Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

A random trip to see the collapsing bridge

I loaded up the Escort with my cameras, MiniDisc, and an atlas and headed out yesterday, with the goal of taking a short to moderate roadtrip to somewhere I’ve never been before. So I got on I-5 south with a vague plan in mind, and pressed onward.

I do miss the Escort for some of these medium-length drives. I always complained about its road noise and vibrations, but compared to the Rabbit, it is whisper-quiet. The whole car feels so different now – newer, wider, and somewhat clunkier. Even though it has power steering, it drives less responsively than the VW – which isn’t all that bad. Also, it has air conditioning, which helped yesterday – it felt like it was above 80 for my trip. The MiniDisc was great for the road, too. That’s not a car-specific thing – mine is a Sony MZ-R50, a portable recorder about the size of a cassette tape box. I plug it into my tape player with a faux-cassette adapter, and it sounds fine. I listened to the new Pat Metheny album on the highway south. The perfect sound, small size, and nice little wired remote of the Minidisc made it a good companion for trips like this.

No, I didn’t drive to Longview, although I thought it would be a nice little drive, and it would be a real freakout to see that place again – it was bad enough when I zipped past there with Ryan Grant when we went to see Joe Satriani in Portland last March. Instead, I went down to Tacoma, and got on 16, which cuts to the west and up, into the peninsula on the other side of Puget Sound. After a bit of a haul, I got to the Tacoma Narrows bridge, another Pacific Northwest engineering tragedy story. Back in the 50s? the original Narrows bridge got destroyed in a windstorm. It was a gradual thing – the bridge gyrated all over for a day, and a bunch of people shot film and pictures of the thing before it broke apart and keeled into the water (I think some footage of it was recently in some Sony or Pioneer car stereo ad). The bridge seemed solid to me, but I still unloaded the rest of the b/w film in my still camera while driving across.

After the bridge, I saw a cemetery and decided to stop and look around. When I got out of the car and the AC, I realized it was pretty damn hot, and I was wearing a black t-shirt. Oh well. I have a morbid fascination with cemetaries – I’m not some kind of gothic zombie type, but I think cemetaries are a strange sociological phenomenon. We treat people like shit during their lifetimes, and ignore them until they die. Then we spend thousands of dollars to commemorate them with a piece of land and a chunk of stone. It’s the epitome of cookie-cutter ceremonies. Nobody is born the same way – there are so many stories of rushed trips to the hospital, prolonged labor, C-sections, kids born in the elevator, natural childbirth in swimming pools, and the whole deal. But (almost) everyone who dies gets the same ceremony, the same square of limestone.

This cemetary was a dud, in my opinion – all flat markers, and no real artwork or interesting history. It was a nice looking place though – there was a little newsletter I should’ve stolen, talking about how the staff was there to serve you and to stop by the office for cookies and icewater. It was a nice location, too – you could see a tributary of the sound, with some sailboats and homes built on the hills. There were no interesting graves, although I accidentally found a WWI vet that shared my birthday, so I loaded some color film and got a shot of that.

I continued north on 16, running out the Metheny MD and switching to some Henry Rollins spoken word. You might or might not know the story about how I claim Rollins turned my life around, but maybe I should recap since I’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately:

The story starts in October 1993. I’d been in a relationship since March, and I thought it was pretty perfect. Things had settled down from the hyper-romantic “in love” period, to a more cosmopolitan “day-to-day love”, but I still thought it was the greatest relationship I was in. Famous last words – in October, she found out she had an ovarian cyst, and had to go in for surgery in December for it – really serious shit. She had doubts about the relationship, and she felt she couldn’t deal with both the relationship and the medical stuff, and she couldn’t get rid of the medical stuff, so she dumped me.

Of course this completely flattened me. But there’s more background. At that point in time, I was on this academic rollercoaster where I was barely hanging on. At IU, you go on probation for pulling your cumulative GPA below a 2, or doing something asinine in one semester, like getting all F’s. I’d spent more semesters on probation than off; my recent transcript was like: on probation, off probation, on probation, on probation, dismissal, reinstatement, off probation, on probation, and now I would’ve bet money against myself that I’d fuck up the rest of the semester and face another dismissal. I’d also given up on my original dream of finishing a computer science degree, since there were too many hurdles (calculus, foreign language) that I couldn’t finish.

My academic goal at that point was to get a degree in general studies – a loophole provided by the school of continuing studies. I could finish a non-specific bachelor’s degree if I had 120 credit hours – no foreign language, and I got to pick and choose my classes a bit, although I had to have a certain number of social and behavioral, science, and humanities classes, and I had to take a speech class. No problem. I figured I’d never get a job as a hot-shit unix programmer, but maybe I’d get a job answering phones somewhere. I worked with computers then as a support consultant,had been for three years, and knew a fair amount. I knew people with English degrees and History degrees with no experience snagging good-paying computer jobs, and I was properly positioned at the very start of the whole WWW explosion, so maybe there was hope. But I still felt like I was drifting, like all of my mooring lines were being severed one by one. I was taking stupid, passionless classes in public management and business computing, and counting away my time until the real world kidnapped me, without really getting ready for it.

Ten days after the girlfriend left, my paternal grandmother died, and I rushed home for the funeral (I didn’t have a car – my sister drove down from Ball State, and then back up to Elkhart). We briefly lived with Grandma Konrath when my mom, dad, and I showed up in Edwardsburg, MI after he got done with the Air Force in North Dakota. We went to her house almost every weekend from age zero until I was 16, 17 and started running with my own car and friends. Even then, I’d get out there at least every month or so. My maternal grandparents lived in Chicago, and I only saw them on holidays; my paternal grandfather died when my dad was only 2 or 3, so I never met him. So my Grandma Konrath was probably my closest grandparent. I last saw her the day I picked up my truck from U-Haul to move to Bloomington for the fall, and didn’t think of it as a last goodbye, but I guess it works better that way sometimes. I don’t have problems with funerals – I don’t believe in heaven and hell, and that’s problematic when you’re surrrounded by crying people who are talking about that. I feel grief, but it usually doesn’t happen until weeks or months later. Call me weird. Anyway, the strangest part was seeing my dad – he mostly had it together, but there was this almost scared look on his face when we were at the graveyard. He’s the youngest kid in this huge family, and I suddenly realized both of his parents were gone, and it made my father, the person that I see as more of an icon or a figurehead, seem a lot more like me.

So where does Rollins fit into all of this? When I got back to school, I bought The Boxed Life, which is a hilarious spoken word album. Hank talks about travel, depression, the road, people, aggression, humility, strength, and much more. I lived about two miles away from campus, and although I had a bus pass, I’d rather walk home than wait two hours for a BT bus. So I’d strap on my trusty Aiwa walkman, put in one of the Rollins tapes (it was a 2-tape set, and I later bought up the back-catalog too) and hiked it home. His monologues made me think a lot more about my life, the depression, and reinventing myself. Pretty soon, I started hauling around a spiral notebook and writing down my observations and feelings during the lull between classes and work. I dug out my old 110 lb weight set at my mom’s house and brought it back to Bloomington, trying to get back into shape. I stole a bunch of paperback books from my mom’s – stuff like Catch-22 and Fear of Flying, and made a habit of reading an hour or two a night. Later, I started dropping more cash every payday at Morgenstern’s on stuff like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, and I devoured their stories of loneliness, romance, life, and living. I still thought about my ex every day, but I knew I’d need to reinvent myself if I wanted to live. And I guess the distraction of the writing, reading and the lifting got in my way, and kept me from jumping into a temporary, fucked up relationship, like the chain of them behind me. And within a few months, I was a writer. I filled the void title in my life by hacking out short stories, poems, and trying at a first novel. And here I am: Jon Konrath, writer.

About 80 pages ago, I was talking about my trip. I was headed up 16, which is a nice road, with a lot of evergreen trees on either side and some small hills in the distance. There are few stops, just the occasional Texaco station. It reminded me a lot of my time in upstate New York with my dad, the summer before my senior year of high school. The drive felt good, even though I didn’t know my destination.

I got to Bremerton, which is an old Navy shipyard town. I flew over the shipworks in a tiny Cessna plane with a coworker once – there’s a lot of old iron down there. When I pulled into town, I could see the old gray battleships right off the water – a bunch of them were pushed together, hull-to-hull,like they were in storage. I saw a sign for a naval museum, and I hoped there would be a place I could drop a 10-spot and walk onto a decommissioned destroyer. But it looked like the ships were in some fenced-off, official-looking facility, and I couldn’t even get to the water’s edge for a picture. Bummer.

I motored around Bremerton, which is a small town with a heavy naval influence to it. I can’t describe it much better than that, but maybe the smell of saltwater and presence of marinas remind me of being on the Oregon coast, or my walks around lake Union and Elliot bay. Small towns are weird, because they are always beat – worn out signs on little local stores, high school kids with nothing to do, lots of senior citizens. It’s always fucked up, but it’s fucked up out of ignorance more than corruption. In the big city, the problems are that everyone wants to make a buck – everything is a high rise or a parking lot or a no parking zone. Everything is covered with soot and neon signs and billboards for beer or Guess jeans. But in the small town, it’s all about atrophy. And the people like it – and, I guess from a lifetime of living in small towns, it’s nice for me to get a small dose of it here and there.

I got back on 16 and banged north again. I thought about going to 3 and crossing the Kitsap bridge, and headeing west, on the north side of the Olympic State park, until I either got to the ocean or a nice outlook on the Juan de Fuca Strait. Realistically, I didn’t have time for this, and you can’t go all the way to the ocean because the prime real estate right on the tip there is an Indian reservation. So I stopped in Silverdale, with the intent of picking up some cash, hitting a restroom, and maybe getting a bite to eat. I found a Seafirst – while in line, a guy started talking to me about my Joe Satriani shirt. I guess he was up from the Bay Area for the weekend. He looked Navy, but I couldn’t tell. I stopped at the Target by the Kitsap mall – the whole place reminded me of a mall I saw during a stay in Corning, NY. I decided against Burger King, and got back on 16, heading south.

I got back into Bremerton and circled around again, looking for that museum. I saw what looked like Hyatt Regency or Days Inn towers in the distance, but there were a bunch of them – sort of modern-adobe looking, pinkish-sandstone colored, with bright terraces and modern-looking roofs. Why the fuck would they need so many hotels? I got a little lost, and ended up at the gate of the Navy base, so I turned and drove the length of the base, looking in the fence. Then I realized that those buildings weren’t hotels – they were barracks! I thought all barracks were required by law to be 50’s-looking quonset huts, but these were modern, high-rise apartments. I also saw a Subway on base, which looked a little out of place. Just outside of the base were a bunch of run-down bars that looked like they’d never served a drink to a person since the Korean War.

I couldn’t find the museum (I’m sure it’s a snap to find) and I was bored of driving, so I decided to drop $8 and take the ferry back to Seattle. I got there halfway through the lineup, and only had to wait 15 minutes. I grabbed all of my gear, and spent the ride taking still and video pictures of the birds, boats, and water. You can get excellent panning shots when you’re moving through the water – if the water is moving toward your angle, and you zoom in, it looks like you’re flying over the water. Also, the birds had a horrible headwind, and were trying to fly with the boat, so it looked like they were hovering right over us. I shot about 15 minutes of film, and got some great footage (but horrible audio – the wind!) of the approach to Seattle. I got back to the car early, and spooled out the rest of my tape on the approaching kingdome (Sony Hi8 tape is actually 122 minutes long, I found out). It felt good to sit in the Escort after the sound and the headwinds. That car still smells new – it’s amazing.

I got home tired, and sort of depressed. It was 7:30 on a Saturday night, and I was broke and with nothing to do. No messages, no calls, no email – I felt like I should’ve kept driving. Instead, I fell asleep, woke about 3 hours later and ate a TV dinner while watching the tape that was in the camcorder. It had the tail-end of my vacation last October to Indiana (which shows you how much I use the camcorder). My mom had a bunch of old slides from when I was a baby, so we rented a projector, aimed it at the wall, set up the camcorder, and I had her talk about each slide while I taped it. The picture quality is poor, but the commentary is great. I also faux-interviewed my friend Tom Sample in his apartment in Indy and got him to recall some great stories about our time together. After the tape, I spent part of the night, screwing with the new glossary system, and reading the Cliff Stoll book about the German hacker, The Cuckoo’s Egg.

Now I’ve spent forever typing all of that and yet I don’t feel like I’m really talking about what’s going on. I want to get out of the house though, and this will probably be more pedestrian, like a trip to safeway. More later.

06/07/98 21:48

I just re-read and edited what was above. I can ramble when I have nothing better to do with my time. My apologies to low-baud users.

I spent the day wandering in the Escort, wandering Northgate mall, wandering Mountlake Terrace, wandering University Village. It felt good to get out of the house, even though I didn’t have money to blow shopping. Malls have a certain cathartic appearance, and they’re a prime location for peoplewatching. It drives my friends nuts that I will spent so much time at malls without even going in stores, but hey – it’s exercise.

I was reading a book at a bookstore (Waldenbooks? It was someplace I don’t buy books) and it said that you can give your dendrons in your brain a workout by doing things you aren’t used to doing. So maybe I wouldn’t feel as atrophied if I started studying Sweedish or Russian or something. I think that’s true to an extent, because when I was suffering with physics or Spenser and Chaucer, I felt a lot more alert than when I was watching TV 19 hours a day.

I’ve declared Rumored to Exist officially stalled. I need to change gears again, and I have an idea for a third book that might work out well right now. Mum’s the word until I can get an outline hammered out.

Did you know Indiana University had a president with the first name of Elvis? Did you also know that Indiana University, defined by law on January 20, 1820, shares a birthday with me (1971), Bill Perry (1971), physicist Andre Ampere (1775), second man on the moon Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (1930), Deforest Kelley – Star Trek’s “Dr. Bones” (1920), mathematician and physicist Daniel Bernoulli (1700), creator of Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray (1894), Lorenzo Lamas (1958), Kiss guitarrist Paul Stanley (1949), novelist Johannes Jensen (1873), and Skeet Ulrich (1968)? That’s quite a lineup – I’m thinking a secret society is in the works.

I need to figure out dinner and then start outlining this book.