Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Farewell, Captain Packard

Anybody who has listened to certain kinds of music, or read certain kinds of poetry, or heard certain kinds of performances on the concertina, will admit that even suicide has its brighter aspects.

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944)

Charlie Rocket’s dead. He killed himself. They didn’t say why. But I figure it’s because he entered the world of movies, television, and music, and it killed him. It’s a nasty business, stem to stern, and eats people like Charlie up, every time.

I haven’t seen Charles Claverie, or Charlie Rocket as he called himself, in almost thirty years. That is to say his person. I encountered his persona, here and there, off and on, right up until yesterday when I saw his face in the paper one last time. He’d appear in the oddest places, unbidden, some rented movie you watched with one eye open while dozing on the couch, and you’d think, “Wasn’t that Charlie Claverie?” Dumb and Dumber. Dances with Wolves. Remington Steele, for gosh sakes. You’d watch the credits roll by, and there he’d be. Way down the list usually, after the bimbos but before the stuntmen.

He was a sort-of friend of my older brother, and I met him in a decrepit but appropriately bohemian apartment in Providence at the turn of the seventies, if memory serves. He was one of those people that make an impression on you and stick in your mind forever, and gather dust on the back shelves of your mind, but you never throw them out. Charlie stole a parking meter, and used it to replace one of his bedposts. That would be enough of a visual non-sequitur for most people, but not Charlie. He’d put coins in it before going to bed, too. How could you forget Charlie?

Charlie was an art student. So was my brother. Like many of his friends, they ditched everything but music right quick. Charlie went for theater of the absurd, too, right away. He played in rock bands where he was one of two accordionists, and that was when he was being serious.

My parents had divorced when I was a young teenager, and I was adrift for a long spell. My older brother was a sort of planet around which I’d orbit occasionally, grateful for the gravitational pull of his intellect and humor. His friends - people like Charlie - were like moons. Brilliant, distant, beautiful.

There was a whole galaxy of interesting people there, and I remember many of them. A handful of his classmates formed the Talking Heads; another, Rudy Cheeks, became a kind of official zany for the city of Providence; and they all infested Rhode Island like pleasant cultural termites, eating away the inside while the veneer stayed put and the paint peeled.

His friend Dan Gosch and Charlie were bartenders at the Providence version of New York’s Elaine’s: Leo’s, the haunt of the literati art crowd for twenty five years. In the mid seventies, when I stumbled into the idea of going to school for architecture, my brother assembled a panoply of his wonderful friends in Leo’s for a dinner in my honor. Many of his friends from the Rhode Island School of Design came to offer me encouragement and advice and buy me drinks, not necessarily in that order. After all these years, a member of that assembly is now my neighbor, living not two miles away. When I spoke to him recently, I forgot to mention that I designed the house that I live in with the little plastic triangles he gave me that very night in a fit of generosity when Ford was president. Or maybe it was Carter, I can’t remember right now; but I do remember the kindness shown to me by my brother’s friends like it was yesterday. Long after my brother had moved away from Rhode Island to ply his musical trade on the left coast, I’d sit in Leo’s and say hi to Dan, still tending bar, and whose marvelous paintings banished the walls. Charlie had long lit out for larger things.

It’s a testament to the ephemeral nature of Charlie and his appeal that his obituary talked about him as a Saturday Night Live cast member, and I had no idea he had even appeared on it. I knew he used to appear uninvited at grand opening celebrations of bad fast food restaurants and such, dressed as a kind of mental patient/superhero, with his friend Dan as a kind of deranged Sancho Panza. He'd bluster his way to the front of the stage, every time. Someone was often filming it, and people still talk about it in Providence. Think of all the people who followed that approach after him, and made careers of it, from toadies on Howard Stern to Conan O’Brien.

He appeared magically on the local TV station, and I imagine his friends were simultaneously amused, beguiled, and appalled by the idea of Charlie reading the evening news. He was a natural of course, but lord knows how he bamboozled himself into the anchor chair without ever even being in the building before. It was probably because he had that sort of life force that made you look at him no matter what he did, and they saw it right away. You could picture him sitting behind the desk with no pants on. It must have been like watching NASCAR if you knew him, the uneventful laps of no interest; you were waiting for the crash.

The crash came on Saturday Night Live, apparently. He was in a skit on live TV, and dropped an F bomb, and got fired. Some of his brethren have tried to intimate that Charlie’s career was ruined by that kerfuffle, and weave the usual undertone of McCarthy-like blacklisting around it. I suspect just the opposite effect was achieved. Charlie made his bona fides with the Hollywood crowd by being the guy that got fired over swearing on live TV, and Charlie leveraged it into a little spot, towards the back perhaps, but ubiquitous, in every Rolodex in entertainment that was looking for that guy. A guy that dressed up as “Captain Packard and Lobo” and crashed Kentucky Fried Chicken openings is not the sort of guy to do something like that by accident, or be unaware of the fallout, good and bad.

There was one problem, I suspect, and it’s the sort of thing I’ve seen more than a few time in the entertainment business. I got a look at show business, nothing much, but enough to know that the worst sort of people run it, and the most avaricious, grabby, nasty people generally shinny their way to the top of the greasy self promotion pole that feeds it.

Charlie was talented. Charlie was charismatic. Charlie was in, and with the IN crowd. The problem, I imagine, was: Charlie was nice. And that business is not nice to nice people. It kills the mean ones and the sensitive ones alike, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse leave a smaller wake than ten minutes of MTV, generally. But it’s the nice guys it grinds up in the worst way, because first it offers them hope, an outlet for their talent; then disillusionment; and then it eats them up entirely. Occasionally it kills them - more often than not it seems sometimes.

God rest ye, merry gentleman.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

15 Years

I can’t write her a poem.

My life, such as it is, has always been prose, of the most prosaic kind. In it, she is the only poetry.

I don’t know how to tell you about her, and how quickly the years pass, despite my best efforts to make each moment of every day linger.

I watch modern movies. In them, men try to make themselves worthy of the attentions of their beloved. What’s always missing-every time- is a woman worth the effort. It never occurred to me, before writing this, that my dissatisfaction with the objects of celluloid obsession is just an acknowledgement of a simple fact: They’re not like her.

What is love? Beats me. I don’t see it attempted much, never mind accomplished. I see people drift in and out of each other’s orbits, and couple and coexist, and fight and cajole one other, in every sordid or blasé approach imaginable, every day, everywhere. I don’t know what love is. I can assure you, however, that I love that woman.

Our children slumber down the hall. They are a manifestation of our devotion, like burning bushes or ladders descending from the clouds. Often, I am awake when they all are asleep, and range around the silent house with some care or woe on my brow. It gives these mundane troubles deeper meaning, that I am allowed the opportunity to fend them off, if I can, and let these innocents sleep the sleep of the unconcerned. If I succeed, they will never know they happened. The smart money is on the trouble.

She used to go out to work. She came home one day, and she was mildly angry. This is rare, with her. Her coworker was a pretty, stupid young lady. Like many pretty, stupid young ladies, she was in the throes of assembling the superstructure of domestic misery so popular these days. She was busy incubating a fatherless child, and living with the man who would not deign to acknowledge it, or her, in any meaningful way. But to be foolish was not enough for this woman, she needed deeper meaning in her life, as we all do, and searched for it in assailing my poor blameless wife, whose only crime was enjoying the reality of husband and family, while she had to settle for, well, she had to settle. Somehow, my wife’s very existence was an affront to her rock-star lifestyle –a wordless accusation- and had to be disparaged.

“All you have is a scrap of paper!” She offered, unbidden. “My boyfriend really loves me!”

My wife is slow to anger. She hadn’t, and would never make a disparaging comment to anyone about such a topic. If she thought the woman was foolish, she kept it to herself, and pitied her her mistake. But this was too much. She answered, and said in prose that which is the poetry:

“My husband got down on his knees and begged me, and my Father afterward, for a chance to stand up in front of everyone he knows, and everyone I know, and a representative of God, and the government besides, and pledge to love and care for me until he is dead, or I am.”

Yes, indeed, I did. And since that day, like a bricklayer, I’ve stacked one day of imperfect but sublime marriage on top of the other, mortared with all the love and care that humans can enjoy, and tested sorely by the vagaries of my imperfections, and whatever tribulations the world could fling at it. It is a homely edifice, this love, but is tolerably strong, and if she’s willing, I’d like to start on the second floor.

Should take about fifteen more years, I expect.

As I said, I can’t write her a poem, I don’t know how. But I can steal one, sure. Lord Byron wrote this one, probably about someone else’s wife. Old George Gordon was kind of a creep. I hope my wife can settle for someone that loves her for real, but has to steal the sentiment to tell her about it.

A poem. It’s just a scrap of paper.

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Boat in the Basement

When I was a lad, and Johnson was president, most middle class basements were identical. The concrete was left exposed, the washer and dryer stood guard, one bare bulb illuminated the whole affair. Most men had a workshop of some sort down there. A venerable cast iron Craftsman table saw. Peg board, of course; pegboard was the ne plus ultra of the handy set. Kids, you're officially old when you remember when pegboard was state of the art. A few dull hand planes, perhaps a drill press, a circular saw with the original blade, a jig saw about as sturdy looking as an electric carving knife. Screwdrivers, lots and lots of screwdrivers. And baby food jars filled with wood screws, all still there unused, because the drywall screw came like a horde out of the east and swept the landscape bare of flat headed screws.

And what was that basement shop for? Why, to build a boat of course.

The plans were everywhere in the fifties and sixties. Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Life, National Fisherman, Green Stamp Catalogs. You do remember Green Stamps, don't you? You bought stuff, they gave you little stamps, you pasted them in their book, and redeemed them for worthless household stuff. It was the voluntary American version of the chit system that had its compulsory version in the USSR, with Russians standing in line for days to get a block of suet to eat.

The stories of the boat made in the basement, too big to get it out through the bulkhead, probably became cliche because because they were so true and so numerous. And many people succumbed to the siren song of the boatbuilding urge, only to founder on the Scylla of the lack of spare time and the Charybdis of lack of talent.

And why should I be any different? When I went to college for Architecture, on the first day of our design class, our teachers demanded: design your dream house. Right now. Before the end of the class. Now I thought I was there to learn how to design my dream house, with the help of these gentlemen, and then perhaps try my hand at it. But these fellows had other ideas. They seemed to have the same approach to teaching that modern singers have singing the National Anthem- I don't know the words, the song is about me, and I'm starting on the last note and going up in volume and histrionics from there.

Anyway, I sketched what is essentially an accurate representation of the home I live in now, with a little handmade boat in the yard. The ocean in the drawing was a little closer then than it is in reality now, because each eighth of a mile towards the water adds another zero to the vapor trail of zeros houses cost anyway. But in all major respects, it was spot on, two decades in advance. And they said:

Only they weren't that pleasant about it. My little dream was too, well, normal for the two men in clogs, and they told me so. With force.

As my classmates, who were wiser than me, scribbled furiously, designing concrete and steel and chain link and glass and stone monstrosities, with hot and cold running potato chips, I pondered my dilemma. What would make these guys happy? And then I hit upon it.

Thirty minutes later, I showed them my new castle. It was half a geodesic sphere, plopped down bizarrely in the mountains. It was the human equivalent of a fishbowl. There were no interior partitions. Anyone inside would be roasted like an ant with magnifying glass held over them.

They loved it. They showed it to everybody else in the class. How forward looking. How brave.

On the way out of the class, the light began to dawn on one of the teachers. He asked me, where's the bathroom? It seemed to be the first time he had considered the second most fundamental human need.

I had my "A" in hand already. I could, and did, tell him: "There's a hole in the floor in the middle" and left.

Anyway, like the Philistine I am, I wanted that little handmade boat I drew in next to the cottage, back when Carter was President.

So I bought some plans. 15 years ago or so. I unrolled them and discovered: There are no straight lines on these plans. Yikes.

(to be continued)