On Monday night I stood in a cold field for a long time, so on Tuesday I have an unsurprising case of the sniffles. After getting breakfast that is lunch at Sonic, Dominic drives us to the St. Louis airport, where we drop off the last of two rental cars that got us through our Midwest sojourn. This car is not the Aveo, the crappy one. I do not remember what kind of car it was. I think it is notable that I remember the name of the crappy car but not the good one.
Dominic is going to get on a flight back to Los Angeles. I rent a car because I’m going to drive toward the Great Lakes to hang out with friend Larissa for a day or so before going home. This is one of those ideas that started as a wouldn’t-it-be-crazy-if and became realer and realer as it was vetted on Google Maps. It will be the last stop on the tour, and I won’t promote anything but the idea of being a chilled-out dude. I become a rocket to Chicago, and this rocket is fueled by Springsteen.
For the last time this trip I take the GPS unit’s estimated time of arrival as a challenge, and I watch the time it predicts I will arrive get earlier and earlier, and instead of listening to “Born To Run” several times in a row like I was planning, I listen to it once and then put on “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ,” and then I switch over to other CDs until I am a “Darkness On The Edge Of Town's" length away from the target. I am trying to make it in by nine PM because Larissa is throwing a game night in my honor. Like most Springsteen songs protagonist, I am speeding through the night in search of something I cannot name, except I can name it, and its name is Apples To Apples.
I listen to Donald’s album-length remix of Sufjan Stephen’s “Illinoise” album. It’s been a couple years since I’ve heard it. It is way perfect. Larissa was in Dramatic Writing with Donald and I at NYU. Before I was even in college she was a part of the fetal version of our sketch group, Hammerkatz. Nothing ever doesn’t connect. I feel that way and I’m constantly astounded by it and I consider myself a pretty skeptical, destiny-averse person. If I really believed in fate I think I could not get out of bed ever because I would be so overwhelmed. As it is I think it is more mysterious and wonderful to watch how things collide in ways you would never expect (and would consider too perfect if this was all fictional) and not imagine any mystical force is manipulating us, somehow we just converge.
I have never driven in New York, but I drive right at the heart of Chicago with the skyline looming up, and I feel pretty balls-out for driving mostly fearlessly in an urban environment. I get closer and closer until I’m there. I park my car around the corner from her house in a school zone, and set my phone alarm to wake me up early and remind me to move it. I get my big red hockey-style bag out of my trunk, which was a Christmas gift from my grandma when I was like twelve, and has my initials embroidered on it, and I sling it over my shoulder and amble up the street.
Inside, game night is on. I meet Larissa’s sister Danielle who lives with her, and some of their friends. I ask Larissa if her neighborhood is called Little Ukraine. She says if this were New York it would be called that, but here it’s the Ukranian Village. I apologize for my scratchy blown-out voice. There is whiskey and ginger ale on offer, which you can refer to as a “highball” even when you are drinking it from a juice glass.
Larissa has one of the all-time great tattoos. It’s on her wrist and it says “Fortune Favors The Bold.” Danielle has a Springsteen lyric on her ankle, so that means two of the all-time great tattoos are in one family, in one house in the Ukranian Village. Danielle is having a weird food-poisoning-y reaction to a banana she ate. Her boyfriend comes by. He tells us about his job teaching music. Larissa has just started a gig teaching art to inner-city kids who barely even have recess, and her stories would break your heart, and she is quietly saving the world. Danielle does brain research on infants. Their friends who we play Apples To Apples with are art handlers at a museum. All the coolest jobs are not in entertainment.
It is the perfect way to come off the road. It is like that hyperbaric chamber they put astronauts into when they come back from space, if that chamber contained board games and cookies and frozen pizza with ranch dressing to dip the crusts in and highballs in antique glasses from a shop up the road, and cool people you’d never met before and one cool person you had, who was like, your favorite.
Monday morning in Columbia we have to get up pretty early to talk to a film-directing class at Stephens. I got two hours of sleep for no good reason other than staying up late computing. It is more than a little chilly outside. We meet Chad, the professor who is being nice enough to let us talk to his class, who is also a documentarian and director in his own right, having made the movies “Jandek On Corwood” and “First Impersonator.” (I have heard of but not seen “Jandek,” though the subject, an ultra-reclusive singer with a cult following, is catnip to me, so I’m stoked when he gives us copies of both movies on DVD.) We take a series of skyways to the building where his class meets, which is one of those Fifties academic buildings I’m so fond of. It is the kind of place where metal letters in modernist font announce the name of the benefactors whose donations allowed them to build an auditorium. Framed black and white photographs depict serious women learning in, like, 1955 (Stephens is a womens’ college). Chad says, “You can tell when Stephens had its heyday.”
His class is small and attentive. It’s really fun. Then, coming back, we take one too many skyways and end up on the wrong side of Broadway. I guess we got skyway-happy, and really, who can blame us.
Though it’s 11 in the morning, we’re starving, so we get sandwiches at Jimmy Johns’, because it’s right next to the hotel. Upstairs, the maid is cleaning the room. We welcome this, as we had normally been sleeping when the maid would come by, and she wouldn’t come back, so our room had been taking on a certain swampy character. The maid says she’ll be done in five minutes. We walk around the block, but right before we’re back at the hotel, we veer off and take a back alley rather than walk in front of Jimmy Johns’ with our recently purchased sandwiches like a couple of rubes. I think by the time we get back I’ve eaten all my chips, upsetting my lunch rhythm, though thankfully I am able to recover.
You would spend only a day or two around me before you would realize something, and that something is, I have the deep-seated inability to leave the house/apartment/hotel room with everything I need, without having to return mere moments later having made it halfway downstairs before realizing, fuck, I forgot the book I’m reading/the CD I promised somebody/my audition sides. If you are leaving with me and I say “Wait a sec, sorry,” don’t wait a sec, just go. Leave me. It’s the only way I’ll learn.
We had purchased a ton of swords for Sword Club earlier in the weekend (if someone came to Mystery Team twice a weekend in Columbia, we gave them a hand-numbered foam sword with a unique inspirational quote) but Sword Club has proven an unqualified success, the entire Mizzou campus is bristling with weaponry, and we need more swords, because we’re extending the offer to Monday night, because we’re there, so why not. We are shocked to find the Walmart where we bought the initial round of swords has only two or three left. I ask an employee if they have any more in the back. They don’t. He goes to where the swords ought to be and scans the UPC and is able to tell us how many swords they have in stock at all neighboring stores within a 30 mile radius. I write a quick list of the towns and their sword supply. We have to ask him how far away the towns are. This tips us as out-of-towners. Does he now suspect us of being spies sent to gauge the foam armament level in Missouri? It’s hard to tell. We cruise from town to town to creepily similar Walmarts and buy up all their swords. Dominic says we must be fucking up the Walmart Corporation’s inventory data for how in-demand these swords are. But shouldn’t swords always be this in demand? The way I see it, we’re just setting things right.
Two stores later we have seventeen swords in the car we’re driving back to Columbia and in the passenger seat with the domelight on I am hand-numbering them with a black sharpie and adding to each one an inspirational quote, which I read off my iPhone. I figure if we are pulled over for being weird, I will just offer the cop a sword. I have little doubt that this will result in us getting off scot-free, and in fact, thanked profusely.
That night, we give away all but four swords. Success! After the showings, we hang with Brock, who runs the production company that made our friend/publicist Todd’s film, “Box Elder.” We arrive at a whisky bar where a band with like eight people is just finishing a clamorous set and last call is just being called. Dominic is able to secure us some whisky. We drink it and meet Brock’s friends. Out front, it is determined that we will go to C-Nug’s house and play Rock Band. C-Nug did sound on “Box Elder.” I have never played Rock Band. We stop back at the Ragtag to buy beer from the bar, which is also about to close. WE BUY BEER FROM A BAR, LIKE TO TAKE WITH US. IT’S NOT EVEN A SPECIAL THING THEY’RE DOING JUST ‘CAUSE WE’RE THEIR BUDDIES. You might be jaded to it if you live in a town where it’s a thing, but I’m not. Another thing: Rock Band is awesome. You are probably jaded to it if you live in Western civilization and you’ve played Rock Band lots of times before, but I’m not. It’s fucking awesome. I take my typical rhythm-game tack of doing songs I like and rocking out hard rather than aspiring to technical precision. It is creepy to see someone icily transfixed by Guitar Hero or Rock Band, not moving or doing anything to indicate there is music playing or they are any way involved in it, just trying to get a good score, damn the song or the artist or the wish-fufillment of it all. Rocking should come first, always. On this particular night in Columbia, rocking comes first.
To this end, very late at night, Christine insists on a sojourn to the Big Tree. This sounds like an adventure, so after a few last songs, Brock drives us all out to the Big Tree in the production company’s van via a route known only, it seems, to Christine, a route that is constantly questioned and mocked because it’s dark and scary and seemingly endless, this road out to the Big Tree.
Guess what the Big Tree is? The Big Tree is NOT a case of false advertising. The Big Tree is a really big tree in a field that is surrounded by woods. We park underneath it and our headlights are the only electric light you can see in any direction. Once they’re off, it is just us and one gargantuan tree and a field full of dead crunchy hip-high plants and the dark and the stars, about as thick a carpet of them as I’ve ever seen. It is SO COOL. It’s also freezing, but we don’t much notice. We crunch through the field and often stare upwards in awe. A car or two comes down the road during our time in the field, and this is cool, because their headlights become huge forest-strafing prison-guard-tower spotlights, and this is creepy, for the same reason. If you are alone with some friends in a dark, cold, isolated place and you see the presence of another human being, it is very easy to believe that they are coming to murder you. It’s also a little fun to believe this, as long as they actually aren’t.
Back at the van, someone has found a mostly empty can of spray-paint. We take turns spray-painting things on a concrete slab. I take the can and tag C-Nug’s name on the road for some reason which I stand by fully even now, though I can’t remember what it was. Then we get back in the van and Brock drives us back into town, towards the sunrise. We get coffee. We get delicious breakfast sandwiches at Ragtag, because its bakery is just now opening for the morning rush. Dominic and I are going to sleep for a few hours and then this afternoon we’re going to check out of the hotel and leave Columbia. We say goodbye to our new friends. We go back up to a clean hotel room. My throat’s ravaged and I have the sniffles. We had an evening, that’s what we had.
I cannot get a read on Columbia on Sunday. It seems underpopulated. Is everybody hung over? Studying? Maybe there is no theme to be drawn out, no commonality, no big reason besides it’s Sunday and everybody’s got that Sunday feeling.
I go to Starbucks to work and write, and walking back to the hotel, the town is Edward Hopper orange in the twilight. There are what sounds like 10,000 birds in a tree having a bird orgy or a session of bird Parliament, the kind of Parliament you see in wacky segments on the news about legislative bodies in like, The Phillipines, where they’re constantly brawling and throwing shoes at one another. (If I have mischaracterized The Phillipines’ legislature and it’s actually a paragon of civility, let me know.) Columbia’s cool, man. Columbia’s really fucking cool.
We post up at the Ragtag for our Sunday night showings. The bartender’s playing “Born To Run” in its entirety. I can poke my head in on the movie or I can sit and drink. Heaven?
We have initiated a thing called Sword Club, where if you come to the movie twice over the course of the weekend we give you a foam sword. Each Sword Club sword is individually numbered and has a handwritten unique inspirational quote on it. The swords are from Wal Mart. The inspirational quotes are mostly from the sites that come up when you Google “inspirational quotes” on your iPhone, although the occasional Springsteen quote is mine exclusively.
Dom covers the late Q&A so I can head to the radio station and get started guesting on Kyle and Leanne’s show, “The New Pulse.” The walk to the station is unbelievably pleasant. I think so intensely about how lucky I am that my thoughts are almost audible to passers-by. Across from the older campus building that houses the station are bunch of new, unfinished buildings ringing a courtyard that will probably be pretty someday but for the moment doesn’t have any trees planted where trees should go, so it’s all barren and covered in sod and very post-apocalyptic London flat-block-ish. There are occasional bails of hay, so it is like they are about to have a freak-and-mutant hoedown in the post-apocalyptic flat block. Downstairs, the show begins. We talk shite. I try to convince Kyle that he and Leanne are cute. He pretty much only wants to be punk. I play old songs DERRICK made in Donald’s dorm room. I play Jason Anderson music and Emilyn Brodsky music, and I run to the bathroom during The Gaslight Anthem. Dom joins us. We talk more shite. We talk up Sword Club. A grand old time is had by all. We break up at midnight, when Leanne and Kyle turn the station over to an automated playlist. Dom and I bee-line for the bathroom, because we both drank quite a lot at Ragtag. When we emerge, Leanne and Kyle are about to take off into the night on their bikes. Bikes! Punk? Possibly. Cute? Extremely!
Back at the hotel, MSNBC does not have any of its addictive show “LOCKDOWN” on offer. We are bummed. A strange thing about Missouri television: it must be some equal-time law or something, but every third commercial is a state official talking about some initiative or another they are trying to get passed. There is something delightfully low-stakes and low-rent about state politics. It’s like minor league baseball. How come no one ever gets drunk and goes and sits in the cheap seats at the State Assembly? I bet that’d be a fun way to kill an afternoon.
On Saturday we eat lunch at Shakespeare’s Pizza. Columbia has an overwhelming number of favorite local joints, places locals will tell you “have to go,” with menus full of things you “have to get.” So far not a single one of these places has missed the mark. Shakespeare’s continues the streak. They have a fountain with Pepsi products AND a fountain with Coke products. THAT’S living. (Note to future purveyors of college-town joints: be sure your joint has a quirk, some weird and possibly inefficient way of doing business that will endear your place to its patrons. At Shakespeare’s, there aren’t napkins, you grab big white towels from towel-piles by the soda fountains. At Sub Shop, a Columbia fixture I’ve so far under-praised in my retelling, you are handed a playing card after ordering, so when your order comes up, it isn’t your name being called, it’s “six of diamonds,” etc. At Shakespeare’s, the walls are covered in customer-generated haikus from a recent haiku contest. At Sub Shop, the walls are covered in folksy paintings of wizards and dragons and things. Quirk. Don’t force it, but if you have to, force it.)
It rains that afternoon and I wait in the hotel room before going back out. I keep going to the window. I can see blue making headway in the sky. It’s only a matter of time. Finally blue is pretty much running the board, but there are still raindrops pinging the puddles on the roof of the Chinese place next to the hotel. Soon it is truly safe to go out.
A sign in the window of a downtown clothing store tells me that if I spend fifty dollars I will receive a free thong. “Last Dance With Mary Jane” plays from the open window of a passing car. A pedestrian sings along for exactly one word. That word is “underwear.”
During the first screening of the night, we walk to CVS to buy gawdy cheap stuff to give people during the Q&A. On the walk back, a girl in a white hoodie is gearing up to do a cartwheel while her friends goad her. Apparently an important part of preparing to do a cartwheel is taking your shoes off and standing on the wet sidewalk. “My socks are getting wet!” she screams.
Shoelessness proves to be a thing for the girls of Columbia nightlife. A few blocks later, a barefoot girl who’s otherwise fancily attired belts out “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” from The Lion King while her friends stand around pulling embarrassed faces. If you look at me like, “Sorry my friend is doing like THE CRAZIES THING EVER right now,” don’t. I’ve seen crazier, I can pretty much assure you. And I haven’t even seen that much crazy stuff. Most things that would truly shock or impress me are not things a drunk girl would do to show off her vocal range.
Our goal that night after the screenings and any post-screening festivities is to get nachos at El Rancho (yet another awesome Columbia joint, a Mexican place where a Missouri Univeristy tiger stalks the campus on a three-wall mural), bring them back to hotel, and watch a marathon of MSNBC’s prison documentary series “LOCKDOWN.” We have secured the nachos and we are back in the room turning on the television when we realize we don’t have forks. I have a brainstorm that will keep me from having to put my shoes back on: while this is not the kind of place where room service will bring you a whole bunch of complimentary junk if you need it, there are no doubt utensils around for the hotel’s continental breakfast. I go down to the lobby. The breakfast station is bare, but there are cabinets below, and they’re blessedly unlocked. The guy behind the desk says, “Can I help you?” But it’s too late: I HAVE HELPED ME. I take two forks back upstairs.
(I am sorry if I have just shattered one of your cherished illusions, Santa-Claus-and-the-Easter-Bunny style: There is no magic to continental breakfast. All the stuff is in the cabinets underneath where the continental breakfast is served.)
Friday in Columbia is a beautiful day. It’s sunny and warm as we walk across campus to the radio station to do an interview. In front of the MU, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” pours out of a boombox that’s sitting on a table staffed by sorority girls wearing neon spandex 80’s attire. I don’t think been to a college yet this fall where I haven’t seen a bunch of sorority girls dressed in clothes like this as part of an 80’s-themed event. On campuses nationwide, some girl has had this idea and pitched it to her sorority sisters. On campuses nationwide, her name was probably Stephanie.
It is very exciting to go on KCOU, Mizzou’s college radio station. The studio is in a basement and you have to take outdoor stairs down to a bomb-shelter-like door, and then you walk through a room full of years’ worth of CDs, tapes, and records, down a graffiti’d hallway, and into the actual booth. We’re guests on a show hosted by Leanne and Kyle, who could not be nicer and also could not be more dating each other. Boyfriend/girlfriend college radio co-hosts! It’s really astronomically cute. In the booth, someone has left a spiralbound notebook, and the notebook is open, and it appears to have rap lyrics written in it. I resist the urge to Good Will Hunting them. We plug the movie and goof around and record some bumpers, and Leanne and Kyle invite us to come on their show on Sunday night. They will even let me pick music to play! I’m in heaven. I really am.
There is a Roots, Blues, and BBQ festival in Columbia this particular weekend. Our hotel is slowly filling with roots and blues musicians, and probably BBQ chefs, one would assume, although the roots and blues musicians are easier to spot, because of their guitar cases, and also because they are the sort of people you can imagine playing harmonica while playing another instrument, the sort of people where you look at them and think, “I bet in your publicity photos, you’re next to some train tracks.”
We get dinner before the movie opening at the Ragtag. On a television above the bar, a Missouri University advertisement comes on, featuring famous alumnus Jon Hamm. I had no idea Jon Hamm went here, but now it all makes sense, because all week I’ve been noticing that while everyone is astonishingly handsome, their good looks have a deep, disturbing, implacable undertone.
Middle America LOVES separate checks, and I, in turn, love Middle America. I don’t think we’ve eaten a single restaurant meal where the waitress hasn’t asked us, of her own accord, if we’d like separate checks, whereas typically in big cities we are made to feel like it is a huge pain. I never straight-up stop a waitress in her tracks to thank her for making it so easy, and for exposing the separate-checks-are-a-pain thing as a charade, but I am tempted to several times.
The Ragtag is a deeply cool arthouse theater. The first couple of rows in the auditorium where our movie is playing are composed of couches and funky chairs. The lobby features a bakery and a full bar. The bar has a smokin’ beer-and-shot-of-whiskey deal. There are not many showings where we are soberer at the post-movie Q&A than we were for the intro. The projection and sound are on point, which we particularly appreciate after being in a few multiplexes where the projection was indifferent to downright bad. The staff is nice. The kids come out in force. It is the start of a really excellent weekend.
During the late show, I am walking in from the lobby to poke my head in on the movie when I see a woman doubled over in the hallway outside the bathrooms, both of which only admit one person at a time. “Your movie’s great,” she says. “My bladder’s about to explode.” I test the men’s room. It’s locked.
“Fuck,” I say, “someone’s in there, otherwise, you should totally…”
“Oh, I would’ve,” she says. “There’s no stopping me.”
Later that night, we stop into our hotel before going back out. In the parking lot, two older guys and a woman are drinking from a no-fooling jug. I take them for roots and blues types. Even if they are not roots and blues musicians, they seem like the kind of folks a lot of the music is about. When we come back downstairs, one guy is passed out on the pavement, and the other guy and the woman are talking calmly just like before, unbothered. I guess drinking from a jug sort of resets your standards. Friend passed out on the ground? Not a huge deal. Didn’t get slashed by a hobo? It’s a good day.
It is cloudy when we get up on Thursday morning to do a classroom Q&A. It isn’t much different that afternoon but there is a white heaven-gate spot of sun shining through the clouds and down onto Broadway as I emerge from my nap.
This lull lasts long enough for me to make it to my office for the week, which is the Starbucks on Ninth. The rain waits until I am safely inside to become torfuckingrential. It doesn’t look so bad unless a car is passing by, and when one does it headlights give a thousand raindrops per square foot their own individual personalities. This is bad rain. Like, my-partner’s-funeral rain where I swear to his widow I’ll get the bastards who did this to him. Ninth Street is a river and the rain lets up a bit but it does not stop entirely before I have to leave the shelter of the coffee shop and go to the Memorial Union to plug the movie at an open mic.
A popular motif in Columbia is three to five attractive young people out to dinner with an old man. I call this the “Professor Taylor suggested we discuss this further over appetizers” effect.
We eat dinner at a popular old wood-panelled food-and-beer-and-football-watching spot. In the bathroom stall it goes like this, from the floor up: a toilet painted with tiger stripes, the mascot painted on the top of the tank, four mint-colored-paper-wrapped toilet paper rolls, the metal bar that I guess is for handicapped folks, three mint-colored-paper-wrapped toilet paper rolls resting on the bar.
At dinner, I hear myself say something how my grandpa would’ve said it. I don’t know exactly what does it, the cadence or something. This makes me very happy. My grandpa is the greatest talker on the planet. If life turns out to be just about living to be the closest living approximation of my grandfather on Earth after he is gone, then so be it. That would be extremely satisfying.
There is a promotional party/bar event where we will celebrate with the Range Life/Comedy Wars folks who have been kicking ass pushing our movie to people. It’s still raining biblically when we walk to the party. At one of many street corners that could double as whitewater-rafting courses, I BAIL. I am trying to leap over a huge puddle and I lose my footing and fall convincingly to the sidewalk. I had just gotten done remarking how a guy and his date who had run across the street had shown us the way, like sherpas, like—BOOM. Ow. Now I am in pain but at least I’m wetter than I would’ve been otherwise.
We stop by the hotel to change before going to the bar. I stupidly have so few other clothes. I have to perform wetness triage: what can be saved? What will dry on the walk over if I can stay mostly under awnings? What articles of clothing are totally done?
At the bar we are joined by my buddy Warren, who played drums with a band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin on tour a few years ago, and I went to see them, and he was a DERRICK fan and I was a fan of the band he was playing with, so we hung out and ate potato skins and now we are fans of each other because we are, to be perfectly honest, both righteous dudes. Warren lives in Columbia now. It is awesome to see him. He tells us about the miserable yesterday evening/today he had, a story involving gross post-show sex-piles in depressing houses and getting locked out of his car, resulting in a locksmith setting up his key-making apparatus right there in the middle of the street with rain pouring down and cars whizzing by, the locksmith shouting at the passing cars stuff along the lines of “Hey! I’m making keys here!”
A drunk seemingly homeless or at the very least, uhm, marginal guy, is coming up to various tables in the bar and dancing for them. No one seems all that bothered. Locals tell us his name is Gene and he’s kind of a town fixture. Girls take Facebook pictures with him. Earlier in his life, he was a bread-baker. When someone tells me this, I hear “drum major” instead of “bread baker.”
I walk home way late through empty streets, surrounded by superfog. A pastry case glows, as does a church atrium. Everywhere there are starbursts from streetlamps through trees, stationary explosions of golden light, any one of which could be God if you were primitive enough. The occasional cyclist cuts through the mist. I walk way slow on purpose. It’s all like a scene from “Something Wicked This Way Comes” if the thing that was this way coming was warm and sweet.
The hotel we are staying in in Columbia is not what one would describe as “fancy.” There are identical fake paintings hung over both beds in our room. They depict a tree and a little bit of ocean, encircled by cloud. The shower is awesome, though. (I rate showers based on how quickly they can turn the bathroom into a misty rainforest paradise. This shower renders the tiny cubicle containing it and the toilet Ferngully in like eight seconds.)
I have to go to Kinko’s to print something I will then put in an envelope and mail to New York. Kinko’s sells envelopes, so after I am done printing I grab a box and wait on line to buy them. Both employees behind the counter are occupied with customers who seem to have time-consuming print jobs going, and it takes a hell of a long time to get to the front of the line. Waiting, I am reminded of the time in college when, rather than buy a box of envelopes from the NYU bookstore, I (gasp) stole a single white envelope from a box and lammed it. I felt alternately very guilty and very thrilled. I’m pretty sure I justified it to myself by thinking, hey, I’m paying them tons of tuition, they owe me this envelope. I’m also pretty sure it was to mail NYU something, a check or immunization form or something. It was a case of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s by stealing it from Caesar and mailing it back to Caesar with more stuff for Caesar inside.”
I do work at Starbucks. There is the sort of person who would’ve turned a tour of American college towns into an opportunity to hang in all kinds of cool local coffee shops. I am apparently not that sort of person. Not on this tour, anyway. A guy at a table behind me tells his friend how, at the job he used to have, they thought he was going to blow up the building. He was investigated for actual no-fooling terrorism. The charges were, in his words, “maliciously falsified.” He sounds upset. I guess you would be.
That night, we show our new videos and do a plug for the movie in front of the Comedy Wars show, Comedy Wars being the long-running Mizzou improv group. Their show is in a big open room in the middle of the Memorial Union, a la the beloved Arizona State improv group Farce Side. The MU bathroom soap dispenser dispenses not soap, but “Hand And Body Shampoo,” according to a little silver sticker. Outside the bathroom, in the drain of the drinking fountain, there are a couple of tiny carrot cubes and miniature shrimp, the freeze-dried non-noodle items from a Cup-O-Noodles. It would seem someone filled their Cup-O-Noodles here pre-cooking, and lost a lot of the good stuff in the process. That, or after eating their Cup-O-Noodles, someone poured the dregs into this drinking fountain and then used the cup as a Cup-O-Water.
It is funny how used to performing comedy for large groups of college kids we are thanks to spending spending our college years performing comedy for large groups of college kids. What we do at Mizzou that night is literally one-for-one pretty much what we used to do in the day: futz around with cords and audio and video and microphones while a roomful of kids waited in a makeshift performance space, and then eventually we’d take focus and do a show for them. I have been consistently surprised by how much of making and promoting a movie consists of activities that are versions of stuff we used to do in the process of writing and putting together and performing sketch comedy shows in school. I will say it a thousand times during the course of the tour in talking to various people, and it’s true: all the best stuff I learned in college I did not learn in classroom. Or if it was in a classroom, it was a classroom we were squatting in to rehearse or appropriating as performance space. I think I will know I have strayed from the path when it stops feeling like a bigger, higher-stakes Hammerkatz show.
Walking to dinner after the show I see a sign in a parking garage that is, in its tone and large, severe black lettering, a terrifying message from the future. It says PAY MACHINE NOW.
Let’s say you had a thing where you were lucky enough to go around the country and sometimes people wanted to take pictures with you. What if, over time, enough people put pictures of you with them on Facebook that, scrolling through said pictures, it became clear that you only ever wore like four shirts? You could write it off by saying, “Well, I’m touring around the country, I don’t have that many shirts with me,” right? But what if the Facebook timestamps made it clear that you only ever wore like four shirts over a period of months…YEARS, even? What then, Mister Ever-So-Slightly-Famous-Person? What the fuck then?
I feel like if you are in a small town there is not so much dating as there is the following: “I am a diminutive whiteboy in a tight plaid shirt and black stocking cap. You are a girl who shops selectively at Urban Outfitters and looks enough like Zooey Deschanel when viewed through a foggy shower door or someone else’s glasses who has a different prescription I do. We have to be together.” And then you just are.
We light out for Columbia, MO from Iowa City. We get kind of lost a couple times but the radio is choice. After a Vanessa Williams-style slowjam that may or may not be by Vanessa Williams, a female announcer breaks in with a farm commodities report: Hogs are mostly lower, she says. December wheat is mixed. It all sounds sort of Pagan.
Hang out with me for more than a day and at least once you will see me frantically paw through my backpack, looking for something. A lot of times, whatever I’m looking for is in there, hidden by filth. Sometimes, it’s not. On Tuesday afternoon, it’s not in there. I’m looking for the book I’m reading, “The Cold Six Thousand” by James Ellroy. I think I must’ve left it in the hotel in Iowa City. Before departure, I was going through my bags looking for something, and in the process, I took all my stuff out, and when re-packing, I forgot to put the book back in, effectively trading the book for whatever I was looking for, which was never actually lost in the first place. It is doubly frustrating because I was about a hundred pages from being finished and Ellroy’s books, though I love them, are always pretty labyrinthine and I tend to lose the plot completely by the end, and I was proud of myself because so far I was understanding everything and keeping track of who everybody was and who wanted to kill who and fuck whose wife, but now when I pick the book up again with a lapse in reading momentum I am almost certain I won’t understand anything. Bummer.
We pull into the hotel in Columbia and check in. The hotel has three or four floors and the hallways are glassed in, so that I can’t help imagining blood pouring through them “Shining”-style when I look up at it from the street. Looking down from the hall-wide window near our room, I can see the roof of a Papa John’s. On the roof there are a few random, loose green letters and numbers that seem like they were once on a sign: 8 7 Q U M I Y. It’s like the start of a really low-stakes, pizza-centric “Da Vinci Code.”
We eat lunch at a Jimmy John’s next to the hotel. As I am filling my cup at the soda fountain, a salty older guy with a cane is at the counter. “I drive two hours for this sandwich,” he says to the clerk. “Actually, I do a lot of other shit in town, but I always be sure to grab me a sandwich.”
Later, I see a man with a poorly-done anarchy-symbol tattoo on his arm. It is like, dude, do not apply the principals of anarchy to your anarchy tattoo. Tattoos should be structured and orderly. If you hope to effectively communicate your support for anarchy, you are going to have to employ a tattoo artist who basically plays by the rules. He be punk as fuck and think “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” and all that, but he should be a total uptight reactionary when it comes to things like color and shading.
We are invited to perform in a stand-up show that night hosted by the lovely, bearded Dan Friesen. It is an awesome little bar, all black-lights and pulp and horror memorabilia. On the back wall, there is a Star Wars poster, the one that has all the Mos Eisley bar characters and reads “You’ll Never Find A More Wretched Hive Of Scum And Villainy.” I had it on the wall of my bedroom when I was in middle and high school. I love that poster, and I won’t front, if it showed up on my doorstep tomorrow, I would hang that shit, homeboy. No apologies.
The show is a blast. I freestyle-battle a kid, because that is how I establish dominance when I am in a new and unfamiliar setting. After the show, I talk to people, including Jesse, who tells me she transfers from Ruby Tuesday to Ruby Tuesday kind of based on whim, because they can’t refuse a transfer who’s already trained. This, I say, is a weird kind of awesome freedom, that you can be tied down to a job and what it entails, but you can pretty much do that job anywhere you feel like. I also talk to Joseph, who’s in the National Guard but also in school, and tells me he’s one of the four percent of eligible people who actually use the G.I. Bill (eighty-eight percent say they will when they sign up, eight percent eventually apply, and then four percent actually follow through and go to school. I don’t know if these figures are accurate, but this is what he tells me.) The bartender’s name is Pants and he apparently won an award for being the second-best bartender in Columbia, and he rightfully should’ve been awarded first place, but the other guy cheated: his buddies wrote a computer program that stuffed the online ballot box in the other guy’s favor. I fully believe Pants deserves the title. He makes us one of many delicious shots he is known for, all of which have pun names. The one he fixes us on Tuesday night is entitled “No Pants Is An Island.” (All these weeks later I am kicking myself for never asking if he had one called “No Pants Left Behind.”)
Outside, it’s getting cold. When the fall chill hits me, there are ten Jason Anderson songs to describe how I feel. When I was back East, the first real cold was kind of depressing and death-implying, alluding to the long cold winter ahead. Now that I don’t live there anymore, it’s just nostalgic, and it makes me miss New York and the seasons.
Back in the hotel room, I check my e-mail while listening to “The Weather” by Built To Spill. In high school, my friend Chelsea, that was her and her boyfriend Jacob’s song. They got married and had a baby. Her brother is in a band in Portland with my friend Jack. I think on Chelsea and Jacob and their kid. I hope they’re doing well and I bet that they are. Once, when I was out sick, she called me that night at home to make sure I was okay. Landline to landline. She picked up the phone and dialed.
So: this is officially the one hundredth day of my "100 Days In LA" series. It feels a little weird to end it with me in Iowa, about to go to Missouri for a week. And, as people have pointed out, a lot of this supposedly LAcentric series saw me in a lot of other non-LA places. So: I will be extending the series indefinitely. I already have a proper ending picked out and everything. I already LIVED it, man! Thank you for reading/Facebooking/retweeting these posts. Please continue to do so even after the titles start to incongruously read "First 100 Days Of LA, Day 101" and stuff. And thanks, as always, for your nice comments.
Also, I want to take this time to wish my grandma Pat, one of the most faithful readers of "First 100 Days..." a speedy recovery from eye surgery.
On Monday in Iowa City it is all cloudy and about-to-rain all day. There are white flies and humidity. The depressing weather is incongruous because I feel well-rested and plucky. We prep for Columbia.
That night we go to see “The Informant!” at a mutiplex that isn’t the one where our movie’s playing, it’s in a mall in a nearby town called Coralville. I have by now become the king of small-town multiplexes and I am practically greeted at the door with popcorn and Mr. Pibb. (Actually, we are greeted at the door, or rather, the concession stand because the ticket booth proper is closed, by one of maybe three working employees, like the normal customers we are.) We are way late for one showing and way early for the next one so we go over to Outback to eat dinner. Coralville is crazy sleepy tonight, and maybe every night. Leaving the restaurant, it’s finally actually yet just barely raining.
Want to hit it right on the nose? I mean, want to just really nail something? Go into a mostly deserted Barnes and Noble inside a mall that is, with the exception of the bookstore and the movie theater, entirely closed, in a sleepy Midwestern town on a rainy Monday night, and after lots and lots and lots of browsing, buy a book called “Loneliness.” I did, and I am here to tell you, nothing has ever felt like that much of a swoosh.
We head back around the mall to the movie theater. On a Coralville city bus that goes streaming by in the mall parking lot, a man who is either a Civil War soldier or a roadie plays a pantomime violin.
After the movie, we stop off at a gas station near our hotel back in Iowa City. Dominic goes in and I stay in the car. A Redbox DVD rental kiosk glows next to the entrance. A college-age guy on his way in to the gas station greets two college-age girls on their way out. The two girls get in a car and pull away, revealing an idling cab that was parked next to them. I think if you are a college-town cab driver, you spend a lot of Monday nights at the gas station trying to talk kids into buying beer and drinking it until they’re drunk, so you have someone to drive somewhere.
It is a restful last night in Iowa.
On Sunday, I check out of the hotel. I’m driving to Des Moines to drop off the Aveo and Dominic will meet me with a new rental car, and from there, we will drive back to Iowa City. I have been saving my Walmart-fresh copy of “Born To Run” for this drive and as it happens, it times out perfectly: the album is almost the exact length of the trip from Ames to the Des Moines airport. After parking in the rental car return lot, I linger in the car for a few seconds, picking up trash, listening to the last strains of “Jungleland.” I am being overly precious with my relationship with “Born To Run” because I had never owned it or heard it all the way through but I was always going to love it, there was just no way I wasn’t, so I was saving it and kind of batting it around, delaying gratification. And now that I have heard it, I have decided to keep track of every time I listen to it all the way through. It’s like if you knew you were going to marry your wife on the first date, and not in a “love at first sight” kind of way, but in a literal predestination kind of way, you could mark it. You could look her in the eye and say “I know for a fact that this is gonna be great!” Actually, that would probably be creepy. I hope “Born To Run” is not creeped out by me.
The attendant at the car rental desk is super-friendly. He is not the same super-friendly attendant I dealt with at this same desk a week ago, so I presume super-friendliness is a policy at this particular car rental desk. He bids me farewell by saying, “Stay wise!” And if that is in fact what he said, cool. That’s a cool way to say goodbye. If he said “Stay white,” which, as I’m walking away, I start to speculate that he might have, I don’t approve.
On our way to Iowa City we pass a waterpark called Wasserbahn. At first I think, “German can make anything sinister, even waterslides.” Then I think “You wait for waterslides in a line, partially clothed and shivering. It is not at all surprising that German would make that experience sinister.”
The new rental car, which we will have for the last week of the trip, has all the things that a modern car has, like power windows and locks. However, thanks to a week in the Aveo, I am now in the habit of manually locking my door upon exiting the car. I am slowly able to relax and trust that the new car will lock electronically when one of us uses the little remote, but not without a few instances where I burst into tears and the nice new rental car has to hold me close and stroke my hair and say, “Shhh. You’re safe. That’s all over. That’s all over now.”
In Iowa City, we make a customary run to Kmart to buy random stuff to give people during Q&As, and also to kill time before our showings. Walking the store, I am reminded of when you’d be in a Target or a Kmart as a kid and you would be excitedly surveying the toy section, saying to yourself, “aisle of toys…another aisle of toys…ANOTHER aisle of toys…ANOTHER AISLE OF—hardware?” The heartbreaking transition from toy aisle to hardware aisle never gets any easier. There is still a second when you’re glazed over and your mind tries to make sense of the hardware aisle in terms of the toy aisles that came before it. For a second you mistake it for more fun stuff, your eyes try to read the orange-plastic-handled hammers and yellow measuring tape as playthings, somehow, and they just can’t, and you must come to terms with the fact that you have gone too far and strayed into the world of boring, useful stuff.
In the clearance aisle, we find a box of fifteen toy planes for like six bucks.
A flier on the wall at the mall where our movie is playing advertises a boxing match that took place on September 11th of this year. It reads, “UNFORGETTABLE PRO BOXING.” Two female boxers give tough looks to the camera. Behind them, and roughly the same size as them, are the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The event was sponsored by Budweiser and the National Guard.
Erin who reads this site comes to our movie that night for the second time. She’s brought us a present! Wrapped and everything. It’s “The Boy Detective Fails,” a book by Joe Meno which I have not read but I have heard has a kid detective and messed-up adult stuff, a la our movie. In turn, we give her fifteen planes. Everyone walks away happy.
On Saturday I'm woken up by what sounds like drumming coming from someplace. I wonder: Is it the Chinese? (Chinese rock musicians are also staying at this hotel after they played a benefit downstairs last night.)
A wonderful thing about a college town is seeing people on bikes you wouldn’t normally deign “Bike People.” (What I mean is, you see a lot of fat people on bikes.)
I get dinner at Wendy’s before the Saturday night showings. I watch an old couple say Grace over their hamburgers.
At the theater, my buddy/theater employee Jason tells me about his day volunteering to pick trash out of the river. He is exhausted, he says, his torso specifically. Sometimes the water was up to his neck. He tells me the weirdest piece of trash he found was a purple kid’s bicycle with some kind of bone stuck through the spokes, probably a raccoon’s. Also there was a shopping bag with a live fish inside of it.
Last night I dropped my phone on the hard, pseudo-carpeted floor of the hotel. It threw up an error message reading NO SIM CARD and refused to find a signal. I dropped it again, this time on purpose and at a strategic angle, and it started working again. Tonight, it gives me the same error message. I drop it again, from a reasonable height, at the same strategic angle, onto the floor of the theater hallway, and it starts working. I would’ve made an excellent caveman.
Since making our movie I have tried to refrain from publicly criticizing other movies, for a number of reasons. But I will happily hate on other movies’ patrons, especially when they have conversations like the following (regarding “9”):
“That was captivating.”
“You know, 9 is a very powerful number in Norse mythology.”
Comedy kids from ISU make their presence felt at the late Saturday night showing. We shoot the shit for a long time afterward. We break up our little front-of-theater circle and I am in the driver’s seat of my car about to head for maybe some pizza and maybe my hotel room alone when a car, driven by Colin, one of the comedy kids, pulls up beside me and rolls its window down. Colin asks me if I’ve eaten yet. I tell him I haven’t. He asks me if I want to go to his apartment with them because he’s making spaghetti. If there had been a word more strongly affirmative than “absolutely,” I would’ve said it.
At Colin’s apartment, when I tell them how long it’s been since my last home-cooked meal, everyone is aghast. We talk jobs and stuff while Colin cooks. Two of the girls, Tori and Cori, are both servers. In them, I see an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about servers’ attitudes towards refills: would you prefer your restaurant have larger glasses so you don’t have to give out as many refills because it’s a pain, or would you prefer they have smaller glasses, so by giving out more refills you can appear to be more helpful and present and therefore receive a larger tip? One of them feels one way about it, the other feels the other way. Apparently there is no consensus in Server Nation. Fun fact: Cori works at a place that has over one thousand kinds of omelettes.
I had presumed they were all comedy kids or comedy-related kids, but it turns out that, with only one exception, they’re all friends from high school theater who go to different schools and are in town for Colin’s birthday. We eat delicious spaghetti and garlic bread. Seconds are had. I give everyone personal gifts from my magical bag of crap from Target. I feel warm and special. The next time someone asks me how long it’s been since I’ve had a home-cooked meal, the answer will be slightly less horrifying thanks to my new pals.
If I mention you in this or any post and I totally botch your name, please e-mail me or leave a comment. It’s been a few weeks and my notes are imperfect at best.
I return to Ames to do intros and Q&A’s at the movie’s opening. Dominic stays in Iowa City to do the same thing there. I am getting maybe too comfortable with the drive between Ames and Iowa City. I am speeding maybe too much. I am maybe too extensively imagining being a kid that attends Iowa State and has a girlfriend that goes to U of Iowa, or vice versa.
On the drive on to Iowa State’s campus there is a large, imposing concrete building that seems like a dorm. On the side facing the main drag, in the windows on every floor there are banners with the names of either dorms, or floors in that particular dorm, or something. They’re all decorated with a different theme. If I went here, I would want to be in the dorm (or in the hallway of this particular dorm, whichever) called WOLF HOUSE. First of all, their banner is done up in a killer old-fashioned aviation theme, “Rocketeer” font and everything. Second, they’re called WOLF HOUSE.
On the bulletin board at Panera, I see a flier advertising “The Best Bagels In Story County,” and leave satisfied that I have finally found a title for my heartwarming potential bestseller about a woman who returns to her hometown after a hard time in the big city and reconnects with her estranged sister over their mutual love of Hebrew foodstuffs.
An unassuming building near Panera is advertising an event called the IBWA Weld-o-rama 2009. I imagine this is a good event to attend if you hope to hear the words “Ready…Set…WELD!” or if you want to see someone wearing a shirt that says “Welder By Day, Welder By Night.”
I am driving and a guy with a ponytail rides by on a bike, and he poses an interesting philosophical question: if you are smoking while riding a bike, are you basically just standing still, exercise-wise?
That night at the theater, I do the standard multiplex-hang-out, which I’m getting pretty good at. You see a lot of the same trailers play in front of your movie. At this particular theater, “Law-Abiding Citizen” is hitching its wagon to our star. I see it so many times over the course of the weekend that I am able to nitpick. In it, Gerard Butler is torturing the man who murdered his family and he says, all whispery, “Your heart is beating so fast…me too.” Shouldn’t it be, “Your heart is beating so fast…mine too?” Otherwise, isn’t Gerard Butler implying that he, the whole of Gerard Butler, is beating fast? This is my main problem with the trailer. I find the elaborate explosive traps Gerard Butler has rigged up while in state custody to be entirely plausible.
During the movie, I duck out and walk over to Chili’s for dinner. I sit at the bar and read a book. A guy with a tough-for-me-to-place accent (Oklahoma?) sits a couple stools down and orders “a grilled chicken breast, nothin’ on it, just plain-jane.”
On one of the TVs above the bar, the Rachel Maddow show is on, on mute, and via closed captioning I see Rachel say “not just a disco fight song, a BAD disco fight song.” On a commercial on another TV, a restaurant brags on its “Belly-Buster Buffet.”
The barback says to no one, “Can I quit yet?”
The theater employees are as nice or nicer than they were in Florida. I hang out with one of them, Jason, when I’m not watching the movie and he’s not doing work. He tells me he is in grad school because he wants to teach kids biology, and his brother, who I actually met because he’s in the comedy group at ISU, is going to teach kids high school English, and ideally they’d work at the same school. It’s pretty adorable. He also recommends Tasty Taco for the next time I pass through Des Moines. Apparently the tacos are so good that Jason and his friends used to make weekly pilgrimages down there. It got so the manager knew them really well and confided in them that a member of TLC (he doesn’t remember which one) would have Tasty Tacos flown in to New York from Des Moines. Tomorrow, Jason says, he is volunteering to clean trash out of the river.
In the parking lot of the movie theater, Latino moms stand around their cars smoking while their children dance in the headlights to music from the radio.
Back at the hotel, I remember being told that an event called Sing For China was happening tonight, at the Maintenance Shop, where we performed earlier in the week. Several Chinese rock bands performed. It turns out all the bands are staying in the same Memorial Union hotel as us. Out in the hallway, there is all the knocking about, shouting, and obnoxiousness you’d expect from partying bands, but it’s in Chinese. In order to weird them out and shut them up, I briefly consider taking the ironing board out and ironing naked in the hallway. I consider this way too seriously for way too long. Then I fall asleep.
I get up relatively early on Thursday because I will be addressing a screenwriting class that meets in the morning. In the hallway, I am greeted by a man in cover-alls, who I presume is working on the renovation that is going on in the hotel stairwell. He says, “Up early today!” I mutter something non-committal and I mentally beg the elevator to get here, like, now, because I want to be gone from around this diminutive, leery-eyed construction worker who is aware of my sleeping habits. I don’t want anyone to know my sleeping schedule, especially not anyone in cover-alls. I don’t know if creeps are attracted to jobs in cover-alls or if having a job where you wear cover-alls renders you a creep, but: he’s a creep. The elevator opens and I shoot in and smack the door-closed button even though I know it doesn’t really do anything.
While we’re on the subject: Iowa is the shitty-elevator capital of the world. All the elevators we encounter in Ames or Iowa City are functioning at like a four on a ten scale, creaky and groaning and just finicky as hell. I suppose it makes sense. There are not a whole lot of buildings that call for elevators in these towns. To a dedicated, snooty Big City Type, it can’t help but feel like when you go to somebody’s house where they don’t really drink, but they have one dusty beer in the back of the fridge, “for guests,” and they’re like, “Would you like it?” and you’re like, “I’m fine, thanks.” They have elevators ‘cause they heard the kids like ‘em.
At some point on Thursday I think these exact words: “Damn. Y’all got some blonde-ass people in Iowa.”
The bagel slicer at Panera is very impressive. It makes a loud noise that sounds like knights made of metal and energy fighting in an infinite void. I wonder if that’s intentional. At the table next to me, a teenage girl is talking to a middle-aged woman: “I loved that crab. I called it Crabby and I tied a string to it and I dragged it everywhere.” This talk of childhood leads into her talking about how she never knew her biological family. I desperately want to know how this woman is related to this girl so I eavesdrop harder but it doesn’t yield anything.
After lunch, I drive back to Iowa City, where Dominic and I are going to be intro-ing a screening of “Moon” and then doing improv at a place called Public Space One. I am starting to note landmarks on this Ames/Iowa City drive. I like it when a rural gas station has a faded hand-painted sign with one or more beautiful Modernist fonts. It’s like a farmer’s daughter who’s a knockout. “How is this here?” you think. “This would KILL in the city!”
At the hotel in Iowa City, we kill time until the screening. When it’s time to go, we make the gametime decision to walk over, which, we realize about halfway there, is going to take longer than we thought. We start hauling ass. The air is cool and rich and evening-y. Various campus activities are taking place in front of lovely old buildings whose facades are all lit up.
Later, we eat dinner on the patio of a restaurant that’s on the main drag, of sorts, this little walking mall lined with bars and restaurants. We see a kid lugging the most perfectly dated guitar case, cover in stickers that scream “In 2007, I got really into putting stickers on my guitar case.” A sticker for Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” bumps up against stickers that exhort us to “IMPEACH BUSH.” This restaurant has “famous chicken lips,” and we order them, making it two nights in a row that I’ve had something famous for dinner in Iowa City. (I had the Famous Egg Sandwich for dinner on Wednesday at the Mill.) When they arrive, the chicken lips (which are big pieces of chicken breast done up all buffalo-style) smell like hookah smoke. Not in a bad way at all. They’re delicious. Girls are walking up and down the street dressed up for theme parties: girls in neon spandex gear, probably intended to be “Eighties.” Girls in sports jerseys. And girls who are clearly on their way to a…uhm…let’s-all-wear-the-same-innocuous-t-shirt party.
Public Space One is way cool. It’s a little arts space in the basement of a building whose vestibule houses a Subway, so it’s also a little arts space that smells like bread from Subway. There are fliers on the wall from previous shows and I do my traditional pre-show old-flier geek-out. Calvin Johnson performed here! That feels right. There’s a flier from the Mission Creek Festival, which, according to the flier, more or less just happened here in Iowa City. GZA performed “Liquid Swords” in its entirety. Second billed at the festival: The Mountain Goats! If my dreams are gonna come to life, they need to do it wherever I am, not out on the prairie a few months before I arrive.
On Wednesday afternoon, we are doing a meet-and-greet at Mayhem Comics, which is across the street from Iowa State’s campus. Rob, the owner, is just about the coolest guy, a jovial sort who greets each and every person when they come in and waves them over in the direction of our table. If they’re a regular, he presents them with a stack of the titles he knows they came in for. He and a customer kibbitz about a local news stations where they both used to work: which on-camera personalities used to be a BITCH when they didn’t get their coffee, which newscasts around here have shitty lighting, etc. We end up discussing MST3K, or as he fondly calls it, “Misty.” I love it and so does just about everyone else I know but from the way Rob talks about it I get the feeling that it’s this whole other thing in the Midwest, this home-grown (Twin Cities, anyway) institution. Rob says he enjoys RiffTrax but it’s just not the same. He still holds out hope they’ll get back together and do something as Mike and the bots again someday. I say how much I loved the home-made feel of it, and how it always reminds me of my relatives from the Twin Cities and Iowa, and their sense of humor. He credits Midwestern humor to the long, cold winters: you have to laugh about stuff or you’ll go crazy, he says.
Rob reminisces over when they were shooting “Twister” here in town. He says Cary Elwes would tear the shrinkwrap off trade paperbacks and then not buy them. When he finally did buy something, he paid with a one-hundred dollar bill and then smirked at Rob as though Rob had never seen a one-hundred dollar bill before. After telling a lot of people about the movie, including a friendly Iowa State alumni who tells us about the annual Star Trek convention that’s held in the non-fictional hometown of the fictional James T. Kirk, we get in the rental car and head for Iowa City.
On the road, we see signs for a town called “Brooklyn.” We see signs for a town called “Deep Chair.” The crappy rental car is emitting a high-pitched whine and it’s tough to tell exactly where it’s coming from. I pound on the paper-thin passenger door. I grab the knob that controls the non-power window and I pull up, really hard. That stops the whine: the window, crafted with the same attention to detail as the rest of our Chevy Aveo, has a natural resting position of just a teeny tiny microscopic bit open.
In front of us for a long time are three dump trucks. On their tailgates, big signs: “Do Not Follow Into Work Area.” I am happy these signs are there, because I often become transfixed by the entrancing femininity of heavy construction equipment and follow it, like a cartoon character made to float four feet off the ground by a delicious smell, into a gravel pit.
We pass signs for a town called Williamsburg, Iowa! The borough of Brooklyn is straight-up biting Iowa! I half-expect to pass a town called Marcy Projects.
We are going to plug our movie at a screening of “Food, Inc” on Iowa University’s campus. We kill time in the student center beforehand. The wall has four TVs tuned to different channels, in case you want to feel like a low-stakes supervillain. The student center is mostly modern and clean but as I’m going to the bathroom I turn left and discover a hallway that betrays the building’s origins as a brick and mortar capital-A Academic building from the fifties or sixties. I am a sucker for buildings like this. I went to college at the wrong kind of college to spend a lot of time in them, and about fifty years too early. I am sure renovations to give your building flatscreen televisions and brand new multicolored Starbucksesque lighting is very impressive to your alumni donors, but me, I say if it’s gonna be tacky one way or the other (and it will be) better it be old and cool and tacky than new and slick and tacky.
We check into our hotel, whose slick modernism I appreciate because I will have to sleep in it. We eat dinner at a place called The Mill, which is more of a bar with food than it is a restaurant, and it’s just charming as hell. It’s wood-paneled and homey and bands are playing in the back. We’re seated out on the balcony. I ask the waitress what’s good, because she’s wearing a “The Warriors” t-shirt and can clearly be trusted, and she tells us the famous egg sandwich is back on the menu. I look, and it is. The cute menu description says that one of the egg sandwich’s ingredients is “imagination.” I clearly have to order it, so I do. Its fame is well-deserved. It’s delicious.
We overhear hipstery Iowa City chicks talking with our waitress and another waitress, while chain-smoking: “Chris (last name) applied here! Hire hiiiiiim! He’s a rad dude. He’s in (name of band) with (name of other guy in band).” At a table next to us, which to me seems like a table full of grad-student teaching assistants, even though I have no real evidence to support this, a guy is holdin’ court. As a guy who likes to hold court, I have to say: I hate me a holdin’-court-ass motherfucker. There is no real reason for this. Just, something about a smarmy dude with too-loud too-cool-for-school opinions makes my brain throb unpleasantly.
“How many times have you seen ‘The Exorcist?’” the dude asks one of his tablemates. “Is it hilarious yet?” I want to stand up and demand to see samples of his prose, like an SS officer would demand to see someone’s papers. I want to look it up and down and cluck my tongue and say, “Just as I thought. Trite and overwritten. Be on your way, sir. I will be flirting with your companions this evening.” It is unfair of me to assume he writes and it is also unfair of me to assume that what he writes sucks. I’m not a macho jock asshole about many things, just the things, like writing and mix CDs, that one doesn’t usually associate with macho jock assholery.
This testosterone will be useful later because after dinner I have to get in the rental car and drive back to Ames. I will be doing a Q&A at Iowa State on Thursday while Dom stays in Iowa City and does plugs at more student-center screenings. It’s a ninety-minute drive. The road is dark and nearly empty. I put in “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” and, I don’t know, it must be genetic: I get behind the wheel, and I get out on the highway, and suddenly all I want to do is watch that GPS estimated time of arrival get earlier and earlier. I don’t want to stop and pee. I want to make good time, whatever that means. Suddenly, I am the protagonist of every song on this album.
I pass a giant farm-equipment store. Tractors are suspended and lit from below. There’s an array of the same model of tractor in five or six different sizes, stacked one on top of the other, this profound, gigantic modern-art installation. They seem to be acknowledging the ridiculous size and power of the things they sell. If you’re a farm kid, and it’s time for your dad to buy a new piece of equipment, like a tractor or something, you must be PSYCHED! Lots of kids like trains and construction equipment, but not a lot of kids ever get to accompany their dad on a Sunday trip to buy an actual metal monster. (On the other hand, if you didn’t take after your farmer dad, and you were bored by the whole thing, it would probably be like being dragged to the hardware store times a million.)
I make EXCELLENT time. Back in Ames, I stop by the twenty-four-hour Walmart with intentions of buying toiletries and a few other things, most importantly, “Born To Run” on CD, because I have never owned it or heard it all the way through, and I will have to drive back to Iowa City at some point. In the electronics section, a large kid plays Madden on one of the display TVs, with a gallon of orange juice at his feet. Three buddies, who feel like they live in the same dorm hallway at ISU, peruse HDTVs. I know this trip. I know this trip immediately. This is the let’s-accompany-our-buddy-while-he-buys-audiovisual-equipment trip. This is one of our greatest rituals. In this way, when one of our friends gets a big TV, we all sort of get a big TV. In earlier times, we would accompany our buddy when he went to buy a new coal-stove. “Don’t get that one,” we would scold him. “It has a shitty flames-to-wrought-iron-grate ratio.”
I grab “Born To Run.” I also grab “Blueprint 3,” which I somehow haven’t yet heard all the way through. The woman at the check-out responds positively to “Born To Run.” “I know,” I say, “I don’t own it.”
“I don’t own it either,” she says, “I just know he has a cute butt.”
I get back in the car. “Born To Run” I’ll save for my trip back to Iowa City. I unwrap “Blueprint 3” and put it in. A minute into the first song, before I’m even out of the parking lot, I know I have made a grievous rookie mistake. The album is edited. All the swear words have been removed or replaced. This is why you do not buy seminal rap artists’ new works at Wal-Mart. This is why, if you have to go to Wal-Mart, you grab your orange juice and you let it get warm at your feet while you play football video games by yourself ,and then you get the hell out of there, and you don’t get fancy, no sir.
Our rental car is a Chevy Aveo. It does not have power windows or locks and squeals when it goes over fifty miles an hour and generally seems like a car model Chevy announced before going “No, just kidding, here’s the real car model” and unveiling an actual car. You see, the Aveo is less of a car and more of a mobile apology.
The on-campus hotel, and everything about it, is very old. The hallway outside of our room smells like a cafeteria tater tot that fell behind the radiator before America was a country. Downstairs in the Memorial Union’s largest room, a 2009 Women’s Expo is going on. We don’t go inside to find out, but I am betting it is the politest thing for miles which, in Iowa, is saying a lot.
We eat lunch at Panera. I overhear an older man on his cell-phone talking about a “rival worship center up North.” This is creepy not for it overt religiosity but because no Christian sect I know of refers to its worship centers as “worship centers,” nor do they have regional rivalries with one another. Midwest, what are you brewing up, kooky-religion-wise? While most trends flow inward from the coasts, are you on the cutting edge of strange belief? When you get a chance, let us know.
We go by the theater where we’ll be opening that weekend to say hello to the manager. It’s the middle of the afternoon and there aren’t many people there but there is a TV hanging on the wall and it's playing the same loop of advertisements as the theater where we opened in Gainesville. It features little snippets of music videos by artists such as Trey Songz and Chrisette Michelle and by now I know all the words to these ten-second selections of their songs. There is also, of course, the “Where The Wild Things Are” promo. I would almost be uncomfortable if we were doing something for our movie and a “Wild Things” ad weren’t playing somewhere in the background.
Numerous “Basterds” viewings have made me wonder: When is hip-hop going to experience a love affair with Nazi iconography?
I pull my iPhone out of my pocket and a dime has become wedged in the slot at the bottom where you plug it into your computer or the wall. The screen displays a message reading “This Accessory Is Not Meant To Work With iPhone.” Apple is so powerful that it programs its products to view all currency, in fact, all objects, as non-functioning accessories. In 2010, I say iPhone compatibility for all coinage. National Mint, get on it. Now.
If you were worried about fraternities at Iowa State, don’t be. They’re fine. At night, their houses are lit. And I don’t mean lit like they have electricity, I mean lit like lit from the outside with aesthetics in mind, like a pretentious cinematographer stood in front of the house and addressed a team of technicians: “With crisp whites and striking blacks, we will create a contrast starker than the contrast between a framed fraternity charter that speaks of high moral character and a pledge passed out semi-nude beneath that charter in a lake of regurgitated rum.” Maybe it is like this at colleges all over the country.
Also, at Iowa State, the thing to wear is a shirt that says “Iowa State.”
My grandpa on my dad’s side went to school here. He has requested pictures of the Memorial Union, and the very pretty lake next to it, and the two swans that live in that lake. I end up with a lot of swan pictures because they refuse to get in a picturesque right-next-to-each-other formation. One of them keeps being superaggressive towards geese, bullying them around the lake, while the other swan trails behind, like it’s half-heartedly shouting at an embarrassing friend.
Apparently one time my grandpa was so bored he and some friends got drunk on the sheriff's lawn here in Ames. My great-grandfather was a big deal in Iowa politics so this infraction ended up on the news. My grandpa was banned from seeing my grandma, who was still in high school at the time. She was PISSED. I kind of want to find the sheriff's house, but I'm not sure where to look.
My sense of what timezone I am in is completely fucked. My internal clock has been fucked for a while, but that’s not new, and not entirely chalk-uppable to moving around the country: my body disrespects normal ideas of when is a good time to go to sleep and wake up when it is at home. But my general sense of “oh-if-it’s-this-time-here-it’s-that-time-there” is blown, the auto-math of adding three hours to whatever time it is in LA to figure out what time it is in NY, or whatever. I had been used to living in New York and knowing that if I had business to conduct with someone in Los Angeles, I could actually take my time and sort of contact them at my leisure because they were three hours behind. And I had just recently gotten used to the reverse, living in Los Angeles, knowing I had to get on the stick if I wanted to talk to someone in New York during business hours, because they were infuriatingly AHEAD, working while I was sleeping, off work already and partying when I was working, asleep again when I was done working, and so on. Then, in Florida, I was back on Eastern time. On Monday, in Iowa, I am on…what…Central time? Sharing a time zone with neither New York or Los Angeles, no pre-programmed three hour interval sufficing. I briefly consider making Ames, Iowa the epicenter of the entertainment industry by the end of the week so that they’ll have to play by MY rules, but it seems like a lot of work.
When we checked in we were warned by a memo lying on one of the hotel beds that construction would be going on as the hotel renovated its stairwells, and it would begin at eight AM every weekday morning, so if we heard noises, that would be it. Reading this memo, I groaned, envisioning a week of disturbed sleep, but, on Monday morning at least, the construction noise proves to be like everything else in Iowa: polite. Just some slamming doors and creaky steps, nothing I can’t handle. It’s no worse than a mild haunting, and totally sleep-throughable.
On Monday night we have a show in the Maintenance Shop, a venue which, like our hotel, is located in Iowa State’s massive old Student Union. It mostly hosts concerts, including an annual blues festival. There are giant signed photographs on the walls, bluesmen both easily identified or obscure but probably legendary to blues-heads. Joining them on the wall are tons of black-and-white publicity photos of bands that have played here over the years. For a band-name fetishist like me it is a whole wall of heaven. There are ska bands and jam bands and grunge outfits and singer-songwriters and the real treasures are the completely obscure ones from like, Cleveland. The early-90’s college-rock of the whole thing is overwhelming to me. The desire of at least one member of every band, while autographing the publicity photo, to draw a speech bubble coming out of their mouth saying something hilarious is also overwhelming.
Backstage in the green room, more wall-mounted treasures: framed, hand-lettered posters showing entire semesters’ worth of music programming from, like, 1976. Names of bands and artists in pretty calligraphy float in a lot of crème-colored negative space. One flier advertises Charles Mingus on April 23rd. A week or two later, Roosevelt Sykes, described as “Blues Piano From New Orleans.” On May 11th, The Fabulous Rhinestones. Over The Fabulous Rhinestones, a big red stamp reading FAILED. Not CANCELLED. “FAILED.” I wonder just how the Fabulous Rhinestones faltered. I wonder what tragic flaw brought them down.
Dominic and I are taking the elevator down from our hotel room to the lobby. The elevator stops between floors, and it’s not a smooth stop. A full minute later, it starts up again, descending to the lobby, and stopping. A full minute later, the doors open. Later, upon returning to the floor where our room is, the doors will open to reveal: NOTHING. We are walled in. It turns out this is just a wooden door that sometimes closes over the elevator and can be opened like a normal door, but for a second, it feels as though we have been buried alive. And we’re not surprised. We don’t entirely trust the elevator, because that stopping thing happened earlier.
On the main drag, I see my favorite combination of words so far during this trip: “Central Iowa Psychological Services.” Of course, I have a historic weak spot for the word “Iowa.” It just lends things an…I dunno…an Iowa-ness. Maybe my favorite phrase of all time is “Iowa Poetry Prize.” I can’t remember where I first heard it, but I used it to title a mix CD. Because if you don’t title your mix CDs, you are missing out on a great titling opportunity. And titling is one of life’s principle pleasures. That and naming bands.
Early Sunday morning, Dominic and I are in the Jacksonville airport, on our way to Iowa by way of Chicago. Larry King is on the televisions at the gate. One of his guests is Judge Judy. The sound is cutting in and out. Sentence fragments are sneaking through. I hear Judge Judgy say the words “went home to Libya to die.”
Next up, Larry is discussing a case where a woman was kidnapped and killed even though three different 911 calls were made, including one from the victim herself on the assailant’s cellphone, and one from some people in a car next to the one she was imprisoned in, before she was ultimately murdered. Larry tells us to come back after the break and we’ll determine “who goofed.” After the break, he interviews the victim’s husband, who is now campaigning for 911 reform. If my wife had been killed in this manner, I would have a hard time campaigning for 911 reform. I would probably spend the rest of my life campaigning against extraneous use of the word “frustration,” as every use of it to describe anything that wasn’t how I felt about how my wife’s murder would desensitize people to the word, and then when I described to them how I felt about the string of failures that led to my wife’s murder, the frustration of it, they couldn’t begin to understand.
Later, the first flight is taking off. It’s dawn, and the sun through strips of cloud make Jacksonville a purplish, light-streaked archipelago.
At the Chicago airport, I stop in front of a Chicago-style hot dog stand and wonder whether it’s to early to have a Chicago-style hot dog. I determine that in my countless cross-country jaunts I have been loosed from any and all time zones, that I am now a citizen of an atemporal Wild West where I eat what I want and I sleep when I can. I then fully punish a Chicago-style hot dog, with the little pepper and everything.
We end up having a heck of a layover in Chicago. I stake out a row of chairs at our gate that are unbroken-up by armrests, thinking I will sleep a while. Though I can lay horizontally, the butt-groove of each individual seat makes this very uncomfortable. It is not the little oasis I thought it would be. I go over to a patch of carpet by the window and stretch out, using my backpack to shield my eyes from the sun and a sweater as a pillow. I fall into actual sleep, with dreams and everything. When I wake up I’m freezing. I try to walk it off. I stop at an airport shop and briefly consider buying a neck pillow. Then I realize our flight to Des Moines has been boarding for a while. We get on.
Our captain comes on the loudspeaker pre-flight, and his Latin accent can make anything sexy, including the phrase “I will take you to Des Moines as quickly and safely as possible.” It sounds like a promise from an illicit Flamenco lover-man. “Once there, I will disassemble you and make each part of you orgasm individually, but ONLY!…once we are safe in Des Moines.”
The car rental employee in Des Moines is almost disconcertingly helpful. He is a tall, corn-fed Iowa white person, and part of the reason his overt friendliness is off-putting is because when he has to describe liability insurance I can’t help but think of, y’know, mangled steel and death and stuff, and it is weird when you are thinking of that stuff and the person making you think of that stuff seems like he should be shooting an early basketball into a peach basket, or running down to the enlistment office even though, why, he’d barely even HEARD of Hawaii until this morning!
We go to the Apple Store at the Des Moines mall because we need an external hard drive, and overt friendliness starts to become a theme. For you see: moms run the Des Moines Apple Store. Like, MOMS. The positions that, at an Apple Store in New York or Los Angeles, would be filled by dudes with chunky glasses and wicked beards and glorious tattooed nerd-girls who set my heart alight, are in this mall filled by no-fooling honest-to-goodness Midwestern moms in their forties and fifties. Dominic comments that it is a good thing we know what we are looking for. He’s not wrong. While they do give off that enveloping mom-warmth (and maybe, maybe, the faint smell of a pie baking somewhere) they don’t exactly radiate computer knowledge. And that’s probably age-ist and sexist and a couple of those moms probably could have made my head spin with their copious Mac wisdom, given the chance. But we’re talking about feeling, here. And it felt like they wanted to sell us candles.
When our GPS does not know exactly which way to go, it says it is “Awaiting Better Accuracy.” I think I want my 25th birthday party to be called that.
We arrive in Ames. We check into our hotel, which is actually built in to the Iowa State student union. Up in the room, it is naptime. NFL football is on the TV. Howie describes a player as having “great explosion.”
That night, looking for food, we drive in all of Ames’ cardinal directions, inventory all of its lighted signs. One by one they start winking out. I drive north, where there is a mall. It’s joined to the city by a quiet strip of larger houses. When we get there, everything’s closed. We have the windows down. The smell here is amazing, loamy and crisp and autumn-y even though the air is still warm. At a certain point I realize I’m in the wrong lane, so to compensate, I run a red light. Steal big, steal little.
There is no tyranny like the tyranny of checkout time. Dan and I are in our respective hotel beds around eleven-thirty on Saturday when the phone rings. I hear Dan say “Really?” I hear him ask if there’s any way we can get a late checkout. I hear him say something that lets me know his request for a late check-out was declined. He hangs up. We get up and shower fast and get our stuff together and leave, because there simply isn’t anything we can do. And I had so been looking forward to sleeping in. And before you say “eleven-thirty is already pretty late,” what you should understand is that some periods in some people’s lives don’t lend themselves to normal human sleeping schedules, in fact, they force them to become sort of sleep gypsies, pick-pocketing sleep here and there, and digging little bits of it out of garbage cans. When such a person looks at the next twelve hours of their life and realizes they can go to bed and spend a significant number of those next twelve hours asleep, they are filled with a joy and a sense of relief normally only felt by mothers who thought their children had been kidnapped when actually they’d just wandered off to the next aisle of the grocery store. And when checkout time, a concept invented by fascists, a concept that counts Satan among its biggest fans, forces such a person out of their reverie long before they’ve banked the number of hours they had been hoping to bank, they will get up and go without complaint, almost eerily resigned, all the while thinking, “Oh, right. This is why I never hope.”
Outside it is positively pissing down rain. Dan stays under the awning, no use in us both getting wet, while I run and get the car and pull it around front. Dan is on the phone when I get back so I sleep in the front seat of the idling vehicle for who knows how long. This day will see us doing intros and Q&A’s at the “Mystery Team” showings and then driving to Jacksonville to meet up with Meggie and Dominic, but none of that is until tonight. After lunch, we park at the theater. Dan goes in to catch some “Basterds” and I attempt to sleep in the car. First I attempt to sleep in the front seat. Then I feel too exposed and weird, like some kind of guy sleeping in the front seat of a rental car in a movie theater parking lot or something, so I climb into the back and try to sleep there for a while, using my backpack as a pillow.
We hang out at the bar at the Outback Steakhouse next to the theater between showings. On one of the TVs, a sousaphone player from a college marching band appears and talks about dotting the I in his band’s halftime show.
There is a strange ecosystem to this multiplex that we become sort of privy to by hanging around for a few evenings. A girl behind the concession stand tells me they’re being incentivized to sell more personal pizzas, having a contest or something, so I buy one to juke her stats, and because I’m hungry. Later, Dan will buy a hot dog. It will be served in the same kind of tiny pizza box that my personal pizza came in.
There are these things called “Theater Walks” where a theater employee comes in and does a headcount of all the people in a given theater during the movie. I will perpetually dash between our movie and “Basterds,” and I would feel guiltier about sneaking unpaid peeks at somebody else’s movie if I hadn’t already paid to see it four full times in theaters. I go from fifth-date ga-ga infatuation with it to a more mature and intimate love. There are dust motes dancing in shafts of light and funny-sound German words that will seem like old friends by the time the tour of theaters that are also playing “Basterds” is over. I will quote it incessantly at the slightest provocation, or none at all. “Got the gist?” I will say. “I think so, sir,” I will say. “Paris when it sizzles.”
Every person we meet over the weekend who comes to see our movie and sticks around to talk to us is a total sweetheart, no exaggeration. But there is a little skepticism, especially on the part of teenagers, like: why is this happening here? It’s kind of adorable. I think it is the special privilege of every fifteen-year-old to think that their town is the fucking VOID, man, and to not be able to imagine a worse place than it.
The TVs in the lobby above the concession stand play a very tight loop of promotional clips for things. One of them is for “Where The Wild Things Are,” and it features a Karen O song where she and some children spell out the word “LOVE,” and it is catchy and adorable the first seventy times or so, and after that it is less like the song is stuck in my head and more like my head is stuck in the song. The “Wild Things” trailer with the Arcade Fire song in it was playing a few booths down from us at ComicCon. “Wild Things” is stalking “Mystery Team.” A great deal of that film’s marketing budget has gone to put claw-marks on the front of my brain and then fill them in with indie joints.
I forgot to put it in Friday night’s write-up, but on Friday, we go to a party at the home of some Theater Strike Force people, Theater Strike Force being the cool comedy mafia at UF who have done tons of amazing things for our movie, up to and including flyering and hosting a Q&A and buying tickets and generally being sweet and interested and amazing. A little while after we arrive, cops come by and strafe the house with beams of light and I have a general bemused feeling at not having to have the feeling of panic I would have if I were an underage college kid and the cops showed up, and then this feeling is superseded by the panic that I might, by being a twenty-four-year old at a party where everyone is maybe twenty-one at their oldest and in most cases a lot younger, be in violation of some Florida Creepiness Statute. They warn the owners of the house to keep everybody quiet and then they drive away. I don’t think they ever even get out of their vehicle. Later I am told a great story about a big bloody cut someone endured while working on, of all things, a blood cannon, and I do some top-volume proselytizing on hard work and college comedy, which I am more than happy to do at any party that will tolerate it.
On Saturday night, we do our final Q&A and get some fast-food burgers and Dan drives us through the night to Jacksonville. Dominic and I have a very early flight to Des Moines, connecting in Chicago, so I don’t really sleep when we get to Jacksonville. But I do get some inspiration for a good band name in the gift shop at the hotel where we meet up with Dom and Meggie: The Tiny Wines.
I know they’re an ecological nightmare, but Styrofoam cups for your fast-food soda are the jam! I would have very much liked to live in the golden age between technological breakthroughs in packaging and our conscience catching up with us. It must have been a guilt-free paradise coursing with the coldest soda on record.
On Friday in Florida we hear a radio commercial that contains the words “to complete your gun…” then proceeds to list lots of gun accessories. I realize it is a pretty knee-jerk Yankee reaction to be pulled up by this, so I will not comment on how crazy I think it is to hear guns advertised on the radio, and instead say that I wish that the instrument of killing that was the subject of intractable controversy in our society was not guns, but instead ridiculous surfboard-size anime swords. I would like there to be an assault-rifle-like ban on swords over a certain absurd size, or that glowed above a certain candle-power. I would like to hear people complain about having to undergo a background check and sit through a three-day waiting period before they could start off on their quest to slay the HyperKraken.
As part of an interview, we get to do all kinds of graffiti on a wall in Gainesville that is specifically purposed for legal graffiti. I am in heaven. I am able to paint “Mystery Team” in more or less the same lettering as the Team’s stand in the movie, and DERRICK in a logo-y style I like, and other unabashedly self-promotional junk, and I am feeling all kinds of slick and Basquiat-ish, until my finger starts to hurt from compressing the spray-can top, which makes my wrist hurt, which makes my arm hurt. I am old or weak or both. I could totally jump into a 1970’s trainyard with the guys from “Style Wars” and we would pass joints and drink beers and we would get exactly one letter into an elaborate three-car depiction of our crew’s name before I would start complaining that “my fingoos huwt.” I would say it exactly like that, too. Like a cartoon baby. I would whine until they took me home. They would not invite me out next Friday night, which sucks, because it would turn out that was the night they invented hip-hop.
The interview continues at a Cuban restaurant nearby. I get some fried plantains, because they're the best food, and if anyone says differently, ask them how they feel about joy. I guarantee you they'll say, "Joy? Not a fan."
Dan and I stay in Gainesville and Dominic and Meggie high-tail it to Tallahassee so there can be two people each at theater where the movie is opening to do intros and Q&As. The staff at the Gainesville Regal is extraordinarily helpful and cool. Besides the movie opening, Dan and I geek out on just getting to roam around a multiplex like we belong there. We realize neither of us has ever worked at a movie theater. And this is the movie theater we would’ve worked at, too. It is SO a suburban multiplex, and not only that, but it is SO a suburban multiplex on a Friday night. Kids are laughin’, swearin’, wackin’ each other on the arm. In the course of the evening, in one of the many theaters, somebody probably gets a perfunctory handjob underneath a sweater. It is thrilling to have your movie play in an actual movie theater. It is even more thrilling to realize that your movie could be the movie during which someone gets their first handjob. Most filmmakers will tell you that that possibility has spurred them on through countless setbacks in this most frustrating of professions.
On TV screens above the concession stand, a loop of trailers and commercials plays. One of the things being advertised is the 15th anniversary of the Warped Tour. Apparently the Warped Tour is now exactly as old as you should be when you go to the Warped Tour.
The stray cats in Florida are out of control. We see no fewer than ten darting about, crossing streets generally conducting themselves like they’re gonna go around a corner and turn into a witch during our time there.
Think of your body as a stuck-up princess and an uncomfortable hotel bed as a rough-around-the-edges devil-may-care swashbuckler, and sleep as a great adventure they undertake together against their will. At the beginning, before the adventure, they hate each other. They’re natural opposites. But by the time the adventure is over (when you wake up) they’re inseparable. They're deeply impossibly in love. What I am trying to say is: a good way to make any bed comfortable is to sleep in it and then have to get up.
We hit a Starbucks before the drive to Tallahassee. In the outdoor seating area, a young woman is sitting with an old-fashioned elderly creepy aristocratic Southern man. He is bald, he has a big cigar, he has a high-pitched vaguely feminine voice, and he’s dressed in light-colored formalwear. All he needs in order to be perfect are some dark secrets. He’s sitting on what is essentially a porch, which is working for him, but you want to be sitting in a rocking chair across from him and have him charm you with sweet tea and bawdy, heavily accented stories before he asks if you wouldn’t mind if he lopped off one of those pretty hands so’s he can feed it to the Beast that dwells in yonder bayou.
If you’re a white gentlemen over 30 in Florida, you’re GONNA be wearing a camouflage baseball cap. You just are.
The radio is almost one thosand percent that Taylor Swift song about a guy that won’t accept that they should be together because they both have very mainstream taste, and it is fun to think of how much of the invisible spectrum is shot through with this song right now, making it literally and figuratively EVERYWHERE. We hear lots of songs that sound like less-inspired version of “Since U Been Gone.” “Since U Been Gone” is inarguably a great song, but I think it might have launched a terrible mini-genre, songs in which an insistent guitar part is overlaid with a girl singing an auto-tuned kiss-off to some fellow, leading into an amped-up hook, the words to which are also the title of the song, and seem to have been written so you would see them in the top 10 downloads on iTunes and think, “I know what that song is about.” I’m not mad at you, “Since U Been Gone.” A few years down the road I can still play you at a party and everyone will still get crazy. But I dislike a lot of your children. I find them dull and headache-inspiring.
I’m in the car with Dominic. When we make our first stop in Tallahassee, at a bank, I notice two bugs on the passenger side window that are seemingly conjoined into one disgusting superbug. One bug is definitely driving, while the other one is mostly being dragged along behind it. I think about ecological disasters and how strange Florida is. I wonder if this bug is the first of its kind. Later, I will be told that these are “lovebugs,” and they were, in fact, two separate bugs who were, in fact, fucking. I am both relieved that I didn’t see an insect indicator of a coming ecological cataclysm and a little disappointed. You feel sort of special when you think you’re the sole witness to some sign of the apocalypse.
Later, in the Tallahassee hotel room, we do a massive round of Facebook inviting. This is initially a pain, as you have to go through and manually click every single one of your friends if you’d like to invite them. But Facebook has recently upgraded the invitation system, so instead of clicking check-boxes next to a list of faceless names, it now shows you a tiled array of your friends’ profile pictures. It turns the task into a fun nostalgia trip. “Oh yeah, whatever happened to _____?” The pictures do not actually provide an answer to that question, usually, as someone could be dressed as Heath Ledger’s the Joker, and it would be a mistake to assume that that “happened to them” and they weren’t just temporarily dressed like that for a party or something.
That night we do a show at Florida State. It’s in this very cool music venue on campus. Upon arrival at the venue I partake in an activity that will become a habit during the course of the tour: gawking at walls of framed posters from past on-campus concerts and envisioning an alternate universe in which I am a student who books bands at a cool college in the mid-nineties. There is a green room with snacks, and they’re all for us! Later, we’re brought pizza! It’s pretty awesome. The show is fun and we get to talk to kids afterward, and some Chewy Chips Ahoy from the green room are taken off my hands by the entire Freshman class of the FSU film department.
I am boarding the plane. In a seat I pass, a baby reaches for an unattended sack of cigarette cartons.
I am in the last row by the window, those seats where you can’t recline and you are constantly a little bit shaken by plane vibration. The woman sitting directly next to me is tiny and Asian and before takeoff we strike up a conversation that continues as the plane lifts off and the cabin goes dark. Her name is Sandy. She’s from China and she’s a printer and she’s heading to Chicago for a trade show. Her connection in LAX was her first sojourn onto US soil. Her English is tough to understand sometimes but actually really really good, and to paraphrase what I’m certain is a Dad joke but actually rings true in this case, is WAY better than my Chinese. She describes something as “very quite exciting!” In preparation for her trip, she has viewed pictures of Chicago pizza and hot dogs on the Internet. She wants to know: Do you chat on MSN? Gmail? She wants to know: Do you eat a lot of hamburgers, fast food? Because you are a writer, and you don’t have time to cook? She’s a dear for presuming a causal relationship between being a writer and having a shitty diet. She says her husband makes software for cellphones.
She keeps saying a word I don’t understand, and I can’t tell what English word she’s attempting, or if she is at all. From context I gather that it means forbidden or frowned upon or just generally not okay. For instance, when the flight attendant gives us both water, Sandy tells me that it is (sounds like cer-ter) to drink cold water in China.
Her boss, she says, is Australian. He drinks coffee. Five cups a day. The coffee machine is “just for me,” he jokes, though he is clearly made uncomfortable by the fact that no one else partakes. He comes in from having a cigarette break, moves to the coffee machine, and asks, “Does anyone want to join me?” Silence. “I guess I’ll drink it by myself.” She tells this story so excellently. It is not one of those conversations with a stranger where you have to force your laughter.
At one point, she offers me gum. It’s in a little plastic bottle that looks for all the world like it should contain over-the-counter pain medication, but there’s actually little pieces of orange gum inside. I accept it and take a piece and when I go to hand it back, she refuses to accept it. She insists I take the Chinese gum. I’m touched. Not long after, we both fall asleep.
I wake up because my head feels like a jar full of lightning. I get head-rending sinus headaches a lot of times when a plane starts to descend and this is the worst it’s ever been. I feel as though my brain is having trouble maintaining structural integrity and I tell it, it’s okay, you can go ahead and give up and explode out of my eye sockets like it feels like you want to. The captain says we are on our final descent into O’Hare. I look out the window. The part of Chicago I can see is a golden-hued checkerboard of foggy Risky Business paradise suburbs.
Chicago’s airport is very Chicago-centric. It’s clean and modern and workmanlike and generally in keeping with my mental image of the place. Enormous banners tout the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. There’s a dinosaur skeleton. Sandy and I go off in different directions. I hope she has an awesome trip. I get on the flight that will take me to Jacksonville.
If you’re wearing a hat that says “I’ll keep my guns, freedom, money, you can keep the CHANGE!” we’re probably not gonna like each other. And as you are attempting, with little success, to put your oversize carry-on in the overhead bin I will probably think, “You know the tide of history is coming to sweep you all away, right?”
Upon landing in Jacksonville, I pick up a rental car. It has satellite radio. While driving to Gainesville, I bounce between stations dedicated to the music of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, respectively, until I accidentally stumble one station north of the 90’s and discover E STREET RADIO, a station devoted entirely to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Suddenly, the time I spent driving and not listening to this station feels like The Dark Ages. A billboard for a fireworks stand says MAKE A DISNEY SKY!
At the hotel in Gainesville, I settle in for a long-as-possible afternoon nap that’s going to be trying (and failing) to make up for a full night’s sleep, basically the sleep equivalent of shoving French fries in your mouth when you’re hungry: you know it won’t really help and it’s bad for you and will probably only make things worse in the long run but fuck it, there in the moment, you need it, and nothing else is available. As I’m using the curtains to blot out body-confusing sunshine, the in-room phone rings: it’s the front desk, wanting to “check on the room.” I tell them everything seems to be okay. There’s a dead hooker in here somewhere, isn’t there? You guys swore you were gonna take care of it before the next guest checked in and you spaced, didn’t you? Just tell me where she is so I’m not surprised.
After the nap I leave the room to track down some dinner. By the elevator bank, there is a door with frosted glass covering it. The door is labeled “Storage.” The room is glowing from within with superbright white light. Either there’s a big window in that storage closet, or an angel lives in there.
I eat Chic Fil A, which is unshockingly awesome. That night, I’m doing a Q&A with some University of Florida comedy kids. In what will become a theme of the trip, I stop by Target beforehand to buy some trinkets to give people who ask questions in hopes that they will like me more. Among lots of other things, I end up getting neon vampire teeth, lots of Hot Wheels, and a DVD of “Hotel Rwanda.”
The Q&A is in a lecture hall in the main journalism building on campus. It is old and brick and reeks of we-make-the-school-newspaper-here-and-have-since-the-LBJ-administration, so I love it instantly. One of my hosts, Filup, keeps me company in a makeshift green room in the basement of the building. I come to understand there is a sort of comedy mafia at UF called Theater Strike Force, which consists of no fewer than a thousand sketch and improv groups. They are responsible for putting the Q&A together on very short notice, and will be responsible for a thousand other bits of awesomeness during our tenure in Gainesville.
Filup leaves me for a minute to go check on something. I leave the room to go to the bathroom. When I return, an old guy is shutting and locking our makeshift greenroom. I ask him if he can hold on and I grab my water bottle out of the room. He asks me what class I’m in. I attempt to explain to him that I’m not in a class, I’m a guest of…and they’re…upstairs, we’re… For no reason I feel like I am in trouble even though I’m not a student here and this man has no power over me.
The Q&A is a joy and a half. Dan and Dominic and Meggie pull into town just after I finish. We get dinner and crash back at the hotel and like that The Tour has begun.
(Again: the events detailed below in a sort of haphazard present tense actually took place several weeks ago.)
Tuesday I am leaving town. I am leaving town Tuesday night, to be more specific, and all day Tuesday I act like I’m leaving town that night, and like I’m going to be gone for a few weeks. This is different from how I usually act when I’m leaving town. Usually I act entirely normally until it is fifteen or so minutes before the Super Shuttle arrives, at which time I throw a bunch of things at my backpack, zip my backpack up, and hit the door. A sense of general slackness so pervades my air travel routine that I rarely even write down my confirmation number anymore. Typically I double-check what airline I’m flying on my phone while sitting in the back of whatever vehicle is conveying me to the airport, and oftentimes I become distracted by other things on my phone, so I don’t actually find out the answer to the airline question until the driver, who needs to know which terminal to drop me at, is asking, “What airline, sir?” and I am responding “UHM UHM UHM” in an attempt to kill time until my travel confirmation e-mail loads fully.
This slackness is mostly not the rule on Tuesday. Mostly I’m prepared. I am even packing a bag that is not just my backpack. This is because I realize I’m leaving for several weeks and even I understand the practical reality of needing enough stuff to last for that period of time, not because I have been visited by an angel in the night and been fundamentally and miraculously altered and become a “together” person or anything.
On Tuesday afternoon, one of our elevators is once again lined with smelly moving blankets. It makes the elevator feel like a tiny shitty recording studio that smells like machine grease. If you were going to shoot a movie about plucky working-class Irish mechanics who become a boy-band, and you didn’t do it in our elevator on Tuesday, you missed a great opportunity.
I am at Staples mailing something when the woman behind the counter tells me the Starbucks contained in that same shopping center is shuttering. I am immediately bummed out by this as I spend a ton of writing time there, and by extension, a ton of time being one of those landscape-y regulars I hope less frequent customers notice and think “That guy again?” Then I wonder why this woman knows I will be affected by this news enough to warrant her telling me in the first place. Have I ascended from a franchise regular to a whole-shopping-center regular? Does my routine have depressing ramifications for lives outside my own? She can see that I am puzzled so she reminds me that she worked at the Starbucks. Apparently she worked at both places part-time and then recently became a full-time Staples employee when she learned of the Starbucks’ impending closure. She is, it turns out, a greater whole-shopping-center regular than I could ever hope to be. I think of us as little organisms running around on the surface and beneath the skin of much larger, commerce-based life-forms, and I think if you told me the story was really about the shopping centers and their relation to each other, I could be talked into believing you.
Naturally the next place I go is the Starbucks that is not long for this Earth. Lots of local Starbucks managers are having a meeting around one big table. As the meeting begins, one woman says, “We ALL have a funny story about mocha,” and several other managers laugh knowingly. They’re then addressed by a woman who, I’m not sure, but seems to work for some sort of third-party cleaning service. Since I’ve just learned this location is closing I want her to be kind of like crime-scene clean-up for dead franchises. I want her to go from meeting like this to meeting like this, putting the figurative pennies on the eyes of fallen chain stores. She very well could just be leading a full-district annual cleaning and inspection or something, but I very much want her to be a harbinger of death. Not because I hate this store. I am sad for the lost or dislocated jobs and I spend lots of time and money here. But we live in a pretty tame version of the world, all told, and I want it to be the case that if you really squint, you can see the cowboys and cattle rustlers and doom-saying preachers in everybody.
Later, I go to an audition that is on a very high floor of a very tall building. Going up, the sleek superfast elevator makes weird stuff bubble around inside of me.
It is so week-one easy-pickings ironic that I’m sure it’s been pointed out elsewhere, but there is something just crystallinely beautiful about being an actor and getting out of an audition and then going to the reception desk and saying “Can I get validation?”
On the way down, the sleek superfast elevator makes weird stuff bubble around inside of me, and it kind of hurts this time. I hope that the building has a regular-speed non-fancy elevator for the folks that work in the mailroom and have to go up and down all day, or at least a line in the job description that says “After a few weeks, you will be a liquid.”
I run to the Apple Store to pick up an external hard drive. To the woman at the Apple Store who helpfully intercepts me and lets me purchase the drive before I can reach the actual counter, normally I appreciate the convenience of your store’s check-out-while-just-standing-anywhere-if-you’re-paying-with-a-card service, but not when it prevents me from interacting with the cute blonde cashier with glasses who I had been looking at just long enough for my internal slow-motion-and-romantic-song machine to get out the first two notes of “I Only Have Eyes For You.” That is when I don’t like that service anymore.
Later, it is my first time doing laundry since moving to Los Angeles, and don’t you DARE judge me. There are thousands of rap lyrics that glorify the kind of hustle that could make you forgo doing laundry in favor of other more critical pursuits for oh, eighty-six days. There is an entire genre of comedy movie devoted to the battles between snobs and the kind of person who could think it was okay to not do laundry for eighty-six days. Besides, I am a big believer in the cleaning power of leaving clothes around on the floor of your bedroom until you have run out of other, cleaner clothes, and that first round of floor-clothing now starts to look relatively clean to you. There is no better detergent than the constant erosion of standards.
I have dinner around the corner from our place with our friend Daniel. I hear a woman sitting near us say this sentence: “They don’t fuck many people they don’t know.” I wonder how one goes about getting a referral.
After dinner, Meggie drives me to the airport. I am going to be the first member of Derrick in Florida, with Dominic, Dan, and Meggie following me out a day or so later. I love flying red eye. The airport is charmingly low-key at night. It’s like your friend’s dad runs the airport and you get to sneak in after hours and just, like, fly wherever.
As I’m taking off my belt at security and placing it in the grey bin also containing my laptop and feeling particularly Zen, I wonder: is it this mellow because it’s late and there aren’t that many people here? Is it this mellow because I had two beers at dinner? I can’t tell. After I get through, the security line I was in shuts down for the evening.
It gets maybe too mellow when, before boarding, I buy a water bottle, then move to a trash can to throw away the receipt, then forget halfway through the move why I’m heading to the trash can, but momentum and my original intention to throw SOMEthing…but what?…into the trash can carry me, and I fling the water bottle into the garbage. With a similar degree of thoughtlessness, I quickly bend over and fish it out. I have to reach in, sure, but it’s sitting on top, it’s not like it’s lying in a POOL of anything. Then I go to the bathroom. I place the water bottle on the urinal and as I am peeing I am looking at it and my rational mind at last catches up with me and I think: Why? Why would I do that, at the outset of this critical trip, in this season of swine flu, in this enormous germ-ridden airport? This is how, after I finish peeing, I end up scrubbing down the unopened water bottle in an airport bathroom sink with soap and hot water.