Tracey Flagler, may she rest in peace, was my neighbor. I barely knew her when she was with us, but after I found her remains in her apartment, I thought she might be any one of us despite our differences. The soul is bared when the body is decomposed, a soul essentially simple, without height, breadth or depth, at once boundless, numberless, and one. Reality when beheld from the right angle is an inexhaustible diamond mine no matter where an author might dig. Now that Tracey is gone for good, she is quintessentially as good a subject as her great idol, Oprah Winfrey, who was in Africa when she needed her, and who no doubt would have come to her rescue if only she had known of her desperate plight.
A ragged servant and a rich queen in this great log-cabin to white-house or squalid ghetto apartment to $50 million mansion nation of ours are at most and at least born equal, and to that equality all are fated to return. Notwithstanding a final judgment on their accidental particulars as individuals, they are hypothetically not only categorically the same as an existential category of one, but are in the final analysis are substantially the same as well. Although only individuals may apparently exist; although there may be no substantial continuity between individual things; although there may be no universals binding particulars; although the forms we perceive may be illusory, accidental configurations of matter; - still, in order to maintain our dignity, a wondrous exception must be made for our divine soul. Undoubtedly that soul is not merely nothing but a name for the Vanity of vanities: no, it is not an empty excuse for nothing but ignorance, but it is rather the supreme personal being, the universal I-god who presides over the cosmic stuff. Withal, no man in his right mind is a nominalist in his own right.
Tracey was virtually alone in this crowded world. She had no known heirs, and the personal effects that survived her were seemingly too inconsiderable to make an estate of any interest to the state. In any event, the stuff in her apartment was up for grabs, thanks to our landlord – he left her door open before the Salvation Army truck arrived. My fellow neighbors carted off a few of her things, but they missed what I discovered in the proverbial Field of Diamonds, that is to say, one’s own backyard. The hidden treasure was worth more than the million dollars Tracey had asked the Source for in Oprah’s name, money she needed to relax and have fun, to be free to be joyful every minute, free to be the proud proof of the success everyone wants, instead of scraping out a meager living as a hassled waitress for tourists and the occasional rich and famous people whom she wanted to join at table instead of wait at table.
Although she wanted more than what she had, Tracey very much enjoyed her South Beach apartment. She left notes behind expressing her appreciation. “I am glad to have a city and a place to live in and my health and my kitties – I’m glad to have that in my life. Success is based on enjoying and appreciating physical stuff. I begin by appreciating the stuff I already have. I appreciate South Beach and the beautiful ocean, the colors and the architecture of South Beach. I appreciate the beautiful things in my apartment: my TV, my overstuffed chair, my kitties, all of the cool colors, my plastic glasses, my Etch ‘O Sketch, my dry-eraser board. Yes, it is small compared to the mega-stuff I have asked for, and I feel stupid, but it is so BIG compared to what I once had. I am angry that I allowed myself to dream so big, yet I can harbor so much more in JOY than I used to be able to. Is there any reason that I can’t continue? Why cannot I continue to keep up my success?”
The apartment Tracey appreciated so much is in a small complex on one of the last half-dozen blocks of the blighted old South Beach ghetto that has otherwise been gentrified. It is barely a stone’s throw from the so-called chic scene on the southern extremity of the City of Miami Beach, the living end dubbed ‘South Beach’ by the promoters, where Tracey worked as a waitress, and is a mere block from Washington Avenue, the vulgar, drug-ridden nightclub strip favored by tattooed hip-hoppers and mentally ill vagrants. The rental property has an assessed value of one-million dollars and comprises three small two-story buildings, four identical studio apartments to each building, squeezed into a perpendicular row from street to alley. Living quarters therein are dirt cheap: $750 per month; the equivalent of the first and last month’s rent must be deposited in advance as security.
A severely damaged sculpture, a tall monolithic wooden structure onto which an illusory resemblance of the face of Mona Lisa was slashed with a saw, stands out front in a small plaza. The sculptor sprayed it with graffiti and smashed the face of his creation before he moved out. The landlord, who complains that he has little money for maintenance because his rental profit has been taxed out of existence, has not bothered to remove it. The plaza out front as well as the narrow yard and sidewalks all around the buildings are usually cluttered with trash thrown careless on the ground by tenants, and socks, rags and underpants tossed out of the windows of the apartment building next door, and dead palm leaves, sticky palm nuts, motor scooters, and dog excrement – as we say in Miami, “It’s the culture, stupid.”
A five-foot high, white metal picket fence runs along three sides of the property. The fence is for naught since the tenants could care less about keeping the gates locked, or are afraid to lock them: a resident was stabbed into a comatose state by a homeless man who was angered at him for locking them, thus denying him a convenient easement from the alley to the street. Club-goers drop by occasionally and use the premises as a toilet, as do the huge dogs that live on the premises – the place has been likened to a kennel. One resident dog lover recently had to move out of his apartment in our complex and off the beach because it is illegal to keep pitbulls on Miami Beach. The dog, a pitbull-Doberman mongrel, was over-friendly yet presented a terrifying aspect as it played, tearing around corners of our buildings lickety-split to charge at any two-legged prospective playmate in sight. The owner, a waiter at a popular restaurant nearby, was a nice enough fellow, but his culture mandated shouting commands interspersed with key curse words at the dog at all hours of night, not cleaning up after the dog, and yelling Ebonics into his cell phone while pacing outside our windows when he got angry, using frightful gangster-rap talk
When nature calls, animals respond. The sound of two ladies simultaneously talking on their cell phones woke me up late one night last week. With miniskirts pulled up and panties around ankles; they were urinating underneath Tracey’s stairwell, just below her neighbor’s window downstairs. I put the finely rounded brown asses of the two squatting ladies in the spotlight with my flashlight; they squealed, pulled up their panties in a hurry and scurried away. Late last evening, a couple came onto the property and took shelter from the rain under Tracey’s stairwell. Their groaning sounds awoke me, and I thought someone was hurting. I went to the window; the couple was obviously having consensual sex, so I retired to let them have their way. Of course some of the hundreds of vagrants who live in South Beach alleys sometimes sleep on our outside stairwells. And one homeless man regularly uses the outside electrical outlet to charge his cell phone late at night – if only he would not talk on it so loudly, nobody would know.
The large abutting building walling off the north side of our ground is a hotel residence occupied by non-English speaking Hispanics, the majority of them illegal aliens. The shrinking economy is sending some of them back to impoverished Mexico as I write. They are a relatively peaceful lot. One was dumping his garbage onto our six-foot wide lawn along the building, but we found his phone number on a takeout slip for tacos in the garbage – a phone call threatening to call the police and immigration resolved the problem immediately. Two large-bodied workers who place their shoes and socks on the window sill can be seen sleeping in one small bed from time to time. Another tenant therein plays raucous Mexican music for an hour each evening. In case anyone is interested in such details, the inhabitants without curtains may be viewed taking showers.
Lawrence, my first next door neighbor, mentioned Tracey shortly after I moved into my second-floor studio in the building in front of hers – I could look directly into her place from my back window in the bathroom. He said she was a sweet girl, and that if he were straight he would definitely go for her, but he doubted he would get very far because, he said, she preferred black men, an assumption made from a handsome brown gentleman regularly seen at her door – why do we whites have to work so hard for our tans? Lawrence, a New Yorker through and through, apparently had no such color preferences. He said he had overheard Teddy, our Puerto Rican neighbor downstairs, making racist remarks on his cell phone; he said was deeply offended by such low-class talk, although he was otherwise impressed by Freddy’s linguistic facility, particularly his elocution and smooth tone of voice.
I did not think it was so smooth: Teddy did not want to disturb his own family, so he was wont to come outside and yell into his cell phone below our windows. And then he liked to party with friends and a jug of wine on our stairwell. I spoke to him quietly about the annoyance, but he said he was the de facto resident manager; he said he did not care what I thought, that I should just move. I became the jerk who straightened him out the next night with a scene that included cops in the cast. He apologized through the landlord, and became quite the gentleman thereafter. He is now the head of a family of five including the dog, intimately cooped up in one room with a large entertainment center that thumps into the night until I call him or bang on his ceiling. He does try to be considerate, but our floors and walls are paper thin and he loves drumming. And now he takes his cell phone to the street for long calls. He could be a very successful family man, a man with a house and loving family and a backyard for the dog, if only he would reach for the stars. But he reached for Section 8 housing, and turned it down after waiting 3 years – he did not want to raise his kids in a violent ghetto. So here he remains, with a brand new baby. I want him to be successful, but my own circumstances are certainly not a pulpit from which normal success can be preached without hypocrisy – I am presently a successful failure.
Lawrence and I became immediate friends, but he moved back to New York two weeks after I arrived, one reason being that he was angered by Teddy’s racket-making, another being that, although he was gay, he could not stand the “mean young gays” who live on South Beach. I know my other neighbors even less well than I knew Tracey, whom I barely knew. I am a gregarious person, but my neighbors live on their own little planets and want to keep it that way. Indeed, when I greeted a neighbor who lives in the front building, and said that I did not know my neighbors, she said she did not want to know hers, and abruptly turned her back on me and walked away. I only know her from her orgasms when her boyfriend visits – she is a screamer. I no longer greet the two men who live in one of the back studios, as they are exceedingly sullen and gave me the impression that I am a gringo they would rather kill than say hello to. There is one courteous fellow downstairs: Carmichael, a bodybuilder, nightclub doorman, and youth worker, but I rarely see him because he works day and night. And there is my sole neighbor upstairs, whom I rarely see because he works nights as well; thankfully, he is the quietest man on earth, and he put a welcome mat and plants on our shared stairwell instead of the customary bags of garbage.
Now then, since the ubiquitous “I” is our main subject, I am eager to say something about my own appreciation. What do I appreciate about my physical environment? I appreciate the beach most of all. If it were not for the beach itself, South Beach would be nearly worthless, at least in my opinion as a frustrated beach bum. Well, yes, I appreciate the Art Deco architecture when the sun falls upon the pastels in a certain way, although I consider the ornamental style superficial and cheap on the whole. As for function, many of the buildings were barracks, and might better have been torn down long before being put on the historic preservation list. My apartment complex is unusual, not Art Deco ornamented. I appreciate my studio, but I liked it better when it was almost bare. I do not require much stuff to be an enormously successful failure. I am leery of owning luxuries, preferring to view them when they are in someone else’s possession, or when displayed in museums and picture books. For me beauty really is in the mind of the beholder. I am complex within but a minimalist without. I have furnished my studio with a few things from the alley, and with a TV and microwave from the much smaller, hotel room I had lived in before the hotel was purchased by developers. The vulgar residents of that hotel including me were precipitously evicted to make way for the gentry; holdouts had their doors kicked in by off-duty Miami Beach cops – the hotel sits empty two years later. But I got a TV and microwave out of the exchange.
My most useful possession is the used computer my generous friend Darwin gave me after I wrote his ‘Manifesto on Cubosurrealism’. I also have plenty of books to appreciate, titles such as The Deconstruction of Literature, Fathers and Sons, The Way We Never Were, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Suicide, The Egotists, The Pursuit of Loneliness, The Success and Failure of Picasso, The Myth of Male Power, Becoming Mona Lisa, The Lonely Crowd, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Great Cons and Con Artists, Magister Ludi, and The Skin of Chagrin.
Tracey was all alone when she suffered her breakdown, too depressed even to reach out to her high priestess, Oprah, perhaps the only person in the world who might have saved her with a talk. Chatting on her cell phone failed to relieve her loneliness, so Tracey had turned it off for good. The Pursuit of Loneliness, copyrighted in 1970, claimed that American culture, with its economy based on greedy individualism, was at the breaking point. The problem with the striving for money is that its value is inflated, from a tool facilitating exchange to a digital symbol of power; thus the lust for easy money distracts people from actually producing and distributing the basic goods and services and the better environment that everyone needs. As for the liberated American woman, she is still manipulated to live for the convenience of men, who still cultivate violence at home and abroad. The Lonely Crowd, copyrighted in 1961, suggests that our “other-directed” contemporary individualism may be more flexible but is as conducive to conformity as the “inner-directed” or tradition-bound individualism we associate with the legendary “rugged individual,” whose common morality was implanted in early life by authority figures. Now that relative affluence has been obtained for the majority of Americans, the problem is less and less with squeezing out a living from the natural environment, and more and more with profiting from other people, with whom everyone is increasingly in touch by mass media, which of course serves the rigid organizations needed to harness the new flexibility. Rapidly changing fashions instead of enduring morality is the contemporary rule for other-directed people, who are, on the whole, and especially if they are rootless Americans, more friendly, shallow, wasteful and insecure than the inner-directed traditionalist of old. A survey of people on the street and any popular magazine rack, and an audit of casual conversations, belies the notion that contemporary persons are unique individuals in any way – if anything, they have been over-socialized. We are virtually zombies, possessed consumers. We have more and more things to choose from, but the choices are not ours; we want something else besides all that, but we really don’t know what that is, or quite how to get it, and we lose faith.
One of Tracey’s letters, penned shortly before her departure, is instructive: “I want to be proud. What is pride? What is being proud? What do I want my definition of pride to be? Pride is in visible, external success, the proof of greatness. Since I want pride, I lack pride and must really hate myself. I want greatness but am not great. If most of the people in the world died today or went to prison unfulfilled, I believe they might still be great, but they were unable to recognize their greatness. Is that the meaning of failure? For me it is because I know these processes, I know the secrets of the universe and I still screw up. I don’t care about those people who don’t know they are great – I care about me. What is it all for? We could die in a week and what is it all for? What do I want it to be for? I wanted to be able to be happy in every moment, to choose stuff in every moment and have that lead to greatness. Why, why, why? For the fun of it, that’s why. I wanted to feel that way, to have joy, and I saw famous people feeling that way, having fun. Everybody wants money and fame so I figured that if I could have that it would lead to joy. So I wanted to be great. If there is no proof of greatness then what is the point of being here? Why bother? Because they tell me all this stupid crap, like I can create anything I want and am a genius creator, et cetera et cetera. And then I look at my stupid life and the fact that I can’t even exist without some weird, intense pattern of thought taking over, and I sometimes think we are all so full of crap, so full of crap that life is really futile.”
I have retrieved a few of Tracey’s things and have suitably positioned them around my place to get to know her better. In addition to her secret stash, I have her big brown teddy bear named Penelope, a Voodoo charm, the dry-eraser board, a cute little bowl, a large mug decorated all around with the image of a one-million-dollar bill, fifteen boxes of tea, and books entitled The Millionaire Mind, Pathfinder, Self Matters, What Color is Your Parachute, and Basic Spanish Grammar, along with representative samples of her subscriptions to O – The Oprah Magazine and Oxygen.. The Salvation Army will pick up the rest of Tracey’s stuff next Friday. The stuffed chair is a prize but the neighbors do not want it, as it is very large for small studios and rooms, and one would need two men and a truck to get to move it.
Tracey’s somewhat dated books are in mint condition, as if they have never been cracked. Opening The Millionaire Mind at random, we find this tidbit from a multimillionaire’s mouth, for digestion by success-seekers: “We feel power and control…. It’s a sense of power. You become king within reason. I have a small corporation…. Those that don’t agree with me can resign…very democratic.” The Pathfinder’s subtitle is, ‘How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success.’ We learn that “part of the reason so few people have truly satisfying lives is that they simply do not have tools adequate to the task of designing such a life.” The author provides us with the tools, after noting that “most of us would not be willing to live such a life for very long, even if we could design it.” Self Matters addressed the subject of ‘Creating Your Life from the Inside Out.’ The author assigns us our first task on page 63: “Beginning right now, with only the second chapter of this book, I am asking you to take a huge ‘time out’ from this scramble you call life, and to focus on the one doing the scrambling: you. I am asking you, demanding of you that you focus fully and unapologetically on you.” What Color is Your Parachute would have us know that there is a job out there for you: ‘Write This on Your Forehead, There Are Always Vacancies Out There,’ reads the rubric on page 19 of the 2006 edition. As for Basic Spanish Grammar, often essential for getting a low-paying job in Miami – ‘bilingual (Spanish) required’ reads the want ad – practice makes perfect. If Tracey did not read these pristine condition books, those of us who did read them and are still stuck in a rut may not blame her: we known what to do but don’t do it, for that is the very nature of the rut.
Honore de Balzac would certainly appreciate Tracey’s million-dollar coffee mug in the wee hours. I’m drinking my coffee from it as I write, and with this wish, that Tracey Flagler return from the beyond to sue me for stealing her secret. I shall raise the defense that her last testament left her estate to finders-keepers. And then I shall gladly cut her a settlement check for the cool million dollars she wanted so badly that she did not notice it beneath her feet, just as I did not look down at the roll of hundred-dollar bills my right foot stepped on the other day while strolling along Washington Avenue – I cursed at the felt impediment and kept on walking; a homeless man ran across the street to pick it up the money: “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed. God, indeed!
I was taught not to look down, but to keep my head always held high, and to look upwards, at empty space, when I prayed – perhaps that is why I have faith in Nothing instead of in things. I appreciate the fact that that poor man who looked downwards got the bankroll – I did look downwards at Equinox South Beach one day during my free trial and found a $100 bill on the gym’s floor. I appreciate even more the fact that my studio has six windows. I appreciate the marvelous webs spun between the palms and the buildings by the crab spiders. I appreciate the two little trees the landlord planted outside my window. They were knocked down by hurricanes several times, but they took root during the last two, untroubled seasons. Butterflies, duly camouflaged with yellow wings, flit about the yellow flowering leaves on a background of dark green leaves, and a noisy blue jay has taken up residence in one tree – when I answer with a song from my flute, he takes off for awhile. I used to look out of my window above the bathtub when showering, to appreciate the sight of Tracey’s favored fluffy kitties sitting in her window – stray cats also sunned themselves on her doorstep, dreaming of another bite to eat from her generous hand.
Yes, I appreciate South Beach, my apartment, and the things in it. I imagine Tracey Flagler felt some joy in her circumstances, just as I have joyful moments in mine. But who is Tracey Flagler, and who am I? That remains to be seen.
To be continued
Who Was Tracey Flagler?
by David Arthur Walters