Ain’t Got You

A aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, so what shall I do with this absurdity, O Heart, O Troubled heart, decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail? What am I gonna do? Make a fool out of myself, that’s what. Here’s exhibit A. The Old Scarecrow Boogie.

Ain’t Got You

I’m sixty-five, got cataracts,
Hump-forming on my back,
A candidate for a heart attack,
But I ain’t got you . . .

Got nurses to the left of me,
Nurses to the right of me,
Nurses all around me,
But I ain’t got you.

Got a wheelchair, a walk-in tub,
Teeth ground down into little nubs,
Got a membership to the Rotary Club
And you lookin’ good in your hot pink scrubs!

Got a closet full of robes,
And no matter where I go
Got hair in my nose.
But I ain’t got you.

But I ain’t got you.
No, I ain’t got you.

Bad Teaching Personified

Prior to my sophomore year in high school, I had developed a robust crush on a social studies teacher named Mrs. Palmer. I can’t tell you how old she was – late twenties or early thirties would be my retrospective guess. She wasn’t the hot, mini-skirt-sporting bleached blonde that your typical adolescent boy might lust for but, rather, possessed a wholesome, girl-next-door prettiness, more Ingrid Bergman than Marilyn Monroe.

Ingrid Bergman

Anyway, you can’t imagine how excited I was when I received my class assignment for the academic year 1968-1969 and saw that I had Mrs. Palmer for World Cultures. This was the last year high school students attended classes in the old Rollins Building, and because of student overflow, she held class in what we called back in those days a trailer.

Old Summerville High

Not surprisingly, World Cultures was my favorite class. Mrs. Palmer was a demanding but even-keeled teacher who followed lesson plans that covered the gamut of whatever country we studied, and because I read my assignments, paid attention in class, and contributed to discussions, I did very well despite my chicken scratch handwriting and piss poor spelling.

Alas, no matter how witty, charming, and urbane I tried to be, somehow Mrs. Palmer managed not to succumb to the allure of a scrawny, pimply sixteen-year-old who reeked of secondhand smoke. And even if she had, it would have come to naught because, as luck would have it, after Christmas she followed her husband to a new job and was replaced by an older man I’m going to call Professor Plum.

To say that Professor Plum was eccentric is like saying that Notre Dame is gothic, or Calcutta is crowded; in other words, his weirdness was apparent as soon as you laid eyes on him, thanks in good part to the fact that the right lens of his glasses was shattered. I can’t imagine what the world looked through that those glasses, how his brain compensated for the semi-fractured view of what lay before him, but at least he didn’t bump into things, though for anyone engaged in a one-on-one conversation with him, it was – at least for me – unnerving.

In his sixties, tall and handsome with slicked back grey hair, he wore only two suits to class, a grey one and a blue one, and he sported the same brown scuffed wingtips no matter which suit he had chosen for the week. I recall that he addressed us collectively as “young people,” and often pointed the calendar on the bulletin board featuring presidents with Richard Nixon in the center. He would point to the calendar and say, “This country is in grave danger, young people, but that man on the calendar may be our salvation.”

Rather than covering the origins, history, and geographic locations of the countries, he focused solely on their cultural contributions, cuckoo clocks and yodeling for Switzerland, Voltaire and Debussy for France. His tests were ridiculously easy. I remember that he assigned each of us a country in the Asian section and tested us orally by asking one question – one question! – during a class period.

I had been assigned the Philippines, and clever boy that I was, I studied only the last section of the chapter devoted to folkways and cultural contributions.

Here’s my test.

Professor Plum: Rusty, what is the national dish of the Philippines?

Me: Dogs!

Professor Plum: Roasted over what?

Me: Hot coals?

Professor Plum: Yes. You receive a one hundred.

Me: Thank you, sir.

As it turned out, every single person in the class exempted the exam except one, whom he informed in class publicly that under him she would have qualified for exemption but that her performance under Mrs. Palmer meant that she had to take the exam.

I can say one thing positive about Professor Plum: his classroom management was excellent. No one, as they say, horsed around during class. I felt a little sorry for him. He had been a teacher and perhaps an administrator in Charleston County, and it seemed to me that something in his life had gone awry, perhaps he was a widower, perhaps he had money problems. At any rate, from my own stint as a department chair, I know how difficult it is to find a suitable replacement teacher in the middle of a semester.

On the other hand, I don’t feel all that sorry for him. Having only one final exam to grade in the spring is pretty damned sweet.

The Würzburg Shuffle

The Würzburg Pedestrian Bridge

We saw lots of sights during our recent two-week trip to Germany: for example, the murals on what’s left of the Berlin Wall, the DDR and Toy museums in East Berlin, the Albrecht Dürer Haus in Nüremberg, cathedrals in every city we visited, an incredible beyond-baroque palace in Würzburg, and in Heidelberg, a museum devoted to outsider art.

The Residence Palace in Würzburg

However, what might be my favorite sightseeing excursion was a sedentary anthropological expedition to Würzburg’s Marktplaz where Caroline and I sat sipping beer on the periphery of a café and observed for a couple of hours the to-and-fro of pedestrian traffic.

I’ve always been a people-watcher and enjoy contemplating my subjects’ private lives, picturing them at home. For example, I can imagine the pear-shaped widow now waddling past bent over a sink dying her wispy grey hair that bright eye-singing chartreuse.[1] Tent-like floral tops hang in her closet. A black-and-white photo of her dead husband sporting 70s sideburns stands on the sideboard. The odor of sausages and potatoes waft through her small apartment.

What distinguished this particular session was the number of pedestrians who suffered ambulatory issues, folks in motorized wheelchairs, blind people, passersby utilizing walkers, stroke sufferers, and those with what appeared to be congenital defects, the Ratsos and Quasimodos of Francona.

In the two hours we sat there, I counted thirty-four men and women with walking issues.

Caroline is a theorizer. When I wondered aloud why there tended to be so many more disabled people on the streets of Germany than in the US, she conjectured that Germans’, given their alpine hiking heritage, simply walk (and bike) more than North Americans. Therefore, you’re bound to see more limping and shuffling than in the US where even in a small village, we hop in the car instead of walking three blocks to the store.

Valeri, valera

In fact, during our stay, even Berlin’s auto traffic was light. In Würzburg and Nüremberg, navigating your VW through the crowds thronging the squares would not only be nerve-wracking but also slow going. Why not take in the gorgeous solstice sunshine on foot before Ol’ Herr Winter casts his frigid gray cloud bank over the will to live?

I really admire these disabled walkers, admire their pluck, their lack of self-consciousness, as they wobble or shuffle their way to their destinations. They certainly seemed more serene than the middle-aged dandy I saw haughtily strutting in his outrageous paisley blue suit (matching jacket and pants), glancing right and left to see if he was copping any attention as he crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Main River.

In fact, he was the only angry person I remember seeing during our stay, and if he and I both live long enough, we’re both likely to end up hobblers, which, beats, in my opinion, the alternative.

Valeri, valera

[1] Seems as if many of these women who dye their hair neon shades of red have unhealthy-looking hair. Hmm.

Decadence Lite, Berlin Edition

Caroline’s Old Fashioned

Last night Caroline and I engaged in some decadence-lite by visiting the Berlin nightspot Bellboy. Of course, when you think of Berlin, you think decadence, cabarets, drag queens, leather, and donuts. In the movie version of our escapade, Emil Jannings would play me, and of course, Marelene Dietrich would play Caroline.

Emil and Marlene

Bellboy pretends to be a speakeasy. There are no signs anywhere, not one outdoors announcing its existence, nor are the doors to the toilet marked. Caroline and I sat at the bar behind which mixologists put on quite a show, pouring liquids from container to container, creating rope-like streams, shaking concoctions in ice filled metal containers like Cuban percussionists. Waiters took your orders, slipping up behind you, and rarely did you encounter the same one consecutively. Anyway, when my beer arrived, it was sheathed in a brown paper bag. Ragtime jazz pulsated from the speakers. Otherwise, the crowd looked like your run-of-the-mill German Büroarbeiters.[1] No one sported chaps with the butt-baring cuttouts or conical bras fashioned from poptoptabs.

On nice touch, I thought, were bowls shaped like hippopotami bearing condoms positioned every few feet on the bar. We noticed a bartender placing a condom in one ridiculously elaborate drink he was constructing. I asked, “Did you just put a condom in that drink?” and he answered, “of course,” as if I were some kind of rube, so for the rest of the night, whenever I engaged the staff in conversation, I laid my Dr. John rap on them, letting them know the oysters were “mos scocious,” and the beer “desitively bonnaroo.” 

Going to the toilet ended up being a Hitchcockian adventure/nightmare. I asked for directions, and the fellow led me to an elevator. He said, “Go to the second level, go straight, it’s on your left.” Once I entered the elevator car, it went dark except for a strobing red light. It was too dark to see the buttons, so I demanded Siri to turn on the flashlight, which she did; however, when I pressed button 2, the elevator didn’t move, but another door opened. I tried pushing the button a couple of times but gave up and walked around the corner to find myself back at the entrance where three young ladies greeted in-coming guests. I dropped MC Escher’s name, and they showed me an alternative route. The next time I had to go, I was sent to an entirely different location, a series of incense-infused pink rooms. There were no signs, as I’ve mentioned, but I saw some urinals, so I went on in. On one wall, the urinals were way too tall, as if I had stumbled into an NBA lockerroom. However, I found on another wall, standard urinals. As I was leaving, I saw through a glass window, two women preening in front of a mirror, smiling, laughing, having a good ol’ time. I’m not quite sure if they were real or a movie. Anyway, they looked real.

So, all in all, it was a rather disorienting evening. We were out of there by ten, and the staff, whom I generously tipped, seemed genuinely sad to see us depart.

[1] Officeworkers (Note, I’ve started Germanificating my English by mashing words together). 

Rock ‘Em the Full Blast Early in the Morning

I’ve always been supersensitive to sounds, particularly to the sound of words. I especially enjoy attempting to marry sound and sense when I write poetry and prose.

Or as Alexander Pope[1] put it.

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.”[2]

Alexander Pope

What prompted these thoughts was a recent listen to Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What,” a song my college housemate Stan and I revenge-blasted one spring weekday around five a.m. circa 1974 in an old rotting subdivided house on leafy Henderson Street.

After numerous nights being kept up by ceiling-shaking music from the inarticulate longhairs downstairs (which meant they and their guests had to shout to be heard over the Black Sabbath/Deep Purple), one inebriated post-midnight wee hour Stan and I-and-I decided we had had it. We cranked up full blast “Compared to What,” and, brothers and sisters, in this case, anger is a beautiful thing. It’s one angry ass song.

Give it a listen.

[Verse 1]
I love the lie and lie the love
A-hangin’ on, we push and shove
Possession is the motivation
That is hangin’ up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (Everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what? (C’mon baby!)

[Verse 2]
Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children are killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old lady kissin’ dogs
I hate the human, love that stinking mutt (I can’t use it!)
Try to make it real, compared to what? (C’mon baby now!)

The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what? (Sock it to me)

[Verse 4]
Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preachers fillin’ us with fright
They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?

[Verse 5]
Where’s that bee and where’s that honey?
Where’s my God and where’s my money?
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol’ young King Tut (He did it now)
Tried to make it real, compared to what?

Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?

[1] Four feet, six inches of gut-crunching, man-eating terror. You didn’t want to get on his bad side. He would immortalize your ass, but not in a good way.

[2] That last line of that verse was written in slow motion.

Hold That Thought, Better Yet, Deep Six That Thought

It strikes me as strange that when so many restrictions of Late Empire American morality have been softened– the acceptance of premarital cohabitation comes to mind – that speech has become less free, especially corporate speech, academic speech, speech addressed to a crowd, whether it be a cache of Facebook acquaintances or a classroom of high school sophomores.

How many chastened blurters in recent years wish they’d followed Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes: “[g]ive thy thoughts no tongue […], give every man thy ear but few thy voice.”[1]  

Unfortunately, throughout my life, I have not followed that advice; indeed, I seem incapable of holding my tongue. When what I consider a clever thoughts pops into my mind, it immediately pops right out of my mouth.

[cue gameshow wrong answer blaring sound effect]

In today’s academic environment, I’m fairly certain I’d be dismissed from my teaching position for any number of less-than-judicious[2] announcements I issued over the decades.

The first time I realized that I should be more circumspect in my audible musings occurred way back in the late 80s when future journalist Ballard Lesemann published in our literary magazine interesting statements by his teachers, all of which, if I remember correctly, were off topic.

Here’s mine: “REM sounds like the Byrds on bad acid.”

The statement, unfortunately, implies that I had had some familiarity with LSD, which indeed was the case, but also, that some types of LSD could be deemed good, as opposed to “bad acid.” Perhaps someone complained to one of my superiors, but I personally never heard about it.[3]  Back then, I was striving to cultivate a favorable impression.

Another less=than-judicious injudicious comment came when I was chaperoning a 6th grade trip to St. Augustine, a horrific seventy-two hours that has taken god knows how many years off my life.

Anyway, nothing irritated me more as a teacher than an arrogant child telling me how I should be doing my job. I especially took offense when little Bennington or Eliza dispensed with decorum and haughtily demanded something from their betters, i.e., I-and-I.

This was the case on the fieldtrip when at a motel the chaperones sat outside and allowed the children to run around the rooms, the stipulation being that the curtains had to be open. I was so miserable I was half-contemplating sneaking away and hitch-hiking back home when this imperious little twit came up and demanded to know why they had to have the curtains open.

Out of my mouth came this admonition: “Because we’re sick and tired every year when . . . [4]

I’ll leave you with this last lack of discernment. I don’t know how the topic of pornography came up in my honors Brit Lit survey, but it did, and I said, “Pornography is for the unimaginative,” and my best student enthusiastically informed me she was going to use that as her senior quote in the Yearbook.

She didn’t, thank goodness, but it just goes to show how difficult it is to overcome bad habits.

On the other hand, a certain frankness can hold a teacher in good stead. One thing that most adolescents excel at is perceiving hypocrisy. They possess finely tuned bullshit meters, and if they like you, they don’t want you to get in trouble.

So cheers, Ballard, cheers Courtney!



[1] Although “full of high sentence,” Polonius is more than “a bit obtuse,” a hypocrite, a fool, and no audience member rues his death. I love it when Hamlet, after stabbing eavesdropping Polonius through the curtain behind which he hid, informs his mother that he’ll “lug the guts in the neighbor room,” In the Derek Jacobi PBS production, as Hamlet’s dragging Polonius’s corpse out backwards by his legs, he chirps “Goodnight, Mother.” It’s very funny.

[2] Surprised my word processing built-in editor didn’t suggest “injudicious” given the pompous prose I’m producing in this post.

[3] I know my mentor Sue Chanson, whom I adore, shielded me from a lot of flak over the years. She herself was known for her frank appraisals, earning her the appellation, “the high priestess of the painful truth.”

[4] Redacted. Look, an old dog can learn a new trick.

Concrete and Barbed Wire

Stone walls do not a prison make

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage.[1]

                                Richard Lovelace

It’s very easy to take our freedoms for granted, especially given the irrationality of a substantial number of our citizenry who see freedom as merely a license to do whatever they damn well please, as if American soldiers sacrificed their lives so these vulgarians can rev their unmuffled engines outside your condo at 2 AM, amass an arsenal’s worth of munitions in their basements, keep Bengal tigers as pets, burn barnfuls of autumn leaves during the windiest day of a four-month drought.  However, try stepping across the street from these freedom lovers’ houses and burning a Walmart-purchased-with-your-own-hard-earned-money-made-in-China American flag, and even though well within your rights as a US citizen, you’re likely to find yourself, run over, shot, devoured by an exotic pet, and/or torched because, if there’s anything that lovers of freedom detest, it’s “blame-America-first liberals like I-and–I.”

Nevertheless, even though, as Dr. Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” we should not take our freedoms for granted – as anyone who has spent a night in jail can attest.  Imagine being arrested for expressing an unsanctioned opinion, or worse, being imprisoned 6 years for making a fictional motion picture about your country’s controversial election and then being barred from making another film for 20 years.  Well, meet Iranian director Jafar Panahi who ended up doing a year plus and then a lifetime of house arrest, banned from leaving the country except for medical treatment or visiting Mecca for the Hadj.

One year, a mere instant in the life of the free, an eternity for someone sitting in a cell, the epic equivalent of that insufferable class or professional development seminar where you glance up at the clock every hour to discover to your horror only five minutes have elapsed.

In Panache’s case six years! Then being barred from doing what you love to do – that you feel compelled to do – for twenty years! – because your homeland has been confiscated by a bevy of Medieval paranoids who see the human body as somehow evil, who see women as temptresses, who respect not one iota the concept of individual freedom.

I find the jingoistic poster below offensive. “Taking America back” suggests taking America back from some usurper – minorities, immigrants, college professors, etc. However, it’s the right of whoever concocted the poster to create and publish menacing jingoistic images, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, so on this Memorial Day weekend, we should take time from boating, barbecuing, golfing, or vegetating to honor the men and women who sacrificed their lives – whether in vain or not – so we can be ourselves, say what we please, and create what we will.

[1] Unless, of course, you’re being sodomized by a fellow inmate

Hold That Sentence, Embrace That Sentence

Mark Leyner

I probably shouldn’t express such an obviously shallow sentiment, but I sometimes prefer style to substance. I’d rather read cleverly constructed sentences in fluff pieces than pedestrian prose dedicated to grand subjects.

For example, I just finished Mark Leyner’s novel (if you want to call it that) Et Tu, Babe[1].  This narrative is not for the huddling masses, not for the conventional book club.  Its discontinuity can get tiresome; however, to quote the Village Voice, “it begs to be read out loud to friend and strangers alike – if only you could figure out where to stop.”

So, friend, or stranger, allow me to share just a couple of passages with you:

The movie hinges on the question of whether he should be considered a suicide – thereby making his wife ineligible to collect his death benefits – or whether he should be considered a moron who has accidently rid future generations of his genetic toxicity in the self-cleaning oven of Darwinian evolution.

OMG, as the young people say/text, what a phrase, “the self-cleaning oven of Darwinian evolution.”

One more.

–Do you believe in God?

–Yes, sir.

–Do you believe in an anthropomorphic, vengeful, capricious god who can look down on one man and give him fabulous riches and look down on another and say you’re history” and give him a cerebral hemorrhage?

–Yes, sir.

–You may take the stand.

So, anyway, if you prefer the Sex Pistols to the Doobie Brothers, you might want to check Leyner out.


[1] Although it’s a narrative that can’t be read in one sitting, possesses recurring characters, Et Tu, Babe is more or less a loosely structured series of gag pieces, many of which produce out-loud laughter. Or as Jay McInerney puts it in his cover blurb: Leyner is a twisted wizard, a genre-busting virtuoso, working at the outer edge of narrative convention.”  


Jason and Juliet

Jason Chambers is a truly remarkable poet. When he reads at Chico Feo, the crowd automatically hushes and hangs on every breath.

I appreciate his granting me the privilege to share this recent poem and to recite it in my gorgeous Lowcountry baritone.[1]

[1] My former students will recognize that italicized well-worn phrase, a tongue-in-cheek self-tribute.

The dirt’s gone to powder

and with the first hard rain

it’ll all wash to nothing.

But now it’s soft and cool,

and lying there curled on a pillow

of her own fluff is the feral

from the woods next door.

I back the truck beside her

and sit idling

and begging her with my eyes

to only be sleeping.

And just as they start to wet

she opens one of her own,

and yawns.

That’s a good girl-

you go back to sleep.

It’s jerky for breakfast

and drink for dinner

and less and less

of me remains that isn’t

absolutely necessary.

Last year’s suit don’t fit.

Who even wore it?

Do I know him?

I’m a drunk of yearning love.

I have no resume,

save this:

One summer day,

with kids not mine,

I did swim and slide my

way through a creek salted

with the tears of god

and lined in oystershell

and we covered ourselves in mud

and dove from boats not ours

and laughed at the rain

and we all three come home


and forever wild.

We are held absolutely.

The hearts on my shirt protect me-

I’d die for the hands

that drew them.

Number 5 of the Stupidest Stunts

Royal Caribbean Hotel Beach 1982

When cataloguing the top ten stupidest stunts I’ve pulled, smuggling marijuana into Jamaica probably ranks in the top 5 behind leaping off the top of a chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse that catapulted me face first onto a Biloxi Beach cottage’s wooden floor, driving my MG down steps of a parking garage that housed the USC’s campus police, totaling Joey Brown’s car in Hilton Head, and mistakenly thinking the stitches I received in that crash were dissolvable.[1] 

So, yeah, smuggling weed into JA comes in at five.

Why, curious reader, would someone smuggle ganja into Ganjaland you wonder?

It was the summer of ’81. My late wife Judy Birdsong and I had booked a flight to Montego Bay and a rental car so we could explore the north coast of the island. I had a problem, though. I didn’t know anyone in Jamaica, had no contacts, and approaching strangers seemed like a bad idea. After all, wouldn’t undercover cops be sporting dreads and t-shirts festooned with cannabis leaves?

So, I removed the ball from my roll-on deodorant, stuffed a nickel bag into the hollow cylinder, replaced the ball [cue Mission Impossible theme].

Once we arrived, it didn’t take me long to realize I had made a mistake. The Hertz Rent-a-Car attendant at the airport asked me if I needed some ganja, the house band asked me if I needed some ganja, every trinket seller on the beach asked me if I needed some ganja.

So, I trashed my USA stash and bought some local and had a blast.

Oh yeah, packing a suit for Jamaica may also seem stupid, but a restaurant we read about required a coat and tie.

Ya, Mon!

[1] The stitches were pulled months later by my brother Fleming with a pair of pliers, a scene reminiscent of the tooth extraction in Marathon Man.