Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

APAHEF06 - 01112006 - WIEN - OESTERREICH: ZU APA-TEXT WI - FEATURE - Archivbild vom 23. Februar 2005 zeigt einen Arbeiter in Schutzkleidung beim Abstich des 1470 Grad heissen Roheisens. Die Verhandler der Metallergewerkschaft und Arbeitgebervertreter treffen am Donnerstag, 2. November zur 2.Verhandlungsrunde wegen eines neuen Kollektivvertrags zusammen. Die zuletzt von Arbeitgeberseite gebotenen 2,3 Prozent Lohn-und Gehaltserhoehung sind fuer die Gewerkschaft nicht ausreichend. RAINER JENSEN/DPA

ROUTINES OF RUIN

     To be a laborer, all you need are sweat glands. If you have sweat glands, congrats, you qualify. A pair of hands, a strong back, and the willingness to be screamed and cursed at for hours on end helps as well. So does a streak of masochism. What is not needed under any circumstances is higher brain functioning or advanced cognitive ability. Thinking is strictly forbidden, unless of course, that thinking centers on the holy trinity of sex, sports, or hitting the lottery.

There is a rigid caste system on the construction site. As a laborer, please remember that you are on the bottom. You are one of the untouchables, the unholy ones. Unlike the carpenters, millwrights, ironworkers, operating engineers, pipefitters, and electricians, there is no apprenticeship program required for your trade. You are not a “skilled tradesmen.” No, to these exalted beings, you are a simpleton. You do not operate sophisticated machinery like levels, trowels, calculators, tri-squares, Skil saws, arc welders, voltage meters, spud wrenches, Vernier calipers, or overgrown Tonka trucks called end loaders, bulldozers, cherry pickers, steam rollers or backhoes. You do not swagger around with jangling tool belts or wear your hardhat backwards. You do not fire up Luckies with acetylene torches in emulation of the Marlboro Man. You are not a higher being who gets marginally dirty pounding a nail, soldering a wire, or working levers in an air conditioned cab.

No, you are part of a rag-tag gang of hillbilly goons, ghetto bozos, clueless dorks, hulking child-men, and other slobbering, half-drunk, half-educated buffoons. You are a desperate soul, one of the grunts, the shitbirds, the fuck-ups, one of the shuffling, shambling, booze-addicted zombies who will suffer any indignity, any torture, any horror, to get your grimy fists around $13.23 an an hour.

Your tools are the jackhammer and the shovel. The jackhammer is your enemy. The jackhammer is teeth jarring, bone numbing, and even when your ears are crammed with Kleenex, it is deafening. On top of the general clamor, the nonstop barrage of clangs, bangs, thuds, roars, hisses, alarms, and screams, the jackhammer’s rat-a-tat-tatting tears into the ear drums, blendering the brain around with each jarring strike of its metal fang. It sends shockwaves up the arms, twangs ligaments and tendons, plays entire chords on them. It stresses joints, rattles fingers, mortifies knees, inciting bruises and calluses, not to mention sending chips of razor-sharp shrapnel flying in all directions. If you like your corneas, keep your safety glasses on. Numbness, headaches, tremors, limbs that suddenly begin flapping and spasming in the middle of the night, all are demon children of the jackhammer. Even when the ninety-five pound beast is finally silenced, you will still hear it reverberating in your brain as you sit, shell-shocked, with shaking claw-fingers that can barely lift your Bud longneck.

Shoveling is hardly a joy, but it beats running the jackhammer. Say hello to Mr. Shovel and get acquainted, because the two of you are going to become very close. Mr. Shovel is your special friend. Your best pal. Your Lucille. Like Linus has a blanket, you have a shovel. You will do many things with your shovel. You will get to know your shovel immediately. The second you drive your shovel into something and tear away a big hunk of that something and throw that something somewhere else, you will bond with your shovel. Your shovel is there to do one thing, and that is to shovel. And being a laborer, shovel you shall.

You will carry your shovel in one of two ways. At the start of the day, after you choose your shovel, plucking it off the wall where it hangs with the other shovels, you will hold your shovel low, down at your side, gripping it at the hip, like a spear, with the blade pointed straight ahead. You will do this when you are walking into battle, when the phalanx of failures you are now part of marches into the BOP shop, or any of the numerous other chambers of horror that now qualify as your workplace, eight hours a day, five days a week.

When the eight hours are up and you trudge back to the yard, you will carry your shovel in a different manner, a more victorious and carefree manner. Casually, you will sling it over a shoulder, one arm curled over it as a counterweight, keeping it balanced perfectly across your back, its duties for the moment finished. Your familiarity with it is represented by this uber-casual carrying position, this slouchy, rifleman’s technique that implies a nonchalant mastery over it and a job that’s been well-done. Or at least done. The “well” part of any job, as you and your shovel have recently noticed, is entirely optional.

As you bond with your shovel and it becomes the fifth appendage of your body, you will gradually become so comfortable with your shovel that you will begin to perform tricks with it. When your shovel is lying on the ground face up, you will scoff at the notion of putting any additional strain on your throbbing back by bending over to pick it up. No, instead, you will perform the time-honored laborer’s tradition of stomping on the upturned blade with just enough force to make the wooden arm of the shovel spring back up towards you, then, ever so casually, perhaps without even looking at it, you will grab your shovel with a gloved hand and resume your task. Be careful, though. Too much force will send your shovel careening directly into your testicles, causing you to see flashpoints of white hot pain, impede your chances of procreating, and make you the laughing stock of the entire crew.

Shoveling is mindless, a series of rote movements that you fall into and conduct with a smooth, efficient rhythm. You must let your body get into this rhythm and go with it, become it. Place shovel blade on ground. Put right foot onto lip of shovel. Leverage foot. Utilizing body weight, push foot onto the lip of the shovel, stepping onto it, applying constant pressure until the blade of the shovel enters the earth. Lean over. Bend legs slightly. Place left hand halfway down the wooden shaft. Turn your torso into a pendulum, and using your legs and arms, hoist up your load, swinging shovel back towards you, building momentum. Now stop and swing it forward in one fluid motion, taking care to shorten the hurl and halt your shovel-throw, at the peak of its apogee, timing it perfectly, so the slag, dirt, rock or concrete is flung smoothly off of the blade. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Place shovel back on ground. Now do it again. And again. And again. Do it over and over and over. Do it silently. Do it without protest. Do it all day. Shovel.

Be advised. The only way to get through this monotony is to let your mind wander. But not too far. You can’t gallivant off into the lyrics of “Iron Man,” dwell on how great it would be to eat and fuck in outer space, or relive your days as an all-area quarterback who threw for twenty touchdowns and banged three of the four varsity cheerleaders, because there’s all sorts of dangerous shit around, shit that will leave you vaporized, maimed, crippled, blinded, double amputee’d or burned to a crisp if you take a wrong step.

No, it’s better to hover in an inert but aware state, alert physically, but vacant mentally. This way your task can be completed by rote, without knowledge of it. This is shoveler’s high, a condition that occurs when your blood gets flowing and the endorphins take over and the pain vanishes and you enter a zone of peaceful empty headedness. If you do it right, not even the ladles slopping out liquid steel and the glowing, red hot slabs sending off waves of heat and the furnaces charging and the mad, constant rush all around can penetrate your womb of isolation. Your glorious removal. The transition of your consciousness to a reptilian state: aware and reactive, but sedated. You must do this to conserve physical energy, and to let the body take over and do its muscle-memory thing while your mind drifts away. If you can tune out this din, this clamor, if you can keep quiet, keep your head down, sooner or later, when you look up, it’ll be noon and holy shit, motherfucker, where did the morning go?

As much as you hate this place and the people in it, already, you feel it. A strange sympathy, a glow of understanding. An acceptance. It’s the realization that sometimes, when a shaft of light angles down out of the dusty air the right way, or the wind changes and you catch a whiff of the lake and the rich heady swell of dead alewives and the lakeweed stirs your nostrils, working here really isn’t that bad. If you can find a small corner of the mill, say your own special little trench, and if you know Bob had to run to the sheet and tin mill and will be gone all morning, and if your special little trench is out of sight, then you can work nice and slow, have some smokes, take a few piss breaks, and get into an empty-headed timespace where the hours fly by. That is the perfect eight hours – one where you sail along, working at a modest clip, shooting the shit, smoking, sharing dirty jokes, farting as freely as an infant, and of course, calling everyone as many varieties of cocksucker as you can imagine.

Routine becomes more of a routine. The entire place is routine. Furnaces charging and slabs being dropped from overhead cranes and elecromagnets are certainties, and once you learn their rhythms they will become your rhythms, and suddenly the big mill begins to make sense. It becomes a fascinating interplay of incredible scenes, a grand spectacle of metallurgic wonder, a supernova of molten glory erupting every few minutes, perfectly synchronized, right before your eyes, and as you pour your concrete and shovel your slag a few feet away from such epic processes, it is mesmerizing. The heat bathes your body, and with your face aglow from the flames there is nothing else to think about except that exact moment, and marvel at how these puny, pathetically vulnerable, fleshy little creatures called man ever figured out how to melt down the elements of the earth, heat them to such fantastic temperatures, and shape them into this wondrous, glowing, molten life force, this metal called steel, in this incredible factory, this gargantuan kitchen from hell, this hometown Hades, this place of fire.

The big mill also provides one other working condition you will take advantage of—it is vast, sprawling, huge, so full of machinery and infrastructure that it is the perfect place to hide. Here in the maze of Gary Works, you can disappear. Visibility is murky at best. Armies of fellow contractors and mill employees, piles of concrete forms, mounds of earth, stacks of scrap, concrete foundations, holes, pits, sump pits, catwalks, scaffolding, trailers, giant earth-moving equipment, railroad cars, ingot fields, train tracks, ore bridges, blast furnaces, and other obstacles are everywhere. If you want to play Hide-N-Go-Seek, no one will find you here.

During your ten-minute coffee break or lunch, please remain seated. Lying down is strictly forbidden. Blame the rats, the hordes of hulking, gray-streaked brutes who patrol the ditches and trenches, the yellow-fanged rodents whose presence insures that you never, ever bring your lunch in a brown paper bag or turn your back on a ham and cheese.

If you snag some time and a half on a big pour and wind up working late, into the night, this world will become even more profound. At night in the mill, all of nature’s elements are on prominent display. The moon shines on the cooling slabs and turns the rails silver. Fire belches from furnaces and the orange glow of the flames is hot and bright amid the gloom, sending flickering shadows across the soot-streaked walls. The lake heaves and moans, tossing great swells of dark, forever waves against the rocky breakwater at the mouth of the slip, and when the wind picks up, the fires and the orange, still-glowing slabs glow brighter and even more vividly in the shadows.

Finally, mercifully, the day ends. You’re mangled, drained, aching, every ounce of energy squeezed out of your body. Hobbling out of the doghouse, you’re bone-tired, bleary-eyed, smoked-out, scorched, singed, scarred, bruised, banged up and battered. If you’re lucky you’ll remember where you parked your car, but it might take you a few tries to push in the door handle after you find it because your hands are as numb as a statue’s.

But there’s no way your hands are ever going to be too tired to grasp an ice cold bottle of Bud or a shot of Beam or any other container that holds the irresistible substance that removes all pain and suffering, the magical elixir of your tattered and tattooed tribe: alcohol.

 

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.

Mrs. Curly

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He said he was an actor. He said his brothers were actors. But they weren’t actors. They were fools. And my ex-husband Curly was the biggest fool of all.

I don’t mean to sound bitter, because people all over the world loved Curly. I did, too. Fifty years ago the man swept me off my feet. Actually, “boy” would be more precise—because that’s what he was: a child in a two hundred and sixty-three pound body. But I’ll get to that in a minute. Yes, for a brief time—fourteen months—Curly and I were happy, although looking back, I was never that happy. But I was young. A virgin, if you can believe. And to think now, that a Stooge was my first . . . my god, was I nuts?

My name is Ruth Howard Birnbaum, and it was my strange, unbelievable fate to be the second of Curly’s four wives. The other girls—Paula, Jean, and Anita—didn’t fare any better than I did. Wait, I take that back. Curly and Anita lasted four whole years. But he was out of show business then, and a lot calmer than when I met him, back in ’39. God, has it been that long?

The years have blurred our time together, but some nights, as I lie beside Irving, my husband of forty-three years, I can still feel that grubby bald head nuzzling against me, and that old maddening nyuk-nyuk-nyuk rings through my head like a curse.

 

I was working at Morty’s Furs on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles. Morty was a wholesale furrier who sold coats, stoles, scarves, hats and muffs. How he survived in 80 degree weather I never figured out, but he did. Anyway, I did secretarial work: writing invoices, typing orders, and occasionally, when Morty bought a quarter-page in the L.A.; Times, I modeled a fur or two. I was nineteen, brunette, and a real looker back then.

Well, it was Friday, and right before lunch, if I remember correctly. I was helping Morty wheel a rack of mothy raccoon pelts into cold storage, when I heard the front door jingle open, followed by a long, piercing wolf-whistle. I turned around, to see a bald fat man stuffed into a gray tweed suit two or three sizes too small. He wore a black bowler and a white lily boutonniere, and his slacks were hiked up around his waist in a futile effort to conceal his stomach. I watched as he lifted the bowler, did a quick drum-roll with it atop his shaved skull, and flared his eyebrows.

“Hiya, toots!” he said, in an ungodly squeak.

“Well, aren’t you fresh.”

“Fresher than a mackerel!” he said, bursting through the waist-high swinging doors.

I grabbed my purse and walked by.

“Hey, where ya goin?”

“To lunch.”

“Too bad. ‘Cause you’re one swell dame.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name’s Curly,” he said, his blue eyes sparkling. “Actually, my real name’s Jerome. Jerome Howard.” He offered his hand. “I’m an actor.” From the way he said “actor” I knew he was from New York.

“I’m late,” I said. A door-slam later I was gone.

That night, I had a date with Sherman—he was an eye, nose and throat doctor practicing in Brentwood—and Shermie drove us to one of our favorite haunts: the old Ambassador Hotel. Well, no sooner had we saddled up to the bar, ordered our gin rickeys and lit our Chesterfields, when who strolled into the lounge but you know who. He was dressed like Al Capone and the band stopped playing as he strutted through the crowd. Soon it was “Curly, let me buy you a drink,” and “You playin’ spoons tonight?” Curly laughed and hit the bar, where he was quickly surrounded.

The music started again, and all thoughts of this popular, pot-bellied stranger left me. I sat with Shermie, listening to him go on about septums, when suddenly, we heard a stir a the bar. There was conking glass, a quick mad cackle, and as Shermie turned to investigate, a jet of water blasted him in the face, sending his wire-rims across the room. At once we fell to the floor, and when we found the shattered lenses, we looked up to see who’d cause the outburst.

Standing over us, with a foot-long cigar crammed into his mouth, holding a seltzer bottle, was Curly.

“Sorry, mac,” he said, a sly grin spreading over his face.

“Why you—”

“Boys! Please!” I said, coming between them.

“Hey! You’re the dame from the fur store!”

Then with a brazenness I’d never seen in all my days, Curly asked me to dance. I was flabbergasted. How could anyone be so daring, so devil-may-care?

I don’t know what came over me, but as Sherman squinted in disbelief, I took his hand.

To my amazement, Curly was an excellent dancer, very nimble on his feet for a man of his size. We tangoed into the wee hours, see-sawing over the floor, and as Bobby Carlyle’s World Famous Players poured out the jazz, I laughed like a giddy schoolgirl. It was too much—the music, the cocktails—and I fell into Curly’s arms, captivated by the sheer oddness of his personality. As for Shermie, well, he huffed out and that was the last I saw of him.

Later than night, with the palms casting giant shadows and the lights of the city twinkling like a million fireflies, Curly drove me home in his tomato-red 1938 Buick Roadmaster convertible, and when we kissed goodnight on the stoop, I knew I was smitten. He was just so different. I’d never met a man like him. With most fellas it was “How do you do?” and “May I take your coat?” you know, real formal and all.

That’s why I fell for him. He was fun. He wasn’t the best looking guy, but did I care? After dating stuffy old Shermie, I just wanted to have a good time. And that was something Curly definitely knew how to do.

 

Over the next few months, we hit the town like a couple of sailors. McVickers. The Club New Yorker, Café Trocadero, we were regulars at every juke joint on the strip. Curly thought the way we met was destiny, and showered me with gifts,: jewelry, hats, patent leather shoes, even a parakeet! To my parents horror, we continued dating, and as I gazed into his eyes over a shared egg cream at one of the many soda fountains we frequented, I sensed it was all leading up to something.

Sure enough, one night at Charlie Foy’s Supper Club, Curly popped the question. If you’re imagining candlelight and violin concertos, drop the thought, because Curly proposed as only a Stooge could. Chewing greedily, with a mouthful of pork, he said:

“Warma seg me ga heech.”

“What?”

“Whaddaya say,” he grunted, finally swallowing, “we get hitched.”

I was stunned. “Okay,” I heard myself say. Curly burped, and it was done.

We were married at Temple Beth El, Curly’s parent’s synagogue on Crescent Heights. Moe was best man. Shemp was there, plus Larry Fine and Jules White, the director Curly and the boys shot with. Believe it or not, this was the first time I met any of them (Curly rarely mentioned his work—all he said was that he was an “actor.”) The ceremony was simple, and as my parents watched in dismay—I’ll never forget the look on Pop’s face—Curly slid the ring on my finger, and we were husband and wife.

That night in Reno, Curly made love to me. I don’t remember much, just squirming and chuckling in the dark, then it was over. Curly, bloated from the platters of corned beef and knish he’d packed away at the reception, didn’t have the stamina to go much longer. As he lay atop me afterwards, sticky and panting, I remember looking up at the rafters of the cabin, wondering what I’d done.

All in all, I’d dated Curly for two months, in a smoke-filled whirlwind of cocktails and late nights. Suddenly, as I listened to his peeping snores, I realized I barely knew him.

But I pushed my doubt aside. The marriage would work, I told myself.

It had to.

 

After the honeymoon, we moved into a seven-room home on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills. It was a grand old house, with hardwood floors, a beautiful garden, and a pool in the backyard. Quite a step up from my parent’s place in Manhattan Beach, that’s for sure!

Curly threw himself into his work, while I set about furnishing the place, picking wallpaper, hiring painters, decorators. Gradually, it became home, although I was the only one who enjoyed it, as Curly’s fall schedule busied him to the point where I only saw him n the morning, when he awoke for another sixteen hours of filming. I didn’t mind, though. I had plenty to do around the house, and with the garden, it was easy to lose myself.

Even at this point, six months into the marriage, I still hadn’t seen one of Curly’s films. I mean, he said he was a comedian, right? I figured he was like Red Skelton or Henny Youngman. It wasn’t until he started coming home with some peculiar ailments—black eyes, fat lips, whipped cream clogged in his nostrils—that I started wondering what he was doing.

One day, after Curly returned home from another long day of filming, I heard him whimpering in the bathroom. I threw open the door, to find him bent under the faucet, water spattering off his skull.

“I’m goin’ nuts! Get it out!” he yelled, his hands a blur as he slapped his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Something’s stuck in my ear!”

I ran to the kitchen and got a pair of needle-nosed pliers.

“Hold still.”

I stuck the pliers in and fished around. It took some doing, but finally I grabbed hold of the thing and yanked. Out it came, a rock-hard plug coated in wax. I held it up to the light, but only after rinsing the gook off did I realize what it was—a cherry pit! It must have been in Curly’s ear for weeks, I mean, it was starting to blossom!

That was when I decided to see one of his “films.”

The next day I went down to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and forked over two bits for the matinee. I knew something was wrong right as I sat down, because the only people there were drunks, servicemen, and kids playing hooky.

The picture was called “Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise,” and started normally, with Moe, Larry, and Curly driving through oil country. But when their jalopy got a flat and Curly hopped out to fix it, things took a sick turn. To my horror, Moe snatched the tire iron from Curly and conked him in the face! Over and over Moe smashed him, and I covered my eyes. The audience was in stitches, roaring like maniacs; I looked back at the screen, hoping the violence was over, but all I saw was Curly being kicked and slapped, all to excruciating sound effects. It was chaos; kids screaming, Crackerjack raining down—everyone went stark raving mad! I sat there, my jaw hung open in shock, and asd I watched Moe—his own brother—clamp a monkey wrench onto Curly’s nose and spin it around, I thought, “I’m married to that?” Reeling and in tears, I ran from the theatre, all the way down Hollywood Boulevard.

When I confronted Curly that night, he just smiled. “That’s what I do. I’m a Stooge,” he said.

“I thought you said you were an actor.”

“I am.”

“But all you did was let Moe hit you.”

“That’s actin’!”

“How do you mean?”

“Well,” he said, smirking, “I’m actin’ like Moe’s hittin’ me!”

From that day on, it was all downhill.

 

In a way I deserved it. But when you’re nineteen, you don’t know anything. Sometimes, love’s not meant to be—especially when you’re married to a Stooge.

My parents always said Curly was beneath me. I thought they were being snobs, but as time passed I began to see they were right. It wasn’t the double negatives he used, or his illiteracy—all he read was Li’l Abner, Nancy, and the racing forum—there was more to it than that. Once I saw those images in the theatre, our lives changed. I started to see that I wasn’t married to a man, but to an irresponsible child.

Of course, Curly didn’t help matters, because with each film, he grew increasingly unable to separate his on-screen personal from real life. That’s what wrecked our marriage—the differences, the lack of things in common, that was nothing. The big problem was that he was a Stooge twenty-four hours a day. So in a desperate attempt to save the relationship, I tried to change him. But the more I tried, the more he resisted. The Curly part of him—the only part of him I realized later—was just too strong.

All I wanted was for him to settle down, to act normal, but he was too busy being a comedian. Everything had to be a gag—eating, shopping, you name it. When he cleaned the house, he’d get tangled up in the vacuum cleaner hose, wrestling it like an anaconda. I’d give him a simple task like doing the dishes, only to find a room-full of suds and him sloshing around with soap in his eyes. None of those domestic ideas worked at all.

I don’t know how many nights we lay in bed, discussing the relationship, with him promising to change, only to have him ruin an hour of heartfelt words with one of his moronic sounds effects. And sex—you don’t even want to know about that. Let’s just say it didn’t work.

One night, we agreed to have a romantic dinner. The relationship was at an all-time low; Curly had been acting in George White’s Scandals on Broadway, and I hadn’t seen him in months. I’d gone to the market for T-bones, and it was Curly’s job to get the liquor. Well, he got it alright. And guess where it all went—every last drop of it, right down his throat.

When I came home, he was in the dining room, his shoulder pinned to the floor, running in circles, screaming whoob-whoob-whoob-whoob, like he’d gone cuckoo.

I just stood there. The room was in shambles, empty bottles and silverware on the floor, shattered china; it looked like a bomb went off. Curly kept spinning.

“Curly!”

He looked up. “N-yyAAAhh-AAAhh-ah!” he said, in that stupid nasal honk that drove me insane.

“What are you doing? “

“Mo and Larry stopped by and we—“

“Tonight was supposed to be special! Goddamn you, Curly!”

“Hey, let’s go somewhere,” he said, scrambling to his feet.

“I don’t want to go anywhere!”

“What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t believe it. Standing in the middle of the room he demolished, on the first night I’d seen him in months, he says “What’s wrong?” I dropped the steaks and stormed out.

 

Two weeks later, we were back together. Curly sent flowers, Candygrams, the whole shebang. He swore he’s shape up, that he’d be Jerome and not Curly. And I believed him. What else could I do?

But nothing changed. Oh, he was fine for a week or two, but as soon as Jules started filming, it was the same old Curly.

In bed he’d snore, or pass gas and laugh like a fool. He’d take baths and leave water and plastic boats all over the floor. He spent more time with his toy schnauzers Shorty and Doc than he did with me, teasing them into fits of barking that lasted for days. On weekends he’d go to the Saturday night fights and when he came home at dawn he stank of peanuts and cigars and his throat would be raw from screaming. Then, when he got up at five, he’d want breakfast. In bed.

Finally, I’d had enough. One day, after cleaning a colossal mess in the kitchen—Curly had tried to bake a poppy seed cake—I drove down to Columbia Pictures, past the security guard, right up to Lot 13, where Curly was filming “What’s The Matador?” his 62nd short.

“Where’s Curly?” I said to Jules, who sat smoking in his director’s chair.

“In wardrobe.”

I heard a tinkling of bells, and when I turned around there was Curly, wearing matador tights and a flowing red cape. A sad-looking bull trotted beside him.

“What’re you doin’ here, Ruthie?”

“I want a divorce.”

The bull separated and out of one half a sweaty-faced Moe appeared, followed by a sopping Larry at the other.

“Hey fellas! She wants a divorce!”

“Dames,” said Larry, “Hey, Moe. Got a smoke?”

“I’m serious, Curly.”

Curly started to speak, but a flurry of extras in sombreros ran by and Jules yelled into his megaphone.

“Stooges back on the set!”

Mo and Larry hopped off in the bull costume, leaving Curly and me alone in the dust.

“Curly stared at me, like he was straining to figure something out. He bit his lip. Then his face broke and he smiled.

“Why soitenly?” he snickered. “We’ll do it tomorrow!”

My heart sank, and as the sobs heaved out of me, I watched Curly skip back to the cameras, the only place, I think, he ever really wanted to be.

 

There aren’t many people who know all that. Oh sure, Irving knows, but he doesn’t care. He loves Curly. Saturday mornings he always wants me to watch the Stooges with him. But I can’t. I lived it.

The divorce went through, and we went our separate ways, I to a degree in pharmacology from U.C. Santa Barbara, Curly to a tour of U.S. Army camps in World War II, a round of feature films, and more shorts. Curly’s next wife, Paula, divorced him after five weeks. I must have been a masochist to stick it out a year and a half.

I’ve mellowed over the years, though. While Curly drove me crazy at the time, I realized now that he never acted like he did on purpose. He couldn’t help the way he was. I mean, with Moe and Shemp for older brothers, what chance did he have of being a normal human being? Right! None!

One day—six, seven years ago—I found a biography of him at Book Nook in the Twin Oaks Shopping Plaza. It was called Curly: A Victim of Soicumstance. And you know what? It made me cry. There was so much I never knew about him. Did you know Curly had a thick, beautiful head of hair? Jules made him shave it off because it made him look too “normal.” Ha. Thanks, Jules.

In 1946, six years after we separated, Curly had his first stroke. Shemp replaced him, and now partially paralyzed, Curly retired with his last wife Anita in Toluca Lake. He spent his last days playing with his schnauzers, and in 1952, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I guess all those sledgehammers to the forehead took their toll.

I keep the book in an old jewelry box, up in the closet. Now and then, when I feel nostalgic, I thumb through it, and when I get to the black and white picture section in the middle, I stare into Curly’s eyes, the same eyes that Moe poked and jabbed and gouged, and I think back, to that strange, otherworldly time, when of all things to be, I was Mrs. Curly.

Then I laugh, and thank God I never had children with him.

-First published in Potpourri

News From Hell #3


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I saw two foes facing, on a dim and dismal plain.
Each held aloft gray flags emblazoned with their names.
One was nothing special; the other just the same.
It was armies of the average versus divisions of mundane.

They met upon this grim tableau for another tepid battle.
These forces of the so-so, shuffling forth as human chattel.
Their voices droned and dropped away, as they slumped upon their saddles.
Commands were uninspired, with cries nothing more than prattle.

Even-keeled, sensible, and perfectly agreeable.
Ambassadors of the literal, and the easily foreseeable.
They approached each other warily, to find a groin that was knee-able.
But fierce was cloaked in fragile, and not able to be freeable.

They tried to fight and wage a war, but soon regretted what they started.
Determination sagged; they threw down their shields because they were halfhearted.
Their clash was short and sad, their courage then departed.
Shortcoming became forthcoming, and their war was all but thwarted.

These opponents so blasé and bland now realized their shame.
With tails tucked between their legs, they slouched back to where they came.
It was just another weak attempt, a mediocre game.
Another lame and listless day, for the average and mundane.


News From Hell is a series of satiric verbal collages made from words excised from New York Times headlines. These new headlines depict a world where all sorts of hilarious and unsettling things happen. Whether witty, absurd, or philosophical, each of these reconstructed headlines reinterprets the events of our times. Each entry is a thought worth pondering in itself – but when read collectively, News From Hell functions as wry poetic commentary and a socio-political critique on the state of our civilization, and the horrors and humors within it.

E Gladiatores

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This sort of amusement gives pleasure to children, silly women, slaves and free persons with the characters of slaves; but an intelligent man who weighs such matters cannot possibly approve of them.

-Marcus Tullius Cicero, E Officiis

Lactic acid boiled in the towering domes of Turbo’s pecs. Veins throbbed like angry worms and his face flushed beet-reed as he pressed one hundred twenty pounds. He held it over him, arms trembling, breath pumping rhythmically from blown-out cheeks.

Fucking pussy! Do one more! Do it! You wanna look buff for the cameras? Get psyched!

He lowered the stack, sucked air, and with an explosive, back-arching heave, raised it a glorious thirteenth time. Searing heat bored through his sternum; his arms were scalding trunks, but he couldn’t stop—thirteen was a new record! Wait until he told Torch. One more. Just. One. More.

I’m a gladiator! Whirled the voice in his head. And he was—an American Gladiator. in a polyurethane and foam rubber arena he competed, using his six foot four inch, two hundred twenty-one pound Nautilus-spawned body to conquer travel agents, while a studio audience of preschoolers and adult mental defectives whooped like a rookery. It was cake—all he had to do was stay in shape, (which was easy, what with the nutritional supplements, the fat-fighting tablets of Chromium Picolinate and Inosine 500 he gobbled) fire tennis balls at leapfrogging accountants, and rake in his paycheck. Not bad for a second-string tight end two years out of USC with a degree in Health and Recreation. Not bad at all.

Steadily, he lowed the weight. One more and his pieces would be as fluffy as fresh-baked bread. Do it pussy!

But the stack refused to move. He grunted, gnashed his teeth. I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator!

Turbo heaved, muscles locked in agony, petrified, but the weight was a wall. He saw glowing patterns, orange motes, and like wisps of spiraling smoke, blackness crept in at the periphery of his vision, sweeping over the palm-printed mirror and padded machines.

He went limp and dropped into space.

 

 

With every ounce of his flagging strength Priscus lunged, parrying the thrust, the brutal clang of metal on metal reverberating in his ears. He dodged, whirling, and when the Gaul charged he hurled aside, watching him reel into the dust in a tangle of sprawling limbs and glittering steel. Gasping, he lowered his sword.

Shrack!—a hot lash stung his back. “Fight, Thracian!” cried the lanista.

His troupe of gladiators crouched beneath the broken pillars bordering the courtyard, their lances, shields and leg-greaves scattered round. Beyond them, over the low compound of stone huts, the dusky, scrub-flecked hills shimmered in the heat.

Priscus could barely raise his weapon; his arms were lead weights, thick and unmovable. Since noon he’d been battling the merciless Gaul beneath a broiling sun that heated his helmet like a kettle-pot. Dust clogged his throat. His feet flamed in his sandals. He was parched, ready to drop.

The legions had captured him near Phillipi, and after a week’s journey through the craggy, windswept mountains, they’d brought him here, to the ludus in Capua, where he’d been training with forty other expendables: Gauls, Saxons, Illyrians, slaves and war prisoners, temple robbers, the lowest of the low. Soon the caravan would start for Rome and he would fight for the emperor. There were two possibilities: the sweet palm-branch of victory, or dying alone on the blood-soaked sand.

The sun beat down. Hot breath and brute grunts peppered the air. The second stroke becomes the third!” screamed the lanista, dancing like a crab, flicking his whip, “Parry! Feint! And you—Priscus! Keep your sword up!”

Priscus smashed and swung, but with each blow the sword grew heavier. Sweat stung his eyes and he staggered blindly around. He was dizzy, roasting like meat on a spit. Sensing weakness, the Gaul closed in. Priscus saw a flash, a glint of streaking metal, but before he could react, the heavy blunt practice sword smashed into his skull.

The last thing he saw was the courtyard spilling sideways and dim yellow sky.

 

 

Turbo blinked heavily, rubbed his eyes, and the mind-wash of gray, indistinct smears spun into focus.

Pale yellow light slanted in through a barred window. Dust-specs glittered in the air. He saw chinked brick walls, an arched wooden door, a hard-packed floor littered with straw. A punishing stench—untamed by the balm of hygiene—rankled his nostrils, and from far off came the hushed roar of what sounded like a crowd.

This isn’t the weight room, he thought.

Something gray scuttled into the shadows. He lifted his head.

Three men with stony features and wild, brambly hair hunched in the corner. The middle one wore a straw-infested beard that clung to his jaw like an oriole’s nest, and jabbered in a strange tongue. He was pointing. At his feet.

Turbo gazed down, at his one hundred forty-nine dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers. Spangled in a hallucinatory web of black and white striping, the high-top, Velcro-laced sneakers looked like mounds of vanilla ice cream dripping with chocolate syrup, and glowed fluorescently in the murk.

The bearded one slid forward and lowered a gnarled finger to his sneaker-tip. Lizard-quick, he darted it back. With an awed murmur the three gathered round, poking and petting, enraptured by the shocking colors.

“Nikes,” he said. The men gaped at him, obviously confused.

This must be a joke. He was in the basement of the studio, that’s where, and these hippie freaks were part of the elaborate ruse the producers had concocted to get him stoked for the show. That was it.

Snickering at the attempt to bamboozle him, Turbo sprang to his feet, towering in the dingy space, a cornucopia of color in his bun-hugging red, white and blue Lycra unitard. He poufed his blond brush cut and unzipped his fanny pack. Whistling the first turgid notes of the Warrant classic “Cherry Pie,”—a self-motivational remnant from his football days—he dug past the vitamin pills, Q-Tips and tubes of Sportscreme, rooting for his Stiff Stuff. But before he could locate the spray can and weld his locks into place, the door exploded inward, nearly flying off its hinges as it smashed into the wall.

Two figures dressed like the U.S.C. Trojan football mascot loomed in the doorway. Turbo watched as they stormed in, grabbed the men by their ratty threadbare cloaks, and yanked them upright. The man thrashed, kicking and scuffling, but the guards, secure in their armor, had no problem hustling them out the door. Before leaving, however, the taller of the two looked back—and spotted him.

“Yo,” said Turbo, barely containing his laughter, “what’s up?”

The guard stood irresolute. Purple feathers fountained from his embossed helmet and the silver inlay on his shield sparkled. Turbo’s face folded into a knowing smirk.

“That’s some costume.”

The guard turned, yelled something he didn’t understand, and his mate reappeared. Before he knew it they’d seized him by the arm.

“Hey. Easy.”

But the rough manner in which they dragged him through the straw made Turbo realize something.

The studio didn’t have a basement.

 

 

Blaster stuck a sky-blue contact lens on his cornea and blinked it into place. Standing two sinks away, before the mirror ringed with light bulbs, Zip waved a fine-tooth comb, flicking his wet locks into a shiny black helmet. The stink of styling mousse hung heavy as they primped and posed, anointing themselves with the numberless lotions and gels scattered atop the counter.

“Getting’ psyched?” said Blaster.

“Dude, I can’t wait,” Zip said, “I’m ready to kick some butt!”

Between the lockers, Torch sat on a wooden bench, pumping his Reeboks. His auburn mane was the color of fall leaves, and draped over his leonine face. “You just gotta believe in yourself, that’s the key,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

“It’s all positive energy,” said Zip.

“Ex-actly,” said Blaster, sliding a second lens deftly into his left eye.

Torch pulled on his elbow pads and checked his watch. “Where’s Turbo? It’s time to go.”

“Pumpin’ up,” Blaster said, “Dude won’t quit.”

“He’s gonna pop a nut.”

No sooner had Zip spoken when they heard crunching footsteps. Metal clashed, jangling like an ambulatory junkyard, and the steps grew nearer, louder, before clodhopping to a stop. Then—with a click and a whoosh, a hand-dryer clicked in. A surprised grunt sounded, and the steps started again, picking up pace, their echo lessening as they left tile and found rug.

Torch rose up from the bench and peered down the hall. Blaster and Zip crept up behind.

The dryer shut off. The only sound was the splattering showers. And footsteps.

“What is he doing?” whispered Zip.

At the far end of the locker room, a metal blade angled out from behind a pagoda of pink towels. It dipped, scraped the floor, and reemerged. From its shimmering tip, fused in a sweaty, pretzel-like knot, dangled a size 28 Bike athletic supporter.

“Turbo?” said Torch.

 

 

To Gaius Slavius Capito, trainer of the Capuan troupe, the disappearance of Priscus and his replacement by the tall blonde in the tight tunic and zebra-skin sandals was a gift from the gods, and he did not hesitate to pay tribute. Incense was lit, and a white male he-goat—symbolizing the pale stranger—was sacrificed as soon as the guards brought the captive before him. Gaius called for a soothsayer, and the seer confirmed it: the muscular warrior had been sent by the war-god Mars, to test the skill and tenacity of his fighters.

After a brief, hapless interrogation—the stranger spoke in an alien tongue and could barely utter a word without bursting into tears—the white warrior was escorted to a vestibule where he joined the other duelists to await the procession into the Colosseum. Since he’s arrived weaponless, Gaius figured him for a retarius, and had him fitted accordingly, with trident, dagger and fishing net. Strangely, the big warrior seemed bewildered when presented with these implements.

Ah, the crafty Mars! To send a fighter of such magnificence, only to have him blubber like a woman moments before battle—obviously it was a ploy, a strategy to goad his opponent into thinking the giant was weak. Gaius smiled. The cleverness of the gods—it never ceased to amaze him.

As he waited in the wings, listening to the death-squalls of the Mauretanian ostritches and wild ibex being slaughtered in the arena, he brimmed with pride. Soon the African slave-boys would rake the sand, the hacked carcasses and steaming entrails would be thrown to the dogs, and his men—all thirty of them—would battle for the emperor.

But who should oppose the white warrior? Glauco, the Syrian? Or Enomaus, the murderous Gaul?

 

 

“Who the hell’s that?” said Mike Adamle, the host of American Gladiators.

“Some clown they found in the locker rooms,” said Bruce “Ducky” Mallard, his producer. “Thinks he’s a gladiator.”

The two stood in Gladiator Arena, the huge soundstage of ramps, platforms, and padded runways where the players competed. Several yards away, a dark, rough-hewn figure wearing a sword, shield, and bronze war-helmet stood mesmerized under the blinding insanity of the strobes.

“Must’ve spent a fortune on the costume,” Mike said, glancing up from his notes. “Call security.”

Bruce shuffled uneasily in his shoes. “Mike, I’ve got, uh . . .bad news. Turbo split.”

“What to you mean he split?”

“He’s gone. We’re one gladiator short.”

Mike narrowed his eyes, gazing closer at the strange costumed figure gaping at the studio audience. Whoever the guy was, he was ripped. He looked like a statue.

“Bruce, I’ve got an idea.”

 

 

The line of stone-silent men stretched into the shadows, the crackling torches casting an orange pallor upon their grim faces. Turbo sniffled, nervously clefting his lower lip with his incisors.

In the low grotto of arched stone, workers scuttled in the dust, grappling lumber and hulks of machinery. Men in white tunics dragged canvas stretchers; a grindstone wheeled past; and with a high-pitched wincing or rope against wood, a mule-drawn cart loaded with tottering urns skirled by two feet from where he was standing. Trumpeters rag-polished horns, and back-lit by the flickering sconces, two men wearing placards and laurel garlands chatted, pointing at select men here and there. They did not point at him.

Turbo steadied his nerves. His new strategy was to lie low, regroup, figure out what was happening. He’d tried to communicate with these people; he’d begged and pleaded, blubbered and wailed, and now, his emotions spent, he settled into a quiet befuddlement. Reality or dream, wherever he was, he’d ride it out. What else could he do?

With a jingly din, two black, bare-backed men hauled in a chariot of arms: swords, daggers, scabbards, lances,; a horde of lethal points loomed like metal thistles in an ominous display. Following the chariot were the two U.S.C. Trojans who’d dragged him from the cell and the gruff thick-set man they’d brought him to—the honcho in charge.

The gruff man shouted, clapped his hands, and the group shuffled forward. Turbo gulped and fell in line. The trumpeters took their place at the head of the column, as did the men with placards. Slowly, with funereal seriousness, the line marched on, to the splash of sun gleaming at the end of the tunnel.

Just be cool, just be cool, whirled the voice in his head.

But when the procession wound out of the tunnel and the trumpeters heralded their entrance with a bugling wail and the roar of the capacity crowd rocked his ears, Turbo was overwhelmed with a spectacle more majestic, more awe-inspiring than anything he’d ever seen—even the Rose Bowl game he played a series of downs in junior year. It marveled him, took away his breath, heaved his heart into his mouth and quivered it like a toad.

A crowd of people—all wearing grayish whitish robes—sat canted back in row after row of bleachers soaring to the heavens. He gaped around. He was in a massive, bone-white bowl, a stadium. A canvas apron skirted its top level, where arched doorways hovered like cavernous eyes and red streamers flapped in the wind. Across a prairie of topaz-colored sand, a gilded box festooned in bunting jutted from the stands, where a purple-robed figure lounged in the sun, fanned by a bevy of attendants. The trumpets blasted again; the column turned, stamping through the dust, and somewhere in the dimly-lit shallows of Turbo’s mind, it dawned on him.

He was in ancient Rome!

Turbo did not arrive at this stupefying conclusion through any percipience of the classics; he knew nothing of the Punic Wars, the Pax Romana, the satires of Juvenal—no, his understanding of this period was gleaned from stereotypical sources, based on modern, overly simplified interpretations of the era. So it wasn’t until he remembered the beer-splattered toga parties at the Sigma Chi house and the movie Ben Hur, that he put it all together.

The gruff man stiffened to address the tousle-headed figure in the robe, who sipped from a chalice and watched the proceedings with a thin, superior smile.

“Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant!” came the cry.

Turbo had no idea what that meant, but he hoped it was good.

 

 

Faced with stiff competition from the ESPN networks, the ratings for American Gladiators had been sinking for two seasons, before reaching an all-time low of 1.9 in the latest Nielsens. Recently, a memo from Four Point Entertainment, the show’s production company, had been issued to the staff, and unless “new and more visually arresting contestants” could be found, the show was in danger of being canceled.

Mike Adamle knew this. Whoever the costumed stranger was, he was the answer to their prayers. Having a “real” gladiator on the show was the perfect stunt, exactly what Four Point was looking for.

However, the stranger reacted violently when the make-up girl tried to buff his cheeks, and had great difficulty understanding stage directions. No matter. A production assistant was dispatched to assist him, and the taping began as scheduled.

 

 

War-trumpets wailed in somber salvos and the crowd settled into their seats. Cries and piercing whistles cut the air as the column filed slowly back to the tunnel, followed by the chariot and its attendant slaves. The intervals between cries grew longer, until a pall fell over the arena and all was silent.

“Hey, where you . . .going?” Turbo said, nervously zipping and unzipping his fanny pack. He stutter-stepped after them, but the gruff man and the Trojans loomed at his side. Before he knew it they’d wedged a trident and fishing net into his fingers and were prodding him to the middle of the arena, where a bowl of hard-packed sand made a sort of center-ring. The gruff man patted him on the arm and walked off.

Turbo heard a creak, a long, strident moan, and turned to the opposite end of the stadium, where a braced wooden gate tottered on its hinges.

Like an insect spidering out of its lair, a tall, powerfully-built figure slid from the shadows and prowled over the sand. He wore heavy magnificent armor, with bronze leg-greaves, a large oblong shield, and a helmet with blood-red feathers. A sheathed sword wagged at his side.

An icy centipede of fear skittered down Turbo’s spine as the old rallying cry bleated insanely through his skull:

I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator!

Finally, it all made sense.

 

 

Mike Adamle addressed the camera with his customary effusiveness: “Folks, have we got a treat for you! Because for the first time ever, a real live gladiator from ancient Rome will compete in Gladiator Arena! He winked slyly, pouring on the camp. “That’s right—don’t ask how he got here, but in a matter of seconds, he’ll battle Torch and Zip and the rest of our American Gladiators. Who’s tougher? The Roman? Or the Americans? Stay tuned!”

Slowly, mesmerically, Enomaus waved his sword, swiping left, right, getting a feel for it, gonging the mount against his shield. The crowd screamed barbaric slogans, writing like some massive ciliated thing, and he kept closer, gazing suspiciously at the towering figure in the tight tunic. Strangely, instead of circling in the sizing-each-other-up dance that always preceded a duel, his opponent remained stationary. The white warrior must be a superb fighter to stand so rigid and confident, he thought. He backed off.

After forging his nerves—and after being called a “eunuch” by a toothless sack-faced old hag in the front row—he charged.

“Our first event is ‘Swingshot,’ where gladiators leap from their cliffs and using the spring from bungee cords, grab red, blue, or yellow scoring markers from the center cylinder. We’re almost ready to go!”

 

 

White-flecked spittle flurried down; hisses, curses and boos stung the air as the crowd jeered, furious at the lack of blood. Turbo smiled uneasily, scuffing, back-pedaling through the dust.

“Look, I-uh, I’m not a real gladiator, like, like you are, okay? I’m an actor, on TV, and . . . this really isn’t fair.”

The man in the armor stalked closer. Wind whistled through the chinks of his armor as he fingered his sword.

“Do you think it’s fair? I mean, I don’t. So let’s—no, put that away. You win. I forfeit. Dude no, no. . . nooo!”

 

 

The underworld was nothing like Priscus had imagined. Instead of a murky realm of whispering shade and feathery spirits it was loud, alive, a pandemonium. Demons flashed swirling red eyes. Torches shed no flame and invisible dragons belched plumes of white smoke. And everywhere, stacked atop one another, the souls of the damned screamed, beating their hands in tortured agony.

The gods were angry with him. He’d died in shame, before competing in the arena, and now, like Sisyphus, he’d be tortured for all eternity. Why else had the servant of Pluto’s fastened the vine about his waist and brought him to this precipice?

He peered across the chasm, at the snake-men in banded skins atop the opposite cliff. He must conquer them—only then might the gods forgo his punishment.

A spirit with the markings of a zebra stuck a silver nut to his lips, and a trilling scream knifed the air. Priscus, flinched, arms treading wildly, and pitched over the edge.

 

 

From one end of the Colosseum to the other Turbo ran, with the clunking Gaul in hot pursuit. His one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers with the waffled outsole and snug ankle-high fit offered superior traction, allowing him to corner in the slippery dust, and the Gaul, having no such modern accouterments, lagged behind. After two orbits, Turbo spied a vague rectangle and sprinted towards it. The crowd was a seething mass, fifty-thousand voices united in a cataclysm of boiling caterwauling sound. His hamstrings felt like someone was pressing two red-hot irons against the back of his thighs and sweat stung his eyes but he made it to the door, plowing into it, bashing his fists.

“Open up! I don’t want to fight! Goddamn it open the goddamn door!”

Through the scrim of dust he saw the Gaul closing in, his sword waving like a crazy antenna.

For an agonizing second Turbo stood paralyzed, riveted to the ground, bur as the Gaul loomed over him, swinging the blade, a flash of the old magic that had earned him the title of “Mr. Football” his senior year in high school returned, and he faked right, spun, and dashed off.

 

 

“Torch and Zip are flying high, grabbing markers—and here’s the Roman with a huge leap! Looks a bit lost out there, but he’s up, and . . . look at this! He’s impaling scoring markers on his sword! Jabbing, thrusting . . . Torch has a yellow, Zip going high . . . ten seconds . . . the Roman’s got two more, three more, annnnd—there’s the buzzer! Two, three, he’s got six markers! What a performance!

 

 

Domitian scowled. This wasn’t a duel—it was a joke, two chipmunks chasing each other. He fisted the cloak of Marcus Aurelius Rufus, his prefect, yanking him near. “Find the imbecile responsible for this outrage,” he said.

“Yes, lord and god,” stammered Marcus.

 

 

Buoyed by his victory in “Swingshot,” Priscus made short work of Zip in “Tug of War,” pulling him from his elevated platform with one brutal, Herculean yank. (Zip’s gymnastic training, a plus against twentieth-century opponents, offered no advantage whatsoever against ancient brawn.) The next event, “The Wall,” a sixty-foot, toe-holed crag of vulcanized rubber, went just as smoothly, as Priscus’ tenure in the granite quarries of Thracia had bred the nimbleness of a mountain goat. He scaled the peak two and a half seconds ahead of Blaster, his nearest competitor.

After three events, Priscus led with sixteen points. Torch was second, with five, followed by Blaster with three. Zip, his shoulder purpling with a nasty bruise, was unable to compete.

Mike Adamle reminded Priscus that if he won the last event, “Assault,” he’d win twenty-five hundred dollars, and be eligible to compete in the Tournament of Champions.

Priscus was unmoved by this information.

 

 

Turbo’s heart thrashed like a hooked bass. Lungs heaving, he ran one more circuit, the stadium swirling in a kaleidoscopic blur. But right when he planted his ankle to zag across the middle, he felt a snap, a sickening rip. His foot slid, seemed to break through, and he sprawled face-first into the dust.

He spat grit from his teeth and looked down.

The white, tube-socked nubs of his toes poked out from a gaping hole of flayed rubber and ripped stitching, and the famous swoosh—sewn on by Indonesian seamstresses earning twelve cents an hour—hung by ragged threads, flapping in the sand.

His one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers had blown out from the turn!

 

 

Furry stones. Priscus patted one with his sword, amazed at how light it was. Green, too. He’d never seen such a stone.

The zebra-spirit blew the silver nut and galloped off. Priscus explored the labyrinth of Plexiglas and modular cones, and with a snapping fling, a greenish blur whistled by his helmet. There was a second fling, a third, and emerald-hued comets whizzed by inches from his leg, one passing directly between his knees, grazing his tunic. He looked up. Outlined against a nova of dazzling light, wreathed in smoke, he saw the snake-demon crouched atop a short tower, manning a catapult. Instantly, he sprang into a battle stance, shield raised, creeping stealthily on his flank, the soft stones pittering off his shield.

When he was fifty cubits away, he grabbed a stone, waited, and when a break came in the fusillade, bobbed up and threw. The stone sailed high, missed the snake-demon entirely, and hit a large spiraled gong.

A horn blew, and red lights flashed all around. Priscus sprang up to hurl a second stone, but the snake-demon was climbing down from his tower.

These demons looked fearsome, he thought, but they weren’t very fierce warriors.

They gave up too easily.

 

 

“Please—I’m just an actor, I’m not a gladiator, now I know. I’m sorry.”

But the warrior wasn’t looking at him. His head was cocked back, peering at the crowd. Turbo looked up, scanning the faces, and then he saw them.

Thumbs. One after the other, pointing to the ground.

 

 

With his victory in “Assault,” Priscus had swept all four events, attaining a record twenty-six points.

But when Mike Adamle went for a post-game interview, the stranger huffed by, shouldering into the crowd of parents and balloon-toting toddlers as they queued for the exists.

 

 

This blubbering coward had humiliated him, made him look like an ass. Enomaus swung, and in three quick, bloody strokes, it was over. The white warrior lay dead.

As they hooked the body and dragged it off in a smear of gore, he hung his head in shame.

Turbo’s unitard, fanny pack, and one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers were stripped from his body and his corpse was thrown to the hounds. The fanny packs and unitard disappeared, no doubt stolen by unscrupulous morticians, but his Nikes were saved and brought to the emperor Domitian. For several years the sneakers served as dinner party curiosities, with many a prefect of the Praetorian guard marveling at their bright colors and hexalite midsole construction. But after Domitian’s assassination in 96 A.D., they too, were lost.

 

 

In 2002 a British expedition led by Sir Nigel Smith-Caruthers unearthed an Etruscan grave-urn on the Palatine Hill, bearing the figure of a fleeing, teary-eyed warrior clad in swoosh-emblazoned sandals. The discovery caused a minor sensation in archaeological circles, but was soon discounted as a public relations stunt once Wieden & Kennedy, Nike’s advertising agency, featured the urn in a television spot hyping its newest and most expensive crosstrainer to date, the garish one hundred and eighty-nine dollar Air Hercules.

 

 

The producers of American Gladiators launched a nation-wide search for Priscus, as the show he’d appeared on garnered the highest ratings in history. A proposal for a spin-off called “Beat The Gladiator” made the rounds among programming executives, but was scrapped as the stranger could not be found.

Three months later, Dud and Ida McGivens, a couple from Barstow, California, after reading about the “gladiator” in TV Guide, reported seeing a figure matching his description near I-15, twenty miles southwest of Las Vegas. It is now believed that the Thracian is working in some capacity at Caesar’s Palace, where to this day, his elaborate garb and ancient ways remain undetected.

Nothing is so damaging to good character than wasting time at the games; for then it is that vice steals secretly upon you through the avenue of pleasure. . . I come home more greedy, more ambitious, even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.

-Seneca, Letters 7.3

-First published in Vignette

Warriors of Peace

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In the distance, a rumble. Low, full-throated, and ominous, it grows nearer and nearer. And suddenly, the idyllic spring day seems threatened by an ominous presence. Rising over the crest, they appear: a throng of whiskery, leather-clad bikers, seventy hard-eyed, bad ass mofos astride monster Harleys, announcing themselves to the world with menacing tattoos and growling engines, marauders of the open road hell-bent on finding peace, tranquility, and the gentle glow of spiritual enlightenment.

Wha . . .?. Wait a sec. Peace? Tranquility? Wouldn’t a crowd like this be looking for a bar? A babe? A brawl? Or all three? Conventional wisdom screams “hell yes.” But this horde of razor-challenged riders is anything but conventional. And they’re anything but threats to society, or middle-finger waving rebels looking to swipe a Cub Scout’s lunch money. In fact, they’re the exact opposite of bad behavior, as their name denotes.

Meet RedRum MC, the First Nations, Native American Bike Club, founded in 2006. Unlike other bike clubs or gangs, Red Rum is all about positivity. Built on the foundation of brotherhood, community, self-respect, family values, and charitable causes, the 80-plus members was formed in order to promote unity, peace and tranquility. Once you speak to club president Cliff Ke le Matias, it’s easy to see where the inspiration came from.

“I’ve been shot, stabbed, got cut with a sword, you name it,”‘ he said. Matias grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, where RedRum is based, and like most members of the club, rubbed elbows with some sketchy characters while growing up, not to mention run-ins with the cops. Youthful defiance soon turned to the realization that he wanted to “make an imprint on society instead of the police blotter.” And so RedRum was born, as well as their motto of “spreading positivity on two wheels.” And they’ve followed that mission as naturally as inking another tattoo.

Over the past decade, Matias and his crew have not only provided a haven for part and full Native American riders by forming six chapters around the country—and several more internationally—but also rallied support for indigenous causes like land reclamation, historical education and environmental clean-up initiatives; they’ve raised funds for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, held and annual “Blessing of the Bikes” in Bear Mountain, NY, and on this weekend “Peace Run,” gave prayers at a white pine planted a white pine in the name of harmony at the Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, NY. It is here where they boldly appeared out of the blue on a beautiful Saturday in early May.

After kickstands down and helmets off, the riders circled Matias to heaer him lead a ceremony of worship before the peace tree. Joined by his brother Dave on drum, Mathias played a Native American melody on the cedar flute, the traditional chanting drawing a crowd, the delicate notes cutting right to the heart. Then rider after rider lined up to crumble sacred tobacco into the soil, issuing silent prayers to the earth, their ancestors, and all things that are good in the universe. And when the music finally faded away, there was only the sound of the wind, which caused the small white pine to tremble slightly, yet remain firm and undaunted, reaching for the sun.

Then they said their farewell to the monks, throttled up their hogs and rode off to get some barbecue.

-As published in 1903 Magazine.

Product Placement Bible #2

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As featured on www.productplacementbible.com

The Product Placement Bible questions what we really worship,  lampooning consumer society and organized religion in equal doses, using the format of scripture to blend the two realms into one very entertaining, unsettling read.

Design by Graham Clifford (www.grahamclifforddesign.com)

Fat Chance

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On November 19th, 2008, a man weighing five hundred and thirty-one pounds won the New York City Marathon, covering the 26.2 mile course in a blistering two hours, seven minutes and fifty-eight seconds. How he transcended the severe cardiopulmonary limits of his obesity and traveled such a distance has never been determined; to this day his triumph over thousands of highly-conditioned runners remains one of the most baffling cases of physiology known to man.

Amazingly, the contestant, Kenny James Thorson, 34, a chain-smoking, corn chip-addicted security guard from Hackensack, New Jersey, had no prior experience in marathon racing. Nor was he even a casual weekend jogger, or had he undertaken even the crudest efforts at physical fitness. In fact, until that fateful day, the farthest trek Mr. Thorson had made in weeks-if his post-race comments to WFAN radio are to be believed-was from his couch to the refrigerator.

What quirk of ambition drove this unsightly behemoth to enter the premiere long-distance race in America? And what superhuman force pushed his quarter-ton body to take the tape before thousands of delirious fans?

No one knows. But one fact remains indelibly clear: his victory, preposterous as it seems, stands unrivaled as the most preeminent track and field accomplishment of the twentieth century, and perhaps, of all time.

 

When Mr. Thorson appeared amid the swarming crowd of sneakered humanity clogging the Verrazano Bridge that brisk November morning, the reaction of the other contestants ranged from titters of laughter to dumbstruck awe. The sight of his triple-chinned form drooping saddlebags of pink, rucked fat was as incongruous to the setting as a bulimic at a Weight Watchers meeting, and no less shocking. “He looks like a walrus in shorts,” one repulsed woman was overheard saying, as she knotted her Asics and gazed at his ballooning tonnage.

Of course, none of the whippet-thin runners stretching their hamstrings on the tarmac believed that a being of such planetary girth actually came to compete; that was a physical impossibility. No, the presence of this corpulent young man in the baggy cut-off sweats and sleeveless Nobody Beats The Wiz tee-shirt was obviously a joke, a sick gag by a radio shock-jock, or a vile PR stunt. How else could they explain the sight of him plucking sauerkraut pirogues out of a paper carton and stuffing each dripping, buttery load into his mouth? His gluttony confirmed it, and without further notice they readied for the start.

But when the stranger reached for his fanny pack, things turned truly bizarre. Lifting a mezzanine of flab off his midsection, he poked about in the steamy folds of his abdomen, feeling for the pack, before finding it and zipping it open. A moment later, after searching its interior, he produced a slip of paper, which he fixed to his chest and unabashedly displayed.
The crowd of runners gasped-for there, pinned between those pendulous breasts, read the timekeeper’s digits: 1-1-0-2-5.

There was a moment of lingering silence, then an ear-ringing cacophony of howls stung the air. This tub o’ lard was going to compete? It was ludicrous, insane, the most delicious thing on earth. It gave every svelte, aerobic body a smug sense of superiority-for that gigantic capsule of blubber looming in their midst was their nightmare, their antithesis, the worst thing they could ever possibly be: fat.

Mr. Thorson, however, remained oblivious, ignoring the laughter, his eyes two piggish black beads of concentration drilled into his hamhock face. He toed the ground with a tattered Rockport, steeling himself, and when a NewsFour chopper scissored low over the crowd and the mass of bodies surged ahead, he remained stationary, letting them flow around him, as stoic and immovable as a boulder in a stream.

Slowly, the seconds wound down, and the mile-long army pressed tighter and tighter. Police officers locked arms; camera crews jockeyed for position, and after a tense, ten-second countdown, the starting cannon exploded with a deafening shot. Gunpowder whiffed skyward, and with a celebratory roar, the herd of bodies surged across the Verrazano’s undulating span in a stampede of swishing nylon and pounding polyurethane.

The parade of runners poured into Brooklyn, past hydrants, bodegas, and a banner-waving crowd. A pack of leaders quickly distanced themselves, and it was obvious to everyone that the victor would hail from that esteemed vanguard. Miles four, five and six sped by, and the gap widened between the elites and the second tier.

But all that changed, abruptly, at mile seven, when Mr. Thorson made his startling emergence. First there was a ripple, the hint of a turbulent presence within the mob. Slowly, as its speed built, the surrounding runners peeled away, fleeing from its rampaging path. Then, in a glorious parting, the sea of bodies cleft open, birthing a glacier of jiggling, triumphant flesh, a joyous bathysphere of flouncing, shimmying cellulite that bounded down the avenue with astonishing speed.

What made Mr. Thorson’s emergence so memorable-aside from the sheer visual shock of it-is the curiously smooth way he glided over the pavement, defying the profundity of his size, as powerful and fluid as a whale skimming through the surf. It was majestic, a ballet of impossible moves, Thorson’s legs and arms, lubed by a sheen of sweat, operating in flawless synchronicity. Fans marveled at his flopping breasts, at his magnificently-sagging underarm wattles, and the curious way each step sent a shockwave of ripples through the great orb of all-dominating stomach. No one who witnessed the prancing, rolling style of his locomotion will ever forget it.

Especially the leaders, who could only gaze back in stupefaction at this most ridiculous of opponents. Stunned, they shot forward with a burst of acceleration, and within minutes, their obese challenger dropped away.

For the next three miles, Mr. Thorson chugged on amid wild, deafening applause. At one point a cadre of media journalists joined him, thrusting their cameras and boom microphones into his face, begging for an on-the-run interview, but Mr. Thorson made no reply, keeping his eyes locked on the leaders, his face as blank and expressionless as a passport photo.

Meanwhile, the media reports rushed in, and as news spread across the city, hundreds of citizens rushed out of their abodes to throw impromptu “Go Kenny!” parties on sidewalks and roof-tops, carting televisions outside to watch Mr. Thorson’s impossible quest. Cabs skidded to a stop as drivers tuned in race reports; priests and rabbis delivered Sunday sermons to empty pews, and in Times Square, live footage of Mr. Thorson aired on the appropriately-named Sony “JumboTron,” where a crowd of Japanese tourists amassed to cheer this strange, sumo-like competitor.

By mile twelve, a horde of overweight citizens, varying in degrees of avoirdupois from the chubby to the barely-able-to walk, gathered along the course route to fly homemade banners and salute their new-found hero with bags of potato chips and other fatty snacks. It was a gustatory orgy, a “Foodstock,” as one hastily-scrawled sign read, and the pavement echoed with a Nuremburgian roar at Mr. Thorson’s every stigma-erasing step.

Accustomed to being worshipped by race fans, several of the elites, including Olympic silver medalist Josef Nyakerantu of Kenya and Mexico’s “Iron Pony” Diablo Ruiz, objected to Mr. Thorson’s heightened media coverage, and could barely conceal their disgust. But what could they do? Mr. Thorson’s appeal was undeniable.

Amid screaming pandemonium, Thorson steamed into the mile thirteen fluid station, where he blew past the drinking cups without taking a sip. There was murmur of concern, but a hundred yards later, his intent became gloriously clear.

Who placed the customized ‘snack station’ along the marathon route has never been determined, but it is widely assumed that confidants of Mr. Thorson’s, perhaps working in collusion with other pro-obesity support groups, were responsible. The station, sagging under an avalanche of circus peanuts, White Castle sliders, garlic knots, Gummi-worms, chicken wings, Ekrich turkey franks and other unhealthy comestibles, appeared magically, borne out of the crowd, providing a much-needed boost for Thorson’s insatiable metabolism. Cramming whatever he could sweep into his mouth as he trotted by, he danced down the avenue, jowls chomping, his toes spry and youthful, energized by the quick hit of food.
For the remainder of the race Mr. Thorson would gain sustenance from more high caloric pit stops, and as he plowed into Queens he picked up speed. He ran past warehouses and drab industrial facilities, a full three minutes behind the leaders, and with miles fourteen, fifteen and sixteen blurring by, he followed them into Manhattan.

The first few miles went smoothly, but at mile nineteen, catastrophe struck. A shoelace on Mr. Thorson’s five-year old Rockports worked itself loose, whipping around his ankles. Fans screamed, trying to warn him, but he raced on, oblivious. And right as he seemed to be reaching a newfound fluidity, it happened. Abruptly, his stride came up short. Something snagged; he stumbled, losing his balance. To the crowd’s horror, his legs stopped and his upper body kept going, and in a tumble of bouncing blubber and pinwheeling limbs, he pitched forward, slamming into the pavement like a pachyderm felled by a tranquilizing dart.

Thinking that the inevitable had happened, two paramedics from nearby Lenox Hill Hospital darted to his body, which lay in a heap of quivering flesh whose shape and consistency was remarkably similar to that of a carnival moonwalk. But when they slipped their fingers onto his heaving neck to take his pulse, a dazed Thorson sprang to life, and with a club-like forearm, batted them aside. And seconds later, he was on his way.

To a lesser competitor, the shoelace mishap would have proved disastrous, but it only infused Mr. Thorson with more determination. Chins bloodied, knees and elbows scraped raw, he reached into the resevoir of his own iron will and pressed on, striding over the metal slats of the Willis Avenue Bridge for the course’s brief one-mile U-turn into the Bronx.

With Nyakeranta setting the pace, the lead-pack re-entered Manhattan for the push to the finish. The Iron Pony clung to the Kenyan’s heels like a wad of gum, followed by the German 10,000 meter Olympic champion Werner von Heinrich. It was a three-man race, but unknown to the leaders, Mr. Thorson was picking up speed, and by the time he entered the fifth and final borough, he’d gained a minute, running a scorching 4:47 mile twenty.

Skin salmon-pink, slathered in persperation, Thorson kept on, and as he barreled down Fifth Avenue and entered Central Park, the crowd boiled in tribute–for up ahead, only a hundred yards away, were the leaders. Finally, he was within striking distance.

At mile twenty-three, where the course leveled into a straightaway, Mr. Thorson made his move. Snorting and rolling and powering along, he drew closer and closer, gaining on von Heinrich. First, the champion heard an ominous plodding, followed by a wash of hot, garlic-tinged breath. Next a gigantic, baobob-big shadow fell over him as Thorson’s presence loomed larger and larger, until the terrified German felt the soft wet sponginess of his mammoth belly nudge into his back. von Heinrich had no choice but to veer wildly away, lest he be trampled by those churning chafing legs, and Thorson ripped by in pursuit of Ruiz.

It was a classic battle, Thorson quick, nimble on his feet, the Iron Pony springing off the cement like a jackrabbit, straining, gasping, every sinew of his taut brown body scintillating with lactic acid, and for a hundred yards the Mexican held him off. But as the two tore around a curve, Thorson closed the gap. Arms pumping in rhythmic firings, he pulled alongside Rivera with one last, desperate charge. The Mexican strained, his neck jerking wildly as he abandoned all form, but it was no use. With a turbo-charged burst Thorson pulled away, leaving the Iron Pony slack-faced and humiliated, muttering dios no, dios no! as his hefty vanquisher left him behind.

Now only one man stood between Thorson and victory: Nyakeranta, the fearsome Kenyan. But time was running out. In an ebony streak, Nyakeranta sprinted onto Central Park South for the twenty-sixth and final mile. Thorson drove on, his mouth a flat line, grim and determined, but he was five seconds behind. It didn’t look good.

But as it so often does with champions, Fate lent a helping hand, in the form of Rachel Gluck, a two hundred eighty-one pound toll booth clerk from Great Neck, Long Island. One of the thousands of corpulent fans who’d assembled to cheer him on, she’d been chain-eating assorted pastries out of a Happy Donut sack, when sensing Thorson’s imminent defeat, she unselfishly pulled her twelfth and final snack cake–a sugar-glazed bear-claw pastry–out of the bag and dangled it over the blue police barricades.

Thorson, his glasses fogged over with perspiration, failed to notice, but luckily, his olfactory sense caught a whiff of sugar and like a bee after pollen, he went for it. Miss Gluck stretched, offering, and to her delight Mr. Thorson’s pudgy hand found her pastry. And in one mighty, on-the-run gulp, he swallowed it whole.

A second later, Mr. Thorson’s spent, sweat-slick body sprang to life, galvanized by the sudden sugar rush, and he shot forward as if propelled out of a cannon. Running like a man possessed, he dashed along, his feet barely touching the pavement, his leviathan body a wizened blur, every prancing, dancing step bringing him closer and closer to the striding Kenyan. And before the Olympic champion ever knew what hit him, Thorson whipped by, comet-quick, leaving a ferocious tailwind in his wake that nearly blew the stick-thin Kenyan off his feet. As his rival chugged on, his jowls working every last molecule of glucose out of the bear-claw, all Nyakeranta could do was watch, helplessly, as the absurd turned to reality and Mr. Thorson’s Brobdingnagian stomach shattered the tape amid a whirlwind of applause and pinwheeling confetti.

 

Years later, only one question remains: how? Of course, in a situation as ludicrous as Mr. Thorson’s, there are no easy answers. The only certainty researchers have concluded is that Mr. Thorson was able to accomplish his incredible feat through some transcendence of corporeal limitations, the familiar “mind over matter” theory. But that hypothesis is manifold, and falls drastically short when etiological factors are considered. And while no conclusive theories have ever pinpointed how Mr. Thorson was able to compete that day, there are several educated, albeit farfetched guesses.

The foremost theory was attained by a panel of cardiologists, dietary experts and nutritionists from New York’s leading hospitals and private clinics. Their hypothesis, known as the ATTM theory, (Adipose Tissue Transference Model) has its opponents, but for the most part stands as the only cogent study ever conducted. In a paper delivered to the American Medical Foundation two months after the race, Johannes Loushe, Professor Emeritus of the Endocrine and Metabolic Department of Tufts University, put forth the central theorem that Mr. Thorson was somehow able to convert his prodigious reserves of bodily fat into a boundless, inexhaustible energy source. Obesity is defined as “excessive storage of energy in the form of fat,” so at first glance, the hypothesis sounds legitimate. But when viewed on a more comprehensive level it is problematic, as it opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions as to how this process took place on a cellular and/or metabolic level.

That is where most contemporary research is being conducted, and while advances have been made both domestically and abroad, no conclusive answers as to how this energy transference took place, or how the subject’s limited cardiovascular system was able to function under such intense aerobic strain have ever been discovered. For years Mr. Thorson has cooperated with researchers, submitting himself to ruthless examinations, and still there are no answers. Every day, men of science pore over the same Petri Dishes of Mr. Thorson’s flab, to no avail. Sadly, it appears the case may never be solved.

Mr. Thorson, of course, parlayed his astounding victory into a string of media appearances and endorsements, and for a brief time went on to become one of America’s “biggest” celebrities. But the relentless attention proved to be a strain for the reclusive Thorson, and eventually, he returned to his $24,000 a year position as a security guard at the Twin Oaks Mall in his native Hackensack.

No one knows why Mr. Thorson chose to race that day; it seems as if he were chosen by some higher deity to put forth some pro-fat agenda, which he did magnificently. As Thorson never raced again, the world will never know what his exact motivation was.

But millions of fat people hardly care, for that day Mr. Thorson gave them reason to stand up and cheer, to love and respect themselves for what they are. Yes, for a brief, idyllic moment, all society-imposed stigma vanished in favor of something they’d never felt before–self-respect, confidence, and an unfailing pride in themselves. Never again would they trod the Earth with doubt or fear–thanks to Kenny James Thorson, every overweight man, woman, and child can live as gluttonously as they wish, knowing that appearances, at best, are illusory.

-As featured in Empty Pinata & Other Tales of Woe

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

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TO LIVE AND DIE IN G.I.

“Gary lies in the gutter and looks at the stars.”

-Arthur Schumway

     Say the words, “Gary, Indiana” to most people, or better yet, mention that you grew up there, and the reaction is visceral and immediate. With wide eyes, those forced to hear these accursed syllables warily step back, gaping at you suspiciously, as if you’re going to whip out a linoleum knife and carve out their gall bladder. “That’s a rough town,” they’ll say, ever so ruefully, or “you grew up in Gary and you’re still vertical?” It’s either that, or as chipper as a cheerleader, they’ll chant the words “Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana,” from “The Music Man.” No other place ignites such an instant response, or one so at odds. One reaction involves terror. The other, happy go lucky insipidness. But from its inception, Gary has been a place of extremes, a crossroads of contradictions, a paradox incarnate.

For starters, Gary is in the state of Indiana. But it is nothing like the Indiana that comes to mind. There are no charming covered bridges in Gary. There are no basketball hoops on red barns in Gary. There are no fields of flowing corn, no combines or tractors plying God’s green earth, no bake sales, bucolic reveries, or Mellencampian heartland clichés. No, unlike the rest of Indiana, Gary is urban, ethnic, and gruesomely industrial. It’s a well worn, thoroughly used and abused area, like hardened scar tissue, or a scab that’s too thick too peel away from the healthier tissue growing around it.

To most people who experience it, Gary is nothing more than a horrific stench, and an even more horrific sight. Marked by dismal housing projects, dilapidated shacks, decrepit trailer parks, crumbling duplexes, boarded-up storefronts, grimy truck stops, junk yards, rail yards, garbage-strewn vacant lots, pockmarked roads, abandoned strip malls, charred husks of buildings, and countless smokestacks spewing out noxious emissions, Gary is a bleak, gray, depressing hinterland, a grim, hopeless-looking place to shudder at, ignore, or simply shake your head at in dismay as you zoom on to brighter, less threatening locales.

Gary is part of what is known as “Chicagoland,” as it’s only thirty miles from the Loop. But it’s light years away from Chicago in every possible way. There are no investment bankers trading futures in Gary. There are no world-class restaurants and chic, cosmopolitan cafes in Gary. There is no breathtaking architecture, no glimmering skyscrapers, no vibrant theatre scene in Gary. Gary is closer to Chicago than most Chicago suburbs, and receives the same television and radio stations as Chicago. But in spirit, mindset, and outlook, it is as far from Chicago as Prudhoe Bay. If Chicago is The City of Broad Shoulders, Gary is The City of Weak Knees. If Chicago is the Hog Butcher For The World, Gary is the Human Butcher For The World. If Chicago is The Second City, Gary is The One Millionth City.

Perched between these rural and urban polarities, Gary has always had an identity crisis. So it’s no surprise that its most famous native, Michael Jackson, suffered a similar fate. With his circus selves constantly shifting and evolving into various other selves, this desperate creation of plastic surgeons first grappled with who he was and who he wanted to be right over on 2400 South Jackson Street. Who knows, it might have been true—maybe Michael wasn’t sure who he wanted to be because he city he lived in wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, either.

Like the King of Pop, Gary burst into national prominence full of promise and infinite possibility. Hailed as “The New Industrial Utopia,” Gary was founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel. Hopes were high. A city brochure gushed, “Cosmopolitan Gary, the Magic Steel City, welcomes all comers to its confines, where health, wealth, and pleasure make it the most wonderful city of the present century!” But inevitably, like the Gloved One, Gary had nowhere to go but down, falling to pieces step by step, until the face it showed to the world was a grotesque atrocity.

This is due to two primary factors: pollution and crime. Upon entering its environs—usually by car, with every door being automatically bolted shut as soon as the road sign appears on the horizon—Gary announces itself immediately, with a nauseous, sulfurous odor. The smell is a stomach-curdling bouquet of contaminants including nitrates, cyanide, zinc, manganese, ammonia, barium, phenol, lead, nickel, and chromium among countless others.

The water in Gary is equally as foul. Suffering from over a century of environmental neglect, the brackish Grand Calumet River and its subsidiary, The Little Calumet, which wind through the city and its adjoining hamlets, seethe with pollutants. With PCBs, cyanide, heavy metals, mercury, cadmium, phosphorus, assorted dioxins, arsenic, fecal coliform, and other volatile solids like oil and grease commingling together in a bouillabaisse of poisons, it’s no wonder only sludge worms call the local “waters” home.

As for vice, corruption, gang warfare, and other crime, Gary is synonymous with it. Consistently ranking high or sometimes even first on various civic indexes in categories like “Most Dangerous,” “Most Miserable” and “Most Murders Per Capita,” the city excels in dubious honors. Now and then another town like Newark, Detroit, or New Orleans dethrones Gary of these infamous distinctions, but G.I. always seems to creep back up to the top of being the absolute bottom. An inordinate amount of murders, burglaries, rape, arson, car thefts, prostitution, and drug-fueled violence cement Gary’s reputation as one of the most notorious cities in America.

Mayberry eat your heart out.

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.