Three A.M.

Awake at three in the morning. It’s a contradiction of human existence, I guess.

I’m awake right now because I was having a weird dream. In the dream, Mel Brooks asks what if Buddha had been a nice Jewish boy from Queens?

Siddhartha the Buddha, or as his mother called him, Siddhartha the Bum.

She says to him, Sid, Sid, why don’t you get a job? Your brother Marty has a nice job on Wall Street and what are you doing? Sitting under a tree eating plums!

I woke up laughing.

I tried to go back to sleep but Mrs. Gautama kept talking.

Why don’t you get a job, she says, and he says, Ma, I’ve got a job. I’m a teacher.

She says, that’s not a real job, you know why I know it’s not a real job? If you had a real job, you could afford to go to the Hamptons for the summer instead of sitting under a pear tree eating plums. That’s no vacation from a real job!

He says, Ma, why would I sit under a pear tree eating plums? It was a fig tree and I was eating figs….

I don’t care if they were Avogadros! she interrupts. You could eat any number of Avogadros and I wouldn’t care.

Then she starts in on him about grandkids. When are you going to get married? If you were married, you would have to get a real job and get me some grandkids? Your brother Marty, he can’t because he’s got that thing, his Exeter is too narrow.

His urethra, Ma.

His ureter, he’s not going to have kids but you could get married…. Are you gay? You can tell me…. If you have some nice boy you’d rather marry you can bring him by…. What’s his name? Steve?

Ma, I’m not gay, Sid says.

Maybe you and Steve could adopt? Marty can’t adopt because his wife has that conviction from when she was a prison guard.

Imogene Coca was playing Ma, Sid Caesar (who else) as Sid, with Howie Morris as Marty and Terry Jones as Mrs. Finkelstein nextdoorsikeh.

At which point, I got up again and wrote this all down. :)

Songwriting

For the last few months I’ve been working on some songs with my friend Bob Winter. He has three of the ones we’ve worked on together at his website: Notes in a Bottle.

It’s quite a kick to hear someone singing something you’ve written. How this goes is that I write the words and sing (badly) a version of the tune for Bob to hear. Then he works on making it singable and providing chords and harmonies and doing the production. Since I’m a terrible singer, it’s amazing to me that he can come up with a tune that is so very like what I can hear in my head.

Also, my rhythms are often clumsy and Bob smoothes them out and we work on changing lyrics together to get the phrasing right. :) It’s a real collaboration and a heck of a lot of fun.

The Inevitable Surprise

She fell.

Through the quiet darkness with the moon over her shoulder, she fell.

Toward the sea below, and the rocks, toward the foaming maelström between them, she fell.

She pulled her hands and arms into a point above her head, or rather below it, steering with her legs in the wind of her own passage.

Down and down and faster and faster, her breath tight and painful, not because she was holding it but because it came so fast that it could not be held.

She fell toward the water, silent except for the pounding of the wind and the roaring of her heart; she fell, not by accident but on purpose; she had jumped and she had not been pushed.

On the cliff above the men watched her fall, knowing that she had chosen escape into death rather than let them catch her, touch her, find out who she was, stop her from living to tell anyone what she had seen.

She struck the sea at the last, at the very end of her fall, the inevitable surprise at the bottom of every dive and she knifed cleanly through the water the way he had taught her and she knew that to the men above she had simply disappeared because she made no splash and hardly a sound at all, not one they could hear anyway though to her it sounded like the crash at the end of a world.

But, she lived.

Dustman

Sometimes I dream about doing something I would really like to do. The following was from a dream I had about working on a daily adventure strip called “Dustman”. It was set in New York City, a place I’ve never lived but like all Americans, I have a substitute familiarity with. The artist had a skritchy but cinematic style, as if Will Eisner had been inked by Jules Feiffer. My job was to work on plot and dialog.

Below is more or less the outline of the story we told in the opening arc of the strip. I really wish I were working on this project.

Dustman

Leon Martenson is a rookie detective assigned to investigate the tales of a vigilante operating in Lower Manhattan. Stories among street people are circulating about a mysterious man who lives on rooftops and patrols streets and alleys to protect the homeless, prostitutes, children and ordinary working people from thieves and extortionists.

One street patrolman tells of having confronted a guy he thought was the vigilante after having seen him break up a purse snatching by somehow creating clouds of dust to separate the victim and assailant.

“Who are you?” the cop had demanded, seeing someone watching the scene from the roof of a five-story block of storefronts and offices.

“I’m nobody, I’m nothing,” the mysterious watcher replied. “I’m just the wind, I’m smoke, I’m dust and leaves in the wind. I’m dust, man.” And then he had disappeared.

The patrolman had run up to the roof as quickly as he could after calling for backups but no one could find the “witness” the cops started calling “Dustman.”

Martenson’s partner, veteran Detective Arlyn Washburn, refuses to have anything to do with the investigation. He’s convinced that Dustman is just an urban legend and that the incidences reported by people are lies, hoaxes, hallucinations, mistaken identities and perhaps even copycats using the Dustman legend to get back at their enemies or just make headlines.

A young woman named Bonnie Lincoln who writes a news blog called “Below Manhattan,” about life in NYC, also is doubtful that Dustman really exists but she and Leon are intrigued and interested with each other.

Sightings of Dustman have ranged from the Bowery to Morningside Heights but more frequently witnesses place him south of Midtown, often in or near Soho and the West Village. In an age of cellphone and security cameras, numerous, more or less crappy, photos exist. Two of the clearest show a figure that could be Dustman looking down from the top of a building.

Bonnie and Leon use their various sources to collect evidence about Dustman’s methods and existence. Bonnie fills her blogs with anecdotes about Dustman saving this or that person from a mugging or other robbery. Leon looks for more tangible proof.

He has fragments of balloons once full of dust and used as weapons by Dustman. “How does he get them to burst when he throws them?” he asked the police lab but no one had a good answer.

From various photos, the police artist creates a composite image showing a tall man wearing a khaki raincoat, blue jeans or slacks, sneakers and either a brown wool cap or a battered looking grey Stetson. From the testimony, he could be an olive-skinned white man, or a light-skinned black man. The patrolman who spoke with him thinks he was white but isn’t too sure.

Martenson, with Lincoln’s help, leaves messages with people offering to meet with Dustman and suggesting times and places where the detective or reporter will wait for a meeting. But after two weeks, Dustman has not shown up.

While Leon and Bonnie are finally having a romantic interlude that started out as another discussion of Dustman, Washburn calls his partner to tell him, “We’ve found your guy.”

The body in the alley in the Meatpacking District did fit the description of Dustman in most particulars but no one had ever described the mystery man as having a pencil-thin mustache. Still, the police tentatively close the file. But two weeks later, the word on the street is that someone wants to meet with Martenson.

Leon goes to the meeting spot, feeling guilty that he hasn’t told Bonnie, Near a statue in one of the little pocket-size fenced parks in Soho, an hour after dusk, someone speaks from the shadows.

“I’m not dead,” says a dry-as-dust voice. “While your people think I am, I’m going to take a little vacation. I’ll be back.”

“How do I know it’s really you, really Dustman?” asks Leon.

“When I’m gone, look behind the statue.” And then the voice answers no more questions. Dustman has disappeared.

The detective looks behind the statue and finds three balloons half-full of dust and covered in a thin layer of clear ice.

Catman Druthers

I have whole other careers in my sleep. Last night I dreamed about working on a comic strip called Catman Druthers.

The main character, a humanoid cat named Catman, worked as a software engineer for a waste management company. Exciting, huh? His wife, Kitty, ran a daycare.

They lived in the suburbs of a metropolis filled with anthropomorphic animals and just to be confusing, they kept pets. The Druthers’ dog, Flora, chased the mailman, energy-efficiently since the postal worker was also a squirrel.

They had another pet, Manbird, a parrot with a human head, who sat on a perch in the office or kitchen and made wry comments on stuff.

The particular strip I was working on in the dream showed Catman sitting in the floor watching the dog eat as Kitty walks in.

“Watcha doing, hon?” Kitty asks.

“Trying to teach the dog to be more finicky,” says Catman.

The second panel is a close up of the dog scarfing down something and wagging her tail. The word balloons of Kitty and Catman fill the top of the panel.

“How’s it going?” asks Kitty.

“Not too good,” says Catman. “She still eats anything I put down.”

Last panel is a discouraged-looking Catman saying, “That’s a bowl of gravel.”

Freespace – Chapter IV – Enter the Bogies

A hundred fifty thousand years ago, humanity exploded across the galaxy like a bad case of acne. Other races, ones that had been mature enough to have developed and used spaceflight for millennia, did not know what to do about the brash young species that seemed intent on claiming every available bit of astral territory, habitable by their kind or not.

Conflict raged, worlds died and with them some of the old races. Humanity, as a whole, did not care, despite the lachrymations of a few sentimental individuals. The Third Galactic Empire, ruled by humans, sprang into existence and flourished for a time. And then, like the two earlier empires, also ruled by young and reckless races in their day, it faded away.

Because Empires on a Galactic scale are just stupid. Aren’t they?

Five hundred years ago, Bogies exploded across the galaxy like a lethal venereal rash. No one knew where they came from or where or when they had developed their fast, efficient space drives and their powerful weapons. What everyone does know is that the Bogies seem intent on exterminating every other form of intelligent life that they encounter. They are less interested in galactic empire and more intent on galactic genocide.

The remnants of the Last Galactic Empire, a few human-dominated planets near the end of the 2nd Spiral Arm, are the only powerful coalition that might stand against the Bogies. And they have their own internal problems – The Freespace Revolution has been growing for decades and now threatens to destroy the Last Empire from inside before the Bogies can do it from outside.

Liberty or survival seem to be the choices the last humans have to make….

Peanut Butter Fog

There’s something surreal about traveling at night on the freeway. A bubble of greenish dashlight around you, outside the white lights come toward you and red lights convoy alongside. The multicolor lights of cities and towns pass quickly with the hot yellow roadlights of exits and overpasses standing like sentries.

Away from the city it is only more intense. The desert night can be very black and the small hours of morning can bring fog so dense you’re tempted to drive by Braille, hitting the raised-dot lane markers you can’t see anymore with a satisfying tunk-tunk-tunk.

Turn off the radio, you need to concentrate. Dial down the inside lights to cut the glare. Peer into the darkness. Somewhere, you see a white glow in the blanket of fog, a big rig approaching on the otherside of the median strip?

Pea soup fog in the Bay Area, tule fog in the Central Valley — peanut butter fog in the Mojave, thick as a Dagwood sandwich; why are you driving in it? If you pull over and turn off your lights, you’ll be alone in a darkness so complete you’ll feel like a cave fish. Pull over and leave the lights on and you take the risk of someone rear-ending you, thinking you’re moving. Even leaving your emergency blinkers on won’t be safe; you’ve passed two cars doing that already and you didn’t see them till the very last moment.

So you keep driving, slowing down, trying not to overdrive your lights. Then someone blows by you in a quad-cab dualie, doing at least sixty, seventy, maybe one hundred ten, you can’t tell. How fast are you going? You can’t tell that, either, you’ve got the dashlights turned off. Speed up a bit. If you hit the right speed, you won’t see anyone at all because you’ll all be going the same speed.

The fog is so thick, you don’t even see the cotton candy lights of traffic on the other half of the road. You roll down the windows. The fog is cold, blowing in the window like frigid steam but it keeps you awake and you can hear the traffic on the other side of the road, when there is any. You can hear the dots on the pavement better, too.

Tunk-tunk-tunk.

You turn the dashlights back on to check your speed. At forty-five miles an hour, it will take you three hours to reach the towns along the Colorado. Three hours of cold desert wind coming in the window, wet with fog. Three hours of peering into the darkness, wondering if there’s a car stopped in the road with its lights off, or a deer crossing the highway or someone trying to wave you down ’cause they have car trouble.

Going slower would be intolerable, going faster would be insane. You memorize the sound of your current speed, the rhythm of the dots, and turn the dashlights back off. You drive.

That was an exit. What did it say? Eagle Mountain? You’ve never heard of Eagle Mountain. You’ve driven this road in daylight and don’t remember that name. Are you still on the right freeway? There are no mountains here, just flat desert. Is Eagle Mountain a town? Would they have coffee? Too late now, you’ve passed the exit. You make a mental list of who you would kill for a cup of coffee. The list gets longer.

Tumbleweeds appear out of the fog, like golden chandelier-spiders in your headlights, scuttling across the road. Alien-looking, it’s a Steven Spielberg sort of thought.

Tunk-tunk. Tunk. One of the dots must have been missing.

Lights up ahead. Is the fog lifting? You can’t be coming to a town yet, there are no towns on this freeway for another fifty miles. Someone with road flares? An accident or just a breakdown. You slow down and steer off the dots, not wanting anyone to see you doing that.

The fog lifts suddenly, the immense desert opens up around you under hard bright diamonds in a jeweler’s showcase black velvet sky. The tension flows out of your neck and wrists and the open window is suddenly much too cold. You roll it back up.

A road sign says, Blythe 70 miles. Less than an hour away and you won’t have to kill anyone for coffee, there’s a Denny’s there. Talk about surreal.

But the lights in the road ahead of you — maybe you shouldn’t have been thinking of Steven Spielberg?