Chaos Junkie

Burn Baby, Burn!

When that thing went off in my hand, brother, I saw a white light.  That was all I saw.  For a few seconds I freaked.  Is this what death is?  A blank white screen for all eternity?  Then I heard Tom screaming, saw smoke and blood, and felt better.  I wasn’t going to have to face a blank screen, yet.  There was more colorful chaos to witness.

I could only make out what was happening in intermittent glimpses.  My perception seemed to be strobing.   I was blinking back and forth between some vast eternal void and the aftermath of the explosion.  White light to smoke and gore, white light to smoke and gore, and so on.  There was a low-pitched hum in my head, like I had been hit over the skull with a tuning fork the size of a garden rake.  That was a peppy little fuse alright, a real go-getter.  It burned down to the stick, quick as a lick.  Ka-pow!

It was 1979.  Tom and I were teenage delinquents.  We were hanging out at my Dad’s house.  He was away on a business trip so we decided to drink all his scotch.  It was Sunday night and we were bored.  I remembered I had a box of what were essentially quarter sticks of dynamite that I had smuggled from Mexico as a little kid.  Let me tell you, you’ve never sweated a border crossing like an eleven-year-old sitting on a box of junior dynamite in the back of his parent’s car.  To me it was worth it.  These “firecrackers” were so much more dangerous than anything the other kids had, they would elevate my status as a mayhem-maker to royalty.  Even big kids would know I meant business.  They were to serve as a sure-fire cure for boredom for many years.

They certainly cured our boredom that night.  We were inside my Dad’s bedroom, and I was flicking the lighter in one hand, while drunkenly holding the Tijuana TNT in the other.  The lighter was out of gas, so it was totally cool to be doing this.  What wasn’t cool was that a spark from a dead lighter could still ignite a fuse.  My Dad’s roommate, a Vietnam vet, sleeping in the next room, didn’t think that was cool either.  The blast opened up my hand into a hamburger pita.  The lighter turned into shrapnel, and peppered my neck and face.  Blood and bits covered my Dad’s walls and water-bed.  Tom had been blasted instantly sober, the roommate pissed himself, and I wound up in the emergency room.

There is nothing more dangerous than a bored drunk.

It was never enough to just get drunk.  I liked to keep things exciting, and it seemed like destroying things, in whatever manner, a great way to do it.  Admittedly, there were at times… consequences, but if you live in fear of those, you have no business drinking yourself insane.  Shoot things, set them on fire, blow them up, throw them out the window, take an ax to them, run them over with your Mom’s LTD, but for God’s sake, make something pay for the fact that you can’t sit and enjoy a quiet moment.

When I was nine years old, my parents turned me into the Camarillo Fire Department for being a pyro.  They caught me recreating a viking sea burial with my G.I. Joe and a burning raft of popsicle sticks in the toilet.  Joe was on his way to Valhalla when they forced the bathroom door open.  A more enlightened set of parents would have recognized my love of history, appreciation of ritual and custom, and would’ve encouraged me to become a cultural anthropologist.  Instead, they ratted me out as a fire bug.

A fireman sat me down and told me gruesome stories of all the people he saw burned to death as a result of little boys playing with matches.  He took my name down and said that if there was any fire in a five-mile radius of my apartment complex he would come looking for me.  He then gave me a tour of the fire truck and turned me over to my parents.  That really sucked.  I was sufficiently penitent.  I decided to take up shoplifting as a hobby until the heat from this rap cooled.

I liked to create chaos around me to equalize the pressure of the chaos inside me.  Whatever was happening didn’t seem like enough.  Maybe it was from watching westerns as an impressionable child, but no drunken party seemed complete until firearms were discharged into the ceiling.  I remember kissing a girl goodnight after a particularly noisy celebration, the sounds of nearing sirens wailing in the night air, the other partygoers scattering in panic around us.  It was a dramatically romantic way to end the evening.  “Be careful,” she said.  “Put money on my canteen,” I told her as I closed the door.  I thought about her while I hid under my mattress.

Thank God I had my buddy Marko to serve as the voice of reason in my life.  (My friends who know Marko got that last joke)  We were a bad combination.  Together we became a machine that produced, and then acted on, very bad ideas.  Besides having a dangerously extensive knowledge of chemistry, Marko liked guns.  Me too.  What’s not to like about guns?  Especially in the hands of crazy people.

For awhile we lived in his mobile home out in the sticks of Santa Fe.  We drank a lot, and often got bored.  You can imagine the results.  Since we took such a casual approach to firearm safety, we didn’t get too many repeat visitors to the old homestead, especially girls.  Poor us, all lonely, drunk, and armed to the teeth.

On New Year’s Eve, 2000, when our society was about to plunge into Mad Max apocalyptic anarchy because the date on people’s computers couldn’t go that high, Marko and I were excited.  Finally, a society more suited to our talents and abilities.  We saw an opportunity for fast-track advancement.  Once the system collapsed, all rule of law would dissolve in the individual’s desperation to survive.  We had been practicing for this moment all our lives.

For months we had been stockpiling guns and ammo, along with canned tuna and baked beans.  We had a medical kit with bandages and medication for pain. We also had five gallons of medical-grade grain alcohol to tide us over until we could liberate more.  Since we had no goods to barter, we decided to become raiders.  We would run around with guns, taking other people’s stuff, especially their beer.  That was our greatest concern with the breakdown of civilization as we knew it, not being able to get beer.  Since this was already our greatest concern, weren’t too worried about adjusting to a world gone savage.  In the meantime, our ids would have some room to stretch out.

When the ball dropped at midnight, Marko was already passed out on the couch.  I was sitting in a recliner.  I picked up my shotgun, and still sitting, pointed it out the open door and pulled the trigger.  I blew a hole through the screen door I thought was also open.  Marko didn’t even flinch.  “Happy New Year, fucker,” I said, cocking another round. “To a brave new world!”  I yelled, and shot through the previous hole.  This time he rolled over and said something that sounded like “Monkey time,” and was out again.

Y2K turned out to be a big disappointment.  The date on everyone’s computers just went to 2000.  Banks stayed open, police showed up for work, utility bills arrived right on time.  Our hopes for establishing our very own empire based on extortion and white-slavery were dashed.  With the money spent on ammo we could have put ourselves through massage school or learned to sell real estate, but that clearly wasn’t meant to be.  We ate the tuna and beans, drank the grain alcohol, and eventually used up all the supplies in our first aid kit.  The only apocalypse we’d get to participate in was the one of our own creation.  Monkey time?

We felt cheated.  The hippies got to have their Summer of Love.  They had Woodstock before Altamont.  Marko and I never got our Altamont.  We were never going to have our environment adapt to us.  It was the first time I lost all hope.  My earlier adventures in Central America had also taken a lot of steam out my engine by then, and I was getting pretty tired of the noise.  Maybe a little peace and quiet wouldn’t be so bad.

That summer I made my first stab at getting sober.  I went to a rehab, and stopped drinking for a couple of years.  Things quieted down for a bit.  The problem was that I never really fixed what was bothering me.  I never made peace with the quiet.  I figured it was enough to just stay dry, but I was getting restless, and I never did get rid of the guns.  I was flicking the dead lighter in one hand, with dynamite in the other, convinced a spark couldn’t start anything.

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A Pawn in the Pawn Shop of Life

I called my friend, Dave.  “I have a new job, and I get to carry a gun,” I told him.  “Are you working as an armed robber?”  “Sort of. I’m working as a clerk at a pawn shop.”  I could hear him hiss out his bong hit.  “Sounds like a new low.”  I told him that new doesn’t always mean worse. “I get to carry a gun.”

A guy named Blackie offered me the job.  Strange creature that one.  He was bug-eyed, with lots of nervous habits that could drive you crazy if you paid attention to them.  He was a toe-tapping, key-jingling, hair-flattening, shoulder-shrugging, eyes-darting-around mess.  He looked like he just snatched a purse and was now blowing the line-up because he was too coked-up.

I met him at the bar I worked at.  He would show up every Wednesday night, when we featured Pearl beer for a dollar.  It was a total gyp.  Pearl was the worst.  Imagine beer-piss distilled in a dusty church organ, then filtered through hospital laundry.  It had an acrid bouquet of nervous sweat, and a strong lead solder finish.  Even I didn’t drink Pearl. Blackie was on his fifth one when he told me about the position at the pawn shop he worked at.

“Do you know how to use a calculator?” he asked me.  “I think so,” I told him.  “Come by tomorrow and fill out an application.”

I put another check mark on my seedy jobs list.

Being a pawnbroker was okay.  It beat laboring hands down.  I was indoors, and except for lugging TV’s back and forth, didn’t have to exert myself too much.  I also got to wear a gun.  That was the best part.  Give anybody with low self-esteem a gun and watch their self-importance balloon.  I began to understand why cops were the way they were.

Having a gun strapped on just murders your customer service skills.  I’d get to work, still flammable from the night before, put on a holstered .357, and just wait for the first customer to give me shit.

“We don’t take TV’s without the remote,” I’d tell someone. “Why the hell not?” they’d ask.  My hand would lower to my hip.  “Because God told us not to, Shit-pants. You want to go ask him…personally?”  They’d see the gun, call me a faggot, then drag the set back to the car.  Since I wasn’t sold on peaceful acceptance back then, I opted for the next best thing, resigned submission, from the other guy.

When I lived in New York,  I worked for Nat Sherman’s, a fancy tobacconist on 5th Avenue.  I had to bow and scrape, ass-kiss and bootlick the snooty clientele.  I ate their snide comments with a forced smile, and had to strain out some sincerity while doing it.  Wearing a gun was definitely better.  Right away it established who the shot-caller was, and kept the lippy backtalk to a minimum.

Being snotty to the help is the dubious luxury of those who can at least pay their utility bills.  Not so for those not whose luck has been strung so thin it can slice government cheese.  The pawnbroker can be the last hand to reach for before you bounce through the hole in the social safety net.  We were happy to help (at 15% interest and $7.50 minimun charge per transaction) but still some people came in acting like they were the ones doing us a favor.  They saw it as an honor for us to hold on to their holy relics until they broke the bank at some Indian casino.

I remember this one freak who used to come it to pawn his swords and knives.  He had bought them through a catalogue featuring the fantasy bladeware so popular with the socially impotent.  He’d be clad in psuedo-swashbuckler attire, with the ponytail, the puffy shirt, crystal necklace, seventeen earrings, leather pants and fringed buckskin boots.  I named him “Gaylord, the Fantastic.”  The routine always went something like this:

“This is a ‘Knight’s of Zardoz’ special edition, 440 tempered steel, onyx-inlaid, Royal Battle Sword,” he’d inform me.

“The owner says the most I can go on any blade like this is seven bucks,” I’d inform him.

Outraged, Gaylord would go on about how collectable Carl Buckler Signature Blades were, the limited number produced, and the fantasy folklore behind the design.

“Look dude, I don’t care if you pulled it out of a magic dragon’s ass, the most I can go is seven.”

“But I paid 149 dollars for this sword!”

“And you will get seven dollars for it if you choose to pawn it, and ten bucks if you sell it straight out.”

He’d sputter something about the box office records of “Zardoz; The Harkening,” the world-wide following of “The Zardoz Trilogy,” the sheer, cherished collectability of all things Zardoz!

” Why don’t you take it to Zardoz and see if he’ll give you more for it?  Because we have better things to kill evil trolls with around here,” I’d say, tapping on my holster, “than some glorified letter opener for emotionally-stunted geeks.  Now, do you want to pawn or sell?”

“I’d like to pawn it.”

I would hand him a clipboard with a form to fill out.  A magical sword may be a valuable treasure in role-playing games, but it’s worth about a burrito lunch and a beer in the real world.  He never seemed to get that.

People coming in with fake jewelry was always fun.  They were either trying to hoodwink us or had been hoodwinked themselves, but either way there was a lot of ‘splaining to do when the diamond tester didn’t beep or the gold bubbled acid on the scratch test.  Blackie would fuck with people he knew were trying to run him.  He’d test it, see that it was fake, then ask “Would you take $500 for it?”  Their eyes would widen, and trying to contain their excitement say, ” I guess I would.”  He’d hold the piece up to a jeweler’s loop and go, “I bet you would, but I’m seeing it’s a little flawed.  Does $4oo sound okay?”  They’d agree it sounded okay, and then he’d put it on the counter.  “I’m sure it sounds okay, because this is fake shit.  You’re not getting anything for it.”  Whah-whuh-whuh-whaaaaaaah!

Generally, we were kind to the downtrodden, all of us having been trod in that general direction ourselves.  If somebody really beat came in, and set out a bunch of shitty cassettes, a souvenir Las Vegas (New Mexico) ashtray, a broken clock radio, and some plastic coat hangers (stuff they obviously found in a dumpster) we’d reach into our coffee money jar and give them a few bucks.  We figured that crap should be worth at least a 40 ounce malt liquor and a hot dog in the real world.

You’d see some sad things.  One couple would come in on payday every Friday night.  They’d pay back the loan on her wedding ring.  We’d polish it up for them.  He would slip it on her finger, they’d kiss, and we’d all cheer.  Monday morning, he’d be back to pawn it again.  They did this every week.  She only got to wear her wedding ring on week-ends.  Cue the Country Western music…

Some criminal masterminds would try unloading the swag they stole.  Since they needed identification to pawn or sell it, they would soon be caught.  Most of them violated their parole and went back to prison.   One guy got sent back to the penitentiary for pawning a stolen kid’s bike.  I wouldn’t be bragging about that shit when I went back in. It hardly reveals the enterprising Scarface you thought you were when you took it.

What was the most interesting thing I ever saw being brought in to pawn?  Nothing.  There was never anything interesting.  It was all dull, stupid shit.  TV’s, electronics, jewelry and guns were what we were looking for.  Stuff that moved fast in pawn shop resale, and that’s pretty much what we got.  It was numbing in its banality.  To this day if I see an electric drill or a turquoise ring, I barf a little in my mouth.  Nobody ever came in with a Crimean War Pepper-Box derringer, or the cameo brooch Mary Todd Lincoln wore to the theater that fateful night, or antique bottles of narcotic, children’s cough syrups.  That might happen on the cable shows, but not at our little aquarium of bottom-feeders.

Looking back now I wish I wasn’t such a dick.  People never warn you to be nice to people on your way down.  The fact that I could pay my utility bills and got to carry a gun, went to my head.  It wasn’t too long before I couldn’t do either, and I was the one trying to pawn a German Army helmet.  Hey, now that I think of it, that was the most interesting thing I ever saw being brought in to pawn- a German Army helmet.  I got two dollars for it.  They burned my ass and I took it.  I needed it to drink.  I just remembered that I even did a little song and dance to sell it, like Gaylord used to do.

I hate when that happens, when I realize I’m just like the people I make fun of.  I guess it comes with the territory, with being sober.  Oh well, at least the lights are on, the water’s running, and I don’t have to carry a gun.

Don't forget to steal the remote!