tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: NYC

the Iranian

Writing is a trip. What we experience becomes a memory, then what really happened changes a little, maybe more. Even the stuff that is going on right now will change as I remember it. Like, it’ll be different tomorrow, then it’ll be different again in 1 year, and again in 10. So really, the only time everything is exactly as it is is right now…after that it’s a shit show. I do my best to recall and not exaggerate, especially where my feelings are involved, but I seem to always change something. Some little thing left behind. Something added. Truth is, if I was held to some strict standard, I’m a liar.

With that out of the way, I feel a little better. Life rolls by like a river and all the things that pass are fleeting; every love, every loss, every wish, every dayhourminutesecond. The biggest trip is that I know I’ll die and that’s just so unacceptable as of now. I mean, I have so many more things to look at. There are thousands of letters I haven’t written. Babies I’ve not held. Waves I’ve not surfed. Lovely words I’ve not told my Mom. Races I’ve not run. Hidden spots I’ve not found. There is a fairness I’m being held to that I will always try to dodge: this whole death thing really cramps my style. It’s super difficult to be cool from the strict confines of the grave. For one thing, if someone talks shit about me, I can’t defend myself. I gotta just lie there all gray and cold with my mouth wired shut in some outfit that the coroner picked out for me–maybe he even thought it matched my eyes.

I guess I’m gonna talk about a time in NYC when Davey Kenneally took me to a sangha in Brooklyn. I think I’d been to one of these things before, but I ain’t sure. This one had a couple of monks visiting from Thic Nhat Hanh’s monastery in upstate New York. Both these dudes were cool and I could see it in ’em right away. They were genuine. Not fake genuine, but real genuine. I watched one of these fellas stand in the doorway of the room, waiting to enter. I was new to this whole thing and I was watching him ’cause he was super interesting. His smile was easy and real. He was intently looking into the room and as I watched him I began to have a hypothesis about what he was doing. I felt like he was waiting to gain eye contact with every person already in the room. I watched. Eventually he looked at me where I sat like a regular dude in the room, but he looked at me and beamed out a smile that was really pretty cool. Whether he was doing what I thought he was doing doesn’t matter, he was doing something out of the ordinary, and in my eyes, that’s a good thing.

We all sat down and had some chatting and stuff. Soon enough we began a meditation that lasted for about 20 minutes or so. I liked it. We were also told at the beginning that we would be allowed to speak what was on our mind at the finish, if we were so inclined. At the end of the meditation, a couple people said a thing or two, all very brief. Then this fella, an Iranian dude about 60 years old spoke up. He just wanted to tell about a thing that moved him. I’ll write it as best as I remember.

About a year ago, I was up early helping my grand-daughter get ready for school. I live on the 17th floor of an apartment building in the Bronx. On the next apartment building, I saw a hawk sitting in the morning sun and she was so beautiful. I thought to myself, “I wish I could look at you up close, you are so beautiful.” Well, a couple of mornings ago, I was having morning coffee and my grand-daughter was getting ready for school and she said, “Grampa, look on the porch! Look out on the porch!” And there on the porch was the hawk and she was so close and it was incredible. There we were, and the hawk, and she was just as beautiful as before and she was there, in front of us on the porch just a few feet away. It was all so amazing and I am so humbled to be here.

Now I’ll say this. Something broke loose for me during this little story about the hawk on the 17th floor of the Iranian’s apartment. Something inside me started to crack and what came out was salt and water. I ain’t sure about the reason, but I can tell you that while other people sat and smiled, I cried. I cried like the world was coming to an end. Like everything was done and I was done. At some point, I wanted to leave but I wouldn’t be able to do that without crawling, so I stayed. When old Iranian dude was done with the story, I was a mess. I’ve thought about it since, about what it was. The best I got to offer is that I’m a sucker for someone who loves beyond himself/herself. I’m a sucker for the sincerity that comes from believing in the heartbreaking beauty of it all. That stuff that we can’t explain that makes us almost depressed for not having the words. Yeah man, I like the big stuff. The deep stuff.

I’ll never be as sweet as that Iranian dude…or Dave Kenneally who is on his way to being a monk (nice job you sly fox), but I’m down with knocking some teeth out for the things that need protecting. Like the blue blue sky and the polar bears and the whales and the pelicans. The palid swallowtails and the sprouting cedars. The vireos and the tiger salamanders and the pill bugs and the crawdads and the sea urchins and the mayflies and the box turtles. The wild rivers and the moss covered caverns that hold the sturgeons and the sturgeons and the scrawny little mange covered coyotes. The great whites that hunt the likes of me. The scariest of all in the darkest of darks…it all belongs. It all belongs like us. Get it? These are the things that are beautiful, without them we are alone. And alone is a heavy stone.

ah, good night!

i can sing like my dad, not nearly as good but good enough to make my brothers and sisters laugh. i know his changes in cadence and expression.  my pop sings a lot and he sings damn well. he is a preacher and he will break into song whenever the spirit leads. he’s a wonder.

when my dad is surprised, he never cusses. he uses one expression more than any others. he say’s, with a little pause prior, “good night!” i have friends who’ve never met my old man that use this expression because i’ve talked about it so much. i love it. i love him. i have the tendency to falter into a litany of four-letter expletives that would make a sailors neck turn red. i’m nowhere near as eloquent, nor as disciplined as my father. he’s a man of God. i’m less. 

in my experience, it’s what i don’t say that usually makes the difference. like, the more i’m willing to listen and think and refrain, the more help i can be. i’m mostly scratching my head because i just don’t know or i’m thinking and probably won’t know after i’m done doing that. if i’m comfortable, i might start giving my opinion, then we’re all in trouble. my opinion is mixed with experiences that make little sense to me. what i dreamed life would turn me into has resulted in my present person. this ain’t what i expected. i thought maybe it’d be a little more heroic or something. the guy i am is, umm, is, how should i say this without sounding pathetic, is…less. now, i know there’s ways to cope with this; whiskey and long distance running and cold water swimming and blogging (oh my, the last is so damn pathetic i can hardly stand it) but whatever, i gotta write it somewhere and napkins are just too damn flimsy.

wanna know something? i’ll tell you. “good night” is a perfect expression.  it helps set thing aright. somehow, my dad found a way to affect me even through all our differences. he wasn’t there in the ocean when my buddies and i were being thrashed and february was proving that 28 days can be a long, long time. he wasn’t surface swimming with me in the middle east toward failaka island with my recon team while the submarines cruised like nuclear whales below us. he wasn’t with me when christian and i came down in the winds that were crashing against the aleta del tiburon in the french valley. he couldn’t stop my world from turning in it’s course as time ticked off seconds and september 11th approached. (and christian left me in patagonia to take his job as a new firefighter right there across the brooklyn bridge from the world trade center.  i came back a couple weeks later and went to climb in yosemite. while i was 1000 feet off the ground i was told that the towers fell in new york city.) my dad, couldn’t help my relentless heart as i drove toward the city where i was convinced i was going to find my dear brother and he would be safe and he would be full of stories, because no way could he have died; i knew him too well.  i knew that he had found a strong-hold where he and the folks he would save were going to be found. and when i needed help, as i sat in a truck stop and watched, for the first time, the towers fall and turn to powder, there was nothing my old man could do. he couldn’t stop my changing life, as much as he would have liked. i was falling. 

can i tell you? i know everyone has their story. my hurt wasn’t more, it was just mine. i watched my buddy, brian, crawl out of my car and cry. you see, brian loved christian too. let me tell you something, brian doesn’t cry. i watched new york city cry like brian. i sat on the subway and cried like brian. and when nothing of christian was ever found, i conjured his face in the stories i told in the bars i began to haunt and his firefighter fellows raised their whiskeys and their wild irish hearts. i watched the cuban girl cry as she took my money in the breakfast joint on the upper west side. on the train, i watched the jewish woman hold the thick-necked black man whose wife worked in tower 1. and we all cried, man, we all cried. a day before i left nyc, i went to central park and sat on a bench. broken is an understatement, i was shattered from that event. i lost one of the most significant people in my life when christian regenhard burned. he was a powerhouse; he was a raging, dancing-on-the-bar, carrying the-light, fighting-the-man, towing-the-line, i-gotcher-back kinda guy. so, as i sat on the bench, i wondered if what my buddy dave said was true, that i might never stop crying…and so what? a woman with a little dog sat down on the bench next to me. she said, after a minute or two, “darling, you’ll get better. life is made for this. your heart will heal.” well, i put my long-haired head on her little shoulder and crumbled down to nothin’. and you know what? she was right. life keeps on plugging away. since then i’ve been broken down a few times, loves have been lost…and so have keys and wallets, and i’m godamn fine.

like my old man says, “good night.” and good night is right, christian, love you man. i’m carrying your fire.

rubber dog

when i was a senior in high school my dad brought a puppy home from the reservation he had just visited. he looked quite a bit like the dog from the t.v. show The Little Rascals, he had a big black spot on his back and a half black, half pink nose. if you rolled him on his back, which he loved, you would see that his belly was as pink as a rose. because of that pink color, and the fact that he would let us kids pick him up from any limb (kids are so bad about mauling puppies) he earned the nick-name rubber dog. his real name was brewster, but in a family with five kids there seems to be an endless flow of name shortenings. brew, brewskie,ski, and on and on…he answered to them all, with a wagging tail. he grew into a 90 pound staffordshire terrier and was muscle from ear to caboose. my mom was his favorite in the family and i know why, she simply loved him so much.

let me break off and tell you about my mama. maybe everyone feels this way about their ma, i don’t know, but i have never met a better human. she has always had the ability to absorb all my bad, and love me just the same. i know dozens of hard-case marines that i’ve taken to meet my ma, many of them have returned just to stop in and eat pie and have coffee…even when i ain’t there! she has a way.

once i took my buddy, Christian, home for christmas. we were leaving on a long trip together and we stopped in to put our gear into order. christian slept in the guest bedroom that had a lacy bedspread and frilly pillows and my ma teased him appropriately. two weeks later my ma was seeing us off on a journey that would last 8 months and cover most of south america. it was the last time my ma would see christian. i guess we never know these things…they seem too unfathomable until they happen. christian would fly back to the states, take the job as a fireman that he had waited on for months, be stationed on the brooklyn side of the brooklyn bridge, ride a firetruck to the base of the twin towers, run in with 4 other men, and be turned to dust.  i went to NYC, i think it was a day or two later…i don’t really remember. i was awestruck by the grief. i felt the hot, terrible sadness as i realized that i would not find christian in a hospital or under a piece of rubble. the big maybe was too big. they never found a trace of my buddy, not a smidgeon. i stayed for his funeral…but i hadn’t called my mom. i was afraid to call her. i wasn’t sure if i would be able to hear her voice and not break apart into little pieces of myself. when i did call, it was her voice that made the damn break free…just the words, “oh, tobe…”. i never did completely come back from that one. i still have some trouble when my mom mentions ol’ boy christian.

it’s that kind of love that makes someone shine a little brighter than others. it’s why rubber dog sighed and posted up with his nose to the crack under the door anytime he was locked out of a room that ma was in; and my, my, did he make here laugh. he was terrified of spiders, rubber bands(i’m sure that’s because us kids shot him once or twice), and the dark. he loved to lay in the sun on his back with his pink stomach to the sky. one day we noticed a patch of angry skin on his belly…it was cancer. rubber dog died within a year. my ma never wanted another dog. i think brewster’s death hurt my ma more that she ever let on. it’s difficult to explain our human attachment to other hearts.

love.  that thumping heart, hurried breath, furrowed brow, kind of thing that comes from losing another being. everyone has their own opinion about souls and eternity. i lean toward the simple…love with all your might and without excuse. love till the stars fall from the sky and the earth cracks into pieces. love most the things that love you back and be careful not to waste it on the trivial. love relentlessly like a river. love…aw hell, love like my mother.