Poem For Personnel Managers

Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle: Panhandler Roy Gray, age 70, recalls the good old days in and around Howard Street at 3rd that also carried the nickname of Skid row. Today the area mostly consists of the Moscone Center, and upscale hotels and restaurants. Thursday May 7, 2009.

An old man asked me for a cigarette
and I carefully dealt out two.
“Been lookin’ for job. Gonna stand
in the sun and smoke.”

He was close to rags and rage
and he leaned against death.
It was a cold day, indeed, and trucks
loaded and heavy as old whores
banged and tangled on the streets…

We drop like planks from a rotting floor
as the world strives to unlock the bone
that weights its brain.
(God is a lonely place without steak.)

We are dying birds
we are sinking ships –
the world rocks down against us
and we
throw out our arms
and we
throw out our legs
like the death kiss of the centipede:
but they kindly snap our backs
and call our poison “politics.”

Well, we smoked, he and I – little men
nibbling fish-head thoughts…

All the horses do not come in,
and as you watch the lights of the jails
and hospitals wink on and out,
and men handle flags as carefully as babies,
remember this:

you are a great-gutted instrument of
heart and belly, carefully planned –
so if you take a plane for Savannah,
take the best plane;
or if you eat chicken on a rock,
make it a very special animal.
(You call it a bird; I call birds
flowers.)

And if you decide to kill somebody,
make it anybody and not somebody;
some men are made of more special, precious
parts: do not kill
if you will
a president or a King
or a man
behind a desk –
these have heavenly longitudes
enlightened attitudes.

If you decide,
take us
who stand and smoke and glower;
we are rusty with sadness and
feverish
with climbing broken ladders.

Take us:
we were never children
like your children.
We do not understand love songs
like your inamorata.

Our faces are cracked linoleum,
cracked through with the heavy, sure
feet of our masters.

We are shot through with carrot tops
and poppyseed and tilted grammar;
and waste days like mad blackbirds
and pray for alcoholic nights.
Our silk-sick human smiles wrap around
us like somebody else’s confetti:
we do not even belong to the Party.
We are a scene chalked-out with the
sick white brush of age.

We smoke, asleep as a dish of figs.
We smoke, as dead as fog.

Take us.

A bathtub murder
or something quick and bright; our names
in the papers.

Known, at last, for a moment
to millions of careless and grape-dull eyes
that hold themselves private
to only flicker and flame
at the poor cracker-barrel jibes
of their conceited, pampered
correct comedians.

Known, at last, for a moment,
as they will be known
and as you will be known
by an all-gray man on an all-gray horse
who sits and fondles a sword
longer than the night
longer than the mountain’s aching backbone
longer than all the cries
that have a-bombed up out of throats
and exploded in a newer, less-planned
land.

We smoke and the clouds do not notice us.
A cat walks by and shakes Shakespeare off of his back.
Tallow, tallow, candle like wax: our spines
are limp and our consciousness burns
guilelessly away
the remaining wick life has
doled out to us.

An old man asked me for a cigarette
and told me his troubles
and this
is what he said:
that Age was a crime
and that Pity picked up the marbles
and that Hatred picked up the
cash.

He might have been your father
or mine.

He might have been a sex-fiend
or a saint.

But whatever he was,
he was condemned
and we stood in the sun and
smoked
and looked around
in our leisure
to see who was next in
line.

Charles Bukowski
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969)

Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle: Panhandler Roy Gray, age 70, recalls the good old days in and around Howard Street at 3rd that also carried the nickname of Skid Row. Today the area mostly consists of the Moscone Center, and upscale hotels and restaurants. Thursday May 7, 2009.

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A .45 to Pay the Rent

Photo by Weegee: A Gun Shop Sign (1943)

Duke had this daughter, Lala, they named her, she was 4. it was his first child and he had always been careful not to have children, fearing that they would murder him somehow, but now he was insane and she delighted him, she knew everything that Duke was thinking, there was that line that ran from her to him, from him to her.

Duke was in the supermarket with Lala and they talked back and forth, saying things, they talked about everything and she told him everything she knew and she knew very much, instinctively, and Duke didn’t know very much but he told her what he could, and it worked, they were happy together.

“what’s that?” she asked.

“that’s a coconut.”

“what’s inside?”

“milk and chewy stuff.”

“why’s it in there?”

“because it feels good in there, all that milk and chewy stuff, it feels good inside of that shell. It says to itself, ‘oh my, I feel so good in here!’ “

“why does it feel good in there?”

“because anything would. I would.”

“no, you wouldn’t. you wouldn’t be able to drive your car from inside of there, you wouldn’t be able to see me from inside of there, you wouldn’t be able to eat bacon and eggs from inside of there.”

“bacon and eggs aren’t everything.”

“what is everything?”

“I dunno. maybe the inside of the sun, frozen solid.”

“the INSIDE OF THE SUN…? FROZEN SOLID?”

“yep.”

“what would the inside of the sun be like if it were frozen solid?”

“well, the sun’s supposed to be this ball of fire. and I don’t think the scientists would agree with me, but I think it would be like this.”

Duke picked up an avocado.

“wow!”

“yeah, that’s what an avocado is: frozen sun, we eat the sun and then we walk around feeling warm.”

“is the sun in all that beer you drink?”

“yes, it is.”

“is the sun inside of me?”

“more than anybody I have ever known.”

“and I think you got a great BIG SUN inside of you!”

“thank you, my love.”

they walked around and finished their shopping. Duke didn’t select anything. Lala filled the basket with whatever she wished. some of it you couldn’t eat: balloons, crayons, a toy gun. A spaceman with a parachute that flipped out of his back when you shout him into the sky. hell of a spaceman.

Lala didn’t like the woman cashier. she gave a most serious frown to the cashier. poor woman: her face had been scooped out and emptied – she was a horror show and didn’t even know it.

“hello little sweetie!” the cashier said. Lala didn’t answer. Duke didn’t prompt her to. they paid their money and walked to the car.

“they take our money,” said Lala.

“yes.”

“and then you have to go to work at night and make more money. I don’t like you going away at night. I want to play mama. I want to be mama and you be the baby.”

“o.k., I’ll be the baby right now. how’s that, mama?”

“o.k., baby, can you drive the car?”

“I can try.”

then they were in the car, driving. some son of a bitch hit his throttle and tried to ram them as they made a left turn.

“baby, why do people try to hit us with their cars?”

“well, mama, it’s because they are unhappy and unhappy people like to hurt things.”

“aren’t there any happy people?”

“there are many people who pretend that they are happy.”

“why?”

“because they are ashamed and frightened and don’t have the guts to admit it.”

“are you frightened?”

“I only have the guts to admit it to you – I’m so god damned scared, mama, that I think I’m going to die any minute.”

“baby, do you want your bottle?”

“yes, mama, but let’s wait until we get home.”

they drove along, turned right on Normandie. it was harder for them to hit you when you were turning right.

“you are going to work tonight, baby?”

“yes.”

“why do you work nights?”

“it’s darker. people can’t see me.”

“why don’t you want people to see you?”

“because if they do I might get caught and go to jail.”

“what’s jail?”

“everything’s jail.”

“I’M not jail!”

they parked and took the groceries inside.

“mama!” Lala said, “we got groceries! frozen suns, spacemen, everything!”

mama (they called her “Mag”), mama said, “that’s fine.”

then to Duke: “damn it, I wish you didn’t have to go out tonight. I’ve got that feeling. don’t do it, Duke.”

you’ve got that feeling? honey, I get that feeling everytime. It’s part of the thing. I’ve got to do it. we’re tapped out. the kid threw everything into that basket from canned ham to caviar.”

“well, Christ, can’t you control the kid?”

“I want her to be happy.”

“she won’t be happy with you in the stir.”

“look, Mag, in my profession you’ve just got to figure on doing a certain amount of time. you don’t sweat it. that’s all there is to it. I’ve done a bit of time. I’ve been luckier than most.”

“how about some kind of honest job?”

“babe, it beats working a punch-press. and there aren’t any honest jobs. you die one way or the other. And I’m already along my little road – I’m some kind of dentist, say, pulling teeth out of society. it’s all I know how to do. it’s too late. and you know how they treat ex-cons. You know what they do to you, I’ve told you, I’ve…”

“I know what you’ve told me, but…”

“but but but butt butttt!” said Duke, “god damn you, let me finish!”

“finish then.”

“these industrial cocksuckers of slaves who live in Beverly Hills and Malibu. these guys specialize in ‘rehabilitating’ cons, ex-cons. it makes that shit parole smell like roses. it’s a hype. slave labor. the parole boards know it, they know it, we know it. save money for the state, make money for somebody else. shit. all shit. everything. make you work triple the average man while they rob everybody within the law – sell them crap for ten or twenty times its actual value. but it’s within the law, their law…”

“god damn, I’ve heard this so many times…”

“and god damn if you’re not going to hear it AGAIN! you think I can’t see or feel anything? you think I should keep quiet? even to my own wife? you are my wife, aren’t you? don’t we fuck? don’t we live together, don’t we?”

“you’re the one who’s fucked up. now you’re crying.”

“fuck YOU! I made a mistake, a technical error! I was young; I didn’t understand their chickenshit rules…”

“and now you’re trying to justify your idiocy!”

“hey, that’s good! I LIKE that. little wifey. you cunt. you cunt. you’re nothing but a cunt on the whitehouse steps, wide open, and mentally siffed…”

“the kid’s listening, Duke.”

“good. and I’ll finish. you cunt. REHABILITATE. that’s the word, those Beverly Hills soul-cocksuckers. they’re so god damned decent and HUMANE. their wives listen to Mahler at the Music Center and donate to charity, tax-free. and are elected the ten best women of the year by the L.A. Times. and you know what their HUSBANDS do to you? cuss you like a dog down at their crooked plant. cut your paycheck, pocket the difference, and no questions answered. everything’s such shit, can’t anybody see it? can’t anybody SEE it?”

“I…”

‘SHUT UP! Mahler, Beethoven, STRAVINSKY! make you work overtime for nothing. kick your whipped ass all hell’s time. and ONE word out of you, they’re on the phone to the parole officer: ‘Sorry, Jensen, but I’ve got to tell you, your man stole 25 dollars from the till. we’d just gotten to like him too.’ “

“so what kind of justice do you want? Jesus, Duke, I don’t know what to do. you rant and you rant. you get drunk and tell me that Dillinger was the greatest man who ever lived. you rock back in your rocker, all drunk, and scream Dillinger. I’m alive too. listen to me…”

“fuck Dillinger! he’s dead. justice? there ain’t no justice in America. there’s only one justice in America. ask the Kennedies, ask the dead, ask anybody!”

Duke got up out of the rocker, walked to the closet, dipped under the box of Christmas tree ornaments and got the heat. a .45.

“this, this is the only justice in America. this is the only thing anybody understands.”

he waved the damn thing around.

Lala was playing with the spaceman. the parachute didn’t open right. it figured: a con. another con. like the dead-eyed seagull. like the ballpoint pen. like Christ hollering for Papa with the lines cut.

“listen,” said Mag, “put that crazy cannon away. I’ll get a job. let me get a job.”

“YOU’LL get a job! how long I been hearing that? only thing you’re good for is fucking, for nothing, and laying around reading magazines and popping chocolates into your mouth.”

“oh, god, it’s not for nothing – I LOVE you, Duke, I really do.”

then he was tired. “all right, fine. then at least put the groceries away, and cook me something before I hit the streets.”

Duke put the heat back in the closet. sat down and lit a cigarette.

“Duke,” asked Lala, “you want me to call you Duke or call you Daddy?”

“either way is fine, sweetie, just what you want.”

“why is there hair on a coconut?”

“oh, Christ, I dunno, why is there hair on my balls?”

Mag came out of the kitchen holding a can of peas in her hand. “I won’t have you talking to my kid that way.”

your kid? See that money mouth on her? Just like mine. See those eyes? See those insides? Just like mine. Your kid – just because she slid out of your crack and sucked your tits. She’s nobody’s kid. She’s her own kid.”

“I insist,” said Mag, “that you don’t talk around the child that way.”

“you insist…you insist…”

“yes, I do!” she held the can of peas in the air, balanced in the palm of her left hand. “I insist.”

“I swear, if you don’t get that can of peas out of my sight, so help me, God or no God, I’M GOING TO JAM THEM UP YOUR ASS ALL THE WAY FROM DENVER TO ALBUQUERQUE!”

Mag walked into the kitchen with the peas. she stayed in the kitchen.

Duke went to the closet for his coat and the heat. he kissed his little girl goodbye, she was sweeter than a December suntan and 6 white horses running over a low green hill. he thought of it like that; it began to hit him. he ducked out fast. but closed the door quietly.

Mag came out of the kitchen.

“Duke’s gone,” said the kid.

“yes, I know.”

“I’m getting sleepy, mama, read to me from a book.”

They both sat on the couch together.

“is Duke coming back, mama?”

“yeah, the son of a bitch, he’ll be back.”

“what’s a son of a bitch?”

“Duke is. I love him.”

“you love a son of a bitch?”

“yeah,” laughed Mag. “yeah. come’ere, lovely, on my lap.”

She hugged the kid, “aw, you’re so warm, like warm bacon, warm doughnuts!”

“I’m NOT bacon and DOUGHNUTS! YOU’RE bacon and doughnuts!”

“it’s a full moon tonight. too light, too light. I’m scared, I’m scared. jesus, I love the man, oh jesus…”

Mag reached over into a cardboard carton and picked up a children’s book.

“mama, why is there hair on a coconut?”

“hair on a coconut?”

“yes.”

“listen, I put on some coffee, I hear the coffee boiling over. let me turn off the coffee.”

“all right.”

Mag went into the kitchen and Lala sat waiting on the couch.

while Duke stood outside a liquor store at Hollywood and Normandie, wondering: what the hell what the hell what the hell.

it didn’t look right, didn’t smell right. might be a prick in the back with a luger, staring through a hole. that’s how they got Louie. blew him apart like a clay duck at the amusement park. legal murder. the whole fucking world swam in the shit of legal murder.

the place didn’t look right. maybe a small bar tonight. a queer joint. something easy. enough money for a month’s rent.

I’m losing my guts, thought Duke. next thing you know I’ll be sitting around listening to Shostakovitch.

he got back into the black ‘61 Ford.

and began driving North. 3 blocks. 4 blocks. 6 blocks. 12 blocks into the freezing world. as Mag sat with the kid in her lap and began to read from a book, LIFE IN THE FOREST…

“the weasel and his cousins, the mink, the fisher, and the marten, are lithe, fast, savage creatures. They are meat eaters, and are in continuous, bloodthirsty competition for…”

then the beautiful child was asleep and the moon was full.

Charles Bukowski
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972)

 Photo by Weegee: A Gun Shop Sign (1943)

In Praise of Unions

Management

Just a few days ago, I invited Yulia Vassilyevna, the governess of my children, to come to my study; I wanted to settle my account with her.

“Sit down, Yulia Vassilyevna,” I said to her. “Let’s get our accounts settled. I’m sure you need some money, but you keep standing on ceremony and never ask for it. Let me see. We agreed to give you thirty rubles a month, didn’t we?

“Forty.”

“No, thirty. I made a note of it. I always pay the governess thirty. Now let me see, you have been with us for two months?”

“Two months and five days.”

“Two months exactly. I made a note of it. So you have sixty rubles coming to you. Subtract nine Sundays. You know you don’t tutor Kolya on Sundays, so you just go out for a walk. And then the three holidays…”

Yulia Vassilyevna blushed and picked at the trimmings of her dress, but said not a word.

“Three holidays. So we take off twelve rubles. Kolya was sick for four days – those days you didn’t look after him. You looked after Vanya, only Vanya. Then there were the three days you had toothache, when my wife gave you permission to stay away from the children after dinner. Twelve and seven makes nineteen. Subtract…that leaves…hm…forty-one rubles. Correct?”

Yulia Vassilyevna’s left eye reddened and filled with tears. Her chin trembled. She began to cough nervously, blew her nose, and said nothing.

“Then around New Year’s Day, you broke a cup and saucer. Subtract two rubles. The cup cost more than that – it was an heirloom, but we won’t bother about that. We’re the ones who pay. Another matter. Due to your carelessness, Kolya climbed a tree and tore his coat. Subtract ten. Also, the chambermaid ran off with Vanya’s boots. You ought to have kept your eyes open. You get a good salary. So we dock off five more…On the tenth of January, you took ten rubles from me.”

“I didn’t,” Yulia Vassilyevna whispered.

“But I made a note of it.”

“Well yes – perhaps…”

“From forty-one, we take twenty-seven. That leaves fourteen.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and her thin pretty little nose was shining with perspiration.

“I only took money once,” she said in a trembling voice. “I took three rubles from your wife…never anything more.”

“Did you now? You see, I never made a note of it. Take three from fourteen. That leaves eleven…Here’s your money, my dear. Three, three, three…one and one. Take it my dear.”

I gave her the eleven rubles. With trembling fingers, she took them and slipped them into her pocket.

Merci,” she whispered.

I jumped up, and began pacing up and down the room. I was in furious temper.

“Why did you say ‘merci’?” I asked.

“For the money.”

“Dammit, don’t you realize I’ve been cheating you? I steal your money and all you can say is ‘merci’!”

“In my other places they gave me nothing.”

“They gave you nothing! Well, no wonder! I was playing a trick on you – a dirty trick…I’ll give you your eighty rubles; they are all here in an envelope made out for you. Why did you keep your mouth shut? Is it possible that there is anyone in this world who is so spineless? Why are you such a ninny?”

She gave me a bitter little smile. On her face I read the words, “Yes, it is possible.”

I apologized for having played this cruel trick on her, and to her great surprise gave her the eighty rubles. And then she said “merci” again several times, always timidly, and went out. I gazed after her, thinking how very easy it is in this world to be strong.

Anton Chekhov
The Ninny (1883)
The Selected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov

Painting by James Rieck: Management (2008)

Work Will Make You Happy (A Fairy Tale)

Landscape with Figures (1965-66)

However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.

It was not always this way. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle defined an attitude, which was to last almost two millennia, in the phrase “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labor of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation. Only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunity to enjoy the higher pleasures of music and philosophy.

Early Christianity appended to Aristotle’s notion the still darker doctrine that the miseries of work are the appropriate means of expiating the sins of Adam. It was not until the Renaissance that new notes began to be heard. In the biographies of great artists, men like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, we hear early references to the glories of practical activity. While this reevaluation was at first limited to artistic work, and even then only to its most exalted examples, it came in time to encompass almost all occupations. By the middle of the eighteenth century, in a direct challenge to the Aristotelian position, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert published their twenty-eight-volume Encyclopédie, filled with articles celebrating the particular genius and joy involved in baking bread, planting asparagus, operating a windmill, forging an anchor, printing a book, and running a silver mine. Accompanying the text were illustrations of the tools employed to complete such tasks, among them pulleys, tongs, and clamps, instruments whose precise purpose readers might not always understand, but which they could nonetheless recognize as furthering the pursuit of skillful and therefore dignified ends.

Purported to be a sober compendium of knowledge, the Encyclopédie was in truth a paean to the nobility of labor. Diderot said as much in his entry on “Art,” disparaging people inclined to venerate only the “liberal” arts (such as music and philosophy) while ignoring their “mechanical” equivalents (such as clockmaking and silk weaving): “The liberal arts have sung their own praise long enough; they should now raise their voice in praise of the mechanical arts. The liberal arts must free the mechanical arts from the degradation in which these have so long been held by prejudice.”

The bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth century thus turned Aristotle’s formula on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial recompense were drained of all significance and relegated to the haphazard attentions of dilettantes. It now seemed as impossible that one could be happy and idle as it had once seemed unlikely that one could work and be human.

Aspects of this evolution in attitudes toward work had intriguing correlatives in ideas about love. In this sphere, too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage—just as there could be enjoyment within an economic enterprise. On behalf of both marriage and employment, the propositions co-opted satisfactions hitherto pessimistically, or perhaps realistically, confined by aristocrats to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.

The true range of obstacles in the way of unlocking our potential was accurately acknowledged by the German sociologist Max Weber when, in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” (c. 1918), he described Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as an example of the sort of creative and healthy personality “who appears only once in a thousand years.”

For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will almost always fall short of being actualized; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary objects or organizations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood, or a dream entertained as we drive along the motorway and feel our plans hovering above a wide horizon.

[There is an] unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and incompleteness in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.

Alain de Botton
Treasure Hunt (2011)
Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2011

Painting by George Tooker: Landscape with Figures (1965-66)

Two Kinds of Slavery

The New Road to Serfdom

The difference between serfdom, as in Russia, and landed property, as in England, and that between the serf and the tenant, occupier, mortgagor, etc., in general, lies more in the form than the content. It makes little essential difference to me whether I own the peasant or the land he works, the bird or its food, the fruit or the tree: as Shylock says:

                                      you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.[1]

The free peasant has, of course, the advantage that he can leave and go off into the wide world; but the serf has this perhaps greater advantage that when there is a bad harvest, or when he is sick or old or incapable, his master has to take care of him.

Poverty and slavery are thus only two forms of – one might almost say two words for – the same thing, the essence of which is that a man’s energies are expended for the most part not on his own behalf but on that of others; the outcome being partly that he is overloaded with work, partly that his needs are very inadequately met.

Arthur Schopenhauer
Parerga and Paralipomena (1851)

Illustration by Teun Hocks: Detail from “Untitled” (1998)

1 The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene I.