Grand River – bits and pieces

Nothing much stuck since I left this place. Jobs, relationships, most of it turned out to be temporary. Well, everything is anyway, right? Those spots were exciting and well-paying at times, yes, but transient like me. I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but I was always restless. Often looking for the next best thing. Sometimes I left the good thing for a better thing, which turned out to be nothing. No matter. On to the next, the next, the next.

Until being broke landed me back here. Right where I began.

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

“If the web is strong enough – the tree, I mean – the birds can hang loose. Be free and experiment, you know? They have a nest to go back into. So they take bigger chances, shoot for higher things. They’re not like those poor worried little birds who study accounting and end up in some life-sucking desk job. They buy a house in the suburbs, pop out a coupla kids, and WHAMMO, they’re set for life. Except now they’re restless. They start poking around on craigslist for whatever, and before you know it, their little family is on the nightly news. Backyard barbecue brawl or whatever, some other horrible shit. Is that what you wanted for your life? Is it?”

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

Maybe this is what people meant when they’d say most things don’t last, most things don’t stick. Remember the things that are important. Like what? Like family? Sure, it lasts, and lasts, and lasts, if you’re lucky, like it or not.

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.

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.

NOTES: Generation Flux

Singles, Linda Powell, 1992: “not having an act is your act …”

 

Mallrats, Silent Bob, 1996: “Adventure? Excitement” Jedi craves not these things.”

 

More Mallrats, Ben Affleck on Bluntman and Chronic: “Why in God’s name would I want to keep writing about characters whose central preoccupation is weed and dick and fart jokes? You gotta grow, man. Don’t you ever want anything more for yourself?”

 

O Brother, Where Art Thou, Ulysses Everett McGill, 2000: “She musta been looking for answers.”

 

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, George Carlin, 2001: “Don’t be so suburban. Gay, straight, it’s all the same now.”

 

 

ARTICLE: “Look Who’s Getting Rolled Out of the Bar,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 2008

 

WIKIPEDIA ON GEN X:

“A stereotypical reputation as apathetic, cynical, disaffected, streetwise loners and slackers.”

“Received the ‘X’ tag for lack of a defining social identity.”

 

 

Overeducated and unemployed. More likely to identify with WWII era grandparents than baby boomer parents in values morals, and practical living skills.

 

ME: I tried to befriend some aging hippies, but I think they found my lack of a clear social agenda disconcerting.

 

 

MUSIC

“Grunge”

Dark/Industrial, NIN, Marilyn Manson

Silly/poppy

 

MOVIES … “But I wanna watch a GOOD movie …”    (Randall)

Kevin Smith

Quentin Tarentino

Clueless (commenting on local whiny college radio station)

 

TELEVISION

Seinfeld, Friends, Beverly Hills 90210/Melrose Place

 

ANIMATION

Beavis and Butthead, South Park

 

MAKING A LIVING

 

BELIEFS, MORALS, HABITS AND LIFESTYLES

 

POLITICS

To vote or not to vote, President Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Kwame Kilpatrick

 

 

Wayne’s world

Pump up the volume

“You just gotta keep on livin’, man. L-i-v-i-n.”
– Wooderson, Dazed and Confused

G Love and Special Sauce

Bob Marley

Jack Johnson

Shock and Damage

“You face forward, or you face the possibility of shock and damage.”

~ Brody Bruce, just before walking head-on into a barricade in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (1995).

 

“Would you crack the fuckin’ window open, man? You know, it’s proven that second-hand smoke is a carcin, carcin, uh – you know, a cancer agent.”

~ Carl Showalter, Fargo (1996)

 

It’s important to listen to lots of the Dead Milkmen on the day you learn your stepdad has cancer. This is what I’ve learned today. Nostalgia’s been the rule as of late, and it’s been a process laying waste to the forward-looking tendencies of our collective consciousness. In my own house and life as of late, it’s epidemic: Disney movie records from the secondhand shop, old photos, and today, lots of Dead Milkmen and the Beastie Boys. As we fly through our 30s and our fourth decade, and plunge into our 40s, reality is hitting us hard, and sometimes, it really bites. Parents continue to age and are falling ill, in droves. Grandparents – if we’re lucky enough to still have them, and outliving our parents in some cases – are sadly following suit. The “Greatest Generation” and the Boomers are beginning to slip into obscurity, and if you’re anything like me, the idea of this is TERRIFYING.

Let me explain.

Yes, it is very difficult and sad to lose those that we love, those on whom we’ve depended on our entire lives. But for those of us who were blessed to extend our childhoods even past our 20s, the prospect of really becoming the ADULTS is just stunning. Most of us have had a serious taste of it, to be fair. Maybe job loss or job gain did it. Babies and mortgages, sick relatives, other miscellaneous life crises, whatever. Sure. As more young bodies are born and coming up, and those before us are becoming more frail and needing our assistance and care, the opportunities to act like children are becoming fewer and farther between.

And on this day, May 4, 2012 – it’s just too much. So I am blasting the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill in my headphones, and trying NOT to think about how one of our musical and spiritual heroes died this morning. It’s been three years in coming. Adam Yauch had been fighting that stupid fucking foe cancer for three years, but most of us were in denial. Not MCA. Not one of us. Nope. Not in his 40s. Not the beautiful, poetic, kind soul that we thought might still be here for a few more decades, to help gracefully and maturely usher us into our middle ages. We were in it together, from 1986 and the release of this incredible album that changed our lives, until today.

It might be a good time to try waxing poetic, come up with an elegant way to complain about this huge smack-across-the-face from reality.

But no. It just really, really fucking sucks.

Sorry we can’t do better than that for you, Adam. Please forgive us, from beyond.

 

“My name is MCA, I got a license to kill,

I think you know what time it is, it’s time to get ill.”

 

I’m listening to “Paul Revere” in my Skullcandy headphones and wondering what the hell to say.

I first heard this song when it was just a few weeks old, in the girl’s locker room of my middle school. Big boombox, cracked shell of a cassette tape. Lots of awkward 12-year-old posturing, quick ducks into the shower room, half-dressed shyness over budding breasts and chubby tummies. Slightly terrifying and humiliating scoliosis tests, courtesy of the scary middle school gym teacher while bent over forward from the waist. And wait, what is that sound, loud but echoing and muffled, from the other side of the lockers?

 

“… did it like this… did it like that …
did it with a wiffle-ball bat.”

 

What in the HELL were we doing listening to this, in the sixth-grade gym locker room? And given how awesome it is, any surprise we turned out as awesome as we all did? THIS is what we were listening to? Seems impossible now, in an age when the middle schoolers I know are spinning Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus.

<Pause for a brief prayer of thanks – to the gods of time, and my loving parents – who in their infinite wisdom brought me and my compadres into this world in the mid-1970s – and not 2000. God forbid.>

Now that I’m over three times the age of that shy, curious girl in the middle-school locker room, I really cannot believe that we were listening to this. No prude, it’s not exactly because it’s somewhat graphic and edgy (although the wiffle-ball bat thing always did seem a bit much – and we all LOVED it).

No, it’s not that, exactly. It’s more that it’s just so good. So wonderfully, rebelliously, uniquely good. Amen.

1991: A Time of Nirvana

One                  Beliefs

Two                  Music

Three               Movies

Four                 Television

Five                  Habits

Six                    Work

Seven               Politics

Eight                The Past

Nine                 The Present

Ten                   The Future

 

PROLOGUE

1991: A Time of Nirvana

 

It began in government class, high school senior year. The beginning of what? Some would call it a downhill slide, but others – myself included – would call it a new era, the opening up of a whole new world of possibilities as I began to wake from an overachieving past. That is, of course, if you can claim a biographical “past” while still only sweet 17.

Class assignment in a public school is quite random, and that allows some strange and unlikely friendships to form. Thus, a sweet and obedient honor student was placed one desk in front of a brilliant yet lazy slacker. As if the long hair weren’t news enough on this guy, his trucker hat sported a happy face with a bullet hole through the forehead. I’m still not sure whether it was fear and politeness, or a genuine morbid curiosity which got me to respond to his awkward attempts at conversation, but nevertheless, he got me.

 

Nirvana

Yellow Rabbit with the x-rays

Raging

 

It’s a strange feeling when one day you realize that, all of a sudden, your formerly youthful generation is in its 30s, and consequently entering its commercial heyday, wielding its considerable business-world powers. I’m not talking hard figures here, but rather cultural power. Doubt that Generation X now has assumed the reins of cultural power? Just check out a few recent television events commercials to find considerable evidence supporting this claim. Advertising agencies plan and create commercials. Agencies have art directors and editorial managers who have by now moved up a few rungs on the corporate ladder, and they’ve taken the cultural tastes of their generation – the best as well as the worst – up the ladder along with them.

It seems a simple thing, for example, that a 90s band like Sister Hazel is hired to play the 2008 NASCAR Bud Shootout. Now, there were many generic bands to make the scene in the 90s, but Sister Hazel’s been off the cool map so long that I’d imagine someone needed to get out the GPS and infrared scope to find them. Public appearances and performances of course proceed from a public relations agency’s decision, to target an audience like NASCAR-loving families with parents in their 30s. The appearance of a rather bland and palatable act like Sister Hazel outs the PR world’s intentions, to make Gen Xers remember how sweet the 90s tasted at times, even if it was more like milk chocolate than something darker, richer and bolder. The Smashing Pumpkins “Cherub Rock” ripped off for a car commercial? By 2007, the answer seemed to be “sure, why not.” Sellouts, buyouts, no more handouts. Times may change, but economic realities tend to bring things back to just that level – REALITY.

Bold or bland, it’s impossible to deny that our stuff is everywhere. By “our stuff,” I mean all of those cartoons, television shows, movies, bands, silly trends, and other delightful nonsense making their way post-Nirvana, post 1990 and through to the new millennium. We were all in our teens, our 20s, in a glorious decade when the term 9/11 had no meaning, world peace actually seemed possible, and Seinfeld was at the height of our philosophical yearnings and search for the meaning of life. At times, it seemed we were pleased only with entertainments that meant something because they meant nothing. And that nothingness was a blissful luxury, one which would seem immature and frivolous to some observers in a post-9/11 world.

The very same predictable forgetting and return from solemnity, however, that’s happened in just the few short years that followed 2001 also has allowed for the return of 90s culture in a big way. From a certain perspective, our culture’s short term memory loss is Sister Hazel’s gain. Is there a certain pleasure to be taken in this “oh well, can’t do anything anyway, life goes back to usual” attitude? Certainly. And it seems to be just what our maturing X-Generation seems to need and desire, at just a time when steady jobs, mortgages and children are beginning to turn people into those they most admired and perhaps feared they’d become: their parents, falling asleep early by the soft glow of the television.

So back in the 90s, if life was so good, why were we all so … miserable? Why were we whiny, overgrown babies of the 70s who in our teens and 20s loved Radiohead, kvetched through our existential slacker angst ala Clerks, and made sickly heroin chic all the rage, from the small and big screens, to the fashion runway? Why did this happen in an age when most of us had at least one good parent, maybe had school lunches made for us on a regular basis, had our own cars to drive and probably were on our way to college and a seemingly bright future?

Was it the glare of that bright future that was perhaps too bright? Was slacker angst a way out from under the weight of those expectations, the pressure of privilege and comfort, at least for some? Checking and tuning out, just like in the 70s, was at least a possibility for the time being while mommy and daddy were footing the college bills, and before the real or virtual payments for those privileges began to come due.

If Generation X sounds like a vague term for us, our lives and identities continue to be similarly vague. Should you get a job or go to college? Sure. Whatever suits you. Just as long as it makes you happy. Oh, and by the way, make sure it gives you the means to pay off those huge credit card bills that come due, because you lived beyond your means in college. So many CDs and DVDs and video game consoles to buy. The overblown dot-com bubble salaries we once took for granted (don’t all recent college grads pull six figures?) are definitely a thing of the past, and I don’t think they’ll be coming back any time soon like our culture has. Got a scholarship? Great, you and thousands of others just like you. Generation X? Who the hell has ever really understood what that means, anyway? Maybe that’s just the point. Maybe our unique mix of idealistic fervor and bottomless apathy was just too puzzling for anyone to accurately label, at least for someone who wasn’t one of us.

 

We’re shocked now to realize … our “who gives a fuck?” generation has a lifestyle and discernible political agenda after all. Don’t believe it? Don’t think that not having an act is our act, to paraphrase the film Singles? Keep reading. In an uncharacteristic surge of ambition and passion, I’ve set out to convince you we really meant something when we meant nothing.

Generation Flux?

Livin’

Tales of a Grown-up Slacker

By Joy Allison Burnett

Baby strollers in pubs, 90s bands on reunion tours, 40 is the new 30 (and 50 is the new 40). What’s up with this X Generation? In Livin’: Tales of a Grown-Up Slacker, author Joy Burnett explores these questions with an observer’s eye, but the heart of one who’s still madly in love with the people and pop-icons of her own generation, in all its pessimism, idealism, complexity and contradictions.

 

“I think most people know it’s a goof.”

~ Adam Yauch, 1964-2012.