by David Cairns
by David Cairns
I had a date but I was much too early. There was a coffee shop across the street where I could sit at a counter and have a cup of coffee.
“Cup of coffee,” I told the waitress. She made a face like what else is new in this boring, fucking world and then poured me the coffee, piping hot, so black you could dive in and never be seen again. I hated to spoil it with milk except I couldn’t stand it black. The milk wasn’t sour from smelling it but it didn’t stop looking bad from the moment I poured it and then it wouldn’t dissolve, and then only reluctantly.
I missed the waitress. Already I missed the waitress. No sooner do I meet someone and I already miss them. When she came by to switch ketchup bottles, I smiled at her, so she asked me what I wanted. “Nothing,” I said.
I lied. I wanted her. She told me I was wrong if I thought the cruller under the glass bowl was stale. It may look old and filthy, she said, but it was still pretty fresh, fresh despite everything, despite the passing of two weeks, despite people poking their noses into it. Not even the radiation every one was worried about would get through. In all honesty, all kidding aside, it was true. It was still fresh.
How it could be? I wondered. The waitress had to be lying. I would never know. I thought about my date. Should I take her here? I wonder if she’d lie to her, being a woman and all. What was on the menu? If they had meatloaf, I was home free. Girls liked meatloaf. This was my experience.
“How’s the meatloaf? I asked.
“We ain’t got meatloaf,” she said.
So much for the meatloaf, I thought, keeping a close watch on the time. I thought my minute hand was stuck. If only three minutes went by, then what was to stop twenty minutes from having gone by, or thirty, or a thousand? My date may already think I’m not coming. I pictured her ordering pizza and then digging into it with huge bites.
I wondered what the waitress was doing tonight. Me and the waitress. The waitress and I. In my mind I repeated certain key phrases such as “When do you get off?” and “So, When do you get off?” and “Do you ever get off?” and then realized how far away from that I was, like being adrift at sea and suddenly waking to find myself far from shore. There was a vast empty universe between thinking and saying it.
She looked quite good in her blue uniform. Here was instinct. Me and the waitress. The waitress and I. Alone in the house of instinct. We wouldn’t talk about poetry and if she wanted to I’d discourage all thought. We’d go back to her apartment. She would not be living with her mother but in some apartment some guy had walked out on her in. I’d say how clean it was and she’d get defensive and say, “Whatddya expect, a pigsty? Just because I work in a dump don’t mean I gotta live in one too. I bet you think I’m stupid too, so that’s why you don’t wanna talk about poetry. Well, fuck you!”
Then I’d watch her struggle in and out of that uniform day and night, twice a day, this great burden; this something, but I’d watch her with a cold observer’s eye and believe it represented something, something great, some greater struggle, her life, my life, our lives, and then I’d be sure to write about it one day. I’d always recall the struggle. Who the hell asked you to? She’d probably say. And then I’d recall the great sex, simple, honest, pure, multifaceted, frequent and disgusting to the cold observer’s eye.
My mind was back at the counter again. It had risen from its dreams like the steam out of the coffee and settled on the ceiling.
Where was she? Back in the kitchen, no doubt, to be harassed, molested, vulgarized. Each time she reappears she’s like an actress living all the real-life pressures backstage behind her and each time a bit more broken and worn down.
On the other hand, experience gives so much raw depth to her performance. I’d never recognize her without the uniform. Her whole essence is packed inside it. That is everything she is to me.
“Would you like some more coffee?” she asks with the same reluctance the milk had to dissolve.
“No thanks. This is fine,” I say. It is.
“If you say so,” she said, slapping the bill down on the counter and knocking over some left-over glass filled with ice. The ice spilled in my direction but fell just short of the table’s edge.
“Did it get on you?” she asked indifferently, almost as if she were asking whether I wanted the peas or the string beans.
“No,” I said. “And it was only ice, not coffee or anything.”
“That was yesterday,” she said, “except yesterday I didn’t miss.”
We both laughed. I noticed the joyful glimmer of her yellow teeth. I felt a sudden rush of excitement in my bowels like right before a big game.
“Do I pay you?” I asked with a new confidence I would save for my date.
“The cashier,” she said, pointing her finger at a man chopping on a cigar behind the cash register just to the left of where I first walked in , and there was some guy paying his bill as if by example and I could hear the cigar-chomper telling him to go fuck himself.
“Why don’t you just go fuck yourself,” he said with that kind of cigar-chomping confidence and matter of fact pleasure he was made for at moments like this.
“Why don’t you do yourself a favor and go fuck yourself.”
“Oh yeah?” the customer replied. “Well I just hope that one day you’ll have to eat your own food and then see how you like it!”
“Drop dead,” countered the man with the cigar.
“Your mother!” shouted back the customer, smashing his fist on the counter and sending up a little ring from the register.
“Your mother!” The man behind the counter didn’t flinch.
“Get the hell out of here or I’ll call a cop,” he threatened without any kind of anger or hysteria but with that same matter-of-factness which made it all the more threatening.
“Go ahead and call one!” retorted the dissatisfied customer, but rather halfheartedly, already making a move toward the door.
“It’s not me he’ll arrest for trying to poison someone with that soup. No sir, not me!”
The cashier looked at him like a boxer who’s got his man on the ropes, and then said so all the street could hear,
“And don’t come back or it’ll be your balls in the soup next time!”
This last comment stunned me more than anything else. It was the kind of comment one makes when confidence quickens the imagination. The waitress laughed, but it was not the laugh of someone enjoying the cruel fate of another but only the laugh of someone transposed temporarily into a world of pure joy.
“Charlie, you’re panic!” she cried out to the man behind the register. “How in the world do you think of such things? How do you do it? You’re a genius, a poet! Damn, I love you, Charlie. How the hell would I ever get by without you? Damn it, Charlie, there’s no one like you in the whole world. Nobody!”
I’ve never been a Frank Sinatra fan (that’s why I have to wear a disguise in public), but way back when, Jim Knipfel made me a worn-down tape copy of the Watertown album from 1969. It’s not like anything else Sinatra did – not like anything anyone else did either – and it fascinated me from the first listen.
I bought the CD remaster recently (without the unfortunate and spurious later addition of “Lady Day”), and I’m still hooked. But it’s not something I can listen to in just any mood. It’s not something anyone should listen to while depressed or going through one of life’s ordeals.
It’s pigeonholed as a “concept” album, but it’s more like a short story set to music. You don’t know where it’s headed in the first couple tracks, and it takes awhile to get the whole picture. It’s mostly an interior monologue by a deserted husband, left to care for his two young sons, yearning for healing, filled with a loss that seldom consciously penetrates an otherwise unpeopled emptiness.
Watertown was a commercial bust for Sinatra, his only album that didn’t make Billboard's top 100. Some have suggested that the timing was wrong – at the end of the upbeat ’60s, a “downer” album lad to land like a lead duck.
But no, it isn’t that. This album would never have been popular, never will be popular. It’s simply the bleakest look at a slice of personal life that’s ever been recorded.
As a husband and father, I was amazed from the start at how surely the music and lyrics caught the sense of suppressed heartache that comes with a broken marriage, especially one that involves kids. At that time I seldom checked credits, so I assumed it was put together by an older songwriter who had gone through his own personal hell. But no, it’s the collaboration of two guys, Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes, then about 30 years old, who seem, at least from Holmes’ interviews, to have just decided to do this kind of something together.
Holmes, who supplied the lyrics, mentions having lost a child in his first marriage, but he puts no emphasis on it. But that’s like the lyrics themselves, which simply state, with little or no emphasis, which only makes the underlying vacantness more prominent.
In talking about “What a Funny Girl (You Used to Be),” a song that reminisces on better times, Holmes suggests that “I was trying to put a little bit of sunlight everywhere I could.” If so, it’s the unflinching sunlight of the desert. I see it more as a slow drizzle, which can be pleasant if you’re in a “Singin’ in the Rain” mood, but can turn your clothes and mind to mush if you’re not.
There isn’t a bad or even a weak song in the 10 recorded, each supporting the other, each growing from the one before, each part of a magnificently horrific whole. Standouts (maybe) are “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” with remnants of romance serving as pseudo-solace, “Elizabeth,” in which the loved one’s name becomes a mantra of loss, and “She Says,” where the narrator for the first time talks directly to his audience, the only place with a sense of hope returning.
I won’t say anything about the final track, “The Train.” This is, really, a story, and giving away the ending would be an unforgivable spoiler.
So much for the composition. What makes it all work is a letter-perfect and, I suspect, purely instinctive enveloping by Sinatra. This husband is not just left alone but emotionally eviscerated. It’s tempting to describe his singing as “bland,” because in a sense it is. But it’s the blandness of having everything removed, of internal numbness. He lives in a world of gray shades, a wasteland of stark but almost meaningless shapes from the past. He can’t fall any further, he’s at the bottom. Ghouls may roam, but they can do him no harm; there’s nothing left that could possibly harm him.
Maybe, as Holmes suggests, this isn’t what he saw when he wrote his lyrics. It’s certainly what the cover artist, Ove Olsen, heard. His stark pen and ink drawing, on a tan/mauve background, shows three tiny figures dwarfed by an architectural arabesque of stark emptiness, somewhere between Kafka and and a meticulous town planner’s leached design.
I don’t suppose I’ve made Watertown sound like a must-listen. But it is. Albums came no better than this, and no others were quite like this one. If it chronicles emotional devastation, it does so with an unerring sense of truth. I don’t think you can ask for more than that.
by Derek Davis
The following note was originally intended for an ultra-Zionist…
Think of this as your last chance to re-join humanity and renounce not just this latest massacre, but everything that has lead to this tragic juncture. Imagine a country where all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion have equal rights, where the dignity and prosperity of its Palestinian citizens have a direct and beneficial effect on the security of a thriving Jewish community. You could build a country based on the spirit and principles of Anne Frank, Theodore Adorno, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and Edward Said. Or you could embrace the status-quo and live fearfully in a paranoid pariah state headed towards implosion. Let’s face it: Your country is at war with itself. And it’s losing. It’s military gains have translated into incalculable losses on every other front. You might not see it but the rest of us do. You are seriously fucked. You can reclaim your humanity, and start by crying like the rest of us do when a kid is burned alive by a lynch mob in front of his neighbors, when a physician has to shake an almost headless infant in front of a camera to drive home the point that the worst thing in the world just happened, when a person has to risk death to get a drink of contaminated water from a distant tap that’s already been blown up, when you have to explain to your now legless six year old that the United States considers your plight less urgent than the need for an Israeli to get a good night’s sleep during a beach vacation. Your country is broken, and the decades of international support and good will that have sustained it have completely evaporated. You can carry on pretending that the lightly-armed wing of a political party within a prison camp is responsible for all the carnage your government has brought upon an entire region in your name, or you can own up to the fact that your future depends on your willingness to acknowledge the humanity and suffering of the Palestinian people during their holocaust.
by Jennifer Matsui