The first summer I came to Washington I was the lowest of the low. I wanted to be like Abraham Lincoln, but the best I could do was get a job through a temp agency. I Xeroxed, I stuffed envelopes, I went back and forth on the metro delivering documents. I ended up working two jobs. An office job, as a clerk sitting in front of a computer and a constantly ringing phone for an HMO, exhausting enough, and a job at night bussing tables at a new Tex-Mex restaurant I’d taken a liking to where the beers were cold and the margaritas made with fresh lime juice. The restaurant was a gentle place, and I could lose myself in running glasses, clearing tables, bringing the beer down at the end of the night. I was skinny, and so I could slip through the lively crowd easily and good-naturedly. I liked the food very much, and it soon became for me a home-cooked meal, which is not unimportant when you are a hungry young man. I liked being kept busy, constantly running, until I was tired out and it was time to go home. There was a lot going on, between the kitchen, the dishwasher, all the way to the glass front door and the big picture window people would watch snowstorms from when winter came.
I didn’t have to work one evening and I was walking along Pennsylvania Avenue into Georgetown where, above the river, between a gas station and the modern brick clock tower of The Four Seasons, the avenue becomes M Street. I walked home, following M Street through Georgetown then past it where the university stood up on a bluff, the road becoming a divided highway above the old canal, and when it became Foxhall Road I was not far away from the little grey house with a porch that I shared with two women.
Planes come in and out of National Airport following the river. You heard them as they rose shining and silvery towards the clouds, lifting their bellies up into the humid blue sky above the river and its rising banks. There’d been a plane crash a few days before, and I thought, what if that had been me, and also, what if that had been her, and for that matter, what if it had been anyone who ever knew anyone. An engine fan went in the tail of one of the big planes, a DC-10, somewhere over Iowa, taking the whole hydraulic system with it, leaving the pilot no way to control it. The passengers heard, and felt, the explosion. The pilot, a man of much flying experience, did a valiant job of powering the wing engines, a last ditch effort before the plane rolled, in such a way that he and his crew could steer it somewhat, trying to get it to the nearest airstrip, something to land on. There happened to be a DC-10 training pilot on board and he came up to the cockpit to help them fly it. They got it to the airstrip in Sioux City.
They brought the plane down lined up for the landing as best they could. The nose and the right wing dipped at the last moment, the moment of touchdown. The plane came careening in fire down the runway, breaking apart. A strange silent clip of the crash, seen from a distance with a hangar in the way, was played on TV. There were survivors, including the pilot crew, whom they extricated from the broken-off nose of it after they’d put out the fire.
I thought of the people on the plane, the sudden short and awful vulnerability of life. Some people in certain rows lived, and some in other rows, as happens in some plane crashes, died. And I am sorry to mention it all, for to do so, as much writing does, is to cruelly interfere with the privacy proper to a matter.
When I got home I worked up the courage to call her house. Her mother answered, and I asked for her, and with a muffled groan in the background, I was told that she was out. “I’ll call back Thursday,” I said. It didn’t last long. When you were talking on the phone in the house, you had to stop and wait when a plane came over until you could hear yourself and the other end of the line again.
So Thursday came and I took the bus home and called her dutifully, as I said I would. Because there had been a plane crash. Maybe it was then that I heard the background groan, again her mother saying with a slight hesitation, as if she were watching the reaction of her daughter with some surprise, that she was out, or not in. “I just wanted to say hi to her,” I said with a kind of cut-off chirp in the face of some child’s big unhappy mystery. “Bye now,” her mother quickly added, with a gentleness reserved for the complexities of such many-sided matters. “Bye,” I peeped, and the phone clicked.
I went for a walk afterward, the evening sky turning into a deep blue before dark blackness, here and there a star, the moon above the trees hanging steep over the dark primeval river banks. A plane was flying low, coasting in, banking slightly on its way down, its engines drawn back, letting itself drop down, the lights of its underbelly flashing, blinking, flashing, blinking. The landing gear had come down and it was making that different noise, wooshing as if something had been opened up on the outside, quieter, spidery on a whispy web of air with the right kind of grip, full of stillness and hesitations, like a long-legged bug on the surface of water, more forward than down, in a way that doesn’t quite seem to make sense, a special relativity of coming back to earth as seen from the perspective of the ground, the separate reality of something heavy made light by forward motion, like in swimming. The river was there, as if to guide, as if to show, but what more could it do than keep its banks and flow on, and take the wind with it. And the plane seemed to stop for a moment, tilt down just slightly more, then keep on, then stop again, tilt its nose down just again as if it were a creature of thought watching itself do what was necessary, as if according to a recipe.
I figured that all the people on that plane were feeling that feeling in their chests, of being held up and back, in their bellies the feeling of dropping down a sudden unexpected hill, in the windy parts of themselves, the descent, the almost-there relief of making it back to earth, but for the crucial moment of landing ahead of them still, which would be enough to make them nervous now, no matter how many times they had flown. And with recent events, they would particularly feel the relief of not dying in a plane crash, but being let back to Earth. And when they would step off the plane and onto something more grounded, even a walkway, they would feel something too, even as they looked around for baggage claim.
Looking out over the river’s silent space, I felt like I was, what it would be like to be, on such a plane, no way to control itself, but fling its stuck wings into the forward air, a valiant pilot somewhere unseen up front, revving one engine, then the other trying to get the thing to a landing strip, not a cornfield. “I just wanted to say hi to her,” I said to myself, feeling I was looking out a little window at the ground far below, nothing in my control. I’d become as close as I could to being like a James Dean character, and I found out it wasn’t so hot.
The hardest thing of writing is to put it out there, where it is left to float or sink, only the reader there to provide it motion. If taken too literally, its version of facts would be far too pulled upon by reality to ever fly, not touching upon real life anymore. And if taken as too much of the literary, of an overwrought imagination, it would fly off where no one would ever see it again, having no bearing upon the things of the world. Too much scrutiny would take the wings and engines off. Taking it too seriously or, on the other hand, too lightly, would be contrary to the flying spirit of its inner poetry, the gentle acceptance of the thinness of air, the knowledge that only forward motion keeps one from falling from the sky back to earth. The shy humor, even if dreadful, of the situation written about must be observed. But to leave respectfully to it the mysteries of its inner complexities, is the only way to let it have its motions. Lost into the air, barely able to guide itself, but by small almost errant and experimental motions and levers to guide its veering, is the only way a plane can fly. For which I am sorry. One has to admit such things, sorry and as gentle as they are. As if to say, “Oh, I’m a real golden boy. Yeah.”
I didn’t know how to write back then, but by some partly sorrowful instinct, if it could be said that I ever pulled it off. I still don’t. Why, and how, did such things come to be so, is about all one can write about. I had a lot to learn about writing, and so I read things like Ernest Hemingway identifying himself with a waiter who had a garden to care for on his days off, and Sherwood Anderson’s introduction to his own little book, the part about an old writer who, as a way of departing from his own ego, could imagine within a woman in a suit of armor. For one must remember, that very little is important, that very little matters, very little worth putting out there in the way of something for others to read, if one were to be quite honest with himself. There are masters of this certain kind of humility, and I would count Kerouac and Carver amongst them too, because I found them a comfort. Because they were honest.
I’d drank tequila one night and hurt my foot by jumping out of a moving car to get to a party where the pretty waitress was a little faster than the cook’s cigarette run would allow, but my foot was better now. (“Keep it elevated,” the doctor had told me, which got me fired from a job filing savings account statements for an office of Riggs Bank, the day after I’d crashed the bartender’s car into a Porsche the perfect color not to see after an intense summer electrical storm out back behind the restaurant after an ice run.) She was the only one to wait for me as I swept the floor and helped the bartender restock. That fall the hole in the side of my foot below the ankle had healed and I’d go and lie on my back in the woods and wish for something happy, like a nice pretty girl who would hold me. I wished for something to go away. And when I got back once one of my housemates, the one who got mad at me about my foot and told me to go see her doctor, picked the twigs off of the brown sweater my mom had found for me in the Salvation Army in Oneida, that some farm mother had knitted for her son.
They called me one day and asked me if I wanted to bartend, starting out with sleepy toiling dayshifts. I was quite happy to just be a busboy, running things around without having really to deal with people and their egos. (Perhaps they gathered that I had a healthy distance from my own ego.) But I had just quit my other job, so that I would have time to write, and I needed the extra money. So, against my better judgment, I said yes. I knew the recipes of how to make the margaritas for the frozen machines by the five gallon tanks which were refitted stainless steel soda syrup canisters and which I had a fondness for, anyway. As if they were parts of an airplane that could take you far away and over an ocean.
I would of course suffer much torment at the hands of the egotistical demands that people carry about with them. Not that I didn’t share many times and things with many marvelous people, and the wonderful good sides of many flawed people, over the years. Perhaps it was an education, something through which to defeat, as much as one can, my own egotistical will. Maybe it served the same cleansing function that Abraham Lincoln found met by his ‘baths in public opinion,’ which was like on certain Mondays when any nut who wanted to, anyone wanting something, could stand in line to go in and talk, cajole, harangue, and curry favor with the President of the Untied States. But that is another story.
And fortunately, thank god, this is a blog, no one having to bother about it or with it anyway. No one has to read it, and there is absolutely no need to pull it from the obscurity that it enjoys. For that would interfere with the powers of its flight.