Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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"Kleiner GTO, ich liebe deinen ______"

Yesterday, Laura took me out for a belated birthday lunch at the Thai restaurant near Speedway and Tucson. It was really good. Being treated was better. And having a wonderful conversation that made me feel both smarter and better was best of all. We covered a lot of ground. At one point she asked me, at a contextually appropriate juncture, what I want out of life. I couldn't answer that question, but did venture that I'm really, really happy when I'm engaged with the intricacies of cultural theory. I also explained that I'm inevitably beset by guilt for feeling happy doing something so exclusive. "Happiness and guilt, happiness and guilt": this seems to be my mantra lately.

Later, as she drove me back to the Cancer Center, we stopped for a traffic light. "See that third car back in the oncoming lane, the blue one? That's a 1967 Pontiac GTO, Laura. That's what I want." I'm sure it sounded funny, but it's also true. I've wanted one since I was a very small. We had a 1967 Pontiac Catalina station wagon, which was pretty awesome itself -- that light metallic green, black interior, the absurdly wide dash, the delicious lip bulging out from its side -- but the GTO was another order of fine. I had a Matchbox GTO in purple -- anyone who can track one down for me in that color will be my friend for life -- though I suppose it was actually a rendering of a 1965, not a 1967. Still, they pretty much looked alike. And the year 1967 resonates for me in a way that 1965 does not, most likely because that was the year I was conceived and, if you believe the latest research on the development of the fetus in utero, the year that my mind started to process stimuli from the outside world.

When I was in pre-school, I had this recurring nightmare that was an awful lot like that chapter in The Hobbit called "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire," when Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves end up in the trees, surrounded by wolves and goblins, their roosting places being set aflame. In my dream, though, the only protagonists were me, my mother, and the 1967 Catalina wagon. We would either be in the car or standing outside it. Circles of fire were closing in on all sides. And darting back and forth through the flames were fearsome wolves.

I know, I know: I'm describing a dream that comes perilously close to the one that Sigmund Freud focuses on in the case of the "wolf man." But I share a birthday with Freud, so that's not as strange as you might think. I also used to spend hours in my mom's closet when I was two and three, hiding from the world outside while I tried on her shoes. My favorites by far were a pair of calf-high, matte black boots of incredibly soft leather. For some reason, though, my mother always insisted on telling me that they were "kid." I'm sure Freud got tons of things wrong. In my case, though, his fantasies became flesh.

As I think about my desire for that 1967 GTO, I'm starting to think that my recurring nightmare was all about not getting the car of my dreams. See, the Catalina wagon had the same dual headlamps and the same graceful flanks as the GTO, but repackaged them as a safe, domestic vehicle. By contrast, the GTO was, to use a phrase deployed on one of the report cards Mrs. Wommer wrote for me in kindergarten, "all boy."

I once lost my Matchbox GTO and experienced such sadness that my mother tracked down another one for me. The stories about how and why I lost the original never added up. One has me losing it on the MTA in Boston, Kingston Trio-style. Another has me losing it on a plane. What I do know is that I have always had a distinct memory, even though it is almost certainly a false memory, of my mother -- I'm not even sure I'm in the picture, come to think of it -- striding across a vast parking lot , in full but somewhat slanty sunlight, to what looks like what I now recognize as one of those Photomat booths you'd see floating in a sea of strip-mall cars back in the 1970s. There's an abandoned one near our house in Tucson, actually, in the same plaza with the recently abandoned Fry's, across the street from "our" Trader Joe's.

In my false memory, my mother goes to that booth, which is probably the interpolated memory of her taking me to get the keys to, you guessed it, our 1967 Catalina wagon from the booth where the parking-lot attendant was holding them. Wait, I'm not even sure they had such parking lots in my part of Pennsylvania. I'm not even sure the description I just gave makes any sense at all. Why would you leave your keys with an attendant? Oh, I remember: if the cars were parked too tightly, they might have to move your car. Still, I doubt whether that sort of thing was a common occurrence in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area. Perhaps the false memory was actually of a vacation in California -- we took one that started in the Bay Area and ended in Los Angeles back in 1971 -- where that sort of parking lot madness would have been more likely.

At any rate, what matters here and now is that my false memory has my mother purchasing a replacement purple Matchbox GTO from the booth. You know, as I just typed out GTO again, I thought that Freud would have paid close attention to the sound of the letters as they are spoken out loud, no doubt contrasting them with the sound of "Catalina" spoken out loud. But what would he say, then? Perhaps he would get me to talk until I confessed that there is a third term in my desire, the Pontiac Firebird, which I desired in both its straight -- 1967-1969, that is -- and curvy -- 1970 onward -- incarnations. Surely the words "fire" and "bird" would have got him thinking deep thoughts. And when you throw in the concept of the Phoenix which I then lacked but which now informs my Arizona existence in a very palpable way, well, he might have looked very closely at my decision to turn a triangle into a binary, don't you think? For all that, though, it was the purple Matchbox GTO that I loved, lost, and regained.

And then there's the question of the car we actually had, a "Catalina." Is it significant that we now live right at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains or the "Catalinas" as we call them? I wonder. As a child, the word had a peculiar attraction. I heard the word "cat" in it, but sensed that it had nothing to do with cats. OK, fine, so my story suggests that it has lots to do with cats. I'm just telling you what I thought consciously back as a three-year-old who gave individual words a tremendous amount of thought, particularly when they didn't seem to correspond to any of the mundane details of my everyday life.

There's also that first version of my favorite Pavement song "Grounded," the one recorded for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and then left off the album, but which I got to listen to in a room full of smoke in John's Alacatraz apartment along with George and Catherine, who brought over an advance copy of the record loaned to her by her then-husband Chuck Stephens, who was a film critic at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. When I first heard the song, we all were delighted at the self-reflexivity of the line about "smoking marijuana," even though the selves it reflected on weren't the self of the songwriter Stephen Malkmus, who has a new album coming out on Tuesday which I have gone out of my way not to hear an advance copy of.

Later, when Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out, I was dismayed to find that my favorite song from that listening session wasn't on the record. I even wondered whether I'd hallucinated it, though John also seemed to remember it as I had. I felt a lot more at ease when "Grounded" appeared on Pavement's follow-up album Wowee, Zowee, though there was still the significant disappointment of learning that the line about "smoking marijuana" was not there, supplanted by "smoking up the fun." I again wondered whether I might have hallucinated, though my experience of hearing the difference between Liz Phair's demo tape, where she sang, "I'll fuck you and your girlfriend too," and Exile in Guyville, where she changed the line to "I'll fuck you and your minions too," suggested to me that Pavement probably had changed the lyrics to avoid someone's hypothetical wrath.

Finally, when Matador put out their 3-CD tenth anniversary collection I got to hear the original version off "Grounded," which is considerably faster and therefore less musically sublime than the one released on Wowee, Zowee, but does indeed contain the line, "smoking marijuana." More importantly, that earlier version of the song also contains lyrics left off the Wowee Zowee version that seem to pertain to my current place of residence. I've played the muffled words in question hundred of times in succession and am convinced that there's a line about, "sun upon a Tucson ridge," with the "sun upon a" part rhyming with "marijuana" for good measure. Anyway, I picture the Catalinas, naturally, when I half-hear this line, David Foster Wallace short stories featuring the outline of the Tucson Mountains to the contrary. I know, this has nothing to do with my childhood nightmare or my affection for muscle cars. But it has everything to do with my desire, so I'm going to leave it in. That's the point of stream-of-consciousness narration, right?

Let's do what I tell my "Literary Analysis" students to do and take an inventory, shall we?:
• I belatedly answered Laura's question about what I want in life with a demonstrative pronoun -- "That!" -- that served to ironize the quest for a telos even while speaking a truth, perhaps the truth of my desire to return to a time before I existed
• I set up a binary between the Pontiac GTO and Pontiac Catalina that extends across multiple registers -- fantasy vs. real, small vs. large, purple vs. green, "all boy" vs. "domestic" -- in illuminating fashion
• This GTO vs. Catalina binary only works as well as it does because I've omitted the third term in my triangle of desire, the Pontiac Firebird, which itself is a divided category -- 1967-1969 and 1970-onward -- that could be used to redescribe that triangle as a square, with an added emphasis on the passage of time that might actually conjure some four-dimensional cube
• I made a long excursus about my favorite Pavement song "Grounded," which, like the Firebird, came in two different versions and which, like my GTO, was lost and then replaced by a nearly identical substitute, but which was, unlike my GTO, then rediscovered in its original form and therefore represents a doubling in both time and space, the sort which the album title Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain already advertises
• I referred to an apparent censorship, whether self-imposed or otherwise, that resulted in a change in the lyrics of both "Grounded" and a song by Liz Phair
• I provided the backstory to my long-standing boot fetish, adding the soft, supple wrinkle that the boots I loved best as a toddler were fashioned, not of leather, but of "kid"
• I indulged in a little, "What would Sigmund do?" role-playing
• I reflected on the relationship between the landscape I presently inhabit and the psychic landscape that inhabits me
Now part of me is tempted to try to take the next step and figure out where this inventory can take us. I'm tired, though, and understandably reluctant to force a closure that would be revealed as ideologically suspect by everyone else who reads it. In the interest of fostering community, then, I invite you, my readers and semblables, to do the work for me. If you can figure out how to lead me from wanting a GTO to wanting what I should be wanting, I would be most grateful. Less extravagantly, I'd settle for a mint-condition Matchbox.

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