Hell: Or Learning To Be Comfortable In Your Own Skin
HELL: OR LEARNING TO BE COMFORTABLE IN YOUR OWN SKIN
c, 2010 by Blakeslee Stevens
Hell’s Kitchen, New York, N.Y.,
Sitting in a high chair eating mushy tasting food. Loving it. Banging my ridiculous bent metal spoon with a big loop for a handle until my mother put more of it in my mouth. There’s a big window with anonymous cityscape behind me.
Same apartment? Same year or next, I’m in my room listening to what I think is a play on the radio. Slamming and hitting, furniture tumbling. My mother pleading, “Stop! Stop! You’ll wake the baby”
Somewhere in that time my uncle grabbed me in the living room and choked me with his arms in between my chest and throat so the air was cut off. They call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Home from the war. I didn’t know what death was, but I knew I was going to die. I pleaded for my life and he released me.
Was I yet 2? I think it was the same apartment. My uncle is going to throw me out the window. I don’t remember how many stories up. It was New York. Bricks and mortar and high and I knew the sidewalk below was concrete. I clawed like a wild animal at the edge of the open window. My old Hester said he used to do this often and she’d arrive in time to make him stop.
I was still 2 or maybe 3, I think we still lived in the same apartment. I’m in a taxi with my mother. I feel very sick. My eyes are photographing everything with a sickening stale yellow tint. “Take us to Children’s Hospital as fast as you can!” my mother said. The driver leaned back and asked her how sick I was. He was afraid that I’d die in his cab or that he’d catch what I had(which turned out to be a combination of Mumps and Meningitis with complications from earlier Rheumatic Fever).
My mother came to the hospital every day and read me stories and sang to me. It broke my heart when she had to leave. I cried and wailed myself to sleep each time she had to go. Hefty middle aged nurses would try to comfort me and feed me sweet tasting baby aspirin until I fell asleep. The hospital was an ugly older brick building with faded brownish dirty plaster inside and ceiling lights hanging down from dark metal stems with bowl shaped glass covers. There was a window behind my bed which I always asked the nurses to keep open so I could hear the birds and the noises of the city and pretend I wasn’t there. An outside thermometer hung from that window, at least that’s what they told me it was, and a wire dangled down from it. When the window was open I imagined it was some kind of machine that would take me to a better place.
69 Perry Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village. Was I 4?
Was I four?
What was I for?
Not to live in that.
Not to live.
"So, you have karma," Jimmy said. I was physically sick, and my self respect had gone down the drain. "Karma's not good or bad, it's just karma," he said.
Jimmy, Raphael, St Theresa, Mike, everybody was on their way to St Theresa's to party. I told Jimmy I was too sick to go. Fever, sore throat, runny nose. Jimmy hadn't been too afraid of whatever I had to smoke pot with me. Our conversation took place all night passing his little clay pipe back and forth.
Stepping out the door towards my car, this beautiful woman in her mid to late twenties comes up to me and says she really liked my poetry. Old Black street man in America with a torn blue overcoat comes up from other side, says, "With all that gray in your beard you'll never get her. You need to try the whores a few blocks up Sunset there." He tries to shove an old newspaper in my face. "For fifty cents I'll sell you these sex ads."
I was very drunk, stoned and sick. I asked her for her number. Her boyfriend stepped up to me. “I didn't mean it that way," she said. “I just wanted to tell you how much I liked your writing."
“Maybe you ought to listen to him," the boyfriend said, indicating the bum, and led her off. As I walked to the parking lot the bum tried to put the paper in my hand. It slipped to the asphalt.
Decline of ancient Africa, last phase, late 18th Century. Onset, Youruba Civil Wars. Rashidi's funeral.
The colorful parasols, their crystal lined edges chiming in the wind. Long African brass trumpets. Pall of incense billows toward the sky. Priests chanting. Now interspersed with flashes from Griffith's Birth Of A Nation, the lynching scene. Footage from Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will, Hitler captivating crowds at Nuremberg. Then news footage from World War ll. Carpet bombing of Germany by the Allies. The A Bomb over Hiroshima, the mushroom cloud. Becomes suburban hospital, east coast, U.S.A.
Nurse hands newborn baby from mother to father in Air Corps Captain's uniform. Father picks up and holds infant son.
Man being wheeled from the ambulance, lights flashing, into E.R. Medical team doing emergency heart stimulation maneuvers with hands and electric defibrillator. Hooked up to monitors. Somebody says," I'm getting an irregular heart beat.”
Doctor: "Get him on the artificial pump!"
They insert tubes. Doctor slices open chest. Works directly on heart. Beginning to gasp, breathe. Turning head from side to side. Eyes flutter. Remembering funeral scene in old Africa. Images come first in short flashes superimposed on the pandemonium in the E.R., then for a good couple of minutes the funeral scene. Sound of the long African trumpets. Tinkling of the crystal lined edges of the parasols in the wind.
Doctor: "He's starting to come around now."
Very sleepy, drowsy . Burning in upper colon. A little drunk. Let them all wait. As I sleep my mind mends making new connections where used to be blocks between thoughts, feelings. Low key multiple personality. Low key vampirism, as Don called it. I have all the time I want and need. My body and mind just want sleep. Strange bed. Antiseptic odors. Shuffle of many feet going by. Bluish white light everywhere. Bells. Phones ringing. A loudspeaker. Paging Dr. Rogers to the ER, stat.Dr. Shikman, pick up line 242…
A burning hole in the upper colon
leaden water on the brain
from stagnated liver, kidney.
Physical body has outlived mental purpose.
Energy withdrawing into
a sound sleep every day
while the world spins by.
First, bloated pregnancy
then nauseated weak kneed birth.
I sleep through the Bardo.
horned tumors on scalp
Sweet bliss of Alzheimer’s.
Approaching midnight I've discovered the secret M- has been trying to teach me.
Everything I dwell on I'm asking for. I choose what to dwell on now. It's gotten to the point where I just let the negative thoughts come out like sweat, shit and piss. Concentrating on what I want to do. Now I'm going to go out and have fun with les femmes du Al's Bar.
Toast. She showed me her driver's license.
"It's Cherokee," she said.
Her father's half Cherokee. She bought me a beer. A balmy summer night on the patio. With the women of Al's Bar.
How many nights and early mornings had I spent on that patio drunk, doing coke, smoking pot, the old days of the Downtown L.A. art scene. When Don was living, tending bar. Now he's memorialized in pictures on the wall. One as I knew him in jeans and shirt and the other from the 1970's in a dress. Side by side behind the bar.
I thought I was old then. A new generation has taken over. Toast manages the bar and the hotel. I find this new generation very cute. Not as hard edged as we were.
"I sucked my first cock at eleven," Michelle said.
"How old was the guy?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Tom. "How old was he?"
"Same age. We were classmates in the 6th grade. It just exploded in my mouth. I didn't expect that. I didn't suck another dick for a long time."
I pulled on my beer.Toni sat down next to me. Then Brooke walked on out to the patio. She and Michelle and Toni began comparing breast size. They pulled their shirts up. Unlike an earlier generation of women at Al's Bar they were all wearing bras. They compared the sizes. Toni's tits were the biggest and I could see them over the top of her bra. She had large nipples. I pulled my shirt down at the neck. "I'm working on mine," I told them.
Michelle began poking her finger around Brooke's pussy and pulling back the rips in her cut off jeans. "You're not wearing any underwear, are you?" she said.
"No, I'm not," Brooke replied.
Brooke left and Toni and Michelle began making out just a little. Soon we were joined by two other people, Aaron and Sara. Sara wore a bright red tight fitting silk top. Aaron was telling us about a fight he was in last week.
"You're in your May Day costume," I told Sara.
" I don't get it," Sara said.
I sipped my beer.
Toast and Michelle were in a band together, The Les Bopeeps.They were talking about setting a time to work on some new material. Their first cd was playing on the jukebox. Tom was involved somehow. "Let's do it tomorrow," he said.
Toast had to leave. I found myself on the patio alone.
Toni came back out. “Oh, they've left you all alone," she said.
"Keep me company," I said.
She sat back down next to me.
Toni's a lovely woman, about 25, with light blue eyes, blond hair and a charming Australian accent. “What will you be doing during the day tomorrow?" she asked me.
“Sleeping," I said.
"You mean you don't have a job?"
“I’m doing some part time work. Not what my degree's in. I'm concentrating mostly on writing."
"What kinds of things do you write?"
“Poetry, stories. I've also done op-ed journalism and book reviews. Mostly poetry and fiction."
" I write about what actually happens . People and events around me. Sometimes I change people's names, " I reassured her.
“And you. You're a photographer?" I'd heard her mention being a photographer.
"Stills and movies too?"
"I'm shooting my first film in Prague in a few weeks. Mostly still photography."
We talked for a while. "I wonder if it's too late for another beer?" she said.
Tom appeared in the doorway. They walked into the bar together.
Tom Luna says he knows me from another lifetime. That’s why he’s a sympathetic editor. The first time I went to Al’s Bar he called me on the Day of the Dead while I sat polishing off a pint of vodka.
“ Rashidi,” he said, “you could use a little night life. I know this place Downtown that I think you’ll like.”
The last time I talked to Tom Luna we had gone through an editorial shouting match about my latest article. I told him I was going to sue him if he attached my name to it after the editorial changes he’d made.
Leonard picked us up. We found ourselves driving through dark, narrow backstreets of Downtown L.A. between Little Tokyo and the Garment District. We seemed to be crawling along a magnetic fault at the bottom of the world under a low moonless sky. I thought about my childhood in New York . We passed row on row of reconverted warehouses and abandoned factories. To me, they were New York tenements superimposed precariously on the seismically active soil of Aztlan.
This was about a year before the neighborhood started to become fashionable. The lofts were still a bold adventure, improvised out of the raw space reclaimed from these outmoded sweatshops of early capitalism.
Downtown L.A. rests on a naturally semi-arid plain watered by the usually dry Los Angeles River. These faded red brick and concrete hulks looked like they were dumbly waiting for the cataclysmic earthquake destined to put an end to their defiance of the traditional Nahautal fields and deserts, temporarily blocked by the structures, which thrive in the sacred sun to the edge of the clear dark hills.
We parked around the corner from the dilapidated brick building with Dustin Schuller’s airplane suspended down the building’s face, impaled by a giant meat hook, a symbol of mortality. We walked, stoned, up to the door of Al’s Bar. I watched the light that filtered in prismatic colors through the portal made by Bob Clark as sounds of voices and music from inside met us on the light beams and went in to the American Hotel.
The three of us sat at the big table to the right of the bar, the one where the spring stuck out from the booth. Leonard was soft spoken, polite, observant. He was en route from Mexico City to Atlanta where he’d be teaching art at a major university. Tara was working the bar that night. I stumbled over to the bar, ordered a white wine for myself and two beers for my friends. I paid, made it back to the table, parceled out the change from the money Leonard and Tom Luna had given me and swallowed my wine in three gulps. Noting to myself the block house like construction of the vintage industrial fortresses outside I started to think about my childhood in New York again.
“Hey man, you get off on desolation,” I said to Tom Luna. “This part of town looks like what will be left after they drop the bomb.”
Then I turned to Leonard. “ Have you noticed,” I asked, “How there’s something about Tom Luna that enjoys the morbid side of life?”
The crowd was dancing around us. It was the Day of the Dead. Recalling past lives, some were skeletons, some were monsters, they were all stoned just like we were. They danced in wavering candlelight to the sound of the juke box in the next room.
“Why do you think the public is so eager to buy into the idea of the sick artist?” Leonard asked.
“It’s tradition. It’s what sells the product,” I said.
“That’s probably why I gave up painting after completing my first canvas,” Leonard said.
“I used to believe in the mad suffering artist,” I admitted.
Tom Luna raised his bottle of beer to his lips.
“It’s a good day to die, Rashidi,” he said quoting a phrase from his Native American ancestors. “I’ll bet when you write about it you’ll make yourself sound as if you’d been cool the whole time.”
I stood on one foot to the side of the dance floor. Charlie and Holly were locked in each other’s arms like characters out of Yeats’ poem Sailing To Byzantium. They brushed by me, falling over me momentarily without losing their private embrace. I stumbled a little into the antique wood door that divides the rooms. As I caught my balance, I looked away from the crowded dancefloor where the couples swept by me, bright flashes of light, kept apart from my orbit, stars in another galaxy. Then I saw her at the table in front of the stage. I stopped myself for a moment. I had a sprained ankle. I looked at her and she gave me a look back. Our eyes met at approximately 12:15 A.M. for an instant. I had written a poem describing her the year before Tom Luna brought me to Al’s Bar.
She was a baby in my youth.
She’s looking for an address.
Her silver lenses give back the light.
She’ll outlive me.
I hobbled over and introduced myself.
“I’m Rashidi,” I told her over the sound of the jukebox. “I’m a reincarnated poet and healer from the family of the gods in Africa. What’s your name?”
“Jaki,” she said. When she looked up at me her silver shades flashed the neon colors that lighted the bar straight into my retina.
“Do you live Downtown?” I asked her.
“Right now, I live in Hollywood. I’m looking for a studio Downtown.”
I noticed that she had an accent. “How long have you lived in Hollywood?” I asked.
“Not long. I came out here to animate a film. Then I got caught up in Los Angeles and haven’t been able to get back.”
I gave her my number and got hers. “Back to where?” I asked.
“I’m originally from Sidney, Australia,” she said. “For the last few years I’ve been in New York working in television.”
“I spent some childhood years in New York,” I told her. “The gods have exiled me here. This is my last life. If I don’t find the solution to my problem I’ll be doomed to haunt the world for centuries as a homeless ghost.”
“Are you a regular here?” she asked.
“Yes I am,” I said. “In fact, I’m writing a book about this place.”
“Sounds like you know some interesting stories,” she said.
“Come on,” I said, taking her by the hand. “I’ll introduce you to some of my characters.”
I led her into the main room. Asma was seated at the bar. She wore an African turban in the Wolof style of her father’s people. Asma has Arab eyes, the color and texture of ripe dark grapes, a trait certain Africans carry from nearly two thousand years ago when Arab tribes invaded the fabulously wealthy African kingdoms searching for gold. I introduced them to each other. “Asma, this is Jaki,” I said. “She animates films. Asma’s a fashion designer. Her work is a blend of classic African patterns and punk.” They shook hands.
“Centuries ago Asma and I were cousins in the State of Bono-Monsu in West Africa,” I explained. “Now our lives have crossed again, here at the American Hotel.”
Julio sat at the bar next to Asma. He was choreographing a new show. Tim Poet was beside him, drunk. Not too long after that night Tim got 86’d for waving his cock at some USC students who had come to check out the bar as voyeurs. They passed me a fat joint. I took a hit and introduced Jaki to them, then gave her a drag. Tim and Julio were singing a Mexican song together about how short life is. Julio offered a rough translation. “It means: Life is nothing. Nothing is life- in other words, you’d better make your move fast.”
As they continued their duo I found myself walking with Jaki toward the other room. “I’ve had a good time meeting you and your friends,” she told me. “I really should be going. I’m here with some other people tonight and I ought to be getting back to them. I promise I’ll call you soon.”
Later, when she walked past the pool table on her way out with her friends I pulled her over to me and kissed her. She was golden, burning. She was escorted by two tall, well dressed film executives. Sizing them up I noticed that there wasn’t a gray hair in either of their ample beards.
I thought to myself: These days I seem to be meeting people who are on the verge of casting something off. The half African girl who works at the health food store whose father comes from an ancient Youruba family. And Maggie. Jaki. Asma.
I wanted so much. I’ve always died before becoming a householder.
It felt like science fiction, this second chance. Four years ago M- appeared. She kept giving me knowing glances as she went about her business as a security guard at the office building where I went to see my accountant. ‘Who is this woman and why is she looking at me?' I thought. People walked by her every day, asking directions, not noticing anything.
It's called hands off healing because the healer's hands only briefly touch the patient at intersection points of the electromagnetic field surrounding the body. I felt a strong tingling electrical sensation coming from her hands. She wore an African medicine bag around her neck. She had been mentored as a child by her part African, part Cherokee grandmother, who was also a healer, in her native rural Alabama.
"Ancient African healing practices mixed with Christianity," I said.
"The old people were the community healers in the rural Black South. For a long time Black people had no access to authorized medical care," she said.
When I dragged myself to her place I could hardly walk and was in excruciating pain. On her treatment table with the sage burning and the bluish light above me it was like being in an ancient African temple in Youruba, Mali or high on the Dogan plateau, or all the way back to Kush and Kemet. I heard and felt ancestors, guardians and helpers of various kinds, now spirits, shuffling through the curtains on the open patio door, filing past me with the wind.
"They all showed up today," M- said after the treatment.
I always fell into a restorative sleep at a certain point during the early treatments.
I am the Phoenix.
Your yesterdays are my tomorrows.
Disease and old age were only
I write myself
Like a character in a novel.
I part Dark Matter
With Light words.
Mutating cells shovel
Old consensus reality
Which are invisible atomic particles.
Don’t you know
And DNA reincarnation?
I change shape easily
Energy withdraws into
A sound sleep every day
While the world spins by.
First, bloated pregnancy,
Then nauseated weak kneed birth.
I sleep through the Bardo.
I’m free to grow
As I please
In my archetype.
Your belief system fails to fix
Me in its cross hairs.
As the world repairs
And reinvents itself
For the first time
Since the last Ice Age
I am the Phoenix.
Three generations rise and fall.
I died with each
And loved you all.