Then on February 11th, my father died. This fully altered my understanding of this album, which has always sounded like a car crash happening between my ears. Afterwards it articulated the calamity of death, each abandoned bone falling down to the bottom of a well and smashing, leaving memories and rumors and ideas. It resembled the absurdity of selecting urns and speaking to lawyers and cleaning apartments, in between thoughts of actual grieving, and sharing conversation with others who knew him in different ways.
On March 8th, this is what I read to kick things off. It’s called “Ostrich”. Much thanks to Bob Priest for putting together such a strange/wonderful evening at Three Friends Coffee.
Self-destruction and innovation sound the same.
Metal Machine Music: the lucky moment in Lou Reed’s life when he reduced Rolling Stone’s editors to red-faced rattle throwing toddlers screaming “I hate you!” tiny fists beating the air to spare the walls. It’s a headache hatched on vinyl. Some fans thought it was a mistake and traded it in for aspirin.
Lou Reed confessed to being really stoned, to listing instruments he didn’t use in the liner notes, but insisted the roast before the recipe was the finest cut of lamb. He declared it his 1975 effort to produce a novel in music form, even if it was an angry entity most would rather exorcize than read or listen to. It howls at my coyote ever hunting for the chance to laugh first and loudest about an Emperor’s missing clothes.
Metal Machine Music’s second egg cracked into my ear in an airport on an airplane as I waited on the tarmac to head up and east towards Cleveland. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. They don’t change at all on the tarmac.
An interrupted dream called me back to the burning river. In the dream I met my father on a bridge, where he stood waiting with his camera, anticipating the perfect shot. After a moment or two I told him I was going back the way I came. He said that he would wait for the sunset. The question I never got to ask was split open by a ringing phone, and it was my sister, and my father was dead.
And there was Lou Reed placing a hood of his hated album over my head, whispering, “These are words for a limitless language.”
The flight attendant asked that I put up and stow all my portable electronic devices. I did, and Metal Machine Music kept going.
My father stamped his death shadow into a chair carried up the stairs by his best friend of forty years, who ignored my father’s insistence that this wasn’t a project for a man with a heart condition. Two months ago my father resuscitated his best friend after that heart attacked him, and in that moment my father must have known his own vessel was sinking. They were both 64, but my father was older. He went out as an armchair Viking, his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense. His best friend climbed the stairs again to find him.
Descending from 30,000 feet, wheels lowered, warnings about electronics for the second time. Metal Machine Music squeals like birds released from a flaming cage.
The first thing I did right off the plane was identify his body. It was in a cardboard box against a north-facing wall. He was thinner than I expected, his skin cold, and blue trails bloomed across his forehead, maps marking his exit. I remembered that the last time I saw him I thought he didn’t have long to live, but that didn’t make me write him more. He never wrote if I didn’t.
It was in an archive of those emails that I found a song that he wrote to play at the end of his funeral. The beginning of the funeral was reserved for taps, a pre-recorded mourning played as a naval officer in crisp blues mimed blowing a bugle. All I heard was ohms and crackles, another slapped amp for every ceremonial turn of the flag.
I’ve never been one to fold in predictable places. I spread all over the room. I talked to the plastic surgery scars of my father’s forgotten acquaintances, the facial hair of my sister’s high school friends, the cleavage of the woman delivering the service, the nostrils of the funeral director who couldn’t figure out mp3s. All that left my mouth was static. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. My father’s not in the air at all. He’s bottled.
My head is in the sand.
His ashes were heavier than I thought they would be, in a giant urn called a shaker with the image of a sunset sculpting it. He went from cardboard box to Parmesan cheese canister. There’s a reason cremation so often ends with comedy gold. We decided to spread his ashes later, because of snow blanketing his preferred parks and Lake Erie being frozen and none of us having any better ideas. Instead we talked about snow and cold and the impossibility of making angels with either ingredient.
In the final section of Metal Machine Music, amps challenge guitars to play themselves for a locked 1.8 seconds. I metronomed the loop and told anyone listening that I didn’t know when it would end.
There’s nothing to do after a funeral, except measure your own time beyond 64 minutes and tabulate what’s been wasted. So my sister tuned my father’s old guitars and ghost hands fielded strings. So I rode the pulse of 1.8 seconds of feedback all the way to a train station to launch my own Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, hoping for peace delivered by rear window.
I took my father’s camera, and waited for sunset.
Metal Machine Music is lava: destructive and fast, forging a fertile path for those who choose to climb or burn instead of run. Critics that couldn’t plot it and fans that found nothing to sing along to and strange sorts looking for something to slap them etched obscurity in stone. It was re-released a few years ago to delight and confound all over again, pasting a caveman painting on a glossy magazine legacy. Lou ostrich-tuned his outro.
Lou Reed’s musician hands conducted him away with the water-flowing 21 form of Tai Chi, the poetry of Laurie Anderson carefully framing his open-eyed exit in autumn leaves. My father’s musician hands placed his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, and it burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense.
There are still many events going on with the Festival, so check the link above for full schedule information! Thanks to Kugot Butoh for destroying everyone’s comfort zone. We totally needed it. Not only was the dancing itself a mind bender, but the facial expressions of the many folks having their first exposure to such emotionally potent and difficult dancing functioned as physical confirmation of its efficacy. Here’s to more folks facing their discomfort zone in the future.
Weeks ago when my partner and I first discussed the idea of escape by rail, the plan was to take Amtrak from PDX to LAX and back, nodding off into mountain sunsets and waking up to redwoods. We ended up flying in. The week before our scheduled departure I made an unexpected detour to Cleveland, where my sisters and I were occupied with practical, terrible things like attending my father’s funeral.
Assuming half-orphan status isn’t something I’d recommend, regardless of whether childhood stories recall Harry Potter’s cupboard or Beaver Cleaver. In the aftermath of all the death events I was left glaring at my reflection like Ed Norton in every movie, wondering why I couldn’t be one of those collapsible people who inflates and deflates at the right occasions and is easily stored when not of use. Stupid flesh and bones. Why couldn’t I be a bouncy castle?
After I returned we went south to Ventura, CA for my partner’s grandfather’s 90th birthday party. I never had the chance to meet either of my grandfathers, as the men on both sides of my family often choose professions and habits the inform early death. I didn’t want to lose the chance to meet my version of a unicorn. California taught me that everything such unicorns say is amazing, as is a steady influx of naturally produced vitamin D absorbed through head and hands. It’s also impractical to stay in a jacuzzi forever, tempting though it may be.
The return: 27 hours on Amtrak, Oxnard to PDX. An unexpected price spike in the tickets after the website went down (then back up again) = bitter grumbling, particularly since it was only our selected date that reflected the increase. Attempts to contact Amtrak by phone were a fail, as was attempting to contact them by email. Note to future travelers: you cannot contact Amtrak unless you go down to a station in person.
Still, last minute train tickets are cheaper than last minute airfare. Oxnard Train Station was irritability balm, with its comfortable classic train station aesthetic, grand wooden benches recalling church pews. People were mellow. One of the things that distinguishes train travel from air is the absence of an interior pelvic ultrasound prior to boarding. With trains you check in, get on, put your bag in the communal storage area, trust your fellow passengers, go to your assigned seat and stay there until a man in a funny outfit comes by to give the ticket an official scan. Then you get up and take several wobbly steps and apologies to the observation car, where travelers sit armed with awful and amazing stories begging for participation or ears. You might even play cards.
The outside waiting zone invited us to get in touch with our inner cattle, and likely informed a mini stampede when the train rolled in twenty minutes late to collect our bodies and bags and head northward.
Every observation car is loaded with interesting human specimens, and no one is going to convince me otherwise. I’ve never ridden a train and found myself bored by my fellow passengers, and the longer the trip the greater the likelihood of it evolving into a Breakfast Club edition of group therapy. The scene: to my right, an Arabic woman seated across from a soldier. They’re playing cards. They exchange a few awkward sentences about politics. She’s trying to be careful; he’s 21 years old and already convinced. The first smoke break allows him to locate another uniformed sort to trade fart jokes and tattoo ideas with. I’m relieved to return to my regularly scheduled stereotype; she’s already decided to move elsewhere in observation anyway.
Later the soldier talks to my partner about Americans being especially nervous about bombs, his Bud Lite breath hitting my neck, and I can only assume this is because he’s never been overseas or watched the news. Then I consider that he’s in a position where his own relationship with bombs and fear is about to be tested, and this is coping, so I say nothing and dodge living up to a stereotype all my own.
There’s also a pair of newlyweds, still careful in the way they touch and smile at each other, having circular conversations about the past and future. As the day winds into evening she slowly divulges details about a stint in prison to the room. Meanwhile, a chick with a moleskine notebook and laptop much like my own operates with the same spy-and-tally gaze that leaves me wondering what she’s recording about my own disastrous presentation. I’m holding myself together with socks and scarves, and she could be on to me. She falls into conversation with a tattoo artist on his way to a convention, and I’m distant and distracted.
A camera I claimed from my father’s abandoned objects is capturing images out the window, and in each instance the lens steals something from the scenery and something of the train. I spend a second wondering if my camera is ghost locked.
The memory card came preloaded with pictures detailing all of Cleveland Metroparks’ fauna. He mentioned in an email that animals were practically crawling into his lap of late, and now that I’m familiar with the zoom capabilities (and limitations) of this particular Nikon I can measure the accuracy of that statement. Many of the photos are gorgeous, intimate portraits revealing subtle coloring and patterns pressed into natural adornments. The only pictures that appear awkward are the ones of people, which is an honest reflection of someone who struggled in the company of others — an issue I experience in my own way as I adjust to sharing a train for 27 hours with strangers.
At each stop up the California coast people get on and off. Santa Barbara, San Luis Obespo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville. After my third “I thought there was supposed to be wireless on this train?” conversation with an angry mouse clicking guy in a tie, it becomes clear that those searching for a signal will never, ever stop, and will simply load and reload their browsers, ever more desperate to log in to something for affirmation of ongoing technical existence.
When all else fails, and even when it doesn’t, there is the bar car.
It takes no time at all for the lower level to light up like a bowling alley. Imagine a pod of shitfaced men in jeans and women in tube tops and too much hairspray somewhere between fist fight and free hugs, en route to a Poison concert. It’s that awesome. If you’re suffering a flirtation deficiency, a casual stroll down to this level will likely rectify the situation, and fear of being ejected from a moving rail inspires a degree of respect. If I were four notches less exhausted I’d join them in their loud binge-fired confessions, but I’m not ready to release my truth. And sometime in the next three hours they’re either going to be crying into their coat sleeves or trading blows during the next smoke stop over which branch of the military is superior, regardless of whether or not any of them actually served. I can’t believe I’m going to miss it. I won’t miss the sunset.
As meals are distributed to those who opened their wallets, sighed, and surrendered, it occurs to me that there’s no entitlement on the train, just a lot of laughter about what it might be like to travel in a car that allows for wine and cheese before the evening meal. There’s debate about whether to call this first class or sleeping cars, or just perceive it as a safety net that ensures our leg of the train won’t be the one robbed first. This is also radically unlike a plane, where after being frisked and fondled by a security force paid to be overzealous about things like lotion bottles and fingernail clippers you damn well better get your free plastic cup of cranberry juice. Every announcement is met with laughter or cheers, and reminders regarding the prevalence of booze in tiny bottles that we’ll later stuff ourselves back into, just to smell something different. The faithful attendant of this slobbering bunch takes occasional meal breaks, to the nail biting chagrin of his new best friends, and I join the league of fanboys and girls when he promises me that when I come down for my third coffee refill it will be free.
After sunset offers a fog heavy alien landscape, I abandon my observation station and collapse into my assigned seat, welcoming the dawn of a murderous rage that makes me understand what a complex housing situation prison must be. First, a couple propping up their sleep with a Spanish horror movie, live and without headphones at 3AM. Absence of English would make even my most bitch face comment useless, and I’m trying hard not to be the token temper tantrum. I am a bouncy castle. I am a bouncy castle. This sound is chased by my very own partner’s decision to go mining in a snack bag for the loudest bag of cheetos ever produced by Trader Joe’s. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE, chomp chomp chomp, screams and pleas for mercy in Spanish. Then, the negotiation of various cords and wires to ensure that every electronic gadget is sufficiently charged, should the non existent wireless connection suddenly surface and threaten all of the coach passengers with a whisper of first world mopey civilization. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE. Snap. I ask him to chill out with the cheetos and he shakes the bag in my face, and I realize we’re both train crazy.
The mood sinks further when we brush city limits and phones materialize out of no where for rapid facebook examination, and I’m still thinking about the fact that my father died and my best bet for communicating to as many distracted sorts as possible the insanity that immediately follows is a thoughtful status update that summons clicking of the “like” button. It’s not that the world is a terrible place, or that we are flanked by terrible people. It’s that we’ve gotten lazy, and don’t know how to talk anymore. I don’t know how to talk anymore. I need to work on this.
I pacify all of this this by relocating to the seat closest to exit.
When dawn hits I drag myself up in enough time to witness this:
Oh, and also this:
This is what I took the train for. It’s the ultimate road trip without the pressures of changing lanes and keeping eyes on the road. Early morning fog creates an eerie entryway to the mountain, and it assumes the shape of hobbit homes.
Near Klamath Falls we pick up a couple of tour guides and I pick up the promised cup of coffee. The super power of this duo is announcing things they consider photograph worthy too early or too late, but overall their presence is pretty adorable.
Somewhere around Eugene my brain came alive again with daydreams of home, and I thought about what it would be like to do this again when the days are longer and you can swallow every drop of sun and scenery from LA to PDX.
A woman with a collection of O magazines attempts to hater-bond with me when she notices me taking a photograph of a graffiti artist in action and suggests that I get an upclose shot of his face. From there she transitions to a discussion of Shirley Jackson inspired by the book on my table, questioning whether kids today can grasp the message. I confess that I’m fairly certain that anyone who can digest an episode of True Detective or Breaking Bad can perform the simple linguistic mathematics required to grok “The Lottery” and then I want to wish her away. I’m not up to being cynical and hater bonding anymore. It’s too much work to buzz kill every conversation with a dark eyeroll. I’m trying to be a bouncy castle here.
I’m afraid to be back at home. I don’t know what will swim up and slap me, and I haven’t even chronicled every awful notion of a visit such as this. It’s like I’m there, waiting for myself, demanding inspecting and isolation and a transition from another winter wrapped in Netflix and little else. Anywhere else I could be a new me that’s far less predictable, that lays new tracks for trains headed to abandoned stations to collect ghosts and all their ornaments.
They’re around me all the time anyway. Might as well assist them with travel.
Winter is crafted for hibernation. Every activated limb requests rest, only to be tested again and again. Unrealistic demands are made of checking accounts and credit cards. Ovens are used with greased determination. Relatives are contacted to commemorate entangled threads of DNA. Gift lists are exchanged, and people look forward to working.
Wikipedia is unfair to conspiracy theorists, reporting findings on actual X-Files of everyday bumbling CIA investigations in snide tones reserved for college freshmen making snappy retorts to tenured professors. A pet theory coaxed to life with fermented anxiety and selected video viewing is debunkt courtesy of a source-free Popular Mechanics opinion piece, and I wonder if that magazine has ever been cited before a Wikipedia contributor had his condescending druthers. I don’t know the line between truth and conspiracy. What I know is that each president prematurely greys, and switches up statements once complex reality crashes through the front gates of town hall debates and lands in lap, unchanged.
I think my relationship will survive another winter, even if it is murder and feelings.
Winter changed somewhere and managers started hating their workers. Paying them a reasonable wage is the stuff of unions of yore. Benefits are things the government should supply (once properly paid and then paid again). Workers respond in kind, showing up when they feel like it, yawning away mornings when they don’t, escaping for smoke breaks without habits, monitoring windows and wondering what the point of hard work might be in an era when it goes unrewarded. The people who jumped? They arrived early.
Maybe someone will cure cancer. Maybe someone will play violin on the train home. Maybe someone will hand out juice boxes on the street corner. Maybe tattoos will start to leak. Maybe Sunday will come twice. Maybe.
Aisles blocked by people making desperate phone calls home to determine whether or not grandpa is allergic to wheat and eggs. A woman wearing a pink surgical mask asking me where to find the shopping carts. A bagger giving himself a crude haircut in the breakroom with a bowie knife. A man holding one container of premade flour-thickened gravy, and one container of cornstarch gravy, looking around before stating: “I don’t know what to do.” Another, in the midst of shoulder-to-shoulder turkey requests: “What is the fat content of this sausage, exactly?” Then someone rolls out a cart of wine samples, and the workers start circling.
Motivation. Result. Hard work. Windows.
Somewhere, in the morning, a warehouse will be warmed by the sweat of a thousand laborers racing to stuff things into boxes. Somewhere, far away, a wrist grows thick with button clicks. In the morning, the lines outside of doors will snake around stores and I will swallow the tail. Before this there will be eating, gratitude skimmed from the surface. Cynicism sends me back for seconds.
The Hanged Man on fading screens no longer knows the light of spring. I’ll ask him to stoke coal from the parts of me diamond-pressed. To show me three windows that don’t have such a drop. To show me what happens, after all that burning. I’ll ask him. This winter. I will.
Dangling by the ankle, falling.
It’s the first big pop off of spring, and whether the snow melts or not it’s on. Some of the team comes over and you spend a long time getting ready, acting like you don’t care while they fuck up your Playstation and eat your mom’s food. Before you leave the house you have a few. Not sloppy, just enough for confidence. Your boys feel the same way, and they have a few, too. You look good before you leave, and you know it.
The yard and front steps are a mess of players and cheerleaders and wannabe players and wannabe cheerleaders, screaming and flirting and play-hitting each other. It smells like hairspray and gum. There’s a keg in the basement and a collection of bottles harvested from lost liquor cabinets. You pick the bottle that sounds like something your grandpa would drink and decide to just carry it and take swallows. Who the hell gets fancy at parties? This isn’t the place for martinis or blue shit with umbrellas. It’s a good time. The girls you texted all week are there. All you have to do is fake like you aren’t interested long enough, and it’s on.
Then one of your boys hands you a drink and says, “Drink deep, brother. It’s special.” A jolt of suspicion moves through you, because you don’t trust anyone who grins like that. So you ask “Special how?” and kinda laugh, and he tips the cup up to help you swallow and you are drinking. Then he hits you on the shoulder and walks away. You figure it’ll be fine. This is your boy, your teammate. Besides, he’s bigger than you. Don’t fuck with it. Just party.
The drink hits hard and fast. You didn’t feel so drunk a second ago. Hell, you didn’t even hit buzzed and just like that you’re hammered. Then your legs are gone and so is the rest of you, and there you are. Gone.
The part of your brain still dialed into what’s happening thinks about that movie you saw about the dude who goes into surgery and the anesthetic only half-works. He can’t move, but he hears, sees, and feels everything. That’s you, on the ground, and you can’t even talk. When you try, this gurgling comes out.
“Son is done,” someone says, and you feel something wet hit your cheek. It’s his spit, drooling from his mouth. Then you feel something else wet and warm. Piss. Yours.
From out of the corner of your eye you see one of your teammates, even more gone than you are. Both of his eyes are closed and his mouth dangles open near a puddle of puke. He’s also totally naked.
Within minutes he’s like a booth at the county fair. People arrange objects on him, take pictures. Out come the Sharpies to draw a dick on his ass, boobs on his back, balls on his chin. You can’t tell if their faces are actually elongating into the masks of jackals or if that’s the last of your consciousness running for cover. The guy who gave you the drink is talking to another in a corner and you can tell he’s full of ideas. He walks up to the limp body, pulls him arm back like a slingshot, then jacks him in the face. Just like that. Hits him hard. Again. The dead body is suddenly coughing.
“Damn,” someone says, and rolls him on to his stomach so he doesn’t choke on his teeth, on his blood.
Someone squeals, “Don’t let him choke!”
Not stop punching him – don’t let him choke. You try to say What the fuck but all that comes is another gurgle.
Out come the cell phones.
He punches him in the face again, on the back of his head and shouts for everyone to notice that when you hit the back of his head, blood comes out the front. Punch to the skull, blood from the nose! Science! This is awesome! Another guy lines up behind him because this is going viral, and he wants to get in a good clean punch in too, while he’s there. He’s excited, hopping from one foot to the other, and it’s making the rest of the team excited, so they line up. They’re a team. They do things together. Someone points at you and says, “Too bad your running back is out” and another says “We know. He’s next.”
Your whole self says fuckgetup, and still, you can’t.
This guy is a bloody mess but it’s like Lord of the Flies around his carcass, everyone whooping and hollering and high-fiving, kicking him and shouting GOAL, passing around booze and joints and then suddenly pissing on him, a massive golden shower sponsored by 10 bloated athletic bladders.
Twitter lights up. #drunkpunch
Somebody starts to get pissed about the blood on the carpet. What the hell is he going to tell his mom, some dude got his period? This is hilarious, too. You’re hoping the focus on the other dude’s face and the carpet is going to make them forget about you. So much time has passed, and you can’t even raise your arm. They decide he’s going to be a burden to take care of. They decide the same thing about you. You’re cold. That’s how you realize you’re naked, too.
The next day you wake up, and have no idea where you are. Wait: your bed. You remember your bed. Mom. That was who found you on the front porch, naked and covered in blood. All you know is what the mirror reveals: you’re missing a few teeth, and your cheek might need hospital intervention to properly heal. Still, you prepare yourself to say something about how the night was alright, and you fell. Boys being boys and all that.
Downstairs your mom is crying. You can’t deal with her yet, and she lets you walk right on by her. You plug in your cell phone, turn it on. The phone lights up. The first thing you see is a picture of the quarterback’s nuts on your forehead. One dick for each one of your eyes. There’s a foot on your face. Teeth, resting on the stained carpet. #drunkpunch.
Another photo shows someone writing something. You can’t tell what it says, so you lift up your shirt. Your stomach reads: “Turned out slut.”
There’s naked pictures of the other guy everywhere. You see more of his intimate anatomy than you’ve seen of your own. You throw up. Hangovers, they’ll do that.
You try to think of what to text him, but you don’t know what to say. Finally you come up with: I guess we got pretty wasted.
You’re still trying to come up with what to say to your mother when the police come by. They’re hoping you’ll come down to the station. There’s a bit of confusion, because there’s been an assault, but they’re not really sure it was an assault. You play dumb for a second, which is hard when your whole face is bruises and blood. Instead you try, “People get punched. It happens.” The police say that yes, his teeth got punched out, and he has a concussion, and contusions all over his body, and even a few puncture wounds. They’re not sure whether this was consensual. He says it wasn’t consensual. You say, “Well, he went to the party.”
Still, you go down to the station.
The police are concerned about you as well. They ask about your own beating and missing teeth, and you tell them you’re a football player. They ask if the other guy is one too, and you say of course. And you say hey, if you’re a football player and go to a party, stuff is going to happen.
When they leave the room you check your phone to see what’s up on Twitter, Snapchat, all your internet business. There’s video. Video is the worst.
No: the discussion underneath the video is the worst. Words like sloppy-ass bitches pop out. People being cute, saying that football players like hitting things, so maybe they enjoyed the ass-kicking. How it’s not like anyone said no.
Then you get a text from one of the girls you like. It says, I saw a video of you. I’m sorry.
You still don’t know what to say. You do know you won’t text her again.
The police come back in and recommend avoiding the internet. You say that’s kind of like avoiding oxygen or avoiding waking up, but they’re not listening. Instead, they say you have to go to the hospital, as some of your wounds are significant and require documentation. Shit.
At the hospital, the doctor is concerned. She needs to take a lot of tests. There’s a number of infections you could have been exposed to, with many open wounds, with being naked and exposed to the elements. That means a Qtip shoved up your dickhole. She shaves half of your body and puts it into a bag. She clips your fingernails. You think it’s all ingredients for some kind of voodoo, but you’re done talking.
She’s not. She says it’s also important to document as much as possible for the police report. That means getting naked again. That means remaining that way, while the camera flashes.
On the way home you realize there are 45 new posts using 45 different variations of #punchingbag, including #dickpunch and #dickbag and #punchingdick. You’re officially in the mix with #teabag, which seems worse than #punchingbag. You tweet: I might be a teabag but I’m not a snitch. #punchingbag Someone responds, Whatever #snitchbag.
Then the other guy texts you: I might be a snitch, but you’re a coward.
You don’t say shit, because he’s right.
Your front lawn is lined with media wolves, and you wonder how they found out so fast. Right. Fucking internet. They are careful to use words like alleged. They want to know if they can use your name. Then they want to know if they can use your name after you turn 18. When do you turn 18 again? It’s hard to not notice the one reporter who always screws her eyebrows up in concern and talks about the “potential to ruin a whole season.” She really wants to talk to you. You really don’t care.
Weeks later you still don’t have any front teeth, and neither does he. The dentist estimates implants will cost $8K, even with your insurance. You wonder what his dentist said. He’s still not talking to you. He quit the team because he gets these dizzy spells that make it hard for him to stand up for long periods of time. Everyone says he’s faking it. That he’s just embarrassed, is all. They paint his locker pink and write Punching Bag Bitch so he knows where he lives. You wonder if he still has a scholarship, and if he doesn’t, what he’s going to do. You think your mind might be tricking with you, but it seems like he’s shorter.
They haven’t let up on you either, but it’s easier to focus in on him.
The prosecutor says there isn’t much to go on. All he has is four videos, about a dozen still images, his testimony and yours, 46 witnesses, 342 Tweets, and a signed confession from the boy with the chemistry experiment drinks. This really isn’t enough for a conviction. Your mom is pissed. She says all it would take is four joints to get another type of conviction. Then the prosecutor holds up his hand and says, “It’s not enough. Not for this type of case. It’s simply not enough.”
Your mom is talking about suing somebody. She says all the boys in the pictures need to go to jail. You are thinking about how everyone knows your body, your face with fewer teeth, and your name everywhere you go. The media sort of tried to hide it, and then they didn’t. When people don’t know your name, it’s Snitchbag.
His parents are talking about moving. His mother was smoking outside one day and you walked passed and she waved you over. Then she pointed at her house and said: “Tell me, just how many eggs does that supermarket sell?” You say you’re not sure what she means, but you know.
Here’s something else you know: you’ve got four more sessions with the counselor, and then they might leave you alone. This counselor likes to talk about your role in going to the party, about having a drink in the first place. That all of this could have been avoided if you had just stayed home and never played football.
You don’t say anything back. You’ve got nothing to say. If they don’t leave you alone, you might just leave.
And even though you can’t remember that night, you keep trying to remember. Then you try and remember to try and forget. You’re supposed to find it all funny. You’re supposed to let it all go. You’re supposed to remember that it was just a party. A party you chose to attend. That you could have been okay with it. That it could have been okay. You should know.
Your wounds have been recorded.]]>
This isn’t waking up. You’re not sleeping. You haven’t for days. Anxiety prevents lids from lowering. Brokeness has also informed a wheat heavy diet. When you had money you were allergic to gluten. Now you know donut boxes drop to $2 after 8PM. The food bank down the street offers early morning day-old giveaways: cakes, pies, donuts, bagels. Your arms, legs, and back reflect on the food and return with a bumpy, itchy rash that actually swells on occasion, making you feel like you’re wearing a bright red saddle. Without health insurance, the ointment to treat it is $40; the doctor won’t fill the prescription again unless you come in to see her.
It’s raining hard and mixing with hail, but you ride your bike to the food bank because it’s faster, and taking the bus would cost you $5.
$5 = a can of tomatoes, garlic, onion, ginger, beans and rice.
When you get off your bike you’re coughing like a smoker with a two-pack a day habit; you’re fighting a cold. The outside of your body is wet from rain, and under that layer you’re wet with sweat. The biggest problem, however, is your shoes. The zippers on both of your boots are broken, and water poured into them during the ride. This cold is going to get worse.
It’s 7:15, and the line is already a grey snake that curves around the outside of the building. The people at the front of the line are drunk. The bottles around them suggest that last night they hit a liquor store just before close and elected to drink their purchases right there. A flash of judgment and scorn hits you hard, and then you notice that you wish you were drunk, too.
You become fast friends with the woman directly in front of you, Marciela, when she notices your cough matches her daughter’s. She has two children with her. The older one is four, and is carrying a copy of It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny. You’re hoping you can read it with her once inside. The other daughter is bundled in a collapsible baby carriage of plastic and wobbly wheels that you’ve seen some children use for their baby dolls. She’s fast asleep and wrapped in a blanket decorated with orange ducks, a bright knit cap covering her ears and tied just under her chin. She has the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen, and after a few minutes of staring she blinks her eyes awake to look at you, and smiles. For a second, the world feels okay.
The doors open at 8AM and the whole crowd surges forward. A man nearly knocks over Marciela, who shouts at him, “I’ve got children, here!” You stand on the other side of her daughter so she doesn’t get knocked to the ground. She doesn’t thank you, and why should she? This is something you shouldn’t have to do.
Inside, a giant man over six feet three huddles behind protective glass and shouts to take a form and sign in. Everyone knows the drill: if you’re not in the top 20, this is going to be a bad day. If you’re after 20, you might as well go home, and try again tomorrow. You’re number 11. With a little luck, they might see you before lunchtime.
You should have got there earlier.
The seats are all taken and this is okay, because you’re able-bodied and need to dry out anyway. You shift back and forth on your feet, because the four year-old likes the squishing sound of wet sock meeting wet shoe. There are other children in the waiting area, eager to play and aware of the importance of not making their parents angry. A Russian girl looks up at her mother several times, and then pulls a green ball from her pocket. She rolls it across the room to the four year-old. A quiet game is on.
It’s a downtrodden rainbow tribe. An elderly black man with a Vietnam Veteran cap offers his seat to Marciela. A couple trades what sounds like insults in Russian. A white woman with a nice purse and nice rings wears a face that reveals she no longer cares if people think she looks like someone who belongs elsewhere. Some college students. A man who talks to himself in song lyrics. You keep gloves on your hands so no one sees your skin and wonders if you’re contagious. Within thirty minutes, people are talking, and not the shallow conversations of people greeting each other in a grocery line. No one is here because things are good. It’s a volley of unpaid child support payments, being screwed out of unemployment, delayed financial aid checks, money tied up before an estate is settled, an employer who just announced there wasn’t money to meet payroll. Each story is chased by surprising phrases of hope and gratitude. No one bangs on the glass and asks them to hurry up. It’s the patience of a forgotten era, infecting any new comer who arrives to discover no seats, and nothing but time in front of them.
After 9AM everyone who comes in walks away angry. The sad-eyed man behind the glass repeats the same refrain: “You can wait if you want to, but you probably won’t be seen today.” Every time he says it, his face accumulates another shade of age. He reminds the people who walk away angry that they have to come early. They just have to. People try to negotiate, offer long stories about when the power will be shut off and how they have kids at home and they’ll be in the dark today. Some of the people in the top 5 were these people yesterday. Every time one storms out, the woman closest to the door laughs, and the man next to you says: “They should have come early.”
It’s getting close to lunchtime. The panic in the waiting room is rising. Every day they close at noon and reopen at one. They’re on number 9. Marciela is number 10. Her panic is so thick she will no longer talk to you, or anyone. Her son is released from school at 2, and she has to be there to pick him up. She walks up to the window at five to noon, and asks if he thinks she can get in. She says she has to get her son. The baby has begun to fuss, and the four year-old is trying not to look bored by feigning being hypnotized by a carpet stain. The Russian girl can’t find her ball. She whispers, “Can you help me find my ball?” You help her look, and notice a slimy looking man. You think he has her ball, and too many demons.
Marciela is told no, and the announcement for lunch is made. The man behind the glass offers juice for the baby as consolation. She can’t talk. He offers a cell phone so she can call somebody. She takes it, looks at the ground, hurries her children outside.
The man on the wall trades “They should have come early” for “Lord, have mercy.”
You follow Marciella outside. She’s talking on the phone, crying. She’s trying to find someone to pick up her son. The first option doesn’t work, and she shields the side of her face with her hand as she tries to remember the number for the school. The baby is officially wailing. The four year-old is rubbing the baby’s duck-covered belly, trying not to look at her mother. You know in an instant: she will remember this.
She will remember all of this.
You go back inside and pound on the protective glass. A sad-eyed woman has traded places with the sad-eyed man. You say, “There’s a woman outside crying. Number 10. She needs to pick up her son. You have to see her, or she will have to go home.”
She looks at the clock, and back at you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they made these rules for a reason. It doesn’t take a genius to see her anxiety that one exception could lead to five or accusations of unfairness. You repeat again, “You have to see her.”
Another person behind you says, “See her now, please.”
Another says, “Please help the mother. Please.”
It’s too much “please” for one food bank. Marciela is brought back in, and led to the back. You’ll see her when you return, the four year-old eating dry cheerios and the baby sleeping all over again, each side of the stroller weighted with plastic food bags.
You will never see her again, and you’re glad.
At 4PM the man with the Veteran’s cap is building a cough that mirrors yours. It is this hour that you’ll discover you’re not qualified for rent assistance. $800 a month in income is too much, even if your rent is $750. Your mind scrambles for options and before it locks on one you burst into tears. There’s a box of tissues on the desk. There’s a full box of tissues under the opened one. He tells you that you can still get food. You can always get food. Everyone gets a juice box.
There are better foodbanks than this one, ones that sometimes have bread or cheese or meat that isn’t very, very expired, and sometimes even oil or vegetables, but you don’t have time to go to two different places and fill out two different sets of forms. You can’t go home empty handed. You’ve stopped crying, and remember to thank him when he hands you two heavy plastic bags. Your sleeve slides up as you reach for the bag and he spies a sliver of rash and drops them. You pick them up from the floor instead.
Back home the whole house reeks of depression, and the two bags are two more bundles to bloat it. Your partner is at his computer, applying at temp agencies; with only a few years of college and two full years of unemployment, he’s completely given up on Craig’s List. He’s going to make dinner while you work a $10 an hour online job you got only because you have a master’s degree, until your neighbor turns off his internet connection. If that happens before midnight, you’re going to cry for the second time.
However, there’s a problem: you’re out of cooking oil. A house-wide change hunt puts you within 50 cents of your goal, so if you can find ten glass bottles on your walk to the store, you can do it. If you can find 20, you can also get a head of garlic. You cough some more. You really need the garlic. This mission will steal another two hours.
When you get back, the internet connection is turned off. The library is closed. You burst into tears. That’s two.
Your partner reminds you that you stole a coffee mug from the nearest coffee shop, and if you take it you can probably wander in and fake like you bought coffee earlier. Perfect.
While there you check your email, and there’s one message after the other from friends who haven’t seen you out in a long, long time. The whole, “Sure I’ll come…drinks are on you, right?” is only funny if you can actually afford your own drink. A lot of your friends are doing really well. They are having children. They are buying houses. Jobs are turning into careers. Trips are being planned. You decide you will write them back when you can think of something positive to say, or when you relocate the sarcasm many of them find charming. Then you can joke about how you and your partner both spend time inspecting the other’s possessions for stray items to sell. That you understand why money is the number one cause of breakups. That you understand why money was the first thing Virginia Woolf said she needed before she could really start writing.
Instead you don’t respond to any of them, and decide it’s okay if they hate you a little for it. You hate you a lot for many little reasons, anyway.
Late at night the coughing that has chased your day escalates to an asthma attack, and your partner is angry. With a monthly income of $800 the emergency room is not an option, as this is too much to qualify for their medical assistance. You start cycling through the pilgrim-like solutions you cooked up when the $20 over the counter inhaler became illegal: coffee and eucalyptus tea. Your partner wants you to take a shower, but you can’t take hot water on your back or anything touching your skin. You hack into the evening, your partner slapping you on the back to loosen you, furiously knitting so that your hands are too busy to scratch. Crying for the third time. Tomorrow you’ll send an email to a friend with health insurance to see if he’s managed to convince his doctor that he has a respiratory disorder yet. This is the only way you’ll get a rescue inhaler for less than $45.
You think about the papers you should be reviewing the first second the internet comes back on or a coffee shop opens — whatever comes first. You think about whether your partner will be called for an interview, whether he even has anything to wear, and whether it’s appropriate to press him to do even more, even if you don’t know how much he’s doing, exactly. You think about whether you should call your mother, and the shame that would come from such a phone call. It seems unfair to ask someone who has worked 35 years to support someone who hasn’t. You’re reminded of this every time you read an article about boot straps and the iphone you supposedly have and how people like you are trading food stamps for drugs, and a thousand other things that are true for maybe the drunks at the front of the line, but not the 50 people standing behind them. You think someone wealthy somewhere is cackling about how easy it is to convince poor people to hate other poor people, to hate the things and people who try to help them, just so they can feel aligned with unanointed kings, false prophets in political clothes and the black-hearted gods of talk radio. You think about all these things, and remember that you don’t get paid to think.
Outside the window, time passes. Inside it reverses, and a cell phone is still just a clock.
Author’s note: this story is based on actual experiences that occurred in 2012, though some names, locations, and personal identifiers have been changed.]]>
Many Americans shed one-third of their bi-weekly income to taxes. They argue viciously against socialized medicine and government funded higher education, without realizing that they pay the same tax rate as most Canadians with none of the benefits. Medical care is either unavailable or discouraging of preventative medicine, resulting in Americans having the shortest life expectancy of any westernized nation. 36% of recent college graduates currently live with their parents, and cannot comprehend both eliminating student debt and paying a monthly rent. This is when they can get paid employment at all.
One percent of the country, those folks with the ability to take private fuel-wasting jets to exotic locations with tiny dogs trapped in purses, pay 35% income tax at most, and reduce the burden of this with a slew of deductions pushed through again and again by the wealthy politicians that defend the interests of their wealthy friends. They thank us for our labor by squabbling over the salaries of teachers, keeping the minimum wage a pittance, making bankruptcy laws more complicated while bailing out banks, failing to comprehend student loan forgiveness but allowing white collar criminals to walk, and considering the exposure of funds stashed in international locations a breech of privacy while having nothing to say about what Snowden sacrificed to expose how 1984 our world truly is.
Racism and sexism and anti-gay wackery and all its bullying offspring are all alive and well, and often captured on Youtube for international astonishment and horror that celebration of terrible exploits trumps desire to enter adulthood without jail time. Organized media outlets pay more attention to a legal-aged starlet gyrating on stage and singing about molly than they do young women still forced to grapple with virgin-whore dichotomies useless to modern society, and black women used as stage props for wealthy people unable to reinvent themselves unless it happens on-stage and thoughtless. Despite the disappointment expressed by parents about someone supposedly once a role model for young people, many would testify that they never saw themselves in the perfect skin and teeth and predictable hair colors of any of Disney’s darlings, and therefore emerge from the non-scandal gif-happy and undamaged. Young people who want to see themselves are better suited to Canadian television anyway, where the transgendered, queer, bi-racial, cancer-stricken, stoned, and gun-totting reality of the waking world happens on your pimpled prickled face, whether you ace the SATs or not.
Back in the world of guns and ammo and soldiers that aren’t supported during or after service, we’re prepping for an unsupported and unpopular war with a country most Americans can’t locate on a map, supposedly to defend citizens sadly murdered by chemical weapons. Our leaders seem downright annoyed by anything that slows bomb drop, and international news outlets can’t isolate a villain since we so loudly stormed the castle before facts were readily available for dissection, with a mission to solve killing people by killing more people more swiftly and brutally that their last best efforts. That’ll teach em.
Sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if we’d made it all the way through WWII without dropping the Atomic bomb. Maybe we could have spared ourselves becoming the world’s hypocritical high-powered policeman in favor of actually developing our country and supporting art, the environment, and education. Instead we continue on as the final scene of Dr. Strangelove, a cowboy straddling a bomb like a bronco as it sails downward on the winds of mixed information and haste.
And honestly, I can’t even write about the environment at this point, as even the word threatens to squeeze the lump in my throat to cancerous proportions. Between the radioactive waste and oil regularly dumped into the ocean, to fracking, to the oil executives and big oil supported scientists that continue to deny climate change, to the few cities that can’t get their shit together enough to have a recycling program (the most basic of environmental efforts), to the dwindling rain forests and reefs…I just can’t. It makes my outsides cave into my insides to consider that there are still so many that can’t clock in to the simple fact that we share a common pulse.
So why do I feel such an unprecedented sense of hope and joy?
As the financial world becomes more and more depressing for all of us without a financial world to speak of, what we truly do with our time becomes more interesting. While I recently read that broke people have less time for creativity, on account of being overly preoccupied with said brokeness, I’ve found that acknowledging its potential to eat away at your time pops the bubble and allows that dormant creativity to resurface. The broke world is populated by eccentric artists, dedicated bloggers, activists, musicians, self-styled pirates, and comedy gold. Absence of easy-buy solutions leads to things that are pop-up and brightly painted and salvaged and re-purposed and spit-polished into shine. It’s a challenge that pushes the brain beyond immediate convenience and into daydream, where many of us are better equipped to pilot anyway.
Maybe it’s because, as someone who once volunteered as a sexual assault survivor advocate, I know that rapes in all hideous forms have been happening since the dawn of man, but this is the first time in my lifetime they’ve been widely reported and loudly condemned as heinous by all but the most out of touch CNN reporters. Headlines from India happen alongside our own, making sexual assault an international issue of shared outrage and demands for change, and bold women like India’s Red Brigade taking to the streets to defend their own while the slow wheels of justice finally begin to turn in their favor. Sure, advertisers continue to objectify women to sell body spray and bad music, and this will likely continue until well after I’ve taken my permanent dirt nap, but dammit if there isn’t a loud, articulate opposition finally assuming center stage and forcing the uncertain hands of prosecutors still hesitant to paddle the powdered bottoms our fortunate sons.
Internet activism is often a mix of the serious and the hilarious, and can be a terrifying hammer capable of shutting down the sites of big banks and disrupting Amazon sales with tech savvy anonymity and aggression. It’s an unscripted and masked mass of millions that’s been sorely needed for too long, and the inability to pinpoint a single voice to silence makes the collective roar ever louder.
Cities throughout the country are choosing to take a turn for the green, from Detroit tearing down deserted neighborhoods and turning them into large community gardens, to the addition of bike lanes and vast recycling and compost programs in places as traditionally conservative as Columbus, Ohio. Many folks moved to radical outposts like New York, Portland, and San Francisco to get away from the stranglehold pillage-the-village sorts had on Midwest communities, and as that grip loosens the mood of the country changes to one that values local farmers, big trees, and clean water, and favors change over fostering a world built on a vision that was never responsible or sustainable in the first place.
There’s also the exciting return to a craft-based economy, after years of relying on employers to doll out cookies and raises and actually treat individuals like human beings instead of cogs in the machine. Even brief perusal of outposts like Etsy makes it easy to see what people are doing as alternatives to day jobs — and this sort of things was barely possible just twenty years ago.
The Falls Apart, a young adult story I’ve been working on for a long, long time, is about a group that exists to witness and record an end. Our end has been snowballing from ball to boulder since 9-11, a day when many Americans awoke to join the rest of the world in feeling anxiety and uncertainty towards the tools of our destruction. It was, quite literally, our Tower card. I feel very much a Falls Apart, and that it’s a cause for celebration, not depression. It’s something that will allow us to understand both our privileges and the ways in which we needlessly suffer, and how to cultivate joy in the midst of such challenges. Each headline I read that pains me and seems to hasten this end inevitably also brings joy, as we grow ever closer to the kind of break that brings great revolution and enlightenment. The next birth will be as painful as the last, but it is, and will be, change.
In 2014 I plan to take to the rails and roads and hit up as many festivals and celebrations of expression as my personal economy allows. There are so many people producing outrageous creative exclamations that it would be a shame to not record these, and the way they reflect everything happening in the world and the impact on everyday people. This creativity also reflects the early stages of great new things, a physical representation of prayer and great hope that the coming Star will be a brilliant one.]]>
Despite mainstream media prophecies casting colleges as places to master more scholarly spare changing techniques, the bulk of papers insist that even triple-digit student loan debt is ultimately worth it, so long as the end result is a four year degree. Why? What result is so lusted for that it becomes okay to forsake youth’s adventure in favor of becoming a student debt Master Blaster, with a poor dumb body perpetually steered into the Thunderdome by a tiny lord?
Knowledge? Sadly, in hundreds of papers the reason offered has never, not once, been because college is a place for brain ignition and to have the mental breakdown of turning 19 with company. No one, not one, has written that nerd core trumps financial burden, or even that the problem is what colleges are charging in the first place. In fact, cost never comes up. Life experience? No. The clinical way they describe college makes me wonder if it’s even still considered the ultimate mating ritual and watering hole. Instead, nearly 100% of those arguing that 6.8% interest rate loans signed in lifeblood are “worth it” contend this worth is established through achievement of a “good job.” A “good job” is defined as One Where You Make A Lot Of Money, which is increasingly advertised on blogs and bad reality shows as the ultimate American objective for everything.
Is this line of reasoning even valid? According to the New York Times, with a major in education or engineering there’s solid potential for gainful employment post-graduation. This same article states that 17% of grads enter the work force courtesy of the food industry — working alongside degreeless peers that likely command a higher hourly wage on account of experience. This article, and most all others that have emerged in the past 18 months, regard a humanities degree as being as useful to employment as four years in prison on a felony conviction. A degree in the arts has pretty much always been a punchline for those aspiring for multi-car garages and suburban pedigree.
The good news is, if jobs and money are the motivation, William Bennett seems to think that in 2018 there will be 14 million jobs that require “more than high school, but less than a degree.” This is a great case for technical schools or community colleges — the sorts of schools that market themselves as gateways to employment and skilled labor. They are affordable, practical, and in some cases offer education at the same level as four year universities. Best of all, even if riding in on student loans exclusively, it’s reasonable to assume a two year degree can be obtained with a significantly smaller student debt burden.
Others with money on the mind know when reasonable skills have been acquired and it’s time to quit. These are often folks in the IT or design industries that can choose between slogging through classes or running with an idea before someone else smells it. A combination of learned skills and on-the-ground work has made plenty of businesses and billionaires. (I’m looking at you, Bill Gates, and all these other folks.)
For me, the question then becomes (and is stated directly in these papers): if the motivation is employment and money, and the result of staying is that a negative balance adds more zeros, does it hurt you more to stay? It would seem so, especially when it isn’t so bad to just go.
Some would assert that college in general is becoming an antiquated enterprise, and the modern equivalent of library card exhaustion is the financially savvy route to academic mind expansion. Online classes, streamed lectures, and free to download class materials are just some of the channels opening for people interested in college for knowledge acquisition exclusively. Gluttons for learning can certainly feed themselves fat auditing ivy league classes if they’re okay with the dedication without the degree.
For me, online interaction can’t replace the excitement of a thriving college classroom. Working online offers daily insight as to what’s missing, and when I log off each day I remember what that is: the heart. There’s a chemistry that occurs when a competent professor engages a room in debate, poses a new idea in direct response to a student question, or riffs on the fly based on collective reaction to a controversial theory. Even with virtual classrooms that allow for more robot-to-robot interaction, the distance created by screens spares both student and teacher the immediate all-revealing expression. It’s a play where you exaggerate every facial expression in hopes that the pinhole camera captures it and communicates so there’s no second, bigger grin necessary to simply state: you’ve got it.
College memories are shaped by the thick pheromone smell created by over-heated hallways, sliding down an ice covered hill on a backpack to get to a test on time, nudging a neighbor for thoughts on the half-cocked nonsense that just fell out of the professor’s mouth, meeting half a dozen people in a diner for endless coffee and dollar breakfasts over books. It’s being in a pile of people having different reactions to being in the same place at the same age, responding to the same words with different interpretations, and understanding the amazing mechanics of the human mind and our emotional catacombs as a direct result.
Getting a job sounds like a decent enough reason to start college, but not a good enough reason to stay.
There is nothing wrong with being a plumber, a fisherman, a construction worker, a line cook. There’s nothing wrong with education exclusively to be a carpenter, an electrician, a paramedic. There is something sad about perceiving four years of your life as an onramp to a paycheck that won’t arrive unless you slick the surface with debt.
My post-graduate six-figure pay day never came, and I’m from an era where everyone wore big pants and some people wore them backwards, and no one thought the economy was screwed. I filled out dozens of scholarship applications until I got one, and went where the scholarship told me to go, knowing that any college was more college than some of my peers would enjoy. My five year dive bomb into my twenties included jobs, study, love, loans, scholarships, creativity, ideas, and very little sleep. The education and experiences accumulated could never be boiled into paste. I didn’t succeed or fail, though in the aftermath I’ve often been broke and sometimes poor and have taken jobs that I hate, including (at times) the tutoring one. This is life.
To this day I consider myself lucky for having had the privilege to interact with brilliant minds who mastered their subjects, and curious people with excitement for invention, and for having known (and knowing) the thrill of challenging myself to approach the terrifying truth that there is always, always more to learn. The sod of such discovery was sewn there. I found new ways to use old tools.
There are no more ways I know to tell my students that what’s left, when you take the future away, is the real reason to go or stay.