The Life and Times of Dave Church
The following is excerpted from a novel-in-progress and was adapted for publication as an essay in Lummox # 4, 2015:
From the age of eighteen to the hour after midnight when he parked his cab outside the hotel where he died of a heart attack, Dave Church had lived his life day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. In youth and middle age, he crafted five-year plans to map out his future but soon forgot about them, and these were the few occasions when the future was ever a concern for him. He was invariably too reckless with the present to have any sustained regard for what the future might bring.
Addiction kept him wedded to beer, liquor, wine, marijuana, heroin, LSD, meth, Valium, or whatever happened to be available to warp the senses away from the prosaic concerns of a mundane existence. The demands of survival did not enlighten him to the convenience of long-term strategic planning but instead kept him rooted in the short-term tactical achievements of immediate necessities – shoplifting, panhandling, a night of lovemaking with a nurse he courted on a train when he was in search of a place to stay for the night, or dropping a bicycle in the middle of Broadway in Pawtucket with a six-pack of beer under his arm to turn in and crawl into bed with his sister-in-law. Family kept him rooted in responsibilities which made manifest the intractable compromise between his desire to be a father, husband, lover – and his desire to be a writer.
This last conundrum was the burden that would make our Atlas bend, or sometimes simply shrug. His paternal instincts were deep-rooted, born on the day he broke his father’s nose and left home at the age of eighteen, and yet he remained loyal to the written word. It was his destiny to write, the only long-term awareness he might ever be said to have had.
So in order to live, he wrote, and in order to write, he lived. In his travels through life, he charmed, betrayed, and inflamed the passions of love and hate in the men and women who came to know him. There was the woman with whom he shared fatal attractions and years of literary conversations, a woman who equaled him in volatility of mood and one night in the heat of an argument pushed the razor sharp tip of a chef’s knife into his sternum, missing his heart by a mere centimeter. Then there was the mother with two children who left behind $80 in his cab, which he returned to the mother because, as he said, it was a mother with two kids.
There was the black poet who lectured at Brown University and who welcomed the artistic kinship between his own race-conscious poetry and the incendiary street-laced words of this white poet incorrigibly nestled in the confines of his own professed madness. It was this black poet who would forever serve affectionately in Dave’s own memory as de facto mentor from his days of slam poetry and drunken, cerebral conversations that spanned whole nights in taverns during the 1970s and thus to whom Dave felt an indelible gratitude and respect for the remaining years of his life. But there was also the Indian novelist twenty years later who wanted to write a novel about Dave and promised to be the executor of his writings when he died until hearsay and rumor and perhaps her own gullibility led her to believe, though not perhaps inaccurately, that he had roguishly suggested to an editor she would work for free because she was his sleeping partner and drinking partner. She gave up on him because he had no redeeming qualities. This was the woman he once said he should have married so he could sire another child and be able to stop working for a living, as she was the type to support him as a stay-at-home dad. But it never happened, so he claimed, because of the vasectomy he got in deference to a request by his third wife, a decision to which he gave little consideration until he realized, as he once told me, That’s how your mother fucked me.
As he charmed his way through life, Dave Church saw old age in the future and felt afraid, and then a six-pack of beer, a few drags on a doobie, or simply the call of the wild from dark recesses of the ravenous night would assuage his loneliness and nostalgia fostered by direct encounters in the haunted shadows of consciousness with the knowledge of impending death. Only when the children, the wives, and the vagabond soul mates of his youth and middle age had moved away or died were his poetry and his correspondence his only remaining companionship. But the epistolary life was as much a virtual reality as the Internet which he despised and maligned. He was alone in his garret with only his imagination, his regrets, and his moods. The handsome features of his youth had dissolved and only his prickly, moody personality remained.
It was not all for naught. When he died, the small press poetry community received news of his death and reacted with a warm outpouring of tributes and eulogies that was genuine and widespread. In a seal of fate he never could have conceived during his lifetime, the New York Quarterly ran his last published poem and included a memorial upon news of his death to accompany memorials for W.D. Snodgrass and John Updike. But Dave Church only knew the last gasps before the sudden plunge, when much of everyday society saw him only as a taxi driver, and his family saw him as an eccentric, irascible, and anachronistic man teeming with moral contradictions and hypocritical right-wing political views.
If it is not our fate to see how life will remember us, we must nevertheless live the life that will be remembered. And the life Dave Church lived might be remembered with great fondness and great bitterness, but it was a damn nigh curse to live it. Dave Church lived it, and left a record of it in poems and letters and other writings. The record wormed its way out from the many layers and contradictions of his character and the history that shaped it. Dave Church carried 'daybooks' to record thoughts and observations. A random flip through the pages would turn up the day he wrote about a man named Ed, who said he could not forgive Dave for what he did, to which Dave said better to forget than forgive – since then all is forgotten. Ed said better to forgive than forget – since then nothing is forgotten.
Yes, Dave Church painted his life with a charming philosophical flourish. He liked to think he was deep, but not that deep, because, as he said, the deeper you are the deader you are! So he had forgotten much of the philosophy he had read in his youth, and had replaced the intellectual rectitude with an elastic moral and Delphic fiber consisting of a frankness, humor, and hypocrisy that rivaled the most colorful rationalizations that any two-bit hack or fly-by-night swindler could muster.
At the age of sixty-one, he had come a long way from the day he left home. Forty-three years. Father went down the stairs, payback, for hitting Ma! You mothafuckah! Soon after the spirits of Ferlinghetti and Corso and Ginsburg seized him, and the heroin, LSD, marijuana, beer, and gin that went to his head, and the psychiatrists who paid him with drugs for mowing their lawns, and the women – yes, the women, how many of them loved him and hated him – love and lust and battles of the sexes that yielded to the truce of friendship, or pleasures of the flesh that yielded to pleasures of the mind.
Dave had been married and divorced three times, and had five children. Maybe more. His first wife was the classy and refined bronze-skinned daughter of a respectable middle-class man who taught history in a local high school. They met in high school and he courted her, except when he was cheating on her, with good looks and romantic conversations about poetry and philosophy. They had a daughter. He worked at a toy store until he failed to show up for work on one too many occasions. She sold handbags at the old Shepard’s department store in downtown Providence until, after months of slipping out of work with a stylish handbag as a kind of holiday bonus during Christmas or a gift for their daughter on her birthday, she was fired when she could not account for discrepancies in inventory. After three years of marriage they split, and she slowly and steadily over many years succumbed to the malaise of schizophrenia and would call him seeking emotional support until he hung up on her.
His second wife began as his drug counselor and eventually became his lover before she turned on him. By chance they reconnected some years later and she asked him one night while driving if he wanted to get married. Dave said, Sure!, perhaps not believing it until he went through with it; before long she got pregnant and threw him out of the house. They divorced, the marriage certificate citing 'extreme cruelty' as the reason for their differences. On paper, the citation must have implicated his disposition to her, but in reality she was as cruel and manipulative as he was, perhaps more so since at least he had the sense to let bygones be bygones and not dispute the citation. He would subsequently regret such nonchalance when in 1990 he started receiving letters from Family Court informing him that financial records from the Bureau of Family Support/Rhode Island Family Court Child Support Enforcement System show that as of August 31, 1990, you have a past-due court ordered support obligation of $32,180.04, and that a lien was being placed on his income with his employer Walsh Cab, forcing him to pay $25 per week to Family Court for the unforeseeable future. Anyone who ever wondered why Dave Church had a very short fuse would have to consider the many months in the 1980s when he was sending $50 checks every two weeks to Family Court only to discover that his spiteful second wife would not relent in her crusade to bleed him dry. Though he asked, she never wrote to tell him how their daughter Courtney was doing, and only once in ten years agreed to let him see her. She thought it unwise to let Courtney be in the supervision of an irresponsible father who could not pay child support.
The third wife, my mother, was the clinically depressed daughter of an alcoholic and was charmed by the artistic milieu in which Dave Church the poet stumbled into the achievements of his otherwise failed life. Effectively divorced, they were officially separated and had remained as such for the past fifteen years. My mother had told me once that she maintained a life insurance policy on him and thus I discovered one of the reasons they never officially divorced – no doubt another reason was the desire to avoid making payments they could not afford for the subtleties of lawyers they did not understand. The policy fell through, however, and in her masochistic Christian spirit she still assumed responsibility for the wake and funeral. He left her financially strapped, but she got her revenge by giving him a Christian funeral mass.
But in the final years before he was laid to rest under the banner of a faith he rejected (I remember telling one of the funeral home pallbearers in the church that the bishop of Rome could kiss my ass when informed that the robe with a cross on it that was draped over the coffin was on the Roman bishop’s authority and could not be removed for the procession down the aisle between the pews), he was alone and happy about being alone, or at least resigned to it. No choice for such a private man, and can a man really feel happy to be alone in old age? But when you write about a woman getting in your cab and hurling insults at you, and how you love it and makes you feel like a man in the old days, and how you hustled a blowjob from her for a ride to the methadone clinic, or when you ask if there are games out there in which the goal is to lose, not win – then you are not the run-of-the-mill up-and-comer, toeing-the-line, law-abiding, religious, responsible, clear-thinking soldier of fortune who looks upon marriage and family as the appropriate, convenient, and natural state of affairs for a successful, socially-integrated, fully-grown adult male.
Obsessive-compulsive and routine-oriented as he was in habit, Dave was unaccustomed to consistency or normalcy in mood and lifestyle. He might be a gentleman to a lady in red in the morning, but surly and rude to a lady in black in the afternoon. He might write about feeling ashamed of himself thirty years after his kid sister died in a car accident, and then write on the next page about the guy who got in his cab, said Fuck you!, to which Dave said Fuck you too!, after which they burst out laughing. He might have written in his youth about how good it felt to ride home from the bank with ten crisp five dollar bills in his pocket after cashing his paycheck from a week of hard work painting houses; and then write about how him and Billy Schragy started drinking and decided on a whim to drive west until they couldn’t go no more, and so all the money went to gas and to his head as he rode shotgun in a car with bald tires drinking gin from one hand and brandy from the other, while Billy drove half-drunk cursing his ex-wife and mother with endless variations of the same misogynistic epithets he had crafted from songs he wrote during dark lonely hours on a late Sunday afternoon in November as cold rain fell before the onset of that goddamn holiday music and cheer he hated so much; and how the tires gave out and they pulled over and got out of the car and set up camp on the side of some highway in Pennsylvania where the grass was overgrown and the trees swayed with the whispers and echoes of far gone cries emanating from some unknown crest of loneliness deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania; and they laughed and drank, and then laughed and drank some more, and then laughed and drank some more, until their surfeit of laughter and drink was no more and no more cars whizzed by in that eerily abandoned morning hour before dawn; and they leaned back on the grass under the sad-eyed moon contemplating her maternal, melancholic moonlight until they fell asleep to nurse ever-simmering wounds salted by the parries and thrusts of strange malicious creatures lurking in the subconscious caverns of their paranoid dreams like little devils churned out ceaselessly by the grinding, whipped slaves of Hell moaning their pathetic, remorseful cries with gnashed teeth and tear-filled eyes.
This unanchored, unmoored, almost schizophrenic, lifestyle first incubated in the days after an explosive confrontation with his father in 1965. It continued into the 1970s, when he painted houses to make his way, yielded to escapes from despair on the coattails of drugs and alcohol, and helped inspire the slam poetry scene, reading on green hillsides on college campuses or in downtown parks, or in black, cavernous, hole-in-the-wall bars and nightclubs in downtown Providence. In the 1980s, he ran a house painting business and hired ruddy, hard-drinking laborers who could not read but could mix paints and fix roofs and tinker with the inner mechanics of cars and vans as well as any professorial man making broad strokes across a blackboard to discuss the inner workings of a set of complex mathematical equations. He aimed shotguns at neighbors who annoyed him. He once stood in the middle of a neighborhood street with a steak knife in his hand, shirtless, no shoes or socks on his feet, screaming c’mon mothafuckahs! because he did not like hearing the music being played in the backyard of a house across the street where neighbors were having an afternoon barbeque. That’s when I knew the spics had invaded…he said years later.
As he entered the 1990s, he decided to drive a taxicab as a way to circumvent the payment of overdue taxes, reasoning that if he earned a meager income, he would be deemed inconsequential, his file lost in a bureaucratic morass, and tax authorities would forget about him. He even smoked a joint before periodic meetings with tax representatives, believing they would show clemency out of regard for his erratic behavior. One interview resulted in his case being filed away for a year, exactly the kind of reprieve that a man who lives on borrowed time needed. Meanwhile, he worked the overnight shift to earn more money, fleece the pockets of absent-minded night revelers, and make good with strippers and whores. It was a new trade that rekindled the fires of poetic passions eviscerated by family life in the 1980s. It was a profession suited for a man who was most comfortable in the netherworld of alleys, street corners, bus stations, jail cells, and bar rooms. He once said the metaphors were never contrived on skid row.
It was early one morning in 1991 when Dave Church woke up feeling reborn, writing in his daybook about feeling renewed and energized by his re-entry into the local poetry scene. He was enjoying a recent spate of publications and a write-up in the Providence Journal. He had even earned a $50 fee from his first public reading in fifteen years, which he duly gave to me, his son Jonathan, as a present on my 13th birthday. He was becoming the writer he always wanted to be, a maturing writer with a perspective he did not have thirteen years before when his son was born, a time when he poured his heart onto the page in a flow of drug-soaked psychobabble, his ambitions slowed and made lazy by the natural inclination of a young man to dismiss mortality as a concern far off in the future.
By 2008, seventeen years had elapsed since that morning in 1991 when he came out from the land of the dead and was reborn in the land of poetry, becoming the writer he was meant to become, what was once only a fantasy when his passions burned in Faustian freedom, hoping for an agent to come along and give him a deal for big money. No such luck. Now he was broke, driving a cab fifteen years after he reached the age of forty-six, the age at which his father died and thus the age he superstitiously had designated as the end of his Time on earth.
But he did not die at the age of forty-six, and now he was in the third and final stage of his life. The first stage had been his time before entering into the land of the dead, the second being his time in the land of the dead, and now the third when he had emerged from the land of the dead. He was back in the land of the living, far away from the land of the dead, of family and business and responsibility, which had divided his life between the years of his callous youth and the years of his I don’t give a fuck old age.
His ambition no longer dissolved in the callous, spontaneous free-for-all adventures of his youth: Screw it, I’m dying young anyway, so who cares? And then he would sing songs and write poetry with Billy Schragy, like he did with Henry Grimes, like he did with Gabe Capuano, all those songbirds with daggered wings who mended their souls with peregrinations on needle-drained feet into oblivion, outside Time, fed by heroin, benzadrine, gin, or whatever they happened to come across that day. Ah, those were the days, the days when fate was mere coincidence, ah, Henry, fancy seeing you here, ha! ha! ha!, let’s go drink! Ha! ha! ha!
But in the final years, in the age of Faust, Dave lived in his Hell before death, writing, working the system, doing back-door deals and pulling scams, stealing from his passengers, or skimming the boss’s portion of the taxi fares. Taxi driving was not an honest trade, it was a poet’s trade, and never trust a poet whose only profession is failure. Seventeen years after he awoke from the land of the dead. Seventeen years from the day he met a woman who encouraged him to start writing again, and he was reborn – a day that was itself thirteen years removed from the days of slam poetry and benzadrine nights, in those months before the birth of his son when he walked the streets looking for whores and scores, a reckless, desperate, fun-loving, unhinged lifestyle that in the darkest of hours compelled him to make a deal with the law to save himself and his family, but almost resulted in a permanent hiatus from poetry. The hiatus turned out to be temporary, even if for thirteen years. I am happy he returned.
Remember the Time (published in TAXICAB POET CONFESSIONS: A Small Press Tribute to Dave Church, March 2009)
The end of time is here,
With naught but the past
Upon which to ruminate,
For the future shall be no more
As the sun sets on longing,
Ambition replaced by nostalgia
Or, even better, death,
When a life of ceaseless toil
To conquer one’s time and place
Comes to its natural end,
And so it is that we must accept
The wrinkles of our quest
To wrestle with the tides of time
Until the riddle has been ridiculed,
And life becomes no more
Than a long night of rest.
Gnat in Wine (published in Big Hammer #16, The Eviction Issue, Spring 2013)
In a garret with lights dimmed,
When the dusk has seeped in
And spread through the rooms,
A heavy cloak of blackness
Is draped upon the walls and floors,
Dappled with spots of light
From lamps on corner tables
And candles perched in sconces.
From the shadows emerges
A gnat bouncing swiftly
In zigzag patterns,
Drawn to the sweet smell of wine,
Which proves too thick
For the gnat to swim safely,
Thrashing its wings
Life a fly flailing in a spider’s web,
Until it breathes no more
And is left a carcass to float
In the red lake of its desire.
Nature (published in Calliope Magazine, November 2014)
The dogs attacked fiercely like a scourge,
In a meadow of white lilies and dark green grass,
Slim trees stretching gnarled arms to the sky.
The stag fell and the men watched sternly,
Restraining some of the dogs
While others barked in their fury and adrenaline,
Ambushed the panicked stag caught sipping muddy water
Under the gaze of husbands and magistrates.
The stag smacked its head against razor teeth
and ravenous jaws,
The belly with white thin fur ripped open by the claws
Of dogs trained for the hunt,
The stag yanked and kicked in increments of desperation
To its inevitable climax in the small patch of meadow.
Futile twitches ensued while husbands eyed the infant stags
And magistrates glanced at helpless trees basking amidst lilies.
The scourges of nature gave way to silence
As the dogs awaited their sleep.