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Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Quest-less Quest - Part I

A smarter man I never met. Was he Vate, Bard or Knight?

I'm sure he sensed in me his Celtic madness. John's savvy was Charles De gaulle, his anger Sartre's hatred for the Church. John was even more cynical than Bukowski yet he lived a form of suspended hilarity, always at the edge of the next outburst. His laughter could shake the earth and made up for the unease he brought with him. His long grey hair, unkempt, knotted, his overly bounced-out manic stride, his deep frown. Everything John said made people nervous. Fortunately his explosions of mirth came as relief.

If life seemed hysterically funny, I wondered if other parts of it had been tragic.

John inhaled weed, destroyed Scotch and popped acid whenever he had the chance. Booze he complained "does little except uncurl my eyebrows."

His principal vice was tobacco. "Cigarettes help me think," he said. "If I have an idea, I have to run out for a pack otherwise I can't do anything."

I was thorough, but forgetful. John remembered everything and so was sloppy.

Normally deadpan, John could also be riotously spontaneous. He never kept a secret. I kept secrets so well I invariably forgot them.

So John invited me to join him on a quest-less quest.

The 'questless-quest' was John-speak for a journey without a goal.

A quest-less-quest has a beginning (in this case New York), a middle (usually a road-trip) and an end (a moment of summary to press home absurd point of history upon people John pretended to hate, but secretly revered.) Ultimately John was a moralist. Every task was a mission, and every mission had the same reason. The triumph of good over evil.

Though a ritualist (that would be the Celtic Vate from his Gallic past), and also an inveterate storyteller, which made him a Bard, most of all John saddled the role of Knight. He saw himself as a hero to the people, a savior, and a doer of manly deeds.

The epilogues of John's quests ended in dissolution, a sin for which he was quick to forgive himself. All knights and war-weary Crusaders abandoned their quest upon finding bright beaches and pretty lasses to pass the time.

One such quest was to have a drink at every bar in Georgetown. That quest was retired early by two lovely and determined women.

"Let's be serious about this. If we're going to win we have to fight unconventionally. And let's remember what crowd created this place. I mean, who's in charge really?

"We're the descendants of deer-hunting farmers, who knocked the crap out of the best trained army in the world."

When the babes were at his arm cooing for attention, these were the moments John made his extraordinary forays into history:

"We're Templars. We rode with Baldwin. We're sword swinging avengers. We took the Holy Land from the Saracen. We wore suits of iron that weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. On our battle horses we struck down Saladin's infantry with the force of a modern tank. We tore them to pieces, sent the 'Mo packing!"

Thence onto the subject of warriors in retirement.

"Who wants to return from the Holy-Land to a farm ridden by plague? Not my ancestors! Not yours either!"

More laughter. A kiss for the girls.

"When we got back home, our younger brothers had taken over everything. Had to kill the suckers or keep riding. Same for the guys that came back from 'Nam. If you don't take what you want you've got nothing. You become a fucking bum."

"So we camped out in the south of France. The women were beautiful. They let down their hair. Rapunzel and all that crap. It's the honest truth. That's why I'm part French. You too! We're Crusaders, sick of being English!"

John guffawed. "Aren't you French? Partly?"

I admitted some relation to the painter Daubigny, through the mother of a great-something grandfather who watched a cousin of his get hanged by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

"He was a prick that Sheriff. So grandpa had to come to the New World right? I've heard that before. You don't even have to tell me!" My tales never interested John. In the story department, John was the ultimate filing clerk. He'd seen them all before and knew exactly where to put each one. But if you made him laugh, caught him off guard, well then you were a writer!

Our first quest, to Washington, was to provide footage for a massive video essay John was compiling up in his crowded cupboard apartment at 302 Mott Street, four floors above mine. That essay that would re-inspire the Lost Generation, reassemble from fragments of the now disintegrated Beats, and the hitherto undefined new generation of Yuppies, those that were salvageable at least, to take back our wholesome American liberties that had been lost.

"I mean who the hell ARE these people?" John's favorite phrase.

Our Quixotic-duo rampage was upon NASA the NSA, and the Smithsonian Institution. To John they were Bardic Halls of fictive power, that had squandered the creativity of our nation. At least as creativity resided in John's Frankish make-up. John assumed for starters that everyone was a genius, unless you forgot you were a genius, in which case you were an idiot and a sell-out. John's starting assumption was that 'we' should get the Nobel Prize for Peace. I mean we could invent dynamite. "That shit's just nitro mixed with sea-shells!"

A hilarious bout of laughter and coughing ensued.

"Seriously, when we get there, let's not forget decorum. We'll set them right we will. But before we start swinging I want to show them the piece I've edited." John tapped a file of incriminating damning evidence that would set the bastards in Washington straight.

For a moment I believed we were driving south to drink mead with the President.

We arrived in Marble Quarry (John-speak for the nation's capital) and parked the car in the Smithsonian lot.

"My mother used to have a lifetime pass. Bastards have no respect for inheritance."

At the information counter John demanded to see Gordon Ripley, Director of "The National Attic", as John called the museum.

"I'm sorry sir but do you have an appointment." The regally coiffed matron behind the Membership counter questioned our intent.

"No we don't but could you tell him that as one Knight Templar to another I'd like to give him an opportunity to star in a documentary about the National Attic."

"Excuse me?"

John was a Crusader, born late, into a modern technical world. So he entangled his fictive Crusader past with the moment at hand:

"We went with Baldwin of Boulogne, spent time on Malta. The women were good to us there and bore us lots of children."

Needless to say we did not meet with Ripley of the National Attic. But we did get a shot of John posing outside the main entrance with a nervous looking security guard.

What John meant was: 'My ancestors, wintered on Malta'. The inclusive 'we' meant 'We Knights, supreme warriors of Yore'.

When people speak of ancestors, they're speaking of just a few. As one goes back in time, the number of ancestors in each generation becomes exponentially larger, and then starts to diminish again as increasingly we see that all humans are related. Go back in time enough and we're related, many times over. Go back far enough, as it's been proven, we're all descended from one of a few female hominids on the Plains of Africa.

"I respect the Mo. The Mo taught us a lot. Gave us the zero. taught us algebra."

In John-speak this meant, "We knights, when we encountered the Mohammedan, respected them for their warrior prowess." The more John spoke the more one realized 'Mo' didn't just mean follower of Mohammed, but also North Africans in general.

I heard him say that Burton got jabbed through the cheeks by a "Mo'.

But did he had a genetic memory for the Crusades!

"We loved their coffee." More guffaws.

And then his tone became serious. "Really it was a great contribution. It really was a Great Awakening."

John's dates were off. At the time of the Crusades the Turkish rulers were doing all they could do to eradicate the growing use of coffee in their society. I informed him of this.

He shrugged. A meaningless point of fact.

"We loved their weed!"

John writhed, convulsed, rolled with ebullient laughter. He had me. I laughed too.

And I mean laughter. He would nearly break his leg slapping it, or rip clothes from his body waving his arms. My greatest fear during the drive to DC was that he'd put his foot through the firewall of my old car during one these spasmodic episodes.

John knew his history, and had his own opinions as to what really went down.

John literally danced history. He was an ecstatic actor of dramas against imaginary foes. Dramas accomplished, he morphed from serious to hilarious, and dissolved into peals of generous mirth that seemed driven by the sheer force of his foray

The death of Socrates, (smart guy who had it coming to him for sodomizing youngsters!) to the incarceration of Galileo (one of the great crimes of humanity) to the false kings of Jerusalem whose wealth and greed spelt their inevitable downfall.

For John, ex-CIA operative, ex-fighter pilot during the good old 'flying pipe days', ex-poet, beatnik, and husband to a folk legend, the Knights Templar were the only knights worth talking about.

He was one. So we became smart bums, Knights Templar on the loose.

Like Homer, weaving arguments, in crafted meter, he taught me that the authorization to laugh so completely, and with such abandon, was Gallic, brought with it historic rights, has historical precedent, as an agreement by Celtic tribes after battle to completely forgive one's enemy.

At the end of whatever diatribe John launched against an entrenched anti-democratic streak in the United States . . . "Who ARE these people?", John asked again and again, and then proceeded to tell me.

They had ended the researches of Galileo, put Socrates to death, . . and would have a lot in store for the average US citizen in just a few years. These people.

This was a behind the scenes group that was using networked power, to mobilize the far right, and destroy the democratic foundations of the country.

John would be tracing the reasons why this shit or that shit, had gone down.

At one moment he had it in for the CIA. I wondered whether he hadn't been CIA himself.

"I was," he said.

"John I thought you flew jets in Vietnam!"

"I did, but I got recruited by black ops to do recon missions over 'Nam."

"Shit John you never told me."

He went on for hours about the, the SR-71 Blackbird, the Phantom F-4, and some of the other glorified pipes, that's what he called them. "Pipes with fins", that he flew.

"The worst was a carrier landing in the dark. That gave me the shits every time!"

"You're landing a flammable pipe that weighs thirty tons with wings just five feet long in the rain. You can't see shit. The ship is a pitching football field of black ocean wet, that has no lights at all. All you've got are these cursed instruments. Gave me the shits every time."

Whenever we had the aircraft carrier conversation he'd get up and hit the head. I'd hear him call from inside the stack, "Forgive me. Pulling loops at four g's has a permanent effect on the bowels. Would you mind coming back in an hour?"

If I knocked on his door on the morning invariably the response was the same, but virulent:

"Goddammit! Can't you understand that when you've spent half your life at Mach One Point O with three G's turning your insides out, it's hard to take a shit! Go away!"

I got to know John as a result of a class action suit I had initiated against the slumlords of the building we lived in, at the corner of Mott Street and Houston, in downtown Manhattan.

John and I would strategize about how to mobilize our legal offense.

"You've got to pull in the media," he said. "Get us on the evening news."

It was up to me to follow through.

The landlords were tired of owning a building where the average tenant was paying less than a hundred and fifty dollars a month. Everyone in the place had lived there for years, me included. We floated along on rent stabilization, which meant building owners in New York lost money on apartments where tenants stayed a long time. Each time they came to inspect the building I noticed twisted machinations running through their heads. They were forever plotting ways to raise our rent and throw us all out on our asses.

They took on a new partner, a skinny ghostlike pariah of a man, who must have had an epiphany. He began to slowly and methodically destroy the building. Hacks with hammers and crowbars came in and ripped walls down in the hallways and staircases. Slowly but surely the place became a dangerous firetrap. Wood beams were exposed.

Rats took over.

Developers began to excavate the lot immediately adjacent. The muddy Houston Street soil gave no bedrock to pour footings on. Piles had to be driven deep. 'Boom, boom', the machines went, day and night, and it seemed that with each bang of the cantilevered weights, another rat fled from the Houston Street subway and entered our building. We saw rats everywhere!

John called me. "You got to see this!" he shouted into the phone.

I went up. His apartment was three floors above mine.

He flipped a black white glossy photo smelling like acetic acid in my face. John was media savy. He never left home without his SLR around his neck. He shot and edited video. This was all pre-computer, pre-digital.

I looked carefully.

"What is this? It looks like your hallway."

"It's a rat!"

I didn't see it. John yanked the picture back and pointed out the furry end of a little critter disappearing into one of the holes in the wall.

"John, is this a dead rat? Did you stage this?"

A wry grin crept over his face. Sure enough, he'd caught a small rat in a trap in his apartment and staged the photo in the hall.

"I got them red-handed. With this picture of a live rat we can go to the attorney general and sue. We'll win. . . and these A-holes will lose their building!"

John had it all mapped out. But alas, he was a better writer, speaker, and historian than an artist or photographer. I had to really look hard to see the rat in his picture. And it looked dead besides.

"The head got kind of mangled, so I sort of half stuck him into the hole in the wall, like he was escaping!"

"John that's not cool!", I protested.

He guffawed loudly. "Whatever wins is cool!," and cracked up hilariously.

I knew we could do better. We needed a really solid picture of a really nasty animal to tell the story. One that could be plastered all over the news.

I went back downstairs. John had suggested the 5:30 action news, a blonde gal on ABC had a half hour where she goes fire and tongs against corrupt merchants, lazy city agencies, non-performing landlords, and disruptive citizens of our big wonderful city.

Five-O-Clock Faye.

It was Faye's job to come up with horror stories and then go through the motions of solving them with the resources of the press. Really she was doing professionally what John wanted to be himself. She was a knight-tress in a shining miniskirt. She was hot.

We both wanted her to come visit so I began to draft a letter.

Dear Faye of the Five-Thirty News:

Would you like to visit a building in Lower Manhattan that is so decrepit that a diabetic's apartment filled with newspapers and soaked with urine became so heavy that it collapsed the floor entirely?

Would you like to stick your lovely thigh through the hole in the floor to the apartment below?

Would you like to see two bathtubs stacked like teacups because the upper one had rotted through and crashed to the floor below?

Would you like to see an army of rats run for cover at the approaching footsteps of your camera crew?

Would you like to live briefly, in terror, that an absent minded member of your retinue might accidentally light a cigarette and cause a conflagration that would extinguish you, your unit, and the lives of all that live within, due to the flammable conditions that have been created on purpose by an egregious landlord that is preparing to burn the premises, and at very least, put hundreds of innocent people out on the street?

Would you like to see all of this a mere fifteen minutes by car from where you, dear beautiful Faye, sit on gorgeous upholstered office chairs opposite your happy and well fed producer?

Then I invite you to the Building of Horrors, right in the center of Manhattan. I'll have all the apartments flung open for your inspection, and you can create a storm amidst city government, amidst the well paid burghers who are supposed to look after the rights of safety and peaceful enjoyment for rent paying members of this great city.

I await your reply.

Yours truly,

I ripped the letter from my Royal typewriter and called John.

"You gotta read this!"

Moments later he stormed through my door. I handed him what I'd written.

A moment ensued. Then he doubled over and vibrated. I thought I had killed him. He clutched his gut and looked at the sky, shaking his hand. Laughter poured out, mixed with the occasional hawk, which he bottled up and deposited in my sink.

"Will this do the job?" I asked.

"Oh it will!"

He ran upstairs and got the glossy black and white and brought it down for me to give to Miss Heathers or whatever her name was, when she came.

"John, I haven't even mailed it yet." He started guffawing again.

"She will. You better believe she will." We walked to the letter box with the envelope, which I had stamped and dropped it in without ceremony. On the way back we picked up more copies of the bogus rat shot.

That night we strategized all-out war. He who commands the media, wins. The one that with the best story commands the media, ergo, our story, if told right, would win.

The nights were hot. I felt the need to get out of the city. It would be days or weeks before anything happened on the building front.

"I'm going north to visit the fam." I told John.

"Later." John was one of the original minters of the phrase.

Two weeks later to be precise, my wife and I returned to the city. The apartment felt dank, almost as if a new occupant had been in the place and showered. Nevertheless everything was as I had left it. Some tableware was scattered about in the sink, but I took nothing from it.

Late in the afternoon, the lazy August sun was crouching low in the West, and lighting up the other side of Houston in rosy hues. I lay down in the center room of my little railroad flat place that had served me so well for nearly ten years. I heard Ami mess about in the kitchen, and then she fell into bed next to me. The car was parked. My mind was revving from the drive south.

I drifted off.

Suddenly an excruciating pain ripped through my ribs. I bolted out of bed.

"What the hell was that?"

I heard a loud thud as something went for the hole under the bathtub. I looked at the blood pouring from my side. Two parallel grooves about a half an inch long had peeled off a layer of skin, in all about 1/16 of an inch deep with surgical precision.

I had been bitten by a giant rat.

-:-        (to be continued)

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