By Johnny Sunset
There are no kings in the dirtbag kingdom. Here at the bottom of the barrel, as construction workers and cooks and dump truck drivers and parking meter change collectors, we see clearly. Our exchanges are exchanges of skills, not currency. Our promises are made and fulfilled in moments shared between free individuals. Theirs is a bloodless justice. Our justice is spontaneous will.
My neighbor helps me move my bed two houses down and up the stairs. I cook him sausage biscuits. We get whisky drunk and hop the fence to his yard. We dig holes for pylons in ground riddled with bottle glass and bullet casings to build half a shed in the empty lot owned by the city, well past midnight by headlamp light.
Down here on the lower rungs, if we sustain the health of our minds and bodies, the weight of oppression reveals the potential for freedom. By the very definition of who and where we are, we are made to imagine the possibility of a lawless world.
The construction worker shares his drugs with me. We talk conspiracy and chain smoke on the balcony. He shows me the inner machinations of an exacto knife. The intricate simplicity. The spring steel. The blade carriage. The rails of the knife train. In return I unsheathe my saxophone and we examine the tiny cylinders of yes is it really again the spring steel, and the octave key, and the way each orifice farther from the origin of vibration must be larger to shift the frequency within Pythagorean musical ratio. He tells me the gun oil for the rifle would keep the leather pads from sticking. And he gifts me a breechloader shotgun registered to someone we both despise, as a token of friendship.
We are dirtbags, which is to say we are human beings, which is to say we are terrible and beautiful. And if to be terrible is to have the strength of will to reject the system which might coddle us if we subjugated ourselves to it, we must be terrible. And if to be beautiful is to imagine the ideal beyond that subjugation, we must be beautiful.
I call up my friend in Tennessee to discuss the blueprint for a cheaply reproducible backyard stream hydroelectric generator.
They will know the dirtbags by our inventions. By our circumventions of what is believed to be possible. Problems are obstacles. Obstacles are challenges. Challenges are to be overcome. Our anthem is the rusty banjo and the voice that skips into falsetto. Our dialogue is thick with profane slang. Our hands are the hands that build and demolish. Our world is the real world, and here at the bottom we can see the foundation of the whole rickety garbage heap. We can see how a single match, careless or placed with the greatest of care, could bring the whole structure to ash.
I bring my new friend figs stolen from a tree in someone’s backyard, french bread and gouda cheese filched from a restaurant where I work to pay rent. I make her a sandwich on a small cutting board in the saloon of a sailboat. She tells me weeks later in a drunken stupor that she has celiac disease and that goddamn sandwich made her shit every hour for the better part of a week but she ate it anyway.
They will know us by our generosity. Because we dirtbags are generous with our pleasure, and generous with our pain. They will know us by our honor. Our honor will shame them.
Three of us go to the lake after a long shift and drink beer until three in the morning. One brags about hand-to-hand combat skills. I challenge him to a wrestling match, hop off the tree branch, chide him. He has me over his shoulder then down and pinned in twenty seconds but I dance around him every moment, up until the end when I can’t move or breathe. I tap out. He asks if I’m satisfied. I say one more. The third still up in the tree branch high as a kite, laughing like a maniac. As my opponent takes me down again. We rise from the ground together, and shake hands.
Dirtbags do not shrink from confrontation. We accept it and love it as an exchange of ability, as a psychological exercise, as an intimate exchange.
After the wrestling match I’m driven home to find my whole block roped off by the police. Another homicide, the fifth in a year. I am drunk and I talk shit to the police officer who won’t tell me a damn thing or let me through the line. I’ve lived here a long time, I know everyone, what the fuck happened. I can’t tell you that. What the fuck happened, who was it. I can’t tell you anything. Well fuck you I’m going home I live here.
And the next night, after another long shift, across the street from my house at the place where he was shot. Lit and wavering, winking out as the wax gathers, the candles spelling out a name I recognize. Of a seventeen year old boy. Who had no choice but to sell. Who owed someone something, maybe, that was worth, at that moment in time, to the man with the gun, more than his life.
The candles, and the poster paper ramshackle taped to the fence, and the signatures and good byes of those who loved or knew or cared or heard or thought to sketch a figment of love in pen or pencil or chalk or blood or whatever, whatever the fuck was available.