“Time is the ultimate disguise.”
It was pointed out to me that the defeated-looking guy who invariably took the table between the ladies’ room and the Picasso poster at The Supreme Bean was Chris Sands, who had once meant so much to me, as the walking embodiment of his records, at least, though to look at him now you’d have to double-check the timelessness of the records. Which I did.
The evening of the day I learned just who that local coffee-sucking wreck really was, I meandered home in a timefog. I went through my vestigial collection of vinyl and pulled out two whole records (his debut and his peak), which is saying something, since I’ve only managed to save one record each from such greats as Sun Ra, Jeff Buckley, Sam Cooke and the mighty Roche Sisters. I never even kept my Zager and Evans. The Voidoids and The Nyce are all gone now, too.
I lowered Chris Sands and the Manifestones on the spindle first, Side B track three, and for three minutes and forty two seconds, I was twenty years younger, though burdened with all-too-convincing visions of the troubling future. I clutched the headphones like a migraine.
I still believed.
I phoned Ed.
“The Chris Sands lives around the corner in my neighborhood in Berlin, and you never bothered, before this afternoon, to fucking tell me?”
“I never even knew you knew who he was,” yawned Ed. “What time is it?”
I had no idea.
The next day, unfortunately, I had business in Stockholm.
This was a change of itinerary from an original destination outside the EU. Since I’ve learned that the best way to make it quickly through Customs (anywhere other than in the literal-minded U.S.) is by looking too obviously suspicious, I’d grown another mustache for the trip. I’d started liking that mustache, and didn’t bother shaving it off before getting the S-Bahn the frigid next morning to Schönefeld. A thick black glossy mustache that screamed bathhouse, backgammon, radical mosque, Ummagumma.
The flight was turbulent. It felt as though we’d never left the ground and were rolling vindictively over luggage on the runway. When we made it in one piece to Arlanda, I considered booking a train for the return trip. The train rolls into a ferry to cross the Baltic. I’d done it before.
“Chris Sands,” it says, in this yellowing clipping from the cover story of the March, 1980 issue of SideBeat magazine, “isn’t the next Dylan, but Dylan just might be the next Chris Sands, if he keeps at it.”
What is youth but one long exercise in hyperbole? And what is everything else but hyperbole’s correction?
“Timeline, Ed,” I said, two days after my trip. “Fill me in.”
I plopped his cake and coffee in front of him and pulled up a chair, not even bothering, after all this time, to notice that Ed never says preciate it anymore. He expects me to pay because I’m rich. Not rich rich. Ed rich.
“Well,” drawled Ed, smiling over my shoulder at white-haired, goateed, red-eyed Chris Sands in his dirty black raincoat and his baldspot-protecting homburg hat, “he kinda fell off the radar ten years ago, after his third divorce and the fiasco of that,” eyes bulging, “comeback album. Various rumors had it he was either a born-again, a suicide or, you know, the third option: gone Country on us. Then the rumors stopped and, well, the interest dried up and I kinda realized I hadn’t thought about the man for years. Until I found myself standing right behind him in the checkout line at that all-night market on Torstrasse.”
“He paid for his stuff.”
I tried to remember exactly how Ed and I had met and I couldn’t.
“Are you writing him up in your Year in Review?”
“I doubt it. He’s just a Trivial Pursuit question, at this point.”
“So is Trivial Pursuit.”
“I think I’ve been using touché incorrectly, mostly. I say it most often when someone says something witty with which I concur, when, in fact, it’s meant to concede…”
“In other words, I just used it wrong.”
I shrugged. “Half-wrong.”
Two American tourists pushed open the café door with the unearned swagger of the militantly unashamed. I brought them to Ed’s attention and said, as he twisted in his chair,
“Have you noticed how they’re turning fat into a race, back in our homeland?”
“A voluntary race. A non-racist race. A race you can opt out of.”
“You’re reading an ad in a magazine and you notice that even the after picture is fatness. Maybe it’s all to the greater good.”
“What was that tribe? Where fat was beautiful?”
“They made that sculpture.”
“Yeah. A famous fat sculpture with no neck or face and stubby limbs.”
“A fertility symbol.”
“Be great on twelve-cent stamps and five dollar bills. Or not?”
“You’re saying imagine a whole country.”
We each chuckled an inch over our cups and drank with a synchronized motion. Both going ahhhh.
Early on, months prior, I had a vivid dream that Ed was in my livingroom, his flimsy silhouette in a characteristic stoop and thumbing through my records, a finger over his lips going shhhh.
“I still can’t get over the fact. That’s Chris Sands. Right behind me. I could almost reach back and touch him.”
Coiling under all the clever dialogue was the disappointment and disgust of any genuine male friendship. Ed, the online music blogger, abruptly double-taked me.
“Wait. You always have a mustache?”
Time fell away like a shattered mask, and I was twenty again, shoplifting 45s with a Frisbee. The air was thicker and the sunshine was sweet to the touch. Never the best dresser, I see me got-up in flipflops and painterpaints and a powder-blue ruffle-breasted shirt, three dollars from Ragstock, the original Ragstock, the one on that godforsaken stretch along Washington Avenue, in the warehouse district of downtown, long before warehouse districts all over America became loft fodder. Hoboes straight off of freight trains and still bearing the momentums of their trotting dismounts would burst into the store for incredible bargains on camouflage pants. Off The Record was right up the street and around the corner from Ragstock, next to a headshop in which a girl I had mixed feelings for toiled, price-stickering water pipes, blacklight posters and Mexican porn.
If I concentrate it will come to me.
“Wait,” she said. “You always have a mustache?”
I handed over a stack of 45s… Bauhaus, Siouxsie, The Wallets, The Is, Ultravox, Chris Sands… in exchange for the profoundly niggardly, now that I think of it, prize of a quasi-European air-peck on each cheek. Mustaches were the ultimate young no-no in 1980, yes, but where the crowd zigs, the free spirit zags, and girls with tattoos (a dotted line circumnavigating her neck) prefer zaggers. Or so I was told, or led to believe, or deluded myself into dreaming. One day I walked into the headshop and an eyebrowless man with an idiomorphic white Mohawk, leaning over the counter towards Candace’s plump little near-naked heart, regarded me over a bare shoulder and said, with a pretty good fake British accent, or maybe he was British,
–Oh dear, it’s Journey.
“There was this girl, the year I quit school. This girl who looked very much like a punk version of Grace Kelly. Wouldn’t sleep with me but said I could watch her do herself if I promised to stay in this plush Edwardian wingback gentleman’s smoking chair she’d set up on the opposite side of the bedroom. Very much the kind of chair a Pope would probably scream in if Francis Bacon were to start painting him. I promised to stay in the chair. There were countless candles around the bed. I had to wait in the bathroom with my eyes closed while this girl with the shakes tried to light two jillion candles and get the room just so. Plumping the satin pillows and whatnot. Dressing the set.”
“Fifteen years too early for webcasting, sadly.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Saying is interrupting.”
“You could be halfway through your story by now.”
“I’m making a point.”
“The point you’re trying to make is negated by your method of making it.”
“How will you know until I’ve made it?”
“How will I know a joke about a Muslim, a Jew and a Pollack isn’t funny until I’ve heard it?”
I stared Ed down for a good whole minute with my blankest face and continued; slowly, at first; my anger cloaked in grandiloquence, “On the floor beside her futon was a kidney-shaped tray, such as one might see in the coroner’s lab with, say, an enlarged liver upon it. There were things on the tray that I assumed were dildoes, mainly because they were longer than they were wide, but dildoes like nothing on earth. These were not reassuring facsimiles of the human male organ. Remember the first time you ever saw a Sci Fi flick in which the space ships weren’t of a naively aerodynamic design? And how it opened your eyes, and you grew up, a little, and you could never go back to your sentimentally childish way of thinking of space ships again?”
I could see he was not interested. Who wants to hear some other guy’s sex story? Some other guy’s ancient sex story? We’d been friends for exactly a year.
I could write, at this point, that we stepped out of the café into the blistering sun. Or I could write that it was an effaced city of windsung snow and dagger-ice we stepped out into, and that I could see Ed’s breath as it slid towards me; that I dodged the head-shaped cloud that came out of his mouth for fear of being touched by it.
A week later I was in London. My trips were usually spaced by months so this felt very quick and I was, in a way, disoriented. Oxford Street’s Christmas-week delirium was diluted to half-strength by the moderating influence of its immigrants, patterning the packed thoroughfare with ski-vested kaftans and over-coated burkas and faces ranging from pale gold to lustrous black. The vodka-colored sun was setting early after a late lunch, becoming a low bulge in the city-lit clouds as I let traffic urge me along towards Wardour Street.
I found the American-style self-serve restaurant I was supposed to find and chose a table, neither at the windows nor at the very back, as I had been instructed, and waited. While I was waiting, a well-dressed, honey-tanned blonde who couldn’t possibly be making eye contact with me from the other side of the salad bar appeared to be doing just that, while also doing something delicate to a frizz of beansprouts with tongs. She gestured with the tongs, seeming to mime a question about whether I cared for some salad. The improbability of the situation was virtually psychedelic. I was thinking how she looked like someone, a younger version of someone, though I couldn’t say who, but someone familiar.
I’d been doing this job for two years and this would be the first time anything really exciting happened while doing it, despite the fact that I’d travelled to six EU, and three non-Eu, cities. I was a courier, but it had nothing to do with drugs (or not directly, if at all): I was simply hand-delivering international mail in an age when cellphone messages, faxes, email and, especially, the postal and overnight parcel delivery services, are no guarantee of privacy. Sometimes I’m expected to wait for an answer, an answer I’ll carry back with me, and sometimes I’m not.
I wasn’t sure if I was always working for the same concern, or concerns, or a different well-off individual every time, but I did know I was well paid for it. My doorbell would ring (usually pretty early in the morning), and a man would hand me two envelopes: one with another envelope in it, and the other containing a plane ticket, a note with minimal instructions on it, and, best of all, a nice little packet of undeclared cash for my trouble. The Germans call it Schwarzarbeit or “black work”, an under-the-table transaction, and such assignations drive Berlin’s limping economy.
How I got this job was a stranger approached me in the lobby of a cinema, after a film. Just like that. He used the term luxury mail. Told me they were looking for trustworthy individuals of a presentable appearance who could jump on a plane at a moment’s notice kind of thing. It definitely appealed to my sense of cool, and freed me, if temporarily, from the horror of giving English lessons.
When the blonde gestured with her tray that I should clear a space for her on my table, my first thought was that she must be insane. My second thought was pure glee. I moved the hardcover novel (in which I’d slipped the envelope I’d been entrusted to carry) onto my lap and she lowered the tray with a clink of cutlery and sat down. Looking…yes. Like a young Vanessa Redgrave. In Blowup. With infinitely more strident boobs.
“Alright?” she asked, with an appetizing south-London accent.
“Over the moon,” I answered, and Vanessa smiled, clearly sane enough to evaluate the compliment. She was well-dressed, but the presentation veered a little towards the slutty, with lots of compressed pink bosom bulging up and out of a shiny gold blouse in a black velveteen jacket. All I needed, to deflate the fantasy and ruin my week, was to have her slide a laminated price list across the table at me.
“May I see the Christmas card?”
My face burned as I opened the book, furtively, and handed her the squarish envelope out of it, feeling an utter fool. Hers lit up almost childishly as she tore the envelope and extracted the card (snowman), a fifty Euro bill falling out of it. A microchip in the card played a dismayingly loud Jingle Bells as she read the message to herself, lips moving, and afterwards kissed the card and reached across the table and touched my cheek, saying Sorry under her breath, the tinny music still playing.
Sorry, you never know.
In the same voice, Vanessa said, it’s best if we sit here and talk for a bit. An hour should do it. What shall we talk about? Name a topic. Or I’ll start if you want me to.
Then she closed the card and things were quiet again. I was thinking: Methinks a certain young lady hath seen one too many spy movies, Luv, but I decided to play along. After all, I was paid to.
I said, brightly, “How’s mom?” as she tucked into her salad.
“Don’t be cheeky.”
“Okay, then you start.”
“Hmm. Have I mentioned my flatmate is the ultimate pain in the arse? She leaves the loo lid up, doesn’t flush, and forgets to record my phone messages. She fluffs under the duvet while we’re watching Parkinson! And get this: she thinks she’s posh!”
“Is she half as beautiful as you are?”
“Don’t be slimey, darling.”
“We seem to be running out of topics.”
“What’s that book in your lap? Give us a peek.”
I put it on the table.
“Are you reading it, or is it just for show? Sorry, just teasing. Bad habit. What page are you on? I adore McEwan.”
“It’s the language that saves it from being a Cold War potboiler. I’m halfway through it.”
“Then I won’t spoil it for you.”
“Does Leonard die, or something?”
“I wouldn’t worry about Leonard. He’s the eponymous Innocent, isn’t he? What do the innocent have to fear, from God or the author?”
There was another long pause; what to discuss with a beautiful woman if you aren’t allowed to flirt? She didn’t seem bored, or anxious to leave, at all. Of course I was tortured mildly with curiousity about the message written in the Christmas card: no one sends an expensive private courier on an expensive plane ticket, from Berlin to London, with eight hours’ notice, to deliver a cheap card with fifty Euros in it.
Forgetting the fact that I would probably kick myself later for sounding like an innocuous, middle-aged man, I said, “Well now I can say that I’ve met that thing of legend, a genuine English Rose.”
Ms. Redgrave’s smile had a neat little sneer folded in with it. She opened the Christmas card and Jingles Bells started. “First off,” she said, “You won’t tell anyone anything about what you did in London today. Is that clear? Second, I’m not an English Rose, you bloody goofy American in a panto moustache; I’m not that physical type, with all of its racist implications, and I’m not even British.”
She closed the card. Then she told me, for the next forty minutes, in a warmly animated voice, all about her vacation in the Maldives.
I was thinking: my initial assessment of her sanity was essentially just.
The ones who don’t give a damn what you think of them: they are the rulers of Time and Space. Whether fictive or factual, they marshall the hordes. What’s a horde? A group of young men. What would History be without its hordes? Do you know about young men? How they grope towards the human; how they can’t be reached? They can’t be reached by young girls, older women, old men, sisters, mothers, fathers, teachers, clean-living role-models or the parents of friends. They can only be reached by the mythical, clench-jawed savant, spot-lit and incandescent in his sweat: the Holden Caulfields, the Saint Pauls, the Adolf Hitlers and Chris Sands.
A lovingly well-worn bit of apocrypha. This is years before Sands gets famous. Two summers before he’s discovered by the New York sharpie in a sharkskin suit by the name of Mal Pearl who engineers his debut on a college station in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s 1977 and Chris is 18 years old and he’s in a park in Minneapolis with his friends on the Fourth of July, bar-b-cuing and playing Frisbee and sucking on furtive communal reefers or whatnot, shirtless in the sweet American sun. This is a Cold War sun, remember. The mainstream use of the word Jihadi is about twenty five years in the future; a glimmer in the geopolitical eye: the nearest contemporary equivalent is Patty Hearst. In some versions of the story, the girl is a Nordic Amazon, a budding supermodel of the Ford models type, fresh out of high school, feeling her power. Other versions she’s half-black, stunning, fucked-up mentally, leery of other blacks but nursing a grudge against whites, who never accepted her but teased her, ironically, over the very rich features that made her so embarrassingly attractive: pillow lips, pointy tits, plump ass and lyre hips, and her dirty-blonde rainforest of not-quite-kinky hair. In my favorite version of the story, she’s Asian: Hmong. Haughty and weird and Sci Fi pretty. She’s there at the Fourth of July gathering with Chris’s best friend/first disciple Manny Holzapple, the guy who actually taught Chris his first guitar chord in junior high school, only to see Chris surpass him in proficiency in such a short time that an adolescent deal with the devil would be the only rational explanation, if Manny’s parents weren’t avowed whitebread Buddhists, raising their Manny to see any religious practise other than chanting as a humanity-denigrating superstition. She’s there with Manny and Manny is on a very short velvet leash, so to speak, one end of which is tied in a slipknot around his brand new balls. She says Manny I’m thirsty and Manny hops up and runs about a fucking mile barefoot over a broken-glass-strewn sizzling blacktop to this Mexican-operated panel truck selling ice cold drinks and he fetches her back a frosty can of A&W rootbeer and it’s not exactly what she had in mind so he runs back and gets her an iced tea instead and she doesn’t give thanks,or otherwise demonstrate gratitude. That kind of thing. This inscrutable Queen Bee protocol against which Manny and his horny little touch-football-playing cronies are powerless to assert themselves as anything more glorious than serfs. This is long before women would be taken back down a peg, so soon after being hoisted a peg in the first place, by the widespread dissemination of hardcore pornography and the common currency of anal sex. These were good boys, boys raised to be feminists, inculcated with the notion that woman are, in all the ways that count, superior to men, a concept completely alien to their grandparents, from many of whom many of them are, in fact, by parental decree, estranged. But not Chris Sands, who was both very close to his nostalgic-for-whorefucking paternal granddad Christian Djindzc, whom Chris called DJ, and way ahead of his time. Legend has it that Chris Sands, in all of his Beethoven-haired, shirtless, shoeless, kung-fu-pantalooned pigeon-breasted summer incandescence, reached forth and plucked a badly-tuned Gibson off of somebody using it as a tabletop for the homely task of culling weedseed and he strapped it over his bone-colored shoulder and composed, on the spot, with amused fury, what would become the anthem of the defiantly fuckless, Woodeneven Dooya, singing it with a lordly arch of one bushy eyebrow and a supremely impertinent boogie in his slender hips, going You could hide a diamond in your pretty little voodoo / Wouldn’t even do you if my mama begged me not to, composing it right there on the spot, right in The Queen’s expressionless (in my version: inscrutable) face, with all the pussywhipped dudes gathered ‘round to gawp in grateful astonishment at the birth of Chris Sands’s epic witsneer of sixteen borderline-misogynist verses pulled like a thundering freight by that locomotive chorus straight out of his mouth, though he wasn’t quite Christ Sands yet, he was still Christian Djindzc the Third, and it’s doubtful he wrote the song whole, as it appears on his sophomore effort Yesterday’s Insults are Tomorrow’s Compliments, right there, on the spot, though it’s more than reasonable to assume he came up with the jist of it plus chorus, or a rough version, fairly close, per legend. And of course the girl was grossly insulted and thereafter ran off with him; they married, fought, attempted multiple separate suicides in an almost compositional sequence and divorced. Okay, maybe they never actually got married. Manny got a job in television, came out of the closet, owns a mindboggling little chunk of Starbucks stock and lives happily in Seattle with a guitar-strumming boy thirty years his junior to this day.
A series of bombs went off on Christmas Eve, in London, and no one was killed, as we now know. All of the bombs were in one structure and the structure was evacuated twenty-five minutes before the carefully-timed sequence of explosions brought it down. More than 3400 people managed to stream out of Saint Paul’s Cathedral before the first sequence ringed the dome with puffs and it imploded as larger detonations sent dead pigeons flying, and rained holy debris, including genuine gold dust and micro-relics of the ancient dead, for miles around. Because that event, and the three others that occurred, near-simultaneously, across Europe, were orchestrated precisely in such a way as to cause zero casualties where they might just as well have killed thousands, they were given the ironic handle “The Goodwill Bombings” by the British press. Three hundred billion-plus Euros of damage but only three serious injuries and one human death (heart attack). Ed sent an allcaps text message to meet him tomorrow at The Supreme Bean.
“Goddamn,” I said, rubbing my eyes. It was Christmas Day, and the Supreme Bean, owned and run by non-Christians, was one of the few cafés in Berlin still open, a blinding cube of light in a shrouded landscape. Consequently it was packed with family-free expats, the culturally and willfully dispossessed, along with Ausländers of every level and complaint, dark-faced and travel-wrapped. There was white-haired Chris Sands in a black rain coat, predictably, too, gloating over his lonely bowl of coffee. Far away back there in his favorite place near the ladies’ room.
I was thinking: Chris Sands could be your friend. Why not?
“Goddamn is right,” said Ed. I handed him his breakfast. He said, with an edge to his voice, “I take it you’ve seen the news.”
“I’m just glad nothing happened here, knock on wood.”
“Yeah, what an incredible coincidence.”
He made a hateful dumbfuck face and aped me: “Huh?”
My heart was racing.