Train wrecks and cancer

There are things you can only learn from being in a train wreck. Like how to survive a train wreck, what to do when you’re in a train car and it’s on its side and on fire and everyone around you is screaming or dead. Like what it feels like to be in a train wreck. And being in a train wreck is so intense and loud and such a big fucking deal that you start to think that there’s maybe nothing grander or sweeter or profounder than the things you learn from being in a train wreck.

The bullshit part is the thinking that all of life is like your train wreck. It’s not. Hardly any of life is like your train wreck, and your actual train wreck is boring. I once sat through an AA meeting up in Harlem where the speaker kept saying things like, “Remember zip guns?” or “Remember razor fights?” and the black men in their forties and fifties would nod, and I was thinking, Zip guns? Razor fights? I haven’t ever seen that shit in my life.

We are taught, however, to think of certain types of train wrecks as glamorous, even universal. I knew enough that in the seventh grade, when I went to San Francisco to do pot for the first time with Zorick and Tony the Russian car thief, and when they took me to somebody’s house where everyone was slumped on the floor, dazed and wasted and listening to thrash metal in their Megadeth T-shirts, that I was seeing the coolest fucking thing on the goddamn planet. I knew when I watch Sid and Nancy that I was supposed to want to be a suicidal junkie. There are a million rock songs about that particular train wreck — so many that you might start to think you haven’t really lived unless you’ve hung around Casey Jones and gone off the rails.

You know what else is a train wreck? Cancer. And it’s boring as shit. No one wants to read your cancer memoir. I’ve known too many women who’ve had cancer and written godawful poetry about it and cried when they read the poetry and been pissed as hell that I didn’t cry too. But it’s your train wreck, not mine, and no one’s written good songs about it — not even Bob Marley, who died of cancer while writing songs about marijuana and gunfights.

So yes, Michael Lally and Dave Hickey and Greil Marcus and Anthony Kiedis and a dozen other ex-junkies, I get a kick out of the way you jam. I was raised on it. Half the time I’m not even sure what you’re on about — maybe the drugs fuzzed a circuit up there, and now you talk faster than you think, or maybe that’s the particular skill that kept you alive when everyone else was crushed under luggage and broken glass. But don’t try to sell me on the golden glory of the old-timey railway and its switching errors. There are other ways of being alive, other ways of knowing. When you’re not so caught up on the trouble ahead and the trouble behind, you can light out and look all around.