Jakob Böhme

JAKOB BÖHME

Long, stringy black hair in a middle part.
Wizard’s beard. An old, lavender cape taking on light
and wind
as he floats along amid
golden
clouds and the clattering of dusky evening
cathedral bells.

To the local scourge he’s just a shoemaker.

They don’t care about his view from the sky,
the Gates of the Paradisiacal
Garden
of Roses,
or the sacred portals of his electromagnetic
mind
wherein resides the Cumaean Sibyl in her virgin apparel
smoking Benson
& Hedges
while surrounded by shoals
of cloud-eating purple
fish,
high voltage wires, stargazer lilies and wild orange trees.

They don’t want to know
about that.

What concerns them are the practical
things: bread, candle-stubs,
a clear and definitive
statement: he makes shoes.

Everything else about him is fuss.

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The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

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The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

Greg used to come into my shop to sell tools
he’d just stolen from Home Depot.
“You in need of a monkey wrench?”
he’d ask, and dredge one from the sweatpants
he was wearing under his trousers,
the packaging still on it.
“No thanks.” I’d say.
“Is there anything you do need?”
“I don’t know,” I’d say.
“Does your supplier
carry diamond
blades for angle grinders?”
He’d scratch his head and brainstorm for a moment.
Confucius
couldn’t have looked deeper in thought.
“I’m pretty sure they do,” he’d say.
“I’ll have to check.
I’ll get back to you.”

He’d then exit the store and
I wouldn’t see him again
until he’d come back with something else,
something other
than what I needed,
and the cycle would repeat itself.

Then one day
Greg disappeared.
I don’t know what happened to him.
I figured he was either dead, in rehab or in jail,
and eventually
I forgot about him,
for the most part anyway.
I would sometimes
laugh thinking about how
he’d come into the shop,
his trousers stuffed
with tools
and me pretending everything was on the up and up.

It was like seeing a resurrected
god.

About a month ago,
when I was sitting in the shop, I glanced at the
surveillance
camera aimed toward NE 3rd St.
and saw in grainy black and white
a man
that looked exactly like Greg
pushing rapidly an empty
wheelchair
along the west side of the building.

At first, I thought it was just someone who bore
his resemblance.
But two nights later, as I was driving through
the parking lot of a shopping mall a few miles
from my shop,
I saw the same man sitting in the wheelchair
he had so rapidly been pushing,
a tin cup in his hand,
a down-in-the-mouth expression.

An old lady approached him. “Good evening,
ma’am,” he said. She dug in her purse,
something flashed
in the sunlight. “Thank you, thank you,” he said,
and complimented her
on her dress.
He peered into his cup.
“Yes,
yes, yes,” he went on.
“A lovely
dress
indeed.”

The Proverbial Bad Penny

An eternally down-on-your-luck Polish-Italian New Jersey native, Bob Milktrout worked for me in the 90s as a part-time mechanic but never really had his heart into the job. He mostly just stood around smoking Marlboro lights and drinking Pepsi, lapsing into emotionally-charged stories about his high school football days, or other stories where he always seemed to come out the victim. He used to tell me he didn’t want to turn wrenches for a living. He was trying to establish himself as a remodeler of homes, but to do so he often had to borrow my tools. I let him use them for free because he worked for me, but then he quit, more or less, and still expected to get them for free, even though his having them would often cost me money because of the miles he’d put on them, or the fact that I wouldn’t be able to rent them to someone else because he was using them. Finally, after listening to several of his hard luck stories, lies and tales of persecution, we agreed that I’d rent my stuff to him for half price, but that never worked out. He racked up a tremendous bill, and it just kept growing, so I cut him off. Things got ugly after that, especially when it became apparent that he had no intention to pay me anything. I started having my alcoholic mechanic – his replacement – badger him drunkenly on the phone about the money, which infuriated him. After one call, my mechanic told me that Milktrout was so hot you could fry an egg on his skull.

He vanished for a long time after that, leaving the money unpaid and no trace of his whereabouts.

Then one day, a while back, he turned up again, like the proverbial bad penny.

It had probably been ten years since I’d last seen him and those years had not been kind to him. He used to be quite handsome. Now, his hair, though still without any gray in it, had become thin and sprouted from his head in long, disparate spikes, his eyes and cheeks had sunken into an emaciated skull and his complexion had gone bad – he looked like the after picture of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian politician who was poisoned by government agents at a dinner in 2004.

The reason he had turned up wasn’t to pay his old bill, but to pick up a bucket of driveway sealer his friend had ordered. After that, he started coming in regularly to pick up his friend’s sealer and would occasionally buy something for himself. The old bill and the old calls from my now-deceased drunken mechanic were never mentioned. Instead, he would stand around telling victim stories of an entirely new genre. In these, he wasn’t a victim of other people’s doing, but of nature herself. He had had two cancer scares in the last three years, he said. Also, he suffered from acid reflux, heartburn, migraines, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, low testosterone and erectile disfunction. And yet according to recent tests, his doctor told him he was the healthiest fifty-three-year-old he’d ever seen. This led me to believe there was some lying or severe hypochondria going on. It also led me to believe that the persecutors of his past were as imaginary as his physiological ones were now.

Milktrout came in the shop the other day to rent 100 feet of pressure washer hose.

I told him we didn’t normally rent hose, the reason being that it was a small, relatively inexpensive item that people would either not return, or not return for ages and expect to pay nothing for because they’d forgotten about it in their garage or some such. It was just easier not renting them, we preferred to sell them, but Milktrout somehow persuaded me to do him the favor, promising he’d bring it back on time. He didn’t of course. It was two weeks before we saw him again. He came in with the hose rolled up neatly and slung over his shoulder, but no money of course. His excuse? There were several, all of the same genre. He had been gravely ill; his girlfriend couldn’t return it for him because she had leukemia; his dad was in a Colorado hospital for something or other; and Jim, the fellow he would pick up driveway sealer for, couldn’t return it for him because he had just had an operation to remove a large hunk of flesh from the top of his skull. Skin cancer.

“You know Jim and his pale Irish skin,” said Milktrout, and made a circle with his hands to show the size of what had been taken. “They had to drill into his skull with a bit yeabig,” he said, spreading his hands about a foot apart. I envisioned a large, 4” diameter core drilling bit going into the top of the Irishman’s head. It seemed a bit much, but according to Milktrout’s way of thinking, the more extreme the story, the more valid his excuse for returning the hose late and not paying for it.

He promised to give us something when he got paid from his customer, but we knew what his promises added up to. In 20 years, nothing had changed.

You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, she’ll come back.” ~ Horace

He set the hoses neatly on the floor and tiptoed out of the shop, knowing that we were the victims of this deal, but telling himself that he was more of one – his victimhood was on a grand and universal scale, deeper and wider and more complex than ours could ever be – and for that we owed him. It was our birthright.

George Washington Silt, 911 Hijackers & The Man Without a Face

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When I was in my late teens and 20s, I worked for my dad selling and delivering patio furniture at his store. I did it during all my breaks in college, and for a year and a few months after I graduated. Then I got all the money I earned together and used a Home Depot card, a Sears card, and several credit cards to open the tool rental shop in Boynton Beach, Florida. The total cost was about $20,000, and the business just barely got by for the first ten years, so to make extra money I worked for my dad at his patio furniture store on Sundays. This meant I had no days off all year except holidays because my tool rental shop was open from 7-5:30 weekdays and 8-2 Saturdays, and I couldn’t afford to pay for any help, not regular help anyway. I couldn’t even afford a mechanic in those days. I used to send my equipment out to be repaired by a half-Japanese, half-American fellow named George Washington Silt, who worked out of his garage in Boca Raton. George reminded me a little of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, except for the half-Japanese part. He stood about five-feet-eight, had thick mop of straight black hair, always seemed to have a shit-eating grin on his face, and wore his clothes slovenly, often with his shirt unbuttoned and his pale toad’s belly punching out. George was the first in a line of several insane mechanics I’d worked with. I’m not exaggerating when I say insane. I remember one night I called him to find out the status of a couple concrete cut-off saws he was supposed to be repairing for me. He spoke to me in tongue. I didn’t know what he was saying. Something about burning circles and the river’s voice and combustible leather sofas and an apple fairy. He hadn’t taken his medication and had been smoking crack all night with Lil’ Bit, a petite twenty-three year-old Jamaican who worked as stripper at the now defunct Porthole, a strip club in a strip mall in Pompano Beach. They ended up getting in a huge fight, and Lil’ Bit called the cops. When they showed up, he was chasing her around the house, but she managed to escape through an unlocked door with another roommate, and George barricaded himself inside. The standoff lasted almost fourteen hours, ending when he burst through a door like a Himalayan brown bear and began throwing Chinese stars at members of the Special Response Team. A beanbag bullet was then fired into his chest and a concussion grenade was thrown into the house. The officers, “armed high-powered weapons and wearing riot gear,”, according to an article in the Sun Sentinel, then stormed the house and arrested Mr. Silt, taking him to an area hospital and then the Palm Beach County Jail. I don’t know how much time he had to spend in jail, but he did at least nine months that year in a madhouse, and I never got my two concrete cut-off saws back. One was a customer’s and he still brings it up whenever he comes into the shop, even though I compensated him for it. He likes to pretend the saw had sentimental value, which makes him feel I’m indebted to him forever.

When I began this blog, I hadn’t planned on talking about George Washington Silt or the tool rental business. Something happened yesterday that got me thinking about my days selling and delivering patio furniture. The dead body of a man was found. It was found behind the patio store I used to work at, along the canal. An old man who lived at the apartment complex nearby came upon it, and I’m trying to imagine the shock he must’ve felt. Earlier in the week he said he saw that same dead man, presumably alive, sleeping somewhere. But it was a very cold night, so the old man went into his apartment and got a blanket and draped it over the sleeping man. Two or three days later, seeing him again, the old man approached the reposing body and beheld the gruesome spectacle. The man’s face was now gone. It had been picked away by turkey vultures or some other wild creature. My mother told me this story last night. She got it second-hand from a friend of hers at the patio store.

“To think that that man was once a little baby,” she said. “Lying in the arms of his mother who could’ve been kissing him and giving him all the love in the world… if she only knew he’d end up like that!”

Which brings me back to George Washington Silt. His mother owned, and maybe still owns The Manatee Inn, a hotel in Boynton Beach that a few of the 911 hijackers stayed at the summer before the attacks. I got this from a recent article in the Palm Beach Post.

Waleed Shehri checked into The Manatee Inn in June and paid his $260 a week rent and deposits with a Visa card, records show. Shehri had at least two associates who slept in Room B-308. The men gave the impression they spoke little or no English, housekeeper Valrie Williams of Lake Worth said in September 2001. She said one always would stay at the room, sitting in a chair partly in the walkway and partly in the threshold of the open front door.

“I would talk to them,” Williams said. “They made like they didn’t want to talk.”

My tool rental business was only a few miles from The Manatee Inn. My mechanic at the time, a drunkard named Kevin Wagner, lived just south of the Homing Inn, in a little efficiency behind Denny’s, where two other hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, were late-night regulars that summer.

Waitresses recalled serving two Middle Eastern men who complained about their bills and left meager tips. One was Atta.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I guess because it gives me a strange kind of pride thinking about how the people responsible for the biggest, most world-shaking event of the 21st century – awful though it was – could’ve been anywhere on the planet, but were in my little no-event town, going to my haunts, dealing with people loosely associated with me and my tool rental shop, just weeks before it happened. What if I’d seen one or two of them out at a bar one night? What if I held the door for one of them at a 7-11? What if my mechanic, Kevin Wagner, had eaten at the next table over from them one late night at Denny’s? Maybe he did. Maybe he even heard their plans to crash into the World Trade Center but it was in an undertone and he was so drunk he forgot the next morning.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I’m sure it was the alcohol that did it. His organs probably just shut down. Kevin Wagner, who I write extensively about in the novel I have finished but have yet to do anything with, Ramblin’ Fever, died in 2010, at age 46. George Washington Silt died a few years before that. He was about 50. He was 41 when he got out of the madhouse, and you know what he did after that? He got a huge loan from his mother and opened a tool rental shop in Broward. It was successful from the outset, partly because he could buy whatever he wanted with his mother’s Manatee Inn money, and partly because he had a great location. Also, he was good to his customers so they kept coming back. But then, after about five or six years, I started hearing stories from wholesalers and mutual customers about how gaunt and pale and terrible George looked, and I thought it was because he was off his medication and on crack again. I’d call down there. He usually wasn’t around. He’d put some young Latino girl in charge of the place, and she was always vague about his whereabouts. Then one day in about 2008 I heard he was dead of AIDS. At first I didn’t believe it, but it turned out to be true. Did he get it from Lil’ Bit? Did he get it from someone before her? In the article I found on him in the Sun Sentinel, it says he was arrested 17 times between 1989 and 1997. Those arrests included solicitation for prostitution, drug charges and transporting of explosives. Could it possibly be true? Not the arrests, this: George Washington Silt, like the man without a face – a baby once – an infant, his mother holding him in her loving arms, kissing and coddling him, full of dreams for his future, completely oblivious to the tragedy she was nursing. I guess it always works out like that. One way or another we’re all tragedies.

Old Cantankerous

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It was a little before 7 when I got to the beach this morning, and the sky was just beginning to light up. On the horizon, there were clumps of purple clouds piled up, and behind them, the burnt glow of the rising sun.

I wasn’t the only one out there.

I could see the silhouettes of about fifteen or twenty people along the shoreline, most with cameras, some with cameras on tripods. I threw my chair in the sand next to the pier and sat down. I was in a black mood. I didn’t know why, but I suspected the people had something to do with it. I had expected to come there and be alone, at one with my thoughts, the ocean, the sun. Instead, my view was fouled by a mob of people who had come – not necessarily to see or experience the sunrise – but to provide evidence of it on some social media site later that day, accompanied (most likely) by some recycled life-coaching advice about how you should embrace beauty, or be a mindful, good person. It’s funny how the wisest sages I’ve ever encountered have been twentysomething bimbos on Instagram.

I sat there stewing.

I’m deleting all my social media accounts, I thought. I cursed myself for having wasted so much time on them over the years.

For nothing.

I’m deleting everything, I told myself. I can’t contribute to that plastic world anymore. It gets more plastic every time I look at it.

I dug my feet in the cool sand, listening to the wood pigeon cooing from the pier and watching the sky slowly change color. It was now a lighter, transparent blue, beams of sunlight bursting through the clouds, throwing crimson light on the waves, glittering in the foamy tidepools. A seagull sailed over the surf, its reflection mirrored in the sands. I could smell the salt and the strong odor of fish in the air and felt a cool breeze lifting the hairs on my arms. But my mood was still black. I couldn’t contemplate with so many people around. There’s nothing worse than being in public – whether it be the beach, the supermarket, the driver’s license bureau, the public transport system – and having to share a small space with a lot of people you want nothing to do with. I often liked individuals. It was large, protean, faceless masses of humanity I couldn’t stand. Listening to their babble, their dumb opinions, looking at the senseless backs of their necks, their hairlines, waistlines, thier unoriginal existences. Like I say, I was in a foul, cantankerous mood.

He came from the north.

A man of about fifty. He came loping along with his tripod, planted it in the sand about 10 feet in front of me, and stood there blocking my view of the sunrise. I waited for a moment for him turn around and notice me, but he never did. He was completely oblivious to everything behind him. Could he really be that self-absorbed? I thought about saying something. Then I had this fantasy about marching over there, wrestling his tripod from him and hurling it in the ocean. I got out of my chair, walked around him without saying anything. I stood on the shoreline directly where his camera was pointed. I squatted down and began talking my own photos.

When I turned around he was gone; my mood elevated after that.

I took my chair to the other side of the pier where it was less crowded; took a sea bath, floated on my back looking up at the sky, went underwater and stayed under for as long as I could hold my breath.

I liked it best underwater.

There were no people under there.

Ship of Fools

The strangest crew of misfits I ever had working for me at one time consisted of a six-foot-nine sixty-year-old redheaded Vietnam vet named Robert who rode a three-wheel bike with an American Flag sticking up out the back of it, smoked pungent, off-brand cigarettes and drank 10-15 tall cans of Natural Ice a day; Mason, a twenty-year-old blond boy who was handsome enough to be on the cover of any men’s fashion magazine, but was dim as night and lived in his car; and a husband and wife couple who tattooed each other’s names in cursive on their wrists. The husband was my chief mechanic. He also drank much beer during the day. Budweiser. He drank it warm, out of the can. He drank it while he worked on my equipment. I let him, I didn’t care. I was on the verge of going out of business anyway. I was so close that I struck a deal with my dad, who owned a patio furniture store nearby, to take care of the furniture his customers brought to him for restrapping. He paid me piece rate for the work – $10 per chaise lounge, $5 per chair – and this was how I paid the hourly salaries of Mason, Robert and the mechanic’s wife. They did the restrapping. They did it in the alley behind the shop. This was in 2001 when the shop still was in its original location, in a strip mall called The Villager. Other businesses in the strip mall included a barber shop, a headshop, an insurance agency, a vet, a shoe shop, a sandwich shop, a beauty parlor and two dive bars. Robert and my chief mechanic had met at one of the two dive bars, The Villager Pub, which was two doors down from the shop. There was an old drunk named Fred who lived in the bar. He slept on a sofa in the back of the place. The owners let him. They liked him. I liked him too. Fred was an electrician in a past life, married with one or two daughters, successful, well-respected by his peers – I always got the sense that he was highly intelligent – but there was some tragic break. No one knew exactly what happened. All we knew was that he’d been broken, and had since lost half his teeth, grown a long, Dostoyevskian beard to obscure the fact, and slept on the sofa of that old, smoky bar every night.

Well, one day, as my misfit crew was restrapping patio furniture in the alley behind my shop, Fred came out the back door of the bar and noticed them working. He lit a cigarette in his trembling hand and watched. There was Robert, six-foot-nine, standing in the July sun with his shirt off, a pungent cigarette dangling from his bottom lip as he talked about the stages he built at Woodstock and the little Southern Illinois town he grew up in; there was Mason, the young unusually dumb unusually handsome blond pulling strap over a chaise; there was the mechanic’s overfed wife destrapping a chair; there was the mechanic, drunk and babbling as he yanked the recoil of a chainsaw.

Fred saw all this as he was smoking his first cigarette of the morning and looked at me, the deranged P.T. Barnum who had hired them all. He smirked, shook his head, and kept smirking. Then he stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.

He could now officially say he’d seen everything.

My Customers

There has been much debate about why so many bizarre stories come out of Florida. Some say it’s because the state is full of transient people, and the lack of roots has something to do with it; some say it’s the heat, insufferable humidity and eternal sunshine; others say it’s the combination of a huge, diverse population and easy access to public records. I say it’s all the above, and a million other less obvious reasons. I have been living here on and off since 1985, when my family packed up a station wagon and moved down from Aurora, Illinois. But it wasn’t until 10 years later, when I opened a tool rental business in Boynton Beach, that I got a firm, ground-level view of the insanity here. My shop, when I first opened, was in an 800 square foot space at the end of an ancient strip mall that had two dive bars in it, a shoe shop, a barber shop, a headshop, a hairdresser, a vet, and several other stores. My customers were mostly blue-collar workers – painters, pressure washers, grout cleaners, handymen – though I’d also get a fair share of weekend warriors, and vagabonds blown in off the street. They’d come into the shop in all their motley appearances, this one with a belly like a powder-keg, that one with a supercilious expression, another with a Hollywood smile, a fourth with no ass and hairs growing out of his ears, a fifth with piercing, steel-blue eyes – they would come in, sometimes only once or twice, but the impression they would leave on me would be forever. I’m what they call a super recognizer. I’m one of those people who never forgets a face. I see them, and they go into my soul. I can’t get them out of there. They go into the sediment. It’s more of a curse than it is a talent. I wish I could remember text like I can the stupid human face, but there are some benefits to it. For one, it makes drawing faces easy; secondly, I never forget my customers, even if they were only in the shop for a few minutes, years ago. When they come in for the second time, I usually pretend I don’t remember them. It would be too strange otherwise. But sometimes I’ll intentionally freak someone out, just to see their reaction. I once had a customer who came into the shop five years after the first time, when he rented a knee-kicker for doing carpeting. His name was Gregory Saks; he was completely, almost profoundly nondescript in appearance, and when he walked in I greeted him by his name, and remembered what he rented, which practically knocked him over. “That’s the strangest thing that’s happened to me all week,” he said. “Maybe all year.” But he was flattered too.

So like I say, people, even the most random, seemingly inconsequential ones, enter my soul and stay there forever. I now have 24 years of customers inside me; their faces, their words, their stories, somehow becoming a part of me. And sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night, or half-dreaming through my day, I will be revisited by them as if by ghosts.

Some of my customers have been long dead, some have moved away or simply disappeared, and others still, years later, come into the shop, old now, hands crabbed, faces disfigured by a lifetime hard work under the Florida sun, sealing driveways, painting roofs, digging trenches, cutting grass, laying tile, butting carpet against walls, plumbing, pulling wire through sweltering crawlspaces in midsummer.

Such is the life of the American blue-collar worker.

A life of thankless drudgework and little time off, of no benefits, no health insurance, no escape and no reason to complain because no one wants to hear it.

Which is why I’m never really surprised when a story comes back to me about how this customer was shot dead after stripping naked, beating up a family of three in a lawn, and attacking a police officer with a samurai sword; or that one hanging himself from a magnolia tree outside his girlfriend’s house so he would be discovered in the morning; or another pulling a plastic bag over his head and suffocating – all true stories. Or any of the other early deaths – cirrhosis of the liver, lung cancer, throat cancer, heart disease, freak, on-the-job accident, overdose; so many of my customers succumbing in their forties or fifties, leaving nothing behind but the debt that dogged them all their days and a fading little sediment of memory for a handful to share.

 

Libro del picaro

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There was no repoman action at work this week. Mostly I just sat in the office answering phones and studying Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings on Wikipedia. I also did a couple of drawings (above and below), got in a brief political debate with my MAGA cultist mechanic (which went nowhere, as I’d predicted), and long conversations with two salesmen and a former part-time mechanic of mine, Robert Milktrout, a hypochondriac who presently does home renovations. I’ll do a blog later about Milktrout. For now, I wanted to talk about the two salesmen. The first is a rep for a scissor and boom lift company. His name is Mike. He’s lives in Daytona Beach, 55 years old, bald with a mustache, a wife, two twentysomething daughters, six grandkids (he showed me all the pictures).

Mike is a traveling salesman. His territory is the Southeastern US, and he’s on the road all week. The company pays for everything – meals, lodging – he doesn’t have to open his wallet during the week, he said, and he’s been working there for two years. He’s been working in equipment sales or rentals all his life.

There is something about the salesman that has always fascinated me.

A good salesman is like a good protagonist in an old picaresque novel – intelligent but usually lacking a college degree, or some lucky break; he must survive by his wits.

Charm, a warm smile, a gift of gab, a rapier sense of humor, an arsenal of clichés at your disposal (the more obscure the cliché the better the salesman), the ability to fake it and make someone think you admire them when every fiber in your being despises them – while these qualities aren’t essential, they always help. Age helps too. Nothing arouses more suspicion than an eager, wet-behind-the-ears, peddler of goods.

The Berlin novel I’m writing now, temporarily called The Initiate, fits all the requirements of a picaresque novel, but for a very long time I’ve had in mind to write one with a traveling salesman as the protagonist. I have a lot of material to cull from. I used to sell patio furniture for my father; I’m still something of a salesman in my current job, and there have been thousands of salesmen who have come into my shop over the years, selling everything from machinery to advertising to involvement in pyramid schemes to children’s toys and tin cans for putting your negative thoughts into. Most salesmen I would try to shoo from the shop as quickly as possible. But sometimes there was one who because of his dress, talk, attitude, humor, roguish qualities, etcetera, would pique my curiosity. I would wonder about his private life, his history, his interactions, what he was like when he wasn’t wearing the mask of the salesman.

Mike told he stays in various hotel rooms all week, alone. He only sees his wife on weekends, and he’s always – he told me – lived beyond his means. The reason: he likes toys, he likes “nice things.” Boats, motorcycles, fancy cars, big screen TVs, alligator skin shoes, steak and lobster, gifts for his children and grandchildren. He’s never been able to save any money in his life, as soon as he gets it he blows it. But he owes something to his wife for leaving her at home alone all week, and since he never goes on vacations, he was planning on taking a trip with her to Jamaica because that’s where she wants to go.

As I was talking to Mike, I got a visual of him sitting in some silent, dim-lit hotel room in some random southern town, fighting off his boredom and loneliness with a glass of bourbon or some mindless distraction. And then later, lying in the stiff bed that thousands of sad and misshapen couples had copulated on, their ghosts floating softly around him; lying there in the gathering darkness, starched sheets and a flower-print comforter pulled taut up to his armpits; he gazes at the ceiling thinking about the days of his life from the very beginning, or his woman, or his grandchildren, or new leaves to turn over, his toes twinkling with the thoughts.

The next salesman to come in the shop was one I have known for 15-20 years but hadn’t seen in about 10. He said he made a special trip down from Jacksonville because he had heard I was in town and we had a good catch-up.

He remembers my shop in the old days and the old mechanics; the late Frances Wagner, who used to drink warm Budweiser out of cans on the job and have a toxic alcoholic meltdown every few weeks; the late Walter Eustace Peabody, a 59-year-old bigot from North Carolina who with his greasy pompadour and inbred mind seemed stuck in the year 1962; the late Captain Kirk, a hoarder who lived in a dilapidated Winnebago on the property and would get high on crack and go dumpster-diving in the wee hours of the morning, in the seediest parts of the neighborhood. I was the only one running the shop in those days; I would go home at night and read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Meister Eckart and dream of moving to Germany, though I’d never even been there. My inner-compass was magnitzed in that direction for some reason, and the aforesaid writers gave something my soul was desperate for, and couldn’t get from the crazies at work, or my customers, most of whom were also crazy. I was half-insane too; half-drunk half the time and wholly drunk the rest. I had some customers who’d pay me in pills, some who’d give me beer or lines of coke. And then the salesmen would come, and I would tell them my stories; stories that weren’t necessarily meant to be funny but would have them in stitches because they were outrageous and true.

Even though it didn’t seem like it, and I found my fate abhorrent, I think I half-knew: I was living in a novel in those days. One that someone, somewhere – maybe even me – had written a very very long time ago.

All I had to do was find my place in it. Which would take some distance.

I want a HOT one

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He’s a 58-year-old house painter and a Christian and is always talking about how blessed he is; in other words, bragging. A year and a half ago I wrote a blog about him here. In the blog, I talk about how he prays before each job. He makes his employees do it too. They get down on their knees before starting each morning and he says a little prayer aloud that they’ll get paid for the work they do. I talked to a guy that worked for him once. He said when he was on his knees he was thinking, “Wait a second, we’re praying for money. You’re not supposed to do that. Also, if he, the boss, doesn’t get paid, does that mean I’m not going to get paid? What have I gotten myself into?”

The 58-year-old house painter who I previously demoted from Ron Ward (his real name) to Customer #47638 because he thinks he’s special (rather than just some random number born to consume resources and die) came into the shop the other day. I was shocked when I saw him. He’d lost about 25 lbs. from the last time I’d seen him, and with the loss of the weight, his skin sagged and wrinkled, adding about 10 years to his appearance.

“Wow,” I said. “You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you. What’s the secret? Jogging? Fasting? Crack?”

He understood I was joking about crack. Then he started talking about how he’d just cut one thing from his diet, which wasn’t much.

“I’m really blessed,” he went on. “The weight just falls right off me when I want to lose it.”

The reason he wanted to lose it, he said, was because he’d been single long enough, it was time for him to get a girlfriend.

“I want a HOT girlfriend,” he said. “I’m not willing to settle. I want someone who’s HOT. And if she’s as old as me, that’s too old. I want a young one.”

Because of all the weight he lost, the trousers Customer #47638 was wearing were grotesquely too big, and he had no belt on to hold them up. How they kept from sliding down to his ankles defied the laws of physics, especially now that they were heavy with dampness from pressure cleaning – the reason he’d come into the shop was to return a pressure cleaner he’d rented. I pictured him out on the job fighting with his trousers the whole time.

“I want a HOT one and a YOUNG one,” he went on, and got his phone out of his pocket. He scrolled through some photos. “You see this?” It was a photo of him on surfboard, riding a wave. The photo looked like it was from 1989. “This is how I used to look. I’m trying to get down to that weight.” He scrolled through some more photos and showed me a slightly out-of-focus one of a dark-haired woman. You could only see her from the neck up, and a portion of her head was cut off at the edge of the photo. “A Bolivian girl. She’s 41. She’s 17 years younger than me. I met her at my CHURCH. Isn’t she pretty? I’ve been seeing her for two months.”

He had been saying he WANTED a hot, young girlfriend, and now he suddenly had one, for 2 months? I didn’t understand. Was he lying?

He pulled up his damp, grotesquely too big trousers (that he was too cheap to buy a belt for), uttered a few other platitudes and, upon leaving, wished us all a blessed day.

It was only blessed because he’d given us something to talk about.

“I want a HOT girlfriend.” “She’s gotta be young, and churchgoing.” “I refuse to settle.” “Here I am surfing in 1989.”

According to B., who was in the office at the time, customer #47638 had a face that was a cross between a basset hound and an old shoe. And yet he was convinced he was the second-coming of Rudolph Valentino. With that kind of confidence maybe he was blessed.

Repoman Powers

We found out the other day that a customer of ours, whose been jerking us around with payment on a Bobcat (front-end loader) he rented, and was trying to purchase, has a track record of ripping people off in Woodstock, Georgia, Orlando, Clearwater, Tampa, South Florida and the Keys. We found a page devoted to him on a Facebook site called The Intl. Scam Alert, something else on Ripoff Report, and news channel 8 in Tampa did a feature on him after he got huge deposits from two homeowners in the area and never finished the work.

Here’s what one person said about him: unprincipled narcissist, deficient conscience; unscrupulous, amoral, disloyal, fraudulent, deceptive, arrogant, exploitative; a con artist and charlatan; dominating, contemptuous, vindictive.

And others:

“Lying dirtbag.”
“Poses as a professional athlete/entrepreneur in order to gain people’s confidence.”
“He has been posting again on Instagram about his amazing rock star life… His jet, exotic cars, etc. Of course, all lies, and very funny because of the absurdity of it all since he can’t even pay his bills.”
“His own mother says it’s in his nature to steal and scam.”
“STAY AWAY FROM THIS MAN!!! HE IS A SOCIOPATH AND DANGEROUS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”

So I offered to go to Hollywood and repo the machine. My brother was quite ready to go that far yet. He was still willing to work with the guy, but I convinced him otherwise. I needed something to do. A man can only sit around a shop drawing and answering phones for so long. I’d been doing it for 2 days.

“What if he doesn’t let you take it?” my brother asked.
“I’ll get it,” I said. “You don’t think I will?”
He laughed.

I got in the truck and headed down there. It was a 45-minute drive, and on the way, I was trying to imagine how everything would play out. The only way he was going to stop me was if he had a gun or a knife, that I knew. I was willing to fight to the death otherwise, not so much because I was angry at him – I’d never even met him before – and not because I desperate for the bobcat or the money. Like I said, I needed something to do. But it wasn’t just that. It was also about proving something to my brother and the other employees – the lengths I would go to fight injustice, etc., and proving something about courage to myself. And it was a question of fate. If I had the talent I could’ve been a musician, a boxer, a parkourist, a clown-juggler, an assassin, a baseball player, a stage-actor, a stand-up comedian, or some other job where all my emotion could be poured into and have a release. My emotion had no release in my current life; it only had it in my art, but that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t violent or final enough. It was all bottled up inside me, and now, after months trying to escape from me and failing, it had finally found a release-point.

The scumbag’s name was Larry S., but because he had screwed so many people over and it was all over the internet, he went by his middle name, Henry.

I met my driver around the corner from the jobsite and we headed over there together. We parked just up the street from it. My driver had been there many times before. The property was huge. It was a mansion on a canal, and Henry had had the Bobcat there for months, but every time my driver had gone there, it looked the same. The dirt pile was just in another place in the backyard. Henry was no doubt working his con on the owner of the place.

I walked with my driver up to the backyard and saw the Bobcat in the back corner, along the canal. In the front corner of the backyard there were four Haitians standing around with a shovel, but we didn’t seen Henry. We walked along the wall bordering the property. In the very back, near the Bobcat, there was an opening in the wall with a provisional plywood wall stacked against it. My driver and I moved the plywood wall to the side and I walked casually up to the bobcat and got in. I started it, flicked the hydraulics on. I drove through the opening in the wall and along the property, up the street. My driver and I then loaded it onto his rollback truck. We chained it down, looked back at the property and the opening in wall.

Nothing.
No one even noticed that we’d taken it, or if they had, they didn’t say anything.
It was strangely disappointing.
I had been hoping for some kind of conflict. Even a brief argument would’ve worked as I had some choice words prepared for our friend. h
My driver and I got into our respective trucks and drove off into the Florida sunshine.

About fifteen minutes later, Henry called the shop. He was livid, making all kinds of threats. He’s going to get the Bobcat back somehow, he’s going take us to court, he’s going to tell everyone what horrible monsters we were, etc., etc.

He then texted one of our drivers, not the one who I retrieved the Bobcat with, another one. He apparently had his number from a previous delivery.

“Thief!” he said. “You stole my Bobcat. I’m going to call the cops! Bring it the fuck back here you fucker. Thief!”

My driver’s response: “Why did you go back to Georgia?”

I think what he meant was “Why don’t you go back to Georgia?” But did was good enough. It meant we knew Henry’s true identity. We knew he was Larry S., the Intl. Scam Alert guy. Ever since he’d been renting from us he’d kept the fact hidden, but we’d found it out, and he never did answer my driver’s question.