Posts Tagged ‘oakland’
In searching for the next thing to read, I decided to go through my own personal list of the classic literary giants to see which of their works I had yet to get around to reading. Jack London and his book “John Barleycorn” jumped out at me for two reasons.
The first reason being the fact that Jack London and I go way back, to the seventh grade as a matter of fact, when our class was assigned “White Fang” to read, so I’ve known him for some time and he continued to be a man whose writing I enjoyed as an adult through “Call of the Wild” with a large collection of short stories between.
The second reason being, I always wondered about this quaint, antiquated phrase my father used to drop on me when he used to ask, “How’ve you been doing with John Barleycorn?”
I could’ve said, “John Who?” because when he first said it, I’d never heard of this “John Barleycorn” guy before, but taken in context, I knew exactly who my dad was talking about. John Barleycorn is a literary personification of alcohol.
It was intriguing to me, especially considering that in all the AA meetings I’ve attended before and since, I’ve never heard anyone else reference John Barleycorn (although I do hear he is given mention in “The Big Book” of AA) so on finishing London’s book, I visited Wikipedia to learn where my dad’s reference had come from.
It turns out, John Barleycorn can be dated back to 16th century English folk songs, the general story of the song being that this John Barleycorn character (call him a spirit, I guess you could call him the spirit of spirits) well this John Barleycorn was cut down in the barley fields during the harvest to be turned into whiskey and beer, and in revenge for his slaying he wrecked his vengeance back on mankind through that very same alcohol. The song continued to be passed along for hundreds of years and Mr. Barleycorn even lived on to the electric folk rock of the 20th century, most notably on an album by Traffic called “John Barleycorn Must Die”, but like I said, my only previous knowledge of him was through my dad’s mentions, which made it a uniquely personal reference to me.
To read Jack London detailing the exploits of his own life is to read a story almost beyond belief, except that you know he couldn’t have faked the abject poverty he was raised in without being called on it by later biographers and you know that he must have engaged in these manly adventures against the sea and the wilderness otherwise there’s no way he could have written so many stories of adventure so convincingly.
Jack London is a strange dichotomy of a man. When you read him telling of how he slaved for exploitive bosses ten hours a day, twenty-nine days a month just to earn enough to pay for his room and board, you can understand the grievances he had with the Capitalism of the
late 18th and early 19th late 19th and early 20th centuries and how it led him to become such an ardent Socialist (power to the PEOPLE as he puts it in all caps!) but then when you think of all the Jack London stories you’ve ever read, they’re centered on independent heroes the likes of which even Nietzsche would be proud. London’s characters are individualists triumphing against the odds and you think, these rugged, self-reliant adventurers are all Alaskan frontiersmen at heart, men far removed from any government, men who were precursors to extensions of the lawlessness of the Wild West, men who sound much more like the prototypes for a Tea Party movement than men who would advocate an “It Takes a Village” type of Socialism.
The book was published in 1913, and while it’s often found today with the subtitle of “Alcoholic Memoirs,” this subtitle seems from my searches to be a later addition to the title as it’s not listed on photos of first edition covers that I’ve seen. Just as importantly, throughout the book, the word “alcoholic” is only used a couple times and when it’s used, it’s used in describing a type of drink and not any type of person.
Instead, the habitual drinker is referred to in the book as an “alki-stiff.” The distinction between “alki-stiff” and the word “alcoholic” which came into later usage is a distinction that goes beyond simple verbiage. When you put your mindset back one-hundred years and imagine the widespread conception back then of the alki-stiff being a fall-down, drunken hobo, it’s a conception far removed from today’s wider conception of the alcoholic being someone who could come from any walk of life.
In the narrative, London made painstaking efforts to draw distinction between himself and the alki-stiff, describing how his constitution allowed him to consume incredible quantities of booze without ever getting sloppy or showing any outward signs of drunkenness, but the more he spent so much time explaining how he wasn’t that guy, the more it made him look like the guy in denial, a guy in denial of the possibility he might have more in common with the common drunkard than the distinctions he takes pains to point out.
But then you have to put yourself in the mindset of an incredibly successful author revealing himself to a world one hundred years before us, with that definition of the alki-stiff so narrow and full of distain that what proud man in his great shoes wouldn’t go to such lengths to draw the distinction?
And really, who amongst even the most prodigious and seasoned of drinkers hasn’t imagined that they presented themselves as sober to the world, when to the world, their drinking was often plain to see?
Another part of the book I found fascinating was the sneaking suspicion I began to develop in seemingly seeing glimpses between the lines of London having some homosexual proclivities. There was certainly nothing definitive, but 98% of the book deals with the manly exploits of men among men and I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the long passages describing heart-felt male camaraderie and the scattered line or two of love that he professed to his wife and the way those lines to his wife seemed to be offered in an almost obligatory way.
A teenage man-child in drunken revelry amongst the grown men of the saloons and the oyster pirate sailors? Aye matey, the question isn’t so much if there was an early formative encounter but when. Even with a couple brief scenes of unrequited boy-girl love later in his adolescence, women always seem to be an after thought in his writing. This is, however, just a passing curiosity in a book that’s intriguing on so many levels.
It took a lot of courage for such an esteemed writer to lay himself bare in these alcoholic memoirs, and while not as widely known as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which single-handedly brought about the reform of the meat packing industry, “John Barleycorn” also was instrumental in American history as a cautionary tale and rallying cry for the temperance movement which brought about prohibition six years after the publication of the book.
Whether you’re a friend of Bill W. or not, this is a book that’s well worth the read, and I haven’t even scratched the surface with the final four chapters and the philosophical battle between the “White Logic” of alcohol and the “lesser order of truth” necessary for living.
Jack London is an American treasure, a rags to riches man whose story and voice is uniquely American. I’d always enjoyed his novels and short stories, but to hear him tell of his own story was maybe the most satisfying read of all.
It’s in the public domain and free for the download at Project Gutenberg: John Barleycorn
After a Christmas road trip up to Oakland that was enjoyable for the conversation with my wife, enjoyable for a good choice of audiobook (Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) but a bit of a slog for the drive under dreary skies and heavy rains, we checked into our room and just enjoyed the rest of the day lounging about with the curtains closed.
When we woke up the morning after Christmas to throw open the blinds, what a sight it was to see the rains had given way to such crystal clear, beautiful blue skies. What a welcome site also to see that Tribune Tower right across from the window of our room on the 17th floor – ah yes, there it was, the Oakland Tribune building with Old Glory flying atop of the flag pole and the silver and black of the Raiders flag flying just underneath. You see that sight and you know you’re in the heart of Raider Nation.
We get there early, but for now, I’m still avoiding the whole parking lot scene. Even though it’s right up there with the game itself as part of the entire gameday experience, I’m still a bit young in my sobriety and parking lots and heavy drinking are so tied together for me it’s a little hard to imagine making it through and enjoying it stone cold sober as I am. That parking lot will still be there in seasons to come.
So we head to our seats, we’re just eleven rows back from the field, and nowhere are you closer to the action than right there in “The Black Hole.” In the shot below, my unbiased vote for the NFL Rookie of the Year, Jacoby Ford (#12) about an hour before he took the opening kick off all the way down that sideline right in front of us for a touchdown that had the entire place exploding with delirium from the very first play.
So the seats begin to fill, and lo and behold, is that some suicidal lunatic showing up in The Black Hole wearing the wrong team’s colors?
Now unlike the Seattle game, in which we counted less than a dozen people brave enough to show up wearing Seattle green, there were probably a good couple hundred Indy fans that showed up in the “visitor’s seating”, which is all the far section in this shot, behind the visitor’s sidelines, and you can see a smattering of blue there, but this guy is wearing Indy blue in the Black Hole. He must have been ordering the tickets and thinking the end zone was a great place to take in the game, completely clueless as to how many Raiders fans would take offense at the very sight of an intruder in The Black Hole.
It was pretty obvious this guy had figured out that he had placed the lives of himself and his girlfriend in pretty precarious situation when Indy got their first score and there wasn’t a peep from either one of them – not even a cheer or a clap. So there they stood, completely silent and expressionless, and yet the mere presence of these two in the wake of the Indianapolis score was enough to set one guy off screaming over and over, “FUCK YOU!”, three or four different ways he managed to phrase it as he screamed those two words at them, just as serious as a heart attack, with his middle fingers and fists waving right in this guy’s face.
And I’m close enough to these two Colts fans in an ocean of seething hate that I’m starting to run the hypotheticals on “what would I do if” – like, what would I do if Indy fan gets a little bold and says something like, “Hey screw you, we’re just here to watch a game.” Okay, if this guy is stupid enough to spout off like that, I’ll probably laugh if he ends up getting clocked in the face a couple times, but if he falls and starts getting kicked, at that point I’ve got to start trying to pull people off of him. So I run all the hypotheticals in my mind, but none of the worst case scenarios materialize and at the end of the game, the couple manages to silently make their way out, each of them in one piece despite the Indy win.
On the way out I see another guy and his wife, two little bits of blue flotsam and jetsam in a sea of black . . .
Now you can tell this guy has given it some thought, because he has his own plan of escape and he’s sticking to it. With his wife leading the way, you can’t see her in front of him in the picture, but they’ve both donned what they must imagine are “non-descript” jackets over their Colts gear, hoping no one will notice the color is wrong. He’s got his headphones on, but as I come up alongside him and tilt my head, I don’t even hear a hint of a radio voice coming through those headphones, so there he is, running the escape plan, alert and listening to the crowd around him, but playing like he’s listening to the post game radio show – “I don’t hear you!”
I can’t help myself, I’ve got to engage this guy in conversation. “Hey, bud. Hey, bud.” Sure enough, it’s the “I don’t hear you” plan and he’s sticking to it as he walks on, staring straight forward, seemingly oblivious to me. I give him a gentle clap on the back, knowing that even as gentle as I tried to make it, it’s probably enough to make his heart leap up in his throat, but I just can’t help myself.
“Hey bud, how were you guys treated today?”
“What do you mean, ‘you guys?’”
(Suddenly, without even having to fiddle with the volume on his headphones, he can hear me quite clearly.)
“You guys, meaning, I see you guys wearing the wrong colors and I just wanted to know how you guys were treated by the Raiders fans today.”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘you guys’.”
He’s obviously still clinging to the plan to play Mr. Anonymous-Guy-Who-Didn’t-Even-Root-for-the-Colts-Today, clinging to that plan with white knuckles.
I try putting the guy at ease.
“You know, that whole reputation about the Raiders fans is totally overblown.”
“Bullshit it’s overblown! We fuckin’ earned that reputation, man!” A guy beside me yells out proudly.
I’m cracking up as I try to continue, “I mean, come on, you guys are alright, aren’t you?”
“See? You guys are alright, I mean, one Raiders fan bites off some Charger fan’s ear and the next thing you know, Charger fans won’t even show up to their own home games any more when the Raiders come to town. It’s totally overblown.”
I realize bringing up the incident with the Charger fan’s ear getting bit off by a Raider fan probably isn’t helping calm this guy’s nerves at all.
So I give up on trying to convince this guy Raiders fans aren’t so bad, and I begin to wonder if that reputation that my fellow Raiders fans proudly boast that “we earned” troubles me. I begin wondering if wearing the wrong colors at a Raiders game should really feel as life threatening as your car breaking down in the worst possible neighborhood in the world.
Ah fuck ‘em. Zero tolerance. They should know better than to wear the wrong colors at a Raiders game.