Congratulations, Henry!

WE ARE NOT all created equal. Or maybe we are, but the equality starts to warp, stretch and bend as soon as we’re out of our cradles. I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t deserve the right to equal dignity under the law, but eventually it becomes apparent that some people are just better at stuff than others. I’m not equal to my accountant when it comes to math, for instance. In that arena she’ll mop up the floor with me. My friend’s kid destroys me at chess. If one of the neighbors wants to polish up their résumé, they come to me, and I’ll edit for clarity. What follows is the statistical probability that everyone can be good at something, and we can all trade on our abilities to provide for our collective wellbeing. I’m always suspicious of the people, though, who are stratospheric overachievers. Or maybe just jealous of them. Or maybe just confused by them. 

Here’s what happened: 

I get my oil changed in my car about four times a year, give or take. So the other day I was cutting through this one neighborhood, as usual, on my quarterly trip to see my mechanic, who is way better than me at fixing cars, by the way, when I chanced to see a strangely familiar banner hanging in front of one of the houses. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! 

The banner was decked out with the normal balloons and bunting all over it. It was a nice sentiment, except that the last time I’d been by the house, three months prior, the same banner had been hanging there, congratulating Henry on whatever great thing Henry had achieved. Seemed a bit too long for a celebratory banner to be displayed. Maybe a week or two would be appropriate, depending on the accomplishment. Which made me think: what was the accomplishment? 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! RECIPIENT OF THE MACARTHUR GENIUS AWARD

or: 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! EARLY PAROLE… LET’S STAY OUT THIS TIME, BUDDY! 

Maybe the family would just keep the banner up year-round, like Christmas decorations, either because Henry was so damn good at besting whatever challenge came his way, or to offer some preemptive encouragement to Henry so he’d get his ass off the couch and actually do something worthwhile. Maybe it was an ironic banner from the most sarcastic parents in the world. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! YOU ACTUALLY PUT THE MILK BACK IN THE REFRIGERATOR INSTEAD OF LEAVING IT ON THE KITCHEN COUNTER, YOU OVER-ACHIEVING FUCK! 

The possibilities were endless, really. 

Henry could be one of those natural winners, a child prodigy mastering everything he put his mind to: district spelling bee, dean’s list, all-state quarterback. There’s no end to what Henry is capable of doing. It made me feel a bit bad about myself. Here I am trying to make it through the week with all my fingers, toes and sanity, and here is Henry scooping up accolades left and right without breaking a sweat, heaping triumph upon triumph as casually as the rest of us check our mailboxes. 

Keep the sign up then. Why bother taking it down, the little scamp is just going to win something else next week, and then the family has to hoist the banner back up, which, considering the size of it, is a two-person job, unless of course Henry is doing it, because Henry never needs help with anything. He was put on this earth to win, and win he shall. 

Then I started to become haunted by the intuition that Henry is pure evil. One of these kid influencers with two million followers on Twit-Insta-Tok who, because of the endorsements, is now the main breadwinner in the family and who insists on insane things like banners in his honor every day of the year or else he’ll cancel his parents, slut-shame his sister and destroy his relatives from the inside out unless his every whim is met. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! YOU WERE RIGHT AGAIN, AS YOU ALWAYS ARE. THE REST OF US SHOULD JUST LEARN TO KEEP OUR STUPID MOUTHS SHUT. 

That made more sense. Lucifer was smart, too, (non serviam!) and look at the horrible state of the world these days. 

I mentioned the banner to my mechanic.  

“Yeah, he graduated kindergarten, or something,” said my mechanic. “He’s got… what do you call them… helicopter parents.” 

“I see,” I said. 

CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! YOU ARE ADEQUATE!

I don’t know why, but on the way home I felt a little better about myself. Thanks, Henry. 

More Alembics to come… 

Lost and Found and Lost

IS IT POSSIBLE that a jackhammer will only operate if there are other workers standing around staring at it? 

I heard the machine blasting away outside my house the other morning. I looked out the window and, sure enough, one laborer was leaned over, gripping the jittery concrete-smasher as he burrowed toward the center of the Earth while three other workers in orange vests and white helmets stared at him with lazy half-interest. They dared not look away though, lest the energy of their combined attention fail to animate the powerful jackhammer and it goes down dead, the way a ham actor only comes alive in front of an eager audience. 

“Make all the noise you want,” I cried, not that the workers could hear me amid the racket. I could hardly hear myself. I was leaving the house for the day, or so I thought. The plan was to head into town to meet an old college friend for a beer and to reminisce about the good old days… and how glad we are that they’re over. My friend is a traveling surgeon, sought the world over for some peculiar expertise he has of the human body. Knowing I wouldn’t understand, he never bothers to explain it. Not caring about the details, I always forget to ask. 

Back to the jackhammer out in the street. The jackhammer is an almost ideal addition to the category of noise pollution—an implement of such perfect aggravation that it could probably be introduced as a justifiable factor in any murder trial. 

Defendant: “You see, Your Honor, I was willing to be reasonable, but then this fucking jackhammer started going, making polite communication impossible and so I set about strangling instead.” 

Judge: “Sentence reduced to time served. Court is adjourned!” [gavel smack].

I walked outside to the road crew and gestured, curious about the reason for the hole they were creating. I wanted to be prepared if the street was about to collapse or a tidal wave of sewage was headed our way. Shit travels in all directions these days and you can’t be too careful. The guy operating the jackhammer stopped his augering and regarded me through the cloud of dust. His audience, having nothing better to do now that the jackhammer had stopped, turned to me as well. 

“Everything okay?” I said. 

“Yeah. I lost my keys the other day while we were filling in this pothole. I’m pretty sure they’re down there. Don’t worry, I’ll have this patched up in no time.” He gunned the jackhammer back to full throttle and the rest of the road crew resumed their monitoring. 

Blame everything on the Rona plague of 2020. Quarantine and malaise have spawned a host of other problems, one of which is absentmindedness. From this point on modern life may be nothing more than locating the things we’ve misplaced, finding them, misplacing them again, and then recommencing the search. I know people—lean, muscular calorie-burners—whose sole aerobic activity is trying to find what they just had right in front of them a second ago. What follows is a series of back-and-forth pacing which, cumulatively, ends up being the equivalent of a 5K mini-marathon. 

Just then my phone pinged. My friend was running late. There had been a problem in the operating room. Someone had sewn up the patient and left a scalpel and some gauze in her abdomen. They were going back in to get it. “Don’t worry,” I texted him, “you’ll have this patched up in no time. If you find anything else of value grab it and we’ll sell it down on Buford Highway.” He sent back a sad-face emoji. 

Even geniuses make dumb mistakes, and I was heartened by this realization. Doctors can just charge more for them. Since I wasn’t going anywhere for the time being I put my noise-cancelling headphones on and stared out the window at the suddenly silent road crew jackhammering away while the lovely Florence B. Price regaled me with her Symphony #1. 

Then I noticed a message from my editor. I’d sent her a portion of a manuscript and it seems I’d lost an entire subplot somewhere around chapter four. Damn it all, I had it right in front of me a second ago. If it isn’t one epidemic it’s another. 

More Alembics to come… 

Help Wanted

“WORKERS OF THE world, kick back. You have nothing to lose but your idiot boss.” 

This is about as far as I’ll get in my haphazard spoof of the Communist Manifesto. It seems I too am quitting. It’s much easier to sit around all day, drink beer and flirt on-line with grizzled old scam artists posing as sex-crazed women, ready for action. They tell me everything I want to hear, albeit in a very awkward jargon that kind of creeps me out. 

“Hey Buddy, what’s hot, other than you?” 

“Um, the sun, stolen goods, Ain’t Shit by Doja Cat and the pizza I just microwaved. Gotta go!” 

The Rona Plague may not’ve killed us, the living, but it has certainly destroyed any collective inclination to toil our ephemeral lives away at some dead-end job. Every place of business I stop at these days has two frantic workers for every fifty customers, and nobody’s happy about it. The patrons are pissed off that all efficiency has gone out the window, and the workers are so close to madness and murder you don’t even want to look in their direction for fear they’ll leap on you and bite down on your jugular to make an example out of you. Like a pit bull the medics will have to pry their locked jaws open with a jack handle, and by then, of course, it’s too late. 

This is the new American nihilism, and it’s rather fashionable. The moon is going wobbly, water witches in the west are stomping through the desert like zombies trying to find underground aquifers, and Florida high-rises are buckling from the heat. If the moon, water and civil engineering principles are calling it quits, there’s not much hope for the rest of us. 

I stopped for a beer at my local pub the other day. The owner is a friend of mine, and I  could hear him tinkering around in the kitchen when I walked in. He shouted for my order. I shouted it back to him and sat at a table. I realized there weren’t any waiters or bartenders. They’d all called in sick, or at least existentially reluctant. 

Instead, I noticed about ten Roomba vacuums cruising around on the floor with beers and food balanced atop them, and it was these little gadgets that were standing in for human servers. They were pretty efficient, too. They did their jobs quietly and methodically, they were definitely more polite, and they kept the place cleaner than any human server would ever be capable of. 

“That’s brilliant,” I nodded, swiping a pint of porter from one of the little machines.

I looked up at the television. The local news channel was on, and instead of a human anchorman there was a scarecrow perched at the desk, overdubbed by the same computer voice that refills my prescriptions from CVS. 

This will be the lasting legacy from the Rona Plague. We’ve left a wide opening in the work force that computers and Artificial Intelligence will now be able to fulfill. The future is here and the singularity is upon us. Not all bad news, though. The rest of us can kick back and relax on the bottom floor of Maslow’s hierarchy. Actualization is for suckers, right? I myself am afraid of heights, so no theoretical apex of manifesting my highest potential. It’s cool down here in Maslow’s basement. Just me and my pet Roomba serving me beers and a parade of digital sirens looking for fast love and my bank account number, not necessarily in that order. 

My digital scribe will be penning these essays from now on. 

Cheers! 

Running On Empty

LAST WEEK I was listening to Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s iconic road album from 1977.  It was a portentous moment, since three days later the entire east coast of the U.S. was NOT running BECAUSE on empty. Damn, I thought. I should’ve been listening to Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation, because maybe that would herald my winning of the lottery, after which I’d never have to work again. 

Insofar as music has the ability to shape the future course of events, be careful what you listen to. I’ve met folks who believe that God is, in fact, nothing more than a cosmic disc jockey, sending us audible vibrations of life cues through an array of disposable pop tunes. These types of belief systems can be fraught with peril, though. The woman who dates the alcoholic, abusive, perennially jobless “Mickey” because Toni Basil kept telling her how “so fine” he is, desperately clings to her own induced misery.  

I’m getting off track. I started this piece to highlight the mass idiocy of hysterical hoarding that is part and parcel of being human. Whether it’s toilet paper or hand sanitizer, Blanton’s bourbon or gasoline, our collective penchant for stockpiling suggests a strong genetic similarity with packrats and, given the shameful social reflexes of some people, rats in general. 

It began with a banner declaration in my Atlanta morning paper: 

EXPERTS RECOMMEND AVOIDING THE HOARDING OF GAS 

Jesus creeping shit, I thought, they might as well have deleted the word “avoiding” in that headline and just told everyone to panic like the Earth was about to explode. Later in the day I was coasting down the highway, scanning each gas station I passed. Every one of them was crammed with cars filling, not only their gas tanks, but every conceivable receptacle they could get their hands on. One beady-eyed driver was topping off his Yeti cup with high test. Another had taken both his socks off and had filled them with regular unleaded, knotting them at the top to prevent spillage. The worst was an anxious mother with a gas nozzle plunged into her daughter’s mouth, filling the poor girl’s stomach, and ordering her to sit still until they got home so she could puke the fuel back into their emergency generator. The apocalypse was nigh and extreme measures had to be taken, and this kid was being told to literally suck it up for the greater good of the whole family. 

So much for the serenity that our vaunted human intelligence should be bringing us. Our big brains have actually broadened the capacity for hypothetical catastrophe, making it more likely that the hypotheticals become actuals. A round of applause then, for our vast human comedy. William Saroyan penned a portion of it in the early forties, as World War II was kicking up in earnest. He wrote, “…the strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world.” I may add: gas-filled and gas-depleted, teeming with abundance and sorely lacking, plush and vapid, tedious and inspiring, and fraught with the kind of remarkable contradictions that make it necessary to extract humor like it was an embedded, gas-soaked fossil. Humor is the fuel that keeps my sanity going. I can’t afford to run out. 

Estivate: (Verb)— To spend a hot, dry period in a state of dormancy or torpor. 

I love that word. It lends my laziness a lofty sophistication. I’m not just sitting around my house. I’m estivating. 

It is summer, so it’s a hot period, and the gas pumps have dried up, so it’s a dry period, and I’ve been hoarding Blanton’s bourbon for years, which will put me in a state of extreme dormancy. I’ll hunker down for a while, until the pipelines start gushing forth with dinosaur juice so I may again careen through the city on some frivolous path. 

I’ve got no problem estivating at Hull House, my obscured and spartan compound nestled somewhere in the heart of Dixie. I’ve got all the Blanton’s I can handle—all the pretty horses in a row. I’ve got a decent library—thus plenty to read, and I’m back to listening to Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. I’m unaware of listening to the album for any other reason than it’s one of my favorites. However, if next week I find myself taking to the road, in love with a woman named Rosie, exalting in the thunder, passing through Shaky Town, high on cocaine, my love needing a heart, with nothing but time on my hands and wondering whether to load out or whether to “Stay…. just a little bit longer,” we’ll all know that greater cosmic musical forces are hard at work. 

More Alembics… 

Nowhere Man

I have a strange psychic relationship with Franz Kafka, the great modernist writer—in particular his two most famous characters: Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis and Joseph K. from The Trial. In effect, sometimes I wake up feeling like a bug, as poor Gregor did, and sometimes I feel slapped around by the system, as was the fate of doomed Joseph K. The other day, I felt like both. 

I am beset on all sides of my property by very loud dogs. They are friendly fellows, gregarious tail-waggers, constantly announcing their admiration for me each time I step out into the backyard. They announce and announce and announce, at delirious volumes, spurred on by each other and, in an effort to see who can love me the most, will keep at it for interminable lengths of time. While I appreciate the adoration, sometimes I prefer the languid silence that doesn’t cause the blood vessels in my head to burst apart. 

The answer was quite simple: get a stockade fence around the perimeter of the backyard. In the words of the empirical philosophers: If the dogs don’t see me then I don’t be me, and perhaps without the super-stimulation of my very presence the dogs next door will drift off into slumber, to dream of fire hydrants and dead squirrels. 

The fence company warned me that I may need to get a permit to have the fence installed. Maybe, maybe not, they said. I frowned, knowing that local governments are not very good at clarifying these types of situations. I decided I wouldn’t get one and also decided to try and find out if I actually needed one. After all, if I was going to break the rules, I should know, at least, what the rules are. I did a quick search with my zip code and was directed to the Town’s Department of Red Tape. I called them up. 

“Yes,” a woman told me, “you need a permit.” She gave me instructions on how to proceed. In a moment of weakness and sheer stupidity on my part, I decided to follow the rules. I dropped off the application and the specs. When I returned home there was already an e-mail waiting for me.

“Dear Sir, your application cannot be accepted because you don’t live here. Thank you.” 

Vexed, I called back to get a clearer explanation, a hilarious expectation on my part. 

“We cannot grant you a permit because you don’t live here,” reiterated the woman. 

“Out of curiosity where do I live?” I asked. “And don’t tell me something like, ‘In the hearts and minds of those yearning to be free,’ or some such drivel.” 

“Sir, we only know where you don’t live.” 

“Do I need a permit where I live, wherever that is?” 

“That I can’t answer because it’s in the category of the known unknown. In short: we know we don’t know where you live.” 

“What if I told you the fence I applied for is set to be 40-feet high, with spikes emerging from all sides on which I shall impale children and animals, as a kind of aggressive deterrent?” 

“Well, that would be against code where we live, but I wouldn’t want to speak for where you live.” 

“What if I told you I was building a moat?” 

“You’d need a letter from the board of health, but not our board of health.”  

“What if I was going to put a dragon in the moat?” 

“Your dragon would have to be on a leash, most likely, but that would be an entirely different department that deals with pet licensing, here or anywhere else.” 

“I appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions,” I said. 

 “Luckily I’m on my lunch break, which is three hours long, and the wifi is down, so what the hell.” 

“How about a general inquiry: what exactly does the permit permit?” I asked. 

“Most importantly, it permits us to receive a payment from you,” she stated, her voice as neutral as a robot. “It permits us to keep an eye on you. It permits us a broad control. It permits conformity. It permits the request for permission, which is the most basic form of subjugation. It permits the perpetuation of the hierarchy. It permits the power of our Napoleonic little government, tiny and ambitious as it is. It permits the justification of our own bureaucratic existence. It permits us to kill your spirit with a million little complexities. It permits confusion, which is the easiest and most effective form of manipulation. It permits you to feel like Gregor Samsa, the trapped bug. It permits that vague sense of impotent dread that foreshadows the great and vast nothingness of your own abilities in a cold and unforgiving universe.” 

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You majored in philosophy. Do you like Kafka?” 

“My phone is about to die on you. There will be nothing afterwards. Only silence.” 

More Alembics… 

Sing, Thalia

IT ISN’T MY intention to be crude, but it seems entirely reasonable that a fart was humanity’s original punchline. 

Comedy had to come from somewhere, and if it didn’t arrive from above, bestowed with angelic benevolence upon the masses to keep them from killing each other any more than they already do, then perhaps it emerged from “below,” as a gift of noxious yet mirthful unity that predated the development of clever rhetoric. 

It’s funny what we find funny.  

When things seem mysterious, I tend to look to evolution for a reasonable explanation. It wasn’t long before I saw the whole setup in the primordial landscape of my mind. There they were, a dozen or so cavemen, crouched around a fire, gnawing on hunks of animal flesh—chewing and grunting—when a particularly coarse troglodyte, whose intestinal gods are angry, happens to let one rip. The “gastric honk” silences the rest of the primitives while the plentiful release of methane causes the fire to grow momentarily larger, which lends a preternatural aura to the event. Then, it happens. One of the squatting Neanderthals erupts in a staggered and labored guffaw, as does the next one, then the next, and there we have the birth of comedy. 

Consider, also, an eerie linguistic similarity to these two seemingly disparate concepts. 

Afflatus—A divine, creative impulse 

Flatus—A fart 

That’s way too close to be a coincidence, right there. And, given the fact that a lot of ideas stink, well, the difference then becomes negligible. 

Humor is a mystery that we can’t live without. Laughter probably saves lives, and that’s why those ancestors who found no merriment in flatulence are extinct. Comedy announces itself in peculiar ways, from either orifice, and seems to be more effective when the subjects themselves are almost too taboo for amusement. Here’s a quote from Albert Camus that may reinforce my point. 

“I have heard of a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.”  —Albert Camus

Hilarious. We’ve got flatulence and suicide. Now let’s include murder and insanity. 

Thalia, pronounced TAL-ya because the “H” is silent (but deadly?) is the divine Muse of comedy. I find it hysterical that statues devoted to her usually depict her holding what looks like some poor bastard’s severed head, although it’s apparently the mask of comedy. Still, I remain unconvinced. Every time I see her holding that decapitated cranium I think, “You better laugh. Look what happened to the last guy who didn’t think she was funny. She sliced him off at the throat and stapled the corners of his lips to his cheekbones.” 

She’s one of my favorites: crazy beheading maniac that she is.  

So we’ve got flatulence, suicide and murder. Now to the insanity. 

I won’t go into details, but this past weekend was a rough one for me. I had a bit of an existential shake-up, and in a moment of pure panic I reached out to my Muse, Thalia, pleading with her to deliver unto me a laugh for which I was in desperate need. 

“Help thyself, or I’ll cut your damn head off,” I heard her yell into my ear, because we have that kind of relationship.  

So I went for a walk. 

Blinding sunshine, trees in bloom and not a sound in the air. The walk was salubrious, but not very funny. That is, until I heard this sharp staccato knock coming from above, as rapid as machine-gun fire. It was a woodpecker, smashing his face into the side of a tree with lunatic intensity. It was almost as if he was trying to beat his own brains out. It seemed so crazy I couldn’t help but laugh. I cackled doubly hard when I decided the reason for him ramming his face into a tree was because he’d just lost his job, or had returned to his nest to find another woodpecker had shacked up with his wife. Then, the laughter I sought was really upon me. I actually noticed other animals perched in nearby trees, also watching him while shaking their own heads at the deranged little sapsucker’s relentless attempts to drive his face clear through a two-foot tree trunk. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, pause. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, pause. 

Life can be brutal, and bad days happen. But, as long as I can extract a little comedy from the chaos, I’ll be able to get through it all. 

The woodpecker suddenly stopped his racket, flew down to a nearby branch and stared at me with a look of crackpot futility. We regarded each other for a good long while, until I decided to ask him a question. 

“Mr. Woodpecker, why do you hammer your face into the tree like that?” 

“Because it feels so good when I stop,” was his deranged reply. 

And there we have it. 

More Alembics…

Ixion’s Bar Tab

I HAD A busy weekend planned. I’d fully intended on riding Ixion’s wheel over to pick up Maxwell’s demon so we could steal Occam’s razor to kill Schrödinger’s cat, after which we’d kind of root around Pandora’s box. Instead, I watched television for like four hours, which was its own kind of madness, since the television was off the whole time.   

Point being, nobody likes a wiseass. Life’s tough enough without having to look up a bunch of obscure references all smashed together for no discernible reason, like in that last paragraph. I suppose, in a way, that sentence, from Ixion down to Pandora, could serve as awkward metaphor. I felt like a lot had been happening recently and, at the same time, not a damn thing.  

When this strange and paradoxical malaise hits me, I usually head off to the bar. Say what you will about the perils of heavy drinking, it will reconcile the hell out of a contradiction, or at least make me perfectly happy about the contradiction, which is basically the same thing. 

I stopped in at my favorite watering hole and could immediately feel the rage in the air, the quiet tension that lingers thick before an enormous brawl erupts. I thought maybe it was the news on the television, as it had gone back to “normal” in the worst possible way—by reporting about the mass shooting epidemic instead of the COVID epidemic. 

That wasn’t it, though. The source of the outrage was a pointy-headed couple sitting at the bar who had apparently been there all afternoon yukking it up while amassing a $200 bar tab of tequila and potato chips, which should give some idea about the amount of tequila that was involved. They were wearing conical paper birthday hats atop their heads, which may have just been repurposed dunce caps. 

“I’ve got some gift cards,” the man slurred, as he handed over a stack of no less than 80 of them, each with a remaining balance of no more than $3 per card. So the bartender, apoplectic with fury, had announced a moratorium on drink service until, as she so eloquently put it, “I deal with this broke motherfucker’s squaring of his account.” 

Already there was a line of receipts running from the printer to the floor as the bartender swiped card after card, knocking the bar tab down a few bucks at a time. The rest of the customers, empty glasses in front of them, glared at the tequila-and-potato-chips duo with all the fury of Zeus casting Ixion down to Tartarus to spin on his fiery wheel for eternity, which was Ixion’s dubious claim to fame. One bar customer who was lucky enough to still have half a glass of beer in front of her offered to share it with me in exchange for protection and on the condition I buy her a full one when the madness was all over. You know the situation is fraught when a stranger offers to share a beer with another stranger in the midst of a pandemic. And even worse, he accepts. 

The birthday freaks with their pointy caps tilted on their heads looked around like doped-up unicorns. It was folks like these that were the reason for rules of any kind. They are the burden for which we all must suffer, kind of like Ixion’s wheel, and the dumber the behavior, the more draconian the rules. If the Ten Commandments were written today they would be comprised of 50 pages of digital fine print with a “Skip and Accept” button at the bottom. 

So be it. 

Disaster was averted and the birthday couple was saved from serious assault as a miraculous stroke of luck befell the bartender when she ran the last gift card and realized, somehow, that after it had cleared the $2.75 remaining bar tab there was still a $297.25 balance, which she applied to her gratuity. In 25 minutes she’d netted herself almost $300, which isn’t a bad payoff. The birthday couple stumbled out and everybody got a beer on the house, except for me, who had to fork over the cash in exchange for the beer advance I’d gotten from the woman who’d shared her pint. After all, a deal’s a deal. 

Maybe money is the root of all evil, but it definitely solves some problems, on occasion. The bartender was thereafter in a grand mood—quite charitable—and the inebriation I sought wasn’t long in manifesting. 

Life is short and the wait for a beer, sometimes, is far too long, which is the opposite of the way it should be. 

Now I have to avoid the twelve labors of Hercules and climb Sisyphus’s boulder in order to jam a little on Pan’s flute and afterwards maybe flirt with Odysseus’s Sirens…

More Alembics to come…

follow me on Instagram/Twitter: @themarkofhull

Scam I am

IN THE CONTEXT of hindsight, the recent past may come to be known as the era of the hoax. The hoax is fashionable these days. It’s a stylish addition to any mental wardrobe. Ornate and flashy, it commands admiration and sometimes, if the person flaunts it properly, a tidy sum pilfered from the more gullible sections of society. 

The word itself is strange. Hoax. It’s more the sound an old man makes whose throat is full of phlegm and cancerous nodules. I even looked it up in the dictionary to get a sense of the etymology. Apparently it’s a shortened version of hocus, which caused me to check and see if there was such a thing as a “poax,” the truncated version of pocus. I couldn’t find anything relevant. I considered maybe, like flotsam and jetsam or thunder and lightning, hoax and poax could be two terms connoting slight variations of the same phenomenon. Like, a hoax is a false narrative designed to engender public hysteria, and a poax is a load of bullshit expressly employed to line one’s pockets. 

Onto the “poax,” then. 

There are many elements to the poax. There are the architects of the poax, themselves, an imaginative group wielding outrageous and eerily detailed fictions. There are the people who buy into the poaxes, wholesale. There are the people who reject the poaxes as an insult to their basic intelligence. Finally, there are the people who are entertained by the poaxes. As it happens, I fall into this last category. 

I was headed to pick up a friend from the airport the other day when I was forced, due to a flight delay, to stop off at a hotel bar close to the terminal to await her arrival. The reason for the holdup was unclear. Either the plane itself had caught COVID, or the pilot, due to extended furloughs, had forgotten how to fly the damn thing, or the cold snap that had froze the entire country had locked up the engines, rendering any gearshift above second a mechanical impossibility. 

So I walked into the lounge of a nearby hotel and sensed some serious trouble raging. I’d stumbled into quite the ruckus. There were about half a dozen tables beyond the bar and most were littered with what looked like architectural blueprints. One man who looked semi-homeless, crusted over with urban particulate, was running back and forth on his cellphone, red-faced and on the verge of an apoplectic meltdown, while another man, well-dressed, stood in the corner with a grim look on his face, arms folded, as silent and still as a puff adder before it sinks its fangs into some unfortunate and doomed animal.

It wasn’t long before I got the whole story from the bartender. It seems that the semi-homeless man whose skin was peppered with pollution (fellow running back and forth) had somehow facilitated an agreement with the hotel owner (fellow standing in the corner in rigid, focused silence) to completely renovate the top floor of the hotel. He had undercut every other contractor, coming in at a fraction of the cost of other construction companies, and so the owner had eagerly signed him on even though he should’ve known something was off. The man looked as homeless as a barrel fire and a fifth of cheap whiskey in a brown paper bag. The owner had even given the filthy bindlestiff his own suite in the hotel while the renovations were happening, and for the better part of the month the hobo had been running nonstop room service for him and his “laborers” at what was now a cost of roughly $15,000 in food, booze and lodging. 

“I’m flying my private plane to Dubai next week,” shouted the sack of chimney soot into his phone, an effort to convey his wealth. “I have no time for this level of incompetence.” 

The bartender continued explaining that the owner of the hotel had been out of town for a few weeks and as such had not been checking on the progress of the renovation, as the greasy con artist had cautioned that no one was allowed on the top floor due to safety concerns and “work-area liability.” Eventually, the owner had sensed that something was wrong and, forcing his way up through the fire exit, had emerged on his penthouse floor to find it was as barren as the lunar surface. Nothing but a few plastic sheets taped to the walls, a pile of crushed beer cans, some dirty syringes, a few old mattresses and three weeks’ worth of soiled rubbers. 

“My yacht is scraped by a buoy, and now this!” screamed the wino, his eyes darting back and forth between the two exits. 

“Well then, this would fall into the poax category,” I proclaimed to the bartender.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he said. 

“I’ve got to be in the Bahamas by Saturday to break ground on a casino,” said the man who looked like shit dipped in more shit. “When I find out who’s responsible for this outrage…” 

The dirty-hobo Frank Lloyd Wright was now rifling through his blueprints—blueprints that, if one looked close enough, were for a parking deck, yammering into his phone about supply disruptions and general corruption. His eyes kept darting to the owner, waiting for the right moment to make a break for any exit, all of which were being monitored by hotel security. 

It’s a hallmark of the modern scammer that I’ve come to recognize over the years, and that is if they appear conspicuously busy, and thereby too important, a person will be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s an adjunct of the old Ad Crumenam argument—the fallacy that a statement is correct because the person stating it is rich. This, after all, is one of the most effective tools of the hoax or, for that matter, the poax. 

“He might’ve gotten away with it for a bit longer if he had kept his fool mouth shut,” said the bartender. “But no, there he was bragging and bragging. He brought too much attention to himself.”  

“He looks like a rat cornered by two huge tomcats,” I said. 

Suddenly the disheveled stink bomb froze, as if he was hit with a sudden case of “scamnesia,” like if he forgot who he was, what he was doing and what all the fuss was about, the problem would simply go away.  Hotel security moved in toward him, and it was all lights out after that. 

I tipped heavily and left the bar, wondering if it were at all possible to translate a rat’s death squeals, would it simply be a final series of boasts about its own importance. 

“…[Squeak] Boca Raton was named after my family…” 

“…[Squeak] I own a nest in the Seychelles…” 

“…[Squeak] I’m the rat with the most cheese, and I’ll cut you in on it…” 

More Alembics…

MID TWACO

I KNEW I’D spoken too soon when I wished everyone a Happy New Year in the last blog entry. I sensed it was entirely too premature, yet I went ahead with it anyway, which, in retrospect, was a foolish thing to do. 

Silly me. 

I should’ve waited till at least July, or maybe I should’ve even held off until the end of the year to wish everyone good tidings for 2021. At that point, the popular salutation would have to be modified somewhat, from “Happy New Year” to, perhaps, “Made it! Damn, that was a close one.” 

It’s clear now that we’ve been going about it all wrong for centuries. The practice of expecting the best year ever on December 31st while having no real plan to combat a host of potential disasters is the worst way to brace for the future. The proverb, “Expect nothing and be prepared for everything,” is turned on its head every winter solstice and the eager mob goes rushing—in general—headlong into the future or—specifically—into the U.S. Capitol, with no real plan on what to do when they get there. 

A year is a year is a year. Usually, the resolutions fade away by the end of January, things that don’t pay attention to calendars like weather and germs will wreak their havoc, monthly bills come due and surprising displays of idiocy will rear their silly heads. Drivers will fall asleep at the wheel, fights will break out at Walmart over fudge, and cracker-head Royalists will storm Congress to steal mail, create fecal art and hang the Vice President who, because of his white hair and pale skin, was luckily mistaken for a statue of Warren G. Harding as the demented crowd ran right past him. At that point, “Happy New Year” would be the last thing on Mike Pence’s mind. Instead I’m sure he thought, “Made it! Damn, that was a close one.” And, because time was of the essence to hustle the Vice President to safety, he could spare himself valuable seconds by collapsing the whole sentiment into its very usable acronym: M.I.D. T.W.A.C.O. 

Language itself is constantly evolving. Certain phrases go out of style, and for very good reason. Sentiments like, “May the great pestilence spare all but your most onerous of sister-wives,” and “Lo, the giant serpent who devours the sun every night has seen fit to burp it back up this beautiful morning,” are not in heavy rotation anymore, thankfully. It’s a sign that things are evolving in the right direction. I mean right as in proper, and not right as in right-wing fascism, because the sight of a half-baked militia swarming over the National Mall like ants on a half-eaten corn-dog is also a sign that things are evolving in the right direction, right as in radical right, which is the wrong right, and a wrong that needs to be righted. 

If nothing else, the mob, any mob, may find it useful to disabuse itself of mob mentality. It’s never a healthy practice to willfully abandon one’s reason in favor of a blind and deaf allegiance that somehow convinces a raft of voluntary invalids that their personal freedoms will be greatly enhanced if only they perform the selfish bidding of stubborn despots. In most games of chess the pawns are generally sacrificed because the strategy is so effective. Rarely in an endgame is there one king on the board with all his pawns around him, reveling in their new status as blue-collar royalty. They’re usually in a pile next to the time clock.  

“Here’s a quarter. Call somebody who cares,” is another saying that has lost its luster, since phone booths are extinct and nobody needs a coin to place a call. Seems quite ridiculous now. Needing a quarter to make a phone call would be like needing a set of gills to swim in a public pool. However, that phrase may be making a temporary comeback, as it seems to be the outgoing presidential administration’s attitude toward the very people, now in jail, who were impelled to ransack the Capitol in the first place. 

January, for me, is Bob Marley month, if for no other reason than the sound of insouciant reggae can transport me, mentally, to a place that isn’t freezing and gray. Reggae is the soundtrack of palm trees, white sands, warm water. Bob Marley, by the way, survived a hail of automatic gunfire, performing a few nights later with a bullet lodged in him. I’m sure he smoked a fat joint after that little episode, remarking to himself, MID TWACO! 

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery…” 

Fortunately for us, Bob wrote that line. Unfortunately for us, we still need it. 

More Alembics…

Poo-Tee-Weet

HAPPY NEW YEAR, and by saying that I hope I haven’t already jinxed 2021. After last year it seems like anything is possible, and that the possibilities are tending more to the calamitous than to the favorable. Illness, privation, suffering, fear and hysteria are possible. Hope, faith and resilience—not so much.  

I’m pleased to report that my neighborhood is generally showing signs of optimism. It was strange that in the run-up to the end of the year the streets around my house were eerily desolate. Did they know something I didn’t? It was only after January 1st that everyone emerged from behind their heavily dead-bolted doors to explain that because the year 2020 was so traumatic they weren’t taking any chances. Quite superstitious, they all thought that the year itself would be doing one final sweep to kill off anybody it could possibly get its hands on. My neighbors had survived eleven months and three weeks of 2020, and they’d be damned if they were going to allow themselves to be added to the final roster of casualties.  

But now the clock has turned, and the vibe is good. Gardens are being prepared for the springtime, houses are getting coats of fresh paint, the bird-feeders are full and some of the more artistic souls are posting encouraging messages in their yards. I stopped to read one the other day. It went like this: 

“We believe in the existence of an Almighty Being from the consideration of his wonderful works, from those innumerable celestial and glorious bodies, and from their wonderful order and harmony.” 

“That’s nice,” I said. “Who wrote that? Aristotle or something?” 

My neighbor, who had been raking some leaves close to the curb, shifted a little. She explained that the quote was from a suicide note left by a couple from the year 1732, after which they strangled their daughter and then shot themselves out of despair over their financial situation. Their final note included that little nugget of poetry, as well as asking their landlord to look after their cat and dog once the bodies were cleared away and all the blood was mopped up.  

“Shit balls,” I cried. “That’s horrible.” 

“It’s a lovely quote, though,” she argued. “Considering.” 

“What are you posting next?” I said. “Something like, ‘When you get to the bottom you go back to the top,’ courtesy of Charlie Manson?” 

“Technically that was the Beatles,” she said. 

She was right, after all. My point is that the neighbors, in their own way, are searching out their bliss. Good for them. Even if they’re quoting homicidal maniacs, at least they’re doing it with an upbeat attitude. My other neighbor up the block from me decided to focus her attention on wildlife, in particular avian shelters. She’d taken to building birdhouses, lots of them, and putting them all over her front yard. She’s one of these people who can build anything. Many times I’d driven by her house to see her standing in her driveway sporting a welder’s mask and holding a soldering iron, standing over a huge pile of scrap metal. Two days later an enormous gyroscope or weather vane is prominently displayed on her property. 

And now, birdhouses. Lots of them. All shapes and sizes. What seemed like a serene hobby to pass the time was now appearing like a frantic race to beat some kind of migratory deadline. It all came to a head when the last “birdhouse” she put up on a giant pole was big enough for a pterodactyl. She finished it off by strapping a dead rabbit to the ledge. 

“Whatcha got there?” I said, calling to her from a safe distance in the street because of some kind of contagious insanity or COVID, although I was much more concerned with the former. 

She began explaining in rapid-fire detail about the thawing of the Permafrost, which would be exposing and reanimating long dormant DNA, and soon all sorts of once-extinct beasts would be filling the air, water and land. Before long, the sky would be swarming with winged dragons, their brains three times the size of humans. They would be way smarter than us, but because of their claws and other physical limitations they would be unable to build proper shelters, and so she was showcasing her usefulness, hoping to be spared from consumption. These flying reptiles would be smart enough to figure out which land animals were beneficial and which were sustenance, and my neighbor was convinced she’d live out the rest of her days as the architect to our imminent flying reptilian overlords. 

“Sounds great. Have a nice day,” I said with a wave. 

My pace was brisk. It was high time to flee the area for fear of my neighbor, or some hungry, oversized vulture, attacking me. She’d seen the signs in 2020, and this was her inevitable conclusion. Maybe she was right. 

I came home and paced through my house, trying to figure out, just in case, my own usefulness if and when her dire predictions came true. And I must say, my 20-foot ginormous bird bath is coming along quite nicely, although my car no longer fits in the driveway and there’s pigeon shit all over the front yard. But, as history has taught us, the survivors will always have the last laugh. In fact, I’ll end this essay with a line Kurt Vonnegut stole from the birds. I’m stealing it back. 

Poo-tee-weet.  

More Alembics…