Fond recollections of a low-rent existence
In the fall of 1991, I moved into my new place in DeKalb, Illinois. I lived alone on the second floor of an old blue house, out by the railroad yards and the water tower, on the edge of town.
I was working at a place called Creative Calligraphy, an operation that manufactured those 'country craft'-type gewgaws. Their best-selling items were framed calligraphic prints of sayings like 'A House Is Not a Home Without a Meow' and 'Bless This Mess.' I worked in the warehouse, unloading trucks, assembling frames, and running a machine that cleaned the glass used to make the framed pictures. It was maddening, repetitive work. To keep our sanity we blasted rock music over the incessant blare of the machine and 'sang' along at the top of our lungs. Van Halen I, the first Traveling Wilburys album, News of the World by Queen.
I liked the people I worked with. There was Gary Whitehair, a crazy brilliant writer/madman who hoped someday to complete his great novel Brain Fever; Josh, the owner's son who overcame that stigma to become 'one of the guys'; Al, a gentle-spirited and quiet-spoken former National Guardsman; Ed, the hard-drinking, always-smiling bodybuilder; Joe G., who got laid off from his job making screwdrivers across the street and brought to the warehouse his love of Bart Simpson and hair metal; Billy Bob, the country boy who loved his girlfriend and his flatbed pickup; and Jim Mack, the psychedelic local guitar hero and general lunatic. We were a sorry bunch of suckers, a ragtag band of misfits and losers, but I think we knew from the start that we were all brothers, connected by the madness of our mind-numbing manual labor, by the dead ends we all woke up each morning looking down. We ate toaster pastries all day long and debated our sorry lives, this sorry world.
So I worked this crazy job and tried to get by. I was making my comics at night and on weekends, trying to figure out my life.
I'd come home from work, park in the alley, and come up the back stairs to my apartment. The apartment was huge and cheap, windows everywhere and wide-open dusty floors.
Cooking dinner meant opening a can of refried beans onto a tortilla and microwaving them one after the other. I put preshredded cheddar cheese on them and, when I was fancy, some lettuce. I ate them with tortilla chips and generic cola. They were damned good.
Once a week I'd pull out the little old nine-inch TV my parents had given me, balance it on a chair, and watch Roseanne in grainy black and white. When it was over I'd unplug it and put it back in the closet. I was in a weird state of mind. I'd listen to records by Brasil '66 or the Tijuana Brass and draw comics all evening. The comics just came out of me. I'd stack them up, and when I had enough pages I'd go down to the copy shop and put out a new issue of King-Cat.
At 11 each night I'd go to bed on an old springy mattress. Outside, the night sky went past, full of stars, the moon, luminous clouds. The world was a magical place.
I'd work all week, and on Fridays it was like letting out a long-held-in breath. Sometimes I'd drive in to Chicago to see friends or hang out with my girlfriend, but increasingly I just stayed at home. I enjoyed my solitude and the quiet apartment. I enjoyed making comics.
On Saturday mornings, I'd go downtown to the Salvation Army and look for new Tijuana Brass albums, or Captain and Tennille. There was no shortage of these things. I'd buy strange objects for a dollar and bring them home. Life was good.
On fall evenings, I'd wander through my neighborhood: the weird little houses, the church, children's bikes knocked over on front lawns, pickup trucks on gravel driveways. Who were these people -- my neighbors? Above me the sky rolled mysterious, the Midwestern sky in fall. The world crackled with energy, and the energy was in me. The energy and the world and I were one.
Sometimes after work we'd go down to the Twin Tavern and drink beer, order onion rings, and wait for our sausage sandwiches. Men in flannel jackets and baseball caps sat at the darkened counter, a silent TV set flickering in the corner, unwatched. This was like a dream come true. We'd laugh and eat and step outside into the nighttime air, say so long with our bellies full of beer and good food, the moonlight shining bright through cold backlit white clouds.
The Twin Tavern had pinwheels in the urinals that spun when you peed on them. It just didn't get better than that.
Still, I wasn't totally satisfied. I thought I could be more free. My job made me increasingly numb -- I could laugh about it, but inside I knew it wasn't for me. What I wanted was to feel each day, to really live each day. It was an abstract concept in my head, but it was pulling me along toward something.
I remember waking up one workday morning and just wishing somehow that the day could be over. And I thought how sad that was -- to just want your life to go away. I didn't wanna live like that. I wanted to wake up each day and feel glad I was alive. And for the first time that didn't seem like too much to ask for.
My old friend Donal had moved to Denver a few months earlier, and he entreated me with tales of blue skies and mind-blowingly cheap rent. I was ready to go. I made plans to leave for Denver in June.
Before I left, I threw a big party at my apartment -- for friends and near-friends, all the people I had grown to know and love. I threw a party for six years in DeKalb, that blank, lovely little Midwestern college town; for the bars and bands, the girlfriends, the train tracks, the old brick buildings, and the river. I threw a party for the town I entered as a confused and frightened, excited little kid, and from which I emerged, six years later, full of possibility and hope. I was not yet an adult, but I knew I wasn't a child anymore.
So everyone came to my party. We drank sickeningly sweet alcoholic concoctions I had invented myself. John R. showed movies on a sheet hung in the doorway. I filled one room with Mylar clouds suspended from the ceiling. I got very drunk.
At 3 a.m. only a few guests remained. I was standing in the doorway waving good-bye to people when I saw my estranged friend Fred. We hadn't really spoken in a couple of years and we didn't speak a word this time either, but just automatically fell into each other's arms and started sobbing.
We cried and shook, holding on for dear life, for love. I remember his leather jacket, heavy and wet with my tears running down. I was leaving DeKalb. I was leaving my home.
John Porcellino, a California-based cartoonist, began independently publishing King-Cat Comics and Stories in 1989. This story was reprinted from King-Cat #65 (Nov. 2005). Subscriptions: $12 (4 issues) from Box 170535, San Francisco, CA 94117; www.king-cat.net.