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

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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.