Saturday, September 24, 2005

Jim Nabors (1996)

Jim Nabors first came to the public's attention on The Andy Griffith Show, playing the dim-witted character of "Gomer Pyle." Wearing overalls and a baseball cap—and speaking with a slow southern drawl—Gomer Pyle nonetheless surprised everyone with his booming operatic tenor. This was Nabors' real talent. Despite this great gift, Nabors insisted on pursuing his acting career rather than dedicating himself whole-heartedly to his music—thus, his starring role in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.

When the show had run its course, Nabors found that, due to the vagaries of public yearnings, he was no longer in demand—either as an actor or as a singer. Forced into early retirement from show business, Nabors settled in Palm Springs, where on good days he sat on his back porch, gazing for hours upon the flowers in his garden. On bad days he stayed inside, the curtains drawn, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon straight from the can and feeling bitter. Very bitter.

Nabors' final public appearance was a disastrous cameo on a Bob Hope Christmas special during which Brooke Shields taunted him mercilessly by threatening to beat him with a stick. One of the top three tenors of his day—and an inspiration to, among others, a young Luciano Pavarotti—Nabors' last act was to let himself be publicly humiliated by a celebrity who was even more of a has-been than he was, and who never possessed even a trace of his talent.

Originally published in Public Illumination Magazine, 1996.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

On These Days Driving (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

That Chona Maki gets into the car with me and Carl is probably the greatest vote of confidence either of us has had in years. All she knows about me is that all day I’ve been buying drinks for everyone in the bar, and all she knows about Carl is that he’s got a job he hates. Of course, by now, she’s nearly as drunk as we are, and when I assure her that Carl is the best drunk driver in the Mid-Atlantic, she believes me.

“Alcohol on Carl acts like ritalin on a kid with attention deficit disorder,” I explain to her. For some reason I feel as if I’ve just told her a lie, but it’s true: Carl actually is a better driver when he’s drunk than in those few hours in the day when he’s completely sober. “Where alcohol makes the rest of us sloppy, with Carl it’s like pressing the turbo button on your computer. He gets quicker. Sober, he’d never have been able to figure out that you came here from San Francisco, and that you’re half Japanese, half Filipino, or any of that other shit.”

Carl was right about everything. Chona even showed us her driver’s license, which showed her address in San Francisco, to prove she wasn’t playing with us when she said she actually did just get here from California.

“Well come on, let’s go,” Chona yells, sitting next to Carl in the front seat. We have no idea where to go. All we know is that it’s seven in the evening and that sometimes even drinkers like us need a little fresh air.

Carl presses a button on the dashboard, and the top of his ’72 Camaro lifts up, then slides down behind us. He presses another button and all the windows roll down.

“Well, all riiiight!” Chona exclaims. “Let’s get this motherfucker on the road!”

Carl steps on the gas and we’re off.

About half an hour later we’re trying to find this place called Dickerson Quarry, when we realize we don’t have anything to drink. We’re out of DC now, having driven up Connecticut Avenue, dodging through what was left of rush hour traffic, at about fifty-five miles per hour—well under the highway speed limit.

“As long as you’re going under the highway speed limit,” Carl assured us, “cops here don’t much care how fast you drive in town. In fact, they’ll respect you a little more if you go about thirty miles over the city speed limit. Cause if you’re going that fast in town, they figure that you know what you’re doing. And goddamnit, I know what I’m doing.”

I’d remembered Dickerson Quarry vaguely as a place I went once when I was a teenager. A quarry about the size of a football field, it had been filled with water since sometime in the 50s. Some friends of mine in high school knew about it and went there sometimes for the purpose of what we discreetly referred to as meditation. If Dickerson Quarry hadn’t been pumped out and paved over to make way for a strip mall in the quarter century since I’d last been there, it would be a good place for us to hang out and drink. So if we were going to go there we’d better get us something to drink.

Carl jerks the car off the main road and into a strip mall. Moving slowly, it feels as if we’re slithering along the ground like snakes as we check each storefront for the word “liquor” or for some big ugly poster advertising beer. And for all we know, and for all I remember, we could already be at Dickerson Quarry. Or where it used to be, anyway.

On spotting a bright red neon “liquor” sign, I hand a hundred dollar bill to Chona, who then lifts herself from her seat and jumps over the car door. A few minutes later she walks out of the store cradling a big shopping bag in her arms. Handing the bag to me, she jumps back in the car as I start unloading the bag’s contents: a fifth of Jack Daniels, a Fifth of Schmirnoff, three six-packs of Dos Equis, and bag full of lemons.

“Whoa, I love you, baby,” Carl says on seeing the three six-packs.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Chona scolds as she twists off the cap and hands a bottle of beer to Carl.

Carl takes a swig then slides the bottle between his leg and the car door as we start to move again. Pulling out a knife, Chona slices open a lemon, takes a gulp from her bottle of vodka, then bites down on one of the lemon halves. It’s sunset now, and with the wind blowing her silky dark hair behind her, she looks at Carl then at me and whispers, as if she were telling us a secret, “This is cool as shit.”

By now the idea of Dickerson Quarry is far in the past for us. And as we move ahead into the night we feel no need to replace it with another idea. At least not yet.

We pass through suburb after suburb, from Aspen Hill into Olney. Past a McDonald’s and towards a Burger King. A Chevy dealer squeezes us in on the right while a Toyota dealer swerves ahead of us on the left. Safeway signs metamorphose into Food Lion signs then into things not even Carl nor I have ever heard of.

“We’re now entering the fabulous suburb of... Brookville,” I announce to Chona. “It’s like this all the way to Baltimore. It’s the true eighth wonder of the world—this gigantic strip mall that stretches for thirty or so miles from Washington to Baltimore.”

Chona looks from side to side. We’re on some country highway now, the supermarkets, car dealers, and fast food restaurants having suddenly disappeared from sight. The only thing we see are the blurry images of trees that whip past us. Ahead there’s nothing but darkness until Carl finally turns on the headlights.

“Wow,” Chona says, “doesn’t this fucken city ever end?” She lets out a burp.

“Well, yes and no,” I say, mumbling to myself. I don’t bother to explain.

Suddenly we’re all silent, feeling the rise and fall of the road as we move over the landscape. We realize this isn’t some one night joyride: we’re in it for the long run. What’s more, there’s no need to say this out loud. But alcohol is like that sometimes. Once you get to the point when you’ve lost the ability to speak—after hours and hours of drinks and rambling, effortless conversation—you also tend to find that you’ve lost the need to speak as well.

In a moment Chona is slumped back in her seat. In another the sound of her snoring merges with that of the wind rushing over the car. As she coughs in her sleep, the open bottle of vodka slips out of her hand and its contents pour out between the passenger and driver seats. I breathe deeply, taking in the blend of fresh air and vodka, and lay down in the back. While I’m still able to open my eyes, I make sure to look at the stars overhead: they turn blurry and start to spin as they go into orbit around me.

From a novel in progress.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The American Dream Will Start in the Minds of the Deprived and in the Hearts of the Depraved (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

A week later, on a Friday night, I got a message that a woman named Mary Lindy had called. The name sounded familiar but I wasn’t quite sure where I’d heard it before. Later that night she called again.

“José,” she said in a thick Southern accent, “this is Mary Lindy from the Association of American Physicians.”

I then remembered that I’d met her at a job interview there—a job I didn’t get. It was a strange hour, I thought, to be telling me that they’d decided to hire me after all—but that wasn’t why she was called.

“I’m calling to let you know that the reason you didn’t get the job at the AAP was that you were discriminated against.”

Suddenly I felt lightheaded. Like a man who had picked the winning numbers in the weekly Powerball drawing, I was in a state of shock—but not because I was a winner. It was because now, after all these years, I finally had evidence of what was preventing me from becoming one of America’s greatest heroes.

Mary went on to explain that Kate Powers, the woman in charge of hiring for the job I applied for at the AAP, wanted a white Catholic woman for the job. When looking through the resumes they’d received, Kate Powers would immediately toss aside the resumes of people with foreign sounding names. That I got called in for an interview was only because Mary saw my resume and—thinking I’d be perfect for the job—insisted I be brought in for an interview. But as far as Kate Powers was concerned, my race and sex negated all my other qualifications for the job.

Mary suggested I meet with her so she could explain the situation in detail. Since she and her boyfriend lived in a group house in Adams-Morgan, just a fifteen minute walk from my parents’ house, we decided to meet there the following afternoon.

Mary and her boyfriend, Dan Thompson, were both from Charleston, South Carolina and met when they were in college there. Mary—a tall, slim woman who dressed like a mod Londoner from the sixties—didn’t look at all like a southerner. When I first met her I was astounded to hear the slow Southern drawl that seemed to float from her mouth when she spoke. On the other hand, her boyfriend, Dan, looked exactly like I thought a Southerner should look: tall and paunchy and dangling a thick beard from the bottom of his face. I knew as soon as I saw him that he was also one of those people who needed at least two six packs of beer to make it through the day.

We discussed our situation for about an hour. Mary had already gone to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was confident that the AAP couldn’t take any action against her without risking further damage to themselves. “If you want to pursue this, you should also go to the EEOC,” she advised, “and speak to a lawyer too.”

Dan’s advice was of a more philosophical nature. “Don’t let those assholes fuck with you,” he said calmly.

Being broke, I had nothing to lose: I was going to go ahead with a lawsuit. With that decided, Dan asked if I wanted a beer. Soon we were up on the rooftop deck of the house, finishing off the second of two six packs and opening up a fifth of bourbon. Since the bathroom was down a flight, Dan and I started pissing off the roof.

“I do this all the time,” Dan said as I listened for the sound of urine hitting the alley three floors below us. Dan had a Ph.D. in Philosophy, but at the moment he was unemployed. “Most of the people teaching in universities nowadays are assholes,” he maintained. “I wouldn’t walk across a quad to piss on their shoes. It ain’t worth it.”

It was after midnight when I finally left. On the way home as I passed all the bars in Adams-Morgan I made a resolution—a resolution that if I were to win this lawsuit I would never go home at this laughably early hour. I’d drink until last call, roam the deserted streets at four in the morning with a couple of other professional drunks or by myself even... in those perfect hours when the traffic signals show neither green or yellow, but a bright flashing red keeping time like a heartbeat.

That was my favorite time of day, because during those few hours before dawn was when I owned this town—or any town. Nothing bad had ever happened to me between the hours of three and six in the morning. I’d been out on the street hundreds of times in the those hours, in Washington and New York, wearing grungy clothes or wearing my best suit, and nothing had ever happened. The rest of the day was when the bad shit happened. I’d been mugged at eight in the evening, shot at at two in the afternoon, hit by a car at nine in the morning. But during those perfect hours nothing bad had ever crossed my path, no matter how drunk or reckless I was. If only I had the money I would stay inside, drinking heavily, heroically even, before hitting the streets at three in the morning. Stumbling down the sidewalks past the muggers, beggars and junkies, I’d struggle to hold my head up high. But even if I couldn’t, I’d still get away with it, and more.

After all, I had a dream—and drinking was going to an important part of it. Mary and Dan’s dream was to leave Washington and move up to New York where they’d work their way up to a swank apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. New York may have been part of my dream too—I wasn’t quite sure yet. All I knew was that most of my friends in DC were telling me, “You’re not going to get anything.” They’d say it scornfully, as if I didn’t deserve to win the lawsuit. As if the idea of me actually being discriminated against was absurd and that for me to pursue this was a threat to their own dreams.

If there’s one thing I’d learned over the years, it was that people didn’t like anyone fucking with their view of the world, and pretty soon I lost most of my old friends in DC. My drinking buddies now were just Mary and Dan—though later Carl would come to town, intent on just passing through. But when the girl he came here with hooked up with some guy in the Hell’s Angels everything changed.

With his version of the American Dream shattered by the prowess of a five foot two Hell’s Angel who called himself “The Drummer,” Carl lost the will to move. Soon Carl realized that, like me, he was stuck here in Washington. Stuck in this stupid little hick town that holds sway over the entire world.

From a novel in progress.

Monday, September 05, 2005

My Multicultural Drinking Life Pt. 2 (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

I came to the conclusion that my future in New York had been in Claudia Schiffer’s hands. Claudia—with her tiny, round eyes which always seemed to be staring at the ground on the day I spent with her—was my last chance in New York. If she’d given me a little bit of time I could have gotten myself started again, but my smell got in the way of commerce with her.

I walked all the way home from the Shandon Star, down to Avenue B and Third St. Before going up to my apartment I stopped at the Chinese carryout on the corner and got an order of sweet and sour pork. Opening the door to my building I saw my landlord.

“José Baby!” he yelled out. Jack always called me Baby. He was in his mid-sixties, and with his full head of dyed black hair looked like someone who, if he were living in a small town, would be running the local bowling alley. Somewhere in the back of his mind he must have remembered that it was hip to call people Baby. That, plus his inability to resist any opportunity to make a pun with my name put the words “José Baby” in the back of my mind for the four years I’d been living in the building.

“Hey, Jack,” I answered quietly. I was hoping he wouldn’t bring up the subject of my late rent check. All Jack did was point to the bag in my hand.

“Chinks?” he asked. Maybe he thought he was being hip by using the word “Chinks” with me.

“Ah, yeah,” I said.

Jack nodded, saying, “Yeah, it’s good stuff, yeah!”

The next day I told Jack I was leaving, that I’d just leave him my security deposit in lieu of the back rent I owed. It was all right with him.

“José Baby,” he said, “if you come back to town, come see what I’ve got available.” Jack was sad to see me go, as was the old Puerto Rican lady who lived next door to me.

“You don’t know who move in now,” Anna Garcia said. “Too many junkie people here.”

Being just a sullen drinker, I was civilized in Anna’s eyes. But the crackhead who lived down the hall and the people she’d sometimes see shooting up in the foyer were another matter. Of course, if I had the money, I would have stayed. And although the most I ever did for Anna was to help her carry her groceries up the three flights of stairs, I now felt obligated to help her out somehow.

“Someone nice will move in,” I reassured her. “Jack’s probably tired of those people who pay the rent in cash.”

Anna gave me a worried look. She didn’t understand what I meant.

“It’ll be all right,” was all I could say.

I packed my things into a U-Haul truck and drove down to Washington the next day. There I was, back in the house I grew up in, living with my parents and my younger brother, BB.

The traditional role of a good Filipino son was to live at home, helping out the family, until he got married—preferably to a nice Filipino girl. BB was following tradition, keeping a steady job at the Library of Congress as he helped my Mother and Father, who were both retired, with the bills. I strayed from that traditional role when I left the Library, left home and moved to New York. My older brother, Ray, had left home too and moved to Baltimore, but he’d gotten married. As for me, not only had I left home before getting married, but I was now back and had no money to speak of. Not that my parents weren’t glad to have me back in Washington, but somewhere in the back of their minds the term “fuck-up” must have seemed the most accurate way to describe me.

So I went out looking for work—not writing gigs, but straight jobs. I sent out resumés and those few times when I was actually called in for an interview I’d refrain from drinking the night before: I didn’t want the stench of bourbon to keep me from gaining entrance into the realm of the nine to five workday. But my one night stands of clean living didn’t help, because no matter how sharply I dressed, how charming I acted during interviews, I couldn’t get a job.

It would have been easier for me if I were white. Of course some people I knew from the time I worked on Capitol Hill were skeptical of this.

“It’s not because you’re Asian,” Joe Carone told me. Carone was my bartender friend at the Tune Inn two blocks down from the Library of Congress. “It’s because you’re a fuck-up.”

Carone was telling me this at a time when all the bartenders at the Tune Inn were alarmed that the grocery store next to the Tune Inn had been bought by a Korean family. Being just a fuck-up, I posed no threat. But a hard working Korean family, that was another matter.

“They’re taking over everything!” was Bob Dill’s response when he heard about the sale. Dill was another regular at the Tune. A mechanic, he was at the Tune everyday like me. And although I’d been drinking with him at the Tune for several years—sometimes at the barstool right next to his—we had never exchanged a single word.

Which was the way it was with some people—for them I just wasn’t there. And though before I’d gone to New York I kept quiet about these things whenever I drank on the Hill, I was no longer the mellow drunk I used to be.

“I don’t think you need to worry about the Koreans taking over your grease monkey gig,” I said to Bob Dill. “They wouldn’t want it.”

Bob Dill raised his chin and lowered his eyes at me. “Was I talking to you, asshole?” he yelled.

“Fuck you,” I snapped back. When I was drunk the sharp smartass comments didn’t always come that easily.

“You fucking gook!” he screamed as he shoved me off my bar stool.

I got back up and lunged at him.

Of course, everyone thought it was me who had started the fight—and I had—though it was Bob Dill who threw the first punch. Well, actually it was me who threw the first actual punch, but I wouldn’t have raised my fist had Bob Dill not shoved me off my bar stool. Yet that was my first victory that night: getting someone like Bob Dill to recognize my existence. My second victory was when I broke his nose and knocked him out. It was just a lucky punch; and despite the running commentary from a drunken Senate staffer—who noted with sadness, “And the karate chop takes him down for the count!”—all I was doing was wildly throwing straight-ahead punches.

Although I was the victor, I was no hero in the eyes of the crowd which had suddenly turned silent. “It wasn’t fair,” I heard someone say, “he knows karate.”

I stood there for a moment, remembering the dedication in Hartzell Spence’s biography of Ferdinand Marcos, For Every Tear A Victory:
WHO: had he been born white-skinned on the American
mainland rather than brown-skinned in the
U.S.Philippines, would today be counted one
of America’s greatest heroes.

As ludicrous as the dedication may have seemed at first, it was nevertheless true. Marcos would have been a hero. And he could have gotten away with everything – with robbing his people and killing his rivals. His reign over the seven thousand plus islands of the Philippines would have been described as a story worthy of Shakespeare with Marcos being remembered fondly as a tragic hero.

I stood there for a moment over the unconscious, bloody-nosed head of Bob Dill. I stood there looking like the bad guy from some stupid parody of West Side Story.

A few days after my first round TKO over Bob Dill I ran into Joe Carone on the street.

“They don’t want you coming in there anymore,” he said, shaking his head.

But I already knew.