Tag Archives: Janis Joplin

“Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on — and TAKE It: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Now, Baby!”

There are days when it’s hard to clock in.  But then, I see a single human face — and I’m on a roll.

Like the luminous face of a woman who, yesterday, made me wonder about my aging self.

She would have otherwise be found plain:  Quite tall and long-limbed, in unmemorable clothes.  A pair of ballet flats, a pencil skirt and a V-neck, all in jewel colors.  That’s exactly how my eyes travelled too, along her thin body:  from the ground, up to her face.  From humility, up to humanity.  And then, they got stuck.  On her face.

Under the haircut of no longer than two inches that was bleached to camouflage the gray, her face was completely open.  Readable, as if I expected to find my own reflection in it.  Having not a dab of make-up on her — like she had nothing to hide — she seemed incredibly open and present.  Up for anything.

“Like someone possessed by a clear conscience,” I thought.

“I didn’t expect you to be so petite and, um, lovely,” she said to me.  It was our first meeting.

I can always tell.  Especially when it comes to other broads, I can always tell when I’m being fed some insincere bullshit.  And then, I can always tell when a woman means it; when she’s got no time — or in my case, no tolerance — for competition; and she’s got a sister’s better interest in mind.  And I tell you, compliments from such a broad are a better ego treatment than a week-long stay at a beauty spa with, say, Olivier Martinez as your lover.

So, when she said that — I was hooked.  First, I studied her well nourished skin with seemingly no trace of plastic surgery, and I pinpointed the gist of her:  She was a happy one.  She had done the work.  That hard work one’s gotta do on herself in order to not be tortured with doubt, jealousy or self-loathing.  She had the balls to be happy, to like herself, and by extension (or by my hubristic assumption that I was heading in the same direction), she seemed to like me just fine, too.

I was about to learn in one, two, three minutes — she was also a writer.  It must be a common thing among artists, writers especially:  We just can’t fucking give up on people.  We cannot NOT like them.

Like every other fucker, over the course of a life, we acquire a history of letdowns and opinions.  Every heartbreak hurts equally.  After enough shit has been handed to us, though, some of us learn to pray to our Zen deities and pretend to surrender all control over the matter.  But I suspect the truth is a lot more painful:  Each fuck-up hits us below the belt and we hate it.  Because by definition of our craft, we cannot lead with disappointment.  We ought to stay in love with humanity, or at least in awe of it.

And why CAN’T people live up to their goodness?  Surely, they had to be good at one point.  It’s kind of a universal thing in the beginning:  We are born good.  We remain good for a while, and complete strangers get sidetracked at the sight of our still undamaged faces.

I wondered that as I studied the face of a babe who was being carried across the street by her father.  She was little.  Too little for me to remember what it felt like — to be her.  Too young to have a palpable fear of time.

Facing out, over the man’s shoulder, the young girl was moving her mouth and pressing her plum cheek against her father’s stubble.

“That man’s heart is forever taken,” I thought.

The seconds on their walkway sign were about to expire, but the two creatures — one still innocent, the other one living vicariously through her — were so engrossed in their chat, they were hardly among us.  Finally, by the time the man began jogging slightly, with his daughter bouncing uncomfortably in his arms (he had to be still training for such new functions of his body), they crossed in front of my left headlight.  Two more lanes of traffic — and they would be safe.

Bouncing on her father’s arm, the girl noticed me.  The green of her eyes got stuck to my heart.  I waved, timidly, with one hand.  Hesitantly but innocently, she squeezed her tiny left fist, then released it, and squeezed it again.  She was imitating my gesture.  She was still good.  Up for anything.

It would be horrific, I thought, to lose my soul’s sight.

Then, I went home and wrote this.

“Freedom’s Just Another Word — for Nothing Left to Lose.”

“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” 

Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

“What if I walked away, right now, into these open spaces ahead?”

I wasn’t sure if every 19-year-old entertained such thoughts, but as I continued walking in the midday heat of a Southern California summer, I could see the journey clearly.  I could see myself:  A tiny figure whose outline was distorted by the heat rising from underneath the thin-soled Converse shoes, walking slowly but with certainty, fearless in the way of someone who had nothing to lose.

I had lost enough that year to not fear the possible pain of the unknown.  I had lost enough to have nothing holding me in place.  My college applications had been sent off late and only to a handful of unknown institutions with rolling admissions.  Considering it was the end of August, I had assumed I had failed to get in.

Two marriage proposals had happened that summer, by two different men, neither of whom even pretended to understand me much.  A month before, I had lost all of my cash, my car and my place of stay; and the absurdity of my pre-college summer was finished off — with a death.

As a matter of fact, it was the dead that was still keeping me in place.

She had died untimely, from a heart attack-ed.  I was called out of my Anatomy Lab to receive the message.  It was just a note, written on a pink slip that rarely meant good news.  The couple of times that I had witnessed it being delivered into my classmates’ hands, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, they would be gone for weeks; and when they came back, I noticed the difference in their faces.  It looked either like gravity — or weightlessness.  I was about to find out which.

My messenger — an unknowing work-study student from the counselors’ office — ran out on me before I could ask him for any details.

“I have a note,” I told the receptionist in the counselors’ office, while rummaging in my schoolbag for my glasses.

“I know.  They are still on hold,” she answered.

The supervisor of the office loomed in the background, by the copy machine.  I saw his face, however blurry, and knew if I could see him any clearer, he would tell me of his sympathy.  My hands continued shaking, as they searched the bottom of my bag for an item I insisted on needing before picking up the phone.

The next few days had passed in a slow-mo waltz of minutes.  There would be phone calls and somber cards; a weeping husband on a flowery couch; a line of uninvited guests who would never be around whenever I was attacked by a slew of forms and interviews from funeral parlors.

“Whatever you need,” they promised to the weeping husband, as they too began to weep.

Nothing had prepared me for the questions that happened that week, from the people on the other end of the phone:

She was a donor, they said; and could they have my signature — to take her eyes?

Make a list of all the things, they told me:  things to be placed inside her coffin.  Did I know which she had treasured the most?

Choose the clothes she would be most comfortable in, they insisted:  Shouldn’t she be comfortable, wherever she was going?

And was I sure she wouldn’t prefer cremation instead?  (‘Cause that wouldn’t cost us as much, they would mention under their breath:  After all, they weren’t completely heartless.)

The weeping husband continued to assume I was strong enough to take his place.  No one had asked me if I was ready or willing, or knowledgeable of her last wishes.  Perhaps, I had promised more competence than the bulb-nosed man on the flowery couch, who nodded and moaned, accepted troughs of food from the still uninvited neighbors, with their solemn faces and anecdotes about the dead.

“Whatever you need,” they mumbled over his shoulder as they hugged and strained their own faces for emotions.

On the morning of the funeral, I remembered shivering.  They had wanted us to start early:  The first burial of the day.  And the morning would be so cold, and dewy.  The husband continued to weep in the front row of gray plastic chairs, while I accepted envelopes and hugs from people I hadn’t known.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you.  It means so much.

The following week, I had promised to come back and clean out her closet.  The task of deciphering the bus schedules and routes seemed absurd and painfully sad.  I would study the indifferent faces of the drivers as they spoke gibberish about my transfers, and vouchers, and student passes.

I would get off on the last stop and study the desolate grounds and the open spaces ahead.

“What if I walked away, right now,” I thought, “into the open spaces?”

What if I followed the trajectory of black telephone lines or began chasing tumbleweeds:

Where would I end up?  And would I end up free?

And would that freedom feel weightless, eventually returning my joy; my forgiveness?