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Wednesday, September 25, 2002
By Paul Ford
A story about falling off a truck into sand.
In the last 4 days I fell off a truck and was dragged for 30 feet, and was interviewed by an NPR show. Those two facts are not related except that they both happened to me and made me queasy. I also wrote a short plan outlining the rest of my life.
I'm not sure when the interview, which is for a show called Rewind that doesn't air in New York, will be played. But I'll get to that.
First, the truck. I was down in Long Beach Island, NJ. It's an oceanside community, quiet at this time of the year. I was with two friends from high school. It was a sort of dork reunion. We got there on Friday, and on Saturday, a little hung over and after 3 hours of sleep, we - the three-ex Milts, Matt, Eric, and Paul, and Matt's roommate, Derek - went for a walk on the beach, a nature preserve protecting the sandpipers, little birds smaller than your hand, or at least my hand. They flocked on the ground and scampered nervously, leaving prints in the sand.
As we walked, fisherpeople in four-wheel-drive vehicles drove past us over the sand, on their way to the very end of the beach, where they would cast their lines into the deep water while looking out at the dull boxy buildings of Atlantic City, a few ocean miles away. Eventually we met up with them, and sat watching the surf, waiting to see if anyone pulled in a fish. I turned pink from the sun.
Then it was time to go, but a 4 mile walk through sand, thirsty, seemed excessive. So we walked slowly, and hitchhiked. Two pickups went past, ignoring our thumbs, men in baseball caps laughing at our unwheeled state. We cursed their dust.
I think living in a city you get used to strangers asking you for things, and in the rural part of the world you have to help one another - you can't leave someone alone in a car broken down in a snowstorm, for instance - but in the rest of America, the middle part (and even though Long Beach Island is on the edge of North America, it's definitely in the middle), it's rare anyone wants anything more than the time. So the Brads and Daves who drove by after their Saturday fishing, their pickup beds almost totally empty, just laughed, and probably felt uncomfortable and superior for a few seconds, and lost the opportunity to feel helpful, decent, and giving. Fuckers.
The third truck was driven by two stoners in their 30s, and they stopped and motioned us over. Their pickup had a cover on the back was filled with junk, and we hopped on - one of us squeezed in on top of bait buckets, three of us on the tailgate holding on.
We rocked and bounced over low dunes, and then the truck got stuck in sand. At which point we all hopped out, and I grabbed my camera, shoes, and straw hat. With four people pushing the truck was back on hard sand in seconds, and we all hopped back on. Well, almost all. One of my friends jumped on and couldn't move to let me jump in. So I ran as fast as I could trying to hold on to my shoes, digital camera, and not lose my straw hat, while keeping a grip on the truck, which suddenly accelerated to about 20 miles an hour.
I imagine you share my assumption that an intelligent man does not grip a moving truck if he's not actually inside or at least on that truck. I am no such man, and as the truck accelerated I, barefoot, grabbed on to the small piece of hydraulics which supported the rear window of the pickup cover and felt my legs fall out behind me. For 20 or 30 seconds, I was dragged, Indiana Jones-style, bouncing and kicking up a cloud of sand, until someone said, clearly, “Paul, let go.”
As he said this, the hydraulic piece of the truck popped off in my hand, dangling from the roof of the pickup cover, and I was released. I landed hard, like a crashing airplane, plowing face-forward into wet sand and skidding a bit. I lay on the ground hearing the truck recede, then gathered myself up. The first thing I noted was that my digital camera was covered with a slurry of wet sand, although later work with a Q-tip and piece of bamboo restored it to order. Then I noticed that everything was very slow. I heard my name from a distance, or what seemed like my name. The truck, I think it was a truck, was stopped nearby, but also very far off. I couldn't focus. Where were my shoes? Mr. Sandpiper says hello. Shoes are what live in your hand.
The world congealed a bit and I trudged to the truck. I saw someone - I don't know which friend it was - snap the broken hydraulic bit back in place, and felt a great relief.
“Are your internal organs all right?” someone asked.
“I am okay,” I said, but it sounded like this: “Eye eye eye yam yam yam yam yamo yamo yamo oak oak oak hey hey hey.” I got back onto the tailgate, but it was very hard to remember all the things you're supposed to do when you're hitching a ride through sand.
For instance, someone said, “Paul, put your legs up.” My legs were dangling from the truck.
“Oh,” I said, but their imperative command made as much sense as if I was trying to read about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but instead of reading it in English, it was in Lojban, and the Lojban had been translated into Morse code, then each dash turned into a banana and each dot turned into an orange, and the bananas and oranges left out in sequence in a rhesus monkey sanctuary for an hour around feeding time, followed by a rainstorm, and I was blindfolded and told to feel around for where the apples and bananas had been before the monkeys got them and work back from there. But after a while the idea of lifting my legs sunk in. “That's a good idea,” I said. A little while later, I did, actually, lift my legs, which was effective in terms of keeping them from smashing into the sand and causing me pain.
“Hold on,” someone said. The truck bounced up as we drove, and I was very scared. Why was I in this truck? I fell out of a truck, how could I be on one? Clearly this was a pretty serious problem now, in my life, staying in trucks. The truck was going very fast. But eventually, after 32 years of nonstop bouncing, we hit blacktop and the four of us got out. The stoners refused an offer of cash. “Just as long as you didn't steal anything,” one of them said. I shook his hand. “You should bring more water next time,” he continued.
Thus lectured, the four of us went to buy beer and food for dinner. I stopped outside a supermarket and shook myself like a dog, also jumping up and down, releasing 3 pounds of sand which had adhered to my jeans and shirt, and learning that my knees were hurt pretty bad, which is something that happens when you are dragged behind a truck like your name is Harrison, rather than Paul, Ford.
At the studio on 18th St. I was asked to test my voice. I started to tell the story about the truck, but the engineer was having trouble with the ISDN line and I couldn't make it funny with all the interruptions. He looked sad and scared for me as I told it, so I stopped. I was in a box a little wider than I am, lined entirely in foam, speaking into a microphone. They were having trouble syncing up New York to Seattle.
“Could you give me a test, please?”
I was very shy and very nervous. “Test, test,” I said. In my headphones I heard “Test est est est est ping est ping est est ping”.
“Keep going,” he said.
“Test, test. I will now think of all the different kinds of fish as I can,” I said. “So as not to keep saying 'test.' There is always the grouper. And there is the perch, and there is the terrier. That is a dog, but it can swim, and there's the mako shark and the brook trout, and the rainbow coalition trout. And there's the hogchoker. And the wooly spider monkey, which is again a kind of monkey, not a fish, but it's not a spider either...” and so forth.
The interview, about which I knew very little, had been set up the day before. A person in Seattle wrote me an email saying she'd read a piece in The Morning News that I'd written about different characters in songs, and, having read this thing I wrote, wanted me to be on the radio because I seemed as though I might not be a total waste of everyone's time. She wondered if I could go to a recording studio in Manhattan on Tuesday and do a 15 minute interview.
I agreed and went online and listened to the show in Real Audio. It's a talk show with a focus on the droll and quirky, they were into bad poetry, and everyone seemed amiable, so I figured I didn't have much to fear, but despite my figuring I was filled with fear. I called a friend who's been interviewed dozens of times for dozens of things for advice.
“I'm really nervous,” I said. “I can't be droll on command. I have to work up to droll.”
“Huh. This is total role reversal,” he said. Usually I help him get ready for his interviews, and pretend to be an evil journalist out to get him. “Look, they're going to be nice. Everyone wants this to go well. They don't want to know any secrets about you, or much about you at all. Just prepare a dry, amusing story about how you came up with the piece and go from there.”
“How about, 'I was in a bar in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn with some friends and some maudlin soul gets up and puts on 'Piano Man'. And I'm sitting there listening, and I realize I've known these characters since I was ten. They just spring to life. And I began to ask the people around me, where is the waittress practicing politics now? And we figured out that she's running a school board somewhere, and very smart, very responsible. And we agreed that every character in a Fleetwood Mac song is probably teaching pottery somewhere, right now.'”
“But it's a lie. I came up with the idea lying in bed trying to decide what to eat for breakfast.”
“All world media is predicated on lies and fabrications.”
“Does Noam Chomsky know this?”
“And tell them you're a writer in Brooklyn. That's romantic.”
“But I never publish anything, and what if I get nervous and just talking about blivets in the middle of the interview? Or about being chased by harpsichords? Or if I cry?”
“Just don't do any of that.”
“Why is this so hard and scary?” I took a breath. “Because I'm not cool, that's why.”
“Yes, that might be part of it,” said my friend. Then he went on, and it turned out that he - he's a musician - had just lost 80 gigs of sound files due to hard drive failure, on the day before he was supposed to fly to LA to produce music with the guy from the Psychedelic Furs. The music was to be based on that 80 gigs of sound files. So, the thing he was totally looking forward to with nervous excitement, anticipation, and hope, had become the thing he was terrified of doing, and perhaps futile. I said, “I know you are and always will be a true friend for letting me tell you about my tiny interview on NPR before you told me that your entire life was totally ruined.”
“It's bad with the hard drive,” he said. “I even talked to my friend Mike, who I call 'The Mac Whisperer,' and he said we were out of luck. It hasn't settled in yet.”
We talked about that for a while, then it was bedtime. This morning I woke up, called my clients, went into the city, and did the interview. Everyone at the studio was very nice and treated me as if I might be mildly retarded, giving me water in little cups and making sure I had a lollipop, which was orangermelon flavored.
Bill, the host of the show, prepared me for the interview. “I don't want any story about how you came up with the idea for the piece, nobody wants to hear that,” he said, before I could offer it. “I just want to have you sort of - not read, but just tell me about the characters in the column.”
So I had to improvise, translating the piece into something conversational, but I was allowed to say, “God, no, please, destroy that and let's do it again” when I flubbed. Prompted, I started talking and kept at it, nervous energy pouring out of me in Amazon-basin volumes, and I interrupted Bill too many times. Luckily I hadn't had anything to eat or drink; if I'd had a cup of coffee I might have actually been sweating steam and the little recording booth might have exploded. I'd come up with a bunch of extra lines and ideas the night before, printed out on 8 1/2" by 11" paper and resting on the booth's music stand, and that turned out to have been a good idea - I would have choked without them. So the conversation went on, I got a little bit into it and not so scared, and then it was over. 30 minutes of technical glitches, 10 or 15 minutes of interviews.
Afterwards, when the interview ended, before I headed out to lunch with a friend, then home to collapse into bed, Howie, the engineer, who had sad eyes and a moustache, told me I'd done a good job, particularly for someone new to this sort of thing. It was nice of him, whether it was true or not.
As I went down in the elevator, I reflected that I was not the genius of my inner imaginings. In the interview I was not as clever as when the showerhead and washrag is my only audience, not the epitome of cool. But I was not a car crash, either. They probably got a useable 3 or 5 minutes out of it.
This was nothing like the interviews of my fantasies, which always involve ponderous questions about my deep artistic motivations. Of course, those fantasies are ridiculous: people never ask you what you want them to ask, because, in general, people only find you as interesting as you are entertaining, and they push you towards that. Which is why it's always painful when celebrities try to have thoughts.
In my NPR-Andy-Warhol moment, I suppose I should have mentioned Ftrain. I'm sure they would have thrown a mention of this site into the interview if I'd asked them (they will plug The Morning News, where the original piece was published, of course). But standing in the foamlined booth I lost all urge to promote myself, and when I left I was glad of that decision. At least for now, I like what I do not to be pressed on anyone, but to be discovered, stumbled upon. I have nothing against self-promotion, and it's essential, but I don't like to show people unfinished ideas. And the ideas inside this place on the Web, even after many few years, are extremely unfinished. I'll finish some of them before too much longer, if I stick to my plan.
Here's the plan: what I want to do is move to Boston, Massachusetts in June of 2003, and attend graduate school at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT starting in late August/early September of 2003. If I can't get in there, I'd like to attend a comparable program elsewhere. I'm not quite sure how to get into grad school and start living on very little money, but I'll figure it out.
What I want to do is create or extend tools to make online publishing interesting, write stories using those tools, and teach others to do what I'm doing, if they want to learn. Basically, this would be what I'm doing now, but better, more coherently, more formally, and not so fucking crazy-alone with my ideas. (I have reached the pathetic point of my life where the idea of talking to someone face-to-face about what I'm trying to do, and writing papers with titles like “Iconicity and the Temporal in Web-based Narrative,” even if they think I'm stupid, makes me joyful.)
So, I want an M.A. I've got two letters of recommendation lined up, one to go, and I'll schedule my GREs for November. I need to write a sample research paper, which is tough, but I've been reading dozens of research papers a week, so maybe I can do an okay job. Then, later, if I'm not too tired, I want to get a Ph.D. and see if I can teach for a while.
When I turn 55 or 60 my children will be grown and I will give up on technology as a pursuit and write only stories and poems, and I will give the time when I am not writing stories and poems to my wife, who will be my first and only wife, thanks, and who will probably have had enough of me by that point - so I'll give the rest of my time to helping poor people however they need. I will help them navigate the middle-class world if they want, or help them read if they can't, or help them go to college.
I hope I've been helping people along the way the whole time, and I definitely need to do more than I'm doing now, since I've been given a wealth of privileges and need to share those privileges.
Then I could die, some time after 75, leaving behind millions of words for anyone who wants them, and a few scattered deeds.
That's my plan, as of 24 September, 2002. It makes me feel good to have it. Now I'm going to write sad stories for a few weeks, I think, and prep for the GREs, remembering the rules about commutative properties and the rules about negative numbers and square roots, and see if I can make some money here and there.