Archive for March, 2012

What an Asshole Gerald(o) Rivera is
March 23, 2012

Long ago the former Gerald Rivera was a local news reporter when he got a scoop about terrible conditions at an institution for mentally disabled children and became a star. He could have done all kinds of things with the fame that one story earned him. He ran with it — all the way to a trash talk show on which he got his nose broken in a staged fight, and then to Fox News.

Which is all to say he has little reason to believe that his judgement is so sound that he needs to weigh in on anything, let alone the painful and angering lessons surrounding race, law enforcement and gun laws, and the sorrowful tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin.

But, the asshole formerly known as Gerald, who added the “o” when he launched his tv news career, does in fact know something about the powers of ethnic symbolism, and perhaps for that reason, felt he had cracked the case of Trayon Martin’s killing: The Hoodie did it.

I know that sounds silly, so let’s use Gerald(0)’s words instead. He wrote on his blog for Fox News:

His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did

What a relief. Problem solved. All we need is a dress code for black kids, and we will live in a sane, just and safe world. Thanks Gerald(o). Let me guess how Gerald(o), who points out, conciliatingly, that his own son is “dark” (along, so help me, with being “dashing” and “handsome”) could deal with the inevitable objections to his solution.

Like, what if it’s cold out, or other form of apparel sets off some other lunatic with a gun? Perhaps, better than a dress code for black kids, a curfew would be even safer.

But maybe there’s a fairness issue there — is it really so wrong to want to run out to the convenience store to pick up some ice tea and skittles after dark, even if you are black? Good point — perhaps separate neighborhoods could solve that problem. In fact an apartheid system.

The idea is, one way or the other, to keep black kids wearing hoodies off the streets they may share with the next George Zimmerman — for their own sake. As Gerald(o) explains:

“Whatever Reverends Sharpton and Jackson say in Florida Friday, after listening to the 911 tapes and hearing the witness’ testimonials, I believe Trayvon Martin would be alive today but for his hoodie.”

Also but for George Zimmerman’s gun, you asshole, Gerald(o), but first things first.

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Structural racism as public policy
March 22, 2012

Palm Beach County, FL — It was the week before Halloween in 2003 when Jay Levin responded to noises outside by opening his front door, naked, with a gun in his hand.

He saw a big guy running from the door, he told police later, but also said the guy turned back and came toward him. That probably happened, maybe the guy was doing a double take, because it’s not every day that a homeowner gets up in the middle of the night and naked, throws the front door open. Levin responded to whatever he saw — a double-take? a hallucination? and fired his gun, fatally shooting the guy who was by this time running, because he was shot in the back.

The guy, it turned out, was his 16-year-old neighbor, a kid named Mark Drewes playing a “ring-and-run” prank with friends.

A little more than two weeks later, police charged Levin with manslaughter. He hired Roy Black to represent him, and after a day of listening to Roy Black get all 60 odd people in the jury pool to tell what their homes meant to them, an agonizing exercise in unleashing individual narcissism, as each embellished their explanations with examples of specific decorating touches that made their homes their castles, the prosecution threw up its hands and let Levin plead out to an arrangement that gave him a year of weekends in the county jail.

That was before the “shoot first” or “stand your ground” law, which basically says that if someone looks at you funny and doesn’t get away fast enough, you can kill them. Drewes actually had initiated the encounter, by going to Levin’s door, the object being to tie a string to his door knocker. Drewes, like Levin, was white.

So looking at what happened, or didn’t happen to Levin, who shot a kid in the back, was asked nicely to turn himself in more than two weeks later, and got about 100 days in jail, with a week off to recover after every two, you can see there were some basic problems with every Caspar Milquetoast Rambo Wannabee asshole in Florida being allowed to own a gun.

Add a town where the definition of “suspicious” already has ended the lives of a series of black teenaged boys, and a law that makes looking suspicious a death penalty offense, and you’ve got the death of Trayvon Martin.

The main squeeze was mentioning how the death of Trayvon Martin, a kid visiting out of town relatives in a town with more deeply entrenched and bizaare racist mores than the town he came from, made him think of the death of Emmett Till. There is that resemblance. This one though, says something about the purposeful structure of our society. Can it be that in the relentless pandering to the mentality that led to the death of Emmett Till, things have gotten worse since then?

I Love a Parade
March 19, 2012

LANTANA, FL — I’m lucky to live in a town where enough people want to be last, to make a decent parade. The little bridge that tied the island to the mainland is 62, which makes it an artifact of ancient times in Florida years, which means it has to be replaced. That’s how we do here. It will be a hardship to be without a bridge for nearly two years; probably the severing of that tie will put the few businesses still open at the failing island shopping center out of business.

But we celebrate history here, and our history is vivid because many people still walk among us from such ancient times as 50 years ago. So we future artifacts gathered today, in a bid to be the last somethingorother to cross the soon to be historical bridge.

The last petsitters to cross the bridge:

The last hearse:

The last young men with style to cross the bridge:

The last heart surgeon:

The last Puhalainens:

And, fittingly, the last bastion of good local journalism:

The attack on Tyler Clementi
March 18, 2012

Tyler Clementi looked at Dharun Ravi’s twitter feed about him — 38 times in the hours before he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. We’ve had the chance to absorb this sad fact repeatedly, in coverage of Ravi’s trial and conviction of all the things Ravi did leading up to that twitter feed, including holding Clementi up to ridicule, contempt and revilement because he was gay.

Somehow most mentions of Clementi’s repeated returns to Ravi’s twitter feed bypass the obvious question of what Clementi found there, and why he continued to look at it again and again, even as his pain became unbearable. The great exception is this New Yorker piece, which everyone in college, raising children, voting for gay baiting political candidates, should read. Because it’s an obvious question. It wasn’t Ravi’s words that were changing, adding harm or hope of relief, as Clementi returned to the feed, it was the responses Ravi’s followers posted, including “ewww,” and sympathizing with Ravi that continued to add up. The difference between considering that, and leaving the impression that it was Ravi’s behavior alone that made the world an unfriendly place to Clementi in the hours leading up to his death is a critical one. Not because it places blame on one cruel, insecure, thoughtless and immature teenager, but because it removes it from everyone else who participated in the attack. It ignores the role Ravi’s fellow tweeters played in giving Clementi the notion that life as a gay man would be a painful and lonely one. It ignores the good that might have come if one of those times Clementi checked the feed he had seen someone castigate Ravi for spying on him, for his homophobic remarks, for harming someone who hadn’t harmed him. It ignores how all of those who responded as they did, and not as they should have were raised, what morality they were exposed to, what made them think there was more wrong with being gay than with being cruel. It ignores the role of churches, schools and politicians — even those with excruciatingly slowly “evolving” views, like our President’s. It ignores the role we all play in making this a cruel world.

RSSF, Part Deux
March 15, 2012

This is what the guy who wrote the look at me I’m quitting my job as a money pimp at Goldman Sachs because I have more integrity than any of the other pimps I work(ed) with reminds me of.

The guy, who “isn’t highly paid by Wall Street standards — earning about $500,000 last year . . .” or about 10 times the salary of a veteran public school teacher, figured out a business that produces only money — is built around greed. Well, I’ll be. Since it took him 12 years to figure that out, I’m sure glad he isn’t handling my money.

That an economy built around finance rather than products and services that benefit the larger society is not a healthy one is something many of us figured out a few years ago when we lost our jobs, our property values plummeted, and our tax dollars were diverted to corporate welfare cheats.

I kept hoping for something juicy, at least, something I didn’t already know from this guy’s story, and I’m sure there was more to tell. Like what he was thinking about during the Occupy protests.

Downton Abbey, Rich Selfish Stupid Fucks
March 13, 2012

South Palm Beach, Fl —We were walking along State Road A1A, talking, when we heard a noise best described as CRUNCH, and looked up to see an SUV had hit a bicyclist, knocking him to the ground, about 30 feet ahead.

The car pulled over, the bicyclist stood up, we saw the driver get out of the SUV. The shoulder of the road is slender there, and as we headed over we looked back to make sure we weren’t going to be hit by the next car. So we missed completely when the driver made the executive decision to get back in his gigantic car with which he had just hit a bicyclist, and take off.

The bicyclist had a rip in his shorts and was trying to get his bike working again, but something about it wasn’t quite right. He thanked us for coming over, said he was fine, just shaken. Literally while he was talking, the scraped bruise exposed by the rip in his shorts swelled and took on more colors. It was going to hurt terribly later, and the main reason it didn’t yet was that he was  too shaken to feel it. The main squeeze offered to call the cops, or someone, to stall him, but he insisted he was fine. Eventually he got his bicycle going and wobbled off.

We went ahead and took our walk on the beach, Manalapan beach, where mansions that look like hotels line the shore, and where one of the mansion-dwellers on the other side of the road is spending millions of dollars to build a tunnel from his mansion to the sand so he won’t have to cross the street, and I found myself thinking of Downton Abbey.

I was talking to a relative, with whom I grew up, so who not only shares but instilled some of my values, on the phone recently, when I said I had to go and watch the show, which we had just discovered we could watch Season One of, on Netflix.

You can’t do that, my relative said, more instructionaly than dictatorially, it was created/written by a “Tory Piece Of Shit,” she went on to explain.

I expressed that objection to the main squeeze, who asked if she would prefer a “Labor Party Piece of Shit, like Tony Blair,” and, in that negative way having settled the issue, we settled down to watch Downton Abbey.

Since I became unemployed, we longer have cable, which means no live tv at all here, so we have few outlets of entertainment. Season one is basically free via Netflix, although my relative pointed out that our selection is registered somewhere, adding support for this Tory-Piece-of-Shit, overated soap opera. And I did feel bad about that, as I agree, watching it was like voting for a Tory Piece of Shit.

But I really like the costumes. And I have wasted enough of my life watching soap operas that it seems unfair to myself somehow to stop now, when everyone is talking about this one. So we watched again, and again.

You can’t help but notice it’s Father Knows Best on a grand scale. With the funny little gimmick, also an axis of plots for Father Knows Best, that Father Fucks Up. Like when he fires the valet who was his comrade in arms in the Boer War, because he has a limp (which he got in the Boer War). And like Father Knows Best, these dunderheaded fuckups are resolved by Father’s wisdom, like when he snatches the valet’s suitcases off the carriage just as it’s going to take him away forever, reversing his heartless decision (which he held firm to while the valet begged for his job), telling him “we will say no more about it.”

You also can’t help but notice that because it’s on a grand scale, it’s not so funny when the lord of the manor realizes he fucked up by taking away a loyal employee’s livlihood without thinking it out. The employee, surely, is always going to know now that his life work is maintaining the constant comfort of a twit who doesn’t give enough of a shit about his welfare and his dignity to think things out before firing him.

But that’s not only entertainment, but history — and of course, also the way things happen now. So we keep watching. Then, the other night, the Lady of the manor finds out that some of the servants have used one of the mansions on the property to start a soup kitchen for poor hungry veterans straggling back from their service in World War I. She looks stern, after the servant heading the effort tells her we didn’t use food from the main house, or something like that, and then, surprise, she says, something like that will have to stop immediately — yes you can use food from the main house to feed these poor men. Well it shouldn’t be a surprise that she has a heart of gold, since she probably has a lot of stuff made of gold. But then she says she will help, points out that they can serve the men more efficiently, by using another table or something like that. So now it turns out that even though she can’t get dressed by herself, and has probably never so much as gotten a glass of water unassisted, she knows more than the servants on how to serve food efficiently. Good thing she came along. The stupid servants weren’t doing it right.

It’s hard to imagine that reflects history, but its easy to imagine that it reflects the Tory Piece of Shit leanings that I had been warned about. It is a philosophy seen here in what has become the raison d’etre for the Republican party: The Rich are Different from You and Me; They are better.

The premise that rich people are not only rich because they are better, but deserve to stay richer than the rest of us at all costs of fairness, opportunity and decency because they will do the right thing is the fiction on which trickle down economics was based, as well as regressive taxation. We need to support the rich people at our own expense, because they can be counted on to do the right thing.

Yet you see evidence to the contrary, that just like the rest of us, the rich act from self interest all the time. Duh. Except on a grander scale than the rest of us so it’s more damaging.

Which is why the SUV and the bicyclist made me think of Downton Abbey.

I don’t know that the SUV driver was rich — I have no reason to think so. The problem, like the problem with Downton Abbey is on a grander scale than that. The problem is that, for years bicyclists have tried to get the next round of necessary improvements to the coastal road to include a bicycle lane. The property owners along the way have fought this hard, with little logic. There is no logic that can be spoken frankly of their objections over safety: they don’t want people who aren’t in cars to have the run of their island. There is no other reason.

But the premise of their objection is that people will do the right thing — that drivers will stay in their lanes, and if they hit someone, they will stop and make it right.

It doesn’t work that way. Even the Tory Piece of Shit who made Downton Abbey, who made the lady of the manor suddenly better at running a soup kitchen than her servants, knows that, because without those silly little fuckups that people, rich and poor alike do, there wouldn’t be a story. And the more inured they are to the impact of their own fuckups, like the gazillionaire who is building a multi-million dollar tunnel just so he won’t have to cross the street, the likely they are to err on the side of selfishness.

Lovey
March 11, 2012

KEY WEST, FL — The restaurant where I met the waitress soon to be known as Lovey stands unchanged from the way it was 25 years ago on Front Street, the jaunty lettering on its sign spelling out its hokey name, which I will call “Buddies,” here. In the first light of early morning, when the rest of the town is so still you could shoot a gun down Duval Street, haggard waitresses still hurriedly lock up their bikes outside, and haul out everything put away just a few hours before as they ready for the breakfast crowd. It is a rushed and tired looking lot. Of all the ways to make a scant living in Key West, the day waitress has one of the worst work/pay ratios. It was a successful formula; only the faces have changed.

I tended morning bar, a job only marginally less miserable than waiting tables there, for 7 months spanning the autumn of 1986 to the spring of 1987. By the time I left I was an old timer by Buddies’ standards. I had seen the daily feuding — over someone not doing her share of filling ketchup bottles, or taking enough shitty shifts, or doing things the exact right way, being odd in some way, or sometimes over things that had spilled over into entwined personal lives: all the passionate pettiness that can erupt as easily in dead end settings, as in ones where stakes would appear to be higher.

That was what made the elfin British waitress, who came eventually to be known for real as “Lovey,” but whom I’ll call “Meg” here, stand apart. She worked days because she was unwilling to surrender the hours when other people have a good time to working. She loved to go out drinking. If she was an American waitress she might have been more shy about saying that to the extent she did. People might have thought she was just a drunk. As it was, she passed for someone who just loved a good time. She was cheerful and efficient. She didn’t complain about being assigned a bad station, or anything else. She acted amused, rather than mortally wounded, when the forever rotating and just one-step-off-the-street-from-dirtbags in the kitchen screwed up her order.

She didn’t have kids at home to feed, didn’t,  for that matter, have a home. She was just passing through, staying with other travelers in a shared group house that represented most of Europe among its busboys, dishwashers, hotel room maids and cooks. She wasn’t waiting tables to buy a car or a house, or even a tv; she was saving up enough money to get to her next destination.

From an industrial city in the middle of England, she already had travelled all over Europe, around some of the South Pacific, lived in Australia and then Japan. The one place she didn’t want to be, she explained, was England — too cold and too grey. She had made the mistake of stopping there between journeys once in the middle of the winter, and gotten too depressed to get up and get out. She had travelled for long enough that she was a good 10 years older than most of the travellers she lived with.

The mostly local day staff poked fun at her exotic ways. She had to go to the “loo.” She “fancied” things — “Oooh, I fancy a beer,” she would say with great gusto at the end of a shift. She dropped her h’s: “‘Ello, Lovey, ‘ow are you?”  They started calling her Lovey, like it was her name.

Unfailingly good-natured, she was cute in a childlike way, good at her job, and made better tips than most. She did have a lateness issue, which she made a running joke of and which you could see how it could grate on colleagues who raced in as if to save the world each morning. But ire didn’t go far with her. When the head waitress hinted darkly at wanting to see her green card, she nodded agreeably. “I’ll show her a card that’s green,” she explained later.

Someone asked her if she had a boyfriend. She didn’t date, she replied. Her last few relationships had ended unhappily, and she just didn’t think it worth the energy. That seemed extreme to me, but as it turned out, it was, for her, a good idea. Because then she did date.

A handsome customer started chatting with her at happy hour, which she always stayed for at the end of her shift. He was witty and generous — when happy hour ended he picked up the substantial tab, swept her off to the fancy French restaurant around the corner. The date didn’t end until she had to report for work the next day – late, still a little drunk. The day after that she moved in with him. She talked at work about the dinners she would make each night. She tidied up his place. After two weeks he threw her out.

Back at the group home for European service workers, a shy young South African visitor took an interest. She was fun, pretty, easy to get along with, easy, period, and you could tell the young South African, at least a decade her junior, couldn’t believe how lucky he had gotten. Then one night a couple of young women from the house asked the South African what he was doing with someone like Meg anyway? Meg had inadvertently insulted one of them, a friend of his of some two weeks seniority in her acquaintance with the South African, by asking  “you don’t mind do you?”  (“As if she could have him, if I did mind,” the nonrival summed up the insult later). Discovering that he was not admired but pitied for his catch, the South African backed away suddenly and swiftly. “What is wrong?” she asked him, in frankly piteous tones — really expecting an explanation, because she didn’t know what had happened between one night and the next. He turned away stonily, without looking back.

One day one of the waitresses brought a suitcase into work with her — her drunken husband had threatened her and her teenage son and they had left in the middle of the night. The next day the cops came looking for the waitress — her drunken husband had shot himself to death. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude, but Meg seemed to take comfort in the chance this gave her to put her own, and her friends’ men troubles in perspective “We don’t have any problems at all, do we? We don’t have any problems!” she said.

Still, she showed up late, more often, and later. One day she fell asleep while rolling the silverware in paper napkins, her chin resting on her chest, her mouth drooping slightly open, a soft snore audible. The head waitress went to get the owner, who fired her.

She picked up work cleaning houses. One of her clients, a harried, unhappy looking man in the midst of a bitter divorce, lit up around her. He invited her to clean his house and then to move in. Then he blew his brains out.

She stayed drunk all the time for a while after that, and her cheerful laugh turned shrill. Her funny litttle self deprecating ways turned outwardly insulting. She looked rough, and was awful to be around.

About half a dozen years later I saw one of her old colleagues bartending at the Bull and Whistle on Duval Street and asked if she was still around. “Oh, you mean Lovey?” he looked at me narrowly as if I had said something judgemental. “She’s married, a happily married woman,” he went on. “You’ll probably see her. She comes in here every night.”

She did, alone, to join a line of friends at the bar. Her wedding was ever so funny she told me: the groom was more than an hour late. “There I was in this wedding dress, and my parents had come. I had a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other — no one knew where he was.” She laughed and laughed. Finally, he did show up, so it all worked out, you see.

The Good Life, Key West Part 3
March 8, 2012

KEY WEST, FL — As you inch your way south on North Roosevelt Boulevard, just beyond the chain hotels and shopping centers, one of the first hints that you are arriving somewhere real comes in the form of a stagnant algae-redolent body of water to your right. Small, unseaworthy craft bob around in it, and perhaps one of the people who live aboard these vessels, ragged, shaggy, and filthy, will be rowing in on a makeshift dinghy, empty gallon jugs, waiting to be filled tied to its sides. It is a post-disaster-looking landscape in miniature. It was the dream of my friend, who I will call Knox here, to live on that water, among these near-shore castaways.

Knox was one of the group staying at the local youth hostel in the fall of 1986, who all had landed in Key West around the same time. He was one of the few Americans there, and enjoyed a feeling of bemused superiority to his European inn-mates. The British, he noted, overused the word “brilliant,” applying it both to the merits of his folding bicycle, and the merits of someone going to get another six pack of beer. He met a visiting German teacher there, who became his girlfriend, and who he implied wasn’t very smart. “Bathilda (I’ll call her here), it’s not that simple, I told her,” he would say.

He was frankly pretentious. He came from Alabama, but spoke with the accent of William F. Buckley. He referred to having been “in the construction business.” He quoted Shakespeare on the slightest opening and with questionable relevance: “The quality of mercy is not strained,” he would say, adding, “Shakespeare said that.” He worked as a dishwasher, and after he left the hostel, lived in a camper in a trailer park downtown. He had a plan though: he would build a boat all by himself, put it in the stagnant pond off Roosevelt Boulevard, and living rent-free, would devote himself to becoming a writer.

He came into the bookstore on Truman Avenue to read Boatbuilder Magazine. I was working there part-time, for minimum wage, making photocopies for customers, counting out credit for the tattered books they brought in, restocking the vividly titled pornographic magazines that came in each week, selling cigarettes, candy bars, newspapers, figurines, the days running into each other in a morass of chores and boredom. In fairness to Knox, that was part of my plan to become a writer.

Knox was deeply impressed with the status of my job at the bookstore when he realized I had a key to the place, having never been given a key to anyplace that he had worked. When I quit the bookstore to make the natural transition of tending bar at the dive across the street, Knox inherited my position. He ingratiated himself with Bob Banner, the owner, and they enjoyed something of a friendship, two heavyset guys sitting around talking about the funny ways of other people.

It was inevitable that Knox would feel superior to Clark, who continued to work for free in the back of the store t-shirt business of which he was a nominal partner. Clark, however, was ahead of Knox in at least one respect — although working for free, he also had figured out how to live for free. After his most recent eviction (evictions and fist-fights supplied the plot lines for his life story) he had carried everything he owned into the store in a pair of heavy-duty garbage bags one day. He had then spent the afternoon making a tremendous amount of noise in the backroom, throwing out ceiling boards, hauling beams up a ladder. By the end of the day, he had created a sleeping space that looked like it could have been an exhibit in the the Human Rights Abuse Museum, but that he called home.

In short order, Knox moved his possessions, in luggage similar to Clark’s, into the Adult Book Room.

In longer order, they both eventually moved out. But not before they had inspired another employee — the grave, professorial-looking clerk who moved into the New Age section, spreading a sheet on the stained carpet between the bookshelves there. Then, finally, the delicate, ladylike alcoholic of about 80, who drank in the bar across the street, who didn’t make it home one night — or lost her home — and was invited by Clark to take up residence on the counter of the t-shirt shop in the back. This act of humanity set back Knox’s feeling of superiority enough for a friend to conjecture that he now would have to invite “an intelligent little old lady” to share the quarters in order to regain his ascendancy over Clark. That competition was cut short though, when on her second or third night the old woman fell off the counter in her sleep, bruising her hip, and prompting Banner to order her out.

Perhaps by then Banner had a feeling that things were getting out of control. In the months that followed, his and Clark’s partnership dissolved in a falling out that included a padlock on the t-shirt shop door, a crow-bar to break the padlock on the t-shirt shop door, threats of violence and legal action, and, finally, some kind of compromise that allowed Clark to keep the equipment and Banner to get out of the t-shirt business, which had never yielded a profit.

Knox lasted longer, but was eventually discovered to have financed the materials for his boat with money lifted from the bookstore cash register. He was fired, banished, invited back to work off his debt, but the incident, I’m sure, left a blot on the escutcheon.

Still, Knox finished building his boat, or rather a platform on which he put the camper from the trailer park, which his landlord had given him when the place was razed. The last I heard, he was living aboard it in the pond of stagnant water off North Roosevelt Boulevard. Clark married extremely well, but as he didn’t change otherwise, quickly found himself single again. He eventually gave up on the good life in Key West. The last I heard, he had returned to Pittsburgh.

The bookstore had lasted 25 more years by the time I saw the shell of it, workers standing outside as if they didn’t know what to make of it. I had last been in it more than a year before. The clerk behind the counter looked part of the place — shabby, worn, familiar. Banner was ailing: diabetes, kidney problems, Alzheimer’s. He had been sick for the last few years, but only stopped coming in recently, when he couldn’t make change anymore.

The Good Life, Key West Part 2
March 7, 2012

KEY WEST, FL —I have trouble believing my own memory, but I do recall filling out an application to get work at the bookstore on Truman Avenue. And bringing in a résumé. This was for a place where, at one point only a little later on, every other member of the staff ended up living  — three employees and a guest at a time of full occupancy — one in a cave-like loft created by adding a few boards to the rafters, one on the floor of the adult book room, one on the carpet between the bookcases in the New Age section, and the guest, a little old lady who drank at the bar across the street, on the counter of the t-shirt shop in the back. Some of them even brought friends — one, in a bout of vigorous sex, breaking the big wooden front table we used to have our lunch and sort books on.  Toward the end of my time there, an infestation of lice was spread via the big upholstered reading chair that was supposed to add a library-like touch. 

The owner, who I will call Bob Banner here, was a creature of contradictions. He was bluntly stingy, in the way of someone who knew the value of a dollar, but he ended up getting robbed by virtually everyone he hired.

He was in his early 60s, when I met him back in 1987, and had a way about him that was not so much old-fashioned as that of bygone era. He was a big man, with a comb over, heavy glasses, an eyebrow of a moustache. He got bigger as he sloped downward, to a thick waist and broad hips. He wore shorts that ended above the knee, with short-sleeved button down shirts. I could picture him in a sky blue polyester business suit, having drinks over lunch with other men, ogling women, never having to make more than small talk with them. He had been a bachelor until close to retirement, when it seemed to occur to him he would need someone to spell him at the wheel of the RV he had bought to cruise the country in.

His wife, who I will call Edna here, seemed, if not to hate him, to be harboring a lasting grudge against something or things that had occurred in the years before their marriage. She was a generation younger than he, and from another country. Her English was complete, heavily accented and shrill. She called him, I’ll say “Griffin,” here, which was his middle name, which no one else called him, and which he didn’t seem to like.

Griffin! Griffin! Pull up your zipper, your pants are open,” she called to him after he had walked around the store that way for a while one day. Stolidly embarrassed (could she not have told him quietly, the way nice people do?) and clearly used to it, he glanced down and pulled it up. She giggled.

He in turn dragged out the pronunciation of her name: Ed-din-nuh.

They had dated for years, she explained to me once. He had dated other women during that time too. Finally, it occurred to her that she was miserable.

“I thought I might feel better if I was married,” she told me, the same way you might say you hoped an ice bag might relieve pain from your pulled muscle.

She shared that with Griffin, and when he didn’t get the hint that he could play a role in making her feel better, she packed up all her stuff and shipped it to another city where she had found another job. Then he got it. They were married right around the time he retired, and drove, literally into the sunset in the house-sized RV he had bought.

Some people come to the Keys to be Parrot Heads, some to be artists or writers, some to be drunk all the time, some because it offers a chance for a homeless bum to blend into the general scene in a place where even well-to-do people pass out in public places, stumble around, wear tattered clothes. Banner settled in Key West because he found a good deal at the mobile home park where he anchored his land yacht. Then he found what he felt was another good deal on the bookstore, which here I will call “Good Buy Books.”

It was mainly the type of bookstore where people bring their books in for credit, which they can use to get books that other people brought in for credit. It was possible for people to keep both the bookstore and their home libraries stocked without any money ever changing hands.

Banner enhanced his bargain by stocking things that he felt people would pay for, filling the front of the store with scores of pornographic magazine titles, in huge quantities, returning great numbers every week, delighting in the business they brought in. His priority, though was stocking the store with things people would pay for, that he didn’t pay for himself.  He took in anything anyone would give him on consignment.

Then, sometime in the year before I came into the store, he met Clark. Clark had trouble retaining a job as a dishwasher, the definite lowest rank of working person in Key West. But he had, before leaving his hometown of Pittsburgh, in a rare burst of planning (or perhaps in retrospect, rehabilitation), gone to a vocational school to learn how to produce silkscreens to print t-shirts and posters. The limits of that training were dawning on him: he had the skills but not the equipment, which he couldn’t afford, and he didn’t like to work for the man.

The meeting between Bob Banner, always alert to a deal, and Clark, who wanted to move up without answering to anyone, must have seemed fortuitous, briefly, to both of them.

To be continued tomorrow in Part 3

The Good Life, Key West Part 1
March 6, 2012

KEY WEST, FL — We could have turned off Roosevelt at Whitehead Street to bypass the slow parade of traffic through Old Town, but I wanted to pass the bookstore on Truman. I was eager to see what had happened to the place, but I didn’t want to go out of my way, or, for that matter, get out of the car to find out.

The place was closing, or had closed, I had heard. I wondered if it was empty yet, or in the midst of being demolished. If it was gone altogether, my question would be answered as we passed. If it still stood, I was pretty sure  it still would send a powerful, sinus-lingering, lung-infesting, poignant and repulsive stench of moldy books, mildewed carpets, rotting wood, unwashed bodies, and any number of unidentifiable but nausea-inducing odors out the doors, into an almost visible cloud on the street, and that it would then linger in my hair all day. That’s the kind of place it was. So as we passed I didn’t roll down the window, or ask the main squeeze to slow the car. I just looked.

The signs were all gone. Once, there were more than I could read in one sitting, announcing what the place offered: dollar books, trade-ins, an “adult book room,” a vast and fetishistically specific array of “adult” magazines, knives, figurines, photocopies, t-shirts printed to order, I forget what else. Stuff came and went for years, according to the enterprising owner’s inclinations and opportunities. No more. The doors were open, and so were windows that I’m not sure I previously knew even existed, and as we passed I saw the place looked hollowed out, a shell. Two men wearing work clothes, stood outside, looking confounded. I imagined they were wondering what to do about the smell. I was wondering what could replace the way station it had been for a certain type of person who came this far down US1, looking for the good life, and thought for a while it could be found here.

The first time I went in there, it was the spring of 1987. I was looking for a book, and also possible work. A helpful, shirtless youthful-looking man wearing bicycle shorts stood behind the counter. I’ll call him Clark, here. He was in his 30s, I found out later. He blinked from behind large, thick, slightly tinted glasses in frames that looked like they had been provided by an institution. He looked up the book I was seeking, told me it would arrive in a week. I don’t remember how he did that, as there were few, or no computers at the time, and it’s hard to believe this place would have had one. I remember his shirtless, courteous efficiency though, with surprise added by what I learned later — he was generally, had been, would always be, incapable of sustaining gainful employment. In retrospect it was as if he had briefly found his niche.

He asked me if I would like to “go get into trouble,” which I didn’t, and which in turn, he didn’t take as a setback in what he was determined would at least be a friendship. In fact, the next week, when I came to pick up my book, he offered me half his job. The owner was out, but he would put a word in, he said. He explained his generosity: he was only working full-time to make up for having driven out the other employee, a sensitive, high strung intellectual with whom he had clashed, and threatened with his fists. While Clark didn’t see anything wrong with his proposed means of winning what had been a solely verbal conflict (he was from Pittsburgh, Clark explained and the “inner-city in me came out”), he did seem earnestly sorry his colleague had taken his threat seriously enough to inconvenience the owner. To make up for that he had been working full-time ever since — a month or so. His real vocation lay in the t-shirt business behind a door in the back of the store. He and the owner were partners in that, he told me proudly. Their arrangement was simple: the owner supplied the space and the equipment to silkscreen t-shirts, Clark supplied the know-how and the labor, and if they ever cleared a profit, which they hadn’t yet, Clark would get paid.

I met the owner a few days later, when I came in to accept half of Clark’s job.

To be continued in Part 2, tomorrow . . .