After contributing to an earlier issue of What I Did Today, Carl Watson collected three two-thousand word essays to go along with his already published one, to complete his own follow-up issue. Here’s Michael Randall’s contribution. Michael is a terrific artist who shows at Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn, and an accomplished guitarist who sits in with Joe Maynard’s band, Maynard and the Musties, from time to time. He also edited the magazine Cheap Cigars years ago, presiding over inspired, beer-drenched readings at the old Cedar Tavern.
WHAT I DID TODAY
Plunging upward from sweet oblivion into the screaming terror of a new day. Eyes open but stone blind, a beastly metallic howl issuing from somewhere inches from my head…
I have no idea where I am. I’m naked and sweating and my heart and my head are both pounding so loudly it hurts. Instinct forms a fist and hurls it at the noise. More noise: something brittle (a lamp, perhaps?) crashing to the floor. I suck in air and swing again. This time fist meets plastic and the black void goes silent.
I grope around in tangled sheets and pull myself upright. Flashing at my feet is an evil red number: 6:00 AM. Across the void, a thin vertical slit of light becomes visible and I rise and move toward it, kicking lamps and bumping into unfamiliar furniture.
I pull back the curtain and see a loading dock, a couple of dumpsters. Beyond that, a weird man-made lake. Beyond that, a large shopping mall. It starts to come to me. Hotel off the interstate, just outside D.C. Out-of-town corporate gig. I’m here to direct a video for a rising biotechnology firm.
At a western-themed restaurant in the mall the night before, the cameraman and I had gotten trapped by torrential rains from the edge of a tornado. I’d taken it as a sign from the gods to switch from beer to bourbon.
I look down to see one of the hotel maids sitting on the curb by the dumpster, eating a candy bar. She’s staring up at me intently as she chews. I almost give her a little wave when it dawns on me I’m standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling window stark naked.
It’s a pretty easy shoot, as these things go. Six interviews with various executives interspersed throughout the day. We set up in a conference room and dig in to the breakfast spread laid out for us. For corporate America, this is a fairly laid back place. But as usual, the environment puts me on edge. I always feel like an imposter, a spy behind enemy lines.
Don’t get me wrong, these were generally nice people – friendly, smart, competent – but not one of them felt like they were a part of my tribe. I was pretty sure they had all awoken that morning with at least a general notion of where they were.
Even the most obvious cultural common denominators didn’t jibe. If they wanted to talk about sports, without fail it was football and basketball. I like to watch boxing and baseball. When hungover, women’s golf.
They spent their twenties getting advanced degrees in Business and Science. I spent mine starving, heartbroken, homeless or living in squalor.
They spent their thirties getting married, having kids, buying houses. Mine were spent boozing and whoring, making poems and plays and paintings and music and movies.
They spent their forties…well, the sad part was most of these captains of industry hadn’t even hit forty yet. And here I was in their midst: fifty-two, never been married, no kids. Not even gay – that they could understand, or at least deal with. No, I was somehow suspicious, alien. We shake hands and smile at each other but the hairs were raised on all our necks. Occasionally I’d catch them looking at me with an expression that seemed to call the very purpose of my existence into question. And that was a question for which I’d never had a r satisfactory answer.
It’s not like I could tell them about the stacks of poems stuffed in file drawers, or the nights spent sending music into the ether, or the ridiculous movies that no one will ever see, or the basement in Brooklyn overflowing with paintings. That answer satisfies me even less than it would them. In the face of overwhelming indifference, failure, lack of notice or recognition or financial gain – why do I continue to jeopardize my security, to exhaust my diminishing energy, to mortgage my dwindling future, just to chase after those things that once seemed close but now recede with every passing day?
These are the kind of things I’m actually thinking about as I smile and nod and pretend to listen to this parade of biotech execs answer the questions I read off the sheet. And maybe that’s the key to the uncanny valley that separates my species, my tribe, from theirs: nowhere in their speech, their manner, their words, can I detect the slightest trace of existential anxiety or dread. On the contrary, by the polished way they drone on I can only discern supreme confidence that their answers about the future of the biotechnology market neatly and completely justify the purpose of their existence.
It all goes well enough and we wrap shortly after 4 PM. By 4:30 I’m in the back of a limo that’s hurtling through Beltway traffic trying to get me to Union Station in time to make the 6PM Metroliner to New York. Most of the drivers from this car service are bullet-headed, monosyllabic Russian immigrants, but this guy’s American, about my age. Unkempt, with coke bottle glasses. Nerdy almost to the point of creepy. There’s that weird tension – the combination of forced intimacy and master/slave dynamic that always goes with being driven in a limo. But he’s playing nice music, groovy jazz guitar, and after a minute I hazard a guess.
“This Herb Ellis?”
His eyes shoot to the rearview and I see him reappraise me from scratch.
“Good ear,” he says after a long pause.
Turns out we both had previous lives as serious guitar players. It’s a moment of tribal recognition and we both relax a bit. For the remainder of the ride we’re both happy to geek out, trading names of great guitar players like two kids with baseball cards.
I miss my train, so go downstairs to the food court and get some fried chicken. DC is really a Southern town at heart and even this off-brand fast-food chain makes better fried chicken than I’ve ever gotten in New York. The black cashier with the prison tattoo on her neck notices my double order of collard greens and flirts with me a little bit.
I catch the next train and grab a window seat on the right, mostly for the water views you get passing through Delaware. I’ve been riding this stretch of track for over thirty years and the varying roll of the Eastern Seaboard never bores me.
Not long after Baltimore, the pretty blonde in front of me gives up her seat to let an old married couple sit together. I smile politely at her manners as she settles herself in the seat beside me. She looks right through me as if my seat were vacant. It’s a look I’ve seen before. Gallery owners use it when you introduce yourself as an artist.
She’s late 30’s, maybe 40, pretty in a generic sort of way. But her legs are spectacular. Bare and subtly muscular. I pretend to search for something in my left pants pocket, just so I can stretch and lean back to get a better look.
She’s working her Blackberry while trying to open her laptop and is having trouble with the tray table. I reach over and help her. Again, nothing. I’m an empty seat. So much for her manners.
So I turn to the window and watch the urban decay of Baltimore turn to semi-rural farmland. The slanting sun paints the familiar fields and barns and streams a soft gold.
I nod off and when I awake it’s pitch black outside. As the lights inside the train come on I realize I can now study her legs at length in the reflection in the glass. As she pounds the keyboard of her laptop, her short skirt rides up even higher on those taut thighs. I’m bored, and still a bit hungover, so to amuse myself I fantasize about those thighs. The short skirt and bare legs leads me to a complicated scenario about golf, but I’m not really hungover enough to make it work. So I imagine licking those thighs, rolling the tip of my tongue slowly up the inside of them, turning them bright pink. Just then her Blackberry rings and she takes the call.
In a bad South Jersey accent, she begins reaming out what I infer is one of her employees. The sound of her voice is awful and her ball-busting isn’t helping my fantasy either. I imagine taking just the bottom half of her to bed. Or at least to the club car bathroom for a quick one. But it’s game over.
She doesn’t raise her voice; instead she calmly and mercilessly dissects this poor schmuck on the other end of the line. I imagine some 27-year-old with ADHD and a budding substance abuse problem. This goes on and on, her voice, her bad accent and her attitude like a buzz-saw in my ear. I pull out my iPod and click on some country music. Halfway through Waylon singing Broken Promised Land the battery dies. In self-defense, I take out my cell and call my girlfriend.
I have a couple days off coming up – somebody else is going to have to edit all the crap I just shot – and so Lori and I talk about going up to our place in the country. Mostly we talk about all the stuff that needs fixing — the place needs a new water heater, the lake froze during the winter and pushed the dock off its moorings. In the middle of this litany I notice Legs has hung up on her call and is, in fact, eavesdropping on mine.
When I hang up, to my surprise she suddenly wants to make conversation. She apologizes for haranguing in my ear. Turns out she’s in mergers and acquisitions and has just taken over another company. The guy she was reaming out was the founder of the company, some 60-year-old billionaire who invented something to do with credit cards, blah, blah blah.
She chatters away, mostly about the stress of buying and selling companies for obscene profits. Somewhere in there the reason for her sudden interest dawns on me. She’s overheard me talking about my “country home” and has mistaken me for a member of her tribe. The tribe of the successful, the wealthy, the business class.
This amuses the hell out of me – I’m sure she’s picturing some grand stone manse instead of our tiny crumbling fishing cottage with the rusted-out rowboat on the lawn. I almost laugh out loud at this, but instead find myself just grinning away at her like an idiot.
She flashes me a wide grin in return. Her cheeks pinken and she leans in a little closer, her voice softer and deeper. “The worst part about this business,” she says, “is that it’s so hard to find people I can relate to…”
Oh, Christ, I think. Could it really be that in her tribe an idiot grin is interpreted as a come-on? Are my skills as an imposter so good that she’s mistaken my polite nodding and grinning for an attempt at seduction? Sex with this woman would be like an inter-species breeding experiment.
Unfortunately, this thought causes me to grin even more. I’ve always been more than a little amused by the blunt animal equation of natural selection. Toned thighs = house in the country. The sheer hard-wired glandular mechanics of it makes me laugh. She laughs back. Thinks we’re really hitting it off.
We’re still nearly an hour from New York, and I briefly consider getting off in Newark just so I don’t have to keep the conversation going. But it turns out she has no problem doing most of the talking, and I, as previously stated, am a seasoned professional in the art of nodding and feigning interest.
As the train pulls into Penn Station, I’m dreading that she’s going to ask for my card, or give me hers. I climb over her to get my bag from the overhead compartment. Decide to show some manners and get her bag down for her. She reaches for it and is about to speak when her Blackberry rings again. Immediately, she begins chastising some other unfortunate CEO. A break for me.
I drop her Louis Vuitton at her feet, mouth “good luck,” and beat it out of the train, heading fast for the reassuring perimeters of my own bed, my own girlfriend’s thighs, my own tribe.