I suppose it’s fitting that I finished reading "The Romanian" while sitting next to Bruce Benderson on a too-small and typically-late Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle. As I read the last page, I closed it and as I typically do when finishing a book, I let the whole experience of reading the work kind of wash through me. (Does anyone else do this? I mean…you’ve been carrying around and fingering this object for X number of hours and days…it’s nothing if not an intimate experience just to turn the pages. This is why I could never read a book online or on some digital portable whatever. It just seems, well, vulgar. And although I appreciate many things that most deem "vulgar," this isn’t one of them. Call me old fashioned, but I like my books bound and fingerable.)
While the 400+ pages of "The Romanian" washed through me (and not on the delicate cycle, either, this was full and intense agitation), I looked over at Bruce, who had nodded off and was softly snoring. Without giving away the ending of the book, the memoir made me think about some of my own relationships, some more successful than others, some much longer then others ("uh, thanks, man…err, sorry…didn’t get your name…") and how powerful desire can be. That even now and then when the odds have been stacked against me (and I mean STACKED), I’ve optimisically barrelled into a relationship in light of those odds…like a total idiot…but full steam ahead, desire smearing all over the place. But, nonetheless, I wouldnt have it any other way and I think "The Romanian" is a universal testament to that.
I also thought about the life of a book writer, working on one project for years, then traveling to 30 some cities in just the U.S. alone, reading passages to audiences of an unpredictable number of people. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of signing of your name and is definitely something romantic in nature, connecting with people on the level of language. Not to mention….the book groupies.
Book groupies are an odd bunch and I’ve seen quite a few on this tour. Music groupies are such obvious, whorish messes (in that gross and fun way that whorish messes are), but book groupies think they’re being sly, like no one was supposed to notice their raging book-boners as they tried to line up a "private reading" with Bruce. (I suppose there’s less vomiting backstage with book groupies than the musical equivalent.) In the middle of the night, one of Bruce’s groupies got the hotel room numbers wrong and showed up at MY room wearing nothing but boxers and flip flops, a sticky copy of "The Romanian" in hand. Since I had insomnia, I was wide awake. He wasn’t bad looking and I tried to detain him, asking him if he was curious as to what MY favorite passages of the book were, but Anonymous Book Groupie simply gave me, "Oh, you’re not Bruce" and flip flopped himself down the hall to Bruce’s room. Just in case anyone might have heard me getting dismissed, I absently yelled out, "And don’t come back!"
The train car itself felt smaller than normal, more like the interior of a commuter jet. As we were traveling during the dinner hour, nearly everyone in our car had either brought food or bought some in the cafe car and brought it back to their seat. The collective smell was akin to sitting in the middle of a shopping mall food court, at the intersection of Burrito Bonanza and We Wok 4 U. I had a flashback of flying back to LA from Paris on Air France. Dinner, of course, included a single serving of room temperature Camembert cheese, which when multiplied by 252 people opening up their cheese container at about the same time in the recycled plane air, was nothing short of nauseating. The train rattled hard from side to side, waking up Bruce, who first looked at me. "Oh, I feel asleep," he said, followed by, "God, it smells in here.." The first thing he did was reach into one of 8,000 organizing devices he travels with and spray his beloved CDG #2 scent, first on the back of his neck, then on both sides of his neck, then into the palms of his hands which he then slicked though his hair. "Oh, yeah," I told him, as my eyes started watering, "much better." The blast of exotic essence and spice was quite sharp so I shrunk down in my seat a bit and pretended like we weren’t together, like when you’re a kid and you think your parents are hideous and you run really far ahead of them in a public place so no one would ever suspect that you came from "them." I realized then that his hourly squirts of #2 DID in fact mask the smell emanating from the 1/2 eaten warm tuna plate sitting across the aisle from me, in front of the woman eating it, now asleep.
We didn’t spend much time in Seattle. Our train arrived hours later than expected and…oh yeah…I want to give a big "fuck you" to the cab driver who told us that we didn’t need a cab to get to our hotel, as it was "just around the corner." Clearly looking for a fatter fare, he gave us directions that ended up being nearly 1/2 a mile out of the way, the later half all up hill, made worse with lots of luggage. Buddy, I hope you get 4 flat tires, every day, all day, and a really painful zit on your ass.
We stayed in this interesting place called The Panama Hotel, bought and restored by Jan Johnson in the mid-80s, situated in the "International District."
Jan’s maintained a very rustic and authentic sense of the place and it’s probably not the kind of place for someone who only likes modernity – cuz there ain’t none here — but the place is super charming. The furniture is all dark and antique, the light switches pre-historic, the toilet and shower rooms are down the hall…. but when you get all cozy in your room, you start noticing the details. A long Japanese robe (for you to act out your favorite "Kill Bill" sword fight scenes), ample towledge, and definitely one of the most comfortable hotel beds I’ve ever slept in with fine Italian linens. I don’t know if I have its history totally accurate, but I believe the hotel is on the site of one of 2 existing (but non-functioning) Japanese bath houses in Seattle. Up to the very start of Japanese-American Internment, workers lived in the hotel and used the below-ground communal baths.
Jan also opened up a handsome coffee and tea house on the ground floor, with strong coffee, superb snacks and lots of historical information and artifacts of not only the Hotel’s history, but the surrounding neighborhood as well.
This is a panel of glass in the cafe’s floor through which you can see steamer trunks filled with the belongings of the former Japanese residents, abandoned when the Internment began.
Lunch. A grilled vegetable and tuna panini on excellent, locally-made bread. Jan told me that she goes to the farmers market herself to select the organic produce and roasts the vegetables in house. I’d believe it…
Instead of wandering around Seattle, I pretty much stayed in my room all day, reading and running up and down to the cafe for coffee and grub. I was just happy to kick it in such a nice bed and quiet room. Walking around the creaky halls of the hotel, you really do feel a sense of another time and world. When I got tired of reading, I put on the long Japanese robe and had an imaginary sword fight with Uma Thurman in the full-length mirror. Apparently, Jan busted Bruce for smoking in his room.
Before Bruce’s reading at the Elliot Bay Book Co. I wanted to check out the Rem Koolhaus-designed Public Library. I was glad that it was closed, as it was empty inside, except for the security guard, who was playing a game of checkers on his computer. I’ll be curious to see how the library ages and how the design resonates in 10 years…
I arrived early to the bookstore, wanting to do some shopping there to increase the weight of my luggage by 40 lbs. When browsing the magazines, I heard a rap at the window. I looked up to see Bruce, standing outside smiling and gesturing to his watch (the international sign for "how many minutes do I have left to smoke before I have to go read??") I held up 3 fingers, meaning 3 minutes, however I think he was grateful to interpret it as "3 cigarettes," all of which he smoked simultaneously.
While I was looking at the new fiction, this young guy walked in, rocking a suit, a boutonniere and these Adam and the Ants / New Romantic lines painted across his face. The American Northwest is populated with thousands of Native American / tribe types, but I never imagined them to be so stylish. I thought, "Wow, I hope we’re under seige!" I approached slowly, holding out an outstretched hand, and started to apologize for everything this country has done wrong, everywhere, to everyone.
Morgan, however, explained that he was a performer in this modern circus group called "Pure Cirkus" (www.pureCirkus.com) and that they were doing a show down the street.
Bruce had already started reading by the time I lumbered down the stairs with my new books in what might have been the noisest shopping bag in the history of shopping bags. Noisily, I naturally took a seat next to this cute, young goth couple. While Bruce read, the cute goth girl started drawing on a piece of paper in pink ink. Faces. Words. I waited for her to draw some bats or a skull or at least the words, "Bela Lugosi is my Lover." During the question and answer part of the reading, the cute goth girl asked "Why do you mention Blade Runner twice in the book?" I, too, had briefly wondered the same thing while I was reading "The Romanian," as well as really liking Bruce’s multiple uses of the word "gelatin." All my life, I’ve loved words, and Bruce uses them in beautiful, unexpected ways.
But maybe Ridley Scott (and no, not everyone knows that he directed Blade Runner) SHOULD adapt "The Romanian" for the big screen. I can see it now. Set in a futuristic, utopian Budapest, cannibalisitc Bruce amuses himself by paying young male hustlers to wrestle one another, gladiator style, in vats of milky Eastern European gelatin, devouring both the winner and the loser. On his return to New York, he and John Waters slather one another in Gerovital face cream, securing a pact for eternal youth and beauty. With Tom Cruise securely in the trunk, they drive over a tall cliff in a large convertible vintage Cadillac, wearing nothing but polka-dotted handkerchiefs, sunglasses and CDG #2.
As it turned out, the cute goth girl was the girlfriend of the cute goth-ish guy, who was once a student of Bruce’s when he taught a seminar at Evergreen College. (They all have names but I can’t remember them. Jayson? Katrina? They sure were nice people.) We all went for sushi afterwards, along with another easy going former student of Bruce’s when he taught a semester at the radical Deep Springs College (for Boys2Men) where I hear "skinnydipping" is an accredited course of study. The younger former student had just had all of his widsom teeth out and couldn’t eat a bite of anything he ordered. I felt bad for him so I ate all of it to make him feel better. I asked the cute goth girl for the drawing that she had made while Bruce was reading, so you could see it. She generously handed it over.
I think Diane and I travel pretty well together. I just pull her out of my duffel bag…(Thanks again to Jon / Dead.)
Bruce and I parted ways shortly after this murky photo was taken; he to Chicago to continue his tour and I back to San Francisco. Disco balls are a common occurrence in Bruce’s life, but the light they reflect pales in comparison to his own natural radiance, energy and spirit. I want to publicly thank him for letting me tag along on his West Coast tour and to you for reading about it.