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Category Archives: Who Am I – Stuff About Myself

The True Life of a Bicycle Messenger

The True Life of a Bicycle Messenger

It was a typical hot, humid July day in Chicago when I laid down and watched in horror as a pickup truck rolled over my bicycle. The truck had run into me. The both of us had run into a blind corner at the same time, and a chromium death machine being much stronger than a normal-sized human, the truck won. I was horrified over my throbbing ankle, of course, but I was able to let that go. My ankle would heal. It wouldn’t heal WELL, mind you, but it would stop hurting eventually. My bicycle, on the other hand, wasn’t going to miraculously straighten itself back out. The entire thing was so bent that even though it was unrideable, I wasn’t able to remove the wheels from the frame. Hell, the wheel itself was fucked up beyond all recognition. My horror was a result of the fact that the bicycle couldn’t be rescued, and that I would have to buy another one. Bicycles cost money, which I didn’t have, and getting one that was affordable meant losing business time.

The truck driver replaced the bike. As for my ankle, well, I let nature do its job with it. I never went to the hospital, missed only one day of work, and spent the next six weeks basically walking it off. At the time, I was working a volunteer job as the barista at my spiritual community’s Thursday night sketch comedy show, and I was in fact limping to it 20 minutes later. To this day, whenever the subject is broached around my Minister, she still responds using the same four words: “That’s crazy. You’re crazy.”

Maybe so, but a 45-hour-$160-per-week job doesn’t leave much of a choice. I was working as a bicycle messenger – messengers are very rarely referred to as couriers – and it was hell on a bicycle. Which was incredible, because until I was doing that, hell was the one thing I never thought I could experience on a bicycle. Now, in fairness, the hours weren’t bad, despite 45-hour weeks. But the pay was dreadful and the job in itself was extremely dangerous. The typical threats from cars apply, but that’s a part of bicycling, so I’m going to write them off. Walkers are also dangerous, but that’s not because they’re in the way. They’re dangerous because so many of them make a conscious choice to put themselves in your way in order to physically assault you. Road conditions and weather can add extra threats. The three years I spent running packages back and forth were all in Chicago, which means a few of those things were magnified. I had to endure the worst weather the city could throw at me, and traverse roads that could have torn the treads from a Panzer (Lake Street, ahem).

After my career in the media crashed, I went into a messenger service with the intent to take a job for a few months while I got back on my feet. I ended up doing that job for three years, and it left me with a set of back problems, laden with debt, and with a set of Hollywood-driven stereotypes written on my head that effectively made me unemployable. There was no form of skill growth on the job, no chance at promotion, and the fact that almost all messengers are independent contractors left me ineligible for many safety net benefits which could have helped me back on my feet. After a year and a half of holding out, with my financial reputation in tatters, I bit the bullet and moved back home.

Anyway. When I first walked into my messenger service’s office to tell them I was there, they gave me a test. I had lived in Chicago for less than a year, so they wanted to see if I knew which streets were on which numbers. After passing, I was given the job and a company cell phone and told to show up in The Loop the next morning and call the office. There was no meeting at the office every morning for a meeting or assignments, and no exact location as to where I should be when I called the office. As always, I developed a few routines. When I made my morning call into the office, it was usually from the Merchandise Mart, although I would be hanging around Madison and Clark come payday because my bank was there. My service quickly figured out where my spots were, but that didn’t make much of a difference. My service would give me long-distance runs first if they decided that was necessary. Those were rare, though; most of my packages were grabbed and dropped right in The Loop, or around the Magnificent Mile.

There are no pre-assigned packages in messing. At least, there weren’t any at my service. I picked up and dropped off according to when packages came in and where I was in relation to both the pickup point and other messengers at my service. Some messengers can make around 40 runs per day, but since my service was so small, 20 was considered excellent. That would almost be a mercy, but we got paid on commission. And contrary to the widespread Hollywood myth, messengers don’t receive tips. I was given a handful of tips in my three years, mostly by people who didn’t interact with messengers on a daily basis. The regular clients that I got to know fairly well were secretaries and receptionists and mailroom clerks. They’re the ones accepting and signing for packages, and they’re not going to offer tips from their own pockets. They see messengers all the time, after all.

If it happened to be a busy day, time was never an issue. I mean that in the sense that any package I picked up would get dropped off in whatever order was the most convenient to me. Yes, I tried to drop off the hourlong packages sooner than the two-hour packages, but when you’re carrying six packages and five of them are all in a seven block radius while the eighth is at the Hancock Center, those five are getting unloaded first unless the one going to the Hancock is a Top Priority package. And the times don’t account for things like rush hour traffic, weather, or sign-in routines. And those things do affect a messenger’s performance. A lot of pedestrians asked me whether I preferred doing my work in the rain or the snow, and they were all surprised when I said I preferred the snow. But the reason was pretty simple: In snow, clients and pedestrians are a lot more forgiving. They know a package can turn up late. But they also think rain is the same condition as a sunny day, except you’re wet. They couldn’t grasp that wet clothes add weight to the bicycle and that your brakes don’t cause nearly as much friction in rain.

The thing that could REALLY add time to a delivery, though – as well as put the elitism of the white collar upper classes on full display – was getting into the buildings. There were some places which let messengers sign in and use the regular elevators like any other guest, but they were more likely to shove you into a messenger center or send you into the winding labyrinth used for freight deliveries. Some buildings were excellent about that. 311 South Wacker probably had the best messenger center in Chicago, and its cross-street neighbor, the Sears Tower, had a great one as well. The worst buildings sent messengers through the freight entrances, which not only added time but usually demanded a trip on dangerous Lower Wacker Drive as well. After you navigated the Chicago netherworld and found the address you needed, the wait for the freight elevator could add another 10 minutes. In my time as a messenger, one building (I believe it was 317 East Wacker, but the exact number escapes me) tried to make the switch from bringing messengers through the front door to bringing us through the freight entrance. That experiment was dropped after less than two months because the building’s clients complained to the management about how long basic deliveries started taking. That information was, shall I say, EXTREMELY revealing.

There’s something weird about messenger work when it comes to your relationship with cars. You yell and scream at the motorists who share the road, but that’s okay; they know you’re there. Most drivers might hate your guts, but they DO have enough awareness of the streets to keep themselves from killing you. But if you’ve worked as a messenger for a significant length of time, you’ve definitely been hit by cars. It’s considered a known and accepted risk of the job. Most of the times I got hit were pretty benign: A cut or a scrape or a bruise from a car that jammed the brakes. But more serious injuries can happen through weird and innocuous reasons – I once got doored in a narrow space and ended up in a hospital getting stitched up for a basic cut which went through to my bone. Ironically, that was the only time my bicycle survived a shot from a car. Like other messengers, I avoided going to the hospital for anything if I could, because messengers can’t afford insurance. (I still haven’t even started paying back my old medical debts from Chicago.) As mentioned, we have a cavalier attitude toward getting hurt, and that’s necessitated by the fact that we don’t have much control over how many pickups our services get. Even high-performing messengers are just scraping by, and that’s before taxes. (We always owe, because contract workers don’t get pay automatically removed from checks.) If our bicycles get damaged, we’ll usually have the driver pay for the damage.

If there’s no work coming in, we’re forced to just sit down and relax somewhere while we wait for a call from the dispatcher. Standby breaks are indefinite. We don’t know when they’ll start, we don’t know when they’ll finish, and we don’t know what we’ll get called for when we hear from the dispatcher again. Smarter messengers will carry books with them (almost everything I know about world affairs, politics, and economics is grounded in books I read on standby time) and most of us won’t bother trying to buy a lunch. (It’s not like we could afford one anyway.) The only thing we really have to go on is the time of year. In Chicago, there’s likely to be a lot more standby time in summer because more people are willing to go out and make a drop of three blocks themselves. In winter… Well, it’s Chicago. It gets cold there. There’s a lot more work in winters, and not as many people will be confusing messing for summer work, so there are fewer messengers around willing to do it. The ones who are around will dress in the works: Multiple layers underneath thick jackets, a couple of layers of pants, several socks plus plastic bags on both feet. Hats and gloves are important. Some messengers spend extra money on proper facemasks. Others go for the basic scarfs. I couldn’t afford a facemask, and when I learned how difficult it is to breathe through a scarf, I opted to let my bare face get scalded in the often-negative temperatures.

As for the money, there’s nothing good that can be said about messenger work. My paychecks maxed out at about $250 per week, and they rarely hit that ceiling. $200 was a high-earning week for me, and my average earnings were about $160 per week. All the bad weather, dangerous roads, and back problems I endured got me enough money for some groceries. There were summer weeks when my 45-hour paycheck didn’t even clear three digits. As a result, I lived in scraping poverty and squalor. My daily meals consisted of one bowl of oatmeal and one bowl of ramen noodles on more days than not, as well as whatever candies the receptionists kept on their desks. (My spiritual community held Sunday dinners after services, where I earned a reputation as the person who ate a lot. The other members of the congregation joked about it, but that Sunday meal was usually my only nutritionally substantial meal of the week.) I lived in mortal fear of my bicycle getting damaged because a broken bicycle meant a loss of both time and a substantial amount of rent money. My heat was shut off twice, and for awhile I had to steal my electricity. (The electricity is now one of the very few debts from those days I managed to pay off.) I went to HEAP in order to get my heat turned back on, which had an irony in the fact that I had to lose runs during work hours in order to get it.

I earned a little over $10,000 a year before taxes. When the IRS caught up to me, I owed close to a total of $6000 in back taxes between state and federal. My parents had to dip into their retirement savings to erase my federal debt. My debt to Illinois wasn’t paid until 2015. I tell people today that I’m pretty sure I ended up losing money working as a bike messenger.

The only thing that kept me going for as long as I did was a mortal fear of losing my meager paychecks and then dropping off the face of the Earth. Quitting jobs denies a lot of benefits, as does being an independent contractor. The end of my job came in September of 2009. My service already had clientele jumping ship, but it was about that time that the largest messenger service in Chicago started a monopolization campaign. My service closed down and I was laid off. Unfortunately, I was also afflicted with a Hollywood-induced stigma about bike messengers being anarchic slackers which probably destroyed my chances of finding gainful work somewhere else. I managed to hold out in Chicago for another year and a half, strictly through my landlord’s generosity. But between the messenger stereotype (fuck you Hollywood, fuck you very much), most of my other work experience involving commission sales, and the ruined economy, I was effectively unemployable. The safety network ran me around because I was technically not an employee as a messenger. My landlord tried to help however he could, but I was too much of a liability and my time ran out. In March of 2011, I stored everything I could save (some of which I was never able to recover) and abandoned my home.

I’ll grant that the kind of freedom I had as a bike messenger is something I’ll never have again at any decent job. But there was nothing else about messing that makes it worth the trade-off.

 

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A Snowpocalypse Story

A Snowpocalypse Story

The Seattle Snowpocalypse hit right around the time the local weather outlets said it would. It was around noon on Friday, and the entire region had spent the previous two days preparing for a long-range sheltering. The place I worked had announced it was likely going to close early, and traffic on both Thursday and Friday was terrifying even by Seattle standards. The weather folks were reporting the region’s famed Seattle Cement slamming everywhere from Kitsap to Skagit counties for the entire weekend. A good 10-inch pile-up was expected.

Even after a good glopping hit the area on Sunday night going into Monday, I can’t say I was preparing to face anything especially severe. I looked outside on Sunday night and wrote the snow off as just another dusting that I would simply motor through on my work to work on Monday. Then Monday came, and in the waking hours, it was still snowing. Now, if I had been living in the Seattle area longer, I might have known better than to try and plow my way through the snow without the plow and just called in. But nope, I had to go out. I had to make my 15-minute commute to the transit center in 40 minutes across flying snow and ice which Snohomish County hadn’t even started to touch. I kicked myself while at work, doing nothing in the freezing cold, until a little past the afternoon hour when I finally begged off. I left partly because there was nothing to do, but mostly because I was getting concerned about making the final run home with the snow buildup.

The next few days were cold and icy, but unexceptional. Hell, I even enjoyed going into work more than usual because the weather was keeping everyone locked inside, which meant work had a pleasantly slow pace. There wasn’t any worry about getting the job done because so few people turned up. The bosses weren’t going to be pissed about the regular outdoor crew taking its sweet time stepping indoors. Employers everywhere understood employees’ reluctance to go out, so people just didn’t go out. If anything, I later thought to myself that I was probably on the crazy side for for going in, at least through Monday and Tuesday. Either that or my old Rust Belt work programming was getting the better of me. On Wednesday, things looked like they were returning to normal. But all week, the local news was saying the snow might not be finished yet. By Wednesday, in fact, it was saying it DEFINITELY wasn’t finished yet. The worst was yet to come. When the week started, getting myself around aside, I had no intention of treating the week any different than any other. I would go and do things as normal, just with ice on the roads. I had bought a Playstation 2 for myself just after Christmas which was meant to replace the one my Father was forced to jettison when he moved to California. That console hadn’t worked right, and when I returned it, the store put me on a waiting list for people who wanted PS2s and returned my money in store credit which was to pay for a new PS2 when one was sold to them. On Tuesday, I finally got that call from the store. My new PS2 awaited with my name literally written on it. They also told me they understood if I couldn’t get there because of the weather, and I said to just hang onto it until Sunday, when I would be free to pick it up. But it took just one day to change my mind, and with more inclement weather on the way, I made the trip to grab it on Wednesday.

Thursday, though, was the day when I sensed that there was going to be something different about whatever was coming. This was a familiar routine. The buildup in the weather report, then the actual hit. It had shades of Winter Storm Knife in Buffalo back in 2014. That enormous sucker had stopped the city dead with seven feet of snow, quarter-mile visibility, and 40-MPH winds on the way to becoming the city’s new standard-bearing winter storm. Even people of older generations admitted that it may have been the blizzard which displaced Buffalo’s old standard of bad winter storms, the legendary Blizzard of ‘77. Now, this is Seattle, so it would be wrong to compare this winter storm to the monster that was Winter Storm Knife, but between the region’s topography, layout, and lack of winter preparation, it was time to settle in for it all the same. Thursday night, I decided I had better get my extra grocery shopping finished and went to Fred Meyer. The self-checkout line was backed up for a half hour, and a reporter from KIRO News was interviewing people for the 11 PM broadcast. I also let my Game Night friends know that I wasn’t likely to show barring a sudden thaw. They responded that they weren’t going to show up either, and out store would in fact be closing early.

Since work was also supposed to close early on Friday, I didn’t make any drastic preparations or changes. The basic plan was to get in and get out. But the thing about a huge storm setting in is that people all wait until the last minute to get serviced, and so, unusually for Friday, it was the busiest day of the week. We were still working for a couple of hours after the snow hit, although since I made the main leg of my journey to work by bus, I made sure I was in the first wave of dismissals. The snow started around noon. I was out by about 2. At about 8:30 that morning, I had gone to a Trader Joe’s across the street to buy a small meal for myself. That usually isn’t an issue. Trader Joe’s opens at 8, and it’s still usually sparse at 8:30. Friday, though, the place was already crowded. The lines stretched back through several of the aisles, and some shelves were already clear. All I was after was a damned wrap, and I must have looked absurd to the crowd there with full baskets. In any case, work continued as normal until workers started trickling out of other departments a little after 12. At 2, I was let out, and since it had only been two hours and there was only an inch of snow on the ground, I thought I might makes fairly decent time on my way home.

That would have to be my old Northeast/Northern Midwest mentality talking again. I’ve been living in Seattle for three years, and my mindset hasn’t quite shifted all the way to the Pacific Northwest setting. If it had, I wouldn’t have bothered going in. But the hard part of the day beckoned, and now I had to set out on my Hell-on-Earth-frozen-over journey back home. A consistent falling of packing snow is treacherous in Seattle, and every driver in the city reacts accordingly. The I-5 traffic was moving extra slow, EVERYONE was trying to get home at the same time, and when I made it to the bus stop, I ran into a long line. Now, I’m hard-pressed for how much of a failure Soundtransit was in the moment. On the one hand, it successfully increased its bus frequency in spite of the ongoing traffic. I saw seven of their busses roll by in the hour I spent at the bus stop; an hour usually means three busses at peak travel times. On the other, only two of those busses let anyone at my stop on at all, and only a couple of people got off. The busses that let riders off didn’t let anyone on. Every bus was so packed that I started trying to think of alternatives, and other people in line had the same idea. The line got shorter, alright. But that was because random wannabe passengers were getting fed up and dropping out. I had to wait, though, because I didn’t have any alternatives.

Seattle-area public transit is a mess of several agencies, all of which are terrible. The main agency that serves my area in Snohomish County is Community Transit, which can’t keep up with anything even when traffic is light and moving at a fast pace. They were supposed to be serving their full compliment of bus routes during this winter storm, and as usual, they were failing. I saw two of their busses roll by in an hour, and both were 860s, which didn’t take me to the stop I needed. People in line were so desperate that they were just getting on any random bus in order to get to a location where they could connect with a bus which could get them where they needed to go. But the driver on that second 860 had obviously overheard a few complaints, and he did something which will forever make him a Saint in my mind: He leaned off his bus, asked who was going to the very stop I needed to reach, and said he could make that place an extra stop without any problems.

I’ve owned my current sneakers for over a year, and they were soaked entirely through. I was cold and wet and getting worried. I quickly spoke up, got on the bus, and let myself feel crammed as the bus made its way north. I’m not much for crowds, especially when they’re tossed like sardines into a moving vehicle. But all things considered, I got home, and I got home in a fairly timely way. After I got off the bus, in fact, traffic on 99 in Snohomish County had let up to enough of an extent that I could make my final grocery stop on the way home, like I had originally planned.

So now there’s not much to do other than wait. Wait for the snow to subside enough for me to get back out, wait for signs of life to how back up in the neighborhood. And, perhaps most importantly, to curse myself for having the Rust Belt mentality of NEEDING to show, no matter the possible cost. My father, year ago, talked about possibly buying a trailer for his car to haul to work during winter storms. That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea now.

How I Understood Stan Lee: The Greatness of X-men

How I Understood Stan Lee: The Greatness of X-men

The original X-men animated series that aired on Saturday morning confused me. I had heard of the X-men, of course, and knew it was about a group of superheroes. The trouble was that my community had left me with a rather askew idea of what proper heroes were. A hero fought evil, right? And they were always upstanding citizens of their communities who treated everyone the way Fred Rogers would, right? They always knew the difference between right and wrong, were kind and decent to all no matter what, and were eternally outgoing, friendly, and engaging. They had secret identities. Just as sure, every villain could be easily spotted by their black clothes, horns, curly mustaches, and evil cackles. And within a short time frame, any hero would take out a villain and leave them unambiguously defeated and rethinking life decisions in a jail cell.

X-men was my first encounter with the true Stan Lee. It wasn’t my first technical encounter with Stan Lee; that would be the Spider-man Saturday morning animated series. But the trouble with that Spider-man series was that it followed most of the same template that I had come to expect from my stereotypical superheroes: Spider-man was a light warrior who fought villains with distinctly nefarious motives. Yes, the show was presented in a serialized format, and yes, Jameson was there to try to give the show some sort of gray area. But the problem was that Jameson was so over-the-top in his fight to catch Spider-man that he came off as a villain himself. The other characters were also presented in ways which gave them moral clarity. So as far as the Marvel universe went, the point of Spider-man soared right over my head. (This wasn’t the first time black and white morality wrecked my view of comics. I was weaned on the Adam West version of Batman, so I missed the point of that too. It wasn’t until my mother finally explained to me that the original Batman – the one I didn’t know about – was a vigilante that something finally clicked.)

X-men was what gave me a colored view on the world of superheroes and my introduction to the kind of work Stan Lee really did. I remember looking forward to that show and being left in a state of shock by how weird it was. When I was that young, the standout figure with the X-men was Wolverine. So naturally, I pegged him to be an ultimate hero in the Superman mold… So why did he spend half the time acting like such a prick? And the great leader of the X-men was Cyclops. So why did he come off as so lost, indecisive, and stuck in his own head? Why did the show seem to spend as much time with the bad guys as it did with the good guys? Why did the show seem to be presenting the bad guys in a neutral light? And why did so many of the non-powered characters seem to hate the good guys?

This was new, and to a kid looking for action popcorn for a lazy Saturday, it was also extremely radical. There was no room for the flawless superhero in Stan Lee’s world. The good guy/bad guy dynamic was still in play, but it was blurred. The few flawless superheroes that did show up were in the habit of getting screwed, and trying to be one rarely if ever meant a happy ending. It took a bit of time for me to understand that X-men wasn’t there to present kids my age with the animated version of Commando every week. It was difficult for me to take at first since everything about X-men’s good guys was an antithesis to everything my community taught me about what being a good guy meant. X-men’s good guys were often good guys for one reason and one reason alone: They fought against bad guys. And I was frequently taking the show’s word on the good and bad guys as well, because a few of the bad guys at least had understandable reasons for being bad.

It was a bit longer still before I figured out that someone behind these characters was trying to get through to me. In my hometown, there wasn’t very much room for anything or anyone that was out of the ordinary, and the ordinary had a narrow definition. X-men was a sign that, somewhere out there, there were people who understood the sort of isolation and loneliness I felt. It dealt with emotions I understood at the time, and others I wouldn’t come to understand until I grew up a little more. In a way, X-men turned into a sort of right of passage, because I began to see that many of the people I was taught to look up to weren’t necessarily good. The kinds of peers that I was constantly striving to be like so they would think I was cool might not be worth the effort. Of course, I didn’t realize the implications of what I was watching until hindsight years later, but X-men was showing kids why they should fine-tune their bullshit detectors.

There’s an irony in the fact that Marvel has hit the mainstream the way it did, because most of the people who took to Stan Lee’s work way back in the day were outcasts who saw much of themselves in it. With the recent success of the Marvel Universe movies, one could make the case that more people were touched by Lee than anyone would have thought. All of the people introduced to Stan Lee’s work the way I was are grown up now, and yet they have favorite Marvel Universe characters and series, and many can eloquently argue and describe their preferences. All of us have seen something in those movies which touches us on a primal emotional level. And those of us who are different have all felt something in it which made us feel like we were understood somewhere.

Mock us for our geek outlets, but don’t try to insist they don’t matter.

Giving Out a 1up

Giving Out a 1up

I’ve spent a lifetime playing video games for a thousand different reasons. Boredom, fun, loneliness, escape, procrastination, and imagination-sparking are among them. But recently, I added a couple of new reasons to my list: Charity and encouragement. That made it the first time in my illustrious gaming career that I was playing video games for people other than myself. See, it turns out that there’s a charity out there called Extra Life which gets people to play video games in order to raise money for a children’s hospital. It wasn’t the first time this thing and I crossed paths – I have a friend, Jacob, who’s been gaming to raise money for a few years. Hell, I had even vocalized a desire to partake in such a marathon myself. But it wasn’t until a few days ago that I finally got the chance.

This wasn’t the result of one of my crazy ideas. I know my limits, and even me back in my loneliest and most depressed phases would never have been able to sit down and complete a straight 24-hour video game marathon. Even all the pizza, candy bars, and Mountain Dew on the planet couldn’t keep me up and going for that long. Believe it or not, there are times when the outside world does call. So no, there was no way I was going to attempt to pull this kind of borderline self-abusive stunt on my own.

I don’t want to say Sarah Smith’s campaign office roped me into it, because getting me to play video games doesn’t require any rope. I’m drawn to them like a moth to the flame. And one of the reason’s Sarah’s campaign platform resonated with me so much was because she’s in touch with a lot of the issues that chip off pieces of my being. Sarah is younger than me – I think I have about seven years on her. That means that one of her generation’s quirks is that she grew up never knowing a world where video gaming was strictly a hobby for thugs and delinquents who hung out in smokey, dimly-lit rooms. No one thought it weird that my candidate was a little bit of a gamer, so I’m probably the only one who blinked a little when her campaign sent out a text inviting volunteers to play in the Extra Life marathon. Obviously, I got over it. I said I would be there for a couple of hours to fundraise by doing what I was good at. And hey, no forcing myself on to the phones for this!

When the big day came, my schedule was crammed. I had to go out, finish a piece I was writing for Every Team Ever (shameless self-plug), go to the library, get to Sarah’s office to play for Extra Life, go back up to the University District to work my volunteer job at Scarecrow, then get to Capitol Hill for an introverts’ meetup for drinks. And the fact that I was going to be tackling all this without my car – I’m way too smart to attempt driving through Seattle – left me little room for error. I managed to get to the campaign office right for an early afternoon break, but I was already pretty wiped out by the time I stumbled through the door. Fortunately, there wasn’t any trouble getting me squeezed in for a session or two. Going roundabout to see that the new faces there got an idea of who I was, I made conversation with a pair of fellow upstate New York natives. One fellow, Cliff, happened to be from Buffalo, which meant I was subjected to a comment about how sketchy South Buffalo is. They gave me the rundown, told me what’s been happening, and welcomed me to the impending Street Fighter II tournament.

I’m a classic overanalyzer. Put anything in front of my face, and I guarantee I WILL find a way to overthink and overanalyze it, then second- and third-guess my analysis. (I think of this as the “this is why I like to be drunk when I write” node.) I tend to play my fighting games in a chess-like fashion because I like trying to learn characters and decipher their strengths and weaknesses. And like every other gamer on the planet, Street Fighter II stands among my all-time favorites. But I never did manage to become – ahem – GOOD at Street Fighter II. I developed a passable fighting ability with most of the characters, but never exactly mastered any of them. And more to the point, everyone in the room was a self-admitted button-masher. Button-mashing is a crude way to play a fighting game – especially one as eloquent as a Street Fighter game – but it WORKS. When my rounds of Street Fighter II were over, I had reached a brand new social class: Someone running an active political campaign for the United States Congress had totally thrashed me in a video game. Had I been allowed my regular master class of fighting game characters (Galford from Samurai Shodown, Cinder from Killer Instinct, and especially Jacky Bryant from Virtua Fighter), the results would have been different.

Throughout the 24-hour duration of the Extra Life marathon, the campaign was running a livestream. That meant there was going to be more substantial talk than the usual “Oh shit!” during this gaming binge. I don’t have problems with being filmed or photographed; what bugs me are the times when I have to do them without preparation. And a livestream meant that my weird non-sequiters were going to be caught. As we put Street Fighter II away and opened up a game of Mario Kart 8, I let my three companions perform most of the chatter. It seemed to come more naturally to them than it did me. But I did get to say my pieces, and I made sure they had a little bit of heft. We made little observations here and there – every character in Street Fighter II is a racial caricature, and good luck unseeing that – and talked about the issues. What drew us into politics? Who were our heroes? The talks covered such thoughts as our biggest concerns as progressives, what the current financial policies in the country were keeping us from doing, and why we thought getting real working people into Congress was important.

In between subjects, we invited everyone who watched us to write in with questions. Which they frequently did. Some wondered about how we dealt with the stress that goes with activism. Others wondered what we thought was important, and still others wondered about the climate that disabled people face every day. I remained the quietest presence there, mostly because I was busy trying to master all the Rainbow Road courses, but I did manage to get my words in edgewise. While gaming is stereotyped as a loner hobby, Extra Life showed just how social it can be. Mario Kart 8 was a four-player game, and as we talked, we grew comfortable with each other. The next thing I knew, I had been gaming for nearly four hours and had to make a mad dash to the University District.

It was just my luck that, upon getting up to Scarecrow, I was told I could skip my shift because the week was slow. Had I known that would happen, I probably would have played out the rest of the Extra Life marathon.

 

Renouncement

Renouncement

Readers of this blog may have caught a post I wrote back in May or June of this last year. In it, I explored the idea of what it meant to be invested in the fortunes of a sports team and said that I couldn’t bring myself to follow my childhood team anymore. I argued that dropping or even switching teams is okay if they’re robbing you of your hard-earned money and non-returnable free time. Sports are an escape, after all – they shouldn’t be anyone’s be-all-and-end-all. Once I realized that my childhood team wasn’t returning any of the emotion I was investing in them and that following them was far too much of a pain than I should be going through, I had to give them the axe. Especially since they represent a place with which I had a rocky relationship at the best of times and an outright poisonous relationship at the worst.

My mother died in 2016 and my father moved to California a year later in order to move on. When those happened, they severed almost all of my remaining emotional connections to The Nickel City. With my family out of Buffalo and my childhood hockey team not mattering to me anymore, I started coming to a rather stark thought: What was it, exactly, that I was so hell-bent on glamorizing about my birth town? What kinds of roots did I REALLY have there, aside from it being the place that I was born and raised? How strong are the values that the place tried to instill in me? They say you can leave the city, but the city never leaves you. In Buffalo, they say Buffalo is a state of mind. If there’s any truth to that, then Buffalo is a state of mind I’ve had to reject in order to function right. We’re talking about a city I moved away from two different times. The first time left me a little bit nostalgic for the few values that Buffalo got right, especially the cost of living there. After my poverty got out of control in Chicago, I returned to Buffalo in the hopes that I might be able to use the lessons I had learned and the ways I had grown to stake out a life of my own in my native city. The ensuing four years drained me of that delusion, and I bolted again. I went faster, I went further, and even upon my rough and unsure first few months in Seattle, I kept myself free of almost all the nostalgia.

We tend to romanticize the idea of holding on to our roots, but I’m not sure anyone sits down and thinks about what it means to do that. For me, very little remains of any sort of relationship I had with Buffalo at all. It recently occurred to me that the idea of trying to hold on to my roots from The Nickel City means trying to hold a firm emotional connection with a place that did everything in its power to remind me that I was subhuman and deny me the right to eke out even a basic existence. A typical Buffalo life is set in a specific pattern of being born, going to school, leaving school, taking up a job in whatever call center (the call center is the new factory) will have you, getting married, and having kids who will do the same. Any deviation from or questioning of that pattern is a mortal sin. And there was me, the curious kid, looking to know why society worked the way it did or why we had specific rules and traditions that popped out of nowhere some time immemorial ago. I was always after more from the surrounding world – things which Buffalo was frequently both unable and unwilling to provide. I wanted knowledge; truths and adventures to talk about with people who could share their own back to me.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Buffalo because there are a few worthwhile values I learned there that have served me well. I know what a good, proper work ethic should be and how to be a good neighbor. I know good pizza and good chicken wings, and I have continued to stay in touch with a few old friends who still live in Buffalo. But there are a lot of other, less salient values the city inflicted onto me: The community owns the rights over every single aspect of my life. Drinking away a mental problem is okay – in fact, it’s the only real method of dealing with it. Tradition is an irrefutable god. Anyone who falls outside our prescribed life patterns is abnormal and hostile and must be excluded from everything. Sit down and shut the fuck up and never question anything you get taught. The world outside the city here is inconsequential. Needless to say, I took on an outcast status in Buffalo. Yeah, I shared a handful of qualities with the people there, but I liked reading and being a geek as much as I enjoyed a good hockey or football game. What happened was that I became something of a member of the city’s hidden population. People there knew me, but they didn’t know me very well, and they sure as hell didn’t understand me. Most of them didn’t have the inclination to try; they superimposed upon presumptions that I was just another one of them.

My move to Chicago was like an ongoing acid trip. Everything was shiny and new, and my brain was in a constant state of sensory overload. Whatever I wanted, Chicago had a way to offer it to me. What’s more was the fact that no one criticized me for my interests or told me I was unacceptable because of a couple of interests which didn’t jibe with the ethos of the city. While I was marked by severe poverty for my time in The Windy City, I also saw my own potential as a human start to awaken. I started making friends and was accepted and respected as a real member of a community. It was in Chicago that I was able to start trying things that would make a small impact on the world around me. My crowning achievement was creating and watching over an urban garden, but I was a part of fundraisers and protests too. I was, in fact, one of the people acting behind the scenes of the October 2006 protest day. More to the point was the fact that I was among people who questioned everything as loudly and boldly as I had been trying to do for my entire life.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t some freak. I was just a regular person around town, and I reveled in my newfound intellectual and individual freedom. No one in my neighborhood judged me for any offbeat interests I had. I was allowed to do what I pleased and follow whatever made me curious or happy, and if I had a question about the way things were done, it was taken seriously rather than brushed aside. To say the realization that I would have to move back to Buffalo was devastating would be an understatement. On my list of my life’s biggest heartbreakers, my move back to Buffalo is in a respectable second, under the day my mother died. I tried to put an optimistic spin on it, but I had mentioned to a friend of mine that I was counting on a frictional relationship with my folks and not being able to go anywhere or do anything. Which happened.

Buffalo is the city of some of my biggest failures and pains. It’s a symbol of the many ways I’ve been rejected as a full human being. I learned to hate myself and hide my deformity as if it were some sort of terrible secret shame. So years later I came to the realization that I’ve never been much of a Buffalo man at all. When that happened, I slowly started to tear myself away from the destructive civic habits of the place I was born and raised, and then start freeing myself of the wannabe-thug exterior and toxic form of masculinity that kept holding me back after I had left the city for the first time. After all, why would I want to retain an emotional connection with a place that treated me in such a way? It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make sense at any time I’ve ever lived outside of Buffalo, and it doesn’t make any sense in this day and age, when most of my emotional ties there are gone and I’m not making any plans to even visit, let alone to move back.

Yes, I’ve spent most of my life in Buffalo. But Buffalo is the asshole jock from all those movies in the 80’s having grown up and turned into a loser without realizing it. So when it comes to identifying the city that really created me, I’m in and of Chicago.

That Goddamned List

That Goddamned List

The worst, weirdest, stupidest phone call I ever made was in 2006, when I was a rising star in the world of arts marketing. I called a subscriber to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to sell a season ticket package. A little kid answered the phone, and I asked him to put his father on. Which the kid, of course, dutifully did. As I began my routine, the father interrupted me: “I have NOT had sex with my wife for MONTHS, and I FINALLY get her in bed, and you JUST FUCKED IT ALL UP FOR ME!!!…” Oh, he started screaming at me at the top of his lungs after that, but I missed everything he said because I was already in the act of placing the phone back onto the base. It was the only time I ever hung up on one of my customers. What I REALLY wanted to do was interrupt him in turn with a short speech about how ugly his wife was – after all, what was the kid doing running around at THAT time if he was interested in his wife? But my supervisor could have been listening, so I ignored the impulse.

I left the Symphony a short time after that to make a go with the Illinois PIRGs. They were a resoundingly shitty organization to work for, had lied outright about their work in order to recruit me, and my once-promising media career was over. To tell the truth, I was a little relieved; working my way up the corporate ladder for the company contracting me would have meant spending more time on the phone. I could rest easy knowing my life wasn’t dependant on calling people and asking for their credit card numbers anymore.

Here I am now, years later, going back into political activism after a long period of inactivity. And just my luck! What does my line of campaign work involve now? Calling people! No one likes bugging people in their private homes, and no one likes being bugged in their private homes, either. Not many people realize this about telemarketers, but they don’t like talking to you. If you’ve answered the phone, they already want you dead. But old experience gets volunteer employers to take note, so in the early days of my new politically active era, I was on the fucking phone yet again. Three phone banking sessions and I started telling people in the campaign that I was absolutely, positively done making calls. I don’t want my candidate to lose votes because my tongue got too loose.

While outright abuse has been thankfully minimal, there’s one little truth about phone banking that needs to be addressed: This “list.” Let’s get a few things clear about the list. The first thing you need to know about the list is that you heard about it through the grapevine, and we all know how things heard through grapevines work. That’s a fancy way of saying ideas about it may not be accurate, and the list is one of those things in which that’s true. The list you want to be taken off of is no more real than the grapevine you heard about it from. What that means is that from the telemarketer’s point of view, there’s nothing to pull your name from, and so you’re just some random name that popped off a screen somewhere. Names come up and the people making those annoying phone calls don’t have a choice. People in call centers have no control whatsoever over who they call. If a name is in there, it’s in there, and no amount of screaming, bitching, or death threats is going to change that. And frankly, if you’re too nasty or threatening, you deserve the harassment.

While I’m on the subject, I need to cover the no-call list that everyone says they’re on as well since I’ve been verbally abused over it. I don’t know what this no-call list is or who’s on it. I don’t know where to go to sign my name to it. What I DO know is that between all the phone work I’ve been forced to do, I’ve never actually seen a no-call list. I think that, unlike the caller list, the no-call list might actually exist, though. When I was doing work for WNED and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it got talked about an awful lot, even by my supervisors. And the supervisors talked about it in legal technicalities. So even if the no-call list exists – which, again, is something I can reasonably doubt – there are a few factors in play which the people who kick and scream about it don’t take into account. First of all, the no-call list doesn’t apply to everywhere that tries to grab money through phone sales and phone donations. Arts and government organizations are exempt from it. And if a big corporation has outsourced its phone sales jobs to places overseas, the no-call list doesn’t apply to them, either. Frankly, the types of callers the no-call list bans are in a very, Very, VERY specific line of making phone sales, and the good folks behind it apparently aren’t into random inspections. If a place needs to disturb you at home, they can get around your precious no-call list by changing their callers’ official job titles. Why wouldn’t they? Uncle Sam isn’t breathing down their necks.

So this is what it comes down to: You’re assaulting someone who is probably poised to blow their top over a list they don’t know anything about. No, you don’t want to be bugged about some damn ideology at home, but from the employee’s point of view, you’re an asshole who can’t be polite for the two seconds it takes to say, “No.” And I should take the time to point out that there are some telemarketing services that provide employees with the customers’ information.

Since my political work is strictly on a volunteer level, though, I’m not worried about getting threats from people I call. After all, I told them I wasn’t going to bug people at home about politics anymore and that they’ll have to find something new for me to do. There’s one more thing I should remind people about volunteer work, though: If a volunteer calls, there’s nothing that can stop them from blowing up.

 

The Near-Juror

The Near-Juror

I’m not an anarchist, but I’m damn near. My problems with the idea of overly large and restrictive governments and unregulated corporations (which I consider nothing but governments with money) started with the law when Bush Junior made a national fiasco out of arresting a group of my friends and then turning them into case point A for why Iraq needed FREEDOM! I’m not sure if we can safely say that the legal system in the United States itself is a given. What IS a given is the fact that everyone thinks it’s totally fucked up. The precise WAY in which it’s fucked up depends entirely on who you ask, but it’s a given mess. The strange thing is that for all the complaining people like to do about it, no one seems to want to have any part of trying to clean it all up. I’m not going to haughtily declare myself above the knaves right now and go around shaming everyone. I am, in fact, not that much different. After returning from my holiday visit to my family in California, I wasn’t exactly enthused when I saw a jury summons from the district court of Lynnwood sitting on my bed.

My first thought was the same as everyone else’s when they get summoned for jury duty: Whoever’s on trial, I will see them fucking hang!!! My second thought was also the same as everyone else’s: What excuse to get out of this gives me the perfect balance between plausibility and inarguability? Finally, the rational part of my brain managed to break through. It reminded me of something: If anything, I was getting a chance to be an insider in this system I was always griping about. If I wasn’t able to get out of it, why not embrace the opportunity as a chance to keep a wrong from possibly happening?

And I did want to get out of it. Missing two days of work was going to force me to delay a trip overseas I’ve been dying to make as it was, and if that wasn’t enough, I had also just started looking for a new place to live. (The circumstances surrounding this situation were very unique, and will probably show up here sooner or later.) Yes, the courts promise compensation for jurors, but that compensation is rightfully regarded as a joke. It’s about $20 a day. In other words, it’s lunch money for whatever nice cafe or teriyaki joint happens to be across the street. When weighed against my travel plans and the money I was losing, that just wouldn’t do. So I made a couple of cursory calls to the local justice department, only to find out that I had called the wrong number. I was looking for the city court, not the county court, and I had lost the city court’s number. So, having informed my supervisor – who made sure to photocopy my summons – I sucked it up and went in to Lynnwood court.

Going into the court, I first filled out my information. Then I was hauled into the back, where I was placed in a room with about 17 other people. Looking around, I started mentally practicing my Henry Fonda juror speech as I sat there doing nothing else. I think the court wanted to make sure the jury was free of possible outside influence, because there weren’t even any courtesy magazines. Me and all the others waited for what felt like an eternity, and I tried to ebb the flow of self-doubt questions going through my head: Would I be able to do the right thing if I thought everybody else was wrong? Would I tell a few inadvertent lies when questioned in order to make a last ditch effort to get out of it? Id I really want to involve myself in a case for someone I never knew existed, and would never see again?

When it was time to do the movie and television show thing where we all answered whether or not we had the stuff to be a juror, everyone was taken into the courtroom at the same time. The case was explained to us, and the folks who invented this system clearly weren’t idiots; they’re not going to ask us why we think we’d be good jurors, because probably a few too many people regaled them with that handy line about being able to tell if someone is guilty just by looking at them. So what they did was give us the skinny on the situation and ask the entire group questions at the same time. Answers were a few words, tops. The Judge seemed to be a pretty cool guy. He had a sense of humor about his field, explaining that we weren’t jurors just yet. We were merely members of the veneer, and six jurors would be chosen depending on the way we answered the questions they asked. “Leave it to lawyers to invent a fancy French term for a phrase,” he said. The lawyers weren’t quite as endearing, and I got the feeling that one of them was trying to make his entire case right on the spot.

After the little getting-to-know-you/questioning session, we were all placed into the back room again, and I sat there and soaked up the scenery. The most incredible thing was how prevalent the people who wanted to escape were, and how open they were about wanting to get the hell out. During my second visit to Lynnwood court, there was an old guy there who was griping about the fact that he was asked to show up at all. All the times he had been summoned to the court, and he had never been needed before because all the cases he had been summoned for were settled out of court. There was another, slightly younger than me, who was bragging about the subtle missteps he had taken on purpose in order to get everyone to see him as an unfit juror. He didn’t seem satisfied that they would let him off for sure.

We spent between 30 and 45 minutes sitting there, in all our awkwardness, thinking about whether or not we’d be picked to be on the jury. There wasn’t any discussion about who did what, or any discussion of the case at all, although we did take points away from one of the lawyers for trying to make the case for his client right during the selection process. During my second visit, one of the other possible jurors talked about his experience being a juror previously. It hadn’t been so bad, he said. The entire case was settled in maybe and hour and a half. Of course, a short resolution was expected in a small civil court like Lynnwood’s. The first case I was summoned for was a case of reckless driving. The second was driving while intoxicated. The first was civil, the second criminal. But it didn’t change the fact that no one was going to be acting as a so-called peer in a major murder trial.

After being taken back out into the courtroom, the Judge started making his announcements: Six people were called forward and told to take their seats in the jury’s section. I missed out both times. One of the jurors called the second time was a man who said he had been called up once before, and he ended up serving on both juries. I was waiting with some form of anticipation during the second trial, as I thought I gave an answer which would have shooed me right in, but my name was never called, and I was free to head out. That was really the part of the entire adventure that everyone was dreading the most. I didn’t spot or speak to a single person who was interested in being a part of the jury, and most of them took offense to the fact that they had even been required to show up in the first place.

The look on the old man’s face during my second visit to the courtroom was one I’ll never forget. He had gotten called up as a juror, and lord, did he look pissed.