It’s no secret that I don’t sleep. The sirens and last calls see to it, at least on paper. An eight-and-half year-old who sleeps opposite hours does her part too, in addition to a stack of unread books and another stack of unwritten books. But, at the risk of sounding insane, I blame it mainly on the voices in my head.
The voices in my head pound in unison with the blood pumping in my veins. They are moments and memories, the vocal chords of the dead and defeated all at once. They are stories my father told me driving through 1970s East Lake, his eyes straight ahead, my eyes outside in a neighborhood that’d find it’s stride in gun shells, reused syringes and abandoned schools. The voices are places too far gone to be anything more than memories, them too, dead or dying. Just to clarify: the overwhelming resemblances to Springsteen songs found me, not the other way around.
Late night thoughts too awake to call dreams. We, the stress addicts, unfortunately choose to dwell in an overload of human worry, converting the smallest crisis into red-wire-eyed insomnia. Recently, and I’m ashamed to say this, I stayed awake until sunrise because I didn’t have a plastic lockbox on the thermostat at the Black Market Bar.
Enough was enough. The voices were there, and had been for some time. I started listening.
I got up at 3 am, put my shoes on and listened all the way out the door. For the first time in a long time I actually paid attention, surprised at what they said. They didn’t mention college courses, 60-hour-work weeks or a 401 K. They didn’t tell me to plan for retirement or build a portfolio or open another restaurant… and they certainly didn’t tell me to get a plastic lockbox on the thermostat.
They told me to throw rocks at trains.
Confused, I kept listening.
I knew Alan was sick and I know he did it to himself with substances, but his death still stung. His nonchalant laugh and beer in hand… just another one of the wolves at one time. He walked down beaches with the rest of us, putting up with my insecurities and instabilities as good as any other. Alan was razor smart, not that it matters. Engineering degree smart. His funeral, I’ve written before, was one of my greatest regrets. I regret not screaming at the top of my lungs who Alan was to me. Awkward bike ramps. The teenage trips to the Gulf, and the heavy metal. Alan’s voice, one of many, I can hear it now…
I once fell asleep at 7am on a dirt-floor basement in Huffman, the sun not able to reach me at all.
Decades removed from a Huffman basement the voices snuck me out of Carraway Hospital, drug-pushing wires in my arms, calling me back to 1988. The cobblestones of Morris Avenue made punk seem so dangerous. Low-lit street lights threw shadows on the mohawks and shaved-head boys, the girls in intentional too-much makeup and tattered clothing. It didn’t matter who was playing, it was a reason to be here, to be there, to be somewhere. (Look at your Birmingham now Bull Connor!) Our own faux London separated the north and south of a not-yet rebuilt downtown.
The blood stains are still there, even if you can’t see them. Street fights and Friday nights, the smiling violence we called dancing. The train yards still grind rails and the rats still dig through unseen trashcans. But the torn flyers and cheap stickers, once everywhere, are long gone. The voices there are not as specific as Alan’s, but they exist; and I still have to listen.
I closed my eyes in a hospital bed, an open victim to the sun, only an hour away. I’d been five miles on foot, pumped up on drugs with names with too many syllables.
Shade told us that he wouldn’t have gone out of town with them if he hadn’t truly considered them his friends. Imagine the fear, or surprise, when they attacked him for being gay. He said it wasn’t the violence that destroyed him. It was the betrayal. After leading him on they left him near a lake, broken bones and bleeding.
So he found heroin. The numbness of the needles. The lowered expectation of living. Days wasted away into a lifetime until new friends grabbed him by the throat. Intervention. Stop this nonsensical self-destruction. They started a band. Hard- driving emo punk stuff. Shade busted his ass at a 9-to-5 and then drove to band practice every day at the same time, straight into a setting sun. He never wore glasses or shielded his eyes. He just let the light burn. He said it reminded him that he was alive, and that there are things worth fighting, and dying, for. A decade ago I didn’t really understand, not like now. The sincerity of his voice, the pain in rejection and struggle…
A voice that keeps me up at night.
Throw rocks at trains?
Deep breaths and heart pounding I closed my eyes and let a lifetime of the dead and defeated speak to me. Locations long gone. The lessons of my father’s stories. Moments and memories….
Lets throw rocks at trains.
Lets dig up bones by the airport.
Lets say life is too short and lets get bored.
Lets tell stories that never happened. No wait lets tell stories exactly the way it happened.
Lets break into Banks High School, or what’s left of it. Or lets break into that guy’s house; you know the one the government took away in the middle of the night for threatening the president.
Lets put lyrics on Alan’s grave. Something loud, a band’s name that WE can pronounce correctly.
Lets laugh at danger and jump cars on Thrill Hill.
Lets start riots.
Lets slam dance.
Lets build something amazing and then burn it down for kindling, in that order.
Lets not tell our friends, no wait, lets tell everybody.
Lets tune in to AM radio and remember our grandfathers. Yellow-gray photos taken during and after the last Great War. The factory job. Everything they did to get us where we are now. Every dream that went unfulfilled, their voices screaming the word “sacrifice” over and over. Lets sacrifice now for our grandchildren so they can listen to their own voices.
Lets write letters to the dead until we’re dead.
Lets remember yesterdays until we’re insured they will exist forever.
Lets abandon the idea of heaven and look out for ourselves for once, for once, for once.
Lets write the best unread books this world has never seen.
Lets die in shallow graves that we’ll dig ourselves in places carved out of teenage memory. A smile on our faces, unfinished books and symphonies torn to shreds at our feet. Plane tickets to the other side of the world stuffed in our pockets. Burn-scarred hands and bloodied knuckles. Photos of 8-year-old angels in our cold grip.
Lets cry our eyes out. Lets give blood. Lets give all.
Lets let go. Just tonight.
At least that’s what they said to me.
In this lifetime you get memories and moments and a lot of nowhere plans. There is nothing else. Stop holding on to whatever definition you have of yourself, the mirror’s reflection, and your checkbook balance. Listen to the voices.
And let go.
(After writing this I collapsed in a prison-cell-sized cubicle at Station 14, the TV on CNN so the horror stories will flash off of my eyelids. Four hours later I woke up to three houses burning with 20-foot flames. Some things never change. Oh, and Shade… A few years later, at a scrawny 120 pounds, he ran into three once-fake friends that had sexually tortured him and left him broken bones and bleeding near a lake. He took an aluminum bat and crushed them into the hospital.)
“I remember you from parking lots. Skate downtown, get dragged home by the cops… You dyed your hair green, turned your mother’s grave.” – Joseph Plunket