Sunday, August 15, 2010

Geiger Counter of Human Misery

It started when my boss Harry said to me, “You know, Paul, when I go home at night I like to have my wife make me a vodka tonic shaken, not stirred. I like my drinks shaken, not stirred,” he said, and he was staring at me filled with this neediness I couldn’t identify, and I got the thin polite smile I get when someone is really creeping me out.

“You know,” he said, “like James Bond. I like to think James Bond would approve.”

And I realized that after all those years of working 60-hour weeks, and going to church and civic clubs and having five-minute sex with the lights out… this was the one little thrill in Harry’s life. That’s when I picked it up – loud and clear as that buzz saw hum you hear standing next to a high-tension electrical wire on a windless day. Raw pain and doom and all the sadness in his life – he was beaming it right at me like a radio signal. It actually hurt. I thought my eardrums would pop right there and bleed out all over the expensive carpet like a scene out of Scanners. I thought Harry was going to burst into flames screaming out as he died that all he wanted to be was a transvestite cabaret singer in New Orleans, and his wife had thwarted him by pretending to forget taking her pill. I thought the grisly reaper would sweep right into the room and take us both out with a bloody swoop.

That day God revealed to me my one supernatural power. I can sense desperation like picking up top forty stations in your dental work. I can smell sadness like bad food in the back of the fridge. I am a Geiger counter of human misery.

Now it’s five years later, and I’m in some yuppie meat market in Hoboken trying to push my blood alcohol content to the low 40 percent range, and in comes this sorority chapter, all in white T-shirts that say they’re here to celebrate Jan’s wedding, and Jan is wearing some baseball cap topped with a plastic bride and groom such as you’d find on the 16-layered cake, and they are all hugging and giggling and downing plate loads of lime Jell-O shooters and cocktail drinks in big bucket sized glasses with fruit and little umbrellas in them, and giggling and saying, “Jan, we love you; we love you so much Jan, because you’re our sister, and because we love you,” and I’m picking up a lot of hate in this room for Jan.

These people are walking around spilling over with fantasies of Jan dying in really bad ways. Involving automobiles and power tools and insect bites and industrial machinery and mauling by wild animals and handguns and vibrators gone out of control, and there’s this one mantra that seems to be in the air. Over and over I hear:

“I’m thin. I’m thin. I’m thin. I’m sucking down froyo, and bottled water, and I put on a thong three times a week and do my aerobics class sweating bullets and doing little step jumps with that bastard who looks like Richard Simmons listening to ‘She works hard for the money,’ over and over… and I’m 25 and I’m not married yet.”

I walk out tonight, and it’s really bad. I mean, I can see three fake hearty guys with gray hair and blue suits and bulging forehead veins this funny purple color, and they’re all thinking about trying to quit their jobs before they drop dead of embolisms, and the pimply faced 13-year-old kid brushes past me – I see how much it hurts to be surrounded by women who won’t sleep with you. I see him dying of autoerotic asphyxia, and his mom finding him hanging from a pipe in the cellar with a bag over his head, his pants around his ankles and Miss Juggs, 1998 spread out below him.

“I like my job,” I can hear telepathically beamed to me from a full dozen people, “I like the woman I’m with. I like the relationship I’m in. The apartment where I live. The pets I’ve bought and the family members I care for. I like working in the same air-conditioned room for the last 15 years with my certificates and my golf trophies and that little Far Side calendar I keep on the desk to show myself that I’m a fun guy. I like who I am.”

And every one of these people is smothered in a doom as thick as gravy, and I’m trying not to touch anyone, because it’s going to come off on me.

And it’s no use, because I’ve got my own doom, like a body odor so bad you occasionally smell it on yourself and realize with horror that people the whole day have been edging away from you, and opening doors and windows wherever you’ve gone. I work at a stupid job, and I’m trying to be a writer, and I tell people a lot of things about myself that simply aren’t true.

I pretend my life is going somewhere. I pretend I’m deep and I care about the big issues, when all I really want is to get this kind of cheap fame where people recognize me on the street and some large publishing company gives me a bucket of money for writing the literary equivalent of dirty limericks and Jim Carroll wants to be my friend.

I want the freedom to shave my head and get a spider tattooed over my entire face, and I want to be able to spend most days blind drunk, jacked up on enough amphetamines to kill a horse, dressed up like a buffoon, and not even bothering with the basics of personal hygiene. I want these things because I spent most of my earlier life scared to death of every authority figure I ever encountered, as if they were going to do something to me that life doesn’t do to all of us in the end.

As if by kissing their collective ass and playing by the rules, I could somehow avoid what happens to all of us. The great bad thing there’s no getting away from, whether you’re Shakespeare or Caesar or the sorority sisters, or the kid in the cellar or your asshole friend who went off to run with the bulls in Pamplona because he was in college and wore a webbed belt and a backwards baseball cap and shouted “Woo, woo” a lot and got himself gored and stamped through the glass of a storefront, and had a whole crowd of tourists around him trying not to laugh saying, “Stupid fucking American” in at least half a dozen languages.

That great bad thing is death, and it is awful precisely because it makes everything bad in your life permanent. It seals the deal. It insures that whatever you’ve been putting off will never happen, and whatever you’re putting up with will follow you to the grave. I can sense these things, and you can too, because they’re obvious. We’re desperately trying to ignore them. Some days we almost pull it off.

(I read this rant when I was a regular at the Nuyorican in Manhattan in the mid-1990's. A friend of mine named Leslie reminded me of it recently. If you ever saw me perform this live, shoot me a comment. I miss every freakin' one of you on that big crazy island. I miss the smell and the noise and the little blue cups. If you're reading this, and you're anywhere near 3rd and Avenue C, please say hello from me to the greatest city in the world. I'm nothing without you, New York.)

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