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To do five readings, I went from Philadelphia to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Portland, then back to San Francisco. I slept in five homes, two hotels and two trains. I saw old friends, made many new ones. The sweetness and generosity I encountered upset my habitual guardedness. On an Amtrak between Klamath Falls and Eugene, I chatted with Jack D. Fir, not his real name, who worked in a sawmill in Florence, on the Oregon Coast, for 31 years before it went out of business, thanks to the spotted owl brouhaha, he said. “These environmentalists live on the East Coast, never been out here, so they don’t know how much forest we have. Just look for yourself,” he indicated with a nod. “You can cut them responsibly, and they’ll grow back.”
Many old growth trees are already rotted in the center, he explained, his right index finger drilling into a C formed by his left hand, so a storm would knock them all down. Wasted. “Since our logging industry is mostly dead, we have to buy lumber from overseas, from people who really don’t give a hoot about the environment.” With sawmill rotting by the river, Jack got hired by Safeway, but business is down, the town depressed and what’s worse, many people would rather drive 60 miles to shop at a Walmart. The fishing industry is also kaput. Without logging and fishing, the town opened a retirement home, a golf course and a casino, tried to attract tourists, which worked for more than a decade, but thanks to high gas price and the national recession, few people visit anymore. At 60, Jack has two years of mortgage left. “I just hope Safeway doesn’t go bankrupt. At my age, it will be hard to get hired again. I don’t want to move to the city to find another job.”
Sitting in the lounge car, we stared through large windows at the blonde fields, viridian evergreens and another snow-tipped mountain. Canadian geese suddenly infested a small patch of sky. The winding lake seemed short of water. Even at four thousand feet in November, there was no snow, which wasn’t right. “They might just turn me into a wafer, you know, a cracker,” Jack chuckled. “Do you know that Charlton Heston’s film, ‘Soylent Green’?”
“No. What is it about?”
“It’s a sci-fi where old people are turned into a cracker called Soylent Green. They become food.”
“That’s pretty funny!”
“Yes, it is, and that’ll be me in a few years.”
“Jonathan Swift suggested that Irish babies at the age of one should be eaten,” I countered. “Beyond one-year-old and it’s not cost efficient to raise them. Also, that’s the best age for the most tender meat, according to Swift.”
“What’s his name?”
“Jonathan Swift, Irish guy.”
“And he was joking?”
“I think so.”
Not to be outdone, Jack continued, “During the siege of Leningrad, some people ate their children.”
“After they’re dead?”
“No, they killed them and ate them. Some also sliced chunks from their own buttocks.”
A closet writer, spin meister, bullshit artist? “But,” I protested, ” the lost blood. There’s no net gain!”
“Maybe not, but when you’re desperate, you’ll eat your own ass!”
I bought a cheeseburger and an orange juice in the café, self-service except the cashier had to put the burger into the microwave for 30 seconds. $7.75. I noticed his sour look as I walked away. After I sat down, this 35-ish guy in an old wool coat and a black baseball cap, worn backward, said, “It’s pretty good, huh?”
“It has some meat on it, not like a McDonald’s burger.”
“It’s not bad.”
I squeezed mayo, ketchup, mustard and relish onto it, had a bite. “Hey, that cashier guy gave me a funny look because I didn’t tip him. I mean, this isn’t really a restaurant or anything.”
“No, you’re not supposed to tip him, man. I didn’t tip him either.”
“I mean, you can, if you want to, but it’s not like he’s waiting on us.”
“No, he’s not.”
“I mean, he’s not walking over here or anything, although he did cut the plastic, stick this burger into the microwave. I mean, when you buy a burrito from Seven Eleven, you don’t have to tip.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Actually, at Seven Eleven, you do put the burrito into the microwave yourself.”
“You do, but they don’t charge you ten bucks for a burger at Seven Eleven.”
“Actually, this one’s only about six.”
“That’s still too much. When I went in there, I asked him the price of everything, how much is this, how much is that, and everything cost too much.”
“There’s a price list on the wall.”
“There is? I didn’t see it, so I asked him the price of everything.”
“Shit, man, so it was you,” I laughed, “who pissed him off.”
He laughed, “Everything cost too much, so I bought an Cup O’ Noodles for 2.50, and it was pretty good, see, so after I ate it, I bought another one.”
“And you didn’t tip him?”
“No, I didn’t,” he laughed.
“But he had to peel the top back, pour hot water into it.”
“Yes, he did.”
“You made his day, man. It was you,” I laughed, “who pissed him off. When I showed up, he was already pissed off.”
Cap backward chuckled. “In Portland, we had an hour break, see, so I ran outside to find a grocery store. Figured I had time, right? I walked around and found one, so I bought another Cup O’ Noodles and two burritos.”
“After a while, I bought this Cup O’ Noodles to this café guy and I asked him, Would you mind pouring some hot water into this?”
“That wasn’t too much to ask, but you should have given him something.”
“But I didn’t. I want to have some change on me when I get off this train. Later, I’ll ask him to heat up the burritos also.”
“You can’t do that, man. He’ll freak.”
“Yeah, he might flip out, but I’ve got to eat these burritos. We won’t get to Sacramento until six in the morning.”
Dave was going from Bellingham to Modesto. Homesick, he said. He was only up north for four months. For three of those, he worked in a retirement home. Ninety people he served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. “The highlights of their days. They lined up and charged in like cattle as soon as you opened the door.” He always tried to be nice to them. He would be flexible, say, when Mary, a senile woman, showed up right after lunch and asked for a second helping. “She forgot she had eaten, see, so I would go into the kitchen and get her an orange or a cup of yogurt or something. But I would get shit for even doing that, we ran such a tight ship, see. They had just enough cups of yogurt and no more. Waste control.” An old man soiled himself at dinner. “He felt really bad, but I told him, Ah, don’t worry, I’ll get maintenance to take care of it.” Dave was flexible and easy going, unlike the café cashier, who suddenly walked into our section, glanced at us, then marched out. “How’s it going?” Dave shouted after him. “Slow,” he responded. We laughed.
Mr. café cashier, 50, is getting a little tired of his job. The work is easy but the hours are long. His comic timing is off. When a woman ordered two coffees, he said, “You’re only allowed one.” No one laughed. “Only one per person.” Still silence and confusion. “I’m only kidding,” he intoned with a straight face, his eyes sparkleless behind those black, plastic glasses.
In Portland, I spent a day walking around with Bethany Ides and her husband, Joseph Bradshaw. Bethany is full of stories that she never writes down. Local lores, ridiculous suicides, architectural oddities and improbable sexual formations. Mention any topic or person, and she will come up with at least one weird anecdote. “She’s just speaking out of her ass,” I said to Joseph conspiratorially, but everything was true. Bethany did a performance in which audience members were invited to crawl into her voluminous dress and emerge at her crotch, mumbling, I’d like to imagine, an Artaud or a Joseph Cerravolo. A normally shy, adopted three-year-old girl rushed up and embraced Bethany in a sort of panic. This, I didn’t see, but it sounds very authentic.
He was born in Boring, Oregon, moved to Celebration, Florida, then back to Boring when he realized that Celebration wasn’t all that.
Boring is home to the Pacific Northwest Training Center of Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Somebody ought to establish a writers’ colony on Cape Disappointment, Washington. American cheese and corn dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Spending her entire life in Sweet Home, Oregon, she never visited Vida, just 57 miles away, an hour and eighteen minutes driving, if you respect the speed limit. “I’ve heard about that place, Vida,” she said to her husband at dinner, her fork stuck in the turkey, her face concerned.
“I wouldn’t fuss over it, Midge, we ain’t never going there.”
Near Ashland, there’s the Dead Indian Memorial Highway.
One evening, I went to Specs in North Beach, where Jack Hirshman, current poet laureate of S.F., commanded a crowded table. Neeli Cherkovski was also there. When I was twenty, I bought Hirshman’s version of Artaud, perhaps the most popular edition in English, although no comparison, really, to Clayton Eshleman’s much more scholarly and thorough engagement with the French poet. In 1992, I published six issues of the Drunken Boat. For the first, I translated Tố Hữu‘s hysterical elegy to Stalin, accompanied with a note that went something like this: “Tố Hữu modeled himself after Mayakovsky. Both were similarly bombastic, but whereas the Russian poet was hyper-masculine, Tố Hữu was hyper-feminine–during the war against the French, he sometimes dressed as a woman to act as a spy. He also didn’t commit suicide, like he should have, like Mayakosky.” Hirshman bought a copy of Drunken Boat at City Lights, one of maybe two bookstores in the entire country carrying my obscure zine, and took exception to my suggestion, punk joke that a poet should have killed himself for kissing Stalin’s ass. Jack himself has cranked out a couple of panegyrics to Gory’s favorite son. This evening, he showed me a brochure from the Stalin museum and enthusiastically recommended Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin.
I asked Jack how he had managed to live all these years without a job. UCLA fired him in 1966. He candidly recounted a succession of women. When he got to Agneta Falk, I interrupted, “So you dumped Sarah [Menefee]?”
“Yes, I did,” Jack admitted, then, quite cheerfully, “But thanks to Marxism and Leninism, we’re still comrades!”
$12 admission was too much, so the audience was smallish at my and Wang Ping’s reading at the de Young Museum. Among those who did come were Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman and Rachel Loden. Paul Hoover was the host, so Maxine Chernoff was also there. Afterwards, all of us went to dinner at a very popular and eclectic (or maybe just confused) restaurant. In 1992, Hass and Lucille Clifton were the judges who gave me, an unpublished writer painting houses for a living, a $50,000 Pew Grant, payable in monthly installments over two years. I’d only met Hass once and didn’t think he would remember me, but he said he’s been following my work “with great interest.” As editors of New American Writing, Hoover and Chernoff were among the first to publish me. I was particularly touched to see Rachel Loden, because she never goes out. “My first reading in twenty years,” she said. Rachel and I have been corresponding for years, but last night was our first face to face encounter. I was also introduced to her husband, the mathematician Jussi Ketonen. An immigrant from Finland, Jussi said that coming to the States opened up his life, allowed him to become more fully himself, but he still slept most peacefully whenever he returned to Finland. “I no longer felt anxiety. I was no longer guarded.” I said that when in Hanoi, I would think, “I should die here. It would be most beautiful to die here.”
The conversation veered to the topic of having children, to which I said, with booze-induced mawkishness, I’m sure, “Just today, I thought that the reason why I’ve refused to have kids is because I don’t want to pass on my genes.” Then, “After a certain age, one shouldn’t bitch about one’s parents. It’s so pathetic.” Hass said, “I know a man in his eighties who still complains about his parents.” Hass has also written resentful poems about his mom and dad. He added that Milosz also felt that he didn’t want to pass on his genes, before he had two sons. I asked Hass if he didn’t think it strange that Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millenium included no Polish poetry, among the best in the twentieth century? Hass attributed this obmission to political antipathy. “Even ‘The Waste Land,’ the most influental poem of Modernism, was not included in the draft version of that book!” Whatever its flaws, it’s still great. When I returned to Vietnam in 1999 to live for what turned out to be 2 1/2 years, I brought only two books with me, Poems for the Millenium, Volume I and Michael Palmer’s First Figure.
With Milosz mentioned, and speaking of not having children, I brought up Simone Weil and her concept of decreation (basically, that God created us only to ask, even beg, us to decreate ourselves, that God cannot love us, only himself, so that our true task is to renounce whatever private traits, genius or idiotic, we’re given. “There’s a deifugal force,” she wrote. “Otherwise, all would be God”). I suggested that Weil’s theology and starvation/suicide came out of her Jewishness, that her self-hatred echoed Kafka’s, but much more extreme, humorless and suffocating.
Driving through San Francisco, Sarah told me her mother’s story: “My uncle worked in the Ngo Dinh Diem government and was assigned to go to the U.S. He was allowed to take his immediate family and one extra family member, my mother, who was very adventurous and wanted to see the world. He got his paperwork done but Diem was assassinated, so he didn’t go, but my mother did, alone, without telling anyone. In the U.S., she lived with an American family, people she had met in Vietnam. It was here that she received letters from my father, her old French teacher in Saigon. He had spent his life in the colonies, in Algeria, Laos and Vietnam, but now he was back in his home village in France, living with his parents. My mother went to France to join him, but when she got there, she was very disappointed because she found herself living with three old people. My father was twice her age and no longer handsome. When she got pregnant, he put her in a halfway house for single mothers. There were many prostitutes there. After I was born, she gave me away for three years, and when I grew up, I was told that my grandmother had tried to kill me, but I never knew exactly what had happened. I doubted this story. Your body has its own memory, you see?” She turned briefly from the steering wheel, her face stoically tranquil. “Somehow I knew that I had been suffocated. Somehow I knew that it was my mother. Only recently, I asked her, Did you try to kill me when I was a baby? And she looked at me, her face very hard,” which Sarah pronounced without the “H”, betraying her French upbringing, “and she snapped, Who told you?!”
Motherhood. I know a woman who has two daughters, one innocent and spontaneous enough to fall in love for love; the other, strictly for money. The mother hated the “pure” daughter, forbade her to leave the house and would beat her whenever she tried to sneak out. “Men will eat you up and spit you out!” the mother screamed between lashes. “They’ll fuck you, get you pregnant and leave you with nothing.” The mercenary daughter was given free reign, however, because she had mastered, on her own, the various methods of birth control. Making steady money from men of all ages and nationalities, the shrewd daughter lived lavishly, traveled overseas and bought her family all sorts of electrical gadgets. They would have lived happily ever after, these three women, except that one day, the mother was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in one breast. The excision did not go well and she was left paralyzed on one side, her corrupt one. Her pure daughter, I should add, has become my wife.
It’s all good. In San Francisco, I spent three days at Truong Tran’s house. Before becoming a published poet and professor at S.F. State, Truong was known as the “Czar of the E-Cards.” He generated so much cheese, he could retire for two years, when he went to the gym twice a day, got buff, traveled to New York regularly to indulge in some wholesome and cheesy recreation, I imagine. It’s all good, unless an unfortunate or beloved chunk has been hacked away, and even then, it might still be good. Truong told me of an aunt who chopped off most of her ring finger when she found out her husband was cheating on her. “But they’re still together,” Truong laughed. “She’s always carrying this handkerchief, to hide her little stump.”
“Us Vietnamese are too fuckin’ goofy!” I laughed.
“Well, the handkerchief draws even more attention to her stump.”
“I’ve got a stump story for you. In my Fake House, there’s this story about a guy who chops his dick off because his father has chopped off a joint of his trigger finger, to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. Well, I placed this story in Walla Walla, where I’ve never been, and all the characters are white, but it’s actually based on me and my father, except, well, I still have my dick.”
Born of my father’s bold cowardice, I’ve acquired the skills to pin and frame him, but not in the way he would like, I’m sure, this vain and bombastic man, but it’s not really about him or me, since this story is hardly exceptional beyond a few odd details. Everywhere you turn, there are people eating their own flesh, men castrating themselves and women wishing their children were never born. As soon as he shakes a hand, my father’s secret is out, and yet, he would declare, even at 70 something, for I’ve lost track of his age, that he’s fearless. “I’m afraid of nothing and no one but God,” he would bellow at some social gathering, drunk or sober, even as he cowers daily from the deranged screaming of my dismal stepmother. Desperate enough and you’ll slice a piece from yourself, and though you cut responsibly, it will never grow back. Soylen Green, anyone?
[Photos taken in Portland, Oregon, November, 2008.]