Archive | July, 2011

SIGN OF THE TIMES…

29 Jul

               

 

He drove the same route every day – fifty miles there, fifty miles back. Enforced auto-isolationism in a maelstrom of traffic destined for places unknown. He’d been driving the same commute for five years now, ever since hiring on with the corporation. Although he hated the early morning alarm clock and the quotidian drudgery of driving, the benefits to employment on the east side of the city far outweighed the unemployment black spot of the west. He’d seen factories close down all across the country – products with Made in America household names, shipped to foreign shores, to be made by people who probably couldn’t find America on a map. Industry, agriculture and hard work had been the sustaining life blood, the corner stone, of a country that depended on income generated by a society addicted to consumerism. Companies and corporations who for years had helped to make America great and who’d helped foster the American dream were waking up and shipping out. Factories were closing down for the promise of viable economics in Asia, leaving towns and communities devastated and abandoned in their wake.

                Men were now forced to accept state handouts or pursue under-paid employment in a job market that burgeoned with people ready to work for nothing. The whole thing was coming apart at the seams; society was crumbling, and yet it was still tuned into reality television and pathetic talent shows. Wasn’t their reality challenging enough? Couldn’t they use their mind’s eye to envision their own silver screened debut? The sympathetic camera angles and soft lighting capturing the best side of the wrong side of an economic downturn. Wasn’t their own obvious lack of talent the reason for their unimaginative, self-styled performance, the reason they’d been voted off the gravy train?

                Because of the mass lay-offs the commuter traffic, much to his pleasure, had started to thin a little. There was an upside to any situation, a silver lining that illuminated the darkest hour before every dawn. The factory closures meant less people rushing for work, which allowed him to stay in bed just a little longer before jumping in the shower, casually driving to work, and still making it on time to appease the boss. Life was good and the economic tempest which clattered around so many homes and families hadn’t touched him or his. The financial umbrella provided by his employer and his rainy day retirement fund would allow him to weather the storm.

                A split was developing in the fabric of society. A Malthusian reality of those who had, and those that didn’t. The difference between card-carrying membership in one, and not the other, was a small matter of a nine-to-five and a weekly wage, something that less and less people could depend upon. Despite the specter of economic depression there was no evidence of the country pulling together – the divide was tangible, people were choosing sides.

                Personally he was sick of being hassled by the homeless hoards, men and women who stood outside supermarkets with dirty faced children begging for a hand out. Families who only months before had been productive members of society and yet who now couldn’t put bread on the table. Was that his fault? Was their problem his? Didn’t they realize he still had to fend for his own family, pay a mortgage, a car note, and still find money for both a winter and a summer vacation? What about retirement and college funds for the kids? It didn’t matter if he worked eighty hours a week the math didn’t add up. If anybody was under pressure it was him. He was still in the game, bur playing it at a clear disadvantage. Clearly they’d no idea of the stress he endured on a daily basis. They were the lucky ones. They were the ones who’d shunned responsibility, given up, and opted out.

                They had his disdain rather than his pity and he did his best to avoid them, although that was becoming harder to do, as each and every corner was infested. No longer just brown faces but white faces as well, stood together with hand-written placards advertising their labor – will work for food- god bless- please help etc. etc. Women and children stood amongst the men, and like lepers, he negated them all. The unemployed, as far as he was concerned, should carry bells and notices to warn hard working folk they were around. That way he could avoid and ignore them, pretend they weren’t there as he went about his business.

                With all the foreclosures he’d managed to find another house in a gated community. Six foot walls and iron bars to protect him and his family from the hungry, homeless masses outside. The home owners’ association employed gun carrying security guards to ward off those trying to jump the fence. They weren’t cheap, as was reflected in the monthly remunerations, however, they were effective. Only the other day he’d seen two blue uniformed rent-a-cops tackling some hobo, throwing him to the ground whilst the wretched man’s family stood by and watched. In the beginning of the down-turn he’d felt pity, especially when it started to affect friends and relatives. After a year or so he’d become numb to their problems, ignoring their plight, putting his own priorities before theirs. It was only natural, he wasn’t a saint, and besides what could he do? The numbers on the nightly news were simply that, dots on a graph, not representative at all of ordinary people. What was it now, thirty percent or thirty five percent of the population who were unemployed – he’d lost count?

                Luckily for him the huge arms manufacturer where he worked was doing solid business, supplying a government that cared more about democracy in foreign lands than it did about the wounded soldiers its wars created and the solid citizens that slept on its streets. Society was crumbling yet he didn’t feel the pain. It was as though there had been a return to feudalism where the righteous and god-given like himself felt they were born to their excess. That somehow they were the chosen. Just a few short years ago they had all been in the same boat, however globalization and a world economy brought to its knees by corporate greed had divided them. Now bullets and battleships were the only thing that the world wanted to buy from a morally bankrupt nation that had previously supplied it with quality merchandise.

*

                The gas light blinked on his console. He flicked his indicator and pulled off the highway. As he rounded the curve he saw the sign for gas. Regular was now eight dollars and forty cents per gallon. The fucking oil companies would no doubt be showing record profits again this year. If there was one thing that was as certain as death and taxes, it was oil company largesse. Driving into the gas station he noticed a family standing by the road, a mum and dad with a couple of kids. The father had on a sports jacket and a pair of khakis, and judging by the suit cases he carried, was homeless. Clearly they’d been hit by the recession, ripped from their homes by bank sponsored S.W.A.T. teams. Congress had recently enacted laws that made it even easier for the banks to evict – the sooner the losers were out of the property the sooner the banks get their hands on their federally insured loans. Now with government money in their hands, as well as freshly acquired property, they could once again engage in their Ponzi scheme – luring unwary investors into stolen property, at an exaggerated price. As he drove past one of the children waved at him, the mother moving quickly to admonish the child. A middle age woman who, despite her predicament was neatly dressed, doing her best to protect her family. He felt an unusual tug on his heart strings, a momentary pang of desperation as he imagined himself in the same situation, but quickly shook it off. He erased them from his thoughts, drove into the gas station and filled his car.

*

                Walking in to the glass-steeled atrium of the corporation building, he mentally prepared himself for another busy day. He had meetings with various heads of department to discuss the new product line they hoped to bring to fruition by the end of the year. A project he’d been involved in since inception, and one he personally believed would make a difference to the troops fighting in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

                He flashed a smile at the security guard and then swiped his identity card. The acceptance light remained red, he swiped it again.

                 Red.

                The security guard looked up, and walked towards him.

                “Morning Mr. Jones. How are you today? He asked.

                “Good, George. There seems to be a problem with the card?”

                The guard held out his hand for the card. He then walked to the computer terminal, typed on the key board, looked back at Jones and then back at the screen. He placed the card in a drawer and walked over to where Jones anxiously stood waiting.

                “Seems to be a lot of this going on today, it’s probably just a glitch in the system.”

                Jones looked relieved. If that’s all it was, then there wasn’t a problem. “My card?”

                “Don’t worry about that, they’ll give you a new one. If you wouldn’t mind going to the cafeteria they’re assisting people in there.”

                “Thanks George.”

                Walking towards the cafeteria, he nodded at the familiar faces he encountered. What a hassle. He needed to be in the meeting by eight, and it was five-till now. He pushed through the double doors, the cafeteria was full – people stood around everywhere. A group of his colleagues waved to him from one of the corners. They stood next to one of the coffee machines, a company poster at their backs declaring its devotion to its workers, their greatest asset.

                “What’s going on?” asked Jones.

                “Don’t know. Seems there’s going to be some kind of announcement,” replied the colleague.

                Jones looked around at the well-dressed and well-heeled throng of employees, freshly showered and shaved, dressed to impress for another day of corporate endeavor. The doors to the cafeteria opened. There was a hush as security personnel moved into the room, stationing themselves around its perimeter. People looked at each other nervously, the excited chatter that had moments ago filled the room now turned to stunned silence. Jones looked at his colleagues who said nothing. The intercom crackled, and a voice boomed from the ceiling.

                Dear colleagues, valued workers etc. etc. Due to the current financial situation, economic climate etc. etc. We are unable to sustain our current headcount, in these dynamic markets, challenging times etc. etc. Please register with the clerks sat to your front who’ll give you your information packets etc. etc. Please remain at home until you are called by your manager. It behooves us to make strategic cuts, slash costs, stream-line in order to remain profitable – responsibility to our shareholders etc. etc.

                The speakers went dead, their electric hum clinging to the air. The silence that had solidified the room now erupted in emotional mayhem as the message slowly sank in. Their jobs were gone. What the hell where they going to do?

*

                Sitting in the car park, the manila folder on the passenger seat, he gripped the steering wheel tightly, pushing his fore-head against the leather. What the fuck was he going to do? What was he going to tell the wife, where would they go? A thousand questions with no answers rattled inside his head. He’d enough money put by to get them through six months, but after the first missed payment the bank’s S.W.A.T. team would be knocking on their door, ejecting his family and throwing his belongings on to the lawn. The shame and ignominy as his neighbors watched from behind sun blinds and twitching curtains. He’d seen the same thing happen in his old neighborhood as he’d stood with beer in hand watching the emotional dramas enfold before him.

                The manager had been nice enough, her tone optimistic. Lots of don’t worries, and empty platitudes.

                ‘I’m sure that something will work out given your years of service, your dedication, experience etc. etc.”

                Words, nothing but empty words. He was fucked, and he knew it. The project had been dropped – peace in Europe meant that the army would no longer require their new line.

                “Cut backs, tightening of belts, a return to household economics etc. etc.- the President had spoken plainly in his radio broadcast. A strategy would be adopted that would insure that major corporations would retain many of their current contracts. Losses would be minimized however there was an expectation that they did their part – personal responsibility etc, etc.”

                But where did he fit in to all this, why him? He turned the key, fired the engine and headed for home.

*

                As he drove down the motorway he rehearsed what he would say to the wife, formulated how to tell her that the vacations were on hold, that the kids’ sports would have to take a back seat. The money they had left was for major expenses only – everything else would have to stop. She’d be devastated, but what could he do?

                Up ahead he saw a group of people stood by the side of the road, the same ones he’d seen earlier at the gas station, the homeless family with the couple of kids. The father stood resolutely by the road, his arm outstretched, his thumb held high. As Jones drove passed them he read the words on the sign – “Going West.”

                He looked in the rear view mirror, saw the faces off the children follow the vehicle as he whizzed past, and then hit the brakes. The gear box whined as he reversed the vehicle to where the small group stood and wound down the window,

                “Thanks for stopping, we really appreciate it,” said the man in the sports jacket.

                “Where you going?” Jones asked.

                “As far as you can take us. We’re heading for the coast, but anywheres west is good with us.”

                “I can take you about fifty miles.”

                “Works for us.”

                “Ok jump in.”

                He unlocked the doors, and the family climbed in, the kids and the woman in the back, the father, after loading their belongings, got in the front. There was a smell of sweat, faeces, unwashed clothes, and dirty bodies. The woman smiled her thanks, the kids grinned excitedly. A good looking family in need of a shower and a hot meal.

                “Thanks again. We’ve been stood here since yesterday. Nobody stops anymore. I think everybody’s scared. It’s not as though homelessness is contagious,” he laughed nervously.

                “You’re welcome,” Jones said. “ Alright buckle up, and let’s get you folks out of here. When’s the last time you guys ate?”

                 They looked embarrassed, “Couple of days ago?” said the woman.

                He indicated, pulled the car into traffic and reached for his phone. “Hi baby, yes, listen I’m coming home early. Do me a favor – I’m bringing some guests home. Yes, just pull something out of the freezer. I know its short notice, but please do as I say.”

                The family looked at him and at each other. “You don’t have to do this, we weren’t begging for charity.”

                “I know.” He looked at the dirty, hungry, unwashed faces – saw the reflections of his own children and wife in the eyes of the family in the back of the car, pictured himself sitting in the passenger seat in a dirty sports jacket.

                “It’s the least I can do,” he said.

Advertisements

L’AMORE

28 Jul

           

 

          He kissed the wife and hugged the kids, same thing he did every morning however, this particular morning with a little more emphasis than usual. He was scheduled to leave on business. He hated these trips. Precious time away from home and family, living in some shitty hotel, sleeping under a duvet soaked in the bodily fluids off the multitudes who’d come before him. Monotonous hum-drum days, where one week rolled into the next – his time filled with warm showers, busy commutes, lonely restaurant dinners and solitary masturbation. 

            He’d undoubtedly missed years of his children’s lives. He’d kept in contact of course via the telephone, made up for his absence with gifts, but it wasn’t the same. The consequence of having to leave for even a couple of months had resulted in huge changes and unshared experiences with his children. Whether it was a lost tooth, a found puppy or a school recital there was so much non-recoupable time. Fifty children playing their recorders badly or singing raucously out of tune with American Idol gusto. It wasn’t the quality of the event that mattered, rather the quality of time missed. 

*

            Over the years his job had become more and more demanding, to the point he was discovering that his life wasn’t his own. Corporate America was banging its greedy fist on the table and what Pharaoh wanted Pharaoh got. Resigned to his position as a perennial pyramid builder he accepted the call and did as he was told. 

            He scoffed at the carrot of career, the very thought sticking in his craw, choking him. 

            Career his arse! 

            Call him what you liked, any title you preferred to give him – group leader, manager, engineer, technician – the unofficial or official capacity of whatever the title du jour was. It really didn’t mean shit. He was well aware that he was no more than a number, a company asset. A mere cipher among a million ciphers who’d about as much say in their lives as flying to the moon. He wasn’t the only one, they were all the same. The dower, ashen-faced, over-worked, over-weight employees, that shuffled in and out of the great money-making-machine on a quotidian rote. All of them adrift in paychecks, company policy, periodic reviews, and corporate expectation. 

            He remembered when he’ given a damn, used his experience and hire-purchase education to conquer every obstacle they’d set before him – climbed the ladders, rattled the chains, gone the extra mile to appease his masters. Of course the dollar amount at the bottom of his check had increased but what had he really achieved? If he left tomorrow would they miss him? Would the machines come to a grinding, oil-less screech? Would the building implode? How many of his colleagues would attend his funeral? He’d thought about that a couple of times. Although he spent more time with them than he did his family, what did they really know about him, or he them? He saw what they wanted him to see, showed them the mask he wished to reveal, but come the witching hour when they left work for dusty suburbs, everybody was simply just another stranger. 

            “When you coming back Daddy,” asked his daughter. 

            “Oh, in a couple of weeks. I won’t be gone for very long,” he replied. 

            “You’re going to miss my birthday,” she said. 

            “Don’t worry honey, I’ll call you.” He heard his own voice, didn’t believe himself, realized how pathetic he was as he watched the tears well in the little girl’s eyes. Her face was enough to make him unpack his suitcase there and then, but this was one trip he had to complete. After all he was doing it for them – all for them. His wife had berated him on his selfishness, how work always seemed to come first, how she and the children had to take second place. Didn’t she understand that he did what he did because of them? That he gave his life to the corporation for the reciprocated family life-style that his servitude generated? Of course she did, she just didn’t want to see him go, didn’t want to lose more of the irreplaceable time they shared together. 

            He picked up the tickets, put the keys in this pocket, and made ready to leave. 

            China, bloody China

             What on earth was so urgent that he had to fly half way around the world? Didn’t they have a billion people? Surely they had somebody who could do the job? Two weeks of rice and stilted conversation. The miscommunication of knee-trembling social intercourse more than lost its shine after a daily struggle with the complexities of the English language. Although, given the positive, it was a travel assignment on his terms. His wife didn’t know it yet, and he hadn’t wanted to break the news. She’d find out soon enough, he’d made sure of that. 

            Things were tough right now what with the economy, the job market and housing values in the toilet. His financial burden had continued to increase – in fact it was the extra that he got from travelling that kept the good-ship-family-Smith afloat. Sure it was leaking like a sieve but they weren’t drowning just yet. He’d consolidated loans, made extra payments, cut the credit cards, and the cable. If there was one thing the crisis had taught him it was to live within his means – a simple lesson in economics that was knocking on ninety percent of America’s front doors. The little bit of money he’d managed to squirrel away went into savings plans and insurance policies, that would hopefully tide them over and keep his family in the manner they were accustomed should the fateful day arrive when they had to fend for themselves. He took one last look around the kitchen, his eyes drawn to the peeling wall paper in the corner that he still hadn’t found time to fix, before picking up his suitcase. 

            They walked him to the door. The kids were excited and jumped up and down, his wife was in tears. It was always the same and it tore shreds from his soul every time he had to do it. His boss had commented on it at his performance reviews, how his colleagues weren’t finding him as affable as he once was, how the sense of humor he’d had always been known for had started to dry up. He could have laughed out loud, what the hell did they expect? If there’s one thing that the job did to you, it was to scour any feelings of concern or empathy. The corporate profit god was voracious – it’s never ending lust for cash insatiable. The pound of flesh it demanded would be extracted no matter what, with no gristle or bone attached. 

            He knew where he was going to do it – he’d been planning it for months. A decision like his wasn’t made lightly. It had to be instantaneous, there was no way he was going to endure the agony of rehabilitation. It was going to be a one shot deal – a definite case of do or die. Down by the airport, where the road curved into the bridge, the huge concrete stanchions that hid the traffic in darkness before excreting them out the other side back into the light. It would be painless, he wouldn’t feel a thing. He’d left the envelope with the details in the bathroom propped behind a gift wrapped bottle of perfume that he’d bought for her. She’d find it soon enough. 

            Final waves – mouthed I-love-yous – then he was gone. 

*

            The speed-limit signs flashed by the window, cars faded into his rear view mirror as he pushed the accelerator ever harder. He saw the needle rise on the speedometer, saw the bridge ahead of him, pulled his hands hard on the steering wheel and ploughed into the unmoving, unfeeling, steel-braced, concrete superstructure. The car folded like a tin can, the windscreen exploding, the fire-flashed brilliance of igniting petrol engulfing the vehicle. The air bag inflated, the radio churned out the usual shite, as man and machine expired together. Problem resolved, no more pain, no more worry, no more bloody travelling. 

            His wife found the gift. 

            She’d finished getting the kids ready and seen them off to school. Sandwiches and projects sorted, the little bundles of joy had been pushed out of the door to a waiting school bus. Waved goodbyes and wind-blown kisses – happy smiling faces, and see you later Moms screamed from behind finger-smeared windows. 

            She’d gone upstairs – time for a shower, a little alone time. She’d miss him, she always did. It was always the first couple of days that were the hardest. She opened the box, undid the ribbon and folded the paper – she could use that for another day.        She saw the bottle, recognizing the brand as her favorite. He was a good man. Sure they had there ups-and-downs, but she’d never loved a man the way she loved him. They were a family in every sense of the word, their relationship cemented – their affection firmly sedimentied over the years. She pressed the copper colored top of the vaporizer, sniffing greedily as a fine mist of perfume burst above her face. 

            She saw the envelope. 

            Putting the bottle back on the counter top she reached for a towel and turned on the radio. She’d shower first and read his letter afterwards – probably one of his soppy goodbyes. 

            Steam filled the bathroom, condensing on the mirror. He was too much. She reached for the soap, she missed him already.

A TALE OF THE EAST

22 Jul

               

 

 “Living in the East End was always a bit different. It was almost like we belonged to a different tribe, one big happy dysfunctional family. Looked down upon by the rest of the snobs in London but funnily enough envied by them at the same time. They know that we’ve got something that no amount of money can buy. No matter how much they push their pseudo working class values and Karl Marx t-shirts they’ll never be one of us. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I wouldn’t like a piece of their pie – money coming out of my arse, big house up on the heath. But that’s not the way it is see, those weren’t the cards I was dealt. Working class scum through and through. No bloody silver spoon in my mouth I can tell you.”

                “Born within the sound of Bow Bells is what officially makes you a cockney but same as most things, there’s a little bit more to it than that. It’s not quite as jolly as the press and the picture postcards would have you believe. The perennially charming, chirpy, crafty-cockney stereotype is a public relations myth. The pearly kings and queens walking around snapping photos with Japanese tourists isn’t who we is. Although nowadays it’s a mystery who we are, given the number of colored faces walking around. It ain’t what it was, when I was a lad.”

                “The East End has always been a transition point for people coming to Britain. If it isn’t the Jews and Huguenots then it’s the Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Greeks and now the bleeding Polish. Bit of a mixing pot you might say. There not like us, but they have some of the same values. Hard working bleeders most of them, running their shops and market stalls for the pittance they need to support their wives kids and extended families, all crammed into the old terrace houses down by White Chapel. Like bloody rats living on top of one and other – struggling for breath in a city that so full, it’s enough to make you choke.”

                “The East End was where they used to unload the boats, where the old textile factories were before the war. Rough area where the spivs used to hang around trying to make a couple of quid off the backs of one another. Salt of the earth is the phrase I believe they use today, although if you knew them, like we knew them, then you’d understand the look of amazement on my face. Hard working folk for sure, but scum to the bone. Rotten through and through, the base level of humanity resigned to the shit jobs that the West End folks and suburban bastards wouldn’t do if their lives depended upon it. A form of social bondage, you might say, doomed to scratch their lives away in the limbo of industrial servitude. Bloody slaves is what they were. Third class citizens that nobody gave a rat’s arse about.  It was the war that made the difference. Ask anybody, they’ll tell you the same thing. If it hadn’t been for Herr Hitler and his bloody bombs we’d never have escaped.”

                “You must have seen the pictures on the news reels, the old black and white flicks of bombed out houses, wives in aprons with kids hanging off them smiling for the cameras. Winston Churchill, the stuck up bastard, walking through the rubble shaking his way through crowds of shell-shocked East Enders. Making political speeches and offering brave words on the top of bombed out houses still filled with the bodies of women and kids. They had no idea what we were suffering what we was going through. It was our heads the bombs were landing on, not there’s. But it did something for us, made us stronger. What is it they say? Forged us in fire, tempered our spirits and turned us into the hardy group that were renowned the world round for. Let’s face it, you can’t say Cockney without thinking of some happy smiling bloke with a fag in one hand and beer in the other. Not like your flat capped northerners with their stoic wall of silence, but jovial, dirty, faces that would do you over soon as look at you. That’s what did it – the war. That’s what made us who we are today. A common experience of suffering that bonded us and shaped east London for the next forty years.”

                “ Now it was us against them, which is the way it had always been, but now we was all on the same team and we knew exactly how to play the game. A feeling of empathy for your fellow cockney, comrades in arms, except we wasn’t fighting the Jerries, we was fighting for our own bleeding survival. Happy days when I look back now, but I wouldn’t want to live them again. No, things have changed and the End isn’t what it was.”

                “ It used to be a sea of familiar faces. Everybody knew everybody and it didn’t matter what they were up to, everybody kept stum. Sign of respect that is, understanding that a man has to work hard to look after his missus and his kiddies. Don’t matter what it is. Whether he’s pulling ropes on barges down by the river or filling his van with stolen merchandise from the same boat it’s understandable. Me, I respect any man that gets out of bed in the morning, who goes to work to support his family. That’s worthy in my book, in fact I would say that was rule number one. Don’t need no book of laws to tell you that. Hard working bloke has enough on his mind without having to worry about people talking behind his back.”

                “Because everybody knew everybody there wasn’t much you could get away with, which meant that you had to treat people right. It’s one thing pulling a job and nicking, but it’s another getting away with it. Don’t get me wrong, thievery has a long history in the End and is as honest a job as any bloke could have. Lot of respect for thieves us cockneys, you see that’s what helped sustain us. Once that stuff came off the boats it soon made its way around the neighborhoods and everybody eventually got a piece of the pie. Almost like a worker’s collective where the money would slowly trickle down into the community. Take care of our own we did, and nobody starved when we were kids.”

                 “Bloody hell, we didn’t have much, and to say we had three squares a day would be a lie. But I’m here to tell the tale today aren’t I? So it must have had some benefit. The black marketeers and thieves were respected figures and there was no way anybody would inform on them. Never tattle on your own kind – words to live by. Doesn’t matter if they have you in a cell down Bow Street nick and their beating seven kinds of shit out of you , you never squeal. Anyways it would come back and bite you if you ever did. Divine retribution I suppose, where you’d find fellas who’d sung like canaries to the rozzers, strung up beneath the railway arches, or beaten to a pulp.”

                “They might have been crooks, what was doing the robbing, but they was our crooks and they lived up to a set of rules the same way we did. Didn’t matter what you stole, so long as you didn’t thieve off your own kind. Steeling from people who have nothing is worse than bloody murder, and bloody murder is what they got if they did. Taking the food out of family’s mouths for their own bloody greed is what got more than a few of the sharp nosed bastards their one way ticket. Examples have to be set, and once you’ve dealt with the idiots everybody can go safely about their daily business. Never locked our front doors we didn’t.  You may have heard about it, but that’s gods honest truth. No need to really as nobody was going to steal from you. Of course there wasn’t anything to pilfer but on the other hand you knew where you stood. No written laws just common knowledge. You was either with, or you wasn’t, and those that wosen’t didn’t hang around too long.”

                “I think sticking together was the main thing, respect for the tribe and all that. Together we were strong, a sense of community, a feeling of unity. It was always us against the world. You couldn’t play both side of the fence and if you did you always fell foul of one faction or another. You had to pick sides and stick with that team. No point in switching half way through the match just ‘cos you thought the grass was a little greener on the other side of the fence. You is what you is, and you are what you are. You remain faithful to the group, and the group remains faithful to you. Dead simple really. Don’t need a degree or something to work that out, do you now?”

                “I remember when I was a nipper, running packages for Irish John. I was only a kid but that’s what got me passed the filth, they’d never have suspected a half starved urchin like meself. Had to make a delivery down the Mile End Road to a bloke called Brown. We was always helping out. Whether we was watching out for the coppers, running packages, or taking messages, we were always busy. As children it was a bit of a game, a game that we became very good at. Sort of a school for scandal where the lessons for later life where learnt at the knees of the hooks and sharks that was doing the business.”

                “They was always dressed nice. They had the flash motors and always some dolly-bird on their arm. They treated us well, and we loved them for it. Role models for all of us, father figures for the dads that never came back from France and Germany or the bastards that had run off and left our mums after getting them up the duff. People call them gangsters now, but they wasn’t, they was bleeding heroes. Cold calculating businessmen is what they were, men who wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in any scum that stepped out of line. I remember banging on the door and Irish John being inside. There was some fella lying on the floor with blood streaming down his face moaning to himself and sobbing. John had a couple of his boys standing over him who’d clearly given him what for.”

                “See that Billy,” he said. “That’s a nark, that’s a bleeding canary turned on his own kind. Don’t do that round here do we? What would the world come to if we didn’t have rules and order?”

                “ I remember staring up at him, too scared to talk. He took the box out of my hands and unwrapped it in front of me. A black, gleaming revolver, the types the officers wore on their belts.”

                “Now Billy, lad let this be a lesson to you. Eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth, this bastard deserves what he’s going to get.”

                “The pistol exploded, the sound of the shot deafening inside the small front room of the tenement. The man on the floor lay dead, his brains splattered all over the fire guard, the sobbing  stopped. Irish put the pistol in the box and gave it back to me.”

                 “Take it back where you got it from Billy and remember,” he put his finger to his lips.

                “He didn’t have to worry about that though, the lessons we’d learned, and the community we lived in, had already taught me that. Nice bloke was Irish, although I hear that years later they hung him for something he hadn’t done. Always get there way in the end do the rozzers. If they can’t get you for what you did, they does you for something else. No bleeding loyalty that’s their problem. No respect for community justice.”

                “It’s all changed now though, it isn’t like what it was. No bloody community. No respect for nothing. No looking after the sick and the elderly. Now it’s everybody for themselves. Screw you jack so long as I’m okay. Most of the old faces have moved out of the neighborhood and the bomb sites we used to play on have long since been cleared up. But something remains, the same the lessons we learned as kids have served me well over the years. The trust and faith placed in my fellow cockney is something that will never die.”

                “That’s the problem with the world today, they have nothing to stand up for, nothing to call our own, no tribal loyalties. No better lesson than a thick ear and a growling belly. That’s what these soft bastards need is a bit of toughening up. Best thing that could happen in my opinion would be for Adolf and his bloody Luftwaffe to drop a few bombs around the country. That’d make the buggers realize how bleeding lucky they were. That would stop their bloody whining.”

                “What we needs is a little collectivism, a little shared hardship. Fellowship through common suffering and circumstance. Although you tell kids that, and they look at you funny. Everybody’s looking for a quick fix, but there’s nothing like living the reality to make one appreciate ones friends and family – but what the hell would I know? I’m just an old man who’s been there and lived it. Why would anybody listen to me?”

FAUX – GRAS

21 Jul

      

 

  Dinner had been delicious, he’d eaten down at Satrianos in the Italian district near Canal Street. Jake had tried most of the restaurants in the area, but their veal and pork meatballs were to die for. The area had the ambience of old world Europe, something that had been cleverly crafted for the tourist trade. Little Italy had once covered four city blocks but now consisted of one end of Mott street, rubbing shoulders with its unlikely neighbor, China Town. Kung-Pao chicken and fried noodles versus Ziti and Chicken-Parm – a cold war relationship of culinary conflict. An uncomfortable symbiosis of two separate cultures forced to coexist in the arm pit of Manhattan, although perfect for an errant gourmet like himself. All those restaurants in one easily accessible location made for a target ,as well as a calorie rich environment. 

        He burped, tasted scaloppini, and licked his lips in delicious remembrance. A splash of gravy hung conspicuously like a military decoration, or lifetime achievement award, from his open necked shirt. Not cutting quite the figure he had earlier in the evening, he was now perspiring heavily – sweat rolling down his body, as he lurched towards the subway station. Tonight had been another unmitigated success, his prowess was unequaled. 

        Fuck! Three flights of stairs, the ticket counter and the embarrassment of not being able to get through the turnstile. The unnecessary attention that would be drawn to him, as city workers were obliged to open easy access gates. Then the wait, the stares, before the arrival of the train and the twenty-two stops back to Brooklyn Heights. He larded himself into the subway, clinging tightly to the railing. He heard the curses of passersby who attempted to squeeze around him on the stair well – the looks, the laughs, the comments. He heard and saw them all. Just because he was fat didn’t mean he was deaf or blind. 

        He hadn’t always been three hundred and sixty pounds of heaving flesh. In his youth he’d been a football star playing blocking tackle for his high school team, The Spartans. His size back then had come in handy – his contemporaries considering him butch and masculine. Kids would slap him on the back, tell him he’d done a great job – girls had shouted his name from the sidelines. 

        Nowadays, not so much. 

        It wasn’t till the car accident, followed by the steroids and months of recuperation that the weight had started to creep on. Sure he’d fought back with everything from Atkins to abstinence, but now what was the point? 

        Screw it and screw them! 

        He was what he was. Like it or lump it. Gaining weight had actually been a welcome release as he no longer had to keep up the pretense of dieting. Even if he lost twenty or thirty pounds, who would truly notice the difference? Yes, of course he would know, and yes this would help with what dieticians loved to call will power and self-esteem, but who would really care, what was the fucking point? Gone were the salads and apples in the canteen, with his ever watchful, reproachful colleagues, and hello to the welcoming embrace of his refrigerator-emptying holocaust when hidden from prying eyes. 

        He saw their stares, the way they looked at him when they thought that he wasn’t. The gestures, the nods, the knowing looks – he caught it all. He even heard what they were thinking. Just because he was fat didn’t mean that he didn’t have to eat. Like them his body needed nourishment on a daily basis. It wasn’t as though he could just break down the layers of oozing fat, metabolize his gut and consume himself. The worst were those hypocrites who were already large and yet spoke to him as though he was the one with the problem. Didn’t they ever look in the mirror at home? Didn’t they wonder when their genitals and knees had been replaced by red-rashed skin, doubling stomachs and overloaded thighs?

* 

        Tonight had been a rush – he’d managed to pull it off yet again. Another new restaurant had swallowed the bait. That was the beauty of the Big Apple there were so many different places to choose from. 

        He felt the tug and suck of wind as the train exited the tunnel coming to a spark-throwing stop at the platform. The doors opened and he watched the mad scramble as passengers fought their way out of the carriage. The train going down town was always full, however there was always more room on the up-town train. He liked the bench seats by the door as he could easily shuffle on to these, spreading his state-sized arse over two or three cushions. 

         The doors shut, the train moved, the carriages entered the tunnel. The pitch blackness acted like a mirror on the glass, the stark lighting of the interior reflecting his image. It wasn’t pretty. Staring back at him was a thirty-five year old ball of mush. A man who should have been in his prime and yet who was nearly breaking the four hundred pound barrier. He had it all, back ache, knee strain, constipation, hemorrhoids. He was a walking medical wonder and encyclopedia of human malfunction. He took the pills but ignored the doctor’s advice. Life was pretty shitty as it was, but to imagine it without food was unthinkable. 

* 

        Gone were the days of cheap chocolate, gallon cartons of ice-cream and jars of peanut butter spread thickly over Oreo cookies. No longer the boxes of cereal washed down with gallons of milk. His gargantuan appetite had taken him to greater heights. If he was going to eat, he was going to eat the best. If he was creating fat then he was determined to generate Royal Jelly. 

        Once he’d taken his addiction to the local pushers and hoods that lived in his neighborhood to get his daily fix, attempting to scratch the never ending itch. The pimps and pushers were well known. The southern bearded gentleman flaunting his fantastic Kentucky gold, who resided on the corner of every other block. Or the King on the opposite side of the street who tempted young children with his indoor playground and his free samples of flame broiled ecstasy. The worst was the clown. His golden arches spread all over the city, like yawning bosoms, pumping out the warm, slick smell of fry oil and burger grease. 

        His in particular was a high crime neighborhood. Product could be had at any hour, of any day, complete with easy drive-through access. He’d watched as cop cars had pulled up outside heavy push zones, had seen protectors and servers with illicit merchandise in their hands. Didn’t they understand that the people of New York needed their protection? Was there no caped-crusader to champion their cause and fight these hamburglars of death? He saw it happen every day from his mother’s bedroom window. The young addicts with their free balloons and made-up faces. Hoards of miniature clowns running around laughing, unsuspecting, whilst the devil, dressed in red and yellow stripes sat cross legged in oversized shoes, eyeing up the latest batch of doomed youth. 

        The first sample was always free – it was all those other moments of weakness where the money would be made. A pound of flesh was not the price exacted, rather the result in the quixotic world of fast-food syndication. 

        Sure heroine was still pushed and X could still be found, but it was the insidious nature of fast-food that had permeated all levels of society.Church days paid for by pizza joints. School literacy sponsored by fries and chicken nuggets. Diabetes driven to school playgrounds in Wiener-mobiles or in the black-and-white eat-more-chicken trucks. 

        There was no escape. 

        He understood, witnessed and bowed down to neon-indoctrination, worshiped at the altar of calorific excess, celebrated the polytheism of grease. Who was he to deny his cravings? He was sick, it was a disease, it was something he had inherited from his average sized parents. People who had grown up with smaller plates, regular cup sizes, home cooked meals and the joy of the fresh air. He wasn’t to blame – it was society- the pushers. 

        Somebody needed to do something. 

Time had marched on, his anger turning to acceptance, disgust to complacency. If he was going to eat then he was going to eat the best. He had exhausted his savings on the delicacies of caviar and aged steak. Drank his way through golden vintages, raped buffets, taking more from them than they could ever have taken from him. But savings had run dry, credit cards morphed into pieces of plastic. There wasn’t any more money. Social security and disability were forcing him back to the pushers but being the stubborn bastard that he was, he wasn’t ready to end his crusade of cuisine. 

        No longer being able to work because of his size meant that he had to give up his apartment and move back in with his mother. It wasn’t ideal but she was getting on in years and glad of the company, although the quality of company was debatable – quantity never having been a measure of quality. She’d turned the formal room into a bedroom, the stairs were just too much to navigate, and placed the mattress on the ground so that he wouldn’t have to endure the Himalayan climb. Luckily the shower was next door and he could use that. The house had been built back in the fifties and wasn’t designed for the size of the new millennium. Population growth had taken on a whole new meaning and Malthusian studies would have been corrupted by the present increase in world population – albeit in size rather than in cipher. 

        He would stand with half his body in the shower and half out, first washing one side then the other. He’d heard every crude jokes about cleaning yourself after using the bathroom and he’d often wondered what the mystery was? It was simple enough. You shit before you showered and then undid the nozzle and pushed the hose between your cheeks. Why deal with paper? Good god, hadn’t the French developed the bidet for this very purpose! Sure it was an exercise in exertion but a necessary evil if one was going to live the lifestyle. He’d found that by powdering his body after showering the perspiration could be held back, like a Dutch dyke holding back a tsunami. He looked in the corner and stared at the unused scales which only registered weight below two hundred pounds. He smiled wryly, he was in a different league. Now he was definitely playing with the big boys. 

* 

        The scam was simple. He called ahead to the restaurant. It always seemed to impress if he made a reservation, something which implied intent. Then he made an entrance at the appointed time, making sure to assume and air of natural authority and easy confidence. There was something about a fat man in a well-fitting designer suit which screamed gourmet rather than glutton. Small talk with the waiter – a shared knowledge of food adding to the trust, and then a brief interlude with the sommelier for a discussion on Sonoman reds and a verbal comparison of the new-world wines from Australia and South Africa. The glad smiles and shared knowledge created a common ground, an intimacy, a feeling of brotherhood. No longer was there a fat man sitting at table number twelve, but a gentleman, a man of taste, an initiate of the culinary craft. Trust had been established, bridges built, foundations laid. The food treaty had been signed all that remained now was to tear it up into little pieces and set it on fire. 

        There were several methods of attack and he’d perfected them all. From the classic to the mundane, he was a past-master, his methodology erudite in its execution. First he’d enjoy the hors d’oeuvres, accompanied perhaps by a bottle or two of the wine-waiters recommendation and then towards the last mouthfuls of the main course he’d pretend to choke. 

        An act worthy of an Oscar, he’d been an inspiration and shining light to all who had taken the Hymlic-course in the hope they’d never have to use it. He would begin with a gut wrenching cough, followed by a fountain of gargled phlegm, his arms gesticulating wildly in the air followed by meat- greased hands clutching at his throat. He’d watch his fellow diners staring at him, trying to decide whether they should dash from first dates, abandoning expensive dinners and come to his assistance. Sometimes it was full minute before anybody reacted, but nearly always within thirty seconds there was the arrival of some do-gooder to spin him around, no easy task, and pump on his chest. It was almost an erotic experience with a stranger thrusting their crotch into his back as they tried to gain purchase on his formidable chest. He would cough, not immediately, and food would fly across the table to resounding restaurant applause. He’d hear the murmurs of hushed concern and anticipate the arrival of the frightened restaurant manager or head waiter. 

        “Was Monsieur ok, and did sir require an ambulance?” Naturally the meal was on them, and they hoped all would be well. “Please come again and accept our apologies,” before slowly, but politely pushing him out of the door with grudging smiles of contrition and concern. As the door closed to the restaurant and he stood there in the cold night air he’d watch the restaurant return to the oasis of dining excellence it had been before his near death experience. He would keep his shambling, disheveled act up until the first street corner, and then break into a broad smile and laugh out loud as he thought how he’d duped them again. The calamari had been terrific, the bottle of Chianti above expectation and the half eaten veal scaloppini delicious. He’d been loath to go into choke mode, as the beans-haricot had been exceptionally fine. But it was all part of the game and the following evening he would trundle his way to the next restaurant and complete the process. It never failed, and he never paid. 

        It hadn’t come easy though, he’d broken his teeth on inept attempts at feigning forgotten wallets, or eaten half his food and then complained that there was something wrong. A myriad excuses – nervous protestations that the milk was off, the wine was bitter, the steak too gamey. This had achieved limited satisfactory results that invariably ended with replenishment of whatever the offending article was, and ultimately a payment. 

        The trick was to stay away from the cheap restaurants. He didn’t go where the tourists ate as the wait-staff had seen it all before and were wary of freeloading half-steak-eaters. The best thing was to patronize the unaffordable restaurants, the eateries of the rich and famous, the exclusive haunts in the theatre district. Here he was an apex hunter – the thrill of the hunt, the chase and the kill. The exhilaration of being carried outside and placed in an ambulance, before being driven to a local hospital where he would invariably escape via a taxi or the ubiquitous subway. The city was his. Access to the dining table of the rich and famous open exclusively to him – his palate massaged with the finest that his money didn’t buy. 

        Tonight would be no exception. Tonight it was Grimaldies, the new steak house on the Upper East Side. A mix fusion of northern and southern French flavors with a hint of Mediterranean thrown in – at least that’s what the write-up said. 

Reservations recommeneded. Dress appropriately. Dinner from five-thirty to ten-thirty. 

        He checked himself in the mirror. His dark suit struggled to hide his girth and the striped tie wrapped around his thick neck vainly attempted to narrow his gut as it cascaded down his shirtfront like a waterfall – crashing down the ripple of his stomachs, pointing like an arrow to that which he hadn’t seen in a very long time. 

        His shoes were shone, his cufflinks gleamed, and his tie pin was positioned perfectly. He carried a boss of keys with a Mercedes logo and his Lagerfeld pocket piece popped up from his breast pocket. He was every inch the well to do, self-made man. Clearly a man of substance and standing – someone who personified money. He was every waiter’s wet-dream, a show piece for any restaurant, that any owner would be proud to have. He would undoubtedly be seated in prominence as the owner embellished his premises with its well-heeled clientele. Pride as well as greed was numbered in the seven deadly sins and tonight one of the guilty would pay. 

* 

His mother had driven him to the station where he’d caught the subway Downtown. Arriving at the restaurant a couple of minutes late, he’d smiled to himself as he watched the hostess, through the glass, checking her wrist watch, staring at the reservations in her book. He loved this moment, he was in total control. 

        The little black dress in too high heels greeted him warmly as he pushed his way through the door. As if welcoming a long lost lover, the girl’s smile spread across her face, revealing perfect teeth. The affected welcome, the ingratiating hug, the whiff of perfume, embellished the moment as she took him by the hand and led him to his table. Like a reviewing five-star general he passed through the column of pristine dinner-jacketed waiters before being seated for all to see and admire. His moment in the sun – the white table cloth foiling his worth. 

        He glanced around the restaurant, undressing the women with his eyes. Dragging them out of their Prada dresses and leaving them exposed in their lingerie and pearls. He could smell their expensive perfume and felt the familiar twitch of arousal that accompanied the occasion. Of course he was there for the food, however the sexual energy released by the power he wielded was intoxicating and he enjoyed every second of it. The expensive foods, the fine wines, the gorgeous dinner partners, the lavish surroundings and of course the fawning attention. Not bad for a man without a penny to his name. 

        Let the games begin, let the buyer beware and let every man, woman, child fend for themselves. It was on. The bell at the side of the ring belted out the first round as the girl in the swim-suit climbed through the ropes with her enlarged sign to proclaim the first round. 

        “Good evening sir. Is this your first time at Grimaldies? Asked a serious looking waiter.

        “Yes it is. I’ve heard a lot of good things. Thought I would try you out for myself.” Jake said. 

        The usual cards were played, the old jokes made. There were no specials, everything was special. “Would Monsignor care for a drink or like to see the wine card.” 

        He opted for a stiff brandy and the wine card. No pressure, everything at his own pace, after all he was the ring master. It was his show and it would run to his time table. He wasn’t going be rushed. Didn’t they know who he was? He glanced back at the front desk and fired off his most expensive smile at the hostess. She coyly waved back. She knew money when she saw it and was clearly a participant in a game all off her own. Why should he feel bad? It was dog eat dog. Although he’d never tried that particular dish, in a city there was no first place for nice guys, it was fuck or be fucked. 

        The candle light bounced around the room and the waiter returned with the leather bound listings. They had them all. California, Argentinian, South African, even champagne from England. He’d read something about the ground in the South West of Britain being geologically linked with the Champagne region of northern France in one of the connoisseur magazines in his doctor’s waiting room. 

        “I bet that pissed the frogs off,” he thought. English champagne it was. “Yes, please another bottle.” 

        “For starters? Oh the pate, and the frog legs and possibly some goat cheese. Yes, I know it’s a lot, but I’d like to try a little of everything.” 

        “Perfect Monsieur we will have this directly. Would Monsieur care to order perhaps ? Not just yet?” 

        He had to play the time card. No point rushing what was shaping up to be, probably one of his best experiences to date. He wanted the foreplay. This wasn’t going to be a knee-trembler this was going to be gratuitous, name screaming, back scratching, sheet braiding ecstasy. Bring it on! 

The dishes arrived. 

        As he powered his way through dish after dish he couldn’t help but notice a couple of the waiters with their heads together looking in his direction. He looked up and they quickly looked away. Probably nothing as he was once again lunged into the succulenve before him. The pristine table cloth was awash in slivered cutlery and cristaled glass. An altar to excess, where the sacrificial lamb had been marinated in red wine and doused in fine spice. Spittle rolled down his chin, his eyes ablaze with the taste and texture of the food. 

        “Is everything to your liking Monsieur?” Asked the waiter. 

        He showed his teeth and grunted. “Bloody fantastic. My compliments to the chef.” The waiter nodded and strode away, leaving his guest to the delights of his dish.

        The time was nearly upon him, zero-hour was fast approaching, he’d reached the point in the meal where his distraction had to be performed – where he simulated gastro-repugnance and lavishly bowed out. Bringing  down the culinary curtain to the applaused ovation of inner satisfaction. He slurped at his glass one more time and dabbed his chin with his napkin. 

* 

        The other diners looked up from their plates, horrified as the rasping choke of a man struggling for breath bounced of polished glass and expensive drapes, towards where he’d started his one-man performance. A loud guttural gasp, he’d found, was always a good way to begin quickly followed by a heavy, sweating, panting, hunting for air – as if each gasp were his last. He fumbled with his top button and struggled with his jacket. His face was wide with faux fear and he sought to lock eyes with somebody, anybody, who might come to his assistance. Time was off the essence. The sooner they noticed his distress the sooner he’d be outside. It never failed. A few grunts and gasps followed by a little corporal intervention and he’d be walking off his free dinner in the cool night air. 

        A waiter stepped up to the table. Jake supplicated with his hands, gestured to his throat, and beseeched him for help, but the waiter stood his ground. He didn’t understand. What was going on? By now several English second-language speakers should be manhandling him, trying to save him from center-cut asphyxiation. 

        Another waiter came to the table and then another. Jake could see the flashing lights of the ambulance reflected in the restaurant window and noticed the hostess replacing the hand set of the telephone. Help was at hand, he was minutes from salvation, and yet nobody reached out to help him. 

        He was struggling to maintain his act and his short sharp gasps were becoming more labored. Nobody moved and the waiters continued to stare. He pleaded with his eyes, but the waiters ignored him. He saw one of the other guests get up from his seat, only to be urged to reseat himself by one of the bus boys. 

        Suddenly it dawned on Jake – they were on to him. He didn’t understand, he’d never eaten here before and it’d been some time since he’d eaten on the Upper East Side. Still there was something afoot. Unable to keep up the act he placed both hands on the table and looked up at his accusers. 

        The head waiter pushed his way through the ring of disconcern and placed a leather bound case in front of Jake. “Perhaps Monsieur would like to pay now? Perhaps Monsieur remembers me? Before I worked at Grimaldis I was a waiter in Little Italy. It’s always a great honor to welcome back such a distinguished and generous guest.” 

        Jake stared at the man not recognizing him. He looked passed the waiter and saw the police officers standing at the restaurant door talking to the hostess. The ambulance lights he’d seen on the window where obviously from the patrol car that even now was waiting to escort him away from the restaurant. The dance was up, the race was run, he understood perfectly what had happened. He’d pushed his luck a little too far and an employee from a former victim of his had clearly recognized him. He reached for the wine glass and looked his accuser in the eye. 

        “Could I possibly see a desert menu?” He asked casually. 

        The head waiter physically flinched as if he’d been hit on the nose and gestured to the police officers who started to walk towards the table. 

        Jake felt their hands reach beneath his arms, heard their heavy labored breathing as they struggled to lift him up from his chair. 

        Jake resigned himself to his fate. He could go without dessert. It wouldn’t kill him to lose a few pounds. Now was as good a time as any to start on the diet!  

HOME – AT THE FRONT PORCH REVIEW.COM

13 Jul

HOME

 

Glen Phillips has once again been kind enough to publish one of my pieces.

Home is a particularly beautiful and thoughtful piece inspired by the haunting music of Adele. After listening to her song HOME TOWN GLORY, I was forced to put pen to paper.

Enjoy..

http://frontporchrvw.com/issue/july-2011/section/essays1

***

Greetings, 

The July issue of Front Porch Review is now available for your summer reading pleasure. I believe you will find it provocative and worthy of your time. As always, alert others to its existence; in these days of social networking, this publication is certainly something to talk about. 

To access Front Porch Review: http://www.frontporchrvw.com 

Thank you for reading this magazine and for any comments you wish to make.
Regards, 

Glen Phillips
Publisher
ghphillips66@sbcglobal.net