Asian Swamp Rats

Henry 43 and savoring what was left of life. He was a long-standing junk and alcoholic, counting the days —death was just a breath, a drink and a thought away, death and dying a place nobody wants to go, a place earmarked for gurus, poets, and saints.  

Sitting on the balcony of his Queen’s digs in the afternoon, looking down and watching people walking the streets below— tiny ant-sized folks on their way somewhere, each with a different story to tell, thinking allot, thinking a little or not thinking at all. 

Henry sidestepped sunlight, he would go out in the night— staying home in the day drinking and using as he typed out the bullets of his own intramural revolution on an IBM electric typewriter. 

It was his way, it never changed much. 

It was sometime between 1970 and 1980 and it was raining cats and dogs.

Henry had met William Burroughs at readings in the city more than once and had talked to him some. Old Bill was detached because of sadness or out of necessity. He wasn't friendly, but he was a brilliant and percipient interpreter of things psychic. 

Henry and Burroughs had nothing in common, although they both had Section 8 discharges from the Army. Old Bill as a warm as an ice cube in January and inward, Henry on-fire open to everything without much thought. 

Herbert Hunke was reading in Chinatown one night at a noodle house in the early 70s. Henry sees William Burroughs and walks up to him and says hello— Old Bill looks at him expressionless and does an about face and walks away. 

Henry figured Old Bill didn’t have time for heterosexuals— and fun is not William Seward Burroughs II middle name, let's end it there and move on.  

Fredrick Exley wasn’t beat, he was very different from William Burroughs. He was different from everyone, particularly Frank Gifford, who is Exley’s foil in the book, A Fan’s Notes— an exercise in self-absorption and boozed fueled self-defeatism written in a brilliant and blazing style by Exley. 

Whenever interviewed about A Fan’s Notes he would answer over and over,

Go read the book! 

This was unbridled and brazen self-promotion of course.  

Raymond Carver a noteworthy boozehound, and a natural and born to be storyteller if there ever was one. 

It was amazing Carver got anything done, his life— a drunken roller coaster ride centering on writing and supporting his family in the Pacific Northwest, hardly a cake walk. 

The characters in his stories reflected his life, ordinary folks who found themselves in jams that they had to work their way out of. 

Writing about people in jams is the way Carver explores the human reactions and conditions his characters experience such as— lack of communication, helplessness, loss, lack of connection in relationships or isolation in life caused by boozing or overwork. 

Like Fredrick Exley, Carver was a far cry from William Burroughs. He was a boozer not a doper, a mensch doing his best to be a good family man— he wrote about life as the working-man knows it in a very clear and real way, no cut-ups or science-fiction-like paranoid lada-lada about the Nova Mob here.

It was getting late and Henry was hungry, he needed a break from work and some fresh air. He cleaned up and headed straight to Harlem—walking as usual.

In Harlem he goes to a soul food restaurant called Melba’s, he orders the usual stuff, catfish, greens, beans, cornbread, grits and sweet potato pie. 

The owner Melba an older black woman with blond hair, dyed, of course, comes to Henry’s table with a plate of fried chicken in her hand and says,

Why Henry you handsome devil, you need to fatten up child, have some of my fried chicken baby!

He thanks Melba and she places the plate of chicken on his table, a whole bird cut into pieces. He munches on it as he knocks down a double 7 & 7, wondering what was next?

As he walks out of Melba’s he sees that the 60’s film Watermelon Man is playing at the RKO Vitoria Theater, he walks less than a block and buys a ticket for the show. 

He goes to the balcony and finds a seat, alone there he snorts a fistful of cocaine retro style, out of a bottle with a tiny spoon. He then opens a pint of Jack Daniels which he brought with him wrapped tight in a paper bag. 

Watermelon Man— a take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Jeff Gerber a bigoted white man turns into a Negro, not an insect. The film is clearly karmic, and Jeff Gerber learns that being Negro in America aint much fun. 

Henry all psyched-up bein in Harlem, a belly full of fried chicken and grits, coked and boozed up to boot—Jeff Gerber the Watermelon Man running crazy-like through slapstick heaven, chasing his own karma, everywhere but where he should be. Henry walks out after 15 minutes of watching Watermelon Man, bored shitless.

Midnight in Harlem, it was still alive, nobody sleeps there, the place never closes.

It was still raining heavily, Henry goes to an all-night convenient store to buy a cheap plastic poncho. There is a Korean couple, the owners, in a glass-enclosed bulletproof cage. He places a 5 dollar bill into a sliding metal security drawer, the Koreans shut the sliding drawer on his hand, so he can't pull it out, he is captured like a mouse in a trap. The couple start laughing and say,

Oh, crazy white man, we got you, you are ours now and we can do what we want with you.

Henry not laughing says,

Let me outta here you crazy dog-eating Asian swamp rats or you're gonna be big-time sorry!

The two weirdos inside the cage still laughing away, Henry dumb-fucked and speechless. 

It was late, 2 AM and nobody was around, the swamp rats were nowhere in sight, restocking the low-end shithole or something.

Then at 3 AM, a black guy shows up, he is loaded and he wants to buy some ice and a bottle of Seagrams’s 7. The swamp rats come to the counter and open the drawer, Henry quickly pulls his hand out of the security drawer and tells the couple to fuck-off, he then takes a taxi home to his Queens apartment. 

He gets home by 330 AM before dawn, he quickly showers and goes to bed. Laying in his futon on his back he goes over the events of the night— the swamp rats keeping him captive for an hour, mind-boggling and utterly mad. 

A first and hopefully a last he thought.

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