Common Scents

Sometimes I’m ashamed of my skepticism. It’s hard to shake, though. Tom Robbins, the famous cult author, once said of America, “We are a nation of 300 million con artists.”  Even better was that he didn’t mean it as a bad thing. As a function of manipulation, resourcefulness and subterfuge we, as Americans, have pioneered some of the greatest advances in western civilization from frivolous lawsuits to pyramid schemes to real estate fraud to medical ripoffs. Let’s not even mention Wall Street. We can swindle like nobody’s business. Still, it’s good to be on the lookout for grifters. One doesn’t want to lose an entire savings account to some scammer who has promised an 80% return rate on an investment for a grand hotel and casino at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Loose slots, mermaid revues, shipwrecked cargo boats, the finest seafood, all under a glass dome three miles beneath the surface of the most tempestuous waters on the planet. A no-lose situation.

Scams can pop up in the most unexpected of places. Last week I was in the produce section of the grocery store when a man in a motorized shopping cart drove up to me and honked. He told me he was down on his luck and asked if I could buy him some food. I’m used to solicitation on the streets, but when it happens amid a colorful display of ripe peppers, carrots and apples, it’s easy to be caught off guard. He said he was starving. Of course I could’ve pointed out how overweight he was, noting that rarely does obesity and starvation go hand in hand. Instead, I directed him just over to our left, where a store worker in a little booth was handing out small crab salad cakes on tiny pieces of toast. I suggested that was a good place to start if he was dying of hunger. I had sampled one myself, and they were delicious. The man shook his head. He couldn’t have any of that because he suffered from diabetes, lactose intolerance, high blood pressure, coeliac disease, egg and peanut allergies and tachycardia. Shocked at the list of morbid ailments, I told him honestly that the only thing I felt comfortable buying him was a bottle of aspirin and a head of lettuce. The man thanked me, then told me I could just give him the money instead of buying the stuff for him.  The whole thing came to a ridiculous end when the store manager appeared and upbraided the man for panhandling, causing him to turn his little motorized cart toward the door to make an extremely low-speed getaway while the manager shuffled behind him, frustrated at the slow motion chase.

One of my favorite drinking establishments is located right next to a school for the blind. It’s a fortunate location. When the drunk guys strike out with all the ladies at the bar they can just mosey across the street to try their luck with women who can’t see how ugly and out of shape they are. The crosswalks have some strange beeping system to help the blind students navigate across the busy intersection, which they do with an almost preternatural sense of traffic flow. They are better at it than most people with eyesight, more cautious than the average pedestrian who may be able to see but still can’t pay attention. One afternoon as I was leaving the bar I watched a man with a tapping cane cross into the street as the light turned green and the “Don’t Walk” sign clicked on. Valiantly–drunkenly, which probably added to my valor–I rushed into the street and gently took his elbow in my hands.

“Thank you sir,” he said calmly.

“How did you know I was a sir?” I asked. 

“I could smell it,” he said as we reached the far curb. “There’s a natural odor to the genders. Males have a tarred musk. Simple and murky. Women have a brighter, more complex aroma. If you were a woman I would’ve known the second you stepped out of the bar.” 

“How did you know I was at the bar?”

“Along with your tarred musk there is the unmistakable stench of whiskey. I’m guessing bourbon. It’s coming out of your pores.”

“You’re better than Sherlock Holmes. You are so good that I’m beginning to think you are putting me on. Like you aren’t really blind.”

“I’m not blind,” he said. “Sure I can’t see with my eyes but I can see with my nose, my ears, my hands. I’ve developed my own sense of echolocation. That’s how I knew no cars were coming when I crossed into the street. In fact, you are probably worse off in your impaired condition than I am.”

“Like a who is walking whom type of thing,” I said.

“My senses are so heightened I can tell, just by the pitch of a woman’s voice, if she is ovulating.”

“Get out!”

“I’ll prove it. Let’s go back over to that bar, young man. If you buy me a beer I’ll tell you which girl is most likely to be looking to hook up.”

“Isn’t that kind of like scamming?” I said.

“No,” said my blind friend. “It’s taking advantage of an advantage.”

My new friend and I went back into the bar. I introduced him around and began making small chitchat with a few of the ladies perched here and there. I had to get them to talk. No topic was too inane. Just a few words. What a lovely pantsuit. Where did you get it? Are those nails real? I hear neck tattoos are really coming into style. How long have you had yours? I would turn to my friend after every answer, and he would give a subtle shake of his head. Finally I settled on a girl seated in the corner, a sturdy wild-eyed redhead. My friend and I approached. It took me a minute to realize she had her own blind person with her, a stone-faced woman with a pair of Foster Grant wraparound sunglasses and a walking cane resting across her lap. We sat down. I engaged the fiery redhead in a light discussion about the beauty of the senses, and the importance of honesty. She surprised me with a quote from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. “Out of wood so crooked and perverse as that which man is made of, nothing absolutely straight can ever be wrought.”

My blind friend nodded. Just then, though, the redhead looked over at her blind friend, who shook her head. Pretty soon after that both women got up and left.

“What happened?” I said.

“The unmistakable smell of money,” he said with his nose in the air.

“Where is it coming from?”

“Not here!”

More Alembics to come

“Shillel-Lee”

HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY, read the tattered banner that drifted down in front of the table I was hunched under. The sentiment and the banner didn’t last long as it was trampled and pulverized into a muddy heap by a stampede of feet running every which way. Fists were flying. Glass was shattering. Insults were hurled, as were bottles and cans. The jukebox was cranking out a rather spirited rendition of the Dubliners’ “Whiskey in the Jar.” There was a small pool of blood with an atoll of teeth in it next to an old, greasy shillelagh on the floor. The random pints of beer that were on the table above me had all spilled over, dripping porters and stouts and ales in a kind of black rain seeping through the cracks in the old wood. The Bloom’s Day Irish Pub in Avondale Estates had turned into a display of carnage and bloodshed not seen since the rampage of Lenny Murphy and the Shankhill Butchers in Belfast back in the seventies.  And it was all my fault. Not my fault so much as my dead neighbor’s fault. Actually it was a lazy ambulance’s fault. It was a rocking chair’s fault.  I’ll explain.

I came out of the house a few days ago to find a huddle of neighbors in the street. They do that from time to time. The last time was for our mysterious new bearded neighbor (see “The Hairy Panic” blog, March 3rd) who turned out to be a really cool glass and metal sculptor from Red Hook, Brooklyn. This time around they were discussing the fellow right next door to me, Lee, a ninety-three-year-old World War II veteran. Lee had passed away. “So it goes,” I said, mimicking what the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Slaughterhouse Five” say when somebody dies. Lee had lived in the neighborhood for sixty years, and as a younger man was meaner than a junkyard dog, according to some of the older residents. I got along fine with him. He would teeter over to my side of the fence every once in a while to demand bourbon and accuse me of crashing my helicopter in his backyard. Since I don’t own a helicopter and couldn’t pilot one if I did, I would just invite him in, pour a couple of whiskey drams and chat with him about wartime. He would calm down a bit after a few belts, but would always erupt at me with, “You’re not fit to serve in this soldier’s infantry!” I would just shrug and tell him he was probably right.

But no more. Lee was gone. A fellow can’t ask for much more than ninety-three years. That is a good long run. “When did it happen?” I asked. Nobody knew for sure. In fact, the only hard evidence they had for Lee’s passing was an ambulance that was parked in his driveway that morning and that was, in one neighbor’s assessment, “Taking its time.”

“It would be a good children’s book,” I suggested. “The Ambulance That Took Its Time. One of those easy reads that explains why grandpa went on that forever fishing trip.”

My neighbor argued that there was no better evidence of death than an ambulance taking its time. An actual corpse was less reliable evidence of death than an ambulance that took its time. To hear my neighbor tell the story it was like the ambulance itself was taking a nap in Lee’s driveway while the man expired. The whole emergency vehicle was displaying the dull hebetude of a teenager staring into an Iphone. The defibrillators were yawning. The saline bags hit the snooze button. The oxygen sensors had pulled the covers over their head. The “warfarin” blood thinner had narcolepsy. One paramedic was sitting in Lee’s garden with his shirt, shoes and socks off, in the lotus position, contemplating his navel. The other just worked furiously at something or other under his thumbnail.

“It is an emergency vehicle only if the lights are on. The lights weren’t on. Which means it had ceased being an emergency. Ergo, Lee is dead.”

We looked at Lee’s silent house. Then Ned Shaughnessy, the shifty owner of Bloom’s Day Irish Pub, noticed Lee’s rocking chair on his porch. He commented on how nice a piece of furniture it was, finely crafted, solid, sturdy, with two cup holders built into the wide armrests. No spring chicken himself, old Ned walked up on the porch, hefted the chair over his head and marched it down the block to his house, talking something about finders are keepers.  A few neighbors started going through Lee’s garden. Someone copped his bird feeder. Another yanked up an ornate weather vane. We are a bunch of king vultures, I thought, returning to my house.

So it was strange when, three days later, I answered my telephone to hear the guy who lives across from me remark quizzically, “I guess Easter came early this year. Lee is back from the dead, and he is on your front lawn.”  Sure enough, there he was. I went out to try and corral him. He was disoriented. He wanted to know what day it was? I told him it was Saint Patrick’s Day. Then, and more importantly, he demanded to know where his rocking chair was? I told him Ned Shaughnessy had taken it, which sent Lee into such a fit that I thought he would drop dead again, round two. I tried to explain about the lazy ambulance, but Lee insisted I drive him over to the Bloom’s Day Pub. He wanted a word with old Ned.

“Ned’s upstairs,” someone said as we walked in to the crowded bar. Lee began his long, old man’s journey up the fourteen or so steps. I figured I had time to grab a beer. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, after all. It didn’t take long for the commotion to start. A fellow came running down the stairs. “There’s some guy that’s a hundred and fifty years old up there throwing all the chairs out the windows.” We looked out to the front lawn and sure enough, it was raining chairs. “You’re not fit to serve in this soldier’s infantry!” I heard scream from above. Like Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of all the snakes, Lee was clearing the pub of every chair in the place. Then someone’s girlfriend got knocked in the face with a chair leg, which is all that needs to happen in a packed bar on Saint Patrick’s day. The brawl eventually made its way downstairs. I took shelter under the table. There’s a term firefighters use called a ‘flashpoint.’ It happens when a home or building goes from a fire in the building, to a building on fire. We passed the flashpoint in the pub. It had gone from a fight in a bar to a bar fight. And all the while defenestrated chairs came sailing down from above, crashing into pieces on the lawn out front. One for Sean O’Casey. One for John Synge. One for Johnny Swift. One for Billy Yeats. One for Flann O’Brien. One for Brendan Behan. “And the auld triangle, went jingle-jangle, all along the banks, of the Royal Canal!”   

“Someone call an ambulance!”

“And tell it to hurry up.”

Because we all know what happens when it doesn’t.

More Alembics to come.

The Only Thing Better Than A Friend Is A Rich One

Corporations are people. Everybody knows it. The fourteenth amendment says so, kind of. In fact I was hanging out with a certain fellow last week, a certain orange logo home improvement superstore. Let’s call him Poe Method. We went out drinking. Sloppy drunk, Mr. Method is. His ass crack is always showing, first of all, a feature common to his profession. There hasn’t been a pair of pants invented that can cover it. He is awkward, socially. His tedious pickup line to women is, “I’ve got wood. And I’m open twenty-four hours a day, at certain locations, some restrictions apply, void where prohibited. Did I mention I’ve got wood.” No woman will sit within ten feet of him. I’m guilty by association. Quasimodo and John “The Elephant Man” Merrick have better chances of scoring at a bar than we do. Good old Poe assures me he can help me fix anything at my house, although when I’m wandering around his place I can never find what I’m looking for, and his posse of helpers always seems to be on break.  Even so he is constantly inviting me over, tempting me with reduced prices, limited time offers and stuff I absolutely can’t live without, whether I know it or not.

The cornerstone of his business is loyalty. Poe Method loves frequent customers. A lot of his friends, other corporations themselves, even have programs in place to ensure the maximum amount of repeat business. Poe may have one too. I don’t know. I’m leery about giving my contact information to marketing concerns. They are a little too eager to try and convince me that they aren’t huge, monster business enterprises but a trusted and reliable buddy, a friend in times of need, a shoulder to lean on. Aristotle once said, “He who has many friends has none.” He said it before he died, though, and since he died he hasn’t said much of anything. Corporations used to dismiss Aristotle’s idea, saying the more friends the better. “Not only are us corporations people, we are people persons.” That seems to be changing, though. Like a lot of people out there, corporations love to hang out with rich people, and find themselves better for it. So they are changing their loyalty programs to weed out the cheapskates. It’s no longer about how often they see their friends. It’s about how much money their friends spend on them. Which makes sense. After all, the happiest and most harmonious of relationships are always based on money. Nobody who has ever married for money has ever gotten divorced, as far as I know.

One of the big pioneers in the “friends are better friends when they spend money” philosophy is a certain airline named after a certain letter of the Greek alphabet. We’ll call him Omicron Airlines. Omicron has a funny relationship with his best friends. They all hate him and bitch about him constantly while they throw buckets of money at him. Omicron refers to his best friends as “Diamonds,” which, he confided to me, means they are really chunks of compressed charcoal up the ass of a crushed dinosaur. “Which when you think about it, is basically the same thing.” His best friends can’t stand him. He’s always running late, they say. He tends to break down. He cancels on them without warning. He leaves them stranded in, say, Detroit. He seats them next to fat people with breathing issues. He is so pukingly condescending in his kindness that he can drive frequent fliers and rednecks into fits of homicidal rage. Still, his Diamonds can’t live without him. They have invested years with him. Their relationship is so hostile it makes Ike and Tina Turner look like Ma and Pa Kettle. After all of the drama, though, things have really gotten bitter. Omicron has changed his friend policy to encourage more money spent, instead of just seeing the same old faces day in and day out. Frequency is for a radio, he says. If the Diamonds want to stay Diamonds they need to pony up, or be relegated to Gold, Silver, Tin, Lead or some lesser metal in the scrap heap.

Not to be outdone, there is a certain coffee chain named after a certain chief mate of a certain doomed sailing vessel helmed by a certain captain from a certain novel about a certain whale.  Let’s call him, oh I don’t know, Ahab. Ahab’s a jittery bastard. He is always hopped up on caffeine. He paces constantly, and is obsessed with only one thing. Not a big blanched leviathan, as it turns out. He is obsessed with how to get rid of the broke and penniless writers and slackers sitting around his place all day drinking discounted refills of plain old coffee. Instead he wants the handsome executives dropping by, five or six times a day for fancy, frothy, frapping fixatives. The kind that cost like eight bucks and have trademarked names designed by leading marketing firms and resemble an actual coffee the way beef wellington resembles a living cow. A caffeine addict must now show his or her love by buying more. Loitering is for lepers. Ahab will in turn drop a few free frapps for his friends, the real ones, the ones with disposable cash. The turds can go grind their beans and their teeth at home.

*

I stopped in at this dive bar the other day, privately owned, no corporate funny business.  The place is a shit hole, downtown, across the street from the jail. I was waiting on a friend who had to go clear up some charges at the county courthouse. He is a frequent customer of the prison system, and would definitely benefit from some type of loyalty program there. “Get four drunk and disorderly offenses and the fifth one is on us!” The bar across the street is a good place to await a verdict. It sits in between some bail bond offices and a pawn shop. I went in and sat down. The bartender was mistrustful of me, a new face. She did her best to pretend I wasn’t there.

“This place is cool,” I said.

“Nobody asked you,” she said.

“Do you want to be friends?” I said.

“Go fuck yourself,” she said.

The honesty was refreshing.

More Alembics to come.

The Hairy Panic

There is a tumbleweed in Australia known as panicum effusum. Dubbed “the hairy panic,” its aggressive proliferation has resulted in cars and houses being buried in it. Whole properties are consumed by the tenacious scrub brush. Homeowners go to bed after admiring their spacious landscapes from the front porch, only to wake up and find the windows covered, the car buried, and the dogs howling anonymously from somewhere in the deep, weedy expanse. The dingo may have eaten the baby, as the saying goes, but the hairy panic has consumed everything else.

“The hairy panic” is a catchy nickname. After I had read the tumbleweed story the phrase kept rolling around in my head. A New York advertising agency couldn’t have come up with a better slogan. The great American marketing minds had been outclassed by some clever Australian farmer. “The hairy panic” would be a good name for a place that does bikini waxing. A great campaign jingle for Donald Trump. It would be a good reference to the underarms splayed out on European beaches. In fact, there were so many other things going on in the world for which the title “hairy panic” could be applied, that I began thinking of everything in those terms.   

For instance it could definitely be used to describe Jimmy Savile, that strange albino BBC host that raped something like a hundred women and children over the course of four decades. One needn’t look any further than the disgraced star’s platinum, pageboy hair bob to know that the guy was an arrant freak, committing atrocities along the lines of Boko Haram. With a frighteningly creepy haircut like that it’s almost certain that all of Mr. Savile’s time off-camera would be spent raping the English countryside. What else would a person with that type of hair be doing with his free days? I haven’t seen a more vivid physical indication of a warped mindset since Richard Trenton Chase, the Sacramento Vampire, covered himself in blood and feces back in the mid-seventies. Even the title for Mr. Savile’s popular show “Jim’ll fix it,” had to be edited after executives quietly protested the original title, “Jim’ll fix it, unless it’s a hymen, then Jim’ll break it.”

There were other examples of “the hairy panic.” China, in response to air smog that is so thick that it can be described as hairy, has simply decided to shift the definition of what air pollution is. The criteria for gritty suffocation is no longer high levels of surface ozone, particle pollution and carbon monoxide. Bad air, according to the Chinese government, is now caused by pessimism, the internet, birthing daughters instead of sons, disloyalty to the communist regime, and support of fundamental human rights. A state-run investigation also found that the reason the air is so bad is because too many trees have been planted. Trees of course block the wind from removing the bad air that is already lingering. The study further insists it has not found any direct relationship between poor air quality and car exhausts, lignite, or coal burning, describing the evidence as “ as murky as the air we choke on.” Even so they have ramped up the torture of political enemies in an effort to uncover who is responsible for the foul smog. Probably that blind civil rights activist, Chen what’s-his-name.

The next example is one that hits very close to home. We have a new neighbor in our hood. He has aroused a serious curiosity among the busybodies because nobody has ever seen him. He comes and goes at night. Things just appear in his driveway, random stuff for which there is no explanation. A horse trailer, but no horses. A storage pod that is almost bigger than his house. His truck is an early 80’s Dodge Ram van, beige-on-beige, with drapes in the windows. Whenever we see it go by it is impossible to make him out behind the curtains, which are also beige. He has too much garbage for someone who just moved in, and not like the garbage that is discarded boxes and packaging material, which we would expect, but distended trash bags that would seem to suggest a whole lot of consumption in a really short amount of time. I happened to see a couple of my neighbors talking out in front of my house so I joined the group. I was just in time because they were talking about the mysterious neighbor. The woman who lives across from me had actually seen him. She gave us the alarming news.

“He’s got a beard.”

“Now, now,” I said, “a beard, in centuries past, was an absolute necessity if a man was to be regarded as intelligent and refined.”

“It’s not that kind of beard.”

What kind of beard is it? Is it unkempt or over-styled? Does it have ornate flourishes of the walrus or handlebar variety? Is it like a topiary exercise in shadow and light, emphasizing natural facial contours, something that takes two hours a day just to maintain? How about this, which famous cultural figure best represents the mode of facial hair our new neighbor possesses? Santa Claus? Satan? Dan Haggerty? Joaquin Phoenix from his rapper phase? ZZ Top? Rip Van Winkle?

“It is not groomed at all,” said my neighbor. “It is like it just grew uncontrollably all around his face and he is hiding behind it. I can only imagine what his yard will look like come summertime.”

“You are saying, it’s like it was introduced to his face from another ecosystem, and with no native species to keep it in check it has grown invasive?”

“You won’t even be able to see his lips move when he talks. A man like that has something to hide.”

“Have you heard of the hairy panic?” I said. “In Australia.”

“Australia? It is right here on our block.”

“I know,” I said, “in fact I can already feel my facial hair growing faster by the minute.”

“We’ll spray you down with some herbicide. You’ll be fine.”

More Alembics to come.