Wallace Stevens and Me

IWallace Stevens‘ve referred to my job at Hartford Insurance in San Francisco a couple of times. An explanation is due but after composing three paragraphs on the subject I realized I can’t squeeze a good story out of it. You know – like all my other stories that are not only fascinating in themselves but reveal hitherto unknown mysteries and great truths about the human condition. Or, at least, my condition.

It was the right job at the right time, but I was there no more than a couple of months altogether. It’s moderately significant only because I had so few jobs in my life but I’ve occasionally made a big deal of the fact that Wallace Stevens was a vice-president of the company. That really had nothing to do with me but I played it up anyway, perhaps thinking I’d be considered a great poet by association. It was fun, though – that’s the main thing. I mentioned it every chance I got, especially when I worked there. Not that Wally and I ever went out for brewskis after work or anything. He was at the Hartford, Connecticut office and died when I was eleven. Regardless, no one in the San Francisco mail room had a clue what I was talking about.

Mary Lacer lived next door to me at 2444 California Street in San Francisco She had a boyfriend or husband, not sure which, and I’ve forgotten his name. They had a cat which I’m sure was a normal cat but looked to me to have the face of a small human being. A Sicilian, probably. A petty thief with a moustache and a fedora. I enjoyed the time I spent hanging out in their apartment, especially because Mary was yet another in a series of beautiful but unavailable women I had a secret yen for. But the cat spooked me when it came into the room although, as far as I know, it didn’t speak. They also had a boa constrictor which slithered freely about the place. I was assured the thing would not crush the life out of me so it was only the cat whose eyes I avoided.

Mary painted large canvases filled with birds, goddesses, and suns with faces. I wanted to photograph her nude but started out taking normal pictures of her, about five in all, every one extremely out of focus. Not a good start. She had a day job in the personnel department of the Hartford Insurance Company.

Can you get me a job?

They’re always looking for people in the mail room. I’ll set up an interview.

Perfect. Mail is my vocation, after all. I already had my fraudulent social security number. Mary warned me that all candidates, from mailroom to the CEO’s office, were subject to the same in-depth investigations, security checks, medical and IQ tests, etc. When they asked why I wasn’t in the military (Vietnam) I said I was a Canadian student enrolled at SF State. As Mary was in personnel she had access to their files. She told me later that they’d done the whole security investigation including interviewing neighbours and had a list of some of the people I hung out with. Despite this they hired me. Great spies! I wasn’t legally allowed to work in the U.S. and the only time I went to SF state was to see Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner where I got into a pissing match with the guy in the row ahead of me because I insisted on smoking to show solidarity with the rebel hero of the movie, Colin Smith, played by Tom Courtenay. Mary also reported that I had the second-highest IQ of anyone in the S.F. branch office. Whew! Smart guy or dumb company – you decide. I wonder where Wallace Stevens ranked. I had trouble grasping most of his poems so he was at least one point ahead of me, I’m pretty sure.

But I was the poet of the San Francisco mail room. I had a noon to four shift weekdays and took the California Street cable car to work most days. Every afternoon thousands, maybe millions, of policies came down to the mail room and it was my job to sort and stuff them into the hundreds of pre-addressed envelopes going out to agents all around the country. Two of us did this – me and a guy named Tom Elliot. If I got a job like that today my brain would seize up within ten seconds, my eyes would turn into hardboiled eggs and I might stop breathing permanently. But at that time I was able to remove myself entirely from what my body was doing and enjoy my own version of the reality of everything around me for those four hours. Within a couple of days I knew the names of every Hartford agent in the country. Each became a character in a fantasy world which I described to Tom and anyone within earshot as the hours passed. “Ooh, Bob Farnsworth’s got a fat envelope today. He’ll be working late. His wife will be going to that motel with Brad Buxley who’s only got the one policy today.” Midway through our shift Susan wheels her coffee wagon into the mail room. I call her Susanna. “She felt, among the leaves, the dew of old devotions.” I explain our transcendent love to Tom. “We made love in the grass by a grey and bare jar, she brings doughnuts and coffee, in her little cart. Cinnamon buns – danishes” I never exchanged two words with her, in fact. Besides my coffee and doughnut order, that is. The time passed quickly.

In trying now, forty years after the fact, to imagine what it would have been like having a guy like me sitting there four hours a day not shutting up for a minute, I conclude I would kill someone like that. I must have been insanely boring. On the other hand, Tom Elliot was so caught up in the non-stop play-by-play of my hilarious, fantasized world that he wanted to know where I got my drugs. I gave him my address and he came by to pick up a dime bag I got for him from Ed up on the top floor. Ed’s not his real name. I don’t know what his real name is anymore. Even when I knew it I couldn’t remember it because all the time I spent up in Ed’s attic apartment was helping him use up his enormous holdings of the world’s best dope. One time I was up there I got so fuckedup that walking down the four flights of stairs every landing seemed like the first landing all over again so that it seemed I was walking forever and getting nowhere. So for the three hundredth time in my life I vowed that if I made it back alive I’d never use drugs again. The point was to get high, not go crazy.

Sorry. I’ve done it again. The one thing I know for sure is that describing dreams, highs, and mailroom fantasies will try anyone’s patience, including mine. Especially mine. My god, somebody stop me before I write another word!

Five views of Mary Lacer:

One view of Ed rolling one in the attic:

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