Which brings me to a Friday, I remember it was the 31st of a month, some time ago. I have no idea why it returns now, other than a current odd coincidence in time, and a sudden realization of the way every second has become electronically segmented in the daily life of we human beasties. Who seem to thrive in time’s artificial compartmentalization.
That particular day, scanning through a listless and uninformative Times-Picayune – a newspaper which in 2013 I no longer read, subscribe to, or even glance at on the newsstand since the owners reduced it to publication on only three days a week -- my eyes and hands suddenly came to a halt at a striking photograph on page B-4. There stood this fellow in a dated though well-cut, all-black-and-silver cowboy outfit. He grips a wicked-looking black bullwhip in his hand and he’s staring at the camera as if he means to strike at any moment. The photographer undoubtedly bolted for safety the moment after he snapped the picture.
The words “Lash Larue” jumped out of the headline. A name I’ve used all my life in as part of a ribald, obscurely-referenced joke of some sexual connotation. A remnant from distant childhood. From a now-mythical era of my life. You know how it is. You reserve a small dusty closet in a utility area of your brain for memories so faint that they might not have ever occurred, and you pile box upon flimsy box of mental snapshots and twisted-psyche diaries there.
I was reading the obituary page. The whole headline read:
Gretna native Lash Larue,
‘King of the Bullwhip,’ dies
The story said his real name was Alfred, and that he was born only blocks from the Westbank house where I was sitting, awaiting a friend’s arrival. I had no idea the man in question was a native. Gretna is the next community upriver from Algiers Point. Just across from the French Quarter and under the Greater New Orleans Bridge.
I had once paid six Dr Pepper soft drink bottlecaps to see “King of the Bullwhip” at the Don Theatre’s Saturday morning kid show. “Whap!” went the whip and down went the bad guys. No need for a pistol. Just a natty outfit and a bullwhip would suffice to crush evil. I went home to plait myself a bullwhip that very afternoon, and practiced hard for days. I was finally successful in duplicating a number of Larue’s most minor feats, but it took me several weeks beyond my success to recover from the wounds and bruises I received from my dramatic rawhide flagellation. My father refused to finance a further silver and black cowboy suit, and in any case I quickly forgot my fascination with cowboys as my teens brought on another enthrallment, that having nothing to do with boys of any sort.
The obituary commented that nobody knew how old Larue was when he died, but it was agreed that his best work peaked in 1952. Lash kept making movies up until 1963, said the paper’s entertainment specialist, but then the actor dropped rapidly off the map, temporarily hitting a personal bottom upon his arrest for vagrancy in 1966. He quickly positioned himself for even less value to his fellow cowpokes by becoming a roaming preacher. While practicing that trade, he was busted in 1975 for possession of marijuana. It was reported that he told the judge he had traded with a junkie, giving the man his Bible in return for the drug user’s dope. In a gesture of healing and reconciliation, no doubt. The judge had a few – doubts – and gave Alfred “Lash” an ecumenical season of probation.
A columnist in North Carolina who had remained friends with Larue was quoted as saying that the cowboy had been married as many as a dozen times. Like his age, Larue preferred to keep the exact figure speculative.
I cut the story out of the paper and placed it on my literal desktop, where it remains.
That Friday the 31st, I took the ferry across the river, went to the copy store and to the express shipper to complete the transport of hard copies of literal sheaves of words, and then walked to Kaldi’s coffee shop in the Quarter. In those days Kaldi’s provided an environment suitable for minor work, and at the same time allowed for a general unwinding from matters related to making a living. Though now gone and replaced by a “Tourist Information Center”, during its time it was a very fifties-style bohemian sort of place, with a crowd made up of retired musicians, the young pierced-body-part and dyed-hair set, transsexuals on the make, young and old strippers, aspiring poets, and intimidated tourists. The actress Helen Mirren used to be a morning regular for takeaway coffee when she lived nearby with now-husband Taylor Hackford, the director. I acquired interesting and inspired acquaintances there, and the crowd often made me want to continue my pursuit of living after a day of beating my head against the unforgiving wall of commerce.
So, I got in line for service, and there in front of me, ordering a double latte, stood this tall, long-haired tarot card reader, one of the dozens that infest Jackson Square like parapsychological roaches. I had seen him often plying the crowds of turistas, except that today for a change, instead of a psychedelic flowing gown, he was dressed all in black and silver, his graying mane topped with a gaucho hat. I didn’t get the coincidence of outfits at first, but then I noticed that in his belt was tucked… a large black rawhide whip.
Time slipped. Became a coherent whole. The decades between a seven-year-old viewing a Saturday movie and the surly geezer waiting for coffee became one sweep of life. All the many wayward parts of my existence briefly recomposed into a whole. Even though I myself am not a big fan of the literary ploy, many contemporary novelists have used the mechanism of a human’s entire life flashing before his or her eyes in a mortal situation. Of course, the bad costume in front of me was far from life-threatening.
But there it was. I could see it all. Because of a connection to a wayward black-and-white cowboy.
Unnerving, yes, this insane coincidence of an afternoon. But rather pleasant to suddenly be forced to recognize the scope of my life, meager though it may be, realize where I have been, and see all the parts as a single unit. If only for a millisecond. Because that is how life is now measured, in increasingly smaller and smaller increments. And we are being reminded of that passage by even more oppressive and intrusive means.
In the horror-filled days after Katrina, we all looked at clocks quite often during the progress of a day, to see where we stood. We had done this by that hour, this by that. The delineation meant that things were indeed moving forward. But such maintenance of temporal structure came with an added dollop of frustration: the frequent -- four to six times a day -- loss of electricity. It took many weeks before my fatigued brain logically convinced the rest of my body that analog, battery-driven clocks were the only way to go. That after walking back into the house again and again and again to find every electric clock blinking garishly, needing to be reset from the loss of power. This of course was not the result of my directly buying so many electric time-keeping devices, but because objects that I had brought into my domicile for the sustenance of daily life came equipped with their own backlit screens to remind me of time passed. There was the stove, the refrigerator, the microwave, the coffeemaker, the answering machines, the many cable television controllers and TVs themselves.
Imagine an excruciatingly physical day sweating in 2005 New Orleans, enduring hellish August heat, one day among many spent chainsaw in hand clearing huge tree branches from the exterior of a wounded home. Grimy, bruised, scarred physically and emotionally. Going inside for a breath of cooler air and a drink of water. To find a flashing screen or two or three in almost every room in that house, each device demanding to be reset to the correct hour and minute. NOW.
I disconnected those that I could, and put dark tape over the rest. It was well into 2006 and the return of semi-dependable electricity before I released the digital clocks. I had come to enjoy the undemanding sweep of the second hand, and to understand that there is as deep-based difference between a digital clock person and an analogue timekeeper. Ask the time from a digital person, and get the answer: “Twelve-thirteen.” Ask the analogue-based clock-bearer and hear: “Around noon.” The broader attitude reflected in those delineations carries over into many other areas of life.
Think back to school days, when Pavlovian bells signaled every move: be in your seat, change class, eat, experience free time at recess, return to class, go home. Those were hard cues, usually without exact numbers as a teacher manually rang a bell, that broke life into neat and controlled segments.
Contemporary media pollsters have found, that among people who leave their TVs on all day long, the majority are tuned to a channel with a time indicator at the bottom of screen, and amongst all viewers: “According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.” The time watchers are there much much longer than the average viewer, and the habit is spreading with their children. News channels, weather, financial and many others have found screen time indicators attractive to drawing these viewers, no matter the screen’s other content.
And the cell phone – an invention often derided by me – has become another bearer of continual time alignment. In one way, I believe these devices have improved the health quality of many consumers, because they are the new cigarette. Tobacco products, long the physical crutch for filling time, creating a barrier for other intruding humans, or marking oneself as hip and cool, have now in many cases been displaced by the phones. True, there are many functions on cells – please do note that the weakest aspect of any phone is its audio communication, its primary purpose for existence – but the one most often accessed, because it is always there, is its clock. Which can of course be set to digital or analogue, even though both are in actuality truly digital.
Time is the new tobacco. And more.
On a recent visit to Manhattan I saw an intensely-suited exec waiting for a light change on a midtown street corner wearing a “Split Seconds Patek Philippe Reference 1436” watch, a very identifiable ornate timepiece which I had seen only days before advertised -- as such expensive accoutrements are hawked on a daily basis -- on the third page of the New York Times. On a lark I subsequently priced the visibly impressive personal clock online: $214,000. A quarter of a mill on the man’s wrist. That fact made me recall the incident in more detail, and subsequently realize its cultural import. I vividly remembered that the man was holding his Wall Street Journal with his watch arm, his right, displaying the apparatus to all who would see. Then, while continuing to read, oblivious to the watchless mortals swarming about him, with his left hand he pulled his phone from a coat pocket, pressed its side to activate the initial screen, glanced over and… checked the time.
(Which parenthetically clicks another synapse in the recesses of my mind, a significant connection between New York City and time. The scientific community has just this past year discovered the smallest particle of time possible, the micro-nanosecond, which is defined as the time that occurs between a Manhattan streetlight in front of you turning green and the car behind you honking.)
My own cellphone, whose sales pitches I remain unable to control, a few days ago was hawking an app that will announce the time with a voice, at whatever intervals desired, informing the wearer of place in time without its having been brought forward. From a pocket or a purse. Thus ringing the school bell at increasingly frequent intervals.
My own complaint, that I have heard many other people my age and older vocalize, is that the days seem to sweep by so quickly that life becomes a blur of action and inaction. And that something is necessary to break the flow, to make time stop, if only briefly.
I have come to realize that the answer is not clocks. Is not watching the numbers change electronically, or even watching the hands move in circles. To slow time is to look for depth of experience, finding in our ongoing lives a portion of time -- even a small, seemingly trivial incident -- that upon inspection may actually lie at the heart of who we are.
Lash, the cowboy philosopher, taught me that.