Two Saints: Paul and Augustine, 1967

Content 21+ It was my first plane ride, and the stewardesses had no choice but to be beautiful back in those days; it was part of the job. Even now, I can see the reason. It was to inspire confidence. Aviation was not as safe then as it supposedly is now. I have never looked at the statistics, but I do know — from my grandfather’s own account — that part of flying was being willing to accept being turned every which way but loose if the weather was not up to par. Grandpa, who sometimes had to fly to different points in mountainous West Virginia to help solve telephone problems, used to call these flights “white knuckle jobs.” It has only happened once to me, coming back to Bulgaria amid high winds that made landing impossible a couple of years ago– but I have always been a nervous flyer.



Therefore, even if it doesn’t make any sense — and it doesn’t — the first thing I do when I get on a plane is too check out the stewardesses (excuse me, female ‘flight attendants’ !). If they are beautiful (I told you this doesn’t make any sense), I start to feel calm. I think to myself, “These beautiful girls are NOT going to die today. They are TOO GORGEOUS !” (How sublimely sexist !)

Likewise, when my eyes wander down the aisles I try to intuit which passengers look ‘marked for death’ — and plenty of them always do — sheer cannon fodder, totally ‘Oh by the way” lives that do not matter to the mountainous volumes and stacked yellowing pages of history— the kind of folk who were designed by nature to stuff the statistics of The Book of Death. I think of all those ‘extras’ in the old biblical and gladiator films who get butchered while Moses or Hercules are busy putting things in order.

I stare suspiciously, trying to find death in their faces, trying to pinpoint their fatal flaws, their cosmic lacking. Which one of them, I ask, has boarded this flight in order not just to seal their own fate but also that of the indispensable Mr. Le Roy? But if most of them appear destined to survive the journey, my nerves begin to settle. It’s all, of course, a load of nonsense, and I truly wonder if some of those people gaze at me as I shuffle down the gangway, and say to themselves, “Oh Hell, We ain’t gonna make it! Here’s a goner for sure !” –?

Isn’t it funny how some people you can just pigeon-hole as early death candidates and some seem to pre-programmed to live well past anything that could be considered a ‘prime’. Or even something fair and reasonable, like the current British queen and her mother before her? I wonder: do/did they ever get bored of not dying?

I remember seeing a high school yearbook once that was called ‘In Memoriam” and it showed pictures of the kids from the graduating class of 1967 who were deceased. It was accompanied by one hell of a sad song. You didn’t need an onion to shed tears over that one, I can tell you. Frankly, a lot of it didn’t surprise me. But then, I have to admit, some of it did. Among the long dead were three girls I had kissed. Francine Huffman. Nancy Holbrook, and Dee Gee Beckner. None of them thought I was all that great, but at least they ‘necked’ with me. Francine Huffman was the best. She was thin and dark-haired and had a slight trace of a moustache, as basically hairy girls often do. Her tongue was like a darting minnow.

None of them exist any more.

Anyway, once I decide that everyone aboard looks death-exempt, I draw a deep breath and fasten my seat-belt. They used to let you have as much to drink on board as you wanted provided you didn’t act up, get out of line, etc. They have stopped that now, I suppose with good reason, and they won’t even let you on if you appear half in the bag. There was a time when I wouldn’t get on a plane if I wasn’t half in the bag. Then they could fly the damned thing however they wanted. Loop-di-loops. I didn’t give a ‘tinker’s damn.’

But on that first flight to St. Paul I remember only that the plane, adjoined to the blue northern sky, was as smooth and seamless as a baby’s behind, and the stewardesses really lovely — at least in my case — in an almost maternal-sensual way. Well, by then I was a beautiful teenage boy. All I lacked was a crown.

I read a classic porn novel called Fanny Hill and went back to the toilet to jack off at least three, maybe four times during the flight. Memory fails to record the exact number. By the time we descended onto the gelid oatmeal bowl that was St, Paul, Minnesota, I was so drained that I wouldn’t have responded even if one of those women — survivors all — had offered to sit on my face.

St. Paul was one great big, desolate, bleary kaleidoscope of snow. I guess a lot of people of Scandinavian extraction have roots there, which — plus the weather — could explain why at first they are hard to get to know. Also, there didn’t seem to be many black people on hand. Mom and ‘Jim’ (my new step-father) were no doubt pleased by that. I was there all of three months while Jim was completing his doctoral degree in horticulture at the University of Minnesota, and then we moved to St. Augustine, Florida.

Two saints. From one extreme to the other. Three different high schools in three different parts of the country during my glorious senior year. As you might imagine, I skipped the prom.

What do I remember about St. Paul? Well, for one thing, it was the first city I ever went to that had one of those newfangled things called a ‘shopping mall.’ It was pretty neat. You could just go in and wander around all day, although I can’t remember it having anything like a food court. I remember thinking even at the sight of the first one that it all felt a bit impersonal, and I never imagined how the mall-concept would eventually engulf the planet. I didn’t realize how the big ‘chains’ like Wal-Mart would put everyone else out of business. Had I known that, I would have hated it. Malls can be nice at Christmas time, I think, when there is a festive atmosphere. But in the modern world I can think of nothing more forlorn and desolate than a mall where business is slow. Modern ennui. The shadow-glare of the artificial lights. The listlessness and lassitude of soulless modern convenience.

There was no social life for me in St. Paul. It was cold and dark. The high school was called Murray High, and I would usually walk there in the mornings. It took about 20 minutes, and what I remember is how my nose would run, and then the snot would freeze to my upper lip. I remember none of the teachers and only a few students.

There was a cartoon that showed a guy speaking to his companion and the words flying from one to the other like bubbles of ice. Each had built a small fire. They would catch the words and melt them in the flames. When the words thawed out, they would turn into noise. That’s how they heard each other.

There was a talented guy named Mike Boyle — big strong kid but very sensitive and at the time determined to become an actor — and he became my best buddy. In fact, we went to New York City together eventually. (More about that later.) I wrote a lot of letters to Barbara Jackson and basically was very lonely. My grandest moments were the beer nights at home. Mom and Jim supplied it and we would knock some back. Jim was very conservative politically and Mom and I were big liberals, so we had some lively discussions. Whiskey hadn’t entered the household yet, but it would. In Florida.

Jim, tall, slender, unassuming, and not particularly well-spoken, was never a man I could bond with. He had no passion, no wit, no especially attractive distinguishing features that I could tell — but he was a good and generous man, and he would prove this to me many times over the years, even as my up-and-down life was secretly sinking all along. He was just a farm boy from Shinston, West Virginia — a spot on the map. He, like my Dad, had done a turn in the U.S. Navy. Belatedly, as my attitude to things changes, I can see him as a quiet hero. Back them I taunted him like Muhammad Ali dancing around a ‘tomato can’ opponent.

When in springtime he was offered several jobs, one I remember being in Maryland and another in Florida, I shilled for Florida. Eventually that’s what we decided on. I wish now we hadn’t.

We drove all the way. This was in April, as I vaguely recall, and it must have been a hot early spring — or maybe it was just the contrast from Minnesota — but I remember the stifling heat of St. Augustine the day we arrived. We had been attracted, as most people would, by the promise of flowing white beaches and the additional bonus of St. Augustine’s being the nation’s oldest permanent settlement. Gobs and gobs of Spanish culture, which appealed to me.

Naturally, typical of America, it was all fake. You could count the number of people in the town who spoke Spanish on one hand. But Ponce de Leon had poked his sabre in the swamp there, and that was that. When I look back I realize now how desperate my need for anything European was at the time. It was the Promised Land of my Imagination.

On top of that, I figured Florida would be a kind of oasis in the desert. By this I mean that I was well aware by then of how racist the South was — and I am talking about real, terrible, sometimes deadly racism, not the ‘micro-aggression’ and ‘cultural approbation’ bullshit that the Far Left wallows in today.

Back then, if you were a Southerner raised and steeped in its traditions, well, you might be a racist and you might not. Contrary to the trendy thinking of today’s ‘progressives’, Southern traditional mentality was not all about stringing up ‘darkies’. And that depth has found its way into some splendid literature. (Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor come to mind).

That having been said, the ‘gallant’ South really and truly was in those days a quagmire of malevolent sectionalism and racist obsessiveness. Negroes and northern hippies need not apply. But if you had asked me, I’d have thought you were talking about Mississippi and Alabama. I thought Florida would be like California (not that I’d ever been there either.) It wasn’t. It was the shit-hole of shit-holes, and not much has changed in 2019 from last report.

What I didn’t like from the moment we rolled in were the pastel colors. Everywhere. I understood that it was because of the intense sun. It wouldn’t have done for the town to be draped in black or other opaque coverings. But I was used to the dark bricks of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and I was also enamored of two storey houses with attics and basements as well. In Florida — because it is constructed on sand instead of rock — it’s impossible to build high; you might come home and find that a sink hole has swallowed your house and your car… and maybe your wife and kids. So — at least in the middle to upper middle class to rich neighborhoods — one finds houses on one level that spread out endlessly. (How endlessly depends on how much dosh you have.) As such, they are often a lot bigger than they look. Please don’t ask me about square feet and square meters and all that, because I never figured those measurements out. I just mean that there is a lot of space to walk around inside them.

But when I saw that everything was pink or sea-foam green or beige, I was shattered, like a vampire in a desert. Dark colors are the hues of sable, rich passion; pastels bring to mind the flavor of cotton candy and great pink wads of bubble gum. Not for me. I like my nightmares in shadowy grey or stark black like old films of Nazi storm troopers beating down doors. When everything is too glib, emptily cheerful and candied up, I feel nauseous. It reminds me of the color of vomit after too much pepperoni pizza and too many strawberry daiquiris.

I fear the Hell of the superficial (tarantulas creeping amid the bananas in bright sunshine; blind, launching pad rows of glinting skyscrapers) more than the deep cellars where they grind your bones, the draughty mustiness of attics where you meet the murdered ghosts of the unwilling dead and everything has the taste of everlasting darkness. My comfort zone.

The problem for me was when it was time to go to bed. I was used to climbing the stairs. In fact, tall, vast, strangely forbidding staircases are a staple of Northern life. Do you remember the film, “Psycho” where Detective Arbogast gets stabbed to shreds by Norman Bates ? It happened on one of those great stairways in a wonderfully ramshackle, psychopathic old house.

In St. Augustine there were no stairs to go up. You got tired, you just drifted into the next room, which turned out to be your bedroom. You felt out of place and out of sorts. Like you were staying in a motel and had a severe case of jet lag. There was nothing snug about it, nothing secret. I think that everybody’s bedroom should be on a top floor at the end of a long hallway. There should be disquieting echoes. And you should be able to come across the diary of an old, bitter bachelor or spinster in one of the drawers of some vast hunk of furniture from the century before. There you could read about the vagaries and the ennui of their cloistered lives and imagine the absolute airlessness of their thin deaths.

Despite the white ice of human flesh in wintry Minnesota, I had not lost my yearning for darker ‘brethren’, but I was soon aware that, if Charleston, West Virginia was not exactly Negro-Friendly, , etc., St. Augustine, Florida by comparison was KKK country. It really in some ways defied belief. In Charleston, blacks had of course been denied entrance to certain ‘high class’ restaurants and such places where the white ‘gentry’ passed their leisure time. The very nice public swimming pool called ‘Rock Lake’ was Whites-Only. But that was about it. Most of America has always been thoroughly integrated after dark, and Charleston was no exception. In daylight hours we all rubbed shoulders without actually touching one another.

St. Augustine tried to create the illusion of being a tourist venue and, as such, could not avoid catering to the northerners that they in fact hated. One could wander around the impressive old fort; one could visit the Fountain of Youth; one could journey out to the Alligator Farm and stare at the rumpled, perpetually slumbering, log-like squadrons of gators who must have been bored out of their minds. They even, every now and then, had some ‘scout-leader’ wearing a confidence-inspiring uniform out there do a show with the local venomous snakes, of which there were many: water moccasins, rattle snakes, copperheads, and king snakes.

Taken all together: alligators, poisonous vipers, cockroaches galore, and more mosquitoes than even God in all his Merry Perfection could count, swarming savagely together under a sun often masked by heavy, storm-soaked, sulking shoulders of vapor that makes breathing impossible — and you can get the idea straight that the Florida of the postcards is just a front. The clincher is when you meet the People.

Florida is a conservative state with no particular identity. Is it old, it is young. It is yuppie, it is reactionary. It is The South; it is Yankee.

The problem with the citizenry back then was that they still hadn’t gotten over the Civil War. That was it in a nutshell. Most were like characters in those great Flannery O’Connor stories, creations she referred to as ‘grotesques’. Clinging absurdly to an imagined ‘tradition’ which had never really included them in the grand plan of its economics nor in the genteel posturing of its plantation nobility (if any such vision had ever really existed at all — and certainly some would argue that it did), these ‘rednecks’ brimmed with hatred over the ‘rape’ of their homeland by Yankee Carpetbaggers and were determined to prevent the ‘niggerization’ of their beloved Dixieland at all costs.

They were a down-trodden lot with viciousness smeared over their faces when confronted with the inexorable future, and that’s because, deep-down, they knew that integration was coming whether they liked it or not; but otherwise, amid their own kind, they were just Good Old Boys. They would ride around in their pick-up trucks (which hadn’t become fashionable yet, as they would), listen to their twangy country music (which hadn’t become trendy yet either, but it would), and sip their whiskey or moonshine or Old Milwaukee or whatever was handy.

A lot of the older southern women clung to a ‘dignity’ that I found hard to believe they had ever really possessed (although their sons and daughters would have sworn to it and attacked you, fuming and snarling, if you ever denied it), but some of the more winsome girls who had ‘come of age’ could glance at you and send little lightning bolts your way — which impaled you and launched shock waves of that momentary wonder and holy lust of which all the things you can spend your life chasing but never find — and never have to hold in your arms — are constituted — and many had the dust of country lanes in their voices and summer’s evening breezes in their breath. They were sultry like old Roman whores, but with eyes limpid like virgins in the rain.

Their casual glances were often full of indecent playfulness. Everything they did was unconsciously sensual and goaded on by a sadistic merriment they alone would know because it was their nature speaking from old archetypal shades. Briefly, they were goddesses, and then suddenly they weren’t any more. In fact, most of those girls worked at places like Dunkin Donuts or Wal-Mart for minimum wage or sold trinkets in little shops. Got stoned before and after work. Fucked like common mechanics. They took it all for granted.

Young dolphin girls on the beach of St. Augustine in 1967. Late summer flocks in the skies. The similarity haunts me. It’s like…you see a vision, you catch a glimpse of heaven or what a heaven must be like, and then it just disintegrates. All this amid a terrible silence in the heart that makes one understand it could stop beating whenever the hell it wanted — without explanation or apology.

I guess it sounds like sour grapes, but the most sought after ‘girls’ in those days (is it different any different now, I wonder?) — had the hots for the surfer dudes when they were in high school (the peroxide companies were making a killing), and a couple of years later, while they were still ‘marketable’, they would opt for the local ‘entrepreneurs’ — the younger bar owners and future condominium builders, buyers, and sellers.

I remember a guy named Tom Shutik (not sure about the last name) who had played pro football in Canada. When I first saw him he was tending bar at a new joint called “Scarlet O’Hara’s”. He looked like a pirate. Tom had an iron jaw — which matched his body — supplemented by a beachcomber’s beard. I used to see him at the various fitness clubs. We had a nodding acquaintance. Naturally, I saw the whole enchilada in the locker rooms, and Tom was quite well-endowed. His dick looked like a muscular bank robber’s arm with a bundle of loot in its fist.

Tom had a great wife — I mean, American beautiful, aggressive and cool — but that didn’t stop him or any of the loose women from busting nuts together. She finally gave up.

Tom eventually bought into the business and made money: an American success story. He was a tough guy and also a nice guy. The last time I met him he was living alone with his dog. Good choice.

But the moral of the story, I guess, is this. I — a lesser beam of light for certain — had to find pussy. In Tom’s case, pussy found him. Again and again.

It’s the kind of world we live in. Beside which, all ‘identity politics’ is reason for laughter from the chandeliers to the gutter.

I know only that I once looked at human beings I would love to have nested with like a simple robin and, together, made eggs for the future of the flock, and who only looked back at me before they ran into the sea and, in that sense, flew away. It’s a terrible thing, I assure you, when you are faced with a forever dismissal in the flickering look of a girl you’ll run into again out at the high school on Monday morning — but with all dreams killed in your heart. A door slammed shut (on the fierce beach) as softly as a female eyelid closing, as permanent as the last shovel of dirt on a place of burial. And you say to yourself: OK, so that’s how it is.

It is from that emotion that the Greyhound Bus company was created and made a fortune, I assure you.

Most always, as they grew older — I would see — when the beating sun had made leather of their flesh, and years of the alcohol-life sprinkled with cocaine as white as the sands of the beach itself…had caught up with them, their once radiant faces and pliable bodies would harden into granite and a weed-patch of sour expressions would mar them, defile them. Then, precious youth lost, the rigid stupidity which had always been the real glue that held them together, would manifest itself in ways of waste. Like garbage.

Sometimes, myself an alcoholic, I would sit on the stool of an outdoor bar on a Friday evening, and watch them age before my very eyes — and breathe in all the while my own parasitic role in the equation — therefore I would watch us in our infinite cheapness and corruption. The lies we had told ourselves…until…You see, honesty didn’t win. No, the damned LIES won. And any plain mirror could tell you so.

Thus a cold, sad canopy of brass would form over us like a black flag sprawled across a table, until the evening sun just said Fuck You and sank, leaving only thirsty mannequins behind. I would watch them, their old remedies of drink and the promise of drugs, and ask myself who they would shack up with tonight, and should I go over to them and try to insert myself in the game. Because now, in their ruin, I knew they might accept me.

It depended on what stimulant I was on. And you know by that point I didn’t care. I wasn’t in awe any more. I knew that her pussy, if I could scheme and cajole and wedge my way into it, would be like a lubricated cardboard glove instead of the tender slit in a newly ripening peach it once had been. It wasn’t a question of an old body. I have adored old women, old gardens, old roses. It was the repellent sniff of waste that I sensed. Something rancid that shouldn’t have been. O why O why do we always spit in the face of Grace?

I know hell. I love hell. I belong in hell. No, my friend, not in a place of dungeons and cauldrons and fire without end — but rather in some honky-tonk where you have run out of money, and no one will buy you a drink. And you sit there forever and ever just watching them all get drunker and drunker.

I don’t cry. I don’t laugh.

Only when I hear the howl of something innocent and unsuspecting being devoured by the jackals of this rotten world — to which I have always been a horny, lousy contributor — do I start looking again for my soul — like a stranger in deep fog.

Think of a doomed kitten or puppy. Then forget about it. Or go crazy.


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