It Was in Effect (Elmira Sequence)
It was in effect
It was in effect a river of sorts
the ocean returned its water
across the vacant hours at the slow crossings of the afternoons
in low-blood-sugared towns
while the pale lights of taverns burned.
The barber sat in his chair listening to the vacuum tube radio
the cigar vending machine full of Indianhead nickels
the Emerson Hotel with its dark stairs leading to dens of vacancy
this was the coastal Highway 101 in 1960.
Tracing my path, the random trajectory of a
housefly, I have coursed through the
backroads of the Pacific Northwest America when
I was a bit young for the Beats and not quite old enough for
Merely a schoolboy in the logging and fishing town of Aberdeen when
rain and windshield wiper swings gave me a rhythm to beat words against
one another in the English creative writing class.
But Science was still the reigning discipline and Mathematics its Queen,
as America raced the Soviets to the moon and beyond after
the Spudnik scare of 1957.
It was in effect a town of sorts
the ocean lapped its tongue here
the mudflats harbored mussels
loggers shook dice for schooners of beer while
the sky threatened to rain all day.
The Chinese cook diced vegetables,
string beans a mile long, work expands to fill
idle hours while the Pacific tides contract and expand
across the pretense of commerce while
small fishing boats returned with Dungeness crabs three for a dollar.
The Beatles were all a rage while the Stones were in a rage
however, I paid no attention as I was trying to penetrate reality in
physics class and work out chemical valences and balancing
equations, that inequality was the fundamental state of the
universe did not enter my mind, nor did I think of going to law school
as the classmates who took Latin, justice was blindly followed
until the war in Vietnam erupted.
I was a loner who helped out at the family Chinese American restaurant
Even served my classmates and teachers as waiter
wearing that yellow waiter’s jacket that my forebears had
worn for three generations. I bring teapot and tea and
egg drop soup, and set their dinner down before retreating to a
back corner booth to puzzle out one last algebra equation.
It was in effect a time of sorts when
high school graduates still stayed in town
pulp and paper mills saturated the air that
spelled jobs and a fair shake for small homeowners.
These towns were strung along highway 101
the scenic drive that took you to Pacifica, California
where surfing was just getting on film newsreels and
soda was still dispensed in glass bottles.
When girls dressed to kill in physics class, they say we even
got Koon’s attention and yet I was accused of cheating in
biology, physics, and chemistry where Mr. Sieler gave a set of chemistry
handbooks with my name engraved in gold,
and MIT had invited me to their conference in Seattle and urged me to apply to
their school. Later I did and said I wanted to study electrical engineering or literature.
It became obvious I knew nothing of their school as they did not at that time have a
program in literature. I received a swift rejection.
It was in effect a life of sorts
when Vietnam was still some unfamiliar place in the Orient
when Ricky Nelson was a traveling man with a pretty girl in every port
and the price was right every night and Groucho hit his marks.
Those times and places burned like LSD
that flashed and burned into the next century, but basically
it was a time before waking up to the enormous world as it stirred while
the miser still counted his pennies.
Who knows any more of time but its direction?
High school was completed when I read Heraclitus, who said,
“You can’t step into the same river twice…”
Night driving to Eugene, Oregon from Seattle
when I ended up in a greasy spoon next to the rail station
at 3 A.M. with the university catalogue and black coffee on the counter,
I suddenly veered from mathematics to philosophy,
keen on learning wisdom from a Professor Wisdom (no joke) of philosophy.
In the loneliness of the café, I turned to my first love
that was neither holy nor profane, also neither of blood nor sinew,
it was simply Platonic.
Around me those deported the train ate and gulped coffee
as daylight broke and here was my destination for mind as well as
for body. I had not a place to stay and I never did, really; however,
blankets were in the trunk and my pocket had cash.
I will register to sit next to Professor Wisdom with other pretentious
kids. Yes, we were kids, pretentious kids, I was one.
Like three-leaf clover camouflaged in weeds,
a lucky find, my love for logical parsimony and elegant
arguments began here, but I was not stellar.
It merely meant I did not want to be tainted by the world
and its worldly goods, for nothing impure will I let into
the Platonic heaven.
College begins. Here I am in my well-worn groove
trying to skip across a few bands by whatever means
to succeed, at whatever price in rubies or steeds.
Yet a shiver runs through me –
is this a pristine discovery? Or a nostalgic longing
for cold water flats and underheated rooms?
We could barely cover ourselves in the winter in the village in China!
The days went around and around as current in a super-cooled coil.
The lyric impulse rides the Greyhound past the mud pastures of
Elmira. At the sleepy Post House at 5 A.M., the flies under the
florescent lights over cakes and frosted donuts. Stirring my coffee, I
think of Brower’s Fixed-Point Theorem – that if you stir smoothly enough,
a particle of coffee will end up in its original position.
Math and philosophy, like the right and left palms, when closed together,
is a prayer to every solution.
But I was green, and my life was a game of musical chairs.
Sanity and insanity opened and closed my hands, my brain,
as materialism and idealism metronome inside my skull.
Forward a few decades, at the urban sirens my neighbors move about.
The roomers to the left of me, to the right of me,
change their faces as I sleep, in angst and anxiety,
and as I push myself off the mattress at night,
I feel the heaviness of incompetence and age struggle.
And now in this high-rise apartment twice last night
The helicopters whirled by transporting patients to
the trauma center at Harborview Hospital…
My parents had kept saying, “Don’t think too much!”
But let me return to the pasture at Elmira in 1970,
when a few cows, a few apple trees, and the night had us as
captive audience, the numeric sleep over backroads and bumpy
lanes were America not yet hardened and congealed by the
cold air in the sideroad diner as the gravy on the
plate of a three-hundred-pound man…
That was Elmira in 1970…
Now the urban landscape is to stack up density
as the cranes lower the sky
and building peak up to jet space.
Taxis rear end cars trying to accelerate the lives of passengers.
Brakes are tested at every intersection.
Stop! They are now collapsing new buildings,
while the construction of mindlessness goes on.
Here I find myself a “fixed-point,”
knowing that an “experiment” has taken place,
but in as much as my neighbors have changed,
I am unable to characterize my difference…