Sunday, October 08, 2006

NIGHTSIDE TALKS parts 1 and 2


A recovering alcoholic always talks about not taking that next drink, but when Mr. Stone suggested we meet in Newark, New Jersey, in an after-hours bar I had made my home many years ago, it all went out the window for me.

What the hell, I figured. I'm a two-step kind of guy anyhow.

If you're from around the way, you might know a place like this one. It sits squat and mute in the middle of a smashed block, the only structure standing on a quarterslice of land that has been gouged, flayed, razed and stomped flat. Broken streetlights lay one against the other like repentant drunks. Sullen figures crouch in the shadows with their various wares, basing pipes or collections of cans, their shadows monstrous against the stones. The walls of the building itself are sweaty with age, graffiti-spattered, precariously aslant. The salsa music slaps you in the face as soon as the bouncer lets you through the doors. Air so thick with smoke it's like zero-zero in the outlands, clientele hunched over the bar or jammed against tables, figures etched out of acid steel in the wavering glare of the wire-swung lamplights. Type-X walls, splayed windows, soft-rot tables: home.

We seated ourselves at the bar. I tried playing inconspicious with my pad and pen, hoping to get lost in the smoke and shadows and the veering oxblood light, but it was too late for that. Everywhere I turned I could see eyeballs, fuming. I looked around for the bartender instead. He was on the other side of the bar, ministrating to some sorry souls, pouring his vicar's brew. I decided to begin the interview, whether Stone wanted to or not.

"So . . . how did you fall into this writing stuff anyway?"

Stone frowned, making deep caves of his eyes. It wasn't a look of scrutiny-- there was no searing of the soul, no flash of the inwardly luminous. His eyes, oddly enough, were filled with pity.

"Fell into it?" Stone said. "That's a funny way of putting it. But I guess fell into it is what I did. I never did have any real notion of becoming a writer, or of what a writer did. Far as I was concerned, writers were just guys in funky underwear who typed in steamy rooms. Drinking whiskey wearing fogged-up glasses."

The bartender finally made his way toward us. He walked in a struggling clanking manner, as if he were burdened by ankle bracelets. We ordered a round of beers and shots of Jack, lit our cigarettes with a Fuck You to New Jersey, and sat quietly smoking. Joe Arroyo sang about a slave revolt in the year 1600. The men in the bar, moored to their tables, chained to the bar, danced their fingers and tapped their feet. Smoke lay fleeced over our heads.

Stone appeared deep in thought, as if he were trying to recall the day he was born. He was wound tight as a watchspring. One got the sense that if provoked, all those coils would become unsprung. He had the slightly hunched physique of the boxer not yet gone to seed, his knuckles as scarred as a barehanded brawler's. I knew that as soon as we'd walked into the bar, he'd already sized everyone up, utilizing the pan and scan before we plopped on our stools. In truth, he'd been a lightweight division boxer. But a bad drinking habit goes a long way to soften up the body. And once the body goes, the brain is surely to follow. So before he became battered meat, he decided to give up the bloodsport and go into another one far more deadly, far more battering, the sport that kills body and soul alike with rarely any spoils for its victors.

Writers don't go to heaven, Stone told me once. Because they only believe in hell.

Old habits die hard.

The bartender slapped down our drinks. A rillet of whiskey and beer trickled off the edge of the bar. I had the horrifying urge to crouch down and nose up against the drip. I restrained myself and drank down my beer with a trembling fist. Stone lit another cigarette before hefting his mug. He smoked more than a psych-ward orderly.

We clacked our shot glasses and downed the whiskey. Jack Daniels, my old friend. Just before I felt that honeycolored swirl rush down my throat I had a vision of apocalyptic proportions: a million raw eyeballs, denuded of their protective hoods, peeled, softlooking, capering about a blankspace and discharging jets of black blood.

"I always had this thing," Stone said, jolting me out of my momentary dementia, "where I wanted to tell stories. It must be the Irish in me. You feel like, when you're out on the streets, streets that you know, that you want to tell the story of each and every person there. The homeless man, the crackhead, the drunk, the working man, the woman who stares out the window, the guy who plants the one flower in his pathetic plot of land that the fucking kids are always ripping up. The drug dealer. The man who drives the police surveillance van. The utility worker. The priest. Write up a day in the life. Like Ulysses. That's what writers are, you know? People who can't stop their brains from talking."

He lit a fresh cigarette and looked out through a window that wasn't even there--it was just bricks stacked against sheet metal. I remembered why I liked him. There was no cant to his talk. He was the type of guy who despised chop-logic and the mode of language employed by scumbag lawyers, and he made short work of any man or woman who tried to verbally railroad him.

Before I could follow up with a question, some guy beside us started barking.

The man sat on his hands and opened his full throat to the ceiling, unleashing long pealing howls, then he turned toward us and began to emit wolfish barks. The man had a hard and fibrous face, like lava in motion, and apparently he was barking because Stone had unconsciously swiped his ashtray. With each wolfish bark his eyes rolled pleadingly toward the ashtray, which rested at my elbow. And the longer he barked, the more he showed his sharp, gleaming teeth.
Stone watched him impassively.

("En contraro a Don Goyo")

The eyeballs began their apocalyptic dance, a blackblood ballet steeped in doom.

("estaba muerto en el arroyo")

I could hear the watchspring jangling.

("amarrado con manahuas")

And before I could suggest we move to the tables in back, following the sonic sorrow of El Gran Combo's storytelling, Stone's hand larruped past my nose and a kitchen match scraped against the man's cheek. There was a minute burst of flame, a wry smell of sulphur, and Stone nonchalantly lit another cigarette while the man cradled his dropped jaw. A burn mark zigged across his cheek.

("ese muerto no lo cargo yo que lo carge el que lo mato")

Stone motioned toward the front doors with a flick of his head. He drank down his beer. The man stumbled off his chair and out into the streets while the barflies roared with laughter. I couldn't help appreciating the humor of the situation, even if we came close to being ground into hamburger
And to think, we'd walked through the doors only ten minutes ago.

("ese muerto no lo cargo yo")


So there we were in the afterhours bucket of blood, like atheists in a foxhole. Me with my pen scratching against a tablet, recording the crazy-angel ideas of Ian Stone amidst the background sounds of junkie soneros lamenting from the afterlife, rattle-gourds and agogo bells, the shake of the claves and the tang of the cuatro and, penetrant above all, the hollow tapping of a deathwatch, music felt in every touchpoint of the body. Stone sat with a cigarette clamped in his teeth, a beer foaming at his fist and a mutinous squint to his eye, like a bawdy sea captain who spells his ribald tales with a knife yerked between your ribs.

Men gabbled through beer-frothed mustaches, slung jibes and threats, drained their bottles and played melancholy. The long room smoked like breath on a three-dog night. Closing time was far from near.

Mr. Stone quietly chain-smoked, considering the question I had asked him a few minutes before with the mute gravity that it deserved. I could actually sense the electric sparks that hissed from the raceway of his mind. In the meantime, I tried to keep downwind of the thick, rank smoke chuffing out of the tips of White Owl cigars, hoping that the bar talk wouldn't get out of hand and ride the locomoco express.

"You know you're a writer when you're eating mushy cereal for dinner. With borrowed chopsticks because you can't afford the spoons."

Faces, bound in shadow, appeared intermittently, erupting from the darkness like firebrats. There, in the far reaches, the men drank and traded stories while trolling their eyes, eyes that pierced my flesh, rooted around my organs, looking for the soft spot.

They wouldn't find anything in Stone's guts except live rocks.

"Staff of life," he said, upending another shot of Jack. I followed suit, getting that old feeling back. Things would get ugly soon. I remembered the days of the wolf, when I was dumb and primal-minded and everything smelled like blood. The days when I wanted to beat on skulls like they were bamba drums, in order to rhythmically alleviate the humiliations of my day-to-day.

Stone, of course, lived up to his name.

"Most writers belong to an economic class we're unacquainted with. They're blue-blooded and green-skinned. They dress to the nines and declaim in two-thousand dollar a night rooms. Which is why their work is so loose-jointed, as profligate as a whore's. Too much protein lodged in their throats, spat stickily onto their pages."

Stone pulled a wry face, drummed his fingers over the butcher-block. A great sadness seemed to weigh down his shoulders, dim his eyes. I knew that it was the weight of his history applying the pressure, because I, too, have felt this on more than one occasion. The ghosts of generations' past: all of the supernaturally strong women who had led an all-fours existence; all the labor-ready men who writhed blindly on dirt floors while cursing the shade-tree chemists. We were two men of distinct cultural backgrounds, and yet, we were the same.

"They strip words of their contents, beating their gums to loosen up their teeth. Then they check into clinics because they can't handle success. A whole crew of pale scribes in heavy black-framed glasses. Machine-code artists. But even that label is too good for those thriftless bastards."

Old men in faded workshirts started up a dim rendition of "En Mi Viejo San Juan." Their noses were tipped toward the rafters, their webby mouths wide with anguish. A few tears chased along their corrugated cheeks.

"Writing is longing, as Don DeLillo pointed out. One way to be proficient in the craft is to master the art of unrequited love. Love for a woman, love for your homeland. Once you've had a dose of that, it never goes away, unlike your garden-variety STD. Longing is what gives the work its worthwhile heft. Writing should be the sole occupation of the lonely, the insane, and the poor. This is who I write for. And this is who will never read what I write."

A lank man in a duffle coat padded down the aisle, loosing a monospeak, his hands gesturing fruitlessly. He pulled a scrip from a ragbag slung over his shouler. Men turned and waved him away impatiently. One man booted him in the ass.

Stone, observing this with a fierce eye, downed his beer and called for another one. He cursed softly. Angry smoke jetted from his nostrils.

"Writing will never die," Stone said, spewing smoke out of the corner of his mouth, "as long as there is such a thing as memory. I look at it as a constant battle between the spiritual and the corporeal. The flesh inevitably withers and dies, but the spirit, the spirit remains. How to eradicate what is mere smoke? Mist fades to mist, fades to sky, fades to black. Then we are the end. And yet we live, because of the words. The words imprinted on yellowing scrolls will long outlive our meat. This isn't very comforting. But that doesn't matter. I am not here to offer succor. No one is going to suck from my tit. I didn't create the fact that the flesh is more tangible than the spirit. Pick up the phone and dial God. But I can guarantee you'll only reach Job."

We finished our beers and lit fresh cigarettes. The exhausted bartender, whose greasepaper skin lay thinly over his mammoth facial bones, set two more mugs and shots of Jack before us. I pointed at the meagre pile of bills aslant on the butcher-block and he waved it away.

Drinks on the house: a gesture unprecedented in the annals of hard-core drinking and late-night dives. Stone, inhaling a long tail of smoke, blew out an expansive ring that spiraled ceilingward, barely skirted dissipation, and hung wreathed for one luminous instant above the bartender's exhausted head.

"You have to wonder what's left," Stone continued. "Art itself seems to be in stasis. There have been a few inchmeal progressions, nothing profound enough to leave a mark. A pencil in a cupholder, sword in the stone. This is art? Who gives a shit. It makes me feel nothing, except tired. Boredom seeps in. Then anger. Then rage. This guy gets paid for this? So we return to the idea of the physical. What if a writer were to let his life's blood tell the tale? Stabbed himself in the throat and watched as his blood spurted out hot and quick over the page. The bold statement, and then death. Real suffering, real art. Martydom. Life illuminating the text, a realing of great proportion. True suffering art yearning for the context of truth, lumed by blood. God and fuck and piss and shit. Maybe that's all we have left."

The tension mounted in the bucket of blood. The pen was tremulous in my fist. My gut ached. I imagined a hairworm swinging from a rope of my intestine, like a campesino in a hammock.

Stone, a hint of crazy in his eye, nostrils fuming, was still sober.

An eight-string guitar sounded out of the speakers, accompanied by low-register growls. Bitter-enders that we apparently were (or maybe just mamaos), we didn't rise from our stools, fly through the doors, even though by now I'd wished that I'd brought a stab-proof vest. The fact that I was getting drunk didn't help.

"And then there's the ruination of the concept of individuality. God in every child. Now it's a commodity, sold off on MTV and found in a nipple ring. Differentiation brought about by a bar in the clit and a tattoo in the anus. Imagine what the sun gods would have made of all this. We're living in a time where the extraordinary is quickly becoming the ordinary. I can see the future. Our children asleep in their beds, their tiny hands no longer wrapped around teddy bears, but fondling the breasts of their Jenna Jameson dolls."

So we arrived at the heart of the matter. A vision of the trammeled dead, yoked to that termless chain that wove directly into the waste and void. But Stone, the consummate anti-entropy warrior, was merely painting a future he would not allow. He did not fear the world. He yearned to dig into its burning center and devour its heat.

Heed the lesson: Carry your dead, never discard them.