There was another reason I hit the Pacific Crest Trail this year in such haste and with a wounded heart.
Perhaps this latter matter had more to do with my broken heart and henceforth broken hike than the fainting princess and her inability to care for the broken me as I had cared for broken her.
(My, now that is a whole lotta broken in one sentence. Make a good country music song, I bet!)
I would wager on the weight of this latter matter for a couple of reasons. It has taken me far longer to go into the dark place in me where both pains reside and pluck out and reveal to you the story I’m about to tell than it took to reveal my story of lost love. And something else: the Bill Withers song “Use me up.”
Played often in random rotation on my iPod during my 900 mile stomp, “Use me up” lightened my step without fail.
Every time I heard it, even after things had soured between the lady and me, I felt a sense of completion, a sense of relief, a sense of satisfaction that I had done all I could for her and despite the outcome, our time together had not been in vain. Because as Bill Wither’s so nicely puts it: “If being used feels this good, then baby use me up.”
It had felt good. Really good. So good that as soon as I finish telling this story, I’ll likely be back on the lookout for another wounded bird to coddle and catch as it falls from the sky.
What didn’t feel good at all, what left me quite empty handed and stunned and stupid, was the quick end to another relationship I’d been nurturing for the past year. It, too, ended in late March and far more abruptly than my romantic relationship.
I’m speaking of my very platonic, initially altruistic and eventually business relationship with one Fantum L., prostitute. Let me explain.
I met Fantum at open mic night at a cafe in the Lower Haight in San Francisco. I was there on a self-prescribed campaign to get out and meet people, ostensibly to promote my book, a little fib I told myself to get me out of the house. I am terrible at promoting my writing. The getting out and not isolating part, now that was the main agenda. Fantum was there to sing. And sing she did. And not too badly as I recall. There was a sign-up sheet. We were in some kind of order, toward the beginning. Somewhere between my reading and her singing, she came and sat down beside me on a couch.
Fantum I would later learn was a pro at talking up men and getting them to buy her drinks and well, take it from there. I didn’t take it from there, but I did buy her a beer. We sat and she told me her story. Fantum told me how she’d run away at age 15 and fallen into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. She painted a picture of a mentally unstable and abusive mother. She had a son who was being raised by Fantum’s father, She said she’d been really bad into crack for awhile but now the crack and the prostitution were behind her, and she was pursuing a career in music. She said she lived off Social Security Disability.
Though not everything she told me added up, she struck me as intelligent and sincere. She was without a doubt someone with a story to tell. So she quite grabbed my attention when she said that she’d written a book that she’d like to publish to shed some light on the plight of young women in America caught in the downward spiral of drugs and prostitution.
Now many will attest that I have limited patience for people who, when they discover what I do, regale me with tales of their unpublished but most-often unwritten “Hey, you could write it for me” book ideas. But as I recall, Fantum intrigued me. I wanted to read her hand-written book. Based on what I’d heard and learned from its author, it seemed like it just might be a story well-told. Or perhaps it was the title that sold me. She called her story, “Autobiography Of An American Object.”
Wow. It still gets me. Which is what gets me. Because over the next year, I took on “Autobiography” and its author and a lot of related drama that amounted to a great deal of my time and energy and resource and though I have never been with a prostitute in my life and managed to keep my relationship with Fantum strictly platonic, in the end I still got fucked by a prostitute.
I folded up my keyboard just now, holstered the Motorola Droid that’s processing all these words, and made to quit for the night. My thought was, “I hate this fucking subject and I need a beer.” But I have since reopened the keyboard and the phone determined to see this tale through to the end and be done with it. I’ve hardly spoken of it in 900 miles and several months, and it troubles me. So out with it.
First I agreed to look over Fantum’s manuscript. Getting a hold of a copy of it took many weeks, as I recall. By now I had learned this much about Fantum: that neither prostitution nor drugs were in her past. They were still very much her everyday reality. Fantum said that due to the nature of her life, the way she lived, the manuscript was being safe-guarded by her case worker. I waited. I had asked that when she got hold of it to please make a copy and I would come to the city and collect it. Getting it from her case worker took weeks. Then came complications with getting it copied. She said everywhere she brought it to wanted an outlandish sum of money to copy it.
I estimated it shouldn’t cost her more than twenty dollars. The estimates she brought back were two and three times that much. Turned out it was written in the pages of those black & white marble-patterned composition notebooks and so, unlike a loose leaf manuscript that could be shoved into a copier and replicated with the press of a button, it had to be hand manipulated, page by page. So, when I had time, I came to the city, met her and the book, and together we went to a self-service copy center.
Fantum has a very good memory for details. I do not. Fantum, if asked, could no doubt regale you with details such as the dates that we met and the clothes that I was wearing and the duration of time in between each meeting. All that. But I will never forget that day in the copy store. Fantum was high on heroin and could barely keep her head up as I ran the machine and page by page copied the notebook. I was paying for the copies and wanted to squeeze two notebook pages on each piece of copy paper if possible. Consequently, I kept losing her page numbers, written as they were far outside the margins. She complained of the time expense and her need to nod off. To keep her mind active, I gave her the task of writing the numbers back in as the pages came out of the machine.
I cite this example because it’s a good analogy for the many months that followed. Fantum and her book were not an easy project. That day in the copy store and for quite some time after, my reading and eventual transcription of “Autobiography” was a gift, an act of kindness. But it was problematic. Because as an act of kindness, it was not my number one priority. So I made a decision after reading the first few chapters.
I know myself, and I knew that if I first read the book in its entirety rather than as I transcribed it, the transcription would either go slowly or never get done at all, depending on how good the story was. But Fantum was naturally anxious that I should read it all and give a report. I explained my plan to her and my reasons. But she badgered me. I finally relented. I read it all.
I told her it was good. I told her I thought it definitely had potential to be published. But I also told her that it would require editing and some work making the story more accessible to the reader.
To whit: the story lacked an arc. It was page after page after page detailing year after year, incident after incident of bad news. And to my mind, it lacked reader sympathy. Again and again the author made bad decisions, burning one bridge after another. I believed it a worthwhile project, however. It was otherwise well written, and the author with her 8th grade education, spelled better than I. Time, I told her. It’s going to take time.
I have a very full life, and struggle not a little with focus and discipline on my own work. I did my best to chip away at Fantum’s book, but my understanding of my own shortcomings were spot on. Having read the whole thing first, having let the cat out of the bag as it were, I found it very hard to sit down to the task of relocating the cat, getting it back in the bag, and making it lovable, making it more than just an angry thing that would scratch your eyes out the moment you tried to pet it.
In Fantum’s defense, it did take me several months to transcribe and edit her rather short book.
In that span of time, Fantum changed phones several times. I would call her only to get a disconnect message. She would turn up a month later in LA or elsewhere. She would disappear and then call me from rehab only to be back on crack or heroin weeks later. She was a wild card, and as I invested my time and energy in her book, I found myself wanting assurance that it would be published. If she disappeared or ended up dead, without a contract I would be unable to publish the book.
I decided I had done enough work on it for free and unsecured. I would be far more motivated if I knew the book’s future were secured and that its potential success might help lift me out of poverty as well. It seemed only fair. I have so many unpublished words of my own, a million on my web site alone, with perhaps that much more again on hard drives and notebooks. That kind of backlog of unrequited love, if you will, would have driven a lesser man insane long ago.
What it does cause me, the ill it does do me on a daily basis, is that now every moment I spend working on something not related to actualizing my own publishing dreams feels like a death moment. It feels like I’m dying, and I have to fight to remind myself that I’m not, that I’ll live, that I can do other things, other work, that my day will come. So it took a lot to wrap my head around committing to Fantum’s book. After the initial buzz of its fantastic title wore off, it was just work. The potential success of the book meant very little to me. I have lived in poverty now for better than half my life, and potential is not a word that has ever put food on my table. Example: “Wal-Mart Boy,” my feature film script written a decade ago. Great concept. Huge potential. Yield to date: nada.
What motivated me from the beginning to work on Fantum’s book was never money but the goodwill energy of helping to see someone else’s work succeed where my own, for lack of proper promotion, has yet to reach more than a fraction of its potential audience.
So I worked at it. As is my style, I edited as I went. Little did I know, the editing part, my attempts at making this sentence more readable or clarifying that thought and making notes in the margins asking her to clarify this or that, little did I know she didn’t want any of that. As long as I was typing though, she pretended to be interested. I know this…
Because finally one day I finished the transcription. I promised us both that I would have it done by the end of February, and I delivered. In a rare switch, she came to Oakland and met me at West Oakland BART, and we went for a bite to eat at a little El Salvadorian restaurant across the street. I paid as always. Why I always picked up the tab for this person who likely made more on good night than I did all month and spent a lion’s share of it on drugs, I couldn’t tell you.
I was proud that day. Very proud to have a finished first draft of her manuscript in hand, what could potentially be a best seller if handled right. My first client as editor and agent. My first author! And I was going to see her book through to publication.
Fantum sat across from me, and nodded and smiled and say aha as I showed her how I had outlined various parts of the story that we needed to work on. I asked her to help me by fleshing out certain unclear parts by writing on the back of the particular page. I explained that I would then meet with her again and go over it and put together a second draft.
Fantum had a gift for me: a set of his and her watches. I don’t wear a watch, don’t like them. A brief glance told me they were not new. But I accepted them gracefully, because it would have been rude not to. She thanked me and said she had to go, that she would talk to me soon. As she crossed the street to return to the city, I had no idea that I’d just been fucked and lied to and fired all at once.
Days went by. Finally one day I called her. I knew right away by her tone that something was amiss. She spoke of her new life that was about to begin. She said she was going to scratch out all my notes, makes copies and submit the manuscript to publishers herself. She chided me for taking so long to type it, and for typing it so badly. By this latter comment, I can only guess she was referring to places where, rather than typing it verbatim, I had edited bad grammar as I went. She then dismissed me and hung up.
Too humiliated and shocked to speak, I texted her: “That was just rude.” She retorted that the watches were worth three hundred dollars, that we were done. I told her she was making a mistake. The boiler plate agent contract I’d had her sign specified that the author would be responsible for all costs up to three hundred dollars in the event of termination. I wanted to give her back the damn watches. I hadn’t wanted them. Now I wanted to put them on the rails and watch a freight train run them over.
Days before I presented her with the draft manuscript, she’d asked me if I owed her anything. I’d said, “No Fantum, you don’t owe me anything,” to which I added some form of the following information which we’d been over before:
We have a contract. We’re in this together. You couldn’t even begin to pay me for all the time I’ve invested in this, and I don’t expect you to. If the book sells, we’ll both get paid and do very well, I’m sure.
I recall a January conversation with my lover about the book, explaining to her my misgivings about the possible problem of reader sympathy with the subject who continually spat in the face of those who tried to help her. “Isn’t is enough?” my lover asked, and here I paraphrase: Isn’t is enough that she survives? That she has lived to tell her story?
I remember thinking at the time of my girlfriend and of her statement, “How thoughtful, how kind, and yes how true.” And I told her as much. “Yes, it is enough.” I resolved that day not to attempt to alter Fantum’s book beyond general grammar and fleshing out the story line. Even if it meant doing all the work to publish a deadbeat book. I would P.O.D. publish it for her, hand her a copy and the keys to future printing and walk away. I would have done that for her.
Then the author spat in my face.
Shame. All she got was a lousy draft hard copy peppered with editing notes. Had she waited a little longer, she could have dissed me with a disc in her hand.
I have since contemplated submitting her manuscript to publishers myself. I still have a signed contract from her. Not that I would pursue it, but I don’t consider the watches fair payment nor the contract legally dissolved. If I found her a publisher and a cash advance, I highly doubt she would turn it down. Anyway, it would be worth a try, right?
But then I think again. I recall what it was like having a crack-addicted prostitute in my life for a year and I have to ask myself, “Do I really want to be tied to this person in a business sense, or any sense at all, for years to come?”
The answer is as clear as Sierra Nevada snow-melt waters at ten thousand feet in early July. Crystal.
And cold enough to kill you real quick, whimsical-like, because that how Nature is.
Are you wondering, is there a moral to this story?
Yes. There is. The moral is, be nice to one another. Keep doing acts of kindness. Don’t look for gratitude or reciprocity. Don’t let those who fuck you over fuck it up for future recipients of your kindness and love. And one last thing. No, it isn’t enough to merely survive. You can’t go through life habitually screwing over those who attempt to help you. I mean, you could. You can. But what kind of legacy is that? What kind of story is that to tell the world?
– Rick McKinney