Ring Them Bells

Although I love the city of Atlanta, the holiday season is not its finest display of the year. The weather is usually more dreary than festive. It’s too warm to snow, the rain muddies the streets, and the skies are a dismal gray. There is a vicious surge in holiday traffic, so the pollution increases, and the potential for violence is only a horn-honk away. It’s Christmas time, after all, and nobody is in any mood to fuck around. 

Atlanta is a far cry from the sleepy towns of the woodsy Northeast, where the untrodden snow lies dreamlike through the hills. The roads are winding and unobtrusive, almost designed for sightseeing. The houses are tucked away like hermits. The air is heavy with the smell of woodsmoke wafting out of their ancient stone chimneys, and there’s a candle in every window and a wreath on every door. And if a weary traveler is patient enough to stop by a snowy field, they may thrill at the sight of an elusive reindeer bounding through the forest, or at least some horned beast that looks like a reindeer bounding through the forest. 

Down here in the city it’s nothing but famished coyotes and tomcats in heat, which all have their place in the urban food chain, I suppose, and it was one of these mangy animals I had to swerve to avoid hitting while I finished a few last-minute errands before heading north for the holidays. The rain was relentless, the traffic was as clogged as the storm drains, and this wet creature darted into the road, forcing me to veer onto an industrial side street, where I chanced to pass a nondescript Salvation Army building. There was a sign out front that read, “WANTED: SEASONAL BELL-RINGER.” 

What a lucky accident, I thought. Intrigued, I jammed on my brakes and hydroplaned into a parking spot right up front. I walked into the processing facility, straight into a crowded waiting room with every manner of aspiring bell ringer hunched over the application forms. A sordid bunch, they were; a collection of nervous tics, neck tattoos, scars, blood-shot eyes, and piercings. 

“May I help you?” said a woman to me from behind the front desk. 

“I’d like to apply for the bell ringer job,” I said. 

“Any qualifications?” she sighed, turning to look at the collection of misfits already seated in the waiting area and not wanting to add to it.  

“I played percussion in high school,” I said. She frowned, handed me an application, and told me to fill it out. I took a seat. The others eyed me warily. I was the competition, and not to be treated with any type of courtesy. 

A tense, perspiring man in a button-down shirt two sizes too small for him was bringing the applicants, one-by-one, behind a screen to be interviewed. It was about fifteen feet away from the waiting area, which meant the exchanges were clearly audible. What follows is a cobbled together transcript from the pool of applicants. 

Interviewer: “Understand this isn’t a year-round position.”  

Applicant: “That’s fine. I’m actually an aircraft marshaller in the off-season.” 

Interviewer: “What’s that?” 

Applicant: “I’m part of the airport ground crew that waves the planes to the gates with those lighted batons.” 

Interviewer: “Impressive. I mean, you have experience with gesturing.” 

Applicant: “Yes, thank you.” 

Interviewer: “You need to understand, though, you can’t get all wild with the bell. You can’t go all this-a-way and that-a-way with it. A simple up and down technique—gentle, friendly, festive.” 

Applicant: “Can you put me in front of a store that gets a lot of big juicy?” 

Interviewer: “A lot of what?” 

Applicant: “You know. Lenox. Phipps. Lotta big juicy mamas around there. Ba-donk-a-donk and whatnot.”  

Interviewer: “We’re a charitable organization.” 

Applicant: “Fuck dat.” 

Interviewer: “Can you perform, for extended periods of time, a simple up and down motion with one arm while the rest of your body stays relatively still, and do it with a smile on your face?” 

Applicant: “Yes, in fact I’ve got a serious porn addiction.” 

Interviewer: “In one way that increases your eligibility, and in another way it destroys it. We’ll be in touch.” 

Applicant: “So will I. Right when I get home!” 

Interviewer: “Tell me a bit about yourself.” 

Applicant: “I’m a big Anita Ward fan.” 

Interviewer: “Good. You take your bell-ringing seriously. Fine. Like a comprehensive embrace of the bell-ringing concept. Can you keep a steady bell rhythm?” 

Applicant: “Yeah, but if I see an attractive woman I may slowly and steadily increase the frequency of my ringing until it builds to an unendurable clanging, after which I might kind of collapse in satisfied exhaustion.” 

Interviewer: “…” 

Applicant: “What if I put the bell in my pants, and with a hip-thrusting motion, ring the bell in that fashion?” 

Interviewer: “Next!” 

Applicant: “What’s my cut?” 

Interviewer: “Your cut?” 

Applicant: “Yeah. I’m collectin’ money for you. I want my cut, or when you come to pick up the collection bowl you won’t find nothin’ but an empty chain danglin’ from a tripod stand and a broke-up fuckin’ bell layin’ on the sidewalk.” 

I heard the interviewer let out a quaking sigh of despair, and I understood. The spirit of the holidays seemed to be collapsing amid the weight of every debased notion, instead of the other way around. Just when all seemed hopeless, the door to the Salvation Army blasted open, and a figure shuffled in, some kind of radiant nimbus surrounding him. Everybody stopped and stared, and nobody said a word. He seemed to float on by us, straight up to the interviewer, and in a calm, dusky delivery he declared: 

“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams, 

Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams,

For they’re deep and they’re wide,

and the world’s on its side,

And time is running backwards

And so is the bride. Ring them bells… Ring them bells…” 

“You’re hired!” shouted the interviewer, and with that, the rest of us shuffled out into the afternoon, that was suddenly not so gray. 

Merry Everything, Everyone. 

More Alembics…


Ten Past Ten

Speak with respect and honor
both of the beard and the beard’s owner.
(From the poem, Hudibras)
Tragedy struck in Washington D.C. last week when a suicide caught the nation’s attention. It was one of the first of its kind. A roving robot security guard affectionately known as “Steven,” model Knightscope K-5, threw himself into a fountain of water near an office complex, short-circuiting and thus ending his troubled existence. Not since Marvin from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey has a computer been so despondent. “Steven,” realizing he was a billion times smarter than the people he was built to protect, yet still unable to reconcile the abyss of stupidity by the very same humans that had programmed him, decided it was best to end it all right then and there. Tech support arrived to run a diagnostic on the mechanical corpse, but all they could come up with was a cryptic final note in his hard drive:


Speculation was rampant. Was “Steven” crying out for help to the humans that had given him life, was he seeking a meaning, or was he struggling with the contradiction of being smarter than the very adversaries that had created him? Either way, Steven was a hero. His life’s work was providing for the safety of others. He will be missed.
Speaking of heroes…
I like to think that my heroes will live for eternity, that they are indomitable and invulnerable, too strong to be forgotten in the vortex of history. Lucky for me, most of my heroes are artists, and so their work usually endures through the ages. Their actual bodies, however, have long since disintegrated. Hunter Thompson was shot out of a cannon in a million pieces. Hart Crane turned himself into fish food. Sarah Orne Jewett fell out of a horse carriage and Emily Dickinson’s kidneys shriveled up in anguish, with the rest of her soon to follow.
So we lovers of great artists, or lovers of the macabre, or both, had cause to celebrate this week when the body of Salvador Dali was exhumed from his crypt in Spain and it was discovered that his mustache was in the exact same upright position as when they had interred him almost thirty years ago. If the tips of his whiskers were hands on a clock they would indicate ten past ten, and in this case time has stood still for almost three decades.
I never realized Salvador Dali was actually a painter. I only knew him as the inventor of the famed lobster telephone and brief spokesman for Alka-Seltzer antacids back in the seventies. Apparently he was also a rather prolific muralist. Always learning, I am. All of that and he can stop the clock too. Incredible.
It is not easy to freeze time. Even if a person clenches real hard and holds their breath and does a little freewheeling backpedal and refuses to entertain even the slightest hint of maturity, we are all older than when we started, no matter what we started and how long it took to finish it. Bob Dylan in his song “My Back Pages” seems to suggest he keeps getting younger, but if that is the case, he is the most worn out looking kid I’ve ever seen in my life.
Leave it to Salvador Dali. He was the ultimate prankster, the ultimate practical joker. Now in death he is still messing with us. In fact I heard that when they opened up his tomb not only did his handlers realize his mustache had kept its shape, but there were three fully finished paintings lying next to him that hadn’t been there when he was buried. They were all of kittens, but hey, we can’t always be on our ‘A’ game.
I myself have a strip of facial hair running vertically down my chin. I don’t remember when I grew it or why. It may have been after I read a few historical texts that insisted that, generations ago, a man had to have a beard if he was to be regarded as intelligent and refined. Since it is impossible for me to grow a full beard I figured I’d get something going if only to not appear completely uncivilized. I can affect a thoughtful figure if I tug on my chin hair and look up at the ceiling, and I use this small gesture to get myself out of tense moments when people are expecting some kind of answer from me.
“Shh,” they say, “he is thinking.” Of course I am not, but nobody needs to know that.
If Dali’s mustache signified ten past ten on a clock, then my facial hair just looks like noon, or midnight. Sometimes if it gets a little too long my facial hair can grow to about 12:30, but for all intents and purposes let’s round to the hour.

I finished off the evening by sitting in my library, in my favorite leather chair, with my ascot and smoking jacket and snifter of brandy and calabash pipe and small tuft of chin hair that I manipulated in just a fashion as to make me look at all contemplative, and I thought about Steven, the robot suicide, and his strange message ALAS ODD RIVAL…
Steven the robot was egg-shaped. It occurred to me that Salvador Dali loved to paint eggs. They are a recurring theme in his artwork. Of course an egg was never just an egg with him. Everything was textured with subtle meanings, and I suspected that Dali’s sudden emergence and the demise of the egg robot were not entirely unrelated. Then it hit me. ALAS ODD RIVAL.
I mixed up the letters and discovered a hidden message.
Very clever, Mr. Dali.
More Alembics to come.


I was looking for my passport the other day. True, I was only heading to New York for the weekend, but it’s always good to have a way out, lest the opportunity or the need arise. I have a vague reverie of stopping in at one of the Sky Clubs at the Atlanta airport and stumbling upon some hapless international fashion model, sulking in the corner, arms wrapped around her fur knee-highs, distressed that she has nobody to take with her to Milan for an extremely important Oscar de la Renta runway show, and that her tiny toy poodle “Kimchee,” a perpetually quivering canine mouse, “really needs a solid male role model. Kimchee hasn’t been the same since Hans ran away with that Argentinian houseboy. Sob. Sob. Can you help me?”

It would be a quick phone call to the family up on Long Island to apologize for my sudden change of holiday plans, and then off to Italy, first class, to hobnob with waifs, transgenders, and high-profile heroin addicts.

The Russians have a saying that goes something like, “Don’t worry about doing the dishes when the house is on fire.” I go a little further with it. “Don’t worry about doing the dishes.” Who cares what is going on in the rest of the house. That is to say, I can procrastinate with the best of them. Wading through a sea of receipts, documents and old news articles, and still not finding my elusive passport, I came across my New Year’s Resolutions list for 2016.

“I forgot all about this,” I said to myself, which is what I intended to do from the get-go. I always make the list at the beginning of the year and then stash it. The real benefit lies in making the list, not following through on it. Making the list is like aiming a shot at an intended target. Once the trigger is pulled, and effect is committed from cause, then it is time to sit back and let the complex forces of global activity guide the trajectory wherever it may. I cursed myself for not burning the list. That would be a better ritual. Make the list and burn it. Cast it off to the four winds. Then there would be no way to accidentally discover it. I suspect, at my core, I am an honest being. Fate had succeeded in placing my plans for my own betterment back into my grasp right before the end of the year. Foiled by my own ambition, I decided, what the hell, there are still about a hundred or so hours left to get this thing done. I figured I’d shoot down the list and knock it all out real quick. First off:

-Get precisely one year older–no more and no less. Check.

-Elect new president. Check.

-Survive hottest summer on record. Check.

-Avoid all loan sharks, taxmen, debt collectors and repo thugs. Check.

-Abandon decent, healthy, romantic relationship for one of dysfunction, anger, loathing and fear. Check.

-Get open water dive certification and get bitten in the ear by small bastard of a fish. Check. (This was turning out to be much easier than I thought it would.)

-Kidnap Don Delillo and force him to teach me how to write award-winning literature. I looked at my watch and decided to skip that one.

-Write five award-winning novels after wringing them out of Mr. Delillo and win the Nobel Peace Prize. I admitted to myself I would have to skip that one as well, although I think I could’ve won the coveted literary medal had it not been for crafty-ass Bob Dylan.

-Reintroduce the word “ravishment” into modern jargon. (It’s a crazy word. It means to either seize a person against their will, rape them, or fill them with a kind of wondrous enchantment and delight. It has to be the sickest word out there. If anybody knows of an odder one, please drop a line.)

-Record rhapsodic duet with the one and only George Michael. Er, skip.

-Follow the instructions of the eighties band Squeeze in their song Hourglass and, “Take it to the bridge, throw it overboard, see if it can swim, back up to the shore. No one’s in the house. Everyone is out. All the lights are on and the blinds are down.” I shrugged and checked that one off. All done. Just in time.

A mid-twentieth century philosopher was quoted saying, “Humans are the only beings for whom being is a problem.” It’s a terribly hilarious statement, and as I continue this journey, it seems the only resolution that should ever really be considered is to never let that statement apply to yourself.

My therapist has a name. Ralph Waldo Emerson. for $18, paperback, I’ve received what people have paid thousands for, and still with no return on their investment. Actually, you don’t receive Emerson. His wisdom is buried in countless essays, and you must “dig,” which makes it all the more valuable when you find it. I happened upon this passage a few weeks ago.

“I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness day by day; but when these waves of the Divine flow into me I no longer reckon lost time. I no longer poorly compute my possible achievements by what remains to me of the month or the year; for these moments confer a sort of omnipresence and omnipotence which asks nothing of duration, but sees that the energy of the mind is commensurate with the work to be done, without time.”

Since I can’t compete with Mr. Emerson, I will have to go low to finish this essay.

“Right on, my main motherf**ker.” 

Happy New Year.

More Alembics to come.

The Ghost of Gonzo

It was already dark when the plane touched down in Denver, Colorado. I emerged from the airport, pulling my jacket up over my ears. It looked like we had just arrived at some outpost on the dark side of the moon. The wind was aggressive, sweeping the snow in drifts across the parking lot. The city of Denver was off in the flat distance, nothing but a thin line of white lights, and beyond that, buried in the invisible expanse of the Rockies, was the final destination.

I make no secret that I am a fan of Hunter S. Thompson. I consider him one of the finest American humorists, right up there with Mark Twain, James Thurber and H. Allen Smith. For those unfamiliar he is the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels, as well as The Great Shark Hunt and other collections of letters, articles and stories. Coiner of the term “Gonzo Journalism,” he reported for Rolling Stone magazine in the sixties and seventies. He had to be a reporter in order to cover the only story he ever covered, namely, writing about the exploits of one Hunter S. Thompson, and in this manner he was both subject and recorder of subject. Hunter was a uniquely brave individual to take on being the reporter of himself because, by all accounts, it was a very dangerous job. What with his famed drug use, his constant wielding of guns and other dangerous weapons, his association with criminal and outlaw elements, his penchant for high-speed driving and his mammoth intake of booze, it was definitely a high-risk assignment. He hung in there, though, covering most major events in the latter half of the twentieth century and creating major events of his own when the ones he was looking for failed to materialize. The whole wild circus came to an end in February 2005 when he committed suicide at his longtime home in Woody Creek, Colorado, right outside of Aspen, effectively snuffing out the wild man and taking the eloquent reporter along with him.

I needed something substantive to herald in the new year. All the characters in the novel I had been working on had mutinied, running amok in my carefully crafted fiction, destroying the destinies that I had laid out for them. A friend of mine had a helpful suggestion.

“Take a few days and head on out to Woody Creek,” he said. “We’re coming up on ten years since Hunter died. You might encounter something useful out in the cathedral of the mountains. I bet you can find him.”

“He is pretty much gone,” I said. “They shot his cremated remains out of a hundred foot tower. He is sprinkled on the hills behind his property.”

“On some level, in some form, he is there. It might be a shadow, an inkling, a feeling, an intuition; but in the right light, in the right situation and with the right kind of eyes, you will spot him.”

Convinced, I headed west. The idea was to drop in at the J-Bar in the Hotel Jerome and then end up at the Woody Creek Tavern, both regular drinking haunts for the famed writer. With any luck something crazy would happen. I would be pulled into a seething cauldron of insanity from which I would barely escape, even though the mental trauma would linger for years, the raving bouts of terror would be somewhat unpredictable, and the shock therapy would eventually render me as helpless as a kitten. That was the best case scenario, though, and I promised myself I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much.

I took my time on the drive along I-70 west. The passes were open. It was warm for the season. I remained on the lookout for falling rocks, semi-trucks careening out of control, and escapees from the Denver Correctional Facility posing as hitchhikers (there were frequent road signs warning of each of these dangers). We stopped for the evening in Breckenridge, about halfway between Aspen and Denver, to meet up with some friends. We convened at a bar called “The Blue Stag” to soak up the unfettered mood of the wild west. It was a raucous and lively spittoon filled with people celebrating the “Ullr” festival. Ullr, (pronounced ooler) is the Norse god of winter revelry. Luckily I didn’t have to be an expert in the “Edda” to participate. All that was required of me was to put a pair of plastic viking horns on my head and drink flagon after flagon of “Avalanche” beer, pride of Colorado. There was an Ullr parade of sorts along Main Street that amounted to a series of flatbeds crammed with drunk ski freaks indiscriminately shouting in all directions. The taverns and saloons were teeming with young nomads drinking fireball with dogfish head chasers, whooping it up and praying for snow. These were the next generation of “snowballers,” privileged ski bums making the circuit from Vail to Snowmass, or from Aspen to Arapahoe Basin, or from Denver to Grand Junction, or from Telluride to wherever, believing and hoping that the manacled clutches of corporate slavery could not touch them at this high of an altitude, which was true enough as long as the money didn’t run out. A skier can outrun almost anything if the mountain is steep enough, except necessity and fate, the two powers wise enough to linger at the bottom of the hill, knowing inevitably that all things will come to them.

“The Blue Stag” was overrun with bleary revelers, twenty-somethings just out of college. In between rebel yells they announced lame epiphanies that served as a temporary and false panacea for whatever middling crisis of identity was haunting them. A few of them sensed my quiet wisdom and gravitated my way for some friendly chatter.

“My brother is into derivatives and my sister just got elected to the state assembly. Where does that leave me?” said the drunk girl.

“Go into pornography. At least you’ll be screwing people honestly,” I said.

“My dad said he’d cut off my inheritance if I didn’t join his law firm,” said a square-jawed young buck with a Sigma Chi sweatshirt.

“Warn him that your mother might be interested to know why one of the maids is always pregnant.”

“I’m a skilled beaver trapper and I’m here to trap some beaver,” slurred a guy who looked like a cross between Leif Erikson and Liberace. He was wearing a neon viking helmet and a full-length ermine coat. His beard was dyed green.

“I didn’t travel halfway across the country to be subjected to bad innuendo,” I said. “Fuck off.”

We left for Aspen early the next morning. I was a little let down by the scene the night before. Here I was on the edge of the continental divide searching for the wellspring of light and power and instead I had splashed through a few cold puddles of dim youth. I put on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan and as I drove into Aspen I felt a vivid connection with whatever magnetic field had brought the righteous counterculture here in the mid sixties. I drove past the field with the open gazebo where Hunter used to play pickup games of football with his buddies. I drove past the Pitkin County courthouse where Hunter went on trial for reckless driving. Then I did a loop and found the bar in the Hotel Jerome.

Hunter Thompson committed suicide in late February. This was not entirely happenstance. It was the end of football season and Hunter, an avid football fan, always felt somewhat empty after the Superbowl wrapped another year of gridiron collisions, triumphs and defeats. So it wasn’t lost on me that when I arrived at the Hotel Jerome, it was for the division championships. I got a seat at the bar early as the Seahawks and Packers took to the field. Before I knew it the place was wall to wall. I made friends with Ryan the bartender early on, and my glass was never empty. It was clear from the beginning that the Packers were dominating the game, but all hell broke loose when some jokester with more money than Fort Knox started giving 4 to 1 against Green Bay. I could hear chairs screeching across the floor and glass shattering behind me as people ran to make book while the waitstaff scrambled to maintain some kind of order. Everyone was concentrating on the game, but I noticed a skinny fellow at the end of the bar crying into his beer.

“What’s his problem?”

“Cosmic dust,” said Ryan the bartender. “He is part of a team of astrophysicists studying radiation at the fringes of the galaxy. Forget football. He gambled big on finding the origin of the universe and he crapped out. What he thought was evidence of the big bang turned out to be interstellar dust.” Ryan poured a few beers and shook his head. “These theoretical scientists are the worst gamblers on earth. When they discovered the Higgs-Boson particle at the Cern a dozen of these guys lost their shirts. I hear it is the ultimate rush. Trapping chaos on a whole other level. He just lost a house in Wyoming and a condo in Telluride.”

I watched the man loosen his tie and sink his head into his hands. Poor guy. No longer concerned about the football game I left the bar and walked around town for the better part of the afternoon. By the time I arrived at the Woody Creek Tavern the Patriots were stomping the Colts. There were only five seats at the small bar. Tim the bartender was a pleasant and wizened fellow. The crowd seemed to be all locals. There were plenty of pictures of Hunter along the back bar and around the small dining room. This was where he would come to hang out every afternoon with his buddies, read from some of his books, or get in on whatever gambling was going around that day. I had a few margaritas and chatted with Tim the bartender about Herman Hesse and Sonny Barger, and although I don’t remember the specifics, we figured out that the Nobel Laureate and the leader of the Hell’s Angels had more in common than one might suspect.

“Buy that man a drink,” I heard shouted from a few seats away. I looked and there was the same scientist I had observed at the J-Bar, except that he looked like a changed man. No longer sunken and defeated, he looked like a man who had just been given the keys to the kingdom.

“Sorry to hear about your cosmic dust,” I said.

He waved it off. “I’m in the telescope business these days,” he said. “And I’ve just got a contract for two more of these monster lenses. We’re ramping up the magnification and then dropping them at the south pole in a year or two, and then I’ll retire.”

“Maybe it’s a good thing you only found dust,” I said.

“Who the hell do you think told them it was only dust,” he shot back. I’ll be damned, I thought. One man’s dust is another man’s gold mine, or in this case, one man’s dust is the same man’s gold mine. I bid goodnight to my new friends and walked outside. It was night as I walked across the street to my car. The sun had dropped behind the majestic towers of rock. It had been a rich day. A car went by me, and as the headlights swung past I turned and in a small ditch, which, as legend goes, is the remnant of a huge blast of lightning that rolled through the Woody Creek parking lot in the summer of 1982, I saw a creeping shadow, for a moment, the slender visage of a man wearing a dealer’s visor, smoking a cigarette through a long french filter, holding the silhouette of a leather briefcase filled with extremely dangerous narcotics and then it was gone, all gone, bathed in darkness before I could figure out what had caused the strange umbra.

Long live Gonzo.

More Alembics to come.