Thursday, June 25, 2009

Daniel Boone

1971, Bald Eagle Lake, Minnesota

Our neighbor told me he knew Fess Parker, the man who played Daniel Boone on the popular TV series. One Sunday morning he told me Fess was coming over to play cards and that he would introduce me to my hero.
I told Mr. Parker I was building a fort in the woods across the road from the house. He looked at me over his poker hand and took a shot of whiskey, then told me to urinate all around the camp to keep the squirrels and muskrats from crapping in the fort. I thought he looked kind of funny without his coonskin cap and faithful Indian friend. I never followed his advice and I never found any little turds in the fort either.

Friday, June 12, 2009

California Dreamin’

Spring 1973, Los Angeles, California

I had cousins in California, well Uncle Jim Wheat and Aunt Cathy and their kids. They actually lived in Portland for many years before going to Orange County, where we stayed.
It was my eighth birthday too, and I got one of those cool transistor radios that looked like a Lichtenstein soft sculpture, a little oblong O shape, and the small end of the loop swiveled to reveal the radio dial and controls on one of the big circular ends, and a little speaker on the other. It looked like a cobra sitting there rocking out Right Place, Wrong Time no. 3 on the Billboard Charts Dr. John the Night Tripper.

We took the car everywhere and saw as much as we could. First stop was Sunset Strip to see all the crazy people there, the hookers and street hustlers, the homeless people lined up under the palm trees. Me and my sister pointed and laughed as we drove toward the big Hollywood Sign in the distance. We stopped at Universal Studios to go on a tour.

There were many things to do and see at Universal Studios. We rode on a little boat into a fake harbor and the mechanical shark from Jaws came up alongside, menacing us with his bloody moving teeth. Everyone screeched, and I was put off going into the ocean ever again.
We went through a trailer that had once been Lucille Ball’s dressing room. The usual paraphernalia, as if she had only just left to shoot a scene with Ricky on bongos, white face powder still hanging in the air. I grew up on her later TV show, so I thought she was really funny.

We went to a set for the cop show Adam 12. It wasn’t the actual set, but a simulation, and people sat around in a little pavilion to watch how something could be filmed for TV. There was a stage with a bar, a mock dining room, and the front half of a black and white police car off to stage right. People with headsets shuffled around or waited and we settled onto our wooden bench, the whole family ready to go Behind the Scenes.

The Adam 12 theme song started playing and a man in a Hawaiian shirt and a white golf hat came bounding out from stage right. He was whipping the microphone cord behind him as he leapt to the front of the stage with a big hello welcome to Universal Studios Adam 12 I am your host Billy Wilder and you Are BUSTEEEDDD!! The cop music dah dum de dummm….We laughed and looked at my dad. Then the guy in the Hawaiian shirt looked at my dad too, and called out to him. He needed people to be in the Show, and my dad was the first of six men and women who went down to the stage.

We were all sitting there wondering what the heck was going to happen. My dad was really funny, always made us laugh, and we were already giggling out of control just watching as the guys in headphones chatted with him for a bit, getting a profile, and then placing him directly on a barstool. He was going to be the drunk, perhaps blurry eyed witness to the crime.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was explaining what was going to happen in a few minutes but first told us to take a look at the story up to now. They put on two TV screens so we could watch the real actors too, playing part of a real episode of Adam 12. After a few minutes he’d come back and talk a bit more while the actors They even had the dramatic background music rumbling our seats. All the while the guys in headphones are prepping the seven actors, including my dad. They are expected to improvise the dialogue, but after huddling together, it seems they all have their roles straight. Two men are placed in police uniforms, another in rags like a bum, and then they sit poised and ready to shoot the scene, waiting for the set up from the man in the Hawaiian shirt. Neither the other actors nor the crowd in the pavilion know that there amongst them are two professional actors who work for Universal Studios.

The scene is set into motion. A man wipes down the bar, my father hangs his head. Beside him another man, looking nervous, checking his watch every two seconds. Suddenly another guy comes in and orders a whisky and beer back. The two men go to a little booth off to the side. In hushed whispers they discuss the big heroin drop that’s going down at Macarthey and Lymon at 10.30. Stoppard shouldn’t know about this one, its all taken care of, the rat is in the cage. The other one says okay but not like last time all right, I got my people to think about.
Meanwhile, the bartender shoots discreet glances toward the men and my dad remains motionless in his plaid pants drooping heavily on the bar stool.

A hand held camera shot from behind the bar, we were watching it on the two screens on either side of the pavilion. My dad’s face was in close up, and then the camera shot back as he fell off his barstool with a thud on the ground. The two hoodlums went to help him and he dizzily stood back up, the men gracefully scooping him off the floor by the armpits. They rested him back on the barstool, paid the bill, faced the pavilion and walked off camera.

Me and my sister were watching the screens and then looking down at the set. It was strange, our dad was like the star of the show. When he suddenly came to life and spoke to the bartender, we thought it was like some secret weapon he had hidden from us all these years.

We’d better call Adam 12, right away…dum dum dummmmm…..
Turned out the guys in headsets told my dad he was supposed to be an undercover cop, faking like he was drunk to overhear the conversation. The falling down part was improvised.

The rest of the show I didn’t pay much attention to until the end. My dad was still sitting off by the bar, now watching the rest of the actors, chatting with a pretty crew member in a headset. I figured she was offering him a future in Hollywood.
When the bust finally went down, they filmed the cutaway cop car with the two actors inside. It was like an amusement park ride, the car actually moved on springs, and the screen behind it was synchronized with the sudden jerking of the cops in high speed chase. When you watched the TV screens, it looked like a real car chase and then you knew how they did it.

The cutaway car came to a stop and Adam 12 got out and kneeled down, shielding themselves behind the police car doors, guns drawn. In the little kitchen, the two hoodlums held a mother and baby hostage, shooting out from behind calico curtains at the two cops. One of the hoodlums screams that he’s gonna make a run for it, grabbing the mother and baby and busting through the door. The cops tense up, but in a heroic moment, the 23 year old housewife from Great Falls, Michigan bites the hoodlum on the wrist, breaking free and scurrying back into the house. The hoodlum fires one round toward the cops, a long pinnnggg is heard through the speakers, then Adam 12 get off three quick rounds, contortions twisting the man to the ground, a red stain appearing near his heart. There was a murmur from the crowd, that something wasn’t quite real here.

As it turned out, one of the cops and the dead hoodlum were the real actors. They had to synchronize the shot perfectly, there was actually a radio transmitter in the gun which exploded a small cap in the other actors chest, releasing a mini bag of fake blood underneath his white shirt. After the final theme had finished and the moral of the tale had been told by the real cop actor, the man in the Hawaiian shirt came back to thank us all for our participation and a special thanks to Jim from Minneapolis for his fine performance. The audience gave a smattering of applause before getting up to scatter on to other park attractions.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Living with Germs

Spring and Summer 1998, Portland, Oregon

After Arthur and I returned from our first trip to Cuba, he told me I could stay at his house for free while we made preparations for the next trip. I could help him out around the house as well as take care of all the things he wanted to do to bring his wife Sady to the USA, such as talking to lawyers and setting up a temporary bank account in Canada.
Being completely broke, unemployed and unemployable, I of course agreed, quickly making myself at home upstairs in the loft.

Bruce lived in the little shack out in the driveway where Arthur and his ex wife once ran Cripple Power Press. When Bruce wasn’t there, I noticed the huge padlock he put on the door. I wondered what he could be hiding or protecting, considering he never seemed to have any money and he always wore the same clothes. For years the little shack printed all of Arthur’s books of poetry and stories, selling them at Saturday Market and other places. One book was made into an award winning animated short, Arnold and His Bright Idea, a basically autobiographical tale of how Arthur used to go around in his first homemade wheelchair, selling light bulbs from house to house. He used the film to give talks in schools to show kids not to fear people with Cerebral Palsy.
In any case, Bruce was an old friend of Arthur’s from the Trojan Nuclear Plant protests and closure, so there was some deep loyalty between them, like they’d seen a lot and struggled side by side, old soldiers put out to pasture. Bruce was also friends with a young woman named Jessica and her five year old daughter Maya who used to live in the loft where I was living now. We had been hanging out a bit, and kissed in a sloppy drunks embrace one time when she and Maya stayed the night. Jessica spoke well of Bruce so I wanted to give the old diehard the benefit of the doubt, despite his quirky ways. I remember she told me to cook my eggs on low, for like twenty minutes very slowly or the protein all gets cooked away, or at least that’s what Bruce told her.

When I first saw him in the living room watching TV, he put a Kleenex over the remote control, I figured just because it was kind of old and grimy. The first time I said hello when I got home, he ignored me and laughed at the TV, and did the same every time I came home. I didn’t stop saying hello, but eventually it grew from a game of courtesy and became a very vindictive hello, over the top hey Bruce my man how ya doin Had a good day Glad to hear it, that kind of thing, just mocking him under my flaming whisky breath. Things degenerated quickly and sometimes I got in his face so he would at least know I was there, but he always avoided my eyes and moved on the sofa so he could see the TV behind me.
One night Arthur and I came home after the bars closed and decided to make some dinner. I put the cast iron skillet on high to fry some eggs, but when I came out of the kitchen I saw Arthur had puked all over himself. I helped him out of his clothes and cleaned him up and he went to bed. Both of us forgot the skillet and the next morning Bruce met me in the kitchen screaming that I could have burned down the whole house. He looked and sounded like an old wolf, his long grey hair and beard framing deep empty gray eyes. He was probably right, and I apologized profusely, trying to calm him down. Arthur said just don’t let it happen again.
The hellos and mocking hellos stopped after that. I thought it best to leave the guy alone and try not to have any dealings with him. A few weeks passed and we didn’t see much of Bruce, I thought maybe he had left for good. Arthur said sometimes he went out to the woods alone, you never knew how long. Guess he had some friends out there too. He appeared one day to do his laundry, and waited while watching TV, as if he had never been gone. I didn’t know if he was there for good or not.
I had also planned to do some laundry. When Bruce’s last load had finished drying, I took it out and put it in a basket, put my wet clothes in the drier and cranked it up. I went back upstairs and figured he’d see his clothes and that would be that. Next thing I know he is screaming at the bottom of the stairs if you ever touch my clothes again I will kill you, you hear me, kill you you motherfucker….really screaming, like no need to put exclamation points, you get the idea this was a complete head case.
I grabbed my old Stella acoustic guitar to defend myself and ran downstairs ready to bash his head in. He was blocking the doorway so I menaced him with the big end of the guitar and shoved my way through the dining room and kitchen to the dryer. He had taken my wet clothes and thrown them on the floor, right into the big dog dishes, kibbles and bits stuck to my clean tee shirts. He was still screaming at me so I shoved him back into the kitchen hard enough so he knew what I was capable of, then turned my back on him to clean my clothes and put them back in the washer. When I turned around, he was standing in front of the sink, panting and rubbing his hands together. I swear I saw foam in the corners of his mouth.
I didn’t see Bruce again until a month later. He didn’t come around when I was there at least, but Arthur met with him a few times before we left for Cuba and they made a deal that Bruce would build a new accessible bathroom while we were away. When we got home after the six week trip, there was a hole where the bathroom used to be and no sign of Bruce. A few days later there was a note in the mailbox telling Arthur he needed another $5,000 to finish the job, that he had underbid and needed to get more materials. Funny, I didn’t see any materials at all in that big hole where the bathroom used to be. Before we could even look at whether or not it indeed was a $10,000 job, something I highly doubted, Bruce hunted Arthur down on his usual rounds in the Park Blocks, harassing him and chasing the electric wheelchair down the street screaming for his money. All Arthur could do was dart his chair into some bar and wait it out.

I tried to find out from Arthur what was wrong with this guy. I asked him why, if he had known Bruce so long, why he didn’t see all this bad craziness coming. Arthur raised his head up from off his chest and, with a twinkle in his eye, raised his index finger ready to speak. I waited for the words to form, looking into his toothless mouth hoping for some clue to Bruce’s past, an Achilles heel that we could use to bring him down. In a short burst of spit and drool, he said I got the key to the shack.

Bruce hadn’t been around for a couple weeks and we didn’t expect him back anytime soon, so Arthur gave me the key and I went in. There wasn’t much in the little shack besides a folded up cot, a couple boxes of winter clothes, and then in the corner I saw a Moroccan style leather briefcase, one of those you might see in a film noir spy movie. I took it inside for better light and we started looking through it.
There were numerous press clippings, including the same one I saw everyday framed in the dining room, a photo of Arthur from the New York Times lying on the ground in front of the riot police, Trojan Nuclear plant steaming in the background. A man was kneeling down beside him and his chair. I looked at the eyes a little closer and sure enough they were the same deep empty eyes of Bruce with no beard and short hair. Arthur nodded when he realized I had made the connection between the photos.
Other clippings showed other protests over the years, and upon closer look, the same wolf eyes could be found in each and every photo. Bruce had been around, from the first year at Ground Zero Nevada Test Site all the way to the 1999 Seattle WTO shutdown. In many of the photos, I thought, he was looking toward, if not directly at, the camera, as if he knew from which direction his picture was being taken.

Then we came across another sealed with a string plastic envelope, untying it and dumping it on the table. We sifted through, seeing those same empty eyes under a cadet’s cap, high collar pushing up clean shaven neck and erect head; a far off shot of a military graduation ceremony; a Stars and Stripes clipping of Bruce and a few other tired looking soldiers flanking some roped together villagers in conical bamboo hats; three family photos, a pretty wife and three year old daughter standing next to a new model Ford Galaxie 500, Bruce in sargent’s uniform, all the houses look the same; a picture of some men in camouflage fatigues looking intently at a map; pictures of another young girl, from somewhere in Latin America; a newspaper article called Banker’s Son Opts for Vietnam; documents with a US government seal stamped on the front and lines blotted out; an article in Spanish from 1981 called Habla la hija del Teniente; a 1982 press clipping from Stars and Stripes entitled Light Aircraft Goes Down over Hudson with Decorated Veteran; a US passport and death certificate with the same name.

Arthur got hold of Bruce somehow and said I can meet you with the money at such and such time in the Park Blocks on such and such corner. Arthur and I rode the bus downtown together and he went to the University Grill to wait for me. I went up the Park Blocks and saw the gray haired wolf up ahead sitting on a bench waiting for Arthur, his empty eyes fixed on a twirling falling leaf. I came round front of him and bowed into the camera so to speak with a wave of my hand. What a coincidence he thought at first I’m sure, but when I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and handed it to him, he knew he’d been set up. I got something for you was all I said handing it to him, sauntering off, listening to the sound of paper ripping behind me.
It was just a hunch, but we composed a simple note with Bruce’s real name at the top and Arthur’s illegible scrawled signature at the bottom. We never did see Bruce again.
Esteemed Christopher Wilkins III,
If you ever come within fifty yards of me or my property again, I will alert the Federal authorities as to your whereabouts and have you arrested.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Pyramid is Opening

Christmas 1975, Blaine, Minnesota

I had a few older cousins who were pretty hardcore city kids. The two I saw most often were Carrie and Chad, who lived with my Aunt Beverley Gstohl in Grandma and Grandpa Anderson’s house. We normally spent Christmas Eve at their place and then went to one of the Anderson clan households for Xmas Day, rotating each year. We all lived within an hour of each other, so it wasn’t like we never saw each other, they always came to visit us at the lake.

After opening presents, we separated from the adults and went down to the basement. Down there was Grandpa’s rumpus room, complete with full bar and card table, the smell of tobacco juice coming from the empty Ten High Whisky bottles he used as a spittoon. We went through the laundry room to Carrie’s little room.
A big poster of Ozzy Osbourne adorned her wall, and she had written I Love Ozzy in big black marker letters across his pants. The lyrics of Mother’s Little Helper in calligraphy on onion paper hung from a hook, and the big three foot red bong eeked out the smoke of a recent toke. In the corner, a life sized cardboard cut out of Bootsy Collins. She slipped a record on the turntable.

Parliament Mothership Connection. It was like some psychedelic black power comic book from the first opening radio monologue to the last chariot ride home. Our second generation Norwegian grandparents were singing Sue City Sioux around Grandpa’s organ while we were entering the pyramid, the wisdom of ancient Egypt coming down on the ONE.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Holy Modal Crabs

One rainy night the great musician Billy Kennedy told me the story of his early Portland days with Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel of The Holy Modal Rounders.
Lets trace the lineage: Greenwich Village 1961, Robert Christgau called Weber and Stampfel the only geniuses of folk music. Not even Bob Dylan was in this realm yet. They found Portland early on and became fixtures.
Weber called himself a hedonist, Billy said, and all he wanted to do was take drugs, play music and have sex with anyone who was willing. Still, one of the greatest guitar players next to Baby Gramps on the planet, and Stampfel one hell of a great songwriter too.
Kennedy was living in a place in NW Portland, and everyone got crabs. They picked off the little critters and put them in a little jar on the kitchen table. The collection was growing, little critters covering a half inch of a small vial, right next to the peaches and homemade bread.
Weber didn’t live in this place, but he came around a lot, even crashing on the couch. He didn’t really live anywhere, but he never slept on the streets. He got the crazy genius treatment.
Billy said Weber walked into the apartment late one night with no one around and saw that vial with the little black specks. He immediately dumped out the crabs and chopped them into a few lines, snorting them through a dollar bill. When Billy came in a little while later, he said he saw Weber sitting spread eagled with his arms across the back of the sofa. He was staring at the ceiling like there was something ready to jump down on him. Billy went to the sofa and Weber motioned with his bony finger to the kitchen table. Billy saw the empty vial lying on its side and the remnants of the little black specks next to an unfurled dollar bill.
Billy went to the table and picked up the vial.
‘ You just snorted three months worth of crabs Weber, you stupid fucking idiot! ‘ Billy laughed.
‘ Well keep going boys, that’s the best shit I’ve ever done.’