tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: prose

A Ghost in Every Window

There’s an old farm house down there where the road turns. There’s no one living in it, the barn swallows and owls roost, rats and mice and skunks shuffle through openings and go about their business in the secret way that animals do. The Coastal Cypress trees, their trunks obscured by ocean fog, mark the way to the cliffs above the waves. And the waves are working to move the land, they will never tire. They have a deal with the Sea: to throw themselves against the land until the last stone turns to sand, and the oceans all reunite.

In the dark, the house above the sea stands hollow. I wonder of it’s abandonment. I imagine that it has housed many hearts. I am dreaming now, creating maybes and might-have-beens. What ghosts are looking at me through warbling windows? What caused the separation of habitation and inhabitant? There is, I must admit, something beautiful about a structure returning to nature. There is not a single hint of paint. The wood is all the color of drift wood, both grey and green at the same time. And the bleak, scraped land is all around. Artichokes and Brussel sprouts are the crops of choice. Miles of plastics cover the crops and there’s not a hint of plant life save that which is planted and sprayed and plucked and processed. Farming here looks more like a science project. Maybe that’s why the house is empty; new people practicing new ways. Not too far down the road is a sign with the name of Donald Trump in gaudy red letters saying something about making America great. I feel an urge to drive down to the cliffs and watch the ocean, to look at something I know is true.

The low branches of the cypress are huge and rotten. Up 30 feet they are more solid, some of them droop all the way to the ground. Everything is drenched from the rain event last night. There was lightning over the ocean. Just before dark, when the sun was still coloring the upper terraces of the world, a whale surfaced and spouted, the flume hung white in the dark air for a full minute after the whale had passed. And in the night I thought of that whale out there in the dark — maybe hanging in the black with the storm overhead while the lightning spoke the language of the clouds. Maybe thinking bigger and deeper thoughts than any human could ever imagine. Maybe even mapping out the course of all things that have ever been and looking into the future by mirroring the past. Maybe understanding the way of things because it is a whale and not intimidated by vastness and expanse, and, in truth, a child of both those things. And I listened to the rain and thought of that whale and remembered the color of it’s breath as it hung in the air over the water and beneath the clouds that were still lighted by the last rays of the sun. But that was last night and this tree is tall. My nephew is with me and he’s watching me navigate. We are Jacks-in-the-beanstalk. We are climbing to the clouds. And one branch at a time and a 100 feet high and again and again to the sky. My nephew doesn’t talk too much, I think he’s too busy thinking to say a whole lot. He’s strong and listens as we move into the top-most branches. Coastal Cypress trees are cool because you can top out and stand above everything. Several pelicans fly over with a tiny black and white tern in their jet-wash. All the birds look at us, we are odd in their space. Far below is the RV, the dolphin, looking as tiny as ever. I can see my lover reading her book about octopuses in the broken sunlight. A couple miles away sits the abandoned farm house and the ghosts are in every window, looking out.

Looking out. And smiling.

The Average

I’ve been in Venice Beach, CA for a few days now. I came down here to do some tattoos and spend time in the ocean. VB has it’s own distinct feel. There’s really nowhere else like it. While I’ve been here, I’ve watched homeless folk talk intently, sometimes argumentatively to themselves. I’ve watched the wealthy do the same thing and look remarkable similar except that they are wearing some device linked to a phone. The drug addicts have an alley where they push their carts to and fro, while delivery trucks bring organic, free range, non-gmo, gluten free goods to the restaurants that sell $17.00 sandwiches made by chefs with curly mustaches to the folks in flip flops. While I’ve been hear, I’ve talked to my lover on the phone in an attempt to try and feel her warmth. I’ve talked with her about the differences in people and direction. While I’ve been here, the earth has rotated exactly 5 times, she is tilting and tilting toward winter, although here in SoCal you’d never know it.

There is something about the masses that has a pull. It’s dangerous. Everyone move to the mean. Average is the word. This is where the mundane takes control and there is little beyond what is. And so we begin to accept our trudging fate. Static drowns out the brilliant harmonies of creativity and expression. And so on and so on until oblivion. Even the rich, even the poor fall into the trappings of average life.

Of course, this is my opinion. This is how I see it through these eyes that I inherited from my parents. It’s just an opinion, so not to be fretted over. Maybe you like the average, I’m sure that’s out there. But to rise out of the average is to experience more life. And to experience more life is to extract the most out of the most wonderful of gifts. A wholesome discipline is what separates the average from the wondrous. Small efforts in our daily life. Choosing what to think and how to think it. Allowing the mind to free itself of petty prejudice. It takes intention to push the heart through endurance, and endurance is a good thing. If a person wakes to see the dawn and the stars that hum in the morning sky, and if that person sits quiet and thinks about his/her position under the cosmic silence, changes will occur. Nothing is really all that sudden. It takes a lifetime to practice living. There must be some intention in order to have realization. The truth is that we are all simply here, on the surface of this blue and spinning world. It is up to us to appreciate the value in that fact. The world will spin on with or without us.

There is an old expression about keeping your ear to the ground. It was the practice of old time hunters listening for large herds of hoofed animals, mostly for hunting. I remember putting my ear to the train tracks outside the tunnel in the mountains near the stream I loved to fish. I could here the train click-clacking miles away and I would wonder which way it was going. Having your ear to the ground insinuates that you are listening through the earth and reading what is to come. I like that idea. It’s a good thing to put your ear to the ground. It lets you hear the earth and it’s workings. It connects you to the ones you love. It pulls you from the masses and delivers you back to that ancient feeling of being a part of the world that wrought you. Far more important that what you look like is what you are? Average is easy and sad. Living with intent results in magnificence.

Practice elevated thoughts. You will not be average.

The Ghost of my Grandad

Proem: This piece has been brewing. It began in my head, in the woods, over the hole my buddies dug. I worked for a couple days building an outhouse over the hole, all the while my thoughts collected and boiled.  It continued to steep in the woods by the creek. Down there where my rig was stuffed between the cedars and madrones like a tick on a dog’s haunch. It takes time and coffee and early morning blue to choke the words outa me. This morning things are lining up.


The ghost of my Grandfather payed me a visit today. He was in the cedars.( His blood is back in the earth now, so he goes where he pleases these days. Seems a Crabtree trait to do that — go where you please.) The day was beautiful, the woods busy. I was happy Grandad decided to check in on me.

He saw me hand cutting the cedar poles and tacking them down and measuring out the tin roof. He watched me leave my hammer on the ground and cuss and climb down and back up to the roof. This day full of estimates and guesstimates and re-conjured tricks-of-the-trade. I am, and always will be, a hack carpenter. I’m at my best with less codes and proper materials, more improvisation and crooked beams.

Gramps was there earlier, when the sky still held the stars in a belly of periwinkle. He saw me hear the owl call and he liked it. He always liked that I loved the birds. He loved the birds. He loved the birds before me, way back in 1905 when he was only 7 years old. Back when more rivers ran free to the sea, before the World Wars and Carbon dating and nuclear reactors. Before rocket ships and airplanes filled the sky. And then a more distant owl answered, muffled by the duff of the forest. Or maybe that was Grandpa himself, speaking owl speak, that one language that crosses over. Owls do cross over, you know? They don’t subscribe to petty realities. They are denizens of all spaces and they move softly on speckled wings, unfettered, with hearts that chase the midnight voles through bone-colored grasses.

Then by the creek. Gramps remembered his blood as he watched me drop into the cold pool below the deadfalls. A Blue Darner flew through the shade with the speed and patience of all great hunters.  And there with the lilting trout and the red crawdad I settled in to wait for my bones to chill. From under the water I could see the sky and the trees overhead. At the head of the pool, wedged flat and quiet between the layers of serpentine, I spotted the slick body of something different: An eft, waiting to become.

And when the day came down and I headed back to the company of my people, my Grandfather stayed back. He stood at the edge, where the cedars cast their shadows. I called out loud to him and told him I loved him. That I would not forget him. He stood there with a hand full of feathers and his hair was long and beautiful and his spirit was throughout.

Epilogue: Elmer Lindson Crabtree was born in 1898. He was a native, a Choctaw. He called himself an Indian. He died sitting up in a chair with a cup of coffee in his mitt and a pair of old, worn out boots on his feet. His dog, Barney, had been used in Vietnam to spot planes, and he could still spot planes from the back stoop of the house. There were tools in his shed of all sorts. The ones without handles were waiting against the wall, while Elmer worked with shaky hands to fashion new handles from old wood. He broke his back on a fall from an oil derrick when he was in his 40’s and he lived with a shake for the rest of his days. I still remember him threading hooks even with his tremors, just kinda waiting them out, and then giving me a smile when he got it. In one of those legend-like stories that everyone has about someone, he lifted the back of a car while his brother fitted a tire back on the studs after the jack had failed. Of course, I didn’t see that happen, but I told the story like it was gospel when I was a kid. He showed me how to catch songbirds in homemade live-traps, see them up close and then set them free. He told me that being an Indian had less to do with blood and more to do with heart…and that everyone was a native from somewhere. He roams the mountains. He watches the stars. He calls to the owls from the hollow, just the other side of this life.

A Tattoo Parlor

The Inland Empire is a place all it’s own. When I first heard someone say it, I thought they were making it up and that it was some kind of inside joke. It sounds to me like some kind of place from a fantasy novel. Come to find out, it’s a term that’s used by the general inhabitants of the land. No fantasy involved. I’m not sure the extent of the Empire but it includes Riverside, Moreno Valley and San Bernardino as well as several other Socal cities. It’s generally defined as a place that is distinctly not LA. It has a tough personality. For years I’ve tattooed out of Moreno Valley and Riverside and I have a place in my heart for the average Inland Empire denizen. I’m a Colorado boy, born and raised at the foot of the Rockies. I did not grow up on the mean streets. I did not have to fight to survive in my private christian school. I learned about street justice and gang lingo by watching movies like Warriors and Colors and felt a little frightened when I thought about how I would fit in if I were to be suddenly tossed into the streets of Oakland. In other words, I grew up sheltered from the places like the Inland Empire.

Being a tattoo artist in an area certainly helps a person understand it’s demographics a little better. I worked at Inkaholics when I first started. Brian Foster was co-owner with an old cat named Tattoo Don. There was flash on the walls, floor to ceiling. Tough guys and hookers and gangsters and servicemen and other eclectics were among the clientele. It was an eye-opening time for me.

Now I visit Foster on a regular basis. He’s opened a new shop in Riverside and the evolution is incredible. He and I have changed. Our intentions are more deliberate. The bookshelves are filled with the words of philosophers, visionaries and mystics. The Elizabeth Street crew is kind and generous, the kind of people you are excited to see. There’s a contagious feeling among fervent artists who practice and share. I plug in and recharge and learn. It’s cool.

I tend to see the things I write in picture form. The world, to me, begs to be drawn. And so I draw. I like to take it in, let it filter, and then turn it loose again. Among the things I observe, there are way more things that are hidden. These hidden things are telling stories that affect the more obvious stuff. When I draw, I am trying to tell the story and hint that there is more to the world than what is directly observable. To allow the wonder to be. And when I write, my intent is to draw pictures with words and give your mind a chance to walk down between the trees and turn over a rock or two just to see what might be living there. I don’t want to use $50 words that cause anyone to stumble, I’d rather use the language that is the easiest to latch onto, so that we can feel something together.

Simply, when I write, I’m trying to draw pictures with my words. And when I draw, I’m trying to tell stories with my pictures. If there could be a final product it would put us in the same place either way — in the middle of being human. Being human and humanly being. We are Beings. We are action verbs. We are wonderers and wanderers; explorers inside and out. Be kind to the mysteries, they need us just like we need them!

I hope this wasn’t too far out there. I don’t want you to think I’m weird…I want you to know it for sure.

Thanks for reading my junk.

Post script :

Elizabeth Street Tattoo is located in Riverside, California. It is a grand collective of artist from diverse backgrounds. Should you ever want a tattoo, or visit with cool people, I’d suggest you go there. They are not normal, they are extra-ordinary. If you know how to look for things on the world wide web, you’ll find them. If not, contact me, I still answer to smoke signals and morse code.  

Hold my M-40, I’ve gotta find my bird book

21 years ago, give or take a month or two, I came to a stop on a steep hillside.

my buddy, Brian, waited patiently for me to move, I was looking down

at a nest with two blue-ish eggs the size of jelly beans in a miniscule nest laced

into the branches of a dead mustard plant.


Brian moved to my side and asked me why I was stopped.

Time is of the essence during this kind of training, clocks tick

and superiors comb the terrain with high-powered lenses.

There is not space in the day for contemplative moments and tiny wonders.


But there we were, in the hinterlands above the pacific, as witnesses

of a secret place where life moved under blue-ish calcium husks

and where helicopters searched for two snipers in training

and where the Future stood on it’s tippy toes to look back and see how Now would arrive.


And Now arrived yesterday as I sat in line for a coffee, Brian at the wheel,

and we talked as old friends do, about anything, because we can.

and I pointed at the California Gnatcatcher in the spindles of a tree

as he looked under leaves for spiders, hiding from the rain.

How to lose 140 pounds

I sat inside my buddy’s house with a cup of coffee, waiting for the morning to happen. The sun came up again and proved that Tuesday still lands between Monday and Wednesday. I like Tuesday, it’s the day nobody talks about. It’s spelled kinda funny, I guess Wednesday and Tuesday have that in common.

On this Tuesday –it might have been this last one, but who’s counting– I sat and watched a little California Towhee throw himself against the sliding glass door over and over. At first I thought, ” aw, look at little buddy, he wants in where it’s warm, ” but then I figured out that he was fighting with his reflection in the glass. I wondered what he was thinking, like, “damn, this guy’s quick, he knows my every move!” or maybe he was thinking he would outlast the other bird staring back at him. There he was, pecking and scrapping and fluttering against his own image in the window. While he was busy with that, I was busy thinking about what he was thinking. I even excused him a little, at least he’s getting some cardio in. I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I started feeling bad for a lot of reasons. You see, the California Towhee is a drab little guy, he often goes unnoticed and when he is noticed, folks often call him a sparrow. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being confused with a  sparrow, but why grow out that long narrow tail if you ain’t gonna notice it? And what about that beautiful fade from brown to rust on the lower belly and thighs? I like the California Towhee because he’s just making his way, drab brown with a pretty little voice and a shy demeanor, through the big blue world. I reckon that somewhere out there are two little Towhees all mated up and snuggled beautifully and brownly on a branch, singing deeply each into the others’ heart, and all else is lost. But this little guy at the back window had somehow picked a fight with himself and he was pretty damn determined to win, or lose, however you wanna look at it. I got up and opened the door and broke up the fight. He bounced backward a couple feet, looked at the giant ape that ruined his fight, and flew away chip chip chipping into his Tuesday.

Little dude flew away, but he stayed with me all morning. Hell, he’s still with me, right here in this story, right here in my mind and as plain as day. I think, and this kinda bothers me, he reminds me of me. When I went for a run later that morning, I was daydreaming back and back into my life. All the steps I’ve taken. How many of those steps wasted? How many times have I walked a path toward the same mistakes I’d already made, and staring down at my own damn tracks all the while. Oh yeah, I’ll learn, eventually I’ll learn. These thoughts were in my head and creeping toward my heart while I ran. The path turned and my shadow crossed in front of me, I could see the shape of my nose and the tilt of my head. Sure enough, that’s me, right there in that shadow. I wondered how much of my soul my shadow owns. That ol’ Shadow, cast out on the ground, running and meeting me, only leaving me when I leap. I guess I own my shadow, maybe the sun is a co-owner. If either one of us goes away, the shadow is gone.

My mind found a place in the past, when I was in the Marine Corps. I heard an instructor yapping at me with a hard smile on his mouth, “Crabtree, how much do you weigh?”

140 pounds staff sergeant.

“Well, that’s a small pile’a shit, ain’t it, Crabtree?”

Yes it is staff sergeant.

And then, years later, on Tuesday, that same 140 pound pile of shit was running up a hill near Fosters house toward the rocks that sit in the middle of the buckbrush where the lizards lie cold and wait for the sun to stir their blood and the roadrunners run with chattering beaks, swallowing the frozen lizards, and the little black stink bugs lumber with their hind ends high and my feet were finding the ground over and over, each time meeting my shadow, and I was looking at myself and wondering about that little Towhee in the window. I hope he makes it. I hope I make it.

thoughts from a fella who used to be a little boy in church chewing peppermint gum

If everything went away, by everything I mean people and clocks and devices and cars and all things man-made, and I was afoot and wandering on the earth, I wonder if I would recognize Sunday. For whatever reason, Sundays are a bit different to me. Sunday mornings speak to me in low, personal tones. The fog stays a bit longer. The sunlight carries into spaces that are usually dark. The early morning stars sing stories of every faith and imagination since man first began to look for some kind of god. Sunday holds my thoughts for me all week and spills them out when I arrive. I can remember certain feelings from my childhood that took place on Sunday, things that couldn’t happen on any other day. After all, Sunday was church-day. It was the day when my family acknowledged God, my parents’ God. My Pa sat in the kitchen with the Bible open and my Ma helped round up the kids, all five of us, for the trip to the church. I endured church. Some things were good and some were boring. My Ma knew it was tough for me to endure so she helped my little spirit by giving me a half stick of peppermint gum, she knew that I was not above plucking a used piece from the bottom of the pew so she gave me a freshie. Plus my Mom was the bomb, she still is the Sweetest Thing between the stars and the bottom of the sea. The service itself was usually boring unless the speaker pulled some stunt or told a really good story about some dude possessed by the devil or some poor fella (which usually ended up being the speaker himself) who used to be a fighter/drug dealer who found God through some unbelievable event. Usually the sermon was just really boring and it was followed by the invitation which was sometimes cool if someone made a big scene out of going down the aisle to get saved or someone decided to confess something in front of everyone; otherwise, the invitation was boring and often too long because the speaker was bummed that he hadn’t dragged more people out of their seats with the well prepared guilt trip he just finished delivering. These weren’t my favorite things about Sunday, although I do actually think back on all that and smile. It’s a slice of my life that I wouldn’t trade if I could. I love that my parents are who they are and they love me right back, no matter how much of a pain-in-the-ass I am. And I kinda am that.

I had secret church on Sunday’s. Come to find out, the creeks still ran under grassy banks and over sunken logs on Sunday. And the painted slider turtles still sat all in a row on the edge of the half-submerged concrete. And the butterflies still followed intricate pathways through the pond-grass and nettles; the Cabbages and Brownies and Painted Ladies, the Swallowtails both Tiger and Black, the Monarchs the Morning Cloaks, the Admirals, the Skippers and the Sulphers, all in an endless river of colors that continue, even now, to amaze me. My church was any stream, any tree, any field. The timbers of my church were rooted in living soil and they swayed under skies that surrendered to the seasons. In those places, I learned to worship and I spent hundreds of hours on my knees watching the magnificence of the earth unfold like the wings of a dragonfly. Some might say this is not the Truth. I would say it is nothing but the Truth and it is as pure as it was before I knew it. So maybe, because of the fact that I was taught what it meant to believe wholeheartedly in something, maybe that’s why I still find myself walking out into the woods with a pounding heart. Ready for the moment of complete submersion in what I know is real and good and not words and not text and not some translation of a thought from someone else.

I’m not sure what nostalgia is. I can tap a button and find a definition. Or I could define it from my experience. Nostalgia is a slippery word, kinda like deja vu. If I were to give nostalgia a color it would be somewhere near the color of a morning at Trinidad beach just north of Arcata, California. It would be grey but there would be that early morning periwinkle kind of blowing in and out from behind it. Yeah, and there would be the colors of the sounds of sea gulls and terns and sea lions that are beyond that big stone that knows all the great white sharks by name and talent and etiquette. I think of nostalgia as a bit of a condition. I have it. I have it almost all the time. It doesn’t have to include sadness, but sometimes sadness leaks in from the gaps between the thoughts. I wonder if nostalgia is just a realization of the facts of life. Life, this utterly amazing, irretrievable, electrifying collection of heartbeats and daydreams. Nostalgia might just be the wind blowing over the wild flowers of a life that has been lived, catching us in the now and delivering a fragrance that cannot be revisited. Every day is a yesterday in the making. I am aware of the hurt-and-heavy that comes with living, but even that is a treasurable item.

I’ll end with a story of a Sunday, a once upon a time. It isn’t at all that different than any of your Sunday stories because it is only a story. It is a telling of a thing as I remember it from a more innocent me. I was 11. My family had just turned left from Pierce st. onto Jefferson. At that precise moment, a neighbor named Ed, 19 years old, from the other end of Jefferson was speeding in his hotrod firebird and he was coming towards us. The little 6 year old blonde girl from across the street chased a ball into the road. Many things happened at once. Ed saw the beginning of a sorrow he would never forget as his car struck the girl and sent her into the air. My Dad stopped the car and said, Oh my. The little blonde girl tumbled lightly and fluttered to the ground like a leaf, her socks still in the road where she was hit. I stood over my father’s shoulder as he held the little girl’s head. Softly, so softly, my dad was speaking to God and me and that little blonde girl, Oh darling, oh my, oh little darling. I do remember seeing her eyes looking about for a few seconds and then fluttering off into that other space that we don’t understand, way out there where there ain’t a single track to follow and where we dump our tears into the shadows cast by the ones we’ve lost to that space.

Have you ever built a little boat out of sticks and put it into a stream? You should try it. Put a little time into it and make it so it floats, even if it’s not perfect. When you set it free in the current, there is a flicker of time where you are still attached to that simple, tiny craft. And when it disappears around the bend, you will miss it.

Mark’s Diner

A line of reasoning. This usually amounts to a bunch of your own opinions all crammed together in order to make sense of something. I’ve used it and had mixed results. Usually my line of reasoning has some kind of something in it that betrays me, sometimes it sends me flailing off like a fool with my arms waving over my head, whatever cool I might have collected scattered to the winds. So I’m careful with my line of reasoning. Often, it stays in one of the half empty cupboards in my head. I might share it with ya now and then, but I try to put it out there with a disclaimer — same as if I’m cooking a dish for the first time and I think it might suck.

Of course, a line of reasoning might be referring to something a tad more literal, maybe it’s what you call them wrinkles on your face from reasoning too much. Wrinkles. Lines of reasoning. If that’s the case, I got a solid collection going, although I’ll admit they ain’t all from reasoning. I’ve managed to put a few up from any assortment of my emotions. I could name them off, but why waste your time with that shit? You know. Well, if you’re human you know, and if you’re not human, I’m actually quite surprised you’re reading this. Hell, I’m surprised if anyone’s reading this. If you’re a whale and you’re reading this, I have something to say, I’m sorry for messing with your ocean. also: Thank you for being so amazing. Tell your babies to be careful and that I hope I meet them. I mean I doubt a whale would be reading this, but I like to be sure about that kind of thing. But if you’re an extra-terrestrial and you’re reading this, I have something for you too, I’m sorry that we don’t believe in you, well, not all of us, I do. I just don’t say so all that often because people stop listening whenever I say I believe in bigger things. Things way out beyond what we see and have listed in our science books and our religious books, like the mysterious stuff. Like you. But don’t judge us too harshly, we have our moments. We really can love things we’ve never seen; like people we’ve never met or forests that need to be protected or stars who’s light hasn’t reached earth yet or the tiny butterflies on some little chain of islands or even beings from far away who maybe travel at the speed of thought! We can do a lot of things with love, it’s just that we’re easy to distract. But if you want a human to study, I’m your huckleberry. I’m relatively healthy and I’ve been wanting to practice traveling by thought…sooo, just come get me I guess. And be gentle with the probes, although that might be something I just picked up from the movies, maybe you don’t need to do that at all.  Chances are that this writing won’t be read by that broad of an audience, it’s not like I’m giving Melville a run for his money here.

Supposedly there’s a kind of coherence to good writing, which is where I bounce off the proverbial road and into the literary ditch. The only thing cohesive about my stories and essays is that they all do come from between my ears, after that I have trouble explaining  how any of this is gonna line up. It’s a bit like controlling a spill — sometimes it looks like something, (you know, like you’ll see Abe Lincoln’s face in the spilt milk) and sometimes it’s just a mess.

A few days ago I stumbled across my birthday. I neither love nor hate my birthday, I guess that means I’m ambivalent towards it. ( That’s my $4.00 word of the day, and I use a word like that to show that I’m getting a little smarter each year. not a lot smarter, just a little ). So I had my little birthday, just like you did not that long ago, right? Because the last birthday is never more than a year ago. Yeah, I had it and it went like i like them to: I stayed alive. I tried something new by jumping into a river at the exact moment I was born, 7:44 a.m. I played a guitar poorly, but with a lot of passion…but by myself so I felt like it sounded cooler than it probably was. I road my bike and ate a chocolate croissant. I laughed with Jason Arbetter about imaginary scenarios in which we did the things that we sometimes want to do but we don’t because we’re not that mean (especially Jason, who’s not only not mean, but may be the nicest person alive). I drew a couple drawings in my picture book. I had a drink at a bar, and then another drink, and then wished I hadn’t had the second. I rode my bike to Safeway on the way home and stopped for coffee supplies. It was 11:30 p.m. and I was closing out my day. I saw some old timer in a wheel chair out by the entrance to the parking lot. I’ve seen him before, the ground around him always has remnants of smokes and drinks and food. He’s hard put, my guess is that he won’t last much longer but who knows? It was the last few minutes of the day that I was born. The day I got to start being here on this planet, in this world of feeling and color and smells and coffee and songs and babies and pretty girls. The day that my Mama supported my head and held me tight while my Dad looked at me like I was the coolest thing ever. The day that somehow has become a day when we might expect things but really should be a day of unrelenting gratitude for having breaths and heartbeats and loves and dreams and, yes, even losses. So I walked over to Mark,  his name is Mark because he told me so, and I asked him if he wanted something to eat. Mark was slouched heavily and his beard was piled on his chest. I heard him say, Yeah.  What do you want?

Whatever they got.

It’s a grocery store, Mark.


So I bought him a roasted chicken, nice and hot. And a can of Modelo against my better judgement. And a bottle of water to offset the beer. And a Milkyway candy bar for desert.

Mark barely moved as I put his meal in front of him on the curb. God bless, he said. And I rode back to my Toyota Dolphin. This was my day on that day in the long line of days since my very first day and it was a good one. When I look at it in the past, it makes less sense. It’s just a bunch of things crammed together that only belonged to me as I lived in them, then they were gone. This is life, at least as far as I know.

I follow a fairly swervy line.

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.

train tripping

Please be aware that I’ve written this as it happened, or as close to that as my little mind permits. Due to the nature of all that transpired, there will be some things that are considered crass by some. I see it simply, as life. There is cussing and sex and naughty statements. Be forewarned and read or don’t…or whatever. 

This is a story about trains. I say it’s a story about trains, but really it’s a story about trips on trains, so really it’s a story about people who take trips on trains. I guess this is a story about people, which is kinda the same as it ever was. One thing I’ll say about the following stories are that they did not all happen on the same train ride, that would just be ridiculous and I might as well include a unicorn with a tribe of Lilliputians on it’s back — although that may have been the reality of some of the characters riding these various trains. If there’s one thing I learned about trains, it’s that the folks on them are more likely to be marching to the beat of a different drum, than say, your average American. Most of these stories take place in the United States and I think that separates things further because trains are more of a common travel mode in other countries, at least the ones I’ve visited. So there, you’re prepped up. The following events are as true as they can be although they’ve been stored in a rather faulty compartment I call my brain. And I gotta say, that there is a good bit of correlation between a story reader (you) and a train rider (maybe you) because they both require patience and an inquisitive nature; the former because you gotta wait out the ride, you ain’t in charge of the gas pedal and you can’t just stop when you want, the latter because there are other, more accepted ways of travel and you really have to make a decision to go on a train ride. With all that in mind, climb aboard, the doors are shutting and the tracks are laid out, all gleaming and parallel into the distance.

Sounds that stick around

I’ve heard a conductor yell, “all aboard!”, but it was fake and on a train in the mountains of Colorado that was imitating the way it used to be. I never like them kind of things, like everyone dressing up and acting like it’s some other time. I know it’s fun and I should lighten up but I find it annoying within about 5 or 10 minutes and I just don’t know how to answer someone who asks me, “Woulds’t thou like a frothy grot?”  Uh, yeseth? Nope, not for me. Besides I stink bad enough without pretending to be from some other century, dressed in leather underwear and a thousand year old hat. But yeah, I’ve been on trains where they didn’t yell all aboard, but they sure as hell did start screaming at me for being late as I ran with too many things, including a rubber boat toward the waiting attendant. Once I got left, but that was a bus, and buses are a whole different can of worms. Maybe I’ll write about buses after this little ditty about trains.

I do love the sounds that are synonymous with trains. The swoosh of air from the brakes as they engage and disengage, the whistles that come from out of the past and feel lonely when you hear them in the distance on a summer night by the river in the mountains of Colorado and you are on your bicycle and have been burnt by the sun and are waiting for your ass to stop aching so you can finish the ride and get home to your mama because it’s been too long and the world mighta got too big while you were gone so you will go home and sit with your ma and shrink things back down again. And then, there’s the train when you are lying there as a child of 12 years, or a child of 34, or a child of 47 and you put some change on the tracks and that giant engine passes and the conductor blasts his horn at you for being too damn close but you squish your ears between your palms and endure the fury of the engine and the engine-man and then it is strangely peaceful with the clunk-unk-unk clunk-unk-unk of those huge steel disks as they roll with strange squealings and high pitched whinnings. After, you find the coins and they have the feel of the heat still in them from being crushed like something from the guts of the world where like things are formed from the freight-trains of stone, all the pressure from above.

Inside the train, the sounds are less. Inside the train sounds docile and easy with big and little snorings from travelers in every varied position and in every different part of their journey, some from just outside of New York, some just aboard in Susanville. There are now the apparently oblivious humans who have decided to watch their fav show on their smart phone at top volume, thinking that the whole train wants to listen to Houston Housewives as they squabble over who dissed who at the last gala event. There are folks who’ve had something slip and are conversing with the invisible person plaguing them. There are those who’ve let something slip and you hear it before you smell it and then you wish they would go find a restroom to reduce the possibility of a second slip. There are the attendants who are way cooler than flight attendants who come by and answer the ridiculous questions from the smokers about when the train will stop again and if it’s possible for “just a quick smoke stop, I won’t even leave the train, I’ll just lean out and smoke a couple super fast.”

(in the unlikely event)

I think about the announcements that no one pays attention to at the beginning of a plane flight. Now, I personally think about the plane crashing every time I get on there. I’m not a fatalist, but I would try to live if there was a water landing, and I’m pretty sure it would be every person for him/herself because I’ve been involved with simulated crashes and I’ve seen trained marines panic once the cage is upside down in the water and everyone is still strapped in. If you’ve trained like that, there are still sometimes complications. If you add a bunch of people who won’t look up from their iphones long enough to let you get into your seat and who haven’t done anything physical since playing dodgeball in the 8th grade, well, it’s gonna be bad upside down in the ocean. I like it that trains don’t talk about the unlikely event of crashing. They’re more like, “you’re on a train, if we crash, we’ll all scream and run away from the fire.” I’m down with that. And I think people on a train would be more likely to band together and help one another. I feel like I have proof.

Once upon a trainride…

We left Emeryville at some reasonable hour before noon. I’m not sure about the connecting trains and all that, I only knew that I had made it on time and that I was on my way to Portland from San Francisco for some necessary business. I was not, nor am I ever, in a hurry. I don’t like being hurried and that’s probably why I despise heavy traffic, because everyone in heavy traffic seems to find solace in riding about a foot or so off the rear bumper of my toyota dolphin — news flash for the misinformed : my dolphin is topping out at 60 mph, if God was riding shotgun, we still wouldn’t go faster because, well because it’s just against the laws of physics is all. So, the next time you’re jockying for position to flip the bird to the idiot in the little dolphin RV for going so slow (in the slow lane, mind you), save it. It’s probably me, and I cannot go faster, and I’m also not having a stroke from needing to get to the next stop light before everyone else. I’m slow and I like it. Uh, yeah, the train ride, we were on a train ride to Portland.

From Emeryville we went to Sacramento and an announcement was made that the trip to Portland was not possible due to a train derailment somewhere along the line. This prompted a mass exodus by all those who had the money to find another way. Those of us who were broke simply looked at one another and remembered the cliche that misery loves company. About an hour and a half later an update came over the speaker, barely audible, saying an alternate route had been negotiated with Union Pacific and the train would leave in 20 minutes. There was a little weird cheer from us derelicts and we boarded as soon as we could. There was an overall feeling of we got one over on all those rich idiots who took a flight or rented cars. Once underway, however, we all soon realized that we were all buffoons for having taken the alternate route. Since Amtrak rents the use of the tracks from Union Pacific, they must give the right-of-way to the work trains. The cargo trains are constant and they are often miles long, so within an hour or two we had stopped 3 times for almost an hour each time. The trip to Portland began to look similar to what I imagine the first trip to Mars will look like — we were all about to lose a good portion of our lives aboard an Amtrak. Even I, with all my I-ain’t-in-hurry righteousness, was a bit taken back.

I’d like to take a side trail from the story here, I won’t wander too far as I am prone to, but just a little ways out. Maybe if you’re still reading you can use this time to stand and stretch or make yourself a drink or use the bathroom. Go ahead, I’ll wait. ———————- So, I wanna say something about cigarette smokers. Don’t worry if you smoke, this will be surprisingly uplifting to you. Smokers are savages when the time comes to smoke. Like, if you’re used to a pack a day or you’re used to a cig when certain things have happened, say maybe after breakfast or sex…or both, then it’s basically impossible to keep you from it. Smokers become part magician, part professional negotiator, part mixed martial artist when it’s time to smoke. If you handcuffed them to a rail to keep them from smoking you would come back and find them with their hands gnawed off, smoking with their feet. The look in their eye when it’s time to hoarf one down is akin to what I’ve witnessed in a male goat’s eyes when he is ready to mate; there is nothing else on earth but that next little smoke.

I said that to say this: the way trains work these days is that there ain’t a smoking car any longer. That car is called the Observation Car, but it’s where the smokers (and me) go to talk about the good ol’ days before everyone decided that dying from smoking was a bad thing. I always liked the smoking car because it was full of good conversation and folks were crazy on nicotine and booze and had a ton of stories to tell. I don’t smoke, but I guess I was second-handing it with the best of ’em, and hell, I love a good story. Well, on this trip to Portland I happened to be privy to the mutiny that was arising amongst the smokers. It was awesome. Even old men and women were in on it, not just the punks and ex-cons (there were 6 ex-cons all playing cards throughout the majority of this story) and meth-heads and pill-poppers. The requests to stop were no longer cordial queries, they were aggressive and demanding. When the announcement came across the intercom that the crew had run out of hours and would not be able to continue to drive the train, we were in the deep Oregon woods, on the side of an incredibly beautiful mountain. We were also informed that it would be approximately 6 hours before replacements would arrive. The crew, suspecting mutiny, also made it clear that we would be opening the doors for anyone that might want to smoke. Cheers, followed by a surge to the lower level. Before the doors opened, the conductor made it clear that we were on a very steep slope and that passenger would need to wait for the crew to figure out how to get them down. When the doors opened I watched as the smokers leapt from the train and into the air while lighting cigarettes in mid-flight, down the steep, scree slope to the landing made from the days when they built the tracks. It was a thing of beauty to see them folks sliding and rolling down the talus and finally smoking contentedly in a pile at the bottom. By this time, I decided I liked the smokers and I wanted to be among them. I made my way to the doors where a new situation had developed. An enormous old woman and her tiny husband were at the door, and they were smokers. From the door to the beginning of the slope was a distance of about 6 feet, in other words, too far for a big old lady to simply go for it. She was perched and had one leg out in the air with that goat-look in her eye and she was gonna go for it. The old man was encouraging her with a goat-look in his eye. I started to intervened but I knew it was for naught, they would not listen, and I kinda wondered how this was gonna end up. Ugly, I thought. Broken bones are uncomfortable and trains are uncomfortable. At this point I began to witness what would prove to be a theme from that point on. Several tough smokers from down below, including the ex-cons, formed a posse that would eventually cart that big ol’ gal to the flat ground below. They even came back up and helped the old dude down as well. Within minutes there were men with their shirts off, tanning in the evening sun and smoking like old west characters. I shed my shirt and started writing in a notebook, jotting down the things I was seeing. I watched a dude with facial tattoos from the pen as he went from person to person, telling them that he and another couple fellas were walking the 3 miles to a little town to buy liquor. To my surprise, they had a list that had quite a few names on it along with the amounts given. After I saw an old fella and his little wife give them cash and order a bottle of jack, I put in my order and gave ’em a 20. They were back in about an hour and a half, right as the sun was setting. I told the fellas to keep the change and I’m quite sure the other’s did the same, everyone was stoked. People shared and, as dark began to descend on us, the crew (who, by the way, went and fetched liquor as well) began to herd us all back on board. The system for remounting the train went seamlessly. The “Observation Car” took on a distinctly retro feel as one enterprising fella set up a little business selling $3 martinis and $2 beers in the long-unused service station on the upper level. This 60 year old San Francisco hippie who called himself the Junkman began to play his guitar and sing. People began to dance. One fella came in from another car and informed us all that there were two people “going at it” in the next car. Several gawkers authenticated the statement with raised fists and shouting, “yeah, we crazy now…people be fuckin’!”

Now, I’ve been on trains in many countries. I’ve taken trains in Peru and Ecuador and Chile and Argentina. I’ve been on subways in major cities north and south, but I’ve never seen the stuff I saw on that one trip between San Francisco and Portland. At one point I closed my eyes and imagined myself to be living 100 years ago, it worked. I felt like it was an easy jump in time. When the gal who had been having sexy time in the next car came back, the car exploded with cheers and she raised her arms like she had just won a gold medal. The Junkman began playing “backdoor man” and those who knew the song began to sing along. The sexy time gal was dancing close to the Junkman, her glass of white wine in a clear plastic wine glass was clutched and sloshing. As she hooted the song she leaned down and said in a solidly seductive tone, “I love, love, love, love, love…to give blow jobs.” The Junkman had one blind eye that he kept closed, but when she said that in his ear, his blind eye flared open and I saw the moonish white eye inside. Other than that, I saw no reaction. The new crew arrived and saw the debacle and there must have been a decision made that they would ignore it for a while and see what would happen. The lower level bathroom became the smoking section, not limited to just cigarettes and weed. All manner of smells came boiling up from down below. One fella who had found romance with a tough looking gal with a nervous disorder came up from the depths with a full cucumber cream facial, with him the gal in a cucumber mask. They were high on something speedy and they were suddenly very helpful with everything. The dude had a plan for me to make millions with my art and he wanted to record the Junkman because, “he was a godamn genius with music.” I had a bit of a conversation with him, but mostly it was him talking about several things at once and me trying to keep the stories sorted out. Overall, it was good practice for if I ever get taken by aliens and need to communicate.

When the train ride came to an end, the conductor himself came into the Observation Car and allowed himself a moment to take it all in. There were many bottles of booze in different states of empty. There were folks hammered and out, some were frying like it was 1967, some were simply living exactly like they would if they were home, which was the same as being hammered and fried. He surveyed the scene like a man who just bought some property but realized too late that it actually butted up against the mouth of Hades. He said in a loud voice, “I cannot see any liquor bottles.” One of the ruffians from the ex-con card game raised a handle of Beam and slurred back, “right here’s one.” The conductor, un-phased, repeated himself and added, ” there will be police at the station.” Of course there was some back-talk but the bottles did slowly disappear as folks prepared to disembark. The last thing I remember was that this kinda gothic 20-something gay kid was whupping ass at the ex-con card game and everyone was in the best of moods and the woman who had sexy time was shouting,”let’s hear it for my prison peeps” and the old man with a plate in his head was cuddling up to her while they all danced to the songs by the Junkman and the young girl named Jay was showing me her glass eyeball collection and the dude, high on meth, was making out with his new girlfriend at breakneck speed and the rest of the goths were dancing on the table and on the backs of the booths to beats from someone’s little speakers and the lights in the car were dimmed as we rolled into the station and the people in the other cars were sleeping. There weren’t any cops. Some folks got off, some stayed on. There were goodbyes and hugs and fist bumps and bleary eyes and little empty cups under the seats.

A trip that would have been somewhere around 12 hours had taken 30+. Folks that would have never spoken to one another had become aware of one another, in some cases friends. There were barriers that broke down and there were strange liaisons and there were deals made. There were, as always, the darknesses that we cannot seem to eliminate, but there were streaks of light that make me wonder about the future of our race. Above all, I am aware that we are all capable of great good and great evil. I’m not so sure that living a life of leisure brings out the best in humanity. I believe that mutual suffering tends to make us see one another…and that’s a start.

please collect your items and check the aisles for debris

I have more stories. This will have to do for now. I have a feeling that I may be writing to myself at this point. That’s good as well, it’ll match up perfectly with my internal dialogue and the voices in my head that I know better than to talk about. After all, that could end me up in one of them places with padded walls and the long sleeve shirts with buckles around the back. This train is in the station. See ya on the next trip.