6″ x 8″ collage
6″ x 8″ collage
The puppy bounded over the bright green grass, his tail swishing to and fro, breath coming in quick, excited gasps. “Come here, boy, come on!” Hitler cried, clapping his hands. A second later, in a blur of brown fur, the little dog leaped into his arms. Hitler laughed, cuddling the puppy closer, as the loving dog, grateful to be in the arms of its master, slathered his nose with his tongue. “Awww, that’s a good boy,” cried der Fuhrer, as the adoring dog licked his face, “I love you! Yes I do! I love you!”
There was one male dancer at Chippendale’s who everyone loved. His name was Hitler, and although his physique was on the smallish side, he made up for his lack of stature with a highly seductive dance
“And now, straight from Berlin,” cried the stage announcer, “. .
The velvet curtains slid open and a short man in a G-string, with hair slicked sharply over his forehead and a tiny square of a mustache emerged from the shadows. As the crowd of female secretaries who had assembled to wish Connie LaRenta a happy 40th birthday whooped and hollered, Hitler sidled forth, undulating out of the darkness with a snake-like insouciance. The women gaped as his pale, jack-booted form danced up to them, entirely mesmerized by the sheer nudity of his maleness, and soon Hitler felt an army of hands stuffing crisp one-dollar bills into his G-string.
“Happy birthday, Connie!”
“Whoo-hoo! Thanks, Denise!”
A rich sugary aroma filled the entire kitchen, a smell so delicious it made Hitler’s mouth water. He closed his eyes and breathed in, savoring it for a long, wonderful moment, and then the timer buzzed.
Finally, the corn muffins were ready! Hitler slid his hands into a pair of lime green oven mitts and approached the oven. He could practically taste them now. He flung open the door and as the blast of hot muffin-filled air bathed his mustachioed face, he slid the tray out of the heat.
Hitler knew better than to bite into the muffins right away. They had to cool down a bit first, otherwise he might burn his mouth. Patiently, he waited, watching the little pats of butter he spread over their rounded tops melting slowly into each muffin, and soon they were ready to eat. “Mmmm,” gushed Hitler, as he bit into the piping-hot treats. “These muffins are delicious!”
“Man, I suck at foosball,” said Hitler, as he heard the distressing sound of another little plastic ball plunk into the goal he was trying to defend. “Don’t worry about it,” cried Keith, taking a swig of his Bud,
“You’ll get better.”
“Yeah,” said Tammy, “Just have fun.”
“Alright, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“Okay, Hitler,” announced Keith. “Last ball. Whover gets this in wins.”
He put the tiny little yellow ball into the hole as the four friends gripped the metal handles. And a second later the game was on. The ball flew back and forth as the players batted it around. Finally, Keith got control of it. He quickly lined up his shot. Hitler maneuvered his men, but Keith was too fast. With one expert flick of his wrist, he smacked the ball into the goal. “Yes!” cried Keith. Hitler sighed heavily, shaking his head in dismay. “Man, I suck at foosball.”
No one played the saxophone quite like der Fuhrer. His notes were silky smooth, as sweet and fluid as molasses, and as soon as they floated out of his instrument a feeling of tranquility came over the entire nightclub. Even the waiters stopped serving to listen to his soaring melody.
“That cat can really play,”
“His name is Hitler.”
Bathed in the soft glow of the spotlight, Hitler played on, his fingers flying over the keys, his smallish mouth clenched tightly on his bright brass organ. He closed his eyes, blowing note after sweet note, and it was like the whole room took off and flew into the sky along with him for the next ten minutes as he improvised what can only be called a jazz odyssey.
But that was Hitler, you just never knew what he was going to do next.
Menacing, fleshy planaria hoods
like overcoats lilt and cobra
through filters, manacled and grasping,
crab fingers and muscled valves
adhere to walls of grasping, snorkeling cells,
-As published in Brutarian, part of Carnivorous Wishes, a poetry collection
I was never meant for this nocturnal stage, this sickening sabbat spun out of control. I am a creature of the daytime, engineered to delight housewives, to charm the Oprah-fed minions with my engaging deformity. Only through cunning have I insinuated my way here, become part of your “Super Bowl” as you so reverently and ridiculously call it.
I am one of a thousand apparitions passing by you tonight. Commercials, you call us. Crafted mendacities, million-dollar playlets evil in our intent: to hoodwink, unsettle, connive. Here, at this foul pageant, we assemble: sneakered slam-dunking giants, soda-crazed polar bears, alcoholic frogs, interrupting bunnies, all of us. Each year the festival swells, growing more bloated; each year we revel in sheer glorious excess.
But I care nothing for your spectacle. If possible, I would hide my hideousness from all of you. No, I have journeyed here for a reason.
Revenge against Gittis, the smug adman from whose feeble mind my monstrosity sprang. Tonight, like his partner before him, he shall die at my hand.
I am a grotesque, a wan sea anemone-like appendage with fingers sprouting skyward in a gross Gorgonian parody. My mouth, frozen in a carved smile, is a tight slit, a puckered gash. Anchored beneath my middle digits, under slanted brows, are two black, pupil-less eyes that burn with unmitigated hate. Most humiliating of all is the red bulbous clown nose-no doubt a snickering afterthought-planted solidly in the center of my palm.
I am the Hamburger Helper Helping Hand. A minor deity, but surely you have seen me. Among certain demographics I am quite popular.
I was born to sell, to dance and sing in degrading productions, to peddle carton after carton of noddle mix, a pandering, pathetic oaf.
For this I have Gittis to thank. Smug, preening Gittis, master hack, the bane of my existence. I was born in the ruts of his imagination, conjured without regard, as if my life were but a trifling amusement. DeFozio-his partner, his art director, the pony-tailed poser who sat snickering as I took my first timid steps at the animation house. . .
At first, I was cast in the image of a human hand. I had five svelte digits. My eyes were ripe, happy. Then Gittis, that blundering philistine, took up his sketchpad.
With the sickening godliness so typical of his profession, he changed me, engineered me into what he thought I should be. Gittis amputated my pinky and plumped my remaining fingers until they resembled four fat phalli. He hacked out a mouth, stuck on a schnozz, and soon I was a beady-eyed claw suitable only for derision. Gittis smiled. DeFozio smiled. Even Whitslaw, their client from General Mills, smiled. After McGee the media planner figured my demographics, I was ready for the airwaves.
My inaugural performance ran during Days of Our Lives. I waddled before my co-stars, a wide-eyed domestic and her two foolish offspring, who marveled as I sang “Hamburger Helper helps your hamburger” in my cartoon voice, and packed their faces with fatty noodle.
As the years passed, the campaign turned more humiliating. Gittis swaddled me in ponchos, stuck a mustache on my lip, assigned stereotypical ethnic guises to hasten the sale of spin-off products like Hamburger Helper Beef Taco and Zesty Italian, even-I gag-Tuna Helper. My rage grew, and I sank further into self-loathing.
Then one day, enlightenment. I looked at the beings around me, the M&Ms, Toilet Ducks, and morphing Lifesavers, and I realized none of us were here by choice; we all existed through some grand, infernal design. We were not to blame for our fates; we were only pawns, automatons controlled by multinational forces. Slowly, over time, my anger shifted from myself to the race of men who had ushered me into this foul life. I resolved to strike back.
But only when I closed my eyes and saw his accursed face-that fat chin and set jaw-did I know the target of my rage.
In the land of image there is no substance. We flit about, spirits riding static skies, dashing from one porthole to the next in the billion-screened Panopticon surrounding all things. We glare at your world, at your sedentary hell.
Each day I saw you; each day it was the same. Your families sitting mesmerized, sunk into couches. Your bleary eyes, glazed with obsequiousness. I saw you suckle the glass teat and slurp its banal milk; I saw you feed at the electric trough. I saw it all, and I hated you for your weakness.
The more I hated the more my powers grew. With each pathetic human I saw, another part of me strengthened, another limb tightened, until I pulsed, throbbing with energy. I knew then that your photon shackles could never hold me. Already I could feel myself loosening. It was only a matter of time.
As my powers mounted, I hunted Gittis, confident that the sight of him would spring me from my electronic prison. I searched, all the while plotting his demise, with no success. Then one day I found not Gittis, but his partner in crime, DeFozio, snoozing on a sofa, surrounded by snotted, balled-up tissue! Somehow, I’d stumbled onto him.
Fury rose until it seemed I would explode. And in the full force of my rage, I hurled myself from the phosphorescent sea. (My presence would not be missed-I had fifteen seconds until my next on-camera shot.) I landed on DeFozio’s sofa. Stealthily, so as not to arouse him, I scaled a nearby shelf, where I seized a heavy gold figuring: his precious Clio statue. Seconds later I loomed over him.
“With this foul trophy, I defile you!” I screamed, echoing the late night gladiator epics I’d seen on WGN. Before he could stir, I smashed the Clio into his brow. He kicked and flailed; I struck again and again, blind-mad, and finally, after a last penetrating blow, he moved no more. I dropped the Clio on the floor.
“Best Consumer Package Goods: Hamburger Helper-1993,” it read.
I dove back to the screen, howling with delight.
Gittis though, proved an elusive foe. For months I searched, gazing into your living rooms and bedrooms, your squalid apartments and rotted duplexes, every crutch where humanity dwelled. I scanned the vast arena of faces, but not once did I see him.
Then I realized the root of my failure: I only ran during the day. For me to find Gittis, he would have to watch daytime television, an impossible scenario given the office duties required by his conniving craft. As long as I aired during mornings and afternoons, I would never find him. I n fact, the only reason I’d found DeFozio was because he had called in sick! I considered waiting for Gittis to fall ill, but left that for a more dastardly solution.
I reasoned that if Gittis would not come to me, I would come to him. But how? Despite my ability to shuttle between realities, I could not break free from the chains which bound me to specific programming-the brainless reruns and soaps McGee had figured. To find Gittis I had to deliver myself to another program, one during the nighttime.
But which one? Seinfeld? SeaQuest? And how would I know he’d be there? The only solution was to pinpoint the precise show he’d be watching. I racked my brain, but only as the foul event drew nearer and I heard others of my kind discussing it like some vile prom they hoped to attend, did I realize where I’d find him.
The Super Bowl! That shitstorm of media hype and chip-crunching idiocy! Yes! Of course Gittis would be watching-as an adman the event was sacred to him!
But there was only one more hurdle: how would I , a lowly package goods creature, reach that lofty stage? The only way was through a subversion of the Hamburger Helper media plan, the document that determined my placement on the networks. I would have to find and alter it, no easy task since I knew nothing of the intricate schedules.
No, some flunky must do the deed. I knew instantly who. McGee-the media man who sold me to the airwaves. Quickly, I concocted a plan:
I was fortunate enough to recall that on occasion, McGee left a television set on in his office, to be lulled by its soothing blather as he went about his figuring. All I had to do was wait until the set came on, and hope no one saw me.
When it did, I leaped forth, ducked a secretary, and rifled through the papers atop McGee’s desk. Hurriedly, I scrawled a note:
What about Ham Helper on the Super Bowl? Lots of single men will be watching.
“S.W.,” of course, referred to none other than Stanley Whitslaw, the General Mills client for whom McGee, Gittis, and DeFozio worked. I knew that McGee, like all agency drones, would do anything to appease the whims of his queen bee client. He immediately wrote the plan, and bureaucracy did the rest. No one changed it, n one questioned it, the whole deal went undetected.
All that remained was the grisly denouement.
So here I am, on this vast, limitless plane, this shimmering vale of static and light, this mediated Elysia.
Clearly, I do not belong in this august assemblage. The creatures here are different from me: they are icons, slick celebrities, super-athletes and techno animations, beings of pure image. My deformity is a throwback, a reminder of simpler, less manic times. Now it is all ego and showmanship, mirror and smoke, glitter and braggadocio: chip-dipping politicos, sky surfers, beer bottles with tiny football helmets rammed onto their necks . . . it is insane. What have you done?
We straggle on. One by one we reach the stage, acting our splashy dramas. After the Bud bottles it is to be my turn.
Shaq dunks. A chimp swills cola. Innocuous young people bond inexplicably over a malted beverage called Zima. The bottles stage their contest; an announcer speaks, a log rises. I scuttle forward, my heart soaring.
Metallic rays splinter into tubes of gray and gray-blue and I take the stage, all of America gazing upon me.
“Have I got a meal for you!” I sing, over the homey hamburger theme.
Then I see that fat chin, and pounce.
-As published in The Baffler.
12″ x 12″ soapstone
When was the last time you went for it? Took a chance? Killed your fear and did something crazy? No, something not just crazy—something death-defying, where one tiny miscalculation, one misstep, could result in your instant removal from Planet Earth?
Chances are it wasn’t when you refused to return your shopping cart at Kroger. Or when you cut through that corner gas station to dodge a red light. No, we mortals rarely tempt fate. We might bend the rules, or let our adventure-starved hearts tremble with excitement as we double down on a ten buck blackjack hand, but usually, it’s more about bills than thrills.
But some people need more than these trappings of the everyday. More than Val-Pak coupons and a Cinnabun. They need adrenaline. Thrills, risk, danger; above all, they need to feel the raw, molten joy of existence. These rebellious souls need to go full throttle, all cares, worries, and concerns left in the dust as they look the Grim Reaper in the eye, scoff, and growl, “not today, pal.” And as sure as a sunny day in Daytona, there was no one who thumbed his nose at Death, or flipped the bird at The Man, or drained a bottle of 100-proof bourbon, cursed louder, rode faster, or lived larger, mightier, and madder than the immortal Evel Knievel.
I say “immortal,” because the name Evel Knievel, as well as the things that Evel Knievel did, will live forever. Things like jumping over a twenty-foot long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions, which was his first jump in 1965. Or jumping 13, 14, 15, 16, and up to 22 cars over the years, until mere cars didn’t cut it and then the obstacles became 141 feet of backbreaking, coma-inducing fountains at Caesar’s Palace (his fee: $4,500), ten Kenworth trucks, thirteen Mack trucks, or fourteen Greyhound buses, and so on, until it all culminated one infamous morning on September 8th, 1974, when this insane daredevil actually convinced us he would jump across the mile-long Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho. And not just on another souped up dirt tracker, but on something he called his “Skycycle,” a steam-powered, glorified bottle rocket that looked like it was built with Erector set rejects and spare sheet metal from your shop class. Because at that point, what he rode had to be as outrageous as he was.
So let us now salute this man, no, this showman who invented reality TV decades before the hoarders, faux swampbillies, monosyllabic Jersey Shoreans, transgender jocks and pampered celebrities with chick pea-sized brains would go on to dominate our screens. In an age before Twitter, before smart phones, Facebook, SnapChat, FourSquare, Instagram, before all that social networking blather. Before a hundred of your so called “friends” gave a hearty thumbs up to the ham sandwich you had for lunch, there was Evel Knievel, right there on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoon, or at your local drag strip, (or at the Okalahoma State Fairgrounds, where this article’s images are from), balanced on one wheel, front tire aloft, gunning it up and down the raceway. Or doing another wheelie while standing on the seat, and generally performing other stunts that made our eyeballs remain riveted on him until we almost forgot to blink. Stunts so outlandish, so ill-advised, so absolutely foolish that they made every person in America—except your mom—love him unconditionally.
What wasn’t there to love? He wore white leathers emblazoned with red and blue stars and stripes, a towering, Elvis-like collar, and a flashy belt buckle the size of a dinner plate showcasing his initials. His pants flared out in bell bottoms, revealing white, kick-your-head-in boots, and a long, flowing, baronial cape—the kind of thing a comic book hero would wear, and he definitely qualified—draped from his shoulders. And, as time wore on, as the bones cracked, the ligaments snapped, and the stitch-count grew, the man eventually walked with a cane. But not just any cane—a cane encrusted with diamonds, whose top unscrewed to reveal an interior storage compartment that held eight shots of what else, Wild Turkey.
Did you think Evel Knievel would roll any other way? After all, this is a man who, when asked why he did what he did, said, simply, “Life is a bore. That’s why I jump through the air.” It makes total sense. Jumping through the air is a lot more exciting than selling insurance—which happened to be the job he had for the Combined Insurance Company for most of 1964, if you can comprehend that. (Highlights included selling 110 policies to employees, as well as residents, of the Montana State Mental Hospital). Shortly thereafter, in addition to being an arm wrestling champ, elk hunter, amateur hockey player, brawler, and entertaining people outside a saloon by riding his motorcycle up a 500-ft slag heap, he became a salesman of something he was far more passionate about: motorcycles.
Soon, when he was selling them in Spokane, Evel got the idea to build a quarter mile oval racetrack to promote the bikes and the dirt track scene, which he’d competed in since he was a teenager. To amp things up further, and get even more attention for the dealership, he convinced a coworker to ride his Harley-Davidson through several walls of flaming particle boards. The stunt was an instant success, and the crowds ate it up. A few weeks later, not wanting to be outdone, Evel one-upped his co-worker by offering to jump over a cage of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions, a distance of nearly 50 feet. Evel didn’t clear the jump, slammed his back tire on the box of snakes, and several hundred of the angry rattlers slithered out towards the 300 fans, who all fled in terror. Laughing, Evel was already plotting more entertaining jumps. A boat. Two cars. Four cars. Buses. Trucks. Shark tanks. Canyons. You know the rest.
Evel’s ill-fated Snake River Canyon jump remains his most well known stunt. And what an epic stunt it was, for it captured the imagination of the entire nation in late 1974. I was a Midwestern boy of ten years old then, with my Evel Knievel lunchbox, Evel Knievel stunt cycle and action figure, posters, comic books, and of course my red, white and blue Free Spirit 20-inch BMX bike with the chrome fenders and knobby tires. All the kids in the neighborhood had the same type of bike. These were used for trail riding, but, very often, were also used for a more urgent purpose: to be jumped into the air, as high as possible, to carry us away from all earthly bounds, from all cares, responsibilities and chores, just like they carried our hero.
Of course we lusted after motorcycles, salivating over Evel’s stripped down Harley-Davidson XR-750, the bike that he used on his jumps. But we were ten. And mom hated motorcycles. So after religiously following every new distance Evel jumped, we began building our own ramps, much smaller, but made of the same no nonsense materials: plywood, two by fours, cinder blocks, whatever we could pinch from dad’s garage and neighborhood construction sites. These ramps were built to jump ten to twelve garbage cans, and one by one, each of us would pedal furiously, aiming at the ramp, attain peak velocity, pull up on the bars, and sail away, into that glorious realm where gravity was suspended, where we soared on like our hero soared on, if only for a brief second. But it was during that second, that brief moment, where we, too, had gone for it. Had taken a chance. Killed our fear. And done something crazy, ill-advised, mad, irresponsible, foolish, and utterly stupid. Our mothers hated us, but we loved it.
Because it was fun. Oh, god was it fun. And luckily, unlike Evel, none of us ever paid the price that the real daredevil paid. Sure, there were skinned knees, sprains, ripped Sears Toughskin jeans, road rash, and gashes requiring the sting of Bactine. But nothing like what Evel went through: the breaking of every bone in his body, myth had it; the terrifying footage of his body rag-dolling down the landing ramp at Caesar’s—the prepubescent Zapruder film that we never tired of marveling at—or the Cow Palace jump, the Wembley jump, all of the horrifying spectacles where Evel crashed, wrecked, binned it, and went Johnny Shithouse over the bars into what surely must have resulted in death, and an agonizing one at that.
But, miracle of miracles, it never happened. Evel never died on any of his jumps. “Color me lucky,” one of his many unofficial mottos, was true. His body, zippered with scars, and containing more metal plates than a Bradley armored vehicle, had held up. Only when his liver crapped out—that poor defenseless, utterly abused organ—did he finally shuffle off this mortal coil at the ripe old age of 69. A man who sailed into history. A man who went for it. A man, quite simply, who didn’t want to sell insurance.
So here’s to kicking it up a gear. Here’s to going balls out, screaming into the wind, to twisting the throttle until it won’t twist any more. Because as Robert Craig Knievel said, “If a guy hasn’t got any gamble in him, he isn’t worth crap.”
Thank you, Evel.
-As published in 1903 Magazine
Dave had just finished his tuna melt and was reaching for his soda when it happened. Jim, in an abrupt movement, crossed his right leg over his left, and in the process, lightly bumped Dave’s left foot which rested on the floor. Quickly adjusting to what had just happened, Jim and Dave withdrew their respective feet from their momentary and uncomfortable union beneath the table. In the seconds that followed, an uneasy situation emerged, plunging both men into agonizing moments of introspection.
As Jim looked inward, he felt shame. A deep, numbing shame that rested on the final realization of their own clumsiness. He knew he should have shown a more graceful control of the limb. Instead, he had executed the maneuver in a foolish, almost spastic manner. He had practiced the move many times while dining alone, and was confident that had all but mastered it. But when the occasion arose for his discipline to be tested, he had failed.Perhaps he was intimidated by Dave. Or maybe he was simply not meant for such rakish mastery of the self. He stared out the window at the cars melting by. He felt hopeless. His blunder, finally, had confirmed his own haplessness.
Dave was equally furious. Jim’s failure to cross his leg in the appropriate manner was only the latest faux pas in a long string of bonehead moves. Dave remembered the hundreds of meals Jim had ruined. The intimate brunches, the late night suppers, the long leisurely lunches after their visits to the circus-all of them ruined in a careless, inconsiderate bumping of feet. The memories came in an excruciating torrent. He remembered the hours of reassurance as he comforted Jim each time he failed-the long weekends he spent guiding his legs through the proper motions in their backyard training center, the diagrams, massages, hot oil treatments. Trying to help Jim gain control over his body had put him through an emotional wringer over the past eight months. But rage was the only emotion Dave felt now. He detested Jim and he detested himself for being with him.
Jim and Dave finished their meals in silence. Dave slurped his Coke and toyed with his ice cubes with a straw. Jim sat chomping his fries, looking out the window. The festive strains of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” suddenly burst forth from an ancient jukebox and echoed through the diner. A fat cook started banging chairs onto the tables and the few remaining customers slowly filed out of the restaurant. The two men looked at each other, their eyes meeting in a watery stare. They paid their checks and left. Dave walked his own way, while Jim hobbled off into the gloom, cursing his prosthesis as it echoed off the sidewalk beneath him.
-As published in Speak Magazine
Subject 1: George Washington
America’s first president, and “father of our country,” while an eminent statesman and brilliant general, demonstrates an appalling lack of fashion sense. In fact, his staid appearance gracing the one dollar bill is a total disaster. His hair, billowing down in cottony swirls, obeys no discernible style, shape, or configuration, and looks almost matronly, more like that of a doting grandmother than a happening head of state. Angling down from the apex of his skull and shooting outward into a hilarious one-length wedge, his bobbed hairdo is far too bouncy and playful for such a dignified politician. One can hardly imagine his frilly countenance leading his charges into battle with a hairstyle so ridiculously carefree. But perhaps that was his modus operandi: to mask his revolutionary schemes under the foppish accoutrements of a powder-puffed colonial dandy, then blindside his Tory adversaries when they least expected it.
Judging from the wide open prairie of forehead, G-Dub is obviously afflicted with male pattern baldness, but instead of cutting his losses and opting for a close-cropped hairstyle as the follically-challenged men of the 21st century do, he lets it all hang out in an albino-like sponge of ill-advised growth. What, exactly, was our first president and architect of our democracy thinking? Yes, when it comes to his grooming habits, one cannot tell a lie: they were an abomination.
Subject #2: Abraham Lincoln
Many historians hold that Lincoln was our greatest president. He freed the slaves and helped preserve the Union during the Civil War. However, despite these monumental accomplishments, our sixteenth president was unable to do one thing: achieve a personal grooming style of any distinction whatsoever. Perhaps it was the greasy slant of hair slicked across his forehead, or the skimpy beard shading his jaw line that made Honest Abe such an ungainly goon. Sure, you signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but maybe you should have emancipated your inner style, Abe.
One can offer only feeble conjecture as to how Lincoln arrived at his ill-fated look. But judging from his craggy, mismatched features—the honking nose, large unsavory mole, and drawn upper lip—it’s likely that our sixteenth president may have been the end result of frontier inbreeding. Biographical information paints Lincoln as a gangly, overgrown man, all knees, elbows and ears, of that distinctly long-armed hillbilly ectomorphism still traceable in parts of Kentucky, southern Indiana, and Illinois, where Abe spent his formative years. Or de-formative years, one might say.
It’s easy to get wistful when imagining the style that Lincoln might have created, for the raw ingredients were there. He had a gentle, pilgrim-like appeal that endeared him to folks. Add calming, wisdom-filled eyes and a tuft of chin-beard not unlike those that snowboarders and extreme sports buffs wear, and ‘ole Abe had a peaced-out vibe that could have been milked much further. Sadly, Mr. Lincoln—a fashion victim if there ever was one—was simply too busy with the duties of his administration to pay much attention to his image. The result is one of the worst hairstyles in the history of the United States government. No wonder John Wilkes Booth put Mr. Lincoln’s illadvised growth out of its misery that fateful night at the Ford Theatre.
Subject #3: Andrew Jackson
Happily, Andrew Jackson, a.k.a. “Old Hickory,” sports a much studlier ‘do. Cresting over his long, leonine skull in a windswept mane, A.J.’s wavy bouffant—a tempest of billowing locks tumbling off his skull, tousled and breeze-kissed in all the right places—reigns supreme atop the craggy wedge of his face. His rakish, swept-back hair frames a pair of dark, hypnotic eyes, and with his high-breeched collar and grim, emotionless expression, Mr. Jackson looks more like a Transylvanian count than a chief executive.
Jackson was the scion of an almost royal lineage. He ascended rapidly through the military and engineered some of the greatest victories of the young republic, including the battle of New Orleans. But how he was able to engineer a hairstyle of such effortless body and bounce is even more impressive. In an era entirely devoid of mousse, spritzers, or other styling accoutrements, Old Hickory was somehow able to achieve, and maintain,a hairstyle as carefree as anything in the style-conscious Seventies. Perhaps Mr. Jackson—a fiercely enterprising man—improvised a Victorian gel of some kind, some crude blend of saddle oil and liniment that aided him in creating his hairdo. But more likely than not, it was simply the result of a galloping, on-the-go, let’s-kick-some-Indians-asses lifestyle.
There’s no denying Mr. Jackson’s oaky, rough-hewn appeal. Nor is there any denying how reckless, spontaneous, and full of flair his hairstyle was—however offhandedly it may have been created. His dashing, nonchalant look epitomized our fledgling nation at the time: intense, hurried, and gloriously entitled. With a sixth president with a hairstyle of such verve and confidence, it’s no wonder the winds of destiny were to smile upon our still minty-fresh republic.
So what have we learned by placing these statesmen under such a critical eye, an eye from our jaded, image-centric future? From our three subjects, we’ve learned that it’s much better to be alive today than it was then, especially when you’re trying to develop a smoldering look. Today, even the most pedestrian Duane Reade or Rite-Aid has a treasure trove of grooming and hair care products upon its well-lit shelves, a plethora of lotions, gels, exfoliating mitts, and other pamperings that can render even the humblest of men into a honey-scented Casanova. How our forefathers existed in a time devoid of such grooming products and services is unimaginable. But somehow, they managed. They fought and survived; they dreamed and struggled; for good or bad, each statesman created his own individual look, with each style as fiercely independent as its creator—testament to the expressive spirit of the American people, and to the freedom that our country has stood for since 1776.
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.
There’s an old saying in the steel mill: “When we die, we’re all going to heaven. Because we’re already in hell.” It’s a perfect comparison. Flames are everywhere, in both gaseous and liquid form: shooting out of mysterious valves, sizzling in molten streams, bubbling out of ladles as big as houses, showering down in white-hot sparks, or attacking the sky in flickering orange talons. Black soot, grime and carbon dust coat every surface and the slightest move stirs it up into choking clouds of filth. And then there’s the smell—the sickening, dizzying, rotten egg stench that makes every breath taste like you’re eating a fart.
Don’t forget the constant barrage of noise, the never-ending cacophony of bangs, clangs, thuds, roars, screams, whistles, shrieks, and seismic thuds that torture eardrums and turn every conversation into a screaming match. Or the triple digit temperatures that sear your face and make the entire place feel like working inside of a crockpot. Throw in roving packs of foot-long rats, marauding ladle carriers, remote control trains with no crossing guards, toxic emissions, shards of razor-sharp slag that slice through gloves, and a host of other damnable realities, and the hell analogy is an understatement.
The steel mill is Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s flagship operation. In The Region, U.S. Steel is known as “the big mill.” There are other steel mills in Northwestern Indiana clustered on the southern rim of Lake Michigan—LTV, Bethlehem, Inland, and Midwest—but Gary Works is the largest. Spanning over 3,000 acres, it is a vast nexus of smokestacks stabbing the sky, labyrinthine railroad tracks and pipelines, skeletal ore bridges, endless conveyors, mountains of coal, limestone and iron ore, massive coke ovens, mile-long warehouses, and nightmare furnaces belching clouds of steam, smoke, fire and god knows what else.
It is here where Joe C. and I toil. We are two of the thousands-strong army of contractors who file into the big mill every day to work construction. The two of us are union laborers for Superior Construction, an outfit that’s been camped out in U.S. Steel for decades. It is our distinct privilege to make $13.23 an hour to shovel slag, pour concrete, run jackhammers, cart lumber around, wrestle concrete forms, and risk life and limb to build something known as the continuous slab caster.
The continuous slab caster is a gigantic, slide-like contraption that will swallow molten pig iron from ladles carried from the blast furnaces, form it into a mold, and then birth a perfectly-shaped, eighty-inch wide, twenty-foot long slab of glowing orange steel. It’s basically an oversized version of the Play-Doh Mega Fun Factory, the miniature plastic conveyor belt I had as a kid, only instead of brightly colored, non-toxic clay, this baby punches out 3,000-degree liquid metal. The caster will streamline the steelmaking process; no longer will pig iron be poured into molds called ingots and then rolled into slabs. Nope, once the slab caster is finished, the ingots will be history, and every slab will be born fully formed, before being sent down the line to be worked into rails, reinforcing rods, train wheels, coils, I-beams, wire, and other shapes in the finishing mills.
Joe C. and I work beside the continuous slab caster and its adjoining service buildings, near the line of thirteen blast furnaces. Our chief duty is to build the concrete foundations between the BOP shop and the caster, which will support the rail transfer cars ferrying the ladles of molten metal back and forth. It’s a filthy, smelly, dangerous place that looks like a cross between Dante’s Inferno and a World War I battlefield, with flames billowing out in plumes of fire, cranes screeching by overhead, and huge gaping holes, craters, trenches and other jagged lacerations torn into the earth where our minuscule human figures scramble around with our shovels.
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.