Let’s start with last night, because that’s when it happened. Or maybe the night before, reading for fifteen people in someone’s living room in Ft. Lauderdale. There was a woman there poured into a tight black dress with lace webbing across her breasts, feet bound in some cross between high heels and sandals. She looked like she stepped from an Eric Stanton comic. Late at night we were in the bedroom and she made a point of saying she hadn’t bought my book. I think I was supposed to give her a copy as a symbol of my affection, or a thank-you for hers, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep her in that dress and take what I could get. I walked her to her car, my shirt hanging from a belt loop, and she said something about this being an area for prostitutes and that I looked like one, and eventually I want back.
That morning I woke remembering the video games at Quick Stop on Pratt and California. I used to spend hours in there, hustling and bumming quarters, jacked up on Astroids and Dig Dug. I loved all the games that rotated through there. And when I was out of money I sat with the other deadbeats on the short rail separating the three storefronts from the dull apartment complex on the other side. There was a Chinese kid who played Robotron with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He was older than me, a Chinese James Dean as far as I could tell. He could play for hours on a single game, racking up hundreds of free plays. One day he got in argument with Bowder. Or I think that was his name. Bowder was waiting for him just outside in the parking lot and the Chinese kid wasn’t going out there. Somebody else came in and bought two candy bars then got behind the kid and pushed him through the door into Bowder’s arms.
It was the most violent thing I have ever seen.
Earlier, two days ago, driving through Ft. Lauderdale with my host, I said something without thinking, something I’d gotten in the habit of saying in response to a question I heard often. I had no idea if I believed it; it was just some loop I had left on automatic to make room for something else. Cognitive misery.
I took the train to Orlando where I was to do an event in a large video store that was also a coffee shop and a bar. I have no words for how I was feeling, but I think it was good, or it was the beginning of feeling good after whatever tailspin I had entered on that train and the weeks and months before that, all culminating in a strange phone call yesterday afternoon with a girl in New York where I said something along the lines of, “it’s like death” and I described somebody else’s book as a “farce” a collection of literary acrobatics whose entire point was to keep you laughing and obscure the truth. It was clever, without risk, entertainment pretending to be something else. I told her I despised the book. Then I apologized.
Lets say it was the espresso at 9pm. It could have been anything. I got on the stage while they were trying to get rid of a drunk in a black hat. Someone broke a glass. I mentioned that Florida had always been a violent state for me. I didn’t bring up the video games, which happened in Illinois. But I did point out that I got in my last fistfight when I was twenty-two, fifteen years ago, in a bar just north of Miami. I lost that fight. I also mentioned that on my first night in Jacksonville in 2004, covering the presidential election, I saw a man refuse to pay his tab and get beat within an inch of his life.
After my reading we were outside watching through the window, leaning against someone’s truck. A woman sang in front of red tinsel accompanied by a boy playing a violin. We had a long discussion about Adderall and professional wake boarding. I had my eyes out for a beautiful Spanish woman who sat at the front table the entire reading but when it was over I looked up and she was gone. She must have stepped right out the door and quickly driven off.
It was getting late. I had just met these people. I won’t waste time with details but for some reason I liked them very much. The professional wake boarder said, “If it’s behind a boat I’m ready for it.” He said, “Don’t fight it. Let the boat pull you up.” I told him that was the opposite of what I’d heard.
We went back to where I was staying with the editor of a local literary journal. He rented a room in a nice house in Winter Park. The wake boarder and his girlfriend joined us. We discussed art and the meaning of art and for some reason it didn’t seem superficial. Half past midnight I found myself wondering if I’d ever been so happy. I thought of my girlfriend back in San Francisco. She probably wasn’t my girlfriend anymore. We hadn’t spoken in weeks and when I was in San Francisco for a few days we hadn’t managed to see each other. But last night I thought of her and it seemed like something that could work. I sent her a short note, She didn’t write back.
In the morning the streets were wet and everything smelled good. The moss hung from the trees like fog. I passed a house covered in ivy and arrived at a lake and sat beneath an oak tree. There were individual docks set against the water’s edge, each holding a speed boat, and further off a ramp where the water widened to a larger circle and I could no longer see all the sides.
I thought that maybe this was the first time I was engaging with who I am since setting off on this quixotic journey a month and a half and thirty readings ago. In other words, the first time I was writing. Or maybe I’m being too generous with the definition of writing. What I mean is that I had been hard set on a task. So occupied with planning events and selling books that I was only able to reach the most vague and shallow conclusions. I knew, for example, that when this was over I would have to make radical changes; my life had turned down an unsustainable path. But that was obvious, as obvious as the acorns falling into the lake. I knew also I would have to really figure out what made me happy, because something had shifted in that regard. And even the most practical questions, like how would I pay rent, were going to be waiting on my doorstep when this was done in two or three months. Or whenever.
I could understand that these questions were on my horizon, but they only seemed like large questions. Actually they weren’t much different than Jack Levitt’s list of wants in Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Jack, a teenager, an understated thug, a runaway from the orphanage with slits for eyes like a snake,
“He knew what he wanted: He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey.”
George Pelecanos, in his introduction to the New York Review of Books Classics edition says, “Jack’s not a sociopath. He’s a young man who’s never been socialized or loved.” I am not saying I am like Jack, rather we’re all like Jack, but we have different ways of going about things, which is what Pelecanos was getting at. It’s not the desires that are strange or wrong, it’s what we do next.
So what was different? It was the first time I wasn’t meditating on and rearranging the puzzle of how to sell my book. I didn’t even know if I cared, though of course I did. But for some reason I woke and went for a walk instead. I didn’t look at my computer before I left; I didn’t bring my phone, not that it would’ve mattered. For a moment I believed the book would take care of itself. You have to have that faith, and it is strictly a matter of faith, and hold it against your chest. Or rather, I have to. I have to believe it or I can’t breathe. I have to believe it like a Christian who doesn’t so much turn his back on god as consciously decide that he will put his family first if there is ever a conflict between his home and his church. In other words I’m a believer in the integrity of art but I’m not a true believer. I’m a Jew but I don’t keep kosher and I don’t live in Jerusalem reciting prayers and knocking the brim of my hat against the Wailing Wall.
Nonetheless Hitler would have killed me the way he killed most of my family, most notably my great grandfather, a stern, orthodox man and the leader of a congregation in Biale Podlask, a village or small town in Poland. He was known for fighting off the Cossacks with his bare hands and being the only man in town left with a beard. When the Nazis came they rounded all the Jews into the square and asked, “Which one of you wants to be the first to die for your god?” My great grandfather replied, “I’m not afraid to die for my god.” And they shot him dead. Or at least that’s what the history books say.
Occasionally I wish I had inherited his courage but usually I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not the kind of courage you survive. He was an abusive father and my grandfather hated him, though he kept a picture of him above the mantle piece. My great grandfather has never entered one of my stories before. I can think of half a dozen reasons for this but it always bothers me when people refer to their family’s hardship as their own, when they sit on their porch holding a cocktail in the early afternoon reminiscing on how hard daddy worked.
Who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind about that too.
The sun was rising. It would be hot soon. I could hear, along with the sound of ducks, cars motoring and an airplane, and then another, with their cargo full of families on their way to vacation in Disney World. I got part of that story yesterday, a theme park with its own area code, the employee housing for the immigrants staffing the Epcot Center, the unincorporated town of Celebration where the lawns were so green it was as if they were in Technicolor, a planned community built by Disney. Someone said, “Any artist in Orlando will, at some point, work for Disney. So it colors your perception of everything.”
I hated Disney intuitively. And yet I liked Orlando quite a bit, which I knew was mostly the small group of people that had taken me in.
A short ways off in the lake I saw a mouth wide open, skimming the surface. I tried to figure out what it was then it closed and ducked back down followed by its long gray body and tail. A salamander? A man cruised past in a rowboat, his body oiled and well tanned. He paddled backwards and had a mirror attached to his goggles to see behind him. Perhaps he was avoiding looking into the sun, or working different muscles. I thought of stories for why he wasn’t at work on Wednesday morning but they were simplistic and revolved around capitalistic tricks. Even the rowboat looked expensive, and this was not a cheap area of town.
I’ve heard it said the main thing money buys you is separation. The toys are secondary. A certain amount of money and you can live where you want with the desired space between you and your neighbors and the people you don’t know, drive an air-conditioned car with the windows rolled up, be as racist, or inclusive, as you want to be. Make the same kind of choices for your child. Choices. It’s not the worst reason.
Just as I was leaving the lake (for what? to type my notes? some made up appointment?) I saw a bird perched on what was once a pier but was now just a stump of wood sticking out of the lake. I thought it was a carving at first. The bird had its dark wings spread, black neck fully stretched, small orange beak pointing toward the sky. It was ridiculous, life imitating bad art, a metaphor in search of itself. I sat down again and waited. It had to be the bird I saw earlier dive bombing and skittering the waves. What was the bird doing? Was she comfortable? Or was she just drying off before going back in the water?
“What I Can Tell You About Book Tours” was originally sent out as a Daily Rumpus, a two or three times a week email, the majority of which are not otherwise published. To subscribe, click here.