As I watched the old woman twitch in front of the bulletproof glass, I saw Ernest Hemingway walking into an airplane propeller.
Night signs in America
Slouched in a white plastic chair, I listened to a former Marine describe how he tried to shoot up in his left eyeball after his veins were tapped out. I smoked another Newport, shook his hand, and went to bed. Next day I’m waiting in line at the Gas ‘n Go behind an enormous man with a pistol butt hanging over the elastic band of his green sweatpants. I stared at the pebbled steel handle, hating this country while a shakey old lady tugged at my sleeve, saying, “Son, will you buy me this can of High Life?” She smacked her gums and grinned, her tongue working the last remaining tooth in her little head.
“I’ll give you some money,” I said, “but I’m not buying you any beer.” She yanked a dollar from my hand and laughed. “I’ll buy it myself then, goddammit,” she muttered, marching to the counter. As I watched this pickled old woman in an electric blue kerchief twitch in front of the cashier’s bulletproof glass, I caught a glimpse of Ernest Hemingway walking into an airplane propeller.
In 1961, the man who dominated American letters for forty years finally came undone. Alcoholic and gravely ill, he could no longer write. He flew to the Mayo Clinic for another round of detox and electroshock. When his airplane stopped in Wyoming for repairs, he wandered onto the runway and began walking towards the spinning propeller. The mythology of the indestructible Papa came crumbling down: the brave man of war, boxing, bullfights, brawls, drunken safaris, and countless fractures and concussions; the man who survived two airplane crashes in two days, who would show up battered in his publishers’s office saying, “How do you like me now, gentlemen?” The man for whom courage was everything. Now he was being restrained on the tarmac before he could reach the whirling blades. Three months later, he woke up early in his Idaho house, put his favorite shotgun in his mouth, and pulled both triggers.
The old lady stepped away from the counter, cracked her tallboy of Miller High Life and grinned. “God bless you,” she said, giving a little bow. I left the store, unable to shake the image of a former powerhouse in so much psychic pain that he wrapped himself in a bathrobe against the April wind and, body pitched forward, shuffled towards a spinning propeller. Maybe we’re all walking into our own little propellers everyday, the grim decisions that some of us make when we’re convinced we’re tapped out and falling through the cracks. Refusing to stop or unable to begin; some of us are afraid to go outside, others are afraid to come home and ask for help. So many people suffering through too many long nights of the soul, unsure of what to do or where to go. If one of literature’s most disciplined minds and macho bodies got addicted to a quart of booze per day and shuffled towards an airplane propellor — well, maybe we’re all at risk of a crack-up.
Last week I met a kid who’d been awake for four days straight and the look in his eyes put the fear of the devil into me. Why is the human mind capable of tormenting itself to such a painful degree? “I’ll never sleep again,” he said. “I’m ruined.” What gesture or word could soothe that insomniac kid or help the alcoholic old lady or the Marine and his eyeball — or me, when I’m in a tailspin? Certainly not phrases like snap out of it or have some self control. I recall a girl perched on a barstool, hugging her knees and giggling hysterically at her boyfriend, saying, “Just remember that when you point your finger at me, you’ve got three pointing right back at you.”
Last night I sat in a Waffle House listening to short-order cooks with elaborate neck tattoos talk junk over the fryer while a woman at the counter shuddered and quietly cried. She looked around the room, her red eyes pleading for a sign that she was not alone, that other people felt this lousy, too. The only thing she wanted was empathy because that’s the thing that heals.
* * *
America is not an empathetic culture. We plow more money into widgets for our telephones than feeding those of us who are hungry. Most of us walk past people in terrible distress, believing they are the inevitable background scenery of modern life. I’m part of this problem; my moral arithmetic has been busted for a very long time. During the last month I’ve seen things, done things, and met people who have taught me to rethink the way I live. Foundation-shaking stuff that I cannot yet articulate. But I’m ready to listen, volunteer my time, reprioritize, and reconsider the work that I do. To directly help as many people as possible find a little peace in this noisy overheated world that we’ve created. Including myself.