Ohio lays flat in places. Just west of Columbus it has a skyline the size of the Pacific Ocean, blanketed with fields of soybeans, corn, and wheat. There are a few larger towns in western Ohio, most notably Dayton and, of course, Toledo. The rest of the wide, smooth land is mottled with small towns. These towns are glorified as small town heartland America. They have large brick courthouses at their centers, several ice cream shops, and hardware stores that have every widget known to man, complete with kindly old gents who know the names of every kid in town. A homegrown sense of Americana sprouts in western Ohio like the farms that once helped feed the steelworkers in Youngstown and Cleveland and the academics and policy-makers in Columbus. There among the one-traffic-light towns there is a sense of nostalgia that for most of them, has only existed in a vacant dream-state, one that is hazy and filled with apathy and a strangulated sense of loyalty of something, like diminishing smoke, that has only vaguely existed. Most of the residents no longer feel. The belief in the American Dream that was long ago crushed by the greed of capitalism still stands proud every Memorial Day and Fourth of July, but a cursory weekend drive through any of these towns reveals the deflated dream of Middle America, from the empty store fronts to the lack of children playing baseball, football, or kick-the-can. When I arrived in the tiny burg of Catawba at the age of fourteen, my cynicism about romantic fantasies like the American Dream had already been ripened by my experiences of broken homes and the reality of attending over eight schools by the age of fourteen; I had an ingrained mistrust of platitudes.
We moved to Catawba in the summer of 1982. I had discovered Adam Ant, the Clash, and the Ramones during my eighth grade year, before we moved to Catawba. New wave was the only thing that MTV was showing, aside from Quarterflash, and it had just started on cable in Athens, Ohio. Catawba did not have cable television, and some of the kids hadn’t even heard of MTV, let alone Adam Ant, Elvis Costello, or the Clash. I was pegged, and rightfully so, as a nerd of the highest degree. A wave of nausea washed over me as we drove through the Ohio hinterlands, a sick feeling that would not leave my stomach for the next four years.
I missed the colors of the hills of southeastern Ohio as well as the excitement of the college town, where a stroll through the streets that sunk down below the uptown shops and the greenery of the campus exposed the passerby to music playing on lawns where college students played Frisbee in shorts, laughed, and drank beer. I went to late-night movies as a middle-school student in Athens: Rock and Roll High School, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and An American Werewolf in London. My older sister Erica, a high school senior who was dating a “townie” who was a freshman at Ohio University, took me to many of these. Being exposed to this atmosphere provided me with experiences that I soon discovered that my classmates at my new high school did not have. In the truest sense, among the fields and the slow everyday movement in Catawba, it was easy to imagine that the both land and the people who lived in this rural community had grown fallow and dormant, perhaps proudly so. My first day of school, I heard the hushed tones of my fellow school bus riders as they eyed me as if I were foreigner.
“Wow, look at that new kid. He’s so small.”
“Bela?! What the hell kind of name is that?”
“Are you even American?”
“Isn’t that a girl’s name? Are you sure you’re not a girl?”.
I felt isolated even before I arrived at school. The dread I felt was so thick that I could have balled it up and stuck it in my pocket.
Living parts of my childhood years near a college campus gave me opportunities that most of my classmates at tiny Springfield Northeastern High School never had. I was used to seeing a cross section of different cultural backgrounds. My mother was friends with many Nigerian students, and we had many students in my grade school who were the sons and daughters of foreign exchange students. At Northeastern, I was shocked to learn that there were no African-American students. It wasn’t until later, when I met Jenny Mae’s mother, that I learned that there had not been an African-American student at the high school for over twenty years. On my first day of school, I felt as if I would never fit in. The school was rampant with racism, although there were no African-American kids in the school, one could hear the word nigger throughout the day, on kid of Mexican descent was referred to as a “sand nigger”, I wanted to shout at some of the kids who said these things that the slang word for Mexican’s was “spick” but I didn’t thought they would miss my point and take me seriously. It wasn’t just the students who espoused racist attitudes on several occasions I heard both our principle (Donald Smith-thankfully retired) and football coach (Mr.Wasserman) tell racist jokes to our wrestling team and biology classes respectfully. I felt as if I were in a time warp. Growing up, we were taught under any circumstance to never use the word nigger or any other type of derogatory slang. Whenever my brother and I would use the word redneck, my mother would remind us that our grandparents were from Appalachia, we would roll our eyes at her political correctness but we took the slandering of other races to heart.
I have a photograph of myself, circa 1976, standing in the backyard of our new house in Newport News, Virginia. It was our second house in Newport News, and in reality it wasn’t a house. It was a new sort of condo that is now prevalent, with a “brick” façade hiding the particle board innards, as if this apparition of strength could hide the fragile, cheap-as-hell construction of the building. We had moved from another part of Newport News because of concerns about the urban grade school I was attending, where I didn’t have a single friend. The condo community we moved into was filled with the families of Navy personnel and working class families. I had a small room that I shared with my brother, my sister had a room just next to ours, and the bathroom connected to the hallway to the master bedroom. The yard was roughly ten feet by ten feet, big enough to catch a lizard in and that was about it.
In the photograph, I am wearing a red and white Washington Redskins t-shirt, although I was already a Steelers fan like my big brother. Perhaps I was trying to find my own identity as an eight year old, or perhaps others were trying to find it for me. The photo is faded like so many photos from the seventies; instantly dated, as if the picture was taken behind marbled glass. It gives the impression that the whole world was slightly askew and blurred. When looking at photographs from the nineteen thirties and forties, it feels as if the poverty that gripped the thin, weathered faces of those who managed to survive the Great Depression was more severe in black and white—as if the world had never been in color. Blurred and fuzzy, I stood in the backyard in that picture from the seventies, knowing that even if this was yet another new house, new school, and new friends; I would forever be tethered to the feelings of isolation that I felt at that moment.
In the spring of 2004, I had received a message from Jenny. She was back in Columbus, at least temporarily, and she was drunk, incoherent, and lost, as if the map to her inner soul had been doused in gasoline and burned. Over the phone, her voice sounded as if it were being wired through the ages from a time that had long since passed. It was broken, brittle, and frayed. If her message had been a photograph, it would have been faded, black and white, with eyes staring towards the lens with all of the effort of a dustbowl victim. Jenny sounded small, huddled into herself; the message spoke of desolation and the crazed chaos of alcoholism, mental illness, and the misfortune of loneliness that is only magnified by alcohol. “I don’t know what to do. I’m borrowing some girl’s phone. She must think I’m nuts. What can I do without him? I need help.” Click.
I had no idea what time Jenny had called and I sure where she was. I had been rebuilding myself for a few years at this point, living back in Columbus, working at Used Kids, and plunging headlong into various kinds of volunteer work to help other drinkers. I was ill prepared to offer solace to Jenny. With furrowed brow, I took to the stairs of Used Kids, passing the timeline of flyers that line the walls of the stairwell, a cornucopia of brazen and hectic nights of my life. Pavement, New Bomb Turks, Thinking Fellers Union, Love Battery, All-Male Mowdown, All-Girl Hoedown, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Great Plains, Scrawl—a virtual testament to my twenties that marked my trajectory from young, feisty indie-punk to cynical record-store drunk to grizzled befuddled optimist, the walls captured and dismissed me at the same time.
I headed to Bernie’s, where Jenny had struck up several romances since returning to town. I assumed that she had borrowed a phone from some future barfly there who had not yet dipped her life into the inkwell of wretchedness that years of bar sitting can bring, but Bernie’s in the daytime was a good as any place to start. Poking my head into the bar, the bartender glanced at me and said, “She left about three hours ago, and she was a mess, yelling at Nate about some craziness. She is off her fucking rocker. I told her not to come back for a while. She is scaring some of the customers.”
I glanced at a bearded man with bits of egg in his beard and four inches of stretched belly hanging out over a belt that longed to be put to sleep. His t-shirt was blanched and threadbare, with dollops of pizza stains and pocketed with small stretchy holes that barely contained his daily-beer-drinker’s girth. He raised one eyebrow, hoisted a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy, and slowly nodded his head in agreement. I gazed at another man sitting two seats down, decked in a faded leather jacket with a chain wallet dangling against his bar stool as if he were tethered to it like a dog. He looked up from his tallboy and said, “Bela, that chick is nuts.” In the background, Homer Simpson mirrored this same scene at Moe’s Tavern.
Crossing High Street, I entered the OSU Music Building and climbed the stairs to the top floor, where the university kept the practice pianos. I crept quietly and listened. I heard the vague plinking of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” Opening the door, I found Jenny, hair matted, filthy and clinging to her skull and shoulders, and a thin dress drenched in sweat sticking to her arms and back as if it wallpapered onto her. She was braless, with the contours of her breasts exposed revealing not sexiness but total sadness. She gazed up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, with a bottle of vodka stashed between her legs and the overwhelming odor of sweat, booze, and depression blanketing the air. “Oh Bela, what am I gonna do?” She turned and tried to play “Lady Madonna”, but only made it through the first several lines before switching course and attempting “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Gurgling, she croaked, “That was his favorite. He loved Paul McCartney. I would play that over and over.” Of this, I had no doubt, as she once told me that they had spent $275 playing David Bowie’s “Major Tom” over and over in a hotel while on a two-day-long coke binge. The other half of the “they” was Jim Williams, her boyfriend who had passed away only a few months ago. “You know,” she slurred, “we saw Paul McCartney five times. We flew across the county to see him. Jim was like that, once he became obsessed with something he did it to death.”
My first thought, which I managed to keep in my mouth, was “like cocaine.”
Taking a pull off the warm vodka bottle, she said, almost to no one in particular, “You know, they threw out all my stuff when he died. His brother and that bitch sister-in-law, they went to the boat I lived on and dumped it all. Even my pink records.” The pink records were the Guided By Voices split she did, the one that had been reviewed in Spin magazine only seven years prior, where Charles Aaron called her “astonishing and one of the best bohemian song-writers alive.”
Frozen, I simply said, “I’m sorry.” Inside I was angry, upset that anybody would discard somebody’s possessions with such impudence. Although Jenny could be difficult, she didn’t deserve that. Peeking under the cover of madness takes skill, an unwavering sense of determination, and a smidgeon of courage, all of which I lacked at that time. My skin felt like science fiction, sweat dripping down my back. The room was an oven—don’t they have air conditioning here? “Jenny, why don’t you go somewhere and get some help?”
Plinking on the piano, she whispered, “You can’t help, you never wanted to help. You just want to tell me what to do. Leave me alone.” Not wanting to fight, I left, a hole inside of me shuddering as if another shovel of dirt had been lifted out and dumped onto the pile of unhappy memories that littered my life. I thought of that picture of me, taken so many years ago, feeling like an outsider at the age of seven, and I realized that there is nothing sadder than being an outsider in your own life.