ATHENS TO FRESNO
(Note: No, I didn’t screw up. I purposely tucked some pics of Greece into this. Not because I don’t like Fresno – I love the city! But I don’t have any pics of my old habitat, sadly. Consider them pleasing distractions.)
If this were a movie, you’d be looking at a flashback. The old guy sitting on his bed at the Grande Bretagne would get out his Coolpix 7900 and check the photos he just snapped. You’d get a close up of one of the images, fade out, fade in and suddenly the bed isn’t in a room of the Grande Bretagne. No, when the guy wakes up, it’s in a dumpy, tiny apartment not far from the college, and it’s close to midnight. He bolts upright. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll be late for work. And Jesus! His wife is gone. No, wait, he doesn’t even know her yet. Fact is she was only born a year or two before this. He’s dozed off because he dozes off all the time now. He’s working six nights a week as a janitor and can’t get any sleep during the day.
The guy is early twenties. He’s got a BA, bunch of graduate units but things are not looking good. There’s a big war going on. It’s been going on for about five years at this time, and it will go about five more. His government needs men to feed the war. One hundred die every week. It wants him. It’s called the Selective Service, and he’s already passed two physicals after they called his number (#55, in the first draft lottery). He should be gone. But he’s crafty. Using a book called, The Draft and You, by Leslie S. Rothenberg, he’s taking every formal and informal appeal open to him. It will take him about two years. Eventually his Congressman, Jerry Pettis, (R), San Bernardino, CA., will step in and he’ll end up with a Congressional deferment secured through the Surgeon General’s Office. The next year The Congress will abolish the Draft.
That’s kind of back story. I was a night janitor at a department store called Weinstocks. In some ways it was a great job. The store was three stories high. It had a restaurant on the ground floor. We cleaned that first. One of the guys had been a short order cook, and sometimes – when the inventory was up – he would cook us a light breakfast, eggs and toast, to start the night off. After that we would do separate jobs in the store. We rotated. Except Jerry. Nobody liked Jerry because he was always complaining. The foreman put him on permanent bathroom duty.
The worst job was cleaning all the ash trays. Oh, yeah. People could smoke anywhere in those pathetically unenlightened days. There were over 160 (!!) ash trays in the store. They were on pedestals that came up about waist high. The trays were about the size of a small cereal bowl. Smokers pushed a little knob and the top retracted so they could snub out the butt. The poor SOB doing that job had to empty and clean out every last one of those trays. Your hands would turn a sickening yellow from the nicotine, and even before lunch break your clothes, hair, hell, your whole body reeked of cigarette smoke. Christ, was it awful! Finally one of the guys who smoked himself said he would take over the ash tray duty. He was tired of the rest of us bitching.
Most of the time I cleaned the second and third floors. I vacuumed and emptied the trash bins. It was mindless and easy. The best part of the job was the book store. It was actually just a large nook across from the restaurant. But what books! I worked there six months. Once I got my routine down, I could finish my vacuuming in about four hours. The rest of the time I would hide out and read in the changing rooms. I grabbed books whenever I wanted and made sure they were back on the shelf before we clocked out. Remembered reading: most of Herman Hesse (he was big then): Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha; Operation Over flight, by Francis Gary Powers; some Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, The Reivers, The Hamlet; Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night; Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus, Mailer: Armies of the Night, The Deer Park; plus lots of poetry from anthologies, like Mark Strand’s classic, The Contemporary American Poets (my bible back then). That little nook was better than most book stores you find anywhere now, even in some modest cities.
But I’m digressing. This is about the book, Nights of Naked Mannequins. And this is where it started. In Weinstocks, over 40 years ago.
First cause: The store’s second floor was entirely women’s clothing. I don’t remember there being anything else, and I vacuumed those floors for six months. It was brain-numbing work. My mind would drift. Reveries galore. Seemed I was always pushing the hose of the vacuum around the feet of fashionably dressed young wo . . . I mean mannequins. Anyway, one night I got a surprise. I was sucking up dirt in lingerie when I backed around the corner of a counter and bumped into something. When I turned, I found myself confronted by three or four naked mannequins. Their arms were raised in a pose. For one brief, paranoid moment I had the idea that they were accusing me of something. A brief moment, nothing more: I turned back to my cleaning. They were there to sell merchandise. Someone would be in before the customers to dress them and make them look pretty.
Aye, the rub. There it was. I had just stepped into a sort of coven of commodification. A quick glimpse into the erotic soul of merchandise. Yeah, a pretty mundane revelation, right? But I was young, it was late, and this was a long time ago. For the rest of the night profound thunderclaps thumped my brain.
I was steeping in Sartre and Camus back then: if existence precedes essence, it must follow that mannequin precedes merchandise. Given that I was nothing else but what I made of myself, what could be said of a mannequin? Were the mannequins also condemned to be free?
If there is no “reality” except in action, then the mannequins were relegated to “quietism.” That was clear.
So, a few years later – again late at night – a couple of unlikely synapses joined hands in thought. I turned on the bedside light, picked up a pencil and scribbled the opening lines from Mannequins’ titular poem:
and my hands
as I knew they would,
leave their cleaning to begin another rape.
What are you doing? Asked the woman lying beside me. Nothing, I said. And there followed a moment ominous for the particular kind of silence that filled it. Then she said, See, that’s what I’m talking about.