I stand on a busy corner waiting for her to arrive.
We went to Taipei
When our romance was new, we would whisper deep into the night about moving to the city. We were young and we craved the center of the universe, searching for the crowd heat and machine noise that makes the world spin. The city promised action and progress; it offered escape and acceptance. We talked big until dawn, each of us dimly sensing that our love might not be real until we brought it to the city.
I fell for the city long before I met her. Dreams of blinking neon and fire escapes filled my teenage years; I fantasized about stone lions and all-night diners. I borrowed these images from movies and song lyrics and made them my own. I believed the city would transform me into somebody more interesting. To fall in love with a city is to fall in love with a moving target. The city is always changing, which is a valuable lesson for learning to love somebody.
The city was good for love because I discovered the world through her eyes, holding hands while I watched how she reacted to the chaos, spectacle, and light, her ideas bleeding into mine until the town became something we invented together. I held imaginary conversations with her about the things I saw when she was not with me. Sometimes I scribbled them into my notebook and brought them home to her.
Tonight I stand on a busy corner waiting for her to arrive, trying not to look at my watch. I scan the faces that pass by, each person defined by the simple fact of not being her. She is late or I am early and there is time to look up, which I rarely do these days. Gargoyles and grey glass. Spectral signs from the days of machine manufacturers and fruit importers. Cornices and eaves that make the neighborhood feel like a room. I watch the never-ending stream of people carrying their hopes, ailments, and gods I will never know. I search these people for her face until at last she appears with a goofy little wave and time resumes. This is when lover, crowd, and city become one.
These items will be condensed into bloodless pixels.
Everybody loves getting email, so please sign up for my monthly collection of ruminations, mythologies, grim photographs, heavy citations, and musical recommendations. Material will include heavily reverberated songs, tales of doomed Hollywood starlets, meditations on Walgreens, and cosmic quotations from Saul Bellow or perhaps Carl Jung or maybe my grandfather who believed adding cream and sugar to coffee was a sign of weak character. The first installment will be delivered on February 1.
What does it mean to be a good person? Many of us strive toward some distant light on the horizon that disappears like vapor when we draw near. Sometimes we punish ourselves for failing to grasp it, never realizing that striving is what makes us good. We hear this all the time: The journey not the destination. Progress not perfection. The maddening thing about clichés is that they are true. In 1920, John Dewey described it well: “Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining, is the aim in living. The bad man is the man who, no matter how good he has been, is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself and humane in judging others.”
He began working the county fair circuit, selling little bags of black fur that he claimed belonged to the alien’s large black dog.
“I Had a Lot of Fun”
On April 24, 1955, Buck Nelson took a trip to Venus, Mars, and the moon. “I had a lot of fun,” he said. The trip did not come as a surprise to Buck because he’d been communicating with extraterrestrials for nearly a year before he boarded their spaceship. At four o’clock on a July afternoon, he was listening to the radio at home in Missouri when the station went wild with strange tones he’d never heard before. His dogs went wild, too, howling and raising hell in his yard. From his kitchen window, Buck saw a gigantic silver disc hovering in the sky. He grabbed his camera and raced across the lawn. The ship zapped Buck with a heat ray that sent him crashing into a barrel. “It was hotter and brighter than the sun,” he later told an audience. “I certainly couldn’t have stood it if it lasted a few seconds longer.”
When Buck picked himself off the ground, the flying saucer was gone. So was his chronic back pain and the neuritis that troubled his left arm. He no longer needed his glasses. Whatever he saw in the sky that afternoon, Buck wanted to see it again.
Six months later, the saucer returned. “This time they circled low over the house and asked whether I was friendly or not,” he said. “They were using some kind of public address system, I think.” Buck told them he was very friendly and over the next few months, the saucer would land in his pasture and Buck befriended the two aliens, named Bob Solomon and Bucky. They conducted an interstellar cultural exchange, spending long evenings discussing mattresses, dogs, batteries, vegetables, and Jesus Christ. The aliens asked Buck if he would like to visit other planets and he said he would. Just before midnight on April 24, he put out several large bowls of food for his cat, Krazy, and his dog, Ted. He boarded the spaceship.
“Mars is very colorful,” Buck wrote. “I couldn’t tell where one color ended and another began. The people on Mars use solar and electric power.” The aliens told him he must warn everybody on Earth about the danger of nuclear power and they imparted the interstellar Twelve Laws of God, which are nearly identical to the Ten Commandments with minor embroideries such as “Your body is God’s. Do not misuse it in any way. Do not drink or eat anything that is not food. Use nothing to harm the body, either inside or out. Wear nothing on the body that harms it or is of no use.” Buck travelled the galaxy and returned home with the zeal of the born-again Christian. In 1956, the Grand Rapids Flying Saucer Club published My Trip to the Moon, Mars, and Venus, a pamphlet that chronicled Buck’s adventures. He enjoyed a brief moment of national celebrity, preaching the Twelve Laws of God until he was painted as a religious fanatic. He began working the county fair circuit, selling little bags of fur that he claimed belonged to Bo, the alien’s large black dog. After Buck disappeared from the public eye, he spent long nights in his basement tinkering with ham radio. Then he disappeared, leaving Krazy and Ted unfed.
“If You Lose, You Lose Nothing”
Buck Nelson’s story combines spiritual longing, technological fear, and Martians. Did he ever doubt his galactic adventure, perhaps blame it on too much sun or spoiled food? Imagine his family’s reaction to his return from outer space. How would you respond if your mother or wife told you she visited Mars and received the word of god?
Some say it does not matter if god exists, that the existence of a divine power has no effect on one’s happiness; it is belief that brings peace. Follow this logic and you hit the bedrock of Pascal’s Wager: Like it or not, all of us bet with our lives on god’s existence and, assuming the infinite gain of belief, a rational person should live as if god exists. “If you gain, you gain all,” wrote Pascal. “If you lose, you lose nothing.” The math is elegant, yet putting it into practice is another matter. Some people believe that spirituality is a discipline; other people are born into faith and do not question it. Some happily believe in nothing; others cast about throughout their lives, waiting for a white light moment that never arrives.
Buck Nelson had a white light moment extraordinaire. And there he is, selling little plastic bags of alien dog fur at the county fair. What he’s thinking about is impossible to say.
Rita rented a room on the far east edge of town in a motel with weekly rates. The scorched walls of the complex held old ladies stretching their pensions, sunburnt alcoholics, and young men who slept all day by the empty pool. Everybody seemed to be waiting for a phone call, a letter, or a sign. When she moved in, a bare bulb hung from the ceiling and the white shag carpet was stained purple and yellow. A ouija board and empty box of adult diapers sat in the center of the room. She ripped out the carpet and scrubbed top to bottom, determined to keep everything spartan and tidy, praying that minimalism would keep the chaos away. She owned six outfits, a bowl, and a spoon.
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” wrote Albert Camus.
A scene from the Former First Office of the Bureau of Manufactured History
Inspired by the methodology of Surrealism and the madness of Dada, the Bureau of Manufactured History works to uncover the unconscious content of the city. As our lives and neighborhoods become increasingly hyper-planned data-driven sites for commerce, the need for unpredictability, mystery, and romance becomes more urgent. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” wrote Albert Camus, and the fictions of our cities deserve more attention. With this principle in mind, the Bureau collects rumors, dreams, historical moments, personal reports, and coincidences that can be reconfigured into a chaotic wide-angle portrait of today’s city. Cities are subjective and wildly emotional creatures, and the Bureau shall bear witness to the dreams of the people who make them tick.
The Bureau of Manufactured History is a collaboration between artist Oliver Blank and myself that explores the personalities of cities. I spent the month of March in Indianapolis writing stories based on urban legends, historical rumors, and general chatter recorded on the Bureau’s open telephone line. Mr. Blank transformed elements of these stories into a 45-minute composition and a performance-based installation using a desk, audio speaker, the soul of Indianapolis, and a chair.
The Former Desk of the First Office of the Bureau of Manufactured History was unveiled at a ceremony on the third of May and will appear in unexpected locations throughout Indianapolis. A book called The Manufactured History of Indianapolis will be published in August 2013. The Bureau will open its doors in New Orleans in June 2013.
While at a Super 8 motel in West Virginia, I wrote this introduction for a book of road trip photographs by Matej Sitar, a photographer and artist living in Slovenia.
Matej Sitar’s beautiful book of snapshots from his journey along the west coast
While at a Super 8 motel in West Virginia, I wrote this introduction for America My Way, a book of photographs by Matej Sitar, a photographer and artist living in Slovenia:
Drive with the windows down and the radio on. Scroll down midnight streets in one-stoplight towns. Head west and the country opens into a vast desert floor surrounded by mountains and forest walls like a beautiful room. I’ve driven one hundred thousand miles through America and I’ve generated at least as many words and photographs in an attempt to understand my schizophrenic nation and my place within it. At first these road trips were political and personal. In the end, I was simply addicted to the buzz of being alone in a car with strange land laid out before me. Thousands have done the same, creating a rich body of songs, books, poems, films, and images of the American road, of the allure of following the long yellow line in search of something new. This sensation is difficult to explain, like trying to describe love or fear.
When Matej Sitar sent me the proofs to his book about driving along the west coast, I recognized moments from my own travels. Dashboards and blurry trees, dead cinderblock buildings and eerie motels. His lens captures the in-between: the junked cars along an empty highway, the strange watchtowers on blank plains that speed past the window, the side of the road where you ponder the map. His Polaroids prove that the journey always eclipses the destination. I’m jealous of his trip. He drove up from the bottom of California along the Pacific Coast Highway, one of America’s greatest works of art with its ribbon of asphalt blasted into sheer cliffside with the ocean crashing below. He kept going through Vancouver into the Yukon.
The Yukon. The name alone conjures one of the loneliest places I can imagine, all that blank space on the map where the sight of a fluorescent diner or an unexpected bookshop takes on deeper significance among the dark forests and fields of snow. How do you capture that motorway rush, the excitement of behind alone behind the wheel and exploring new terrain, of momentarily merging with the automobile and setting your mind free? It may be impossible but Matej Sitar’s snapshots come very close.
You can purchase America, My Way and see more photographs here
A jittery man with long blonde hair and an extra-large leather jacket warns me about the desert. “When you go out there, don’t listen to anybody who dares you to walk into the desert.”
Somewhere along the border of Arizona and New Mexico.
A jittery man with long blonde hair and an extra-large leather jacket warns me about the desert. “When you go out there, don’t listen to anybody who dares you to walk into the desert,” he says, sending his half-smoked cigarette skittering across the dark parking lot where it sparks against a pick-up truck. He clamps a big hand on my shoulder, squeezing hard. “I’m serious, man. People do it all the time. They’ll challenge each other to walk five or ten miles into the Mojave or Death Valley without any supplies and then walk five or ten miles back. They wager money on it.”
I tell him I’ve never heard of such a thing and he stares beyond me, watching the late night traffic. “Yeah, you can make some good money on a bet like that,” he says, “but I lost a few good friends that way.” His eyes narrow and I can see the tension in his jaw, the cords in his neck. God knows what he’s remembering. I turn to go. “Don’t forget,” he calls, “if you’re out there and you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated!”
Strings of sodium lights burn in the rainy Tokyo night. I love the sterilized anonymity of airports, the babel of the international terminal that sounds like the future.
Somewhere on the other side of the international date line.
Strings of sodium lights burn in the rainy Tokyo night. I love the sterilized anonymity of airports, the babel of the international terminal that sounds like the future. Tonight I’m feeling really Jetson on the E-Z Walk, no longer sure if it’s Saturday or Sunday. I scroll past strangers coping with this squishy sense of airport time in their private ways: benzodiazepines, crossword puzzles, and alien-looking pillows. I’m finally beating back my blockbuster thriller anxiety of falling out of the sky. I’m sick of white knuckles and leaving damaged armrests in my wake. I’m learning to Breathe and Visualize. Diaphragmatic instead of thoracic. Check me out during moderate turbulence, eyes gently closed and looking like zen.
Old men mumble to themselves in the smoking chambers. We try to make sense of the International Date Line. Everywhere I look, people are eating açai blueberries. It’s the new thing for staying aerated and anti-oxidized. A couple of severely tanned blondes drink scotch next to a family sitting down to orange juice and prayer. It doesn’t matter because time no longer exists except as a boarding call.
I wait for my connection to Hong Kong, watching service trucks and airplanes scutter through the rain. Funkadelic in my headphones. Eddie Hazel’s guitar on ‘Good Thoughts Bad Thoughts’ was composed for nights like this. Eight minutes later, George Clinton lays it down, sounding like a god tonight: “Change your mind and you change your relation to time. Your life is yours. It fits you like your skin. You gravitate to that which you secretly love most. You meet in life the exact reproduction of your own thoughts. There is no chance, coincidence, or accident. You rise as high as your dominant aspiration. You descend to the level of your lowest concept of yourself. Be careful of the seeds you plant in the garden of your mind, for seeds grow after their kind. The kingdom of heaven is within. Free your mind and your ass will follow. Play on, children. Sing on, lady.”
I was probably in second grade when I first became self-aware. No, it wasn’t painful, just surprising to suddenly find myself outside of my self, watching myself and wondering why I did the things I did. Eating orange popsicles until I was ill.
Me at nine, astral projecting
I was probably in second grade when I first became self-aware. No, it wasn’t painful, just surprising to unexpectedly find myself watching my self and wondering why I did the things I did. Eating orange popsicles until I was ill. Afraid to talk to the cool kids. Botched attempts to run away from home. Tantrums. Preferring rainy afternoons helping my mom in the kitchen to roughhousing with the neighborhood kids. I was a giant head floating through space, discovering that I would always experience the world as a sort-of-fuzzy and semi-transparent head forever critiquing its body for its thin voice, emotional hang-ups, physical fears, and that plaid shirt and periwinkle sweater combo. For this gift of self-consciousness, I could blame my parents or God or screwy serotonin levels or I could simply chalk it up to the human condition. Instead, I blame the school photographer.
On a Sunday morning my father and I put his little skiff into the water, wondering if we could make it to the Gulf.
Somewhere on the Bayou
The Intracoastal Waterway runs 3000 miles from Boston down to the Florida Keys and across the Gulf Coast into Brownsville, where Texas joins Mexico. This network of rivers, bays, sounds, bayous, and artificial canals provides safe passage for industrial barges and pleasure craft without the danger of the open ocean. At the bottom of Louisiana where the land bleeds into the Gulf of Mexico, the Waterway is a hard diagonal slash from New Orleans to the sea.
On a Sunday morning my father and I put his little skiff into the water, wondering if we could make it to the Gulf. The grind of the motor emptied my head of everything except speed and smeared color: the dull blue water, the rust of half-sunk boats and wrecked machinery, and so much tropical green that it felt obscene. We motored through water with dark mysterious names like Lake Salvator, Wreck Bay, Lost Lake, Sun Lagoon, and — sounding like a dangerous gauntlet — a squared-off lake called The Pen.
My father’s first boat sank in The Pen. Sunken docks, busted gas lines, and shipwrecks live just below the surface of these waters, waiting to ruin your propeller or punch a hole in your boat’s bottom. My dad’s skiff hit a dock post with the throttle open full tilt, flinging him from the boat and gashing his leg. He floated in the water for two hours, watching the sun set until the Coast Guard airlifted him to the roof of a hospital. Now he sits next to me in his second skiff, deeply tanned and wearing his fishing hat and grinning, looking the happiest I’ve seen since my mom died three years ago. He moved from Detroit to New Orleans this year and it’s wonderful to see him on the water again. He’s one of those men that belongs in a boat, happily crawling around, throwing ropes and tightening lines and nevermind the pitching and rolling of the waves.
Somewhere on the Bayou
Sunlight sparkles across the water and I catch a bit of vertigo and begin thinking of outer space, thinking maybe tonight I’ll try to watch Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos without panicking at the thought of so much empty space and endless time. My mom died three years ago at the end of August and my father and I still don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t know how to think about it. We sit in the boat saying things like “It’s been a tough week” and “I miss her” and “Feels like it happened yesterday.” Then we get quiet and eat our sandwiches and I think my mom would like this scene, that we’re together on the water.
We cruise past defunct refineries and fishing towns with names like Lafitte and Barataria. Keep going and soon there are little villages without names down below where Route 45 ends. No roads can get down here because it’s all bayou and marsh. Ribbons of water create streets along the docks and porches of beat-up cottages and cozy shacks with manicured lawns. In a clearing, white gravestones run down to the river’s edge. Handwritten signs say “Slow Down! No Wake.” An old man puttering on his porch yells at me to slow down although I’ve got the Suzuki at five miles per hour and it’s nearly shuddering to a stall. A group of sunburnt men on a dock inspect each other’s fishing gear. Some give a friendly wave, others flash superstitious looks.
Somewhere on the Bayou
Louisiana loses a football field of land every 38 minutes and, showcasing one of the most demented arrangements in American politics, we have a governor who not only denies climate change but compels our schools to teach Christian nonsense rather than science.
The gothic trees give way to low grass and soon the water breaks into a sharp chop and the boat slams down hard again and again and I begin worrying about my spine. A spray of saltwater fills my mouth, knocks off my sunglasses, and the boat pitches hard starboard. While I wrestle with the wheel and curse, my father just grins all zen-like with his laminated map in his lap. We pass a fat seagull on a green buoy and then there’s nothing but wide open sea. This is the Gulf of Mexico and a storm is churning out there.
She’s got a supervisor with a big Steak ‘n Shake logo running up his forearm.
Along old Route 66 in Arizona
She dreams of doing jigsaw puzzles on rainy afternoons. She’s got a supervisor with a big Steak ‘n Shake tattoo running up his forearm who told her to quit digging for her rock bottom. “You can always keep digging,” he said, handing her a paycheck and waving her away. So last Tuesday she packed up her old Pontiac and pointed it west at three in the morning. Her phone kept beeping while she sped into the desert, telling her about an uprising in a country she’d never heard of, about stock market jitters and the death of an actress. All these billboards, headlines, news alerts, and radio jingles: it’s like having a noisy person in the room, an unwanted guest who never leaves. She rolled the window down and threw the phone into the Mojave.
She punched a cassette tape into the dash and listened for answers beneath the saturated drums of the Ronettes, big drums that crashed and dripped with fever-dream history. Ronnie and her incredible beehive singing “Keep on Dancing” back in ’64, a song so good that Phil refused to release it. He kept a solid gold coffin in the basement and told Ronnie he’d put her inside it if she tried to leave. Jump cut to Ronnie, running down the street yelling with bits of plate glass window in her feet.
The music hurt. She cut the volume. Everything had a sad story. She’d keep driving until she found a small desert town with a faded Help Wanted sign in the window of a roadhouse or diner and she’d start over just like in the movies.
As I watched the old woman twitch in front of the bulletproof glass, I saw Ernest Hemingway walking into an airplane propeller.
Night signs in America
Slouched in a white plastic chair, I listened to a former Marine describe how he tried to shoot up in his left eyeball after his veins were tapped out. I smoked another Newport, shook his hand, and went to bed. Next day I’m waiting in line at the Gas ‘n Go behind an enormous man with a pistol butt hanging over the elastic band of his green sweatpants. I stared at the pebbled steel handle, hating this country while a shakey old lady tugged at my sleeve, saying, “Son, will you buy me this can of High Life?” She smacked her gums and grinned, her tongue working the last remaining tooth in her little head.
“I’ll give you some money,” I said, “but I’m not buying you any beer.” She yanked a dollar from my hand and laughed. “I’ll buy it myself then, goddammit,” she muttered, marching to the counter. As I watched this pickled old woman in an electric blue kerchief twitch in front of the cashier’s bulletproof glass, I caught a glimpse of Ernest Hemingway walking into an airplane propeller.
In 1961, the man who dominated American letters for forty years finally came undone. Alcoholic and gravely ill, he could no longer write. He flew to the Mayo Clinic for another round of detox and electroshock. When his airplane stopped in Wyoming for repairs, he wandered onto the runway and began walking towards the spinning propeller. The mythology of the indestructible Papa came crumbling down: the brave man of war, boxing, bullfights, brawls, drunken safaris, and countless fractures and concussions; the man who survived two airplane crashes in two days, who would show up battered in his publishers’s office saying, “How do you like me now, gentlemen?” The man for whom courage was everything. Now he was being restrained on the tarmac before he could reach the whirling blades. Three months later, he woke up early in his Idaho house, put his favorite shotgun in his mouth, and pulled both triggers.
The old lady stepped away from the counter, cracked her tallboy of Miller High Life and grinned. “God bless you,” she said, giving a little bow. I left the store, unable to shake the image of a former powerhouse in so much psychic pain that he wrapped himself in a bathrobe against the April wind and, body pitched forward, shuffled towards a spinning propeller. Maybe we’re all walking into our own little propellers everyday, the grim decisions that some of us make when we’re convinced we’re tapped out and falling through the cracks. Refusing to stop or unable to begin; some of us are afraid to go outside, others are afraid to come home and ask for help. So many people suffering through too many long nights of the soul, unsure of what to do or where to go. If one of literature’s most disciplined minds and macho bodies got addicted to a quart of booze per day and shuffled towards an airplane propellor — well, maybe we’re all at risk of a crack-up.
Last week I met a kid who’d been awake for four days straight and the look in his eyes put the fear of the devil into me. Why is the human mind capable of tormenting itself to such a painful degree? “I’ll never sleep again,” he said. “I’m ruined.” What gesture or word could soothe that insomniac kid or help the alcoholic old lady or the Marine and his eyeball — or me, when I’m in a tailspin? Certainly not phrases like snap out of it or have some self control. I recall a girl perched on a barstool, hugging her knees and giggling hysterically at her boyfriend, saying, “Just remember that when you point your finger at me, you’ve got three pointing right back at you.”
Last night I sat in a Waffle House listening to short-order cooks with elaborate neck tattoos talk junk over the fryer while a woman at the counter shuddered and quietly cried. She looked around the room, her red eyes pleading for a sign that she was not alone, that other people felt this lousy, too. The only thing she wanted was empathy because that’s the thing that heals.
* * *
America is not an empathetic culture. We plow more money into widgets for our telephones than feeding those of us who are hungry. Most of us walk past people in terrible distress, believing they are the inevitable background scenery of modern life. I’m part of this problem; my moral arithmetic has been busted for a very long time. During the last month I’ve seen things, done things, and met people who have taught me to rethink the way I live. Foundation-shaking stuff that I cannot yet articulate. But I’m ready to listen, volunteer my time, reprioritize, and reconsider the work that I do. To directly help as many people as possible find a little peace in this noisy overheated world that we’ve created. Including myself.
Somewhere in Michigan A big old Thunderbird pulls up to the curb blasting Curtis Mayfield. Doors pop open. The driver comes round the hood and lifts a trembly old man in sky blue pajamas from the passenger seat and carefully sets him in a wheelchair and this ancient guy is grinning from ear to ear […]
Somewhere in Michigan
A big old Thunderbird pulls up to the curb blasting Curtis Mayfield. Doors pop open. The driver comes round the hood and lifts a trembly old man in sky blue pajamas from the passenger seat and carefully sets him in a wheelchair and this ancient guy is grinning from ear to ear the entire time, singing if there’s hell below, we’re all gonna go.
They climbed for hours because there were no roads, choking on dust and hauling bags loaded with equipment. Klieg lights, tarps, helmets, a strange inflatable vehicle. When they reached the top, the commanding officer put the Rolleiflex on the tripod and said, One picture before we clear the set. The lieutenant and private grinned next […]
They climbed for hours because there were no roads, choking on dust and hauling bags loaded with equipment. Klieg lights, tarps, helmets, a strange inflatable vehicle. When they reached the top, the commanding officer put the Rolleiflex on the tripod and said, One picture before we clear the set. The lieutenant and private grinned next to the sign and the camera clicked.
Now will you tell me why you brought me up here? asked the private. His lieutenant laughed. We’re going to do something out of this world, you and me, and we need to do it right away because the Reds— it’s a matter of national morale.
They began to argue. Yelling turned into shoving and soon both men were bloodied, panting and crumpled in the cool mountain dirt. They fell next to the bag with the shovel, pick-axe, and American flag. Only one man made it down.
Recent surveys indicate that as many as 20% of Americans surveyed believe that NASA’s moon landings were faked. The Flat Earth Society believes they were sponsored by Walt Disney and staged by Hollywood, based on a script by Arthur C. Clarke and directed by Stanley Kubrick. More.
In the morning I found a note to myself: “Go to Chick-Fil-A, then buy a weight set. Be more alpha.”
Left to my own devices, I’m pretty sure I’d be holed up in some dead-end motel in the desert, drinking jaw-dropping amounts of Johnnie Walker and chain-smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes, ungroomed and covered in Cheez-It dust while watching headline news on mute. I haven’t had a drink in over three years and ten days before that, it was another three years. But this tendency to self-destruct beats in my core, I’m sure of it. Perhaps all of us carry it to some degree, although I hope some of us are lucky enough to never know it.
The other night I was laying on the couch and thinking about booze, watching the ceiling fans spin like they’re the sound of the Velvet Underground’s swirling guitars come to life as dangerous machines. And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds. And everybody puttin’ everybody else down. And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds. In the morning I found a note to myself: “Go to Chick-Fil-A, then buy a weight set. Be more alpha.”
I’m fascinated by the impulse to procrastinate on the things that are good for me, the things which make me happy when I actually do them. Tomorrow I will swim, tomorrow I will work on the book. Tomorrow I will wake up, stretch, make the bed, and eat granola. Sometimes this line of thinking goes too far: tomorrow I will be perfect. This is crippling. I’ll find myself waiting for the clouds to part, the sky to open up, to catch a glimpse of something magical— divine, even —some kind of sign that says Go. Which never happens.
Someday I would like to touch my toes. Someday I will think about spiritual matters.
We live in an age of thousands of motivational phrases, self-help manuals, transformational conferences, inspiration blogs, and sloganeering riffing on carpe diem, all of which boils down to the same thing: sit down and do the work.
Money is flowing into North Dakota. So are people and traffic. A few remote farming towns sit on what is known as the Bakken oil field where billions of barrels of oil are sandwiched between shale rock across 200,000 square miles. Todd Melby, a journalist for public radio, is spending the year in the northwest corner of North Dakota covering the oil boom. He’s putting voices and faces to the wild statistics and explosive growth. Black Gold Boom presents portraits of people like Bobcat John the knife seller, rig workers looking for entertainment, Adell and her food truck, and the cage fights, rodeos, bumper stickers, pop-up restaurants, art, and massive development projects that radiate from this sudden activity.
I worked with Todd and Localore on developing an identity for the project, putting his audio portraits online with the aid of Zeega, and developing a series of public engagement materials to begin a conversation about the impact of the boom. Check out the first version of the site and meet the people who are rockin’ the Bakken at Black Gold Boom.
Public speaking is the number one fear of American adults. Although I enjoy teaching and public arguments, the idea of standing on a stage and delivering a speech fills me with shimmery panic.
A slide from my talk. Me, behind the wheel circa 1982.
Public speaking is the number one fear of American adults. Although I enjoy teaching and public arguments, the idea of standing on a stage and delivering a speech fills me with shimmery panic because there’s always that unpleasant dynamic: I have something important to say, so I’ll stand at a higher altitude while you sit there and take it. (This tendency was exacerbated after reading Paolo Freire’s critique of the “banking method” of education.) I prefer dialogue and tend to avoid stages. However, I was flattered when my old college invited me to deliver a talk at their TEDx event, mostly because I was such a mess during my six years of undergraduate school that it felt good to return and deliver this message: You can be a total catastrophe when you’re 20 years old but you’ll turn out okay and eventually they’ll invite you back.
I stared into the footlights and gave my speech and people clapped and the organizers were ridiculously nice, going so far as to invite me to deejay at the afterparty, which gave me a rare opportunity to play the 13th Floor Elevators at ear-splitting volume. It was a wonderful night and I thought it ended there. But some joker had a video camera and now it’s on the internet. Even though I won’t watch the video, I feel I should acknowledge its presence.
A couple of notes: 1) Requesting a podium caused a mild controversy. Apparently this goes against the TED handbook. We compromised on a music stand, which suited me just fine. I believe writers should read rather than stalk around the stage making theatrical arm gestures. So it’s not a very exciting talk. 2) This speech draws on several pieces from my book and my writing on this blog, and I feel like I finally found a resting place for my ongoing questions about adulthood, chivalry, and anxiety in the modern age. It begins like this:
I found myself in Metropolis one bright afternoon. An abandoned city out in the middle of Nevada with nothing around except the ruins of a hotel, a school, a cemetery, and a thin dirt trail. Established in 1910 as an ambitious new farming and railroad hub, the town faced coyotes, disease, and a poor water supply. By 1920, it was bankrupt and everybody left.
If you’d like to be uninspired for the next fifteen minutes, you’re welcome to watch the video at TEDx. Or don’t watch it and allow me to remain mysterious. No matter what you decide, I’d like to thank Kelsey Rhodes, Dylan Box, and the other TEDx people for inviting me to ramble about Walgreens, dignity, and baseball caps.
Something bad happened by the lake. They wouldn’t talk about it. Neither would the man in the powder blue shirt. They saw themselves differently after that day and the world changed. Reality felt a bit thinner. The years passed and they carried on with their hobbies and family obligations, feeling like they were always wearing brave faces that others mistook as normal. He kept part of the tree stump in the corner of their bedroom, much to his wife’s chagrin. He kept it as a reminder of what they must never do again.
There are nights when I listen to “Jesus Children of America” for hours. Dig that plush and slightly ominous opening bass before it erupts into one of the most reassuring and righteous songs I’ve ever heard.
Rehearsing for a concert in Los Angeles. Al Satterwhite, 1974 | buy print
There are nights when I listen to “Jesus Children of America” for hours. Dig that plush and slightly ominous bass before it erupts into one of the most reassuring and righteous songs I’ve ever heard. He sings about Jesus, yes, but he questions where we find our faith. The song is a challenge to faith in religion: “Tell me holy roller, are you standing like a soldier? Are you standing for everything you talk about?” A challenge to people who find it in drugs: “Are you happy when you stick a needle in your vein? Tell the truth.” A challenge to our preoccupation with the superficial: “Transcendental meditation gives you peace of mind.” A sense of urgency is shot through the whole thing, as if the world might come undone at any moment. “You’d better tell your story fast,” he sings.
Wonder built the songs on Innervisions from his Fender Rhodes keyboard and Moog synthesizer, a groundbreaking approach in 1973. Loaded with classics like “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground,” Innervisions went on to win a Grammy for the album of the year and, forty years later, it continues to appear on lists of the best albums of all-time.
Three days after the album was released, Wonder performed in South Carolina. After the show, he was sleeping in the passenger seat as the band drove north through Durham. A truck loaded with timber hit the brakes. The car crashed and a log smashed through the windshield, striking Wonder in his forehead. He spent four days in a coma. “We brought one of his instruments — I think it was the clarinet — to the hospital,” said his friend Ira Tucker. “For a while, Stevie just looked at it. You could see he was afraid to touch it because he didn’t know if he still had it in him. He didn’t know if he could still play. And then, when he finally did touch it… man, you could just see the happiness spreading all over him. I’ll never forget that.”
Wonder lost his sense of smell but he found God. “I would like to believe in reincarnation,” he said. “I would like to believe that there’s another life. I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around. For me, I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ even before the accident. Something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together.”
A half-buried car sits on a hill, its face pointed into the sky. This is where the American landscape reaches its logical conclusion: eerie monuments built from the machines that shaped our nation.
There’s nothing on County Road 59 in western Nebraska, but it’s a beautiful kind of nothing. Prairie, scrub brush, sleepy cattle, and lots of sky. A few miles beyond the town of Alliance, a familiar structure appears on the horizon: the crumbling gates of Stonehenge, built from junked cars painted ghostly white. After his father passed away in 1982, Jim Reinders built “Carhenge” on the family farm as a memorial. The city council ordered the sheriff to tear it down. “I thought the city council was giving Jim a pretty bum rap,” the sheriff said, so she lobbied the community and Carhenge still stands today. A few other cars are strewn along the perimeter. A gravestone reads: “Here lie three bones of foreign cars. They served our purpose while Detroit slept. Now Detroit is awake and America’s great!”
A half-buried car sits on a hill, its face pointed into the sky. This is where the American landscape reaches its logical conclusion: eerie monuments built from the machines that shaped our nation.
Roger Troutman, 1981 Tonight we’re rewinding to Dayton, Ohio in 1979 where Roger Troutman’s rocking a sequin jacket and singing “More Bounce to the Ounce” through his custom-built vocoder aka the Electro Harmonix Golden Throat. Together Roger and his brother Larry formed Zapp, one of the most influential forces behind funk, electro, low-riding Cadillacs, and […]
Roger Troutman, 1981
Tonight we’re rewinding to Dayton, Ohio in 1979 where Roger Troutman’s rocking a sequin jacket and singing “More Bounce to the Ounce” through his custom-built vocoder aka the Electro Harmonix Golden Throat. Together Roger and his brother Larry formed Zapp, one of the most influential forces behind funk, electro, low-riding Cadillacs, and robot voices. This is the intersection of Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, and Cybotron, and it seems like a good way to begin the midnight show.
Twenty years after this recording, Larry shot and killed Roger before turning the gun on himself. The motive remains unclear.
Somtheeng Dee’frent! South of the Border. 26 miles. Keep Yelling Kids, They’ll Stop. Pedro’s Weather Report: Chilly Today, Hot Tamale! 21 miles. Too Moch Tequila! South of the Border.
Somewhere along the border of North and South Carolina.
The signs never stop: You’ll Be Tickled Pink at South of the Border. 90 miles. Time for a Paws? South of the Border. 72 miles. You Never Sausage a Place! (Everybody’s a Weiner at Pedro’s!) 50 miles. Somtheeng Dee’frent! South of the Border. 26 miles. Keep Yelling Kids, They’ll Stop. 21 miles. Pedro’s Weather Report: Chilly Today, Hot Tamale! 17 miles. Too Moch Tequila! South of the Border.
For over 170 miles, Interstate 95 delivers a relentless attack of puns from a cartoon bandito named Pedro who desperately urges you to visit South of the Border. Thirty billboards later, I finally reached the state line that separates North and South Carolina, and of course I needed to stop and find out what the hell Pedro was banging on about for the past three hours: It’s the biggest rest stop/trucker shower/trinket shop/fireworks store/mini-golf compound in the world.
Pedro wears a sombrero, a poncho, and a big mustache. He vibes like a flickering fever-dream racist Disney cartoon, and the effect is compounded when he’s one hundred feet tall and surrounded by Pedro’s Pleasure Dome, Pedro’s Reality Ride, and the Sombrero Room Restaurant.
South of the Border started in 1950 as Alan Schafer’s bar, which was a popular oasis for residents living in North Carolina’s dry counties. According to Roadside America, Schafer began importing Mexican souvenirs and arranged for two Mexican boys to come to America and work for him. “Somebody began calling them Pedro and Pancho,” he said. “And since it fit into the theme, we began calling them both Pedro.” Today, all South of the Border workers, regardless of race, are called Pedro.
I parked the car and gazed up at Pedro’s dead painted eyes. A couple of college kids in a jeep hollered at the animal statues. Families wandered through the maze of parking lots, looking perplexed as they passed by Pedro’s Africa Shop and Pedro’s Leather Shop. The fireworks supermarket advertised military and senior citizen discounts. As I stood on the walkway over Route 301 watching the sun sink behind the neon sombreros, a man in a black t-shirt and camouflage pants approached. We stood together and watched the traffic and tourists. “Hell of a place, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s a good word for it,” I said. It may be one of the ickiest parts of America, but it’s also one of the most effectively marketed. I stopped for it.
Now here’s a beautiful and strange song that feels like watching Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil on a bad trip. With so many of these old bands, if you dig up their backstory. you’ll find grim stories of self-destruction, poverty, exploitation, and violence. The Coasters were no exception. “Saxophonist and “fifth Coaster” King Curtis was stabbed to death by two junkies outside his apartment building in 1971. Cornelius Gunter was shot to death while sitting in a Las Vegas parking garage in 1990. Nate Wilson, a member of one of Gunter’s offshoot Coasters groups, was shot and his body dismembered in 1980. Former manager Patrick Cavanaugh was convicted of the murder after Wilson threatened to notify authorities of Cavanaugh’s intent to buy furniture with stolen checks. The Coasters continue to appear regularly on oldies shows and PBS specials as old favorites and are available for bookings.” More…
Ten days until I’m back on the road. Alabama. North Carolina. Philadelphia. New York. Toronto. Detroit. Chicago, and then a hard shot to the top of North Dakota to check out the oil boom and work with Todd Melby and Localore before speeding south across the plains to Texhoma. Not sure what I’ll listen to, but this is a good start:
This election has been going on for thirty-two years now, ever since they wrote a script for the actor in the cowboy hat.
Somewhere in the Florida Everglades.
They’ve got televisions in every damned restaurant these days. “It was my favorite swimsuit,” says a spokesmodel. “I felt sexy in it but confident.” A news anchor with aerodynamic hair looks me in the eye and says our passwords on the internet will be replaced by our retinas and heartbeats. “It might happen sooner than you think,” she says. I walk through large malls with nothing that I need. Somebody in North Dakota tells me I can buy my own drone for $300.
An old TV in the corner of the bar shows a cigar-chomping real estate developer paving a highway over Bugs Bunny’s rabbit hole. “You can either move out or we’ll blast ya out!” I wait for Bugs to pull out his ACME bazooka. Meanwhile an old man in a jean jacket snaps into his phone, “Just flip on your windshield wipers when it ain’t raining and you’ll see what I’m talking about.” This sounds profound, like a new way of looking at the world. I close my eyes and imagine the possibilities.
Whenever I look at the news I see lunatic sentences: He said the ‘secular left’ undermines American values established by the Founding Fathers as he sought to rejuvenate his presidential bid… Or: I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. This election has been going on for thirty-two years now, ever since they wrote a script for the actor in the cowboy hat. Each year they put more explosions in the screenplay, desperate to keep the audience in their seats.
I try to block out the political chatter but the information seeps into my head nonetheless, statistics and sound bites flowing through some collective membrane while we sleep. Grown men talk about the threat of birth control and gay marriage and people take them seriously. I flip on the news and see war in everybody’s eyes. The fundamentalists want to invade the fundamentalists. Maybe it’s a good time for America to end. In 1917, Jacques Vaché argued that true protest required more than deserting a war or a nation. It demanded “desertion from within.” I turn up the radio on a Persian pop track from ’74 and think about what this means. Tend my garden. Read more fiction. Cheer the end of nations. I’d like to visit Havana but my country won’t let me.
Marjan – Kavir-e Del from Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s | buy vinyl
“We hope that Iranians around the world will rediscover these songs. This collection is, in some sense, dedicated to a generation in self-imposed mental exile, due to years of war and catastrophe; decades of lies and bombs; a fundamentalist theocracy of reformist shams; addiction; isolation and alienation; unemployment, and inflation.” More…
“The message was clear: when society is dissolving, the best one can do is help it crumble.”
A few miles east of Tuba City, Arizona.
“The message was clear: when society is dissolving, the best one can do is help it crumble,” writes Mark Polizzotti in Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. This big biography of Surrealism’s leader offers a startling snapshot of the horrified response of artists and writers to a machine war that left nine million dead. “The rage these young men felt, their bitterness against official notions of ‘culture,’ was fueled in part by their fury at having seen the representatives of this culture embrace and promote a war they considered pointless and baleful. But even more than this, it was the sheer vanity of the literary enterprise that revolted them, the self-congratulatory uselessness of writing yet one more novel, publishing yet one more collection of poems, and in the end doing no more than adding to one’s petty renown. If the act of writing was to mean anything, it had to be more than just literature; creation had to yield to more than mere art.”
In 1918, Tristan Tzara announced that “the beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” His partner Marcel Janco recalled: “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking the bourgeois, demolishing his idea of art, attacking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”
Where is today’s dangerous art? I live in a nation where police drones, abstract wars, intrusive corporations, and Christian hate are increasingly common features. The emerging Occupy Movement is the only modern extension of Tzara’s disgust, the only glimmer of sanity in a society that is losing dignity by the day — yet where is the new writing, the new art and music? If asking such a question immediately reveals that I’m out of touch, that’s fine. I simply want to know. I want someone to take my hand and walk me over to the bleeding edge.
Perhaps technology is the new avant-garde. The internet oftentimes feels like a collective exercise in automatic writing that plumbs the psyche of our culture. Screens are the new mechanism to forge new alliances and shock the normals, yet we’re more concerned with building new channels, new applications and widgets rather than filling these things with emotional content that might trigger a response. In 1917, the Russian Constructivists fetishized technology, dreaming of the day when we would have “a universal trampoline that will enable a great leap into human culture.” We have it now.
What was the last piece of art to scandalize an audience? The last book to cause an uproar? Looking in the rearview at art movements from one hundred years ago offers a skewed image, yet I believe that Tristan Tzara and André Breton are the ideal spiritual guides for this age of violence, speed, complacency, and sudden modernity. We need more mischief and outrage in our words and pictures.
“The Walkman changed the way we understand cities,” wrote William Gibson in 1989.
South Broadway, Los Angeles.
“The Walkman changed the way we understand cities,” wrote William Gibson in 1989. “I first heard Joy Division on a Walkman, and I remain unable to separate the experience of the music’s bleak majesty from the first heady discovery of the pleasures of musically encapsulated fast-forward urban motion.”
Today we move through our cities with cameras, music, maps, and local news on our telephones. We share snapshots with the world. We are globally positioned. We check-in to restaurants and weather events, we tag each other on the weekends. I wonder if our handheld devices allow us to understand and document the city in an exciting new way, or if they insulate us from its details, muffling the background chatter of our private thoughts during the idle moments spent standing at a crosswalk or waiting for a friend who’s running late, those moments when the stoops and fire escapes and strange alleys and gothic archways begin to make themselves visible to us.
Bohren und der Club of Gore – Black City Skyline from Sunset Mission. PIAS Recordings, 2000 | buy mp3s
One of the best albums for listening to the city when you’re alone. The liner notes say, “Alone in the comforting darkness the creature waits. As confusion reigns on this hellish stage, the deafening grind of machinery, the odious clot of chemical waste. Still, the trail of his ultimate prey leads through this steely maze to these, the addled offspring of the modern world.” From Matt Wagner’s Grendel.
Take a look at Herman Leonard’s portrait of Art Blakey at Club St. Germain in Paris, 1958. His perfect black tie, the way he clutches his sticks and roars.
Herman Leonard — Art Blakey, 1958. On view at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Take a look at Herman Leonard’s portrait of Art Blakey playing at Club St. Germain in Paris back in 1958. Check out his perfect black tie and sharp suit, the way he clutches his sticks and roars.
While studying photography, Leonard served as a medical technician in World War II, fighting the Japanese with Chiang Kai Shek’s troops in Burma. When he returned to New York in 1948, Leonard set up a studio in Greenwich Village and began chronicling the emerging bebop scene, using his camera to gain admission to the Royal Roost and Birdland. “He was a master of jazz, except his instrument was a camera,” said K. Heather Pinson. After living in Paris, Ibiza, and London, Leonard settled in New Orleans for 14 years, until the failure of the 17th Canal Levee following Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and 8000 prints. Read about him in The New York Times; more portraits here.
Notes on telephones, eavesdropping, and chivalry at the art museum.
Dieter Roth’s Solo Scenes at The Museum of Modern Art, NYC
“She wrote a children’s book about an aardvark and it’s so damned depressing,” says an old man with earrings. “Now she’s taking some time off to get her head together.” His friend makes a sound of sympathy and they walk further down the hall towards the big Rothko.
A few feet from Salvador Dali’s Persistance of Memory, a thick man with a buzzcut and puffy red jacket yells into his cellphone, “No fuck that, the best fucking job would be back-up quarterback in the NFL.” A tall man in a tailored overcoat chases after a beautiful blonde, saying, “I just want you to know that I hate you right now. I really do. I hate you so much.” He laughs, but I can’t tell if he’s joking.
These bursts of conversation compete with the paintings. I get jostled and pushed. I stare at De Kooning’s women, their deranged stares and manic energy. Looking at those pink and grey whorls, I begin to understand his famous remark that “flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented.”
I hold a door open for a woman with a cane and dozens of people stream through behind her, an endless thread of tourists, students, and art fans. Seeing no opportunity to let go of the door, I accept my new station and watch the river of wrinkles, hairstyles, beautiful eyes, synthetic fabrics, bad teeth, elaborate sneakers, and pushed-up cleavage, all these people passing me without a nod or thank you. Misanthropy sets in. I imagine each person as a terrible oil painting. In the room behind me, there’s a video loop of a woman falling before a fake firing squad. She falls again and again, legs splayed out in a different position each time, forever rehearsing a moment of violence.
An artist cooks curry in a gallery. This is the exhibit: a room where a man ladles curry from a pot for visitors. He’s not cooking today, but a sign explains that he was cooking a few weeks ago and this represents a new type of relationship between the artist and the audience. In the next room, a photographer gives the middle finger to black-and-white skylines. “Is this abstraction or realism? I can’t tell the difference anymore,” says a woman in a see-through blouse.
I’m ready to give up on art. Then I see a bank of 128 screens lining two walls of a room. They broadcast the final year of an artist’s life. We watch him in his studio in the months before dying of a heart attack on June 5, 1998. We see him sleeping, working, writing, scratching himself, sitting on the toilet, eating alone, leaning against the kitchen counter and staring into space. A card on the wall says these actions capture the “isolation, loneliness, and tedium of everyday living.” This cumulative diary of the mundane seems both tragic and prescient, a man’s final year projected against the way we chronicle our lives on the internet today.
Upstairs, three old ladies in folding chairs marvel at the skyline. A drowsy voice on the PA says all galleries will be closing in ten minutes. I push my way past hundreds of people gazing into screens and bumping into one another. Out on the street, I shake off the claustrophobia and crowds. I sit in a corporate plaza, surrounded by faces looking down at glowing screens, broadcasting and receiving. We are a nation damned by our handheld devices. Meanwhile, on the second floor of the museum, a man’s final year plays to an empty room. Somewhere there’s a connection between recording and life, between the public and private. It’s a connection that I cannot make but it seems very brave.
Sometimes I imagine Amazon’s mysterious warehouse in the center of the earth and I shiver. So now I’m selling my book directly.
Sometimes I imagine Amazon.com’s mysterious warehouse in the center of the earth and I shiver. An endless overheated concrete room filled with boxes, fluorescent tubes, conveyor belts, and no windows or joy. So now I’m selling my book directly through Civic Center. Each signed copy comes with a photograph mounted to a linen notecard, a handsome receipt, and a couple of Big American Night stickers. In fact, the book is really just an elaborate sticker delivery device. Order yours today.
The people at Photo Life wrote this very generous review, which might sweeten the pot:
Unpretentious and insightful, James A. Reeves’s The Road to Somewhere is a photo memoir of his journey driving all over the United States. Through his photographs and candid, episodic storytelling, Reeves documents his experiences and the people he encounters in various regions of the United States, reflecting with uncommon honesty on both positive and negative aspects of the culture. Reeves’s obsession with driving long distances in rental cars is fuelled by his search to figure out what it means to be an adult and to live a meaningful life in a complicated world. His unique point of view clearly comes through in both his writing and images: quirky, beautiful, disturbing, humorous, and at times unexpectedly and achingly moving.
James Brown performs for American troops during the Vietnam War. June, 1968. Photo by Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis
“I ain’t talkin’ just to tease. People like you don’t grow on trees. Look here, this is what’s gonna be. I have everything I need around my soulful Christmas tree. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. I love you. Have good cheer. I love you. Good God. Got my baby, my precious love. Happiness. Good God. Huh. I got plenty of it. Would you believe I got peace of mind? And I’ll be grooving at Christmastime. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. May you have good cheer. I love you. James Brown loves you, you lucky so and so. Oh. Ow. Soulful Christmas like a sweet melody. I’m a lucky so and so. The bells are gonna ring for me. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. To all of my fans, have good cheer. I love you, I love you. Won’t take nobody else. I can’t stand myself. Huh. Good God. I gotta heart full of love for the whole wide world and a little special love for my soulful girl. I get this feelin’ every night and then I gotta get ready to bring the New Year in.”
—James Brown, 1968
This was the year of beautiful music that brought me back home to the joy of collecting vinyl. This was a year of stately library music, motorik night-driving soundtracks, nostalgic lo-fi Americana, and existentially horrifying bass tones.
This was the year of beautiful music that brought me back home to the joy of collecting vinyl. This was a year of stately library music, motorik night-driving soundtracks, nostalgic lo-fi Americana, and existentially horrifying bass tones. No matter the genre, something was in the air this year: everybody seemed to keep their reverb pedals cranked to eleven, making moody songs that crept through the walls. Just look at all these black-and-white album covers. It was a very good year. Here are my eleven favorite records for 2011, in no particular order.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen Kranky | vinyl | mp3s
Inspired by a beheaded statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, this project provided my soundtrack for early morning writing and picking up the pieces after midnight. Song titles like “We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced, for the Earth Had Circled the Sun Yet Another Year” and “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” sum up this perfect set of dignified classical drift. Check this simple and beautiful video.
Andy Stott – Passed Me By Modern Love | vinyl
It’s difficult to say I like this album because it scares the hell out of me. I first listened to it while running along a cold beach at dusk. When “Execution” popped into my headphones, I stood frozen, staring at the ocean as it came crashing down on the black rocks, looping mindlessly and forever as Stott’s glacial bass tones thrummed in my head. Nature suddenly felt sinister and destructive. I shuddered, as if I’d peeked behind a curtain and glimpsed an honest and frightening truth. I kept running. Music with such a physical effect is rare.
Clams Casino – Instrumentals Type | vinyl
Here are ten instrumental hip-hop tracks designed for rappers like Lil B and Soulja Boy, built from pitched-down YouTube samples on a busted PC by a producer named after an appetizer with clams, bacon, and breadcrumbs. And somehow it’s one of the most emotionally vivid experiences I’ve heard all year. This is widescreen music with howling delays, sentimental pianos, and big-hearted hooks that immediately feel like comfortable classics.
Leyland Kirby – Eager to Tear Apart the Stars History Always Favours the Winners | mp3s | vinyl
Pair this record with An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Kirby’s album under his Caretaker alias. Bliss draws on old ballroom ’78s for source material while Eager contains original compositions, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell the two releases apart. Kirby plumbs deep into nostalgia, memory, and melancholy. Dust motes suspended in sunlight. Old men in libraries. Hushed ballrooms where time has disappeared. Elegant melodies etched with crackles and decay, like field recordings from an old almanac. The song below might be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard in years.
Leyland Kirby – They Are All Dead, There Are No Skip At All
Rangers – Pan Am Stories Not Not Fun | vinyl
Layer upon layer of blurry guitars, spiraling distortion, and wide streaks of feedback lacquered in reverb. Imaginary anthems from some sun-kissed golden age of American rock ‘n roll, this is a warm Kodachrome album that perpetually sounds like you’re speeding past the window of a pick-up truck blasting a classic rock station on a wide open Nebraska highway circa 1971.
Deepchord – Hash Bar Loops Soma | mp3
Low key dub techno wrapped in tape hiss and buried melodies. A muffled throb, a metallic clang that traces out a faint chorus somewhere off to the left. A reliable soundtrack for late nights, rainy streets, blinking neon, and glowing screens. This is endless background music in the best possible way.
HTRK – Work (Work, Work) Ghostly | vinyl/mp3
Druggy percussion that drags along the bottom of your headphones, wrapped in threads of guitar, sheets of reverb, and dead-eyed vocals searching for love or at least a little bit of light. You can hear the Suicide spike and Slowdive atmosphere grinding down into modern fatigue. The sound of several decades collapsing at once.
Belong – Common Era Kranky | mp3 | vinyl
Monumental reverb-ballads from New Orleans that are designed for moving through the streets in the middle of the night. Headlights on the I-10 overpass, the Mississippi Bridge sparkling in the distance while you glide over empty diners in the business district. Walking across the back of the Quarter at one in the morning, nodding at shadows gathered on dark porches beneath the glowing pink haze. This is Psychocandy stretched into the new century and wrapped in city heat and Gulf coast humidity. This is how my city should sound.
Tropic of Cancer – Sorrow of Two Blooms Blackest Ever Black | mp3
Everything on the Blackest Ever Black imprint should be on every single ‘best of’ list. Among so many top-shelf releases, Tropic of Cancer delivered three tracks that sound exactly like the word ‘midnight’. Matte black on matte black drums merge with death-bound basslines that shoot through submerged vocals whose words no longer matter. This is mood music.
Tropic of Cancer – A Color
Grouper – Alien Observer/Dream Loss Yellow Electric | mp3
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fallen asleep with this album playing. I can’t say it delivers good dreams, because there’s something unsettling at the edges, like listening to someone having a quiet breakdown in the next room while another neighbor plays the guitar. This is muted and elusive music with plenty of breathing room that transforms the acoustics of your motel room into a showroom for fundamental emotions that fade in and out of focus.
Dirty Beaches – Badlands Zoo Music | vinyl
One of those rare records that grabs you by the throat on the first listen and says listen to me again and again. After driving 75,000 miles through America, this is the music I’ve been waiting to hear: ballads by The Ronettes and Françoise Hardy reworked into dangerous karaoke. Flat AM radio drums and desert twang circa 1961 reverberating across fifty years where they’ve been looped into a vivid soundtrack for speeding down an empty highway and believing you’re in an exciting movie.
Spent the afternoon at the record store, flipping through crates of musty cardboard sleeves while listening to the guys behind the counter argue about T-Bone Walker.
Spent the afternoon at the record store, flipping through crates of musty cardboard sleeves while listening to the guys behind the counter argue about T-Bone Walker. Visiting the record store is like returning to a comfortable old memory. The dusty sunlight, the antique smell, the faded colors of the memorabilia pinned to the walls: it’s like walking into a shoebox of old photographs.
I’ve got store credit these days. Each week I exchange a stack of techno 12″s for a few classic long-players. Last week I picked up Spiritualized, Silver Apples, and Charlie Parker. Today I found a box of old 10″ Columbia jazz records in beautiful time-stained sleeves that say “Long playing microgroove record!” and “Unbreakable!” Swinging mid-century typography with sans-serif names like Chet Baker, Mildred Bailey, Lester Young, and Lionel Hampton. These are records that make me want to stay up late with a cigarette. I picked out two Billie Holiday records: Billie Holiday Sings and Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday.
Strange, listening to that voice through the filter of seventy-five years of America pop culture, a voice trapped in Woody Allen movies and PBS documentaries, a familiar shorthand for smoke-filled lounges and doomed genius. A few years after these recordings, Holiday’s apartment was raided for drugs and she went to court. “The case was called The United States of America versus Billie Holiday, and that’s just the way it felt,” she said. I flipped the record and considered how this object arrived at Columbia’s distribution warehouse in 1949 and this very record might have spent some time on Holiday’s shelf. An artifact. A marker of a specific moment and all the history that’s about to come.
Preserving vinyl is a quality of life issue. The simple gesture of pulling a record from its sleeve and blowing off the dust. The unique personality of the looping crackle at the end of each record, like a fingerprint. These are sensations that you won’t find while locked in a staring contest with a glowing screen. I listened to “Easy Living” and thought about aesthetics and nostalgia, and wondered what it meant to be nostalgic for aesthetics.
I had strange weather in my head. Magnificent headaches and fast zaps, like I was being yanked someplace dark.
I had strange weather in my head. Magnificent headaches and fast zaps, like I was being yanked someplace dark. At first I thought this marked the high-powered return of my old friend, the panic attack. Then my neck and shoulder began throbbing and burning. My fingers twitched. My head tingled.
If you type “tingling head” into the internet, it only takes two clicks before you’re reading about brain tumors, aneurysms, and meningitis. Or maybe you’re imagining the pain. A shock-like headache can also be a symptom of anxiety, which is a reasonable response if you’re reading about tumors, aneurysms, and other frightening diseases. Amazing, the psychosomatic power of language. If I see the words “tingling in the head,” I can’t help but feel it. Once the mind begins obsessively monitoring the body, all objectivity is lost. You enter a terrible hall of mirrors. Every twitch and tremor is loaded with mortal intonations.
I self-diagnosed. I worried. I took online quizzes.
My ears began making a high-pitched whine like an old television set. This is called tinnitus. Sometimes I tuned the sound to the frequencies of computer monitors and lightbulbs, swaying my head as the electric hum of fluorescent beams sang a duet with the buzzing in my ears. I conducted ambient soundtracks in my head and took more online quizzes. Do you have an unusual sensation in your fingertips? Do you sometimes feel emotionless? Do you have difficulty finding the right words?
When my right arm went numb, I went to the doctor and discovered the stigma of living without health insurance. The receptionists shrugged at each other, unsure of what to do with me. “He’s a self-pay,” they whispered. I sat in the waiting room and filled out stacks of paperwork that released everybody from all liability. I flipped through old People magazines and wondered what was wrong with the people on either side of me.
The doctor said there was fluid in my ears and possibly a pinched nerve in my neck. “We don’t practice medicine anymore,” my doctor said. “We practice health insurance. We can only do what the paperwork tells us to do.” She armed me with a sheaf of prescriptions and sent me uptown for an x-ray and then across town for blood work. The nurses were on their lunch hour, chatting and playing with their phones. I sat in a vinyl chair and watched soap operas on an old Zenith mounted in the corner.
Two days later, a dreadful voicemail: “Mr. Reeves, your test results are back. Please call us as soon as possible.” I sat on the curb of a busy street and prepared for the worst. But how do you prepare? I looked at the sky, took a deep breath, and dialed. A nurse told me that my x-rays showed degenerative disc disease at C5 and C6, and possibly C7.
Now my spine had coördinates. That night I spent hours scrolling through healthcare forums, following endless threads filled with frightened people in varying degrees of existential crisis. I’d been pushed into the strange frontier that everybody visits sooner or later: The war against the body. The war against time. The contrast had been boosted. The world felt extra vivid and time felt short. I sat in waiting rooms filled with worried people in pain, feeling like we were on a team.
While I waited for the orthopedic surgeon, a nurse asked me to draw my pain. She gave me a piece of paper with an outline of the human body and a legend: Make dashes for burning pain. Zeroes for numbness. Xs for stabbing pain. Dots for tingling. I could no longer tell the difference between tingling and numbness, so I scribbled all over the cartoon man’s head and back.
The doctor came in, a red-faced man in a hurry. “You have arthritis,” he said, “but we’ll give you some pain medication, schedule an MRI, assign some PT, and I’ll see you in a month.” He handed me an old pamphlet that said Exercises for Your Neck, Volume 2. Inside, people from the 1970s stretched and posed in various states of traction. The doctor moved for the door but I told him to stop. Come back here. The anger in my voice surprised me. It surprised him, too. I’m paying good money for your time, I said. Cash. Give me some answers.
What does PT mean? Physical therapy.
What do I have, exactly? Cervical spondylosis.
Is this permanent? Yes.
Will I always feel pain? Probably.
Is my spine causing the ringing in my ear? No, see an ENT specialist.
What’s that? Ear, nose, and throat doctor. Are you done now? Any more questions?
An MRI feels like a bad science fiction movie. They strapped me to a plank and slid me beneath a giant grey column of machinery that hovered two inches above my nose. Industrial sounds popped and sparked in my ears while the doctor flipped switches from a control booth. A voice on the PA said, “Please do not swallow for the next twelve minutes.” I swallowed. A lot. I couldn’t hold still. Eventually, the voice on the PA told me to reschedule.
An MRI scan without contrast dye costs $1675, but if you pay cash upfront, it’s only $450. These prices illustrate the problem with American health care. People can’t afford health care because we no longer pay for the real cost of things anymore. Every procedure is inflated due to insurance companies. Nobody should profit from another’s illness. I also discovered that simply mumbling the words “pain” and/or “anxiety” in a doctor’s office will earn you prescriptions for heavy-duty pills. Each doctor I met seemed eager to write prescriptions for me, despite my protests. I suddenly have eight different pill bottles in my medicine cabinet, most of which I’ll probably sell to help pay for my MRI.
Arthritis and tinnitus at the age of 34 seems a bit sudden, but compared to the other possibilities, I feel very lucky. Hopefully I’ll sit still for my MRI next week and find a better doctor to explain the results to me.
Value your health. Appreciate your senses. And pay attention to your posture.
Sometimes we’re hit with the desire to write a sentence or make a sound that captures everything at once, the traffic lights and grand dramas playing across the city tonight…
View of Los Angeles from Mulholland Drive.
Sometimes we’re hit with the urge to write a sentence or make a sound that captures everything at once, the traffic lights and grand dramas playing across the city tonight, the thousands of bulbs over kitchen tables, the drowsy voice on the taxi radio saying there’s light rain at the airport and temperatures will be holding steady throughout the evening. Women putting on eyeliner in mirrors, the way they pull open their eyes and look so serious. “Another dead satellite will fall to Earth this weekend,” says a television in the other room. Rain on the streets, silhouettes sitting at windows, freighters on the dark ocean, and all those other purple Saturday night feelings. Sometimes you’re idling at an intersection or sitting on the edge of your bed and you want to capture the whole thing. Here’s a good song for this impulse, although it’s in Finnish and I don’t understand a word of it.
“He understood for the first time that black-and-white was the only true medium for film as an idea, film in the mind.”
Somewhere in California.
“He understood for the first time that black-and-white was the only true medium for film as an idea, film in the mind. He almost knew why but not quite. The men standing nearby would know why. For this film, in this cold dark space, it was completely necessary, black-and-white, one more neutralizing element, a way in which the action becomes something near to elemental life, a thing receding into its drugged parts.”
I’m desaturating my photographs these days. I took five thousand photos while on the road this summer. That’s roughly one photo every three miles and as I search for the five or six good ones, I notice that converting each image to black-and-white gives me a better idea of what’s in the picture. Sometimes color gets in the way. It defines and dates. The cool pastels of the early 1960s. The overheated colors of the 1970s. With all the camera phones and filters at our disposal today, the technical limitations of color are now aesthetic shorthand. We have buttons labelled retro, kitsch, purple haze, sepia, magic hour, lomo, pinhole, and washed-out. But whether you find a black-and-white photo in an old shoebox, hanging on a gallery wall or displayed on your screen, it always looks pretty much the same. You’re not looking at the photographer’s favorite decade, you’re looking at the thing.
“On December 4, 1957, Miles Davis brought his four sidemen to the recording studio without having them prepare anything. Davis only gave the musicians a few rudimentary harmonic sequences he had assembled in his hotel room, and, once the plot was explained, the band improvised without any precomposed theme, while edited loops of the musically relevant film sequences were projected in the background.” It’s perfect black-and-white photography music.
Digging through a box of my grandfather’s things, I found this blade. The sheath says 30 cents. Made in USA. For a moment I thought about walking the streets with it and tracking down the kids who stole my bike the other day.
My grandfather’s razor
Digging through a box of my grandfather’s things, I found this blade. The sheath says 30 cents. Made in USA. For a moment I thought about walking the streets with it and tracking down the kids who stole my bike the other day. I was that angry. My bike was matte black with a black crate and I loved it and I wanted to punish whoever took it. Then I remembered the summer when I was ten years old and my friends started stealing hood ornaments, creeping around our apartment complex late at night and snipping them off the cars sleeping innocently in the carport. Soon there was a contest to see who could collect the most. I remember the red rubber on the wire cutters and the heavy bag of metal that a big kid named Brandon kept under his bed. Pontiac, Chrysler, Cadillac. He had all makes and models. His prize was an Alfa Romeo Spider. One night I tried to steal a hood ornament so I could join the club, but I chickened out (or did the right thing, depending on how old you are).
I once left my computer in a New Mexican parking lot and the news went viral while I sped towards Arizona. Friends, strangers, clients, and classmates from middle school called, texted, twittered, and facebooked me to make sure I got my laptop back. I hit the brakes on Route 60 and drove two hours back to Sorroco, where a construction worker met me in a parking lot and returned my bag. It was Christmas Eve. People are returning things to me all the time: books, keys, wallets, credit cards, and telephones. Maybe I was overdue to have something stolen.
We help each other. We prey on each other.
Our new office building is currently a chaotic construction site with soil floors and no glass in the windows. My bike sat there alone while I puttered around upstairs. That’s when I heard a crashing noise, a burst of laughter, and a slamming door. By the time I made it downstairs, my neighbors were on my doorstep. There were three kids, they said. Maybe twelve or thirteen years old. Two ran that way and the other took off on your bike. Tried to chase ‘em down but they were too fast. A jumpy old man jabbed his finger at me. “You can’t leave your door unlocked! What the hell were you thinking?”
Like it’s my fault and not the thief’s. This is the kind of thinking that destroys people and societies. I got angry. But I remembered the Mormon book critic who said I was a negative person. “As the author discusses each area of his life,” she wrote, “it becomes obvious that he doesn’t have a positive outlook in life.” Such is the smug satisfaction of the religious. I never thought of myself as a negative person — but yes, life is dark. You lose things. You lose the people you love. You will make bad choices. You will never figure anything out. It’s important to become friends with these facts.
I thought about the thin line between honesty and negativity while I built a new bike. There’s a place in New Orleans that will teach you to build a bicycle out of old parts. The classes are free and if you like the bike you make, you can buy it for cheap. I had plenty of time to think about becoming a positive person while I tightened the cones, replaced my bearings, and rebuilt my derailer. Bicycles are more complicated than I ever imagined.
A few days later, I ran a half-marathon. We ran in a pack along St. Charles Avenue and when the leaders of the race looped past us, we cheered and waved. They were elegant men and women running in an easy rhythm like beautiful machines and, upon seeing them, the rest of us straightened up and ran a little better. I made crummy time because I’d been on the road too long, but I managed to drag myself over the finish line with a shirt covered in blood. Didn’t know a man’s nipples could bleed like that. I saw other men with bloody streaks on their shirts and we nodded in sympathy at one another.
A sixty-year old man placed #15 out of three thousand. He ran the race in one hour and twenty-four minutes.
While I ran, I fantasized about being self-sufficient. Building my own machines. Growing my own food. Using my grandfather’s old blade to shave rather than going to Walgreens for disposable cartridges. Training myself to run faster so I can get away if something wicked comes. And as I hauled myself through that terrible last stretch of the race, I kept thinking “Let them take everything but keep on running.”
At the bottom tip of Illinois where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi, there’s an empty town called Cairo.
Gem Theater and Elks Club.
At the bottom tip of Illinois where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi, there’s an empty town called Cairo. As I walked down Commercial Avenue on a Sunday afternoon, my footsteps ricocheted across old bricks, the only sound save for the faint drone of an insect or powerline. I peered into the doorways of stately stone banks and the dusty windows of cracked townhouses and mansions in graphic decay. A blue-faded poster of the Maytag repairman hung in the display window of an appliance store filled with clumps of insulation and dangling cords. Sheets of plywood muted the windows of a shop that said “Family owned.” I gazed up at the empty marquee of the Gem Theater, shuttered since 1978. The Gem Theater. Such an elegant name from better days. I walked the streets of a city designed for 20,000 people that now holds fewer than 3000, most of whom left the downtown long ago. Somewhere a car door slammed and I jumped. Cairo is that kind of place. Further down the road, a chipper sun-bleached sign said “Visit Millionaire’s Row!”
Cairo used to be rich. Like Memphis further downriver, the town’s namesake was a great Egyptian metropolis perched on a mighty river and for a while, “Little Egypt” seemed like it might fulfill its destiny. Cairo was a natural crossroads, with evidence of settlements and warfare dating back to the ninth century. Old bones, spears, and knives. Lewis and Clark spent a week here in 1803, studying the rivers and learning how to work their maps. There was brief talk about designating Cairo as the nation’s capital. In 1861, Ulysses S. Grant stationed his troops at the foot of town at Fort Defiance, where the Union army blockaded the Mississippi to prevent supplies reaching the Confederates. Flush with profits from the Civil War, the town poured money into ambitious public buildings and it boomed for years, fueled by ferries and the new Central Illinois railroad.
That night, I read about the bloody racism that opened the twentieth century. The lynchings and hysterical mobs and black men murdered by the police, their deaths classified as suicides. Racial violence persisted through the 1960s, by which time most residents left. The county’s police force was reduced to four patrol cars that remained idle, unable to afford fuel until they were repossessed by First National Bank. A high school principal recently told his graduating students to get out of town if they wanted to have a future. When Cairo faced flooding earlier this year and the Army Corps detonated the Bird’s Point levee, many wondered why they bothered. Dig into Cairo’s downfall and you’ll find every dark feature of American life. And you feel it in those gaping doorways, you see it in the piles of bricks.
I went to the neglected park at the foot of town where Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri are stitched together. Picking my way through a field choked with weeds and trash, I headed towards a strange cement structure that watched over the joining of the rivers. After poking around to make sure I was alone, I climbed to the top and laid in the sun on the concrete slab. I closed my eyes and listened to the river slosh and the bugs chirring in the weeds. I zoomed out and positioned myself right here in the center of America. Where did everybody go?
I thought about the mistakes I’ve made. I thought about that beautiful empty town up the river and I thought about the mistakes that everybody made. I imagined the distant chant of a crowd marching down Route 51, a roaring crowd frustrated with our current life of cubicles, barcodes, and monthly payments, and they’re flashing signs that say “Occupy Cairo” and filling up the silence of Commercial Avenue to begin something new, to breathe life into these dignified buildings that have been crouched down here by the river for years, waiting for something like this to happen.
The put-put of a motorcycle woke me. Boots and the jangle of keys. I leaned over the edge of my cement ship and saw a thick man peeling off his gloves and squinting at the river. We were the only people around, me and him, and I didn’t want to startle him. I gave a light cough as I stood and when he looked up, I waved. He scanned the park and kicked at the gravel and gave a weary shrug like “What the hell?” and I said “I know” and he shot me a lazy peace sign as he climbed on his bike. I turned back to the sun and listened to him drive away.
10,083 miles later and the book tour is finished. Tonight I’m somewhere south of Salt Lake City, feeling grateful and exhausted and unsure of what to do with myself. I should probably start heading back to New Orleans. Before I get back in the car, I’d like to thank W. W. Norton for publishing my book and arranging this incredible tour. And many thanks to the people who’ve encouraged me along the way, and the generous people who showed up to listen to me talk.
I’ve been talking a lot lately, both online and off, and now it’s time to be quiet for a while and finish the next book. Over the past six weeks, I took nearly two thousand photographs and wrote a ton. My first impulse was to post these things on the internet but then I caught myself. Why the hurry? Unless it’s war or weather, nothing needs to be published immediately.
After doing a few radio and TV interviews, I learned the hard way that pausing to gather your thoughts is not encouraged. They’ll think you’ve gone blank and immediately fill the space with something else. Underneath the chatter of any live event, the plot is always the same: Must. Keep. Talking. It’s easy to feel this way online as well. Consider the current fetish for anything that offers a stream of real-time breaking live feed instant data update notifications. Although I’ve benefited from it tremendously, I’m not sure if I like how the internet affects my thinking. This inexplicable habit of checking, refreshing, and updating. Sometimes it feels like a compulsive numbers game.
After visiting dozens of bookstores and spending long nights in remote motel rooms with novels big and small, I discovered that the printed page is more necessary than ever. It stretches time, filling it with silence and deliberation. I come to the page because I want to read, not because I want to procrastinate or click on things. A book is finite. It sits on the kitchen table and becomes part of the daily landscape, merging with memory. I remember where I purchased it or who let me borrow it. This is where I want to spend my time.
I’m giving serious thought to transforming Big American Night into a serial publication. Perhaps I’ll publish little books of photographs and notes every few months for $5 a pop. Maybe nobody will want them, but it’ll be fun to make them and mail them to friends. But first I’m going to finish writing my trashy novel. I want to tell you a good story.
The motel manager was unnervingly chipper. Now he’s walking the perimeter of the parking lot at two in the morning, staring straight ahead and making perfect 90 degree turns.
Somewhere in South Dakota.
The motel manager was unnervingly chipper. Now he’s walking the perimeter of the parking lot at two in the morning, staring straight ahead and making perfect 90 degree turns. I close the blinds. Somewhere on this trip, the phrases “Dreamland supper club” and “Sunshine mining disaster” became permanent landmarks in my background thoughts, rocking me to sleep. I see the words blinking in my dreams.
In the morning, billboards tell me that God owes us nothing. Love is an action verb. The key to forgiveness was hung on the cross. I drive with the windows down, thinking about forgiveness and my fifth grade teacher. I wanted to play the saxophone but she said my hands were too small. She made me play the violin, which I never played. In South Dakota, there are towns named Reliance, Interior, and Alliance. A sign near the rest area off Exit 43 says that several hundred victims of smallpox are buried nearby. Inside the travel plaza, giant flatscreens teach us about the history of Julianne Moore. (Her maiden name was Smith.) I wander an endless parking lot looking for the car, exchanging hostile looks with a woman wearing a sweater that says “I’m not bossy, I just get what I want.” I stare at the electrified gates of golf courses named after slain Native Americans. I speed past dozens of military planes propped up on concrete blocks like offerings to the machine gods.
Dirty Beaches – True Blue From Badlands. Zoo, 2011 | buy mp3s | buy vinyl Badlands is one of those rare new records that grabs you by the throat on the first listen and says listen to me again and again. This is the music I’ve been waiting to hear. AM radio drums and desert twang circa 1961 echo across fifty years where they’ve been looped into a vivid soundtrack for speeding down the highway and thinking you’re in a good movie.
In North Carolina, a man asked if I agree that America is blessed. We discussed this. In Michigan, a man spoke of an alternate nation of people living off the grid. In Minneapolis, an older woman quietly told me that she, too, was an only child.
Halfway through my book tour and I still don’t know what to say about my book. I’m happy with it, but it’s hard for me to look directly at it. Feels like looking at the sun. Each time I read from the book in public, I tremble and clutch the podium like I’m about to be swept away, but I’m determined to do my best because I’m so humbled and excited that people are showing up to see a guy they don’t know read from a strange book.
After I finish reading, people ask very good questions: “What’s your favorite place in America?” and “What’s the scariest place?” and “Why do you keep driving into the desert?” And because I ask the question several times in my book, somebody always asks: “So what does it mean to be a man in America?” I give a different answer every time.
After I run out of things to say and we shift into mingling mode, sometimes people introduce themselves and share their stories with me. Some people tell me stories of unexpected happiness and shocking violence on the road. A loved one they met along the way. A trip in the sixties that turned dark. Other people offer theories about what it means to be an American or they tell me about their own quests to find some kind of peace. Walking across several states. Belly dancing in the desert. Starting a library. Hearing these stories is the best part of this trip.
In North Carolina, a man asked if I agree that America is blessed. We discussed this. Three cities later, a photography professor said the traditional idea of manhood disintegrated in tandem with the neglect of our Main Streets. I met a woman in Brooklyn who documents the New Hampshire and Vermont border. In Michigan, a man spoke of an alternate nation of people living off the grid. In Minneapolis, an older woman quietly told me that she, too, was an only child. “I know how it feels,” she said. “Feels like you’re responsible for the whole world.” I never thought of it that way, but she said it in such an unguarded tone that it hit me hard and now her sentence will stay with me.
Sometimes people ask me to sign their book. At first I wasn’t sure what to write or where to put my signature or what type of pen to use. Somebody told me that I should include a catchphrase like “Keep on trucking” or “Drive on.” The first time I signed a book, I wrote “Hello Tom,” which I now realize was strange. While I was dithering over this, somebody hijacked my notepad and wrote the message in the photograph above. I appreciate the enthusiasm. Now I’ve got three Sharpies and I’m heading to Seattle tonight.
The 45th parallel is the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole, and you can feel a geographical shift when you get into the top part of Michigan and you see all that big pine and cold blue water.
Crossing the 45th parallel always gives me a thrill. When I see the green federal sign that marks the occasion, I instinctively hit the brakes and snap a photo that usually comes out blurry and gets deleted. Last week I crossed this line while speeding towards Michigan’s upper peninsula on an empty road in the middle of the night. The 45th parallel is the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole, and you can feel a geographical shift when you get into the top part of Michigan and see all that big pine and cold blue water.
Lake Superior scared me when I was small, much like Antarctica does today. My parents liked to camp along its shore, and I remember sleeping on the back seat while we drove from Detroit to Marquette in the middle of the night. I also remember squirming in my pup tent with the mysterious lake sitting out there somewhere in the dark. In second grade, I read a pamphlet about the Great Lakes that described Lake Superior as the deepest and the coldest of the five lakes. It also said that “scientists have not yet reached the bottom of Lake Superior and they do not know what lives there.” This sentence gave me chills. I would read and reread that sentence until it became a kind of hymn, and I’d lie awake thinking about what might lie at the bottom. All that uncharted space frightened me.
There is enough water in Lake Superior to cover the entire land mass of North and South America with one foot of water, and a section of its southern edge is known as “the Graveyard of the Great Lakes” due to the massive number of shipwrecks.
On July 30, 1985, Jeffrey Val Klump was the first person to reach the bottom of Lake Superior at 1333 feet. This must have occurred shortly after I read that scary pamphlet. Over the years, I’ve made my peace with Lake Superior. Now Antarctica scares me. My head gets all swimmy if I look at it for too long on a map. So much empty space. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to signs that clearly position me on the planet: the 45th parallel, the Continental Divide, the highest elevation point on Interstate 80, and my telephone’s pulsing blue dot that now accompanies me wherever I go.
As I drive around the country, I meet strangers and we talk of war. We list the ways each war defined its generation in a particular way…
Midnight at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Dear Papa says he will never salute the Stars and Stripes. The war with Spain is very like ‘the War of Yankee Aggression,’ as he still calls the Civil War: the South, he says, was the first conquest of the Yankee Empire, and Cuba and the Spanish colonies will be the next. Yet he also denounces Mr. Twain for writing that Old Glory deserves to be replaced with a pirate flag, with black stripes instead of blue and every star a skull and crossbones. Mama nods, swift needles flying. She quotes an editorial: ‘The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people, even as the taste of blood—’ Papa snaps his paper. ‘Mrs. Watson. Kindly permit me to read in peace.’”
As I drive around the country, I meet strangers and we talk of war. We list the ways each war defined its generation in a particular way, how some wars seemed righteous, others felt shameful, and other wars are just abstract blips in our news feed. Each war. Because we’re always fighting somewhere. Today I think America is defined by the way in which its citizens ignore its wars.
Shame on the U.S. Border Patrol for seizing car keys and passports without explanation and deliberately making citizens and tourists feel like criminals. I was inspected yet again, this time while crossing from Sarnia into Port Huron. These officers always go the extra mile, crafting every statement into an accusation or threat.
Officer #1: ”Turn off the engine and step out of the vehicle.”
Officer #2: ”Who said you can open the door?”
It’s shocking how quickly you can go from the safe interior of your car to standing in a stainless steel room surrounded by men with guns, not knowing what will happen to you next. If any interaction with the government demands courtesy and professionalism, it ought to be when an armed public servant is holding your passport while his colleagues comb through your personal belongings without pretext. Instead, our nation’s borders are patrolled by steroids with sidearms, men who snap gum in your face and flex their power out of sheer boredom, demanding fear and gratitude rather than earning our trust.
After forty-five minutes, Officer #1 threw my passport on the stainless steel counter and walked away. “You can go.” Since 2001, this has quietly become the new normal, this culture of suspicion and paranoia. We deserve better. America should be ashamed of the way it greets its visitors and welcomes its citizens.
End rant. Cue the song. More border patrol inspections here and here.
I lost my mom suddenly two years ago today. I do not know how to mark this day, but it helps to drive around her favorite part of the country, the coast of Maine where everything is bright green and clean blue. It’s a strange thing, road tripping across America to talk about a book dedicated to my mom exactly two years after driving around the country in a state of shock and grief. Although I feel lucky and grateful, I’m also numb and sad and tonight I felt like I couldn’t go on, so I pulled off Highway 1 in the town of Bath to look at the ships and pine trees, two of her favorite things. I listened to the fishermen mumble and cast into the bay, I watched the sailboats come in before the light went away, and I wrote down the following memory, which has been on my mind a lot these days.
After my father’s division at Sears was shipped to China in 1984, our family moved from Chicago to Grand Rapids where he took a new job. I was in first grade at the time and the new kids at school scared me. They seemed bigger somehow, and this was probably the first time I felt like an outsider. One day something upsetting happened on the playground. I can’t recall the details except that it involved a stick of gum, some shoving, and me sitting in the gravel under the swing set, red-faced and angry while the other kids pointed and laughed.
The next morning I played sick. My trick was to hold my breath until I saw flashing purple spots and nearly passed out, but my mom saw through it. “I don’t care what happened yesterday,” she said. “You’re going to school.” And so began a contest of wills: I fought her every step of the way while she shoved me into my shoes, combed my hair, and strapped me into my backpack.
“Look, now you’ve missed the bus!”
“I guess I’ll stay home,” I said.
“You’re going to school.”
And somewhere along the road, there’s my mom dragging me hard by the arm while I dig in like a stubborn dog. I remember my shoes sliding through the dirt at the side of the blacktop and the dizzy sun in the treetops while I cried. I was bawling and heaving and saying no no no and she kept telling me that I can’t run away from my problems and everything would be fine and — Jesus, Jimmy, would you just calm down and hurry up now?
When I got to school all puffy-faced with a runny nose, the Mean Playground Kids were standing in front. “Saw you on the street crying with your mom,” said Jeremy, the pushy one. I don’t remember what happened after that, but life went on and eventually I made a few friends and did goofy second-grade things with them before my family moved across the state to Detroit.
I think about this scene whenever I’m faced with something that frightens me, like making an important telephone call or talking about my book to a group of strangers or forcing myself to run a little farther. I remember my mom, dragging me through the dust while telling me that everything’s going to be alright.
Riding through the back of northwest Florida, I speed past exploding swamps and palm trees that look obscene in the Saturday heat. A big sign with haunted house lettering asks, “Are you afraid of your energy bill?”
Riding through the back of northwest Florida, I speed past exploding swamps and palm trees that look obscene in the Saturday heat. A big sign with haunted house lettering asks, “Are you afraid of your energy bill?” Between Chiefland and Lake City, a dozen chipper yellow billboards ask if I need affordable flooring. So many questions on the road. I nearly crash into the back of a recreational vehicle with “Who is John Galt?” spraypainted across each tinted window.
A small church sign on Route 349 says “Pray for our leaders.” Across the street, a big church sign says “Laughter is an instant vacation.” Roadside stands for discount fireworks and pecan logs do big business, and I catch a thrill from the full-throttle entrepreneurism that lines the interstate; if you squint, you can draw a line straight back to the Silk Road. I nearly get sideswiped by a towering cherry red pick-up on monster tires with “Bo Dawg” emblazoned across the front window; across the back it says that “Low-riders are for men who can’t get it up.”
The side of a building on the Florida-Georgia border is covered with a banner of Uncle Sam saying, “Had enough yet? It’s time to fire Congress!” A gigantic Confederate flag snaps in the wind over I-75 and I wonder who installed it. “Only the obedient truly believe,” says a Baptist sign next to an advertisement for strippers, hot showers, and truck parking. I fight the urge to stop and read every sign. A beat-to-shit station wagon has multiple bumper stickers that say, “I’ll Keep My Guns, Money, and Freedom — You Can Keep the Change!” I try to imagine the lady at the wheel crouched in her driveway, applying these stickers and grinning.
“Life is a gift and the present is the time to enjoy it,” says the Pentecostal Praise & Worship Center. At the edge of a little Main Street, a sign says “Welcome to Jasper. No Jake Brakes.” I pull over and punch this into my telephone. A “Jake brake” is an engine brake manufactured by the Jacobs Engine Division, and the term is like the “Kleenex” or “Q-tip” of the truck braking world. It’s used in big diesel engines and many towns prohibit them because they sound like machine guns. Satisfied, I start the car and notice that I’m parked in front of a community center with a sign that says, “God’s All-Star Championship. Tuesday at 7pm.”
An old woman waves from her porch with such cheer that I nearly get out of the car and give her a hug. A few miles north, a sunburnt man stands in the intersection of two empty county roads wearing a sandwich board that says, “WHY OBAMA LIE GOD!”
Is this what the end of empire looks like?
I drive from Lakeland to Ray City and swing north to Athens. Somebody nailed dozens of handwritten signs to the tall pines along the South Georgia Parkway that say “Are We Ready? Jesus is Coming! Are We Ready?”
Clams Casino – The World Needs Change from self-released Instrumentals Mixtape | buy it on vinyl
Dark shoegaze hip-hop instrumentals via New Jersey that will rattle your mirrors while coasting through the night. Originally a self-released free download, Clams Casino’s tracks were recently compiled on vinyl by Type Records — buy them at Boomkat.
I’ve got butterflies while I zip up my suitcase and look for my keys.
Somewhere on Route 98.
My big American road trip begins this morning by riding the Dirty Coast Highway from New Orleans to Tallahassee. I’m going to talk about my book all over the country and I won’t be home for six weeks. I’ve got butterflies while I zip up my suitcase and look for my keys.
These are strange days to talk about America, and it’s going to be a long and strange trip. I’m still not sure how to talk about my book but I am ridiculously lucky to have the opportunity. Hopefully I’ll think of something interesting to say while I’m in the car. My itinerary is here.
I want to get wild, to walk away from a burning car and leave a fireball blooming in the desert sky. Sometimes I want to light up a cigarette in the middle of a crowded movie theater. Just sit there calmly puffing away while they tear me apart.
Driving west to Vegas.
I want to get wild, to walk away from a burning car and leave a fireball blooming in the desert sky. Sometimes I want to light up a cigarette in the middle of a crowded movie theater. Just sit there calmly puffing away while they tear me apart. I’m never sure what to do with these impulses, but maybe I’ll figure out how to channel them into something interesting when I’m back on the road. In the meantime, I’m working on my night driving soundtrack.
M83 – God of Thunder from America. Gooom, 2004 | buy mp3s
Crossing off the days until the new M83 album drops in October. In the meantime, I’ve been digging into the catalogue of two new favorite labels, Downwards and Blackest Ever Black, to get my fix of grinding cold wave melancholia. In particular, see Tropic of Cancer:
Tropic of Cancer – A Color from The Sorrow of Two Blooms. Blackest Ever Black, 2011 | buy vinyl
A project by Camella Lobo and Juan Mendez (aka Silent Servant), Tropic of Cancer has been making some of my favorite late-night highway music this year, and I can’t wait to hit the road in a few days with The Sorrow of Two Blooms queued up with the windows down. See also Be Brave, esp. the Richard H. Kirk remix.
Any other suggestions along these lines will be much appreciated.
Asheville, Brooklyn, Cambridge, Denver, Seattle, Pasadena, Salt Lake City…
This summer I’ll drive through 34 states and talk about my book in twelve cities. Asheville, Brooklyn, Cambridge, Denver, Seattle, Pasadena, Salt Lake City, and more. My itinerary is posted here, and a rough sketch of my travel route is illustrated above. If I’m reading in your area, please stop by and share your American road stories, too. I’d like to make this a collaborative thing and see if we can collect some material for an interesting project. And if I’m just passing through town and you’d like to say hello or grab a coffee, let me know.
The music stops and we listen to the slots beep and spin. We listen to a trucker jiggle his change. A cigarette bobs on his lip as he punches in “Funnel of Love” again.
Big fun in Vegas.
I sit at the blackjack table for something like fourteen hours straight. A pretty girl in a sparkly white dress wins $400 and doesn’t tip the dealer. We give her dirty looks, me and this old lady from Omaha who’s saying “shit goddammit” every time a card hits the table. Wanda Jackson’s doing “Funnel of Love” on a jukebox in the other room and her voice bleeds through the carpeted walls, all slinky tough and sounding like good sex. The pretty girl orders a complicated drink and slaps me on the back when she leaves. I don’t know what this means. The old lady stabs her cigarette into the tray with one hand and lights a new one with the other. I can’t stop staring at the pattern of pink lipstick smudged across the pile of dead filters at her elbow.
The music stops and we listen to the slots beep and spin. We listen to a trucker jiggle his change. A cigarette bobs on his lip as he punches in “Funnel of Love” again. “Fuckin’ love this tune, man.” Wanda dated Elvis for a while, then she married a computer programmer from IBM named Wendell. He must have been a hell of a programmer.
Somebody says everybody’s broke. Somebody says the country’s going bust. I tap the green felt and realize I don’t really care. Let’s get rid of Wall Street and roll the windows down. A non-violent shock to the system might do us some good. We’ve earned it. Let all nations crumble and let’s erase the state lines while we’re at it, too. Cities with jukeboxes are the only things that matter.
Wanda Jackson – Funnel of Love B-side from Right or Wrong. Capitol, 1961.
Man, just listen to how she sings “run away”; she packs like twelve syllables in there. And many thanks to WFMU for turning me on to the fact that Wanda sounds eerie and fantastic when she’s downshifted to 33⅓. Give this version a minute to work you over…
Newark International. Missing my ladyfriend who’s boarding a plane tonight somewhere on the other side of the sea. Here’s a good song for that: Mouse on Mars – Chromantic from Instrumentals. Sonig, 1997 | buy mp3s My favorite album from Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma. See also Vulvaland and Glam (the soundtrack to an […]
Missing my ladyfriend who’s boarding a plane tonight somewhere on the other side of the sea. Here’s a good song for that:
I wasn’t prepared for such an angry thread of social commentary.
If you want to find a conservative, look no further than a liberal who’s just been robbed. They’ve been saying that for years. Maybe they started saying it in 1974, when the first installment of Death Wish was released. You know this movie, even though you’ve probably never seen it: Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a bland architect reborn as a rawhide vigilante after a street gang murders his wife and rapes his daughter. Bronson’s transformation from mild family man into a dead-eyed night stalker soothed a nation’s fear of random crime, its creeping distrust of cities, and its growing frustration with the moral grey zone of liberalism.
From the vantage point of 2011, the movie plays like a conservative snuff film. Here’s a bit of dialogue from the first thirty seconds:
“Oh Christ, you’re such a bleeding-heart liberal, Paul.”
“My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged, yes.”
“The underprivileged are beating our goddamned brains out. You know what I say? Stick them in concentration camps, that’s what I say.”
While Bronson and his fellow architects shuffle blueprints and brainstorm ways to cure the city’s crime problem, a young Jeff Goldblum makes his first screen appearance as “Freak #1,” where he’s weirding out the normals at D’Agostinos supermarket with Freaks #2 and #3. Unsatisfied with shoplifting potato chips, the gang beats down the door of Bronson’s apartment on Riverside Drive. They kick his wife until she dies. They sexually assault his daughter. They rip off her clothes. They spraypaint a target on her. She spends the rest of the film in a catatonic state before meeting a grisly end in the sequel. It’s an amazingly brutal sequence for a film that did major box office and became a cultural flashpoint. (The presence of so much mainstream talent in such a mean little movie gives it a strange ballast: in addition to Goldblum’s debut, an uncredited Denzel Washington plays an alley mugger, Olympia Dukakis plays Precinct Cop #2, Christopher Guest plays a detective, and Herbie Hancock did the score.)
Q: Why did I watch Death Wish in the first place?
A: Good question. I’m writing a book in which a character develops a morbid addiction to action movies, so I made a list of obvious reference points: Schwarzeneggar, Stallone, Van Damme, Seagal, i.e. the stars who packed cineplexes in the 1980s by simply sticking their last name on a poster in big uppercase chrome letters. Bronson was one of these names, so I lumped Death Wish with the other noisy action movies in which a shirtless hero chases after a crucial widget or liberates a fictional planet. I wasn’t prepared for such an angry thread of social commentary.
Death Wish is a grim signpost of New York City’s decline after the fallout from years of redlining, blockbusting, and urban renewal began to radiate into the crime stats. The Summer of Sam would arrive in three years, the President would tell the bankrupt city to drop dead, and Reagan’s morning in America would usher in a decade of hysterical anti-city films bookended by Escape from New York and New Jack City. (“That’s life in the big city,” a cop tells Bronson.) After Friends and Seinfeld, New York became an aspirational city once again, and today the Mean Streets portrait of Manhattan looks like a bad dream. Yet the fear plumbed by Death Wish remains universal: what if somebody killed your wife and raped your child? What would that do to you? Charles Bronson reacts by filling a sock with two rolls of quarters and beating the hell out of a mugger. And it feels good. He gets empowered. He paints his apartment bright yellow and buys a record player.
“What happened to the old American custom of self-defense?” asks Bronson. “If the police won’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”
“We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad.”
“If we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?”
Maybe you call them liberals. When Bronson goes to Arizona to work on an elaborate architectural project with a difficult client, he discovers guns and self-reliance and becomes a full-tilt conservative (which seems particularly resonant today, given Arizona’s recent paranoid legislation). At the firing range, Bronson is reborn as a different sort of architect: he’s The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark with a .32 Colt revolver. And like an Ayn Rand character, it’s difficult to tell whether Bronson’s new philosophy is hyper-masculine or incredibly childlike.
When he returns to Manhattan, Bronson takes midnight strolls through Central Park, proving to be a phenomenal magnet for muggers. He gets robbed constantly. Or almost gets robbed. The slang-talking kid with a ghettoblaster and a switchblade saying “Give up the money, old man” doesn’t stand a chance. Rather than give up his money, Bronson shoots at teenage punks through a pocket in his trench coat; he blasts away in a subway station; he kills yet another mugger by firing through a newspaper while sitting on the F-train. City parks, underground passageways, and public transit: Bronson conquers the trifecta of scary urban spaces and foreshadows Bernhard Goetz’s infamous real-life shooting of four teenagers on the subway ten years later.
Death Wish is a revenge fantasy for anybody who’s ever been afraid. It splices into the fear that every man feels late at night when he awakens to an unfamiliar noise: Can I protect my family? Do I have what it takes?
A list of various taglines used in the Death Wish film posters:
First his wife. Now his daughter. It’s time to even the score!
He’s judge, jury and executioner!
No judge. No jury. No appeals. No deals.
He wants the filth off the streets. If the police can’t do it, he will… his way!
He’s planning to clean up the city… his way!
When murder and rape invade your home, and the cops can’t stop it, this man will… his way!
A lot of people would like to do it Bronson’s way. Originally slated to star Jack Lemmon with Sidney Lumet directing (imagine that movie), Dino DeLaurentiis’s Death Wish made buckets of money for Paramount Pictures and the studio made four sequels over twenty years (by the end, they’d settled on a simpler tagline: Bronson’s loose!). Each installment follows the template cut by the first: a few random street punks shatter Bronson’s life so completely that we give him license to kill anybody who gets in his path.
He’s either a murderer or wonderfully self-sufficient. Death Wish is uncomfortable because it leaves you with only these two options while ducking the core question: does a stick-up kid who wants your wallet deserve to die?
As the bodies pile up, nobody knows what to make of Bronson and we’re left with the plot of any generic western or superhero flick: an adoring public transfixed by an effective yet morally frightening savior who is thwarted by an embarrassed establishment. Except there is no super-villain in the final act of Death Wish, only street punks #8 and #9. Despite its DIY ethos, there is no deliverance, unless you’re willing to include a man who has forged a personal peace through violence.
I’ve never been a victim of a crime. I don’t know how I’d react.
The cops run Bronson out of town. In the final scene, Bronson arrives at Union Station in Chicago where a few punks are harassing a young woman. He turns to the camera and winks. A big grin crackles across his leathery face. He shoots at the screen with his finger.
This isn’t the man I want to become, although I’ve certainly fantasized about it.
I love you, America, you moody awkward braying big-boned teenager of a country. Come here and give me a hug. Here’s your birthday song:
America – Ventura Highway from Homecoming | Warner Bros. 1972
“Ventura Highway” is a smooth rock song about moving from Nebraska to California, which is a very American thing to do. I post it every year because any song with lyrics that talk about “alligator lizards in the air” deserves at least that much. The “alligator lizards” refer to the clouds in the California sky. One day in 1963, songwriter Dewey Bunnell’s family was driving down the coast from Vandenberg Air Force Base when they had a flat. While his father changed the tire, little Dewey stood by the side of the road, watching the clouds. He noticed a road sign for “Ventura” and here we are today. “Ventura Highway” also may have coined the phrase “purple rain,” which some music critics suggest Prince cribbed twelve years later.
The Ventura Freeway is a stretch of interstate in California that connects Ventura with Pasadena, and it’s one of the most congested highway in the nation.
Maybe last week a popular actress sat down in the middle of the frozen food section and started crying and refused to move.
A flight bound for Chicago from Houston made an unscheduled stop the other day because of an unruly passenger. A frantic man tried to exit the 747 at 38,000 feet over St. Louis. It was the second incident on Sunday in which a disorderly passenger was restrained. I enjoy reading stories like this because it’s reassuring to know that other people are afraid of flying, too.
Sometimes I wonder if these episodes signal the beginning of a national epidemic of people behaving badly in public. Perhaps something is in the air. Maybe last week a popular actress sat down in the middle of the frozen food section and started crying and refused to move. Or a beloved game show host suddenly broke from reading a question and launched into a profanity laced tirade on live television, spraying spittle across the frightened faces of his contestants. Or maybe late one night a lonely government official began broadcasting images of his genitals across the internet. But these sorts of episodes probably wouldn’t surprise anybody these days. After all, the most popular television shows are the ones that force real people to cry on camera.
Sometimes I think: Let’s go back to the days when a man wouldn’t go outside without his hat and everybody knew the President was sleeping with a starlet but nobody discussed it because it wouldn’t be a polite thing to do. But it’s futile to demand public dignity, so why not let it all hang out? This age of oversharing might force people to stop pretending. We’re being painfully honest in public and perhaps the upshot is that people will feel less screwed up and alone. The guy fumbling with the emergency exit door, he’s certainly not pretending.
People who come undone are always more interesting than people who triumph. When the most vulnerable parts of somebody’s psyche are put on display for everybody to see, I catch a strange blend of empathy and relief. We all have our secrets and dark corners, but I’m relieved that mine aren’t on display beneath the cruel glare of today’s spastic media. The ugly truth is that I probably like these stories simply because they give me an opportunity to feel superior. No matter what else goes wrong in my life, I can always tell myself, “Well, I’ve never tried to jump out of a 747 at 38,000 feet.”
Someday I’d like to see an inventory of everything that America has exploded in its deserts.
Somewhere in the Mojave desert.
“The anticipated detonation site had been divided into sectors. Within each, work cadres had erected structures and placed objects in common military and civilian use: a railway bridge, buildings of various dimensions and design, automobiles, concrete bunkers, aircraft, artillery pieces, armored vehicles, tanks. Live animals has been tethered throughout, some unprotected and others within buildings or vehicles, to determine how an atomic explosion’s shock wave, heat, and radiation might affect live tissue at various distances and in various states of exposure and protection. Pigs had been selected because their hides where thought to resemble human skin; rabbits because their eyes thought to be like those of a man. Horses were used because they could be fitted with gas masks.”
— C.J. Chivers, The Gun; describing preparations for the Soviet Union’s atomic test on August 29, 1949.
Someday I’d like to see an inventory of everything that America has exploded in its deserts and unnamed territories.
Somebody on the internet asked me to take a photo of the contents of my bag and I said okay because I’ll do whatever the internet tells me to do.
Somebody on the internet asked me to take a photo of the contents of my bag and I said okay because I’ll do whatever the internet tells me to do. Aside from the X-Acto blades, the contents of my bag are pretty pedestrian. I had more interesting props when I used to smoke and do drugs. Note: I removed all of the crumpled Big Red chewing gum wrappers to improve the aesthetics of this photo.
I made a commercial for my book, which you can pre-order here or find in stores on August 15.
* * *
A reader writes: “And if we want to order it from you, direct, via stamps and a pre-addressed envelope and a check with ‘a taste of the American heart’ written on the memo line? Can you hyperlink that option?”
Absolutely! Shoot me an email with your address and I’ll figure out how much this will cost and I’ll include some stickers, photos, and/or other materials to make this seem like a desirable thing to do.