by Jakob Guanzon
They dubbed themselves the Toothless Poets. A pack of five vivacious, working-class youths, each one of them mutually assured of the collective destiny awaiting them once the ink had dried on the page, once the vomit and blood had crusted on the cuffs of their coat sleeves. They were bound to hammer their names into the literary canon, the lot of them undoubtedly the millennial answer to the Beatniks and the Lost Generation. However, the cruel grace of retrospect reveals the Toothless Poets were little more than five teenage meth-heads with a penchant for haikus and self-destruction. More beat-up than Beatnik, they passed their time on the muddy, beer can-strewn banks of the upper Mississippi rather than the Seine. No matter how they thumped their chests, their howls went unheard down the mighty brown currents of that loveless river.
Of this violent crew’s surviving members, their ringleader would later serve to be the closest thing I ever had to a role model in my life. While the others had either been swallowed by addiction, trembling in the corners of dim trailers or wordless and still under the earth, or merely whittled down to complacency after fifty-hour work weeks, the true poet among them was the man who guided my hand as I carved the jagged line between adolescence and young manhood. From him I learned many things. He helped me form my voice as a writer. He taught me the humble merit of creation without recognition. From him, I learned how to swing an 8-pound sledgehammer with surgical precision.
I met him when I was sixteen. It was my first day on a landscaping job, a job I had acquired thanks to a shot transmission and a white lie.
My best friend, Tony, needed a ride. Beside me in my purple, rusty-rimmed ´96 Ranger, I listened as he spoke to the owner of the company over the phone, asking if I could work for the day in exchange for giving him a lift.
Tony’s eyes darted toward me, my body. He turned away and shrugged.
“Sure,” he said into the phone. “I mean, yes. Totally. Okay.” He hung up.
“What’d she ask?”
“If you could lift heavy shit.”
We exchanged shrugs and I shifted the truck into first. And so my apprenticeship started.
That first summer working alongside the foreman of our eight man crew, this man to whom I had suddenly apprenticed myself, we learned we had much in common, from similar taste in music and film, radical political views, to unspoken delusions of grandeur. We even shared a first name, except that he went by Jake. Nonetheless, it was our differences that defined our friendship, lying largely in two identifiable distinctions.
Our most noticeable difference was a matter of sheer machismo, for lack of a better word. Me, I’m about as intimidating as a flatulent koala. The first time I saw Jake was from a distance. He was shirtless, marching down the middle of a suburban street dragging an entire birch tree behind him with one hand, a grumbling chainsaw in the other. The man was big, strong. A hairless Paul Bunyan slathered in regrettable tattoos, the stains, scars, or maybe just souvenirs the Toothless Poets had left on him years prior. His entire left arm was tattooed solid. A black, upturned American flag hung on his neck. The satanic symbol for confusion, a brooding hook, was seared onto his chest and the word EVIL printed bold and blaring across his back. When I first shook his hand, coarse with callouses and caked with dirt, I didn’t ask what had happened to his two front teeth. Tony later told me that they were lodged in the skin of some poor fellow’s forehead after head-butting Jake in a bar fight. The following year, Jake would be on and off jobsites, having to run to court sessions and meetings with his lawyer after putting a man in a two-week coma with a head-butt of his own. Save the eskimo-kisses for the ones you love is the lesson of that one.
|Jake (photo credit: Karl Kloos)|
The second difference that marked our experience was a matter of opportunity. I went to college. Jake did not. Never was the privilege granted me by my opportunity to go to university as evident as it was with Jake.
Throughout college I arranged my course schedule so I could work at least two days a week, earning in two days of landscaping what I would have made putting in forty-hours behind a cash register. When not digging holes, stacking 60-pound blocks, or running wheelbarrows of sand and limestone, Jake and I sat cross-legged next to our lunch coolers in the manicured backyards of the rich, hunched over textbooks from my philosophy, sociology, and literature courses. More often than not our conversations under the shade of a tree, over bologna sandwiches and bruised bananas, were far more enlightening than the classroom discussions sinking me into a sinful amount of student debt. Upon opening the books the subsequent morning in class, dirt and brick dust fell to the surface of my desk. I’d sweep it clean with the back of my hand, then admire the yellow crust of callouses forming on the ridges of my palm.
Behind Jake’s inked and calloused façade, which was nothing short of barbaric, lay a curiosity and pensiveness I have yet to find matched. Certainly I’ve come across others who are curious yet hampered by naïveté, others certainly pensive, yet unbearable for their pretentiousness. Jake was a man curious, thoughtful, talented, and guided by a work ethic both on and off the jobsite that bordered on manic. He was a gifted painter, and by 22 he had self-published a novel about his days with the Toothless Poets, which he sold alongside Lake Calhoun on the weekends. But above all his humility was the most important component of his character, forged by his keen sense of self-awareness. He bore the burden of knowing his shortcomings in each steel-toe stride: his capacity for cruelty, the limitations of his social class, and ultimately, his insignificance, this last being perhaps the hardest of life’s truths to swallow. I watched as he eased himself into this one, and an ugly transformation it was, acquainting himself with the hopeless lot of being a working-class romantic.
Then I graduated. The world of white-collar opportunity awaited me. With this diploma I was granted the dream of never sweating for a dollar ever again.
At a bar in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, the old stomping grounds of the Toothless Poets, I joked about this. Jake didn’t laugh.
It was our final night together before I left for a job across the Atlantic. As we drank Miller Lite, we didn’t talk about Kafka or Foucault. No Nietzsche, nor the plight of the Lakota people. We drank. We reminisced about fishing trips in Wisconsin, old projects, obnoxious customers. Other drunken nights. Women.
Then one approached Jake. She teetered atop her plastic heels, swaying beneath the weight of her Diet Coke Bacardi and Jake’s gun-barrel presence. She steadied herself against the bar. To Jake she said, “So what do you do?”
“I,” Jake said. “Pardon, we. We dig holes.”
Toby Keith crooned above us. She wrinkled her nose. “Huh?” she said. “Why?”
“To fill them up,” he said. Her eyes rolled and she walked away.
That was nearly three years ago.
I haven’t seen nor spoken to Jake since. Every once in a while I’ll ask myself and the unfortunate lot in my vicinity the same tired questions I had juggled with Jake on jobsites years ago, shovels in hand and our backs to the sun. I have yet to encounter answers of comparable merit to Jake’s blunt, sledgehammer wisdom. Still, I keep digging. The hole deepens, and the square of light above my shoulders grows ever more distant. The pit of my doubts has no practical end. Nevertheless, the hope of beginning to fill it one of these days, with money or meaning or perhaps just the company of a kind woman remains elusive, but most certainly not impossible. The one thing I do know is that since then, the palms of my hands have softened.
Jakob Guanzon lives in Madrid, Spain where he teaches and writes. His work has previously appeared in From the Depths and Five Thôt.