So we’re about to be hit by hurricane Irene, alright! And, at the same time, Carl Watson spends the day in an upstate hospital with something akin to colitis – so it goes. Carl is the very person who would give both his health problems and the weather the finger. Since we can’t actually watch him do this, we’re gonna have to let him do the next best thing; give a Bronx cheer to the Lower East Side, and to the Unbearables who occasionally inhabit it via his two thousand word essay in the What I Did Today chapbook series.
You know the drill by now: The What I Did Today concept is chaired by Dan Waber. He owns a bookstore and a press, both entitled Paper Kite, in Kingston, Pennsylvania. If you wish to purchase the particular issue of What I Did Today with Carl Watson’s essay, or Susan Scutti’s, or Jim Feast’s, or mine, you have to contact one of us – the book is not for sale online. It is possible to read all four pieces in the wonderful online magazine you’ve obviously stumbled upon if you’re reading these words.
Ok, gents, hold onto yr skirts cuz here we go:
What I Did Today
by Carl Watson
As I get older I lose weight, I lose sleep, and I lose memory. I am supposed to take vitamin pills in the morning, but I almost always forget. I take Ginko Biloba to help me remember the vitamins. But I usually forget the Ginko too. That morning I ate a chocolate donut instead. Then I went through my exercise routine, which consists of getting dressed. It was Saturday morning and the trains were barely running, as usual, so it took an hour to get uptown. On 6th Avenue I knocked back a warm energy drink that I had stowed in my bag. I wanted to make an impression and I would need energy to do it. I showed up just in time for the conference. I was giving a speech on Henry Darger’s doodles at the Folk Art Museum and I was first up on the panel. I’d been bumped the day before because everybody went on too long. That was fine with me, but I had wasted a sleepless night worrying about it. If I have to get up in the morning, I don’t sleep at all. If I remember, I take sleeping pills to cure the insomnia. Usually I don’t.
On top of that there had been a party — one of those National Arts Club affairs, where everyone talks in upper-crustian accents and the woodwork is stained dark mahogany. The color of the wood is supposed be a sign for “old money” or “literariness” or some such thing. It does mean the lights have to be brighter so that all the old people with failing eyesight can see each other and that, of course, adds to global warming. But since old people are always cold maybe global warming is a good thing. A bunch of the downtown poetry crowd was there, dressed in whatever they thought would get them past the doorman. The invite did say business attire, but I don’t do business so I am not sure what such attire consists of. In any case, a good time was had. The non-alcoholic fruit punch flowed freely. That, along with the cookies, gave me an uncomfortable sugar buzz that would aggravate my insomnia later on, not to mention my stomach. But I take antacids for that, if I remember.
Time passed and I finally read part of my epic poem on the birth and evolution of the Sleepless Hobo — a passive take on the Odyssey, in which nothing happens at all. Suddenly it was closing hour and the swells threw us out. The party moved on to another location, a few doors down, overlooking Gramercy Park. Actually, it was less a house than an advertisement for a lifestyle. All the art on the walls was for sale. The house itself was for sale; the price was a mere 15 mil. It was a nice house for someone. Me and Ms. T stood in the corner eyeballing the food table. I remember giant wheels of salty cheese, clawed to crumbs by hungry bums, and trays of cold cuts devoured before they could even be identified, and cases of red wine that disappeared within seconds. (We’re talking about poets here.) Lee W. was yelling at me about some money I owed her, so I decided to leave. Besides, the booze was over.
But back to Saturday morning. There is an old tradition among certain sages, vagrants and sadhus, etc., that it is entirely possible to stand in one place for several years, possibly an entire lifetime, and never move. It is claimed that you will experience exactly as much of life as you would if you spent your time constantly on the run. The train of your thought combined with a radically increased attention to detail (not to mention the required kindness of strangers) would allow you to live a full and eventful life. It is the Hobo’s Aestheticism and one that I take seriously. I had a moment like that on 6th Avenue, as I pondered the coffee wagon before me. “Another chocolate donut?” I asked myself, figuring that if I just stood there long enough, the vendor might give me one just to get rid of me. Alas, the moment passed and I made my way to the Folk Art Museum to fulfill my duties.
I had a mini-hangover as I power-pointed my way through some power-point slides I had patched together the previous week. Despite not knowing how to use the program, I got to the end of the presentation albeit with a vague feeling that I hadn’t even delivered part of it; whole passages that seemed very important to my argument came to mind as afterthoughts and I could not remember speaking them. That doubt was followed by the fear that my speech made no sense. I nodded to the audience who seemed to be shaking their heads in confusion and I sat down to nurse the fog in my head. I listened to the other presenters. There are a small number of these Darger scholars around and I am one of them apparently. When the panel was over, people handed me some business cards and I handed them nothing in return. I haven’t had a business card in 58 years and I’m not starting now. Apparently the business thing continues to escape me. I don’t normally like these big conferences, whatever the discipline or theme. Everyone is so engaged and I just feel out of place. But then being out of place is what life is all about. So I wandered the Hilton Hotel hallways like the rough beast of disengagement that I am.
It was only slightly after noon and I had some time to kill. So I headed over to the
Conference Book Sale. The doorman was empathetic enough to let me in despite my appearance. The book sale was a pageant of promise. Indeed, it’s nice to know other people’s books are being printed and that the world moves ever forward, even though my world seems forever stopped. Everything was half price at the Conference Book Sale but I still did not have enough money to buy anything. I got a couple of free drawing pencils, and considered myself lucky, then I headed downtown. The Unbearables were meeting at the Life Café and I wanted to freshen up. For me that meant having some oatmeal and more coffee, plus a half can of Fosters that was still in the fridge from the previous afternoon. Then I laid back for a few moments and dreamed about being anywhere else other than my tiny apartment.
Having been resuscitated by the delicious “oatmeal and beer” snack, I hit the stairs. Someone had put up a big sign in the foyer of my building condemning the pot smokers who are apparently causing grief to the good law-abiding tenants. This kind of sign is a sign of the new “East Village” — people who rat out pot smokers and stomp around at all hours of the day and night in their 200 dollar heels and their designer clothes, whining about how the world is not living up to their privilege. I was sure whoever wrote this sign was causing their own grief with their incessant yammering and assholeness, so I pulled out my Sharpie and I made a note on the poster, calling him or her an asshole, then stepped outside into the exciting New York afternoon.
Did I mention it was a gray day? Well it was — grayer than the hair on an old poet’s head. I trudged up Ave. B thinking to arrive at the gathering somewhat late so I didn’t have to talk to many people. Apparently, however, I was right on time. Life Cafe was a sea of gray. And it wasn’t just the usual Unbearable crowd either; in fact there were more Unbearables than I had ever seen before in my life — it was as if suddenly anyone who ever even remotely thought they had anything to do with the Unbearable “mystique” had nothing better to do than to show up that day. They were crowding in the spaces between tables, they were chattering in corners, they were glomming in the social interstices of the sad café. There were so many Unbearables, one would have thought someone was giving something away for free. There were so many Unbearables one would have thought there must be a breeding farm somewhere out on Randall’s Island — a dark brick gothic building where old poets are sprouted fully formed from gray silk pods. And they all looked alike too, as if they were indeed breeding copies of themselves, but the genetic material had finally stagnated to the point nothing new could be produced. But then I was one of the old poets so I kept my commentary to myself and tried to enjoy the noise. I’m convinced that the people at the Life Cafe do not like us around. After all, no restaurateur wants to have their establishment overrun by a bunch of cheapskates. Besides all the nice polite East Village Professionals who were there for a quiet brunch or a business deal might get upset and leave. Nobody wants to be around old people — we smell funny and our clothes are out of date. Be that as it may, I took a seat at the bar to make the most of it. I don’t like sitting at tables, I feel imprisoned at a table. I drank. I talked. I looked at pictures. It was a big show and tell for grown-ups.
Later that evening, just as the day’s grays were fading and a rich “evening” brown was manifesting, and people were making their exits, I waved goodbye to Michael C. only to start a new conversation with Michael R. It had been so crowded I had not seen him before. He mentioned something about some lamb chops and bourbon. I figured that would be better than hanging around my apt staring at dirty paint and haunted curtains, so we headed over to his place. We put some Solomon Burke on the jukebox. I remember slicing into that lamb: it was succulent and tender and the rich red blood was food for the head. The bourbon too was the best I ever had — deep, woody and barely sweet. I vaguely remember a sing-along (Valley of Tears) and some other ancient forgotten lyrics. Glasses were filled and refilled. I vaguely remember stumbling down some avenue trying to find my way home in a neighborhood I have lived in for twenty years. In the old days I would have got mugged, but the East Village is safe now, if highly obnoxious. Crowds of obnoxious college students provided the safety of their backs. Indeed, they were all so self-absorbed with their self-similar pals that they didn’t notice the old poet leaning against their backs, taking short nano-naps, catching his breath before taking that next wobbling tenuous step into the void.
I read in some science magazine that the world is about nothing but increase and defeat — everything increases until it breaks or it can’t feed itself anymore, or it explodes into ruin. It’s the same old cycle of stuff, the stuff of life, the life of dream, the dream of stuff — no matter where you are in the universe. And I believe that there really is life everywhere, in every corner of the universe. In fact, I even believe there is no difference between the living and the dead, between the animate and the inanimate, the organic and the inorganic. Perhaps such dodgy beliefs are my way of explaining away my lack of ambition. But surely, when you come to understand that our bodies are nothing but sad gray sacks of chemicals self-organized out of the minerals and waters of the uncaring world, then it only seems natural that there should be idiots and poets like us all over the galaxy, meeting in poetry bars, drinking bourbon, and trying to make this ridiculous self-conscious existence have some meaning.
Alas, I was having another moment of Hobo Aestheticism in front of the door of my building, a moment rudely interrupted by some partying East Village drunks, who looked at me like I was an old bum trespassing in their New York dream. So I dragged my tired ass up the stairs. And Ms. T was there, waiting for me, and man she was pissed. Whatever it was, I said, it would have to wait till morning.