Singing For Your Supper

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
11:30 a.m.

 

Good morning.

Shifting gears today. Yesterday got weird – hot and sunny and discontented, feeling like I had to be chasing after things. Maybe I do. But it just didn’t look or feel good yesterday. I spent a few hours looking for local jobs online, at the Ypsilanti Public Library. Disheartening. It seems I’m a square peg for which there are few round holes out there.  Too square for some, too round for others. And all I want to do is just find a little work, make a little money. So, I’ll keep writing. Just want to live my normal life.

One bright job note yesterday is that I got an email from the department chair at Oakland Community College. She’s already offered me a fall writing class, and might offer me a second one. Also really has my back on that pesky winter semester plagiarism case. A student who was a very bad plagiarizer indeed. At any rate, OCC is earlier and more dependable than my other so-called job. This counts if the pay’s a bit less – not by much – and the BS is way less, so it evens out.

Somehow I feel encouraged about my future prospects there. Didn’t expect that. But it was a decent first semester and I had some cool students, so there’s that. Just when I think I want to be jumping this sinking ship forever. Just when I thought I got out, they pulled me back in …

Do I really want to work in an office again anyway, at this stage in my career? For the money, yes, sometimes I think I do.To have more structure. To be daily back in the “real world” again. But why? My thoughts and feelings on this subject seem to change daily. But no one’s letting loose an opportunity my way, anyway. Still at times, I think I’d grab a chance and run with it if it presented itself. And then again, I ask myself – at what cost?

<Pause for radio listening> – hey, great timing. I’m listening to CBC Radio, and the host is talking about how Beethhoven was staying at a prince’s house, taking his money and eating his food, on the promise that he’d find steady work soon. He never did. Things coasted along until he refused one night to play for some of the prince’s friends, and he was immediately cut off. Beethoven was so angry he smashed a plaster bust of the prince in his rage.

The moral of the story? You gotta sing for your supper, baby.

So, I’ll sing. In whatever ways I can, whether someone’s letting me do it for money or not. I may sing and not get any supper. But isn’t the song the most important thing down the line, anyway?

Rainbow Kite

rainbow kiteI logged on to Amazon, and ordered a nylon rainbow kite. Something fun to do. That’s it.  No sitting and brooding about what happened yesterday, or what I’m going to do tomorrow. Just go fly a kite. Well, not today. Free shipping takes 3-5 days. I’ll go fly a kite then. But for right now, dropping some happy cash on Amazon feels good.

Boomers and X’ers

We find them uptight and overly worried about the tiny details of their small everyday lives. They worked so hard for it all, the promises they were given. Through the 1980’s when they sailed past the gas-rationing times of the ’70s. Buying up lake houses and boats and Ford’s or GM’s or Chrysler’s latest models. On the employee discount plan, of course.

They worked so hard for it all. For us. They sent us to college, hoping that we’d be able to do something more interesting than manually inspect a plastic, injection-molded bumper for 10 or 12 hours a day. They did it all for themselves, but they also did it for us.

We did our times as desk jockeys in the ’90s. Ran up our credit cards. Paid our rent. Bought a shit-ton of CDs and DVDs. And years later, when the money drained out of this web like quicksand, we were left with dubious college degrees, memories of corporate suites and bonus plans, and way too many boxes of stuff that makes our friends not want to help us move. We rent a U-Haul truck and bribe them with beer and pizza. Our older relatives who still keep paper address books scratch out or erase, and write in our updated addresses again and again. Some still use Wite-Out. The build-up from four moves in five years layers up like bad coats of paint.

We find them uptight and too worried. We love them but they make us nuts.

They find us self-centered and cynical. Failures for not carrying on their ways. For not staying in the towns where we were raised, for not having kids early. For not making the grandchildren that were going to be the comfort of their older ages. At least, not early enough. For not making enough money to justify our college educations, or at least to pay for those frighteningly large student loan debts.

But what they don’t want to admit is that the rules of the games have changed. Almost entirely. A college education does not guarantee a great career, or even steady work. Having children does not provide automatic happiness. And following the rules and traditions of your elders can bring as much worry and misery as carving your own path can bring freedom and possibilities. For what? We’re still looking.

There’s a price for this freedom. At its best we like to walk stoned through our days, not worrying about much of anything. Or, at least feeling half-stoned. Not seeking to numb the pain, but believing that there is not really any pain at all. Their generation said it their own way, but through those middle-aged decades they seem to have lost sight of it. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. But that line needs interpretation. Is this a plus, or a minus? Looking ahead with excitement, for what might be next to come? Or hunkering down in scared defense, of what you’ve already gained?

They are angry, but they won’t say it like that. They are angry that no one told them that the success and prosperity they devoted their lives to would feed and clothe them, and give them a nest in their later years. But in other ways, they’d be as restless and hungry as we are.

Capitol Coney Island

Capitol Coney Island. The kind of place you’d expect to find on so many city blocks in the Big Apple. But you’re not in New York City. You’re at the intersection of Ford and Wayne Roads in Westland, Michigan. Wasteland, more like, a lot of people both local and not so might say.

It’s the kind of place where you get the chopped steak with peppers and onions that you ordered. Plus hashbrowns, a huge bonus bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup (the menu says “cup”), and a side of peas.

When the short-order grill cook delivers your food, he actually looks at it as if somehow it’s not quite enough, and says,

“You want some bread with that?”

The menu details seem to be just suggestions. This is a place where for a little bit of money, more is always more.

The Tramping Professor

“It is a gentle art; know how to tramp and you know how to live.”

~ The Gentle Art of Tramping, Stephen Graham (1926)

 

“Tram-ping” (verb, int.)

–          To wander, sightsee without a predetermined or set agenda

–          To stroll through and enjoy life at a leisurely pace

–          “To be on the tramp” – to engage in the act of tramping


 

Episodes and Experiences, In Being On the Tramp

One                  Wither Goest Thou, Tramp?

Two                 Walking Out, and Breaking Up

Three               A Good Review

Four                 Time to Party

Five                  “This Weird Alchemy”

Six                    Parks, Parking Lots, and Automobiles

Seven              Entanglements

Eight                Hospitals, Libraries, and Cafe. Oh My.

Nine                 The Chapter In Which I Become a Café Vagabond

Ten                   Get a Job, Hippie. Who, Me?

Postscript       (Almost) Back Again

Return             To High School

 

 

The Tramping Professor

I have a dirty secret to share.

I live a double life.

In one life, I’m composed and fit for public consumption. Well put-together as fashion pundits would say, with an elegant dress, long-sleeved cardigan, and comfortable yet dressy shoes. On the odd busy day or Friday, my costume du jour might be a blazer with jeans, and some good, kicky boots. Dress it down, dress it up.

The costume’s important, of course, when living a double life. Anyone who’s got something to hide knows all too well that appearances are everything.

This first life brings opportunities for different performances and tasks required, on a regular basis. I smile and ask questions, of an audience adding up to hundreds, even into the thousands over the years.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

How should I start this story? I’m not entirely sure myself how it began.

Did it begin when I decided to leave a well-paying job as a writer and editor at an automotive-marketing firm? When I decided that although I was having fun doing this at the age of 24, covering NASCAR and writing about aftermarket parts wasn’t exactly feeding my soul?

Or, when I finally acted on my longstanding and perhaps misguided desire to attend grad school, to study literature and film?

Perhaps more important than the questionable beginning is when the shit really hit the fan. (Sorry, fellow literary types – I’m a sucker for a good bad cliché, with a dash of profanity.)

In a classic response to surprise hard times, I decided to turn it all into an adventure. Going bohemian. Becoming a Café Vagabond. Sleeping in my Jeep Cherokee with a few suitcases and my dog didn’t seem so bad. No, really.

Let me explain.

A serious fan of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp creation, I decided to call it “tramping,” Not what you think. Really. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Anyway.

I totally know what you’re thinking. For most people, living “on the tramp” doesn’t hold that quaint and cool meaning anymore. Bu the fun history of the term goes back a while.

More impressive than being on the bum, tramping is a choice – a bold one that takes you outside normal society, on a (hopefully) temporary basis, for a fond but discerning look back.

It’s also an awesome way to forget, or at least pretend, that you’re not completely fucking broke.

“Oh no, not me,” you can say. “Not with my master’s degree, student loan debt, and almost 20 years in the American workforce. Not me, who grew up enviably comfortable and privileged in an American small town Shangri-La. Not me, who breezed through a 1990s young adulthood with numerous options, opportunities, and no worries about the 21st century future that was so soon to come.

Not me, who didn’t really have a clue that not everyone’s lives were just like that.

So anyway, how did I get here?

Tramping, I mean.

I should clarify. I had an apartment. But because of awkward romantic entanglements and other unwanted drama – as in, I wanted out of a situation that had gone sour – it was time to concede the space and move on. But that’s not the story I want to tell here.

My first foray into “tramping practice,” let’s call it, wasn’t exactly undertaken for glamorous or philosophical reasons.

I just needed to get the hell out.

Yes. But with that first burst of freedom from an awkward situation comes that question:

“Okay, but where the hell do I go now?”

My friends, it’s one that for a soft, relatively pampered 21st-century American is absolutely liberating. Then once the realizations settle in, completely terrifying.

But ultimately, enlightening.

What followed were adventures and a stumbling upon a new way of thinking, of living, from which I hope I never recover.

 

 

What Happened?

I know how I learned to be 30. Or rather, how I learned to be a girl in her thirties, as opposed to a girl in her twenties. If you have a baby face and don’t act your age – whatever that means – it’s not so very hard to keep that secret, if you want. I never really cared about being older, I just didn’t like how some folks went into obligatory “oh, now this is how you interact with a single woman in her 30s mode,” as if that number magically flipped some sort of secret lifestyle switch. It was often “hey babe, I know you’re free and loose since you’re not married and don’t have kids ..” or “Oh my my, I don’t know how you gals do it, that must be hard and sad …”. And of course, neither response was at all appealing. So secret baby-face mystery girl/woman of indeterminate age, I was most of the time.

But learning to be 40? In the 40s? Thus far, it feels in most ways no different than what came before. There’s one key difference, of course – time and distance. Some days you glance back in your mind and memories, and think – what happened?

Now I know exactly how I arrived here, and this place and time.

I lived.

Days and months and years went by.

I had a rousing good time. As much and as often as humanly possible.

Beyond that – what I mean is how did I arrive here, at the place and time when discouragement starts settling in, and you slide from feeling as if most of what you’ve spent your time thinking and doing was interesting and important, to feeling as if very little of it is? Is it just a common middle-aged cynicism? The persistently shitty economy? Unreasonable optimism, followed by the inevitable crash back to reality?

Maybe it’s all of these things.

 

Walking Out

Wow, what a day.

I walked out of the stable and mind-numbing job. Not really in dramatic fashion. Co-workers were out to lunch, and boss on Passover vacation. Just sewed up a few loose ends, cleaned out my desk, files and computer, and left campus. Had a fun last shuttle bus ride with my favorite driver Pearson. He teased me about carrying and not wearing my vest and scarf on a chilly day.

“There you go trying to look cute again, ha ha!” he said as I climbed on the bus, with his trademark grin and jolly eyes.

We talked about how spring had finally arrived, and how the Tigers would soon be back in town for a season-opening baseball game. And I showed him my Old English D tattoo. He laughed a lot, and so did I. It felt good. It was a bright spot in what could have been a much more stressful and difficult few moments.

And it made me feel that I was okay. What it was all going to be okay. That although there would be little things I’d miss, I still was doing what was right for me, and that I’d find a way to work everything out. I always do.

Laughing with Pearson, I felt like myself again. It was as if leaving that office tower, I could finally really relax. Take a deep breath again, look up into the cloudy gray March skies, and breathe it all back out. I’ve never felt quite so liberated, just walking out of a building. Especially from out of a building in which I’d spent so many fun, happy times, for so many years before. While sporadically – going on five years, in fact.

And instead of feeling sad and scary like an unsure breakup, I felt free. Completely unencumbered, to just walk out those doors, hop on the shuttle bus, and not look back.

As clichéd as it might seem, when we got to the employee parking lot, the sun was shining. The cool, overly bright, long-absent Michigan sun.

I squinted up into it, put on my Ralph Lauren cat-eye sunglasses, and smiled back.

 

Time to Party

I dropped my business card from a mailing envelope, when I got out of my Jeep. I stared at it there on the pavement, right-side down, colorful company logo side up. I am a compulsive non-litterer. I considered picking it up. A woman driving through the parking lot saw me and smiled; maybe she wondered why I was staring at the blacktop. Then I realized I was holding the flower-print gift bag in my other hand. The bag with caramel and sea-salt chocolates, a gift for my mother from an office friend. Mom had repaired a family heirloom for her, a torn cream-colored afghan.

Maybe the friendly woman going by in that car thought I was going into this McDonald’s for a party, some kind of celebration.

In a way, I was.

 

Breaking Up

My old parking-lot hangtag crumbled in my pocket. Too convenient; too symbolic. I wouldn’t have made this up if I were writing a story, for fear of being too cute and heavy-handed with the symbolism.

But there it was. A pile of jagged plastic shards in my hand. I felt a quickening of my pulse, a thrill and a sense of freedom I hadn’t felt for days. This old parking lot tag had hardened in the sun for many years, and was now a pitiful broken reminder of outdated ideals and ways of being. I tucked the pieces all safely back into my jeans pocket.

When I got home, I opened my old mementos trunk in the closet. While I dislike random, unused clutter in my living space, I’m certainly sentimental and protective of moments and objects like this.

As our lives move more quickly than ever into the future, sped along and helped by technology, our souvenirs of the past remain very similar. I tucked these shards into a cubbyhole of the trunk, with a tuft of my dog’s hair, an old Social Security statement, my Jeep’s title, and my peacock business card holder. Just one card left inside as a reminder. A warning? Not quite yet sure.

But I did know I wanted to keep it. Just for now. Just for old time’s sake. Just like the plastic shards.

Banished to the closet. A reverse coming-out process: going back in? For good? We’ll see.

 

A Good Review

My work, according to the boss whose department I walked out on: “Awesome. Excellent. Much appreciated.” We debated my employment status and professional future via email for several days, took a weekend to think things over, then agreed the next Monday that things were better left as they were. She’d proposed a “re-envisioning” of my position, but after the solemnity of a Passover weekend, she presented her case as a more stern and limited “there are a few things that could be tweaked” on Monday. No matter. I’d moved ahead in a short few days, anyway.

The whole process got me thinking about the state of work and corporate, professional affairs in America (and the world beyond) in our time. The position I’d left was at a small, private art college, one that had over a century of experience and international reputation and prestige under its belt. While regarded by some in the community and industry as an overpriced guise meant to bilk unsuspecting students of their student loan (or parents’) money, it also has gained a status that’s rare among institutions of its kind. I’d taught writing and film classes there pretty regularly in the Liberal Arts department for almost a decade, alternately loving the teaching and the students, and hating some of the corporate ridiculousness that had been creeping into a formerly rather bullshit-free space, in recent years. But when tight financial times arrive, as the market goes, so go the art schools.

As the years passed, millions more were poured into more “serious” pre-professional programs, run in a nearly vocational fashion, like Industrial and Transportation Design. Departments like Fine Arts and Photography were left to languish some semesters without proper leadership, financial support, supplies, or at times, even good spaces in which to hone their crafts. The Foundations Department kept alive the old art-school dream, of days spent in dingy studios, smeared with buckets of charcoal and gazing on the curves of a nude model. These few classes required of every student early on in their training were soon replaced by unending hours and days spent at a computer, working on page layout or design programs. Transportation Design majors looked like zombies by midterm, as they juggled the complex and varied pressures of handling both compulsive sketching and hours spent rendering on the computer, and the pre-corporate involvement that came with vast sponsorship and internship dollars.

Over a few short years since the onset of the Great Recession and the building of a second new, more sterile campus facility, the formerly quaint and edgy art school slowly but surely came to more closely resemble its more money-driven corporate counterparts. The neon-haired rebels that formerly had populated programs like Crafts and Metals slowly began to recede to the edges, back from where they’d enjoyed a place of prominence, even higher status and respect, just a few short years prior. But that’s what happens when a place begins to change from outside pressures, to begin losing its history. Those who are new come to a place they don’t know from the past, the details change little by little, semesters pass and the process creeps along.

This echoed corporate climate was the one into which I’d witnessed this formerly hallowed place sliding over the period of several years. It seemed to me that instead of simply echoing the worst aspects of corporate America, art schools could lead the way into a bold new future. Creative industries already have overhauled the nature of what “work” actually is for so many people. And technological changes have provided the tools and possibilities for these changes.

Why should the corporate structure – bulky and cumbersome and wasteful, global in its nature – lag behind?

If we’re all being dragged into this Brave New World, we might as well have our say in what we can bring to it, what it can offer us, and what, ultimately, it is all going to look like.

It can’t be worse than the crumbling infrastructure of the global economy – right?

So, early one January, under worries of only having one class to teach in the winter semester instead of the usual two, I interviewed for and accepted a part-time position in the technologies office. It seemed like a good gig. A way to stay financially stable without losing too much of my personal integrity or freedom. It seemed, as I told my very corporate younger brother, an opportunity: “If I have to be a suit again, at least it’s at an art school, right?” That’s certainly what I was telling myself all along, going in. It was a way to allay my other fears and concerns, given that I needed the money.

 

 

 “This Weird Alchemy”: A Tramp Down Route 66

 

From The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, by W.H. Davies:

Chapter 19: A Voice in the Dark

At this place I remained several weeks, watching the smiling Spring, which had already taken possession of the air and made the skies blue – unloosing the icy fingers of Winter, which still held the earth down under a thick cover of snow. What a glorious time of the year is this! With the warm sun traveling through the serene skies, the air clear and fresh above you, which instills new blood in the body, making one defiantly tramp the earth, kicking the snows aside in the scorn of action.

 

I got my kicks on Route 66. Typically enough: smack in the middle of some restless, dog days of summer.

That said, the trip itself, and the motivations behind it, was anything but typical. I left on a 10-day tramp to traverse not the most famous part of the Mother Road, mind you, but the lesser-known, broken and ill-maintained part that runs from Illinois to Oklahoma. You see the legendary route only in fragments there, commemorated now and again with the odd sign, tiny neoned diner, or other strange kitch. The visible fragments of those glory days stick out all the more now for their difference s from the boring strip-mall esthetic that dominates places like small-town Illinois or rural Missouri these days.

So given the relatively low tourist draw of this lesser-known but long stretch of road, why did I skip town one hot summer, to drive 1,000 miles to visit a gay man?

For love. Indeed.

We’d only known each other a month. But the love was there, the very first day. Both ways. It was an intense eight-hour  working day in Louisville, sitting near each other with only short breaks in which to talk. But in between, in the silences of intense work and close physical proximity, it bloomed. We felt it. What? Do we call it love? That feeling like you’ve found someone lost, a piece that had been missing in you for a long time?

It definitely wasn’t chemistry. At least, not the kind we’d understand in a traditional, “you’re a man, I’m a woman, and now I want to fuck you” sort of way.

In one of the short breaks, I turned to him and said, “Do you know where the good drag show is in town? A friend told me to check it out.”

He turned slowly to me, smiled and said “Oh honey. We’re gonna be friends.”

I felt a flush on my skin, that warm sweep you feel when you realize, in some subtle or not-so-subtle way, that someone you dig is interested. Different this, however. No physical heat. No hint of, or promise of sensual pleasures to come. But a warm feeling not unlike those first flushes of love.

After a week of long talks into the night, trips to White Castle, and a difficult goodbye, I left for home. He texted me from the airport, before he left Louisville: “I miss you already.” I rolled around on the hotel room bed, hugging myself and crying. His plane left for Oklahoma, and I dragged my bags down through the Galt House Hotel lobby, packed the truck, and left for Michigan. Changed. Him too? Maybe. Or, maybe it was just a thing, a “mountaintop experience” as he liked to call the summer-camp atmosphere in which we met.

After we both returned home and settled into our real lives, we’d talk on the phone for hours. Calling those conversations then, as we would for years, our “fire escape chats.” I’d loll around on the floor of my house, the phone glued to my ear, giddy like a little schoolgirl. Something in him, the combination of smart adult man and giggly schoolgirl, made me feel I was 16 again. The timing was perfect in a sense, as I was spending a marooned summer back at my family’s old country house, between jobs and unsure of where things were going to lead. What I did know, however, is that I was feeling worried and scared and stuck, and this new friendship was one of the sweetest aspects of an often bleak season.

On warmer nights I’d stretch out naked on my patio swing, staring at the dark country sky. Listening to the peepers and crickets, and talking with him about places we’d lived. Details we hated, feeling trapped. Loves we’d lost, and those that maybe we never should’ve had. Our religious upbringings (his was Catholic, and mine was Baptist), and how we’d grown apart from them.

He’d had so many loves – both professional and academic, and human in nature. So many from finishing his first college degree to grad school, to following this love and then that, from Virginia to Illinois, to Oregon and beyond. Like me, one of the few constants he’d had was his canine companion, a fluffy blonde Cocker Spaniel named Wingo Superstar. Mine was a fluffy blonde long-haired Chihuahua named Taco Bell. Taco was my best travelling companion, riding most of those 1,000 miles on a large pillow propped up on the front passenger seat of my truck.

Both of our canine buddies were 13 years old last year, and passed away just a few short months apart. But that summer when I made the long drive south, they both were only a spry eight years old. The four of us cuddled and slept at times in his bed, which he called “The Bed of Love” for all the canine and human affection it held for those few short days. That phrase was one of many I’d take away with me, and remember for many months and years to come.

So, how had this man found his way to hot, dry Oklahoma in the first place? Over the years, these multiple changes of scene led him eventually to an odd and perhaps inexplicable move for a somewhat flamboyantly gay director, actor and theater professor – all the way to Tahlequah. Home of some cheesy country singers, the end of the Trail of Tears taken by the Cherokee Nation in the 19th century, and way too many Wal-Mart and Love’s gas station strip malls.

It was a good job that landed him there, for sure, in a field that offers its courageous players opportunities tough to come by, especially those accompanied by some degree of security or fair compensation. So there he found himself, smack in the middle of a land he called “Oklahomo” or “Oklahomaphobia” with equal degrees of amusement, resignation, and concern.

Tahlequah is in part of the pretty green country of eastern Oklahoma, much more inviting than the Dust-Bowl-scorched earth of the more western regions of the state (which ought to be annexed to Texas, anyway). This part of Oklahoma is green and hilly, cut through by the Illinois River, and less than an hour’s drive from similarly hilly and verdant western Arkansas.  It was a place I’d grow to love over the week that I was there, if for no other reason than it was home to this new man I loved, and site of so many moments adding up to one of the most memorable weeks of my young life.

The more we talked in those days before I hit the road, the more I yearned to just jump in the truck and drive away. 1,000 miles, not so far. The more I fell in my own version of love for him, the shorter that distance seemed to be. Not for this. Not for a tangled soul who, like me, needed a friend and love at a time when it was so hard to find. No boyfriend (either of us). No car (him). Recent drunken-driving accident (definitely him). Too much smoking and drinking (both of us). Daily pain, and a need to hear and be heard.

Sounds ridiculous. A recipe for heartbreak, a waste of gas money. A disaster for an intelligent girl, to chase after such a phantom, as if love were that hard to find in the world.

But there it was. Undeniably, a force that needed a response.

After three weeks back home, and hours on the phone, I had two free weeks. Some surprise time off, wrapping around Independence Day.

Not so far, 1,000 miles. I began to calculate distances, driving times, stopping points in my head.

Gas money, not so easy to come by. So many things to think about. Need a dogsitter, for my second bad dog who’d be a road-trip nightmare. And what would my parents think? But Christ, I was 33 years old. So, what would any self-respecting bisexual girl do, when she’s going to drive across the country to spend a week with her new gay male love?

I lied.

I spun a romantic tale of love found, that charmed even some of my most skeptical relatives. One of them even hugged me and said, “Oh, life’s too short. Just go.” I’d have preferred to keep the trip details mostly to myself, but in a small town, you don’t keep secrets like that for very long. At the least, people notice that your car or truck’s gone, worry about your property, call you to check up, whatever. And even if you do feel like you’re keeping a secret, everybody talks about it anyway. Just not to your face, and often without the truth.

So, I lied. Maybe not that big of a deal for some, but a big deal to me. While my close friends knew everything, I kept our sexual-orientation secrets from family for several years, and he remained for family closest to me a distant boyfriend, a distant possibility for a reunion and more traditional love life in years to come. It was easier that way. And if nothing else, it staved off some of the other questions I’d grown used to getting, about when I was bringing someone home, or when we’d hear the pitter-patter of little feet.

The kicker was, my romantic tales of love found weren’t entirely untrue.

I had found an important love of my life.

Just one complicated by the fact that I was a bi-man trapped in a woman’s body (his estimation), and he was a mega-gay bottom beautiful gay man.

And so, it was. Two weeks free, one full tank of gas, a suitcase of clothes. A fat stack of CDs and one small Chihuahua. My best traveling partner. Off to see my new love, curly-headed laughing smiling swearing crying hugging love. Only 1,000 miles to go. I drove down the dirt road from my old house, and turned right at the first stop sign.

 

Entanglements

I awoke in the middle of the night, thinking: “The brain has 128 contacts.” What the hell was that?

Restless. Can’t sleep.

Dozed for a couple hours. Then read for a while. Then a couple hours trying to doze again.

I tried to watch The Hobbit on DVD for a while. Relaxing and fun. Glad I’m finally getting around to it.

It’s been storming in the night. Raining pretty hard, thunder and lightning. Traffic noise is always so much louder in apartment, from the nearby four-lane freeway, when it rains.

I don’t really know how I ever even slept with this traffic noise. I remember now when I moved in two years ago, how I’d wake up every day from these vivid dreams. A different person I know, every night. Running a fan for white noise while I sleep has helped, but really – how silly is that.

I’m ready to be done with it.

And this fridge running, this old inefficient Hummer of a fridge, running almost all night. All night!

And running up my bill too.

So, tonight, I feel somehow haunted by ghosts. Of the past, of other places, the present.

Not real ghosts at all – I’m not a believer.

But thoughts, memories. The ones in my head.

Stories and episodes small and distant are all clamoring around in my head tonight, won’t let me rest.

“The midnight disease,” they call it. Yes.

I drove by and then parked, stared longingly at the old factory loft building tonight. I feel such loss, such sadness, but then also such joy sometimes when I look at that place. What a ridiculous fucking waste that it sits empty now. So much life I lived, we lived there, for over three years. It’s hard to reconcile in my head now, almost like it didn’t happen at all. But of course it did. But that great block of a building, four solid floors once so full of life just stands empty like a great dark cave, and in a way it just makes me sick. I want to let it go and think, “oh well, everything changes. It’s no big deal. What’s past is like a shadow, there and then gone, but no less real than anything else.”

But I can’t. I try and try, I forget about it for a while, I go on my merry way. And then it comes back to haunt me, again.

Funny, I just realized I mean “haunt me” in the best possible sense. Not as in terrible things happened there that I want to forget. No, the threads of dreams, of small everyday happinesses, the newness and excitement and (maybe blind) hope of those years seems now like a sweet candy to me.

While I still have that hope and excitement now – it comes and goes, as I’m sure it does for most people – it just felt somehow different, then and there.

For a time, all had a shimmering glow, a gritty exciting and edgy potential that was addictive and strange.

A memory recalled: the night our neighbor Leroy had a heart attack, and was brought down the freight elevator by the fire department. Spooky and unsettling. My first small loft on the first floor, right there next to the elevator shaft. I could see the emergency vehicles out my window, in the parking lot. How scary and awkward that must have been. Dangerous. We moved upstairs to the bigger loft together not long after that, and the first night, neither of us could really sleep. She was a spooky sort for sure, and totally claimed to believe in ghosts and all. She said she thought she sensed Leroy’s ghost, unsettled and unhappy, not ready yet to leave that place. I didn’t believe it, but ever I almost had to admit it made a good ghost story.

Snap – back to the present. Ah, this traffic noise. Where the hell are all these driving people going at 5-something in the morning, anyway?

 

 

“I’m Bound to Wander,
But Even Tramps Gotta Land Sometimes”

 

An oasis. A hospital?

I’ve landed at St. Joe’s Hospital in Ypsilanti, Mich. Not in a bed, thankfully. Just in the rather empty and cushy cafeteria. Good wi-fi access here. No one bugs you. Seems that most casual questions to a stranger are potentially awkward or hazardous, when you’re in the main place where human drama is, on a daily basis, literally life and death.

Just a nice place to sit, think and dream, write. Get some prepackaged salad for dinner from the café/snack shop, and look like you’re supposed to be there. Eat and drink, reflect. It’s nice to be here when there’s no big family health crisis going on, for a change.

Of all the public places that a growing economy has created for the wondering wanderer, a hospital is the most unlikely.

What person in their right mind ever goes to one when they don’t have to, anyway? It’s not a place a person tends to choose to visit, but rather is compelled. By necessity: emergency or not, hardly ever (with the exception of new babies?) a joyous occasion.

But consider this: where else, in modern American society, can you find a clean, comfortable, relatively safe place just to sit and watch the world go by? Hospitals are, by their nature, just local microcosms, a rare space of communal gathering. No annual event like the Fourth of July fireworks or other holidays where people tend to be insular with their own packs, anyway. Those who attend churches have this community on a similar level, but insular again, just me and us and our kind.

Where else, then, does the great mass of unsorted, modern American humanity gather together on a daily basis?

The DMV? Well, yes. But that most certainly is not a welcoming, interesting, or comfortable place to hang out.

No, it’s here – where some lives end, some begin, and everybody tends to end up passing through at one time or another. Where life slows down for those of us visiting – by necessity. Something’s happening to someone we care about, and we drop everything. Most of what we know to be normal stops. All our energy, all our love, revolves around this small circling point, a speck on the map that just might be housing temporarily all that means the world to us.
From the outside, it’s just a building, or a set of buildings. Common in their purpose, as new or well-kept or well-appointed as they may be. But in a time, in a country with so few friendly havens for those without a friendly place, the unlikely setting can offer a place where a person can just be, and be among other people, with a few extra creature comforts, besides.

The short list, of amenities that hospitals tend to offer the public: cable TV, nice furniture, music (sometimes even a grand piano with performers dropping by), well-kept grounds, a spa, café, free wi-fi, chapels, gift shops, art/décor. Inspiration? Memories? Maybe. As long as a person is there with good intentions, and stays out of the way of any business going on, it’s a decent place to be.

Being there, a person also can feel somewhat weighed down, as if the very air has soaked up all the intense business of living conducted within these walls. It’s a bright, well-lit, cheerful place. It can be comforting in a way that you don’t notice – or might only incidentally – when here during a crisis. A modern day micro-city, with all the small elements needed to live a regular, modern day American life. And then some. Furniture and décor and other items fancier than what most of us have in our own homes. And yet, as may not often be thought of an open, feels-like-public space. Not exactly, as perhaps technically private and heavily secured. But open, welcoming and accessible, nonetheless.

Coming here today, my mind and heart are flooded with memories. I’m struck by how few babies there have been in my family in recent decades. I would have loved to come here for more babies than that – and I’m not even that much of a baby person, technically speaking. Just so many cancers and surgeries and comas and oxygen machines and sick relatives both elderly and not so much, to remember here. That past is somewhat comforting, though, even in its pain and difficulty. It’s as if I’m having close contact with those I love, even if they’re no longer here among us. Or, if the memories are fast becoming more distant and hazy.

My mom’s heart surgery, and all the appointments that led up to it and followed. The hours and hours spent in this place, drinking hot cinnamon spice tea, and trying not to cry at almost every second. Sitting with my three brothers at a round waiting-room table, eating M&M’s and laughing nervously, wondering when mom would wake up from the anesthesia. Crying and walking slowly back to that room, after seeing her waking from that sleep. She looked like a newborn kitten, with damp wavy hair stuck to her forehead. Opening her mouth in an attempt to tell me, “it hurts,” her lips dry and pale. These memories could be sad ones, but in fact they’re now bright and happy, evidences of a rich life lived and love preserved. My mother strong and determined, and healthy once more. Recovered and months past that frightening, difficult surgery.

I remember waiting in this cafeteria for my boyfriend, as he was meeting me after I visited mom. We were going into Ann Arbor to see the new Anna Karenina adaptation that was playing there. It was a calming, enjoyable night in the midst of one of the most worrisome and stressful times I’ve known.

I also remember visiting my dad here just a few short weeks later, as he was hooked up to oxygen and scared for his life. It was just too much. He was a wreck and so were we, but you’d have to pay attention to know it, if you looked at us. And by us, I mean, me, my dad, and my boyfriend. If I learned anything in those months, it’s that at the times you’d think you’d be most openly emotional, something strange happens. You contract inside, as if to protect yourself, from the powerful things you’re feeling, and sensing from those that you love around you. Life lived, lessons learned. That night also was capped off by a somewhat jarring transition into seeing the film director John Waters in Royal Oak – we left straight from the hospital to meet friends. Another day, another set of clashing and unrelated circumstances lived.

And finally, I remember my step grandparents. Both gone now almost five years, and yet so present. Grandma dying at home, and Grandpa dying later that night, at this hospital. Souls here, souls gone. Taking photos of the small-town pastor and his wife, downstairs by a huge fake Christmas tree. Smiling and hugging and getting best wishes from them both. Knowing that in just a couple short months, the pastor himself would be back there for the same surgery. Already survived a brain surgery, not that many years before. Patients in, and patients out. Just everyday living there. A place that protects and cares for the local community, here and so many elsewhere, like no other.

At times at this closing-in-on-midlife point in my life, I feel isolated and crave more family structure, more social time, a less disjointed way of being. All this separation just snuck up on us, this generation that didn’t necessarily want the confined, conscripted world of our parents, but didn’t want the company of a glowing computer or smartphone screen each night while home alone, either.

So, what does this have to do with a hospital as a center for community engagement, you might ask? Well, plenty. As social as you may be, that isolation’s smacking you right in the face if a visit to a hospital setting comforts you. To see, in their distress and worry and pain, the very human side of your fellow people, members of your surrounding community that have come to the place they might most dread and fear in their daily lives, if they ever pause to think about it. But there they are, nonetheless. And where there is fear and sadness, there also is love. And that, my friends – to quote the late, great Hal David – is something that there’s just too little of.

 

Friday. Ho Hum.

Starting to feel really restless and bored. At times, less interested in writing – that shows here, right? Treating my writing habits more like journaling than getting some real writing done (whatever that is, really).

Maybe the solution really is just to get back to it, find that real direction to focus on. That that’s the reason I’m feeling restless and unfocused.

Blah, ugly news out there today. Feeling sorry I turned on the radio. I was unaware of the big deal going on in the national news since yesterday, until I turned it on this afternoon. State of lockdown in Boston. Shootings and suspects and chases, house raids and fear and loathing. Horrible and sad and unfortunate.

Trying not to let too much of it sink into my mood, into how I am feeling and thinking about things. But it’s hard not to do so. Maybe it’s a good thing not to stay sheltered from it all, to witness it fully and write about it. Yes. To write and write about it.

Just all feels so adult. So depressing. So 21st century. Like we’ve all accepted that shit sucks, there no hope for a better, kinder world. Just do your little work, do some shopping, go home and eat your dinner, watch some TV, and move on. Sleep, shower, drive, repeat.

I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that at all.

I look at the greyed faces of people I know, so resigned and accepting to their fates. Worry and anxiety a normal habit. Living with that daily pressure of “you’re lucky to have your crappy job, hold onto it” and use all your time, your life  to keep up your workaday existence.

Is this a voice of sanity, of humanity in a commercial world? Or of insanity, of one who just doesn’t want to be a good soldier and toe the corporate line? Who never has felt a strong urge to conform, or cared all that much about money? That has a strong moral center, one that from conscious existence began always has been driven, by the unshakable belief, that human life and freedom and – damnit – fun and enjoyment are sacred? The only thing, really, that we all should live for?

Such a waste, for it all to be so serious. So proprietary, so competitive and at times, violent. Life out of balance and at times wasted.

Transient, misleading concepts that always drive their adherents to end in misery.

Blah. Wow. I got really serious just then.

Feels good to get this out, anyway. I’m pissed. Sickened by all the waste and fear and danger. So stupid.

 

Horizon Park

The last day of April, in one of my favorite spots.

Horizon Park in Belleville. I love that I live in this town. Beautiful, nice warm and sunny day. It was sunny earlier, then grey skies rolled in, but it cleared up nicely for the evening.

I went out to lunch today, the library for a couple hours, then biked from here out to the high school. Rode around town for a half hour or so. Refreshing! Just fun to be out on such a gorgeous day, seeing what people are doing, and just enjoying myself. Quite lovely.

I enjoy listening to the redwing blackbird call, sitting here. My third year of hearing that. They always sit on the wooden posts, trying to look rather nautical. The thick corded ropes tied around and hanging between the posts gives a kind of seafaring feel to this small lakeshore spot.

“Coo-coo-REE,” he says, over and over, to no one in particular.

I want to keep putting my roots down in this place. I like feeling as if I’m really starting to have a home. One that I chose, and although somewhat familiar to me since childhood, one that I really found myself. Before I came back here to live a second time, Belleville was to me a strip of outdated apartment buildings on a freeway service drive. Strip malls and chain restaurants on a five-lane road. Gas stations and liquor stores.

It took some time being here, and some slow, patient wandering to see that this relatively small town is much more than that. For every Diamondback Saloon, there’s an antique store filled with quirky treasures, and the owner’s hometown stories. For every landfill there’s also a seasonal ice cream stop with a mini golf course stuck in 1980, aptly named “Funland.”

For every small scattering of empty businesses, there’s a gaggle of Canada geese honking at the lakefront. Right downtown, near the library, a historical museum, and a couple old churches. There’s a lakefront with a bridge, tiny island, and a wooded view as beautiful to me as almost any oceanfront spot I’ve ever visited.

And it’s mine. Or, ours. Those of us who spend time in Belleville, living or working or hanging out, or whatever.

A skier being pulled behind a speedboat just went by. Cool. Last day of April, and a fine sight to see.

So, how exactly will I keep putting my roots down here? That remains to be seen. But for now, I know this is right where I want to stay.

 

Meijer Parking Lot

Oh man, that 14 inning Tigers game was killing me last night. At least I had something to do while waiting for Nate to jump some nutty peoples’ car in the Meijer parking lot.

So here’s the story … a 20-ish guy (who back in the day, would’ve really been into Limp Bizkit) sat in the passenger seat of a parked minivan, legs dangling out the window, or shoes on the dash. We’d been spying on him for like 10 minutes before the battery went dead, because he was singing and screaming his lungs out, playing air drums to every blessed track he put on. Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson, . you name it. It was wonderfully hilarious, fine people-watching entertainment.

Nate and I engaged in some snarky speculation: was he there waiting for his mom? Did she pop out for some dilly bars and scotch tape at midnight on a Wednesday, and just wanted a little company?

And then, out from Meijer his companion came stomping .. a big scary battle-ax girlfriend. She already was yelling on a Bluetooth call to her mom, saw how her boyfriend was entertaining himself, and screamed: “ARE YOU KILLING THE BATTERY? YOU STUPID MOTHERFUCKER!”

ah, it was kinda priceless, I tell ya  🙂

MICHAEL’S JOB

 

Crafty

So, in case you haven’t heard, the job market is still really bad. No, really bad. You haven’t heard? Or, CNN or Fox News or MSNBC have been telling you otherwise? “The American economy is growing!” “Jobs are being created!” “The American Dream is alive and well, again!”

Well?

Well.

Forgive my impertinence, but I don’t believe these people have looked for a job lately.

I haven’t felt this unpopular since I was a sweet, shy tweener, holding up the wall panels at a middle school dance. Standing in the shadows, listening to the music and wanting to break out of my corduroy jumper and mess up my smooth, straight hair – pull that stuff right out from behind my ears where it was tucked, and party. That urge worked out a couple years later, as the brainy wallflower bloomed, and most of high school was a rousing good time.

What was I talking about again? Oh, right. The job market.

In my continuing quest to recast my mid-career life, I’ve sent in applications for no less than 50 jobs in the last month. Some are pie-in-the-sky, and some are “give me something to do, and then give me some money.” Their functions range from English professor to groundskeeper, newspaper editor to rehab center worker. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Beyond one five hour a week gig that I am enjoying very much, I haven’t had a single nibble. There was one mass email response three weeks after I sent my stuff, saying “Thanks, but no thanks.” At least they had the courtesy to send the brush-off.

Strangely enough, the inherent coldness of this process isn’t as difficult as it may seem. The more it happens, the better I feel about it. No, really. Let me explain.

I was telling a friend at lunch yesterday that an online job search starts to feel like playing make-believe after a while. The jobs and the contacts, the descriptions and qualifications, they all FEEL real as you’re reading them and readying your responses. But after a while, you begin to wonder if the Wizard of Oz isn’t behind that curtain. He’s just a man, a GOOD man, but a very bad wizard. So, you spend hours and days searching, combing, applying, wishing and hoping, and … waiting. The waiting. Anyone out there who’s done this knows exactly what that can feel like. You keep yourself busy, living the good life in the ways you enjoy, and just KNOW that something good is waiting for you, right around the next corner.

And then, in your spare time, you begin to wonder if you really want that something good – if you’re doing it just for money, because you think you’re supposed to, or if it’s REALLY the kind of thing you want to spend your time doing.

You start looking around you for something to do. Time spent online or networking or whatever feels a bit like spinning wheels, and that part of you that wants to accomplish cool things isn’t yet satisfied.

And there’s the ever-irritating, ever-present inner monologue: I’ve put in my time looking for jobs, exhausted all current avenues, and now I’m playing the waiting game. I’ll go searching again tomorrow.

But for now, do I: (1) watch TV? (2) call somebody? (3) take a nap? (4) go outside?

Say what you will about the supposed joys of underemployment, but guiltlessly occupying oneself while playing a waiting game can be confusing and exhausting.

Today, instead of staying confused, I did something I’ve been wanting to spend some time doing for weeks. And it was fantastic.

I put on some music, and dug in. Got my hands into some spray paint, glitter, and photos, and went nuts. I’m really happy with the results.

I have this daydream that someday soon, I can start up a table at a local artisan’s market. I’ve been doing some research lately (if strolling around Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown on a Sunday afternoon, and eating at Zingerman’s Deli counts as research). It doesn’t cost much to get started, and it looks like a lot of fun. Some people sell homemade breads or jams, some make jewelry, others showcase their fine art photography or woodworking. The weekly market is a lovely, friendly place where time slows down and people just enjoy some old-fashioned pleasures. A place where online skills assessments and tiny, contingent, part-time crappy job offerings do not exist.

The more I apply for “real” jobs with unreal un-results, the more I daydream about playing with glitter and paint and actually getting something done that feels real.

As pleasurable as this prospect seems, it comes along with its own set of important questions. If I become a market artisan, am I guaranteed to be popular, and make enough money to pay the bills?

No.

But I AM guaranteed to be mindlessly, blissfully happy during those two hours with paint and glitter smeared all over my hands and arms, and Beethoven operas and piano sonatas in my ears.

Is it a bit like fiddling while Rome burns, to be crafty while also out on the job market?

Perhaps.

But instead of just standing there, wouldn’t you rather be making some music?

 

The Bitter End: The Chapter In Which I Become a Café Vagabond.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

I have found the Bitter End. It is at 752 West Fulton Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I am sorting through various pieces of text messages, bar coasters, photos, napkin-scribbled notes, voicemails, and other scraps that have brought me to this place, this morning. Coffeehouse with broken tile floor and molded dark wood paneling. Old pinup calendars on the walls with photos of W.C. Fields and Dorothy Parker. A little smelly. Just my kind of place. The layers and residue piled on the surfaces of this place, hanging in the air, seem perfectly appropriate for the shuffle and sort I am undertaking.

Outside, the rain has stopped and blue skies and fluffy clouds prevail. Then the gray returns. I was awakened this morning in my tent, pitched in my brother’s backyard, by the soft tapping of drops on the rain fly. It’s too early in the season for weather like this. Still July. Not yet late August in Alaska or Seattle, not early October in Detroit. But here it is. Cooler and calm, sun and rain at the same time, your hand in mine. As she wrote to me two years ago, on our first waking Sunday morning together.

I need to see a rainbow.

 

Burnett Pond

My dad dreamed about but never dug a pond, for half a century. His mother, my grandmother, didn’t want it on the family land. After Mickey died, it only took Dad 21 years to get up the nerve (and get off his ass) to do it. At 71 came the upside-head whack: if he dicked around long enough, that demon could be entirely sidestepped. The oxygen tube in his nose, and the tanks he had to lug around for emphysema, really burnished precious time like rare gold. So with a sick stomach and the stiff resolve of a man who previously squandered time, Dad went off to find a man with a backhoe. And what, luck – he found as well, at the local hardware, the bald eagle statue he’d dreamed about all those years. Bonus: an accompanied, required American flag sculpture. With a pile of large rocks from a local landscaper who “screwed” him on a price, Dad built a corner waterfall for an eight-foot-deep pond, in no time at all.

I only wish he hadn’t waited this long. So, while I’m not afraid he’ll jump in and drown, I understand he needed to face this one on his own. So far, so good. Thus ends this allegory. In other words, quit worrying about whether your dad’s going to buy that motorcycle or not. The worry’s not going to do anybody any good.

 

Dark Horse to Dead Horse

(to ponder .. finding my “voice” as a writer, and the role teaching plays in that process)

 

I am in serious survivor mode with this job.

This is stupid.

In 45 different ways – within the first MONTH – it’s a dead end.

I love the students, the schools, the reading, writing, teaching.

The administration of the college is a complete train wreck. An utter nightmare.

Every piece of information they’ve given me has been wrong, from times the classes meet, to how many months they last. I’ve emailed, called, and texted, requesting the simplest things like a sample syllabus, and never received a reply. I was told the classes run Sept. 5 – Nov. 22, and now it turns out only one of the three does (thankfully, the most trying). The other two continue into and then after Christmas break, until Jan. 22.

Kind of a big deal, that.

And, I’m the queen of understatement.

Beyond just being an additional two month commitment, there’s the matter of the assignment calendar/syllabus (no thanks to lack of a sample syllabus, but hey, I’m a professional and I rock). The assignment sequence was designed for an accelerated 10-week course. Turns out they FUCKED UP, and it’s more like 16 weeks. Whoopsie. Calls, emails (to three different people) to get the schedule clarified  .. all going unanswered. It’s like this college system has gone the way of Detroit, and the U.S. Federal Government right now, and slid right into shutdown mode.

Or, gone Charlie’s Angels. That’s right, I said it. That wonderful disembodied voice that tells the girls things they need to know, and shows up just at the right time for the jigglefest. But this big brother? I don’t even see the back of its head. Almost entirely virtual, while the classes and students and three schools are most definitely real.

Hey, no big deal, right? Despite a teacher already having taught the first month of the class, at the 10-week pace, it’s easy just to sponge out an additional six weeks of content without sinking the ship, right?

As they say – whoever they are – I’m not one to brag. Ever notice how people who say shit like that actually ARE ones to brag? Anyway. Seriously, I’m not so much. But if anyone could take on this challenge – to completely scramble to make up for their unbelievable bullshit so far – I could.

But the question is – should I? I am thinking not. Enough is enough.

There’s that moment, when a dating prospect or apartment or city or job opportunity slides so very quickly from Mr. or Ms. Right, to Mr. or Ms. Right Now.

How many red flags have to whip me in the face with this one, before I start to feel like I’ve been here before? Seen it, done it?

Sometimes optimism and a plucky spirit are not our friends. Sometimes we make do, adjust, grow accustomed to things that actually need to be changed or cut right off.

For everyone, for the situation’s best outcome .. in so many ways.

Oh, by the way – have I mentioned I’ve worked a month without seeing a dime? And, they expect me to work ANOTHER before seeing a single cent?

That’s right. Two months, half a semester, no pay.

And two months, very little social life. Just little glimmering moments I’m able to fit in, between early waking, teaching classes, driving (and driving, and driving), grading, and sleeping.

Grandma and Aunt Beth are two of the main people/things in life that never have let me down, and I hardly ever get to see them. That is stupid.

I refuse to accept that this is just life, that it has to be that way. No, it doesn’t. We all have choices that can be made.

I have had a much better life than this. Made twice as much money for half the work and time required.

I won’t settle for this horseshit. No way. Quality of life, and the love you share with others, is all that ultimately matters. And if those things are suffering because of our striving, our daily toils for … what? Besides making the mortgage or rent? What’s the point? If we can do those things well without sacrificing all the rest, then that is a life well-lived, and worth striving, fighting for.

 

Gotta Get This Down – Just So Many Thoughts Coming Today

Writing stories – because you’re stuck in your head, an insufferable narcissistic bore, and no one likes listening to you speak? And they’re stuck in their own heads anyway?

So, to feel like you’ll actually be listened to, you write it all down.

RUSHING: goddamnit, you just can’t do it, and be a good storyteller. Can’t multi-task, can’t be doing three things at once. Musts breathe, slow down, and let that single stream flow. That one voice. The multiple voices thing is part of what’s stressing me out in a classroom setting, and with smartphone use/public talking. “Can’t hear myself think” is more than just a saying!

THERE’S WRITING YOUR LIFE, AND THEN THERE’S LIVING LIKE YOU’RE “WRITING” EVERY MOMENT. ONE’S AWESOME, AND ONE’S A WASTE OF ENERGY.
Stop spewing it out into the universe! Emails, FB posts, talking w/friends and throwing the writing energy out there is fun, but not all that productive. Reserve some of it, and keep channeling it in the more “formal” writing direction.

 

BALANCE: Cliches and Original Thoughts/Language

 

Cliched phrases are familiar to people, and help you connect your original thoughts with an audience. But if you use too many, you’re an annoying hack. If all your thoughts feel original to an audience, you might turn them off or they won’t feel as if they can connect.

So, it seems to me that the solution is to practice as attaining a balance.

A balance between unfamiliar and familiar ways of saying things, so a reader can be both comforted and entertained, and challenged to think of something in a new or fresh way.

 

 

MOI:

The three classes are at Wayne Memorial HS, John Glenn HS (Westland), and Ecorse. Dual enrollment frosh-comp for Wayne County CC. Wooooohoo an adventure, for sure. lower pay, harder work, puttin’ on the miles, road warrior. but being in three high schools a day has its other perks. I’ve got a “mean girls” writing idea that has me distracted from all the other things I’m chipping away at these days .. beyond that, going to Wayne’s homecoming and seeing four of my students on the court and one in the game was an entirely new (and fun) experience. Never thought I’d kill 10 minutes of class time passing out voting ballots. 7:10 a.m. bell. Whoopie! But I’m making it work. For now.

And, yes – this experience IS generating lots of material. Hot dog. As for homecoming … Hadley crossed my mind, watching last year’s queen crown this year’s @ Wayne. Thought she’d be doing that soon, too. It strikes me that the friendly girls – who also just happen to be gorgeous – are popular these days. The mean one who’s in my class was just burning a hole into the new (friendly and warm-seeming) queen’s skull after the names were called. And, RE: age and perception .. it IS an odd phenomenon. So strange how different the 19s seem when compared to the 18s and 17s.

Beyond the “mean girls” thing, I’m working on a Homecoming/Coming Home idea. The overlapping of Wayne’s homecoming week, and going home to stay with my grandmother soon after grandpa’s death. Reassessing career plans, where to live, and why. Good process, so far.

And you might be right – testosterone in the hallways? Maybe they do all just smell like Axe.

Grand River

Every state of this Union us migrants have been

We come with the dust and we’re gone with the wind

It’s always we ramble that river and I

 

~ Woody Guthrie, “Pastures of Plenty”

 

It don’t take no nerve to do somepin,

When there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.

 

~ Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath

 


THE RIVERS

 

One                     Detroit

Two                    Maumee

Three                 Scioto

Four                    Huron

Five                     Rouge

Six                       Saline

Seven                  Detroit

Eight                    Ford

Nine                     Au Sable

Ten                        Grand

Postscript          Detroit

 

 

ONE

DETROIT

 

She stares at the ceiling of her loft apartment, waiting for inspiration to come. It usually does. The irregular shapes there make her feel things that she later spills out onto a canvas, or through a camera’s lens. Her eyes. Taken where inspiration leads them. Now as she studies the concrete ceiling 18 feet above her head, with the coldness of the old hardwood floor against the bare skin of her back, she wonders. Why does the white paint stop, where the living area begins? What used to hang from the twisted wires that are still there, clinging to crooked screw hooks?

She sighs, turning over on her side, head resting on outstretched arm. She doesn’t want to be alone like this, to live inside her head so much. She feels it’s expected of her though. She’s an artist, one who will, for long stretches, forget the life of the world outside to create another one within. But she knows it’s that energetic, perplexing, sometimes ugly life outside that’s so inspiring. Beats the hell out of this half-painted concrete ceiling.

It’s why she’d moved to Detroit in the first place. The beauty, the squalor. Sometimes contained within a single city block. The incomparable contrast between promise and excitement, danger and decay. She sees those contradictions more here than in any other place she’s ever known.

And it’s home. A place where her grandfathers and great-grandfathers won their hard-earned calluses through the 1920s and eventually moved west, out of the city, for a better life for their families. They worked long hours and endured hard demands on their minds and bodies, to earn the right to leave the big, beautiful, ugly city forever.

She remembers stories her parents and grandparents told her, and hazy flashes of moments from her childhood. In the 1980s when Detroit’s auto recession pushed conditions to a new low, it was America’s murder capital. News bulletin to white suburbanites and small-town visitors: take Michigan Avenue through the scary, strip-club and street-corner-drug-dealing parts on the west side of town, duck in quickly with your car doors locked. Park-n-Lock at Michigan and Trumbull, go to the Detroit Tigers baseball game, run back out to your car. Run – quickly if you can – and get thee back to the suburbs and small towns before the bullets hit you in the ass.

And that was Detroit to her. And here she is, more than 20 years later. Living in a converted factory building, a grinder, one very much like her grandfathers worked in nearly a century ago. Within sight from her single-pane windows of the “Golden Top of the Fisher Building,” a radio studio so glamorously described to her younger self, on the predawn AM broadcast from her father’s transistor radio. At times, she gazes at that Golden Top, also green or other festive colors at appropriate times, and catches a whiff of her father’s bacon and coffee. Those wonderful scents always had a way of floating into her bedroom from the kitchen, as she buried her head and tried to go back to sleep in her tiny twin bed.

 

“Hillbilly.”

Surprise registered on the interviewer’s face. He repeated, or rather rephrased the question.

“What I meant was, is there any national heritage, any ethnic or other group you like to call your own? Where do you come from? It’s not a requirement that you answer these questions, but it just helps our co-workers and readers get to know you a little better.”

Hillbilly must not have a checkbox.

She scanned her thoughts and feelings for another label. Irish. Scottish. Woman. Bisexual. Smart. Irritable. Lazy. Hard-working. Silly. Stupid. Some of these had a box, for sure. She didn’t want to go climbing into any of them.

“Well, hillbilly,” she finally said. “That’s the best I can do on that. I guess my background is 31 Flavors in so many ways, no label sticks quite as hard as that one. Blue collar. If you like that one better, sure. I like it.”

The wrapped candies on Tom Byer’s desk caught her attention as she spoke. She grabbed one, and it made a crinkling noise in its clear cellophane. The cut-glass bowl looked like her grandmother’s old dishes. Cheap and common in one sense, but comforting and classic too. The caramel flavor began to melt on her tongue. She crumpled the wrapper and crammed it into her pocket.

“Well, that’s it then,” Tom replied. He snapped shut the cover of his old leather-bound notebook. “Hillbilly. I like it too. So tell me, how does that drive what you do? How is your work ‘hillbilly,’ if it is at all?”

 

Green and red stoplights alternate down Woodward Avenue, the view from her office window. The industrial forefathers planned it well. A gorgeous view downtown of the gritty, battered city of Detroit. The skyline is iconic now, a jagged collection of rectangles. Dark shapes order the sky over the Detroit River, touching the border of Windsor, Ontario. That free country to the north, so close and yet so far away.

Funny that from where she sits it’s actually to the south – the only strange little plot of Michigan land that does this around here. Her city sits on a formerly free and wild tract of land, now a patchwork of concrete and accidental green spaces.

Detroit looks peaceful, inviting, exciting from this height. And that it is, on the ground as well. Scary, unwelcoming, and threatening too. This tunnel of concrete land below her is an area of deceptive civilization, in a vast jungle of neglected streets and new construction of the city’s outlying neighborhoods, and the suburbs.

The place once was the grand hope of a new generation of dreamers. Henry Ford’s first plant, on Piquette Avenue, still stands in decent shape just a mile north. The wealthy logger David Whitney has the fanciest restaurant in town, just a block from her perch on the 10th floor of the Maccabee’s Building.

Beautiful relics, these places. Visual reminders of a time when wealth was all and the self-made man was everyone’s hero. The American Dream. She rubs her eyes and goes back to cleaning her Olympus single-lens-reflex camera, and thinks about how it feels like no one really much believes in anything here, anymore.

And so, she shoots images and collects words that organize her city as a symbol. A harbinger of things to come for the rest of the country. But they are coming. The American Dream redux. A Brave New World. A new world order about which the elders are afraid, and the younger generations have yet begun to understand.

It Can’t Happen Here.

Oh, but it has. Change has been doing its thing all along, whether we wanted to acknowledge it, notice it, or not.

The sharp tweet of her cell phone awakens her from the warm comfort of her imagination. She rolls her desk chair over to one side of her office, then the other. Restless but not wanting to leave. Lazy but not wanting to stay.

Plastic. Cool and smooth in her hand. The screen reads: “They need you in Grosse Ile. Body found. Male. Bad. Take your Pepto.”

She winces and fights of spontaneously generated images of the scene in her head. Leave it to her photo editor Austin. He enjoyed making every assignment seem as dangerous or otherwise as abhorrent as possible. Grosse Ile, indeed. “Big Island” in French. Another little burg stolen from the non-English-reading natives via paperwork and sleight of hand. She remembers hearing a movie line once: “You know how us Indians feel about signing papers.” Too much wisdom, too late. Grosse Ile, renamed from the Potawatomi Kitcheminshen, was long gone from Indian hands into those of Detroit merchants the Macomb Brothers centuries before that insight.

What little knowledge she has of the place – not much more than how to get there – remains from her five years of living “Downriver,” as it’s called from the big city around here. Any journeys further south stopped at a place called Wyandotte, also an appropriated Indian name.

The riverfront aspect of that area often is relayed with a dash of skepticism, by locals and visitors alike. The waters flowing aside and separating those banks from Canada are usually too dirty, murky and dangerous for leisure and pleasure. No fishing, no swimming. Watch out for the freighters if you want to go boating. Too much runoff from over 100 years of industrial overgrowth and production flowing swiftly down toward Lake Erie. This cocktail festers and bubbles into a thick foam, like the kind you’d enjoy atop an A&W root beer float.

Grosse Ile juts out from this small, not-so-freshwater sea like a beacon of beleaguered society. One of those old, clean, wealthy communities that like to keep its secrets. A fisherman found her body at 6 a.m. HER body that is, not his. A woman. Travelled downriver from who knows where, bobbing down a very different course than southbound I-75. The first responders estimate since December. Six months. Did the winter slow her up? she wondered. Macabre thought. You can see the city from here, not so far.

 

Cigarettes.

She took a long drag from a cheap one. Let it out slowly.

Why do they taste so goddamned good when you’re broke?

When you’ve spent your last five or six bucks on a pack, and one by one suck every last whiff of smoke out of them? Until you’re burning the tips of your fingers at the filters?

She thinks about how they’re bad for her, and lights another one anyway. Another slow drag rolls over her tongue, into her lungs, and then swims back out through her nose. White whorls billow into the night air.

The wooden dock stabbing out into the lower Detroit River creaks with her every move. At first she was afraid it would break apart and tumble her down into the dark water. After a few shakes and tentative prods with her foot, the boards seemed sturdy enough. She could safely sit and ruminate, at least for a little while.

The drive down south out of Detroit to Grosse Ile had been short and uneventful. In a way she’d been dreading her arrival there, but in truth there was nothing to fear. Nothing more than the occasional stray animal in the night. The wandering teenage kid looking for a place to have sex or smoke weed. She wasn’t really even sure why she’d driven there. The body had been found two days earlier, and as of yet there was no evidence of foul play. A straight-cut suicide case, they said. Nothing to see here, lookie-loos, move along.

But she couldn’t rest. Just couldn’t sleep. The images she’d seen in that river two days before were haunting her waking dreams. It was enough to make her question her job choice, future career path. The weird assignment she been sent on first thing just wouldn’t leave her mind.

Another cheap cigarette, another series of slow drags. One puff. Another. And another. She watched out over the water for something, anything. The distant sound of a train awakened her from this trance. Metal wheels on steel rails screeched as the engine passed through a road crossing. She recognized the sound from the tracks just down the old dirt road from her aunt’s house. After her dad left and then divorced her mom, she spent many nights there, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. She wasn’t old enough to question where her mother was then. She just been told that she’d be coming back, after a while. So through the long nights at the scary old house of her father’s sister, she listened to the trains scream, and prayed for morning.

 

On Assignment: Highland Park

Where the Ghost of Henry Ford
Hangs Out With the Ghost of Tom Joad

(or as revised – where the Ghost of Tom Joad

would’ve beat the crap out of the Ghost of Henry Ford)

 

Scene: a man falls over outside a convenience store on Woodward Avenue at the Davison Freeway. It’s Halloween night. Tan trench coat and old man’s dress hat. Paper bag of food lies on its side, just like his still body. Policeman prods the man with his foot to see if he’s alive, waiting for the emergency vehicles to come. Plays with his smart phone.

She’s doing her weekly sweep of the city, looking for stories. Photo opportunities. Listening to creepy music on the local NPR/indie music radio station. Old Hollywood horror film soundtracks. Hellraiser, Wolf Man, Dracula. Her grandparents are gone. Died on Saturday, October the 25th. 90 and 94 years old. Buried on Thursday the 30th, Devil’s Night, in a small town about 45 minutes southwest of Detroit. It’s Friday the 31st. All Saint’s, All Soul’s Days to follow soon. Not soon enough, as tiny ghouls and goblins in store-purchased plastic suits roam the streets of this city. Teenagers way too old to be trick-or-treating without costumes, trudging their way down the Avenue.

 

FIRST DRAFT: ARTIST’S STATEMENT. PHOTOGRAPHY. DETROIT.

 

To outsiders looking in, seeing Detroit must seem like seeing the beginning of the end of the world. A new ground zero – or rather, and old ground zero, one that existed largely unchanged, since before 9/11. It was the place where Henry Ford ushered in the beginnings of the New World Order, Fordism, the Year of Our Ford. It rode in on the backs of countless faceless workers, masses on the earliest assembly lines.

So it only makes sense that this is the place where some things will come to an inevitable crumbling end, and others will find a new beginning. Some things will spring forth and be born anew.

Out of the ashes of a former New World Order.

To some, it must look like the beginning of an end.

But to them, it’s just a beginning.

 

 

My back wedged into the corner of the fire escape. The wide concrete and metal stairs we’d climbed to get there were covered with trash and paint, both old and new. Someone had left a charcoal barbecue half open on one of the landings. Broken pieces of black rocks and ash spilled out onto the concrete.

The air above the roof, outside the fire escape as we stuck out our heads, was cool and clear. I lit a smoke and then pulled a drag from it. As I exhaled curls of smoke rolled up along the side of my face.

“That’s not sexy, you know.” Duderman said this while scratching his nose with the back of his hand,  looking down the stairs we’d just climbed.

“Screw you,” I replied, thinking that I probably should quit. But climbing up to this roof to sneak a smoke was a pleasure I didn’t want to give up.

“No, seriously. I know you think you’re all bad-ass and stuff. But smoking is stupid.”

“Whatever. You come up here with me, so deal with it.”

“God, you can be such a bitch sometimes. Sorry to get in your business.”

Our bodies were in as close of proximity as we ever were. The roof hole was only about three feet by three feet square. Enough room for two people, but small enough to crowd our personal space. I liked it, but I wouldn’t tell him that.

So, we faced each other and stood in silence, leaning our backs into the corners and propping our arms up on the cold gray metal supports that lined the fire escape. We were just inches apart, but mentally staying further apart, for propriety. At these times I could almost feel my mind willing us further apart, but drawing closer at the same time. It was confusing, and made me smoke with greater enthusiasm.

I had a feeling he liked it too. He avoided making eye contact with me up there, in a way that he didn’t when we were just hanging out, without a three foot metal box keeping us corralled together. Despite our unwilling fascination, I understood his hesitation and my own, as my girlfriend, his friend, his ex-wife’s ex-girlfriend, sat in our loft apartment watching rerun TV, just half a floor and down the hall, below. She never liked to go up there with me. It wasn’t the smoking, or the somewhat dangerous and ill-advised trip up that bothered her. I never did really figure out quite why.

Duderman stared off into the Detroit sky, scanning this way and that at the tops of buildings at varied heights and styles. Downtown was just a mile or so from that neighborhood, but from this height it seemed more distant, less gritty. You really could see and smell the rich history of the area from up there, and that’s why one the reasons I liked being up there so much.

I also liked the sidelong glances at my body that he tended to take, while he thought maybe I wouldn’t notice, in the middle of a smoke drag. Sometimes I’d purposely stare off as if I were deep in thought and didn’t notice him, but actually I was wanting and thinking about how he would look at me in that way. That small space was separate, somehow different than any other space we ever shared.

But god. He really did like to bitch about my smoking. I turned my head every time I exhaled, trying to get the offending waves to blow downwind.

The screeching wheels on the passing trains momentarily interrupted our mutual fronting. It was a long train, one that stretched back into the city, disappeared between tall brick buildings until you couldn’t see where it ended. Double-engine, rusty boxcars covered with bright graffiti and gang tags.

The art always made the cars seem so squat. It looked as if the offenders had skimped on ladders, or were in a big hurry. Usually the graffiti only covered the bottom half or so of the train.

I loved watching the trains go by. All day, all night. Screeching and metal clanging, waking me in the middle of the night. No warning horns sounding in the city, no lazy crossings where gates would fall. No long lines of cars shining their headlights into the night, lined up and waiting. Here instead, just the crumbling bridge overpasses of the Grand Trunk Railroad, under which derelicts and junkies found shelter from the weather, cyclists got a quick thrill from graffiti sightings and the occasional falling chunk of concrete. The Grand Trunk, the Grand Funk as borrowed and adapted by that scruffy, unwashed 70s band. This city, a perfect place for that railroad and that band to be born.

Jarred back to the present, in the past, the sounds of sliding slamming jerking metal-upon-metal as the cars sped or ambled past the old brick factory loft. It was a sound that at first frightened me, but I had grown to love hearing.

“Hey, do the trains ever stop? I mean, like, stop so someone could get on?”

I shrugged and thought about it for a moment. The idea never had occurred to me. Sometimes they stopped. Either for the Amtrak station just around the corner, if they were passenger trains, but for the heavily vandalized cargo trains, god knows what else.

Duderman grabbed my cigarette, the last stumpy bit, put it between his lips, and took a long drag.

 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

So, I’ve been thinking about these nasty bastards all day.

These rich, nasty bastards.

They can make their own utopia. Build a planned, gated community and stay there. Create their own utopia. Take their money and get the hell out. They’d leave all the rest of us here in peace, in our own utopia we’ve been building since the 1960s.

Some people I know are some of these rich, nasty fuckers. I also love some of them more than I can even describe, and think the world of them. This incongruence is confusing. Distressing. But it just is, nonetheless. These people are the business owning folks. Those that have family businesses handed down to them, and now their smug entitlement would make any humanitarian cry. You feel like you own a small piece of the world, so now you can run it. And determine the personal lives and choices of all those riding on it.

The blue-collar half of me feels differently. The working class half from an electrician father and his Ford-worker girlfriend. Those folks know exactly what it feels like to be screwed, and hard against the wall by someone or something you don’t want screwing you. So, although they have money now – thanks to the UAW and IBEW – they really remember that working-class hunger. And they’re ready at a moment’s notice to say “fuck off” to any rich bastard who tells lies and tries to get the American public to do his bidding.

So this is where we are, as Americans, today. Election Day 2012.

Caught between these rich sons-a-bitches and all else besides. Off to vote. All for now.

 

 

TWO

Maumee

 

This is a story of many rivers.

The wind tells the histories of the rivers. Does the wind not watch those many flowing rivers in the darkness, as they do not stop with the setting of the sun? All night long the silence surrounds them but they muffle their voices for nothing, no one. They carry leaves, twigs, small animals, passengers both willing and not so, floating many miles. The rivers stop for nothing, no one.

What does this river hear? Flowing north or south, east or west, acting only according to the dictates of gravity, the river listens. Strange sounds fill the thick darkness between the tracks of the Norfolk & Western line and the banks of the Maumee. The current grinds its erosive path through the land that was once called the Great Black Swamp. The Iron Horse runs faster than the quick and steady current. It stops for nothing, no one.

An insolent psst psst is carried in humid waves through the air by steam power, bellowing from within the deep soul of the man-made monster. Water is carried many miles, thousands, pressed into such a state of high agitation by the filthy black coals dug from the bowels of a Georgia mountaintop. It feeds the hunger of an angry machine.

For so many cars back, human passengers smile and chat, oblivious to the continual combustive drama in the engine of their trusted Iron Horse. Every second, every minute is filled with one red-orange flame after another while the psst psst continues its sinuous dance.

Fine coal particles darken the window as Herbert Kelsey gazes out from his passenger car. His elder brother Delmar sits quietly in the seat beside him, flipping through a copy of Detective Story. The magazine’s cover, resting in Delmar’s palm and withering from its clamminess, says “May 1931.” Psssst psst goes the steam engine, and Herb cocks his head to listen.

“Delmar,” he says softly. Delmar does not respond, but turns past a full-page advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes. “Delmar,” he says again, a little more loudly. The older brother closes the magazine and places it on his lap, keeping a finger in his page.

“Yeah?”

“You sure he’s got it all set?” Herb says, scratching his chin through two days’ whiskers.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Got the letter, just Tuesday. And he ain’t no liar, that I’m sure about too.”

“But we ain’t never been up here before. We ain’t never even been away from Chillicothe. Why the hell you think we should go now?”

Delmar stretches his arms overhead and yawns. “That’s just the way it’s set to be, that’s all. They wouldn’t be sending us these train tickets iffin’ there wasn’t no work to be had. You know Jack Carter ain’t no liar. Ain’t no big thing, and don’t you worry nothin’ about it.” He opens the magazine and continues with his flipping.

A small child across the aisle from Herb cries out in anticipation of his supper. Herb realizes he is hungry too, and reaches in his pocket for a crumpled wad of wax paper. Opening it, he finds a crust of day-old bread on which he begins to gnaw happily. We can take stock of Herb Kelsey then unnoticed, as he is eating. He’s a young lad, an inexperienced 17 years old on his last birthday. He has good teeth, white and all intact, which make him a bit of a novelty amongst his home crowd in Chillicothe, Ohio. Herb’s ancestors come from good hillbilly stock that has slowly migrated over the miles north from Georgia for decades now.

Back in Chillicothe, most of the neighbors on Cooks Hill Road consider Herb not bad to look at, with a stronger jaw and prettier eyes than his father or grandfather. Amongst his four brothers and one sister, Herb Kelsey is silently acknowledged as the handsomest, if not the brightest, in the bunch. His blue-grey eyes catch the attention of the young ladies, even those sitting with their beaus in the train car, and his military-issue haircut gives him the air of an all-American hero. It’s the same hairstyle his mother Jeanne has had a fondness for since during the Great War.

Herb, unaware of this impersonal physical inspection, chews deliberately on the last bit of crust and then swallows. The train’s whistle shrieks and he peers out the window past Delmar, who has put his magazine away. He rests, eyes closed. Through the moonlight, Herb can see reflections off the current of the Maumee as the train barrels off into the darkness. Images there and not there, barely visible for a fraction of a second, and then gone. The chug-a-chug of the engine forms a backdrop for an impromptu symphony as he listens.

He screws up his brow and tries not to think of what lies ahead – long working hours, the search for a new place to live, and a whole new life. He rubs his dry, cracked hands together and looks down into his lap at them. Hands of a 40-year-old man. He’s been working 10-hour days in Chillicothe’s meatpacking plant since he was 15. They were two years of hard manual labor that seem to him like 10. He puts his left thumb into his mouth and then rubs it across an angry gash on his right hand, a two-inch-long cut from his last working day. The young scab blends into his skin with the pressure and the blood surges to heal the new wound.

“Next stop, Toledo,” the conductor announces as he walks down through the aisle way. “Next stop, Toledo. 10 minutes.” Herb checks his pocket watch and settles in for a short nap. 10 minutes until another stop and then another, to their final destination. Thoughts of Ypsilanti, Michigan – that strange, industrialized land to the north – thwart his attempt to drift off.

He consciously moves those vague images aside for more pleasing ones. Margaret Farmer at his birthday party. Her floral dress flapping in the evening breeze, shaping for his eyes the outlines of her boyish legs. Her black Mary Janes digging their heels into the soft mud of his family’s backyard. He feels a stirring deep inside as he remembers her hair, curled into a modest, loose bun at the nape of her neck. He hears the strains of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Southern Cannonball” as she allows him to push her awkwardly around their makeshift dance floor, made of thin boards lined up one after another and nailed together over the spring mud. Her shoes make scuffling noises as she presses her cheek into the side of his neck, lost in the music and the smell of his aftershave cologne.

Herb breathes deeply and relaxes into the bliss of this memory. He can almost smell the fruity sweetness of Margaret’s hair.

“Next stop, Toledo,” he hears one last time as he falls into a numb state of half-consciousness.

 

THREE

Scioto

 

The rivers grow angry.

When angered, they always rise. They rise as if with the tides and spill over their banks, joining their waters with the soil of many generations, and the creations of those living and those yet to come.

The Scioto snakes its way through Chillicothe, bringing nourishment to crops and washing industrial runoff downstream. The river’s name comes from a Shawnee word, “Scionto,” meaning deer. Once a Shawnee chief stood overlooking these banks, thinking of maize and settlement and skirmishes with the white man to come. He prayed to his gods and knelt beside the great Scitonto, scooped a fistful of the rich soil into his hand. When small boys and girls play “Cowboys and Indians” in the Ohio River Valley, alongside the banks of the Scioto, they dream of this great Indian chief and his legendary prowess in battle.

The name Chillicothe has native heritage as well. The label aptly describes the locale, meaning “gathering place” in the native tongue. It was once the gathering place for many tribes, from many miles around, looking to barter and trade with the white man as he migrated across the continent.

Remainder of the chapter: Herb dreams of his childhood in Chillicothe. He remembers ghost stories that his childhood friends told of the Shawnee chief and of floods from the Scioto in 1907 and 1913. He envisions the 1913 flood from his mother’s womb. He imagines that even as a fetus, he can hear the cries of people losing life and property in the disaster, and watch as flood waters engulf Yoctangee Park. He imagines he can witness a train’s demise in the 1907 disaster, as it plunges into flood waters when a water-damaged gives way. The chapter ends with the image of children playing with their toy trains on the banks of the Scioto.

 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My granddad never should’ve been a factory worker. He was a farmer. Hands in the dirt. Farmer by trade, vocation, heart and soul. When he was little he’d make a mess with his five siblings out in the field, rolling around in the fresh mud from the early spring rains.

“It was danged cold and we were for sure, a dirty lot. But man, if we didn’t have ourselves some fun.”

My mom used to say she had racing fuel in her blood. Or, it was her blood. I can’t totally remember. I know that feeling too. The smell of nitro at a drag strip makes my pulse race as much as the scent of my lover’s skin, or the anticipation of a good drink. Like a drug. Well, for my granddad George, dirt was the same way. If a person could live with rich, fertile soil in their veins, he would’ve been the man.

 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

They built the machines, the cars – we raced them.

They conserved every cent, every drop of fuel – we used it.

Again and again, penny and dollar and gallon after gallon. We wasted it all, frivolously pissing it all away.

Henry Ford’s men gave away the old lumber. My grandfather built his house. Then, the imported powder-post beetles threatened to take it all away.

What does it all mean? Everything, or nothing?

I’m just not sure.

 

FOUR

Huron

 

The rivers have ghosts.

 

All along the banks at night you can feel them, leaving chilled pockets of air as they float along with the currents. Even the mighty Huron, its wide watery body cutting a swath through southeastern Lower Michigan, is not safe from the passing of the ghosts. Wails and shrieks of natives long gone, long dead, echo through the pitch-black skies of a mid-spring night.