I wish someone would slap me every time I think probiotics will make my life complete

I always get disoriented when I fly open-jawed and land in an airport that’s different than the one I left from.  I don’t remember the last time I did it, but last night I landed in SFO a week and a half after departing from OAK, and it really fucked me up.  I walked down the concourse with this strong unconscious feeling that nothing was right.  I mean, I spent the whole flight sitting next to this bald dude with a handlebar mustache, black leather boots, and a crushed velvet suit jacket in a bright shade of burgundy, who read The Fountainhead in that sort of “look at what I’m reading” pose, and I really wanted to just say “okay, we get it, dude” but I didn’t.  It took me a lot of time to get used to being in the wrong airport and mentally figure out that I was on a different mass of land with a different drive in front of me, but the 50 degree temperature difference really negated that.

I haven’t been back in Indiana in two years, and I always hesitate to write about the experience, because I don’t want to piss off the people who call it home, or make it sound like I’m ungrateful for them taking time out to see this asshole who flew out from California that won’t stop bitching about a lack of vegetables and heat.  But it always puts the zap on me to see stuff back there.  I think this visit, I spent less time in a nostalgia black hole, and avoided a lot of old haunts, although it wasn’t entirely intentional.  Both the night of Christmas Eve and Christmas itself, I headed back to my hotel semi-early, and had thoughts of driving around University Park mall, maybe finding an old place to eat, and doing some serious people-watching.  And, of course, both times I was an idiot and didn’t realize that they closed damn near everything early, and I ended up back at the hotel eating candy bars for dinner.

I got a chance to meet up with fellow writer Steve Lowe, which was cool, because our Venn diagrams of South Bend-dom probably briefly touched decades ago and we didn’t realize it.  This leads me to my new year’s resolution (yes, another one of those posts): I really don’t know half of you people out there, and I never see the other half of you.  I need to make more of an effort to see people in the next year.  So if you’re in the bay area, please ping me, and I will do likewise.  I don’t care if we haven’t met before – we should grab a cup of coffee or hit a book store or whatever.  I need to do something with my life besides clicking the Like button on facebook posts.

So, saw the family.  Suffered through the cold.  Ate a lot of garbage, but only gained about a pound.  Almost hit a deer.  Didn’t write, which I wanted to do and of course I didn’t, so what the fuck.  I left Indiana a day earlier than I thought, due to a scheduling issue, and drove up to Wisconsin, then drove down to Chicago the next day to hang out with John Sheppard.  We went to this weird diner that was all classic diner food but vegan, built up out of various soy products, which was actually pretty damn good.  We got to hang for a bit, and scheme about our next big project, which is always awesome.

Speaking of, next project – you should go over to Paragraph Line and bookmark that shit.  We’ll be posting daily (we hope) dispatches, fiction, news, and other distractions.

Anyway, it’s good to be home, and I have to unfuck a million things here, piles of half-unpacked things and gifts that need to find permanent homes, and whatnot.  I got some nice little things, but after every trip back to Indiana, I always want to go Fight Club on my shit and start donating everything.  I also feel a need to do the same thing digestion-wise, hence my current issue with probiotics.  At least I will get a lot of reading done in the next few days.

Ok.  2013 done.  2014 coming up.  Still writing 2012 on my checks.  Gotta go finish this book now.




Automated board loading machinery

I spent a good chunk of the summer of 1993 trying to find a job.  I returned back to Elkhart for the summer, because even though that summer of 1992 in Bloomington was life-changing and ended up becoming my first book, I made absolutely no money selling glowsticks and telemarketing.  I needed real work, factory work, the kind of thing that would pay me more than minimum wage in exchange for spending three months operating a punch press or doing the same thing over and over, thousands of times a night.

I went to Manpower, the temp agency, with some hope of finding anything even vaguely computer-related, like changing backup tapes or reinstalling DOS programs or beating dot-matrix printers with a wrench.  But this was 1993, and there weren’t a lot of computers in factories.  And most of the places that did have them would farm out the maintenance and support through their home office, so some guys working at what was then called Anderson Consulting would drive out of the Chicago corporate office when an IBM mainframe went south, and bill all the hours back to the account.  I had a girlfriend who once spent a summer working for Manpower, loaned out to Miles Pharmaceutical doing mindless Lotus 1-2-3 stuff.  She only made a buck or two above minimum wage, and the work was mindless and air-conditioned.  I knew just as much about WordPerfect and Lotus – I’d worked as a computer consultant for the university for two years at this point.  But if you went to Manpower and you had a vagina and you knew how to read, they gave you the typing test and put you in the virtual secretary pool.  If you did not, they pulled out the manual labor listings and tried to slot you in at a factory somewhere.

The first day, they loaned me out to UPS, to help a guy do an inventory count of all of their repair parts for vehicles.  We went to the big Elkhart warehouse, which was just down the road from where Ray lived, and it seemed like it was only a year or two old at that time.  I don’t know where they used to be; I just remember a big empty field suddenly becoming a giant ugly UPS warehouse, built overnight from those prefab metal panels they used to construct every factory in Elkhart.  I don’t entirely remember the system we used for the inventory, although it certainly involved paper and not some kind of tabletized bar code reading beep-beep making Star Trek computer thing.  It was more like a clipboard full of tractor-feed paper forms, and the guy I worked with would say “1005734-slash-22-spec-4” and I would mark a box and say “check.”  This went on for hours, and I watched a bunch of guys in brown shorts dismember the contents of a large semi, throwing boxes onto conveyors, taking a big truck trailer and reformatting it into contents for dozens of smaller trucks.

Two observations that stuck with me: one, the backs of UPS trucks have clear ceilings.  They aren’t really clear as much as they’re transparent, like a see-through tinted plastic, that lets light through so they can see in the truck without lights.  It’s a sort of brown-green shade.  Two: those giant trucks are powered by four-cylinder engines.  Each cylinder is gigantic, coffee can-sized, but it’s not a V-8.  Someone must have done the math on the best engine to use for all of that stop-start traffic while hauling literal tons of boxes, and that’s what they got.

One of the mechanics was an old guy, an Ernest Borgnine from Airwolf looking dude, who spent the afternoon dismantling a huge four-banger, wrenching on it and carefully removing each part.  We stopped and ate lunch with him.  I told him I was into computers, and he produced a folded-up magazine ad for a 486-33DX computer, something from the back of Popular Mechanics or something.  It lauded that the machine came with dozens of software titles, a sound card, a microphone.  “You don’t even need to know how to program.  You can just talk to it,” he said.  Maybe it recorded voice memos, but this was twenty years pre-Siri.  “Well, you still need to…”  “No!  You just talk to it!”  I always wanted to see if he actually bought it and then did a “help computer” into the mic and got nothing but a DOS prompt.

That job lasted a day, and the inventory was over.  The next morning, they sent me to a factory in Middlebury, something with a vaguely generic name, like A&B Wood Works.  I was to report there at 6 AM.  I remember trying to go to bed at something like 8:00 the night before, which was completely stupid, since half the time I stayed up until four in the morning, and now I needed to wake up at four in the morning.  I didn’t have a car, and this place was maybe a half-hour away, so my Mom had to leave early and drive me there.  At the time, I was trying to avoid everyone in my family, so spending an hour a day in the car with my Mom wasn’t ideal.

At this factory, they painted the chipboard pieces that make up entertainment centers and bookshelves.  The whole factory was essentially a huge loop of a conveyor belts.  One guy would put a board on the belt, and it would go through a sprayer that laid down a coat of lacquer paint.  Then it would go through a drying station, which would cure the paint quickly with hot air.  Then it would get flipped, and go through a second time, and then it would get pulled and stacked.  You’d do a couple of stacks per pallet, a pallet every couple of hours, a few pallets a day, a few dozen pallets per semi truck, a few trucks per order, and then you’d change color or change lumber type and do it again.

Maybe four or five people ran the entire factory.  They worked every day, from 6 AM to 6 PM.  Almost every week, they would work five days a week, sometimes six or seven.  They paid time and a half for every hour past 40, and double time for every hour past 60.  I think the minimum wage at that time was $4.25, and Manpower paid me $6.60.  So the average minimum wage burger-slinger made $170 a week, and at Manpower, I’d make $264.  But if I stayed at this job, I’d make $396 a week, plus an extra $158.40 for each weekend day I worked.  That meant if they did work seven days a week, I’d make more than a week’s flipping-burgers pay over the course of a weekend in the factory.  How hard could this be?

Factory work is always mind-numbing, but this particular setup seemed worse than normal.  It took a fair amount of effort to pull boards off of the stack and slap them onto the conveyor.  That sounds easy, but it’s a full-body workout; it’s like slinging kettlebells around.  You have to spin and dip and pull and lift and heft and spin and drop, all with precision.  And you do the same movements over and over and over.  The same exact movements.  The chipboard pieces aren’t heavy, but moving them in the same exact way makes them seem heavy.  I worked without gloves; when I asked if they had any, someone answered “we stopped paying the supplier, so they stopped delivering more gloves.”  The work was continuous, and I had to constantly supply boards.  I could barely think, and all of my thinking power went to one simple equation: $6.60 an hour, times 40 hours, plus 20 hours times 1.5 times 6.60.

Different factories have a different rhythm.  The best way to break the routine is to talk to someone, work at a machine next to another guy, pack boxes with someone else, find some job that requires you to stop every 20 minutes and sweep the floor or go to the other side of the building and get more parts.  But this job eliminated all of this.  You simply fed in boards, flipped boards, pulled boards, as fast as you could, just to keep up.  The machines weren’t deafening, but you didn’t work with anyone, as the people running the painter and dryer were stuck at their stations, a hundred feet away from you.  A guy ran a fork truck, but he was constantly moving around pallets, hauling in new blank boards and packing away the finished pieces.  We did stop for 20 minutes to eat a quick lunch, but I barely got to say hello to the coworkers before we got back to it.

A few hours into the shift, one of the boards grabbed the palm of my hand, gouged out a chunk of flesh.  I bled from the hand, but didn’t notice it, because I had to fight to keep up with the line.  The guy on the paint machine noticed it though, because I was bleeding onto the boards.  We were doing a run of black parts – those matte black bookshelves were all the rage in the 90s, and the department stores were selling them as fast as we could paint them.  So the blood-stained boards just got covered with a jet black, leaving behind no trace of my injury, although someone out there’s got a bookcase containing some of my genetic material sealed within.  The fork truck driver took over my spot for a minute, told me to go throw a band-aid onto my hand and get back to work.  I found a half-pilfered first aid kit, got fixed up, and went back to it.

It had been dark when I started work.  By the time we left, all but two hours of the day had passed, and all I wanted to do was eat and go back to bed.  Although the idea of going back and working 60, 70 hours a week seemed tantalizing from a financial aspect, I couldn’t see doing the same thing every day for the rest of the summer.  I told my mom I couldn’t go back, would try to find another temp assignment, maybe another agency.

Even though I felt exhausted, I couldn’t sleep that night.  My hand hurt, but mostly I still felt my body twisting, picking up boards, putting them back down, flipping them, pulling them, stacking them.  I closed my eyes and only saw the conveyor in front of me, heard the paint machine spraying down coats of matte black.  The only way I could sleep was to put a death metal CD on my headphones, on repeat, on low volume, a constant sound of something familiar to break up the automated feeling of being a board-loading machine.  I drifted in and out of sleep, in twenty minute fits and spurts, then took a shower and headed out on my ten-speed to find another job.



You Can Never Go Back

I am home.  My last ten days: Oakland to Chicago to South Bend to North Liberty to South Bend to New Buffalo to South Bend to North Liberty to Elkhart to South Bend to Indianapolis to Bloomington to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Milwaukee to Chicago to Oakland.  I did all of this except the Oakland-Chicago flight in a bright mustard yellow Ford Fiesta, fighting with Ford Sync to try and get the voice control to play songs on my phone, most of it in the rain.  But the driving and the subcompact and the junky Ford transmission were the least of my worries.  My big problem was the ghosts.

I don’t go home much anymore.  I don’t even know where ‘home’ is; I’ve spent more time out of Indiana than I lived there.  Home is probably where the mortgage is, and Elkhart is nothing but a distant memory.  And when I go there, that’s what always gets me: the nostalgia, the distant memories of the time I spent in that little town, when it was my entire world, and the coasts and cities and states outside of the 46516 were nothing but fictional entities on a TV screen.

This trip was particularly hard, for some reason.  I’ve been trying to foster stronger friendships with old friends and family, because I feel like my life’s been on autopilot, and if I don’t put in the effort to see people, it’s suddenly twenty years later and they are all strangers to me.  But when I went back, it seemed like everyone was in some kind of crisis or despair. Everyone’s getting older; everything’s falling apart.  People are unemployed and underemployed and oversubscribed and overextended.  Nobody’s happy.  Everyone’s unable to move, and tells me I’m lucky I escaped.  And I did escape; I do have a job.  I’m mostly healthy, I’ve got a house and a wife and two cars in the garage and food in the fridge and cash in the bank.  But that doesn’t make me happy.  I’ve struggled a lot in the last year or two with what I should be doing, the big picture stuff, and I haven’t always been happy with the results.  So it makes me uncomfortable when others look to me as a person who’s “made it”, and I have no business telling them what they need to do to get out of their own rut.

When I do return to Indiana, I find it amazing that I drive places without even thinking about directions or maps or GPSes.  I think about going somewhere, a mall or store, and find myself driving there on autopilot.  I drove a lot of my old routes: the IUSB to Elkhart path I took every day for year; the River Manor to Concord Mall trip I drove a million times in the 80s and 90s; the south-bound US-31 jump across the middle of the state to Indianapolis to Bloomington I drove every holiday I came back from school.  As a whole, the state’s in sad shape.  So many businesses are closed, homes foreclosed, factories shut down, strip malls empty, old malls bulldozed.  Roads are potholed and unkempt.  Of course, every other abandoned movie theater or grocery store has become some kind of evangelical church, and those continue to thrive.  But I felt such an overwhelming sadness driving those same old routes and seeing total devastation.

I went to my old hangout, the Concord Mall, to see how it was doing.  I spent my childhood going to this four-spoked shopping center, walking the concourses and buying toys and records and books.  I later worked there, at Montgomery Ward, mixing paint and selling lawn mowers and Christmas trees.  Concord Mall has been utterly decimated.  I went a couple of days before Christmas, and I’ve seen more people in the mall back in the Eighties two hours before opening.  My old Wards store died ten years ago, and has been split into pieces, now a hobby shop for scrapbookers and packrats, a discount appliance store, and a family dentist.  Most of the stores are now gone; the Osco drug where I used to spend hours at the newsstand reading magazines got turned into a food court; every single stall is currently shuttered except for a Subway.  The Walden books where I got every book that influenced my writing as a teen is now a bizarro used book store with old, beaten religion books.  The MCL cafeteria Ray dragged me to almost every week is boarded shut.  Both record stores are gone.  The only surviving store was the GNC where my first girlfriend worked.  I think it does brisk business in energy drinks and herbal stimulants for the few remaining factory workers.

I went to my old house in River Manor, which was absolutely heartbreaking.  It was foreclosed upon a couple of months ago, and was devastated.  The big TV antenna tower was bent at a 30 degree angle and falling over, and the roof was covered with a blue tarp, probably with some kind of wind or storm damage.  Several of the windows were broken and boarded over; the screen door was ripped off of the front, and the patio door in the back was broken and boarded shut.  The grass died; trees were missing or dead and the landscaping was entirely fucked.  Doors and windows were secured with impromptu padlocks and riddled with legal postings from sheriffs and maintenance services.  I looked in the windows, while trying to remember any of my old teenaged egress methods that could have been used to gain entry, and the inside was filled with garbage, old boxes and trash, and storm damage.

I have no love for Elkhart, and absolutely no desire to return.  But part of me wished some REO website had the house listed for ten grand, just so I could either restore it (which would probably cost more than the hundred grand it’s “worth”) or bulldoze it and put it out of its misery.  I walked the perimeter and thought of a million memories, all of the hot summer afternoons I paced every step of the lawn with a mower; all of the times me and my sisters set up our kiddie pool or played with the dog or built snow forts in the winter.  I thought about the year I returned in college and lived in the basement, stuck between a life of return and escape.  I went to all of the places in the yard where we buried childhood pets, under trees that were no longer there.  I spent a decade and a half calling this white tri-level home, and now it looked like one of the abandoned buildings outside of Chernobyl.  The entire visit completely gutted me.

One of the mixed positives about the trip was going to University Park Mall.  We first went on a Sunday night, at about 9:00, and the place was absolutely packed.  The mall looks like it has doubled in size, not even including all of the outlying big box stores that appeared on the perimeter.  I walked the concourse, and examined all of the stores, which have been replaced with more upscale items.  The place even has an Apple store now, which amazed me.  When I was a teenager and first got a license, I made the pilgrimage to this mall whenever I could, going with Tom Sample just to dig through the import records at Camelot and maybe see girls that didn’t go to our high school.  Almost every single store has changed, but the hallways are still the same, and I took a few laps, just looking for any reminder of my past, something that hadn’t changed.

I thought a lot about what would have happened if I never left Indiana, if I graduated from IUSB and got some middle management job at a bank or insurance company and stayed behind.  I think I would have descended into this world of retail therapy, buying a house with a giant basement and buying every Star Wars collector item I could find at the mall.  It seems like everyone in Indiana retreats into this kind of womb of consumerism, filling a house with big screens and bigger collections of media or whatever else.  The whole time I was in town, I wanted to buy something, and didn’t know what.  I felt this low-level depression, and my first response was either to eat something, or go to Best Buy and get something rack-mounted with lots of watts and inputs that would make me think of something other than life.

I’m home now.  I feel like throwing out everything I own, keeping the computer and maybe a dozen books.  It is so good to sleep in my own bed and use my own shower.  But I still feel strange and bad and conflicted with the trip, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.


The Other Cairo and Internet Archaeology

I took the standard drive-to-Florida Disney vacation when I was twelve, and I’d been to a bunch of the plains states by then: Missouri, Iowa, the Dakotas, Wisconsin.  But in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, my dad took us on our first big trip out of the Midwest, this two-week journey to upstate New York.  And at the time, I was bored out of my mind, depressed about being away from my car for so long, obsessively reading the JC Whitney catalog in the hundred degree heat.  But we did a lot, saw a lot, and it’s one of those things I always plug into my mental wayback machine, trying to remember the little details or uncover something on the web that connects back to it.  I didn’t have a camera back then, and I never wrote anything, so it all seemed lost to me.  But thanks to the magic of google maps, I did manage to dig up some of that past.

We visited upstate New York because my stepmom’s family vacationed there.  It was the typical Italian-in-The-City migratory thing, where you rented out one of those little camps for a couple of weeks and sat around and played bocce ball and ate a lot and slept in little cabins.  We didn’t stay in the same compound as the rest of her family though; we rented basically like a motel room with an efficiency kitchen near the city of Cairo.  I remember Cairo as being just like all of those other little thousand-person Catskill hamlets, with a single main street and a general store and some other mom and pop places, like a pie store and an IGA grocery.  I drove around there in 2000, when I rented a jeep to bug out of the city for the weekend, but I couldn’t remember where anything was, and I think one of the main state roads running east-west got rerouted and widened, which threw off my mental landmarks even more.

I recently took a look on google maps, because Randy wrote about camping in Cairo.  Last I checked, the resolution on their upstate NY maps was roughly Commodore-64-grade, which wasn’t helpful.  But when nosing around, I found a little clue that zeroed me in to exactly where we stayed.

So, it’s July 1988, and I spent two days in the back of a pickup truck, sleeping on a mattress with all of our luggage, reading all of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books in one pass while watching Ohio and Pennsylvania scroll past me outside the truck cap’s plastic windows.  We got to Cairo, unloaded in this Bates-style motel, and spent a lot of time swimming, because it was always a hundred degrees and you could see the humidity.  The complex was a cluster of small buildings, each one with two units, on a horseshoe drive curved around a main house and an in-ground swimming pool.  Most of upstate New York like this is not in cities or towns, but just the occasional house off to the side of a heavily wooded road, which isn’t conducive to a teenager with no car who just wants to wander around parent-free.  On the first day, I hiked down the highway, my jambox on my shoulder, listening to Back in Black, and I walked about a mile to a gas station to buy a single Coke, which I then drank on the way home.  Of course, the whole voyage was a push, considering how much I sweated on that walk, but it was one of those journey-is-not-the-destination kind of walks.

The next day, I went to this restaurant to get a coke, and that’s my big clue on this search: the Stone Castle.  It’s now called The Stone Castle Inn, and it’s a, well, stone castle; a turret sitting off of this sleepy little road.  I walked over there one day and ordered a coke, but they had no to-go cups, so I sat in this heavy wood restaurant that I think used to serve German food, the prototypical German restaurant with high ceilings and a huge stone hearth and dark wood everywhere.  I guess the place has since been restored and is now an Irish pub, but more importantly, it is on Google Maps, and our place was right next door, so it zeroed me in and showed me I had been searching up and down state road 23, when I was supposed to be looking on state road 145.  If you go here, you can see that horseshoe drive, and the swimming pool to the northwest.  It’s even got a street view picture, although none of this is as high quality as if you aimed google maps at, say, Palo Alto.

If you go northwest on 145, you come to Hitchcock road.  We used to load into the pickup truck, and drive up that road to 32, which crossed Catskill Creek here.  When the motel pool got old, we’d swim in the river. It was blocked partially by a dam to the northwest, which formed this nice little pool with some falls that were perfect for inner tubes.  The water was always cool, crystal-clear, like swimming in bottled water.  I remember sitting on the beach by that water, talking to some older kids who wanted to know where we were from, and when I mentioned Indiana, they said “Bobby Knight, right?”  The one thing I learned on this trip was that Indiana, which was my entire universe at that point, only held a fraction of a fraction of a percent of peoples’ collective consciousness outside of that state.  I always – and still – marvel at what one or two random factoids people do know about the Hoosier state.  Back then it was Bobby Knight, David Letterman, and maybe band instruments like Selmer.  This was pre-Shawn Kemp, pre-kid stuck in a vending machine, pre-meth lab Indiana.  And those “older kids” were probably all of 19 or 20, which seemed like adults to me at the time.

The first time I ever flew was here too, at the Freehold Airport.  (here, here.)  We drove by here, and they had some deal where you could fly for 15 minutes for ten or twenty bucks, so me and my two sisters piled into this little Cessna and took off.  (It was probably this blue and white Cessna 150 shown on this page.) I loved airplanes, but had never been in one.  I got to sit in the front of the little VW-sized cockpit, and the pilot told me not to touch anything, because I had a yoke and a set of rudder pedals right in front of me. I remember so distinctly when those tricycle gear wheels pulled off the ground, watching the ground fall below us, and flying at a few thousand feet around the area.  The pilot asked where we were staying, and we flew over the motel, looked down at the creek and the bridge and the dam, saw little tiny people swimming and tubing in the water below.  It would be seven years until I got on a plane again, not out of any fear of flying, but just because I never had the money or reason for air travel.  But being in that little Cessna made me want to fly, made me spend way too much time kicking tires at airshows and screwing with crappy flight simulators on outdated Windows machines, wishing I could jump in a tiny plane and cruise around at two thousand feet, looking at the scenery.

I’ll have to do more digging to find out more about this place.  I remember we also went to Woodstock, the Zoom Flume water park, and Hunter Mountain.  But what I remember most is how those daytime activities, the little field trips to see old bridges or small towns, were punctuated by these longer periods of boredom and late-night depression.  I thought all of my melancholy feelings had to do with being in Indiana, being around the people in my school, but when I was a thousand miles away, I still felt them, and knew something was wrong.  I didn’t fully realize any of this until a few months later, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, trying to unravel all of the depression and confusion.  At the time, I just wondered about the strangeness around me, taking in all of this alien scenery of small town New York, listening to people talk about the muggings and rapes and crime of The City, not knowing that in just over a decade, I’d be living there, too.

Anyway, bottom line, google maps is a huge time suck, and take more digital pictures, while you have the chance.


Master of Reality

[Trying to type on an Apple bluetooth keyboard for the first time – man, this little thing is weird.  There seems to be a whole cult of people that like this thing more than any other keyboard in the world, but I’ll be damned if I can’t stop hitting the caps lock key by mistake every other word, making the entire paragraph look like some kind of Tea Party protest sign.]

Okay, so I was out on Saturday and after dinner at a somewhat forgettable Indian place on Piedmont, we were walking back to the car and saw this little newsstand store.  And it was an actual newsstand – a store about as big as a bedroom off of a side street, two walls filled with racks of magazines and newspapers.  The other wall had t-shirts, moleskine notebooks, zines, and other paraphernalia.  (Fourth wall: glass, mostly.)  It had some pithy, punny name, like “Issues” or something, but I forgot what. [It was Issues.] Anyway, we went in and I looked for something to buy to support this guy, since there’s no way in hell he’s making loads of cash selling the occasional copy of High Times and operating a subsidized reading room for hipster doofuses.  I also wanted some proof that I wasn’t teleported back to the mid-90s, because it’s been forever since I’ve seen an independent newsstand that actually stocked non-Hearst, non-Conde Nast, non-News Corp, non-Time Warner publications.

I grabbed a zine (I forget what – I’ll look it up later) and headed to the cash register, but found a small pile of those 33 1/3 books on a shelf.  I may have mentioned these before, but Continuum publishes them, and they are a small pocket-sized book (maybe 4.5″x6.5″) and they are each numbered as part of a series, which gives them the same hoarder appeal as records.  Each title is about a particular album, and most of them are a small critical analysis or history of that particular record.  But the first one I got (Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice) was not about the Smiths album of the same name, but was instead this hundred-page fiction story about a miserable kid in high school, a sort of punk wannabe guy who goes to this crappy high school where there was a suicide, and his infatuation with this girl.  It reminded me a lot of John Sheppard’s Small Town Punk (the real first edition, not the rereleased cassette single version) and how it captured the angst of growing up in Reagan America and how punk was not a brand of hair dye you bought at the mall, but a type of disaffection you suffered when you weren’t a jock in high school.

Based on that book, I went to Amazon and clicked away and bought a bunch of the books, but then found out that most of them were just these stupid record collector/music critic wankers going on about how important a particular Led Zeppelin album was to the world, as if I gave a shit.  But Colin Meloy wrote one for the Replacements’ Let It Be that was about a kid from Montana that finds this album and it becomes a huge corner-turning event for him, and I really dug that book.  (And from the Amazon reviews, which I should have read in the first place, I guess a ton of people had the opposite reaction as me, and loved the musicophile books and had a serious WTF moment over the Meloy and Pernice books.)

So I got the Master of Reality book about the Black Sabbath album, written by John Darnielle.  This was written in two parts, the first as the journal of a kid who was locked up in a rehab psych ward, and the second as an extended letter to his old shrink, ten-odd years later.  The whole thing was interesting and touching and the hundred pages flew past pretty quick.  And there were two basic reverberations or takeaways from this.  The first is this urge for me to wrap up a 30-40000 word novella or short story or whatever from my various writing about either high school or college, and publish a really kick-ass small pocket book like this.  And the issue with this is the constant struggle I have right now with what to write, because I’m still stuck at this fork in the road with “straight” fiction like Summer Rain on one side, and “weird” fiction like Rumored on the other side.  It’s easier in some senses to write the “straight” stuff, but I feel like creatively, I have a lot more depth and ability with the other stuff.  So there’s a part of me that reads something like these 33 1/3 books, or Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned and recognizes a great need to cut the shit and not try to write some high school angst book and get back to reading Leyner and Federman and Burroughs and whatever else.

The other thing that this book hit was my childhood friendship with Jim Manges.  I’ve talked about Manges before, but this story reminded me so much of his backstory.  Manges did some time in Oaklawn, the local rehab place, and a lot of the long conversations I had with him in high school formed my opinion of the whole system.  Probably once or twice a semester, a kid would vanish from classes, and the rumor mill would start churning with the various stories about how he tried to kill himself or got hooked on whatever drug, and got sent off to dry out.  A heavy fundamentalist christian base in Elkhart was either the cart or the horse in the situation; a lot of kids with Jesus freak parents would rebel heavily, get into serious trouble with drugs or sex or crime or a combination of the three, and would end up either in juvie or rehab.  Or was it that the heavily religious would send their kids up the river over the slightest issue?  It’s hard to tell, but Manges was a little bit of both.

Jim’s parents used to pull the usual totalitarian stuff, like random room searches.  Like I remember one time he told me not to bring over a Van Halen record because his mom would throw a fit, due to that smoking angel album cover, “Running with the devil”, and the local televangelist’s regular special on what records of your kids’ to burn always mentioning Van Halen.  I mean, this was the particular record that contained keyboard parts at a time when keyboards were sacrilege to any hard rock/heavy metal fan, and now half of the songs on that album are played in elevators and dentist’s offices.  I also don’t need to go into too much detail about how his mom thought D&D was a gateway to hell, and we had to smuggle in our D20s and modules and lead figures if we ever wanted to play a few rounds of The Keep on the Borderlands. But, Jim also smoked when smoking was as off-limits as shooting heroin is now, and he used to always have porn, drugs, music, firecrackers, knives, and whatever else hidden in his room, so his mom’s searches were not completely unfounded.

But a big part of Jim – and this book – that I identified with was that rudderless drift through the unknown, being knocked around on all sides, from parents, other kids, teachers, crappy part-time jobs, and everything else in life.  From my point of view, everyone else around me had it together.  If they needed anything, from an Izod shirt to a 5.0 Mustang, they just asked their parents and they magically got it.  I assumed all of them would drift right through college with no effort, then come back and work for their family’s businesses or climb the corporate ladder that seemed to stretch up forever to unlimited wealth back in the pre-crash 80s.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I was supposed to do, and got fed nothing but contradictory messages from the authority figures at the top.  None of it made sense to me, and people like Jim – the misfits that clashed with authority – gave me some assurance that I wasn’t the only one screwed up.

I think Jim gave me the best piece of advice I ever got when I was maybe 16 or 17, and the “we need to talk” talks were mounting.  He told me “all I ever do is find some fixed point on a far wall, like the clock on the microwave, and just focus on that and let them talk until they feel like they’re done talking.  They’re like sharks looking for blood if you try to talk your way out of anything.”  That advice didn’t do much for him; I think he’s been in and out of prison three or four times now.  But I survived, so that’s something.

I gave up on the Apple keyboard a bit ago, though.  I think it will be nice for on the road, when I’ve only got the iPad.  But at home, the ergo keyboard rules supreme.  And speaking of being on the road, I have to go pack up and get ready to head back to New York tomorrow morning, for the first time since I left in 2007.  Should be interesting…


Cash for gold city

I mentioned before that my great Midwestern tour this holiday season was a two-parter.  We spent a week in Wisconsin with Sarah’s family, which I’ve done every year for I think five years now.  But this time we also took a few more days and drove out to Indiana to see my family.  I haven’t been back there since August of 2007, when I brought Sarah back to meet my family and show her that I wasn’t exaggerating about the place.

I don’t get back to Indiana much anymore.  For a long time, I made an annual trip, and I started by going at Christmas, back in 1995.  And that year, it seemed like such a pointless exercise; pretty much all of my family and friends were out of town or busy with work or having surgery or in jail or otherwise preoccupied, and I basically ended up taking a week of unpaid vacation to sit at home and watch Saved by the Bell reruns for hours at a time, or tag along on a late-night Wal-Mart run (the center of culture in Elkhart) and having the most fun I had all break, which was reformatting the hard drives on all of their Packard Bell PCs on display.  After I wised up and realized that taking this annual trek during the worst months of winter was probably not a great idea, I started doing these preemptive visits in October, which is probably my favorite time of year in Indiana.  But then I realized that it cost me the same amount of money or less to fly from New York to Vegas and stay there, and the whole annual visit thing fell apart.

I never had great overwhelming nostalgia for Elkhart.  I used to have crushing sentimentality surrounding Bloomington (see also my first book) and I would go down there every chance I got.  When I would cruise around Elkhart though, I would get a certain sense of remembrance, seeing the bits and pieces of the city that shaped me so much back in the day, but I would never call it a homesickness, and I would never wake up in the middle of the night and say “dammit, I need to leave Seattle/New York/whatever and go back to the City With a Heart!”  I’d make my annual trip, mostly as a way to feel grateful for wherever I currently lived, and to get enough of a dose of the place that I wouldn’t want to come back for the next 365 days.

I’ve been thinking about Elkhart a lot lately, because I was writing a book that chronicles the last couple years of my high school experience in the late eighties.  I can spend too much time trying to make things like this period accurate: digging up old music, wasting time on wikipedia looking up failed fast food chains and defunct department stores; I scour my archives looking for old receipts and bad photos and little pieces that remind me of this previous life.  This has been way harder for this new book than it was for Summer Rain; for the latter, I still had a lot of old emails and I started writing a book about 1992 in 1994 and 1995.  I had cassette tapes of my old radio show, CDs still in my collection, a huge cache of old zines, and the entire paper trail that a year at a university can provide.  But now, what little I still have from 1988 and 1989 is locked away in a storage unit, and I didn’t save as much stuff back then.  So aside from visiting family, one of my motives for this brief trip was to plug back into the general feel of this old life of mine, to drive the streets of northern Indiana and try to remember what it was like as a kid in the region.

And this trip was so hurried and we had to see so many people, I had little time for this.  In fact, I didn’t even stay in Elkhart for this journey, and I only ventured into the city twice.  We actually stayed in South Bend, just north of the Notre Dame campus on what’s now called 933.  (They renamed all of the old US highways and put a 9 in front of them.  I don’t know why; maybe they lost some federal funding because they felt a need to put the ten commandments on every god damned thing in the state.)  But that did remind me of the times I spent in South Bend and Mishawaka back in the day.

I tried to explain this in a previous post, and it’s hard to really describe it.  But when I grew up in Elkhart, I quickly tired of everything there.  For example, there were two “real” record stores, neither of them very good, plus the chain places like Musicland.  And the only places to buy books were the Waldens in the mall, a religious bookstore in Pierre Moran mall, and this used book place called the Book Nook that was downtown.  I wasn’t a serious bibliophile back then, but by definition, you pretty much had to go to South Bend to even look at a book that wasn’t published by Stephen King or Danielle Steele.  That meant when I got a car and got to spend my days off school driving west to this sister city that was roughly twice as big, it had a certain slight magic to it.  Yeah, it had no skyline, and aside from the grid of streets downtown and the mess of strip mall suburbia jutting out from the university campus and the Scottsdale Mall area, it was just a big bunch of nothing like Elkhart.  But it was my first glimpse of something, and it had this appeal that later made me seek out a new start outside of Elkhart, and eventually out of Indiana.

And now, twenty years later, I was cruising through whiteout snow conditions in a rented Chevy “this is why we needed a bailout” Cobalt, driving down Main and up Michigan and past the Century Center and beyond Coveleski Stadium and down Grape Road, remembering all of those trips across Elkhart and into St. Joe county, taking Cleveland Road over to the University Park Mall, and visiting Orbit Records in the Town and Country strip mall.

Elkhart has had some rough times in the last year or two.  That’s no secret; the President has been making all of these trips through the city, using it as an example of a city that’s hit rock bottom.  This is news to some, but it’s always had this boom/bust cycle.  I remember right before Desert Storm, when gas prices were going up, nobody was buying RVs, and pretty much every corner had a “will work for food” sign on it.  You could buy pretty much any car by taking over payments for someone, and the housing market plummeted.  You saw laid-off fifty year old dudes working the register at McDonald’s, and every other factory warehouse was shuttered.  Fast forward to six months later, and everyone’s working mandatory overtime, the RVs are flying off the lots, and everyone is pricing out Harleys and swimming pools and additions to their houses and boats.  People never remember the hard times, and when the next slump happens, everyone has three mortgages and four car payments and not a lick of savings.

Sarah said this best when she said that Indiana had this desperation to it, like a smoker with emphysema.  There’s no culture to it, and especially in the winter, all people do is buy stuff at the local big box store, haul it home in their long-bed extended-cab truck and sit in front of their 70″ TV and get fat.  Other than the bars, the entire culture is built around this hoarding of material goods, this need to have every piece of junk made in China that’s stamped with Dale Jr’s number.  There are always these token attempts at it, a ballet or a symphony that a hundred people might find out about, a token museum with a couple of paintings in it, but people’s main cultural investment is in their retreat from the day labor and into their nothingness of eating bacon-wrapped everything while watching electrons flicker by on their DLP screen.

There were so many memories fallen in my drives through the old territories, so many old stores boarded up, killed off by the Wal-Marts and Best Buys and lack of interest.  And every other vacant storefront was transformed into a “We will pay top dollar for your gold!” place.  It’s no surprise Glenn Beck takes a close second behind Jesus in these parts, and Glenn loves to tell everyone that gold is the best thing to stockpile for the end times.  So pretty much everyone with a failing VCR repair business or minimart is now buying up gold from losers who bought gold-plated everything during the salad years and are now trying to find a way to pay off their $3000 heating bill this January.  It’s one of the infallible businesses in Elkhart: car parts places, check cashing stands, liquor stores, and pawn shops.  If you want a recession-proof business, start one of those.

I unfortunately took no pictures on this trip.  It was too damn cold to be enterprising about walking around with a camera, and I’ve been gone long enough that I now send out the “you ain’t from around here” vibe and set off the hillbilly paranoia security alerts when I try to get all investigative about this.  Maybe next time.


Frozen Irish

Hello from a veyr frigid Northern Indiana. I am sitting in a Bruno’s pizza just north of Notre Dame, waiting on a pizza and sort of passively glancing at the fourth quarter of the Colts-Jets game. It is cold as hell here, I think in the teens, and I’ve done more ice and snow driving in the last 24 hours than I have in the last several years.  I spent a week in Milwaukee, and yesterday, drove through Chicago (with a stop in Chicago to have lunch with John Sheppard and Helen) and then zipped down the Indiana toll road to our hotel.  We’re now seeing my side of the family, and I’m also visiting various ghosts of decades ago.

The level of nostalgia isn’t as high as it has in the past.  I mean, I’ve been out of Indiana longer than I actually lived here.  And so many things have changed since I left.  Like I drove by University Park mall last night, and was astonished how much it has changed since the early 90s.  But I still see bits and pieces of the Michiana I knew way back when.  Elkhart was never a big city to me, and Chicago was my main urban center, but South Bend held wisps of big city to me, the way the downtown grid creeps between the couple of tall buildings.  Back in high school, I’d drive around South Bend, driving up Michigan and down Main, wishing I was in a real big city, in New York or Los Angeles.  And now that I’ve lived in both, it’s odd for me to be back here.

I also drove to Scottsdale Mall last night, which is no longer there.  It has been “de-malled”, torn down and replaced with Erskine Plaza, a collection of big block stores.  I can kind of see where some parts of the old mall used to be, the McDonald’s on Miami; the Kroger across the street from the mall.  But it’s weird to see the mall gone.  I never shopped there as my main choice, but when I went to IUSB, it was the closest mall, and I always ended up there on paydays.  It’s weird to be driving through a parking lot full of strip mall, knowing a giant two-story mall used to be there.

Not much else to report.  I’m coming off a cold and need some sleep…


Leaving home

Yesterday marks the 20th anniversary of when I packed up my dad’s truck and left Elkhart for Bloomington to start my freshman year at IU. Twenty years. Two decades. It’s a hard number for me to wrap my mind around. And this is the part where I’m supposed to say it just feels like yesterday, but truthfully, it feels like it wasn’t even my life, it was so long ago. And there have been so many stops between then and now, I don’t get as nostalgic about Bloomington. But it still pops in my head every now and then, especially when a nice round number comes up in the anniversary column.

I think I spent a good part of high school wishing for some kind of mulligan to let me start over socially, and hoped that college would be a clean break for me, to leave behind the people I’d known since grade school and junior high. I mean, it’s not like I killed a hooker and needed to start over with a new name and identity, or even that I did something horrible like shit my pants during speech class or date someone who later became a female to male transsexual. But I always felt like I needed to get out of Elkhart and around a different crowd of people. Even when I hung out with people not from my high school when I worked at Wards, I felt like I did better than I did at Concord.

And college was that clean break. I mean, I still had most of the same problems, the same social awkwardness and depression and other inner torture, and I didn’t suddenly transform into Brad Pitt (or whoever women like now – that dude from Twilight, whatever.) But it was a huge change of scenery for me, and the beginning of my first time away from home, my first time on my own, and the very beginning of the end of Indiana in my life.

I also broke up with someone, or rather they broke up with me, the night before I left for college. It was my first ‘real’ relationship, and although looking back, it was in general a pretty stupid situation, I seriously thought it would go on for longer than the summer. In reality, it couldn’t have been written more exactly as an only-for-a-summer type of fling, even if it was a script for an 80s movie. And it was one of those things where it was the end of the universe for me, but in retrospect, you don’t get much cleaner of a breakup than this one, unless you’re dating someone on a space station and they accidentally get sucked out of a broken airlock ten seconds after you split. I would never run into her again at the mall or at work or in the halls of school, because we were 250 miles apart. And I entered a much larger pool of potential dating scenarios, with thousands and thousands of other people away from home and their crappy small towns for the first time.

But yeah, 20 years ago. And I feel like I should have some heavy insight on the whole situation, but when I try to dig for any specific burst of memory about that era, I get a couple of things:

  • The smell of the powdered laundry detergent I used during my freshman year.
  • The smell of Collins when I first got there. I spent most of my life living in a prefab tri-level that was maybe five years old when we moved in, and this was a 65-year-old museum of a residence hall, with all wood everything. Like, when I wanted to make a private phone call, I would go to these wooden phone booths built into the wall of the downstairs lobby. They were little booths with heavy wood doors that looked like the confessional in a Catholic church, but instead of the little screen window and kneeler, they had a tiny bench and a pay phone. Anyway, the place was loaded with plenty of ornate darkwood trim, and the first time I went in, all I could smell was this wood smell. Same thing when I moved out and came back to visit the next year.
  • Some girl called my room in like the first week of classes trying to remember some dude’s number, and I ended up talking to her for like three hours, and after like 20 conversations, I hung out with her and her roommate at McNutt, and then kept running into her on campus for the next year. It was not a romantic thing – she was from South Bend, and for whatever reason, we became friends and used to talk a lot, although I have no idea what about, or even what her name was. But now I find it so random that a wrong number would turn into a marathon phone conversation about nothing.
  • One of the first times I went to the main library, I got overwhelmed with all of the books there, because in high school, I basically found a spot in nonfiction and one in fiction, and spent most of my study halls reading every book outward from those two positions that made any sense or was at all interesting to me. And I realized that with a ten-floor undergraduate stack, it would take me four years to even find anything, let alone read a tenth of the books on a single floor. So I randomly decided to read Slaughterhouse Five, because my school never had any Vonnegut and I was too cheap to buy any, and I heard he was from Indiana. And I stayed up almost all night reading it cover to cover, and loving it so much, that a couple of night later, I stayed up almost all night, writing (by hand), this giant science fiction story, because it somehow got stuck in my head, and I thought it would be great to be a writer like him. And then I promptly forgot the writing and the Vonnegut, until maybe four years later, when I became once again obsessed with both.
  • I used to take this bass guitar class that met at night in the basement of Read hall, and I would get there early and sit around one of the TV lounges until class started. Anyway, this was the tail of baseball season, and there was this kid in a wheelchair who was an obsessive Cubs fan and I always remember him planted in front of the big-screen TV, watching every Cubs game. I always perceived the Cubs as being a really bad team back then, but I knew nothing about baseball, and other than the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, and Astros, probably could not have named any other baseball team. And that year the Cubs won the NL East by like six games, before losing the NLCS to the Cardinals. So maybe that’s why I half-remember watching the games.

Not much else. A lot of time is going into this new wiki, but it’s nowhere near enough started to open it up to the public yet. Soon…


Ten years of unhoosierdom

I was just thinking about this the other day, and I realized this weekend marks the ten year anniversary of when I packed up and shipped out of Indiana for Seattle. It’s a nice round number, which is the only reason I thought about it, but it is pretty weird. I guess ten years seems like an eternity to me, and it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I left. On the other hand, living in Seattle does seem like forever ago to me, and my whole time at 600 7th Ave and working at Spry seems like another lifetime.

Lots of other little flashbacks remind me of things, but it’s more about Seattle than Bloomington. We went to Newport mall out in Jersey city yesterday, and that little area right around the PATH train station looks so damn much like Bellvue or Redmond, the east side of Seattle. It’s all of those office commercial buildings with mirrored glass outsides that look like airport motels, plus the subtle roads and open skies. It looks just like the area surrounding the Bellvue Mall, the building I used to work at in Factoria, and all of the other stuff around I-405 in Seattleland. And sitting here in Sarah’s apartment, looking out toward the skyline from a few floors up with lots of sunlight from a couple of big windows, it almost reminds me of the time in my place in Seattle, except it’s not raining and there’s no Kingdome anymore. But sometimes the weather’s just right and it makes me think for a half second that I should go down to that ’94 Ford Escort and take a drive up I-5, and then I remember I made my last lease payment on that thing 7 years ago, and all I’m driving is a MetroCard these days.

Ten years… I still haven’t written up a suitable story for that cross-country drive. I wrote a story for this Bloomington short-story book that probably will never see the light of day, but it covers all of the events up to me leaving, and not the actual trip. I drove nonstop, by myself. I went through so fast, there was no real vision of a trip, as much as there was a huge blur. It rained a lot in part of Montana; I blew through all of South Dakota in the darkness. I stopped at Devil’s Tower at about 2AM, technically on the 4th of July. I don’t remember Wall Drugs, but I do remember a few other gas stations with slot machines and nothing else. I listened to every tape I packed at least five times. For every meal, I stopped at McDonald’s, because I didn’t want to hunt around for some other alternative 19 miles off of the off ramp. Montana was really shitty, 12 hours of uphill and curves, almost no roadstops, the few around were no more than barns with a single gas pump that was overpriced and so low-octane, you could safely drink it. Then I crossed into Idaho, and it was all downhill, all beautiful. I regret not taking the trip slower, spending some time and money exploring the nature, taking a few more pictures, relaxing for a couple of days before I reported for duty for my first real job. But I regret a lot of things, and I made it here, so who cares.


In Elkhart time warp

I’m now in Elkhart, Indiana, at my friend Ray’s house. I’m staying here for the week, and visiting everyone in the old home town. Actually, ‘everyone’ consists of my mom, sister, nephew, dad, and Ray. Pretty much everyone else I knew from this pit was smart enough to leave, or so ashamed that they are hiding.

The Bloomington leg of the trip was interesting, but not entirely fulfilling. I had a lot of fun – spent a lot of time with Simms and the gang, including a kick-ass halloween party, met up with other friends like Andrea, Joe, Danielle, and more, and saw some of the campus. But with the rain, I didn’t really get to roam the campus as much. I tried, but the cold and everything made it hard to just stroll around and think. It’s also much more distant there – I don’t feel like I live there anymore. Majorly weird.

On Monday, I headed up to Indianapolis on my way to Elkhart, and saw my old pal Tom Sample. He’s the same old Tom, although he has a new apartment and a new cat. We hung out and then went to the abbey for some drinks and talk. I really miss hanging out with him… I will see him again on Saturday though; I am crashing there so I can make my flight out of Indy on Monday.

Today (yesterday – it is 3am) , I went to my old house. It’s still empty, but my mom is renting it out starting in December. I shot some camcorder of the place and searched for old stuff. It was like in Event Horizon when they opened the old ship and dug around. There’s some furniture, but some rooms are empty.. Once again, a lot of weird nostalgia. I also found a bunch of writing from about the 4th grade on up. I figured I should snag it before my mom shows it to someone.

We also went through a bunch of slides and transferred them to video today. Most of my baby pictures were on slides, and it was weird to see my relatives all young, thin, and with retro hairstyles. Also, my mom and sister say that my nephew Phillip looks like I did when I was a baby, and after looking at slides, I agree.

Nothing else here. Just stuck in a weird time warp…