Archive for ‘John Tottenham’

September 15, 2010



September 17th, 2010, Los Angeles, CA—Kerosene Bomb Publishing is proud to announce the release of the 2010 edition of The Inertia Variations, John Tottenham’s epic and ever-expanding poetic cycle on the subject of work-avoidance, indolence, failure and related topics.  Despite existing in a medium that should automatically doom the book to obscurity, and despite (or perhaps because of) the morbid subject matter, the Inertias are a work of entertainment with universal appeal.

Everybody relates to the Inertias, even those who lead active and healthy lives.  They amuse people: as evidenced by the author’s numerous rapturously-received appearances at book stores, art galleries, punk-rock bars, classical-music venues and comedy clubs.  They speak to the underachiever in all of us and appeal to people who don’t like poetry.

After graduating from London’s worst art school in the mid-‘80s, John Tottenham moved to the United States, where he has resided ever since, mostly toiling upon the lower slopes of journalism.  After many years of resistance, he finally sold out to the lucrative, fast-paced world of poetry.  The Inertias are the fruit of many fruitless years.  Tottenham, to his eternal discredit, has lived the life of which he writes with such wit and insight.

A multi-media interpretation of The Inertia Variations by English musician Matt Johnson (otherwise known as The The) is currently in production and a series of short 16mm films based on the work, directed by actor Adam Goldberg, will soon be making the rounds at film festivals.

The first edition of the Inertias was published in 2005. It was hailed as “a terrific collection” in the Guardian, “quiescent genius” by Mojo Magazine, and “comedy gold” in 3AM Magazine, and turned Tottenham into a minor celebrity within a two-block radius of Echo Park. The new edition, packed with fresh material and including a robust addenda, is twice as long and satisfying as the original.

Like all K-Bomb works, the new, expanded Inertia Variations can be ordered from –30-

(Sample verse from The Inertia Variations follows)


Dulling my senses with baths, naps,
Assorted languishings.  For many years
I have sat down to do the work
That the world will be no worse off
Without, and I have not done the work.
And the world is no worse off.  Just because
I haven’t done anything with my life,
Does that make me a lesser man?

September 27, 2009

The Poet Upstairs (Paris, LA)

Anh Do of Paris LA interviews John Tottenham, author of The Inertia Variations


The Poet Upstairs, John Tottenham converses with Anh Do

I have a neighbor who happens to be a poet. I like to say we’ve been trying to steer clear of each other since I moved to Angelino Heights a year and a half ago. Although he’s just right upstairs–I can hear him enter and exit his house (and likewise I’m sure)–I thought an email conversation was apt considering our inclination for mutual avoidance. This conversation mode was actually perfect for both of us as we both isolate ourselves.

In the sun drenched setting of Los Angeles, John’s subjects find bleakness and inertia…

Anh Do: Although we’ve been neighbors for a while now, I wasn’t really aware of what you did, but then I read your essay “British People in Hot Weather” recently and had a good chuckle. There seem to be quite a few British expats making art, writing, playing music and just existing in Los Angeles right now. How conducive is hot weather to being an English writer? Does it make you more or less productive? Your subject matter generally leans towards the morose and slothful, your recent book of poems is titled The Inertia Variations. Is that symbolic of Los Angeles itself?

John Tottenham: Yes, quite possibly. The constant sunshine was refreshing at first. It has a seductively deadening quality, which I probably sought out as an antidote to the more bracing climate I grew up in. But it’s unnatural, it numbs you out, and these days I’m very conscious of being weather-deprived… and numbed out. Reality seems to lie elsewhere. At the same time, I do prefer writing when it’s sunny outside: it seems to enable the subject matter you refer to… a vicious circle.

AD: I’m glad you described it as “unnatural,” as I’ve been compulsively using that word when describing this physical environment over the last year. It is unnatural here, preposterously so, but if reality lies somewhere else how do you make your own reality? You’ve been here for 20 years (correct me if I’m wrong) so you must to some extent like it here. Is it all that great here or are you just being complacent? And if you were to live in a more “real” setting, would your work then be brighter?

JT: Yes, I’m definitely being complacent. I worry that after a while (i.e. 20 years, though I did leave for five years in the middle) one begins to suffer from Hotel California-syndrome. Other places I’ve resided in this country – New Orleans, Portland, NYC (briefly) – I didn’t seem to meet as many kindred spirits, never felt as at home. Living here seems to somehow build character. Until recently, at least, it was a much harder place in which to lead a marginal existence, unlike the cities further up the coast, which cater more to a bohemian lifestyle.  But nowadays there’s not much difference between Echo Park and the Mission district in San Francisco, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the nicest things about being an Angeleno is that once you get outside the city limits nothing but disdain is heaped upon the place. No other city inspires as much animosity. San Franciscans, in particular, seem to regard it as their civic duty to hate LA, although, curiously enough, the feeling is not reciprocated. New Yorkers are none too fond of us either. A case of empire envy, perhaps. As far as “reality” is concerned, I’m not sure if I’d want to deal with it on a permanent basis. I’d probably be even more of a miserable bastard elsewhere, living here takes the edge off.

AD: For me, existing here seems to degrade my character. Is it because I grew up here that everything is too easy for me, even pedestrian? San Francisco hates us because we perversely mature and New Yorkers envy our space and privacy. But let’s delve into your writings. What drives it?

JT: I’ve always written compulsively. Nowadays, I write more out of a sense of urgency. With the poetry, I only address subjects that haven’t been exhausted and that I am able to speak on, for better or worse (usually the latter) with a degree of authority. Most of the stuff I dredge up has been poisoning my system for a long time.  Now I’m interested in poisoning other people’s systems.

I like to think that I’m performing a public service, but the public, of course, couldn’t be less interested.

AD: “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is performing a public service.” I think a British philosopher said that once.

JT: I’m going to send you a complete version of The Inertia Variations. Don’t judge me too harshly. I don’t want you to think a complete degenerate wastrel lives directly above you. The funny thing is that everybody relates to this stuff, and is amused by it, even people who appear to lead healthy, active lives, because everybody thinks they don’t fulfill their own potential. And don’t feel you have to read all of this, for Mercy’s sakes. The published version contained the first seventy, there are now almost twice as many. A cursory look-over should give you the general idea.

AD: After a quick glance, I wanted to ask you about your use of language. Each word seems exact. When I read your poems, I see what you are saying; you use words as precise visual images.

JT: I hadn’t written poetry before, at least not since I was a teenager. I was more of a frustrated prose stylist. I write rather slowly and I’m not particularly interested in telling a story or creating character. Initially I had planned on writing a more autobiographical sort of novel on a similar theme and struggled with various attempts over the years, but I could barely even finish a short story. Finally, I gave in to the poetic form. It was obviously ideal. But I’d resisted it for a long time: It made me squeamish, owing to the unseemly stigma attached to it. I regret now that it took so long to embrace it. Each short poem is a monument to reams of discarded prose.

AD: I just read the first 28 Variations. You are an entertainer! I’m already poisoned, is that why I find them so delightful? And you’re right, even the most ambitious, as well as the socially driven, will relate to them in some way. I think you have to come from some sort of autobiographical perspective in order to make anything authentic, for it to be strong, to make people believe it.  So tell me how this book came about.

JT: It was the fruit of many fruitless years.  More than anything, I write out of a sense of duty, and experience a corresponding sense of guilt when I don’t do the work, which was the case for many years and is one of the themes that runs through the Inertias: that of work-avoidance, thwarted promise, guilt-wallowing, self-wrought blockage. It’s definitely not a celebration of indolence (though some people, strangely, interpret it as such), more of a lament.  I felt I had to report back, hopefully in a way that others could relate to and be entertained by.  Yes, it’s true, I’m ashamed to say, I put in all the empirical drudge work.  I’m not going to win any awards for time management.  As a result, however, I have become much more disciplined.  I’ve done a lot more work since then.  And I’m no longer capable of napping.

AD: Clearly you haven’t been suffering from any sort of intellectual laziness all these years. How are you managing your time now that you’re free from napping and chronic indolence?

JT: I have a new series that’s more or less finished: The Antiepithalamia.  An epithalamium is a classical poem celebrating a marriage. These are the opposite: basically an evisceration of the concept of romantic love, with particular respect to the institution of marriage, focusing on some of the less exalted aspects of the enterprise. A few of them have been published here and there. I’d like to see them printed in their entirety at some point. They seem to strike a chord with people. The problem is that it’s poetry. A futile, masochistic exercise. In the time it takes to write a short poem, I could probably execute a painting, and sell it. Yet I have become addicted to this moribund form of expression.

AD: I don’t think of poetry as being futile or masochistic, I think it’s pretty badass to be a poet in today’s world.

JT: Too many people have given it a bad name. Anybody who scribbles on a napkin is allowed to call themselves a poet, whereas if you’re a musician you at least have to learn to play an instrument. As Robert Frost said “free verse is like trying to play tennis with the net down.” Another thing, it’s very difficult to get published and even when you do get published, nobody notices, and there’s no money in it. It seems that unless you’re in tight with the incestuous world of academic presses and literary magazines, you don’t stand much of a chance. There is no “supply meets demand” dynamic such as exists in the arena of music or art where middlemen are perpetually scurrying around attempting to satisfy the appetites of an ever-expanding audience hungry for whatever mediocre rubbish is thrown at them. There is no recognized criterion of quality because there isn’t much of an audience, which allows the powers that be to perpetuate a closed system. A few months ago, I took the unusual step of sending out some unsolicited work to about twenty publications and, curiously enough, the only submission that was accepted was the one that went in ‘over the transom’ thanks to the recommendation of a friend who was on good terms with the editor, at a fairly prestigious magazine, as it turned out, which somewhat added fuel to my paranoid theory that nepotism just might exist in the world of letters. I’ll send down a selection of Antiepithalamia. I hope these bitter words bring you solace.

AD: Thanks. Being a recent divorcee, these really touched a nerve. Companionship, loneliness… Aren’t they the same thing? There’s only you at the end of the day… and no one else. When I think of poetry, I think of beauty, compassion, the search for true meaning; perhaps that’s the naive idealist in me. But your Antiepithalamia are beautiful, compassionate and truthful. Like the Inertia Variations, the subject matter hasn’t been done to death and you seem to have a firm grasp on the theme. I love the cadence of these poems. I want to know more about how they were developed.

JT: There doesn’t seem to be much point, at this point, in penning another love poem or song. There are already far too many, and most of them aren’t very convincing. I remember, as a six year-old, being keenly aware of the nauseating preponderance of love songs, and vowing then to do something about it. At the time I thought I’d write songs about fighting and war. But things turned out somewhat differently. The hypocrisies inherent in romantic involvement have turned out to be a surprisingly fertile and relatively untapped field of inquiry. I’m glad you view them as compassionate. Some people find them mean-spirited, can’t imagine why. It just doesn’t seem that the selfish underside of love gets much of an airing.

AD: I’ve been wanting to ask you about music and how it affects your writing. I’m sure it’s a huge part of your life, as it is mine, and I’m completely positive it consumes you as it does me.

JT: Yes, it’s unfair, the advantages music has over the other arts.  I almost resent it.

AD: How truly necessary is it to you and how does it affect your writing?

JT: Probably not to the extent that I’m guilty of: consuming entire genres in a retentive, completist-type manner. It disturbs me to consider the amount of time that has been devoured by the pursuit of collecting. The bug, thankfully, has somewhat faded recently. There doesn’t seem to be as much point in holding on to things as there used to be. I’m still very attached to vinyl.  But at least I listen to it. And without music I wouldn’t be able to remember anything, it has soundtracked my life to such an extent. Every road trip, every romance can be recaptured by replaying what one was listening to at the time. Regarding my own listening habits, I’m obsessed by old blues records, mostly the pre-war stuff. I’ve pretty much listened it around the clock for the last twenty years. Around that time my tastes began to recede into the past and they’ve never really resurfaced. I had to work my way through a lot of other music to get there. It was a long haul. I like to have music playing softly in the background while I write, mostly old blues or John Fahey or chamber music, it helps to create a mood.

AD: I don’t know much about blues. Is it more about the music or the lyrics for you? Collecting is quite pleasurable. How to you collect?  Do you also have CDs? CDs are disposable but not records, which are very tangible, there is real meaning behind them. Have you gotten around to digital music? What do you think of file sharing?

JT: I started collecting records at a young age and have kept it going ever since, never really embraced CDs – a shabby substitute they seemed – and still haven’t got involved in mp3s, file sharing, etc. Used to own a lot of 45s and lament having got rid of most of them. Collected 78s for a while, junked some very desirable ones when I lived in the South: a Charlie Patton on Paramount, various others. But I stopped. The fun’s taken out of it when everybody has access to eBay and the price guides. As far as getting into blues was concerned, I guess I worked my way down to it through other music. I was always attracted to the blues and country elements in the rock music I listened to when I was growing up. I have many lonely passions and when I get interested in something – be it music, literature or a murder case – I study every root and branch of it. I could, perhaps, have been doing something more useful with the time that was thus consumed. But it’s given me a lot of pleasure. Blues lyrics are a kind of whole poetic field of their own, the imagery is extraordinary: “So cold in China the birds can’t hardly sing”; “Blues came across Texas loping like a mule”, just to use Blind Lemon Jefferson’s first record as an example. Admittedly, I find the morbidity, fatalism, anomie and sense of rock-hard resignation very attractive. It serves as a fine aid to contemplation.

AD: Nowadays, anybody who claims they are a musician can be a musician. And anyone with a laptop and Serato (not even vinyl!) can call themselves as DJ. Isn’t this absurd? It doesn’t take any talent or skill whosoever (well perhaps knowing how to use a ‘puter) and this has been proven over and over again in music lately. It’s the standard now. Art as artifice, it’s a total joke. What do you make of the state of contemporary music?

JT: I’ve never even heard of Serato. I’m horribly jaded, of course, but it seems to me that one of the problems with R&R music nowadays is that far too many young people seem to view it as an avenue of self-expression when they have absolutely nothing to say. They like the idea of being “in a band” and living out the R&R dream; they enjoy the lifestyle and the attitude it permits them to exude but they bring nothing new to the form. It doesn’t even occur to them that they could be doing something inventive. There are some questing performers out there but mostly they’re confined to the margins, which is probably the best place to be, anyway.

AD: I really do believe that when it is good, it’s good and there’s no denying it. And yours is good. Perhaps you will be celebrated posthumously? Cult classic or best seller? Which do you prefer?

JT: When artists complain that they only have cult followings, I’m always amazed by their naked greed and vulgar ambition. Mass appeal usually signifies artistic worthlessness. To be understood by everybody would be very disturbing. At this point I would happily settle for posthumous acclaim but it’s difficult to arrange these things in advance. Maybe if I killed myself… that might enhance my legacy.

AD: Since we’re leaning towards what could possibly happen after death, do you think you’ll continue living in LA? Has living here been what you had imagined it to be?

JT: That’s not a very nice way to talk about your hometown. I romanticized the place in advance, from afar, at an impressionable age. It met my expectations.  I stayed here. Then it got stale, as places will, as one does. I’d like to live in the country, watch flowers grow, listen to birds sing. That’s the life I fled to begin with, having grown up in the most idyllic bucolic surroundings imaginable. But it’ll probably never happen. I’m in my element here, much as I sometimes get sick of my element. I can’t imagine being as comfortably uncomfortable anywhere else. -30-



January 20, 2009

McCarthy And Son And The Usual Suspects

by John Tottenham

Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Caribbean  Pirates received its Los Angeles premiere at REDCAT recently: a visual and aural multi-screen feast/assault that covered all four walls of the theater. The audience, many of whom sat on the floor, were surrounded like the victims of the raid taking place onscreen(s). The only way out was through the exit door, which guilty-looking art lovers frequently resorted to, smiling awkwardly as they fled.

Paul McCarthy, famed for his shit sculptures, chocolate butt plugs and other artistic inquiries that are lauded as forceful critiques of consumerism, has now plundered the pirate tradition in a style that is surely closer to the seafaring realities of yore than the Disneyland ride and movie franchise it cruelly parodies.

As soon as the industrial-sized cans of Hershey’s chocolate syrup came crashing through the hatchway, the audience knew it was in for a McCarthy-style barrage of blood and shit on the high seas. Swollen-bellied, bulbous-nosed, giant-eared old salts squirted chocolate syrup from prosthetic phalluses, simulated masturbation with broom handles, sawed through noses and generally had a roaring good time. Blood was flying everywhere, pouring down the lens to a deafening soundtrack of drilling, screaming and obscene Yaaars and Aye-Ayes.

Upon any one of nine screens at any given moment one was greeted with such sights as a naked woman crawling around on a carpet in front of a ship-shaped bar, caressing herself with pained, imploring looks; a man with a freshly hacked-off leg being ridden by a droopy-nosed harpy in a blood-soaked scullery maid’s outfit; and the figure of the pegboy, famed in maritime lore, evoked by a sporty nautical gent in blazer and seaman’s cap who danced around a bottle of Morgan’s rum before frigging himself on a giant peg (the pegboy was a selected crew member who was obliged to keep his anus dilated in this fashion for the pleasure of his shipmates while on long voyages). Somewhere in there a parody of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was apparently being played out, but it was impossible to keep up with all the references. The playfully tasteless mayhem continued for the standard theatrical 90 minutes, descending eventually into such popular piratical pursuits as cannibalism and torture (despite their cartoonishness, the bone-splintering amputation scenes were not for the squeamish).

It was fun to watch and it was obviously fun to make. To those of us unfortunates unable to draw upon an arsenal of critical theory in order to make the work appropriately rigorous, it was an old-fashioned bloodbath, an unabashed extension of the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis. This was cinema divested of such tiresome niceties as plot, character and dialogue, focusing exclusively on filth and gore, which, after all, is what most people go to the movies for. Visually stimulating, it therefore possessed value as entertainment. Only the crowd, strangely, did not seem entertained.

One would think that such a scathingly visceral overload might provoke some sort of reaction. But looking around the audience — whose expressions it was easy to gauge as everybody was obliged to continually twist and crane around in order to view the different screens — there was no laughter, no smiling. It looked like an uncomfortable experience for many, especially those who were on dates. Most people wore looks of tolerant amusement or puzzled seriousness. Resistant to the notion of mere entertainment, they seemed unsure of how they were supposed to react. They knew they were supposed to like it because it was supposed to be art, but appeared uncertain about whether many of the depicted acts could be morally sanctioned.

It seems a shame that a work of such crazed vitality should be the exclusive province of an audience that insists upon extracting or impressing meaning upon it, when the multiplex crowd would surely get a lot more pleasure out of it. The average moviegoer, quite forgivably, might fail to interpret the sordid merrymaking on view as a critique of the Hollywood dream factory and a metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In years to come, Caribbean Pirates will probably serve as a worthy corollary to these times, but the only people who are likely to make that connection now are the chosen art house set, who made up their minds about Abu Ghraib long before McCarthy went to such excessive lengths to tell them what they already knew.

This is a work that lends itself generously to the possibilities of audience participation. It isn’t being marketed properly. Why not release it to a less discerning audience: one that would actually enjoy it?

(originally published in Artillery Magazine)

July 26, 2008


by John Tottenham

(excerpted from THE INERTIA VARIATIONS (EXPANDED) Release date: unknown.)


A long time ago I made a decision
To become a failure. It wasn’t
As easy as I thought: browsing through life
From one distraction to the next, while waiting
For the last lost moment to become unseizable.
As if there were some fundamental honesty
To not striving: There wasn’t. –
I suspected it all along.
June 2, 2008



by John Tottenham



Breathing in the stale draughts
That sift through the cracks in the sofa,
Slowly dreaming myself into a demoralized fog
That loosely resembles the conscious state.
Groggy with unneeded sleep, I approach the table
Wondering if there is any use, at this point,
In attempting to do anything.
Probably not. But the gesture, at least, must be made.

May 2, 2008


by John Tottenham




If I am not doing the work
That for some obscurely grasped reason
I believe it is my duty to perform,
Then I cannot, in its place,
Allow myself to do anything else
That is pleasurable or productive.
The main challenge, ultimately,
Is not to fall asleep during the afternoon.

April 22, 2008


from-John Tottenham

(excerpted from Tuesdays Are Always Dark Days)

‘I used to walk the streets of strange cities, I used to think about you.’

It had been a long day. I had driven five hundred miles. I decided to spend the night in Cincinnati. The city held a strange allure. It was one of those cities whose rough exterior harbored a certain benignity. And this was a quality I hadn’t encountered anywhere else I had stopped along the way. And the further I drove the more I realized that I didn’t want to stop anywhere else, that I was intent on winding up in Cincinnati. Something might happen to redeem a trip that hadn’t been as adventurous as it might have been. The following afternoon I could drive up to the Dayton airport.

For a week I had been on a supposedly remedial tour of the rust belt, wandering around depressed industrial towns and wasting time at obscure racetracks. My intention at the beginning of the trip had been to drift aimlessly but I failed to surrender to the first minor meltdown. In the midst of it, from a motel room in Columbus, I called a friend in upstate New York who urged me to visit. Consequently, knowing that sanctuary awaited me, I didn’t immerse myself in other places as much as I should have. I realized that I was thwarting my intentions and experienced regret in real time, constantly rueing the latest version of what might have been.

I arrived at 10.30 and headed for the Travel Lodge in Newport Kentucky, on the other side of the Ohio river. The bald and paunchy night clerk checked me in. He asked if I was in town on business. I mumbled affirmatively. I gave him sixty dollars and he gave me the keys to room # 217. It contained two double beds. The double curtains excluded that annoying morning sunlight. Upon entering I yanked the cord of the loudly humming refrigerator from the wall socket, lay down on the bed and masturbated languidly, letting all the anxieties of a long day on the road ooze out. Then I showered, shaved and changed into some fresh attire.

I drove across the bridge into dead downtown Cincinnati , along Broadway, left on sixth and right on Main. Some semblance of street life became apparent as I proceeded into the Over The Rhine district, a crowded neighborhood of decaying architectural splendor bordering downtown. Attempts to revitalize this designated historic district had been interrupted three and a half years earlier by some ugly race riots.

I drove north up hillsides straggling with faded gracious dwellings and into the quaint old north side, up Hamilton, to the Comet bar, a place where young people congregated late at night. The seats at the counter were all taken. I occupied a table and accidentally eavesdropped on a mean-spirited conversation between two sorority girls which afforded some insight into the mind of a rapist. It was a miserable way to cap a long journey. I left after one beer. I stopped off at an all-night convenience store. As I walked in a shoplifter ran out with goods concealed beneath his coat. One of the clerks ran after him. I browsed tabloids for about ten minutes, bought a Snickers bar and left.

I got back into the car and drove down Vine, a steep hill that became grimier and more perceptibly vice-ridden as it unwound into Over The Rhine. At the corner of Fourteenth I stopped at a red light. This was the eaten- out heart of that blighted neighborhood. Veiled transactions took place in dilapidated doorways and on empty lots. Standing on the corner, to my right, was a woman who would have grabbed my attention anywhere. She was looking straight at me. I wondered what a beautiful white woman was doing in that neighborhood at one o’clock in the morning.

As I turned away it finally dawned on me that she was a prostitute. I looked over again. She was smiling and nodding her head in an inviting manner. Time slowed down. Her eyes sparkled. I recognized that if I didn’t yield to this moment I would bitterly regret it later. The light turned green. I leaned over and flipped the lock to the passenger door.

She climbed in. ‘Hi honey.’ Any concerns that she might have been a transvestite were instantly dispelled. I could scarcely believe my eyes…my nerve…my luck.

She was slender but potentially voluptuous.

Her dark hair was piled up. She wore a colorful horizontally striped blouse and faded blue jeans. The blouse was cut low exposing part of a tattoo above her right breast. Around her neck hung a large cross.

Face powder covered the rough parts of her complexion. She exuded warmth and vitality. These qualities were immediately apparent. I was stunned into a state of silence. I stared into her eyes. She wanted to know what I was looking at.

She seemed to expect me to open the negotiating. I asked her how much she wanted.

‘Seventy five bucks,’ she said without conviction. She expected me to talk her down. But I wasn’t feeling too talkative. I said seventy-five would be fine. It was unsettling to consider how much less she might have settled for.

‘What are you into?’ she asked.

‘My tastes are very simple,’ I said.

She said she had a place we could go to. I suggested we head back to my motel room. That was fine with her. We were already headed that way, though with her beside me I was plunged into such a state of distraction that I lost all sense of where I was. She didn’t have much of a clue either.

I told her I didn’t have any prophylactics.

‘We should get some,’ she said in a rusty whine, which sounded both tired and alert, jaded and innocent.

Five minutes ago I had been driving back to the motel in a disenchanted mood, a moment later there was a beautiful woman sitting beside me. I didn’t tell her that I had never been with a hooker before but I did confess that I was nervous. Such were my efforts to suppress rattling nerves that, on the evidence of the shaky stunted utterances I did come up with I was afraid she might think me a dangerously repressed deviant. But she didn’t appear to make anything of it.

Her name was Sylvia. She hailed from Lexington Kentucky. She was twenty-four.

‘That’s right,’ she said, ‘a single mom.’

She used to work at an escort agency in Lexington. I asked what kind of clients she dealt with there.

‘Horse people,’ she said.



‘Any jockeys?’

‘Pat Day,’ she said.

‘I thought he disdained the pleasures of the flesh.’

‘One of his daughters goes to the same day care center as my daughter and she doesn’t know he’s her father.’

Suddenly we were thrust together in the night. There was a conspiratorial aspect and an element of trust was involved. An arrangement had been made. She complained of hunger. Once over the bridge the lights of a White Castle stand could be seen shining a few blocks away. After driving the wrong way down several one way streets we made it into the drive-through lane. She tried to order a Number One meal but the employee on the other end of the intercom couldn’t decipher our requests. We had to drive up to the window where the order was taken in person by an ashen-faced old woman.

‘So what do you do,’ said Sylvia.

I avoided that question.

‘What’s your profession?’.

Thankfully we were interrupted by the server’s muddled instructions.

‘Shit, I’m wore out now, ‘ said Sylvia at the end of a complicated exchange during which the word ‘coke’ had to be repeated four times.

While we were waiting for the order I stared at her.

‘Hello,’ she said, apprehending my gaze and smiling sweetly.

‘You have a great smile,’ I said.

‘Thank-you,’ she said, ‘it helps.’

She started singing as she delved into the bag.

‘Best White Castle I’ve ever eaten,’ she said after a couple of bites. ‘It’s wonderful right now…I probably won’t think that tomorrow.’

We drove off.

‘Prophylactics,’ she sang out, ‘now where the fuck is the store?’

There was a drive-through liquor store a few blocks away, Big Daddy’s.

‘You’ve got it babe.’

‘Uh-oh, another one way street,’ I said, backing out.

‘That didn’t stop us before,’ she said.

I erupted in tension-releasing laughter.

‘Can I get a little half-pint?’ she said.


‘I don’t know… something dark… not clear.’


‘Yes…Kessler…how come there’s no liquor stores in Cincinnati?’

‘There weren’t any where you were standing around?’


‘What do you want, a half of Kessler?’

‘Yes, just a half-pint. Just get something that’s cheap.’

She was requesting the smallest bottle of rotgut, when I would gladly have sprung for a bottle of the finest. Why should someone of such singular charm and beauty have to scuffle and suffer when so many led graceless complacent existences? It was already beginning to distress me.

‘Do liquor stores stay open this late…in Lexington at 12.01 it’s over.’

‘Lexington seems kind of repressed,’ I remarked. ‘There isn’t much going on there.’

She groaned in assent: ‘nothing…absolutely nothing.’

I ordered a half-pint of Kessler’s and a pack of condoms.

We drove away. ‘Alrighty,’ she said, ‘let’s do it.’

‘Thank-you very much,’ she said after a few more bites. She said thank-you a lot.

‘You’re most welcome,’ I said.

‘Is Travel Lodge pretty nice?’

‘Not particularly.’

The motel was a few blocks away. I took care to enter through a side door, avoiding the night clerk. I opened doors for her. She inspired me to behave like a gentleman. I had seldom known graciousness to flow out of me with such ease.

As soon as we entered the room she wanted to get the distasteful matter of payment out of the way so that we could relax and enjoy ourselves. Money changed hands. I had the exact sum of $75.00 in my wallet.

‘You’ve cleaned me out,’ I said. I lay down on the bed.

‘Aren’t you going to take your shoes off,’ she said.

I turned on the television. Some election coverage was screening.

She couldn’t be bothered to vote, she was fed up with the government. She lay down beside me and I reached out to touch her prematurely sagging breasts.

‘How often are you with a woman who’ll let you do anything you like to her,’ she said.

‘Actually,’ I said, ‘quite often.’

She stood at the end of the bed and encouraged me to breathe deeply. She made the appropriate gestures with her arms… breathe in, breathe out…and excused herself to brush the White Castle taste from her teeth.

As she emerged from the bathroom she was singing. ‘An old R&B song…by Shirley Murdoch.’ I had never heard of it.

‘Shall I get undressed?’

I told her not to, that it was not a negative comment on her body, just a quirk of mine.

She wanted to take a shower. She said it would ‘make it nicer.’ She suggested that while she was gone I should ‘create a mood.’

She said these things with a mixture of kindness and mockery. She wasn’t as bored and business-like about it all as she understandably might have been. I formed the impression that this line of work was something she only resorted to when times were hard.

I lay on the bed, trying to compose myself. I could hear her singing in the shower and it gladdened me that she could relax in my presence even if I couldn’t do the same thing.

She emerged with her hair down and a towel around her. I told her to put her clothes back on. In her hands she held her panties. I told her not to put them back on. She seemed to find my request unusual and confusing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘not the panties.’

She put her pants and her blouse back on.

She lay down beside me.

‘I probably won’t be able to get it up,’ I said, unzipping my trousers and pulling out my prick.

She began lazily sucking on it and I relaxed at once. Then she picked up the tempo and started making a lot of unnecessary noise.

‘Do it slowly,’ I said, ‘soothe me.’

I formed the impression that my prick couldn’t be of less interest to her, that she was probably mentally reliving some pleasant event from her past that had nothing to do with sex. But at least she was making the effort. That, in its way, was affecting and deserving of reciprocation. To my surprise, I found myself with something resembling an erection. Enough of one that she was able to slip a rubber over it.

‘I’ll do you from behind,’ I said.

She bent over the edge of the bed and pulled down her jeans, exposing a skinny white ass. I positioned my knob at the portal and, with her help, stuffed it in. I got a few good thrusts in before her exaggerated moaning deadeneded any incipient ardor. It felt as if I were thrusting at nothing. Her absence was almost palpable. Her body felt weightless, as if the substance had fled elsewhere. I told her not to bother faking it.

‘I’m not,’ she said unconvincingly, ‘it’s erotic.’

‘How many other men have you been with tonight?’ I asked, giving it another weak thrust.

‘One other guy…a chiropractor…in his fifties… fifty dollars…straight sex.’ Her hair fanned out wildly across the synthetic bedspread.

‘When was the last time you had an orgasm?’ I wondered out aloud.

‘ A month ago,’ she said, ‘just because you have sex doesn’t mean you come.’

‘I know,’ I said, wilting in earnest.

She reached down and offered some halfhearted encouragement. I requested that she lay down flat on her belly. But in the process of pushing her across the bed with my sagging member still inserted I lost it to a degree that rendered any further squirming futile. We collapsed into laughter. I removed the condom from my limp knob, stretched it several feet and flung it across the room.

‘I doubt I’ll come,’ I said.

‘You said you wouldn’t be able to get it up,’ she said, suggesting that maybe I’d already achieved enough for one night.

Though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference I asked her to suck on it some more, which she proceeded to do listlessly and to no avail.

‘Tell me a nasty story,’ I said.

From between my legs she described a recent three-way. It didn’t have the required effect. She gave voice to some gently scornful impatience.

‘What are you used to?’

‘It usually takes them about five minutes,’ she said.

I was pleased that she felt comfortable enough around me to exhibit the full range of her apathy. I asked about the proclivities of other men. ‘You’d be amazed by how many men are into being dominated,’ she said, ‘then there are the other kind, the ones who like to dominate…I don’t like that.’

She continued to toy with my flaccid knob, although both of us had given up on restoring life to it. I was quite at ease now and didn’t want our time together to come to an end. I was secretly hoping that she would spend the night.

‘I don’t care if I don’t come,’ I said.

She got up.

‘I’ll bet that’s the easiest seventy-five dollars you ever made,’ I said.

She agreed that it probably had been. ‘It’s been a pleasure, she said, ‘it really has.’

I walked across to where she was standing, on the other side of the other bed, and tried to kiss her. She opened her mouth, tendered a little tongue, withdrew it quickly, kissed me politely on the lips and turned away. The act of kissing seemed unsavory to her.

She claimed that she had to be somewhere at two-thirty. That was in about twenty minutes. She had an appointment to watch another girl being fucked by a man who was so fastidious that he wore condoms on his fingers. She couldn’t find her cigarette lighter and became more distracted about it than a missing 25 cent lighter seemed to warrant.

After combing the room for about a minute she gave up the search. I was glad that it couldn’t be found. It would make a good souvenir. As we walked out I peered into the bathroom. My pomade jar was open.

‘Did you use my pomade? I asked her.

‘Yes,’ she answered with guilty sweetness, ‘just a little bit.’

It delighted me that she had used it: another souvenir.

As we walked down the corridor she defiantly waved her half-pint of whisky at the ceiling surveillance camera.

We got into the car and drove off.

I remembered my camera. I asked if she would mind if I took her photograph. She didn’t mind at all. I wanted to get a shot of her standing, as she was when I first laid eyes on her. I stopped the car and we got out. She stood in front of a wall on a quiet street. I was about to take a photograph when a police car cruised up behind us. ‘Don’t worry about them,’ she said. They drove by slowly. Once again she flashed that winsome smile. I managed to snap two photographs. ‘Are you going to show them to your friends back home,’ she kidded me: ‘this is the whore I fucked in Cincinnati.’

‘D’you live downtown?’

‘Right down there close by where you saw me.’

We drove along fourth street to Covington and from there across the bridge into downtown Cincinnati. I told her where I had come from that day, that I had driven from Buffalo to Cincinnati, from the northeast to southwest corners of Ohio.

‘Ohio’s a big state,’ she said, ‘there’s really no way around Ohio. You have to go through it. You came a long way, baby.’


‘What’s New York like?’ she said, ‘I’m curious.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the city is a place unto itself.’

‘That’s what I hear,’ she said, ‘what are the people like, are they fucking assholes?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but there are many kinds of them and it’s very expensive.’

‘Yeah, I heard it’s fucking outrageous…I heard it’s outrageous.’

‘I wasn’t there this time around, I was in Buffalo.’

‘What was that like?’

‘It wasn’t as gritty as I expected.’

‘Yeah, I heard it was pretty classy.’

I remarked upon the ethnic diversity of New York City.

‘Cincinnati’s got a little of everything,’ she said.

‘It’s all black and white,’ I said.

‘Yeah, that’s true…that’s true…that’s very true…it’s either black or its white.’ She pondered this. It seemed to contain fresh significance for her: ‘That’s very true…it’s either this or that. It’s either shit or crap. There’s not too many imbetweens.’

She told me that she had worked as a telemarketer for a while. The week she brought home a thousand dollars she thought she had it made.

‘I injected a little sex appeal into my pitch,’ she said.

‘Did you meet anyone?’

‘One guy, a producer…of hard-core movies,’ she added ruefully.

She complained about the company she was forced into on the street and lamented the toothlessness of other whores.

While waiting at a stoplight I took another photograph of her. Once again she switched on her winning camera smile.

A police car loomed in the rear view mirror. ‘How long have you two known each other?’ she said, imitating their likely overtures. She was in a hurry to make her appointment and expressed impatience with traffic, yelling at a lingering vehicle to make haste. We found Vine street. Clusters of dubious sidewalk activity were still in evidence at this late hour. Yet another police car drove behind us.

I pulled over on the corner of Fourteenth and Vine. Sylvia stuck the half-pint into the top of her pants and got out of the car.

‘Thanks babe…have a good evening, baby.’

That was it. The lack of ceremony was somewhat disheartening.

Alone again.

I drove back to the hotel in a state of rapt wonderment and went to bed, pressing my face in to the pillow where she lay.

I checked out of the motel late the next morning. I drove up to Eden Park, a sprawling tapestry of green situated on one of the city’s supposed seven hills. On one ridge resided the art museum. Below it lay Mirror Lake, a circular pool surrounded by a walkway fanning out onto a lawn which culminated in a shorn rock side reminiscent of Roman ruins. It dropped onto another verdant ridge and afforded a pleasing view of far-flung rooftops and red brick below. I walked around it four times. There weren’t many other people around. I was tired but suspended in the lingering glow from the night before. The experience had brought me into contact with life, opened me up. It was precisely the kind of albeit one-sided connection that I craved. It happened, of course, when I was least expecting it, when I had given up. It was something I had waited about fifteen years for.

Throughout my travels I had always desired one thing above all others: to enjoy a sweet fleeting encounter with a beautiful stranger in a strange town. Many times I came close but not quite close enough. Variations on the theme occurred but the ideal continually eluded me. Until finally I consummated it… with a whore.

I had never sought out a whore or romanticized the condition of one. Once or twice I had admired one on the street but I never considered doing anything about it. Much of the pleasure in a mutually gratifying sexual act lay in its not being an act, in knowing that the other party’s excitement was sincere, and that one was responsible for it. With a whore such arousal would be feigned and I had no wish to suspend disbelief in such a situation. One could do exactly what one wanted with a whore, but if they didn’t enjoy it there didn’t seem to be much point. Fakery, no matter how sublime, wouldn’t work. I had nothing against it on principle, I was merely constitutionally opposed to it. I imagined that it was something I might be obliged to resort to as an older man. Then an unsettling thought crossed my mind: maybe I’d already reached that point.

I stared at a tree. It was yellow and its leaves were beginning to fall. I realized that this was the stage I was at in my life. Whatever blossomed in the autumn of its years?

Not much, but presumably, if one had never blossomed at all, a certain moldering efflorescence might be possible, even at this belated stage.

A familiar melancholy was seeping in, one that often rose up in the wake of memorable chance encounters. A fresh potency and poignancy altered my surroundings. I recognized once again that it was only when traveling, plunging into and rising out of these states of transient alienation and transcendence, that I experienced with clarity the true beauty of life.

I drove back downtown. I was hoping that I might find her on the street and take her out to lunch. I could imagine nothing more pleasant than sitting across a table from her and making polite conversation, treating her with tenderness and respect. It wasn’t normal for me to feel this way towards a woman. It was highly irregular. But I had always been attracted to girls who put on an appearance of being much tougher than they really were, and she, in a way, was the ultimate manifestation of this type.

I walked around Over The Rhine. There weren’t many whites around. Most of those who were appeared destitute, as did most of the blacks. She wasn’t anywhere to be seen on Vine or the surrounding streets. Some other whores milled around the vacant lots. I wasn’t interested in any of them. If a thousand whores were picked at random from the streets of a thousand cities and she had been among them, she would have been the one I picked. There was no doubt about it.

She was probably sleeping. Or she could be back in Lexington, picking her daughter up from the day-care center. Did she divide her time between the two cities? Who looked after the kid when she was in Cincinnati?

What did I know about her routine? I was beginning to ask myself a lot of stupid questions. I knew almost nothing, only what she told me, and I tended to believe she told the truth.

Doubtless she had forgotten me by now. There was no reason to think she wouldn’t have. I was just passing through, with a hunger for experiences that she regarded as ordinary. I hadn’t given much of myself.

I was too burdened by a sapping (self) consciousness concerning the fragility of our relations: of how much it meant to me and how little it meant to her. I would always remember her. But soon I would return to my usual lazy routine on the other side of the country. I couldn’t touch her life as she had touched mine. And it would all inevitably recede into dull memory.

I lunched in a booth at Kaldi’s. This establishment contained two long rooms. One served as a bar, the other as a coffee-house. Each side was stacked wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with overflowing book shelves, crammed with dusty and unwanted old tomes. A blonde woman was sitting at the bar. She looked nervous and distracted, with a doomed look in her eyes. Something in my peripheral vision flared up. While she was lighting a cigarette her hair had caught fire. She put it out as if nothing had happened.

I got back in the car and drove nowhere in particular. Then I drove back down Vine. One and a half hours remained before I had to leave town. She might be back on the streets by now. I could still take her out for a drink. I could give her my phone number or get hers, if she had one. If it hadn’t been for that patrol car I might have had the presence of mind to take care of such matters before we parted. And due to the lurking Newport cops the photographs on the street had been taken carelessly. It was a good thing they had been taken at all.

I couldn’t picture her clearly anymore. All that remained was a beguiling blur. An insinuating essence in danger of becoming overidealized. This usually happened when I dwelt continually on an unfamiliar woman. Many faces had been lost forever in the void of fixation. The features would resurface, only becoming clear again when the memory faded. A photograph, however, would eliminate such concerns.

I continued my search on foot. It was becoming apparent that no real hope of finding her existed. In the air and in my bones it was palpable. I crossed Vine at Central Parkway, the wide artery separating Over The Rhine from downtown. In the light of my imminent departure the city became elegiacally serene. Workers poured out of office buildings into the soft autumn evening. Everybody appeared helpless, blameless and incorruptible. But she wasn’t anywhere to be found and it was beginning to appear unlikely that I would ever see her again.

I returned to Kaldi’s. This time I sat at the bar. A motley assortment of solitaries were gathered there. I sat by the window, keeping an eye on the street.

‘I met Syd Barrett somewhere east of Cincinnati,’ said a young fellow on the other side of the bar. Nobody picked up this thread of conversation. The girl who had accidentally set fire to her hair passed by on the sidewalk. I drove down Vine one last time with the malt glow washing over me.

The moment I first laid eyes on Sylvia had been incomparably vital and significant. It could never be repeated. She was beyond me now, had always been beyond me. Sheer chance had allowed the privilege of this one magical encounter. The corner of Fourteenth and Vine was enshrined. But she wasn’t there now. Her spot was occupied by some obese hag in an anorak.. And I was running late. My plane back to California left Dayton in two hours. Dayton was an hour’s drive up highway 75, and it was rush hour.

I barely made it to the airport in time, a bedraggled spun-out wreck, emptying out my suitcase in the departure lounge, worrying without reason that I’d left the camera in the rental car. I boarded the plane exhausted but unable to sleep, pressed against a window, staring down at the cities of the west, glittering like the dying embers of forest fires, while continually replaying and reflecting upon the events of the night before.

In trying to recapture that first moment it entered my mind that she might not have been alone on the sidewalk. She might have been talking to a youth… some sort of exchange had taken place… she had waved him away when she realized a motorist…a prospective client…a john… was checking her out. Something of this nature had taken place but my mind wouldn’t fasten on it. I hadn’t been paying strict attention at the time. Did I notice her standing around there before stopping at the red light? And how long did I spend at that red light? Between that first moment and my unlocking the passenger door ( at the time it didn’t occur to me that this could have been done automatically, without reaching over ) seemed to take much longer than is normally spent at a red light. And what if that light hadn’t been red ( … if I hadn’t waylaid myself browsing tabloids in a convenience store …if I hadn’t jacked off in the motel room before going out…if I hadn’t taken a nap in that truck stop parking lot…if I hadn’t got lost trying to get out of Youngstown)… I would presumably still have noticed her… but she wouldn’t have given me those beckoning glances…I might have driven around the block… and by the time I returned she might have been gone.

I remembered the last lucid thought I’d had before the sudden jolt of seeing her, and it had been this: whatever made me think I’d find what I was looking for in a bar…I’m more likely to find it on the street. I had no idea how prescient it would be.

In the reflection of its crowning event what at the time had been a long and tedious drive assumed a lustrous sheen. I remembered the clouds drifting over Erie. The sad eyes of the tough ex-steelworker panhandlers. The air of irreversible decline that permeated that heartbroken town. At the city limits a sign read ‘Thank You For Visiting – Please Come Back.’ There was something almost unbearably plaintive about that appeal. I resolved to return. I drove on to Youngstown, a once-thriving steel town plunged into hopeless and ominous stagnation. I had hoped to eat lunch there but not a single restaurant was open downtown. The stores were all closed and there was little sign of activity of any kind. I drove on, sinking and spiralling. I had planned on spending a few hours walking around Akron as the sun went down. I arrived earlier than expected and found, once again, that I had overidealized a place in advance. A bright sterility encumbered the city. I sat in a bare bar. The old lady on the other side of the counter bestowed a candy upon each customer when they ordered a drink. Everybody in the place was toothless, even the young people. I walked for an hour or more in the hope of getting lost but there was nothing to lose myself in, nothing in the air. I stood on a bridge and gazed down at the water trickling along a concrete riverbed, idly contemplating suicide. Upon the approach of a stranger I moved along guiltily. I left before the sun went down and drove straight into Cincinnati, regaining energy as that destination neared.

I considered making an honest woman out of her. A ridiculous notion, of course. Besides, she was probably a lesbian. I had read somewhere that most prostitutes were lesbians or addicts. About the latter I hadn’t thought to ask at the time. It wasn’t unlikely. She had been almost irrationally perturbed about the missing lighter. Why did she need it so badly? If the work didn’t support the habit then the habit would probably be necessary to anaesthetize the work. But she didn’t seem ravaged or hardened…yet. She had her whole life ahead of her. As much of it as remained. A pretty face with a bleak future. It was a shame that she had reduced herself to this precarious way of life. Naturally, I wanted to save her from it. It was the oldest story in the book. Whore stories were a dime a dozen. There was nothing original about becoming infatuated with a fallen woman. I rued the descent into exhausted cliche but what could I do about it? Surely a young man – even a middle-aged man – might be excused for getting sentimental over his first experience with a prostitute.

I liked to think that I might have provided some relief from the deprived bodies and slobbering old men that constituted her clientele. She had said that it had been a pleasure, the easiest money she’d ever made ( little did she know how I would cling to these perhaps insincere words ). But perhaps she didn’t view me as being markedly different from the rest. Perhaps she didn’t think about it much at all. It was just something to be endured as painlessly as possible. And what of the chiropractor: might the recentness of that coupling have explained her need to shower? Or was that just another way of killing time before she was obliged to put out? There were many unanswered questions. And many that weren’t worth asking.

I returned to my empty and frivolous existence on the other side of the country.

The incident continued to haunt me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep it to myself.

I regaled friends, acquaintances and strangers with the details, questioned my motives in doing so, and felt guilty about it afterwards. It wasn’t always taken in the intended spirit. Most people were chiefly interested in the coarser aspects of what had transpired. With each telling the story became staler. And sullied were the memories I wanted to preserve.

All the while her features became evenvaguer.

It took a week before I ventured into the one-hour photo department of a drugstore. It didn’t feel like the right moment but I had already waited a long time. I returned an hour later, placed the envelope on the passenger seat and drove across town in rainy traffic. After half an hour I parked on a residential street and removed the photographs from the envelope. The emergence from romanticized memory into stark reality of such a highly anticipated image induced a certain uneasiness. Here at last were the three photographs, all I would ever have to remember her by: the two of her standing in front of a brick wall, with arms folded and a smile of sweetly inviting resignation that calmly shattered my cheap and shallow intrusion. And the close-up in the car: how fine the flow of her pale features in the hard glare…and the freckles on her shoulder, exposed by low-slung blouse…and her broken nose.

When I got home I propped this photograph up against the lamp on my bedside table. The next morning I took it down and put it back in the envelope. The vicarious aspect of my fascination bothered me. Though I had long ago succeeded in falling from my social class I was perhaps still too intent upon living out the stories that cast a romantic spell over my mispent impressionable youth. But this latest episode, kin to a few other fleeting encounters, contained some unshakable native truth that I couldn’t deny, no matter how hackneyed it might appear under cold observation.

I kept replaying the moment our eyes first met: myself a spellbound john at the wheel of a rental car, her appearing out of the sidewalk mob and moving to the edge of the pavement with an unerring instinct for a customer’s probing gaze. She looked out of place amid such squalid surroundings but supremely self-possessed. The way she bobbed her head up and down with that eager-to-please smile, obscene as it might sound, was infinitely charming. My sense of wonder was reawakened. She went straight to my heart. Seldom does a woman give of herself so freely, bravely and vulnerably. That it was offered at a price, indifferently and indiscriminately, didn’t depreciate the generosity of the gift.

It left me with exquisite pangs.

But like everything else, it faded…into dull memory. -30-