Thou shalt not...
Rollin' high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
"We'll meet on edges, soon," said I
Proud 'neath heated brow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.
My Back Pages – Bob Dylan
It wasn’t until about halfway up to Locarno early that Sunday morning to meet what later turned out to be my destiny, or one of them anyway, that I realized I was on the wrong train. And I had already started drinking. I hate that.
I was living in Milan for only a short time when I called my dad’s Swiss colleague Guido to see if I could come up for a visit, and he said sure thing, what about the day after tomorrow? I told him I’d catch the morning train that arrives around noon, and we’d have lunch. He said we’d have it at his house with his wife Ella, and his two boys. I said fine. The chill, late-December Lombardian light and snow-covered countryside shimmy started getting diaphanous about twenty minutes out of Stazione Centrale, and I could see church-going families overflowing their Fiats all dressed up with the anticipation of heaven. The tintinnabulation from the campanili as we approached towns grew louder and then fainter, like fairy bells sound-tracking a godfather’s dream.
The conductor came around and I always think of Twain’s ditty: “Punch, brothers! Punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare! A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare!” whenever I’m on a train, at least since seventh grade. He asked me for my ticket. I gave it to him. He said “Lugano.” I said, “No, Locarno.” He told me that this train didn’t go to Locarno, but was going to Lugano, and that I could get off in Bellinzona and then take another train to Locarno from there. So I arrive at Bellinzona and the next train to Locarno isn’t until one-thirty. This is around 1989 and there’s a pay phone in the small station, but I don’t have any Swiss Francs. The banks are all closed.
So by the time I get to Locarno it’s about two or two thirty and of course no Guido at the station, and I’m starving.
I have his address in hand so I walk up the mountainside that fishbowls the town on three sides and knock on the front door. I wait a few minutes and hear all these bolts being thrown, and keys being turned, and a dog barking and all I can think of is the line from Shakespeare, or maybe John Dryden, which I can’t find now, but is something like “beware the many serpents guarding the portals of an heiress,” and finally the door creaks open and Ella Von Allman looks up at me and breaks into a smile as wide and playfully as a promise. I wondered if her name was short for Cinderella.
My dad tells a funny story about first meeting Ella many years before. Guido was a foreign post-graduate student of my dad’s back in the late ‘70s. Guido is the kindest man ever – a soft-spoken Swiss German maxillofacial surgeon – he had just gotten married and was spending the year in Boston alone, and his new bride had come for a visit. My dad was in the clinic one day and saw this very chic young woman, who looked lost, wandering around. He asked if he could help her, and she said, in a strong Italian accent, that she was looking for Dr. Von Allman. My dad, figuring out who she was, said: “He just went out for lunch with his girlfriend.” She looked at him and her mouth dropped open, before she realized he was pulling her leg. Then the big grin again that I’ve already mentioned.
“Teem?” she asked. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years, and she hadn’t seen me even then. We looked at each other for a long time. Long. Time. “Ciao, B’ella,” I said. Even though she was expecting me, and even though I was almost four hours late, she wasn’t expecting me, not anything like me anyway. Guido comes up behind her and says “Hello, and welcome,” and we kissed on both cheeks and then Guido shook my hand and told me to please, please come in. I came in already half-wracked and the retronasal olfaction when I walked by her as she closed the door behind me, puffing hints of lily of the valley and a sigh of sandalwood, with high notes of vanilla and lemon – I guessed Chanel No. 5 off the top of my head – numbing me dumb. Or should that be orthonasal?
You won’t find a counter-argument from me that the Ticino part of Switzerland is the best of all idyllic continental European worlds: Italian style and cuisine, with a the spiciness and flavors of France, and Swiss efficiency. The lake, the mountains, the French and Italian Rivieras and Paris not too far away – what more could you ask for? As Guido is introducing me to his sons, and then giving me the nickel tour of the house and property, all I can think of is the outline of Ella’s legs, standing there in the doorway, as the sun passed through her diaphanous skirt like a god into my foom. Nietzsche (NEE-cha), of all people, came immediately to mind – an extremely thin logical thread, but with some merit at least geographically, since this was his beloved, even though adopted, country.
One of Nietzsche’s guiding principles, and the main reason I’m an avid acolyte, is his admonition to own up to our envy, even though the lingering effects of my own catholic and apostolic upbringing hammering the idea of covetousness as shameful, and lust as evil, and that we should hide this and our myriad weaknesses from ourselves and others, that left me all but lame and impotent for years, now started gonging in my head. Face up to your own desires and make a heroic effort to honor them, Nietzsche urges us instead, and don’t, whatever you do, be a Christian. The only ever true Christian is Christ, and the only person worth respecting in The Bible is Pontius Pilot, Nietzsche wrote provocatively, for sure. But as wrong as religion was, and is, Nietzsche believed its one benefit is that it helped people cope with the difficulties of life, and was better than the mendacity and cowardice of alcohol.
He philosophized that ideally, culture should replace scripture and that God is dead because we killed him off, and we’d never wash the blood off our hands. This declaration obviously wasn’t something worth celebrating, even though the popular press trot it out at the least provocation, with loud, ignorant encomiums. He resented Christianity because it protected people from their envy – a religion that emerged in the late Roman Empire in the minds of timid slaves who lacked the courage to get what they really wanted, so they clung to a philosophy that made a virtue of submission, with promises of a deserved-rewards afterlife. Christianity in Nietzsche’s view, amounted to nothing more than a giant regret machine for bitter denial.
I was in my twenties at this time, and bitter (or even delectable) denial wasn’t usually part of my modus operandi, but it was always there, in the lovely, lurking darkness with its soul sister, anticipation. The train ride back to Milan was a whirr, my head full of confabulations that felt like someone had gift-wrapped my synapses all the way down my spine in velvet. Ella had made everything different – I went into Switzerland one way, and came out another – turned me into a neutral country. I’m kidding – I just wanted to get that joke in there. The conductor came around and my mind went blank for some reason – I tried to recall the Italian word for ticket and I couldn’t. All I could think of was “paper travel invitation.” I was vaguely, vaguely reminded of Sartre’s epiphany on a train in Being and Nothingness, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I had a revelation that day too, I think, and it was something like: elsewhere is a beguiling conceit.
Anyway, the Ten Commandments aren’t prescriptive, per se – the laws were already instantiated in society, a codified distillation of the wisdom of generations and generations of humans who had been trying to figure out the best way to live kind, wise, and meaningful lives. The ideal behavior was a long time coming and hard-wired and biological by then – natural selection insured that – and the rules men had already been living by for hundreds if not thousands of years were already carved in their heartbeat and chromosomes, and now, well, actually in stone.
If we look at them through Nietzsche’s lens, then half of them are envy related, which I never thought about before.
My first fight with temptation had happened several years earlier when I was working at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, where I like to say I literally wrote the book on diamonds. I remember one article I had to do for some trade publication about the Koh-i-nor (Mountain of Light), the largest uncut diamond ever discovered up until that time. It’s estimated worth twas he GDP of the entire world the day it was found, and its subsequent cutting and re-cutting would read like a thriller. This slightly amber-hued beauty had a long history of intrigue from its discovery in India sometime in the 1500s throughout the following centuries, and continents, changing and sullying many hands since, and eventually ending its tumultuous adventure set prominently in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth, on public display in the Jewel House in the Tower of London. I’ve seen it myself. The article was a well-researched but lighthearted romp across time and oceans and I titled it: Call me Ishmayellow. I know, but it was spring in California and I was so young I didn’t know what I was doing – we’re all like that on my mother’s side.
The neat little number was the librarian at the institute, and had a long, unpronounceable foreign last name, so I called her “Cowboy,” I can’t remember why. She was married and lived somewhere in Malibu, and usually showed a generously visible length of leg, virtue-signaling limber, tennis-court competence. And she was discrete, and quiet – after all she was a librarian. I, on the other hand, showed all the obvious, loud and predictable obsessions of an idiot male animal in heat, and we flirted back and forth back when flirting was fun, and it added a welcome frisson to the unfleshy face-and-hands-only-showing workplace dress code. The teasing became an abundance of filthy lighthearted volleying that lent a witty, almost but not quite vulgar dignity to our 9-5 tap dance. Push finally came to shove one Friday afternoon with the tiniest whispered invitation, and we agreed to meet at The Beach Club in Venice, across and down the street from my apartment on Pacific Avenue – and far away from the prying eyes of her ladies-who-brunch, for Sunday huevos rancheros at ten.
When I got home from work, my buddy Angel was sitting on my kitchen table and said we were going up to San Francisco for the weekend – a friend of his was having some kind of motocross victory party. I told him I had to be back on Sunday morning and we hopped onto his 750 Four and drove away. I’ll describe that weekend another time, but we left the Redwood Bar at the Clift Hotel sometime after midnight on Saturday to try to make it back for my rendez-vous, and the Pacific Coast Highway at that hour, shrouded in fog and surrounding the motorcycle like a fuh-ree-zing salty sneeze. I was clinging to my own wreckage on the back, half-drunk and three-quarters hung over, and dog-bone-marrow tired by the time we got back. I was lulled somewhere outside of San Simeon into a feeling of being divine, but only in the sense my friend Thucydides meant it: aware of you own mortality.
I made it to The Beach Club at 9:59, but looking like the Wreck of the Hesperus, and she was sitting there, a chimeful of loveliness and nerve, her astrakhan hair like black cotton candy framing her lovely, luminous face. She was wearing a crisp white collared shirt and pencil-straight black slacks capped with ballet flats. She looked up, and then looked me up and down, and smiled. I took a deep breath, and in that momentary gasp, that accidental physiological hiccup, unwittingly saved my own soul. I exhaled slowly, trying to undiscombobulate my brain, the blood already singing in my veins all the way down to my toes. I don’t know why but I decided right then and there, staring at temptation and having temptation stare right back at me, that I couldn’t go through with it. I didn’t even sit down; I just told her that I couldn’t go through with it. She stood up slowly, and with an almost dainty abandon started to cry. I walked her to her car, and we said goodbye. End of story.
Not so fast. More like end of chapter. I did write a poem about her that I just dusted off almost forty years later, and it’s even more impressively callow and sophomoric than I remember. But I’ll reprint it here anyway – judge, lest ye be not judged. So it really isn’t the end of the story – she’ll never die, but will live on in awful verse foisted onto an unwilling universe, which could be a worse fate, forever.
the WIMPY hinged rock door pleasure cave
dutifully lying still?
I had another fascinating brush with this particularly wicked sin many years later down in the Bible-belt South. I was visiting my brother in North Carolina and we were off the beaten path somewhere looking at a Craigslist rust-bucket or coming back from a redneck bbq smokehouse where the ribs were so perfectly cooked you just slipped the bones of each one out, as easy as kiss my hand. We’re sitting at a stoplight across the street from a ravished roadside motel, something like Mel’s or Indian Head and forlorn on the lawn out front was one of those signs on a trailer for Grumpy’s Grill, which read:
BU THE Y Sc E AP
I tell my brother to check out the sign, since by then he spoke southern fluently, when he looks over and then says “Hey, that’s my buddy Bobby, the pastor of the church.” I see this well-dressed man walking over to his car, followed by his daughter. “Is that his daughter?” I say. Joseph’s face goes red, and the light turns green. We head back on down the road.
“What’s the matter?” I ask. He says that no, the girl wasn’t Bobby’s daughter, but was another friend from church’s daughter and the girl he and Leslie use all the time to babysit the kids. Hmm. “Is she eighteen.” Long silence. “Her birthday was last week.” “So we’re not just talking straight-up adultery, brother, we’re talking maybe statutory rape. Whuchew going to do?” I never heard what ended up happening, but I know I would have confronted Bobby if he was my buddy and urged him to own up to it – “Tell the truth though the earth should perish” – who said that, Pascal?, and take whatever came his way, even if it meant going to the big house for a while. Which wouldn’ve given him a too-bad perspective on hell, and forced him to answer the question: Do you believe in God?
By the way, my brother translated Grumpy’s message for me: “Lots of beer and lousy food, but they’re cheap.” I think this is one of the best advertisements I’ve ever seen, because it knows its audience and speaks directly to it, in a language they can understand, with an understood but unspoken lit, hand-rolled cigarette dangling out of the corner of its mouth and with the moral equivalent of at least three teeth missing. And another thing, while I’m still thinking of it, the ‘aware of your own mortality’ reference was actually Plutarch.
Which brings us now to a very un-nuanced wrinkle in this adventure: my own unlucky and yuckiest cuckholding. You can read all about the cast of perfidious characters starring in my malignant divorce drama in The Mouth of Truth. And the tragic fallout in Living the Life of a Petrified Leper, I wanted to first speak specifically to my time as an unwitting chump, a role I never thought I’d play in life, but needed to take time to untwist it before I put pen to paper for posterity. I’m ready now.
But while I’m thinking about it, I was going to tell you about a study I read some years ago, and now can’t find, about how researchers gathering data on the genetics and combinations of eye color, discovered, to their astonishment and unwittingly, that off the top of my head ten percent of the children in the control group were illegitimate due to what has come to be known as extra-pair paternity (EPP) events, i.e. their mothers weren’t faithful to their fathers. I forgot what year the study took place (it was a while ago), and in doing some digging now have found that the numbers are still consistently between 6-10%, with the rate much lower among the upper classes, and higher among the lower. There was and is also a higher incidence in urban as opposed to rural areas. Worldwide the percent varies, with the U.S. eighth on the list of unfaithfulness. You can look up the other countries if you’re interested.
Which leads me to a cautionary tale I wanted to relate about a friend of mine who I call Jimmy. We met on social media, and she loved my ‘Johnny Mustard’ porn name so much she wanted one for herself: Her real one wasn’t’ cool or funny, so she came up with ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’ instead. I’m not making this up. Anyway, we dove right in as fast friends, and Jimmy started telling me about her cousin, Karen, who had cancer, and how she was flying from California to I think Arizona to help Karen through the chemo treatments. Jimmy and I would talk every few months, and I would update her on my divorce, and she would fill me in on Karen.
Jimmy grew up with a sister and a brother, and Karen lived literally around the corner with her brother. Jimmy’s dad and Karen’s dad were brothers and best friends. The four cousins grew up together, and the families frequently went on vacations together – it was a tight-knit, copacetic and happy clan. How tight-knit, Jimmy found out one day, and I can’t remember how, and she called me to try to sort the surreal whomp upside the head she had just gotten. Long story short, Karen’s dad had been sleeping with Jimmy’s mother all the way back to the marriage, and both she and her brother were half-siblings to Karen and her brother, not cousins. Jimmy was unbelieving and shocked of course, and confronted her mother, who calmly and coldly justified it by saying she was always in love with her husband’s brother, and should have married him instead.
Think about that: one in twelve or so American families are houses of cards, built on treachery and deceit. It makes sense, biologically speaking, for every male to want to impregnate as many females as possible for the continuation of the species, marriage and fidelity be damned. And for women to want the highest social status and best gene pool selection for their offspring, and again, marriage and fidelity be damned. After conception the husband can be easily reduced to the lowest common denominator: the caretaker of the next generation. Are you kidding me? One in twelve or so? Even if it’s one in twenty. I have a hard time wrapping my narrow pinhead mind around this understandable and rational, biological, evolutionary injustice, but the vile, underhandedness, never mind the catastrophic collateral-damage devastating reality of it, tumbles and timbrells straight down to the bottom of hell.
Which I want no part of. No judgment, intended. Just absolutely not me. That said, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get to my own marital and post-marital mess and the malignant aftermath, but I’ll tell you, for the record, what I tell everyone when they ask me why I got divorced: “Because I didn’t get along with my wife’s boyfriend.” That’s almost funny. But what, you’re probably wondering, happened to my blossoming love story with Ella? Read on.
Retronasal was the right word, in case you weren’t sure. We had a late pranzo al fresco in their intimate garden – fresh figs from their tree, a risotto with roast chicken, or maybe a mushroom polenta. S. Pellegrino. A bottle of Gironde Merlot. Espressos all around afterwards. The whole family spoke Italian, German and English perfectly. Guido then showed me his model airplane collection. I caught a late train back to Milan, full of uproar and impure thoughts, and finally fell asleep in a mad clamor of agony and short-winded ecstasy.
But it’s easy to be moral in your sleep, innit? I had no idea what I was going to do, since I wasn’t fully in charge of my facilities back then. In fact, I didn’t even know where some of them where at the time. But I somehow decided to try the Greek concept of virtus on for size, to see if it fit, even if I had to shoehorn it into my too-tight life. Could I do something worthy of my own admiration, live with an irredeemable excellence, at least this once? Up until then it had mostly been cheap thrills and even cheaper booze, which I don’t recommend to anyone, but which had worked for me well enough. Set the bar deliciously low, and then it’s difficult if not practically impossible to disappoint anyone. And everything that you do actually do is viewed as a miracle of accomplishment.
Hardy, who I’ve already introduced you to in the brilliant Moules Frites, came to visit shortly after, and we spent a couple of days seeing the sights of Milan, including the famous cathedral and adjacent galleria. We drank macchiatos in the morning at the Super Studio café, surrounded by models and photographers, and even went out for gelato one afternoon with Tatjana Patitz. The Last Supper, of course. We then decided to go on a road trip up to Locarno in her Fiat Panda, which I thought would be a jokey hoot to take for a ride, so-to-speak. You already know my German classic car aficionado friend Peter Trautmann – which reminds me – he told me a hilarious story about meeting Albrecht von Goertz, a celebrated BMW car designer known as Graf, or “The Count,” which I’ll relate in a later monograph.
Graf, who actually was German aristocracy, designed some of the most iconic BMWs of the past fifty years, including the 503 and 507 sports coupes, and also consulted on the Toyota Japanese stereotype-shattering 2000GT gran turismo. According to Graf, the greatest car ever made is the first-generation Fiat Panda, originally called il zero.
We arrived on a late Saturday afternoon, and I remember thinking when I introduced Hardy to Guido and Ella, that she looked like a lanky, underfed weasel. Guido put me in mind of the obsequious, shuffling Benny Hill in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Ella, as always, was a delicious petit profiterol, almost nymph-like in her seamless courtesy and taste. Propriety was observed, but there was chaos seething softly underneath all of our skins as you can imagine, since none of us was dumb, or blind. Luckily we were all able to “dethrone our own Calibans” and share genuinely in the warmth and almost-magic of the enlightening and delightful old-worldly democracy happening at lunch.
A few months later, Hodges, another tall glass of water, came to Milan on vacation, and we also drove up to visit Guido and Ella for the day. We ate penne with chanterelles – I still remember the faint taint of apricot – paired with Prosecco at an outdoor café on the shady side of the Piazza Grande. On our wondering way through the old city, I noticed authentic Cuban cigars for sale in a small Tabac we were passing. What? Guido explained that Switzerland wasn’t boycotting Cuba so they were legal here. I went in and bought a box of Monte Christo #2 Torpedoes, since I’m not patriotic when it comes to self-indulgence, and they were legal here, and so was I. Fun Fact: Monte Christos get their name from the book The Count of Monte Christo, which the El Lector would read out loud to the cigar rollers in the factory, which increased discipline as well as educated them at the same time.
Guido and I each lit one up, pirating together in the twilight. The streets were narrow and Castello Visonteo could be glimpsed every once in a while silhouetted against the disembarking golden sky. The girls were walking ahead of us, chatting in Italian like schoolgirls on their way home from soccer practice. Guido was telling me about spending the entire morning reconstructing a young lady’s face – she had been in a car accident and shattered her mandible and left zygomatic arch against the windshield. That good doctor was careful not to use big words or use too many medical terms, considering his audience, and the absolute mundanity of that stroll strikes me, all these years later as the answer, walking right there beside me, to the minefield in every man’s no-man’s land; deference, the ghost of chivalry. And a twin embodiment, just in front of me, unaware of their own enormous effect – modesty, the economy of egoism.
We were all doing a complex dance of various pairings and purpose, of confirmation and longing, validation and grasp: Ella and I. Guido and Ella. And I. Hodges and Ella. Me and my shadow self. Us and what might have been, but couldn’t and shouldn’t ever be. The perfect antidote to the feral and fecund chimpanzees screaming for bananas inside us all – don’t ignore or deny, and certainly don’t humor or indulge. But to acknowledge and own the lubricious and sometime malicious appetite and know that when and if consummation ever comes, she’s a jealous god, and shatters vainglorious hemispheres. In other words, as Solzhenitsyn once said: any idiot can drop bombs, but try and put things back in order again after. So don’t. Ever.
Another wistful, ruminating and prescriptive monograph you might be thinking, and you’d be right. So stop reading now, because I’m going to ruin it right here at the end. We say our goodbyes, and when Hodges and I walk back to the car for the drive home to Milan, a meter maid was writing me a ticket – I wasn’t sure at first whether the time had expired or I wasn’t parked in a designated spot, or something that was totally my loose-with-the-rules fault. Which was beside the point. I tried to charm her out of it, using, as a last, lame resort the I’m-a-guest-in-this-country-and-ignorant-of-the-law excuse.
I said, “I’m making a huge important moral point over here, so don’t get technical.” She handed me the ticket and said, “Doch! Ig be Technishe. Ig be Schweizer.”