Tough Crannies

American Goshic

There’s a style of  writing that I call “cheesecake writing.” I don’t mean that in the pin-up sense. I’m describing works that serve up tasty but ultimately pouffy and empty verbiage. It’s pretty, it tastes sweet, but it’s porous, mushy, and fits the shape of the pan you poured the mixture into. I can’t stand it. I find it suffocatingly precious and insincere. The goal is to sound like Truman Capote, but it inevitably turns into Erma Bombek at her squishiest.

It starts with someone standing on a porch, looking across the farm as the sun sets, large and orange. The person squints, their face is lined and craggy, they wear unpressed flannel shirts and have rough calloused hands stained with the red clay of the land. Their land, and their father’s land, and his father’s land before them. Vintage automobiles roar by on the nearby road, cherry red, blasting Buddy Holly. wait, maybe they’re not vintage cars. Nah, they’re army vehicles. Yeah, jeeps coughing black smoke and growling like green tigers, carrying the boys to boot camp, or… something else?

Some large wooden or metal object stands nearby, weatherbeaten, painted, stained, and nicked with a thousand cuts from the labor of honest working men and women, or perhaps studded with a hundred staples. It bears a flier with the virginal face of the prom queen. She’s been missing five days since she first descended into the mines with a pick-axe, canary, and a satchel of dreams. Someone stands vigil with a candle nearby, while an elderly woman scoops up and plops mac and cheese onto steel trays, aside a steamy piece of apple goddamn pie. Incidentally, there’s a hound dog fingering a well-worn Bible, and he smokes a pipe and hasn’t worked for two years. He wants to work. But the hound dog jobs went away one day, and he fears a chihuahua has taken his place at the hound dog plant, which sits silent and grey.

“I guess things will never be the same again,” said the craggy guy from paragraph one. He spits out a brown loogie of chewing tobacco on the stove, where it hisses like angry jumping beans. “But then, I guess they never were.”

I could do this all day.

It might seem confusing or even contradictory for a writer to decry descriptive writing. I’m not doing that. What I can’t stand is reality massaged into a predictable narrative I’ve been reading for years now. See, this reporter walks into a bar, right? Though it might be a barber or beauty shop. And he interviews the saltiest of the salt of the earth types he can find (who are willing to speak with him), looking for pull quotes and amusing little digressions and side conversations he can mold into his cheesecake. Let me stress that: stories that read like this (to my mind) sound like the story didn’t develop organically; the facts were merely inserted into a template that forced the events into a narrative. The journalist tells the story they want to tell, not the story as it happened.

Louisville! The Possibility City! Part 5

Mike and I didn’t spend our entire time eating pork and green beans in Louisville. Being both history geeks and Lincoln buffs, we spent a morning and early afternoon in and around the town of Hodgenville. We first heard about Hodgenville back in February (I think) through the film Being Lincoln: Men with Hats, a documentary about Lincoln presenters and their annual convention. That was what prompted us to head down to Kentucky for spring break. Even if you’re not a Lincoln buff, and even if you do nothing else but visit Hodgenville, it’s a nice little trip. Absolutely beautiful country. You can see why Thomas (Abe’s dad) or anyone would have wanted to put down stakes there. True, the attrition rate was horrendous, but at least while settlers were starving/freezing to death or choking on their own tubercular blood, they had some pretty country to look at.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site is the official starting place of Honest Abe’s story. Abe was, as the story goes, born in a long-gone, single-room log cabin at the site. The only object in the park that has any connection with Lincoln (though in extremely modified form) is Sinking Spring, the source of the family’s water supply. Signs advise against tossing coins into the spring pool or, should you take the time to climb the gate and reach out for a handful, to drink from the spring. Sounds like a good idea.

And look! Just beyond the trees you can see the Beaux-Arts temple Thomas Lincoln constructed out of logs with his own two hands, an axe, and a 1900s work crew.

The former Lincoln farm (which didn’t provide very good soil for farming and which the Lincolns had to leave a few years after due to litigation), was later bought up by such personages as William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain, and later Robert Collier, publisher of Collier’s Weekly in order to preserve Lincoln’s legacy. In 1909, the temple’s cornerstone was laid by President Teddy Roosevelt. Pres. Taft showed up a few years later for the dedication, and a few other presidents have stopped by over the decades to deliver speeches and suck up all that positive rail-splitting energy, man.

Inside the temple you’ll find a genuine phony log cabin that President A.L. wasn’t born in—at the time of our visit the temple was closed for repairs, but it doesn’t sound like we missed much. Amusingly, the site’s brochures seem embarrassed about the place’s gaudiness in the park’s otherwise pastoral surroundings. “Uh, people used to build this fancy memorial crap all the time back then,” the brochures mumble, “Sorry about that.” Mike made the observation that the famously humble Lincoln would have been aghast at the ostentatiousness of it all. Good thing he didn’t live to see his tomb.

Stop by the Nancy Lincoln Inn, right across from the temple, for a grand selection of Lincoln knickknacks and the voodoo doll John Wilkes Booth used in his first failed attempt on the president’s life.

Back in Hodgenville we visited the Lincoln Museum, which features one of my favorite roadside attractions: wax dioramas. Lincoln is shown debating Stephen Douglas, being sworn into office, delivering his Second Inaugural Address (if you haven’t read it, you simply must), and enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater.

“Pipe down, Short-Round, I’m talking.”

Also, death/life masks. During feeding time, the Abe Face eats a whole live rat.

Unfortunately, Nate chose to act uncharacteristically insane in the museum’s confining quarters, so we kind of whipped through. Naturally, we took time for the requisite cut-out photograph. It is a little-known fact that I am as fugly as Mary Todd Lincoln.

The town center has a distinguished bronze statue of Abe created by sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman. I think Lincoln is the president most often reproduced in statue-form. Some people can’t take a bad photo. I posit that Lincoln couldn’t take a bad statue. Man, he was one suave son of a bitch. Look at that statesmanlike bastard!

Overall, a great little road trip. And be sure to stop and have lunch at Abe’s Country Kitchen. They serve the classic plate lunch of meat and two sides. I went with the country-fried chicken with green beans (and pork) and fries, because who needs an unclogged heart anyway? Be sure to pick up a mug. I think these are our sixth and seventh Lincoln-themed mugs, allowing us to drink our coffee with malice toward none and with charity for all each morning.


The last time I made an entry to the old Mr. Neighbor blog was way back in 2006. We’ve done small things here and there, but nothing worthy of photos or commemoration (adding outlets and lamps, stuff like that). My father-in-law and I built a patio a year ago, but I just didn’t feel like posting about that, or the house in general because, well, I probably saw a lightning bug buzz by and chased after it, leaving to rot.

For those who came in late, about five years ago the wife and I purchased a 110-year-old Chicago workers cottage in the northwest side neighborhood of Mayfair. Mayfair is a fairly nondescript place; we never heard of it until the real estate agent took us there. We’re north of Old Irving Park, where all the fancy-pants homes are, including the Ropp-Grabill House, an Italianate-style structure that existed before the Chicago Fire and, likely, the Civil War. I like to joke that the servants of the folks who owned all those Victorians, Georgians, and greystones probably lived in our house. Not so, but it was kept in a single family for many years before we bought it. At one point, nine people lived here, and it wasn’t until the 40s that they converted the attic into a second floor.

Truthfully, the house was never in that bad of shape, and the owners didn’t go nuts with aluminum siding or similar crimes of taste. They did, however, LOVE to paint and wallpaper—too much so. We’ve had to scrape and melt through an eighth of an inch of both to get down to the original wood in the front room and dining room. Currently we have a team stripping our woodwork and hardware and, as needed milling and replacing the original baseboards. Yes, I’d love to keep it all original, but some of the wood is damaged, and the plaster around the bottom perimeter of the walls and the ceiling in the front room is giving up the ghost. The work they’ve done so far is phenomenal; however, it’s a slow process. They promise to be finished by this Friday. I will believe it when I see it.

Anyway, three years ago, when we were rehabbing the bathroom, we discovered some rather nifty wallpaper beneath the cheap plastic tiles and the not-so-nifty 80s paper. I’m sorry to report that we couldn’t preserve a sample of the crane paper, so I’m happy I took pictures.

A few days ago we had the same experience in the kitchen. The contractor’s men already discovered that the woodwork in the kitchen is maple, which will look unbelievably gorgeous when it’s stripped and stained. Out of curiosity, Mike decided to start stripping the peculiar wallpaper currently in the kitchen (I don’t know if I like the old-fashioned coffee grinder or the fish weather vane more), discovering beneath the kitsch some of the cutest, brightest, most cheerful fruit-themed paper we could have asked for. Too bad we can’t save it. Sigh.

The Skinny, Floppy-Haired Scammer with Fingers in Many Pies


In my unspectacular life, I have encountered a number of men resembling John Linnell of They Might Be Giants who either (1) attempted to wheedle money out of me, (2) continually outlined their grand plans for fame and fortune for me, and/or (3) made it clear that my taste in everything was shit. I doubt Mr. Linnell himself is this way—when I met him he was a bit stiff, actually, though acceptably polite—but his twentysomething self’s mop-like hair and excessive ectomorphism is the best illustration I can provide for what these guys look like.

The first one I met was X, way back in college. X showed up in my last year at school, and at first our paths infrequently intersected. However, since he was the only other guy on the floor who listened to a few of my favorite bands and he’d seen Withnail… and I, we inevitably shared a few discussions about music and cult movies. The trouble began when X stopped talking about what we liked and more about why what I liked sucked. The usual zeta male territorial pissings. I grudgingly took it in stride, letting him blather before wandering off. Unless I’m conflating him with someone else, X was one of those jackasses who chucklingly tell you to smell his finger after he’d returned from a date. A real man of the world, you know, with girl-scented fingers. Having enough p-rock dipshits on hand at the time, I avoided him. Still, he was occasionally pleasant to me. Mostly when he wanted something.

Eventually, it came time for me to graduate (I never bothered leaving the dorms because it was cheaper than an apartment, and I didn’t feel like spending even more to share a place with six guys with whom I had nothing in common. To confess, my college friends were perfunctory. I didn’t hang with anyone who didn’t live on my floor. I went home on the weekends to work maintenance at a mall store. Surprise surprise, I mostly kept to myself because while many of my floormates were perfectly nice, they weren’t that interesting. I didn’t care about partying, and I spent most of my evenings reading at the library, attending the film club’s movie nights (never joined), or listening to classical LPs at the music building. I wasn’t antisocial, just… socially retarded. Ah, that’s another essay.

Back to X, I’d bought a parking sticker at the beginning of the winter semester (I was on the 4 1/2-year plan), and I let it be known that I’d sell it at half price for the remainder of the school year to whoever was interested. X was interested, and he paid me 12 bucks so he could park his Pacer, or whatever floppy-haired douchebags drove back then. I gave my mini-fridge to a fellow I actually liked. I graduated. That was that. I thought.

Two months into the new year, I received parking violation notices at my parents’ house from my alma mater. See, the sticker–which dangled from X’s rear-view mirror—identified his shitmobile as mine. It wasn’t the same as getting a ticket from the city of Chicago, but still, that was my name and reputation he was messing with, I seethingly thought.

So, here’s where you see a little bit of the old me. There’s no violence or grue, sorry. I was just a little off.

After I paid the tickets, I drove out to my old college.

That night.

For four hours, one way.

I was highly strung back then, and socially retarded. Sorry, I was. Give me a better adjective and I’ll use it.

I brought along a friend, who affected a biker punk persona, to give the appearance of muscle (why he indulged me, I’m not sure—no bands performing that night, I suppose. I might be remembering a previous visit when I robbed a couple of books from the school library. Yes, I did. But I returned them later.). In those pre-Columbine days (hell, pre-NIU shooting days), we strolled right into the dorm, up to the 9th floor, and knocked on his door. His roommate didn’t know me, but a few guys on the floor recognized me. I’d visited the month before, and, I’ll admit, that night I probably went from “cool grad” to “creepy guy” status rather quickly.

“Where’s X?” I asked his roomie.

“He’s not here,” I was told.

“Tell him I’ll be back,” I said. I’ve never been physically intimidating, but a lot of people in the old days figured I’d shoot up a McDonald’s. I never appreciated that sentiment, but I played it to the hilt, wearing all black, a long peacoat in summer, and generally acting like I was slightly nuts. The polo shirts and All-Stars only added to my Bundyesque mystique, I’m sure. Socially. Retarded. No wonder I was only ever hit on in college by drugged-out chicks.

My friend and I took a stroll and returned in a half hour. I knocked on his door. I was getting strange looks. X opened the door, his face a dictionary thumbnail illustration of surprise.

(Not verbatim, but close enough.)

“Dan? What are you doing here?” he asked.

“You owe me 40 bucks!” I shouted, too forcefully.

“What? Why…?”

I explained the situation.

“And you PAID it?”

For a moment I felt stupid. Then pathetic. Then psychotic. Then pissed off again, because I could see the smugness creeping across his bony face. Clearly, it was not only ridiculous that I’d paid the fine, it was ridiculous to pay any fine, or to expect him to answer for being a jerkoff.

“Look, it’s MY name you’re fucking with!” I said, poking his chest and yelling. “A ticket could affect my insurance… credit rating… the university could rescind my degree…. Just pay me the $40!” I doubt any of that would have happened.

“Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan… I don’t have it right now,” he said. “I just got back from Japan, and I’m broke.”

I wanted to kick his ass out the window. It’s a little-known fact that I’ve never left the country. I’ve seen Canada from across Lake Superior, but that’s it. 1980s Japan remains on my list of places/eras I’d most like to visit. It’s my own fault for never going anywhere. My parents instilled a pennypinching attitude in me, and I was chickenshit on top of it. Still, the floppy-haired ectomorph was able to visit 1980s Japan, in his teens. So, to HELL with him.

I was panting and shivering with anger then, and I think he could see it. Give uz the monnnney, Lebowski.

“Look, Dan,” he told me, laying a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Dan, I will SEND you the money. I just don’t HAVE it right now. Okay?”

“Forty bucks,” I said. “Or I’m coming back.” It was a hollow threat, insofar as promised violence was concerned, but he didn’t know that.

“All right… all right… What’s your address?”

I gave it to him, and my friend and I left without another word. I tried to visit a group of girls I knew and had attended to like the idiot puppy-dog I was with women back then, but they’d since moved. At least that’s what the girl who answered the door said. She eyeballed me and my friend as if we were rape hobbyists. Smart girl. We drove home, and that was the next to last time I ever visited my old Alma Mater. A few years later my girlfriend of the time and I were passing by, and I decided to show her where I matriculated. It was winter break, I think, and I remember standing on the stark, unpopulated main quad, feeling moronic and weepy. Another story, yes.

A week later X’s check arrived. It was for $20. He’d scrawled out a note, “Dan, Here’s half. More come soon! X.” That’s how he wrote it: “More come soon.”

“Well, at least there’s that,” I thought. I drove to an ATM and deposited the check.

A week later the bank informed me it bounced. He never sent me the rest. More not came soon.

I chose not to visit X again, but I’ve promised myself that if I ever run into him, I’m going to demand the 40 bucks, just to see if I can make him perspire blood.

Revenge is a dish best served with shredded crazy.

Learn to F*ckin’ Type

Lists of waiter/waitress complaints are one of those bits of Internet lore I barely tolerate. You’ve seen them, I’m sure: litanies rants, complaints, and bitchings by harried food servers about their occasionally dreadful jobs. I completely sympathize with the ones that recount tales of rude/drunk/sexist/arrogant/cheap/crazy customers. It’s bad enough to work in the food industry for minimum wage plus tips. Waitstaff don’t need to be any more belittled or abused than they already are. Having been a busboy and being related to several women who were waitresses gives me even more empathy for the profession. Really: I tip 20 percent even for adequate service.

What gets me are the stories about pranks, stunts, and bad behavior sandwiched in-between the genuine cries from the depths. I’m referring to the frontier justice exacted on customers for daring to ask for more coffee or the guy who sent back a dish because it’s cold. I mean the grotesque, health code-violating practices that some servers inflict on the just and unjust alike. When I hear these stories, I feel like the Establishment is onto something with that whole philosophy of, “Shut up and do your job.” Unless you’re being assaulted, there’s no justification for this behavior. If you <i>are</i> being assaulted, or the guests are simply acting out of hand, tell your boss and get them kicked out or switch to another table. Almost any human annoyance can be endured for 45 minutes.

As an aside, I’d really like to see the breakdown of who these folks are, and whether they’re career wait-staff or just doing it  as a temporary gig. You aren’t really being repressed if you’re in an office gig one year from now, drawing down twice what you’re making as a waitron. Of course by then you’ll be writing blog entries about how you’ve pilfered hundreds of bucks in office supplies in revenge for being asked to work late.

All that said, I’ve noticed how rarely these lists of horrors include good advice for customers to follow (beyond “If you don’t let me ignore you for 45 minutes while I grab a smoke, I’ll scratch dandruff into your salad amidst the parmesan,” of course).

For example:

How to be a good customer

18. Use your waiter’s name. When I say, “Hi, my name is JR, and I’ll be taking care of you,” it’s great when you say, “Hi, JR. How are you doing tonight?” Then, the next time you go in, ask for that waiter. He may not remember you, but if you requested him, he’s going to give you really special service. 
—JR, waiter at a fine-dining restaurant and author of the blog

19. Trust your waitress. Say something like “Hey, it’s our first time in. We want you to create an experience for us. Here’s our budget.” Your server will go crazy for you. 
— Charity Ohlund

See, that’s the way to do it. Oh, you’ll never reach the jerks, but as for the guy who usually tips 20 percent—even for adequate service—right now he’s thinking, “What a nice person. I no longer fear eating out because my waitress might be a sullen piece of crap, eager to infect my food with snot if I look cross-eyed at her.”


So, I took a day off today. Let’s see, I spent about an hour and a half driving Mike and Nate to her job/his daycare, picked up a mocha (because I’m feeling fancy-pants), and then back home. Got home, checked the Internet for a hour. Started to do some outdoor Halloween decorating for a bit, but it was raining so  much I didn’t feel comfortable making it too elaborate until tomorrow. Then I did the laundry (which I’ve been doing all day so far); put away the clean dishes, then scrubbed and put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher; fixed the door to Nate’s room (which wasn’t latching); realized I couldn’t take out the air conditioner window units because of the rain; picked up a cheeseburger at a nearby joint and ate it while watching a little bit of Corpse Bride; played a half hour of Rock Band 2; then looked up and saw that it was almost 2 p.m. At 2:30 I need to head back out to pick up Mike and attend Nate’s day care’s Halloween party. Which will be fun but… For Christ’s sake, where did my day off go? Poof.