Summerville’s Tastee-Freez: Be There or Be Square

Tastee-Freez back in the day

I suspect that most small North American towns in the latter half of the previous century featured a commercial spot where teenagers gathered to be seen, to strut, to make asses of themselves, a spot like Mel’s Drive-In in American Graffiti

At these gathering places cars and trucks crammed with hormonally imbalanced funseekers cruised the parking lots looking for love, or in the case of my hometown, Summerville, South Carolina, if you couldn’t “be with the one you loved,” you could start a fist fight “with the one you were with.” 

In Summerville, Tastee Freez was the place.  There we gathered after football games or dances to keep the night alive. At Tastee Freez, I ordered my first cup of black coffee as an antidote for the two beers I had forced down like castor oil in those early days of intoxication. At Tastee Freez, I witnessed an acquaintance break his hand punching a brick wall after receiving his draft notice. At Tastee Freez, I received an apology from Bobby Bosheen[1] for punching me at the Curve-Inn Pool the previous weekend. 

“Sorry Bubba,” he said, “beer and liquor just don’t mix.”

With its circular driveway that allowed vehicles to “round, round, get around,” Tastee Freez was the place to check out the scene and to be seen. The bigger and louder the engine the better – 440 magnum bush cam, 4-on-the-floor, Hedman Headers, dual exhaust, and all that jargony jazz. 

Before the OPEC embargo, gas cost as little as 35 cents a gallon, about the same as a can of PBR, the brew of choice in Flowertown circa 1969. Commercial radio stations were more likely to play oldies like “Stand by Me” than Hendrix, though “Crosstown Traffic” would have been somewhat apropos – though, come to think of it, much more so now. 

On a Friday or Saturday night, my parents might let me borrow our 1964 Ford Falcon station wagon, a white four-cylinder bland-mo-bile with 3-on-the-steering-column. After my friend Gordon Wilson plowed into a runaway mule from Middleton Gardens and totaled the Falcon, my father in an act of spontaneous irrationality replaced it with a Triumph Spitfire two-seater, a convertible, which jacked-up my cool quotient a couple of notches as I orbited the Freez with the top down.

Little did we know that Summerville would soon explode, not from napalm or an ICBM, but from a population influx. As Springsteen put it, “there’s just different people coming down here now, and they see things in different ways.” Even though “everything we’ve known [wasn’t] [completely] swept away,” crosstown traffic does makes it hard “to get to the other side of town.”

Inching along the Berlin G Meyers Parkway ain’t exactly my cup of tea. Folly Beach, where I now live, is supposed to be overrun with people, but Summerville isn’t.  But, hey, c’est la vie; you can’t blame folks for wanting to live in a beautiful place.

what an exquisite photograph by Anthony Proveaux

[1] A nom de guerre 

The Latest News from South Carolina Features Firing Squads

I guess it’s way past time to retire the cliché “hot off the presses,” and, as a matter of fact, the term BREAKING has supplanted HOTP as an indicator of new news “coming down the pike,” i.e., speeding down the turnpike headed your way in a 1961 Studebaker.

Anyway, hot off the proverbial presses, BREAKING, coming down the pike, this from the Associated Press:

The South Carolina House has voted to add the firing squad to the state’s execution methods amid a lack of lethal-injection drugs. The bill now goes to [prolife]Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has said he’ll sign it.

Dunno, wouldn’t hanging be a better alternative? Less messy? After all, gas chambers, electric chairs, hangings, and lethal injections seem more appropriately impersonal than shooting someone. Less messy, no hosing off blood splattered walls. Plus, only one or two people drop the pellets, pull the switch, knot the noose/trigger the trap door, or wield the syringe. A fire squad expands the number killers. Why spread potential guilt around?

Speaking only for myself, I’d hate to shoot a sentient being– and don’t beat me up for being sexist here – especially a woman, whether she be Elizabeth Bathory[1], Ma Barker, or Lizzy Bordon.

Questions arise. Where will the event take place? In the prison yard, at a firing range, or William Brice Stadium? How will the participants be chosen? From SLED, the Columbia Police Department, a local chapter of the NRA?  Hopefully, the squad will wear uniforms; otherwise, it would seem very much like a lynching. The whole concept seems barbaric to me. I think of poor Fyodor Dostoevsky[2], the Easter rebellion participants[3],  Eddie Slovik, etc. 

Here’s a suggestion, state legislators: why not go 20th Century and opt for carbon monoxide poisoning? 

Less fuss, less muss. 

Or here’s an even better idea: pull the switch on capital punishment.


[1] Guinness World Records has her pegged as history’s most prolific serial killer/torturer/mutilator (~ 650 women between 1585 and 1610). Rumor also has it she “bathed in the blood of her victims to retain her youth.”

[2] The victim of the cruelest of practical jokes.

[3] I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride   

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:   

A terrible beauty is born.

A Wilderness of Mirrors

This piece was one of the winners of the 2002 Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open, and since it’s never been published, I thought I’d post it here so that if my house happens to burn down, the story will exist at least somewhere, if only in cyberspace.

A Wilderness of Mirrors

1 May 1991

In just two-and-a-half days, Jake has driven from Charleston, South Carolina, to Nowhere, Nevada. 

360 degrees of blanched desolation surround him – there are no other vehicles to be seen – not through the windshield where a guitar string of a road twangs to the horizon – not in the rearview mirror horizon twangs road string . . . 

Sage and cacti rush past through the side windows a blurrrrrrrrrrrr – but ahead the desert stays put, like a static postcard, too pretty he reckons, the sun sinking up ahead, rose tinting the godforsaken.

All he has for company in his VW bus is an AM radio and the cowboy songs his father sang him to sleep with. At this hour in this postmeridian desert space, no radio waves come a-callin’, so beneath the ocean roar of rolled down window wind, he sings in his best voice, “Get along little doggie/ Yo’ misfortune’s none of my own . . .”

A couple of hours pass, and things begin to cool and darken:

Static . . . faint buzzing . . . yakkedy sax, yakkedy sax, yakkedy sax . . . static . . . Ay candela, candela, candela me quemo . . . static . . . wash-ED in the sac-RED blood of JEEEEEEE-ZZZZUSSS . . . static . . . “Barry, okay, what I hear you saying is . . .”

Jake lets go of the steering wheel and snaps his fingers.

Forty-eight hours ago in Georgia, Jake discovered her, Dr. Tupper, a call-in therapist offering eight-minute sessions sandwiched between commercials for laxatives and smokers’ tooth polish. This is only the third time he’s heard her, but already he’s picked up a trace of transference.

Jake admires Dr. Tupper for offering callers keys to the cells of their personal prisons in the hope they might extricate themselves from their pitiful pasts. A couple of callers have broken down on the air, their sobs bouncing off satellites into radio receivers nationwide. Dr. Tupper answers in a calm firm voice, compassionate but strict. She won’t allow them to get repetitive with all those potential suicides on hold. 

This caller Barry is having trouble with his partner. Barry loves the partner, but he “don’t” in his own words, “have the desire, you know?”

A pattern?

Great at first, then a cooling down to mere mechanical jack-in-the-box, around and around, monkeys and weasels, till pop goes the heartache.

“You know?”

She knows. Takes him there in no time. Has him blurting it out in under three minutes.

His junior High gym teacher. Coach.

Her advice is always the same. “Get help.” In the calmest and most patient of voices, she says, “Don’t bury a horrible thing inside of you, Barry. A horrible thing inside of you gnaws beneath the surface.”

3 May 1991

Head propped on her elbows, Cassandra lies stomach down on her comforter. The personal section of a newspaper is spread before her propped up on pillows:

Young, generous Orson Welles type seeks white female for

conversation, maybe more. Send photo and letter to “Rosebud” c/o Journal.

Orson Welles type. That spells f-a-t. Or maybe a racist 17-year-old prodigy who has penned his first screenplay! Her hand shyly covers her mouth as she giggles hoarsely.

A voice, a Southern male voice, from the radio, intrudes

. . . I see nowhere everywhere. That same ol’ Shoney ridden stretch leading into every town filling me with despair. Everything makes me sad, Dr. Tupper, everything. Fluffy clouds, Elvis, Otis, the Godfather, everything. Ain’t no white rabbit revelations for you to pull out presto. Got no other reason to be sad than I live in this world I see around me. My parents were good to me. My teachers left me alone . . . 

White Rabbit revelations?

. . . Many depressions originate in chemical imbalances . . . seek medical attention . . . seemingly cosmic grief dissipated by merely swallowing a pill . . . the world is not necessarily dark, but existentially you’re viewing it through the lens of your depression . . . a miracle really . . . your life from drizzling rain to bright sunshine in just a few weeks . . . 

Cassandra rolls over and switches off the radio, arises like a well-fed ghost in her white nightgown and stares into the mirror above her dresser. It opens to the reflections of another mirror, a full-length mirror on the door of her bathroom behind her. Ahead of her and behind her, mirror opens upon mirror upon mirror, diminishing her cloned reflection into nothingness.

“Eat me,” she says out loud.

She puts a cd on and gets out the latest Vanity Fair, flips to a photograph of a shirtless cowboy, and crawls back into bed with that manboy from the radio, Jack or Jake, her fellow desperado. She turns to her side and closes her eyes to the carefully curated statements of her room, then opens them to grab the remote and turn down the volume of the cd.  Now, with eyes once again closed, she can barely hear the music as her hand – his hand – touches her stomach.

3 May 1991

After she got off the air, Alice Tupper talked to three people on hold who didn’t make it on. They were the lucky ones, she told them, because she could spend a bit more time with each one. But three was the limit. You had to draw the line somewhere. She had a visit to the hospital to make.

Two of the three were already in therapy and basically wanted her to confirm – validate – their treatments. The third was in worse shape. She had been molested by her stepfather and now had entered the confrontational stage. Alice was all too familiar with incest and its aftermath. Her own father had molested her when she was eight. The child Alice had not fully understood what had happened but sensed that it was too terrible to admit, like the eating of the Apple. She suffered the classic symptoms: a feeling of worthlessness, the misconception that it had been her fault, the propensity to have others dominate her. But luckily, a therapist had saved her. And now she was a therapist trying to save this young woman, to talk her into following through, to reinforce the importance of support groups. She gave her the rare option of calling X number next week at X time. She made the young woman promise to call. Alice waited to hear the click before she removed the headphones.

The LA air was exhaust-laden, but she hated air conditioning, and with the top down, she felt as if she were getting her money’s worth for this flashy car she could afford but not really enjoy. Palm trees and utility poles clicked past her in the rearview side mirrors where tinted SUVs shot up and past like rolling city states. 

It had been a long day, but this was going to be the worst. Rosalita was dying. Alice had known her for eleven years, one of her first “saves,” a spirited reflection of Alice and also a reflection of the therapist who had saved Alice. Rosalita had done it, broken the cycle, educated herself at a community college, gotten a job in social work. But disastrously, one of her exes had been an intravenous drug user, and now she was little more than a breathing skeleton.

Rosalita had passed the point of complaining, passed the last outposts of vanity, her olive skin drained into a waxen deathmask, her flesh withered to the bone. She lay upon her back in an incongruous bright yellow gown, the hospital bed tilted up. Her grown children stepped back so Dr. Weinstein and Dr. Tupper could approach the bed. Alice stroked the dying woman’s limp hair, held her skeletal hand, told Rosalita goodbye in a speech she had sort of rehearsed. As tears streamed down Alice’s face, Rosalita wanly smiled, barely nodding. At its conclusion, she mouthed “thank you.”

Dr. Weinstein waited with Alice in the hall afterwards for the tears to subside.

 “Jeff,” she said at last, punching the elevator button with the Kleenex still in her hand, “I got a call from this kid today, and he was like, ‘I-Am-a-Teenage-William-Faulkner,’ and I couldn’t really tell if he were putting me on or what, but basically, all he wanted to know was why bother.”

Jeff was ready to say something, but the elevator arrived and opened, so they stepped in and joined a short, middle-aged Pakistani woman.

“Anyway, I think I blew it. On the radio all you have are words, and I couldn’t find the right ones, but anyway, I kept thinking of the caller in light of Rosalita, you know, how she fought to the very end.”

As the bell politely sounded, the Pakistani woman brought her hand to her head and adjusted her scarf. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and she stepped out and away.

“But what about you, Jeff? You don’t get many happy endings, do you?”

“Nope,” he said, “they pretty much all die.”

“How do you deal with it?”

He was a tall man, bald and stooped, but he cracked a devilish, boyish grin.

“Like Pontius Pilate,” he said, “I wash my hands a lot.”

They were both laughing as the elevator opened to the lobby. A well-dressed woman with good posture frowned as she brushed past them into the cage. Alice bid Jeff good-bye and passed through the automatic doors into the night. Around the corner of the hospital in reserved parking, her red Z-whatever waited. 

Once on the highway, she slid in a cd and tried to lose herself in the music, but with the top down, the thrash of night air drowned out the weak singing voices.

An Anthropological Adventure Highlighting Late Pandemic Folly Beach Behaviors

The last time I donned the ol’ pith helmet and ventured inside the rich anthropological domain of Folly Beach, SC, was on 17 March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic. Even though it was St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday associated with the consumption of intoxicating spirits, a day when inebriates typically jampack the bars of the so-called Edge of America, only a few foolhardy hedonists stumbled the streets that Saturday, their left hands clutching red cups, their right hands thumbing their noses, as it were, at Dr. Fauci’s fervent pleas to stay indoors to stem the contagion.

Why would I – whom sociologists classify as geriatric, advertisers term a golden ager, and young people consider an old fart – expose myself to possible infection? After all, at 67, I fell into the likely-to-die demographic. Why, you ask?  

Because I’m a scientist, damn it; that’s why.

Of course, I submitted a report of that field work, including video, which you can access here.

Well, 407 long days have elapsed since that death-defying foray onto the potentially contagious sidewalks of FBSC 17 March 2020. Now, with COVID cases waning nationwide (albeit spiking in India and elsewhere abroad) and having received two doses of the Moderna vaccine – the second one a month ago – I decided it was high time to investigate. With Caroline, my invaluable anthropological colleague, erstwhile grief counsellor, and crackerjack photographer at my side, we trekked to Center Street to determine to what degree behaviors have changed since the early days of the pandemic.

We set up base camp at Chico Feo and found that outdoor eatery a-swarm with Friday night foragers, mostly tourists, but a considerable number of local denizens lolled there as well. After one low-impact libation, Caroline and I decided to head straight to Ground Zero, the shitshow known as the Rooftop at Snapper Jack’s, a two-block walk. Before departing however, our sponsors, pictured below, suggested we be on the lookout for topers tippling drinks that Jenny (pictured far right) has dubbed “ho-a-canes” and “bro-nados.”

from left to right, Dylan, Patrick, Faith, and Jenny

At the base of the stairs leading to Snapper Jack’s rooftop bar, we encountered our first bachelorette crew, pictured below. They seemed to me, despite the festive pink cowgirl hats, a bit subdued. Caroline and I peppered them with questions. The 23-year-old bride-to-be (second from the left) had found, according to her, the “man of her dreams,” but her companion, the most loquacious of the quartet (far right), said she was patiently waiting for a man who “worshipped the very ground she stood upon” and would settle for nothing less. Upon hearing this, my subconscious selected from its poetic jukebox these lines from Yeats’s “Never Give All the Heart”:

Never give all the heart, for love 

Will hardly seem worth thinking of 

To passionate women if it seem 

Certain, and they never dream 

That it fades out from kiss to kiss . . .

Anyway, we bade them good fortune, wished the bride-to-be a long happy and fruitful marriage, and climbed the stairs passing through a portal that ferried us to the Jersey shore.

No doubt these images can attest far better than my spendthrift prose.

Ladies and gentlemen, as far as these folks are concerned, the pandemic is kaput.


The Danger of Being Different

photograph by Wesley Moore

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

                                    Oscar Wilde, “Ballad of the Reading Gaol”

In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Charleston, South Carolina, a late stop on his tour of the United States and Canada.  Although the tour had begun triumphantly with a fawning press hanging on the Irishman’s every word and with Wilde’s having killed a bottle of wine with Walt Whitman at his Camden home, trouble ensued when Wilde shared a train from Philadelphia to Baltimore with Archibald Forbes, a Scottish war correspondent who, according to Richard Ellmann, “found Wilde’s knee breeches [. . .] particularly repellent” and who “stung Wilde with stupid jokes about the commercializing of aestheticism.”  

Wilde was, in fact, on his way to attend a lecture by Forbes entitled “The Inner Life of a War Correspondent,” but after suffering Forbes’ slings and arrows, Wilde decided to skip the lecture and head to Washington.  This slight spurred Forbes to mock Wilde in that lecture and in letters to various newspapers. This negative publicity spilled over to influence other philistines of the press who found Wilde’s clothes and manners effeminate and ostentatious.

Forbes
Wilde

I say who is without ostentation cast the first stone.

At any rate, by the time Wilde rolled into the Holy City, he was an inviting target for smug homophobes like the News and Courier reporter who provided the following story excerpted from  Oscar Wilde in America, The Interviews:

Of course, that Archibald Forbes and the unknown Charleston reporter are mere footnotes to Wilde’s story would not surprise Wilde, who said about his treatment by the press during his tour:

“I have no complaints to make.  They have certainly treated me outrageously, but I am not the one who is injured; it is the public.  By such ridiculous attacks the people are taught to attack what they should revere.  Had I been treated differently by the newspapers in England and in this country, had I been commended and endorsed, for the first time in my life I should have doubted myself and my mission.”

As a former teacher in a middle and high school, I am all too familiar with this ostracizing of people who are different, and I warned students that bigoted impressions they make could become indelible, and though I won’t name names, I consider several people of classes who graduated in the early years of the previous decade cruel, the latter-day equivalents of Archibald Forbes, that boorish metal-bedecked blowhard Lilliputian pictured above.  Unfortunately, for him, his boorishness lives on whereas those student bullies’ acts of unkindness will be merely remembered by their victims. Perhaps they have changed, but perhaps they’ve merely become more circumspect in expressing their contempt.

The good news, however, is that, for whatever reason, students today are so much more open-minded, especially towards homosexuality, than ever before, which no doubt is part of the sea change that has occurred in this country in the last three decades.

Tolerence, on the whole, is on the rise.

Shadow Self-Portrait with Judy Birdsong at Wilde’s tomb.

Canto 7, the Malebolgia

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
  A use in measured language lies;
  The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

Tennyson, “In Memoriam”

When it became clear that my wife Judy Birdsong would not recover from a rare form of Non Hodgkins lymphoma that had come roaring out of remission, I sought ways to numb myself, and following the example of my ol’ pal Alfred Tennyson, I began a poetic exercise in which I strung lines of unmetered terza rima together in a crude parody of Dante’s Inferno. The plan was to compose nine cantos of nine stanzas in honor of Dante’s Babylonian algebra.

When Judy died, I had completed four Cantos, but I decided to finish it anyway. Even now, though happily remarried, I’m determined to finish [nervous bad-pun cough] the goddamned thing, even though it’s silly and flawed.

No one can accuse me of not being self-indulgent.

Canto 7, The Malebolgia

No sooner than the rum had hit my belly,
Catullus stopped the cab, put on the parking brake.
“Get out,” he shouted, my spine turning to jelly,

My hand trembling DT-ish in the dark.
“You can’t be serious,” I said, looking askance.
“Listen, you pusillanimous punk,” he barked.

“Get out! Now! ASAP, STAT!”
So, I sheepishly opened the door, stepped into the gloom
And peered through the dark at the expanse

That lay below the rim of the cliff, an abyss of doom
That Catullus called the Malebolgia,
A circular series of ditches, a living tomb,

Fraught with fire and strewn with boulders,
A prison for con men, hypocrites,
Fake magicians, corrupt office holders,

And the like, each confined to a dire ditch
Well-suited for shit-slinging shysters.
“We’ll wait here,” he said, “for the witch

Hecuba to fly us down on her whirly
Bird of a broom. The road ends here.”
For whatever reason, Catullus had turned surly,

And began to rant and swear,
Cursing God and Darwin,
As we waited for Hecuba,

Who kept us waiting, waiting, waiting,
My head spinning like a dervish, a dervish, a dervish –
Fainting, fainting, fainting . . .

“The Back Roads to Tallahassee” – Live Reading

Last night I had the privilege to read a portion of my poem “Disorder Above Key West” accompanied by the immensely talented musician and painter Nathan Stephenson.

The Back Roads to Tallahassee

Took the back roads to Tallahassee
to avoid the monotony of mile markers,
dead armadillos, and exit signs.
Took the back roads, took my time.

Didn’t make it quick enough to see him die,
but my step-mama filled me in,
sucking on a Marlboro like a man,
“A horrible death, a horrible death,” she said,

over and over, shaking her head.
I didn’t know what to say. “Too bad.”
“He fought it hard,” she said, “screamed
‘Get that Gotdamn light out of my face,’

then up and passed.” She’d took a picture
and showed it to me. Looked like
all dead people look – his eyes froze,
his mouth froze open like a fish.

No, my daddy and me didn’t get along,
the house not big enough to hold
the two of us. Like in that
Springsteen song. We’d cuss each other

and sometimes come to blows. Of course,
me, 35, half his age, been able whip him
for a while. He sure whipped me
back then before, cracking a buckled belt.

Can’t quite pity the poor dead bastard,
laying there waxy with his hair slicked back
in that Sears and Roebuck suit, striped tie,
his mouth glued closed, his eyes glued shut.

His daddy beat him, and that daddy
beat that daddy before that. I ain’t
got no offspring, but got my own
business, mind my own business,

so I have the time to take my time,
to take the back roads, to avoid
traffic, to miss all them 18-wheelers in a hurry
to reach them warehouses they can’t abide.

Garage Band Modernism

I’ve never cared for rock songs with lush orchestral arrangements, cellos and violins sugar-coating the three or four chords that make up the melody. Take the Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” for example, overwrought in every way, the lyrics lamenting unspecified dissatisfaction, the strings transporting the speaker’s melancholy to the suburbs of tragedy, Schmaltzville, where eyes mist over at the slightest sentimentality: puppy dogs, Grandmas, Eugene Fields’s bathetic “Little Boy Blue.”[1]

This is what I’m talking about:

snippet from “As Tears Go By”

Hey, crybaby singerboy, take a hint from Frederick Henry, read some Lucretius, grab an umbrella, and head to a pub.[2]

Compare “As Tears Go By” with this ditty from the same album, December’s Children.

snippet of “Get Off My Cloud”

Now, that’s more like it. 

And speaking of the Stones, man oh man, after the psychedelic silliness of Their Satanic Majesties Request, hearing the six successive opening G chords of “Honky Tonk Women” was like welcoming home a long-lost prodigal cousin returning deprogrammed from some sort of Scientology-like hypno-indoctrination. 

beginning of “Honky Tonk Women”

To quote that Big Mama Thornton of Modernist literature, Sweet Molly Bloom, “Yes!”  

Anyway, I really dig garage bands, Sam the Sham, ? & the Mysterians, the Kingsmen, the Human Beinz, etcetera.

Forgive my Western predilection to have to rank things. It’s sort of stupid really, but that said, in my not-all-that humble opinion, the greatest garage album of all time – and this may surprise you – is Patti Smith’s first release, Horses – a masterpiece whose subtitle could be “TS Eliot meets the Troggs.”

For example, here’s a snippet from the first song of the flipside, “Kimberly.”

snippet of Kimberly

You “Waste Land” junkies out there no doubt caught the echoic allusion to bats with baby faces and violet skies.

Horses is Modernist garage band, flashing with fragmented musical and literary allusions that imbue its songs with concentrated meaning and ultimately create a constellation of images revolving around alienation.

In other words, it’s a work of art.

The masterpiece cut of this masterpiece album is the 9:42 penultimate song “Land,” which, to my ear, has the greatest transition in all of rock-n-roll. Check it out. (The transition occurs at 1.11 minutes.)

the beginning of “Land”

The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea
From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway,
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically

When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by
horses, horses, horses, horses
coming in in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames,
He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
Do you know how to pony like bony maroney
Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this
Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator

What follows is eight minutes of stream-of-consciousness as Johnny’s brain transitions from sentience to eternal silence.

Now that’s what I call transcending a sub-genre. It’s simultaneously raw and polished, gritty and eloquent, Rimbaud and Wicked Wilson Pickett playing pingpong backstage in a dance hall.


[1] I’m being unfair to the Stones, “As Tears Go By” isn’t nearly as bad as “Little Boy Blue.” 

[2] Here’s Henry describing leaving the corpse of his wife in A Farewell to Arms.

“But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while, I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

“The Most Fatiguing of Occupations”*

*from “Baudelaire” by Delmore Schwartz

I’m rereading Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a roman a clef fictionalizing Bellow’s relationship with bipolar poet Delmore Schwartz, pictured below, looking as if a couple of bong hits of sativa might do him some good, you know, take the edge off.

Delmore Schwartz

I copped the photo from the text of The Modern Poets, an undergraduate poetry anthology from my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina.[1] My professor, Thomas L. Johnson, was an excellent teacher and poet, a gentle, patient man whose love for verse was as pervasive as the cigarette smoke that wafted through college classrooms back in 1972.[2]  Before then, I knew next to nothing about contemporary poetry because we didn’t cover much of it in high school. I remember reading The Spoon River Anthology (which was published in 1915), a few of the typically anthologized Frost poems, a page or two of E.E. Cummings, some Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a smattering of Yeats. 

No Beats, no William Carlos Williams, no Wallace Stevens.

As the contemporary poetry course progressed, it occurred to me that mid-century to late-century poets suffered higher rates of suicide per capita than any other occupation outside of the Kamikaze corps. Every other poet we studied either drank himself to death or ended her own life. This impression, of course, might have been an aberration based on a disproportionate sampling of neurotics[3] covered in the survey. For example, if Seamus Heaney and John Ciardi had been substituted for John Berryman and Theodore Roethke, my impression might have been different.

In the table of contents, I placed a check next to the poets we covered.  Here’s a partial list:

John Berryman – jumped from a bridge into the icy Mississippi River the year before I began the course.

James Dickey – drank prodigiously throughout his life, which led to erratic behavior. (Click here for an account of my semester with Dickey).

Randall Jarrell – struck by a car after being treated for mental illness after a suicide attempt.[4]

Robert Lowell – spent decades checking in and out of mental hospitals.

Sylvia Plath – committed suicide at thirty-one after a life fraught with mental breakdowns.

Theodore Roethke – victimized by two nervous breakdowns, one in the 1930s and another in 1944, “and they became increasingly more frequent in the ensuing decade; by 1958, he was attending therapy sessions six times a week.” (Poetry Foundation).

Delmore Schwartz – suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, died in a flophouse where his body wasn’t discovered for three days.

Anne Sexton – committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Dylan Thomas – died of alcoholic poisoning at the Chelsea Hotel in 1953.

Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern in NYC

I’m sure there must be studies galore that attempt to explain this phenomenon. I’ve read a memoir by one of Berryman’s wives, Eileen Simpson, which documented Berryman’s relationships with Schwartz, Lowell, and Jarrell, so maybe there was a bit of birds-of-a-feather going on. Anyway, my first exposure to contemporary poetry convinced me that versifying was hazardous to your health.

Again, perhaps I shouldn’t generalize. Several of the poets we studied seemed mentally healthy, even happy. For example, here’s a poem by one of the sanest writers I’ve ever read, Richard Wilbur, composed shortly after he ran across Delmore Schwartz’s obituary, which Wilbur considered too cursory.

To an American Poet, Just Dead

In the Boston Sunday Herald just three lines
Of no-point type for you who used to sing
The praises of imaginary wines,
And died, or so I’m told, of the real thing.

Also gone, but a lot less forgotten
Are an eminent cut-rate druggist, a lover of Giving,
A lender, and various brokers: gone from this rotten
Taxable world to a higher standard of living.

It is out in the comfy suburbs I read you are dead,
And the soupy summer is settling, full of the yawns
Of Sunday fathers loitering late in bed,
And the sshhh of sprays on all the little lawns.

Will the sprays weep wide for you their chaplet tears?
For you will the deep-freeze units melt and mourn?
For you will Studebakers shred their gears
And sound from each garage a muted horn?

They won’t. In summer sunk and stupefied
The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death.
And though they sleep the sounder since you died
It’s just as well that now you save your breath.

At any rate, when I taught at Porter-Gaud, through its visiting writing program, I met, dined, and drank with several highly successful poets who seemed, not only not unhappy, but also not all that eccentric – Peter Meinke, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Billy Collins, Chris Forhan, Elizabeth Spires, Cathy Smith Bowers, James Longenbach, Jennifer Grotz, and Alan Shapiro – to name nine.

From left to right, Aaron Lehman, Wesley Moore, Pulitzer Poetry finalist Alan Shapiro, Childs Smith

Then again, I attended a Robert Lowell reading in 1974, and he seemed perfectly equanimous, though of course, we didn’t go out for drinks afterward. 

At any rate, I’m enjoying hanging out with Delmore Schwartz’s fictionalized counterpart Von Humboldt Fleisher. In his case, it’s a pleasure crawling in bed with a tortured genius, especially with one so learned. If manic-depression is occurring on a page rather than in three-dimensions, it can be a gas.


[1] The course was actually called Contemporary Poetry, which would be a better title for an anthology that spans from Frost and Pound to James Tate. After all, strictly speaking, Shakespeare is a “modern” as opposed to “ancient” poet. Most of the poets in the anthology were born in the Thirties. Virtually all, if not all, are now dead.

[2] I received a generous B for my slapdash efforts and a C on the original poems I submitted in lieu of a research paper, crap I dashed off in three or four days. In 1987, Mr. Johnson and I ended up in an anthology of James Dickey’s former students’ poems, and I bumped into him at a get together celebrating the publication of the book. We both recognized each other and had an amiable chat.

[3] I miss this now dated adjective.

[4] In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop about a week after Jarrell’s death, Robert Lowell wrote, “There’s a small chance [that Jarrell’s death] was an accident. . . [but] I think it was suicide, and so does everyone else, who knew him well.”

A Short, Disjointed History of Recreational Cannabis Use, 4/20 2011 Edition

Indians eating bhang (cannabis) circa 1790

Happy 4/20 recreational drug users! 

Hey, you’re probably too young to remember when Jack Casady, the bassist for the Jefferson Airplane, admitted that, like President Ford’s son Jack, he, too, had experimented with marijuana. 

These twin bombshells dropped in October of 1975.  President’s Ford’s “shaggy-haired, free-spirited son’s”[1]admission created quite a brouhaha, making the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post

ALEXANDRIA, VA – AUGUST 9: (NO U.S. TABLOID SALES) President Gerald R. Ford (R) and First Lady Betty Ford (L) pose with three of their four children (L-R) Steven Ford, John “Jack” Ford (not looking all that shaggy-haired), and Susan Ford in the family home on August 9, 1974 in Alexandria, Virginia. Ford stepped into office as president that afternoon, after the resignation and departure of ex-President Richard M. Nixon. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Of course, the Airplane’s bassist’s tongue was firmly in his cheek when he followed up Jack Ford’s confession with his own. After all, Jack Casady had laid down the bass licks on the Airplane’s 1967 hit “White Rabbit,” which ends with this exhortation – “Feed your head, feed your head, feed your head!”

Needless to say,[2] people had been fueling their crania via cannabis long before the double Jacks discovered its mind-altering qualities, as this soporific sentence from Wikipedia attests[3]

The oldest archeological evidence for the burning of cannabis was found in Romanian kurgans dated 3,500 BC, and scholars suggest that the drug was first used in ritual ceremonies by Proto-Indo-European tribes living in the Pontic-Caspian steppe during the Chalcolithic period, a custom they eventually spread throughout western Eurasia during the Indo-European migrations.

Not surprisingly, it was the French, the inventors of un baiser avec la langue[4], who introduced marijuana to the West. Jacques-Joseph Moreau experimented with and wrote about cannabis during his travels to North Africa and the Middle East in the late 1830s. 

In 1842, an Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy copped some quantity in Bengal and brought it back with him to Britain. Later, Charles Baudelaire got a hold of some hashish and extolled its effects. The red-eyed munchie-afflicted genie was out of the bottle. 

Baudelaire demonstrating why it’s preferable to wear shades when you’re stoned. At least with shades, people might guess you’re stoned rather than seeing for sure that you are.

I won’t bore you with the history of its criminalization/ decriminalization. Even in South Carolina, which is about as progressive as electric shock therapy, a medicinal marijuana bill made it out of committee last week in a 9-5 vote. Now, it’s headed to the full Senate. At this rate, who knows, recreational legalization might take place by the centennial of the two Jacks’ admissions in 2175!

I should add, however, that the argument about whether cannabis is a gateway drug is still in dispute, despite the appearance of Wesley Moore’s score-settling poem published over a decade ago.

On the Slave Ship Lollipop

I used to stuff my face with candy
when I was a little boy,
couldn’t cop enough Mary Janes,
would kill for an Almond Joy.

Then I graduated to the Real Thing – Coke.
I was popping five cans a day,
plopping nickels and dimes upon the counter
under caffeine and sugar’s sway.

Now I’m hooked on heroin,
am little more than a thug.
Wish I’d known then what I know now –
that sugar is the gateway drug.


[1] This hipster description comes to us from Business Insider’s website.

[2] EB White would disapprove of this transition, but he’s dead, and I don’t care. 

[3] Don’t even attempt to read the senetence if you’re stoned.

[4] Or as it was known in my hometown of Summerville, SC, “swapping spit.”