Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Esquire Fail

Esquire Magazine is 78 years old. They decided to celebrate by having a writing contest; a 78 word short short story contest. Apparently, Colum McCann, or whoever is vetting for him, didn't like mine.

That's cool. I have started a deliciously crazy love/hate relationship with Flash Fiction [a buzz word for short short fiction].  One of my short shorts appeared on Every Day Fiction.  Yet despite reveling in the haiku-esque simplicity of short shorts, I'm beginning to think that the next great novel [not remotely mine] is going to be lost on the rocks of the foreshortened attention span of the internet age. Setting revenue completely aside, if writers start to think that some idea is finished because it was succinct enough to be short, who will ever bother to write several hundred more pages?!?!

Despite all that, its fun. You should try it. Like any form of distillery, care must be taken not only with good quality ingredients, but with the process as well.

I've already written twice the words I wrote for Esquire. Here, dear reader, is my unaccepted short short:

He was supposed to be across the street in an hour, but had stumbled into an old haunt. Staring at fluid shapes as ice melted into amber liquid, he smiled wryly. It had been such a long time. He missed the smoky bite of Kentucky Bourbon. He missed the low tones people spoke. He missed the warm glow of nicotine stained sconces. He missed that nobody gave a goddamn what he was up to. He missed her call.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My man, Spike.

Damien had his numbers - the mark of the beast.  There are days I think I'm just a mark.  I've got one of those faces that panhandlers seem to love; the mark of a sucker.  It doesn't help that I decided a few years ago to greet people.  I tend to wander the earth face first - head up.  Whether it's at the store or on the street, I say hello to people.  Its funny to watch the Average American, head down, face taut, staring at the ground to avoid any eye contact; looking a bit like they're constipated.  What was it George Carlin said about Richard Nixon?

As I'm stuck in this sucker face situation, I've developed a system.  I have a number in my head, some amount of money that I don't need.  Call it the Sucker Fund.  If I get hit up for spare change while the fund is flush, whoever asks ... gets it.  No questions.  I don't have to listen real close to their story.  I don't have to wonder if they are actually in some kind of trouble.  I don't worry if they are going to buy food for their kids or end up buying liquor.  That karma is on them.  My karma is just fine because I gave.  The Sucker Fund balance usually hangs around ten or twenty dollars.  One guy might get it all or three guys might share it over the course of a week.  When I'm having a bad week, the fund is broke.  As soon as I get paid, the fund is flush again.

There was a guy who hung around Meijers that tapped into the Sucker Fund a few times this Summer.  For the most part, however, I've been too busy to be around anyone who's begging for a bus ticket or gas to get home or whatever.   The Sucker Fund has been in surplus for a while now.  A couple Wednesday nights ago, as Art Prize began, that all changed.

I walked out of an Introductory Meditation Class at the Grand Rapids Zen Center and into a crowd.  From the serenity of the meditation hall, I stepped into pandemonium.  The Center is a wonderful oasis.  Exposed brick on one wall, an old wood floor,  and the smoke of incense creeping up a deep red wall behind the altar.  The candles, a singing bowl, and the staid ceremony are conducive, by design, to slowing down and pondering.  When I pushed open the door to leave, I was on the fringe of Art Prize - Opening Night.

Worse than in the middle of the action, being on the fringe meant that the crowd flowing around me, like a snow melt swollen creek, were all on their way home.  They'd been to Art Prize and were done.  They'd spent more time and more money than they had meant to.  For some, they didn't see one thing that they could understand.  Now they had to walk six or eight blocks to find where they parked the damn car.  A totally different kind of energy.

I had my own trek back to my truck.  Swimming against everyone's haste, I stumbled toward the first corner to the East. Before I could round the corner, a man crossing the street caught my eye (face first, remember).  "Howdy" I said.

"Do you know where I can find a church that's . . . ."  his voice trailed off as he turned his head looking up the street.  Whatever else he said was swept away in the riparian confusion of the crowd.

He was a black man in his 60's.  His face was highlighted with grey stubble surrounding a goatee that had been trimmed up neatly.  When he spoke, intelligent eyes glistened under a baseball cap.  His teeth were kind of sprawled out from each other like they were running scared.  But the teeth were in good shape, he must have been doing alright, at least recently.  He reminded me of Spike Lee, only a bit older.

"You know, I was up here to get something to eat.  They make it hard on ya now.  I had to walk eight miles to get up here to that shelter where they were serving food.  And my momma is 104 four years old.  She's at home with my granddaughter, and she's only five."

"That's quite a spread in ages," I offered.

"Yeah and you know I'm just trying to take something home to them.  Do you believe in God?"

"Huh?"

"You don't think you could spare a little? Just so I could take home a loaf of bread and some lunch meat or something."

His pitch reminded me that I had stopped by the bank on my way.  The suggested donation for the Intro Class was twenty dollars.  I had gotten another twenty just to last me the week.  In the tea session afterward, I had met some new folks and talked to several regulars.  And I had forgotten to leave my twenty bucks while I was there.  Meanwhile, I was not really listening to Spike Lee's pitch.  And I didn't need to listen really.

Coming back to the scene on the sidewalk, I heard him repeat the question "Do you believe in God?"  I'd love to give everyone the benefit of the doubt but spiritual talk suffuses the pitch of most panhandlers.  That's all fine, but it seems like some sort of political, or at least ecumenical pandering.

Spike Lee told me that he and the family had just moved from Milwaukee.  They were trying to find work.  He also said he was a pastor.  I like big cities.  I've been in and around them for a good part of my life.  I've seen enough little storefront gospel churches to figure that that part of his story was likely true.  All across this country there a little independent outposts scrabbling to pay rent on some retail space or renting a hall each week.  The administrators of the Sucker Fund held a quick board meeting.

"Used to be, you could arrive in a new town and be to work in a few days," he continued.  He'd seen my mark.  He knew that I was good for it.  I had made eye contact with him, and even listened to most of his story.  His pitch went into full swing.  I just smiled.

With the first sounds of my interrupting him, a doubtful line crossed his brow.  He had thought he was going to close on me; make the sale.  Now he worried.

"Today's your lucky day," I said abruptly.

Fiddling with my wallet and not showing too much, I pulled out a twenty.  "Here, man. Good luck."

"Sweet Jesus, bless you. Thank you," he blurted.  And as if he couldn't resist, "You believe in God. Don't you?"

"That really doesn't matter. Does it?" I asked and turned to head back to the Zen Center.

My man, Spike, couldn't have a clue where I had just come from.  I didn't know what his situation was.  I'd never walked even a block in his shoes, but I've been poor.  I've been down to brown rice and water more than once.  I know what that part feels like; not really knowing the next time some cash might roll your way. When you haven't got an extra dime, there's just no use in shopping.  He wouldn't know what was in the storefront between the Coney Dog place and the Chinese buffet because it wouldn't have occurred to him to look.  It wouldn't occur to him that there was any other way to live in America.  He hasn't walked in my shoes either.

There was a plaintive edge to his voice when he called after me, "You do believe in God, don't you?" Maybe his story was mostly true.  I don't have to worry about it.