Monday, November 08, 2004


Although I sometimes feel like I have fallen down the rabbit hole at my job, I have nothing on writer Maggie Dubris, an EMS/ambulance driver in 1970's New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Times Square and Harlem. Although Skels is fiction and has an eerie low grade current of magic realism running throughout it, I believe in the veracity of every single word of it. As I have often commented on my own work tales: you just can’t make this shit up. I feel a kinship with her, even though my job is not nearly as gory or dangerous, She has to care for Loretta and Punky and people of their ilk in extremis - faking seizures, bleeding out or three day drowned.

The title comes from a word that she hears on the first day of her job in Harlem, and it is a term used to by the police and city workers to describe the panhandlers and homeless who live in the subway or abandoned buildings. She is unfamiliar with the word so when she goes home that evening she looks up the word in a dictionary.

There wasn’t any actual entry for “skel.” I studied the closest thing I could find.

SKELDER v. {a cant term of obscure origin}
To beg; to live by begging, esp. by passing oneself off as a wounded or disbanded soldier

Skelder. Skel. It seemed like the word had meant the same thing in medieval times. Until it fell from use and vanished like a coin in the river, lost in the muck for three hundred years, to suddenly pop up in the precincts and ambulance garages of Harlem.

Although the subject matter is lurid, Dubris’ writing is haunting, beautiful and pensive. This excerpt is after she retrieves a body of a drowned blind guitar player, a homeless regular who is originally from Georgia.

Now I could see garbage floating in the sun’s light; cans and soggy paper, and the black of the river was just sludge, suspended in the cold, poison water. Bodies floated under the current; gangsters who had crossed the wrong men, whores too old or too sassy, and drunks like Blind Samuels, who wandered too far from home and fell in one hot summer night. His guitar was in there somewhere, I knew it. Smashed to bits by the water. All the years of sweat and flaking skin washed away...
I thought of Blind Samuels, rolling in the deep, and all of the other men down there, the toadies and the rats and the welshers, bricks tied to their feet, the current washing the tears from their sightless eyes.

When I went to Amazon to read more about Skels I noticed Amazon had paired Skels with The Hamilton Case, a book I recently finished and adored about Sri Lanka when it was the British colony Ceylon. I then noticed under its “Reader’s who Bought this book also bought…” feature the books The Return of the Dancing Master, which I just started, and Blue Blood, which I had just checked out. There is no similar theme or commonality to the books that I can recognize and I discovered each of the books in a completely different way: through order lists, patron recommendations and shelf browsing serendipity. Amazon's algorithm for reader's advisory/electronic profiling is uncannily intuitive.

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