Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Meanest Thing Someone Ever Said To Me

A gust of wind hummed softly down Grand, the final breaths of the hurricane resonated upon Brooklyn. She mercilessly had her way with Queens, shut down electricity to the largest borough in New York, but Williamsburg would have none of it. Helen and I walked Grand on my last night in New York. No one had carried me through this trip chalk full of cancellations and unexpected adventure more than that of Helen. We’d been friends for the better half of a decade meeting at the Purple Onion studying at the U of MN, and by some unlikely series of events, we’ve remained friends since. Helen let me crash on a foam bedding at her apartment while I settled in town. We kept each other company throughout the past week of cabin fevered rainy days,  credited to our love for music, beer, and conversation unveiling vulnerability. Sharing your worst fears, shittiest past happenings, and untold stories with someone will eventually bring you closer to them in spirit and friendship… as it has for Helen and I.

Neighborhoods forced upon themselves with the MTA shut down, streets gridlocked in cars fending for their spot by way of four-block lineup to the gas station, ATMs thoroughly dried of every dollar- I felt I’d done and seen it all this past week; Harlem to Connecticut, friends past and present, artists and DJs from 6-digit incomes to no-digit incomes. My mind was going into a blur and could only think of one thing: sushi.

“What’s the place called again?” I asked Helen. “Hirachi- Hobachi…” she answered. We’d know it when we saw it, I figured. Still blocks away, we chatted up our favorite subject: relationships. As it came about, Helen told a story that brought her to a stutter. Usually we tell each other arcs and tales of our experiences in friendships, relationships, family, etc. Something was different about this time. Helen had ventured down a road, peeling back the layer of a memory she didn’t want to revisit.

“It’s cool, you don’t need to tell me” I handed her the least awkward out I could think of, even though it was still damn awkward. “No- No, no. I’ll tell it”, she persisted… and then stopped again. It was like jumping the high dive for the first time. Once she stepped off the board, there was absolutely no coming back. I felt nervous for her.

She spilled the story. It was horrible, not the story but what the happening in the story. Helen had told me one of the meanest things anyone’s ever said to her. Although it had been years since Helen experienced these hurtful words, her face welled with tears at the thought of it. “That’s fucked up” crossed my mind to comfort her, but everybody says that shit when someone starts to expose their heart right then and there.

“That’s fucked up…” I said. “It just hurts y’know- it fuckin’ hurts.” Helen went on.  “Have you forgiven this person for saying this to you?” I asked. “Fuck no! Hell no” she declared.

“I’ve seldom experienced anything more powerful than forgiveness”, somehow came aloud from my streamline of consciousness. “Might be something to look into”.

I then thought about all the hurtful words that have been dealt my direction. I’m in the business of spoken word, written word- I’m in the business of language, so for me to be viscerally shaken by someone’s word- well, it’d take something pretty damn strong.

We sat for sushi. “When people say something, or even write something, with the intent to maim your emotions… you have to understand the source. If Person A were to shout to Person B across the street, “Hey you’re a fucking prick bastard son of a bitch” and we happened to pay witness, who would we be staring at?” I said. “Person A, the person that shouted the insult” answered Helen. “Correct. It’s classic. A maneuver we master in elementary school, and engrain into our psychi throughout adulthood. If someone says something- well, it must have some merit to it, right? Again, we should concern ourselves with the source… it’s shitty, we exacerbate what’s been said by collapsing stories about ourselves on top of it. Our self-esteem shakes to pieces, and we’re left with a horrible feeling at the pit of our stomach- the intended result of our culprit… Mind if I tell you the meanest thing that’s ever been said to me?” I asked Helen. “No, not at all” she replied.

“Ok…” I had to figure out how I was going to say this. I’d never told anybody this before- I mean, folks have said some crazy shit to me in the past, but this had taken the cake by a long, long shot. “Well, here it goes…

… I was in Mexico with my girlfriend, Consuela, at the time. We had been together for several months and had already taken on a pattern of breaking up and getting back together, arguing like we were fighting for child custody (hence, we had no children), and trusting each other as far we as we could throw one another. Yes, it was a relationshit, but here we were in Mexico. Aside from the bad, there was an immense amount of good to Consuela and I. She had the ability to go calm under pressure and make a decision out of her best reason. I admired her at the moments most would panic. However, there still lay the eye of the tiger layered deep beneath the surface, Consuela could unleash a heat unbeknownst to hell. At the precipice of her anger she would just… walk away. Didn’t matter if it was a family dinner or hanging out in a remote city on a road trip… she’d just walk away. Her ability to dissociate, and my ability to emotionally shut down made for a vendetta. In the end, I’d swear we were sleeping with one another under the code of “keep your enemies closest”. I digress, we were trying- she was a dreamer, I was/am a hopeless romantic. For what it was worth, we were in Mexico.

I flickered through my book of scribbles, verse, prose, and things not to forget. “Read me one of your pages” Consuela asked. Usually I laugh at the person, give a uber-serious comedic stare, and not read them anything from the book. Consuela was different. She was a talented writer, and had a genuine interest in what I was translating from my brain to pen to paper, so I took pride in sharing any current work with her. I read her a page. “Now, you read me a page from your book” I asked. Consuela was always writing in her journal. I’d never had an interest in it, but figured to return the favor while we passed the time in a 20th floor hotel room in Cancun.

Consuela paged through her journal to a random spot… her face fell for a split second- “What is it?” I jutted. “Noth-nothing” she claimed. Something was up, this wasn’t like Consuela to emote hesitation… ever. “Umm, so ya gonna read it?” I egged on. “Not this one. I really can’t” she dodged. “How ‘bout this one- ok here we go”, Consuela read me an excerpt from her journal. It was nice, pretty, civilized, everything she’d have the universe believe she always was and is. We adjourned to get ready to go out for the night. I finished up writing, Consuela took to the shower… leaving behind her journal wide open on the bed.

My eyes pulled away from the verse I’d been focused on for the past hour. What the hell had she written that she couldn’t share? Consuela had never been the type’a gal to go gunshy. She’d curse out a war veteran if she felt it was justified. She’d relayed nearly every ugly inch of her past to me, or at least I thought. Dammit man, get the idea of out your head! Opening that book can do no God damn good!

I did it. Creasing open the page she’d forbade herself to read, I noticed “father” of all the words on the page. “Toussaint tells a sob story about the absence of his father throughout his childhood. I think it’s just to pin himself as the victim and create some kind of sympathy for himself. Honestly, I believe he’s afraid of his father because he subconsciously knows he’s going to end up just as shitty a father as him, if not worse.”…

And there it was. The meanest thing I’d ever paid witness to that had been put out into the universe. Sure people have thought worse, said worse behind closed doors, written worse in books out of sight… but that was the worst my attention had ever paid witness to. “Holy Shit, that bitch is cold as ICE!!!” I thought to myself. I went numb, and then apathetic, and then to logic; well, God forbid I ever have children with this woman, she’d frown upon my every move- well, if I can’t have children with the gal I’m with based on the fact that she thinks I’d be a terrible father, then I could never marry her- shit, if I can’t see myself marrying her, what the fuck am I doing in Mexico with the chick?!?!?- oh, that’s right. Christ, I gotta get outta here… details aside, we broke the day we returned to Minneapolis. With that said, that… was the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me.

I know what you’re thinking “Oh, but it wasn’t said, it was written”- dammit, in my book it’s the same accountability. If you’re gonna write it, you should accept responsibility like you said… aloud… with a megaphone… directly in the ear of the listener.

The thing with hurtful shit people say is that you learn to forgive them. The anger turns to disappointment toward them… and you move on. The word, the action, the source of the malicious intent has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the person producing it.” Helen picked up her jaw from the table. “Waaaaoooooow (high pitch Fran Drescher voice), that’s rrrrreally fucked up!” Helen gasped. “I know” I smiled. “Forgiveness, though. You might wanna put some thought into that” I concluded before we dove into our sushi as if we’d been starving for the past two days, then to galavant Brooklyn ‘til the wee hours of the night. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Honda Chronicles 4

January 22nd, 2010

Toussaint here. While Honda lay at 4-Star Auto and Double Bogey sit somewhere in Dinkytown, I figure I have the best perspective on what happened next.

I have pride, but not enough that I couldn’t ask Liam for a favor. The only way to get the car from Dana’s father was in cold hard cash (a banker’s check). I knew I would have the cash from The Blend’s show in Cedar Rapids within the next week, and would soon have money from a modeling gig I’d done to pay back The Blend as well. All in all, I needed an advance. I felt like a low-down dirty vagabond. The world around me would affirm that feeling, but a part of me was still fighting hard to ignore the scrutiny.

Liam lent me the cash. From there I made the payment to Dana’s Father. The only thing left was to pull off The Blend show in Cedar Rapids without a hitch or hiccup- no easy feat. The Blend was already unthreading itself at the seams with cocktail stewed of alcohol, lunesta, ego, and lack of spirit. The group had the chutzpah & talent to kill a football stadium stage opening for U2, but didn’t want to hand out a flier for a local show to save their lives… let alone click “invite” on Facebook. Team morale was at an all-time low and you couldn’t blame a single person in the group (well, maybe 1 or 2) for it. A band that’d never received a single handout, pulled off a grossing tour, or fell into the lap of luck- we folded. We’d made our own luck, and by the grace of a higher power we’d be back in the future (5 years or so later) to prove ourselves as the greatest band the country’d never heard… but not now. Steam and time were running out, and I knew it.

We pulled up to Volume, the club in Cedar Rapids we’d perform at. The night wreaked something awful and empty. I stepped out of the bus into dark downtown that'd recently been flooded, now overrun by startup businesses and bar-close bar fights. “Just get through this” I told myself. I’d brought Lazlo Supreme along with Jimmy & The Threats to the venue as well to cover the night front to back with music. It’d do no positive that night. The crowd was more interested in covers and would have none of the a capella/hip-hop of Lazlo and Jimmy opening.

The Blend was up next, however what would take place then was a nightmare on stage… at best. Three songs into the set, the guitarist broke a string but would continue to play as if it’d never happened. I looked to him while still performing and gave him an evil eye as best I could. He didn't read. He just kept on like a kamikaze pilot, except in this case there were four others aboard the flight other than just him. He was going to crash this motherfucker as deep and fiery he could before we'd officially call it quits. Cedar Rapids, The Blend, and the soul of music would suffer a blow that night. The clash of flats and sharps would run through the set and into the end of the night. Again, the audience would have none of it, not even during the few covers we played.

Linden, the piano/sax player, sat off-stage peering toward the ground while a few of us packed up equipment. I didn’t need to ask, rather just knew. Something else had to be done, just not with this group. The circumstance was no longer ours to have.

I collected the 1500, paid out the dues due to the performing artists, and vowed to never insult the game in such a manner as was wrought that night. My spirit was at a low. Not an all-time low, but a God damning low.

Carefully, I steered Double Bogey through a treacherous wind of snow and freezing temperature. The path bore no favor in our travel. Icy roads, snow blowing sideways, it was a deathtrap as much as the bus was. I’d manage the over-sized vehicle four-and-a-half hours bordering on Faribault… and then it happened. The absolute worse thing that can happen at 5am in sub-zero cold just outside of Costco and a closed gas station.

“ReeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!” went the engine. The sound became louder and louder paired with a smoking scent of burned rubber. The smell stung the air worse than the high-pitch screeching sound. What was happening, unbeknownst to all of us on the bus, was the slow melting death of the bus’ serpentine belt. I coughed profusely, Linden covered his mouth with a giant mitten. “SHIT!” I cursed the air helplessly. The wheel seized up on me like rigamortous. I could muscle it a tad, but not enough to make it back to Minneapolis. We were 45 minutes outside of the city and would have to pull over at the next exit.

Coasting on momentum, it took two hands and all of my weight to steer the wheel off onto the next exit to a gas station that’d just opened. From God damn low to here. This was the all-time low. Everything Dana had notioned, everything her family had thought, every evil thing my mother or father had muttered while questioning my career in music or on stage… all came true. A prophecy of sorts I usually shrugged off with a faux smile, as if I were to nab the next bus to downtown and schedule an interview for a big boy job I never intended to have, I laughed in the face of post-graduate norms and 9 to 5s. However here, the joke was on me. A sad, sad joke indeed. The little musician that never could. Feeling bullied by the universe, I had no one to blame for the circumstance. "Get it together" I demanded of myself. There was no blame in this situation. Shit happens, now it's time to fix it, move on, and get our asses back to Minneapolis. 

A cover of frost glazed over Double Bogey cementing its uselessness. It could best serve as a popsicle to a homeless giant or ice cube to God… but nothing to us. Nothing but circumstantial failure and a clear symbol of The End of something.

Linden, Todd, Pat and I barreled into the gas station. “When does the Costco open?” I asked. “Thirty minutes” replied the cashier. Fucking Christ. Our lodge would be the coffee shop built into the Costco, but not before we’d spend 30 minutes standing in the tightly packed gas station pretending to read magazines. It was still dark out, 20 below, the day hadn’t started yet and I was already done with it.

“Hello”, my mother answered the phone. “Hey, we’re stuck in Faribault. Our bus broke down.” I stopped right there. My mother isn’t going to leave her slumber, leave her comfortable bed in the dead of winter to come pick up her son’s band in Faribault. Although it may come or seem as an indictment to my mother, there was just no way she was going to pick us up. I knew it before I called her, she knew it before I called her, and I just wanted to call her to make sure nothing had changed. Ever since my mother sat me down as a 10yr. old and said “Look, if you ever wind up behind bars for doing something stupid… I’m not bailing you out”. From then on, it has always been known that this is on me.

We were stuck until someone was actually willing to bail us out of Faribault. Some sort of cruel punishment & karma was being doled out and I didn’t fucking like it one bit. The cold had set into our bones long before the trip took place- Double Bogey being without heat and all. We were sick, hurting, and in no shape to rally. The one man in our camp that could potentially get us out of this shit hole was the one that had bled the most cash and time up to this point… Linden.

“My parents are on the way” muttered Linden. “Fucking kidding me?!?!” I said. “No” he replied puzzled. He’d taken my question literally, which was usually a credit to our misunderstandings, but this one would breeze over. We’d wait for another hour or so, Robin and John packed our things into their van, and we’d abandon Double Bogey to the Costco lot for the next month or so. I wanted to cry, but the elation of being rescued from the depths of a frigid hell in St. Elsewhere blinded me for the moment. “Get the car”, I thought to myself. “Just get the damned car”

Money returned to Will, money returned to The Blend. I was square with everyone except for 4-Star Auto. Honda still sat upon the oily turf of the lot. I didn’t have the cash to save her right away, and the longer she sat, the more it would cost. There was more money coming in from another acting job I’d picked up, however it would pay for a month or so. I didn’t want to deal, at least not for the next week. Double Bogey would have to wait to figure out if it’d be buried in Faribault or Minneapolis. A proper goodbye seemed in order, I just didn’t want to wrap my brain around it now.

I’d divulged this entire story to a friend of mine, Tes. He was something like Linden, an eternal optimist, forever seeing the bright side to everything. “Ha, perfect!” Tes laughed. I wasn’t impressed, not even humored by his reaction. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean”? I asked him. “You’re absolutely free now. Think about it. Dana can’t tell you what to do anymore, you bought the car so you don’t have to hear from her dad anymore, and- well, you’re free to go wherever you want.” I’d already knew the latter, but didn’t really strike me until someone outside of my own head said it.

He was right. The book was closed. I was a free man.

I had been stalling out on answering a friend’s invitation to New York for the past few days, focusing on the car and all. I emailed her, Gale, that week upon returning to Minneapolis from Cedar Rapids, “searching for flight prices. Hopefully, I’ll have something worked out by tomorrow”. Cripes, the prices were so ass-low that I worked it out that night. A leap from Minneapolis to NYC, then to Milwaukee for a show with The Blend. We had a few more shows left on our tab. I would try to make the best of them as the talent distanced itself further and further from the basic function of taking stage. It was clear, I had to find a way to operate The Blend to the end of its tour schedule, begin maneuvering a solo career with more efficiency than a death-trap barreling the highways as a bus, and finally to pay Honda’s way out of 4-Star Auto.

There would be no mercy from 4-Star if I couldn’t get the money together by the time I returned from New York, but I’d bust out Honda even if I had to hotwire the damn thing. With liberation comes an even greater responsibility to one’s future. I could see it now. The entire thing rolled out directly in front of me daring my reflex to hesitate. Such a powerful a point and intersection to stand on that I couldn’t waste a moment. I’d never cared for the future as I did now, I had never recognized it- figured it’d always work itself out. I’d never seen it during the several years I had been with Dana, let alone the immediate days after the break-up. I had settled, become comfortable. The cruise control had to be dismantled, and what better place to do so than in New York under the tutelage of Gale, an expert in impulse and organized chaos. I was a wreckloose who subconsciously didn’t believe in himself, but always projected the absolute opposite. I’d bought into all the negatives that’d been advised to me throughout the past years and let the worst morning of my life (at the Costco) affirm it.

So, off I go to New York to save a license-plateless car sitting in the cradle of certain death. I'd rather it by my hands than not.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Never mind the edge of the stage creeping closer to your literal fall to public embarrassment. Before I could realize it, I had stepped onto a raised platform not intended to support the weight of 8 (or more) human beings. Just as FDR had finished his set to coronate a new album he’d released, Toki Wright and Carnage swiftly maneuvered a cypher to take place on stage. This is Minnesota, there are no swift maneuvers to co-opting over half-a-dozen musicians to get on stage at the same time- hence the brilliance of it all.

In a scene padlocked with passivity and great intention, getting to the point takes brute tough love. Toki wasted no time in assembling the mass and heading up a cypher that’d put the finale of the BET Hip-Hop Awards to a crying shame. The air came electric, ripe with possibility & talent, and a looming question of “Can it get any better?” Step one, Carnage mandated everyone take 4 bars each. This way you cut the malarkey to a minimum- keep cats on their toes- warm up to the idea of sharing the mic. Some went bashful at the forced peer pressure from Toki to take the stage, others pushed a stare into the ground something fierce searching for the next words they’d freestyle into the hearts of the audience. At a moment’s glance, one could fall from respect to rookie freestylist McGillicuddy. No one wanted the latter, everyone longed for greatness. Thus the beauty of the cypher; battling for rights to expression, building from the immediate past, sharing present thought without restraint to then laugh at how serious we all took ourselves soon after.

With so much testosterone and ego wrapped into one set, I could feel the gravity of each thought passing through my mind. “Don’t fuck this up” began to fade into a blur of white noise until Toki mandated the mic to me… we rhymed, we laughed, we closed house.

Talent gathering to one area, joining forces for a cooperative blast, and retreating with nothing but smiles is hardly a common instance in the Minneapolis area. The trick rest in the cojones of Toki and Carnage. Beatbox, vocal prowess, and raw talent aside, they remind me of a quote from a great actor I worked with by the name of J-Dub. At the end of my internship with the Penumbra Theatre, J-Dub handed me a key chain with a quote he would always voice in the midst of our acting workshops. “Always Do The Thing You Think You Can’t Do”. Going firmly against the city’s normative wallflower character, I couldn’t think of two people more suitable to revolutionize the wiring of Minneapolis music and business.

The catch to all of this was a common name- phrasing- title what have you- between each lyricist on stage. “Adam J Dunn” or “Adam Dunn” was referenced in the midst of the majority of freestyles performed that night. Not a record label, not a press figure, not a local blog, not a venue- just a guy… a guy who directs music videos responsible for the majority of Minneapolis music turned video. If you’ve seen a Minneapolis artist on YouTube, then you’ve most likely seen the work of Adam J Dunn. It behooved me to ask if it be inches or miles we’d stand behind the curve if it weren’t for a local director to put so many musicians in front of the world beyond the bubble of our city- beyond the awkward silence disrupted by the bright lights of Toki and Carnage- beyond any stage.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

To Say "Thank You" 186 Times

I am on a plane from Idaho to Denver…. The connecting flight from Denver to Minneapolis might leave before we get there. If this occurs, I will most likely seek out hard drugs or something that can take me into the immediate afterlife. I am in the worst physical pain I’ve ever felt- well only second to that time I had a hernia surgery and tried riding a bike to the coffeeshop only to tip over in slow motion against the sidewalk.

What kind of pain would drive a man to such heights of extremism, you ask? Hmm, it's comparable to a time- a time almost ten years ago… I awoke one morning to find that my contact solution was gone. Being the resourceful asshole that I am, I decided to use my roommates. Half-hazard I disregarded the printed red band around the bottle of my roommate’s solution, soaked my contacts in the liquid and placed them in my eyes.

At the slightest touch of my right cornea, I felt the sting of a thousand suns. Whatever the solution was made of had grazed my eye like a razor blade. “HOLY FUKIN SHIT FUCK  PERRY WINKLE STAR BRIGHT!”. Sidenote: I curse like I have Tourette's. Credit it to my high school friends and I freestyling at lunch over beatboxing, stirring ourselves to think of the most immediate thought on our minds and connect it to our mouths. Sometimes it landed me in the principles office, and other times I wound up writing a script to take stage for hundreds to spectate- I’ll take both. So, cursing whatever’s at the forefront of your attention span is… fun. I figured it’d just been awhile since I had brand new solution and tried to place the contact back in my eye- ZZZZZZAP! The sting struck again, my eye went bright pink… and it was then I noticed the large red band wrapping the bottle of my roommate’s solution “WARNING 3% PEROXIDE”. I’d voluntarily burned the life out of my eye.

Flash forward to now, this is what it feels like. The only difference between the two is this feeling won’t go away, and something keeps refreshing the sting in my left eye to the point it’s at a constant drip- something similar to Jinno resurrected as half-robot/half-human (ref: Afro Samurai). Following suit, the left side of my face has begun to submit to the pressure of the flight cabin hinting that I might blow an aneurysm. One more anime metaphor, if I may: it feels like I’ve been slapped in the left-side of my face by Fist of the Northstar- not hard enough to make my head blow up, but just enough impact to make it swell to the point of me making it want to blow up.

Phone stolen, face swollen, and the only thing I’m truly pissed about is the laundry basket full of metro area kickstarter packages to send out. When staring at the stack of 150+ t-shirts I had to mail out to the backers/investors of the kickstarter project, I went still with intimidation. What had I created, who was going to help? The answer lie in the action. Essentially dodging people and extra curriculars for a week straight, I was able to get all the out-of-towners mailed in 7 days, and the locals prepped. What kicked my ass the most was the personal Thank You letters, and also what kept me going as well. Every one or two notes, I noticed a familiar name. When I thought I had nothing genuine to express or unique to say, it kept coming to me naturally. Hell- I’d do another kickstarter project just to write thank you letters. More than writing lyrics is writing a play, and more than writing a script is writing  a slam poem, and above that… the thank you letter. I can’t think of any way better to spend an afternoon, morning, evening- I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than to write a thank you letter.

Where a society has gone addicted to digital text, in-and-out boxes, sitting down and writing a letter to someone creates its own place in the world for you. Its tangible enough you can see the words, touch the paper, and read it again without having to reboot a machine. It’s the epitome of giving someone your time. To disregard a letter is to rip it up, throw it away, or even not open it- all in all, you know it’s there. Those words have been put out into the world, written on earth for you.

My grandfather used to write salutations to my grandmother just whenever, at random, from his heart. Dude didn’t call her for a week (ref: gangster) after he first got her number, and just started writing her salutations since they began dating. And now, I’m here with a sickly face sitting on a situation with 40+ thank you letters for people that more than deserve it. Got-dammit, these people will have their mail whether my face turns a droopy Quasimoto or not- I vow to get the packages there.

With all that said, I’m thoroughly amped for this week to play out. We release the mixtape online, we go live with national radio, and I leave town for a week to do educational theatre for GTC Dramatic Dialogues. Priority still stands, getting the packages to the locals.

Even in the utmost rock bottom of physical pain, it’s a soothing thought to be near the finish line of completing what you said you'd do- to say “Thank You” 186 times. It didn’t actually hit me that 186 individuals contributed to a project that hadn’t even begun to get it’s engine started, until my colored pencils started sketching bubble block letters to each backer. I’m in the 2nd most physical pain of my life (which could be worse), but also believe I may be the luckiest guy on the planet. For what it’s worth, thank you again- can't wait to release this mixtape out into the universe.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Four Hundred Meters of Redemption (1/2)

I have nightmares.

One of them is a reoccurring haunt. Reoccurring and occurring for the past 12 years of my life.

How do I explain- Where to start...

I was bit by a deer tick. The bite panned out like Spider-Man, but in reverse. I had trained the entire year to make it to the state track & field meet in the 300 Intermediate Hurdles, had won my conference in the event and was en route to qualifying for the big show. However, after a game of splat ball  in Hinckley, a deer tick found its way to my right shoulder blade and burrowed a poisonous life-threatening/altering  bite mark.

I had contracted Lyme Disease and didn’t know it at the time. My legs slowed, muscles atrophied, and energy dissipated to nil all before my own very eyes. I raced my heart out, but came in a lowly 5th at the regional finals. Only the top 2 go.

Now, when I close my eyes and take on any kind of nap or slumber, a scene plays out within the recesses of my mind. A gun fires, the racers leave their blocks, the crowd screams- everything moves with such an elusive fluidity to it that it becomes a smear of colors streaming through space, painting the track, leaving behind shadows of their former silhouette. Old friends smile with great expectation that I will set a personal best, or even win the race. It is a beautiful thing, as the sun is always shining in this dream… and this is my nightmare, for one thing is always wrong with this picture- one horrifying part is absolutely wrong.

The moment I try to advance from my blocks, or even from a stand still, my thighs seem to float like balloons pushing through space. There is no force behind the movement, no muscle, no chutzpah, no nothing. I am a slow motion figure in a fast paced world of trained sprinters. I am worthless.

To my friends, to my family, to the sport, to myself- I am of no worth to watch or cheer. I fail. The race leaves me, and I stay behind… everytime.

As I write it, now, I find the nightmare more in the reliving than the happening. As Prometheus was banished to a rock for his transgressions toward Zeus, he faced an eagle daily that would fly down and eat his liver. However, this was not the bane of his punishment, the curse lie in Prometheus’ liver growing back everyday just to be eaten by the eagle. I find it parallel to dreaming of racing for my goal just to lose… every single time.

I have struggled with this dream turned nightmare for 12 years, now.

Perhaps watching a 34 yr. old (Felix Sanchez) win the 400m hurdles in this year’s 2012 Olympics has turned my daily 30 minute jog to sprinting hurdles on a track… or maybe it’s the ultimate resentment for the piece of my brain that can’t let the past be finished- the part of me that clutches the loss as hard as it did the goal.

Working with two children this summer as a youth mentor, I decided to take them to a track at the edge of the city to run time trials- develop some sort of penultimate summer goal of measured progression. I’d run my morning sprints on this track in the past to prep for high school meets, and hone hurdling techniques. It scared the shit out of me to be back there.

After dropping the kids off, I headed back to my house- picked up my track cleats and drove straight back to the secluded track, my sanctuary. Jog, stretch, plyometrics- I began my hurdle routine. This wasn’t for enjoyment, this was to slay a dragon- to kill the echo rung from my final high school track race. After three-step speeding over several hurdles, I noticed an old white man enter the field. His strut was slow, but tall. He eyed me like I had trespassed onto his property- watched my every move over the hurdles. When he wasn’t in my range of visibility, I could feel his attention on my back as I still ran the hurdle routine.

“What ya’ runnin’ for?” murmured the old man.

My heart went cold. A breath escaped me a beat. Although the disbelief in me pulled back the notion, I still trusted my instinct that I knew this man. I recognized his voice. The circumstances were simply improbable- beyond chance that we’d ever run into each other again.

But here we are. 15 years removed, at the edge of the city, on a track only few have driven by let alone set foot upon.

This man was a ghost, to me. He’d been present in a few of the nightmares watching the race. And now here he is asking what I’m running for while I’m wide awake.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hard In The Paste

I went this one alone. Factors contributing to the solo mission go as follows: Ralph is soon to be a father and has a laundry list of responsibilities a presidential candidate couldn’t handle at the moment, therefore he had to split right after performing the show; Todd had to be at his cousin’s wedding reception- notice how I said “reception” and not “ceremony”; And Patrick- well, Patrick just had to go be cool elsewhere. Watching him grow into his mid-20’s I’ve noticed his interest sway from the party & bullshit to the finer things in life. Can’t blame’em, Pat’s his own man- and a good one at that. Him and Linden made, and make, a perfect combo for Lazlo Supreme- both music picky, very detailed when it comes to live performance, and natural born introverts.

I don’t know it yet, but this would be the last hurrah for my old running shoes. They wrapped my feet tight enough to maneuver the upcoming apparatus, paired well with my running Nike shorts and overpriced simple tank top. Although the event was dubbed as the Midwest Tomato Fest, the entrance sign read “This Way to the Tomato Fight”. The fight was all the mattered, and I had to come back after performing with The Blend earlier in the day for the full day event to find out. To say the least for the anticipation building toward the Tomato Fight was incomprehensible at the moment. Kamal, a youth I had mentored and taken care of back when I had just graduated high school, now a full grown man and University of St. Thomas graduate had told me the tomatoes being used for the fight were soft as salsa. I would find this to be discreetly untrue in about 60 seconds.

The crowd is clearly drunk. Crushed cans of Grain Belt Nordeast bedded the pavement leading to the fenced tomato fight area. Women shouted obscenities at their male compatriots, perhaps to relieve the excitement or anxiety an outdoor food fight was capable of producing. The tomatoes seemed harmless at a the view of several layers of crowd from the entrance. A drunken woman and her friends began leaning over the entrance fence to blindly launch tomatoes in the air upon the crowd in waiting.

A glimpse of clarity streaked my conscience. The gentlemen to my left were wrapping their belongings in plastic, hiding it away in their shorts or underwear, a visibly drunk couple prepped their protective eyewear (goggles)- Sweet Mother of Breakfast, this fight was going to get downright immoral. SPLAT! Debris from the drunken girls next to the fence hit a foot away from me. Another gentlemen dodged it as well. The clarity ended with a strong voice in my head declaring, “Are you bullshitting me?!? There are 60,000 lbs of tomatoes ahead of you in an empty parking lot soon to be pitched with the furor of Curt Schilling (circa 2004, game 6 vs. NY Yankees) and you’re shuttering at a little bit of tomato paste? Negro, please!”

No prep signal, no moment of silence, no countdown….

VOOOOOM- the fence dropped to the parking lot. The people in front of me baby stepped pushing the crowd ahead of them. Video footage of soccer stadium riots riddled my brain for a split second thinking I’d be trampled to death. Press on, damn you, press forward! These people are unrelenting drunks, you must overpower the pace!

A woman went down hard in the pavement. One of her legs was caught in the crowd, stepped on, soon her skull at this pace. I pause to reach back to her. I couldn’t live with reading the tabloids tomorrow morning “YOUNG WHITE WOMAN SKULLCRUSHED IN TOMATO FIGHT ENTRY”. Dammit lady take my hand! Die during the fight, not before it!... Alas it was not to be- I was too far ahead. She’d become a casualty to the game… or her friends would help her up.

Toppled the first mountain of tomatoes. Kamal’s analysis wrought false- the tomatoes were less the consistency of soft salsa, and more the density of a softball. Before I could let one rip, before I could commit my arm to the destruction of someone else’s face by vegetable- BAM! A tomato disintegrated into my neck. Thrown at the speed of a bank robbery, I turned to the direction I thought it came from- BLAP! Another vegetable straight to the thigh. There was no time to think- adrenaline surged to the point the pain had forced me into a blind rage of melee. I couldn’t feel, see, or hear anything. It was at this exact moment I said one thing, and one thing only. It was the one quintessential phrase that need be uttered at a moment while standing atop a mountain of tomatoes- the sheer embodiment of what needed to be done, what a mercenary with no country to go home to says, the words of a samurai with no living family left declares…


The phrase exploded from my vocal cords out of its own volition. I quickly grabbed several tomatoes, clutched the lot of them into my left hand, jut my left knee out as if to make a twist to throw a shotput and whipped my right arm around palming but one tomato. It was a swift and deadly shot. I’d directly struck a man in the chest 5 feet in front of me. The blow was merciless, bloodless, and absolutely uncalled for. He looked me in the eye for a moment, speaking with his eyes “What the fuck bro?!? It’s just a tomato fight, chill out!”

There would be no chilling out, I stared back at him, blood pulsing, eyes cold, veins pushing away from my neck and forearm as if I were bench-pressing the world… There would be no chilling out whatsoever. The one sense that came back to me was fleeting, but helpful. My sight. When you’re in the belly of the beast with vegetables flying at over 30 miles per hour, the one thing you’ll notice more than anything is the air and sky before turn to red. To put it bluntly, you can’t see shit. If you have goggles, make sure they are strap-ons, because 2 minutes into the fight, the regular goggles were strewn about the ground

BLAP! “Shit!” Another neck shot, this time straight on to the larynx- BOOM!... … …

My right ear went deaf for a few seconds. This hit had pushed my sunglasses, doubling as goggles, into the bridge of my nose. Blood began to let from my face. The combination of hits was ripping my psyche to shreds. I’d exuded the confidence of an undead monster returned to wreak havoc on a small village, but the larynx shot had rendered me gasping for air while trying to remove my sunglasses to wipe the sauce from my eyes from the earshot. I had to find someway to defend myself. The shots were coming from everywhere.

After a few painstakingly close shots to the family jewels, I cupped my groin with my left hand and scooped tomatoes with my right. I had to protect the groin. These rapscallion sons of bitches were slinging faster than Strasburg before the Tommy-John surgery- if one were to strike me in the groin, I’d have to leave for surely. I didn’t want to leave though. I wanted to make sure everyone that entered the arena knew my pain. So, I made a rough draft of a plan… and committed to it.

I staked out the first mountain I’d encountered and kept close to the crowd.  The more open space you find around yourself, the more likely you are to catch a death shot. Average tosses don’t scare. In the red swarm of sauce flying amidst the air directly in front of you, the adrenaline and sheer fun of the fight numbs you to a simple strike. However, should you find yourself near an open space where no on is nearby, then I have no remorse or sympathy for the danger you put yourself in. How it works is the more open space you leave between yourself and the next crowd, results in the more elbow room an on looking participant has to wind up and deliver a game changer straight to your clavicle. I digress, I stayed in close to the crowd, gathered as many tomatoes with my left as I could, stayed low- always stay low! The second you pop your stupid ostrich head up is the second you catch a 50-mile per hour vegetable to the forehead. It’s not fun and games at that point- I looked towards the entrance. Then, with a vengeance I sped a fastball straight to the dome-piece of a newly entered participant.

The goal was to have each of them know they were entering the dragon- for each of them to understand there was no love, mercy, or human compassion on this side of the fence. Recourse, adjudication, accountability would all take a leave of absence until the final vegetable was thrown.

The fastballs I delivered became more deadly and precise as time went on. I made strident effort to pitch them as far back as I could, to take out the onlookers that per chance just wanted to pay witness to the senseless violence taking place. If they were to watch, they would have to pay a tax. The tax was the line of fire. If I could reach’em, they would be touched by the tomato.

As time passed on, the ground became awash with tomato paste. The pavement slowly drowned beneath 3 inches of sauce and water. At this point, all the tomatoes you could actually grasp and let rip had disintegrated to mush. To fight at this juncture in the event was to be a chicken hawk. The company released the hose, sadly only one hose, to wash down the participants looking to leave.

What became an obstacle was to make an exit after washing off. The hose was in the field of play, so after hosing the acidic stick of tomato paste from every orifice of your body, you still had to trek through a long line of douche baggery participants looking to sling hand-fulls of sauce on to your newly washed skin.

An overweight gentlemen with a cut-off t-shirt stood near the hose; Discombobulated, drunk, staring aimlessly at the last of the sauce being tossed in a lost tomato fight. A good solid tomato unleashed from the small fray of fighters at the end of the war, striking the overweight gentlemen square in the chest. He did not flinch, his eyes rolled toward the culprit in his view. The audience surrounding him carried  looks of astonishment, as if they paid witness to a stray bullet taking out an innocent bystander. Then, the only words that could be given to the moment a tomato fight has turned to mush and a lone asshole who pocketed the last fresh vegetable decides to peg an innocent in cold blood... were spoken. “Fuck you man” said the overweight gentlemen to the culprit. It resonated through the air as somewhat of a poetic conclusion to the madness.

Sauce continued to fly through the air, but the fight was over for me. What felt like at least an hour of insanity, was only 20 minutes. 20 minutes of absolute fun, senseless violence, and immaturity well worth it. Given the chance again, I will formulate a team, make t-shirts, and ransack the hills of tomatoes once more.

Until then, I tip my hat to the Midwest Tomato Fest and all its greatness it had to offer for several thousand people amidst a downtown block on a Saturday afternoon that would otherwise be assuredly spent in a less fulfilling manner.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Epic Run of the Engine From '97 (2/2)

Feb. 2012

If I can convince myself I only feel like I have to use the bathroom, but actually do not, I can buy time to get this car to my house before I have to actually leave it running in the middle of the street while I dash to a gas station. You idiot- go to the gas station, fill the gas tank while it's running and use the bathroom there. Genius- I make a dash for the nearest gas station, Honda & I barrel down Nicollet sweating, eyeing down the streets watching out for police. Whether or not the car is legal at this moment isn't important, what's palpable is the feeling of it being street illegal. I called that f---ing department of public safety at least a dozen times to make sure they cleared that ticket about that thing with that thing. F it all, Honda's destiny either lay with the law in a greasy scrap heap of broken dreams, or in the hands of the one man that's never cared more for a machine than it... me.

Screeeeeeeeech! Swinging a hard loop into an ambiguous gas station at the end of Nicollet just before 46th, I kept the engine on and filled the tank like a potential gas & go. Christ, either I look sketchy or I just feel sketchy. I needed to turn my brain off, and go into what Niger Williams has coined as "Beast Mode". Nothing matters, nothing is real, no one is watching except for you. Go Toussaint... go.

Ten bucks should be enough. Screeeeeeech! I peeled out of the Nicollet Ave. station still feeling the weight of a ticking death clock growing heavier in my chest, I whipped the ride to my house, escaped the car at stuntman speed, sprinted toward the door, made sure to leave all my valuables at my house and not in the car. If this thing were to get pulled over and the plates actually weren't legal, then everything would hang in jeopardy. I can't have that. Can't risk the backpack, the mini HD, the camera, the theatre notes for GTC that remain eternally in the back seat. Everything must go.

Screeeeeeeech! We're back on the streets, running through residential areas at break neck speed (40mph) and soon coming to a halt. To continue, I had to make a right on Cedar Ave. Honda wasn't in shape to make turns as sharp as a right. Maybe a left, but not a right. You had to caress the acceleration, not push it. She bubbled once or twice giving way to a potential stall out in the middle of the f----ing street, but saved by a steady soft foot on the gas. Once the car got straight, we were kosher.

Cedar leapt onto 62, which connected to an obscure main highway, which connected to a dirt road. I wouldn't settle for being pulled over on 62. It'd just be too much, the traffic is always racing the road, rush hour is a pestilence to the soul when caught in the gridlock of it on 62, and the police surveying the area would be merciless. They would make example of me, entertainment of me, and soon the end of me... ever driving on the road again, let alone Honda. Multiple scenarios swept my imagination: Honda giving out while passing someone decreasing speed to create a dozen-car pile up of a murderous collision, a cop signaling us to pull over while I give the finger and mouth "go f--- your mother" which soon turns to an all out manhunt, or the simple occasion of stalling out and having to buy out a $150 taxi ride back to Minneapolis abandoning Honda for good... forever.

NASCAR racer Brad Keselowski put it best, "It's not about the fastest car in the race, it's about the man who refuses to lose". I've refused so long with this car that one could call it a delusional state of cemented denial. Had I put too much at stake for a simple car? Have I been so blind that nothing could be salvaged for the life of this machine in the end? Would I condemn myself to the ranks of Fuck-Up For Life sheerly over the pride of having Honda?... the answer is an undoubted, ambitious, fearless 7 mile stare into your soul YES.

Man handling Cedar onto 62 and then onto the obscure stretch of highway that would prove the nail in the coffin, I passed a police car and nearly sh*t my pants after realizing I had done so. My anxiety with the fuzz lay upon a news report I'd once watched about a device atop police cars that automatically read a bar code on every license plate they come into a 20 to 30 foot radius of. It just wreaks of Terminator in my opinion- the sizing up of every moving machine on the streets you come into contact with.

The sun was getting low. One of the headlights was out- if there wasn't enough reason to already pull over the moving mechanical deathtrap, I couldn't have this thing on the road at night. Pulling up to a gravel road, the highway trek was finished... and then it stalled. Taking the short baby right turn onto the gravel, I had gotten pretentious with accomplishing the breadth of the highway trip and smashed the turn too hard. The engine bubbled, then died. "Dammit! F---ing Sh-t!", cursing the roof of Honda did no good. I revved it slowly back to life and took to the curvacious country road somewhat resembling Mario World. It was only a few miles to the Empire of Engines.

Hugging soft twists, curves and dips in the road, Honda and I proceeded down a hill that ascended back uphill. Thinking nothing of it, I caressed the pedal going into the uphill- "p-p-p-p-p-p-put put put phhhhhhhhuuuuuuuu". She stopped again. "Puh-puh-puhhhhh...", and wasn't starting again. So we're here. Where the story starts. At the bowl of a gravel road, between previous descent and forthcoming ascension... One could see it as a rock bottom of sorts. Honda and I traveled downhill, and now do not have the engine to make it uphill. We're fucked.

At best, I could have Schrein concoct some sort of makeshift tow truck from his garage of wonders, but I doubt the kid's even home. Matter fact, I'm damn sure he's not home, as he texted me that exact information earlier today.

The sun almost gone, I stepped out of the car. "Madness", I whispered to myself. Just wrapping up employment at the school for my final one-on-one paraprofessional job, this would be the end of mobility for me for some time. I'd accept it, just not now. I'll accept it... just not like this. I lean against the passenger window of Honda, stare at that big beautiful ball of insatiable fire in the sky. Christ, whatever that thing is made of is as stubborn as hell... and perhaps me. A few important moments of reflection pass, I re-enter the car to what feels a reconciliation. Slightly, gently, slowly I rev the engine in parallel with the pressing of the pedal. They cooperate for a slim opportunity pushing successfully uphill.

A few miles later we arrive to the Engine Empire. Schrein's father exited the house as if he'd seen me coming 5 miles down the road, felt me on the farm's presence, or just heard the shitty rattle of the engine pull into their gravel driveway.

"Alright, what's the case here?" Schrein's father said as I exited the car. A glint of sarcasm, humor, and experience all traced thinly beneath his statement, I smiled at the mere sight of the man. Father of Schrein has a pace and patience to every movement and word his body exerts that can put you at an ease in any given circumstance. The level of calm in this man could crush your sense of urgency upon arrival. "Well, we're gonna put a new engine in it." The only rationale answer I could give. "Schrein know you're bringin' it?" He checks. "Oh yeah, Schrein knows. It'll be an overhaul situation", I return and smile. "Alright, well good luck with'er", he says.

I hop my ride back to Minneapolis from Carver County, carless, Honda hanging in the balance. The one sure thing is that the engine from '97 is no more. I don't know if there's a soul to the car, but a piece of it will definitely be replaced with another's. If any resolve in it's afterlife, it should know it's final run was nothing short of epic.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Maria On My Mind

“So who wants to go first?” Mandi’s eyes jot between the three of us, hoping to pressure an answer. None of us budge- “Ok, well I’ll let you all figure that out and we’ll get going in twenty, k?” It wasn’t a question. We absolutely will get going in twenty.

Dozens, if not hundreds of chairs sat on the student union’s front mall lawn. Not a single person sitting in them, I assumed they’d be for the event we were here for. The chairs stared back as I gazed at them. Couldn’t figure out exactly why no one was sitting in them, however there were a few chairs reserved with pieces of paper taped to the back ends of them.

Clouds hung low with the temperature ominously threatening a storm at any moment, we sat on a bench nearby Coffman Student Union dawning brand new turquoise blue t-shirts reading “I stood for mental health”. Myself and two other students were chosen to perform poetry for Mental Health Awareness Day at the University of Minnesota’s campus outdoors. A dozen student groups have rallied together to make the event possible and put on shindigs all throughout the week.

The two other performers, Nance and Dennis, look reluctant. This isn’t the place to be performing poetry- students whisking by, bikes speeding through the venue to get to class, and a general crowd of folks that don’t know what the f--- the entire setup is about. The event would have to be taken by the throat, performance-wise. Hardly the place or subject matter to be passive about. We’d have to raise our voices, be volatile, interrupt the pattern for a brief 10 minutes in every passerby’s daily agenda.

“So, the best way to figure out who goes first would probably be to go by subject matter- Nance, what’s your poem about?” I ask, to hopefully get some kind of fire lit underneath us. “My poem is just generally about mental health.” Nance softly replied. I could tell her demeanor was misleading in correlation of her performance. She’d most likely step to the mic and Queen Latifah the damn thing into the ground. Nance wasn’t requested to speak for nothing. Her soft tone predicated a talented wordsmith. “Ok” I said. “What about you Dennis?” “Well, my poem is about my recovery”. “Great, you go last” I said. Nance smiled in agreement. Neither of us was talking on our behalf of our own mental health. “Cool, we’re set”.

Nance, Dennis, and I slowly meandered from our bench to the area we’d be performing for the passerby audience. I noticed the mic was turned away from the chairs- wait- what the f---- is going on here? If our backs are turned to the chairs, what are they doing there in the first place. I wasn’t grasping the intent of this affair, and really had no means to, given the subject matter. I’ve made a career of working with children in special education and simply couldn’t disrespect the message. I decided to flag down Mandi, the head chick in charge of the event, she’d be able to fill me in.

Approaching Mandi, several display tables down from me, a young woman held on to a piece of paper she’d written her name on with tape attached. Like dogs sense a seizure, you can pick-up on a preliminary emotional breakdown. Her pale skin went flush, cheeks gone up in slow flames- no convulsing, just a simple submission. The agreement between her and her tears worked its way to public. Something was on that paper causing this woman to cry, and it wasn’t her name.

I looked out to the now hundreds of chairs strewn about the lawn, puzzled. She was heading towards the chairs, but somewhere in the midst of her breakdown several friends caught her and embraced in a group hug before she could reach where she was going. “Jeffrey. We miss you, love you, never forget you” read one of the signs on the chairs near me. This was less a platform to a present audience than it was  display for those that’d been lost to mental health related issues. The 1100 chairs packed into the lawn represented the number of college students who commit suicide each year.

No need to fire up for performance, in fact this thing didn't need any of us- the message was already loud & clear. Nance, Dennis, and I were simply the literal in an event paying homage to those that conceived the notion of killing one’s self. On the surface you could take it as us the living amongst those that refused to live on, but in reality it was us the spirited acknowledging those that didn’t have the privilege or circumstance to find peace of mind.

I’ve watched a four-year old draw scissors on a teacher, stand on a table and threaten to cut her if she came any closer. For the next several months the teacher and I would spend our time with this student caring for him and bringing him back to the understanding that nobody was here to hurt or endanger him- that we are here for your livelihood. Regardless of the inequities the child had suffered in his mind or classroom, there is nothing more pure than our convictions to help one another. This is what we were here for amongst 1100 chairs recognizing those that had been lost in the moments of loneliness, sheer angst, pain, the cracks and crevices separating a beating heart from loathing existence.

I grabbed a piece of paper, wrote in big block letters (as best I can, having learned from all my friends that graffiti’d throughout the city) in red marker “MARIA”. Post scripted with a message to her if she were or able to ever read it. She’d been a best friend to my sister for some time, I would run into her every now and then in Minneapolis while she was still in high school, so although our relationship was limited she merited as a good family friend. 

I would run into Maria’s sister more often than her. We’d carried a running bet that if Maria were to get married before her, then I owed her five bucks. At the time, Maria had a long-time boyfriend and in the spirit of wishing her well- we bet on it.

Down the road, the wager never kept... and to make a very long story too short- Maria now represents one of those chairs. 

The mind is as daunting and foreign to us as it is blessing. Amongst the emotions moving over you like giant waves brilling your skin to goose bumps and butterflies in your stomach, there is a split second you must have recognized there is something larger than life and undoubtedly out of your control here on earth. To grasp that concept might scare you, but for some it might mean the make or break of their mental stability. It's up to us to keep it from breaking. 

We performed our poems, taped the names of those we'd lost to chairs, and went about the rest of our day. Maria's been on my mind since.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hell, Heaven, & Hospital: Give Me Nothing In-Between

Hospitals carry both the heaven and hell we make for ourselves. As I sit in the Fairview Urgent Care clinic as my mother gets her foot examined reading ESPN the magazine of how Robert Griffin III’s grandfather suddenly died at the age of 43 from a brain aneurysm, it strikes me that I was ready to go awhile ago, but somewhere along the way found a purpose to pave a better future than what has passed. I remember it clearly: I was touring with The Blend, in some town, headed to some after party, speeding down some stretch of highway… drunk. I sat on the passenger benches with the rest of the band either sprawled on the floor or bunked in an advanced yoga position. As our short bus sped against the country road I stood up on the bus in a fit of laughter (most likely due to a joke Spencer had told or something Linden said)… and as we all laughed, drunkenly pumping our diaphragms swimming in comical hysteria, I looked out the window. You could see the moon bright as hell, the night black as beauty- I thought to myself "it is here- right here I could die a happy man."

Now, back at Urgent Care the purpose I couldn’t see then lies before me. A man has just burst through the hospital doors speaking to himself. Moaning, mumbling, slurring speech like whips of aimless paint throughout the room, “Uhhhhhh, I told yooooooouuu… Son of a bitch!” Everyone of his words slacks the air with sporadic aggression, but when the man curses, he hits the consonant perfectly. This man has shouted “bitch” and “shit” more perfectly than I have ever heard in my life. There is perfection and poetry to his madness. It is in the wily glare of cold disdain that he delivers my direction- a glare that says “fuck the world for everything it isn’t worth” without speaking a word. It’s vivid, palpable, and quite possibly the most genuine thing in this hospital right now.

He’s trying to operate a phone attached to a wall with numerous editions of Yellow Pages surrounding it. Shouting and speaking into the phone, the receptionist tip toes cautiously from behind her desk. She’s visibly scared and is not prepared to handle communication with this man. “Umm, I don’t think the phone works…” she mumbles to the man. “Uhhhhhhhh, fuck! Gave me the wrong numberrrrrr anywaysssss” he speaks to himself and her. He asks for a pen and paper. She delivers. He spends 10 more minutes carrying the conversation on in his head aloud, drops the pen, brings it back to the secretary and dizzily meanders to the exit.

With the mad man out of the room, one of the receptionists says, “Why don’t we get a code for people to use to come in here- y’know and change it everyday?” “Well, I don’t know, it’d just get so complicated” returns the secretary.

In a building built upon the intention to take care of sick individuals, it has single handedly performed the opposite. In a building with a farce phone plugged into the wall, they question the man who picks it up. We all would, but when it comes down to it: my mother has me and the mad man has no one. 

Our time here is of important value above most anything else in the living world. It is the one thing we cannot buy, get back, or manipulate. It is a force of nature we are born into. Above that value is our actions- what we choose to do with that time.

From drunkenly gazing through a tour bus window watching the world whizz by with a wreckloose band of talented thieves (musicians), purpose came and went as it wished. You become the happened as opposed to the happening in those situations, choosing to let time have its way with you and “enjoy the ride” as they say. But what happens when we speak up, bleed for something, simply take action on our own without waiting for approval of peers? I believe we become our own saviors in that moment, and right now I have to be my mother’s… my own, and prepared to be for everyone else as well.

In such a backwards development where you are asked for proof of insurance, ten bucks, a ten minute form to be filled out before someone can say “yes, I’ll help you”, “yes, I’ll care for you”, “yes, I’ll heal you", it'd be more cordial to ask them why they have a broken phone attached to the wall first. Just in case someone were to try and use it, whether they be mad or not.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Leonard the 2nd Grade Unbeknownst Rockstar

After handling a January long stint as a one-on-one paraprofessional at the Hathaway Elementary, my tenure was up. The timing couldn’t’ve been any better as I’d just landed a role in a movie and was to start shooting in a few weeks after the para job finished. The kickstarter project went off without a hitch and I would need every moment outside of the movie to be writing as well. Now, months later, it’s a little bitter sweet looking back at Hathaway Elementary, so when I received a text from O’Mally the gym teacher to take over for him for a day, I silently said “F--K YEAH” in my head which translated to “Sure, what time should I be there” via text.

Honestly, I hadn’t been up before 9am for a few weeks and was groggy showing to the gym teacher’s office. Mandy the assistant gym teacher, eternally wrapped in warm-ups and running shoes (if I saw her on the street in anything other than a track suit, I wouldn’t recognize her), sat in the windowless office. She laid down the schedule for me as she would be taking O’Mally’s position, and I hers. It was simple, a “free choice day” if you will.

Ever recall the days in elementary dubbed “Options”, “Field Trip”, or the basic “Free Choice Day”. They were the purest form of “Hey, cut loose, take it easy, breathe deep homie. We’re gonna put this school-thing on hold and do the damn thing for a lil’ bit.” As a kid, you always felt some right to your freedoms during gym class, and when they were cuffed away with forced games of floor hockey or jump rope circuit you began to understand when an actual free day of gym was. I choked on many a hoola hoop, Frisbee, badminton, and other odd-shaped objects I may never physically care for, catch or toss throughout my adult life. Somehow in the end, we always encounter a reunion a badminton or two.

Today’s free choice was different. Not so much the “let the dragon out the cage” mentality, but more a “earn it, and ye shall be set free”. The “earn” part involved running laps around the baseball field. O’Mally had set it as ritual to run before anything get started in gym class. Although some kids walked at a snails pace around the entire field, the rule was still set that you will be moving your body before any reward or free time is given.

Daunting, fenced, yet somewhat attainable in one view to the human eye which could per chance deem it small, the baseball field lie a full 400m around. Pending where some classes were at with behavior or past indictments, determined how many laps they were to kick out before free time took place. Still groggy and wound up from the weekends past tour, I hadn’t ran or worked out in 4 days. This felt like a millennia to me. An overdramatic state of “Christ, if I don’t work out, I think I’m going to drown myself in food for the rest of the week and never retain the inkling to sprint or lift a push-up again”. Something had to be done, something quick. I could stand and watch these kids run laps for the rest of the day… or put my money where my mouth is and run with them.

First up were the 4th graders. I lined up along side the group prepped to run 3 laps. Mandy announced the schedule for the day, peppering reprimands to children speaking out of turn, and then turned us loose.

Just before the run began, it coursed through me like a drug. The feeling- the feeling just before every swim meet, track meet, football game, gymnastic feat- the feeling just before it all went down; vulnerability in its purest, at its best, clutching the moment in its teeth-

“SWIFF!” scrapes my dusty old New Balances against the ground to take off at Mandy’s command.  Several kids beat me out at the first 20m, they fade. Three kids remain with me at 40m, they fade. Then there was one, a shorter kid with a parachuting oversized black t-shirt and baggy basketball shorts speeding against the pavement twisting round the baseball field. He begins to fade and I remember what I actually came out here for. “Keep your arms in, don’t lean forward so much” I coach him now running at his pace. It’s the moment you realize “Holy shit, I sprinted out the box like a f’ng mad man and now I’m paying for it dearly”. I would supply the angel on his shoulder to navigate through the cramping pain and lactic acid building up. We streamline the rest of the lap, maintain a safe pace for the second lap, speed up during the 3rd and start kicking out at the last 200m. “Toes, toes, toes- lean a little bit forward- arms in” I bellow at the last stretch.

He finishes, breathing deep as his 9 year old lungs can capacitate. Usually this kid has nothing to run faster against and/or rival his speed amongst his peers. I’d take the rest of the day to challenge each class- better yet, every fastest kid in their class to running a well-paced stride and finishing as strong as they possibly could. After that, reverting to getting the walking kids to jog, as a warm down for myself and some kind of participation for them.

My remedy for the walking kids, after pacing the fastest kids in the class, was to promote “Hey, let’s do a little fox trot!” jogging along side them. The popular response usually went “I don’t DO running!”, to which I’d say “Hey, ain’t nobody runnin’ over here. We’re just fox trottin’. Trottin’ the fox! Foxin’ the trot- check it out”. Jogging at such a slow pace, everyone was enamored to at least try it for half a lap or two.

The day began to wrap up. I’d treated myself to a delightful meal of orange chicken  and rice prepared by the cafeteria, posted a blog for Big Villain, and was pondering laying off running with the 2nd graders for the final half of the day. At this point, I’d already run well over 8 miles and didn’t need to go any further to workout for the day. Enter Leonard…

A tall-ish skinny kid draped in sweat pants and t-shirt. Something about his shoulders lead you to believe that he was going to grow a tall body, however his legs seemed to be already ahead of his torso. Something was different about this kid, something I couldn’t quite label… but was curious enough to find out. I was usually able to pick out each kid in every class that would keep up with me for the first lap, which I would then coach to the end of the run. Leonard was unseeming, awkward in his stance, a genetic misfit of sorts. Ears protruding, shoe size ahead of his class,  arms swinging uncontrollably about- I’d almost swore Leonard grew taller within the first minutes of meeting him.

Mandy reprimanded the out-of-turn talkers, laid down the day’s law, and “GO!” she shouted to send us off on a 3 lap tour de Hathaway Baseball Field. I put out my usual feel for the class and paced behind two or three kids to see where they were at. Leonard streamlined along side me, letting up none at all.

At 20m, several kids remained with our stride; at 50m, two kids stayed in stride; at 200m, Leonard paced along side me as if he were about to give a clinic. My mind went docile for a moment, reset, and came to. It hit me that I’d been running all day, eaten orange chicken way faster than I should have, and had also been skimping out on water for the day. “Sweet Christ of Kenosha” I thought to myself. I’m fading.

Leonard’s pace was anatomically sound as a Kenyan veteran marathoner. Arms swinging tightly square to his shoulders, knees driving up like Ray Rice plowing through a defensive line, and a slight lean forward. Most 5th graders couldn’t hold a candle to this kid, and now here I am drudging through a thick lunch and lack of water trying to keep up with him. We race paced for the first lap. I let up none on the kid and he stuck with it the whole time.

Coasting into the 2nd lap I could sense Leonard beginning to fade. He hit his wall just as every other fastest kid in their class had, it’s just his was at the 400m mark… not the 50m mark. Still with impeccable stride, lapping the rest of the class, I coached him through the 2nd lap and told him we’d be lifting the pace a little bit at the 800m mark and then kicking at the 1000m mark (which on the U of MN track team I ran for Freshmen year, the coaches referred to it as the “Run to Jesus” portion of the workout).

Hitting the 800m, Leonard’s form began to wobble. “Arms in buddy, arms in. Put that elbow in.” I hollered from ahead of him. We were moving faster than any pace I’d been on throughout the day. The rest of the class was really balling up in front of us. Crowding the track path, I shouted ahead that we were coming through. Walking 40m ahead of us: Girls with gellies, clogs, rain boots; boys with high tops, oversized Jordan’s, dress shoes. Approaching the unsuspecting glob of children, something happened that hadn’t happened throughout the entire day… and enthusiasm like no other shot into the crowd as they all began running with us.

Like lions amongst a pack of antelope, or that one scene from Jurassic Park where the paleontologist and the kids run for cover as a flock of sprinting dinosaurs heads their direction just before they duck underneath a giant tree trunk. Leonard and I float like fish through a river apparatus of rocks and debris. Where I thought he or I would totally plow into a classmate taking them to the ground in horrendous fashion (imagine a purse thief cutting through a State Fair-thick crowd and colliding with an elderly using a walker, yeah kinda like that), nothing of the sort happened. At the 1000m mark, the bleachers, I drop the hammer for Leonard to kick. I swear the earth had spun an inch more than usual once his feet began plying the ground on the last stretch. Perfect form, knees piercing the atmosphere driving toward the yellow finish line, he left nothing on the track.

Breathing heavily between words, Leonard admitted “It’s easier to run it with shorts”. Forgetting he was dawning baggy sweatpants, I laughed “You’re absolutely correct, it’s easier to run with shorts than sweatpants”.

Free time commenced to a vicious game of kickball and side play of double dutch. I stretched until I felt like I could handle the next class. “That kid is damn fast”, I said to Mandy. “Yeah, O’Mally said he was one of the top 3 runners last year… when he was in 1st grade”.  Great Mother to rights of Miranda this kid is going to put a dent in the school record and the egos of some poor high-schoolers when they find that 8th grade Leonard is faster than the entire 800m relay team.

Mandy and I administer the game to a civil boil, let the rest of the classes go about as the sun slowly set on another day of school.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Coffee & Chemo

The hangover is heavy. An ungodly mystery as to how the last few hours of last night went down, however everything seems to feel lighter in Milwaukee; inhibition, time, pressure, all the hold-ups.

Last night’s show in Milwaukee was the way it’s supposed to be. Fresh Cut Collective, a rag tag live hip-hop band from Racine to Milwaukee, put on a clinic with a set that nearly blew my face off and reinvited me back to the stage front and center in the audience pit. I haven’t gotten up in a band’s grill like that for a damn long time. When you truly dig the hell out of someone’s sound, your body makes that move toward the edge of the stage to be as close as uncomfortably possible to the human body’s creating addictive sound. With that said… Fresh Cut killed it.

They reminded me of The Blend in their hay day. (notice I said hay day, but also take note that I have no interest in letting that stand. Malarkey as it may be, I still see the best days of The Blend ahead of me. Bigger, more badass, reignited, and nastier than ever). Vagabonds full of swagger and charisma that could talk you down from the ledge of a building and back on it again. Also take note, Fresh Cut Collective spares not a drop of alcohol in the process. As I loaded into the show at 8pm, the audience standing outside was already visibly drunk… visibly… drunk. Upon entering backstage where it’s commonplace to see beer, whereas with this backstage there lie a 1.75 bottle of Jack on the coffeetable center-piecing the entire room.

Show went well, amazingly well. Waking up from it all I strided into auto and headed for Alterra Coffee shop. When in doubt go to Alterra. I’ve spent most mornings in Milwaukee at Alterra Coffee shuffling in an hour or so of writing and then reverting to people watching. This visit would be the most necessary I’ve ever made. I didn’t know it at the time, but something would happen that would shift the rest of the week, maybe month, perhaps year. Reroutes are never anticipated, they happen. They happen with the swiftness of a thought, crack of lightning, cars colliding. Getting derailed can be one of the purest blessings you will ever experience in your life.

Alterra was jam packed, ham packed, crazy busy off the wall. I grabbed a seat before I ordered a coffee. I gank tables like musical chairs in the coffee shop. Sit now, buy later is my mantra.

Unpacking at a large picnic-ish-Jesus-last-meal table, I pull up my belongings to a collage of patrons occupying the shop. Across from me sits the keyboard player from Fresh Cut Collective I just happened to run into while he was teaching a morning Spanish lesson to a student, to his left sits the mother or grandmother of the kid he’s teaching, and to my left sits the derailment: a pale little girl chatting with her mother. The mother dressed in leather jacket, fancy scarf, and jeans exuding she drives a car worth more than 2 years of your annual income had me returning attention to writing before I could notice her daughter between the two of us.

I greeted the keyboard player from last night, he strayed away from his Spanish lesson as much he could to say hi and chat for a brief moment. Patricio’s the name, says he’s from Mexico City. I congratulated him for making it all the way to the Midwest and throwing down a badass show last night… seeing as the crime in Mexico City makes the Detroit displayed from the movie The Crow look like Disneyland. Few make it out, let alone an upscale coffeehouse to teach Spanish. Back to writing, the little girl’s voice began to softly pierce my thoughts. Her inflection was so pure, melodic, high pitched, entertaining… I couldn’t make out what made me hang on each word she said, but it seemed to be her mother’s response to her. The mother kept idly responding as if she wasfighting off another conversation going on in her head. I look to my left to take a good look at this girl; bright pale skin like staring into the sun, whispy white hair barely gracing her skull, and tubes helixed around her face and torso.

This was it, this is it, this is the point of nothing else mattering but the picture standing in front of you, the short time you have on earth, and the faint sounds surrounding the entirety of it all. I drew back to writing as to not stare at this little girl, but already feeling magnetized to her presence. I wanted to have something to do with her, I wanted to say something, be a part of her reality if even for a split second.

Something hit the table from her chatting and playing with her mother, I quickly dropped my notebook to pick up the cover from her hot cocoa almost roll across the table. “Thank you”, said her mother. “No problem”, I replied. The mother and I locked eyes for a few seconds of recognition gone beyond the normal duration to look at someone- broken by the little girl. No words, just her hand stretched out to offer me a piece of her poppy seed muffin. She barely turned her eyes toward me seeming almost uncertain that I would take the piece of muffin from her.

I notice a patch of tape over her right cheek bulging out carrying one of the tubes wrapping around her body. This little girl was sick, there was no hiding it. Her time is limited, but her reality was pure as an undeniable truth. Her presence shook the visceral run of the mill coffee goers to a face-to-face with mortality and what the hell they plan to do with their today.

I smiled, took the piece and ate it. “Thank you”, I said. The little girl almost immediately turned back to her mother. Back to her creator, comfort, foundation.

Back to writing… not before I could help asking what I’m here for, where I want to go, and what will I do today that will matter tomorrow.

The mother and little girl stood up to prepare to leave. Gathering their bags and belongings, the mother inched toward me to lean in and say “Thank you for taking the piece of muffin from her”.

“No worries. I’ve been working with kids for the past decade… and my mother’s a cancer nurse- never scared easily”, I replied.  “Hi, I’m Toussaint”. “Jesse”, she said. “And that’s Lucia… Lulu. She’s in her 2nd stage of chemo.”

We chat for what seems to be fleeting minutes to the last time we’ll ever see each other again… hardly the last minutes I’ll remember them.

I’ve grown up in and out of hospitals watching my mother work as a cancer nurse. Bed ridden, last days of life, first days of recovery, at grips with time- whatever the circumstances they may be of the patients she took care of, what I remember best is the spirit. The spirit of each individual pacing the hallways of the hospital- staff, patients, visitors- it was the spirit that either made or broke the individual. Something about Lulu stood astoundingly strong. Couldn't quite put it into words then, and as I type now I still can't- whatever it is, I would definably strive to carry that spirit into every step I take after leaving the coffeeshop.