Three Quotes

November 26, 2011

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” — Joan Didion

“You wake up one day and all the constructions are gone, the books and movies you stole from to romanticize your life make no sense and you realize that you are, in fact, living a totally fucked up, amoral life and are, essentially, everything you hate. When you lose your sense of constructed meaning you panic. You pick up new habits. This is the panic that makes people have babies, throw themselves into grueling 40 hour a week jobs, become alcoholics or religious nuts. Anything to fill the void, to construct something that means anything.” — Al Burian

“Who are you and what do you want?” — Void


On Aging and Vanity

March 25, 2011

Some years ago, while buying smokes at a gas station, I witnessed a reunion between two old high school friends. “Holy shit, you’re bald!” said one of them. “You got fat!” said the other.

Back then baldness was a sore topic for me. I’d begun to lose my hair a year earlier at the age of nineteen, and when the guy at the gas station let loose with his greeting of “Holy shit, you’re bald!” I thought he was talking to me. It was like facing an insult comic who had run out of punchlines and was coasting on pure vitriol instead. Imagine my relief, then, when I realized that I wasn’t the one being heckled after all.

Still, in those days I felt as if I were under constant scrutiny. It was a neurotic, self-obsessed projection, I know that now, but heightened self-awareness is the bane of anyone who feels defective.

One of the near-universal aspects of going bald, especially at a young age, is the all-consuming desire to stop or reverse the process. Late night TV is awash with commercials that promise to bring your hair back to life. Surgical procedures, prescription medication, and all manner of snake oil are available. In my case, I kept pretty much every option on the table, but right from the start I skipped ahead to the most drastic one. I convinced myself that I needed a hair transplant.

It seemed like such a quick fix, and so cutting edge. Doctors had successfully transplanted chest hair onto patients’ heads for chrissake. With that sort of ingenuity, they could probably raid your taint and really fill out the top if need be. Regardless, the procedure was no cakewalk. It involved scalpels, blood, stripped flesh. I’d read about lots of botched operations leaving folks permanently mangled. And besides, with an average cost of five to ten thousand bucks, there was no way I could afford it, so I turned instead to Plan B: Propecia.

Propecia is a hair loss medication. It comes in pill form and costs about fifty bucks a month. The bottle bears the following warning: “Pregnant women should not take Propecia and should not come into contact with broken or crushed tablets.” I wondered why that was exactly. Were they alluding to possible birth defects? Flipper babies? Cyclopia? Little werewolf children bursting out of the womb with matted hair from head to toe? Surely anything capable of mutating an unborn baby can’t be good for anyone, pregnant or otherwise. But at the time that wasn’t my primary concern. Instead it was the second part of the warning label that caught my eye, the part that read: “Sexual side effects that have been reported include: Decreased sex drive, impotence, and decreased ejaculate amount.” To be fair I didn’t care much about that last one. (Does anyone really want to jizz like a fire hose?) But with the other two warnings fresh in my head, I took to jerking off a few times a day, like clockwork, to assure myself that my libido was still intact. Self-gratification can be a boring, ho hum exercise to begin with, but by my second re-up it had devolved into total, robotic joylessness. It was so clinical I may as well have been administering a scoliosis test.

There was another problem, too. I felt a growing disconnect with the way I presented myself to the world and the way I actually felt. I was hewing to the empty embrace of vanity even as I outwardly tried to project a fuck-all attitude. I wore a punked out leather jacket and did plenty of stupid, nihilistic shit but back at home I had a bottle of anti-balding meds waiting for me. How bourgeois, how shallow.

So I let my prescription expire and entered the third stage of my voyage: Complete and utter spite for all things hair-related. I figured if my body was going to rebel against me, fuck it, why resist? I adopted a scorched earth policy, attacking my head with a pair of clippers and feeling pretty great about it. But when I was done, holy fucking Moses, take my word for it: Nothing will make you look so gaunt and sickly, so patently ridiculous as shaving your head for the first time. It recasts your facial features in a whole new light. The angles are all wrong. Each divot and bump on your head are fault lines that throw the entire picture out of focus.

There are other negatives too. Like, say, when your friend gives you a box of his old skinhead clothing and you decide, oh what the hell, some of this stuff looks cool, what’s the worse that could happen? Well, let me assure you: Wearing a bomber jacket and a Blitz t-shirt when you have a shaved head will, I repeat will, ensure that a group of real skinheads threaten to kick the living shit out of you.

Another drawback to having a shaved head is that it leaves you vulnerable to the elements. I learned this the hard way when I shaved my head down to the scalp with a Bic razor prior to a trip to Bloomington, Indiana. It was mid-summer and I spent two days wandering around in unforgiving heat and glaring sunlight. Within a day I was so sunburned that my scalp broke out in blisters and oozing kernels of pus. By the end of the weekend I looked like I was wearing a diseased baboon ass on my head. Truly horrific.

But in spite of resistance from skinheads and Mother Nature, I continued to shave my head for a couple years, until I eventually got bored with it and moved onto the next incarnation: bearded combover combo. It’s a beginner’s combover, you might say.

Last year I TA’d for a professor who had the real deal, a wispy bridge of near nothingness spanning an ocean of pink, dappled flesh. It became all the more cartoonish when he and I walked around campus together. Fighting harsh winds near University Hall, his hair would break free from its moorings and flap around like a creature ensnared. One time, after we’d made it indoors, I watched in horror as he licked his fingers, ran them through the frazzled, upended mess, and slathered it back onto his scalp. But hey, when you’re sixty-something-years-old who the hell are you trying to impress anyway?

Which leaves me to wonder if my anxiety had been bound up in youthful conceit all along. That would be my guess, and I assume that most everyone has their own hang-ups, their own self-flagellating assessments. Maybe it speaks to the fixity with which we cling to our youth, to our conception of a static self sealed away from the onward march of time. But alas, teeth rot. Skin weathers. Hair falls out. The selves we knew cease to be. And really, who gives a shit?

When it comes down to it, we should all be so lucky to have a chance meeting with an old friend years down the line, to queue up at a gas station and marvel with humor and a little bit of venom at the ways they’ve changed, and in turn receive an affirmation of our own change, our now-ness, all the while accepting the inexorable truth that to be alive is to decay, and that there are far, far worse things in life than a bad combover.

Letter From an Old Friend

February 15, 2011

Written by Matt Lazzara (April 2, 1982 – February 15, 2004)


“this is all true. september 7th, 2003. the clock is ticking…

i don’t think a lot of people sit around and contemplate their lives. i mean, people think about their futures and what they’re going to do, and what they should have done in order to achieve something, but i don’t think anyone contemplates their present. what they’re doing right now. everyone’s heard of living in the moment or living for the moment or whatever, but i think very few people act on it. myself included and that’s something that i regret immensely.

life is a finite thing. obviously, everyone’s life is going to end, but mine has a time limit. no surprises for me. and depressingly enough, that time limit is going to run out rather soon. i’ve never really told anyone how long i have left, or what exactly (in great detail) is wrong with me, because i would rather my friends viewed me as a vital, volatile, silly human being rather than an animated corpse. a dead man walking. that’s being unfair to them, because they deserve to know what’s going on, and they are amazingly supportive human beings. but at age 21, most people don’t understand or know how to contemplate the thought that someone you know, or care about, is going to die. and i’m terrified that if they did know, they would abandon me for more secure, lasting relationships.

so every day, every minute is vital to me. the most mundane things are breaths of fresh air. the things that most people take for granted but shouldn’t – a kiss, a pudding fight, a good long walk or an intriguing conversation – are now intensely important to me. and i think they should be important to everyone. the fact that i know i won’t be able to experience these things make them achingly more important to me, and they make me desperate to achieve them one more time.

i want to close my eyes and kiss a girl one more time; the kind of kiss that makes you feel like you’re floating, the kind where you forget to do something with your hands because it’s so good. i want to go camping, and lay in the grass and think about how naively beautiful the day is. i want to shoot off fireworks and run away when the cops pull up. i want someone to hold my hand and tell me something nice about myself. i want to be able to read the paper and deride george w. to someone, and have them hate that asshole with me. i want to sit on a stoop late into the night, drinking shitty beer and telling stories. i want to feel alive, and not dead or dying. and i think that those things – the most trivial and passing connections to the world and people in it – are violently important.

so this is my contribution to you. i’m desperately telling you – all of you – to take advantage of your youth and vitality. i hear too many people talking about college and getting shitty jobs afterward. i hear too many people talking about work and how this and that sucks. fuck, we’re all wasting our lives doing things that disconnect us from everyone else! you don’t need a four or five year plan, and you sure as hell don’t need to worry about your future. worry about right now, and what you’re going to do tonight. worry about feeling innocent and immature again. worry about making every day something to talk about, and not just another blank page in your life.

i used to act like you. i had a plan. i had a future. and that all blew away. but right now, i barely have a present, and that’s how i’ve realized the error of our ways. please, please, don’t get old and die of cancer, and realize that you did nothing with your life but make plans that never happened. don’t miss opportunities anymore. if you like someone, tell them. if you think the time is right to kiss someone, do it. if you feel like you’re in a rut, do something stupid and silly and fun. if you feel the world is ugly, make something beautiful. stop being so cautious. some movie line said: if you take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive.

trust me, as much as life sucks sometimes, and wow, do i know it sucks, it is still the only thing we know. it is the only thing that matters, and it’s wonderful. life is a beautiful, ridiculous, tragic disaster, but it’s the only thing we have. so don’t let it lie by the wayside in pursuit of crap that’s barely important. people are the most important resource, and so are the relationships built with them. i feel the pinch of that more than ever now. if we could spend 400 billion dollars to cure cancer instead of building and maintaining weapons, i wouldn’t have to write this. so this is, essentially, a plea. this is the most personal thing i’ve ever written, and i hope it reaches more people than i ever could.

don’t forget this is the only life you have. make something worthwhile out of it, and no one who you’ve laughed, cried, kissed, or bled with will ever forget you.”




Fighting Time

January 8, 2011

When I was in third grade, the namesake of my elementary school was changed from J. Edgar Hoover to Herbert Hoover. Apparently issuing assassination orders doesn’t bode well for one’s legacy. The real joke, though, is that the name will have to be changed once more if Herbert’s blind faith in laissez-faire capitalism — which precipitated the Great Depression and its attendant misery — is ever as reviled as J. Edgar’s autocratic proclivities.

At the time, however, my older brother Kevin had his own explanation for the name change.

“You know those vacuum cleaners, the Hoover ones from the commercials?” he asked. “It’s that guy. Herbert is the guy who owns all that.”

Aside from convincing me that our school was named after a vacuum cleaner magnate, Kevin also filled me with phony stories about the elderly school janitor, Mr. Ed. Mr. Ed was ancient and musty, a brittle giant seemingly forged from dust.  He hauled his monumental body around as if it were a curse, his jerky motions belying a lifetime of baggage. Atop an otherwise bald head, his wispy gray forelock defied gravity, moving like a periscope, probing and prying and dancing its obscene dance while he laid down sawdust on a fresh pile of vomit or paced the hallways to the jingle-jangle tune of his tool belt. There was a malevolence about him, an imposing gravity to his very presence. Something had soured inside of Mr. Ed. The accumulated experience of a lifetime curdled and turned poisonous where in others it flowered into sanguinity. For many of us it was unusual to see a scowl fixed on a wizened face with such finality. Our grandparents shared with us advice, stories, crooked smiles and the cure-all offering of Sunday afternoon cookies, while Mr. Ed shared with us only the implicit promise of disaffection. With the downcast eyes of stoics and sinners, we wilted beneath his gaze.

“He cuts off kids’ wieners, you know,” said Kevin. “He did it to a kid who stuck gum on the wall; threatened the rest of us, too.”

I thenceforth became acutely aware of every single garbage can’s location, from classrooms to hallways to the playground. I tossed my gum into trash cans compulsively, fearfully, and eventually stopped chewing gum altogether.

Behind my grade school, in the sprawling field where yellow, water-hungry grass gave way to a cluster of trees, a high school kid put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, staining the white rock he perched upon.

I ran past that spot three times a week for three years of my life, on speed training days and race days, the rock never losing its novelty, its sense of ecumenical doom. Sandwiched between two evergreen trees about fifty yards from the finish line, my eyes instinctively sought it out as I barreled down the home stretch, fighting against the indefatigable, yellow-numbered time clock.

There’s something primal about running, especially running in a group: sinewy muscles expand and contract in lockstep strides; rubber soles assail the concrete and beat out a bleating, percussive rhythm; exertion and singularity of purpose strip away the minutiae, resurrecting those evolutionary imperatives laid waste by automation and complacency. The body works just as it was intended to. The mouth favors grunts instead of words. When you stop running, your head swims with endorphins and you’re bound to those on your flanks by sweat and collective exhaustion. Then you get your breath back and real life begins again.

It was strange that Kevin and I ended up on the cross-country team in the first place. As I began to learn around age fourteen, turning into what you hate is one of the universal themes of punk, and a similar force was at work when my brother and I became runners. Walking home from Hoover Elementary, our politeness unraveling and running out of slack somewhere along Cambourne Lane, we used to attack the high school cross-country team as they headed west towards the swamp. It wasn’t that we hated them or anything, but since they couldn’t fight back, they were easy targets. They bore the full brunt of our ennui-driven rage until we learned that kissing girls was more fun than harassing people. We’d spit on them and swing our backpacks, plumbing the dark depths of our pre-pubescent lexicon. “Faggots!” “Dickweeds!” “Nice tights, pantywaste!” And there we were, less than a decade later, clad in the same tights, our genitals squeezed in a lycra grip, running past grade school kids who antagonized us just as we had antagonized the unfortunates before us, tiny fists registering nostalgia and shame somewhere amid the irritation and pin prick pain.

Though some of the kids on our team were running merely because they were looking for something to do after school, most of us were more enamored of the process of yearning and consummation, the competitive crapshoot of failure and success. Our shins were riddled with puncture wounds doled out by the quarter-inch spikes of those we attempted to draft behind; we shat behind shrubbery when our stomachs gave way, returning from a six-mile loop without the socks we’d begun with; some of us were hit by cars and ran the remaining miles back to school in spite of welts and possible fractures. And all of it was for naught unless we won, or at least sated whatever our own particular goals may have been, because there was no status to be gained from running. Our sweat was the sum of our ambitions, and, once loosed from the white chalk starting line, we were alone; the universe was occupied only by our empty heads, hungry legs, and the eternal ticking of the clock that stood God-like next to the finish line. No one else cared. Girls didn’t flock to our ectomorphic frames – all hipbone and vein – wrapped in revealing short shorts that felt like a pointless formality. If we had wanted to get laid we would have learned to play instruments and started bands, which is what some of us did when high school ended and vices became more attractive than regimen.

Kevin was a senior when I was a freshman. His class was full of guys who had been friends since grade school; they had been running together for years, forming inexplicable bonds. Leading up to the state finals at Detweiller Park in Peoria, they went undefeated and, every single week, were ranked first by an IHSA committee. I tagged along with them, being preened and prepared, a de facto heir to whatever it was they were hoping to bequeath after their departure.

Detweiller Park was an explosion of last gasp beauty. Every autumn since then I’ve been overwhelmed by that earthen decay, arriving with the wind and bringing me back to those sweeping, colorful chasms that sprawled out before me, distant tents tribe-like in their allegiance to team color, the swell of the crowd reverberating through the trees while people I didn’t know ran in races I didn’t care about.

I don’t remember the details of my brother’s race, only that it began badly and ended even worse. Sprinting from one edge of the course to the other, yelling myself hoarse and watching it all fall apart, I wanted to jump the yellow ropes and pull my brother to the finish line on unspoiled legs. I wanted to give him that trophy that then seemed so important but now seems so pointless, because to coronate particular moments is to overshadow substance with ceremony.

The team finished a disappointing sixth, and no one on the team earned all-state honors.

On the ride home, raindrops flitting across the car window on their amoebic march into oblivion, I felt more aware of the temporal nature of life and the absoluteness of that moment than I ever had before, even more so than I had when standing before my grandfather’s casket a few years prior, thumbing a piece of cardstock with the lyrics to an old Irish ode printed on it. That may sound hyperbolic or calloused, but it’s true. The disappointment and pain of someone you care about is always much more unbearable than your own pain. It makes you feel helpless. And, at its very basest, time renders us helpless too. We are subject to its certainties, its ceaseless pull and tear at our bodies. Racing was a controlled fight against time, bestowing only momentary victories before real life began again and that supreme moment of crossing the finish line in triumph was distilled into a poorly manufactured trophy to be packed away in boxes and eventually discarded. What really mattered was the residue of those victories and losses, the friendships and stolid determination earned through toil and camaraderie.

Our high school’s newspaper, The Sextant, used to print a year end supplement in which seniors wrote their high school wills, metaphorically giving away possessions, memories, advice. I opened it during lunch and flipped to my brother’s name. “To my brother, Sean,” he wrote, “I will the knowledge that dreams must be chased down.”

Route 74

October 7, 2010

The Fireside Bowl on Fullerton Avenue used to host all ages punk shows. I saw some memorable ones there, including a booze-soaked Dillinger Four show on St. Patrick’s Day. During their set, a friend of mine working the door had to eighty-six a drunk who snuck in with a two liter soda bottle full of whiskey. He was passed out on the sidewalk by night’s end. There were some shitty moments, too, like at the Slaughter & the Dogs show, when a skinhead threw me into a bench and I reeled around to find him and his buddies leering at me.

I moved into the neighborhood right around the time the shows stopped. DIY spaces are ephemeral to begin with and the Fireside had long been rumored to be destined for the wrecking ball, so the fact that it was still standing seemed a victory of sorts. Dropping in with some friends after the transition, I drank a couple beers and played the jukebox. The same old employees remained. “I’d rather be at the riverboat,” said the bartender. Bewilderingly, the bathrooms were clean and none of the patrons had bullet belts or stupid haircuts, at least not intentionally stupid haircuts. My friends and I had expected to feel some sort of nostalgia but instead we felt bored. We could’ve been drinking beer in any bowling alley.

When I was younger and making my way into the city from the suburbs, I rarely strayed from the venue. But now Fullerton was the lifeline that tethered me to Chicago and the Fireside was just another passing building that blended in with the scenery. I took the bus to work five days a week, sometimes six. The el rattled above Milwaukee Avenue, sending pigeons swooping onto cornices and fire escapes while dark men with pushcarts made their way down the avenue. When winter rolled around, old ladies up front complained about inaccurate weather forecasts. One of them called WGN’s Tom Skilling a motherfucker. Yet they were the ones who asked if I was okay when the bus braked sharply and my clumsy ass hit the floor, their sagacious eyes falling upon me like salves.

Billboards transitioned from Spanish to English near the Kennedy Expressway. Beneath the overpass, on a concrete wall stained by road salt and dripping water, stood a vague image, its contours crystallizing in the eyes of the faithful, who claimed it was the Virgin Mary. Flags from Central and South American countries soon flanked her. Votive candles illuminated the praying crowd, many of them kneading rosary beads, their eyes closed or fixated on the stain. Only camera shutters and cars could be heard.

My roommates, my girlfriend, and I decided to walk over one night. I felt like an intruder, a tourist whose heart alighted at the sight of devotional tears. Since I saw only salt stains, I hung on the outskirts leaning against a pillar, hands crammed into my pockets. After taking a few pictures, my Catholic roommate walked up to the wall, crossed himself, and touched his finger to the Virgin and then to his earlobe, where a giant, discolored growth portended cancer. In that instant all judgment fell from my eyes.

A couple weeks later someone spray painted LIES across the Virgin’s face, and the flags disappeared the same day my friend Nicole did.

I spotted her at the intersection of Fullerton and Halsted on my way home from work. She was carrying a duffel bag. I called out to her and she crossed the street, her smile revealing crooked, chipped teeth. It was sunny and warm and the contents of her bag clinked. She said she was looking for someplace to emblazon her goodbye to Chicago. I wished her luck and hopped on the bus, but not before she gave me one last chance to tag along.

A couple days later a postcard arrived from Morgan County, seventy miles northeast of Denver, where Nicole’s van had broken down. A rodeo scene adorned the front of the postcard, the rider holding on for dear life atop a bucking bronco. She said she’d been spending her nights painting freight trains. I imagined the hisses and rattles. She sent another postcard soon after, this time from Fraser, Colorado, writing: “It’s cold and the moon makes the mountains blue at night.”

Outside my window, overlooking Sacramento and Fullerton, I envisioned her goodbye on the wall of some building. Crude peaks crisscrossed one another, and below them were the words MOUNTAIN FEVER, written with finality.

Sky High in the White City

October 7, 2010

Before trash bags full of her possessions mingled with pigeons on my back porch, before a cop cruiser stopped us on Milwaukee Avenue, before she moved back to Washington, I waited for Kaylene at the intersection of Fullerton and Clark for what felt like a first date. She was late and I was reading a book about the Russian Revolution. Commuters fumbled with change while my brain fumbled with pronunciations.

Emerging from an alley off of Clark where she shared a studio apartment with a friend, Kaylene walked over to the bus stop. She wore a homemade Descendents t-shirt, her head was shaved, and bug-eyed sunglasses shrouded half her face. She was high, though I didn’t know that at the time.

“Where to?” she asked.

I stood and shrugged, and we instinctively began walking toward the lake and then south toward Navy Pier. The lakefront teemed with bicyclists, rollerbladers, and joggers. Boats skidded across the water in the distance, sails swelling with the wind. Kaylene told stories about growing up in Wenatchee, Washington, the “Apple Capital of the World,” and her time in Hawaii the year prior, where she lived on the beach with the other homeless kids.

At Navy Pier we passed a troupe of clowns and a bunch of crying children. Retreating to a railing, we watched seaborne birds dive headlong into murky waves and emerge clutching fish in their beaks. Back in fourth grade, my class chartered a boat and took a field trip on the lake. I vividly remember dead fish floating everywhere, accompanied by a terrible smell. Lake Michigan’s charms are few but I liked the view from that railing.

Looking into the distance, Kaylene asked, “Want to ride the Ferris wheel?” She was partly serious, partly teasing.

She’d already learned plenty about me while the two of us drank in the downstairs bar after work. She learned about my siblings and my favorite albums, my hopes and past failures. She learned that I didn’t drink whiskey or dance, putting me at odds with two of her favorite pastimes.

She learned about my fears, too. Elevators. Dying. Heights. Sickness. Not necessarily in that order.

In the years since then, Kaylene has been skydiving. I’ve seen the photos. She has a parachute strapped to her back and a smile on her face. The plane is in the background. She doesn’t look nervous whatsoever. If it had been me standing at that airfield, the picture would have looked much different. Imagine a flyspeck set against green fields. That tiny dot, so blurry and unrecognizable, would be me running away from the plane as quickly as possible, shedding my parachute and flight suit mid-sprint.

We walked down the promenade past vendors selling cotton candy and popcorn, the Ferris wheel framed by my mind’s terror. Beside the Ferris wheel stood a ride equally menacing, its cables whirring through the night, riders dipping and soaring, faces mere feet from meeting pavement. “Maybe we should just go on that instead,” said Kaylene. I shook my head no.

Confronting and overcoming a fear is usually made possible only through grit and perseverance, focusing single-mindedly on pushing yourself to your limits, either through a gradual process or by taking the leap outright: allowing the tarantula to crawl up your arm, flinging yourself into the ocean, greeting the plane’s takeoff with a stoic sigh. It helps when the possibility of a kiss is dangled out there, as was the case for me. It was Kaylene’s lips, not bravery, that lured me into that line. I stood waiting, my mind rioting, stomach ablaze.

The first Ferris wheel was built in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair. Some believed the cars would come crashing down in wails of grinding steel, their occupants crushed to death, sullying the White City with blood. But as luck would have it, Ferris’s design was sound and the steel behemoth and its riders were spared from catastrophe. Instead it was a serial killer by the name of H.H. Holmes who left a crimson mark. He murdered fairgoers unlucky enough to lodge in his hotel, a sepulchral structure of trap doors and soundproof rooms, its basement equipped with fire pits and vats of lye. Though the madness of bloodlust and the madness of human ingenuity are not mutually exclusive, knives and gas-filled rooms scream death while a creaking Ferris wheel merely whispers it, issuing forth a languid exhalation for the paranoid and high strung to hang their fears on.

But that offered little consolation as the wheel spun us up into the night sky and some dead crooner sang about Chicago over the loudspeakers. Behold the lake, the lights, the lives of millions stretching toward the horizon. Behold me, one of the millions, quaking, nauseous, and ruefully drifting skyward.

Kaylene just sat there smiling, and I trained my eyes on her when they weren’t shut tight.


October 7, 2010

On the night we met, Gina and I passed out in separate bathrooms — her at the twenty-four hour burrito joint, me at my apartment. The next night she crept past flimsy drapes and into my corner nook, falling asleep next to me.

For our first date, she took me to the Museum of Science and Industry to see Body Worlds. People crowded around each display, one woman crouching so close that her hair got tangled in a cadaver’s outstretched hand.

Everyone seemed to be marveling at the ostensible artistry of it all, staring gape-mouthed at filleted genitals, jars of fetuses, and dead men posed atop rearing horses. But I felt none of the revelation that one would assume comes from eyeing a world usually hidden from us and realizing that that world exists in us all, that we each share and possess it, and that we are all doomed to the same breakdown, the same destruction. Shuffling along with Gina, I stared at my shoes, feeling nauseous.

In the final room a display case containing livers, hearts, lungs, and brains stood a few paces from the exit. “It’s like a zombie buffet table,” said Gina. Samples were paired up, healthy organs placed next to unhealthy ones, note cards explaining diseases and implicitly giving advice on healthy living.

The shriveled, blackened lungs belonged to a smoker.

The red, ripe heart belonged to a marathon runner and looked like it might still be capable of completing a marathon, with or without a pair of legs to carry it to the finish line.

The brain with tumors belonged to someone who died of cancer — lymphoma, to be exact — the same disease that had killed my friend Matt a year earlier.

Gina and I headed for the exit. Outside, plunging into the cold, we surrendered to vice, inhaling smoke and pausing in front of a boarded up hospital, the irony not lost on us.

The Litterbox

October 7, 2010

It was afternoon on the Fourth of July and already the neighborhood was coming to life. Firecrackers popped down on the avenue and beer coolers lined doorways. Up above, sun shined through the living room window and animated our stenciled Joe Strummer painting, done up in green and black by Shaun, a girl who shared my name. Chemical compounds glowed, and old Joe, two years dead, looked like a holy icon. She gave us the painting as a gift shortly after Gina left for greener pastures, or, as it turned out, for a house on the far north side populated by metal heads. She brought back tales of “The Jar of Life,” a mason jar filled with piss, shit, puke, and a decomposing baby squirrel. “It smells really bad,” she told us. This came as no revelation.

Leaning shirtless out the window and shooting bottle rockets as a paddy wagon circled below, my roommate Adrian, who was born and raised in Mexico, was getting a kick out of his first U.S. Independence Day. A working class kid, he used to mingle with the rich brood who nested up in the hills of Mexico City. Like me, he found the Ramones and British punk in junior high. Like me, wanderlust set in. The difference is he did something about it. He moved away in his early twenties, crossing the U.S. border illegally and eventually working his way up the coast and into Vancouver. There he stayed for over a year. “It was the best city I’ve ever lived in,” he said. Why he left I don’t remember, but leave he did, illegally crossing the border once more and coming to Chicago, where I met him on a whim. That first night, as we got drunk together in a basement apartment, his English became more and more incomprehensible with each fresh beer. We wound up resorting to hand gestures.

During that first year of living together, Adrian refined his English. It was also during that first year that he discovered his hidden talent, much to the chagrin of my friends and I. You see, Adrian had always felt that his life was somehow lacking. “Other people are athletes or musicians or writers,” Adrian explained. “But I never found out what I was good at until now.” Then he took his pants off and started fiddling with his dick. “Puppetry of the Penis!” he declared proudly. Thereafter, my friends and I were constantly subjected to Adrian’s phallic contortions, him calling out the names of his assorted creations as he tucked, pulled, and twisted.

“The Bavarian Carousel!”

“The Napping Giraffe!”

And so on and so forth.

On his birthday, he almost ended his fledgling career as a penis puppeteer. He grabbed our headless, porcelain cowboy statue off the mantle and slipped his dick through the cowboy’s lasso, which was made of braided metal. The dangling statue nearly guillotined him, but he was back to his old ways soon enough. “The Return of Santa Anna’s Leg!” he yelled while I tried to take a nap on the couch.

Shortly after the Fourth, Gina, like a stylus retracing dead grooves, invited a bunch of her friends over to the Litterbox. They snorted coke off the dining room table and talked shit. When a Cock Sparrer song came on, one of them said, “Who the hell is even working class anymore?” Adrian looked the guy in the face and said, “I work fourteen hour shifts in a factory,” and indeed he did.

By the time Gina moved to Ohio, she had a coke habit and a stickpin tattoo that shakily said LOVE beneath her left breast.

Adrian moved away, too. First to Stockholm to marry Ellinor, a statuesque Swedish girl with an affinity for skateboarding and early 80’s hardcore, and later, after his divorce, back to Mexico City where he now co-owns a bar that puts on punk shows. In a strange twist, Amanda, the girl who moved into my corner nook when I moved out, likewise moved to Scandinavia to get hitched around the same time as Adrian, and she likewise moved back from whence she came when her relationship hit the rocks. Yes indeed, two swooning Litterbox emigres luxuriated abroad while I returned to my hometown to enroll in a remedial junior college  math class.

The First Time, Again

October 7, 2010

Mark called and asked if I wanted to go to a punk festival in Indiana. I perused the line-up, found only one band I wanted to see, and said yes anyway. While waiting  for him to pick me up, I sat on the porch and watched an injured sparrow hop across the lawn. It flapped its broken wings and drifted back to the ground, flightless.

People’s first reaction toward an injured or wayward animal is usually to help it: a stray dog wanders into traffic and a driver stops to pick it up and take it out of harm’s way; kittens are found in an alleyway and someone temporarily opens their home to them; an anonymous phone call is made and a negligent owner has their pets taken away. Humans seemingly have more empathy for other species than they do for their own.

But what to do about an injured bird?

I made some halfhearted attempts to catch it, though I had no idea what the next step would be if I succeeded. Stumbling across the lawn, I lunged with cupped hands. But even without wings it was quicker than me. It dipped and dodged, running figure eights on its spindly legs. Exhausted, I gave up and sat back down on the porch.

It was frustrating trying to save something that was hardwired to fear me. I reasoned that maybe the earthbound little thing would be okay. Maybe it would continue to pluck worms from the soil and evade predators. But even if that were the case, the fact remained that escaping winter’s looming wasteland on broken wings was an impossibility, a death sentence. The bird would be doomed in a few months and I didn’t want to dwell on it. There’s no point in mourning something that can’t be saved.

Driving down I-65, bound for Bloomington, Indiana, Mark and I made small talk to fill the void left by his stereo, which had been stolen, along with a handful of mix tapes, during an impromptu sojourn to the South.

“It was bad enough that they stole my tape deck,” he said. “I mean, who steals a tape deck anymore anyway? But did they have to take the tapes, too?”

I could empathize. My car had been broken into the previous year, the thief stealing not just my jerry-rigged CD player and a few CDs, but also a couple of folders of schoolwork. Plenty of bizarre things can be pawned, but I doubt half-finished homework from a remedial math class is on that list.

Despite the lack of music, it felt good to be on the road, to distill the world into a blur that dropped away in the rearview mirror. Some people believe that traveling is about self-discovery, but I don’t think that’s always true. While revelation or reaffirmation is inherent in any voyage, the search for new experiences is sometimes about temporarily blotting out the things in our lives that we regret but live with, the daily humiliations and boring routines and ghosts we cannot shake. Being in transit is an exercise in willed forgetting. The miles between starting point and destination are marked by a desire to escape and a longing for the myriad possibilities that have failed to present themselves.

After the cities and suburbs fall away, the landscape between Chicago and Bloomington becomes a patchwork of plains and farmland. There’s something eerie about the countryside during autumn, when the harvest has come in and the fields lie fallow. But during spring and summer there’s an alluring vitality, an aesthetic ease in the verdure fields that makes mountains and oceans seem ostentatious by comparison. Neat rows of corn bow their heavy, tasseled heads, penned-in livestock pace and bridle, and birds emerge from the brush, soaring skyward in gleaming, frenetic columns. It’s orderly yet untamed, the kind of land conducive to long drives and a blank slate mentality.

After we arrived in Bloomington, Mark wanted to find the quarries from Breaking Away. An elderly woman at a garage sale said the quarries were polluted, full of cancer and death, and we shouldn’t swim in them. But Mark insisted and we were pointed in the right direction. We parked the car and cut through fields and front yards, eventually finding a trail that would lead us to our destination. Before entering the woods, however, a gray-haired man emerged from his garage and threatened to call the cops on us. When that didn’t work, he threatened to get his gun. Mark went on ahead, and I, ever timid in the face of conflict and not a fan of toxic waste anyway, headed back into town on foot.

Blistering heat and humidity turned what I thought would be a leisurely stroll into a Bataan Death March of the mind. I had greatly underestimated how many miles outside of town I was, and since Mark and I didn’t own cell phones, I had no way of getting picked up. To make matters worse, I got lost and spent a couple hours tight-roping roadsides. The smell of manure was so thick that each inhalation seemed chewable, and the sun was eating away at my shaved head. Cars careened past and I moved farther up the shoulder, walking on an incline, one leg longer than the other, my hands intermittently placed atop my head to fend off the sun. By the time I got back into town I was sore and sunburned, so I went to an air conditioned pizza parlor to cool off. On the wall hung a framed photo of Indianapolis punk legends the Zero Boys. I thought, Man, I can’t wait to tell Matt about this, and then remembered that he wasn’t around anymore. It happened a lot.

By the time Mark and I bumped into each other, he had decided to sleep on a rooftop and I had scoped out a spot in the parking garage. I awoke in the middle of the night beneath a staircase with my head stuck to the concrete. I figured I’d lain down in a puddle of spilled soda, so I pried my head from the ground and climbed to the parking deck, sleeping until sunrise in Mark’s car, only to awaken with my head again stuck, this time to the upholstery. I wriggled loose and looked in the rearview mirror: my scalp was bright red and pockmarked with oozing sores and kernels of dry pus. Mark didn’t have such a good night either: the clouds decided to open up on him, and when we rendezvoused in the morning he was drenched and scowling.

On our last night in town we went to a show. A guy named Buck Buck played. It was just him and his bass up there. He covered “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” and we all clapped the drumbeat with our hands and yelled the words. Then he introduced his next song, saying it was about a dead friend. He talked about some philosopher who conceived of time as cyclical, all things happening at all times, over and over. All of it, our actions and thoughts, memories and stories, it all collapses in on itself and expands into the kaleidoscopic mess we call infinity.

The introduction ended and the song began. Buck Buck pounded away at his bass, his cheeks puffy and red, singing, “I can’t wait to meet you for the first time, again.” And that simple line, that invocation of the dead, made the pain of mourning someone you cannot save that much more acute. It stuck with me and I repeated it in my head, over and over, even as my eyelids grew heavy a few miles outside of town, my hands at ten and two, ghosting through a red light and awaking on the salvation side of the intersection to Mark’s frantic voice.

Living in Lines

October 7, 2010

Some guy at the Kansas City bus station pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I couldn’t help but notice that you keep it pretty close up there.” Then he opened a plastic shopping bag and tried to sell me a pair of clippers, still covered in hair, for the bargain bin price of five bucks. I noticed that not all of the hair in the bag was the same color. There were glinting grays mingling with browns and jet blacks. I declined and headed to the bathroom for a couple swigs from a bottle of bourbon belonging to the obese trucker who filled two seats through two states. He was heading back to his rig, he said. Where he left it and why were a mystery, but it was free bourbon so I listened.

Before departing, I stared out the window watching a bearded guy with shoulder length hair embrace a blonde girl in a sundress. It was the sort of goodbye where neither person wants to cry and their faces may as well be held in place with fish hooks. He boarded the bus and headed toward the back, sitting in the seat across from me. “See that girl out there?” he asked, pointing. I nodded. He said he loved her. I nodded again and was glad for the fleeting connection.

Food poisoning kept me incapacitated through Kansas and Colorado, puking and shitting my brains out while Midwestern monotony gave way to mountain passes. I rode it out on my knees until Utah.

A kid up front took turns rolling spliffs and bottle feeding his seatmate’s kid, and at a truck stop he doled out his largesse to the other passengers, all of us congregating around a gas pump, lighters primed. The sun came up and we breathed in gas station fumes and made Mormon jokes until, back on the road, some sign said we weren’t in Utah anymore. I still had the half-pint my seatmate had given me back in Missouri, first asking if I was a rat and then recommending that I invest in corn because “it’s the future.” I finally felt well enough to drink it. I squinted through the darkness and tried to divine the mysteries of the desert. I hadn’t slept in three days.

The bus lurched into Los Angeles with its bleary-eyed cargo and she wasn’t there. I smoked a cigarette with the pigeons and took in the tiny sliver of the city I could see through the spiked gates of the terminal. Skid Row was a few blocks away.

She finally showed up, and she smiled, and I wasn’t puking anymore. I still felt like I was in transit for the next week.

Back at the station, I boarded the bus and wanted to look at the guy across the aisle, point out the window and say, “Hey, see that girl out there? I love that girl.” But instead I ate one of the sandwiches she packed and thumbed my cigarettes.