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Monthly Archives: July 2012


Image Source: Maine Project

It was a mundane life, but I was happy. Solidly middle-class, no entitlements or luxuries, but we never went without either. Growing up on such an even keel made me appreciate what I have and not lust after what I don’t. This balance has served me well.

I was born in Brunswick Maine, September 12, 1972, in Parkview Memorial Hospital. It’s a big Jesus hospital now, but I don’t think it was then. My mom said I was a good baby, but it took me forever to grow hair. And now, after my hirsute high school days, I’ve come full-circle.

My dad was a travel agent for Stowe (yes, named after Harriet Beecher, who also hailed from Brunswick) Travel, and my mom occasionally sold Avon. Her parents lived on the family farm in Whitefield, ME, and my dad’s mom kept her apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, until I was eight and she moved in with us. I went to the elementary school across from First Parish Church, next to the Bowdoin College campus, and I had a black, white and purple blanket for naptime.

We lived in a red ranch house on Thomas Point Road (there was an apartment first on Pleasant Street, but I don’t remember my time there). It was my older brother Eric, my parents, assorted cats and our beagle Ginger. Ginger was a fat little thing, and I loved her. There was a little stream in the woods behind the house, and I remember my mom flinging Ginger’s messes into the stream. Don’t tell the EPA.

First through third grades I went to Jordan Acers Elementary. The principal was Ms. Kurz, and the music teacher was Ms. Elser. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ms. Kurz and Ms. Elser were a couple. My teacher was Mr. Barrett, and he could be a mean bastard. But I suffered no trauma back then. I had friends, my bus ride was long and scenic (from the trailer park to the tidal basins of the Sheepscott River) and we spent the ride rocking out to Huey Louis, Greg Khin and Christopher Cross (sic) on the radio and dreaming of playing at Fenway for the Sox.

Eric and I played Nerf football in the yard and basketball in the paneled hall leading to the bedrooms. We played KISS, Bee Gees and the Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever soundtrack records on our turntable. I once backed into a wall-mount space heater in the bathroom, and I had griddle marks on my butt for a long time afterwards. We went to Thomas Point Beach, and we viewed all the artifacts from Admiral Peary’s exhibition to the North Pole at the Bowdoin College Museum.

We visited my grandparents at the farm, and we visited my grandmother in Brooklyn. We saw Star Wars and Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater and we played Atari at home. We played on the rocks at Bailey Island and we bought Smurf figures and other toys at the Maine Mall. We went roller skating at the rec center and we watched the Blue Angels from our driveway when the air show came to the Brunswick Naval Air Station. We ate out at Pizza Hut and we ate home cooking at home.

We were a happy American family unit in 1970s America. It was middle of the road America, and it was all I knew and all I knew I wanted.

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It occurs to me just how much my passions in life were informed by shapes and colors, specifically signs. Growing up in Brunswick, ME in the 1970s and 80s, I was treated daily to great living examples of American advertising.

On Rt. 1 there was a sign for MaClean’s Restaurant, a gigantic vertical sign with

M
a
C
L
E
A
N
‘S

in block neon letters. I loved how the apostrophe kicked the S over to the side a bit. The MaClean’s sign was near a similar Texaco sign, thus giving me twice the visual joy.

In town on Main St. was (and still is) J&J Cleaners, with its canopy and butterfly sign with “j&j” in classic script. I seem to remember the j&j having flashing bulbs, but I could be imagining that.

Out by the Naval Air Station is Fat Boy Drive-In. Recently they replaced the classic neon and bulb sign above with a hideously bland LED sign, and I still haven’t quite gotten over this spiritual gutting.

I entered my formative years at the end of a great era in gas station signage. The old neon splendor of an angled Sunoco sign, an oval Amoco sign with torch flame on top and a Texaco star still inspires me. Those classics are unmatched in today’s era of generic LED signage. Fortunately I had family in New York City, thus giving me the opportunity to see the greatest gas station sign ever: Gaseteria.

Gaseteria stations were all over the Apple back then, and I fell in love with that American hamburger on the sign immediately. It was like a cross between an Amoco sign and a Burger King sign, and it meant that I was home in my other favorite place in the world, New York City. This was the beauty of the era: mass chain homogenization didn’t yet exist on the scale it does today, so I couldn’t see a Gaseteria sign anywhere but New York. Seeing that crazy sign made our trips much more special for me.

Most of these great signs of my youth are now gone, and I give in to nostalgia and lament at the change. Of course people my age no doubt called the old J&J sign vulgar and an eye-sore when it was first installed, and probably longed for the days of tin signs on storefronts. Fair enough.

But I was shaped into that landscape of vulgar neon dreams. I am of that great American cloth. Those old signs inspired in me a love of Americana, history and pop-culture, and I’m turning that into these snapshots and stories.

J&J Cleaner Image Source: RoadsideArchitecture.com
Fat Boy Drive-In Image Source: Bowdoin Orient
Gaseteria Image Source: Autoculture.org

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Image Source: The Bowdoin Orient

The fog of time and the fact of events unfolding before an undeveloped mind have obscured most of the picture. But the pertinent details remain.

I was old enough to know better, but young enough to not know better. At age four or five, I got lost in Grand City Department Store, Brunswick, Maine. I was found in front of the store with a Wonder Woman coloring book in my hand. Red was my favorite color and crayon, and I loved coloring in Wonder Woman’s red earring. Ultimately on the same day I turned out to be a runaway and a thief.

This is my earliest memory. (My next earliest memory is of making Jiffy Pop before Super Bowl XIV – Steelers/Rams – and being in awe of quarterback Terry Bradshaw and terrified of linebacker Jack Ham and his toothless scowl. But that’s another story.) I remember feeling scared not knowing where my mom and dad were. I remember the unmistakable smell of a five-and-dime, that mysterious blend of potpourri, balsam spray, cigarette smoke and diner grease. I remember seeing 70s décor tiles on the back wall and the linoleum under my feet as I ran and ran, hopefully toward my parents.

And I remember trying to get outside, and I remember a woman walking up to me and saying, “That’s a heavy door. That’s a heavy door.” And she OPENED the door, letting me out onto the sidewalk with my accidentally-stolen treasure.

It must have been winter, because I remember my dad hugging me tight to his quilted navy blue nylon coat. I don’t remember if this was inside or out. I don’t remember being yelled at. I guess they were just so thankful to have me back safely. I think I had my coloring book with me in the backseat, but I don’t remember coloring.

And I remember feeling that something had happened, something bad, because I had upset my parents somehow. And I had done something that had made me scared. The safety of my insular world was shaken a bit that day. I’m now almost 40 and looking at this event across the lens of 35 years, but I still remember the dark shades of feeling, and this unease has informed my life more than I’ve realized.

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West 34th

I lost my job at the call center. Not much of a surprise: salesmen sell, and I couldn’t sell. It’s a relief, really. I felt like such a monster calling people in the middle of dinner to sell photo packages. Of course now I have no income and no idea what I’m going to do.

I had a date set up with Ellen. She said yes on Monday for Friday night. On Wednesday we talked on the telephone and she said she was going to have to make it a short dinner on Friday because her mom was in town. On Friday she called and said she had to cancel because her girlfriend was in town for a surprise visit, and it was also her grandmother’s funeral that night. I think she might have lied to me about some of this.

My toilet got fixed, and it worked for a while. Then it broke down again and the super is still dragging his feet getting it fixed. The piles of rotting garbage still block the sidewalks and the subways are still rank cesspools. The smell of this city and this apartment make me nauseous most days.

Here’s the thing that gets me about New York: I try to be a nice guy, but to live here you need to be an asshole. You need to be an asshole to make a living selling portrait packages, and you need to be a cold, calculated asshole with no sense of ethics to be good at it. You need to be an asshole to step over and around the winos on every sidewalk begging for change or a pop. You need to be an asshole to know where to cop dope. You need to be an asshole to get the super out to fix the toilet. And you need to be an asshole to set up a date and think she’ll want to keep it.

I don’t know if I can take it much longer. I’m trying, but it’s killing me. What am I doing in this shithole? I don’t belong here…

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West 34th

I got a little fern for my apartment. I guess I wanted to try to bring a bit of beauty home. Maybe I was thinking of Fern from Charlotte’s Web and innocence and all that happy shit, I don’t know. I kept it for about three weeks, and then it died. It probably died because the water from my tap is brown, but I bet it was also the smell. The stink of my life.

My apartment stinks like a public bathroom because the super won’t come and fix the goddamn toilet like I’ve been calling about for the past week. I walk out to the street and step over walls of rotting garbage that hasn’t been picked up because the city is bankrupt. The subway stinks like piss and shit and sweat and stale sex and spray paint and I have to watch out for rollers and shanks. Most days I walk to work. Better to just smell garbage and backed up sewers than the subway.

I got a job in a call center in the Flatiron Building at 23rd & Broadway. I call up housewives on the Upper East Side and try to sell portrait packages for Olin Mills, and mostly I get yelled at and hung up on. It’s brutal. I hate bothering people, and I feel like a royal asshole for doing it. And then I get yelled at and I take it personally. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s killing me, and my bank account, since I almost never make commission. But I don’t know what else I can do.

At lunch I eat a peanut butter sandwich that I made in my apartment, and I listen to co-workers discuss where they’re going to go for their lunches. I hear them talk about weekends in the Catskills, where the air is fresh and sweet and the water is clean and there are no visible garbage piles anywhere. At night I try to scrounge up enough money for a cheap bite, cop a few bags around Madison Square, walk home, shoot and listen to sirens. When I can get a signal I listen to the radio, but the Empire State Building gets in the way, and mostly I just get static.

So that’s my life. Mostly I just try to avoid garbage and the stench of shit.

I don’t mean to sound so disillusioned, although I’m really getting there. It’s not all bad, and I’m working like crazy trying to make it. But it’s frustrating.

I think of my parents starting out here twenty, thirty years ago, just after the war, when the city was the economic engine of the world, the manufacturing center of the universe, tuition was free for residents at city college and the subways were clean and safe. Now the streets are filled with garbage, burnt out cars and needles, the crime rate is skyrocketing and President Ford is telling the city to drop dead. And I killed my fern, the one beautiful thing I had, with poison tap water.

I know it will get better. But sometimes I get so sad and frustrated and all alone, I just….just……..I just…………

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West 34th

Christ, it’s hot in here. No air. It don’t circulate at all, not with the wall of the next building five feet away. And some view, right? Anyway, this is home.

I got a folding metal chair, a mattress, a hot plate, a percolator and a radio. Two shelves for pots and pans and dishes, but I don’t really have much cooking stuff. One sink, one closet, toilet. There’s three layers of linoleum on the floor and the paint and plaster flecks and falls off. The walls are paper-thin, so I can hear everyone on my floor fucking and fighting all night. 80 bucks a month, and this is what I got.

Oh, and I’ve got a habit. Not much now, only two spikes a day, most days, more or less. But I’m past the 21 day period Burroughs wrote about, and I can see it getting worse, if I’m not careful. But it’s cool. I’m in control.

Damn, it’s good. Ever done it? Feels like flying through time while floating on the Dead Sea in an electric blanket. It doesn’t feel like sitting on a folding metal chair in a room on West 34th with a hot plate and three layers of linoleum and flecking paint and plaster.

So that’s where I’m at on my first month in the big city. I’m right across from the Garden, and sometimes I’ll take a cup of coffee down to the steps and I’ll see Clyde Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and the rest of the Knicks drive up to the building for practice. I can only imagine what they’re making, but it’s more than enough to cover 80 bucks a month for rent plus two, more or less, bags a day.

I don’t mean to sound jealous or bitter or anything. Like, with the junk, I did it to myself. And even in this fuckin’ dump I call home, I’m in New York and not cow-town Pennsylvania. So it ain’t all bad.

Still, it ain’t very dignified. I didn’t come to New York to live in a shit-hole and become a junky, y’know? I came to drive a Rolls and wear furs like Clyde. That’ll happen…right? Long as I’m cool and in control…right?

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Layers

St. Augustine, FL
10:24 PM
Saturday
6/23/12

The first line arrives
then the next, at a 45 degree angle
then another, 180 degrees from the last

Layers of surf, like brick and mortar
broken down by its own crushing weight

The third and second lines retreat
the sand under my feet collapses
no purchase in the shifting silt

Lines of breakers
crashing, diminishing
reaching a logical conclusion and
retreating

Timeless, perpetual lines
always advancing and
retreating
always there

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