Heraclitus of Ephesus is said to have uttered something to the effect that “Opposition brings concord.”
The man was a crank and lived in a cave, so it’s easy to understand why he believed strife was necessary. It’s reported that few people, if any, liked the guy.
The melancholic Ephesian wasn’t entirely accurate: opposition does not always bring concord. It’s interesting when concord results, conflict resolved, compromise reached, good feelings aflutter, but there are occasions when confrontation produces lasting discord, and some of these incidents are to be savored.
Why do I believe this?
Because I, too, am a melancholic crank.
Few people like me.
I’m in bed. I finish reading Pre-Socratic fragments and a couple essays by MFK Fisher, turn off the light, take a brief trip on the Memory Express in search of delicious discord, and I recall two confrontations: one with God’s certified surrogate, the other with Thomas Jefferson.
Each event serves as a lesson in how to muster discord with opposition, and create enduring enemies — of believers, presidents, and librarians.
My confrontation with God is not a direct battle with that which many assume is their Creator, rather one with a Jesuit priest, a meaty manifestation of The Message and The Method.
Those in the flock call him “Father Bob.” The title connects with the idea of daddy and with scripture, and its constant conjunction with a collar helps Bob seem a special fellow to those susceptible to titles, refined superstition, and uniforms.
Many times throughout the order’s history, members of the Society of Jesus have been accused of excessive pride and arrogance, and this guy fits the bill. If there is a God, my abrasive and erratic interaction with the fellow will not be held against me, given the incredible dickishness of this particular servant of the Almighty. After all, both the Jesuit and I are His creations. He certainly knows and understands us.
The year is 1977.
My dear friend and fellow artiste, Kip Farris, and I operate a less than reputable contemporary art gallery on 16th Street, between Market and Blake, in downtown Denver. During our time there, the surrounding area is known as Skid Row. The title is well earned during decades of abuse, with dives and flophouses aplenty, and bodies scattered about as if in a war zone. Today, four decades later, Skid Row has disappeared, now gentrified and occupying part of LoDo, the sector crammed with brewpubs, a baseball park, snazzy restaurants, a trendy museum, upscale shops, and expensive hotels. Recent arrivals to Denver transform anywhere they land in the city, then give it a snappy, two-syllable name: LoDo, RiNo, SoBro, LoHi. These people are pretentious assholes and should be put with rocks in bags, and dropped in the Platte River.
In 1977, our gallery is a prime fun port, where many of the city’s cultural and legal lowlifes dock their vessels. There is always something taking place — everything but a moneymaking enterprise.
Poverty forces me to extremes; I work as a part-time instructor in the department of philosophy at Metropolitan State College. In today’s institutions, similar academic plebes are known as “adjuncts” — the title bestowed in lieu of dependable employment, decent salary, and benefits.
Anyone in such a position, then and now, needs to lay claim to a specialty; it is not enough for instructors in the Humanities to trumpet their reality — that they spend their time thinking now and then, and talking incessantly.
So, my stated specialty is “aesthetics, and philosophy and the arts.” While I occasionally deal with my specialty, I’m contracted to work by the academic semester, laboring to contain the spillover, teaching whatever courses are untended by more important folk. “Teach” is an interesting term, given the regularly distressed state of my brain chemistry.
I am, in truth, perhaps the worst instructor of philosophy in the history of American higher education.
I share an office with Joey, another part-timer. Joey is an Objectivist, bills herself as “a radical libertarian, feminist theorist,” wears her hair cut in severe fashion, smokes one cigarillo after another, and sports remarkable breasts. I am infatuated, and I sport a host of delusions. I read a bit of Ayn Rand, anticipating a spirited, post-coital conversation with my colleague concerning the relationship of selfishness and multiple orgasms.
Joey, however, is repelled by the prospect of intimacy, at least with me; she tags me as a shiftless, substance-addled Sybarite, immune to the power of reason — a fraud, ill-equipped to tackle the difficult scholarly work needed to someday ascend to tenured status, a pretender unable to scale the towering academic peak, break through the clouds at the summit, and bask there in pure light. With benefits.
Joey hits the nail square on the head.
In part, Joey detests me because, during her first visit to our shared space, as she begins to tidy up her corner of the small, windowless room, filling shelves with large, hardbound texts, I shut the door, crank up “Third Rate Romance” by The Amazing Rhythm Aces on a small Silvertone stereo, cut up a half gram of Medellin fun powder on the back of a copy of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, extend a rolled up dollar bill, and invite her to join me in a celebration of our new partnership: free thinkers absent restraint, joined near the hips. Exalted spirits. Libertarians slick with plentiful body fluids.
From that point on, I’m nearly always alone in the office; Joey schedules most of her office hours in the afternoon, when I’m absent. She leaves notes taped to the door, demanding I clean the sludge from the floor near my desk and remove my “vulgar and offensive” Egon Schiele repros from the office walls. She freely employs the exclamation point in her missives.
As a result, I am the only serf available when the department chairman, Phil, appears one morning in the office doorway. Phil has a request, and as any part-time instructor with neither job security nor benefits knows, a request from the department chair constitutes an order. Phil leans against the doorjamb, his hands in the pockets of his cheap sport coat.
“There’s a monsignor, or whatever they call them, (Phil is Jewish) who’s someone important at a local Catholic university,” he says, “and the man wants to gather a few kids from each of the city’s Catholic high schools, bring them to campus, and energize them with a mind-expanding debate — one that will stimulate interest in further education. He wants to debate a non-Christian, a non-believer. We discussed this at the faculty meeting you skipped yesterday. I sent Marie (the secretary) to fetch you; she said your office door was locked, but she smelled something funny, and heard music, snorting, shouting, and laughter.”
I tilt my head, and affect a puzzled expression. I have been working on the expression for weeks.
“Anyway,” says Phil, “we voted, unanimously, to have you represent the department. The event will be held in the amphitheater at 2 p.m. tomorrow. I’ll be out of town. Best of luck.”
“Wait,” I say. “What makes you think I’m not a Christian? I’ll have you know my grandmother spirited me away from my parents when I was a babe and, without their knowledge or consent, had me christened at St. Paul’s in Central City. I, sir… am an Episcopalian.”
He laughs, and walks away, waving as he goes. I realize it was a mistake to tell Phil about my mother’s intense love of kreplach.
I hear from Marie that Phil has trouble remembering where he parked his car, and he’s found that evening wandering in the parking lot at the nearby Denver Mint. Marie has a smudge of purple ink from the mimeo machine on her cheek, and the heel has come off one of her shoes. Her husband is a low-functioning alcoholic who lost his job at a used car dealership, and she has a 30-year-old son who lives in the basement of her house, tending a collection of hamsters as part of what he calls “science stuff.” She keeps a framed photo of a village on the Amalfi Coast on her desk and stares at it any time she has the opportunity.
At the end of my last class of the day — Ordinary Language Logic, during which I launch into a lengthy analysis of the best ad hominem arguments of the Nixon Administration — I wend my way downtown, to the gallery, where there’s a fiesta taking place.
The partygoers include three or four has-been, black-clad beatnik poets, one of whom stands on a box in a corner shouting his latest work, “Manifesto,” to accompaniment provided by a wrinkled fellow pounding on bongos; members of an African-American gay roller skating troupe from San Francisco practicing a disco routine (there’s plenty of open floor space in the main room of the gallery); a pimp friend, Frank, and four of his female associates, all dressed for work, Frank brandishing a .44 Magnum; a gaggle of foot-sore ballerinas from the Colorado Ballet Company; Krystal, the manager of the local dog track, and one of the city’s top coke dealers; several muralists from the southern San Luis Valley, who arrive bearing a duffel bag full of peyote buttons; a brace of grumpy lesbian potters from a mud collective located next door; and a Marxist/Leninist labor organizer, currently working to establish a union at a sausage plant. The commie’s nose is broken, her eyes blackened, her nose and one cheek covered by a soiled bandage. She says she has no regrets about daring a large, hirsute chap to clobber her as she urged workers to walk off the job.
“I told him, ‘Go ahead, show us what a big man you are,’” she says, as she puffs on yet another Marlboro. “Show everybody how brave you are by hitting a defenseless woman. Go ahead, big man, I dare you.”
I hoover up some of Krystal’s product and suggest there are worse things than getting your nozzle crushed as you stand next to the loading dock at a sausage factory, being thrashed by a hairy brute while employees look on and chatter excitedly in Spanish. For example: debating a prominent member of the local Catholic clergy, in front a bunch of thoroughly indoctrinated high school kids.
“I might have to stay relatively straight in order to do this,” I add, inhaling a bit more blow. I also mention that the commie smells like chorizo. She offers to engage in mutual oral sex, despite the fact her face hurts. She believes the proletariat must share everything, not just the means of production. I decline. I’m preoccupied.
That evening, to prepare myself for the upcoming Battle of the Intellectual Titans, I review a number of favorite quotes by Giordano Bruno. I single out: “Truth does not change because it is, or is not, believed by a majority of the people.”
There’s a large bronze statue of Bruno at one of my favorite spots in Rome — Campo de Fiori. The ominous, hooded figure is placed at the spot where Bruno was taken after he delivered another memorable utterance: “It may be you fear more to deliver judgment upon me than I fear judgment.”
Feeling no fear, the powers-that-be pierced Bruno’s cheeks and tongue with a rod so he could say no more, then burned him alive.
With Bruno as my inspiration, I’m ready for an auto-da-fé.
The next day, the hour of the debate nears, and I make my way toward the auditorium. There is a line of school buses parked in front of the building. The pandering Romanist has rounded up a huge herd of Catholic teens to cheer him on.
My office is in the building next door. I duck in, learn from Dorothy of Phil’s dilemma the night before, and make an error as I prepare for the bout — a mistake even greater than showing up in the first place. The error involves intake of Columbian agricultural product — plenty of it. As well as a Thai stick or two to smooth the ragged edges. I can’t help myself.
I’m so fucked up I’m lucky to find the auditorium, where the Dean meets me at the door and introduces me to Father Bob. The black-clad churl is short, rounder than I, with a ruddy complexion, two chins falling over his clerical collar, the burst veins at the end of his bulbous nose signaling one of his diversions.
As I scan the dork, then gaze out at the crowd of freshly scrubbed cherubs, I realize Bobby might indulge other delights as well — it’s a tradition, after all. The commie once told me she was raised an Irish Catholic, and the reason she first became radicalized was a fellow like Bob, and a couple of incidents in the basement at Our Lady of Perpetual Advances. I don’t ask for more info, but her tendency to yell “father” when approached from behind and touched without warning provides a clue.
“Yes, well,” huffs Bobby as he looks me up and down, and sneers, “let’s get on with this. The children have to be back to their schools before lunch.”
It’s Friday, so I assume the lunch includes fish sticks.
We are seated behind a table on a small stage, each of us provided with a Radio Shack microphone.
Bobby starts. He stares at the dazzled adolescents, and he doesn’t blink for a full minute — a tactic learned at the seminary. He then lubes the rails with a standard review of Aquinas’ five proofs, in order to remind the novices that he, and they, tread on solid ground.
I watch the kiddies seated in the front rows; it’s obvious they’re in tune with the argument from design, but the concept of necessary being confounds them.
Once he establishes the existence of the Creator, Bobby smacks the congregation with the Jesus riff, and the audience is secure and comfy. The only path to salvation, etc., et al. All that’s missing is a birdbath filled with water, placed at the entrance to the auditorium, incense, watery wine, and those little crackers believers nibble at their get-togethers.
“Knowing all this to be true, you must clearly realize what awaits, should you abandon your faith in Jesus Christ, and become an unbeliever.”
At this juncture, Bobby rises from his seat, mic in one hand, and with his other hand he makes a dramatic, sweeping gesture in my direction. “Like … him!,” he shouts.
The kids in the front row are pushed back in their seats, slammed there by the wake left by a speeding, avenging angel.
Bobby proceeds to summarize the findings of the Second Vatican Council in his brusque way, finishing with eyes closed, head bowed, and a slow, basso profundo “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” obviously intended to mystify youngsters no longer schooled in the mother tongue of the only true church. Nothing prompts allegiance like a dose of mystery.
I begin, under control, but soon lose touch with my “truth not changing, etc.” strategy. My plan to introduce the unfounded idea that all belief systems share certain deep structures and, thus, are necessary socio-biological mechanisms rather than conduits to eternal verities, falls by the wayside.
First, though, I provide a brief overview of the role of myth in the promotion of the political and economic agendas of an avaricious, homoerotic ruling class, but I realize the kids have been taught that myth pertains only to the ancient Greeks and other pagan cultures. They fail to see the link between Dionysus, the Thrice-born Hermes, and Christ; they are impervious to an examination of the oft-shared symbolism of wine and of resurrection. Myth, to them, is material suited only to sinners.
In a slight panic, I pivot to my specialty, and the notion that we can learn something by considering art and religion together. I note that visual art was once a key device used to advance the power of the church by communicating tribal archetypes to illiterate parishioners, and I make the unsupportable assertion that, with the invention of photography, both the ability of visual art to act as a propaganda arm of the Vatican, and the muscle of the institution itself, atrophied and died.
Then, I put the final withered cherry on the blabber cake: “Thus, like the socially and politically effective art of yesteryear, your myth, your religion, is now dead, and its defense here today is but a sad reminder of the empty shell that remains once power is stripped from an outdated, oppressive patriarchy.”
Father Bob laughs loudly, and slaps the table top with the palm of his hand. The idea that the Church and its frescoes have lost their juice is too much for him. As he rolls his eyes, the kids in the first couple of rows do the same, and I fall victim to the darkest effects of the waning influence of Columbian narcotics.
I can no longer control myself; my placid demeanor dissolves as I reckon with the poverty of polite, academic discourse.
I put my elbows on the table, face in my hands, and I groan into the mic like a glutton who ate a pound of tainted oysters.
I pause for effect, then raise my head and turn slowly to Bobby. At that moment, all thoughts of dancing a Brunoesque gavotte with the man fall away in favor of the Nixon approach. The best thing about ad hominem attacks is they’re so damned easy, and once you open the door to them, there’s no closing it.
“You, sir,” I say, “are a complete idiot, a posturing ideologue who was born four centuries too late. You Jesuits think you’re so damned clever, don’t you? You request a non-believer as an opponent because you fancy you’ll act the wolverine pouncing on a crippled bunny, the champion of dogma pummeling the ignorant heretic, a herald of salvation spouting shopworn notions to a room packed with little nits worried they’ll miss fish stick day at the school cafeteria.”
I hear a collective gasp from the audience. I look to the back of the room, and I see the Dean slap his forehead with the palm of his hand and slump against the wall.
“Now that you’ve paraded your medieval dog and pony show for the children, let’s get down to brass tacks: I am no unbeliever, and you, sir” — at this point I make my own powerful gesture, pausing, then flapping my free hand in Bobby’s direction — “are an agent of dark forces, labeled by those of your kind as…satanic!”
A number of the younger kids in the audience shriek.
“From the day your SJ predecessors tried to kill the good King Joseph of Portugal, it’s been clear your kind serves the Beastmaster. Plus, what your order did to good-natured Protestants, Jews, and those native to the so-called New World provides additional evidence of impure treachery. Only your vaunted Prince of Darkness could motivate such cruelty and horror.
“I know this at my core, sir: I had a Christian grandmother who spirited me from the crib, and hurried me to a small Anglican church — the oldest in this state, for your information — where I was christened. There are plenty of my fellow Episcopalians who will support my claim that you, and all Papists like you, are engaged in a program to enslave youngsters like these poor things (a pause, another grand gesture, hand extending toward the audience), beguiling them with archaic mumbo-jumbo, exposing them to toxic fumes and low-calorie snacks during quasi-cannibalistic rites, and ensuring their existence in what you folks call … Hell!
“And this neither touches on the outrages committed by other Catholic orders in their service to evil, nor brings to light the myriad excesses of a number of popes. Shall we tell the kiddies about Julius the second — you know, the sodomite allegedly covered with shameful ulcers — or Alexander the fifth? Huh, shall we? And wasn’t it Paul the second who gave your evil order the initial go-ahead? What were his mistresses’ names? Care to mention them?
“Hey, let’s also examine what nearly every youngster here today who’s served as an altar boy knows all too well: that Satan regularly looses his lustful minions on the innocent with free rein to satisfy awful urges, and gives the abusers access to all the cheap wine they can drink. I hear he often appears in the guise of a goat when he visits the priory.”
A number of kids burst into tears.
Bobby is enraged, his face tomato red in color, his nose ready to explode. He throws his arms into the air and screams: “This is what true evil is like. This man is deceiving you, children, don’t listen.”
“You’re terrible,” shouts one of the kids, standing and pointing at me. I notice she and the girls seated near her wear identical blue plaid skirts and white blouses. Due to a fixation seeded in me years before by girls at a private school down the road from the boys’ school I attended, outfits like these never fail to arouse me. When such a get-up appears in combination with saddle shoes, the effect is overwhelming. I work to conceal my excitement as I deliver my concluding remarks.
“I’m not awful, I’m an Episcopalian,” I say in a well-modulated voice, attempting to project calm throughout the space with the aid of my cheap microphone.
“People like this man (pause, with yet another broad gesture toward Bobby) tortured my spiritual ancestors, and attempted to wrest control of England from its rightful rulers through the agency of abhorrent characters like Thomas More. I forgive More, because that’s what Jesus would want me to do. But, the truth is that Jesus, if he existed, was only a man — a Jim Dandy of a guy from all reports, but still only human and, now, dead. And Jewish to boot, with a love of kreplach. And god, if god exists, doesn’t give a hoot about what happens here, or anywhere, at any time, to any of us.”
I consider mentioning that prominent Deists, like me, often begin their intellectual careers as Anglicans, but I decide not to complicate the message.
“Furthermore, if what guys like this clerical meat puppet (pause, with a pronounced gesture toward Bobby) believe about your god is true — that your god is omnipresent, all-powerful, and all-knowing —your god knows ahead of time what you will do, and where you will go, so nothing you do really matters. Your god knows which of you will attempt to penetrate a freshman in the parking lot after the big game, and frantically scrub ejaculate off your school clothes before you return home to mom and dad. It doesn’t matter. Your god knows who among you will get knocked up without benefit of marriage, delivering your newborn under cover of darkness to an orphanage operated by ruthless, barren nuns. You couldn’t have done otherwise. Your god knows who will do drugs, go nuts, and live in a refrigerator box under a viaduct. With this in mind, it’s a good time to remind you kids to just say ‘No.’ Don’t do drugs, kids, they’re bad for you.
“So, it’s obvious your god doesn’t care about the choices you make. There is no evidence god cares. Never has been, never will be.”
The South American stimulant has worn off, and I feel strangely detached. It’s about time to wrap this up.
The kids begin to flee the room.
“People like you are damned,” shouts Bob. “You will suffer eternal torment in Hell.”
The kids cheer.
“Well Dante Junior,” I reply, as Bobby joins the exodus, “I’ll meet you there. And if we do meet, your god knew all along it would happen. It’s a set-up by a higher power with a mean sense of humor, proving once again that the vengeful, unpredictable personification of brute Nature in the Torah is the deity steering the bus, and the bus is headed for a cliff. Grab your ass, padre, order a kosher meal, and hold on to the kiddies bouncing on your lap. You are going over the edge. And, when you order that meal, I recommend the kreplach.”
I remain in the room, clutching the mic as the last of the crowd hustles out, and the custodian switches off the lights. I feel like Phil, stumbling around in a dark, unfamiliar lot, wondering if I’ve missed dinner.
The debate does not rate highly. The diocese registers a complaint with the college. I do not get a contract to teach courses the next semester.
I never get the chance to indulge in carnal hi-jinks with Joey, who reads Milton Friedman, goes back to grad school at Wharton, earns her MBA in finance, and amasses a fortune working at Goldman Sachs. I Googled her the other day: she retired, and lives with her third husband in a spacious home in Darien. One son/daughter is transgender and owns an LGBTQ T-shirt and cupcake shop in Brooklyn; another kid is mastering scrimshaw while “touring the world, and searching for his life’s mission.” Her daughter (by her second husband) is a newscaster at a third-tier TV station in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The kid’s eyes appear too closely set to allow for promotion to a major market. Joey is proud of all her kids, and now bills herself as “a personal financial growth consultant and life coach, with a goal of guiding you on a path to ultimate fulfillment and lasting security.”
I can use her help.
I think word of the debate got around, since my Catholic acquaintances here in Siberia With a View act as though they know something disturbing about me, and need to remain at arm’s length, physically and socially. Ushers seat me at the back of the church at funerals, and when those in attendance do the “peace be with you” routine, no one shakes my hand. I’ve yet to be invited to a party at a Catholic’s house.
There is plenty of opposition, Heraclitus, with no concord to be found.
The second confrontation is secular in nature, more in keeping with my upbringing.
It occurs shortly after I move to Siberia With a View, and follows one of the worst intestinal episodes on record.
When I migrate to my rural, mountain burg, I find work as a reporter and columnist at the local newspaper and, soon, I’m known for my wit. Mine is one of two wits available in a town where people point with their lips.
“You’re perfect for this,” says Margaret, the town librarian, as she details an upcoming series of events. Margaret runs a small operation, the library’s shaky shelves cluttered with dog-eared paperbacks. The facility occupies two rooms attached to a volunteer fire department garage housing an out-of-date pumper truck. The library smells of mold and gasoline, and the card catalogue is stored in two tin recipe boxes kept on Margaret’s small desk. Margaret dresses like a Mennonite, sans cap. She has read all of Jane Austen — Emma four times, Mansfield Park twice. She is dour, but sincere.
“There is going to be a series of regional debates,” says Margaret, “Eastern and Western Slope, and the surviving contestant in each region will advance to an event at the state librarian’s conference. We hold the conference every five years and this year it will take place … in Vail.”
When she says, “Vail,” Margaret’s pupils dilate to the size of dessert plates, and she gets a dreamy look on her mug. She is looking forward to the occasion; it is her chance to rub shoulders with other giants of the profession, at a high-class resort.
“The topic,” she says, “is the future of books, and of the library. You’ll be a perfect representative of our small, but proud district.”
This is 1987, and as usual it is astonishing that I am so far ahead of the curve. I’ve long held a partially-thought-out theory concerning the bleak future of printed materials, and the probable manner of the storage and distribution of information — a theory that has proven, as have so many of my insights, to be uncannily accurate. Accident steers my existence.
To summarize: there will be no more books once “readers” are unable to sustain attention beyond two sentences (one of which can be a compound sentence), and there will be no more libraries. No demand, no supply, no bricks and mortar storage, no comfortably ensconced providers feeding at a trough overflowing with revenue provided by oppressive taxation. Simple as that.
I steamroll the feeble competition at regional events, and I’m selected to participate in the final debate as the bearer of ill tidings. All expenses paid. At a high-class resort.
It’ll be me, poster boy for impulsive behavior and an incomplete education, versus Thomas Jefferson, exemplar of obsolete ideas and institutions.
I examine a large poster placed on an easel in the lobby of the conference center in Vail after I check into my room at The (insert the alpine term of your choice) Hotel. The confrontation is to be the highlight of the second night at the convention — providing stimulating entertainment before attendees launch a frenzy of serious librarying.
Margaret whipped up a CV for the conference organizers, and just below the reproduction of the slightly out-of-focus Polaroid photo of me she snapped in our poorly lit library, the poster bills me as “Retired Professor and Award-Winning Syndicated Columnist.”
It occurs to me that I should have been more precise when I provided Margaret with information, taking care to specify that I worked as a part-time instructor at a state college (and left in disgrace, see Part 1), and was, in fact, a shiftless artiste who had labored at a number of pursuits in order to survive, including gallery and fun club owner, radio morning show host, cement finisher, wag, rock and roll drummer, plumber’s helper, smut rag editor and tabloid author with four pseudonyms.
I didn’t short-change Margaret in other respects: I was, in fact, an award winning columnist (I have a box stuffed with press association second-place certificates), and since two of my columns were reprinted without permission in a northern Colorado weekly, my work was syndicated.
Next to my photo is a full-color, 8×10 studio portrait of a pale twit wearing a powdered wig and a bizarre, faux Colonial getup. Below the photo of the theatrically lit, pouty pretender, the text reads: “Thomas Jefferson, Beloved Author of the Declaration of Independence, Designer of Monticello, and Third President of the United States.”
I detect the scent of trouble, and I realize I am in a precarious position: I failed to bring pharmaceutical boosters. But, there is something about the situation that cheers me: “all expenses paid” means my room is free, and so is food and drink!
The first night, the large dining room teems with librarians; it’s the “Let’s Get Acquainted” cocktail hour, and bookish anal retentives either cluster in small groups (I assume each group includes employees at the same library), or stand alone at the edges of the room like shy teens at a junior high dance.
It is obvious librarians prefer White Zinfandel. Given that folks are knocking back glass after glass of cough-medicine-quality swill, the room is unusually quiet. Even when they’re whacked, and getting acquainted, librarians prefer silence.
Margaret stands at the other side of the room with her assistant, Betsy. They are dressed in similar Mennonite outfits, formal mode. A quick scan of the room reveals all manner of comfortable footwear. Older female librarians wear corrective shoes; the neo-Hippie librarians, their long, prematurely gray locks falling to the fronts of macramé vests, wear sandals — with socks, since this is a special event. The few male librarians in the crowd wear cheap loafers, most of the shoes adorned with tassels. The men find each other, and huddle in the corners of the room, their thin fingers grasping plastic cups as they mumble complaints about their tyrannical female overlords, and pending budget cuts that threaten the career of their dreams.
I will kill myself before I drink White Zinfandel, so I dash to the hotel bar, and down three gin and tonics, doubles, as a Swiss ski instructor seated next to me orders yet another hit of Scotch, and wonders aloud why he moved to a “hellhole” like Vail. He tells me he works as a caddy during the off-season. I tell him I am an administrator at a diesel mechanics school in a state to the south, and I wonder why I moved to a hellhole like Shiprock. He nods. We drink. We bond.
When I return to the dining room, the dinner service has begun. Or, rather, the buffet line has formed. I look around the room and spot Margaret and Betsy. Margaret waves frantically, a piece of stale Parker Roll falling from her paw, and points to the chair she has saved for me. I turn to the buffet table, ready to load up on the free food.
Amidst the standard banquet fare — overcooked green beans, wilted salad items, watery ranch dressing, “Steamship Round,” margarine, stringy hunks of some sort of fowl, taco fixins’ including commercial shredded cheese and chunks of unripe tomato, Salisbury steak — I discover what seems to be a mistake.
Hotel pans filled with moussaka and pastitsio. Untouched.
A hotel employee stands behind the table. I point to the two pans and deploy my “puzzled” expression (see Part 1).
“Leftovers,” he whispers, holding the back of a hand next to his mouth as if he is sharing a grand secret. “Big Greek wedding last night. Not to worry, the food was stored in the walk-in.” He winks. His ill-fitted banquet vest is missing two buttons; his head is missing one of his front teeth. I venture a guess that he works during the day as a caddy, with the ski instructor.
I tote a lukewarm mass of each delight to the table. I am so excited about the moussaka and pastitsio, that I am unable to stop eating and join a spirited discussion concerning the Dewey Decimal System — miracle or manacle?
When Betsy asks about the food I shovel into my mouth, I give her a brief rundown on the recipes, explaining that, while I am a fan of baked pasta and the slab of browned béchamel that tops a well-made pastitsio, I can’t think of many things that best a superb moussaka: a foundation of thinly sliced potato, topped by alternating layers of lamb — cooked first in standard Mediterranean fashion, the meat browned in olive oil then simmered with red wine, onion, garlic, oregano, tomato, a whisper of cinnamon — and rounds of heat-softened eggplant, the casserole blanketed with a thick layer of cheese-saturated béchamel before being baked to perfection.
I turn to regale Betsy with a reminiscence about a Greek restaurant in Astoria, Queens, circa 1967, run by a pair of homicidal bookies from Heraklion, but she is distracted by comments from other diners touting the superiority of Elmer’s Craft Bond when re-gluing separate signatures in large, paperback books. I have to admit: I didn’t know this about Elmer’s.
I head back for more chow. I do this four times. I skip any vegetation other than the eggplant and onion in the moussaka, and consume stunning amounts of cheese, meat, and cream.
During one of my trips to the buffet table, I spot Thomas Jefferson. His given name is Clint or Clark, or something equally insipid. He’s a history professor at a state university, and has built a rep pretending to be Thomas Jefferson and, on occasion, Theodore Roosevelt.
Clint, or Clark, does more than act the part of the president … he channels Jefferson. In place of being interesting himself, Clark becomes a dead person.
Clark/Tom is clad in full post-Enlightenment gear, the star attraction at his table, surrounded by tittering bibliophiles, dabbing at his thin lips with a lacy hanky he keeps tucked beneath his shirt cuff, a huge napkin draped from neck to lap in order to protect his finery. I imagine Clark wore his TJ suit when he drove to Vail. I suspect he might not own any other clothing.
I don’t know this dolt, but I loathe him. The way I see it, it’s hard enough to pretend to be yourself. Why would anyone think pretending to be someone else, and a dead someone at that, is a viable thing to do? I want to hit Clark/Tom with a large piece of wood.
Thomas Jefferson looks away from his fawning admirers, and we lock eyes for a moment. He’s seen my photo, he knows who I am. He looks as if he spotted a pool of cat barf on his antique Persian rug.
I have two options: 1) walk over to the prissy bozo, knock his ass off the chair, and roll around with him on the banquet hall floor, or 2) eat.
So, I tangle with more food.
This precipitates one of the worst rectal disasters on record. That night, I toss and turn, my sleep disturbed by gin, eggplant, and lamb dreams, and by alarming movements in my intestinal tract.
Following an offensive hotel breakfast (“all expenses paid” loses its luster when a breakfast is “continental”), and since the hotel bar is not yet open, I decide to wander to the convention center and sit in on some of the “rap sessions” being conducted by noted, out-of-state librarians. The Colorado association has trucked in big hitters from Kansas and Nebraska, and it’s said they come bearing enthusiasm and new tricks of the trade.
I’m ambling, when it hits me.
In my lower abdomen.
The pain grows markedly worse in a very short period of time. I reach the doors to the convention center, and collapse in agony to a concrete bench.
This is no case of post-lamb gas; something ominous is occurring. I know this because of the rapidly increasing pain, and the fact I am panting, sweating profusely, and trembling uncontrollably.
A physician raised me, so I maintain a mental checklist of characteristics of fatal disorders that I review whenever things get dicey. I set to work like a poorly trained second-year resident engaging a protocol.
Heart attack? No. This pain does not originate in my jaw and radiate down my left arm, nor do I feel a crushing sensation in my chest. This problem is located farther south; it’s moving away from the chest, in short order.
Septicemia Heptagoria? No. My skin has not taken on amphibian characteristics, and my tongue is not swollen to twice normal size.
Krabbe Disease? No. My family history is clear of this killer. Plus, it’s rare in adults.
Stroke? No, I’m no more confused than usual; I see clearly out of both eyes, I’m experiencing no numbness on one side of my body. This problem is in my intestinal tract, not my vascular system. And the problem is on the move.
Ebola? No. While some symptoms and their rapid onset fall into line, (in particular the likely sloughing off of the intestinal lining), the absence of blood seeping from every orifice in my body rules out this option.
Plague? Check it off: no recent contact with prairie dogs. Not since last spring.
Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease. No. Last time I checked, my prions were properly folded. Neatly so.
Stymied in my search for an accurate diagnosis, I force myself to my feet, and struggle back to my room. I feel as if I’m about to give birth. I manage to remove my pants and sit on the toilet, ready to welcome a nasty guest.
What could cause this?
Perhaps the hotel employee lied to me the night before, and the Greek goodies never graced the inside of the cooler. Perhaps the pro-library clique slipped me a Mickey in a cup of Sprite before I joined in a subdued toast to the recently deceased “Colorado Librarian of the Decade.”
Neither of the explanations suffice. As I lapse into a delirious state, I realize there is an alien pod growing inside me, and it is making a break for light, via my asshole.
The Swiss ski instructor is a visitor from another galaxy! I grew careless as we bonded, and he popped a pod germ into my gin and tonic while I yammered about Shiprock. It’s said these pods grow quickly, then escape their dying hosts to join others of their kind in a secret lab located below a mesa near Dulce, New Mexico. There, they wait for a message from their Reptoid masters ordering them to emerge and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting and defenseless human population.
I’m about to be a Reptoid mom!
Yep, sure enough, that’s it.
The pain grows more intense by the second as the mass begins to press against an uncooperative anal sphincter. I decide to reach back and push the pod in a bit, to buy a moment of relief, and when I do, I am shocked: there is a huge ball resting at the end of my rectum. I estimate it to be approximately the size of a Rocky Ford cantaloupe, final harvest. I push. It barely moves. I feel tissues rip. I smell blood.
I try Lamaze breathing techniques to ease the delivery, but stop when I realize this thing is going to tear me apart. There is only one answer: astrophysicists say a potential world-ending asteroid must be broken into pieces before it can provoke Armageddon, and it’s clear that, similarly, this mass must be dissembled prior to touchdown on its watery target.
I am dizzy, feverish, growing more disoriented by the moment. Then, it hits me: a plastic coffee spoon, it’s my only chance. I struggle to my feet and duck-walk to a counter where I find a plastic spoon next to the coffee pot the maids never clean. I duck-walk back to the bathroom, sit, and begin.
At this point, I’ll skip a lot of details. I’ll just say my excavation project, performed with the handle of the plastic spoon, produces samples of red oxide-tinted, claylike material. My progress is to little avail, however, as the mass suddenly moves again, this time unstoppable. I try to push the pod back in. I scream, and the room goes black.
When I regain consciousness, I am slumped to the side, my descent halted by the bathroom vanity. I am soaked with sweat, cold and shivering; the bottom half of my body is without feeling. The mass is gone, and I am afraid to touch myself … back there. I grab the edge of the cabinet, slowly pull myself up, and look into the toilet bowl.
The pod is hideous — a hard wad of unidentifiable materials the size of a medium turnip (the cantaloupe comparison was a bit extreme), the lump lurking at the bottom of a bowl full of murky water like a creature in a stagnant Arkansas pond. I inspect the mass, looking for whiskers and eyes. Then, I realize there’s no possible way this monster is going to flush; it will clog the system, flood the room, perhaps the entire hotel. I’m going to have to break it up. With this plastic spoon.
I am on my knees, gouging at the beast, when my nervous system sends out yet another red alert. It feels as if Vulcan himself has filled my intestines with lava. Another payload is on the way, and this time it’s liquid.
I barely make it back to the toilet seat before a pyroclastic flow of waste makes its way out of my demolished rear exit.
Now, years later, I see myself in my mind’s eye: ghostly white, bare from the waist down, slumped on the toilet, moaning, completely dehydrated, panting, shaking, my hair wet, filthy plastic spoon clutched in my sewage-soiled hand. There’s not an electrolyte remaining in my body. My racing heart flutters, I’m nauseous. I’m fighting off leg cramps and I’m totally dispirited, like a Hohenschönhausen inmate following 72 straight hours of interrogation by brutal Stasi operatives.
I fall on to the bed (face down, in consideration of the housecleaning staff) and I pass out.
When I wake, it’s time to do battle with the Third President of the United States.
Can this possibly end well?
In my debate with Father Bobby, I went berserk due to the influence of Columbian imports I assaulted the padre, God, and religion, and managed to convince a room full of devout high school students and a Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities to hate me.
In my secular conflict, I go berserk following a near fatal dairy product overdose and its aftermath, attack one of the Founding Fathers, promise the demise of books and libraries, and manage to convince a conference hall full of librarians to hate me. Even Margaret, and Betsy.
It is work I do well.
I muster enough energy to mop up and waddle to the hall. I fumble my way to the dais following my introduction as a “retired university professor and famed syndicated columnist,” and as I lurch forward, I ask myself: What the fuck am I doing? I should be in the ER, IVs tapped into both arms, cold packs surrounding my swollen portal, my mangled back door slathered with some sort of steroidal wonder goo, tearful members of my family gathered bedside.
But no, I’m going to sit (in pain) next to a simpering poseur, and pretend I am debating someone who’s been dead since 1826.
I attempt to unscrew the cap on a bottle of water as Pretend Tom begins. The freak begins his performance with, “Welcome Good Gentlemen and Gentle Ladies, true patriots all, and devoted citizens of this fine land, united by a dedication to the principles of freedom, equality” … blah dee blah, dee blah.
For fuck’s sake! If this clown is going to channel Thomas Jefferson (poorly, I might add) then I am going to channel Charles Bukowski, and at this point Buk’s still alive!
I despise this wannabe colonialist with a passion. There’s no way he could pass my Friend Test.
- I know beyond a doubt the decrepit little weasel never went down on a widow, and received a used 1955 Willys-Overland Jeep 4×4 Station Wagon as a gesture of thanks from said long frustrated but newly satisfied widow.
- I know he never consumed a pint of Tanqueray, smoked some brain-busting bud, and plunged headlong from a hot air balloon floating 200 feet above the ground, tethered to the craft’s basket with a poorly secured and frayed bungee cord.
- A woman named Mistress Renee never soundly disciplined the man, then forced him to wear a frilly apron, brew and serve a pot of Earl Gray tea, and hand feed her an entire box of vanilla wafers.
- He never awakened, clad only in someone else’s underwear, inside a doghouse in a stranger’s back yard.
- He never verbally abused a Jesuit on fish stick day.
This moron is a feeb, not a friend!
Despite my tattered state, my rage provides enough energy for me to mount an offensive.
I base my response to Pretend Tom on the fact he is an empty vessel of a man on a pathetic quest to impress librarians by channeling a long dead hypocrite. I also toss in the observation that all librarians are gullible.
I respond following Pretend Tom’s glorification of the written word and the power of a calfskin-bound printed volume to transmit knowledge to generation after generation of “right-thinking seekers” — knowledge Pretend Tom indicates Real Tom claims is required if we Americans are to maintain our democratic republic. Pretend Tom ends with a flourish, calling the assembled librarians, “precious guardians of the nation’s greatest treasures, our histories and our ideals” and thanking them for their “noble service as they man the battlements in an ever-more precarious world.”
I extend kudos to the dead Founder for his purported invention of macaroni and cheese, then attack both Pretend Tom and Real Tom at their weak, Enlightenment roots. Clark, as Pretend Tom, glorifies a despot, Real Tom, who trumpets the ideal of a mind opened and molded by reason, while simultaneously behaving as a chauvinist, an elitist, and a slave owner and slave fucker.
I ask Pretend Tom about a notion Real Tom includes in the Declaration (something to the effect of all men being created equal), in light of the fact Real Tom owns people and forces them to labor in his interests, with scant, if any recompense, selling them when the whim strikes him. I ask Pretend Tom why Real Tom participates in a system that deems enslaved people worth only a fraction of the value of their owners. I inquire about the relationship of the idea of equality to the fact that Real Tom and company deny women the right to vote, and say or do little to discourage the genocide of native peoples underway as a fledgling nation expands.
I bring my assault to a crescendo with a question concerning just how much voyeuristic pleasure Pretend Tom experiences, knowing his channeled spirit beds the young Sally, and probably insists she wear the same scent as the departed Martha. I hold short of demanding specifics.
Clark is flabbergasted. The fop stammers when the cloak of illusion is torn from him. He shorts out when I suggest that he, when considering his idol, Real Tom, is titillated by the idea of having intercourse with a beautiful slave, reveling in his unchallenged dominance of a chained nymph of color. I also set him back a step or two by noting that Clark’s only experiences of intimacy likely involve his right hand and a well-worn copy of Penthouse Magazine, January 1986, pages 57 and 58 — the groundbreaking “mulatto spread.” The librarians boo me. Not loudly, mind you, but they boo.
Then, I finish off the fool by pounding his charade with the psychology mallet.
“Why is it, Clark,” I ask, “that you take such great pleasure in pretending to be someone else? And why do you believe the farce succeeds with any but these halfwits? I suggest you read Sartre, while we still have calfskin-clad print copies of his work available. Pay close attention to the remarks concerning authenticity, because you, sir, are inauthentic and a sad, sad little fellow.”
I make a point of looking out at the assembled librarians and smiling. They boo a bit louder. Nothing calamitous, mind you, but louder.
I use this as the pad from which to launch my predictions regarding the dismal future of printed materials and their keepers, emphasizing that, just as Real Tom is wrong about slavery and women’s rights, Pretend Tom is wrong about books and libraries. Clark/Pretend Tom and librarians are doomed, soon-to-be artifacts.
I end with a prediction: despite my exhausted condition, I summon enough energy to rise and claim, “Libraries, and you wage slaves who labor therein, will soon be no more than a footnote in those history books rejected by the Texas School Board and stored, neither opened nor read, in a bunker outside of Kerrville until such time as they can be used to ignite kindling at a thousand rural barbecue pits. You and your enterprises are finished. (I notice one of the macraméd librarians is weeping.)
“Very soon, no one will care about books, much less be able to read one, and no one will care about you. In 25 years, forward-thinking realtors will convert Carnegie library buildings to trendy nightclubs and curio shops, and if a library building is more than two stories in height, it will be developed into “lofts” offered for sale to illiterate computer industry millionaires. Poor folks will burn books to stay warm as they watch televised political messages selected for them by algorithms, and beamed to them from government controlled satellites. The day is coming when robots will replace all of you, finishing the work of loading books into Dumpsters, and, jobless with minimal retirement funds, you will be forced to reside in flimsy mobile homes, placed in flood plains. You will live out the remainder of your years alone, fondling mildewed volumes, and small dogs. You will not be able to afford white zinfandel.”
Note: A lack of electrolytes is more powerful than cocaine.
“It’s over. Go home. Get ready for the worst. And take this idiot dressed in the fairy suit with you. If he attempts to convince you he is Theodore Roosevelt, hook him to a 220–volt line and turn on the juice.”
I vacate Vail after I escape from the conference hall, so I don’t attend that night’s banquet and keynote address with a theme of “The Library: Now More Important Than Ever.” I’m told Clark/Pretend Tom is invited to the event to provide stirring reassurances to distressed members of the crowd, and to heap further praise on books covered in the tanned skin of young cows.
It has been 32 years since I held forth at the conference. My ass has not been right since.
I see Margaret at the supermarket a while back, and sidle up to her as she prods avocados. She turns, notices me, and looks as if she’s spotted a pool of cat barf on her antique Persian rug. She shakes her head and walks away, without a word.
So, Heraclitus was mistaken about the relationship between opposition and concord, and also off track when, according to Plato, in Cratylus, “he says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.”
Oh, yeah, you can. It seems the water in certain rivers recirculates. Forever.
I finish my purchase of the ingredients for a deluxe baked pasta, garlic-blessed, with four cheeses, as I watch Margaret turn the corner at the end of the aisle. She’s wearing sandals, with socks.
As a precautionary measure, I wolf down a fistful of stool softeners that night, before I eat the pasta.