Sunday, October 27, 2013

Junior high Christmas caroling with Jay Buck: Deck the halls with buckets of slaw

Jay, Aaron and I practiced singing the Christmas carols a few minutes in Jay’s basement before heading out into the freezing neighborhood. We were terrible, three pre-pubescent boys with changing voices trying to belt out “Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World “ and “Silent Night.” We gave up midway through each song and said it would sound better outside where there weren’t walls to echo our voices back to us. We didn’t really care how we sounded as long as we got paid, though. One of us had heard old ladies would give money to Christmas carolers.  
            We bundled up in our Starter coats, donned our winter caps and grabbed the printouts of lyrics and hit the streets around dusk. There was no snow yet, but it was very cold. We walked around the State Streets, looking for houses where generous old people might live. We could usually spot an old person’s house because they were pristinely kept.
As we walked, I voiced my skepticism that anyone would give us money. I had never heard of such a thing.
            “People do it all the time,” Jay Buck said. “Don't be such a pussy, Yanni.”
            “Well, should we ask them if they want us to sing?” I asked.
            “No way,” Jay said. “That gives them the opportunity to say no.”
            “Yeah, I say we just start singing,” Aaron said.
            So it was settled: Once a door opened, we’d just launch into a carol. I was sure we’d be chased away from all the front doors by old women with brooms.
            We walked the winding streets until finding a ranch we all felt was suitable. The lights were on, so that was a good sign. Jay knocked on the door and we waited, standing three abreast on the lawn with our sheet music. There was movement in the big bay window where a television beamed behind curtains. Someone was getting up from a chair and coming to the door.
            My nerves pulsed. Were we really doing this?
            An older woman with gray hair and gold earrings opened the door. From the gust of must that hit our faces, it must have been the first time in weeks.
            “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!” we started, our voices off-key and wildly cracking. “O what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh. Hey!”
            We were out of tune and couldn’t keep a harmony. We skipped over some of the words and would sometimes be singing different lyrics at the same time.
            I was waiting for the woman to turn around and call the police. But then something miraculous happened. We kept singing and the woman actually smiled. She called her husband over and they stood in the doorway with their arms around each other’s waists while we sloppily made it through “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”
When we were finished, the old man reached into his back pocket, pulled out a giant, thick wallet, peeled off a five-dollar bill and handed it to Jay, who was eagerly reaching for it.
            “Thank you, boys. That was lovely,” the woman said.
            I was floored.
            “Thank you!” we cried back in unison as we hustled away from the house.
            “I told ya!” Jay said joyously, holding up the fin for us all to see before cramming it into his pocket. "Come on. Let’s find another house."
            We went to about a dozen in the course of an hour and a half. I was slightly redeemed when an impatient middle-aged woman slammed the door in our faces before we could get to the second line of the song. But many of the people – even some younger folks our parents’ age – slid us cash for our caroling.
By the end of the night, I think we had amassed about thirty or forty bucks. We decided to go to Daly’s, an old 1950s drive-in burger place and Livonia landmark that was down the block from my house. We usually couldn’t afford it and never went there, instead opting for much cheaper fast food places like McDonald’s or Wendy’s. But now we were flush with cash and even though it took about a half hour to walk there in the cold, it was worth it.
Our faces were red from being outside. It felt good to be inside the warmth of the restaurant. Steam rose from a buffet in the middle of the room, fogging up the sneeze guard. We sat a few feet away from it in a booth at a checkered table and ordered their delicious hamburgers, which came with a choice of salad or coleslaw.
            “I'd like a bucket of slaw, please,” Jay Buck told the waitress.
            "Excuse me?" the waitress asked. She was old enough to have worked there when it first opened in 1959 and wasn’t amused by three junior high kids with a pocket full of money.
            Aaron and I thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard and couldn’t help but laugh.
            “I want a big old bucket of slaw,” Jay said.
            “So, you want the coleslaw?” she asked.
            “As long as it comes in a bucket.”
            “I’m putting you down for the coleslaw,” she said, shaking her head.
            She turned her head to me. I also ordered a hamburger.
            “Salad or coleslaw?”
            “I’d also like a bucket of slaw,” I said.
            We three sniggered and the waitress sighed, wrote down the order in the green pad.
            Aaron also ordered a hamburger and a bucket of slaw. The waitress shook her head one last time and went to the kitchen to put the order in.
            We erupted in laughter when she left.
            “I only eat my slaw outta buckets!” Jay Buck announced.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Jay Buck: An L-Town Elegy

A NOTE

I offer this only partly as memoir with necessary adjustments and embellishments as memory is fluid, a living thing, until we die and take it with us. Mostly, however, it’s an elegy, which implies the author learns something about the mysteries of life and its dim conclusion through the death of another. I didn’t learn much more about the truth of death (an inscrutable study, really) when my childhood friend Jay Buck was killed fighting in an Atlanta parking lot at a 2000 Halloween party by a squatter punk named Jimmy Skaggs (foot goes up, boot hits face, Jay goes down), but life certainly did change shape. Conclusions, after all, are as fleeting as the raw materials of life: a full belly, a good sleep, an orgasm.

 The elegy is an ancient form dating back to my blood ancestors, the Greeks, and continued on through time by my English-language ancestors, guys like John Milton, in Lycidas, and Shelley, who wrote Adonais as an elegy to John Keats who died at 26, not much older than Jay when he was snuffed out. Those two mourned the lives of other poets, and while Jay Buck could barely spell, he lived life like some manic poem he was authoring on the fly, skateboard beneath him, coasting down the street like some mad prophet. My aim is to give chase, try to toss the lasso of language around a life of blurry action. Just as it was when we were kids, I am always trying to catch up


TWO VIEWS OF ST. ANDREW’S HALL: 1994, 2000 

"No wonder then that there is grief for the friend who dies – a darkness of sorrow over all, the heart melting to tears as the sweet becomes bitter, the life lost to death making others' lives a kind of death." St. Augustine, Confessions

We destroyed things in the carnival of our youth. We were young pups at furious play. We flopped on torn-up couches in our parents’ basements as long as we could without jobs, our ambitions wrecked. L-Town, our affectionate moniker for Livonia in suburban Detroit, was home, a magical place of quiet streets we sought to disrupt; yelling, breaking windows, driving across the manicured front lawns in economy cars, annihilating the silence and sadness. Detroit was our urban playground a few miles away, a city that only fueled our fuck-all attitudes, a city chewing itself up from the inside out. We ran amok there and everywhere.

We fought each other. We quit sports and school. We skateboarded, drank too much, smoked too much and listened to punk rock music on cheap stereos. We got suspended from school and in trouble with the law. We greeted sunrises with bottles of stolen liquor on the rooftops when parents were away. We did too many drugs. We hooked up with girls in their parents’ beds and wiped ourselves off on the pillowcases. We screwed each other’s girlfriends and fought over it. If you found a glob of spit on your back, that was us. If you found a turd in your freezer a few days after a party, that was us too. If your son or daughter came home crying with a welt on their face, chances are they ran into us. We truly, honestly didn’t give a flying fuck where we ended up, did we Jay Buck?


*

NOFX was playing the night the drunken asshole paraded around on top of the band’s tour bus in front of St. Andrew’s Hall, waving a crumpled twenty-dollar bill, a gift for whoever would punch him in the face. A large crowd had spilled out of the old brownstone meeting hall, built in 1907 by a society of ethnically proud Scotsmen, and onto E. Congress after the show. The building has hosted major touring acts since being converted into a concert venue around 1980. It’s the same St. Andrew’s that “she walked up on” in the Jane's Addiction song. We were there every other weekend for shows, it seemed.

Despite warnings from the burly guards at the door, the crowd wouldn’t disperse. We were part of a blob expanding and contracting in the streets of downtown Detroit. It was late autumn and the city smelled like post-apocalyptic dust. Steam shot up from the manholes. The city was smoldering, dying.

 Jay, his girlfriend, my brother and I were in the middle of the crowd watching the guy parade on top of the tour bus parked across the street. He presided over the crowd like some deranged preacher, waving the money around.

“I'll give someone twenty bucks if they punch me in the face,” he slurred.

I hoped the guy would disappear and that Jay Buck wouldn’t notice him. These were the kinds of situations where Jay could get us in trouble. To my temporary relief, one of the bouncers forced the drunken guy off the bus and the two disappeared in the crowd. I don’t know what everybody was waiting for. We certainly didn’t. We were just standing there.

The guy with the twenty dollar bill popped out of the crowd and was now before us. Somehow he had escaped from the bouncers. My brother and I stood with our hands in our pockets, buzzed and numbed from two hours of cheap beer and loud music. Jay stood by his girlfriend.

“I'll give anyone twenty dollars if they punch me in the face,” the drunk guy slurred. He was older than us, about thirty, and had a craggy face. Jay and I couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen. We still had lean, athletic bodies, before all the 40s of malt liquor we drank gave us beer bellies. Jay Buck was always skinnier and smaller than me, but when we fist-fought years before it had been a draw because he was tougher. He still had the same oversized ears and big teeth he had in elementary school. When I first met him in the fourth grade, I thought people were calling him Buck because of his teeth, not because it was his name, which over the years was always uttered with both first and last names. He was usually never just Jay or Buck, but Jay Buck like one name. He was already punk rock in elementary school and had won numerous skateboarding trophies. When we were young, he’d wear jean jackets with the sleeves cut off and band names like JFA (Jodie Foster’s Army) and DRI (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) written on them with black Magic Marker. I grew up listening to such family favorites and Huey Lewis and the News and Bruce Springsteen and found the band names bizarre and threatening. Jay came to the NOFX show with us just for something to do, I think. He probably didn’t consider the Southern California “new school” band sufficiently punk enough.

 I was built like my dad, the former nose tackle, and had a department store wardrobe when we were kids. I hadn’t grown up punk, didn’t know what it was until I met Jay Buck. In size, I was bigger and had broader shoulders. I had played football until I quit my junior year to start a punk band. Both Jay and I frequently dyed our hair, but always kept it short, giving each other haircuts in his backyard with store-bought shavers. Back then, we wore beaded necklaces, earrings, baggy blue jeans or Army cargo pants and T-shirts with band or skateboarding logos on them.

 My brother, Chris, would have been in his mid-twenties, fresh out of college, and mature beyond his years. He was always our chaperone. My parents wouldn’t let me go to places like St. Andrew’s without him because he was older and would supposedly keep us out of trouble. This never worked. Not with Jay Buck around, at least.

The crowd moved away from the drunk and a circle formed around him like he was a big tent barker. He had longish blond hair and would have almost looked normal if it weren't for his wild eyes. He moved toward us and was within arms-reach now.

“You really want someone to punch you in the face?” Jay said. Chris and I stood watching with our hands in our pockets, amused but anxious. You never knew what Jay Buck would do.

“I'm serious,” the guy slurred. “Twenty bucks. See?”

He waved around the creased and flimsy twenty. Strangers on the rim of the circle watched in anticipation. Jay turned to Chris and I.

“Look at this asshole,” he said, smirking.

He looked at the rest of the crowd.

“What a fucking idiot.” Jay’s girlfriend was standing next to him. Everyone called her Rage because she wore a burgundy Rage Against the Machine T-shirt to school nearly every day. She had pale skin and pitch-black hair –a plumper version of Morticia Addams.

Jay slid behind Rage’s body and scooted her closer to the drunk guy. On the steps of the Hall, the bouncers were yelling at the crowd to leave.

 “Everyone has to go home!”

The lazy mob buzzed. People around us watched the drunk guy and Jay, waiting for something to happen. “C’mon!” the guy said. “Somebody punch me in the fucking face! I got twenty dollars here. I want someone to punch me. Come on. Somebody do it. Punch me right here!”

He pointed to his cheekbone. Jay reached his arm underneath Rage’s, grabbed her wrist and swung her hand at the guy, but somehow connected his own fist with the guy’s jaw. The man staggered backwards, collapsed, and rolled on the pavement, clutching his face. It happened so fast, no one saw what Jay had really done.

“Look,” someone in the crowd said. “That girl knocked him out!”

The guy rocked on the ground and groaned. Jay snatched the twenty-dollar bill out of his hand. As usual, my brother and I could only stand back and watch Jay Buck’s mad antics with amazement. Chris grabbed Jay and Rage and pulled them away. We quickly hustled out of the crowd toward the red Tempo parked a few blocks away. No one gave chase. We were free.

We stopped at a liquor store on the way to a house party back in L-Town and Jay bought a whole case of Mickey’s 40s with the drunk’s twenty. Jay Buck, mooch-king, never had money and owed us. We roared down the freeway out of Detroit, cracking our beer and smoking cigarettes, the radio cranked for our concert-deaf ears, retelling the story about what just happened over and over again.

 * 

 From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on November 3, 2000:

 A man police say crashed a weekend Halloween party is facing a murder charge in the beating death of another partygoer. Jimmy Skaggs, 25, of Atlanta was not invited to the party on Murphy Avenue in the West End neighborhood, police said. Skaggs and Jason A. Buck, 22, also of Atlanta, got into a fight about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. After he hit the ground, Buck lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness.

 From the same paper on November 4, 2000:

 JASON A. BUCK, 22, died Tuesday. The body will be cremated. Funeral, 4 p.m. Sunday, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Livonia, Mich.; Thayer-Rock Funeral Home, Farmington, Mich.


The dead exist inside the guts of memory. We’re surrounded by their phantoms. They live in the sights, the smells and the sounds of wherever life pushes us in the present. We walk into rooms they once occupied and are assailed by a rusty sadness while looking at the armchair where they once sat. I see a maple tree in the middle of a forest and think of the tree in the schoolyard where I fist-fought Jay Buck in the fourth grade and all trees have inexorably changed for me. Catching a whiff of shampoo or hair gel has my memory smelling the Butch Wax hair gunk Jay used to spiff up his flat-top with, smearing it on his head with its underarm deodorant-like applicator. I hear the clack of a neighborhood kid’s skateboard on pavement, but in my memory it’s Jay Buck landing a 360 kickflip in the parking lot of our elementary school, grinning like a devil.

Our minds when we’re awake are in all places at once: past, present and future. Therefore the dead pay their visits whenever they want. The gates are always opened. We are forced to live with ghosts. Our nighttime brains are even more prime for phantoms. In dreams, the dead have more power. They walk and talk; comfort and terrorize us. A few months after Jay Buck was killed, I had one of the most significant dreams of my life. The image of his face stretched the capacity of blackness in my mind spinning and spinning. His mouth didn’t move, but I could feel him speaking: “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK.”

That eternally smooth face will never know a wrinkle in my memory. It will be 22 years old forever.

 We never accept our dead. We are never ready for it, even when it’s a 90-year-old grandparent. We never truly “get over it” or “move on.” Given the passage of time, they might not be the burning suns filling up our skies they were at the raw moment immediately following their deaths. Instead, they transform into the heaviest, densest dead stars. We carry them around in the pits of our souls until we too return our dust to the cosmos.

 What the dead change the most are the places we shared together. The suburban homes, the schools, the streets of our old neighborhood we walked together; the punk rock clubs where we hung out, the cars we drove around in, the garages we smoked cigarettes behind – all are transformed. St. Andrew’s Hall was one of those places for Jay Buck and I. We came of age there, from when we were scrappy kids sneaking plastic cups of beer in the balcony to when all his mourners held a benefit show for him a month after he was killed.

The day and night of the benefit, I wandered around St. Andrew’s Hall like I had done many times before with Jay Buck and the occasions my bands played shows there during the past seven years. Like those times before, there was a band setting up onstage. People blanketed the hardwood floor and rickety balcony, drinking and talking, just like any other show. My band was set to go on soon. It all felt familiar, but this was a sadly different situation. I never stopped wandering. It was evening and I had been walking aimlessly since the early afternoon when we had to load in our gear. I would pause to talk to people, but never for more than a few moments.

I kept moving. I couldn’t stop moving. I wouldn’t find Jay Buck among these faces. I knew it, but I kept looking, expecting him to pop his head out among a circle of people, waving me over to join, “We’re over here, Yanni.”

Yanni was the nickname he gave me in elementary school.

There were old-school punks sporting leathers with chains, ripped up T-shirts and Mohawks. There were skateboarders with their thick, tattered skate shoes, baggy pants and sweatshirts. There were burnouts in hooded sweatshirts and Detroit Tiger baseball caps on backwards, sneaking down into the scummy, graffiti-covered basement bathroom to burn a joint. It would almost seem like any other rock show at the Hall, except there was Dad, dressed in a turtleneck and sport coat, sipping a Scotch. And Mom, wearing slacks and a colorful sweater, holding a plastic cup of beer. They stood by the bar drinking with some of the other parents who knew Jay.

I rambled around, trying to think of something to say when I took the stage later. I was having a hard time.

“Jay Buck was brilliant at being a bastard. He was a son and a son-of-a-bitch, a brother, bastard, lover, cheat and a rat fink. He was a lizard-catching, cocksucker extraordinaire for the sole reason that he went and died just to make us all feel like shit, the motherfucker.”

I couldn’t say that onstage, of course.

 “We drove each other crazy. We fought and had falling outs. You didn’t want to leave him in your house unsupervised because usually something would go missing or he’d break something. He’d steal cigarettes, your dad’s condoms and beer from your garage. In the rare moments he settled down, when he wasn’t trying to fuck your girlfriend, or shoot out your neighbor’s car window with a BB gun, or taking a shit in his hands in the corner of your basement, Jay could be sincere. Full of life and heart.”

That wouldn’t work either. We were allowed to hate each other occasionally because we loved each other most of the time. I didn’t know that yet. Young men aren’t supposed to acknowledge love for one another, which makes grieving even more complicated. We were supposed to be tough. We weren’t supposed to cry. We could love hot girls, our parents, music and skateboarding, but we couldn’t admit we loved one another. We didn’t want to be weak, the worst reputation a young man can have. It’s why we misbehaved. It’s why we raised so much hell. It’s why Jay Buck couldn’t have backed down to Jimmy Skaggs in that Atlanta parking lot.

 When Jay died I was devastated for weeks, but still couldn’t acknowledge that love. It took ten years for me to admit it, to say it out loud, “Jay Buck died and I was very sad because I loved him.” At the time, I just felt like a shot of Novocain had been injected into the center of my heart. I stumbled around somnambulant and hungover for days, skipping my college classes and drinking with friends. I wasn’t prepared for death. I had only lost a few people in my life, all due to old age: great-grandparents and a grandpa. I didn’t know about the gut of my memory and the weight the dead had inside of it. I didn’t yet know every death transforms us as long as we go on living. I didn’t yet know just how much I had loved and would miss Jay Buck.

 It wasn’t just me. Jay was charismatic. He had lived recklessly for years, tossing himself into the world and our lives in madcap fashion. He skated, drank, loved, fucked and fought without regard to convention. He made some dubious decisions, but also taught us all how to be daring. We all loved him for his craziness, his mad humor, the way he helped unleash the raw wildness in our own hearts.

A whole community felt this way and had come together that night for collective mourning. Here they were in St. Andrew’s wearing T-shirts and sweatshirts with pictures of Jay on them. He’s skateboarding in one, wearing a huge full-brimmed hat, grinding a park bench in some city. There is another shirt with a close-up of his face, a skateboard rested upside down on his head while taking a break. I’m uneasy about wearing these things. I’m also wary about how everyone else is mourning Jay. I don’t want to get caught up in the amnesia of death, when how the person was in real life is forgotten and they become instant saints. Jay Buck was definitely no saint. I wanted my love and memory of him to be true, not based on a revised version of his character. Plus, T-shirts and stickers are paltry offerings to the dead. A sweatshirt can get a hole in it; memories cannot. The only shirt I kept and wore is the one commemorating this show, an Anti-Violence Benefit in Memory of Jason Buck. It listed all the bands on the back: Blindshot, Cast in Fire, Cold as Life, Few and Far Between, Gutter Punx, Malpractice, Murder City Wrecks, PT’s Revenge, Slo-Poke, Suburban Delinquents, The Suicide Machines, Telegraph, U.S. Killers, Without Warning and Wristrocket. I was in two of them—Suburban Delinquents and Wristrocket—along with Steve Toth, who played guitar in both bands and used to skate with Jay in the old days. Toth, an art school kid, designed the graphic for the shirt. There was no picture of Jay. Instead, it was a drawing of a skateboard rising up like a tombstone. There was an Old English “L” in the middle of the board representing L-Town, where we all grew up. At the bottom, it said: Jay Buck 1978-2000 R.I.P.

 The new band we’d started, Wristrocket, had already played. That was easy. I only played guitar in that band. I was nowhere near a microphone. But I was the singer in Suburban Delinquents. Now, I’m lost in the crowd, not knowing what to say when I take the stage.

The Delinquents was the band I was in when we were in our late teens, before Jay moved to Atlanta. We’d broken up a few years earlier. Jay’s brother, Matt, who passed a love of punk rock music down to first his little brother and then to me, asked us to play last. We got the original members together and practiced old songs for the show. And since we were playing last, I should have something meaningful to say at that moment when we take the stage. I’d known Jay Buck for a decade and feel I should have these miraculous, healing words to utter into the microphone, words that everyone I’ve ever known will hear and be moved by.

But as I roamed, stopping for a moment or two to talk with friends before heading off into the crowd again, I could think of absolutely nothing to say. So I didn’t. I took the stage, walked up to the mic beneath the hot, colorful blaze of the overhead lights and said, “I don’t know what to say about what happened to Jay,” before starting in on the first song, my electric guitar screaming.

 I still feel like I don’t know what to say about Jay, but will make my most humble efforts to try.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A new year, a new life

The classic image of the New Year is a baby.
A smiling, cherubic baby with a 2012 banner around its body, signifying the promise of the year to come.
This year, it won’t be so figurative for me.
That’s right, in 2012 -- around the first week of March, to be specific -- my wife and I will be welcoming our first baby into the world.
Already I’m worried. Terrified, really, about hundreds of things.
You hope everything with the delivery goes OK. You hope for ten fingers and toes. You hope for no complications and good health.
Even though Unnamed Baby Girl hasn’t seen the light of the world, I’m feeling the primitive urges that I’m sure date back to our cave dwelling ancestors: to make sure she is safe and happy.
And to buy her lots of toys.
Most of all, I worry about the things I can control, like whether or not I’m up to snuff for daddyhood. There’s things I’ve got to teach this kid, but without passing on any of my own bad habits which include, but are definitely not limited to, excessive snacking, sofa lounging and bar stool sitting.
I’m guessing all these worries are just the beginning, and that I have a long way to go.
“You never stop worrying,” is the common refrain.
Superseding all the frets and fears, though, is the joy.
Unnamed Baby Girl has had me in a tizzy from the moment I learned of her, even if I had just walked across the entire county.
This past summer, my brother, one of our buddies and I hiked across Manistee County. I eventually wrote a three-part series for the newspaper about our backpacking adventures.
But I left out a crucial tidbit. The day we hiked into Stronach, we were picked up and whisked back to my house where all three of us dirty, dog-tired fellows took showers. I hadn’t seen Meredith, my wife, for three days, but she didn’t let on that there was big news brewing in her uterus just yet.
She had known for days, but didn’t want to tell me over the phone.
She accompanied us to the Bungalow, where the dudes and I dug in on some much-needed cheeseburgers. It wasn’t until after the fellows left Manistee later that afternoon and Meredith and I were alone at home that her face started shining.
I was exhausted and only had thoughts of climbing on the couch and nursing the blisters on my feet.
Baby Girl had different plans. Meredith stopped me in the kitchen.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Meredith said. “I’m pregnant.”
Despite my exhaustion, I was ecstatic.
I still am.
And I know raising her up right will be much more exhausting than a three-day hike. I still have to learn how to change a diaper, heat up a bottle and bathe a baby. I still have to learn how to operate on limited hours of sleep.
She will cry. She will scream. She will run. She will play. She will whine. She will be sassy. She will learn to tell jokes. She will learn to dance. She will try to wear unsuitable clothes. She will have suitors showing up at the door.
She will grow up and I can’t wait to be there for all of it.
And, future suitors of 2027, do be aware that Unnamed Baby Girl’s daddy knows how to use a shotgun.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A suspense bridge: Leaving my man-card in the U.P.



Like every good American man, I ain’t afraid of nothing.
I eat steaks, drink whisky and scoff at danger.
If I get a nail in my hand, I take a slug from the flask and pull the nail out with my teeth.
And silently bear the pain.
No crying. No bellyaching.
I’ve always tried to embody Hemingway’s dictum: “grace under pressure.”
Except when it comes to bridges. And, well, doing anything that would actually involve putting a nail in my hand. Give me a hammer and I’ll try pounding with the wrong end.
We all have our fears and phobias. I happened to suffer from a mild case of gephyrophobia, a fear of driving over bridges.
Don’t ask me how to pronounce it.
I failed to mention this to my wife this past weekend when we made a trip to the Upper Peninsula. Just as we reached the electric road signs that tell you to tune into the radio station for bridge information, she noticed a slight change in my driving demeanor.
“You OK?” she asked.
I didn’t tell her about my increased heartbeat rate. My dizziness. My cold and clammy hands.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Great.”
“Greetings from the Mackinac Bridge Authority,” a robot voice on the radio said. “We are experiencing very heavy winds today. Due to extremely frightening winds, we are escorting special vehicles across the bridge. Special vehicles include trucks hauling trailers, semis and anything driven by John Counts. If these types of special vehicles are not escorted across, the will surely plunge to a cold, horrifying death off the side of the bridge.”
That’s not what the radio said, of course, but that’s how I heard it. Then the main towers came into view, a bewilderingly 552 feet above water. The road itself is 200 feet high at midspan.
I shivered in my seat.
That’s a long way to fall.
I saw it all clearly my head: my car slowly moving across the bridge when a huge gust of wind comes whipping up from the Straits, lifting up the car and dropping it into the drink.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” my wife asked. “You look like you’re going to snap the steering wheel off.”
“I don’t like driving over bridges.”
There it is was. My confession. Now, my wife would know me for the weakling I am. But it’s been this way since I was a kid. The sight of the Mighty Mac has always made me dizzy in the same way that staring up the side of a skyscraper does in a big city.

It reminds me of how small we are, I suppose. That we are so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Which is probably why we build giant buildings and bridges to begin with -- to assert our domination.
Well, in regards to the Mighty Mac, I am the one that’s dominated -- with fear. I like to think it makes me humble.
I was ramrod straight, hand at two and ten o’clock on the steering wheel -- the way they teach you in driver’s training -- as I ascended the bridge.
My wife snapped a picture.
“Turn it off!” I screamed.
She giggled at me and put the camera away.
I stayed locked into the same driving position the entire five miles across the bridge. They call them suspension bridges, but I think of it as a bridge of suspense. Now, when you’re driving across the bridge, you can either go grate or rail. Both are not preferable. Driving in the outer lane, and you’re that much closer to the edge. Drive on the grate, and one of them is liable to come loose and drop you right through the road. Down and down 200 feet.
I always choose the grate because that seems slightly less likely to happen.
As I reached the toll on the U.P. side, I exhaled a giant sigh of relief. I smiled. I had made it over one more time without plunging to my death.
“Maybe we can take the ferry on the way back,” I said. “That might be fun.”
“They don’t have a ferry anymore. How about I just drive?” my wife said.
I didn’t argue with her.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Working stiffs: The Great American Job is dead and gone

Someone who is unemployed is watching television in their parents’ basement right now.
There are thousands of them. And they’re not young anymore. They’re in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
They don’t have a job even though they’re dying to work.
In Bay City when I was a kid, it was common for the older guys in high school to blow off studying because they would just go work at “The Chevy” when they turned 18.
Now, kids in that town -- and towns across the country -- are probably lucky to get a fast-food job upon graduating high school, college, even graduate school. And, since there’s a recession on, they’re probably told they’re lucky to have it.
These McJobs will keep an entire generation in their parents’ basements if something doesn’t change.
The idea that you’ll be able to prosper in this country as long as you work hard just isn’t true anymore. The Great American Job is dead and gone.
The Great American Job once meant enough income to comfortably pay for a house (that you own), a car or two, food and sundries and maybe enough left over to save a little for retirement or college for the kids. If you were lucky, you’d even have enough for a vacation once a year.
Is that too much to ask?
In the manufacturing sector, jobs have been replaced by robots and shipped overseas. Try and apply for what manufacturing jobs that are left armed with a high school degree and you’ll discover the competition is fierce, and not with people just trying to get started in the workforce, but folks who have been there for decades.
In the professional world, bachelor degrees used to mean something a generation ago, but now they are the equivalent of a high school degree. A lot of people have them, but it doesn’t guarantee any opportunities. For highly competitive jobs, you need a half dozen internships and to graduate near the top of your class. That’s great for those do-gooders, but what happens to the vast people in the middle who are average? Should they be relegated to sitting in their parents’ basement watching television?
So what is the best way to create jobs for these people?
That’s all I keep hearing from Washington. And I honestly think no one has the answer, including myself. The government shouldn’t be the sole creator of jobs, but neither should private industry. We don’t want the Government to get its fingers too intertwined in the means of productions. We all saw what happens when ideas like that are implemented. A colorless, fearful world of repression.
But what these Tea Party, limited government yahoos don’t want to acknowledge is that Europeans already had an arguably government-less economy without any regulations back in the days of oligarchies, when the nobility ruled over a peasantry.
Do we want America to resemble this? A mass class of peasants who serve up Frostys or help swipe debit cards at the gas station?
A very small middle class that is successful only based on their loyalty to the nobility?
And then the few at the top controlling all the wealth of our nation?
Without regulations, this New American Nobility would pay you less and expect more work because that’s what makes the highest profit, and making the highest profit is the basic guiding principle of business.
Whatever they figure out in Washington, I hope it’s a mixture of both. And it better be quick. The pessimism has grown strong. We need to dig ourselves out now.
Or pretty soon we won’t have any basement to go home to.

Another Ice Age or Dark Age?

As a child, I used to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina this time of year on family vacations.
We had planned on going again this year -- last week, in fact. I’m sure glad we didn’t.
Anyone with a television or an Internet connection knows about how Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast and hit the OBX pretty hard.
Whenever wild weather happens, we can’t help but think the worst: global warming. Well, that’s what you call it if you’re a hippie. If you’re on the other side, it’s called climate change.
See, the far left thinks all business should cease until we can restore the planet to what it was like before the dodo bird became extinct.
The other side thinks global warming is B.S., that either the scientific data is wrong, or that the scientists are in a vast conspiracy to impose such an insidious belief on the masses. If the weather is changing, the argument goes, it could just be natural.
So, is it the beginning of a new Ice Age, as a certain faction of Republicans would have you believe, or is the far right trying to usher us back into the Dark Ages?
“I think we’re seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists that are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change,” said Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry in an Associated Press story recently.
Maybe Perry is listening to the “scientists” who designed the Creation Museum in Kentucky that has dinosaurs running alongside Jesus and other characters from the Bible. The far right’s definitely not known for its artistic prowess, but they also seem pretty deficient on that whole science subject too.
But you are the people they are trying to sell on these ideas. Do you believe them?
If you don’t believe in the science of global warming, ask yourself why?
Take out all the specifics, the details, and it comes down to this question: Do you think human beings have an impact on Earth?
If you live in a house and don’t open the windows for years, what would it smell like in there?
If you never had any maintenance done on your car, how would it run in a few years?
Do you really think billions of people crawling all over the planet doesn’t have some sort of effect?
It’s not political. There’s no conspiracy. It’s common sense.
I’ll leave the rest to the scientists the far right scoffs at, the same discipline that brought you such crowd-pleasing favorites as penicillin, airplanes and television.
In this regard, the far right is trying to drag us back into the Dark Ages where people were burned at the stakes for having any sort of opinion that ran counter to the Church. Now, instead of the Church, there’s Big Oil and every other interest that is tied to burning fossil fuels.
Is it too progressive or liberal to believe in science?
I hope I can still be considered a moderate if I think that Newton’s theories on gravity are OK. I hope I’m not considered a hippie if I believe the Earth is, in fact, round.
When it comes down to it, if you’re having a heart attack or stroke, do you want the science of rational folks who believe in evolution and global warming, or do you want a faith-based doctor -- I think they call them preachers -- at your side?

“All changed, changed utterly”: A view from Chicago on 9/11

Ten years ago I was 23 and living like most do at that age: desperate, impoverished, wildly irresponsible.
I had graduated from Wayne State University months earlier, in July, with a hopeless English degree. I could theorize with the best of them about the novels of French writer Albert Camus or quote from poems by William Butler Yeats, but I couldn’t land a decent job.
Throughout college, I had alternately lived with my parents in the burbs or on-campus in Detroit. After graduation, I followed my brother and then-girlfriend to Chicago. The girlfriend was still in school and lived in a sprawling, three-bedroom Northside apartment. I moved in, the only dude among three ladies.
I was ready to light the world on fire.
But so were the terrorists.
I truly hustled to find any kind of work I could. I scoured the Want Ads in the Chicago Reader, the town’s alternative weekly. I made dozens of calls.
Only one called back: The Chicago Opera Theater.
I had worked as a telemarketer during my teenage years, experience that landed me an interview. I hated the thought of selling, but it wasn’t like I’d be hawking something sleazy like male enhancement pills over the phone, I’d be helping to support the arts.
I got the job. My first day would be September 12.
On September 10, knowing that I was starting a new job and I wouldn’t have the luxury of spending my days watching television through a haze of cigarette smoke all day, I celebrated my newfound employment deep into the night.
Probably a little too late.
I was still asleep when the first plane hit.
It was a collision that changed my generation. And there I was. Asleep. Hungover.
I didn’t have a cell phone yet, so the call came in on the landline. I’m surprised it wasn’t being tied up by the gossiping gals.
It was my brother.
“Turn on the TV now.”
“Dude, I’m sleeping,” I managed to utter.
“I’m serious.”
Out in the apartment’s “family room,” which had the habit of attracting stray party people at anytime of the week, the TV was already on. Four or five people sat around on old, second or third-hand sofas and love seats watching the news.
I don’t remember who was there anymore. But I do remember seeing the second plane hit.
For a generation of kids who thought that “everything had been done before,” this was something that dropped all of our aimless jaws.
“What the ... !” we collectively said.
Chicago has big buildings, especially the Sears Tower. We dared not leave the apartment for the rest of the day. Patriotism, something not typical in the grungy Northside apartment, became fervent.
As Yeats said, “All changed, changed utterly.”
We were glued to the television, watching the world utterly change. All those needless deaths were sickening. The reverberations are still being felt. I would argue that the economy still hasn’t fully recovered. Nothing has ever been the same since that day.
All changed, changed utterly.
The next day, when I had to start the new gig as a telemarketer, I figured they would send us home, but they didn’t. For a few hours, I made calls asking people if they wanted to buy tickets to see Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”
Most people hung up.
One guy said, “Do you know what just happened yesterday?”
I apologetically said I did and told him I was just doing my job.
He, too, hung up. The supervisor finally let us go home.
And we all did. But they weren’t the same homes anymore, all across the country.
All was changed, changed utterly.