ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS #4: Autumn in America by Joe O’Brien

Smells like burning wood, my wife notes as we roll through Gettysburg in our little gray Honda Fit, a third of the way between Brooklyn and Louisville. Not sure if it’s the homey aroma of autumn hearth-blazes, or maybe a burgeoning forest fire.

Gettysburg Cannon, photo by JPO'B

Gettysburg Cannon, photo by JPO’B

Seven score and ten years ago, Union soldiers blasted back the Confederate tide here in Gettysburg, thundering cannonballs upon the Rebels who charged up the steep, knotty-grass slope of Cemetery Hill. History says this was our Civil War’s deadliest battle, and a crucial episode in our country’s eventual reunification.

Back in the present, Republicans in our House of Representatives have been charging up their own steep, knotty-grass hill, flailing against a bulwark known as the Affordable Health Care Act. They’ve chosen to shut down government operations because Senate Democrats would neither delay nor de-fund this citizen-supported, Congressionally-passed, Supreme Court-approved legislation. It’s all that the newspeople in this country can talk about lately. CNN’s got two clocks ticking in the bottom right corner of its screen: One counts up the length of the shutdown not just to the hour and minute but to the very second; the other clock counts down the days left before this shutdown would cause the country to default on our debt.

Most of the states that’ve been voting for these Republican politics are the same states that elected to secede from the Union a century and a half ago rather than promote the abolition of slavery. Back then, though, the Republicans were Lincoln’s party. Today’s Civil War is also fought, for the most part, over how to deal with a vast class of impoverished and exploited people. Although today those people have skins of all shades, and while they aren’t slaves, in many ways they’re not unlike indentured servants.Today the war at home is brutal, but the violence is less physical than psychological. The artillery isn’t made of iron or steel, it’s made of information and disinformation, both of which can travel at lightspeed and bury themselves deeper than any bullet ever could.

We can’t visit the Soldiers’ National Cemetery today because, as part of the National Park Service, and therefore an agency of the government, its gates are currently locked. Instead we visit the independently operated Gettysburg Museum of History (as seen on TV’s American Pickers). We view relics from the borough’s historic battle– rifles, uniforms, bones from amputated limbs– as well as pieces of Hitler’s furniture, one of Marilyn Monroe’s bras, and the gun Elvis shot at his television.

Later we wander the battlefield among a dozen other tourists and snap pictures into our phones. One woman uses her phone to yap about some office business that apparently can’t wait until she’s somewhere else. Yet the atmosphere’s so heavy with holy hush, and the view atop the hill’s so idyllic, not even a cellphone yapper can puncture the mood. Tough as it is to picture this lovely patch of nature littered with 50,000 soldier corpses, it’s easy– nay, unavoidable– to feel its magnet-like gravity buzzing my marrow.

I’m tempted to say the place feels haunted, though officially, I’m agnostic about ghosts. My hunch is, if ghosts exist then they’re everywhere, floating around gas station mini-marts and suburban strip-malls, not merely spooking sites of terrible tragedies. Gettysburg, however, seems utterly convinced that it’s extra-haunted. Of all the American towns I’ve seen, perhaps only New Orleans seems more convinced of its own extra-hauntedness than Gettysburg does. Or, Gettysburg simply knows that a lot of out-of-towners with disposable income are convinced of Gettysburg’s extra-hauntedness. Or, those out-of-towners are simply willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of few spine-tingles sprinkled into a history lesson. Whatever the reasons, there’s so many different “Ghost Tours” advertised around here I quickly lose count.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, photo by Ashley O'Brien

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, photo by Ashley O’Brien

Halfway between Brooklyn and Louisville lies Weston, West Virginia, home of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (as seen on TV’s Ghost Hunters). When we arrive at the hospital, opened in 1864, its austere Gothic architecture is under-lit against the full-dark sky. Giddy anticipation and Lovecraftian dread tango around my guts.

Outside the old tuberculosis ward, a guy with yellow eyes and blood-splattered clothes warns us: Don’t even think of taking pictures… If you take your cameras out, the kids will smack them out of your hands.

There really are kids inside. Kids so young they shouldn’t be up this late on a Wednesday in October. Some of them leap out of dark smoky corners, growl like feral drifters, and stalk us like we’re prey. Some wail in agony, trapped in abysses of trauma. Some sing nursery rhymes like they’ve just been lobotomized– a cliché, maybe, but still creepy as hell.

Then come the clowns on stilts. Their breath’s soaked in grape bubblegum. Feels like we’ve crossed the threshold into waking nightmare. We scream, and then we laugh.

Thirty minutes later we shuffle through the exit, utterly exhausted and yet blessed by a marvelous catharsis. All that’s left for us to do tonight is to drive a few miles over to the Holiday Inn and get a room.

Except we soon discover there’s no vacancy at the Holiday Inn.

Same with the Super 8 and the Days Inn across the street. And the Sleep Inn, and the Best Western up the road.

We have to drive another 15 miles before we find an available room at a Red Roof Inn. Their last remaining available room.

On a Wednesday night? In the middle of West Virginia?

I hate to sound like one of those myopic New Yorkers, but what the hell’s going on here?

The next day we drive through the town of Philippi, site of the Civil War’s first organized land battle. We’re hoping to see the so-called “Mummies Of The Insane,” the cadavers of two former asylum patients currently on display in the bathroom of the Barbour County Historical Museum. But when we get there, it turns out the museum’s only open on weekends, if volunteers are available.

We stroll along Main Street, but not much is open there either. Half the storefront windows display nothing but empty space; more than a few houses are boarded up. Which reminds me: it’s still awfully hard to make a living and find a home in this country these days. And suddenly, last night’s hotel room scarcity makes a little more sense.

As we zip along rural roads flanked by cornfields and crumbling barns, flipping around the FM airwaves, sometimes we’ll stumble upon a station playing muddy bluegrass ditties, or old-timey radio dramas about crooked prospectors. Alas, such stations tend to disintegrate into static before very long, and our options are soon reduced back to plain old Country, Christian, Classic Rock, or Top 40.

We keep hearing a song I’d never heard before this trip, a fairly recent track called “Redneck Crazy” by Tyler Farr. It catches my ear not because of any inspired melodies, witty wordplay, or unique arrangements, but because it seems to provide the ideal theme song for this shutdown we keep hearing about. The song’s sung by a guy who’s angry and sad because he’s just learned his woman’s been cheating on him. Now, under normal circumstances, I’d sympathize with such a person. However, in the case of “Redneck Crazy” I’m inclined to believe, by the end of the first chorus, that the narrator’s actually a stinky, gaping butthole who deserved to be cuckolded:

Gonna drive like hell through your neighborhood

Park this Silverado on your front lawn

Crank up a little Hank,

Sit on the hood and drink

I’m about to get my pissed off on

Gonna aim my headlights into your bedroom windows

Throw empty beer cans at both of your shadows

I didn’t come here to start a fight,

but I’m up for anything tonight

You know you broke the wrong heart baby

and drove me redneck crazy

First of all: Leave Hank out of this, dude. Hank sang some sad songs, but I never heard him sound this petulant or clueless. Tyler Farr sings “Redneck Crazy” as if acting like an immature stalker is a noble pursuit rather than creepy, criminal behavior. Where songs like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” or Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” radiate a palpable darkness that seems to acknowledge their narrators’ demons, “Redneck Crazy” seems content to wallow in the pale-brown muck of self-righteous self-pity.

I’ll admit to chuckling later in the song when Farr sings of his romantic rival, “Nah he can’t amount to much/ by the look of that little truck.” In a way, that lyric captures how heartbreak and jealousy can bring out our catty sides. Although I’m pretty sure Farr’s protagonist is only mocking the other guy here, not himself.

The sore-loser attitude, the cognitive dissonance, the insecure pseudo-machismo, the misguided ridicule, the misappropriation of good ol’ boy Americana– that’s why the song reminds me so much of the Ted Cruzes and John Boehners I keep seeing every morning when I click on the news. The American People are like Tyler Farr’s ex, falling into the arms of the saner, more moderate brand of Democratic politics. And instead of taking the loss like a man, doing some serious soul-searching, pondering how they might improve themselves and win back our hearts (or at the very least, our respect), Republicans can’t think of anything better to do than sulk and throw empty beer cans at us from the hoods of their pickups.

Of course, the day after we get back to Brooklyn, the shutdown’s over. The Republicans caved, ostensibly due to their plummeting approval ratings, and they have little to show for their tantrum.

We fought the good fight, John Boehner says, but we did not win.

And yet, they’re going to keep fighting The Affordable Health Care Act anyway. The truce is only temporary. They may shut down again in a few measly months if they’re not happy. Somehow, this crushing defeat was not their Appomattox Court House. It might not even be their Battle of Atlanta. It’s still Autumn in America, and the cozy, menacing scent of burning wood still hangs in the air. And from now on, my wife and I will book our hotel rooms as far in advance as possible.

Joe O'Brien

Joe O’Brien

Joseph P. O’Brien’s short fiction has appeared in Matchbook, The Alarmist, and The Rusty Nail. He blogs about storytelling at Popular Fiction (, and he’s the editor of FLAPPERHOUSE (, which will launch its first issue in March 2014. He lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife Ashley and their adorable dog Sprocket.

ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS #3: The Fast One, The Still One, and The Runner by Talia Gibas

The Fast One

She runs behind and slightly to his left, watching the quick, short puffs of his breath in the crisp winter air. He runs like water flows over rocks, elbows tucked against his body, feet hitting the asphalt in a smooth, soothing beat. She understands the mechanics of running downhill – lean forward, fall into it, take short steps, and let gravity do the rest – but rarely embraces them. She lacks his grace, his impossible beauty. But she wants to keep up with him, mechanics be damned. She tilts forward and feels her speed increase, her feet stumbling to catch her. She wonders how fast she is going. She is exhilarated.

Talia Gibas

Talia Gibas

Together they duck under the park gates and bound through the grass median on Vermont Avenue. When they burst onto the sidewalk at Los Feliz Boulevard he turns left and she follows, startling unsteady packs of revelers weaving their way home. “Happy New Year!” she calls. They respond by clutching one another’s shoulders and heaving boozy, heartfelt good wishes into the air. A giggly young couple whoops and sways under a streetlight. “Fuck yeah!” someone shouts from a car, while a near-middle-aged woman hangs out the backseat window with a noisemaker at her lips, delivering an absurd trumpet solo to the neighborhood.

Bleary-eyed bar employees sweep confetti from their path as they dart on and off the sidewalk. She plucks a party hat from an open windowsill and slides it over her beanie. He doesn’t notice until he slows to a trot on her street. “Look at you,” he says, and snaps a photo. “Green eyes.” Her face, already flushed from exertion, warms further.

Inside her apartment they exchange damp running clothes for old sweatshirts. He stretches across her couch to kiss her. “Are you happy?” he asks.

“Yes,” she murmurs. “Very.”

“Happy New Year,” he says. “The world didn’t end.”

“Nope,” she responds with a grin. “Not yet, anyway.”

They met in the fall. He was standing in a gaggle of people doling out stories and jokes but left them abruptly to stride toward her. “Green eyes,” he noted by way of hello. On December 30 he asked her to describe her ideal New Year’s Eve. “I want to be running,” she said. “I don’t want to be schmoozing with a bunch of people I barely know. I want to be in Griffith, on my favorite road, so if the world ends at midnight I am doing something that brings me joy.”

He tilted his head to the side. “That sounds fun.”

“You think so?”

“I do. Too bad the park’s closed.”

“Yeah. And too bad I didn’t think of this earlier, so I could berate friends into going with me.”

“You don’t think they would?”

“They have plans.”

“True.” He paused. “Too bad.”

Two hours later her phone rang. “T, what’s up?” he said in his bright, sing-song way. “My party fell through and I have this neat idea for New Year’s…”

He arrives at her apartment at 10:30 and they start running at 11. She has a tiny flashlight zipped in her pocket; he jokes about mace. They practically tip-toe past the stately mansions outside the park, as if running at night were a crime. Once they hop around the gate at the park entrance they ease into quicker strides, slowing every now and then again to take in the view, or to whisper to one another how fucking cool it is to be doing this. When they are well past the Greek Theater she switches on her flashlight and is startled by the eyes of coyotes staring out at her. Two dart across her path, but the rest watch and blink.

Outside the Observatory they crouch behind restrooms, dismayed by the security guard driving in circles near the entrance. “Champagne,” she whispers. “If we give him some champagne he’ll let us stay.”

“Champagne from a water bottle?”

“Worth a shot.” She takes three steps and the guard switches on his high beams. “Shit!” She darts back and they take off, giddy and giggling. Ten minutes later they stand at a break in the brush a quarter-mile downhill from the Observatory and look down at the city. “What time is it?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t bring a watch. Did you?”

“No. Shit.”

“We could ask the security guard.”

“Maybe we – “ She stops. Something is rumbling against the bottom of her feet.

A half-second of panic splits through her body; her first instinct is that it’s an earthquake. Then a silver light flashes above downtown and she realizes, holy shit, it’s the city, it’s the millions and millions of people below starting to bellow and hug and cheer in the near-freezing air, their voices crashing into car horns and drums, fireworks, pots and pans, clashing together into a roaaaaaaar that jumbles and stumbles and rises and grows and grows, gathering speed, sweeping over the beaches, across the west and south and east edges of Los Angeles and over downtown, rising higher and higher with each scream and shout until it washes over them sending coyotes scattering to the hills and she realizes this is it, she is in love with him, this is what it is to be finally, completely sure, to know that he is the one for her, that together they are invincible and therefore meant to be.

As the roar recedes he turns to start back down the hill she launches after him, gasping and stumbling and gleeful in the darkness.

Months and months later, on the cusp of June, she sits across from him at a table in Thai Town and stares at a half-eaten egg roll. The pain in her left calf is unrelenting and her mouth is dry. She’d never noticed how his impatience radiated from his skin, how he couldn’t stop looking at his cell phone, how he called the waitresses “sweetheart.”

“Just tell me,” she stammers. “Tell me why you did it. Why you pursued me. You knew me, you knew how I felt about you. You knew that if I knew you were with someone else I would never – I would never have…”

He folds his arms across his body and stares at her. “I was attracted to you.”

It’s got a real clear view of things.

They exchange stiff farewells in the parking lot and she turns alone onto Hollywood to walk home. When she steps onto a crosswalk the strain in her calf brings tears to her eyes. Nice, she thinks bitterly. And you thought yourself a runner. The headlights of his car come up behind her and she tries to adjust her gait, determined not to limp as he passes. A sullen man on a bike approaches on the sidewalk.

I was attracted to you. As if explaining why he’d ordered chicken instead of beef.

She steps to the side to make room and vomits onto a fence post. An unsteady figure hoots from outside a liquor store. “Shit, baby, shiiiit!” he calls. “That’s no way to start your summer.”

It is a long time before she is able to cross the street, the Observatory winking above her.

 * * * *

The Still One

They sit on a bench on a mild summer night and she notes to herself that she never thought she’d fall for someone so quiet. In the short time she has known him she has been struck by the care with which he chooses his words, as if each were a precious marble he examines against his palm before sending it out in the world. In more playful and inspired moments he would take aim and send one hurtling her way, knocking her into a giggle fit or making her skin hum with the timbre of sunset. Tonight’s, however, are made of more fragile glass. He offers each politely, one by one, and she holds them to her chest, determined to keep any from falling and rolling away. They are nearing the end of August, and he will be leaving soon.

They wandered here side by side, walking along Franklin Avenue and up and down side streets to the top of Barnsdall Park, where they shared stories of a city oddly lovely from above. Finally they settled on this bench on a quiet street. They have been trying to determine why, exactly, they met when they did, at an inconvenient moment when they could do little more than pass through each other’s lives. It is getting late. She tucks her knees against her chest and he puts his head in his hands. She tries not to cry.

“What do you think some wise soul would tell us to do,” she says, “if they knew about this situation?”

“I don’t know,” he replies, his voice low. He pauses. “Actually. I do know. They would ask us, ‘Are you in love?’ Because if we are, then none of the rest matters.”

The word “love” lands like a hysterical toddler sprawled on the floor of her lungs. I don’t know! it wails. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know! I don’t know because I don’t know how to know, and maybe I never will, but now I want to know you, and this knowing thing may be bullshit or it may be true, but let me sit here in this stillness and this not knowing with you.

Neither of them moves. The question bobs politely in the air for a moment before giving up and floating away – toward the Observatory, perhaps, where a less inconvenienced pair might make use of it.

A few days later, as a ripe, uncomfortable humidity descends on the city, she sits to write what she does know. This, she thinks, can be a parting gift, an homage to vague ideals like Transparency and Gratitude. The first draft is an inkblot of false starts, scribbles, and do-overs. The second is hastily copied onto fresh paper in a coffee shop. When she pauses to stretch out her fingers, a well-coiffed barista looks over her shoulder. “Hand-written,” he says approvingly. “Old school. I like that. Safe. You can’t google that shit.”

She is encouraged but when she squashes the envelope in her back pocket a fragment of bone and muscle trembles against her bottom rib. In deciding to write she had underestimated how difficult it would be to know that tangible evidence of her feelings existed in the world. It was one thing to express these things in person. It was another to write them down, and quite another to hand them over, relinquishing the power to rewrite, edit, or destroy.

She knows their goodbye will be stunted and chaotic, but as she stands before him, reaching into her pocket, she is startled by a craaack! in her side. He takes the envelope from her hand and she realizes with horror that he is taking a small chunk of flesh and bone with it.

“Thank you,” he says, apology, exhaustion, and hesitation curling the edges of his voice. “I have to… I gotta go.”

She feels the ground fall away. Oh god, what I wrote… It will bleed all over your hands…! Helplessly she watches as he drops it into the plastic bag he is holding, far outside of her reach. She tries to calm herself as she speeds home, clenching/unclenching/reclenching her steering wheel. Maybe in the bustle of uprooting his life he will forget about it. Maybe, as August mellows to fall, it will sit in that plastic bag, bleeding away. Maybe he will find it months or years from now, mixed in with his belongings, and sputter “Fuck!” in dismay when he realizes it has spilled all over his favorite shirt, as she does when she opens luggage to find a shampoo bottle has exploded inside.

Maybe she will never know.

Maybe knowing is overrated.

Maybe quiet stillness between two confused people is more akin to love than the feverish clamor of those who feel certain.


On the first day of September she jogs through the muggy twilight of Griffith Park, wincing at the pain in her legs. A car passes and the driver, a woman, glowers disapprovingly. It’s getting dark. You shouldn’t be running out here at night.

Her breath ragged, she shifts to a walk, giving each leg a brief shake in a futile attempt to dislodge cement from her muscles. She stares down at the city. The salt of her sweat is beginning to crust along her arms. The bottom of her right foot feels tender and her hip is cramping. She remembers a day before injury, when running was exhilarating. She ran carefree only to spiral into gloom when some inevitable, idiotic adventure would leave her sidelined with a fracture or pulled Achilles. She isn’t afraid of pain. Sometimes she relishes it. Whatever this is, however, is a little more complicated.

She looks around. She needs to determine her route home. Ahead of her the road slopes up and to the right. She is about a half mile from the Observatory, maybe less. She could sprint the hill toward it, collapse in a patch of grass at the top. Or she could turn and run back down the way she came.

The mechanics of running uphill are strangely similar to the mechanics of running down: lean forward, fall into it, take short steps, and let gravity do the rest. A key difference, of course, is the level of discomfort. Downhill is full of abandon and glee. Uphill requires patience to pace properly, acceptance of vulnerability, and faith that the body will recover at the top.

Below her Los Angeles shuffles and snorts. She looks up toward the Observatory and begins to run again.

imageTalia Gibas is known to her artsy friends as “that crazy triathlete” and to her triathlete friends as “that Shakespeare girl.” She manages arts education programs at the LA County Arts Commission and is Associate Editor of Createquity. She ponders, volunteers, nerds, and merrily verbs words in Los Angeles. She would like to put on a play. 

ECHOES FROM OTHER HOBOS, #2: Working Through Dignity by Meara Levezow

When people ask what my first job was, I take a deep breath, because my answer is usually a few sentences long.


Meara Levezow - Comedian and Career Waitress.

Meara Levezow – Comedian and not quite a Career Waitress.

“Well…ok, so have you ever seen those big plastic drinking-glass racks they use in restaurants? Yeah, I worked in a factory where I assembled those…and did a whole bunch of other factory-work stuff, but those glass racks were the main thing. Hmm…what was the place called?”


“Well…the factory was called the Rehabilitation Center of Sheboygan, or RCS, but it’s…hmm? What’s Sheboygan? Uh, it’s a city, Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, where I’m from. The factory’s considered a rehabilitation center because it’s a…different…kind of factory. It’s actually a not-for-profit organization, whose slogan is Dignity Through Work, because the majority of the workforce are DD or CMI.”


“DD/CMI stands for developmentally disabled or chronically mentally ill. Those workers are called the clients, but they also employed people they called model workers. That’s what I was. They needed to have some people who didn’t have any physical or psychological afflictions to sort of, I guess, model the jobs being done…or drive forklifts or be supervisors or whatever.”

My dad was the sales rep for the factory, so all my cousins and I spent a summer or two working there. Wisconsin is – or was – a manufacturing state, so when I was in high school, it wasn’t unusual for the local kids to do factory work at some time or another. The RCS is a small operation with two locations: The North Plant and The Main Plant.

The Main Plant looks a lot more like what someone might imagine when they hear the words “rehabilitation center”. There were quiet, brightly-lit classrooms where clients would have occupational therapy, and a big lunchroom/auditorium where the clients would gather for different events. My high school swing choir did performances there during Christmas, and the clients put on an annual Christmas pageant and spring musical. The manufacturing area was one big room where people did simple piecework on a series of long tables and benches, such as putting a certain number of screws and fasteners into little plastic bags. This was where the people with more severe disabilities worked. A lot of the staff used wheelchairs and had limited speech or motor functioning. I have a distinct memory of a guy with an enormous skull and small, pointy chin – he had something like Sotos Syndrome. But I was only assigned to work at the Main Plant once or twice. Mostly, I worked uptown at the North Plant.

The North Plant was a big gray building with high ceilings and cement floors dotted with eye-wash stations and safety signs. You entered the building right onto the factory floor and were immediately met with the sounds of machines, buzzers, chatter, the sounds of “the oldies” blasting through the PA, and the permanent smell of acetone and sweat.

I always get transported back to those summers when I smell acetone. You’re probably familiar with the smell. It’s the main ingredient in nail polish remover. The piece of machinery that used acetone – I still have no idea what it did – was run by a guy who my cousin and I called Thumbs-Up Andy. I don’t know what Andy’s particular affliction was, but he was a big, friendly guy who used to punctuate most sentences with a thumbs-up sign. He used to come over to us right after the lunchtime buzzer sounded to inquire about our plans for lunch.

“HELLO, MEARA LEVEZOW,” he would ask with a big smile and the ever-present thumbs-up. “HELLO, EMILY LEVEZOW. ARE YOU GOING TO BOB LEVEZOW’S HOUSE FOR LUNCH TODAY?” Other times it would be, ”ARE YOU GOING TO CHARCOAL INN FOR LUNCH TODAY, MEARA LEVEZOW?” He was one of the sweetest and most well liked clients, so I was surprised when my dad told me that he had once attacked someone on the floor.

In general, there really wasn’t any of the freaking out or acting crazy that I suppose might be expected from the people I worked with. Most of the clients at the North Plant were high functioning, many of them had Down Syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities. Many lived in the same assisted living facility and came to work on the same bus. A lot of them smoked. Everyday, I’d see my dad sharing cigarettes and offering lights to clients before and after work, in the parking lot. They would tease each other about how bad smoking was for their health.

Looking back, I realize that a lot of us without physical or mental disabilities who worked there were also social misfits, too.

Sheboygan has a large refugee population of Hmong people who came over after the Vietnam War. Many had come to work at RCS, where English was not a requirement. Their kids would work during summer break, too. A kid in my show choir, Kham, was nearly electrocuted one summer, burning serial numbers into a glass rack two stations down from me.

One guy had been in a devastating motorcycle accident and had impaired movement and speech, but always wore his leather and maintained general badassness.

And there was the old-timer named Sandy, a slim, slight woman in her fifties with wispy blond hair who never learned to read or write. She’d been a mink farmer for most of her life, but after her husband died, some animal rights activists snuck onto her property and released the minks into the wild. After she lost her livelihood, she was able to start over at RCS. The minks were all dead a few days after their release.

But what had the greatest impact on me was the fact that there was a small contingent of openly gay folks – in Wisconsin, in the Nineties – working at the factory. Sheboygan certainly isn’t in the Bible Belt, but being gay back then was still something that needed to be kept to oneself. But at RCS, my dad’s closest buddies there were “the girls”, a group of lesbians who worked as floor supervisors. He and my mother used to go out dancing with them every couple of months and have them over to the house for Christmas parties. My parents are politically conservative in the way most of Midwestern America is, but those memories of my parents and “the girls” always made me feel a little less misfit-like, later, when as I was discovering I was a lesbian, myself.

When the motley crew of RCS employees came together on North 24th street, we were all just workers among workers. The day there started at eight and ended at three-thirty. When you arrived, you would clock in using a big, old-fashioned punch machine. On the top were three smiley faces. One was smiling for “GOOD”, one frowning for “BAD”, and one had a straight line for a mouth that was supposed to signify “OK”.  Beneath them the card read, “How was your day today?” You were supposed to circle which one fit. But I never did.

The factory was extremely hot during the summer months. Sheboygan is right along Lake Michigan, where it’s hot and humid in July and August. There was a certain temperature it had to reach in the factory for the management to be required to turn on the air conditioner, otherwise we’d just have to sweat it out. There was constant grumbling from the model workers. But the clients were, on the whole, not big complainers.

The day was divided by two fifteen-minute breaks and one half-hour lunch break. Many days, for lunch, my dad would drive me and Emily to our house a few miles away. I remember that feeling of taking off my boots and lying down on the couch in our den. The two of us would face each other on the couch with our legs stretched out and just sit there silently for about five minutes, before heating up Hot Pockets, or making peanut butter sandwiches. That was The Tired, a special type of fatigue that’s caused by a mixture of physical labor and the mental exhaustion of doing the same thing over and over. But it was a good tired. Work tired. I think people who’ve never had to work on their feet all day are missing out by never experiencing how indescribably good it feels to take off your boots – or nurse shoes or waitress clogs – and wiggle your toes. It’s really something.

I have to admit, I sort of get off on the idea of being some sort of blue-collar hero. Of course I’m not. I went to an expensive liberal arts college and have been financially supported in some form or another even up to this day. But it does feel good to feel smug about some facts of working in only get-yer-hands-dirty jobs. And things haven’t changed much. I’m currently getting closer and closer to warranting the title of Career Waitress. I still chuckle at the idea of having things like vacation time or sick days or health insurance or, even more hilarious, corporate credit cards. When I was complaining to my mother the other day about my chronic lower back pain, she just exhaled her mouthful of Marlboro smoke and said, “Well, at least you came by it honestly.”

Blue-collar work doesn’t stop for anybody. You don’t get personal days. On September 11th, 2001, my dad came over to the table where I was assembling toilet fixtures and told me that there was some sort of terrible plane crash in New York and that one of the World Trade Center Towers had been hit. Nobody really understood what was going on at that point or how severe it was, so we just went on working. A few minutes later, he came back and said it was actually some kind of attack and the second tower had been hit. I tried to remember which buildings made up the World Trade Center. I’d visited New York the previous summer but still didn’t know the city the way I do now. I remember my dad telling me that the management wouldn’t turn on the radio because they didn’t want to upset the clients, which of course very well may have been true, but I also think they really just didn’t want us to be thinking about anything that would slow us down.

226085_10152054748275507_1534970482_nAt the time, I was furious. But now that I’ve been working at similar types of jobs for so long, I’m used to not being able to get out of work for anything other than severe, SEVERE, injury or illness. I was on a shift with a waitress who had full-blown flu to the point where she couldn’t speak. She took orders by pointing, nodding, and engaging in food-specific pantomime. Which is why I now don’t think its odd that my work day was not going to be interrupted by something as insignificant as the most devastating attack ever having taken place on American soil. I can’t help but feel proud to be an American on that count. Sore legs, tired feet, and dirty fingernails, we keep pressing on. Punching in, punching out.

Meara Levezow is a comedian, writer, actress and famous waitress living in New York City. She is from Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, a fine American city.

The Pipeliner’s Dilemma by Luis Galindo (Echoes From Other Hobos, #1)

Luis Galindo

Luis Galindo

He stopped the truck and threw it into park on a dirt road just after The Universe punched him in the face. It was as though someone who was sitting next to him had reared back and struck him across the jaw line, so clear and startling was the revelation.

He’d been working on the pipeline for several months now – an outfit called King Pipeline. His younger brother had got him the job, even managed to secure him a place on his crew in those first months. They worked together in the chemical plants and refineries of Pasadena and Channelview. It was good to work with his brother. He enjoyed it very much. But his brother had recently been sent to head up a new job in New Orleans, leaving him alone to work with men he did not know on a cattle ranch on the outskirts of nowhere while living in a cheap motel room in Goliad, Texas.

He’d started on the pipeline in the early Summer of that same year, a month after graduating from a university on the East Coast with an Master of Fine Arts in fakery and disguise. He’d vowed that he’d never take another job where he’d have to shower after work – just a few years before, sitting in his apartment in New York City with his friends, proposing a toast, “Here’s to grad school boys and to never having to lift shit for a living again.” But since then he’d done much lifting, continued lifting and had been lifting heavy objects until just a few moments before The Cosmos had tried to give him a knock out blow in the cab of the work truck which he now drove.

He’d just completed a ten-hour workday on the Polinski Cattle Ranch where he and the pipe gang were laying half a mile of thirty-two inch pipe, which was to be pulled underneath the Colorado River then used to transport natural gas to its final destination. Where that destination was he didn’t know or care.

As he sat in the cab of the work truck alone, a mile away from the main gate of the ranch he began seeing things in a different light and thinking things with a different means of process. The truck, the sky. The whole world seemed very familiar yet strangely different, more wondrous than it ever had, before this moment. And in a voice as clear as his own he heard the words, You could be happy doing this for the rest of your life. Maybe.

The sun was setting and it streaked the South Texas sky with swaths of purple, pink, orange and blue the likes of which he’d never seen before in his life. Cattle grazed lazily on that vast stretch of land. Pecan and Mesquite trees dotted the ranch as far as one could see to the south. Small flocks of birds winged through the twilight. Though the truck’s engine was off the radio still played low, but clear. It was a country music station and the song was pure honky-tonk heartbreak. Steel guitars cried and a man’s voice pleaded. The song, as far as he could tell, was about loss and moving on. Hands on the wheel. The enormous silence underneath absolutely everything – the light, his breath, the tightness of the muscles in his back and his legs all the way down to his steel-toe boots. All of the world, there, in that perfect moment. Precise. He was there.

Maybe I could do this forever? Maybe this is all I need? Maybe working hard, making money and living in motels until the right woman came along would be alright? I could pay off my student loan, buy a new truck, buy a house and be an eligible bachelor with something to offer. Hell, I might even quit drinking and doing drugs. Then he thought through the whole list again.

Could he give up trying to be an artist? Could he really work this way for the next thirty years? Would this be enough to sustain his spirit, his comfort level, while his loftier ambitions were put on hold? Could he pretend those ambitions were not there? Could he continue pouring vodka and pills on his problems? Would the fire that burned inside him be extinguished long enough for him to build an escape route to this life?

He thought of the long days of work. The sun or the cold beating him down one millimeter at a time. He would be beaten a little smaller every day. He thought of the intolerance of some, not all, of the workers on the crew, the bosses, the bosses’ bosses until it became one long chain of ignorance and fear. A chain of hate forged in the cold fires of the inability to reach out, to try and understand another human being. How many more “fuckin’ wetbacks” could he hear before exacting revenge?

He thought of the woman he might meet. Would he meet one that really loved him? One that read Thomas, Cummings and Shakespeare? One that would tolerate his penchant for carousing until the small hours? One that would stay?

Thought after thought, possibility after possibility. Scenarios from what he thought a normal happy life might look like flooded his head. Scenes with women, first dates, bank managers, car dealers, dentists, in-laws, doctors, children, little league games, all of these things filled his mind at once like some dry and desolate water tank with a rusty and reluctant valve which now broke open and flooded the parched and dry receptacle of his mind with hope and wonder. He looked at his reflection in the side-view mirror. He saw the face of a man he thought he knew staring back at him. A man only slightly familiar, like some distant cousin met only once or twice in childhood.

The sun had almost disappeared and the brilliant colors from a few moments ago were almost gone like ribbons being taken down after a birthday party. Deep indigo and lighter blues remained, hanging there in space like towels on a clothesline. He turned the key in the ignition. The engine started right away, a low loping murmur. He put his right foot on the brake, shifted into drive, released the brake and slowly made his way down the dirt road towards the ranch gate and its lock.

He arrived at the gate, put the truck in park and killed it. He got out, unlocked the gate and swung it open away from the highway which was just a few yards in front of him. He got back in the truck, started it, drove to through to the edge of the highway, got out and went back to shut the gate.

Before he returned to the truck he stopped and looked left on the highway then looked right. There was no traffic, no wind, nothing save the lights of the radio towers that dotted the horizon and what few stars had begun to shine. Time was swollen, pregnant with what The Universe had just revealed to him. Was it The Universe, or him? His own fear, intolerance and inability to reach out and understand another human being, namely himself?

He stood there in that dense stillness. Maybe this life isn’t so bad after all? Maybe I don’t need to be an artist? It could be this simple all the time. The distrust of these ideas made his shoulders tense. He drew a deep breath and sighed it out.

He needed a drink. He walked back to the truck, reached under the seat and pulled out a plastic pint bottle of vodka wrapped in an oil cloth and stored in a plastic bag. He unwrapped it and looked to see how much was left. A little less than half. Just enough to get him to the liquor store and refuel and to make the music on the radio sound better. It would also serve to help him forget the decision that was put to him, if just for the rest of the night.

He unscrewed the top and took a long hard pull. The jet-fuel vapors in the nose and the sweet burn down the throat were all too familiar to him now. He’d been drinking and drugging hard for a year now. It felt exactly right and completely wrong at the same time, like playing himself at chess and pretending not to know what his next move would be. He screwed the cap back on and shoved the bottle, rag and bag under the seat again. He got in the truck, put it in drive and headed west on the highway towards Goliad in the quiet night. The vodka had loosened his nerves like a hot bath and he turned up the radio.

The Universe had revealed itself, punched him in the face. The only question left was would he punch back and how hard? He pressed the gas a little harder and watched the needle on the speedometer rise. Night was now completely upon him and he wondered what he would do.

© 2014

The Scottish King in LA

The Scottish King in LA

Luis Galindo is an actor and writer. He is an ensemble member of Independent Shakespeare Company in Los Angeles, currently playing the title role in Macbeth, and the role of Jaques in As You Like It, in their summer festival in Griffith Park. In the Fall, he’ll serve as a guest artist/lecturer at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Pipeliner’s Dilemma is part of his upcoming book, Electric Rats in a Neon Gutter – Poems, Songs and Stories from the Cities of America – due out in early 2014 via Jamberoo Press. Luis is from Texas.