THE CAMEL CHRONICLES; SMOKING SAVED MY LIFE
A battered old Ford screeched rounding our corner in darkness. Silence. The evening air settled still, heavy with Jasmine, hot, humid, and thick as cotton in your ear. The snap of a night beetle echoed like a gun shot across Pacas, the barrio badlands of Pacoima, California - a Los Angeles county suburb famous for empty dirt lots sprouting mountains of bald tires, used condoms, and Corona beer bottles. "We comin' to get yuh, whitey!" a deep black face, a harsh thick mouth, blazing piano teeth out the car window racing through the night.
Inside, piled on a sofa, we sucked ice cubes watching The Ed Sullivan Show. A man twirled plates on poles: five, seven, twelve, twenty plates simultaneously! We witnessed this feat respectfully amazed.
That summer evening of 1965, Dad, a noncombative individual who refused me permission, at the age of thirteen, to hunt, fish or shoot a twenty-two, a man moving against gravity, but with determination, worked in the garage attached to our home in the badlands. Slowly, he lifted boxes loading his van full of moth balls for sale. In the sixties a successful moth ball salesman could buy a house. My sister, my mother, and myself sat glued to our black and white Zenith in the living room, for all the world clueless. Outside, Dad looked up sharply, dropped a case, and gravity vanished. The old Ford slowed a block away, creeping to the end of our cul-de-sac… then violently threw itself into reverse.
It came down between two heartbeats. The next thing I knew, the heavy garage door slammed shut, the front door flew open, we found ourselves locked in the back bedroom while my father, a Jewish pacifist, stood trembling in our driveway, brandishing a fourteen gauge Browning shot gun and strapping Pancho Villa style ammunition belts across his shaking chest. The Watts riots exploded.
Nineteen sixty-five was the first year I recall being cognizant of a person's skin color. I'd been scared before, taunted by the neighborhood bully, but this marked the first time I experienced testicular paralysis; they were coming to get us, in the dark they were coming to get us, and I couldn't feel mine.
That same year, President Lyndon Johnson committed to raising our ground forces in Vietnam from twenty-three thousand to one hundred seventy-five thousand. No longer 'advisors', finally 'troops', the already protracted affair became publicly what it had quietly been since Eisenhower, a depredatory blood bath. It dawned on me, and devastatingly so - though, I thought my parents failed to notice - that now or later or anytime between, I was a walking casualty; that my impending death risked being trivialized in all camps from the street to the White House by political rhetoric: White Colonial Racist (dead honky) or Military Advisor (dead uniformed honky).
The escape route evidenced itself clearly - grasp immortality. A real man guffaws in the face of death. I became invincible, eternal, a tough little shit. I practiced the gentlemanly art, rolling my Camel soft pack into a shirt sleeve. Not to devalue human suffering, 1965 stands as a disastrous year for many, but not for Max Greenbaum. Though I weighed in at a magnificent ninety pounds with the homies calling me Flaco, I walked tall and eternal. In '65 I learned to smoke, and smoking saved my life.
A year later found me performing death defying feats on a daily basis: guzzling gin and cutting school, huffing glue rags and drinking codeine cough syrup, ingesting diet pills and learning how to construct hashish bongs out of toilet paper tubes and bits of tin foil. I grew into the young man mother warned me about - a stoned, bushy haired hormone weaving in the wind, a mescaline soaked broomstick with teeth furious over the injustice of it all and embracing the Reaper. My cultural and political manifesto wheezed somewhere between the fictional 'Dean Moriarty's' steering wheel and the brass knuckle reality of Huey Newton's right to bear arms. So what? So what if I die! In a few years they'll draft my ass. I'm cannon fodder. Your boy on the front lines. Kidneys, spleen, and liver, I hitch-hiked over Laurel Canyon to Sunset Boulevard, hanging cool outside The Whiskey, hocking into my own private pool of fate, an adolescent face amongst the older new elite leftists, crowds of sheep wearing beards, beads, and make-up, and I wanted to be older. I wanted to die and get it over with or live free and ecstatic like the hairy beaded ones.
Having graced school with my rare presence - what was I thinking? Max 'The Jewish Intellectual' gets his walk on, strolls into the classroom for one day astounding teachers with answers to questions they didn't know existed.
Unfortunately, the intellectual scam didn't work in gym class. Coach Himmler ordered me to play second from the end on the line. Tuesdays were football practice. "You'll love this, Greenbaum. It'll make a man outta you. Grow hair on your chest."
"But, Coach," I said crouching, "I haven't got a chest." Himmler ground a steel whistle between his teeth. Jesus H. Christ, I must be out of my fucking mind! Lifting my head slightly, I, 'Flaco The Magnificent', stared fearlessly into the opposing face of my executioner. He crouched, a kid with warts on his arms. A husky kid made out of telephone poles. Expressionless. A massive upper torso constructed of two steel fuse boxes God welded together. An anal retentive fourteen year old with hair on his huge, round, wooden legs. Worse, he possessed chest hair, coarse chopped pieces of telephone wire wriggling up from under his shirt. I was dead. "I don't know the play, Coach!" I stammered loudly, a final rabid plea to be taken out.
Himmler chewed his steel, "It doesn't matter, Greenbaum. You're a casualty." The whistle blew. I recall only a single flash of pain before vomiting. The new plan evidenced itself clearly, to escape with an ounce of pride and a pound of flesh. I scraped my battered body off the field in less than the mandatory two minutes time-out called for nerds to scrape their battered bodies off the field.
"You're a Nazi bastard, Himmler."
"What was that?"
"You heard me," I was dead anyway, "and don't hand us that crap about being Czechoslovakian. You're a German's German. A killer. A murdering kraut. And one more thing-"
"Greenbaum, you're outta here!"
Trotting happily off the field, I retrieved my cigarettes from the bushes next to the locker room. The showers stood deserted, so I lit up a quickie inhaling deep. I'd faced death. Ash poured out of both nostrils in thick trails. I considered smoke rings but couldn't move my tongue or operate my jaw. The kid made out of telephone poles punched me in the kisser before knocking the air out of me. Distant schoolboy cheers sailed through high transom windows like a dream minutes old. Smoking - cool once again.
Dean died, I thought, in a car accident. A rebel car accident, and that's got to be the coolest.
Forty minutes later guys busted humps running in from the field. "Did you hear what happened to the big kid?" my locker partner asked. "Didn't you hear us screaming, Greenbaum?"
"Hey, I was busy here," and I flashed him my cigarette, flicking the ash, spitting a piece of tobacco off the end of my tongue. All at once thirty-five shower heads sprayed steam into the room and that's when I saw him, an apparition floating through mist. The kid made out of telephone poles loomed towards me. He limped packed in surgical gauze, mummy wrap spiraling from his hairy collar bone down to the hip. "He got his ribs busted up bad," my partner whispered. The kid made out of telephone poles inched by. His neck creaked while he struggled turning it, obviously fighting with something important he wanted to say.
"Greenbaum," he spoke as if the soul already departed its vehicle - monotone, a zombie except for the telltale twitching of an eye - "about what happened before, out on the field, it weren't personal or nothin'. Still, it's a good thing you left when you did, else I'd a had to kill you."
Coach Himmler jammed himself behind the kid, propping him up with one hand and slapping him on the back with the other. "You're a player, son. Hell's bells, I wish I had thirty more like yuh!"
I looked down at my burning cigarette, up at the kid made out of telephone poles and back down at the cigarette, and I knew. Smoking had saved my life.
In 1970, at the age of eighteen, I regretted informing the draft board of my world tour, deciding to advance my interests, broadening my scope with no forwarding address. Ripping a pair of bell bottom jeans, I attained instant spiritual depth as a road weary sojourner, 'Nirvana-Max', a traveling symbolic cultural icon without guilt: not a shred, not an ounce, harboring no remorse for my actions and no misgivings save one - that America could not yet board civilian passengers to the moon. If so, I would've hopped that puppy the way Slim Pickens rode the bomb in Doctor Strangelove, without stopping to pack a space suit. No place on earth existed distant enough from the United States and Vietnam. Body bags, body bags, body bags…
"You could go to Canada, like your cousin Ed," Dad suggested.
"Not far enough, Pop." …body bags.
"You could join the Coast Guard and pull duty off the coast of San Diego. Oil up and take a tan. Women love guys in the Guard."
"Nope." …floating in the water, body bags, swollen.
Dad hunkered, elbows on the dining table, disgruntled by my lack of direction. For him the plan evidenced itself clearly. He shook one foot habitually, eyes darting everywhere in the room but never on me, as if to say, "I've got to get rid of this kid." "Okay, what's say I give you fifty bucks and a one way ticket to Israel, the armpit of the world? You can rot in the middle of some God forsaken desert without an address or a telephone. No one will find you. No one will want to. You may stay as long as you wish. You have my permission. It's a gift."
"How far away is it?"
"Nine thousand miles as the camel spits."
Nine thousand miles? It sounded like the largest figure of my illustrious career as a ne'er-do-well. It was infinity. "That'll work."
I landed on a kibbutz, invented a life, flipped with insecurity, told the girls 'Nirvana Max' flew in from Hollywood, that I played poker with Frank Zappa's drummer in Laurel Canyon, hung on the strip and lunched with Jim Morrison and the guys. I made love, smoked a lot of hashish and opium, and drank myself into a nightly stupor. The air lingered fresh and labor felt intensely honest to the bone, simple and invigorating. The kibbutz showed first run movies like Easy Rider, and color television with Roger Moore staring in The Saint. Lies between subtitles, calculations, computations, and reckonings to get laid.
Occasionally, a few of us workers gathered in a doorway at night, talking and laughing and smoking cigarettes, listening to the fighting, shells exploding across the Jordan, people dying, losing homes and body parts, people that were not us. It's a pitiful, youthful, shamefully self-centered statement to say that life felt good. It did.
A profound sense of harmony enveloped one - a transcendental state; to be a part of it all, but more than merely the sum of all parts. I actually began reading the Bible and traveling to various landmark locations: the sweet wineries of Rishon Lesion, the shadowed, blanketed hashish dens of Nazareth, the brothels of Haifa, the Dead Sea - that's all, just a dead sea. For the first time in my life, removed from the streets of Los Angeles, 'Nirvana Max' journeyed uncontaminated by fear, feeling the ancient mysterious lure of Jewish roots, and it happened during this time in Israel that I discovered the importance of developing as a serious smoker. The gentlemanly art is not to be taken lightly.
While visiting an historic mosque steeped in religious tradition, a small holy man wearing his black habit - born into it - warned that if I wished to light up I would have to step outside. I stared into his gray face and it became apparent. He worried about more than nicotine on walls, it was smoke in God's eyes, a love for The Master; his was a position of caring for the Caretaker, and his sincerity warmed me. After time spent elevated in sanctification, in that house of Elohim, the spirit moved me yearning for tobacco.
I spotted a make-shift bar across the street between two crumbling buildings. Grabbing a seat, I ordered a Four Star beer and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Next to me an old man drank his bitter Turkish coffee crinkling a newspaper in the sun, planted in his chair as though pushing out the most satisfying bowel movement of his life.
A great deal can be said for youth traveling far from home. The best time to be left on one's own is when one is too young; coolness dresses in new subtle definitions. It no longer requires emulating others. Maturation begins, compassion, a feeling for the natural life, and one's adolescent lies diminish, they're trite; the time arrives to begin life's journey in earnest. So what if Cassavetes is better looking than me? I look like what I am… between long drags of smoke, I have a style of my own. My own mind. Why not stand simply as a man amongst men? When I get back stateside, I'm switching to filters. Cool!
I noticed, firing up a smoke and inhaling deeply, that the mosque did a brisk tourist trade while few locals appeared interested. The old man smiled in my direction and I smiled back. I offered him a cigarette shaking it out of the package, which he accepted, and it was then, at that precise moment when the old man reached for the cigarette with his nut brown, pudgy fingers, that terrorists blew the mosque to smithereens. The bomb blew so loud it covered the human scream tossing shards of a black habit in the air.
Later, the old man and I sat talking and smoking; not because we didn't care, but because this is the way of life in a country at war - that is to say, I learned sadly that afternoon, life goes on. "Ah, to be young again! When I was your age I still lived in my native Hungary, but I dreamed of traveling. You, young man, are blessed. Relax, sit. Enjoy a cigarette. Drink beer. Don't let anything rush you. The world is yours!"
'Thanks," I said, trying to make sense out of the commotion across the street, people scattering in all directions like body lice. My first feelings of belonging to the family of humankind. Something snapped. I became connected and I cried, "I'm certain Elohim will exact his revenge for this one."
The old man rubbed out his cigarette butt, tossed it on the ground stepping on it, shrugging off my remark like a fly on his worn shoulder. "You know," he said, "they never allowed smoking inside the mosque."
I watched the military, rifles slung over their arms, high stepping cautiously through chunks of debris. "Praise Allah," I said, sliding away the empty ice cream plate decimated by ashes and melted vanilla goop, and I knew that smoking had saved my life.
In my forties, coolness existed in the universe as only an immature unattainable ideal - a silly neon blip in the gas of eternity. During the early nineties, Sunset Boulevard lay ancient and barren before its due, fallow, no longer producing artistic populace, arthritic and lonely as a vagrant dying from exposure at five A.M., and coolness meant malling in the suburbs. I detest malling. Being cool required café' au lait on scroungy sofas in Santa Monica coffee houses - beat, couz, very beat - coolness defined by white guys talking blackness, blackness being 'Gangsta', Nicholson wearing shades in the dark, and Latinos mobilizing for the first time to 'vote the hood' and yes, I believed it was very cool, especially Nicholson in shades with his leering toothy grin, once witnessed impossible to forget.
But I'm cutting past my stride, sliding down the merry hillside bereft of marijuana and booze, a victim of the uneven distribution of wealth. I'd heard of San Trope', feeling in the pit of my stomach that I would never get there because at that late stage of the game I had not arrived. I had not achieved, and I would not achieve. I became the vagrant - a self-fulfilling prophesy, and don't think it didn't hurt.
At night my body curled in on itself as though regressed to adolescence, as though they were coming in the dark to get me, but no voice admonished coolness because in my forties coolness died. The doctor's diagnosis - stomach pain is stress, and he prescribed pills. I was older and had lived ecstatic, perceiving existence through my heart with pockets empty, and the fear that I would die as the vagrant gripped at my ankles wrapping itself around my throat. I smoked three packs a day, but it didn't help. I'd become a man.
One January night in 1994, late, I looked over at my wife, Ann, lying next to me in bed and I blurted it out, "God in heaven, what do I do now! What do I do to save my pitiful, insignificant life?"
Her eyes fluttered in the dark and she bolted upright. "Jesus, Max! Honey, I'm asleep."
"Sorry, babe. I think I'll take a drive."
Blowing exhaust on the Hollywood freeway, doing eighty in a fifty-five miles per hour zone, because I'm Gangsta, I'm Dean, I'm Cassavetes, I'm Nicholson, dammit, and I'm desperate to save my god damned fucking life!
Check el coche' ahead in the right lane. Low Riders? Maybe they have guns. Maybe I'll ease up and shout my most explosive obscenities at them because I, Max Greenbaum, spit in the face of death!
I fumbled around for a cigarette lighting it off the dash, pushing the car to eighty-five, gaining on death in the right lane.
I don't know why the cigarette slipped out of my mouth or rolled between my legs into my crotch on the seat. I panicked for a split second. At eighty-five it only takes a second to loose control. Spinning and fishtailing I passed death in the right lane. When the car slowed and I swallowed my heart, I remembered the cigarette. I pulled off the freeway bridge onto Vine Street below. The cigarette had dropped to my feet, and reaching for it I bumped my head under the steering column. It felt as though someone rocked the car. The motion stopped for two seconds and then the whole street buckled, asphalt losing control of itself, breaking and protruding out of the night at odd angles. Another moment of silence and as I dared raise my head a horrendous thundering, a rolling and pitching ahead in the dark. The freeway bridge high above rumbled and groaned, twisting like a single strand of concrete pasta tearing in three places. Straining my eyes in disbelief, it appeared death in the right lane hung over the bridge's side by its rear wheels. Not a prayer!
After the four A.M. earthquake, I sat in my car on Vine Street in Hollywood exhaling - feeling serene, in control. So, they die? Each one of us continues the journey. If such a thing as coolness existed, I owned it. I had faced death. I blew a long steady stream of light gray ash out from between my lips, and I knew smoking had saved my life.
Why write it at the beginning of a new millennium? I sit in my bed on the fourteenth story overlooking Los Angeles, its outlaying suburbs spread like dirty soap scum under a thin layer of smog and Sunset Boulevard snakes quietly, gently from the East side, through mid-town, the West side, and all the way down to the beach; I have, against all odds, arrived. As a matter of fact, I am Max 'The Newly Arrived'. I prop up my notebook and if I want service, if the literary life makes me hungry or thirsty, all I have to do is tap a button. I'm writing the Camel Chronicles, the story of a trivial existence in an infinite universe, the legend of how smoking saved my life. I can say with all honesty, it's as cool as it will ever be. However, coolness doesn't knock with impunity.
A pleasant looking woman wearing her starched uniform carries in a food tray. She leans forward, an ear pressed close to the vocal instrument I strap over a hole in my larynx. I try buzzing out a thank you, and to tell her I won't be needing her for a while. Some nurses understand this buzzing better than others. She understands. Before leaving, she checks the oxygen flow to my plastic tent. The oxygen travels through tubing connected to green steel canisters, the kind that are labeled with a flame and read "CAUTION. HIGHLY FLAMMABLE."
I feel good. In control, you know? Lunch tasted excellent, and satiated I reach for a cigarette twisting it into place in the hole. I'm about to light a match, to sneak just one last smoke when I remember the canisters, and I know.
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