Thursday, October 23, 2008

Riding A Roller Skate Down Old Santa Fe Trail: Santa Fe 1984

So I lived in an old adobe on Camino de la Luz up in the hills east of town and got a job waiting tables at the Forge Restaurant downtown. I used to walk the mile or more to and from work each day, down Alameda along the trickling tree-shaded Santa Fe River. I only knew one person in Santa Fe--Joel, whose house I lived in--but after I landed the job, I fell in with a group of characters.
Though I got to know about, say, a dozen people just from work, it was mainly two young guys, John and Alex, that I hung out with. They were both locals, both going-no-where kind of young men. Nice guys, though. John was a cook, from a broken family who rarely saw his father (I recall we were out and around one night and some leather-clad fellow buzzed by on a Harley and John yelled out and the guy waved to him; "That's my dad," John said to me. "He's a freak." and this was kind of shocking to me, that you would casually wave to your father on a motorcycle in the street as if he were but an acquaintance), kind of a drinker/drugger ne'er-do-well. John was a bit of a harmless scammer, scrappy and interesting. Alex was a little more refined, a drummer and musician; he lived in a studio apartment at his mother's house but didn't see much of her because, as I was told, his brother had been killed which broke his mother's heart and she put a great distance between her and Alex because of that tragedy. But, they were guys--like most young guys--who liked to stay up late and bound about and look for things to do.
When I say stay up late, I mean real late. We often worked the night shift at the restaurant and it got to where they started inviting me out afterwards to hit the bars, to go to Club West (where Alex's girlfriend was manager, where I eventually worked as a bouncer). Then, even after the club closed, say three, four in the morn, they'd take beers and wander downtown Santa Fe looking for things to do. Like I said, they were both natives of the city and they knew it block by block. But what I also found out was that they were both into roller skating.
Now, sure, I'd roller skated. Had last skated in Iowa City when I was a freshman and we'd arrange to go to a rink in Coralville with a another dorm floor--girls, of course. But I had a rather low opinion of it. But I'd walk and they--having brought their skates to work--would glide along, up and down sidewalks and empty late night streets, skating and spinning the concrete spaces around the state capitol and other government buildings. And invariably there'd be other characters about--cab drivers, hooligans, bar workers--who they knew and would stop to talk to and introduce me to. But otherwise, the city was empty and dark. Sometimes, downtown along the plaza, we'd even climb up to the roofs of the buildings. I recall one time we hopped up--I think on top of the bank--and looked own on the plaza below and there was a street bum wandering around and John--ever full of mischief--decided to toss quarters into the street. Alex and I watched as he did this, the quarters pinging down to the pavement, the unfortunate homeless bum hearing it, searching as another quarter came down, now the man seeing it, picking it up as more quarters and other coins began to rain from the sky. I admit I laughed. The bum finally figured it out, looked up, said, "Very funny". But at least he got to keep the change.
I remember one night after work I went out with them. We did the usual--drinking till Club West closed--taking beers and hitting the deserted town, walking while they skated. Then they said I should try. "No way," I said. "Your skates are too small, anyway." True, I was much bigger than both of them, maybe even put together. "You can ride on it," they told me. Ride on it? "Like a skateboard," Alex said, "you can use one skate and I'll use the other." I was more than skeptical. I was also sloshed. "Okay," I said. "I'll give it a try."
We were up on Santa Fe Trail, a main drag that ran as a hill down--eventually--into the center of downtown. So, beer bottle in one hand, I sat down on the tiny skate, balanced myself, and off I went . . . Indeed, I glided downhill, gaining speed, learned I could control it like a board or toboggan by shifting my weight, and I went a long long way. Just drinking and skating, sitting on one single tiny roller skate, bopping along in the dry night summer air of Santa Fe, the four am buildings brown dark and empty, stop lights flashing only yellow, trees full-leaved and dusky, the whole city empty and quiet and but a playground for fools like us.
We did it again, on different streets, until the sun came up. In fact, I had to be at work for the breakfast shift, so I never did sleep or get home, but went straight from drunk and sit-skating to my locker at the Forge, where I changed into waiter attire, and started my shift. 
But I was in pretty bad shape, though made it till about noon, then--after the initial rush--I begged off work. Sherri--the manager--let me go home. And as I walked, down some of the same streets I'd been wandering all night before, everything was surreal and strange, my mind bamboozled, my sensations discombobulated in a pleasant, if worn down, way. And, I discovered, it was the Fourth of July.
I'd forgotten. And as I tramped along the street I came across a crowd, across the Fourth of July Parade route and here it came, floats and clowns and Shriners and cowboys with horses and kids and wagons and red white blue bunting and me. Me strung-out stranged-out happy tired heading past the parade and up the long-walk hill to my temporary home in New Mexico.
Oh, it was just a dumb little thing. One of many dumb little things out of many dumb little days spread out over lo' these many years. If only I could get paid for such foolishness, I'd be a rich man. But, I still remember such trivial frivolities, can still conjure them up quite well, like a movie reel in my head that entertains me in my own idiosyncratic way, allowing me to laugh at myself.
Maybe that's payment enough.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Working in Montana: 1988-1990

I had a number of jobs in Missoula, none of them splendid. Montana, even a vibrant city like Missoula, wasn't exactly a employment mecca kind of place. As I recall, the Forest Service and the state government were the biggest employers in the state--probably still are--with mining and timber extraction following them up. I was a student, not a ranger or lumberjack or office worker, so I looked for my usual hand-me-down jobs when I lived there. And when Fru and I were in the cabin in Stevensville, we found no work.
Stevensville, like the rest of the small towns lined up along the Bitterroot Valley, had few jobs, even in the small business' and cafes and such. Fru and I looked for work in Missoula, but employers were reluctant to hire us because we would have to drive into town, because we were not really Montanans, because we were both students at the University of Montana, I guess. Don't blame them, really. So, it wasn't until we moved into Missoula--a little cottage of a house on Rollins Street--that we found employment.
Fru found temp work doing books at All West Tractor. I landed a job as dishwasher at the Old Town Cafe on Front Street or First Street, up near the railroad yard, near the Double Front. It was owned by two guys who--by the time I worked there--hated each other. But it was a great cafe--sold mounds of good food, especially breakfast, at decent prices. It was popular and I enjoyed working there at first. Restaurants have a sense of energy and camaraderie, a necessary team effort, to function. But there's also a lot of stress. Cooks and chefs are well known to have hot tempers. And the two owners, who were both the main cooks, taking different shifts, together at times on weekends, were jerks most of the time. There was a lot of negative energy, a lot of negative reinforcement to urge employees to do their jobs (which was not needed--positive reinforcement would have worked better). Most of us there came to love/hate the place. But, there weren't a lot of jobs in town, so you buried that anger and kept your mouth shut and did the work. Eventually people exploded. I quit--walked off the job, essentially (with the owner's blessing) because of it. Had never done that before and still have a lingering dislike for both of those jackasses.
By then Fru had a steady part time job with the university. Any job with the U was considered a plum one. So, we were in Missoula, poor, essentially happy, in love and I was out of work. I went right to it and landed a job at a truck stop off I-80 just west of town.
Officially I was a pump jockey.
Though I was working for minimum wage, wore a silly Conoco polo shirt uniform, at times I liked the job. I was outside a lot, near the big highway with its traffic and trucks and sense of "the road", could see the mountains and the valley each day. I'd handle the pumps for the big trucks, do small jobs, sometimes had to clean showers but otherwise just tumbled around doing what was needed. But I knew I wanted to get out of it and, come summer, I applied for a landscaping job, put down my landscaping/nursery experience (from Urbana) and concrete experience (from Champaign) and turned out one of the owners (a good group of youngish guys) was from Illinois originally, so I got the job. And it was fun. They had a contract to plant trees for the city, so I got to go around town doing just that. Loved being outdoors, loved the plants, the hard work, the guy-stuff. A few people from the cafe saw me out there, so it was sort of revengeful to know that they'd seen me working like that--a job like that was also considered plum. We did yards and gardens all over town and down in the Bitterroot, did driveway and trash can pads of concrete. I recall one day, one of the owners had me hop in the pickup with him and we drove up Highway 12, up towards the Blackfoot River, looking for rocks. That's right, getting paid to go looking for rocks. Big ones, with moss or lichen, for someone's new garden. It was sunny, warm for Montana, country music on the radio, out on the dipping curving road in Montana. Nice work if you can get it. But, Fru and I were poor and the U wouldn't give me a Teaching Assistantship, so I quit school and looked for a job that would pay better, would give me benefits, and that's how I became a janitor at the University of Montana.
I looked around for better paying work, applied at the U and got the job. I'd spent time in Des Moines, at Younkers department store, being a maintenance man, also had worked such work at the University of Iowa in the summers, so I passed my test on how to strip and wax floors, on how to use a buffer (actually had to do a buffer test, that is, they had me change a pad, run a buffer--which I did one-handed and which honestly impressed my two bosses-to-be: "Wow, look, one hand."). So, I worked afternoons to evenings as a maintenance guy, a janitor, at the U. Went from student to janitor in one year--great! But it was boring and fun. Easy if embarrassing. It was also considered a good job in Missoula--anything that was full time, paid over the minimum and had benefits was a plum (again, a plum!). Other janitors were college grads, were Vietnam Vets, were local small business owners supplementing income and health insurance and future retirements. I eventually fell in with a group who, on Fridays, disappeared from their stations, went up upon the roof on one of the buildings (where they had lawn chairs and coolers) and drank beer for the last few hours. It was that kind of a job. But it was sweet--on the roof at the U, Mt. Sentinel looming above us, under the stars drinking beer at work. Nice bunch of guys, too.
I also was in the newspaper business. That is, I got a paper route one winter. I wanted to go to Mexico and needed some extra cash, so I got a route. Had to get up around what? 4 or 5 am, walk my route in below freezing temps in the dark. One time, around Xmas, my brother--Youngest Brother--came to town with friends. They gave me a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey and I drank it down. Was still drunk when I got up to do my route. But did it. Threw up in the bushes twice. Had one customer come to the door, he complained about where I left the paper but I was too hungover-drunk to comprehend what he was saying, really, and just smiled, said, "Merry Xmas" to him. Another time a dog followed me on my route and then followed me all the way home to my neighborhood (it was a ways away). I tried calling the owner off the dog's tag--it was a nice dog--but they were out. Finally got a hold of someone who was feeding the pooch and they didn't care. Eventually the dog went home (I think). But that job only lasted a few months and I went to Mexico by myself and that's another story.
Fru got a decent job offer back in Champaign and we made the decision to return there and that was the end of my work in Montana. But I still dreamt of Missoula for many years. Still do now and then, but it's rare. I could, though, go back to Montana, to Missoula, but don't know if I could be so poor. Definitely would not go back into the newspaper business.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Night of the Mosquitos: Grand Isle, Louisiana 1981

In 1981 I was in school at the University of Iowa. Brock and Matt (and Mike) were my fastest friends. And we lived for the bars, books, women and new landscapes. Road trips were a great staple to our sense of adventure and discovery. So, that summer, we decided to head south.
We went to Mississippi first--Gulfport. We camped at a private campground (Gaylord's Camp or something like that), under tall trees--walnuts or something--and pines. Sure, it was hot but the hot didn't bother us. We scooted around town in Matt's car, swam in the Gulf of Mexico, hit a beachside bar named Spiders. (I went back to Spiders a few years ago--yes, it was still there--while Bill M. and I visited Mike P.. But have since learned it was blown away by Hurricane Katrina.) So, we drank us some beer, played games of pool with the locals while watching the sun descend into the calm Gulf waters through the bar's windows. We got to know a small group, one guy and two girls, and they invited us to do a little hopping in the night. And we went to a couple of odd bars back in the woods, then to a big place called the White House in Biloxi. This was before the casinos and it was really just a glorified disco. We had our drunken fun, then went back to crash in our tent. Then, sun up, we headed for New Orleans.
Being from Iowa (essentially, though I'd lived in three states before Iowa, Brock was from Seattle, Matt an Iowa Boy from Sioux City) and being young, driving through new places, new states and "cultures"--even within the confines of the USofA--was a pleasing internal adventure all its own. The slow rivers and stagnant bayous, cotton fields, kudzu-covered trees and fences, the snakes, gators, buzzards, the sleepy dilapidation and drawl-talking folks all interested us greatly. And the city of New Orleans was like a foreign world to us. Yes, it was Bourbon Street Viuex Carre French Quarter tourist land, but that mattered little to us as we hit the bars and restaurants, talked to people, listened to music, gawked at the veranda and wrought iron balconied buildings, the tawdry strip clubs, painters in the street, mimes and such, Jackson Square and Jax Beer and the Mighty Mississippi, banana plants and magnolias and stunted palms and moss-laden live oaks, the seedy neon old-world hustle-bustle tourist trappiness of it all. It was wild and strange fun, even if we did nothing particularly wild or strange. And as the night wore thin and our drunkenness became greater, we realized we did not have a place to stay for the night.
We stumbled the streets, considered a few hotels. But we were cheap bastards (even if we had had the cash, I doubt we'd of shelled out more than $20 bucks for a room if we could find one that cheap). But we were car people, nomads, drivers of America's highways (and campers), so we tromped back to Canal Street where we'd parked the car and--despite our inebriation--decided to drive away.
It wasn't really a problem. We found our way to I-10 and headed west. We got about halfway to Baton Rouge before we called it quits, before our drunken splendor turned into asleep at the wheel. Pulled into a rest area and slept in the car. Actually, at one point, I got out of the car and slept in the parking lot, using the curb as a pillow. I don't know if anyone saw me, but they must have, because it was daylight when I woke up in the parking space.
Unbowed, we headed south again, this time taking the small roads, headed for the Gulf again and a small town called--and island--called Grand Isle.
The drive down was amazing: a reel of flatflat land and drooping trees, plantation homes with those mossy oaks like toppled Ferris Wheels, sad little towns under the baking sun, Donaldsonville, Houma, Raceland, Cut Off, Leeville, mosquito-riven canals with traps and detritus and big paint-peeling shrimp boats, the highway getting skinnier and skinnier under a relentless sun and soupy humidity. Yes, it was summer down in the delta land of Louisiana and we were going to camp on the beach.
Grand Isle itself was shuttered and asleep, vacation homes boarded up against heavy humid light and torpor, everything standing still and slow of breath, hanging on in the oppressive impossible heat. Yes, a few places were open, but the streets were peopleless and animal-less. We found the campsite. It was right on the placid grey water. There were a few others there, all in motor homes with air-conditioning. We were the only tent campers. Yes it was hot as hell, dry and humid at the same time. No breeze. But we swam, showered to escape the heat and sweat. We went back into town and entered some weird little bar--black and sealed tight against the day, coldly cold air-conditioned. We had a few drinks, then went back to the beach and ate cold chili out of cans. Drank all the fluids we could get our hands on. But it was not enough. We were running out of dollars and spent them at the vending machine by the showers, but no matter how many cans of soda we bought it was not enough. Two days of drinking--maybe three--and the deep south Louisiana heat were drying us out. The sand was full of ghost crabs, too. Little whitish creatures that scuttled everywhere under our feet. There was no shade to be had on the beach, where our three-man tent sat wilting and broiling.
Dusk came. A man from a motor home talked to me, asked about us camping. He said that the mosquitos would eat us up. "Them's red-eye mosquitos. They'll come out of that brush," and he pointed to the sea oats and weeds, "and bite the devil out of you." I didn't quite believe him. But, as dusk fell into night, they came.
We'd never seen such bugs. They were small, they were a million if they were a one. Maybe a billion. And they were relentless. They clouded and buzzed and attacked without guile. We swatted and smeared and killed them by the dozens, the hundreds, thousands, but there were always more. We ran to the showers and they followed us, even attacked while the water streamed upon my parched, baked burnt tired body. Kamikaze mosquitos. We ran back to the tent and got inside. It was an oven. And the mosquitos had followed us inside. We killed as many as we could, but there were more. There was no breeze. No rain. No air. The tent--cramped world of canvas--had to have everything zipped tight because the bugs were still after us, could slither through the tiniest of openings and even the tattered screens. It was miserable crazy insane and we were seared, burnt and dead tired.
We headed for the car. Killed the mosquitos that followed us inside. The car was an oven too, but we slept a little. Woke up and ran the air-conditioning, but we couldn't just leave it running. We slept some more, but it was impossible. Too hot, cramped, too infested. Couldn't take it. So, I bolted from the car. Grabbed a towel. I paced the beach swinging the towel around me to keep the carnivore-bugs at bay. It worked. Of course, I couldn't sleep. I was still hot, sweaty, hungry, thirsty and bone-tired, but the damn mosquitos couldn't get me. They didn't stop trying, but they couldn't quite make it past my flailing towel. Matt and Brock soon joined me.
We walked, towels swinging, until daylight. Eventually the mosquitos retreated back into the weeds and we retreated from Grand Isle.
We packed up, got in the car, and left town. We drove all the way back to Iowa City in one shot.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Buying A Gun: Missoula 1988

Actually Fru and I lived in the Bitterroot Valley--in the fall/winter of 1988--in a blond-wood cabin just up the mountain outside of Stevensville, Montana (or Stevi, as it was known). And actually, it was not me who bought the gun (though officially it was, in my name, because I was a Montana resident), it was Mike (Chicago, Iowa City, Los Angeles Mike, that is). It happened in late October--Fru and I were students at the University of Montana in Missoula--when Mike decided to come up from L.A. to visit.
Fru and I were essentially settled--were in classes, had the drive up and down Highway 93 down pat, life in the cabin serene and pretty and isolated. The weather was cooling. Leaves turning, crisp nights, patterns of snow in the high elevations. And then Mike flew in and I picked him up at the airport in Missoula. He stayed with us, of course. I can't recall if it was the first time he'd met Fru or not, think maybe it was. But we hit the bars, of course, drinking beer at Reds and Charlie B's in Missoula, drinking beer at the Sportsman Lounge and the Stevi Bar in Stevensville, drinking beer in the cabin too. But after that, what else was there to do? Walk in the woods? Check. Go up the Rattlesnake? Check. Drink more beer? Check. . . That's when Mike decided to buy a gun.
We lived in the woods on three acres, only a scattering of neighbors on their own acres, we were in Montana and in the mountains, so why not buy a gun? So into Missoula we went, to a gun shop on First Street, up near the Northern Pacific tracks. We walked in, asked to see the guns, asked to see used guns, Mike chose an old Browning rifle, he was from out of state so I signed for it, bought it, bought some ammo, and we walked out with the gun. . . In a lot of towns, it would be strange to walk down the street carrying a rifle, but not in Missoula. Not in most mountain state towns or small cities. So, we walked back to the car, got in, drove all the way back to the cabin in the Bitterroot, loaded it and shot some trees. We shot trees, then we shot potatoes placed in trees, then shot our many beer cans, then I shot my truck.
I had a red Chevy Custom Deluxe (Kurt's old work truck from Champaign, IL) pickup and it sat in the gravel drive near the cabin and it was an easy target. It was a beat-up pickup, but I liked it and thought a bullet hole or two would only add to it's dilapidated beauty. So, I sighted up its tailgate--from an angle--and Mike stepped back (just in case I hit the gas tank) and squeezed off a shot. Ping. The bullet hit and ricocheted away, leaving a thin groove. That wasn't good enough (the rifle--what, a 22?--wasn't powerful enough) so I aimed again, this time straight on, no angle. Ping-pow. It left a neat little splintered-paint hole in the back of my truck. Nowadays, I see all these bullet-hole decals on trucks. Fake silver splinters on the gates or sides. But I had the real thing, Baby.
So, Mike was there and then Brock decided to come to town from Seattle. Not just Brock but also Margaret, who was in Seattle visiting Brock (they married years later). They decided to take the train over from Washington, but the closest station was in Whitefish, a ways north of Missoula. So Mike and I got in the bullet-hole red Chevy and we made the drive up to Whitefish. It's a long drive by most standards--Missoula to Whitefish--but by Montana ones (where long distance drives are de rigeur) it was like going to pick up a loaf of bread. But we were picking up Brock and Margaret at the Amtrak station. And there they were on a sunny not-yet-afternoon in funny-cool Whitefish. We ate, hit the road, bought some beer and drove (another Montana tradition) and only stopped for outdoor piss-breaks (poor Maragret could not take those breaks) came down out of the last pass and into Missoula and a stop at Reds for more beer. Then we drove to the university and picked up Fru and drove--my truck full, full, full of friends and one lover--to the pretty cabin in the Bitterroot. Where we shot more potatoes with Mike's gun.
But it was a great visit. Good to have old friends, even if Fru and I were not lonely by ourselves. It snowed that night. A big puffy snow like you see in picture books and we walked up the rarely-used forrest service roads among the white-laden pines and frosted rocks. Mike, Brock and I went into Stevensville, got drunk at the Sportsman, attacked each other with a plunger and were the talk of the small town for a few days. I had a paper that was due and maybe a test, so I had to curtail some activities. Mike went home to L.A. and he could not take his gun with him, so I kept it. Brock and Margaret also went away and it was just Fru and I. But come Thanksgiving, we had a dinner with newly minted pals and I got out the gun and we shot more potatoes out of simple malice and boredom.
Yes, I kept the gun. Until 1990. In 1990 I took the bus down to L.A. on my way to Mexico and I brought the 22 Browning rifle--packed it in my duffel, surrounded by clothes and whatnot. Gave it to Mike. . . I own an old shotgun now. A Parker Brothers. It was my grandfather's from my dad's side--a man I never ever met. It's an antique and worth a thousand or more, I guess. I got it after my own father died some seven years ago (has it really been seven years?). I'm not a gun guy. Never was, doubt I ever will be. But I'll hang on to the old shotgun. I think Mike still has that Browning, too. My truck? I sold that, when we returned to Champaign.