Most of us embrace nostalgia. We long for times past, for the warm pockets of memories with relatives and friends that time and distance separate us from, for the high points of our history that seem to make us at all worthwhile. Sometimes, though, the past has not gone away, but rather sits in rotten accumulation underneath our feet, and sooner or later, may remind us that the past isn’t as rosy as we like to think it was.

It is somewhat academic that the past is more reliable than the future. The past has already happened, and so is not subject to the same uncertain hypothetical predictions that plague the future. It is hard to take seriously the fearful proclamation that, “I’m worried that the world will end in the year 1960. It’s just a feeling I have. What with Khrushchev, and the Cubans and such.”
It’s an easy fix for the backwards worrier. You can tell them, “It won’t end in 1960 because it didn’t.” At which time they would say, “Thanks, that is a relief.”

There is one way the future is more reassuring than the past. There is potentially a lot less garbage in the future. The past is loaded with garbage, but we can clean it up for the generations to come. It’s a good way to think about it, and the best time to start cleaning up is right now. Never has there been a more solid (solid?) example of this than in the British sewer system underneath the Whitechapel district where a huge blob of grease and trash has formed to such a prodigious and filthy mass of discarded objects that it has been given a name.
Fatberg. It’s a terrific title. Much better than the Boris Johnson-berg, which my sources tell me was an early consideration. Even though it bears a bit of a resemblance to the ex-Mayor, and is slightly less smug, critics were wary of any direct association. Even British piles of garbage are somewhat quick to take offense.

Whoever came up with the name Fatberg should be knighted. Bestow on him or her the Order of the British Empire. In fact, I would invite that person over the pond to Decatur, Georgia to rename all the streets in my neighborhood. It’s an opportune time for it, because I live in the American South, and already there is talk of, not so much changing, but modifying all the streets named after the fathers of the Confederacy to satisfy the diverse public. Instead of Lee Street we now have Bruce Lee Street. Jefferson Davis Boulevard is now George and Weezie Jefferson Davis Boulevard, and Stonewall Jackson Road is now Stonewall Michael Jackson Road. I’m ready for the Fatberg Freeway.

Nostalgia is fun when it is a wispy memory. It is not so much fun when it is a huge, seething pile of ossified waste. The British sewer agency (or whoever) has deemed that the rotten mass is not “fit and proper,” a term that defines the acceptance or rejection of certain entities from British life. For the record, the ride-share service Uber has been deemed not fit and proper, as well as Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News empire. Fatberg is in fine company.

In a mission straight from a movie by Jerry Bruckheimer, a team of fat-busters have been dispatched to go underground and break up the huge pile of filth. The main problem is that London’s sewer grid is a narrow, outdated system. It was built hundreds of years ago to handle cholera, typhus and unwanted children from the gaslight era. Even Jack the Ripper avoided using it, declaring that some things were just too horrible to tolerate. The underground workers have been complaining about the horrendous stench. They feel as if they were tricked, blaming the job posting, which was a bit vague. “Experience history. Tour classical London. Must love antiques.”

Disposable diapers and sanitary wipes seem to be the main clumpy culprits. They were designed to break down, not build up. But as it happens, Britain is getting a whiff of the unintended consequences of innovation and population. Either that or the artist Banksy has put together his finest urban installation. Fatberg will eventually sell for $50 million.

It’s not all bad news. In fact, when some of the workers were cutting up pieces of the blob for display in the British Museum they happened upon a rare sonnet, never published, from the one and only William Shakespeare. It has been categorized as Sonnet 18.5.

“Shall I compare Fatberg to a summer’s day? Thou art more sickening and gross. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, as do they carry the stink of poop and decay. Often, too hot the eye of heaven shines, and often its gold complexion dimmed, but who cares, really, when the heat from that sun just makes everything worse, from that pile of Nature’s stink, untrimmed. But Fatberg’s eternal summer shall not fade, most likely because it is a solid block of shit. This stuff just doesn’t go away, so there is no need to write a poem about it. As sure as men have putrid air to breathe and have watery eyes to see. So surely, lives you, Fatberg, for you are the creation of our debris.”
Not bad.
More Alembics to come.
Dedicated to J.P. Donleavy

The Gnarled and Gnarly Cult King of Cool

Kooky myself, sometimes I attract the kooks. In a way, I attract my own kind. Anyhow, I was minding my own business the other day at the local coffee shop, gearing up to write an essay about “Fatberg,” the enormous pile of garbage that is clogging up the London sewer system, when I felt a woman staring at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. I am not an overtly handsome man. I am somewhat nondescript, and because of that there is no reason for a stranger to regard me for any longer than they would a chair, or a countertop. True, she could’ve been mistaking me for somebody else, a desperate criminal on the run from the law, with a hefty reward for a tip leading to the apprehension of, and she the good samaritan who IDs the perp. Going back to my essay, I awaited the arrival of the federal marshals.

Eventually she approached my table and asked me if I liked pears.
“Sure,” I said, without thinking. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten a pear. When she had posed the question, though, my first thought was that I wasn’t openly against pears for any particular reason. We coexisted in harmony, pears and I, and so I hesitated to express an outright dislike for pears. I had sampled them from time to time. I wasn’t allergic as far as I knew. They didn’t taste like much either way, and in general terms I was trying to avoid use of the word ‘hate.’ We hate too hastily and recklessly these days, and I felt that serenity started with mindfulness of eloquence. Plus I would’ve been very offended if, theoretically, someone had asked a pear what it thought of Mark “Paddy the Duke” Hull and it had said, “You know what, fuck that guy!”

The woman went back to her table and returned moments later, with what looked like a misshapen potato wrapped in a napkin. I stared, not wanting to touch it.
“Here,” she said. “This is a pear from my garden.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought you meant do I like pairs. Like things that come in twos. It is my favorite method of travel. Um. In pairs.”
An odd silence ensued. Neither one of us believed me. Now she was hurt, saddened, offended, the rejection of her pear being a rejection, on some level, of her. I took the piece of fruit from her and placed it on the table, hoping that would satisfy her. She explained that they were special pears, totally organic, ten times as juicy, what a real pear should taste like.

I nodded, deciding, at that moment, that the pear was poisonous. The woman was trying to kill me. I was certain of it. She went back to her table. I got up and got a knife from the counter, returned to my seat and began slicing up the pear, in order to show some interest in the thing. Like a child who moves his food around on his plate in order to make it look like he has eaten some of it, I thought if I cut it up enough it would be the same as eating it. Moreover, now I was armed with a weapon. I put the knife down next to the sliced up pear and started writing my essay, trying to forget about the interaction. Of course, I couldn’t. Now I was writing about this strange woman trying to kill me with a pear. At least I was writing something. Lost in the “event horizon” of my own creative process, where gravity stretches me in strange ways, I was bounced back to reality by the woman, standing in front of me, asking me how I liked the pear?

This is a trick question! If I lie and say that I thought the pear was delicious, she would know that I was lying because the pear was highly poisonous. The only true answer would be my limp corpse stretched out on the table. Instead, I stood up and announced to the coffee shop, “Ladies and Gentlemen, for the record, and bearing witness, I want you all to know that I am about to eat a slice of a pear given to me, UNSOLICITED, by this mysterious woman standing in front of me!”
I took a wafer slice of the fruit and popped it into my mouth. I sat back down. It was very tasty. It warranted another slice.

“Excellent,” I nodded to the woman, “that is quite a juicy pear you’ve got.” I replayed that statement in my head and blushed a little, considering that, taken another way, it could’ve been construed as sexual harassment.
“I thought maybe we could swap,” she said.
“Swap what?”
“My husband is a huge fan of Harry Dean Stanton, the actor,” she said. “I thought maybe there was some way I could convince you to bargain for the tee shirt. The pear was my opening gambit.”

I looked down. I forgot I was wearing it. It was an old concert tee-shirt from a club tour that Harry Dean Stanton had done in the late 80’s with the group The Call. Here is a picture:


Here is the back:


“I’m sorry,” I said. “It is not for sale. This shirt has extreme sentimental value.”
“He died the other day,” she said.
I hadn’t heard. Crushed, I shuffled back to my house. Eventually I found out it was true. He was ninety-one years old. Not bad for a tequila drinking doper, and one of the best actors of his generation. I put in the old film “Repo Man” and watched Mr. Stanton explain the life of the repo man to a young Emilio Estevez.
“An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting INTO tense situations!”
Ad Astra Via Ingenium, my friend.
More Alembics to come.