While flying on a plane some years ago, some years in fact after writing Backwoods Veda: A Poem for Ryan Kramer, I decided to write a random letter to a guy named Steve Almond, a writer whose article I had just read in the sky magazine. This was how a poem started to turn into a story.
Hi Steve, do you mind if I call you that? Look, I'm on an airplane right now, Southwest Airlines, to be specific, so in short, I have some time on my hands, so I suppose there's no call for brevity, in long.
I don't often flip through the pages; draw a line through those words, I can't find that tool on my keyboard; I don't often READ the pages in an airplane magazine. I don't often find I can. I guess you could say I feel about most magazine content (whether in the air or on terra firma) about how I do about... this sentence isn't working. You know when you get up in the morning after you had a little - no, a lot -too much to drink the night before. Hell, it's not that bad I guess. I just don't exactly look forward to it, reading most magazines.
It's like something's trying to tell a story, and your website is the conduit. It's not that your piece in... oh, what the hell is this magazine called? - Spirit, Southwest Airlines and Airtran - ... it's not that it saved my life or anything. It's not that it's the best thing I've ever read or anything like that... It's just that it was nice to read something sane - something that wasn't trying to sell me anything - something that felt genuine, honest. And you're right about cell phones, and especially smart phones, for the record. They are the devil. I !@#$ing hate them, and I don't use expletives in writing lightly.
Sorry, we've been going through a little turbulence and I think that made my writing that way. You know, the story is, where do you begin? Jesus, maybe my writing is just getting this way. This is how it is now, this is my voice. Hello, voice. I've been looking for you. Now that I've found you, where do I trade you in for a better one? Couldn't you have sent me something a little more Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald even? I'd take Faulkner or Conrad in a heartbeat. No, Salinger. Please oh please just let me be more like Salinger.
Getting back to your article, and sorry about the digressions. I told you, I have all kinds of time on my hands, because i'm on this flight and all, and this madman flight attendant and all these phony (okay, that's just plagiarism). Getting back to your article, look, I don't know what to say but I just wanted to write you. I don't think I want to ask you for anything (although I could! Boy, could I ever. You see, my first thought was 'hey, if a good writer, I mean a decent guy like this Steve Almond, if he'll publish in these mags maybe I should look into it... I mean, he's pretty good, not bad at all, and maybe every once in a while somebody reads one of these damned magazines, and that might make it worth it, but really, at least I wonder how much it pays, and does he have a contact)... I thought about that, but when I started writing, this is what came out, and it's not like that at all. And I'm not trying to play some middle-school reverse psychology or anything, I just don't feel like that's what I want to say any more. Although, feel free to include a professional contact in your response, I'm post-BD-broke. You know, I'm kind of like a trustfunder without a trustfund. I mean, my folks would bail me out and all, but I do get most of my food from the dumpster... but that's another story.
I really agree with you, though, about people not connecting any more... Even my own girlfriend - she just got a smart phone a couple years ago, right after we started dating, and I swear she changed. When it's really bad I call her Phoneface... but I spend all this time (like right now, don't worry, she's not here) on my computer, so she calls me computerface, so I guess it's like the pot calling the kettle black. But you know.
I'll tell you the worst with me. I'm mad about emails. I'll send one to anyone. See? I mean, I've never met you, but here I am telling you my whole life story. It's absurd. There's gotta be someone else on this plane that I could do this with - shoot the shit, josh around, chit chat, make small talk. Actually, it's a pretty empty flight (Thank God), and I have a row to myself. Do you get the feeling that we just don't like each other any more? Humans, I mean.
I get the feeling you're in your thirties, early forties maybe at the most. No offense one way or another, I don't have a clue. But you feel a little older than me to me - I'm 29. The big three zero is coming right up. But I gotta tell you, I feel like it's a little bit worse even than you realize. I can't begin to try to explain what it's been like to be me, to grow up like this, in this "generation". You know, I don't even feel like I can call it that. That's what it's like. It's like everything has already been said, and everything is already cliche, or canned, or passe - whatever that means. I don't know, we don't even say it any more because people did that too much already, and now we need a new word for it. And that's what it's like.
It's not that it's hopeless or anything, or so bad. I'm not trying to say that. It's just, something feels like it's missing. I don't get the impression this is really how we're supposed to live. I had a hunch last summer in Seattle - everybody walking around with white ear buds in and white cords coming out of their ears, all looking off vaguely into the distance like they were looking through whatever was in front of them, and talking to the air in front of them - I had a hunch, and kind of a sickly feeling like we're all putting ourselves in virtual realities to drown out the ugliness of the one we've created... And that's not that bad, that's not the sickly part. I mean, that much feels natural or normal to me. The sad part is that I think we're just doing it because it's a hell of a lot easier than doing anything else. I mean, I can tell you. I don't think I'm better than anyone, or anything like that - just a hell of a lot luckier than most people. But I gotta tell you, I feel like somehow, somewhere, I saw through the veil, and realized there's really a world out there, and that we're really alive, and that all the rules, the norms, the customs, the laws, the cops, the doctors, everything, all of it, is not bigger than I am - that I can do what I want, that I'm free, that I can write a damned fool insane email to a complete stranger, or use a damn flip phone, or still hitchhike or whatever. And it's not like I'm always doing that, and I know, blah blah blah I'm just the same as everybody else and doing all the same things and yada yada yada - but I'm telling you: I look around at everybody, and I get the sinking feeling they don't know that they're free, and they don't know what they're missing. I can't get that Ezra Pound poem out of my head:
THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It feels lonely right now. And to make matters worse, I have so much invested in this - 45 minutes at least - in this letter, and I haven't hit the save button. There is no save button. It's not even a damn word processor. It's just a message box, 1,000 characters max, and I fear I am nearing the end, or that I've hit it already. How can you stand up to the likes of Salinger, if we don't even have a typewriter?
Please don't think I'm crazy, or feel like I'm a crazed fan who is obsessed with you or something - it's not like that. I just don't know who to tell this all to right now, and I think for some reason, I gotta tell it to you. Isn't it crazy we would even think something like that now a days? Isn't it crazy the things we think.
I want to tell you that it's been my experience that time moves different somehow when you step outside of it. And there are people living there, too - outside of this "time". I want to tell you about this one guy. My friend and I met him in Washington trying to hitch a ride from Seattle to Portland. We were just bored and wanted to feel something, you know? Maybe we were going from Bellingham to Seattle, I don't remember, and I don't feel like googling it - I'll just go on.
We were on an exit ramp for a road headed East to Yakima. We were trying to go South. It seemed an alright spot to catch a ride, gas station, easy pull off, decent amount of traffic. My friend and I took to standing on eachother's shoulders and hitching that way to pass the time, because, to us, it was hilarious that anyone could not pick up a guy standing ten feet tall with a big old grin and four thumbs up. Who am I kidding, we only had two thumbs up - we're not that good. Anyway, nobody picked us up, and it got dark.
Fella come up out of the woods lookin scraggly as all hell. You know the type - a total bum. He had dirty curly long hair, beard, sweatshirt, dirty jeans. You could see from a mile away he was a dirty bum. My friend and I, we were just postcollege kids looking for a rouse. You know how it is. "See the world, go hitchhiking like ol Jack Kerouac used to, ride a train" and whatnot. So here he comes up and I'm thinking, "great, this guy's gonna come hitch right next to us and completely ruin our chances of getting a ride aint nobody gonna pick up a dirty bum like that or even stop near one." It was getting late, and I didn't want to sleep there in the dense pacific northwest woods pushin through blackberry brambles and alder stands trying to find a tent site in the dark. But I wasn't about to ASK the guy to leave, just glare at him a little.
Well, he started striking up a conversation like you were talking about in your article. I was trying to brush him off politely, but he wasn't taking the hint. He let us know when I confided that "yes, if we DON'T get picked up SOON, we WILL have to sleep in the DAMNED bushes" - he let us know that we could post up at his camp just over yonder, couple a fire rings some flat spots for sleepin got some nice stumps for sittin on. All the time, he was holding this little pet carrier thing - but not like an airplane crate, something softer and more humane - clutching it close to his chest. Then he let us in on the big secret - he's got a litter of kittens, too, and if we wanted to come camp with him, well we could just help ourselves to as much kitten lovin as we wanted.
By the time he took the hint that we wouldn't camp with him in a million years, it was dark sure enough. We bought a couple 40s to make us feel better, and tried to drink them, then went to bed. We got up in the morning feeling pretty unenthusiastic about hitchhiking and "seeing the world" and so forth, but we didn't have much of an option now. We both took morning shits in the gas station toilet at the price of a banana, and went back to it.
You wouldn't believe how many people pass you hitchhiking. People with big damn cars full of nothing, and trucks you could sit in the back of so they'd never even have to talk to you. Old VW hippy vans that make a peace sign at you as they drive by - things you wouldn't believe. It was getting on toward noon, and we'd been out there hours. It felt like we'd never get a ride. Ol kramer - that's my buddy, was starting to call friends in Portland (I guess that's where we were headed) to try and catch a ride for us - a big nono, that, using cell phones when hitching... damages your credibility as a bum.
We were getting pretty down, and sure as sugar up comes Bum Number One with the bag of kittens. Still here eh?! He chimes enthusiastically, as if it's just the best place in the world to be - side of a highway. We confirm the obvious, and let on that maybe we'd rather be somewhere else, and doesn't he think he's maybe making it harder for all of us to get a ride, being all together as 3 instead of two smaller teams? It was like that was the first it donned on him we were having trouble getting out of there. His eyes were kind, and he made me feel like a bad person being so mean to him. I mean, he had kind eye wrinkles, and you could tell he was a damned good person. That's all I have to say about it. I still wanted him gone. He was hurting our chances.
He left us sure enough and headed over to the gas station "probably to buy a 40, or some maddog 2020" I told myself. Kramer needed to go to the bathroom and he walked over that way a little after, too, leaving me alone on the overpass with my thumb out, and it may as well have been up my ass I was scowling and in such a bad mood by then.
Well, all of a sudden here comes Kramer running up. Grab yer bags boy, we're outta here! I'm jogging behind him all awkward with the big backpack clunking on me and catching drifts of thestory. "Yea bud! The old bum with the kittens! Sure enough, he hooked it up!" We get to a beat up old red truck, and toss our packs in the bed. Over in the front seat, our kitten bum is joshin it up with the driver who I'd reckon has approximately half his teeth, and only looks less bum than bum number one because he's driving and apparently paying for gas, though I'll not ask how.
Kittensbum smiles at us and waves us off, and Kramer nudges me - we're in the cab with toothlessbum - so I wave halfheartedly back - still not realizing that he just flagged down a ride, and instead of taking it himself, he gave it to us. You see, he knows how to talk to people - because I'm telling you - he lives outside of this world of veils I'm talking about. He lives outside of time and this fear bubble we've got. Hell, I don't know what to call it. But this guy we're riding with, I'll tell you this much. I wouldn't have talked to him, and he wouldn't have talked to me, without this kittensbum as a conduit. But that guy, that kittensbum, he just slapped us both together slapped the bumper and waved goodbye, and now here we are. I wonder how long he'd been waiting for a ride, or if he keeps track at all.
Toothlessbum tells us about fishing in the great northwest woods, and having his appendix burst in a fishing cabin and not having any phones or nothing and nobody finding him for two days and he couldn't move at all, just rolled around on the floor and waited to die, but then he didn't die, and that's the worst pain he's ever felt. But my mind was lost, I don't remember anything else he said.
I just remember thinking that that Kittensbum has gotta be Jesus Christ incarnate. And I can't really figure out why, I mean, I'm not going to try and explain some hacked phony prep school metaphor. I hate that Old Man and the Sea Santiago with the mast across his back is jesus on the cross crap; I think Hemigway'd probably punch someone in the face for that, or at least write about it, I don't know if he was a violent type or not in reality. But anyway, that Kittensbum was Jesus sure as sugar, and he delivered me from a whole slew of ungodly suppositions and prejudices that whoever you are reading this better pony up and realize I'm not the only one, we're all a bunch of damned dirty infidels walking around afraid to talk to one another because we think we're all crooks and thieves and especially guys who can't make a dime are the worst of the bunch, and you know you wouldn't ask them the time of day if a man with a suit on were standing next to him, so don't act like you're better than that. This is how we are now, and it's a shame.
Anwyway, I guess that went on a little bit longer than I expected, but it's true, and it really did happen, and I don't know why but I felt like telling you. I can't say why. I tore your contact info out of the magazine before I decided to log on and start typing. The ripped piece of paper reads
made me feel something else:
Maybe that's why. I'm starting to think this 1,000 words might be a bluff, but I feel a little better now, so I guess I'll get going... Take it easy... I think you're on the right path, I really do.