February 11, 2013 Leave a comment
Drawing finished recently, though the scanner cut off some of the edges and I haven’t messed with the contrast yet. A more complete and much cleaned-up version forthcoming!
Things That May Be of Some Interest to Some, Maybe.
December 17, 2012 Leave a comment
One Afternoon at a Legal Focus Group with Seven Random Participants, 12/12/12
A shopping center was built directly in front of a hotel after the hotel had already stood for a while, rendering the hotel still visible from the highway but forever hidden from the corresponding exit’s busy intersection behind a fortress of shops and hills; travelers know the hotel is there as they approach it from 89N or S but are soon plunged into deep aggravation when they can’t figure out how to find the road that supposedly leads to the hotel. If astute enough to actually find it, an unmarked, winding road takes the driver past loading docks and by the oft-unseen rear ends of the stores, with these secret entrances in turn made to seem even more private by the trees that cloak them in shadow and make a long tunnel out of what is hopefully the hotel’s driveway. The hotel is a surprisingly sprawling affair; its many wings and decorative roofs and meeting rooms extend away from the hotel in true Upper Valley fashion, which is to say additions and wings are tacked on seemingly at random and at will. The hotel appears to be an extemporaneous fort and its insides do nothing to dispel this impression, as its lobby boasts a collection of elevated corridors, blazing fireplaces, decorative and functional stone walls, multi-leveled ceilings, and a surprising number of desks (the front desk, gift shop counter, and a variety of desks corresponding to offices unknown), all of which come together to greet the wary itinerant with an unsettling and somewhat unprofessional sense of busyness. The delicate sensibilities of the tired traveler are further offended by the uncalled-for pomp of a remarkably inscrutable yet highly officious attendant and then are even further overwhelmed by the fact that this entire display is centered around a gigantic indoor stone courtyard, which is itself busily buried by the countless fake trees around its perimeter that are themselves roped together many, many times over by strings of festive holiday lights, to say nothing of the patio’s surprising number of tables, buffet stations, waitstaff areas, and the enormous, ceremonial pergola in one of its corners. Adding yet another layer, the back half of the patio and all of its many features are in turn ringed by glass-front meeting rooms and activity centers. But once the guest gets used to the chaos, it’s kind of nice. For example, if staying for an extended period, the guest can comfortably feel secluded in the patio’s secret woods. Like the Bohemian Grove and other deeply-ensconced getaways, working in one’s own private forest is conducive to good business, which is why the views from the windows of the meeting rooms are obscured by hundreds of fake trees. Further luxury is bestowed by the swimming pool and its large AstroTurf beach, which is a strange though contextually appropriate feature considering the bomb-shelter ambiance of the patio and is in fact much bigger than the actual pool itself. In fact, it’s so big and AstroTurfy that it could be a putting green, though no holes or clubs or hilarious obstacles are present to allow it to function as such.
So taken is the guest by the visuals of the reception area and courtyard and woods that it would be understandable if they wandered off with mouths agog, a response that is analogous to that inspired by every single aspect of the mind-boggling meeting that to take place the afternoon of 12/12/12. But the eight guests scheduled to participate in a legal focus group held in a meeting room at the hotel were spared the indignity of being lost by the presence of one of the host legal firm’s employees waiting politely at the front desk (or at least the desk that looks the most like the front desk), dispatched to snag participants as they walked in. The group was led in sets of two or three to the meeting room and welcomed to their own coffee and pastry station outside the room. There was a sign on the table saying that its provisions are for a private group and not the public, though the public can hardly be blamed for assuming that any of the tables hidden among the trees are as public as any other. The coffee was typical hotel coffee, of better quality than gas station coffee if one wants to split hairs but not as strong. The pastries were typical hotel pastries.
The eight participants were recruited by a temp agency. Everybody but one arrived on time and all began tacitly sizing one another up, making assumptions about what the others’ opinions will likely be regarding the case whose particulars have not yet been divulged. All anyone knows is that they are being called to weigh in on a legal case and will be compensated financially and via sandwich. The assignment is scheduled to be about four hours of work, from 10am-2pm, and will pay $11/hr. It is assumed that the focus group has been convened as a practice run for the lawyers, to better gauge a random sampling of the public’s (and therefore the jury’s) likely opinions about the case and to some degree the way it should be argued in court, but until the host lawyers explain exactly what’s going on, this is only speculation. The eighth person doesn’t arrive by 10:05 and is therefore barred from participation, as once the presentation starts nobody else can join in. Thus the final group is comprised of only seven people. The demographics break down as such:
Five women and two men, of which:
- one man is in his late 20s;
- one woman is in her late 30s;
- one woman is in her late 40s;
- one man is in his 50s;
- one woman is precisely 57;
- and two women are over 60.
All have been contacted by the temp agency; college experience ranges from a BA to no experience at all; the 57-year old starts a conversation with “Last time I had a job…,” the lighthearted though not boastful tone of which indicates it was a comically long time ago. The preliminary paperwork filled out at the behest of the law firm asks about Former Employment, which she gleefully answers by writing “Whatever I can get my hands on” and then answers 40 yrs. to the next question, How long have you been doing it? The man in his 50s had his jacket tucked into his underwear and immediately asked the host where the bathroom was, giving the unfortunate impression to anyone paying attention that he had been interrupted that morning mid-dump by the necessity of getting to the meeting on time. He came back and smiled at everyone, loudly proclaiming that he was going to write “Santa Claus” where the form asked for his full name, in apparent protest of the questionnaire’s invasions of privacy. He was roughly handsome in an outdated, Burt Reynolds-sort of way, which, fortunately or not, also looked kind of pornographic circa 1970s, a distinction stemming almost totally from his full, black mustache. One of the women in her 60s looked like someone’s grandma who lives in a quiet planned community, the other 60s+ lady was slight but not weak, the kind of older woman whose cruel smile augments the power of her sinewy forearms, which grip unsuspecting victims like a scary, wraithlike claw as she says something mean to them. The man in his 20s was reserved but trying not to be; his attempts to engage the others in conversation sounded like the stilted dialogue of someone not known to take the initiative in conversation but then tries to in order to get better at it; the woman in her 30s had highlighted hair and a raspy smoker’s voice and the woman in her 40s looks like a mom and was wearing what may or may not be the top of a set of flower-patterned scrubs as a shirt.
The seven sat around a table shaped like a U. That the table was in a private meeting room with complimentary coffee and set with complimentary pens and pads of paper (that only had about eight sheets of paper attached to them [and this was before the pads were even used]) endowed the participants with a sense of professionalism before any information or explanation was given as to what was expected of them. It was an involuntary but nonetheless clearly welcomed sensation: posture quickly went rigid, coffee was sipped thoughtfully, and the guy with the mustache began taking off his glasses and pointing with them for emphasis every single time he spoke for the rest of the day, and if he was already holding them when he began speaking he just put them back on in the same way he took them off to emphasize the care and weight put into his opinions; on or off, the gesture of contemplation was the crucial component needed to get his point across, no matter what point was being made and regardless of its relative importance to the topic at hand. The open end of the table faced a projector screen, and at least three laptops were connected to one another by cables and their various adapters. A camera was set up in the corner to record the proceedings and it became apparent that most of the group’s deliberations will be watched live by the law firms in the next room. After the usual aggravations trying to set up technology for a presentation, the laptop projection finally took place. Skype was started and was used to call a woman in the room and was kept running the entire time. This seemed weird but then it became clear that her Skype account was probably open in the next room, with Skype acting as a way to hear the conversation going on in the meeting room. The surveillance is unnerving but after all not unexpected as the whole point of the exercise is to see what “real people” have to say about…
…Someone being sued. The case, whose public details must be kept to a minimum for reasons of propriety and because the case has not yet gone to court, involves a man who fell asleep at the wheel and then crashed head-on into a family driving in the other lane. The infants and the fiancé in the passenger seat were unharmed, but the mother suffered a shattered femur and middle finger and was trapped in the wreckage for at least forty-five minutes as the fire department tried, as one lawyer put it, to “exticrate” her. The sleeping driver was essentially uninjured. After surgeries, rehab, and ongoing pain, the mother sued the other driver. The driver concedes that he fell asleep and should be held accountable for everything that happened, including the medical bills, and then offered to pay an additional 2x the cost of the medical bills on top of it all for the pain/inconvenience/terror of being in such an accident. (The mother of the victim reported that someone found the victim’s cellphone and called the entry listed as ‘Mom,’ where the mom heard nothing but screaming and hectic emergency activity for forty-five minutes.) The victim and her lawyers considered this amount too low. In essence, the focus group was convened to decide how much, all things considered, the victim should be compensated. Three lawyers for the victim were present and the one lawyer for the defendant kept quiet until his presentation an hour and a half into the proceedings, except for this one time when he needlessly raised his voice and told everyone to be quiet and listen because it was important, a task that didn’t need to be asked, as everyone was already quiet for the most part and knew it was important anyway.
“Choices need to be made,” said the lawyer for the plaintiff gravely, “And choices have repercussions.” It was a theme that he repeated in different and identical forms throughout the afternoon. His speech began with the deep breath and all-seeing look around the room well-practiced by lawyers and middle-school principals. “He made a choice to work all night, to go without much sleep, to get in his car, and then to DRIVE to his VACATION HOME in KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine.” His case was made slowly, quietly, with appropriate pauses for emphasis and solemnity, though he sometimes veered from his serious tone to one of direction-exchanging dad-jocularity, especially when he was discussing the series of highways and routes the defendant took that led to the scene of the accident. The ease with which he went back and forth between voices highlighted his skills in lawyerly polemic, but the fact that he was obviously playing a character was irrelevant to the group, judging from the gasps of sympathy, guilt, and shame that started within minutes of his recounting of events. He was dressed rather casually, with rockabilly two-tone shoes and a faded tattoo of some unknown symbol between his thumb and forefinger. He was 53, he said, and he had a salt-and-pepper goatee and the full head of hair that helps instill more confidence in full-haired middle-aged people than those who are bald, as if their head of hair is an accomplishment unto itself, like his forthright honesty is evidenced by the fact that he looks better than his unfortunately and unwillingly glabrous brethren.
On the other hand, this wasn’t necessarily true, for while the lawyer for the defendant had an equally if not even fuller head of hair, he also committed a series of small gaffes starting as soon as he began that taken in concert (and coupled with the overall-unsympathetic defendant) doomed he and his case to oblivion. He attempted to make his case plainly, using both ‘aww shucks’ common sense and an impassioned speech highlighting the idea that everyone is protected equally under the law (“that’s what makes this country great”). He built on this idea by imploring everyone not to decide things in passion, to please listen to the facts of the case, noting with dubious, cringe-inducing taste that “there were lynchings when people decided in passion.” In an attempt to convey his earnestness and the plainness of the idea of justice, he said he didn’t “prepare a fancy [PowerPoint] presentation” like the other side. His choice of the word ‘fancy’ was kind of cute considering what was being described as fancy, but had he not mentioned this, its absence (and thus his evident unpreparedness) would have likely gone unnoticed. A few moments later, he further damaged his character by saying unapologetically that he wasn’t good at math: when discussing the total compensatory damages his client was willing to pay, he couldn’t add two figures together and a glance at the audience implied that someone should add it for him and then shout out the answer, which someone promptly did, though it was absolutely the wrong answer, so wrong even that the mathless lawyer knew the figure was way off. A quick look was exchanged among the legal teams that basically questioned the validity of the opinions of people who couldn’t add, like, These are the people to whom we are giving power over the life and livelihood of someone else?
His five minute presentation came to a whimpering end and the victim’s lawyers’ began anew, picking up right where they left off, explaining how the medical procedures the victim had to endure were so brutal that they looked more like “someone working on a piece of machinery than a human being,” thanks to the pins and rods that were drilled and hammered into place to fix her broken bones. The plaintiff’s lawyers succeeded where the defendant’s failed: while the attempt to engage the audience in math might have been a ploy to relate to them on their level and to moreover flatter them with a sense of their own intelligence, the many aspects of the case simply would not come together to make the defendant seem likeable let alone relatively blameless. The plaintiff’s lawyers tried the same trick with much greater success. One lawyer communicated his trust in the participants by not even flinching when they, with the confidence that comes from watching a lot of TV, threw around legal terms like “aggravated” that hadn’t once appeared in anything presented that day, and by claiming ignorance about the pronunciation of medical terms, saying “I don’t know how to pronounce this, maybe you all will know” and then profusely thanking the audience member who knew how to pronounce it.
But even these characters and their stories grew tiresome: attention soon waned and a number of participants took to idle drawing. One woman drew and shaded shapes and another filled her iPad with variations on the same face. The two women sat next to each other and were fully engaged in their doodles that were for some reason extremely annoying to watch: the quality of the terrible art could be excused as it was simply the result of an activity done while on the phone or while listening to something important if the person drawing didn’t appear to be concentrating so hard on the drawing, as their expressions of such deliberate creation and the artistic poise they affected should at least yield a product whose quality is proportionally equal to the time and effort they seem to be devoting to the drawings. Thus that their drawings weren’t even good efforts was severely disappointing. The backlight of the iPad made doodling a dangerous pastime as anything she drew or wrote was illuminated and readily visible from every angle. The presenters merely had to look in her direction to see that her attention was elsewhere, though ‘elsewhere’ suggests she was captivated by something equally as important as the details of the case, which collections of poorly-rendered smiley faces (even for smiley faces) inarguably weren’t, even if the concentration with which they were drawn might suggest otherwise.
Fortunately for everyone, the real point of the activity/experiment was about to begin. The rest of the time was to be left for the participants to discuss the case. The lawyers packed up and noted that they would be in the next room paying attention to the deliberations; instructions were given to answer just two questions on a sheet of paper pertaining to the case. As was mentioned, the real focus of the afternoon was to decide how much the plaintiff could sympathetically sue the defendant for, with the participants’ ways of arriving at this figure being studied and applied to the case, as again, it was reasonable to expect that the participants’ sympathies and ways of thinking would be similar to those of the actual jury that would be selected for the actual case. The 57-year old was promptly appointed foreman by dint of her personality, her appealingly unusual name, and the shawl that was royally draped around her shoulders; she feigned surprise at the honor and apparent respect her being commanded, though it was clear that this came as no surprise and was probably expected.
The first order of business was to hear individual opinions on the case, ending with each participant naming the figure he or she thought appropriate the defendant should pay. The man with the moustache was on one end of the table and thus spoke first, of course taking off his glasses thoughtfully before he began. His said his figure was initially five million dollars but he would settle for the (completely arbitrary) amount of 2.8 million. He put his glasses back on and didn’t really explain how he had arrived at the number, letting its decimal point speak for its trustworthiness, rationality, professionalism, and accuracy. No more figures with decimal points were given but the semi-agreed upon number exceeded that which the plaintiff’s lawyers were going to ask. It was determined that the amount that could satisfy the defendant’s debt to the victim and to society was three million dollars, with the rationalization that “it would probably be compromised down in court” aimed at any detractors who thought the penalty was too harsh.
(Given the cameras and microphones and the dramatic lawyers and the isolation in a disconcerting hotel, there was the unavoidable possibility that the whole affair was some sort of complex psychological experiment. It would have been easy to fake a plausible legal battle, not to mention that the extent to which the common person could sympathize or take issue with any number of the issues the afternoon’s particular case raises, as it is simple enough to be believable and therefore sympathetic. Or maybe it was a gang of wealthy folks who liked to watch people squabble for amusement. They could have been on the other side of the wall eating popcorn with their feet up, shaking their heads in disbelief but laughing in pleasure at how ridiculous a group of people will let themselves be. Then again, it could be heartwarming and life-affirming: when random people are endowed with responsibility, they step up to the task; the professional playacting notwithstanding, most people at least took the opportunity somewhat seriously.)
The participants’ next duty was to determine whether or not the defendant acted with malicious disregard, the positive determination of which allowed for the possibility of more money for the plaintiff. For reasons of space and for reasons of maintaining a readable narrative of the events, the circular debate about this point will not be related in full let alone transcribed; suffice to say the already-prickly topic was made all the more prickly by the fact that one participant “didn’t like the way [a paragraph of a legal document] was worded,” which then set off a(nother) tangential argument about what exactly the paragraph meant and what the literal meaning, once agreed upon, would mean for the point that was originally being debated and then for the case as a whole. A few participants seemed willing if not somewhat interested in a debate about the semantics of legalese but their amused indulgence quickly turned to annoyance when they realized they were in a prolonged debate about things they weren’t even being asked to debate about, and besides, who put him in charge of deciding what was valid wording or not? A maddening argument ensued
A: “Yes, but I don’t think ‘the Plaintiff alleges’ means that the girl herself said this.”
B: “Yes, it does. It says that she said that right there: ‘the Plaintiff alleges.’”
A: “Yes, I know, but ‘the Plaintiff alleges’ shouldn’t be taken literally. It means that her entire side of the argument is based around the idea that the driver should have known better than to drive while tired.”
B: “Yes, exactly! She says that the driver should have known better than to drive. That’s just common sense.”
A: “Yes, of course it’s common sense. That’s why it’s meaningless.”
B: “Do you agree that being tired can lead to dangerous driving?”
A: “Yes, everyone agrees with that. That’s why it doesn’t matter. It’s just a common sense, a truism, not a scientific piece of evidence.”
B: “So you agree that the driver drove dangerously because he was tired?”
A: “Yes, that’s obvious.”
B: “So you agree with what she said, that driving while tired is dangerous?”
A: “Yes, I agree that she might have said that at some point, but I don’t agree that her saying makes any difference when it comes to making a case against him.”
B: “But you just said you agree that driving tired is dangerous.”
A: “Yes, I agree that it is. But everyone knows that. Her stating it makes no difference, if she stated it at all, which I don’t think she did, at least not literally, and not in the way you think she did, literally.”
B: “She did say that. It says it right here.”
and culminated with the man in his late 20s yelling at one of the women in her 60s, accusing her of scoffing at the points he was making and therefore “not taking the fact that these are real peoples’ lives” seriously. The foreman quieted everyone down and looked askance at the petulant objector.
A woman from the law firm came in and said that they would have no problem paying for another half an hour of everybody’s time as the issue still wasn’t settled unanimously as it was supposed to be. Everyone agreed that they would soldier on and come to an agreement. The law woman left but reappeared minutes later when the same debate about the paragraph began again instead of a discussion about payment, looking amused as she drew the whole thing to a close and thanked everyone for their participation. The participants grabbed their coats rushed out, not many said goodbye and further conversation was avoided lest the arguments begin again without the supervision of the law firm to keep tempers under control. And as quickly as they came and set up, the lawyers too were gone. The room was cleared out, the technology disconnected, the tables left bearing dishes and silverware but nothing else, this generic detritus erasing the notion that anything supremely confidential occurred inside the room; by the looks of it, it was probably just a boring, mandatory HR seminar but certainly not a legal focus group discussing the lives of real people nor a secret psychological test that was invariably going to teach the world something sad about human nature.
In conclusion: Is the insanity and utter otherworldliness of the hotel’s interior a fitting metaphor for the confusing, interesting, intersecting displays of the human mind that came together and resulted in the proceedings of that afternoon’s focus group? Perhaps, but this similarity might be stretching the capacity for random analogy in the universe; things can accidentally be similarly weird but do not always conveniently share the same symbolism; if anything, the design of the hotel is the opposite of the design of the focus group: the hotel’s many accouterments, despite their busyness and seeming randomness, are all too precise, all too planned, altogether too logical in the fact that each part of the design took into consideration the rest of it, even if only to make sure that a beam wasn’t being projected through a wall or that the hundreds of strings of Christmas lights didn’t get tangled up with something else. The fact that point A leads to B which leads to C then to M then N then F which also leads to C and Z but which both ultimately lead back to A is important: there is always some type of literal connection between disparate parts. It doesn’t take a madman’s pareidolia to see there are myriad ways that everything that comprises the hotel somehow fits together. An architectural analogy can describe the logic of the focus group as well – the group’s discussions seem to imply distinct chains of logic but the real architectural parallel of the focus group is the immutable force of a single, solidly impenetrable wall. Maybe extending from this wall there would be the beginnings of a few artistic flourishes or the earliest foundations of a second wall, but these pieces, if eventually ever completed, would ultimately be irrelevant when considering the wall as its own immovable entity, and one infinitely, maddeningly powerful at that.
SUTOR, NE ULTRA CREPIDAM.
October 24, 2012 Leave a comment
“I love Virginians because Virginians are all snobs and I like snobs. A snob has to spend so much time being a snob that he has little time left to meddle with you.” – William Faulkner
“It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.” – Frederick the Great of Prussia
First things first: Here are two ridiculously suggestive signs I saw:
Virginia produces up to fifty-thousand tons per year, some of which are sold at small stores along the side of the road in twenty pound bags. This makes Virginia a dangerous place for sufferers of peanut allergies, but the state is pleasing for its toponymical sense of humor. Driving on the road from Roanoke took me near Rustburg, Chap, Tuggle, Tobaccoville, Skinquarter, Norge, and Toano, and I later crossed under Rip Rap Road on my way out of the state. I wasn’t in the mood to eat twenty pounds of peanuts and so I deliriously continued on my way, having left my host’s place at 5:15am on account of a plane he had to catch. But leaving so early was a nice trick as it seemed like I was making good time. It was only 8:45 and I was already close to Williamsburg, my destination for the morning before I headed to Virginia Beach. As you get closer to the Virginia coast, hours of the drive is done under an unbroken corridor of trees. Hilly or flat, you feel like you are in a green tube. Signs along the highway strangely command “No open fires before 4pm,” as if the flora’s flammability decreases as the day goes on. I-64 is under trees and near the ocean, and although you can’t see it, the taste of the air and the particular kinds of breeze indicate you are close.
Much is made of the imponderably important history of the region, touting itself the “birthplace of American Democracy.” Williamsburg in turn houses Colonial Williamsburg in homage to its historical importance. Colonial Williamsburg (henceforth known as ‘CW’), is, to greatly simplify for those who haven’t been there, a town full of re-enactors reenacting life in a town in the 18th century; a historical play writ large, a whole city actors who won’t break character, right in the middle of a regular modern city. It is a self-proclaimed ‘living museum,’ a dream destination for history buffs and lovers of the earliest Americana, and it goes to great lengths to minimize any temporal incongruities. Cars are abruptly deflected away from the Williamsburg neighborhood because horse-drawn buggies are supposed to be the most modern form transportation.
Oddly enough, the first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the car was a broken syringe lying on the ground, next to my tire and my foot. “Eww!” I yelled as I jumped back. I tried to make sense of the syringe and CW appearing at the same instant, as if the old times were entirely free of vice. I wondered about the Colonial equivalent of heroin. I walked towards Market Square, which is a swanky (modern) shopping district on the edge of CW. Its architecture functions as a middle-ground between CW and today, being a modern version of Colonial, as if to ease the two into each other’s respective time periods. Mermaid Books is in the basement of one of Market Square’s shops, and it is the first bookstore of the trip that took advantage of the optional pomp and gratuitous sophistication that can come with owning a book store. The owner had the longish white hair and bow-tie of a respected professor, and as soon as he opened the store, classical music and some permutation of jazz filled the air. A storm of thumbtacks and cartoons had blown through the store as hundreds of book-related New Yorker cartoons were tacked to the shelves throughout the store. Some were hung above the subject or author they references, and there were multiple cartoons about the works of notoriously difficult authors made real, the cartoon subjects throwing their hands up in the air in exasperation as they find themselves in some obscure dilemma.
The store was hung with plants and antiques and classy trinkets, all of which are for sale. Light trickled in through ground-level windows, bathing the store in an enigmatic light that suggests secrecy, scholarship, and the imminent pleasure of a surprise literary discovery. I picked up a book called The Benoni by William R. Hartston, part of the “Contemporary Chess Openings” series, whose author is one of the ‘top ten opening theorists in the world,’ and whose book on the Benoni runs 127 pages.:
“Popularized by Fischer and Tal, the Benoni is one of the best choices for any player who wants an active defense to IP-Q4…It is a balanced review of [a] sharp and lively opening…”
The owner of the store kept adjusting his sport coat and then sat down to type at his antiquated (i.e. 2003) Apple. Although we had been pleasantly chatting since my arrival, I was mildly annoyed with him for his comments regarding a collection of Thomas M. Disch stories I wanted to buy. It’s called Getting Into Death and the owner’s tone as he inspected the book clearly showed that he thought I was a gloomy young man obsessed with death and destruction. It didn’t help that the back of the book used the word ‘gothic’ – one story involves a man who writes ‘best-selling Gothics’ – as images of an awkward, sullen high-schooler no doubt popped into his head.
I walked back outside to an overcast day, grumbling over the guy’s presumption. He probably didn’t mean any harm but I was still put off by his mainstream attitude towards (what he thought was) the book’s morbid subject matter. Sometimes dark, gruesome, or dangerous themes need to be discussed. They are as much a part of life as anything else and shouldn’t be shied away from, and those that write about them shouldn’t automatically be considered social deviants for doing so. You would think that book store owners would be aware of the fact, as well read as they purport to be.
This put me in a funk, especially given my surroundings. Looking at Market Square again, it felt artificial and cloying and revisionist and I was mad that the business owners took their respective locations as indicative of their social worth, like they were some sort of landed gentry because they signed a lease in mock-historical buildings. A couple of construction worker-types walking through the shopping district seemed out of place to the point that some tourists stopped to look at them. I didn’t hear either of the groups speak, but I imagined the difference between the two parties’ accents to be as pronounced and socially important as those between the Queen and her base underlings, and I imagined that a large percentage of the business owners of the area felt a small surge of scorn (or at least wonder) when these lowbrow specimens were forced by necessity to set foot on their land. But when I met my guide in a coffee shop a few doors down, my opinion changed: it seems that the owner of Mermaid Books was the first person to think my quest interesting. My guide had visited the bookstore that morning and was chatting with the owner. She mentioned that she was meeting someone from out of town in a few minutes and he mentioned that some “guy from out of state driving around looking at bookstores” had been in earlier. They figured out they were talking about the same person and she passed this encounter on to me. I wasn’t used to recognition or even that someone would take an interest in my trip, and this accomplishment fully redeemed him in my narcissistic estimation.
But it is only from these irrelevant frustrations that fault is found with the historical veneer of the city, and besides, these frustrations are focused more on the pompous store owners of Williamsburg 2012 and not necessarily the ambiance engendered by CW, which begins twenty feet away. Looking down the street from Mermaid Books, you can see people in waistcoats and mantuas and tricorner hats walking about. All hints of the modern age are deftly hidden away, and if it weren’t for the tennis shoes and fanny packs, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine what strolling around on a street two-hundred and fifty years ago might have been like. That the interpreters give talks and that you can watch others work undisturbed in centuries-old traditions furthers this impression. However, the authenticity of Colonial Williamsburg is debated constantly. Is its educational veneer trumped by its more themeparkian aspects, or vice versa? Some critics even go as far as to ask if modern toilets and state of the art museums contrary to the park’s goals. In either case, the bold pronouncements concerning its veracity – its motto is “The future may learn from the past” and its website address is nothing less than http://www.history.org – practically insures extreme scrutiny by historians amateur and professional alike.
At its opening in 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited and pronounced its Duke of Gloucester Street “the most historic avenue in all America.” Duke of Gloucester Street is the central street in a town built by John Rockefeller, Jr. for a project spearheaded by Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin. Inspired by his success in restoring a historical church, the rector Goodwin began a campaign to save a number of historical buildings that had fallen into disrepair. (The city was once the capital of Virginia but fell into obscurity when the capital was moved to Richmond in 1780.) The idea was to create a town in the mold of some of the earliest American settlements. In one of his many proclamations regarding the restoration project, Goodwin called the town “a living shrine that will present a picture, right before our eyes, of the shining days” when the town was “a crucible of freedom.”
There are wheelwrights, blacksmiths, brickmakers, glassblowers, a millinery shop; interpreters abound and an Army regiment drills near an old armory. Though these interpreters – many of which are experts in their fields – offer faultless information, the focus is not to exactly duplicate the workings of an actual colonial town (which works to pacify the most nitpicky historians and annoying literalists – no claims are made that this is 100%, irrefutably how Williamsburg looked) but instead to present itself as a place “whose colonial past provides an opportunity to explore the United States’ defining dramas,” like a giant diorama with figures you can talk to and whose tactile and olfactory immediacy function as teaching aides.
But this too leaves room for debate: though Colonial Williamsburg may be more or less “authentic,” its status as an “attraction” – and one that actively courts visitors – condemns its attempts to teach history as mere entertainment. This causes visitors to approach it with the expectation of being entertained (in the kitschiest, least educational sense) as opposed to learning something: “the use of re-enactors to create an illusion of mimetic realism prevents the audience from achieving a critical distance, which further obscures the assumptions that construct Colonial Williamsburg’s historical interpretation,” explains Alexandra Volpert in her thesis paper on CW. Similarly, because most visitors likely haven’t spent years developing a critical eye for reading history or assessing the role of privilege or understanding everything’s context, they don’t have the foundation necessary to get the most out of a visit; the “critique of historical reenactment is [that]…it does not provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage.”
More pointedly, a tourism website points out that Colonial Williamsburg has recently “opened a major spa facility a short walk from where Thomas Jefferson once argued the patriots’ cause. The spa joins three equally improbable golf courses in the area already operated by Colonial Williamsburg.” The article continues with the note that “Back in 1963, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “dangerous bore” that was corrupting preservation practices across the nation. She later accused Colonial Williamsburg of inauthentic restoration and “fudging of facts” that helped in “paving the way for the new world order of Walt Disney Enterprises.” Yikes; you’d think there was a Colonial rollercoaster and 18th century Happy Meals.
But don’t worry: if the visitor wants to escape the Walt Disneyian pitfalls, nearby is the College of William and Mary, which is the second-oldest university in the United States after Harvard. The college and the original Williamsburg existed symbiotically and attempts are made today to maintain that relationship. Buildings all over the campus have been restored to their Colonial luster (or were rebuilt to resemble it), and its proximity to CWM heightens the atmosphere of antiquity. Even the sorority houses are Colonial. They are built around a brick path – presumably for carriages – and look like houses where the master of the farm and his family would live.
I toured about the campus with my guide for the day, a student who also worked for the college in various capacities. She involuntarily adopted the efficiency of a tour guide as soon as informally walked around, putting as much information into each stop as is possible. For someone not acquainted with the university, I had no point of reference to judge the importance of each fact, and for this reason walking around with someone who could talk at length about almost anything, about a room in a building or about epic historical struggles, was great. A guy on a smoke break overheard her comment about the architecture of the university and how it compares with that of other historic universities nearby.
“You’re wrong!” he stated. “The architecture here is wonderful – elegant, stately, and moving!”
“But even Thomas Jefferson didn’t like it. That’s why he wanted to go to a different college.”
“And that’s why I hate Thomas Jefferson!” he yelled.
She ushered us away as to not get involved in an increasingly abstruse argument. I laughed in appreciation of the man’s vitriol, but she seemed unaffected, as if to say, What else would you argue about on the CWM campus?
On our way back to Market Square, we walked through a building with an intense crypt in the basement and an elderly man playing an ancient organ. I noted that a store sold a lot of William and Mary sports memorabilia. The loud colors (athletic green and yellow) and the William and Mary Tribe flag seemed at odds with the reserve of the college. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect the college to have an athletic program, but it did seem like the cry “Go Tribe!” was a bit churlish and un-PC for an otherwise highbrow school.
“They are working on changing that,” my guide explained. “There was a poll in the school to see what other names people liked. One choice was the William and Mary Bricks, after the famous bricks that are used all over campus. [I did see numerous brick ovens on the campus.] The mascot could have been “Bricky the Brick” and it would have been a brick wearing a cape. Another choice was ‘the Wrens,’ in honor of Christopher Wren, the man that the building is named after. They also came up with ‘the Wren Buildings,’ using the building as a whole as the mascot, as in ‘the College of William and Mary Wren Buildings.’”
This last option would have certainly received my vote. I would like nothing more to see a building with eyes and a mouth and gloved hands adorning sweatshirts and mugs, with someone in a cumbersome Christopher Wren Building costume rousing fans during games.
With the historical merits of W and CW still up for debate, Virginia Beach, Virginia, on the other hand, is a thoroughly demeaning city. It is insulting and depressing, apparently comprised only of vast swathes of pre-fab shopping centers and roads with no sidewalks. When you deign to exit your car, you are choked with exhaust fumes and whiffs of pre-frozen and now frying food, which, in accordance with the aims of a place like this, are indicative only of modernity.
Usually when you go to a town or city on the sea, you can tell where you are, even if no ocean or the hundreds of generic surf-shops are yet visible. A seaside town looks expectant and sparse and the spaces seem slightly more open, as if everyone and everything can agree on the sense of calm that the ocean provides. The trees rustle a certain way and a person’s activities seem unhurried and relaxed, even if they aren’t. Virginia Beach almost tricks you by pretending it possesses this sense of peaceful purpose. When you arrive, you get a sense of the optimistic bustle and promise that settlements on the sea used to provide; because the ocean is a gateway to other worlds, port cities feel a little like other worlds. But as you get deeper into Virginia Beach, you realize that it isn’t like this. You feel cheated by what you actually find and you chide yourself for expecting different.
Virginia Beach is, in short, the city that ad execs and CEOs insist we want, a bland agglomeration of interchangeable businesses whose debatable quality is made up for by their speed and the ability to have it your way. It is an example of the capitalist’s myth of a utopian eusociality, made so because you get to choose what to buy. Following this logic, Virginia Beach, then, is not a bastion of stultifying corporate mediocrity but a paradise of resplendent exotericism.
Elements of the city may serve a purpose (you have to shop somewhere), but in places like these, you can feel the soul of the land being beaten into submission. Whatever regal beauty remains of the land – or, to grant even human cities some credit – the character of cities that reflects something of the character its people and geography, are steadily and without complaint being plowed over by strip malls and big box stores, our own demise orchestrated by parasitical ad agencies and facilitated by greedy developers and the jobbery of city officials.
A perfect analogue to Virginia Beach’s supposed example of perfection is the world’s most captious parking attendant. After a day of navigating, I had to park near the beach to meet some people for dinner. The man in charge of the parking lot exhibited an enervating obsession to his duty, insisting that you pull your car up two inches as to not bother the one other car parked there, after you’ve already killed the engine and are making to leave the lot. His probity is ostensibly for a greater good, in the same way that the plutocrats’ insistence that things done in their best interest are actually serving ours.
The comparison diverges here when you realize that the parking attendant’s fustiness is funny where Virginia Beach’s insistence on uniformity is dangerous, like making a hit song from American Idol the national anthem. I was still a little early for dinner, so I walked through a hotel to the beach in front, which is explicitly designated as their “property”. Virginia Beach has one of the longest stretches of resort beach in the world and every inch of the sand in front of the hotels and businesses is scrubbed free of any unpleasantness: any odiferous drying seaweed and non-picturesque wildlife has been bleached out of existence; the only thing left to do is turn the ocean into Pepsi. The series of hotel and sparkling cleanliness and myriad bars and inoffensive restaurants along the ocean is like the inside cruise ship plonked down on land, without the dubious novelty of being on an actual cruise.
It made sense, then, that the bookstores I visited throughout the day were themselves in strip malls. “We need to have you trade in your Janet Evanovich books. Everyone is buying ours up along with our Vince Flynn and Lee Child books,” says Barritt’s Book’s website. Barritt’s Books is a series of three stores spread out over the city, each with a respectable collection of books. The website also mentions that each store boasts a “massive wall of sci-fi books” (this is very true) but I was unable to find the aforementioned trashy sci-fi saga I was looking for. Unless you are speaking with a hardcore sci-fi fanatic, it’s hard to ask someone to help you. “I don’t know the author or the title, but it does involve an Elvis clone, extreme violence, explicit sex, and some sort of mutant neo-Nazi gang. Do you have it?” I was rightfully stared at like I was crazy.
Despite being in a new place and being able to explore it at my leisure, I was kind of having a bad day. I left at around 5am to accommodate my previous host’s need to catch a plane and had been drinking coffee since then. My approach to coffee is that if one cup of coffee is refreshing and pleasant, then all cups of coffee, in any number, will all be equally as pleasant. This sometimes leads to coffee overkill, innocent as my intentions may have been in enjoying a second or third cup. Driving around Virginia Beach, feeling gross, tired and annoyed by what I saw, I realized that I was…sick of coffee. I had consumed so much yet was still so tired that it only worked to make me nauseous. I hate when this happens. It’s like getting sick of your best friend. I gritted my teeth with a stomach-achey weltshmerz, resigned to my fate, and even vowed to reduce consumption the following day.
Stomach ache or not, the rumored origins of coffee are pretty cute. In ninth century Ethiopia, a goat herder named Kaldi fell asleep while tending his flock. He woke up and searched for them for a while before finally located them in a small clearing in the forest. He noticed with much amusement that the goats were in good spirits, frolicking and jumping and playing happily. He also noticed that they were eating the berries of a plant he hadn’t seen before, and so he walked over and sampled them too. Like his goats, he became giddy and he in turn took some with him back to a local monastery, where the abbot ingeniously prepared a drink from the ground-up fruit. After drinking it and feeling the same effects, the pious abbot realized that the drink could help him stay up all night and pray. The other monks soon learned of this mysterious drink and its spiritually beneficial properties, and the knowledge of coffee soon spread. Unfortunately this story is probably apocryphal, as mention of Kaldi and his discovery of the coffee plant didn’t appear in writing until the seventeenth century.
However, credible evidence shows that the first use of coffee as we know it today was indeed in monasteries. Coffee cultivation and consumption continued to spread across the Arab peninsula; coffee drinking was initially encouraged and gave rise to coffee shops, which quickly turned into social centers. The coffee shop spread and became an immensely popular institution, creating as it did an environment where serious issues could be discussed, chess could be played, and song and dance could be experienced. Coffee shops soon became meeting places for political organization and were banned, but were later allowed when a system to tax coffee and coffee shops was developed. The plant made its way to Europe in 1615 thanks to Venetian traders, and spread to India and Indonesia in the late 1600s through the Dutch.
Coffee, perhaps for the mysterious properties that make it conducive to thought and intellectual work, was banned in various capacities by religious authorities wherever in Europe it was introduced, at one point being referred to as the “bitter invention of Satan.” When the Pope tried coffee in 1615 in order to accurately assess the issue of its holiness or lack thereof, he enjoyed it so much that he gave it his papal approval. Coffee houses soon began to spring up all around Europe and in England were nicknamed ‘penny universities,’ as for the price of a cup of coffee the patron would be privy to much enlightening discussion.
As a valuable, fungible commodity, coffee plants and their cultivation were kept closely-guarded secrets. One story recalls that in “1720 a French naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, while on leave in Paris from his post in Martinique, acquired a coffee tree with the intention of taking it with him on the return voyage. With the plant secured in a glass case on deck to keep it warm and prevent damage from salt water, the journey proved eventful. As recorded in de Clieu’s own journal, the ship was threatened by Tunisian pirates. There was a violent storm, during which the plant had to be tied down. A jealous fellow officer tried to sabotage the plant, resulting in a branch being torn off. When the ship was becalmed and drinking water rationed, De Clieu ensured the plant’s survival by giving it most of his precious water. Finally, the ship arrived in Martinique and the coffee tree was re-planted at Preebear. It grew, and multiplied, and by 1726 the first harvest was ready. It is recorded that, by 1777, there were between 18 and 19 million coffee trees on Martinique, and the model for a new cash crop that could be grown in the New World was in place. It was also the stock from which coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America originated.” The origin of coffee in Brazil is said to be thanks to the wiles of Francisco de Mello Palheta, “who was sent by the emperor to French Guiana for the purpose of obtaining coffee seedlings. But the French were not willing to share and Palheta was unsuccessful. However, he was said to have been so handsomely engaging that the French Governor’s wife was captivated. As a going-away gift, she presented him with a large bouquet of flowers. Buried inside he found enough coffee seeds to begin what is today a billion-dollar industry.”
Of course, coffee cultivation engendered exploitation of indigenous groups, slavery, ecological catastrophe, brutal oppression by dictators, brutal oppression by foreign business interests, etc. etc. but for better or worse such horrors don’t figure in to the consumption of every cup. Within the story of coffee is an unfortunate fact of life, that every possible thing that humans do, use, or develop has probably come at some terrible expense. People have services and entertainment available at the end of each block in Virginia Beach, but at what cost? I could certainly be in worse places than Virginia Beach but it seemed appropriate that my temporary self-pity and irrelevant stomach ache occurred there. True, in retrospect, my written opinion of the city is much too harsh and my misery was certain embellished for the sake of literary flourish, but it was hard to shake the despair that some things simply are because nobody cares or wants to make the effort to pursue alternative, be it the reality behind my daily cups of coffee or the indifference of the average citizen to the corporations’ dreams of identical-looking cities all across the country. I had a somewhat quiet, tired dinner with my hosts for the night, annoyed with myself that I couldn’t make the most of our time together. I woke up still mildly annoyed, with another level of complication piled on top. I was making these complaints while having the opportunity to travel without worry for a week, making needless purchases the whole way and never having any concern about almost anything.
 In all fairness, this was a minor episode. The owner was very friendly to me and even let me use his private bathroom. He suggested that I come back sometime soon as I was leaving, and saying I would like to wasn’t just a pleasantry, I actually really wanted to.
 This coffee shop had what I thought was a genius sign: “Unattended Children will be Given an Espresso and Free Puppy.”
 Which stands for: William Archer Rutherfoord (not a typo) Goodwin
 “…his quiet generosity of spirit and uncompromising ethic of excellence…guided and still dominates [CW’s] development.”
 These ‘defining dramas’ also include fairly unpleasant elements. One of the most consistent complaints is that Colonial Williamsburg whitewashes unfortunate events in US history, namely slavery. In order to provide an authentic atmosphere, the town had a mock slave auction in 1994, though this was deemed tasteless and extreme. Re-enactors still play slaves, albeit without excess misery or the invoking of tourist pathos. Less tragically, one study mentions that Colonial Williamsburg’s steps towards portraying a “dirtier” history is perhaps best symbolized by the presence of horse manure in the streets.
October 19, 2012 2 Comments
Interview conducted on 8/17/12 and 9/3/12
I’ve been at Staples for about six months. I was working full time but I’m down to 20-25 hours now. When I applied, I just wanted to be a cashier. I wanted a dumb position; I didn’t want to be a supervisor; I didn’t want any sort of responsibility at all because I was going back to school. Then they found out I went to CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) and am studying engineering and told me there was an opening in the copy center. They thought I would be better suited there. It’s really hard to find people that have the skillset that they can throw in there and be successful in a short amount of time. Like standing at a counter for long periods of time, knowing how to work equipment (that’s my background in engineering), and my art background. A lot of times customers prints things for presentation purposes, so they’re supposed to look really good. You have to deal with turnaround times and that can be a little more stressful than scanning a barcode. You have to have an eye to spot errors and know how to set things up. I do at least maintain my bottom-tier status, though. (Laughs) I live close, it’s the right number of hours, school is just down the street – so the job’s more convenient than anything else.
In part, I took this job because I was sick of being full time at Target. Target doesn’t seem like it would be that bad, but it really sucks the life out of you. In part it’s because of the people, although I feel like I had fewer assholes to deal with at Target than I did [when I worked] at Michael’s [a hobby store] or Staples. If someone has a problem at a register and you’re a cashier, the interaction usually only lasts about five minutes because then you call a manager. At Michael’s in the frame shop, I would have to stand there, sometimes up to two hours, with the same person. I couldn’t walk away. It’s the same at the copy center. I had to be pleasant and nice – you put on a happy face and do your little dance. I really, really hate customer service jobs but I’ve in customer service for over ten years, so I guess it speaks for my ability to do that.
At Target, everybody was a ‘team member.’ We didn’t have ‘employees’ or ‘coworkers,’ we were ‘team members;’ everything was ‘team’-oriented. I’m surprised they don’t have more of that at Staples. Their focus is customer service. They really drill you about sales, which is really annoying because I’m not a pushy salesperson. I hate that. The way I’ve been able to handle the pressure about selling to customers is that I will inform them [about a sale or upgrade] and that’s it. I’m not going to try to convince them. I’m not going to argue, I’m going to say “We have this” and that’s it, end of conversation. I hate trying to sell something that isn’t necessary. I can’t stand trying to push or force something on somebody.
Unfortunately, even working in the copy center, we’re not supposed to copy anything aside from our schedules. We have to pay for everything else. They have cameras; I don’t know how often they check them but it’s often enough that they’ll page someone over the intercom and tell them to get back to work. There is a little bit of discretion – some coworkers won’t charge me for scanning when I have to – but still…
You just kind of learn where you can break the rules and where you can’t. [When I’m working on my personal projects] at least I can try until it is right. I don’t have to worry about waste because they would work with a project until it was perfect for any other customer. That’s one good thing I guess. If you do that at home, you’re screwed because you’re wasting your own materials. At least there I can lighten the contrast or whatever as much as I want. They assume there will be some amount of fudging on that.
But it’s really, really hard to get fired. They have to want you to be gone and then they’ll find something really small to fire you for. If they need you and you’re experienced and they don’t want to train anyone else, then you have to work really, really hard to get fired. My guess is they’ll just write you up and say “Don’t do it again.”
To the best of my knowledge, there are no hazards to my physical health. Maybe a paper cut. (Laughs) Though we do have a kid there who is on blood-thinners – he recently had surgery and he’s not allowed to cut anything. (Laughs) It’s more work for me when we’re working together but whatever. I did cut myself down to the bone at Michael’s on a piece of glass – it was pretty disgusting and I almost passed out.
In retail, the employees are actually the worst part. They’re gossips. Whenever you work that closely with people, gossip is going to happen but it’s particularly bad in places like a sales floor where you are allowed to just wander around and don’t have someone listening or watching you all the time. People stop working and walk over to the copy center or people call my extension to gossip. That’s something I really hate about the retail jobs I’ve had. At Target, I had to work with up to fifteen people. And a lot of them were eighteen, nineteen, twenty year-old girls, and they were much more concerned with gossip than they were with working. It got really old. I had one employee throw a hanger at another employee and bitch her out in the middle of the floor, which was nice. Another one had a complete and total mental breakdown; she started sobbing and locked herself in a fitting room. There was another girl in a different department that cussed out my friend. It sounded like she made a death threat. Even though they stress teamwork at Target, there was probably the least amount of that out of anywhere I’ve worked. The kids at Target really didn’t give a shit at all.
At the copy center, you only have five people working in a small space. There is a lot of personality going around for that little area. The people here are just as immature. Everybody makes sophomoric comments but they’re a little less emotionally charged. It’s usually gossip about stuff outside of work because that’s more entertaining than talking about work. I don’t divulge much of my personal life because I know people talk. As with any gossip, there’s no way to keep misinterpretation from happening, even if you’re specific or vague. People are really paranoid and false; it’s really, really frustrating and I don’t want to be a part of it. But to be somewhat social and not to seem like you’re a total asshole, you kind of have to play the politics. Sometimes you do get sucked in. It’s really difficult to avoid it. You probably spend more time with the people you work with than your family.
As far as Staples is concerned, I can’t see myself hanging out with anyone there. I tried twice to hang out with people outside of work. I tried twice and I realized it was a mistake. There were a couple of people I thought were decent, but when we went out it was more of the same, it was just “this person this” or “this person that.” It was nothing positive or interesting. Maybe I’m just not calloused and bitter enough yet. (Laughs) When we have the freedom to talk about whatever we want when there aren’t customers around and I still don’t click with coworkers, I don’t see the point of seeing them after work. (Laughs)
Theoretically, if I meet someone who is actually cool and I do hang out with them after work, I don’t see anything wrong with dating coworkers. Technically, if you aren’t the same rank, you aren’t supposed to be dating. But I’m not swayed one way or the other about keeping it professional or not. Whatever happens is fine.
I did date my manager at Target, though. We went six or eight months without anyone even knowing we went on a date. Once they found out, they were worried that he was going to give me preferential treatment. He didn’t treat me any differently. It wasn’t like we were banging in the bathroom or utility closet or anything. I think I probably had less of a problem than he did in terms of worrying about getting in trouble. It would have been much bigger of a problem for him that it would for me. In fact, he was probably harder on me than other people. He raised his voice at me once and told me to calm down and actually brought the store manager back because I was in quite a mood. But I calmed down after that. (Laughs)
There was a friend of mine, “Kate,” who was dating a supervisor who was in a different department, and he and Kate and this other girl that worked with us – another supervisor – all got together; Kate ended up having a threesome with the two other managers. She had two supervisors she broke the rules with. (Laughs) Her boyfriend made some remark about my ass, so Kate asked me if I wanted to join them. (Laughs)
I guess I have learned a little bit working here that has been useful, but not a whole lot. I’ve learned a little bit about printing in general, but I know someone who is a professional printer so if I really have questions, I can just ask him. It kind of sucks because we’re not allowed to design anything, we’re not allowed to do anything like that. We’re not even supposed to edit anything, even if someone puts a comma in the wrong place. I understand why because it can get out of hand and take a lot of time. It’s frustrating if I have ten people in line and someone says they just need to fix this, this, and this, and everyone in line wants to do something like that.
You can get sucked into a hole with that, doing it over and over and over again. So that doesn’t really bother me at all that we’re not allowed to fix anything. It’s just is frustrating to tell someone “Sorry, I can’t fix it.”
The amount of stuff we can do is hard to learn. There is still shit I don’t know how to do. We have to guess how much time a project is going to take. There is no way to figure it out unless you’ve done it. If you are the only person there, something that might take fifteen minutes can take as much as two hours if you get stopped by five people. Turnaround time is hard to judge. If something is late, people get pissed. There’s a lot of procrastination on the customers’ side, and they come in and say ‘I need this yesterday’ and I say ‘I can’t do it’ and they don’t like that answer. Of the people that come in with things they need done immediately, 90% of them get mad when you say you can’t do it right away. We can’t tell them it’s their fault for procrastinating, even if it is.
It’s also frustrating when a customer is completely lost, like they have no idea what is going on. I try to empathize with them, because if you’ve never had to do any printing you don’t specifically know what you need. People expect miracles to happen. If they bring something in that’s marked up or that the formatting is completely wrong, they expect that we’re just going to be able to fix everything. I have to had their flash drive back to them and say “I can’t do this.” I don’t really have a problem with that if I tell them what they have to do and they say they’ll do it, but other people just stand there and stare at you for five minutes like you’re going to come up with another answer.
Sometimes people surprise me with their ideas, and that’s one of the benefits of working here. There was a woman in the other day that was an artist. She had really great, beautiful work but she had it on construction paper, which is a paper full of acid which means the [artwork] is going to be destroyed in ten years. She had me copy it on this iridescent paper and it made it look ten times better. There was one woman that came in that had quotes set up three to a page and had them printed on color cardstock. She turned them into bookmarks for graduation gifts for some kids in a class of hers or a church group or something. It was kind of neat. She went to Target and bought ribbons and was punched holes in them and was putting ribbons all over them. It was neat to see someone doing that. Other than that, it’s all pretty run of them mill, not very exciting. It’s a copy center. There is nothing earth-shattering there.
It’s mainly businesses, dissertations. I do enjoy when people bring in dissertations to be bound or printed because I’ll sit there and read them. I’ve been tempted a couple times to keep files but we’re not allowed. There was a dissertation on mathematics education that I was incredibly interested in. I had As and Bs in all my calculus classes but when I got to upper-division linear algebra, I hit a brick wall. The dissertation was specifically about different ways to teach math, so I was really tempted to keep that one but I restrained myself. Staples takes privacy very seriously. They’re pretty good at grooming for applicants they expect won’t [keep customers’ files]. I think that’s part of why the overall age of the people in the copy center is higher than the people on sales floor. They figure more mature people might not take things…?
It’s nice – sometimes – to be able to interact with people for longer. I had one guy come in who looked at my hair clipped back. He stopped in the middle of what he was doing and looked at my hair and said “I’m sorry… my wife has so much hair, just like yours, and it’s always in the way and I was wondering where you got your hair clip so I can get her one.” I thought it was sweet and really sentimental that he stopped and noticed a small detail like that. It’s interesting the people who pass through there, their comments…sometimes it’s kind of weird. But I don’t get upset at peoples’ comments until they step behind the counter and stand like two inches away from me. [It’s common to look over the employee’s shoulder at the computer when getting an order ready to point out the specifics of what needs to be done.] It’s obvious to me when someone is intentionally trying to stand close to me. Their intention is not to see the computer screen. I had a guy that leaned in a little close and asked if I smelled caramels. (Laughs)
There was a guy in the other day that was a World War II vet. There have been a couple of veterans in there that have photos, documentation of their time, their discharge papers…that’s always something that’s very personal to me. It can be very hard. I have a number of family members who are in the military and I dated a guy for a while who was in the Army, in the infantry. He was deployed twice. I heard some of what he went through but didn’t ask a lot of questions because it was obvious he didn’t want to talk about it.
A lawyer came in with a case where a woman who was a fitness competitor was suing the Red Cross. It was a huge, huge case; he had binders and exhibits. It was some sort of medical malpractice suit against Red Cross. Like a blood transfusion they didn’t check…something went bad. That was hard for me to see because I considered competitive fitness for a while – I did competitive bench-press – so to see someone’s goals and everything tied to that taken away… though I don’t know if it’s worth suing Red Cross over.
There are rules about what we’re allowed to copy and we do have the option not to print something if we are personally offended by it. There was one copy job I would have refused, but that’s only happened to me one time. I had another employee working with me who didn’t have a problem with printing it, so we printed it. But if it was just me, I wouldn’t have done it. I think if it had been different people wanting it done, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. They were these two creepy, seedy looking characters who wanted to make a copy of what could have been the cover of a snuff film. There was a woman with normal flesh color from the neck down. She was blue and grey from the neck up. The image cut off above the eyes. There were two lines that came down kind of like a vest but went under her breasts, with a zipper. There were two sets of men’s hands; one of them was unzipping the vest thing and the other had a wire wrapped around both hands and around her neck. Both of them had gloves on. It was a photograph – I don’t know if it was Photoshopped or if they set it up that way; it wasn’t a genuine, actual act, I hope.
But that’s the worst I’ve seen in there. That one in particular… I was just (long pause, punctuated by the beginnings of sentences)… A while ago, I might have just swept it into the category of pornography and would not have made a distinction between printing that or something else [in terms of it violating the rules against printing generally obscene material]. If someone would have come in with a photograph that was revealing, with little more room for interpretation, something more explicit without that aspect of violence associated with it, I would print it. I do have some problems with anything that represents a man, woman, or child as not fully human, the implication that they just have a use – it’s a matter of utility, not that this person has unique qualities, that there’s something about them… as soon as you remove that element of personhood, people just become a thing. And you don’t have much respect for things. It makes it much easier to kill or act violently when you don’t have to associate your action with a person dying. If you are actually in their physical space, you can be removed from them by cultural differences, race differences, whatever that makes it seem like you’re not killing a person. There is no part of me that would reproduce anything that conveys that message. The more an idea permeates into a culture, the more it’s made acceptable, and the more it’s accepted and the more frequently it’s going to happen.
There is a guy I work with who has worked at Staples for seven years. If they’re not doing it to be a kiss-ass, I have a lot of respect for that [longevity]. If you value your job that way, if it’s something you’ve built up a lot of knowledge about, if it something you’ve taken ownership of, I certainly respect that. The fact that he has his accolades [evidenced by pins on his nametag] and has worked there for a while does not faze me in the least. What bothers me about him is that he has been there so long that he forgets what he used to not know. Everything is common sense to him, so if you don’t know something, you’re unintelligent. I’ve worked a bunch of part-time jobs and there hasn’t been one where I haven’t been treated like a complete idiot, simply because long-time employees think something I have no idea about – if only because I haven’t been there long – is common sense. But I understand that being in that same position in retail for that long…there’s no way to not be apathetic or have an attitude about it.
Right now, this job is just a means to an end. Just a paycheck. If I had a job where more was expected of me and I had to have a higher degree of professionalism I might feel differently about it, but where I am now, I really don’t care. The only reason that I’ve put more effort into this job is simply because I don’t want to look like an idiot to people who walk up to the counter, even though there are some things that I don’t know and I’m going to look like an idiot regardless. There are some employees who know more than I do, so when a customer walks up and asks for something that someone else has done for them that I don’t know how to do, it’s frustrating. I get bitched at, called “retarded,” whatever. I guess that’s been my biggest motivation to do well, that and I’m generally a curious person, so if I have questions I’m going to ask them. But regarding particular goals to climb the ladder, I really couldn’t care less. I’ll work here until I’m done with school.
Eventually, work for me will not be just “What bullshit can I put up with?” There are only 2% women in mechanical engineering, so I’ll probably have a job in that field if I want.
If I get into engineering and I decide I hate it and I want to go paint, I can devote time to being an artist and work at Staples or a coffee shop and earn my money that way…if I’m ever really in a rut, I can say, I have this degree and I need a paycheck. It’s kind of an assurance. The piece of paper (i.e. my eventual college diploma) is my backup. I can always do art. I can do art without a degree but I can’t be an engineer without a degree. Even if I get an engineering job and I want to take a class on intaglio or something like that, I can go and pay for the class on intaglio and I won’t have to take out loans.
If I ever decide I want to have kids, it’s a matter of not wanting to put them in a position where we’d be struggling financially. What do I teach my kids? Do I teach them to do what makes them happy but have them constantly feel like the floor is going to drop out from underneath them, or do I tell them to go to school so they never have to worry about that?
September 5, 2012 Leave a comment
“One has to secrete a jelly in which to slip quotations down people’s throats—and one always secretes too much jelly.” - Virginia Woolf, Letter, July 4th, 1938
I should have taken a different route when traveling near Lynchburg, Virginia, because a sign told me I was driving on the Jerry Falwell Parkway. It struck me that people in the area must really like him to randomly name a road after him, but then I realized that I was near Falwell’s Liberty “University.” I was always under the impression that LU was more like a pseudo-university that more or less conferred only irrelevant doctor of theology degrees to fundamentalist separatists, but it turns out it is a much more “officially” accredited university than I thought (though this isn’t to say that it warrants academic respect). LU does offer doctorate programs in legitimate fields and on paper looks like any other university, but it also uses young-Earth creationism as the foundation of it science program, so you be the judge. (Also, the university at one point banned the College Democrats because the Democratic Party’s ideology is incompatible with that of the university and Evangelical Christianity as a whole.) The school was in tremendous debt in 2007 but Jerry Falwell’s death in 2008 unlocked an insurance policy that unfortunately paid it off.
I was involuntarily shuddering on that stretch of road before I knew why, and I once got the same feeling of nausea and dread when driving on I-88W near Chicago and I-469 near Ft. Wayne, Indiana, as these are two stretches of Ronald Reagan Memorial Highways. I almost missed a flight out of Phoenix years ago when I saw that Terminal 4 of its Sky Harbor International Airport is named for Barry Goldwater (though my revulsion was lessened when I realized I mistook Goldwater for George Wallace, the ardent segregationist).
I resolved that in the future I would try not to travel on roads honoring my political enemies. The hero of my book on tape continued to sleep with women and take the law into his own hands, and I too soldiered on happily. Soon I stopped at a futuristic rest-stop with completely pest-proof stalls. I was so used to seeing the usual slightly run-down tile and laminate affairs that this Rest Stop v2.0 warrants mentioning. The stalls are some sort of high impact plastic with a series of raised bumps that prevent any carving, and they are jet-black against the strokes of any color pen. The sinks too had futuristic contours and the room as a whole was immaculately clean, as if the buildings were capable of cleaning themselves. Some confusing signs indicated that the Men and Women restrooms were temporarily switched, which may have been a more realistic explanation for the unusual cleanliness of the men’s restroom.
It was a beautiful day and I was loath to get back in the car. I wanted to walk around for a little while, or at least feel the breeze and sun on my recently-unclothed legs, even if it was just around the grounds of the rest stop. (This was day two of a surprise bout of shorts-wearing.) I sat in the grass and half-acknowledged another couple that I had seen at an earlier rest-stop; the first rest stop was totally abandoned until they arrived and so we couldn’t help but remember one another, our mutual acknowledgement another unspoken rule of human conduct: had one aggressively pretended not to notice the other, it would have been thought weirdly antisocial.
I took note of a strangely morbid historical marker near where I was sitting:
Montgomery White Sulphur Springs
“Near here stood Montgomery White
Sulphur Springs, popular resort area
of 19th Century America. During the
Civil War the resort was converted
into a military hospital staffed by
Catholic nuns. Several hundred victims
of smallpox, including nurses and
soldiers are buried nearby. The
Southern Historical Society was
reorganized here in August, 1873,
when Jefferson Davis delivered
the principal address.”
Down a slight incline behind the rest stop was a ‘Wildlife Area – No Pedestrians’ that was comprised of a little stream and a dozen or so cows eating and laying in lugubrious repose. A number of semi-trucks and RVs were parked near the Wildlife Area as it bordered the large vehicle parking. The air was redolent with the sharp, burning-rubber scent of overworked breaks and the area echoed with the thunder of nearby trucks. What did the cows make of this? Are they surprised and confused, their cell memories providing them flashbacks to open fields and boundless pastures? Or have they been domesticated so long that cell memory only provides visions of captivity? Do they take it for what it is, annoyed but resigned? They chewed slowly and observed, inscrutable. A poem by Yorifumi Yaguchi I happened to come across later in the day seemed an especially appropriate companion to this encounter:
In the river
a big fish,
still as a stone,
strains its ears,
trying hard to
learn how it’s
holding my breath,
trying hard to
learn how it’s
Later on when I made it into Roanoke, coming into the downtown under the glare of a giant raging ape holding a biplane (I drove near the modern art museum), I didn’t feel so peaceful and contemplative when I was trying to park my car. It wasn’t the city traffic that was the problem but the attendant at the public parking lot. He was like your little cousin who pedantically corrects you when you incorrectly recite a piece of trivia, as he was one of those people who take the term ‘a couple’ to mean exactly, precisely, literally two. I was trying to read the sign and estimate how much time I’d be spending in the city while trying to remember how much cash I had when I distractedly said I would probably be there for ‘a couple of hours.’ Granted, maybe it is just me that takes it to mean an approximation of more than one but less than five, but rarely do people aggressively insist that “You said you would be here for two hours! Two hours is what you said! Two!” OK, Jesus H. Christ man, here is some more money to make it a ‘few’ hours, which I intend to mean more than ‘a couple’ but less than ‘a lot.’
Maybe it was something about the city that made people such sticklers, but I deliberately came to Roanoke for exactly this reason. I read reviews of some area bookstores online and one place in particular, Cantos Booksellers, had negative reviews by the dozens. “The new owner is rude, abrasive, and pushy. My experience there was so awful that it’s been well over a year since I stepped foot in there” reads one of the mildest examples. Through the reviews I learned that the owner is known for snatching books from customers’ hands because she does not want them to look used. She berates people on the phone and is known to upset little kids in person. Naturally I wanted to experience this firsthand but I found out that, surprise, the book store had gone out of business. (Most of the reviews suggest a second used book store as an alternate, but this too has unfortunately closed.)
Undaunted by the closed bookstores, I decided on an aimless trek around the city. It looked like it was lunch break for a lot of city employees as there were a lot of petty bureaucrats strolling around in twos and threes, all in suits, eating sandwiches and sipping drinks. I asked someone where I should eat and was promptly told to try a bacon donut, which, if you can imagine, is a donut with strips of bacon baked into it. I didn’t indulge but I appreciated the no-fucks-given approach that allows that particular food to exist. There was a sign for a restaurant called ‘Omelet Shoppe,’ whose name for some reason struck me as excessively gross, and a piece of paper embrittled by the weather taped to a newspaper dispenser that said only “Flexus Performance.”
I suddenly found myself on a tree-lined street cutting through a park, to which it seemed a number of buildings opened. It was a greenway in the middle of downtown, and the fluid transition from city to park and back made the downtown seem like a more cohesive and balanced environment. I imagined myself working downtown and being able to step out the building and into a park – these sorts of humanistic touches transform it, in my worker’s mind, into a place you wouldn’t mind being (as opposed to a place where you were forced to go to go to work). The city was surprisingly free of much people and traffic. There was enough that it didn’t seem eerily empty but the streets were as sparsely populated as if it were a sweltering summer day. The streets and buildings basked in alternating sunlight and shadow depending on the clouds. A lot of the downtown, both the insides and outsides of buildings, looked approximately forty years out of date. Cities usually look either really modern or romantically old, so when you see a city that looks like it was built in 1952, it stands out. The combined sensation of minimal people and anachronistic architecture wasn’t unpleasant, like I was given free reign to walk around an area abandoned shortly after it was built a few decades earlier.
As I was noticing how much of the city has this antiquated architectural quirk, the physical characteristics of another bookshop on my list proved that I wasn’t just making fanciful observations. The store had the color scheme and shelving and even the fonts on the labels on the shelves specific to academic buildings built fifty or sixty years ago, like a lot of Roanoke’s downtown seems to have been. You know the type – you walk in and are greeted by cool air, cinder block walls and tile floors, the occasional wood paneling, everything in orange, green, brown, or beige, and that strong but pleasant smell particular to academic buildings (which is the cousin of the smell particular to museums). The book store is in a corner of the lobby of a building full of quiet staircases and quiet hallways that lead to businesses of uncertain business. Eclectic Books is small and each simultaneous visitor makes it feel increasingly more packed than it actually is, though it really can comfortably hold only two people. Visitors don’t have to stoop to browse the considerable collection but do have turn almost sideways to move through the aisles without knocking into things on the shelf. Matters aren’t helped by the owner following you around or peering through a shelf at you to keep an eye on how you are handling the books. Like Kingsport’s city-wide prohibition on paying with checks, Roanoke evidently doesn’t like people handling merchandise. While this owner didn’t outright tell me not to touch anything, his propensity to hover and his nervous appraisal of my browsing said enough. The store was in no danger of closing due to crotchety employees but might have been courting negative reviews based on the owner’s apparently profound distrust of his customers. In any case, he has an extremely varied collection for sale to be proud of, though his sign out front bore the puzzling boast that the store contained “No Used Books,” as if used books were a bad thing. Eclectic Books is not only like a collegiate library in appearance but in its dedication to carrying books on almost every subject; the shelves had entire sections dedicated to Ben Franklin, obscure religious rites, and psychological and sociological studies of incest, among many other niche topics.
After visiting Eclectic Books, I crossed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge and stood in the middle of its considerable arc. It spanned a number of train tracks and you can see tracks stretching to both horizons, like a shortcut straight through the city.
A block or two away from the bridge is a gigantic hotel that has its own covered walkway that goes back across the train tracks and back into downtown. This huge glass tunnel was my destination, but I walked through the hotel on my way to it, trying to look as much like a guest as possible to avoid undue attention. Foyer after sitting room after foyer after ballroom gave way to another enormous sitting room with an enormous round couch in the middle. The ceiling, like many in the hotel, boasted an enormous painting, and lots of brass and dark wood classed up the place. I glanced down a hallway off of the couch room and saw some fairly large framed photos of what appeared to be royalty, but closer inspection revealed they were the winners of various Miss Virginia pageants. According to the accompanying plaques, most went on to get a nominal ranking in Miss America contests, so maybe they were a sort of royalty. “Good for them,” I thought. I helped to maintain their small amount of immortality by acknowledging their achievements. I decided to leave before anyone reported a suspicious man with a backpack walking around. Such is the service of the hotel that white-gloved porters in red caps rushed to greet me and held the door open even after I opened it myself and was already down the stairs.
I think I knew that Roanoke, Virginia was related to the lost colony of Roanoke in name only, but the notion of anything even closely resembling a conspiracy or an unanswered/unanswerable occurrence inspired the same interest. The lost colony of Roanoke was a group of settlers that disappeared in the late sixteenth century after a ship left to go back to England for more supplies. (For various reasons, it took the supply ship three years to return.) When the ship returned, the settlement had vanished. The story is especially chilling because the only indication that settlers had ever been there at all was the word ‘CROATOAN’ carved into one tree and ‘CRO’ into another. In the event that the settlers had to leave under duress, a Maltese cross was supposed to be carved somewhere near the site to alert their whilom comrades that something bad had happened. No Maltese cross was found, but no trace of the settlers was ever found either. The mystery has never been solved, and this was the story I had in my head when I saw signs for Roanoke. However, the Roanoke colony wasn’t in Roanoke, Virginia, and in fact it wasn’t even in Virginia at all but in what is now a part of North Carolina. But I have always associated the word ‘Roanoke’ with ‘CROATOAN,’ which implies something sinister happened even when I have no cause to think so. In fact, the Croatan were an indigenous people in the area and likely helped the colonists survive by convincing them to leave their settlement and join their band. Despite this benign and even beneficent possibility, the name Roanoke always conjures up images of deserted settlements and incomprehensible words.
Windblown the city was, at least. The earlier hint of a sunny spring drizzle had now turned into chilly winds and threatening skies. What did I care, though? Driving in the safety of a warm car and observing forlorn parts of a city made me feel like I was in a crime movie where it’s always raining and the characters are always scowling. There is nothing more neo-noir than driving under a bridge or near closed factories on a rainy day. This was the perfect weather for coffee, of course, and I broke a personal oath when ordering by mentioning to the clerk that I wanted some coffee because “I was getting tired.” I never say that I need coffee for caffeine purposes because this demeans the flavor and overall sensory experience, which is much more important to me anyway that using coffee “to wake up.”
“No one can read Too Many Books” notes Too Many Books’ complimentary bookmarks. Fairly self-evident but a mantra worth repeating nonetheless. The store is in one of those sections of a bigger city that is a neighborhood (with its own historic name) cozily ensconced in the larger wrapping of the city as a whole, and this sensation was furthered by the fact I was able to park on the street right in front of where I intended to visit. A few other independent businesses are located on the street, which provides a counterpoint to the residential streets crossing it perpendicularly. There was the aforesaid coffee shop and a local mechanic, and further up the road was a high school. School was just letting out and teenagers nearby were being teenagers as they went home, with some walking and talking about teenage concerns and some nogoodniks sitting on a stoop across the street and leering at me. I was overcome with paranoia as I became convinced they were going to throw something at me, and I found myself literally muttering ‘Goddamn kids’ for no justifiable reason.
I escaped their haughty stares and they were relieved of my unfair appraisals when I walked into the book store. However, the gaze affected by the proprietrix continued in the same vein as the teenagers,’ looking at me as she did through small glasses balanced halfway down her nose like I had walked into the wrong store. Initially, she was slightly intimidating because she looked like a college professor prone to giving harsh grades; I could imagine her teaching a philosophy class or some obscure English topic, standing in front of the class in jeans and a sport coat and taking for granted that we know all about Deconstruction or Derrida’s theory of iterability and whipping you with some mordant reply when you don’t. Granted, my shorts were gross and I was rumpled from having been riding and walking all day, but still. In my self-conscious state, I was prepared to engage her about the books I picked out in order to demonstrate my legitimacy as a reader; for some reason I felt compelled to prove I wasn’t just some regular slob. But her phone rang and her flinty expression quickly lightened as she started guffawing and gossiping with a friend on the other end. Even academics have to laugh, I guess.
I still figured I should actually talk about the books I was buying. I handed her David Lodge’s Changing Places and she mentioned that she had first editions of a similar author whose name I don’t remember, if I was interested. I didn’t understand what she was saying and responded to the words ‘first editions’ by saying I wasn’t in the market for any collector’s items. I didn’t realize until she said the author’s name a second time that she wasn’t just offering first editions but those of an author who any fan of David Lodge should probably know. To recover I handed her two Patrick McGinley novels, as the relative obscurity of the author assuaged doubts I had about my own coolness.
She wasn’t being unpleasant – the nerves were all mine – and through talking she described the dismal state of used book stores in the year 2012, which may have accounted for what I interpreted as impatience. She brought me in conspiratorially as she discussed amazon.com and its recent cornering of the book market. Not only is the site a cheap place to get physical copies of books, its Kindle© and associated eBooks have booksellers worrying that the physical format is quickly growing obsolete. She told me that many of her friends’ used book stores in the area had closed (Ram’s Head and Cantos Booksellers [the one with the crabby lady]), and her enormous stock of fiction upstairs was essentially just taking up space. Art books and photography books are still selling well, she noted, but sales of coffee table books are hardly sufficient to keep a store open. From 2010 to 2011, sales of eBooks increased by 169.4%, while all categories combined of print books declined by 24.8%. And these figures represent sales at big box stores and online purchases – used book stores, of the classic mom-and-pop variety, in which browsing makes you feel like you are privy to a secret, are faring even worse.
People aren’t just flocking to Amazon for its discounted prices; Amazon is actively declaring war on all brick-and-mortar establishments. Amazon at one point had a promotion where you would receive a five percent discount if you scanned an item in a store using the company’s Price Check app and bought it on Amazon when you got home. You have to wonder what kind of vicious turncoats would do such an underhanded thing (for a paltry five percent discount, no less) but such is man’s eagerness to be part of the next big thing.
Our conversation led her to politely inquire what my story was. I jumped at the chance to explain, trying not to seem overly eager to talk but nonetheless extolling the genius of my idea. I told her why I was in Roanoke. As always, any time I explained what I was doing, it was always met with wild indifference. Maybe it truly is an unremarkable undertaking and I fail to see it, or maybe I am not explaining it in a way that gets people psyched. It’s not that I expected to receive any accolades or a tiny amount of fame, I just expected fellow bibliophiles to respond with reciprocal excitement and encouragement. The celebration of each other’s appreciation for our shared interest! The writing process in motion! Events and places being recorded for posterity! A quest on which nobody yet has embarked! Instead I got a series of polite appreciative noises and/or a non-committal ‘Good luck!’
I think, though, the reason I expected at least cursory curiosity was because I would have exhibited as much if I met someone writing a travel book, especially if I could learn the mechanics behind how they are actually composed. Are they written on the fly or are nights spent bent over a hotel desk scratching away in one of many notebooks? Is most of the research done when the author returns home? Is most of the writing done when the author returns home? Are some events fabricated and timelines altered to tell the best story? (I heard this was a common occurrence.) What supplies do authors take with them? Do they try to remain anonymous or do they talk freely about what they are doing?
In the small amount of time I had been traveling, the strategy I had been following was to take notes on anything that caught my attention. Aside from these notes, I was surprised about how little I was actually reading and writing on the trip, as I expected to be on a constant high of inspiration. I was surprised that the actual bustle of travel and walking around and finally sitting down to catch your breath at the end of the day didn’t leave time for much reading and writing.
However, once in a while inspiration and free time did coincide and I was able to scratch out a few paragraphs. Example: after leaving Too Many Books, I followed some directions to my host’s house. He lived in a development that is still being built, so it is relatively unpopulated and in places unfinished. So moved was I by my temporary isolation while waiting for my host that I wrote a few paragraphs in my notebooks concerning the eerie wind blowing through his neighborhood, which were later transcribed without adjustment, a feat testifying to the power of my sudden focus and fulfillment of the much-desired compulsion to write:
“…My host’s house is in a development that is still in the process of being developed. I pulled up to a house with no lights on and no car in the driveway; he must not have come home from work yet. The development is half-development and half-wild, and nobody else was around. The wind was rustling in the trees and I swear it sounded like music or voices speaking in low tones coming over the hill. The rustling amidst an otherwise silent neighborhood and under an increasingly overcast sky made it seem like a tragedy had occurred somewhere within its grounds, at which the universe grew despondent and cast a shroud of mourning over the area. Less fantastically but theoretically no less tragically, it would not have surprised me if the undead stumbled their way from behind the scrub on the hill in front of me. My trip was becoming noteworthy for its unsettling hills, each of which produced a unique menace. Kingsport’s Cement Hill is home to the horrific and mutated and the anonymous hills of this development are host to plagues of the undead…”
The cabin in whose driveway I parked was desolate and skeletal, again like the site of some unspeakable crime, and I wondered if I was at the right house. I wasn’t – I got a call from my host and I was supposed to be across the street where he was waving to me. The fright dissipated when I learned that nothing tragic had occurred in the cabin where I initially parked aside from the tenants skipping town, unless you count the tragic infestation of fleas they left behind…”
“Don’t pay him any mind,” the waitress said. “I went to high school with that kid. He thinks he’s really cool but he always tries to come in to mooch food off of us anyway.”
My host and I were in a hookah bar, eating some food and puffing on an apparently endless wad of tobacco. The table next to us held some guys that looked like they had recently graduated from high school and looked a little nervous as they began to come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the hierarchy of their high school.
The mooch in question came back and stunned the waitress by giving her a small wad of bills.
“He just asked his friends for this. It’s for a tip but he didn’t pay for his meal anyway.”
The waitress rolled her eyes as he slunk out of the bar. She turned back to us after watching him go.
“He kind of has a crush on me. He’s annoying but not too much of a pain. This place does bring in some creeps, though. This guy came in, some friend of the owners, and kept asking me out. He was trying to get me to come back to Iran with him. He said I would be a princess. I finally told him to leave me alone. He still comes in sometimes. I have people tell him I’m not here, and I haven’t seen him in two days. Not that I don’t know how to handle myself, though. Do I look like I’m in the Air Force?”
“Not really…?” I offered.
“I am! When I’m there, I’m all business. I may be bubbly and nice when I’m not training, but when I go to the base to train I’m a totally different person. But I’m just in the Reserves now. I was about a year and a half into my duty when I got in a terrible car accident. Someone ran into me and I got hit so hard that my knee went forward into the dashboard and it took the fire department like a half an hour to get me out. I’m fine now. I’m doing some therapy but I can’t be on full duty until I get better. See these scars I got?”
“Wow,” my host and I both said.
“Yeah, I was pretty mad. I wanted to be in the Air Force since I was little. I signed up when I was seventeen. I’ve had a fake ID since I was fifteen. How old do you think I am now? Nope! I’m only twenty! I still go to bars, though. I just flash them my Air Force ID and they are like ‘C’mon in!’”
This whole conversation took place in a matter of minutes. After every point the waitress made, she stopped and shook her head like she couldn’t believe her own story. She was reaching a new level of incredulity as she talked about her friend who got a speeding ticket coming from court where he was challenging another speeding ticket, but another group of youngsters came in and demanded her attention. This group looked a little more fresh-faced and buoyant than the first group. I overheard their conversation and I figured out why; they were a group of high-school friends who were back in town during a break. They had the look of people away at their first year of college, still boyish and goofy but with an elusive sense of worldliness that they are trying but not quite succeeding in cultivating.
My friend and I looked at each other and tried to digest the waitress’s torrent of stories. Her own looks of incredulity made us think she was putting us on, like she enjoyed telling a story, but why would she? We couldn’t tell what was made up, if anything, so we let her have her fun.
 Conservative politics aside, Goldwater is kind of interesting due to his vocal interest in UFOs, or at least his willingness to talk about them in the mainstream political sphere. The issue was pursued over the course of his career with particular focus on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio and a secret “blue room” on its premises, which was rumored to contain the remains of the UFO that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. He didn’t have much luck, writing in one letter that he his investigation had stalled “because, frankly, I was told in such an emphatic way that it was none of my business that I’ve never tried to made it my business since.” More specifically, he said that “I was under the impression that a US Senator with a past as a Major General in the US Army Air Corp and a member of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for many years would carry some weight in my allowances to enter such an area of military secrecy. I was rudely awakened to reality very swiftly when I was denied passage. It had me angry enough to discuss it with a personal friend of mine in the military and inquired why my position in the US Senate had no such allowance? My friend, General Curtis LeMay, Chairman of the Military Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon VERY angrily told me that I had no need to know. He gave me a lot of HELL about my activities at Wright-Patterson. He threatened to end our friendship for life! My God, Mac, that surprised the hell out of me.” LeMay added, “you stay clear of our mutual friend, “Butch”, too, (General William “Butch” Blanchard) as his having been at Roswell (later Walker) Army Air base and the 509th will not gain you any favor for knowledge of that Roswell crash claim.” Goldwater said, “Mac, Butch Blanchard was also a very valued friend of mine since WWII. He was the person who announced that a disc had crashed near Roswell in 1947. This cussing out did awaken me to one fact, that the UFO situation is the highest level of national secrecy. Much higher than the H-Bomb was and more than anything else that is known within the Pentagon.”
 Here are a number of responses, the subject line of one being “Mrs. Haversham on Acid:”
 i.e. you like donuts, you like bacon, so why not get it over with and combine the two? You can always excuse yourself by arguing that you just had to try it because it was a novelty, but then again, why make excuses? Yes, the food is outrageous by conventional and ethical standards, but maybe less so than the prohibition on combining the food into one (?).
 I now work as a maintenance man in a hotel and two of my shifts during the week are 3rd shifts, from 11pm – 7am. During this time, I am alone in the hotel aside from the person at the front desk (which is on the other side of the complex). One night as one of the managers[A] is leaving we get to talking about the ghost that is said to haunt the hotel. According to those who have seen it, isn’t malicious but seems to like to mess with people; the manager told me about some creepy encounters and then promptly left, leaving me alone to wonder if the stories have any merit. I knew there was probably a ghost on the premises (or at least stories of one) and this confirmed my suspicions. With this in my head, my mind went out of its way to scare itself – every time I walked by a humming machine or air conditioner or anything that made any kind of noise, it sounded completely like voices. Everywhere I walked in the hotel was filled with whispers or what seemed to be the chatter of a radio. I didn’t hear anything personally directed towards me but I can still testify to the power of pareidolia.
- subnote [A]: The guy who told me this also told me that every cruise ship has a morgue. He used to work as the security coordinator for a cruise line and said that cruise ships have morgues not just to accommodate the random death that may occur but because someone dies on almost every cruise. Though this number may have been slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, the point is that there is a surprisingly high number of deaths on cruise ships. Cruise ship deaths are either the elderly dying from natural causes or suicides (the cruise is a good last hurrah); when everyone else had checked out of their room but there was still one room showing that the door was locked, everyone on the ship knew what to expect. Most people who commit suicide on a cruise ship gave no indication that this was what they had planned and some people are courteous enough (if such a thing is appropriate to say) to lay down plastic sheeting before hanging themselves. This guy confirmed the truism that the smell of death is hard to shake, as he mentioned that regardless of the amount of rubber gloves and showers after cleaning up after a dead body, the smell (or at least the sensation of it) isn’t going anywhere for a couple of days. This is also what I was thinking about (alone and in the middle of the night in the bowels of a hotel) after he told me about the ghost, as the conversation touched on both topics.
August 29, 2012 Leave a comment
Please check it out. It condenses the stuff in the previous article into a readable format as well as offering some other peoples’ insights. More non-OJ things to come soon.
August 12, 2012 Leave a comment
(Note: The weird piece below is for my friend Martin Hugo‘s art exhibit “Not Guilty?”. He is showing a collection of twenty different shirts that were once for sale outside of the courtroom where OJ Simpson was on trial for murder in 1994 and 1995. This is the introduction(?) to a book he will have for sale that features photos of the shirts and an interview with Hugo and fellow designer Shawn K. about their impressions of the shirts and the shirts’ deserved though unrecognized place in fashion. Below is the postcard for the show and a few pics of some of the shirts (which obviously don’t do them any justice). The show is Friday, August 31st at Skylab, 57 East Gay Street, 5th Floor, Columbus, OH.)
The article that follows uses some pretty bombastic language and freely makes some fairly lofty claims. What may seem at first like facetious praise (or worse, ad copy) is in actuality written with the utmost sincerity and a total lack of pretense, for so rarely does something come along that truly deserves to be called ‘genius’ that anything less than the most profound magniloquence won’t do it justice.
The OJ Simpson shirts Martin Hugo has collected are truly examples of unbalanced genius. They are products without branding, capitalism without commercialism, true examples of art by way of what appears to be the mind of a deranged but entrepreneurial eight year-old. Today they go unrecognized by tastemakers and are too impolitic to be worn as any other vintage shirt would, even by the most impressively ironic dresser. Nose rings and tattoos are passé, shock rock is a lame relic, and shirts with witty, virility-trumpeting double entendres only succeed in classifying the wearer as a moron. Indeed, the OJ shirts are beyond such infantile concerns. Their genius lies in their appeal as outsider art and their simultaneous social commentary; all of the complexities of the Simpson trial are codified into stunningly simple, stunningly brilliant designs. Not many things are this complex while still remaining overtly grotesque (in the best way possible). The shirts bring joy to those who celebrate their baroque strangeness and play an important, almost metaphysical role in keeping society as we’ve established it sane.
As is evident by the abundance of designs, regardless of the fact that two people were brutally stabbed to death, the crime is not universally reviled. The trial was an extremely polarizing affair; like guilt or innocence, the Simpson trial was a black and white issue. The Rodney King beating and the LA riots were contemporaneous manifestations of racial tension, the signs of a turbulent time ushered in by the terrifying thrum and thump of the increasingly popular gangster rap. For OJ supporters, his guilt or innocence was almost irrelevant. On trial was another black man, presumed guilty by overtly racist cops, pilloried by “normal” society as a way to get back at the black community for the terror they inspired in the preceding years. And in the same way that someone supporting OJ was also rooting for the victim(s) of a system already biased against him, fervently professing his guilt was a way for people to root for the other side without directly coming out and saying so.
For this reason, the shirts are immediately shocking because of the way they turn the person wearing them into an intimidating political presence. The wearer is associating him/herself with all that the shirts represent – their statements transcend the cheap, single-minded thrill of the “offensive” slogan to make a statement that directly attacks the values of the status quo. You can never tell if someone is wearing one simply because it’s exuberantly outrageous or to start a serious debate.
As everyone knows, there was enough doubt about his guilt to make the successful case for his innocence. From the beginning, he was innocent until proven guilty, which, in the most official capacity possible, he ultimately wasn’t. Two people were murdered, a tragedy that needs to be treated with the utmost respect, but so do the workings of our hallowed legal system. In a roundabout way, whether intended or not, the shirts celebrate the beauty of the justice system: OJ was found not guilty and therefore he legally has no blood on his hands. The shirts are a raucous and warranted ‘fuck you, assholes!!!!’ to a society whose prejudices usually influence how it operates.
(Or, if some doubt about his innocence still remained, then the not guilty verdict was at least a sort of vindication of a less ethical kind, an example of a minority finally getting to buy his way through the legal system in the same way that rich, white businessmen have for years.)
It is not easy to write a bombastic, inspiring phrase that nonetheless carries the philosophical and socio-political weight of the issue it represents, as you run the risk cheapening the ideology for the sake of brevity. You need a phrase that turns oniony layers of social commentary into something you can yell at opponents without sounding like you are just repeating catchphrases. ‘Genius’ can be applied to those that do it correctly, and needless to say, these shirts do it correctly.
But the shirts are complex for more than just their clever sloganeering. In a certain light, they aren’t even that outrageous. The politics they represent are certainly divisive but are at the same time fairly mainstream. Not to trivialize poverty, crooked cops, racism, and murder, but you aren’t necessarily going to be considered an extremist for debating these issues. They are a common theme in politics. OJ Simpson’s status as a full-fledged criminal is dubious, anyway: because he was found not guilty, he doesn’t carry the same infamy as a mass murderer or pedophile. For example, it would be highly, probably incontrovertibly “inappropriate” to wear FREE TIMOTHY MCVEIGH or JARED LOUGHNER FOR PRESIDENT shirts because the motivations for their respective crimes are hardly sympathetic; the secessionist politics of the former are far too abstruse and weird to be given any mind, and the senseless violence of the latter is just that, not to mention that his psychotic visage brings to mind Jason Voorhees without a mask. Wearing a shirt like this would be extreme but would inspire universal condemnation without the benefit of having made a coherent statement, and it would be hard to make a case for the corrupt politics behind their respective prosecutions.
Conversely, the wearer of the OJ shirts could yet be considered extreme because the pledge to support a controversial cause takes conscious effort to maintain, a position much more serious than offering an uninformed opinion on something in the news. Everyone is expected to weigh in on moral controversies. Reacting to the crime of the week is an essentially harmless pastime, as our opinions on these affairs are only matters of social obligation. We are supposed to pick one side or the other. Our opinions don’t really matter to the people we discuss them with, as they are merely something to talk about. What do Casey Anthony or Mary Kay Letourneau ultimately mean? Nothing, because they had no bearing on society other than to inspire its moralistic indignation for a few weeks. But wearing one of these shirts says that the wearer actively believes that OJ Simpson is innocent, is proud of it, and identifies with the righteous anger associated with it. Wearing a shirt moves the issue from the realm of office cooler small talk and into the face of society at large.
Granted, wearing a shirt may make the wearer feel like he or she is doing a greater duty than he or she actually is, but there is an admirable sincerity on display. The wearer is not driven by notions of being trendy but by the street corner zeitgeist, by a sense of affinity with those directly affected by the outcome of the trial. Thus the shirts offer a more legitimate appraisal of the situation than any example of reportorial gravitas ever could. Why should you trust news anchors, people who are in essence hired to present themselves as trustworthy? Punditry is inauthentic precisely because it presents itself as authentic – the acting is done consciously. We believe them because they know we believe we are supposed to believe them, and both sides act accordingly. These shirts are a loud blast of truth disrupting such broadcasts. No distillation and totally unapologetic. These shirts are authentically, unpretentiously, and directly communicating what so many feel without pandering to commercial sponsors.
From a purely design standpoint, the shirts almost satirize their own brutality. The shirts are arresting in their amateurishness but much more powerful because of it. They are made with an uncalculated approach to design, avoiding the rules (and thus the sterility) of mainstream design because the creator is aloof to the fact that these rules exist. The same aesthetic that makes a cut and paste kidnapper’s ransom note eerily appealing is shared by these shirts. The maker just wants to express something, and he or she does it in a way that he or she thinks looks cool. And it totally does. For whatever reason, these shirts possess an intrinsic brilliance that some things simply don’t. The shirts are a rare example of the kind of utterly groundbreaking success that comes from an inexperienced person saying, “I can do that!”, who then does it in his or her own way and succeeds for reasons that can’t be taught, planned, or even envisioned.
That’s why these shirts are so weird. They are direct representations of what is going on in someone’s brain – unadulterated and replete with charming imperfections borne from urgency. (The urgency coming being the need to get them designed, printed, and sold as quickly as possible at stalls outside of the courthouse.)
The design world doesn’t seem especially impressed by these artifacts, despite their evident genius. There isn’t a huge market for these shirts; Martin paid at most forty dollars for a shirt, and this had more to do with their vintage status than their status as oddball works of art. Despite the lack of official recognition of the shirts’ achievements, the fact that they have an underground following (which may, in fact, only be Martin) heightens their grubby mystique, like illicit goods you have to know someone who knows someone to access, or, in an even more unsettling sense, like the collection of someone who obsessively collects something relatively mundane yet the very act of collecting it (and the numbers in their collection) makes it seem like a perverse hobby. Seeing all of these shirts in one place is an amazing, disconcerting experience.
Taking all of the above into account, the shirts still function as more than just wacky old clothes or vehicles for political expression. They are so perfectly strange that they actually improve our lives. The casual existence of small yet utterly deranged things is a kind of necessary iconoclasm; it’s not large scale miracles that we need but weird little blips here and there on our radar to remind us things aren’t as predictable as we imagine. We don’t expect to see Bigfoot, but we couldn’t handle it if we did. These shirts fill the void between a glimpse of the incomprehensible and something equivalent to the strangeness of déjà vu. Seeing one of these shirts is weird because you don’t know if you saw what you think you saw. They get your brain working and you find yourself thinking deeply about things that don’t have anything to do with the shirts, to use the example at hand, all because you experienced something a little off. These mildly incongruous things upset the complacency and groupthink that society instills in us by reminding us that there is more to life than the examples of it we see in commercials. Life isn’t as squeaky clean as corporations, the church, and the Man wants, and neither is the human experience. Try as it might, capital-S Society can never claim dominion over peoples’ surprising, interesting, and hilarious minds. These reminders don’t have to be strange t-shirts, but in this case they are. These anomalous things keep things from getting too ordinary, even if we barely notice them.
OJ is not around to appreciate the by proxy support offered by Martin’s show. He is in prison for thirty years for the armed re-robbery of what he claimed was sports memorabilia stolen from him, an insane thing for a man so closely scrutinized by society to do. It was a dumb, unsympathetic crime, and it seems that most people feel the same way. His recent incarceration was only a minor scandal, eliciting not protest from the public but rolled eyes and annoyed sighs. There is nothing especially political or controversial about his new charges, just the logical result of some rich prick blowing his third chance at life. Indeed: a search for current OJ-related shirts yields designs where he is only the butt of jokes. (“I Told You OJ Did It – Again;” What Happens in Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas” (where the recent robbery occurred).) The impact of the original trial and its verdict may have lessened over time, but that moment in time when OJ stood for much more than even he could imagine is carried on through these shirts, as are the raucous spirits of DIY designers, trials by media, and artless art. Thank you Martin Hugo for maintaining this collection and preserving for us an outrageous chapter of human history.
 This isn’t taking into account the documented evidence that he abused Nicole Brown for years. Horrible photos abound showing the wounds he inflicted, and at one point she called the police afraid that he was going to kill her. Nobody seems to take this into consideration when weighing in on the outcome of his trial, and it unfortunately doesn’t seem to matter. When discussing this here, his history of domestic violence isn’t being overlooked intentionally but it isn’t being raised because it doesn’t factor, for better or for worse, in affecting the opinions of those that support him and how they are expressed.