THE NORTH STAR STIPEND, an annual allotment of state support for the arts. I badly needed the money and I badly needed help with my project. I decided to go visit Christian and Anita, who live down the street. They’re both heavily involved in the arts scene and have been awarded various state honors, medals, sashes, and accolades and have had their words chiseled into granite. Christian has been passed up too many times for a Nobel, but will surely receive his invitation to Stockholm someday. The residence is brimming with stacks of books, a lovely old fashioned-drawing room where Christian sits, thumbing a gray beard and smelling of pipe smoke. There he reads Bergman’s The Magic Lantern and contemplates existence. I knew Christian would help me win the stipend. Yet he was not at home. His wife Anita was. She beckoned me to the second floor, and then into her bathroom, complete with large windows and big white bathtub, and thus began to undress herself from a loose-fitting gown. Anita was a much older woman, with white hair and light eyes. She was once a stage actress, a contemporary of Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve and other legends, heavily courted by many of the world’s most decadent and monied men of industry, but chose this life instead, a life of letters, libraries and literature, a life with Christian. She was visibly older now, with plenty of wrinkles everywhere, lines no cream or cosmetic could conceal from the cruel illumination of the sun. There she was beside me, undoing her shirt slowly, and I felt at her breasts, which were still quite smooth, supple, and firm. It went on from there, slowly, deliberately, as a connoisseur sips a well-aged wine. We were only disturbed by good-natured whistling of Christian coming in downstairs, jingling his keys. “Honey, I’m home.” Anita dressed, and I came down the stairs alone, holding my head as if wounded, trying to look nonchalant. “Aha, Christian, it’s you.” “What are you doing in my house?” I was stricken with shame and embarrassment. “I came to ask your advice on a project. I am applying for the North Star Stipend.” “The North Star Stipend! Why, yes, of course. Of course, I myself received it many times. Even the first time, back in 1968. Or was it in 1969?” In my flustered, post-adultery mindset, I couldn’t express myself quite well. I stammered and mumbled, and couldn’t even remember what my idea was about. I left their home feeling like a true savage loser, and knew Christian would look at me differently the next time our paths crossed. I had so wanted to be a great writer, that was all I had really wanted, but I was just some actress’s part-time bathroom consort, it seemed, good for wet kisses and thespian breast fondling. At my own apartment, I could see my fellow writer Eeva out on the terrace. She was now living next door to me and seated in a chaise lounge reading a book, dressed up nicely in an old-fashioned 1940s Hollywood dress, complete with a hat, and her blonde hair was drawn about her shoulders. She had some visitors too, but when I called out to them, Eeva said that they were from Russia and didn’t speak any other tongue. “Ah,” I said then. “Harasho!” Everybody laughed, and for a while I forgot all about the North Star Stipend. Later, I returned to Christian and Anita’s house. Christian wasn’t home again, but Anita was, and again we repeated the bathroom sex scene. Again that feel of eerie sensual decay. I enjoyed it. Who wouldn’t. But it troubled me so, the whole sordid thing. After a long lingering kiss, Anita looked at me and said, “You know, I think we should stop this thing between us. I can’t really see it going anywhere.” We agreed, and I left soon after, never having consulted Christian, not having made progress. Later, my application for the North Star Stipend was denied by the review board, on which several of Christian’s colleagues sat, but I was fine with this dismissal, just fine to leave this bizarre macabre tale of secret loving behind. I still had my novel. I should concentrate all of my energies there. I went back home to the apartments, where Eeva was still lounging on the terrace, reading a paperback and eating an apple. She looked quite nice there in her old-fashioned dress and the Russians were long gone. It was nice to have such a pretty and talented neighbor, even if she always had her nose in a book. I decided to join her on the terrace with my writing machine and she never stopped reading. Then I sat down behind my clackety typewriter, rolled up my sleeves, and got back to work.
THIS WAS BACK when I was working for Dale, who was a kind of stubby, stocky boss, heavy on the Long Island accent, of Irish descent, and a drinker therefore, naturally. We were working on an old house up Briggs Avenue, shaded by trees, last one on the left. The whole interior had been gutted, and it was me, Rocky, and sometimes Bobby and Angelo would show up to help out. Dale was a generation older than us and the radio was always tuned to Kool 96.7 broadcasting out of Norwalk, Connecticut, with the signals being carried over the water. But not always. Sometimes we listened to Oldies 98.1, maybe when Dale tired of Jay and the Americans and wanted to hear some Who’s Next. That was a New York station. This I knew because every five minutes or so, the governor would come on and warn of severe consequences for anyone caught hiring illegal workers. I barely paid attention to these announcements, busy painting and sanding and carrying buckets of debris. It was a hot summer, and I could easily drink four liters and sweat it out. I only noticed the announcements on the day that Dale asked me to pick up someone named Benito and his crew. “He’ll be waiting for you at the Farmingville 7-Eleven,” Dale said. “All you have to do is drive up there, ask for Benito, and take him back here. It’s all agreed.” It seemed like an easy enough job. I was about 21 or 22 then, and comfortable with driving the interior. I took the highway and made the turn off for Farmingville. This was a more newly developed part of the island, where suburban homes seemed to be popping up in clusters like a bad rash, dotting the roadsides where once stood pristine woody pine barrens and nature preserves. Finding the 7-Eleven was easy, but finding Benito was a challenge. This is because about 100 or so Mexicans and Central Americans stood gathered in the parking lot, waiting for a day’s work. I parked my car, an old Volvo station wagon, and started toward a man on the corner in a black LA Raiders hat who kept looking at me. “Are you Benito?” I asked. The man didn’t answer but looked at me again and shrugged his shoulders. Then several other migrant workers approached. “You looking for Benito?” one said. “I’m Benito.” “I too am Benito,” another one claimed loudly. “I’m Benito from Guadalajara,” a third said. When I turned back to look at the car, I saw that three men had already crawled in the trunk. “Let me guess what your names are,” I said to the trio. “Benito,” one said and shrugged. “He is Benito too.” There I was, besieged by a parking lot of Benitos. I pointed to the five who had claimed this name and left the one with the LA Raiders hat behind. He was clearly waiting for someone else. On the way back, I put on the radio, then tried to make conversation in Spanish. Several of the Benitos were from Mexico City. Then there was Guadalajara Benito in the back, and then there was another Benito from Guatemala. They seemed like nice guys, god knows what would bring them to mill about in parking lots on Long Island in the heat, or sleep 10 to a room in one of those Farmingville crash houses, where they all slept. That must have been godawful horrible, to wake up in a room of sweaty Benitos and hear one fart, or get up to take a leak, or to cry out his wife’s name in a moment of sex-starved agony. “Magdalena! Magdalena!” What empathy I felt for these characters with their dark features, bushy mustaches, so removed from the peach fuzz of the upwardly mobile aspiring white family. Some of them had ancient Aztec features too, the faces of Monteczuma, the warriors of Tenochtitlan, the temple priests dripping with the blood of human sacrifice. They were the originals, the first people. What a dreadful lot, to have your land stolen by greedy gringos and then be forced to work for them, all so they could gaze with pride at a well-tended patch of green lawn that could rival the neighbor’s. But it wasn’t so bad. When we arrived, Dale was there, whistling in his joyful Irish mood along to the radio. It was Jay and the Americans again. “In a little café, just the other side of the border.” Dale never seemed to tire of that song or any other. Then the broadcast was briefly interrupted by the governor’s announcement again. “Anyone caught hiring illegal workers will face severe consequences.” Dale paid it no attention, as if it was just another radio jingle. Five men got out of the car and Dale looked each one over and then back to me. “What the shit is this?” he stormed. “I gave you a simple job. I told you to drive to Farmingville and pick up Benito. Benito just called me before. He said he’s still up there waiting.” “He’s also Benito,” I said, nodding to the Guadalajaran. The one with the bushy mustache. “They’re all Benito too.” Dale looked at the five Benitos, nodding as he mulled it over. “Alright,” he said, extending his hands. “You’re hired!” He paid them $100 each for a day’s work. That was more than me or Rocky or even Angelo made. They earned it. They were they hardest working men I had ever seen.
SOMEHOW I BECAME a teacher again, but I have only one pupil, thank god, a boy who is learning both Finnish and English in school. He’s taken to Finnish. “It’s so easy. Yksitoista, kaksitoista, kolmetoista, neljätoista!” In Estonian, these are more or less the same, üksteist, kaksteist, kolmteist, et cetera. In English, he has to make odd unfamiliar sounds like the ‘th’ in thing and the ‘th’ in that, which used to be þ and ð, but were changed by some genius along the way. Terrible language, English. Even the days of the week are bizarre. Wednesday? What the hell is that? Today I explained the origins of the English days: Monday (moon day); Tuesday (for the Norse god Tiw, ruler of mortal combat); Wednesday, for Woden, the English equivalent of Odin; Thursday for hammer-wielding Thor; and Friday for the goddess Frigg (some say Freyja). “So many gods?!” the boy stared at me, wide eyed. Now he was paying attention. There is also Saturday, for the god Saturn, and then Sunday, the day of the sun, or päikesepäev. But there is one link to Estonian, their word for Friday, Reede, which also honors Freyja. Laupäev, their Saturday, also has Scandinavian origins, from the word for washing oneself. Even today, little bits of the Scandinavian world inform almost every aspect of our lives. They deserve to be credited alongside the ancient Greeks and Romans. Even the word from which Laupäev, the Estonian Saturday, is derived, laug, can be seen all around the Nordic world, where it signifies bathing, like my favorite pool, Vesturbæjarlaug, in Reykjavik. This is all rather hardcore nerd stuff to share with an 11-year-old kid who plays sports and such, but maybe relevant in some way, as if we could just realign our minds to the old pantheon of the Norse gods, we might regain some command over our astray systems and what we do each day as we spin around the sun. We have retained the names, but lost the knowledge. I still think he likes Finnish more than English, but that’s okay, so do I, kid. Yksitoista, kaksitoista, kolmetoista. Simple! Helppoa!
THESE HAVE BEEN rainy, dreary, gray and weary, despondent, doldrum days. In the Tartu Town Hall Square or raekoja plats, they are erecting an ice skating rink for the winter holidays. It was there in lovely, lush, backlit Pierre, a French café, that I met with a lady from Reykjavik a few days back who wears white skirts, drinks her espresso with cream and honey, and has two homelands (!) She speaks Estonian with a gust of an Icelandic accent too, and gets excited about sounds, words, phrases, and expressions. Her eyes get excited as well. We used to have a mutual acquaintance, but I haven’t heard of or thought of her for months now. Our mutual acquaintance has drifted out of view and, perhaps, does not wish to be thought of, by me, or located, by us. For a long while she was really deep under my skin, and my outpourings to her could have filled several volumes of a psychologist’s field journal or been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. But she’s gone, I must admit, floated away. Like a cloud. Tonight, I went to see M., the witch down the street, and she made me tea, and even let me use her restroom, which is through the bedroom. She doesn’t like to let clients in the bedroom because all the comings and goings might interrupt the natural positive flow. I spoke a lot, and then we held hands and prayed, or rather reprogrammed my mind. M. sent me away with pockets full of apples. These are the women of my life, and, you know, I cannot say they are boring. I suppose I will eat an apple now, and plan my morning espresso with honey and cream. I have a few volcanic rocks I stole from Iceland the last time I was there. Maybe I will set them out at breakfast to set the mood, like a little Icelandic shrine.
STRANGE DREAMS OF GOING BLOND. That’s right, not bald or white or gray even, but blond, yellow haired, and my eyes were turning blue too. Must be all these wintry mid-autumn days, or secret buried deep psychic fears of becoming one of them, the Estonians. Or maybe just looking at pictures of Philip Seymour Hoffman after watching Pirate Radio, and realizing he was pretty grizzly already at 42, and was that just natural aging, or the smack, or what was going on with him, and then he turned up dead on the LES (Lower East Side) in an apartment with a needle stuck in his arm. The year was 2014, the month February. I am losing track of all these years. The whole world of the 2010s is a swirling stormy North Sea tempest of uncertainty from which I am still emerging, dripping with angst. Even when Obama was in there, America was getting swallowed up by the Tea Party and all those nimrod Benghazi commissions, political circus followed by the greatest circus act of all. “You’re fired.” I can sort of remember those awkward silences by adults when I was a child at the mention of the words “LBJ,” “Vietnam,” “Chicago,” or “Nixon,” these topics were a no-go and mojo and party mood killer and now I more or less feel the same way about those days. People lost a lot of friends in those days, don’t forget, back when Philip Seymour Hoffman was a wee babe wetting his nappies, they went down in helicopters, and then many of the fellas who came back were unhinged, drinking outside the liquor store and talking about trophy hunting. I worked with someone whose father went to live in the Redwoods of California where he could hunt his own food and sleep in a hut beside his gun and live just like he did in the jungles, because he couldn’t get used to driving to the store to buy milk and frozen peas. I rather understand him. But that dread, that dread of being blond and blue-eyed. Someone told me in the dream that “this is part of your natural aging process.” You can imagine my relief to awaken brown haired and olive eyed, the Philip Seymour Hoffman aging process reversed. An excellent actor. May he rest well in peace.
BEEN HAVING A CRACK AT IRISHNESS recently, or trying to understand or grasp it, reading about the mishaps of Eamon de Valera, that troublemaking New Yorker of dubious origins. Michael Collins couldn’t have been such a saint. He died, and that’s why he’s been sainted, I think, and there have been many books and some films about his heroism and passion. He may have been as close to perfect as an Irish revolutionary can be, embodied all that is good, mighty, glorious and true about the emerald motherland. Still nobody is a saint and while not as cunning and calculating as the long fellow de Valera, I think some of the hero worship is born out of his premature death. He didn’t live to take part in the dirty dealing part that most newly born nations go through (Bolshevik Russia and its bloody purges, the most extreme example). Ireland and its politics give me great discomfort, they leave me quite cold. The car bombs, the assassinations. I can’t understand all of these nuances and factions and brigades, these revolutionaries gesturing with pipes. I understand the Italian mental terrain a bit better. Yes, in my soul, I am an Italian, I suppose, but not quite, not wholly. For I recently found an Emigrant Savings Bank record dated 1857 for a spry retail shop owner named Edward Byrns in Manhattan, formerly of Knockane, County Limerick, and his wife Mary Hartigan and his parents John Byrns and Honora Hooper. There they were, eking out a living on East 31st Street, selling goods. This was my great grandmother’s great grandfather. He came to New York aboard the ship Great Britain in July 1847, which meant they were fleeing the blight. Grey Atlantic waters, lapping at the wharfs, speaking teangacha Gaelacha. Irishness in there somewhere, casting long shadows, like those purple shades of buildings blocking out the rare white sunlight down Leeson Street Upper or Sráid Líosain Uacht in Dublin. There is a comfort there, in Dublin, the lilt of the women’s voices, the buses moving up and down its streets, the university buildings, the green parks, the Dublin of Joyce’s Dubliners in the window panes. There is something soothing and familiar about it. I can’t place my finger on it, but it’s there.
THIS IS A GOOD RECORD. Kris Olsen is a great guitar player and songwriter out of Los Angeles by way of New York and Tallahassee and multiple other stops along the way. He’s been a true and devoted musician from the days when I knew him as a kid back on Long Island way back when. Kris, who then was a stocky, freckled Norwegian kid with a thick bush of yellow hair on his head, always knew music and was into music and was exploring music. He might have been the one who introduced me to the Rolling Stones, but I think I also heard their songs on the radio. He did however show me that Stones compilation Hot Rocks, where all of their silhouettes are superimposed over each other, and he certainly introduced me to Living Colour. He seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of bands, personnel, instruments, even composition and arrangements.
He also had a small room for jamming which consisted of his guitar, and amplifier (I think, my memory is a bit hazy here), a drum kit, and a weight training bench, with the March 1989 Playboy centerfold of Latoya Jackson taped to the ceiling (my memory is not so hazy in this regard). To be fair, I think his brother had the Latoya worshipping going on. But, more to the point, it was here, in this little basement room sometime at the eclipse of the Eighties, here, around the time that the Stones were touring Steel Wheels, here, that Kris made the now famous claim that he could play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Then this scruffy Norwegian kid with the brilliant afro picked up his guitar and played something, but it wasn’t quite Flash and then he claimed it was Flash.
To this day, he claims he can play it, and I will not contest this claim, only that I would like to see him do it live.
In the meantime, he developed some serious chops. The guitars on this record are thick and peanut butter chunky, and the breakout riffs and solos are incisive. I am actually surprised. You’ll put on The Future of History and start doing something else and then all of a sudden you will hear some guitar breakout and think, wait, what the fuck was that? Jimmy Page’s kid brother or something? Another one of his lost sons?
All of that electricity shooting around the album cover is no joke: he can play. He’s no longer some spotty kid either, his voice has dropped a few octaves, and he’s a got a resonant Morrison-esque voice that stands on its own, far removed from the sludge of other singers like Eddie Vedder or that guy from Creed. The band itself, which consists of Damian Valentine on bass, Charles Cicirello on guitar, and Lucky Lehrer on drums, (ex-Circle Jerks and Bad Religion) proves itself capable of laying down dependable grooves that allow the guitars and Olsen’s lyrics to roll above. This record is seven tracks and was just released and is worth a listen for all fans of rock music who want to hear something new and enjoyable. I guess “Crackin’ Up” is the debut single here, but I am partial to “Craziest Dream” which chugs away on the back of a catchy riff that brings to mind the best of the classic rock canon and latter-day followers, but made all its own.
Can’t wait to see these guys live someday, especially when they slip Flash into their set, or just hear more.
I USED TO GO for walks with Brynhildr on days just like these. We would ride out into the forests, or meet at night and circle the paths of the old river park. The weather was grim, as November weather is. She mostly spoke. I tried to keep up. She wore the right apparel. I was underdressed. She’s of rather stocky, freckled, Ingrian stock. Inside a lonely lost girl. Like so many. My whole generation consists of such lonely lost girls, girls who went to bed reading themselves bedtime stories in 1982, really painfully yearning for a comfort they never experienced. I never had that problem, but they did. She grew accustomed to the sound of her own voice, Brynhildr. She spoke as much to herself, as she did to me, or rather she just spoke for the sake of expressing herself to the darkness. Also, remember, everything was happening in another language. So I was already at a loss for words. How does one respond to some deep thought about how life is supposed to be in the Estonian language. Noh jah? Then I would get home after these walks with Brynhildr and for a few sparing moments feel her soggy essence seep into my bones like the moisture. There was a meadow there, and some sun, and there was some sex too. I had sex with Brynhildr. I really did. But then something would go wrong. There would be like a fissure or twist in the material, discomfort would set it, mistrust, doubt, a gaping lack of faith. Without even informing her of it, I would start to get angry, desperate messages. “You hate women.” “You don’t trust women.” “You won’t let a woman’s soul in!” She already felt it, you know, without one word dropping from my fingers or lips. How did she know? I have never been able to figure out this radar talent of hers and, honestly, of most others, but it’s there. She already knew everything before I even knew it myself. Telepathy is the medium here. Time went on. Last night, I encountered Dulcinea in a bleak moment. I was just coming down the street and she was out in the dark. By all tailor’s measurements, this is the wrong woman for me, and she herself has expressed zero interest in me, really. She is far too young for me, though now of marriageable age, at least for the prewar period, and my mind doesn’t even dare to venture there. And yet, there is something fluttering, in the wind, like one of those stubborn tree leaves that just won’t give up. I trust her. There is something in her eyes, in the lines of her face, just in the way she looks at me, that is so direct and honest, that just melts away all of the fat and disbelief. I believe in her 100 percent. There is a shared medium there, again, a shared understanding, whatever it is, costumed in a look. It had been a hard, repressed, blocked day. I felt blocked, I couldn’t even find my own voice, couldn’t summon my own fingers to write, couldn’t play music, couldn’t feel. I was like a blind man groping about an unfamiliar room, knocking over rubber plants and paraphernalia. Dulcinea went on her way, and I went on mine, and I started to feel that little voice again, and the little voice was saying, just let me in. And no other, of course. So I did it. I laid down my arms and I let her in. Then things started to flow again. The universe did not go technicolor, balance was not restored, everything did not right itself. All was not suddenly an H-bomb of fluorescent euphoria. Sleep came on though, and deeply, a restorative, loving, rich sleep. Sometimes it feels good to let someone else in.
THE NINTH ARRIVES with the frost, but at least some sunlight, that sweet frosted sunlight, dolce, dulce, the sugary powdered glazed glasuur stuff that drives away these blues. The frost that slays the wet dark, like that goblin-cleaving blade in Tolkien (you know the one). It’s warm in here though. Warmth at the end of that dark damp tunnel. Black, bleak, and blue. Warmth is the way out into the light. But I’ve also come down with a case of sea sailor’s syndrome, meremehe sündroom (in Estonian), a diagnosis of my own invention. It sneaks up on you, rolls in like the San Francisco fog, billowing over the piers and barking sea lions in the harbor waters, clouding the eyes of the harbormaster with shadowy sinister Alcatraz most distant. It swallows up chunks of your soul, bite by bite, like a counter lunch at Vesuvio. It strikes when you have been away too long, too long from the opposite sex. Too long without comfort, compassion, consideration, care. There is nothing aggressive or pent up or demanding about it. It’s a hunger that erodes you away to your core like salty sea air, slowly, slowly over time. That lingering sense of desperation and desire, drawn out like a frost sunrise in November, that sliver of orange white dashed against the horizon after 4 pm. That there is the thing. The only cure is, well, you know what the only cure is. This however is fortified and entrenched and commandeered by bourgeois sentiment. I hate to be so blunt about it, but when the wind is blowing off the harbor, and the horns of the ships sound, and the seals bark and there is more salty air, dampness, and cruel fog around you, when that Pacific chill bites into you, and you draw your coat in tighter and take a back street up through Chinatown, in that piqued instant, there is no romantic overture, no bouquet of flowers, no expensive jewelry, no melodic tune or real estate investment that can do justice to the the mad cravings that run some men down into numbness and silence like broken dogs. But a good espresso or two today, at the café, sunshine through the frosty windows, and fine dialogues with the all-knowing Lioness, shapely, wise, clear-eyed, and lovely. No complaints from me, today, Tuesday. No complaints.
SATURDAY, LITTLE TO REPORT. Dreams were truncated, something about trying to assemble a rapid Covid-19 testing kit properly, with some foggy interludes in Finland again with all of those lookalike bearded lumberjack worker types (Finland haunts my psyche), and then being at a country house by a lake where both Brynhildr and the mother of my children were present at the same table. Brynhildr is, as you can imagine, quite set, quite voluptuous, quite strapping, quite terrifying. There was some slight tension there, you know. The women in my orbit make no bones about having the men they like when they like them, and as many of them as they like, but there is always that territorial aspect about who controls whom, or who can make him do her bidding when. That was the tension in that dream. Sometimes I think the whole of my existence is at mercy to the acrobatics of women’s hormonal sunburst cycles and fraught moon tides. The whole ride of life, from bloody birth to the last orgasmic gasp. There is no escaping this cruel and desperate fate. Like the Beatles, I run from crowds of screaming fan girls wetting themselves, fist fighting and crying, crushing in the roofs of getaway cars, trying to cut off a lock of my hair. I hide myself in the venue basement, or around the corner, but there is just no escaping the sturm und drang of the feminine mystique. Which begs the question, do I bring anything myself to the equation, or am I just an innocent bystander? Is there give and take or just pull, pull, and more pull? There is a really splendid sun-kissed euphoria to the act of lovemaking, as it’s called, to be taken in, and then … well, and then what? Memories, memories. In the summer, I dreamt of this feat in the forests with Brynhildr and some kind of spider or other insect took a few bites out of me. My undercarriage was swollen for days. Everything was double the usual size. How do I get myself into these things? Why can’t I say no? November light outside now. There is often so little light on these days that there is no way to qualify the days or the time or the night. It’s just one long tapestry of gray. You can do anything in November, sleep until 2 pm, work until 2 am. It’s part of the general disorientation. Dark inky octopus black. The black is thick and all around you. You can’t see your own hands. That’s how thick the November dark is. It makes one dream of summer lake swimming and lovemaking in the forests. Even if you have to suffer through a few insect bites.