Don’t Snip My Brakes in Long Beach
September 9, 2013 | by Dave Tompkins
In 1977, O. J. Simpson thought he was going to Mars. Instead he was kidnapped and taken to synthetic Mars, staged at a CIA base somewhere in New Mexico. Or Arizona. Wherever. The American public bought it, just as they believed O. J. Simpson could be an astronaut. The transmission from Mars was all a conspiracy, project-managed by Hal Holbrook and NASA in the film Capricorn One. Accompanied by James Brolin and the assistant DA from Law & Order, Simpson escaped this fraudulent Mars in a Lear jet, only to crash-land in the desert. Last time we’d seen James Brolin in the desert, he was gunned down by Yul Brenner in Westworld, astonished that the Russian cowboy-robot was using real bullets. This time Brolin is rescued by Telly Savalas in a crop duster. The assistant DA from Law & Order isn’t so lucky. Nor is O. J. I remember Simpson’s eyebrows being full of sand upon realizing the birds in the sky were really helicopters.
I may have writer’s block. It’s not all spaceman in the trashcan as one would imagine. (One would imagine nothing, I’d think. And I would think, if I didn’t have writer’s block, or indulge in a hopeless tautology.) But I have been thinking about O. J. on Mars with sand in his eyebrows, rather than, say, geo-acoustic mapping, torpedoes, and swamp outlaws—the real concerns of my unfinished future.
I’ve squandered the end of summer considering Capricorn One, a not particularly great film. I saw it three times in summer of ’77 and made a song about it while in the pool, splashing out the cast and credits, swatting at water and displacing drowned bees in the name of Karen Black. The ending has Elliot Gould and Brolin running through a cemetery holding hands, skipping over tombstones in slow motion, surprising everyone at the funeral who thought Brolin had burned up in outer space. Gould seemed thrilled to be alive as well, after having his brakes snipped in Long Beach.
A friend once joked that writer’s block is a privilege, that only writers are allowed to have writer’s block. I first encountered the word in a beagle’s thought cloud, floating above his head and typewriter as he sat on a doghouse that occasionally doubled as a World War I Sopwith Camel. Madeleine L’ Engel began A Wrinkle in Time poking fun at this torpor, wondering why some writers can’t get past “a dark and stormy night.” The beagle, it turned out, faced this problem verbatim, yet has managed to spend an eternity in syndication.
Staring out into deep space, and presumably thinking, is vital to the writing process, though at times it’s hard to determine where space ends and despair begins. At some point—when the flashing, vertical cursor becomes an alarm—you become conscious of the fact that you can’t think of anything. This could be similar to how the realization of reading, while reading, can eject you from the story, leaving you stuck with a bunch of words and someone else’s book in your hands.
In 2005, my first book was just an on-screen abstraction. In a hurry to transmatter the text, I decided to declare myself finished, four years from actually being done. This delusion would be a gift to my friends, who appeared relieved but unconvinced. I told them I was definitely through with it, as if not in on my own joke, and hosted a small celebration, a fake Martian launch. The next day, I dozed off during a hungover pass at a chapter, snapping awake to a blank screen. I’d scrolled myself into the middle of nowhere.
During times when my manuscript was low on activity, I would console myself by staring at the abandoned lot across the street from my apartment, a place where even less happened, a pasture of junked Mercedes coups that had gone to rust and dandelions. The Benzs would seemingly vanish overnight, leaving behind a pigeon coop, which disappeared as well. The pigeoneer shrieked like a chimp, startling my beer and causing a spill on my laptop. I’d shorted out the section involving Vanessa del Rio, a funeral, and the bog-burp scene from The Dark Crystal. Gone with the beer.
Recovery was slow. Little was accomplished that summer, other than cursing unsaved memory. I started working on somebody else’s book, transcribing interviews for a forthcoming biography on the rapper 50 Cent. While telling a story about a crack intermediary named Country, Curtis Jackson interrupted himself to tear through a pile of shoeboxes one of his adjutants had brought from Footlocker. My headphones were filled with the deafening shred of new-sneaker tissue, as if 50 Cent were flailing around in a pile of dead leaves. Autumn grew close.
By late summer, the 50 Cent work dissipated and I was forced back into my own book and so back out the window. Distractions came easy. One morning, I nearly tranced out to a power drill, maybe a circle saw, whining in high frequency next door. These renovations seemed oddly attuned to my breathing. Listening more closely, I traced the frequencies back to my nose, then back to into my head/Home Depot to admire the confusion and mind the sawdust.
Another morning, I watched a pack of raggedy German shepherds pour into the lot across the street, single file, inspecting the Benzes. Years later, when my book was done, I met one of these dogs at a friend’s house—Oscar with the frosted beard. I was told Oscar came from a nearby abandoned sugar factory in south Brooklyn, past the Red Hook church that allegedly inspired one of Lovecraft’s gates to hell, near where the Solgar vitamin chemist lived with the inflatable hydraulic-squid engineer, below the sandwich spot that makes those wonderful gut torpedoes, north of the building that manufactured exploding parachutes, facing the harbor where the Coast Guard once seized a Civil War–era submarine. All of it nearly going underwater last fall.
A day of nothing doing, it turns out, can be quite eventful. All for the time being. But throwing oneself in the meta-patch by writing about writer’s block only forestalls the inexorable process of starting again, revisiting memories of always returning to the beginning instead of picking up where I left off—just where the block becomes a loop. These problems could be resolved by not writing at all. Go take a nap. The other night, I put this into practice and dozed off listening to Earl Sweatshirt, a nineteen-year-old rapper who seems to have no problem putting his thoughts through a picture window. The song was called “Sasquatch,” named after a hoax with a large sneaker size. I woke in the middle of the night with a spider bite on my eyelid and Sweatshirt in my head. Not Earl exactly, but someone he had mentioned, a name implied in one of those casually bored Earl threats. My eyelid throbbed. The someone was Orenthal, a retired football star who wrote a book about his involvement in the murder of his wife and her lover, unhampered by neither conscience nor writer’s block, a story the American public did not buy, the same Orenthal who once thought he was going to Mars but ended up in the desert—the Lovelock Correctional Center, Las Vegas—guilty of kidnapping and, among other things, stealing his own memories, including an autographed glossy of himself standing next to former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Best wishes, O. J.
Dave Tompkins is writing a book about Miami. His first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop is now out in paperback. Audio mixes and more can be found at Howtowreckanicebeach.com.