The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
When I got bored with myself in Kansas, I decided I would move to a place that ended in the letter o. After ruling out Idaho, Puerto Rico, Morocco, and Trinidad and Tobago, I narrowed the list down to Ohio and Mexico. Then I asked all my friends — and even some people I didn’t know — whether I should go to Mexico or Ohio. They all agreed it should be Ohio. In Mexico, they assured me, I would be thrown into a stone prison, acquire an incurable stomach virus, and get caught in the middle of a revolution. Gringo-hating locals would drown me in a sewer. The police would confiscate everything I owned. Everyone had a Mexican horror story.
Mexico was wonderful, by the way. I stayed in the mountains of Zacatecas for a year and fell in love with the people. The only problem was, I ran out of money. So, like almost everyone else in Mexico, I had to go to the U.S. to find a job.
Ohio still seemed like a good choice. I picked Zanesville off the map. It was the right size — big enough for jobs to be plentiful, small enough to negotiate by foot — and not too close to the wino-and-pigeon-cluttered shores of the Great Lakes. Plus, Zanesville had a kind of crazy sound to it: “Where is Poe, anyway?” “He’s in Zanesville, man.”
My good friend and fellow expatriate Les, a big man with a white mustache and a great affection for crunchy Mexican Chee-tos, offered me a ride to Wichita, Kansas. He was going there to visit his mother, who had Alzheimer’s and no longer recognized him.
In early April, the best time of year to travel, Les and I dropped down out of the mauve-and-violet-stained Sierra Madre on the virtually empty Mexican roads. The air was clear and cool. A truck carrying glass had toppled on a tight turn, leaving islands of hazy green rhinestones across the sand. A bird flew out of a hollow cow lying on the edge of the road. In the middle of the desert, we stopped for huevos rancheros and cold instant coffee at a truck-stop restaurant filled to every window with the living branches of a giant tropical tree. A few miles later, we had to brake for a towering, cowled monk. Then we hit six nuns, one of them alligator faced, another carrying a brass walking stick; they flew up over the hood like magic crows. That last part might have been a dream. I had taken a raspberry-flavored travel-sickness pill that made me drowsy. But, then again, Mexico is rife with spirits, because people there believe in them.
We crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo. One of the first things that struck me, having been out of the U.S. for a while, was how many people were dressed like bikers, with earrings, ponytails, death-themed tattoos, and Harley-Davidson T-shirts — even some of the men. I figured this must be the urban-tribalism counterculture anthropologists had predicted: a nation organized against itself, a society almost entirely composed of would-be rebels and outsiders whose plaintive cry is “I don’t belong!”
In Cotulla, Texas, Les and I spent the night in an “executive” motel: hair dryer, large-screen TV, ironing board, coffee maker, and basketful of exotic toiletries. This is the new face of upscale, franchise America. Poor people need not apply.
I started a list of things I like about America. It began:
1. Toilet paper in the public restrooms.
2. No potholes big enough for your car to fall into.
3. Decent wages.
I couldn’t think of any more.
“Readable street signs,” offered Les.
“And tap water you can drink without getting cholera.”
“And they don’t charge you to pee in restrooms,” I added with sudden patriotic inspiration.
“In America,” Les agreed, “you can pee for free.”
The next day we drove through Pecan Bayou, which is not a bayou but more of a creek with a few pecan trees on its banks. All along the highway, the bluebonnets were in bloom like fine sprays of xylophone music for the eyes. Make bluebonnets number 7 on the list of things I like about America.
For two nights, we stayed in the more practical Holiday Motel in Les’s hometown of Shattuck, Oklahoma, which, like many small towns in the Midwest, is dying. Les drove me around a wheat farm looking for mastodon bones he had found just sticking up out of the ground years before, but the bones were gone, plowed back under by the farmer. One of Les’s childhood buddies thought he could get me a job for eight dollars an hour chroming fixtures for oil-rig machinery. I briefly considered staying, but this was Les’s town, not mine.
In sunny, cool Wichita, I said goodbye to Les and bought a ticket for Zanesville, my voice booming as if I’d grown up there and was returning home after twenty years in the army with a purple heart to run my father’s grocery store.
What kind of trip will this be? I thought as I boarded the bus. As soon as I took my seat, the man behind me answered my question by dropping his suitcase out of the overhead rack and onto my head. The bones in my neck made a sound like a handful of celery being snapped in half. His girlfriend laughed.
“Jesus, I’m sorry,” the man said. “Are you all right?”
“No,” I said, swimming in and out of consciousness, a ring of shattered blue and green stars orbiting my head.
His girlfriend continued to snicker.
“I am really, really sorry, man.”
“That’s all right,” I said, wondering if I had the balance to stand up and punch his girlfriend in the nose. “Just be glad it didn’t hit me somewhere vital.”
Just before St. Louis, it began to rain. The rain streaked down, solid, ceaseless, and gray, all through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana. It was still raining when the bus approached Zanesville at seven o’clock that night. I got a little flutter of dread in my stomach when I saw the sign out on the freeway: ZANESVILLE, NEXT FOUR EXITS. Which meant the city was the one thing that, for my purposes, it couldn’t be: too big. Without a car, I’d face a two-mile walk every time I stepped out the door. I looked for a motel on the way into town and saw none.
I was the only passenger to get off in Zanesville. The depot was not downtown but on the edge of the suburbs, at the terminus of the city transit system. The ticket window was closed. I strolled aimlessly about the unoccupied depot, my neck making splintery, broken-glass noises every time I swiveled my head. A man in a bus driver’s uniform stepped from a doorway.
“Excuse me,” I said, “is there a motel nearby?”
He squinted at me. “What kind of motel you looking for?”
“Aren’t any of those left,” he said, puffing up indignantly. “They bulldozed ’em all.”
“Well, what do they have left?”
“Got a Ramada out by the interstate.”
“That’s seventy bucks a night.”
“There’s a Travelodge not far from here,” he said. “That’s probably the cheapest one we got.”
“Sounds good. Where is it?”
“ ’Bout three miles from here. Hold on a second, I’ll give you a ride.”
He drove me through the rain in his empty bus, chatting affably about the city, which was discouragingly big, approximately the size of Iraq. I was no longer sure I wanted to stay in Zanesville and try to find a job, but I needed a shower, a tall beer, a chance to sleep horizontally, and a few moments with the Weather Channel just to see, out of curiosity, if there was someplace in the world where it was not raining.
The cheapest motel in town was forty-five dollars a night: blow-dryer, ironing board, coffee maker, twenty-four-inch cable TV, basketful of exotic toiletries. You get a little card with a magnetic strip now instead of a key, and the cost of the towels stolen from your room the night before is figured into your bill. My cervical vertebrae felt cracked, and there was an ache in my left arm that went away only when I dropped my chin to my chest. Some kind of paralysis was setting in, irreversible nerve damage. I took a hot shower, changed my clothes, and went out to explore the city streets before it got dark.
Zanesville was not right at all. The downtown area was gutted, a ghost town in the rain. Turning back toward the freeway, I stumbled upon a Wendy’s and a gas station, where I picked up a local newspaper. They also had big cans of cold beer — something else you can add to the list of things I like about America. I ate a couple of fish-fillet sandwiches and managed to stain my sweat shirt with a blob of tartar sauce. When I opened the paper to the classifieds, I immediately saw that rents were too high. There were also no residential motels or furnished rooms — nothing but unfurnished apartments: first and last month’s rent and security deposit in advance. I’d have to work full time for two months just to get into an apartment with no furniture and upstairs neighbors practicing the Texas two-step all night.
Later, as I watched the Weather Channel in my motel room (what was it costing me to stay there, about six dollars an hour?), I tried to think where I should go next. It was snowing like the last day in hell in Michigan and Wisconsin, both of which I’d vaguely considered as alternatives. Then I began to ponder Fond du Lac, the idyllic, small-town setting of a young-adult romance novel called Seventeenth Summer, which my friend Sara reads faithfully every year. The choice seemed just preposterous enough; logic certainly hadn’t gotten me anywhere. And what better place for a middle-aged man who refused to grow up than the setting of a young-adult romance? I snapped off the TV, finished my beer, and turned out the lights.
The next morning, it was snowing in Ohio, too. I carried my bags the three miles back to the depot, over a rusting bridge across the swollen, racing, tea-and-cream-colored Muskingum River.
The Greyhound office was open. A young woman stared blankly at me. “Can I help you?”
“I’m not exactly sure where I’m going yet,” I said.
She flicked her eyes off to the sides, as if wondering which number to call to report a psycho.
“Do you go to Fond du Lac, Michigan?” I asked.
“Let me check,” she said, entering the destination into her computer. “No,” she said. Then she thought for a moment, picked up a book, and leafed through it. “Do you mean Fond du Lac, Wisconsin?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“Do you want a ticket?”
“Yeah, why not? One-way.”
“I’ve never had anyone do this before,” she said.
“You’ve never had anyone buy a ticket to Fond du Lac?”
“No, I’ve never had anyone come in here who didn’t know where they were going.”
Two days later, the bus dropped me off at the Hardee’s in Fond du Lac, which didn’t look much like the idyllic setting of a young-adult romance, but at least it had stopped snowing. I cupped a flame and lit a smoke. The sign out on the highway had said, FOND DU LAC, NEXT FOUR EXITS, so I was a little nauseated. But, coming in, I’d also noticed an old motel called the Fondy — probably twenty-five a night. A small sign of life. A little glimmer of hope.
I dragged my bags into the Hardee’s, piled them against the wall, and ordered a couple of breakfast croissants. The teenage girl who waited on me was friendly. I asked her a few questions about the town — how big it was, that sort of thing. She shouted for one of her co-workers to come over, and the two of them stood before me and performed a complicated shrugging ritual. They were both ignorant of every aspect of their hometown, except to agree that it was dull and that I should get out.
I bought a paper and read it while I ate my croissants. Many jobs. Rent a little high. Rooms for rent. But Fond du Lac was a huge town, even bigger than Zanesville. By the restroom was a map of Wisconsin, which I studied for a minute. I had enough money to make a small jump, maybe to Appleton, the birthplace of both Houdini and the John Birch Society — an energetic combination. But I was beginning to get the feeling that Appleton wouldn’t be much different from Fond du Lac: APPLETON, NEXT FOUR EXITS. And pretty soon, very soon — like maybe now — it would be time to stop throwing my money away.
So I wandered down to the Fondy Motel, which was only a couple of blocks from the Hardee’s. It looked perfect: quiet and neat, circa 1951, a weekly rental, with shade trees and thick plaid blankets on the beds and knotty wainscoting and the smell of pineapple upside-down cake. I’d buy a week or two here, sleep for a day, then get serious about finding work. But a handwritten sign in the office window said, NO ONE IN OFFICE, NO VACANCY — even if there were only two cars in the parking lot.
From what I could gather, all the rest of the motels were crammed against the highway beside the chain restaurants and the strip malls, four or five miles away. And I was not about to walk four or five miles with my suitcases to stay in a Red Roof Inn for seventy dollars a night. So I opened the paper to “Rooms for Rent.” There were two that looked about right: one for $190 a month, and another for $260 a month — too high, but still cheaper than a weekly motel.
I walked back to the Hardee’s, where a newly released convict was using the pay phone. He seemed proud of the fact that he had just gotten out of jail. The wind was blowing hard and cold. I imagined it was like this most of the time here along Lake Winnebago: the wind blowing hard and a convict on the telephone.
When he was done, I called about the room for $190, but it was taken, so I called the other one. A woman answered. It was still available.
“I’m new in town,” I said. “Can you give me directions?”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” I squinted to read the sign across the street. “The Hardee’s on Main.”
“OK, well, you go north on Main. It’s just past First, about twenty blocks.”
I scribbled down the address.
“Be sure to come around the side,” she said, “not the front.”
Fond Du Lac is essentially, Anywhere, U.S.A.: an automobile town, spread out as widely as possible, littered with broken beer bottles and fast-food trash and populated with obese and unhappy people dressed up like bikers and pirates. The ethnic composition is about 80 percent German, I am told. A few Irish slipped in. The local Indian populations were all rounded up, disenfranchised, and forced to run gambling casinos. The French trapped some beaver, left their recipe for fries, and moved on.
As I carried my bags up Main Street, people yelled at me from their cars: “Get a job!” “Fuuuuuck!” This yelling is an odd custom I have encountered all across the U.S. These are the voices of an angry and frightened society, a jaded and profane society. Sea gulls swarmed overhead, on the lookout for abandoned bacon cheeseburgers. I passed three cheese-pale youths dressed for a funeral, with so much jewelry punched into their faces they were in danger of being carried off by birds.
The rooming house was something out of a Shirley Jackson horror novel — a great brown Victorian fun house, circa William Howard Taft. I stood outside it for a minute, looking up through the ancient trees into my grainy and discouraging future, my back and shoulder muscles fizzing and burning like dynamite fuses from carrying my bags three miles. A wrought-iron hoot owl stared down at me from the third floor. I did not want to stay here. Neither did I want to walk another three miles with my bags to end up in similar quarters for the indigent.
The landlady poked her head out the door. “Are you the one who called?”
When you land in a new place, never waste your energy trying to convince people that you’re honest; only liars can do this effectively. I could tell the landlady didn’t trust me. Who knows how many rapists, con artists, and serial murderers entered her living room nightly via the television set? But money is more powerful than fear, and she was not running a rooming house for the love of mankind. So, after I forked over the bulk of my remaining cash, she led me upstairs to my new home: a clean little room with a chair, a bed, a radiator, a dresser, and a desk.
It rained for the first sixty days I was in Fond Du Lac. No, that isn’t true; occasionally, it snowed. After two days in which I did not rape, con, or murder anyone, my landlady decided I was all right and, in a sudden shower of generosity, supplied me with long-sleeved shirts, slippers, a television set (which I never used), ashtrays, a home-cooked meatloaf dinner, and blankets and black sheets for the bed. I lay on my black sheets (black sheets, have you any wool?) while it rained or snowed outside, and for the most part, I did not sleep, because of my neck and the ache in my left arm. When I did sleep, it was for ten- or twenty-minute snatches in contorted postures: chin tucked down onto chest or arms arranged in an octopus pile over my head.
My housemates all had alcohol problems. (Why else would anyone almost completely give up privacy, live in a room without even a sink, and share a bathroom and a refrigerator with four strangers while the fruit flies spin in a galactic formation above the meaty-smelling trash that no one ever takes out?) My neighbors were: Bobbie, a head-injury case; Ginny, a bartender who had just finished an alcohol-treatment program but had begun to drink again; Jess in the basement, who had once been a Lutheran minister but was now a full-time drunk; and Dave, who as far as I could tell had never been anything, except perhaps a child, before he had become a drunk. Dave serenaded me nightly around 2 A.M., after the bars had closed, sloshing about in the gravel driveway below my window as he struggled to secure his bicycle: “Fucking sons of bitches! Fucking A! I don’t give a shit where you go with that son of a bitch now!”
Drunks are at heart antisocial, and I was grateful to be left alone by all of my housemates except for Bobbie, the head-injury case, who attached herself to me almost immediately. An unemployed, forty-six-year-old Clairol redhead, Bobbie had suffered two head injuries, first when she fell off the back of a motorcycle somewhere in the panhandle of Oklahoma, and then when she got mugged by a madman with a tire iron at a mall in Minnesota. The second attack had caused brain damage, and she suffered epileptic seizures as a result.
While I knew her, Bobbie spent as much as sixteen hours a day in front of the television, and even when she climbed out of bed for a beer, she never emerged from her impenetrable fog of TV fantasy. As soon as she learned that I planned to return to Mexico in six months, my name became “Gringo,” and she decided we were going to travel together to LA, where she had lived for seven years. Bobbie dreamed of her old life in LA: camping on the beach in Malibu, driving with the top down on the movie-star freeways, having a great job as a computer programmer. She stole whatever she liked from the refrigerator — especially my beer — and trapped people against the wall and talked them to death. Each time I began to prepare a meal in the community kitchen, she broke away from her television program to follow me around and stick her nose into my pots: “Mmmm. So you cook the vegetables right into it? You’ll have to give me the recipe. You make your own salad dressing? What do you put in it? Can I have a glass of that wine? What kind of wine is it? Oh, cheap wine, that sounds nice. Just fill it right to the top there.”
The rent always comes due faster when you don’t have a job, and I had only about a hundred dollars left, so I got busy right away scanning the classifieds for the jobs no one else wanted: short-order cook, motel housekeeper, roofer, convenience-store clerk, hospital assistant. Every day, there are more restaurants, motels, convenience stores, and hospitals, and they all have roofs, creating more jobs that nobody wants. “Join a winning team!” “Are you a self-motivated go-getter who works well with others?” “Need extra cash for spinal-cord surgery?” For days, I followed up on these ads. I registered at the state-run Job Service, which was entirely computerized, so you never had to deal with a human being unless one of the printers jammed. One day, I walked eight miles to North Fond du Lac to apply for a cooking job that was listed through Job Service at twelve dollars an hour.
“Oh, by the way,” said the owner, after I’d filled out the application, “that wage listing at Job Service is not right. I don’t know why they keep putting in twelve dollars an hour. It’s eight dollars an hour.”
I walked the eight miles home. No sidewalks along the highway. People yelling at me from their cars: “Blow me!” “Waaaaah!”
The next day, walking home from the post office, I noticed a sign in a window advertising factory jobs. I went in and filled out an hour’s worth of forms. They photocopied my Social Security card and my Kansas driver’s license. I filled out a 1040. I solved arithmetic problems. I still didn’t know what I was applying for.
Finally, I was “interviewed” in the back room. It was an employment service. They don’t have to pay sick leave, vacation, pension fund, and so on. They can fire you anytime they like, without a minute’s notice, and owe you nothing, not even a good-luck trinket or a handshake goodbye. This is America the machine. It works quite well. The people in the machine look a little dazed, though. They have dyed their hair purple. They are covered with jewelry and tattoos. Their families are scattered across the country. They have serious substance-abuse problems. They are committing suicide at a historically unparalleled rate. They exhibit about as much joy and innocence as old whores in a brothel. But the machine is working very smoothly, thank you.
The good thing about working for temporary services is that you don’t have to lie to your employer: “Yes, I plan to stay to the end of my life in your toaster-part factory.” With a temp service, the relationship is purely mercenary. Neither of us is on a winning team. All hail to the machine.
Darlene, my temp-service rep, wore a short skirt and showed me her cleavage. (Add Darlene to the list of things I like about America.) Another good thing about temp services: you get to deal with a human being. The computerized state employment system was very efficient. I had no breakdowns, everything printed out well, and all the addresses were correct. But it was a lonesome experience. Looking for jobs is no fun, and it’s nice to have some cleavage — that is to say, some human contact — as you blunder about being turned down by one place after another.
Sometimes less fun than looking for a job is actually getting one. I am usually sent to either a wood shop or a metal shop, two of my weakest areas. In this case, Darlene lined me up with a wood shop called the North American Container Corporation, which should have been called Shootout at the OK Corral. The shop floor sounded like this: BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! — thirty people with nail guns circling metal tables and nailing together pallets (wooden platforms upon which cargo is stacked) as fast as they could go, for $7.25 an hour. On my first day, someone handed me a nail gun, gave me sixteen seconds of instruction (“Don’t shoot yourself in the hand”), and off I went. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
On my third day at the pallet factory, my hand frozen in a numb claw from firing the nail gun, I stopped for a moment to investigate a sudden sensation of cool air in my briefs and found that my jeans were shredded across the thighs. Then I noticed that my shoelace had broken, and my “work” gloves, which I’d bought two days before at the drugstore, had two holes in them. These were my only pants, my only shoes, my only gloves. It was pouring outside. The lightning throbbed in eerie violet streaks against the sky. But I had to work the next day, so I had no choice but to walk to the store that night in the rain and buy new pants, gloves, and shoelaces.
When the 3:30 buzzer sounded, I clocked out and headed to Sears, which, according to my antique perception of the world, was the place to buy everything work-related. It was at least three miles to the mall. I had to stop twice and ask directions. I was glad that it was raining because the people who would normally have shouted at me from cars kept their big mouths on the other side of their rolled-up windows.
Every American city, even one you have never been to before, becomes familiar as you get close to the freeway and Taco Bell and the rest of it. The Applebee’s in Bangor, Maine, isn’t any different from the one in Pahrump, Nevada. Ditto Wal-Mart. Weather is about the only tangible distinction between cities anymore, which is why people continue to flock to sunny, overcrowded places like Miami and Los Angeles: warm weather with Wal-Mart and Applebee’s.
Sears was a disappointment. I found a small pile of work pants and two styles of gloves to choose from: “light gardening” and “tea party.” The work pants, twenty-dollar Roebucks, had a two-year guarantee. In the dressing room, sawdust fell off my wrecked old jeans, and my back was so stiff I couldn’t bend over to take off my shoes. The laughter burst songlike from my throat. I like to think I can appreciate a good joke, even if it is on me.
The saleswoman poked her head into the dressing room: “Everything all right?”
“Sorry,” I said, “just my ridiculous life.”
I also bought a pair of forty-five-inch “work” shoelaces, which turned out to mean that you had to work to keep them tied. Dapper in my new Roebucks and fresh laces that came untied every five minutes, I left the mall. The wind snapped up, blowing off my cap, and it began to rain in earnest. The K-Mart across the street had an excellent selection of work gloves, and I finally settled on a pair of Wells Lamont Professional Jersey Hob-Nobs (sewn in Jamaica of American-made materials) for $2.99: seven-day gloves if I ever saw them.
It was six o’clock now. I wouldn’t get home until at least seven. By the time I cooked dinner and packed a lunch for the next day, it would be time to go to bed. I thought about Bobbie appearing the moment I lit a burner on the stove. A Kentucky Fried Chicken, the answer to my uniquely American problem, shimmered in the distance.
“I would like some chicken,” I told the teenage girl at the counter. “Just chicken. No dinner packages, value meals, curly fries, Star Wars figures, or anything like that.” I had not eaten KFC chicken in recent memory and thought this clever a la carte strategy would save me some money.
“Would you like eight, twelve, or sixteen pieces?” she asked.
“Give me twelve,” I said.
“Thirteen ninety-nine,” she said.
“Thirteen ninety-nine,” I repeated dumbly, looking into my wallet.
An elderly woman began tonging my pieces into a box. “I won’t give you any wings,” she said. “It’s not every day I do that.”
“I appreciate it,” I said, thankful that I had enough money left to buy beer.
It was colder than ever when I left the KFC, but at least the rain had stopped. I was hungry, and I dragged a thigh out of the box as I walked along. The chicken was hotter than a volcano. I fumbled with it, swearing, and finally got it out into the cold air where I could eat it, snorting and wincing. That KFC is good chicken, but I’m not going to add it to the list of things I like about America, because it costs more than a dollar apiece. I could have bought four whole chickens for $13.99.
Along the way, I stopped at the drugstore and spent the last of my money on two twenty-four-ounce beers. It was almost dark. Turning down my street, I heard two little girls riding their bicycles behind me. They were chirping delightfully in their happy little voices. Then came a big crash. I turned around to find the little girl in the pink jacket sprawled over her fallen bike, crying, her training wheels still spinning. I walked back, set my bags down on the lawn, and helped her up. Frightened and hurt, she threw her arms around my neck and held me, bawling. I tried to console her. She wasn’t hurt badly — maybe a little bruised, but mostly scared. I remembered how scary it had been falling off my bike, especially the first time, so I talked to her about falling off my bike. Then I kissed the tips of my fingers, touched them to her forehead, and told her I loved her.
She stepped back and stopped crying for a second, as if to comprehend this odd stranger. Then the tears started up again, and the big brother arrived, freckle faced and severe, more concerned about me, I think, than his sister. He’d read about abducted children on the sides of milk cartons. I’d forgotten where I was for a moment. In America, a stranger does not touch children or tell them he loves them. (In Mexico, I probably would have been invited in for dinner.)
I retied my work laces, picked up my chicken and beer, and fled the scene. For a while, the child’s sweetness and wet little green eyes stayed with me.
One of my tricks for keeping an undesirable job is to tell myself I’m quitting on Friday. I won’t quit on Friday, but the thought of it keeps me going. “Well, just two more days and I am out of this rotten place,” I tell myself. “One more day and I am gone, Daddy, gone.” And then, once I make it to the weekend and have the paycheck in my pocket and a couple of days to rest up and read books on my black-sheeted bed while the rain sifts and spatters against the screen, I say to myself, “All right, then, maybe just one more week. But on Friday . . .”
I went through three pairs of Wells Lamont Professional Jersey Hob-Nobs before all the temporary employees at the pallet factory were laid off. No notice. I was mostly relieved.
That afternoon, I went to see Darlene, who freshened my spirits.
“How would you like to make $8.6o an hour?” she asked.
“What kind of job is it?”
“All shifts available,” she said.
“And for good reason,” I said.
“It’ll keep you out of trouble,” she said with a wink, handing me my assignment card.
All I had to do was march back out to the mall that night and buy steel-toed shoes.
The difference between the pallet factory and the sheet-metal house can be summarized as follows: BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! versus KA-WHUMP! KA-WHUMP! KA-WHUMP! KA-WHUMP! The sheet-metal house is actually louder: a dozen giant hydraulic presses stamping out metal parts every three to thirty seconds, the vibrations shaking the earth like a stampede of T. rexes coming after your picnic basket, plus the whirl of leviathan flywheels and fans to keep the grit moving through the air, and the oldies or country station blaring ineffectively over the racket. The sheet-metal house pays a little better because people there are always being rushed off to the hospital. Besides the obvious crushing power of the machines, the sheet metal is thin and sharp, and when you work with literally tons of it every day, you get cut. A kid I worked with there got sliced straight through his glove: eighteen stitches. Another woman got taken out on a stretcher. I asked one of the third-shift operators how long he’d been there, and he held up three stubs for fingers. One day, I brought a meatball sandwich with ketchup for dinner, and I had so many cuts on my hands that I couldn’t tell the sauce from my blood.
When the Wisconsin weather warms, the humidity gets so thick that the catfish nibble at your ankles as you walk through it. At any moment, you can turn around and see the exact shape of your body cut in a tunnel through the mist. I couldn’t breathe in that humidity. None of the over-the-counter asthma medications worked for me. My father, an asthmatic, sent me Albuterol, which didn’t work, either. I quit smoking, but that didn’t help.
Then the insects began to appear — especially the famous jumbo mosquitoes, which are so big they sag as they fly. Wisconsin mosquitoes are larger than average mosquitoes because they have to carry extra bloodsucking equipment and amplifying devices to announce their presence in your ears as you try to sleep broken-necked and wheezing at four in the morning. They are easy to kill, however, because they are also slower, and apparently complacent due to their worldwide reputations, like free-agent baseball players. But insect success is based upon large numbers. You can kill one or two, or perhaps eighteen sagging jumbo mosquitoes, but beyond that, you must say to yourself, “I am moving from this place very soon.”
I have always had an inclination toward despair. Combine this with living in a culture where money, actuarial tables, and TV watching are the primary human bonds; being unable to sleep or breathe; having a lousy job; Bobbie stealing my food and beer; everyone around me being dressed up like pirates, bikers, or ghouls; and giant mosquitoes swarming through the cracks clutching knives and forks and wearing dinner napkins tied around their necks, and you have the formula for depression. Uncle Wiggly, my friend in the pharmaceutical business who prizes my ability to remain lost but regularly fears that I will do myself in, sent me a bottle of Prozac. I got the package on Friday and started taking the pills immediately.
I know many people who swear by various antidepressants, but the Prozac didn’t work for me. (I was still the same person in the same place with the same job, wasn’t I?) All it did was fill my head with wool. On my best day, I felt like a bucket of coleslaw. Uncle Wiggly assured me it would take some time to adjust as the fluxotene — the active ingredient — built up in my system. I didn’t like the sound of this. I am a nomenologist, a believer that the names of things give an indication of their true natures, and “Prozac” sounds to me like an iron planet inhabited solely by androids.
About this time, I talked to my friend Sara, who was tending bar in North Carolina while waiting for grad school to start. She was excited when I told her I’d come to live in the land of her favorite young-adult romance, and that it was principally because of her that I was there. (In other words, it was all her fault.) She wanted to come visit. I warned her that Fond du Lac would be a disappointment. She said she couldn’t expect anything to live up to the image of Seventeenth Summer. I said it might be a little worse than that, but it would be wonderful to see her. The place could use a little sunshine.
Sara stayed at the Ramada Inn: $120 a night, blow-dryer, ironing board, coffee maker, twenty-four-inch cable TV, basketful of exotic toiletries. Someone had written in ink on the door, where the rates and rules were posted: “This is too high, isn’t it?” But Sara paid only sixty, some sort of special attractive-young-bartender rate, and I suppose if the room is listed at $120 a night, and you pay only sixty, you feel like you’re getting a deal.
Sara is smart, dark haired, dark eyed, and very well developed. It was dangerous to walk along the road with her because the imitation bikers swerved closer in their rusted Pontiacs to shout at her from their windows.
“Nice tits!” yelled a young trick-or-treater wearing a goatee and a gold-loop earring.
“Thank you!” I called back, thrusting out my chest proudly.
Sara hadn’t slept for a couple of days, and I hadn’t slept for a couple of months, but we didn’t sleep at all for the two days she was there. Never mind that I was impotent. Sara was starved to talk about ideas and books and didn’t seem to mind, although if you are a eunuch entertaining a beautiful woman who has just traveled two thousand miles to see you, the conversation had better be good. I kept taking secret little blasts of Albuterol, because if you can’t make love and you can’t breathe, someone might drive you to a mortuary.
“I don’t know what it is,” I told her. “Can I blame it on the Prozac?”
She thought for a full minute before she finally said: “It must be difficult to be a man.”
“Thanks for not using the word hard,” I said.
That night, we took a long walk through town. There are more bars per capita in Fond du Lac than in any other city I have ever encountered, including Tijuana and the alcoholic outposts of the rainy Northwest. The bars were letting out, and the Fond du Lackers were in fine fettle. We listened to the shouts of a gaggle of drunken children who could not formulate a sentence without the word fuck. Bottles lay shattered all along the sidewalk. A pay phone had been vandalized, the broken receiver hanging from a fray of colored wires. Sara stopped in her tracks. “Dead” was written in blue spray paint at her feet. “Why don’t you get out of here?” she asked me.
“Because if I left now, it would take all the money I’ve saved to start over again someplace else.”
After Sara left, I stopped taking the Prozac, although Uncle Wiggly urged me to continue the regimen. I suppose you need to believe in a treatment for it to work. Actually, I do believe that Prozac works; I just don’t believe that a neurochemical imbalance is the cause of my depression. There are plenty of good reasons to be depressed in America without blaming it on neurotransmitters.
Often when Bobbie drank, her dream of traveling with me across the country blossomed, and she would knock on my door, calling my name until I answered. One afternoon, she knocked while I was taking a nap. I sat up blearily in bed, not in the mood for another daydreaming session. “What is it?”
“Can you help me, Gringo? I’m having a seizure.”
Bobbie had no one in her life but her mother and her social workers. I pulled on my pants and opened the door. She stood before me hunched and shivering, her eyes rolled up in her head like the reels in a busted slot machine. Bobbie would often feign illnesses to get what she wanted (the state had recently assigned her a housekeeper because she claimed she couldn’t make her bed), but she was not making this one up.
“What do you want me to do?” I said.
“Just sit with me,” she said. “My mother is on the way.”
We sat on the couch in the rooming house’s parlor. I wasn’t familiar with her type of epilepsy. She didn’t flop or convulse or vomit. She only shivered, her eyes spookily disarranged, her speech chopped and slurred.
“Rub my arms,” she said.
I rubbed her forearms and kept her in the conscious realm by getting her to talk about her diet book. Bobbie was about twenty pounds overweight and mainly ate frozen meals from the microwave, breakfast cereal, and whatever else I had picked up from the grocery store, but she was gung-ho on a diet she had developed long ago in LA. “It’s a sure-fire diet,” she slurred, “but I am not going to refund people’s money.”
“You have to guarantee your diet,” I said. “Besides, when people go on a diet and it doesn’t work, they never ask for a refund. They’re just ashamed of themselves.”
“I’ve lost up to forty pounds on this diet,” she added. “Fast.”
“I have a good diet, too,” I said. “It’s the asthmatic, walk-five-miles-a-day, lousy-job, live-alone, sleep-poorly, and smoke-anyway diet. I’ve lost twenty-five pounds since I left Mexico.”
Bobbie laughed. “I’m going to get a cigarette,” she said. “Stay here, Gringo. Don’t go away.” She staggered up and teetered off, listing to one side like a ship on stormy seas.
‘‘I’m not supposed to smoke when I’m having a seizure,” she said, returning with the cigarette, “but the hell with it. Will you light it for me?”
Bobbie smoked GPCs, which are manufactured by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, shredding-and-rolling division.
“The drinking doesn’t help, either,” I added.
“Don’t talk about my drinking in front of my mother.”
“It’s your life,” I said.
“I don’t drink that much, anyway.”
“How long do these seizures usually last?” I asked.
“Sometimes as long as twelve hours.”
I’d never heard of twelve-hour epileptic seizures before, but then, I know very little about most things and less than nothing about the rest.
Bobbie’s mother, a short, spunky woman in running shoes, finally arrived. It was hard to imagine the two of them being related, though I knew that Bobbie had been, in all aspects of her existence, violently altered by fate. I wondered for the thousandth time what she’d been like before, and what such changes really meant: if our lives are random tragedies, or carefully designed sequences of disasters.
Bobbie’s eyes had dropped back into place. The shivering had stopped.
“I’m going to go now,” I said.
“Thank you so much for staying with me, Gringo,” she said.
My master plan was to save up three grand and leave Wisconsin before the first big snow. One day in July at the metal shop, I stooped to retrieve a pile of liner paper that was spilling out of a moving three-ton coil of stainless steel, and my head collided with an outstretched piece of sheet metal, sending my hat and safety glasses flying. I clamped my gloved hand to my forehead and staggered around a bit, waiting for the pain to go away. Two mechanics stood in front of me, their expressions simultaneously urgent and condescending: “You OK, buddy? You OK?”
“Sure, fine,” I said. “Just bumped my head.” I took my hand away to show them.
Head wounds tend to bleed a lot, and this one was no exception. My left glove was already soaked, so I switched to the other. “Why don’t you go to first aid?” the mechanics suggested. “We’ll find your supervisor for you.”
In the first-aid room, a crowd of medical semiexperts swarmed nervously around me. I even had the attention of two of the big cheeses, probably for insurance purposes. When my supervisor saw the gash, she almost fainted. I might as well have jumped face first onto a kitchen knife. “It’s a good one,” everyone kept telling me. I am no metal-shop genius, so I was glad to hear that I had at last done something good.
“Looks like about twelve stitches,” said Don, the top first-aid expert. Don and I were the only ones who seemed relaxed: he, because he saw mangled and cut-up people all day; I, because I just felt stupid and lost in the long defeat of another job I wasn’t very good at.
Don wrapped my head up turban-style and gave me a ride to the emergency room, where a nice nurse cleaned me up and prepared me for the needle. Then I lay on the crisp-tissue-paper-covered emergency-room bed holding back the blood for two hours. More urgent cases kept coming in: a bad bicycle wreck, a motorcycle accident (which turned out to be a fatality), a retired fellow who’d gotten run over by his own riding mower. He was in the bed next to mine, behind a curtain, and kept saying over and over, “I must have put it in gear with my foot. I’d just changed the oil, and I was going to take it for a ride. . . .” He had tire tracks across his chest and had nearly lost an arm. Somewhere, a baby kept crying, and I felt witless and sad just lying there. Oh, little baby, I thought, I will give up my dumb life for you, if you will just please stop crying.
Finally, a doctor showed up, asked me a few cursory questions — all the while nodding as if it were perfectly natural to walk into an outstretched piece of sheet metal — covered my face with what looked like one of those tissue-paper toilet-seat covers, spiked me with a topical anesthetic, and began to pluck away with the catgut. “It’s a good one,” he said. Knit one, purl two. He swore a little under his breath. The blood poured like a Haydn concerto down the sides of my face and into my ears.
“How you doing down there?” he asked.
“Pretty good. How is everything up there?”
And the baby cried and the man next to me waiting to have his arm sewn back on said for the sixteenth time, “I must have put it in gear with my foot. . . .”
Not long after that, the metal-shop supervisor, Bjorn, came up to me and said, “We’d like to hire you” — which goes to show you how desperate employers are to fill spots in front of these hydraulic maiming machines. He was a hairy-necked gorilla of a man built in a muscular wedge from his linebacker’s shoulders all the way down to his tiny dancer’s feet.
“I’d love to stay,” I said, being polite, “but I’m leaving town soon.”
“You’re leaving?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “When?”
“I don’t know exactly. Maybe a month.”
“Where are you going?”
“Mexico. That’s where I came from.”
He hemmed a bit. “Well, let us know when you’re leaving.” Then he turned nimbly on his toes and lumbered away.
The next day, a woman I’d never seen before came up to me at work, tilted her head in front of mine like some smooth-faced rodent, and said, “I’m sorry, but this will be your last day here. We tried to call you, but you couldn’t be reached. Since you came in today, we’ll let you work to the end of the shift. We’re sorry. We wanted to hire you.”
I felt sick and dull and betrayed, the way you always feel when someone lets you go, even if it’s from a dreadful job. If I’d lied to Bjorn about my intention to stay, I could’ve spared myself the trouble of looking for another job.
“Have you ever thought about working in a cheese factory?” Darlene asked as she leaned forward and tapped a few keys on her computer.
“To be honest with you, I have never considered it,” I said. I immediately liked the idea, though. For one thing, a cheese factory wasn’t a wood or a metal shop. And it was a little piece of Wisconsin to take with me, like a Hawaiian postcard with a photo of a Hilton on it.
“Do I need steel-toed boots?” I asked. “Safety glasses? Earplugs? A first-aid kit?”
“No,” she said, handing me my assignment with a weary and sympathetic grin. “But you might want to bring a clothespin.”
The wood shop goes: BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! The metal shop goes: KA-WHUMP! KA-WHUMP! KA-WHUMP! And the cheese factory goes: OH, MY! WHAT IS THAT SMELL? The shifts were nine hours long, eight dollars an hour, with three paid twenty-minute breaks. The employees, mostly women, were dressed in androgynous white lab outfits and disposable paper hairnets. They looked like extras in a Dutch remake of The Andromeda Strain. On my first day, I started out running three-pound wheels of blue cheese through a metal detector, then bagging and boxing them. Later, I was transferred to a room where wheels of blue cheese rejected for cosmetic reasons (too moldy) were being crumbled and bagged for restaurant sales. I stood and heaped three-to-ten-pound wheels of cheese onto an inclined conveyor belt, then sprinkled them with a white powder that I thought was flour.
“It’s a preservative,” the woman next to me explained.
“Good thing,” I said. “We wouldn’t want this stuff to mold.”
Cheese work is very easy: The rooms are cool. There’s no one bleeding, or losing fingers, or shooting nails into their hands. You can hear the music on the radio. But the mold and the damp fetidness and the fine, floury haze of preservatives compounded my already chronic bronchial problems. Toward the end of my shift, as my blood-oxygen level sank, the hands on the clock seemed to jump forward and back, like children playing Red Light, Green Light. How embarrassing if I suffocated on my first day at work! The moment the clock struck eleven, I fled the cheese factory. It was a sticky night, the humidity off the scale. I toiled the two miles home through the soggy atmosphere, the pinging of the submarines barely audible over the sound of my own labored breathing.
When I got to the rooming house, the door to Bobbie’s room was open, and she was lying on her bed, cackling at a Whoopi Goldberg movie, a bottle of my Heineken in her hand. A package from Uncle Wiggly had arrived. I tore it open. Inside were two corticosteroid aerosol inhalers: Flovent and Serevent. “One puff of each in the morning and at night,” the note read. “Efficacy guaranteed.” I took a full blast of each, fairly certain that these miracle asthma medications could not help me. In minutes, however, I was breathing freely. Grateful and amazed, I poured myself a glass of wine and sat down to update my list:
10. Inhaled corticosteroids.
11. Uncle Wiggly.
Bobbie began knocking on my door. “Gringo, are you in there?”
12. The first big snow in Wisconsin.
“Gringo, are you home?”
13. A Greyhound bus headed for the Mexican border.
As reluctant as I was to be lured yet again into the depressing side of American culture that Poe Ballantine describes [“Things I Like about America,” July 2001], I was mesmerized by his eloquent storytelling. I dipped my toe into the essay, thinking I wouldn’t go very far, then found myself riveted all the way through to the end. For Ballantine to live as he says he does, with all the attendant daily problems of life on the road, and still be able to write so exquisitely seems to me a minor miracle.
I spent eight years on the streets in the 1970s, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I chose that way of life because it was the only way I could think of at the time to disentangle myself from a family and a culture that were trying to consume my soul. I worked odd jobs, lived in tenement rooms, got robbed, slept in culverts, and found myself stranded for days in the middle of nowhere. I also had a lot of time to think. That contemplation, I now see, was the purpose of my disengagement, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
During that lonely time, I learned something that still humbles me all these years later: No matter how bad things got — no matter how tired, cold, sick, hungry, poor, scared, and discouraged I became — some kind soul always appeared, usually when I had abandoned hope, and offered me exactly what I needed: money, food, a place to sleep, a job. I am not a religious person, but this happened so regularly, and occasionally under such mysterious circumstances, that I was forced to conclude that someone, somewhere, was watching out for me.
Poe Ballantine’s “Things I Like about America” is the best thing The Sun has published in several issues. It has all the social critique I’ve come to expect and enjoy, and it was fun to read. Humor is probably the best weapon we have against the corporatized conformity that currently plagues America. Thanks to Ballantine for reminding me there really are things to like about America. Reading about his employment woes, I wished he had come through Tuscon a few weeks ago when I was hiring workers to build exhibits for a children’s museum. I was offering ten dollars an hour.
After five years in prison, my track record for cell partners is dismal: infantile behavior, extreme sexual deviancy, and unbridled aggressiveness are the norm.
My current cell partner, a young Hispanic male and junior-high dropout, has spent exactly half his life behind bars, a total of fourteen years. We are on lockdown status: no school, no recreation, no TV, no clean linens, no leaving our cells for any reason except for dire medical emergencies and once-a-week trips to the showers — wearing handcuffs. My cell partner shines the stainless-steel toilet and sink for hours on end. The rest of his time is spent staring at the floor with a plaintive expression.
For weeks now, my cellmate has hoped for a single letter from a family member. I watch his disappointment when the officer walks off without calling his name. He tells me that his elderly mother has moved, and no one has sent him her new address. With a faraway look, he recalls the letter he received from her back in the fall of 1998.
I receive five or ten pieces of mail a day and offer to share some of it with my cell partner. He glances at several items, then swears and calls it “junk mail.”
Three days ago, I received a package from the Prison Library Project — four books and a magazine, including two reference books I had requested. I tossed the magazine to the side, having never heard of it before, and stayed up late into the night writing a thank-you letter to the Prison Library Project and perusing my new treasures.
I awoke late the next morning and found my cell partner had undergone a transformation — from apathy to moral outrage. He said it was a terrible injustice that the sheet-metal factory had fired “that guy” just because he’d been honest about moving to Mexico in a month.
I soon found out that my nearly illiterate young cell partner had read an entire magazine cover to cover. And this magazine was not Penthouse or High Times or Soldier of Fortune. It was the July 2001 issue of The Sun, and the piece that had provoked him so was Poe Ballantine’s “Things I Like about America.”
Your magazine has shone a light into a deep, dark corner of a convict’s psyche. Something has changed.
Poe Ballantine’s “Things I Like about America” was one of the most depressing things I have read in a long time. His essay was a horrifying glimpse into Middle America, a place I have never, ever wanted to go. After I finished reading, I just wanted to go to sleep and pretend that such a place doesn’t exist. The lack of culture, the obesity, the Wal-Mart drudgery of it all is plaguing my native country more and more. It all makes me want to stay out of the U.S.
This morning I reread Poe Ballantine’s “Things I Like about America” [July 2001]. As an apprentice vagrant at age eighteen, I spent six months working those wonderful temp jobs Ballantine describes so well. We had no Darlene for a dispatcher, just an obese chain-smoker with the people skills of a drill sergeant. I decided temp work wasn’t for me and settled into a series of dull blue-collar jobs until a good case of despair led me to experiment with faster ways of making money. Today I’m incarcerated in Texas, where we still have prison the way Jesus meant for it to be.
With my lack of accomplishments, I feel qualified to challenge Ballantine’s claim to being the “biggest fool who has ever walked the earth.” Even a fool, though, has a place in the grand scheme of things.