Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Character and Fitness

Jason Flores-Williams is having his New Orleans book launch for his new book, Character and Fitness, on Saturday, January 22, 2011, at 8 p.m., at FAB Books, 900 Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, LA. I will opening up by reading something short, along with Jason's friend and New Orleans' writer, Raphaelle O'Neil. (http://www.myspace.com/nolabutterfly) Be forewarned, last time I did a reading with Jason, he read a piece that compared his transvestite lover favorably with a twelve year old boy. (Whereas I will likely be reading about being a twelve year old boy at sleep away camp.)

Here are the first few paragraphs of the book, posted on The Brooklyn Rail (which is serializing the book, a chapter a month):

Chapter 1

I drink my coffee and stare out the window at the cars passing by on the highway. I remember the old Kerouac line: whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny automobile? It was all open roads and possibilities for that guy. A wide-eyed, down-to-earth madness that rolled from one coast to another. Football-playing kids with books of poetry by their beds. I grew up in Kerouac's America. He was my guy. One of the first things I did when I got to New York was take the train up to Columbia so that I could walk in his footsteps. I lived for his idea of what we were supposed to be. But there are no angels anymore. No more saints. No visionary catholic supplications or prayers to make to god. No more optimism. No fantastic smiles. No great west. No more cowboys or jazzmen, unless they're in a Visa commercial. I would love to go moan for man, but the credit cards would sue me and the student loan companies would put me in default. No need to go looking for Dean Moriarty, because he works for the collections department of an insurance company in Delaware. He hates his job and would quit and hit the road, but can't afford to miss a mortgage payment. And he's not really in traveling shape anymore, but about 80 pounds overweight. Too big to fail.

I turn away from the window, go back to the Sallie Mae website and finish with the electronic forms for my second-to-last deferment. After this one, I'll be coming in here to Starbucks looking for a job. I can see myself filling out the application at the wobbly table in the corner, wallowing in the glory that really never was, then sitting there with a stupid smile on my face as the 21-year-old assistant manager holds up a mirror to more than two decades of overeducated bad decisions. The goatee with the first signs of grey, crow's feet around the eyes, and the tattoos no longer anti-establishment cool, but mile markers on the road to nowhere. I never expected or even wanted my life to be a straight line, but thought that if you put the time in and paid your dues, then you wouldn't end up back in the same place you were 20 years ago.

I put away my laptop, finish the coffee and head out the door. I walk past the California Pizza Kitchen, the Chipotle and up the sidewalk toward the Target. The way the sun glistens off the minivans is spectacular, haunting. I enter through the sliding automatic doors into the fluorescent lights and cut through rows of candles, heaters, curtains, blinds, slipcovers, mirrors, humidifiers and pet supplies. I stop to ask a salesclerk about the soy milk. The man is maybe 75, thick coke-bottle glasses, splotchy face and crooked back. He should be off somewhere playing shuffleboard and bitching about the young, not spending the last years before the grand exit struggling in the belly of a big box store. It takes him 25 seconds just to walk across the aisle. "I'm sorry to bother you, sir. But do you know where the soy milk is?"

'The milk!"

"No sir, the soy milk…."

"The milk!"

"No sir, the soy milk."

"What milk?"

I feel like the most bourgeois, pretentious yuppie that ever lived. Ohmygawd, you've never heard of soy milk? Didn't you read the article in Salon about the dairy industry? There's as much suffering in a cup of milk as a pound of beef! "Oh wait, sir, hold on…I think I see it right over there! Thank you!" I take off through maternity, outerwear, plus sizes, women's shoes, accessories, luggage, infant, toddler, patio furniture and into the refrigerated food section…Like a liberal in Texas, it's surrounded by chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. I take two half-gallons off the shelf and tell myself how wonderful I am for making the enlightened consumer choice, but really the soy milk is made by a subsidiary of a publicly-traded company that's owned by a conglomerate with its headquarters on a space station that controls the factories that make the chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. There is no escape from complicity when you're an American. All we can do is turn down the volume from 11 to 9.

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