FATTY BURGERS Part 1 –The Bum Seeks Work–

I’ve written elsewhere how I wound up in a campground outside Gallup, New Mexico, feeling a bit of a fool for having trusted a woman I likely ought not have trusted, but unsure whether I should completely abandon the girl, as I had vowed I would stand by her through thick and thin, even “forever and a day”. My honor was in tatters, but the flag hadn’t quite fallen.

THE NOVEL THAT NEVER WAS | Sunrise’s Swansong (wordpress.com)

I had reasons to resist my impulse to ditch the dame. For one thing, there was a slight chance I’d gotten her pregnant. A pregnancy test stated otherwise, but such tests were not infallible. On the test’s box it stated there was a 6% chance the test was wrong. Even if the woman despised me, and deemed any further devotions on my part the attentions of a geeky stalker, I felt I should stand by, if I was even a half-decent man. Not that I felt half-decent. To be honest I felt about as decent as used toilet paper.

Eventually it became clear she was not pregnant, was in fact sleeping with another fellow, and finally that she had left that other fellow, and the area, to go mooch off live with a new person far away. However these sorry revelations took time to penetrate my thick skull, and during the time it took for things to clarify, I made an effort to find work, and save money, and even to find a place we might live, in case what wasn’t going to happen did happen. I prepared for a reunion that never occurred. In a sense I was multiplying my foolishness, but I was a responsible fool.

I was a believer in fairy tales, clinging to hope, but the hope was like a life raft developing more and more leaks. Eventually I was holding the life raft up, rather than it holding me up. In other words, my hopes were becoming absurd. I couldn’t help but cringingly see what a fool I had been.

By this point I had hoisted myself up by my own bootstraps, first working in a lumber yard, then as spot labor, then collecting bottles, cans and even green stamps from a supermarket parking lot, then selling my plasma, then working at a gas station, and finally landing a job as an assistant manager at fast food joint I’ll dub “Fatty Burgers”. I had moved from a sodden tent, to a camper, and finally to a nice room in Gallup’s El Rancho Hotel (which bragged Ronald Regan once stayed there.) However this material success reeked of pointlessness and emptiness, when the woman who it was all for gave no indication of being impressed, or even caring the time of day for me. Eventually I could fool myself no longer. I had to face the fact I had been ditched. It was as if there was a poster in the post office with my face on it, proclaiming I was not wanted, dead or alive.

My diary makes pitiful reading, at this time. What a colossal bozo I was! One of the most cringe-worthy elements was my attempts to ignore the glaring facts, by seeing the bright side, the better side, the hopeful side. Someone could have run me over with their truck, and I would have complimented their white-walled tires.

Eventually even a fool sees truth sinking in. Then the demolishment of his hopes and dreams is not a pleasant experience, especially if he is a sensitive poet with high ideals. In fact it is a time when high ideals make misery far worse than is experienced by more hard-hearted individuals, who expect little from their fellow man (and woman). However the tale of this rise and fall holds many lessons.

Gallup in 1984 was not a place to see much that was encouraging, on a simplistic, materialistic level. It’s economy was reeling from successive blows to all the ways the local folk made money. Gallup’s coal mine had closed when transcontinental trains switched from coal to diesel, and later the uranium mines closed as back-to-nature California hippies protested that never-left-nature Navajo were facing radiation, although many Navajo drove pick-up trucks and to them it was as if the hippies were protesting Navajo making high wages at the mine. At the same time these same California hippies wanted to look cooler than they could afford to look, following the fashions of Hollywood actors and actresses who made cowboy movies in Gallup, and therefore hippies bought fake Navajo blankets from Mexico to hang on their walls, and fake turquois Navajo jewelry from Singapore to dangle from necks and wrists, and fake baskets and fake pottery from Los Angeles artisans to place on fireplace mantles, and this caused the Native American jewelry and Native American weaving and Native American pottery trades (Hopi and Zuni as well as Navajo) to suffer grievous slumps. The Hollywood stars Californians wanted to emulate then decided making Westerns was passé, and film-crews and stars didn’t stay at the El Rancho any more, nor were Navajo extras needed to portray attacking Indians on galloping horses, (making a fifty dollars bonus if they fell “shot” from the horse at a full gallop). Meanwhile all the motels and restaurants and tourist-traps along old Route 66 were losing money and closing down, as the new Interstate 40 bypassed them. The flurry of work caused by the construction of I-40 had come and gone, one more boom followed by one more bust, in a desert prone to producing ghost towns and Anasazi ruins. In fact my personal climb from a cold and sodden tent to a comfortable El Rancho Hotel room was the exception to the rule. Most were experiencing a fall from luxury to, if not gutters, then to a serious cutback in life’s joyous lavishness. The bar-tender at the El Rancho Hotel told me the beer formerly was delivered every day, and twice a day on Saturdays, but now only came once a week. In many ways the light had left the city, as many awoke in a cold dawn of shattered dreams.

When I had the time to think about it, (which wasn’t often, as I had to hustle so hard,) I was not of a mindset that wanted to join the depressed. Perhaps being a faithful fool and good provider hadn’t gotten me anywhere with the girl who abandoned me, but I was in no mood to get drunk for a long time, and awake in a gutter. I wanted to fight such despondency. However I found beer helpful in mustering a sort of Dutch Courage, and therefore it is true, I confess, I did occasionally awake in a gutter.

My diary contains some complaining I did to God about the fact my virtue seemed more inclined to make me look like a sucker, than to earn me any sort of reward. In fact my motto for that time was, “The Right thing is never the Rewarding thing.” This is quite contrary to the view of some, which is that if you “convert” (to whatever) you promptly see a miraculous increase in your bank account.

It may be true, in the long run, that “no good deed goes unrewarded”, but we live in the short run. And in the short run, and especially in Gallup in 1984, it seemed that “no good deed goes unpunished”.

For some reason God permitted me to give Him lectures, in 1984, about how it was wrong for a nice fellow like me, who meant so well, to wind up ditched. Looking back, I lacked the very patience God was displaying towards me. If God had been as intolerant as I was, rather than permitting me to give Him lectures, He would have thunderously stated, “How dare you lecture God?” and turned me to a crispy cinder. Instead he smiled, and continued the lesson he was teaching me.

What was He teaching? I honestly can’t say I know. Our Maker’s ways are way, way over my head. They involve far more than my puny self. They involved what was the best for every person in the complex situation, (and even for any stray dogs, cats and rattlesnakes in the vicinity). However I can speak humbly for myself, and tell of what a lone loner like myself learned.

What I learned was that I was haughty, and thought highly of myself, as if I was more moral, more enlightened, and my deeds were more likely to result in goodness. My vanity was involved. I was concerned it “made me look bad”, when I was ditched, rather than entirely thinking and caring about the person who ditched me. (Not that I didn’t think of her, but also I thought of myself.)

Neither I was a spiritual novice, at age thirty-one. I was well aware egotism has a nasty habit of resurrecting itself even in our best efforts to be selfless. I was constantly attempting to scold my own arrogance. I was more than willing to suffer for others, putting aside my “selfish desires” for a “greater good.” However on some level I felt this made me superior, and therefore unable to fall as flat on my face as I saw others falling. God seemed to think it would do me good to see I could fall far flatter.

For example, others might have shallow, fleeting relationships, “one night stands”, but I was above such cheap, reprehensible behavior. I saw myself as more faithful than the stupid super-hero James Bond, (who was rather adept when it came to one-night-stands, but a lousy father-figure, in terms of monogamous loyalty). I would never subscribe to the philosophy of “use her and lose her.” I would stand by my woman. But…when the woman ditches you, despite all your talk of loyalty, you yourself find yourself in a position of being part of, if not a one night stand, then an “abbreviated” relationship. You are just another cowboy in the El Rancho Barroom, singing the blues. Your blues may have an element of loyalty, in that they wish for reunion, but there is a certain pathos in such singing, when the future will reveal such wishes “jus’ ain’t goin’ t’ happen”.

Up until this point in my life I’d always been scornful of the pathos in country music, which seemed to moan and groan about the inevitable. I mean, when we buy a puppy we know we’ll likely outlive the cur; why get so maudlin when the old dog dies? But in the El Rancho barroom such tenderness didn’t seem so overblown, and I even wrote some country lyrics of my own, which I called, “Bartoon”:


Been a while since I missed
Like I’m missing tonight.
Though the beer’s really good
And the band is all right
And a gal with intent’s
To the left of my sight
     I don’t meet her eye.
     I don’t even try.
Been a while since I missed like I’m missing tonight.

I’m missing the chance
To dance and then score;
To smile and smile broader
And walk out the door
With warm at my elbow;
A warmth I adore;
     And she is right there
     But hell if I care.
Been a while since I missed like I’m missing tonight.

My table is empty
But there is a chair
And easy as drinking
You could be there.
The chair-leg would scrape.
You’d hide in your hair,
      Look up, and say “Hi”
      In a sort of a sigh.
Been a while since I missed like I’m missing tonight.

I really was delighted by this poem, as I completed it on a napkin in the El Rancho dining-room and barroom, listening to a hired group play “oldies” for a largely unappreciative audience in a largely empty ballroom. I had that wonderful feeling writers get, when the words “all come together”, and weeks of rotten writing resolve into the production of a single decent ditty. I even wondered if the lyrics might be my “break-through”, my “one-hit-wonder”, which (for some poets) ends artistic poverty with a brief bonanza. I gave the weary musicians on the stage an appraising glance, wondering if they might be the medium which would end the dreariness of my barely-scraping-by.

Such optimism was often what sustained me back then, though there was no truth to my dreams. I’m now more than twice as old, and know the lyrics never made me a dime. Instead I enjoy the old song because I appreciate the self-expression, and how it accurately portrayed my spiritual dilemma. I was in essence being faithful to the unfaithful, which is like offering a strawberry to a pig.

Pigs are more pragmatic than most poets, and are more focused on truth of a down-to-earth sort. This dichotomy resulted in a second good song from that time of downfall:

When Truth first met the Faithful One
Sweet Truth had sighs to say:
“I feel that now our love will last
Forever and a day.”
The Faithful One enchanted was.
Truth caused his soul to thrill,
And all that he could say to her
Was, “Yes. Oh yes, it will.”

But Truth could never tell a lie
And so there came a Day
When she broke Faith by telling him
“My Love feels gone away.”
The Faithful One was shattered
And groaned this in his woe,
“If love has gone please tell me where
For there I have to go.”  

These lyrics also struck me, at the time, as splendid poetry, beyond my ordinary ability, and perhaps another one-hit-wonder, (a two-hit-wonder?) but once again it never made me a dime. As an artist, doing the right thing was once again not the rewarding thing. Which begs a question: Why be right?

The answer is simple: Being wrong hurts. I knew this because I had been prone to attempting “alternative lifestyles” which scorned traditional “conservative” morality, but which tended to wind me up in pain. I was a scientist, and conducted experiments. I had first-hand experience of what the “alternative” to right was (and is), and what it was (and is) is: Wrong.

This forced me to compare “good” with “evil”, which is one heck of a subject to grapple with, if you can find the time. Why? Because “good” for most people is not based on anything even slightly spiritual. “Good” is just the gratification of your lustful desire. If you crave a cigarette, it is “good” to get one, and “evil” to be denied.

In spiritual terms “good” is different. “Good’ may be to not get what you desire. It may be “good” to quit cigarettes, though it makes you feel like manure baked in a pie.

In like manner, most spiritual behavior involves the loss of some desired gain. You want the pleasure of punching a fool in the nose, but instead restrain yourself and are tolerant. You want lust gratified, but instead remain pure. You want to grab and cling to gold, but instead reject greed for generosity. You desire might and power, but instead allow others to come first. In many ways all the things that go into low concepts of being a “winner” are set aside, because being a “loser” is seen as “better”.

This seemingly self-destructive behavior demands some sort of explanation, and the explanation is easy if you have ever tasted Love. Love makes mincemeat of a lot we usually call sensible, pragmatic and even sane. Yet Love is impossible to intellectually explain, (which is why country music and poetry and even drums were invented).

In some senses Love is like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where the black and white film switches to color and Dorothy says, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The dreary is illuminated as if by a sunbeam, the dull enlivened by intelligence, the worthless made worthy, and one is immediately addicted. But it is an odd addiction, for there is no pill involved. There is nothing to gobble or grab, no body you lustfully clutch. In fact Love cannot be grasped, for the experience is achieved by letting go. You let go of your selfishness, and open out to another. Rather than the pinched existence of a Tweezer with his tweezers, the vista of a whole new world opens up, as if you crested a hill and discovered a new and better world spread out before you. You are like Balboa sighting the Pacific for the first time.

The joke of it is that we gain so much not by grabbing, but by letting go. This is utterly opposite the pragmatism of a pig. In fact, in most cases, during our fleeting and tenuous glimpses of the grandeur of Love, we incorrectly ascribe some “thing” as being the cause of our bliss, and clutch at that “thing” and make it a false-god, when in fact our fleeting glimpse of Love was a glimpse of the Real God. Furthermore, in most cases it came about not because we grabbed some worldly “thing”, but rather because we let go of sanity, (and it paid off).

For example, it is stupid for a Plugger, barely able to pay his bills, to gamble, but suppose a Plugger abandons sanity and destroys his budget, buying fifty lottery tickets on his way home from work, one day when he is especially fed up, perhaps even to the point of suicide. And suppose he is transformed by a winning ticket into a instant multimillionaire. For just a moment all his problems seem solved, and he is walking on cloud nine. However what exactly solved his problems? Was it the winning lottery ticket, or the momentary abandonment of sanity?

I assert, for the purposes of argument, that it is the abandonment of what we call sanity, more often than not, that opens the portals of Love, and gives us just a glimpse of a life far better. And what is this so-called “sanity” we abandon? It is the chains of our hankering, whether it be the hankering for heroin or for fine art. Our desires are our downfall, yet we call them sanity.

To conclude this venture into the realms of theory, (far from the pragmatism of a pig), the premise is arrived at which states that, if only we could become desireless, we might experience the full blast of Love, all the time.

This concept, somewhat Buddhist in nature, had a certain appeal to me. But I’d tried it, in my clumsy way. I’d been there and done that, and found withdrawing from the world worse than boring.

In my hippy manner I’d attempted to find some remote cave, (perhaps not in the Himalayas, but far from a Real Job), and had contemplated, if not my navel, my poetry, and had seen it become horribly ingrown.

Why horrible? That is an entirely different tale for some other time, but it basically boils down to, “Nothing ventured; nothing gained.”

My withdrawal seemed like that of a seventy-year-old man still living with his ninety-year-old mother, (Like Prince Charles with Queen Elisabeth).

When I use the word “ingrown” it is in it’s most negative context, like a toenail hurting the toe it is part of, like a person so preoccupied with himself he is the antithesis of selflessness even as he sits cross-legged doing yoga pretending he is like Buddha.

To be honest, my early attempts to be desireless were a complete failure, except for the fact they prompted me to loathe sitting in a cave (which was my mother’s basement.) Nothing, it occurred to me, could be less loving than to reject the entire world, (with the possible exception of suicide.) Rather than the portals of Love opening, sitting in a cave faced me with sterility, and a barrenness so empty, boring, and downright poisonous I was propelled away from such horror into the travails of life, even if it involved living among unsympathetic people who had no inkling why I might want to sit in a cave in the first place.

And why might that be? It is because the world has no inkling. Most people are pragmatic pigs, (and in many ways I include myself). Most people are enslaved by chains of desire, and desire their chains like a heroin addict desires his heroin. Desire enslaves them to their daily dose. They have no inkling of what exists outside their desire.

The problem with being a poet is that you have an inkling, very slight in some cases, that glory exists outside of the daily dose. In some way, (often amazing, if you ask them,) they have seen beyond desire. And once they have seen it, they are forever restless. Whatever they desired before is no longer worthy of worship. If they are a heroin addict, they may still go for their daily dose, but they are restless. If they are a bigshot politician, they may still go for reelection, but they are restless. They know the daily dose is not enough. The answer lies beyond desire.

Even pigs seek what is beyond desire, for they want to eat until the desire to eat stops gnawing at them, and they are sated, and can flop down bloated and desire no more. Then pigs enjoy a brief time of piggy peace, before the gnawing starts again.

In like manner, lust seeks what is beyond lust, for after orgasm is a time when desire is no more, before it starts to gnaw again.

And during that brief moment of piggy peace, what is seen? What is so pleasant? Is it not a brief glimpse of what life might be like without desire?

What poets see, and most don’t, is that the same peace is always around us, enfolding us, soothing us, whether we eat until we can’t, or not; or achieve orgasm, or not; or win reelection, or not; or write a one-hit-wonder, or not. For most the “…or not” leads to the agony of frustrated desire, but for poets the “…or not” is the so-called “suffering of a poet” which opens the portals of Love.

The poet sees the beauty of the sky even when sleeping in his car. He sees beauty in in the faces of fellow workers even while washing dishes. It is a beauty which requires no prerequisites. You don’t have to be a winner, for it is there when you’re a loser.

And perhaps this is the beginning of taming desire, and not being so subservient to low impulses. Rather than seeing “good” as merely the gratification of desire, one sees “good” in putting desire aside. Rather than giving in to lust one is pure. Rather than giving in to hate one is kind. Rather than lashing out one is tolerant. Rather than greedy one is generous. This new definition of “good” is not all that different from the old, for it too seeks to gratify desire, but now the desire is otherworldly, and, to the worldly, appears insane.

And this, roughly, was my state of mind when I walked into the little Fatty Burgers on old Route 66 in Gallup. On one hand I was just looking for a job, but on another hand I was a poet looking deeper.

As a poet, I felt God had blessed me with a gift, or “talent”, and when I died I did not want to stand before God and be accused of “burying my talents.” (Jesus told a tale where a particular servant was given coins called “talents”, but was so afraid of investing unwisely he buried the coins, and later handed them back to his master unused. The master was very angry the servant had not used the gift.) For this reason I justified pushing the limits of writing-without-a-patron-or-sponsor, but over and over I eventually reached a point where I was so destitute I simply had to get a job. I grumbled a lot to God about being unrecognized, and being placed in such predicaments, when God could just have well blessed me, like He blessed other equally weird poets, with one-hit-wonders.

However I also assumed God knew what He was doing, and was asking me to not to bury my talents, but rather to bring them into a workplace. Rather than poems on paper I’d write them aloud, as doggerel to entertain fellow workers, or perhaps as limericks about the boss for workers, or perhaps limericks about workers for the boss.

But I never liked the prospect beforehand. Initially asking for a job was as bad as asking a girl you greatly desire for a dance; refusal was devastating. The prospect was so painful I had to give myself all sorts of pep-talks before I’d even attempt asking. I’d huff and puff like a Olympic weight-lifter about to set a new record, and lower my shoulder like an armored knight about to bash through an iron gate. But, when I first arrived in Gallup, on three separate occasions, (at a lumber yard, a gas station, and at Fatty Burgers), something odd occurred.

Just before all three occasions I muttered something like, “OK God, you aren’t going to fund my writing, and so you must want me to work a Real Job. But I’m only good at poetry and have nothing else to offer. But to obey You I will ask over and over, at place after place, even if it takes me a week, along the entire length of Route Sixty-six, from east side of Gallup to the west.” Then I’d gaze down the highway at all the small businesses, my expression very weary, as if I’d already asked at all places, though I hadn’t asked at one. I’d sigh and slump at the prospect of so much begging, but then, stiffening my spine, and mentally screaming a “Hee-yuh” like a karate master cutting a brick in two with a chop of his hand, I’d walk through the first door, and immediately be hired.

The ease of the hiring was so unexpected that it was like lowering your shoulder to barge through a door, and having the door be opened just as you got there. If it happened just one time it would have been weird enough, but to have it happen three successive times seemed downright bizarre.

At the lumber yard and gas station I didn’t even have to fill out an applications; I was told I could “do that later”, and instead was immediately put to work. Also I found the interviews enjoyable, in and of themselves, which was something new for me. The experience of asking for work no longer seemed full of dread, of fearing possible rejection, like asking a beautiful woman for a dance, (or, if it was, it was like enjoying the chat with the beautiful woman even if she didn’t want to dance).

When I thought about it, the experience of asking for work in Gallup was a little like hitchhiking, where I always enjoyed the conversations with the people who picked me up. Hitchhiking also was an experience involving “asking”, but somehow the request was wonderfully simplified; all you needed to do was dangle out your thumb; also the rejections didn’t seem so painful, (though it could get annoying when an hour passed and several hundred cars whooshed past, each one a rejection). But, when someone finally did stop, I’d almost always find the driver in the mood to talk, both about themselves and about me.

This same general inquisitiveness seemed to inhabit most job interviews I underwent in Gallup, (and there turned out to be many, over the following four years.) Perhaps it is part of the local culture; it is an area where few are “from” the area and most are “passin’ through”, and therefore there is a curiosity about where people are coming from and where people are aiming. I came to enjoy such chats, but, when I first arrived, any interest in a no-account loser like myself seemed uncanny, and even a little supernatural.

When I say “supernatural” I suppose I am to some degree confessing I own boyish superstitions which extended into manhood. One simply tends to notice when their luck suddenly changes. One may scientifically know that when one flips a coin the odds are fifty-fifty it will be heads or tails, but one also has a gambler’s nose that sniffs out times the odds are defied; in like manner athletes speak of “hot streaks” and “cold slumps” as if they involve something other than mundane levels of concentration; also fellows asking girls to dance speak of “getting lucky.” Fishermen are equally superstitious about when and where the fish are found, and although books stated the greatly-desired fish “halibut” was so named because “but” was an ancient word for “flat fish” and halibut was eaten on holy days, the fishermen themselves (in Maine) said the fish got its name because “but” was an ancient word for “boat”, and halibut was a greatly-desired catch, and any boat that caught one was blessed, or a “holy boat”; [IE: “Hali But”.]

Even when I was at my most cynical and considered myself a hardened Atheist I tended to become slightly mystical when hitchhiking. Not that I prayed, but I did mutter to myself, peering through windshields at the practiced indifference of passing drivers, noting the way some carefully looked the other way, or down at their dashboards, or adjusted their rear-view mirror, and at times these conversations-with-myself became interesting. (Pity I had no way of recording them, but cellphones hadn’t been invented). Likely much of my luck hitchhiking had to do with how long my hair was, and how harmless or threatening I appeared, but there could be inexplicable times when my luck was very “good”, and times my luck was very “bad”, and my conversations were with whatever-it-was that controlled such destiny. The deserted roadside would hear a lot on grumbling and complaining as car after car passed, and then a resounding “Yes!” when a driver finally pulled over.

This sort of conversation began even before I became an Atheist, continued while I was an Atheist, and grew more evident as my Atheism withered away. In a sense it was talking-to-God, which may seem an odd thing for an Atheist to do, but I once knew a man whose final statement as an Atheist was, “Will You please shut up!”

An odd aspect of such conversations is that they are encouraged by bad luck, hunger, loneliness and fear. People may think they don’t believe in ghosts, until passing through a graveyard at midnight, and soldiers say, “There are no Atheists in the foxholes.” A major episode in the withering of my own Atheism involved being out in small sailboat in a big storm. Eventually many Atheists decide, at the very least, that they are Agnostics. I passed through that phase as well, but by age thirty-one I was definitely a Believer.

For many of us our level of faith is determined by whether our luck is good or not. Good luck reaffirms our faith while bad luck breeds doubt. However I had noticed, at some point, that when times were good I had a tendency to forget about God, whereas hard times awoke the urge to pray. When you think about it, this makes no sense whatsoever: We pray more when our faith is less? However it does seem to be a human tendency, and, if it is reality, then it would make sense for God to dish out some bad luck. Even God might get a little lonely when we ignore Him, and, if we are going to be so ungrateful about good luck, perhaps bad luck is God’s way of getting our attention, and even of playing hard-to-get in a Divine Romance.

By age thirty-one my attitude towards hard times was starting to change. Not that I ever looked for hardship; I’ve always preferred voluptuous luxury; but in some strange sense the greatest luxury of all was the sense God was near, and I had that sense most when times were hard and luck was bad.

Call it masochism if you will, but there is a reason people suffer the ordeal of climbing mountains. The reason is a Beauty unseen when you molder at home, and the same Beauty walks with you when you suffer like a poet on the street. To me the perception of such Beauty seemed a state of heightened awareness, where things we usually take for granted, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, gain great significance simply because you’re hungry. (In some ways it is quite similar to being high on marijuana, without the brain damage.) Because you are so much more appreciative, you notice discrepancies from the norm, such as getting work the first place you ask, three times in a row.

At the lumber yard I just happened to walk in the first morning of an inventory, and no one was much looking forward to counting the vast, jumbled confusion of boards, beams, molding and dowels. The job lasted for the four weeks it took to sort out the confusion, and I apparently was good at it, (perhaps because my own life was a confusion in need of sorting), for they stated I’d be welcome back the next year.

At the gas station I arrived “running on fumes”, and was desperate for even a job sweeping a floor, for a quarter of a gallon of gas, but I just happened to walk in when the air stunk strongly of marijuana and the three fellows who worked there were feeling very generous. They found me good entertainment, for I knew so little about cars that it was amusing for them to watch me pump gas; I had to ask customers how to open their hoods when they asked me to check the oil, and I sometimes couldn’t even find where to pump the gas, (when the gas cap was under a license plate or, in a ’56 Chevy, behind a tail light). However the owner of that station turned out to be a cocaine addict and the job abruptly vanished after two weeks, when there was suddenly no money in the till.

This led me on to Fatty Burgers, which I decided to try because I had worked in a Fatty Burgers in California .

Fatty Burgers was a nation-wide chain, nowhere as big as MacDonald’s, but attempting to compete. Individual Fatty Burgers were not owned by a single owner far away. Various smaller owners bought “franchises” and then attempted to make their small restaurant expand into a small chain. The local Fatty Burgers chain was owned by someone who I think began along Old Route Sixty-six in Albuquerque, and expanded along the highway east and west.

I walked into the Gallup branch during the quiet after the breakfast rush, and immediately noticed the three workers and manager were all deeply tanned and all had straight black hair. The place was quaint, far smaller than the Fatty Burgers where I worked in California. It had two old-looking registers behind a short counter, and a third more modern-looking register in a boxy drive-through window. No one was moving very fast. A girl with very white teeth and a pleasant smile ambled up to the counter and asked me what I wanted, and when I replied, “An application”, her right eyebrow dipped as her left arched in interest, but she turned to look towards the manager, who wore a white shirt, and brown vest and pants, to show he wasn’t one of the mere underlings, who were brightly dressed in gaudy uniforms, a little like clowns, with flaming, checkered baseball caps and silly, red pants.

The manager will need a name, so I’ll dub him Quincy Phlabutt. He was a big, sleek, well-oiled looking man with jet black hair combed straight down everywhere except right at the temples; he stood with a slightly smug smile and his arms folded, doing nothing. When he overheard me ask for an application his smile didn’t change, but his eyes shifted towards me and appeared to become even more smoky and superior, and he lifted his nose slightly in a manner that seemed critical. He walked to the counter, took out a pad of applications, tore one off, and handed it to me without a word. When I asked, “Can I borrow a pen?” he sighed, and pointed with his lips, and a girl got me one. I was thinking to myself the odds of getting a job looked slim, but as I went to sit down I noticed Quincy’s eyes abruptly widened, one of the girls hissed, “Ike’s here!” to the others, and the three workers seemed to work a little faster, wiping counters and filling napkin racks, even though the place was empty.

As I started on the application I glanced sidelong as Ike Weed crossed the parking lot and entered the Fatty Burgers, wearing the same white shirt and brown vest and pants Quincy wore. He didn’t appear at all intimidating to me, a medium-sized man who took short steps and duck-walked on his heels, leaning backwards slightly, with a notebook and clipboard under one arm. He had a shock of straight, brown hair brushed to one side over his forehead; the hair was just starting to gray with middle age at the temples. His Howdy Doody cheeks were also just starting to sag into the barest beginnings of pale jowls, apparently recently scraped clean with a dull razor. He wore a friendly smile which seemed less friendly when I saw it was fixed. It was the frozen smile of a poker face, and his eyes darted about the parking lot observantly. When he stooped to pick up a wrapper I noticed Quincy winced slightly, behind the counter. Then I looked down at the application, and began to fill it out.

I didn’t approve of dishonesty, but have to admit a certain creativity entered in, when I filled out applications. I had learned I should “enhance my resume” earlier in my wanderings, when God, with his sense of humor, had me walk into an unemployment office in Cleveland on the very day more than half the staff in the office had received pink-slips, due to government cut-backs. Most were more interested in finding jobs for themselves than for me, but one woman was different. Even as I sat in Gallup I fondly remembered her.

Four years earlier I had sat down in front of her desk. She was young and pretty, and in a very good mood, for she was sick of working and saw collecting unemployment as a sort of vacation, and she offered me a coffee and we spent a merry hour chatting in a manner I had never experienced before, and have never experienced since, among bureaucrats. She was very interested in my wanderings, and had fun turning my confession (that I was a shiftless drifter) into what made me look very experienced, on a resume. For example, one time I landed a job in a small market in Maine, and then the boss got drunk and didn’t show up for a week, and I had to fly by the seat of my pants trying to figure out how to keep the market open. The young woman smiled, and took this fiasco and wrote down on my resume that I was a “working manager.” She also stated I didn’t need to put down every job. Also I didn’t need to mention I didn’t really want a Real Job, and preferred to write. She gently chided me for TMI (Too Much Information) and stated it wasn’t dishonest to be selective, when telling the truth. I should mention the Economics classes I took in school, but not the Creative Writing courses.

I smiled and nibbled my pen, looking at the ceiling and remembering her laugh. I wished I’d asked her for a date, though it would have been daring to do so, considering I was nearly flat broke while in Cleveland. She was a road untaken. Life might have been different, if romance bloomed in Cleveland. But it didn’t, and here I was, dumped in Gallup. I signed and began filling out my application, unaware Ike Weed had walked up behind me and watched as I wrote. I wrote rapidly, for I fully expected to have to fill out many applications that morning, and perhaps it was the speed at which a writer can print, (far more neatly than a doctor), that drew Ike over.

Ike abruptly reached down over my shoulder to pick up my application even before I had finished figuring out how to make it look like flipping burgers was the goal of my life. He introduced himself as the District Manager, glancing over the application, and then he asked me, “You worked in a Fatty Burgers in California?” When I nodded he said, “I have to go on to Flagstaff, and then plan a weekend down in Las Vegas, but I’ll be back this way next Tuesday. Let me call the Fatty Burgers where you worked in California, and if it all looks good I may have a job for you. Can you be here at noon on Tuesday?” I nodded.

It was Friday, which meant I’d have to wait a weekend, which I couldn’t afford to do, but still I walked out of the Fatty Burgers in a bit of a daze, astonished at God’s sense of humor. What were the odds of walking into that place at the exact time the District Manager did? I noticed, as I left, that Quincy gave me a look that was not entirely approving, and concluded my chances were better with Ike.

Out on the street I came to the instant decision not to fill out any more applications, and instead to cross the dry bed of the Rio Puerco and clamber up an embankment to a bridge on I-40, where I could see a distant crew working. I wanted to see if Raydoe, who I shared a tiny trailer with at the campground, had shown up for work, and also ask Ed, the foreman, if there was any chance I might work there.

Raydoe is a character for another story, and in fact his chapter in my life was just ending. He had vanished. I called him “Raydoe” as it was short for “Desparado”, and he called me “Stupid Gringo” because that is what I was. I put up with a lot of abuse from him because he had a good heart under a sinister exterior.

For example, he didn’t like seeing me typing in a dark night in a pouring rain, my head bumping up the roof of a tiny, drenched, orange pup-tent lit from within by six candles, and his way of inviting me into his camper was to yell, “Hey Stupid Gringo, come out of that tent into my camper!” When I politely replied, “Thank you, but I’m quite all right!” his reply was, “If you don’t get the fuck out of there I’ll pull up your pegs and pound you!” It seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Raydoe worked repairing bridges on the interstate. His family lived on I-40 hundreds of miles away on the far side of New Mexico, and he missed them terribly, although, hypocritically, cheating on his wife Bonnie didn’t seem to bother him one bit. He did finally manage to convince Bonnie to come to the campground with his two daughters, at which point I had to move out of the camper into a big, canvas tent I set up with a couple Navajo, who also worked repairing bridges. The entire time I slept with them I don’t think we spoke a word. They were always dead tired at the end of a day, and stayed sleeping even when the tent blew down.

Bonnie couldn’t stand the solitude of the campground, or being cooped up in a tiny trailer, but I did have coffee with her a couple times during the week she lasted. She told me I need not hide her husband’s indiscretions; she had accepted the fact he was what she called, “a lady’s man.” She was an Indian from a pueblo near Santa Fe, but described Raydoe as “Pure Spaniard.”

I was starting to learn you needed to describe what-you-were in Gallup, but, when she asked what-I-was, I told her, “I guess I’m a Mutt,” which made her laugh. I gently dared venture that she should get her girls out for walks because the scenery was gorgeous, and also because she seemed to be suffering from cabin fever, but she never left the cramped trailer except to walk her girls to the campground bathroom. When Radoe was home she seemed to argue with him constantly, and the vehemence of their discussions sometimes caused the little trailer to rock to and fro, but the moment she took her daughters back east he missed her terribly. I assumed, when Raydoe vanished, that that was where he had vanished to.

Climbing up a steep, dirt embankment between sage and prickly pear onto the abutment, I saw Ed watching me curiously from the far side of the bridge. I also saw Raydoe wasn’t around, and then winced as a blast of wind hit.

Raydoe had mentioned working on bridges “sucked utterly”, and now I saw why. The wind couldn’t be bothered to go around you. There must be few places besides mountaintops more windy than bridges on interstates, a fact I already knew as a hitchhiker, but as a hitchhiker I could hurry across; the prospect of remaining in such an environment all day was daunting. Raydoe often told Bonnie she didn’t know how lucky she was to be stuck indoors all day, as she argued he didn’t know how lucky he was to get out. I thrust my hands as deeply as I could into my pockets, thinking I understood Raydoe a little better, and also that maybe I didn’t want the job, but I was desperate, so I trudged over to Ed to work the conversation around to asking for work.

Ed was a wiry, balding man with a thin, white mustache, neatly trimmed, which was the only part of his face that wasn’t weather-beaten half to death. His skin was gray with an undertone of purple, and he smoked and cursed constantly. I knew him only slightly, because he’d give Raydoe rides when Raydoe’s truck broke down, which turned out to be fairly often. He always seemed very curious to see an intellectual typing away in Raydoe’s tiny trailer, but he never asked any questions and always seemed in a hurry. As I now approached him he looked a hundred pounds heavier, for he was dressed like an arctic explorer in January, yet still was hunched over and hugging himself, as if shivering, overseeing a group of young, Navajo men who were tying rebar in the relentless wind. He looked hopeful when he recognized me as I approached, and shouted, “Got any news from that cocksucker Raydoe?”

I shouted back, as shouting seemed necessary in that wind, “No. I wondered if you had news.”

“No. That asshole said he wanted a three-day-weekend and has taken the whole fucking week off.”

I nodded and tried to look sympathetic, which probably was a bad idea, as it encouraged Ed to rant. He sputtered, “That turd acts like he’s the boss of me, always demanding this or that and never giving dipshit in return. I’ve had it with the moron.”

One of the Navajo laughed, “You said that last week.”

“Well this time I mean it. How many times have I helped that fuckhead out? Getting that piece of crap he calls a truck fixed? But is he thankful?”

Another Navajo shouted, “You should respect. He owns a quarter of the state.” The men all laughed.

I knew what they were referring to. Raydoe claimed his grandfather had a deed, ornately inked onto ox-hide and signed by the king of Spain, and dated 1698, which gave his family title to the northeast quarter of New Mexico, including Santa Fe. It was his land, but the Anglos had stolen it.

Ed scoffed, “Oh you Navajo can laugh at Raydoe, but you sure get pretty pissed-off about your land getting stolen by white men, don’t you now? Meanwhile you’re doing a pretty fucking good job of taking the Hopi’s land, ain’t you now?” (He was referring to the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute.)

I was slightly horrified at Ed’s rudeness, but the Navajo just laughed and nodded. Their sense of humor was something I was just beginning to learn about. I decided to steer the conversation my way. “I was hoping you knew where Raydoe was. I paid last week’s rent at the campground, but this week I’m broke. I don’t know what will happen to his trailer if he doesn’t pay.” I paused, before continuing, “By the way…if Raydoe isn’t working…I was wondering…”

“Oh, don’t even ask. I’m not allowed to hire white people. Only Indians.”

“Raydoe isn’t Indian.”

“No, but he qualified because he just got out of prison. He knifed some fat white biker in a bar, but luckily the guy was so fat he didn’t die, so Raydoe got off easy; his lawyer sniffled about Raydoe’s wife and kids, and the dumb judge bought it, and the State says I’ve got to hire disadvantaged folk on a state job, so I get stuck with the losers.” He scowled at the Navajo, who grinned back at him, so he added, as if only to me but loudly, “These fuckers ain’t really disadvantaged; but slow as molasses. You couldn’t be slower.”

One of the men explained, “We don’t want to kill the job.”

Ed exploded, “You want to be stuck in this fucking wind-tunnel forever? Let’s move on to some bridge in some cozy valley. They’ll find us all fucking dead here if we’re not done by December, though I will say…” he continued, again as if talking aside to me, though still shouting, “…these fellows are tough. Look at the fuckers! They dress in November like it’s August. But look at you! You’re as fucking stupid as they are. Oh, I’d hire you, but…”

Ed continued, abruptly explosive again, “…I swear those dipshit politicians in Santa Fe drink tequila all day and decide things by throwing darts at a wall. A bridge shouldn’t be fucking rotting so soon after it’s built. Look at this crappy concrete.” He gave the crumbling curb a kick. “We even have to replace the rebar, because either it’s rusted, or they fucking forgot to put it in, in the first place. Concrete don’t like it when it ain’t reinforced and a thousand overloaded semis drive over it each day, specially when it’s fucking crap to begin with. Either the contractor bought sub-standard to pocket some cash, or the engineer was from Florida and had no clue how cold it gets at 7000 feet, but the asshole politicians sit in warm offices and hire their uncles and make the messes that we have to freeze our fucking asses off fixing.”

I nodded, starting to wonder how to extract myself and leave.

He went on, “I don’t know how I wound up in this God-forsaken place. I’ve never understood why everyone argues about who owns a worthless desert, but at least most of the state has rock that is red and looks fucking beautiful. Gallup? It’s all gray and dull brown. Doesn’t matter what direction you come from; it gets uglier as you pull into town.”

To my concern a trickle of red blood began to flow from Ed’s left nostril. One of the Navajo said, “Your nose is bleeding again.”

Ed pulled out a dirty handkerchief and muttered, “It’s the damn dust in the fucking wind. And you think you want this job? I tell you you’d fucking quit in a fucking week. But I’d hire you, just to get some fucking work done. I could train you to tie rebar in an hour. You couldn’t work slower than these fucking snails. But the Law won’t let me.”

I sighed, and then put on a brave face. “Oh well, I may have a job at a Fatty Burgers next week, but I was hoping to get paid three times as much an hour, working for you.”

A Navajo who looked older than the rest grunted something in Navajo, from down the bridge.

“What’d he say?” asked Ed.

“He said, ‘Tell the Belighana to fake it’,” translated a younger man.

“You could do it,” laughed another. “Indians from back east all look pretty Belaghana to me. And Raydoe says you spend all your time pecking at a typewriter and never get laid. Type out something that looks official and says you’re Mohawk. You think they’d ever check? Even if they do, by then you’ll be paid!”

Ed exploded, “Oh for fuck’s sake! You assholes just want me fired,” and everyone laughed.

I ventured, “Actually, my grandmother’s grandmother’s maiden name was Miss Eagle, and my Dad thinks she might have been Abenaki. That might make me a sixteenth. Does that count?”

Ed grinned and said, “Go fuck yourself.”

One of the Navajo said, “Give faking it a try. You never know.”

I said, “Maybe I will. In the meantime I guess I’ll go and sell some plasma.” Ed looked puzzled, but the Navajo nodded, well aware of what I referred to. Then I climbed down the embankment. As I crossed the dry river I told God that what I’d just experienced was one of the most interesting job interviews I’d ever had, and that I hoped He’d let me stick it into a novel, someday.

Arriving back at my car, I briefly prayed it would start, but it didn’t. It was a tiny, brown 1974 Toyota Corolla with only a 1200 cc engine, and I had no money to buy a new battery. But I had learned to park it on hills. Even on a shallow downward slope I could push the light car in neutral, with the driver-side door open, faster and faster, and then jump in and pop it into first gear. It helped to also turn the ignition key, so the weak starter-engine could contribute. The engine would explode into deafening life, as I also couldn’t afford a new muffler.

Driving west into downtown Gallup I sort of liked the fact my pathetic little vehicle roared like a Harley. I jutted out my jaw slightly. If it hadn’t been so cold I would have hung my forearm out the window. Loud cars alter your personality.

I also liked the fact many Navajo, in 1984, did not take kindly to white bureaucrats issuing orders, and some drove without bothering to get license plates. This made me worry less about the fact my car had expired plates from Maine. In fact having plates from Maine made me more interesting, to local folk, even four years later.

I pulled up to the Plasma Place, which was on the main drag in downtown Gallup. Such enterprises spring up where drunks need money, and poets know where such places can be found because poets manage to be broke even when sober. I did not at all like going there, and every time I went God heard me pray that it would be the last time.

Basically they took a pint of blood out of you, ran it through a centrifuge to remove the plasma, and then put the red blood back into you. Because the body swiftly replaces plasma, you could go twice a week. Because they liked reducing the amount of testing they had to do, they encouraged tested people to come again. The first time you went you’d get seven dollars for laying on a cot for two hours, but the second time you’d get nine.

As usual I was the only Caucasian there. The nurse behind the counter and most of the fellows in the waiting room were Navajo, though I occasionally met a Zuni or Mexican. After registering and waiting I’d walk into a room holding roughly fifteen cots, holding fifteen men with needles in their arms, and blood either going out to a bag down low, or coming back in from a bag hung high. Though there was some sullen conversation in the waiting room, a stoic silence filled the room where the transactions occurred. The needles hurt, and hurt more after the passage of time, and there was no way to shift away from the pain. I tried to talk, for the five nurses were quite pretty, their white uniforms contrasting nicely with their dark skin, but they were very professional, (and also I suppose a man selling blood isn’t usually seen as a good prospect). They refused to flirt. The only Caucasian I ever saw was the old doctor, who I did like to talk with yet whom I almost never saw after the original interview; he lurked in a small office and only occasionally rolled through the room in his wheelchair.

Time really dragged in that room. I always brought a notebook but it seemed impossible to write. The stoicism was somehow the antithesis of a type of relaxation needed in order to write, and the stifling created writer’s-block. After an interminable two hours the needle was at last removed from your arm, and you walked back to the waiting room to receive your payment, in cash. On this occasion I got a pleasant surprise. Not only was it an even-numbered visit, which meant it was nine dollars rather than seven, but it turned out that every eighth visit you received a “bonus” of seven extra dollars.

My Toyota was so startled at my wealth that it started without needing to be pushed, and I drove back to the area of the Fatty Burgers, (which had been built in a prime location for a fast food joint, before I-40 was built, right at the exit of a “modern” mall, which forty years later might be called a “mini-mall”. The mall held a “modern” supermarket, fairly small for other parts of the country but quite different from the local trading posts, which were more like old-fashioned, rural grocery-stores, with stuff in barrels.)

I had learned a poet’s skill of stretching a food budget, and plotted to survive the weekend on a chicken stew, and also sardine sandwiches. One odd thing was the tins of sardines were from a cannery where I once worked in Maine, and only cost half as much in Gallup as they did in Maine. I suspected the tins were very old, but the fish were in hot chili sauce and I didn’t taste any difference. They cost 42 cents a tin, and I bought three. The cheapest loaf of white bread was 89 cents. I bought a pound of chicken wings for 69 cents. Three potatoes, three carrots, an onion, and a single chili pepper only cost 94 cents more. A big bunch of celery was a big expense at 89 cents, but I hadn’t been getting my vegetables lately, subsisting largely on Spanish rice Raydoe taught me how to make. Thinking of him, I bought a small bag of rice and small bag of beans, both for 39 cents, and a small tin of tomato paste for 35 cents. I knew we had cooking oil in the trailer, because Raydoe had bought a huge, five-gallon pail of WIC cooking oil off an Indian somewhere, for a dollar. I totaled things up in my head to roughly six dollars, mentally put five dollars aside for gasoline, and decided, with five to spare, I could spend $1.50 on a six-pack of awful beer from Texas that tasted slightly of sulfur, (but which worked). Then, feeling wonderfully rich, and with $3.50 left over for four packs of very cheap, no-tax, reservation cigarettes, which I could buy near the campground, I drove home.

Home was a tiny trailer, with a living space much like that of a small sailboat: Room for two beds on either side, which by day became a couch on one side and a table with two seats by a tiny stove on the other. When you slept one person’s head was under the stove. Unlike a small sailboat, there was no toilet, and you had to use the campground bathroom. Also unlike a sailboat, the trailer had a long, thick cord that plugged into campground electricity, and the stove and heat were electric. It was far superior to a tent, though for the life of me I didn’t see how Raydoe survived even a week in such a small space with a wife and two daughters.

Raydoe was still gone, and I was assuming I’d enjoy the peace and quiet of a second weekend alone. I’d gotten a little tired of being called “Stupid Gringo” all the time, but to my surprise I missed him. I’d learned the art of handling being belittled at an early age, (taught by two older brothers), and knew how to laugh at myself, and Raydoe seemed to like laughing as much as he liked being superior.

From the moment I stepped from my car and walked towards the darkened trailer I could feel the banshees of loneliness rising on all sides. Almost immediately I knew I’d likely lose the battle.

The battle was with myself, and involved rationing the six-pack and making it last the entire weekend. I knew I could do it, because I often did it, but there was another side of myself that wanted to battle the banshees, and that involved crushing the six-pack in three hours.

I made myself get busy making the chicken stew, as that was a good way to avoid the banshees, but as I did I found myself missing Raydoe’s constant belittling, which often contained good advise. For example, one time I was mystified by how my rice refused to cook, unaware that at 7000 feet water boiled at less than two hundred degrees and didn’t cook as well, and also that the air was so thin, at that altitude, that water boiled away with amazing speed. Twice I added water, and twice the water boiled away and the rice was still crunchy and basically raw. “Stupid Gringo, it will take forever that way,” scorned Raydoe, dumping the rice onto a plate and then pouring a quarter inch of cooking oil into my pot. He heated the oil until it started smoking, and then dumped the rice back in. Because the rice was wet there was a tremendous roar of crackling and popping, and Raydoe stepped back with his eyes round, but pretended he hadn’t been alarmed, once the racket died down. He stirred the concoction until the white rice was browned, and many kernels had puffed like popcorn, and then added the tomato sauce and a little water, dumping in some tabasco sauce for zest. Then he stirred it as it bubbled, explaining, “It don’t take so long to cook when it’s already cooked by the oil.”

In like manner Raydoe attempted to teach me how to be lecherous, but with far less success, especially when the girls we picked up were hitchhiking schoolgirls; (I apparently was an especially stupid Gringo, because instead of leading them astray I dropped them off where they wanted to go). But recalling these episodes, wherein I caused Raydoe to roll his eyes and slap his forehead, only reminded me how lonely I was, and how unrewarding doing the right thing was.

I left the trailer with a bowl of my soup to eat out at a picnic table, looking up at the bright red sandstone formations on either side, and watching them be stained even redder as the sun went down. A haunting moon was rising, and the banshees gathered. The wind was dying, as the Blue Norther faded, and I hoped the winds might swing around and waft warmth north from Phoenix, giving us a kinder Saturday, but the campground was nearly empty, and the creeping chill of an approaching winter swiftly grew with the rising darkness. The cold comes quickly after sunset under a desert’s icy stars. I scrawled a poem:

I think I am going to die 
I see a skull's face
In the full moon
And high in the sky
Hear a mad loon
Luting a lonely
And sad tune.

Why am I staying here grieving?
I won't hurt any by leaving.
Why am I staying here moaning?
Life's just a way of postponing.

Somebody some
Body want

Ask me to stay.

The banshees had definitely gathered, so I hurried into the camper to work on a novel I was struggling with at that time. I had sent a synopsis to an editor who I hoped would look at it. The novel was my ticket out of poverty, at least in my imagination. I rolled a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and looked at it. Then I looked at my diary. Then I looked at the beer.

Looking at the yellowing pages of that diary, more than thirty-five years later, one thing that amazes me is how long and how much beer it took, for me to get around to admitting I was hurt. Now, when I run up against a painful aspect of life, I often just say “ouch”, and get on with life, but back then it seemed I’d write and write and write, and, only after a six pack, would I say, “ouch”. It is interesting to ponder what made it take me so long.

I seemed to have a hard time facing the fact people, including myself, aren’t perfect, and rather than generous may be greedy, and rather than pure may be lustful, and rather than kind may be hateful. A certain arrogance was involved; I simply couldn’t believe anyone would be hurtful to anyone as wonderful as I was. So instead I sought a different explanation. I felt mean people were misunderstood, a victim of their circumstances. Once they had been a pure and innocent child, but life had mangled them. If only I could understand them I could excuse them.

In actual fact, the person might simply be being a jerk. But it took six beers before I could arrive at that conclusion, and even then, the next morning might find me sorry I had been so rude.

The bits and pieces of spiritual theory I had picked up in my wandering contained a premise that our spirits had evolved from bestial origins, but I was dead set against the Freudian, psychological idea that we were merely advanced apes, and also the Atheistic belief there was no such thing as our spirit. I believed that besides evolving we were also involving, and involving involved opening up to Love. We might have come from apes but we were aiming towards angels. God was in everyone, trapped but striving to get out, and I should help them, and this made it hard for me to see people as jerks, even when they were being jerks. I might be a sort of ruthless drill sergeant to myself, but I must be kind to others. In fact, in 1984 I don’t even think the catch-phrase “Tough Love” had been invented, or, if it had, it hadn’t achieved wide usage and I’d never heard it. I had very little ability to tenderly and kindly tell a person, “You’re just being a jerk”, even when it was the truth. Instead I felt compelled to figure out what their problem was, which can be a waste of time, for even if you can figure out why a person is behaving like a jerk, they may go right on being one.

Saturday morning found me hung over and discouraged. I had a couple of coffees for breakfast, which didn’t help much, and then went for a long hike around Church Rock, which did help. I found graffiti carved into the stones from the 1880’s and 1890’s, when the cavalry had a post nearby, and imagined some of those lonely soldiers, far from home, suffered hangovers as well, precisely a hundred years earlier at precisely the same spot I stood. In my mind’s eye I pictured them standing, in their deep navy-blue uniforms with yellow trim and shining brass buttons. So I wasn’t so alone.

Then I followed a gully up into a hill, seeing its multicolored walls rise higher and higher until I found myself in a box canyon with towering, coral sides, flaming in the bright sun against a turquois sky. At the very end was a lone pine, tall and straight and perhaps a hundred feet tall, but below the box canyon’s towering sides. Someone had started to chainsaw the big tree down at some point, but only one inch into the trunk something stopped them. I decided that perhaps the snarling chainsaw echoed loudly from the surrounding stone, and in the blaring noise the voice of some spirit spoke and told the sawyer to quit desecrating the beauty. I liked my explanation, and sat beneath the tree to see if I could hear the same spirit. I heard nothing but a soft wind in the needles high above me, but something about sitting in the pool of sunlight touched me, and I felt better.

I spent the rest of the weekend eating chicken soup and sardine sandwiches, smoking and drinking coffee, working on my novel, and doing my laundry. It cost twenty-five cents for a washer and a dime for each ten minutes you used a drier, which ate into my cigarette-money, but I felt the need to clean up my act.

I liked that campground’s laundromat because Archibald, a Navajo veteran who was in charge of campground maintenance, lived in the same building, and his family ate dinner in a room adjoining the washing machines, and, though I knew it was rude to eavesdrop, I could never resist. I was lonely and it warmed me to hear a family in action. The kids would come home from school and say what they had learned, and a dead silence would fall like lead. It was obvious that Archibald believed differently from what the schoolmarms taught.

It was the beginning of a time when I learned a fair amount about Navajo culture, though not as a nosey anthropologist, asking all sorts of unwelcome questions, but as a bum. I swiftly sensed the Navajo had taken a lot of -bleep- for what they believed, from a wide variety of missionaries and schoolmarms and government officials, and were not inclined to be honest because they had caught hell for their honesty. In fact, some were more likely to fabricate some absurd “tradition”, just to see if you would fall for it. I found it best to avoid “belief” and “tradition” altogether, and instead stay on the very real level of what you wanted.

On this particular occasion a rattlesnake, attracted by the warmth, came through the door of the laundromat as I sat scribbling in my diary, waiting for my laundry to finish tumbling in the drier. I shouted, “Hey Archibald! You there? A rattlesnake is paying a visit!”

I heard a chair scrape, and Archie appeared, smiling. He held a broom. In a most gentle manner he urged the snake towards the door. The snake didn’t appreciate being pushed back out into the cold, and struck at the broom repetitively, but Archie remained patient and gentle, until at last the snake gave up and left. Then Archie looked at me and said, simply, “We don’t kill those.”

In my diary I wrote, “Navajo apparently don’t kill rattlesnakes.” I didn’t ask “why”. It was just something I noted.

My novel was different. In my novel I was asking “why” a lot, not about other cultures, but about my own. We Mutts, called Americans, do a lot of things that demand some sort of explanation, but no one explains. So I tried.

There was nothing I enjoyed more, even though I had no final answers. To have two whole days alone in a campground, just thinking, was a sort of paradise for me, despite the inherent loneliness. It was like sitting on a sunny morning when you don’t have to work, working on a crossword puzzle in a newspaper. Only the puzzle wasn’t a crossword; it was America.

But, without a patron, eventually a poet must cease his pondering.

I often tried to extend my meditations even when the chicken soup sank low in my pot, by adding more water. The soup grew thinner and thinner, until it was what I called “slime soup”, which was basically potato skins floating above chicken bones with no marrow. I doubt even that meager diet would have driven me from the delights I found just thinking, but running out of cigarettes was another matter. When I ran out of cigarettes great art could go get damned; I wanted a job.

So it was I wrenched myself from bed in the twilight before dawn on Monday morning to hurry to the Gallup unemployment office to seek “spot labor”. Men would start to line up long before the office opened, outside the door, and no one dared cut in line. If there were only three jobs that day, only the first three would get work.

I softly cursed the comfort of Raydoe’s trailer. In a tent there was no danger of oversleeping, and I sometimes went to the bathroom in the dark before dawn just to warm up. But now, as my howling Toyota roared towards Gallup in the twilight before dawn, I knew I was late.

I was tenth in line. In line were six Navajo, a Mexican, an Apache, a Zuni, and then there was me, the Mutt. I vaguely knew who some were because I’d been there before, and I’d learned that in Gallup you needed to say what-you-are. But I knew little more. No one was talking much. Coffee was lacking and cigarettes were scarce. Two hours passed before the doors opened at seven, at which point the line was eighteen men long. (Men who arrived later took one look at the line, and turned away.)

We sullenly filed in and wrote our names on a sheet of paper, and then sat down in a line of chairs along the wall by the door. Before us was a counter, and not far beyond the counter was the far wall. Compared to California, the unemployment place was tiny. Between the counter and the far wall were, as I recall, eight desks, but there were only two people, the manager and a secretary. At eight o’clock two more clerks came to work, and at nine three more, and another secretary. So backwards was the bureaucracy of New Mexico in 1984 that the clerks didn’t even get their own cubicles. The entire office was just a big room with walls made of sheet metal and no windows, with a single cubical with Plexiglas windows, where the manager could sit at a desk, though he usually didn’t. He seemed like a restless man, constantly walking from desk to desk and talking with the clerks, or swerving to the coffee pot. The smell of fresh coffee, which I couldn’t have, could be maddening.

By eight o’clock most of the spot labor jobs had come in and the men started to wander off, some to sell plasma. I tended to stay and scribble in my notebook. I had nowhere else to go, and that place was warmer than the street. The first time I was there I got so engrossed in describing my plight, so people in the future would know what a great writer had suffered through, that I completely lost track of time, and landed a job that came in at 10:30. So I knew it might pay to wait, but more often it did not.

Later I got to know the eight employees a little better, but at this point I was still a recent arrival to Gallup, and learning the ropes. I’d had such good luck getting jobs on my own that spot-labor was still a frontier. Yet, as I sat hoping for work, one of the employees, Bonita, had already made herself known.

Bonita detested me. I think I must have looked exactly like a man who treated her very badly, in her past. From the moment I first walked in the place, during my first attempt to find work, she regarded me with undisguised loathing, which of course made her very interesting to me. Not that she was attractive. She was overweight and had acne, with a silly bun of over-pretentious hair piled too far above her pale, spotted forehead, and she spoke with a Mexican accent that seemed equally overdone, more Mexican than Mexicans. I was fairly certain the accent was an affectation, because one time she answered the phone, and said, “Oh hi, Mom”, and then talked with hardly any accent at all.

It is funny to think how I must have looked to her. I assume I must have attempted to be disarming with a sequence of appeasing expressions. None worked, but I wish they were on film. In retrospect they might be hilarious.

I suppose that, just as men find some woman attractive and some women repellant, women are the same, and I just happened to be especially repellant to Bonita. But it is the strangest thing, when you walk into a place where the people are supposedly there to help you, to meet eyes filled with loathing.

Little did I know that later on, during my time in Gallup, Bonita would be appointed as the bureaucrat in charge of helping me. But that is a tale for another time. All I knew was she was a most fascinating female. She seemingly couldn’t keep her eyes off of me, because when I lifted my eyes from the notebook I brought along to scribble in, she’d often be staring at me.

Not that I ignored the other five. It gets boring, just sitting waiting for work, so I of course had nothing to do but write observations about what the others were doing. (Little did they know that what they did might appear in a future novel.)

On this particular morning I had issues more pressing than multiculturalism to attend to. I needed a job. I needed one because I was running out of cigarettes. If I ran out of cigarettes, political correctness went right out the window.

Only the first two in line got spot labor jobs by 8:00, and one by one the others started to leave. Things looked grim. My mood was foul and getting fouler. When Bonita looked at me, she did not see my usual attempts to be appeasing and disarming, but rather flashing eyes. She looked surprised.

It was right at this time I noted, to Bonita’s right, a different employee thoughtfully regarding me, his index finger tips on his forehead and his thumbs on his cheeks and his elbows on his desk. As I met eyes with him he seemed to arrive at some decision, and sat back and crooked a finger that beckoned me. He was Fred Gentlechief, a fellow I barely knew.

With a last name life “Gentlechief” you’d assume Fred was Native American, but Fred also looked like he had to shave three times a day. He had more whiskers on a square inch of his chin than I had on my entire face, and it was my understanding that Native Americans were genetically predisposed to have smooth faces. But one time, standing outside in line, I heard one Navajo tease another about his mustache, and the second Navajo told the first that his great-grandfather had grabbed his great-grandmother while raiding a Mexican village. I assumed Fred was the product of several such raids, as I walked over to his desk.

In 1984 Gallup was way ahead of the curve, in terms of so-called “multiracialism”. The unemployment office of Gallup was like the crew of Star Trek, in its racial variety, despite numbering only eight individuals. This mixing didn’t seem to be the result of the brute force of a legislated decree, but simply the way things were, the natural result of having Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Apache reservations all around Gallup, comprising areas larger than entire European nations. Yet despite all the mixing there was a lot of focus on what-you-were. Even Hispanics seemed divided into all sorts of categories. I myself was a Mutt minority, and didn’t care all that much about whether a person was a wetback or a wetterback, because such identifications seemed like too much to keep track of. Mostly I was interested in the individual I was talking with. That seemed enough to keep my brain fully occupied.

Fred Gentlechief was short, swarthy, round, articulate and soft spoken, yet surprisingly frank about things without seeming the slightest bit blunt or rude. For example, he casually told me he sometimes took the best spot labor jobs for himself, to make a little extra money on weekends. I liked him immediately for his honesty, and his slow, inclusive smile. He gave you the feeling you were in on the joke.

Fred confessed to me he had a problem, because he had taken a spot labor job he discovered he actually didn’t want. He’d agreed to clean a lady’s lawn, but when he swung by during lunch the prior Friday, when the woman was not home, he saw that the yard held what appeared to be two hundred and fifty dog poops. He’d found ways to avoid the woman all weekend, but now he had to face the music. He wondered if I’d like to hustle down to her house and offer to do the awful job, before she left for work at nine. The house was only a hundred yards away. About two minutes later I was knocking at her door.

The woman was in a rush to get to work on a Monday morning. When she answered the door the reek of freshly splashed perfume nearly knocked me over backwards. She was not young but still good looking, which is to say she was roughly my age. She was in such a hurry that I seemed like a distraction, and she had no interest at all in the excuse that Fred Gentlechief had instructed me to give her. She handed me a coal scuttle and scoop, pointed at the dog poop, and rushed off, saying she’d be back at noon.

Facing the poop, and starting to scoop, I had to keep my brains entertained, and I did what I usually did, which was to play Sherlock Holmes, and to invent an entire life history for the woman, though I had an absolute minimum of actual information.

First I determined her dog was a big dog, by the size of the poops. The dog was not around, as there was no deep baying when I worked near the house, and also the poops were desert dried and not a single one was juicy, a fact that I was gladdened by.

Next I determined the woman was not good at instructing, when in a hurry, for she had not told me what to do with the poop, and the coal scuttle was full when the job was only 10% done.

Third, I determined that either the lady was very disorganized, or a man had left her, perhaps taking his dog with him, as there were various half-completed jobs around the yard, with tools left out. I found a shovel and buried the poop down at the bottom of the yard. There was a toolshed down there, and when I peeked in I saw it held a lamp, radio, and a great many beer cans, some in bags but some scattered around on windows sills and on a workbench.. There were few tools in the shed, for rather than in the shed most were scattered around the yard. At this point I was fairly certain a man was involved.

I worked fast and was done the poop-cleaning by mid morning, and to keep myself busy I began cleaning up the beer cans in the tool shed and putting the tools away. A few of the uncompleted jobs were easy to figure out, for a Sherlock like me. They were obvious, such as a rake by a half-raked flower bed beneath a hedge, and I completed those jobs, deciding the fellow was a bit of a slouch. He even left a saw out to get rusty by a half sawn board, with a hammer rusting by rusty nails, by a fence needing a board. I decided that job was interrupted the day the drunken bum got thrown out, and fixed the fence. Then I glanced at the low November sun, which seemed past its zenith, so I went to check the clock in my car. It was well past lunchtime. The woman had apparently completely forgotten me.

I ran out of cigarettes at 1:45, and suddenly Sherlock began to arrive at conclusions that were radically different: The man left because the woman was a total bitch. She drove him to drink in a toolshed. At 3:30 I went to my car and fished through the ashtray for the longer butts, and smoked those.

As I suffered I kept working, for over the years I had discovered you can do one of two things while in nicotine withdrawal. You can either curl up into a fetal position, suck your thumb, and whimper, or you can utilize a surprising amount of energy made available, and do superhuman things such as walk through a howling blizzard to buy a pack of smokes. I used the energy to rake the entire lawn, and also to crush all the beer cans and put them in my car, because at that point it had occurred to me that the bitch might be planning to skip off without paying, and I wanted to be able to sell the aluminum for a pack of smokes. I figured there was around $4.00 worth, and the sun was starting down.

It was just then the lady came home from work. When she got out of the car and saw me her face filled with dismay and she clutched her forehead, and then she crossed the yard with her palms spread open before her, profusely apologizing. If it was an act, it was very effective, for my rage evaporated in a twinkling. I told her we all can forget things, now and again.

At this point she stopped looking at me and looked around the yard, and her expression shifted towards amazement and pleasure. The place really did look changed; I had even done some rearranging of the lawn furniture. She smiled and asked me what she owed me. I told her spot laborers like me got minimum wage, and usually got $26.80 for a full day’s work. She shook her head, and went into the house, quickly returning with a twenty and a ten. I thanked her and made some joke about the speed at which I’d run off to buy cigarettes. She held up a finger, went back into the house, and returned with an unopened pack of Lucky Strikes. She apologized that they might be stale. They were her late husband’s.

As I greedily opened the pack and smoked one, it seemed only right to ask a few sympathetic questions about the man whose cigarettes I smoked, and she leaned against the side of the door and showed me how wrong a Sherlock can be.

Her husband had died of a sudden and swift form of cancer the autumn before, and the dog had sulked miserably and died in the spring. She herself had gone numb and blank for around six months, only working because she feared if she stopped she might die. She had plenty of money; the life insurance paid off the mortgage; but life, as she put it, “held nothing at all interesting.” Then, as she put it, “Time and praying healed me.” She joined a church group for bereaved people, and made some new friends.

As we chatted it became obvious we were checking each other out. I think she decided I was too poor even as I decided she was too old, but neither of us seemed offended. Sometimes it is warming to even be considered.

After my third cigarette I looked towards my car and confessed I had scooped up $4.00 worth of her aluminum cans, and she said I was welcome to them, and we cheerfully parted ways. My day’s profit was $34.00, which was good for me.

All was well in my world, as I headed back to the campground. In fact the next morning I felt a little greedy to even look for spot labor. It was lucky I got no work, for I had totally forgotten my scheduled meeting with Ike Weed at Fatty Burgers. I only remembered after I had cashed in the aluminum cans, and stopped at the supermarket for more bread and sardines, and some hamburger and mushrooms I planned to add into some Spanish rice I planned to cook later. Seeing the blinking Fatty Burgers sign reminded me, and rather than shopping I crossed the parking lot to meet Ike.

Wealth is a relative thing, and at that time having $34.00 in my wallet, plus a few Lucky Strikes remaining in the pack in my shirt pocket, made me behave far differently than I might have behaved had I been broke and in nicotine withdrawal. I actually didn’t want the job. When I left the Fatty Burgers in California I had thanked God for getting me the hell out of there. Therefore I was far more relaxed at the job interview than I might have been.

Right off the bat I remembered Ike said he’d be going to Las Vegas, and asked him if he’d had a good time and good luck. My alacrity surprised him, and made him slightly defensive, but apparently he’d had very good luck, which placed him in a mood brimming with confidence as well. Stars must have been aligned favorably, for at that point in time we were a couple of lucky guys.

Ike offered me a coffee, which I gladly accepted, and then he took out my job application and some notes. This made me slightly defensive, so I lit up a Lucky, because back then you were allowed to smoke in restaurants. When he mentioned he’d had a talk with my old boss at the California Fatty Burgers, Hudson Wallace, the end of my cigarette glowed very brightly.

I was nervous because Hudson and I had a frank talk just before I left California wherein we confessed the sort of things you don’t confess unless you never expect to see a person again. One thing Hudson confessed was that he never would have hired me, and only allowed his ex to hire me so she would learn not to hire “that type.” Then I turned out to be a good worker who gave two weeks notice both times I decided to leave, while his girlfriend did turn out to be “that type”, and quit Hudson without giving notice.

Most of what I confessed didn’t bother Hudson, involving breaking Fatty Burgers laws; for example: Rather than throwing an “expired” burger into the expired-bin, I ate it. However one confession troubled him, and that was that I knew my girlfriend put down a fake social security number on her job application, when in fact she was from Canada and qualified as an illegal alien. Hudson was upset by this news, as he himself could get in trouble, but I figured it was better for him to know beforehand than to get blindsided. He could always say she left because he told her to go back to Canada, and write things down on paper to make it look true.

At the time I saw no harm in my girlfriend’s scofflaw tendencies, but now I was olderand wiser and had learned my lesson, but one does not want to discuss such things in a job interview. I was nervous about what Hudson had told Ike. My only defense would be to throw my ex under the bus, saying “She did it; not me”, when the truth was I approved of her getting the job. The fact she wasn’t a citizen was a can of worms I didn’t want opened. There are things you confess when leaving a situation you don’t want mentioned when entering.

Not that such things should matter much, if you are being hired as a dishwasher or burger flipper. However simply the way Ike was going through evidence like Sherlock Holmes clued me into the fact this was no ordinary job interview. He noted, for example, that when I lived in Maine I had been a “working manager” of a small store.

Could it be that a bum like me was seen as “management material”?

To my complete astonishment that was exactly what Ike was driving at. He mentioned Hudson told him I was a hard worker, who had given two weeks notice both times I left Fatty Burgers, but then Ike asked Hudson if he thought I might be “management material.” Ike stressed Hudson didn’t immediately answer. Ike stated, “Hudson paused a long, long time, before he said, ‘He might.'”

I doubted I really was management material. My experience had always been that such promotion elevated you from one-of-the-guys to a person “the guys” didn’t much like. I seemed to lose more than I gained. But I asked, “What’s the pay?”

“I’ll start you at $4.50 an hour for the first two weeks. Then I’ll either fire you or raise you to $5.00 an hour. I’ll know by then whether you are up to snuff. There will be some overtime as well. We are expanding and short on good help.”

For most this would be good news, but a poet sees a job as less time to write, and the word “overtime” is a sort of death knell to any novel they may be working on. However another desire entered into the equation, and was that my ex might become an exex.

If only I was good enough; if only, rather than a damp tent or a cramped camper, I had a nice, warm room at the El Rancho Hotel, my ex might change her opinion of me.

In retrospect, my lust was a lot like nicotine: When I was in withdrawal, art got thrown under the bus. Just as I’d walk through a snowstorm for a cigarette, I’d endure Fatty Burgers for her.

But of course I did not bring this up in a job interview. What I actually said to Ike was, “When do I get paid? I had to wait two weeks to get paid at the Fatty Burgers in California, and the guy I’m living with is late on his rent.”

Ike reached backwards and pulled out an unnaturally fat wallet, stuffed with winnings from Las Vegas, and fished out a crisp fifty dollar bill. “Consider this an advance.”

I took the bribe. “OK. I’ll give it a shot. When do I start?”

“Tomorrow morning. Be here at seven. Quincy will show you the ropes.”

I looked over at Quincy Phlabutt, who was standing with his arms folded, with a hint of a frown. I nodded towards him in a way I hoped was disarming.

I walked out of the interview shaking my head, and muttering softly to God. “God,” I said, “You seem to be rising me up in the world. Have things changed? Are the right things going to start being the rewarding things? Or are you handing me a long rope to hang myself with?”

PUNKY WOOD –Part 2–An Old Friend–

Over the years I have held well over a hundred jobs, and gradually came to very much enjoy job interviews, as the prospect of rejection grew less intimidating.

I think I first stopped being terribly intimidated in New Mexico at age thirty-three, when I was required to show proof at the unemployment office that I had applied for work in at least three places every week, in order to obtain tiny unemployment benefits of $32.00/week.  (The benefits were hardly worth the effort, but I continued to bother spending a day each week walking around fulfilling the requirements, primarily because I knew my getting benefits irritated my mean, crooked former-boss.) It was benign summertime, and the rest of the week I was busily writing in a campground where the rent was $25.00/week; I had absolutely no desire for the interruptions caused by the nuisance of employment. To make certain I wouldn’t accidentally get a job, I applied for work at the oddest places, and adopted an attitude of curiosity where it didn’t matter that it became immediately obvious I wasn’t qualified for the job; I asked questions because I was interested in learning about a job I couldn’t do. I became more like a reporter than an applicant, and for some reason most (but not all) interviewers liked the tables being turned, and being the one interviewed, and we’d sit for half an hour “chewing the fat” over coffee.  They seemed surprised a shabby drifter was so articulate, (and I liked the free coffee.)

But when I was young and terribly shy it was a completely different matter. Looking for work was a humiliation and a hell.

It wasn’t so bad when I ran my own little landscaping business in the wealthy suburb I grew up in. I walked up and down streets putting a file-card-sized advertisement in mail boxes, with big lettering that inquired, “Spring Cleaning? Need Muscle?” and then had details and a phone number in small lettering. Then I sat back to wait for others to call me. Rather than like asking others to dance it was more like the phone rang and others asked me to dance. (In my list of jobs-I’ve-had I don’t know whether to count this business as being one job, or twenty-five; rich and interesting people asked me to help with all sorts of interesting tasks, but that is a tale for another time.)

It was quite a different thing when I looked through a newspaper’s classified ads for the help-wanted ads, and had to go fill out an application. Then it was like asking a girl for a dance, and I was never very bold in that respect. In some ways it could be worse, like asking a girl to dance when you didn’t know how to dance, and she’d be required to teach you.

(As an aside, during my first date with my wife we attended a Cajun barbecue with Cajun music, and were both surprised to see people begin dancing in a way I supposed was Cajun. I said I didn’t know how to dance, and she said she didn’t know how to dance, and then we decided to invent our own dance and danced joyously for ninety minutes straight. I knew then I had found someone special. However I was thirty-seven when that happened.)

At age twenty-one I was gruesomely uncomfortable when it came to job interviews and “selling myself” in any way, shape or form. “Tooting your own horn” seemed somehow immodest, even rude. But in January, 1975, I was flat broke, which is a state good at pushing a man past his self-imposed limits.

My mother knew something was up when she came downstairs and found me plunked at her dining-room table, sneering distastefully at the small local paper, which was opened to the help-wanted section. She was, as she put it, “all gussied up”, which meant she was dressed up in tweed to go to some sort of cocktail party; fragrant with subtle perfume; tall; her short, dark hair perfectly styled with gray wings at her temples, and wearing dangling tear-shaped earrings of green jade.  She radiated an aura of pleased serenity, but the moment she summed up my situation her serenity became creased by concern. The fact I apparently needed a job suggested there was a problem, and she did not like her children to have problems, especially when she was about to go out to a party.

She veered  carefully away from the topic of my prospects, and instead inquired if I would sprinkle some salt on the icy front walk before my stepfather came home. I was glad to escape the dismal want-ads, so I got up to do it, aware he’d be home any minute.

It was just getting dark as he pulled up to the side of the street, even as I sprinkled the salt, which I decided made me look good, as he didn’t often see me working. He smiled at me as he gingerly got out of his Saab, an elderly man with only a fringe of grey hair left, but with his baldness hidden beneath a checked, deer-slayer hat like the one Sherlock Holmes wore. I thought the hat looked silly, but never told him so because he so obviously enjoyed wearing it.

My stepfather was 28 years older than my mother. His friends had told him that marrying her would either extend his life or kill him, and initially we kids did our best to kill him, and he actually did have a heart attack within the first six months of adopting six troubled children.

Immediately after the marriage I’d done my best to be polite, but when the old man accidentally offended me I began to refer to him as “the fossil” behind his back. I deemed him an old fool, and even a home-wrecker, for I preferred being a struggling family on the verge of having to move out of a wealthy suburb, to being mere used baggage bought by an old coot who wanted a trophy wife. But then things changed. Somewhat amazingly I began to feel like a trophy stepchild.

He had been a Harvard Law School Professor, and fit the mold: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” He would speak with long pauses, as if he was a very learnéd man and all the world breathlessly awaited his thoughtful opinions. He seemed quite blissfully unaware that the mannerisms he felt were charming were in fact dreadfully dull.

During our first dinners together as a family I attempted to bat my eyes politely as he took forever to say even the most inconsequential things, “I think…..I would like….some mustard.” My ten-year-old and eight-year-old younger brother and sister would have none of it, and would interject silly things into the old man’s pauses, completing his sentences for him: “I think….I would like….to tap dance?” Then they would dissolve into helpless laughter. My stepfather initially was infuriated by the affronts to his dignity, but his manner of punishing them was to rise in wrath and stalk silently away from the table, which made my younger siblings only laugh all the more helplessly, as my mother regarded them with horror. I hated dinnertime. But after six months, and especially after his heart attack, I began to notice something. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the old man dropped the long pauses.

The late 1960’s was a tumultuous time, with disrespect of elders in fashion. My two elder brothers were away at college, and both dropped out to join a commune two thousand miles away. My older sister had a scandalous relationship with a married, older man and got thrown out of our house, which I thought a bit hypocritical of my mother, considering she too was living with an older man. At age fifteen I decided to tell my mother what she was doing wrong, and was rewarded with a slap across my face I likely deserved.

In retrospect my stepfather seems slightly mad to have walked into such a buzz-saw at retirement age. Having been a stepfather myself, I now have a better understanding of the problems stepfathers face, but at the time I had no mercy. I loved my father, felt my mother should have stood by her man, and saw my stepfather as an interloper.

My father had been a famous surgeon who had at least five major trauma’s simultaneously occur in his life, not the least of which was the fact the woman he’d had six children with didn’t love him any more, (and perhaps had never loved him),  which led him to begin raving and drinking too much. But the specific trauma that intellectually hit me hardest was the simple fact he couldn’t do what he once had done. He’d been an amazing surgeon, able to suture the ends of severed arteries back together with twenty tiny stitches and tie the knots with one hand. No other surgeon could do what he could do, enabling him to make what, in modern terms, was roughly a half million to a million dollars a year.  But then, (in the same manner that even Babe Ruth reached an age when no team wanted him), my father hit the wall at age forty-four.

This contributed greatly to my desire to become a writer. I wanted to find a vocation I’d never be too old to do.

My stepfather went through a similar crisis, which for obvious reasons I watched with interest, (if not compassion). When he hit age seventy Harvard College retired him. He was as mentally sharp as ever, but it was simply the college’s policy in 1970: When you hit seventy you were out the door; no discussion.

I was somewhat incredulous that he should be hurt or angry, and puzzled that he became as crabby as he became. In my eyes getting a job was more likely to make me crabby. He had a fine pension and plenty of money saved and could just kick back and laze as happily as a clam, but instead he was miserable. Was it possible a man could want to work?

Then something nice surprised him midst his bitterness. Three of his former students had formed a law office in Portland, Maine, and they came to him and very humbly inquired if he might be so good as to consider helping them out by becoming the law office’s senior advisor. I have never seen an old man stop being crabby so fast. He seemed to feel like a man granted a reprieve on the gallows, and accepted the job as a very great blessing, and seemed to never forget he was blessed, gently twinkling like morning stars in the afterglow of glory.

I think it was my older sister who first understood that the old man deserved appreciation, which was a bit surprising, as she’d become a fiery feminist. She made me walk on eggs, for fear I’d offend her. I didn’t think she’d put up with anyone over thirty. Yet when she visited she took to greeting the old man with demonstrative hugs. He most definitely was not a man prone to hugging, but he seemed to like hers, especially during the days when he was unemployed and crabby.

I myself didn’t hug the man. I’d tried it one time, the first breakfast after we became a new family. I came downstairs and gave him a hug as he sat at the table reading the paper, and he gruffly stated, “Don’t feel you have to do that ever again.” I recoiled, and it was only after four years, (when involved in some sort of “express your inner feelings” pop-psychology), that I confessed I’d been hurt, and he apologized, saying he only intended to free me from feeling I had to display any sort of artificial affection. At the time I took him at his word, and stayed away from him.

I didn’t approve of my younger sibling’s irreverence at the dinner table, and tried to frown at them, although they were so funny I sometimes couldn’t manage it. For my part I politely discussed weather and sports with my stepfather and then excused myself; I left the table as swiftly as I possibly could. I assumed he didn’t care for me. At age sixteen I ran away from home for a week as a sort of grandiose gesture, and was a bit taken aback that he never really noticed, because my mother never told him; he just assumed I was off visiting friends.

Only gradually did we become interested in each other. I think the first common ground we discovered involved a love of puns. Then, because my mother had a large dictionary on an ornate stand by the dining-room table, we shared an interest in the derivation of words. The closest I ever came to  being so bold as to argue with the man involved words. One time I ventured I didn’t approve of the word “niggardly”, and he protested the word had nothing to do with race, so we looked the word up. Usually he was correct and I was not, but, on the rare occasions I knew something he didn’t, he always behaved appreciative rather than offended. That surprised me.

Then, as I became a hippy and began hitchhiking around the country, he actually supported my adventures rather than attempting to prevent them. The police tended to investigate smooth-cheeked hitchhikers, to see if they were runaways, and I was able to show them a permission-slip from my stepfather that I carried in my wallet. (I don’t think it was the illegible handwriting that impressed the officers, as much as it was the fact the stationary read, “Harvard Law School”, at the top.)

Though I hitchhiked because I was restless, and the suburbs were sterile and bored the hell out of me, I always pretended I was doing it “for a school project” or “for an English paper.” This caused a bit of a problem when no such papers were forthcoming. However I did produce one paper, a “senior project”, which drew a strange response from the old man.

What I did was to overcome my shyness and interview every member of my senior class I could get to talk with me, during lunch in the cafeteria. I asked them to describe what cliques they had belonged to, going back as far as they could remember. Then I wrote a paper with the title “The Evolution Of Cliques In A Suburban High School”  which I got in trouble for, (because I handed the same paper in to both my English and Social Studies teachers, blithely unaware such redundancy might present a problem). The paper contained a fair amount of sarcasm, and was vain, for it described hippy poets as the “most highly evolved” clique, and my stepfather was completely enchanted by it. He took it in to Harvard and showed it to all his friends, even making extra copies of the badly typed document. We never talked together about the paper, but I could see the man was delighted. I found the experience strange, for I didn’t tend to think of myself as being delightful, at age seventeen.

When I was eighteen one of my older brothers “borrowed” a rich man’s yacht and we sailed it south, intending to load it with marijuana in Jamaica and get rich quick. We made it as far as Nassau before the Law caught up with us. We deserved jail, but my stepfather fought for us, and he got us off with a slap on the wrist, though it cost him a pretty penny. Sometimes having a stepfather who is a boring professor of law isn’t all bad.

Now I was twenty-one and had known the old man for seven years, and not only had I failed to kill him, but against my own will I found myself liking him a lot.

He had become very careful and methodical in his old age, to avoid falling or losing things. He stretched little ice-grips over his boots, and followed a three-step process when leaving his Saab to make certain he did not forget his briefcase, keys, or to turn his headlights off. Even though I had salted the front walk, he took all the care of a man on a tightrope, gingerly walking to the front steps, and then, after entering the house, went through a similar process,  reminding me of Mr. Rogers in the way he always hung up his coat and deerslayer hat in an identical manner. He was particularly slow and deliberate when hanging up his car keys on a particular hook. Then I shadowed him to the dining room table, where he would open his briefcase and remove the Portland Press Herald and the New York Times. He was well aware of my tendency to lurk like a vulture, and handed me the papers with a smile.

He was also slow and deliberate with his questioning (though he had dropped the long pauses,) and was very observant. As a lawyer, he knew how to cross examine, and despite his caution he’d learned to think quickly on his feet. A lot seemed to happen in his silences, at times giving me the sense he was psychic.

On this occasion he must have noted I didn’t reach for the Times, and instead for the Press Herald, and noticed that rather than opening to the weather map I opened the paper to the “Help Wanted”  page. He also may have noted the town newspaper was already open to “Help Wanted”, on the table. He looked interested, and inquired, “Any work?”

I pretended to find the situation humorous. “Well, there are three jobs in the local paper. I can pretend to be a mechanic at the cannery, or pretend to be a cook at the diner, or pretend to be an expert at veneering the decks of yachts, at the marina. The trick would be to get at least one paycheck, before they fired me.”

My stepfather didn’t say anything, but he did give me a slightly unnerving, very penetrating glance with his very blue eyes, before my mother came bustling in and said it was time to go.

Then abruptly the house was gruesomely silent. A sterility I knew all too well was pressing in from the black windows, as I faced a Friday night alone. I swiftly glanced through the help-wanted ads in the Press Herald, not expecting to find anything and having my expectations confirmed.  Then I began to pace around my parent’s house, trying to find something to think about, to escape my despair.

Sometimes escapism is too obvious. I could click through all the shows on the T.V., and nothing would grab me. I could glance over the spines of all the books in the ceiling-to-floor wall of books in the living-room, and every author would be dull. I could go to the piano and try to lose myself in a song, bellowing at the top of my lungs because no one was home, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. All the symbols of wealth in the plush home were sucked dry of value, and became empty trinkets. There was no escaping a poverty that came creeping in from black windows like ghouls, so I put on my jacket, hat and gloves and went out to walk in it. Something about walking in the darkness was soothing to my soul (and it wasn’t because, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”).

The soothing was a bit of a mystery to me, and still remains a mystery, when I see a young man striding along a highway when I’m out driving after dark. I’m sure the police are curious as well, but when they pull over to ask a young vagrant what he’s doing or where he’s going, I doubt they get a good answer. (The best answer is “going for a walk”, because then you don’t have to explain). However the real answer is, I have decided, something which involves levels of our being beneath the superficial skim we call our intellect or our “our rational”. Even in the pitch dark we are “communing with nature”.

I found hiking-in-the-dark annoyed psychologists, for they were like the officer questioning the vagrant, and always wanted to know exactly what I was communing, demanding specifics when there were no words. (Also perhaps they were annoyed because when I went for a walk I didn’t have to pay them to be healed). But what (or who) the healing involved was always a mystery. In a sense it was like talking-in-tongues, words that sounded like babbling but were the super-conscious speaking to the subconscious, without granting the conscious mind permission to eavesdrop. Or that’s the best I can do to explain the inexplicable. The simply fact is: After-dark hiking made me feel better without any excuse for feeling better.

One psychologist explained that I “burned up excessive hormones through physical activity”, and I’ll allow that, if it makes him feel less insecure, but he was never in my head in that darkness.

There definitely was a physical component, especially as the walking became striding (which hippies called “trucking”). I’d become caught up in the rhythm, the way feet sounded scuffing over the tar, the way the streetlight pools came and went and bobbed up and down as I strode, the way my striding shadow shortened and then lengthened. Then out of the rhythm would come lyrics, and sometimes the melody of a song. Often it was an old song, for example I might find myself humming a song that came to me when walking home from my girlfriend’s, (back when I had a girlfriend), the evening before I set sail as an outlaw with my brother, when I was well aware I might die at sea.

The night is cricket’s velvet.
My cigarette is glowing.
A police car whispers by.
I have no way of knowing
Will my baby cry
When she finds me going
Going going…

The world is swimming softly.
The cool night air I’m drinking
Brings me softly down
From my happy thinking.
I cannot turn around
Though the happiness is shrinking
Shrinking shrinking…

The streetlight pools are nodding.
The steady pavement’s flowing
Surges as my march is on.
Can she see I’m knowing
This could be my ending song?
Oh am I really going
Going going gone?

Other times the song would be a new song, and I was always a bit mystified where they came from. Not that I worried about such things. Instead merely I enjoyed the sensation. I now blush a little to think how unselfconsciously absorbed in my own emotions I became, and wonder what people sleeping with their window open thought, as a crooning crazy-man approached on the street outside, and then faded away. But I myself became wonderfully carefree, sort of drunk without alcohol, and within a bubble where I felt most like myself, and free of the person I had to pretend to be when applying for some job I really didn’t want to do.

On this particular occasion it slowly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do before daybreak; there were no offices accepting job-applications after dark, and therefore it was a waste of energy to worry. It then occurred to me that, if I couldn’t find a job, perhaps I could join the clam-diggers I saw slogging out over the mudflats from the window of my shack, as the tide went out. In the bitter winds of January it looked like a miserable job, and I had noticed there were fewer and fewer of them as the weather grew colder and colder, but as I paced in the darkness I found the idea strangely appealing. It would be a job with no boss. But they didn’t dig clams in the dark, so it was no use starting right away.

Eventually I found my way along the waterfront to my shack on the dock down below my parent’s house, but it was bitter cold inside. The fire had gone out in the pot bellied stove, and I’d neglected to get firewood or split kindling. That was another problem to deal with in the morning, but in the meantime I decided to grab my notebook and to head up the hill to my parent’s warm abode, and to jot down a poem that had come into my head as I walked, and eventually to sleep in their warm basement.

When my parents returned from their cocktail party they found me scribbling and smoking at their dining-room table, as if I’d never left. I was feeling much better, for my poem pleased me, and also I had decided I had a job. I’d be a clam-digger. My mother didn’t ask about my poem or job, but rather to please clean up all the newspapers on the table, so I did it, after clipping the weather-map from the Times. As I did I idly inquired if the party was fun. They both seemed a little flushed, and I suspected they’d had more than one cocktail.

My mother rhapsodized about some client of my stepfather’s she had met who had opened a place that made sails, in Portland. My mother could be quite dazzling at a party, but she was equally charm-able, and I gathered the businessman had charmed her.

Listening more carefully I learned she had absorbed details of the sail-making business like a sponge, and could even become righteously indignant about people who had caused the businessman a problem and to require a lawyer. Apparently there was some government grant aimed at enticing businesses to Portland, to lower the high unemployment rate,  but some disgruntled employee had tattled about some “i” the businessman forgot to dot or some “t” he neglected to cross, in order to qualify for the government grant. The man found American employees very ungrateful for the work he had brought to their city, and it was then my ears perked up. I immediately assumed the man must be from some foreign place that had Queen Elisabeth on their stamps, and must speak with one of several British accents that my mother could never resist, (even if they weren’t the King’s English). Sure enough, when I inquired I discovered the businessman was an Aussie.

For the most part my stepfather had remained silent, merely nodding and smiling as my mother chattered in her musical voice, but suddenly he turned to me and I realized he hadn’t forgotten me, even at a cocktail party. His face grew serious and he said two dreadful words. “He’s hiring.”

I sat back, a bit stunned. Me? A sail-maker?

Oh well, I hadn’t really wanted to dig clams in January, anyway.

LOCAL VIEW –Fresh Start–

My resolutions are not a solution
So this year I will not make even one,
For in my solutions are a pollution
That make all the salmon turn tail and run
Back up the river to pools of their birth;
They don’t reach the sea and enjoy the sweet mirth
Of billowing blue that covers the earth
And pounds stones to sand, and gives life it’s worth.

So please do not tell me to get into shape.
I resolved to be square, but got pounded.
Like a pebble that waves will not let escape
My God has made me a man well-rounded.

Your sharp points are blunted; I will not vow
For I already am, and will live in the Now.

One of the many reasons it is better to be sixty than twenty is that you get to skip the business of always feeling you should be being better than you were the year before. Instead the process of biological deterioration is setting in, and you are lucky to even be the same as you were the year before.

Don’t get me wrong. Spiritually we should always be striving to correct our mistakes and improve, but, since when has spirituality mattered a hill of beans, in this material world?  And, in material terms, a man can not run as fast at age sixty as he could at age thirty. Therefore, if you value material things and gauge value with a stop watch, a man grows less and less valuable as he ages.  In material terms, there is no reason to honor elders. They belong in the dumpster.

Fortunately the complete banality that rules the minds of communists and economists and many psychiatrists does not rule the work-place, and there are still  some employers who prefer a spy old man of 80 to a young galoot of 25. Why?  Well, for one thing, the old geezer shows up at work on time, whereas lots of young galoots find that very difficult. And so and so forth. Until, despite all materialistic logic, you arrive at a mass of evidence that demonstrates a geezer of 80 is a better worker than a galoot of 25.

How can this be? It defies physical science.

The answer lies outside what most call materialism, and matter, and what matters to the mindless. It involves a thing beyond the brain, called “The Mind.”

A pure materialist will not accept that we are anything other than brains, but we are more than that. We are minds, and when our brains quit and rot we will continue on as minds.

If my brain fails before the rest of my body does, I’ll be afflicted with various forms of senility that make me look stupid, but my spiritual progress will not stop. My mind will still be working, even if it can’t communicate through normal physical channels. It will continue to grow, even if my brain becomes so hapless I only drool.

But, if my brain remains sharp even as the rest of my body fails, I’ll be better able to communicate. Even if I hobble into work at age 80 with a cane, my employer will note I am on time, and do fifty other incidental things better than the young galoot who comes bounding in two hours late, and does fifty other things worse. Therefore, if push comes to shove at that workplace, guess who the employer will lay off?

I am not just talking through my hat. I have seen many examples of old geezers being desired, while young galoots are not, at workplaces.

The point I wish to make is that, in terms of materialism, this is utterly illogical.

The irony is that many think “employers” are the epitome of materialism.  They think employers think of nothing but money.

Maybe some employers are like that, but the simple fact of the matter is that, if employers prefer a physically inferior 80-year-old to a physically superior 25-year-old,  the employer cares about something that isn’t physical and isn’t material.

The conclusion I wish to draw is that, if you are the sort of person inclined to make New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps you should see it is foolish do push-ups and eat kale so you might better resemble a young galoot.

Instead maybe you should vow to do what it takes to resemble a spry old man of 80.