Slow and Easy Above the Hustle

Hello Everyone,

It's a pretty snazzy place, I must say.

It’s a pretty snazzy place, I must say.

I spent most of this past week painting an apartment on the 42nd floor of a building on the Upper East Side of New York City.  The apartment belonged to a bona-fide British Lord – his crash pad in the city.  But I didn’t have to bow in his presence, or worry about losing my head with the slightest hint of disloyalty.  The Lord was very nice and unpretentious.  In no way did he present himself like a nobleman.  He didn’t even have an accent.  He’s lived in the U.S. since he was a young man and sounds like a little more relaxed version of Cary Grant.  A nice guy – paid me in dollars, not potatoes.

But the fellow has good taste and the money to satisfy it.  The view out the huge windows was breathtaking – a god’s eye view of Manhattan.  Looking down at so many rooftop gardens and patios on the shorter yet still damn tall buildings, the homes of the less rich but still way damn rich – does something to the mind.  It slows things down.  From upon high, the traffic on the street moves slower, people down below move along the side walks like tiny bugs – a millionaire’s view of the millions below.  When you can see so much of the city in one view, the city looks like a machine, all lubed up, running smoothly and on schedule.  That high up, what’s there to worry about?  I’ll tell you what.  Finishing the huge paint job on schedule, that’s what.  I had four days to complete the job, even though the Lord told me to take my time.  He seemed absolutely certain I’d finish the job.

Of course, I paint barefooted.

Of course, I paint barefooted.

Around 2pm each day I’d pause for about fifteen minutes to eat a sandwich.  I’d sit at the windows and gaze down below.  Above the ceaseless ambient roar of the city, only the stray car horn or siren would find its way to me.  The square blocks of brick building after brick building made the city look so organized, as if everything happening down below was planned perfectly, or more so, pre-ordained.  The people-dots looked programmed to walk in the direction they were walking – their future already determined.  But – also, from so high up – I felt like I was secretly let in on a cruel joke, because I could see what’s around the corner for all the little dots down below.  They had no clue, however.  To them a mystery awaits at the next turn.  The little dots were deep down in The Hustle – helpless, at the whim of the city.  I was happy I couldn’t see any of their faces.  It would’ve been somewhat depressing to see any hope in their expressions.

On the 59th Street Bridge, the traffic moved across moved slowly – so slow, suggesting in whispers that – Getting hit by a little slow car like me on a bridge like this would only give you a little scratch.  Come on over, painter man, and run out in front of me.   But my ancestry of indentured servitude and share cropping told me different – the faster carriages and heavy machinery kill, at best cripple.  Off in the distance, I watched jet after jet take off from LaGuardia Airport.  They looked so slow upon take off, suggesting speed is not a requirement of flight.  The jets whispered to me, too – Flight is easy.  Look, if a big junky plane like me can do it, surely you can.  Give it a shot, painter man, you’re just a window pane away.  But the planes were rushing at speeds I could never achieve on my own.  If I tried, I would fall to my death.  I suddenly realized I was gaining wisdom at a fascinating pace, way up in the thin air.  I knew the nature of speed and mass, flight and death, and everything else.

Somewhere somebody is alone and it is too late.

Somewhere down there somebody is alone and it is too late.

Everytime I heard a siren, I knew it was an abulance rushing to the apartment of an old lady who fell and broke her hip, to a young kid shot on the corner of 112th street and 1st avenue, to an apartment on the Upper West Side that was on fire.  That apartment had a cat trapped inside.  The cat would not make it out alive, just as the kid on 112th would bleed out before the paramedics arrived, just as the old lady couldn’t hold on to the ghost a few more moments as the EMT’s tried to stabilize her.  I knew the fates of 8 million people below me.  All around I saw so much pain laced with loneliness.  Everyone down below was  trapped and alone – no exceptions.  If I barely raised my head, I could see clear to the horizon – tree covered hills, not buildings.  From the millionaire’s view, I could see the edge of the city, and with the view came the wisdom that the city doesn’t go on forever.  But with a slight twitch of the neck downward, my gaze was back to the city streets, where so many people were lost and knew no way out.

During the evenings, I would start to get tired and would feel the urge to speed the painting along.  It took discipline to maintain slow and steady pace.  I would also feel the pressure of the deadline and get frustrated at my progress.  On Tuesday evening, a norther blew into the city and the windows creeked and pulsed with each gust of wind.  Just a pane of glass away were the forces of nature – those forces I cannot control.  I thought about that for a while, as I ate my evening sandwich.  Was I just as helpless up here in the sky, as were the minions down below?  Is everything programmed and pre-ordained here too?  Are the millionaires part of the machine too, not running it, as I had assumed?  Was this paint job already finished on time, or had I already failed at making the deadline?  Was Shakespeare and the Hindus right, was the great drama already written and all I had to do was roll the paint?  That was a lot of questions to ask in a row, so I stopped there.  Truth was, even if I did have the magic power to see around corners, I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.  The view from up here was a ruse, I said to myself.  And knowledge of the future is a useless tool.  Paint job be damned, I said to myself – again, for I got so tired at night I would talk to myself.  Yes, be damned.  Whether this paint job is already painted or not, I will paint on.  A painter paints.  I managed to calm down, and when I did I gained a truly usefull tool – better than a crystal ball.  I gained the knowledge that The Hustle resides in the same place as Good and Evil.  Not in the world beyond the window, but in one’s self.  Therefore, The Hustle  was a force I could control.  Finally, around 10:30pm or so, I would leave the apartment.  I always took one more look out the windows.  Every night, the headlights of cars on the streets looked like the firey eyes of racehorses as they feverishly raced to the next redlight.  Hurrying up just to stop again, over and over.  New York City.

Good Flick.

Good flick.

Well, I almost came in at deadline.  I’d finished the painting, Thursday night, but still needed to clean up Friday morning.  The Lord was ok with that – didn’t chain me to the castle wall to instill fear into the other peasants.  On the subway ride home, an old black busker hopped on somewhere in lower Manhattan and sang “Stand By Me”, shaking his hatful of loose change to keep time.  There were only a few of passengers on the train, and it felt like he sang to each and every one of us.  “Stand By Me” is one of the finest songs ever written, and in my totally unhumble opinion, the only song I’ve ever heard about real love, for it captures the simplicity of real love.  A love free from romance and sex, or dark poetic torturous co-dependent clinginess that we praise in the dog eat dog reality we’ve created for ourselves, where we’ve convinced ourselves love is something we fight for, convinced ourselves that love is a quest, something bigger than it is.  “Stand By Me” isn’t about love that lasts forever or love that cuts like a knife or hurts so good or anything like that.  Ben E. King – the song’s author – knew love wasn’t a battlefield.  He knew there wasn’t a book of love, because there’s not that much to write about.  In fact, he doesn’t even use the word “love” in the song because Mr. King was given an oh, so small moment of clarity when he saw it’s humankind’s folly to even put a name on it.  When I sing “Stand By Me,” I’m not asking for your soul forever, to be one with you forever.  I’m just asking will you be with me, when…

…the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall                                                                Or the mountain should crumble to the sea…

Not to save me, or complete me, just asking if you will be with me when the forces of nature collapse.  And they will collapse.  For the Lords on high and the lost down below.

On Friday morning, I cleaned up the drops and smears of paint here and there and officially finished the job.  I had so much paint stuck in my hair I figured I might as well get a haircut.  I went to my neighborhood barber, Adam, who spends more time talking than cutting but I don’t mind.  He’s got a great personality and I get a kick out of his Russian-Brooklyn accent.

“But I moved to Turkey when I was young man, you know,” he said.  “I speak Turkish very well, too, my friend.  English?  Is hard language to learn.  If you are over 40, forgettaboutit.  Not gonna learn it well.  But you know, I hadn’t been to Turkey in 12 years.  But I go, and just like that, I speak it fluently.”

I looked at Adam through the mirror.  He was standing by me, smiling, waving his comb and scissors around, enjoying telling me about himself.  His wife was next us, speaking in Russian to the person whose hair she was cutting.  She was smiling, too.  There was another person waiting for a haircut.  They were busier than usual, but they weren’t in a hurry.  Down from the tower and back with all the other little people-dots, I realized there was always time to stand by each other in The Hustle.

Comin' at the chil'ren fast and furious.

Comin’ at the chil’ren fast and furious.

“But I was 35 when I left Turkey” Adam continued.  “So I did not forget the language.  My little girls were 9 and 11, very young.  They forgot it just like that.  They only speak English now.  They look like, sound like American girls.  Everything is so much faster for them.”

Be well…

Explaining Dreams And Making It Back To The Fire

Hello Everybody,



I’ve had two recurring dreams in my life.  Without them, I would think dreams were merely the chaos of consciousness running through the mind while it’s unplugged from the Great Outlet – kind of a wind of omniscience blowing through the ears.  But due to these recurring dreams, I have to think a little differently, sometimes to the point of torment from searching for a meaning.  But of course, there’s no real answer on dreams.  How can there be?  Dreams are located in that place where our logic crumbles.  Gravity, time, death, all these absolutes we made up through our interpretation of consciousness are mocked by the Sandman.  Prooving the meaning of dreams would be like making cookies with horse apples and chainsaws.  Horrible texture, terrible taste.

In one dream, I’m surrounded by tornadoes.  I am outside in an open field and compelled to dodge many squiggling thin vinelike tornadoes, tearing across the land all around me.  These tornadoes are too small to pick me up but are spinning so fast they would slice right through me like a hot knife through butter.  I jump, duck, flip to avoid one after another – a drunk astronaut, forced to play some highly complex version of limbo by a much more advanced alien civilization at some interplanetary outpost way left of Albuquerque.  I can barely catch my breath but I keep on dodging.  There’s no time to think of another strategy.

Touching Down on the Dreamscape.

Touching Down on the Dreamscape.

Usually there is another person in the dream, just within my vision.  Many times, it has been my mother, but it’s also been friends or other supportive people.  The last time, it was my girlfriend, Osha.  This person – whoever it is – cannot help me for reasons never made known.  They shout at me but I can’t hear what they are saying, for the wind screams loud like a frieght train.  I can’t run to them, either – another unwritten rule of the dream forbids me from doing so.  They just silently scream and point at the tornadoes.

There is always a building, not too far away.  It’s usually the house I grew up in, way down in Orange Grove, Texas, though not always.  I know that if I can make it to this place, I will be out of harm’s way.  But I begin to sink into the muddy ground below me.  I’m barely able to dodge the thin tornadoes – they burn my skin as I just miss them.   The huge tornadoes loom closer on the horizon.  Exhausted, sluggish, I sink deeper into the mud.

I begin to think I might not make it to safety.  The huge tornadoes shake the earth.  Osha – or mom, or you, or sometimes a kind stranger – are still there, floating on the edge of my vision, screaming silently, pointing at the mammoth twisters.



I forge steps through the mud with all my might, regarding the little tordadoes with abandon.  The big ones are coming!  Bringing with them the end of all things known.  They are miles wide – fat midnight black dancers waltzing drunkenly on Mother Nature as she sleeps off the ruffee they slipped her.  Closer, closer.  But I can go no further, for I am up to my hips in the mud, I can’t even move my legs.  I can’t move my arms either, for some mysterious reason.  I’m completely paralyzed.  The rain is like broken glass on my face.  The wind howls at such a high pitch yet is also thick, heavy –  it becomes both sight and sound.  Louder and louder, the howls take everything away.  Then…I wake up.

The Googleverse steers all explanations of the tornado dream to the general conclusion that they signify a lack of control in one’s life.  The fact that mine has a loved one in it, and usually occurs at the home of my childhood, may signify that I have to find closure from something or some event in my past to be able to hear the loved one’s who are there, always in my corner.  Whatever…

Friday night, I rode the N-train from Brooklyn to meet Osha in Manhattan.  Two very old-school Irish-Italian Brooklyn guys hopped on shortly after I did.  One – the more Irish of the two –  asked the other – the more Italian of the two – for directions to somewhere in Manhattan.

“Yeah, sure, you get off at yada yada, get on the yada yada…turn left at yada yada…then yada yada bing, yada yada bang, you’re there.”

“Thanks, bro.”

“Sure thing.”

“Brooklyn, born and raised, but I can’t figure out my way in Manhattan to save my life.”

What happened next is not rare but never ceases to amaze and please me.  The two strangers told the short form of their life stories to each other.  A little bit of this, a little bit of that.  Bam!  Brooklyn!  They’re lives were very similar.  Both single, both unemployed.  Irish wished he had a job, was asking around to see about one here and there.  Italian was not, however.

“My boy Obama’s takin’ care a me, bro.  $400 a week unemployment.  I had a guy hire me but he can’t gimme steady enough work for the $400 I’m already gettin.’  I tell him I’ll work off the books a bit.  I’m set bro.  I work when I want.  You know I’m used to walking on steel beams that thick (he holds hands about a 1ft. apart)…risking my life for years.  I’ll take unemployment for a while.  I mean…I’m homeless right now but so what, I got friends and they got couches.  I’m happy, that’s all that matters.”

State of the Union.

State of the Union.

“Oh, yeah,” exclaimed Irish as he pounded Italian’s fist.  “And there ain’t no money can buy that for you.”

Somewhere in lower Manhattan, a crazy black man got on the subway.  He sat next to me and smelled like he just escaped from a basement containing tons of old newspapers as old and yellow as he was.  He carried with him what many crazy people do – plastic grocery bags containing an assortment of plastic bottles, crumpled papers and other articles that are absolutely necessary to survival in his reality that the Educated Class can’t make heads or tails of, therefore refer to the contents as random junk.  He occasionally flipped the bird at no one in particular, while he stared straight passed Irish’s eyes and into his brain, as if he was looking around in it for more random junk.  His continuous monologue had its own style and was not a slave to punctuation.

“Ha…can you dig?…’Merica…’Merica!…That’s where we at…I ain’t stupid boy…’Merica!  s’my country man…I ain’t got Aids…no sir…s’america boy…my country…I mean…it’s dirty, ha ha…fo’ sho’…but, ha ha…dig it…alright…ha ha…”

What does this particular subway ride mean?  Further, what does it have in conjunction with the tornado dream?  I don’t know.  I’m just bloggin.’  But way back in the caveman days we used to huddle around fire so we could see each other at night – sought comfort in seeing those who also managed to avoid the fangs of the day’s predators.  Every night, we talked of the hunt, escaping monsters we’d yet to name, pondered that real bright thing in the sky.  Every now and then, one of us stood up by the fire and attempted to explain a strange yet oddly familiar world they visited only after they lay down in the cave and closed their eyes.  They’re explanation gave us comfort, not because it gave meaning to dreams, but because we all had them – just like we all feared the monsters.  The Irish-Italian fellow, the Italian-Irish fellow and the crazy black fellow stood at the fire – showed us they’d avoided the fangs one more day.  In the glow of the flames, it doesn’t matter if we speak of dreams or of the waking life, we simply need to show the other’s that we made it back to the fire.

It was something like this.  But not anymore.

It was something like this. But not anymore.

The other recurring dream?  I’m on the run – in a car, running up a stariway, swimming across a river, etc.  I’ve committed murder or some kind of damnable crime, and I’m running to escape judgment.  Everybody knows I’m guilty and everybody knows I’ll be caught, including me.  Judgment right on my heels as I quickly approach a cliff, a rooftop, the law waiting on the other side of the river.  In every scenario, everyone I know – all my loved ones – are helplessly watcing from the sidelines with pathetic gazes.  I’m more fearful of their gaze then the law.  Yet I keep running, because that’s the only thing I know to do.  But I quit drinking several years ago haven’t dreamt that dream since.  Now, it’s just the tornadoes.

Be Well…


Hello Everybody,

There it is.

There it is.

Last Tuesday, I road the D-train into Manhattan from Brooklyn during the morning rush-hour.  It was the first time I’d done so since I got back from my road trip to North Dakota.  I was running behind and still tired from the trip.  On my run to the subway, it felt like the rest of the world was just a few steps ahead of me, tied to a string in which Cosmo – the resident jester of the universe – kept pulling just a little further away, every time I tried to reach out and grab it.  But as I packed into the D-train with the rest of Workforce America! I noticed that just about everybody looked to be reaching out for a world just beyond them – just a fingertip away from the big IS.

Of course, there were no empty seats on the D-train so I posted myself against the sliding doors.  From my perch, I saw many pairs of tired, protective eyes.  Down, then a quick look into mine, then down again.  Mine too.  I was protecting, too, whatever the deep lizard part of my brain thought there was to protect.  Cosmo jumped from one spinning galaxy to another, pointing, laughing at us all.

Of course, more people piled in at every stop.  Everybody looked for even the smallest safety bubble.  But no use.  We pressed against each other as the train shucked and jived on the rails.  The human friction created a cloud of electricity, heavy, sluggish, yet powerful like an Oklahoma thunderstorm.  Still more people, more electricity.  More efforts to hide, more to protect.  More futility.  Cosmo – dangle, dangle.

imagesOf course, a packed subway commute is nothing new to me.  But Tuesday morning, I was hit with a good old fashioned panic attack.  Before I knew it, I was short of breath.  My left arm hurt as I tried to catch that one big breath that would calm things down a little.  But that only brought on dizziness.  The train lumbered on, rocking to and fro.  I was drifting in a river, nose just above the water, the bottom of the river just inches from my toes – at once trying to find footing and breath.  Trains go slower during panic attacks.  The jarring stops and starts are ampified, along with the impact of the people bumping into you.  I started seeing spots.  The train turned a corner, squealing so violently and directly into my brain that I was an impulse away from screaming madly or pissing myself.  I don’t mind saying it.  I was in a bad way.  The train stops squealing just in time for me to remember that we are underground, under thousands of tons of earth.  These subway tunnels are ancient, they can go any moment!  I see more and more spots until I can only make out blurred earthtones.  Hands clammy, legs shaking.  I struggle for deeper breaths.  The smell of humans on the canned heated air triggers an urge to throw up.  I have on too many clothes.  I’m f&%$ing boiling…

The train stopped at 42nd Street and – fully clothed – I exited the train, scurried up the steps like a rat for fresh air. I made it above ground into the blur of business dress and yellow cabs.  I joined the parade as to not get run over, marching to the tune of car horns and that unidentifiable, constant roar of the city.  After a cocktail of cold air with a dash of car exhaust, I found the rythm of the day’s beat.  My shoulders relaxed a little.  Breathing got easier.  Straight ahead was Cosmo – blowing kisses, smiling, tugging.

Map of New York.

Map of New York.

Cosmo picks up his pace and the world moves faster in New York.  One can get lost in his game and before one knows it years go by and the world’s still just beyond their fingertips.  The only changes being a little less hair, grayer hair – you’re skinnier or fatter, married to a credit card balance or maybe to a another person.  It gets real easy substitute just living in New York for one’s dreams.   A few years ago, I suddenly realized I was not terribly satisfied, so I split and went to work on a horse ranch in southern Utah for three months.  I was scared to leave New York, a fact I did not know until I saw the city from afar as I rode out to the airport.  But kicking around in the desert a while with people to whom New York was just another place like Des Moines or Clearwater helped me see New York as a city again, not the unamable blurry cloud I took it for – where the man I have been was not allowed and where the man I am must engage in a fight-to-the-death with the man I want to be, only stopping to join in the fight against the invisible creatures, Determination and Ambition.  I’m very grateful for the clarity the desert gave me.  Since the desert, my life has been truly amazing, and simple.  But sanity is forgettable, simplicity fleeting.  I waltzed back into New York, from North Dakota, and I didn’t remember to prepare for re-entry – to remember Calm.  Tuesday morning I payed the price.

On the drive to North Dakota, the world – though Cosmo still tugged it just ahead of me like a yoyo – moved slower with each mile.  My mind was able to take space-walks outside my brain, and do some much needed wandering.  My caveman instincts receded and my stomach muscles relaxed as the road roared beneath me.  Nothing was too serious.  New York’s a very serious place.  Don’t get me wrong, New York is filled with many quite funny and goofy people.  But just imagine what it may be like for circus clowns just before they get out of the tiny car.  One clown’s knee’s in another’s back, his rear-end’s in the face of another.  One clown’s got gas, but the damn ringmaster insists the windows stay rolled up – it’s good for business, to see all the clowns pressed together, to see them uncomfortable.  It makes for a much better pay off when the clowns burst of the little car and roll around on each other.  It cannot be the happiest of moment for a clown.  Good thing – for business – the smiles are painted on.

Just ask Smokey Robinson how they feel.

Just ask Smokey Robinson how they feel.

I know a man who hasn’t left the city for about 20 years.  We had coffee the other day.  He did most of the talking as he twitched and jerked constantly.  But he kept drinking the coffee.

“Let me tell you Todd,” he said.  “Being mentally ill is a drag.”

“Have you thought about getting out of the city?  Just a quick day trip on a train or a bus?”

“Oh, no…I…no, I can’t do that.”

He, like most of us here, moved to the city for opportunity.  He wasn’t crazy back then, or at least wasn’t content with calling himself such.  I don’t know much about him, but I imagine he had some kind of dream back then.  Something so strong it  lofted him over his fears and into his own being – someone he liked to be, surviving via his mind, legs and arms.  He’s not a rare case, either.  I’ve known people in the city that haven’t even left individual neighborhoods for years.  They babble about in tiny grocery stores – wear coats in the summertime, argue with the butcher that the minute it took him to slice their order of gouda cheese was a minute too long.  Mr. Butcher should go back to whatever Middle Eastern country he’s from, the babbling wretch shouts across the counter.  Mr. Butcher’s waited on the babbling wretch for ten years.  He just smiles, hands her the cheese, and says, “Buenos dias.”

The rule here is that one is an official New Yorker when one has lived here for at least ten years.  So, I guess I’m about to become an official New Yorker in a few months.  In the decade I’ve been here I’ve seen quite a few people – people real dreams – pack it up and leave.  I would never say they gave up on their dreams – just that their dreams changed as they neared them.  They say you have to hold onto your dreams to make it in the city.  But I don’t believe that.  I think holding on to the dream as you saw it –  when you first found a wormhole and crawled into the Big Apple – leads to discontent, as the years go by, and clenching it tighter only leads to madness.  I was only an actor when I moved here, only wanted to be an actor and if you told me I would find happiness in anything else I would’ve turned and walked away, never to talk to you again.  Ten years down the road, that seems like a crazy, hurtful thing to do, to you and to myself.  The view of my dream changed as I neared it.  Something – especially a dream – cannot look the same, from far away, as it does, years later, when one has reached it.

I understand that the world’s always gonna be just slighty beyond my reach.  But I also understand that I have to continue toward it, just like everyone else.  To babble and scream that it is out of my reach – yet not take any steps toward it – might suggest to someone that I was quite mad.  Just like bursting out in tears and pissing myself in the subway.  I’m glad I hung in there and took the pressure, like everybody else.

I’d managed to piece together a full workday on Tuesday.  Afterwards, I hopped the F-train out to my buddy Joe’s to play guitars.  Joe’s a good friend, and I got many.  Many of them are shapeshifting dreamers, too.  I hadn’t taken the F-train in a while.  But I used to live off it, a few years ago.  Back then, I would see a woman begging for change.  Every night, she said her and her little girls were living in a shelter, it was cold and dangerous.  Please help.  I saw the same lady Tuesday night, too.  Begging, her little girls were still little, still living in a cold and dangerous shelter.  The woman’s voice still cracking the way it did a few years ago.  Then I thought about a guy I used to see on the 6-train when I lived in Spanish Harlem.  I’d see him every night, begging to the point of tears that he was living in a shelter, and the night before his bag containing everything he owned was stolen, and if we could please find it in our hearts to help…every night.

images-1So, I guess I’m living the good life because – though I’m feeling the pressure of New York quite a bit, lately – I’m still playing Cosmo’s game of cat and mouse – still able to play it.  I can move.  For some people, the pressure is simply to strong.  They are frozen in time.  The bag will always be stolen the night before.  The shelter will always be cold and dangerous.  Her little girls will never grow – will always stay little girls.

Be well…

The Great Wide Open

Hello Everybody,

Minneapolis - Home of, Prince, one of the coolest dudes to shred a guitar.

Minneapolis – home of, Prince, one of the coolest dudes to ever shred a guitar.

Greetings from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport!  It’s bright and sunny here in the Twin Cities.  It’s also 2 degrees Fahrenheit.  Seeing the sunshine in such cold weather is on par with – I suspect – watching an ice cube not melt in an oven. It’s happening right before your eyes, defying logic. Logic, of course, was created by humans somewhere way back in the old timey times, and is forever develping.  We humans have broken our backs adhearing to our self-created logic, no matter how often Change opens up a can of whoop-ass on us. Hey, all I’m saying is that in some other universe – or alternative time track – an ice cube is not melting in an oven.  The uncertainty principle allows for such illogical events.  And the uncertainty principle was a conclusion brought about by logical thinking.  So it’s only logical that….bleh.

I’m waiting on my 2nd flight out of three – on my way back to New York.  Grand Forks, ND to Minneapolis, MN to Philadelphia, PA to The Big Apple. It’s already a long day and I still got a long way to go.  A long day, to close out a long, amazing week.

We – Matt, Greg and Jerry from the North Dakota Museum of Art, along with myself – set out from New York at 3pm on Tuesday.  If you didn’t read last week’s El Jamberoo, we were charged with the task of packing up everything in deceased artist Barton Benes’ Greenwich Village apartment and transporting it all to Grand Forks, where the museum will recreate the cramped spectacle of artifacts, oddities and art out on the Great Plains.  A gentle sun shined as we finished loading the trucks – which took two days. But by the time we lumbered the two hulking Penske rental trucks through the Lincoln tunnel and re-birthed them into New Jersey, the weather had turned and rain began to fall.  Matt and I paired up in one truck.  I drove first.

America is filled with all kinds of highs and lows.

America is filled with all kinds of highs and lows.

While Matt made phone call after phone call – lining up storage for Benes’ stuff, etc – I motored us onward through rush-hour on the rising and falling landscape.  The rain fell harder as we puttered through Jersey and into Pennsylvania, passing towns with names like Hopatcong and Tommahanny.  The traffic thinned after the Poconos – the rain stayed – and I was able to take in the scenery a little better.  Interstate 80 ushered us over the huge gorges and quarries of central Pennsylvainia.  The darkening sky gave Iron Country a haunted air, as the steam from rivers rose to join the darkness.  Railroads ran along mountainsides and it was easy to think I was driving further back into Time, when the rails were the arteries of the nation.  But after the last of the gray sky went dark, all I could see was the tracers of headlights coming my way, the taillights ahead of me, and the well lit billboards advertising everything we all need for a happy fulfilled American life.  Then it was easy for me to see I was in modern times.

Since Matt was on and off the phone I didn’t think he would be able to see much along the way. But when he hung up the phone for the last time, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t it amazing how most of this country is named after Indians but we all but erased them from history.  It’s just basically Geronimo and Sitting Bull in school and that’s it.”

The next day’s drive offered the same as they day before – gray skies, rain, Indian names.  We crossed over to Ohio and along the Cayahoga River, Black River and Maumee River, little towns nestled in the woods along the banks.  Pointy churches and pointy homes rose high, piercing the sky to let more water out.  The towns were rusty and old, looked as if they hadn’t changed in many decades and would not change for many more.  But I was wrong, everything changes. Even Ohio, which changed to Indiana in the late afternoon.  There, the landscape was flatter.  The weather changed, too.  Snow began to fall and soon I couldn’t see but a few yards beyond the hood.  We turned off I-80 and exited through an automatic toll booth that made change in Sacagawea dollar coins.  That made good American sense – to automate, so America wouldn’t have to hire an American to do the job.  The fact that the booth couldn’t make exact change was but a little matter, I’m sure, to the lawmakers who tell us they want to create more jobs.  That kind of logic is right at home in some other universe, I suspect.

Sacagawea, and Indian showing the White man The Way.

Sacagawea, an Indian showing the White man The Way.

We stayed the night in Michigan City, Indiana and ate a Texas Roadhouse.  Matt shelled out the Sacagaweas for the waitress’ tip and was amazed to see not a portrait of the Indian woman who saved the lives of Lewis and Clark and was a major factor in their success in crossing the continent, but portraits of Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B Hayes and Ullyses S Grant.  I knew they erased Sacagawea from the dollar coin some time ago, and I guess it made good American sense to replace a pivotal figure in our history with presidents who’s administrations ranged from rather forgettable to downright scandalous.  It was just a shame to be reminded of that in Indian-a.

The next morning – after coffee, an hour of the History Channel and commercials apealing to me to ask my doctor about testosterone defficiency – we headed further westward.  We left Indiana, traveling along I-94, and after paying about $150,000 to the Illinois Toll Road System, we hit the lanes of easy Wisconsin blacktop.  The land rose and fell so friendly.  Little farms peaked out over the snow drifts from the previous days’ blizzard.  People had to drive quite a distance to get what they needed, out there.  There were no corner delis or Fresh Direct for Wisconsin farmers.  The still trees, grain silos and red barns reminded me that America moves at many speeds, and that no speed was any better than the other.  Americans are animals, adapted to several environments, weather shaping the morals and logic of each region.  But we are all good animals, and there is room out there for all of us to feel and live the way we are compelled to live…and WE DON’T have to live the way TV anchors and bloated politicians say we want to live.  I couldn’t devote much time to my American theories that afternoon, however, for I had to share the road with many 18-wheelers.  Behind me, ahead of me and beside me, big rigs sped toward a deadline down by the setting sun.  I had to mind the road – or else – as I motored Barton Benes’ apartment through land that would make a fine painting. The only thing that would make the painting a masterpiece would be the sun, I thought. Then BAM! The sun burst underneath the clouds just before sunset, sometime after crossing the Kishwaukee River.

Every day happens everyday.

Every day happens everyday.

The western horizon glowed in fiery yellows, reds, pinks.  A Big Sky sunset – no buildings or anything else man created could hide it from me and it felt good to be out in the Great Wide Open. It felt good to be an American.  It really did.  Because out there in The Great Wide Open I can be the American I want to be, the American I can be proud of.  When I’m away from Electric, Spoon-Fed America, I don’t have to choose one side or the other.  I don’t have to choose blue or red, left or right, conservative or liberal.  Out in The Great Wide Open, I am reminded that there are many more colors – and directions –  known in existence than just two.  Further, I am reminded that given the choice of “one or the other” is no way to exist at all.  I’d gotten really wise by the time an 18-wheeler curled around me fast and close in the dark.  I had to hold my lane as to not drift onto the icy shoulder.  I watched the semi’s taillights grow smaller and steered my thoughts to the road, only the road.  Too much philosophizing takes a driver out of the moment, leads him away from the sun and into the darkness.

We stopped at a hotel in Monticello, Minnesota for the night.  We couldn’t get our things out of the back of the truck because the lock on the door was frozen.  I shivered uncontrollably while Matt put a flame to the lock.  My nose hairs froze and my face burned in the cold.  Each of us blew big clouds of steam in the blue black night.  It was -4 degrees and I was instantly reminded that I was from Texas.  I felt I would crack to dust if it got any colder.

But it was -15 degrees next morning and I still held together as Matt heated the locks again.  Matt’s from the North Country.  He moves in a way suggesting he is very familiar to the cold.  He had adapted to the weather.  I figured I was adapting, or just going numb. Whatever the case, I was able to fire up the truck and pull her out onto I-94.  It was a half day’s of drive to Grand Forks.  The sun was shining bright behind us and I had to squint against the glare of the pure white landscape before me.



But about two hours into the drive, the sky turned white and in no time it was impossible to tell earth from sky.  By the time we got to Fargo, ND, the snow was falling and the roads iced over.  Waves of snow crawled across the road like little snake clouds – mezmerising – albino serpents guiding us into the underworld.  I fought the temptation to follow the snakes into the white abyss until a green sign – “Grand Forks Next Exit” – hovered in the air.  I exited I-29, toward Grand Forks, away from frozen hell.  Minutes later, I was backing the truck into a loading dock.  Then I killed the engine, jumped down from the cab.  The trip was over. Such a long journey ending so quickly.  But don’t they all?

Barton Benes lived in his little studio apartment at West Beth Artist Housing for 42 years.  It took us two days to load up his life.  It took us two hours to unload it.  We had a good crew and we didn’t have to negotiate any steep stairways, narow elevators, broken cobble stones or grumpy New York shut-ins.  Seeing his boxed life in the big storage room in Grand Forks made it so clear to me how life comes and goes – how grand it is while at the same time only a burp in time.  Just before we left I took one last look at Bartons’ stuffed giraffe.  It was wrapped in plastic, almost hidden by cardboard boxes.  If it were alive, it would not be pleased with the weather of his new environment.  But it would’ve adapted to it.  Or died.  That’s what the lesser animals do.  It’s only the highest species – we who create wisdom, morals, Republicans, rape, Democrats, and logic – that has the priviledge to either adapt, die, or live miserably until we adapt or die.  But out in The Great Wide Open, we are reminded that we created misery, and reminded it is a choice.

Live Free or Die.

End of the road, yet life goes on.

Be well…