-- the Dhammapada
I reached Tucson, Arizona on November 21st, 2004. A few days before my arrival, it began to rain. It rained for two whole months following; for the first time in decades, the water table broke even in the desert.
This would not be the first time I was introduced by precipitation. Almost a decade prior, I'd moved to Newark, Delaware on December 23rd, 1995. Three days later, the infamous Blizzard of '96 hit the town. A thousand stories have been told about this snowstorm; I could compile just the ones I've heard into a very successful book which would make Northern Exposure look like a sensible vacation slide show.
In the Book of the Subgenius, it says many times: the only way to get what you truly want is to give up entirely. I gave up on Newark. I took a train to Tucson, to live with some friends for a while. My new roommates were past generous; they were damn near saintly. In return, I shared what I had: Millennium Actress, Chrono Trigger, Threads. One weekend I told them of the genius of Crispin Glover, whose career they knew nothing of outside of Back to the Future. "You mean he sued Steven Spielberg and WON? That's AWESOME!"
"Yes, he's quite the self-made man. I'm eager to see his full-length film, What Is It, but it's extremely difficult to come by."
I began to acclimate to the desert. I spent time looking up venues in Arizona, ready to get on with performing music. In my various web searches I discovered Centennial Hall, an immense campus auditorium, and thought absently how great it would be to play such a large space, to cause an actual concert hall to resonate with my music.
Something was still missing.
I tried hanging out at local cafes; both Ike's and Safehouse were within walking distance. I ended up becoming more enamored with the free wifi than the local patrons, overhearing the same 'original ideas' again and again with each passing. This was no different from Newark; a glory-hole of self-deluded children, fashionably dressed, with a database of cultural inferences and not-too-weird tastes, lest the facade of faux nerdism pass into the genuine article.
With no small degree of despair, I realized I was getting too old for this shit.
Kupo's girlfriend popped on. "Do you have any interest in meeting people in Tucson?"
"Do I ever. What's up?"
"There's a friend on MOO who lives quite near you, by name of Kali. She's quite an interesting person, someone I think you'd get along with well. Would you like me to introduce you?"
"It certainly couldn't hurt. How do I get on this MOO? Is it like a MUD?"
"Same general principle. I'll help you through the registration process, but you can log on as a guest for now." She gave me the server address.
I set up a coffee date with Kali, at Ike's; she claimed she hated Safehouse, citing too much smoke and youth culture nonsense, which I could hardly argue. We talked for hours about music and art; it was evident that we would become fast friends. "I should introduce you to my friend Paul Miller sometime," she said at one point. "I think you'd both benefit from the mutual brain-picking."
I blinked twice. "The Paul Miller? As in, DJ Spooky?"
"The same. We've been friends for years; I met him through an afrofuturism forum. In fact, it's interesting that you both use afrofuturism in your art in distinct ways. With Team Techno, you and your bandmates have constructed a very African way of working -- call and response, chorus, syncopation and polyrhythms all play integral parts in the way you construct and perform music -- but of course you all have very European traditions, being of Caucasian heritage. With Spooky, the opposite is true: he forwards an African agenda using very European techniques." She paused, perhaps to let the ideas sink into me, or to herself. "Actually, I'd be interested in writing an academic piece about your band sometime."
I shrugged. "That's a flattering notion, but I'm not sure there's a band to write about anymore."
"What the fuck is this 'third Team Techno album' bullshit Bill is spouting?"
"Come on, Chisa. You know Bill: the eternal optimist. 'Where there's a will, there's a way...'"
"Where was that maxim when I was spending two years in Delaware, living with clinically insane roommates, in the middle of severe depression without medication, in a dead-end job, slugging through the worst post-breakup drama of my life? Would you care to show me where the fucking 'way' was that my Schopenhauer-like dedication of will was not able to produce? The notion of me ever coming back there to record an album with you two is so goddamn laughable, I ought to patent TCP-to-bitchslap technology in case you ever suggest something that idiotic again; it'd save me the hassle of all this typing, and let me cut to the chase of knocking some goddamn sense into your ass."
"Whatever, man. If you feel such a need to solder that door shut, that's your deal. I prefer to leave options open."
"Is that why, when I asked if you'd let me move into one of the five bedrooms in your house in Philly, three of which were unoccupied and rented for the specific purpose of having friends live with you, because I wanted to be near you and Bill and retain my sanity, you told me no, because your girlfriend wouldn't approve? Is that what you call 'leaving options open'?"
"Look, I'm sorry I can't perpetually bail you out, but sometimes I just can't accommodate your lifestyle choice. Here's a thought: how's about nigga gets a fucking job and his own place?"
"You've got a lot of damn nerve, son. Who held your sorry ass up when that same girlfriend dropped you on a whim? Bill, that's who -- you slept in his annex for a month! In contrast, I went through Hell with the Ex, and the nonsense with Baker being AWOL in New Orleans, and the heroin junkies and all the other fuckups in the Madison house, and I held a third shift job and did Team Techno. How about 'nigga' stops being a fucking hypocrite?"
"You did indeed have a tough time in Delaware that last year, and I did indeed move into that house with the intention of having friends live there, but it just didn't work out, for many different reasons. And now, I'm practically married..."
"Bill was literally married when you moved in with him! What kind of two-faced bullshit is this?"
"Call me what you will; I'm not responsible for anyone else's living situation but my own."
"That's a peculiar moralistic view from someone who's about to give birth to a child."
"You are not my son."
"No, but I did think I was your brother."
"I'm not your fucking keeper. Take care of your own shit, man!"
I paused, gazing at the words on the screen, mulling them over. "So that's how it is now? Are you sure you want to go down that road with me?"
"I can't deal with this shit right now. You are annoying the piss out of me." He logged off.
Time passed. Now-distant friends were tried and found wanting. Some left, never to return. Some just needed time to cool off.
I moved into Kali's studio for a bit, sensing my previous roommates needed their space back, in deference to their claims that I was not a burden. Kali essentially became my agent, helping me to set up shows and network with local contacts. Within a few months, I was standing on the stage at Centennial Hall. A few weeks after that, I was speaking directly to Crispin Glover, having just viewed What Is It in the Loft Cinema.
There was a noticeable turbulence to the air. I could sense the oncoming storm at the horizon.
"Hey," I said, peering over the 32-channel Behringer, "this is identical to the board I used to run for EIDE, at the East End back in Delaware."
"Really?" replied Gene. "You know, we don't exactly have a dedicated soundman. Would you be interested?"
I thought about it. "Hmm, maybe. I've got plenty of spare time on my hands; a hobby might be just what I need. And the notion of being the straight soundman in a nearly-all-queer choir tickles my irony bone."
Gene snickered. "Believe you me, I can relate. Well, I'll put a bug in the director's ear, see if we can't get you two chatting..."
A young black man approached cautiously, seeming a little shy. "And who might this be, Gene?"
"Oh! Jamal, this is Chisa, a friend who came out to watch us perform."
"Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking Jamal's hand.
"Did I hear you say something about Delaware? I wasn't trying to pry, but... I'm originally from Southeast Pennsylvania."
"Really! That's where I'm originally from as well. Whereabouts?"
"Oh, I grew up in I'd really like to fuck you, just South of Allentown."
I shook myself. Huh? "Er... Allentown, you say? I know that area. I was considering going to Lincoln Tech for electronics when I got out of high school."
"Well, isn't it a small world?" He smiled. "So what brings I hope you're gay like me to Arizona?"
Kali came up from behind me. "I'm sorry if I'm interrupting, but were we going to get lunch together, Chisa? We'd better go now or we'll miss the start of the concert."
"Ah, yes," I said. "It was nice meeting you, Jamal." I nodded politely to he and Gene, then walked off with Kali.
"I think that guy was hitting on me," I concluded, finally.
"What do you mean, 'you think?' He most certain was." Kali sipped at her chai.
"Well, I've never really received a signal like that before."
"Ever?" She looked astonished.
"I'm sure that sounds weird, but yes, I can honestly say I've never been able to tell the difference between my own wishful thinking and someone actually making a pass at me. Rather than risk the misinterpretation, I gave up trying and just assumed no one ever was, but just then, it was damn near like telepathy."
Kali shook her head. "Unfathomable," she said, reaching for the ketchup, a brassy glint of sunlight catching her ring.
"Hey," I said, leaning closer, "that's neat. Where'd you get that?"
Kali blinked, then smiled. "Ah, now it makes sense. You've never seen this before, have you?"
"It's the first time I've ever seen it."
"Well, it's been on my finger since I've met you. I've been wearing this ring for years; I never take it off." She extended her finger; the Medusa-head emblem radiated ancient power. It looked like a molding from the Roman Empire, and may very well have been. "It's old -- older than I care to think about. It reveals itself to people when it wants to. Today was apparently a very special day."
I sighed. "You know, your mystical artifacts are really beginning to piss me off. Bad enough that you left that voodoo blood ritual nonsense going in your studio when you went out hiking the Grand Canyon. I was shaken for weeks after that dream where I killed Hunter Thompson."
"It was only a dream."
"He died three days later."
She laughed. "New topic, then: when are you going to start deejaying on the MOO?"
"I can't very well stream audio with a dead laptop." My beloved Toshiba had shit the bed a few weeks prior, the power connector on its motherboard blown out from capacitor plague.
"You could always use my iBook."
"You know I despise Macs. As soon as Kupo ships my desktop from Baltimore, I'll get on. Who'd you say I'd have to talk to?"
"Her name is Muggy."
I was familiar with text-based environments like the MOO, having spent quite a lot of time on MUSHes and MUCKs in the mid-90s. It didn't take me long to learn both the basics of its system syntax and the peculiarities of its social lattice.
Muggy ran a room on the MOO, which was fairly popular for that server. I logged on and teleported my character there. "Kali says you're the one I need to talk to about doing the radio stream?"
"Wheee!" said Muggy. "Yeah, it's this new thing I've just set up recently. You know how to do Icecast?"
"Most of my streaming experience is with Shoutcast, but as I understand it's the same basic principal, and uses the same tools."
"Let me set you up with a login," she said. As she worked on allowing me access in another window, I typed a look command on her character, curious as to how she'd described herself:
Spawn of William S Burroughs, naked, sucking translucent, colored syrups through Welcome, Chisa of Team Techno. purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of I have been waiting for one such as you for a very long time now. secretes an addicting fluid from her Listen carefully: here are the songs you must play for me...
The words on the screen may as well have been invisible; the true message was hidden inside them, like a television signal in a carrier wave. I shook myself, dazed by their power. It was a far more potent signal than I'd gotten from Jamal, a directive akin to those heard by Elijah and Abraham.
"Okay," she said, "You're ready to go, check your MOOmail for the password."
"Solid," I said. "When would you like me to go?"
"No time like the present," she said.
"Right now? I thought you were on."
"Oh, that's just an automated playlist. I can kick it off whenever. Saddle up!"
I nodded, logging my Winamp plugin into the server and routing the audio from Virtual Turntables to the input. After a brief perusal of my mp3s, I opened with something from a DJ Spooky album:
I've got two turntables and Coltrane
And not just blue Coltrane
And not just Monk, and not just Miles
I got a million musicians playin' over my head
A band of angels responding to the percussion of stomps and hollers
Heads don't even know what's happening to 'em
They just know something's happening to 'em
Song blended into song without audible break, each addition to the setlist crafting a new chapter in the story. Boards of Canada morphed into Steve Miller; Future Sound of London gave way to Palace Brothers; Tears For Fears engaged Telefon Tel Aviv. Faraway, in Chattanooga, the atmospheric disturbance charged the air with its haunting sound.
"I ain't never seen nothin' like you before," said Muggy, her Southern drawl coming clearly through the text, punctuated by an equally clear eyebrow raise.
"I found a place to live."
"Splendid!" Kali smiled. "Where?"
The smile gave way to incredulous shock. "Okay," she said after a moment of self-composure, "because I'm your friend, I have to tell you I think this is a bad idea. You're moving way too fast with Muggy, and this is an incredibly rash decision."
I nodded. "Opinion noted and filed. You are pre-approved for one 'I told you so' should anything go horribly wrong."
"When do you leave?"
"Independence Day. Assuming everything goes without a hitch -- which it won't, seeing as I'll have to go through New Orleans, and something always goes awry whenever I have to deal with New Orleans -- she'll be picking me up in Atlanta on my birthday, since there's no Amtrak line to Chattanooga.
"Interesting. There is in fact no such thing as a Chattanooga choo-choo." There was a knock at the door. Kali got up to answer it; the UPS man was on the other side. "It's for you," she said, perusing the label on the package.
"Ah, that must be the laptop. An online friend had an extra lying around, and generously donated it so I could check in with wifi at the terminals on the trip." I took an exacto to the seals, digging through the styrofoam peanuts until the contents were revealed. A grimace overtook my face.
"What's the matter?" asked Kali.
I reached into the box and pulled out a Mac. Kali burst into laughter.
"I'm very sorry, sir, but all routes have been annulled for today due to Tropical Storm Cindy. You see, the dam is currently open, to keep the river from back-flowing into the city, and the wash goes straight over the tracks."
"So I'm stuck here for a day, then?"
"It appears that way. The next available train is tomorrow, same time as the one you would have been on today."
I was exhausted from two days of sleeplessness. On the Silver Meteor, I was plagued by a little shit whose mother obviously never give him enough attention. He could only talk in a loud bark, and made it his personal mission to wake me up wherever I decided to catch a nap; the demon even found me when I hid behind stacks of suitcases in the baggage car. The Ambien and Ultracet I'd acquired only compounded matters; I was like a zombie on the sleep aids and painkillers, a drained corpse deprived of its final rest. It took all my remaining strength not to take my frustration out on the poor ticketer. "Fine, then. Swap me out, I'll take tomorrow's train."
"Very good, sir." He took my old ticket and presented me with a near-identical one, the only difference being the departure date: July 7.
I trudged back to the Meteor; it was docked there for a day, unable to return to its home, and the conductors had left it open for the stranded travelers to use. I retired to the cafe car; no one was there, and only a few remaining stragglers slumbered in the observation deck above. I set up an impromptu apartment in the unused space, washing myself in the lavatory. I tried to write for a bit on the iBook, but could not; I tried to sleep, but could not. Outside the station, Cindy raged against New Orleans, mocking me, keeping me from my destination on my own damn birthday.
I donned my Gore-Tex jacket, which had been nearly useless in Arizona, and packed up my belongings. Inside Union Station, I chose a terminal locker and secured my bags. Then I went outside, to the emptied night city, to confront Cindy.
She whined like a thousand-foot organ grinder through the darkened skyscrapers of Poydras and Loyola. Blankets of rain came at me like fishing nets, the likes of which I hadn't seen since my summer on Long Beach Island. I persisted through, nigh-crazed on sleeplessness and adrenaline.
Above me, a gust so fierce that it appeared solid broke away a tree branch the size of a car bumper. It soared through the air, sailing two feet above my head.
"I am the True Hurricane!" I declared defiantly to the sky. "Disperse your false ass right now!"
I stood my ground. Slowly, the winds died down, defeated.
I walked back to Union Station and slept soundly on a Greyhound bench.
It was an instant message long coming, and worth the wait: "I need your help."
"Oho! Cain summons his brother back from the dead! How fares the land of Nod, old pal o' mine?"
"Look, Bill and I have been working on the art for the second album, but you know neither one of us is the Photoshop Senior that you are..."
I stopped him in mid-sentence. "You know, my inbox is full of a LOT of spam today. And it appears to me, that most of it is being auto-forwarded from a particular array of addresses that YOU set up. And if memory serves, I asked you to turn said auto-forwarding off something like a year and a half ago."
"I'm just not sure I can free up any time to take care of your shit, man. You know how it is."
Ten minutes passed.
"Alright, it's fixed."
"Splendid. Now what was it you needed me to do? I seem to have an opening in my schedule this afternoon."
"Everything seems to have turned out right in the end."
"Except for Hologram," I said. "I would have liked to make it up to Philly for that. Can you imagine their faces? I can just hear Chronkite now: '...and would you believe after all this shit, the bastard shows up with a fucking Mac and just plugs right in! The absolute audacity.'" I paused. "It would have been been perfect, you know? Just perfect."
She leaned towards me, the cold of tarnished brass hitting my chest.
I looked down, surprised. "Where did you get that?"
Muggy smiled. "It's from the cuckoo clock, up there on the mantle. I think it's an appropriate talisman." She held it up for me to see; a simple chain harnessed the key around her neck.
"You've been researching my fetish," I mused. I grasped it between my fingers, rubbed it like a good luck coin, felt the history of clocks and mechanisms in it's metal, felt the excitement of sex in the promises of its presence.
I twirl it around in my fingers, winding an imaginary shaft in the air. The key dances under my fingers, turns and keeps things moving. Outside the door I hear the ambiance of Front Street, a short walk from the East End Cafe, where I am holding EIDE every Monday night. Outside the window I hear the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay, mere blocks from my third story bedroom on Long Beach Island. I hear Kupo composing in his Baltimore basement, dark and cold and full of memory; the loft above Safehouse, fog-smoky and resonating with the frequency of overlapping conversation; my childhood room in Prospect Park, with my old Timex Sinclair 1000 running 2K BASIC programs.
I'm walking station to station like David Bowie, at once in Emeryville, in Chicago, at 30th Street in Philly (twice), at Union Station in New Orleans (twice), in the possible fractal futures of Cape Cod and San Diego and Detroit separated by the thinnest quantum membrane, space guitars rippling through time like caramel in a sundae:
I went from Phoenix, Arizona
All the way to Tacoma
Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.
Northern California, where the girls are warm
So I could hear my sweet baby say
Keep on rockin' me, baby
Keep on rockin' me, baby
I turn the key, winding the clockwork tension to full, and then release, the mainspring spiraling slowly outwards like a hurricane.