It was the timeless green of a festering Missouri summer. Not forgetting thirst as a haze covered this closely-hugging St. Louis county township like a shimmering dog-day afternoon.
Down by the railroad-trestles and brown, trickling rivers like tangled, scrappy t-shirts and sunburned human co-habitation—a bleak industrial area.
Maplewood—biker town. Old south St. Louis. Alcoholic vapors and the human crud whom remained like a dead, yellow dog laying in the road.
Dive bars and run-down gas stations along the hard asphalt– old dudes in bandannas loitering by the curbside or up on broken-down couches like wolfen patriots.
Come to buy some hot auto-parts? Or maybe just score on a prostitute?
Maybe for “pay-back”, “a real rumble” with all but a fire-apple red muscle-car parked in the poor man’s alley out beyond the weeds. . . . . like sheer action-television.
Cinder block buildings—Chuck Norris style.
All you needed was the squeal of those corrugated metal doors creaking upwards to reveal a street-gang, slowly padding their fists together as another one whirls a biker chain.
Maybe life was less like syndicated television with trash-fires and hooting drunks knocking back packaged liquor in a brown paper bag. A party, sitting with their backs leaning against those said cinder-block buildings.
But “low-rent”, just the same. . . . . as the daily grind imposed its weight.
Those miscellaneous considerations that kept things “less glamorous”. As you had the anchor of unpaid doctor bills—or making the rent. Or chronic back problems and tender, aching shins. Unto the grime, friction, inefficiency and waste it all boiled down to perhaps a public health clinic and food stamps.
This was the world of long, slow lines wearing thin on the soul, resigned to second-class citizenship on the bargain freight-rate, gogged-eye chaos and misery.
The sodden brightness, graying sun-streaks and worn-out shoes. . . . . the thinner clunking pennies in some dingy church rummage sale.
It added-up to lawn-chairs bent-up like leaning sculpture which supported sweetly-aching behinds. Like a block party up and down a row of houses—a cruddy dish of bbq but done slap-dash and watery for the improvisation of It, prepared on an even more shaky grill that stood on spindly-legs.
And there they sat across fold-out tables like either bar-flies or money-changers in stumpy resignation.
For woe was the way of the world so subtle and sourceless and simple. As it was, amid a blended congregation of kids– ranging from toddlers to teenagers wearing sweatshirts with their arms not in the sleeves like huddled, Paleolithic intrigue.
How the kids chased each other in a tumble of short-lived freedom and gullible, happy circumstance—as innocent as puppies, and devil may-care as they were marked for wild times and trouble ahead.
Luckless—or dead-beat—or free. Sooner, dreams would be cut loose.
And there, you see them coming—like a census of trouble and grungy diapers. A family-unit waddling along up and won the midway of a traveling carnival. A mother, an aunt—a kid in tow as the dad slept in, back home from the swing-shift on a shadowed mattress.
A southern inflection, living off “the fat of the land” as the grounds opened-up through a blown mist of early dew in the breeze, the rise above the chain of flapping flags as the mechanical circus loomed below. Would this be like gilded streets paved with gold as they paced-along with a stick of cotton candy in their hands, sugar and gossamer frosting for the short-lived joy of it.
A coda to some watery morning frying up sausage-links and margarine in the gray glint of yellowed sunlight. Sugar, grease—itchiness. Raw sensation, like the fizz of a soft-drink tickling your nose.
Another hamburger stand, the open road. Abashed by the novelty of it—over the sweet, wafting smells of funnel cakes and cotton-candy, the world your thrilling playground.
Whimsy, a laughing clown-face for a pennies’ thought of mirth in the bumptious, quick-fix solutions of it. . . . . all before a wave of nausea slept over you like a stomach-ache. Too much corn syrup, too much churning delirium. See something “you’ve never seen before”, and there’s a pile of busted-out peanut shells bearing their fruit as flies whirled out of festering trash cans.
And then you had a boy, about 12 years-old in cargo shorts, twirling round and round in froggy pubescence—dizzy in the looming pathos. Wishing to give it all up for sweetness, some sense of purity as you lose yourself in the distracting crowd.
It was the Johnson Smith “Things you never knew Existed” catalog, a spiky rubber-ball folding out into a niblet-laden skull-cap like the gross-out plastic industry, always good for a novel turn that quickly turns old.
Glancing from thing to thing, two 12 year-old’s morphing into lumbering, spike-horned dinosaurs and wrestling in the dirt, free-flowing as the queasy Slushee syrup of Claymation hijinks.
Yet it had all the openness of vulgar mass entertainment and other amusements, a throw-back to Frank L. Baum “Wizard of Oz” picture books. Picnics, a rural idyll—some looming ferris wheel from 1900 like the dead ding-dong of old-fashioned morality from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse.
As “The Reaper” gained on you. . . . .
How it was all like a ring-toss “you couldn’t win” with an agenda of marked chalk-lines, delineating some winning end-point. Take one step forward, two steps back as this stab at The American Dream proved to be “no cake-walk” as most of us would quickly find.
At the end of it, left with a few scraggly dollars as everything else was fuel to get you into a “running-to-stand-still” impasse. Like the stages of an oil refinery burning-away the heavier crude as you had the final, pure-boiled condensation at the very top like petroleum jelly, slicked over your teeth like “the fluid of gladness”. Everything else, fending-off the forces of decay before “the bugs came out to feed”.
You couldn’t win.
Yet your consolation dissolved like those melted, empty truths from a soda cooler. It neither “gives, nor takes”—but refreshes. Right as the grinning rictus of a sun-burned, pock-mocked face lumbers by with a box of pastries before him, squarely—like the best gift anyone gave him in this corner of jaundiced heaven. Like an overstuffed kid, maybe emotionally 15 years old and giddy with the small wonders of life. To rest on your pick—and take a weary smoke-break in the name of good things, tangible things. A bottle of pop or a bottle of beer, take your choice.
Have your cake and eat it too—as the flame of young love “never died” with passing generation, so long as you had kids who thought they invented gooey, gibbity romance and hot-pants. For biology was destiny and nature would not be denied. . . . . and flesh would fertilize.
All those good things, like a sweet roll grabbed by a clever opportunist—an impish wink unto favored fortune and the quick dart of skill.
Democracy’s forge—a game of chance. Good if you were a wiry young yeoman with a fast right-hand in the competitive scrum-line in this reedy fair-ground of pole-cats and other piss-poor coyotes standing there with nothing but the clothes on their back willing to leap for the gambit.
May populist belief not be crushed “like a man off the street”. However raw and untested, a certain hierarchy yet asserted itself. Maybe a glittering hardness like natural reflex, speeding past the unhappy and unlucky drowning in hobbled complication as they rode-off on the motorcycle with the girl.
Love-sick (– or dope-sick) you’d soon be weighed-down with the crushing weight of your stamp, like waking-up hung-over a couple of whirlwind years later with a bunch of kids and a sink full of dishes
Punch the clock, or it was another cancellation back to “Square-1” before cutting-loose all over again.
Hell-raising and blue-collar damnation, living just to die.
The check-out woman at the Dollar-Mart scowled-on with old yellow eyes, resigned to the heartless nature of the world. No one stayed “young and pretty” for long. Here, with the brown paper-bag burdens of the industrial belt you had gray faces, coughing with cancer or staggering-on with diabetes.
Down in south St. Louis, the winding banks of the River Des Peres as kids huffed-it back to the park under the railroad trestles. The sun glinted through the trees. Shirtless young boys on bicycles stopping in to buy dollar sodas, maybe some candy.
Things stayed mostly sleepy except for the grinding sound of the tires on passing pick-up trucks. Black asphalt stains and iridescent oil slicks, the rough ground nothing you’d want to scrape your knees on, a skinned knuckle and scratched-flesh left behind like a fleck of meat, as if had been cut with a pocket-knife. As water leaked into the gutter in rivulets, glistening like cellophane.
The people walking up and down the streets had a feral quality.
Take a look at the alcoholic women pushing-along stolen shopping-carts you would think of either home-cooked meals on stale crockery or meth bags. This could be just another episode of “COPS” on t.v.
A certain strata of society never made much in the way of plans, but instead were loopy and flush with excuses and hang-dog assertion as the cops stopped them.
Hanging trees, car exhaust—handcuffed and sitting on the curb with dumpy, sagging chins of alcoholic jaundice and halter-tops and smeared make-up.
The eroded “social contract”. . . . . mostly too little, too late for most. Out of tune, out of time.
Meanwhile, as savage pit-pulls behind metal fences backed-up and panted like four-square guard dogs sooner taking a bite out of your ass.
Like a fanciful “game of chance” at a carnival you could never really win.
But one thing you could bet on—“THE DOLLAR TREE”. Yes, where everything went for just a dollar and the battered old currency went as far, as indeed—China could import junky knock-off’s and leave America undersold. Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry—sated on starch, salt and grease as you grab down something tasty, along with the thrifty solid goods sold up & down the aisles.
Extra value budget—what you see is what you get. Inevitably, products would follow the hidden derangements in the national mood. Only here, you got “the dollar-version”. Death and taxes—or at least “sales tax” as your curling scroll of a paper receipt choked out of the cash register.
Jumbo clown faces, circus colors—it added to the giddiness of free market optimism though this was all but “the killing floor” of what fell out or the plastic asshole of “supply & demand”.
Maybe you had the next “million-dollar idea” and sold your product on consignment. The happy commingling of genius and luck, the gap-toothed delivery man in the truck-cab waving around a giant check unto all happy, bumptious quick-fix solutions.
You’d want to punch him out—for any level of commonsense as frankly, Beetlejuice was “morally-retarded”. Maybe a bit sharper than your average “true believer” or free-market goofus as most of it was pretty much “buyer-beware”.
Take “chiseling cars” or trading junk-heaps on what amounted to a slot-machine of mechanical problems on a micro car-lot with the flapping colored-flags beneath the honey-comb street lights which beckoned you. Much of life was hazy—like a game of “musical chairs”—leaving someone dumped with a lemon. Out-bluffed, you see—in this screwball game of poker and half-running cars.
Pushing off against the ground with an old ragged tennis shoe as you rolled ten yards with the wobbling wheel and smoke coming-out from under the pool.
The way of the world.
It was always the freedom of the open road, poverty hunched over a 79 cent coffee at a local fast-food outlet. A space to think, his feet rotten and putrid, making the most of free hospitality as he stirred ketchup in water with his finger—poor man’s tomato-juice. And free air-conditioning. . . . . and napkin stationary. . . . . and all the free refills you wanted until management threw you out.
Wasn’t life grand?
“I’d buy that for a dollar”—THE ALL-NEW ADVENTURES OF BEETLEJUICE.