The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Drifters

Insomnia, restlessness, and poetic triumphs of free association

By Louis Black, February 10, 2012, Columns

Calm is not a dialect I'm familiar with. Slow and steady are two options with which I'm never presented. I'm hysterical and scattered. I'm jammed forward and shoved back. South by Southwest is straight ahead. I have a heavy plastic boot on my foot. I feel tied down, slowed down, and lost. I'm discombobulated.

The phone rings. It's Super Bowl Sunday. Checking the caller ID, I recognize the New Hampshire number. My friend Greg is calling.

I'm thinking back to my immediate postcollege days, four decades back. After college back then, there were some who went right on to graduate school, while others graduated into the workforce. Greg went to work on the railroad.

Talking to Greg ups the ante, gets me in the mood, helps me focus on the mundane madness after months of rehab with my foot in this boot, like a medieval punishment.

Greg doesn't say hello as much as he explodes into conversation. Knowing my meager attention span, from the beginning he is determined to get as many words into the conversation as he possibly can. His rants are poetic triumphs of free association, this time out about the health of our old pal Judy; how he doesn't care about the Super Bowl; stories of GG Allin's mom from Greg's wife, Edie, who once worked with her; references to Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, the Rolling Stones, World War II, Barry and the Remains, New Hampshire folklore, the American band Kaleidoscope (not to be confused with the similarly named British band), Sam & Dave, AM radio – a passionately stirred brew that is word-rich, with little care paid to details.

Better-read and smarter than most, Greg inspired a lot of interesting speculation about what he was going to do after college. It was a time when lots of people drifted; others moved to places like Detroit, where they got assembly-line jobs as part of an effort to join unions and radicalize the working class.

In slow motion, I drifted. Greg went to work.

His father was a pharmacist. He joined the railroad – not as an executive but laying track.

One night, years and years later, Fred and I went to visit Greg. He was away from his home in New Hampshire, working on the railroad somewhere in Massachusetts. He was staying at a campsite. The upper half of his body was Popeye-muscled, seeming almost unreal. He plunged into a sentence as though continuing some thread of thought from the last time we saw him. They were real working-class anecdotes related by a man with a world-class education, a true connoisseur of unique observations of a titled world and with completely unusual cultural connections. Made by someone looking like Popeye. With ferocious upper-body strength.

Greg dares you to keep up. No one I know shares his range of references. For decades, he worked on the railroad. Now he is retired with disabilities. He spends his days mustering his vocabulary – preparing poetic, overcharged word barrages, getting the rhythms right, amping up the speeds.

I'm flying sideways. I can't focus. I can't concentrate. People tell me to focus as one might insist to a blind person that he open his eyes and see. I try to sleep. It is only 8pm. I try to sleep. It is only 8:30pm.

I'm dreaming of Greg. Of Judy illuminated by light; of Philpot, diabolical and obsessed; of Bob-O drunk, building houses; of Greg's wife-to-be, Edie, whom he has just met, being more than lovely; of all of us getting chased off of the beach by the Cape Cod cops in the middle of winter when we tried to stay overnight.

It is 1969. In Boston, the revolution is ongoing. In Boston, there really is no revolution. I think I rode a bicycle. I think I wore a blanket. I think I made a pass at Edie.

Of the words and ideas tumbling in Greg's mind as though they are in a dryer, pushing at great speeds out his mouth. There are points to be made. I want to kayak in the slipstream of Greg's roaring thoughts, like just-melted snow rivers rip-racing down the side of mountains.

It is 9pm. I can't sleep. I can't stay awake. It is 9:30pm.

Tonight I am lost with no hope of being found.

Calm, cool, and collected are foreign insults to me. They are languages Greg would not deign to learn. Instead, he would burst forth like a swimmer breaking the surface of a just-unfrozen lake – but instead of sucking in breath, offering outbursts of words.

It is 10pm, 11pm, neither sleeping nor awake, while wishing I was swimming through just such a sea of words, I drift to sleep.

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