Daytripping through Brandenburg

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Yesterday, our friends Gregor Gregorov & the lovely L drove Erica and me to a little town called Lübbenau, which is about an hour southeast of Berlin, in the Oberspreewald-Lausitz district of Brandenburg. I’d never heard of the place before but was immediately struck by the charm of the old buildings and churches, the castle, the apple trees, the biergartens and most of all by the miles and miles of gorgeous canals in the area. The first thing we did when we got there was go on an hour and a half Kahnfahrt (boat tour) with a portly old Lübbenauer rowing and babbling away on the back. I say babbling away because he spoke so haphazardly and at such a rapid and blithering clip, with such a heavy Sachsen accent, I had to really concentrate to even get even a slight gist of what he was saying. Luckily, I had a beer and a plate of Spreewald pickles (the local specialty), to keep me from feeling too demoralized.

After the Kahnfahrt, we went to the market in the center of that town of 18,000 and sampled the pickles and mustard in the little stands. Then we got beers and some delicious fish sandwiches and sat at a table overlooking the passers-by. German tourists, mostly. White, comfortable, content-looking, safe, but representative of a declining population. Germans just weren’t reproducing like they did in the old days. It was a money thing. It just wasn’t practical anymore to have babies, hence the need for refugees. But the refugees all seemed to get sent to cities like Berlin. Anyway, there was nothing for them in Brandenburg. Brandenburg was drying up. The center wouldn’t hold. Lübbenau had lost almost 1/3 of its residents since 1971, despite its beautiful canals, architecture, beer, pickles, so forth. There was no work there. The center wouldn’t hold.

We visited two other towns in that area yesterday. The first was called Fürstlich Drehna, and we went there seeking game. It was Gregor’s idea. My birthday was August 11th, the day before, and he had offered to buy me game at this restaurant with a carved wooden deer’s bust hung on the outside wall. Unfortunately, it had closed at 5 p.m., about an hour before we arrived. We got out of the car anyway and walked up to the castle that was nearby. The castle was 500 years old, and there was a moat around it, and a field of dry grass and a forest in the distance and sunflowers dying in the heat. On the other side, there was a little brewery that been there since 1853. We walked around the castle and past the brewery, but there wasn’t much to say about either. We were hungry and needed beer. We headed to the next town.

The town was called Luckau and it was full of pretty houses and towers and cathedrals and cobblestone streets, but the main square was empty, and the restaurant we wanted to go to was closed. Everything looked closed in that jerkwater town but a place on the corner that probably wanted to be a pizzeria but had spelled it incorrectly on the sign. They’d spelled it PIZZARIA. That was the first red flag. Never trust a place that doesn’t know how to spell the thing it claims to be. We got out of the car and stood in front looking over the menu. The menu was the second red flag. It didn’t just offer Italian food, the PIZZARIA also specialized in Greek food, German food, and Indian food of all things. The term Jack of all trades, master of none floated through my mind. But people were hungry, and the next town was miles away. We got a table out front under an umbrella and sat there gazing at sun coming down on the desolate marketplace. We ordered beers. They came. They came warm. Nothing good ever came out of warm beer on a hot summer day, and these were as warm as a Sulphur miner’s ass. But we forced them back anyway and ordered. We ordered schnitzels. We figured it would be trickier for a German to shit the bed making schnitzel than Greek, Italian or Indian food. And we may have been right, but the schnitzels were bad. They were furchtbar, as the Germans say. They were as furchtbar as a Sulphur miner’s ass on a hot summer day. But we forged through it nonetheless, and I didn’t complain. I didn’t have the right. It was my birthday dinner and Gregor was paying for it. He thought the food was furchtbar too. The moral: never go to a place that doesn’t know how to spell what it is & represents four different countries. Nothing good ever comes of it. Still, I am thankful to my friends for a lovely day. I haven’t had a car since I moved to Berlin and hardly ever get out of the city.

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On Empathy & the So-Called Gray City

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They call Berlin the Gray City, but ever since April it’s been sunny here pretty much every day, and the heat for the past couple of weeks had been almost unbearable. Luckily, my un-air-conditioned flat is on the ground floor and faces a canyon of buildings and a shady garden, so it stays relatively cool when the windows are open, even on the hottest days. Two days ago, however, the temperature reached 37° (98.6 Fahrenheit), and there was no breeze whatsoever, so the open windows didn’t do anything. We shut them at nightfall to keep out the garden wasps and mosquitos, and when it was time to go to sleep I took out my son’s new aluminum baseball bat and rolled it over my chest and cradled it like it was a woman, trying to absorb the coolness of it. It helped for about a minute. It also made Erica a little jealous. No one wants to be replaced by a 25 oz. baseball bat.

Anyway, all this heat and sunshine is not what I signed up for when I moved to Berlin. Give me soft gray clouds. Give me icy winds blowing through the bell tower of an ancient cathedral. Give me snow, gloom, grim German faces and days that go dark at 4 p.m. and stay dark until 8 a.m. Give me the opposite of Florida, that’s what I signed up for.

I have had so much going on the past two months, that I’ve hardly had time to write. This past week what kept me away was being with my five-year-old son A. I was with him for 4 days straight, most of which was spent out of the heat and in my flat. It’s a tiny flat (54 square meters/581 square feet), so we’re on top of each other most of the time, literally. His favorite pastime & default is to jump and climb and dance on me, pouncing me into the bed. He’d punish me like that for hours if he could, but I give myself a break by giving him some TV, which, btw, he calls TB. „I want TB!!“ I only let him watch 2 hours per day. Yes, I am a taskmaster. The rest of the time we are drawing or watercolor painting together, doing numbers and letters, I’m reading fairy tales to him, or we go to the playground and I try to get him interested in baseball and soccer and basketball, though most of the time he’d rather dig for worms. Organized sports don’t interest him yet. I say yet because I know they will one day. He’s athletic and has too competitive a nature for it to be otherwise.

Another trait of his I have noticed (and his mother has too) is an unusual amount of empathy. We first started seeing signs of it when he was 2, which in a way is great – you couldn’t ask for a more loving, caring, affectionate little boy – but in another way, for him, maybe it won’t be so great. Empathy is often a curse for the cupbearer of it, especially if it’s coupled with the temperament of an artist. Which is where people like Kleist and Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath come in. They felt the world too deeply and too earnestly to be able to survive it.

But I have confidence A. will figure out how to appropriate & disseminate what needs it.

Sometimes the best thing to do – the thing most suicides forget – is to keep reminding yourself that none of this is really happening.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.” ~ Shakespeare

So don’t worry about what other people are doing, what they’re achieving, or even if they are suffering; walk with a light heart, an easy laugh, and whatever you do, don’t be serious.

 

 

 

A Welsh Wedding (or Atonement with the Father)…

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It was 36° (96.8° Fahrenheit), the hottest day of the year in the UK, and I was there for a Wedding in Wales, but stayed the first night at Erica’s parents’ house in a town called Staines-upon-Thames. The town is just outside London, and the house, like most on that continent, had no air conditioning, which I knew would be a problem for me when it came to sleeping. I’m one of those people who needs perfect conditions re: light, temperature & sound to be able to fall asleep, so I prepared by drinking gin and tonic, taking a Xanax and setting up a fan in Erica’s bedroom. We couldn’t open the windows because there was a semi-busy street out front and the sounds of Heathrow overhead.

12 a.m.

We shed our clothes, turn the lights off and get in her small, double bed. I am a little too tall for the bed, that’s the first problem. My feet are jammed into the rails at the foot, so I angle myself as best I can, trying not to touch or be touched by Erica. Her body feels like plutonian fire against mine, but that doesn’t seem to bother her, nor does the clammy air. She falls asleep right away (as usual), and I (as usual) am wide awake, eyes agape, mapping light and shadow on the ceiling. It’s as if the Xanax had the reverse effect. My mind is buzzing like a malfunctioning toaster oven, there’s a strange and powerful energy in the center of me, and the sheets under me are pooling with sweat. I grab the water glass off the nightstand, tilt the cold water onto my chest and belly and spread it around with my hands. It cools me down for a few minutes, but then it evaporates and I’m sweating my balls off again, worried about being up all night and the whole next day being trashed.

2 a.m.

I am still awake. It’s like lying on the inside of a sardine can, and the fan hasn’t done any good. It just blows around hot air. If I can just get 4 hours of sleep, I tell myself, I’ll be okay for the trip to Wales and all the wedding stuff tomorrow. 4 hours. 6 a.m. Wake up time’s about 8. I have time. I consider my last, desperate resort – jerking off. It works when nothing else does, usually. It has sleep-inducing qualities. But I’d have to do it very quietly and with as little movement as possible, even at the point of orgasm. I don’t want to shake the bed too much and wake up Erica. I think about what to think about for a while gathering  old material, then I reconsider. It’s no good. All masturbating will do is raise my body temperature, I tell myself. So I anoint myself with more water and sometime after that I slip into dreaming about Cadillac Eldorados and Michelangelo.

Wales

It took about 3.5 hours to get there from Staines. We drove with Erica’s parents, and stayed at a B & B in a little village called Porthyrhyd. Don’t ask me how that’s pronounced. Wales is a marvel for towns and villages you can’t pronounce. Cwmisfael, Penrhiwgoch & Mynydd Cerrig were a few of the ones nearby, and Erica’s cousin’s reception was to be held in a place called Llanddarog. The hotel we stayed at was a stone structure with a restaurant and bar on the ground floor and rooms on the floor above. It was built in 1785, and the walls were very thin, almost non-existent. From the bathroom, you could hear your neighbor on the toilet, and vice versa. But at least it was cool. It was cloudy when we arrived, and the temp had plunged to 20° (68° Fahrenheit). We unpacked, relaxed on the bed for a while, and about a half hour before dinner, went out to see what the village was all about. There wasn’t much to it. There was a road going up a hill. There were stone houses and grassy knolls and farms of grazing cattle and sheep. There was a beautiful little stony creek, fields of high yellow grass divided by clumps of dark-green trees, an occasional blackbird, and the green rolling hills in the distance. It was exactly how I’d pictured Wales and I found it charming in a way, but in another way, as we walked up the hill, it made me want to die. The country does that to me sometimes. The vast open spaces, empty roads heading off to nowhere, the sound of the wind, dust clouds, the beautiful monotonous landscape gaping back at you and saying nothing. I wanted to go out into it and die right then, but instead we walked to the top and stood there for a while. What would you do if you lived here besides drink ale in the pub? I asked Erica as we were on our way back. She didn’t know either, so we went to a pub and drank ale.

Wedding Day

It hadn’t rained in 2 months in the UK but started pissing it down (as the Brits say) just when it was time to go to the church for the ceremony. When we arrived, it was hailing and raining, and we sat in the car watching it pelt the windshield, waiting for it to let up. Erica’s cousin was the groom, by the way. His name was James and the bride’s was Laura, and the reason they were getting married at that church in far-off Wales was because Laura’s father had been interred there in 1990, a few months before she was born. Not sure how he died, but it was probably the most emotional wedding I’ve ever been to. Laura was weeping from the moment she entered the church and could barely make it through her vows without choking up. I almost choked up too, truth be told. Strange considering I didn’t know Laura, I’d only met James a few times, and I’d always thought weddings were kind of ridiculous. Not strange considering it wasn’t just a wedding between James and Laura, but a spiritual wedding in deep Wales between a father and daughter who were never lucky enough to get to know each other. This was probably the closest thing to it, and the hail, and the rain – that too seemed like a gift – not so much to us wedding-goers, but to the parched grass in churchyard. Nourishment for the dead.

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a note on my notebooks

When I was in Florida, I was going through some of my old notebooks and found much in them that was disposable, but occasionally I’d come across something that held up (or could be fixed with a couple swift hammer blows and some duct tape). The page below is from a notebook of mine circa 2006 or 2007, about the time I started writing poetry.

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The notebook I have now, which I’m almost never without, is much the same as my old ones except half of it is in German – vocab, grammar, etc. It also contains the notes and the vague outlines (very vague – I’m not much of an outliner) of 2 novels I’m working on.

In addition to that, there’s a list of colors (apple-green, Prussian blue, red-gold, iridescent opal-gray), of strange occupations and town names and historical characters, of quotes, of poem and short story ideas, of pieces of poems, of dialogue overheard, diary entries, maxims, reflections, impressions in hen scratch, and a lot of other thoughts indecipherable to anyone but me, the palm reader & the sanitation engineer. Lastly, there are quick sketches like the ones below.

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“No one likes the fellow who is all rogue, but we’ll forgive him almost anything if there is warmth of human sympathy underneath his rogueries. The immortal types of comedy are just such men.” ~ W.C. Fields

A Tale of Lost & Found (Ein Portemonnaie Gefunden)…

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I can never sleep on planes, but on the flight from Miami to Dusseldorf yesterday, I managed to get about 2 hours. The flight had been delayed, so when I got to Dusseldorf, I had very little time to catch the connecting flight to Berlin. I had to run through the airport, and then when I got the door I had to go through to get to Gate A, it was locked. I had go around. By now it was 10:33 a.m., and my flight was apparently boarding. It was supposed to take off at 11:05 a.m., and I hadn’t even gone through the security check yet. There was a long line when I got there. I took off my belt, took my laptop out of my backpack and waited. It was now 10:50 a.m., and I was sure I’d have to get another flight. Finally, I made it through the security check and didn’t even bother putting my belt back on or sticking my laptop back in my backpack. I ran up a flight of stairs and along a corridor and around a few corners, stopping every few steps to yank up my trousers. They almost fell down once, but that was fashionable to some people. At 11:00 I made it to GATE A33, and to my relief, the flight hadn’t boarded yet. I stood there out of breath, putting my belt back on.

As it turned out, we didn’t take off for another hour and a half. The flight was delayed because a wheel needed to be replaced, the captain said. Oh well. It was a quick flight. We landed in Berlin at 1:30 p.m., and after that I took a bus to the train that would take me to my flat. While I was on the bus, I dropped my ticket on the floor, and as I was looking for it, I found a wallet. I didn’t trust giving it to the bus driver, so I shoved it in my knapsack and looked at it when I got home. Here’s what was in it:

€25 and a pocket full of change.
(1) student ID of a 15-year-old German male.
(1) monthly train ticket, bought that day.
(1) rubber.

I must confess, when I first saw the wallet, I had hoped there would be hundreds of euros in it for me to steal. But then I thought about all the times I had lost something and never got it back. Every time I lose something, there’s only one thing that’s guaranteed: IT WILL FALL INTO BAD HANDS. I don’t think I’ve ever lost something that’s FALLEN INTO GOOD HANDS. A few years ago, I lost my phone at a gas station. I called it up later and a young man answered.

“Who dis?” he asked.
“Ah, yeah… I believe you have my phone…”
“So…”
“Is there any way I can get it back?”
“I stay down here in Fort Lauderdale.”
“I can come get it from you,” I said.
“How much the reward is?”
“I don’t know, 25?”
“$50.”
“Fuck you,” I said, and hung up.

So because of people like him I decided that whatever the wallet contained, it would still contain it when the owner it got it back. My only charge? I’d stick a tiny pinhole through the rubber. Fatherhood at 15 for the wallet. Just kidding. I dropped it off at the police station today after sleeping 15 or 16 amazing hours last night. Good hands, good sleep.

Last Day in Florida (On Patriotism…)

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Well, today is my last day in Florida. I fly out of here at 6:30 tonight, and after a layover in Dusseldorf, arrive in Berlin at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to get some sleep on the plane, but it’s not usually the case. Xanax will help.

I meant to write a few more entries for the blog when I was here, but got sidetracked by my novel, and had too much other shit going on. Plus, I’ve had to fit in time to go snorkeling at this great reef in Lauderdale by the Sea that I never knew existed. It’s a magical spot, especially if you get there early before the hordes turn up. Only problem is sometimes the hordes turn up early, like last week on the 4th of July. When got there at 9 a.m., the place was already mobbed, mostly with people wearing patriotic hats and socks and t-shirts and bathing suits. It was a total disgrace. I mean, there’s a lot I love about America. I love the beaches of Florida, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Coast, cities like San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Key West – I only mention places I’ve been to, I’m sure there is much I am missing. This country can also boast of some of the best literature, music, art, movies and comedy that’s ever existed, and love that. I also love what’s been done here in various fields of science, and love a lot of the people, but I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any flag on my body, on the 4th or any other day. Like I say, it’s tacky. And most of the people who do it only do it because they’re too stupid and lazy to do their homework. It’s about immediate gratification. It’s about the complex reduced to bumper sticker size. It’s about I love my country more than you do, and I’m wearing the proof, so there! I win the argument. One thing that disgusts me about these people is the moment you say something critical of America, you get labeled anti-American. This is something that exists in no other non-fascist country in the world. A Dane, for example, can critique Denmark and its people all he wants, he’s not going to be labeled anti-Denmark.

So anyway, after parking my car and walking through the mobs of wannabe jingoists, I threw my chair in the sand, put on my mask and snorkel (I didn’t have fins) and swam out to the end of the pier. The water was calm and gin-clear. I could see the reef perfectly about 12 feet down. There were strange and colorful little tropical fish all around it, and I saw a stingray, and an eel of some kind. I was out there in that strange in utero world for about a half hour, and then I floated in with the waves. The waves were small and the current was pulling to the north. I didn’t realize how much it was pulling because my head was underwater, but when I finally looked up, I could hear people shouting. They were shouting at me. It was a group of fishermen on the pier. The current had carried me almost to them, and I was in danger of getting hooked or tangled up in their lines. I quickly swam away.

Later, when I was sitting on my beach chair listening to music on my iPod, I noticed a guy on a paddleboard going very close to the pier. He was saying something to someone up there. I thought it was his son. I thought it was a friendly discussion, but soon it became clear that the paddleboarder was taunting the people on the pier and I heard some shouting. I took turned the volume down on my headphones.

“You fuckin fisherman think you own the ocean,” the paddleboarder was saying. “I’m fuckin sick of it!”

Having just been yelled at by the fishermen, and never having had a fondness for the sport, I wanted to take his side in the argument, but then I heard the other side.

Dude, you’re talking to a 14-year-old!”

The paddleboarder was about 35.

“I don’t care if you’re 14, I’ll go up there and throw you off the pier.”

The kid then reeled in his line and went to the other side of it. The paddleboarder came ashore and was still venting. His friends, who were just a little ways down from me, were trying quiet him down.

“NO, I WON’T BE QUIET!” the bully shouted. “THE FISHERMEN DON’T RUN THESE WATERS! THEY’RE EVERYONE’S!”

I wanted to ask him why it was so important that he paddleboard right next to the pier when he had miles of ocean on either side of it, but I didn’t bother. He and his friends had a little radio with them and were listening to country music. Not the old hard-drinking-women-and-mama-and-trains stuff by the likes of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. No, this was the new, over-produced, corporate dung by hacks like Keith Urban who with their coiffed-hairdos and gleaming manicures look like they stepped fresh out of the beauty salon.

And then later, when he was getting ready to go, the paddleboarder adorned himself with proof that he was a patriot – an ill-shapen t-shirt with the American Flag and part of the Declaration of Independence screen-printed on it. Just what I expected.

The Illiterate Confidence Man

It was about fifteen years ago when John D’Agostino started coming into the shop. He was working at a tree trimming company at the time, and his bosses, two cousins from Haiti, would send him in to pick up a lift, or a chainsaw, or a stumpgrinder. I don’t remember everything they rented, I just remember John walking up to the counter with his straight, jet-black mop of hair and his irascible little rat’s eyes, and a green t-shirt tucked into blue jeans that were hiked halfway to his armpits. He always asked to borrow the phone. I told him he could use the one in the parts room, and he would go in there sometimes for twenty minutes or a half hour, claiming they were business calls.

Sometime after that, this seventy-something Jewish lady started chauffeuring him to the shop. It was his new girlfriend. He was in his forties, but she had money, enough for him to quit working for the Haitians and start his own business. He called it Johnnyboy’s Stumpgrinding and Tree Removal Service, and when I asked him about it years later, he said at the high point he had 104 men working for him, and 47 trucks on the road. I pretended to believe these outrageous numbers, but I had heard from one of the Haitians the most he ever had working for him were two illegals from Guatemala, and the only truck he ever had on the road was his pickup.

“The thing about John,” said the Haitian, “is he’s illiterate. He can’t read or write. But when it comes to laying on the con, he’s got a silver tongue.”

One day when John’s seventy-something girlfriend had chauffeured him to the shop, I looked out at her sitting in her Cadillac. She had dyed maroon hair and a wide mouth covered in cherry-red lipstick. She looked mean as a coral snake. Or maybe she was just pissed because she had to pay for the chainsaw John was renting. He was standing at the counter looking at my brother D. with eyes that had absolutely no lights on in them.

“You beat your wife?” he asked, just after he signed the contract.
“No,” said D, “I don’t.”
“How long you been married?” asked John.
“3 years,” said D.
John folded up the contract, put it in his pocket, grabbed the chainsaw and strode to the front door with those long tarantula legs. He turned around just before exiting. “Give it 4,” he said.

Not long after that I heard that John’s girlfriend’s son pulled a gun on one of the Haitian cousins. It had something to do with a loan of $10,000 she had given to John. The son was livid and blamed the Haitians for it. Something like that. I never really understood the story. I heard it third or fourth hand in broken English. But a few months after that the old lady served John his walking papers and I didn’t see him for a couple years.

Then, in 2009, I was delivering a forklift to a shopping mall in Lake Worth and as I was unloading it, John stepped out from the shade of the big white circus tent that was set up in the field. He looked terrible. He’d gained about thirty pounds in the maw, his hair was a mess, there was chickengrease all over his shirt and his trousers were twisted into corkscrews.

“Youse need a pumpkin?” he asked.
There were hundreds of them in all different sizes under the tent.
“No thanks, John.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “The rental guy.”
Then he started telling me all about the pumpkin business. “I figure with the right people, and the right amount of money injected in it, I should have no problem goin national in five-ten years. Thinkin about sellin Christmas trees too. Youse rent tents?”
“No.”
“What about portojohns?”
“No, just construction equipment.”
“Youse ever think about rentin tents or portojohns?”
“No.”
“It’s a cryin shame,” he said. “We coulda done a lot of business.”

About a year later, I was sitting at my desk in the shop when the front door flung open and a loud, grating voice shouted, “Got an SC252?” An SC252 is the model number of the stumpgrinder John liked to rent, and he’d hardly crossed the threshold of the door when he shouted across the vacant showroom for it.

I got out of my chair and greeted him the way I always did.
“Back in the tree business?” I asked.
“Just startin up again… gettin my feet wet… thirty years in the field, three years in arbor school… I kinda know trees. I can tell you every tree dere is in Florida – Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Florida holly, cabbage palms, queen palms, royal palms, etc etc. I can go into a whole spiel if you want. It’s like I tell my customers… if youse got the time, I got the answers…”

He said he only needed the stumpgrinder for a day, but ended up keeping it for a week and never paid the balance. He said he would when the customer paid him, but we never heard from him after that. The balance was $300.

Not long after that, I moved to Berlin, and have been coming back to Florida to work ever since. My last trip back I asked about John. My brother said he hadn’t heard a thing, so we looked him up online and found out his old business went under, but he’d just opened a new one in West Palm Beach called Eager Beaver Complete Tree Service and Landscape Design.

I called him up, disguised my voice as an old man named Feldbaum with a Brooklyn accent. “I need some tree work done at my property in Boca,” I said. “Do you people handle that?
We sure do, Sir. We do a wide variety of tree care, thinnin, take down, crownin, reducin, shapin, injections, reduction, fertilization, we do chipper work, stumpgrindin. We do a lot of stuff for new construction, lot clearance, land development. I been 30 years in the industry working for other companies, and had 3 years in school as an arborist. I kinda know what I’m doin. In fact, I know every tree in Florida. Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Florida holly, cabbage palms, queen palms, royal palms, etc etc. I can go into a whole speil. If youse got the time, ya know, I got the answers.

I told him I did have some questions but I was driving and would call him when I had a chance.

We hung up, and I forgot about the whole thing until that night at 7 when my phone started ringing off the hook. 13 calls came in, none of which I answered. Instead, I wrote him a text with the address of the place I wanted him to meet me at the next morning (I didn’t know he was illiterate at the time), and turned off my phone for the night.

The address was to an equipment rental shop in Boca, owned by a guy I’d known since I was 15. His name was Jan, and he was the one who gave me the idea to get into the rental business nearly 23 years ago.

“I’ve got a deadbeat coming by your shop,” I told him. Remember the guy I used to joke about? “You beat your wife? That guy. He thinks there’s an old man from Brooklyn that’s going to meet him there.”

A text from John (or whoever had written it for him) came in at 8:48 a.m. telling me he had just left his place and was on his way. He arrived at Jan’s place about a half hour later. Jan called me and put the speakerphone on so I could eavesdrop on their conversation.

“So what is it you do again?” Jan was asking him.
    We do a wide variety of tree care, thinnin, take down, crownin, reducin, shapin, injections, reduction, fertilization, we do chipper work, stumpgrindin….
   …I can go into a whole speil if you got the time… ya know, I got the answers.
All of this was said in the most soul-dead monotone imaginable. It was the voice of someone who’d just murdered his whole family and was fessing to it.

He started imparting his wisdom about how to deal with customers.

Always treat the customer fair, be nice to the customer, the customer is always right, let the customer do most of the talking, let them, let them tell you what they want, don’t be too pushy and you’ll be successful…
Jan’s other line rang. He picked it up, said a few words and hung up.
“That was my wife,” he said. “Man, she pisses me off.”
“I know what you mean,” said John. “Women..:”
“Yeah, but… she just makes me so fucking angry sometimes… I mean…”
“Trust me, I understand. It’s women…”
“Sometimes I just wanna kick her,” Jan went on. “You know what I mean? Not hard. Not hard at all. Just enough to get my message across. Do you do that? You beat your wife?”
“I can’t say I do that…”
“How long you been married?”
“Never been married,” said John. “Last girlfriend took me to da cleaners. She robbed me blind.”

I got a phone call then, so I don’t know how the rest of their conversation went. But about ten minutes later, Jan texted me a photo of John’s truck and his feet on the other side of it. This photo.

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He was in front of Jan’s shop waiting for me. And then he called me. “Is this Mister Feldbaum?”
“Yes, yes, it is,” I said, and apologized for not making it on time but told him I had footage of him standing at the agreed upon address. I texted the photo as proof, but he never replied or called back. He must’ve realized then that the deal was a sour one. Kind of like it was for me when he screwed me out of the $300.

The only difference – I’m still laughing. That’s worth $300 if you ask me.

Mr. Observant (Or, What a Man HAS Versus What a Man IS)…

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I’ve written a lot about the mechanics that have worked at the shop over the years, but have said very little about the delivery drivers. Right now, we have three drivers. One I’ve only met once because he works out of the Miami warehouse. The other two, Arturo and S, I see every day in the beginning and end of the day. S is about 40, hard-working, always shows up on time, never complains, hardly say anything come to think of it. I’ve known him for three years and I still barely know him. The only thing I know about him personally is that in his spare time he works on Volvos. He buys them as junk and fixes them up in his yard and drives them for a while and then resells them. Nothing but Volvos.

The other driver is Arturo. Arturo, unlike S, is a talker. Whenever you call him to reroute him or explain a delivery, he’s always on his phone talking to someone. It could be 7:15 a.m., noontime, 2 p.m., it doesn’t matter, he’s on the other line talking to someone, I don’t know who. Maybe it’s the same person every time, or maybe it’s a lot of different people, all of them as bored as him. Whatever the case, that’s what he does, and when he comes into the shop at the end of the day, he’s Mr. Observant. S doesn’t notice anything. Or if he does, he doesn’t say anything. He just sets his clipboard with the day’s deliveries on the counter and walks out of the shop quietly. Arturo, on the other hand, walks around the counter with his papers and comes right up to where your sitting. He will them explain what’s on the papers as though you couldn’t figure it out yourself, and while he’s doing that he’s noticing anything anyone in the office is wearing that’s new. Shoes, socks, jewelry, hat, shorts, any material item – if it’s new he will notice it on the very first day it’s worn and say something. If no one’s wearing anything new, he’s scanning the boxes and papers and packages around the room, or looking at your computer to see if you’re looking at something that doesn’t relate to the business. The other day when he came in I had the screen open to an article in German, and of course he had to say something, even though he couldn’t read a word of it. “What’s that, Mike?” A few days before, I had a book about drawing on my desk. The book was under some folders and a pair of sunglasses, but a portion of the title was sticking out, and I saw Arturo’s curious, razor-keen eyes stray over it. Strangely, he didn’t say anything that day, but the next day, sure enough, he got to talking about how his wife and son liked to draw and paint.

“Like you,” he said.
“Like me?” I asked. “How do you know I like that?”
He told me he saw the book on my desk.
So now I make sure everything’s hidden and all the tabs on my computer are closed before he comes into the office with that roving lynx eye.

The subtext to all his observations and remarks, by the way, is annoyingly obvious. It’s that the people in the office are just goofing off doing non-business things all day, and yet we’re getting paid more than him – a fact that’s revealed and reinforced every time we come in wearing something new. Not that Arturo can’t afford anything new. I’m not going to get into his pay, but judging by his house and a few other things he’s acquired since starting to work for us, he has little to complain about.

Anyway, when nothing’s there for him to notice – I’ve recently taken to closing all my computer tabs and covering my notebooks before he enters the room – we try to make friendly conversation. Mostly it’s just small talk. You can’t get into anything deep with Arturo. Philosophy, anthropology, psychology, history, fiction, poetry, politics – his flattish, oblong skull isn’t wired for any of it. It’s all about the phenomena on the surface. Material items. Shiny stuff that costs money. What a man HAS as opposed to what a man IS.

The biggest difference I have found between Germans and Americans (generally speaking) is that when a German walks into your house, he or she will gravitate to your bookshelf and look at the books you have been reading to figure out what’s going on in your mind. The American will gravitate to your bookshelf only if it looks like an expensive one. The books in it mean nothing. And this, if you ask me, is the number one reason why this country is in the abysmal state it’s in now. It’s something that had to happen.

Circumstance Follows the Way You Think Like a Shadow

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A strange thing happened at work this week. I asked my brother D. about a customer I hadn’t seen or really thought of since before I moved to Berlin in 2011. D. looked up on the computer to see the last time he’d been in. It was 2013. We figured he probably moved out of the area because he used to come into the shop quite often, so I Googled him to see if I could find anything. Unfortunately, despite searching for about fifteen minutes, there was nothing to be found. No arrests – I could always count on my customers getting arrested – no business info, no personal info. It was as if he didn’t exist…

… until the next morning when I looked out into the parking lot and saw him getting out of his truck and heading for the front door. It was like seeing the ghost of Hamlet‘s father.

“Hey, Jim” I said. “Long time no see. I was asking my brother about you recently…”

I didn’t mention that it was just yesterday, or that I’d spent a quarter of an hour stalking him online.

I have found that everyone’s personality can be distilled in such a way that one trait more than any other becomes the prominent and defining one. With one person, that trait is narcissism, with another it’s industriousness, with the next an unnatural deliberation of movement, or the feeling of victimhood, or a strong desire to punish, or the need to water the driveway with a garden hose every morning at 5, like the lady a few houses down from where I’m living now, and so on and so forth.

With Jim, the trait that defined him was that he always seemed so pleasant and rational and conscientious on the surface and yet there was always crazy drama going in his life. Every time he came into the shop, there was a new story about some woman or a friend or customer screwing him over and all the problems that followed. At first, you couldn’t help but sympathize with him. But after several years, when the black cloud over his head had still refused to lift, you began to understand that his problems had as much or more to do with him as they did with the other person.

The reason Jim had come in yesterday was to rent a bull float, and as I was writing him up, we got caught up on the 7 or 8 years that had passed since we’d last seen each other. I asked him about his wife who came into the shop a couple times. They were no longer together. They had two kids together, but something had happened not long after the second was born. His wife was stealing money from him. Tax refunds. He told me about the whole elaborate scheme, and how he caught her, and then he told me about the woman who came before her, the one who bore his first son, but didn’t tell him about it until the son was 5. He’s now 21, and Jim hasn’t seen him since he was 6. There was more drama besides that. There was something about a client and an impending lawsuit about a bucket of acid that had been poured on her lawn, and a dispute with a neighbor that culminated in Jim being shot in the neck with an air gun. In a word, nothing had changed. He still had that same pleasant, sensible demeanor with the same black thundercloud sitting over his head.

A while ago, I read an excellent little self-help book by James Allen called As a Man Thinketh. The essence of the book, if I had to compress it into one sentence, is this: Circumstance follows the way you think like a shadow. This of course isn’t always the case. In a world that’s dictated by chance, we often end up in situations that are beyond our control, but as a general rule, our good or bad fortune is the result of our thinking.

I say all this not from my high horse, but as someone whose defining personality trait, in past years, at least according to me, was a strange and toxic mixture of rage and melancholy simmering beneath a laid-back demeanor. In short, my head was fucked most of my life and I had the circumstances to match. They’re better now that my thinking’s better.

Shoplife Memoria

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I’m sitting in the shop today thinking about how much this place has changed since the old days when I was running it and could barely pay the bills. We now have more inventory than we know what to do with, three drivers, a mechanic, four people in the office including me, and a warehouse in Fort Lauderdale. In the old days, before I was saved from ruin by three hurricanes – natural disasters are a boon to the equipment rental business – the business was in a stripmall, and it was just me and the only guy I could afford – a drunken mechanic I’d pay under the table. His name was Kevin Francis Wagner and I used to think of him as the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote, or as Wagner to my Faust.

Picture standing before you a man of about 40, a skinny and hairy and haggard 40, his posture like a rhesus monkey’s, his head shaved like a convict’s, beetling eyebrows, and a deep, vertical scar on his cheek just below his eye due to an accident with a hedgetrimmer blade. Kevin worked for me from 2000-2002. When he first started, he’d nip copious amounts of cheap vodka in the bathroom and try to cover the smell by soaking his wifebeater in Old Spice, but I knew right away. I just didn’t say anything. He was the best mechanic I’d had up to then regardless, and I was an easy-going boss with enough addictions of my own. Plus, the business was on the verge of going under so it didn’t really matter. At least not at first. Not until his wife Vicky, a 300-lb. marm he met at a coin laundry, left him for a woman in Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania, and he started having seizures and temper-tantrums in the back of the shop.

Vicky never made it to Burnt Cabins.

She got as far as a Motel 6 in Savannah, Georgia and got cold feet. She called. He promised her he’d quit drinking, if she’d come back. So she came back, but the sobriety only lasted about a week. “Hows bout dis,” he told her. “I’ll switch to beer. I can handle beer. It’s vodka I can’t take. Vodka’s like swallowin’ razors. It cuts…” She put up a resistance at first, but it didn’t last long. He broke her down piecemeal with his perpetual nagging and started in on Budweiser, which he drank at room temperature out of the can. He kept the cans in my parts room, which was about 110° (43.3° Celsius) in the summer.

Vicky left Kevin at least two more times that I can remember, not including the final time. She also got him Baker Acted (committed to an insane asylum) once or twice, but that didn’t stop him from buying a gun to terrify her. I fired him for having sticky fingers. He’d been stealing from me practically the whole time he worked for me.

My next mechanic was Walter Eustace Peabody, an old school bigot & charlatan & questionable inbreed who I spoke of briefly in a recent post, and the one to come after him was Captain Kirk, an obnoxious but well-meaning crackhead who lived in a Winnebago on my property and died of carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator in the garage of a house he was squatting in while painting the interior. The generator, incidentally, had come into my shop as a repair, but Captain told the customer it wasn’t worth fixing. It may not have been. Or maybe it just wasn’t worth having him fix it. Whatever the case, the customer told us we could keep it. I didn’t want it, but Captain was a hoarder and a dumpster diver. He wanted everything he could get his hands on as long as it was a thing. That was his prerequisite. It had to be an item. So he rolled that shitty Home Depot-bought generator out back and would tinker with it nights while he was high, and finally got it going. Then it turned up with him that last day. It was still running when they found him.

I talk about all this in the book I have written but have yet to do anything with, Ramblin’ Fever. It’s coming, I swear. In the meantime, I sit here in the shop thinking about those old days and how horrible they seemed when they were happening. Still, I miss them in a way. The people, the fights, the broken equipment, the lies coming in from every direction, the money troubles, the mad desperation to jump ship, and the dark laughter too. It was literature in the making. I just didn’t know it yet.