Wisconsin Hate Trip

by Jim Knipfel

Subways are better than cars. On subways, you don't have to talk to people. Just glare and be glared at. That's lesson number one from last week's visit to the Midwest, that Land Where Everything Is Bad.

The minute I left the Great Dead Heart of Wisconsin for Chicago a decade ago, I began to mythologize everything I'd left behind: Farm accidents, ritual slayings, Pabst Blue Ribbon, bland religious terror, Ed Gein, the meat processing plant down the road from my folks' house--it was all part of the thick, fetid fabric of life in the Midwest: lost, bleak and crazy-stupid violent. It was a neverending Killdozer album. It was, I thought, everything I was.

It had been a long decade since I'd seriously been back for more than a day or two. (Years in Chicago and Minneapolis don't count--those towns are just warts stuck on the surface of the cancer.) This past week--three and some days in Grand Rapids, Michigan, three and some in my hometown, Green Bay--has gone pretty far in smashing my myths and hopes.

Time was, I thought of spending a year living in a trailer park in Plainfield, Wisconsin, with a black and white TV and a couple of pit bulls, just for the twistedness of it all. But that dream's dead now. As dead as the whole fucking Midwest itself.

Leaving New York for Grand Rapids (where Laura's parents live), I never thought that I'd be landing in a world of almost unendurable sensory overload. Midwestern life, even as I remember it, even as I'd mythologized it, was supposed to be quiet (except for those occasional explosions of postal-worker rage). Quiet and simple.

The apartment in Brooklyn may have its everpresent soundtrack of noise and pain and alcohol-inspired smashing glass, but it's silent and peaceful compared with the eternal television babble, shrieking children, screen doors, car doors, stupidity, parental screeches, bad food and bad radio which runs roughshod and bloody over any attempted suburban conversation.

Second night we were there, Laura's brother (a reasonable but suffocated architect) and his wife (banality personified) invited us out for a night on the town, just to get us away from a crazy-evil mother and a slow, hacking racist father. We took them up on it, if only to get away from the deadly white noise of the eternal television.

As we drove around all the houses and lawns and the shrubs and roadside mailboxes, Laura's brother rolled the radio dial back and forth, trying to find some evidence of something happening in the city that night. It soon became obvious that no station in Grand Rapids had been sent a new promo single since 1985.

"Well, there is the Lizard House . . ." Laura's brother started, as I sat in the back seat, gnawing my fingers, not giving a good goddamn where we went as long as they carried Wild Turkey and were well-stocked with ashtrays.

"Naw, they don't want to go there. That's just weird," Ms. Banal cut back. My ears perked up. It was a hopeful sign, though not a huge, glowing neon hopeful sign. It would be fun to see what Grand Rapids found "weird."

"So what is this place?"

"New bar in town where all the weird people go. They all dress in basic black and all listen to weird music."

"Uh-huh. So let's go there." Maybe it was everything I hated, maybe that place was stuck in 1985, too, but it was better than sitting in a goddamned automo-bile listening to Duran-Duran.

"No, I don't think so," Ms. Banal whined. I fingered the knife I had lifted from Laura's parent's kitchen, wondering if it would be worth it. Before I had a chance to decide, the car pulled into a place called "Chico's" or "Jose's" or "El Kabong's" and ground to a slow stop. We were at the heart of Grand Rapids' nightlife.

After being carded for the first time in a good eight years and paying my two dollar cover (ouch!), I stomped blindly toward the bar and demanded two shots of Wild Turkey. The bartender stared at me dumbly.

"We don't got that."

"Well what do you got?"

He kept staring dumbly. "Uh, we gots, uh, uh, Yukon Jack."

"I don't want Yukon Jack. Let's keep it simple. Do you have any kind of whiskey at all?"

After some more stammering, I finally got a shot of Jack Daniels out of him. Then Laura made the mistake of asking for a bottle of Beck's.

"Is that some kind of vodka?"

This nonsense at least kept our attention off what was going on on the stage behind the bar. Playing itself out to awful extremes was that most useless and forbidding of suburban art forms, a white boy blues band. Junior Valentine and his All-Stars, they were called. Skinny white kids in skinny ties, playing soulless saxophones and limp, tinny guitar songs about "love." I swallowed the Jack Daniels, then a couple more, trying to flush the sound out of my head. It didn't work very well, and they just played and played and played.

"We saw these guys last summer, and Junior was wearing a lime green jacket and sunglasses."

"Musta really been sumpin'!"

The bloated white slut sitting next to me at the bar kept leaning my way and I kept leaning further my way, toward Laura. Finally, through her Pina Colada haze, she spoke.

"Hey, I like your hat."

I peered deep into her bleary, cum-hungry eyes. "Give it up, baby--no one will ever love you."

Then Laura leaned past me and peered into those same eyes. "Yeah, give it up baby--or you'll lose more than you can afford." Laura's sweet that way.

Before we knew it, but not soon enough, we were on a little prop job, winging our way to the greater Green Bay area, where the game would be continued. More slamming car doors, more screaming nieces, more televisions, melted together into a choking atmosphere, still demanding obligatory smiles. Everyone was so happy to see us. I guess I've always been a bad kid.

My folks took us to a "fancy" restaurant in town (actually, it was a "supper club"--a distinction I'm still trying to figure out), which happened to be owned by the cousin of a former student of mine at Minnesota, who happens to be the current girlfriend of a friend of mine at the Guggenheim. Small fucking world.

I asked for a wine list and was handed a small piece of cardboard with four wines printed on it. Ten minutes after we ordered a couple, the waitress came out of the kitchen, gleefully announcing, "Boy, I sure had a hard time getting the cork out of that bottle!" Then I discovered, much to my horror (after spending a couple years as a restaurant critic) that each entree came with an inescapable side order of canned Veg-All, soft as baby puke, smothered in Velveeta. I may hardly scream with class, but I had trouble choking that shit down.

I think it was Thomas Pynchon who defined a miracle as what happens when one world drops into another. But I was thrown from one world into another ten years ago, and trying to return, even for a couple of days, was hardly miraculous.

Granted, the world I've been living in has been an ugly one, full of violence and hatred and soaked in alcohol and drugs--but at least there's an honesty about it. If someone hates you in my world, they let you know it. If someone wants to kill you, they try.

In the giant, neverending bleak suburb that is the Midwest, every smile hides a lie and every eye is blind to its own hatreds. The hate is there, but the white noise and sensory overload of the suburbs is so deadening that it makes the act of introspection impossible.

In my world, introspection is a necessity--you always have to be aware of what's going on in your head and your guts, otherwise you'll be ground up and left for the rats.

Maybe its because there are no rats in the Midwest. Especially since I've left.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the Welcomat. All rights reserved.

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