Wednesday, August 28, 2013

my 1980s

[Although many dissed it, I enjoyed this Wayne Koesten-baum essay reprint on Salon, so much so that I've decided to write a similar one in the same style.  Mine will be, of necessity, shorter for the simple reason I'll try to say something in fewer words and images.]

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

I wanted to be the Next Great American Writer in the 1980s. I published one very bad novel and an interesting monograph on Jerzy Grotovski and a few short stories and poems. But I wrote many, many other things.  In my teens a professor told me I was a Renaissance Man and I took that to heart, wanting to whip off novels and poems with the same alacrity as Victor Hugo or Thomas Hardy; tellingly, I didn't enjoy reading either of them at the time. I envisioned myself forever sitting up late at night writing hard, amber-clear prose that never quite satisfied me. There is a wordless comic strip from Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez from that time that shows one of the characters typing and smoking late into the night in a high garret room, suddenly crushing a sheet of paper with dismay, and that's how I saw myself. I often accomplished the sitting up late, drinking instead of smoking, but rarely found anything near solid, precise wording.
I was married when the 80s started and divorced about midway through. It was by mutual consent and there were no kids or property to dispose of so it was relatively amicable. We had sex nearly every day because we were young and horny and it was one of the few times we didn't fight. After we divorced and I lost nearly a hundred pounds I found to my surprise she wasn't the only person attracted to me and eventually I would gain a reputation, not undeserved, for fucking nearly everyone who approached me. For a while I enjoyed sex with men as a sort of vacation from the emotional messiness of sex with women, a kind of palate-cleanser between courses.
I read a tremendous amount, usually on walks and under trees, from silly novels to dense philosophies. I tried to find at least one important line from every book or poem or short story or essay and then typed it on a slip of paper and taped it to the swinging door of my kitchen. I'd been given a portable manual typewriter as a graduation present and it was on this I wrote nearly everything during that time. I had had a larger manual office model someone gave me during my marriage and it was on this I wrote my novel and the monograph, but one evening after reading On the Road I stood up suddenly and began to move methodically around my little apartment collecting furniture, clothes, books, kitchen utensils, everything I decided I no longer needed, and piled them in the center of my living room floor to give away. The office typewriter was among the last items to make the pile.
Today I have a lot of friends who hop trains and call themselves train kids. I did that only a couple times and only for short distances, always returning to my starting point. I was alone each time and spent the whole ride hunkered close to whatever I was holding onto: my first time I clutched a pole tightly, scared shitless I would be blown off and my body found by kids a la Stephen King's "The Body," and the next times I went I belted myself to something secure. I was a road kid, spending most of my time hitchhiking or in my own car. I always had luck hitching; it was always a matter of patience and not looking angry as the cars and trucks whizzed past me. One of the few times I hitched with someone else was one of the least productive hitch times of my career; we walked hours on the side of the New York State Interstate--we were headed to Buffalo--but we made it within twelve hours of our starting by dint of catching a train outside Rochester because it was dark and no one could see out thumbs. Whenever I hear the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" I go back to that time and think specifically of riding around in the back seat of a car driven by a lesbian who would come out as straight within a year and who was showing us the city.
I acted in porn movies for a short time, a single summer, but it was enough to fund my life for a year. $500-1000 for a weekend's worth of work was great money. It was easier and less anxiety-producing than I'd feared and I loved the sex. I never thought about AIDS, not because this was before it or I knew no one who had it--I lost several friends to its depredations and I carry a healthy hatred for Ronald Reagan and his ambivalence to this day--but because I was stupid enough to think I was immortal. I actually came through those years of mostly unprotected sex without a single STD, leading my friends to joke my mother, like Achilles', had dipped me in the River Teflon. 

Authors I read for the first time that decade who played an important role in how I write: Susan Sontag, Jean Genet, Bruce Chatwin, John Gardner, Joan Didion, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Dominick Dunne, Tom Robbins, Louise Erdrich, Tim O'Brien, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Carver, John Le Carre, Henry David Thoreau, Rita Dove, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Simic, Gore Vidal, Georges Simenon, Anne Tyler, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lord, D.H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Rita Adler, Carlos Castenada, Ursula K. LeGuin, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, etc.
For years after my divorce I lived in New Paltz, the town where my college was located. The town is snuggled at the base of the Shawangunk Mountain range between the Hudson and Wallkill Rivers and is home to many freaks. I found myself fitting there like fingers that curl into a fist. Three years after my divorce, through some stunningly bad decisions, I was out of work and had to give up my apartment to a friend. I was in Manhattan for a job interview and, having waited too long because I was at a bar to catch the last bus out of the City, I found a quiet berth under a construction trailer on the overpass above the Grand Central Station. I was warm, safe, and it was astonishingly easy to get in and out without being seen. I ended up sleeping under that trailer for several months, until approaching winter made me decide it was time to visit my parents. They were against my returning to the trailer, or to New Paltz, where I might have slept on friends' couches, so I said, "Buy me a cheap car and I'll live in that." They found a 77 Dodge Aspen wagon for $500 and I spent a weekend making it habitable and then lit out for the road. I lived in it for three years, seeing almost all of the country and parts of Canada, before my mother's entreaties to come back out of it and go to graduate school prevailed. I disembarked in southern Minnesota and sold the Aspen and lived in a park seven miles from town, sleeping under a gazebo and riding my bike to classes. This was September, 1989, and in another nine months I would meet my second, or as she says, my last wife. 

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