Middle East Central Square – Excerpt from Housebreaking the Muse

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The following is a draft excerpt from my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. Here my protagonist, Ray Burke, in the midst of an unsuccessful job hunt, obsessed by the esoteric project he’s undertaken to translate the complete annotated works of Dadaist-suicide Jacques Rigaut, and overwhelmed by the voices of French Dadaists and Surrealists who have taken up residence in his mind, finds refuge at The Middle East, an old punk club in Central Square, Cambrige, MA.

Burke

Nose pressed good and deep into the horse glue of long-gone literary assassins, provocateurs, and dreamers, I humped my way around Somerville and Cambridge and Boston a quasi-intellectual greenhorn muling in my messenger bag the volumes of my growing Dada and Surrealist library. I’d grown woolly with what those volumes contained. My new motto: I shall be frivolous as suffering. Many stories existed to which I might have adapted myself in those days, but the one I chose was the one about an absent-minded professor also absent his PhD, tenure, leather saddleback brief, houndstooth blazer, students, and much else. But there in the land of profs, toffs, one-offs, and fops, unremarkable in my job-hunt uni, I suppose I fit right in. I bumbled in my preoccupations, but became adept at a suave “pardon me” that would instantly disarm the victims of my sidewalk klutzing. Sometimes they even smiled, even as their eyes shouted, “Why don’t you watch where the hell you’re going?”

Navigating the tangled thoroughfares of Cambridge, I learned to distinguish–without looking–the Roadrunner meep-meep of a VW from the trombone growl of a Mercedes from the fizzy quack of a Hyundai, all of which burned themselves into my gizmo of sponge and neurons in dope moments of screeching near-miss. The urgent jingle of a cyclist’s bell could cheer me, though not the doppler catcalls that would follow. Streetlight poles and stanchions and young shade trees caged in wrought-iron all caught me at my dreaming, decorating me with mementos in the shape of a bruise or scar. When feeling my oats or in my cups, I would dust myself off, reorder myself in elaborate silent movie pantomime, and glare with Buster Keaton bug-eyes at the offending inanimate. That’s the way I rolled, yo. Like the man said, dude’s got one chompie for gettin’ all up in the grill of life and that’s to be down wit’ it.

Listen up, yo: my J. Rig join’ got the jump on my brizzaine, attacked it, carjacked it, left it bloody in the rain, et cetera. Voices and situations and places I’d never visited and never would because lost to the bulldozer of history all busted a move at the 24-hour cabaret between my ears. The deeper I burrowed into the Dada doings of the post-war Paris party people the more Rigaut and Breton and Tzara and Aragon and Poncet and Blanche and Soupault and Kahn and the rest had their say, one by one, their soliloquies cascading in a prolonged, oblique, stychomythian exchange. (Google that shit, yo.). Strange, but my old homeboy Ubu also took part this rowdy ensemble, his boom and bluster mellowed into the incessant chirp of the erudite wiseacre. Sometimes several of them strolled onto the proscenium to enact scenes pried from the vault of an unknown archive. My mind, it seemed, had made itself a balm for idleness, irradiated my multiverse, sparked out the earholes of yours truly, a zero obsessed with forgetting how to equivocate in the face of Nothing. On good days, I became witness to moments unnoticed or at least unremarked in memoir or diary and so vanished into the mauve impossibility of yesteryear. Awwww dayummn! Vivid, rollicking, violent, sometimes lyrical, these voices and vignettes burst from their pods and bloomed. Bazzam! I rustled up the cockeyed theory my mind had become host to the time-traveling spirits of Dada Pay-ree, an idea as self-aggrandizing as it was whack. Dig: it ain’t enough room in my casaba melon for that, yo. But I was attuned and receptive. Many signals of varying strength crowded the frequency, so I got my Marconi on, sorted signal from noise. What I could make sense of I transcribed in my notebooks.

Dream made me a part-time insomniac. Daydream turned me into a duff zombie. Such is the misfortune of the semi-educated dilettante. Victim of his haphazard interest, none of his willy-nilly projects, let alone chores, habits, practices–not even the workings of his autonomic nervous system–come off with the thoroughness and polish of the single-minded professional. This state of affairs caused me no small measure of anguish. But by chance I hit on a few tricks to stifle my renegade mind. Having learned that five or six Rolling Rocks could manage it, I began to spend my afternoons globular and well in the company of bears. (Google that shit, too.)

middle-east-2Afternoons often found me astride at stool at the Middle East Upstairs, a joint that still attracted a cadre of punk rock survivors, grizzled die-hards drawn to the place by a parade of old-guard bands, their middle fingers erect in the face of our neon twilight, who regularly shook the walls of the basement nightclub below. I’d been down there myself, dragging Dee along for The Fall, The Damned, The Cramps, The Selecter, The Bush Tetras. The Middle East Downstairs was a regular Wayback Machine for those of us still fond of our disintegrating leather jackets and sour Doc Martens, a place to escape a world daily more complacent and there, among allies, pretend our dwindling subcult still mattered.

What I’d discovered is that the Middle East Upstairs had a killer jukebox and a passable hummus plate served with warm pita bread, zingy red onion wedges, pickled hot peppers, celery, and carrots–$3.95. What I’d also discovered is that I had no problem barging into this oasis of old-school punk, as I did on this particular afternoon, in chinos, blazer, and tie rumpled from another day of fruitless job hunting. And while I wasn’t quite one of the regulars, I was accepted among the leather clad and tattooed. Could be I won them over one stinking hot Friday afternoon, that day I stormed in from the swirl of trash and noise called Central Square, dropped my canvas messenger bag at the foot the bar, climbed onto my stool, and asked anyone who cared to listen, “Who does a guy have to blow to get a job in this town?” That earned me a half-hearted cheer, a couple mugs raised in sympathy or salute. The guy I now know as “Cue Ball” shouted, “Why the hell would you want a job?”

Most days, the bar goes quiet and empty after the lunch crowd clears out. Rage, the bartender, knows my routine, sets me up with a Rock, sends my hummus order to the kitchen without asking. For the first beer or two I just sit, overstimulated from dashing around the city from one interview, one human relations department to the next, sunk by disappointment over rejected applicationmiddle-easts, buoyed by hope paper clipped to applications submitted but not yet processed. Sometimes I throw a couple bucks in the jukebox and lock into the circular-saw thrum of The Buzzcocks or the epileptic dirge of Joy Division. Atomized by the music. Beat. Flighty. Lost in my suds. Those dusty hymns on the Middle East’s jukebox ferried me over choppy waters to the sweetest Nothing.