Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Little Axl

I probably mentioned a few times a while ago that I was working on a book called Six Year Plan, that was a bunch of short essays and whatnot about my time in Bloomington – sort of an extension of what I did in Summer Rain. Well, that never went so well, and I’m sitting on about 100,000 words of shit, some of it good, a lot of it not so good. In mucking around, I’ve decided to pull a few pieces and put them here. These are not stories. They aren’t essays. They are just pieces. And they’re rough. Let’s start with one that I call “Little Axl.”

In the summer of ’91, I needed a real job, pronto. My parents were on my ass about bringing in a solid 40 hours a week at a good rate, and my computer job dried up during the summer session. I checked the classifieds and noticed the major triumphant victory in the 17-minute-long Iraq war pushed the economy into a short-term upswing. Everybody in the rich states wanted a new house or a new RV, so every factory in our shit city had a want ad in the paper. Everyone was paying at least twice as much as I made changing laser printer toner cartridges, and some were already running mandatory overtime at time and a half.

The only problem with a factory gig would be going in as a student. Most blue-collar shops didn’t like to hire young peckerwoods who were into the book learnin’, because they’d question the wise ways of those who earned union wages drilling holes in plywood 800 times a day every day. And just when the school boys started to nice and indoctrinated, they’d pick up and leave for campus in August. Most employers preferred someone local, married, with a kid or ten, and a mortgage or two. They could break in a lifer and keep them in the gallows for twenty or thirty years. A few, however, liked to bring in a crop of college kids to enslave for three months, especially if they could do it to skirt some kind of union regulation.

I ended up lucking into a job at a brass plant in Elkhart, on second shift. I worked for the same company at a different factory the year before, with my dad. The brass plant meant no commute, no early morning alarm clock, and no dad. I also somehow managed to take a morning class each summer session at IUSB. And I dated Lauren, this girl in Bloomington, and made the trip down there every other weekend. Basically, the entire summer was a long run of little sleep, lots of trucker speed, and a swimming pool or two of caffeinated beverages.

Most of the people at the plant were typical factory workers: divorced, remarried, with a couple of kids, and never questioned the life laid out in front of them. There were a couple of students my age, also in for the three-month haul between college semesters, and I hung out with them at the lunch table. But one of the best guys I worked with wasn’t a regular friend, just a forklift driver I talked to here and there. I don’t even remember his real name. But in my head I called him Little Axl.

Little Axl had a mane of longish red hair that made him vaguely resemble the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, and his raspy three-packs-of-Marlboro-Red-a-day voice sounded spot-on like he was going to jump down off of his lift truck, bust into “Sweet Child of Mine” at any moment and do that stupid snakey dance . Actually, maybe he completely wouldn’t remind you of Mr. Rose, but this was 1991, and the band was ramping up to hit ubiquitousity in a few months with the Use Your Illusion albums. The guy did complete his work wardrobe with a few cut-up t-shirts of various metal bands, a red bandana, and ripped-up jeans, so I’m sure he would have appreciated the association if I ever would have told him.

Little Axl was always doing dumb shit, and the other lifers at the job were constantly harping on him about it. He was sort of like the hype man for a rap group, except he wasn’t acting like a dumbass to make Chuck D look more butch or anything; he was just legitimately off-kilter in the head. For example, one day he suddenly decided to quit smoking. A noble gesture, yes, but the main reason he quit is not because of cost (cigs were dirt cheap back then) or health (everyone in Indiana smoked, and didn’t worry much about cancer), but because he used to be on the track team back in high school, and in some Al Bundy-fueled nostalgia fit, he wanted to be able to run the mile in under six minutes or whatever the fuck he ran it a half-dozen years before. Part of his non-smoking regimen was that during lunch and at breaks, he’d run laps around the parking lot in his work clothes and steel-toed boots, trying to magically regenerate all of the lung cells he’d tarred up over the last decade. Calling this “running laps” was slightly misleading, though, because he’d manage to run about 20 yards before he’d double over and hyperventilate for a moment or two, trying to catch his breath for another quick dash, while the rest of us sat at the picnic table next to the front entrance and laughed at him. Within two days, the pack of Reds were rolled back in his shirt sleeve, and the smoking ban was long forgotten.

Here’s another story about Little Axl, although it’s also mostly about me. I was dating Lauren back in Bloomington, after hooking up with her over a Memorial Day visit. And because I racked up a $277 long distance bill one month, my parents disconnected our phone to all but local calls, which made the long distance relationship a bit more difficult. But I could get on the computer via a local dialup and send mail and chat with her when she also got online. I didn’t have a computer back then, but she loaned me her old Mac Plus and 2400 BPS external modem. I’d rush home after my shift ended at midnight, and she’d go to one of the 24-hour labs on campus, and we’d “meet” and type across the 250-mile void through the magic of primitive chat programs like bitnet and VAXPhone.

One Friday night, I ran home after work to got ready for my big VAX session, but when I pulled into the driveway, I noticed the house was dark. I walked inside, and found there was a blackout in the whole neighborhood. I suddenly realized that Lauren was probably in a computer lab, wondering where the fuck I was, and if I didn’t log in soon, she was going to get all pissed off and it would all be my fault. I couldn’t call her in the lab (no long distance, this was before the day of cell phones), and I couldn’t drive to school and sit at a computer, since the IUSB campus was 45 minutes away, and probably all locked up. Then it hit me: go back to work with the computer. I piled up the cords and keyboard in a bag, grabbed the Mac Plus by the carrying handle, and drove back to the brass plant.

I don’t know how I figured this would work, but I assumed that a place like a factory had to have some RJ-45 stapled to a baseboard somewhere with a live signal. I checked the lunch room with no luck, and then found a phone jack and a set of power cords in the long hallway that ran from the front door to the guard station and time clock. It wasn’t exactly the most ergo place in the world, but I plopped down all of my stuff on the concrete floor, ran my wires, and within a few minutes, I had dialtone, then a carrier, and I was trying to explain all of this to Lauren over a 2400 BPS connection.

The weird this is, aside from the security guard dude working at the front desk, my buddy Little Axl was also pacing back and forth by the time clock. Why? It turns out a cop was hiding in the bushes right outside of the parking lot, sniping off cars with a radar detector and hoping to peel off a DUI or two. Now that’s pretty much business as usual with the shithole Elkhart cops, but the problem was that Little Axl drove this fucked up truck that was lifted about nine inches, had no exhaust, no front grill, one headlight missing, another headlight pointed 89 degrees into the air, and probably had expired plates and insurance, not to mention that Little Axl had like 27 points on his license, two DUIs, and maybe a warrant or two. So he was freaking out, waiting for the cop to leave, and trying to get someone else to drive out there to see if the coast was clear.

Meanwhile, he found me on the floor, typing away, and was completely astounded at my piece of shit Mac Plus running the Red Ryder terminal program. I don’t think he’d ever seen a computer before, and he stared at me as if I’d set up a Star Trek teleporter room on the floor and was beaming in long-dead celebrities of the 17th century for a polo game. He looked over my shoulder at my bitnet conversation, wondering what video game I was playing, mesmerized not only that someone could run a computer, but that they could also type words into it. I don’t know if he was more astounded that a person with such scientific prestidigitation skills could work at the same factory as him packing boxes, or if I was more amazed that a person who was about my age could know so little about technology. Either way, it was a strange evening.

It’s also worth mentioning that Little Axl also went to the big Guns N’ Roses and Metallica show in Indianapolis that summer to see his namesake, and I think he vaguely invited me down there if I wanted to catch a ride too, but it seemed too weird and I probably was going down to Bloomington that weekend anyway. In retrospect, I wish I would have scraped up the $40 for tickets and went with him, since it would have been a completely fucked up story culminating with him shooting a syringe of Jim Beam into his neck and then beating his trucker-looking girlfriend with the bottle. And this was also like one or two shows before the real Axl started a riot in St. Louis.

When he came back from the show, Little Axl would not shut up about the greatness of the Guns set, and how they played so many new songs. He also got a shirt that he wore to work the next day, but it said something like GUNS AND FUCKING ROSES WILL FUCK YOU UP on the back, and one of the old guys at work got upset and told him he had to turn it inside out or get another shirt because it had the f-word on it, and this was a family factory. He had it inside out for an hour or two, then he had it back, and I wondered if the ACLU had stepped in that quickly or what, until I saw that he cleverly covered the aforementioned f-bombs with a piece of electrical tape. Sneaky.

Little Axl was one of the most interesting people I worked with, although there were others. I worked at a QA bench for a few weeks with a woman that was my parents’ age who worked with my dad at the other plant and was a recovering alcoholic. She told me all of the usual stories recovering addicts tell you, about taking a bunch of drugs, driving through traffic at 110 while fucked up, almost jumping out of windows, being pronounced dead and then coming back, and all of the others. It made the summer go by a little faster, but it still took way too long to get it done, especially since I’d be back in Bloomington in the fall.