01 March, 2012

Shipping Out to Boston: The Beantown Massacre (Verses 1 and 2)

And Alice... Remember Alice? The song's about Alice. -Arlo Guthrie

I'm tired of being civilized. Look for me Butte. -Utah Phillips

Verse 1

I'm leaving Boston by train. 20 minutes or so in and moving along more or less on schedule. Although my stay here was brief, and I saw hardly any of the sites people are supposed to see when they go someplace as historic as Boston – my friend and host, Eric (heretofore after known as Neil The Protestant Saint) did point in the direction of the bridge where The Actual Tea Party happened.

[My use of capital letters was intentional. With the Koch Brothers financing the cadre of yahoos known as The Tea Party – which consists primarily... though not ENTIRELY... of lower class whites disenfranchised by the power mongers and money changers (in the Biblical sense... think about it.)and older white folks who probably consider themselves middle or upper middle class... primarily because they still have the hope of retirement, Snow-birding in Florida or Arizona, and a cool, comfy grave... who are alternately afraid that some great brown or black horde is out to destroy their way of life and also afraid they might have to start paying legal wages to get their landscaping done. Of course, on a FUNDAMENTAL level, there's probably not a lot of difference between this current batch of crackers who don't want to pay taxes and the historical bunch of crackers who didn't want to pay taxes. Except the pantaloons and the tri-fold hats.]

I had such ambitions for my visit. I knew it was going to be brief. I knew I would be heading back to the Midwest – as I am right now – to take care of some remaining details regarding my current and ending marriage and to make plans for the future. I don't know if you've noticed a particular pattern over the last 31 posts; but if you have, one of them might possibly be a certain desire to avoid conflict and put off thinking about What I'm Going To Do Next.


The truth is, I normally find it challenging enough to live in the present without having to worry about the future. But this trip – and the ones that will follow – are, underneath the bad varnish and veneer of my procrastination, all about The Future.

And of all my friends, probably the one who most interested in The Future is my friend Neil. Like my brother, he is tech-savvy and probably too smart for his own good. And, knowing my situation, and because he and I have always enjoyed what I like to think of as a certain meeting of the minds – we both had a predilection to wander into trouble when we were younger and we both wanted to be writers and we both liked our bourbon (Life long friendships have been forged over far less important things.) – he has been quick to not only offer his friendship and moral support, but some much appreciated assistance in the monetary vein when it was most needed. He also arranged for my transport from New York to Boston via Bolt Bus, allowed me to meet his wife, Laura, and their gold retriever, Clementine.

[I was supposed to meet Laura a few years back, when they were married in a picturesque chapel outside of Bloomington, Indiana. I was teaching at Arizona State and Melissa and I were, as always, in some cycle of living paycheck to paycheck; and even though I had almost a year to try and figure out how to get to Bloomington, the same thing happened that has always seemed to happen... a bunch or random events, seemingly unrelated, but still oddly conspiratorial in their result. And so, I wasn't able to make the trip. But Neil did show me pictures from the wedding. It was very nice. I (still) felt appropriately guilty for missing it.]

Neil works in the IT Department at Harvard, though they are looking hard at trying to move in the next few years. Laura is in the process of building up a business out of their apartment in the suburbs– Pansy Maiden Handmade Purses. Neil told me, based on the progress she's making that he expects she will be the primary bread winner by the time he's 40.

Like many of my friends, Neil and Laura are trying to be healthier and more conscious of what they eat. As a result, they're now full-fledged vegans. Now, let me say that even though I still occasionally want a hamburger or a well prepared steak (there's really no point to any other kind and anything else is an insult to the cow and to the person eating it), and even though I like chicken and I like fish when it's properly prepared (for the similar reasons as listed above), I am not opposed to a mostly vegetarian diet. I like the food; and when it's done right, it doesn't have to be expensive. I don't know that I could give up eggs and cheese on a regular basis; but I understand the impulse. The drive behind it has to with striving to live as close to a healthy and pure life as possible. And while some folks take this to an almost obsessive extreme, Neil and his wife, like my friends Susan and Steve in New York, are thoughtful and rational about the whole process. In some ways, Neil's desire to pay attention to the nutrients he takes in reminds me a little of Arc in Washington, D.C. (Though Arc is far more obsessed in his approach; maybe it's some derivative impact of being an IT person of a particular generation, not of my brother's... though he is, in his own way, extremely particular.) And I must confess that both meals I had under Neil and Laura's roof – a vegan Sloppy Joe and baked brussel sprouts (the best way to eat sprouts, I now believe) and a vegan Shepherd's Pie that was also really very good with a little sea salt and pepper) – were both wonderful.

[People who cook confirm for me what I learned during the process of learning how to cook over the past decade: when you know how to cook, and when you're willing to play with your food in healthy ways, you don't have to spend a lot and you don't have to go hungry, and you don't have to eat garbage. Me, I'm a big fan in rice and beans. Learn it. Live it. Love it.]

Neil met me at Boston's South Station – a huge mass/public transit depot for Amtrak, commuter rail, and bus (Greyhound, Bolt Bus, Lucky Star, Peter Pan). Of the stations I've been in, South Station is one of the better conceived and better kept up. It has all the ambition of Union Station in D.C, but it's not in a state of perpetual construction; it has all the goods and services and kiosks that you expect in an urban transit center, but it's still laid out in a logical way. Boston may be a back water in comparison a place like New York; (even Neil admitted this was the case... and considering where he's from in Kentucky, he knows quite a bit about the nature, scope, and definition of back water. So I am inclined to trust his opinion... except maybe on his newly acquired interest in the Red Sox. At least they're not the fucking Yankees, damn their eyes.) however, at least they know how to build and maintain a train station.

As usual, the cold weather was also there to greet me, and we made our way through an entirely too brisk wind for such a mild winter to a restaurant where I ate a respectable mission burrito (rice, tomatoes, black beans and some guacamole. A nearly perfect meal.) and a cup of coffee. He then wanted to stop a bar, promising me beer with 10% alcohol (Budweiser has about 5%, by way of a loose … very loose … comparison.); but the bar was crowded. So we went on back to his and Laura's place in the burbs, the idea being we could drink there just as easily and far cheaper.

Verse 2

[A Brief Primer on Drinking and the Creative Process:

While it's true that I do and that I have spent many happy hours sitting in bars or in a friend's home drinking, it's not something I consider a real problem. Others may disagree. They are entitled. Since leaving Kentucky I've stayed – much to my surprise and sometimes to my dismay – amazingly sober. It's expensive to drink on road. And believe it or not, I have friends who don't drink. No. Really. Sober people occasionally enjoy spending time with me. Granted they may be laughing at me behind my back; but I'm usually too drunk to pay attention.]

When people have asked me what I studied in graduate school, I very rarely give a straight answer. This is due, no doubt, to a certain puckishness on my part; I'm just as apt to answer Mechanized Finger Painting as I am Professional Underwater Leg Shaver. Sometimes I tell people I majored in loafing as an undergraduate and went on to study the fine art of sloth and indolence in graduate school.

None of these – except Mechanized Finger Painting and Professional Underwater Leg Shaver (I have trouble holding my breath) – is really all that inaccurate. After all, I was (in truth) an English major. And what was worse, I was one of those who aspired to write.

[Now, all you English Majors out there, writers or not, who are screaming at your laptop about just how WRONG my characterization is, please do consider this: if you declared English as a major (May Gawd Have Mercy On Your Eternally Damned Soul) chances are, you like to read. I mean, at least slightly better than half. Say 51% chance. Right? (Nod in agreement.) Ok. So you have to read a lot of stuff you probably wouldn't have and you maybe don't give a good god damn about Dickens or Matthew Arnold or Alexander Pope or whether Sir Francis Bacon was the talent behind Shakespeare or whether it was really his sister Anne, or what. To be honest, I didn't give a damn, Except for the erotic literature (which probably isn't period and certainly isn't canonical), I LOATHE most of the Victorian Era … including Dickens, in spite of his massive social conscience. That he was paid per word, and published his works serially... I don't really object to. Dostoyevsky was paid by the word too, and wrote copiously... but at least he was doing something noble and trying to pay off gambling debts. The point is, essentially, you get to read. You have to learn how to write about what you read and become, in fact, BETTER readers. And if you don't like Return of the Native(which I like, having read it years later) or The Old Curiosity Shop(which I like in spite of Dickens. Hard Times, too. So Suck it.) you don't have to. You just have to be able to explain in precise and bloody terms WHY.]

One of the other things I often tell people is that I majored in GTA (That's GRAND THEFT AUTO, the video game) and beer. (When I was teaching, students especially enjoyed that particular description.) The reason I have told people that is that my entire last semester, other than teach, and work on my creative thesis (Buckeye Gumbo), I was half-assing my way through my one lit class, drinking a lot of beer, and playing video games. I lived in a house with a bunch of other guys who engaged in the same noble pursuit.

And it was nothing short of glorious. As a man, you never really understand yourself as a man until you admit that, even in your early 30's you need to drink beer, eat pizza, and play video games. Or do something else that is maladjusted and anti-social and potentially embarrassing for for friends, lovers, and family to have to explain to others (only when asked and usually with great trepidation.)

Neil was one of the guys who, even though he didn't officially live there – neither did I, for that matter – who was always there and engaged in what can only be described as the contemporary version of the scrotum scratching tribal drum circle that Robert Bly made himself famous for. For my part, I haven't picked up a game controller since we pawned the PS2 in Phoenix to help pay for the move. (Then again, I have moved on to other, more disreputable pursuits... journalism and gambling among them. It's also important to keep your sins down to a reasonable number... say, drinking plus 3. Plus 4 if it's a holiday.) Neil has a gamer's dream: 52 inch plasma screen (LCD isn't THX certified), a PS3 and and an Xbox. (It's important to have everything covered.) He's also got that set up where You Become The Controller.

So he made us drinks and we played darts. Virtual darts. Which I sucked at. But then again, they weren't real, so it didn't matter anyway....

The drinks were Rum and Ginger Ale. I don't normally drink rum, primarily because it doesn't always sit well in my system. Too much sugar maybe. But The only thing bourbon related he had was a partial pint of Jim Beam... which, when I mentioned it, I thought maybe he was ashamed. Maybe.

We spent the night catching up and talking about mutual friends, which is always nice. I had some updates since I've had the opportunity to visit old friends on this particular jaunt. Neil, who is much taller than I actually remember him being, spent a lot time talking about not only how he's happy with the direction of his life, and how happy he is with Laura, but also telling me that even though I'm going through something with the ending of my marriage to Melissa, that I also have a chance to make something good out of it.

“You can write yourself out of this,” he said.

It made me feel good... one, that he's been reading. And two, that he still knows me... even though we actually hadn't seen one another in person since I left Morehead in 2002.