Cab comes at five. Next post from Bolivia and the fresh Andean air. Judging by the clock on their legislative palace, I’ll be older when I get there and younger when I leave.
If you’re involved in a head-on collision with a car at the start of your ride home from work, a couple of thoughts flash through your mind:
I’m going over.
Either you land right or you don’t. If you land on the hood, that’s a good landing. It’s the softest alternative. You can roll right off, check your parts, and take a look at the driver. If the driver asks, tell her you’re ok. Remember, she’s in shock, too: a biker just landed on her hood. Then call your spouse, a loved one, a trusted friend, and tell them you’re ok. Then look at your bike and think:
Can’t ride that home.
Hopefully your spouse told you the sensible thing would be to get a cab. Ignore the stares as you wheel your distorted bike to a place where the cabs are going by. If nothing stops for you, call one. If it’s going to be ten minutes you think:
Hope I brought a pen.
Then you dig through your bags for a pen.
Grab a curb and write down a few thoughts. Table that blog posting announcing your presidential candidacy and focus on miracles.
Despite what you might think, it’s really not that bad going over the top of your handlebars on that tricky part of 25th and Virginia, right outside the Saudi Embassy and the Kennedy Center where traffic joins Route 50 before crossing the Potomac and Roosevelt Island. Really, not that bad. A few scrapes. A few wild looks from the security guards. A ruined wheel and a ruined ride home.
I could do without the county fair. I don’t like crowds. I’d rather not stand in line for pricey food known to cause obesity and heart attacks. I don’t care for the “Twirling Tots” act on center stage advertising just how little talent exists at the local dance school, and I think Mutts Gone Nutts just another variety of animal cruelty. Feed the beast or don’t. MUST it jump through a hoop to be offered a treat? And, even with the fancy foot-pedal hand-wash option, Don’s Johns are just a crude line-up overhung by foul odors.
But Saturday was different. Somehow I managed to leave the fairgrounds with a semblance of harmony. Here’s why.
- My seven-year-old son wanted to ride The Tornado, a four-seater swing that lifts riders off the ground at a tilt and sends them spinning on a wide arc over the midway. How I dreaded the nausea to come! Quite a ways back in line I spotted one of my son’s good friends and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be more fun if they rode this thing together?’ But as I looked around at all the teens hanging out with each other, I realized my son wouldn’t always want his old man around. This was my time. As the chairs rose up off the fairgrounds and began to tilt and spin, a huge smile spread across his face, aimed right at me. His first big kid ride. I got to share it with him.
- I can’t begin to guess why one observation sparks a universe of character and conflict for me while hundreds of others do not. The prevalence on Saturday of young Central Americans hired to strap customers in and pull the levers on rides until everyone screamed at the thrill, the panic, the fear, provided one such observation. I’m working on a story now that features a migrant who endures months in sweaty flophouses, close calls with corrupt cops, and run-ins with narcotraficos who bury his unlucky confederates in mass graves or boil them down to human stew in vats of acid, just to try his luck in El Norte. Imagine crossing miles of desert under the scorching sun to reach a land of such excess, a land of twirling tots, funnel cakes, and outdoor toilets equipped with sinks! Imagine paying $5,000 for a life-or-death adventure to come strap people onto $3 amusements meant to inspire fear. This is the stuff of fiction. This is the heart of conflict.
- For two whole dollars we got 10 chances to land a ping pong ball in a wide-mouthed jar. I didn’t even know what the prize was when we started. I never thought we’d win, and winning didn’t matter: the game seemed entertaining enough. Then my son got one in… In return for his trouble he was handed a plastic bag with a goldfish in it. We took him home and set him up in a nice new bowl with some gravel and a clay adornment: “No fishing”. Until a better name comes along, we’re calling him Baby Fishmouth.
It turns out there are many fine things about the county fair. Even if you don’t like the crowds, you can still come away a winner.
My favorite recent blunders from the world of high-flying despots:
Famously thin-skined Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa took a moment to pose with this young admirer. Nice gesture in some regards. But how did a man with a PhD in Economics from the University of Illinois miss the English on that kid’s shirt?
I know: it shouldn’t be funny when an old man falls down. But this old man has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades, driving the economy to ruins and the people to starvation. He recently celebrated his 91st birthday by eating baby elephant. So he gets the double shot. My favorite memes resulting from his fall:
Ok, so I couldn’t find any authentic images of Vladimir Putin except where he kisses a boy’s belly, and obviously Kim Jong Un has the media under lock and key. So I’ll close with this more dated video, featuring Venezuela’s bus-driver-turned-President Nicolas Maduro learning to ride a bike (that’s him in white). And failing.
Any other images of despotic downfall to share?
Today a couple dozen World War II aircraft buzzed the National Mall. They flew in honor of the 70th anniversary of VE Day.
You can picture the scene: you worked in DC for three decades after leaving the Pacific behind. They flew from the west over the Lincoln Memorial, past your old worksite at the White House, looking solid as they flew on towards the capitol dome.
It started just past noon. A lone airplane, crucifix-shaped, circled in advance, a herald of the formations to come. At ground level tourists and federal workers filled the humidity with their chattery lunchtime bustle. They turned their heads to the sky.
The aircraft growled low and healthy across the sky, still-powerful reminders of what your generation built, a legacy of strength, endurance, sacrifice. Ordinarily, nowadays, this airspace is restricted. Just a few weeks ago, a Florida postal worker was taken away in cuffs for landing his gyrocopter on the lawn of the capitol to deliver a letter protesting campaign finance. It’s a real shame, the restriction and the finance both.
Hate-speech promoter Pam Geller reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist, Tim Whately and his quest for total joke-telling immunity. When Jerry tells Father Curtis he thinks Whately converted to Judaism for the jokes, the priest asks, “And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
“No,” says Jerry. “It offends me as a comedian.”
Geller’s irrational defense of her bigoted “draw-a-cartoon-of-Mohamed” conference in Garland, TX offends me less as an American (though she makes our nation seem entirely racist, hateful, intolerant, and childish); her crusade offends me most as a writer.
Now, I’m no ISIS sympathizer or apologist for bullies. I’m no anti-Dentite. But is sticking your finger in somebody’s eye an act of courage? Is it the defense of free expression? Or is it just a petty means of inciting a violence far out of proportion to the original act? The results in Garland, and January’s dark hour in Paris, give us the answer.
What the shallow, small-minded Geller doesn’t seem to understand is that her promotion of hate speech, wrapped in the Red-White-&-Blue ideal of protected expression, jeopardizes the very right she pretends to defend.
Now she has the cheek to accuse President Obama of raising the stakes?!
As a professional interested in protecting the freedom of expression, it’s this posturing that bothers me most.
The Marquis de Sade comedy hour? Adolf Hitler touching base with his inner child? A casual discussion of pillage and plunder with Genghis Kahn and Attila the Hun? John Altson’s Does Harry Dream of Electric Sheep? An Adult Social Satire really can lighten any subject. At its core, Altson’s book is a fun riff on Jonathan Swift’s classic satire of the human condition, detailing Harry Enlightenment’s voyage from Earth (circa 3000 A.D.) to Cetus-2 and the civilization of Baa—the Land of the Sheep.
What Harry Enlightenment finds there is frightfully similar to life in the U.S.A. circa 2014: politicians run amuck; climate change deniers in charge of atmospheric research; a culture permeated by guns and violence, unable to take even the most basic legislative action to control the prevalence of weapons or the entertainment industry that popularizes their use.
I give you the Speaker of the Baaner (not Boehner!) House of Representatives:
“Last week’s school shooting saddens me. As I understand, the perpetrator obtained his weapon legally, so there is really nothing we can do about it, other than making sure that the Mouthies discuss the negatives of random Sheepicide. We cannot change our Second Amendment and the Ohmys producing our weapons would become angered by any manufacturing restrictions. We need the Ohmy financial support.”
Unfortunately for the citizens of Baa, the law clearly states that Baaners may obtain any weapon for their personal use. And with laws permitting absolute freedom of speech, the violence permeating their media cannot be checked, “…So another heated debate persisted, ending in no resolution.”
But why (other than a Mohamed cartoon convention in Texas) harp on this societal deficiency alone when Altson holds up the mirror to so many others? More
I don’t know how so many people came to love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Americanah. I couldn’t get past the first 500 words. The author showed great command of prose, but the start promised a narrative full of shallow, judgmental, and contradictory observations.
In the opening sentence—62 words long—we learn that “Princeton in the summer smells of nothing.” There isn’t much for the reader’s imagination in this, except to wonder: did the narrator miss the smell of a summer rainstorm, the inevitable scent of fresh-cut grass or a particular flower on the breeze? Which other of the five senses could she have explored to give her readers a toe-hold into the rarified air of Princeton in the summer? We got “nothing”.
Next we learn that the narrator likes the post office “…where effusive staff bounded out to greet” patrons. This must be hyperbole. Where in America are postal workers “effusive”? And in the summer, when it’s hot enough to melt chocolate in the narrator’s purse, we are expected to believe these workers “bound forth” to accept the mail? Are they Springer Spaniels?
It’s reasonable of course for the narrator to wonder: “…why there was no place where she could braid her hair.” Except that, just a moment ago she noted, “It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton—the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids.”
So far we have an odorless town, no braiding salons, and Springer Spaniels in charge of the maile. More
Any discussion of this short treat must focus on observable detail and rudimentary character. There’s little to be found by way of plot, but much to be gained from the innuendos forged on nothing, the implications of so many zeroes.
Our narrator—we know he has a name, because he wears a nametag—works the overnight shift at a convenience store during summer break in a college town. A sort of nobody in a no-place town at an unscheduled time of year. Perhaps he’s Mr. Zero.
For thirty-seven hours one night I watch through the glass front of the store as the few college students still in town for the summer walk back and forth between Town Pizza on one side of me and Big Boy Liquors on the other, buying beer to go with their slices and slices to go with their beer… The clock on the register doesn’t change for a very long time and I think I’m stuck in a time warp but realize it’s the total from the most recent sale. I switch it back to clock mode and discover I really am stuck in a time warp so I punch a zero and stare at that instead.
Here are his companions: a guy who stumbles in like a department store Santa; a hooker who doesn’t know this is the sleepy side of town; a couple musicians from lesser-known bands (the kind whose music is found on “tapes”, not iTunes—this is the ‘90s); Gloria, his boss, who straps “Mr. Zero” into his blue and orange apron and tightens it like a noose around his neck; Carl, the day shift guy; Benny, the ten-year-old with absentee parents and a quest for cigarettes; the guy with mayo on his shirt who informs Zero his present employ isn’t even good enough to be the worst of anything—you’ll have to read chapter 13 to find out which is the most dangerous job in America.
Then there is Pete, the homeless guy. A real nobody in a no-place town. Comparisons may be odious, if Jack Kerouac is to be believed, but the characters imprisoned figuratively in Himmer’s New England have their counterparts imprisoned literally in yet another part of New England: the Maine State Pen of The Shawshank Redemption. In homeless Pete, providing Mr. Zero both the inspiration for escape and the means of making it happen, I’m reminded of Andy Dufresne leaving Red with the means to find him on a Pacific beach south of the border.
There may be no observable plot in this midsummer zero-dark-thirty streetlamp contemplation, but the characters are doing something. The Second Most Dangerous Job in America, by accident or design, is a moving tale in which nothing can mean everything and a bunch of nobodies can live and breath just as surely as the rest of us. They may be moths in the summer night gathering outside a lonely convenience store, but their lives mean something.
The Second Most Dangerous Job in America
An Atticus Shorts Original
Atticus Books LLC 2012
You might inscribe the title of your novel a couple dozen times before it sticks. You might make it longer, shorter, TBD, Working Title, WIP, B.S., Nada, Whatever… whatever. And revert after all that to the original working title. Or not. But “The End”… this is a thing you only write once on a manuscript. Today was that day for me. What a relief!
I’m going to stop awhile and enjoy the feeling. Read a little, write some reviews. Soon enough I’ll begin the deflating process of finding an agent or publisher. If it goes anything like past searches, the process will take even longer than the 18 months that went into the MS. And though this is a polished draft, it could fall yet again under the axe of another heavy edit.
For now, I can say: