Poor Yorick

He keeps his feet bramble-beat, mud-puddle sheen, elastic waistband stretched past use and hanging, sagging really, on hips left to mottle in the sun, worn down from it, but he’s not worn, no sir, and can’t you see that smile on his face meant to tell you as much? If you’ll give him a dollar for some food then that’s your prerogative, but he understands if you can’t, if you need it for yourself, etc.

He’s been out on the street long enough to know the prognosis of the city. He studies its lungs as they choke for air in the twilight hours, its murmuring heart as it wakes up for another day.  It susurrates to itself, leaves as whispered self-encouragement, until the rain sticks the words to the ground like haphazard tattoos from the city’s younger days.

They call him York, because that’s where he’s from, NYC, but the way it comes out his mouth when he’s been cold all day and he’s got brain fog and his tongue is stuck in a slow-mo movie, it comes out like Yorick, and that’s fine too, if people call him that, he figures, because it’s only a name. Just poor Yorick out here on the streets, trying to make every dollar count and stretch.

And he’s here, stretching too, under this melange of sunrise sky, these oranges, reds, purples in places, it’s beautiful if you notice it, if you really stop and see it and pay attention to the design of it, like a massive oil painting in appearance, but this one’s been done in photons.

He thinks he’s lucky, he says as much when people ask him, and he’s past worrying much beyond the next six hours or so. Anything further is beyond his immediate control, doesn’t exist, and so doesn’t matter just yet. It can’t matter.

Weightless dreams when sleep comes easy, which is rare, but these dreams are like glimpses of heaven when they come to Yorick, dreams not so much of flying as floating as a feather would, on the breeze, without sore ankles and tired eyes, dreams where he sees his kids again, and they’re safe, and happy, and the same age that they were back when he last saw them, when he could see them, when they called out to him in their sing-song voices and hugged his legs that were to them the size of tree stumps.

He isn’t hard on himself the way he used to be. Doesn’t curse fate, or God, or any other unseen force that might’ve put him where he is right now. He gets up with the light and goes to sleep with the darkness, fixing himself to the firmament because that’s the only thing he can count on most days, and that’s just fine by him.

He’s got a person over at the library who’s helping him with the internet and the computers and the websites. He was on the street long before the dot-com boom, and this librarian has been kind enough to show him how it all works, why it matters, what it can do.

Yorick’s got pages of research now, the librarian lets him print for free within reason, and he keeps it in his back pocket and reviews the data by the light of a streetlamp near where he usually sleeps for the night. Pages and pages of entries, permutations and possibilities of where his kids might be, separated by cities and states, their names common enough to give him scores of results, dozens of possible addresses and email addresses and phone numbers.

At night, he pores over these pages and eliminates the dead ends and the false starts, writes notes in the margins when he thinks he might be onto something. By day, the kind librarian helps him draft emails, encourages him to get even more use out of the library, and checks out books for him under her card, because you need a permanent address to get a library card, and Yorick hasn’t had one of those for the better part of 30 years.

It’s months of this, searching, hunting, crossing out, scribbling on the pages, checking the email inbox that the librarian set up for him, day in and day out, watching the sun rise and fall, his hopes with it, all of it, changing in the way that you only can with age, by the force of time, until that one day, with a simple reply, just the one word at first, but that’s all Yorick will need for now, because a simple “hi” from his daughter is worth more than hundreds of kind words from the mouths of strangers out on the street.

 

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Something Like Clarity

Getting up in the morning, so early that you’re the only one up in your household, maybe on your block, and just sitting and breathing.

There’s something to be said for emptiness–of not being devoid of something but of being inside that blank slate state of true happiness. Apart from excitement, from joy, because a real content is just itself inside of itself–the word and the definition.

Getting up and exercising, having breakfast, brushing your teeth, because you know that schedule and routine works for you, and though you’re not in crisis mode right now, you have been before, and you know that these little things can help keep you out of it. Of not being afraid of crisis anymore so much as respecting it, recognizing it, and taking regular, concrete steps to keep it contained. You used to think the crisis and chaos in you was something to be eradicated, but now you know it’s not that simple.

Of making progress, scary in itself, and a feeling like when you were a kid just learning to ride your bike and your parent let go of you, that realization of your progress mingled with the terror that you might fall at any moment. Of sipping this fear in your morning coffee, letting it pass before moving on to more important things.

It’s the quiet struggles that no one knows about, the ones that all of us have. It’s the whispered self-encouragement, the half-smile that you sometimes have to force but which you won’t give up on, the smiling past tears and seeing this cloudy world, this bubble world, and being okay with the momentary blurriness to get at something like clarity.

Start From One

The last time I made a big, personal, maddening, heartening, and major life change like this, I felt like I had no way out, no alternative, and it was this or nothing. It’s not nearly as serious this time around, just something I really want to do for myself, and that’s both a relief and an anomaly. It’s always been that I get hooked on things easily, and it used to be that I’d get hooked on all the wrong things, ballooning in weight and stress, pre-diabetic, high blood pressure, eyes and mind myopic and bloodshot, stuck in behavior loops that seemed out of my control, dangerous and destructive, and the genuine belief that my time was running out, that I was living on borrowed time and it’d all be over soon. Unsustainable living like an engine sputtering and stuttering in the cold, smoke and fumes signifying something I didn’t want to see or acknowledge. It’s true that you can get addicted to pain and hardship, to despair, and that when you’re in that headspace, the notion of getting out of it is at best laughable and at worst the enemy of the disease you now find yourself affected by. It’s a parasite, a self-serving organism that feeds on your insecurities and doubts, your justifications and hollow ameliorations. And then you get the double-edged sword of talking about it, of sharing this struggle with others, which is especially dangerous when you’re still in the middle of it and everything you see and hear is a portent of either doom or salvation. You run the risk of turning yourself to salt by looking back that much, and there’s no sense in rewriting a story you haven’t finished yet. But now I’ll live with these feelings, these experiences and lessons learned, a lifetime covering every genre–from horror to mystery, mystery to drama, drama to comedy, always switching from one to the next, but it’s a slipstream existence, with genres bleeding at the edges, and the punchlines don’t get a laugh till it’s years later and you’ve achieved the required time and distance from the joke, till you can see how perfectly it was crafted. But there’s always that potent, monolithic, very human ability to start from one. To go back to the beginning and try again. I’ve recreated myself over and over again over the years, to the point where the me from seven years ago is unrecognizable from the me I am now. A Ship of Theseus paradox I didn’t know would happen but which I now welcome. Any rebirth requires a prior death, a doing-away of what was before to make way for what could be.

The Genesis of Genesis

When I was younger, I wanted to put everything I made into a category, a code, identifying theme and character, plot and arc, never fully immersing myself in the work, or else only in fits and starts before I’d look at the strings again and ruin the illusion. I guess that’s just how you have to start, or at least how I had to start, because it all seemed to work out in the end, but for a while there it was like banging my head against the wall, magic-appreciation-wise, because it didn’t seem as fun to constantly see what you were doing with a story, to not be in it but somewhere apart from it, outside of the action. But that’s the beginning of creation, the genesis of genesis, making every story about the creation of story, pieces populated by characters who know they’re characters, and the only magic you can find then is in look-ma-no-hands writerly showmanship, pointing out to the audience just how much you know about what you’re doing, making your characters just as self aware as you hoped you were appearing then at the time. That’s what I was doing. And it’s fun to go back and look at this work now, to see just how much it’s all changed, replacing sarcasm with honesty, irony with earnestness. Wanting to participate in a radical new sincerity, still, less jaded now than I was then, even though I know publication, know the slog of it, the hours and hours that go into rejection after rejection, until something clicks into place and gives you temporary respite, and you’ve gotten a piece out into the world, just to start the process over again. It’s like that now, and it makes it easier going through this process when I’m doing that for others now too, having to accept and reject and coach and advocate and do all the rest that comes along with editing, and the world seems much smaller than it once did, more accessible, less daunting, when you can read the work of people in countries you’ve never visited and get a piece of that experience for yourself, see the similarities that outweigh the differences, recognize these disparate struggles as the same as your own, and you realize that this is what they mean when they use that oft-tread phrase, coming-of-age, as if it’s something you just stumble upon one day, as if it isn’t something you have to work for, over time, developing your voice even as life develops your character, desperation giving way to something more calm, more sustainable as you develop faith in the process and let it happen the way it’s going to happen. And suddenly you’re back where you were when you started, in a room by yourself, smiling at something you’ve written, something you’ve read, seeing for yourself the magic of the written word, of the stories we can tell as people.

 

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Old Habits Die Hard

Sometimes I feel like I’m making up for lost time even though I know that, realistically, I’m working myself to the grave, and that I’ve already justified my seed again and again and again, and that I continue to do so, that I proved my point years ago and now it’s all just verging on masochism. I know that. But old habits die hard, and if I’m not hurting myself physically, then I guess this is just the next step down.

I convince myself daily that this pain is okay, that it’s useful, that the suffering I’m charting now is a “grind” where in years past it was much more destructive and purposeless. And that’s true, I guess, to an extent, but I’ve never been one for moderation, so I clock 50 hours in a week and then write stories like these and craft feature screenplays, novel manuscripts, edit the work of other writers, start investigative journalism projects with local professionals, defining myself not by inner terrain but by output, by outward progress. The inner terrain bleeds out, anyway–it can’t help but bleed out. And then I sit in the dark, willing sleep to come so I can do it all over again the next day. Make no mistake–I love my life and the people, places and things I now find within it. I just haven’t given myself time to rest.

I feel I’m guiding myself by the same principle that I did when I was self-harming, only now aimed toward a productive end. I don’t know if I’ll live a long life, but now that’s chalked up more to adverse family medical history than by a potential suicide I once felt compelled to see through to the end.

And I still have trouble accepting help, and I still have trouble taking care of myself, because I lived an entire life of not doing so, of feeling like I was living on borrowed time. I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I know that it’ll take time and effort to undo habits of the past, but at least the intention is there. You can’t do anything without right intention.

I guess the thing that gives me hope most is that I’m being honest about everything now. I know that I’m exhausted, that I’m burning myself out. I know why I’m doing it, and I know I need to stop. And yet I find myself here, at this keyboard, typing up something new. Old habits really do die hard.

I think I’ll take next weekend off. I won’t work, won’t write, will do nothing but rest and recuperate. Because for once, I feel like I truly should, and for once, I feel like I actually deserve it.

 

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Replaced by the Void

I was drunk-listening to James Brown’s Living in America, then Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses, maybe adding more meaning than was there, I don’t know, I’m drunk, but writing because I feel the time is right for it, realizing that the predispositions for alcoholism and mental illness in general are strong in my family, then wandering back in time, presupposing family history, going back to pioneer times and beyond, really diving into the old gene pool mentally, exercising my ability as a human to dip back into time, before I was even here, and I’m jumping back now to my college years, when I was the wunderkind, and now I’m half a decade older, running a magazine and getting my own words published too, wondering if there’s something else to all of this that I haven’t gathered yet, or if this is it, I’m a hungry ghost from the Buddhist tradition, stripped of my memory and my dignity, sent to walk among crevasses and cliffs of briar, sent adrift in the time I’ve been condemned to, this life, and I am both the hunter and the quarry as I wander the halls of my life, wondering if I’m losing it all, if I’m better than I’ve ever been. And the thing about drunkenness is that it feels so good even as you’re slipping away. To replace yourself with the Void that you came from, just for a moment, until all of your faculties slip away and you’re left as a giant baby, waiting for the ability to come back to you, but you’re numb from whatever you were drinking about in the first place, at least for a time, and you know even as you’re becoming something else that you’re just doing this to escape, that you’ll eventually return to yourself in the end, that it won’t drastically change anything, that you’ll be left with yourself in the end, switching tenses, past to present, first to second person, listening now to Roll Over Beethoven by ELO, then something else, the algorithm decides for me, and I’m riding the wave of inebriation, feeling it pass me by and imbue me with its effects, deliberately being fun, and funny, and silly, anything but angry, because that’s how my dad was, as a kid, and I’ve convinced myself that as long as I’m a friendly drunk it’s better than the alternative, than the model my father left for me. I resolve to stop drinking, to make a deliberate clean break, not sure if it’ll stick, thinking it probably won’t, but I go for it anyway. I stop drinking, and I eat something, and I put water in my body, and I wait for this feeling to go away. I’m ready for a shift to happen. But I’ll wait for it, and the feeling will change, and I’ll put on my mask and walk outside, now listening to Tame Impala’s Posthumous Forgiveness, and even though my father isn’t dead, it’s as if he might as well be, stuck between the shore of consciousness and the waves of debilitation, and I’m here, in another state of the country, another state of mind, letting the feeling pass, letting lucidity return, and all the memories are coming back again, and I’m letting them come, the half-remembered visions and the reconstructed rememberings both, all of it coming back, and it’s a hell of a gift and a curse, this life, unimaginable even in sobriety, but I’ll keep on this path as long as I can, till the ghost of my father stops haunting me. An undead phantasm, a vision of a life in stasis. I’ll live as best I can, as soon as I can, as long as I can.

 

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Kodachrome Life

My girlfriend surprised me with an early Christmas present the other day: a vintage Kodak Instamatic M2 movie camera from the mid-60s. The estate sale she’d bought it from included a similarly vintage indoor lighting kit and a projector for home viewing after you’d gotten the super 8 cartridge processed at a photo lab. I’d once shot in 16 mm on a Bolex back when I was a film student, but I’d never shot on super 8 before even though I’d always wanted to. I mentioned it in passing once, and she remembered. Just a really, really good gift.

Inside the box the camera and assorted gear came in, there was a small metal box. I guess the estate sale people didn’t notice it, because they never mentioned it to my girlfriend, and she didn’t even know it was in there until I started rooting around and found it under the projector.

Inside the small metal box were a collection of film spools. Picking one up and holding it to the light, I could tell it was already processed, but it was hard to make out what was on the film. I found a YouTube instructional on that model of film projector, managed to locate a pdf scan of the original manual. I spooled the old super 8 film on the projector and set it against the wall for my girlfriend and I to watch.

It was scratchy at first, blown out in spots, but I chalked that up to the film’s age. But it kept happening, over and over. Almost like a pattern. Clear, vivid shots of blue sky sliced by cirrus, wispy, curling, like ethereal hair, then darkness, scratched film, and color flickering by one frame at a time, accumulating shape and weight like painted cells from a bygone era where color film was hand-colored. And I realized that that’s what this was. We were watching the work of a visual artist.

Miasmas of color gave way to eruptions of pitted black, simulated static from strategic distortions of celluloid. Then figures, maybe human, definitely moving, almost imperceptibly slow, but then with sudden, sped-up writhing, close-ups of grotesques and detailed makeup that seemed almost anachronistic for how vivid and real it seemed to be, how modern. This film had to be decades old, but it seemed fresh–hard-edged. There were elaborate stagings of musicals kept silent in the film, then abrupt cuts to sidewalks and streets, the camera sometimes placed on the ground perilously close to passing tires as cars rolled by and over it. Frenetic hyper-fast cuts of neighborhoods as they looked 60 years ago, the passersby and their fashions, the cars they drove the only giveaway that this film was made that long ago.

I dug around for his name, or for titles scrawled on film tins, but there was nothing. This was some of the best experimental work I’d seen on film, and by all accounts, its filmmaker lived without ever finding much recognition, if any. A lifetime of work, relegated to a cardboard box that can be sold after you die.

I started cataloguing as I waited for the new film cartridge I’d ordered to come in. I tried finding his name out later, but everything turned up a blank. So, for the time being, I catalogued the work under the name John Doe.

In time, I had over a dozen short films catalogued with runtimes, brief summaries, and considerations of artistic merit. I suggested titles where appropriate and went ahead and paid a company to make digital copies for posterity. I wanted to have a positive ID on the guy before I started sharing his work on the internet, but I never did find out his name. Either way, his work found a footing early on, the older folks considering him a peer of Stan Brakhage, and younger people noting the logical progression from work like his to people like David Firth and Jack Stauber. It was incredible to see the explosion of interest, the way this thing seemed to take on a life of its own.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do–I mean what I really wanted do with my life there for a while. But when that package came in and I opened it, when I loaded that fresh, first film cartridge into my Instamatic, I knew.

Soho in a Dream, 1971

I’m having a recurring dream that I’m a glam rocker living in London in the early ’70s, or at least I’m embedded in that scene at that time. In the dream, I don’t grace the stage so much as lace the pages of other singers with my music. I’m not myself, but some tall, lanky, bespectacled creature with mop hair and a crooked nose, and I’m getting drunk on brandy and writing at night by the light of the television, playing Top of the Pops. In the dream timeline, I’m living in Soho, paying my rent off the words I sell to others, making just about enough to also afford a pack of fags and a couple bottles of brandy, and I’m indulging in both, and it’s all starting to feel less like a dream and more like a long-forgotten memory.

I’m watching the Pops, and getting proper pissed on the brandy (I don’t know where these words are coming from), letting the ash of my fag come perilously close to dropping on my lap before ashing it, writing down chori and verses, then ditching them, scratching them out, as Pan’s People boogie to Jeepster by T. Rex. I stand up and mimic the moves, only partially imagining those people up and dancing to my music instead, sung by me, not belted out of the bleating mouths of addled singers snorting what wages are left to them like crumbs from their bloated record company, which is what’s presently happening in the dream. All of these things and more run through my mind as I keep myself locked in that flat night after night, writing about things I’m not doing, writing for people who are doing them but who just can’t find the right words.

On Saturday evenings, I find myself in the back row of the cinema, transported to other worlds where ghoulish zombies shamble over American countrysides and cities, where metal men come down to Earth in silver saucers that you’d swear were models hanging from strings, especially when they wobble as they “fly” through the air in what’s meant to be a vicious attack on our planet.

I come back home to my flat after these showings, still a bit pissed from the earlier brandy, and I lie down in this dream flat, on my dream bed, and I fall asleep and enter a dream’s dream, where I find myself standing in the center of a cutting-edge sci-fi film set (cutting-edge in 1971 anyway), with myself as the primary actor, makeup applied and prosthetics fitted as I am made into a monster and forced to sing my woes for no one in particular to hear, as everyone is too busy making sure the scene comes to fruition, milling about here and there as they go.

Like clockwork, I’ll awake from this recurring dream, still feeling like a creature with no agency over his creation, usually just in time to hear a song I’ve written being performed on the radio by someone I’ve never met personally. I can never quite seem to wake from this dream once I’ve entered, once I’ve heard those mangled words rendered in generic, saccharine melodies, the bubblegum banality. But at least my words are at the core, at least my words remain undisturbed, I convince myself, my thoughts like a pendulum as I consider singing along and throwing my radio out the window, alternately.

I wander the streets now, at dawn, knowing that I’m dreaming but not quite wanting to wake up, maybe not able to, stuck sometimes in a dream within a dream. I know in the back of my mind that I’m in a pod, alone, somewhere in a barren future I’ve only seen in passing glances when the simulation glitches. I’m somewhere in a world I’d rather not be in, but here in this dream within a dream I can at least make music, make use of my body and move through a world that is not torn.

I think tomorrow I’ll sing. If this simulation, this dream, is a lucid one, I see no reason to stand in the back of the hall, to lend my words to other people in other pods who are similarly comatose. I’ll put on the best damn glam rock opera show in all the great, wide wasteland.

Slipstream Living

It’s slipstream living here, in the wake of Stonewall’s fiftieth, and I’m thinking of this year’s Pride, only maybe the third or fourth I’ve been to, it being as many years since I gave voice to something I always knew but tried to hide, maybe tried to ignore. And in going to these parades not knowing what to expect, what it would mean for me, if anything. Looking at people dressed however they wanted to be dressed, singing, dancing. The pageantry and glitter, makeup and candy. I was still self-censoring then, still outwardly heteronormative at all times, so I didn’t dance or anything, didn’t dress up. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

And the inevitable protesters, with signs reading “Born that way? Burn that way!” and “LGBT” spelling out “Let God Burn Them.” The initial disbelief that people like that still exist, then the realization of tangible, real-world intolerance, of something beyond the jokes and insults when I was a kid, when “gay” was synonymous with “stupid” or “bad,” when “faggot” was the worst thing you could be called. Something more sad, more dangerous. One of the protesters was there with his kid, the girl no older than 11 or 12 and already forced to spout the same soundbites as her father, looking like she didn’t want to be there but having no choice. Enforced bigotry. The strategy was split between two camps, generally: those who argued with the guy and those who refused to give him the attention he wanted. And that’s fine, commendable even, but I was raised to never back down from a fight, to always answer an insult–a vestigial behavior from childhood, where what was enforced then was a caricature of masculinity. Old habits really do die hard.

I want there to have been some big Rise Above moment for me, but there wasn’t really.  I got myself between him and the people he was trying to bother, and he casually used the word “faggot” as he argued his point, and all I could see was douche kids from elementary school, all I could think was to hit him, and if not for the strategically-placed cop standing next to him making sure no one did just that, then I would’ve.

I went to my first live performance of The Rocky Horror Show that night. I’d seen RHPS on VHS hundreds of times, then DVD when the technology changed, then midnight showings at theaters with shadow casts, but I’d never seen a performance of the play that started it all, and it just seemed like the right time to do it. Back at home, after Pride but before the show, my girlfriend was the one to suggest I show up with my makeup done, legit, like something Frank would wear. She’d do it for me. I’d like to say I jumped at the idea right away, but that wouldn’t be true. I brought up concerns like the makeup smearing when I’d put my motorcycle helmet on, that it might take too long, etc. etc. I was happy that Harmony poked holes in all my excuses. So I agreed, and sat for her, my face her canvas.

Being there among fellow fans, receiving their compliments and comparing our histories with Rocky Horror, none of them batted an eye at my makeup. If anything, they admired it. The actor playing Frank-n-Furter personally acknowledged me in the front row while singing “I’m Going Home,” and I sat there with tears in my eyes even though I’d heard the song a thousand times before. And then, when it was over, we all stood up for curtain call to join in on a reprise of The Time Warp. And being there, finally, with my makeup how I wanted, dressed the way I wanted, singing and dancing without a care in the world… It felt like coming alive.