May 17, 2020

The Chicken Farmer


It’s been a long slog, but the editing process for my new collection of short stories, The Heart of the Matter, is finally finished. The book should be listed for sale on Amazon by the end of the month. I’ll notify you as soon as it is online. I like this book a lot; it is a fusion of heart and mind. I hope you will enjoy it.

I do, of course, understand your impatience. One Wafer wrote me: “If this book doesn’t appear by May 31 I intend to get a .357 Magnum and blow my brains out. There’s only so much waiting I can endure.” In my defense, let me point out that you guys have already read three of these stories, which I posted over the past few months: “The Wire Cage Experiment,” “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” and “Circus Days.” But I suppose that’s not enough. So while you’re waiting for the book to appear, I thought I would post another one, for your reading pleasure during the lockdown fog, and so that no one will be into purchasing large guns. As follows:

It was in the late 1970s that I was living with my then girlfriend in San Francisco, in a two-bedroom apartment near Russian Hill that had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Looking back on it now, the rent was absurd: $275 a month. I'm guessing it now goes for $5,000 or $6,000, minimum. In any case, my girlfriend and I finally split up, after four years. She didn't want the apartment, and left for parts unknown. I had to place an ad for a roommate. The folks who came through: I tell you, it was like Zoo Parade. One person was stranger than the next. In one case, the potential renter rejected the place because he said he couldn't live without hardwood floors. I could have written a short story about it all, really.

Finally, a "normal" guy came by, a stockbroker in his early twenties, very good looking, and with a sense of humor. I didn't know, at the time, that Clive was an alcoholic, and I was fairly ignorant of what alcoholic behavior entailed. But all that came later. I told him he could move in.

There was one aspect of his life that I was a bit jealous of; it was certainly foreign to my own experience. Clive worked in the financial district, and he told me that from Monday to Thursday, all the brokers slaved away at their computers, putting in very long hours. But at about 3 p.m. on Friday, it was like a switch was turned on (or off). All of the young people in the firm would troop down, en masse, to the bar across the street, with the express purpose of getting drunk and laid. I guess it was the reward for a hard, nerve-wracking week. First, everyone got so blottoed that they could barely see the wall. Then, the women would file into the men's bathroom, pull up (or remove) their skirts, drop their panties, and get fucked—either standing up or bent over. Apparently, they had little interest in who was pounding them. Clive certainly didn't care: a typical afternoon, he told me, involved four girls in a row, all of whom he barely knew. Of course, this could have been nothing more than macho bragging, but as he told it, it seemed real enough. Saturday morning he would wake up in our apartment with a ferocious hangover, having only a vague memory that he had gotten laid a lot the day before. It's really a pity that the penis doesn't have a memory.

You'd think a stud like that would be happy with his sex life, but he wasn't. It was the oddest thing: once in a while I would start dating someone, which occasionally led to her sleeping over. This drove Clive into a fit of jealousy. I just didn't get it. The guy was drowning in pussy, but got upset if I got a bit once in a while. He would then act out, usually a few days later, by bringing home some girl and fucking her on the living room floor, so that I could hear her screams. It was puzzling: I was not in any sexual competition with him, but there he was, trying to prove that he could nail the gals as well as I could. I never asked him what the deal was; it was obviously a sore subject with him.

Over time, I managed to figure it out. The Friday afternoon orgies notwithstanding, Clive was a romantic. His jealousy of me was not sexual; it was that he could see that in the case of my (very occasional) girlfriends, I was more or less involved with them, and he wanted that for himself. The likelihood of finding that in the bathroom of a bar with drunk, anonymous coworkers was vanishingly small, and it grated on him. It was also, I realized, even larger than that. Clive was drifting; he was searching for meaning, and he wasn't finding it. His Catholic faith was not delivering the goods, and he was smart enough to realize that the stockbrokering life, with its mindless and endless pursuit of money, was pretty shallow. Where, then, to turn?

I was in my mid-thirties, and I guess Clive saw me as older and wiser (terrible mistake), because he began to pour his heart out about his religious doubts, his sexual misadventures, and above all—his work. It turned out that at an earlier point in his life, he had apprenticed to be a carpenter, and had worked solo on some fairly complicated projects, like constructing a bar and rec room for some rich guy in his home town. He showed me pictures of his work; it looked pretty impressive.

"I dunno," he said; "I guess I got sidetracked. Carpentry is very exacting work, and the pay is OK, but nothing to write home about. Then a friend of mine was getting into the brokering business, and pulled me in along with him. I never really hit the big bucks down in the District—a number of guys were making millions—but it was way ahead of a carpenter's income. Two years later, I'm sort of floating along. I don't really know why I'm doing anything."

I should say something about my own life at the time. I survived by doing glorified secretarial work—for private individuals and, for a while, at the University of California Medical School (UCSF). I was deep into Buddhism, meditating every day at the San Francisco Zen Center, and writing a book about Buddhism for the modern age. From Clive's point of view, I was a total oddball, and he often wanted to talk about what I was doing, or what I was thinking. So I talked to him about maya—illusion—and how, according to Buddhism, most people were sleepwalking through their lives. They never figured out who they were, and in a sense were little more than vegetables. Clive was fascinated by all of this; he may have wondered if he too was a vegetable.

The whole thing came to a head when very suddenly, out of the blue, Clive quit his job, went over to the bar across the street (it was not a Friday), got roaring drunk, and took the bus back to Russian Hill. He sat at the back of the bus, screaming at the top of his lungs, "You're all vegetables! You are sleepwalking through your lives! Your lives amount to nothing! You're vegetables!" Why the bus driver didn't eject him from the bus I never understood, but I'm guessing Clive's accusation hit home with a number of people. Maybe with most of them, if Buddhism is right about human beings. In any case, his life became more erratic after that. There were several more women loudly getting laid on our living room floor; Clive also took to coming home drunk at 3 a.m., singing opera at the top of his lungs. After about a month or so of this, I had had it, and asked him to leave.

I got a new roommate; I never saw Clive again. He called me once, asking me how to register to vote, but that was the only contact we had after he left.

Years went by. I was living in a different city, and one day I cruised by a newsstand, and began leafing through a popular American journal. Looking down the table of contents, I saw an article called "Motorcyclists: A Photographic Essay." It was a series of pictures, sort of like Playboy centerfolds, of various men striking poses with their Harleys or whatever. Except for the very first photo: there, staring out at me from the page, was Clive. The look in his eyes was not proud or aggressive; it had a faint air of being puzzled. He didn't look particularly happy. He was standing next to his cycle, surrounded by chickens, and the caption read, "Clive Jenkins is a chicken farmer in Nebraska."

"Oh no," I said, almost aloud. "Oh no. Did I do this?" As I said, I hadn't known much about alcoholism way back then; I didn't even know there was an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous, to which I could have steered him. So what happened in the interim? I had become a minor author on the "spiritual" lecture circuit, talking about Buddhism; Clive had become a somewhat doubtful chicken farmer. Apparently I had, with my interest in Buddhism, given him a bridge to nowhere. For it's not enough to realize that you're a vegetable; you also have to figure out how to undo that, and not be a vegetable. I knew (or thought I knew) how to do this for myself, but that was where my knowledge ended. As the Buddhists say, you can't live out someone else's karma for them; that's their responsibility.

Nevertheless, I felt guilty. My Buddhism suddenly seemed only theoretical. But perhaps I was being unfair. Who's to say if writing books and lecturing is more meaningful, or worthwhile, than raising chickens? Most of us enjoy egg dishes and chicken salad, after all, and surely the world contains its fair share of happy chicken farmers. But the ambiguous look in Clive's eyes told me he believed that in terms of his own life, he had missed the boat. Shit. I did this, I thought. I "infected" the guy, couldn't really help him deal with the whole phenomenon of self-transparency, and apparently, ruined his life.

I thought of contacting Clive, but I realized I didn't know what to say. Should we talk about motorcycles, or chickenfeed? I had no idea. But somewhere out there in the great American Midwest is a guy on a motorcycle, raising chickens, and wondering what the hell happened.

I ask myself the same thing.

©Morris Berman, 2020