Running out of gas with Steppenwolf

So I was on the highway, on my way to a sales job near Allentown with my stomach in a knot because I knew the job would suck. It was Throwback Thursday on the college radio station and the DJ was playing songs that, way back in the day, were mainstays on the big commercial stations. The Steve Miller Band’s “Living In the USA” came on. I hear you, Steve, we’re living in a plastic land, somebody give me a cheeseburger, how are your royalties doing?

And then Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” an anthem of the road if there ever was one. The guitar churns like glass in a garbage disposal. The keyboard clings like wet cement. The overall effect is dark and dirty, like exhaust fumes from a sixteen-wheeler, but energizing, like good meth.

I cranked up the volume and pushed the rented Ford to 90 mph and remembered “Born To Be Wild” playing long ago when I climbed a high fence to get to my impounded car – I’d parked in a loading zone — and then tried to drive the car through the car lot’s locked gate in order to avoid paying the parking ticket. Bad idea.

The verses triggered more ancient memories, one after another, and a brief feeling of nostalgic transcendence.

Get your motor running/Head out on the highway/Looking for adventure/In whatever comes our way…

But the Ford’s gas gauge had a glitch. It said I had enough fuel for forty more miles but then, within a mile, the figure dropped to four miles. I was thirty miles from my destination, so I pulled off the highway to search for a service station before I ran out of gas.

Too late. The car chugged to a halt soon after “Born To Be Wild” faded out. I found myself stuck in a semi-rural scene with old houses and vast backyards. It was 6 pm, still plenty of light. I knocked on the doors of several houses and looked around for man-eating dogs.

A bearded man opened the fifth door I knocked on. I paid him ten bucks to drive me to the nearest service station. I filled a gas can, but when we got back I couldn’t pour the gas into the tank because the car had a built-in anti-syphon valve. It took me a half-hour to force-feed the gas tank.

I felt exhausted and marooned, and battered by the big existential questions. Who am I? How did I get here? Where can I get a macchiato in the middle of nowhere, or even a decent cup of coffee?

I got back on the road, smelling of gasoline, with the radio off. “Born To Be Wild” played in my head, mocking me, reminding me that most of my adventures these days are misadventures. They pull me out of the elaborate routines I’ve established to make enough money to support my writing habit. They pull me out of my safety zone and wake me. Who needs that?

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The outsider who made friends everywhere

Anthony Bourdain, who was 61, wrote Kitchen Confidential, the definitive book about working on the wild side in the restaurant business. He created several acclaimed TV series, using food as a device for exploring foreign cultures and making friends with people who were off the radar of the rich and powerful. He became a father at age 50 and, more recently, was dating a beautiful actress who helped get him involved in the #MeToo movement.

Then he hanged himself in France, where he was filming an episode of “Parts Unknown.” WTF?

I’m spooked because I identified with Bordain as he portrayed himself in his writings. We liked the same writers. He was an outsider by nature who, in his youth, preferred the company of those “who worked while normal people played and who played while normal people slept,” as he told NPR.

He embraced the lifestyle of the bar/restaurant worker, a mix of order and chaos, of hard work and hedonism. He loved the work but hated restaurant owners and managers. He enjoyed being a team player so long as the other team members were outsiders, like himself.

But part of him lived at a distance from the kitchen brigades, outside of the outsiders, examining his life as “a working journeyman chef” and wondering what to make of it. This went on even after he turned to writing to explore his contradictory feelings about the role he was playing, which was also the life he was living.

“Why do I, a fairly educated sort of swine, take such unseemly pleasure in the guttural utterances of my largely uneducated, foul-mouthed crews?” he asked in Kitchen Confidential.

And why did he love the “clatter and spray of the dishwasher, the sizzle as a filet of fish hits a hot pan, the loud, yelping noise — almost a shriek — as a glowing sizzle-platter is dropped into a full pot sink…” And the after-hours part of the routine, the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll part, followed by oblivion and revival and a new cycle of work and play.

Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, is Bordain celebrating his life as an outsider. Its success opened the door to his TV success and, ironically, to his appreciation of life in the straight world.

But the book wasn’t Bordain’s way of waving goodbye to his dark side. Anyone who believes it was probably didn’t read it and is probably a fan of poorly written books with sappy endings. By all accounts, he remained as cynical as he was generous, restless rather than contented, disarmingly honest and tirelessly curious.

Was it manic curiosity that compelled Bordain to keep circling the globe for new adventures, or was he running to escape the hellhound on his trail?

Stupid question. No one really knows what motivates others, or what drives them to despair. I’m just glad he did so much good work and touched so many people before he decided to check out.

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‘Disinvited’ Eagles weren’t going anyway

Swamp Rabbit was getting on my case for not being a football fan.

I’m a fan of the players,” I said. “It’s the NFL I hate — the overpaid commissioner and the spoiled rotten billionaires who own the teams. I hate the way they suck up to the U.S. military and bow down to Donald Trump when he waves the flag at them.”

Swamp Rabbit wasn’t listening. “You live in Philly and you don’t even like the Eagles. I saw what you wrote about them.”

Au contraire, rabbit. I wrote that Eagles fans get carried away when the Eagles win. They act like holy rollers at a revival meeting.”

I added, “But I like the Eagles, especially since Trump disinvited them to the White House because he knew only a handful of them would show up.”

Swamp Rabbit dissed me some more. I shouldn’t get sports mixed up with politics, he said. Sports-watching should be an activity that brings people together instead of dividing them along political lines.

“Tell it to Trump,” I said. “He said players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem were unpatriotic, even after the players explained they were taking a knee to protest police brutality and meant no disrespect to the country. Trump made an issue of it because 70 percent of NFL players are black, and he knew calling them unpatriotic would play well with his racist supporters.”

“Football ain’t politics,” Swamp Rabbit insisted. “It’s a place to escape politics.”

“There’s no escaping Trump,” I said. “He seeps into everything.”

I told Swamp Rabbit about the airborne toxic event in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. A big black cloud descends on a small town, causing fear and suspicion. People exposed to the cloud develop symptoms — sweaty palms, deja vu, etc. — but it’s unclear whether the symptoms are caused by actual exposure to the cloud, or by exposure to news reports about the cloud.

“Trump is an airborne toxic event,” I said. “Thanks to the media he’s everywhere, spreading fear and suspicion, even when there’s no reason for people to feel those things. Even when the subject matter is only football.”

“The media should ignore the guy,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Maybe he’d just go away.”

“I don’t think so, rabbit, but dream on.”

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Trump claims the right of kings. Anyone surprised?

Who would have thought Donald Trump, not even half-way through his term, would claim he can pardon himself if convicted of crimes? (Not that he would do anything wrong, of course.)

I asked my friend Swamp Rabbit and he said, “Anyone who knows Trump’s history and isn’t a total dumb-ass would have thought it.”

Trump’s tweet was a wake-up call to all the peeps who think our much-lauded system of checks and balances guarantees that a dictator type like Trump will never defy the law in order to hold onto power.

And it was a warning to special counsel Robert Mueller and his posse as they strengthen their case regarding the Trump team’s possible collusion with Russian hackers who helped him win the 2016 presidential election. (Actually, he lost by about 2.9 million votes, but that’s another story.)

We’re likely to hear the word “self-pardon” fairly often as Mueller gets closer to nailing Trump.

Just the other day constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley wrote that Trump can indeed pardon himself, even though “a self-pardon would be [an] ignoble and self-defeating act.”

Some scholars disagree with Turley, but the fact that Trump has made the idea of self-pardon a point of debate is evidence of flaws in the laws governing the executive branch.

The flaws were always there, but it took a third-rate Mussolini to bring them to light.

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A caffeinated confession

I’ve never been a Starbucks fan. Its stores are more like over-priced ice cream parlors than coffeehouses, and there’s something spooky about customers sitting by themselves, staring at their laptop screens.

That said, I’m glad the “anti-bias” training went well this week at 8,000 Starbucks outlets, and that employees will henceforth treat all customers like humans, even if they’re non-white and aren’t carrying a laptop.

The training was about damage control following the arrest of two black men last month at a Starbucks in Philly’s affluent Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. The manager called the cops on the men for sitting while black, or for trying to use the bathroom while black. The arrests became national news.

Yesterday I rode my bike to the Starbucks closest to my home in the Tinicum swamp. It was a long ride because, as I noted at the time of the arrests, Starbucks only opens stores in neighborhoods that have been ethnically cleansed. Oops, I meant to write “gentrified.”

I had an espresso macchiato and asked a barista what his training session had been like. It lasted too long, he said, but the company threw in free meals. From now on, store policy will be to let anyone who enters the store use the bathroom, and employees will be expected “not to treat people like jerks.”

Well, there you go. Race relations will improve a hundred percent, just like that, and Starbucks fans can get back to enjoying their pumpkin lattes and chocolate croissants and Facebook friends in peace.

I’ll get back to my neighborhood coffee shop, Dirty Andy’s, and order up a cup of joe. Andy will say nope, all we have today is a cup of mud. I’ll have a cup of mud and listen to “Big Joe and Phantom 309” on the jukebox.

Or maybe I’ll pedal a few extra miles to a Starbucks. Corporate coffeehouses suck, but that macchiato was pretty good.

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Philip Roth’s many phases

Time flies faster as you grow older. One day you wake up and read Tom Wolfe is dead. Blink a few times and there goes Philip Roth, too.

I was drawn to Roth’s fiction indirectly, around the time he was helping introduce “Writers From the Other Europe” to American audiences. I remember reading Milan Kundera’s short stories in Esquire and thinking that Roth had great taste, his own work was probably worth a good look.

I knew Roth had spent time defending himself against people who used his fiction as evidence that he was a Jew-hating Jew, a sexual deviant, a misogynist and worse. The sort of dreary people who automatically equate fictional points of view with an author’s real-life beliefs, and assume his/her characters are nothing but thinly veiled real-life characters.

“Wow, I wonder if he’s really describing so-and-so?” they will ask, or “Is that sneaky bastard writing about me?”

I knew he’d tried to make peace with detractors who said his short-story collection Goodbye, Columbus cast Jews in a bad light and that, years later, he’d provoked them all over again with his breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint, whose young, sex-obsessed, guilt-ridden Jewish narrator calls himself “the Raskolnikov of jerking off.”

I didn’t know he’d go through many more phases as a novelist, experimenting with the form, becoming more productive as he aged, refining his acidic sense of humor, poking fun at critics by inventing protagonists who closely resembled him — Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh — or actually bore his name. (In Operation Shylock, the “real” Philip Roth chases a Philip Roth imposter all over the map and addresses one of Roth’s favorite concerns: that our increasingly chaotic world is making it harder to write “realistic” fiction that’s as bizarre and unpredictable as real life.)

Or that he’d go on a creative tear in his 60s and 70s that resulted in major works like Sabbath’s Theater, an eloquent rant whose aging protagonist definitely does not go gentle into that good night.

Or that his concern about the durability of fiction would culminate in his last major success, The Plot Against America, in which aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt and becomes president in the World War II years.

Last year the New Yorker asked Roth a point-blank question: Does Donald Trump outstrip the novelist’s imagination?

Roth’s email response: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

I know what he meant. It’s much easier to picture Charles Lindbergh, a flawed hero, as president than a cartoonish con man like Trump in the role. But I’ll bet Roth would have done justice to the Trump era in his fiction if he’d been born a decade or two later.

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Santa Fe, TX, wants more God, not gun control

Swamp Rabbit and I were reading from a Washington Post story about local reactions to the slaying of nine students and a teacher by a gun-wielding student at a school in Santa Fe, TX:

“It’s not the guns. It’s the people. It’s a heart problem,” said Sarah Tassin, 61. “We need to bring God back into the schools.”

According to the Post reporter, the woman’s response was in keeping with how “most residents” of Santa Fe think about the killings. They think we need more God, not gun control. God likes guns, and he does not like people who question his motives or challenge his authority.

A typically lame story on NPR noted that the townsfolk were still up in arms, so to speak, about a two-decades old U.S. Supreme Court decision that stopped allowing student-led prayers at school events. It’s this sort of blasphemy that led to the carnage, get it? The fact that there are guns all over the place had nothing to do with it.

People’s thought processes don’t get that screwed up overnight. It takes many generations of worshipping a God too mysterious for big-city heathens to understand. A God that grew out of a nasty strain of Christianity that stresses belief in predestination.

I tried to explain this to Swamp Rabbit. “This God of theirs isn’t real big on pity or mercy, and he never explains himself. If something bad happens to you, it’s your fault. If you offend him, you get cast into the dark.”

Swamp Rabbit scratched his mangy head and said, “Their God sounds a lot like Trump.”

“You got it,” I replied. “Most Bible thumpers can’t tell the one from the other.”

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