On Correspondence

Quill Pen StampFrom back when I did athletic things I remember enjoying the practices as much as the games—hitting a tennis ball against a wall over and over and over again, observing the strict rituals of baseball workouts, running basketball plays against token red-shirt defenders. Practices were play with teammates (or a wall or an empty basketball court). Games were challenges from unknown opponents, enjoyable in another way, but mainly if you won.

Of course, you could not play at all if you did not practice. Missing practice was the worst offense. Somewhere back then I was taught that there should be at least ten hours of practice for every hour of game time. The all-stars were the guys who were most obsessed with practicing. I was not one of them. I just enjoyed the time I got to spend on the field or on the court.

That is called a sports analogy, because what I mean to write about is correspondence. A perennial publishing phenomenon is the issuance of new volumes of dead authors’ letters. One of the rungs of literary fame is having one’s letters collected, selected, edited, and published. Critics then use them to either polish or abrade an author’s public persona. The letters are not part of the oeuvre, but they do become essential to the encompassing penumbra necessary for nurturing enduring fame, for ill or nil.
I think of Bloomsbury and the missives that Virginia and her gang sent back and forth by the morning and afternoon London post. These were not just pre-digital Tweets or the equivalent of text messages. They were mini-performances of style for peers, written in ink with a pen in hand, with pauses to find the right phrasing. They were part of a day’s work with the English language as a clear and clever means of connection. Those writers enjoyed the time they got to spend on their messages, just as I enjoyed the time I got to spend on the playing fields of Buffalo. In their own way they were practice.

Throughout my career as a writer—and I have thought of myself as a writer for more than half a century now—I have considered all writing as correspondence. Poems, essays, short stories, novels—they have all been written to someone. They each had a message I meant to convey. The actual letters, the missives to individuals—and they are approaching 10,000 now—were the warms-ups, the stretches and sprints, the lay-ups and batting-cage swings for what followed—the real game of literature. Many poems found themselves born in lines from a letter.

I have been blessed with some fine correspondents, friends for whom language likewise held powers of discovering meaning, for whom finding the right words and sharing them was an important, an essential way forward. Many of them are dead now, and my world of correspondents shrinks. This is problematic, as I need those teammates to practice with before the games I play with other forms. They are part of the mix, part of the measure, a constant reminder that what I am doing is speaking directly into a personal listener’s ear.

In return, they would favor me with their insights. We practiced together, hitting the ball back and forth over the postal net of distance and delay. But that letter writing craft now seems to be dying out as well, for ill or nil; and I worry for that, for what is lost. There is a reason this discipline carries the label Arts & Letters. To whom shall I send this? Who will respond?

Fungod, Berkeley, ‘77-78

TransamericaI was living in a garage in Berkeley at the time, after I came back from Hong Kong. I was what? Thirty-one, thirty-two. There was no heat in the garage, but there was an old electric space heater in the attached potting shed where I had my sleeping bag up off the dirt floor on a door on cement blocks. It never freezes in Berkeley. The garage doors had been replaced with mismatched many-paned French doors. If it wasn’t raining and the sun was out, the place was cozy for a couple of hours every day in the late afternoon. A big redwood tree grew next to it, sheltering the place from everything, including the sun. I had running water from an outside spigot, but no bathroom. My landlady, a working single mother who lived in the front house, let me use her downstairs bathroom, which was just inside the unlocked back door. We rarely met or talked. I don’t remember her at all.

I had a small refrigerator and a hot plate, a pot, a fry pan, a bowl, a plate, a mug, two glasses, flatware, and a hunting knife. There was a desk—another old door, this one up on milk crates—with my baby-blue portable Smith-Corona electric typewriter on top of it. The sole piece of furniture was a short rattan seat with three-inch legs at the desk. There were some pillows on the cement floor for guests, but I don’t remember any. I was content there. I tried to write fiction and failed succinctly. These were my psilocybin years, the years in which I learned to accept the fact that failure and I were like an old married Catholic couple who could never get a divorce.

I had a job—I’ve always worked—as an after-hours legal file clerk for Trans-America Insurance in the Pyramid across the Bay in San Francisco’s financial district. I had no car. I took the F bus over and back. Three to eleven, pulling and copying documents for a mammoth law suit. The most mindless job I’ve ever had, even more numbing than sweeping steel plant floors or picking artichokes. I did it all as a paid observer, fueled by magic mushrooms.

The mushrooms came prepared as a powder, the consistency of ashes from an ash tray, inside black film canisters. They came from an enclave of illegal Japanese dope-dealing growers up in Alpine County. Their gage was good, too, but their psilocybin could not be beat. Each canister contained the equivalent of two-to-three tabs of LSD, but as a powder you could control your intake. Before work every day I would spread a dose or two on my palm and lick it off, wash it down with a can of Rainer Ale. During my shift it was simple to augment the dose as imposing reality required—no smoke, no works, no nothing required, just a grey line on my palm to lick off and relaunch. I never shared it, and no one ever got to watch me lick my palm. It was a private high world.

An important injunction came with the mushroom dust, part of the ritual—not a religion, just an understanding—it was not to be sold for a profit. My connection passed it on to me at his cost, five bucks a canister. I never sold any. Who would buy it anyway?  It was so cheap it must be shit. Smart druggies paid top dollar. Besides, it was a mellow high not a rush—long and thorough, totally unthreatening. It was just a fungus after all.

The high was an entrance, a through-the-looking-glass sort of thing. It filtered out most of reality’s short waves, the frenetic ones, the immediate ones, the invented ones. This included most human inter-activity. All that stuff with others still went on, but as if on a flickering screen off in a corner that I could monitor and tune in and out. The world was much larger with all the social foreground filtered out, revealing a much deeper and more diverse sphere of sensation. When you learn to use all your senses as one, you-as-observer disappears, and conflict becomes impossible. I’m sure people thought I seemed disengaged, because I wasn’t engaged with them but with what encompassed them.

Of course, I was celibate and had no social life. When I got out of work at eleven p.m., I would hit a few North Beach bars before catching the F bus back across the Bay, but all that was always a solo event. I did a great deal of walking. That was my main entertainment. The mushrooms—the Fungod, I called them—preferred the outdoors and made me keep moving. I would walk for hours, for days when I could. On my days off I would dose myself up and head for the wilderness hills, either up behind Berkeley or over in Marin, and bird watch. I have never been in better shape.

It has been thirty-five years since my last visit with Fungod. At some point, social reality came kicking and bitching back into my life, and I let it. It is the human part of human nature that degrades us, that inhibits us from becoming what we might be. At least once, for a few brief years, I managed to escape and become part of not just us but of a vast non-personal macrocosm of infinite, intertwined detail. I had a glimpse of the homeostatic wholeness.

By the way, we are nothing.

After The All-Star Break

Willie Mays catch

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, the simple pleasures of a summer night—

a warm breeze of cricket sound through the house

a cold pale ale and news of

both the Yankees and the Mets

victorious against their closest rivals

—pain pills kicking in.

New Jerusalem News Release – Dominick Saga One

New Jerusalem News New Jerusalem News is the lead-off book in my new novel series The Dominick Chronicles, set in contemporary times in various parts of the U.S. New Jerusalem News is set in New England.

Dominick is always just passing through. He is a professional house guest of the well-to-do, who follows the sun from resort to resort. If he was once searching for something, he long ago disavowed it. His freedom depends on his detachment, and he tries to maintain that. In each of his inadvertent adventures Dominick’s status as the outsider leads to his being a suspect for crimes he did not commit. These are the obverse of police procedurals. They are perp procedurals, in which the unjustly accused must establish his innocence in order to escape and move on.

Dominick is an observer, an historian, a reluctant participant; but his nomad’s life as a perpetual guest insures that what’s next will always be different.

New Jerusalem News is available in hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook formats. It can be ordered through my website (www.johnenright.us), directly from Amazon.com, or through your local bookstore. Thanks to the generosity of Audible, I have some free copies of the audiobook to give away to the first three Reality Salad blogheads to respond in the comments and ask for one.

Summer reading (or listening, I guess) at its best! Be the first on your block! Order now and you won’t have to order later!

Reminders

For all you serious language mechanics out there, here, from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, is a reminder that, in English, adjectives go in this order:

Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

And also, as a reminder that every author needs an editor, here is one page of T.S. Eliot’s original draft of “The Waste Land” as edited by Ezra Pound (1915):

Wasteland edit by Ezra Pound

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.

Vietnam Homefront ’67

Allen GinsbergThe historical fact of the Vietnam War seems unavoidable, especially if you were an American male of draft age in those years. It was like a Berlin Wall that held you in on one side, limiting your options and actions. The only approved gate through that wall led to induction, boot camp, and jungle warfare in a bullshit cause. At an age of dubious choices, to serve or not to serve had a crisp Nietzschean either/or clarity. Yes, part of the decision had to do with authority—whether your life belonged to you or to some other, outer, abstract, if very enforceable, power. But an even stronger factor, I think, was the conviction that the whole American escapade in Southeast Asia was just fucked up from the start to whenever enough innocents would die to make it end. There is resisting authority and there is questioning authority. Not that the authorities can tell the difference.

While an undergrad in night school at CCNY I worked for the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee, organizing the first mass anti-war protests in New York City. I volunteered my after-midnight hours to turning out flyers on the Socialist Workers Party’s mimeograph machines (remember that smell?). I was a Manhattan group leader for the first March on the Pentagon, where Allen Ginsberg and others tried to levitate the building, and instead hundreds were beaten senseless by redneck federal marshals with four-foot batons, as a line of soldiers with fixed bayonets behind the seated protestors pushed them forward into the gleeful G-man gang of blood-splattering pigs in cheap Sears suits and fedoras like my dad used to wear. I was there. I saw it. I escaped by flashing my Newsweek credentials at a freaked-out National Guard lieutenant no older than I was who let me through the line of bayonets. I wasn’t there to be a martyr. Back in New York, I filed my eyewitness account, which the editors totally ignored, reporting instead on the amount of trash the protestors had left behind. I quit Newsweek.

I was a draft-avoidance counselor and an efficient draft dodger myself. But I really didn’t like the mechanics of the movement—the meetings, the manifestos, the egos, the whackos, and the FBI spies. The Socialist Workers Party gang were especially gruesome and humorless, no, make that witless, the dogs of dogma. I think they were mostly undercover agents who didn’t enjoy their jobs very much. It is interesting that in those years I made no friends inside the movement, not a single lover.

Well, I did turn one offer down. We were doing a sit-in/sleep-in occupation of an auditorium on campus, a sanctuary action for two AWOL draftees who didn’t want to go back to Nam. I was working logistics, getting food and water into the now police-cordoned-off protestors. Everyone was trying to keep the scene peaceful. Everyone knew that sooner or later (probably sooner) the protestors would return to their regular lives and the two AWOL dudes would be duly arrested and punished. For the third or fourth night, tired of protest rhetoric and sectarian rants, we arranged a read-in and invited as many sympathetic authors as we could muster. Our star attraction—the media took notice—was Allen Ginsberg.

Vietnam Murder

After the reading, after the cameras had left, those of us remaining, a couple of hundred committed kids on a camp out, spread our blankets and sleeping bags on the auditorium floor. Allen came over and asked me very nicely, sweetly really, if he could share my sleeping bag. I had to say no. He held my hand for a minute, then kissed me on the cheek and ran his fingers through my hair the way a girl would. Then he smiled and left. There were plenty of sleeping bags there he could share that night.

The night that Lyndon Johnson went on TV to say he would not run for re-election, I got cosmically drunk on rum at Michael Joyce’s place then walked—stumbled—the streets of the Upper West Side, becoming soberingly aware of how little any of this really had to do with me.

A couple of years later, in Berkeley, a fellow anti-war activist had her purse snatched on campus. When she reported it to the campus police, they showed her photographs of possible suspects collected in several large photo albums. Later she told us, “You were all in there, all of you guys, all of my friends. Photos taken with telescopic lenses on campus. From the top of Sproul Hall at demonstrations, in the Plaza handing out flyers, talking to people at rallies. John, they even also had black and white photos of you from back in your New York days, very complimentary.”

Open Carry America

GunBack in February I posted a blog about guns after that guy in Chapel Hill assassinated his three young Muslim neighbors over parking spaces. The only responses I got faulted me for not promoting universal open-carry laws to prevent such atrocities. Since then such NRA self-defense madness has only metastasized. There probably is no stopping it. I guess it is like whacking off—worse than pointless but it makes you feel good about yourself.

From the New York Times (6/25/15):

But armed people are more likely to use guns to harm others or themselves rather than to kill in self-defense, according to a new Violence Policy Center study of federal records. In 2012, there were 259 justifiable homicides by a citizen with a gun, compared with 8,342 criminal homicides by armed citizens (plus tens of thousands of gun deaths in suicides and unintentional shootings).

Such numbers mean nothing to self-styled Rambos, for whom there is only one #1—themselves, carrying heat. Duh.

Reading Henry Luce’s Mail

Henry Luce Stamp

 

 

 

 

 

1966, Manhattan. Michael Joyce and I were sharing a railroad flat in Spanish Harlem. Michael was going daytime to that Catholic college in Brooklyn and working full time as night manager of the City Squire Hotel midtown. I was going full time to night school at CCNY and working days as a mail boy at Time-Life, Inc., in Rockefeller Center, pay around a hundred bucks a week, which was plenty. Each floor in the Time-Life Building had a mail room and a mail boy. We wore gray uniform jackets (never laundered) that identified us as that floor’s servant.

Somehow I got the executive floor, where the ceilings were higher than on any other floor and the secretaries all wore miniskirts with no stockings. It was a quiet floor, busy but quiet, reserved sort of. The best looking secretaries worked there, young with long legs. Executive assistants they called themselves. They enjoyed having someone below them to order around. I didn’t mind. My private domain—the mail room—was bigger than any of their cubicles.

I had all the big wigs, including Hedley Donovan, the editor and chief of everything, along with the head of foreign correspondents, so that all their confidential wires came through me. I also had Mr. Luce himself, the Old Man. Not yet dead, he still came into his imperial, walnut-paneled office once a week or so, on his way to or from some formal function. His secretary—the only older woman on the floor—was always there, keeper and guard of the founder’s sanctum sanctorum.

Mr. Luce got a fair amount of corporate mail, all of which came to me. Much of it, most of it, had nothing to do with Mr. Luce himself, but was about one of his publications—Time or Life or Fortune or Sports Illustrated. Part of my job was to open all of his mail, read it, and redirect it. I thought of myself as his shield, deflecting the arrows of his enemies. And his enemies were legion and often ungrammatical. Some of the nastiest letters were about his wife Claire Booth Luce. Those I just tossed in the trash. Serious threats I forwarded to the legal department. The man was well hated.

Out of every hundred letters maybe five made it through to his secretary—kiss-ass notes or thoughtful observations, an invitation or two, if I thought the sender was worthy. I never met Mr. Luce, never saw him come or go. I think he had his own elevator. He died that winter.

Hedley Donovan demanded twenty fresh, sharpened pencils in the two cups on his desk every morning—ten black No. 2s and ten reds—all the same height. He would use them all in the course of a day, and I would retrieve, resharpen, and recycle them all to the lesser editors. But on some late afternoons when everything had quieted down, I would sit at my mail room work station and feed Mr. Donovan’s used pencils one by one down to the unused erasers into the electric sharpener. Just for the hell of it, thinking of miniskirts.