This is a preface to the last of my warehouse days and my brief acquaintance with Nicky, a streetwalker. I befriended her as a case study because I had read the novella, 'Maggie, a girl of the streets' by Steven Crane, an author who cannot be too greatly admired.
But it also contains the first seeds of my growing disaffection with poverty and the disenfranchised, the misfits and downtrodden, the losers in life. I still harbored a huge fund of empathy for them but I wanted to get away from living my life with them. I decided that my Bohemian days were over, (perhaps my youth was over) and fate, by a miraculous chance, threw into my lap a woman and an opportunity at unimaginable wealth which I quickly seized.
My one picture of Jim, goofing around on a trip to Texas, Carlsbad Caverns, he on fake telephone, my soon to be wife, Sanita next to him and me.
From an earlier post, last line:
"Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little enjoyed"
That was said two hundred years ago. Now, with the aid of technology, society takes a new approach to keep us content and sedated. It’s called ‘entertainment’. Our brains haven’t changed, nor our bleak situation. The world is still a few rich living upon the backs and labor of the millions and then the even more millions of forgotten castaways, dregs of human beings without hope, without help, living in what our president calls ‘shit hole countries’. The poverty is real for them and along with malnutrition, their minds are equally stunted. They pose no threat. But the educated middle classes do. So they’re kept at bay with ‘constant distraction’, media diversions in myriad forms and formats, inundating our minds floods of trivia, fake news, and vapid entertainments so we don’t process the real inequalities of our situation or our hollow lives. We sit and stare at the screens, happy, as if on Thorazine.
If I make any point at all in these pages, something one can take home as an axiom with some validity to it, through all these examples, it’s that we can at least try to share our troubled state with each other, (however different we are) and alleviate it a little bit with shared kindness and intelligent words and a sympathy which sometimes leads to mutual enlightenment. When alone enlighten yourself with books, the old ones, that don’t lie.
But I fooled myself in Nicky’s case. I had nice, rosy thoughts generated in my white, middle-class, university-educated mind with a happy childhood and all sorts of prospects. In the ghetto this ‘extraction’ happens as often as ‘The Helen Keller story’, or Halley’s comet. I could do nothing to help her in the end and left her in the same sad state I found her in. The ghetto itself is a prison and she fit right in like a tight peg and could never be pulled out. It had molded her into an intricate piece of its own, dark nightscape, like a black puzzle piece that could never be transferred to any rosier picture of life.
Here’s how bleak it was. Jim H. from across the hall, came to my room one night and we decided to get some wine. On the way home we began laughing and marvelling at the complete sordidness of our neighborhood. Most of the liquor stores in this poor, Black district only sold the worst, rot-gut liquor, (like Lambrusco (sugar-spiked cheap wine), one step above ‘Night Train’). Then we expanded on the miserable situation. The stores were unevenly, poorly located and badly lit. The counter people were rude and disgusting. You risked getting robed by just entering a store. The bottles were (no exaggeration) twice as expensive as uptown, (four dollars for the cheapest, sour wine, and the selections limited to only the worst). In the bars the same rot-gut wine was served in small, dirty glasses, priced 50 cents more than the Cabernet vintages in tall wine glasses, in fine, fancy, well lit, richly decorated, cushion seated, uptown bars often filled with beautiful, smiling, conversation-rich women and waitresses.
This is one aspect of American life that to this day baffles my mind. How can it be that a place where everything is rotten lies only twenty blocks away from another where everything is not only beautiful, in elegant lounges, pretty and intelligent, university educated waitresses, politeness, civility, air conditioned, with mood lighting, cushioned booths, every comfort one can imagine and wonderful company and talk, an incomparably better wine is served to you with a smile and the one incomprehensible contrast: the glass of fine wine in the tulip glass is actually fifty cents cheaper than the rot-gut, not a wine glass, dirty, smaller glass in the poorly lit, slum bar where your life is truly at risk and 'courtesy' is an unknown word.
I knew both neighboring worlds and gravitated to the better one, from Hell to Heaven, because I had the manners and intelligence to do it. But why didn't so many others when it was only a twenty minute walk away?
Do some people only feel at home in sordidness and being ripped-off every day, every minute, uncomfortable in civilized surroundings?
Are their minds so inured to poverty that they can't leave it, or learn a better vocabulary over time and gain a better paying job in far better conditions?
I know this is not the case with everyone. My first acquaintance, returning to Berkeley after grad school was 'Bones' (Rick White) from southern Iowa, a place flat as far as the eye can see, all cornfields, a ninth-grade education there an exceptional feat. He'd just arrived and by a fluke we met. We became best friends in a few days and moved in together above The Starry Plough for five months. He still had the Iowan accent but when I talked of Plato or Seneca he listened and learned, charmed and bedded many university girls, played fine music on his guitar, songs of his own composition which he asked me to help improve in lyrics, which I gladly did.
He might have stayed in the small town, (Washington, Iowa, pop. 5000) and driven a tractor back and forth, back and forth, all his life.
Through him I met Steve .S, a house painter with a high school education, humble, unpretentious in any company but with our midnight talks after parties I got him to read Herodotus, which he enjoyed, the whole 400 page penguin edition. I'm sure his self-esteem went up one notch. He wasn't illiterate or history blind.
My good friend Steve, of a thousand adventures.
What I don't understand is why more people don't try to step up the ladder in front of them, to a far better life in every way.
But back to the slums:
The service in our local bars was rude and rotten, drinks slammed in front of you by fat, ugly, unhappy broads, spilling half the drink, demanding the money and often trying to cheat you on your change. The clientele were either criminals, pimps and thieves, or whores, standing in dark corners, nursing one drink and on the lookout to scam you, or such severe drunks on their tenth drink bumping into you, grabbing your arm to engage you in some delirious story with slurred words, sick, sordid, diseased people, with no redeeming merits, and broken glass on the floor. The bands at these places, if there were any, only played blues but even their renditions were poor, sometimes awful, with no one noticing. The others had blaring, half-broken jukeboxes with crummy selections.
In the puny food stores the cans were dented, the choices few, not in any order, mixed up, soured milk still trying to be sold out of broken freezers, yet each item with a higher price tag than anywhere else, as if the money in the ragged wallets of these poverty-stricken souls was worth less. The food at the diners often made one sick, throw up, and it too cost more. ‘Doggie Diner’ was the perfect name for the most prominent eatery there and by its name, summed the neighborhood up to perfection.
The motel rooms were never cleaned, sordid and moldy, with stained bed sheets. There were needles on the sidewalks, yelling and screaming and shots being fired late at night, ruining one’s sleep. And Nicky fit right in. So when I left her, the same week I left this ghetto forever, with the strongest intention to never be in such a black hole again, or poor, and I followed up on this resolution soon after, with chance placing an opportunity in my hands to make lots of money, dangerous in every way, and totally opposite to all my bohemian ideals, but which I embraced to escape this nightscape. And I made thousands and thousands within months, not peddling drugs but learning from an extremely rare individual who no one else dared approach, (because of his ever-present Uzi) what is called the only true way to wealth, "controlling the means of production", a phrase from the fifties, I think. And it's all true.
‘Fate’ seemed to be toying with me (or challenging me). I moved, by choice, from a sure, comfortable, university career to the exact opposite, the lowest dregs of Oakland’s slums. She must have been looking down at me, curiously from above, because the next chance she offered, (in the guise of Lindsey), was another fork in the road of life from anything I’d ever imagined. But this detour, (though filled with gun wielding characters) was survivable, intelligence being a large part of the game. So I took it and left it just before the inevitable crash, with enough gains to live comfortably another five years in pure freedom to read all day, which I did, without ever having to look at the balance in a bank book or the price tag on the things I wanted. I toured Europe and started a family, a wife and son, reading and writing, unburdened by all the usual demands of society. I was never extravagant, lived modestly but enjoyed, to my rich mind, all the finer things in life and the finest of all luxuries I can sum up in two words, 'free time'.
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