24 June 2005

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Sea Captain of Cortes

There is a broken sea captain on my stoop right now. We're back at 23 Cortes, the brownstones baking into poundcakes in the heat, the Massachusetts Pikeway roaring like the ocean. Off in the distance, the South End shimmers. The Hancock building reflects cloudless.

The captain is laid out like a rag doll. He has not changed his uniform in ten and a half years. He still wears a white sailors' cap relatives keep washed. He wears Elvis Costello glasses. He chomps cigars. He whistles tunelessly. Occasionally, an only slightly younger woman will come outside and, with the help of a friend, stuff him into a shopping cart and wheel him off into the distance. After a short while, he is wheeled back.

General opinion is divided as to why the Sea Captain is the way he is. Some say he was a commercial fisherman in the eighties, that he poached whales, that he had a practice of throwing himself onto the carcasses naked in the middle of the night and rolling in the blubber. This in particular was a mystery - nobody knows why he did it, or why it gave him such evident pleasure to bathe himself in the kill, but it did. There are those who say we shouldn't wonder what happened next, a man goes doing something like that. They might be right.

They say a few militant young idealists tried to stop him one day - the poaching, not the nocturnal rolling - and he killed them. With a harpoon gun. PLUNK PLUNK PLUNK, one after the other. Bleeding into their little idealist rubber dinghy. The idealists were overweight and pale. It was unfortunate that the local reporter assigned to cover the story had a morbid sense of humor and none of shame. The headline read: Poaching Ahab Spears Three White Whales.

It never saw the light of day, of course. The layout editor near about had a coronary, canned the story, screamed at the reporter for a couple minutes and spent the rest of his life trying to get him fired, which wasn't long, since he got clipped in a seven-car pileup on the PCH five days later.

The cub reporter didn't even get fired. He was fresh out of a certain Back Bay journalism school (Go Lions) and had a famous dad, who took it upon himself to take the newspaper's owner - a doughy, unpopular man who sweat profusely and hid surprising naiveté underneath his callous, newspaper-owning exterior - to a glitzy LA restaurant, where they celebrity watched over Boston-imported lobster, and saw - among others - rising star and not-yet-fanatic Mel Gibson. The pleasant afterglow of fame put the owner into a forgiving mood when it came time to consider the cub reporter's future employment; he was shunted aside for form's sake and made a dirt-digging entertainment correspondent with a small army of crack photographers at his disposal, under orders to shoot on sight, which catered to his talent for punchy headlines and his ruthless distaste for phsyical imperfection.

And the Sea Captain? Disgraced, imprisoned - by the time he was let out he was a shadow of his former self. He had relatives back east. He tried lobster fishing for a while, but he was doing it with a pole off of a dock in the Boston Harbor, the one in front of the Aquarium. Every once in a while, drunken merchant marines would stumble up to ask him if he'd caught anything. After nine days without food or water, without abandoning his post, he was picked up by the police for loitering. He lost his taste for wandering after that, and for fishing too. Somewhere in his brain lingered a desire to roll in the carcasses of dead whales, but the thought gave him no real pleasure, anymore - just a kind of dry appreciation. Those who hold up this side of things maintain that's what he's thinking about when he smokes his cigars, whistling sea shantys. He loves the Mass Pike, they say, because the sound of the traffic reminds him of surf breaking on a beach.

* * *

So one school has it. Others say he never saw the ocean in his life, that he both loves and hates the wide expanse of water he cannot bring himself to visit, that the distance terrifies him and excites him, that the great tragedy of his life is that since he was a boy he had dreamed of becoming a sailor, only to be rendered jellyboned and yellow when the time came. Some take it further and say he has never left the stoop at all, that he is paralyzed, either figuratively - Joyce's Dubliners - or actually. Or that like Galileo he has been under house arrest for these longs years and has grown accustomed to it. The Galileans particularly can be found in corners arguing in hushed tones about what got him arrested in the first place - your typical Galilean is a conspiracy nut, and like most conspiracy nuts, the only thing he distrusts more than authority are other nuts like him. There are more Galilean theories than there are Galilean theorists: the Captain is a breakthrough scientist condemned to obscurity by oil corporations, a religious heretic with access to the lost Gospel of James, a Vietnam-era government mind control experiment, a renegade Nazi, a high-ranking Cold War defector.

The people who think he has never seen the sea are mostly either Ironists caught up in the fish-out-of-water aspect, or Freudians who smugly point to the phallic seaman hat as compensation for his exile from the great mother-womb of the ocean. The Ironists never fail to point out that the Mariner (as they call him) lives on Cortes, parallel to Columbus and Isabella. Born and raised on a street named after great explorers, weighed down with the examples of history and the illustrations of his childhood storybooks, unable even to approach the fate that mocks him from the streetsigns... - At this point the Ironists chuckle suavely. One of them, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes, draws enough breath to make a smallpox joke.

The Mystics don't fail to point out his birthplace either, but keep mirth out of it entirely. They solemnly note the the birthplace is a sign of reincarnation. He is Columbus, they'll say, bowed down by the weight of his sins, by the decimation of an entire race, by the terrible knowledge of his own shortcomings, by the fact that Vespucci got the continent named after himself. There is a sect of Mystic Colerigites who claim to the point of torture that they can see a shadowy seagull around his neck.

The bitterest feud, of all the schools and sects that debate the life of the Sea Captain, lies between the Keatsian Fantasists and the Neo-Realists. The Keatsian Fantasists have given up on the idea that we can ever know the Sea Captain's true origins. Reason, they say, cannot give us a satisfactory answer, and so we will while away our time inventing one. They believe that if it is beautiful it may as well be true. They are Keats' teenage daughters, hung up on romance and invention. Their origin myths are deliberately frivolous, and often a little sad. The Captain is an aged leprechaun, his wealth gone, the rainbow sunk beneath the ocean. For centuries he has dived for his shattered pot of gold, sailed the seven seas for his vanished wealth, enslaved entire populations to attempt to reclaim it, marched with Cortes on the Incans on the rumor of gold. Or the Captain is not a sailor at all but a merman, exiled on land for loving a human woman, or perhaps the son of a mermaid and a sailor, brought up on the sea, paralyzed without it, caught on dry land like a gasping fish. He is immortal. He is the only immortal. He is (pick one) Jesus Christ; Cain, son of Abel; William Shakespeare; Mark Twain; Karl Marx; Johaan Gutenberg; Leonardo daVinci; Homer, as it was in Borges' The Aleph. He is a famine-stricken Santa Claus set to sea by commercialization. He is the Ghost of Christmas Past. He is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, satisfied for the last ten hundred years that humanity can slaughter itself without assistance, waiting patiently for the end of it all.

The Neo-Realists, dour young Turks that they are, wish to end all of this pointless theorizing. The truth of the matter is, they say over the din, voices still cracking occasionally, is that the Captain is a sad old man. He wears a thrift store uniform and a hat because he's crazy. He sits outside because he's put there, like a potted plant. He smokes because he's addicted. At this point, the Joyceans try to add an epiphany, but the Neo-Realists usually shout them down. The truth is, they say louder, we call him the Sea Captain because he wears that silly hat and for no other reason. The truth is, life is an awful mess and we don't know why things are where they are.

In the corner, the Cynics - and there are always one or two of them - the Cynics smoke cigars and smile mordantly.

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