Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Yes, Still More About Me.

The Wicked Vague has meme-tagged me, and so now I must tell all of you things about which you doubtless had an unslakeable curiosity, before tagging some of you in return. Yes, that was meant to sound tawdry.

Seven movies I have loved (in no particular order):

1. Dr. Strangelove: This is not a bold choice, but neither is it a poor one. It's hard to go wrong with Kubrick.
2. Memento. Enthrallingly original.
3. The Empire Strikes Back: Yeah, that's right. And I'm not even going to apologize.
4. Ran. Still the standard for Shakespeare adaptation.
5. Being John Malkovich. That flick was whack, yo.
6. Pi, the best utterly-low-budget flick I've seen. Hollywood should really corrupt that Aronofsky boy (and yes, I'm sure I spelled that wrong) and be done with it.
7. True Romance, director's cut. Best. Supporting cast. Ever.

Seven books I like:

I here simply regurgitate Vague's idea: Why should we love movies but only like books? Where is the meme authority that I must sue to in opposition to this phrasing?

1. Grendel by John Gardner: the smartest, funniest reimagination of an old story ever penned.
2. The Bhagavad Gita translated and edited by Eakneth Eswaran. So much shorter than the Bible. So much less daft than Leviticus.
3. The Tragedie of Tragedies by Henry Fielding. Funniest drama in the English language.
4. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway. Make fun of my simple choice; Hemmingway rules.
5. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. I'm sorry, Douglas Adams, but he's just better than you.
6. The Revenger's Tragedy probably by Thomas Middleton. 'Cuz there were other guys that wrote stuff besides Will, you know.
7. One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. I need one philosophy book to sound reel smarte.

Seven things I say:

I'm not really sure I listen to myself well enough to list this, but:

1. Pigfucker.
2. You've got to be kidding me.
3. What up dawg/bytch/homey/g/(insert affected ebonicism of choice).
4. Well, you gotta do something with your time.
5. Did I talk to you last night?
6. Well, aside from that...
7. Um, this paper has some things we need to work on.

Seven things that attract me to a city:

1. A large body of water. Of late, I prefer salt water.
2. Less than six inches of annual snowfall.
3. Some kind of ethnic dining scene.
4. At least one four year university.
5. I can afford to live there without charging my rent.
6. (Stolen from Vague) Smoking and drinking still allowed.
7. Is not in Darfur.

Seven things to do before I die:

1. Quit smoking.
2. Visit China.
3. Donate an enormous sum to charity.
4. Drive an exotic car (it doesn't have to be mine).
5. Live on a houseboat.
6. See a tornado.
7. Impersonate a police officer.

Seven things I can't do:

1. Whistle.
2. Blow bubbles.
3. Snap my fingers.
4. Dance.
5. Get up early.
6. Drink Bud Lite.
7. Appreciate modern country or R&B.

Seven people to tag:

1. Chad
2. Claudia
3. Brian
4. Natalie
5. 'Zilla
6. Jason
7. Sarah

Monday, January 30, 2006

Undergraduate Composition, and Attendant Madness.

I have been buried in wretched sophomore composition papers of late, and have had little time to post. Go read The Onion or something until I get about passing along the meme I've been tagged with by the evil Alfina Vague. As if meme-tagging were the kind of thing that we civilized academic types were wont to do. So soon, you will all get to once again read more about me in list form, as if we hadn't had quite enough of that thing around here. But you will read, lest you be tagged in return. Mark my words, and hark and lo and stuff, and maybe even a "verily I say to thee." So please be patient while I read 100 handwritten pages of uninhibited spew from my kiddies.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

On Avian Anatomy, Curious Notions Regarding.

I understand, fully, painfully understand, that we live, in these great United States, in a highly thick society. High school children cannot find their home states on maps; more people believe in a character from ancient Hebrew myth named Satan than believe in the scientific principle of evolution. I grade papers from college sophomores whose musings, with the unleashed war-dogs of MS Word at their editing disposal, nevertheless elevate Dick and Jane into canonical greatness by contrast. Dick and Jane at least had linear narrative and avoided the indefinite “you.” (From all the direct references to “you,” in their essays, it is clear that my students feel that they have an awful lot to teach me.) In general, America’s grasp on science, geography, and the written and spoken word of its most popular language, is abysmal.

However, there was a time, once, in the shrouded annals of history, or fifteen years ago, when the English language had mutually agreed upon monikers for parts of the animal anatomy. Appendages on bipedal and quadrupedal animals, used principally for support and propulsion on the body at large, were referred to as legs. Primates, having prehensile hands enabling their forelegs to grasp and manipulate objects, were said to have arms. But we didn’t stop there—heavens no. In response to bipedal mammals' confusion at the prospect of upright walking creatures with forelimbs employed for aerial propulsion, we came up with a third category of appendage that in English was once called a wing. A wing, you see, was a bit like an arm in that birds do not use them for support, but mostly not like an arm as birds practice all dexterous tasks using the beak and feet. The word seemed a happy compromise, describing this thing that was neither arm nor leg. It was a wing as soon as the bird had hatched, albeit a naked and useless one. It was a wing when it propelled its owner to lofty avian sabbaticals, and it was a wing when it flapped uselessly at the side of a chicken. It was even a wing when you shot the bird, cut it off, plucked it, cleaned it, and threw it in a deep fryer for seven minutes at 350 degrees.

That was all, of course, before the revolution in anatomical nomenclature ushered in by Buffalo Wild Wings and Domino’s Pizza came about, for the edification of the unversed masses. It began innocuously enough, but in retrospect bad things were afoot from the get-go. When one ordered a bucket of tiny chicken parts doused in barbecue sauce, someone came up with the clever idea of marketing them as “wings,” even though half of them, even to the untrained eye, were quite clearly legs, and hence not wings. I could perhaps sympathize with the pressing need to rename one animal part another, in order to clarify its eminent edibility, were it not already commonly known that chicken legs were, indeed, quite edible. In fact, food nomenclature had already bestowed them a name apart from biology’s: they were called drumsticks for their, well, drumstick-like shape, later cleverly truncated simply to drums. It isn't as if they were attempting to push fried gizzard here. They weren't bad names, and I do not recall any inchoate militancy protesting the unfairness of it at all. And yet, seemingly overnight, a small leg was now a wing, as if human infants were born with wings.

Yet the Movement for the Obfuscation and Revision of Our Nomenclature, as they came to be known, was far from through. Turning legs into wings was but the appetizer: it was not until the late 1990’s that their dark culinary think tank produced the piece de resistance, the oh-so-daftly entitled boneless wing. I hoped against reason that this was a joking reference to a strip from Gary Larson’s Far Side comic series of the 1980’s and 90’s, which pictured a barbed-wire enclosed field upon which flopped limp, invertebrate poultry. The caption read “boneless chicken ranch.” Alas, the world of delivery food had no such irony in mind. A boneless wing, you see, was a piece of flesh taken from the rib area of the bird, sliced into smaller pieces, breaded, deep fried, and served, even though the box these things come in is invariably marked "rib meat." And once again, there was already in circulation an extant and perfectly utile name for this part of the chicken called breast meat. It was not as if you might say to a restaurant clerk “I’d like some breast meat chicken,” and receive a look of confusion or offense. The term had place in the cultural narrative that was widely and mutually understood as well as value-neutral.

I am afraid of the larger implications of this rhetorical movement, on several grounds: will I soon order a porterhouse and be served a hamburger, and then have it explained that it’s a boneless porterhouse? Will flank steak and chuck suddenly start calling themselves filet mignon, hoping that no one will notice? And really, really, dire portends arrive for the prosthetics industry if humans start conversationally referring to our limbs interchangeably.

So today I launch the Take Back the Wing movement, boycotting and beginning a letter-writing campaign toward all restaurant chains that call things other than wings wings. In this fight, you are either with me, or you are with Domino’s. And did you really want to be stuck with Domino’s for the rest of your life? I even have a motto for my newfound social activism: Let's Call Wings Wings Here—‘Cuz, Really, Weren’t We Goddamn Stupid Enough Already?

Whaddyall think?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

My Towns

Cleveland winters are a rolling damnation, leaving a heaviness on the soul in their wake like stones left behind in a glacial moraine. Spending three weeks in the midst of one was all the reminder that I needed or ever would need as to why I left that sad, dying place so many years ago.

It isn’t just the weather, mind you, or exclusively the frigidity of it. This December of ’05 was unseasonably warm, rain being the precipitation of choice, interspersed with cold grey bouts of sleet. One’s hands and face froze, to be sure, but the bone chilling ache of Cleveland’s coldest vintages was a year behind or ahead. Old Man Winter had been lazy, and stayed in Canada for the holidays. Without question, weeks of unbroken overcast skies drain the spirit from without, but Cleveland’s decay sprawls well outside the bounds of the merely natural: the death of heavy industry in the Great Lakes has blighted the place (as it has in Detroit and Pittsburgh and Buffalo) in a way no mere brush, or many brushes, with hard weather ever could. There was salt and there were slow plows and there was an abundance of that unquantifiable commodity, human perseverance, once, enough to survive the coldest night of a power outage or the heaviest blanket of snow. The rust just complemented the character of the place, served as a backdrop for the cacophony of labor that gave the city life.

To be fair, there are certainly plenty of livable, functioning neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts, and I grew up in one of those. But the plows and the salt and all the will in the world can’t seem to fight endemic poverty and population drain that consumes my hometown from the center outward. Blocks upon blocks of abandoned factories and warehouses, closed schools, condemned strip malls and the occasional oddly placed local business (hair and nail salon? pet kennel?) are the telling features of too many once-thriving industrial blocks of Cleveland. Like most manufacturing port cities in the North, Cleveland really wasn’t prepared for the feeding hand of Big Steel to be abruptly pulled away from it; it had no fallback plan and has never really recovered. It is fighting proudly, with warehouses being converted into hip artist’s lofts, old ethnic enclaves becoming neo-boheme collegiate haunts, and exotic immigrant culture spawning ethnic eateries that a few New Yorkers might envy. The inner city has hitched its future to the religion of Urban Renovation, and I wish it and its denizens all the good fortune in the world in their struggle to resuscitate this once-stalwart town. But at this point, the sweet spots are parts of a fruit otherwise overtaken with rot, and it is not a place I could yet see being my home again. I visited and left a town that is harbor to my memories and my formative years, but might never again house my personage and belongings. Cleveland doesn’t miss me, of course. Too many souls have fled the area for it to take note of one with so little accomplishment defecting. But I miss the idea of that place, the smokestacks poking fun at the sky, the salt telling the elements exactly what it thinks of them, and would that for all the world I could revive it from its fallen state. It was a town of unadulterated defiance once, dirty and ugly like a mean old codger, vivacious and spirited and too tough to die.

I am taking a walk in my new town, now, where very different things happen. Wilmington, North Carolina, is a place where Old Man Winter is frightened to even visit. Just north of Myrtle Beach, it is a place where he makes exploratory expeditions, only to be repulsed by a sunny thaw when he believes he has established a beachhead. As I trek from my apartment down to the bicycle shop that is my destination, I notice the shoots of green wild grass poking up through the dead brown of the previous, brief freeze. This place never sleeps long in winter, yet is just far north enough to give winter the illusion of momentary advantage. It’s got to confuse the hell out of the migratory birds, who just can’t be sure whether to set up camp or keep moving. The smells of the resilient shrubs and damp earth on a warm January day are the irrefutable rhetoric of nature that Old Man Winter will occasionally vie with this seaside town, but cannot really hope to win. I’ve worn a pull-over sweatshirt out today, stupidly forgetting, as I begin to sweat, that the direct sunlight would quickly compensate for the tiny chill in the air. Wilmington is, in many ways, the small-scale opposite of Cleveland, a rapidly growing burg in the new South, assiduously bursting its bounds and sprawling everywhere in an attempt to contain the burgeoning film industry and expanding population that are its charges. I know already, five miles from the ocean and a world away from whence I came, that in my perfunctory tour of the Atlantic coast and the South, that I have already taken them both in my heart as my own. A walk down the street on a bright, gentle winter day does things for my temperament that the shores of Lake Erie could never provide, try as they may.

And yet I feel guilt and loss in this enjoyment, being just another industrial Yankee having jumped ship for fairer climes and better seafood. It’s ridiculous, I know, to feel a loyalty to a region as if I had, Genesis-like, been raised forth from the earth there. But human identity is in no small part corralled from our earliest surroundings. As much as I love this new home that I’ve found, I cannot divorce myself arbitrarily from the place that I came, from its gritty resilience and its symbols of rejection of all that is coastal and trendy and fashionable, from the Cleveland Browns and bars that serve Polish sausage and POC beer. So as I arrive at the bike shop and realize that it’s gone out of business a week earlier, and that I can’t possibly be disappointed because it’s such an incredibly beautiful day, I feel that preternaturally Catholic guilt telling me that life shouldn’t be so happy and that I should pack up and move back to a place with so much more fitting levels of adversity and strife. I have no intention at all of doing that, but that some part of me will forever nag me to do so tells me that my mind will never be but a house divided, an entity that struck out on its own to find a place better suited to it, that will never cease to pine for things familiar, and all that it has left behind.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Will Somebody Steal my Goddamn Bike?

Apparently there are things one can’t give away. About a year ago I bought a $99 Chinese bicycle from Wal-Mart. This was, in hindsight, not an altogether sound idea. The bike itself may not have been defective, but it is important to note that it was assembled by the lowest paid and most demoralized legal work team in the United States. I will spare the reader any more facile Wally World bashing, as there’s plenty of that to go around, but the fact remains that their staff sucks and I should have taken the bike home in a box rather than ride off on their floor model. That, and I should have noticed the rear axle grinding from the first time I got on the bike. I should have also noticed, while we’re on the topic, that guys who pursue advanced English degrees have less dating success than guys with money, but it’s a bit late for that.

So, naturally, the rear wheel locks up on the bike around eight days after the warranty expires. I tried to repair it, but lacking any experience, available replacement parts, technical support, or bicycle-specific tools, I just broke the thing worse. Having striven and failed, I wisely decided to get rid of Chiang the Accursed, made in China. I went on Wilmington Freecycle, a Yahoo! group where everybody in creation with defective junk attempts to pawn it off on their neighbors in the guise of higher environmental ethics. I have seen used pet food successfully given away, but I could not unload an almost new, probably repairable bicycle. I left it unlocked on my deck while I went on vacation for three weeks, hoping someone would steal it. Instead, I found that a crew of construction workers had rebuilt 2/3 of the stairwell leading up to my apartment and worked around the goddamn thing, even though it was quite obviously in the way, rather than confiscate, move, or throw it away. I’ve now left it out on the ground floor, conspicuously unlocked, across the street from an unofficial crackhead halfway house, and I still can’t get anybody to have off with it.

So that’s it. Environmentalists may point at me in scorn and horror until the end of time, but I’m throwing this headache in the dumpster. If no one wants it for parts, scrap, repair, or anything else, then I certainly feel relieved of the obligation to keep it as décor. In the dumpster it goes. I hope white elephants are biodegradable.

Gas Encore, pt. 1

I realized while editing the Gas Guy book that some of the stuff wasn’t as good as I’d previously believed, and even if it was, the book’s a bit too short. So I’m adding a few new stories, which will air here. To eliminate any confusion amongst anyone who missed last year’s controversy: Gas Guy is not autobiographical journalism; it is an autobiographical work of fiction, taking certain liberties with chronology, names, and geography.

There is a new Marlboro display, shorter than the old one by several feet, hence no longer blocking the rear view of the store. It hasn’t yet developed the epilepsy-inducing flickering fluorescent bulbs that the old one had, and for that I am sincerely grateful. We stacked the RJR products on it when we first got it, but when the Phillip Morris people took note of that, they swept them onto the floor in a huff. Capitalism, I swear.

About five feet to the left of the counter, there’s a slushee machine featuring blue raspberry and strawberry as the flavors: given the sweetness of the end product, it is almost unfathomable that it is five parts water to every one part concentrate. I am convinced that imbibing the undiluted concentrate would send the hardiest constitution into instantaneous diabetic shock.

These two features are the only physical changes, additions or otherwise, that the store has undergone in the seven months that I have worked there. This record might not appear so grossly negligent were everything else not twenty years out of date. It is a three-legged, one-ear-bent, aging mutt of an establishment, and today is my last day working in it. My time here has been sometimes enlightening, and sometimes depressing, infuriating, and painfully dull. Beyond its meager pay, the job has, of course, had experiential value; all jobs, no matter how ostensibly pedestrian, do. Probably foremost amongst these is that I got past a lot of the unease toward black people and immigrants that growing up in a lily-white, provincial Irish Catholic neighborhood in Cleveland had instilled in me. There aren’t really different kinds of people in the world. There are people who dress differently and that speak different languages and dialects, and that can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated, but patience and time changes a lot of that, if a fella’ keeps an open mind about it. That lesson should be painfully obvious, but it wasn't for me, and I suspect it isn't for a whole lot of other people who pretend that it is.

But because I can change a little is no indication that Gas Center #2 has any intention of changing at all. The cash registers look as if they could have been designed by Atari; it lacks exterior cameras, essentially begging people to drive off without paying for their fuel; it has no email or internet access in its office. (That’s right: they actually fax memos from the corporate office to the stores.) The place is an architectural and functional testament to commercial mediocrity in practice, to choosing a good location and then constructing a business barely efficient enough not to implode upon itself, with the knowledge that foot traffic will save the day in the face of incoherent management.

But the museum, changeless quality of the place isn’t limited to the woodwork and the equipment: the same woman, a high-school drop out with the neurotic tendency to leave notes everywhere instructing the staff just what they’ve done wrong, has been running the place for 23 years. She’ll probably still be there in another fifteen. While the faces have changed and will change, illegal immigrants from points southward will be trying to break the $50’s and $100’s they get paid with on thirty cent purchases until the end of time, to the ubiquitous consternation of the present staff. The current staff of people with questionable references, criminal backgrounds, and the abject inability to pass a drug test will move along to be replaced by others in the same straits. It is as if the place itself is an extended middle finger of glass and concrete, proudly held aloft to let the world know just what it thinks of change and progress.

Gas retail is, like bars and restaurants, a cyclical rather than a linear trade: at the end of the day no project has been completed; nothing has been done that will not swiftly be undone. People will get hungry and thirsty and sober, their vehicles will use up their fuel, and they’re they’ll be again, at that doorstep with debit card in hand, with high gravity malt liquor and strawberry blunt wraps and low-octane fuel on their minds. All that changes, principally, for my clientele is this month’s drug of choice.

I go to stock room in the back of the store around seven P.M., where Mike, now the assistant manager, has just opened a 22oz bottle of Corona, taking a break toward the end of his long day shift. Since it’s a slow Saturday, there’s a second cashier, and, most importantly, it’s my last day, I feel morally compelled to join him. I stick to the 12oz version of the same beer, as I do have five hours of work left to do. This becomes the theme for the evening, as Mike and I invent excuses to restock things in order to drink more beer about once an hour. Like I mentioned a long time ago, working for Mike when he was in jail to keep him from getting fired was a thing that I knew would eventually come back to me, and so it has.

As I drink one of these beers, I reflect back on what I have witnessed in my time here: I know that there are people in combat zones who have seen far worse things than me. There are people like you and me who have seen children blown to pieces, who have watched close friends die. Having prostitutes hand you their business cards, and watching people walk away disappointed because my store doesn’t carry their improvisational crack paraphernalia—looking at an endless parade of abandoned single moms and lost potheads and homeless alcoholics—doesn’t compare to the horror that a lot of people face every day; in fact, it pales badly in comparison. But it does not mean that these things are not horrible—only that they are not the worst things in the world. Because the chapter in the human drama that I have witnessed in not humanity at its most elementally debased and disgusting does not suggest that it is not disgusting at all.

The shift, this reflection in tow, proceeds uneventfully, aided by the cheeriness of my growing buzz. I converse pleasantly with Archie, the other cashier I mentioned, and with the English-speaking customers (and even a little bit with the Spanish speaking ones, from whom I’ve acquired the basic phraseology of small talk over time). At the end I lock the door, take the till to the office to count it down, then open a 22oz Budweiser, open the back door for ventilation, and light a cigarette. Some very hard questions present themselves: Have I really learned anything from this experience? Or were things that struck me as epiphanies into the human condition arbitrarily defined based upon my mood swings? To my left in the darkness behind the building are poorly stacked, dirty plastic soda crates awaiting pickup by the Pepsi and Coke delivery drivers, enclosed by an ugly, filthy cinderblock wall. To my right are the rusting cardboard and trash dumpsters, with the smell of stale urine wafting forth from the homeless folk that use the place as their latrine. It is a panoramic view of human waste and irresponsible consumption, of which I have been a principal purveyor for the last seven months.

But then something else comes to me: I am in such a foul mood, and inclined to spin such profound negativity, because I love this place a little bit and will miss it. It is not a love like a spouse or a sibling, or even a good friend, but like a cherished pet that I have raised to my liking and which obeys my every command. I have had the run of the place since shortly after receiving the keys, free to follow or disregard the rules as I saw fit. I had total mastery over my given work; its absolute lack of challenge was something that I maligned in the past but perhaps underestimated as a tool for freedom of thought. Not too many MA students choose to work in gas stations, and so I have been given an advanced degree of trust and autonomy. Did I use it well? Who knows, really? Sometimes yes, and most certainly sometimes no. I take one last long, agnostic look out into the darkness, and shut and bar the door.

I turn out the office light, step around the corner, and prepare to set the alarm. Archie is waiting at the front door, his cab running outside.

“You ready, Arch?”


I’ve asked him more than I’ve realized: I’ve asked him if he’s ready for me to set the alarm, but I’ve also asked him if he’s ready to part with someone he hardly knows forever, for another human being to drift from view, as we all do to each other eventually, leaving us, in our hearts, alone. It typically seems no tragedy to me that we pay remarkably little attention to one another in our brief time in the flesh, and yet today it does.

I punch, a bit more slowly than usual, 8…0…7…0…2 into the keyboard, a red light goes on and a series of loud, monotone beeps tells us to get the hell out of the building. Archie unlocks the front door, and I follow him out as he locks it behind us.

“It was nice working with you, Archie,” I say. And it was. I only knew him for three weeks, but he seems like a nice guy and I wish him well.

“Thanks,” he replies, “and good luck to you.”

But luck is not what I need right now: alcohol is what I need. As I trudge off into the chilly December night, full of a strange, small loss and a fair amount of beer, a question from the guy I steal half my questions from slowly slips into my thoughts. It’s a bit dramatic, to be sure, and lends tragic dimensions to what was a menial job, but seems oddly fitted to the conclusion of my tenure here:

Is this the promised end, or but the image of that horror?