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July 3 1998, Friday


hen Wacky Jen took over driving responsibilities again near Columbus, I decided I had to sleep, no matter how her driving affected my stomach. So I swigged down a certain amount of straight vodka and eased the seat back (Cannonball!). When I next awoke, not more than 45 minutes had passed. But the trip was slowly reaching its end as we raced across increasingly flat terrain. We gradually found ourselves in a place where railroad tracks converged upon shimmering mathematical points, where the sky touched the ground uniformly miles and miles away in an arrogrant display of vastness. Without forests, without hills, I felt uncomfortably exposed.

The land was maintained in businesslike rural fashion, with huge fields of single crops broken occasionally by thin rows of trees. The few houses in sight were surrounded by clumps of trees, imparting an almost prairie-like quality to the view. I suppose the fields weren't as large as those in Kansas, and there were certainly more trees and people, but clearly the character of the countryside had moved significantly westward on the agricultural east-west continuum, even with respect to farmland I'd remembered in north-central Ohio.

Both Jen and I were amazed by the good way her car was performing, especially considering the bad wheel noises and destroyed tires of the very recent past. The only real problem was that the car leaked oil at a phenomenal rate; Jen usually had to add a quart every 200 miles or so.

The last bit of the trip, south of Toledo and then up towards Detroit, seemed to drag on forever. We didn't have a map and thus found ourselves heading a little off-course north of Toledo. We went, you see, up along the Lake Erie coast through Monroe (the birthplace of George Armstrong Custer) towards Detroit instead of toward Ann Arbor on US 23 to the west. Finding route 50 (the road going west) was tricky, since helpful (as opposed to irritating) signage wasn't one of the town's strong points. But eventually we found ourselves in the University of Michigan district of Ann Arbor, parking beside the public library.

Typical for me (and, as I'm gradually realizing, typical for Wacky Jen), we'd forgotten to bring any written directions, addresses or phone numbers to help us reach any of the people we were supposed to be meeting. Worse still, we couldn't remember Krazy Thom's last name in order to find his parents in the phone book. Franz's parents also live in Ann Arbor, and Jen knows his last name, but it was an awfully common name in the Ann Arbor.

Dark black asphalt repair forming scribbles on US 23 south of Toledo.

Ominous antennas off in the distance on US-23 south of Toledo.

Jen called back to Charlottesville, hoping Catherine DeGood, Deya, or somebody in the know would have helpful information, but alas, no one was home anywhere. So we decided to give up on making contacts and explore Ann Arbor instead.

First, though, I checked my email in one of the Internet workstations in the Ann Arbor public library. Figuring out the complexion of my connectivity in this town was high on my list of priorities.


e hit the streets of Ann Arbor, exploring most of the business district on foot. As we walked along, I compulsively put up musings promotional flyers on any available surface. In the end, I must have posted at least 40. I got to the point where I could put them up almost reflexively. Like every skill, flyering improves with practice.

We hoped to run across Franz and Elizabeth somewhere on the streets, probably hanging out sipping beer or coffee in one of the obviously "cool" establishments in the "cool" district. Of course, not being from Ann Arbor, neither Jen nor I had any idea which places were cool and which places were designed for dorks and frat boys. Sometimes just looking at a place and its clientele is not enough. For example, to the uninitiated walking the streets of Charlottesville's Corner district, Espresso Corner might initially look "cool" since this coffee house is in a nice central location, it has big comfy couches, the management allows smoking indoors, and on some days it even hosts a respectable crowd of pierced alterna-folk. But anyone in the know will tell you that Espresso Corner is where the dorks and other studious people hang out, and that the only reason to go in there is to make use of their rest room facilities or to escape extreme weather conditions.

As we encountered them, Jen and I kept discussing which streets and businesses were cool and which were not. The rule of thumb we used was that if a place looked to be kind of run down and unsanitary, it was probably pretty cool, but if it was tidy and new, it was either for Frat boys or dorks. But the one coffee shop we saw that looked like it might be really cool was filled with people with heads bent low over notebooks, on a Friday night no less!

This is not to say that the population of Ann Arbor appeared to be "uncool" by any means. Indeed, at least superficially, this appeared to be anything but the case. Almost everyone of a certain age on the streets either looked or smelled like a rebel against the dominant paradigm. There were hippies, a scattering of glam-punks, lots of wallet chain boys, rasta-dudes both black and white, hip hoppin' gangstas, and a large vareity of weirdos impossible to categorize (the highest compliment of all!). I kept looking for the inevitable Frat boys, and was surprised and delighted to see none at all. I found myself liking Ann Arbor right away, though it's embarrassing to admit that such positive feelings came out of such superficial appearances.

    At this point I would like to point out, however, that the human brain is an extremely powerful computational device and loser-radar. The prejudices I glean from superficial appearances only rarely undergo dramatic revisions with deeper familiarity. Much as the politically correct crowd would have us believe that stereotypes serve no useful function, they're really only there to help. Evolution and God did not let us down when we were given the capacity to prejudge. Of course, this is not to excuse lynching, slavery, eugenics, the Holocaust, or any other manifestations of irrational brutishness.
Without much else to compare it to, we found ourselves likening certain streets and sections of Ann Arbor to familiar parts of Charlottesville. There was a large section, full of young adults and postered surfaces, that seemed to resemble The Corner, while another part was sort of a Downtown Mall district, complete with scads of children and open-air bars but without the closed-down street. One section, dominated by a huge Borders bookstore, seemed a bit like a hybrid between Barracks Road Shopping Centre and the Corner.

But unlike Charlottesville, all of Ann Arbor was covered with a film of grunge. Black circles of ancient bubble gum were everywhere, and the sidewalks were deep brown in many places. A good number of storefronts seemed to cry out for paint and/or scrubbing.

When we thought we were in the section of town most like the Corner, we asked a friendly Afro-American collegiate dude what section of town we were in. He paused and thought for a moment and replied with "Central Campus." What a dorky name for a part of town! We figured that this guy must have been a dork himself and was wrong wrong wrong (he certainly looked dorky with his khaki shorts).

Since it was Friday Night, the first Friday of July, we figured there might be art openings somewhere. We picked up a copy of the local free newspaper (the analogue of Charlottesville's C-ville Weekly) and flipped through it to look for art events. Disappointingly, nothing much seemed to be happening in the Ann Arbor art world. Perhaps this town celebrates the arts on some other day, second Thurdays of the month for example.

We did finally find a Gallery that claimed to be "open" if not "opening." There was no food or drink, but there was lots of seemingly Caribbean-influenced art, a characteristic highlighted by the annoying Reggæ music blaring from speakers disguised as paintings on the wall. We chatted with three people there, all of whom were very friendly and excited for us when we said we were going to be in the Ann Arbor Fourth of July Parade tomorrow.



y this point, Jen and I were famished. So we decided to go find some cheap greasy spoon to replenish our depleted calorie reserves. After much to and fro on the streets, we found an especially greasy establishment called Fleetwood that was apparently made out of an old aluminum trailer. The people in the front patio area looked to be a curious hybrid of hippies and grungers, the kind who probably listen to lots of Janes Addiction. Those kinds of people are the good ones to know in a town, so we went inside, sat down at a table, and ordered sandwiches and fries. The $1.50 basket of fries was a solid pile of golden perfection, though I was puzzled by my Reuben, which contained cole slaw instead of sauerkraut. But such a strangeness was no big deal, believe me; I inhaled that thing in record time.

After we'd satisfied our single-minded food obsession, we had a chance to absorb some of the ambiance of the place. I was moved by the cozy atmosphere, though it wasn't for the squeamish. There were plenty of flies and grease, and at least one of the customers would not have looked out of place in a freak show. She was middle-aged, fairly plump and had terrible posture, but the most disturbing thing about her was her toe nails. They looked like inch-long pieces of split wood that had been shoved into the tops of her toes at weird angles. There was no way she could wear regular shoes with nails like those. But to have them exposed for all the world to gaze upon seemed inadvisable to me, especially in a dining environment. Despite her gnarly nails, however, the woman was joined at her table by an average-looking middle aged man who chatted amiably with her about various topics, mostly intellectual in nature. The two were obviously regulars and interacted like family with the hippie waitress, as did the black man at the bar and various young adults out front nursing their multi-hour cups of coffee.

One of the customers out front was a tall white guy with dreadlocks, sharp features and a wallet chain. Other than being a freak, he was impossible to categorize. He had free run of the place, coming and going through various doors several times during our short dinner. Everything about him (except his height) reminded me of my old buddy Curtis back in Oberlin, so to Jen I referred to him as "Curtis."

At a certain point the waitress became concerned that some of the people hanging out in the patio were actually covertly drinking beer. She sent "Curtis" to investigate, but when he sort of wussed out on her, she snuck up and discreetly sniffed their open containers while they weren't looking. Surprisingly enough, the stuff wasn't beer.

Back at the Ann Arbor Public Library, Wacky Jen made a series of successful phone calls and tracked down Krazy Thom. Armed with directions, she and I drove to a nearby lower-middle income residential area and made contact with our people ("our peeps") at a house on Woodlawn Street.


razy Thom was surrounded by a small cluster of local Ann Arbor friends including Dawn and Stephanie, two young University of Michigan graduates who would be putting us all up during our stay at some other apartment closer to Downtown. Thom was very happy to see us, though he was upset to learn that Catherine DeGood had wimped out. He muttered disappointed sentiments about Catherine every now and then for the rest of the evening.

Around the back of the Woodlawn house was a construction site littered with odd pieces of wood. In the middle of it all, a parade float was being constructed. It was a fabulous "church of cards," complete with rotating turrets and "stained glass" windows. The walls were made of tar paper that had been spraypainted to resemble large two by three foot cards. It was joyously whimsical and aggressively do-it-yourself. Nothing was cute or pretty, except perhaps if taken as a whole.

As the adults worked and painted, a little boy named Josh did his best to help out, nailing random pieces of boards together into useless constellations. I was amazed when I later learned that Josh was only four years old; he looked and acted considerably older.

Thom, Dawn, and Stephanie led the way in a car convoy back to the girls' apartment. They live above an Indian restaurant in a beautiful old white three-story buiding on Division Street.

Up in the apartment, we all chatted about various things. Thom was full of himself (as he usually is when I see him). But unlike in the case of some people, Thom being full of himself is always a good thing; it's a delightful and entertaining spectacle. His mind is always churning, spitting out random ideas and following bizarre fantasy tangents, constructing whole alternative universes and then abandoning them to talk about something completely different. When he can't think of anything else to say, he breaks into song (often accompanied by dance), making up ludicrous rhyming lyrics as he goes along. His behaviour most of the time could be characterized as manic, in a way that reminds me of how I used to get back in Oberlin when I would drink huge pots of heavily-caffeinated tea.

Most of what Thom talked about during this particular conversation was his skin problems. He suffers, you see, from allergies that have a preference for attacking his skin (as opposed to his lungs). He's hyper-sensitive to lots of materials, and whenever he's exposed to the wrong stuff (particularly dust mites, sulphites and cigarette smoke), he breaks out in eczema. Today his rashes (mostly on his wrists and ankles) looked like mild poison ivy irritation, though he says he's been much worse. Last winter his face swelled up unrecognizably and oozed copious amounts of fluid. Assaulted by such frequent outbreaks, his body is left exposed to invasion by secondary infections, staph particularly, and when that gets going, he has to resort to antibiotics. The only bad thing about the antibiotics is the fact that he's finding himself growing allergic to them as well.

Thom claims that he didn't used to have any of this problems when he was younger. He says things started getting bad for him after he spent a few years living a gutterpunkesque lifestyle, going from town to town, working crazy unhealthful jobs and practicing poor hygiene. Evidently his immune system became so aggressive under these conditions that it's been a difficult beast to rein in during "peace time."

Stephanie and Dawn brought out a mattress so Jen and I could take a nap, something we desperately needed. I'd had about 45 minutes of sleep in the preceding 36 hours and needed to pay off some of that deficit.

I slept incredibly soundly, and when Thom and the girls eventually returned, I woke from amazingly vivid dreams (which I've subsequently forgotten).


e all headed out on the town to benefit from whatever this Friday Night could offer. We ended up at a dance club called The Heidelberg, where DJs spun various mixes that included a lot of that Reggæ-Hip-Hop hybrid stuff (the only kind of Reggæl I can tolerate). Most of the customers were black, especially on the dance floor, but when we showed up, the complexion of the floor lightened considerably. Everyone but me got out there and shook what they had. As expected, Thom and Jen danced far more vigorously and whimsically than everyone else. But I will say that both Dawn and Stephanie were proving far more whimsical and random than I'd expected them to be. I was the only one among them being boring and in-control. I was handicapped by sobriety and couldn't get myself into the mood.

Jen had, however, smuggled my vodka into the bar, and she went off to the bathroom at one point to discreetly fill a plastic cup with vodka for us to share. But by the time I considered getting up to dance, the cigarette smoke was causing problems on Thom's neck, and we had to escape.

We walked through light drizzle over to a nearby art gallery where various punk/noise bands had just been performing. We showed up a bit too late to hear any live music, but we sat down in the audience area and watched the musicians pack up their equipment. Suddenly Thom decided to perform. He jumped up behind the mike (which wasn't amplified) and began to make up various whimsical songs, some sung in various foreign accents. One of his songs went something like this:

When you're walking down the street, I run up behind you
And I surprise you!
When you're sleeping in your bed I jump in with you
And I surprise you!
When you're sitting on the toilet I come up from below
And I surprise you!

It was hysterical the way he delivered this bit of randomness, and he had those in our contingent laughing hysterically. The girls and I tried to be equally random behind the mike, but we couldn't really muster that certain Thom something.

In stark contrast to the humour we were seeing in everything, the members of the band packing their equipment interacted with us in ways that only spoke of their being dull and serious. One guy, for example, told us to leave his microphone alone. I can't remember what all they said to us, but it stood out dramatically from the whimsy that had surrounded me all day. Times like these highlight the diversity of the human personality and dramatize the need to surround oneself with like minds. But though we mocked them later, we cheerfully disregarded their dreariness as they presented it, inviting them to come watch us in the parade tomorrow.


ack at Stephanie and Dawn's house, we were joined by the third housemate, a tiny quasi-hippie chick named Lisa. About the only thing she talked about tonight was her various medical problems and resulting lack of energy. She seemed to be whining all the time, and it would have been easy for me to dismiss her as an irritating little girl overwhelmed by the big cruel world, definitely a common type. But, as I was to learn later, she is much more interesting and entertaining than this initial impression allowed me to expect.

Before we all went off to sleep, Krazy Thom sat up for a long time entertaining us with a long randomly-rhyming song sung in an Irish accent, interrupted here and there with little pieces of flute playing.


terms used by Krazy Thom and friends

extremely gross, (as in "a bubonic fart"), or (occasionally) extreme in other ways.
a variation on gnarly.
to be grossed out by something that is gnarly. For example, Thom knows the woman with the gnarly toe nails whom I saw in the Fleetwood; he said that her finger nails are just as bad as her toe nails. One day he was at a meeting and found himself sitting next to her in some kind of hippie-crunchy circle. Everyone in the circle was supposed to give the person to his left a backrub, and when Thom realized that those nails were soon going to be massaging his back, he was, as he said, "gnarled out."
remarkably gross, or (occasionally) excitingly unconventional. Said Thom about me, "One thing I like about you, Gus, is that you're gnarly, but you're smart too.

one year ago
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