A CURSE FOR CHRISTMAS

hope-deflated

“I look forward to the storm…keeps everybody in sight. Washes everything clean.”

— The highway killer, in the film JOY RIDE

Straight Outta Compton's CreekDon’t know why I exactly got to thinking about that disappointing killer-thriller feature — a movie that I hadn’t thought about once since the lone time I saw it — there on that chilly day in the run-up to Christmas. Maybe it was the stretch of highway before me; a not-common sight since I don’t have all that much occasion to drive these days. 

That, coupled with the light freezing rain that was starting to fall, and which prompted all the other cars ahead to slow down, tighten up the flow just a little bit. Keeping everybody in sight, if not exactly washing it all clean.

For me the occasion was a too-rare excursion to my old Wetside stomping grounds, a place that I generally steer clear of even more than I do driving in general — not out of any lingering sense of dread or evulsion; just the knowledge that, now as ever, there’s really not much reason to go there…or even to pass on through, as there always seems to be an easier alternative than that tired old highway and its traffic lights positioned what seems like every 50 feet.

The fact that I can pretty much get everything I need in and around my adopted little city — and the fact that the world pretty much finds its way to me — keeps me close to base camp. And not having day-to-day use of a car makes for a dandy excuse to not visit my mom’s house; so ridiculously close to where I live now, but so “been-there-done-that” I only manage to make it over there maybe twice a year anymore. And no, Christmas won’t be one of those times.  

(I’ve gone on at length about my beloathed hometown…and I’ve done it most eloquently in my extended rant “The Sprayer Man Cometh: A Wetsider Elegy.” Read it right here if you dare…then come back in an hour or so. We’ll be here.)

Still, every so often it’s worth a quick spin around the neighborhood, just to get a line as to how it may have changed (or not) since last  we bothered. And while for the longest time my Wetside was defined by the certainty that Nothing Ever Happens Here, the long hangover of Hurricane Sad’ny served to shock the old place into something resembling movement; ill-advised and otherwise.

An unscientific survey indicates that my old family homestead is the only one of the 20 houses on its street that hasn’t been elevated, or on the verge of such an undertaking. 

Just a block away, a decimated seniors development rises again, reborn as a single multi-story unit that looks truly out of place in its landscape of flat marsh and the old rail right-of-way. And a couple of blocks in the other (closer to the water) direction, there are streets that remain closed to traffic to this day.

Several of the neighborhood businesses — a gas station, a farm market, a pizza joint — have thrown in the towel, while the hardware store and the hot dog place are apparently flirting with the notion (and the seedy used car lots persist against all odds). 

Once-public places like an old library and a relatively new skate park sit padlocked and abandoned, while a marina and waterfront county park (and its centerpiece, the historic Seabrook-Wilson “Spy House”) are restored, repaired and open to the public even in the depths of the doldrum season.

Maybe the most welcome post-Sadny change is the addition of an actual friendly neighborhood BAR, co-owned by a good Facebook friend of mine — something we didn’t have back in the day (although the crustiest of Wetside oldtimers might recall that the Spy House was actually operating as a tavern, complete with beer signs in the windows, around the time my family moved to that neck of the weeds). 

Thinking back on the sort of characters who populated the “Straight Outta Compton’s Creek” ‘hood in my childhood, I suppose it’s just as well that they didn’t have staggering-distance access to such a place.

Newly located in one of the oldest of the local stripmalls, the bar is nothing like the hipster/douchebag flavors-of-the-week that come and go in my new hometown. And, being situated at the rear of a “liquor in the front” retail establishment, it’s really nothing much to see. 

But once past those windows, papered over with beer logo banners for the highway passerby’s sake, there’s a comfortably unpretentious space;  stamped with the sensibility of my friend, whose perspectives on Life, Love, and liquor-store management are a refreshing alternative to the Wetside norm to say the least (even if she DID decline my urging her to name the place “The Wetside”). 

It’s a place that surely would have come in handy for many of those years I lived in my parents’ house — a place where you can tap into something that always seemed to be in such short supply way back when: HOSPITALITY.

But it’s also a plot of real estate on the Wetside, and the Wetside is the TrumpSide, just as sure as any Hooterville holler, has-been factory town or gated-Hell community on the map. 

fish

My drive up to the old neighborhood takes me past luxury condos, a boutique hotel, and an upscale shopping experience owned by TrumpInLaw Jared Kushner — and it’s just a quick detour over to a Trump National Golf Course and a Kushner-owned mall — but only in my old neighborhood could you find an actual Trump HQ, riding caboose at the end of that aforementioned hardware store (and for a while there, reportedly giving out free hats, although I seem to have missed out on that action).

In fact, if you do the profiling I would appear to be nothing less than a perfect storm of Trump-voting behavior patterns. After all, I’m an old, white, straight, did I mention old, did I mention very white, guy. Wholly uneducated, despite the best efforts of a few dedicated people from the public school system I attended. 

“Works at being self-employed,” meaning I haven’t had a “real” job for very nearly 20 years…and most of the years since the turn of the new millennium have been pretty rough ones to say the least.

My chosen line of work has taken a beating, to the point where absolutely no one harbors any illusions about its coming back again. I’ve ceded the role of household breadwinner to my wife, and have taken on the majority of what I’d been raised to believe was the work of the lady of the house.

I’m not very well traveled; have lived in or near this sad old backwater for pretty much my entire life. Grew up in a hardcore Christian family that pretty much only visited with other family members; who gave money to TV preachers, and whose tastes in politicians ran past Reagan into George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, even David Duke territory.

I’ve been married three times, have gone bankrupt, play the scratch-offs, consume a lot more comfort food than I ought to, fill my head with pop culture minutiae, spend the wee hours of the night online, and sleep almost not at all — just a few (non-consecutive) hours each day, really. And I can’t deny that a part of me…a big, white trash part of me…kind of wants to see it all burn.

So yeah, as a Wetsider I get how it feels to be forever froze out of the “privilege” and the action going on just out of reach; how you just kind of get so used to being redlined and shutdown and shat-on that you just can’t express the dull-edged frustration through any of the normal channels of civil discourse, civil disobedience, civil litigation, or even Civil War re-enactments. 

And yeah, I totally get how Trump offers the firecracker and the fuse; the chance to go from (as per the titles of a couple of old Mudhoney songs) “Flat Out Fucked” to “Burn It Clean,” without a thought as to what to do for an encore or an alternative.

(which reminds me, see my Facebook post from November for more on how a case can be made for Trump being the first Punk Rock President)

So why then, with such sterling credentials, did I not feel the burn, or the bum, of the King in Yellow? Was it just an extension of that long-ago urge to pedal my bike to the enigmatic other side of the highway; to break out of the immediate neighborhood and see how those exotic other people lived? 

Was it that same problem with authority that’s dogged me my whole life…whether that authority was represented by my parents, or teachers, or bosses, or spouses, or authoritarian rulers, or PUSH/PULL door handles?

Was it related to my having gravitated to newspapers and other low-level media work, as perhaps the only way for a guy like me to gain some sort of peripheral entree into the greater world beyond the Wetside; to witness things and meet folks from far outside my own limited plane; to hear things not commonly known to most; to put a poorly paid but semi-legitimate stamp upon my own tendencies toward cynicism, critical thinking, curiosity, doubting-Thomas-ness?

Was it nothing more than a continuation of the same knee-jerk rejection of everything my parents ever thought or believed or said or did? That immediate impulse to do the exact opposite when warned against going to the city, going to concerts, going to those movies or reading those books or having anything to do with those people? That attitude that’s made me what I-yam today, for bitter or nertz (I’ve made my share of mistakes, surely, but they are mine, all mine)?

It could be any or all of those things  that kept me from pulling the lever for a 1980s punchline from that stack of moldering SPY magazines (the only thing MORE stale than that 1990s hangover I voted for); that least interesting iteration of The World’s Most Interesting Man. But I like to frame it as a tale of two houses: the tense, repressive, joyless place I grew up in, and the bizarro world I reside in these days.

sidewalk-ghost

I could go on, at even greater length, about growing up in the old family homestead..the yelling, the beating, the TV preachers, the purple vein-popping hatred of immigrants (from grown children of immigrants), the casual racism that extends on down to the cute pickaninny folk art on the knick-knack shelf, all those “nerve pills” and other prescription drugs…but I think I’d rather just fast forward to the weird, old, drafty, creaky, possibly haunted house where these transmissions are beamed from.

Many of you probably know that for the past several years my third wife and I have occupied a little “caretaker” apartment inside the onetime home of a famous author…a National Historic Site, no less (thanks, I’m proud to say, in part to my efforts), and an open-to-the-public attraction that’s now under the stewardship of our city’s Historical Society. While my wife maintains a full-time professional career outside the house, I work at home for a number of freelance clients — and I put in a great deal of volunteer hours on behalf of our landlords and the house.

These duties extend from basic housekeeping and minor maintenance, to dealing with prodigious amounts of trash/ recycleables and clearing a 100-foot driveway when it snows, to assisting with event programming and acting as tour docent for visitors that range from individual drop-ins to organized bus tours of 40 people or more. 

I’ve delivered lectures and booked guest speakers; presented theatrical events and screened classic films; created newsletters and other communication materials for the Society — and I’ve been inspired to write plays, articles, and a published book on our city’s history (I’m currently working on two more).

It’s a strange way to live; dealing with a steady stream of visitors and being always on call for one thing or the other. But what it lacks in peace-and-quiet and privacy is more than compensated for by the opportunities to make all sorts of new friends; encounter all kinds of people (I met Bryan Cranston, just about my favest actor, right here); put my ideas and energies to work, and help raise funds for a variety of community causes.

The fact that friends find their way to our doorstep (including ones who live clear across the country)…that this place is a regular venue for guest-programmer film events and other arty stuff…that we offer the house as a community resource for panel discussions (like a pretty interesting roundtable on race that outgrew our small space) and groups like the committee to revive a local lake…that we have a cool little in-house theater and a comfy little in-house library…should be enough to keep me as much of a homebody as my mother and brother back there in the old homestead. 

But being here, living as I do…in a way so different from how I was brought up…has helped plug me into the city and greater community, in ways that I never felt compelled to do back on the old sod. This person with a genetic predisposition to distrust and hermitude has made the acquaintance of so many amazing people in this place…many of them just the sorts of people that my parents warned me against associating with…and have been greatly humbled by the kindness and generosity and basic decency of my city-folk neighbors who, like me, have escaped to this place from someplace else.

Though I can’t lay claim to being the best of persons myself, I try to go about my business according to the house policy here: open the doors to all; turn no one away. Use what you have at hand, even if it’s very little, to try and advance the greater good. Offer people a port in the storm, an oasis of sanity, an island of culture and class. Don’t make it so much about yourself, and maybe you’ll find that your needs are taken care of by the everyday karma of not being a dick to everyone.

This works for me…and what’s more it scales up nicely, so that this approach could be applied to the town (nation, world) at large. Granted, my own living arrangement doesn’t intersect at all with yours, but there’s something in there…something about keeping a welcoming house, and carrying it with you where you go…that can work for you.

So you see, I’m hardly an undecided voter…I made up my mind decades ago: I DON’T care to live in the house of my parents. When it comes to how I go about my business or pull the lever, I’ll vote as a just-passing-through occupant of this weird old house that I don’t now own or ever will…this place that keeps one foot planted in the lessons of history and the other in the here-and-now, and where every now and then a new friendship makes its way in, or a decent idea makes its way out.

lanessaucer

Anyway, we were talking about hospitality, a concept that always seemed to elude most Wetsiders back in those long-ago days of illegal dumps, no-work slumps, bully-gang jumps, inbred Gumps and ain’t never heard of any Trumps. It’s there now, if you look for it, and I found it in yet another place that day.

I was making the trip to the spongy wetlands to check out a little Christmas-themed entertainment at a local venue, just a few feet over to the dry side and down the road apiece…this another one of the nice little local libraries that had been abruptly decommissioned by my old home township. But unlike the one going to seed in my old neighborhood, this place had been beautifully rescued, refurbished, reborn as a performance stage (which it always kind of was) and an elegant-Americana place for readings, receptions and the like. 

It was an effort spearheaded by the current stewards of the local community theater group, a couple of dazzlingly proactive, focused, thoughtful folks with an enviable mastery over both the physical realm (they are hands-on aces at carpentry and renovation, and the stamp of their fine work has made all the difference in this project) and the intellectual diets of their culturally undernourished neighbors.

And they are WETSIDERS, in attitude as well as address. People whose humbling work ethic and generosity make me glad to know them…and whose unswerving devotion to Trumpnick politics places them with greasy bedfellows like my old neighbors and family members (even as it makes ’em a hell of a lot more nuanced than their cardboard-cutout leader). My always-welcome conversations with them are never anything other than gracious; a far thing from the kind of kick-and-scream I was raised on, and I wouldn’t for a moment consider doing a brick-and-mortar-world “unfriending” over something so trivial as their role in the irreversible collapse of American society and security.

(although the comics enthusiast in me can’t resist quoting Dr. Manhattan, when he puts “the world’s smartest man” Ozymandias on a par with “its smartest termite”) 

And that afternoon at the old library was once again a study in hospitality, as these longtime acquaintances once more welcomed me to their home, fed me with their always-amazing spread of homemade goodies, allowed me some hours well-spent, made me look forward to doing it again real soon (and welcoming them in turn to our own humble hovel of h’uplift). All in a manner refreshingly devoid of the way we all tend to behave when we’re behind the bulletproof glass of our screens.

I had one more stop to make that day on my safari to the darkest Wetside: a quick dash into the nearby supermarket to pick up a few dinner ingredients. And it was there, somewhere between the stew beef and the turkey patties, that I met up with my mother, and with my younger brother who’s lived there at home with her since the day he was born.

Painfully hobbling her heavy frame around the meat department (like driving a car, or going into elevators, she refuses to get on one of those electric go-carts for obese patrons), Mom greeted me with a hug and launched into her signature rundown of who died, who’s in the hospital for another operation, who (in addition to her) “doesn’t have any good days no more.” Squinting at the merchandise through his failing eyesight, my 50-something brother gave me his signature rundown of all the difficulties he’d been facing in his arduous unskilled-manual-labor job; how his aging customer base had been dying off at an alarming rate, and how he had to drop even more customers when his work partner (another brother) entered the hospital for an operation and left him to fend solo.

We parted without getting into it over things Trumpy; without revisiting how Trump was a good man sent by God to wage war against the devil incarnate, or how our anointed king was “a builder who says what he means…a strongman…we need a strongman.”  They asked me if I’d be there (at other brother’s house) for Christmas and I said yeah, I guess so. My mom, to whom i still owe a thousand bucks (an unfortunate signifier of a year spent trying to maintain a two-person household in Monmouth County on less than 20 grand,  while my wife completed her studies), squished another hug and said “love ya’s”…a simple something my late father never got around to grunting out.

I retreated to my flimsy fortress of not-solitude, and they to the little house on the dead-end street on the weedpatch prairie; she to her couch and her Fox News feed; he to his lovingly assembled collection of Nazi paraphernalia.

These are my loved ones; this is where I’m from, and where I will be come Christmas Day (where, just as on Thanksgiving, I anticipate there’ll be a special blessing said for the Incoming at the table). I may have traditionally found my own level of bliss by keeping a certain day-to-day distance, but I can’t deny that my mom and my four brothers have never hesitated to help me in numerous ways…and bitch and moan as I might, I’ll surely be there to lend a hand the next time one of my parents enters that long slog into clinic appointments/ hospital stays/ nursing home residencies, or next time that the family homestead needs to be rebuilt after another superstorm. And I will attempt to maintain my membership card in the family through the coming years, provided there’s anything much in the way of years left to pick through under their champion Trump (their Chump?)

So yeah, there’s that. My Protestant family always did possess a real hard-on for authoritarians…up to and including a curious interest in the more conservative Popes…and were never shy about displaying portraits of Reagan and W Bush around the house, so this is all par for the course. My right-wing friends, and I ain’t no bubble boy folks, fell quickly and quite predictably in line with the whole Trump thing; ideological consistency be darned. You could make the case that this most unorthodox of presidential selection seasons  has been pretty lacking in surprises; everyone scattering and dropping into their assigned slots as we endured the escalator ascent of that most utterly predictable of “wild cards.”

clowns

And yet, hey…Trump. You know? That most mediocre of business titans; that lamest of celebrities, that worst of liars and un-smoothest of con men. The same old constant dull throb of lying, cheating, scapegoating, weaseling, wounded bellyaching, not listening, promise breaking, throwing everybody else under the bus, doing nothing but working whatever short-term cash-out angle is available at any given moment…and living only for adulation, real or perceived, no matter which fan club or hostile foreign entity or discredited conspiracy peddler is doing the adulatin’.

The one whose touch turns everything to shit; who’s betrayed all who ever trusted him, allied with him, worked for him, believed in him. Such a plump and perfect thing in his way; such a one-stop shopping experience for everything that runs counter to how we were more or less lip-service taught to behave as good little Americans. And a thing that I know for a fact has torn asunder some long-standing relationships out there.

It’s not enough that he’s the worst man for the task this side of the old homestead…nor even that he is, in his perfectly encapsulated way, the worst of all men. It’s not even that he so brilliantly represents the very worst OF ourselves. 

It’s that he BRINGS out the very worst in every one of us…sets us against each other like none before; destroys friendships and tears families apart; reduces us to machines of impulse and judgment and reaction. Debases our discourse, and colors our every interaction with the world around us in the most combative, counterproductive ways.

A Christmastime CURSE, then, on the one who did this to us. The one who made a mockery of everything we held good and true in our past, and who stripped our path into the future of all sense of betterment and purpose. A dusk upon his many houses, his hotels and golf courses, and upscale shopping experiences.

May he fear the visitations of Krampus in every creak of a floorboard, every shudder of wind on window, and every shadow beneath the door. 

May he bear the battleship chains of worldly burden unimagined by Marley’s ghost. May his dark-socketed children, Ignorance and Want, rake his waxy flesh as they cling to his fraying finery. 

May the star that has lit the way for so many others dim and recede, forever unattainable, from his grasp. 

And may the Savior who meets him on those featureless sands be the one from the back of the book…the cold grey agent of wrath; scarred, and silent, and changed by the grave.

And for the rest of us, a chance at redemption that can never be his. The chance to meet each other’s gaze through the diffuse oily fog. The very small, very remote chance at reconnecting with that which we might have once shared. 

History? History resets; reboots; begins (maybe even ends) HERE and NOW. Satire? That closed Saturday night. And when a “norm” dies, no way does it come back from the dead.

Turns out that way too many of our most hallowed institutions have been propped up all along by a bunch of “protocols” and “norms” that were a lot closer to being Quaint Custom than Law of the Land. And if rules are made to be broken by guys like Trump, then these threadbare protocols and norms and traditions (releasing tax returns, sitting for intelligence briefings, separating state business and personal profit, doing President-type stuff) were never worth the parchment they’re NOT printed on. 

The past month and a half have seen a thousand and one post-mortems on the November process…and you gotta believe that I am even now sparing you another hundred thousand or so words on why the Democrats dropped the ball yet again; why the candidate I voted for (Hillary ClintoNotTrump) should never have been on the ticket; why my hold-the-nose vote went from clothespin to battery-cable alligator clip, to near-radical rhinoplasty.

Lost amid all the election post-mortems are the parallels between the Trump Thing and the whole idea of “prosperity gospel,” which is a difficult concept to explain to anyone whose mom DIDN’T send her money to TV preachers like Jim and Tammy Bakker. 

But the notion holds way more water than the claim that Trump voters actually have broad-based economic issues on their minds…or that they care about anything other than their own individual fate and fortunes. 

Prosperity gospel says that THEIR success is YOUR success; that YOU have a stake in the palaces and theme parks of (Reverend Ike, Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar, Trump) even if you’re turned away by security if you get too close. That the luck of the lottery can raise YOU up at the expense of all others; that if there’s anything of a chance that things will work out YOUR way, a donation to your hero is a worthy investment.

The other factor that you don’t much hear about, is the one that pretty much renders all punditry obsolete: the fact that people voted for Donald Trump because he’s…Donald Trump, very famous guy and ubiquitous star of network TV, meat and most media. 

The folks who staff these elaborate campaigns probably don’t want to think about the prospect that it all really DOES come down to a popularity contest among individuals, and a feud among cults of charismatic personality. Barack Obama had that stuff; Ronald Reagan had it; Bill Clinton had it…but Hillary? Not now nor ever.

It might seem the furthest stretch in the world to suggest that Trump is a “blank slate.” One of the most instantly recognizable (maybe THE most by this point) people on Earth; as easily parodied and vividly hyperreal a set of oversaturated visuals, tics and mannerisms as there has ever been…but a BLANK SLATE?! 

And yet to so many of us, he is just exactly that…a thing upon which to project whatever pathetic aspect of our own egos that we wish to see reflected back at us (Straight-talkin’ Tuff Guy, Self-Made Success Story, whatever). I said it before, and probably better, but if there’s anything in this world that trumps the planet-size ego of Trump himself, its the ridiculously outsized self-regard of the American nobody.

perisphere

Everybody, it seems…even the multitudes who stayed home on Election Day…has a place in this scenario, and a role to play in this game. It’ll be clear soon enough what that might be. We’ve got our work cut out for us, by and large, any of us who care a feather or a fig about the checks-and-balances of government, the live-and-let-live of civil society, the simple beauties of American citizenship and the dignity of the presidential office.  Like being stripped down to zero in boot-camp basic training, it’s on us to work our way back to earning an identity. 

We absolutely need this, too, as an ultimate test of all that we’ve ever paid lip service to. Most of us who grew up as Americans have never had to think about this sort of stuff that always somehow seemed to happen to the other guy, Over There, far away on TV. We will all of us have to earn back what we have always taken for granted, bit by agonizing bit. And it’s a safe bet that you’ll never take such things for granted again.

There’s a kind of perverse FREEDOM to it all, too…a license for the rest of us to lie, cheat, steal, troll, dissemble, break promises, skip out on bills, play one side against the other, throw everybody else under the bus and just generally carry on in the spirit of our leader. Free, too, and off the hook, from having to lecture our children on always telling the truth, not throwing tantrums, not being a bully. 

None of this apparently matters anymore, if you don’t want for it to. In a way, we have NEVER been so free as we are this very moment. For now.

So if you’re asking, then yeah: this fucked-up country is absolutely getting the president it deserves. And if you’ve ever entertained romantic fantasies of being “The Resistance” to some cruel dystopian regime; of finding your inner hero as you conducted your own Underground Railroad or assembled your own Schindler’s List or navigated your own Hunger Games, this could be your ticket. 

So keep your household, real or figurative, the way you will…and then make sure that the way you keep your household is the way you go about your business in the bigger world beyond. Keep what matters to you in sight; the way forward clean and clear.

Or, if THAT’s your thing, tighten up your world until it’s no bigger than your little patch of property (the world, as it always does, will move on, pass you by, leave you behind, and be no worse for it). 

I myself will go on opening the door; welcoming the drop-in company and the strange new faces; rolling with and reveling in just getting to be part of something that’s ultimately, delightfully out of my claim and control. The ones who choose to shut themselves away in their own insulated Republic of New Freelandia are just as welcome to stop in and pay a neighborly visit…because you see, here in this house, we turn no one away.

So are you Ready for Trump? I am…BORN ready, and a little bit BORED waiting. And if you’re looking for me, y’all know which house I haunt.

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