Monday, February 17, 2014

Catching the Heat of an Inward Sun


I once had a job as a painter in a medical dental building in downtown San José, California, that had been built in the 1920s. This was a year or two before San José surrendered the last of her orchards and canneries and morphed into the electronic empire that is Silicon Valley.  The building was undergoing an intensive remodeling and I had arrived at a point in its evolution in which all the medical and dental apparatus had been removed and junked leaving behind suites of empty office space. My job was to paint the empty office space, a task I pursued with the measured strokes of a paint roller and studied daubs of a paintbrush when it came time to do the trimming. As jobs go, it wasn’t so bad. I got to listen to Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen on a tape player and work almost entirely alone. I was married at the time, but the marriage was in its last throes, a moribund state of chronic unease laced with slippery ambiguities, passionate arguments and spasmodic demonstrations of affection. It wasn’t fun. Not at all.
I wince whenever I think back to what a jerk I was. Had been. Hopefully will never be that arrogant, pretentious prick again.
It was a strange time. I was witness to a birth, but did not realize the magnitude of social change that I would later recognize as the dystopia we now occupy on this dying planet. I just painted. Office after office. All with their beautiful wood trim and ghosts and radiators.
The radiators were steam radiators, those marvelous old cast iron hot-water radiators that circulated the water through an accordion-like series of pipes. My job was to remove the radiator from the wall and take it down to the basement on the elevator where I spray-painted it silver and brought it back and reinstalled it. In one office I began a conversation with a man a few years my senior who would later become a very close friend. We shared strong interests in literature and art and particularly the art of conversation. We also both enjoyed wine. I began spending weekends at his cottage in the Santa Cruz Mountains surrounded by towering redwoods where he and his wife and three children all welcomed me. It was an especially nice place to be when my marriage did finally give up the ghost and I became a single man again. I was in my mid-twenties, it was 1974, and I had recently graduated from San José State with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature. A degree which people would advise I prudently leave off job applications. The degree was less than useless. In a highly competitive job market driven by semiconductors and algorithms an English degree was about as marketable as a pair of mismatched socks. You did not want a prospective employer to know you were the dreamy romantic type with a penchant for gazing out of office windows wishing you were elsewhere.
My job as a painter evolved into becoming a factotum of sorts, assistant to the building superintendent, a wiry, extremely high-strung man named Angelo. I installed lights, removed carpeting, patched holes, sanded a bar, and helped Angelo with more complicated plumbing problems, air filtration systems and the various general contractors hired to do carpeting and electrical work. The property management company I worked for bought another property, a large dormitory that was going to be used as an alcoholic recovery facility. I liked the man I worked for, an elderly gentlemen with white hair, tall, elegant, who drove a Cadillac. He himself was a recovering alcoholic. I showed up one morning to continue assembling beds and cleaning the kitchen and found nobody there. I waited a few minutes, then figured no one was coming, and went back home. I returned the next morning and the elderly gentleman was sitting at a table by the front door. As I entered he looked at me angrily and told me I was fired. I was shocked. What I had done? He was furious because I’d been the only one with a key, apparently, and left before the other work team arrived. They couldn’t do anything because they’d been locked out. So that was that. He was in no mood to argue.
I found another job as a teaching assistant to two women who taught a class to young adults, mostly Mexican Americans, who had been forced to drop out of high school for one reason or another. They were trying to get GED diplomas. It was my job to work on an individual basis with the students. I met with a great deal of hostility at first, these kids had a profound antagonism toward any form of authority, especially someone with blonde hair and a Scandinavian name, but after a while I managed to win their receptivity. I inspired them to write a short story or poem about a planet. They could invent a planet and do anything they wanted.
And thus I entered my Dylan Thomas phase. I liked taking my lunch breaks at a nearby branch of the San José public library. It was there that I discovered a volume of letters by Dylan Thomas. I loved his poetry, but his letters knocked me out. They were overflowing with wit and humor and a lively palpitation of words. I related to this guy. He loved to drink, carouse, and write and recite poetry. That was where I was at, totally. I was drinking a lot then, wine, whiskey, beer, you name it, cocaine occasionally if it was offered, and was absurdly poor. I didn’t cadge money, I did manage to maintain some semblance of self-support and was never seriously destitute, but my predictions about becoming an impecunious wordsmith had become resoundingly true. My ex-wife had gone the opposite direction, married an attorney, hosted a cable TV show, and began having kids while I tossed back shots of whiskey and wrecked a friend’s motorcycle. Leaving me wasn’t even a choice. It had been an inevitability.
Many of Dylan Thomas’s letters include a plea for money. These requests, put forward with waggish humility, helped boost my self-esteem. Life wasn’t about money. Life was about life. Living life to the fullest with or without money was life’s most perfect consummation. This may be more easily achieved with money than without money, but modesty of means has its perks, too. As long as the basic needs are met, food, shelter, clothing, etc., the rest is scratching words on the air as the fire catches and the blind fury of life jumps like tigers out of your eyes. 

4 comments:

David Grove said...

To me this is great because I identify so closely, especially with the remorse over being an arrogant, pretentious prick. I've been wracked with that remorse over and over. And the liking for painting and Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen and Dylan Thomas's letters. Lots of people dislike Collins, I've noticed, but I love all that folky Sandy Denny Mary Hopkin 60s stuff. And you make me want to dig up my copies of Thomas's letters and Quite Early One Morning--that word-drunk prose I loved, still love. I may be drinking too much wine these days--I've just had a glass or two, as a matter of fact--but I didn't drink to excess in my 20s. Not because I was temperant, but only because drinking too much would've prevented me from doing other things I wanted--needed--to do. I like to write under the influence of alcohol, but I doubt that I've written any keepers while merde-faced. I don't think pot has helped my writing--some people say that it helps the disparate fragments of something they're working on coalesce, but I haven't had that experience--though it has given me a few stories to tell later. Maybe it's viper-jazzed up my writing indirectly: remembering how it made me feel induces a hyper-priming state of mind. I used to freebase cocaine now and then when I had friends in low places. But painting: if I weren't a garbageman I'd like to paint. I don't even have time to write these days. I'm adjuncting again, and I'm in another play, this time Moliere. Every night I drive an hour to a rehearsal at a little community college. I'm playing an old man, so my body's sore from gimping around like Richard III, and my throat's sore from talking like Norman Bates's mother. I'd like to just paint rooms for a while.

John Olson said...

Good on you for performing Moliere! I love Moliere. I've never laughed so hard as I did at a Seattle Intiman performance of A Doctor In Spite Of Himself with Daniel Breaker in the lead role. I went home with my stomach hurting from laughing so much. As for booze, I lived for alcohol beginning at age 15 and consuming vast quantities unto my early 40s, when I stopped completely. Now my drug of choice is lavender oil in softgel capsules.

David Grove said...

Early 40s: I gather that that's when your writing really took off? Hallelujah. I hope you don't feel the deprivation too keenly.

You might like this M., The Schemings of Scapin (Les Fourberies de Scapin). We're doing it commedia dell'arte style, with weird half masks that remind me of Eyes Wide Shut and kabuki-like exaggeration of voices and movement. Also Three Stooges-like slapstick, ribaldry, scatological humor. For example, I'm doing "the lazzo of the pissing."

John Olson said...

Sounds terrific. Yes, my writing pretty much took off after I got sober. Weekends were generally spent in front of a TV watching whatever was available while nursing a hangover. I don't know how Charles Bukowski managed, but alcohol is categorically not my muse.