Rednecks, Greenhorns, and the Bounding Main.
“Youth on the brink, looking with shining eyes upon that glitter of the vast surface which is only a reflection of his own glances full of fire.
There is such magnificent vagueness in the expectations that drive each of us to sea, such glorious indefiniteness, such a beautiful greed of adventures that are their own and only reward.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
My seabag, which was actually my old army duffel, looked like it might have been packed by a nervy and dishevelled Melville, hallucinating on Wild Turkey and blotter acid, with Queegueg, his tattooed cannibal cohort, chucking one or two of his own ritualistic totems and odd taboo asphidities in among the wisdom and toiletries. No harpoon, though, but I did still have a French ring-locking knife for some reason, with an olive-tree handle that I had gotten from Steve, a Texan classmate of mine at Schutz in Alexandria, Egypt, after an alarming weekend aboard a dahabiya on the Nile outside of Cairo a dozen or so years earlier. Maybe the handle was goat horn, I can’t recall. But I do know that that tall, boney maniac wore a straw Stetson with a red bandanna tied around it, and one of those shimmering puka shell choker necklaces because when I got high enough one night on hashish I began eating it thinking it was made of candy, like the ones I used to buy at the Davis Store as a kid, along with packs of Neccos and Good & Plenty.
“What the hell are you trying to pull,” I said. I then gibbered a string of obscene entreaties, but he grabbed a fistful of my hair and hacked it off. I went into shock, and in that quavering state of unlucidity and excitement I thought he had scalped me, so I jumped overboard, thinking it was the only way to save the rest of my own skin. I clung to a handy entangled block of floating styrofoam fishing line detritus when two or three of the by-then hysterical Egyptian crew jumped in after me and hauled my even more hysterical self out. Filled with invincible headlong terror seeing those magnificent suleimen diving in after me, I remember shouting loudly, “Ana akbar! Ana akbar! Ana akbar awi!” over and over, aware of and unhappy with my own imminent mortality – in my hallucinating delirium I was positive that half-crazy cracker had sent them in to finish me off.
They finally got me calmed down and put me to bed, a puddle of nervous, sedated goo. The next day I remember very clearly going to a lecture at the University of Cairo or the Museum of Cairo on how to make papyrus, and I actually made some, like the night before never happened. I traded Steve my bicycle for that knife when we got back to Alexandria, after a quick trip to the barbershop for a short back and sides, and for years that wicked scalper loomed up awful and dangerous, enormous in many of my anxiety nightmares.
“Here we are,” is the opening line of the Bee Gees’s Nights on Broadway, which I had never heard before but which stuck on repeat memory in my head, literally like a broken record on a warped turntable all weekend. As well as Aerosmith’s Dream On – two musical titrations of that muddy water cruise that I hear echoing in the cobwebbed attic salt synapses of my head often to this day. On that night we loudly lorded Tyler’s exhortation over the Nile as feluccas sliced its ancient waters by and by, unperturbed.
Steve’d lived in Saudi (Arabia) for years since his dad worked for Aramco, and we’d speak Arabiclish, even though Alexandrian Arabic is slangy and provincial and the Saudi dialect is Koranical and absolute. We’d intentionally stretch and wreck that guttural tongue, warping everything into the plastification of our pop America. For example, Jimmy Carter, the U.S. President at the time, when pronounced with the hard, guttural Arabic “K,” and with the non-rhotic dropping of the “Rs” – I’m from Boston after all – becomes khadduh, which literally means ‘shit.’ So we’d always talk about Jimmy Khadduh, and think it was so deft and clever.
As you’re well aware the call to prayer starts with the familiar “God is Great;” but what you may not know is that “akbar” is a sacred adjective, only to be used when describing God. Whenever threatened, or humiliation was close at hand, or just to boast big, I’d always say “Ana akbar,” translated as “I am great,” and puff up. Obviously, this was just another one of my many attempts at iconoclastic contempt and clever sacrilegious statue toppling; but also a laughably transparent and juvenile psychological low-esteem defense mechanism 101 knee-jerk cry for help.
But back to Homer and Telemachus setting sail, as I mentioned in the first part of the series. Where does this even fit in to my own journey? Or my adventure with his. How did he and I become soul travelers on this almost-same sea?
“Like all honest Roman histories, this is written from ‘egg to apple’: I prefer the Roman method, which misses nothing, to that of Homer and the Greeks generally, who love to jump into the middle of things and then work backwards and forwards as they feel inclined.”
I, Claudius – Robert Graves
Robert Graves's stunner I, Claudius, two thousand years of wisdom and wit from a gimpy idiot was just a buck - are you kidding me? The Confessions of an English Opium Eater - Thomas De Quincey's hilarious, dazzling psychedelic romp into his own mental funhouse was two-fifty. Moby Dick, a dollar. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom – an astounding refutation of well-intentioned but inevitably hellish and murderous socialism, and a profound guide to a moral, political, and inspired life – only one dollar and twenty five cents. JG Ballard’s dystopian Empire of the Sun – man that guy can write! A dozen or so books total – mostly dead white males; but one live white male, two live white females, one dead white female, and one dead black male.
My personal, unpopular and painful take, after three progressively more ignominious higher-education fiascos, is that college is an expensive ideological re-education concentration camp for unthinking numbskulls that should be avoided at all costs. The syllabus is: here’s the truth – memorize it. Instead, I urge you to seek out and recycle the cheap, easy, timeless genius of the past and school your own skint ignorant selves, kids. Facts + inductive reasoning = hard-won and worthwhile wisdom. I did – and look where it got me in life.
It was Chez Heidi that I found a battered copy of The Odyssey, in Robert Fitzgerald’s justly famous and magical translation. There was a business card inside that read, ‘Mr. Paul Ott, Artist/Photographer,’ and then an address and an old-school phone number in Connecticut like Evergreen 2879 or something. In the top right corner of the inside blank first page was scribbled in blue pen “This shit’s relative” by some epigrammatical and probably unintentionally witty Einsteinian, and tons of the pages were dog-eared, which is one of my pet peeves and always pisses me off. I hate defaced books – it feels like an absent-minded molesting, an unnecessary albeit unintentional egotistical peeing on the author’s bushes. I decided to start this epic first.
I also carried a monogrammed silver cigarette case that I had bought the year before in a small watch and tchotchke shop in Venice (Italy, not California) when, Hodges, an old girlfriend from Santa Barbara visited me in Milan and wanted to ride on a gondola. We rode on a gondola, if you know what I mean. Every evening after our touristing we’d end up at Harry’s Bar, which is actually on a side street, not a canal, and she’d drink Bellinis and I’d order midnight martinis. Buzzed and bristling with glitter, we’d try to mind meld together the engaging day and the immolating sunset.
If you don’t know what a Bellini is, I’d recommend you stop reading right now – you don’t belong here. But for those of you who have never heard of a midnight martini – I’ll enlighten you. It’s a classic vodka martini with a black olive instead of a green one, and in keeping with my ongoing theme of Johnny Cash’s Man in Black, a sartorial statement of mourning for the trampled, ground-down people of the world. Actually that’s not true: my all-black attire has always been more of a simple preppy Tripp Dunwhistle meets The Clash iconoclastic middle finger than a fashionable hoi polloi funeral dirge. And I do usually wear a pink thong, for a splash of understated color, so-to-speak, but you don’t want to hear about that right now, do you?
My Zippo, which I’ve already written extensively about elsewhere, was always in pocket, or in hand. It’s wicked, which is my favorite heteronym. And there’s that scene in the movie Man from the South that still makes me laugh: where Peter Lorre bets Steve McQueen that he can’t light his lighter ten times in a row. If he can, Lorre will give him his Cadillac convertible. If he doesn’t, Lorre gets to lop off one of his fingers. The scene’s in Vegas of all places, and is the kind of wager I like, consequential: greed pitted against pride, with a painful price to pay either way. Lorre’s his usual oily, macabre creep Kraut, and McQueen’s gorgeously understated manly silence of course conquered and carried the scene, and the film, and beyond.
The last curiosity (and an EDC until recently, see below*), and this is where Queequeg kind of comes in, was a Khan el Khalili Market-bought set of worry beads. Called misbaha in Arabic, they are similar to the Greek konpoloi, and are the progenitors of the Catholic Rosary. Usually made out of ebony, mother-of-pearl, amber, coral, stones, date pits, or any other of a huge variety of expensive and mundane materials, but always either thirty-three or ninety-nine in number, they are used to placate boredom, inspire meditation, calm nervousness, burn off hostility, assuage intemperate thoughts, and pacify a platter of personality tics and torments shading the in-between. Actually they are ostensibly a mnemonic device for remembering the ninety-nine names of Allah: the merciful, the compassionate, the all-knowing and so on, that were more manageable and practical than carrying around a pocketful of pebbles.
But all that god and goddamn history was horse manure to me: I carried my ivory worry beads lite around because they were always a conversation starter at cocktail parties, and I’d usually make up a particularly exotic hooliganish Hail Mary story about how I got them – individually lathed and polished by me with shards of sharp ice from the tooth of a bowhead whale killed during an aboriginal subsistence hunt up in the Aleutian Islands. Carved from a camel’s femur that I bought from Mumtaz Omar (more like Magnoon Omar) in a tent outside of Sahara City during a sandstorm, Or, sausage-sliced with a handsaw from a walrus tusk stolen from the Peabody Museum as a prank by a Yale buddy who was pledging Sigma Chi back in ’79. I’d whip them out, phony worry then smile, and women fell.
*I gave these worry beads to a good friend of mine just last year as part of a “Start-Up Survival Kit” I had put together for him when he became the CEO and Chief Risk Management Officer of his own fledging hedge fund, figuring he had a lot more on his plate to worry about than I did. I forgot what else I put in it, but I did buy a (fake) cyanide pill, also called a kill-pill, and included that just for laughs don’t you know.
“Few sons are equals of their fathers; most fall short, all too few surpass them,” Athena tells Telemachus, as he prepares to set off in search of his, and continues, encouraging, “you’ll lack neither courage nor sense from this day on, not if your father’s spirit courses through your veins.” Odysseus, meantime, in the lustrous jealous arms of Calypso is trying his desperate best to return home, where he belongs, to be with his wife and son, and among his loved ones in his own kingdom. And I was also just about ready to cast off, like Telemachus, to find my “father”? Or was I more like Odysseus desperate to get back home to where I belonged and started out from so hopefully so long ago? Unfortunately I wasn’t in the lustrous jealous arms of an anybody, at least not without paying for it, but I realized much later that you are where you’re from, no matter how far away you travel in time and distance, desire, or meaning. And the two journeys, to get nearer to father, or in search of an illusive truth, are essentially the same.
Telemachus first visits old King Nestor, who starts off by telling him of his own hard-won journey back, and then of his father’s mythical cunning and bravery, but couldn’t confirm or deny whether Odysseus was still alive or not. Telemachus then goes to visit Menelaus, the King of Sparta, to see if he has news of Odysseus’ fate. He didn’t, but he let Telemachus know how much he still grieved for his lost comrade, the “lord of the warcry… the man of immortal cunning… handsome as a god.” He recounts his brother Agamemnon’s ignominious death at the hands of his treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, predicted by Cassandra, but thought too cruel and calculating a prophesy to be believed.
But the most interesting passage in the chapter, The King and Queen of Sparta, is when Helen, the cause of almost all the grief and death in both epics, recounts a story during the ninth year of battle when Odysseus infiltrated the city of Troy, disguised as a beggar, and how she recognized him but didn’t betray him to the Trojans, since:
Aphrodite sent me…”
And then there’s this: during the sack of Troy Menelaus couldn’t bring himself to kill his adulterous wife when he captured her (she fell at his feet and begged for her life), and she returns and lives in the same house with him, forgiven, as if the merciless agony and slaughter and total annihilation and enslavement of a proud and great civilization she caused never happened? Not a chance. She was universally reviled on both sides – by the Acheans for her treachery and the thousands of innocent deaths she caused, and by the Trojans for being a willing turncoat and traitor to their end-of-their-empire downfall and complete destruction. Dante had his circles of hell exactly right – and Helen belonged in the lowest times two – first for betraying her first husband, and then for throwing her second husband and his country under the bus. Despicable, reprehensible behavior – and still condemned and hated two thousand years later.
The man had never learned French, in fact the only expression he knew was “Je fais la vaisselle,” a line from Animal House that I had translated for him, I can’t remember why. It’s from the scene where Neidermeyer pounds on the Death Mobile and Otter says “Who is it? I’m doing the dishes.” Why that line is a mystery to me, except the movie is a genius classic, and will always be my favorite comedy.
“That’s the only poussez I’m going to get around here,” he said, as he went in, without even holding the door for me.
Michelle and Therese were two raccrocheurs who always loitered around or leaned on the hood of their navy-blue BMW sedan at the corner of the Croisette and Rue du Dr Zamenhof in Cannes, and I used to walk by them all the time and wave when Laissez-Faire was in the New Port. Fun fact: Zamenhof was the creator of the international language Esperanto, and George Soros of all people, is one of the few mother tongue speakers of it. Anyway, my attorney and I were driving into town one day in my ’69 VW Bug when I saw them and said hello. They smiled and waved back.
I burst out laughing. My attorney cast a dagger glance in my direction, and said, under his breath, “How do you say Fudgsicle in French?” I said, “Fudgsicle,” only I didn’t say 'fudge.'
Michelle then tried to ask him what he was doing there but said instead, “And what do you do?”
“I’m an amateur gynecologist,” my attorney said, and sat up a little straighter in his seat, adjusting his tie, metaphorically.
Without missing a beat Therese says: “Tous les hommes sont.”
Afterwards, we had a drink at the local boite, Le Loup Garou, and it was the first time I saw a bunch of hard-boiled eggs stacked around two-tiered ziggurat rack on the bar, with a salt shaker in a holder on top, like some kind of holiday display. I asked Michelle, “What’s this all about, the Easter Bunny?” I had to use the English word because I didn’t know it in French – Lapin de Paque? She said it was a French version of bar peanuts or pretzels, “to make you thirstee, Monsieur Moutarde.”
More like, “Monsieur Retard,” said my attorney, pronouncing it “Mon-sewer Re-tard.” He turned to Michelle. “Don’t you know he’s got the morality of a sackful of thrashing snakes?” She looked at him, puzzled. “Run,” he said, pointing to the door. “Run for your life as fast as you can, girl!”
And to this day I have a chromed 9-boiled egg holder on my kitchen counter that I stole from Café Luxembourg on the Upper West Side many years later, which makes me think of those two Cannes-Cannes girls occasionally and fondly. The point being that language is 90% non-verbal, and the other 90% is intent, and Joe E. Buoy translated everything with his hands.
Back on board Fantome, we sailed for two or three days straight on a broad port reach, at about 200 degrees southwest, or as Bill put it, dryly, “Just keep France to your right and Africa to your left.” But navigation back then, way before GPS and cellphones, was all done by hand and sharp eye with a minimum number of tools: compass, chart, parallel rulers, timepiece and sextant if you ever got out of sight of land. These were the same instruments used by the Greeks 2,500 years ago, even though theirs were a bit cruder, and they didn’t have an accurate chronometer. My attorney had spent some time in the Coast Guard – I think he was given the option of joining up or shipping out to a JDC (juvenile detention center) by some fed-up judge, and the poor boy made the wrong choice.
But he became an excellent navigator. He could shoot an altitude with a sextant and then calculate our current position using a slide rule in a couple of minutes, to within a couple of minutes. I’m not kidding. He taught us all about dead reckoning, boxing the compass, and even how to figure out our boat speed using a chip log – two or three hundred feet of knotted rope and a thirty-second hourglass, if it can be called that, that was surprisingly accurate for such an ancient, nothing-to-it tool. Our man Telemachus, and Odysseus, too, would have used the exact same sort of simple speed-measuring device. We all got pretty handy with this navigation gear, or at least competent enough to kind of figure out where we were and where we were headed and how fast we were going, but all of us struggled with the slide rule.
I’m terrible at math all the way down to the molecular level, and have the patience of a grizzly bear in heat when it comes to numbers. There may be worse things in the world than trying to do calculations with a slide rule on a slippery yawing deck with my menacing, sweating attorney waiting for the correct answer, which I couldn’t come up with or even come close to in probably a million years, but I can’t think of any right now.
He looks at his chart. “Just remember, Mustard Man, whenever you’re navigating through life, that all the energy in the universe flows to the whims of the great magnet. Even though I thought I was in tune with the wu wei world around me, I learn something new every day. I had no idea we were about halfway between Bamoko and Timbuktu.”
“What the heck are you going to do with those bazookas,” Bill said from the cockpit, steering the boat with the big toe of his right foot while whipping the end of a line with both hands. Without looking up he continued, “Trying to see what’s happening on Mars?” My attorney smiled. “I’m going to ogle naked women at 20 x 120X.”
The Captain looked up. “No you’re not, man, the girls have bathing suits on.” “We’re just windward of some froggie island,” Joe E. said, “that I heard had a ‘naturist village.’”
“Let me see that, you twisted idiot. Why don’t you learn how to fold a map first?” I grabbed the fuckbent chart. “Cheesus H. Christ, man, it’s a nature preserve,” I said, after finding the island, “not a nudist colony. Learn to speak French, for crying out loud.” He kept scanning the horizon, stopped, and then smiled, ear to ear. “See for yourself, you clueless bilingual ape,” he said, and I could feel the gears shifting inside of him. I grab the binoculars, and sure enough, there was plenty of lustful jiggle and filthy youthful fresh, on full display right there on the naked sand. “Tie me to the mast, man, I hear the siren song, luring us to our lecherous and welcome doom,” I said, as we were gliding past Lisero “Jungle” Beach.
“Prepare to come about,” my attorney calls out, like an imitative orangutan, not knowing what it really means, and grabbing the tiller from an amused Captain Bill. All eyes immediately turn to me, including Sally’s and Emma’s, surprised. “Helm’s alee,” he shouted, “helm’s aleeeeee!”