Confucius once said that listening stops with the ear and the mind stops with recognition. And I think this is absolutely correct.
Most people don’t listen to music. I’m talking about really listening, not just singing along or tapping a foot in time to some moronic stadium anthem. I mean something about deep perception, a sort of state of enhanced-consciousness, taking in the tones and styles of the instruments and musicians and their creative processes. I’m talking about listening to the specifics of the poetry, reaching a kind of self-transcendence that lets you go entirely inside the collective bits that comprise that wavy signal, that sinusoidal form that a stereo nearly magically picks up through a needle and pushes out to the paper cones. Most people have never bothered to look at it, study it, or wonder about it.
I suppose most just take it for granted, the way we accept our collective obsession with blue jeans or cheeseburgers. Music just is. But it’s madness (like Killing Joke stomps out) that it actually works. Madness that the differences between horns and strings and percussion are nuances that can be identified.
You might say, so what? You might say, people have more important things to do, more important things to think about.
But I doubt it.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Top five albums by The Fall in descending order of greatness:
Live At the Witch Trials
The Hex Enduction Hour
The Wonderful and Frightening World of . . .
When the boss comes back, roaring up in his newly traded-in for Dodge pick-up, he’s soused of course, and we’re busy. I’m cleaning out a sod aerator, tapping a flat-headed screwdriver into each of the sharp steel plug pullers to knock out the packed-in dirt. The boss saunters over to the mechanic’s bench behind me and belches gently. He pulls out his pistol—a little .25 caliber auto thing he likes to carry around in his pocket—and unloads it into the stained wood top of the mechanic’s work-bench while laughing in a wheezy smoker’s cough, his legs splayed to steady himself. The mechanic’s busy up front with a landscaper, so there’s no one to appreciate the bullets drilling into the dirty hardwood of the workbench but me. Tack! Tack! Tack-Tack-Tack! By shop standards, this isn’t much noise but it is rather unsettling just the same. He looks over at me through his boozy grin and I nod at him with a half smile. I add it to a mental list of the earned privileges of the working man. Something to look forward to perhaps.
The boss had been gone all day at his girly show hang-out, one of those masturbation facilities that has girls shake their stuff while men drink and make ridiculous remarks to them, sometimes even over breakfast with the “Legs and Eggs” show.
“Goddamned Monigs,” the boss laughs, poised for my response.
“What’s a Monig?”
“It’s a Narragansett Indian, only they’re more nigger than Indian! Ha ha ha!”
“Ah, I see.” That’s about the speed of it after lunch. At least it wasn’t another “That’s what she said!” joke. Often enough used when there wasn’t a hint of it being properly humorous. Man, traffic was awful this morning. That’s what she said!
This morning, idling behind his paper, under his Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour, streaked with silver, he’d held forth about his solution to the Irish problem, which was, inexplicably, to give Ireland to Scotland.
“Har har har, that’ll teach ’em.”
“What makes you think Scotland wants ’em?” I shrug, not being entirely facile on the topic, but also finding his idea entirely nonsensical. Of course, later on I find out that he’s got some kind of remote ancestry in Scotland.
I’m stuck in the back room with him, washing rental dishes in a small industrial washer that produces a lot of heat and steam. The dishes stink, rammed into green, wire racks, greasy with food residue. But he’s already on to his next topic, knowing I’m a music fan he’s dropped the paper and points out a story about 2 Live Crew. “You know about these pieces of shit?”
“Not my thing,” I say quickly looking at the paper and then away. Though I can’t deny the purest desire to indulge in fantasy about those ladies’ beautiful asses on the cover of that record, the cover image published in a tiny black and white photo in the paper, as if to suggest we should be offended by their bathing suit clad gorgeousness, the smallest one, her hair flying in the beach breeze catches my eye. As Nasty As They Wanna Be . . . as if to suggest that they’re kind of trying. Of course, the ladies face away from the camera, which, you know, objectifies them, and we’re supposed to . . .
“Niggers. These are niggers pure and simple, I’m not saying there aren’t white niggers, there are,” he peeks over his glasses rims at me, making sure I’m paying attention to his high dudgeon, “trust me, but these fuckers are niggers,” his finger thumps in a kind of time with his offensive rant.
He, of course, is much more offensive, as far as I can tell, than anything 2 Live Crew produced. “Me So Horny” is just trashy musical porn from all I can gather. The hooker, the Vietnamese one, ripped off from the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket saying “me so horny” over and over. I’m not sure I understand the boss’s outrage beyond the fact that they are bold black men making money with porn-influenced rap. There is a stack of trashy and somewhat gooey porn right behind the boss that’s been salvaged out of the dumpster behind the adult bookshop stationed right next door, no less, by his chain-smoking son Kyle. Porn salvaged from a dumpster. So I’m kind of phlegmatic about it. It’s a meaningless outrage, like so much of the boss’s grandstanding. That’s what she said!
But then, I’m also instantly reminded of my own paternal grandad, a typical card-playing, beer-quaffing good-fellow of Providence, spent most of his life at the Narragansett brewery, saying to me one fine afternoon on the parent’s porch, “Take that Bill Cosby, now he’s a nigger, but he’s done well for hisself”. Grandpa’s lesson, was apparently, that in our land of plenty even a man as handicapped with darker skin color as Bill Cosby has opportunity. So what was my excuse?
“These pieces-of-shit should just be lined up and shot!” the boss blusters. This is his favorite solution, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds it the way a ball-bearing rolling the steep sides of a bowl eventually settles in the bottom—he’s attracted to it. This is his gun-toting tough-guy version of “Amen”. Everything he disagrees with or feels offended by should have a bullet put between its collective eyes, and he relishes the opportunity to ejaculate this hot little sermon. You can almost see him fantasizing it behind his steel rims.
“Why? They’re just havin’ fun, you don’t have ta listen to it,” ill-advised, never give the boss a chance to wage his lazy-ass, table-side war against you. You’re handy after all. He doesn’t even have to get up to get himself sufficiently riled. “Plus, they’re making butt-loads of money off it, even banned, maybe because it was banned . . .”
The finger returns to stabbing out his points, “Let me tell you something, you didn’t grow up with these people! You grew up in a kind of Disneyland compared to what I went through. These people are worthless shits, they’ve never accomplished anything, no nigger ever discovered electricity, or invented the lightbulb—these bastids should be shot!” A bit of spittle on his lips, his eyes gleaming over his rims.
I probably could have mouthed this last bit along with him. I even sometimes start repeating it in my own macho-bullshit way, “Shoot the bastids!”, about the Quayle in the Bush, especially. I nod solemnly, he signs my check after all, Richard Morrill.
Boss Morrill often demands you behave the way he imagines he would in your position. Which is most often ludicrously. He loves to cajole you into turning against the red light, or pressure you to take the illegal left across the oncoming lane to pick up the Route 95 on-ramp. When you’re on the phone with people, he’s in your other ear telling you what to say to them, and it’s not friendly, even if you could effectively listen to him lecture you aggressively in one ear and a customer complaining in the other.
“You tell that spic es-oh-bee that we’re gonna call the police and you’ll see how fast they suddenly recall who Ramone is, ees not hee-er, bullshit!” he’s glaring at you, you’ve become the object of his rage.
He wants you to wrap some tape around the chewed up cord on the trap snake and send it back out for rental. People are forever cutting the ground posts off the electrical plugs, because the old houses don’t have ground outlets. We are supposed to put new plugs on them, mention to the customer that we can give them an adapter. But he has you send it out on the next rental anyway.
He laughs about you paying the three dollar disposal charge the garages put on your bill to throw away your old tires, but his old tires are stacked up in the back of the rental facility. He’s getting a pretty good collection of them back there. Better there at least then on the sides of the road where they usually end up dumped by those folks who refuse to be “suckers”.
We’re always counting the numbers of pressure washer spray tips. I have dreams about these tips. They are always getting lost (the quick-disconnect collars don’t always snap right back into locking place, customers pull the trigger and 4000psi of water shoots the tip off the end of the wand—gone!), customers argue they didn’t have all five when they left the shop. Too often, we don’t have all of them, and we send out the units with three or four nozzle tips (someone is supposed to record this on the contract). The boss flips his lid every time they come back with less than five tips. You’d think this would be an easy thing to keep track of, but for some reason, pressure washer spray tips are a never depleting source of the boss’s rage. He both doesn’t care on the front end of the rental, and cares too much about four or five dollar parts on the return.
Then, when he finally cajoles you into behaving the way he demands, becoming the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is, he then presumes you’re the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is!
“I know what you’re thinking, kid.”
But he’s terribly off the mark. I am never thinking the nasty sociopath crap he’s thinking. His thoughts are abysmal. But it isn’t hard to mimic it and I soon learn how to appear as one of the crew, “Monigs! Ha ha ha!”
The main trick to being a really tough-guy, is to affect being unmoved by anything, vileness never surprises, no beauty awes. The idea is to desensitize yourself so much that you kind of shrug off just about everything as exactly what you anticipated. Tough-guys anticipate everything. It’s basically a back-of-the-school-bus skill honed by the kids practicing one-upmanship, starting each rejoinder with the words “That’s nuthin’!” The murder of Kitty Genovese on the streets of New York City, occurring while citizens refused to assist her, pulled their curtains, horribly ignored her pleas, should elicit no more than a shrug and perhaps, “What did she expect?” from the tough guy. Perhaps a few remarks like, “You don’t walk around like that, New Yawk City? Alone? C’mon! A pretty girl—what was she thinking about?”
We have our own pretty Warwick girl, Michelle St. Pierre, recently strangled to death, or bludgeoned, perhaps both, left in an industrial park not far away from this humid, smelly, dish-washing steam bath. I feel like I knew her, but then I get them confused. Those newspaper reproductions of their graduation photos make them all look like a girl you knew from high school—the fluffy hair and the faraway dreamy gaze. The tough-guy attitude on these things is that they brought it on themselves. That St. Pierre girl was not behaving properly. Friends warned her to stay away from the jackasses she was hanging out with, plus cocaine probably.
After reading Das Boot and finally seeing the movie on a double VHS, for a while everything I thought about related to it: the almost childlike pleasure of the hunt, the gruesome futility of warfare, the terror of horrible death those young men endured in that goddamned bubble of air under the sea—of course, not too far under the sea, because the u-boat had limited depth capacity, safely only at a maximum depth of around 160 meters—that really surprised me. Old submarines were not really much in the way of sub marine.
“Tell me, why should I care about a German u-boat?” Boss Morrill turned on me one morning as I was telling him about the movie, which I thought did the book serious justice, “those fucking Nazis killed millions of people, and you’re telling me I’m supposed to care about a handful of them on their goddamned submarine?”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it as a story about Nazis just as a story of young soldiers who were expected to sacrifice all for their nation. But I just smiled. My interest was getting at the core of humanity. I’d allowed myself to be moved by it and that was, of course, irrefutably gay. Empathy was something no tough-guy expressed.
“Let me tell you something, my uncles fought those sonsofbitches . . . the problem with you people is that you have no memory—you’re there cheering for the enemy, trying to convince the world that it was just some kind of point-of-view, . . .” he lumbers on, filling the air with his diatribe, hating the film sight-unseen, ready to burn books he’s never read. Perhaps it’s my fault though, I did a poor job explaining it to him. I didn’t anticipate his reaction, somehow, again.
I’m continually writing my mental notes, my stories, my novels for no one, . . . no one wants this stuff, no one asks for it, but, it all goes in my notebook anyway. . . .
To be a proper tough-guy you have to find other people’s misfortune funny. Not just their poverty, or their house fires, but also their diseases are hilarious, because, obviously, sensibly—let’s be reasonable here—you’d never let anything like that happen to yourself. You have a plan, a mission, God on your side, a stack of porn you pulled out of a dumpster. . . .
The tough-guy is just like the old joke about the new army recruit who, when the sergeant says “Two out of every three of you are not coming back from this mission.”, looks at the guy on the right, looks at the guy on the left and thinks, “Ah, those poor bastards.” That’s one of my favorite jokes, seems to wrap up the condition nicely. That seems to me to actually be what gets us through our lives from day to day.
I yank the dishwasher open, pull the steaming hot dishes out of the racks and re-stack them in their green wire holders. Stack them where they can cool and dry on the wooden shelving. I’m sweating terribly. The boss won’t move. As he reads he’s shaking his head slowly in that way that seems to impart he’s imagining how deranged the world “out there” is. I remember reading someplace that the Rolling Stones got arrested for pissing on a wall in the mid-sixties maybe. They were considered very nearly something like a public enemy. Nixon even had it in for John Lennon, saw him as a serious enemy of the country. Some people saw a kind of decline of civilization based around kids with guitars.
Boss Morrill’s eyeglasses are perched about halfway down his nose. He juts his chin out and back choosing when to use them, or not, kind of like the way an old world chameleon might gauge its distance to a cricket. He is always pissed off. It’s basically his hobby. What he’s doing right now is looking for more things to fuel his rage pastime, more junk from the ProJo.
The wine glasses I can leave right in their wire racks and put the entire arrangement into the washer as is. Glasses and wire rack washed in one cycle. A blast of semi-rank steam billows out of the machine each time I open it, adding to the overall state of humidity in this slippery back room, beginning to need a hatch opened, air exchanged, a re-breather pack worn.
I’ve learned to cultivate my hate. I justify it daily. I work myself into that rage frenzy, foaming-at-the-mouth about some outrage or other. For example, a customer who comes into the shop regularly is a small elderly Hungarian Jewish fellow named Imre. Imre drives Kurt—the mechanic—crazy with his specific demands, at least once about how he wants his lawnmower blade sharpened. He only wants Kurt to do it. Imre is convinced the rest of us aren’t doing it properly, aren’t putting the proper amount of care into applying just the right shining razor’s edge on this thing he’s going to roll through his lawn and dirt. When he’s talking to Kurt about this, Kurt is at first polite, but soon he realizes his time is being wasted. Imre plans to spend the day haranguing Kurt about the sharpness of his lawnmower blade. A blade I actually sharpened.
“Kooert, Kooert!” Imre moans, and waddles over to Kurt’s bench looking like Humpty-Dumpty.
I am amazed by the fact he’s actually got a number stamped on his forearm, a relic of the fucking Holocaust.
“Da boyz, dey don’t take da time, Kooert.” It’s fine, Kurt explains to him, it’s just a lawnmower blade. That pretty razor’s edge will be gone as soon as you start cutting with it.
“No Kooert,” and here Imre does something very odd, he hooks the index finger of his pudgy right hand into the top of Kurt’s pants, right behind the belt buckle, and begins tugging, like a child pulling at his mother’s skirt. Kurt disentangles himself from the strange little man who stares through huge bottle-bottom glasses. At this point Imre has not only upset Kurt, but he’s also managed to cut himself on the lawnmower blade. “You see how sharp it is!” Kurt points out to him. Imre is unmoved, “No Kooert, iz not sharp!”
And now, of course, I’m angry at the fussy bastard. When I think about Imre I can conjure up that desire to punish the public. Imre is a Holocaust survivor, and I can’t stand him.
After an hour or so, the boss has switched to flipping through a gun magazine, settling on an article about the relative merits of 0.223 caliber as opposed to 7.65 millimeter ammunition. I prefer this quietude to when he’s reading those goofball home-invasion fantasies that always seem to be packed into these rags the way Playboy has a dubious sex forum, clearly a form of porn. They are always written in a self-congratulatory style, and Boss Morrill takes them at face value. Old folks’ homes are invaded. Patriotic, former veteran, elderly homeowners, pull out their Peacekeepers and rid the world of thugs. I can picture Rooster Cogburn in every such story. But the stories don’t end there. In another popular tale someone has stolen a JATO and attached it to his car. I didn’t know what that meant, so Boss Morrill explained that it’s a rocket attached to overloaded aircraft to help them get into the air. The story continued by describing how this fellow somehow stole one, somehow attached it to his car, and somehow fired it up. The rest of the story was a humorous description of the tires burning off the car and the car being slammed into the side of a mountain. It sounded pretty suspect, especially as the narration was having so much comic fun with it, calling the foolhardy adventurer “Swifty” and discussing how his last moments must have been spent trying to reverse the course of actions that were rapidly to end his life. I wondered aloud if it were possible. Boss Morrill just glared at me over his glasses his good humor now interrupted.
The guys also love the rage they feel when they recount this other story, too many times. You might hear this thing every day for a month. It’s about the Hispanic man who rents a lawnmower and decides to trim his hedges with it. “He sticks his goddamned finguhs unduh the thing and picks it up and trims ‘is fuckin’ hedges!” Kyle is impersonating the action, squatting down, pretending to lift a mower, mimes using it as a hedge trimmer (an awkward idea at best) “It even works for a while, but then, brrrrrzt! He loses his finguhs!” The punchline is he sued the rental company for not having a warning label in Spanish, telling him not to cut his hedges with it, and the kicker, of course, is he won! The guys stare at their audience wide-eyed, waiting for the outrage. “Crazy fucking world!” They tell this story, this obvious urban legend, which contains so many tough-guy axes to grind, as a kind of warning, not just about the untrustworthiness of foreigners, but of the unknowable legal miasma that is, more likely than not, to screw the good hard-working American. And lastly because our liberal society does not require English to be a requirement, and on and on.
Then the guilt sets in, guilt I can’t do anything about. Problems I can’t fix, people in the world, I know, who would kill to just have the water I get to drink every day. So, how dare I complain. I have a job, I have an income! There are seriously poor people in the world. I feel sorry that I, through some cryptic process of random, Brownian-like motion, ended up over here and they over there. I have a rattle-trap of a vehicle, a 1976 Chevy sport van, red, flipped once. I have a second story apartment I share in West Warwick with two mates. My own bedroom is tiny but nice enough, a twin futon, a book pile, a boombox and a turntable, a Sansui—I was talked into buying even though it’s a weird linear-tracking turntable and often has difficulties playing albums that have sides longer than the usual eighteen minutes or so. Maybe I should stop complaining so much, I’m lucky. Though I did get that stinking speeding ticket on the connector to Apponaug, cop was rude too, assuming me a thug. I’m just trying to get by, just trying to get to class. Another fantasy, trying to climb the ladder through the education system.
I load another set of dishes in the steam and greasy chemical stench of the washer. I wish the boss would get the fuck out so I can put the radio on. So I can relax a bit. So I can maybe look over the paper. Monday morning dish-washing is a chore, but I don’t mind it if I’m left alone. There’s not a lot of pressure about keeping busy as long as the dishes are getting done. Kyle and Kurt hate doing the dishes and will stay away from the back room as long as I’m taking care of it.
So keep the mouth shut and do the dishes, don’t argue with the boss. Don’t encourage his hanging around. It is the best job I’ve had so far, hell, I can sleep at night, . . . there are even some benefits. And considering what it costs to pay rent and feed the gas tank, back and forth to the university, (I put courses on credit cards!). . .
I return to my mental notes, these ideas and feelings I scribble in notebooks. These become ranting letters to friends, or superbly self-indulgent poetry and ludicrous missives to girls I really like, who, I no doubt, bewilder. . . .
Frankly, the fast food starts to lose its flavor, and the “freedom” we’re all supposed to be so grandly infused with, so we don’t forget how special it is, like soft-serve dropped straight from heaven into our wide-open, fat mouths, well, it doesn’t seem like much in the way of a life. But, we do get compensated for it. That’s why they call it work, right? And, we kind of allow this, right? We kind of agree to be working our way toward a middle-class. Not just being slaves, but living lives worth living, or at least, maybe looking forward to that down the road. Living lives with value, if we just put the hours in. . . .