Michael Maki

Mike Maki & Larry Korn

Michael Maki (left, in prison duds) with Larry Korn, appropriately slightly out of focus and up against a wall at Sheridan Federal Prison Camp in Oregon

The first three books in my Dominick Chronicles—New Jerusalem News, Some People Talk with God, and Next Exit Paradise—each had its own location—the New England coast, the Hudson Valley, and Hawaii respectively. Dominick is a wanderer, and America is his serendipitous hobby. For reasons now vague, I decided to site the fourth book in the Pacific Northwest. But it had been forty years since I wandered that part of the country. I would need help with local color details.

I now live in the locale of the first book, spent time in Catskill and Hudson researching the second, and relied heavily upon my painter friend Catherine Buchannan on Molokai for the details to jog my memory in the third. A younger me would have headed west to revisit that stretch of coast between Mendocino and Olympia that always felt like a home I never got to live in. But for all the usual boring reasons of infirmity, poverty, and inertia that was not going to happen. I reached out to my old friend Larry Korn* in Oregon for assistance.

Larry, bless him, got me in touch with one of his good friends, the horticulturalist Michael Maki, who is a native son and long-time denizen of that piece of rural coastline I had come to focus on, around South Bend, Washington. Mike and I connected, and he came through, bringing coastal Washington back to life for me, helping me create the fictional town of Port Athens, where Dominick now finds himself, again enmeshed, against his wishes, in local affairs and other people’s problems.

But all that is really beside the point here, as the important thing that happened was that I got to meet Mike Maki through his writing. I will let him introduce himself here, then in future blogs share more of his observations.

I am right now at two and a half years into a 48 month sentence for growing and distributing magic mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis. This was my first federal arrest besides one in 1972 as a draft resister during the Vietnam War, for which I got lucky and had charges dropped, besides an additional after-the-fact pardon from Jimmie Carter. Which isn’t to say it was the first time I ever grew psychoactive fungi, but it was the first time I ever sold them to a wired-up federal informer (who I thought was a friend) trying to save his hide on another drug charge, unbeknownst to me.

I went down as collateral damage in another drug investigation. The “mushroom people” aren’t really on the screen of law enforcement, not being a dangerous drug as measured by any of the standards of addiction, violence, or bad social judgment (except perhaps the questioning of authority), but still sitting in the Catch-22 catch-all category known as DEA Schedule I, the most dangerous category, where unfortunately and inaccurately marijuana currently lies, along with heroin and other truly dangerous drugs. I have always and continue to believe in the value of psilocybin and other drugs in the class called entheogens. All of this story is told in greater depth on my FaceBook page, “Support Mike Maki.” For a lot more information and current science in this field, I recommend the published work of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

So here I am in a minimum security Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Sheridan, Oregon, along with nearly 500 other men, many of whom are here because of a residential drug treatment program here that can qualify an inmate to up to one year off sentence for completion of the nine month program. I have been deemed unqualified for the program, since, well, magic mushrooms aren’t addictive or dangerous to myself or others, which loops into the Catch-22 part of this legal circus. So I’m doing my time, teaching landscape horticulture in the voc-ed program here, and generally making myself as useful as I can, following the old leftist dictum: You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.

Feel free, John, to post and share my letters out. I’m here at an interesting historical turning point, kind of like I was during the Vietnam War, when the authorities lost heart for throwing young men into federal prison for their beliefs, and just before an illegal and unjust war ground to an end. The so-called War on Drugs is likewise winding and grinding down, and society is awakening to the facts of its injustice and inequity. And that’s the way it is here on the frontiers of social change. All the best to you and your readers, MM

* See Larry’s new book, One Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka (Chelsea Green Publishing)

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Tennessee Valley

Marin beachBecause we lived inside the gates we knew the combination to the locks. The fog could make the metal cattle guards across the road slippery, but the big gates would always swing easily on their federal hinges. Lock it again behind you. From here in only you and the rangers get to drive. Everyone else has to walk to the ocean. Who knows what the Miwok Indians may have variously named the place. Its first English name was Elk Valley after what could be killed there in the 1850s as market hunters vied to feed the hordes of non-self-sustainable strangers flooding San Francisco ten miles south. Of course it had been all climax coastal redwood forest then, grizzly bears and cougars. All gone inside a decade after the gold-rush locusts arrived.

The low ranch house that we lived in had once been Dean Witter’s place before the National Park Service took over this land as part of the national seashore and he moved, renting it out until ten years down the line when its grandfather-clause extension would expire and it would be demolished. Except for a ranger’s frame house further in it was the only private residence still inside the park. Mr. Witter had cut himself some sort of deal when he sold out.

Sausalito was the nearest town, just a few miles drive before the gate, but the ocean end of that now treeless, chaparral-cloaked valley could have been a hundred miles away from anywhere with streetlights. It wasn’t wilderness, just mesmerizing emptiness, a landscape that had suffered the denudement of clear cutting and then thoughtless overgrazing, before the land, exhausted, had retreated into economic and ecosystemic meaninglessness, stripped down to its ancient bare-rock, steep-ridged skeleton, blanketed with fog. A landscape like the shaved head of an Auschwitz survivor, stopped only by the sheer schist cliffs and the battering combers of the North Pacific.

Did I mention the fog? Fog-bound was the default state of the ocean end of the valley. Sausalito might be awash with sunlight, but inside the gate grayness ruled. It was the fog that had given the valley and its ocean cove its modern name. In 1853 the S.S. Tennessee, hauling eager Forty-niners up from Panama, in dense fog mistook the cliff-edged cove for the Golden Gate farther south and plowed itself straight up onto the beach so well that everyone aboard walked safely ashore and the ship was stripped bare of goods before the sea buried it into the berm. The disaster renamed the place Tennessee Valley. I was happy there.

Marin fog and Golden GateNow there’s a statement for you, a judgment lacking all objective indices, a panel of ghost judges holding up score cards—8.6, 8.8, 8.5, 9.0—and one memory contestant moment gets to smile and step—oh so temporarily—onto the highest little box: a happy time. Compared to what? Measured by what? Can it be replicated? What does the fog have to do with it? I think it was Clive James who identified happiness as “a by-product of absorption,” and the root of happiness is perchance. I just happened to be happily absorbed into that landscape, that place, those misty headlands that I had by chance been brought to. There never has been a plan, and in those years the very idea of a plan, of an external compass, of a predetermined destination seemed a sort of heresy. No. There were maps of a sort, of the shifting sort you see in ganglia black against the pink of your eyelids when you close your eyes in sunlight, maps that resembled a cluster of neurons in the neocortex, make that the future cortex. But those maps had nothing to do with geography. They were charts without names, portolas so secret not even their owner knew their meaning. Tennessee Valley just arrived.

I never actually lived there in that low moldy ranch house that the sun seldom shined on. I mean I never paid rent or met the landlord. I had an address elsewhere, but at the time it seemed like I only visited my place in Berkeley and the valley was my home. C lived there with her young daughter. They shared the big house with two other single mothers, each of whom had a daughter of about the same age, and, of course, the mothers’ lovers, as transient as I. This was the heart of my non-attachment years, still practicing my vows. It suited C as well, who had her own secret internal maps.

That household consumed an amazing amount of toilet paper. One night, stoned, the other two guys and I got together and pooled our tp purchases and figured out how few months it would take for the tp used there to stretch to L.A. That conversation began with a discussion of whose turn it was to pay for a septic tank pump out. I was happy there, a house that belonged to the women folk in which us men were allowed solely as a convenience. But it wasn’t the house. It was the valley it sat in, the hills that loomed over it, the birds that lived and visited there.

In my beat-up, old, taped-together, many-times soaked and many-times-dried, but still solidly in tact Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds there is still a yellow folded paper list of my bird species count from one Easter Sunday there—42 species in all, including sea and shore birds, and I had given up early to sit and watch the comings and goings of golden eagles from a condo-sized nest on a cliff above the ocean. It was a place of raptors—kestrel, red-tailed, rough-legged, goshawk, harrier, horned owls, burrowing owls, saw-whet, eagles, and vultures. They ruled the up-drafts and the sky.

Marin cliff and sea

In Tennessee Valley and nearby Richardson’s Bay I found, by unplanned and unanticipated happenstance, total absorption in birds, especially those who seemed to acknowledge no boundaries to their flight. On mushrooms once I visited the throngs of migratory sea birds resting in the low-tide mud flats of Richardson’s Bay and quizzed them about what it felt like to do what they existed to do. As long as I stayed motionless they tolerated me, but none could answer such a stupid question from a creature who existed in only three earthbound dimensions. I never asked them if they were happy or not. They were all invincibly alert and alive. Birds have ever since retained the gift of making me happy. They are me idealized, me with wings—flight, height, distance, movement, the freedom to fly above the fog.

Cricket

Hitchhiker He called himself Cricket. It was somewhere in Wyoming. Not anywhere in Wyoming, but some town big enough to have at least one saloon, because that is where we met. Cricket was Mickey Rooney size and was carrying his life around in a knapsack on his back, just like I was. Our packs were leaning against the same wall by the door. He had a beat-up old guitar case as well.

Some little men never lose their childlike eagerness to please. A way of getting by, I guess. Cricket made me think of a ukulele. In Hawaiian, uku lele means jumping louse—something small and white that hops around. It was the natives’ nickname for the Cockney Royal Navy tar who introduced them to the instrument. You can imagine someone who would garner a nickname like that. I forget his real name.

I was hitchhiking west. I had jumped my last ride at this town. It was getting on dusk, and I had had my fill of the backs of ranch pickup trucks for that day. I must have had enough cash for a couple of beers and a burger. Cricket was on the road, too, hitchhiking in the opposite direction. We hit the saloon at about the same time and ended up on adjacent stools at the strangers’ end of the bar.

This would have been in the late ‘70s. The golden age for hitchhikers in America was vanishing, but in the west at least we were still accepted. As a mode of transportation it had its negatives, but it was free and I was mostly broke, and going cross-country I could make as good time as on Greyhound. You also got to meet people, and you got to visit places you never would have otherwise, like that Wyoming saloon.

Cricket was an entertainer. In an earlier era he would have been called a minstrel. We were sitting there on our bar stools, sipping our cold draft Coors, exchanging those little trial pleasantries like strangers do, feeling each other out, when he pulled a harmonica out of a pocket and started humming soft little rifts through it as we talked, sort of absent mindedly, really, as if it was the most natural thing to do—carry on a conversation while noodling around on a mouth organ. He was just a happy-go-lucky little guy, kicking back with a beer and his Hohner.

Cricket was also sort of warming up. He played a little blues rift that caught the attention of others at the bar. Then he stopped and drank some beer. Someone down the bar asked if he knew a certain song. Cricket smiled and nodded and played a short version. Someone else had another request, and he played that. Now everyone at the bar was paying some level of attention. The bartender put two free fresh beers in front of us. Cricket went to his guitar case and took out a guitar that had seen many years of service. He went to an empty table near the door and our packs and motioned for me to bring our new beers over. He opened the guitar case in front of the table and started to strum on his guitar.

It wasn’t like he was entertaining. It was more like he was playing just for himself, or maybe for just the two of us strangers sitting at the front table. It wasn’t loud. He didn’t sing. He would pick out the beginning of a tune, then stop to tune his guitar, sip some beer and chat. “Know this one?” he’d ask me and then play the first few bars of some old country standard or Buddy Holly song. The general conversation in the saloon resumed, but at a lower level. I am not musical. I know enough to be just an audience.

We talked about where we were coming from and where we were going. The only pointed question he asked me was whether or not I was a Vietnam vet. “You look sort of damaged,” he said. “Just wondering why.” Then he launched into a fuller version of a tune I didn’t know. He bent down over his guitar to watch his fingers, still playing softly, getting lyrical in his licks.

When he finished, the saloon was almost quiet, except back by the pool table. “Awright,” someone at the bar said. “Give us Ramblin’ Man.” And, after taking another long drink of Coors, Cricket launched into an intricate and accurate, if more ruminative version of the Allman Brothers’ classic. The applause that followed was not loud or long, but it was real. Two more gratis draft beers arrived.

“Enough suds,” Cricket told the bartender who brought them over. “Make the rest Old Grand Dad on the rocks.”

Over the next few hours the drinks did keep coming, and Cricket kept playing as he drank. Sometimes he put the guitar aside and played the harmonica. The saloon got livelier as the evening progressed. I was getting drunk, and I had only paid for that first beer. At some point, a waitress brought us two bowls of chili with crackers, and we ate. As people left, they tossed folding money into Cricket’s open guitar case.

We were both staggering a bit as we left the saloon with our packs on our backs, Cricket carrying his guitar case. Even in his cowboy boots he was a foot shorter than I was. It was well after midnight. The last saloon patrons’ cars and pickups were driving away into the night. We hiked out of town on the highway. We knew we wouldn’t be going too far—far enough out of town and far enough off the highway to find a clear place in the sage brush to throw down our sleeping bags. Beyond the lights of the town the stars came down close. It would be a clear and dry night.

“It ain’t natural, sleeping alone in the wilderness,” Cricket said, as we cut off the empty highway into the brush. There was half a moon rising, enough to walk by, I didn’t say anything. I thought the opposite was true, that the reason for being out here was to be alone. We came to a spot where previous sojourners had stopped, a circular clearing that smelled of old campfires and urine. ”Home sweet,” Cricket said, dropping his guitar case and slipping his arms out of his knapsack straps.

“I’m going on,” I said. “This space isn’t for me.”
“Suit yourself,” Cricket said, “but you’ll never stop being a lonesome loser.”

I hiked a long ways that night, trying to get lost in the high desert.

Archival

Everything grows into somethingThe folks at the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Rhode Island Library have agreed to take my journals and papers for safe-keeping. So, for the past few days I have been busy getting all that in order to say goodbye to. The library gave me boxes in which to stash it all—fifty years’ worth, maybe 10,000 pages in all. The oldest of these files have followed me from Harlem to Berkeley to New Jersey to San Francisco to Samoa to Rhode Island. The 26 years of Samoa papers still retain the fond moldy smell of the islands.

There are at least a thousand poems and hundreds of pieces of both finished and abandoned prose to sort through. Every time I moved I threw away more than I kept, but there is still too much. I sort it all through yet another, final filter, filling black garbage bags with the less than necessary. So much paper waste—I have not lived a forest friendly life. But I do get to revisit raising my son in the benign bush of Tutuila and re-fear cyclones I had forgotten.

I’ll share a few pieces here, all from decades ago.

Desire

I want a t-shirt
that says on its back
Use Other Side First.
 
I want a ticket
that no one will question,
a friend in high places.
 
I want a history
where no one is named
and facts have no dates
 
but eons have names
like Nancy and Jane
where nothing happens.
 
Please pass the eraser.
Between us we can
get somewhere fast.
 
I just feel it rising
out of the sidewalk
and into my soul
 
nothing that I ever
needed or wanted
as naked as I am
 
as useless as cops
as salty as sex
as open as a wound.
 
I want an old day
to stop by and visit
to sit by the window
 
and tell me about
what the king will say
to the queen when they
 
finally are left alone
and all her sorrows
have dissolved in tears.

 

Santa Pajama

Santa Pajama was a bedroom community just up the coast from Vaudville. We drove up the coast road. The ocean was so calm it looked asleep. Samantha slathered sunblock onto her arms and face and shoulders. It was May.

When we got there I couldn’t find the place. I kept rereading the directions she’d taken down over the phone and kept getting lost. Samantha pretended to sleep.

What I finally found was the wrong place on the boardwalk above the beach. But the people there knew who Buddy was and sent us to a bar on the Vista Verde where we could find him. He wasn’t there but Samantha knew the bartender — remembered him from a Shinto halfway house up in Nofloss — so we stayed and drank diet maitais.

I found Buddy’s phone number on the on the toilet partition in the men’s room. I left a message for him on the machine that answered at a Swedish phonesex service. When I went back to the bar Samantha was gone and there was a new bartender. Her purse was still on the floor beside her empty barstool.

I slept in the car, in the back seat. I’m short. In the morning a 13 year old girl wearing a pair of men’s peach jockey shorts as a halter top and a pair of Italian roller skates was asleep in the front seat. I married her. We’ve got three kids now. We don’t live there anymore.

 

abc

anyway
because
creation
demands
eternal
fasting
gorging
healing
in order
just to know
looping
meaningless
nevertheless
operationally
pertinent
questions re:
recording
some-
times
unrelated
verasimilitudes
without which
xyz

Specs’ Saloon, North Beach, San Francisco

Specs

Specs himself outside his saloon, having a smoke and a laugh, 2004

Someone observed about the Buffalo I grew up in that there seemed to be a church on every block and two saloons at every intersection. They were all filled with good Christians. The typical neighborhood tavern carried the proprietor’s family name—Strinka’s, say, or Topolski’s or O’Connor’s—and had two entrances, one to the bar in front and another family entrance in the rear to the dining room. As most of the city was Catholic, these family entrances got most of their traffic on Fridays around dinner time, because the tavern’s cheap fish fry was a housewife’s welcome alternative to stinking up the house with the smell of cooking fish. And it was payday.

It was a blue-collar world. A shot of schnapps and a draft cost you fifty cents. For many the corner barroom was like another room on their house—a room free of family and kids. There were no TVs above the bar, no sports channels, and if there was a juke box it wasn’t tolerated during prime drinking hours, dusk to midnight, and for half the year dusk came early to Buffalo. Patrons either quietly conversed or sat alone inside the blessed freedom of their chosen cone of silence, studying their drinks and cigarettes, communing only with themselves and maybe their reflection in the back-bar mirror behind its picket fence of whiskey bottles. Normally everyone there would be a regular, and after a while bits of personal history would become absorbed as common knowledge and the men and women behind the bar became not just the dispensers of self-medication but also the reference librarians of local lore and current events.

“I haven’t seen Murphy in here in a week.”
“It’s his back again. You remember his accident.”
“Did the union ever get them assholes to settle?”
“I guess they’re paying for another operation.”
“How’s his wife doing?”
“She’s off the drink, too, I think. Hasn’t been in. Want another?”

If Murphy didn’t make it, there would be a collection for the widow and the kids.

I entered this world when I was seventeen, and for the next twenty years—until I moved to Samoa—neighborhood bars, no matter where they were, would be my wayside chapels of peace and familiarity. If during that time the Catholic Church ditched Latin as its unifying language, corner saloons still spoke the same lingo of escape and observed a consistent liturgy of nonjudgmental sanctuary, filled with your fellow faithful. Homes away from home, the other room to your ancestral house that you could always find if you walked the streets and could interpret the neon semiotics of barroom windows.

I spent several years visiting, photographing, and researching the scattered remaining historic saloons of the California Gold Rush and Nevada Mother Lode country for a book I never wrote. I used to pride myself if plopped down in a new town—at a Greyhound Bus Station say—of being able to find on instinct the nearest convivial watering hole. I wonder how many thousands of such places I’ve walked into, just a stranger coming in the door and taking a stool at the bar and ordering a drink. Just do it right and nobody will ever question you. It is like entering a church and dipping your right hand into the holy water font and blessing yourself and genuflecting properly before the altar. In twenty years no one ever challenged me or tried to pick a quarrel. From Hong Kong to Belfast, in twenty different countries and every state of the union the sacrament was the same.

And so it was in North Beach where I found Specs’. I never lived in that part of San Francisco, but Specs’ became my neighborhood bar. I am a tad superstitious about talking about Specs’, because the place, which absorbed me forty years ago, is still there, just off Columbus Avenue on old Adler (now Saroyan) Alley, unchanged, ungentrified, and I am afeared to jinx its existence by writing about it as history. (Is this aging, when you begin to feel some responsibility for the past, some complicity with its integrity and survival?) I moved often in those years, both around and away from the Bay Area, but Specs’ Museum and Saloon remained a sort of borrowed nexus, the place where people could find me if I was in town or leave messages for me if I wasn’t. A place to find connections for work or the next apartment to rent or a new lover. But mainly it was a place to talk, a bohemian wayback machine. Again there was no TV set in the place nor a juke box. The bartenders were Irish maestros of gab. I made some good friends there, folks always ready to pick up the talk no matter where it had left off, folks who just wanted cohorts and a space to enjoy the end of their day.

A number of years ago I stopped in Specs’ on my way through San Francisco to somewhere else. It had been three or four years since my last in transit visit. I hung out at City Lights Books across the avenue until Specs’ opened after four. I took my old seat at the end of the bar between the front window and the reading lamp and opened a book I’d just bought. The bartender, a younger man whom I’d never seen before, was busy setting up the bar for business. I didn’t bother him with an order. All the memorabilia of the bar—the flags and shark jaws, old union posters and ironic signs, scrimshaw and Inuit art, framed newspaper headlines and eclectic photos—were all still in there proper places, all sepia stained like Civil War prints by decades of cigarette smoke. Then a green sixteen-ounce can of Rainer Ale appeared on a coaster in front of me. Green Death we used to call it, the strongest, most assertive brew you could buy there, the usual opening drink of the old sundown regulars thirty-five years before.

“What’s this?” I said to the unknown barkeep.
“You’re Enright, aren’t ya?” he answered, straight out of Dublin. “And that’s your usual, ain’t it? Where ya bin?”

I came back late that night, before closing. A different crowd, all younger, only a few of the old, hobbled and roseola-nosed regulars left. I came back to see the eponymous proprietor Richard “Specs” Simmons himself, who, dapper still in his 70s, would stop by to judge the closing crowd. We were glad to meet. We sat at a table near the front and talked the present about the past, as men will, catching up on people and their personal events—Deborah’s kids, Marilyn’s last known success, Kent’s funeral. Since my previous visit San Francisco had passed a law against tobacco smoking in all public places, including saloons, and now the dead-end pedestrian alleyway in front of Specs’ often held the best conversations, as smokers followed one another outside, placing coasters on top of their drinks on the bar. But when Specs lit a cigarette without moving from his table, I did too.

“It’s my place, after all,” he said. “If anyone wants to file a complaint, then fuck ‘em. They’re eighty-sixed forever and may they remain eternally childless.” He took a drag. “And I’ll gladly pay the fucking fine.”

Usual Group at the Window Table
____________________

How in Westerns the wheels of the wagons
always spin backwards the faster they go,
how ice and flame at first touch feel the same.
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

If all my sins were confessed in Islam
my body would have no extremities.
What do you call what you want to forget?
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

There are faults in the sky that insult me,
slick birds with no wings that call themselves souls.
Without your lost beauty no one knows you.
Take a pint and a seat by the window

Hong Kong / Vows / 1976

Hong KongI gave it all away, all the cash I had on me down to my least coin. It was like feeding chickens. That back street in Kowloon was famous for its beggars, and once I started handing out cash it didn’t take long. Pierre Cardin suit, Italian shoes, silk tie, a foot taller than all the poor dudes that crowded around me. In my coat pocket was my final purchase—a pint of Wild Turkey. I remember it was a chilly night, December. Of course, I had a hotel room to go back to, and the next day I could go to the bank and get more cash, but I was celebrating my freedom by giving away my chains.

Seventy-six was a tough year, my thirtieth—burn out and break down at my editor’s job in Berkeley, a state of imploding confusion in my so-called love life, shrinks and drugs and a growing fear of others. There was the odd but deeply felt conviction that I didn’t want a future, but I had zero attraction to thoughts of suicide. I didn’t want to perform; I just wanted to wander and watch. It had taken me less than a month to get sacked from my Hong Kong editing job.

A couple of nights before that night in Kowloon I had done a Kiwi bloke I had met the favor of taking him to a respectable whorehouse. He was headed off to an Arctic oil rig for six months and wanted a weekend of companionship to send him off. I knew where to take him from wandering and watching, not from performing. The American Nam thing was winding down, and there were a lot of under-employed prostitutes in Hong Kong now that the Yanks were no longer coming there for R and R. He picked his girl out of the second group the Mamasan sent over to our booth. He seemed happy and I got up to leave. Only Mamasan wouldn’t let me. She and a line of her girls blocked the door. What about me? Her girls weren’t good enough for me? By now some of the girls were cursing me in Cantonese and others were crying and running away. Mamasan picked up a bottle and waved me away from the door. The Kiwi bloke was laughing, but it wasn’t funny. Mamasan yelled something toward the back of the room, and the most attractive, princess-petite girl we had yet seen, dressed in a slit green silk kimono, stepped through a bead curtain. I would take her, Mamasan insisted. But I’m a priest, I told her. Ha, she said, priests like it more than most. Mamasan walked over to take the shy girl by the arm and bring her to me. I bolted for the exit, shouldering aside the girls who tried to stop me. They clawed at my back as I got the door open and hit the street running. Those words, but I’m a priest—that lie—stuck with me. Why not undo the lie and become a priest?

There are three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience. You can’t grow up Irish Catholic without knowing that. I had a brother who was a priest. So, I decided to start with the first vow, poverty, and gave away all my cash. But that was just symbolic. I had decided that what a vow meant was to disavow all interest in what the vow forbade. Henceforward, money would be a null set. If I had some, fine; if I didn’t, fine. Its accumulation would no longer be of any interest to me, no longer any sort of index of success or failure. As I gave my cash to the beggars on that cold Kowloon back street, I smiled and said, “Null set, null set,” and they smiled back, nodding, saying “Nur sut, nur sut.” We had a great time.

I moved out to Zhang Zhou then, a tiny island on the outer edge of Hong Kong Territory, where there were no roads or vehicles and a room was cheap, a two hour ferry ride from downtown. A junk with an eternal oil slick trailing from it was anchored in the rock-bound cove outside my window. I considered the other two vows. I knew enough about the history of Christian chastity to know that it wasn’t about fucking but about non-attachment to the non-spiritual. I couldn’t imagine denying my impulse to fuck, but I had non-attachment down cold, as it were. If I couldn’t make a virtue out of that, I might at least employ it as an armoring vow. Obedience was the bigger problem. Thirteen years before the Jesuits had rejected me because of my psychological problems with authority. But I found a way around that one, too. I would pledge my obedience to myself, that inner self I had always fought with. If it said head north, I’d head north. If it said find a place to hide, I’d find a hideout. If it told me all this is wrong, I’d drop it and leave. One morning the junk and its oil slick were gone.

I tried to live that way the next five years, on the road a lot. For a while a few people worried about me, but they got tired of that and left me alone. I didn’t make much money, but I didn’t starve. All in all I don’t think vows are a very good idea—that authority thing again. After a while I was happiest when I forgot them and just got on with what I was doing, though I was still broke.

The Nature Of Dissonance Dissolved

I started this blog to record this trip. My friend Ken Shane suggested it. He would set it up and manage it for me. A new medium, on a slightly different wave length. I had never read a blog (still haven’t), so I have probably done it badly. I took it as a sort of challenge—to take the day-to-day and make it entertaining. All us writers are only entertainers after all, sideshow hawkers peddling distraction.

An obvious point of this journey was to escape the miseries of New England winter. In this it was eminently successful. It was snowing the day we left Rhode Island, but we had no idea how record-breaking miserable the weather would become in the ensuing weeks. I have avoided drawing attention to the contrast. Schadenfreude is not among my guilty pleasures. And it was chilly in Key West. I had to wear long pants.

In Linda's Jacuzzi

In Linda’s Jacuzzi. (Photo: C. Payne)

This blogging is sufficiently self-aggrandizing without rubbing it in. What else is this exercise but the blogger’s self-assertion of his personal significance? I am important. My opinions and observations are worthy of someone else’s attention. But then, isn’t that the message of all this new “social media”? The hubris wave lengths have become hugely profitable for their purveyors. No need to create a market for ego, just pander to it. Every child who ever pled look at me is a potential addict in this lottery for acknowledgement. The result? A universe of mundane revelations seen through a thicket of selfie-sticks.

At the outset I promised to be honest. It has been great living in gym shorts, T-shirts, and flip flops. Some days the sun has been too hot to absorb for long. The food has been great, and the constantly changing company of tropical birds a pleasure. Back home our empty house is snowed- and frozen-in, my pickup truck buried until spring. I’ve been glad we haven’t been there.

Tomorrow we head back north in gradual increments, retracing traversed country, back to the past where the future lurks. Who knows if we will return this way again?

Key West

Key West Balcony

On the veranda of the old hospital, Key West. (Photo: C. Payne)

It is the contemporary curse of small-island resorts everywhere—incoming visitors. Here in Key West the frequency of plane arrivals picks up in the afternoon and builds through sunset and twilight. The final approach to the airport is right over Old Town. The bigger the plane, the louder the noise, the longer speech is pointless.

Connie and I are staying in Old Town, with our friends Bud Navero and Cindy Allison, just a block off essential Duval Street. The humble building where they live is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Louise Maloney Hospital, built in 1876, the first private hospital in Key West. On the second floor there is the original operating room, with lots of tall windows and a cement floor with a central drain. Sitting on the upstairs front veranda, we wave to the tourists going by on their cute little tour trains, and they wave back. Just a half dozen blocks away the cruise ships off-load their crowds of day-visitors.

The first Europeans here, Spaniards, called the island Cayo Hueso, “bone cay,” because they found so many human bones strewn around, an indigenes’ burial ground. Earlier dead tourists. Cayo Hueso easily became Key West when English speakers took over. Also it was the farthest west inhabitable cay. Yellow fever extended the funereal tradition among the white adventurers who replaced the original inhabitants.

From Some People Talk with God (Dominick Chronicles #2):

Dominick never got to go sailing, but after the first few weeks he did wander a bit, down to Key West to visit Fort Zachary Taylor right at the southern tip of the town and of the continental U.S. The South doesn’t get any deeper than this, Dominick thought, but Fort Taylor—and Key West—had remained in Union hands throughout the war. The fort had once been out in the ocean, surrounded by water, but now was surrounded by land and a partial moat. Its guns would now fire out over a state park and crowded beach, their only possible targets passing cruise ships. This fort, like Fort Ward, had never seen any hostile action. Its ten-inch guns had never been fired in anger. The deaths here had all been from yellow fever.

Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor

Like its sister site of Floridian history, St. Augustine, 500 miles to the north, Key West is an intimate place, inauspicious in modern demographics, with fewer than twenty-five thousand souls—not counting those just passing through. As an aesthetic city of refuge it has been home to many artists and musicians and such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Dewey, Shel Silverstein, Stuart Woods, and our host Bud Navero, author of the unfailingly entertaining Key West Confidential.

Thanks to Bud and Cindy, we have had an insider’s tour of Old Town, a highlight of which was singing along with Barry Cuda and Chief Billy of Bong Hits for Geezers at B.O.’s Fish Wagon on Caroline Street. It was a chilly Saturday night, down in the 40s, and there are no walls at B.O.’s Fish Wagon. It was a rare night for the locals to sport the layered look. How many T-shirts can you wear at one time?

As gentrification and the commerce of transients metastasize, Old Town Key West, as land of the free and home of Bong Hits for Geezers, will slowly slip into history. Charm mutates, and the past glows sunset golden for us geezers. But the place still jumps with energy. The streets are alive with people happy to be here. And the young are as beautiful as we ever were, nostalgia be damned.

At B.O.’s Fish Wagon (Photo: C. Payne)

At B.O.’s Fish Wagon (Photo: C. Payne)

The Keys – Part 3

Underwater ChristThe following short story, “The Keys” © John Enright, is from “The Disease of His Need for Women & other stories.” It has been serialized into three parts. This is part 3.

The family reunion went downhill from there, but it didn’t last long. It’s amazing how quickly some people can pick a fight. It was obvious Bengy didn’t want them there. Polly had been hoping that her brother would lend them some money to help get them set up somewhere in the Keys. The family story she had heard was that Benjamin had gotten into the real estate business and was doing quite well in Florida. The trailer smelled like the den of a yeti or some other undiscovered beast. Bengy insisted that they all have a drink to celebrate this auspicious moment. Norman, who never drank alcohol, declined. That was all it took. Bengy went off, sort of forcing himself into a tirade. It started with him mocking and insulting Norman. Then Polly defended him, giving Bengy his opening to turn on her. A lot of old family bile was spewed. Polly knocked something over—there was little spare room in the place with the two of them in it. Bengy smashed a bottle and waved its jagged edges at Polly’s face. Norman instinctively stepped forward to grab his arm, and Bengy turned on him, slamming him against the door. Bengy was holding the broken bottle against Norman’s ribs and screaming at him when Polly smashed her brother over the head from behind with a big bronze Buddha, and it was over.

Polly was so pissed she insisted on tearing the place up, looking for money. “That asshole owes me,” she said. Bengy was still on the floor where he’d landed. He hadn’t moved, but he seemed to still be breathing. All Polly could find was a couple of hundred bucks. When they left there were still no neighbors around. They headed south, for Key West. About ten mile markers down the road, when Polly began to breath more evenly and the almost perfect circles of red on her cheeks had faded, Norman dared to speak. “When he comes to he’ll report us, won’t he?”

“Of course he will, the prick.” Polly was looking out her side window.

“I don’t need any more jail time.”

“He never saw the car. He doesn’t know what we’re driving. I’ll think of something.”

Norman had never seen more cop cars per ten mile stretch than he saw along that stretch of US 1—local cops, sheriffs, state troopers. Everyone was doing the speed limit. So he did too. In Key West they checked into the cheapest motel they could find, near the navy base, as Mr. and Mrs. Leonard, a name they’d never used before. Two days later Polly had changed her hair color to blonde, sold the car, and told Norman to grow a beard. Norman didn’t like any of this, especially selling the car, there at the end of the last highway. “We need the cash,” was all Polly said. She was concerned about running out of money to eat. “There’s a ferry back to Miami. Don’t worry.” She went out that night to see if she could turn some tricks in the nearby bars. “I might have to come back here,” she said as she left.

“Just call first. I’ll be gone.” Norman was watching TV, channel surfing, looking for something totally distracting, but he noticed that he kept coming back to the local news station, just checking in as if waiting for a message. Around one a.m. the message arrived: Murder at Tavernier Key. Responding to an anonymous phone call, police had found the body of retired Catholic priest Benjamin Churchward in his burglarized residence. “You call that place a residence just because he was a white priest?” Norman said back to the woman news reader on Channel 9. “If he was just some black dude in that funky trailer park, it wouldn’t even be news.”

The news did not please Polly when she returned an hour later. She started to cry and couldn’t stop. It got so that all Norman could do was leave. He walked down to the big painted marker where US 1 ended, declaring this the southern most spot of the continental U.S.A. At three a.m. there was no one there. Norman picked his way in the dark down to the edge of the water. Back up on the street a cop car cruised by. Norman had never learned to swim. That had always embarrassed him, just another hidden hint of his helplessness.

The next afternoon they were on the ferry north to Key Biscayne and Miami. Polly looked terrible. She never looked her best as a blonde, and her big face was all puffy from a night of weeping. The sunglasses didn’t hide much. Norman could tell she didn’t want to talk, and she thought they shouldn’t be seen together. So he spent most of the ferry ride—except for a squall that they passed through—by himself up on the prow of the boat. Back in the motel room Polly had split the cash they had left—$1375 each. It was after dark when the ferry’s engines slowed as they approached the dock in Key Biscayne and Polly was standing beside him.

“I’ve decided,” she said. “I’m going back for the funeral. You gotta head in some other direction.”

“Polly.”

“He’s family. I killed him. I gotta go back. I killed a priest, Norman. It doesn’t get much worse that that.”

“Polly.”

“My brothers and sister will be there. Now wouldn’t it look suspicious if I didn’t show up? You know, before, when he was alive, I was free of him. But now that he’s dead and I killed him, I’m like his slave forever.”

Key West southern marker

There was no goodbye hug or kiss. Norman was one of the last passengers off the boat. He stood on the dock for a while, clueless as to which way to go. This was the sort of freedom he hated, the freedom of outer space—his future as empty as his past was full and forgettable.

The Keys – Part 2

Overseas Highway 2 The following short story, “The Keys” © John Enright, is from “The Disease of His Need for Women & other stories.” It has been serialized into three parts. This is part 2.

Polly’s brother’s address was off mile marker 94 on the Keys highway, which Norman had figured out meant 94 more miles before the end of the road, US 1, at Key West. Mile marker 94 was on Tavernier Key. He followed Polly’s directions as she read them, down a few lazy sandy streets until they found themselves in a gated trailer park—one of those home trailer parks where none of the trailers have wheels any more and all of them are up on cinder blocks, forever in off the road, with creeper vines and bougainvillea overcoming them. “Have you ever noticed that nobody ever goes to the trouble of repainting a trailer?” Polly observed.

The place reminded Norman too much of a slew of things he was always trying to forget. That double-wide back there, for instance, was twin to the one where he had last seen his kids back in Kentucky. That Pontiac surrendered to the weeds across the road was the same vintage as one he’d left behind somewhere once. He expected to hear a baby crying, but it was all still. No one was up and about. “Let’s not do this,” Norman said. “This isn’t anything like what you said it was going to be.”

“Hell, we’re here. It can’t hurt to try. You stay here. I’ll do it.” But Polly didn’t get out of the car. “You said I looked pale. Should I put on some makeup?”

“Do you think he’d notice at this time of day? Do you think he’d care?”

“It is sort of early still, and I did think his place would be a bit more palatial than this,” Polly said, still sitting there.

“Well, let’s not do it then.” Norman started the car back up.

“No. Fuck. I’ll go. I just forgot how much I dislike the bastard, that’s all.”

After Polly got herself out of the car, Norman—on pure unthought instinct—backed up and turned around and got the car pointed out of the trailer park and parked on the shoulder beneath some low trees near the gate. He had never met Polly’s older brother Benjamin before and he had no intention of doing so now, unless he had to.

It was only a couple of minutes before Polly came back. “He’s in there, but he ain’t answering. I’m not doing this alone, you shit. Come on.” All Norman knew from Polly about brother Benjamin was that he had been momma’s boy by becoming a priest, thus giving momma the trump card in her small Catholic Pennsylvania town. Then he became an ex-priest or a retired priest or an exiled priest or something. Polly never talked about her family much. Neither did Norman. There was a lot of painful shit in their pasts they didn’t talk about much. What was the point? It wasn’t like there were any lessons to be learned from past fuck-ups. The next one was always different.

Polly’s earlier knocking must have woken Benjamin up, because at her first knock this time he opened the trailer door. He was a big man, bigger even than Polly but along the same lines. He was bald and clean shaven and round. He had a sheet wrapped around his rotundity like an amateur’s toga. He was holding a gun, a large hand gun, as suited his size. As he swung the door open he said, “Come and get it, you assholes.” He stopped when he saw Polly standing there on the cement block stoop.

“Yes, Bengy, it’s your little sister Polly come to pay a family visit,” she said, never taking her eyes off the gun.

Father Benjamin lowered the gun, and with it the sheet slipped down on his chest, revealing a rather unmasculine nipple. He stared at his sister for a full minute, never seeming to see Norman behind her, then said, “I thought it was someone else,” and turned and walked back into the dark interior of the trailer, leaving the door open behind him. Polly didn’t follow him in. Norman slipped to the side, further out of sight. Polly and he had pawned their last gun a week or so before. Family. See what I mean? Norman thought. Just leave them alone. It’s like an impersonal curse. He didn’t even have a knife on him.

“If this is a bad time, we can come back later,” Polly said into the darkness.

“Who’s we?”

“Just me and Norman,” she said.

“Who’s Norman?”

“Look, Bengy, forget it. We were in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d stop by to say hello, that’s all.”

“No, you’re here. Come on in. I’d like to meet this Norman. But give me a minute to get some clothes on.”