography.Koh Samet is on the Gulf of Siam and at the time of the great waves I was peacefully floating on a plastic plank, thinking what a wonderful world we live in.And it was and will be.This year I stood still for a moment of silence to remember the day when the Earth rang like a bell.Here’s the equation for the force of a wave.P=pghwhereP = the overlying pressure in Newtons per metre square,ρ = the density of the seawater= 1.1 x 103 kg/m3,g = the acceleration due to gravity= 9.8 m/s2 andh = the height of the water column in metres.Hence for a water column of 5,000 m depth the overlying pressure is equal to 5.7 Million tonnes per metre square.In other words ‘run for your life’.

Rabu, 28 Desember 2011

The Man Who Never Shat

Western travelers regarded the Chosin Peninsula as a 'Hermit Kingdom' well into the 19th Century. Japan pried open the doors of its old rival with more deadier cannons and guns. Korea regained its freedom at the defeat of the Rising Sun. The victors; Russia, China, and the USA Cold War created two separate states. Capitalism versus Communism. A bloody war failed to resolve the political differences. South Korea benefitted from the largesse of the West and its modern industrial base rewarded its citizens with wealth. North Korea shut its doors. One man spoke for all. The Supreme Leader's support of the anti-capitalist struggle veered off course into activities considered criminal by its southern neighbor's intelligence agencies. GW Bush condemned North Korea to the 'Axis of Evil'. The First Supreme Leader died with his nation safe from change. His son assumed his ascendancy after his father's demise. Kim Jong-il scored a 38 under par on the first game on Pyongyang's first golf course.He aced eleven holes-in-one. His ceaseless search for a long life ended last week and North Korea mourns the passing of the Man Who Never Shat.This claim had to be true.His government said so and governments never lie.His nation mourns.His soul is gone. I hope in his heaven that there is a toilet. The Man Who Never Shat must need one.

JAI YEN MAI by Peter Nolan Smith

Several years ago on Boxing Day my daughter was playing on our soi in Pattaya. A pick-up roared down the street like the driver had murdered his wife and was bell-bent for the border. From my perspective the bumper came too close to my little precious daughter. I jumped on my scooter and chased the speeding pick-up down the street.

At the corner I slapped his door with my open palm. A clumsy move and I swerved off my bike to avoid entering the car mayhem of Soi Bongkot. The bike dropped to the ground and I struggled to right the Yamaha. My neighbor, appeared to have such a small head through the windshield, got out of the car in a football hooligan fury. The small noggin was attached to a King Kong body tattooed with Chelsea slogan. I spotted 'Strive for victory shun defeat!' a nanosecond before his first punch.

Lefts and rights gashed my eyebrow and cheek. Grappling his arms, I realized, “Shit this guy is strong and knows what he’s doing.”

Finally he was out of breath and asked, “Had enough?”

“Yeah, but you’re still a cunt for nearly hitting my daughter.”

We left it like that.

My daughter's mother regarded at my black eyes and bruised face. “What you want to do?”

“Nothing right now.” Taking a baseball bat to his windshield or slashing his tires would escalate the conflict to the point where someone would get hospitalized since Pattaya is packed with lager louts and hooligans avoiding travel in Europe now that Spain has an extradition treaty with the UK. Fascists to a man.

“Good. Better to have jai-yen.” She kissed my cheek and gave me a beer. Fights led to blood and blood led to death.

My Thai friends from the Buffalo Bar said we have to get him.

Gae-kaen or revenge.

“But not today.” They advised with a grim smile. “Wait, we get him later.”

Their list of suggestions were dominated by a beating or vandalizing his truck.
“We do. You not worry. You not call the police?”

“No.” Calling the police meant paying sin-bon or bribes without any guarantee of satisfaction.

“Good.” The Thais liked keeping the police in the dark. “Lam-Luat no know. Good.”

My farang friends asked, “What happened to you?”

I explained the situation, but changed the story to say that my assailant was an 80 year-old man.

“Really?”

“Some of these geezers are wiry and fast.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing as long as he drives slower in the neighborhood.”

Doing nothing felt funny. George W Bush wouldn’t do nothing, but the Pentagon wasn’t in my back pocket. Nothing seemed wrong, especially when the skinhead lout drove by my house every day with a pit bull in the back. At least he was going slower.

I spent a week doing push-ups. It was a waste of time.

I was no longer a fighter, but I am vicious and spotted a cluster of red ants in my mango tree. Normally I would have sprayed the swarming tentacles with a pesticide since mot-daeng are wicked biters. This time I went into the kitchen and brought out a pot of honey.

“Winnie the Pooh.” My daughter called out as I coated the leaves with the sweet sticky honey.

My wife took one look and said, “Gae-kaen.”

I nodded my head and waited for the ants to gather their clan.

Red ants swarmed over the leaves to get at the honey. Within an hour the branch bent under their weight. By dark they numbered in the thousands, thanks to my attentive resupply of honey. My daughter's mother was watching a Thai soap opera. She only had eyes for the TV. I drove around the block. The pick-up truck was parked on the street.

I returned to the mango tree and coaxed the red ants into a paper bag. It actually felt heavy and then I dressed in black. Camouflage for the night. I crossed through the backyards of several abandoned house to the adjacent street. No dogs barked out a warning. The skinhead’s truck was sheltered under a tree. I snuck up to the driver’s door. A dollop of honey on the door handle. Another under the door. I checked the street and uplifted the bag . A little too fast, because more ants fell on me than the door.

Thousands of them sought my flesh.

Hundreds of them found it.

I threw down the bag and ran into the darkness. They bite me everywhere.

My daughter's mother spotted the welts. “Gae-kaen.”

Revenge was always best served cold.

Especially with red ants on hand.

Fuck-Up At DusselDorf

The days of December went into double-digits without my purchasing a ticket to Thailand. I was sitting with Vonelli in his Charleroi mansion sifting through the online travel sites. The Floridian suggested Air Berlin out of Dusseldorf. It was a four-hour train ride from Luxembourg, where I had been serving as 'unofficial writer in residence' to a foreign embassy. Thirty minutes later I booked a flight on December 20 and upon my return to the residence overlooking the Petrousse I informed Madame ambassador that my absence would last into the New Year."Bon Voyage." Madame Ambassador was stuck at her post. Diplomats at her level are expected to be present at their postings twenty-four hours a day seven days a week 365 days a year. "Get some sun for me."I departed from Luxembourg a day early to visit Koln's medieval cathedral and the Ludwig Museum. My hotel was close to the train station and I walked over to the soot-stained monument to a mythic messiah, which is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. The spacious interior impressed the gawking tourists. I stretched out my arms to test the mysticism radar. Not a beep lit up my 4D screen, then again I was no longer a Christian. Winter was more winter in Koln than Luxembourg. I drank Glohwein at the Christmas Fair. The girl serving my mulled wine was the prettiest girl in the city and her beauty was enhanced by the glogg. I staggered back to my cheap, but cheerful hotel and crashed on the single bed to the sound of an argument between a married couple in the next room. Nothing says love better than a fight in a cheap hotel.The next day I toured the Ludwig Museum for two hours. Its extensive collection was too much to absorb and such a short time and I exited the museum with my eyes burned my images of Yves Klein Otto Mueller, and Alexander Rodchenko. I had thirty minutes to kill before my train and I spent twenty of them at the gloog bar. The girl's name was Helga. The twenty-year old came from Bremen. Her favorite music was punk. If only I had been thirty years younger with three more hours to kill, but I had a train to catch. I ran to the station and caught the 12:40 to Dusseldorf.An hour later I stepped onto the platform of the Aeroport Station. A hanging monorail brought passengers to the terminal. I presented my ticket at the check-in."This is one-way." The blonde Air Berlin attendant held up my ticket with consternation."Is that a problem?" "Air Berlin won't accept the responsibility of your getting refused entry to Thailand." She was following procedure."It's never a problem at the other end." The passport control at Cobra Swamp was overwhelmed by the deluge of tourists spewed off 747 and Airbus.""Let me check on it." She picked up the phone. A minute later she handed back my ticket and pointed across the terminal. "Talk to them. They will find you a ticket."Buying a last-minute ticket at the airport was daunting, but the counterwoman found a cheap flight back to Dusseldorf on January 16.$500 one-way."Make it so." I love quoting Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise. It almost makes flying an adventure.

SEA CRUISE by Peter Nolan Smith

While I had moved away from Boston 1971, every Christmas of my adult life had been spent with my family on the South Shore. This streak of thirty-three years was broken in 1985. An art dealer invited a female French singer and me to his cottage on the Isle of Wight for the holiday.

I phoned my mother to break the news. It was December 23.

“Oh, really.” The hurt was audible over the trans-Atlantic static. “This will be the first one you’re not home.”

“I know, but I will be flying to Boston on the 26th.” Our club in Paris was closed until after the New Year. My bosses had given me a good bonus. We were more friends than co-workers.

“Where are you going for Christmas?” My mother was worried about her second son. I had been in Europe for the past three years. The rest of my brothers and sisters lived within ten miles of our parents.

“The Isle of Wight.”

“Didn’t Queen Victoria have a palace there?” My mother was extraordinarily well read. She loved to read books and I had inherited that love. My father liked to travel. I was his son too.

“Yes, and I’m staying at a cottage on the grounds of the former royal residence.”

“Osbourne House.” My mother had a bear trap of a memory for details.

“Yes.” Victoria lived in Osbourne House with Prince Albert and she ruled the vast British empire from there. The Italian palazzo was visible from the windows of the cottage.

“Sounds very grand.” My mother had loved visiting the grand houses of Newport, Rhode Island and mansions along the Hudson River. She breathed the history with her senses.

“Supposedly when her husband died, the Empress went into mourning at a pavilion on the beach.”

“That’s what I heard too.” I refrained from mentioning that the affairs of state had languished without her participation in the day-to-day governing and Her Majesty’s ministers approached the Scottish gillie, John Brown, to bring Her Majesty out of her grief.

My mother was a devout Catholic. She had no knowledge about the rumors of the Queen’s affair with a common huntsman. Sex was for procreation. She had six children. Queen Victoria had nine.

“After her death it became a convalescent home for navy officers. They still walk around the grounds.”

“That is so fabulous.”

“I suppose it is.”

“I love you and we’ll spent our Christmas together a day later. They will be plenty of left-overs.” She was succeeding in seeding guilt into my heart.

“I’ll see you on the 26th.” I fought off the urge to get on a plane from Charles De Gaulle Aeroport to Logan. Maine, Boston, and the South Shore my roots. None of them had been my home for a long time.

I hung up the phone and called the singer.

We had been having an affair for the past month. Neither of us pretended that we were serious about our time together. She and I were free spirits. Our paths met and joined in many cities. Paris was just one of them.

“I’m ready to go.”

“No more mama and papa.” The petite brunette had a vicious streak tempered by an adoration for danger. She had been the first punk in France. Her record had been # 1 in 1984. We liked each other for our independence, although I had bought her a bottle of Chanel # 5 for a Christmas present.

“Not for Christmas, but I have a flight leaving Heathrow on the 26th.”

“And how do I get back to France?” It was a good question.

“Vonelli will take you back.” It was my only option.

“And he is a gentleman like you who abandon helpless women in a foreign country filled with beef eaters.” She had never met the bearded Floridian.

“Much more of a gentleman than me.” The singer and I had met at an after-hours club in Lower Manhattan. Her friends were starting a fight in the decorated loft. I was security. Stopping them was a matter of a single punch and bum-rushing them out of the club. Lizzie liked telling her friends about that incident. She really was a punk.

“We will see.” The singer could take care of herself. She had lived in the Lower East Side in 1975. It was a neighborhood on fire.

“Meet me at the station.” The train left from Gare St. Lazare at 4:45pm. The station was across the Seine from my apartment on Ile St. Louis.

I showed up at the train terminal a good half hour before departure. The holiday queues at the ticket booths were breaking down into mobs. I spotted Vonelli at a news kiosk. He was looked smitten by prosperity in his tan cashmere coat and his beard had been trimmed to a respectable length.

“Where is she?” Vonelli was waiting with the tickets. The art dealer was excited to meet the singer. He liked beautiful women.

“Women are always late.” I usually planned on any female companion to be at least thirty minutes behind schedule. “But not my friend.”

The singer was running through the crowds of homeward-bound travelers to Normandy. A cigarette hung from her mouth. Her unruly hair was wrapped under a scarf. A heavy coat hid her petite body. Doc Martens shielded her feet from the cold. Early winter had been unnecessarily harsh in Paris.

She lifted her head to acknowledge seeing us. A shroud of tangled hair fell onto her face. Her gloved hand pushed away the matted strands and the singer kissed me on the lips and then pecked Vonelli on both cheeks. Other passengers stared at her. She was famous.

“Let’s get on the train before I have to sign an autograph.” The singer dropped her cigarette on the ground. Her left boot extinguished the embers of the discarded butt. She had studied ballet in Lyons and that the gracefulness of that training showed with the most insignificant gestures. every

“I saw you sing on TV.” Vonelli offered to carry her bag. It was twice the size of mine and the singer liked to travel with thick books of philosophy. The art dealer grunted , as he hauled the heavily laden bag over his shoulder.

“French pop stars never sing on TV. We lip-synch the words. It’s good for our voices.” The Paris-born singer handed her bag to Vonelli and lit a cigarette. She was a heavy smoker and her naked skin smelled of tobacco. The Gitanes were hell on her throat and she made no effort to stop. “But I am on holiday and we are taking a big boat. So no more talking about music.”

The three of us boarded the train and took our seats. Vonelli had commandeered a 1st Class compartment. The singer was very pleased with his arrangement and I noticed the warmth in her smile. The same glow had greeted me the first time that she had seen me in Paris. I thought about whether I should be jealous, then decided that Vonelli and the singer made a good couple.

The train pulled out of Gare St. Lazare on time. The journey to the coast lasted a little over two hours. The ferry left later in the evening. That crossing lasted eight hours. We would reach Southampton slightly after dawn.

“Here’s to Noel.” Vonelli poured champagne into three glasses. The man came prepared for the journey. We ate foie gras on crispy baguettes and he amused us with humorous tales of sales at the Hotel Drouot auction house.

“They have their own Mafia. The cols rouge in the black uniforms with red trim come from the same region of the Alps and nothing gets shipped or stored at the Drouot without their okay. This morning one of them said that he couldn’t transport a painting to London, because it was in violation of Christian holiday traditions. 200 francs converted him to atheism.”

Vonelli fawned on the singer and she adored his gentlemanly manners.

“You know how I met your friend?” She pointed at me.

“I stopped her friends from having a fight at an after-hour club.” I hated people bringing up my past as a bouncer. In Paris I was called a physionomiste for my talent to recognize faces and decipher who was who as well as determine if the person was a welcome addition to the melange of personalities within the club. It was not a skill taught in schools.

“You stopped them and then threw me down the stairs.”

“I didn’t throw you down the stairs.” I couldn’t remember the particulars of that night.

“Yes, you did, but I forgave you.”

Vonelli shook his head. “Bad boy, but that’s why we like you.”

I sulked in my seat for several minutes. The singer cuddled up to me and admonished me in baby language. Vonelli thought that she was very funny and I had to admit the girl had a biting wit. My anger dissipated with another glass of champagne. Snow drifted against the windows. The darkened landscape was covered with white. It was beginning to look like Christmas.

Vonelli was a seasoned traveler.

At le Havre he steered us out of the station. The city had been heavily damaged during the Battle of Normandy and the devastated neighborhoods had been reconstructed in an appalling dull modernist style.

“Le Havre is the most dreary city in France. Think grey and grim. Concrete and more concrete and no building in the city has more concrete than the Eglise of St. Joseph.” Vonelli’s French was better than mine and he joked about how the church’s Belgian architect was awarded a medal from his government for his masterful uglification of Le Havre. “But even this city has some charm.”

We are dinner at a fantastic fish restaurant. Several diners asked for autographs. The singer was in a better mood than Gare St. Lazare. She even posed for photos with her fans. Vonelli and the singer engaged in a conversation about Sartre. They ignored my comment about his collaborating with the Nazis. I was becoming the third wheel.

It was a short walk to the ferry.

We boarded the ship. Our cabins were comfortable. So far neither the singer nor I had put our hands in our pockets. The three of us rendezvoused at the stern railing and watched the ferry slip from the harbor.

“Fuck you, France.” The singer gave her native land the finger.

“It’s better than America.”

“But not New York.” The singer had been introduced to the scene at CBGBs by a legendary singer of a punk band. Forkhead showed her his world. In 1975 the East village was the only place to be in the world for people like us. I got there one year later.

“New York is special.” The veterans at Max’s considered me a late-comer. My pinball play won friends at CBGBs, but no one ever called me ‘Tommy’. I was just me.

“Why don’t you two wash up and I’ll meet at the bar.” Vonelli returned to his suite. It was a double.

I stood with both hands on the railing. The singer leaned into me. The ship’s wake glowed with froth and the stars shimmered with increasing numbers, as we left the light of land. The icy night wind gust a salty mist off the Channel. The ferry’s prow was cutting through increasingly larger waves. The singer gripped the railing with both hands and leaned over to kiss me. It felt like the last one. I put my arm around her and we walked back inside.

“Your friend is very generous.” The singer shucked her heavy clothing in the cabin and entered the shower room. It was too small for two people, but she left the door open. The ferry was pitching from bow to stern in heavy seas. Tonight’s crossing was promising to be a rough one.

“I guess he had a good year at the Drouot.” I had the feeling that his extravagance was aimed at impressing the frail-boned brunette.

“He seems like a nice man.” Her voice was sappy with dreams.

“He is a good friend.” The singer and I had been on a train to nowhere with our affair. It had just pulled into the station and I was getting off. The singer had a new destination and I asked, “Do you like him?”

“He’s cute.” She lathed her body with soap. It was a show with one purpose.

“Really?” No one had called me cute since I was a kid.

“Almost like a Santa Claus in training.” The singer was my age, but looked much younger in the dim lighting of our cabin.

“It must be the beard.” His efforts were succeeding judging from the sing-song tone in her voice.

I reminded myself that she was in my cabin this evening and not his. I took off my clothes and staggered into shower. The ship her in the shower. It was big enough for two people.

Thirty minutes later we went to Vonelli’s cabin. We drank a bottle of wine holding onto the table to stay in the chairs. They had been screwed into the deck for just such weather. This was the Channel. The Spanish Armada had been destroyed by this stretch of water and I was beginning to understand why.

“I suggest that we skip dinner in this weather. Always better for the stomach.”

The singer and I concurred with his suggestion. The uneven motions of up-down-sideways-back was testing my constitution. I put down my glass without finishing the wine. This was going to be a long night.

Vonelli suggested that we visit the midship casino. I hadn’t gambled since losing big time at Reno in 1974, but we sat at the blackjack table together. Two other players greeted us with green faces. The crossing was not agreeing with their stomachs. The dealer wasn’t much better and our first five hands were winners. The slick-haired pit boss replaced her and succeeded in cooling the table.

Vonelli and the singer were more interested in each other than the cards in their hands. Their inattention gave the pit boss an edge and the odds of the house weighed against the six people at the table. The balance shifted a minute later, as the power of the sea overcame the inescapable grind of blackjack.

Casinos are constantly on the watch for card-counters, but my mind was calculating the time between troughs. The ship rode down one wave for four seconds and struggled up another for the same length of time. The spray covered the windows with foam, almost as if the ferry was a half-submerged submarine. The pit boss was struggling to deal out the cards and keep his balance.

The rhythm of the waves stretched into a extra long descent to the bottom of a nautical chasm and the deck shuddered, as the ferry’s engines fought to climb the steepening slope of a ship-crushing wave. Everyone’s eyes went wide and the bow cleared the crest and the ferry dropped into the next trough in a free fall. I grabbed my stack of chips before floating out of my seat. The head grazed the ceiling and then I fell right back into my chair. Vonelli and the singer were also lucky, but the pit boss landed on the table.

“I think it’s time to call it a night.” The pit boss was visibly shaken by his flight. The rest of us nodded assent to his suggestion. “Go to your cabin and we’ll cash you out in the morning.”

He shouted to close the casino and ordered the passengers to their cabins.

“Sorry about this.” Vonelli helped the singer to the door. He had wanted everything to be perfect. We separated to enter our rooms. For a second the singer seemed ready to go with him and if this had been a voyage from Southampton to New York instead of Le Havre to Southampton, then tomorrow night she would have made the move.

“See you two in the morning.”

The singer stripped off her clothing and slipped into bed.

“You like Vonelli?” I asked lying next to her. I hadn’t bothered to take off my clothes. If the ship sank, I wanted to be ready to abandon ship.

“Yes.” This question only needed a one syllable answer.

“I mean more than like.”

“Yes.” At least the singer was honest.

“Then I wish you luck.” Vonelli was a complicated man, then again men are much more simple than women.

“You do?” Her surprise was tempered by relief. No one liked a nasty ending.

“It’s obvious that you two like each other in a way that we would never come close to.”

“It is?”

“I think so. Remember I’m a professional physionomiste.” I could see everyone’s future but mine. I caressed her shoulder without daring to touch a more intimate stretch of flesh. This was it. “I’m happy for you. For you both.”

The ferry shuddered with a wave slapping the port-side.

“You think this ship will survive.” She was frightened by the ocean.

“Ships make this trip all the time. They are built for La Manche. Everything will be fine. Go to sleep.”

It was easier sad than done, but after two hours the sea surrendered its fury and the ferry resumed a gentle course to England. The singer kissed me on the cheek and went to sleep. I followed her within seconds. We woke with the announcement that the ferry would soon be docking in Southampton.

“How you sleep?” Vonelli was waiting at the railing. The low coastline lingered under a low grey overcast. We were approaching England.

“Good once the storm ended.” The singer stood between us, although a little closer to Vonelli. She made her choice. I watched the ferry about Southampton at half-speed. The captain had brought his ship to safety. Tonight was Christmas Eve. The day after was Christmas. I would fly home on Boxing Day. My mother would love the Chanel # 5. It was just her style and like all men I loved left-overs.

Selasa, 27 Desember 2011

No Better Than Yesterday

Nearly four years ago the Thai cyber-crime unit raided my house in Pattaya. The head officer officer arrested me on charges of intellectual property theft. My website offering F1 merchandise had been #1 in the search engines over various multinational car corporations. I knew that ranking would cause me a problem one day and this was it.

The police transported me to Bangkok, where I was processed with politeness. The head officer whispered to me that he had interrogated my neighbors and they had reported that I was a good farang. Their comments saved me from a night in the monkey house. I wished that they had informed me about the investigation, but the Thais know best when to shut their mouths.

The colonel in charge of the operation set my bail at $1000. I paid it on the spot. The next morning I was back in Pattaya. It was obviously time to leave the Last Babylon.

My friends attempted to persuade me from leaving them. My work options were limited to teaching or managing a bar. The first paid 30,000 baht per month and the second required late hours and heavy drinking. I opted for a return to New York after my trial. My pregnant wife wasn't happy about my departure, but I told her that things would be okay. It took a long time for that promise to be true.

My website has been closed for a long time.

Yesterday I decided to see, if any mention of www.f1-shopping.net existed online.

I discovered that the site was up for sale and several urls lower was a testimonial from a satisfied buyer.

"I got a AMG jacket on-line at Formula one F1 Jackets Formula 1 Shirts and caps F1 Merchandise

It was $79 bucks and took about 10 days to get........I am pretty sure it"s not orginal "AMG"..........

Good Luck."

We all need a little of that these days.

Bowery Boxing Day


Boxing Day has been celebrated on the day after Christmas mostly in the UK and host of occupied nations dominated by the British Empire such as Australia, Canada, Ghana, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Kenya, Guyana, Trinidad , Tobago, and Jamaica. For years I thought 'Boxing Day' was traditionally the holiday on which the rich gave the poor their ornate boxes in lieu or a gift, however it was actually the day when the tithes from alms boxes were distributed to the needy of the parish.It sounded like a dumb holiday to most Americans, who considered December 26 as 'left-over' day.From 1952-1985 I had permanent attendance at the table of our split-level ranch house south of Boston. My mother cooked a 20-pound turkey, I mashed seasoned potatoes, and my sisters set the dining room table with yams, creamed onions, turnips, peas, stuffing, and all the fixings for my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, friends, cousins, sisters, and brothers. Grace was said with bowed heads. Our plates were swept by forks and knives. Conversations were dominated by the retelling of old tales. Gifts from under a brightly decorated tree were exchanged before dessert of apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies. A fire burned in the fireplace. The wood came from Maine. We were one big happy family.

There wasn't much to do once the china had been cleared from the table, the pots were washed, and the silverware packed into a velvet-lined cedar box. My parents lived in the suburbs. A paradise for a teenager and a purgatory for a young adult in his 20s, especially since I was without a car.

On December 26, 1978 I thanked my parents for another superb Christmas and caught the train from Route 128 to Penn Station. My hillbilly girlfriend was down in West Virginia. She wouldn't be back until the weekend. I called Anthony Scibelli as soon as I reached my East 10th Street apartment. The photographer was a native New Yorker. We were both weary from pretending to be good boys and planned to catch Suicide at CBGBs later that night.

Few bands say Christmas is over better than Suicide and we drank beer at my house until a little before midnight. It was a short walk to the Bowery. Most of the trip was on 2nd Avenue to avoid the wind tunnel o 3rd Avenue. The night was cold. Snow flurries trapezed beneath the street lights. Few people were on the sidewalks, until we reached the Palace Hotel on the Bowery. A crowd encircled a man sprawled on the concrete. According to witnesses the 50 year-old derelict had stepped out of the third-floor window of the SRO hotel.

The drop was a short flight to earth, but the man looked like he might survive the fall. The A sheet was wrapped around his naked body. Blood pulsed from where a broken bone protruded from his leg. His chest heaved with rapid breaths and he said with a pained voice, "Damn, where am I? Please tell me that I'm not on the Bowery."

"Where else you think you are, you dumb drunk." A fellow misfortunate immediately answered from the huddle of broken dreamers.

"Not the Bowery, please tell me I'm not going to die on the Bowery."

His tormentor readied to set him straight, but I lifted a warning finger for silence. A distant siren filled the air. Help was on the way. I knelt over the man and tucked the sheet under this wasted frame. He couldn't have weighed more than 130 pounds. I had been a math major in university and calculate his impact with Newton's gravity equation.

"You're not going to die, old man." The mass and speed didn't add up to a fatality.

"Maybe you ain't gonna die, but you look like a used condom." His heckler was relentless and Anthony's kick to the shin put the quiet in him. The bums laughed at the comment. They were a tough crowd. The police from the 9th Precinct showed up a minute before the ambulance. They cleared space for the EMS crew and told me to step back from the busted man.

"If he ain't family, then move on. Same goes for the rest of you."

I surrendered my spot and we walked into CBGBs. Merv the doorman let us enter without paying. We were regulars. Allison bought us a round of beers. Suicide was on stage. Martin Rev standing impassively by the droning keyboards and Alan Vega smacking the microphone into his face between stanzas of CHEREE. 19 other punks were in the audience. Anthony handed me a vial of poppers. My head exploded on the first inhale.

It was Boxing Day, but not on the Bowery.

To see a live performance of Suicide playing CHEREE please go to this URLhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRcHi5Nasn4

This video was filmed Merrill Aldighieri at HURRAH in 1980.

Senin, 26 Desember 2011

Better Late Than Never

Merry Christmas ComradesI'm even capitalizing the C to maintain the spiritual peace even though the Christians sold the holiday from the distant Druids of Stonehenge.

Meán Geimhridh was celebrated in the Bronze Age. The rituals from over five thousand years ago have been lost for ages, however every December the sun signals the winter solstice at the Newgrange burial tomb. For seventeen minutes the rays of the dawn strike through a hole in the roof to light the interior of the Neolithic monument. Farmers slaughtered their livestock in preparation for a long winter and more importantly wine, beer, mead, and other spirits reached maturity in late-December.

The pagans had very happy Meán Geimhridh.

Julius Caesar adapted his Julian calendar to mark December 25 as the winter solstice and later the Christians adopted this heathen feast for their own religion.

Meán Geimhridh was all about the sun and earth and beer and the eternity of the cosmos.

So milla failte from Thailand, where I'm spending Meán Geimhridh with my loving son Fenway.

I gave him a good Xmas.

He is a good boy.

Sorry if I haven't kept up with my entries, but a young boy is very demanding.

Happy New Year.

The world will not end in 2012 no matter what those Christians say about their fucking armageddon.

THE FIRST FORTY MILES by Peter Nolan Smith

In late May 1974 my friend AK, a blonde co-ed from BU, and I picked up a Ford Torino Squire not far from the Forest Hills T station. The car was parked in a driveway next to a three-story apartment building off Centre Street. The middle-aged owner was looking to have his station wagon transported to Lodi, California.

Everything about him said Marine. His erect posture was topped by an extreme buzz-cut. Both his white shirt and chino trousers had been ironed to produce razor straight lines. He looked at my recently trimmed hair. AK’s was in a pony tail. School was over for the year and students were fleeing Boston for the summer.

A blonde woman sat on the porch. Her black dress was a testimony to mourning a loss. I bowed my head in respect.

“The name’s Jake Moore.” He seized my hand with a strong grip.

“Please to meet you.” I released his hand and introduced us by name. AK was happy to let me do the talking. I was a Boston native and the piano player came from New York. Red Sox fans hated New York. “My grandmother lived not far from here on St. Joseph’s Street.”

“Irish?” We manned different sides of the Vietnam issue, but the American war effort was de-escalating in rapid steps and Watergate was forcing Nixon out of the White House. The two opposing camps had arrived to truce determined by exhaustion without either of us daring to claim victory.

“From the West. She spoke Gaelic.” Nana came over from Galway at the age of 12.

“Guess I can’t be choosy.” Jake searched our eyes for signs of drug dementia. He was more concerned about his car than the generation gap.

“We have valid licenses.” I produced mine from my wallet. There was no way for him to check our driving records. Mine was a litany of crashes and a single arrest for a high-speed chase in a VW.

“Well, that’s a plus.” Jake handed back the IDs. “We drove out here for a family visit. My wife can’t bear the thought of driving through those corn fields again.”

“It is a long ride.” The distance from coast to coast was almost 3000 miles.

The off-white station wagon gleamed in the New England sun. The chrome details were polished to a high sheen and the fake wooden paneling was unblemished by dings. The plates were California.

“You ever driven cross-country before?” He checked my ID and handed it back to me.

“Twice.” The first time was in 1972.

“What did you drive?” Jake sounded, as if I would say a tie-dyed VW camper.

“Nothing. I hitchhiked back and forth with friends.” My fellow math major and I didn’t own a car. We depended on our thumbs and the kindness of strangers. “A Super Bee picked us up in Iowa. The driver did 100 or better once we hit the desert. I think coast to coast took us about fifty hours.”

Pam, AK, and Jake dismissed my claim with matching smirks. A further explanation about how the driver had been on methedrine and how I had steered from the passenger seat whenever Lucky’s head hit the steering wheel would have further tested their gullibility for the truth.

“I used to hitch from Key West in the service. Everyone was trying to change their lives, if only for a ride. That’s the beauty of the open road. You can become someone totally different with a different name and a different past. You get out of the car and stand on the road with your thumb out. Alone you go back to who you are. There is no escaping the future of yourself.”

His words conjured up college students, hoboes, tramps, soldiers, beatniks, runaways, and hippies following a philosophy based on the myth of personality.

“No one believes my story.” The unexpected depth of Jake’s insight humbled my youthful arrogance of judgment without evidence.

“All stories are true if interesting.” Jake clapped my shoulder and I gave him a smile. The 60s had finished four years ago. We had lost our hatchets instead of burying them. “Hitchhiking’s a great way to travel. People have been traveling that way since Jonah rode in the whale.”

“That’s a big fish story.”

“Like I said true if interesting.” Jake repeated the line. He didn’t want me to forget it.

“120 in 1972 was legal. Now they think driving 55 will save gas and free us from the Arabs. I don’t believe in it, but nothing the state troopers like better than arresting hippies for driving 60.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Cops hated even their own long-hair narcs, but a station wagon was good camouflage for passage through the Midwest. “We’ll keep it to 55. I’m sure your car gets better mileage at that speed.”

“Why you going to the coast?” His eyes shifted to our blonde companion. Pam was a vision of Woodstock beauty with hHer paisley dress clinging to her breasts. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

I failed often not to notice, since she was my ex-girlfriend college roommate. Jackie’s breasts were even larger. She had left me last summer for her high school sweetheart without an explanation and I hoped on this trip that Pam might tell me the why. First we needed Jake’s car.

“I’m meeting my boyfriend in Mendocino. He’s an intern there. I’ll be working at the same hospital this summer.” The nursing student sounded normal, because aside from the clothing she was the girl next door.

“I just finished college.”

At the mention of my alma mater Jake murmured his appreciation, however my rank at city’s premier Catholic college languished at the bottom hundred of a class of two thousand.

AK had said that my diploma should have read ‘sin laude’ or without praise.

My father hadn’t appreciated the Long Islander’s joke, yet my mother had beamed at the graduation ceremony. Education was a gift and my meagre achievement had protected me from the draft for four years.

Both my parents loved travel and my mother gave me $300 for this trip. My father had told me to call once a week collect. He worked for the telephone company and our collect calls were free to our number on the South Shore.

“What about a job?” Jake must have counted every day to his retirement.

“I want to see the Rockies and Big Sur before I work for the rest of my life. We appreciate your letting us take your car.”

“It’s not just any car. This is 1967 Ford Torino with a 428 FE V8 and a three-speed automatic. I was lucky to get the last Cobra-Jet engines from Ford.”

“Isn’t that the same engine Steve McQueen drove in BULLIT?” His car was the most immaculate offered by the drive-away service and the spacious back could sleep two with the seats folded down. I wanted it to be mine for the next week.

“That engine was a 390 for a Mustang GT, but with a much lighter chassis than the Torino.” Jake launched into a minute-long monologue about the Torino’s selling points. Most of them dealt with speed. “This baby can do a quarter-mile in 14 seconds.”

“Cool.” I nodded my head without understanding a word. My only car had been a 1964 VW bug. Its top speed downhill with a tailwind topped out at 85.

“It’s a big engine and guzzles gas, so I’m giving you an extra $100, but I want you to fill it up every time the gas gauge hits half and only use the highest octane at Sunoco.”

“Yes, sir.” I took the keys and smiled to Pam and AK. We were minutes away from hitting the road. “We’ll see you in six days.”

“Make it seven. I don’t want you pushing the engine.” Jake and I signed the matching contracts from the drive-away company. “Have a good trip and drive safe.”

“I’ll make sure they take care of your car.” Pam put her bags in the car and positioned herself in the rear. Her major was nursing and bed manners were her strong point. She had a nice way with older men.

“You do that, Pam. See you in Lodi.”

I tossed my canvas bag in the back and then sat behind the wheel. AK made a face. He hated my driving. My eyes tended to wander off the road. I waved to Jake and backed out of his driveway. I shifted the transmission into Drive and headed toward Brighton to pick up the Mass Pike at the Charles River.

“For a second I didn’t think Jake was going to give us the car.” AK fiddled with the radio tuner.

“It was never in doubt.” I drove around Jamaica Pond in the slow lane. “Pam had him wrapped around her little finger.”

“It is a nice car. It even smells new.” Pam was a child from the suburbs. All three of us had been raised in split-level houses with two-car garages. She liked things clean.

“It does at that.” I kept to the local speed limit. AK was carrying weed and the rule of reefer was to only break one law at a time.

‘Wonder what Jake listened to on the radio.” AK twisted the knob and both of us were surprised to hear Wildman Steve cuing up the # 1 record in America. The Hues Corporation had scored a huge crossover hit with ROCK THE BOAT. AK’s fingers crawled over an imaginary keyboard. For a long-haired white boy from Levittown he had a lot of soul.

Ten minutes later I turned off Storrow Drive onto Cambridge Street. The sun flashed off the Charles River. The clear sky was a good omen.

A bearded hitchhiker was standing at the entrance to the Mass Pike. I veered over to the break-down lane and braked a hundred feet before the toll booth.

“What are you doing?” Pam asked with alarm. “You don’t know this person. He could be an ax murderer.”

AK was staying out of this dispute. He lived with a woman on the South Shore. He recognized that it was a good time to keep his mouth shut.

“I’ve hitchhiked everywhere in the States and I never ran into an ax murderer.” The hippie was waiting by the passenger door. His patchouli seeped through the closed windows. He was older than I thought and I was having second thoughts about him, but I believed in Karma. “Next week I’ll be hitchhiking down the coast of California. If I don’t pick up hitchhikers now now, then I will be stranded in Big Sur for days.”

“I’m not happy about this.” Pam slid over to the driver’s side. “If he starts anything, I expect you to take care of it.”

“I promise I will.” I reached over and unlocked the door.

‘Thanks for stopping. The name is Bill.” He was bound for Sturbridge and then south to Virginia. His Southern accent slithered from thick lips. HIs face was swollen from years of drinking. He was no hippie. “I’m meeting up with a carnival for the summer. Travel from Virginia Beach to Texas and up into the wheat fields. I specialize in bumper cars. Good clean fun. How people drive them says a lot about them.”

His monologue about the life on the road fell on bored ears and I read Pam’s loud sighs as a ruling against any more strangers in the car. Bill proved her right about him several minutes later.

“Why you listening to this disco crap?” he asked while AK and I were grooving to the HOLLYWOOD SWINGING by Kool and the Gang.

“Disco crap?” I glared at Bill in the rearview mirror.

The song was a big hit at the 1270, although THE LOCOMOTION by Grand Funk Railroad packed the dance floor. My gay friends loved dancing with straight boys and the deejay spun the best dance records in Boston. “Kool and the Gang are a thousand times more hip than that BAND ON THE RUN bullshit by that loser Paul McCarthy.”

“Loser? The Beatles are the best band in the world.” My barb had harpooned its mark.

“The Beatles haven’t existed since 1970.” I was a Rolling Stones fan from their debut cover of Chuck Berry’s COME ON. Early Beatles were like listening to a modern version of Elvis. I hated HEY JUDE.

“I’ll handle this.” AK had a much cooler head and I shut my mouth rather than lose my temper.

“I studied at Berkeley Music School.” AK was auditioning for a gig as a keyboard player for an R & B band. The brothers from Jump Street wanted a white guy in the group to deal with the honkey club owners.

I had called him the ‘token whitey’. He didn’t think that was funny, but it evened us for his crack about my ‘sin laude status. Both of us were more than a little right.

“One thing I learned was that there are all kinds of music. HEY JUDE might be the best song of all time for white people, but it’s nothing in comparison to SEX MACHINE by Sly Stone.”

“Or KUNG FU FIGHTING.” I checked the speedometer. We were going 75. No one else on the highway was close to that speed and I slowed down to the limit. Driving 55 felt like 1934.

“Or SOUL MAKOSSA. You have to open your ears or else you close your heart.”

“That is the type of music they play in fag bars.” The word was an accusation.

Homosexual were queers in my childhood. The priests warned us about strange men after young boys. Yellow was the color for queers. ‘Homo’ was an insult that I had thrown at effeminate boys. Fag was short for faggot and very short for fucking faggot.

I stomped on the brakes in time to pull over at an exit.

Fags were not strangers. The neighbor across the street from my parents was a homosexual. He let us swim in his pool. My youngest brother showed his tendencies by stripping my sisters’ Ken doll and not Barbie.

“Why you stopping?” Bill leaned forward with menace.

“Why?” I turned around in the bucket seat and revved the big V8 with menace. The Torino was still in drive. “I’ll tell you why. Jack Kerouac wrote in ON THE ROAD that the biggest challenge for a hitchhiker was proving that the driver didn’t make a mistake picking him up and I have to admit I made a mistake with you. Now get out of the car and I mean now.”

“He really means it.” AK had seen me fight on more than one occasion.There was always a breaking point and Bill was five feet over that line.

“This isn’t Sturbridge.” He hesitated opening the door.

“Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like queer bashers.” A taxi passenger had invited me into the 1270. His name was Bruce. We went to Red Sox games together and were crushed by their 1973 collapse. He told the fag hags at the bar that I was queer. Some of them attempted to cure me with sex. Bruce had a lisp and limp wrist. He was my friend. Bill was no one.

“Get out of the car.”

His eyes slitted with a irrational hatred grounded in sexual prejudice. Bill pointed a finger at me, as he opened the door and put his feet on the ground.

“I knew it the second I got in the car. You two were queers.” His sneer had been practiced on hundreds of young men who weren’t hurting anyone.

“Even if I was, I wouldn’t fuck you with an elephant’s dick.”

“You fucking fag.” He started for me and Pam shrieked with the shrillness of the music from the bathroom murder scene from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.

I had everything under control. My right foot hit the gas and the Torino accelerated from a standing stop to speed in an instant. Bill was spun out of the back seat and Pam reached over to shut the door.

“I hope you learned your lesson.” She folded her arms across her chest. “He had his hands all over me.”

“Sorry.” I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes met with mine. She was happy that Bill had hit the dirt hard.

“Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” Pam titled her head to the side with grace. Blonde hair covered one side of her face and she pushed the strands behind her ears. The twenty-year old nursing student tapped my shoulder and said, “No more hitchhikers.”

“Your wish is my command.” No man will understand the everyday terror of being a woman or a homosexual. I gripped the wheel and AK turned up the volume. WILD was playing James Brown’s PAYBACK PART 2. The Godfather of Soul had a wicked rhythm section.

We crested a hill and descended into a lush valley. Late spring pushed a warm wind through the open windows. The traffic on the Interstate was rolling at 60. The Torino had a full tank. I had over $700 in my pocket. The station wagon overtook a procession of slower cars. It was good to be on the road.

Three days from now was my birthday. I was going to be 22. I pushed the car to 100. AK looked at me. I looked back at him. At that speed the other cars on the road were standing still. We had a long way to go.

Minggu, 25 Desember 2011

Passing Through Koln

Back in December 1982 a Paris-bound train crossed the Rhine Bridge into Koln. The morning sky was shod with dark dawn sky. Lights rimmed the overflowing river. I sat on the left side of the DB passenger car. The 6-seat compartment was mine. Few people took the night train. It stopped at every station.

Two bags lay at my feet. They held everything that I didn't want to leave for good in Hamburg. That northern city lived on even less light than Koln. The nightclub at which I worked was in a slump. The pimps of the Reeperbahn had driven away our 'good' customers. The owner said that they spent money. He hadn't paid my commission for the last two months.

SS Tommy was the owner's muscle. Two days earlier the blonde bodybuilder presented a bill for 10,000 Deutschmarks about $6000. The itemized bill listed my intimacy with a bikini model in detail. I was thinking free love. Hamburg wasn't that kind of city. I gave SS Tommy the keys to my BMW 2002. I had crashed orange sets car a week ago in a forest north of the city. It wasn't going anywhere without a tow.

The train rode across the bridge and I watched the silhouette of the medieval cathedral loom out of the murk. Thousands of workers and hundreds of skilled artisans had spent over a hundred years erecting the massive monument to Christianity. It had survived the bombing raids of World War II relatively unscratched and served as a beacon to the faithful. I was not one of them, but I respected the beauty of it's grandeur.

The train stopped in the station. I pulled my hat over my face, fearing that SS Tommy had notified his Gestapo compatriots in Cologne about a fleeing American. The doors closed without a rush of Zuhalterei and the train pulled out of the station. Paris was eight hours away. I already had arrived to safety.

The color of the sky was gray.

Selasa, 20 Desember 2011

Paffgen Brewery

Last evening I dined at Paffgen Brauerei, the last family brewery in Cologne. The beer served at this establishment is called "Kölsch" once the most popular beverage in the city. Once a dark beer, the draught's color was changed to resemble a pilsner. It is still served from the keg at Paffgen and I ordered a weinerschnitzel with three beers. The beer came in 2cl glasses and cost only 1.5 Euros. If I had been with a friend, I could have drank about twenty of them.Kolsch is the only beer to order in Cologne and the natives view Dusseldorf's Alt beer as water.I hate eating alone and left as soon as I was finished, but the manager asked where I was from."New York." I was born in Boston, but lived in New York most of my life and I explained how the two cities share a bitter rivalry."Same as Dusseldorf and Koln. One thing I want to tell you. Nico from the Velvet Underground was born here. Her family name was Paffgen. Her father was a solider in the War." He lowered his voice. "The father suffered a brain injury and they experimented on him in the camps.""Schiesse." Those were bad times for everyone."I once saw her here.""Nico?" I had attended a concert of silver-blonde siren at the Mudd Club. The Warhol superstar accompanied her harmonium with a gravelly voice like a sledge dragged through mud. I escaped to the upstairs bar. She should have done a duet with Yoko Ono, the Axis of Drone and Shriek."She was blonde and tall. A true Paffgen. Are you leaving?""No."I sat for another two beers.You are never alone as long as you have your memories.PAFFGENFriesenstraße 64 50670 Köln0221 135-461

Senin, 19 Desember 2011

Dunkel Dunkel

The word for darkness in German is 'dunkel'. Darkness is 'dunkelheit' and today dawned very 'dunkel' in the Rhine city of Cologne. The farther north in Europe the shorter the days, as the northern hemisphere approaches the winter solstice. After dunkel comes the grey sky of morning and I will visit the great cathedral of Koln. Somehow this massive structure avoided the destruction visited on Germany during the allied bombing campaigns of WWII. The city was hit 262 times by raids and the population was reduced to 95% at war's end.Few if any of the older buildings survived the catastrophe intact, but the cobblestones remained untouched by the explosions and they are very slippery under foot in the night damp. Bombed into the Stone Age.And rose like an eagle to become Germany's fourth largest city.Not bad, but still very dunkel.Koln is a long way from summer this time of year, but this evening I'll be flying from Dusseldorf to Thailand to see my kids, get some sun, and drink some beer.

Happy Holidays.

Minggu, 18 Desember 2011

135 IN THE SHADE by Peter Nolan Smith

In late-July of 1975 Andy K and I left California on a cool morning. Our summer vacation had come to an end. We hitchhiked east from Pomona at the end of the Valley. Leaving LA wasn’t easy for long-hairs. The locals were the sons of Okie rednecks, but a young Mormon girl stopped at the Rancho Cucamonga on-ramp and drove her Monza convertible over the pass into the high desert. She was cute and played the new Joni Mitchell 8-track on the stereo. AK and I both wondered why we were leaving California.

She dropped us in Victorville. It was barely 10Am.

We had made good time and thought ourselves lucky until reaching the eastbound ramp. A long row of hippies stood by the arid curbside. 

Hitchhiking on the Interstate was illegal. The State troopers arrested anyone attempting to break the law. The fine was $50. I had almost $40 in my pocket. California cops didn’t bargain with hippies. AK and I took our place in the queue.

There wasn't a speck of shade in sight. Sand, weeds, and a dented guardrail decorated the scenery. Across the interstate was a gas station and a diner.

“What do you think?” AK asked with a canteen in hand.

“I think it doesn’t look good.” I sipped some water. It tasted of Pomona.

“We’ll have to go easy on this.” AK put away the canteen. We only had one.

After an hour a van picked up three hippies and six more joined the ranks of the stranded travelers. I walked down the line speaking to the other hitchhikers. None of them had anything good to say about this onramp. A New Orleans-bound couple were fortieth in the line-up. They had been on the ramp for 20 hours. Both of them were in the throes of cold turkey.

"15 hours?" I checked up the sky. There wasn't a cloud from horizon to horizon. The temperature was in the high 80s. By late afternoon it would be in the 100s.

"Some of it was night." The rail-thin girl wore a wife-brimmed hat, but her skin had been torched a torrid red. A merciless sun bounced off the black asphalt. 

We were six people behind them. AK and I were #47 and 48. I had been a math major my first years at university. One ride per hour meant that we wouldn’t get out of here for another two days.

"You two should split up. No one picks up two guys." Her strung-out old man had hair to his ass. The skinny girlfriend could have passed for his twin. They made a cute lesbian couple for anyone not looking too closely. 

"Except for perverts." His girlfriend was fuming mad, hungry for a fix. She wanted out of this desert  limbo.

"Yeah, I've had a couple of offers from some sick fucks."

"Wanted me to watch." Her face screwed up with disgust. Sex was as distasteful to junkies as it was to nuns.

"Nothing wrong with being queer." I danced with gays at the 1270 Club in Boston. They pawned me off to fag hags. It was a good deal for me. "Especially if it gets us out of here."

I tried to look bisexual. Andy didn't play that game and the cowboys weren't buying my solo act. The sun was fast approaching high noon. The temperature was in the high 80s.

By noon the sun would be melting the asphalt under our feet. A Greyhound bus exited from the Interstate and pulled into the forlorn gas station.

“Bus?” The heat had stolen AK’s tongue.

“Now?”

“Now.” AK and I grabbed our bags and ran across the cloverleaf to the diner. The Greyhound was billowing diesel fumes. Its driver was exiting from the station's diner. $8.50 bought escape for both of us. The two tickets were worth every penny. We sat in the back and stared out the window at the marooned hippies. Three minutes ago we had been them.

“Good move.” AK sucked down water from the canteen. He saved me half.

“You boys look hot.” An old black woman was peeling an orange.

“We were stuck back there for a few hours.” AK Wiped the sweat off his face.

“Hitchhiking?” She passed half the orange to us.

“Yep.”

“You’da have a lot more luck, if you cut your hair. You like girls and not pretty girls either.” The old black woman laughed with a simple wickedness, because she was telling the truth. “But these peckerwoods out here ain’t too particular about pretty.”

“Thanks.” It had been a long time since I had been called ‘ugly.

AK and I pored our the map, as the bus sped down I-10. The desert was even more desert. The window was warm to the touch, but the bus interior was ACed to Alaska. A few rangy cowboys and the old black woman got off in Barstow. She gave us each an orange. They were sweet and we sucked on the fruit as if we might not taste another for a long time.

The bus pulled out of Barstow. The driver announced that the next stop was Needles. It was a 170 mile ride.

Two and a half hours later the bus pulled into the desert town. I looked at the map. Needles was on the west bank of the Colorado River.

“The Joad family's first stop in THE GRAPES OF WRATH was Needles.” AK loved John Steinbeck. “They drove through the night to avoid the oppressive Arizona heat and they arrived here.”“The California dream.” I looked out the window. Nobody was on the sidewalks. The heat was too much for man or beast. Needles was a funny place to enter paradise and not funny ha-ha.

“The beginning or the end.” AK held his bag in both hands. He didn’t want to get off the bus. AK had the money for a ticket to Boston. His eyes asked me what to do."You want to go, go." In this heat it was every man for himself. My lack of funds meant that Needles was the last stop for me."No, I'll stick with you.""Really?" I would have bet my last money on his ditching out on me."Did you ever doubt I would?""Not for one second."

The bus braked at the small terminal and the driver announced a thirty-minute break.

We were the last passengers to exit from the bus. I stopped at the bottom of the steps for a second. A wall of heat stuck me and I thought that I had walked into the exhaust of a thousand buses, except our Greyhound was the only one in the sweltering parking lot. The other travelers hurried into the station. AK pushed me off the bus. The sun beat on my skin, as if its rays were ironing my flesh.

Needles was much worse than Victorville. My sandals sunk into the molten asphalt. Across the street a large thermometer displayed the temperature.

135F. 

"That can't be right." AK was gasping for breath. We were from the East Coast. New Englanders wilted whenever the mercury lifted north of 85.

"No one else is outside." I felt like I was breathing off the end of a hair-dryer.

The highway was in the distance. Cars and trucks sped through a shimmering mirage. It was less than a mile away. In this heat that walk was a test of survival. 

"There's a Dairy Queen." AK headed toward the promise of cold ice cream and AC. I followed the New Yorker without question. The heat was so dry that the sweat was seared off our skin. We ran across the parched grass verge. The time was 3pm. High noon lasted long in Needles.

Our entrance into the ice cream parlor was loud. Doors opened easy.

“Shut the damn doors.” The counterman shouted from the cash register. “I’m not cooling the outdoors.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered with respect, as AK shut the glass door. The other customers appreciated the gesture. They were farmers, teenage boys and girls. Hippies were not a common sight in the Mojave, but they directed their attention to spooning sundaes and floats into their mouths. The AC was 68. Everyone looked comfortable.

"Two vanilla ice cream sodas." My mother had given the sweet slurry of cold comfort to me when I had strep throat.

"I want chocolate." Andy stepped up to the counter. "Two too."

After the 3rd ice cream soda our core temperature had dropped to 98.6. 

"Is that thermometer right?" I asked an Okie rancher.

"Sun got to it. Ain't right by 15 degrees. Makes it 120. Hot, but ain't half as hot as July 2, 1967. That was 122. The two degrees don’t sound like much until you been in 122." He spoke with pride. Not many humans can handle that heat. "Felt like the Devil was burning my bones. You boys, headed east?"

He offered a ride to Topock. Some 20 miles from here. The other side of the Colorado. Okie was driving a Ford pick-up. His dog was in the front seat. 

"He don't mind the heat. Don't like strangers though. You gotta sit in the back."

At 3:22 the temperature was hovering at 110.

"We're ready when you're ready."

Needles was the type of town to suck a day from your travels. I had $33 in my pocket. I gave the driver two of them. Gas was 40 cents a gallon. He was grateful for the donation. Twenty minutes later he pulled off the highway. The town was two miles away. We were on the wrong side of the Colorado. The sun was four hours from setting. The only shade was a bullet-holed billboard some 300 feet off the highway.

I stuck out my thumbs. Cars and trucks were coming our way. I pretended to be Jack Kerouac's illegitimate son. He had to have one somewhere.

"Look like you're harmless." AK put on his best smile. The Berkeley School of Music graduate had perfect teeth and excelled at looking harmless. He pushed me to the side and the second car stopped for us.

“We’re out of here.”

The retired couple was heading for Kingman in their Delta 88.

“Nice car.” My father had a gray version.

“Good AC.” AK was settling into the leather seat. “Where you going?”

“Lake Haves. We used to be from Chicago, but the winters got too much for my bones.”“Isn’t Lake Havasu where they put the London Bridge?” I had read about the move in LIFE magazine.

“Yes and no.” The husband was a full head of hair. He drove with both hands on the wheel. “The developer bought the old London Bridge, thinking it was the Tower Bridge.”

“But it wasn’t.” His white-haired wife had a pleasant chuckle.

“Still they reconstructed the London Bridge and people come from all around to see it.”

“Bridge doesn’t really go anywhere.” His wife shook her head.

“No, but it’s better than no bridge.” This sounded like a regular discussion between them. “I wish I hadn’t moved down here. It's cooler up in the high country. Sometimes down here my head feels hot enough to fry an egg on."

The driver might have said the line maybe 100 times. The punch line was funny to us, because we knew it was true.

“It isn’t this hot all the time.” The desert sun had leathered his wife's skin. Her silver-blonde hair was a homage to Dinah Shore. “We have grandchildren. They come and visit sometimes. That's why we picked you up."

"They're hippies too." The old man smiled in the rearview mirror. The two complimented each other. "There's lemonade in the cooler. Drink as much as you want."

There were four glass screw-top bottles. 

"Don't be shy." The driver floored the pedal. The big V8 ate up the road. The old man was in a hurry to get out of the heat. “Drink as much as you want.” "Drink as much as you want."

Andy and I drained one each in thirty seconds.

We were safe from dehydration. We were leaving the frying pan. We both slept in the back seat.

The old couple pulled off the road at Kingman for the night. This town was mentioned in Chuck Berry's ROUTE 66.

“We’re staying here for the night.” The motor lodge offered rooms for $20. 

“We’ll keep on going.”

“I’d pay for a room.” The old man had a kind heart.

“No, thanks, we’ll be fine now we’re out of that furnace.”

We waved good-bye and stood on the remainder of old Route 66.

“I can’t believe two hours ago it was 135 in the shade.” The air at 3000 feet was cool relief and I stuck out my thumb.

“The thermometer was broken.” AK sat on the guard railing.

“It was still as hot as I’ve ever been.”

“You can say that again.”

I didn’t bother to repeat the obvious. The sun was setting in the pines and a semi was throttling its diesel engine on its way through Kingman. Wherever we would be tomorrow morning was a night away.