Back to the Future, Ahead to the Past

I was mowing my lawn a few weeks ago, at the edge of my property, when I spied a car coming down the block. It was a sunny day, and as I looked up at the approaching vehicle I was momentarily blinded by it. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened, other than a silver flash from the windshield had left me sightless for about two seconds. As the car got closer I realized what it was. There was a most glorious and impressive array of CDs spread across the driver’s sun visor. There had to be about forty of them, extended in perfect circular symmetry, reflecting the sun’s magnificence and frying the eyes of every driver who happened to be going in the opposite direction. 

This was the height of convenience for the modern music lover, if by modern I was speaking about the year 1992. It meant there was a CD player in the dashboard, which played them one by one, and not a six-disc changer in the trunk, even. It seemed like such a weird throwback. Had the driver not heard about digital and streaming music? I couldn’t have been more surprised if the car was towing an old Wurlitzer jukebox with a gramophone horn extended from the speaker, blasting the hottest hits of the forties and seventies, everything from Glenn Miller to more recent acts like England Dan and John Ford Coley. I suddenly wanted to climb into the car to see what other odd relics I could dig up, like a glove compartment full of badly folded maps from Triple A. Maybe there was a boxy television plugged into a potato battery in the back with a groaning video cassette recorder so the kids could watch the pile of VHS tapes scattered about the floor of the backseat. 

As luck would have it the guy slowed up his ’88 Pontiac LeMans and stopped in front of me. His window was already rolled down and he was shirtless, which meant no air conditioning. He asked me for directions to the tobacco shop. He had heard there was a shortcut through the neighborhood, which there was, which also meant he had no GPS. What really got me thanking the universe for this odd encounter was that he was wearing a pair of old Ferrari brown-tint sunglasses, the collapsible kind with the classy leather case. The glasses were situated right above a broad, blond, porno mustache. 

I approached the smooth eighties time traveler and pointed him around the corner to the cigar shop. He had just moved into the neighborhood, he said, and was still getting a feel for the place. Awesome. 

“My name is Chad. They call me Hanging Chad.” 

“Of course they do.” 

“Because my name is Chad and I hang.” 

“Got it!” 

“I was the bass roadie for the Atlanta Rhythm Section years ago.” 

“Even better.” 

I told him I’d see him around, and as these things go, I began to see Chad everywhere. I was a victim of what is known as the Baader-Meinhof syndrome, in which something that you never notice becomes something you constantly notice once you notice it.

Hanging Chad at the coffee shop. Hanging Chad at the burger place. Hanging Chad in line at the bank. Hanging Chad driving backwards down the block to the mechanic because his car was stuck in reverse. 

Chad was providing a refreshing counterpoint to the news about Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica and the whole defense of data trading and exploitation. Chad did not have an on-line profile. Indeed he thought Facebook was another name for a criminal’s mugshot. And concerning the need for privacy Chad remonstrated, “If you don’t want somebody to know something, you don’t fucking tell them.”  

Hanging Chad was getting along in the neighborhood quite nicely. That is until the day I ran into him at our neighborhood tobacco shop up on Lawrenceville Highway. I had gone in to buy a tin of Arturo Fuente cigarillos and found him castigating the girl at the register. 

“Can you believe this woman?” Chad said to me. “Here I am paying by credit and she didn’t even check to see if the signature I provided on the receipt is the same as the signature on the back of my card.” 

“There’s a chip in the card, sir,” said the salesgirl. “Nobody checks signatures anymore.” 

Chad started to panic. “But how will you successfully detect a fraudulent purchase? Here, here. Look at this signature. It is a work of art. Notice the initial flourish. The loop and whorl. The way the ‘d’ leans to the right, real cool, like it doesn’t have a care in the world!” 

“Haven’t you heard? They are doing away with all that signature stuff.” 

Chad was outraged. He took his credit card back and stuffed it into his wallet right above, I noticed, a sleek white card with a gold border that said, “Playboy Club and Casino. Member since 1978.” 

“Playboy Club, eh?” I said. 

“I was a big wheel in Vernon, New Jersey. That was one of my hangouts back in the day.” Chad’s eyebrows bounced up and down on his forehead in an effort to convince me how impressive it all was. 

I hesitated to tell him that his beloved club had closed around 1982. Chad looked defeated enough, knowing that the world was going into technological overdrive right before his Ferrari, brown-tinted, sunglass-covered eyes. 

“Care to join me in a glass of cheap scotch and a badly rolled cigarette?” he offered. I agreed and we adjourned to the outside of the cigar shop where there was a little sampling area set up. 

We spoke of the nature of things. How no longer, as in days gone, could the intrepid explorer go digging into unknown tracts of land looking for oil, or bauxite, or precious metals. The landscape of opportunity in this day and age is microscopic. It is the collapsing inward of the great ranges and plateaus of the world. It is the data miner. It is the nanotechnologist. It is the microbiologist working to unlock the protein codes of genetic recognition.  Not a very sexy lifestyle. 

After the cigarettes had burned down Chad got up to go. I suspected that I may have seen the Pontiac LeMans roar off for the last time. He was heading in a different direction than we were. That place in the past when everything made sense. 

More Alembics to come. 

I Fought The Law and The Purple People Eater Won

It is a strange and unnerving thing to be a law abiding citizen, a man of the outside natural world, a bohemian of coffee shops, booze halls and art studios and did I mention booze halls, who suddenly finds himself sitting in a courtroom for one of the most bizarre charges ever to land in the lap of jurisprudence. The Fulton County court was packed that day, the honorable Judge Bufo presiding. Guilty or innocent, we were all treated with sarcastic disdain by the bailiffs as we filed in, collectively threatened with contempt because a few puddle heads couldn’t figure out how to remove their hats and turn off their cellphones. Never has there been a more scrupulous polarization of authority and delinquency than in a courtroom, particularly this kind of strange cattle call. And when the cops, the judge and the solicitors start admonishing the crowd for petty infractions like whispering to the person sitting next to them, then we all kind of reflexively adopt the “fuck you” attitude of the outlaw. I was amused at how naturally the setup breeds its own dynamic.

I was answering a rather strange citation. I had been given a ticket for speeding, except here is the thing… I was sitting in the passenger seat at the time.

My first brush with “The Law” happened when I was about four years old. Recently instructed on the finer points of spelling, I had innocently picked up a permanent marker and went into my parents’ bedroom. It was laundry day, and the mattress had been stripped of all the sheets. I had a king-sized canvas, and I went to work, spelling the two new words I had learned, in this case, “SHIT” and “ASS” in a fine and careful lettering. Proud of my recent publication, I showed it off to my mother, who had returned from the laundry room with a gasp of shock and horror. Even then my writing was controversial, and I was thrashed accordingly. Seething from the injustice of it all, I hired an appeals lawyer, in this case my mom’s sister, who pointed out that while the text was a bit licentious, “At least he spelled it right.”

And now here I am, a lifetime later, answering a charge of “Failure to Convince the Operator of a Speeding Vehicle to Slow Down.” It all started when my truck spluttered to a miserable death on the highway a few months back. Something had gone wonky under the hood. The demon that controls my engine was angry. So I took a 1950’s Uber, or in other words, I stuck my thumb out at the flow of traffic and hitched a ride to the next exit. A twitchy, high-strung woman pulled over and agreed to give me a lift. She stabbed that gas pedal down and we rocketed off into oblivion. A mile up the road we were pulled over by a cop. Immediately she complained to the police officer that I had exerted an unnecessary and undue pressure on her to go as fast as possible. She was only a waif of a woman and I was a big crazy man with big crazy male ways. The officer agreed and handed me the ticket. I was about to protest, when my chauffeur whispered to me to shut up unless I wanted to be cited for the trunkful of methamphetamine too.

The court has the ultimate advantage over the accused. It’s their home turf. I watched as a parade of misfits and non compos mentis types were led up to the podium. Every once in a while a handcuffed individual would appear from a side door and be made to sit in their own little penalty box. We in the normal gallery could at least take some consolation in the fact that we weren’t in the shackled category. My favorite guy was some wild and broken genius who had somehow got caught after dumping 5,000 used tires on a desolate stretch of road in South Fulton. The cops finally noticed when the stack got taller than the surrounding trees.

“One-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater…”

Shit, where did that come from? Oh yes, my stupid brain. Every once in a while, in times of extreme stress, my mental jukebox will play dumb songs to torment me, and something in my head had hit the ‘play’ button on the old Sheb Wooley song. Then I realized what was happening. Follow me, please. Theoretically a people-eating monster would indeed be a cold-blooded murderer, and since I was sitting in court, I was now seeing a one-eyed, one-horned, handcuffed and despondent purple people eater being led into the little penalty box on the far side of the room. I knew I never should’ve taken that hit of acid in college that one time. In fact I blamed Sheb Wooley, whose name alone sounds a bit monster-ish, as well as a string of god-awful pop music that had plagued us for decades. These were the real criminals, robbing us of good taste: “One-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater,” “You’re a pink toothbrush I’m a blue toothbrush,” “Up and away my beautiful balloon,” “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy,” and a host of other wrenching pop tunes. Like any psychedelic court scene, I was now watching lollipops, toothbrushes, balloons, zombies, Katy Perry’s left shark, puppies, a rhinestone cowboy, dandelions and everything else get led into the dock.

“From the laboratory in the castle east,
to the master bedroom where the vampires feast,
the ghouls all came from their humble abodes,
to get a jolt from my electrodes. They did the mash. They did the monster mash.”

As if this wasn’t bad enough, things really got out of hand when the purple people eater chewed through his chains and, as is natural to his species, ate the bailiff, the stenographer and the judge. I figured that was tantamount to an adjournment of the court, until the big monster banged the gavel and burped my name out. He was in charge now and he wasn’t going to let the rest of us get away with anything. I approached the bench. He found me guilty and told me that I could either feed him my money or my body, which was exactly what Judge Bufo would’ve said, and I dutifully chose the former. He gobbled it down right then and there, and before he nodded off for a midday nap rife with drooling and snoring he told me to have a nice day. I walked outside into the cool, free air, and never felt better. Freedom is most thoroughly enjoyed after a few hours in a courtroom. I decided, because I have a reputation to uphold, to never tell anybody about the crazy monster tableau I had just imagined.
It will be our secret.
More Alembics to come.

The Penguin Emperor

“April Showers Bring May Flowers.”
I haven’t thought about that little piece of homespun gibberish in years. When I was a kid it was a way to cheer up in April amid all the drizzle and gray. It was a type of investment, the rain in April, and the payoff was a few weeks away, when the world would turn vibrant and crisp. But nowadays, when five feet of snow falls in Kansas during the month of August, or it’s a balmy 90 degrees for one day in December in Fargo, or a school of fish are swimming down the street in Miami amid a torrential downpour that has palm trees falling like clumsy dominoes, who really cares about the rain in April?

This whole thought process took root when I was strolling through my neighborhood the other week. At the edge of my community, next to a creek and below the flood plane, sits an abandoned house in a yard of mud. As I walked around the corner I happened upon a news van. The camera guy was filming the vacant house. “Wow,” I thought, “they must be desperate for stories this week.” I could see the headline…

ABANDONED HOUSE. FILM AT ELEVEN

The field reporter stuck her head out of the van and asked me if I knew why they were there.
“Nope.”
“So you haven’t seen the giant boar?” she said. I told her the only giant bore I was aware of was the tall fellow who lives up the block. You get stuck in a conversation with him and there goes your afternoon. He has got dull opinions about all sorts of stuff, and he isn’t afraid to share them all.
“No, no, boar,” she said. “Like a feral pig.”

Shit, I thought, they are moving in. I feared this type of animal migration as a result of weather fluctuations. Then again I shouldn’t be surprised. If an elderly couple ping pongs from Lowell, Massachusetts to Boca Raton, Florida, then why not a family of pigs arriving to our unassuming hamlet. (Ham-let! Ridiculous. I know, right, ridiculous, let us continue.)

I pictured them living in the muddy, vacant house. Papa Boar, sitting in his favorite chair, tie loosened around his shirt collar, complaining about taxes and millennials. Momma Boar in modest dress fixing him a whiskey, telling him not to be so grumpy. Baby Boar watching cartoons. Boar art on the walls.
And then it hit me.
A freshly unearthed memory dug from the tenebrous bog of my subconscious. It was about four years ago during the arrival of a massive glacial mountain of ice, massive I tell you, around two inches or so, that covered the city of Atlanta in what is now referred to as the “Snow-pocalypse,” which is a misnomer, because it was definitely more of an “Ice-pocalypse.”
I was home that day, and as the city fell apart around me, I heard a strange knock on my front door. I opened it and standing there was an emperor penguin. He had a small satchel over his shoulder, and in a kind of impressive and sophisticated avian drawl, he introduced himself. His name escapes me now (Waddle? Dewlap? Ned?) but I do remember him announcing that he was taking over my house.
“Impossible,” I said. “You are an animal.”
“Given how messy this house is, I could say the same about you,” he challenged.
“…,” was my answer.
“I have a formal order from the Emperor Penguin,” he said. “A writ, if you will, guaranteeing me ownership of this property and everything on it.” He dug through his satchel for the proper documents.
“I thought all of you were emperors,” I said.
“That’s ridiculous. Are all humans presidents?”
He had me there. So I invited him in, figuring we could work out some kind of deal. He said they were all moving up from the South Pole because of the shifting ecosystem. He was particularly fascinated with my refrigerator. Immediately he began clearing out one of the shelves to store some of his eggs. He said he was tired of standing around with these fucking things between his feet for months at a time. He adjusted the temperature. I told him to be careful about my beer.
“What is beer?” he said.
That was it. Two hours later we were stone drunk, the penguin and I, splayed out on my couch. We had a lot in common, as it turned out. I called him a flightless bird and he called me a flightless bird, a freaky bald one without any feathers. I told him he had a beak and he told me I had one too, above my mouth, a useless soft one that couldn’t even crack ice. I told him us humans have an airtight ethical system with the threat of eternal damnation and he told me that we were the only species rotten enough to need one. Other than that we both liked sushi. We both liked to swim. We both liked the films of Samuel L. Jackson, oddly enough. I figured this was the new normal, a kind of environmental adjustment with species smart enough to evolve. Our definitions were different, but our cares were the same. He told me he had learned English from lurking around one of the weather stations near Dumont d’Urville, and I was dutifully impressed. I told him that, in my book, he was an emperor, and I didn’t care what anybody else said. He told me that I was a bad mother f**cker, like Samuel L. Jackson. He promised to teach me that trick in which he could jump eight feet into the air from the surface of the water.
“Hey,” he slurred, “does that guy Michael Bloomberg live close by?”
“Um, relatively, yes,” I said.
My new friend said he needed to have a chat with the ex New York mayor. He staggered off into the icy cold and with a hiccup, told me he’d be back to check on his incubating kids in a few days.
*
The next morning I was pretty hungover so I fried up his eggs, or what he might call his children, and scarfed them down with some toast and hash. I tried to think of a decent excuse when he finally returned to claim them, except he never did, and things eventually went back to whatever passes for normal in my twisted little world.

More Alembics to come.

No Ifs, Ands, or Bots

Those were the days…
It used to be that bots were parasitic maggots living in fly shit. These days a bot is a parasitic maggot living in the internet. Not a lot of difference, really, although the actual larvae of the botfly is a little more honest. The tiny insects need to eat you to survive, and that is all. It’s nothing personal. The new, space-age bots, the tiny roving bands of wifi marauders, the mechanical champions of hotly held beliefs, on the other hand, arrive as your friend. “Please like me. I like you. Tell you what, I’ll help you stick it to your anonymous internet enemies, those neighbors and shaggy acquaintances who want to destroy your way of life. Just like me. One click. One like. One small victory.”

Basically a bot is a veritable cattle prod that jolts the cattle, in this case the human internet surfers, into a fit of apoplexy. It’s one thing to have an intestinal parasite. It is another to have a mental one. Nothing can provoke a good brain rage like seeing a picture on Facebook of a scaly, muscle-bound Satan in an arm wrestling match with a chiseled, Aryan Jesus. Two workout fiends. One good. One evil. I always suspected that Hell was a large health club facility filled with free weights and mirrors, and that the region around Mount Tabor was where Steroid Jesus and the Apostles congregated for a cross-fit style regimen of wind sprints and squat lunges. Now the internet has proved it. Thank you, internet.

Bots, as I understand them, are used to “meddle.” It’s a fun word. I’m glad it is back in fashion. The only other historical evidence I have of meddling is Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine gang, who spent their time smoking pot and thwarting a parade of backwater villains, who would’ve gotten away with it, had it not been for those “meddling kids.” Strange these days, though, to pull the mask off the Zombie or Swamp Creature and find a sheepish looking Vladimir Putin. Even the Harlem Globetrotters and Sandy Duncan wouldn’t believe it.

If manipulating weak-minded people is a crime then let us imprison all the lobbying firms, the public relations consultants, all special interest groups, most of the media, all advertising agencies, image consultants, the movie industry, the record industry, all Super Pacs, the fashion industry, every mega-church that has taken money from a cancer victim to buy a private jet, ambulance chasers, weepy politicians, “Lumpy” the clean coal mascot, every mascot for that matter, the science of product placement, billboards, banner ads, and every global effort to commodify goods and services and ideas from the Ross Sea to the Queen Elizabeth Islands. Maybe we’re already imprisoned. It’s called Earth. It’s walls are comprised of digital voyeurism.

I would like to take this opportunity to make friends with the bots out there. It’s nice to have people “like” you, and in the absence of an actual person, a computerized audience of enthusiasts will do just fine. I would love for this blog to be liked and reblogged a million times, either by humans or, failing that, little mechanized acolytes. An algorithm will always support my point of view, and an algorithm will never ask me to drive it to the airport, or make me feel guilty about missing its birthday party, or drunkenly hit on my wife at the Fourth of July barbecue. Actual organic friends are overrated.

Meddling, fiddling, tampering, tinkering. Everybody does it all the time. Modern digital media is filled with a million, tiny Leland Gaunt characters from the Stephen King book Needful Things running through a person’s activity, promising to deliver support in exchange for a harmless prank, a little nudge in the direction of putative righteousness. Which is innocent enough, until you see the two old ladies in the neighborhood actually swinging at each other in the middle of the street with hatchets and carving knives because a bot disrespected their flag, or their pot plant, or their transgender child, or their shotgun, or their fetus, or their president, or their carbon footprint, or their limited understanding of historical forces, or their cable news network, or their favorite sports team, or that reality star that is always making a mess of things, either in the reality of television or in the reality of reality.

It is quiet on my street today. As far as I can tell no neighborhood biddies are trying to kill each other. The sun is out. All machinery is OFF, except for a pre-recorded version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony that wends through the windows in lofty and playful flight. Nothing is asking anything of me. I am beyond the reach of humankind. My neighbor’s dog trots up to the fence, regarding me in silence. I toss him a treat that I keep on hand for such an occasion, remembering what Mark Twain said. If you can improve upon the fortune of a dog he will not bite you. This is the main difference between a dog and a man.
More Alembics to come

The Doomsday, or Coffee, Device

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

I was rather absorbed the other week with the idle thought that it would be terrifically annoying to be a “narwhal,” those arctic whales with the horns protruding out of their heads. At first the idea of a sharp, calcified horn protruding from my face might be an interesting one. There is no better way to get whatever is in front of you moving than to jab it with a sharp proboscis. No more crowds on the subway. No more lines for the movie theater. No more waiting for a drink at the bar. I’d have all the space I would need if I were a theoretical, walking, land narwhal. Good conversation piece, too. People would be like, ‘What is that?’ and I would be like, ‘It’s a big huge spear jutting from my head,’ and people would be like, ‘Cool, what do you use it for?’ and I would be like, ‘Hell, what don’t I use it for.’

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

But then I had cause to reconsider. They swim in packs, these narwhals, and I suspect that leads to constant, inadvertent jabbing anywhere they turn. Anything fashionable eventually gets oversold, and would I be ready for packs of people with narwhal horns stabbing me every which way? It’s bad enough that people have mouths for noise pollution, much less a tangle of dangerous shofars in all directions.

HEY DUMMY! I SAID, BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Clearly I am not equipped to handle disaster notifications like the one that Hawaii had to contend with the other week. It takes me awhile to pull myself out of being a narwhal, and put myself back into me, and then there is the matter of finding shelter for an imminent nuclear attack. Realizing I have no escape plan for an imminent nuclear attack, I would end up running through the house to find a decent travel cup for my coffee, and my favorite hat, and my keys, and my MP3 player so I can blast the playlist, “Songs to Flee to,” which has a lot of Motorhead and Slipknot on it, and by the time I emerged from my house the rest of the neighborhood may have already been turned into a barren, moon-like expanse of charred desolation, ruining not only my town but the resale value of my property.

Happy was I to hear that the imminent nuclear threat was a false alarm. But then came the secondary, real alarm. That is a helluva wrong button to push. Maybe it wasn’t an accident. Maybe some bored systems manager had decided to give everybody a nice morning jolt. After all, Orson Welles reported on a Martian attack in New York and New Jersey and was rewarded with one of the biggest movie deals in RKO history. Without his terrifying hoax we wouldn’t have the masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

A young Mark Twain, given his first job as a copy editor, had this to write in the top heading of the Hannibal Journal.
TERRIBLE ACCIDENT
500 MEN KILLED AND MISSING
(“We had set the above head up, expecting, (of course) to use it, but as the accident hasn’t happened, yet, we’ll say… to be continued.”)
*
Twain went on to be one of the greatest literary icons in American history. Unfortunately for posterity, to pull a stunt like Twain and Welles these days would be to land in jail. There is an unwritten rule that is profoundly American, and it is this: Do it before it becomes illegal.

As such we may have been robbed of the Hawaiian Mark Twain, as he has been relocated to a supervisory position that requires no thought whatsoever, which, lucky for him, are quite plentiful in any government structure.

But then I heard the news that it was all a mistake. In fact, I had received a transcript of the actual conversation leading to the perilous error that had occurred between the supervisor and the impetuous tyro, the negligent button-pusher.
To wit:
“Okay,” said the supervisor, “here is your work space. I’ll give you a quick tutorial of the bank of buttons in front of you. First, if you want a coffee, we are in Kona country after all, if you want a coffee just hit button B-125 and it will be brought to you.”
“What about button B-126?” said the tyro.
“Push B-126 if you want sugar in your coffee. Press B-127 if you want cream and sugar, and B-129 will get you a coffee with only cream.”
“What type of coffee do I get if I press B-128?” said the tyro.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. B-128 is the general text alert in the case of an imminent ballistic missile strike from a hostile country. Don’t press that button unless you see bright arcs on the big screen heading right for our little island.”
“Got it. B-127 is coffee, light and sweet. B-128 is just creamer, and…”
“No, no, no. B-129 is coffee, with cream, no sugar. B-128 is an all-points warning of a nuclear explosion.”
“Fair enough. What happens if I accidentally hit B-128?”
“It’ll ask you if you are sure.”
“But doesn’t the coffee button ask me if I’m sure, too?”
“Well, yes. After all, we don’t like to waste coffee around here.”
“Why are the buttons for a beverage so close and so similar to the one that warns of a nuclear attack?”
“Budget constraints. We can’t go ordering fancy buttons for things. The public will accuse us of misappropriation. We’ll lose what little funding we have. We are facing a government shutdown as it is. And anyway, the point is moot. Just hit the right button and it won’t matter.”
“All this is making me tired. I think I’ll order a coffee.”
“Go ahead. I’ll be asleep in the custodial closet.”
More Alembics to come.

Urge Overkill

HAPPY NEW YEAR, and a very special new year at that. For anyone who is paying attention, the millennium is now eighteen years old, which means, according to most standard definitions, it is an adult. Now is the time when we tell the millennium to get its ass off the couch, and get a job, and take some responsibility for itself, and stop being such a sniveling baby, and to buck up, and whatever else we tell teenagers on the verge of adulthood.

Actually I’m not sure what the technical and legal definition of adulthood is these days, if it corresponds with some agreed age of consent, or even if there is a national standard. It may very well depend on the state, and if that is the case, then in New York the legal definition of maturity is when a girl is old enough to curse you out from a street corner while smoking. In California you are old enough when your cult leader tells you that you are. In Alabama it is like ten and up, and in Mississippi anyone that can spell ‘Mississippi’ or at least recognize the word as that thing “we all live in” is pretty much ready to operate a motor vehicle and buy lotto tickets. In Alaska you have reached manhood when you can catch a salmon in your teeth while standing in an ice cold river, and in Massachusetts it begins with the formal repudiation of the letter ‘R.’ In Kentucky it takes shape when a sibling joins the fight against the family he is a ‘feudin’ with, and in Nevada when a desperate boy with hair under his arms gets a job to help pay for his dad’s huge gambling debts. Ain’t that America, for you and me.

It’s been a great many beers and years since I was eighteen, and of the two I’m not sure which has had the more deleterious effect on my memory. I do recall, though, because it is still there, getting a tattoo when I was eighteen, because I could, and registering to vote, because even back then I was a comedian. I also stopped committing violent crimes. The system is a lot more lenient on juvenile maniacs, as it turns out.

Completely rehabilitated, I have a tradition every January 1st. I get up and go running. It’s a salutary way to start the new year. I might even go as far as to say salubrious. You know what, I will say it.
Salubrious.

And because this past New Year’s Day was a brisk 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there was a little extra exhilaration to the whole exercise. My running route is generally the same throughout the year, so I know what to expect, but that morning I came across something in the road that was extremely puzzling. At first I thought it was some kind of wild, technicolored, conical party hat, one of those oversized absurdities that people use at New Year’s Eve parties across the country to be recognized for a kiss at midnight. I figured it had been drunkenly cast out of a moving car. It was only when I neared it that I realized what it was, and of course I should’ve known. Because of the sheer amount of gastrointestinal residue, I decided that a grizzly bear had been wandering the neighborhood and had emitted an entire winter’s worth of hibernation sustenance. In short it was the biggest pile of puke I had ever seen. Cars swerved to avoid it. Buzzards circled overhead. A county official came out and assessed it a property tax. More than anything it was a horrendous monument as to why I usually avoid New Year’s Eve, and the indulgence that tends to go with it.

Then there was a commotion on the front lawn of a nearby house, a tableau that became clear in an instant. A father who was so red with anger that he didn’t even need a coat, only a tee shirt and shorts in the freezing weather, was marching a bucket of hot water down his driveway. Behind him his sheepish daughter shuffled, also with a bucket of hot water. The daughter was blanched and shaking, the grim specter of death hovered over her. I understood. I had been there myself. She couldn’t have been older than seventeen or eighteen, a victim of the rocky seas of celebration. They walked out into the road and dumped their buckets on the offensive pile of last night’s party buffet frozen like Kilimanjaro in the middle of the street, while the father unleashed a string of furious threats on his ashen issue, who cowered in malaise and regret. It was a modern ritual, a funereal procession of cleansing being acted out in neighborhoods and villages across the world, a harsh yet necessary lesson about the whiplash of consumption. On some level, the girl had crossed the rubicon into some higher truth about living.

They paused when they saw me go trotting by, unsure of what to do or say, like I had ruined the solemnity of the occasion.
“Happy New Year,” I waved, but instead, the lyrics to the old Urge Overkill song blasted in my head.
Girl, You’ll Be a Woman….Soon
More Alembics to come

No Name Maddox

I was quite outraged the other week to hear that Charles Manson has been released from prison. Even though he is in his eighties the guy, last I checked, is absolutely unrepentant. It’s only a matter of time, I fear, before he sets about putting his infamous cult back together, happy that there is still no shortage of outcasts and losers to continue his campaign to bring about Helter Skelter, his apocalyptic race war.

“They released him because he died,” someone clarified to me.
“Oh. Very good then. Carry on.”

And there you have it. Old Charlie was the world’s most infamous serial killer who never actually killed anybody, depending on how you look at it. He got young acid-heads to do his work for him, which is pejoratively impressive, yet impressive just the same. Most people can’t even get somebody stoned on acid to move over on the couch so they can sit down. Forget about ordering them to pile into a van, drive to the Hollywood Hills, scale a fence, murder a bunch of people, scrawl words on the walls in blood, get back into the van, avoid the Jefferson Airplane concert at the Whiskey A Go-Go, and find their way back to Spahn Ranch. Charlie was eloquent and charismatic and ultimately dumb. To bring about a race war there was no need to go murdering wealthy white people. He could’ve just instructed his followers to secretly, in the dead of night, remove all the Confederate statues from Virginia to Louisiana, leaving a note at each site saying, “You white motherfuckers have held us down long enough.” Done and done.

America back then would’ve looked like Syria today.

His failure is our gain, and yesterday’s pig is today’s sausage patty. We can be grateful that the internet wasn’t invented back in the late sixties, or Manson’s story could’ve ended quite differently. Instead of a few dirty wanderers laying around the California desert Manson could’ve had a worldwide legion of acolytes, like ISIS, appearing in digital form in every corner of the globe to tell people to hack everything to pieces. Disaster averted, for the time being.

Speaking of disasters, I was watching a video the other day of a robot doing a backwards somersault. Some jokers from Boston Dynamics created a cyborg that can do a standing backflip. When asked why, they released a statement saying, “We just wanted to create a computer that can do what humans do.” Hilarious.

Fair enough, although I know very few humans who can actually pull off a standing backflip and land on anything else but their head. If they really wanted to create a robot that does what humans do they could’ve created a robot that sits in a recliner and then they could’ve created another robot to fetch beers for the first robot while answering questions about what the weather is going to be later on and what time the game starts and who is that hot actress that is on that show that I like?

My fear of the backflipping robot was quickly overshadowed by a video of another robot. Her name is “Poppy” and she isn’t a robot but might as well be one. She is a teenage girl who, like Charles Manson, tries to get people to fall under her spell, except she does it through a series of YouTube videos. This is the next iteration of the Manson family. Poppy will probably be killing people in a few years, either directly with a knife or indirectly with bad art. Her leader is a fellow named Titanic Sinclair. Like the rocker Marilyn Manson, whose criteria for nomenclature in his band is to have the first name of a glamour icon and the last name of a serial killer, Titanic Sinclair seems to have arrived at his name by adopting the first name of a historic shipwreck and the last name of a muckraking writer.

Titanic Sinclair’s “Poppy” campaign is to sell ironic jailbait, cute girl, vapid sugar pop music, which is the same thing as normal jailbait, cute girl, sugar pop music, except that
old guys who watch “Poppy” videos can masturbate to it without all the guilt, because the videos are made with a hip self-awareness of how ridiculous the genre is, which makes all the difference.

Charles Manson was born “No Name Maddox.” His notorious identity came about some years later, cobbled together from this and that. So in a way he himself was an invention. Then again most famous people we recognize are invented. Who doesn’t love Issur Demsky. Allan Konigsberg. Robert Zimmerman. Farrokh Bulsara. Frances Gumm, and Marion Morrison. (Kirk Douglas. Woody Allen. Bob Dylan. Freddie Mercury. Judy Garland. John Wayne.)

Fuck it, I’m sold. I’m joining Titanic Sinclair’s cult. No more Paddy the Duke. I’m going to have to figure this out…okay, boat wreck. muckraker.
My name is now Lusitania Algren. Please to meet everybody!
More Alembics to come.