Sunny Kafka

Look, I’m proud to claim the name Kafka and to share with Franz a common ancestor. I blame my mother, not him, for the absurd pairing of my names. Sure, it’ his fault that my last name is synonymous with dark unfunny gummed-up absurdity, with torture machines, with crushing heartless totalitarian bureaucracy. You hear Franz Kafka and you think hellscape, but it’s not like Cousin Franz consciously set out to make that his legacy. I doubt he’d be happy to know that thanks to him our family name has mutated into a negative adjective, the suffix esque attaching itself like a cancer to the Czech-German word Kavka, which means “jackdaw.”[1] It’s my mother’s fault; she should have known better to turn my names into an oxymoron.

To me, Jackdaw sounds sort of cool, like a bird baked in a pie fit for the king. And as it turns out, jackdaws are avian, crow kin found in Africa and Eurasia.  They’re famous for nesting in towers and ruins and also for taking bright objects back to their nests.[2]  Although not as black or glossy, they look a lot like carrion crows. Hey, it could be worse. My mother could have named me Carrie Crowe, Carrie short for Carrion.

Could have named me that because, weirdly enough, my father’s name was (or is) Crow but without an “e.” So I come from crows on both sides – ha ha! He was an Indian of the reservation variety and split forever before I was born, so my retro hippie mother laid her last name on me and slapped the adjective “sunny” in front of it. That’s exactly what it reads verbatim on the birth certificate, Sunny Kafka, just those two names, not even a middle initial.

She says she named me after the girl in the song “Sunny.” If you haven’t heard it, you can listen to it in the YouTube below.  Sounds like parakeets and canaries. Chirpy. I’m more of a jackdaw caw-caw Tom Waits, Velvet Underground kind of gal. She should have named me Cloudy Kafka.

I hope I don’t sound too whiny. To tell you the truth, my name’s rarely an issue. After all, I’m a bartender on Folly Beach.[3] Only a skinny fraction of my customers have heard of Franz Kafka, much less read him, and I suspect not a single one has “Kafkaesque” in their speaking vocabulary, though a few might know what an oxymoron is.

Which reminds me.  I met a guy at Snapper Jacks who taught English at Trident Tech. When he asked me what my last name was, I told him, and he smiled but didn’t say anything after that, so I broke the awkward silence by squawking, “So I’m a walking oxymoron – Sunny Kafka!”

He chuckled and said, “Pleased to meet you, Sunny Kafka,” then launched into a tedious mini-lecture on Kafka’s being the great great grandaddy of Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Larry David, and especially Richard Lewis. I guess I had a sour look on my face because he interrupted himself and asked if I was Jewish.

“Do I look Jewish?” I asked in my trademark snarky tone.

“How should I know? I’m blind as a bat.” 

He took off his sunglasses. 

He looked like a white Willie McTell or a thirty year old Doc Watson, squinty-eyed. By the way, did you know that Roy Orbison wasn’t really blind?

[1] And if you, listen, they do sound somewhat alike, both two syllables, accents on the first, the vowels rhyming sort of.

[2] I’m picturing a sepia-tinged abandoned Albanian factory, krow-like kafkas (sic) flitting out of its windows like black tears but coming back with Rubrik cubes in their beaks.

[3] I’m not making any of this up. Charlie Marlow’s my man. I wouldn’t lie to you.  

“Call of the Wild” Meets “The Man with the Golden Arm”

Okay, Lefty.  What about this one?  There’s this German shepherd named Rolf working at LAX sniffing out dope, but the thing is, he starts to like the smell of the herb, wonders what it tastes like, and finally, one day loses his Teutonic dog discipline and tears into a bag of Acapulco Gold, wolfs the whole bag, starts seeing shit like black light bunny rabbits melting.

He’s instantaneously hooked. There’s nothing anybody can do.  They try everything: behavior modification, treats, punishments, but after that first taste, he’s long gone, addicted, unemployable, eventually let go, gets adopted, but busts out his backyard, his nose huffing, guiding him outside the city limits south to Flores where he spends every waking moment trying to cop.

The cat – I mean dog – has a world-class nose.  Can sniff dope out extraordinaire.  Becomes a pot pickpocket, gets the shit beat out of him a couple of times, but it’s worth it – he’s got to have it.  Loses weight, hair, looks scabby, his will-to-live vacates.  He considers throwing himself in front of a bus but then [cue violins] runs across a wino puking in a back alley, and in puke Rolf sees the face of Jesus. He eats the vomit, and after licking his chops, his mouth opens, and the words “Oh my God” come out loud and clear.

Rolf gets straight, spends the rest of his life talking to users, who think they’re hallucinating when a dog starts telling them what they already know deep down inside, but he assures them they’re not hallucinating, and a few of them follow in his pawsteps, so to speak, accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, slip out of the chains of their addiction.

Getting people off drugs translates into some pretty powerful enemies.  One day a pusher named Roberto offs him, but Rolf goes to heaven, is the very first dog allowed in because dogs are basically amoral, no matter how much they seem to love you.  I realize this idea is unpopular, but it’s true.

I thought so.  Not believable.  Religious people won’t understand eating the vomit is communion, holy. I get it.  No hard feelings.

Well, the only other thing I got is even more unbelievable.  This reality TV star and professional wrestling promoter, who has a vocabulary of about 10,000 words, decides to run for president to drum up business for his brand.  The vulgarian is ridiculous, sports a platinum-dyed comb-over Teddy Boy do and tips the scales at 320. He has no intention of actually winning; it’s merely a publicity stunt, like I said, to hype his brand.  But the thing is that he kills his Republican competitors in the debates, mocking them to their faces.  It’s like, well, like professional wrestling: over the top, crass, stupid, the Red State Special. Even after he brags about his history of grabbing pussies, Evangelicals claim that God has sent him to save the nation.  He ends up winning the nomination, the presidency. Like I say, the talking Jesus dog is more believable.

The Unhappy Wanderer

by-any-means-necessaryOn the corner of Robert E Lee Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, I pick up a hitchhiker — there’s a knapsack on his back — he’s unwashed, emaciated, Whitmanesque in a Johnny Winter sort of way, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 65.

I’m in a good mood, have just gotten word The Kenyon Review has accepted one of my poems. When I pull over, I sing, “Val-deri, val-dera” as I lean over and open the door for him.

There’s the spring 2014 issue of The Paris Review on the seat, which I stick into the side pocket of the open door. He frowns, takes off the knapsack, which is actually a blackened, tattered bookbag, and struggles to jam it between the seats into the back compartment of my Fiat. Finally successful in the stowing, he sits down and turns and grabs for the seat belt like he’s just fallen overboard.

“Where to?” I ask, once the commotion is over, a little ashamed of myself for singing.

“Ultimately, way out west, I reckon.”

He reeks of cigarettes, campfire, mildew, and that metabolic sour wino sweetish stench that in-excess Mad Dog 20-20 and digestive systems produce.

He says, “Let me amend that. Wherever.”


“Drop me off wherever?”

The smell is getting to me as we tool down Malcolm X past Eldridge Cleaver Middle School. I decide I’ll take him to the Interstate exit, which is both headed west and qualifies as wherever.

He turns to me, and I can tell he’s looking at me, so I take my eyes off the not-so-heavy traffic and make eye contact with his barely blue eyes all rheumy and sad and staring at me.

“Who’s your favorite poet?” he asks.

I know the answer to this one: “Me.”

“You’re a poet?”

“Yep, as a matter of fact.”


“You bet.”

“Okay, then. Who’s your second favorite poet?”

Frederick Seidel,” I say, thinking I’ll name someone he’s never heard of.

“Okay,” he says. “You can let me out here.”

“Here? How come?

“Seidel’s a pervert; that’s why.”

You sure you don’t want me to take you to the Interstate?”


I pull over, he gets out, and I bid goodbye with a sarcastic salute. Self-righteous son-of-a-bitch.

I pull back into traffic, the post-industrial claptrap warehouses scrolling past my side windows, but I can still smell him five blocks away. I have a theory that loud noises drown out odors. I click on the music. Big Brother. Cheap Thrills.

It’s not until I’m past the Huey Newton on-ramp that I realize his bookbag’s still in the back.

No telling what I’m going to find in there.