By Robert Dominic
Phoenix: Spring 1971
EDITOR'S NOTE: New and unusual experiences await the college graduate these days. He either steps into extreme affluence or into abject poverty; his days are either spent in frantic occupational activity or in boring unemployment; he indulges either in nights of riotous social affairs, or he closets himself in some gloomy garret to dejectedly pursue his proverbial navel. Or, if none of these experiences come his way, he either becomes a part of the United States Military, or he dies, or both. The following pages give a first-hand example of a recent UT alumnus who has already served his time in the Military. His is a special case! Poor guy.
It’s a pretty nice day outside today—clear, sunny, and the temperature is about 85 degrees. Now, isn’t that just about the most interesting heard you’ve heard all day long? Sure it is. Let me tell you a little more. Have you ever sat in a stuffy trailer on a clear and sunny day when the temperature was about 85 degrees with no air-conditioner or fan? Nice? Try it sometime; you’ll really be impressed. But hold on, let’s carry this thing a little further. How about a nice stuffy trailer sitting in the scorching sun on a clear day in KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE? Now baby, we’re getting somewhere. A question: what the hell are you doing in a a trailer in Knoxville on such a nice day? Well, what the hell are you doing reading this absurd, purely existential tale in Knoxville?
Once upon a time I was a happy middle-class boy (remember when middle-class meant that one was from a blue-collared background). My father worked as a laborer for the plutocrats of General Motors, and my mother hung around the house and ate Italian food all day. Momma did, however, work as an indentured servant for many years in a bookbinding firm. But that was long ago in a quaint, corrupt, little town in northern New Jersey (for the uncultured, it’s pronounced “Joisey”). I grew up there, in Nutley, New Jersey (or Joisey), which was a town of approximately 30,000 souls, situated between Newark and New York City on the beautiful Passaic River. If I remember correctly, Nutley was a cross between a large metropolitan city and a small hick town. It was cosmopolitan in the sense that some of its leading vegetables read the Wall Street Journal, or Esquire. But Nutley was rural in the sense that… that …well, let’s just forget about Nutley and get back to Knoxville.
We’ve all heard the line that goes, “without a college education you’ll never get anywhere.” Take it from someone who knows — it’s the damndest truth! I mean, if I hadn’t received a University degree, I would have never made it to Knoxville. And that’s a fact! So, you see, I got somewhere (even if it is only about 45 miles from Bull’s Gap). The plain fact is that I’m here and am in the process of hibernation — in the summertime, no less. Actually it’s only spring, but it might as well be summer with this damn heat.
Presently, the local yokels are celebrating the “Knoxville Dogwood Arts Festival.” Yes, every spring the dogwoods burst into bloom and the city of Knoxville goes into festive fits of adoration. Nice? These are parades and picnics, and social gatherings, and arrests (on the UT campus, anyway), and open hearth fires, and wild Romanesque orgies, and for parties, and human sacrifices, and much much more besides. But, I’m not here solely for the festival. I’m here because I’m stuck. Yes, my dear friends, stuck s-t-u-c-k, STUCK!!!! You see, I was in search of the answers which have been plaguing mankind since the beginning of time. Yes, I sought and I found. Where? At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Yep, that’s the place. And, a few months ago I graduated — just like Benjamin — and now I’m unemployed, underfed, sexually deprived, broke, and sitting in a hot f-ing trailer in Knoxville, Tennessee! Oh me! Help me. Albert!!! And whom do you think I should call? Richard Nixon, meybee?
A few weeks ago I decided to go into agriculture. I went down to the corner hardware store and bought a package of flower seeds (believe me, they were MERELY flower seeds). Because I’m a college graduate — a symbol of power and knowledge — I didn’t have to consult the county agent for information on how to grow my crop. I just inherently knew. I took the package of seeds out to the back of my extravagant trailer and put a few holes into the ground. Then I gently dropped a few seeds into each hole and covered them up with the fertile red soil. When that was done, I dropped to my knees, bent over, and placed my palms on the earth and prayed: “Five fools their gold, and knaves their power; let fortune’s bubbles rise and fall; who sows a field, or trains a flower, or plants a tree, is more than all.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but throughout the whole ritual my 90-year old landlady had been skeptically watching me.
“Mornin’ Bob. Watcha doin’ down thar?”
“Oh! Hi, Mrs. Landlady. I’m just making my contribution to the Dogwood Art Festival.”
Have you ever thought about blowing up a trailer? I mean really becoming radical and buying some gasoline and making a few Molotov Cocktails? Sure, why not? It’s done almost every day. When I woke up this morning, I remembered a story about some students out in California who had blown up a bank. They used Molotov Cocktails and did a pretty good job on the bank. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to blow up my trailer? Just imagine the headlines in the Knoxville Urinal. “Unemployed Red Pinko UT Graduate Launches Dastardly Communist Attack Against Knoxville And Unresisting Trailer.” Wow! I’d be famous. Maybe as famous as the Bottom Strangler, or Joey Stalin, or Hilda the Hun (who, in case you’ve forgotten, was the wife of Atilla).
Let me tell you about an up-and-coming literary artist who I predict will make it bigger than the great Erich Segal. His name is Babs Gonzales and his book is I Paid My Dues, Or Good Times …No Bread. I was very fortunate to come across Babs’ book while loitering in a Washington, D.C., drugstore last month. As I was paying the cashier for a small box of Ex-Lax, I saw I Paid My Dues, slightly covered with dust, resting on a bookshelf. I asked the cashier, “Have you read the book?”
“Which one?” she replied questioningly.
“The one with the picture of the guy in the ‘zoot’ suit on the cover.”
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “It’s a great book. You should buy it and take it home with you.”
“I don’t have a home. I’m a lonely rambler.”
She was startled. So startled, in fact, that she dropped by box of Ex-Lax on the floor and accidentally stepped on it. With tears beginning to gather in her eyes, she leaned over the counter and touched my trembling, rambling hand. “You are alone, aren’t you?”
“Yes, lady, I’m very alone and hungry too.”
“So was he,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
She pointed to the book. “Babs Gonzales. He was very lost and alone.” She let go of my hand and began to stare at the ceiling. Then in a hard voice she said, “But that didn’t stop him. No, he searched on. Yes, he searched far and wide.” She paused and adjusted her bra strap. “Yes, Babs did it. He found his home.”
“Where?! Where?!” I was frantic — desperate!
“Buy the book and you’ll find out,” she said. “Believe me, Mac, you won’t regret it.”
So I bought the book, and I didn’t regret it. Hell, it’s a masterpiece. I Paid My Dues is Babs’ autobiography; it’s all about the rough life he had, beginning with his birth in Newark, New Jersey. And believe me, anyone born in Newark is bound and determined to have a rough life. Just ask LeRoi Jones.
Well anyway, the simple fact behind all of the preceding bull is that I’m stuck in Knoxville, living in a trailer, climbing the walls, and listening to the birds. Have you ever listened to the birds? I swear to God there’s this one bird that sounds like he’s saying, “Birdie! Birdie! Birdie!” Isn’t that amazing? Sure. I’m living in a jungle. I’ve got rabbits and dogs and pet bees and ants and wild, tropical plants, and quicksand — and sometimes I imagine that I have a 23 year old half naked woman who swings around on the vines outside — and I even have a fierce herd of crabgrass thundering through my tiny yard. Did you ever realize that quicksand was a living organism? Stick around Knoxville for awhile and you’ll come to realize that (1) telephone poles talk to each other, (2) magic rugs and carpets exist, and (3) Nixon is a good president.
Isn’t this whole damn story absurd? Of course it is — especially to all of you undergraduate intellectual genius’. I bet they never taught you about Bucky Bukowski in American History. They never taught me. You see, you don’t learn about Bucky Bukowski until after you graduate. Bucky is a famous twin-spoon player who was brought up in the Halsey Street district of Detroit. Because he was poor and couldn’t afford a set of drums, he began to play the twin-spoons, which consists of slapping two spoons against your body in time to music— at an early age — say, twenty-one. Bucky rose to unbelievable heights. In 1932 he toured every Greyhound bus terminal in the south, and on the following year he did his act in Knoxville, where, incidentally, he died of an overdose of ramps complicated by cancer, brain tumor, a heart attack, two broken legs, all aggravated by the fact that the bus in which he was riding attempted to cross the L&N railroad tracks on Sutherland Avenue while a fast freight was rumbling by.
Now, do you see all like stories with surprise O’Henry endings? Good. You see, I’ve got to get back to my meditations. Thus, I will leave you with a quote from Milton (which is a remnant of the education I received at the University): “Who brought me hither will bring me hence; no other guide I seek.” Ha! What a joke! I love Knoxville in the springtime, I love Knoxville in the…