FRIDAY AUGUST 10:
Eight hours sleep. I'm riding the train to Raleigh from Penn Station. All is right with the world. Right? Yeah, right.
That eight hours sleep was the last TWO nights-- combined. It's pouring rain. There's a crying baby amidst a family of Hispanic androgenics. Not the David Bowie androgenics, but the PAT, kind. Lumps of fat with short hair, sideburns and an overwhelming smell of wet dog.
Besides the screaming kid, one of 'em has a cellphone that rings like an old-fashioned real telephone every time the train passes from one carrier to another. She keeps the ringer on just in case. She's worried that she might miss a carrier change. I'm sure it'd destroy her. That's my immediate hell. With it, the complete inability of me to fall asleep on this train, though my mind craves it. Soon I'll be suffering caffeine withdrawal. To drink? Lose the headache and stay awake from the caffeine? Or not to drink and stay awake from the headache.
It's pouring rain out. I had to stand in it to get a cab to Penn Station this morning. I wonder how sick I'll get from that. This trip is cursed and I'm only 45 minutes in to it. Let me tell you the ways.
I planned this because of a haiku conference in Winston Salem. I figured I'd make it a vacation, sell some books, do some garage sale shopping. I haven't been away since Australia. I could pay the hefty conference fee with some book sales. I'll have a ride back with the same guy I went to Canada with on my last haiku adventure. I have enough renter miles to get a car for free so it'll be cheap and fun, right? Yeah, right.
I set out with my bag of for-sale books, and my computer to write blogs, my column and this novel I've been thinking about that takes place in Punxsutawney but nowhere near groundhogs day.
It'll be too hot for my normal detective drag, so I'm off with a torn GWAR t-shirt, jeans, army boots, and my Yokohama Bay Stars hat. That was a gift from The Bear, my best pal in Japan. Being made in Japan, it manages always to look new and presentable in any haiku situation. It's one of my prized possessions.
So here I sit on the train. Wondering what tragedy will befall me. What will else will happen that is impossible... that cannot happen?
My tragedies are not like other people's. Things don't hit me. I don't get caught in a Tsunami, like Michel L. My apartment building doesn't get blown up by Con Ed, like Lori. Planes don't fly into my place of work, like Gopal. My tragedies are cumulative, like those old movies where the hero is chained to the wall in a closed room. Then water, slowly drip drip drips into the room until its up to his neck.
The plan for this trip was to work a bit extra before traveling. Teach a few more classes. Earn a few more bucks for pocket change. Make it easy. The changes of plans ends with a bang. The school explodes. A steam pipe under Lexington Avenue bought the farm, sending hot water, asbestos and assorted debris into a towering geyser, right in front of us. Windows smashed. Everyone thinks terrorists! Panic. Teachers in the hall, the stairway. Chaos on the street. A sea of high-heeled shoes on the sidewalk, fashion abandoned to fright. Just like what happened to Lori. The only difference is that I'm not there when it happens.
I'm at Yankee Stadium watching Roger Clemens pitch a mediocre game. Yanks behind 2-nothing after 4. I'm a bit worried because my second South Carolina cousin once removed and his son paid for my ticket to today's game. They're supposed to join me. A Yankee experience with a real Yankee. They have not shown up yet. The kid's a Yankee fanatic, and this was to be his first trip to Yankee Stadium.
My cellphone rings. [Note: my cellphone NEVER rings. Five people have the number. It's a death phone. If someone dies call me. Otherwise leave me alone. I HATE the cellphone. I HATE the phone. Period. It's an intrusion. A leash. You can never get away. And other people's cellphones? Jeezus! I hate 'em. Right now, in the train, some woman is jabbering about her laundry. People use 'em everywhere. They should be blocked-- prohibited-- except when I have to make a call.)
On the phone is Lori.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
“Huh?” I reply. “The Yankees are losing, but it's not that serious. They can pull it out.”
“Where are you?” she asks.
“I'm at Yankee Stadium,” I tell her. “Why?”
“Con Ed blew up your school,” she says. “Just like my apartment building. Everyone evacuated. I saw it on the news.”
“This is the first I heard,” I tell her. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Slightly shaken, I sit down for 30 seconds. The phone rings again. It's Ai, the attractive head of the scheduling department at my school.
“Don't worry,” she says, “we're all right. We had to evacuate. Marshall took us all in, gave us something to drink. Let us calm down. He even gave Sara an extra pair of shoes. She lost hers in the panic. School will be closed for awhile, though. We'll keep you informed.”
Yowsah! It's not like I'm a salaried guy. If I don't work, I don't get paid. Nothing to do but sit and hope the Yanks can pull it out.
“Mykel,” comes a voice from behind me. It's the relatives, breathless.
“Sorry we're late. We tried to get on the train at Grand Central, but everything was blocked. The sky was filled with white powder. We were covered in the stuff. We had to walk all the way to 59th Street.”
The Yankees won the game.
Flash ahead to the night before I leave for Raleigh. It suddenly occurs to me that under my rental plan, I have to return the car to the same place I rented it. Since I rent in Raleigh, and the conference is in Winston Salem, I have to return the car to Raleigh. In a panic, I write to my ride back to ask him to follow me to Raleigh on the way back. Then I'll get in the van and we'll go to New York.
I hate to spring this on him, but I leave tomorrow. He emails back a bit pissed off. The trip to Raleigh adds 2 hours to the total. He's got to go to Canada as soon as he gets back to New York. I should get a friend to drive me to some highway reststop and meet there. He's not going 2 hours out of his way.
I guess he's right. It's not fair of me to spring this on him. It's enough that he'll be driving most of the 12 hour trip to New York. I think about emailing my friends, asking for rides. But that's a lot to ask for them too. It's like New York to Philadelphia. They're not THAT good of friends.
So I check out the trains. With a AAA discount, I can get a train from Raleigh to Winston Salem for $17. I'll have to figure out how to get from the Airport rental to the train station, but once that's done, I can take the train. I make a train reservation Winston Salem to Raleigh. It'll be a pain... in the middle of the conference... to drive to Raleigh, drop off the car, then take the train back. But it's the right thing. Yeah, right.
Here's the next email:
Now there's another issue that's really screwing things up. My wife just told me that she needs the van that weekend because she's picking up my son in upstate NY from 8 week summer camp and he has duffel bags, art projects, etc. The plan was for her to use our other car, but the camp just notified us that they are not shipping the bags home as we thought. I have to let her take the van as it is technically her car.
If we can't make other arrangements that really limits the space we have. My other car is newer, but only seats 4 and doesn't have much room in the trunk. Just taking Cor, Carl and myself in that car is going to be tight. If I can't get the van, I won't be able to take you back at all. I’ll let you know if I can arrange something else, but maybe you better come up with a Plan B.
Plan B? There is no Plan B. The only reason I'm going to this thing is the ride back. Besides, the last minute is the most expensive to book alternate tickets. Fuck, am I pissed. No one's fault. No one to get pissed AT (except maybe the guy's wife, and I don't even know her). But I'm fighting mad. All this less than an hour before I have to leave, on no sleep, after just having changed plans and spent more money to accommodate the van.
This does not happen. There are too many things going wrong. Too much money being spent. Too many unpleasant hours in a train... maybe on a bus back. It can only be GOD who's responsible. The Bitch is at it again. If I just quit and don't go, she'll win.
[Note for those who are new to my personal religion: The Bitch Goddess is GOD! She runs things. Controls day-to-day events. You life is so miserable because of her. She is a 9 foot tall blonde who wears a black leather bikini and carries a whip. The “meaning of life” is a contest between you and The Goddess. If she can make your life so miserable that you kill yourself, she wins. If you give up, spiritually. Sink into a mind-numbing morass. Get married and have a 9-5 career as a K-Mart manager. She wins. But if you continue to fight, despite it all. If, at the end, she drags you clawing and biting into that great good night, you win. She's tricky though, lining every gift, every seeming bit of good fortune, with a layer of shit.]
So I'm out on the street at 5AM, in the rain, trying to catch a cab to get to Penn Station.
So here I am in this crowded traincar. Next to me is a hefty Negress. Grandmotherly, she talks to me about her teaching job in Baltimore, and how some kids just don't listen.
She's a nice lady. Not spreading her girth around like white trash bus-riders who seem to say, You skinny worm. I'm going to smother you with my earthy rolls of flesh. You have no business being your size and taking up a whole seat. Meanwhile, someone with my amplitude has to stuff themselves in a mousetrap. I'm just going to spread myself over you. Drape my flesh past the armrests. Push my ample thighs against your skinny little legs. You wanna do something about it?
Nope, this fine colored lady kept her body to herself. She's Miss Proper. Every action delicate. Her face, speckled with black spots of experience, is smiley, but unobtrusive. She speaks like a grandmother. Telling me about her daughter's cholesterol problem, and her love of North Carolina barbecue.
[Note for those who don't know: North Carolina has its own style barbecue. Not on the bone, like traditional barbecue. It's mostly pork, off the bone, finely chopped. Dry seasoned in the Eastern part of the state. Wet seasoned in the West. If I ever found out that was what they served for lunch in heaven, I'd jump off a cliff. As I type this, I can feel the saliva running like Pavlov's dog.]
I tell her that barbecue's what I come to North Carolina for. She laughs. Then I introduce myself.
(You can barely see me there in front of one of the main reasons to come to North Carolina.)
“I'm Mykel,” I tell her.
“I'm Hattie,” she says, laughing as if knowing that every matronly Negress is supposed to be named Hattie.
It's 4:36PM. The train was scheduled to arrive in Raleigh at 4:30. We haven't reached ROCKY MOUNT yet. That's the first stop in North Carolina. Today's gonna be a lost day. In the train, I spend my computer time cleaning out spam from my Eudora inbox. Not exactly a productive adventure.
We'll be at least 1½ hours late. Brian is supposed to meet me at the train station to take me to the airport to pick up my car. If he's there, he'll be pissed.
Most likely he won't be there and I'll have to figure out how to get to the airport on my own... and it just started raining again. It'll be raining when I get out of the train, that's for sure. I'll have to take an expensive cab to the airport. I won't be able to get the navigation system anyway. They'll be sold out. Even then, there's always Board's Law: Even if nothing can go wrong, it still will go wrong.
I can't predict. God always thinks of something else, something I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams, like a tornado in Brooklyn.
It's not raining when I get out of the train. Brian is not here. I don't expect him to be here. That would mean things working right. I expect him to not even be in town. Called away. Uncle Rastus in Des Moines. Kicked off unexpectedly. Brian had to leave for the month. Besides the train is 2 ½ hours late. Who would wait that long?
I half-heartedly try calling him on the cellphone. I expect his voicemail. Maybe with apologies to me.
“Yo Mykel,” comes the answer, “I'm in the parking lot in front of the train station. Just walk around the other side.”
I don't get it, that means something went right. Things are not supposed to go right. But that's the way the Bitch Goddess works. She needs to stay unpredictable. If you can guess how she'll screw you, you can plan for it. She doesn't want you to plan.
So here's Brian with his giant dog-smelling poodle, Frank Zappa. Frank is the kind of dog who's all over you. Slobbering you with kisses, jumping up on your chest, nudging your hands to scratch him behind the ear. The kind that thinks your arm is a chewtoy. A big smelly slobbery messy kind of dog. The kind you probably love, if you love dogs. (The picture on the left shows Frank in a rare, tuckered out moment.)
We drive back to Brian's house, talking about the plans for the trip. I've got a show at Flynt Street on Sunday. The next at Katmandu, the bar Brian tends, on Monday. On Tuesday, I read at Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill. Then, it's onto the Haiku conference in Winston Salem.
I hope folks show up. I've sent out tons of email and nearly a hundred postcards to everyone I know in the whole state.
“You mean TUESDAY,” says Brian. “I don't work on Monday.”
The Bitch! That's the way she works. Making the impossible happen anyway. Pulling a thick turd out of an empty top hat.
Brian drives me to the airport. I pick up my Hertz rent-a-car with a satellite system. I only need to pay for the GPS. The rest is free, courtesy of frequent something miles.
On the way to the airport, Brian and I come up with an alternative. I'll show up at Katmandu on Monday, just to see if anybody's there. Then I'll PLAY Katmandu on Tuesday, at Midnight, after the show in Chapel Hill. That should work out. Yeah, right.
I call Derick (name changed by me-- you'll see why), who set up the Sunday show for me. I want to confirm the time and place.
I get his voicemail and leave him a message to call me back.
At Brian's house, I drop off the rental and get in his car. We go out to look for Sunday's venue. We have an address: 3104 Flynt Street. The closest we get is FLINT PLACE. Brian finds it on the map. When we get there, it's nothing but an alley that starts in a playground, runs behind the university and ends in a parking lot. There are no addresses.
Brian and I get out of the car to investigate the playground. It has a tetherball (one of those balls tied to the top of a pole with a long string), a slide, and a small stage, with a flag directly over it. The flag says FAITH IN GOD. Near this flag is another that says RESPONSIBILITY.
“I hope this is the place,” I tell him. “I'd love to talk about whipping a girl hanging from the ceiling under a sign that says FAITH IN GOD.”
“It must be the place,” he says. “There's nothing else around here.”
I call Derick again. Voicemail again.
I leave a message telling him we can't find the place unless it's the little playground. I ask him to call me back and confirm that it is indeed the little playgroup.
Then we go to Katmandu to hang out and check out the crowd. Try to sweep them into the show on Monday... er... Tuesday.
Since Brian works there, they let the dog in. [Note: a lot of places in North Carolina seem okay with dogs inside. Especially bars. They're also comfortable with smokers, and they don't press too hard on the ID checks. All a welcome relief after New York.]
The crowd in the bar is a beautiful colored hooker and her John, a leisure suited fifty something, with a grin from here to there on his inebriated face. Besides him there is the bartender. Besides the bartender is the kind of girl who is not pretty, but sexy as a teen-aged naval. She's got a large heart tattooed on her chest. Her t-shirt shows enough cleavage entice you to deeper investigation.
She's writing in some kind of journal.
That's the crowd. No one else. It's Friday night at 10PM
Brian and I sit at the bar and order some PBRs.
I lean to the side and talk to the girl. “What are you writing?” I ask her.
“I'm in charge of a wedding,” she says. “My best friend is getting married... in Florida... I need to make a list of everything I have to do before the wedding. Clothes, accommodations, everything. They're getting married on the beach... Before this, a bachelorette party... You know, a dinner, a few bars, a strip club...”
“You must be a pretty good friend to do all this work,” I tell her.
“The bride used to be my girlfriend,” she says. “The groom stole her away from me.... I don't hate him or anything... I like the guy... but still, he took her.”
“And you're still nice enough to plan the wedding,” I say, staring at her tattoo.
“Well, the husband asked me to come along on the honeymoon,” she says, “but...”
“Go! Go!” I tell her. “You should go. Jezus fuckin' Christ! It's like a dream come true. TWO girls and a guy on a honeymoon! Yowsah!”
She shakes her head.
The bartender agrees with her.
“Yeah,” he says, “it's every guy's fantasy. But I don't think so. A honeymoon is a bonding time. It's where the bride and groom, you know. They get intimate. They get to know each other. Kinda inside out. Ya know what I mean?
“Intimate, shimintimate,” I say. “Imagine a honeymoon. Two girls and a guy. Ho ho! You could write a book. All that money would be worth it. These days, most honeymoons are expensive shit. You go to some hotel in some foreign city. You pay $400 a night, and fuck a lot. You walk around the city during the day. Hand in hand. You have your first argument. Note that it's your first argument. Fuck some more. Go home. Drop puppies. Get divorced. Poof! But two girls and a guy! Ho ho! You wouldn't give a fuck about your first argument.”
(To the right are 4 of the remainders in the bar. The girl with the tattoo was camera shy. She took the picture.)
Soon after this, the girl leaves. The hooker and her John leave. Brian and I leave. We head for Brian's house, where I have the couch. On the way back we stop at an all night barbecue take-out. Two BBQs to go.
Home: I'm tired from the long day, the train ride, no answer from the promoter, no venue, no one at the bar. I walk inside and notice that the posters I sent Brian to promote my reading are sitting on the dining room table.
“Didn't need all the posters?” I ask. “I figured there'd be more than one or two record stores to put 'em in.”
“Record stores?” he says. “I thought you were taking care of all that. The promotion and all, I thought you were going to do it.”
This does not bode well. But it's the Bitch Goddess. She doesn't make a very good atmosphere for boding.
Brian and I open the barbecue sandwiches at the table. I'm ready to dig in and savor the oral ecstasy. The dog goes off to enjoy a rubber squeaky ball.
Boy, that tastes good. Even if nothing else works out. I'll at least have had my North Carolina barbecue.
A taste of ... wait a minute. There are no squeaks from the dog's squeaky toys. What's going on? Brian gets up to investigate. The dog has eaten my Yokohama Bay Star's hat.