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The News Cafe: Slowing Down the Mental Hamster Wheel

The News Cafe. One of my Zen Gardens from the past.

While I don’t normally write about cities other than Atlanta, I recently noticed that the News Cafe in South Miami Beach has announced what they are calling a temporary closure though, given the plywood on the windows, it seems permanent. While it could be the result of a  COVID-related business dip it also looks like the Yelp reviews in the preceding months have not been kind. In any case, The News Cafe is (was) located at ground zero of South Beach and became something of an unofficial check-in spot for residents and tourists alike. Many know it as the place where Versace used to score his morning paper (or had an assistant do it for him) although my introduction to the area predated his arrival or at least coincided with it. Not that I knew anything about fashion or Versace. The Art-Deco district, as it was more commonly known then, was still emerging from a darker era, and there yet remained abandoned and dilapidated hotels next to the emerging luxury accommodations. 

While Madonna, as well as other celebs of the poodle-clutching variety, could be seen cruising the area, it was mostly working fashion models, German tourists, and wealthy South Americans who landed in South Beach. My first time on the boardwalk near Lummus Park involved a near collision with an impossibly tall bikini model zooming by on roller skates while holding a box of condoms. My first thought was, “Wow, they sure know how to welcome a visitor.” I had unknowingly stumbled into an active production set for an HIV Public Service Announcement. There was laughter all around albeit at my expense. 

Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. She is richer than anyone you know. I might have accidentally stepped on her foot in 1991.

SoBe (as it later came to be known) was clearly on the up and up and Gloria Estefan, who was experiencing significant popularity at the time, was a local investor and the growing contingent of Cubans added to the already established Latin flavor of the area such that one need not speak English at all to function. But it was still a self-contained bubble of sorts in that South Miami had little to do with North Miami and few remember that Miami was/is actually a different city than Miami Beach. If you suspect there were cultural politics behind all of this you would be correct. There were also communities such as Overtown and Liberty City distal to the Beach that figured heavily into area dynamics as well. Just to say that the South Beach of today was not at all evident in the late 80s and early 90s version. Then, you could still park your car pretty much anywhere on Collins. Mandatory valet service was rare unlike now when even Mcdonald’s has a valet parking service. And not far from The Beach was Coconut Grove which was starting to boom with the popular Coco Walk Mall.

The News Cafe itself was a 24/7 operation offering a combo of indoor and alfresco dining with access to international newspapers (hence the name) which, in the early 90s made it popular with tourists seeking a “back home” news fix. Even though the cafe is now closed you can see archives of their web-cam which shows the never-ending stream of people marching in front of the tables. For me, it was simply a place to zone out, read and slow down the mental hamster wheel. Many people travel with an agenda of “finding oneself” though I question this terminology as most people already know very well who they are and the real work involves coming to terms with how others, family, friends, society at large, are reacting to you (and vice-versa).

George Hamilton – Known for his ever-present “base tan”. I’m the opposite.

Certainly, the boredom and fatigue of existence can lead us to fantasize about another identity and that’s actually not a bad thing. But care must be taken to counter-balance it with established instinct. Then again, I could be totally full of crap. (I’ll save the philosophy for Happy Hour). I’m just saying that my side trips to Miami were actively restorative even if my engagement of the scene was passive. I’m definitely not the “George Hamilton, base tan” type of guy so I just soaked up the easy-going tropical vibes and that was enough. I’m one of the few people who can go to a sunny beach and actually come back more pale than when I left.

I picked Miami Beach as a semi-regular getaway destination for two reasons. It was $90 for a round trip flight which meant I could leave my home in North Atlanta around 1 p.m. on Thursday afternoon and be checked in at the El Sol hotel by 5:00 p.m. If the airfare seemed cheap, consider that Miami was then dealing with an image problem resulting from the assault and murder of German tourists and was trying a number of things to lure travelers back. I’d been dealing with Southside Atlanta crime all my life and concluded that Miami could be no worse and at least there was a beach. El Sol, about 15 blocks up from the News Cafe, was my go-to hotel. While I didn’t spend much time there, I did return each afternoon for the free poolside drinks where I encountered a large family of Argentinians who mistook me for a rich businessman although I did nothing to promote that impression. The Matriarch of the family invited me to dinner which I realized was to be a chaperoned experience involving a formal introduction to her daughter who was sitting quietly next to the pool. I got it – from their point of view maybe she can meet this rich American who will eventually propose marriage. Extricating myself from this situation while allowing them to maintain dignity wasn’t easy but I found a solution in feigned illness. “Lo siento. Creo que los camarones son malos.”

This was all so odd as I was recovering from some recent surgery and was quite thin, almost skeletal. And on this trip, I was mistaken for a homeless person, a junkie, a fashion model, a musician, various actors (young and old), and for the most part a garden variety beach bum. Most people would be offended to be seen as a generic vagrant type whereas I was cool with it because nobody bugged me for money and as my Stewart Avenue mentors used to say, “life is better if you can’t be easily identified in a police line up”. While I agree with that sentiment, it’s not as if I engaged in enough ongoing shady behavior to develop an active concern for avoiding lineups but sure, standing out can bring problems. Let’s just say that if anybody thought I was somebody, I put it down to fame of the Warholian kind – a whispy, ephemeral form of notoriety that departs as rapidly as it arrives.

I’m not a doctor but people in Miami thought I was

I went to a custom clothing establishment in North Miami and the owner recounted how just that very day, Mel Brooks had popped in to pick up twelve tailor-made shirts but was not happy with the eventual price. I don’t know if he was conditioning me to accept the notion of premium pricing or perhaps just wanting me to know of his famous clients. I just ignored it and started trying on a few things which pretty much fit straight away thus allowing me to avoid the high markup for alterations. Later that night, I wore some of the clothes and was instantly misrecognized as some soap opera actor whose primary appeal was to the divorcee set. That the actor played a physician was evidently the hook though I had to remind my “fans” that 1) I was not the actor in question and 2) even if I were, I still wouldn’t be an actual doctor! This didn’t seem to matter to them. I began to rethink my rejection of the Argentinian proposal…

One of the more interesting things that happened on one of these trips was the accidental friendship I developed over the course of a few days with a retired cardiologist from New York. He was basically a Snowbird seeking warmer climes and Miami was THE place. He was very outgoing and almost immediately started in with the “so what brings you to Miami” talk and he simply wouldn’t accept that I had no agenda or intent other than to relax. “You mean you aren’t here on business?“, “You have family here, then”, “Oh so you are you thinking about living here.” I just laughed it all off. This guy was wired to the max and even in his mid-70s, he had to be doing something else he experienced guilt. And by extension, he assumed everyone else should also. He was basically a walking Woody Allen movie. The concept of just chilling out was totally foreign to him. He was all, “I wish my daughter would take her life more seriously“, so I’m thinking maybe she had quit school or had run off with someone. “No, she’s a corporate attorney in New York but really should be a cardiologist” to which I replied, “you, mean just like you?” He laughed, “Didn’t I see you in the Catskills?

And just when you think he might relax into the moment he would pivot into, “You’re well into your 30s, why aren’t you married? It’s time to settle down don’t you think? And maybe finish graduate school?”  Ah, the Jewish parent I never had. I responded, “most people leave their neuroses at home whereas you make them essential travel companions.” I think he liked my apparent zen attitudes and perhaps I saw some hope in his assurances that hard work would translate to success. We were like a mutual antidote to each other’s problems. “It’s perspiration, not inspiration – what you do does not have to be perfect but if you keep doing it, then it probably will be“. Stuff like that which DID in fact make sense for someone like me, a procrastinating perfectionist. Given his age and accent, it was very likely that he recalled WWII and might have even had some personal experience in a concentration camp though it didn’t come up. Laughter didn’t come easy to him but when it did, he greatly enjoyed it.

Back to The News Cafe. While I hope that it does reopen, I don’t know that I would run right down there because it would be pointless to try reproducing the sense of a bygone era. Take what’s in front of you and make something out of that. Some years ago, I did take my Wife there but the magic of the area had long been consumed by hype and crass over promotion. In the end, most of my emotional respites wind up being simple – a Library, a cafe, a park, or even a familiar book. Everyone has some respite that occurs more or less naturally and without effort. Sometimes they last though many times they do not. Just be on the lookout for the next one which is hard to do if you are lost in nostalgia.

The Zone and Gene Dahlbender

This is Gene Dahlbender – a genius golfer I once knew. We’ll get to him in a moment.

The “Zone” definitely exists. I’m referring to that elusive state of mind wherein an otherwise challenging activity can be effortlessly realized. One hears the term commonly applied to sports though it can relate to any pursuit most often of the creative variety. Dope-fiend poets and creatively parched artists might pursue this condition via chemicals. In a related vein, I’m reliably informed that “Microdosing” in Silicon Valley is a thing wherein corporate employees consume minimally active amounts of hallucinogenics to facilitate innovative thinking by gently disrupting routine mental patterns. This practice, while not appearing in anyone’s official Human Resource Handbook, appears to have informal support albeit in a “go ahead and do it but if you get too high, we’ll definitely fire your ass” kind of way. Frankly, I’m not impressed. If you can’t go full tilt with the experience and accept all that goes with it then you are a coward. Of course, I’ve written about such excursions which, for me, are a rigged game. But hey, every generation is entitled to a stab at enlightenment or just mere synaptic stimulation.

Say What You Will – But Those Krishnas Know How To Mediate

Back to the Zone – I’m talking about a spontaneous release from limitations that happens independently of intention. I know it exists because I experienced it with some regularity in the Summer of 1974 while shooting hoops behind Springdale Christian Church. (As a matter of trivia and memory of the time, I was wearing out Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal” album). Most of my friends had moved out of the area by then leaving me with little else to do except to solitarily perfect my basketball game – basically a one-man game of Horse. My experience with the Zone began after seeing an infomercial for Silva Mind Control a proprietary meditation system seemingly based in part on Transcendental Meditation – itself a proprietary system. However, the former alleged to unlock powers of clairvoyance, which I think was just an advertising nod to the popularity of Extra Sensory Perception at the time. The Amazing Kreskin had a TV show then which discussed such things although Kreskin made it clear that he was a Mentalist which meant his “paranormal” demonstrations were the result of endless hours of practice combined with a solid knowledge of human reactive behavior. It’s like when a magician says, “pick a card, any card” he or she is actually “forcing” a specific card into your hands in a way that you don’t realize. The same concept is employed in mentalism wherein a series of statements might lead another to think in a certain way, or of a certain number or name.

Why can’t you just smoke a bunch of weed like everyone else ?

Since I had no money or inclination to purchase either program, I spent time at the Stewart Lakewood Library reading up on the general topic of meditation. Wanting something more practical, I leveraged my area Krishna connections which yielded basic instruction. When I told a friend about my Summer project he replied, “why can’t you just smoke a bunch of weed like everyone else ?” I don’t know if you’ve ever meditated or thought about it but I’ll let you in on a really big secret. Are you ready? Here it is. The mere act of trying to meditate is in fact meditation. Set a timer, a cooking timer will do if you don’t have a smartphone. Direct your thoughts to an object (e.g. your breath or some consistent sound). When distracted by your thoughts, make a gentle effort to return them to the object of focus. Keep doing this until the timer goes off. That’s it. I used to meditate to the rumbling sound of an air conditioner. That said, I am not a Swami. Nor can I levitate, lie comfortably on a bed of nails, charm cobras, maintain an erection for 4 hours (at least naturally) or perform any of the things customarily associated with mountain-dwelling holy men or Sting.

Let The Ball Return Home!

None of this means that pursuing meditation leads to basketball genius although maybe it did for me that Summer. But maybe it was just a simple matter of me being able to get out of my own way. I started shooting baskets and decided to do a hook shot. A strange thing happened. Milliseconds before I physically initiated action, an image popped into my mind – there was a flexible tether, (like a bungee cord), attached to the basket with the other end being attached to the ball. I received an intuition that all I had to do was raise the ball and “allow it’ to “return home.” Instance swish. It worked. And it worked again and several times after that, Not 100% but like 98%. And it wasn’t just the hook shots. It happened when shooting on the run while doing oblique cross flips, or tossing the ball over my head without looking at the basket. I did get a witness though.

A guy named David had moved into the Perkerson Baptist Church parsonage located three houses up from mine. Spotting me on his walk home, he sauntered up to see me in the basketball trance and was amazed, as was I, that my shots were all going in. He even challenged the process by attempting to block me but to no avail. “Jesus Christ”, he said. “How are you doing that ?”. “I have no idea but I don’t think Jesus has anything to do with it“, I replied. “Meditation I guess.” He didn’t believe me. Can’t blame him. How do you explain something like that? If you are looking for this part of the story to continue, it won’t. Not because I’m holding out or are trying to sell you my “secret method”, just that this short period in 1974 was pretty much the only manifestation of the “Zone” that I have experienced, at least to that degree. Why it was associated with basketball, a sport I played only casually, and not some more personally meaningful area of life, I have no idea.

Who the Hell is Gene Dahlbender ?

But what does any of this have to do with Gene Dahlbender? You could (and should) Google him and he’ll show up. He was a golf wunderkind born in 1923 whose acquaintance I made in 1977 when he wound up working in some capacity at the GMAC – General Motors dealership. It was a good gig for him as there were plenty of people who knew of his celebrity. His accomplishments were legend and his enduring skills, even then, silenced the most prolific Stewart Avenue bullshitter, “Gene Dahlbender ? That guy is really good”. Very high praise considering that golf tends to provoke a lot of competitive behavior and strong envy. This was one of the first situations wherein no one on The Avenue said anything negative about his golfing ability – his personality maybe but not his skill. Here is a summary of “Geno’s” accomplishments from the Georgia State Golf Association web site:

Dahlbender’s tournament record includes the following: medalist in the Southern Amateur twice, winner of the 1948 Southern Amateur, six-time qualifier for the U.S. Open, and eight-time qualifier for the U.S. Amateur. He also competed in the 1949 Masters. He won the Sunnehanna Amateur twice and the Atlanta City Open seven times. In addition, he won the Southeastern Amateur twice and won the Georgia Amateur in 1962

Not only was he a great competitive golfer he was also capable of trick shots particularly in response to those spontaneous betting situations that will inevitably emerge on the course, “Hey Gene, bet you can’t make that shot with a blindfold on.” Yes… he could. He never discussed golf with me or anyone and if someone brought up the topic he usually reacted with disinterest and silence, waiting for the subject to change. Not having Internet access in 1977-78, I couldn’t really dig up much about Gene except that which others would share which was plenty. I do know that he went to the ophthalmologist for which my Mother worked – an old Atlanta money doctor who was beyond thrilled to have Gene as a patient. According to my Mother, Gene was polite with the barrage of questions about his career along with the inevitable, “Hey Gene, could we play a round or two some time ?”

I was told that Gene gently and deftly steered the conversation to me (your humble author) and how he admired my potential – not in golf but in education. Wow, so Gene shut down the doctor and simultaneously gave me a plug. It became clear to that he was beyond fatigued with being asked about why he never turned pro – a legit question for someone of his considerable talents. I suspected that Gene might have had a form of insecurity that blocked him in some way. Later on, I was told he developed a fondness for the bottle, which is something I could see but the same could be said for most of the people circulating on Stewart Avenue.

Could Have Been A Contender

I had mostly forgotten about Gene until about 7 months ago (pre-COVID). I was waiting for my turn in a crowded barbershop while overhearing a golf conversation between two old-timers. One of them mentioned Gene’s name. (When someone says “Dahlbender” it’s gonna stick out). I listened to them praise the guy up and down and ponder his situation. “Too bad he never turned pro, he had that bad tournament”. So, a defeat stopped all that genius although I don’t believe it was a single episode. More likely, something in his general thinking undermined his best work. The other old-timer added, “yea, and once he started drinking, well, that was it“. Perhaps that was true but only to an extent. If you met the guy you could see that he had more than a few gears in his thinking, quietly shifting (at least from the outside) between them. Yea, maybe the booze helped lubricate that process but there was more nuance to him than could be seen by casual interaction especially if it was gonna be JUST about golf.  Maybe he wanted to be known for more than something that came easy for him?

Geno in 1940 at the age of 16 and being hailed as “The next Bobby Jones”. This picture was being sold on Ebay

I’m pretty sure that Gene never meditated. Having met some prodigiously talented people, (I’m not one of them), it’s been my observation that merely having a high level of natural ability is not enough. It usually requires ongoing development and refinement to perform in the big time. But if one is not so inclined, then he or she will likely remain at a baseline which is still probably much higher than that of anyone else. But it surely must leave a level of dissatisfaction. For those of us average ability, it can be frustrating to see someone so talented not rise to the top. In my case, Gene was very nice to me and expressed great interest in my future intentions and encouraged education. He did it in a way that seemed genuine. By the time I first met him most of his life was behind him but he remained a hell of a nice guy. From time to time, I still toy with the idea of conjuring the Zone for use in my life. I still meditate but it’s not led to that kind of breakthrough. Why I connect the two, Gene and the Zone, I don’t entirely know though it could be that for a brief time, and in a private, different way, I experienced the effortless mastery that he did. It would be cool to do so again.

Beware The Nudist Colony

Part of the joy of being in a band is playing live (see the dill pickle appreciation story) in front of diverse types of people, some of whom might represent a stepping stone to a new level of existence in the music business (if only incrementally). That shouldn’t necessarily be the primary motivation for performance but it certainly doesn’t hurt when someone approaches you with a well-intended, (and hopefully legitimate), offer of financial support. Some forms of sponsorship might be shady or based upon the execution of a chain of events, perhaps involving the movement of some “material”, before the cash becomes available. It’s more common, though, to receive basic types of appreciation, such as a home-cooked meal or a place to stay for the night.

Playing private parties can be a good source of income and once you make a few solid connections of this type, life can becomes easier. The only down side is the implied quid-pro-quo wherein the host generally wants to hear certain songs or expects to “sit in”. That’s generally okay but it does get awkward when someone’s wife wants to go all Janis Joplin, usually in some horrible approximation thereof, and then not leave the stage.

The inimitable John Kay ! Note that dark sunglasses can be helpful when having to view large (numbers of) nudists.

My band was once hired to play a private 4th of July party for a large and very well organized colony of nudists. When I say “large” I mean both in terms of body count and average attendee girth. When I say “organized” they owned the land they used for the festivities and had built an impressive compound that hosted people throughout the week. There were about 350 nudists present and although the event was 40 years ago, I’m still in therapy. I’m all for self-acceptance and personal esteem but I was not prepared for the jiggling mounds of flesh on display that sweltering Georgia day.

The nudists were very nice people, in that zany way that hippies usually are, and their generosity was overwhelming. The band was not in any way compelled to disrobe. Someone had deep pockets as the PA was top flight and professionally engineered (a guy from Showco). The event was also impressively catered with a veritable cornucopia of food (including vegetarian options) as well as top shelf alcohol. Not all in the crowd were unattractive but enough were so as to make it difficult to look at anyone straight-on for more than a few milliseconds, thus dark sun glasses became a necessity. I must have looked like John Kay except I did not suffer from any type of visual impairment – though might have were I forced to view the mountain of flesh without some form of protection.

Most nudists, at least the ones I’ve encountered, are politically and socially motivated more so than by any lurid or carnal urge that the typical outsider might imagine. By stripping (literally) away any pretense, people can presumably better view the other for what they truly are – a human being to be accepted independently of any perceived physical imperfections. (Or so goes that zany hippy logic) Talk to any seasoned medical professional and they will generally exhibit a bored attitude towards the nudity of others although generally only within the confines of a medical encounter. I’ve always been on the fence about the whole “let it all hang out” thing. If you have the body for it then I suppose it might be alright but in absence of that then maybe first hit the gym for a few months (or years) before presenting yourself to the public ? I’m speaking in general because intentional public nudity is not on my bucket list. I mean if I have to run out of a burning house with little or no coverage then so be it, but that’s about the only way I’ll do it.

My Father had a roommate named Bill whose very plump girlfriend we chose to nickname “Elastic Woman” because of her preference for those thick, industrial grade bras and girdles that were clearly visible under the polyester pant suits that were once all the rage. Women of a certain size used such clothing to forcefully constrain their flesh which might otherwise “spill out” in a vulgar protoplasmic display. We theorized that, so tight were the garments worn by “Elastic Woman“, that should they break under the strain, they would jet across the room in a sling-shot style effect, killing any one in the line of fire – a sleeping boyfriend, the cat, or maybe even the television. Damn, how did I get off into that ? Oh yea. There were a lot of women at the gig who resembled “Elastic Woman” minus the clothes that is.

Oh that we all could have the self-acceptance ability of cool jazz cat Herbie Mann

For the most part, the gig progressed quite well with the crowd demonstrating its appreciation by dancing in clusters of hand-holding hippy families which hearkened back to the commune days of the 60s. During a break, one of the upper level colony representatives introduced us to his wife which I thought might be part of some Inuit-influenced wife sharing ceremony. If it was, the fact that I, nor any of the other band members did not know the proper acceptance protocol, must have stopped it. In retrospect, I’m sure it was nothing of the sort. Rather than continue the awkward moment, he asked if he could sit in with the band on a few tunes. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem but the fact that he was nude and profusely sweating from lots of outdoor hippie dancing in the July heat meant that he would have had to wear the guitar in such a way that it would make contact with the matted greasy stomach hair (see photo to the left) as well as certain “other” body parts which in my mind would totally defile the guitar. I certainly knew he wasn’t going use my guitar.

I think he sensed the overall vibe and said, “Hey, I’ve got my own instrument” for which I was very grateful. His over emphasis on the word instrument suggested he was about to add, “no pun intended” but thankfully he declined. As a guitarist, he was pretty good in that Yasgur’s farm kind of way where you turn it up like Leslie West whom he kind of resembled albeit with no clothes. His sitting in led to more nudists on stage (which they had built) so it’s not like we could ask them to leave. Any mental adjustment I had made over the past hour in response to playing for the naked hippie pack was reset by having sweaty, corpulent bodies jumping around in uncomfortably close proximity. Mercifully, that was more or less the end of the engagement. The load out was plagued with people asking various questions which in any other case would have been fine, except, again, they were totally naked while trying to help lift road cases – a very unsafe proposition. So I kept the shades on even though it was well past sun down.

These days it’s difficult to escape body obsessed culture and shows like “Naked And Afraid” – a name I could never really remember, confusing it with names like “Nude And Angry” or “Irritated and Naked”. I notice that gyms seem to have these programs on wide screen TVs perhaps as a motivator for people to get into shape. Given the widespread availability of plastic surgery I suppose that route is a possibility though it seems that once you go down that route, it requires ongoing “touch ups” and associated procedures to protect the original investment. You just have to decide if what you have really needs any “help” in the first place. I mean, maybe the hippies got it right in that you should just roll with what you got but maybe just keep it private ?

“Writing As Penance”

Forced Entries is the sequel to The Basketball Diaries

I’ve been on something of a break while attending to other matters which has included catching up on (re)reading some favorite books to recharge my creative batteries. I rarely check out new publications, not out of some form of “they don’t make them like they use to” snobbery, just that when pinched for time I’ll gladly opt for the familiar over rolling the dice on the latest “must read” whose publication was probably facilitated by some back end nepotism or an inside favor granted to a former sorority sister. Sorry, but I’m recovering from the bitter sting of rejection as my essay on Southside Atlanta crime apparently lost out to a “Top Ten Botox Docs” style article which, by the way, was a huge smash. When I stare daggers at the person who just cut me off in the around-the-clock traffic jam that Atlanta has become, I really like it that the face shining back at me will be smooth and wrinkle free. Where was I ? Oh, yea. So I ran across a copy Jim Carrol’s “Forced Entries” when looking for a lost debit card (which is still missing). I’m a pushover for my favorite books. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, sit down, and start reading. Oh and this isn’t a book review. I’m not sure I’m capable of that. It’s more of a recommendation and some brief comments.

Sordid Tales or Catholic Sojourn ?

On one level, Forced Entries is a book of observational tales set in 1970s New York where Jim Carroll (of “The Basketball Diaries” fame) handles life as a young poet with a clingy drug habit (is there any other kind ?) And, taken superficially, it does provide plenty of entertaining anecdotes on topics such as Warhol, the shame of being a poet, and the realization that 60s style activism smelled funny in the sunlight of the new decade. Certain icons (Leary, Hoffman for starters) might have just been as full of it as any corporate leader or politician they ever demonized. This is where a real book critic might use the word irreverent though Carroll is anything but that. He earns the right to sarcasm by laying out a careful analysis of almost every situation with the (eventual) ability to see his own role in the scene. Most of us will detail the behavior of everyone else, few talk about how we might have contributed to any emerging controversy. Don’t get me wrong, Carroll is no saint, though he does make appeals to them – even the lower tier ones:

I light a candle midway down the right aisle, in front of the statue of an obscure saint named Dustan, who I find out later is the patron saint of lighthouse keepers… I don’t know if I should take it as an omen, but the fresh wooden taper will not catch on the flame I am using to get a light… I take my seat under the plaster blue eyes of St. Dustan, who it turns out was also heavy into politics and writing hymns, one of which was quite a hit on the Gregorian charts.

There are lots of way to board the train with this book meaning you can start reading anywhere although, as with most books, it’s better to start at the beginning. I treat it like a literary “8 Ball” where you shake the ball containing the answer wheel suspended in some form of murky ink from which answers creepily emerge. Except with Forced Entries I tend to get confirmation in some strange sense that I’m either full of it or am living more honestly than before. The capacity to deceive oneself is quite significant and something about reading this book counteracts my tendencies towards that behavior. It’s not a morality thing, more of spiritual investigation. I mean, is it an accident that Carroll keeps winding up in cathedrals, sometimes sitting through “4 funerals” of people he doesn’t even know ?

The Ritual Within The SpiRitual

Continuing with this line of thinking, the book is a sojourn of a lapsed Catholic whose connections with the Cool and Hip (The Velvet Underground Warhol, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al) provide no insulation against life’s bad weather or even the tedium of daily existence which can be as hard to handle, if not more so, than any crisis.

There is no cool left in me. The only resources I retain are a minimum of rage and controlled madness, barely enough to offset the bullshit paraphernalia of art and the city. I thought I could deal with, perhaps even come to understand, my obsessions through some strained eloquence.

I can’t keep a steady style in my writing standing on these shifting platforms of artifice and quick change. I try to fuse my life and my work, to keep up with the tiresome dodging of cars and drugs. Bur when you are walking such a thin wire above such a chic and sleazy cosmopolitan abyss, you don’t stop to think. 

His view on the Church:

I was this Catholic kid, and I never really lost that. I loved the rituals of Catholicism. The mass is a magic ritual; it’s a transubstantiation, and the stations of the cross – I mean, a crown of thorns? Getting whipped? It’s punk rock.

He tries a proverbial geographical cure to Bolinas, California where life improves yet, his path to redemption inevitably requires a return to (rematch with) NYC where he rids himself of literal and figurative corruption. His comeback does involve a couple of harrowing temptations that invite a return to the bullshit artifice and manufactured hipness inherent to the city experience but he he experiences relief which, at a minimum, allows him to function in a much less anguished fashion.

I’m like a boxer making a comeback out in the sticks, where I was sent by too many knockouts in the big city.

The Downside

The only problem with this book is how, like its predecessor, it has been hijacked by would-be hipsters as evidence of drug use for creativity enhancement. It didn’t help that the movie version of The Basketball Dairies pandered to this idea while promoting second string ideas into major movie components (the classroom violence scene). However, if you pay the least bit of attention, such activity is unambiguously represented as a dead end street. Collections of impressions rarely translate well to cinema as they will be reworked in service to lowest-common-denominator audience sensibilities or, in the case of the Art-House circuit, desired critical acclaim at an upcoming film festival (no matter how obscure). “Winner Of The Coveted Frowning Pygmy Award for Best New Film In An Unknown (And Unwanted) Genre”.

I understand that some enjoy reading the “look what I did to support my drug habit” type of story which might be part (a small one) of a larger arc but it’s not really about that. Anyone interested, or cursed, with a thirsty spirit for what lies beyond will probably pursue any number of activities that will not make any sense when viewed through the lens of practicality. But there is little hope in discouraging the true pilgrim from what is most assuredly a Mission that will involve some sordid side trips now and then. In terms of the title of this entry, “Writing as Penance“, that is a phrase associated with Forced Entries as well as some other publications though I don’t know who first coined it. However, to me, it makes perfect sense as forcing oneself to put down words that capture ideas and experiences in a way that is honest and reasonably intelligible is not only difficult but does purify the author or at least validate the workman-like nature of the effort. It clears the books if only for a while.