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Sunday, September 19, 2010

"And, they're off!"

Well, it's been quite a while since I put anything on this site so I'm figuring, it's about time. Life plugs along in the big city and I have no complaints; things are good. The dog days of summer seem to be over. There's a slight breeze, blue skies and hints of the leaves changing right under the eyes of the sun. On the way to move my truck earlier walking over a rickety industrial sidewalk littered with trash and foul odors I heard the sounds of guitar and somewhat off-tune wailing from the Iglesia the size of an apartment above a little warehouse. I stood outside a while unable to see through the windows, but listening to what I imagined to be a short Spanish woman, eyes closed, arms raised, feeling the power. I walked a couple blocks down the street and saw the aftermath of a storm that recently hit New York. Trees were resting on power-lines, sidewalks broken apart, and an enormous tree, now uprooted, was lying in the soccer field. Two boys were playing on top of it, climbing far up the base and onto the branches. What had before been an imposing form of nature was now part of a neighborhood playground. As I watched them, I couldn't help but think of how life, even in destruction, transforms, into something else, and sometimes, if we're lucky, becomes beautiful in its evolution.

...The police blotter from the local paper is rather bland these days. A few muggings, a knife here and there, but for the most part tales of stolen IPhones seem to fill the pages. I can't complain about violence in the neighborhood if these are most of the crimes. I suppose if these people were looking up from their phones they might be able to detect the shady characters zoning in on them, but whom am I to judge?

The mind wanders. To and fro. Bare with me...

Aside from work, I have no woman exploits to brag about, and this joke of sporting mustache's for the month of September at the restaurant isn't helping any. Just the other night I tried to hit on a pretty twenty-one year-old coming out of the hoochie-jersey club next door and found myself being slapped multiple times. I don't blame the girl. She probably thought I was some sick perv. So, in between entertaining friends and relatives visiting, I've spent my off days amongst the male-dominated senior-citizen, large sun glass wearing, denizens out at Belmont Racetrack just outside of Queens. It's my hidden spot for vice and meditation and when I mention to folks at work that I bet on the ponies, they look at me a little curiously, thinking, I think my grandpa used to do that shit.

In my travels over the years I've found myself a few times out at the horsetrack. I remember years ago taking a train from Greenbelt, MD over to the Laurel Track. The whole car was filled with old men, hacking up their lungs, wreaking of cigarettes, forms out, making notes. The whole thing seemed so mysterious and I had no clue to any of the terminology they were using. Exactas. Boxes. Trifectas. Win. Show. Place. The chalk. Sucker horse. I don't even know if I bet that day. I saw a lot of war vets hobbling around, putting their retirement checks to good use. Later I stood waiting for a train home as a small Chinese man raced around with a fifth of cheap boos. He had plastic cups and kept yelling, "Whiskey! Whiskey!" and was giving away free drinks. Maybe he'd hit it big, but now, looking back on it, he probably didn't. I've been to the dying track in Portland a few times and in my foggy haze, I recall an afternoon at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

Fast forward years later and I seemed to continually come across horse racing in a number of writers I admire. A lot of people point to Charles Bukowski when literature and horse racing comes up, but honestly, he was just following the path of a lot of other writers he was influenced by. William Saroyan. Nelson Algren. Ernest Hemingway. Sherwood Anderson. All wrote about different aspects of "the life," well.

This past April I found myself out at opening day at Belmont. I came prepared this time. I taught myself how to read The Racing Form and I checked out a stack of books from the Brooklyn library. I read everything from the study of horses, interviews with the people on the backside, trainers, grooms, jockeys, owners. I read books by math majors that have gone on to make a living betting. Formulas. Statistical analysis. Track Biases. Trainer angles. Horses on grass. Horses on dirt. Front-Runners. Stalkers. I've amounted stacks of numbers on just about every aspect of a race. The list goes on and on. An insane never-ending portal into god knows what. During the two months I had some good days, a couple hundred bucks, and some bad days, a hundred loss. I'd venture after about twenty races I most likely came out a couple hundred under. The past two months the horses went up to Saratoga for the annual, top of the class, racing, but now they're back in New York until the end of the year.

Belmont is a huge, imposing place, stadium seating with the stands nearly entirely empty. You can't help but wonder what this place used to be like and the pictures of great horses, jockeys, and trainers above the tellers gives a little hint of an idea, but those days seem to be a distant memory. Still, the races go on. We watch the horses in the paddock as if they were Wall Street investments and not living, breathing, beautiful animals that sometimes feel like running and sometimes don't. The whole idea of it all is a bit odd and foreign, but I guess that's what attracts me. And the challenge of somehow knowing something the other guys you're sitting next to don't.

I won't lie, I like to make money despite the overwhelming odds that you won't, but the big attraction for me, is observing the human condition. In all it's ridiculousness and deformity. The track puts a lot of this on full display. It's true, there's a lot of ugly aspects to the sport. There's the down-and-out gamblers who've spent everything they own begging for a couple of bucks. There's the guy in the mens room cursing that he just blew $2000. There's another picking up tickets off the floor, and then running them all through the machines looking for a winner. There's the men staring up at the TV's that simulcast the races coming from the fancy tracks like Del Mar and Santa Anita, to the rundown tracks like Arlington out of Chicago and Colonial in West Virgina. Staring big-eyed into the races so that all you hardly see are the whites, slamming their forms against their legs and shouting numbers and jockey names. Reaching up towards the horse as if they were the jockey and that that extra push might get their #6 across the line by the neck. Coming around the final stretch, looking at those horses as if in this one race lied all the answers, the prophecies, the eternal truths. Then groans, cursing, maybe one lucky soul, letting everyone know about it as he walks back over the floor of crumpled tickets. Then there's the guy next to me at the computer teller that says, "Gotta' play this mutha' fuckin' track and I hate it!" as he places twenty dollars in the machine. I can't help but think, that's got to be bad luck.

But don't worry, it's not all glum. There's the fun fans, drinking six-packs, out for their once a year visit to Belmont. There's the old couple, hunched over, all wrinkled up and still in love, celebrating over their horse coming in. Whether it paid $3.00 to win or $10.00, it's still a small victory. And sometimes small victories are enough. There's the little girl or boy resting on their dad's shoulders as they look at the horses with fascination and wonder. And despite the cruelty of the sport, the abuse it takes on the only ones that don't have a voice, you can't help but admire the sheer beauty and definition and size of these animals. You've got the older black guys all together in the grandstand, betting on longshots in trifectas, one of them always yelling, "Don't be scared grandpa. Don't be scared." Then the conversation switches to Michael Jordan and why doesn't Scottie Pippen have a statue? Lebron James and Tiger Woods, and how that girl took him for all he got. There's a big fat Italian yelling for all of us to hear, "Lights Out Lisa! Easy Money." She comes in at 12 to 1 as the rest of the crowd shakes their head studying the form for something they missed.

I take my losses and wins with little emotion. If you're smart, you'll come out on top. If you make stupid bets, follow the hoards, you'll go home with your wallet empty.

This past Wednesday I was out at the track for the first time in a couple of months. The horse I'm back and forth betting to win on the first race is going off at 9 to 1, good odds for a horse that run just a length behind the odds on favorite in the last race. I've got 0-30 wins on the turf for the trainer so I shy away from making any bets. Of course there's always a first time for everyone and today's it. Fourth Chapter comes in paying $18.80 on a $2.00 bet. A long shot follows him up with the exacta paying $260.00. The favorite, Opera Heroine, is nowhere to be found. A missed opportunity and the track makes you pay for it. The rest of the day seems to follow like this and I can't pick a winner for the life of me. I've had some pretty good days at Belmont, but I realize by the 6th race, today isn't going to be one of them. I keep the bets minimal and leave $60.00 under and head back to the parking lot, not cursing under my breath, just considering it entertainment of a sort, and maybe next time.

...On the writing front, I always feel like I'm not doing enough, but there's a few things currently in the works. Up on is a long travel piece I wrote. It's called High, Low, and In Between. A new chapter is posting every couple of weeks and when it's done, I'll most likely put it on this page. I've also got a short story that'll be on Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, a well-done site with various New York stories.

...A year and a half ago, I put together a demo cd. I made a few copies, sold what I had at a few shows in Portland and that was about it. Since coming to New York I really haven't played them. I mess with the guitar every now and then, but find myself easily distracted. It's always a matter of the art and whether it's good enough. I suppose that's part of the struggle. I don't think the music matches what I had in mind, but the lyrics tend to read like poems and stories, at least that was the intention of it all. A concept, a bigger story about various characters, some real, some made up. A lot of them down and out, living in the underbelly, but all in search of something. What that something is, if we only knew. Anyway, thought I'd throw them up here.

My Days at the Prairie Cafe
(For a long time I had the vision of an older diner waitress sitting in an empty coffee shop in some small town in the Midwest. I also pictured a younger man living in his car and just roaming around and the relationship of these two different people. A year later, strangely, I would put the words into reality and find myself sitting at the counter of The Rose Prairie Cafe in Laramie. Breakfast was decent, but unfortunately, there was no Lilly there.)

Well the sun is just rising in Laramie
as the Union Pacific rolls down the line
they built these tracks in 1868
and the books tell of the Long Brothers back when this was a lawless town

I came to Wyoming with a hundred in my pockets
and just a shell of a name
I did my best to live the good life
but no matter how hard I tried
I just couldn't play the working man's games

now I'm driving through bullet-thin shadows
giving my songs to the wind
in the carnival land of dancing highways
if only to be young again

I've been sleeping in a station-wagon I picked up in Denver
got it parked behind the old paper-mill
Lilly at the diner gives me coffee
says I make her laugh
but I can tell she's been lonely for such a long time

so she visits me late at night
and we lay on the hood
and listen to the far off sounds from the open plain
and for the first time since I don't know when
I don't want to be anywhere else than right here
and that's where I am

The Man from Paris
(I wrote this after watching the movie Paris, Texas. Any time I watch this movie I end up in tears. Harry Dean Stanton's role as Travis, the loner man who's riddled with guilt and trying to make amends, is a character I see parts of myself in. I pictured words from his point of view.)

Four years in Texas walking where I don't know
a slow trail of sadness going down to Mexico
my memory is shot and I got holes in my boots
swallowing my words 'cuz I don't know what to do
I got a little boy with my brother in L.A.
but I just keep on walking
day after day
some folks get married
I guess they live the perfect dream
but things didn't work out that way
with me and Darlene

outside of 'Frisco an angel from the sky
down and out
and crazy old
I guess the lucky guy
the first few weeks how our love was strong
nights of dancing laughter
and the rooms full of songs
but I had a thirst for liquor
jealous and mean I became
more than any wife or child could ever stand the pain
so one night I rolled off
never once looking back
'till they found me in El Paso
lying on the railroad tracks

a wise man once told me
regret grows longer with age
and now here I'm sitting in this chair
and you're dancing on that stage
it's a strange life we lead
and I know words can kill no wrongs
but there's this boy in the parking lot
he hardly knows his mom
so when you see me leaving
don't think i'm not thinking of you
it's just my mind's so tired
and I got figuring to do

The Disciples of St. Paul
(The first apartment I got on my own was on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. It was a divey studio I think I paid 200 dollars a month for. I had just dropped out of the U. of Maryland creative writing program and moved out of the punk house I'd been living in for the past two years. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that whatever I was looking for wasn't going to be found in the safe confines of collegiate life. They were insane times, maddening, sitting for hours with a typewriter, working shit jobs, far too self-absorbed, spending countless hours at the library, sometimes lonely, sometimes with lovely and beautifully crazy women, walking the streets at night with the rest of the derelicts. I lived among crack-addicts, drug dealers, drunks, and schitzophrenics. It was an apprenticeship of sorts. I can't say I'd have any desire to go back to those days, but I'd be lying if I said there aren't times when I miss "the action." As much you age and move on and change, some places and times always remain with you. This is one of them.)

Elenore stands with her innocent gun
and points it clockwise towards the settin' sun
some folks here they fell for the fix
in the alleys of this world's dirty tricks
so we dance on the corners like fallen clowns
on the crumbling steps, we just hangin' around
shots in the dark, they drift through the night
and King Charles is on the hunt for another dead pipe

The barbershops are filled with bald men
telling war stories from way back when
I've been shaking hands with the solitary man
and the fire-escapes tell what's left to understand
the mountains got a way of tellin' tales
and poets drive down highways with stolen names
ride on through you dreams, all my chosen ones
if we can't find what's lost, it's all just the same

so raise one up high for the good times
let the morning come in its own disguise
cheap motels and an East Coast summer
time drifts slow down on St. Paul St.

Roger has a cheap suit for sale
and the kid in 305 is still in jail
the drags parade down the avenue
and love can be strange, yet beautiful too
so hold your ears tight to the blue dreams
and listen well to the good ol' soft breeze
think well of all the girls you once knew
let good faith determine all that you do

New York in the Springtime
(I was sitting in Central Park while on a vacation to New York. I was still living in Oregon, but I'd come to the realization that New York is where I wanted to be. I was just kind of watching the scene and talking to what appeared to be a homeless guy, sitting next to me. He wasn't dressed in a robe but he inspired this.)

I'm the modern day Cesar
yelling through the crowd in an old tattered robe
tourists throw change in a bucket
just a little too dumb to know
I was once the king of Washington Square
I used to run on Wall St.
a suit and tie millionaire

tattoo all my thoughts
on the hands of the dancing girl's smile
drawing pictures of the carnival
in the corner of the New York Times
man sits on a bench and he gets lost for a while
I guess what they say is true
maybe I haven't been right for quite some time

diamonds shine through the windows
all along Madison Ave.
and the Broadway lights play with the neon nights
and the Bowery pushes straight on through
New York in the springtime
It’s a sight for all of us to see
so come along my friends
grab my hand
take a long walk with me

The Ballad of Big Mama
(Big Mama was a street musician who used to play in the French Quarter in New Orleans. The last time I was in the city I didn't see her around. She was one of those, unique, one-of-a-kind Southern characters, that was either bound to cause confused raised eyebrows, or beautiful laughter. I wondered what Big Mama's story was.)

She came from a small town
somewhere east of Tennessee
a poor little fat girl
filled with starlit dreams
well down in Hollywood
the neon lights are bright
but there ain't no movie stars
just lonely midnights
she got a room off of Sunset
place called the Mark Twain
but L.A.'s no city
for a southern girl to go insane

across Arizona and New Mexico
truck-stop-tricks when there's no place to go
a Grehound Texas
running straight down Ten
that's where she begins

spent her money on a Casio
and started banging on them keys
down on the corner of Royal St.
way down in New Orleans
stockings high purple feathers
and an old straw hat
she couldn't keep a tune but sure loved Fats

late one August the rains and floods came
she pulled her dress over her eyes
things would never be the same
so these days you'll find her down an abandoned dirt road
her stage a wooden porch
a roaring crowd all she knows

Mick Kelly
(a tribute of sorts to Carson McCullers best novel, "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." The fact that she wrote this at the age of 22 after moving from the South to New York to become a musician was quite amazing. Years ago I took a road trip down South and into the delta/blues region of Mississippi. Traveling down 61 from Memphis towards Louisiana, I felt as though I was in a different country set apart from ideas of time. Carson's portrait of this region and the people that inhabit it is my idea of art, true to form. )

Young boy
weathered dog
memories in disguise
youth shines through September sun
an empty church
an open plain
the gas station's long gone insane
Jesus don't come around here anymore

Mama sings her courthouse blues
Singer walks under the morning moon
the hands of time hang on faded signs
engines roll down rusted roads
and the trains come in as fast as they go
and the truth of dreams is only as strong as your word

I was 14 when I first fell in love
it was the summer of '53
Mary-Ann made a man out of me
it was next to an old oak tree
in the cemetery feeling free
under them flashing skies we laughed with the dead

The Cross-Eyed Prodigal Son

(I worked a job for a couple of weeks in a warehouse in the outskirts of Baltimore. It was just me and an older fella' named Maurice. All day we would tug at these rubber tubes, adjusting them to proper measurements. Maurice had a lot of stories to tell and I liked listening to him. He had a way of making the job seem not so miserable. The last time I saw him we were leaving a bar after just being laid off. We parted ways a little drunk and wishing each other the best. I wonder where life took him.)

My name is Maurice
I was raised in East Baltimore
always dress in fatigues
but never been to no war
you can find me downtown
always talking to myself
just another crazy fool
drinking his way to hell

in the mirrored visions of my childhood dreams
I travel to all them places you only see in magazines
some say a good life can hold the weight of gold
sit down and read the good book son
you do what you're told

I've got my billboard sign on the corner of 'ol Lexington
Muslims are dressed in bo-ties
looking like butler's at a party with no friends
my jumbled words scrawled all about
and I know no one understands
that I'm the cross-eyed prodigal son
living among the weakness of man

they got me in the industrial wasteland
the sad side of town
and I can recite the words of Shakespeare
like some 16th century clown
I try to keep up with the numbers
but I guess I'm too old
got this kid covering for me
as I stare out into the cold

so I'm going to take what little i got
and sail for the Red Sea
go mine for diamonds in Africa
a place called Guinea
and maybe I'm talking straight nonsense
what's wrong with a good story
five grand is all it takes
come on best you follow me

Goodbye Alaska
(pure imagination)

Ray worked the boats, four months out to sea
Ruby had a job over at Myer’s Cannery
It was that time of the year when the sun don’t never sleep
Twelve hours on that line her thoughts were running deep

The neighbors talked when Sunday came around
That was the day Ruby drove the Comet right on out of town
She bought some earrings and a necklace with shiny pearls
Pedal to the floor with the look of a 50’s pin-up girl

She thought about San Fran but the engine said Midwest
A rosary hung from her mirror, with it she was blessed
At a gas-station in Sioux Falls she spotted the kid
Crooked nose and all of 18, he was half-Indian

She bought a sucker, licked it right then and there
Pulled her dress down a little to give the two of them some fresh air
“Kid, I got room for you out there in my Mercury.
You can sit behind that counter, but it pays nothing to be free.”

Flyin’ on down that open road
Singing along to the old-time blues
The kid kissed her on the back of the neck
She said, “We’ll get there, but we ain’t there just yet.”

Outside of Detroit, they got a room at the old Palm Tree
Her eyes told the kid, if you want, you can have all of me
They made love enough to kill any sense of time
And smoked Lucky’s for three days straight, in the thick of summer’s wine

Ruby knew he had a girl, the kid knew about the man
But there was something true and innocent in the way they ran
Throughout the small towns, across the wide landscape
It made as much sense as anything in this world could ever make

Bud the Barber
(When I lived in New Orleans I'd drive about 20 minutes to the other side of town and get my hair cut at a small place off of Oak St. Bud was the only barber and had owned the place for over fifty years. I pictured a man like Bud dealing with life after the death of his wife.)

Well the man you see
oh no it ain't really me
and tommorrow all these scars be turning 83
I went off to the Pacific
when I was just a little kid
came back an old man 22
and I've lived here ever since

living long hanging low
come on Lord
take me home
Mary-Ann sing a song for me
and put them healing hands in mine

remember how we used to spin them tales
in the shadows of the night
and even in the darkest days
things with you felt so right
but it seems as though you were much too big for life
so your soul flew on away
I took you out to Canyon's Grove
it was there I dug your grave

Jimmie Boyle Rides Again
(The past. Love lost. Love found. Redemption, dreams, hope, and whatever lies around the corner. All themes and aspects of life that seem to follow myself, and I suppose, most folks, around.)

Red suitcase yellow letters
they tell me who I really am
fumbling through these stories
like an upside-down man
words fall through my hands
good job
big house
they say I'm doing ok
but come this time tommorrow
I'm going to throw it all away
no sense in painting lies
I'll play my guitar
and make all them stars mine
drink to this moon
with a bottle of hundred-year-old wine
yeah I'm gonna tie one on

even with all of our love
I wondered how things could last
this road leads back through you
and all of our stumbled past
they tell me you got a good man now
dusted books and Chinese poems
and there ain't no wrong nor right
following these wing-clipped angels
into the middle of the night
my memories go running
all around this land