Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On the Road Part I : The Path Oft Traveled

My first memory of it all is a crisp day in early October. I think Alex was driving, I'm not sure, but we were leaving my parents house in New Hampshire. Everything we owned was packed into a white Ford Tempo with a minor oil leak from a hole in the oil pan. It was spattered with asphalt, and the front left corner panel was primer gray. The theme to Shaft was playing on the oldies radio station.

To get into that car, I had worked 12, sometimes 13 hour days all summer and early into the fall, landscaping and building fences. We planned the trip over coffee and eggs and pie at a 24 hour chain diner in Woburn, late one night.

Our first stop was in Amherst, two or three days. On the last night, before our 6am departure, while I slept on the bedroom floor, I had a dream. There was a hedge, green and crisp and ten or twelve feet tall. In the middle of it, there was a small toolshed, old and rickety and built with wood. At places in the hedge, gaps had been cut. The sky was clear, and the sun was bright. And there were zombies. Gray skinned, but more animated than something from The Night of the Living Dead. They were quick, and smart, and they fought hard. And they kept coming. On our side of the line, I had soldiers. We were outmatched, but it didn't matter. I directed the troops, armed with tools from the shed, and we formed a line and held. I led, swinging a sword, and a garden hoe, effortlessly cutting down the zombies. And at last, the zombie king came. He had a suit of plate armor, with bright tassels on the helmet and shoulders. We fought. I can still see my move, my fatality. I lept higher than a man can leap, swinging in a backflip, twirling 180 degrees as I came over and around him. As I began to descend, I swung my sword, across from my right shoulder, and his head landed just as my feet touched the ground. As it rolled, the helmet fell open. Maybe it's the mythical archetype, or maybe I just watched The Empire Strikes Back one too many times. But his face was my own, pale and gaping. And then I was on a beach, the one I went to every night in Australia. The stars were out, and the space between them was black. I can still see my feet, looking down my body towards the surf from where I lay in the sand. Anna Pelrine lay next to me, the girl who played Juliet to my Romeo in the 8th grade play, the one I could never get to like me back, the first one I ever liked as more than friends. And we just lay there. And then I woke up.

At Niagara Falls, they wanted $10 to park, so we drove slowly and looked over the rail. The trees were changing across the Birkshires, through the Adirondaks, and into the Ohio planes. I got sick in Bowling Green. I barely remember Milwaukee, except for the frozen custard stand. Just past Omaha, sometime around midnight, a storm broke. I could see it coming across the blank plain, but there was nothing to do for it. It was hail at first, and thunder, and then rain so big that it might as well have been hail. When we rolled into Boulder the next morning, the oil leak was big enough that the engine was smoking. Down and around the mountains, through New Mexico and Arizona, where I forgot to replace the oil cap at one stop and almost killed the car. But it kept chugging, across the Mojave, where dawn began. The blue-gray light outlining the jagged arms of Joshua trees. And then down, through Bakersfield and the loops of LA. I got the first ticket just south of Fresno, tagged by an airplane. "Aircraft's got you going 70." They pulled 8 of us over, 3 cops walking the line. The second ticket was in Grant's Pass, at 3 in the morning. Estimated at 69. And at last, before noon on the last day, Seattle. It was a dream. I totaled the car 4 hours later, but it didn't matter. We were there.

Although I wasn't really on the road, I took a train that way, two years later. My friend killed himself. Then another three days later. A third overdosed later that month, and a fourth got married. First I took a bus to Spokane. (for that story, go here: http://www.doubledarepress.com/2001/10/stories/spokane.shtml) Then a train to New Mexico. My neighbor was an older guy, a Vietnam Vet who couldn't figure out why a gallon of gas cost less than a gallon of cola. Wish that was still a problem, but those were halcyon days. Central California rolled by, click clack, choo choo. Grapes, olives, strawberries, trainyards and boarded houses. It took 4 days. I took a plane home.

The next time I was on that road, it was southbound. Through Oregon, then west to the 101. Through Redwood and down the coast. That time my partner in crime thought he was a race car driver, going down the coast road at 30 miles over the limit. I held the oh-shit handle and looked out to sea the whole way. That trip was the first time I saw Vegas. It was 1030 at night and 101 degrees when we came over the ridge and I saw the strip for the first time.

The first time, northbound, 19, everything packed into a Ford Tempo with an oil leak, a few boxes, my best friend and I. Nothing worth keeping to lose. This time, southbound, almost 29. My girl. My dog. My cat. My snake. Everything I own packed into a 26' Penske truck towing a car. It was 330 in the afternoon when we got on I-5. It was sunny, clear, but cool. A few renegade maples bursting into color.

We stayed both nights in Motel 6. One in Roseburg, Oregon, the second in Modesto, California. We were gonna stay in Stockton, but there were bullet-proof glass windows at reception, so we pushed on. The first night, we ate dinner at Chili's, and I had a barbeque-ranch bacon burger. The first morning, we ate a Shari's and I took a cherry pie to-go. The truck topped out at 35 going up a slope, and we had plenty of time to watch the double peak of Shasta rise, shift, and fade. The plains of northern California could be in Africa. Slow, rolling hills covered in golden, sunbleached grass, marked with low, scrub trees. Throw in an elephant, take away an angus herd... By the time we hit Stockton, we were at each other's throats. We made up, sort of, over breakfast at IHOP in Modesto. We made up all the way on the walk back to the truck. We each pulled an olive right off the tree. She turned hers in her hand. I put mine in my mouth, just as she said, "I don't think you want to eat that." She was right. It wasn't in my mouth long. It was grainy, and bitter, and it left a purple stain on the pavement.

Just before the mountains flatten into the Mojave, above Bakersfield and below Barstow, the truck started beeping. I got in onto the shoulder just as the engine shut off. The hood started smoking.
"Oh my god. Oh god. We have to get the animals out of here. Oh god."
"Okay, I have the fire extinguisher in the back. You just get the animals out your side."
There wasn't much time to check the mirror. Cars blew past, and I raced to undo the lock on the door. I got the red tube and ran to the front of the truck. Opening the hood, I was greeted by a burst of chemical steam, but no smoke, no flames. "Looks like the radiator went nuts." She had both animals over the guard rail, breathing fast and shaking. The guy at Penske said someone would be there in an hour. The road was cut into the side of a steep face that dropped away and down. Below us, maybe sixty feet, train tracks ran and disappeared into a tunnel. Across a valley, another crest rose, topped with multi-million dollar homes. An arroyo cut a deep swath through the valley, deep enough to conceal everything but the crowns of cottonwoods and willows growing in its bed. "Look, a coyote." Sure enough, the old trickster himself was wandering along the rim of the arroyo, lolligagging in the sun. There was a golden eagle, and kids on mountain bikes. I texted my friends, asked them to send good road karma. Both of our motorcycles were in the back of the truck, illegally, and I really didn't want anyone to find them. I thought about the old lady I picked up and drove home one night. I thought about the hitch-hiker with the broken leg I took home from the Crosby, Stills and Nash concert. I thought about when my friend's motorcycle trailer popped a tire on the highway onramp and I went to help him. And it turned out, my road karma's in pretty good shape. When the guy showed up, it was just a busted coolant hose. We were back on the road forty minutes later.

When we crested the hill, there was some stupid disco track on the radio. I spent the last two miles at 35 searching for a good song, a memorable song, but it just didn't happen. I wasn't supposed to remember it I guess. I don't remember what was on the radio when we rolled into Seattle, or the first time I saw Vegas. I don't think I had a walkman when I took the train to New Mexico. That's just the way it'll be, I guess. The soundtrack's only important if you remember it, anyway. I don't remember the soundtrack, but I do remember the dreams.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sin City, Part I

I always knew, intellectually, that there were people in the world, and yes, even in this country, who didn't follow politics. I've known people who didn't care about politics, or didn't vote, but never anyone who just plain knew nothing about it.

"You've got your job cut out for you," Devrim said. "They won't even know who he is down there."
She grew up in Vegas. I guess I should have listened more closely.

It was the third day of driving around, looking for a place to live. Everywhere we went, it was the same drag-and-drop houses. The same mirrors, the same bathtubs, the same floorplans. Up the street, with a little luck, there was a cut-and-paste mini-mall with the same parking lot, same satellite buildings, the only difference being which corporate mega-chain filled the main storefront. The streets were all 6 lanes, the houses always behind the same 5 foot high cinderblock wall. I was riding with Eric's realtor friend. She was helping us out, letting us into properties. "Why Vegas?"

"Well, we were already looking at Vegas, and I got an internship with Barack Obama's campaign down here."

"Who's that?"

"Barack Obama?"

"Uh huh?"

I guess Devrim was right. The work is certainly cut out here.

On our last night, we ate at a classy restaurant in Summerlin. The room was low-lit, modern, all white, black. Two translucent panels suspended with stainless cables hung between the front door and the dining room, playing Casablanca. I've never seen a panel like them before, but they were certainly cool, and certainly pricey. From our table, the films appeared backwards on the screens. The waiters wore bistro aprons, black with white pinstripes. The menu was updated daily, printed on heavy stock recycled paper, presented on clipboards. The most expensive bottle of wine rang in just under five thousand dollars. And the whole bar was lined with inset video poker machines.

On the way to the airport, the strip sparkled. The light from Luxor punched into the sky, waiting for aliens. The new Trump Tower glittered gold. The Rio's purple and blue, the MGM in green, Bellagio's fountains, the dark, brooding arc of the Wynn. Above it all, the needle point of the Stratosphere.

"It's weird coming to Vegas and not going to the Strip," Brie said. "Usually, it's off the plane, straight to the hotel, and never leave the Strip."

I was in Vegas for four days, and never even heard the dice rattle. Never heard a roulette number called. No blackjacks. No Asian businessmen, no drunk frat boys on bachelor parties, no Mexicans snapping flyers for call girls outside the Imperial Palace.

Just a vast expanse of development blocks, stretching ever out from the towering hotels. Just cinderblock walls, lava rock landscapes, bulldozers and tower cranes. And sunshine. Four straight days of 80 degrees and sunshine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wednesday Afternoon with MonkeySaurus

It's like ordering off the world's smallest Chinese menu. There are only two responses to the statement "I'm moving to Vegas."

1) "Why?" Served with a side of "You poor, stupid bastard, were you dropped on your head as a baby?" Add a subtext of "What's wrong with this idiot?" for $1. No substitutions, please.

2) "Cool." Served with a side of "Man, I wish I could do that."

By far, option one is the most ordered.

I've been back in Seattle for a little more than a week, and most of that time it's been raining sideways. When it's not raining where I am, it's raining down the street. Even the clear sky is tinted gray, like it knows we've got 8 more months of this, and it doesn't want us to get our hopes up. The trees that bother changing colors go to piss yellow, or bile green. A few rogue maples, mindful of their family's reputation, buck the trend, go through the colors of flame before they go bald. They stand out like sore thumbs. Everyone looks at them and wonders if they were dropped on their heads in the nursery.

I read Maxim on the shitter. This month, one of the fluff pieces was on the "Ten Toughest Cities in America." Seattle came in at number 6. I'm not sure what the formula was they used that got them that result. Something about number of days of sun, crappiness of local sports franchises, karate studios per capita... Whatever the formula was, I started laughing. In the rich, relatively sissy Boston suburbs where I spent my teens, you were lucky if you could talk your way out of a fight, and there was a fight someone didn't try to talk his way out of every day after school. I've been here 9 years, spent most of them working in bars, and I can count the fights I've seen on my fingers. There're plenty martial arts studios, but half of them advertise as "Non-Violent Martial Arts," a statement that is at once oxy-moronic and painfully ignorant of what a martial arts training means. But we wouldn't want our kids to learn something violent, here, so it'd better be non-violent and non-confrontational. Yes, the sports franchises here suck, but you can't really call Seattle fans tough the way, say, Cubs fans or Eagles fans are. Tough fans stick with a losing team. When the Mariners lose 3 in a row, the fans disappear, only to return when the M's hit a 9 game winning streak. The last game I went to, the Mariners had men on second and third with two out, down a run, in the bottom of the 8th inning, and the douchebag behind me was trying to start The Wave.

And after all that, the funny thing is that I love this town. I just can't take it anymore. Is Vegas some sort of Shangri-La? No, but I do think they're building a Shangri-La Resort and Casino. Vegas is unbridled hedonism. It's plastic. It's greedy. It's an ugly, artificial swatch of manufactured paradise in the middle of the desert. But maybe that's why it's so fantastic. Naturally, there should be nothing there but sand, and the little artesian spring that made it a stopover on the way to California. The railroad first came through 100 years ago. It's barely more than 60 years since Bugsy first arrived. Vegas has been through the hands of cowboys, prospectors, the railroad, the mafia, and now corporate America. Everything there is there because someone saw an opportunity to build something out of nothing. And I guess that's the dream. Take everything I've got, everything I've built here or anywhere, all the habits, identities, assets, all of it, and bet it all on a chance to build something out of nothing, to take a piece of desert and turn it into something bigger and better. That's the side of Vegas that the people who order option number one don't seem to see. And it's the one I'm counting on.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Three Days Later

In the subway terminal at O’Hare, I had to go to the currency exchange to get change for a $20. When I walked in, there were three people in line. A small black girl with an Adam’s apple that was a little too big was arguing with the teller. “I just need to get this done,” she shouted.

“Yeah, but you can’t just cut in line. You gotta wait your turn.”

“He don’t mind,” she said, looking at the guy behind her.

“Yeah, but what about the people behind him?”

She turned to us. “Do you mind!” It wasn’t really a question, and she didn’t really wait for an answer, although me and the girl in front of me both shook our heads. “See, they don’t mind. Now can we do this?”

“Well, they might not mind, but I still ain’t gonna do it,” the teller said. “You can wait your turn like everyone else.”

“Fuck you, then, bitch. I’ll take my business somewhere else then, bitch.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to now, because it ain’t gonna happen here.”

She backed up to the door, head weaving. She sliced her acrylics through the air, and her Adam’s apple bulged. “Fuck you, bitch! I hope you croak, bitch! I hope you fuckin’ croak and die, bitch! I hope you fuckin’ croak and die, bitch.”

I think she got on at Irving Park, although I’m really not sure. She walked past me, to the end of the car, and set her tattered plastic shopping bags on the floor behind the divider. Her gray sweatsuit was stained with dirt the way that smog browns the clouds before the rain. She turned her back to the sliding door, and looked around the car, although her eyes never seemed to focus on anything. I noticed the wet spots on her thighs just before the smell first drifted to me. It was mild, but sharp, the acrid burn of fresh urine on top of stale. She squatted slightly, plunged her hands past the elastic band of her sweatpants. Her forearms moved up and down, back and forth, like a prospector panning for gold. A full minute passed, and when she pulled her hands out of her pants they glistened, slick with I don’t care to know what. She held them out in front of her, looking through them, looking through us.

The smell moved down the train car in a wall. The Mexican woman with graying hair and a floral print blouse flinched, and I saw her catch a gag in her throat. It passed the doors, and came to me. Thick, salt and pussy, rich and clear, but stained. Like the orchard, a week after the last apples fall, while the leaves are still red or brown on the trees, after first frost, but before snow. The stink caught in my throat too, and my stomach turned violently. The blond in the white blazer and horn-rimmed glasses put her hand to her nose. We all did. The young black couple in Ecco Unltd tees, the punk rocker with purple hair and a jacket made of safety pins, everyone.

For the first time in my life, I washed my hands as soon as I left the subway.

Last night, it rained. The streets were fresh at six o’clock this morning. A young woman sat in the corner of a doorway outside Dunkin Donuts. Her sign read “I AM HUNGRY.” There were free copies of the paper at the hotel’s front desk, so I gave her the dollar in quarters I had saved for a machine. She met my eyes as I bent to hand it to her. She was either indomitable or fresh to the street. Her eyes were clear, soft, and underwritten with a smile. “How are you this morning?” she asked, eyes locked on mine.
“Um, good, thanks. You?”
“Lucky to be alive.” She broke my gaze and looked east towards the lake, and excused me with “Thank you.”
“Good luck.”

“What would you say if I told you power is good?” Mike growled at us.
He must be 60, although he could just as easily be 40. Close cropped black hair, lightly salted. Sharp, deliberate eyes. Weathered jaw. Black oxford, untucked, black slacks, black shoes.

A few people shook their heads. “How ‘bout this? Who here wants power? Who really wants it?” My hand went up, and a few others. “Okay, you do. Who doesn’t?” He scanned the room. “Who’s not sure?” His finger stabbed at his target. “You. Why not?”

“That’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t know if I want that responsibility.”

“Okay, fair enough. What kind of responsibility?”

“You know, to the people. The people under you.”

“Right. Okay. You’re responsible to the people under you. Some of us don’t want that responsibility. Why not? Who else?” His finger stabbed again. “You.”

“Well, I guess I’ve just seen it abused.”

“Good. Abuse of power. We’ve all seen that, right? Everyone’s heard that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?”

There was a murmur. “Good, right. But what about this. If you don’t have power, what’s your other option? Powerlessness, right?” He scribbled on the whiteboard, words sloping diagonally away to the right. “So what if I told you, power is good, powerlessness is bad?” Again, a murmur, stronger. “If you don’t have power, you’re powerless. You should all want power. Because power is good. With power, you can accomplish things. Without power, you can be oppressed. Does anyone know what Frederick Douglas said about that? How much will people be oppressed? How much pressure people will accept?” He prowled the front of the room, scanning.

“As much as they’ll take.”

“That’s right. There will be as much oppression as people will take. So what does that mean? If you are powerless, someone’s gonna oppress you as hard as they can. But if you have power, you can fight back. So where does power come from. There are two sources. Two sources of power.”


“Right, money’s one. What’s the other?”


“That’s right. But not just money and people. Organized money and people. What’s more powerful? Getting a million dollars from one person, or a million dollars from a thousand people? A thousand people, right, because then you have money power and people power. But money and people have to be organized to be powerful. If they’re not organized, it’s just money, and just people. You need an organization to be powerful. And you need power because power only respects power. Who knows what Frederick Douglas said about power? Yes, Ariel?”

“He said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.’”

“That’s right! ‘Never has, and it never will.’” He paused over this, watched us. “That’s the key in community organizing. First, you have to find out who has power. Then you have to find out what their self interest is. Then you figure out how to use that, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that helps both of you."

"Let me tell you a story. When Barack first went to the state senate, he was a member of the black caucus. Now that’s pretty much all from the city, and then it wasn’t a very big caucus. They couldn’t do much on their own. But the caucus wanted a law to deal with racial profiling. We were getting too many stops for driving while black, too many tickets and arrests. We wanted a law so police would have to record the race of everyone they pulled over and every arrest, so they’d have to consciously mark it and so we could see who was being stopped and why. But the caucus was small, the police didn’t want the law, and we couldn’t get it through. So Barack looked around for another group that was too small to get their own things done. He went to a group of guys from the south, rural whites, and he said ‘what do you need?’ And they said, ‘We need a seatbelt law.’ They said, ‘We’re having too many fatalities on rural roads. But we can’t get a seat belt law through.’ So Barack said to them, ‘You help me with my law, I’ll get yours for you.’ That’s a good tradition here in Chicago.” He grinned. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Goes back a long way around here. So the black caucus got together with rural whites from downstate, and they got a racial profiling law passed, and a seatbelt law. Because Barack saw who had the power he needed, and that they also needed the power he had, and he went and talked to them. Now you don’t get two groups like that together unless you’re willing to talk to people you might disagree with. But, usually, if you can find out someone’s self interest, you can figure out a way to get something done for everyone. But if you don’t have some power to offer in return, you won’t get anything.” He paused and looked around. “So what do you think of power now?”

“One thing I don’t get, it seems like those are both common sense. I mean, I seems like, you know, it’s common sense, you should wear your seatbelt. It’s common sense, we shouldn’t be racially profiling. Shouldn’t we be able to get common sense laws like that passed easily?”

There was a chuckle and a groan in the room. One of the black guys, a big, broad smiling guy of maybe 45 with a sharp eye and a deliberate tongue rolled his eyes. He looked behind him at one of the younger black guys. They shook their heads, with a sad laugh.

“We should be able to,” Mike barked, “but that’s not the reality. You know why? Because common sense is not common.” There was a rumble of agreement, heads nodding. “To you and me, sure, that seems like common sense. But common sense all depends on where you come from. Common sense is not common. To people in the south, it was common sense that the sons of Hamm shall be hewers of wood and bearers of water. Why? Because the bible told them so! You should believe the bible, that seems like common sense, right?” His voice built, hard and fast and loud, but never cracked. “We look at that and think it’s crazy, because common sense isn’t common! Common sense needs a constituency!”

There were no cars coming, so we crossed against the light. A train rolled by, drowning out John’s voice for a moment. “I feel like this is a real urban center,” he shouted as the train crackled above us. “Just everything here. It feels like Gotham. I mean, when I think of a city, this is what I think of. I can see Batman here, not in Manhattan. You know, with all these buildings, all the architecture. And these trains, they’re like the trains from the old movies. The ones King Kong ripped up. And the way they’re just grafted right onto the city. I don’t know. I just feel like this is what a real city should be like.”

In the shower, the morning I came, I lost my breath. Two years, especially the last six months, I’ve been a zombie. Walking dead. The weight of it covered me as fully as the hot water. When I stepped out of the shower, the mirror was fogged. I wiped it with a towel, lathered, and put the razor to my cheek.

Stepping off the blue line at O’Hare, I could still smell the acid stench, a bad memory of a smog cloud, lingering. When the plane finally went wheels up, I watched the airport hotels, the houses and warehouses and rail yards drop away. We passed into the haze of last night’s raincloud, spent now, barely more than a thick fog. The white crept in at the edges of my window like a bad movie scene cutting out of, or maybe into, a dream, crept in until it was all I could see. Somewhere below me, freeways and box stores faded into the winding cul-de-sacs of suburbia. Somewhere below me, the grid of roads and wires faded into the broad squares of corn country. Somewhere below me a town nestled into the lee of a gray-green lake. A high school football field. A water tower with some girl’s name scrawled in spraypaint on the side. A grain silo. A wind farm. All around me, a white veil of cloud that could open on clear sky, or anything at all.