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.

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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.

Shell-hunting in the Underworld

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Went to the Pompano Beach Pier today. The ocean was calm and greenish-blue. I set up my chair a good distance from everyone and sat in the sun, but only for a few minutes. The sun was fierce. It felt like it was hovering fifty feet over my head, so I dived in the warm bathwater and swam around looking for seashells. My plan was to bring home a few handfuls and make sketches of the best ones, but I could tell right away there wasn’t much out there. The water was too calm. All the good ones had been claimed or got dragged out with the tide. Also, Pompano Beach isn’t the best place for shell-hunting. The best shells are on the west coast of Florida. The shells over here are usually ugly and misshapen, with ribs and leprosy bumps all over and pieces broken off. Or they’re just hunks of bleached coral rock that look like shells from afar. Still, when you find a good one – one that nature has taken a little more time with and maybe put a heart in – there’s something magical about it. It’s like finding an adder stone or the tarnhelm. You hold it in your palm and by observing it feel a strange energy coming through, something connecting you to the vast and mysterious sea – your place of origin – that incorruptible eon of the gods.

I swam close to shore for about a half hour in my search for shells, but only found a handful that were worth keeping and nothing spectacular.

Plato says we choose our lives before we are born, which I thought of as I came out of the water with my disappointing haul. Searching for shells on a beach not known for shells must be what it’s like in that realm of the underworld where the gods have strewn the lives we must choose from. Only an infinitesimally small portion of us gets truly and infinitely lucky with his or her life. As for the rest of us, we must settle for whatever’s lying on the seabed at the time of our search and do with it what we can, until the next time to choose comes along. Hopefully from a richer and not poorer shore.

Changes in Latitudes

Nothing good ever comes out of a 4 a.m. text. I got one Sunday at that time telling me my 8:55 a.m. Eurowings flight to Düsseldorf had been cancelled due to a strike, and that I was supposed to call customer service to reschedule. I called, sat on hold for a good half hour, even though I had been told upon connecting the waiting time would be five minutes. Finally, I gave up and booked a flight with easyJet – the only other one going to Düsseldorf that morning – hoping Eurowings would reimburse me. The reason I had to be in Düsseldorf that morning was because my connecting flight to Miami departed from there at 12:30 p.m.

I showered, drank a cup of coffee, got all my stuff together and said a sad goodbye to Erica. Then I was off, into the soft gray light of early morning Neukölln. One thing you can always count on seeing at that hour in the city is a myriad of drunken stragglers. I passed a handful on the walk to the train station, and on the train they surrounded me, most of them sleeping or nodding off between stations, looking like zombies. Sometimes, in their half-comatose state, they’d screw up an eye and catch a glimpse of me sitting across from them – freshly-washed, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed – the personification of sobriety. I must’ve been a total buzzkill.

When I got to the airport, I spoke with a representative for Eurowings about the flight I booked. She told me they had nothing to do easyJet, but I could talk to them about cancelling the flight. In the meantime, she told me she could put me on a plane going to Frankfurt in 45 minutes and that I would connect to my Miami flight from there. I told her to do it, knowing that I would have no time to talk to easyJet and that that money was just pissed up a rope. Whatever. I had no other choice. At least this flight had a meal on it. Plus it arrived in Miami a couple hours earlier.

I’d taken 3 books with me on the trip. Cellini’s autobiography, Im Westen Nichts Neues (auf Englisch: Alls Quiet on the Western Front), and Delacroix’s Journals which has taken me forever to finish because I love it so much and have been savoring it. I put it right up there with Van Gogh’s Letters.

Anyway, on the flight to Frankfurt, I read about Cellini’s crazy goldsmithing and soldiering life in 16th century Italy, drank an abominable cup of coffee, and did this five-minute Rembrandt-inspired sketch in my notebook.

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On the flight to Miami, no sooner had we taken off than the stewardesses were coming down the aisleway with their carts offering free drinks. I requested a can of Warsteiner, and not long after that our meal came, which I had with a glass of red wine. The stewardess refilled it after I was done, and then the other stewardess offered me a shot of Cognac, which I of course could not say no to. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down a shot. It’s not in my nature. I finished it off and got one more refill of wine, and then the New York Times fell into my hands. In it, there was a short piece by Paul Krugman about the Trump administration called Corruption Hits the Small Time. I recommend reading the whole article online if you can find it, but here’s an excerpt.

Long ago Tom Wolfe wrote a memorable essay on what really drives many powerful men. It’s not so much a taste for the finer things; the truth is that private planes aren’t all that comfortable, and my guess is that most of the people who drink $400 bottles of wine couldn’t tell the difference if you served them a $20 bottle instead. It is, instead, the pleasure of “seeing ’em jump” — of watching people abase themselves, jump through hoops, to cater to your whims. It’s about making yourself feel bigger by getting other people to act small. Doesn’t this explain everything (head of the EPA) Scott Pruitt does? The absurdity of his demands is a feature, not a bug: I have doubts about whether he ever uses that $43,000 soundproof phone booth, but he surely took pleasure in making his staff jump to provide it.

I once had a mechanic working for me named Walter Eustace Peabody. Wally, as we called him, was a 58-year-old North Carolinian transplant who gobbled anti-psychotic horsepills like they were candy and had a collection of pistols and confederate flags and frog-gigging supplies. With those credentials, you’d think he’d be a republican, but I think he hated everyone too much to be anything. Once (the year was 2003), I asked him what he thought about Dick Cheney, vice president of the Bush administration.

“Cheney?” he said. “I’d slit his throat and throw him out into traffic, that’s what I’d do with that mutherfucker.”

Which is exactly how I feel about Trump and his groveling toadies, Scott Pruitt especially.

If I could get away with it – if there was a country I could go to where it was legal – I am pretty sure I could murder Scott Pruitt (Wally’s way or with my bare hands if necessary) and feel good about it afterwards, knowing I had done bird, beast, flower and mankind a great favor.

I put the article aside, took a sip of my wine.

It’s better not to give too much of yourself to politics, I told myself. It’s all just a game anyway. You might as well funnel your rage into something that you can control, something noble, true, impervious to greed and (to all our misfortune) nonexistent in the Trumps, Cheneys & Scott Pruitts of the world – I speak of poetry, art & the imagination.

 

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If you wonder what living Berlin is really like, here is an essay written by M.P. Baecker (with a reference to my novel, Fortuna Berlin) that sums it up perfectly. JAWOHL!

A Light Circle

I must admit, I’ve been (more) distracted lately. I am still working on my Origins book project which is coming together slowly but surely. But for the most part, I’ve been living my best life outdoors! Summer has come to Berlin in full force this year! April and May felt more like July. I don’t know what that means for the actual July, if summer will stay twice as long or leave twice as early, but I don’t care! I’m going to thoroughly enjoy summer while it’s here! In honor of this wondrous time and place, I would like to share my view on the city I call home, Berlin. Wishing you all sunshine and happiness! –M.P.

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Mr. K., my high school history teacher, spent nearly three months lecturing us on World War II. The invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge (the Ardennes) were particularly vivid, the…

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