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.  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…

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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…


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.

I don’t really miss Indiana anymore, although there are bits of it that are interesting to me. I don’t think of it as a bad place anymore, and it’s not that I think of it as a big, evil Red state or anything. Indiana has conservative politics, but it’s a small place, so you can’t really not have conservative politics. It’s where people go when things are supposed to be small, or where old people go to live, and there’s not much you can change about that unless you double the tax base overnight, or leave and move to another state, and I can’t do the former, so I did the latter. Now, when I go back, the worst problem to me isn’t the Jesus people or the conservatives, it’s the people who bitch about them. It’s like a woman who bitches about her husband who beats her – if you don’t like it, leave. I know, you can’t always leave, and that’s not a great metaphor, but bitching about the backwardsness in Indiana is like bitching about the sun in Los Angeles.

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.

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Unfinished story about a wedding

[There are reasons why this is timely, which I will go into later. I always wished I had finished this, but I didn’t. But read what there is, and let me know what you think. This was, btw, written in 1996.]

I sat in my bed, listening to an old Shadowfax CD, watching the helicopters land on top of the hospital as the giant window of grey-blue sky slowly dissolved into black. I thought about the giant crane across the street, the spindly arm of faded steel that stood over the hospital construction site. It might make a decent photo, just this massive pillar of steel cross-beams, etched by a year of Seattle weather, reaching for the sky like God’s hand on the ceiling of the sistine chapel.

Before I got my camera, I played the future events in my head: I’d take a handful of photos, using a zoom, posing them in some artistic fashion. Then a few months would pass, I’d develop the film, and I’d wonder why the fuck I took 12 photos of the Seattle skyline with a tiny speck of a crane on the distant horizon.

I’ve been smart enough to stay away from taking pictures of sunsets, full moons, mountain ranges, and other giant spectacles of nature. You either need to see Mount Ranier for yourself, or sell your car to buy some large-format photo gear and high-end lenses to capture the moment.

Fares are low. Just fly to the mountains and check them out the real way. It’s worth the hundred bucks.

I’ve always been religious about writing three hours a night. I started this ritualistic scrawling when all of my friends moved away and I couldn’t deal with all of the shithead 19 year olds ruling the campus anymore. I hid in my room, or in the basement of the building where I worked, and etched journal pages in tiny black-ink print, a running dialog for what didn’t happen with other people anymore. I wrote because I didn’t have a girlfriend and didn’t want to deal with finding one. I wrote because I didn’t like TV and I didn’t like basketball games and I didn’t like frat parties and I didn’t have any other options in the disintegrating college town.

When I moved to Seattle, the nightly writing served a dual purpose. The advertized intent was to say I was a serious writer. I wrote books, novels, epics in my spare time. The day job – just a cover. Just a way to pay rent while I turned out the next great American masterpiece. Van Gogh’s brother gave him free pants, I worked at Spry. In a sense, the serious writing bit was true, or at least I wanted it to be.

On the other hand, the writing was still a way of eating my time when I had no other social tools in place. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know where things were, I didn’t know what was happening in this new and strange city. And I feared leaving the house for a few months, because every time I tried to find new stores or new clubs or new hangouts, I’d spend $80 in 14 minutes, or get a parking ticket because I didn’t know how to decipher the Seattle parking system. And I’d get lost, and spend half of the day learning the difference between 4th Ave and 4th Ave S. To avoid this, I’d just sit at home and write. And I turned out two full manuscripts and a lot of little stuff because of this.

But I haven’t been writing lately. When I get home from work, I sleep for 2 or 3 hours, then eat a TV dinner while reading my email. Then I watch the blue sky slowly fade to black outside the giant window my by bed. Sometimes I read, sometimes I don’t. I haven’t been latching onto big, complex books lately, so I read some Bukowski, or sometimes just zines or catalogs. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes I enjoy the sound of nothing.

When I need to get out of the house, I take long drives with no destination. I just got back from one – I rolled down the windows, and wandered around lake Union, then up to the U-district and back again. Wind blows into the car, the darkness surrounding me, providing a sense of removal, a desolation almost required by my mood. The night contrasts the high-tech view of the city, the lights and steel and climbing buildings and concrete growing into the 21st century.

The last time I drove like this was two years ago. I got a Mustang when my friend Bill moved away. And that summer, everyone moved away. After June, I had an apartment to myself, and the silence engulfed me, almost too much. After a day of classes, writing, work, and everything else, I’d be sitting on my couch at 8 o’clock, staring at the wall, and go for a long drive to nowhere. It was the first time I had a car, and I enjoyed cruising the same streets over and over, breathing the summer air, wishing there was something more exciting than the small, empty college campus. Now, I do the same thing, but I’ve got enough terrain to get lost in, I can pick a direction and find things I’ve never seen before. And there’s more to see. But, it’s still a lonely, self-torturous exercise.

Tonight, I listened to a tape an ex-girlfriend made me three years ago, sappy and sentimental music she wanted me to hear when she was in Tampa and I was in Indiana. The music reminds me of her, her letters in perfect cursive on blue stationary, her precise phone calls every Saturday at 11am, her visits to my house when she was on campus, waking me up after her first three classes. It all depresses me – which is something I crave sometimes.

I savor my depression, or at least the mediocre, mid-line depression that fills in the empty spaces between exciting events and major crashes. I don’t like the depression following a breakup, a death, a loss, or an event that causes canyon-like holes of despair in my mental terrain. But when nothing’s happening, and life’s playing a test pattern on my soul, I soak in my own negative feelings about the past, and baste them with reminders and nostalgia. When I know I’m fucked up, I read old letters, e-mails, journals, and stories. I look at photos of people I’ll never see again and listen to old songs and smell old cologne I never wear because of the olfactory memories they carry. It doesn’t always bring the heavy, spine-scouring depression though. It’s just a heavy nostalgia, something more than yearbook photos but not dehabilitating. Just reminiscent.

So what’s the deal with the depression, the rut, the interruption this month? Two things have me off-kilter lately. The first has to do with my trip. And my trip starts with some background. Get yourself a drink first, this probably gets boring fast.

I’ve never been close to either of my parents. My preschool years were spent either alone or with my sister, on a house in the middle of nowhere in Michigan. I learned to read before I could remember, and constructed an airtight routine of endless books, crayon drawings, lego frontiers, and Star Wars figures. When we moved to Indiana, I never escaped these worlds, and instead of learning about girls and football in the public schools, I went to gifted school and learned about Apple computers, Steinbeck, Bradbury, Asimov, and Tolstoy. So when I was thirteen and my parents divorced, their custody antics were just interruptions in my BASIC programming and Dungeons and Dragons games. I had a complete, albeit isolated, world without much interaction from them.

There always were strings preventing a clean break though, items of conditionality that haunted my life over the last decade. Rent, tuition, books, cars, insurance, clothes, credit cards, and food all became chains, issues that kept either parent hacking at my freewill over the years. I tried to work jobs and take loans as much as possible, but some form of leash always kept me under their control.

When I moved to Seattle, however, most or all of the money issues dissolved. I started paying my own bills, and didn’t ask for any help. Times were tight after moving here, but one day I remember just realizing I was financially independant. After years of struggle and worry that I’d never be able to sever ties, I realized I had in fact cut all monentary relations from my elders.

Why am I babbling about this? Because without conditionality, and without that great emotional bond of closeness that some assholes share with their parents, I have no real reason to ever see mine again.

However, my parents “miss” me, or have been conditioned to have me around for holidays, as some sort of default bonding procedure. Last Christmas, I took a week of unpaid leave from my job and flew from Seattle to Elkhart (via Cincy) to see my folks. After suffering through being broke the whole time, messing up my bill schedule with the missing pay, flying in a storm in a tiny prop plane that was two steps less airworthy than the plane Buddy Holly died in, and dealing with the rush of holiday frenzy at the airports, I barely saw my parents. I didn’t see my dad at all, he was smart enough to evacuate to Florida for the winter. My mom was with her new boyfriend the whole time, so I saw her maybe twice the whole week. Carless and broke, I basically spent thousands of dollars to spend a week watching _Saved By the Bell_ reruns in the freezing, shitty climate of Northern Indiana. (_Saved By the Bell_ isn’t too bad once you’ve seen _Showgirls_, however.) After that incident, I pledged to never come home again, unless Ed McMahon accidentally delivered my check there and required me to show up and cash it.

Then my mom announced that she was getting married to this guy, and wanted me to visit for the wedding. She offered to pay for everything, so I agreed to come out for a weekend, nothing more. From this moment, my mind filled with fear.

Let me fill you in on the mom situation. Her dad died last July, which meant that she would inherit a bunch of money once his estate cleared probate court. With this financial security on the back burner, she divorced her second husband in October. In November, she started dating this new guy. Is he a doctor? A lawyer? An executive?

He’s a truck driver. A redneck, closed-minded, racist, homophobic, belt-buckle wearing, broken car-collecting, truck driver. My mom thinks he’s great. She wonders why I don’t call him my stepdad. Actually, she wonders why I don’t call her, period.

About the inheritance, the money isn’t an incredible amount; you couldn’t retire on it or even live like a hog for a long time with it. But you could pay off your house and your other bills and make some investments so you wouldn’t have to worry about when things break or when you want a vacation. If you gave me this dollar amount when I was 18, I would’ve thought about retiring and buying big houses and Rolls convertibles. Now, I’d divide it by my annual income and realize that it should be wisely invested after paying the bills. My mom thinks it’s a lot of cash. I’m expecting her to be broke in 10 years, asking me for her next house payment or something.

I didn’t approve of the marriage or her plans, but 5,000 frequent flier miles and a chance to see my friend Ray didn’t sound like too bad of a plan. I told her she had to get me a car, gave her my tux size, and a few weeks before the wedding, some tickets appeared in my mailbox. It was a done deal, I’d fly out on Thursday, July 11, and leave the next Sunday.

Fast forward to the day I leave. I haven’t talked to my mom in a week or confirmed any of the plans. All I know is that I have tickets to get to O’Hare airport in Chicago, and a reservation at Budget to get a car and drive into Elkhart (about 140 miles). I pack a single suitcase with my crap and her gift, a box of stuff from the Made in Washington store, and leave my car at SeaTac for the journey.

I’ve made a few changes to my itinerary that she doesn’t know about. First, I’ll be staying with my friend Ray instead of her. She’s got other guests from out of town staying at the house, I don’t have a bed there anymore and I don’t want to battle and stand in line for hours every time I want to use the bathroom. Plus there’s a different kind of insanity flowing at Ray’s place, that of death metal and godzilla films and zombies and all-night rap sessions about chicks and death and gore, not the insanity of wedding preparations and my mother verbally throttling us kids for not having the right socks to match our clothes or something. I also planned on making a few unplanned visits while I had the unlimited-mileage car. More on those in a bit.

Airports are pretty surreal at 2pm on a weekday. The people wandering the concourses are one of three types. The first is the RoboExecutive, dressed to kill, lugging one of everything from the Sharper Image, closing that important deal on the cell phone in the airport Burger King Express, elbowing past everyone else because, of course, they are IMPORTANT. Second type of person is the retired senior citizen, usually travelling in groups to places like Pasadena or Palm Springs. They’re incompatable with the power businessperson because they take forever to get on and off the plane, and spend most of their time loading up on high octane coffee and bran muffins right before takeoff so they can bitch and moan about being sick when you have to sit next to them. The third type of midday voyager is the 20 year old white trash looking woman with 4 unruly kids. I don’t know if they travel back to their parents to show off the kids or if they are really child smugglers in disguise. All I know is the kids usually inflict extreme terror and make the skies much less than friendly.

Today’s journey wasn’t too bad though. I ditched the Escort in short term parking, got asked a billion questions about my suitcase because of the RITUAL SACRIFICE stickers all over the side (hey, it’s simple to spot in the luggage conveyor), and even found a complete copy of USA Decay in the men’s crapper. I caught a bit of sleep on the plane, and got a great view of Montana and Idaho on the way out. Descending into Chicago, I saw the daylight and sunset behind me as we flew into darkness at about 9pm. It’s pretty weird to be in nightfall and still be able to look at the sun, and made it a bit depressing to lose 2 hours. But we landed fast, and I was once again in Illinois.

Chicago’s a great city. My entire family on my Mom’s side is there, and we made trips there every holiday to my grandparents’ place where there was always a giant gathering of dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives. Later in life, Chicago became the place to go for big concerts, cool shopping, and general rebellion, since it was only 100 miles away. It’s sad to think that my entire Chicago experience has been limited to the O’Hare airport. I usually got to the city about once a year for a big party or show when I was in school. Since I moved to Seattle, I was in Chicago 5 or 6 times, all of them layovers in the airport. It’s frustrating to be that close to all of the cool things you knew in a previous life, but unable to do anything because you’ve got to run 900 yards in 14 minutes to catch a plane.

O’Hare was busy, and I instantly got in my shitty yes sir/no sir mode to avoid getting mugged or ripped off. When I was at the rental car place, the guy at the counter said “Chill out, this is Chicago, not Beirut”. Same difference to me, buddy.

I got set up with a Mazda 626, and took the shuttle to the rental car field to pick up my ride. I wanted a foreign car because I knew that my mom’s fiancee was one of those “proud to buy American” types, and I wanted to get some Japanese wheels and spend the weekend talking about how much nicer they were than my Ford. Oh, and I didn’t want a Ford – I wasn’t about to rent an Escort. That’s like cheating on your middle-aged wife with another middle-aged housewife.

I put in a Jawbreaker tape, tore out of the lot into the night, and struggled with every aspect of the car. I couldn’t find the lights. Then I couldn’t adjust the seat, the lever was all backward. Then I couldn’t figure out the tilt wheel. The whole car was awkward and I had a lot of trouble doing all of this while going 70 on I190.

Then I wanted to rewind my tape. I hit the button, and nothing happened. I hit fast forward – nothing. I hit eject. No dice. I hit the radio and it shut off. After pulling into a gas station and closely inspecting the radio, I concluded it was fucked, and turned around.

The lady at the car place was nice enough to quickly swap me into another car – a Toyota Corolla. Air in the Paragraph Line readers who caught issue 3 might remember that I rented a Corolla when in San Jose, and had a pretty good experience. This car was even better. It was a 1996 with only 4000 miles, all options, and it still smelled like a brand spanking new vehicle. I swapped my stuff into the other car, and took off down the Skyway.

Chicago seemed much tamer and smaller than I had remembered. The daily driving in Seattle and other big cities made the whole thing more mundane. But it felt good to cruise the Loop in the new car, pushing on the express lanes while jamming to my Jawbreaker tape. I jacked the car up to what felt like 70 or 80, and was shocked when I looked down at the speedometer and saw it bouncing off the 110 mark on the far right. Even at this opened-out speed, there was no wind noise, no shudder – it felt like my new Escort at 30mph. My next stop of Griffith, Indiana, would be approaching pretty fast with this kind of speed, I thought, and the excitement built about seeing Jia again.

I met Jia in the seventh grade, in first hour algebra. Back then, we almost looked identical – thick glasses, reddish hair in a greasy bowl cut, and always in front of an Apple II or a Dungeons and Dragons game. We were friends all through school, but really grew tight in our last few years of high school. We spent a lot of time together, wandering the area and getting into some heavy discussions at times. I was Radar to his Hawkeye sometimes – he dated, partied, and seemed to integrate a bit better than me. But we still had similarities, our thoughts were uncannily similar most of the time.

He went to Purdue and I went to Indiana, and we’d manage to talk or see each other every 6 months or year. I was friends with his mom, who worked at the Walden Books by my mom’s house and was pretty cool (she gave me a copy of Dalton Trumbo’s _Johnny Got His Gun_, which is now one of my favorite books of all time). But about three years ago, I came home and found that his parents moved out of town, and we weren’t synched up with college addresses or phones. Then he graduated, I graduated, I moved, he probably moved… he was an MIA.

Thanks to, I found his number a few months ago. I called, and we talked for the first time in three years. I agreed to stop in and see him, and now I was cruising into Griffith, with a set of instructions on a post-it note, looking for his apartment.

Griffith is a large strip mall between Gary and Chicago, one of many Indiana cities that consists of only gas stations, Burger Kings, and urban sprawl. The apartment wasn’t hard to find, a typical modular place with 6 apartments per building, and a few dozen cloned buildings named after letters of the alphabet.

There weren’t any surprises with Jia – no little kids running around, no facial tattoos or green mohawk, he looked the same as usual. We sat and talked, watched MTV and shot the shit. It was strange, even after the years apart, how similar our lives were. He was a chemical engineer, and worked for a big steel company. It wasn’t something exciting, or any life-long love, but it paid the bills and the money was comfortable. I feel the same way about the technical writing stuff. I’d rather be writing fiction all day, fucking chicks in Paris, wandering streets in China, sleeping all day in Seattle – I didn’t wake up when I was 10 and say “Mommy! Someday I want to index computer manuals and take minutes at boring meetings!” I like my job, and it’s a good way to earn money, but it’s not leisure work or something I’d do as a hobby for no money. And once you make the money, you buy more shit, and get more debt, and even when you have three times as much a month, you’re still scraping by.

Jia didn’t get married either, and I think we both share the same frustrations about that whole subject. And he’s writing too, although he’s more of a poet. But we talked about the art, the idea of publishing books and knowing that someone might pick up your book and read it and totally identify with it, and how that creationism makes it all worthwhile.

Jia had to work the next day, and I had to meet up with Ray – it was already 1 in the morning after we talked for awhile. I wanted to take out my contacts, which were bothering the fuck out of me because I got a tiny droplet of salad dressing in them earlier. I dug through my backpack for my glasses and… couldn’t find them. I checked my suitcase and… no dice. No luck in the car either.

This sent me in extreme, leak-in-spacesuit-in-deep-space panic. I’m pretty fucking blind, and my contacts only last for about 12 hours at best before they dry and stop working. They were in hour 15 now, and with no glasses, there was no way I could make it into the weekend. And I couldn’t just get a set of replacement glasses at walmart or something – it took the glasses-in-an-hour place A WEEK to make my current pair.

After some quick calls (okay, they weren’t quick – I ended up in a phone tree for a while), I got to the people at the car place at O’Hare. I figured that when I got the 626, I dumped out my shit on the front seat and left the glasses there. A clerk went and checked, and they found the case, and I could pick them up any time at the 24 hour car return desk.

I called Ray and told him that I’d be a few hours late, and then soaked my lenses with solution to buy some more time from them. I said goodbye to Jia, and gave him a draft of my book and the back catalog of the zine. Next stop – O’Hare.

On the way out of Griffith, I realized that there was a Motel 6 right next to the highway that had historical significance to me. In my freshman year of college, I started dating a woman and we were going to Chicago for the weekend. We drove up, and then her car broke, so we ended up limping the thing to Griffith and spending a night in that Motel 6. I won’t go into why that motel has a certain significance to me, but I’m sure you can figure it out.

In my blur of a trip north, I somehow ended up on 294, which is a toll road wrapping around the south side of Chicago. That’s a bum deal for a few reasons – it costs about $1.60 to get to O’Hare and I only had about $35 on me for the whole weekend, it’s a closed course which means cops could easily prey on people or idiots could jam the whole thing up, and I wouldn’t see the city. But I highballed the stretch of road, keeping it above 90 for most of the venture. When the semis are going 80, you know it’s safe.

The same beautiful, young latino woman who helped me with the 626 to Corolla swap had my glasses. Whoever you were, thank you very much! An incredible relief swept my entire body when I popped the lenses and went back to glasses, like a splinter being removed. I said thanks 10 more times, and hit out for I-190.

The second trip through Chicago went by even faster. I locked into the express lanes with nobody around, and probably had the car at 120 for the entire stretch. With the first Beastie Boys album in the player, I jammed down the skyway at breakneck speed. It felt like being on a Grand Prix track, with concrete walls on either side of me and no openings. But this Grand Prix ran through Chicago, and the familiar skyline and lake and exits blurred past.

I dumped out to US20 after I crossed the Indiana state line. It was a pretty scary road, four lanes, undivided, with plenty of turnoffs and other turmoil. But it was free, and would be empty. I dug in, and cranked the car as much as possible, cautiously watching for other motorists or police. Ray and I used to take this road home from shows in Chicago, and I knew most of the landmarks and small towns. Somewhere near Michigan City, I had to stop for a train. Welcome to Indiana.

The voyage continued with no incident. I crossed the South Bend line and passed the Michiana Airport. 160 miles: 86 minutes. That included the train and a stop in bumblefuck, IN for a Coke. A new record for team Toyota.

I drove straight through downtown South Bend, bringing on a new range of flashbacks of my past. South Bend was the cool place to go in my junior and senior year, the city 20 miles from Elkhart that wasn’t spectacular, but wasn’t Elkhart. Driving downtown and past the Century Center reminded me of Friday nights when Jia and I went to the 24 hour porno shops on Michigan, when Tom and I hit the malls and shops and cruised in my old Camaro, hoping to find women that we never met, or driving with Ray or Larry to obscure friends’ houses or clubs or dives, driving a half an hour to meet someone who supposedly saw Metallica on the Ride the Lightning tour. The roads looked the same, felt the same as they did in 1989.

And the next part looked pretty damn similar to 1991, the year I was at IU South Bend, commuting to Elkhart via US33 every day. I curved eastward on this road, a route heavily burned into my mind from the year of commuting. Every night, after working my late computer lab shift at the school, I’d climb into my Turismo and zip down this amber-lit path through Mishawaka, driving the desolate streets of post-midnight michiana. Now, at 3:30 am, it looked the same, like I was going back to my mom’s house to sleep until the next day of skipping classes and playing Smash TV or Tetris with Ray all day, and hacking Modula-2 and helping idiots with WordPerfect 5.1 all night.

Within a few minutes, I descended into Elkhart, and shuttled over to Ray’s place. We pulled my luggage into the house, and I looked around at the changes since last Christmas. Ray lives in a house that his Grandmother used to live in. The basement is his mom’s business by day, and his band’s practice room by night. The upstairs is now his. When I went into the living room, unanswered mail lay strewn over every square inch of the room, in no particular order. Ray’s never been great about his mail, but there must’ve been a recent explosion or hostile takeover or something. A tip if you ever write Metal Curse magazine – don’t expect a reply in under 4 years. He’ll write back, but he’s currently answering mail from 1992.

Ray’s room was also taken over by CDs. Between the magazine, trading with other bands, working at a record store, and just spending a lot of money on CDs, Ray has several thousand CDs now, and several times more cassettes and demos. You may think I’m exaggerating or joking, but he seriously has several THOUSAND CDs. Like an entire wall, floor to ceiling. Like the entire stock of a small record store.

Ray and I didn’t have much catching up to do – we talk on the phone several times a week, and had just talked for a few hours the night before. But I told him the whole story about the contacts and the car and everything else while he tried to clear the living room floor of mail so I could sleep. After an hour of trip stories and making fun of the wedding, we hauled a spare mattress out of his basement, and I set up camp in the middle of a valley of mail. On all sides, Par Avoin envelopes from Scandanavian bands with names like _Inverted Bitch Fister_ engulfed me. We talked more and laid out weekend plans, until light started streaming through the windows and I freaked out because I had early morning plans with my mom. He gave me an alarm and told me his mom and the other people who worked in the basement would probably show up at 8:45 and most likely wake me up with their bustle and noise. I looked at my watch and didn’t feel too bad – that would give me 5 hours of sleep. Then I realized that I hadn’t reset my watch, and I’d only sleep for 3 hours. At least I fell asleep quick.

I actually woke in 2 hours, and couldn’t fall back to sleep because I was still in my clothes, sleeping in a hot room in a pile of mail that wouldn’t be opened until the year 2006. Sometimes in foreign surroundings, or when I have to wake up in under 4 hours, I wake up too early, even if I’m completely zoned out upon consciousness. And I was – I stumbled to the bathroom at took a shower, my head pounding with lack of sleep, my eyes welded shut. No contact lenses that morning, but I did manage a shave and some halfway humane clothes. I said a quick hello to Ray’s mom and the women who worked downstairs, and went back to the house.

Flashbacks abounded on the drive back to my mom’s, but most of my mind that was awake was blurred by the changes. Elkhart was never a mecca of culture, diversity, and change, but when I went to high school, it had its moments. Maybe I just sought out and found the remote crevices of the city that leaked tiny bits of coolness, or maybe I was hipper than I thought and created my own decent surroundings. At any rate, all of this was gone now. The tiny record stores, the familiar restaurants, the friends’ houses, the home turf all vanished. The Walmart-ification of the area caused it to look something like Orwell’s 1984 or something – gray and devoid of all life except for people driving to factories and renting videos and buying beer.

The subdivision looked the same, a bunch of identical houses, expensive cars, and yuppie motherfuckers all trying to bribe ChemLawn to make their front lawns greener. When I got to the house, I realized I didn’t have a key anymore. Both of my sisters’ cars were out front, so I banged on the door for 10 minutes, trying to get in. No answer. I took this as a sign that my mom wasn’t there to meet me, so I bolted.

I went back to Concord Mall. This mall was like the keystone of my existance for all of high school. I worked there, at Montgomery Ward, and spent 3 years almost living there. It was like Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I’d go out on my breaks into the mall, eat lunch, flirt with the girls at the different stores, go to Walden Books and talk to Jia’s mom, and hang out with the guys at the crappy record store. It wasn’t that I had a few fond memories there – my entire life happened there for 3 years, sad as it may seem. Christmas seasons of listening to the same muzak over and over, dealing with the customers, working all day in the summer, Friday nights alone in the paint department, fucking around with the girls in housewares and my friend Roger in Automotive. It sounds pathetic compared to my life now, but at the time, it was better than frying 100 pounds of french fries or cleaning toilets at a gas station.

The Concord Mall, like most other retail operations in Indiana, got driven south by the WalMart and Meijer stores. I walked the concourse and saw nothing but plywood over the old storefronts, with maybe one in ten stores actually still open. The old places I loved were all gone, only a few still standing. There wasn’t any tumbleweed blowing through the aisles, but it felt like there should be.

Being in my old store felt the worst. I went looking for my old manager Preston, just to say hi and tell him I was in town. My old department, the paint/wallpaper area, had completely vanished a few years ago – the walls were torn down, the paint racks and mixing equipment trashed, and the whole area filled with scratch and dent furniture. None of the familiar surroundings were there anymore. I also couldn’t find Preston. I did talk to a guy from Automotive who vaguely remembered me, but he seemed pretty vague about everything. It reminded me of my Christmas trip, the first time I returned from Seattle – I ran into about 4 or 5 people from high school, and none of them recognized me at all. They just politely said hi and nodded when I said I moved out west and started working. Maybe my ten year high school reunion will be a major waste of time.

I headed back to the house, and my sister Angie woke up and let me in. My mom left a giant list of stuff she was doing all day, and it didn’t look like we’d hook up at all. Plus the tux shop was closed until noon, which meant I could’ve slept 3 times as long. Great.

I went to the tux place and found my worst nightmares were pretty much dead-on with the rental. It had normal pants, a semi-normal shirt, some little black Amish-type of backless vest, and some kind of demented tie that looked like something Boss Hogg would wear, or maybe an extra from the film Gettysberg. The coat didn’t exactly fit, either – the shoulders were tailored all wrong. It felt like a suit right off the WalMart rack. At least I brought my own shoes, I planned on wearing either some nice leather Bass shoes, or a pair of combat boots. And I had a pin for the lapel that said “I Fuck Corpses”.

That’s where the story ends. With that, I must go finish dinner in my heat-less apartment.


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…

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