October 7, 2012

We Gotta Get Out of This Place


I got a note from some kid in his mid-twenties. In short he said, “I just spent the summer in northern Wisconsin, and now I know why you hate it so much. These people are so ignorant. I tried to talk to them about Kierkegaard, and they had no idea who I was talking about. They’re so backward.”

            At first I thought he was joking. The more I read, the clearer it became he wasn’t. I didn’t even know where to begin with this, but my response opened, “You snot-nosed little twit—what the fuck did you expect? You’re just lucky those farmers didn’t stomp your pansy ass the way I would have.”

            Northern Wisconsin has three primary industries: agriculture, lumber, and recreation (hunting, fishing, and camping). It’s not exactly a hotbed of academic philosophical debate. The only reason someone like this kid would go in there spouting on about some Danish existentialist is to feel like a hot-diggity bright boy who’s smarter than everyone else. In the end he just makes himself look like a bigger asshole than he already is. I reminded him that outside of a small and cloistered group of academics, NOBODY gives a shit about Kierkegaard. And what’s more, if those people had tried to talk to him about what they did—about the migration of the Northern Pike or crop cycles or feed prices—he would’ve been the ignorant jackoff in the room.

            He thinks he’s some kind of super genius, but he’s clearly got some work to do on his reading comprehension skills, too. If he’d read carefully, he’d realize that I adore Wisconsin in all it’s weirdness. But I do so from a distance and looking back. When you grow up in a small town and want something more for yourself down the line than a future of split-shift work at the paper mill, all you can dream about is getting away. Once you do and see what’s really out there, well, you have the luxury of romanticizing what you had. Awful as it may have seemed at the time, in comparison it maybe wasn’t as bad as all that. Even if you know you could never go back there to live, you develop a very protective fondness for the place. I even became a Packers fan the moment I crossed the border into Illinois.

            I knew a lot of people with big dreams back then, but for most of them Green Bay proved as hard to escape as New York can to the people who live here.

            There was a local artist whose studio was a popular hangout for Green Bay’s few geeks because he designed monsters. He made masks and models and planned to break into the big time, doing makeup and special effects for Hollywood horror films. Every Halloween some local news crew would do a little piece on him. When John Carpenter announced that he was remaking The Thing, he put out the call to young special effects artists, asking them to send in sketches of what they thought the monster should look like. The local paper reprinted the artist’s submission as part of a big “local boy about to make good” spread.

            Well, he didn’t get the gig, and had to satisfy himself selling his masks and doing occasional makeup work for no budget sixteen millimeter films made by teenagers from Shawano. Last I checked he was still in Green Bay, designing special effects for imaginary movies only he will see.

            I went to high school with a snotty rich girl who played the flute in the school orchestra. After graduating she moved to New York and attended Julliard. It looked like she was really on her way (though to be honest I was amazed Julliard accepted her). Six months later without much of an explanation that I ever heard, she was back home and took a job as a bartender. I guess I shouldn’t have laughed quite as hard as I did when I heard that, but she was such an arrogant bitch.

            When I was in high school I worked at a bookstore. My boss had a brother who’d moved to New York a few years earlier to become a famous opera singer with the Met. He actually did get a job with the Met, appearing in the chorus of one or two productions, but never got any further than that. After a couple of years he came back to Green Bay too, and staged an English language production of The Barber of Seville in which he finally got to sing the lead. It was performed in the West High auditorium, got another big spread in the paper, and was sold out. I was there myself to see it. A month later he went into the basement of his parents’ house (where he was living at the time) and shot himself in the head.

            His sister—my boss at the bookstore—got her degree in Russian. After a good deal of prepping, she applied for a job with the CIA. How sexy and sinister is that? International travel, intrigue, espionage and all that. This was the early eighties, the Cold War was still quite an issue, and the Agency was looking for patriotic Americans who spoke fluent Russian.

            The background check alone took months. Then the interviews began. Lots of interviews. Those took a long time too. She left her job at the bookstore to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable and eventual move East and a new life of secrecy. Still, she stopped by every once in a while to give us an excited update.

            Then she didn’t get the job and stopped coming by. I don’t know what she did after that, though I know she stayed in town. My dad, or one of the other people from the bookstore, would run into her now and again, but she never had much to say. Then she got cancer and died.

            Norb may be the only person I knew who made it. I first met him in first or second grade, and he was another one who seemed to never quite fit in anywhere. He was too smart, his sense of humor too bizarre. Another one who was working on a different level.

            In the late seventies he became the first person in Green Bay to discover punk rock and do something with it. He formed Green Bay’s first hardcore band with two other friends of mine, and started putting out Green Bay’s first punk rock ‘zine, “Sick Teen.” In those pre-computer days, it was a dense, hand-assembled and Xeroxed mish-mash of cartoons, altered photos, record and show reviews, and funny stories. It was an hilarious ‘zine, clearly the product of a disturbed mind with a lot of talent. “Sick Teen” even more so than the band brought Norb national exposure in the punk rock scene. Within a couple of years he’d become the Clown Prince among the country’s punks. You couldn’t go anywhere without meeting someone who knew Norb.

            After his first band, Suburban Mutilation, dissolved, he briefly fronted another band, then formed a new band, Boris the Sprinkler. In the nineties they put out a handful of smart, funny, and painfully catchy records, but were even better known for their live shows. Norb was famous for his wild costumes and assorted antics. They became internationally popular, especially among the younger kids who were just discovering punk rock.

            I don’t know much about what happened to him after they broke up. Last I heard he was working for a computer game company or a sound design firm or some such. Funny thing is, the whole time all this was going on, he never left Green Bay. I’m sure he had his reasons, and I still consider him someone who got out, even if he stayed put.

            As for me, well, I could’ve easily ended up like the others. My first steps out of town were more a clumsy stumble. Went to the University of Chicago to study physics thinking I was a clever monkey. I wasn’t, and a year and a half later I stumbled out again. But instead of slinking home I tripped and fell someplace else. Then another place after that. Then I somehow careened into this “writing” racket and found myself in Brooklyn, where I am now stuck but good. So yeah, I guess I got out, but only by accident—same way I seem to do everything. Somehow I think if I’d ever had a plan in mind back there in Green Bay, a specific goal that singularly drove me onward, I’d be working that split-shift at the mill now.


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