You may have seen these stories they have now in newspapers: “Viagra Evacuates Town” or “Your Mother is Listening.” Although I’ve heard it called Personalized Journalism, the next logical step after gonzo, I suspect it has a more quotidian origin. Not that these brave writers don’t want to change the world with their lucid, purple prose (though I’d say it’s more lavender, the color my grandmother loved for decades without exception), I’m sure they do want to. No, it’s only that I have seen these Personalized Journalists in their native habitat, right outside the White House where they squat with their campfires, and as they set their type, it always seems as though the calls of the passersby and the noise of the Beltway are incorporated into their broadsheets, quite naturally. Yes, of course, in interviews, these journalists recite their dedication to their craft and one or two have even laid claim to dynastic rights, citing obscure transcriptions of medieval liturgies as their legal precedents. But they’ve never seemed to me to be especially political, or even logical, in that way. As I sit and listen to the noise of their presses and chant “I hate white rabbits, I hate white rabbits” to myself in order to ward away the smoke of their fires for a moment, I often feel I am witnessing a new kind of cooking show like you might see on reality television. But unlike the pompous ne’er-do-wells who populate the idiot box on its various channels, these men and women Personal Journalists seem completely relaxed and at home, like Zen Buddhists who do not fear the alien cameras thrust into their realm and who continue in their chants, in tune with the mystery of the universe, at one with something that is no longer American, no longer even strictly human, but still temporal, still part of this world and part of life as it could be if only we wanted it badly enough.
I was leaving graduate school and driving north. Thrilled to be free of the ivory tower and terrified of the fate that awaited me back home, I was piloting my little Honda Civic hatchback filled to the brim with boxes along the narrow highway and was continually astonished by the behavior of the trucks, the dozens of old and dusty pickups that I would pass, for each of them was impeccably polite, always slowing down and waving me past, moving to the edge of the road as they drove at a steady 50 mph. Unheard of in the city, but out here, in these long horizons, their behavior made profound sense. The ancient submission, if only for a moment, to the traveler on his way, as though my small shiny car delivered some obscure blessing to their land and they honored, not me, but the tradition into which I’d fallen, not just a temporary speck on their radar screen but a character in their ancient histories, come and come again.
I stopped at a small county park to eat a sandwich for lunch, enjoying the warm, dry air, so different from the humidity I’d left behind. When I was finished I got back in my car and stopped at an intersection that led back to the highway.
A truck drove past, another old pickup. In the back, eight or nine young men, all drunk and bare-chested, gripped the sides of the truck as it sped along, glaring out with horrifying violence at the endless fields that surrounded them.
“Ooo ooo ooo!” shouted one of them, pumping his fist quickly like Arsenio Hall, glaring at me and my small car. Part of me wanted to leave my small Honda behind, remove my shirt and climb into the back with them, to learn from them how to dominate this alien environment with beer and rage.
I was only a visitor, charmed by the isolation of this farm country, but for them, I could only imagine the unbearably constant boredom that made this simple, violent journey in the back of a pickup into an event, a cultic observance that bound them tight to this land, a land that listened to their angry voices and appreciated their frustrated, aimless youth in a way I never could.
Much later, back at home, I met a man who had grown up in Kansas who described to me a similar phenomenon. At the age of four he had received a tricycle as a gift, and happily took it out to the rural, deserted highway to test it out. Moments after mounting his bike and beginning to pedal, he had looked up, and was confronted for the first time with infinity: the endless horizon that stretched before him. Finding himself unable to keep pedaling, he took his tricycle off the highway into a neighboring field, safely surrounded by the towering wheat which safely shrank the horizon to a dozen yards instead of a dozen miles, and pedaled happily in a small circle. I wonder now, if he had stayed in Kansas, whether he too would have found himself drunk in the back of that pickup, and whether their impulse was ultimately the same as his: to deny infinity.
At the Cafe
“Have you seen what you’ve been doing to yourself?” she asked, putting down her cigarette and looking at me intently.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“This verbal masturbation, this diarrhea of the mouth, it’s making you into an idiot. I’m going to write to Congress.”
“Good idea,” I said.
“I have faith in the legislature. They’ll know what to do with you.”
“And what will they do with you?” I asked. “A charmless educator who sneaks cigarettes and shouts insults at random people on the street?”
“I have a vision,” she declared.
“I know what you mean,” I said. “If you open your backpack under this café table you’ll notice that I’ve placed within it a carefully annotated chart of your recent movements these past two weeks, all your comings and goings marked down in black and white. In red are those appointments of yours which transgress: your tryst with the bartender last Sunday behind the bank, the drug store where you stole a lipstick and two caramel candies and a bad romance novel, the intersection where you accused a seventy-five year old woman of being a Communist. On the back page of this chart you’ll find a toll-free 800 number, which I don’t mind telling you, rings my uncle when you dial it, and if my uncle answers I have instructed him to sign over his copyright for an Anti-Semitic novel he has written to you, so that it might be published in your name, provided you answer him three simple questions.”
“Charles Schumer. I’m going to write to Charles Schumer about you, I’ve decided. So what if you’ve been spying on me? You never see what I’m really up to.”
“Last week I snuck behind your yard and masturbated onto the handle of your garden hose, so I could be sure the next time you used it you would commingle yourself with my seed.”
“More than that, I’ve been writing your name and address on various forms for subscriptions to fetish magazines: Best Small Mammals, Leather in Your Golden Years, and Podiatry Today. Go ahead and call that 1-800 number.”
I lurched across the café table and kissed her messily, sucking on her tongue and getting slobber on her face. Then I grabbed my chart out of her backpack and turned to the last page. She dialed the number on her cell phone. Seconds later, my own phone rang and I leaned back in my chair, flipped open my phone and gazed into her eyes.
“Hello?” she said.
“Would you kill a man for me?” I asked.
“It depends on the weapon.”
“How do you feel about those twelve year olds you teach algebra to?”
“They’re like my own children. I want to burn them at the stake.”
“When will you let me pay for my own lunch?” I asked.
“Never,” she answered.
I flipped my phone shut. “That Anti-Semitic tract is going to be a big success,” I said.
The Meter Maid
I beat the meter maid in the middle of the street. She put up little defense. She just looked at me with sad eyes as I hit her in the face, over and over and over. I felt good, for the first time in weeks. I didn’t even own a car. With each blow, she let out a little “unnh” sound, as I battered her against her civil service Prius. I can’t lay claim to some complex moral calculus, like Raskolnikov. I just wanted to beat a meter maid.
I haven’t always been this way. Only a few months ago I was a model citizen. I paid my taxes, took out the garbage, I even brought my girlfriend flowers at the office where she works one time. I rarely drink, though when I do I insist on drinking Miller High Life from slim, fluted glasses. It is, after all, the Champagne of Beers.
It’s hard to describe how good it felt. I mean, it often feels good to transgress: the first time I cheated on my girlfriend, that time I stole a seat from the old lady on the bus, every time I steal my roommate’s potato chips, orange juice and milk. But this was something different. An event that was part of a different order of experience, something that made me feel so alive that I felt like shouting, and I did once, as I pummeled the helpless woman, let out a cry: “Oh God!” Yes, it was like being part of God, for the first time in my life I was part of that deep, rarely felt current that connects all beings on this Earth.
I know it was wrong, and that I deserve whatever’s coming to me, although strangely, I haven’t been visited by the police at all. I know, I did kneel down when she was no longer able to stand and whisper erotically in her ear: “I’ll kill you and your family if you say anything.” But I think part of her forgives me, as though she knows I was the emissary of my fellow citizens’ relentless hate of her and her thankless city job. We’ll never know for sure, I guess.
But it just goes to show you: despite everything, success is still possible in America. The economy is falling apart, the government is hopelessly corrupt, everything that this country stands for seems to have been sold out from under us, but we are still free. We few, noble savages, still standing in the ninth round, punch-drunk and with big, stupid grins on our faces, we possess the spirit of this land in our sinews, in our amphetamine-sped hearts. I am one of the new pioneers.
He called it lye and I called it love, perhaps it was the same thing. He’d drench me and I’d watch him watching me, uncomfortable with the feeling that I was burning myself, not with shame, but with his peremptory requirements for my entry into his world.
Perhaps he was a magic-user. In Dungeons and Dragons, the old pencil and paper version, magic-users were forbidden to wear metal armor, or even leather, having to lurk back at the edges of your party of adventurers wearing nothing but a thin cloak, with only the arcane knowledge of fireballs and lightning bolts to keep the bugbears and kobolds at bay.
I, having no cloak and no fireballs, felt the pain and knew it was the Ultimate Gateway out of the state of Texas, out of the horrifyingly polite northern panhandle with its huge vistas and angry ape-men who would patrol the fields, fists pumping.
If I had owned a gun, perhaps I would have shot him dead. Unarmed, I knew the chemical burns would mark me as a True Saint, one whose powers of experience could finally compel me to get on the Greyhound that Spring.
Photo by Thomas Hyde