You know what the Trainspotting antihero, Renton, said about choices? You can choose a life of mundane conformity with all the tchotchkes and trinkets of success – the latest washer drier, a double oven, a fridge freezer with double doors and an ice dispenser, a trophy partner, a sensible home, normal vacations to the usual suspect places. You can choose to eat yer all bran, cut out the sugar and the transfat, work out at the gym, pound pavement in the search for the perfect body. The perfect unsullied, society-approved soul. A life with all the trimmings, that survives fate, chance, Kings and desperate men, followed by a dying in a care home carefully paid for a provided by years of faithful service to The Machine, surrounded by ungrateful children who hate ya anyway and then fight over your money when you finally get a damn nap in the dirt. Fading away in quiet obscurity, never quite doing what you want, just what you should, before being forgotten entirely. Renton’s solution was nihilism. Now I am not saying shoot smack and fuck society. Did that. Bought the CBGB’s teeshirt. Lost my driving wheel, rigged up a new one that steers more or less straight, and have to forever cope with sanctimonious punks looking down their noses at me and wanting reassurances that I am done with the junk.
I can safely say, though Hell is worth a quick tour, it is no place for a sensitive soul to live, as a soul whose happiness is dependent on the bag, and characterized by short lived euphoria, long term dedication to the cause of getting ‘well’, and paying that piper every single day, while the rest of the Success Collectors sneer down their plastic surgeried noses at you, or would do if their botoxed faces could show any emotion. No, happiness does not live ‘junkpiled and turnstyled, railroaded too’ as Townes Van Zandt once sang. Townes wanted his ‘mama’ to ‘chase his blues away’. Happiness is one hell of a goal.
I didn’t find happiness when I was, way back, a long time ago, someone on the road to conventional dishwasher, coffee pot governmental approved success and acceptability. I didn’t find happiness in the bag always, but I’ll say it, I’ll own it, I also didn’t not. Let’s face it, if it wasn’t fun the booze and the getting high and the psycoanaught Burroughsian space travelling, people wouldn’t do it. Toad licking might not be for the faint of heart, but it is not without its charms. I always found happiness in freedom, love, in caring for others and feeling that soul-click of empathy. Sharing the last apple in the bag by a lake. Holding my children’s hands as we walked on a beach together. Driving down the road, heading out of Washington State towards the Rockies, the storm blowing us from side to side on the mountain passes, all the beauty, and the green and the brown and the rushing water and the sheer vastness of the spectacle that is this beautiful country spread out before me, Bob Dylan on the stereo, good boots on my feet and a feeling of total freedom and possibility. Waking up in a primitive campground with wildflowers in a cut off soda can by my head, and a steaming cup of tea waiting for me, and a note saying “I love you, Detroit.” Romeo wanted Juliet….and Juliet wanted Romeo…Love ‘flickered for a minute…and was gone’, to paraphrase Uncle Lou.
Happiness is a fickle creature, brittle and pouting, not liking too much wet, nor dry, sun nor shade. Happiness demands perfect conditions, otherwise it retreats back into it’s shell, a slippery customer. Other people always mistake me for being unhappy. I am not unhappy. I am a deeply content person, happy with who I am, where I am, who I am with. I do not need or want any romantic ties in order to feel whole, and would never accept anything less than perfection. I had my loves. I gave my chances, and now my happiness is bound up in my son, my safety, and this happy shiny city on the Bay. I get my kicks for living from heating being on demand, hot and cold running electricity, clean water when I need it, food that doesn’t make me sick. I get my kicks from organic Cali green at midnight in front of the The Trailer Park Boys, laughing myself silly with the giggles at the slapstick humor of Ricky getting shot once again, and recognizing myself and my life in people who spread peanut butter on bread with a frying spatula and eat ice cream with a fork because, hey man, that is all we got, but we are happy.
I am not here to sell you some hokey fantasy of the happy hobo. Being on the road, living in campgrounds was not ‘living the dream’ as it was occasionally painted as being by those who camped for fun and had houses to go back to. I certainly couldn’t do it in an urban environment with children. Part of the ‘fun’ and happiness I managed to wring from life in those days was solely due to being able to always move on to a different place, in being able get on down the road, and build a rapid succession of camps in a series of beautiful wild empty places. I was not unhappy. I was not always comfortable, or clean, or well fed. I was often cold, hungry and desperate, having to beg for gas at various gas stations. People are mostly kind, they will give ya a ‘splash’ when they fill up their vehicles. There is happiness to be found in knowing that your fellow humans are not all jerks. I won’t pretend that a huge number are not little hitler wanna bes who make it absolutely impossible to live and love and survive and would rather set ya on fire than just leave a family on the rocks to just ‘be’, but then there are also the rapidly evolving cast of true menschen who will donate some propane for the camp stove, give you free food, a little gas, and offer serious and honest solidarity and comradeship down the road.
People like Dale, a sweet homeless elderly man back in Washington State, who went out of his way to throw a ball with my Boy and tell him tales from the baseball diamond of old. People like “Red”, who would give you half of her last cigarette and a hug while she was about it, and lived in the mission while I was parked up outside it. People like The Blonde, who saw me struggling when I was kicking and sold me her dilaudid for five bucks a pop, and helped me float down with a little cushioning rather than hit the wall at 200mph. People who worked in the Missions I sometimes used for showers and food when we had none, and never sneered at a filthy woman and her two bedraggled children, stinking of wood smoke and body odor, and instead went out of their way to provide nice soap and clean toothbrushes and the chance to feel human again. There are people out there, and their small and large kindnesses have always given me much cause for happiness.
The happiness I feel when I can help someone else who is struggling perhaps is the most satisfying of all. I sometimes sit here and wonder about people I met along the way. The girl who was convinced she was going to be murdered and drown in a river, just because she had a feeling. Headphones girl who had schizophrenia but managed just fine as long as she had headphones and music, and who was so happy when I gave my headphones to her figuring she needed them more. Tiger Boy who I used to give some food to. Wolf Dog Man who would be persuaded to take some food when he was at the same camp as us. All these tiny opportunities to be a decent human being gave me deep joy. I live for more of these privileges and chances to grab happiness and prove my humanity.
No regrets. For me, happiness is a good song. A sweet memory. An empty space in a campground and enough money to pay for the day. A good tree with shade. A mountain and a river and a view of this country I love so well. The lingering ghost of a kiss. A mended tea pot. A phone call to Ruthie. A Laurie Anderson lecture. A bargain print of Burroughs at an auditing machine, and a wry smile at the story that goes with it, of Old Bull Lee finding temporary happiness in scientology before he kicked it to the curb too, just like he did the other addictive junk….. The personal warmth of seeing smile my son smile grow into a content and decent young man. Seeing a piece of my writing get some love from people who read it. The tap on the shoulder of nostalgia triggered by a smell, or a taste or a sound. Flesh that holds the memory of a touch. The mental snapshot of my newborn daughter asleep in my arms. The sound of Bobby McGee and me and you and you and you round a campfire in Minnesota.
I have no desire to push my son towards conventional success, towards deadly dull programming, or a college course that gets him in debt forever. If what he wanted, if what would make him happy was a surfboard and a beach and a wave, I would cheer him on. If it was cooking a meal that people loved, I would be there, his biggest fan. If he wanted to play bass in a band, or travel the world, or join a Buddhist monastery, I would smile and be overjoyed. Happiness is what you make it. We are here for such a short season, there is no point doing what you should at the cost of what you want. That is all we can do – try and live lives that don’t hurt anyone else, and make us content and happy and fulfilled, and safe and sane.
I would cheer all of you on too. Do what thou wilt. Be happy. Embrace each other and your dreams without stepping on the dreams of others. Live those dreams. I am not saying to pull a ‘rock and roll or die in a ditch’ dull psychopathic lazy nilhilstic jag. I am not advocating selfishness – very few of us would be truly happy without other people and making others happy too. I am advocating throwing away the rule book, the SHOULD do, MUST be and CAN’T possibly, and writing your own story. Just like William Burroughs did. Just like Lou Reed did. Temporarily Like Achilles, as Dylan once wrote flying too close to the sun. Just like the precious and unique and valued person that you are; because that happiness is worth everything.