It was 11:00AM
EST as I pulled into the warehouse parking lot. A
fetid breeze had begun to blow off the Potomac from
the direction of the Pentagon. Because of the
humidity and oppressive heat typical of August in
the Washington DC area, the warehouse bay doors were
wide open. The warehouse may have been just a block
from the Potomac River on the Virginia side, but
this provided no relief. And then there was that
stench of death emanating from the Pentagon.
I leapt up the warehouse steps letting the door slam
behind me. The bang of the door roused the warehouse
crew from its sweaty stupor. Several old fans roared
away as four bodies slowly rose groggy an d
perplexed from the mounds of filthy damp clothes,
old periodicals, sheet music, porn mags, books, cast
off shelving, rotting blankets and sundry styrofoam
food containers. The smell of half eaten food in
various stages of decomposition mixed openly with
the aroma of marijuana, alcohol and hashish and
stale cigarette smoke.
The warehouse crew consisted of five people, Phil,
Busby, Leroy, Norman Zhou, the manager, and myself.
Norman took a swig from a jar filled with his
concoction of what he called sweet tea and what I
now realize was raw, unfiltered kambucha, a
symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Norman had
placed dozens of jars of the slimy stuff all over
the warehouse. After months of sitting in the heat
and filth, the tea began to take on bizarre shapes
and forms inside the jars. Some resembled
bonsai trees floating in swamp water. Others took a
more sinister turn resembling aborted fetuses and
deformed babies complete with bloated heads and
stunted limbs. Still others looked like musky,
vegetable galaxies of thick slimy, zoogleal mat
swirling in their own pickle jar bit of cosmos.
Norman would break from whatever he was doing, pull
down one of his concoctions and take a long swig,
screw the cap back on and go back to whatever it was
he was doing.
This morning it was playing his violin. Noman
had been declared a child prodigy and after
graduating Choate he spent a year studying at
Peabody in Baltimore before his first breakdown.
Today’s first selection was Hindemith’s Violin
Sonata in C.
Norman ran the show. He was short, perhaps 5’2” and
weighed maybe 110 pounds. He had enormous black, bug
eyes that seemed to be in a constant state of
wonderment and long coal black hair that dropped in
a languid pony tail well passed his ass. He had
broken a lens in his glasses some months before and
taped over the shattered glass with electrical tape
giving him the appearance of a tiny, skid row
The warehouse itself was a marvel of filth amidst a
Versailles-like sense of order. There were tens of
thousands of books of the least desirable kind
covered with dust and muck and on occasion aging,
rancid carry out. But, even so, where chaos
appeared to be king, every category of book was
keenly labeled and in meticulous alphabetical
order. Beyond that there were impeccable
subcategories which demonstrated more than a passing
knowledge of each subject if not an anal
predilection focused on order and taxonomy, but not
so much on hygiene and sufficient toilet
“Fuck. You woke us up,” roared Busby a Trotskyite
who sported hair and a beard that more than emulated
his master, Karl Marx. If ever man resembled a
bear it was Busby and vice versa.
Busby’s knowledge of Marxist literature and history
in general was encyclopedic. He was one of
those lost geniuses too erratic and truly outside
the box for the military industrial complex that
dominated Northern Virginia. It was as though he
were there to remind the rank and file that there
was a world beyond the Beltway Bandits that lined
I495. And remind them he did.
During casual conversation we had realized that a
few years earlier he had been slated to drive me to
Canada if a 1Y deferment I had applied for was
denied. It wasn’t and he didn’t, but still I felt a
connection to the guy who was prepared to give me a
600 mile lift to escape the brutal lie that was the
US Invasion of Southeast Asia.
Busby had a deep baritone voice and one of his
favorite pastimes was singing Soviet Infantry Songs
in Russian, one of five languages he was fluent in.
“What the fuck was that Busby?”
“An early WWII Soviet infantry song. In English it
goes and he’d let go in a husky baritone:
‘Let us sing a Stalinists' song about infantry,
about glorious Soviet bayonets...’
“Lebedev-Kumach wrote the lyrics. Chernetskiy,
Leroy’s main job, after scoring the best dope a
couple of noncoms in charge of body bags arriving at
Andrew’s Air Force Base had to offer, was to keep
the five ton truck used for hauling books in good
repair. Needless to say, he was better at the former
than the latter.
He also used to ‘disappear’ for a few days to hustle
chess at Dupont Circle sleeping in an alley behind P
Street. He’d take some of the lawyers, NGO
interns and think tank suits for a couple of
thousand bucks, give the cops their percentage and
come back and bankroll a blunt and Scotch party at
the filthy warehouse or Phil’s sister’s place.
Not that Leroy wasn’t a crackerjack mechanic who
could’ve made a good living at it. Once when I was
on a road trip with Norman and Phil, the five ton
broke down in the mountains of West Virginia with a
load of 18th and 19th century history titles, a
dozen or so glass fronted bookcases and two pounds
of the best hillbilly cheeba this side of the
It was already late afternoon when the old five ton
gave out. I walked down this desolate stretch of two
lane flat top, snow flurries scurrying across the
asphalt. I turned and looked back. There were Norman
and Phil standing on the rusted bumper of the old
five ton bent over the engine bony asses to the
wind. A feeling of utter failure and bleak
desperation came over me. A sense that I was
squandering my youth. That I could do better than be
standing on a gravel shoulder in Resume Speed, West
Virginia with a snow storm and nightfall coming on
and winter at my heels.
Norman suggested I keep walking until I came across
a phone and call Leroy at the warehouse. I walked
several miles with the snow mercifully slacking and
reached a two pump gas and repair shop. I figured
the shop could put me in touch with a tow. But the
only tow truck driver the proprietor knew had “gone
to the cockfights over ta Reedy. And tow a five ton.
I don’ know. ” The mechanic, grizzled in his
mid-fifties, didn’t seem to keen on venturing out in
the snowy darkness to take a look at our broke down
truck with a group of hippy strangers either.
For all he knew we could be the reincarnation of the
So back to plan A. Call Leroy. First I had to find
out where I was so I asked the otherwise amiable
mechanic/pump jockey simply, “Where am I?” He
chuckled, “”Bout six miles southeast a Baldwin. Hey,
you wanna beer?”
“Yeah’, I said “How much?”
“Shit kid, it’s on the house,” He replied. “Just
don’t ask me to go look at your fuckin’ truck.”
I looked around and spied an old vending machine
with a few wayward snacks caressed willynilly in its
racks. I said,”How about I give you a buck and
you front me a bag of Cheetos from the vending
machine along with the beer.”
“Deal. Them Cheetos is pretty old,” said my
new friend wiping his hands on a rag. He offered his
right hand, “Abner.” “Good to meetcha, Abner. I’m
“Carlos?” Making a mistake I’ve heard a thousand
“No, Carlo. Italian not Spanish.”
“Italian? We got us a lot of Italians up here. Used
to work the mines.” Abner added.
“Yeah, my grandpa worked these mines,” I said.
“Yeah,” Abner replied, “You look a long way from
To call Leroy on the station’s pay phone just about
took every coin I had. Busby answered the phone and
shouted for Leroy and then proceeded to tell me how
the warehouse had taken in $38.00 that day, a pretty
good haul considering the general atmosphere of the
place, the difficulty in finding it, the awful
inventory and that fact that it was not zoned for
To my surprise Leroy said he’d come up and fix the
truck. His reasoning seemed to be some kind of
misguided frugality. But Busby had his old Volvo and
as Leroy put it, “I onced had a woman near
Baldwin” and new exactly the stretch of highway we
were stranded on. He’d pick me up at the gas
station. He even knew Abner. They’d panned
fried a few trout together in their time
Sure enough, two and a half hours later barreling
down the road come Leroy and Busby. They picked me
up and we drove out to the truck. Norman and Phil
were shivering inside the cab.
Leroy set to work holding a flashlight in his teeth
while Busby held a lamp plugged into the Volvo’s
cigarette lighter. Leroy pulled an enormous crescent
wrench out of his tool bag and gave what, to this
observer seemed an anonymous element under the five
ton’s hood two loud clubbings.
“Now try it,” he told a half frozen Phil. The engine
turned right over.
Phil was quiet and kind, a carpenter by trade and
perpetually sad. The kind of guy you were always
trying to bribe a smile out of. Like Busby and Leroy
he had been in and out of jail and was estranged
from his wife and daughters.
Norman’s title was warehouse manager. What that had
to do with anything, anything at all, I don’t know.
Norman chained smoked right down to the filters,
told wild wonderful stories about his time in the NY
art movement of the early sixties and his time at
Years later Rosalie and I found an artist catalogue.
A group of New York artists had squatted a five
story tenement building and lined its walls, floors
and Ceilings with old mattresses. And there
was a photo iin the catalogue of a dapper Norman
flanked by two pretty art ingenues smiling into the
camera in front of a wall of stained mattresses. I
leave the deconstruction of such a project to the
Norman once broke his glasses and would for several
years go around with the cracked left lens covered
in electrical tape. He had a nervous laugh
accompanied by a glance that silently pled for
harmonious assurances. His paranoia was straight out
of Pynchon. One memorable evening he was over our
house for dinner. He barely ate anything but then
again our guests, in general, barely ate anything we
cooked. The evenings were all about the
As his story goes, Norman had switched to the West
Coast where he was studying quantum physics at
Berkeley and moonlighting at the Lawrence Livermore
Laboratory. One night, he claimed, he was smoking
weed and drinking tequila with some of the other
physicists when someone slipped him something in his
drink, maybe LSD maybe just an over the counter
But the next thing he knows is he’s in the back seat
of a car racing along the desert floor, he was told,
toward Area 51. The black sedan stops and two burly
Marine types drag his scrawny body into a building
that resembles a grain silo.
Once inside he’s stripped and placed on a bare
aluminum table, or was its titanium, and several
technicians in lab coats begin to scrub his orifices
with a foamy cream which tastes like mint is his
mouth and feels cool and frothy in his anus.
Two more figures in lab coats enter. It takes him a
moment but these two are shorter than the others
with far larger heads and huge bulbous eyes which
are eerily reminiscent of his own. He
recognizes them from all of the bad reality shows
he’s gobbled up since he was a kid. These are the
aliens of fact slash fable. But these are the real
They probe and prod him briefly seemingly unhappy
with his malnourished state. One alien gestures to a
human technician to turn Norman on his side, which
he obliges. The aliens communicate by
telepathy. Norman is somehow privy to their
telepathic conversation with each other and the
surrounding human technicians.
One alien says, or rather thinks, ”His cortical
froth is quite active. The Critters should transport
a lucid raw state of images ripe for editing. But
his sex drive and digestion are quite subnormal so
we can expect pronounced penal and colonic
From his years studying electrical engineering,
Norman understood that the aforementioned ‘Critter’
stood for CRTs or cathode rays. But nothing in his
long and colorful encounter with the elite US
educational system from Choate to Yale to Berkeley
and Stanford had prepared him for what occurred
next. A cone was placed over him that
completely depilated his already nearly hairless
body. Time birds picked Norman’s teeth clean
of all ‘chink’ carry-out debris.
“But how did you know what time birds were,” I
“You just know,” smirked Norman taking a puff and
putting out the butt in his mashed potatoes.
Then one of the aliens began rubbing the enormous
skull of the other until a black greasy film began
to appear. The film quickly morphed into what
appeared to be leeches perhaps a foot long and an
inch in diameter which clung to the alien’s skull, a
kind of space rasta dreadlocks thing.
Then removing two leech forms, one alien attached
them to Norman’s scrotum. One of the human
technicians began to fiddle with dials and levers on
what appeared to be an oscilloscope. Suddenly a
flood of images burst onto the screen, a raw
unimpeded Stan Brakhage-like flow of sexual
aberrancy and excrement-based raunch that would make
DARPA blush and shut its doors. There was an air of
adolescent verve in the room as well as the smell of
“We may have underestimated the parameter values of
his erotogenic flow,” One of the little alien guys
thought to the assembled crew of technicians. “We
are receiving images that may not respond to
bio-neural control cues. This specimen appears
unsuitable” at which the big headed bald little
fucker without the bed head of cathode leeches
removed the two from Norman’s nut sack and the
oscillator screen went blank much to the chagrin of
all gathered some still with their dicks in hand.
One tech was heard to whisper, “We could make a
fortune if we could burn this little fucker’s cream
cheese ballsack storm onto 8 millimeter film.”
“I’d still like to transit a cache from his cortex
through the occipital region before we entirely
reject him,” the little big headed fucker who
appeared to be in charge thought.
Once again the cathode leeches were applied
wriggling and glowing and sliming up Norman’s
now utterly cue ball head. “Another larger
monitor was hooked up and images began to
appear. Again Brakhage-like cascades of light
and images filled the screen. But this time whenever
a penis or pussy became visible an algorithm would
brandish one of its components and literally
castrate, snuff out the sexual image and replace it
with one or many of death and mutilation.
The staff again had its hands in its zippers, when
the toddly alien in charge thought, “Stop! Stop!
This specimen will never do” at which point Norman
collapsed and the next morning found himself
sleeping on the manicured grass of the Berkeley
After four or five beers and several more tall tales
Norman would curl up and fall asleep on our couch.
We took off his shoes and covered him with a
And, oh, did I mention Norman was a concert
But back to opening the warehouse for business that
humid August morning. I get settled in with my
coffee while the boys slap a little water on their
faces and enjoy that first smoke and toke of the
day. Then the talk turns to breakfast. The consensus
choice is Chinese but there’s only about $50.00 in
We could either clear out the till and hope there
were no book sales that required change or we could
put it on the business account credit card. Paying
our own way was never considered. When a mere
neophyte, maybe my second day, I had suggested we
pay our own way. I was laughed out of the warehouse.
Another practice was for the whole crew to go to a
restaurant, order virtually everything on the menu,
eat what we wanted and skip out on the bill.
Norman’s calling card was the butt of a Marlboro
Light standing erect in his untouched mashed
potatoes like a flag on Mount Everest. Always
the grand gesture with Norman. After skipping out on
a couple of bills, I bowed out of going to
restaurants with the crew.
But carry out, that was another story. Phil wrote
out the order on a greasy brown delivery bag. Norman
wanted a large order of Duck’s Feet with Curry
Gizzards, Bloodcake and Pork Intestine in Special
Sauce, Baby Shrimp with Sour Vegetables and Squid
with Dried Bean Curd & Yellow Leeks, Steamed Eel
in Black Bean Sauce with an order of white rice,
enough food for all five of us times five.
Busby opted for the chicken low mein and, if they
had it, the sea cucumber with black mushrooms and
snow peas. A loud and virulent argument ensued over
whether the Hunan Palace had the cucumber on its
“Okay. Okay. If they don’t have the sea
cucumber get me the star fish,” Busby offered as a
solution which Phil dutifully wrote down while
Norman rolled his eyes, tapped ashes into his
coffee, took a swig, and declared “Busby. You’re
insane. Leroy. What do you want?”
Leroy begged off, “Too early for no motherfuckin’
Chinese” and popped a Natty Bo.
“Carlo how about you,” Norman asked.
“Chicken livers with spring onions’ll do me just
fine. And let’s get a couple of orders of shrimp
“How much is that gonna be?” Norman asked.
“How the fuck am I supposed to know,” Busby
“$138.57 before tax,” Phil chimed in.
“I guess the till is out,” Norman laughed.
“Petty cash?” I asked.
“No. I used that for cigs,” Norman offered.
Phil left with the order and the company credit card
just as two black sedans pulled up into the parking
lot. Four well-groomed young men in cheap suits got
out of the cars and approached the loading dock.
They presented badges, “We’re with the IRS”. The
breeze and its attendant stench was picking up
“Oh fuck, for a moment I thought you were with the
FBI,” a relieved Norman chuckled. “Almost gave me a
fuckin’ heart fart.” Leroy and Busby had already
made themselves scarce.
“What can I do for you?” Norman asked.
“The company’s being audited. We’re here to take an
Norman and I looked at each other big grins breaking
across our faces. We’re these guys for real. The
main floor may be in impeccable order but there were
perhaps 120,000 titles with shelving going up 20
feet. In the back of the main warehouse and the side
warehouse there were literally thousands of boxes of
used books, hundreds of thousands of titles in
various stages of repair not to mention the mountain
in the back room, a 15 foot high stack of loose
books surrounded by shelves with a few thousand more
boxes on them.
“You want a guestimate, right,” I offered.
“No, we’re here to take an accurate piece by piece
count,” the fresh faced leader informed us.
“Oh!” I said surprised and amused by the young
feller’s knee slappin’ naivete.
“Are there more of you on the way,” I asked.
“No. Just us four and your assistance,” the IRS
agent Ted said.
Norman and I gave each other a ‘so what look and
shrug’ . The IRS guys came in through the door while
Busby and Leroy slipped out the opposite bay.
Look, even then I was no stranger to inventories
having worked retail since I was 15. But the
warehouse, no way. Later when I began managing the
Dupont Circle location, I began to pull inventory
from the warehouse. On one trip after several hours
excavating box after box I found a hidden wall
of 200 pieces of 19th century Americana which I put
in the store juicing sales for months to come.
Norman and I each teamed up with an IRS agent as the
other two agents went for carry out coffee and
donuts. Norman and his agent took the main floor
while I took the holding area to the side.
Now to characterize this holding area? Imagine a 60
foot by 40 foot space surrounded by 25 foot high
library shelving reaching up to a habitually leaking
roof. In this space, allow your mind to venture into
a dark labyrinthian forest of stacked boxes some
piles stacked eight or ten boxes high. Imagine
“filth, age old and age thick,” as the poet Ezra
Pound once had described fin de sičcle Europe.
Oh, there was filth and it was old --- and thick.
Then there was the tea. Yes, tea. Norman’s home
brewed Chinese jiaomu tea distributed in jars
thoughout the warehouse where it sat for months,
even years. Over time, the tea cultures gathered to
create strange and eery phantoms in the jars. Some
resembled deformed fetuses hunched in various states
of dissolution. Some looked like pickled bonsai
trees. Others just looked like vomit in solution or
a loose bowel movement. Randomly Norman would
pull down one of these jars and take a long draft
from its contents. “It’s why I’m so healthy,” he’d
say without a sense of irony in his voice.
“Healthy? Norman, you’re sick all of the time.” I’d
“Yeah. But that’s from the smoking and not having a
decent place to live,” was the way he read it with
his signature ironic grin and low huff of a laugh.
Then he’d take another swig.
The grotesques in the tea visibly spooked the IRS
agent. But he was determined. “Let’s start here he
said,” pointing to a short stack of boxes.
I opened the top box. It was full of old
Congressional Records from the 1910’s bound in half
leather, boards detached, water soaked and
“What value would you place on these?” the IRS man
asked me in a tone as innocent as any Opie ever used
“Value?” I said after a moment. “I don’t think
these have any value at all.”
“Then what are they doing here?” the agent asked.
I shrugged while the musical theme to the Twilight
Zone made the rounds in my head.
We worked for another 20 minutes until the other two
IRS agents came back with the coffee. The four
agents huddled. The two working with Norman and I
were already filthy and drenched with sweat. They
had set aside their suit coats and rolled up with
sleeves but their frocks were well past dry
Norman picked up his violin and began playing
Bartok’s haunting Sonata for Solo Violin. Ominous
clouds gathered over the Potomac and winds swirled
up dust and grit and trash in the parking lot.
Dozens of gulls mobbed and squawked about the
dumpsters. The reek of raw garbage in a 95 degree
heat on a day with 90% humidity wafted into the
warehouse. A fleet of black Huey helicopters flew
upriver cutting its way toward the Pentagon. Several
car alarms howled and beeped as the wind concussed
the parked cars.
The Four IRS agents took stock and then suddenly in
unison leapt off the lip of the loading dock.
As they rushed to their cars, Norman perched at the
very edge of the dock, grit and trash swirling
around him, his hair rising in the maelstrom, the
sounds of Huey’s and alarms beating the air, and,
forte, ‘spat’ the last sixteen bars of
Bartok’s dauntingly beautiful piece into
the clueless Virginia zeitgeist.