With My Little Ukulele in My Hand

Illustration from Razorcake #53 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #53 by Brad Beshaw

 

On South Street in Honolulu sits an unassuming, two-story building, not much bigger than Razorcake HQ. Nothing about it really stands out except for a small sign on the front with the familiar k on top of a k. It’s easy to drive by without noticing, heading either for the beach or downtown. I almost missed it, whipping into the parking lot only at the last second. Inside, they were making a little magic in the form of a Kamaka ukulele.

Now, I can almost hear you, Razorcake reader, groaning. Perhaps it’s because I assume you poop while you read this. Groaning helps. Perhaps I’m right in guessing that you’re about to turn the page, grumbling, “Ukulele’s are not punk rock,” and “Geez, I really need to give myself a courtesy flush.” And, damn it, you’re right on both counts.

Ukuleles are not punk. I know that one of the guys from the Jennifers has an act called the Punk Rock Ukulele. I know there are hundreds of videos on YouTube of lonely girls playing uke versions of Green Day songs. And, yeah, Gugug’s uke covers of Ramones songs are pretty rad. But they’re not punk rock. I’m okay with that. I’m hoping we can relax and admit that there are some things like Stax Records, surfing, socialized medicine, and indie novels from Featherproof Books that are ideologically awesome and don’t have to be punk to be appreciated. And I’m sliding Kamaka ukuleles into that mix.

 

The ukulele is a funny instrument. I have a friend who refers to them as the pugs of the music world, because she can’t help smiling every time she sees one. It’s indelibly linked in our imagination with Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips, or, if we’re luckier, Benny Hill singing “Everyone Wants My Fanny.” It’s an instrument for men who are so comfortable with their penis size that they can drive an MG convertible and skinny dip in a cold pool and listen to April March. The uke is supposed to be funny. That’s part of the point.

Another part of the point, though, is that it’s an instrument of resistance. The instrument itself was born from the cavaquinho, a small guitar brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. Through that little guitar, we can see the blessing and curse of colonialism. The cavaquinho was adapted into a ukulele by Hawaiian musicians in the late nineteenth century, and it quickly became entrenched in Hawaiian culture. Now everyone knows what a ukulele is while even I have to go back to the dictionary to make sure I’m spelling cavaquinho right. So that’s the blessing. The curse lies in the fact that the cavaquinho is the instrument of the Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii as overseers for the Dole plantations and the Big Five sugar plantations. Dole and the Big Five pressured President William McKinley to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and annex the region as a territory. The Portuguese overseers kept the plantation labor force in check through it all. They oversaw not only the horrible exploitation of immigrant labor, but actual slavery on those plantations. Dole and the Big Five used “indentured servants” until Hawaii became a state in 1959. So colonialism was a mixed bag for the Hawaiians. American corporate interests got the islands and the money and were able to reinstall the plantation system that had been outlawed on the mainland. The Hawaiians got the ukulele. It’s a pretty lousy trade for the Hawaiians, sure. But let’s not sell it too short. They did get the ukulele out of the deal. That’s a hell of a lot better than what the Iraqis are getting from Halliburton.

And I think there’s something to be said about this kind of cultural appropriation of the ukulele. Cultural appropriation in general can be a positive thing. Sometimes we forget that in the punk community. We’ve seen too many great things of ours appropriated in bad ways. It’s heartbreaking to see manufactured pop stars being marketed as “punk” or wearing shirts that say “I ♥ Punk.” It’s even more of a bummer to see the trend when, about a decade ago, not selling out to major labels became such a powerful ideal of the punk community that major labels started to just put out classic rock bands in Hot Topic clothes and bill them as punk (see: Good Charlotte). But we’ve done our own share of appropriating, too. We took the idea of fanzines from movie buffs and Star Trek geeks. We took the idea of DIY publishing from resistance groups that run the gamut from Ben Franklin to ‘60s hippies. Just about every pop punk song is an appropriation of the Ramones’ appropriation of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Bobby Fuller. I love The Clash, but I cringe to think of what they would’ve been if Joe Strummer hadn’t been stealing from Lee “Scratch” Perry. And, hell, even I know how to play several dozen punk songs on the uke. Come by my place with a six-pack of beer. I’ll play them for you until you run away screaming.

The point being, appropriation in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. When people exploit independent culture so they can make money, that sucks. But when the people who are not in power appropriate things from the people in power and change those things into something unique and organic, it’s not only okay. It’s a way of challenging those who are in power.

Which is exactly what the ukulele has done. It’s said, “Fuck the cavaquinho, man. I’m gonna do something all my own.” And the uke, like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, has done an amazing job of making bad songs sound good. Check out Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” Listen to the uke in that song. So fucking cool.

 

My brother-in-law Rien got me into the ukulele. It was about six years ago. I was hanging around another brother-in-law’s place in suburban Sacramento, bored out of my gourd, when Rien broke out his Kamaka and started strumming. I noticed that all the songs he played had only three chords. Hell, I thought. I can play a three-chord song. They’re the soundtrack to my life. Rien told me that, if I could play guitar, I could play uke. And I can play guitar. So I picked up my other brother-in-laws uke, Rien taught me the F, Bb, and C7 chords, and we spent the afternoon playing the thirty-seven Hawaiian songs that use no more than those three chords.

A few weeks later, I bought a cheap ukulele of my own. I practiced those chords, learned a few others, and adapted a few punk songs for the uke. They just didn’t sound as good as when I’d played on Rien’s Kamaka, though.

 

A couple of summers ago, I found myself stranded in Indiana, PA (for reasons why, see my column in the last issue). About a month after my birthday, I got a package from my mom. It was a ten-dollar, pink ukulele with flowers and the logo of a Cocoa Beach tourist shop on it. I was a little confused. As luck had it, my mom called right around the time I opened the package and started scratching my head. I said, “I got your package.”

She laughed. “Don’t you just hate it? I saw that in the store, and I just knew you’d hate it!”

Because that’s my mom. She’ll wait until a month after my birthday before sending me a present so that she’ll have extra time to find something I really hate. She’s hilarious.

She’s also a model for mothers of punk rockers everywhere. She knows that, if you want to make a punk happy, get him something he can really hate. Because here’s the worst thing about the whole episode: I tuned up the fishing line strings on the little pink flowered uke and was jamming along to the Replacements “If Only You Were Lonely” within minutes of getting off the phone with her.

The thing about the pink ukulele was that it sounded worse than my cheap one by the exact same degree that my cheap one sounded worse than Rien’s Kamaka. So I became obsessed with Kamaka. I looked into the company and found that they have been a family business for almost a hundred years (93 to be exact). That, during World War II, they hired deaf luthiers to make their ukuleles. The deaf craftsman knew they got the sound right when they could feel it. And this is a cool thing about Kamakas: when you play them, you can feel the song on your chest. It’s unlike any other uke I’ve played.

As far as I know, there’s still at least one deaf luthier making ukes at Kamaka.

I also learned that Kamakas sound so good because the front plate—where that rich sound comes from—is made from solid Koa wood from the Big Island, and that the ukes are so popular and the shop so small that you can’t buy one from their store. You have to order one and they’ll make it for you.

I went to the headquarters in Honolulu. They let me play all their ukes. I played their $1400 deluxe soprano, which is funny because it looks like so much like a toy. And what does it sound like? It sounds like fourteen hundred dollars. Fucking amazing.

I have my own Kamaka, though not the deluxe. One that I found after searching and searching, waiting for one in my price range, and finally stumbling across it in a Claremont music store. It’s from the sixties and it had to be reconditioned by the shop, but, unlike most things from the sixties (Sonics and MC5 notwithstanding), it sounds great.

The last time my wife’s side of the family got together, we broke out the ukes. I started playing a ‘20s tune, “5 foot 2,” which my grandfather used to play for me on his tenor guitar when I was little. My four-year-old nephew, like a true prodigy, told me to play it faster. I played as fast as I could. He and his three-year-old sister made their own circle pit in my living room. I love how things come around.

So now you may be thinking to yourself, all right, Sean, I took your advice on the courtesy flush but I’m still sitting here, 1800 words later, My legs are falling asleep on the toilet seat, and I’m waiting for you to get to the point. Well, maybe there isn’t one, really. Maybe I just wanted to spend a few minutes on the beautiful and absurd. Maybe that’s enough for today.

Author’s note: This is the eighteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #53.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Pop Culture Pap

Illustration from Razorcake #51 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #51 by Brad Beshaw

I walked across the campus at UCLA a half hour before the hullabaloo was scheduled to begin. A middle-aged woman in Birkenstocks walked toward me, accompanied by a dog that looked like a fat greyhound. A squirrel darted through the planter to my left. The dog bounded off after the squirrel. The woman hadn’t had a tight enough hold on the leash. It slipped out of her hand. The squirrel made for a tree—his only hope. The dog took three steps, swooped the squirrel up in her mouth, and bam. Two shakes of her head and the squirrel’s neck was broke. He hung there limply in the dog’s mouth. The woman screamed, “No! Macy! Put it down!” But it was too late for the squirrel. Macy knew this. She took off running down the hallways of what looked to be a Biology building. The woman ran after her dog.

It all seemed futile to me. She could give that dog all the yuppie names she wanted and scream at her all she wanted, but Macy had thousands of years of genetic memory telling her to eat that squirrel. Yuppie names and scolding in a language the dog doesn’t speak are no match for that. I wanted to tell the woman, “Relax. Let the dog have her little squirrel. It’s just the way the world works.” Instead, I minded my own business. I thought to myself, this has to be a metaphor for something.

 

A half hour later, the hullabaloo ensued. Crowds filtered in, writers performed readings, panels of other writers talked about their books, publishers hawked their wares. The LA Times Festival of Books was underway. I set up a chair adjacent to the table of Gorsky Press books and let the festival wash over me.

I was working half of the Gorsky Press/Manic D Press booth. Jennifer from Manic D had asked me if I would split a booth with her. From about ten seconds after I said I’d do it, I regretted my decision. I hate working at book festivals. I hate the retail aspect of it. I hate having to give a sales pitch for a book that I’m selling for five bucks. I mean, come on, five bucks? What else can you get for five bucks? A burrito. Someone poured his heart and soul and years of his life into this book, I spent several months working with the author, editing, typesetting, designing the cover, and creating the actual artifact. And you can get it for the cost of a burrito. Don’t ask me to give a sales pitch.

Thus, I started the day grumpy.

To make matters worse, the Gorsky/Manic D booth was right next to the LA Times Stage. This is where all the “celebrity” authors (or is it celebrity “authors,” because you know Cloris Leachman didn’t sit down at a laptop and type seventy thousand words of an autobiography) read from their works and answered questions from the audience. Whether I wanted to or not—and believe me, it was a not—I had to hear Winnie Cooper talk about math, Marsha Brady talk about her cocaine addiction (she bragged about blowing a quarter million dollars on coke, then scolded someone in the audience—probably some little girl—by braying, “Don’t you ever do drugs. Drugs are bad!”), and a few different celebrities whom I’d never heard of whine about being recognized everywhere they went. Bob Barker was there. I’m not sure what he talked about, but I couldn’t help feeling like he was trying to sell me a washing machine.

 

There’s something hauntingly painful about giving a sales pitch to a customer who’s clearly not interested in the book that you poured sweat and blood and thousands of dollars in, and giving that sales pitch not because you want to, but because he asked. And you know he only asked because he’s killing time until the Dancing with the Stars host takes over the stage. And you can hardly hear yourself grumble to yourself because Tori Spelling is squawking through the P.A. behind you.

Our booth number was 666. Before the festival, a friend asked me if that was a coincidence. I didn’t understand how it could be. I’m not satanic. After a seven-hour assault from the LA Times Stage, I knew what he meant. It was a coincidence because I was in hell.

 

Beyond the celebrities and customers, there were my fellow publishers to contend with. Not so much Jennifer from Manic D, but the publishers who stopped in to chat. The trendy fear this year is digital book readers. Publishers are convinced that everything will be going paperless within ten years. Books will be a thing of the past, surrendered in favor of the Kindle or the Sony Reader. And, as much as I like to indulge on unfounded panic, I just couldn’t commiserate with my fellow publishers.

On the one hand, I could see the benefits of these digital readers. Because everything published before 1923 in the US is part of the public domain in the US. No one holds the copyright on it. So, if I wanted to publish Moby Dick tomorrow, I could. And since the Herman Melville’s estate isn’t going to get a dime, it doesn’t make sense for Barnes & Noble or Penguin to charge as much as they do for their copies of that novel. You can get a free copy of it online at Project Gutenberg. So, if these digital readers became popular, anyone who wanted to read a pre-1923 book could download it for free. I think that would be a good thing. But you can already read most of those books for free online. And I still buy the books. Because Moby Dick is hard enough to read without having to read it off a glowing, flickering screen.

And that’s the problem with these book readers. The manufacturers swear that the screens don’t glow or flicker. But I’ve seem these readers. They glow and flicker.

Besides, if more people went to the digital book readers, I could sell a whole lot more Gorsky books without having to print, store, or mail them. And, sure, more people would be illegally downloading these books, but I could live with that. At least more people would be reading our authors.

On the other hand, I have trouble believing that these readers will take over. For one thing, I’ve never seen anyone using one of these digital readers in the world at large. I see a lot of people reading books down by the beach or on airplanes or in diners or on campuses, but I have not seen one single person reading a digital reader outside of the store that sells that reader. And I’ve been looking. For years, I’ve been looking.

When we started Gorsky Press more than a decade ago, people told me then that, within five years, everything would be paperless. Ten years later, people are telling me that, within five years, everything will be paperless. Will I hear the same thing in ten more years? I don’t know. I do remember buying an LP back in 1984 and the clerk telling me that cassettes would make LPs a thing of the past. Twenty-five years later, the LP is more popular than it’s been in a decade.

This goes to show that the future, like the present, isn’t binary. Sure, people probably will start buying more of those readers. Maybe they will get more popular. But for the rest of my lifetime, at least, people will still buy books for the same reason people still buy records. We want the artifact. We want the ceremony of lifting the record onto the turntable, hearing the crack and pop of anticipation, and listening to that warm fuzz of analog. Likewise, when we read a book, we want to be able to pause with our thoughts, gaze at the cover, flip back through the pages. We want to dog-ear pages and underline beautiful sentences. We want to smell the musty pages of a book that we’ve read twenty years ago, and reread that book and let the smell and the browning pages connect us to our earlier selves. I can’t see myself giving that up for a glowing screen. I can’t see readers like me giving that up for the next fifty or sixty years, at least.

Of course, I didn’t tell my fellow publishers this. Nothing bugs people like mixing your reason in with their panic.

 

So that was the LA Times Festival of Books. Vacuous celebrities, whiny publishers in a retail purgatory, and me grumbling. But there was this beautiful moment, too.

With only a couple of hours left in the book fest, with another celebrity chattering away on the stage behind me, I left the Gorsky/Manic D booth, made my way across campus, and watched a reading sponsored by an organization called “Dime Stories.” Aspiring-but-little-known writers read three-minute, slice-of-life stories about commuting on public transportation and thinking about their aunt and that kind of thing. I watched five or six of them. They were at times funny, clever, and thoughtful. All of these writers, though, clearly spent a lot of time crafting these little three-minute stories. They thought about every word. It was big deal for them to read at the Festival of Books.

The crowd was bigger there than it had been at the celebrity stage when I left. I was happy to see that.

Twenty minutes into Dime Stories, who should take the stage but Razorcake’s own Jim Ruland. He read a twisted story about a guy obsessed with Nietzsche and pro sports. It got a little edgy at the end. Some spectators who’d brought their young children squirmed in their seats. I felt a little swelling in my chest, proud for ol’ Jim.

Was his reading so powerful, so beautiful that it vindicated my whole experience at the Festival of Books? No. Clearly, I’m still grumpy about it all. I was just glad to see that among this vacuous display of a culture in ruins that passes itself off as a Festival of Books, at this homage to pop cultural pap where honest attempts at communication are lost in the clutter, at least organizations like Razorcake, Gorsky, and Manic D still have a foothold.

 

When the hullabaloo subsided, I packed the unsold books back into my truck and thought about the dog and her squirrel. I tried to make sense of the metaphor. Who was the dog in this scenario? Who was the squirrel? What were we genetically programmed to do? How was nature running its course?

I still don’t know. I’m sorry.

I wish I had a better answer for you.

Author’s note: This is the seventeenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #51.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Let Him Go

sean_illo_48_by_brad_beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #48 by Brad Beshaw

I was checking out Chester Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, the other day, trying to remember how that rhyme went. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a… And I couldn’t remember what you were supposed to catch by his toe. I remembered how I learned the poem, but I knew that wasn’t right. I knew there was something else you were supposed to catch by the toe, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what it was. I dug around in the recesses of my brain, trying to bring it up. It wouldn’t come to me. I didn’t want to look it up on the internet because 1.) I don’t want wikipedia to become my long-term memory and 2.) come on, I had to remember what I was really supposed to let go if he hollered.

Eventually, I gave up thinking and slunk back to my computer to look it up. Tiger. You probably already know this, but it’s a tiger that you catch by the toe.

I sat there, looking at my computer screen, thinking, who the fuck ever heard of catching a tiger by his toe? I looked at all the different versions—fishy, piggy, monkey—and none of them sounded familiar. One British version caught a fairy by his toe. I could’ve pictured us as kids using that one, if we’d been British, if someone had thought of it. But we never did. So tiger. It must’ve been tiger.

The thing is, though, we never said tiger. When I was a little kid, hanging out with all the kids in the neighborhood, divvying up teams for wiffle ball or whatever, we always said, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe.” I find it hard to picture now: a bunch of cute little White kids, mostly blond, tan in the Florida sun, gathered up for a game of something in the street, looking as all-American as can be. And we were all-American with our little rhymes of “catch a nigger by his toe, if he hollers let him go.”

I don’t know what we said when Rudy Smith played with us. Probably the same thing.

 

By the time I was old enough to know better, I’d quit making my choices using that rhyme.

 

I’m not sure where it came from. I’m sure my parents didn’t teach it to me that way. I don’t blame it on the fact that I grew up in the South, either. I remember hanging out with some older cousins in New York. I was only five or six years old. One of my cousins had taught me a joke, and he was prodding me to tell the other cousins. I wasn’t all that stoked on telling the joke because I didn’t get it. I told it anyway: “Sammy Davis, Jr. walks onto a bus. The bus driver says to him, ‘Back of the bus, nigger.’ Sammy Davis, Jr. says, ‘But I’m not a nigger. I’m a Jew.’ So the bus driver says to him, ‘Get off.’ ”

I didn’t know who Sammy Davis, Jr. was. Hell, I didn’t even know what a Jew was. I did know that jokes like that got me in with the older kids.

 

Then, there was this other time. I was in my late twenties, living back in Atlanta, hanging out a the Little Five Points Pub. A guy walked in the door. It took me a second to recognize him. He sat two stools over from me and took his own couple of seconds to remember me. His name was Andy. He’d been a regular at another bar where I used to work the last time I’d lived in Atlanta. We said our hellos and chatted for a bit. Andy said, “It’s been a long time.”

And it had been a long time since we’d seen each other. The two years that separated my lives in Atlanta flashed through my head. I’d lived in a couple of other towns, made and lost friends, traveled all around the continent, held a few jobs, got fired from one of them and almost got into a fistfight with my boss just so that I could pry my final paycheck from his fingers. The two years seemed like dog years to me. So I expressed this passage of time to Andy the best way I knew how. I said, “Yeah, it’s been a coon’s age.”

“A what?” Andy said, suddenly angry.

“A coon’s age,” I said. “You know, like a raccoon could have been born and lived his whole life in the time since I saw you last.”

“Oh,” Andy said, but he seemed like he was done talking to me.

The bartender came along, chatted with both of us, and the afternoon started to while away.

A few minutes later, I remembered that “coon” was a racist term for a Black person. I was White. Andy was Black. We were sitting deep inside of Georgia. Fuck.

I thought about that expression. Did it really mean what I thought it meant? Was a coon’s age really the lifespan of a raccoon, or something that makes less sense but is more racist? Was Andy sitting there, fuming that he had to sit next to a racist motherfucker like me? Should I apologize? Would it help?

I don’t remember how I handled the situation. I probably just had another drink.

 

I thought the word “pickaninny” referred to the braids that little Black girls wore. I thought this because I remember once standing with my mom and one of her friends, who was an elementary school teacher at the school that I went to, and my mom’s friend saw two little Black girls with braids and said, “Oh, look at the cute little pickaninnies.”

I was very embarrassed when, decades later, I learned what pickaninny really meant.

 

I’ve been thinking about all of this stuff lately, and probably for obvious reasons. I think I was a member of the last generation in America that was raised amidst such flippant racist language. In the late eighties, the whole Political Correctness movement came along. And it got a lot of backlash because no one knew what it was okay to say and what it wasn’t. The term African American doesn’t exactly work, because what about someone like Charlize Theron, who grew up in South Africa, immigrated to the U.S., and is White as hell? Isn’t she an African American? And what do we call Black people in Europe? And the terms black and white don’t work because we’re talking, in all cases, of a variety of browns. So you can capitalize White and Black to indicate that you’re referring not to a color but to a social construct, but even as I capitalize these words in this column, I feel like a pretentious jerk. So, granted, Political Correctness is a pain in the ass.

Still, it’s got to be preferable to allowing an otherwise nice little kid like myself to grow up chanting “catch a nigger by his toe.”

 

As I’ve said, whatever term you use now, it’s going to be inexact. The term “people of color” may seem like the silliest because not only are all people “of color,” but the term itself is just a syntactical variant of the old racist term “colored people.” Regardless, if we go beyond these pithy little observations, we can recognize that, at least as a society, White people stopped saying “nigger.” That has to be a great thing.

The term itself was created by a slave holding society. It’s the derogatory term that reasserts White superiority. Every time it’s used by a White person, whether he’s a Nazi or a little kid deciding who’s going to be the captains of the wiffle ball teams, it’s reasserting racial superiority. This is more serious than we typically acknowledge. There have been various neuroscientific studies recently that show that language causes us to react in ways that we’ve only recently begun to understand.

The word “nigger” is a good example of this. It’s a difficult word for me. I can type it and use it in this column, but I can’t bring myself to say it out loud, even here in my office, where I’m completely alone. I had a vague idea of why this was. I knew it was something about hearing that word in the voice of a White guy who has the accent of a former slaveholding state. But then I came across a book called The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker. Pinker explains that when we use certain words, it triggers a flow of oxygen into the limbic system in our brain. “Nigger” is one of those words. When we hear it or say it, our thought patterns flee the more rational frontal lobe of our mind and race down to the reptilian part of our brain. We literally race back to an early stage of evolution. This isn’t to say that saying the word makes you dumber, it just means that, when you say this word, you’re using the dumbest part of your brain.

 

So then I think again about Political Correctness and all the backlash against it. I can understand how it can be a pain in the ass. Everything that leads to progress can be a pain in the ass. Some people felt like restricting the words we can say is a form of censorship. Well, it can be. But in the case of attacking the word “nigger,” no one banned you from using it. You’re welcome to use it. You just look like a jackass if you do. And you should look like a jackass. You’re using the least evolved part of your brain when you say it. But I shouldn’t say “you” here. Chances are you’re not doing this at all. Chances are, you’ve evolved.

I’m not saying that demonizing the use of that one particular word has ended racism and paved the way for a Black U.S. president or anything drastic like that. I’m just trying to understand how we teach things like racism to little kids and how it was taught to me. Also, I think that demonizing certain terms has stuffed racism into the closet, as opposed to making it something that is overtly indoctrinated into us.

Hopefully, we’re all better off catching tigers by the toe.

Author’s note: This is the sixteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #48.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

A Tour of Self-Discover

sean_illo_47_by_brad_beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #47 by Brad Beshaw

7. Seattle

In Seattle, one of the local weeklies had a blurb about my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The weekly said that my new book was about a “bartender [who] goes on a road trip of self-discover.”

The book is absolutely not about that.

I happened to be standing on the Seattle waterfront when I read the weekly, a bit south of the famous fish market but still surrounded by a tourist district that I’d taken a wrong turn into. I paused for a second to remember a time when the independent weeklies that you found in every city used to actually be independent and actually cover events in those cities. In the next second, I wondered what happened to this imaginary bartender’s “y” on his road trip of self-discover.

I wandered as far away as I could from this little tourist district, gradually forgetting that stupid little blurb and remembering, still, that this was my nineteenth and final city on the summer tour I did to promote Train Wreck Girl, and, while it hadn’t been the road trip to self-discover that the Seattle Weekly billed it as, I had seen some things crisscrossing this continent.

 

  1. The Dells

There’s a region of Wisconsin called the Dells. On the way back from my reading in Minneapolis, I stopped in a gas station a little west of the Dells. Someone had written on the bathroom wall, “For a good time stop at Dolls in the Dells and ask for Ticia. She is a whore and will fuck you for money.”

A few minutes later, I rode through the Dells and saw Dolls. I didn’t stop in. I did think for a while about the guy who wrote that note on the bathroom wall. I wondered what inspired him to do it. Did he have a good time with Ticia? Was it such a good time that he had to tell everyone about it? Recommend it to all his friends, or anyone taking a piss for that matter? Was Ticia an ex-girlfriend who the scribe was looking to get back at? Is bathroom graffiti an effective way for a scorned man to strike back? Was Ticia really Tricia and our scribe just a bad speller? Questions like that kept popping up into my head as I rode across rural Wisconsin.

I applauded the scribe’s clarity. He’d taken the time to point out that Ticia was a whore who would fuck you for money, as opposed to a whore who may give it away for free, but would require you to have more game than just strolling up to her and saying, “I read about you on the bathroom wall.”

After a while, I let my tour mates in on all my meditations on Ticia and the scribe. They indulged me, helped me speculate as to who this guy was who penned this note above the urinal, even told stories of graffiti they’d ruminated about. I thought, is this how I pick my friends? Those who won’t say, “Dude, you’re thinking way too much about this shit.”

 

  1. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, it is not unheard of for someone to steal a manhole cover.

Go there. Get into town too late to do anything but sleep for the night. Wake up, eat a home-style breakfast at a hipster diner. Wander around the old city. See the site where the Constitution was signed. Pass Ben Franklin’s grave. Read the historical markers about the slaves who escaped to Philadelphia: the first free city they reached coming up from the south. Go to a gallery featuring “underrepresented” artists and take your time with the paintings. Then, when the afternoon has made itself comfortable and a thunderstorm lingers above the city, listen to Danielle. She’ll tell you the story about sitting right where she’s sitting now, looking out of that window right there, and seeing a guy on a bike wrestle with a manhole cover, stuffing it haphazardly into his duffel bag, peddling away, the manhole cover ripping through the duffel bag, and the sound of police sirens growing louder.

If you do this, then you too can watch the rain falling on the city and wonder what the scene must be like when someone shows up at a scrap metal yard with a manhole cover to sell. What story does he come up with when the metal yard guy asks him, “You didn’t steal this, did you?”

The possibilities seem endless.

 

  1. Oxford

We stopped in a gas station tucked in the foothills between Atlanta and Birmingham, more just to stop driving for a while than to actually get anything. I wandered through the aisles of the gas station and paused at a sign that read, “Goodies and BC Powder behind the counter. Ask the cashier.” The condoms were displayed next to the sign. I stood there for a while and thought about the shoplifting patterns of this town.

After Carla, A.J., and I bought stuff we didn’t really need, we loitered in front of the store. I said, “They have the condoms in the aisles where anyone can shoplift them, and the headache powder behind the counter where no one can. You know what that tells me? It tells me that people around here get drunk, have unprotected sex, and then steal aspirin when they’re hungover.”

Carla said, “Shit. You didn’t know that about Alabama already?”

A.J. told us a story about touring with the Kings of Nothing, a nine-piece punk band. He’d get so sick of sitting in that tour van that he’d learned how to waste twenty or thirty minutes in a convenience store. When he got done with the story, he lit a cigarette. The three of us stood around while he smoked. Everyone who walked into the store looked hungover and fucked to me.

A.J. finished his smoke and we got back into the car, twenty or thirty minutes after we’d first stopped. I was learning stuff all the time.

 

  1. Cleveland

I’d never seen them at my readings before. I’m used to reading to punk rockers and hipsters in their twenties and thirties. But with this tour, I stumbled into readings with a different crowd. At Mac’s Backs in Cleveland, fully half of the audience was composed of gray-haired women in their sixties. One of them was a nun. I didn’t know she was a nun until after the reading, which seems like such a wasted opportunity to me because I know so many Catholic jokes.

My reading at the Cocoa Beach Library brought out a second crowd of sexagenarians. This made more sense to me because it was a reading in a library in a community with a large population of retirees. I still wasn’t sure why they chose to come out and listen to me, though.

As it turned out, sexagenarians rounded out the audience at most of the readings I did to support Train Wreck Girl. They laughed at the times that I hoped they would. They bought books. One even showed up with a dog-eared copy of the novel and had me sign it to her, then talked to me about the ending.

Now, you may be thinking, wait a second. Aren’t you supposed to be a punk rock guy? Aren’t you one of the founders of this here punk rock zine? What’s going on here?

I may be thinking the same thing.

 

  1. Minneapolis

After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

 

  1. Atlanta

Above the urinal in The Highlander in midtown Atlanta, someone has written, “Jesus Hates Bald Pussy.”

I did not know that.

Author’s note: This is the fifteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #47.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Sancho Panza in Santa Monica

Illustration from Razorcake #46 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #46 by Brad Beshaw

I read Don Quixote as I gear up for my Hollywood moment: a lunch meeting with an actor and a director to discuss a screenplay that I have written. Since this is a Hollywood moment, I guess I’m not meeting for lunch or getting ready to eat lunch, I’m “doing” lunch. And what had brings me to this parking lot outside of a French deli (really? A French deli?); what has led me to write, of all quixotic things, a screenplay? All of that will have to wait for a while. In the meantime, Don Quixote has to charge into the Spanish plains to defeat the notorious Polish-Turkish-Egyptian army, who have cleverly disguised themselves as sheep.

Don Quixote is a misunderstood figure. He’s been simplified and mythologized in our cultural representations of him. We’ve come to forget the actual character that Cervantes wrote about. He’s kind of a Rip Van Winkle in the sense that, if you read Washington Irving’s story about Rip, you recognize that Rip was a drunk, a deadbeat dad, and a draft dodger who went on a twenty-year bender and made up a crazy story about sleeping for twenty years to cover his ass. But now Rip has turned into a Disney cartoon and a kid’s story and everyone wants to believe his silly alibi about sleeping in the woods for two decades. I like him better as a drunk. Don Quixote is the same way. We all know the story about him seeing windmills on the plain, mistaking them for giants, and charging them atop his swayback nag. The windmills, of course, win. We interpret this act as the all-too-human chase after crazy dreams. We anoint Don Quixote as the patron saint of lost causes and futile endeavors. Look at him: he thinks he’s a knight and there haven’t been knights for centuries; he made his face shield out of cardboard and his lance is just a crooked tree branch. He must be mad. What we forget, though, is that Miguel de Cervantes wrote about a different Don Quixote. In Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote is not crazy. Not really.

This is as far as I get in the novel when the actor, Stu Smith, comes up beside my truck. I’ve known Stu since we were kids, since he moved into my neighborhood and instantly became the butt of two jokes. The first joke was about his dad, an aspiring stock broker who rode a moped. Sometimes we’d see him in the morning, us riding our bicycles to school, Stu’s dad, decked out in a suit and tie, riding his moped to the brokerage. Even the briefcase bungeed to the back of his moped was funny. The second joke was about Stu being Jewish. He was known around the neighborhood as Stu the Bufu Jew. I called him that, too, even though I was only ten and had no idea what a bufu was. To be honest, I didn’t even know what a Jew was.

Now when I see Stu, decades of memories float to the surface. Little moments long stored in the recesses of long term memory emerge. Like that time Stu and I were hanging out at a dull high school party and Stu formed a plan to make things better. I followed. We wandered a block away from the party and Stu uprooted a mailbox. I uprooted another. We switched the two out, then sallied on, pulling out mailboxes, swapping them with others, making sure that no house had the right mailbox in front of it for two blocks down Catalina Isles.

Of course it was ridiculous, but it was something to do.

And now Stu is an actor. You don’t know this, but you’ve seen him on TV. He’s one of the tens of thousands of faces you pass as you flip the channels. Sometimes, he’s painting his face and chanting, “Roughing the palate!” in a beer commercial, sometimes he’s flirting with Wanda Sykes in a sitcom, sometimes he’s in a robot costume on the Jimmy Kimmel Show or a banker on a drama destined for cancellation after four episodes or a burn victim or an angel or a golfer. Most of his roles are credited as either an occupation or a number: Heart and Lung Technician, Customer #2. I once rented the movie Rat Race, fast-forwarded until Stu popped onto the screen as a co-pilot, rewinded and watched Stu and the pilot bang heads about fifteen times, laughed like hell each time, then turned off the movie. That was two dollars well spent.

Stu is a big part of why I wrote the screenplay. In the screenplay, the main character is named Stu, nicknamed Stu the Bufu Jew, and he sometimes dresses in a suit and rides a moped.

In real life, Stu stands in front of me as I still have half of my head in Don Quixote and I can’t help wondering about Stu as an actor and me as a screenwriter, and thinking, which one of us is Don Quixote in this scenario? I’m the one living in my head when I write the screenplay. Stu is the one who’s hoping to act it all out, though in a socially acceptable way. Can we both be Don Quixotes? And, if there’s two people living out the delusion, doesn’t that go against the very notion of Quixote’s insanity? After all, the only difference between delusion and reality is corroboration. If Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, had seen giants on the Spanish plain instead of windmills, then Don Quixote wouldn’t have been delusional at all. He would have been a fallen hero.

And what about Sancho Panza, the squire? If he really believes that Quixote is mad, why does Sancho go along with him? Why does he leave his wife and child and ride out onto the Spanish plains with a man who believes himself to be knight, especially when you consider that Sancho knows he’s not going to get paid for all of his efforts? Is Sancho really as stupid as generations of readers have accused him of being?

Stu sees what I’ve been reading. He tells me that, after he acted in his first play, his parents gave him a gift. It was a matching set of Spanish statues, one of Don Quixote, the other of Sancho Panza. This information freaks me out a bit. I don’t say anything. We head to the deli.

The restaurant is perfect for people in the movie business in the sense that it focuses more on image than substance. A ham sandwich is called “jambon de Paris,” a salami sandwich is a “saucisson.” We meet up with the director and he’s a Hollywood insider in the sense that he makes a living off of movies. He’s written several screenplays that have turned into movies starring, well, big stars. He’s also a Hollywood outsider in the sense that he’s recently written and directed an independent film that features no stars, that he funded himself, and that he’s been showing at film festivals all around the country. He’s got a few suggestions for revisions on the screenplay, little things that he knows from making movies and I don’t know because I’ve only written novels, short stories, Razorcake columns, and that type of thing. Overall, though, he likes the screenplay. He likes it enough to offers to direct the movie, even though he knows there’s no money in it and he’s just turned down an offer to direct a movie for the Lifetime network. When the director makes this offer, I look at Stu. It suddenly becomes clear to me which one of us is which.

Maybe I imagine it, but I think I see the flashes of thoughts in Stu’s eyes. Maybe he can actually make this movie. Maybe he knows people who can fund it. Maybe he can actually be the star and not the guy laying on a stretcher, covered in burn-victim makeup. Maybe those aren’t really sheep on the Spanish plain. Maybe he really is taking on the Polish-Turkish-Egyptian army. Maybe he could be a knight.

 

Before Don Quixote set out on his adventures, he was a hidalgo. Hidalgos were landed gentlemen who, in the early seventeenth century, had no real means of supporting themselves, but social conventions dictated that they could not work or earn money. So Don Quixote was both a member of the nobility and a victim of abject poverty. He was literally starving went he set forth on his first sally. Sancho Panza was socially and economically below Don Quixote. After they set out on their adventures, though, they managed to find big, free meals most nights. They flirted with attractive (and sometimes horribly unattractive) women and fought with rogues; they met interesting people and heard great stories. Insane, stupid, or not, they had a lot of fun. Even if most of their adventures left them battered and bruised, they still ended up leagues above the slow starvation that ate away at them when they stayed home.

When Stu started his acting career, he was coming off of a ten-year stint as a stock broker—a job that ate away at his stomach lining, that pushed him into middle age before he had time to reach his thirtieth birthday. When my first novel came out, I worked as a construction superintendent—a job that made me feel like I was starving even as my weight ballooned.

Now I watch the flickers of maybes in Stu’s eyes. I feel a little like Sancho, sitting on my mule, drinking my wine, not sure yet whether or not I’ll jump in and help out if Don Quixote starts to get his ass kicked again. I reminisce about writing the screenplay and about all the childhood memories it triggered and about how time has let me and Stu take some of the pain of adolescence and turn it into a comedy. I listen to the director tell these dazzling stories about the Hollywood only insiders see. I eat my glorified salami sandwich, and even that tastes pretty fucking good. And, at this point, it doesn’t matter to me whether the movie gets made or not. Insane, stupid, or not, it’s all been pretty fun, leagues above the slow starvation of doing nothing.

 

Author’s note: This is the fourteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #46.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

The Mexican Break-Up

Illustration from Razorcake #44 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #44 by Brad Beshaw

Mexico is nothing like I expected it to be. I had a collage in my head of Mexico, pasted together with images of Zapatistas in Chiapas; Jack Kerouac sweating out dysentery in a Mexico City hospital; Jessica Abel trying to fuse back her identity in La Perdida; various PBS documentaries about U.S. corporations blazing a trail of toxic waste and labor outrages across the Mexican desert; and soap operas on Univision that I can only understand about every third word of. So I guess that’s what I expected to find: revolutionaries, artists, hipsters, corrupt businessmen, desperate poverty, and full-figured women with generous displays of cleavage. And, in a sense, I’m sure all of that is here; it’s just not front and center.

So what is front and center? Wine country.

I didn’t even know Mexico had wine country until Jim and Nuvia decided to get married down here. Now, I’m three days deep into it.

The wedding is over. I remember it. I remember the conversations I had and the last drink I ordered and the ride home and going to bed. Nothing too crazy. If, ten years ago, you told me that Jim Ruland was getting married and having an open whiskey bar, I would’ve counted on drinking way too much, sliding into blackout, waking up the next morning not sure how I got home, and wincing when I heard stories about how I made an ass out of myself and generally ruined the festivities. Now, I make a rule of not drinking whiskey like that and definitely not drinking whiskey when Jim Ruland is around. So here it is, the morning after his wedding, and I’m feeling fine. Healthy. I woke up early. I had a glass of Mexican tap water already and even that isn’t bringing me down. It’s time to get to the matter at hand.

I grab my book and a chair and head out to the balcony. It’s a little chilly out here. I’m a couple thousand feet above sea level. The mist from the Pacific Ocean forms into a cloud, drifts east for several miles, and settles in this valley. The mountains are completely engulfed in fog. The grapevines below drip with dew. It’s May in Mexico, I’m wearing jeans and a hoodie, and I’m still a little cold. I don’t pay much attention to this, though, because I’m at the end of a long journey here.

My book is in my lap. Really, at this point, it’s a manuscript. It’s called Train Wreck Girl. I printed it out a few days ago. I punched three holes in each sheet of paper and stuck them in a three-ring binder. On the drive down and during lulls between wedding parties, I’ve been reading back through it. I’ve made little notes, added small paragraphs here and there, and addressed issues that my editor asked me to address. I’m down to the last few pages and it occurs to me that this is it. When I type these changes into my computer, the novel is done. Done done. The changes I make this time are the last changes I’ll make to this book. After this, it goes to the publisher, to the printer, and to bookstores. After this, it’s fixed, set in type. It no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the reader. Is this a scary feeling? Yes. Is it a great feeling nonetheless?

Fucking-A.

Patricia Geary once told me that writing a novel is like getting involved in a long-term relationship with someone. Writing a short story is like having a one-night stand: it’s fun and wild and you are emotionally invested, just not that much. Writing a novel, though, is agreeing to get serious with that person. You’re going to start dating regularly. It’ll be fun and exciting. Pretty soon, it’ll start absorbing all your time and thoughts. It’ll get intense. You’ll wonder what it is, exactly, that you’re doing. You’ll wonder if it’s worth it. You’ll go through rough patches that you need to work on. You might even break up for a while. But there’ll be something there that you just can’t walk away from. You’ll go back to it, again and again, it doesn’t matter how many times and how much it consumes you. You’ll make it work.

The difference is, when you get involved with a person long-term, there’s a chance that you can make it last for the rest of your life. With a novel, sooner or later, you have to break up with it. So that’s why I brought this novel down to Mexico with me: to tell her, “I think I gave you all I could, but we’ve gone as far as we can together. It’s time for you start spending time in other people’s imaginations.”

More images flash through my mind. I first started flirting with her back in 1999. I was working as a construction superintendent, spending huge chunks of my day driving from job site to job site, dealing with the stress of work by losing myself in daydreams about barely-formed characters. As those daydreams increased, I realized that things were getting serious. Something needed to be done.

In February of 2000, I quit my job, started teaching part-time at the local community college, did some freelance tractor work when it was looking like I wouldn’t make rent, and spent five or six hours a day for about six months typing away. I wasn’t sure where the novel would go, but I let it do its thing.

I was surfing a lot in those days, so the ocean seeped its way into the novel. I rode my bike most places around town, so the main character got a bicycle and started riding. I read a lot of crime novels—Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes—so a novel about sunny Cocoa Beach adopted some noir elements.

One night, I’d been writing until about two in the morning when I reached a point where I couldn’t go on and I couldn’t sleep. I decided to hop on my skateboard and ride around the neighborhood until I was tired enough to go to bed. I kicked around the vacant streets for a while, full moon shining down on the warm summer night. A rental sedan pulled up next to me. A middle-aged businessman rolled down his window. He was drunk. Clearly. He asked me if there were any hot spots to check out in Cocoa Beach.

“It’s two-thirty in the morning,” I told him. “Everything’s closed.”

“What about women?” he asked.

“What about them?”

“Do you know where I could find any?”

I realized that, in his booze-addled mind, he thought perhaps he’d run into a skateboarding pimp. I told him, “Yeah. What you want to do is go home, sober up, go to work tomorrow, and ask out the woman in the office who you’ve had a crush on for the last six months.”

The guy told me to fuck off and drove away. I went back to riding around the vacant streets, wondering if a skateboarding pimp would make a cameo in the novel.

He didn’t.

 

In late 2000, I finished writing the novel. I titled it Crazy Broads and Dead People. I proudly printed up all 350 pages of it, put it in a three ring binder, and read the complete draft for the first time. When I was finished, I was struck with the realization that this novel—for which I’d quit my job, on which I’d spent several months working like mad—completely sucked. I mean, it sucked bad. I almost deleted it. That might not have been a bad thing.

I spent the next few years trying to fix it. During that time, I did other things. I had a bunch of one-night stands with short stories. I wrote enough of those to put out two short story collections. I also helped found this here magazine. And in the midst of it all, somewhere in late 2003, I made the executive decision that Crazy Broads and Dead People was bullshit and we were broken up for good.

 

During the summer of 2005, I went on two tours to support my short story collection Barney’s Crew. A brutal heat wave hit the northeastern U.S. Joe Meno, Mickey Hess, and I did a reading in the loft of a Pittsburgh bookstore. It was about a 105 degrees. No one bought a book from any of us. The next night, we read in New York City. It was so hot inside the art gallery that we decided to take the reading outside. I went first. It was New York City: loud, hot, smelly. An ambulance raced down the street, only to be blocked by a double-parked car. I stood on the sidewalk for three minutes, mid-story, waiting for the parking violator to move his car so that I could be heard over the blaring horn and sirens of the ambulance. In Boston, two people showed up to our reading. That’s it. Just two. In Montreal, after another hot night of readings, the drunken owner of gallery where we did the reading told me that I needed a shtick. He told Mickey to try to incorporate more props into his reading. Mickey and I went across the street and got drunk.

The next morning, I lay in the back seat of a rented Toyota Echo, wallowing in the hangover brought on by those four readings and a tour that was turning into a bummer. I felt bad for bringing Mickey and Joe into this mess. I felt bad for the tens of thousands of miles I’d traveled and the hundreds of readings in dozens of cities. I felt bad about the wall of apathy and silence that greeted my new book. I felt bad for everything.

But self-pity is the lazy indulgence of emo kids. I needed to snap out of it. I listened to Mickey and Joe, who seemed undaunted. They talked about writing, their new projects, and what their favorite writers did that worked. As I eavesdropped, it occurred to me that the one person who could pull me out of this malaise was Danny McGregor, the hero (or anti-hero) of Crazy Broads. I went searching through the alleyways of my brain, hoping to find him.

He was there.

 

When I got home from that tour, I started working with Danny again. I wrote every morning for five or six hours, using the same basic plot and characters from Crazy Broads, but writing a whole new novel. I didn’t even dig out my old copy of Crazy Broads. Why should I? It sucked.

Within a couple of months, I had the rough draft of a whole new novel. And this one, I liked.

Within a couple of years, I’d gone through a dozen revisions, sold the novel to Manic D Press, worked with the editor there to clean things up even more, scrapped chapters and added chapters, and read through everything one last time down here in Mexico.

And now, here I am. It’s late May, 2007. I’m ready to say goodbye to the writing of Train Wreck Girl, ready to hand her over to my publisher, to printers, and to you. It’s an Annie Hall kind of break up. I wish her the best. I’m better for the time we spent together. But, as the sun burns away the fog and the panorama of Mexican wine country opens into another day, I’m ready to move on.

 

Author’s note: This is the thirteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #44.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Hoodlebugging

Illustration from Razorcake #41 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #41 by Brad Beshaw

I rode my bike down the Hoodlebug Trail in western Pennsylvania feeling like I was stuck on both sides of a time machine. The trail itself was paved over an old commuter railroad line that started in the Pennsylvania town called Indiana and ended in Blairsville. Little reminders of the old days still ran along the buried tracks. Groundhogs stood to peer across a fallow field, chipmunks scattered away from my shadow, a buck paused on the trail before racing down to a creek to drink. The ghosts of nineteenth century industry—coal mines and iron furnaces and the young growth of a clear-cut forest—floated around me. The trail also intersected little reminders that I was very much in twenty-first-century America: the wastewater treatment plant; the baseball field with a painting of the nuclear power plant below the scoreboard; the actual nuclear power plant behind the baseball field; the freeway that ran sometimes dangerously close to the trail; the iPod I had plugged into my ears, blasting the Descendents. As I crossed over Two Lick Creek, I caught a glimpse of a billboard through the trees. It showed a picture of a freeway and said, “DNT TXT N DRV.”

It took me a few minutes to figure out what the hell it meant. I kept trying to figure out what DNT stood for. Descendents Nuts Transfer? Donuts Next Town?

You, on the other hand, if you have a cell phone, if you’ve sent a text message before, if you don’t have the Descendents and donuts on the brain, probably knew right away what the sign said. You are one up on me. I was a mile down the Hoodlebug, thinking about something entirely different when suddenly Don’t Text and Drive popped into my head. Perhaps because this revelation hit me right in the middle of the song “Hateful Notebook” in the middle of the Trail That Is Twenty-First-Century America, my brain started reeling.

Earlier this past summer, I read a book called Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. It’s the kind of book that you only read if you’re a geek or an English professor. Since I’m both, I loved the book. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what you need to know about it is that Ong discusses the ability to write and read as a technology—which it is, though we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t see it that way—and it’s the technology that made Western Civilization what it is. Ong says that in cultures that have never been exposed to reading or writing, thought patterns are completely different. Cultural mores, laws, traditions, etc., are all memorized in the form of an epic poem. Because there’s no dictionary, people’s vocabularies are only a few thousand words. People living in oral culture are no less intelligent than people living in a literate one, but they do think differently. Writing and reading changed the way people think. For one thing, when we are able to write, we can literally take thoughts out of our heads and store them somewhere else. In other words, I don’t have to allocate any mental space to, say, avocados when I’m hungry for guacamole. Instead, I can just write a shopping list and put avocados, jalapeno peppers, garlic salt, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and beer on it. That way, I can forget about those items until I get to the store and read my list. In the meantime, my mind will be free to wonder about things like the Descendents song “Hateful Notebook.”

It’s on perhaps the most underrated Descendents album, Everything Sucks. In short, it’s a song about a girl who writes all of secrets into her notebook and the narrator of the song wants to know what’s in it. More than that, though, the narrator wants to read what’s in it. Because there’s a difference between knowing what’s in a notebook and reading what’s in a notebook. When you know what’s in a notebook, your mind assimilates the information into your thought processes, changing exactly what is written into your vague conception of what is written. When you read it, though, you know exactly what is written, exactly the thoughts that she had in the way that she wanted to express them with all the complexity, innuendo, and nuance she used. He can go back and read and read that notebook and what he knows will grow. More meaning will come out of those words. He’ll think about it as “reading between the lines,” but he’s not reading between them at all. He’s just gradually coming to a better understanding of what they say. And that’s one of the really amazing things about reading and writing: meaning grows as you continue to reread. Even the simplest diary will become more complex, more elucidating the more you read it. Words and sentences carry a lot more information than we usually give them credit for.

In a way, that works in oral cultures, too. I’m sure when those poor Athenian bastards had to memorize The Iliad, the meaning grew with every recitation. In their minds, it probably started out as a war story, morphed into a gay love story, and eventually became the law of the land. It’s not all that different from me listening to that Descendents album a hundred times and singing along to all the words until the meanings grew and grew and eventually led me to thinking way to hard about it while I rode the Hoodlebug and creating a whole scenario about this sad little goth girl and her black and white composition notebook, using a nubby pencil to write all about how 45 Grave really gets her, and the too-skinny dude with his horn-rimmed glasses and DIY buzz cut and huge internal desert of insatiable longing.

But I have time to think about these all of these ridiculous things. Why? Because I come from a literate culture that allows me to take most of my thoughts and store them on paper somewhere, or allows me to borrow or access thoughts that other people put on paper so that I could use them when I want to.

And since I had this time, I used it to wonder what the fuck DNT TXT N DRV really means? I mean beyond “don’t text and drive.” What does it really mean?

One of the things that Ong talks about is the turning point of literacy. Originally, people used writing just as a way of counting money or storing stuff. Want to know what’s in that basket over there, look at the picture of the olive on the side of it. Want to know how much money you got for those olives, count the number of vertical lines you drew on that piece of bark. From there, the circles and lines got more advanced. They started to mean more. But what really changed everything was the vowel. Before the vowel, the circles and lines couldn’t be read the same way by everyone. Where one person sees an olive, another sees and orange. Where one person sees DNT and reads it as don’t, another person reads it as donut. What separates the don’ts from the donuts? The vowel. Put a vowel in a word and anyone can learn to read fairly accurately. And once anyone can read, everyone is able to take thoughts out of their heads and store those thoughts in a way that’s accessible to a broader population. Laws, mores, and traditions don’t have to be memorized. Just write them down and look them up if you need to. Free up your mind to invent new stuff to maybe make life easier.

When you consider this, you realize that everything we have in this culture of ours—from bicycles to baseball games to train tracks to blacktop paved over train tracks to nuclear power plants to iPods to aging punk rock bands—can be traced back to one single technology: the vowel. And now we send text messages that treat the vowel like it doesn’t even matter.

But that’s not my point. This isn’t just a long rant to say that text messaging sucks. I have no idea whether or not it sucks. I don’t have a cell phone. I’ve never sent a text message. Hell, it usually takes me anywhere between a week and forever just to answer an email. There’s no way I’m going to walk around with some little machine that lets people send little vowelless messages about the minutia of their day. I’d rather ride my bike and listen to the Descendents.

At least that’s where I am right now. I’m very happy that I don’t have a cell phone, just like there was a time when I was very happy that I didn’t have an email account. And it’s not because I’m a Luddite. I love a lot of new technology. I was listening to an iPod while I Hoodlebugged. Sure, the music doesn’t sound as good as it does when I play it on vinyl, but it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than riding a bike with a record player on the handlebars. The bike I was riding was pretty state-of-the-art, too. I don’t know what kind of metal it was made of, but it’s a lot stronger and lighter than the steel that they used to smelt in those huge old furnaces that still dot the western Pennsylvania landscape. Even when I type this, I’m using a laptop and Microsoft Word. I may not be a fan of Microsoft and Word may have its own problems, (what with all the changes it makes to words while you’re typing them; you can hardly even type “teh” anymore without the program changing it to “the.” You can hardly type Hoodlebug without a red squiggly line underneath, even though I know it’s a real word and I’m spelling it correctly). Word freaks me out sometimes, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than the old Smith Corona word processor that I wrote my first novel on. It definitely beats the shit out of the electronic typewriter I used to write essays in high school.

But because I’m of that generation that grew up from typewriter to word processor to Word, I’m even more aware of how this technology changes our way of thinking. When I used to write on a typewriter or use a pencil (like my imaginary Hateful Notebook girl), I really thought about what I wanted to say before writing it down. I mean, I really thought about it. I didn’t want to have to type out a whole new page just to fix a sentence. I didn’t want a page full of crossed out or erased words. The word processor changed that a bit, but it wasn’t until computers got cheap enough for me to be able to afford one and I started to use Word that my method of writing really changed. Now, I write as a think. I type sixty words a minute. I keep about forty of them. I use the backspace key more than I use the letter “e.” And there’s a fuckload of “e’s” in this column.

Getting back to the Hoodlebug and the DNT TXT N DRV billboard (a phrase which, not so incidentally, does not get a squiggly line under it when you type it in Word), it was at that moment that I realized just how significant all these little insignificant things like cell phones and iPods and laptops are. When the railroad tracks are paved over to make a bike path or when the clear-cut forests grow back everywhere but where the nuclear power plant is, those are just changes to the way we get around or the way we get energy. When groundhogs gaze across fallow fields, it’s just a different thing for me, a guy who lives in California, to look at. Their part of the change that is all around us and perpetual and part of the normal human experience. The actual things, like my bike and the power plant, may be unique to our time period, but they’re just part of the chain of creation and destruction that have surrounded western civilization for a few thousand years. But that little computer chip that was sitting on my hip, mainlining punk rock tunes into my ears, or the computer chip that connects careless drivers passing out essentially meaningless and vowelless messages to one another, and that chip in the laptop that helps me to write this all represent something much larger than a change in our environment. They represent a change in the way our minds are working. It’s a change in the way that we think, a change bigger than anything humans have undergone since they first came up with the vowel. And, goddamn, none of us knows where this is going to take us.

 

Author’s note: This is the twelfth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #41.  For more information about the collection, read this post.