After graduating from college, I went home for a few days, and then flew to Portland, Oregon. It was late May, and I was tasked with looking for a place to live – it was going to be me, Brian Schoeck, Scott Stein, and Charlie Levine in an apartment or house, and all I needed to do was find a place that was cheap enough. Brian was from Portland, and Charlie’s girlfriend was there, so I am not sure why it made sense for me to be the scout, but I ended up staying with Brian’s friend Brandon and driving around the city. I finally found a place near 28th and Powell – a basement and a first floor, suitably clean and cool in the boiling summer, and a few weeks later, I drove up through California and Oregon and moved in.
After sixteen years of structured education, I was completely lost; I had no idea how the world worked, how rent got paid, how food was prepared, what I should be doing. What did graduates do? Look for work? Where? How were these decisions made? How did people plot out their course in life? Temporarily, at least, work was more or less settled – I was to be working for Scott’s aunt, Bev Stein, who was running for governor. I interned for the first few months. The campaign manager, Jon, had this plan where four of us interns – me, Scott, Ernesto, and someone else I don’t remember – would travel around the state in pairs, going to county fairs, putting up a tent with tables and campaign literature, and spreading the good word. Because I knew Scott, we were teamed up. The county fairs in Oregon happen at different times over the summer, and a big reason is that fair organizers want to ensure that vendors sign up to set up their stands. I didn’t realize this, or even think about it, but there are a limited number of vendors who will go to a fair – there are not dozens of fried dough vans, for example, there are just a few, and because fair organizers know this, they coordinate their fairs so that the vendors can go from one to the next through the summer.
I just remembered that it was at the first fair that I picked up my first American cell phone – a black Motorola brick, with a tiny rubber nub antenna and a green screen. I think I paid $30 a month for 200 daytime minutes and unlimited evenings, and I was the first person in our apartment with a mobile phone. And at another fair, we met these two people who were selling something called Gorilla Glue – it had only been out a few years, and was a sensation. A sensation! Their stand was always mobbed, with people who needed things affixed. Looking back, it almost seems like a scene that Mark Twain might have written about the rural folk in Missouri in the 1800s.
Anyway, Scott and I got our itinerary, a tent, tables, and Bev Stein stickers, and we went up and down the Willamette valley. We would often stay with friends of Bev, or people sympathetic to the campaign, sleeping in spare rooms or on sofas, spending 24 hours a day together.
Of all of the people we met that summer, there is one vendor who I think about often – a middle-aged man, overweight, glasses on a round face, a brown beard and a dirty white tee-shirt and jeans under a red apron. He had two stands and two employees, and they rotated; one stand sold salsa makers, another stand sold cutting boards, and whoever wasn’t working one of them got a rest. One of his employees was his son, who was had some sort of mental problem; I don’t remember the other. The son may have been slow, but he was an extraordinary salesman. At the second county fair, during a weekday lull, I started talking to them, and the son bragged that he could expect to earn $120,000 each summer, he was that good. I was incredulous, but the father said it was true; once, in high school, the son had told his teacher that he made more than the teacher did, and the teacher scoffed, cursed, and called the son some very unkind names. The son made his money that summer, returned to school in the fall, took the cash to his class in a brown paper bag, and showed it to the teacher, at which point the father was called. In the principal’s office, the father had to hide his pride and amusement; yes, the money was his son’s; yes, he had earned it; yes, he shouldn’t have showed it off, but the teacher was a dick and, after all, wasn’t it true that the son made more? They were both proud of that story.
It was often lonely, being at the booth of a democrat in rural Oregon county fairs surrounded by conservatives. Often, the local 4-H girls would come around and try to flirt with us, but their parents were the ones we wanted to talk to, and they looked at the “D” on our signs and scoffed. So I kept talking to the salesmen. At some point, maybe at the third fair of the summer, in Linn County, where they grow so much grass seed, I saw a crowd at the cutting board booth; the father made his ask, and people sort of shuffled quietly, couples talking quietly to each other about whether they really needed cutting boards, whether this would solve their cutting board problems at home, whether they could be as good as the man claimed they were. Instinct drove me forward; I slipped out from behind our table, snuck around to the very back of the crowd, and shouted, “I want some!” I rushed forward, elbowing people out of the way, handed him $20, and took my cutting boards, then walked toward the exit of the fair, so that nobody saw that I was working just across the aisle. When I looked back, hands were thrust up at him, each holding $20, as he struggled to get cutting boards in white plastic shopping bags; he must have made $200 from that group.
When they were all safely out of sight, I went back and handed him the cutting boards, and he gave me my money back and laughed. “You may not have gotten this word in your college classes, but you’re a shill!” he said, slapping my back, and I knew that I had been accepted by the carnies. After that, I shilled whenever I could, and he gave us lots of his leftover chips and salsa, and when the fair was slow, we talked. He wife had walked out when his son was young, and he was a single dad; he had fallen into travelling sales, and was immensely proud that he was able to give his son an opportunity every year, an opportunity and a path that most kids – even ones with expensive college educations – didn’t have: to join in the family business and make money by hustling. He was proud of the money he made, and was always looking for new ways to make something else work. Looking back, as a father myself, I am filled with admiration and respect.
And I remember their pitches. The cutting boards were made of the same plastic that Saturn car bodies were made of, which doesn’t mean anything now, but back then was impressive; it meant they were tough, and made to last. Scratches on them could be “healed” by washing them with warm water, and the plastic didn’t retain smells. In every pitch, he said that people always asked if beets would stain them; he would douse a board in beet juice, then wipe it clean with a paper towel.
Once, he was at our tent, just talking, and we could hear his son telling a group that beets didn’t stain them. The father’s voice dropped, and he confirmed it, but then told me, confidentially, that “it is important to ask the right questions”; people only asked about beets, and they never asked about carrots, which stained the boards almost immediately. I thought about Hesse’s Siddhartha, when he leaves the Samanas and says that he may as well have spent his time drinking rice wine. How much had my parents spent for me to spend four years at Pitzer, and I was getting a critical and enduring life lesson talking about canned beets?
At the last fair we worked together, in Roseburg, county seat of Douglas County, on the last day, we shook hands. I now wonder if we hugged, but I doubt it – he was always filthy. Scott and I were going back up to Portland, and he was going down the coast to the Del Mar Fair in San Diego, and we knew we would never see each other again. I gave him my parents’ phone number, in case he needed anything – that’s how much I liked him. Then he handed me a set of cutting boards.
That was in 2001. It still doesn’t smell. It hasn’t been stained by beets, but I suspect that the carrots – and age – have turned it yellow. There were three in the set; I think I gave one to my sister, and one to my friend Alvaro in Barcelona. This one, though, is mine.
In 2012, I was hanging out a lot with Bridget Callahan and her sister, Carey. It was the early days of podcasting, and Carey, a standup commedian, decided to do a podcast with her friends called The Awkward Sex Show; the idea was that she would go to bars and perform a comedy show focused on conversations about sex, make her guests feel awkward, record it, and then release it to the world. In late November, I went to a recording of the show in a dark bar on the west side of Cleveland. The theme of the show was “holiday sex,” and her co-host for the evening was her friend, Krissie. I don’t remember most of the beginning of the show, but at some point, Carey casually asked Krissie if she had ever had sex with someone in her parents’ house over the holidays.
“Actually, I am going to bring my boyfriend, Alex, home to meet my family this Christmas,” and here she gestured to the mustachioed hipster sitting in the seat in front of me. He waved, bobbing his crossed legs.
The audience awwwwed appropriately, but Carey picked up on something that nobody else in the room had: the fact that Krissie had not answered the question.
“But have you ever had sex with someone at your parents’ house when you went home for the holidays?”
Realizing the game afoot, everyone leaned in by three degrees, as Alex’s legs crossed more tightly.
“Um…” Krissie said. “I am not quite sure how to answer that right now,” glancing out past the lights – I assumed at Alex.
Carey, with the casualness of a seasoned prosecutor facing an unfriendly witness: “It is a pretty easy question: have. You. Ever. Had. Sex. Withsomeoneatyourparents’housewhenyouwenthomefortheholidays?”
The tension mounted; nobody knew why she was so evasive and, dare I write, awkward about answering Carey.
There were protestations, and the audience was increasingly agitated, and suddenly a giant of a man – maybe 6’8″, with shoulders that looked like they were the product of years of logging, swayed to the stage. Most of us didn’t know who he was, but Krissie shrunk back in her chair; suddenly we were all worried about violence, as Alex’s leg kicked more and more awkwardly.
The man, a beer in his left hand, took Krissie’s mic with his right. Carey looked up at him, her jaw open, and Krissie covered her face with her hands.
“We dated,” he said to Carey, nodding at Krissie, and all of us, his voice booming from the speakers, “And she has. What do you want to know?”
A couple of weeks later, I was asked – as happened at the time – to go onto a local television station to talk about sandwiches on their morning program. After the taping, which was at 6 a.m., I was looking for somewhere to go for coffee and to just relax before work. I saw that Rising Star in Ohio City was open, so I went in. When I walked in, the man behind the counter stood up to his full height.
“Hey man,” he said. “What can I getcha?”
“You’re the guy!” I said stupidly. He looked at me. “The guy from the Awkward Sex Show!”
He grimaced, combing his hair with his fingers. “I was so drunk,” he said.
His name was John Johnson, and besides being Krissie’s ex, and a comedic genius, he knew coffee. Rising Star had been founded by a former NASA engineer, who decided to use his scientific training to make really good coffee; John had been hired as a roaster, and rapidly moved up, learning everything he could. His gift, though, was experience – not in having experience roasting coffee, but in being present for experiences, particularly sensory experiences. I don’t know if he had any formal certifications, but he was able, as nobody else I think I have ever encountered was able, to fully appreciate things he either ate or drank. Up until that point, I had always thought of Ben Franklin’s advice to end meals without any thought as to what your food was – it was particularly American, I thought, and practical, to think of food as sustenance, as useful. John taught me to focus on consumption not for what it could do for me, but for how it could make me feel, for pleasure; to notice, to pay attention to every bite. If there was ever anyone I have encountered who was close to enlightenment, it was John Johnson.
We stood there alone in the shop, and he made coffees from every bean type that they had. Rather than tell me what I should taste when I sipped something, he asked me what I tasted; when I said cherries, he asked if there was any vanilla, too. If I said no, he might say that was fine, or he might say that the description indicated that there was vanilla, but he also didn’t taste it. And that first day, I asked him about how to make better coffee. He told me that I should get an Aeropress, first; it made damn good coffee, and the main problem with it, in most barristas’ eyes, was that it was not expensive enough for the snobs. He also recommended that I grind my own beans – hand-grind them, with a ceramic burr grinder, which, he said, created pyramid-shaped grounds that were better for coffee. I took his advice, getting both. I have replaced the Aeropress twice, but I still use the Hario grinder daily, and now Daniel helps me grind coffee, and Nick watches us and smiles and slams his hands down on my arms, or on the sling in joy.
So that is why I have this coffee grinder.
During the fall semester of 2000, I took a senior seminar for my major, literature. It was a required course; Laura Harris was the professor, and we studied all sorts of interpretations of literature, then did projects, reinterpreting either texts or our world. For one project, Miles Nolte and I studied Walter Benjamin and phenomenology, then explained how Shephard Fairey, of Andre the Giant Has a Posse and Obey Giant, had re-interpreted (not misinterpreted) to give a more philosophical justification for his graffiti. (My final project was on fascist art and aesthetics and its impact on modern advertising; it was mostly an excuse to criticise Abercrombie and Fitch and J. Crew. The rest of the class was appalled; the only people who approved were Sonny, who did his project on baseball and masculinity, and Professor Harris, who gave me an A.)
That Christmas, I went back to San Diego. Kelly Mitchell’s band was playing in some bar in University Heights, and everyone was going, so I met up with Kassia and Ananda and Rosi and the whole crew and we listened to the show and drank beer legally, for the first time together. I was at the bar when the guy next to me bumped my shoulder – it was Mike Maxwell, who, in elementary school, once said, “Borrow me a quarter,” which I fould a hilarious switch of words then and still use to this day. After a few minutes of catching up, I noticed a tattoo on his forearm. “Is that Andre the Giant, from the Shephard Fairey campaign?”
He flexed his forearm at me. It was.
We spent the night listening to the bands and drinking. At some point, I said I would drive him home so he could get really drunk; after midnight, we stumbled out and he showed me how to get to his house. Actually, he said, he was living in a garage; Shephard, his boss, lived in the house. Mike was his personal assistant. Did I want to see the factory?
So we parked, and walked around the house to the back. Mike flipped all the lights on, and we were surrounded by printers and paper and everything I had read about with Miles.
I don’t remember much else other than walking back to my car with a pile of posters. Jarmilka was with us; she had some, too. Or maybe she took a few, but thought that I was the one Mike had given them to, so I should get the bulk of them? From Mike’s perspective, they were unsaleable – they had marks on them, or were test prints that were going to be changed for mass production, and what we had would have been destroyed. From my perspective, though, that was what made them glorious – we had pieces that were one-of-a-kind, touched by the master’s hand. They were still making the original Andre the Giant posters at the time, but mostly for their own use; he gave me one, printed on thinner paper for wheat pasting on a building.
I kept almost all of them, rolled up in a cardboard tube – sometimes I would put them up on walls, using blue tack, but I could never find the right frames for them, and I felt like they should be framed. Then, the paper started drying out, and every time I took them out of the tube, I was worried of cracking or tearing them. And most of the time, I forgot that I had them – they came out when Fairey did the Obama posters, and when he was sued, and I think of them when I see a kid here with an Obey shirt and I think about how they can’t imagine a dark San Diego street in December, maybe 55 degrees and clear skies, motion sensor lights in the front, and drunk 21-year-olds looking through piles of posters, picking out ones to go on a dorm room wall to impress girls. But then moving back into our house this last December, 2022, I found the tube, and thought about how we lived across the street from a framer that was founded in the 1800s; Alice suggested getting a couple framed for Christmas, so I did.
And that is why we have these.
I didn’t finish any books in January, but February saw the first three of my Year of Pulitzers.
- Olive Kitteridge. Extraordinary, and moving, and so wonderfully written – I got a copy for my mom, and she read it and loved it as well. I am sad that it took me so long to get to Strout.
- Cuba: An American History. Masterfully written, incredibly informative, and memorable in a way that few history books that cover 500 years can be. My mom asked what I learned, and the answer was that Cuba and America have an incredibly complex, often abusive, relationship, and that blaming Castro and Communism for the split is to ignore the fact that the two countries have been breaking up and getting back together again for centuries.
- Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. After finishing the second book, I vowed to read this one as soon as I could get the paper copy from storage. Then, my old friend Brian from high school sent me some Facebook messages – he mentioned that he has this on a perennial reading list, because someone he thinks highly of recommended it, but that Brian can never seem to get through it. I told him I was just starting it, and, in Brian’s honor, I focused on it after Strout and Ferrer. It is not as good as the first two LBJ books, in my opinion, but it does show the sausage aspects of legislation, and the fallibility of legislators, and the exceptional injustice of having the Russell Senate Office Building (SOB) named after a blatant racist who was so instrumental in resisting civil rights legislation and oppressing millions and generations of Americans.
But how proud I am, still, to be American, and to be able to pass that privilege and identity on to my sons.
I keep thinking of how fortunate I was to be born American, and to have lived there for so long. It was always an embarrassing cliche, growing up, when history teachers would say how miraculous the American form of government is, and how well it works compared to other countries; in high school, when I knew so much that I didn’t know anything, I thought that they must be ignorant East County stereotypes who had never even heard of Howard Zinn. Now, even after reading about the legislative miracle worker who was LBJ, and how difficult it was to get the American government to work, I look around the world at so many other countries and think: America is amazing. What a place. And in February, I was so happy to be able to get Nick his citizenship.
The process is a nightmare. It is officially called a “Consular Report of Birth Abroad.” If you are American, and can show that you lived in America for five years, you can pass on your citizenship. The trouble is in documenting that; the resources all say to bring educational records and tax bills and the sorts of documents that would show you lived in America, so for Daniel’s citizenship, we did that, only to be told that it didn’t matter – they wanted to see my passports to see records of when I left and returned to America. So for Nick, I got my old passports ready, but getting an actual apppointment was nearly impossible. Then, papers were lost in the mail, and I had to repeat the process, and it was a bit like filing complicated taxes with the IRS, only to have them ask you to do it again, just because. But we got there, and when Alice and I stood at the counter and Alice took off his jacket to reveal his Captain America onesie, and we raised his little right hand and took the oath for him, I could feel my heart swelling with pride. And he didn’t cry, which was nice.
And Daniel. He is putting so much effort into reading, now, and works so hard at picking letters apart; my sister is helping us understand phonics, and Alice and I work with him at recognizing combinations of letters. Then, at dinner one night, he got up, walked to the door, and said, “Mommy! This says ‘zoo’!” We had no idea what he was talking about, but Alice walked over and, engraved on the face plate around the bolt, was the word “ZOO.” He spelled it out, and I collapsed inside. I still remember when my parents were trying to figure out what to get us for lunch one day, and my dad started to spell out “M-C-D” and I got really excited, and he asked why, and I said it was because he was proposing McDonald’s, and he said, “How do you know that?” and he was so proud of me and we got McDonald’s that day. I smothered Daniel with hugs and kisses and we watched 30 minutes of Singing in the Rain, which he loves for the O’Connor physical humor and the tap dancing.
And he is suddenly outgoing, willing to talk to people, willing to stand on the landing outside of our door with a deliveryman while we unload a crate of groceries, or to bring gifts to the neighbors, pounding on their doors with his little hands. Maybe it is his daily attendance at nursery, or getting out of the house and away from his parents for so much of his life, but whatever it is, it is lovely to see.
And that was February.
Great stories Andrew! The Oregon internship resonated with me. I remember going to County Fairs there, such an American experience. I remember Bev Stein’s early political activism too. I think she’s still there. Congratulations on Nick’s new citizenship status! Looks like he’s learning one of life’s most important lessons from Daniel. Love to both of them, and you and Alice.
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