Arise, Ye Useless of the Earth

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In the windy darkness beyond my window a brawling thunderstorm rages over Guadalajara. Lightning arcs sideways across the horizon, cloud to cloud, and rain sluices down like a cow pissing on a flat rock. For a day crumbling streets will be clean. For me, storms encourage contemplation, lend themselves to thoughts of whence and whither and why. Maybe Guad is just a third-world city like many I have known, but it is where I live now. Looking backward over a lengthening life, I wonder how I ended up here. I am not sure why anyone might care, but, well, I’m writing the column.

Granted, I’m watering introspection with a bottle of Padre Kino red. Reality occasionally needs a little help.

Perhaps it is because I have made only unwise choices, thank God, that I am here. Ages ago, setting out into the world, I almost did prudent things and made sensible decisions, but something always stayed my hand. Almost I applied to graduate school in chemistry, almost I became a federal programmer and, in Washington, almost was hit by a bus. Consistently I have taken the wrong turn. (The bus missed me.)

In the middle of college I joined the Marines, later drifted around the world like a bottle bobbing in the Pacific, washed up on various of the beaches of life as so much spindrift, fell into journalism, covered minor wars and ran the Asian alleys. It was behavior most unwise. I recommend it. Along the way I met the underflow of the world, the freelances and bar owners in Manila and the whores and the ingenious flotsam who lived by their wits in the wilder places of the earth. I became one of them. For this I will be forever grateful.

We who live thus have our critics. They say that we have dark moods, that we drink too much, that we do not behave as we ought. (Ah, but they read us, those of us who became mercenaries of the keyboard.) Yet perhaps they do not drink enough. The virtue of vice is everywhere underestimated. Something is wrong with those who are always proper, careful, and as they should be. I would rather talk to a bourbon-swilling correspondent in a bar in Manila, with a cigarette in his hand and a barmaid on his knee, than to the cleverest chemist at Yale, tamer of ketones.

We, the useless of the earth (or so I hope), may in our varying ways and degrees be besotted, or bedrugged, or have teeth yellowed by nicotine — live hand-to-mouth, work for unsavory magazines, or serve in the Foreign Legion. We may indeed, and many of us do. We may not be orderly or admirable. But we have seen the mortar flares hanging in the monsoon clouds over Danang. We have known the back alleys of Phnom Penh late at night, blind drunk on cheap gin, when Chicom 122s whistled in from the swamps. Some have heard the ice cracking when spring comes to the far North.

We are not always a happy lot, being restless, easily bored, and unable to bear routine. We have our good days when we sense the rightness of things on a sunny morning in God knows where — for that is where we have spent much of our time. We have passed days without end in roadside diners, atop boxcars late at night on the seaboard rails, in honky-tonks in Austin. We have heard the Greezy Wheels. We knew BC Street in Koza, the street of the snake butchers in Wan Wha, in Taipei where the workers’ brothels were. We have hobnobbed with hookers, drunks, geniuses, psychopaths, mercenaries, transvestites, and the men of the fishing fleets. We have seen fresh squid draped like glistening pink gloves on fish carts.

Some will say that our lives constitute a sordid cohabitation with the ungodly. I hope so. Detritus we are, and detritus we will be. It suits us. The world, the part worth knowing, lives in the alleys. We have known the smoke and dimness of a thousand Asian bars, known them till they run together in the mind, and found the hookers morally preferable to the expensively suited criminals of good society, more engaging than the liars of the press conferences. There is more of life and humanity in the driver of a battered Ford who picks up a hitchhiker in the darkling valleys of Tennessee than in the moral fetor and vanity of Washington.

We are not entirely without ambition. Often I have seen a young lovely in Bangkok, on Patpong or Nana Plaza or Soi Cowboy, revolving without excessive clothing around a brass pole in a dim club with disco thumping in the murk and almond eyes watching for a flicker of interest. I do not want to be president, nor a Rothschild nor a computer magnate. But a brass pole in Bangkok, that I could be.

We are what we are. We can’t help it. In moments of desperation we have taken jobs in places with names like Federal Computer Week, and sat in horror, muscles tensing in uncontrollable despair, waiting for lunch and a drink or a joint or something to get us through four more hours of federal contracts. I did that. A friend was a mortgage broker for a bit, another tried graduate school. One day it hits: fuggit-I’m-outta-here. We buy a ticket to Mexico City, or Kuala Lumpur, or Istanbul. Decide on the way to the airport. What the hell’s in Mexico City? Find out when we get there. Somebody will know.

The literary among us found that sociopathy is a saleable commodity in the magazine racket. A press card, as a great man said, is a ticket to ride. We spent years patrolling with the Marines in Lebanon, stalking through remote Africa with guerilla bands, being cat-shot from carrier decks. Get to know the cops and you see things you can’t write about, things dark and strange, drug pads with walls moving in roaches. A friend spent weeks in Tibet, at the expense of a television network. It is how we are.

It changes you, and starts to be a closed club. We talk to each other because we can’t talk to anyone else. Outside of Washington you can’t say you’re a writer without people saying, “Oh. And have you been published?” Well, yeah, lady, actually. So you shut up. To another scribe, you can speak of the unlikely and distant and not entirely believable, and it is just shop talk.

A strange life, I suppose, for all involved, and not much to show for it. I don’t think we care. If this rain doesn’t stop, there will be three feet of water in low streets.


Maybe it’s genetic. Fred’s daughter Macon three years ago,
hopping freight trains across British Columbia.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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