where souls were being branded with the shapes of their hope

bottle

i inherited some garbled strain of depression-era conservation of materials from my grandparentses. right now this impulse to not-waste mostly expresses itself through paper products. i am incapable of throwing away notebooks before every page has been used somehow. i squirrel them away in the dining room hutch, planning to use up the nice white pages for journals or to-do lists or other attempts at communication with self. for a very long time my metabolism in this regard was fucked, in the sense of buying way more notebooks than i was filling. but i’m getting caught up. there are several notebooks of different types that look like this: notes from a german class i started but didn’t finish in 2007, then fretting about a botched romance from 2011, then scrambled notes about a movie i saw in 2014. almost always there is a little marginal note saying “whoops i did not write in this notebook for x years.”

so i started up with another of my mostly-blanked notebooks. there are maybe three of those mead wireless 80 page notebooks, the kind that always fall apart, all of which have dark blue covers. the one i grabbed is actually the notebook they gave me in rehab in october 2007, after i graduated from the super grim psych-ward part of rehab where they just leave you alone to digest food and metabolize meds, into the part where the rehab counselors described recovery to people concussed by the absence of intoxication. the notebooks were for writing down stuff about recovery, and that’s mostly what i did with mine, until i trailed off after 20 or so pages. but there was one page that just had a journalistic vignette on it.

most of the time in the rehab place we just did group therapy or focus groups or straight up AA meetings. but one day we went up to an otherwise unknown floor of the hospital (we had to be shepherded through the elevator like a field trip flock of children) to a light-filled room with windows high on the walls. it was the art room (the whole place now reminds me of an elementary school, although at the time it felt like … a rehab hospital).

the counselor gave us boxes of parched markers and blunt crayons and big sheets of paper the color of mopwater. the assignment was to draw something that symbolized your recovery. i drew a map, i remind, sort of a modified Pilgrim’s Progress type thing but heaven replaced by some kind of area where I felt comfortable in my own skin. my drawing was not the focus on the vignette in the notebook.

what i wrote down was about rudy’s drawing. rudy (not his real name) was this beefy, black-haired classical chicago irish meathead guy, about 40, very much just a swollen, mushy teenager stuck in a man’s body. he was thick and coarse and not at all bought-in on that rehab or even the general idea of not being fucked up. not long after the art therapy rudy sorted of flopped out of the boat, signing himself out AMA and hollering even as he walked out to fucked-up freedom what a bunch of bullshit it all was.

rudy’s drawing was an energetic but crude pencil rendering of a topless lady on a bed. she was on all fours, crawing toward the camera eye, sort of, and i think she was supposed to be leering sexily but the quality of rudy’s line was such that you could not really say what he meant by her expression. she was on a bed, and her nipples were upside-down pilgrim hats rendered in fairly precise right angles. behind the bed was a window, looking out onto a cartoony cityscape (water tower, etc) with a smiling moon overhead. the cityscape also featured a billboard labeled MEGAMILLIONS which stated that the current jackpot was $69,696,969.69. the only thing on the bed besides the crawling woman was a lottery ticket. Nothing in the drawing suggested whether this was the winning ticket. The drawing was titled (reduntantly) “Title: Prepare to Mount” and signed with rudy’s full name, including middle initial.

i only wrote all this down because the teacher made us go around the room and show our drawings, and say a little bit about what we had put on the paper. i can’t remember what rudy said by way of docent’s talk, but i remember the pure silence that followed his share as both historically awkward and almost beautiful. no one knew what to do with what he wanted.

watching the detectives

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I used to watch a lot of tv, as a bored, frequently lonely/alone kid. I have seen most of the episodes of M*A*S*H*, for instance, without meaning to, because channel 43 showed an hour of M*A*S*H* reruns twice a day, at times when I wasn’t structurally required to be doing something else (school, sleep, eating with family), and also times when no one else was watching TV (early or late local news, primetime shows). I want to stress that the amount of time that qualified as “not structurally required to be doing something else” was basically ALL the time. like if I was awake 16 hours a day, and I usually was, I was at school for eight hours, transitioning to/from school for another hour, and then pretty much watching TV a lot of the rest of the time.

this included: Watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. Watching regional pro wrestling on ESPN after school. Watching the same taped episode of SportsCenter over and over. Watching infomercials. Watching pan-and-scanned, cleaned-up versions of not-that-great movies on TBS. Watching USA Up All Night hoping despite myself that this would be the time they showed boobs (the 1990s were a distant and backwards land, as far as how hard it was to see boobs)

there was a reason for this: I had nothing else to do, not that anyone was stopping me from discovering other things to do. Sometimes I would dick around in less passive ways, or read, or play Nintendo. But yeah I didn’t do a whole lot. I like TV because it would take me out of a self that very often wasn’t super happy. So I could prop myself up on TV and just let stories and images and worlds pour in, which was good, because suburban Cleveland was not the richest place in terms of stimulation. But the propping up wasn’t just a rest — it was a compulsion, an addiction, operating under the cover of an innocuous defaulting-to (other addictions operate this way too).

quick aside/image: I used to watch infomercials so much. I would have told you it was ironic somehow, back in the day. Now I see it for what it was. In novels, specifically Wise Blood, I’ve read about soapbox preachers and traveling salesmen, standing in small cities, perched on the bumper of a car, hollering about Jesus or a potato peeler, with a few bored yokels. (Think of Enoch Emery). Those people didn’t watch because the Jesus patter or the potato peeler were hynotizing; they watched because they had nothing else to look at. Anyway that’s how I sometimes see the TV-drowned chapters of my young life: my chubby face reflecting the blue TV light like the walls of a swimming pool, watching the hucksters because they were there.

as i grew up and away from both suburbs and those preliminary versions of myself, I stopped watching so much TV. this was in part because I didn’t have a TV all to myself with cable, in a house where I didn’t have to pay rent. but it was also in part because I didn’t need TV in the same ways anymore, and because, the stuff on TV wasn’t as good as the sensory inputs available in meatspace (other people, specifically girls, college) and improvements on the TV value proposition (movies not shown on TBS, books). at no point do we ever stop propping our cracked or wobbly selves up against stories, other voices, in other to give them a rest, to prevent them from collapsing under the stress of being alone in your own skull.

anyway i grew up/out/away and before too much road was behind me, i looked back at the amount of TV that I watched with a little shiver of regret, like whoops, that was a pretty large chunk of my finite lifespan I farted away there. for a while, if you talked to me after a few beers, i would tell you that TV sucks, people who watch too much TV suck (the same way that ex-smokers are the biggest grinches about smoking), TV, yadda yadda. I wasn’t quite one of those weenies who brags about not having a TV, but I was a fellow traveler for sure. I definitely saw people who flicked through channels idly, watching whatever because it was easier than doing anything else, as zombified. And to be honest, I still make little bitchy judgments about people who watch indiscriminate amounts of TV. (Content zombification is a real thing; TV doens’t have a monopoly on it — say hello, narrowminded readers of literary fiction).

But with age I learned the mature pleasures of TV. you can relax after a day of slowly losing to fate by watching a TV program. you can share the joy of narrative or comedy by watching a TV program with friends and loved ones. you can fill a rainy day with a few binged episodes of a quality hourlong drama. TV is a medium it is OK to prop your battered self up against for a while, just not always. TV is fine, TV is not the enemy of anything, TV is just stories coming from a glowing box. You have to be mindful about what you let into your eyes and ears with TV, but this is also true of all other things.

The internet used to not be like TV, which is to say, I formely did not use the Internet the way that my adolescent self used TV — as a hiding place for someone who didn’t even understand what they were hiding from, or that they were hiding at all. I have been in the very slow motion process of understanding that I idly flick through the internet, keeping my e-mail and chat and twitter open in tabs pretty much whenever I’m working, in the hope that someone will ping me, some dopamine firecracker will light itself. I am on the internet to get relevant messages that are important to my ongoing human existence. The internet is more of a public place, owing to its interactivity, than TV ever could hope to be. But I also am leaning on the internet to prop up my self-understanding. But also I don’t want to go all the way in the other direction, like I did with TV, and become a roving ranter about how the Internet sucks (some aspects of networked human existence *do* suck, though).

The moral instruction here is bonecrunchingly insipid: moderation in all things, etc. I never said I was a prophet of mental hygiene. This is just how I feel about the Internet right now. I wonder if I haven’t gotten into the same dependency — using an always-on, always-there cultural thing to fill silences instead of living life.

side note: M*A*S*H* is pretty good

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you can have my garlic bread if you want it

evaluation of social media as a presence in my life, june 2015

pros
:: jokes
:: awareness of events not immediately within my sensory envelope
:: contact with other human beings
:: dopamine hits
:: learning things

cons
:: jokes
:: awareness of events not immediately within my sensory envelope
:: contact with other human beings
:: dopamine hits
:: learning things

car

try to get shut of those gorgeous moments

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NEW JERSEY

I left Atlantic City by the back way, stopping at a Wawa where a polite young man with a tall fade pumped my gas. I had gotten out of the car thinking I would handle that but remembered midway through the car-exiting that in NJ you can’t pump your own gas. Pretty gracefully by my standards I switched up like I meant to clean off my windshield, not pump gas. And anyway I did need to deal with the uneven smear of ex-bugs on my automobile glass. I gave the tall faded gas teen $3 on top of the credit card charge. I don’t know how gas tipping works but 20 percent on a $40 fill-up seemed excessive. He seemed pretty OK with $3.

The Garden State Parkway is mostly your basic road. Like the whole of New Jersey it is slightly smaller than the big-boned Midwestern infrastructure of my childhood, the asphalt spiderwebbed with age cracks and everyone acting 5 percent more like an asshole than necessary. This includes the state turnpike authority, which has erected toll booths every few miles to harvest quarters from you. Maybe five times that Sunday morning I threw change into the battered plastic mouths that took them away to the state coffers.

I thought about ditching the Parkway to drive the Jersey Shore. I mostly wanted to run my eyes over Asbury Park for Bruce Springsteen-related emotional valences. I decided against this, feeling for the first time on this trip the presence of Fuckitiwanttofinish, which is a kind of corrosive, surly desire to complete the present action as fast as possible, to file the conversation, to fill the bucket, which strips away most all possibility of enjoying the process. I blamed creeping cellular-level awareness of being in the greater Northeastern United States Babylon. Looking back I can probably blame myself more than Babylon.

 

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NEW YORK

At the actual entry point into New York City, in my case the Outerbridge Crossing, I had to pay $14 to enter the city and immediately felt a nostalgia for the $1.50 tolls of the Garden State Parkway. My immediate surroundings did not change much for the loss of $14; Staten Island looks a lot like New Jersey. I had a lot of time to make this comparison because of traffic. Eventually I was on and over the Verrazano and into Bay Ridge, a neighborhood I still have a crush on despite some fairly profound flaws. I drove past diners I have eaten at and Arab pastry shops and the movie theater that has $5 matinees (I saw Gravity there in the middle of a pretty heinous depressive episode in 2013). I crawled in traffic related to some kind of Scandinavian-American public demonstration of pride, and Brooklyn squirmed in the sunlight around me.

I lived in Sunset Park from September 2009 to May 2014. I stayed there for two days and change on this return trip. I stayed in the same apartment I used to live in, and I had keys and only saw my hosts when they were home from work. So I felt like nothing had changed. Not that much had changed outside of the location of my personal array of clothing and books and brain activity. The Chinese fruit cart ladies were still there. The graffiti on the side of Payless Shoes was still there.  My old bodega reorganized where the drinks are (closer to the door).

I have to remind myself that I like New York, and that I liked living here for the better part of six years, although both things are true. It is a wonderful city with a depth of culture that does not exist anywhere else in America. It has totally functional mass transit and museums and movies and loved people and food. When I got sober in the fall of 2007, in Chicago, a counselor-type guy at the rehab place told me not to make any major life decisions for six months or preferably nine months or a year, to let my brain just kind of get used to its sober self, like how the acoustics in a room change when you move around the furniture, or stop drinking in the room all the time. I took that advice very literally. As soon as my six months were up, I got a tattoo and made plans to move to New York, mostly because it was the only place in the world other than Chicago where I had enough friends to not be lonely. Over time I developed a second version of the narrative that elided over the sobriety thing, because that tended to be too heavy for casual conversations. So I just said I moved to New York for a job, even though that made me sound like my early 2008 shit was way more together than it actually was. That is part of life. You lie about how together your shit is. Sometimes your shit is pretty together, which is both its own reward and its own punishment. Anyway by the end, New York — not so much what it was but what it stood for, office jobs and growing loneliness and high rents — stressed me out, even though I never stopped liking the overall experience. I used the silhouette of what NY stood for as a target in the shooting gallery of my mind, and shot them up pretty good. I am very excited about going to school for writing in August, but I guess the smell of my time in NYC, good and bad and unclear, still kind of wafts down my brain corridors, drowning out Cleveland and other things/places.

I rode around on the N train and reacquainted myself with vistas and actual non-figurative smells. I saw friends and ate meals and got impatient to leave. Halfway through my stay in New York I decided I would drive to Maine before turning back home, because I had never been to Maine before. At express stops people looked into the train, trying to figure out whether it was the one they wanted. I watched the disposable grace of a person giving their seat to a pregnant woman, which felt like a tiny blessing on everyone’s day even when the pregnant person in question politely declined. On platforms I watched for the secondhand glow of the train’s lights on the rails.

In Manhattan, some of the men held their dates by the arm like cops hold prisoners in transit. People also held luggage, or held children like luggage. Almost everyone held small internet devices. Birds held crumbs. Cars held people. I wasn’t holding anything so I just kind of wiggled my fingers to stay ready for my object, whatever it was.

I went to Book Culture and bought Preparations for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, which I read and enjoyed a lot. It was an appropriate read for days mostly spent scuttling cautiously around the margins of New York. I reflected that I spend a lot of time looking out for the messages in the margins of life which has the unintended consequence of maybe overlooking or mishandling a fair number of the messages written in the middle of the page of life

I took a walk up the edge of Central Park to the Met. I thought that a hot dog/pretzel knish guy was yelling at me to buy one of his hot dogs but he was just yelling into his bluetooth phone thing, in a language I did not understand.

I made weirdly specific plans about doing laundry at a Motel 6 somewhere in New Hampshire, going so far as to use the internet on my phone to see which Motel 6es in New Hampshire had laundry for guests to use. I even bought a small jug of laundry soap at the Pioneer on 5th Ave, next door to what used to be a pizza place called Grandma’s and is now a Puerto Rican chicken and fried things place that has a blank spot in its sign where the word GRANDMA’S used to be. The former Grandma’s also has a endearingly amateur painting of a New York Mets pitcher on the back wall that appears to be a combination of Mets-era Pedro Martinez and current Bartolo Colon, in terms of physiognomy and skin color.

I drove up 3rd Avenue, past the porn shops and halal butchers, under the shadow of the rust-and-green BQE. I took the Battery Tunnel and drove under the harbor to the southern tip of Manhattan. I missed my lane change for the FDR and wandered through the 17th century lanes of the financial district before finding the on-ramp hidden next to the Brooklyn Bridge. I inched around Corlear’s Hook in traffic. I made it to the Bronx and said some kind of lay vehicular prayer for no last-second eruptions of NYC traffic. I felt like the tiny men inside my molecules lowered the PTB personal defcon as we crossed into Yonkers.

CONNECTICUT

I drove on a road named after a river named after Anne Hutchison. Not far into Connecticut I had to pee, so I got off at a sign that said GREENWICH NEXT RIGHT. What this really should have said was “five miles of windy roads lined with the entrance gates to mansions NEXT RIGHT.” Everything was fine eventually. I got to downtown Greenwich, moving opposite a steady line of luxury vehicles headed out toward the highway. I peed in a Cosi without even pretending like I was going to become a customer. No one there cared what I did. I went to a Stop N Shop and bought a box of granola bars and a gallon jug of water. I wound up eating granola bars for dinner that night.

MASSACHUSETTS

I didn’t stop again until I peed in Marlborough, Massachusetts, at a Dunkin’ Donuts on the rim of a small lake hugged tight by roads. I am always surprised by how mountainous and nice Massachusetts can be when it feels like it.

NEW HAMPSHIRE I

I resumed driving until I saw signs for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I wandered on the edge of the downtown, trying to see Maine across the small harbor. I saw something purplish-black that seemed to be Maine, and went to a Motel 6. I did laundry and read a book.

In the morning a weird guy at the motel asked me if I smoked cigarettes. He had pink skin and bad tattoos, but was handsome and seemed to be in pretty good health. He chased me into the parking lot and knocked on my car window to ask about cigarettes. Normally this would have freaked me out a little but it was a sunny, breezy morning and he seemed harmless. I said no sorry I don’t smoke and without missing a beat he said “Good, good, it’s a bad habit.” He immediately ran off to find another person. As I drove away he was in the middle of receiving a cigarette from a middle-aged woman in sunglasses. She dangled the cigarette toward him like giving a friend’s dog a treat. The pink guy looked back at me as I drove away and I waved in recognition of his happiness. He seemed proud but not vengeful.

I drove across a tiny steel bridge dedicated to World War I veterans, past frantic flags and skinny white ladies power-walking, into Maine.

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MAINE

I drove for a while on the Maine Turnpike, and didn’t stop until Portland. The first thing that happened in my experience of Portland, Maine, after parking my car, was seeing a large, thoughtful Malamute peeing on a bush. The next thing that happened was checking out the bookstores freckling the central area of Portland. At Yes Books, I bought a used copy of Trilogy by H.D., mostly because it was the same price as the other H.D. book they had but longer and I figured I was getting a better deal: more 20th century modernist poetry for the same amount of contemporary dollars. I also bought Pilgrims in Their Own Land by Martin Marty, which I have subsequently read most of. I keep falling asleep during the portions where Protestant argue about the shape of heaven but overall it is good hsitory. I also agonized over purchasing a copy of Terrible Honesty by Ann Douglas but I resented variously spending $12, carrying around a ginormous hardcover book, and tacitly endorsing a book that celebrates New York City’s status as the cultural center of American life. All of this was pretty dumb and I’m probably going to get the book from the library anyway. Mildly stressed out by these bargainings with myself, I made a note that there was a chill-looking diner on a side street and made plans to return there for food and mise en scene.

I went to two more bookstores. I bought a Delmore Schwartz book because I remembered he was the inspiration for a memorable character in Humboldt’s Gift (not Humboldt though) and because I wanted to spend $5 at the Green Hand. I have been wondering whether Saul Bellow sucks recently. I stand by The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day but some of it might be terrible. I stuck my head and part of my upper body into a cryptozoology museum but it looked like a tourist trap.

I went back to the diner I had spotted earlier but foolishly I had forgotten to check what time the diner closed. It closed at 2 pm and it was 1:29. Eating at a restaurant when the people who work there want to initiate the closing sequence makes me feel bad, and generally devalues the money you spend to get to chill in a place while they feed you. Against my better judgment I ate there anyway. The people were nice but you could tell they resented my timing a little. I sat at the counter next to a guy nervously reading a book. The waitress was a 40ish pretty woman with dyed-red hair and a huge, slightly tacky chest piece tattoo, like a cool tough mom who has lived some rock n roll moments in her earlier times. I definitely projected some of my desire for companionship onto her but not in a public way. I didn’t hit on her or really even say anything other than “yes” to her question about coffee.

I ordered the chicken parm omelet directly from the grill dude, who was like two feet away from me. I chose that because they were out of the coconut French toast. The chicken parm omelet was not very good, although the ingredients were fine. Just not a good combination of foods. I ate quickly and they asked if I wanted a coffee to go even though I didn’t really want it. I took the coffee and left it in my car for six hours and then disposed of it in a drain in the motel parking lot, where the nice people from the diner couldn’t see me throwing away the coffee I should not have accepted in the first place.

Not longer after the diner that I noticed a noise that I now can identify as valve clatter and a related, intermittent flashing of the low oil pressure light on the Accord and I got stressed about that and forgot my regrets re diner experience and the waitress and Saul Bellow and whatever else. I drove to a motel like I was trying not to wake someone up. I checked in and read the car manual and googled the symptoms on my phone. I didn’t like the potential consequences/seriousness of my car’s complaint, but I decided to assume that an oil change and a new filter would fix everything. My hope-assumptions worked out although I no longer totally trust the car, like a dog that bit you once.

I went to a Portland Sea Dogs game for $9. It was pretty fun although I felt a little weird being there by myself. The mascot joked around with me, in that pantomime mascot way, stealing my cellphone for a minute. I didn’t mind but I wasn’t sure how to act. I think I just sort of said “Haha Slugger took my phone” to the woman across the aisle. Then I made a comment about how it didn’t make sense that the mascot had two legs if it was supposed to be a sea lion. The woman across the aisle nodded, but not in a way that meant she agreed.

The next morning I felt like it was time to go home, even though I didn’t really want to go home. I got coffee at a convenience mart and sat in the Jiffy Lube for two hours while they eventually got around to my car. From there, starting at like 10:30 am on Thursday, I drove 750 miles back home.

I did not take a direct route. I went back down to Portsmouth on 95. Two things that I remember happened in those 40 miles. First I saw a huge dog in the far back of a Toyota 4Runner in the middle lane. It was a huge dog, possibly another Malamute. The dog was doing that dog thing where you get stuck turning in circles just before plopping down, except he was zooming through existence at 70 mph and all his fur was whipping around. I drove three car lengths behind the Toyota for what must have been ten miles just to watch this dog. He (or maybe she) turned and turned. Sometimes he would stop and stick his head out the back and stare down at the asphalt ripping past under the tires. I wonder what the dog thought about highways and velocity and his/her temporary condition. Then the dog would resume turning in a circle in the back seat, a little epicycle within the Toyota’s orbit of the earth. I was a little sad when the dog and his vehicle peeled off onto an exit ramp.

The second thing I remember about the southbound Maine turnpike was pulling up behind a seafoam Ford Taurus (the old kind, from the 1990s) that had handicapped plates with the vanity designation I R I E. It seemed like a good omen, enough of one to guarantee good vibes for the rest of the day.

NEW HAMPSHIRE 2

At the suggestion of a friend I drove the entire coast of New Hampshire, all fifteen miles of it, from Portsmouth to Hampton Beach. It was beautiful. The tourist season hadn’t started for real, and it was cold, so there was no one around but a few contractors repairing things on motels and cottages, plus a few tough senior citizens walking in a stiff ocean breeze. I felt like I was walking in a school building on a weekend, like the sun was hanging in the sky differently and I was lucky to see it.

There was no more coast and I turned the wrong direction, northwest toward Vermont. Somewhere between Manchester and Concord I pulled off into a rest stop that was also a some kind of discount wine retailer. The rest stop was a mock village inside a larger generic building. I paid $12 for a coffee and a small container of chicken salad and a peanut butter square. The world outside the car steadily got more and more beautiful/empty. This trend continued and steepened through all of Vermont.

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VERMONT

I didn’t do much in Vermont other than look and breathe and operate a car but I still profoundly enjoyed the state. I stopped to look into Quechee Gorge. I bought an energy drink even though I had had two coffees. I thought idly about the consequences of just abandoning everything in my life and creating a new existence in some tiny mountain town in Vermont. The last time my brain flashed this kind of rare error message I was in Telluride, Colorado in June 2004 in sunlight and air so pure they seemed to reverse time.

In Rutland, Vermont, the graves seemed to wander around town instead of confining themselves to cemeteries. Clouds were smeared across the sky like ruined messages. There was a sign on a small bridge that said SCARIFIED PAVEMENT.

NEW YORK 2

The chicken salad wasn’t cutting it, and it was already like 5 pm, so I stopped at the first fast food place I saw after the state line. It was a McDonald’s in Whitehall, NY, the alleged birthplace of the U.S. Navy, according to a sign/the internet/general lore. In the McDonald’s at the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, one of the employees jokingly told another one “You can suck a toe on that one” but it was pretty clear that by toe she meant something worse than a toe. I scribbled down directions in my notebook to some motels, entertaining an idea that I might head for Pittsburgh instead of home.

I refused to get back on anything resembling a highway and this definitely cost me like an hour. I saw what Saratoga Springs is like. At Amsterdam I finally got on the New York Thruway. There are a bunch of little cities along the Mohawk that stagger down handsomely into the river valley. They seem shitty but earnest and chill about it. I drove for an hour and a half and stopped for coffee again somewhere in the infinity of central New York state. I got a little discouraged when I saw how far away Buffalo was but somewhere inside I said fuck it I am getting where I am going today, wherever that is.

I stopped two hours later for more coffee, and I feel like maybe there was a third stop ninety minutes after that.

The last thing that happened in New York, on account of all the coffee and energy drinks and gulps of water from my gallon jug from Greenwich CT, was that I pulled over just after paying the final toll on the Thruway before hitting the chimney of Pennsylvania. I passed some dozing semis and got out. It was really windy, but clear. In the distance there was a store that sold porn to truckers, and underneath a big sign saying ADULT STORE, spotlights embraced the sky. I was right under the Big Dipper/The Plough and I felt like the stars were looking back, restless like the dog in the Toyota from Maine.

PENNSYLVANIA

I don’t think I’ve ever stopped in the chimney of Pennsylvania in the 10 times I’ve driven/been driven across it. The road was so dark and I was locked in. I barely noticed that Pennsylvania was there.

OHIO

You sort of forget, living in Cleveland where the north is fenced off by the lake, that there’s this pretty large swath of Ohio curling up toward Canada for 60 miles before the eastern edge of the state. Last summer I actually attended a reenactment of the D-Day invasion in Conneaut, the last town before the PA border. But this night I just drove. The encounter with the Big Dipper was the last thing my brain felt compelled to record. I kept waiting to get too tired to drive, but I never did, even after I stopped.

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golden tusks, part 1

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So I drove around in my car for a week and took notes with my eyes and fingers. This is writing as practice for being human, so please pardon the lack of a point.

CLEVELAND

The semester ended the first week of May, which leaves me without much to do for the better part of the month. Eventually I will have and have had to resume working to pay my rent and my Obamacare and keep myself in rice and beans. But from a responsibility standpoint, like a meatspace obligation for my body and brain to be in a certain place at agreed-upon times, I am at present radically liberated, in all directions from 0 on the axes of freedom. I am expected but not required to show up at something like eight more Cleveland Indians games before August 1, and I am supposed to talk to my shrink on Wednesday mornings, but I do that via Skype. I did sign up for a Spanish class. A year and change of Spanish class 13 years ago earned me “Beginner II” status which is both a conceptual contradiction and also exactly where I belong, in a spectrum of activities.

I have access to a 2008 Honda Accord and some spare (not that spare, really) cash both of which stoked visions of escaping my usual orbit. Of course when you escape orbit it’s not really clear what you are escaping to. You’re just free from whatever version of gravity was hassling you. You are not guaranteed a new or better gravity.

Part of what pushed me out of the door was what happened to me the last time I had nothing to do for more than a few days, I fell into a pretty harsh depression. I slept all day, and when awake i ritually abused myself with junk food and unhappy thoughts. This kind of episode felt and feels like dropping something fragile; your humanity falls from your hands just fast enough that there is nothing you can do, just slow enough that you can regret all the way down, even before some version of yourself hits the floor and smashes up.

So given my liberty and a desire to box out gross depression, I drove away from home.

HAGERSTOWN

I drove to Hagerstown, Maryland via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Hagerstown was a stopping point because it was most of the way to Baltimore while still likely possessing a <$50 a night motel, and there was a minor league doubleheader there, I learned from the Internet before leaving. At Breezewood, Pennsylvania I turned south off the turnpike. I briefly stopped to pee and have an energy drink. In the bathroom/energy drink place, I saw a man with a flaming cross tattooed on his upper arm. The cross had the Confederate flag inlaid. I thought about whether he meant the flames as a condemnation of the late rebellion or more like an emphasis of his confederitude.

After leaving the interstate, I drove through towns where you could see the passage of time piled up like junk mail in a rude visual archeaology. In places like Clear Springs I saw 19th century farmhomes leaning on 20th century shops patrolled by 21st century lives. Bad tattoos and little econo cars draped with aftermarket gear, plastic bits rattling in the music of woofers. Acres and acres and acres of riding-mowered grass sweated in the sun. Every other house seemed to have coughed up its guts in a yard sale. Clothing and side tables and plates and bikes.

A local Red Lobster sponsored a stretch of highway. I wondered whether that adoption included spiritual and material responsiiblity for everythign that happened there. Like if you died on that road whether Red Lobster would sponsor your transit to the afterlife.

I drove on the Red Lobster road until I hit a town that was bigger than the others, with more roads and more train tracks knotted together on a set of ridges. This was Hagerstown.

I found a motel in a town called Halfway MD, at a junction of roads where chain stores sprouted like mushrooms. There was a horse tied up in the back; either his/her name was The Wonder Horse or he/she was described to me as a wonder horse. His/her owner was a long-necked elderly man with a snow-white goatee. The horse was appearing in a show of some kind at the county fair. He/she was chestnut with a bolt of white on his/her forehead, unaware or unconcerned by the long purple leash that secured him/her to a chain link fence between the hotel and an overpass bending away back toward Hagerstown. A billboard overhead told me and the wonder horse about the current lottery jackpots. There were two large people, mother and son, crouching in the shade of trees in front of the motel, all their possessions stacked neatly next to them, including a forlorn chihuahua in a kennel crate big enough for a small bear. I wondered what they were doing until I realized they had been kicked out or otherwise left their lodgings at the motel.

A different mother with drained eyes clutched a toddler and a microwave dinner, its cardboard already limp with defrost. The Motel 6 clerk told me her favorite rapper is from Cleveland.

I drove along the edge of an old cemetery, inching through the rush-hour traffic of a small city. I listened to Neil Young right up until I turned my car off in the parking lot of the ballpark. As I entered the stadium, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynrd Skynyrd played, and I noticed the line where Ronnie Van Zant addresses Neil Young in the third person.

It was Country Music Night at Hagerstown Municipal Stadium, parts of which date to 1930. If you wore a cowboy hat or boots, you got in for $5. I paid $9, having neither article of clothing. I didn’t see anyone in cowboy gear except for the game’s genial, perfunctory MC. He wore cheap Halloween costume pleather chaps, a cowboy hat, and a neckerchief. He didn’t have a six gun or a lasso, just a wireless microphone through which he narrated a game of musical chairs between children pulled from the crowd. A young boy named Caleb won. I forgot what Caleb’s prize was.

I got bored midway through the first game of the doubleheader and decided to wander around Hagerstown before the sun went away.

Time to Pray

I went back to my hotel and the horse was still there, chewing grass in the dark.

I woke up and ate oranges and wrote for a couple hours, after getting lost in a mall parking lot looking for the coffee drive-thru at 6 am. I packed up my stuff and drove south to the Antietam battlefield. The sky was bright and generous, and restless wavy hills swam in the sun. Every few hundred feet a stone marker elaborated on the details of how many of which kind of soldier died nearby. I looked into a white church that had been shot up. I looked into a ditch that had filled with dead guys. I had to pee badly but felt it would be impolite to pee on a national historic site, so I held it until I got a few miles away.

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I drove south on a road that nearly disappeared into the hills and brambles before breaking onto the valley of the Potomac. I snaked around onto a bridge into Virginia, briefly, and then West Virginia. Harpers Ferry was beautiful. I looked at the small outbuilding where John Brown holed up during his raid. I stood on a rock Thomas Jefferson stood on. I bought postcards but not a stuffed doll of John Brown, clutching a small stuffed Bible with gilt edging. I watched the human traffic drip past on the Appalachian Trail and left for Baltimore.

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BALTIMORE

I think I was in Baltimore once before, but most of my understanding of Baltimore comes through stories. Homicide and The Wire and The Corner. I expected rows of battered, hopeless brick houses and I saw that but I also saw everything not on screens: people, pigeons, sunlight, small trash dancing in breeze, weeds, living of lives.

I walked through Lexington Market and, wandered around downtown. The crowds by the market were African American; by the ballpark they were white. I bought a ticket to the game and watched the Angels practice. A buxom woman haggled with a coach in the bullpen for a signed ball. He wanted her phone number.

I drove north to a combination record and book store and bought Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, in a paperback edition the size of a half-loaf of bread, and Dynamite by Louis Adamic, and a random tape cassette of noise music after soliciting the clerk’s recommendation. I don’t even have a tape player at the moment. I talked about Harvey Pekar with the shop guys and left. I parked on the edge of the Johns Hopkins campus and scurried through the Baltimore Museum of Art in the last hour before closing. I saw a chair with built-in bookshelves and a motorcycle wheel. I saw a good Rockwell Kent and learned that Horace Pippin exists. I tried to make it to the Walters Museum before closing but failed. I left my car in what seemed to be a legal parking spot and walked to the ball park.

I watched kids and not-kids grub for foul balls. I ate a problematic amount of barbecue that somehow cost $22. I felt like I had swallowed a sandbag. I finished the giant serving of pork out of duty and completism as much as desire. No one but me cared whether I finished the pork.

The umpires were all introduced as “Mister.” The game was orderly and short. The home team lost. I saw Albert Pujols hit a home run. Mike Trout didn’t do much. Under some guilt, I scavenged a novelty mini-helmet that had the last bits of someone’s melted soft serve in it. In the bathrooms after the game ended, I washed a stranger’s ice cream out of the miniature hat and paper-toweled it dry as a crowd of people tiredly peed out 9 innings of beer.

My parking spot near the Walters Museum turned out to have been legal, or at least legal enough. I drove to a motel in a scruffy suburb using my phone as a GPS.

I woke up and drove toward Annapolis, a place I have definitely been before. I veered off onto a bridge across the Chesapeake and rose up over wind-ridged water. I was thinly disappointed because I could see land ahead of me the whole time. I had been hoping I would get a few minutes in the presence of nothing but asphalt water and sky.

I saw an electronic sign on the edge of the road that asked:

T E R R O R
T I  P  S  ?

I drove up some kind of official scenic byway through small towns on the eastern shore of the bay. I saw signs reading FOR LEASE GOOSE PITS. I remained curious enough later to find out what a GOOSE PIT is; it’s a duck blind, but for shooting geese instead. I don’t think the birds care what you call the thing you shoot them from.

The day smelled like manure and sunshine and exhaust. I drove on a bridge high over the town of Chesapeake City and was very pleased with the world and my freedom in it.

PHILADELPHIA

Immediately after this I hit the traffic shadow of I-95 and crawled the rest of the way to Philadelphia. I did pee in Delaware, at a very well-lit rest stop.

Everything in Philadelphia feels like you’re facing the back of it. The city is always turning away, not out of shyness or coldness, just a half turn undone. I ate fancy pizza in a bohemian area. A wall-eyed cocker spaniel vibrated in the heat and watched me, unconcerned by my consumer politics re pizza. I wandered through a street fair and acquired a tote bag for free.

I walked down streets that felt puckered by the passage of time, the houses loosened in their settings like the teeth of an old person. A cramped graveyard stared up at the sun. I intentionally got lost on side streets on my way down to the baseball stadium.

The Philadelphia ballpark is new and bland. It sits on the south side, in a strange asphalt plain broken only by enormous sports arenas. The complex feels like a Mesoamerican necropolis, but the names of the gods have been replaced by banks and telecom firms.

I haggled with a scalper. I was close to buying a $60 ticket from him for $30, but he called me “big guy,” which always turns me sour and mean. I walked away from him even though it was a good deal. Instead I spent the same $30 on a seat in the upper deck. The Philadelphia team was very good in the recent past, but not anymore. Prices had yet to reflect the falling arrow of their fortune.

Grady Sizemore plays for Philadelphia. He was once a rising star for the team that I like. His legs turned out to be no good, although I’d probably trade mine for his, even with the maintenance history. Sizemore happens to be one year younger than I am, so I used him as a kind of sounding on the passage of time. If ballplayers are around my age, I can’t be too close to dead. This habit started with the information on the back of baseball cards. I looked at the dates of birth for Nolan Ryan (10 months older than my father) or Dennis Eckersley (closer to my mother). Very few ballplayers born in the 1940s lingered into the cards of my childhood, cards I don’t even remember acquiring (1986 Topps). Before long everyone was born in the 1960s; I remember being excited that Ken Griffey Jr was less than 12 years older than me. I stopped collecting baseball cards and didn’t really notice when the first players born in my decade showed up, but Grady Sizemore was shy of 22 years when he arrived in the majors on July 21, 2004. I was 23 years and a few weeks and somewhere in New York City on that day.

The act of measuring my temporal place in the universe by the relative age of ballplayers always seemed logical and correct to me. In hindsight it seems slightly weird. Like why would I not be able to take this same reckoning from any adult? In time I started doing it with anyone whose birthdate you might come across—the kind of people you look up on Wikipedia.

Sizemore was born at roughly the same time as me. That was a signal to me that I was in the flower of my early adulthood. I was as good as I was ever going to be. Now Grady Sizemore by general consensus is used up, as a ballplayer. He still has 50 good years of life on earth left by normal actuarial thinking. I should have about that many too, with preventive care and good luck.

Grady Sizemore is not old. But on a milewide jumbotron, he looks drawn, with a little iridescent gray stubble in his chops, I see these details maybe only because I see the same things in my own face. Felt like driving through a place I used to live, or walking past the pencil scratches on a doorframe recording the growth of little kids now out in the world with doorframes and pencils of their own.

Threats of rain evolved into an actual storm. The sky emptied itself. The 20,000 or so Saturday night fans were chased by loudspeaker scolding into the concourses, for fear of lightning. I tucked myself in between steel girders and ate two $1 hot dogs. The cavernous stadium concourse felt like an ark full of drunks. The grounds crew spread a tarp over the infield like they were putting some giant creature to bed.

The game was delayed for maybe an hour. I waited out the delay, just for the sense of outlasting something. It was a sloppy game between bad teams. and I got bored a few innings after the resumption of play. I squished out to my car through the mealy humid air and rummaged in my trunk for a Bruce Springsteen record. I took my shoes and socks off and drove barefoot over the Walt Whitman Bridge. My shoes were still off when my car filled with sea air on the road into Atlantic City.

ATLANTIC CITY

At midnight on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, there are just a few drunks hooting like songbirds. I paid too much for a grody hotel room and rode a sleepy elevator with tipsy middle aged women. They all spoke at once and leaned into each other as they disappeared into the third floor.

In the morning I walked the boardwalk again. The only aim I had was to dip my fingers into the Atlantic like holy water and then to see if I could find this one stretch of railing I remembered from a a shot in an episode of The Sopranos, not because that episode held special meaning, but because I wanted to compare two things. I found the railing (it turns out I had driven more or less exactly there from Philadelphia) and I left.

The rest of New Jersey was just roads and tolls.

NEW YORK

In Manhattan, some of the men held their dates by the arm like cops hold prisoners in transit. (to be continued)

APPENDIX A: Haircutting Establishments Witnessed

  • Hair We Are
  • Hair Update
  • Just Hair

APPENDIX B: Partial list of salient anxieties

  • Why did I buy a $20 cooler at Target just to keep these six oranges and unnumbered baby carrots cold
  • Did I pass the road I want (multiple)
  • Why is this city so rusty (Philadelphia)
  • What if New York shoots a prehensile vine out and keeps me here forever until i am a skeleton made of calcified, omnidirectional regrets

descriptions of skies, running catalog

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Under midwestern clouds like great gray brains
—Denis Johnson

Clouds like headless sheep
—Margaret Atwood

Then a blood red cloud line appeared along the horizon, and grey clouds resembling cement castles with turrets, rested upon it. Yellow clouds rolled above the castles, like immense butterflies unable to find a bush upon which to light.

In a short time all turned scarlet, then purple black, then mauve. At last dark shadows crept over the earth, and all colours merged into blue, through which the stars shone.
—Jim Tully

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
—T.S. Eliot

The sun has the attenuated autumn quality of seeming to be behind several panes of glass.
—David Foster Wallace (h/t to M.M.)

(…) pilot-light blue
—also DFW

The clouds that Monday morning were piled up like laundry.
—Raymond DeCapite

Almost indigo, shot with iridescence as if veins of a newly discovered precious mineral have been exposed
—Stuart Dybek

the sky looked like something flat and heavy shoved up against the kitchen window
—Denis Johnson

From where Irene sat, she could see the open sky above the East River. There were hundreds of clouds in the sky, as though the south wind had broken the winter into pieces and were blowing it north …
—John Cheever

The day had been bright but never warm with those flat-bottomed, fast-moving clouds that seem to make the land flatter and the wind colder.
—Michael Martone, “The Greek Letter in the Bed”

The sky looked temporary in its exaggerated blueness.
—Kellie Wells, “Star-dogged Moon”

#29

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Deserter 29’s cubicle was freezing. He could never get feeling to stay in his hands. That numbness was part of why he left. Also the hunger. The army had only allowed crackers and half-rotten bananas into the war for several weeks. 29’s banana that morning had been all rotten. He spurned his crackers in protest. He gave them to 30 and sucked bitterly on thoughts of desertion instead.

All morning, he starved and shivered. 29 deserved better than this. Even if he didn’t, he would rather steal better and see if he was caught. Just before the noontime banana and crackers break, 29 set down his gun and raised his hand. The lieutenant came by, and 29 asked if he could use the bathroom. The lieutenant gave him the key. 29’s teeth chattered angrily as he walked out of the war forever.

He did actually need to use the restroom. It would not do to begin a new life with a bladder so full. Fuck the lieutenant, 29 thought. That drip would have to put in a request to the army for a new key and oversized fob.

29 conducted his business and washed up. He turned for a paper towel. There were no paper towels. He found instead a new-fangled hand dryer. The bathroom had been updated since the last time 29 peed. The dryer stared at 29 from the wall, mounted above the empty wastebin. The brand name SCIMITAR was scrawled across the upper lip of the dryer’s mouth-like vent.

As he jabbed his hands toward the Scimitar, 29 stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. He watched his own face as the dryer roared to life. Pulses of air made the skin of his hands dance. The Scimitar bellowed pleasure in its work. 29’s frozen hands were returning to him. He smiled. He was having a handsome day.

29 stood before the Scimitar for hours. His hands went from cold to warm to uncomfortably hot. From wet to dry to desiccated. His skin began to harden and crack. The meat underneath began to roast. Feeling sharpened into pain, pain into desire.

Hands, particularly the hands of a petite man like 29, don’t hold much meat. What flesh there was was stringy and sour-tasting. There is some justice in my tasting this way, he thought while chewing.

The roar of the Scimitar deafened 29. When the guards found the deserter, his skeleton hands rattling in the synthetic wind, he couldn’t hear their commands to surrender. The guards took photos of his rare self-mutilation. Then they shot 29 and put him in the wastebasket, which was happy to have a job again.

Cake

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So at age 34 I decided I wanted to become a German chocolate cake. One specific German chocolate cake, sold at a vaguely upscale local chain grocery.

My human biological existence, I never questioned that. I loved my wife, my progeny, some of my acquaintances. I fed on their love.

I suspect in their own human cosmologies, they were world-spiders too. Love was flies. Prayers were prayed for the fly community to prosper, to produce a steady supply of sacrifices. That is a gruesome metaphor but life is a gruesome metaphor. I ate and was eaten, I was love. I was also flies.

There was one very hard moment. A close friend of mine—we were out for drinks—says to me, you shouldn’t be a cake. Make cakes instead, if you’re hung up on cake. Become anything but a cake. Become an animal or a ghost, become a box of crackers. Cakes? Cakes are the worst, he said. Think about how caught up in themselves cakes are, how insular and low-stakes the cakecommunity is. Who, he asked, wants to do their time in that shitty prison? Who wants to be a mound of ingredients and then sit there in a pan and become this inane treat, go through that sordid transformation from a tub of glop into this terrible uterine thing and then they paint you like a cheap rotten god? My friend actually says all of this to me in the middle of some random downtown bar. He says, Don’t get caught up in cake life. I nodded like I was hearing him, like his points were flies to sustain me, like he wasn’t eating my only serious dream.