Call me Mr. Cracker
Have you ever been beaten up by a bunch of juvenile delinquents? That’s a shame. I have. Wanna hear about it? No? Ok, then why don’t I just tell you about a ludic and lovely girl in Buckhead I used to know who never slept instead. Her name was Loftman, well, at least that’s what she was to me. Her first name was Erica, but I always called her Loftman anyway, and she always came when I called.
I wrote a movie about her, with love and fondness. Here’s the scene where she shows Danny, our hero and the film’s protagonist, her bedroom:
INT. LOFTMAN’S BEDROOM - NIGHT
Loftman’s room is a typical teenage girl fantasy mess of rock star poster boys and closets jammed with clothes and makeup and dance wear strewn everywhere with one exception; the bed is an impeccable, epicene triumph, a rococo four poster cocoon of calm, orderly, immaculate comfort. There are pillows and shams and throws and an Aloysius stuffed bear wrapped up in the middle, like an unborn amniotic animal swaddled in a huge pink womb.
...and this is my bed. I figured if I made it like a big comfortable embrace I’d be able to sleep.
Danny looks at her.
I can’t sleep. Didn’t I ever tell you? I mean, I can sleep but I just don’t. I don’t know why. I just lie in bed and think about sleeping. Every night, all night, I read books... and... and watch television. Even when I was young I was hyper – the doctor prescribed Nembutol to calm me down but my mom never gave it to me. She took me to dance class instead, and that did the trick. I boogied my ya-yas out.
The Girl Who Never Sleeps.
The Maniac Insomniac is more like it. So this is like my very own Temple of Morpheus. I do sleep maybe once a week – I’ll take a 20-minute nap, wherever I am, but I fall into such a deep sleep and wake back up so fast I sometimes don’t notice or even remember it.
Danny has gone over to the bed, had a look at its anatomical neatness, and then something out the window catches his eye.
It’s so bizarre you can’t sleep. Can you swim?
What? In the pool? We don’t... nobody uses the pool. I can’t even remember the last time any...
Danny leaves her room and walks down the stairs. Loftman goes over to the railing. He takes his shirt off and drops it on the stairs.
...body used that pool. You don’t even have a bathing suit.
Danny keeps walking, stopping briefly to take his shoes off. He goes through the dining room, through the living room and we hear the SCREEN DOOR SLAM shut. Loftman runs back into her room.
EXT. LOFTMAN’S POOL – NIGHT
Danny is swimming around in the pool. It’s pitch black. The terrace lights come on, and then the lights in the pool. We see Danny is naked, except for a mask and snorkel and fins. Loftman comes down in a bathing suit under a bathrobe. She dances around the pool for a while like a Tomanek nymph. Finally, she lays down in a chaise longue and props her salamandrine head of hair up with her hand, elbowed at 90 degrees. Danny swims to her underwater and then pops out by the edge of the pool and spits some water at her.
Hey. I’m not coming in. I just washed my hair. The water’s probably freezing. I’ll just sit here and watch.
Danny dives underwater and comes up on the other side. He starts swimming laps, doing handstands and somersaults, having a ball. The house is dark and the moon’s a fragment of happy candy. He gets up on the diving board and does a cannonball to try to get Loftman wet. He does, a little. She SHRIEKS, softly. He swims over to the edge and looks at her.
I’m still a virgin you know.
And you always will be, kid.
He dives back into the water, closes his eyes and floats down into the burnt-ink deep.
Loftman looking at him, longingly, with her head still propped up. We pull back and see that she’s no longer in the chaise longue, but in Danny’s bed back at his loft, and he’s beside her sleeping. It’s dark, and quiet except for the monosyllable of the clock ticking, loss, loss, loss. She just stares at him. She’s trying to figure out how to sleep – she thinks that if she looks closely enough she’ll see the key and be able to finally do it herself.
I had moved down to Atlanta in the late ‘80s for various reasons, some dumb and the rest retarded, and my two and a half years can be distilled into my very first day there, on just about my very first encounter with a culture that I didn’t understand, and that didn’t understand me, at all. The mutual head-shaking and happy un-understanding continues to this day.
I get off the Greyhound bus at the station in Marietta and ask the woman behind the counter where Powers Ferry Road is. She says it’s two blocks that way. I ask her if I can leave my luggage here, and she says yes. So I start walking two blocks that way. And then continue walking and walking. I’m thinking New York blocks, not time zones. And it’s hot. I finally get to Powers Ferry Road, and as I look to the right I can see a building about a quarter of a mile away with the number 402 on it. I know my brother’s company is at 404, but I’m not sure if that’s on the far side of 402, or if I should go left instead, even though I can’t see any buildings that way. I start towards 402. Did I say that it’s hot?
Anyway, what I find so strange is that out here in the middle of nowhere, where buildings and houses if there are even any around are few and far, far between, are sidewalks. Perfectly poured concrete walkways that no one uses since it’s a car mecca – the thought of pedestrians using them is so absurd and hilarious I want to make some kind of spontaneous concrete/abstract quip. I don’t. But I do finally get to 402 and I figure I’ll go inside and ask them which way to 404, but the entrance driveway is another quarter mile long. As I start up it, this lady in a brand-new beige Chevy sedan is pulling out. I motion for her to stop and she does. As I step down off the sidewalk to talk to her I see her lock all the doors. She rolls down the window a bit. I ask her if she knows whether 404 is that way or that way, pointing. She says she doesn’t, but she’ll check for me. I say great, and I walk around to get into her car when she just drives off. I watch her take a right and disappear down Powers Ferry Road. I’m thinking what the heck is all this I hear about southern hospitality? I uncharitably and unfairly think the same thing I thought when I lived in Japan and those people answered every question I asked them with “Hai” meaning yes I don’t know – I’m so glad we won the war. Meaning, in this case, the Civil War of course.
I continue walking up the long driveway and am just about to get to the entrance of Cheetham Chemical Co., when I see the lady come back down the road and turn into the driveway. She swings around the entrance loop and pulls up to me. She rolls down her window again, a bit, and says: 404 is that way, and points to the direction she just came from. I think she’s going to let me in since she’s going to drive right past it again, but nope. She rolls up the window and drives away, as polite as fudge.
Back where I come from two things would have happened in this situation: the lady would have told me to hop in, or at least would have said yes, I’ll give you a ride if I asked, or, B, would have driven away in the beginning and never came back. I found the south baffling the whole time I was there – I guess I’m fortunate to have been given a lesson in ‘southern hospitality’ almost as soon as I set foot on confederate soil. My problem was I thought this initial encounter was weird and unusual. Big mistake. It was absolutely par for the course. Southerners, it seems, are courteous to a fault, but only up to an invisible-to-the-northern-eye line – like there existed some sort of inherited biological rampart, a genetic and personal Mason-Dixon Line they’ve collectively drawn against where an enemy might attack, if the enemy attacked at all; if indeed we were the enemy.
Anyway, do you want to finish the story about The Girl Who Never Slept, or are you still curious about me getting my ass kicked by a gang of hoodlums? Before you start calling me all the trite, boring, untrue and unimaginative slurs, I just want you to know that I was an equal-opportunity victim – I was also taken behind the woodshed, so-to-speak, by a drunken bunch of pop-collared cackalack douche bros one afternoon in broad nightlight of Peachtree Street. I should say almost. They whupped me good, and taught me some hard, ugly truths, for sure, but not in the way you might think. Why don’t I tell that one first?
It’s quick. I was walking up Peachtree right near the renovated Fox theater on my way to Petrus, a nightclub run by a friend of mine, when a lifted Ford 250 with dualies passed me and the frat Chad riding shotgun sticks his head out of the window and yells “FAGGOT!” As the truck continued up the street I saw that it had a bumper sticker that read “Coon Hunter.” I wondered if that meant raccoon, since I’m a big fan of irony, especially in the South where it was in short supply.
As I approach 10th Street I notice the truck is stopped at the light, diesel stacks flapping and coughing. I cross the street behind it, hoping they won’t see me, but they do. They take a left onto 10th, and then pull over and get out. It’s right in front of Margaret Mitchell’s house of all places, and, well, insert your own quotable line from the film here.
The rubes descend, and one of them says “You homo” as they approach. I try to back away but they form a circle around me, like trapping a rat. I say hold on a minute. They said, no, we’re gonna beat your ass, faggot, and good. I said, yeah, that’s fine, you can beat my ass, but do it for the right reasons. I’m not a homosexual. You can kick my ass because I’m a Yankee, or you don’t like the way I look, but not because I’m gay, because I’m not.
I take off my jacket, a very expensive vintage motorcycle classic that was made of genuine horsehide “front quarter” which is what most of them were made of back in the day, and throw it on the ground. Ok, I say. I know you’re going to take me to the cleaners, but I’m going to put at least two of you in the hospital on my way down. So pick out who it’s going to be, and then let’s get started. You? I point. What about you? I look Chadwick Jr. in the eye. They all titter a bit. Then the toady Grover Dill behind me picks up my coat and runs to the truck. The rest run too. I realize what’s happening and start off after them. They hop in and drive off, but not before one of them throws a beer can that catches me on the side of the head. My favorite jacket ever: Gone with the Wind.
But tomorrow was another day, and that was a pretty painless if expensive lesson, wunnit? Wait, were you hoping for a little more action? Sorry to disappoint, but almost all real fights, unlike the fairy-tale versions that most of you are used to, have very little action. It’s usually one or at most two blows that nobody sees coming, and then it’s over. There’s almost never any sound, either, and it hurts like bloody fucking hell getting punched in the face if you need me to point out the obvious. It also hurts like hell punching somebody in the face as well. Don’t believe me? I’ll tell you what it’s like: next time you’re at the bowling alley, take one of the balls off the rack and have your buddy hold it about head height. Wind up and take a swing at it as hard as you can with a balled-up fist. I’m not kidding.
I, like a lot of people in my let’s ride bikes and build tree forts generation, grew up totally ignorant and innocent of malice or prejudice – and blind, blind. I’ll tell you what my childhood was like: we had a kid in our school, and everyone called him “Nairobi”, even the teachers. To this day I don’t know what his real name is. Actually, I looked him up in my brother’s yearbook over Christmas this year and come to find out he was Indian, and his real name was something like Dipankar. So, my brothers and the posse we hung around with were not only not prejudiced, we weren’t too smart either. I tell people I was too naive and harmless to the point of idiocy to have an opinion on just about anything that mattered. No kidding. I thought the Jews were the people the Holocaust happened to – I didn’t know they actually still existed outside of history books. I didn’t meet my first one in real life until my seventh year in college. I’m kidding. It was the fourth year in my third college.
One of my favorite movies growing up, and to this day, is Brian’s Song. Have you seen it? It’s the story of the friendship between Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo which was very unusual back in the ‘70s because there was no integration in the NFL at that time. It’s a typical buddy football movie, until the end, when it becomes a heartbreaker. I remember my brothers and me crying and crying when Brian dies. Anyway, Gale gets injured and Brian sets up a gym in Gale’s basement to help him get back in shape. Gale’s on the leg press, and is obviously exhausted. Brian says, ok, ten more and then we’ll call it a day.
Gale starts, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He’s sweating and complaining. Brian says come on, five more. Gale does 6, 7, and then, barely, 8. I can’t do any more. Brian says come on. Gale shakes his head and says, I can’t. Brian looks at him and calls him a ‘name.’ Gale looks at him, surprised, smiles, broadly, and then starts cracking up. Brian starts cracking up. They both start laughing hysterically. Laughing, laughing. Finally, Gale’s wife comes down the stairs and asks what happened, why are you laughing? Gale says: Brian, Brian tried to call me a ‘name.’ They both start cracking up again. The wife shakes her head and goes back up the stairs. They continue laughing.
I eventually ended up in the old “Snake Nation” section of downtown Atlanta, once the red-light district, and when I was there was a mishmash of warehouses, drunken bums squatting, railway spurs, and cowboys. I was the neighborhood weirdo not because I was white, because there was a handful of other artists and gentrifiers, but because I was from Boston. Across the street was a bungalow style house, painted baby blue, with a sign out front that proclaimed “Church of God for all Nations, Inc.”. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Bee-Line Lighting was next door. U-Haul had a storage facility across the street, and Pete the junkman lived in a trailer around the corner from that, driving around collecting ruined lives and dead dreams in wire and copper with his 1959 GMC flatbed truck.
I worked at Rich’s – Time after Time – was the motto back then, at their flagship store on Broad Street, in the heart of downtown. My colleagues were an interesting mix of old timers, and Martian computer people. The guy who had the desk next to mine was the “airbrush” expert – he had a small compressor and sprayer on his desk, and he would do touch-ups on underwear ads, actually painting on the photograph itself. Almost everything back then was for newspaper, so he only had two cans of paint: black and white. He had been there for 29 years, and was retiring that fall. He was a devout Christian, and told me once, with a sly smile, that he had probably erased more than 10,000 nipples and adolescent dreams off the face of the earth at this very desk.
Forsythe Street has your typical downtown dilapidation – hair braiding, electronics, bail bondsmen (since the courthouse is a block away), fried chicken, fortune-tellers and Laundromats. I was walking home on afternoon after work – about 5 o’clock and still broad daylight since it was summer. There were the usual suspects hanging around on the sidewalk, smoking, loitering, drinking out of paper bags. I passed the corner deli, called, JESUS’ VARIETY, and chuckled like I always did because there was a poster in the window of Richard Roundtree, who had starred in the smash exploitation movie Shaft, holding a 40 oz Colt 44 with a woman in a bikini laid out at his feet. The tagline in some hippy-freak font was “It works every time.”
This huge jamoco who resembled a flubby Chicago Bear refrigerator asked me to give him a buck. He was standing in front of a joint called The Domino Club or something like that. I hate bringing one of my favorite late-Romantic poets into this unsavory scene, but I gave him “the insinuated scoff of coward tongues” as Wordsworth once wrote. I was going to say something like: that’s how much I paid your mother last night, but I didn’t. I remember a fire hydrant in front of me that had some graffiti scrawl on it because I was suddenly thudding face down onto the unforgiving ground next to it. The back of my neck became a screaming emergency of agony.
I looked up. The bubba bastard whacked me with a rabbit punch, and was now towering overhead. I get up and run as fast as I can down the street, thinking that that fat fuck wasn’t going to be able to catch me. He didn’t. But two of his fleet-foot hubbledehoys caught me by the collar of my shirt just before I got to Martin Luther King Boulevard, of all places, and safety. It was like the recurring anxiety dream where people are chasing you and just before they grab you you wake up. But when they tackled me I didn’t wake up. They hauled me into a loading dock area and tap-danced around on me pretty good. I curled up into a twisted ball of miserable, trying to protect my guts and face. Fatman finally arrived huffing and soon got his licks in too.
I do remember thinking at the time, while it was happening, that at least they aren’t going to kill me. Punching and kicking a person takes a lot of energy, and when they slowed down a bit to catch their breath I was able to break away. I got up and kept running, running all the way home. I remember very vaguely passing the Atlanta-Journal and Constitution building, but looking at a map right now that doesn’t seem like the right route. Point is, I finally got home on adrenaline, which luckily is anesthetizing, and fear. The blood was singing in my veins, and my heart was a freaking drumbeat pounding out 32nd notes.
I calmed down a bit, and drank a glass of water. I was so parched, I gulped down two or three more. My sunglasses were busted and gone, and so was my jejunocity to quote Woody Allen, but I was pretty sure I still had all my faculties, even though I didn’t know where some of them were just then. And the pain slowly came, and then burst out all over. There was a bastard banging a mattock behind my eyes, and I thought my jaw might be broken. A huge raspberry bruise on my chin, where it unwittingly met the pavement hard by the fire hydrant after I was bopped from behind with a sick thud, bled all over the place. I went to the bathroom and threw up. Everything, in heaves and heaves. When I was emptied and spent, I took a fistful of aspirin. I was all of a sudden exhausted and just wanted to go to bed. I did and fell asleep into a giant abyss.
After hours or days I swum up out of the black foggy smear and it was night, or maybe it was the next night. Loftman was there, sitting on the ottoman scooched up next to my bed, looking at me, in an improbable pajama ensemble. Her knees were pulled up to her chest and I could see it had footsies – the rig was all of a piece, and I think the theme was Winnie-the-Pooh. Or are they called footies? I couldn’t remember. All I could think of was she looked like the symbol of innocence in a horror movie, trying to comfort the latest victim and assure the audience. She stared at me, my face a masterpiece of throbbing gruesome. “Should I ask?” she asked, her voice choked with concern and charm. No, and I fell back asleep.
Thirty years later, I’m fairly awake, finally. And what do I think? What was this all about, really? I’m sure I got pounded both times because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Period. And it certainly wasn’t personal. They weren’t trying to rob me, or murder me, or anything that premeditated or cruel – they just wanted to kick my recalcitrant and arrogant ass up and down the street for a fun. Yeah, so much fun! Let’s face it: most people, particularly young, disenfranchised youths are bored and excitable, especially when they’re in a group of their cabbagehead friends. I think they thought it was a harmless lark – no autopsy, no foul. And the message was clear – we matter, and might is right, and you couldn’t be more wrong just being here. And next time don’t come walking around our turf no more.
So with hindsight and insight, I’ll try to write my own personal prescription for not being a dumb-dumb, and then end this rambling jangle blog post with an apropos-ish poem, or at least one of my favorites.
- Obviously assess the situation, but if someone is threatening, desperate or angry, and asks you for something, just give it to them. The bum on the street corner – what the heck – throw him a dime, especially if you’re in your prime. A reprobate hopped up on coke or sizzurp in Central Park at midnight waving a gun in your face – definitely. And the quicker the better. Would the Chicago Bear-man above have let me go unpunched if I had given him the buck he initially asked for? Probably not – so I at least saved myself that expense. Which is nice. But writing about all of this puts me in mind of Robert Lowell’s quip, after getting robbed one night in New York: We beg delinquents for our life/Behind each bush, perhaps a knife.
- Never pick a fight, or start one yourself. Ever. I guarantee you will lose. Badly and immediately. The only reason you would be picking a fight in the first place is because you were drunk, high, or incurably stupid. After the fight, you will still be stupid, probably the poorer, and in a lot of pain. Idiot-est idea in the history of the universe. Walk away. Or run. Darwin isn’t your friend.
- If you’re going to “teach someone a lesson” and don’t lose spectacularly and quick, then the police will be called and you’ll be arrested. And prosecuted. It doesn’t even matter who threw the first punch – you’re up the (rap) sheet creek without a paddle unless there’s security camera footage or tons of sober eyewitnesses on your side. Which there won’t be. And even if there is exculpatory evidence, it’ll cost a ton of time and money and heartache just to clear yourself. Which means that you’ll be beaten up by the criminal “justice” system way worse over the course of the following year or so than you ever would be by the bonehead with a black belt who asks you if you want to take your pointless and petty bar argument out into the parking lot. If you want to know what it’s like living in the exasperating and expensive twilight zone of “the system”, refer to my recent blog post The Mouth of Truth.
- Getting worked over hurts. A lot. Forget the aquatint horseshit and testosterone fist-pump glorifying of Fight Club, and Brad Pitt’s beguiling picture-perfect bruises and gorgeous grin. I can tell you from personal experience that having a muscley douchepickle stupider than you take his fist and smash the features of your face into unrecognizable black and blue bloody meat is really, really painful. Forget your face: if an errant and not particularly well-timed or well-placed gut or kidney punch or kick doesn’t almost kill you, you’ll feel like you wish it did.
- Which leads me to: People need to feel heard. And loud and clear. And right now. And if you’re the unwitting ear, heaven help you.
Boy Breaking Glass
By Gwendolyn Brooks
To Marc Crawford
from whom the commission
Whose broken window is a cry of art
(success, that winks aware
as elegance, as a treasonable faith)
is raw: is sonic: is old-eyed première.
Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.
Our barbarous and metal little man.
“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.”
Full of pepper and light
and Salt and night and cargoes.
“Don’t go down the plank
if you see there’s no extension.
Each to his grief, each to
his loneliness and fidgety revenge.
Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there.”
The only sanity is a cup of tea.
The music is in minors.
Each one other
is having different weather.
“It was you, it was you who threw away my name!
And this is everything I have for me.”
Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,
the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,
runs. A sloppy amalgamation.
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.
So what happened to Loftman, the untired Terpsichore angel who was once my admired and fun friend? I don’t know, but I think she still lives in Atlanta and is a firefighter of all things. But that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? She can be on call 24/7, 365, rescuing people who can be rescued. Who want to be rescued. And I mean that sincerely. I wonder if she has ever slept.