Kohnstamm is also the author of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? (Crown). He was born in Seattle and lives there with his wife and two children.
Kohnstamm is also the author of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? (Crown). He was born in Seattle and lives there with his wife and two children.
This is the first installment of my column, CNF 500. The column will deal with topics related to anything and everything creative nonfiction, and will be 500 words. As essays editor of The Nervous Breakdown, I’m always ready to consider essay submissions of any length for publication. Please email essays to ekleinman at thenervousbreakdown dot com.
I’m going to tell my mom about my writing.
We’re in the International District in Seattle. It’s January. I’ve always liked these types of outings with her. We took the bus from Lynnwood. I’m wearing her coat because I live in Austin, Texas and I don’t have anything warm to wear. It’s a black coat from JCPenney with huge pockets and a fluffy hood.
February 26, 2014
This week in Seattle (Feb. 26 to March 1), at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 writers will congregate in what has become the largest such literary gathering in America. There will be more than 450 panels on every aspect of professional advancement, and a bookfair hosting more than 650 exhibitors, each of whom will pay a hefty fee to be seen among fellow indie presses. A parallel conference of countless off-site events will occur simultaneously, so that anyone with any gumption will have an opportunity to read and promote themselves.
15,000, you say? Does that boggle the mind? Do the colossal numbers to which this professional guild has grown signify the health or sickness of writing?
Our home slumbers in pieces, in boxes, in brown paper wrap. Room after room of brown paper wrap. Ridiculously oversized parcels block the corridors and doorways in the shape of sofas, free-standing multi-purpose bookcase units. Then there are the boxes. Towering, teetering stacks of brown boxes, their contents pared down to single words on the side. Bedroom; bathroom; kitchen; lounge. Check.
November 14, 2012
“Anytime you’re playing music for the crowd instead of yourself … you’re fucked.” … Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, in I’m Now.
Who the hell is Mudhoney?
I asked that same question of my students. I teach American history and music at a small college near Philadelphia. Last week, before mentioning Mudhoney, I asked the 18 to 20 year-olds if they had heard of Pearl Jam. Nearly every hand went up. I then inquired about their familiarity with Mudhoney. Blank stares. So, as with my students, I will provide you with a little Grunge 101.
Seattle, December 1984
I was a teenage art-geek. Frizzy-haired and studious, I hadn’t yet learned to work a prodigious vocabulary and ample rack to my advantage. But junior year at my strict Catholic high school, I finally had my first real boyfriend, Chris. Both of us loathed our surroundings and this intensified our bond. We discussed Dylan Thomas at lunch and at night, after we finished our reams of homework, he played King Crimson riffs for me over the phone on his second-hand Stratocaster. I was in love.
My Greek parents, like most progenitors of our nationality, were hardly laissez-faire when it came to their kids, particularly their young daughter’s newly acquired romantic interest. At that time, Dad was Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for the Criminal Division and Mom was a Deputy Prosecutor assailing fraud cases. So when Mom and Dad insisted on meeting Chris, I balked, sensing they would terrify him and that this was their intent. I relented, however, when Dad threatened to run Chris’s license plates.
“This house is like living in a cop show!” I yelled, eliciting a bemused smirk from Dad and an eye-roll from Mom. I posed no more threat to them than a gnat to an elephant. Resistance was futile.
The next day after school, Chris loaded his books into my used Mustang, and we drove to my family’s large brick house, festooned with multicolor lights along its perimeter and holly and snowflake appliques in its dining room windows. It was two weeks before Christmas and I’d told Chris my folks wanted to include him in a traditional Greek holiday meal. Once inside, Chris and I sat on the living room couch by the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours and I thought my brother, 18 months younger, was at soccer practice.
“You’re my other half,” Chris said and put his hand on my knee. As he leaned in to kiss me, a moaning sound wafted down the hall. Barely audible at first, it grew persistently louder. I realized it was my brother.
“It sounds like someone’s jacking off,” Chris said, alarmed.
At that moment, we heard the bathroom door fling open and my brother raced into the living room.
“Aaaahhhh!” he yelled and ran directly toward Chris. His hands were coated with a viscous white liquid and he waved them maniacally.
“Is he retarded?” Chris asked frantically, tripping over the hassock in an effort to get away.
“I want to give you my baby juice!” my brother continued, and chased Chris into the kitchen. I heard my mom’s planter knock into a wall.
By now, I knew what was going on. My brother, reflexively hilarious and the ultimate class clown, was hazing my new boyfriend. Said boyfriend, however, had no clue.
“Goddamnit, Greg! Leave Chris alone!” I sprinted into the kitchen, grabbed Greg by his shirt and yanked. He stopped and burst out laughing.
“Oh, my god! You should have seen the look on your face!” he told Chris, who was visibly shaken. “Lighten up there, pal. It’s just Ivory Liquid. I would have had to crank it eight or nine times to get that much jizz.” He said this as if it were clearly self-evident.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Chris wailed.
That night at dinner, Chris endured my parents’ inquisition with aplomb. He answered questions about his college and career plans and made polite conversation with my brother as though nothing unusual had happened.
Then, two weeks later, he dumped me for a cheerleader. He said it was because she blew him. Yet I can’t help but think Chris preferred his Christmases white, and not Ivory.
February 08, 2011
Just got home from taking pictures at our secret club/rehearsal space in Everett, WA. We call it The Rec Room. If James Bond and Superfly found out they were dating the same chick, hit it off at gun point, and decided to open a speakeasy, this is what it would be like. We’re filming our next music video there for a song called “Callin’” that should be released around the same time third album, Jungle Cat.
My mom’s walkman. She only had one cassette. One side was Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the other was the Chipmunk’s Greatest Hits. I can’t help but wonder if this tape planted the seeds of my obsession with singing in falsetto whenever I can get away with it. Also, I should also mention, proudly, that after long hours of being left alone with Jackson and his creepy old friend Vincent Price, I told my mom something was seriously wrong with the world’s most famous singer. Even in the 80s as an underachieving toddler, I knew MJ was on a trip that wasn’t going to end well.
September 21, 2010
JC: Yesterday, 3G1B posted JR’s review of Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s book Mad Men Unbuttoned, which, along with her fantastic blog (seriously…check out the supercool archive on The Footnotes of Mad Men), details the characters, themes, and societal shifts as depicted in the series. JR recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
Jason Rice: So. Mad Men. It covers an incredibly fertile period, not only advertising but of human evolution. Right? Not to mention the microscope it puts over fashion, human habits, good and bad, never mind advertising. Do these men make the times they live in, or does time shape them?
Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Ooo, you almost tricked me into using the word ‘symbiotic’ but I’ll resist! I think there is something eternal in watching men push against the established margins when the right historical moment presents itself (Hello, Russia!). Though this is a precise moment when culture, commerce, sex, power, money all converge in a uniquely American way and these guys really took the moment by the balls.
JR: This is a great looking book, Mad Men Unbuttoned. Can you tell me what got you interested in bringing this out into the world?
NVC: It’s like, someone made a TV show about your favorite band and you know or want to know the story behind the songs. That’s what it was like when I saw Mad Men. But the band was called, ‘MIDCENTURY AMERCAN HISTORY’ Each reference was like a note I couldn’t get out of my head. People were also really excited to talk about the show and so I was like, HEY! Let’s dance!
JR: I love how your voice isn’t just a tour guide through the advertising campaigns used on the show, but has a kind of therapist’s tone, especially when Betty Draper uses “lesbian”, you try to understand her upbringing, and where she went to school, and how it wasn’t a mistake by the show’s creators to introduce that term in her vernacular. Striking this tone must have been hard, how much did you pull back, push, and massage this book into its current state?
NVC: I aim to be engaging! I did make it a point to never be flip or condescending towards a topic. I cut anything I felt neutral about, it was either transcribe the thoughtfulness and intensity of the show on to paper or don’t bother.
JR: You break this book into nine parts, and eviscerate each detail of the show as they are reflected by the ads and the time the show is set. When you wrestle a period piece like Mad Men, is it possible to look around at certain things, like sex, or drugs, even the hippies of the 60’s and wonder how do I figure out what to talk about? Draper and Co, are about to drift into that time period, drugs sex, and free love, and all that comes with it. JFK is already in the pine box, so to speak, what’s next for them to experience? And how far can the show really go? I’d watch it until 1980.
NVC:1968 is going to dropkick these guys! Nevertheless, it’s not the aesthetics that hook people or necessarily the era (though they help) but the richness of the characters and all their muted dramas. I think they’ve shown in the first two episodes of the new season that the culture is moving too fast for these guys to keep up with. Only the young like Pete and Peggy could stay afloat and even they will face a reckoning. I’d imagine they’re going to stay in the decade because it’s such a fundamental time in our development as country. It’s the starting point for our modern ethos and culture, it’s when we became full-time consumers!
JR: Could a Mad Men-like show exist now? What advertising campaigns would you pick, say, if you made a show set in Seattle, Washington, right now? Would the Draper role be played by a woman? How would you handle Internet marketing, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, downloads of music, is it impossible to cover everything now?
NVC: Mad Men would be really boring if Don Draper was played by a woman! Women can’t go around finger banging ladies in restaurants then telling their wives they look like a whore in a bikini! Part of Mad Men’s appeal is that it’s pre-sexual revolution, the gender roles are oppressive, sure, but they are also sharply defined. It’s such unapologetic masculinity that gives the show such vitality. It also could not take place today because the stakes are not nearly as high seeing as how fractionalized consumer markets are, additionally, no product brand or outlet has the authority that these guys did 40 years ago.
JR: I love the shape and design of this book. It’s images and colors are carved with great care. I feel like nothing is over looked, from the Marlboro Man advertisement campaign to the paintings on Bert Cooper’s walls. The creator Rubicon called Mad Men “John Cheever on television”. Is that accurate?
NVC: I buy that! It’s certainly a visual novel. No question that Mad Men is high-art –and it’s accessible. Also, it seems so obvious now, but of course, 12 part serialized dramas seem like a perfect way to delve into characters and tease out all the pathos – why didn’t we do this before the Sopranos?! Mad Men fulfills the full potential of the medium.
JR: There seem to be a million times more distractions for the average person today. Where do people get their ideas to buy things? Amazon.com? TMZ? What their starlets wear to the gym? What kind of special Yoga classes Brad Pitt takes when he’s on location? How do trends form today? From where? Or, where do you think they come from?
NVC: If I knew why people bought things I would not be in the publishing industry. But I do think consumers get a bad name! American consumers are a most sophisticated and savvy lot. Empires do have the benefit of breeding discerning shoppers.
JR: I love this book. I take it with me everywhere. It helps that I love the show. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of Mad Men?
NVC: My favorite part of the show is watching Don Draper try to navigate through all the moral morass. The self-indulgence and consequent emotional wreckage he creates for himself and the people close to him. I think the compulsion to assert individuality against history, family, work is compelling. My least favorite part is that I know that the writers are pulling all the right levers and presenting us with this very attractive package called Don Draper but that he has a rotted core. When you identify with Don, which I find myself doing often, you’re identifying with a monster so that’s (exquisite) torture!
JR: Thank you Natasha.
NVC: My pleasure!
September 13, 2010
Thirteen years ago, Wajahat Malik and I were both cast in a Seattle production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The show played for two and a half months to sold-out houses and peachy reviews and morale among cast and crew ran high. A number of us became close and cast parties frequently wrapped at 5:00 a.m. Malik (he went by his last name because Americans usually mangled his first) was a natural raconteur and delighted us with tales of growing up in Pakistan’s Mansehra Valley, where he and his friends sometimes listened to Bob Dylan and Supertramp in his Volkswagen bus, occasionally incurring his loving mom’s disapproval. One of his sisters was a physician, the other a banking executive and photos of his family’s home and the surrounding region were stunning.
Malik returned to Pakistan over a decade ago and has resided in Islamabad, the nation’s capital, for the past eleven years. He’s a documentary filmmaker and writer whose travels have taken him throughout Pakistan and large swaths of the globe. We’d fallen out of touch but had reconnected on Facebook in 2008.
When the horrific floods enveloped Pakistan at the end of July and beginning of August, I wrote Malik to see if he and his family were safe. He assured me they were, but said much of the country was ravaged to an almost unspeakable degree. Immediately, he had delved into the relief effort. Last week I interviewed him via email about the work so far, obstacles he and his compatriots face and why, despite everything, he remains hopeful.
Litsa Dremousis: Since the floods ravaged Pakistan, you’ve been on the ground helping with relief efforts. I can’t fathom what the experience has been like.
Wajahat Malik: This flood was the worst in Pakistan’s history and the devastation it caused was immense, beyond anyone’s belief. Literally, the whole of Pakistan drowned in the waters of the Lion River, also called the Indus. In the face of such calamity, the nation woke up and stood up to face the waters. People gradually came out of their slumber and then people from all over the country started rescue and relief efforts and helped the flood victims who had lost almost everything. There were too many hopeful acts of self-sacrifice and philanthropy to mention here. The horrific act that happened was when some ministers and local feudal lords in the Sind province used their clout and illegally broke the embankments to turn the flood waters toward the poor settlements in order to save their own lands and palatial farm houses.
LD: Some of the people you’re helping were incredibly poor before the floods. Do you think they have a chance at any sort of decent future? That is, with some kind of food and shelter and schools?
WM: Of course, it is always the poor and downtrodden who bear the brunt of such awesome calamities. Their lives have changed for the worse and the future looks quite bleak for them as the state of Pakistan cannot cope with the scale of the disaster economically. The flood victims have lost their houses, the crops and cattle stocks have been wiped out. Cultivable land has been either washed away or has silted up. Schools, bridges and roads have been inundated. The whole infrastructure has collapsed and it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild what has been lost. Two million people have no shelter and are surviving on the hand-outs of the flood relief operations. They will have to be housed and rehabilitated. But the big question is, “How?”
LD: Has it been difficult to remain focused in the midst of so much death, loss and illness? How are you coping?
WM: Of course it is hard to carry on with your life when there is so much death and destruction around you. The images of the suffering millions in the flood waters haunt you all the time. When I sit down to eat at home, I feel guilty somehow and feel depressed.
LD: Have you seen anything you view as a miracle, not in the religious sense, but that it was inexplicably good in the middle of so much horror?
WM: No, I have not seen any miracles with my own eyes, neither have I seen footage of such a thing. But it is a miracle that Pakistan, despite the problems that it is plagued with, is still coping with a disaster of such a huge magnitude.
LD: On the flip side, what’s the cruelest act you’ve seen so far?
WM: Again, it would be those of certain corrupt and tainted politicians of the Sind province who, in order to save their land and palaces that they had acquired by sucking the blood of the masses, drowned the poor to save their riches. There is an enquiry commission that has been formed to investigate these criminal acts.
LD: What would you like those of us outside Pakistan to know about the floods? From what I’ve read, illness is spreading rapidly. Do you have loved ones who have become sick?
WM: The floods have obliterated the country’s infrastructure in terms of schools, hospitals, bridges and roads. Houses have been swept away, farm lands are destroyed and the farmers who were already living at subsistence level have nothing left. We are talking destruction worth billions of dollars. The poor who have lost everything and are sitting under the open skies and in the camps are drinking contaminated water and getting sick. In different areas, water-borne diseases have been reported to especially affect women and children, who are always the most vulnerable under these circumstances. No, my loved ones are fine and healthy, but the camps and shelters of the flood relief victims are rife with all kinds of diseases.
LD: From the outside, it seems much of Pakistan’s political unrest is the result of widespread poverty. Yet you seem to remain hopeful. How and why do you maintain hope?
WM: The Western media keeps harping on about poverty spawning the political unrest and turmoil in Pakistan. It is simply not true. It is the policies of America and its cronies that common people of Pakistan despise. And it is across the board. From the poor rickshaw driver to a person like me who has studied in America and has seen and read the world. We see eye to eye when it comes to the hyprocrisies of America and its allies. No amount of U.S. aid pumping billions to raise the standard of living of poor is going to help build the image of America in Pakistan. I remain hopeful because I know the people of Pakistan are not extremists or terrorists. On the contrary, we are one of the most hospitable people in the world. I am not being overly nationalistic–I’m saying it from my experience as a travel documentary filmmaker. I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and know its pulse quite well. We have been used as a buffer state to further the interests of the U.S. and its allies in this region of immense strategic value.
LD: Specifically, what have you been doing with the relief efforts? I know there’s so much to do–how do you prioritize what needs to be done first?
WM: I have been focusing on some Alpine villages in the Upper Chitral region in the Hindukush Mountains that were wiped out by flash floods. Luckily, there was no loss of life, but the already poor people lost everything. I have been collecting funds and sending food supplies to these villages because they are so far away up in the mountains that they were out of the reach of media and hardly anyone knew of their existence. Well, right now, food, shelter and clean drinking water are on the number one priority list as we are still going through the relief phase. But once the relief phase is over, we will go into rehabilitation and that means a lot of hard work and money. These people will need a lot of money to rebuild their houses and the government will need a lot of money to rebuild the infrastructure.
LD: Are you working with a relief agency or have you and your colleagues started your own group?
WM: I am working with a few dedicated friends and we are collecting funds from all over and sending the money to a friend in Chitral Town who is taking care of all the buying and distribution in Chitral Valley. This friend happens to be the Prince of the ex-royal family of the Chitral region, so it is easy for him to identify the needs of local people and buy and distribute food items locally.
LD: What can those of us outside Pakistan do to help?
WM: You can help by identifying people and organizations who are truly making a difference in Pakistan in terms of providing relief to the flood victims. And then donate money and share ingenious ideas for relief and rehabilitation and keep the issue alive in the minds of your compatriots and media, so that these people can be taken care of. And not forgotten because of donor fatigue.
LD: What keeps you going?
WM: The goodness of humanity and the everyday will to breathe keep me going. We don’t want to perish in the flood waters of despondency and grief. We, as a nation, are still alive and kicking. We proved that in the aftermath of the earthquake of 2005 and we will prove it again. Here is a poem I wrote recently on a positive note:
your hair is dripping with the stinking flood waters
your eyes are red with the extremist’s rage
your nose is dripping with the snot of bigotry
and your teeth are yellow with the stains of corruption.
please wash your face
brush your teeth,
wipe your nose
and straighten your beautiful hair
The sun is shining outside
It’s a new day
September 07, 2010
Over the past few years, I’d read great and magical things about The Nervous Breakdown Literary Experience in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and sundry other burgs. I scrolled through photos and comments generated by each reading and thought, Holy hell, that looks tastier than pizza. Each city fielded a deeply talented roster and the sense of excitement and cohesion was palpable. I looked forward to Seattle’s shot.
On Wednesday, 28th July 2010, at around 4pm Japan Standard Time, I was sitting in Narita airport, waiting for a journey that would carry me a significant way around the world. I was, however, not as excited as I could have been. I couldn’t shake the fact that I was leaving a comfortable life, leaving my girlfriend, leaving my cats, leaving my motorcycle… I couldn’t look forward because I was so focused on all that would cease to be a part of my present.
Boarding was uneventful, as had been my flight from South Korea’s Incheon to Japan’s Narita. I waited and waited and finally moved my bags onto the hideously crowded peak-season airplane, and took my seat in the middle of a five person aisle, right at the centre of the plane. My heart sank a little as I realised I’d been given the worst seat on the plane.
I didn’t look around at my fellow passengers. I don’t like people, for the most part, and I find my life is a little easier if I simply pretend they don’t exist. I had no idea then that these faces would become so familiar to me; that these people would become my friends, allies and enemies in the coming days.
“Time must have become a very odd kind of mirror-maze for her now; and mazes can change at any instant from being funny to being frightening.”–Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
“Pope Benjamin just announced ordaining women is like pedophilia. So that means he’s okay with it?” I consider then reject this as a possible ice-breaker at my Catholic high school’s 25-year reunion tonight. The event was announced months prior and I’ve received several Facebook reminders, but I only confirmed three days ago, after nudging from my mom and aunt, who pointed out I’ll enjoy seeing those I loved and in some cases still do, that my career is going well and that I’m frequently mistaken for being younger than I am. (It’s ridiculous to glorify youth but I’m not above being flattered when associated with it.) A kind pal, Marley, volunteered to drive and says we’ll bail after an hour if it’s lame. With good humor, I agreed to go. I’m touched they care whether I attend but mostly that they don’t see me as I’ve seen myself the past nine plus months: shrouded in grief, a facsimile of who I was before TJ undertook what would be his final climb the first week of October.
“We’re moving,” I tell my dental hygienist when she tries to set up my next visit, six months from today.
“Oh! Wow! Where to?” The inevitable next question.
Honestly, I really don’t care much for dental friendliness. I like clean teeth and gingivitis tops my pet peeve list, right along with things that involve a seething crowd of fans, but I am not here to make friends. Perhaps it’s the vacuuming of my spittle that makes me feel so vulnerable and mean, or the lead vest, I don’t know. I shut my eyes behind my colossal sunglasses and run my tongue across the polished surface of my incisors for strength.
I do not explain how we are planning to pack our family into our Honda CRV, drive ourselves to Lincoln Mortgage, sit for our property closing, hand over keys to our house and then drive out of town. It’s a long story.
I also don’t tell her that I wish she were a robot.
“West,” I say, not so helpfully, and only because she’s blocking my exit with her Care Bear scrubs and confusion I add, “Seattle maybe.”
We really don’t know, I don’t say.
We are among the millions that have been directly affected by the recession. I hate that word, that euphemism. It’s an insult to eupha-mizing. It’s a euphemism that needs euthanizing. We have been unemployed for a year, our house is under contract and we simply have no reason to stay, so we decided that we might as well be in a place we love and we love what’s west of here, so we’re going there.
When we tell people this, the responses vary from interest, excitement to sadness and heartbreak for the missing that comes with leaving. The dental hygienist is easy. The good friends are definitely harder. It’s one of those all-inclusive-full-spectrum kind of experiences.
“Fear not!” I say to the friends, but not to the hygienist. Actually, I probably don’t really say, fear not to my friends either. But I certainly do imply it when I assure them that although we may not have a firm destination, we do have a plan, we do have faith, and we do have job prospects, talent and are unabated survivors. We will land.
In the interim, relieved of the weight of our things (having traded them for garage sale cash) we will be light and expansive! With a loose itinerary and a sense of adventure we will zig zag! We will take the long cut! We will have spitting contests with our son over canyon lips and notice the difference in the shape of the sky, the varied species of clouds over Wyoming, Montana. We will get cricks in our necks from gazing up the to the peaks of the Rockies, the tips of the Redwoods. But most importantly, we plan to laugh in the face of our homelessness and bestow onto it, with an avowed sacristy, ineffable calm, hearty and appropriate euphemisms. We will not undermine it like that “recession” crap. Instead, we will enhance! Transform!
We will not be Homeless. No way.
We will be Nomadic. We will be Gypsies. Vagabonds. James Bonds. Free Willys. Rolling Stones. Pigs in Zen. We will be Superbad and coming to a town near you. We will be cruising with the windows down, making terrific wave formations with our arms and we will be shaking our heads at the naysayers and the game players because we will know we are indestructible.
We will pretend we are flying, we will know we are free.
A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.
“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”
He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.
My truck was acting up, so I had to take the Greyhound bus to Vegas. I wasn’t too happy about this. For one, I would have to dish out some cash to heal whatever ailment (s) my truck was suffering from. And two, the haul to Vegas wasn’t for fun. No hanging out with old friends. No extra-spicy chicken fingers at Danny’s. No wine or whiskey. I was going to town to see my attorney where at the end of our meeting she would tell me that I was officially and financially screwed. Yay for me! How neat! Such a wonderful way to start off the New Year!
But this was on me. This is what happens when you make poor personal and professional decisions. So, I had to eat it. And I had to take the damn bus to get this delightful news. I haven’t taken the bus since my high school days, but I remember it being an ugly combination of dingy people, screaming babies, and the pungent stench of decaying homemade food. This bus ride would be no different. Right when I stepped on the bus, I was hit with smudged faces, pissed off babies, and rotting food.
I found a seat next to this girl whose name turned out to be Jessica. We chatted for a bit. She’d been living in Vegas only for a few months. A transplant from L.A. Vegas was a new start for her. L.A was a bust. She liked Vegas—was taken in by the buzzing neon, the dusty red stone of Red Rock Canyon.
I turned on my iPod that I got from Santa (thanks, Tori) and settled in as we cut through the pale tones of the desert. I moved to the desert in 1981 and was immediately smitten by its perfect silence, its hard dirt, the spiny joshua trees—spooky and beautiful—sprouting out of the ground in ancient desert shapes. I was born in L.A, but it was the desert that wired and built me. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow” filled my ears, the lyrics a timely narrative.
Come to decide that the things I tried
Were in my life just to get high on
When I sit alone come get a little known
But I need more than myself this time
The bus weaved over I-15 and my mind tumbled through the past year: leaving my house with two bags full of books and clothes knowing I wasn’t going to return to the woman that was living inside. Befriending a chihuahua named Duke that would sing on cue. Seeing a giant rainbow in Thousand Palms rising from behind the San Gorgonio Mountains. Being holed-up and depressed in a smoke-infested hotel room on Boulder Highway with a fridge full of beer and a large pepperoni pizza. A handful of poems I wrote for a dear friend whom I love from head to toe. Driving through the desert in the middle of the night with an eccentric 70 year-old man who goes to law school and rides his Triumph motorcycle through the desert between Lucerne Valley and Barstow. Not being able to sleep for weeks on end and having late night conversations with Zara Potts. “Get some sleep,” she’d type and send over the wire. Writing a telling song in Woodland, California, that would eerily predict my future. A reading I gave in Hollywood, meeting some great folk for the first time, and in the company of a beautiful woman. The time I was having dinner with a buddy in Vegas and some woman walked up to the table and said, “Excuse me. But are you Reno Romero? I’ve been reading your stuff for years. I’m a big fan of The Nervous Breakdown.” Sleeping in my truck for two days in Stockton while rain and bad thoughts pelted the windshield. A gay pride festival I went to with my friend Trish where the boys were far prettier than the girls. Dancing to Al Green with my aunt and cousin buzzing on cheap beer and howling into the night like a pack of wild dogs. The countless nights I thought about my grandmother and wished she was still around. Jogging on the cracked streets of Hesperia—my hometown—not believing I was back after all these years, but feeling a sense of peace in the jagged shadows of some joshua trees that graced a vacant lot.
I was talking to Megan DiLullo one morning and we talked about the past year. I told her that 2009 was a bad year—that I could never have imagined the unforeseen circumstances that rolled my way in heavy waves.
“I don’t know if it was so much a bad year,” she said, in her charming punk rock style. “But it was a hard year.”
A hard year.
She was right.
It was a hard year.
* * *
After my attorney gave me the predicted news, I headed back to my grandmother’s house. It was over. I signed the needed papers and was free. Free to roam. Free to stay put. Free to do whatever I wanted. I was both sad and relieved. I slipped the key in the lock, opened the door, and smelled my grandmother. Her scent hasn’t left the house. I walked into her room and looked at her bed. She died in her room among crucifixes, paintings of Jesus, family pictures, and some books I bought her. I stepped into her closet and brushed my hands over her clothes that we refuse to put in boxes. I tuned her guitar and played it long into the night.
The next morning I went for a jog, taking my old route. Hacienda to Nellis, Nellis to Russell, Russell to Mountain Vista and back down to Hacienda. Just like old times. After a five-star lunch that consisted of Jack In The Box’s dog food tacos and Vegas tap water, my aunt dropped me off at the bus station that was littered with action: two Hispanic dudes smoking a joint in the parking lot. A batch of disheveled Chinese tourists with swollen I-didn’t-get-any-sleep-last-night eyes guarding their luggage. A pissed off American with greasy dirt-blond hair making a scene because he missed his bus to Albuquerque. A pretty brunette staring at a wall of casinos in the distance. Some black dude dancing in front of the terminal dressed in a stained wife-beater and wearing shorts that sat just below his nuts. A young woman peppered with zits nervously smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone.
And then to make things even more entertaining, the bus was running late. Not one hour, but two hours. Curses and moans filled the room. Faces were twisted and long. Some people walked up to the counter and bitched. The dude behind me—who reeked of booze and cigarettes—sat on the floor Indian-style and watched porn on his laptop. I looked down and saw two chicks eating each other out. Now, I realize there are a lot of men (and women for that matter) that enjoy watching girl-on-girl action, but I’m not one of them. I’d rather eat a trough of liver and onions and then mow fifty acres of crabgrass. I text a friend who’s a big fan of seeing girls fuck each other.
“In Vegas. The bus is late. Too bad you’re not here with me, vato. I’m watching two chicks munching each other.”
“Shut up! In person?” he immediately fired back.
“No. Sorry. On some asshole’s laptop.”
The bus finally arrived and as fate would have it, Mr. Porn sat next to me and cranked up the sticky show once again. I couldn’t do anything, but laugh to myself. What a crazy life, I thought. Truly crazy. Attorneys with bad, yet good news. Memories of men and women. Rainbows and rain. Poems and cheap beer. An unscripted future up ahead. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” came through the earphones as the bus passed Bell Mountain and dipped into the Mojave Narrows where years ago I used to catch snakes and scorpions and kissed Julie Newland on a warm desert night.
There’s a girl in New York City, calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil
Well, I say so this is what she means
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
I got off the bus in Victorville and met a man that just got out of the prison that’s down the road on the outskirts of town. He was kind, was going back home to Seattle where he said he was going to stay out of trouble, do the right thing.
“Good luck out there, man,” I told him with sincerity and shook his hand.
“Hey, you too,” he said, and boarded his bus.