Living Without Leaving a Stain

Barnes & Noble
Flophouse Press

Other stories in the set: Dude | Hooky | Oxygen


Prior to a transaction, before settling down to business, people were always saying smart things, but I was the only one foolish enough to mistake them for something more than a display of intellectual prowess, a puffing up or ruffling of feathers.

I’d write good lines down in the back of my deal log, and if a title happened to accompany the reference, which wasn’t unusual because business people were always trying to say something that gave you the impression they were not just about business, I’d buy the book and place it alongside the others in my bookcase.

The reading came latter. It came after the phone stopped ringing.

Thinking is dangerous for adults. Not like shark fishing, you won’t get a limb gnawed off, but in a subtle way. You’ve got to watch what you say. If the audience goes aesthetic on you, invokes the clean-clause of the social contract, and labels you a cynic, than be prepared for silence.

A man in my position can speak this way. He’s not looking for an opportunity.. He’s trying to fend off requests: can I have this or borrow that. The world presses me. Five or six individuals claim responsibility for my success.

Cynics according to Mr. Webster are people who believe that all persons, including themselves, are motivated by selfishness, and I’m saying that on a practical day to day, dog eat dog basis every living creature on this earth is trying to get a slice and hold on. This entitlement and the right to defend your cache are etched into every strand of DNA.

When I was a busy man trying to put food on the table, and a roof over the family’s head, I had no time for anything but jotting notes and buying books.

Everybody must have a little collection of books. It proves you are civilized.

But after you’ve filled all your freezers with buffalo and traded the excess for nice rides, a spacious house, good schools, and all the accessories, the tension eases. House and kids and bills become a small part of the picture, and you start wondering what comes after success.

I would have been a minor hero if I hung on. I knew how to play my role. It would afford me a certain respect and importance in a small community. I would be another little general among the troop of them, It would be hello Mr. Sir at the bank.

I could make deals without thinking. Things became routine and I lacked enthusiasm. I was living on autopilot. Repetition is a death of sorts.

Of course there were problems without an at-hand-solution like the implications of a zoning change or a smart deadbeat, but all it took were a few questions to the appropriate parties and the boat was back on course. The problem was solved in a jiffy. It was hard to break a sweat. I didn’t feel like I could go down. I am, as they say, brick enough, liquid enough, and metal enough to weather a depression, and snatch up a little chunk of Brooklyn on the cheap.

Everybody wants something, my socks, more land, or some knowledge. That's aggression: to get, to take, to acquire. The justification follows the desire. That's why explanations are so tedious. They're just a courtesy.

Without aggression to act on or suppress, love to search for or run from, hunger to satisfy or deny, and fears to dodge or confront, we'd be without direction, rudderless, lobotomized. Man isn't a blank slate.

“Helping old ladies across streets makes one feel good, that’s why people do it.” That’s what I said to Helen, my wife, when she came into the bathroom and found me reading Carlyle’s French Revolution.

“Stop reading that damn book; its Monday morning.”

The woman doesn’t have a lyrical bone in her body. She looked at me the way I’d imagine an investor would look at a good horse that had gone lame.

I retreated to my home office, and turned on the TV, but something had snapped. The car commercials pissed me off. The narrator kept talking about horsepower and speed when the roads are more clogged than Aunt Jane’s arteries, and if they do open up, you can’t go fast. The police are very effective.

This was really the beginning of my second thought. It had to do with my times and how I would characterize them. I’d call this the age of consequences when all of the bright ideas are backfiring, where the fantasy keeps bumping into reality. Some lawyer at a closing had made a point of saying something like people believed back when Henry Ford was getting his operation off the ground that the automobile was a clean alternative to the horse. That’s how it always starts a man has an idea, and assumes he can make something that neither shits or dies, and then much to his own surprise discovers it’s not so. His imagination is capable of conceiving things that cannot be built. This fact should not be ignored.

The sky has been scraped and clocks keep perfect time. Everything from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the sky has been charted.

We’re living in times of repercussions which is neither a beginning or an end. These are not times of hope; they are times of consequences, the price. The fact that man was wrong. The car is not cleaner then the horse. Ideas do not reflect the outcome. Horse shit is easier to get rid of then smog.

Everything is so complicated you’re not even sure you want it when it arrives. Sometimes, these days, I feel as though I’ve seen enough and wish I were a stone.

This kind of thinking requires silence. You can’t have too many interruptions. You can’t even hear yourself properly until you get the room cleaned out. So one day I unplugged the TV, put it in the corner, and used the table beneath it for a book stand, but when I sat down to read, I was surrounded by a cacophony of machine generated noises and attention-grabbers. I couldn’t really get down to business with the digital clock flashing big red numbers. I found myself always looking at it to see how much time had elapsed, slowly I began making a pile on and around the TV of all the things that were disruptive. All the deals I’d been working on when I quit. I tossed each of their folders onto the pile. I found myself tempted by them. Next I added the fax machine. Every time I looked in its direction, I found myself thinking about how quickly everything had stopped and wished somebody might send me something even if I didn’t answer. So I added that device to the pile.

As my room grew more bare, the family grew more interested. It was the first time I’d ever seen them paying attention. I heard the song of concern loud and clear. Alive, I'm in the way. The kids and wife are only getting some of what they desire, because I put the brakes on their spending. They'd sell the Brooklyn house in a jiffy, buy something in the City, and a weekend place on the South Shore of the Island.

I put a piece of cardboard in the glass part of the study door so nobody could look in. Then I started taking stuff off the walls. I had some letters of accommodation I suppose if anyone stays with anything long enough somebody is bound to appreciate them.

The framed letter had been hanging so long that the paint behind it was cleaner then the rest. It made a square of light and inside I wrote “Civilization is only a wrappage through which the savage nature of man can still burst.”

The next thing to go was in a sense the most disorienting, for it had to do with my morning ritual. I start each day with a cup of coffee and newspaper reading. I’m not a single brand guy. I read whatever is around. My reading of the paper really has to do with setting the pace, of assuring myself that my little empire is healthy enough so I can read and drink a coffee while others are stuffing themselves into subway cars. It’s a way I have of taking the helm.

Since 9/11, I've become an avid reader of the international news. I’m fascinated with the awkward relationship my country has to its pillaging.

The Times, The Journal, and the horror papers all have moments of lucidity . I read a little article in the Daily News by a Republican about how the Iraqis acquired weapons. Of course I purchased the book by Alan Friedman and placed it on the appropriate shelf in my little library. How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq is not the only book on the subject. Noam Chomsky among others have written fat volumes describing the entire racket between the USA and its client states. National Public Radio is broadcasting the story through your body at this very moment, but only a few hear the mumbo jumbo.

The TV narrators don't. They step right into the litany, without a twitch or smirk, about how we’re the good guys bringing freedom to the oppressed and underdeveloped.

The audience, my family, doesn't ask why people living so far away are so angry that they have devoted their time, money, and lives to destroying our tranquility.

My wife knows Osama bin Landen worked for the CIA, but she doesn't care. The logic she uses in our household tiffs also applies to international problems. If she takes my socks, it's okay. I should be proud that she is wearing them. But if I borrow her sunglasses, it's a major transgression with implications.

If the clean-clause is the cornerstone of civilized society, and TV news people are the oracle, then watching prime time is life insurance.

The news people never upset my Helen. She likes the way the shiny-ones explain things; she appreciates their frame of reference. TV never makes her feel dirty or implicated. Get the terrorists, and cut them into tiny pieces for they have violated our peace, undermined our security, and taken us from watching great action flicks to living in a lousy one in which the super heroes don't show and the story won't close. That's what my wife hears. She has been wronged, and she'll get vicious if you say otherwise.

The lot where the Twin Towers stood remains vacant. The buildings around the site are still scarred, and every time I go over a bridge or through a tunnel. I think about bombs or terrorists.

The metropolis has a different ambiance. New variables like the effects of dirty bombs have become part of the daily arithmetic.

The remarkable thing is not our tendency to take an interest in the natural resources, labor forces, commercial zones, and the purchasing power of the citizens of small nations, that’s what powerful nations do. They take wealth from the little guys and build palaces at home. The remarkable thing is my wife's ability to be oblivious, to the fact that her hand is in someone else's cookie jar. The US of A is the first empire to take behind its own back. That's a noteworthy distinction. We hide our aggression. That's the secret. My wife, perhaps the entire country, prefers shadow to reality. People aren't in search of the truth. They're looking for justifications to get your socks or take over countries.

Two thousand years of resourceful minds doing math science and the humanities have yet to get a clear lock on a big picture which puts man at the center, or to open a line of communication with a beneficent god who looks after our well being. Superman is never around when you need him, and nothing with the perfection of Plato's forms has yet to be found. I feel like a surfer riding a wave of time into a coffin.

One might say the precondition of knowledge is not to know. It's to obstinately assume the uniqueness of man and thus guided to eliminate obnoxious information, and in situations where the information cannot be eliminated such as that smell that lingered over the city for months after the WTC strike, then kill.

The TV news tells stories as though each occurrence is a unique event, and the world, all of history, is only a day long. There context is a single event like a still photo.

A man can't find himself in that sort of story telling. Its like hearing everything for the first time.

If somebody ever gave me an anchorman position, I'd start off the show with something like this: “Every creature in every species is trying in its own way to get to the top of the food chain. This mandate is hardwired into our DNA. It’s nothing personal; the big guys take and the small guys try to stop them. So there's nothing to feel guilty about.

“That's the good news. The bad news is we've taken a hit. Yes, it true. That after one hundred years of colonialism we've been bombed, a couple of our teeth, maybe our front ones, have been knocked out. Although we continue to enjoy our relationship with forty-six countries to the profit of a zillion plus dollars per annum, we've got a problem. The Arabs really don't like infidels on their land and terrorism is catching on. It suits the times, very photogenic, makes good TV. Is there a difference between Osama bin Laden, The Columbine Kids, and Timothy McViegh?”

Everything but honesty seems to mature. It shrinks in direct proportion to man's skepticism about divine intervention.

The news people never have a persona slip. Not one of them are ticklish. They never laugh.

This months Scientific American has an article about how our galaxy, the milky way, cannibalizes other galaxies.

I’d resolved to read only material that had been around for a century or so. I'd begun to suspect that our entertainment is more akin to the Roman Circus then the Greek Theatre.

My room was quiet now. The only gadget which I could not get rid of was my phone. Otherwise, I now had criteria for what I would let into my space, and a caller id to keep out favor-seekers.

The wife and the kids weren’t impressed. “The air conditioner; he unplugged the AC in July.”

I had a carpenter install a solid steel door which I could bolt from the inside after my copy of the French Revolution disappeared. I'd had it with the wife, the kids, and the goddamn war coverage. They repeat the same story so many times your head gets numb.

It wasn’t as though I'd ever done much thinking. Business doesn’t require thought. Its more like a visceral intuition of an opportunity linked with the moxie to execute.

I spent the morning on the phone with book stores and used book dealers only to discover that nobody reads Carlyle. He’s out of print.

I opened Descartes Meditations, and right away the man had a special place in my heart. I had found somebody worth imitating. My room was pretty quiet and I set out to discover what it was that I could not doubt.

The first thought took a while to surface. I more or less spent the morning being midwife which entailed a lot of laying about while things percolated and a lifetime of experience could be distilled into a single crispy insight. Wisdom has more to do with throwing away useless stuff then it has to do with collecting information.

Around noon while I was eating a bowl of pasta, I had a thought. I don’t know how Descartes got where he was going, but my thought came out while I was putting on the parmesan cheese: Everyone I’ve ever met, believes they are special, that their spouse is special, and so are their kids, the nation they live in, and their connection to the big picture.

Man rejects indifference. That's why explanations are so prolix, and so much depends on a nod, a wink, or a fist.