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Never/More

By Kristin Iversen

Essay

My father died last summer, and now I have his car. He didn’t leave me his car, but I have it all the same. What he left me was his music—his guitars and his stereo and his records and his tambourine that I had already taken years ago and have always kept in my bedroom. But he didn’t leave me the car. The car just kind of came to me. It’s a twenty-year-old Mercedes station wagon with an out of service car phone in a black metal holster. It looks like it ought to have a Bush/Quayle ‘92 bumper sticker on the back, but I’ve been told that a Puerto Rican flag on the dashboard would really recontextualize everything.

Sometimes I leaned over the dash to rest my head on Paul’s shoulder. Pennsylvania was as flat and rocky as I remembered and we had to roll down the car’s tinted windows to see the sunset. I’d be falling asleep to the lull of music and conversation when suddenly he’d turn the stereo off and make everything go quiet. He’d hush me and slow down until the sound of the road, the hum of the heater, the clicking of CDs in the door became audible—each was part of the noise of travel. I never thought I’d be with a man like this—one who could flip his car almost sideways on a turn and name each fast car that passed by.

It was a nine-hour drive. When we stopped at a little BBQ joint where he liked to eat and refuel, he told me how a friend of his had made this drive with him before. She kept trying to get into the wrong car. In the end, all white cars were like every other white car to most of us. So she rapped on some guy’s window until he opened the door and let her in. Paul watched her from the window of the restaurant and laughed.

What he didn’t know was that for months I had lagged behind him as we headed back to his white Subaru; I was afraid he’d see me waiting at the wrong door for him to unlock it. Once he’d tried to teach me how to drive his car. I was an excellent driver if the vehicle was an automatic and hopeless otherwise. I once broke the transmission on my stepfather’s vintage Datsun roadster when he tried to teach me; that was the first and last time anyone tried until now. My feet felt unnatural as though I was trying to run on top of ice. This time, at least, nothing was broken. I pretended that I got the idea of driving enough that he’d stop trying to teach me. Or maybe to keep from seeing his disappointment when I couldn’t learn.

To Paul, a car wasn’t just a way to keep warm. It wasn’t just a way to get from one place to another. He heard noises—whirs and whispers—that I had to take on faith. It was like a sixth sense for the road. Whenever we got lost, I pulled out my phone to check our route with Google Maps and GPS. I could feel him cringing on my left; he never let me finish loading the map.

Faith was the word that I’d never associated with cars. Never trusted that when someone took the car at 100 mph through Michigan farmland that I might survive. I felt the rush of adrenaline and kept silent. I let him drive. I let the car keep humming even when I didn’t know why it did the things it did.

Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

Tall Mac was driving, and that was the problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that if it had been Fat Mac instead, we would have been safe. Not that Fat Mac, eighteen as well and just as awash with testosterone as the rest of us, was any more immune to the lure of flooring the accelerator along Chandler Highway, or revving his engine at a stop light, just to hear it growl – far from it – but when it came to the road, Fat Mac had a natural affinity that none of us shared. Driving was something that lived in his bones. His nervous system came into focus at the turning of the ignition; he could no more come to harm behind the wheel than Mozart behind a piano.


Recently, while teaching my pet polar bear and two Insane Russian Dogs how to sculpt ice with a chainsaw, I spotted a young woman dragging a baby carriage through a foot of hateful, sludgy snow. She appeared flummoxed and frustrated, snow pouring over the tops of her Ugg (ugh!) boots, icicle towers crashing to the ground all around her. The baby carriage’s wheels soon clogged to the point of complete immobility, and when the woman stopped to dig through her purse for a spare ice axe, she let out an audible whimper.

Being a typical American afflicted with some innate savior-samaritan complex, I rushed over to help. But – perhaps because Finns are markedly tough and resourceful, or perhaps because my Insane Russian Dogs were snuffling at the little human covered in its own frozen drool – the woman presented me with an uncommonly horrified expression. Despite my offer in three different languages to assist, the woman simply said “no,” took out her cell phone, and presumably bided her time until the spring thaw. There was no: “Thank you, but I’m ok,” or “Be gone, creepy Yank.” Just a well-rehearsed turn of the shoulder and a brutally disdainful sideways glance. I was offended. And in the typical reaction of someone who judges that which he doesn’t understand, I stormed back inside and updated my Facebook status.

Not two days later the scene repeated itself. This time I was busy filling the neighbor’s mailbox with snow (we’re at war, it’s a long story) when another woman, mistaking me for a smart person, ventured into our yard to ask for directions. She also had a baby carriage in tow. Before she could hand over her map of Finland (a monstrous white sheet with a tiny “You Are Here” in the middle), her two-inch heels gave out and she and the baby carriage splashed into the snow. The dogs howled. The reindeer scattered. The polar bear strained at the end of his chain. The baby wailed with joy.

After we pried her carriage loose, the woman asked me how to get to a particular church. I’ve heard of these things called churches. I believe they’re the pointy white things on the horizon. I directed her toward the nearest one (which actually ended up being an electric tower) and made the sign of the cross. The woman thanked me, stepped out of the yard, and promptly vanished into a crevasse.

This, my first uncut Finnish winter, has hosted many such events. While it hasn’t been particularly cold, the snow has been unholy and merciless. There’s so much that there’s really nowhere else to pile it. Neighbors can be seen tossing it back and forth over their fences in an infinite loop of futility. If you throw the snow into the street, the plow shoves it back into your yard. If you pile it against the house, the white stuff seeps into your basement and creeps up the stairs. Often you’ll be trudging to the store and will stumble over a shopping cart, an airplane wing, or the mail man.

Fortunately, the Finnish landscape is flat enough that we don’t get many avalanches. Unfortunately, the land is so flat that snow can’t be bothered to melt. Last year in Helsinki, the country’s southernmost city, the Municipal Snow Dump didn’t fall below the one-meter line until September 15th. All of Finland celebrated by peeling their snowsuits down to the waist, then got back to shoveling.

While the country may be big on snow, that’s about all that’s big here. Kitchens, roads, stores, sodas, stomachs, etc. are much more humble in volume. Even in the thick of winter, Finns drive around in cars not much bigger than a bicycle. (Often you’ll see forty or fifty clowns climbing out of them outside Alko, the state-run booze store.) SUVs are used as school buses and tow trucks. Houses that are large by Finnish standards would be considered foyers in the U.S.

Yes, Americans could learn a lot from Finland. Especially humility. But that’s not to say that Finland couldn’t learn a lot from the U.S.: the last time I was visiting my homeland, I stood in line queue behind a woman who wanted to know where she could throw out a coffee cup. Because she was above average in aesthetic pleasantness, an assortment of male courtesans appeared from the sky to assist her. None quite had a plan for the trash though, and the man who “won” it ended up shoving it in his coat pocket (perhaps to be used in future Voodoo rituals). Conversely, upon returning to Finland I saw a man try to help an old woman out of the path of an oncoming train. The woman spat, swung her handbag at him, and called him a “smelly c***.” And that was her being polite.

I guess in Finland being helped is ultimately a sign of weakness. It’s just not in their nature. Which is why I’m piling snow in the trunk of the neighbor’s car. I just can’t help myself.

 

 

 

 

Sport wagon, that is. SPORT wagon, to be more precise (shown above). If there was an astonishing trend to be observed during this year’s L.A. show, it was the return of the wagon. Cadillac has its CTS wagon (picture), Acura is throwing a TSX wagon in the mix (called sport wagon), and Audi offers a slew of them (but I could do with all this letter salad. Gone are the days luxury cars had names. Sigh!) For me, that’s welcome news, even though I won’t be able to plunk down 50 Grand for a Cadillac – my own car will look less dorky. You just wait and see! Only fourteen years to go until I own a classic.

Last time I did this very, very irregular car column, I griped about drivers. This time, I’m going to reveal what your car says about you — that is, if you own one of the 20 cars listed here. But since LA is not like the rest of the country when it comes to cars (after all, this is the place where only three colors exist (white, black, gray)), I commented twice. If you can’t find your beater on the list, feel free to add your own car to the list. And hey, these evaluations are meant for new-car buyers (all but the last one).

It’s been six months now since my latest root canal was started, and the painful procedures, the crowning of the tooth followed by its de-crowning, followed by an endodontist’s re-evaluation and an encore performance of the root canal, have proved more disruptive and distracting than even the upstairs neighbor’s teenage kids playing Rockband all afternoon.

When I was growing up in California, my parents had a fairly loose policy of not driving me, my sister, or my brother around town. We biked to the dentist and doctor. To go anywhere else—school, the beach, the movies—we walked, rode the bus, roller skated, and hitch-hiked (the method of choice in high school).

The no driving policy was cemented sometime before my sister, Becca, went away to college, when we were both in high school together.

On that particular day, the rain was coming down like an unbroken wall of water. Becca had whined and complained, cajoling our dad to drive us to school so we wouldn’t have to walk through the rain to the bus stop (where we’d stick out our thumbs to hitch-hike). My father relented, grumbling and moaning as he picked up his car keys from the kitchen counter and walked out to the garage. He was barefoot in his threadbare blue bathrobe that reminded me of an overused, shredded tissue.

 

 

Becca pushed the garage door open from the inside, then quickly got into the front seat of the old station wagon. I sat in the back. My sister was relentlessly bossy when it came to priority seating in the car. I always thought she acted as if the family owed her for her having to put up with bird shit (from my brother’s un-caged bird who lived in our family room), clutter (covering every flat surface in the house), overflowing ashtrays (cigarettes and pot), nudity (my parents didn’t own bathing suits and always swam naked), moldy food in the refrigerator (cheeses that smelled like butt-holes) and moths flying out of the cereal boxes in the cupboard (which resulted in the aromatic branches from bay trees in the cupboards as a form of organic insecticide). What I didn’t understand in this equation was why Josh and I were owed nothing for putting up with it all.

Dad drove us all the way into school—the rain was so thick, I didn’t worry about anyone peering into the window of the station wagon and seeing that he was in his ratty bathrobe.

 

 

That afternoon when Becca and I got home from school, Dad came bounding down the stairs still in his bathrobe, hollering, “I WILL NEVER DRIVE YOU GIRLS ANYWHERE AGAIN, YOU HEAR?!” Oddly, my father often seemed inured to the little things that drove most people mad (traffic lights, rude sales clerks, finding a parking spot) but could be outraged at the things that most people didn’t think about (an orange that wasn’t perfectly ripe, the movie Fiddler on the Roof, a dog shit on the lawn). So it didn’t seem surprising that he would be ranting about having driven us to school.

“Do you know that I ran out of gas!” He bellowed.

“Where?” Becca snarled. Of course she was wondering exactly what I was wondering, and that was if our father had run out of gas near the school and if he got out of the car in the raggedy bathrobe under which he was completely naked.

“On Cathedral Oaks Road, just after I dropped you off!”

“Dad! Come on!” Becca said. I imagined my friends driving to school and passing my father loping down the road, his penis probably flopping out into the rain through the sheer flaps of his robe.

“Do you know how far I had to walk for gas!?”

The only thing between the house and the high school was acres and acres of lemon, orange, and avocado orchards. He would have had to walk toward the school, then past it, to get to a gas station.

“About a mile?” I guessed.

“Dad!” Becca said. “Did you see any of my friends? Did anyone see you walking to the gas station?” Her face was a dark stain of worry.

“How the hell do I know! It was fucking raining out! I was fucking naked under my robe!”

“We know,” I said, quietly. I was worried about my latest crush having seen my father. We had gone on only one date and I was hoping for a second.

“Dad!” My sister’s body was clenched as if she were trying to contract her entire being into one tiny, dark lump. “Why don’t you get dressed before you leave the house!? Most people do this—they put on clothes before they walk out the door.”

“I didn’t even go to work today, I was so outraged!” My father was pacing the entrance hall.

“Why didn’t you take off the wet robe?” I asked.

“I took it off and put it in the dryer, but then I was so fucking pissed off, that I just put it back on when it was dry.”

“You were too mad to get dressed?” I imagined my father working naked while he waited for the robe to dry. Would he have answered the door naked? Who knows.

“What is wrong with you!” Becca pushed past Dad and walked down the hall toward the kitchen, her giant backpack sitting on her like someone riding piggyback. I followed.

“Never again!” Dad shouted down the hall at us. “Find your own rides from now on!” I could hear his footsteps thumping up the stairs.

“It’s not like you’ve ever driven us anywhere before!” Becca shouted to the ceiling. Dad must have heard her, but he said nothing and simply slammed shut the bedroom door.

My father stuck to his promise and didn’t drive us anywhere again. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience—I only thought of it when I rode in the backseat of someone else’s parents’ car, the mothers who would pick us up from the movies at night, the dads who would drive us to the County Bowl for concerts. In fact, when I rank the oddities of my childhood this one comes out normal compared the period when my father was a voluntary mute and only communicated with us by scrawling notes on a yellow legal pad that he always carried in one hand.

 

El Camino. 1984. V8 engine. 350. I never had one and I still don’t. But my just-graduated-son Landen gave me and a six-year-old punk girl named Jai Ann our first El Camino joyride. Destination: McDonald’s.

It goes like this: We hit Gosford Road and flew like the Furies were chasing us. Clouds rolled past. Time slowed. This was our video game. Pull out the joystick. Hit the fire button. Blast some asteroids. Jump like Frogger. Fly like the Pacman family. Donkey Kong it. You get the picture. Soaring Xervious adventure. This was old school.

We hit the drive-thru in style. Jai Ann had no idea what was soaring through my veins. She couldn’t feel the 80s. But she could feel something: 80s Generation X energy. After two Sprites, oh, and a coffee-for-the-old-man later, we pulled out. But suddenly Lando (as I usually call him) swerved back into the lot. “What’s going on?” I say.

“You’re drivin’.” Damn if he ain’t the captain.

Aw, hell yeah. My kid does love me. My foot still tingles as I remember. I imagine pressing down on the gas, the fuzzy dice above the dash, the fuzzy steering wheel cover in my grip like a puppy coming for a lick. I think about the tires on the road, the El Camino zooming toward the horizon. Yeah, Gran Torino should have been playing on my boy’s iPod followed by Fast and the Furious, Gone in Sixty Seconds and the highlights of Tron.

The next day my eyes were wider than usual. I’m standing around the car with he and his brother Jordo (Real name Jordan). The hood is up. We’re glaring into that secret of the universe that mechanics and teen boys dream about. We’re electricity zoomin’ through the distributor, fuel slippin’ through the filter, belts searing in hot passion, pulling by the radiator. “Aw yeah. I got it,” I say. My boys look over. “Candy apple red. White stripes up the hood.”

“Oh yeah,” Lando says then adds, “Can’t though. Cops would target that.”

I give him the I-don’t-care shrug as if I should be yelling out: “Murder is worse. Let’s do this thing. Let’s paint the town when we’re done with the car.”

While I’m tired and my head is spinning from having just pushed the El Camino through a busy intersection at Ming Avenue and Oak Street—as if JELL-O legs could ever attach to a robot—that doesn’t matter, I’m right back to dreaming: this car is a rocketship. “Oh yeah.”

VIDEO: El Camino, Lando On Guitar, At Intersection Right Before Breakdown

Rejection letters are always a drag; whether they are negative responses from job opportunities, university admissions boards or literary journals. However, there is nothing quite as spirit-crushing as a rejection letter received after submitting a poem. A short-story rejection slip is depressing, but not devastating. You manufacture a story in your head, create some characters and make them talk. Fine. So you didn’t like my characters. Their dialogue is unrealistic. Their motives are questionable. Fine. They aren’t me. But a rejection letter from a poem is, for me, the equivalent of standing out on a street corner naked and having passers-by hand you terse little notes reading, “Your penis is unconvincing,” or “You call those nipples?” or maybe, “You have an affected buttocks.” And that kind of stuff just breaks my heart. You pour it all into a poem: your skeleton, your bile, your oozing primordial remnant—your private parts. To be told that the fundamental you is not up to snuff—that’s hard murder.

I was looking out a window at the Vail ski slopes and thought that the skiers in the distance resembled fleas on a giant polar bear. That made me feel fairly poetic, so I went to my girlfriend’s computer to write it down. I’d never seen a ski poem and thought that perhaps there was a niche industry there. Most skiers are rich, most skiers are educated, and everybody loves a hokey poem about their sport, their profession, their passion. I could be the Pablo Neruda of ski poems: “I want to bounce over moguls/like the raindrops in Chile/bounce across your breasts.” Every poet, at one point in his or her life, considers dipping the quill in hackneyed Hallmark ink. But, this is poetry, and the real poet must never compromise feeling, self or integrity. My mind whirred around, thinking of words and meter, then came to a stop and remembered that it had been a while since I last checked one of my “poetry” e-mail addresses. This address (which I will not divulge, as I still may have a poem in me one day) is one of the many e-mail addresses writers have. Most publications assert that their editors will accommodate no more than two or three submissions per writer, per year. So, after those first two rejections, what can the writer do but stew until the coming year nears? I’ll tell you what: The writer can fabricate names and alternate e-mail addresses, assuring at least a few more reads a year (alas, this is inevitably coupled with a few more rejections each year). I have three poetry e-mail addresses. I had checked two of the addresses fairly recently, but it had been over a month since I checked the third. I went to my account, as I always do, hopeful as one is hopeful for making parole (in that this kind of hope is seldom realized and often results in continued forced sodomy, or in the best of cases, a job cleaning those cheese spackle guns at Taco Bell). I have four replies.

Three are in response to a poem I wrote about the death of Federico Garcia-Lorca. One is in response to a Bukowski rip-off that details the deleterious gastro-intestinal effects of drinking gin and eating chicken wings in excess. It looked bad. You can always tell you’re about to be denied when the response reads something like: Re: My Poetry Submission. If the bastards don’t want you, they won’t even bother with changing first person to possessive. Sure enough, I receive all vaguely complimentary albeit offensively generic rejections (I will not even begin to go into the despair upon receiving SASE snail-mail rejection letters. The thought of paying to be rejected makes me want to burrow through an excelsior filled cage with a rent copy of Leaves of Grass.).

Then, something snapped in me. Not exactly snapped, but kind of slurped. As I quickly changed websites to cnn.com/money to see how rapidly my stock was tanking, a warm swell enveloped me. I thought of Whitman and how he went door to door hawking his scrawls. Then to Rimbaud and how if it all went to shit I could just leave for Paris and drink absinthe all day. And finally, to a guy I read about in Saskatchewan who juggles moose testicles for the patients’ amusement in a cancer ward. There are solutions to problems. These men had all been faced with artistic rejection (except for the moose dude, maybe) in their careers and had found ways to assuage their pain. Besides, it wasn’tthat bad. I was in Vail. Of course, I had (still have) over $10,000 of credit card debt, a shit job, an STD I picked up in Nuevo Laredo and the house in Vail was my best friend’s boss’s house that we broke into; but it was still far from hopeless. Maybe poetry would never work out. I could be happy on a beach just drinking boat drinks and making passes at women—who needs poetry? Maybe this was just not my epoch; maybe in 2388, when robots/yetis rule the earth, I will be appreciated as “ahead of my time.” I didn’t need poetry the way I need pornography. I would survive.

My trip from Vail over a little more than a week, I sat in my girlfriend’s and my 300 square foot apartment in Denver, restless. The first few days I never wrote, I never thought of writing. However, after those few days, I started to lose it. I would wake up before my girlfriend and run to liquor store to buy a half-pint of vodka at 9:00am. I sat behind a car, drank the Absolut Citron mixed with Diet Rock Star Energy Drink and then wobbled my way back up the stairs. I would sit through an agonizing episode of ER in which I would lament my abbreviated pre-med career and think how, if I had been more vigilant in organic chemistry, I could have made MDMA and sold hits of Ecstasy to the gentry. The vodka would kick in and around 10:00am my girlfriend would wake up.

“Did you leave this morning?”

“No.”

“That Diet Rock Star smells like booze.”

“I know, doesn’t it?”

“What are you eating?”

“Chinese food.”

“From last night?”

“Yes.”

“We were going to eat that together for lunch in the park.”

“This is different Chinese food.”

“Are you drunk?”

“No.”

“Then where in the fuck are your pants?”

You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”

“Jesus.”

It went this way for a while until I reached that point of indifference that breeds the most valuable of ideas. Snow was falling over Denver and I sat out on our balcony and watched it. The chill was numbing but the scenery was hypnotic. I saw each snowflake as if I had been taken on some kind of peyote-induced vision quest. Every bit of geometry made sense, much like cheeseburgers; every cheeseburger, like every snowflake is different, yet hauntingly similar. My poems, God help me, were different. My unmetered scribbles were vessels for a universal suffering, a galactic joy. I resolved to sell a poem.

Up to this point, I had published a grand total of one poem (a floundering rant on commercialism picked up by a Marxist rag out of Portland) and had been paid for none. I was going to create and I was going to get paid for standing skinned alive on the street, my own entrails squishing through my fingers as I raised them over my head in Promethean awkwardness. I would become a merchant of my own quill and scroll. I would set up shop on my own—like Whitman—and sell my poems.

“Original Poems: $500 or Best Offer” read my slipshod cardboard sign. I spent almost two hours perfecting the desperate scrawls that adorned my sign. I don’t want to seem too complacent, I thought. Better dirty up the sign. I want to seem educated—perhaps one year of college, then the mendicant breakdown of sociopathic genius. I printed out a quantity of poems and sorted them into three piles. One pile would be for the patchouli-lathered quasi-hippies who might identify with me—people who might buy a poem just because the idea of buying a poem on the street seemed “counter-cultural.” Another pile would be my attempt at a “romantic” poem. Now obsolete, the poem was written for an ex-girlfriend that borrowed heavily from—who else?—Neruda. These poems would be for husbands too lazy to stop for flowers after coming home smelling like stripper perfume the night before. Finally, I managed to track down a poem I’d written a long time ago that amounted to a musing on nature. Nobody knows what to do with nature poems. This poem was the kind of wild-card I’d sell to those folks I couldn’t get a really solid read on. Nature confuses by its very, well, nature. Thus, its appeal in poems is undeniable but still perplexes the reader, which I suppose is good.

What followed was easily one of the most petrifying moments of my life. I gathered my stack of poems and made my way out to one of the busier intersections in Denver—at Hamden and Colorado. My first fear was that I would saunter up to the intersection only to find another “homeless” person with an even more sympathetic if not humorous sign and that I’d have to pack up my gear and find another intersection. I had picked this particular intersection because it was close to our apartment and I thought that if things really got out of hand or the gendarmes decided to go after me for loitering or soliciting (I can never remember which is which), I would have time to make a quick dash back to the apartment, burn all my poems and call my parents, asking them for another loan. I didn’t see any other vagrant with a sign, so I freaked out and ran back to the apartment anyway. The thing was, the closer I got to setting up my makeshift poetry kiosk, I was reminded that I had gone to college with two guys who I knew were in Denver. Denver is a big city, but I was beset by a strong mental image of either of them pulling up next to me in their BMW’s, noticing me, then it’s that whole awkward situation you see in movies where they demand to “take me in,” feed me and give me money until their wives come home and demand that “he can only stay the night, then he has to leave. . . Think of the children!” Or, the other option: The eye contact between former colleagues, one of whom has obviously “made it,” and the other, obviously bat-shit crazy, probably drunk and likely to start screaming about “modes of being.”

When I return to our apartment, my girlfriend is there, which is a bit of a problem, as I thought that she would be in class and that I would not have to explain why her upper middle class boyfriend is wandering around the streets of Denver with a stack of poetry and a cardboard sign.

“I thought you were in class, baby.”

“I imagine you did. What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m selling my poems on the street.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me. Why don’t you call my cousin—he said he’d give you a job at Starbucks”

“I hate Starbucks, no way.”

“Everybody hates Starbucks. You just have a bad reason—they took over your Taco Bell and that Taco Bell was the only one who would still make the Cheesarito?”

“I told you that?”

“Yes, a bio-degradable moment, obviously.”

“You read that phrase in a book.”

“No, you read that in a book. You say it all the time because you can’t remember that you say it all the time.”

“It’s a good line, though, you have to admit.”

“It was a good line. Now you just embarrass yourself with it. . . like you’re doing out on the street. Selling fucking poems, Tyler? Why don’t you just keep submitting to the New Yorker?”

“They don’t reply anymore. They just send me offers to subscribe, completely ignoring my submissions.”

“You shouldn’t have written them hate mail every time they rejected you.”

“It wasn’t hate mail, it was more desperate pleas for a sympathy publication.”

“You called an editor “fit for little more than extinction.”

“I was writing a metaphor.”

“Go sell your poems on the street, then. How’s it going out there, I guess I’ll ask.”

“Terrible. I totally panicked and ran back here”

“For wine?”

“For wine.”

“Get your fat-ass out there and you can have wine after you’ve sold ten poems.”

“Ten?”

“Ten at least.” She ushers me out the door, sort of tenderly, which is nice. But again, I’m scared shitless. I gird up my loins, as I have another flash ushered on by the Ghost of Poetry Future—who looks a lot like a black Emily Dickenson—that has me writing Crayon hieroglyphics on a bathroom wall somewhere in New Jersey with a bottle of something in hand and a case of mild gigantism that has only afflicted my lymph nodes. I walk out of the apartment, this time resolute in selling my poetry.

Again, I walk down to the corner of Hamden and Colorado. I sit for one moment, pondering the possibility (inevitability?) of humiliation and shame, but I am not the most weak-willed person in the world and I take up a spot at the northwest corner of the intersection by the left-hand turn lane. I arrange my poems in their respective piles, I don my sign and try not to make eye contact with any of the drivers. I am sweating ice. I feel an acute sense of fraud. I feel death.

Moments go by and it seems, in my agitated state, that none of the drivers have even recognized this freaked-out specimen standing on the side of the road. The light is still green. The cars whiz by and I long to be in a fugue state, or at least drunk. But I’m here, carrying with me the hope every poet must carry in his or her heart that what they have to offer is valuable, valuable not just to the self, but to humanity. The light goes yellow and it seems I am being rained on by a sulfuric acid cloud. My skin gets hot, my knees wobble and my head feels as if needles have sprung from every hair follicle. The light turns red. An eternity goes by and still nothing. I begin to daydream . . Word gets out. Within a week a writing professor will drive by after reading one of the poems purchased by his wife and take me in and coddle me and cultivate my writing and then I’ll be fighting Jonathan Safran Foer at some art opening in Soho. I think when Annie Leibowitz shoots my photo for Rolling Stone, I’d like to be ass naked holding a five liter jug of Carlo Rossi burgundy with only a Purdue roaster chicken covering my crotch. Art. Just start with one poem. One god-damned poem.

After waiting another eternity on this damned corner, I resolve to engage at least one person on thiscorner. I walk gingerly up to the Ford Explorer stopped at the light. The driver is a 40ish man in street clothes, so I’m relatively assured that he either has enough money not to work or has one of those jobs that allow for free-thinking and poetic tendencies. I make eye contact with the man and he looks back and, noticing my sign, lets out a laugh. He rolls down the window.

“I don’t have $500. What kind of poems are you selling?” He sounds vaguely Texan, something that puts me at ease. I am from Texas.

“I’ve got a few kinds here. Romantic, pensive, natural…”

“I’ll give you five dollars for one of each.”

“Five a piece?”

“God, no. Five for one of each.” I am about to wet myself I am so excited. I reach into each of my little cardboard boxes and pull out one of each poem. I hand him the poems and he hands me a five dollar bill. My first poetry sale fills me with such happiness that after taking the money, I nearly walk out into traffic out of mongloid jubilation. There are souls on this earth that still care! I am the happiest man alive I resolve to stay out on this magical corner for the rest of my days, happily whooping like a Valkyrie and selling poems to this world—this beautiful, artistic, forgiving, gentle world. I regard the Rocky Mountains in the distance and feel I belong here in this place. There is a place for the poet on this Earth!

As my eyes water with joy and Haydn’s “Der Himmel Erzahlen” bellows throughout my very soul, aFord Explorer pulls up and a 40ish man with a hint of a Texas accent throws some pieces of paper at my feet.

“Hey, man—these motherfuckers don’t even rhyme.”

PARIS, FRANCE-

California is fairly notorious for having really aggressive drivers and a lot of traffic.

But after three weeks of driving in Paris I have to say, Californians are sissy drivers by comparison.

Our problem: We’re too law-abiding.

It’s not so much a problem really. I rather enjoyed the comparably chaos-free driving I experienced in California. There weren’t horns honking at 6 a.m., waking up the entire neighborhood because a moving van is double-parked in the middle of an already barely wide enough one way street.

You never have to worry that if you go down a street you’ll find it blocked and be forced to drive in reverse down the entire length of the street and look for another route to your desired destination.

But in Paris these things happen more often than anyone would believe.

Emergency lights here are not used for real emergencies. They’re used instead as the “Hi, I know I’m not supposed to park here, but I’m going to anyway so please don’t give me a ticket” lights.

I asked a French friend about all the cars double parked on the streets, telling them that it’s illegal in the U.S. to double park like that because it causes too many traffic problems. Not only that, but it blocks in whoever you’re parked next to.

She said it’s illegal here too, just nobody cares. And, when getting my official Paris driving lessons, I was instructed to double park if I can’t find other parking.

So, what I guess I’m saying is that the French, or at least Parisians, don’t take Traffic Laws to heart really. They look at them more as a kind of loose guideline, only to be followed in exemplary driving conditions, or when they aren’t in a hurry.

To illustrate, here’s a diagram of the street in front of the school I have to go to each day:

Diagram

A. The no parking sign.
B. The “We’re serious, don’t park here or we’ll tow you sign.”
C. The car illegally parked in front of the no parking sign, with emergency lights on of course.
D. My car, also illegally parked with emergency lights flashing.
E. The guy who parked legally and paid for parking, but is now blocked in by cars C and D.
F. A school bus parked in the middle of the street, now blocking all oncoming traffic, because the whole row of cars in front of me have parked illegally in front of the school.


Since I’ve been here I’ve double parked nearly every day, I’ve blocked intersections regularly, I’ve purposely driven the wrong way down a one-way street, and I’ve driven in reverse down an entire street after the moving van guy told me he’d be there for at least another half an hour and had no intention of moving.

I’ve also seen quite a few accidents involving cars and motorcycles. Because if cars have no traffic laws, motorcycles really don’t have any traffic laws here.

I think another part of the problem is the lack of dividing lines. There are lines right at the stop light to kind of divide up the traffic, but they disappear as you begin driving up the road. This means people are left to decide whether they want to have two lanes or three. And they will make their own lane whether you like it or not.

They will also park dangerously close to your car, so that you’re stuck in a reverse-forward-reverse-forward mess for about fifteen minutes trying to get out of the space.

Look_at_how_close_they_park

I don’t know how they do it. It’s almost as though Parisian cars are an extension of the driver. Somehow they’re able to park as close as possible to anything without actually hitting it. I don’t think I’ll ever master this though. I’m constantly driving in circles looking for a larger parking space.

I was looking forward to continuing my car-free lifestyle here in Paris, but I’m getting used to the idea of driving here now. It’s unfortunate because I feel like it takes away from my experience of the city. Suddenly Paris doesn’t seem quite so huge. And I’m learning my way around much quicker than I did before.

But one thing to be said about it is that driving makes me feel more at home here. It’s making Paris familiar in a way it never was before. I have a routine of taking the children to school and picking them up from school everyday, which includes a dangerous trek through the Charles de Gaulle Etoile, famous for car accidents and having L’Arc de Triomphe at its center. But this week I went through it without even holding my breath or saying, “We made it,” to the boys afterward.

I haven’t decided whether I’m glad or disappointed about this development. It’s growing on me though.