It's a sad business
April 11, 1966
On the patio under his metal chair on the pale concrete floor a double line of shiny dots appear… evidence of a blind slug’s back and forth nighttime journey to some green destination, one in hope, the other in grim but patient determination. It’s a hero’s tale.
Light slants down recklessly through the bare tree limbs above his head. It’s early spring. He sits in a garden, the garden he built with his own dirty hands, a garden that belies its very nature, lying as it does just a little league’s stone’s-throw away from the metal river of commerce called Fifth Street. Its cacophony of cars and trucks mount a never ending assault on his peace of mind. Like late-night drunks elbowing their way through a Saturday night crowd they push and shove. They jostle his thoughts one by one, sending each, ass over teacup into the next until he finds his attitude changed in near diametric opposition to its origin, and him without a clue as to how it came to be. This they do day and night, whining and clambering, kicking and screaming, insulting the quietude of even a moment’s reverie.
Up the street a road crew picks tentatively at their muddy quarry. There’s dirt that needs fixing. And the boys are doing the very best they can (and taking their union dues, government-job, sure-thing-pay time about it). Of course it’s not the job itself that measures the success of their brawny efforts. Rather, it’s the amount of dust and mayhem they kick up. Looking busy, digging and re-digging, doing and undoing, figuring and re-figuring; that’s what matters here. Then all official noise stops; it’s quitting time; time to pack up the official tools, take up the official ramparts and barriers and pile them into those holy vehicles that convey to the populace the sanctity of their official sanction, endorsed as they are by the circular stamps of public trust ceremoniously splashed on their fenders and on the sides of their doors, authorizing, certifying and legitimizing their efforts irrespective of any confounding elements of the situation they seek to rectify with respect to commonsense or efficiency.
He sees orange streaks on the concrete: straight rusty lines from the used-to-be green, then red but now yellow lawn chairs, themselves stalwart survivors of two failed marriages and countless criss-crossed trips over asphalt America. He feels the weight of their history pressing down.
And joining with the incessant clatter of that part of American commerce that rushes past his house on a daily basis, they gang-up on him like bullies in a high school locker room.
Sound surrounds him. Not mellifluous, romantic sound—like rustling sheets or wind in the trees--but noise. Noise so constant, so angular, so strident, so unwelcome, so brutal, so sure and certain…that it envelops and suffocates anything sweet and serene.
Sometimes he feels like he’s trying to breathe water, all the while sinking below the surface, the wet silence closing tightly over his hair. Terrible and quiet.
The din of the city is like a radio station stuck on the clang and clangor of metal against pavement, throaty dog barks and braying drunks. The raucous cavalcade of cars, trucks, busses and motorcycles. It irritates him. His mind resonates into a memory of an ill-tempered train conductor on a busy Long Island subway platform, bellowing over the bobbing heads of the working poor as they shuffle, bored and dispirited, from one train to another: ‘All you sons-a-bitches getting on…get on. All you sons-a-bitches getting off…get off!’
Periodically the whiney buzz of an angry car engine joins the fray and, as if forced domination of one sense is not enough, he’s feels compelled to watch yet another misplaced muscleman, hunched over the steering wheel of his artificially inseminated jalopy, darting between speed bumps, viciously punching the gas pedal of his automatic transmission as if it were a sports car.
Despite the violence continually visited upon his senses his mind is sometimes able to rest. But like a fighter in the ring, it’s three minutes on, one minute off; three minutes of struggle, one minute sitting on the stool in the corner, his battered ears stuffed with the staccato encouragement of invisible trainers; the committee of disembodied voices living in his muddled mind.
Acrid smells assault him, filling his nostrils with noxious fumes. Bellicose tailpipes spew their oily grey air into the atmosphere. Plumes of smoke that float through the air like big amorphous birthday balloons, eventually mixing with its sister petrochemical: a creosote exudate leaching out of newly-dug utility poles that line the street.
He’s a second-rate symphony riddled with derivative phrases and parallel fifths; a performance beleaguered by wrong notes and sloppy entrances; his thoughts an unfinished lyric, heavily salted with bad tempers and irresolute moods; his life a love affair that’s been called on account of ambivalence.
How is this disheveled, unmade-bed life--bookended as it is between two mysterious calamities--ever to find its spiritual resolve?
If he could, you know what he’d do?
He’d build a Wall. It’d be thirty feet high if it were a foot. It’d be so big, so solid, so impressively massive that all sound would not be able to resist its gravitational pull. Like planets to the sun, moths to a flame, every horn, every squeal, every bark, every human growl would disappear into its folds, sucked in, clotted like a river of red platelets in a fresh wound. Just so, all the pollution; the foul belches from busses and garbage trucks, the acrid off-gassing of creosoted utility poles, the rancid breath of the city’s overeaten air, all gone, subsumed by the immensity of the Wall.
Gone also would be the insistent wailing of slow-moving freight trains hauling stone from someplace to someplace different; the cantankerous arguments between bus stop parents; the grating steel and hard rubber whine of hotrods, dump trucks and motorcycles; the piercing barks of bored, impounded dogs; all this gone. Tricked by the siren call of the Wall.
In this way the blast and blare of the city streets would willfully, joyfully go—as if following a warm path with heart feeling back home—to the place where they were truly wanted, where they were truly needed.
And when it was all over…there would be nothing. And like a hollow bamboo in a lily pond of clear green water they would float away, leaving only feathers and clouds. Then, Sweet Mary Mother of God…
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