Thursday, November 20, 2008

First story ever told about pretty girls drinking beer

Most of us, in my experience, have some kind of craziness we carry around in our heads. Mine is that much of my life has happened to me in the process of figuring out the rest of a story that I interrupted long ago to go play a game of racquetball.

The game of racquetball seemed more important than a story at the time because I was so damn lonely. I had quit the Navy and lost my ROTC scholarship and ended up as a transfer student at Washington University, which treated transfer students - especially transfer students on a limited-means scholarship whose parents had never contributed a dime to the endowment - like red-headed, leprous stepchildren.

After wriggling out of a series of ludicrously terrible off-campus housing assignments, I ended up living with my mother in Granite City. She needed me around the house anyway, because she had burnt her hands to a crisp in a fusebox fire. The transfer student who went AWOL from the Navy and lived in a steel mill town across the river was more than a little lost on a campus of mostly rich kids from the East Coast. And then I started meeting musicians.

One of those musicians - the guitarist in a band called Butt of Jokes that provided the first evidence that The Meat Puppets existed outside of my own record collection - played racquetball. I played racquetball. He invited me to play racquetball in the campus gymnasium, where I had interviewed Paul Westerburg. I was on my way to becoming a little less lonely.

The day of the racquetball game, a voice popped into my head and started telling me a story. This was a brand new and very strange experience. I think I can understand, now, why it might have happened. My imagination was superheated at the time, because Bill Gass had me reading Robert Walser and Rainer Maria Rilke and Jorge Luis Borges. They had me wanting to write a novel, so I was trying to write a novel - no surprises here - about a lonely kid on a college campus.

Just as it was getting good, or so I thought, my mother interrupted me. It was the dead of winter. We lived in a poor part of a poor town. My grandmother's poor neighbor's pipes had frozen, because her heat had been shut off. The neighbor had paid to have her heat turned back on and now had no money to buy groceries. Her family was no longer cold, but now was hungry. My mother was giving me money and a list of food to buy and sending me shopping for the poor neighbor's family.

I stepped away from my novel to run this necessary errand, and that is when this other voice popped into my head, the one I have been chasing around for the rest of my life. The voice said, "Kentucky. That isn't her name, but the name of the state in which we live together. She moved down her for a job working with slow children, a sure case of the feeble teaching the feeble, take two on her crummy babyhood."

I took notes as I drove through the frozen streets of West Granite City. I shopped, scrawling notes as I walked through the aisle, looking for bread, milk, bananas, raisins. I scrawled notes on the way to the neighbor's house, then on the way back to my mother's house, and then back at home on my typewriter, until it was time to honor that racquetball appointment.

I really felt the need to honor that racquetball appointment. I really didn't want to be lonely anymore. So I scrawled notes as I drove across the river to the rich kid's campus. I actually remember walking through the snow to The Field House - the site, since, of the Palin-Biden vice presidential debate - still scrawling notes on a piece of paper held against my leg, taking dictation from the voice in my head, from the rough stranger who moved to Kentucky to be with his former caseworker at the halfway house in Alton, Illinois, who had moved to Kentucky for a job working with slow children and to get away from him.

I stopped taking notes to play racquetball. We played racquetball. We became friends, the guitar player from Butt of Jokes and I. When his band dissolved, I borrowed his drummer for "just one gig". Almost twenty years later, I am still writing songs and making records with his former drummer. We traveled the country together, playing gigs at CBGBs in New York City and a Mexican restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia and a dive bar in Louisville, Kentucky. I learned a lot about that rough stranger in my head, who grew up on the road with a father from Kentucky, and I fell in love with a girl I met at a gig and married her, in part, because she grew up on a farm in Kentucky, just like the daddy of the stranger in my head.

But I never got that voice back into my head to tell me the rest of the story. I've been on my own all these years, chasing traces from that original story he started telling me, that cold day when I interrupted a college novel to go buy groceries for my grandma's poor, hungry neighbors.

One of the many, many things I know something about only because that voice in my head knew something about it is an ancient artifact called a cylinder seal. His daddy, for reasons I have not yet figured out, had a thing for museums, and because as a boy he was small, he looked at things in museums that were small, like cylinder seals - tiny tubes about the size of the longest bone on an adult finger, made from a hard and often precious stone, into which an artist carved images that are printed, in reverse, on clay when you roll the cylinder across the clay.

The cylinder seal, I learned, was invented in ancient Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq, and whenever our government elects to bomb Iraq, which is more often than I would like, I worry (among other worries) about all of the ancient cylinder seals being bombed to bits or looted by thieves who don't even know what they are taking away from the rubble. When I was blessed to visit The Louvre in Paris, I stumbled upon what was then the largest collection of cylinder seals outside of Iraq (and what now may be the largest collection of cylinder seals anywhere in the world - we won't know until the war is finally over and a responsible art inventory in Iraq is possible again).

I spent hours in The Louvre, studying those cylinder seals, trying to understand why the stranger in my head found them important as a boy and remembered them well enough as a man to use them in a pickup line with a hippie girl he met in the street. I sketched a few of the images on them, like the sketch I have posted up here. Since the cylinder seal is, in some accounts of the history of language, the birth of writing, I will suggest that what you have here, on this ancient cylinder seal of women drinking beer, is the first ever written story about a very important and beautiful thing, pretty girls drinking beer.

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