My lungs hurt worse than they had in quite some time. I fought to breathe through my nose, but a cold was making that impossible. Snot ran down my face, 36-year-old bones + muscles held with the glue of 80-year-old joints + ligaments. I was in shorts in December and I was running up and over the 24th Street Bridge. Christmas was days away and I promised myself that if I stopped running, at any point on the bridge, I would jump off.
Running is simple with the right inspiration. This particular day had been bad, trivial nonsense that incorporates being me, and the next day didn’t seem too attractive either. The self-wager was relatively easy to make.
I caught my breath on 3rd North outside of the Speakeasy. I gave a homeless man an unopened pack of smokes after watching him dig through trash for lip-stick coated butts, beer-soak-breath filters. Wasserman wrote a book called “At Home on the Streets”, and he’s as nonsmoker as me but I gave away the pack in his honor. I didn’t have to jump off the 24th Street Bridge.
I help people, right?
I’m doing all I can, I think I am at least. So what, I’ll try harder. I’ll quit sleep, quit work, quit breathing, I don’t care. I just want to help. I just want to matter, write out the words of razor and fire, the suffered-beating pulse of avenues & cross streets. Those were my final thoughts as I walked down the stairs…
They invited me, but I said this anyway.
“Thank you all for coming. I know you're busy, I’m busy too… life keeps most of us on heart attack courses.” I looked around the room, blank semi-interested, semi-bored, semi-concerned faces stared back. The room was a basement, it looked and smelled like a basement, the only light being a single bulb that swung from it’s cord power source. It was hot, and someone had been smoking until I politely asked them to put it out, but the tobacco and dust hung in the air. There were no windows, the smoke and dust, like me, had nowhere to go.
I counted 11 faces.
Looking around the room, I saw 11 faces of our inherited culture. Rock-n-roll was too far discovered, and Bukowski shot up and died while we were in kindergarten. The Sex Pistols were frauds and the Ramones were Republicans, except for Joey… But here we are and everyone was waiting on me to say something, anything, nothing. So I started talking.
I could feel the need for something self-destructive in my veins. I drove though the white cold rain, furious for no reason. Highway 31 and the sky had blackened over with the weather, nevermind that it was mid-afternoon. Traffic stopped on the bridge over the Nick. The Nick Rocks.
A man, haggard with a beard and wet with rain, waved his hand pushing traffic through one lane, around the wreck, the over turned SUV and the woman trapped inside. No police, no fire trucks, just a handful of everyday folks, parked past the carnage, biting their nails, crossing their arms and dialing 9-1-1 over and over. I parked and got out…
The 11 of us are victims of an inherited culture. I didn’t ask to be a part of this, neither did you; waking up cursed, morning after morning, with the anchor that I’m not doing enough with this life. Just a few hours ago I saw a man torn in two, his car folded in half like a deck of cards, the dashboard pushing bluntly through his gut and into the backseat. His right arm was twisted behind his head, eternal dark, eternal sleep. The chief cancelled the Engine Company I was riding with, instead asking for a coroner. We went anyway.
I parked in the middle of 31 and got out, it was still raining cold on 31. The Nick was under me, with it the nonsense memories I had of the one time-convenience store. Being turned away from Black Flag for only being 12-years-old, being the opening band for Jawbox, finding my truck windows bashed in under the viaducts. Thanks for memories…
I walked toward the SUV, my skin burning, the adrenalin and self-destruction boiling…
There were three children on the corner of Montclair Road and Montevallo, two boys, one girl, a dog on a chain. They wore green and black, filthy clothes, patches on their jeans, bull piercings in their noses. Typical homemade tattoos, typical homemade punk rock look. Birmingham has been sick with transient punk kids through the years, scene invaders prone to violence and theft, since they could just leave to locust another town if things blew back on them.
These were not those kids.
Their eyes were hurt, their ribs were obvious, they were wrong turns and bad ideas. The girl, maybe 17, held a clever sign that said “On the road and out of luck”. I handed Janey money to hand them through the truck window. I told her to tell them to stay out of trouble. She didn’t say it.
Self-destruction boiling I stuck my head in the broken passenger window of the SUV and looked down at the woman trapped under the wheel, flat against the pavement. The windshield, spider-webbed but still in one piece, was the only way in. There were sirens in the distance and traffic was stopped up on both sides of the highway. 911 would be a few minutes. The handful of everyday folks, hyper on the violence, talked over each other with scenarios and ‘what ifs’. They all stopped when I punched the windshield.
A second hit pushed the glass forward and I grabbed the entire shield and yanked it back, yanked it back enough for a point of entry. Blood was running freely from my knuckles and forearms. The SUV rocked on it’s side when I got on the pavement and crawled in, too far gone to turn back now.
Wandering children must travel in threes. Just hours ago a trio of dirty punk rock boys showed up at the station, on the road and out of luck with no clever sign. The youngest looked 13, and handed me his birth certificate to show me he was 18, and I didn’t even read it. He had a guitar slung over his back, and his older brother had a bull nose piercing. Actually, they all had dumb tattoos and piercings (sound familiar?) so I gave them money to get back home, get back to Florida, and I told them that if this was a con, and they stayed in town hustling folks for change for beer and cigarettes, that I would find out, and that I would kill them. It was hard not to laugh, but I said it. It sounded tough, like Alphonse Capone or Frank Castle. I was only half-joking.
Somebody grabbed me and told me I was bleeding. I laughed and screamed “Get your fucking hands off of me!” and continued the crawl. The woman was trapped and hurt in a seatbelt, and under the rearranged dashboard, but mainly just scared. Working on my knees in broken glass I took her weight off the seatbelt, and unlocked it. I told her to press her face against mine. Then I pulled us both off of Highway 31. Sirens even closer, police pouring out of their cars, I pulled a large piece of glass out of my hand and went home. I nursed my wounds in a hot bath, I watched the water film over into a brown red, the sting of every piece of glass against the heat of the water.
I help people, right?
I am doing all I can. And so what, I will try harder. I’ll quit sleep, quit work, quit breathing, quit living and dying and quitting, I don’t care. I just want to help. I just want to matter. Those were my last words as I walked away from the 11 other faces of our unrequested inherited culture. Up the stairs and out of the basement, turning my back to the only people that have ever believed a word I said.
I smashed the light bulb on the way out and muttered “I’m on my way to save the world”, eyes focused on whatever comes next, my inherited culture as the backdrop for self-destruction and importance and a reason. No sleep, no hesitation, no backing down.
“I’m on my way to save the world” - Operation Ivy