In Water

Yesterday afternoon I ran across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not the easiest run, nor the shortest; those clever Roeblings somehow contrived to build the span so it goes uphill from the Brooklyn side for about 70% of its length, and then, remarkably, from the Manhattan side it does the same.

I confine my running to the gym for the most part, for a couple of reasons. The main one is that I’m thinking about my knees while I’ve still got them, and the cross-trainer has no impact for the knees and ankles; also that little shelfy thing for the CD player? Handy. On the bridge my crappy plucky flimsy cheapo set crosses its arms, plants its feet and refuses to go any further, smack in the middle of Elvis Costello’s Starting to Come To Me, which admittedly is on its third or fourth replay. So maybe it’s just getting bored.

On the other hand, I’m being one of those terrible people singing along, loud, to music you can’t hear, but I figure since I’m running I’ll get away with it. Maybe it’s divine payback.

Angel: Lord, check out that guy on the Bridge.
God: Hmm? Hmm. He’s not very fast, is he?
Angel: That’s not what I mean. He’s doing that thing.
God: What thing?
Angel: Singing. With headphones. Elvis Costello.
God: That’s just wrong.
CD Player: Wait, wait. It’s not my fault. It’s so not my–

The bridge span runs 2.25 miles from end to end and back again. I’d like to tell you I run all of it, but the truth is I’ve never mastered the art of running slowly, and so I pelt along in good bursts and then have to walk for a bit. Somewhere between half and two-thirds goes past at speed, and the rest is cooldown.

Years ago I briefly dated a girl who ran, every morning, for miles. We ran together only one time, with “together” being a generous concept, since she hit the ground and left me in the dust (she was fast, she was).

As with most of our moments, it was a microcosm of the, well, I guess we have to call it a “relationship,” though it really wasn’t one. Some of these run on a tragic kind of metonymy, where each awful moment contains the greater flaws of the terrible whole. While the fire is lit, it’s fascinating. After, every memory is limned with an inward, twisting sadness.

Later that day we came up for air in some vestibule or behind some building — she was cheating on a boyfriend she had left without telling him, and we were a hot little secret, and the same was about to be done to me — and I asked her about the running. I wouldn’t mind going with her again, I said. She liked the idea, she had a thing about being alone. But it’s not any fun if we’re not running together. Could we try that?

She kissed me. “It’s not going to work,” she said. “Linus,” she said. “You’re just running. I’m running away.” And then she took off her shirt. And we ran.

Utata Goes to the Movies

An announcement: I’m a member of an online photo community called Utata, which is a pretty fascinating group photoblog with benefits. We do periodic non-juried projects, which tend to come out amazingly well. The current one is Utata Goes to the Movies, in which we created images in homage to films or genres, or plotting out yet-unmade flicks. It’s a beautiful place to browse, and I recommend it. If you’d like to start off with my three shots, this is where they live.

Posted in General Musings |


The Middle Path

I met Jamelah last summer on Flickr, when I followed her trail of pretty pictures and found her store of wonderful words. Her blog has been one of my eager daily stops ever since then. The other day I was responding to a post she did on pick-up lines, which I’m thinking are perhaps the SUV’s of casual conversation, when it occurrs to me that the comment really belongs here. And so, with minor alterations, here it is.

[Insert Jamelah's pick-up line post at this point]

The best utterly unnerving line that ever hove at me came one night long ago at the old Ritz, which is now a tolerable and venerable night club called Webster Hall.

I was kicking around New York between high school and college, working at a newspaper, doing both reporter work and production shifts. We put the paper to bed on Tuesday nights, which in the pre-computer days took two+ days of nattering work.

On Monday and Tuesday nights I regularly went to the Ritz after we closed up. Monday and Tuesday nights were Rock Against Depression nights at the Ritz (buck to get in, and cheap drinks though I hardly drank at the time). I went to dance out my tensions. I was sort of dating a girl who was sort of separated from her husband and was rather older than I was, and I spent a lot of time pretty much alone, which has been a sort of motif with me.

So one night the DJ was doing really well, and we were getting the cheap fun schlock (Einstein A-Go-Go by Landscape, say) along with the necessary vitamins and minerals (Cars, Gen-X, Bow Wow Wow, Blondie, Ramones) and the edgier bits (Nervus Rex, The Feelies, The English Beat and whatnot). I was In The Zone, dead tired and very happy, and then he played my favorite dancing song of the time, Cold Colours (later known as Primary), and I was doing my thing, oblivious to the thinning crowd and thinking I’d go home after this.

When the song was over I started to leave, and this pretty blonde woman came lurching over (it was probably pretty close to 4, which is a rough hour if you don’t happen to not be drinking, which no one else was). She grabbed the lapels of my jacket, leaned in close, and bellowed, “You have all the moves.” Shortly after this she fell over, which didn’t improve her chances much. She was cute, though.

Best happy line, by contrast, was in my Junior year at college.

I had met this girl and fallen in love on the spot, and we spent a number of months dancing the just-friends dance (argh) and I was getting pretty pushy about not being just-friends any more because I had a vision, see. (This has also been a sort of motif with me, generally with wonderful results, recent days excluded.) We were at this party and we’d had a bit of a spat on the predictable topic so we were steering a little clear of each other. We were now on the “I like you too much to date you” part of the program, and I was pointing out how silly that was and she wasn’t buying. So it was a rough evening, and neither of us was being very graceful about it.

There was a bowl of hard candy on the table, and she was sitting in the window talking to someone and watching me, and I was talking to someone and pretending not to watch her. After a while of this she picked up a piece of the candy, unwrapped it, held it in her teeth, and came over and tapped me on the shoulder. She pointed to the candy in her lips.

“Want some?” she said.

Posted in General Musings |

Someone Saved my Life Tonight

New York Moon

It was my birthday last week, on the 10th. I turned a record age, by which I mean 45, which is the middle seat in the phonograph triad — 33, 45, 78. As STIFF Records once noted, if you were born in ’33, you’ll be 45 in ’78. When I was a kid I had a little song I used to sing when I put on records: thirty-three, forty-five, se-ven-ty-eight, in a sweet private lilt. And now, recto-verso, here I am.

It is, frankly, a dreadful morning, mired there at the end of the thing that never actually started, and in the middle of it she sends the sort of chirpy empty email — Happy birthday! Hope your day is wonderful! — that you’d send to a co-worker you shared a floor with but wouldn’t recognize in blue jeans on the street. To someone hardly worth noticing. Which, now I look back on the whole year-long arc of it, is who I guess I was.

In retrospect I’m glad she does it, thoughtless as it is. It’s the sort of thing that drains blood out of your heart. My head throbs two times, three, so completely that it makes a sound in my ears. Tears spill out in a sudden run, so fast and so unprepared that they leave no tracks on my cheeks — drops in a straight line from my eyes to my lap. I guess it’s sort of an earthquake thing. Everything soft inside breaks all at once, and it is over in seconds. And that is that.

So I start over. Again. Maybe that’s what a birthday is for.

She does me the mercy of violence fairly early, so when I go stomping out of the house looking for a bridge to jump off of there is still plenty of day left. I have a rooftop photo shoot to do, and when that’s done I walk through the Lower East Side and SoHo taking pictures — steering clear of bridges, just in case. A lot of good photography gets done, which should probably tell me something.

Come evening I meet up with Autumn for a movie. Autumn has been in her own share of battlefields lately, as in “Love is A,” and she’s been lending me her camo and body armor (you have to picture us both crouching sidelong against the dug-out wall of a WWI-era mud trench, eyes sharp under steel helmets wound with vine, smeared faces lit by the twin red points of matched cigarettes; it rains, of course. There is a trace of acid smell in the air, beyond the fulvous smell of wet earth and clay.

Linus: You blocked yours on chat yet?
Autumn: Mmm-hmmm. You?
Linus: Yep. Did it today.
Autumn: Good.
Linus: Kind of sucks.
Autumn: Better this way.
Linus: We talked all the time. I mean … I mean, it was, look, I–
Autumn: Stop it.
Linus: Right. Right. You’re right. Pass the ammo.

And overhead, a shell detonates, scattering shrapnel).

We catch Hard Candy at the Angelika — a switch from our usual monster movies, and one I really enjoy — and then head out for Just One Drink, because we’re both at work the next day. Somewhere around the third glass of Just One Drink I have a little how-much-I-liked-her moment, and Autumn, who has been holding it in all night, explodes.

“Linus,” she says. “Linus. I HATE THIS GIRL. Everything you have told me about her, everything, says that she is an insane manipulative bitch who can only relate to people she controls, and she has fucked with you for the last year because she liked it and because you were willing to take it, and because that’s what she does. You are lucky that this didn’t work out, because she would have destroyed you completely, because she is an insane fucking manipulative bitch.”

After which there is some silence.

Posted in About Last Night |

Life is But a Dream

Self Portrait with Atlantic Avenue

Half an hour ago I’m sprawled on the bed half-dressed, in the corduroy arms of an instant sleep that came on so fast and so weary that it could not be denied. I was mucking around at my desk when the gravity hit. In moments I am asleep, so quickly there is no time to find a comfortable position. Instead I spread out like a double arrowhead, like a Blair Witch stick man figure, face down.

I’m a peaceful sleeper. When I won’t sleep I usually know it, so I can just get up and not waste time shifting and tossing. Normally I fade off a little slowly but in comfort, which sucks a bit because if you snore I’ll hear it. I’ll wake up in the same position. I steal the covers at the start of the night, but if I haven’t got ‘em by the time I hit REM then you’re safe until morning (when I will reclaim whatever you may have snatched while I was out). And I don’t have bad dreams; or if I do, for the most part I don’t bother remembering them.

There are two — I know there have been others, actually, but the others fade fast, pulling in their holes behind them, traceless.

One is from my young childhood, a memory that feels original, almost preverbal. There isn’t much of it left, just the glimpse of preschool inconstant immediate logic and a snatch of image more like a child’s drawing than like a dream. The land is dark, a featureless clumpy purple-brown sprawl, the color of closed eyes. It buzzes, or it’s a brown that might buzz, or it buzzes in the eyes. It is as flat and as deep as construction paper. Across the land drift bright pastel shapes of wolves. The wolves are identical, boxy with jagged jaws snouting out of 2-D bodies under a V — or is it an M? — of crude triangle ears. Their bodies don’t articulate, they aren’t animated. They are like shadow puppets, drifting relentlessly from left to right. There is nothing to stop them, and they bay from their frozen pastel-neon mouths. There is a pink one, a yellow one, and one brown one that is hard to see against the flat land. The brown one pulses as it moves. I think I woke up screaming. I was probably five.

The other is from my late 20′s. I am subletting on Edgar Allen Poe Street on the Upper West Side, and have just broken up with Roberta after a stay in Iowa. While I am out in Ames with her I find spoor of what she hid well during our summer together in the City — her pathological lying, her doctrinal inability to say the words “I’m sorry,” her alcoholism, her grotesque infidelities, which lead back inexorably to more pathological lies, etc. etc. ad naus. There is no point fighting it through in the frigid Iowa winter, so we wait until landing back in New York to strip it all down and have it all out.

The next day, back up at EAPoe, I wake sweaty and sputtering from a black afternoon nap and a twister dream with two dark images and, so far as I remember, no narrative, and no narrative necessary. There is a shabby and badly hung wooden door, beyond which a long stairway stretches down into deep earth. And a room of people who tear off their mask faces and are lizards beneath, flat-eyed, with scaled lips drawn thinly over small remorseless teeth.

Between these two points, a quarter century of blank nights, or of delicious imaginings: cities strung with dark bridges and mysterious cascading water, long journeys, magic connections. Tiny skipping-stone narratives of happy life, long beloved days, a rambling house which is all my homes joined into one, with still and dusty train tracks in the basement — a terminal, not a station — and attics and hallways full of cupboards, drawers, and passage. The ziggurat pyramid city, water rushing down from the peak; you and I, digging in the garden planting music instead of flowers. Once I cycled down a coast road strobed with cliffside mountain tunnels and rode the elevator high into a tower building to watch turtles flock down the river and fetch up in colonies on the far side of the delta.

Tonight the dream isn’t good or bad. It’s paralyzing. I’ve come in midway along the story and I’m catching up. It’s a small party, at your house, but you are not there. I am waiting for you. There is a child there, a little girl, in distress. She needs to pee. She needs to walk but cannot move. She needs to speak but has nothing simple to say, and she is too uncertain for small talk; her parents are there, but they are not.

I know I need to wake up, but I am trapped here — I am a guest, not an architect. The child grapples, snatches, as if drowning. I’ve never been between sleep and waking this way, reeling in line and yanking as if to pull myself up out of a current. Her arms are on me, dragging back in ways that are as deliberate as they are panicked, and she is behind me now, or not precisely behind but backed off a step in a direction that I can’t see. Her flailing is a mauling now, directed and full of purpose, and I can hear her breath sucking in, fast and wet. Her arms are ropy and pliant, muscular but without anchor, and you mean to keep me here, in this indistinct gasping place.

Posted in About Last Night |

In the (Twin) City


In which a man dies, a broken heart does not mend, lovely women are photographed, and beautiful music is heard. If you do not see these colors, the trouble may be in your set.

The first thing I see as we drive into Minneapolis is a dead man.

All through this weekend I am rubbed raw, stripped open, adrift and disoriented after a sudden tangle with a kind of godhead membrane that drifted across my life over the last year, like a caul, hemming in the great grand world until all that was left was a single pair of incomparable eyes, lips of exquisite expression, an uncertain heart trembling with gifts afeared of giving. A mind as boundless and as softly, quietly creative as sun on clouds; a woman extraordinary, whose warm shadow fell over me with such breathless speed that I thought — uh, sorry, did I write that out loud?

Anyway, I am sodden with love, unrequited unmet love, and after she spots the damp little footprints it turns out that she is from Venus and I am from Brooklyn, and here I am in Minneapolis, and I don’t really want to live any more, and there’s a dead guy lying the parking lot in a pool of blood draining from a head that doesn’t seem all the way there. We’re driving past, and we don’t stop, and I think to myself, “Wow,” as one does when there’s a dead man lying there in a pool of blood. We’re almost past already. My helpful brain offers this up: “That,” it whispers, “is a dead guy. So why don’t you maybe quit whining for an hour or two?”

We’re in town for a CD release show by Coach Said Not To, a delightful band I spotted this year at the SXSW Music Conference of a happy Wednesday night. Seth has more airline miles than Route 66 has land inches at this point, so we’re here at the bottom of an avalanche of earlier flying, larking around and enjoying the Lutherans. Every third building is a church; when we make a crack to someone we’ve met about ministers, she easily answers, “Well my father was in the Church.” We don’t ask which one.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in a storm; the world is furious and there isn’t any peace. This is why I’m looking for portent in places I’d otherwise look to for plot and atmosphere. I’m trying to understand. I’m looking for familiar landmarks, for some magical-thinking hint that this is where I should be now, and that it’s not all just a dreadful mistake. Tuttle/Buttle. That sort of thing. And now this: after all the years of life in New York, I come to Minneapolis to see my first corpse. Surely around the next corner there will be a dead horse I can beat, or a very shy fellow with bite marks on him?

CSNT does a glorious show that is ecstatic, fun, and full of everything a show should hold. The recording doesn’t hold the same confabulation, but how could it? I am mesmerized, grinning, moved. The next day we meet the band at the Claes Oldenburg Spoon & Cherry for a quick photo shoot among the cheeky sculptures of the garden, under a sun that has other places to be but spares a glance for us as we whirl past.

In the end? Like so many eyes, hers see outward only; she is blind to herself. “I’m shallow,” she tells me, the other day. She seems to believe it. I am speechless, stunned. It makes me so sad. It makes me want to turn off the lights. In his strange sci-fi arguable masterpiece Dhalgren, Samuel Delaney imagined a gang of wastrels who wear hologram projectors as gang colors, and to blur their identities. Each sees the hologram animal totem of the others, but none sees his or her own; it is against their code to tell. Each a mystery to the self, an avatar to the rest. It makes me think of that.

Because I am in love it makes me want to touch her. To show her what I see there. There are secrets in my hands, I want to tell her. You are in my hands. Find your shape with them. You missed something before — you missed something so beautiful in the dark. Let’s find it now.

Posted in About Last Night |

Foibles of the Reconstruction

The Pepper has been upgraded to the latest version of WordPress, and we’ve decided to take that opportunity to start a complete spring cleaning. All those cobwebs, you know…

Right now, we’re back in the default layout, and we’re going to customize things bit by bit, drawing upon the accumulated wisdom of these past two years, so that we don’t paint ourselves into the same logical programming corners as we did before. Instead, we’ll find new corners, fear not!

We do intend to bring back all the old functionality, fix all that broke over the past upgrades, and redo the layout, but in the meantime, things may look funny. If something seems broken, please let us know! Until the contact links are fixed, please send your observations via my feedback page, and try to be as precise as possible!


Posted in General Musings |

Passing Notes

She is the One

I know the occasional Jedi Master, and when it comes to Jedi Masters I am one royal pain in the ass. I’m a promising Paraquat, I mean Padawan, see. I am full of insight and clarity and energy and devil-may-crazy ways to put this together with that and make five. And sometimes I leap to wisdom without going through the due diligence of restraint. The Force is a pretty forgiving place, but it can make peace hard for those who need it. So, Master Yoda: I am sorry. I’ll replace the teacups. I’ll have the robes repaired. The chafe on your heart is beyond my powers to undo so far, but I’ll try to calm it from here on out. Be honest, though. You never used that little chair, and you won’t miss it. And it didn’t suit the room. It didn’t. You’re better off without it.

On Wednesday nights, Danielle tends bar at Rockwood Music Hall down on Allen Street. Because Rockwood is a classy joint, and Danielle is a musician and I am a sometime producer and label guy, we try not to chit-chat too much during the band sets. This gets away from us sometimes, and so over the past months we’ve picked up the high school habit of passing notes. For this reason and that I’ve missed the last few Wednesdays, but tonight I make it in after the burlesque.

Danielle has the napkins and pens ready at the bar when I squeeze up onto a free stool. “I love it when I see you come in,” she says. “I think to myself, I get to pass notes!”

I was emailing at some length with another friend today — we’ve had some serious blue e-air going back and forth that doesn’t communicate all that well in text, but that’s the channel we’ve got so we use it. We banged our heads against each other for a bit, her head mostly open and mine hard as hardoleum. After a while we knocked it off and got some wary work done.

Last month she sent me a song she loved, Clem Snide‘s tune Nick Drake Tape. I listened to it when she first sent it, but I guess my ears were colorless that afternoon. Today the song comes up on random shuffle and stops me solid. I listen to it again and again, and then a few more times. Where our words were turning stringy and shrill, the song was rooted in her joy sharing it with me. The tiff of the day turned pale, shallow, mean. The song tasted of her. I was a little ashamed, both for the fighting and for not hearing her heart in the song when she first sent it to me, when perhaps I took it, and her, for granted. As a promising young Paraquat once said, sometimes music is better than words, right?

I’m listening now.

Posted in General Musings |

Last Call


She Already Felt Like a Memory.

I am a prisoner of my dreams.

By now the jig is up. The game is over, les jeux sont faits, the die is cast, the Jews are feet. The bouncers are mopping up, house lights are on after the show. Midnight is history and the Governor’s letter never came. It’s time to move along, there’s nothing to see here.

And yet I still dream that the phone will ring, and you will be on it. “Dude,” you say. “Dude. What the fuck? What the fuck was I thinking? How could I say no to you?”

Posted in General Musings |

Poem: 1988

Gray Matter

Fisherman’s Philosophy

The small boats that
ride the early grey light
to the sea

teach this lesson: what
you are given defines the reach
of what can be taken away;

the day’s catch
is only partial
to the water of dreams;

and this:
we are small buckets of wood
pushing hard over cold waves.

- Linus Gelber
4 May 1988
Dallas, Texas

Posted in General Musings |

Brancusi to Paris

The Jewel in the Heart of the Cherry Blossom, Oh!

It goes, I think, something like this.

I picture a girl, perhaps particularly glorious and aware every inch of the way. She is at full throttle, she does not like to pause. She chooses and leaps, with the acid certainty of the beautiful and young. For our purposes, because we are all of us many things at different times, we’ll overlook the terrible hours when she feels cruel and small and used; we’ll forget the coarse stones and rushes of weakness, the passing broken hearts, the callous way she sometimes brushes the gentle aside. These things happen, and the gentle are used to wounding.

If you look carefully, very carefully, perhaps you’ll see that her lovers are like shackles. In her early days they anchor her, root her, teach her the quiet skill of being beautiful among men whose use for beauty is shallow and thoughtless. Later they are men who are rakish and full of risk, the sharks, the possessors, men who rely on silence and quiet rage for their opinions. Men who don’t matter. Later still they are simply inadequate, a puzzle — how can this woman so glorious choose so badly?

Look closely and you may see that they all share one quality: they are irrelevant. They will never challenge her, they do not engage what is deepest about her. Her job, and she learned this young, is to simplify her inner life for them, and lead them in what she thinks is a sly quiet form of control. The “behind every man” kind of control. The “soft answer turneth away wrath” kind of chipper mediation.

It’s a truism that all slaves believe they are powerful. No wonder she is so lonely.

In the early 1900′s, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi walked from Bucharest to Paris. His vision was sleek and far-reaching and modern, and it needed a cutting-edge garden, challenging water. In Paris he chose a city that supported Rodin, Matisse, Modigliani; a city that could make him grow, or allow him to grow into his natural gifts. He left his home and everything behind him, and walked into his future. Step by step he followed roads, the journey as much a part of the destination as the rough stones along the way. The walk may have taken him as long as two years. He was relentless, and would not compromise. He would not stop.

And I, who dreamed of stirring her depths, watering her dark flowers? I am pedestrian.

Posted in General Musings |