Friday, December 14, 2007

Retro-Journal: Across America in Late ’91

The second half of 1991, my first “semester” after college, is perhaps best captured in a vignette each from nine towns to which I traveled, each offering a possible model for my then-unfixed, then-uncertain adult life, with the first vignette involving the fear of imminent thermonuclear war.

Washington, DC: Having been a good libertarian for two years by the time I graduated, I had developed a healthy wariness toward DC, but ironically, people fixated on the shortcomings of government often end up spending a lot of time in DC hoping to learn how to fix things. Not for the last time, libertarian business had brought me and fellow Brown graduate and ex-Film Bulletin editor Christine Caldwell to DC early in the summer of ’91 and to the apartment there of another Brown graduate, Tim Snyder (who, like Christine, would become an academic and historian), who let us stay there while he was away.

And so it was that Christine was awakened at 5:30am one morning by a caller asking “Is Tim there?” When Christine said “No,” the caller then asked, “Is it because of the revolution?” Since Tim was not one of our fellow libertarians (despite going on to write books about things like the travails of post-Communist Europe), it was unlikely that the caller was referring to our own very gradual and law-abiding efforts to abolish the government through privatization. As it turned out, what he was referring to was more of a coup than a revolution, and in the end not even much of a coup — namely, the last-gasp attempt by a few Soviet generals to seize power from Gorbachev that year, leading in short order to the rise of Yeltsin in response and the official disbanding of the Soviet Union the following year.

Not knowing at the time how things were going to work out, though, I pointed out to Christine that on the admittedly very slim chance that the coup led to political instability in Moscow that resulted in a nuclear war, DC was not the best place to be. Being, then as now, a pretty rational balancer of risks and benefits, I would never have bothered to suggest fleeing DC if we both lived there or had some other compelling reason to linger, but since we’d been planning to head north soon anyway, we got into Christine’s car and headed north — despite our friends in Providence facing a terrible storm, Hurricane Bob. If we could keep the nuclear holocaust behind us and Bob’s fury safely ahead — and if I didn’t make the mistake again of playing the Fixx too loudly (Christine’s taste in 80s-heavy alternative rock being subtly different from my own taste in 80s-heavy alternative rock, in ways that seem about as significant now as differing branches of Leninism) — we would be all right.

Providence, RI: It was a bit odd that I stayed in Providence for a summer after graduation, given that I’d never remained in the city over vacations while in college, but I was reluctant to retreat to Norwich and my parents’ house while I was still sending out resumes in search of a post-college job, mostly to publishing companies (I’d applied to at least one in New York City, St. Martin’s Press, but was convinced simply by the postmodern clutter of the New York Times ad pages that New York was probably a noisy, hectic hellhole in which I’d never be comfortable — after all, I spent a lot of time when I was growing up visiting my grandfather’s small farm, the one my mother grew up on, and even Brown had seemed a bit big and crazy compared to what I knew).

So it was that I lived for three (undeserved) pleasant months — at least, pleasant when I managed to keep my mind off the job anxiety — in a big house with a few friends including fellow ex-Film Bulletin writer Holly Caldwell and her boyfriend Jake. Yet there were moments when even that coziness had a tinge of unspoken dread, like something out of the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, who had lived in and written about Providence (one of his best-known protagonists, from the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” was a Brown professor — but more about that in my February Book Selection of the Month essay).

For instance, it was at that house, on one of a great many evenings spent on its second-floor deck, that I — and I alone, while others scoffed and failed to see — spotted the unmistakable figure of a man known to me from a nightmarish tale told almost a half-century earlier: there, walking his dog not far from the Brown campus, was none other than Kevin McCarthy, star of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I pointed him out to the others, who failed to recognize him and said it was just some old man (or in one case said “You mean James Coburn?”). Just as he was about to disappear past the house, my frustration mounting, I shouted “Say, isn’t that a famous character actor?” to which he looked up knowingly, beamed, and waved before disappearing with his dog. No one else had seen it — and they even suggested that he probably just waved because he heard someone shouting and thought it was a meaningless hello — and in a great irony that no one but me seemed to appreciate, I was left insisting, “No! Don’t you see? He’s not just an ordinary human! He’s not like the rest of us. Why doesn’t anyone else see the truth?!” If you’re reading this, Mr. McCarthy, you understand. (And as it happens, he is now appearing as himself-fifty-years-ago in Anthony Hopkins’ time travel movie Slipstream.)

But there was another incident that occurred during our time in Providence even more Lovecraftian than the Kevin McCarthy dog-walking incident — an incident that showed just how disturbingly small and limiting our summertime world atop College Hill had become.

I was talking to yet another ex-Bulletineer, Chris Nugent, who was also living in Providence that summer, though at a different house, when the subject of baked beans somehow arose, to which I began to say “Speaking of baked beans — ” but then abruptly stopped myself, fearing to speak of the horrible memory that the subject of beans had evoked in me. “What?” Chris asked, almost knowingly. I began to object that what I had in mind was not something I should discuss, and Chris began to laugh, saying, “I know what you’re thinking of — Dear God, it’s come to this,” and I laughed too, knowing he had seen precisely what I had seen, blocks away and no bigger than a man’s hand yet on that day looming large in our tiny mental world: a piece of dog shit, lying in the summer sun on Thayer Street, that bore an unmistakable and almost unnatural resemblance to a giant baked bean: curved, perfectly smooth, perfectly proportioned. “And the thing about it was that — ” I began again, gesturing as if to suggest the unholy object’s immediate surroundings. “Yes! Yes!” replied Chris, again as if reading my mind: for the dog shit was surrounded, as if by some conscious artistic choice on the part of the dog, by a small puddle of light brown ooze that was the very image of baked bean sauce! Our four years of Ivy League education had led to this.

Norwich, CT: Soon, though, it would be time to leave the house in Providence. I ended up being the last to depart on the final day at summer’s end as newly-returned students began swelling College Hill’s population. I awaited my parents’ arrival while the new inhabitants of the house moved in: a group of alarmingly attractive and very young-seeming girls from Brown, likely sophomores — one of whom twice, in the few hours that our stays in that house overlapped, accidentally left a door open that led to me glimpsing her naked, while the other women not only looked through a photo album of their past adventures together that included pictures of them taking bubble baths but eventually, to cope with that day’s sweltering heat, began rubbing ice cubes on each other. But I was soon headed back to Norwich, living (however briefly) with my parents again, not watching beautiful women rub ice cubes on themselves, and wondering if selling my comic book collection might generate enough money to stave off complete dependency until a job offer came along and made me less of a loser.

On the Road I: Chicago: Having heard that employment and culture were booming in Seattle in late 1991, Chris and I soon roadtripped west, stopping along the way in Chicago where, with uncannily good libertarian timing (and thanks in part to forgetting Chicago was in a different time zone than the East), we arrived just in time to join Dan Greenberg (who was studying law at the University of Chicago for a while) in hearing a lecture by Judge Alex Kozinksi at which famed law professor Richard Epstein asked some skeptical questions. Afterwards, stymied for a long time in our efforts to leave Chicago by its confusingly loop-shaped highways, I eventually suggested to Chris, hesitantly, that in my role as navigator I’d spotted a tiny, rural-looking but reassuringly long and straight road on the map called Liberty Road that went out far beyond the dense downtown area into rural regions. “We’re taking it,” Chris said decisively.

On the Road II: Lodge Grass, Montana: I don’t think Chris and I regretted for a moment that we were a bit behind schedule in reaching Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the mesa perhaps best known for its appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (itself perhaps best known for its use in the [pre-Andrew Lloyd Weber] movie of The Phantom of the Opera) was playing — part of a mix tape that also included the Cure — as Chris’s car approached the immense mesa, and the fact that it was too dark to make out the thing’s details merely made it all the more awe-inspiring as it slowly but surely blotted out a huge, monolithic area of darkness in the otherwise bountifully star-filled sky. We clambered about on the rocks at its base a bit despite signs saying the area was closed for the night but eventually beat a retreat after spotting some sort of badger or something wandering around on the rocks near us.

Unfortunately, due to an overly-optimistic turn down a road that we later realized led only into the near-void of an Indian reservation that had ostensibly, according to road signs, been an actual town called Lodge Grass, we spent about an hour seeing nothing but straight, unpopulated rural road with nothing on it except increasingly massive pieces of roadkill, which eventually led to us turning around, heading back to the highway, and traveling for several more hours, passing, frustratingly, through two towns too small to have any vacant hotel rooms before finally, well after sunrise, finding a motel. Exhausted from the drive, Chris at one point feared that he may have hallucinated an armadillo.

At some point around that day, a gruff man at a gas station, spotting the dead mink on Chris’s dashboard, asked “You trap that?” to which Chris replied that a friend had given it to him, glossing over the fact that the creature came from a vintage clothing store back east and had long been affectionately nicknamed Minky.

On the Road III: Libby, Montana: Holly’s mother, still living in the tiny town (population approximately 2,000) where Holly had grown up, was gracious enough to put up me and Chris for a night, introducing us to her cat, acknowledging her copy of Atlas Shrugged, and recounting for us the then-recent experience of having to suspend for one day the paper route by which she earned a living because a moose, a potentially dangerous animal, was wandering the town’s only road. Roughly as libertarian as us or Holly, she complained about the EPA deliberately moving dangerous grizzly bears closer to the humans of Libby by helicopter, having decided the bears naturally belonged there. I did not fight any large animals during the trip but was stung by a bee that flew into the car, and I still have the chapstick-sized tube of anti-sting ointment that we raced to get at a convenience store as though I’d been bitten by a cobra. I have no idea whether the ointment would still be effective after all this time, and it looks far less impressive and manly than the long, rib-filled rattlesnake skeleton that sits just a few feet away in the same closet in my Manhattan apartment today — left over not from our adventures out west but from the time Chris and I ate rattlesnake at a restaurant in Providence. We were not frontiersmen.

Seattle: We reached the city by crossing the central plain of Washington State, which is, as you may know, so completely flat and desolate that it is possible to make the mistake, as I did, of thinking that you’re riding over the top of a hill that never seems to end when in fact you are simply perceiving the curvature of the Earth at all points in your field of vision because you can see unimpeded to the horizon in all directions, unless Mt. Rainier or a nuclear power plant blocks your view (not that we passed the power plant). Incongruously, two little old ladies were seated at a roadside rest stop in the middle of all that nothingness, serving water to motorists, which was a bit like finding someone sitting on a rocking chair on the Moon.

It is remarkable what a thorough little time capsule of the 1990s my brief trip to Seattle really was. Indeed, I have often said — of a trip that, alarmingly, still feels very recent though it is now sixteen years in the past — that if the roughly two weeks of that trip had been the only days of the 90s I had experienced, I still would have had a pretty good feel for the decade:

–I talked to my father on the phone on the way there, and he suggested that we listen to the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings on the radio, to which I replied that the hearings had been fascinating — revolving largely around the question of whether Thomas was a closet libertarian, since he’d said approving things about Reason magazine, Ayn Rand, and closing government agencies — but that the hearings were now over. My father said that the hearings had resumed to allow discussion of what sounded like rather minor sexual harassment claims — mentioning porn at the office or inviting a co-worker to have a beer. I was skeptical about whether this second phase of the hearings could possibly be as significant as the first, since the important issues — the state vs. the individual and all that — had already been discussed. Soon, though, Chris and I, listening to Phase II along with the rest of the country, would be laughing at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s pained, somber references to “Long Dong Silver” and getting an early lesson in the pettiness of 90s political debate.

–In Seattle, our host, fellow Brown alum Scott Nybakken, was working in the alternative comics industry and had a coffee table festooned with “cyberpunk” magazines that proclaimed the imminent takeover of society by virtual reality (and something called the Internet, which some people in Seattle’s growing computer industry worked on). One of the magazines, Mondo 2000, also extolled a rising retro-60s/70s club scene in New York City, pointing to dance bands like Deee-Lite as exemplars (would that all 90s dance music had proven as joyous and melodic as “Groove Is in the Heart,” which also has one of the best videos of all time, as visually-startling a demarcator of the 80s’ end and 90s’ beginning as Do the Right Thing) and praising “smart drinks” and “smart drugs” that would purportedly make us all as smart as the cybergurus.

–Both Nothern Exposure (which, like the town of Libby, featured a road-wandering moose) and the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me movie were being shot in Seattle while we were there. Joined by a visiting Christine, we saw both Richard Linklater’s Slackers and the Director’s Cut rerelease of Blade Runner during my one-week stay.

–On Scott Nybakken’s car radio, tuned to KNDD “The End” (then one of the very, very few alternative rock stations in the country, along with Providence’s WBRU), we heard a new single called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and all agreed that it had an interesting new sound (grunge) that seemed to fuse alternative rock and heavy metal — though we also thought the song sounded a little like “More than a Feeling” by Boston, and I still do.

Chris stayed in Seattle, but I headed back east, after visiting Scott and my former college roommate, Marc Steiner.

Boston/Allston, Massachusetts: Back east, I considered following in the footsteps of some of my fellow Brown alums and seeking work in Boston, and I was particularly pleased to discover the ease with which even the members of a barely-passable rock band like Young Men Carbuncular (made up in part of associates of my old high school friend Paul Taylor, who’d by now finished Yale and started Harvard Law) could afford to live in the hip, youthful, densely populated, and slightly shabby but cute and neighborhoody suburb called Allston. I knew even then that I was sufficiently flexible and undemanding that as long as I was at no risk of starving and had some opportunity to write and/or hang out with smart, creative people, I could be happy. In fact, many of my happiest moments have occurred when I’m in a cozy and neighborhoody environment that nonetheless is somewhere I don’t quite belong — whether it was the time I strolled through a swanky, quiet residential area near College Hill in Providence and realized that the only other pedestrian around was Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, the time in Seattle that I walked about twenty miles through rolling suburban hills (somehow not getting lost) to see a store notorious for selling giant pants and then make my way over to the Soundgarden that gave the band its name, or the time I got back to the Young Men Carbuncular’s house late at night and had to climb in through a window in order to go to sleep. Barring starvation, I could be happy in these places, and I still feel like a part of my heart is in Allston. I’d go on to visit Boston many times in the next several years.

New York City: However, it was St. Martin’s Press, somewhat belatedly, that would first offer me a job (it would last only a few months but was a start), so off to New York I went, joining Bulletineers Christine (with whom I shared my first apartment) and Laura Braunstein. Christine was working for National Lampoon and later for MTV (briefly, as is often the case with that network), making her one of the few of us to take a stab at making the comedy writing thing into a career. She followed editor Larry Doyle (whose name was known to me from his days as editor of First Comics, including my favorite comic book series for a time, Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus) as Doyle went from the dying National Lampoon to overseeing failed pilot episodes of a college version of The Newlywed Game featuring roommates, called Dirty Laundry. But Christine followed Doyle no farther. Christine loved New York and its bagels but soon moved to Oregon to be near her boyfriend Dave Whitney (another ex-Bulletineer, studying there to be an architect), leaving me in need, simultaneously, of a new roommate and a long-term publishing job. Doyle went on to become a Simpsons producer, New York Magazine editor, and now novelist, and I hope he’s happy — because in the old days he often wasn’t. Comedy is hard, even when you’re connected to the vast Harvard comedy-writing Mafia, compared to which Brown’s cabal was never more than a small circle of amateur pickpockets.

I recall Andrew Clateman, the Bulletineer who leapt out the window during a Nietzsche class, falling asleep in my parents’ living room once around 1989, sounding physically and mentally exhausted after biking from the big city to small Norwich — on the day that a thunderstorm destroyed the world’s oldest sugar maple tree in Norwich, making the front page of the Norwich paper but probably not registering in any of the papers back in Clateman’s native New York. He mumbled despairingly as he fell asleep about his own experience at MTV, when all the writers on a short-lived comedy show he was writing for, who’d been told they’d soon have contracts, were let go after the producers decided they could have guest hosts write their own material, starting with Yahoo Serious. Unless you’re Tom Wolfe, muttered Clateman as he lost consciousness, “it’s all contracts…contracts…” In a sense, I watched the comedy-writing, deconstructionist Clateman die that day, in my parents’ literally red, white, and blue rural home with its American flag and Colonial furniture. Clateman would go on to become a carpenter and home refurbisher, no longer a Dadaesque figure — at least until appearing in odd theatrical productions such as plays by fellow ex-Bulletineer Gersh Kuntzman many years later. Clateman’s brush with MTV — like the network’s blatant rip-off of a local Seattle hand puppet comedy show called Handy and Bandy created by friends of Marc — was a foreshadowing of Christine’s possible fate in 1991. After MTV requested a revised, raunchier version of the Dirty Laundry pilot, then balked at airing the result — this being years before MTV began showing softcore porn such as the series Unzipped — Doyle and company were sent packing.

For a very, very brief time before her departure from New York, Christine, Chris, and I would all live in that small apartment on East 20th St., since he had moved back east after his short stint in Seattle, perhaps a bit jealous (as a fan of Soundgarden, Winona Ryder, The Godfather, and Guns N’ Roses) that, implausibly, the G N’ R concert I’d gone to in New York City shortly after my arrival there featured Soundgarden as the opening band, random images of Winona Ryder as distracting entertainment on the big screens at Madison Square Garden prior to G N’ R taking the stage, and a moving Slash solo guitar rendition of the Godfather theme [UPDATE: An e-mail from Chris reminds me that twenty years after G N' R released "Welcome to the Jungle," it still has the power, when combined with karaoke, to induce paranoia in school officials]. New York is full of great things if you can get the timing down right and juxtapose them just so. You can’t let the postmodernism faze you. Stay flexible, in fact, and living in New York is sort of like living in nine or more cities at the same time and living as many overlapping lifetimes and narratives.

Unfortunately, one of the dominant narratives in late 1991 was the idea that we were “Generation X,” to quote the title of an influential book edited by one of my St. Martin’s Press co-workers (and his tall blonde assistant, future Times style reporter Alex Kuczynski): a generation mostly raised by Baby Boomers and now lacking either purpose or (for the first time in generations) job prospects. We were doomed, apparently. As someone with great confidence in capitalism, I never seriously believed that sort of whining, but the X-doom narrative would at least help me feel like less of an oddball when I ended up spending the first half of 1992 unemployed — but more on that in our next chapter.

1 comment:

Red Stapler said...

though we also thought the song sounded a little like “More than a Feeling” by Boston, and I still do.


That’s because the two songs have the same chord progression.