This is Part II in a series. Read Part I here.
Part II, In Which Our Hero Misses A Play But Learns That All Ohio Is A Stage
The next road trip of note took place just a few months later, in May of 2009. Another of my best friends, Reina Hardy, was a playwriting grad student in Athens, Ohio. She was having a play produced, which I’d read before and loved but never seen performed, at a high school elsewhere in Ohio. I wanted to see the show so I planned to drive out there. This would be very different from the quick, purposeful jaunt of November. This would be me, alone. And it would be EPIC. One of the paradoxes of my personality is that I am very social, with many friends that I love and wish to see often, but I also love and crave solitude. I am a lone wolf at heart. I’ve always liked the idea of just driving across the country by myself. Stopping in roadside bars and restaurants, getting to know different people, occasionally having to bust heads and break hearts. Beautiful women would try to cleave me to them but ultimately they would understand that I was meant to return to that open highway where I belonged. Always driving into the sunset, a man alone, lost in the romance of the great American road…searching for…redemption. For what? I’m not sure. But that sounds right.
Of course I had no wheels of my own so I planned to rent a car. When I told my father of this plan he said that it would not be necessary, and he would let me take his, which I often drove anyway, for the weekend. My dad is generous to a fault, a fault which will shortly become clear. He did mention that the car was twelve years old and probably not long for this world, but it “should be fine”; we Leahys are above all optimists, at least by Irish standards. You would think I might be concerned given my recent experience with another old car but what, me worry? It was certainly cheaper than renting a car, things were looking up!
So the play was going to be Saturday, my plan was to arrive then. But I would depart Friday night, to break up the six-hour journey. My plan was to stay at a motel in Indiana, and soak up some America. I wound up departing fairly late on Friday night, maybe 9pm. I was thrilled. I had a tall ship, and a star to sail her by. Which was Mapquest.
My dad’s car was indeed old, and probably one of the last cars in the world not to have a built-in CD player. I’d had some sort of adaptor Discman thingee but it had broken. So for entertainment while driving I checked out audio cassettes (cassettes!) of the original radio version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was glorious, but around midnight I wanted music so turned on the radio instead. It was growing darker, ever darker. I was the only driver on the road. Somewhere about an hour east of Valparaiso, home long behind… the radio decided to play the Decemberists’ “The Rake Song,” which I had not previously heard.
The song is about a man murdering his young children and casually describing it in grim, cold blooded detail, what they used to call a murder ballad. Did I mention I was alone on an unfamiliar road at midnight? I think I did. The song transfixed and chilled me. Hey radio. How about you try being just a wee bit less creepy for a little while? Would that be okay? I returned to the comfortable world of Douglas Adams, and decided it was motel time.
Checking into a motel by myself. Certainly not the first time I’d done it. But it somehow felt badass. I slept pretty late into the following morning, had myself a nice diner breakfast and got on the road again. Things were going great. Sunshine, good traffic conditions on the open road, got about halfway through the epic Hitchhiker’s saga, which was good because that meant I could listen to it on the drive home. It was now about 4pm, the show was going to start at 7:30. By my calculations I would reach New Albany in two hours with about 90 minutes to spare. Smooth sailing. Because I was a hoopy frood who knew where his towel was.
But remember that this is a tale of misfortune and the cruelty of fate. My dad’s car suddenly lost all forward momentum and the folly of taking a twelve-year-old car on a three hundred and fifty mile road trip became clear. I pulled over on the shoulder of the highway, to avoid being smashed out of existence by some other speeding vehicle. I desperately tried to start the engine and failed, dead in the water. And so I had to repeat the drill I’d learned in Indiana six months earlier, only this time it fell to me to determine where the hell I was, because a tow truck can’t come if it doesn’t know where you are, which, beyond knowing what highway I was on and what direction I was going in, I didn’t. I had to find the nearest road maker, which was not visible to the naked eye, which meant I would have to run for a long ass time, which I got to doing. At least it was daylight for a little while longer. It was warm for May, at least it would have been in Chicago, and the running made it a lot warmer. Jesus these markers are pretty far apart if you’re a pedestrian, which I guess you’re not supposed to be on a highway.
As I run, not yet seeing the object of my search, I slow down, as I let the shock and horror of my predicament wash over me. I am stranded far away from anyone who knows and loves me, with no immediate means of getting anywhere else, the possibility of ever seeing home or civilization again grows dim, and it occurs to me I could just stay there, on the side of the highway forever. Go native. Become a scavenging barbarian. Let my beard grow as my clothes become rags. Try to catch fish from the nearby stream. Throw stones at the passing cars, those metallic monster reminders of a world which rejected me… But soon I see the sign telling me where I am and hope is restored. I run back to the car and make the necessary phone calls. I inform my dad of my plight, and tell Reina that it looks like I won’t make it to the show. Reina tells me her parents, who have also come from Chicago to see her, can take me back home. I tell her that I must stay with the car in the hopes that it can be repaired. But it is Saturday, relatively close to dusk. And it won’t be until Monday that an auto shop will be open to assist me. Which means I’m stranded for the weekend. Various people, from the deputy who responded to my initial call for help, to the clerk in the hotel I checked myself into, suggested in a tone of hope that “It could be the alternator.”
When the tow truck arrives, the driver tells me he can haul my car to the nearest major town, Lima, Ohio, a place entirely unknown to me that is nonetheless about to enter my consciousness forever more.
This tow truck driver is older than the last. And quieter. This makes me uncomfortable. I’m simultaneously afraid to make conversation and afraid not to. It’s strange. It’s the whole culture gap that is at the fringes of what this article is about. I’m often a bit nervous around older adult men who are from a different social class than myself. Or is it class exactly? I mean I know plenty of blue collar guys whom I get along with great, I mean my dad is a union carpenter. And it’s not just the geographical distance either because I’ve had this experience plenty of times in Chicago. There’s just this kind of aggressive quiet with certain guys. Like they’re thinking that you’re thinking you’re superior to them because you’re a middle class kid with a bachelor’s degree even though that’s totally not what you’re thinking, and maybe they’re also thinking they’re actually superior to you because you don’t know shit about cars or electricity or tools or anything that’s actually useful when in fact you’re totally grateful that people do know about those things and you wish you did… And maybe this detour into my neuroses isn’t strictly necessary. He dropped the car off outside of a Midas, now closed of course, and I told him I’d find my lodgings on foot (we’d passed a few on the way).
I crossed into the threshold of a nearby McDonalds. Thanks be to the sainted Ray Kroc for covering the globe with these outposts of civilization to provide comfort to all afflicted wanderers. I sat and read some comic books with my chicken nuggets, fries and Coke and tried to collect myself. A nice little respite from the trauma of the previous few hours. I hoped to make the spirit of that respite last a while. So I checked myself into a Marriott. No tiny motel room for me. If I was going to be stuck in some distant nowheresville like Lima, Ohio I was going be stuck in a big pile of luxury. What I saw immediately surrounding the hotel, however, was far from that. It was a post-industrial decline middle American hellscape, or as some prefer to term it “The Real America.”
What depressed me about the place were not the big box stores and cheesy chain restaurants I could see all over the place, because unlike a lot of snooty urban elitists I actually rather like those things (well maybe not Walmart because I know too much about it, but its competitors aren’t more than slightly better in the end, still, it seems to me that the distinction to be made is that a lot of America’s giant corporations are evil because evil is profitable to be evil, Walmart is evil because they seem to enjoy it). What depressed me were vast, empty lots, making me wonder if non-retail businesses had once been there, in some lost, legendary time of economic strength that actually benefited ordinary people. And the fact that so many of the faces I saw seemed kind but sad.
I am trapped inside a Bruce Springsteen song.
I am very happy that by sheer whim, I had brought my laptop with me. This meant I could repurpose my weekend from its original intention of visiting my friend into a sort of writing retreat. I had the opportunity to spend the weekend writing, hanging out in a hotel and basking in glorious solitude. I was still disappointed in not getting to see Reina and her play, and plenty anxious about the automobile situation, but all things considered, these circumstances were not too bad.
I have loved hotels since childhood, and one of the primary reasons is swimming pools. I bought some trunks at one of the big box stores. American flag trunks. It seems appropriate.
I decide to learn a little bit about where I am by looking Lima, Ohio up on the old Wikipedia, because at this late hour, that’s a lot easier than firsthand observation.
For one thing, it appears that Lima was a major font of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s. That’s always the kind of thing you’re excited to hear when you’re alone in an unfamiliar place. And this is not a thing of the distant past, as the town’s politics have remained ultra-conservative. In the 1950s, the town’s newspaper denounced public libraries as a socialistic endeavor. This is the kind of thing I’ve often said as a satirical joke. Turns out Lima, Ohio was ahead of that favored quip in my repertoire decades before my birth.
Whatever passionate views I might hold about other subjects, including a general disapproval of violence, are secondary to this overarching principle: If you’re against public libraries you need to be punched in the fucking face. Hard.
Wikipedia’s magic also told me that Lima’s opera house had once been a major site for vaudeville performances. However, Lima audiences were so unreceptive to their humor that “Lima” became a codeword for a stone faced audience. Supposedly they originated the joke “First prize is a week in Lima, Ohio. Second prize is two weeks in Lima, Ohio!” since adapted to many other towns.
One of these young performers was named Spencer Tracy, who found himself performing in Lima for months and hated it, desperately calling up producers in New York to get him a gig there. Decades later, while filming the western Bad Day at Black Rock in a hot, desolate California town, someone is said to have ventured that it was the worst place in the world to be stuck in. Tracy replied, “Then you’ve never been to Lima, Ohio.”
Hollywood elitists have an insufferable way of looking down their noses at traditional American institutions like the Klan.
Wikipedia also confirmed my diagnosis about rust belt decline. This hard hitting online reference article obviously made me a bit anxious about the place in which I’d found myself. On the other hand, I was in a Marriott, and that was pretty sweet.
Sunday was pretty much a day of reading, writing, instant messaging with an unnecessarily guilty Reina, swimming, eating, watching cable and walking around. Or at least attempting to do the latter. This area of Lima appeared to have been built with barely the faintest notion that human beings could ever or would ever be pedestrians, even as an afterthought. In Chicago, we have a remarkable innovation called “sidewalks” that allow you to traverse great distances with no means of propulsion save those of your own body! Mind you I’ve tread on these wholly remarkable pathways not only in the big city but in other places as well! Why, I’ve even seen them in Champaign-Urbana! But obviously Lima’s wise town fathers view such amenities as the work of the Devil and have worked hard to prevent their town from being infected by the socialist corruption they bring with them.
Instead, this area of Lima provided me with a kind of unholy mixture between grass, gravel and dirt that seemed designed with at least as much of an eye towards entrapping and killing pedestrians as towards providing them with assistance. But I am a powerful and experienced walker, and was in no mood whatsoever to be entrapped and killed, so I wasn’t.
Monday morning came and I was able to confirm pretty quickly that the car was not salvageable, at least not without spending thousands of dollars that would be better invested in a new car.
We have now learned, from these two experiences, that “Maybe it’s the alternator,” while often said in a tone that seems intended to give comfort, is in fact an ominous portent. It’s code for “This car is fucking dead.” If you are ever in the hospital, dear reader, and you hear someone say that it might be the alternator, prepare to make peace with this life.
I was a bit sad in my entirely too sentimental, anthropomorphizing way. This was the car I’d learned to drive in. Gone back and forth from college in, taken girls on dates in… It deserved better than this ignoble death in Ohio.
But it was also liberating. I now knew what I had to do, which was rent a car and get the hell out of this godforsaken pit.
I settled into the car, excited to be returning home after a fun but stressful three day sojourn. I turned the key to the ignition. The radio was on. Rush Limbaugh. Of fucking course.
And of course, this car being of more recent vintage, it had a CD player and not a tape deck, meaning I would not be able to finish my Hitchhiker’s. Sigh. But fortunately I did have a Jonathan Coulton CD in my laptop which provided similar levels of dorky joy.
On my way out of town I stopped at a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant and sat and read the book I’d had with me the whole weekend, an anthology of H.P. Lovecraft stories. Somehow reading H.P. Lovecraft at a Ruby Tuesday’s encapsulated the entire weekend for me. Over my cheese covered chicken sandwich and fries, I began to read his novella “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” whose protagonist/narrator recounts the tale of being trapped in a strange and terrifying little town. It begins as follows:
During the winter of 1927-28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting – under suitable precautions – of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.
Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and it is even now only beginning to show signs of a sluggishly revived existence.
Complaints from many liberal organizations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to cooperate with the government in the end. Only one paper – a tabloid always discounted because of its wild policy – mentioned the deep diving submarine that discharged torpedoes downward in the marine abyss just beyond Devil Reef. That item, gathered by chance in a haunt of sailors, seemed indeed rather far-fetched; since the low, black reef lay a full mile and a half out from Innsmouth Harbour.
People around the country and in the nearby towns muttered a great deal among themselves, but said very little to the outer world. They had talked about dying and half-deserted Innsmouth for nearly a century, and nothing new could be wilder or more hideous than what they had whispered and hinted at years before. Many things had taught them secretiveness, and there was no need to exert pressure on them. Besides, they really knew little; for wide salt marshes, desolate and unpeopled, kept neighbors off from Innsmouth on the landward side.
But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified men at Innsmouth. Besides, what was found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe deeper. For my contact with this affair has been closer than that of any other layman, and I have carried away impressions which are yet to drive me to drastic measures.
It was I who fled frantically out of Innsmouth in the early morning hours of July 16, 1927, and whose frightened appeals for government inquiry and action brought on the whole reported episode. I was willing enough to stay mute while the affair was fresh and uncertain; but now that it is an old story, with public interest and curiosity gone, I have an odd craving to whisper about those few frightful hours in that ill-rumored and evilly-shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps me to restore confidence in my own faculties; to reassure myself that I was not the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination.
Yeah. Pretty much.
I pointed my rental car west and never looked back…