Last week, I spent a lot of time watching Floridians. There were a fair number of geezers in golfing shirts and slow-moving Cadillacs, but the most interesting creatures by far were the birds. Limpkins, buntings, grackles, curlews, grebes, plovers, loons and whipoorwills.
I love watching birds, even in New York where you mainly run across grayer species likes sparrows and pigeons. The park across the street is home to doves, starlings and the occasional woodpecker but the most exciting are the red-tailed hawks who nest on the top floor of the NYU library. They hunt in the morning and at dusk, usually pigeons, squirrels and rats, but rumor has it they show up with the occasional tabby. I always used to worry they’d snatch our miniature dachshunds and try to fly off with them while I gripped the leash like a kite string.
When I was thirteen, they showed a movie in morning assembly that fucked me up. We had moved to America less than a year before and I was clueless about virtually everything that wasn’t to be found on the shelves of my grandfather’s library in Lahore. I knew about hunting ocelots, excising neck tumors, and the pretenders to the Romanian throne, but nothing about rock ‘n’ roll, heroin or afro picks. This movie taught me about all three.
It was a black and white 16 mm, faux documentary about a young Puerto Rican boy’s short and tragic life. The movie opened in an alley as Chico and his homies squatted on an abandoned car, passing a joint. In the next scene, this gateway led Chico to a party where he and older pals sniffed white powder while a portable record player blasted a screeching guitar solo. Soon Chico was snorting, skin popping, then mainlining junk, dope, smack, skag, and horse. Various other madcap adventures ensued, leading to the final scene in which Chico ODs in a shower. The film closed with a slow iris down centering on Chico’s lifeless eyeball.
“What?!” he said and pushed me up against the wall. “Where are you getting the stuff? Give me names!”
That night I knocked on the door of my mother’s bedroom. My second stepfather opened it, looking bleary and irritated. I told him I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid I was a heroin addict.
“What?!” he said and pushed me up against the wall. “Where are you getting the stuff? Give me names!” My mother joined us and my stepfather told her I was a dope fiend. “Names!” he hissed again. “Who’s your dealer?!”
“I don’t know,” I whined. “I don’t know where I get it. I don’t remember anything.” I told them about the movie and how insidious heroin addiction could be. “I think I’m such a junky I can’t remember anything about it. It’s like I must be leading a parallel life or something. Seriously.”
They looked at each other, eyes rolling. “Jesus! Go back to bed,” my stepfather groaned and turned on his heel. The door slammed.
The film had a long-term effect on me. A) It was very effective in deterring me from being a heroin addict. Forty years later, I am still clean.
B) It also left me with a life-time aversion to wailing guitar solos. Unlike all my normal friends who would air guitar to Zeppelin, who loved heavy metal, hair metal, death metal, Metallica, Megadeath, Motorhead, Maiden, Sabbath and Priest — metal freaks me out. That first whining shriek still seizes my bowels like Malcolm McDowell, making me anxious and tense and waiting for hell to break loose. It’s the thin edge of the wedge, man — a couple of Motley Crue tracks and next thing ya know, it’s mainlining and toe-injecting and selling my butt in the street.
I have no particular aesthetic reason not to like heavy metal. I love punk, after all, which is far more nihilistic and loud. I like abstraction. I like the blues. I even like spandex on men.
I can only attribute this aversion to a Pavlovian response wired into me back in the dark of the assembly hall in ’73, a reprogramming of my limbic system that still holds sway.
I have other long-seated childhood aversions that I still trip over. Sweet and sour pork. Shredded wet paper towels. Bitter-sweet chocolate. Trigonometry. Cilantro.
In my never-ending quest for mild self-improvement, I have begun to question these knee-jerk repulsions and am working on reprogramming myself. I refuse any longer to be haunted by these ancient specters, especially the one whose origins I know, origins that are absurd to be enslaved by when you are a man of my age and dwindling hair. So I am watching Dianne Wiest movies, eating Filets-o-Fish, even drawing with a soft pencil. And blasting Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” ’round the clock.
I am stronger than my weaknesses — and I shall prevail.
I don’t usually read my books for a long time after I write them. I’ll have some occasion to look back and read what I wrote and the experience will be quite odd. Sometimes it will seem familiar, and very much me. At other times, I’ll think, “Did I really say that?”, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with dismay.
Often I am possessed by some other version of me when I write, a version that is a co-creation of the book itself, the inexorable march of ideas and words that surge forward as I write at length, ideas taking on their own voice, connections stopping out of the shadows. That’s one of the prime pleasure of writing, how the process takes over.When I wrote a novel a few years ago, I was constantly surprised at things the characters said, at the way bits of plot came full circle to tie up ends, at the life the story had quite beyond me.I sometimes think back on the characters, wondering how they are now, as if they lived on even though I stepped away from the keyboard.
I can have the same feelings when I draw. I begin with an impulse of what sort of drawing I want to make but invariably where I end up is pretty different. Making a drawing, like writing, is an exploration, an adventure. The destination is subject to change. My mission is to discover myself. And sometimes what I find may be pretty unfamiliar and surprising.
I write my books. But I read them too. And I hope I’ll always get lost in their pages, lost so I can find something surprising and new.