Train I Ride

The Last Pale Light in the West.

The Last Pale Light in the West.

I looked out from the window.  Watched the passing shacks, sheds, shanties, and week-end torture cabins that dot our great Northwest.  Haunted houses.  Suicide barns.  Junked cars.  Algae-filled kiddie pools.  Crumbling brick buildings.  Rotting timber.  Rusting machinery.  Rusting everything.  Everything rusting and getting overgrown.  Moss.  Mold,  Weeds.  Plants.  You can see the earth trying to digest all this man-made ugliness.  Trying to return all this shit back into molecules it can use.

Lori and I were on our way to Seattle.  We love the Pacific Northwest.  Gloom is good for our complexions.  We flew into Portland, hung out for a few days, then took the train up to see her brother in Wallingford.  I like train travel.  Always preferred it.  Very relaxing.  I like staring at the landscape.  I like it when it’s beautiful.  But I also get a kick out of seeing ugly places.  Always have.  Ever since I was a little kid.  My favorite family vacations were the ones to Tijuana.  After that Las Vegas, which is a different kind of ugly.

Anyway, the best way to enjoy any kind of bleak landscape is from a train speeding away from it.  Barstow.  Gallup.  National City.  29 Palms.  Folsom Prison.  There it is.  And there it goes.  Perfect.  Now make your way to the bar car.  And really make it go away.

Take Amtrak and see America.

Take Amtrak and see America.

Speaking of bar cars.  While we were sitting at the station in Portland, these five business guys clad in Casual Friday climb into our car.  They’re all together.  Going to somewhere to do something.  Where or what I couldn’t give a rat’s ass.  Guys like this are so un-intersting ta me they usually turn invisible after my first glance.

They overhead their little rolly suitcases, sit down, plug in their lap tops, and evaporate into thin air.  Poof.  Gone.

Actually, only three of them.  They were on their way to the bar car before the train was even moving.  The first man up was a porcine chap with a burr haircut and a red face.  Of course him.  Retaining a little water he was.  You don’t just get bloated eyelids…you earn them.  He was the first to hop up.  He also made it easier for the other two to follow.  The Ice Breaker.  Taking point.  God bless you, soldier.

“Hey get me one,” the guy sitting right behind me calls out.  In a pointed way.  Like he knows the score.

Buzz-haired fat guy stops.  He gets the dig.  Decides to take it head on.  Turns to the guy and asks him what he wants.

No answer.

He turns back and opens the sliding door.  The three file out into the next car.  Well played.

“Do you have a lot of work to do?” the guy behind me asks the guy sitting next to him.  I figure it’s to feel him out.  Like maybe unwinding with a cold one in the lounge wouldn’t be the worst idea a man had ever had.

“I’ve always have a lot of work,” the other dude says.  He stays seated.  Uh-oh.  He’s that guy.

Shit, I’m thinking.  He’s blocked in.  Can’t climb over this one to do a little early afternoon drinking.  That’s giving away a lot of leverage in the office power struggle.  Might pull that ace out of his sleeve someday.  Especially now that there’s been talk of downsizing.

Fuck it, dude.  Climb over the corpse.  Leave him to his lap top, while you suck suds and watch hobo jungles roll by.  You hate this job anyway.  Just get drunk in the bar car and hop off at the next stop.  Where ever it is.  Wander around.  Looking for adventure.  And love.

He could max out his cards.  Hock the company computer.  Shack up with some cocktail waitress that only has her kid two days a week.  Get into a fist fight with her ex in the parking lot of a KFC.  Spend the night in jail with him.  Listen to how that woman ruined his life.  Feel guilty he ever made it with her.  Get to experience the awkward handshake when she bails you out and not him.

But it was not to be.  He remained seated.  Starts clacking away at his keyboard.

Not one of my people.  Not like the Ice Breaker.  I bet he’d hop off.  Given the right barometric pressure.  He’d make that run for freedom.

I put on the Bose headphonic system and cued up Ben Nichols on the I-podular.  It helps to listen to good music while appreciating the passing scenery.  It really does.  I take better pictures too.  Sets my imagination free.

Beach front property.

Beach front property.

I watched a dilapidated Victorian house pass by.  A child molester’s ghost lives in the attic.  There was an abandoned mill that used to grind human lives into meaningless gristle.  A trailer where the wife beats the husband.  A tree fort with moldy Playboys.  A once magical place.  Where hope was born.

A decrepit men’s hotel.  Where it died.  In a hot plate fire.

A tin shack.  Bad things happened there.  More then once.

Sad gas station.  Spray-painted boulder.  A pile of tires.  A toxic pond.  A man with a big head standing by the road.  Holding a small stick.

A rusting swing set.   Last swung in 1991.  By a guy who did a lot of meth in Tacoma.  Robbed pizza guys before he got sent up to Walla Walla.  Now doing a fifteen-year bit.  Still remembers the swing.  It was his happiest time.  He knew it would be.  Even back then.  And he was right.  Now he dreams of dying.

I really love travel.

A choice of bridges to jump from.

A choice of bridges to jump from.

We hit a patch of beautiful scenery.  I watched but couldn’t add anything to it.  It spoke for itself.  After a while I took off the headphones.

Lori was under the influence of Sudoku.  Forget trying to talk to her.  I decided to listen to the two guys behind me.  The conscientious employees.

I had to piece things together, but I got that they were all from some company.  One that sells supermarket check-out systems.  Pretty exciting.  Every kid’s dream.  Anyway, their main competitor is NCR, who according to the guy behind me, has been aggressively underbidding them.  They’ve also been offering a very generous service agreement.  One their company can’t match.  NCR is also better at innovation than the company these guys work for.

Why those dirty fucks.  Sounds like you’re on a sinking ship.  Better hit the bar car.

Thank God they still have the Safeway supermarkets contract.  Problem is Safeway doesn’t  keep up a lot of their stores.  They spend a lot on their check-out systems, but don’t spend enough on remodeling.  Some of the fixtures are over thirty years old.  It drives him crazy.

“My wife’s parents tell me they love to shop at Safeway…because there’s nobody there.  Oh God, I think, don’t tell me that!”

The other guy just grunts.  He’s the one who always has work.  Probably doesn’t appreciate all this defeatist talk.  Especially when there’s so much work to do.

The whole thing was depressing beyond anything I could cook up watching rural-industrial blight.

Pretty sweet deal alright.  I had hit the bummer bonus.

These were some unhappy warriors.  Lot’s of sacrifice and no glory.  Or whatever glory there is in paying the daughter’s orthodontist bill on time.  Doing the right thing, as best they can, and still pretty miserable.  Charging the bill.  Charging the hill.  Even when they know it’s going to murder them.  Pretty heroic, actually.  Heroes.  Everyday ones.  Like me.

Because it was pretty heroic of me not to get up and head to the bar car.  And try to drink their misery away.  For them.

The most brutal part was when they all had to get off the train at Tukwila, just before we hit Seattle.  The town was a quarter mile away from the platform.  It didn’t look like much of a town either.  I nudged Lori.  We watched them pull their little suitcases along a path so overgrown with summer weeds, it looked like they where making their way through a rice paddy in the Ia Drang Valley.  The Ice Breaker pulling up the rear.  His suitcase wobbling wildly.

Our train started to pull away.

“Just let them make it to the treeline, God.  Before the Cong get them.”

“What?”

Tukwila, the end of the rainbow.

Tukwila, the end of the rainbow.

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Unplugged Thug

I was downloading Kindle for PC when the computer shit the bed.  Two days earlier, I had downloaded updates from Sprint that ruined my phone.  Now this.  I was already a little freaked about getting a virus from going bareback for a week or two after the security expired.  Instead of re-subscribing right away, I thought, fuck it, let’s live on the edge again, if only in this greatly watered-down way.  How about some of that reckless youthful disregard for common sense that created your legend, huh?  Just for old time’s sake.

Hell, I wasn’t going to be downloading midget lesbian porn from Romania.  I was going to be a good cyber-citizen.  I’d stick to WordPress, Facebook, and whatever links on those.  Besides, I didn’t need to be paying some place to protect me from something I’m not even sure exists.  Computer virus.  Until I’ve actually seen one and gone camel toe-to-toe with one, it’s hard to believe it’s real.  Sure, I have heard plenty of anecdotal accounts of it, but same with Big Foot and Chupacabra.

Frankly, I believed in Big Foot and Chupacabra more.  Mostly because I wanted to.

I remember early on in my sobriety I was still living at my mom’s, and was getting re-aquainted with the computer in my room.  I had just joined MySpace and was poking around.  I wound up on some punk rock girl’s page and clicked on her pictures.  Scenes of human gore started flashing on the screen, one after another, with bizarre sound-effects and crazy screaming sounds.  One image in particular stands out.  It looked like a close-up of a hemorrhoids operation.  Anybody who knows how squeamish I am about seeing operation scenes will delight in knowing that shit went into my eyeballs.  Fairly traumatizing enough, but it wasn’t over.

After the strobing gore accompanied by the Bedlam Cacophony Choir, the screen froze on an intricate collage of gay porn.  Not just any gay porn, but some really esoteric stuff, featuring old men in their seventies.  Very graphic.  I don’t think I would have liked it even if I was gay.  Then a loud voice over the speakers repeatedly announced, “Hey everybody! I’m looking at gay porn! Hey everybody! I’m looking at gay porn!”  I couldn’t make it stop until I unplugged the computer.  I’m sure my mom heard that from her bedroom.  What an evil thing to do to someone, I thought.  Well played, punk rock girl.

There was no lasting damage to the computer, but my psyche had some disturbing images burned into its retina.  I didn’t count that as a virus.  It was just another fucked up thing that happened to me, in an already intricate collage.  It wasn’t something to drink over though.  I shrugged it off.

So now, when the subscription expired, I figured eventually I’d subscribe to some security or look for a free computer condom download, some Trojan Horse Trojan…but only when it didn’t seem like too much of a fucking hassle.  That might be never.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t going to take any crazy risks, like clicking on some punk rock girl’s pictures on MySpace, or downloading stuff that says “Warning. Are you sure you want to be downloading this? File found to be potential virus threat.”  Except when Dave dares me to.

I had an expired cert and an antiquated firewall, but I also had a good feeling.  I was an intrepid adventurer paddling up a malarial river while drinking a local remedy through a human skull.

Man, I’ve been through some real shit in my life, what’s a computer virus going to do to me that I can’t handle?  I would find out soon enough.

One night, I’m typing away and the letters start to place themselves randomly within the earlier text.  What’s coming up on the screen looks like it was encoded with an Enigma machine.  It would stop for a while, let me clean up the text, write some more, and then like a venereal wart resistant to Podophyllin, keep coming back.  O h yuo ffffffffukcr! e

That kind of bullshit really slows down the creative process, but this little virus had even more things to demonstrate.  It seemed to be showing off its newfound power and control over my computer.  It started with random highlighting, then began repeating letters, and then spontaneous scrolling.  It was replying when I didn’t ask it to, and leaving the page without my permission.  Was this a virus, demonic possession, or just youthful rebellion?

Ghost cat across the keyboard?

There was only one thing to do in any case.  Pretend it wasn’t happening.  Just keep on keeping on.  Smoke pouring out of the hood?  Turn up the stereo and floor it.  As a drunk, denial was an important survival tool, so it’s still my default go-to fix.  My messages to Dave became something like, “Dud e, thsi thngi is doign some fcukde upshhhhhiiiiiiit  to my keyb or   !!!!”

Dave knew I caught a dose.  He is Mr. Computer, but in a Mad Max way.  Picture a dusty, road-worn, ex-con wearing wi-fi goggles, going giga-geek on a laptop duct-taped to his motorcycle’s sidecar.

His deeply held anarchist principles don’t allow him to pay for anything on the internet, so he deftly circumvents anything that smells like capitalist exploitation, which is pretty much anything that charges money.  He recently put out an e-book, Subterranean Emerald City Blues,  It’s a sharp slice of Seattle street life during the 90’s, that I highly recommend.  A delightful piece of Misery Lit, or rather, Post-Misery Lit.  Neo-Misery?  Anyway, it’s as real as Dave, and that’s pretty fucking real.  If you don’t want to pay the price you set yourself, you should contact him and he’ll be happy to teach you how to steal it.  Knowing him, he would prefer that.  Steal his book even though it doesn’t cost anything.

Anyway, he jumps into action.  I need to download this and upload that.  Run an EOD -13 driver optimizer through my Pre-Dat file digitizer.  I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, and instantly get ice picks in the temples when I try to know.  Let’s face it, I’m still a barbarian.  A Russian soldier in some bombed-out Berlin apartment using the toilet as a water fountain.  Tippy-tapping on a computer has only recently become a past-time.

Before that, my hobby was pulling the shower curtains down around me while falling into the bathtub pissing.

Anyway, I tried my best and did what I could, but it was too late.  The little cyber spirochete had burrowed itself into my brain and was eating away at my motor skills.  In the meantime, my screen was erupting in the wildest misbehavior.  I was dealing with what Dr. Vernon Woolf would call “a self-organizing unit of intelligence.”  A holodyne.  This one, primary manifestation of intelligence that it might have been, was already an asshole and pissing me off.  In a few billion years of evolution it would join a fraternity and drive a Corvette.

For now, it had to be content with irritating me like this.  There was a mischievous quality to its hijinks, like it was really just running amok, not oblivious to the displeasure it was causing, but delighting in it.  I’m sure I caught it from one of my motley mob of Facebook friends.  Every one of them could easily have been a carrier.  Scroll through them sometime.  You’ll see.

The screen finally went turned onyx on Thursday night.  All my attempts to revive it failed.  By that I mean, I turned the router off and on a few times, and then unplugged the power strip twice.  When that didn’t work, I said, “Fuck it.”  It deserved to die.  This was what Joseph Campbell would say represented the myth of the hero’s journey, only in this case, instead of retrieving The Golden Fleece, the hero fails, bites the curb, and dies all dead and shit.

Let the dead bury the dead.  I had to move on.

Now what?  I had a phone that had a touchscreen that kept freezing every 15 seconds.  I could still make calls.  I just couldn’t hang up…without taking the battery out.  Forget about doing anything on the internet, unless it’s something that takes less than 14 seconds, like seeing how much e-mail you have to answer but can’t.

The cool thing was that it finally got me and Dave to talk on the phone.  Before this we had only interacted via keyboard.   Now that we were able to talk, we could really trade some stories.  These were tales we held out because they were too involved to type in chat message, and too not-passed-the-statue-of-limitations to blog about.  Dude’s got some good ones.  Me too, I guess.

I broke out my paints and started splattering a canvas while we jawed.  It was great.  I laughed for hours, and wound up with sore abs and a masterpiece of abstract expressionism.  Not a bad deal.

It would take days before I could get the computer back or a new phone from Sprint.  I had to go Yukon and rough it.  I could use this time away from suckling at a social media tit, and really take a look at things.  Maybe even tidy up and reorder some life priorities.  Of course, not without first experiencing withdrawal.

What if someone posts on my wall and I don’t “like” it soon enough?  They’ll think I’m totally stuck-up and start talking shit about me to all the popular girls!

I actually did find myself feeling a little anxious.  I had shit I wanted to do on the computer, and now couldn’t.  I was trying to download Kindle for PC so I could read and review my friend, John Carnell’s book, Thugs Like Us.  It’s a novel based on a true story of crime, drugs and drink set in late 70’s England.  What’s not to love about shit like that?  I wonder if I got the computer clap from it.  It did come with a warning “This book does NOT contain any teenage vampires, dodgy S&M soft porn sequences, witches, dwarves, dragons or indeed any mythical characters whatsoever.  This book does contain nuts.”

John being the main one.  Dude is fucking crazy funny.  Who else writes non-fiction novels?

Speaking of nuts, I was also in the middle of writing a story about spending Mardi Gras with some University of Michigan co-eds when the box went black.  I had just gotten to the part where I had OD’d on brownies on a Greyhound bus in Texas.  Shit.  I was going to miss my deadline for the blogula, and I hated to do that.  Sure, it was an arbitrary, self-imposed one, but forgetting that makes it still matter.  There was also a pile of e-mail I needed to answer, some friend’s blogs I wanted to comment on, and a few reviews I wanted to write.  Hard to thumb out on a phone that freezes every few seconds.

Well, all that stuff is going to have to wait now, isn’t it?   I’ve learned to shift gears pretty quickly these days.  Just another part of being sober.  Things are going to happen, and some you’re just not going to dig.  How you deal with them will determine a large part of whether you can avoid popping the beer can escape hatch.  I have sober friends that can just go existential.  Shit happens.  It’s all meaningless.  Nothing matters.  Why stress?  And I admire that.

I have to go a different route.  I have to tell myself that everything that happens is for the best possible reason, regardless of how it appears to me initially.  Whether I’m deluding myself is entirely unimportant.  The cold hard fact is that when I do, my behavior improves.  I respond in healthier ways, and it becomes easier for me to deal with shit in a more present, measured, and tolerant manner.  If nothing else, I’m not aggravating my initial irritation with the bad repercussions from throwing a tantrum and broodfest.  I also don’t get thirstier for anything stronger than a Hansen’s diet ginger ale.

The really strange thing is that, eventually, I begin to intuit/see/realize how whatever did happen was the best thing to happen.  A new narrative emerges.  I just had to stop being a petulant pissy-pants long enough to let it unfold.

This whole bullshit with the computer and phone, as pissed as I was when it happened, got me talking to Dave on the phone, spending more time with my girlfriend and cats, ruining perfectly good blank canvases again, cleaning and organizing my room, reading some history, pruning down my garden for Fall, staying longer at the gym, working on my jail house shadow boxing, mailing out some packages and post cards to friends, and basically, understanding that my life should be bigger than just the part that lives on the computer screen.  I needed to be reminded of that.

It’s easy to forget real life happens out here, away from the screen.  It’s easy to become a pasty, hunched little troll, growing too fat, lazy, and sheltered to participate in it. Tip-tap.  Click.  Click.  Like.  Share.  Unfriend.  Delete.

Unfortunately, when the real shit hits the fan, you’re not going to be able to click DELETE.  You’ll be too busy trying not to get deleted yourself.  Then you’ll wish you had logged off once in a while to jog around the block and work on your combos, or actually held a loved one, instead of “liking” Enterprise Car Rental and playing Slingo-Bingo for magic tokens.

Still, it was good to get the thing back from the shop, with my cat pictures intact.

Today, everything is fixed, but a little better because it was fucked before.  The Hero’s Journey.

Well okay, I have an epic tale of drunken misadventure to finish, some friend’s work to read, and e-mail to answer.  Then maybe throw some iron around to remember gravity still exists.  BBeBBee Saef out  threrrr ! e!!

Kick your computer to the curb. Your world won’t end.