Raymond Chandler

Damn, man, I forgot.

I was gonna pass by Raymond Chandler’s place in Silverlake. Just drive by it. Slowly. Pass by slowly and think that Raymond Chandler used to live there. It’s was his birthday. He’d have been 125. People don’t get to be 125 years old. Not yet. And certainly not writers. Too many vices. Too little money. Too much truth, and lies. A lotta lies. But if you’re good no one can tell you’re lying.

He lived on Redesdale, on the eastside slope of Micheltorena Hill, maybe a third of the way down. The streets are like switchbacks there, the way they wind, and they send you back and forth, never really getting anywhere. You can get stoned and be lost forever up there, wending your way this way and that, at random. If you get to the top of Micheltorena Hill you can pull over. It’s dark there, with a view that goes all the way to Japan almost. The lights are intoxicating, scattered across the city’s plain, over that vast flat expanse of one story houses all the way to the beach. There would have been less lights in Raymond Chandler’s time. Less houses then. Less trees. Less cars. Less people, too. But the ones there were, what a lode of characters they must have been.

I started this a long time ago. I was gonna write about Raymond Chandler’s procrastination. But I waited so long I can’t remember just what I was going to write about. So now I’m never going to finish it. They call that irony. Like those pretty orchids reeking of corruption. Me, I like orchids. But I don’t write hungover.

The wife drew open the drapes and the sun is pouring in through the windows. There’s ten feet of window across, I think, another six feet high. You could see the whole city all the way to the ocean but for that ridge in the way. Because of it the rest of the world besides our hill and that hill and the little valley in between appears cut off from the rest of the city, the state, the planet. There’s just us and it, that ridge. It’s steep and green and cluttered with houses that go back to the late thirties and through the war years. We breathe art deco around here, scarcely notice it. The slightest little shop is deco, the fronts of houses, even an old gas station they just tore down and left an empty lot. Famous architects went nuts around the lake, building crazy wild modern homes for the moneyed hipsters of the day.  A lot of movie star money here once, long ago, a lot of industry people. A couple guys–now dead–told me about the old days. The castle across the way–it has multiple floors and a turret, and while it looks like a house from the front over there, it looks like a castle to us over here–would throw huge parties, with orchestras, and Judy Garland would sing into the wee hours, echoing everywhere, keeping people awake. Drove them nuts.

Raymond Chandler was gone by then, dead, unfinished. A little forgotten. Drunken writers, I mean the truly sodden, generally have to wait a generation to be discovered again. The people that knew them die, the fumes dispel, the sad later years are forgotten. Kids read the books, the wonderful classic books, and try to figure out what the hell is going on in The Big Sleep (I’ve watched it a dozen times, easy, and still I’m lost by the time he leaves the bookstore) and they marvel at just how good a writer Raymond Chandler was, and how he shaped in many ways who we are. You don’t live in Hollywood and thereabouts and not have your Philip Marlowe moments. The dame wraps her stems around the barstool and no way you’re not gonna answer her look, buy her a drink, take her up on the smoke. You might not even smoke cigarettes but there you are, looking cool, smoke wreathed around your head, thinking of detective novels and jazz and sex. I told a little prick off once, he was being an asshole to a couple dames next to me at the bar. He scuttled off, scared. I let him go. He gave me the eye. I laughed. The women laughed. He stumbled backward, fell. I reached out and helped him to his feet. Careful fella, you can break a leg that way. He laughed nervously and thanked me and came back to the bar. Scene ended. Just one of those things. Phil Marlowe wouldn’t have handled it that way at all. Phil Marlowe would have socked him one, the little wop, and the punch would catch him straight on the chin, knock him out cold. Glass jaw. The barroom beef would drag his crumpled form out and dump him on the sidewalk. The cops would pick him up. He’d come to, spluttering, say the wrong thing, get the hell beaten out of him. Thirty days. Later he and his paisans would come looking for revenge. Vendetta   A rough town this place used to be. Nothing hippie about it then. Men were men. Women women. They’d fight and fuck and cheat and fall in love. That took care of everything by the end of the book or the closing credits. The sad divorce tales were a generation in the future. Lana Turner. Mrs Robinson. One word: Plastics.  But for now, two words: It’s Chinatown.

Raymond Chandler didn’t write Chinatown, of course. Getting way off track. Free associating made up stories. They didn’t free associate in Raymond Chandler’s L.A. That was far in the future. Things were too tough to wander off into random connections. Stories needed structure, narrative, had to make some sense. Even The Big Sleep‘s screenplay pretends to follow a narrative. Bogart pulls it off. The breathless pace that allows it to work. Had they stopped still for a couple scenes, the unconnected dots would stand out, drive you nuts, ruin the movie. But they don’t. You blow through that like Illinois Jacquet blowing through Flying Home in 1946, the Basie band a great roaring machine behind him, unstoppable. That’s Bogie in The Big Sleep. Unstoppable. But you couldn’t fool Raymond Chandler. He sat in his upstairs studio office, smoking, pouring rye after rye, wondering if he could ever write a good story again. The secretary walked in, said something, walked out. He watched the seams disappear up the back of her legs. She swished, each step perfectly placed, like choreography. He wondered if her lipstick tasted like apple or strawberry. He wondered, wandered, stared out the window, and a story disappeared, forever.

Raymond Chandler’s pad, on the left hand side, in 1934. Great view of the Silver Lake reservoir…which he called Gray Lake. “The last time I had been in the Gray Lake district I had helped a D.A.’s man name Bernie Ohls shoot a gunman named Poke Andrews. But that was higher up the hill, away from the lake…. [The house] stood on a terrace, with a cracked retaining wall in front….” (The Goldfish, 1934)

This story can also be found on Brickspicks.com, along side all the cultural stuff I’ve written about.

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Paragraphs

Some people write poems, I write paragraphs. This occurred to me a couple days ago, and how Facebook and smart phones have made paragraphs the ideal length since it matches both screen size and attention span. So I write pretty paragraphs.  People ask me why I don’t write a book. But what is a book but hundreds of paragraphs? I’ve already written hundreds of paragraphs. Thousands. Zillions. I spend my nights in indented servitude, writing paragraphs.

Writers and coders

Weird time to be a writer. There’s writing everywhere, a deluge of words, and it’s all free. But in the beginning, when writing was brand new and Iraq was Sumeria, dotted with city states and kings and gods and zigurrats, there were perhaps a few hundred of us, etching sentences into clay in cuneiform, “woven” an ancient scribe wrote, “intricately like a net”. Almost no one could read then, and fewer wrote, and it took years to master their craft; writers were a specialist caste, powerful, feted, privileged. Imagine that. Kings would utter commands, scribes made them real. Now we writers plug away on Facebook between pictures of cats. Lo, how the mighty have fallen.

Yet beneath this very post, in the programming, is the work of coders. I open the source page and see their work, the thousands and thousands of characters, letters and numbers and slashes woven intricately like a net. Few now can read it, and fewer write it, and like the ancient scribes, mastering their craft takes years. I can’t imagine any of them see the irony–they, hunched over in their cubicles, are the scribes now, and if not feted or privileged, they at least make a living. My words are just keystrokes, their code makes them real.

Second Best

I remember years ago I used to hustle poems to enter contests. I was broke, I needed the money. One time I got a hundred dollar check and some tacky certificate that I’d won second prize. The first prize was a thousand dollars. The collection–it came with the check–was appalling, the third prize and runner ups were pure dreck. I remember wondering who the bum was that got my thousand dollars, so I read his poem. It was easily ten times as good as mine. There were two hundred bad poets in the book, then me and one guy way better than me. I hated that guy. If not for him that thousand dollars would have been mine. The book and certificate went into the trash can, though I cashed the check.

Fortunately there was no internet back then, and no blogs, and my F-bombs were in longhand on a pad of paper now tucked deep in my closet somewhere.

Pure oxygen

So a year or so ago my friend Leslie told me to start submitting writing to literary journals and the like. There must be dozens of them she said. So I looked into it. There are hundreds. So sometime early in 2014 I spent a few days online submitting various stories and essays to a few dozen of them. I think around 50. It’s easy to do online once you get into the swing of it. I’d actually forgotten all that for ages, then today I got a rejection letter. Some journal from some college somewhere. Some arty name. It was a very nice rejection letter. Very polite and apologetic. Apparently writers are these sensitive little fucks, fragile as butterfly wings, always on the verge of disintegration and heartbreak. Yeah, right. I think those are poets. Anyway, this makes, I think, fifty rejection letters. I’m on a roll. There must be another couple hundred of these journals left. I could have two hundred and fifty rejection letters, all very nice, from every literary journal in the land. These literary journals all tend to look alike, though. A lot of stories about relationships. Apparently relationships are very popular in university creative writing courses. It makes for dull stories, lifeless even, but often very well written. Well written nothings, very academic. And I can’t seem to get myself to write like that. I mean that ain’t reality. It’s just abstractions, equations written out in words instead of numbers. Somehow the real world, the thing around us we touch and feel and smell and taste and hear, that all gets left out. But that’s what they seem to teach in college writing classes anymore. Words for the sake of being words. College seems to fuck up everything creative it touches. Sucks the life right out of it. Sanitizes it for rich people. They run everything, you know, the rich people. They dominate the arts like they dominate banking. But I dunno, fuck rich people, the hell with ’em. And fuck college too. Fuck the arts. Fuck everything. And there it is, that incredible rush you get telling the world to go fuck itself. It’s like breathing pure oxygen. You won’t make any money that way, but you’re alive, and that’s more than most people can say.

Barry Farrell

Barry Farrell wrote this Monk piece, making the cover of Time. I saw it posted on a jazz page. The past came rushing back, strong, like deja vu. You see, Barry Farrell was my creative writing instructor at UCSB. He was the one who told me I was going to be a writer. A prediction I tried to avoid for years, to no avail. Damn him. I remember someone asked him when he decided he wanted to be a writer. He said he never wanted to be a writer. He’d gotten out of the army and needed to make a living. Writing was just something he could do. It doesn’t seem to work that way now.

He turned me onto John McPhee, Barry Farrell did, which is like turning a young tenor player onto Stan Getz. He handed out a Xeroxed copy of the annotated manuscript for McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country”. I’ll never forget the opening line. Three little words. Pass the gorp. Perfection, though it took me a while to appreciate that. But it was perfection. I remember once listening to Sonny Rollins play Three Little Words and “pass the gorp” came into my head. I learned so much from that manuscript. There were huge passages crossed out, notes everywhere, add ins, corrections, pieces lifted from there and dropped here. All in John McPhee’s hand. My favorite writer of all time, that John McPhee. At some point later I tossed it out. I’ve regretted that since. I’ll never get anything like it again.

I probably have the writing I did in that class in my analog box–all handwritten or typed. Ancient times. The best was a profile of a student name Lori. A gorgeous thing, long black here, deep brown Mediterranean eyes. We met in her dorm room. She lolled across the bed. I asked the questions. I transcribed the piece later. Computer files last forever. I accidentally deleted it forever. Tossed the original. It’s gone now.

I took that class–there were maybe 8 students–back in the late seventies. 1978 maybe. One of those key experiences. We were tucked into a corner on some upper floor. Out the window you could follow the coast all the way to county line, where the surfers were. You could listen to Barry Farrell read some passage aloud and gaze across the Pacific till it passed over the horizon and onto China.

Wonderful guy, Barry Farrell, and I really wanted to talk to him again sometime, over whiskey, him with his incessant cigarettes, me with a cigar. But he had died in an auto accident in the 80’s. Had a heart attack and lost control of his car somewhere in L.A. I saw that on the internet. The internet can be cruel. I didn’t cry, but should have. A decade on it still bothers me. There are big holes where life used to be, memories vanish when the heart stops beating, and it seems such a shame to waste all that.

Punchline

So a punch line I thought up in high school finally got a set up today. Forty years may seem like a long time, but in the grand history of civilization it’s just another slowly unwinding bit. Centuries might pass between laughs. Concepts await understanding. Ironies not yet ironic. Knock knock said Aristophanes. No one laughed. Take my life, please, said Socrates. And they did. How an elephant got in my pajamas I’ll never know, said Jesus. But it was a rough crowd, and they crucified him.