Saturday, March 12, 2011

Boarding the Bus

The month of June in ‘92 was a scorcher. The sun had more than doubled in size, air conditioning was prohibitively expensive, and I was sharing an apartment near Lake of the Isles in South Minneapolis. My roommate was a young woman who regularly overindulged in smelly liqueurs. Back then I was an oil painter and my roommate, alcohol permitting, was my model. Jody and I would drink day or night, sometimes even finding some time to create art. More often, Jody and I would frequent one of several of the Uptown neighborhood pubs, spending our afternoons perched on barstools, watching sweat beads roll down highballs. By sundown and paychecks permitting, I’d be floating in a vodka tonic and Jody would be sinking beneath the bubbles of a fizzy green on the rocks with maraschino squeezings.
            This one afternoon I was sitting alone in the apartment, Wink Martindale grinning from the small black and white TV. Jody hadn’t been around all day, but I was hoping that she’d call. I was itching to get to the bar. Just then the phone rang. Two minutes later, I was standing on Hennepin Avenue, waiting for the bus. Jody was in Uptown. Her parents had given her some cash to help her get by, and so, drinks were on her until the tap sputtered out.
            I boarded the bus and dropped my change in the meter. Only a few sweat-stained riders were scattered about inside. I plopped into a seat as far from any other person as geometry would allow, and I leaned back and smiled. I imagined that Jody was already ordering me a cocktail. I could hear her voice calling the bartender man. “Hey man, can I get my friend a drink?” To my left, on the unoccupied seat across the aisle, was an abandoned paperback. As the bus arrived at my stop in Uptown, I grabbed the book and went to meet Jody.
            As we got loaded, we read the works of Arthur Rimbaud. Years earlier, Jody had briefly grazed the periphery of the college-aged literati of Austin, Minnesota.  Jody knew Rimbaud’s work somewhat, but poetry was a foreign language to me. Throughout high school, each year’s English class poetry unit was complete torture. I never liked the sense of disquiet and confusion that poetry raised in me. Mr. Leitie taught me to avoid poems whenever possible. For the first time, however, a whisper seemed to come off the weathered pages in the subdued lighting of that Uptown bar. Across the swelling Atlantic and half of the United States, the voice of a nineteenth century teenager spoke to me:

Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed. One evening I took Beauty in my arms—and I thought her bitter—and I insulted her.

Rimbaud was eighteen years old and he already spoke with an air of wisdom. How many young people mistakenly believe that they are wise with the accumulated knowledge of their few years?

I have seen archipelagos in the stars,
Feverish skies where I was free to roam!
Are these bottomless nights your exiled nests,
Swarm of golden birds, O Strength to come?

True, I’ve cried too much; I am heartsick at dawn.
The moon is bitter and the sun is sour...
Love burns me; I am swollen and slow.
Let my keel break! Oh, let me sink into the sea!

If I long for a shore in Europe,
It’s a small pond, dark, cold, remote,
The odor of evening, and a child full of sorrow
Who stoops to launch a crumpled paper boat.

Washed in your languors, Sea, I cannot trace
The wake of tankers foaming through the cold,
Nor assault the pride of pennants and flags,
Nor endure the slave ship’s hold.

Jody and I shared Rimbaud that one afternoon, but afterwards, the young man belonged to me alone. My years spent as a painter were in a long slow decline from a highpoint of mediocrity, and I knew it. For me, needing a life model was more an excuse to get girls naked than serving any nobler purpose. If Jody realized that, she never called me on it. To her credit, she allowed me the fantasies I constructed to give my life a greater sense of purpose, and to get laid. I had very little that I could call my own back then. I had my paintings, such as they were. I had Jody with me. And on that South Minneapolis bus, the great spirit of the clouds passed me a freebie:

—Sometimes in the sky I see endless sandy shores covered with white rejoicing nations. A great golden ship, above me, flutters many colored pennants in the morning breeze. I was the creator of every feast, every triumph, every drama. I tried to invent new flowers, new planets, new flesh, new languages. I thought I had acquired supernatural powers. Ha!
. . . I called myself a magician, an angel, free from all moral constraint.
. . . I am sent back to the soil to seek some obligation, to wrap gnarled reality in my arms. A peasant! Am I deceived? Would Charity be the sister of death, for me? Well, I shall ask for forgiveness for having lived on lies. And that’s that.
                                                                        Arthur Rimbaud
June, 1873

Jody and I read as the sun completed its rounds and dipped its orange blaze behind the trees and urban skyline. I didn’t tell Jody that evening, but by the time we were drunk enough to board the bus heading back to our dirty little apartment, I had already become a writer.

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