The greatest sages from ancient times
Have not shown us life immortal.
What is born must die . . .
The Chinese poet Han Shan lived over a thousand years ago. No one knows for sure exactly when. He shacked up in the mountains, maybe with a fellow hermit who accompanied him on periodic giggly visits to town, and wrote his poems on rocks, maybe. That’s the lore anyway—if there ever were poems of his on rocks time has smoothed away the words or perhaps turned the rocks themselves to dust. I first read about Han Shan in Dharma Bums, and I hoped to follow in Jack Kerouac’s and Gary Snyder’s footsteps as they followed in the footsteps of Han Shan. I wanted to wade off into some lofty world of mist and visions. I don’t know what my days have ended up amounting to. I don’t carve my poems in rocks or write poems of any kind anymore. Yesterday I worked a long day in a cubicle and then, back at home, taped Buzz Lightyear’s foot back onto his leg. It had fallen off when my son was playing with his action figure from Toy Story. I was able to make it so the toy could still stand up. Work hadn’t exactly made me feel like I was swatting game-winning home runs, so I counted the wobbly new stability of the mass-produced plastic offering as a victory.
Mario Mendoza, utility man—everyone knows he’s the man behind the Mendoza Line, right? But he had nothing to do with its creation: it was the doing of teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, cackling over Mendoza’s consistent presence at the bottom of the Sunday newspaper batting average lists, and the doing of George Brett, who heard the term from Paciorek, and Chris Berman, who heard it from Brett and started weaving it into his SportsCenter spiels. We have no power to shape the world; it just takes shape. We have no power to make anything last. Hank Greenberg, the immortal at the beginning of this meditation that I’m now calling to a halt, once racked up 103 RBI by the all-star break. This is two more RBI than Mario Mendoza got in his entire career. And yet there’s a chance the Mendoza Line will outlast Greenberg. Or at any rate it’s the same. Language, plaques: everything in one way or another is a random snaring of language bound to disassemble.
I’m rereading Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers. He died a few days ago. I heard an old radio interview with him a day or two after he passed away, and he was talking about the time he and his friends in the Merry Pranksters met the Beats. He said Jack Kerouac was bitter that Neal Cassady, now the speed-addled bus driver of the Merry Prankster’s Furthur bus, was no longer at Kerouac’s side but with this younger crowd. Kerouac, Stone observed, was just generally bitter. Bitter and jealous. He was still handsome at that point, Stone said, but within a year or so his disease, alcoholism, would wreck his fine facial structure, puffing it into a bulbous mess, an attack on the charismatic youthful myth of the man even more severe somehow than when the next stage of his ravaging illness took hold and ended his life. Anyway, it’s a great novel, Dog Soldiers, I mean. In it the promise of the sixties has gone the way of Jack Kerouac’s good looks—everything’s in bitter, smoldering wreckage. The last great novel I’d read before picking up Dog Soldiers again was Jonathan Miles’s 2014 book Want Not, which features a subplot about a group of intellectuals and engineers and specialists from various fields coming together in a project devoted to communicating the danger of toxic waste to future civilizations. The problem the group faces is that toxic waste will, in the estimation of scientists and linguists, outlast any current language. Languages deteriorate and eventually vanish altogether: this seems to be an unavoidable universal rule. Write your words into the internet ether or carve them into rocks and it’s the same. They’ll erode into nothing. No one will understand whatever it was you were trying to say. The linguists in Want Not (whose thoughts reflect linguistic theory that Jonathan Miles studied in researching the book) are certain that even the most basic pictographs will be unable to keep people 10,000 years in the future from blundering past all of our signage and into a murderous cache of our toxic aftermath.
For a little while when I was a young man I had a job on the graveyard shift loading trucks at the UPS warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. I was living in the East Village, miles from the job, but for some reason I used to walk to work, several miles in the middle of the night. Nothing ever happened to me until one night when I was crossing a street on Third Avenue a few blocks south of 42nd Street. It was around two in the morning and there weren’t any other pedestrians around. I was struck by a car. The driver was hurrying to make a left turn before the yellow light changed to red and he didn’t see me crossing with the light. He braked when he saw me but not in time to avoid impact. I was scooped up onto the hood and thrown to the pavement.
The driver opened the door of his car and got one foot out. He was a doughy young Hispanic guy. He was scared.
“Are you OK?” the driver said.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said. You will always want this to be the truth. Amazingly, it wasn’t that far from the truth. I got to my feet.
“I’m fine,” I said.
I continued on to work. My jeans had a rip in them and were slightly bloody. I performed a version of the task that I’ll be performing my whole life in one way or another, job after job, if I’m lucky enough to stay employed. Boxes came down the conveyer belt, and I sorted them by address into the proper shelves in one of four trucks in my station. During my fifteen minute break I read Dante. I don’t know which part of the Divine Comedy I was on. It doesn’t matter—I only remember one thing from the whole trilogy, which I read in its entirety in fifteen minute breaks from loading trucks: paradise is frightening, stripped of fallible humanity and mistakes. Paradise is lifeless.
Mario Mendoza played his twelve final major league games the year this card came out, 1982, and got his last seventeen at-bats, connecting for just two hits. He was released in July with a .118 average for the year, the farthest he’d ever landed below “his” line—a .200 batting average—at a season’s end. His career average fixed itself quite clearly above the Mendoza Line at .215, which is somehow more dispiriting than if he’d somehow lasted as long as he did—nearly a decade—with an average below his own line. I’ve spent my life marveling at shit like the Mendoza Line. That to me is the beautiful stuff, a way to capture the ineffable mediocrity of most of this short rude gift we’re given, this life.