Portland OR 97293)One time, just outside of Acapulco, in the town of La Cula, I stopped at a little outdoor café, one of those nameless Mexican diners with one single long naked fluorescent light bulb overhead, a counter made from cement, wobbly stools from the 1930s, and two ladies (one old, one young) slapping tortillas. I asked for "frijoles charros." When they came, the beans were perfect, not too hard, not too smushy, with a thin tasty broth, garlic and a green herb. The tortillas were as thick as pancakes, made with dark maize, that slightly sweet warm bitter fleshy flavor that we tortilla-lovers recognize as The Best.When, years later, I went back to La Cula they had plowed down the café (and the acacia trees around it) to put up a twelve-story condominium for the gringos, but, since then, I always have had a warm spot for the town and every time I go through it, I think of the perfect tortilla and bean dish they cooked up for me in 1995.Evidently Bill Brown has the same set. Unlike everyone else, for instance, he thinks that Phoenix is the nuts and hates Tucson. Why?
Because of "Veggie Fun," right next door to "Fun Tan" in a Phoenix shopping mall. There you can get Vegan Shrimp Puffs --- "little balls of deep-fried dough filled with pink tofu cream cheese."
After you eat, the guy gives you a complimentary cup of vegan vanilla soft-serve ice-cream. That's when I find myself falling in love with Phoenix --- freeways and strip malls and golf courses and all --- and feeling grumpy about Tucson, where no one ever offers you a complimentary cup of anything.
This paean to Phoenix leads Brown into a riff about joy (or a lack of it). "While I eat my ice cream, I think about happiness, how it's always temporary and unpredictable, and how most of the time, you don't even recognize it till later, when you're far away from it."
Sadness sticks around. It's like your most reliable friend. You can be yourself around sadness. It'll drive across country with you and it won't complain if the food is bad or the motel has roaches. But happiness is a different story. It's always ditching you. Leaving you stuck with the bill. There's no one you'd rather spend your time with, and happiness knows it.
You could call this a travel book but as I went through it, I thought of it as a chance to go around the United States and into the depths of England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia with a scintillating companion. Brown is one of those travelers who will put up with anything: being a sponge on friends, being ashamed of being a sponge on friends, waiting for Amtrak (five hours late), riding a freight barge from Detroit to Canada, living in seedy noisome hotels, motels, and cars. He is endlessly quotable:
- In Zagreb, he checks into a 3-star hotel. "Hotels are given stars for the number of stains on the carpet."
A 5-star hotel is really something: a baroque cathedral of stains. The Hotel Astoria isn't world-class, but it's respectable. There are stains on the shag carpet, and since the walls are also carpeted, there are stains on the walls too.
- In Toledo (Ohio, not Spain), he sees the "Great Lakes Cold Storage." He decides that's where old hours are kept.
1 am's like this one. Hours that are useful for just 60 minutes and then become obsolete. They're crated up and stacked in cold storage warehouses in cities that have seen better days.
- In Carlsbad (California, not Germany), he sleeps in his car, in the Denny's parking lot. After he gets up and goes in, the waitress, "a surfer girl," asks him if he's the guy "who delivers the newspapers to the boxes out front." "I almost tell her no, I'm the guy who sleeps in the parking lot all night."
Outside, the sky is just beginning to brighten. At some point, it's hard to say exactly when, Saturday night stops and Sunday morning begins.
- In Germany, he finds you have to pay to use the bathrooms, even to urinate. "At the Friedrichstrasse train station in Berlin, for instance, a pee costs 80 cents. That's when you start thinking about matters of quality."
You ask yourself if you last pee was really worth 80 cents, and you start feeling jealous of people with big bladders who are getting much better for their money than you are.
Dream Whip No. 14 is an odd duck. It's a fat square volume, written by hand, in capital letters, the way I started writing when no one could read my child scribbles. It is another of these self-published (or nearly self-published books) that fill the mail box so that you want to scream. But this one catches you right off. It has a gentle air about it, a slightly worn, existential feel of toleration for all the pains of travel, telling us of one who is self-sufficient, is willing to hang out in places no other travel writer would dare to go to.
And then, when Brown finally gets to someplace like Vienna that everyone else loves, he notices that it is dead, and that the delicious thick black coffee probably bubbles up from underground, but it doesn't add any life to the place. It is, apparently, worse than Phoenix, or Toledo, or even ridiculous Carlsbad, California.
This is a travelogue by one who goes about moving about the way you and I did when we first set out to wander the world. He's obviously a man of wit, one who is mildly curious about why, for instance, a German, on a train, will say nothing to you for five hours, you and he knee-to-knee, and then when he gets up to leave, will turn and say to you, "Tschuss."
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A couple of days ago, we e-mailed Microcosm:
We want to review "Dream Whip #14" but we aren't so sure if there is also a "Dream Whip #16" or even a "Dream Whip #2." If so, are they all by Bill Brown or are there other writers involved?--- Lolita Lark
We got this response:
thanks for writing, and big thanks for reviewing #14.
there are 14 issues of "dream whip." 14 is the latest. they're all written by me, alas.
here's a little info about the latest 2 or 3 issues:
http://www.microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/artist/bill_brown/--- Bill Brown
To Have and
Will Patton, Reader
Five Disks)Forget it after Harry Morgan gets plugged in the bodega, at the end of disk three. Stick with the first twelve chapters --- sullen, tough monosyllabic Harry, sneering about "chinks" and "niggers" and "conchs," smuggling liquor or people to or from Havana, lying in hiding just outside Key West with Wesley who complains about getting shot in the leg; Harry himself shot in the arm, but he's stoic: we don't find out about it before he gets carted off to the hospital to have it chopped off. Harry finally gets in a shooting brawl there in the middle of the Gulf stream, in a thirty-four-foot cruiser, making yet another mistake, one that does him in. You might call Harry a loser, a failure at whatever it is he wants to do. The most he says to his three children is "shut up." The only success: he thrills his wife with, urk, what she lovingly calls "the flipper."
But the first twelve chapters are pure Hemingway gold. Little description. People talking tough one-liners. "Shut up." "Listen." "To hell with revolutions." "No." "Maybe." "I'll see." "I dunno." Tension built into the dialogue, the plot. There's a gang war out on the street in the first chapter, next to the bar where Harry is having his first drink of the day. And always there's that terse, laconic, violence-ridden back-and-forth between Harry and Winston, Harry and the barkeep, Harry and the Cubans, Harry and "the rummy."I tell you, he's as good as Philip Marlowe. All those snotty one-liners that you and I wanted to bark out of the sides of our mouths back when we thought that tough-talk would thrill the ladies. "Shut up." "Leave me alone." "No." "I said 'no.'" "You think that's funny, don't you?"
They say that the bifurcation in To Have and Have Not came about because Hemingway had promised 300,000 words to his publisher and only had 150,000 so he whipped out the last in a couple of weeks, had to make Harry disappear until the last chapter, when everything falls apart. Great loss for the reader.
But ... I tell you ... before Harry gets popped, it's a wonderful run. I think about Harry and Wesley involved in their endless funny circular dialogue there in the shot-up boat stuck in the swamp, Wesley complaining "You treat a man no better than a dog." And Harry thinking he should kill him or maybe not, because Wesley was a "good old nigger."
"Why didn't we stop when they started shooting?"
The man did not answer.
"Ain't a man's life worth more than a load of liquor?"
The man went on with his steering.
"No," the man said. "They take the liquor and the boat and you go to jail."
"I don't mind jail," the nigger said. "But I never wanted to get shot."
He was getting on the man's nerves now and the man was becoming tired of hearing him talk.
"Who the hell's shot worse?" he asked him. "You or me?"
"You're shot worse," the nigger said. "But I ain't never been shot. I didn't figure to get shot. I ain't paid to get shot. I don't want to be shot."
"Take it easy, Wesley," the man told him. "It don't do you any good to talk like that."
I know ... it sounds crude and 1930's, but the writing here is a play about surviving the Depression: Our Town with sneers, a low class, rum-running, gun-toting Arsenic and Old Lace. Hemingway, when he was good, was very good ... no, he was the best.
And, later, you find old Harry getting under your skin. He's shot worse --- in the belly --- and you don't want him to die, him rolling around in the blood in the boat that has been trashed by the gunfight, one gringo against four Cubans ... blood everywhere, the boat circling lifeless at sea, shot up, the smell of gasoline, the bullet in Harry's belly, and he's getting colder and colder, and we know this might be the end, as we wait for another dozen or so long chapters, filled with such crap (as Harry himself would say), waiting to find out if our tough one-armed hero --- the one who figured out how to use a shotgun --- he's got only one arm, he uses a canvas sling --- will survive.
When the Coast Guard finally finds him, hauling him and his belly wound back to Key West, they ask him, "Who did it, Harry?" He won't say, of course. He mutters, "One man alone ain't got. No man alone now." He stopped. "No matter how a man alone ain't got no bloody fucking chance."
He shut his eyes, Hemingway writes. Then: It had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken him all of his life to learn it.
The reading by Will Patton is superb.--- Henry CarpenterGimpel
(And Other Stories)
Isaac Bashevis Singer
(Audio Partners ---
Two Disks)We've spoken before of our great affection for Isaac Bashevis Singer. He is the storyteller. His characters are neither great nor awful. Wait, his characters are both great and awful.
One of the most famous of his stories is "Gimpel the Fool," but it is not the best here, for Gimpel is just too much the fool, loses our credulity (can one be such a fool; especially one who, after being lied to for forty years, says "There are no lies?")
No, the ones here to listen to are "The Spinoza of Market Street" and "The Black Wedding." "Spinoza" may bore you first off ... but wait ... this old fuddy-duddy, when at last he marries (him and his Spinoza!) on his wedding night come miracles, a miracle of passion, where he forgets Spinoza and remembers he's a man.
And the Black Wedding. Poor bride. She knows the man the rabbi tells her to marry is the devil. When he kisses her, his tongue is snake. All the members of the wedding Klezmer band have tails sticking out of the backs of their pants. The husband's friends have cloven hooves down where their shoes should be. The women's eyes glow strangely ... witch eyes.
The babe that grows in her belly gnaws at her endlessly, growls, kicks her liver, pulls on her gall bladder. She knows this babe is the devil; she knows he will kill her.
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The reading by Bikel is superb, but full disclosure: I met him thirty years ago. No, stop: I went to a news conference when he appeared in Dallas, Texas, in the summer of 1977. He was in town to raise consciousness of recent problems of Israel. I was a reporter from the disrespectable local hippy radio station. There was a respectful representative from the Dallas Morning News; another from the Dallas Times-Herald; another from the local TV combine; and then there was seedy me.
They greeted him; no ... they embraced him. They gloried in his presence in Dallas. We still, all of us, remembered 1963; we thought visitors might not like us. (Once on my weekly radio program, I asked what we should do about this universal disdain; one listener called in, said we should change the city's name from Dallas to San Francisco. San Francisco, Texas!)
The reporters all asked Bikel kindly questions, and then me, in my scruffiness, I asked him something I had picked up from Harpers Magazine, some unfortunate bit of information about Israel and the Palestinians and land lost and land occupied, there in the Middle East. A simple question. About something beginning to go sour in the Middle East.
And Bikel frowned at this unseemly question in the middle of such a friendly news conference. When he looked at me, he narrowed his eyes, started to speak, but he didn't have to say anything. No, it was one of the reporters, I think it was the one from the Morning News, who said in effect there were some people who were less than respectable to distinguished visitors from out-of-town, but it was not typical of your typical Dallas hospitality. He apologized, went immediately to a more cheerful question, quickly dispensed with. Thus ended the news conference with Theo Bikel.
Who, by-the-bye, is a wonderful, perhaps distinguished, reader of these classic stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer.--- L. W. Milam