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Saturday, December 25, 2010

High, Low, and In Between

 Chapter 1
Overture to a Ramble

 The truck was loaded down with guitars, records, books, tools, and some clothes. There was a tent, a sleeping bag, a toothbrush in bad need of a replacement, and a crusted Colgate tube; the last drop of toothpaste rolled up like it was some long-lost relic that I just couldn’t part with. I had a large crowbar underneath the seat (just in case), along with whatever other bare essentials required to make a cross-country journey. Looking at the truck—the back bumper barely touching the rear tires, the front pointed upward much like a spaceship—it looked more like I was taking a trip into orbit rather than down some interstate.

My house was completely empty; the smell of cleaning spray still hanging thick and nauseating in the air. As I stared into the glistening oven that I’d managed to burn myself badly on the prior week while endlessly scrubbing the grime away, I was going through the various memories and emotions attached to a home: all the dreams and aspirations one is filled with in the beginning; and then soon some furniture goes here, some furniture goes there, a mattress and the TV, hang the pictures, paint the walls, and a year later you’re heading off to the Salvation Army, slowly depleting your material objects and hitting the road. You realize, standing there, that after doing this too many times to count, this is just a shell of sorts—some wood, plaster, paint and a roof, land in the back and big trees and the wailing of crows in the morning, and a shack with some tools in it. In a few days, other people will come in here with similar dreams and put down their furniture and sit on the porch and make friends with the neighbors and start the whole life cycle over once again.

On this particular day, though, there were more important things on my mind. Mainly, I was still dealing with a vicious headache and hangover due to going out for “a beer” the night before with a lawyer friend of mine from Kentucky and her beautiful redhead friend from San Francisco. I spent the entire night desperately—like some pimple-covered high school boy in heat—trying to get her to go to bed with me, all to no avail. One thing led to another. Cell phones were broken on stranger’s heads. Ping-pong paddles were stolen. Open tabs were left unpaid. Memories were forever lost to the dark recesses of the mind, and I was left with the all-too-familiar scene of waking up emptywalletalone on a couch in someone else’s home. Now, as I stood in my house, head in a vice, I could hardly find the energy to go to the bathroom, let alone get in my truck and drive some three thousand miles East.

I passed out on the carpet floor in my bedroom for maybe half an hour when I heard my name being called. At the screen door stood Jack and Karen, my retired neighbors from next door. They were the only folks I ever really talked to in the neighborhood in the year and a half I’d been there. Karen sometimes brought over food for me. Maybe she could see the countless cardboard boxes of frozen pizza in my trash and thought—well aware of my lack of visitors and bachelor existence—I could use some good “home cookin’.” Regardless, I was always more than thankful for her generosity. Jack, an ex-diesel mechanic and regular old handyman wizard, fixed a bicycle of mine, loaned me car parts, and always took my trash bins in for me when I was at work. Married for over fifty years, not only were they extremely nice and what seemed like still very much in love, but, together, they were a marvel in landscaping. Their lawn was immaculate: flowers and roses in full bloom, bushes cut precisely, not a yellow-flowered weed in sight. It was quite the contrast from my overgrown and pine-covered yard. Yes, I was that neighbor. Too cheap to purchase a real lawn-mower, I had the rusted push mower provided by the landlord, which, in a place like Oregon, where the grass grows like wildfire and is always wet, is about as productive as using a pair of kindergarten scissors.

“You all right, Seth?” Karen called.

“Aarrggghh,” I mumbled from the back.

I walked to the front of the house.

“Oh, we’re sorry; didn’t mean to intrude. We just saw your door open and the truck still outside. Thought you were leaving this morning. Just wanted to make sure things were all right.”

“Oh, yeah. Long night. Think I’ll probably leave in a couple hours.”

“Golly. Awfully late to be leaving, isn’t it? Well you be careful, now. Do you know where you’re going to sleep?”

I pointed to the truck.

“Wow, to be young and single. I remember those days. You remember, Jack? I say go for it. Do it while you can.”

“Yup,” said Jack. He was a man of very few words, the type who would listen to my rants about man’s existence over the fence, then give me a big smile, raise his shoulders, and say, “Hmm, well, it’s all going to shit.”

“We’re going to miss you. You were such a good neighbor,” said Karen, a little solemn pout to her lips.

I squinted and smiled, trying to put the two of them into focus. Karen and I embraced in a warm hug, and Jack gave me a firm handshake in which I felt the thick calluses of a lifetime of hard work.

I then proceeded to go back to the bedroom and sleep for another two hours. By the time I left Portland, it was after seven and dark.  It wasn’t exactly a good time to be starting on the road in as desolate an area as middle and Eastern Oregon, but, like the man said: so it goes.



Chapter 2 

Shots in the Dark


Into the darkness, East along 84 on the two-lane interstate with the semi-trucks and the soft light of the moon hugging alongside the snake-like path of the Columbia River. After Hood River, the lush forests and trees of the Columbia Gorge disperse and the landscape resembles a desert; the terrain rough, tough, and desolate. Unable to get anything but static for radio stations, my thoughts roam. I try to picture Lewis and Clark and all the folks following along after them in their wagons, struggling across the frontier, before the age of cell phones and cars and electric tools and magic pills and all of those other mystifying things that have made us part of the “great modern society.” The stars shine like sporadic reflections of broken glass, illuminating the river and the stillness of the night. I make it as far as Pendleton before I pull off.

Pendleton was like any other non-descript Midwest small town: flickering lights of TVs shining from windows. A few high school kids cruising around in beaten-up cars around the same three blocks all night long. Dogs barking in the distance. Main St. closed by six o’clock and the night was filled with the metallic smell of rusted industry.

I settled down in a bank parking lot. Any romantic notions I’d had about the road were quickly dispelled as I tried to get comfortable in the driving seat of my truck. The passenger side was packed and it was impossible to lie down. I leaned my head against the window with the steering wheel in my gut. It was right then a police car pulled in behind me. He stopped for about a minute and then drove away. Shortly after, I heard a shotgun being fired in the distance. The cop car peeled out and raced down the road. The same ordeal took place about fifteen minutes later and, figuring that at this rate I wouldn’t get any sleep, I drove around town and settled on a spot behind a semi-truck next to the Wal-Mart parking lot.

I had my windows cracked, but not fully down, and my knife at my side; you read the papers and you watch those crazy cable documentaries about murderers in small towns and maybe it’s just paranoia, but you get thoughts about places like this. Five minutes later, a woman appeared out of the shadows of the railroad tracks like some hobo ghost of the Union Pacific. She circled around the truck. I had the sun shield up and a shirt covering the side window for some sense of privacy, but through the cracks I could see her out there looking in. Eventually, she left. Around four she was back, her shopping cart wheels scraping along the asphalt to let me know of her arrival. At this point I had to laugh, raising my hands up; a little sleep, that’s all I’m asking here. Is that too much? But, truth is, I’ve traveled enough to know that the road is unforgiving; it could care less either way, and whatever plans and months of preparation you’ve made leading up to this moment all go out the window once you’re out there, once you’re in the thick of it. So, realizing the idea of sleep was nothing more than a cheap illusion, I stuck the key in the ignition and headed towards the Idaho border.

As I drove straight into the early morning sunrise, I had plenty of time to reflect on what had transpired over the past few years. It was an entirely different journey in itself, one I often times felt trapped inside of. Now, here I was in the middle of the summer moving to New York on just a whim and a dream. Maybe it was crazy. Maybe it was half-ass-backwards. I don’t know. I gave up a long time ago on trying to put too much faith in what makes sense. I won’t say it hasn’t gotten me anywhere, and I guess it works for some folks. It’s just that sometimes you have to go with your gut and that little voice in the back of your head. As far as everything else; well, in one way or another, it all falls into place. 

Chapter 3  

Life as Sparky


How I ever became a union electrician still baffles me. Having no handyman traits and never being one of those monkey wrench types, I randomly fell into the trade. I’d been back in Los Angeles for about six months after moving from New Orleans (feeling a sense of guilt after being away from my family for nearly ten years), thinking that maybe I ought to finally settle down. Once again, though, with my lack of any “real skills,” I was roaming from job to job.

I did a few months driving a FedEx truck around Hollywood, mostly for the movie studios and rich folks in the hills during the holiday season. When that dried up, I was back in the temp world, doing everything from night inventory of Toys“R”us to picking up women’s garments and putting them back on the hangers at Nordstrom. Without a uniform, all the women shoppers looked at me as if I were some kind of pervert as I put the panties and bras on the racks. I was never more thrilled at doing a menial job than when they moved me back to the shoe warehouse to sort through boxes.

I then did a couple of weeks in the film business, working as a location scout for a Febreze commercial. My mission was to find an older two-story house with a large attic. With a small camera and no credentials, rich people in Pasadena let me into their homes. They sat me on their couches and showed me all their prized processions and told me the history of their homes, all in the hopes that their place might be seen on television. I thought about how easy a gig this was and that, if I ever became hard up and decided to enter a life of crime, I knew how to go about it. But the company never used any of my contacts. Two weeks later, I got a little check from a sketchy Italian in a non-descript office off of Ventura Blvd. Once again, I was out of work.

Resumes were sent out, applications filled. A month later, I got a job at, of all places, a porn company in Studio City. My job was handling the mail and keeping inventory of movies with cinematic gonzo titles such as Chubby Chasers, She-Male Strokers, and Horny Hairy Girls. By the second month there, I was doing quality control, editing movies before they went out for final pressing. It was a strange job, given that staring at dicks and pussies and hearing moaning and grunting coming from various computer monitors all day wasn’t typical, everyday fare, but as much as I could, I got used to it. One time, the UPS guy came into the mailroom just as I was finishing the final touches to Cum Swallowers 18.

“Man, isn’t it weird, watching this shit with women right in the other room? Do you ever get a … you know, while you’re sitting there?”

“I wear baggy pants.”

A couple of months prior to this, my friend and I, on a whim, had taken a test for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. My girlfriend at the time’s old roommate was a union electrician and he mentioned they were hiring, that the pay was good, and that we should try it out. I didn’t really know what would come out of it, but I took a test involving mathematics and mechanical theory. Somehow, I was one of the twenty-five percent who passed, and a month later I was being interviewed by some important, life-long electricians. Sitting at the end of a long table, they peered at me with judgmental eyes, jotting down random notes about whether or not I had the willingness and commitment to put in five years of schooling and training to be a certified journeyman. I put on the mask and told them I had all it took. I would make the union proud. Sure, I had no experience. A drill motor? Of course I know how to use a drill motor. A Sawzall? Come on, what do I look like? Electrical theory? Uh, the hot, the ground, well, hey, let me work on that, but don’t you worry, you’ll see, you won’t regret it, look at these hands, strong hands, warehouse hands, I’m telling you. I’m ready to stick put. Those roaming days are over: family, kids, stability, all on the horizon, sir, I mean, brother, I mean, brothers. So, where do I sign?

It wasn’t much long after that that I got the phone call from the union to report to a job the next day. With that, I bid farewell to the adult entertainment industry and was now an apprentice at a new elementary school being built in Echo Park. I knew nothing about electricity, aside from the fact that if you touched a wire when it was on, it probably wouldn’t feel too good and that, sometimes, you die.

I won’t attempt to go deeply into the inner workings of unions, and, truthfully, I can only write about what I was exposed to, but I suppose a little background is needed. Within the union is a whole hierarchy that closely resembles the military. There is an order to things, a structure, power in numbers, and, at the bottom of those numbers, lies the apprentice. You start off doing labor, and, gradually over time as an apprentice, you’re shown the tricks of the trade. If you make it through five years, pay your dues, and haven’t managed to electrocute yourself or fall off a high rise or gone half mad, you get your ticket. Above the apprentice are the journeymen, then foremen, then general foremen; all, for the most part, well-skilled and educated electricians who have gone through the same schooling and rite of passage, so to speak.

I tried to go all in, learning as much as I could. I worked during the week and went to school at night, studying for hours on end.. I plastered my truck with union stickers on the bumpers and the windows. I told myself the union was the best thing that had happened to me. Here I was, finally at a place where workers had some sort of power; you got your breaks, you were paid for overtime, got raises twice a year. This was the good life for honest, hard work. After countless jobs that were going nowhere, I would have a skilled trade. My punk rock buddy, already months into the program, regretted giving up his computer desk job for the grinds of construction, and said it was all shit: “Just get through the school, get the card, and get the fuck out.”

I can honestly say, despite the kind words of most of my fellow workers as I progressed through the apprenticeship, I never was much of an electrician. Sure, I always showed up and worked hard, but it really wasn’t out of any sense of pride. It just made the day go by faster. What else was I going to do and where else was I going to make twenty bucks an hour? What other job was going to give me full health benefits and pension and annuity and all of those wonderful things in the world we supposedly strive for?

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t have any pride in my job, because that just wasn’t the case. No matter your skill level, you can’t help but feel a sense of appreciation when you’re a part of something being built. You start out with an empty plot of land, only the iron columns standing, maybe some metal decking. Then pulling string lines where walls will one day be and, over the months watching it all—the concrete being poured, the studs being raised, pipes ran, wires pulled, transformers mounted, lights hung, deadlines, failed inspections, pipefitters, iron workers, carpenters, laborers, plumbers, crane operators, rod-busters, tin-knockers, painters, grunting and screaming at other trades. Under the glaring eyes of raving and ranting foremen and general contractors, what were ten guys on a site grows to be two hundred. There’s bad weather and no material and faulty blueprints—but after doing this at a couple of jobsites, you know, in the end, that no matter what, it will all eventually come together. Months later, where there was just dirt there will be a school or a library or a warehouse, maybe a waste treatment plant or a bank. People will be in there doing their work with no thought or care of how it came about, but you will look at that building every now and then when you’re on that side of town, thinking you had a small hand in making it come to life. Honestly, you’ll feel quite good about it.

All said, you get moments in your life when you know—not necessarily those bad feeling days that come around here and there—but where you come to the full realization that at that particular place in time that this is not what you want to be doing. I had had these questions leading up to this, but was struggling with the whole idea of what else I would do. I was thirty and, despite the way I’d tried to live my life, I couldn’t help but feel the pressures of having a good job. It’s just what you did.

My memory takes me back to one brutal summer day working in Van Nuys. It was a hundred and eight degrees. I did the morning shift up on the roof, making a hundred holes in the metal decking with a plasma gun. Frantically racing around with a large compressor and hose, I was trying to beat the noon-time sun. Later that afternoon, I was hunkered down in a six-foot deep ditch of dirt, running twelve four-inch PVC pipes that would months later carry the 4160 volt feeders into the main electrical room. A crane lifted iron bars directly overhead as ironworkers walked the columns like monkeys, bolting and welding the structure into place. Even later, I was helping lower and rig a transformer that weighed five tons down into a basement and found myself nearly pinned against a wall. By the end of the shift, I was yelling like a madman at a carpenter who had stolen my extension chord I needed to charge a scissor lift with. Placing my tool bag and hardhat in the gang box, I took a good long look around me and shook my head. How had I gone from touring in punk bands and thinking I’d be a writer and world traveler to this? It was just a typical day-to-day, part of the chaotic orchestra, the grinds. It was something I truly respected from my co-workers, but when I got home later, exhausted, slumped on my couch, my girlfriend at my side but too tired to say or do anything, staring at the TV like a zombie, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly where my life was heading. Me and my friend Andre, six years my senior, who hadn’t bought into a lot of the union life as much as I had, would often jokingly bitch to one another about our lot. What the hell had we signed up for? We’d get drunk and make up stupid punk songs about “The Union!”


Still, I did my best to stick with it. I only had two years left until I got my ticket. Things with my girl at the time went south though. They had been for quite some time and were spiraling down into nights of screaming matches and too much alcohol and tears. We’d briefly make up under the sheets only to start all over again a few days later. I wondered, how did you get back what you had in the beginning, when it was all new, when it was all laughter and love and dancing to the Pogues until the early morning hours? The truth was, it just wasn’t there anymore and it wasn’t going to be. I guess you could say the thrill was gone, so I moved out of the house.




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