It’s Only Life
I spent 35 years wandering the globe at sea, sometimes serving my country in war, others just serving me. But I went to many spots like this in many different times and places in south and Latin America.
Its only life.
We walked from a black freighter with crossbones at its mast und achtzehn sagen mit funfzehn canonen.
We flowed down the broken street, feet dropping into holes in the battered, unrepaired, ignored road. Bars and more bars surround us, flaking paint and warped wood stared back daring us to find better. There was non of course.
This wasn’t the boulevard of broken dreams, it was shanty town, barrio, a place to be lost in, a place to fear. Music competing playing hits from five years ago, some Spanish some English, all poor recordings. Reflecting the hoardings trying to lair us in.
Girls lounging inside and in the doorways, trying to tempt us in, all wore sequinned boob tubes with words out of another place…”Las Vegas”, “Paris”, “Rome”. Shorts as short as can be glistening lurex, in the side tucked durex and cocain.
“Where you from? Come on in, dance with me”. “You American”? A disappointment at “no”. No US dollars to be had here, no doubling the cost for dollar rich Americans.
The finest cocain in the world, direct from Escobar’s forrest labs before the baking powder dilutes it, but that’s on the streets of western influence, this was Noriega’s paradise as he made his millions in league with cartels.
I loved these places, many of them, all over south and Latin America. All had places where the wealthy feared to tread.
I had my own trick, scented soap! The girls loved that, especially genuine “Dove”, a bag of that could score enough coke to keep you marching for a month! I was an old hand at the walk of the slums. I also carried a couple of cassette tapes with the latest sounds recorded on a ghetto blaster from The BBC. These would ensure a favourable reception from the owner. They always started playing them immediately on an old knocked about cassette player, and round and round they’d go. All day and into the night.
Dogs stalked the streets, mangy, ill fed, mean looking mixtures of other mean looking mixtures. One limps along a leg missing. The definition of “hang dog look”.
One of my companeros stops and vomits at the edge of the broken road, no gutter, street and road melt together in mutual destruction. We laugh and slap him on the back, some of the girls giggle.
We all wore the same uniform, Levi’s, Adidas about our feet, T shirt and a Seiko watch. We sweat in the humidity. I try to imagine who I should be here with, Bukowski, Kerouac or Hemingway. I was the only one with literature in my life! The others considered “Razzle” a good read.
I’d gone ashore alone once, delayed, and arranged to meet friends in a bar, as I strolled along a young lad stepped out and pushed a carving knife to my stomach, he demanded my money, which was in US dollars and in my sock. I gave him that “I’m gonna kill you” look, I’d been taught by two very mean Parachute Regiment sergeants as part of unarmed combat training I’d done, I knew I could take the knife from him, and knew half a dozen ways to kill him quickly with it, as I glared that look of death I told him to fuck off I was broke. He looked nervous. I leant into the knife, letting the blade tip slightly enter the flesh of my stomach, a red splurge appeared which I couldn’t wash out. We stood eye to eye, I put the “kill face” on and I took the knife from him with a sweep of my hand, bending his hand back I forced him to the floor on his knees.
Turning him I kicked him in the back face down on the floor and with my knee in his back I put the knife to his neck. I had blood in my eyes and my head. I just had to push the knife into the side and push forward as hard as I could ripping everything out, arteries, jugular, wind pipe. As I’d been taught by these Parachute Regiment sergeants. He’d be unconscious immediately, brain dead within a minute. I was close, it was in me! Then I glanced to the side, his white linen trousers! He’d pissed himself. Nah, it was pathetic, I kicked him in the head, threw the knife into the rubble that passed for a road and walked away. He felt me leaving I think, so he stood, he turned and fled down an alley If he’d had a gun it would have to have been different, but he didn’t just a tatty looking carving knife. I was pissed off, it was a good shirt I’d bought in Raffles in Singapore.
As we searched the streets you could often see resentment on the faces of the young men, as they looked upon us and our wealth they could only dream of. And possibly knowing we would be escaping this place when time caught up with us or we grew bored of its innate disaster.
But that was life down there, like a black hole adrift from society. You had to understand that if you was to play that game.
We reached the bar… our bar. “The Blue Star” bar. Run by an old scouser who had fallen for one of the girls and settled there with his newly promoted wife! Behind the bar was a baseball bat and a silver pistol with wooden handles.
The floor was all worn battered wood, the varnish long shorn off by shuffling feet, likewise the bar.
Mangan laid upon the worn wood floor full of laudnum and poteen. Bukowski called us all bastards and had another shot. Then told me to fuck off.
You had to be in the moment, if you were nervous or uncomfortable this wasn’t your place. You belonged downtown where they sold Panama hats to tourists, and the whisky is real, not the cheap knock off in Johnny walker bottles of this world. Here there was no crisps, nuts or aperitifs. Here was beer, cheap lying whisky, and rum, both black and white, coke and girls. And danger.
We were surrounded by losers as we danced with the boozers, we had no need for a name. We were already lost and adrift in a miasma of the fog of the underworld.
There were tables and chairs all mismatched scattered about and stools at the bar, the air was fetid with cigarette smoke, sweat, overwhelming cheap perfume the girls appeared to bathe in, and other unidentifiable aromas. Where I perched myself wobbling upon this stool. I made my offering to the old Scouse called “Fast Eddy”. Tapes. Then I asked for a bottle of his best whiskey, the ones hidden beneath the bar with the gun and baseball bat.
He sold me a bottle and gave me a grimy glass, all was set!
There were others there, Norwegians, Germans and a couple of American soldiers, soon people started going out to the back, to the grimy stained mattress with their choice of Chiquita.
The girls…. I had no interest in paying for sex. When we left Panama we were either going to Australia and New Zealand or the west coast of the States… I had “girlfriends” in all these places. At sea between these places we masturbated… there are only two types of men on ships, masturbators and liars. Although some of the profusion of gay stewards formed relationships on board.
For extra money there was no need for the durex! As the body cavorts through meaningless motions doomed to end in misery on the old stained mattress where a hundred others had wasted their happiness.
They came back out with the smile of disappointment, the liars smile, lying to themselves that others couldn’t see the lie. Sometimes the girls went to a small shrine with a plastic Jesus and some images of saints, and candles. They crossed themselves gently massaging a rosary. Was it forgiveness, or request for their next pay-packet? I searched every dark corner but couldn’t see god, I figured he was probably off supervising a war somewhere. Many of the girls were from Columbia and were earning a dowery so they could return home and marry a more substantial man.
I danced with a girl who came and sat upon my lap, she rubbed her body close and writhed in imagined seduction against me. I held her buttocks as we cavorted, “you come out back”? “I give you good time”. I said no I wasn’t interested. “C’mon I fuck you good”, “no thank you” She pouted, my temporary señorita. I asked for a gram of coke instead, which myself and a friend I trusted had gone half on. Then prizing my latino siren from me we went out to the toilet and I poured a generous line upon my hand, there was no way in the world my nose was going anywhere near that toilet surface.
I clung to the bar, cocain and whiskey fighting for control, I felt an arm about my shoulders, Albert Camus. “Look around young man, this isn’t existential its all absurd! And you’ve got the plague.” But I had no gun, and if I did those I would end just kept their money hidden here, living in peacocks cages in other climates.
Hemingway had the gun, he sat in a wicker chair cradling his shotgun and laughing at the destruction. A straw hat upon his head and a spearfish on a hook.
Maybe he was the best equipped to recognise how we had deserted life in favour of collective insanity.
Another group of men sat at another table, they began singing sea shanties… I hate sea shanties, they romanticise the unromantic, they are unreal stories created by people who have no idea of the filth and fury of life at sea and how it can be. They should have known if they had eyes open what the reality of saline is. I went over to their table and told them to “shut the fuck up”! Singing their lies and bastardisation of reality, there was much swearing between themselves although no one spoke to me, I was part of a far larger group, was well built and could look angry and threatening, I didn’t fear violence or pain at that period in time, a bye product of PTSD from my wartime days, I’ve had fourteen people try to kill me with bombs, bullets and missiles, they all missed, and I think they could tell as they stopped their bullshit. I’d seen too many dead bodies of friends and comrades, and enemies to worry about live ones. I’d already apprised the situation, three men looked afraid, two tried to ignore it and two looked angry… they’d be the first two to go down punched in the throat and kicked on the unbendable knees. The rest would back down then. I knew it, I could feel it as my blood filled eye’s weighed them up.
I could sense fast Eddie reaching for his baseball bat.
Then some of my shipmates came over and pulled me back to a wobbly seat. They didn’t want trouble, with hind sight I guess they were right.
After I got back ship side I remembered this and penned “The Anti Shanty” in my cabin.
The Anti Shanty
Take yer shanties and shove em.
Take yer white foam flying.
Take yer fair winds blowing.
Take yer furrows following fucking freely.
And shove em.
Yer songs about masts and sails
and rolling, rollicking singing and fun in gail’s.
Phoney fallacious frigging fantasy folklore.
Unreal figures dancing and prancing.
The truth is filth and fury
lacking in glory longest days worked,
alcohol, drugs and syphilis.
And loveless connotation,
So take your romantic notions
and fuck em.
Ive lost more shipmates to alcohol
then to vagaries of romance.
Ive seen more marriages broken
kids from families merely token.
So take your ideas and shove em.
Ive been in hurricanes and ferocious seas
and people spew and break their bones.
Others drown there aint no Davey Jones.
There aint no dancing and tunes on the fiddle
Young lad can’t abide
so lonely commits suicide.
Men going to war for broken means
getting killed for monies dreams.
Your romancing bollox is just a disease.
Ships owned by uncaring twats.
And when your castaway….
it aint on a pacific island
with a new chum called Friday,
its being put on the dole to rot without pay.
So take your unrealities and shove em.
Ive sailed every sea and ocean
And I’ve never seen the emotion
of jolly shanties and rolling breakers.
Ive seen wales and albatross
and freezing icebergs.
But none of that is worth a lump
When yer mates arms ripped off in a pump.
Ive worked in engine rooms
Where great machines trade.
At 45 degrees of the Centigrade.
And boilers with steam
Where I heard my mates scream
as burns covered their bodies.
So take yer weird notions noddy.
Sleepless nights in heavy weather
working hard to keep it together.
Exhausts lagged with asbestosis
Cleaning chemicals to cause sarcomas
and cheap booze to bring cirrhosis.
With isolation to promote psychosis
Ive seen all that and you can
shanty for shit and shove it.
Suddenly there was a storm, drops of tropical storm to beat you to the ground if you stood in it. Five maybe ten minutes, then it was passed onto another part of the slum, and the sun was back, high and bright and the streets ran with water and steam arose from the cobbles. Magical spirals of mist climbing towards the sun. On the ship I would stand naked on the deck in this tropical downpour and shower. Some thought I was mad. I don’t know if I was/am and don’t/didn’t care. But even then I knew the importance of walking your own path.
We had a young lad with us, his first time in such a place, a Catholic and virgin, he drank because we did, he didn’t show disapproval he just wanted to fit in. Somewhere at some time the lads all began pushing this lad to “go out back”. “Break your cherry”. The girls picked up on this and made soothing noises in his ear… “you cherry boy I give you cheap fuck”.
I argued vehemently against this, I didn’t want this to be his moment that would stain his mind forever. I was shouted down, called vile names for spoiling everyones fun. Fun! To see this young lad already drunk make a memory that he would see every time he lay with a woman from then on… the first! Where was yours? Yes I know you, the reader, remembers. And… I hope it wasn’t on a shit and piss stained mattress on the floor of a brothel/bar in Panama.
Beaten the lad was semi dragged “out back”, the fee paid by a collection of so called friends. Bastards.
I retreated to a bar stool that had the wobbly leg, and sat with my scotch, I talked to Bukowski I’m sure he was there. Pock marked face, spitting in my face as he swore out a story of his own fear of sex. He always believed he was too ugly for women to take an interest in him. This was different I told him…maybe out loud maybe, probably in my head. “Ah the guys gotta get laid sometime” he growled. I was Chinaski.
The lad came back, quite quickly, looked a little shamefaced, tried to laugh, but it came out wrong, almost hysterical, and he sat quietly for the rest of the night, lost. All the lads saw none of this they just cheered him and made him drink more. Bukowski laughed ironically with bitterness.
This was one of those days, living from moment to moment, and suddenly it was dark, and the bar lights came on including a battered neon sign connected by a rats nest of wires running to other places, unknown places.
Hungry I staggered to a small food cafe, tatty as everywhere and had Tortillas, and then a plate of “Sancocho de gallina Panameño”, A national dish, although mine wasn’t the one served in the flash restaurants in Panama City it was the street version. Chicken in a sauce served with more Tortillas. But in that place at that time beautiful and filling.
Back to the bar I resumed my posture on the bar stool and bar, a huge moth fluttered against the light shade, I hate that sound, it cuts me, in the end I had to drag my stool to the other end of the bar to escape its attack on me.
Time passes strangely in these places, I did the last of my coke, kept a line or two for the morning, everything was seedier under broken and battered lighting. It was suddenly eleven o’clock. And my brain just decided that was it. Time to leave, there had been more and more Americans arriving, released from their bases for the night, the ambiance had changed, melted. Time to go. I told my friends “I’m off”. I went over and shook Eddies hand. Amid cat calls of weakness I stumbled into the streets clutching what was left of my whiskey and headed up the main road. As I left Hemingway blew his brains out, Camus crashed his car and the beautiful Irish all drank themselves to death. Frank left by the back door and got into a pink Cadillac with Elvis, While Humphry said “I’ll see ya later Sam”, “play it one more time for me” and got on a plane for Algiers as time went by. The streets were loaded with darkness. There was no big finish, I just faded away onto the street.
The girls would call from bar doorways trying their latino siren song on me.
It didn’t seem as dangerous with all these yanks suddenly walking around. Although the wrong turn down the wrong street would be bad!
It was surreal.
I carried on, no cars here.
Eventually, imperceptibly things slowly morphed and I was aware of cars driving along, People better dressed, shops! Guardia patrolling the nicer areas where tourists wandered. But I looked at them and thought you’ve been here but you haven’t “seen” Panama.
Then I was in suburban Panama.
Cars, horns blaring. People strolling, couples hand in hand, I leant against a cast iron street light and waited. Soon a taxi came meandering and dodging along, I waved and shouted. He pulled over. I gave him a piece of paper with the hotel address written upon it, I’d asked the concierge to give me the address before I left, an old trick for travellers.
He dropped me off, was pleased with the US dollars payment, so I tipped him ten more. Then walked past the Guardia with his American built burp gun, who guarded the entrance to the quite nice hotel, got my key and semi stumbled up a meandering staircase to my room.
I packed as much as I could knowing it’d be ten times harder in the morning with a hangover. Although I’d held back a small stash of coke for the morning to get me started. Then setting the awake time on my folding travellers clock with its faux leather covering, so I’d be up in time for food before my flight I stripped clumsily naked, the air conditioning was too noisy so I just slept atop the covers naked and still sweated.
Morning a haze, a couple of lines of Charlie, I went down to the restaurant and had what they called an “English” breakfast and drank a lot of orange juice. My friends one by one appearing battered and broken at the wheel. A couple had to exit mid cornflake and go vomit. One guy was just going on and on how he was “in the shit”, drunk he’d wound up with one of the girls who’d given him a hicky on his neck! He wandered afraid and I wandered mildly amused what his wife was going to make of that! But the minibus arrived we loaded up and went to the airport.
At the airport I found amusement at a German wearing a Panama hat, I wandered if he knew how ridiculous he’d look disembarking at Schiphol Airport?
On the plane things were strange, there was no inflight entertainment, it was broken so the bar was free throughout the flight. A cheer went up.
It was incongruous, the barrio still in my head whilst beautiful young women, wearing lovely suits pulled plastic masks from their hands like poor magicians and waved life jackets around which were apparently under my seat. Its incongruous, if either of these things are needed your probably gonna die. You’d hit the ground, turn into mush and be wearing a yellow lifejacket! Hilarious.
In the air I ordered a gin and tonic. I swapped drinking in a broken, battered wooden box only a few hours before for drinking in a shiny alloy tube. And so the world turned.
I include the youtube clip because it brings the story full circle, and I really love Lotte Lenya, I mean really, I’m just 120 years too late to woo her as she performed her cabaret in Waimar Berlin.