Sunday Afternoon at the Internationales Berliner Bierfestival (2019)

Yesterday, Erica and I and our friends Gregor Gregorov and L. went to the 23. Internationales Berliner Bierfestival to see what it was all about.

The first thing you do when you go there is you buy a beer mug for €3.50. To fill up the mug it costs anywhere from €2.50-4.00 depending on the kind of beer you get, and there is a mile-long avenue of tents to choose from with beers from all over the world. The first beer I got was a brown ale from Scotland, which I quite liked. In fact, it was probably the best tasting beer I had all day because I made the mistake of choosing beers for their high alcohol percentage rather than for their prospective palette-pleasing qualities. My second was some kind of Kellerbier (cellar beer) which I liked not so much because of the way it tasted (not enough hops), but rather because it was served at a lower temperature than the others, and I was sweating in the afternoon sun. My third beer was Cannabis-ginger flavored. It didn’t get me high. Nor did it’s taste appeal to me. It was too sickly sweet, but I forced it down and afterwards stood in line at a little stand that was advertising Schwarzbier aus Böhmen (Trans: dark beer from Bohemia, i.e., the western part of the Czech Republic). Now when I got in line, I had only mentally absorbed the word Schwarzbier. Then I looked up at the sign again and read Schwarzbier aus Böhmen as Schwarzbier aus Bohnen. Now bohnen, in German, means beans, and suddenly it struck me that I was standing in line for a beer that was made from beans. I supposed it was possible since I’d just had a beer made with Cannabis, but bean beer wasn’t for me. I stepped out of line and said to Erica and the others, “I’m not buying a beer made from beans.” They all laughed.It’s Böhmen, not Bohnen, you idiot! Hahahah-bahah-hahha.” And they razzed me about it for the next half hour or so, bringing it up again and again.“I can see I’m never going to live this down,” I said. They laughed.

But then later something magical happened.

We were sitting at some picnic tables listening to a live cover band and drinking our beers when Gregor scurried off to the Porto-john. A few minutes later, on his way back, Erica spotted him beelining through the crowd, dodging, high-stepping, practically throwing people aside, a mix of fear and desperation in his eyes. He then reached our picnic table and as he was sliding into his seat he revealed the reason for his haste. There were two glorious wet puddles sopping the front of his trousers, due, apparently, to an accident or malfunction of some sort in the Porto-john. We all laughed, and as he hid his lower half under the table he tried to clarify, and philosophize, which only made us laugh more. I probably laughed the longest and the loudest of everyone. I actually feel ashamed about now. It’s not like I haven’t had my own bathroom malfunctions. True, they don’t often happen in public, at international beer festivals, and don’t often inspire me to bolt through a crowd of howling drunks, but I was trying to raise something to a higher pedestal of idiocy than my bean gaffe, and in the end I failed. I turned out to be the day’s crowned fool when the votes were cast.

The moral: humiliation is the greatest teacher of all. I will never again mistake the western part of the Czech Republic for beans.

 

Advertisements

Iguana Days

20190721_105226.jpg

I am back in Berlin after a three-week trip I took with my six-year-old son A. to Florida. I worked most of the time I was there, tending the equipment rental shop, but the first weekend I managed to get out for a little trip-within-a-trip to the Keys. I went down there with my son, my brother, his wife and their son, who is only a year older than mine. A. and I stayed in a little iguana infested hotel in Key Largo, but spent most of our time at my brother’s much nicer hotel and pool in Islamorada. We actually spent too much in his pool, but our kids loved it, and we didn’t feel like doing anything else. The July sun was too brutal and blazing. Besides, we had tumblers filled with lime and iced tequila. We’d brought our own booze so as not to get ripped off at the tiki bar and sat along the edge of the pool imbibing, watching the crowd of rednecks on the other side. There was about twenty of them I think, and from what I’d gathered they had come down for the weekend from somewhere between Vernon and Hell’s Half-Acre. The men were all very large, much larger than the tiny women they were with. They were built like potbellied air compressors, and sat most of the time bulky and stoic in the corner in their ten-gallon straw hats, and their blue-lensed sunglasses, drinking cans of light beer from a Yeti cooler someone had dragged in.

God bless America, and God bless you all!” shouted the singer of the one-man coverband. He then started playing a Toby Keith song, and the rednecks got both proud and boisterous. I watched them and thought about how similar they looked to each other, and how their thoughts, their range of emotions, their relationship to themselves, their surroundings and the culture were probably very similar too. The common denominator was practicality. Anything they deemed impractical, or weird, or foreign to their masculine sensibilities, was so far beneath contempt it was laughable.

There was one redneck in the pool who all the others seemed to crowd around and admire. He was about six-foot-two of hulking flesh, the obligatory broadbrimmed straw hat shading him, blue-tinted sunglasses, stubbly goatee. He had his big hairy sunburnt arms propped up on the ledge of the pool and was kind of leaning his head back while all around him the others formed a ring, hanging on his words as if he were The Floating Godhead of the Dry Tortugas.

I swam a little closer to hear what important statement he was imparting, imagining it to be some wise aphorism, a haiku or a Kierkegaardian soliloquy about the tongue-tied spirit.

Instead, I heard, “I sold that lot for two and a half.” That’s all.

He belched.

Then he reached into his Yeti cooler, cracked another light beer and poured it down his throat.

Italian Journey, Praiano to Naples (Day 4 of 4)

In Italy, there’s no such thing as truancy. If someone or something’s late it’s only because your expectations were too high.

On our last day, we had expected to get a bus from Praiano to Positano at 10:45 a.m., but it didn’t roll up until almost 11:30 a.m. Our plan had been to meet my sister and her husband for a little while before taking the next bus to Sorrento, but now we were so late, all we had time to do with them was walk down the hill to the bus stop. The bus there was scheduled to arrive at 12:30 p.m., and we got there with about ten minutes to spare. We waited. My sister and her husband waited with us. They had planned to see us off, but a half hour later, when the bus still hadn’t arrived, I told them not to worry about it. No need to waste their precious honeymoon time sitting at a bus stop. We said our goodbyes, and about fifteen minutes later our bus came tooling up. We got in, sat down. I noticed the digital clock next to the driver. It said it was 4:32 p.m. when it really was only 1:05 p.m. It was the second bus I’d been on on that trip that had a clock that was several hours off. There was something to be said for that attitude toward time. It was, after all, a human construct, and therefore open to interpretation. But we had a plane to catch, and a train to catch in order to catch the plane. The train was scheduled to leave Sorrento for Naples at 1:45 p.m. and there was no way we’d make that one now. We’d have to catch the next one which was scheduled to depart at 2:25 p.m.

Well, we arrived with plenty of time to spare for that one, but after boarding, the train just sat there in idle, brooding. It didn’t pull out of the station until close to 3 p.m. and by then we were seriously up tight about missing our flight, which was scheduled to depart from Naples at 5:15.

It was an old beast. A slow-moving beast. A crowded and airless and boiling hot beast, especially when it veered a little and the sun came through windows, pouring onto us.

It was a train straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

And every time it stopped at a station, there seemed to be a long delay, and you wondered if it was ever going to start up and get going again.
Then you’d hear a hum and a din and a roar. Then you’d hear the beep and the doors would close. Then there’d be another delay and you’d sit there with the sun burning the side of your face, your legs sweating on the leathery seat, your ears attuned to the incessant babble of Italian voices, your nose catching the occasional whiff of the grizzled old man in front of you, vapors rising off his skull.

It was 4:15 p.m. when we arrived at central station in Naples. We pushed through the crowds, made it outside and flagged down a cab. Our only chance to make our plane was to take a cab to the airport. We slid into the backseat and off we went, darting through the insane Neapolitan rush hour traffic, no one abiding to any law.

He turned around in his seat and started talking to us, gesticulating with both hands as he blew casually through red lights, dodged around corners and cut people off, missing them by mere fractions.

In Naples, it seems almost every car has a scrape or a dent or a ding on it. Some cars are riddled with them. His cab had a long scrape down the left side and the front bumper was partially crushed. Nevertheless, this modern-day Pulcinella got us to the airport without incident, a few minutes before our plane was scheduled to board. But that, of course, was before the delay.

The plane was apparently on Italian time too.

Italian Journey, Pompeii & Positano/Praiano (Day 3 of 4)

Pompeii looked nothing like the mental picture I had of it. I had envisioned city of dark and lava-buried, subterranean chambers, a kind of Hades on earth, alive with torch-lit shadows, sweltering mist, and gloom, and wandering Shades, the echoes of Cerebus ringing through the night as grim Charon glides across the River Styx on a ferry heavy with bones.

Instead, the city was almost completely exhumed and open to the light of day, the rows and avenues of windowless brick houses standing much like they did 20 centuries ago, though without their roofs and some crumbling here and there.

It was another torrid day. The sun felt like it was about 50 feet over our heads as we wandered among the ruins, trying to keep away from all the other tourists. Pompeii was a little like Disneyworld. Like everything these days, it had been commercialized, bastardized, and was so detached from its past, I was half-expecting Mickey Mouse to climb out of a crypt or vault somewhere and dance a jig. But maybe it was just the sun making me dizzy. Whatever the case, it was hard to be at one with your thoughts for any time out there, let alone appreciate in any real way the history and grandeur of that bygone city. It felt more like I was just going through the motions of being there rather than truly experiencing it, and no matter how hard I tried to imagine Pompeii in its heyday, its baths, its bustling marketplace, the forum, the theater, the foot races in the park on a Sunday afternoon, the moon gazing down on everything on some cold winter night in 2 B.C., I couldn’t quite tap in. Nevertheless, I got a faint impression of a thriving community of fruit-sellers, fish-salesmen, wine-growers, fresco artists, actresses, poets, soldiers, con men and fools, all of whom had dreamed and wept and laughed and struggled like us, all of whom left not single a trace behind, their stories having long since been written on the winds and scattered to the ether.

I didn’t care so much about the laws or what materials the Pompeii was made of, I wanted to know about the individuals. I wanted to know how they thought, what they said, how they looked and carried themselves. I wanted to know their personalities, their idiosyncrasies and all the things that made them human rather than just the abstract notions that they were in my mind.

Too bad there wasn’t a tool rental shop owner back then who’d left his tales on some buried old papyrus.

Well, maybe when Florida becomes the next Atlantis someone will find my words and become acquainted with the rats and Pulcinellas and bottom-feeders and other forgotten characters of that forgotten world.

*

The reason we took this spur of the moment trip was because my sister, who lives in Michigan, was having her honeymoon in Italy and we set it up so that we could meet up for one night, in Positano. Our hotel was in Praiano, the neighboring town. Positano was too expensive for our blood.

We arrived at the hotel just after 5 p.m. The hotel, which was on a cliff that overlooked the sea, had heaps of sweet-smelling climbing flowers growing all around it, falling off the roof, dangling from the balconies and swallowing everything up.

We checked in with the owner of the place, dropped our stuff in the room, and went up to the third floor veranda bar for the complimentary drink we were told about.

We ordered proseccos from the bartender who was the son of the owner. Family business. Both were extraordinarily friendly. We sat at a table from which we could see the rugged curve of the Amalfi coast, the deep blue sea down below, and in the distance, Le Sirenuse, the archipelago of little islands where the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey had sung so beautifully.

The view was so enchanting and sublime it felt like I was sitting in a postcard and I said as much to Erica. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to appreciate it. Just however long it took us to finish our drinks and then we would take a bus along the tall and winding Amalfi cliffs, back to Positano to meet my sister and her husband.

*

Apparently only a few hours before we met up with them, my sister found out she’d gotten a promotion at her job. I won’t say where she works, but it’s a company everyone’s heard of and with her promotion, she became treasurer and the first female vice president to ever work there. In financial terms it meant a raise of 10-15% from her former salary. It also meant she would be paying for Erica and me that evening. She offered. We couldn’t refuse. We didn’t want to be rude. Nor could we afford to be rude. The cocktails at the first place we went were $22, and at the restaurant a $75 bottle of red wine was ordered. The night overall brought to mind the David Lee Roth quote.

“Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.”

We were happy.

*

There was a problem getting back to the hotel that night. The bus that we thought would take us there at midnight was no longer running, or we somehow missed it. Something happened. There were no taxis either. We ended up calling the hotel and talking to the owner. He sent his daughter over to pick us up. It was apparently a service they provided. Still, we felt bad about bothering them so late at night. It was our only choice though. It was a long walk.

On the drive back to the hotel, I asked the daughter, who was no less cheerful and friendly than her father and brother, how they ended up in such a rare and wonderful place. The story was that her grandfather, who lived in an orphanage, had inherited the land that the hotel was on from an uncle, and built the property. Her father was born the day the hotel opened, which must have been in the early fifties, and took it over when her grandfather died. She and her brother were of course next in line, which seemed to me to be both a blessing and a curse. You couldn’t ask for a more enchanting place to work, and the property was probably worth several millions, But there was something about following the footsteps your father that always made me suspicious. How many people had there been who had never discovered their true calling or potentialities because they took the easy way by doing what their fathers did? If I had done the same, I’d probably be selling patio furniture today. True, selling patio furniture is nothing like tending a lovely, flower-enshrouded hotel on the Amalfi Coast. But even so, if you were restless like me, you’d have to stuff your ears with beeswax like Odysseus’ men so as not to hear the sirens of the islands nearby, forever tempting and alluring with their beautiful songs of escape.

Italian Journey, Naples (Day 2 of 4)

After breakfast the next morning, we walked through the city and along the waterfront, to the Castel dell’Ovo, or Egg Castle, the name coming from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil who was said to have put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would’ve been destroyed and a series of disastrous events in Naples would have followed.

The view from the castle was breathtaking. In one direction, you could see Mount Vesuvius against an unearthly blue sky, a puff of white cloud ascending from one of its peaks. Down below was the curve of the bay, and behind us a panorama of the city. We stood there looking out but without much sense of what we were looking at, nor about what we were standing on. I tried to imagine the castle bustling with soldiers and knights. I tried to picture the kings and queens and courtly activities, the music, the ignored screams of the captives that had once been held here. The place was now just a shell of its former self. An ancient, salt-and-weather-beaten shell. A conch shell devoid of the conch, with its ear to the sea but no song left in its throat.

It’s spirit was gone. It’s zen-moment-in-time had been had.

We were standing on the crusty and discarded remains of some insane metagalactic historical machine that whirled forever onward, paying little heed to man’s meagre creations. The machine had us. All we could do was play our assigned roles, and thereby serve it, oiling its Kafkaesque gears and adjusting the cables as we were supposed to.

We stood in the shadows of the castle with the wind in our faces, watching the seagulls sail over the glistening rocks, the bright, ethereal-blue skies like something out of a Raphael painting.

The air around us seemed to be vibrating.

Vesuvius was alive, snorting in its depths. The gulf of Naples brooding with all its secrets and the buildings of the city slouching toward perdition.

Everything was waiting for a second coming. Axis mundi. The tiger with the slow moving thighs.

*

We went to Sorbillo on the waterfront for lunch and had a pizza that might possibly have been the best I’d ever had – pizza was invented in Naples, it’s a little better than Dominoes. We then got espressos at a popular little cafe near the Palazzo Reale, and walked the streets, taking in the sights and the people. I was looking for the omnipresent yet ever-elusive Pulcinella. Not the mythical one from the old plays. The modern-day embodiment of him. Pulcinella is described as the voice and direct expression of the Neapolitan people. A public servant, often lazy and careless, always humorous. I knew several of them in the States via my tool rental shop. Here, I looked for him among the waiters, the shopkeepers, the cab drivers, the house painters and so forth. But my time was so limited I wasn’t able to find him. It was now late afternoon, time to cool down at the hotel for a couple hours.

There’s an art to taking a vacation. The art is to never neglect relaxation time. I only had two days in Naples, which wasn’t nearly enough to see everything I wanted to see. Two weeks probably wouldn’t have been enough. But I had to somehow make do with what I had while not overexerting myself. When some people go to new places on limited time, they often spoil the event with the feeling that they need to see everything, eat everything, take photographs of everything, and be everywhere all at the same time or the trip is a bust. Not me. I learned long ago the value of the return to the dark room in a strange city as temporary reprieve from the mob.

Two hours later, we felt completely rejuvenated. It was dinnertime. We walked through the bustling, narrow little scooter-buzzing streets to a place called Pizzeria Da Attilio.

A bottle of red house wine. Another pizza that bordered on the transcendent, and a winding down of the night at a little cafe on Via dei Tribunali where we drank Limoncelli Spritzes and I sketched the Pulcinella that had been eluding me all day. Unfortunately, he’s eluding me again today. I have tried to upload the sketch several times but the internet has been slow all evening and it won’t take. That might be a good thing though because I’m not quite finished.

See you tomorrow for day 3 from Pompeii and Positano.

 

Italian Journey, Naples (Day 1)

It was a last-minute, 72 hour journey that began in Naples. We arrived on Sunday, June 16th, 2019. We arrived by easyJet in the middle of the day, the skies cloudless, the Italian sun beating down on Vesuvius, gleaming off the rooftops and palm trees and the Gulfo di Napoli. We took a bus from the airport to the central train station, and from there we walked on the shady side of the street to our hotel. It was about a twenty-minute walk, and on the way we passed crowds of migrants hanging out on the sidewalks, many of whom had little tables set up, or blankets laid out from which they were selling purses, or sunglasses, or cellphone cases, or basketball shoes of the most hideous colors and styles. Basketball shoes have never been more hideous-looking than in the present age. How people can wear them without being ashamed I have no idea, but many do. Some even wear them with pride. Some even murder for them. To me they represent some corruptive element in our society, much like plastic. Or Burger King. Or prosperity churches. Or Mark Zuckerberg. Nonetheless, these very same shoes, along these very same cellphone cases, purses and sunglasses were being sold from little makeshift hovels all over the city. It was as if every seller went to the same supplier who’d just imported the junk from the squalid bowels of China on some massive cargo ship. Was the supplier linked with the Camorra? I wondered. The mafia had their hands in everything in Naples, and had an especial fondness for trash.

So. It was Sunday afternoon, but there was no Sunday calm where traffic was concerned. The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of motor scooters tearing through the streets. They’d buzz by you like deranged and maddened insects, dodging around the cars and buses, blowing through stoplights and zebra crossings, honking, revving their little 50cc engines, moving together in twos and sixes and eights, whipping around corners only to be replaced with new hordes coming from different directions in doubly aggressive manifestations.

As for the architecture, many of the buildings on our walk looked more like ruins, ancient, crumbling, unpainted with colorful laundry strung up outside the windows, a wedge of blue sky above, with the occasional old lady perched on some balcony, peeping down at you from eight floors up, her head the size of a raisin.

Erica had a grim first impression of the city which was no doubt exacerbated by the baking sun and the fact that she was hungry and all the restaurants were closed because it was the day of the Lord. Erica was one of those people who needed her three squares at precisely the same time everyday or she’d start getting moody. My moods, on the other hand, weren’t tied to the missing of one meal. I’d missed so many in my life, I welcomed the feeling of an empty belly sometimes. It was like an old friend. It gave fresh perspective. It inspired contemplation and the poetry that arose therefrom. I tried to explain this to Erica but she didn’t want to hear it. She just wanted to be crabby, which made me crabby, and soon I was more than crabby. I was livid. I can’t handle crabby people without reacting. I take it personally. But I bit my tongue and stewed and finally we stumbled upon our hotel.

The hotel, or bed and breakfast to be more precise, was on the 5th floor of a high-rise that must have been about 100 years old. It had smooth marble floors, a marble staircase, black, wrought-iron railings and a coffin-sized elevator in a shaft where all the pulleys and chains and wheels were clattering and visible.

We took the stairs up. We rang the bell. A dark-haired woman of about sixty answered with a smile and greeted us in Italian. As it turned out, she didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak Italian. We pantomimed to each other, and were led down the hallway to the Pino Daniele-themed room. Every room in the place had a theme. The one next to us was Sofia Loren. The one down the hall was Pulcinella. Another was Billy Pasta, famous tightrope walker and telemarketer from the 1930s. So they say.

Pino Daniele, I was to find out, was a Neapolitan singer-songwriter and guitarist, and in our room, there were eighteen of his album covers of in miniature form hanging in little frames on the wall. The album covers went back to the late 70s or 80s when he was the picture of health, with his toothy smile and huge and glorious lion’s mane. He kept the mane from when it was from black to salt-and-pepper to almost pure white, though even then it was still thick and beautiful and he was still the picture of health. Then,ard the end of his career, he cut it off, no doubt the biggest mistake he’d ever made. It was like Samson cutting off his hair. There was nothing for him to draw power from anymore. In the photos of him with this new hair he looked wan and bloated and there was a sad foreboding in his eyes. It was as if he knew that cutting off the fleece was a fatal error and he would soon have to pay the debt.
I tried to figure out the rest of his story from the album covers, but that’s as far as my imagination took me.
I then looked Pino Daniele up online and found out he had died of a heart attack in 2015 at age 59.
I then listened to a song of his on YouTube and it was flat, uninspired. A total nothingburger.
Had to be his later stuff.

*

Erica’s cheerful mood came around later that day, after she’d gotten the missing square in her belly, and after we’d cooled off in the ancient aqueducts under the city. The tour lasted about an hour and a half, after which we got pasta and beer and a local trattoria. Then we sat a little cafe on a bustling little street drinking Aperol Spritzes and limoncelli shots. The drinks were great and the waiter’s English was perfect until it was time to pay the bill.
“I’m giving you 13,” I said.
“Huh?”
I repeated myself. He looked at me confused.
“Here’s 20, bring me back 7 por favore.”
“Si, si…” he said.
He trotted off and came back with 5. But by the time I realized it he was nowhere to be found and when he did return, he passed our table but didn’t dare look over. That’s when I noticed his shoes for the first time. He was wearing basketball shoes, the same ones the migrants sold out of canvas bags all over the city. The ones that had come from the squalid bowels of China.
Poor sod.
I let him keep the 2.

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

IMG_5042

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

20190407_084230.jpg

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.