Last week my bookseller friend was out on Seventh Avenue in his regular spot and I went to see what he had on his table. He said, “Look at this,” and he handed me a book of poems by Richard Brautigan called Loading Mercury With a Pitchfork. I opened it to a tiny little poem called “Ginger” and read it aloud:
We stood looking at the poem for a few seconds, letting it sink in. He pulled on his beard and said, “Yup.” Then he said, “I felt bad when he shot himself,” and I said, “Me too.” It was something that didn’t make any sense at all when it happened, already decades ago. I remember it happening, and I remember reading a story about it in Vanity Fair magazine. It felt shocking and all wrong, and it still does, but less so now. In the picture on the cover of the book of poems, Brautigan had a beard. I always remembered him as just having a long saloonkeeper style mustache, but not a beard. He always wore a ten-gallon hat on his head, like a frontiersman. If he had lived and kept the beard, he might look something like the bookseller guy now, if a few years older, because by now Richard Brautigan would be getting up there in his seventies and I would guess that my bookseller is someplace in his sixties.
I thought of Seaweed, my dad, and wondered what he would say about a little poem like that. I couldn’t guess either way, but he’d either like it or hate it. Sometimes he wrote awful poems and sent them to me in letters. One of them was about a romance between two garden slugs that lived in a rooming house and slept on a sagging four-poster bed. Seaweed was as much a misfit as Richard Brautigan, but he was nothing like him. Brautigan had a sweet look about him, and Seaweed was more of a Charles Bukowski character, although he didn’t like Bukowski at all. He was rough around the edges in appearance and he never had any money. He was unable to not stop and pet stray cats, feeling under their throats to see if they were purring. He wandered around picking butts up off the sidewalk to smoke, and spent whatever money came his way on beer in the trashiest taverns, declaring Mozart great at the bar, bumming smokes and living on blackberries all through the late summers and early autumns when he could pick them.
He haunted the library and called me up whenever he liked a book to expound on its virtues. He got his food for free at the food bank and ate a lot of stale bread while he gobbled up all the books of Herbert Asbury about old criminals and gangsters and molls. He read Hubert Selby’s Requiem for a Dream and said it was a masterpiece.
He re-read all the books of Thomas Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser that he’d read back in the 30s and 40s, checked out from the library. He thought that An American Tragedy was a masterpiece, more so than Sister Carrie. He told me that Theodore Dreiser’s brother changed his name to Dresser and was an actor on Broadway in the 1890s. He told me that he had just read the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant, written on his deathbed. Seaweed had a Newsreel Voice that he would use when he talked about something he thought was truly great, such as this book by Ulysses Grant. “He was lauded all over the globe! Egypt! China! Japan! Russia! The Mid East! They treated him like he was a God!” He said that the book was a masterpiece. He said Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy was his masterpiece. “Find it at the library and delve into it,” he said. “Right now I’m reading a book about an old baseball player who was a spy and in that book, to my great surprise, I came across a ball player named Heinie Manusch! And all this time I thought “Heinie Manusch” was something I saw in a movie when I was sixteen years old, describing the sound of a train! ”
He liked limericks and told me he thought they had a way of making the stupidest thing possible sound absolutely true. He said that a limerick was actually a straight-faced piece of life without introduction, and that’s why people like them. As he was talking, telling me these things over the telephone, I was scribbling everything he said down on a notepad so I would remember it later and I’m glad I did. He read Last Exit to Brooklyn in one sitting and said the part he liked most was about a very dirty lady who picked her nose and smelled awful. He declared the whole thing “A Masterpiece.” Around that time he sent me this letter, about what I think might have been the last book Selby wrote:
“Today I picked up in the library a book called The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby. I’m partly into it, and I venture to say that this one might be his masterpiece. I just finished Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. Henry is among the most despicable characters I ever met. Is that actually autobiographical? Here is that bit of doggerel I recited to you over the phone the other day:
Activated charcoal is good for you
In the chewing gum you chew chew chew
So plunk down a nickel, say here I come
For Ten Crown Activated Charcoal gum.
Love and kisses,
I bought the Brautigan book for five dollars and read most of it while I waited for lights to change on the short walk home, because most of the poems in it are about the same length as “Ginger.” I put it in the bookshelf, and I think if Seaweed were still here I’d risk giving it to him.
March 6, 2011