The quiet of this cyber space should not be confused for an absence of activity. I’ve been working, working, working on a stand-alone novel that includes some of the characters you might already know. It’s an exorcism (or maybe an announcement?) of the ghosts that have been trailing me, as more and more important faces in my daily life vanish from earthly existence and leave the rest of us flailing and floundering about the earthcraft. I’m not sure I can write anything else until I finish writing this, but I’ll set it to print the moment it’s finished, or finishes me (whatever comes first). Until that moment I’ll remain a quiet sort, save for the obligatory social media raving about political discourse, and the occasional coffee shop observation. Which brings me to an important point: the gentleman to my left raises his cup, and then loudly slurps, once, twice, three times, before he sets the cup back down. It’s kinda like he’s racing the coffee. What. Is. The. Finish. Line? It also smells like burning bagels in here, which would be my personal perfume if it was available at the neighborhood drugstore. This is not Electric Youth. This is Blackened You.
I cannot read white guys for awhile. It’s not that I dislike white guy writing; some of my favorite writers are fellows of the pasty persuasion. George Orwell. John Milton. That other dead guy; that one who lives forever. Doesn’t mean I haven’t had my fill of hard drinking, working class men with surly dispositions, fretting over the women who’ve done them wrong…written by tender guys living off trust funds in Brooklyn brownstones. Had enough of five o’clock shadows and fifty-yard stares, emotional detachment and simmering resentment, unions that unraveled and road trips to nowhere — nobody consults a map, unless there’s a woman in the car, in which case that’s exactly what she’s doing. I’ve had enough of cops on the other side of the law and misunderstood criminals, corporate executives ducking out of afternoon meetings and into bars, marriages forever tense and inscrutable with no notion of tenderness beyond thank you, goodnight. These white men don’t recover from the backslap of romance, don’t enter into the soothing space of just knowing someone and relaxing. They are too busy drinking, divorcing, finding themselves, which usually means another woman, in a bar, in an office, in a car opening a map while he’s driving.
And speaking of this particular sort of writer, I’ve had my fill of female characters that place phone calls about child support payments and scream across the street about when he’s coming back, and never have ambitions beyond Lady Macbeth. This type of male writer never writes women thinking like they do, wondering like they do, plotting like they do. No, this white male writer makes women thin and demanding or fat and sorry, hunting for a hero or fulfilling childhood fantasies of sparkling eyes and inspired statements released as riddles. He will meet her in the park, he will meet her in the bar, he will meet her in the office when she comes in late and dressed inappropriately and unwilling to file anything alphabetically. Women described as “used up” and worn down by life, permanent mothers flanked by angry children that spit at each other across the dinner table, wild women whose only rebellion involves sexual promiscuity and growing their hair long and white and tangled.
In their interviews they will wear beards and soft sad eyes and tucked in flannel shirts and talk about the loneliness of writing. They will talk about adopting children from foreign countries as the long drunken route towards empathy. They will talk about their mothers, the abortion their girlfriend once had, their trip to Africa/Malaysia/Thailand that was totally different from the other white guys who were there for worse reasons. They will talk about the disappointment of their fathers, how they will never receive tenure; they will not talk about their trust funds. They will rattle off lists of other white male writers writing about divorce and murder and dogs and strippers and guns and rivers, and talk about their next book that will cover more of the same. In six weeks the black cover will promise a something-something “tour de force” and I will wonder if that’s a bicycle tour in France.
Too small, too drunk, too troubled, too on-to-something, too lost. This is too small, when a world of other worlds lies waiting.
There’s a long yarn unspooling from his jaws, and there’s still a whole lot to untangle. A giant box of cds leaves him doing double duty as DJ, laser-spinning Marianne Faithful and the Cocteau Twins and a whole lot of troubled women that might find me fair company. This CD of Ms. Faithful was recorded when she entered her silver-haired years, and she sounds like a chain-smoking blue collar coaxed toward the microphone by her drunken karaoke counterparts. It’s not nearly as sad as younger Marianne trapped in a black and white time-machine, prisoner of evening variety shows and hair spray, posed for a portrait by stony hands. This isn’t loneliness; this is nostalgia. As her throat reports fire I’m thinking that there’s also something within me burning to the surface, a remake. Something that cannot be sorted clean. It’s then that I think he needs to play “Horses” in honor of Patti Smith’s prophecies, but that yarn has filled his cheeks and tied me and needs a pull to unwind.
Human contents of air-conditioned pod of refuge: man with a tribal wreath tattooed all around his leg, reaching up towards his knee. Despite sitting his bag remains draped over his shoulder, his eyes on his phone, his hands pulling at the pubic remains of a soul patch. “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam launches in the background, which inspires him to get up and take his shoulder bag and cell phone with him.
Six feet away, a man who has been stared down by grim shades: black hair, black shirt, grey pocket, grey pants, black shoes. He’s folded into a question mark to accommodate the chair and table, his shoulders sink low, and stickers cover his laptop and scream LA DISPUTE. I google it and discover a band from Michigan and suspect that we should hate each other and blame it on sports teams.
Three seniors crowd around the comfortable easy chairs, and when they ask to borrow the extra chair across from me I hope one of them uses it for feet, or as a makeshift card table. Instead the older man sits himself between the two women, as they remove lids and fuss with sugar packets and plastic cream cups and don’t say anything. A table opens up, and they take all their cups and containers and bagels and the chair that once held a ghost across from me with them.
Directly across from me: an older Asian women with threads of silver dancing down her scalp. The only skin I see is a patch escaping her sleeves, red roads traveling two inches down into elbow. There is book opened flat in front of her, and she tracks words with a highlighter between long looks out the window at the man with the leg tattoo and too many 90s adornments, avoiding Pearl Jam and pacing.
I like bars that look like hollowed-out bowling alleys, right down to the lingering smoke smell and people arguing over phantom scores. The booths all plastic and faded into beige, strange folds chased around metal until they anchor. The lights are overhead and on until someone who refuses to remove sunglasses complains, and with a flick of a switch the sad remains of a brown carpet better suited for a 70s-era airport, or a hotel room in Idaho, are suddenly disguised. Replacing the overheads is a slow moving globe of holiday colors, orbiting every face: the world is red, the world is green, the world is blue. These places don’t have jukeboxes, they have a DJ who hasn’t left the booth since 1986, a prisoner of records with Jehri curls on the cover and shoulder pads and shirts buttoned right up to the top and pencil mustaches. The Electric Slide is going to be played; it’s only a matter of time. The waitress has also never not been there, and she doesn’t come to take an order, she arrives with a great big bucket of ice, bottles of cheap beer jutting out from the frozen slab like they grew that way. Choose, and choose often. The chalkboard behind the bartender announces Tuesday as 10 cent wing night, and mozzarella sticks as a thing every day, all the time, along with a couple of things that come with a side of ranch dressing. There’s a bottle of Jack and another of Absolute and the Maker’s Mark occupies the high shelf, and the bartender is kind and twice the size of an average man, and the glasses he pours heavy into are dirty and no one is going to say shit. Then the DJ is moving his hands and talking fast to wild-drive us into George Clinton. Without a word every citizen of the middle-aged crowd herds onto the tiny dance floor for obligatory booty shaking. I am Pavlov’s Atomic Dog.
The world is red, the world is green, the world is blue.
It started with trail mix. Since I’m allergic to nuts this is something that I shouldn’t eat, but laziness convinced me that once almonds and cashews are weeded out, the chocolate chips and sulfur-infused cherries that remain qualify as dinner. The nutritional takeaway is somewhere between Snickers’ bar and frozen pizza, and my stomach is still appalled.
The pile of pieces and parts was impressive, and grew as I pressed my own dumb again and again. I couldn’t toss them into the compost bin without feeling more California than Oregon, and since my bank account says I don’t live anywhere at all, they needed to be used. As an experiment I left a handful of nuts in a wooden bowl in my yard, assuming they’d make gourmet fare for foraging squirrels or nutria (Portland’s ROUS, for Princess Bride fans). Between compost and the sloppiness of humans, such creatures have grown accustomed to feasting on our food anyway. Ever see a bird flying with half a sandwich? It happens.
The bowl attracted the attention of one crow, who watched me very carefully from her perch on a nearby satellite dish. She watched as I watered outdoor plants, fussed with cats. She watched me right through my kitchen window, and while she monitored my activity, let the neighborhood jays feast on the contents of the wooden bowl. Crows are smart; I don’t doubt that they regularly use jays as their personal tasters. This crow also had an eye on my cats, who took turns arranging themselves in the window to try out their best bird calls on the jays. They’d have to toss aside several IQ points to try that on crows. Portland crows are big beautiful birds, and they gather in great noisy roosts all over the city. The average crow is basically larger than a cat, so the only cat this crow was interested in getting a read on was the Maine coon, Scooter, who lazily occupied an entire Adirondack chair. It doesn’t take extensive inspection to surmise that this largest cat is also the gentlest: a great big Buddha who once got an abscess because of his habit of capturing a bee in his jaws, holding it until it tickles, and then letting it go with a squeak. Really. He sulks when I kill house centipedes, and fully supports my capture-and-release spider program. Not a threat. The crow flew away.
The next day I rose to find three crows waiting for me, each arranged around the nearby satellite dish, looking into the kitchen window. I took a handful of nuts from the stockpile, and placed them in the bowl. They cawed, then took the cashews, leaving the almonds for the jays.
Now every morning starts more or less the same. The youngest crow, an adolescent who seems committed to the family unit (or maybe the crow equivalent of an adult reading comic books in his mom’s basement) starts squawking. Her squawk is different from the full throated “caw” of her parents, and she won’t quit under I wander outside dazed and toss a handful of nuts into the bowl. Note: they have to land in the bowl. For a few days awhile back I just tossed them into the yard, and the crows looked at me like I could no longer be trusted with nut distribution, and left them all to the jays. Logically one could deduce that the nuts are easier to see in the bowl from the air, but I think that’s how they know for sure they are for them and from me or my partner, and therefore safe. Or maybe they like the ritual. Within three minutes of proper bowl placement, all the nuts will be gathered, while at least one maintains watch on a wire. The adolescent will up her squawking game, furiously flapping at the crow with the most nuts stored away in her jaws. This crow will then mash up some of the nuts on the ground, gargle them, and regurgitate them into the mouth of the adolescent. This usually quiets her down. I keep an eye on the cats the whole time, as I don’t have the budget for the emergency room visit that would likely be required if one felt ambitious, and put a large bowl of water out on especially hot days for impromptu baths. We are friends.
They return the favor in unexpected ways. We used to have a neighbor who would amuse himself by rising early to stand on the sidewalk and play the same six bars on his trumpet, over and over again. Consider for a moment the tidal wave of curse words that would trail from my partner’s mouth in response to this unwanted wake-up call. The crows were equally unamused, and decided to demonstrate their feelings by dive bombing him one day, right in front of us, as we stood outside. The trumpet player screamed. Can you high five a crow? There are ways.
This is not my first friendship with crows. Awhile back I decided that I needed to get okay with handling dead things, and so I started lifting crows that had been hit by cars off of the roadway before they were pancaked flat. Crows mate for life, and form elaborate communities; when a crow is struck by a car, the full family sometimes assembles nearby to honor the fallen friend and support the widow. The ruckus is amazing. It is hard for me to imagine witnessing a friend’s death, and then watching him get brutalized again and again. The first time I lifted a crow from the concrete, the noise of outrage was deafening; when I placed the body on the green, they fell silent. I can’t say whether they understood what I was doing, but the next time they were silent the whole time, from when I lifted the dead remains to when the body touched green. I did this maybe a dozen times before I relocated to a neighborhood with fewer crows, but while I lived there I felt close to the crows, and that they remembered. It felt special, but I know that they don’t just remember me.
There have been many experiments to test the intelligence and memory of crows, the most famous of which involved men in masks who captured and tagged a small number of crows. The masks were then passed on to different people, over and over again, to see if the crows remembered the faces of the men that captured them. The crows not only remembered, but word of the offense spread, and crows dive-bombed the wearer of the mask in larger and larger numbers. It’s good to be in with the crows, and is quite bad for your health to not be.
These crow friends of mine provide a sense of security. They alert me when one of the neighbors’ crosses the street, when the mailman approaches, when the morning is getting too warm and I need to wake up before I miss it. They gobble up the bits of loneliness that inevitably afflict anyone with the occupation (or preoccupation) of writer. And they provide their own answer to Alan Moore’s query of “who watches the watchmen?” The crows, of course. The crows are always watching, observing, recording.
My friendship with this tree is an old one. Our introduction was not a meeting so much as being summoned to a waiting cradle of branches. My wow has the force of a hundred surprised children without the tongues to speak; the tongues of a thousand agog aliens synthesizer- circling electronic eyes; the eyes, ocelli, of a million metamorphosed insects testing the beat of their wings, antennae tasting air of moss and mushroom, ocean and leaf. Octopus tree responded to this wow by warming me: Your light is so very blue. This is something you don’t forget. Now all of me autopilots down the trail, wondering if in the evening hours this Octopus dances to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Pacific and considers returning to watery home. Branch over root Octopus Tree would fall, until broken bark revealed the tentacle truth. When we are face to face this is something I show her, while she pulls at my nearest memory, crows on a wire, and pushes moss and mushroom into my skin. Octopus Tree and I tangle, light dancing around every limb, reading her, reading me. Colors swarm us, mold and mushroom, moss and sap, wildflowers yellow. All the while, blue ocean beckons from below: to me, to us, to me.