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Patti Smith has conversations with inanimate objects.
She has a daily routine of going to Café ‘Ino—a regular spot in her Greenwich Village neighborhood—where she sits at the same table and orders a proletariat breakfast of brown toast, a small dish of olive oil, and black coffee. Smith writes of this after waking from dreams of a laconic cowpoke—an imaginary muse I picture in the likeness of her long-time friend, Sam Shepard—who tells her it’s not so easy to write about nothing.
Smith is a poetic tour guide in New York City, stopping to chat with a bust of Nicola Tesla that loiters like a lone sentinel outside the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. She’s having trouble writing, off balance, moving back and forth from lethargy to agitation. Tesla, a statuary catalyst that coaxes rumination into words, tells her she’s “misplaced joy and without joy we are as dead.”
The café in New York is home base but she’s not always bound there. Her memories take her to French Guiana and the ruins of the Saint-Laurent prison—which she photographs with a Polaroid camera—and to Hermann Hesse’s house in Montagnola, Switzerland, and wherever else she wishes.
Her rambling memoir contains Polaroid photographs she’s taken over the years during her travels: Snapshots of Frida Kahlo’s crutches leaning against a wall in Casa Azul; the Arcade Bar in Detroit, Michigan; an incense burner resting atop the gravestone of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa in Japan. And always there are stories that go along with the photographs.
One of my favorite tales tells of a time she is sent on a clandestine midnight mission to Reykjavík to meet with the elusive Grand Master of chess, Bobby Fischer—who greets her with paranoid conspiracy rants that morph into a duet of singing Buddy Holly songs.
M Train is just the sort of book I like to savor slowly…while dipping biscotti in coffee and taking periodic breaks to delve into my own journal in my own favorite café.
When American President Donald Trump announced plans for a Mars mission during his first term I contacted the Martian ambassador to Earth to ask his opinion of the timeline.
“We weren’t expecting you people to visit Mars for at least fifteen years,” the ambassador says via Skype from his space ship in orbit around Earth, clearly annoyed and flustered. “We’re not ready.”
His fellow crew members—a pilot and anthropologist—nod their heads in agreement.
“We can’t yet protect ourselves from your viruses,” says the anthropologist. “And we’re just learning about the effects of Martian viruses and microorganisms on human physiology.”
“We also haven’t received the funding that your leader promised us for the construction of his 200-storey luxury hotel in our capital city,” the pilot adds.
“He’s joking,” the anthropologist says. “Earth people are presently much too xenophobic for a successful first contact. Also, we build our cities underground.”
I ask if they were monitoring the conversation Trump had with astronaut Peggy Whitson earlier this year while she was aboard the International Space Station.
“Actually, we heard about Trump’s plan while listening to NPR over the radio,” the ambassador replies. “My crew prepared a skit for the folks back home. Do you want to see it?”
I nod and the pilot’s skin begins to turn orange as he shapeshifts into a perfect doppelgänger of the current American president.
“Tell me, when are we gonna go to Mars?”
The pilot has expertly nailed an imitation of Alec Baldwin imitating Donald Trump. The anthropologist sighs in the guise of Dr. Whitson.
“You already approved a timeline for the mission to safely launch in 2033.”
“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”
“But, what about the construction of your golf course on the sun?”
“We’ll be doing that at night so nobody gets burned.”
The two Martians shift back to their natural forms and high-six each other while laughing hysterically.
I’m at the café with Pola Negri, the femme fatale from the Kingdom of Poland who appeared in German films such as Die Augen der Mumie (1918) and Mad Love (1921) before she made her first Hollywood film in 1922. Charlie Chaplin joins us at the table.
“I met Charlie at the Palais Heinroth,” Pola tells me.
I know the place well as it’s the swankiest hot spot in Berlin. Pola says that Charlie entered unrecognized, conspicuously underdressed among all the swells in evening dress.
Charlie remembers it like this:
“I was guided by the Palais Heinroth manager to a table located at the most obscure part of the room and I’m surprised by a slap on the back and a voice calling out my name.”
It’s Al Kaufman of the Lansky Corporation.
“Come over to our table,” says the manager of the Famous Players studio in Berlin. “Pola Negri wants to meet you.”
Negri laughs at the memory.
“A little man with a sad sensitive face fought his way up to our table. Were it not for his odd appearance, so dapper and so pathetic. He had such a strange physiognomy, with tiny feet and an enormous head that made him seem top-heavy. The only physically attractive thing about him were his hands, which were never without a cigarette.”
“Pola was so beautiful,” Charlie remembers. “Beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth and wonderful coloring. She was the centre of attraction.”
The silent screen star blushes.
“What a voice she has,” he says, traveling back in time to the moment. “Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality, with charming inflections. Offered a drink, she clinks my glass and offers her only English words, ‘Jazz boy, Charlie.’”
On Christmas Eve of 1922, Charlie gave Pola a large diamond that he intended to set within an engagement ring. However, in March, he announced to the papers he was too poor to marry her and she ended their engagement.
I’m in a pub with Charlie Chaplin and he’s regaling me with one version of his history. He says he was born into poverty amid the squalor of South London on 16 April 1889—the same year that the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris. Charlie’s birth took place in a gypsy caravan as it was traveling through Birmingham. His mother, Hannah, would never tell Charlie who his father was or if she even knew.
The funny thing about this interview is that Chaplin’s lips are moving but no sound is coming out. Of course, he’s a silent movie star, I should have expected a dumb show. Fortunately, there are subtitles in my mind.
Chaplin started as a music hall performer among comics and mimes and magicians and mesmerists, performing before booze soaked audiences that watched the acts through a haze of tobacco smoke. At eighteen, he joined Fred Karno’s burlesque of mimes and acrobats. Karno, a theater impresario and comedian, was known as the father of the custard-pie-in-the-face gag—and Charlie was still with Fred Karno’s Army in the autumn of 1910 when the touring company left Southampton aboard the SS Cairnrona and crossed the Atlantic bound for Canada.
Not surprisingly, a piano crashes through the ceiling above and crushes our table, depositing an unkempt Stan Laurel at our feet. I’m reminded of Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb at the end of Doctor Strangelove.
Stan dusts the ceiling plaster from his suit and says, “I was Charlie’s understudy and room-mate for the tour. When we reached the shores of Quebec, we were all on the deck of the [converted cattle boat], sitting, watching the land in the mist.”
Suddenly, Charlie ran to the railing, took off his hat, waved it and shouted:
“America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips—Charles Spencer Chaplin!”
“We all booed him affectionately and he bowed to us very formally and sat down again.”
Over the years, since around the age of nine, I’ve had imaginary conversations with a great number of historical figures and fictional characters. It all started with verbal chats with Tarzan, Spider-Man, and The Human Torch. Growing up on the road, with real life friendships few and far between, I had years of solitude to hone my imaginary social skills.
I spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores, perusing my favorite subjects and also seeking out new things to read about. I became a literary dilettante with a bee-like habit of flitting from one book to another—gathering a bit of prose-pollen from each book.
When I was twelve I began writing about my encounters and placing them in specific environments. I was a time traveling voyeur of literary worlds and a fly on the wall of the peanut gallery—and I had no qualms about commenting.
At sixteen I was journaling and weaving into the conversations ideas and actual thoughts and dialogue from books I read. That was the year I first read The Outsider by Colin Wilson and learned that there was a name for what I was—an autodidact.
Reading The Outsider formally introduced me to philosophical worlds and those that created them. I learned about phenomenology and read about Jean-Paul Sarte’s book, La Nausée—though I would not actually read the book itself until I was twenty-one. I wasn’t the most sophisticated philosophical thinker but I was extremely earnest and driven to understand what I was reading.
For seven years, from the age of sixteen to twenty-three, I considered myself an existentialist—though I didn’t yet have a full understanding what that meant. At twenty-three I abandoned existentialism in favor of what I thought to be the less dogmatic shifting belief system of guerrilla ontology.
A few days ago I bought a book called “At The Existentialist Café” and I’m once again captivated by the architects of existentialism.
Like Dorothy returning to Oz.
When President Cheeto Benito, The Great White Dope of American nationalists, spoke at the United Nations this week, there was a moment when he turned to the African leaders in the room and said: “In Guinea and Nigeria, you fought a horrifying Ebola outbreak.”
True enough. Three and half years ago there was an Ebola epidemic that infected over 25,000 people and killed more than 10,000 in nine African countries. The official declaration of the epidemic came from Guinea in March of 2014 and Nigeria was one of the countries infected. The worst of the devastation was in Sierra Leone and Liberia—and the general consensus among Africans and African supporters abroad was that the response came too little and too late.
And then The Mango Mussolini continued his address to the African contingent with this line of faint praise: “Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient.” Wait. What?
Did he mean the uranium-rich country of Namibia, located just north of South Africa and circled by Botswana, Zambia, and Angola? If Trump meant to say Namibia, he was probably getting his intel about their health care system from UNICEF, which states that:
“The Namibian government has made significant efforts to address HIV and AIDS, malaria and communicable diseases. Official estimates put per capita health expenditure at $108 in 2010, with significant private and donor spending topping up public health expenditures.”
I’m trying to imagine the thoughts that must have swept through the mind of Hage Geingob, the president of Nambia—I mean, Namibia—as his African compatriots in the room glanced his way to gauge his reaction. Was he preparing himself for the inevitable spotlight that would fall on him and his country in the days following the latest gaffe by President Business?
Unless, maybe—oh, please let it be so—maybe there actually is a Nambia, a plucky little African nation in the universe next door, that has spilled into our consensus reality.
If so, I’ll bet they have great uranium flavored covfefe.
24 August 1985
I’m sitting in a booth at Lenny’s Nosh Bar, dispatching the remains of a hot meatball sandwich with a Löwenbräu chaser and stewing in a shame of failed expectations that has dogged me from San Antonio to Eugene.
My return to Oregon after being discharged from the Air Force on grounds of a difference of opinion regarding my military career path wasn’t celebrated at home by a ticker tape parade. There’s no reward for an idealistic child of flower children that infiltrates a system to try to change it.
I desperately want to kick off my combat boots and peel off the military issue fatigues that hang on my body like an old skin to be shed in snake-like fashion and to wash away the sour smell of cigarette smoke and cheap alcohol—the proprietary perfume of the Greyhound bus that delivered me home—which clings to me like a desperate barfly. But first, I need to decompress in familiar surroundings.
Tossing back the last swallow of beer, I sigh deeply and press my back against the duffle bag propped beside the wall of the booth and close my eyes, listening to the sound of a twelve-bar blues tune with a palpitating Hammond B3 organ line as it spars with my beating heart. Green Onions, the 1962 hit by Booker T. & The MGs, is playing on the jukebox to welcome me back.
My head turns as the bell above the door rings and there’s Lenny Nathan, strolling into the Nosh Bar like he owns the place. He sees me and raises an eyebrow but heads directly to the tap. A moment later he comes over with another pint which he places on the table in front of me. He plucks a joint from the pocket of his apron and sets it beside the beer.
“I told ya so,” Lenny says. But there’s humor and understanding in his mischievous eyes.
I grin back at him as Ella Fitzgerald starts singing Too Young for the Blues.
Excerpt from Long Live Lenny’s Nosh Bar.
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23 April 1592
My English tutor, Thomas Watson, calls it a growling, hungry, leviathan that will swallow a man the moment he sets his boots down in Thames Street. And yet, in some ways, ’tis not so different from Venice with regard to the river Thames—which runs through the city from east to west. I wonder if the citizens revere the river in the same way that Venetians revere their canals.
“Londoners rely on its currents to transport them to and fro throughout the city,” Watson says, as if hearing my thoughts. “And to many other places besides.”
“Your gondolas are not so narrow as ours,” I say. “I also notice they lack the curved prow and stern as our boats and they are moved along with oars rather than a pole.”
“True,” Watson says. “And they are called wherries, not gondolas, and their captains are known as boatmen or watermen. Some have more than one boatman, which makes for speedy travel, and these men must be highly skilled to ply their trade—serving no less than a two-year apprenticeship before they are allowed to solo. This is a great comfort to the citizens of the town as London Bridge is the only foot bridge that spans across the river.”
I watch the continual flow of wherries crossing from one side to the other as other craft traverse up and down the length of the river and it seems like utter chaos.
Even so, Watson says the watermen are so skilled there are few mishaps.
“Moreover, the public wherries are considerably more comfortable than the common gondola because of the soft embroidered cushions on the seats. Ample room to stretch out your legs. Most are covered for protection from the rain.
And best of all, there is no haggling over the fare. It is a penny to cross from one bank side to the other. All other fares are fixed depending on distance and whether you are going with or against the tide.”
Excerpt from Shakespeare’s Apprentice, a novel written by Richard La Rosa.
I pass by the old dude while riding my bicycle on the path that parallels the railroad tracks in the west end of Santa Rosa. His body is stretched out and facedown, a gnarled hand is resting over a soft guitar case, and his backpack is open and his head is on the path.
“Hey, man—are you alright. Do you need help? Are you alive?” No answer.
I get off my bike and touch his hand. It’s stone cold.
Gently placing my hand on his back, I nudge his stiff body, which rocks like a mannequin stuck in the mud. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. Damn—another dead man.
I call 911—it’s not the first time I’ve made this call. There was that dead man in Eugene, Oregon in the mid eighties and another guy in New York City almost a decade later.
“I found a guy on the bike path,” I say to the dispatcher. “I think he’s dead.” Suddenly, his shoulder circles slowly.
“Oh shit,” I say. “False alarm. He’s alive.”
“Does he need medical attention?” The woman asks.
The guy raises his head like a bear waking suddenly from hibernation and glares at me with feral alertness.
“Do you need medical attention?” I ask. “He’s not responding,” I say to the 911 operator.
“What are you doing here,” the man growls.
“Hey man, be cool. I’m just checking to see if you’re alright.”
“I’m trying to get away from people,” he says rising. “People like you!”
“Okay,” I say, laughing nervously and backing away. “Take care, man.”
“Hey, HEY,” he yells.
The operator asks me what’s happening and I tell her the guy is coming after me—but not to worry as I’m on my bike and riding away.
“Try to do something nice and that’s what you get,” she says. “You should buy a lottery ticket.”
I laugh and say, “I would if I lived in a world where I could exchange good karma points for cold hard cash.”