We went to the Irish bar by the Red Bank
train station. We went to the bar because they would serve us underaged. And when we came of age they gave us discounts to keep our business.
We drank McEwan's Scotch Ale in those days. It was the strength of malt liquor and sweet like someone had poured a Coca Cola into a malty winter brew. After two it was hard to remember our names and we were young so we didn't get hangovers. We drank until everything was funny and profound.
The bartender's name was Michael and you couldn't call him Mike or he wouldn't serve you.
The Jazz Lobsters played on Fridays and weekends. Two old black guys from Shrewsbury Ave. sounded like B.B. King and Thelonious Monk. Like they weren't making the music, just enjoying it with the rest of us.
I was in a rock and roll band in those days. I played keyboards and jazz scared the shit out of me. What was going through your head when you played that stuff? Where did it come from? All the ninths and seconds and minor fifths spewing from some channel only a chosen few could tune their minds to.
"See, if you could play like that we wouldn't need Ken," my brother said, pointing with his beer bottle. The old guy playing keyboards must have had two brains. Each of his hands was playing a different song and he wasn't even paying attention. He covered complex bass lines with his left hand, while his right comp'ed the guitar.
"He's your friend. Why don't you get him to practice?"
"It won't do any good. He sucks," my brother said, but the truth was that Ken had the Rickenbacker and we didn't know anyone else with a bass.
The next day at band practice I fired Ken because nobody else had the guts. He sucked.
"I'll practice," he said, and started to cry.
"No you won't. You have no rhythm. Can we borrow your guitar?"
That night the three of us remaining band members went to the bar to watch the Lobsters make fools of us by simply existing.
"If you could play like that..." my brother said.
"If I could play like that I'd be here," I said.
Later the rest of my life happened. I don't play in a band anymore, even though I'm a much better keyboard player now than I was then.
Still can't play jazz. It still scares me.
There was a Ticketron at Sears where I worked. When Genesis tickets went on sale I bought them. There was no line. Got great seats, right up front. Nobody in America knew who this band was. It was 1977. The British invasion was long over.
I'd just got my license so I wasn't allowed to drive to New York City. My friend Joe and I took the train from Red Bank to Penn Station. From Penn Station you get to Madison Square Garden simply by going up a couple escalators. They're connected.
It takes perspective to realize something is probably the best that's ever going to happen in your life. At that age I'd only ever been to one other concert. Alice Cooper at JFK stadium in Jersey City. That one was a free for all. This one was subdued in comparison. One of those 70's experiences we didn't realize was going to be one until 20 years later when it came up in conversation.
They made a record album of the concert. It was called Second's Out and I bought it and listened to the music many times over a couple decades, trying to remember what it was like hearing it with my own ears, live. Time dulled the memories.
But for the train.
I was exhausted and in that pain of fighting myself to stay awake. It was nearly 2AM. The train had been delayed getting out of NYC. We were over 2 hours late. Joe was asleep in the seat across from me, so I would have to stay awake to make sure we didn't miss our stop and wind up in Cape May.
I might have dozed off, or maybe I was just too distracted to notice. A girl slipped into the seat beside me. When we got to the Matawan stop I realized she was pressing her thigh against mine. And when I sat up and took notice, she smiled. She pointed to her cheek and made a kissing motion with her lips. Then she got off the train.
I remember watching the back of her head as she walked away, and then the right hand turn at the door, glancing back to smile at me, blue eyes in the dark.
The train doors slid closed and we started moving. An invisible cloud of outside air puffed against my face and made a spot on my lips cold.
I kicked Joe awake.
"Did you see her?"
He had trouble comprehending English. We got off at Red Bank.
William L. Fox is my friend but I haven't read any of his books. I'm not sure if that's bad manners. He's got thirteen of them floating around out there. A couple you can still get on Amazon. I bought those. Figured it was good for Bill to get the money. Put them away, forgot I had them.
The books are stashed in the bookcase in my office. Yesterday I was starting to pack for Antarctica and I looked up and there they were. It reminded me of the last time I met Bill. He and I had lunch in Pasadena. I was visiting riverrun a few months ago and Bill drove over from Burbank. It had been a year since I'd seen him last. He was looking good. Good spirits. Our conversation was therapeutic for me. I hope it wasn't too terrible to endure for him, though he wouldn't say if it was.
Bill is one of those guys I tell things to. Not many people I can talk to like that. Share a tent with a guy in the middle of nowhere, hike through uninhabited wilderness for a day or two -- it's a bonding experience. I'm not sure which one of us started talking first. Maybe him. He told me about his marriages. His then current flame, a comely ice woman with designs on putting together a book on the fauna of the Antarctic. His book writing. His climbing rocks that led to him becoming Hollywood stuntman and getting killed twice by James Bond.
By contrast, things I felt like revealing were much less poetic. Lots of drudgery in different jobs. Lots of travel, but for business. I'd been to at least three countries of which I'd seen nothing more than an airport and the inside of an office building, so as far as I could tell Belgium, The Netherlands, and Taipei were all the same place. Women in my life who were angling to become my wife even though I was already married.
That sort of thing.
You tend to be in a different frame of mind when you're wandering through wilderness, past skyscraper-tall walls of solid blue ice, over boulders the size of four-bedroom homes, across fields of flat glaze ice as old as the pharos. We became friends. Drank in the bars at McMurdo. He came up to California and stayed at my place for a couple days when I returned from the ice. I met him in San Diego where we visited the owners of an antique book store and browsed the hoary tomes.
Yesterday I started reading his Driving by Memory. It's about his travels through the American southwest. Experiencing long trips where counting cars and mileage markers keeps the mind sharp. Crossings during which one ponders his place in the universe. It's a travelogue, but more of a diary. It's primarily about how the west shaped the people who live there, and how humans behave crossing a landscape that can be as populated as Hong Kong in one place, and then thirty minutes of driving later, as desolate as the moon.
When I read the book I hear Bill's voice in my head. He speaks exactly as he writes. Same pauses. I imagine him smiling between paragraphs. If I didn't know Bill, I would have thought this book to be another Blue Highways. It's got the same kind of feel. Because I know him, I know this is the way he pours out his heart. This is the stuff he cares about.
Humans and the land. Maybe, the grail and the king.
Bill's book on Antarctica, Terra Antarctica, has finally come out. His trip became a travelogue, and our hike through the Taylor valley is a chapter. I read the original text before he submitted it. I imagine it's been changed since then.
Being a character in one of Bill's books may be as close to publication as I get in this life.
Bill is the poet laureate of the state of Nevada. He's a Guggenheim Fellow. A Getty Fellow. A University of Texas Literary Fellow. You get the idea. His list of honors is longer than the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
This is what I've learned about the book business from Bill: have a day job.
Another thing I learned from Bill is that writing is an affliction. It is not something that's requested. It is inflicted upon the victim by the ineffable forces of nature, and is a handicap embedded deep within the heart that must be dealt with in order for some level of normalcy to exist in the individual's life.
Most importantly what I've learned from Bill is that if you don't follow your heart, you will become miserable, ineffective, and suicidal. If you follow your heart you will cause yourself a biblical heap of grief and torment, but you won't be able to stop smiling while it's happening.
Afterlife Lovelife (this is what I was thinking that day)
I'm thinking of ships on cold oceans below us
Unzipping the blue black channel while we're
Treading water, numb, submerged and breath holding on the mountain.
(I'm thinking that J.K. Rowling is bigger than Dickens)
I'm wondering why it turned out us here,
How the pill makes me quiet so I can hope
There's a pill to take me back to Mt. Roberts in the clear blue sky.
I'm thinking that if Ghosts are unstuck like Billy Pilgrim in time,
Where are the future ghosts and could I
Run into my dead self at the scene of my last breath to be?
I'm wishing I'd stayed at your glacier.
Would I cry for everything left and lost
After I've become a mountainside ghost?
Ghosts don't understand life.
Life's a dream forgotten or something seen in film. Still
It doesn't look like it hurts this way in the movies.
I'm thinking of a cloudless day on a mountain.
I'm thinking how everything can be good for a while and heaven
To a ghost on the hill by the channel
the distance between a while and forever is clear blue nothing.