Statistics

Mott the Hoople (the book)…Mott the Hoople (the band)…Traffic (not the band)…Bric-a-brac…(the usual kind)…

I was driving along the expressway through the middle of downtown Atlanta the other day. It is a daunting strip of concrete in which two huge freeways merge into one maniacal sixteen-lane serpent of cruelty and congestion. It is called ‘The Connector.’ Considering how jammed it always is, the only thing it really “connects” is people to homicidal thoughts. Proto-man, or Australopithecus, or Troglodyte, or Caveman did not have the correct evolutionary genes to handle traffic. They did not have them and so could not pass them along. We were doomed from the start. No amount of leather upholstery and dashboard technology can save us from the savagery within ourselves when it comes to traffic jams. And if the air conditioning gives out? You might as well stick a bomb in the driver’s seat.

I was on my way to some musty consignment shop downtown to pick up a copy of Mott The Hoople, by Willard Manus. It is the book, currently out of print, that the band Mott The Hoople took its name from. The book reminds me of another picaresque adventure,The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy, except that the ginger man spends his time avoiding his wife while Mott avoids the Vietnam War. It is interesting that the methods employed by each character are eerily similar.

I cursed myself for giving the book away last summer. I do this from time to time. I get drunk and start giving books away. Weeks later when I’m sober and looking for the book I drive myself crazy wondering where I put it. In a sense I stick myself in my own mental traffic jam, and I suffer from the rage it creates. I ended up locating the friend I had given it to, but he said he had lost it, or smoked it, or traded it for sex, (the things people traffic in these days) or whatever… point being it was gone. After much hassle I located another copy in a seedy part of town. The seller told me to arrive alone, and be ready to commit, and to bring lawyers, guns and money, although I wasn’t sure whether she wanted all those things separately or she just wanted a copy of the song by Warren Zevon. I brought what supplies I considered necessary, and drove off for the exchange.
It was a Saturday afternoon and the traffic was everywhere. Stop and go. There was a digital sign overhead. It started rattling off some statistics.

“Texting while driving makes you twenty-three times more likely to get into an accident,” it read.

“Good to know,” I said to myself.

“Drinking and driving makes you thirty times more likely to get in an accident.”

“Fair enough,” I nodded.

“Texting and drinking and driving makes it almost sixty times more likely to get into an accident,” the sign continued.

“I get the point,” I said.

“Texting an old girlfriend while drinking and driving makes it like four hundred times more likely you will do something so fucking irreversibly stupid that you won’t even be able to look in your rear-view mirror at your shameful eyes ever again.”

(Kind of a long digital billboard, I thought…)

“You know what, while I’m at it,” continued the inexorable billboard, “texting in all this goddamn shorthand increases the chances you will forget a certain portion of the english language by up to seventy-five percent by the time you are ready to retire.”

“Now it’s just bitter,” I said.

“There is a zero percent chance the person behind you knows what you’re doing if you don’t use your fucking blinker,” said the sign. “But you don’t care, you drunk, silly, girlfriend-texting, non-blinker-using, “o.m.g’ing” “l.o.l’ing” illiterate waste of space.”

Slightly offended, I merged off the freeway.

“Be prepared to stop,” the sign concluded before going dark.

I pulled down a side street and found the store. It was one of those neighborhoods where everyone just sits around with phone in hand, dialing 9 and 1, waiting for the inevitable screams and gunshots to ring out before they hit the last 1. The shop owner watched me approach the store. She undid the metal grate in front of the door and let me in.

“Feel free to look around,” she said. “I still have to go find it.”

I was somewhat nettled by the fact that she hadn’t located it yet. It seemed reasonable that she could’ve been looking for it while I was on my way. She might not’ve believed I was serious. A lot of flakes out there. There was an old movie playing on a beat-up television atop the counter. A Thousand Clowns. On tape. No digital coding. Just magnets and spools. Jason Robards wandering around lower Manhattan like a tramp. It was the right movie for this place. The woman was still rummaging somewhere in the back. The metal grate in front of the door was locked. I was trapped in this big storeroom with all the discarded objects of the last century. This was history’s inventory, all the technology and media that had gone obsolete, never caught on, or just ran out of juice. Unknown bands in the music section, unwatched B-movies in the video section, primitive board games and puzzles, vacuum cleaners and hair dryers as big as Oldsmobiles. Each thing a gamble, a bet, a statistical chance for success or failure. Some writer in a room with a vision, earning nothing for his time in the hope of a later payoff. Some musician on borrowed money in a ramshackle studio trying to find the right chords. Some inventor seeking control over filth and chaos, paying attention to form and function, leveraged to the hilt. Would they have kept it up if they had known they would wind up in here? I was getting a little jumpy. This place had too much lost potential. Things that just didn’t add up. Things that missed the window. Things not powerful enough to make it out of the clutches of the gravitational pull. Things forgotten. Things.

“Found it,” she said, returning to her little desk. She held up an old copy of Brain Capers on wax. I told her I specifically asked for a book called Mott the Hoople. Not an album by Mott the Hoople. I didn’t want an album. I wanted a book. Not even the right medium. All wrong. She didn’t seem to care. She told me she had shown a lot of promise as a ballet dancer when she was younger. A pair of her old dancing shoes were on sale in the window.

Back in the car I edged through the downtown traffic but somehow I felt I was back in that old shop, or better yet, all the items in that shop had just gotten into automobiles and followed me out onto the highway.

“Be Prepared To Stop,” said the sign.

“Bosh! Be Prepared To Keep Going,” I said.

More Alembics to come.

“Happy New E R”

I had to laugh as I drove past the sign on the outside reader-board of the local Methodist church. It wished me a “Happy New E R.” Indeed. Either they had lost all of the plastic ‘Y’ and ‘A’ letters from the year before or someone had decided to steal them and combine them with the lost letters from “erry hristmas” to form the refrain for the popular Village People song. Because you want to have those letters handy when the disco classic kicks up. It is a matter of preparation and statistical probability. You and three friends will be the hit on the dance floor when the D.J. inevitably plays “Y.M.C.A.” at the New Year’s party that kicks off a few hours before midnight. The church would understand. They are into forgiveness.

I don’t particularly care for New Year’s Eve. It brings out the shameless idiocy in a species that isn’t exactly short on it for the rest of the year. It is somewhat arbitrary, very crowded, usually pretty cold if the party is outdoors, usually pretty hot if the party is indoors, and in many cases a bit of a letdown. Not to be a wet blanket, though. I don’t begrudge anybody a good time. It is just that when there are a lot of people crammed together it doesn’t take much to ruin the night. A girl puking down the front of her cocktail dress is between her and the dress, but when she starts projectile vomiting it becomes a bigger issue, affecting countless innocents.

I drove on, looking for a gas station so I could fill up my car. I was so absorbed with the odd church sign, though, that I passed four perfectly good filling stations without a second glance. It is my habit to muse while driving, and as I thought about it I decided that maybe the sign that I had seen, “Happy New E R,” wasn’t missing any letters. Instead, the sign-makers knew that a lot of people land in the emergency room on the first of the year, and our friends at the local Methodist worship center were wishing them a speedy recovery. It has to be one of the busiest nights for a hospital staff. Suddenly curious, I called a friend of mine who is an emergency room doctor and asked him about what the trauma bay looks like on New Year’s Eve.

“It’s a goddamn mess,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what comes in. Concussions. Compound fractures. Alcohol-related everything. Did you know there is such a thing as a ‘Gun Selfie’ photo? You take a picture of yourself brandishing your gun. Last year this one idiot got confused and pulled the trigger on his gun while making sure his picture phone was safely in the ‘off’ mode. He blew half his face off. And another thing, just because a bottle is shaped like a bottle doesn’t mean you have to try and stick it up your rectum.”

Valuable medical advice, I thought. In the rather protracted list of wounds on New Year’s Eve: Gashes, fractures, punctures, stabbings, fight bites, accidental discharges (funny), alcohol poisoning, lacerations, head wounds, disorientation, car crashes, dehydration and dislocations–there is something inherently rebellious in all New Year’s Eve celebrations. People are not going gently into the future. It is one thing to have a few too many pops, but when some guy walks into an emergency room with his whole head tucked under one arm, and silently gesturing with his other arm like, “Can you reattach this? Or maybe I should just put in for a new one. This one makes dumb choices, obviously,” things have gone a little too far.

I stayed home New Year’s Eve. I think I was still a bit brackish from a holiday party that I was forced to attend a few weeks back. My neighbor, Valerie, the single mother up the block who has appeared in a few of these blogs (see the Malevolent Morning of Meme, December 10, 2013) needed a chaperone for her company Christmas party. I was conscripted, even though I’m not sure how I got roped into it, especially since Valerie is now dating a female executive as part of some latent sapphic yearning; an item she just needed to check off her bucket list. Her partner approved of me, and so there I was, sitting with eight strangers (five couples to a table) in a drafty metal igloo out on some bleak farm where real reindeers stalked a nearby pen outside, waiting to take photos with the wives and children.

I get it. In every work group there is bound to be the individual that nobody likes. It is only natural that in a collection of folks, with the countless facets of their personalities all intermingling, someone will end up as the jerk that everybody tries to avoid. In group dynamics there is always the angle of repose, and someone will always be at the bottom. The type is familiar. He has a gross overestimation of his influence. He has a natural ability to find fault. He is insensitive. He thinks date rape is redundant. He will openly boast of taking advantage of people and put it in terms of some lame Ayn Rand argument. His proportions are usually off, his voice is rather loud, and even his shadow prays for clouds so it doesn’t have to be around him. And he was at our table.

“Now I know what Santa Claus feels like riding around in that sleigh on Christmas Eve, having to stare at nine assholes for the entire night,” he told the rest of our table, just to get things off to a friendly start. Tiny Tim’s words echoed through my mind. “God bless us, every one.” Sorry little shaver, not this time. That sentiment has no place in the shriveled hearts of men who use the holidays as a time to deliver the last smack of misery before the conclusion of the calendar. At least the egg nog wasn’t so bad. The food was above mediocre. I toyed with my reindeer steak (I had decided that was the animal it had been cut from) and listened to the insufferable fellow at the table speak at length about everything from politics to religion to his wife’s toilet habits. In moments of sheer tedium I find great comfort in the behavior of one of my favorite animals. Just the thought of it is enough to mute even the biggest annoyance. I speak not of the tardigrade, (although its resilience would come in handy), but the regal horned lizard. As a deterrent to predators the regal horned lizard can shoot blood out of its eyes. It works like a charm, blasting any animal dumb enough to stick its nose in the lizard’s comfort zone. I encourage people to find footage and watch it. The problem with me having this peculiar ability would be that I would need a blood transfusion every three days. Even so I imagined just turning my gaze to the loud fellow at the table and blasting him with two huge geysers of hemoglobin. Valerie would forgive me, and I could only imagine people the next morning standing around the coffee pot in the office, still visibly shaken…

“At a christmas party no less, this minion of hell in the shape of a harmless white humanoid just started blasting the table with spumes of blood coming right out of his eyes. What a mess. The nerve of some people.”

The somewhat ironic thing about the self-styled jerks at a party is that it is always in poor taste to insult them back. You have to give them their room to bluster in their usual patterns and because of work dynamics, politics or whatever, it is always bad form to retaliate. Luckily I have never quite learned this lesson.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked me.

“Kreb’s cycle,” I muttered. “Oxidation. Reduction. Diffusion. Respiration. Absorption.”

“Wait a second fella,” he said to me. “Don’t try to take my spot. I’m the asshole in this group.”

“On the contrary,” I said, “assholes, anatomically speaking, are somewhat useful. You’re more like a mule’s testicles. Nasty, sure, but kinda sterile, like.”

I had crossed the line. His feelings were hurt. Big loud man with an under-skeleton made of twigs. The whole table cleared out shortly thereafter. I admonished myself that I should save my words, or at least exercise them in constructive ways, let them serve as the lodestar for my own wayward quest, destination unknown.

I went outside the tin igloo to get some fresh air and watched in amusement as one of the reindeers, Blitzen, the drunken reindeer of course, got a little overzealous and started trying to bite the neck of the CFO’s wife in an obvious sign of courtship as she was trying to take a picture with him.

Time was of the essence. My gas tank dangerously close to empty, I decided to pay attention and pull into a gas station. I had made it into the new year feeling good. I had avoided the emergency room. Health is the best gift of all, don’t let anybody tell you different. Still though, I was looking for a rich unifying contradiction to inspire me. I do not shy from contradictions, from incongruity, from the seemingly disparate. In fact it is a rich playground of creativity. I got out of my car and started filling up my tank. From the other side of the pumps a man sitting in his SUV was watching me. His gaze was a little too focused. He motioned for my attention. Here it comes, I thought. Here is where I get the pamphlet concerning the placement of my eternal soul.

“Maybe you should get a car with some swagger for the new year?” he said. “I could set you up in something that will give you that sense of elegance you’ve been craving.” He handed me his card.

“I will take that as a helpful suggestion and not as an insult to my poor, old car,” I nodded.

“God is good,” he said, as he pulled the truck away. POP!

“What the hell was that?” I thought. I looked and realized the guy had driven off with the nozzle from the pump still stuck in the gas tank insert. I watched the long piece of black hose go skipping along the pavement, the pump handle still inserted in the SUV and I laughed, a good, hearty, mirthful laugh for the new year. The man, realizing what he had done, drove off at breakneck speed, the gas hose fluttering helplessly in the wind like a castrato’s ding-dong. Good thing I wasn’t a smoker and good thing someone had the sense to invent a breakaway system that doesn’t douse the whole area with gasoline. The universe is my fortress.

More Alembics to come.