Friday, March 25, 2005

Memory Chaining

There was a time not too terribly long ago--then again, what is long? what is ago?--when I made my living writing ad copy for a company that made gigantic sewage processing machines.

The machines were called Belt Filter Presses and one of the company's selling points was that their BFPs created lighter "cake" which was nothing more than de-watered "floc", short for flocculant. Flocculant was the word they used to describe the millions of gallons of enzyme-enriched waste that would, by design, flow across the porous belts of abovementioned BFPs, which would then be squeezed together, thereby removing the liquid portion of the waste leaving, um, the "solids". The solids would then have to be trucked elsewhere. Therefore it was best to buy a BFP that would make your "cake" light because you, as the municipal party responsible for paying tax dollars for trucking the cake elsewhere, would desire to have to pay less for the trucking as possible, and everyone knows how heavy water is. And if you had light cake, that is, with less water, obviously it would be easier overall to truck it away. So our company wanted us to emphasize the angle that their BFPs squeezed more whiz and liquid krad out of the floc, thereby making lighter cake. Conversations with the clients were always funny, though I remember I was the only one who thought so. Straightfaced people making helpful suggestions into a speaker phone:

"Well, we've done some tests and we get maximum throughput for the floc, better than company x."
"So your floc, so you can not only get the lightest cake, but your floc moves more quickly through the press..."
"Exactly. Exactly. We've designed them for maximum throughput, even including an enzyme bath..."
"An enzyme bath?"
"Yeah, yeah, really exciting stuff. A tank full of enzyme polymers that not only make the floc *softer* but actually chemically separates water molecules from the more solid flocculant."
"Great. Great stuff. Got a lot to work with here."
"And the polymer is reusable."
"Awesome. So there's that, that environmental angle..."
"Right, definitely, and with the light cake, because we've pressed so much liquid out of the floc, with that light cake your muni trucks use less gas, less pollution, all that good stuff."
Me, so far silent: "So what exactly does the cake look like? Is it really that dry? Totally dry? Or can you still, you know, sense that it was not too long in the past, you know..."
My boss looks at me. Speaker phone says:
"Ummm. Good question. Actually, I see your point. It's really not unlike, well, cake, in fact. A dryish brick of brown sugar, say, a chunk of...let's just say the word *cake* is apt..."

Floc. Cake. Maximum throughput. (close up on my boss's mustachioed mouth): *enzymes*.

It was during this job, wondering about where the cake got trucked, that I recalled having a summer job as a yard-boy at a retirement community during high school. An awful, awful widowed crone led Teddy and I around to her azaleas, having us dump something that I remember being called 'Milagronite' on the beds. It had a sweet, not unpleasant grainy smell, like feed at a zoo or dry dog food or something. That is, nothing you would directly want to eat, but which you could understand without too much of a stretch why a donkey or ape or dog might want to eat it. We pitched it onto the azaleas with our bare hands. One day I read the fine print on the bag only to find out that it was treated solids--cake--from the Municipal Wastewater Treatment facility of Milwaukee (the "Mil" of the name). Milwaukeans' turds. Lots and lots of jokes about beer and cheese that summer.

One of our coworkers was a semi-retarded fat man who wore overalls and brogans every day, holding his Hitleresque mop of greasy black hair in place with an ancient Mack Trucks baseball cap. Charlie, the loudmouth bigot, and Mr. F-, the drunk boss, both called the fat guy "Puddin'" and told Teddy and me to do the same. After a time I grew uncomfortable calling this mildly retarded man who looked like a mole "Puddin'" and asked him his real name. It took me the better part of two months to find out what his answer was: Homer.

I worked with him all summer and understood about three words he said, one of which was cocksucker, used to describe pretty much anyone. I gathered that he'd been in the military and had been posted in Germany.

* * *

I'm ashamed to admit that I've punched my first cell phone, cracking its little windshield. The phone still works. Man, do I miss Sprint. Verizon is just the worst here in my 'hood in Baltimore, and also where C- works in DC. The pits. We switched because last summer they were running a special on family plans, better than Sprint. And everyone told us that Verizon was so great. Buy or beware, as Clodagh sings.

* * *

Finally, I love looking at the art that gets wags' tongues a twitching--Twombly, Hirst, Koons, etc.--but I am always more impressed if I find out that the expressor or impressor was first a drafstman, an artist who paid their dues drawing and designing: DeKooning, Picasso are examples. This is at odds with a strong part of my character, which is as my name implies: jack of all trades, master of none. I can do a silly number of things pretty well, well enough to fool a lot of people into thinking I can do said things better than I really can, but nowhere in my makeup is the kind of patience and dedication to craft that would EVER allow me to do one thing perfectly. This, for me, is a huge fault in my makeup and I am sometimes envious of people who are not hypomanic and who can remain undistracted for longer than a week or a month: I admire people like my Dad, who worked in the same field, still works, in fact, since 1962.

So I love it when I read something that someone has tried to manipulate through unclarity, confusing pov and ambiguous character orientation--obvious examples being Faulkner, Joyce, Kesey's NOTION-- but more often than not I consider that the writer writing this way might have something to hide. I am a lot tougher a critic on writing like this, possibly since I read a lot of student fiction and most students do try to hide behind confusing narratives. Their characters are focused too intently on some solipsistic issue; the characters seem nothing more than outgrowths of the writer's psyche, again, that taint of solipsism; and because the character is so often *them* it is impossible to be objective about the idiotic things that character might or might not do.

Straight narratives are hardest to write, for me. Just no-trick storytelling: Got a funny story? Good. Tell it. That's why even after loving all the efforts of the writers yer supposed to be confused by I always am so moved almost to tears by the beauty of a simple story told well: Peter Taylor comes to mind. Getting back to the roots, the dirt, the unpressed floc.

No comments:

Post a Comment