Archive for December, 2007

Behind blue eyes

Posted in Blog on December 24, 2007 by trevorgregg

Poor Ms. Ellie.

She’s been gone for months, abroad, out in the real world.

Lost on muddy Welsh backroads while tending a herd of endangered goats, stranded with drugdealers and gunrunners in southern Italy… Haggling for a room with a view in Istanbul. She told me they all watched her there, her and her friend. All the men. Not in any deliberately creepy or evil sort of way. In fact, they were more polite than the Western Europeans by far, she said. They simply stared, without malice or shame, at the two bareheaded American girls, so pale and foreign. As if one didn’t feel alien enough already in a place like that. Strange city, I’ve heard. It’s been going downhill steadily since the fourth crusade.

I imagine what it must be like, to be gone for so long and to have to come home to fucking Christmas of all things. America’s darkest god damn hour. Wide-eyed windburned road-weary Ms. Ellie opens up that big metaphorical door marked Home, letting in the always-harsh light of day, and low-and-behold she catches us all screeching and moaning and clawing, pants around our ankles, doing the sticky and unspeakable holiday things we Consumers do best. What a terrible fucking thought.

What a nightmare, to go out and see the distant, weird corners of the world and to come home to a nation in uproar because Britney’s sixteen year old sister is knocked up. THROW UP YOUR HANDS IN AMAZEMENT folks, it turns out white trash teenagers from Louisiana get pregnant out of wedlock. Who could have predicted that, you know? My whole world has turned upside down.

I saw it when she walked in the front door. Everyone’s hugging and jabbering and telling her about some new fucking Youtube video or that Brangelina adopted everyone in Rwanda under the age of 12 or that we might have a Mormon president next year… For just a moment, just a moment, her shoulders sag and the lights go out of her eyes. For just a moment. God, who can blame her.

Welcome home, I say. Thanks, she says. I can’t believe you fucking came back.

She doesn’t say it, of course, but neither can she.

“Ohmygoshellie, you missed these two parties where this guy Mark who used to go out with Jamie, Julia’s friend, was hitting on this other girl who went to UOP with them and he comes up and is”
Don’t unpack, I want to scream. Just turn right the fuck around. Run for it. You can be back in the air in three hours, and across the international date line by sunset. Break your cellphone, dye your hair, and never ever look back.

I’ll hold back the freaks while you make your escape.

———————-

December is a terrible time to be alive. It’s cold and evil and expensive as hell, full of distant relations and acres of tacky wrapping paper.

Today was the big family get together, of which I will say little. Instead, I will list our conversational topics (in no particular order) which were covered at length, as they are every year. Draw your own conclusions.

1) Mistakes made by the Dallas Cowboys Coaching Staff.
2) Locations of new Michael’s and Kohl’s stores in the Sacramento region.
3) Things that happened at Church.
4) Minorities and the Gang Violence they cause.
5) Relatives who have died since last Christmas.
6) Trevor, why aren’t you married yet?
7) Taxidermy.

I will say, however, that this year’s was relatively quick and painless. Especially compared to last year’s twenty hour high-intensity Familython. I even received a book on human evolution from a cousin, which is sort of like receiving a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. from David Duke. In a way it gives you hope for the future, but mostly it just freaks you out.

-T.

I did not shoot the deputy.

Posted in Blog on December 18, 2007 by trevorgregg

For whatever reason, I find myself often accused of being heartless. Of being cold, remorseless, utterly without compassion. On two occasions, I was even called “Republican.” With a straight face.

It’s all a matter of perspective, but then again, isn’t everything?

This is going to get intense, so try to keep up.

Let me start by telling you a joke.

Question: What’s worse than slipping on a banana peel?
Answer: The Holocaust.

Jesus, what kind of evil bastard would think that was funny? Have you no morals?

There are so many different levels of morality that that’s a tricky question to answer.

I spent an hour and a half writing about these Levels of Morality but it ended up sounding like some kind of freaky manifesto so I deleted it. It’s somewhat worrisome that a long and verbose explanation of my own worldview ends up sounding like a fucking manifesto, but hey, many are the burdens I bear for you all.

Instead of that whole mess, let’s talk about how the world is going to end instead. The world is going to end because people are selfish and stupid, pretty much without exception. It’s not going to be devastated by great evils or nuclear war or the four horsemen or aliens and locusts and shit like Tom Cruise thinks. If the shit does hit the fan in a big way, with plagues and tanks and murder and all that, it’ll be just another symptom, not the true illness. It won’t be a great calamity, it’ll be a million, million tiny ones. It won’t be the tyranny or vengeance of a few men or fanatics, it’ll be the massive, cumulative, snowballing evil of People Like Us. Because people don’t care, and they don’t maintain a proper perspective, and they don’t think. They like to think that they think, or think that they care, but that’s all. That’s enough, for most.

Let’s take you, for example. You watched An Inconvenient Truth. You give your change to the homeless. You love your mom and you buy organic. You go to church sometimes. You hate the war and you vote democrat. You ride public transportation, taking the 22 day after day even though it’s filled with shrieking preteens and smells like a horse stall. Good for you, you fuck. Sleep well. You’re better than those midwestern v8 drivin’ pro-war anti-spotted owl jesus freaks, aren’t you. And when you wake up into a nightmare, when everything tastes like blood and ash and toxic waste, throw your hands up and scream LORDY LORDY WHAT HATH MY INNOCENT ASS DONE TO WARRANT SUCH PUNISHMENT!?

Nobody will answer you, of course, because there’s no god or angels or anything, but we’ll save that for another day.

Well let’s think about it. It won’t be sin that wrecks the world, it’ll be garbage, and you certainly crank out plenty of that. A lifetime of Aquafina bottles and DSW bags. A hundred thousand gallons of Woolite and bleach and 10W30 motor oil and Suave. A billion fucking zillion Starbucks cups. But wait, lots of that stuff can be recycled!

Oh yeah? On the rare, rare occasion that recyclables actually make it to the recycling center, how does it work? It doesn’t cause any pollution, right?

Right. You guessed it. They feed your fucking motor oil and Diet Coke cans and POM bottles to a huge herd of beautiful unicorns which eat garbage, shit butterflies, and piss hot cocoa. Thus is the world safe from your wasteful transgressions.

The truth is that they have to burn a fuck lot of coal to melt your shit down. They have to use a fuck lot of arsenic and zinc to leach the chemicals out of your shit. And they have to fill in a fuck lot of big holes to bury all the shit they can’t burn or melt.

But I never hurt anybody! I don’t litter, or drive a suburban, so fuck you Trevor! Right. And your Prius doesn’t have 10x the toxic heavy metals in it that a regular car does. And your previous two IMacs didn’t end up in a landfill the size of Georgia in the middle of Western China. And the organic fruit you buy doesn’t require five times the manpower and ten times the acreage and fifty times the transport fuel that regular pesticided Safeway fruit does.

Well enough about that, so what if I pollute. I pollute a lot less than others. That’s true, you do. Here’s your little gold star, ass. Maybe you can explain to your starving, mutated children what a conscientious citizen you were, and they’ll despise you less.

What about the war? I certainly don’t support that. War is wrong!

War is wrong. Killing people is wrong. When you pay your taxes, they take that money and they kill people with it. What about schools and welfare and Grand Teton’s National Park, Trevor? You’re right. Only 70% of your money goes to murder. You’re only 70% killer. My bad. Assuming you have far more faith in our current political shitstorm of a system than I do, maybe you can absolve yourself of some of the blame. After all, the people you elected didn’t vote for the war, did they? Wait yes they did. Look that shit up. Wait, my senators don’t vote for weapons programs and imperialist foreign policy. Yes they do, because a tiny piece of a tiny guidance system for a not so tiny missile is manufactured in your area, and if they didn’t vote for it, Americans Would Lose Their Jobs! Thou shalt murder minorities in other hemispheres if the only alternative is to have Americans lose their jobs. That’s in the Constitution.

Well what about foreign aid? At least my politicians support foreign aid. You want to help the third world? Step 1) Tell them to stop breeding. Stop dropping bombs on them, start dropping huge crates of condoms, birth control, and porno magazines. Wherever there are too many people with too few resources, people will start killing each other. En masse. Without fail. So unless you want to pre-emptively kill people, which is something so tasteless even I can’t advocate it, well then the next best thing is to stop them from having so many fucking kids. Then you just sit back and wait for the old people to die off. Thus is the burden eased and the genocide averted.

You do not paint a flattering picture of people, Trevor. We all mean well.

I hate to disillusion the starry-eyed hordes, but the universe cares not for good intentions. Love is not all you need. Food, clean air, biodiversity, population control and draconian government regulation of all corporations are all you need. Love is all you want.

Future generations will pay for our myopia in ways you cannot imagine. I’m talking serious evils; fire and brimstone and massacres and cannibalism and all kind of badness. Neither technology nor Jesus nor true love nor the Planeteers can save them.

A lot of the disgust in one’s reaction to stuff I’m saying is rooted in the misconception that we were made in God’s image.

No way. If there’s any God in us, He only makes up about .001%, that tiny sliver of us that paints murals and loves rock and roll and cheers when every shuttle lifts off successfully. The rest is all mammal. You know what the difference between a starving, threatened, anguished man and a chimp is? Nothing. Just like rabbits or jackals or lizards or any other god damn creature, we will breed ourselves out of house and home. The only difference between us and them is that we’re far, far better at it.

Man, I’m such a fucking downer. Thankfully, I figure we’ve got one or two more generations of mindless, cheery plummeting through the abyss until we really slam into the hard ground. You and I will be safely dead when the real magnitude of how bad we fucked up becomes apparent. Our grandkids will be shown no quarter, which is a scary thought, but fuck them let’s party. Right? Wrong.

So what does this all mean? What is there to do but despair?

Beats me, brothers and sisters. I wish I knew. I just see more of the impending iceberg than the average man, I think, so it bugs the christ out of me when people take trivialities too seriously. Those people protecting three fucking trees in Berkeley, people who care more for their paycheck than their world, people who think fucking prayer circles and voter registration drives can set things right… fuck those people. They make me crazy. So many people, so many, get wrapped up in this mindless crap. Why protest them cutting down one fucking oak tree when they’re clear-cutting so much rainforest in Indonesia you can see the shit from space? Why protest against abortion or gay marriage or any of that shit that gets the Jesus people so up in arms? You know what Jesus hates more than two dudes getting married? Genocide due to overpopulation. The absolute best thing, my favorite thing about the gays is that they don’t have so many fucking kids! Abortion illegal? Fuck that! It should be god damn encouraged. When I rise to power, there will be an abortion clinic next to every Applebee’s and Bestbuy in the nation.

People, so many people, they love to cry to the heavens how important their little crusade is. Childhood obesity or free trade coffee or dolphin free oreo cookies or fucking whatever just shut the fuck up.

Friends, brothers, come the hell on. I don’t give a flying fuck that you think illegal immigrants deserve drivers licenses or that you’re afraid of Wal-Mart putting all the mom and pops out of business or that Revlon is testing the toxicity of its new nail polish by drowning albino gorillas in it. It doesn’t fucking matter.

Humanity has far, far, far bigger fish to fry.

Get some perspective. First we can worry about the big shit, then we can work on getting universal panda suffrage or free marijuana for California teachers or whatever retarded inane things you weirdos obsess about.

Fucking idiots.

-T.

Sailed the darkened seas

Posted in Blog on December 13, 2007 by trevorgregg

The temperature continues to drop, sunny day after sunny day. A little weather would be nice, anything to shield us from that empty, freezing sky. At night the cold creeps in so relentlessly it’s like you can feel the shit radiating down straight from space. I wake up at four am, shaking and shivering because the half-inch thick wool beanie I wear to bed has somehow slipped off. Fucking winter.

Deeper and deeper we go, however much we claw our fingers bloody trying to hold on. C’est la vie.

I went to to the Shotwell party on Saturday, against my own better judgment. I’ve never been more than second-degree friends with those ladies, my idiosyncracies tolerated because of their close friendship with my step-twin, and to show up without the missing links in the chain was likely in poor taste. Fuck it. Say what you want, but the company of normal, regular humans can be healthy on occasion, especially when you spend endless weeks with the menagerie of mutants and thieves I typically run with. The girls know nothing about the serious, next-level weirdness that exists around them. They know nothing about climbing up a fire escape to get away from a MMA Featherweight Champion because you made the mistake of calling Ron Paul the “midgety inbred Anti-christ” during a political discussion outside the 16th street bart station. They know nothing about six a.m. phonecalls from Fairbanks, Alaska.

“TREVOR. Dude Turell is in jail!” “What? What time is it?” “He’s seriously in jail. Tabby called me like an hour ago; she’s on the run from the god damn cops.”

“You’re an idiot. Why would they lock him up dude, he’s totally harmless. He’s just a geek, a loser. You can’t get arrested for making too many Star Trek jokes, as far as I know, just justifiably fucking ostracized.”

“That’s the point, man, it’s not him, it’s Tabby.”

“She’s like 8.999 months pregnant, she’s gonna have baby in forty-five minutes. What crime could she possibly have committed?”

“They missed some kind of court dates for custody hearings for her other kids, and her ex-husband is claiming kidnapping.”

“No way.”

“Seriously. They impounded his car, so Tabby is in some bus station in Wichita, pregnant as hell, calling me up asking for five thousand dollars.”

“Jesus.”

“I know! I told him not to marry no thirty-five year old bitch with kids, man. What do you say to that, right?”

“You people are freaks. Don’t call me anymore, and don’t send her any goddamn money.”

*click*

They know nothing about any of that kind of shit, which is what makes them so great. They know friends and brunches and warm teas and movie nights. They probably own tablecloths, and try not to swear in public.

Needless to say, when I show up on their doorstep in my only halfway dressy sweater with a fifth of J&B as my contribution to their holiday party, I get some looks.

“Hey!”

Moment of awkward quiet.

“You came!”

Genuine surprise.

“Yes I did. Here’s some whiskey. Merry Christmas.”

“How thoughtful, Trevor. You always know just what to bring.”

“Yeah well I thought about eggnog, but I don’t know what kind of alcohol or whatever you put in it, or if you’re supposed to buy cinnamon or nutmeg or some shit to go with it… I don’t know. I suck at life. Sorry, Hills.”

Whether out of seasonal generosity or a more deeply-ingrained cultural graciousness, they let me in, slamming the door quickly to keep out the drunken zombie hobos that perpetually wander the Outer Mission. I set the bottle down on a table full of reasonably priced wines and gingerbread cookies after pouring myself a generous cup. I make small talk to the best of my limited abilities, say hi to the five people I know out of sixty (Viking Jean, Claire 1 and Claire 2, the triplets whose names I can never remember, but I think they’re Katie and Claudia and Clemmy or something…) and set up shop in a corner.

“Trevor.” “Hey man!” Make that six people I know. I see Marty’s boyfriend about twice a year, always at this same party. We hang out in a lot of the same anti-social corners, it seems.
“Some dude here has the same shirt as me.” He says.
“Let’s fuck him up.”
“I’ll go find a knife.”
“You walk up to him and compliment him on it, and I’ll come from behind and just slip it in his ribs, slow and quiet like. We can shove him out the back door before he has a chance to scream, and nobody will be the wiser.”
Yes.

Homeboy with the same blue shirt walks by, and we give him identical hungry grins.
“Hey there, friend! Come back here, we want to talk to you.”

He quicksteps upstairs, confused and afraid.

“So what have you been up to, Trevor?” Claire #1 asks as she mingles by.
“Noah and I were just planning to stab that guy.”
“Oh you boys. What guy?”
“The one in the same blue shirt.”
“Oh that’s fine, I don’t know him. Don’t do it near the new couches.”
“Deal.”
“So you came, huh.”
“Yeah. Sorry. I thought Jolene would make a surprise appearance like last year.” I lie.
“We certainly hoped for it. Now, you’re not allowed to make fun of us for the video. At least not tonight.”
“I would never make fun of…”
“Trevor. Come on now.”

Wait a fucking second here. What video?

“What video?!”
“Didn’t you read the invitation?”

….

“We made that video for the invitation last year and it was a hit, so we decided to do a better one this year. Ryan Carey directed it.”
The Man Himself RC waves from across the room.
“It fucking had a director? This must be a serious video we’re talking about. How have I not heard about this?”
“I told you about it in the email, Trevor. Don’t you read people’s emails before you reply to them?”

….

A million concepts flash through my mind, trying to fill the void with some sort of expectation, some sort of idea of what this video is. In the end, my twisted imagination settles on a sort of epic, forty minute long, white chick version of Trapped in the Closet.

“We’re showing it at midnight.”

Fifteen minutes. Time to secure a seat. I fill up on whiskey, stop to cheers Noah and Viking Jean’s glowering, homicidal Irish boyfriend with the facial scars, and barge into the living room. Crescent-Fresh RC and some Indian dude in blues brothers sunglasses and a plaid sweatervest are tinkering with the projector. All the front room seats are full of party-going Missionites (Missionaries?). Of course. Well fuck that. A comfortable viewing seat can make or break an experience like this.

I rudely squeeze onto the nicest couch next to a short-haired Asian girl and her pudgy Jewish boyfriend, probably named Micah or something stupid, crowding them mercilessly. I deliberately spill a little whiskey on her Pumas.

“Hey friends! How are you guys tonight!”
“Pretty good…” The girl says, not looking at me. Probably because if she turned to look directly at me, our faces would be a quarter inch apart.
“That’s great! I can’t wait for the show!” I shout, even though the room is pretty quiet.
“Yeah…”
“You know what pisses me off is how touchy-feely all movies are nowadays. This one better be a little more hardcore. I know it’s Christmas and shit, but I’m just going to say it:”
I say nothing. For several moments.
“…just going to say what?” She asks.
“The environment is gay. If this whole global warming conspiracy is true, tell me this: why is it still so fucking cold all the time? Huh?”
“What?”
“In fact, if there is any kind of fucking greenie propaganda in this video, which I pray to oursaviorjesuschrist there is not, I’m gonna flip out. Jesus is the reason for the season, not Al “Inventor of the Internets” Gore.”
“Who are you? Are you Hillary’s friend?” The dude asks.
“Yes. I teach second grade at her school. Now shut the fuck up and stop interrupting me. Anyway, if this godblessed video doesn’t start with the Star Spangled Banner, or at least include a tribute to Our Troops, I’m going to fucking burn this whole block down. Seriously. I could get away with it too.”
The guy reaches over to shake my hand.
“That’s great man, I think we’re gonna take off. Have a good one!”
“You too brother!” I scream, reaching up both hands for a double high five. He leaves me hanging, so I high-five myself.

They leave and I stretch out comfortably on the couch, just as the video starts. Cynthia, who thankfully accompanied me to the party to help take the awkward edge of, joins me.

And for all of you shitbags who think I make all this up, that I’m Captain Exaggeration of the U.S.S. Bullshit, I give you ironclad fucking proof.

Read it and weep, vermin:

Youtube

There we go.

That was it; the lights came back on, there was applause and bowing, some scattered oohs and ahhs from the more sensitive crowd…

What can you say, you know? It’s Christmas. I won’t say it was a triumph, but I will say it was far better and shorter than The Darjeeling Limited.

A lot of folks left after The Viewing. Midnight is pretty late for a lot of this crowd, after all. They probably have to get up at 7:30 the next day, you know to… do… whatever it is that people who wake up at 7:30 and aren’t still drunk do on a Sunday. Probably ride bikes or some shit.

I hung around a while longer, but felt an early exit was probably the neighborly course of action.

“I heard you and Nancy broke up.” One of the triplets says. Cassy? Clarissa? something like that.
“That’s true.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” She says, obviously not sorry.
“Yeah. Shit happens, you know.”
“What happened?”
“We fought a lot, the usual stuff. One day we were having lunch and it ended in a screaming match. I said ‘Feelings are stupid!’ and she said ‘Well so is time travel!’. That’s when I knew it was over.”
“Yeah, that’s too bad. Look, if you ever want to hang out…”
“Hey it’s been great but I gotta get out of here. I’ve gotta drive to Fresno and bail my buddy out of jail, and if I don’t make it by 3:30 they make him stay the whole night.”
“Oh. Well call me someti
“LATER.”

I beat a hasty retreat out the front, saying goodbye to my always gracious hostesses (hostices?), thankful once again to at least know that sane, level-headed people still exist in small pockets here in the modern world.

If there’s anything that will get you through winter in this evil, filthy city, it’s people like them. I hop the fence on my way out, nearly landing on the slumped body of a dead drunk Guatemalan. He curses quietly in Spanish, too cold even to shiver.

“You’re a long way from home, amigo.” I say, prodding him with my boot. “Go inside somewhere, or you’ll freeze to death in your own piss. That’s no way to go.”

No way indeed.

-T.

Breaking rocks in the hot sun

Posted in Blog on December 11, 2007 by trevorgregg

I swear it feels like it’s been December forever, but no, we’re still in the thick of it. No end in sight. Night after night, party after party; if the trend continues, by 2015 I’ll be blacking out sometime in late November and waking up with a colossal hangover around President’s Day. I fear I can’t keep it up, though. I don’t have the constitution for this madness.

It starts with company parties, those fine corporate soirées where you watch your boss hit on the eighteen year old accounting temps (“You girls wanna come see my Buick?!”) and your drunken, fat, sweating Minnesotan secretary dance herself within striking distance of a heart attack. You go to one, to two, to five… and it’s all on The Man’s dime, right, so you have an extra half-bottle of champagne. It’s Christmas! you say. Jesus would want me to drink these seven white russians. Waste not want not. That’s in the Bible.

I remember ice skating in San Jose, with Shak and his friends… when was it? A week ago? Two weeks? Fuck. I’d been up for fifty hours at that point, and was thoroughly sick and disoriented. Why the hell am I in San Jose, I remember asking. Somebody handed me a pair of skates and pointed me in the right direction… Only my superhuman equilibrium and six years of hockey in the late nineties kept me on my feet. ” I didn’t know you were such a good skater!” One of them says. “I might be half-blind and more than half-deaf, but I’ve got the inner ear of a god damn Olympic gymnast.” I say, pointing my finger right in her face. For emphasis.

She stared at me for a moment, unsure whether to laugh or nod seriously (as people who don’t know me well tend to do). “That’s great, Trevor!” She hobbled away on her skates clinging desperately to the wall.

That’s right. That is great.

I remember being in some diner… By this time there were fifteen, twenty of us, so they split us up at different tables. Orlando and Regina were in the back doing tequila shots out of coffee mugs, bless their little hearts. The clock said 11:20 AM.

Much later… some company Christmas party… I wake up on a couch buried under a pile of jackets. Stay calm. Find someone familiar; a known quantity, a point of reference. Get your bearings.

Some feathery haired weirdo is doing the tango with his skeletal Indonesian fiancée across the hardwood floor. They’re very serious about it, and the awful tango music is blaring. Two aged, presumably gay men in matching red sweaters chase a toddler down the hall. I find the bar, thank god, and make myself a warm, flat, awful gin and tonic to help assess this situation.

Valerie from Belize walks by; one of the last people I expected to run into at a party, ranked up with Kim Jong Il or Sammy Sosa. The last and only time I met her was on an island two thousand miles away, where she spent three days introducing me to every overweight island girl we met, claiming that I was “spaghetti in search of a meatball” and obsessing about someone named ” Baby Ricky Jesus”. She was doing a thousand sit-ups at a day at that point, trying to beat “Baby Ricky Jesus” in a who-has-the-better-six-pack contest. I hardly recognize her without cornrows and a bikini.

“Valerie!”
“Trevor!”
“Sweetheart, uh, where the fuck are we?”
“The NASA Christmas party!”

What the shit? Stay cool.

“Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah I know. How have you been? It’s so great to see you!”

Make smalltalk. Find somebody more helpful. Find a door. Don’t panic.

Hours pass. I’m in the suburbs of Gilroy wandering around looking for my truck. Somebody else’s blood is all over my fancy wool jacket. It’s thirty-eight degrees and way too fucking sunny for December. I find it after about an hour of canvasing the neighborhood. It’s got six poinsettias, a box of Wheat Thins, and a copy of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in the back. Whatever. Too tired for questions.

Stay cool. Find a freeway. Make it home.

Survive, at least until the spring.

-T.

Times are gone for honest men

Posted in Blog on December 8, 2007 by trevorgregg

I’ve become obsessed with a story. I think about it all the time, though I couldn’t tell you why. A true story, in its own way, though I couldn’t swear to every detail. I’ll tell it the way it was told to me.

A man named Robert Johnson was born in the Mississippi delta in 1911. He was the 11th child of a woman named Julia Dodds, the only child born of a man other than her husband.

He was bounced from home to home in his youth, reviled by his mother’s husband as a sign of her unfaithfulness, spurned by his true father’s family as a child of sin. He was born into evil and desperate times, even by American standards. In Johnson’s day, strange fruit still grew on many a Mississippi tree.

The Depression loomed, remorseless, as though farming cotton beside slave shacks and burned churches wasn’t a hard enough life already. Robert couldn’t abide the life of a farmer, the life of his father, his brothers; he picked up the harmonica and started traveling at sixteen. He never looked back.

Playing on streetcorners, Robert traveled from town to town with several older bluesmen. They survived on tips, playing in converted restaurants and jukejoints packed with the poor and weary. They played for people desperate to forget their troubles for a few hours, dancing and drinking ’til sunrise. At 19, Robert was on the road when his wife went into labor. The birth was difficult; both wife and child died. His wife was 16. Robert came back briefly to bury her near her people, and caught the first train out after the funeral.

This is when things get interesting.

Robert traveled and played with many different musicians during these years. He was solitary, self-contained, alone; the quintessential traveling bluesman, despite his tender years. What he was not, however, was good. In town after town, bar after bar, he was booed off the stage. Son House and the rest of the folks he traveled with agreed he could play harmonica passably, but when Robert picked up a guitar, usually while the other musicians were taking a break, he couldn’t last more than ten minutes without driving the crowd off.

A life of disappointment and difficulty, of poverty and toil, and this was as far as he would come? Sleeping in boxcars, half-starved, unknown?

One night, outside a place called Clarksdale, Robert walked out of a show. Seething, in despair, he walked off into the night and disappeared for three months.

He left the speakeasy and headed for a highway near Dockery’s plantation, guitar in hand. For hours, he waited at a crossroads alone. The July nights in those parts bring no comfort, and this was hotter and more oppressive than most. At midnight, a man approached the crossroads, heading east on the highway. He was the biggest, blackest man Robert had ever seen.

Strange fires burned behind his eyes.

The man, without a word, took Robert’s guitar. He tuned it, silently, handed it back to Robert, and walked off into the dark.

Within the year, Robert was to become the greatest blues guitarist of all time.

He caught up with Son House and the others near the Georgia border. Their little confederation had grown in popularity; several of them had even traveled to Houston to make records. They didn’t think often of young Robert, or where he went. Not until he returned.

Robert climbed up on stage that night and picked out some of the finest blues licks anyone had ever heard. The other musicians watched, awestruck. The women could not help but dance. The men could not help but envy. The sun came up fast on the diner they were playing in, a place called Goldy’s, and no one seemed to notice.

Robert was a phenom. Recorded music was still rare in those days, so musicians seeking to earn a living had to learn the popular songs the people knew from the radio, like walking, talking juke boxes. For the others he traveled with, keeping up with the current hits was a never-ending struggle. Robert, though… Robert could play any song note for note after only hearing it once. Robert could sing a man to tears or strum a woman to frenzy. Robert never practiced.

Suddenly, quiet, sulky, polite Robert Johnson could play. He could play like no man. He played like the devil himself.

Johnson traveled widely, going north as far New York City and west as far as Dallas. He lived on the road; Musicians like Johnny Shines would find Robert shacked up with a woman in a small town and tell him they were heading out. In minutes Robert would be on his feet and out the door without a second thought, any time of day.

Robert always arrived with his suit clean and pressed, despite the dust of the road. He could play all night and travel all day, drink himself blind and be back on his feet in an hour. He could do things on the guitar no other man could. It all came at a cost, however. As it always does.

His blues got darker and darker. While the other musicians would be wailing out bawdy songs about fast women and dangerous living, Johnson sang about fear, about fire. If other musicians were watching him play, Robert would turn his back to them, afraid they’d see something in his eyes or in his playing they knew was… out of place. He lived his life looking back over his shoulder, terrified of what might follow him from town to town.

In 1936, Robert traveled to Texas at the behest of a talent scout for Brunswick Records. He recorded an album’s worth of songs in two days, then headed out to Arkansas. This is the only recording Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues, ever made, and he was paid four hundred dollars for it.

About a year and a half later, Robert was playing a country dance about thirty miles from Greenwood, in Mississippi. As he had in a hundred other towns, he stayed with a woman he met his first night in town. Unfortunately for Robert, this particular woman was married to the man who owned the jukejoint. On August 16th, 1938, Robert played his last show. His friend and fellow musician Sonny Williams was playing the dance with him, and noticed Robert start to do something very unlike him – make mistakes. He began to look bad, fearfully ill, but refused to stop playing. The night dragged on, and Johnson got sicker and sicker. He kept drinking, playing despite a cracking voice and shaking hands, but just before sunrise he fell off the stage, vomiting blood and whiskey, convulsing.

The barman, whose unfaithful wife screamed and ran to Johnson’s aid, picked up the half-empty bottle of poisoned whiskey he had given Johnson. He poured the rest of it over Johnson’s flailing body, cursing him, before Johnson’s friends pulled him away. So it was that Robert Johnson, screaming and begging with his last breath, crawled out the front door and died in the Mississippi dust.

The greatest blues musician that ever lived was buried the next day in an unmarked grave at the edge of a cotton plantation. None of his fellow musicians stayed for the burial, having (rightly) fled the moment someone called the police. In fact, no one but the preacher and the gravedigger came that day. As the sun went down, though, a large and dark man showed up at Robert’s fresh grave, presumably to collect what was his.

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