8.14.2010

Tucson, AZ

Typically, when you hear the word "biker" two counterposed images spring to mind: the Whale, with his pristine, $30k hog and matching apparel and the Rat whose white skin and brown hair have averaged out to a dirty orange from sun exposure. The Whale aspires to be the Rat—he has seen the Rat depicted in hundreds of movies, TV shows, and advertisements. The Rat is somewhere between hardcore and feral, stringy and muscular. He lives in a shack in the desert and thunders through the sand from roadhouse to whorehouse. Breakfast is for pussies, lunch is a whiskey bottle with a broken neck, and dinner comes off a mirror. The Rat chews burned rubber instead of tobacco and spits corrosive fluid on police cruisers. He kills the weak with a scowl and the strong with a rusty chain. When Smoky takes a shot at him, he bleeds 20W-50. The Rat made "biker" a scary word but, today, he is nearly extinct.

When you see a chrome-coated cruiser thundering down the highway, chances are you're seeing a Whale. They are ubiquitous, parked in service stations, wheezing on and off their manicured rides at diners recommended by so-called "biker" magazines—as if bikers had magazines. As if bikers ate at diners touting A+ ratings from local health departments. Whales put their bikes on trailers and tote them around the country from rally to rally, the motorized equivalent of dog shows. Whales do not camp, ride during the winter, or carry adequate tools. They do, however, have families, lots of stuff, and 401ks. These attributes, coupled with their Harley brand pacemakers, render them unthreatening. Whales are too vested in life to risk misanthropic behavior. They are friendly, responsible geezers who like squeezing into costumes and taking in a bit of fresh air. They'll wave to you.

You can travel thousands of miles without meeting a genuine Rat and, if you do, he won't wave to you. He won't even see you, partly because you don't matter and partly because he wears inadequate eye protection and his vision is blurred by road-crud. But, sometimes, if you are lucky, you will meet a him at a gas station in the middle of rural New Mexico and he will deign to acknowledge you.

"Tucson? Huh." The Rat sneers that he is just setting off for Los Angeles. "Now that's a real ride." 10:00 has come and gone and the city of angels is nearly 800 miles to the west. The Rat spits on the concrete and finishes fueling his bike. Salt crystals cover his once-red bandanna. His Harley doesn't have bags on it. It doesn't have fairings. Or a windshield. It would be appallingly uncomfortable for one hundred miles, let alone eight times that. "Gotta get there for a funeral tomorrow afternoon," he says nonchalantly. His silver aviators can't conceal his self-satisfaction. There is a 50% chance he caused the funeral and another 50% chance that it will be his own after hitting a deer tonight. "They sure are going to be surprised to see me roll up at that country club." Without another word, he starts his weathered bike and interrupts conversations for everyone in a three-mile radius. Then he roars onto I-25 southbound.

If he speeds, doesn't stop, doesn't encounter traffic, he will arrive in LA around midnight. However much he brags about being hardened, his ride will be long, lonely, and uncomfortable. Beneath all of the assholic swaggering, one senses that the rest of his life is the same way. The Whale envies his image but, in the Rat's poor, rural existence, there is no glamor.

•••

8.13.2010

Santa Fe, NM

The neighborhood in Santa Fe is dark except for infrequent strobes of yellow and blue lightning that illuminate bulky thunderheads. Fat droplets of rain hit the pavement and smack with a sound that can only be likened to raw meat being dropped on a marble counter. Through an iron gate, onto the dark porch of a brown faux-Pueblo house where a cardboard cutout of Will Ferrell dressed as an elf smirks in the flickering light. The small voice on the phone says the door will not be locked. The door is locked. Is it the right door? The one with the dog in the other side? "Yes," he small voice says, "there should be another couch surfer there." The dog does not bark in response to knocking on the door, though it is rumored to be friendly. Windows in the door offer disjointed glimpses a cluttered living room illuminated by the soft, chilly glow of a CRT. Law & Order reruns. Television actors. Their voices are audible through the thin wood, overblown intonation, stagnant pauses, weepy outbursts. The episode is about the rape of a retarded person.

Knock knock.

The dog is quiet as the windows in the door buzz softly. A traveler's backpack vomits clothes off a sofa onto the floor. Next to the door, a bedroom window yawns. There is no screen. "Go for it," the little voice says. Heavy, wet boots squeak. Interior doors open. Inside the living room, Law & Order continues: "their lawyer might argue that it was pity sex..." The dog wags its tail and snuffles around the boots. Numerous sofas line the living room walls. They are covered in stuff. Mounds of stuff. Laptops, clothes... people. A shirtless man covered in tattoos is passed out next to the door, oblivious to the televised drama, the loud knocking, and now the dull thudding of boots near his head. Is he breathing? Softly. The dog pads around the room and presses its wet nose against things. The air is close. "I... just... can't believe this!" a woman chokes through tinny television speakers.

There is wireless. Wireless is all you need to locate a cheap motel. Phone calss. Reservations. Doors open and close. The dog scuttles around excitedly while the tattooed man lies on the sofa like a corpse, his waxy skin gleaming under the flickering blue television light.

Lock the door. Close the door.

Outside the rain has stopped, leaving the air pungent and fresh.

Heavy boots crunch on gravel. A wrought-iron gate squeaks. In the distance, the porch is black except for the sickly, radioactive light from the windows. Red button: thwacka-thwacka. Thumper engines sound like helicopters.

Go, go, go.

Crayola.com

8.11.2010

Lafayette, CO

Is his name Skeet? Skeeter? Remaining silent through an awkward introduction, he reclines in a white chair out behind The Miners Tavern. The tavern is in Erie, Colorado, a former mining town smashed between the hammer of Boulder and the anvil of Denver. Inside, stories unfold. Until a few years ago, the downtown streets remained unpaved and it appeared that Erie's locals had magically rendered their community invisible to the speculators bent on forging Denver and its satellites into a California-style megalopolis. But the spell that had protected Erie is losing its potency and the town has begrudgingly ceded ground to encroaching blandburbs. Refugees from Denver were accompanied by new homes and chain restaurants, Tyvek and stucco boxes that erupted around the town like pimples on oily skin, transforming Erie into an extension of the very city people were trying to escape. The town council fractured and, outnumbered, established residents lost their majority. Downtown was paved. The Miners Tavern is one of the few places in town the old locals still congregate. It is immaculate and blue collar, spacious and lively. On a Wednesday night, it is the only building downtown that glows with light and sizzles with energy.

Boots on a white metal table, long silver hair flowing from behind a bald patch, Skeet wears his navy blue jumpsuit with authority as he gazes at the stars overhead. "He rides his motorcycle every day of the year, even in winter," someone says. Skeet smiles and his eyes remain glued on the heavens. He is silent. "Um, hey, so this guy just rode around the country on a motorcycle..." Skeet will not take the bait. He is having a perfectly relaxing night without being dragged into a conversation with an outsider. "Everything okay?" He murmurs: "the stars are clear tonight." A group of bar patrons spray out the back door like water being released from a kinked hose. Primus is playing tomorrow, a fact that some of them find exciting and others find meaningless. Inside, a severe looking man with angular features, a dark goatee, and a black cowboy hat spins teenybopper music. "He plays this set every night, same order. He loves this stuff. It's a little better when you're drinking."

The hispanic man at the bar says: "construction is run by the mafia. Restaurants, too. You have to know people to get in, otherwise they will never hire you. It doesn't matter how good you are." He appears to be in his forties, a dark blue baseball cap shading his darker eyes. He nods emphatically. "I ain't lying to you, man. I got no reason to lie about this. I don't even know who you are. I don't care, either, because it's the truth. You gotta know people, do what they tell you..." His words are steamrolled by a powerful female voice singing Karaoke from the other half of the building.

Back on the patio the karaoke is muffled and Skeet remains transfixed on the heavens. Talk of Primus has waned and now bets are being placed on what song is next in line. "Trevor will sing Sabbath. You know he will. War Pigs. He always does." Two J├Ąger shots are on the line. The conversation dies down and cigarettes light up as everyone listens through the glass door for a hint of the next song. It is not Black Sabbath.

Rocky Mountains

8.10.2010

Allenspark, CO

The yellow and black trains have three, four, five engines. They are a mile long. "Typically about 28,000 tons of coal," the Engineer says. They head east, as far as North Carolina, where they are digested by power plants. In some areas, the Engineer says, the entire trainload can be burned up in 24 hours. "People talk about us getting off coal... are they kidding? Even if you really pushed alternative energies, it would be impossible to get them past 10% of our total power production in the next decade." Empty trains run west, blowing their horns as they meet their eastbound counterparts. The coal originates in Wyoming. "It's a soft coal, a clean coal," the Engineer says with conviction, "there is less nitrogen than eastern hard coals, so when it burns there is less acid rain." Another train rumbles by. They have been scraping and chugging along the tracks all night, every twenty minutes. In a nation that views railroads as moribund relics of the 19th century, the constant movement, the shaking ground, the rough industrial vitality makes for an impressive display. They never stop. "Warren Buffett just scooped up BNSF and they run a line parallel to this one. Just as busy, all coal, too. You think that guy would be spending all that money on a railroad if it didn't have something to ship? Coal's not going anywhere."

The Crusader has steely hair in the closest female equivalent to a crew cut. Her skin, which is stretched tightly over a powerful chin, is tan and leathery. She has gray eyes that burn like twin carbon-arc lights in dark sockets—they burn with the fervor of temperance. Temperance crusaders may seem as archaic as railroads but, like their locomotive counterparts, they survived the 20th century intact, if not especially visible. "My hardest decision? Going against the flow." Her eyes flash. "I am the daughter of a Lutheran minister, grew up in the church. I knew that world was small and left home when I was eighteen. Went straight to LA. Lived on the streets. You learn a lot out there, what the real world is about, how people actually behave." Today, several decades later, she runs a small consignment shop out of a garage in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Frank Sinatra's voice croons out of an old monophonic Zenith radio and avocado green shelves support an array of tarnished silver utensils, floral teapots, and Hummel dolls. It was only in the moral swamp of Los Angeles that the Crusader learned to understand the evils of alcohol and drugs, to viscerally feel the truth she had learned as a child. "This is a corrupt town, a sinful town. Did you see main street back there? Nothing but bars, each one full of people ruining their lives. I've been fighting to have them all closed. Everybody on the town council knows me. The sheriff knows me. They hate me. I'm someone who isn't loved in this town, but you have to go against the flow... because it's the right thing to do." She lights a cigarette. "There's been a little progress here and there, but they won't stop fighting. They come at me from time to time, but I get my hammer and I pound them right back down." She swings her arm and destroys something with an invisible sledge. She is like the Tommy of Whack-a-Mole. A sneer passes quickly across her mouth, lips pulling back to reveal perfect, if somewhat yellow, teeth. "They know they can't be rid of me." Yet something makes her too wary to speak on record.

8.09.2010

Chimney Rock, NE




Warm, sleepy, rural Nebraska. The vast parking lot outside the Hy-Vee shimmers in the early morning sun. Pear-shaped retirees wheeze like old locomotives behind shopping carts piled high with diet soda, their chugging and sucking breath adding texture to a soundscape of chirping birds, electric cicadas, and distant traffic. Inside the store the environment is cool, dry, and white. The oleaginous grooves of Pablo Cruise play from hundreds of tinny speakers, a soft rock current flowing just beneath the mantle of consciousness. Plastic wheels roll across linoleum with a sound that is simultaneously sticky and bubbly. In the back of the store there is a giant freezer overflowing with colorful microwave dinners. The sign hanging over it reads: Meal Solutions. Who knew that, in the dead center of the first world, meals had been problematized.

The truck stop is the size of a bowling alley. It offers food, showers, and the usual assortment of zebra-striped seat covers, chain link license plate frames, and bumper stickers proclaiming: "Annoy a liberal: work hard and succeed." A special glass case near the cash register harbors cheap pocket knives, a few CB radios, and a collection of Nebraska shot-glasses. It also contains a few small fighter jets that have been locally crafted from spent .50 machine gun bullets.



Omaha, NE II




"You shoot pictures for the Miami Herald?" The group of young Sudanese men idle around on the white pedestrian bridge spanning the Missouri river—Miami is a world away. The men are generally tall, skinny, and immaculately dressed in Polo shirts and fashionable jeans. It is night time, but they wear dark sunglasses. Their dress emulates callous high-rollers, a disguise that is betrayed by their infectious cheerfulness and juvenile fear of being caught with a few beer cans in public. But perhaps their squeamishness about the beer is warranted: Omaha has one of the largest Sudanese expat communities in the country and large ethnic communities have a knack for making local police edgy.

The Tall Man is surrounded by friends when he says: "hey, photographer man! Take my photo!" Then, when the great lens points at him, he finds himself standing alone. His friends snicker from behind the camera and one hisses for him to set his beer down because the police will see him on the front cover of the Miami Herald. The Tall Man sets his beer down, not because he is concerned about the police, but because he needs both hands to wrangle two reluctant women into the picture with him. He emulates a music video gangster-pose while the women squirm and grimace. As his friends continue to giggle, the Tall Man recaptures his arm candy and the shutter abruptly clicks. He reviews the picture, contemplating the unhappy expressions of his imaginary harem while, in real life, the women bolt for safety. "Oh man, this is no good! One more! One more!" Amateur photography means nothing to him—he is convinced that he will be famous tomorrow... if he can just get his babes to smile. But they will not smile and have no intention of approaching the camera again. One verbally backpedals while the other escapes to find a bathroom. The Tall Man looks morose, but his friends can no longer restrain themselves and an explosion of laughter rises into the flickering orange and blue sky, their happy voices mingling with the thunderclaps booming overhead.



8.07.2010

Omaha, NE I


A decision: to seek therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. You were a professional soldier. Over two decades of military service in the Middle East, the Balkans, wherever the United States needed you. You subscribe to the ideology of democracy, you've fought for it, killed for it. As a soldier, as a man, you dismissed psychology and counseling as effete bullshit. But you've seen the good guys, your fellow good guys, kill innocent people in rage. When a warrior in your unit raped and killed an eight year-old girl you almost shot him but refrained, partly because you simply do not shoot men on your side and, more fundamentally, because you feared that a prison sentence would deprive your children of a father. So you blew the whistle and, in response, the military encouraged your silence. Then they honorably discharged you.

The hammer of justice never came down upon the rapist and murderer. He has retired. He lives near you.

You love your country, but your outlook is darker, more complicated. The good guys are no longer the good guys and guilt seeps into your every waking moment like poison gas hissing underneath a closed door. You could have saved her. Every night you wake up on the hour to re-secure windows and locks. Thinking about that eight year-old girl tears you to bits.

You can still make justice happen.

The Vietnam War veterans at your workplace tell you to get help. You refuse. Then, one night, your young daughter has a nightmare and crawls into bed with you for comfort. Unconscious, panicked, you throw her through a wall. Miraculously, she is okay, but the experience leaves both of you terrified. Yet you still refuse to see a therapist. When your son refuses to clean his room you destroy everything he owns, kicking his furniture into splinters. In the mirror, you see a lunatic, but you still refuse to seek treatment. Shrinks are for wimps and losers, women and civilians. Warriors solve their own problems.

It is late at night and you are in your truck. Armed. You know where the rapist and murderer lives. He does not deserve to live. You drive in circles. You drive towards his house. Killing him will be easy—you've planned it all out. When you are done, you will park at a nearby lake and watch the sunrise. Then you will kill yourself.

You keep driving into the night.

Then you stop. The motor idles and the transmission remains in drive. The soldier's crime has consumed you. It is ruining your family. It is very near to destroying them. Your act of vengeance is justified, but what are the ramifications? Who will be collateral damage? Your children. Your wife. You. You are a man, a soldier, and, suddenly, you realize that you cannot deal with this on your own.

You release the brake and make a u-turn on the empty road through the rolling hills under the black, black sky.

It takes two years and seven doctors before you feel like you have reached a starting point, then three years more before your life regains a sense of normality. But you still have flashbacks of the little girl getting raped and killed. You still feel that you could have saved her. You still know that, with a few slugs and the smooth turn of a key in your truck's ignition, you could cleanse the planet of her killer.

But you decided to get help and, carrying more baggage than any person could handle alone, you take slow, incremental steps into the future. Every day you fight bitterly to keep the memory from controlling your life and wrecking your family.

Whatever they say, you are still a soldier.

8.06.2010

Ledges, IA




You worked at the college but never had a college degree. After a decade and a half of quietly propelling your department forward, after picking up slack for an endless stream of incompetent supervisors, after earning the affection of students and coworkers, you thought you were safe. But, then, a new supervisor swooped in and decided to make an impression on her own supervisors. It was the classic saga of upper-level managers justifying their salaries but, this time, you got hung out to dry. When you were asked to operate a student telephone switchboard, you thought they were joking. They were not. You mentioned that your job was not to answer phones, that you didn't have time to answer phones and take care of your regular workload. The hammer fell with shocking immediacy and, without a word of discussion, you were informed that your long service to the school would be terminated in two weeks. After being unexpectedly insulted and abruptly fired, you were expected to work for another two weeks.

One week of awkwardness elapsed and, on your final week, the switchboard materialized in your office. Phones rang on the board, but nobody was willing to answer it. Officemates winced with each ring and went to desperate lengths to feign business with other activities. Then your desk phone rang. The supervisor—the one who had fired you the previous week—incredulously asked why you were not answering the switchboard. Reminding her that you had already been fired for refusing to answer it, you made it clear that you still had no intention of playing operator. The line went silent. Then your supervisor informed you that campus security would escort you off college premises and any future attempts to visit would be greeted by the local police. Former colleagues pretended to not see you as you were escorted out. Allies among the faculty were muzzled by thinly-veiled threats from the administration. You had friends in the administration, but they became unreachable when you needed them. And now you are unemployed. People see you differently. You see yourself differently. While you know that Kafka couldn't have devised a more unjustly vindictive bureaucracy, you can't escape the lurking sense that there is something wrong with you, that you failed.

8.05.2010

Lisbon, IA





A green kite charts a speedy parabola through the blue sky. The wind comes out of the west, a brutal, invisible pressure that makes trees lean, tractor-trailers wobble, and the man with the kite stumble forward. The Big Muddy pushes south, high water next to grassy, manicured banks, more indomitable than the midwestern wind. Davenport, Iowa's waterfront is hardly a bustling commercial center, but numerous people move up and down its bike path while others talk quietly under freshly-painted gazebos. A minor league baseball stadium has thrown its gates open and fans in red jerseys pour in to enjoy a late afternoon game with the river as a backdrop.

What is the hardest decision you've ever made? "Being me." The African-American man in the white sedan is in his mid-forties and wears thin-rimmed glasses and a gray t-shirt with cut off sleeves. "You married?" No. "Are you bi?" What? "Are you bi?" No. "A lot of people in this park are bi." Is that what he is referring to when he says that his hardest decision is being himself? "No, no. By 'being me' I mean, not getting too crazy, keeping myself from getting crazy. I can be pretty wild." He says that he has to be a mentor to his younger siblings and children. He does not want them to see him in a weak moment. He remembers seeing his own father in weak moments.

He pauses.

"That whole gayism thing, that's probably the number one decision people tell you about, isn't it?" No, but a few interviewees have discussed coming out. "People tell you all kinds of stuff, don't they?" Some of them. Sometimes. "It's probably your smile—you've got good teeth. I saw you over here and I said: 'shit, why ain't I better dressed today?' Yeah, you got a good smile, but I don't know what you're like underneath."

Good.

8.04.2010

Chicago, IL II




"I came to America with five dollars in my pocket and did not speak a word of English," the Art Dealer says. She immigrated legally from Poland in her early twenties—several decades ago, when the Soviet Union was still intact. Like many other Poles, she headed straight to northwest Chicago, the largest Polish community outside of Warsaw. "At home, I made $20 a month. In America, I got a nanny job. Usually, I worked for about twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week... and I made $20 a week." Slowly, she saved up enough money to escape wage slavery and decided to launch a European art gallery. Her gray eyes contemplate her large, black desk: "At the time, there weren't many people bringing European art to Chicago, especially Polish art. I thought that it might be a way to get money going back there while exposing Americans to new art..." She raises her eyes glances around the large room of her gallery. The walls are covered in huge oil paintings in heavy gold and black frames, pastoral images of snowy European countrysides, vibrant cityscapes, a few still-lifes. Paintings lean in stacks along the base of walls. Many are beautiful, some are insipid, but all are surprising to find hidden behind the barred windows and locked doors of a dismal, 1960's-era storefront. Like many other immigrants, the Art Dealer made the journey alone. Friends and family remained in Poland, but she was driven to America out of a powerful ambition to live a more comfortable life. "I still go back a few times a year and see them." Decades later, with the gallery thriving, she has lived the quintessential American Dream: "this really is a country where anything is possible. I love it here. I would never return. This is home now." She has helped over ten Poles immigrate to the United States since relocating herself, offering them places go stay while they try to launch their own lives. "Some people complain about America. I have traveled all over the world, Africa, Asia, Europe, and there is nowhere else like this. Five dollars. I came with five dollars and no English. Look where I am now."

Up the street, in a dark Polish bar, the Agent is hunched over a Bud Light as he talks with the Bartender. His hands tremble slightly as he unwraps a roll of Smarties and puts a few of the chalky, pastel candies in his mouth: "I bring these with me everywhere... there are more in my car. Hand them out at bars; people know me as the guy with the Smarties. Here, have some, they don't have much sugar." The Bartender is a lean man with a Roman nose, a long, stern face, and a jean vest. His gray hair is slicked back on his head. He should have been in the Rolling Stones. Maybe he was. "This economy stinks," he says, and lists the Polish names of two regulars who just got laid off from manufacturing jobs after two and three decades of employment. "Can you believe that? Just thrown away. There's nothing left here. Dead." The Agent, a retired Fed, nods in agreement and chases his beer with a few more Smarties: "all those new condos downtown, who are those for? What do they even do that's so important?"

It is an area of long, ugly roads lined with trash and light-industrial buildings. Freeways and railroads crisscross over and under surface streets. Color is rare: the buildings are shades of tan and mustard brick, dark gray asphalt, light gray skies, brown lots strewn with trash, chain link fences. A large stuffed tiger lies on on the cracked sidewalk, its head partially torn off and its torso slashed open down the spine. Intestinal-pink foam explodes from its neck as if under pressure.