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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Grocery Cart SUV: After the Meltdown, Part II

So there I was, back in February, in March--pushing all our possessions in a laundry cart. I tried to wait until nightfall to make a series of runs to our mini-storage unit 3 blocks away. Over the 45 days coming and going, emptying out the unit and re-filling it from our apartment, I think I must have made 200 trips. Maybe more--the frequency picked up as we neared our day of abandoning the apartment, New York and 26 years in Chelsea.

If this sounds tawdry or "unnecessary"--i.e., over-dramatic--you're not and have never been a New Yorker. To a certain kind of city dweller, the laundry cart, purchased on 14th Street from a Nigerian or Peruvian, is their SUV. It's not just for laundry, or even groceries. You can move a piano with one, if you have three others to balance the load, that is.

My embarrassment was local, not global. When I got to the corner, I crossed 10th Ave to avoid being seen by my pals at the Empire Diner. I didn't care about the yuppie scum (a phrase curated from the 70s Lower East Side) at the tapas joint or the stragglers from the art galleries. For all they knew, I could be performing an "art installation." Right on!

Once as I was pushing my load on down the road, a Van Morrison song came on my iPod: "It Once Was My Life." And I dug it, dug myself, in an R. Crumb kind of way: Mr Natural-style. Sure, I looked like a homeless person. And in a few weeks I would be, technically. But I had my iPod, my irony, my style...

Back then I hadn't read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"--his after-the-world-is-over novel about The Man and The Boy pushing a grocery cart filled with canned food and blankets down a blasted highway. I like McCarthy. His dynamic deadly landscapes are mine, or at least, the deserts and wastelands of my Western youth. But I figured "The Road" wouldn't be a great work. Too Mad Max. I also figured it would be too depressing given my circumstances.

Now that I have read it, in anxious repose here in Hawaii, the similarity between my laundry cart and The Man's grocery cart is enough to give me the willies. "The Road" takes place after a nuclear strike, never explained. Nuclear winter has long killed off all living things: except for a dog or two kept for self-defense, there are no cats, rats, coyotes, birds, not even a cockroach. (Which is one of the only "unrealistic" notes in a pretty great novel; according to urban myth the cockroach will survive a nuke-out.)

Obviously "The Road" is meant to be The Last Road Novel, a windup of the genre that has given literature such long legs: Exodus, Don Quixote, Canterbury Tales, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe and on up to Jack Kerouac and too many tired recent examples to mention. I believe "The Road" is also meant to expose to bitter ridicule the overriding American Male Fantasy--that we are a nation of Mr Goodwrench Survivalists who will overcome all setbacks and even thrive, become better family men, for having to live off canned food (while devising clever and economical ways to kill other survivalists who've gone bad or voted Obama).

Yeah, it's a lovely myth. As a boy, as a Boy Scout, a 12-year-old card-carrying member of the NRA hoping my Dad would anoint me with a .22 single-shot Remington for my birthday, I'd grasped the poetry of how Daniel Boone "barked" squirrels with a shot into the tree branch beside the victim's head, which a) didn't mess up the brains, high in protein and fats and b) allowed the lead bullet to be pried out with the tip of a Bowie knife after the kill. Talk about sustainability!

"The Road" is the dead-end of that fantasy. The caches of food are all ravaged, gone, except for a few that appear providentially--discovered under duress--just when our heroes are fainting of starvation. The successful survivalists are organized into tribes of cannibals and (favorite McCarthy turn of phrase) catamites--imagine if Mardis Gras and Gay Pride paraders suddenly sprouted vampire fangs and began dining a la "Night of the Living Dead". The NRA types, it is inferred, didn't last long; for their pains in surviving the meltdown, which they carefully prepared for with underground food caches and arms depots, they got buggered and eaten. Nice.

I have known a few survivalists in my time. As a boy scout, I encountered a charming doctor and a not so charming dentist who both produced bouquets of German handguns on different occasions: thus my only Luger, proferred with a "want to touch?" eagerness. Later, white racists handing out guns during the Watts Riots in 1965 looked on the verge of ecstacy. Black rioters bursting the doors at Poly High in 1969 looked just as over-the-top as they reduced civilization to a shambles.

Today, a couple of my friends mutter of their guns, and a couple actually do have arms caches, I'm told. They once were hippies. Shit happened, I guess. Glad I wasn't there for it. Hope I'm not around when it happens again.

Oh, wait a second. It did happen. Because... When I was pushing my laundry cart, back and forth, in the rain and sleet and covering darkness, so my pals at the Empire Diner wouldn't recognize me, wasn't I enacting the Cormac McCarthy scenario in its early, still-hopeful beginnings? Storing 45 boxes of writings and journals and taxes--for what? Maybe I should have been stashing tuna fish and ammunition for my .30-.30.

This meltdown, if it goes on, could easily reduce all of us to The Man. That's the fear, isn't it? And if we are indeed thrown upon our own resources, it won't be pretty. It won't be a cleansing rapture for the prepared and the devout, like those 7th Day Adventists who are required--yes, required--to keep a years' food and water in their houses.

No, as D.H. Lawrence said, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, and a killer. It has never yet melted." As an aphorism, I've never bought it. As a prediction of life after breakdown, I can't get it out of my mind--like a cheap perfume or pop music hook. I know so many guys who secretly believe disaster would cause them to rise to the top, like some combination of Jason Bourne and Attila the Hun.

Make a nice reality show--unless we're already living it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Roughing It: After the Meltdown, Part I

And so we were homeless.

Briefly. But time is not the yardstick here. If you ain't got a home, you're homeless.

A favorite old song on the radio when I was growing up (the Fifties, before music was totally segmented, when novelty songs and doo-wop and rock n roll and ballads all poured out of the fabric-covered Norelco Radio): The Boll Weevil Song. A sung-spoken dialog between a scratchy-voiced cotton farmer and his nemesis, in which every one of the farmer's increasingly anxious pleas is answered by a basso profundo chorus by Mr Weevil, who rumbles:

"But you gotta have a home, you gotta have a home."

Brook Benton was the singer in the 1961 version, one of the earlier black singers to crack mainstream pop radio, I'd guess. The origins of the song go back to an Alan Lomax recording of Lead Belly in 1934. But it's older even than that.

Here's how it went for Missus Weevil and me. Jan 5, we lost the last job we had between us. By the end of the week, it was clear something had to give, and that something, I recognized, was our New York City apartment. We hoped to sublet and began the process of packing, stacking, sorting, clearing out existing mini-storage (the new American country home being the storage unit--unless it's your primary residence, as seemed to be case for a number of our fellow mini-members).

A showing of the apartment on Mar 14 drew one person who said, without recognizing the literary allusion: "What a dump." Thus was brought home the five-month tumble of values in Chelsea, NYC: an apartment that we were told would rent for $6K a month couldn't fetch half that (about what we paid, as stabilized tenants).

Now as the Boll Weevil said to the Farmer, "We gotta have a home..."

Our question was: where? And being incorrigible literary types, or typists, as they once were called, M and I immediately being looting our favorite books for examples, good or ill, of the kind of adventure we were about to set out on.

For the remainder of this blog, here are the books and films and media to be referenced as we wend our way from New York City to Palo Alto to Long Beach (Calif) to Honolulu and back to Palo Alto/ Long Beach and thence.... "Well, wherever there's a home, you gotta have a home."

Exodus. Robinson Crusoe. Typee and Omoo. The Mutiny on the Bounty. Huckleberry Finn. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Long Goodbye. Pitcairn Island. Tortilla Flats. The Grapes of Wrath. My Side of the Mountain. Eat the Document. Mad Max. The Road. In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World. Castaway. And those merry pranksters, The Grateful Dead...

Let's see how long this plays out.