“At the Driveway Guitar Sale” & “Afternoon Lovemaking”

In both pieces in this podcast, the poet reminds himself that what remains to him in life is powerful, rich and fulfilling.

At the Driveway Guitar Sales

At the driveway guitar sale
I watch old men
Heft various 60’s electrics
And strike surly-lead-guitarist poses
That would surely embarrass
Their grandchildren
They play snatches of Light My Fire and
Riders on the Storm 
To accompany the Jim Morrisons
Singing in their heads
And I can see the faded blaze
Of their rock and roll dreams
In their eyes
And the language of their
Heavy slightly stooped bodies
That says those doors are closed

It is much the same at car shows
Where old men display
The hot rods and T-Birds
And souped-up Bel Airs
That drove them nearly mad with longing
When they were young
And even though the cars
Of their hearts’ desires
Now park in their suburban garages
I can sense a faint echo of disappointment
Reverberating in the hearts that beat
Beneath their Harley-Davidson t-shirts:
But I’m not 16

And me?
When this old man was young
He wanted badly to be a poet
To smoke Gauloises
To drink Wild Turkey
To swim the Hellespont
And utter seismic profundities
In casual conversation and
Oh yes
To write stirring poems
And declaim them to a waiting world . . .
Which didn’t exactly work out
And although he does still wonder from time to time
What it would have been like
To be a young writer of great promise
He is content these days to strum his ukulele
To drive his battered old Toyota
To pen verses that might occasionally
Lay a patch of rubber, ignite a little flame

Afternoon Lovemaking 

We lie side by side
Dozing under the white comforter
In our white room
My hand resting on her belly
Hers on mine
To make certain
We do not float away
Into the sunlight
Streaming in through the window,
Which is our primary work these days
Of our eighth decade,
Holding fast,
Keeping each other here.

Lucky: A Swan Song

Film critic Brian Formo reminisces on the cinematic history of the late, great actor Harry Dean Stanton and shares some thoughts on his final offering, Lucky, in which he plays the title character. Stanton’s film credits range from bit parts in 50s westerns and war films to minor roles in Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heros, and Alien. He went on to star in Paris, Texas, 80s cult classics such as Repo Man and Pretty in Pink, and modern films Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Green Mile.

The late Harry Dean Stanton was the ultimate character actor. He’s given us 60-plus years of acting credits across film and television from cameos to supporting roles, but rarely the full blown lead. His biggest role, in terms of screen time, was Wim Wenders‘ lyrical Paris, Texas about a man who seeks atonement for his sins against his wife and child by wandering the desert completely alone sickened to temporary muteness at what he allowed himself to become. John Carroll Lynch, a character actor in his own right (he’s still “not the Zodiac” and if he was he “wouldn’t tell you”), has made his directorial debut with Lucky and it features Stanton’s final leading role in the familiar lonely desert vista.

Lynch, like many actors, obviously revers Stanton for his rundown and defiant spirit that’s breathed a different air into films as diverse as Alien, Wise Blood, Repo Man, The Green Mile and The Avengers. But Lucky is more than a Valentine to an actor, it’s a delicate discussion of time and nothingness that would resonate even if Stanton didn’t just pass away in the same month of its theatrical release. Because of the subject matter, it of course resonates a little more with an afterglow of Stanton’s career being capped by a film that asks the question: what do we really leave behind? For Lucky (Stanton) the perceived answer to that is not much. He has no kin, no children, never married. What he has is a routine. He gets up, has a morning cigarette, does a few exercises, walks into town where he gets breakfasts and does his crossword puzzle, goes to buy a pack of cigarettes, stops to yell “c#nts!” into a golden orb, watches his game shows, smokes more cigarettes and then goes out to the one bar that’ll allow him to drink there.

Lucky is a complete character piece. And though it begins with some broad comedy setups for the cranky old man it never goes into the territory that most aging actors are relegated to these days: the comedy road trip or comedy duel. Logan Sparks‘ and Drago Sumonja‘s script reveals any back-story or insight about Lucky with organic strokes. We see him shake his head when a man kisses another man on the cheek at a diner but later when he’s at home watching Liberace play on the piano, he’s in awe of his ability to play “with so many rings on his fingers” and he sighs to a younger woman who’s dropped in to check on him, “I don’t know why I ever cared who he fucked.” These are just two small passages that show Lucky taking into account just how long he’s spent on this earth and seen humanity shift, although he might not have himself.

In another reflection at the diner, Lucky spots a Marine closer to his age at the counter (played by Tom Skerritt) and they swap war stories. But Lucky was lucky to never have actually seen battle, he was a cook in the Navy. We’re never told when and why Lucky got the nickname “Lucky” but Sparks’ and Sumonja’s script weave in many bits of dialogue that show that he’s lucky to have lived this long, whether he realizes it or not. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day but his lungs show no sign of caving, he served in the Navy but got to be in the can instead of the shit, he fell in love but didn’t have his heart broken. He’s lived a life that’s unspectacular enough that Death might not know of his existence.

Lynch has flanked Stanton with a number of great career supporting actors. In addition to the aforementioned Skerritt (a Weyland Industries reunion!), David Lynch plays a lonely man who’s obsessed with his tortoise, Ed Begley Jr. is the town doctor, Ron Livingston is a lawyer who Lucky butts heads with at Beth Grant‘s saloon and Barry Shabaka Henley brings the coffee at the diner. You might not know all of these actors by name but you’ll recognize them. And it’s a nice stroke by John Carroll Lynch to dot his film with familiar faces who we don’t truly know well for that’s what Lucky is to the town. He’s familiar and has been a corner fixture for years but people don’t know about his life. And as Lucky begins to debate what reality is, whether each individual has their own experience and that’s all that reality is, he learns some personal truths from those around him and about himself.

Lucky is a film that’s content being small and internalized and that’s why it works very well. Even though it can feel slight, and toes the line of crotchety eccentric, it expands with immense questions in the second half of the film, signaled by a digital clock blackout that breaks Stanton’s daily routine. It, of course, helps that Stanton is magnificent. He uses silence and rascal exuberance so interchangeably that you know they’re rooted in the same place, in a place of hollow disbelief in life. Being alone in life might be easier than dying alone. Lucky lambasts many of the locals in town, greeting them by calling them “nothing”, telling them that souls don’t exist, that no smoking signs don’t apply to him but it’s the dual nature of darkness and light that they not only allow him to continue to be in their presence but also like to soak it up. Lucky wrestles with big questions without showing off. There’s a fitting awareness of humility and we’re just specks of dust approach to weighty ideas. As if the characters are consumed by their thoughts but mildly embarrassed by them.

What Lucky seems to be most concerned with is the perception of things and how, as he approaches closer to death, it might be perceived that he indeed was nothing because he doesn’t have the belt-notches of life that people mark as leaving something behind. If all you have is your reality and perception, death takes all of that, and is he able to live with that and accept it? For Stanton, he’s left behind so many great pieces of work that — even though some of these story asides are similar to his own story (never marrying, never having a child, and serving as a cook in WWII before becoming a Lieutenant) — he’d never need worry about being forgotten or having nothing to show for it. And like Lucky, he got lucky in age. It’s his lasting legacy that made the writers, director and probably a good chunk of the cast, band together for something small but special. He’s lucky to have a film like Lucky to lay his legacy to rest. In peace.

From ‘Lucky’ Review: A Fitting Swan Song for Harry Dean Stanton written by Brian Formo for Collider.com, September 29, 2017. See the full article here.

Just Visiting

While Stephen Zimmer is unnerved by his own frightful symptoms of possible illness, he shares at the same time an ongoing grief over his younger brother’s untimely and eventually mortal condition.

The Blue Mosque at once dominating and enchanting is the view from our Istanbul hotel window and the last thing I see before I lay down and try to sleep. But I am preoccupied by an irregular growth the size of a furry caterpillar in the center of my chest; a slowly growing rough edged slightly raised area of gray skin, which I noticed last week. Frightened into action I phoned the first five dermatologists on the insurance company list, but no one could see me. This thing had been there for years but smaller, innocuous. Now it is aching and the ache goes deep into my chest, the way a melanoma would. Great. We’re traveling. Sans children, sans work worries. We’re actually doing what we always wanted. Now, first night out, I may be dying.

Carole is six inches from me in bed. She’s not asleep either; her breathing still slightly uneven, but I say nothing. She’s the worrier and I’d like to keep it that way. Lung disease, heart attacks, brain tumors, she wakes with a list. Not only illnesses, her worries cast a wide net: what’s wrong, what might go wrong, what needs to be fixed, what we’ve run out of, that sort of thing. And she is anxious to fill me in as if my knowing brings her a modicum of relief. I guess there’s a compliment in there somewhere. When I’m feeling particularly good humored the first thing I say when I walk in the door is not “hi,“ or “I’m home,” its: “Honey, what’s wrong.” She starts right in, as if that’s the way everyone says hello: “We need to get that chair put down into the basement. It doesn’t fit anywhere.” Love the “we.”

So I keep my cancer to myself. I don’t want to be The Whiner; The Hypochondriac; The Big Baby. If I don’t say it maybe it’s not real, or not yet real. Once you know, the clock starts ticking. That’s not quite right. In fact, my ticking started on 5/4/48, but once you think you know, you hear the ticking. Not that hearing the ticking itself is the thing. That happens fairly often these days. Some one you know dies and there’s the ticking. But it’s temporary. Like when you land on jail in Monopoly but are “just visiting.” When you get the Diagnosis, you transfer from visitor to inmate. You hear the ticking, it doesn’t disappear, and your normal life is over. Death sentence.

Listen to me: Just visiting,/not just visiting. When I was 26 I thought when you’re old, you can take it easy. But these waking nightmares never happened when I was twenty-six or even fifty-six. I’ve got to get some sleep.

Sleep will not come. There is a thing on my chest. It is not temporary and will not be going anywhere without the aid of a surgeons scalpel. It’s raised, rough, has irregular borders and is getting bigger. What if it’s been growing for years unnoticed and it’s too late?

Like Joel.

In September 2008 my little brother emailed me this: “Yo bro-I just went to see an oncologist about a swollen lymph node. He didn’t like the way it felt and I’m going for an MRI tonight to see if I have head and neck cancer. Oy Veh, Jobo.”

It was already too late for him. Four years later the ordeal that had replaced his normal life was finally over. Perhaps this terror of mine is Joel inspired.

I think about him nearly every day. Either I remember something I associate with him, like eating crab after blue crab and making an incredible mess, or me cringing while he practiced the West Coast Swing standing in the foyer of his house waiting to go out to dinner; or else I think about what he’s missing, like going sailing, or Thanksgiving this year. Two years ago he was there at the table rhapsodizing over our mother’s brisket but not all there. He knew he was leaving the party so in a way he’d already left and you could tell by the terrible sadness in his eyes.

Giving up on sleep I stand in front of the open window and let the cool air envelop me. It’s still there, the Blue Mosque, in all its glory, glowing purple, bathed in the barely visible light of the rising sun. It will still be there when I’m long gone.

If this is it, if my normal life is over maybe I should get that Corvette I’ve yearned for ever since my teacher Mr. “D” showed up at my elementary school parking lot with a new ’61 ‘Vette. It was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and cemented his reputation as the coolest cat around. So what if I need a second garage space? The idea of retirement savings suddenly sounds like the punch line of a bad joke. Midnight black. Red’s safer, easier to see, but safety has lost its relevance. Black is badass. Drive that beauty across the U.S.A. and go down guns blazing.

But if I’m dying, what’s the point of living out one more fantasy? What is the point of dying with a Corvette in the garage? Will my last days be any happier? No, my last days will suck because I’ll never want to leave the party.

A piercing wail blasts through the dark interrupting my thoughts. I realize It’s the early morning call to prayer booming from enormous loudspeakers mounted on the six minarets of the Blue Mosque. It would be charming if it weren’t screaming at me. I’m exhausted. When I get home I’m going directly to a doctor but today, assuming I’m not too tired to go anywhere, we’ll take the ferry up the Bosporus all the way to the Black Sea and tonight after dinner we’ll watch the Dervishes whirl. Have fun, stay busy. I could be “just visiting.”