The jack hammer broke through the floor and almost pulled me into the basement with it. I had been wrestling with its 90 lbs. of kinetic rage for years by then, but never learned to love it. I named this particular pneumatic beast “Sciatica Rex.” I yanked it back up, and pulled the trigger. My brain rattled against the inside of my skull like a lychee nut in a paint can mixer. I could feel my Mexican dental work shaking loose. The two cigarette butts I had stuck in my ears hardly dampened the din. It was 1:30am. I was in an Italian restaurant at the San Busco shopping center. My coke-headed boss had decided that this was the best time for me to be working on this. That way the noise wouldn’t bother anyone, but me.
I didn’t care. He was gone and I had a six-pack of beer to keep me company. I knew that I would be up late drinking anyway, but now I had an excuse to sleep in a little longer. Besides, I was in a good mood. That night I was convinced that my writing would finally save me from the stupid, brutal life I was living.
I based this knowledge on the flimsiest of evidence. A few hours earlier I had read some of my work at The Center for Contemporary Arts. It was an open reading hosted by local poet, Joan Logghe. My little bit seemed to go over well. I got some laughs, and the applause was a notch or two above polite. That was it. That was the skinny little brad nail I had hung the entire weight of my world on.
There was only one way to propel myself through the malarial swamps of depression I was wading through, and that was to fart myself forward with clouds of self-delusion. My hope seemed to come in crumb form. When I did find a crumb, I tied on a big linen bib, lit a dinner candle, and sharpened the cutlery, before gnawing on it like the desperately hungry rat that I was. So now I gnawed.
I thought about a woman who read some of her work that night. Her poems were melodramatic and strange. She did one about smashing sea shells with rocks while naming every broken relationship she’d had. She seemed a little unbalanced, and volatile. Not immediately attractive, she compensated for her fading beauty with accessories and heavy eye make-up. That was fine. We all do the best we can. Outfit-wise, she was doing the gypsy thing, and it worked for her. Her hair was a little much. She wore it frizzed up into a weird shape, sort of like an Ace of Spades. She looked like Bride of Frankenstein meets Gloria Swanson meets Troll doll.
After the reading, she came up to me in the parking lot. Her craziness seemed to electrify her with enthusiasm. She told me she thought I was “a genius.” This woman was clearly insane, but somehow she was beginning to look more attractive. I pictured myself reading her my work while she sat topless on a milk crate, opening a bottle of wine. I figured I could make it work. I thanked her and told her I would see her around.
The jack hammer dropped through the hole again, but his time I was ready for it. I pulled it back up in a swinging loop, and had it on the lip again in one move. Very professional. I seemed to do better when I felt better. A smattering of applause and a compliment from a madwoman were enough to keep me going.
I had been writing off and on since I was a kid. It was good to know my imagination was good for something other than torturing me with vivid fears. However, I did notice that writing about stuff that really happened was more interesting than the stuff I could make up. In my case, reporting the facts trumped creative fiction. I just needed to make sure interesting stuff kept happening around me. That was the part that was getting me into a lot of trouble.
The evening’s line-up was a mixed bag. There was some good work, and some of the other kind, too. Poetry is like milk, you either like it or you don’t, but when it goes south, it really stinks.
There was a guy that read just before me. He wore a big cable-knit sweater and meticulously tousled hair. I wanted to throw him a bar of Irish Spring to carve into while he flashed his dazzling smile to the lassies. He read poems about love, or some version of it. The women seemed to eat it up, but I saw through his vile little harvesting operation.
“My tongue dances slow lazy eights on your heaving porcelain pelvis,” he intoned.
I turned to my friend, Samantha, “And my finger crawls slowly towards the back of my heaving tongue.” She reached into her purse and handed me another beer.
“Tender tear drop licked, aching wound, gently salted sadness, shuddering against the sheets…”
I nudged Samantha. “I knew he was an abductor. It’s the “sensitive” ones that you have to get restraining orders on.”
“Our writhing ecstasy twists in a torrid torrential torment, a brief eternal spasm, black velvet of oblivion descends…”
I knew plenty about the black velvet of oblivion, (and for my money it couldn’t come quick enough) but I would have never thought about putting “brief” and “eternal” together. That was a limitation I put on myself. As insane as I was, I still felt compelled to make sense when I communicated. It seemed like in order to be a good poet I had to put that compulsion aside. I needed to loosen the fuck up. I was still a square.
The hole in the floor was big enough. I lowered the work light, the beers, and the hammer, then climbed down into the basement. I was surrounded by spider webs. I had to blow a hole out of the side of the wall down there. That meant holding the jack hammer sideways. I swung the hammer up and started blasting. As the dust blew into my eyes, nose and throat, I pictured myself on a Communist poster glorifying the working stiff. I was building a brighter tomorrow.
That night I had decided to read a piece I wrote about Wayne, a guy I had met in the labor van taking us to work. He fascinated me. Wayne was a blob of southern lard, but as eloquent as John C. Calhoun. He was a living paradox. He would sit there in his grimy wife-beater, sunburned belly peeking through the holes, and give symposiums in the van on subjects like convenience store chocolate milks. He did this in a deep, sonorous, Southern defence attorney voice.
“This here Surefine brand of chocolate milk is an excellent chocolate milk,” he announced one morning, “It has an exceptional creaminess, and I appreciate that.” He held the plastic bottle up for examination. “The quality of creaminess is the characteristic by which I judge the various chocolate milks. Now Hershey’s chocolate milk is, in my opinion, the creamiest brand, whereas I find Nestle’s Quik to be watery and sub par. Chocolate milk should always be smooth and creamy. ”
I watched him take a deep slug. He was really making me want some creamy chocolate milk.
“I look forward to the month of October in my native Florida,” he continued, ” Because October there is Hershey’s Chocolate Milk Month. For the entire month, all the convenience stores in Florida sell quarts of Hershey’s brand of chocolate milk for a mere 99 cents!”
“Knowing Florida,” I said, “I bet that price holiday was state-legislated.”
“I’m not certain if that’s the case, but I do have to confess to consuming a lot of chocolate milk during the month of October in Florida.”
“I fucking bet.”
Another morning on our way to work, he offered me some gum. “Would you care for a piece of Hubba-Bubba?” he asked. I declined the Hubba-Bubba from Bubba. “Suit yourself,” he said, popped a piece into his mouth and started chewing. “Now this Hubba-Bubba brand bubble gum has a distinctly fruity flavor,” he said smacking his lips, “And I appreciate that.” He then leaned towards me, and in an almost conspiratorial manner said, “You know, I have found that it really helps to have a fruity flavor in your mouth when you’re operating a jack hammer.” He paused, and then delivered, with the dramatic poignancy reserved for the final words of a stage play, “It really does…it really does.”
He wistfully looks out the van window. Lights fade. Curtain falls. I felt like I should stand up and applaud, but I just looked at him. Who could make this shit up?
Anyway, just because I found Wayne so interesting, didn’t mean an audience would. I was relieved to find they did. They got Wayne. It made me feel good for Wayne. It made me feel good for me. I had lots of stupid stuff like that to write about. Maybe that was my purpose. Maybe that was my way out.
I poked through the wall. Victory! I set down the hammer. All I had to do now was widen around it, and that would be easy. I opened my last beer and toasted myself. “To breaking through!” I crouched down and could see street lights through the hole.
Looking back now, I can see I didn’t break through to anything, except maybe another holding cell. There were more gigs, even some paying ones. There was also a weekly column in The Reporter for a few years. Things seemed to go along okay and then they didn’t. Between all the drinking and having to constantly bullfight my problems, I couldn’t sustain the writing. The research alone was killing me. If it was hard to write while drinking, it was even harder to write sober. I can’t tell you how many hours I evaporated staring at a blank screen. I couldn’t write for almost eight years.
So let me tell you, this feels good, this clacking away, tossing empty cans of Hansen’s Diet Tangerine Lime soda over my shoulder while ripping out the words. It feels like a real breakthrough, and not because it’s going to save me from my brutal, stupid life. I’ve dialed down the brutal and stupid, so now I don’t need to be saved from it. That’s a relief, especially to everyone who’s had to row my lifeboat for me in the past. No, it feels good because I can finally deliver a message, my message to the world. What is that message? That it really helps to have a fruity flavor in your mouth when you’re operating a jack hammer. It really does.