To the memory of Ted Hughes, who said it first and best; and Thom Gunn, the only brave man ever to teach at Berkeley.
Don’t take Greyhound, and don’t go to that offramp McDonald’s in Bellingham.
Wisdom from the road. Roughly the same road Snyder, Kerouac, and their ilk traveled—Seattle to Vancouver—but not for their fancy reasons, or pointed lack of reasons. Kerouac’s deluxe fecklessness could only flourish in a time when every industrial zone of Europe and East Asia had been bombed to rubble. Now they’re back, and I was heading to Vancouver to stow our Kia and close our pitiful accounts before flying out to teach in the Middle East, where Anglos with degrees are still employable. Another unemployable fop eking out a living from the last days of an empire that’s already lost but still has some linguistic momentum, like a 19th c. French superfluous man bouncing from one tutoring job to another in provincial Russia.
When you head up I-5 alone in a Kia Rio, you have lots of time to review every stupid move you ever made. The rain mumbled at me, encouraging me to conduct yet another frank Synanon-style review of all the idiotic moves down the years. This was the Real Rain that Travis Bickle prayed to, sizzling on the windshield while the SUVs hissed by. There’s something insulting about the height and the pseudo-armor plate of those hulks when you’re hunched in a base-model Rio. Have you seen what they call those things? One model is the Nissan Armada. The Armada! In the first place, it isn’t armored or armed, unless you count megachurch smugness; and then there’s the precedent. What hope is there for a domesticated truck named after that debacle?
…the 2011 Black Armada.
The Armadas went by. The Escalades, even worse. They’re always black, as if black paint worked like Chobham armor. Except it doesn’t. Oh yeah, the sweet memory of what happened to those Blackwater Texans in their SUV tooling through Fallujah. They thought nobody could touch an SUV. They thought they were armed with the protective bubble of the top Dallas zip codes even in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. But they found out. Like the Noche Triste, the glorious moment when you realize these aliens die just like any animal, and fearsome names don’t really work as against 7.62mm. Just thinking about those gym-toned bodies smoking from the bridge in Fallujah helped me keep the vocalizations away for a while. But the rain kept blasting the windshield, the Fallujah scenes kept jumping the track to land me with the old mantra, “It’s [not] my fault.” Sometimes I whisper it, sometimes it vomits up at full volume. Not usually if there are people around, though lately it’s been blurting up at awkward moments, with people around.
An interesting thing about guilt mantras is that “It’s not my fault” turns out to mean exactly the same thing as “It’s my fault.” In fact, repeating “It’s not my fault” for 40 minutes of freeway ends up making you feel worse than just shrieking “It’s my fault.” Indeed, I have made the interesting discovery that virtually all sentences end up meaning “It’s my fault.” Stevens made a whole poetics out of that technique, repeating an affirmation until it falls of its own weight. (“It is possible, possible, possible./It must be possible.”)
There, see? Classic example: switching my dissertation from safe chaste Stevens to–Oh no, too tame; I’ll do Sade instead. Idiot, idiot.
By the time I wore out that theme, the noble little Kia had got me almost to Bellingham—to the wet granite ridges near that cottaged lake I can never remember the name of, Sammammy or Chuckanutt near Bellingham—one or the other, one of those teasingly jokeysounding NW Indian names, like Bullwinkle’s alma mater, Watsamatta U. Watsamatta me? It would take a longer trip than Seattle to Vancouver for that. But I started on it anyway, jumping a little in the seat when I found myself shrieking out loud without meaning to.
Food is the acknowledged antidote—short-term—to uncontrollable blurting of guilt mantras. Causes longterm side-effects (ya fat pig) but it puts the spleen to sleep, or to work, for a while and you can stop.
But you have to choose your exit carefully; some of these small towns on I-5 lure you with yellow-and-red fastfood logos all warm and welcoming, then you find you’ve got a ten-mile side trip, during which time the mantra often rises to a scream. Which can be exhausting.
That is to say, I was justified in the sight of God for going to McDonalds. Because you could see the actual golden arches from the freeway. Don’t get snotty with me. It was pelting down rain and McDonald’s was the only place you could see through the sluice, so leave me alone. Besides, if you really want the details, I saw a Wendy’s—somehow not quite as evil as McDonald’s though I don’t exactly know why not—as soon as I swooped off the ramp, but—it’s a long story but basically there was nobody IN there which is a bad sign, and it was raining and the woman behind the counter stared at me like she already hated me, so I went next door sloshing through the rain to McDonald’s. So sue me.
McDonald’s had people in it anyway, or so I thought. Wrong. There were creatures in there, shapes slumped at the plastic booths, but calling them people would be, as they say, PC. They were monsters, every single one. The only normal human shape belonged to the obligatory onramp fastfood Native wino who was hoping to wait out the rain in a booth, giggling to himself but facing outward as if he knew he’d be evicted soon.
The woman who took my order had a normal body shape but there was something wrong with the scale of her head. It was tiny, beaked, like the sister Helen would have had if Leda had been raped by a pigeon after the swan was finished. She looked at me while I ordered with a jihadi ferocity, the way Americans one lousy paycheck away from bum-hood do, then repeated it back to me in USMC drill cadence in her choked wren’s voice.
The others who were entitled to take up space in that blinding white room—well, they took up a lot of it. The busboy had to be 300 pounds. I saw online a while back that 86% of the US workforce has “obesity or other health problems,” and the busboy was doing his share to back up those stats.
He was not designed to wipe tables with a cloth; it was hard for him to avoid cleaning them with his belly. In fact, he could’ve velcro’d a handiwipe to the lower slopes between navel and penis and cleaned the tables with that. You couldn’t help watching him—my God, the lighting in those offramp McDonalds is bright enough for a surgery theater—and you almost expected a laughtrack to follow him around as his belly sloshed over the formica table tops. Actually, though, the soundtrack was a trashy 70s standard, “How looo-ong…has this bin goin’ on?” One of those moments that seem, as the grad students used to say, “overdetermined.” As in, I get it, I get it already, leave me alone, leave that poor bastard alone. The one miserable consolation of the losers used to be that they stayed lean. Now they’re the ones who get fat, another gloating stat I saw recently. What next, Baron Harkonnen floating in to pull that fat busboy’s heart plug to general applause?
You always try to look away, and you always know the fat guy knows you’re trying to look away. I know; I’ve been the fat guy. They know, we know. Imagine having a giant greasy down coat you could never take off. Still, looking away is better than just staring and giggling, so you do it. But that just brought into my wretched ken the other mutant carp in this tank. The first to whack my attention was a zombie, an actual no-joke Romero zombie who stumbled past me to order something. I thought he was putting on an act, but his face—you knew instantly from the face it was no joke. Some illness, not his fault, just look away.
Except when I looked away I saw the rest of the fauna, who were old, I mean old beyond belief. This modern medicine has a lot to answer for. These were things that should have died a long time ago and seemed to know it, to be hoping for it to happen right now, right there in the McDonalds beef-tallow chamber. They were harder to count than chaneques but there seemed to be three couples of them. A lot of anniversaries, Romero anniversaries better not thought about.
In fact, time to go. Definitely time to go. I collected my burger and coke and fled, but not in time to miss the big scene that had been developing all along: kicking the Injun wino out into the rain. I knew that was going to happen from the moment I walked in. The Injun knew it too; he was chuckling bitterly to himself, anticipating his expulsion, and sitting at the edge of the booth, facing the center of the room, ready to go on demand. And now the bird-headed manager lady came over to him and said the required words, chirped them with the sneering cop civility you get in the US now: “SIR. I’m sorry SIR I’m going to have to ask you to leave. SIR? You have to LEAVE Sir!” There’s so much sir-ing in the red districts now. It reeks of Dixie to me; I’m old enough to remember when only Texans and other atavistic fascists called people “sir” and “ma’am.” It used to sound quaint, or quaint with an overtone of Fort Pillow; now it just sounds like cop talk. The cops learned to make that word terrifying, and their vindictive politeness is almost universal now, south of the boardrooms where they still use the more complex vindictiveness of first-name casual I remember as the norm.
I ran from those “sir”s lobbed at the wino. Just ran. I’m not some damn noisy wino-hugging Episcopalian, but it was raining really seriously out there and it was unpleasant to imagine the skinny old wino out there in it. The busboy, sure; he and the rest of the customers had more insulation than elephant seals. They could’ve napped in that downpour, coddled in layers of stored cheeseburgers. But in yet another odd fracture of hard-times body modifactions, the fat lower-middle of the curve gives way at either end to beautiful, emaciated hollow cheeks. Stars look like that, and so do street people. If you needed extras for 19th-c. dramas, the only ones you could find with the proper etched cheeks and stern beards would be—well, would be getting kicked out of offramp fast food places into the rain.
It’s a beautiful body type but not practical. Brangelina wouldn’t last a half hour in that rain, and neither would the wino. Which is not to say that I invited him into the Kia Rio. Lifeboat ethics, the case against helping the poorer-than-me. And they wouldn’t have let him across the border anyway, I noted to myself as I went through the light. That’s one of the great unrecognized joyous moments of North American life, that moment when you get the green left arrow and are officially on the Interstate again. You are cleansed; what happened at Mickey D’s stays at Mickey D’s, part of the bucolic low-speed life of “surface streets”—ah, the wonderful contempt of that term, “surface streets.” You accelerate to 70, which takes a minute or two in a Rio, and it’s like that moment in Dune where the Duke says almost prayerfully, “Soon they will begin to fold space.” You fold space and the wino is gone. There are other demons in hyperspace, but they’re your own, part of the one-person I-5 Kia family, little republic of one debating its debacle forever and ever. Them and their miseries I can handle; the Gandhi story-problems back at that McDonald’s…no, not for me. For richer, handsomer people. Let Brad and Angelina worry about their fellow skinnyman, the wino. I’m one of the fat losers and that’s—what’s that phrase they love now “Above my pay grade.”
My love goes one way, one investment strategy: the crows. A hundred years from now, people will be amazed that we walked under the crows without worshipping them. I worship the crows, beside whom the most fucked-up wino is a pampered spoiled brat. Well, in Canada anyway. Seriously: Once across the border in Vancouverland, you’re back in the old liberal world where outright bums are loved. Not the crows. Nobody notices them, because the Anglo-Canuck mandarins only love prostrate losers who beg, and the crows are the working poor, not beggars. So it’s the winos, outright winos, who do well in Vancouver. Not the crows, and not us, god knows, not us when we were starving and freezing on that boat and desperate for any work, getting turned down for call center jobs…oh no, only the full-on no-pride losers feel the chilly Anglican embrace of liberal Canada, the bastards…as is only too clear from the foregoing, there was a lot of time after entering Canada to let the old hurt at the way we were received by what we called, at first, the “BAL,” “Beloved Adoptive Land.” Stepmotherland it turned out to be and then some. The wipers agreed with me, sloshing the rain back with a curse at Vancouver and all who sail in it.
I put the sad little Kia in our Tut’s Tomb storage shed and went to the Main Street bus depot. Which happens to be right next to Wino Central, the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s cushy slum. You won’t find a cushier slum in Christendom. I walked down Hastings, which means “The Less Fortunate, Not to Say Junkies and Whores,” in Vancouverspeak. It was a classic walk; to get to the showy winos you walk through a dying Chinatown, full of old hardworking Chinese with no money, hanging on without any help or quarter asked or given—to the corner where the loud, Anglican-subsidized bums wait for their free lunch, dinner, counseling, compassionate article in the Province, or methadone, not necessarily in that order. I winced to think of that poor misfortunate bastard, the US-side Injun wino. Just because of some arbitrary border negotiated because the US was busy stomping Mexico and the Brits did a cost-benefit analysis that showed the NW wasn’t worth keeping, that poor bastard lives in Bush Country, when here, 100 miles north under the same damn endless rain, he’d be hugged and profiled by devotees of Christianity-without-Christ.
You wouldn’t believe the deal the bums get in the Downtown Eastside. Guess what the speed limit is on East Hastings. No, don’t bother, you’ll never guess. It’s 30 kph. Not mph, OK? Kph—because too many colorful personalities (not to say junkies and whores) were getting bumped by thoughtless cars zooming past at 50k. So the miserable Anglican newspapers and the miserable Anglo news shows crusaded for walking-speed limits to preserve the insufficiently-endangered fauna. You live in Canada for a few months and you know down deep in your spleen why the working whites vote Tory. They know damn well the Tories hate’em, use’em, but you just get so goddamn angry at the bum-hugging post-Anglicans who’d let you and your dog die because you won’t grovel but love, love love, love, an outright bum, wanna wash his feet for the six o’clock news every damn night. Don’t try to scrape by in Vancouver; you’ll never do it. Wages are miserable and prices are Dubai level. You’re way better off just giving up like the people we knew in Brentwood Bay, whiny thieves who floated on subsidized methadone. If you haven’t used Methadone…oh, it’s paradise. And they get it free on the Eastside. If you give up. If you give up your dog, which we wouldn’t do. She’s dead anyway, as Snyder would no doubt point out in his Zen way, “Ashes, ashes”—Ginsberg philosophizing about Cassidy’s anus. Kill Ginsberg, kill Kerouac—well then dig’im up and kill’im again, I don’t care if he’s already dead. Kill them all. You start to think like this in Vancouver, believe me.
And that was how I came to a better god, the crows. No Xians love the crows, no old ladies feed them, not even Greens give a damn about them.
And yet they’re magnificent people. No one seems to have noticed this, but crows are among the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Crows outscore all but the so-called “great” apes in many tests of intelligence. Crows can recognize faces, have 250 distinct vocalizations, and not only use but construct tools. They mourn their dead, and grasp their mortality. That last detail I know directly; the rest I found online, after my crow experience.
It was while I was walking our now-dead dog in Coquitlam. A lot of crows there, but they didn’t strike me then—ugly birds, no plumage. Then May started nosing toward something in the ivy by this busy street we walked down toward Safeway. It hopped, showing itself. A crow, with a wing trailing. Broken. A crow with a broken wing is a dead crow. Simple. And this crow knew that. Nothing mystical about it; it was an obvious fact and the crow knew it. Dead crow hopping. I looked at it and it looked back, and it was clear the crow knew perfectly well. So much for another idiotic claim to human uniqueness.
I saw another months later. I think a lot of crows break their wings on headlights, they pride themselves so on their command of loft and tiny feather turns. Sometimes they guess wrong, and become the living dead for a few days, ending as a cat toy or in the quick starvation of a high-metabolism omnivore. And they know perfectly well.
After that I started to feed the crows. Even came up with a slogan for it: “Feed the crows now, feed the crows later.” But that was justification in case anyone saw me and demanded justification. In fact, I like them, liked them more and more. They don’t “like” me, but I like that about them too. They see very clearly right across the board. And they like each other, which is rarer than commonly thought. Once I started to watch them I saw crows grooming each other, a sight I prefer to the anthropoid versions any day.
So after walking through the noisy subsidized bums of Vancouver I spent $2.69—everything’s expensive in Canada—for a large fries from the Vancouver version of McDonalds (a very different place, all ambient music and snowboard screens, no golden arches in sight) and took it to False Creek. There, under a typically pointless public art piece, a giant gazebo carefully designed to attract as much wind and rain as possible, I scattered the fries to the crows, and a few gulls who barged in. Gulls and crows overlap but inhabit completely different worlds. The gulls of Vancouver are utterly Anglo-Canadian, all named Doug or Bob, very simpleminded, oversized goons. Crows regard them as clouds with gullets. As best as I have been able to tell, crows are of Hittite extraction. The humanism of dim-witted BC gulls is completely beyond, or rather beneath their comprehension.
An Anglo-Canuck fusser, probably a writer of letters to the editor, made waving noises as the crows swooped in over him. Even birdlovers make an exception for crows—something about the way they fend for themselves, no pathos in it.
Or possibly he didn’t want big birds crapping on his head. One must respect divergent views.
When the fries were gone I started back for the bus station. The crows followed, fly-hopping onto the railing, staying a pace or two ahead so I wouldn’t forget about them. One brushed my left shoulder. The tenderness of that was a shock. The impossibility of any requital was part of the whole concept of loving the crows, but even so you nourish some unofficial hope—like maybe when you’re dead, they’ll help you…Gunga-la-gunga stuff from Caddyshack. Embarrassing; you’re better off sticking with unrequitedness.
The crows will make it anyway. They’ll feast on secular-Anglican eyes in Vancouver while their kin in Seattle pull pork from the cooling rectums of the bodies sprawled half out of the SUVs. This is faith. It’s better that no one loves them. What could be dirtier than to be hugged by a Canadian charity-pervert, or deified by a Republican? The crows are commies anyway; I know enough of their calls to realize that they were calling other crows over to the fries I’d thrown beneath that gazebo. Primitive communism.
And I don’t think they love me, don’t want them to love me. Pig I may be but not enough of one to contaminate the noble crows like that. Seven out of eight of them will die in the first year of life, and not quickly or kindly. I’ll never forget that crow’s eyes while I looked at its car-whack wing hanging down. They know. You know that maudlin Thomas poem, “Lovers shall die but love shall not”? Whatever he and Lennon and the other loveless Brits meant (Brits talking about “love”! What did they even THINK they meant?), it aged faster than sitars.
But it fits if you use the words “crows” and “crow.” “Crows shall die but crow shall not.”
Which brings me to the last sudden homeward turn and the sudden shock that I was right in the first place, whispering every poem in Wodwo and Lupercal to myself in the public library: Ted Hughes was right, even through the noisy electric guitars he allowed into Crow.
Joanne went up and got Hughes to sign a copy for me at USF. I may have wronged her, another item on the indictment.
Hughes, I loved you from the moment I saw your hawk, but at Berkeley a woman in English warned me I shouldn’t even say your name “because of Sylvia”—and you were too loud, so I tried to flounce with Ashbery, a heavy flouncing that never convinced the gatekeepers anyway.
Thom Gunn. A good man.
And now after a long ignorant trajectory I turn the corner and find you sitting on the right answer all along. It is the crows, like you said; the ones who endure, even though we’d both rather it was the skinful-of-bowls jaguar, simple inflictor. It’s a long war, and will go in the end to the crows. Some Greek said that and the humanists told us it meant war is bad, but I wonder now if he simply had the sense to love the crows.
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