©1999 A.D. Sullivan
|The Crossroads||Tom Kellar|
|Human Crash Test Dummies||Mark Levitt|
|Three Roads Taken||A.D. Sullivan|
|Railway Fire||A.D. Sullivan|
|Distance Dust||Janet I. Buck|
Kenny the security guard
time was running out on his "dream"
recent weight gain and hair loss
had prompted him to take action
like the great Robert Johnson,
he had decided on the "Crossroads"
he would go there
and try to cut a deal with the Devil
he picked up his autographed, limited edition,
Jimmy Page Model, Gibson SG Double Neck
and started walking
upon arrival, the first thing he noticed was the crowd
it was like a Macy's Day after Christmas Sale
pure chaos and desperation people everywhere
the area had undergone extensive development
on one corner a Crossroads strip mall
on another a Hyundai dealership
across the street
there was a Quick Rip convenience store
and facing that,
Buster's house of body piercing and tattoos
the flow of cars was controlled
by a newly installed 4 way traffic light
proving the tax payer's money at work
the throng waiting to see Satan was massive
the sidewalk looked like
a narrow black tributary of guitar cases
a guy with plastic horns and pitch fork
was working the crowd
selling "I made a deal with the Devil" T shirts
Kenny noticed a sign bordered with red flames
warning all would be guitar Gods to "take a number"
he took one
somebody with a bull horn announced:
"84 please step forward"
Kenny looked down
he was holding 742
that was OK he was determined he would wait
minutes later, a short, fat guy,
with a Mohawk approached
"Hey, I can't stick around
you wanna' buy my number?"
"what do ya' got?
"how much you want?"
"I only got 20"
the guy took Kenny's money
slipped him the ticket
disappeared into the crowd
when the bull horn barked "99"
Kenny and a Kurt Cobain look alike,
with a Japanese copy, Fender Strat,
both stepped forward
"two 99's? that can't be" said the Devil
he looked hard at each ticket then turned to Kenny
"you idiot, this is 66
your number has already been called
Kenny fell to his knees
"cut me some slack" he begged
"I've been ripped off
just give me 60 seconds
let me show you what I can do"
Satan rolled his eyes he had heard it before
Hell was already overcrowded
"OK, 1 minute and then your out of here"
Kenny scrambled for the Gibson
he had been practicing hard his chops were up
he felt good his fingers flying across the fret board
16 bars into Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher"
he heard something snap
trying not to stop, he quickly realized
the D and G strings were broken
The Devil started to laugh
"How can I be expected to negotiate
with someone who has so little to offer,
and so little to lose?"
Kenny was devastated
"but I just put new strings on this morning"
Satan wasn't listening
turning to the fake Cobain/Stratocaster guy
the Prince of Darkness, took a deep breath,
and said "NEXT!"
by Tom Kellar
Human Crash Test Dummies
by Mark Levitt
With auto accidents and airbag related mishaps on the rise, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken a radical move; they have considered performing actual collision tests using live humans. These dangerous road tests are unlikely to attract many voluntary subjects.
Therefore, to aid the cause for better highway safety, I have compiled a list of possible crash test humans to be "drafted" for these tests. The following list contains people whom I feel are the best and most expendable test subjects.
Three Roads Taken
Traveling roads through America, England and Time.
Coincidence or perhaps a taste for travel brought me to read three books back to back to back, three varieties of travelogue that incorporated not only geography, but time. George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier was the oldest, a 1939 vision of the English working class world and a direct socialistic commentary that tried to make sense of what was then happening to people there.
The second book, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon, was a last glimpse of a fading American culture, a trip along the back roads of America before all was paved under eight lane highways. Although published in 1982, it reflected the pre-Reagan era America of the mid-1970s -- and while easily capable of being sentimental, it is not; its author delving into the soul of the places he visits, talking to the locals, getting a sense of what the places are like now, what they were, and what they are likely to become.
The third and most up-to-date was Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, the author of the better known book, Mother Tongue, makes a similar, although much more obviously nostalgic look at England in the late 1980s. While more superficial if not less entertaining than Blue Highways, Bryson's book paints a portrait of a changing English landscape, more a tour guide in some respects than a in-depth look, yet not without its moments of personal insight.
All three books in their own ways paint troubling portraits of the world, perhaps none so negative as Orwell's, but all pointing to a changing time when the elements we thought so solid in the past have begun to fade. While Orwell's book is the most well-written, by a master of English prose, whose clarity of language creates complete visions of English poverty, Blue Highways is the most poetic, and in some ways, most revealing, like an oral biography of a country by someone wandering through, snap shots of an ongoing social dialogue that has managed to capture a sense of America that only a personal trip on the road might achieve.
As Bryson in Small Island toured many of the main attractions of England, Heat-Moon avoided them, struggling not with Bryson's need for one more look around, but for an answer to an internal struggle he could not settle in one geographic local.
"A man who couldn't make things go right could at least go," he wrote. "He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity."
As Bryson struggled with backpack and train tickets for his circular tour of the English Isle, Heat-Moon climbed into van he called "Ghost Dancing," carrying with him a volume of Whitman and Black Elk.
In Blue Highways Heat-Moon seems to view progress in a negative light, as if all new things seemed to replacing more substantial elements of culture. Bryson, on the other hand, criticizes only those elements that seem to disfigure the landscape, mis-planned designs that make travel or life uncomfortable or disagreeable.
The shortest, yet the most remarkable tour is Orwell's, an exploration into not only the culture of England, but into the thinking and social structures that allowed for poverty and injustice. In his journey, Orwell attacks progress -- as do both other books -- but also criticizes those who think anyone can put a halt to it, declaring the movement towards better and more efficient was an inevitable march through time, and that the best humanity can hope to do is shelter the human victims from the worst of its effects.
Bryson's Small Island -- by an American leaving England after nearly two decades -- tends to have the least depth, although perhaps the most humor, giving the more average reader a vision of what to expect as a tourist, the discomforts of life as a common traveler, from miniature food reviews to criticisms of hotel accommodations. His view of England tends to center around the ease or difficulty of access to a place, the boredom or entertainment a person might find there, and how well the city planners managed to shape the architecture.
The most insightful and entertaining moments in this book come out of the author's memories, such as from the moment he first arrived, or when he worked at an attendant at one of the local sanitariums.
The most ludicrous moment, however, comes at a point when the author seeks to challenge Orwell's vision of Wigham head-on.
"Orwell -- and let us never forget that he was an Eton boy from a fairly privileged background -- regarded the laboruring classes the way we might regard Yap Islanders, as a strange but interesting anthropological phenomenon," Bryson wrote in his attack. "In Wigan Pier he records how one of the great panic moment of his boyhood years was when he found himself in the company of a group of working men and though he would have to drink from the bottle they were passing around. Ever since I read this, I've had my doubts about old George frankly. Certainly, he makes the working class of the 1930s seem disgustingly filthy, but in fact every piece of evidence I've ever seen shows that most of them were almost obsessively dedicated to cleanliness."
Evidence? Clues? Had Bryson ever stepped beyond the door step to a poor man's house, in England, or even in America, his native land?
Bryson's attack on Orwell troubled me greatly, because my reading of Orwell's book had finally explained many of the deeper mysteries of the working poor that had confronted me over the last three or four decades, such as why America had the fattest poor people on the planet, or why working men and women struggling to feed their families had an obsession with designer sneakers?
While Bryson may have seen only neatness in passing the outside the homes of the impoverished or picked up clues from distant relations who might be shining examples of cleanliness, I like Orwell had spent significant time behind those doors, and while Orwell was an Eton man -- as Bryson put it -- blinded by the class structure he so admirably sought to dismantle, I was not. Rising out of a working class life, I saw first hand the absolute deplorable conditions people of my class endured, the inadequate housing imposed at unreasonable rents, none even superficially painted over or hidden behind yards of planted flowers.
What may have troubled Bryson most is the attack upon his class that Orwell undertook in Wigan, the mocking criticism of a class intellectuals who view things externally and then come off with grandiose theories about the nature of the world.
Is it an accident that Bryson's book makes incredibly little use of dialogue -- unlike the very poetic and moving Blue Highways. In Small Island we meet none of the natives, hear no authentic voice except those filtered through the author. In passing through towns, we get a tour of the buildings, but are none the wiser for the people who live there -- failings not evident in Wigan or Blue Highways.
The fact that a lightweight American pop writer chose to take-on one of the great thinkers and writers of the 20th Century seems ridiculous, except when understood from the love relationship Middle American intellectuals have always had with England, bent upon absorbing the British culture as if each desired a significant place in the class structure Orwell so deftly defied. "We all rail against class distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them," Orwell wrote, noting that in most cases, the middle class will support workers rights up to the point when it becomes inconvenient, then turn into he worst of fascists. "This is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist."
Oddly enough, a week later at another rummage sale, I found another later book by Bryson; one called The Lost Continent, telling the tale of his return home to Iowa, as if he planned to take on Blue Highways the way he had Orwell.
Mistress of modern Gothic
by A.D. Sullivan
The Secaucus Reporter, 1999
Joyce Carol Oates talks about her work
When National Book Award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates visited Maxwell's in Hoboken on July 6 to give a reading, she visited a town she had only seen in the film “On the Waterfront," a film she said turned her on to film as art.
Strangely enough, the artistic image of Hoboken presented by that film no longer exists, and though Oates says she’s heard good things about how Hoboken has been transformed over the years, the image vs. the reality in Hoboken strangely echoes a theme that has been alive in her fiction for years.
Born in 1938, Oates was raised on a farm in an area of New York hit hard by the Great Depression. She showed an early interest in books, and at 14 years old was given her first typewriter by her grandmother. Although she started her education in a one-room schoolhouse, she excelled in high school and won a scholarship to Syracuse University, from which she graduated as the valedictorian. She later earned her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. She married and moved to Detroit in 1962.
“All over America a way of life is vanishing," Oates said. “Writers customarily memorialize the past, and I seem to be preserving the landscape of the 20th century. Many of the people from the Depression era are dying off, taking with them the memory of what it was like during their time. Their experiences are very different from subsequent generations."
Oates' work, including her newest book Broke Heart Blues, tends to bring back to life landscapes and characters from her days on the farm.
“I’m very interested in my parents and my grandparents who were immigrants," Oates said. “The students I teach in Princeton today have no awareness or memory of World War Two or the depression."
Oates, who has been described as one of modern America’s greatest writers, has covered other literary landscapes as well, making her mark in everything from modern Gothic and literature to poetry, plays and non-fiction. She has published 38 novels, 24 volumes of short stories, seven volumes of poetry, four books of plays, as well several books of non-fiction.
While Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden played an important role in her literary development, especially the simplify concept ("Our life is frittered away by detail . . . Simplify, simplify," he wrote), which she claims she hasn’t managed to live up to but still admires, her time in Detroit transformed Oates’ writing. While teaching at the University of Detroit, she witnessed the riots of the mid-1960s and said they shocked her.
“If I had not moved to Detroit, I might have been an entirely different writer," she said. “I would have likely written about rural subjects. But once I saw what was going on there, all the racial problems and how they exploded, my writing changed."
The drama of people’s lives
Oates said she suddenly became more concerned with the victims of economic deprivation and physical abuse, and through her modern Gothic novels she explores the nature of evil, which she described as a human tendency towards self-destruction.
“Civil unrest and discontentedness breeds it own destruction," she said. “Sometimes I think it is something in people’s genes."
Oates has often created at times characters dominated by their own drives, and other times, characters that yield to circumstances, her tales showing the process and pain of making uncomfortable compromises. Some critics have said Oates is most moving in her expression of empathy for American’s lower classes. Yet she avoids being politically- or socially-revolutionary. She has been called the master of psychological drama, and she says these stories comes out of the people and places she sees in her travels.
“Sometimes we meet another person and mysterious connection forms between us," she said. “Somehow our lives are entwined, and I feel I owe that person something. I try to write out the mystery of that personality."
Oates said she’s also been inspired by driving through towns and looking at the outside of buildings.
“Sometimes when I go through a small town something catches my eye, a store front or a small newspaper," Oates said. “I’ll identify with the place. I’ll ask who lives in that house or who planted that garden. Who works in that shoe store? I find that even in a small town where everything looks so peaceful there is something going on in people’s lives."
Although raised on a farm, not all of Oates’ works constitute a conflict between urban and rural.
“Its varies from piece to piece," she said. “I’m fascinated with certain visual images."
In one short story called “Sky Blue Ball," for instance, she was struck by a place in New York that she used to pass on her way to her grandmother’s. “I imagined a ball going over the wall," she said. “In the story, I have the girl throwing it over the wall, in a kind of dream-like or supernatural setting, as if she is throwing the ball to herself."
Who is a hero?
Although drawn to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, Oates has her own approach to heroism.
"It is based on individual behavior," Oates said. “In my new book Broken Heart Blues, a young man sacrifices for his family to keep his family together, facing a family member’s alcoholism. He is not a Christ figure, but he is being a savior. Part of his heroism is never explained."
Oates has used Christian imagery in her fiction and biblical infrastructures in the past, telling stories of redemption. In fact, critics claim she tends to put her characters through a kind of hell to bring them to that moment when their heroism can be tested.
In explaining her approach to family, she said she goes back to classical times.
“I do something similar to the ancient Greeks," she said. “People reveal qualities of their personality under stress."
This attitude is particularly evident in her non-fiction writing about boxing, and the lessons she derived from those whom she has interviewed over the year.
“[Boxer] Floyd Paterson once said winning is easy, it’s losing that takes courage," Oates said, noting she had gone to boxing matches as a little girl and even became friends with a middle-weight fighter.
“I was not thinking about it as a feminist, I was not judging it. I just saw it as revealing character. It must have had that meaning to me on a deeper level."
Over the years, interviewing numerous fighters, she began to see how losing often reveals an important part of a character, heroism in defeat.
“A fighter has to face his own character in losing," she said. “Muhammad Ali is great because he lost and then came back; Mike Tyson doesn’t have that character. When he lost he gave up. That surprised me. I didn’t expect him to give up the way he did."
She called it a kind of parable of life, the strength people bring to conflict.
Oates, critics have said, tends towards unhappy endings, a legend she herself has helped foster by claiming in various past interviews that pieces with upbeat messages are better left for commercials. But not all her work has unhappy outcomes. She says she takes her work from the complexity of the world, its evil and its good.
“It depends upon the work," she said. “I have happy endings in a number of my novels. But my work tends to reflect life. Many are tragedies, [but] in some stories happy endings are possible."
Money's presence swims to shore,
a substitute for being there.
Salmon have to fight a stream
to hatch a gram of tenderness.
I migrate to your healthy arms.
Shot like ducks before I land.
When the phone rings once
in moss green moons
that still stir hope,
I think a sister comes attached.
Tandem breaths of splitting suffer
need a little oxygen.
My needs and errands on your list,
a pier in sight of slipping ships.
But these are mere cathedral dreams
garbage ties for empty sacks.
We'll turn our heads in helplessness
just discuss new kitchen tile.
Distance dust and dildos of a platitude
are always thick in surface chat.
I'll never beg for helping hands.
You cannot train their waterfalls.
by Janet I. Buck
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307