Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cracker Jack Sucks

We went to Wal-Mart yesterday to pick up many necessaries, such as mushrooms, carrot chips, a tomato, bananas, Cheerios, a few yogurts, and two cases of bottled water.

On the way to the register down that long, long walkway that divides the food aisles from everything else, Meridith spotted a three-pack of Cracker Jack and grabbed one. One for her, and one each for Mom and Dad.

Comes "American Idol", or about an hour into it by the time we start watching it on the Tivo, and Meridith brings out a box for her and a box for Mom.

I don't remember eating a lot of Cracker Jack when I was a kid. I was more into Bazooka bubble gum and the exploits of Bazooka Joe in the comic that was wrapped around the gum.

But weren't the Cracker Jack prizes better back then, or probably even before the time I emerged? I don't expect them to be pricey; I know they're cheap. But a square of paper that you fold along the triangular dotted lines to create a talking crab? Some dumb riddle? What about a comic just like the gum has (or had?)? There's a website called "Cracker Jack Prize Archives" (, and the prizes displayed are infinitely better than what they are today.

I know that technology has become far more advanced than when Cracker Jack came on the market, and that there's little hope that what could be included in a Cracker Jack box as a prize could actually surprise someone. Unless it's a tiny iPad, who cares? But that's not my thinking. There's less and less opportunity for genuine surprises in the world today. More and more, cereal boxes have links to games online instead of actual toys inside. Just for one moment, how about anticipation? And something better than a paper talking crab?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Garner Files (Cue the Mike Post theme music)

Before this morning, there were three books I'm psyched about this year:

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister (June 9) - Bauermeister's second novel. She's the author of "School for Essential Ingredients," which is so rich in characters and food that you actually spend more time per page just sighing with pleasure over what she's described.

It's Classified by Nicolle Wallace (September 20) - Wallace wrote "Eighteen Acres", about Charlotte Kramer, the first female president, her chief of staff Melanie Kingston, and everything involved in being the president. But what Wallace does here is actually cover three presidents. There's Kramer, who gets the most space, and then President Charles Martin and President Phil Harlow, both of whom Kingston served. Harlow is from Florida, served as governor for two terms, and he and Martin are what I e-mailed Wallace about, begging her to write books about them, too. I'm a native Floridian, so anything she includes about Harlow's love for Florida (exemplified by Kingston bringing Harlow a daily news file containing clips from many Florida newspapers, keeping him apprised of what's going on in his home state) I eat up greedily. Martin is Harlow's nephew, who succeeded him, so that's a unique arrangement and certainly one Wallace should pursue. She could write an empire of presidential fiction with what she has set up in "Eighteen Acres", and "It's Classified" continues that.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch (June 7) - Sankovitch started a blog called "Read All Day", and that's exactly what she did. She read one book every single day from October 2008 to October 2009 and wrote a review of each one. This is about that journey, which doesn't make me envious, because I do it, too, just without the reviews. But I want to know all about it.

Add to that what I just discovered this morning: James Garner has written a memoir! Well, he had help, by Jon Winokur, his ghostwriter, but that doesn't matter! James Garner has written a memoir!

It's called The Garner Files, and it includes an introduction by Julie Andrews! I hope she mentions "Victor/Victoria" and that there's some space for it in this memoir. I'm also hoping for some words about "Murphy's Romance," but that's a minor hope compared to "Victor/Victoria." Naturally, there'll be insights about "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files", and it comes out on November 8th.

I'm impatient about all of them. I want to read them NOW!!! But I think I've got enough books to tide me over until I receive these from Amazon. I pre-ordered all of them.

First Lines from Books I Love #1: Consuming Passions

I've decided to start a new feature called "First Lines from Books I Love." I'm trying to get in the shower, but my damn brain keeps shouting, "BLOG! I WANT BLOG!"

I opened the closet door, intending to pull out my black Sheldon Cooper t-shirt (It has Klingon writing across the type with an asterisk, and next to the asterisk at the bottom is the translation: "Revenge is a dish best served cold"), but was distracted by the book on top of the third stack of books next to my bed. It's called "Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life" by Michael Lee West. I bought it months ago, but still haven't read it yet, just like a good bibliophile.

I opened to the first section, "Family Recipes", and the first chapter, "A Food-Obsessed Life." And I really want to share this first paragraph with you: "Many hundreds of years ago, when I was a small girl, I used to eat dirt. I would squat in a Louisiana ditch, a dark-haired child in a yellow dress, busily whipping up a mud pie. Using a spoon from my mama's best silver, Francis 1ST, I added a little ditch water. Then I swooned, overcome by the color and texture of the mud. It resembled rich brownie batter. Without hesitation I licked the spoon. My pie tasted sour and felt gritty against my teeth. I ate another spoonful, dribbling mud down my chin. All of a sudden Mama flew out of the house and jerked me up by one arm."

I bought this book because of the subject of food, but now I really know why I bought it. And I think I'll love the rest.

And now I think I'll also finally make my way to the shower. Shut up, brain. You're empty. Don't try to convince me that you have something else to be written. I won't hear of it right now.

You Could Learn a Lot from My Dog

Hey you. Yeah, you're the one I want to talk to: The one with that stressed-out look. What's wrong now? Feels like the world is crushing your insides and it's hard for you to breathe without worrying about the next possible shitstorm? What shitstorm? You're alive. That's a pretty nice thing, and you have to expect shitstorms, but they shouldn't be your whole life. That's not what living is about.

I'll tell you a story. My dog Kitty, who's part miniature pinscher, part terrier, was abandoned somewhere in Nome, Alaska, found by someone who worked at a pizza parlor, and she was vicious. They had to handle her with gloves.

Yeah, she had to look for her own food, her own shelter, had to weather the extreme cold in that part of the world.

We found her on a website run by a woman who takes in dogs like her in Alaska, and we knew she was the one for us. She came down to us on Alaska Airlines at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. Mom was worried that we would have to use gloves, too. We didn't, but on that first night with us, she slept alone on our couch.

Gradually, though, she warmed up to us, claimed the rocking chair in the living room as her own, and you know what she loves to do? She loves to go outside on the patio and sit exactly where the sun shines. She loves that warmth more than I think I could possibly love books. She goes out, she comes in, she goes back out a little later. She follows that sun all day. In the late afternoon, she goes to sit under my window because that's where the sun is.

And she sits. She brings out her favorite orange tennis ball, and she sits down and just looks around quietly, beaming at the sun, her eyes closed sometimes, just loving that warmth with her entire body and soul. Maybe you could benefit from some time in the sun like that. Find something in your life that you could love just as much as Kitty loves "Mr. Sun", as we call it for her.

(The same thinking applies to our other dog, Tigger, part miniature pinscher, part Italian greyhound, who loves to have me blow on his tummy when he's laying on his back. He's loved it ever since he was little.)

The True First Review

David Wagner, whose blog is "My Little Corner of the World" (, found me by clicking "Next Blog" one day. He was impressed with my writings, I mentioned my book, and he bought the Kindle version from Amazon. I've always written reviews. Movie reviews. I've never been the one to be reviewed, and David wrote about "What If They Lived?". His review ( is the true first review and you should not only read it, but check out everything else he writes about on his blog, including books. I consider true friends those who are just as obsessed with books as I am. And David is a true friend.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Another Review!

I especially love this sentence: "There is a definite quality of respect and a realistic approach to What If They Lived?"

This warm fuzziness feels gooooooooooooooooooooooood!!!

Shark Teeth in Gummy Packets

Last Saturday, we went to Ventura Harbor Village. It's far enough away from the Santa Clarita Valley when you really need to escape. And I needed to escape. And Meridith needed to escape. And so did Mom and Dad. And with how gas prices are today, an hour away is good enough, with orange and lemon groves, and sod farms, and green, green earth included as you drive roads next to mountainsides that make you wonder why in hell you never lived anywhere near such peace, instead of being squeezed into a clump of apartments near a vastly indifferent hillside with only the bright, hopeful faces of flowers peeking out, trying to say that the days here aren't as bad as they sometimes are.

Oh, it's not entirely cynicism accrued over 7 years that compelled me to write that, but more disappointment after walking along the harbor stocked with all those boats, and the clam chowder at Andria's, and the pumpkin ice cream malt at Coastal Cone, and the arcade that had not only my beloved pinball machines, but also Galaga, which merits its own entry one of these days. I'll put it on my to-write list with Universal CityWalk.

The Santa Clarita Valley is 30 miles north of Los Angeles, and I've written about it before, but I can never get over the pure isolation that spreads throughout every corner. Newhall has a tiny sense of community with some diners and stores that have lasted for decades and therefore give a sense of history, but it's not really my history. Wherever I live, I always want history I can connect to, something that makes me not only proud to live there, but to keep me interested enough to keep digging into that particular past. There are better men than I to dig into that history, such as my friend John Boston, who I was honored to work under at The Signal when he was the editor of the weekend Escape section. He had been at The Signal for 30 years and he always wrote a weekly column called "The Time Ranger", which riffles through the history of the Santa Clarita Valley at enthusiastic speed. He loves this valley more than I ever could. Those columns in the paper showed that as empty as this valley feels many times over, he has never given up on it. There is always some piece of information that fascinates him enough to write an entire column about it.

One of my proudest moments in working for him was when we were going over what to put in an issue of Escape, and I had an idea to write in the guise of an orangutan who had been the model for King Louie in Disney's "The Jungle Book," my favorite animated movie and one of my favorite movies period, exclamation point, and an even bigger exclamation point. My idea was that this orangutan had expected that he would also be the voice of King Louie, but was sorely disappointed that Walt Disney had decided on the swingin' band leader Louis Prima as the voice. This orangutan is living out his days at a zoo, but has never forgotten that, always been enamored of the works of Giacomo Puccini, and was inspired to train his voice to the same heights and thought that would have helped him cinch the job.

I went home, wrote the column, and e-mailed it to John, who said that we'd talk about it the next day. He wasn't really happy with it and told me what I could do to improve it. I don't remember all the suggestions he gave, because it was so long ago, but it was a matter of streamlining what had felt like too much wandering.

I rewrote it, adjusting a paragraph, then two and three, taking into account his suggestions and seeing what didn't work and changing it, while making sure it still fit my sensibilities. I sent him the revised column, and I got back an e-mail that would have knocked me back centuries if I had fell into a time machine out of shock.

I worked with many editors before John, some that I still miss (such as the late Bob French at the Weston office of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, who was so magnanimous in his dealings with everyone, that when he became angry about something, it was so surprising because it seemed so unnatural. I heard that anger once during a phone call to probably someone at the main Fort Lauderdale building, and I knew that when that anger rose, it was because of something he passionately believed in. It was never just offhand), but John is one that I will respect for the rest of my life. It's almost hero worship. John taught me not only how to improve my writing, how to make what I want to say shine even brighter, but how to be an editor, how to see my work from an editor's viewpoint. And he also subscribed to "The New Yorker", which spurred me on to subscribe, because he always gave me his old issues and I found kindred spirits there, writers who went as deep in thought as I do.

To get to the point, even though I've veered way the hell off from what I was originally writing about, I wish to hell I'd kept the e-mail he sent me after I submitted that revised column. I looked through my inbox at the e-mails I kept from 2007, and the ones in my "Rory" folder. I've got all this shit in here that only mattered when it was originally sent, such as the Thanksgiving column I sent to myself as a possibility for the Thanksgiving issue of Escape. It actually still reads pretty well, so I may post it here. But I lost that one important e-mail. I must have been too hasty in cleaning out either my inbox or that folder and didn't think about what I really needed to keep. But in that e-mail, John admitted that he didn't expect a whole lot after the first time, and was happily surprised when I came through with that sparkling rewrite. To get an idea of his enthusiasm, he started the e-mail with, "JIMINY CHRISTMAS, RORY!'" He said that there were only a few minor grammatical matters to see to, but that was it. It would be published.

I don't think John had a great time as editor of Escape. It was in his image, and his writings matched exactly the fun of his columns, and "Time Ranger" had its own space in there, but it seemed like for him, it was more that you do it just to do it. The newspaper was changing and the management didn't see any reason to keep on a 30-year veteran. It still baffles me as to why not, particularly because he was the soul of the Santa Clarita Valley. When we moved here and my mom read the paper, she saw his columns often and thought he was the one who ran the paper, the one who owned it.

When John left The Signal, I put into quick use everything he taught me. They were looking for an editor to take over Escape, and I became the interim editor for five weeks. The columns that were submitted to me such as by Eve Bushman, the wine expert, I edited with the same kindness that John had done with my work. I wanted the section to be fun, and to me, it was. I enjoyed working with Tom, the guy who laid it all out for me on the computer, and we went over what should be where. But it was hard as hell. There was the time pressure, and my own columns to write, and to make sure that everything looked good before it was sent to press. Five weeks was enough for me in being an editor. I wouldn't want it ever again. It's the same reason I'm now a former film critic: I want to shepherd my own work.

Every day I use what John has taught me. I remember kindness towards all. I remember that you can have all the words in the world at your disposal, but to use them well, you have to love what you write. I also nursed a Tootsie Roll Pop addiction alongside him in the newsroom, but I gave that up not longer after I left The Signal, and especially when I went way down to 190-something (so far) from 260 lbs.

Scrolling through everything I've just written, this is the biggest digression I've ever had from what I intended to write about. Thank god this is a blog, because if this was anything else, I probably would have moved all of that to some future column or another chapter, and continued on with what was intended in the current column. Time to continue on.

Meridith had the idea to go to Ventura Harbor Village to celebrate our birthdays, being that they fell on weekdays. Mine was Monday, March 21, and hers was Wednesday, March 23. We had our favorite foods, and cakes (banana bread cake for me, Carvel M&Ms cake for her), and gifts. But there wasn't much else we could do beyond that during the week because it was a workweek for Dad and Meridith. We had been thinking about what we might like to do for our birthdays.

Meridith thought of going to the Discovery Science Center for those Sesame Street-themed body exhibits they had, because our dogs Tigger and Kitty love Sesame Street (Tigger's favorite is Big Bird, and Kitty's favorite is Abby Cadabby), but she wasn't sure. I told her that it's a nice gesture, but it should be for her.

Meanwhile, I thought of the Getty Center with its views of Los Angeles from the mountaintop and any potentially interesting exhibits. I looked on the website. There were no potentially interesting exhibits. Not like the food photography and the panoramic photos of New York City that spurred us on the first time we went there. Tree photography, and early photography in China. Those might have been something to see, but it wasn't enough for me. I didn't feel that hard pull that I felt before.

Meridith came up with Ventura Harbor Village because it's a mutual interest. And it's so peaceful. While we walked past the shops and the restaurants, we saw windows on floors above the shops and restaurants with blinds drawn and probably nothing inside, and wondered if there were bathrooms inside, and if anyone could live in those spaces if they wanted. We wondered why, in Dad's hurry to move somewhere to still have a teaching job (since then-governor Jeb Bush of Florida had eliminated most electives in favor of pushing more money into the FCAT exam), he didn't consider Ventura, or some other space that embodies California. I know the cost of living differs everywhere and maybe it was more expensive in Ventura, but surely Ventura has schools. I thought the same thing about San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco, so this was not a new feeling, but it's better than the isolated feeling in the Santa Clarita Valley. Mom said I'd probably be bored by going to the harbor every day (if that was possible, of course, since, you know, a job is necessary and all), but I wouldn't. I read every single day; I seek inspiration from everything around me, and I usually get it. Spending time at the harbor, I would never be without ideas.

We went into a shop that sold various trinkets, such as shells, and art prints, and shirts, and, on a clear glass counter, a display of shark teeth on necklaces. A genuine shark's tooth. I was sure of it this time.

In 1st grade, at Stirling Park Elementary in Casselberry, home to a novel rotunda library, where the bookshelves were next to each grade level's wing of the building and the check-out desk was right in the middle, down a few carpeted steps, there was one day at lunch when I had a gummy packet. I don't remember what kind of gummies they were, and for the past 20 minutes, I've been trying to find what company it might have been. But I remember a box, of course, and 10 gummy packets inside. I opened this gummy packet, and maybe it was sea-themed. It said on the box that either one or all of the packets included a shark tooth. I thought it was a real shark tooth, and when I found it, I brought it back with me to the classroom and put it in my cubbyhole (That sounds like it should have been a dirty word, but it missed out).

I didn't know about the Food & Drug Administration, nor food safety or food standards. All I knew is that I had a real shark's tooth. Never mind that it was an off-white, or that it was softer than a shark tooth probably should be. I had a shark's tooth!

I wasn't disappointed when I found out it wasn't. Then in 2nd grade, when I ordered from a science catalog what I thought would be a full-size telescope, it turned out to be a powerful magnifying glass doohickey, with small binocular lenses on each side.

I like hanging out where reality doesn't go. All of that plus going to Walt Disney World every weekend when I was a tyke helped that along. It's what got me to where I am today and to people like John Boston, and my first book, and everything I still plan to do, like maybe sticking to one story per blog entry. Maybe.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Check It Out! A First Review!

Phil Hall, the co-author of "What If They Lived?", sent me a link to one of our first reviews! It's fairly positive, and that's good enough for me!:

I take no offense at the angry comment below the review. Considering the research and the writing that Phil and I did for this book, I don't consider it a lazy idea at all. And considering that BearManor Media publishes books about movies, television, and the history of Hollywood and its notable figures, our book fits right in there.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rent "Morning Glory"!

About an hour ago, I finished watching "Morning Glory," which I Netflixed. Rent it. Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote "The Devil Wears Prada", "27 Dresses", "Laws of Attraction", and, very early on, "Three to Tango", finally wrote a decent, workable screenplay. There needs to be a lot more movies like this today: Funny, charming, and quietly dramatic. And finally, in Rachel McAdams, there's a potentially big star in a younger generation who can actually act. Harrison Ford is a bit of a different Harrison Ford here, and there's a big treat in seeing his news legend Mike Pomeroy holding court at the 21 Club with Chris Matthews, Bob Schieffer, and Morley Safer. It feels like major parts of the national news industry cooperated with this film, giving it everything it needed. And Don Roy King, the director of "Saturday Night Live", is in here, too, not only as director of Daybreak. He also served as second unit director and television consultant. See this. I don't think it'll be long into the film before you're rooting for McAdams' Becky Fuller to succeed, to make Daybreak rise again in the ratings, and to manage every single piece that makes this show what she wants it to be, including pushing Pomeroy as hard as she can push.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Fried Birthday

For her birthday yesterday, Meridith decided on Wings Sports Bar & Grille in Castaic. I never imagined that we'd reach the point where we'd leave our homes, after watching hours of TV, to go to an 80% restaurant, 10% takeout counter, and 10% bar, that has flat-screen TVs tableside, with remotes, and DirecTV access. But this was it.

Here's what we eventually had on our table, while ABC World News ended and "Jeopardy!" came on (Eating significantly stuffed quesadillas and watching "Jeopardy!"? Works for me!): Fried jalapeno poppers; three different kinds of wings spread between Mom, Dad and Meridith (Meridith had wings that were breaded and fried so close to the skin of actual fried chicken. It's a weird amalgamation that could only be possible at a place that bills itself as a sports bar); a small pepperoni pizza that looked like it had meat crumbles on it, too; quesadillas for me with chicken, cheese, grilled onions, and green peppers (No jalapenos); a $1.99 half-order of curly fries that looked like a full order and felt like it before I had even gotten to the quesadillas. I've never liked that the two Wing Stop locations we have here in the Santa Clarita Valley don't serve curly fries. Just fries that waver between thick steak fries and something that you can ignore in favor of wings, before finding that you don't have any more wings left and look, there's some fries. I've known that wings and curly fries should always go together since growing up in Florida and trying so many varieties of wings. It's just not done, and shouldn't be done, any other way.

After we were done, I was stuffed, and I found later, not in a good way. I don't understand how I ate all this regularly when I was way, waaaaay overweight. The fried jalapeno poppers had breading that could have dented the table if it didn't give way so easily when you bite into it. Meridith told me that for these, they use the whole jalapeno, but remove the seeds before frying them so there's no heat. It is what bowling alleys with fryers equal to what they had in that kitchen should aspire to. This is bowling alley food. And that was most certainly a pizza. In a sports bar setting like this, with drunk College of the Canyons nursing students holding court loudly at a long table at the other side of the room, you're not looking for perfect. You're just looking for pizza. And in quesadillas, there was a notable difference between these and the ones at Chronic Tacos, whereby these were loaded and the others, even with diced chicken, still seem relatively flat. But that's not a hindrance to the ones at Chronic Tacos. That's expected for Mexican food and it's still good. For a sports bar, you need quesadillas that you can eat while watching whatever game they've got on. They've got that right, along with the plastic cups of sour cream and guacamole, that demonstrated a major difference in me now in that I didn't finish off either cup. 90% of the sour cream remained, while 60% of the guacamole remained. I like not being the old me anymore.

But when we left, oh did I have gas. My body hadn't had this in so long and didn't know what the hell it was. And I vowed, and I will keep to that vow, that I will not have fried food again for at least another few years. Now I don't know how people manage to barely stay alive on this stuff. They waddle in the malls with this stuff sloshing inside them, the fried crusts, the melted cheeses, the pepperoni slices, the sour cream and guacamole. I will not judge any of that. I was one of them once. But my god, what one can put a body through and still stand upright, I'm amazed and amused and horrifed all at the same time. I'm grateful to have clawed my way out of those sugar-coated woods.

After, Dad wanted to stop at Office Depot to see if they had the pens he likes. I quickly went over to Mom and told her I wanted to stop at Best Buy. I had intended to order purple bubble wrap online for Meridith for her birthday, but a combination of forgetfulness and disinterestedness quashed that. So, even though I had bought her "Knives at Dawn" by Andrew Friedman, a full-length profile of the world's most prestigious culinary competition, I decided on the one thing that would truly surprise her: Adam Lambert's "Glam Nation Live" CD/DVD set. On Monday, the day before my birthday, she was in Wal-Mart with Dad on the way home from work and had forgotten to see if it was there and how much it was. And she was going to begin searching for it at other stores, on websites, seeing what the most reasonable price was. Why should she wait?

I was almost out of the car even before Dad got into the parking space, because I thought I was the only one going in. But he, Mom and Meridith were going in, too. So I disappeared as soon as we walked in, with a determined gait toward the music section. But on the way, I spotted "The Breakfast Club" on sale. Finally. I picked up a copy and continued on.

I found "Glam Nation Live" right away on a rack, but was surprised that the CD/DVD set was easily contained in one CD case. I shouldn't have been that surprised, because I had a few albums that were set up just like that. I picked one out and went right to the register and paid for both, and went back to Mom, Dad and Meridith, deflecting Meridith from knowing what else was in my bag besides "The Breakfast Club."

We got home, Mom dispatched Meridith to her room for a few minutes and wrapped Glamnation while I set the table for her Carvel M&Ms ice cream cake. And after everything was set up, and the cake was defrosting for a few minutes, she opened her dolphin coin bank (You put the coin in the dolphin's mouth, press a lever, and it dives to the hole on the other sidr, dropping the coin in), and "Knives at Dawn", and then "Glam Nation Live." I'm a pretty happy guy, but I can't recall the last time I was truly that happy, that overjoyed, about anything. I guess my happiness comes more as warm satisfaction throughout my body. But that was a masterpiece. I didn't think smiles could get that big. Meridith had one that could have stretched from our perch in Southern California all the way to New York City. Worth it? More than my beloved book collection, and that's a whole lot of more.

While having lunch a little while ago (Don't let the time of posting fool you. I started writing this at 12:23, but it's now 2:25, allowing time for lunch and other distractions), Mom said that the "Glam Nation" set was undoubtedly her favorite gift. Based on that display last night, I believe it.

I Found a Partial Piece

I haven't started reading the "Writing Los Angeles" anthology yet in search of something solid to take away from Los Angeles for myself. I've been reading "I'll Be Damned If I'll Die in Oakland" by Al Martinez, a great Los Angeles Times columnist who now writes weekly for the Daily News. This was from 2003, when he and his wife Cinelli traveled with their children and then without their children and then with a few of their grandchildren.

It's as warmly written as his columns, as insightful, as funny as what has criminally been reduced to a weekly offering. Towards the end, Martinez gets Los Angeles exactly right, how I could describe it if I was Al Martinez. This was when he and Cinelli had traveled to New York City with two of their granddaughters:

"There is no way to compare L.A. to the city that never sleeps. We are out here a sprawling, disconnected set of dreams that no one has ever been able to link. Manhattan is an entity, Los Angeles an idea not yet fulfilled. We have no core, no center, no focus. A few tall buildings have shot up from the gray downtown in the thirty years Cinelli and I have lived here, but they remain a kind of uneasy cluster amid the otherwise drab expanse that surrounds them. New York city is a series of surprises, L.A. an unfinished symphony."


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rolling Thunder Logbook

I've been reading the wrong books. I've enjoyed a tour of art galleries and art history in "An Object of Beauty" by Steve Martin, who may well be one of the greatest teachers of art because he never slides into pretentiousness. Even if you're not all that interested in art, you can at least understand it through his words.

I liked the 2000, 2005, and 2010 editions of "Best Food Writing", but became burnt out on it towards the end of the 2010 edition, desperately needing a break. It is for research, but I saw that I needed to take a different tack on my research for now.

I read Sam Shepard's "Hawk Moon" last Saturday and it's so obviously his very young writings, though right at the start, he fully embraces the strangeness of life in his words, of those people who can't possibly live like that, and yet they probably do.

"Hawk Moon" came in 1973. "Rolling Thunder Logbook", about Shepard's experiences being within the world of the Rolling Thunder Revue show, made up of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and so many worldly, spiritual others, was published in 1977, and my god, if you want to see what four years can do to a writer in prose, read "Hawk Moon" first and then "Rolling Thunder Logbook." Shepard was writing a lot of plays in between those years, but there's only one way to describe this book: It's like someone ripping your heart out of your chest and leading you around with it while it beats in their hand, and you're not only compelled to follow, but you're grateful that it happened to you. I'm serious, and there are so many passages I have bookmarked to show you.

Initially, I was bookmarking pertinent passages about Montreal for a friend, who had been to a Rolling Thunder Revue show, and she wondered if Sam Shepard had been in Montreal with them. He hadn't, as he peeled off to New York City to work on a play of his that was opening soon, as I understand it here. But then, reading what Shepard had about this adventure, I couldn't only look for that. I was finding descriptions that stunned me. Poetry in prose is rarely done well, and Shepard nails it.

Shepard was brought onto the tour for the purpose of writing dialogue for the performers for a movie that never quite seems to gel. He becomes part of the background, but what a momentous place to be. There's one photo in here of Bob Dylan looking down at Jack Kerouac's grave. One great man alive, one great man dead.

I'll start off with page 48, entitled "Alchemist Scene", dialogue that was written for the proposed movie, between Allen Ginsberg as "Emperor" and Dylan as "Alchemist":

Emperor: (Ginsberg) I've heard through the grapevine that you have certain powers.
Alchemist: (Dylan) Oh, that's not me, but I know who you mean.
Emperor: You're not the alchemist?
Alchemist: No, but I've seen him come through here carrying his bags full of bottles. We talk now and then.
Emperor: What's he tell you?
Alchemist: Nothing special. I've seen him perform certain mysterious gestures though. I never say nothin' about it. I just watch.
Emperor: What does he do?
Alchemist: Sometimes very small things and sometimes very big ones.
Emperor: Like what?
Alchemist: Well, I've seen him touch fire to ice one time. That was interesting. The whole place melted.
Emperor: You were right there?
Alchemist: Right in the middle of it. I stood very still so as not to disturb his activity. Most people ran out of the joint but I stood right there watching.
Emperor: What happened then?
Alchemist: Well, next thing I knew we were rolling on ice. But that was some dance he was doing. He showed me other stuff too but I ain't tellin'.
Emperor: Well, the reason I'm asking is that I'm a little concerned for the Empire.
Alchemist: Why is that?
Emperor: Everyone's going bankrupt, and seeing how I'm the Emperor, I feel it's my duty to bail them out in some way.
Alchemist: Well, who do you owe?
Emperor: Certain invisible ones. Nobody's sure.
Alchemist: How did you get yourself into this situation?
Emperor: I inherited it.
Alchemist: Well, I'll see what I can do for ya, but like I say, I'm not the one.
Emperor: I'd certainly appreciate it.

Sounds familiar. Sounds like today's political scene.

On page 89, entitled "Fans", above a photo of Dylan signing a program for a fan, there's three sentences:

"Fans are more dangerous than a man with a weapon because they're after something invisible. Some imagined "something." At least with a gun you know what you're facing."

That was what made me want more so badly and right away.

This is on page 93, "Singing on the Grave: October - Lowell", to the right of the full-page photo of Dylan looking down at Kerouac's grave:

"Allen quotes from Kerouac's favorite Shakespeare: "How like a winter hath my absence been . . . What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!/What old December's bareness everywhere!" It's right close to the time of year he died in. Trees sticking up naked, blankets of blowing leaves. Dylan and Ginsberg perched close to the ground, cross-legged, facing this tiny marble plaque, half buried in the grass: "'TI-JEAN [little Jack], JOHN L. KEROUAC, Marc. 12, 1922-Oct. 21, 1969 -- HE HONORED LIFE -- STELLA HIS WIFE, Nov. 11, 1918--." Dylan's tuning up his Martin while Ginsbero[sic] causes his little shoe-box harmonium to breathe out notes across the lawn. Soon a slow blues takes shape with each of them exchanging verses, then Allen moving into an improvised poem to the ground, to the sky, to the day, to Jack, to life, to music, to the worms, to bones, to travel, to the States. I try to look at both of them head-on, with no special ideas of who or what they are but just try to see them there in front of me. They emerge as simple men with a secret aim in mind. Each of them opposite but still in harmony. Alive and singing to the dead and living. Sitting flat on the earth, above bones, beneath trees and hearing what they hear."

Page 97 is "Dylan's Hands", with four sentences above a photo of Dylan sitting cross-legged, gesturing gently with his hands:

"White, wrinkled, double-jointed little finger. Long nails hovering over Allen's harmonium like a tentacle animal. Weathered, milky leather hands that tell more than his face about music and where he's been. Ancient, demonic, almost scary, nonhuman hands."

Page 99, "Lowell, Massachusetts":

"Now, in the face of burned-out Kerouac, Cassady, and all the other ones who went over the hill, this life seems like a miracle. Still ongoing. Ignoring all that. Respecting it but not indulging in remorse. Allen and Dylan singing on his grave. Allen, full of life, hope, and resurrection. Poets of this now life. This here life. This one being lived and living.

Dead and don't know it. Living and do. The living have a dead idea. - Kerouac, Mexico City Blues"

More? More? I thought so.

Page 100, "The Inventor". Opposite it is a full-page photo of Dylan sitting at a table in a diner, with a menu of "Fried Clams" and "French Fries" just above his head:

"Dylan has invented himself. He's made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn't to figure him out but to take him in. He gets into you anyway, so why not just take him in? He's not the first one to have invented himself, but he's the first one to have invented Dylan. No one invented him before him. Or after. What happens when someone invents something outside himself like an airplane or a freight train? The thing is seen for what it is. It's seen as something incredible because it's never been seen before, but it's taken in by the people and changes their lives in the process. They don't stand around trying to figure out what it isn't, forever. They use it as a means to adventure."

I can't say it gets better, because what's better than the best?

Page 103, "Pilgrim Fear":

"They didn't know what they'd find. So they run into this huge continent and beach the boat. But they're scared shitless. Even though they've found what they were looking for, they're still scared. There's crazy naked savages all around them. There's one-eyed pirates lurking in the harbors, licking their lips. There's wild wild animals. All kinds of foreign shadows. Things they hadn't expected. So they pray harder than ever now. They build forts and walls and haul in cannon. They rebuild Europe on a primitive land. Everything's full of possible danger. They don't trust a soul. Even their own kind are burned as witches. They lynch Indians at the drop of a hat. They fire wildly into the night. They jump at shadows. They don't play after dark. They bury their dead in secret, in the dead of night, so as not to let the "enemy" know they're weakening. They start dying off. New ships roll in to replace the dead. They're determined to continue. Nothing's going to stop them now. Come hell or high water they're going to persist. They're going to spread themselves no matter what. But now they've forgotten why they came in the first place. Talking to God is out of the picture, because now they've got to exist. Now they've just got to stay alive."

This one I really like, page 112, "Danbury, Connecticut - Ethan Allen Hotel":

"I'm extra horny for a car. Walking is suspicious in a place like Danbury. There's not even dirt banks on the sides of the road. I try hitching three miles into town but wind up hoofing the whole route. Stop in for a chocolate egg cream at the local pharmacy-diner. News in color on TV. Gun shop across the street. I strike up words with a guy about the rising popularity of dog tracks in New England. "There's a new one coming to Connecticut. The horsemen don't like it though. Bad for business." The cook shifts the channel to a William Bendix movie. "No roughhouse in here or you'll get a face full of knuckles," says William. Everyone's hiding behind the Daily News. The pock-faced waitress is smoking, bored. Cook moves to the Belmont Racing Form. This could be the 30s or 40s easy. But it isn't."

Page 114, "42nd Street Face Lift":

"Tonight Dylan appears in a rubber Dylan mask that he'd picked up on 42nd Street. The crowd is stupefied. A kind of panic-stricken hush falls over the place. "Has he had another accident? Plastic surgery?" Or is this some kind of mammoth hoax? An imposter! The voice sounds the same. If it is a replacement, he's doing a good job. He goes through three or four songs with the thing on, then reaches for the harmonica. He tries to play it through the mask but it won't work, so he rips it off and throws it back into the floodlights. There he is in the flesh and blood! The real thing! A face-life supreme! It's a frightening act even if it's not calculated for those reasons. The audience is totally bewildered and still wondering if this is actually him or not."

Page 116, "Explore":

"All the land had been discovered. Some parts of hidden South America maybe still lie out of sight, but this land here has been discovered. Every inch. Now the move is inner space. New religions, est. Gurus. Meditation. Outer space is too expensive and only lies within the reach of the government or corporate industry. Where does Rolling Thunder fall in all this? It's too simple to write it off as just another good-time tour revolving around the mysterious presence of Dylan. There's too many elements involved that keep it swinging off in unforeseen directions. Even if its first intentions weren't to start an expedition, it's turning into that because of something coming from all these people. Everybody's been through something to arrive at this point. Ginsberg's not just along for the ride after going through America backward and forward for over forty years. After seeing close friends die away from him. After sitting with burning corpses on the shores of the Ganges. Baez has spent nights in a bomb shelter in Hanoi during the worst air raid of the war, marched on the Pentagon, still holds beliefs in the power of pacifism, watched her "public image" like it belonged to another person. And Dylan hasn't exactly been in a coma all these years. So what's the story? Beyond the impact of everybody's individual charisma and personality, something is lurking. It's as though we all can smell it but nobody can put a finger on it. It's almost got to be that way so that the search can continue. Gregory Corso once described poetry to me as "a magic probe." He said, "A poet takes it all on. The whole shot." If poetry has the power of transforming emotions the same way music does, then at the same time it has to be discovered halfway in the dark. It discovers itself. It lets itself be known through the revelation of the poet. At the same time Dylan is helping people, he's being helped. The camaraderie is growing."

Page 119, "Raw Meat", a vivid description of an audience:

"Strange fear comes over me that the audience might actually devour Dylan and the band. It seems that close. I'm afraid for them. Just the thought that I might be a witness to it. The whole audience takes on the shape of an animal. No more singles, just a throbbing mass, fierce and being teased by raw meat. They make a sound together like a primitive rumble. They crush Styrofoam cups, they chew on blankets, bottles smashing in every corner. I'm getting out fast. Into the night."

Page 122, "Joni Mitchell", who joined them during the tour:

"Here's someone who just appears, just walks out with a plain guitar, a beret, and a history of word collage. Every single time the place goes up in smoke like a brush fire. She stands there in the midst of it, making believe she's tuning an already well adjusted guitar until the place calms down. No doubt the element of surprise, of the audience not knowing she's on the bill, is partly responsible for the explosions, but there's something more important in it -- the fact that people listen to her every word. Her music's nothing outrageous, but her word maneuverings tend to verge on uncanny. "I got a head full of quandry and a mighty, mighty, mighty thirst." She seems to have merged into a unique jazz structure with lyrics and rhythmic construction and even managed to bite the masses in the ear with it."

On page 125, there's a vertical line of notes called "Bus Notes." Shepard doesn't indicate who said what, but there's one quote I can't believe I've never read before in everything I've read so far: "I'm so horny not even the crack of dawn is safe." Brilliant.

Page 130, "Burroughs", with a photo of William S. Burroughs underneath an exchange between Ginsberg and Dylan:

Ginsberg: So what about Bill Burroughs? I think he would be great in the film.
Dylan: But what can he do?
Ginsberg: He'll just be himself.

Page 135, "Connecticut Blues":

"Feel myself nose diving into negativity. Just wanna go back home. Be in the mountains. Near horses. Near my woman. Back. The organization of the film has fallen into smithereens till it has no shape or sense. No way of planning a day's shooting. Everything's at the mercy of random energy. Ideas flying every which way but no plan. Meetings up the ass. Meetings in oval-shaped, U.N.-style conference rooms, so the sense of self-importance permeates you beyond control. More talk of shooting concerts. More talk on how to organize scenes. How to get Dylan into the picture. Sara. Joni Mitchell. Baez. It's almost that the sheer overkill of available talent is busting us wide open. No one knows where to begin. No information is fed through a common source. Everyone wanders off to rooms, to dining rooms, to front desk, to rent-a-cars, to buses, to game rooms, to bars, to pools, to hospitality suites, to nowhere. Meeting ends. Snow is flying in Connecticut. Buses move out to Hartford concert. Rick Danko and Sandy Bull have joined up now. Like metal shavings on a magnet. My disinterest kills me. Why aren't I blasting off with them to hear all that great music? I've heard it already. But it's not that. It's not having an ax. Being a backstage parasite. Running headless through the dressing rooms. Watching everyone get loaded. Dancing through packs of concert freaks with my plastic I.D. card bouncing from a silver neck chain. Getting the nod from security dudes. Grabbing handfuls of dried fruit, nuts, making notes as a means to stay sane. But I'm not. I'm cracking up behind this. My body quakes from it. This is truly being transported back to the mid-sixties when crystal meth was a three-square diet with "yellow jackets" and "black beauties" for chasers. Not just the sixties of the imagination but the actual body-and-mind sixties. The shattered feeling. I DON'T WANT TO GET BACK TO THE SIXTIES! THE SIXTIES SUCKED DOGS! THE SIXTIES NEVER HAPPENED! Color TV is my only hope now. Room service. The sanctity of pastel hotel suite with two double beds and no people. Chained door. California's long gone. California's over the hill. Los Angeles is burning far off in the papers. Pacific. Blue. Ocean. Far off."

Page 137, "Acton, Massachusetts." Think of a comedic group like the Three Stooges or the Keystone Kops, maybe even a little bit of the Marx Brothers. Strap in:

"Neuwirth is losing his voice. He's sounding more and more like a bullfrog on a bender. Stoner's got the runs. Myers is nauseated and I'm not feeling too good myself. We all pile into a rented Plymouth Fury and head for the Acton Medical Center. Raven is driving and trying to make the best out of playing nursemaid. We brodey into the parking lot with Neuwirth hacking up yellow lungers and Stoner bitching about he'd better not have to wait and "Why didn't they have the doctor come to the hotel?" Once inside, the waiting room is not to be believed in contrast to our rampaging intestinal condition. Lots of mothers sitting on tweed couches reading Redbook while their sniveling offspring do push-ups off the side of the aquarium. Everything's totally quiet and in waiting except for the tittering kiddies. Neuwirth is seized suddenly by an attack of the lower stomach and lurches off toward the bathroom shouting, "I GOTTA CRAP! WHERE'S THE DAMN SHITTER! I GOTTA GO NUMBER TWO REAL BAD!" This goes over real big with the locals as they watch him go staggering by, heading toward the rear of the building. Stoner in his solid-black rocker outfit is trying to straighten out the appointment book with the nurse behind the desk. "There's no reason we should wait. We got a gig to do in two hours. Go tell the doc that we need some shots. I ain't gonna feel real till I feel that steel." The nurse is strugging to retrieve the appointment book and totally aghast at the brash intrusion. Raven's cooling things out, leading Stoner to a soft chair and selecting a current magazine for him. "Here's one on how to build your own flagstone patio." Myers stands numbly by rubbing his blue knitted sailer's cap and blinking at all the funny people. Finally the doc shows up and everyone goes charging in at once except for Neuwirth, who's snuck out the back somehow and disappeared off down the road. Raven shoots out the front door after him. "Neuwirth, goddamnit! The doctor's ready now! Get your ass back here!" Neuwirth yells over his shoulder from the highway. "Tell him I've already died! It's too late!"

Page 142, "Boston":

"Is Boston all that heavy as the papers make out? Is any place heavy if you're just moving through and out the other side? People seem to believe the topics. The topics create the atmosphere. Even over clam chowder you hear it going on. "Busing," "gun laws," "sex crimes," "murder." Back to back with traditionally powerful intellectual community. The Seat of the Nation. The Underpants is more like it. The Higher Education marketplace. Harvard, Yale, Radcliffe, bookstores up the ass. Bookstores, murder, chain of violent repercussions. Gestapo outfits on cops. Third Reich sirens. Professors. Judges. Law and School. Law School. Law and ORDER! The Chained Animal of the City. Sleepy lobster beach towns. "MONEY DOESN'T TALK IT SCREAMS!" Money oozing out the suburbs. Dylan fits this atmosphere like a super counterspy. A sneak thief in the dead of night. Vanishing like the Lone Ranger. Painted white mask and a mouthful of heart."

Now this was for the film, page 161, "Dylan Monologue":

"I was lookin' for myself in this country store. I was informed. I was told by certain sources that this was the place. I had no idea why. I mean from the outside it looked like any other joint. Firewood for sale, stuff like that. So I went inside and asked if they'd seen me. I just asked straight out like that. They sorta looked at me like I was crazy and told me to wait right there. They disappeared into back rooms and there I was. Just standing there. So my body started moving while I was waiting there. Sorta dancing. Looking around. Kickin' the floor. Tapping. Then I started talking to myself like no one could hear what I was up to. I started listing things around me. Everything the eyes could see and the ears could hear. Making lists to myself. Chain saws, hammers, cheese barrels, cracker barrels, crackers, rednecks, preachers, panthers, nails, jigsaws, horses, hobbyhorses, sawhorses, outboard motors, rain clouds, lightning, lumber trucks, pig meat, breakfast, tea cups, dancers, Nijinsky, divers, deep seas, oceans, rivers, railroad, rapers, radio, waves, mothers, sons in battle, danger, ideas, magic, warlords, ghost bombs, replicas, machine shops, galaxies, torture, treasure hunts, band leaders, Dixieland, wheat crops, tractors, trailers, engineers, bodyguards, cheetahs, Mexico, badlands, desert life, organs, drum rolls, executions, crucifixions, embalmings, ambulances, bloody hands, gimmicks, inventions of the mind, inventions of the body, sporting goods, taxis, rolling pins, ball bearings, working parts, blisters, broken backs, white-face cattle, robber barons, landlords, dressing rooms, diamonds, fast hands, goose bumps, Apaches, dingo dogs, and monkeys in space. And then I just ran out."

Page 162, "Thanksgiving - Holiday Inn":

"Homesickness is hitting me strong, even though Barry Imhoff has done everything a producer could to turn this snowbound Holiday Inn into a family atmosphere. Great long tables arranged in a horseshoe, complete with white tablecloths and all the holiday trimmings. Dylan's kids kicking dozens of colored balloons past the waitresses' heads as they weave toward the tables balancing steaming golden turkeys and platters of cranberry sauce. It's not exactly "life on the farm," but it fills the gaps left by six weeks of room service and "take-out" hamburgers. Halfway through the main course a pitching contest breaks out between opposing tables, using cashew nuts, turkey leg bones, small white after-dinner mints, and an assortment of side orders. Lou is really getting into it and perfecting high arcing lobs with creamed onions, using a spoon for a catapult. Myers and the rest of "B-Unit" coming staggering in from the cold, shaking snow off them like a scene out of Yukon King. Most of the turkey's been devoured, and they go back into the kitchen in search of leftovers. The kids have really taken over now, diving under the tables and bombing each other with turkey carcasses. Dylan sits in an overcoat and hat picking over the remains of his giblets. He rarely looks up from his plate, as though anything worth seeing could be just as well heard and felt through the atmosphere. There's a sudden crash from one end of the room and a loud gurgling roar coming from Dave Myers, who's pushed over an entire table, glasses, silverware, plates, the whole shot. He begins pounding both fists on the fallen table, bellowing "FOOD! FOOD!" over and over. Evidently he didn't find any in the kitchen. This is turning into a far cry from what the Pilgrims had in mind. Dylan looks up slowly, eyes toward the chaos, then goes back to his giblets. The waitresses are hauling in cakes, pies, puddings, and stuff like that. B-Unit goes ape shit tearing into the rich goodies. Dylan's mother is helping herself to seconds and seems to be enjoying life on the road. The accountant brings by a stack of veterinary certificates for the dogs, in order for them to cross the Canadian border. Everything seems to be in order. This is the last night on the tour for me. In the morning I head for the Big Apple by rent-a-car while Rolling Thunder crosses into Quebec and places north. I'm getting a little nervous about my suitcase. Peter Orlovsky seems to have forgotten which bus he's packed it into. I round up Peter and his ponytail and we head out into the snow in search of the buses. Peter has a huge ring of keys which he jangles, as though by jangling in a certain order the right key will magically appear between his fingers. The blizzard is hitting us in the face like a Marlboro commercial, and even with insulated boots the freezing wet stuff gets through to the skin. Each bus has about four huge luggage compartments and each compartment has a different key. The whole thing is turning into a Zen koan with a "beat poet" at the helm, shuffling through each key in the dark, in a blizzard, in the middle of Maine with an insane dinner party only fifty yards away, with the bus leaving the country in a few years, with my suitcase buried under miles of sound equipment, and with me left in a Holiday Inn. There's nothing all that valuable in the suitcase; it's just the idea of us going our separate ways after having traveled together so long. Me and the suitcase, that is. Peter finally surfaces with what he thinks is the right key, and presto the long corrugated metal door rises like a southern California garage. Peter starts hauling all the baggage out one piece at a time into the snow. The cavern grows deeper and darker but still no sign of my suitcase. He flips his ponytail over his left shoulder, makes an "I can't figure it out" noise, and starts putting each piece back in. We repeat this process eight times, him handing me the pieces, me setting them in the snow, then me handing them back to him again until finally on the eighth compartment we strike gold. There it is in the deepest corner sitting on its end next to a guitar case. Peter snorts. "I'll be darned. I was thinkin' we'd probably have to start lookin' in the semi for it."

This is Shepard's take on the December 9 Madison Square Garden concert, page 165, "Night of the Hurricane":

"December 9--Madison Square Garden. The Garden is sold out for the concert within five hours after the box office opens. The question is, why the Garden after all that talk of keeping the show on a small-town level? Why wrap it up with a giant fandango in New York City? It seems like a combination of helping to heal the costs of money lost on the New England circuit plus a genuine interest in aiding Ruben Carter. It is billed as a benefit, and it's for sure that the "public interest" generated by the presence of Muhammad Ali and Dylan in the same space is going to leak down to that New Jersey jailhouse and work its own kind of leverage on the law. Already the papers are talking about reprieves and retrials, and there's no doubt that this event will add some muscle to the whole cause.

In the afternoon the Garden is totally empty except for a few janitors and the Neuwirth band doing a sound check. The levels are generally too high, which seems to be coming from the impulse to put the music across in this gigantic tomb after playing to so many tiny halls for weeks on end. Mansfield has a superkeen ear and it doesn't take long before the vocals match up with the bottom end. I climb my way up to the very top of the volcanolike auditorium until the band looks like a miniaturized Punch and Judy show. Nobody's face is recognizable. Only certain random gestures give any clues as to who they are. It's very strange to know these people and then see them from the audience's point of view. The Garden is a stupefying piece of suspended architecture. Not beautiful or even aesthetic, but you can't help but wonder how they came up with a design for this gargantuan ceiling that seems to be just hanging in midair. No pillars or columns anywhere. Just cables all coming into a central hub and somehow holding the whole thing up. Seeing it with only a few people in it really adds to the immensity of it. I keep moving around to different places in the auditorium and sitting for a few minutes in each place just to see what it's like. I begin to notice certain sections filling up with people. In one section all the people are wearing blue. In another section, white. Then a whole section of brown people. I start descending the mountain to take a closer look at this phenomenon. It turns out that the blue people are cops. All of them sitting within a definite perimeter, sucking on coffee cups, jackets open, feet up on the backs of chairs, and talking to each other. The brown people are ushers, doing more or less the same thing as the cops and carrying flashlights. The white people are technicians. Each section totally cut off from the other section like little territories on a topographical map. There's something very warming to me about all this, but I can't figure out what it is.

I make my way backstage, imagining all the different atmospheres this place has contained and how amazing it is that it still remains without a physical identity of its own. It's just a building and then a whole world enters into it and takes it over and then goes away again. Dog shows, rodeos, circuses, prizefights, hockey games, basketball, horse shows, ballets, musical events. The smell of hot roasted chestnuts and sauerkraut brings me out of my stupor. Barry Imhoff has done it again. He's hired a hot-dog man and a pretzel man from off the street, and they're both handing out their steaming stuff to anyone who wants it. It's been a while since I've had a real New York hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut and onions, so I stop. As I'm standing there waiting for the little fat man to pile all these layers onto two white buns resting in a piece of cellophane, I notice what seems to be a small army of black men in pinstripe suits, grim-set faces, eyes darting in all directions, all swarming around an even bigger, taller black men dressed completely in black and looking a lot like the "heavyweight champeen of the whole entire world." My two hands go paralyzed, one reaching in my pocket for change and the other one reaching for the hot dog as my eyes try to shake loose from this vision. Ali is cool and graceful while all around him these other guys never stop rotating their heads and twitching their pockets. If there aren't any assassins around, it looks like they'd just as soon dream one up right there on the spot just to let somebody know they're not feeling around. They move off down the hallway like a colony of worker ants surrounding the queen. The little fat hot-dog man is making "fed up" noises in a New York accent. I pay up and stagger off toward the dressing rooms. This must be the American way all right. Nothing's important or has any value until it's blown up into "bigger than life" proportions. "Get the biggest damn fucking hall in the whole entire planet! Get the heavyweight champ of the whole entire world! Get the greatest folksinger since Edith Piaf! The most incredible poet-musician phenomenon the world has ever seen and throw 'em all together in front of the biggest goddamn flesh-and-blood toe-tappin' audience this side of the Rio Grande! And we'll have ourselves a show, folks!" I'm game.

I veer into a dressing room marked GUAM and come to rest on a metal bench. The table in the middle of the room looks like it couldn't support any more flowers and nuts and fruit. Barrels full of cans of beer, soft drinks resting on ice in every corner. Telegrams from all over pinned to the walls. Ginsberg comes bouncing in wearing a suit and tie plus his youthful tennis shoes. It's a good feeling seeing him in this atmosphere. Like a little breeze of sanity blowing through the door. "My father's out there. He's eighty years old and he's never seen a rock concert." I ask Allen if he's not afraid his father might have a heart attack at that age. "Naw, my father's a poet." He laughs and goes off bopping into the men's room. He shouts out of the bathroom to me. "He is! A real poet! We gave a reading together the other day at a college up north!" Neuwirth joins us, spinning on both heels, nervous as a cat. Already he's worked himself up into a lather. He grows something unintelligible, cranes his neck as though looking for someone, and then pivots back out the door. Most everyone is catching this drift of emotional frenzy. I can't remember the feeling of tension being like this at any other time on the tour except for maybe the very first concert at Plymouth. But that was mostly just butterflies, hoping the show would get off the ground on an up note. But there is more verging on anxiety. To add to it, Roberta Flack has been called in at the last minute because Aretha Franklin was tied up with dates in Los Angeles. Roberta makes no bones about being picked as second string to the great Aretha. She comes on like full-tilt Hollywood, storming around backstage in a flashy bandanna, decked out in jewelry and shouting orders to her entourage. There's a definite taste of black-white tension going on backstage, which is another new ingredient that was lacking on the New England schedule. Nothing weird or violent, just these two totally different streams of musical culture swimming by each other without mixing. Almost as though there were two different concerts to be given on the same bill, having nothing in common. I keep coming back to the idea that it's a black man the concert's being given for. A benefit for a black convict initiated by a white singer with black support. It's too sticky to figure out. Ali's been trying to trump up support for Carter for quite a while. Before Dylan even. But it took Dylan to get this whole thing together.

Back in the auditorium, the audience is steadily sifting in, filling up the entire cavern like salt in an egg timer. Lola, an old friend of the tour who left somewhere up in Vermont, is back tonight for the big one. She's broken a heel off her boot and has a cop doubled in half trying to hammer it back on with the handle of his gun. Someone else donates some epoxy and a popsicle stick. Pretty soon three or four people are crowded around Lola and the broken boot, adding their two cents' worth. None of the repair methods seems to be working, and she's getting more and more anxious as the time for the first set to open draws nearer. The idea of her hobbling around the whole night on one broken boot, otherwise dressed to the nines, has her on the verge of hysteria. I offer to run backstage and see if I can borrow a spare boot off one of the women in the tour. Joni Mitchell has only one pair and she's not parting with them, since she's going on stage in about ten minutes. Ronee Blakely is wearing a pair of black high-heeled English jobs which she warns me are her very favorite boots, hand tailored to fit her extra-small foot. She agrees to loan them if I swear on a stack of bibles to get them back to her before the night's over. I run out of the dressing room with the boots flapping in front of me, feeling like a surrealistic decathlon runner. I wedge my way through to Lola, who's now surrounded by "repairmen," and present her with the fancy boots. She stabs her foot down into one of them, full of hope that she's found the solution, only to come to a crunching dead end at the ankle. Still full of determination she goes on cramming and yanking until a low ripping, popping-of-stitches sound begins to emerge from the boot. I don't have the heart to tell her to stop, but she finally has to, since there's no way her American foot is going to conform to English style. She heaves a sigh of despair and then tries to back her way out, but since her first efforts were so forceful, the boot is now frozen solid in a halfway position that looks like it could become worse than having no boots at all. Now the men come back into the picture. Each one grabbing the heel and hoisting backward as Lola clings to the railing, grimacing as though the whole process were worse than labor pains. Now the cop takes a turn and even unbuttons his blue jacket for the attempt. Finally the boot is born with a mighty ripping of the calfskin and the entire inner lining is left hanging in shreds. Lola is lying in a heap on the floor gasping for air as I grab the boot before it can come to any more disaster and dash off for the dressing room again. My head is going through all kinds of contortions trying to figure out the right way to present the mishap to Ronee. All the time I'm stuffing the lining back inside the boot, hoping it will somehow glue itself back together again. The dressing room's empty except for T-Bone, who says that Ronee's decided to go on in tennis shoes, since her best boots are being "borrowed" for the night. I'm standing there like a shoplifter caught in the act and decide the best place for the boots is behind a pile of towels in a darkened corner. I can always put the explanation off till later. I sprint back to the arena.

The whole atmosphere has changed now with the coming of the crowds. Even the air is different. New York is really the testing grounds for any experiment. It's plain as day. If you want the world to know about it, bring it to New York. Better yet, bring it to the GARDEN!

The band kicks off into "Good Love is Hard to Find" and the volcano erupts. Rolling Thunder meets itself head-on in the voice of over thirty-five hundred screaming beings from earth. Dylan may be just a kid from Minnesota but this here is his hometown. No matter how many politico-music critics find disappointment in his recent lyrics and his life style, the people here tonight are saying YES in full strength. Bring on the punk who changed the entire face of American youth consciousness in one fell swoop! Generally the musicians seem to be pushing themselves to the point where the music seems strained and speeded up compared to the more informal concerts up north. Ronson, on the other hand, really gets off on this monster crowd. His initial style is broad and theatrical anyway, coming from English "rave-up" and David Bowie. He begins to uncork all the flash he's been holding back throughout the tour. Giant, spread-eagle leaps into thin air. Triple vertical spins, wrapping the guitar cord around him like a boa constrictor, slashing at the guitar with huge full-arm uppercuts. Platinum-blond hair spraying in all directions. Then stalking around the stage, stiff legged, Frankenstein macho strutting, shaking the neck of the guitar with his vicious chord hand as though throttling his weaker brother. All the time, never losing a lick. Through every motion playing genius, inspirational lead lines, then melting into the background again to support the other musicians. Neuwirth seems on the verge of exploding through his skin from sheer tension. His voice is splitting down the middle through every song. The band holds it together though. Right down the line it's the music that's making this whole thing happen. The solid experience behind every member of the band. Joni Mitchell blows the top off the place again, just by walking on. She looks incredibly small from where I'm sitting. Like a vulnerable little girl trying to sing a song she's written for a huge living room full of adults. One of Neuwirth's standard introduction lines at every concert has been, "Welcome to your living room," and tonight's the first night I've really seen what he means. The set rolls on and then Muhammad Ali is introduced. This is becoming like a study in emotional trauma. It's hard to believe how the space can contain any more hysteria than it's already had, but Ali is like nitroglycerin wherever he appears and tonight is no exception. He cools the audience down and starts in with one of his casual lines that make you feel like he's talking to you personally and not thousands. "You know, when they asked me to come here tonight, I was wondering who this guy Bob Dylan was. Then I show up and see that all these people come to pay money and I think this Bob Dylan must be something. I thought I was the only one who could pack this joint out. Did all you girls really come here tonight to see Bob Dylan?" Huge cheer explodes from the house. "All right, all right. He ain't as purty as me though, you'll have to admit. Now I just want to say that it's a pleasure to see such a turnout here tonight, especially when it's for the cause of helping a black man in jail. 'Cause everyone knows that you got the complexion and the connections to get the protection." Now here comes the real theatrics. One of Ali's aides walks out onto the stage carrying a telephone. Someone interrupts him at the microphone and whispers in his ear. The whole thing's been planned long in advance but it's being put across like it's just now happening. Ali pulls back from the man and grabs the microphone. "I've just been told that we have a special phone call right here that's been put through all the way from New Jersey by special order from the governor. We've got Mr. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter on the phone and you're going to be able to hear his voice as he's speaking to me." Ali picks up the phone and Carter's voice can be heard as though it's coming through thousands of miles of submerged cable. It sounds much farther away than New Jersey but comes around totally clear-headed and eloquent. In fact, Hurricane Carter sounds more present just through his voice than most of the flesh-and-blood people here. The whole reality of his imprisonment and our freedom comes through loud and clear. "I'm sitting here in jail and I'm thinking that this is truly a revolutionary act when so many people in the outside world can come together for someone in jail." Ali is still aware of the audience and tries to lighten it. "Listen, Rubin, just promise me one thing. If you get out, just don't come and challenge me for the title, all right?" Rubin keeps on, nothing have to pay dues to an audience he's not even in front of. "On a more serious note, I'm speaking from deep down in the bowels of a New Jersey penitentiary. The dialogue keeps on and the audience is surprisingly intent on listening to Carter even with the anticipation of Dylan still in the cards. The solitary voice keeps sailing into every corner of the place like a phantom. The imagination is working double time conjuring up images of this man, locked up and speaking over a phone somewhere to an audience he can't even see. The phone call ends and Ali spins into his next piece of histrionics. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce to you tonight the next President of the United States." What's going on now? Nobody's prepared for this one. Dylan's backstage ready to go on for the second half of the show and Ali's up there pulling off a sleeper on everyone. "Now, you know that I'm known for making predictions. And if it hadn't been for this man getting me his own private plane at the very last minute, I couldn't have been here with you tonight." Ali leaves to the sound of massive booing as his white "candidate" appears from out of nowhere, looking like a cross between Howard Hughes and ex-mayor Lindsay. The booing keeps up and rises in volume and intensity as the man tries to speak a few words on his own behalf. It's a pathetic demonstration of bad timing and totally out in left field in terms of what the whole concert and tour has been about. The "next President of the United States" gets about three words in underneath the mounting din of disapproval, then slinks sheepishly off stage. By this time everybody's champing at the bit for Dylan. As usual he just appears. Nobody announces him, he simple sidles out there with his head slightly down, plumes shaking, white-face thicker than usual, and starts singing. He's always got the jump on the audience that way. He knows he's out there way before they do, and it gives him the edge every time. Now the place is storming again. He's rocking back on both heels, doing a duet with Neuwirth on "My Masterpiece." Wyeth's jackhammer drums are splitting the four-four time into smithereens. He has a right hand that's not to be believed. It comes down on the accent and then plays half a dozen little cluster strokes in between striking two or three cymbals for added color. A drummer like this usually goes totally unnoticed, since he lacks the obvious flash of the more athletic types who leap around the set using twice as many muscles as they need to. Howie sits there like he's driving a '58 Impala, cruising down the highway while his arms and legs follow the patterns with the minimum of effort.

Halfway through the set Baez has worked out a "groupie" routine where she dashes on stage in blue hot pants, blond wig, and high heels. The security guards go along with the gag and drag her off stage kicking and howling. Later, she pulls off a real show stopper by coming on dressed completely as Dylan. For a second you think you're seeing double for sure until she tries to sing like him. Then the whole thing dissolved. It's like an apparition up there. Both of them the same height, dark eyes peering out through white-moon make-up. The same straight-brimmed hat, black vests. There's so many mixtures of imagery coming out, like French clowns, like medicine show, like minstrels, like voodoo, that your eyes stay completely hooked and you almost forget the music is going on all this time. Down by the side of the stage, one of the cops is asking me which one is Dylan. I point to him up on stage. "You mean that guy with the funny hat? I was just talking to him!" He jabs one of his sidekick cops with his elbow. "Hey, I was just talking to Bob Dylan! I didn't even know it was him." His sidekick tells him to pipe down and listen to the music. Even the cops are tapping their blackjacks to the band now. The whole joint is like one huge humming organism. I thought I left this whole thing behind up in the far north of Maine, but here I am. No way to walk out on this one. No way for anyone to deny the power of this event.

Back in the dressing room Dylan rushes in ripping the harmonica brace off his neck, make-up dripping in long streams, red eyes popping out. "Rubin's been acquitted! He'll be out by Christmas!" I'm the only one there and I don't know what to say. We just stare at each other. I wish I had something to say back to him but I can't find a thing. Nothing comes out. He turns and darts back out the door."

Find me a piece of music journalism that equals all of that. I dare you.

Now this is post-show at the Garden, page 178, "In the Bowels of the Garden":

"Steam-breathing tacos are strung out in a line fifty feet long, with all the Mexican trimmings. Huge, cargo-elevator loads of party people are unloaded in what's known as The Felt Forum (named after Mr. Felt, not the fabric). Dylan is moving in slow motion through a coagulated mass of parasites, pulling on his coat like he was Lindbergh just returning. His gray caballero cowboy hat with the dancing plumes is the only thing visible of him. Once in a while a rare snatch of red coat with pink hands clawing it. Movie stars are here, spitting up beer in the aisles in fits of hysterical glee. The place is on fire with unchained energy. Somehow we escape and dive into his camper in a garage situation. An underground garage. Dylan's definitely an escape artist. I've never seen the like of it. He vanishes. Just like that. Now he's at the wheel of this thing, which on the inside, if you didn't see the driver and the steering wheel, could pass for a California ashram. It's dark in this garage, but you can still make out the wide-brimmed hat at the wheel. Several other heads are crowding up the floor space. All silent. I'm taking a leak in the portable bathroom and hanging halfway out in order to see where we're going. As though that could verify the situation somehow. The back is full of fancy women sitting on a thick bed, rolling black joints. The mobile home is moving but we're still surrounded by black space. It lurches like one of those old potato boxcars which were never successfully shock absorbed. I can't believe he's actually driving this contraption after just completing a full four hours of ripsnorting musical magic. Even if the evening was somewhat marred by the political presence of Muhammad Ali's Presidential candidate and the backstage show-biz gyrations of Roberta Flack and company, the Garden was definitely the culmination of something for Rolling Thunder. Now we're hitting the streets and he's starting to crank this monster up to around fifty, which is really hauling ass for an apartment on wheels. Blue clouds of reefer smoke are blinding the windows but you can still catch the outside life. I'm losing track of time and space but it seems we're hitting midtown through some miracle of navigation. He brakes the sucker and bails out in the middle of the road. Now here's the situation. Every one of us inside this hulk of a machine is just along for the ride. Dylan's gone again and it's only us. Just like it was before we got on. The streets are cold, and the vast difference between the womb on wheels and this hard cement is enough to send an honest man backpacking for Montana. The fervor's on us all though and we go in search of the action. Down into an Italian underground restaurant with security guards firmly planted at the door. Gary, the bookie, is frisking everyone with his eyeballs. In a flash he's got their number. He sorts out the goodies from the baddies like an experienced assembly-line technician. Nothing gets past him. If anything tries, he's got several combinations of kidney and tenderloin shots that are guaranteed to leave a dent in your memory. I once made the mistake of putting on gloves with him at a Howard Johnson's while allowing him to remain bare-fisted. I got out of that one with a blue welt on the rib cage the size of a mature jellyfish. Inside, the place looks like it's strictly set up for pizza and wine and no more. The juke box is cranked up full on a Hank Snow medley. At least it feels like that. It feels like it's snowing in my brain. There's an upstairs part to this too which is even darker and slightly more sticky with relationships. Somebody's wife is screaming and Ronson is being pulled into the men's head by two teen-age jewels. This is the life. I descend to the ground floor again. I'm not sure what I'm feeling. This is supposed to mark the end of something. This night. The last gathering of all these people after all that tightly packed time of travel. It doesn't seem like it's over though. Just hitting its stride.

This final selection is when Dylan came to see Shepard's latest play. Page 181, "Geography of a Horse Dreamer" - New York":

"Tonight I've got a play opening called Geography of a Horse Dreamer at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It's one of those modest off-Broadway jobs that house about ninety. Dylan and Sara want to come, so I'm waiting in the hotel lobby for the Cadillac convertible to haul us all over to the theater. The big boxcar camper pulls up outside and Dylan hops out. My stomach does a full gainer as I see him approaching the hotel. The idea of him sitting in the audience is more like a nightmare than a blessing. He comes through the revolving doors and then starts wandering around the lobby reading all the little plaques on the walls about "what to do in case of fire," the breakfast menu for room service, and directions to the elevators. He pauses at one of these signs long enough for me to scuttle past him out into the street and hail a cab. It's bad enough knowing that he'll be there without having to ride there with him in the same car.

Once at the theater I learn that tonight is strictly for the press, and all the critics are chugging away on martinis in the bar. Great, an audience full of critics and Bob Dylan. Couldn't be worse. It's impossible to escape that feeling of Judgment Day that always accompanies any opening night, but this is getting a little thicker than usual. I start chain-drinking brandies, hoping for some kind of numbing of the nerve endings. A girl I haven't seen in six years comes up to me full of nostalgia. This is worse than holding a full house against a possible four aces. On top of all this, the so-called curtain is being held for Dylan's late arrival. He shows up plastered, along with Neuwirth, Kemp, Sara, and Gary Shafner. They take up an entire row. The play begins and there's a deadly silence throughout the house. It's not intended to be a Greek tragedy, but with newspapermen you can never tell exactly what their approach is going to be. In this case, it's "cadaver city." Not a sound in the whole joint. Just the actors knocking themselves out, hoping for some sign of breathing life out there in the darkness. Dylan starts to twitch as though somebody's given him a bum steer about this whole theater trip he's finding himself in the midst of. I'm standing in the back between the aisles of eats, hoping for an earthquake or some other "act of God" to bring the whole thing to an abrupt close, but nothing happens. Just the same aching silence in the air. I've got nothing against silence, but this is the wrong kind.

I shoot out the back door into a big darkened room with only a piano in it. I can still hear the actors pushing the words of the play as though it were a broken-down freight train about to cut loose any second. Still not a sound from the audience. I'm cringing in the dark. "Why'd he have to come see this play? Why couldn't he have come to see one of the other ones? One of the ones with music in it or something. One of the ones when the audience laughs!" I'm halfway on the verge of just cutting out all together when Jacques Levy, who directed the play, comes sauntering in like a bear holding out a burning stick of reefer, with a Burt Lancaster grin on his face. "Here's something for the pain, Sam." I bite down on the joint with a vengeance. Everything in me is wondering about the reason for ever wanting to set a word down on paper. If this is the real truth of it, why bother? Why go to all the trouble of getting people to come and pay good money to sit and watch something that doesn't even get them off? Then my head shifts to the idea that they're all critics. Seasoned veterans bored out of their minds by anything that doesn't set fire to their seats. That doesn't work either. Somehow I have to just stand here and face this whole agony of it being a public event. Something you do completely in private is suddenly revealed. It's standing out there in the open, and every aspect of it is glaring out at you in a way it never does in the typewriter. You see it for what it actually is, and not the way you imagined.

The act break comes and I skirmish the staircase down to the bar with the realization that I'm stoned out of my skull. The journey downstairs seems to take four hours, and by the time I reach the bar the whole place is jammed to the gills with the audience. I can't figure out how they got there ahead of me. And now that they're there I don't feel much like going into it, so I hang a U-turn and start back up the stairs. Somehow, in all this, I become convinced that Dylan has left the theater. I don't feel him around anywhere and it doesn't seem likely that he'd sit through something that's wasting his time. He went to a Pinero play the other night and left in the middle of it, so why shouldn't he leave mine? I'm trying to slow my head down enough to at least reach the top of the stairs in one piece.

Now the audience is filing back in for the second act. I feel like I've been ambushed into a time warp. "The intermission's over already? I've just made it to the top of the stairs!" I watch the sullen faces plodding back in for another hour of torture. It looks like a documentary on experimental lobotomy. No Dylan. I don't see him anywhere. Now I'm certain he's done another one of his miraculous vanishing acts. Dissolved without a sign. I try to soothe myself. "It's okay. I can take it. This is good for me. I can take it. It's good for me to taste defeat." Then I see him appear from the bathroom. He throws the door open like a saloon scene from High Noon, stuffing a bottle of hooch in one pocket while he fumbles with some notepaper. He's been scribbling notes throughout the play, borrowing pencils from people in the row in front of him. Now it looks like he's trying to file them in some kind of mysterious order in all the pockets of his coat. He keeps shifting the notes to different pockets and weaving toward the door to the theater.; He sees me standing there and pauses as though trying to bring certain thoughts into focus. "hey Sam, what happens to this guy in the play anyway? Does he ever scape?" I'm dumbfounded for a reply but come out with something like, "That's the reason for seeing the second act." He stares at the floor, his knees shifting slightly as though he's about to go into a nose dive.

"Hey, how come you named that horse in the play Sara D?"
"That's the name of a racing dog in England." It suddenly cuts through me that it's also the name of his wife.
"I mean it's the name of a greyhound. A real greyhound. You know, the kind that races around the track."

He smiles and shuffles through the door, almost making a left turn into the light booth. I don't know what to do with myself. I don't particularly want to hit the streets in this state of mind and I sure don't feel like venturing inside for the second-act horrors. I head for the piano room again.
The silence of the second act is even more penetrating than the first. I last about ten minutes int he dark room because I'm back inside the theater staring at the rows of critics. Two of the "heavies" from the major papers are sound asleep, nodding out over their overcoats folded neatly on their laps. The ones who have managed to stay conscious are peering intently at the play as though it was one of those cut-away bottles showing how ants make their tunnels. At this point in the play, the main character is about to get shot up with a hypodermic syringe by a fat doctor. Dylan stands in the back row. "Wait a minute!" Who's he yelling to? The actors? "Wait a second! Why's he gets the shot? He shouldn't get the shot! The other guy should get it! Give it to the other guy!" Lou Kemp is trying to haul him back down to his seat. The sleeping critics are snorting in the midst of their dreams. Something is merging into their comatose condition. Dylan is struggling to free himself from Kemp's hammer-lock grip. Neuwirth is telling him to shut up. Finally something is happening! The actors are soldiering on with their parts as though nothing has changed. Finally the Sam Peckinpah sequence begins, with shotguns and catsup all over the stage. Dylan leaps up again. "I DON'T HAVE TO WATCH THIS! I DIDN'T COME HERE TO WATCH THIS!" Lou grabs him again by the bottom of his coat and almost pulls him backward clean off the platform of seats. Sara pays no attention. She sits very regally and cool, looking straight ahead. Dylan is fighting like a cat now to get free as Gary, Lou, and Neuwirth are all trying to hold him to the seat. It's a perfect ending. An explosion in the audience to match the one on stage. Shotgun wadding, bursting blood, and Dylan over the edge. "HE'S NOT SUPPOSED TO GET THE SHOT! THE OTHER GUY'S SUPPOSED TO GET IT!" I look back over to the rows of critics. Suddenly they've come to life, all of them desperately clicking their ball-point pens and scribbling in the dark like crazy. The play comes to an end and Dylan is hurtling over the aisles, looking for the exit. The critics don't know what to make of it. Have they missed something? Who was that masked man that just flew by them in a red coat and a gaucho hat, yelling at the top of his lungs? Is the play over already?"

I have nearly all of Sam Shepard's books on hold at my library to pick up on Saturday, save for "Motel Chronicles", which is a reference copy at one library, and there's two Spanish language editions at two other branches. Since I failed Spanish in 10th grade, and didn't do much better in summer school (But I passed), I can't attempt that. I've also put on hold as many of Shepard's plays as I can find.

Now I put this to you. I have "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson in book stacks in my room. But what have you read that made you feel like a bullet had just whizzed by your ear? What books made you feel the vividness of what was being described? I have "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain coming to me by mail after I read a selection of it in "Best Food Writing 2000." But I want more. I need more.

Tell me what's made you breathless after reading it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Maybe It's Time to Find a Piece of It for Me

When we moved to the Santa Clarita Valley, 30 miles north of Los Angeles, in mid-August 2003, and after I enrolled at College of the Canyons in Valencia, I wanted to find out everything I could about Los Angeles. Living in South Florida, I thought it was on the other side of the universe. And now here I was, so near to it.

I knew about the freeways leading into it, and the smoggy skyline, and the commuter trains that lurched into historical Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. I knew that Hollywood was omnipresent there, that the Dodgers had a stadium mostly full of devoted fans, that you could find a lot of things in Los Angeles, maybe what you wanted, maybe what you never expected to find in a city. Back then, I didn't know what that was. I knew that I wanted to get to know Los Angeles, and get a feel for it that I could be comfortable with, and so I spent a lot of time in the library at College of the Canyons (I spent a lot of time there anyway because of all the books), looking for books that could help me get accustomed to and understand Los Angeles.

Two books I remember above all the others were "Another City", an anthology edited by David L. Ulin, and the other, "Writing Los Angeles", an 870+-page anthology, was also edited by him. I could have delved into the history of Los Angeles, finding the stories there that explained how a desert became such a vast city. I could have learned about Cesar Chavez and the orange groves, and the 1940s filtered through Los Angeles. But as a writer, I was looking for impressions. How did people feel in the city? How did they live? Why did they live there? I needed literature, I needed words put together in such a way that they could only come from minds that had taken in so much that needed to go back out in paragraphs and exclamations and frustrations and love and hate and perplexity. Los Angeles does bring out all of that in a person.

But just as soon as I decided to go searching for some kind of meaning to make Los Angeles easier to understand for me, I was swept up by other things. Classes, for one, to get my AA degree. A few-years-long stint at The Signal, the exclusive newspaper of the Santa Clarita Valley (and really the only newspaper), that led to me being interim editor of their weekend Escape section for five weeks. And then the kind of internal dizziness that comes with not quite knowing what to do after leaving a newspaper, before regrouping and deciding to write a book and then seeing that book published.

Now it's 7 years later. And I got to thinking about Los Angeles again. But not in that intrepid explorer way. I've lived here 7 years. I've been to Los Angeles many times. I've been inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but not anywhere near the stage. I saw "Jersey Boys" at the Ahmanson Theatre and was fascinated by the experience of live theater, that what we were seeing at that moment was the only way it could be seen. The next performance could be different in some spots and some members of the audience might react differently. I've been to Philippe's for those samples of heaven they call french dip sandwiches.

Yeah, I know. Tourist destinations. Add on wandering through Union Station, and visiting Olvera Street, and I might as well be a tourist who simply got lost and never got out of Los Angeles. But all of that I think is still part of Los Angeles. I've been to a few other areas, too, such as near Hollywood & Vine, parked next to an apartment complex that feels so much like Hollywood, I wondered how many self-proclaimed screenwriters lived there. I remember knowing Chad Peter, a good independent filmmaker, who runs, and going with him one night to 20th Century Fox where he was interviewing someone in the office of producer Ralph Winter. There were comic books on a glass table in that office, because Winter was looking to produce "The Fantastic Four" as a feature film. I remember the assistant at a desk outside the office had a screenplay in a drawer. I spotted it. Whether hers or something related to work, I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was hers.

Granted, in my time here, I haven't covered all of Los Angeles, and I certainly don't know it as well as someone who's been here much longer than me, or even a native. But remember the movie "Collateral" with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx? That's accurate. That is Los Angeles at night. It feels like that. Even on the freeway, seeing the skyline lit up in the distance at night, that same feeling is there. It's a little desolate, like you're not sure why you're here, or why you feel so lonely at that moment. But the feeling passes and you go on to wherever your bedroom is.

I think Los Angeles has passed from what was presented in Steve Martin's "L.A. Story", but the feelings are still there. That beauty he captures on the freeway through director Mick Jackson, he's got it right. It can seem beautiful in the strangest way. You wouldn't expect headlights on one side and taillights on the other side to have an artistic bent, but Martin and Jackson capture it completely and accurately. I don't think Los Angeles is as silly as Martin makes it at times, but that's just him and his love for the city. He knows the foibles, and the unintentional comedy all around, but he respects it. It gives Los Angeles a unique flavor he's always loved.

As for me, waiting along with the rest of my family to see if we're going to move to Nevada any time soon, to jobs in the Las Vegas area, I'm not really sure what I'm looking for in Los Angeles now. I haven't been there in a long time, and I'm not looking for Los Angeles to pay me back for any kind of trouble I might have encountered. I can't remember any kind of trouble I might have had there. I don't think I had any, beyond listening to my mom's intense dislike of the city. I don't love it, but I'm also not one to defend it either. It is what it is and you either find what you're looking for there or you don't. It's like any other city, but then again, it's not. It has public transportation, libraries, a city council, and everything you can expect in food and hospitals and clothing stores and bookstores and supermarkets and...and...and....

I don't truly know what makes Los Angeles unique. I don't think I've been there enough times to get a concrete impression of that. Oh wait, I do have one example, and it was after we had been to some awards ceremony held by the Stock Market Game, which my dad uses in his classroom. This was held at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and outside, there were all the office buildings lit up, lights on every floors, some movement, but not much.

I've never been to New York City, and living in Florida, which is all flatland, I've never seen buildings up close like this. Sure there's many in Fort Lauderdale, but in South Florida, I lived in Coral Springs and then Pembroke Pines. It was always daytime when we went to Fort Lauderdale for the Main library branch of the Broward County Library, or to the science museum there. And those instances of being out at night, that was for Miami Beach.

There is a kind of uneasy silence when you're looking up at those buildings in Los Angeles. You think about the people still inside working, those who are just about to leave, those who have left for the night and will return in the morning. Most of the day's business is done, but what business are those people doing in there that's necessary right at that moment? And I'm not talking about janitors and cleaning crews. That's expected. But is it some kind of business transaction that's being laid out for the next day or loose ends being brought together and tied tightly? I always wondered. I've never wanted to work in one of those buildings, but still I wonder.

So what am I looking for in Los Angeles now? 7 years ago, I was looking for some solid meaning that could withstand whatever forces shape the city now, some kind of spirit within it that remains true, even when it seems like it couldn't be less true. But now? I don't know. Last week, I browsed the Library of America website ( Occasionally, I'd eye the sale page (, and look at the clearance sale items, especially "Writing Los Angeles." Yet the pull for that title wasn't as great as it is now. All those times before, I'd read the details of the book, impressed that you could get 880 pages for just $9.95.

I decided to order it. And I received it today in a big box with room enough for the book, wrapped in plastic, and cushioned by that air bubble packaging that you rip apart either with your fingers, or deflate it with the slice of scissors. I'm still not entirely sure what I want from Los Angeles now. I think all this search for meaning began because I had never known such a vast metropolis like Los Angeles. Fort Lauderdale was large to me, but it was wholly accessible. Nothing intimidating about it. Maybe Los Angeles intimidates me a little bit. Maybe there's something I'm looking for there that I can't quite place yet. I do know that I'm looking for a piece of it to take with me. And it would seem like I already have that piece with "This Book Will Save Your Life" by A.M. Homes. I think that's what started my wondering about Los Angeles again, since that book is set squarely in Los Angeles and ends with a surreal wildfire apocalypse that includes the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier rolling into the ocean during an earthquake. I read it a few years ago, and ordered it off of a few weeks ago, determining that it needed to be in my collection, alongside all my Bukowski books, "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by Cory Doctorow, and others special to me.

With this book now, maybe I'm looking for something to describe my slightly-removed experience from Los Angeles. I know that Los Angeles doesn't belong to me, since I've not been to it all that often. But yet I still feel its presence these 30 miles away, even as isolated as the Santa Clarita Valley feels from pretty much anything. At the mountaintop Getty Center, you can see the Los Angeles skyline. There's still that connection. I don't know what kind of connection I expected to have with Los Angeles. I remember before we moved that I heard about the commuter train that goes from Santa Clarita to Los Angeles, and in my naivete, I thought that the train got near enough to one of the libraries in Los Angeles, and I was excited for the opportunity to go every weekend. That was when I thought everything in Los Angeles was so close together and therefore easily accessible.

It's not as if I'm going to regret not finding the answer once we leave Southern California for Nevada. There is no one answer. There's hundreds of answers. Maybe not even answers, but just experiences that lead to more questions. I'm not looking for some kind of peace with Los Angeles. I've never had anything against Los Angeles. And I'm not looking for a shiny bow to easily wrap everything up. There's nothing to compartmentalize, nothing to tuck away neatly in a square of space amidst other full squares. I've never felt that close to Los Angeles, so I've no ode to give it before I eventually leave. Maybe I'm just looking, like a lot of people do everywhere in Los Angeles. And maybe I'll find what I'm looking for in this book, maybe I won't. A quote of some kind that puts my experience into a proper perspective? An observation that connects me to that writer by dint of what we both experienced that we thought we couldn't describe? I don't know. I've got 880 pages to find out, since I never read that book all that closely when I found it at the COC library. I just skimmed.

But I do know one thing. If this entry has seemed spread out and disjointed to you, well, that's Los Angeles.