this incredibly creepy charlie chaplin papercraft doll outside of my sleep study class is definitely going to keep me up tonight
“I don’t know about any dead body. I’m a biology teacher not a janitor! I’ve never even used that closet!!”
After only 11 years I got to see this very special person last week. Friendships where you can pick up where you left off even after years are very rare, but I wager Katie is one of those friends for more than a handful of people.
I went to a public comment session tonight in Denver re updating zoning code to include tiny home villages as part of the city’s housing first strategy. Council Member at large Robin Kniech ran the meeting. She’s very impressive. Like smartest person in the room impressive.
When I attend meetings like this, it strikes me that at the local level, at least, democracy can work. When people who care show up and invest in the thing something ineffable kind of congeals from among the people gathered there. It’s messy and imperfect but ultimately it’s a pretty good expression of our shared life together.
I made a comment after the meeting to an older friend—a retired architect—that I thought it all went pretty well except there was some bile in the back. He said, “Well no one threw anything and everyone got their say, so that’s about what you want.” When people gather in good faith something can be created out of difference that functions to serve all those who are gathered.
The problem is that so many people can’t be present at an event like the one I attended tonight. Part of the reason those of us with privilege should put our shoulders behind emancipatory work for those less fortunate than us is because we want to include voices of people unlike us. Otherwise, whatever we create will be only partial.
The People really can come to know itself and become more whole at a public meeting. If life were made to be a little less hard, if work were a little easier, if transportation was a little bit nicer, more accessible, faster, if you could trust that the kids would be safe for a couple hours, if there were just a few less worries in life, more people would be able to attend meetings like these. When you’re up against it, when just taking the next step and drawing the next breath is your total focus, of course a public comment meeting is your last priority.
But we absolutely need the voice of the single mother who has hope for her children to balance out the voice of the mean old bastard with one foot in the grave who wants to find the fault in every single idea proposed within earshot. The thing is, that mean old bastard is at every meeting and the single mother is missing from too many. What we’re left with is a society where the mean old bastard is overrepresented simply because he has the leisure and the privilege that makes it possible to show up and be what he is.
So it’s on those of us with privilege who aren’t merely mean old bastards to either make it possible for the single mother to make the meeting and ensure she’s empowered to raise her voice or to show up ourselves and represent her to the best of our abilities. To not do so is to shirk our responsibility as citizens and to ignore our deepest duty to love our neighbor.
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.
From his shitty apartment Mat would take the Light Rail to work. He’d pass University of Denver and think about college and college classes. He’d look out the window and fall in love with the girls who zipped by on their way to class as the train snaked its way south. Mat knew that living near the University was some kind of subconscious effort to hold on to the possibility of going back to New York and finishing his degree. He didn’t really dwell on it a lot though. Mat figured he never really meant to come to Denver so it’s like he wasn’t really there. It’s just a place he happened to be. He’d been gone a lot longer than the few weeks he planned to be gone when he left, but for right now it’s just where he was.
The day he started thinking about bouncing out of Denver, there was a guy on the train. One of those guys. A guy people try to avoid. He was this wild looking guy who wore two or three jackets at once, with a long beard and hair like a mane or a halo around his face. Mat guessed he was probably homeless, which wasn’t a big deal. He had cool conversations with some of the guys he met on the train now and then.
But this guy—if you made eye contact with him he’d choose something about you and yell at you about it until you got off or he got tired, whichever came first. The day they made eye contact, Mat was on his way to work and reading ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac. He’d read it so many times that the spine was cracked and coming apart. Pages and entire sections were loose so you couldn’t just read it, you kind of had to take care of it while you read or it would fly apart. Mat felt like that sometimes—a lot of the time—like he would disintegrate. Like if he wasn’t careful he’d end up with missing pages.
That day, the guy—the train guy—Mat had made eye contact with him. The guy looked at him. Looked right at him in the eyes and saw him. The guy saw Mat and Mat thought, “Fuck.” He put his nose back in his book. From across the car, the guy said loudly, “On the road!? You’re stuck on a train, dude! The train! The train to oblivion! The train to nowhere! The freedom train! Woo woo!” he made a train noise. “On the road!” he laughed at his own personal joke.
The guy kept talking at Mat and muttering and yelling about Jack Kerouac and being stuck on the train until Mat got off at his stop. The guy yelled, “Hit the road, Jack!” at him right before Mat stepped out the door.
Mat had left Bard College in New York planning to go to Santa Fe to check out Meow Wolf and to meet new people and to learn more about how it all worked. He told his parents he just needed a little bit of time away from school and New York, just a few weeks and, no, he didn’t want to stay at home. His mom tried to convince him he didn’t need to do that. That he had just as much of a right to be at Bard as anyone. But actually his parents had been pretty cool. His dad offered to help buy a ticket for Santa Fe but Mat had some money saved up from his work study at school and selling weed to his friends. So he got himself a bus ticket to Santa Fe.
Mat was sick of being on the bus at their stop in Denver so he decided to check out the city for a couple of days. He’d met a couple of guys smoking at an RTD stop and they invited him back to their place by DU. They were University of Denver students. English majors like him—like he had been. After a week he offered to help with the rent if he could find a job. That was cool with them, so he’d stayed.
Mat ended up working at one of those movie theaters with assigned seating where a server would bring your concessions stuff right to your seat. He worked straight closing shifts at the theater: 2 or 3pm until 10 or 11 at night. Sometimes he’d work late close where you were the last person out of the building at night, after the last guest left the building at 1am or later.
Now and then he’d grab a drink with his co-workers after work at the fake Irish bar down the block from the theater. But usually he’d go back to his closet-sized room and lay on his purple luxury inflatable camping mat where he’d smoke cigarettes and weed and read Kerouac or Flannery O’Connor until he passed out from exhaustion. Then he’d sleep late and drag himself out of bed to eat before his next shift.
Mat would get to the theater where he’d clock in and say, “Hey,” to everyone working that night. Everyone liked him pretty much, except for the conspiracy theory guy who didn’t really like anyone.
Mat was the kind of employee who was pretty good at everything and worked hard enough not to leave any slack. He made a good first impression. In most jobs Mat had, not long after he started managers would start to look at him as someone who might move up as a supervisor until they realized he thought most of what the managers did every day was corporate bullshit. So he never moved up but he’d become the go to guy who could train a new person, or fill a position in a pinch, or rescue one of his co-workers when they were in the weeds. Mat had once overheard one of the managers describe him as, “Useful but kind of an asshole,” which filled him with a sick pride.
One person who Mat actually considered a friend was Ned. Ned was an older guy. Older than most of the staff. In his late 50s, Mat guessed. He called Mat “Matthew,” even though that wasn’t his name. He was just Mat. But Mat liked it as a term of endearment. Mat called Ned “Nedward” in return.
Ned had been a lawyer in a former life, before he worked at the theater. Something had happened where he couldn’t work as a lawyer any more. He wasn’t allowed to drive a car either, so Mat sort of figured it had something to do with drinking. Mat never pried into it though. He was just happy to have someone to talk to at work.
Ned drove a modified Honda Ruckus scooter called a ‘Pitbull’ to the theater. There was some gray area or exception where Ned could drive a scooter but not a car, Mat guessed. The scooter was red with a black seat, which Mat thought was pretty cool, and Ned wore a helmet covered in old band stickers he said he got from a friend.
Mat had told Ned he liked the scooter and Ned asked if Mat might want to buy it. Ned knew Mat took the train to work.
“I’m getting a little car soon from the same guy who sold me the ‘bull,” he’d said.
“Wow, yeah I might be interested,” said Mat without really thinking. “When are you selling?”
“In a few weeks, give or take. You really think you’re interested? I’d throw in the helmet.”
Mat hesitated. He hadn’t really bought anything since arriving in Denver. Not clothes, not even books. So buying this scooter would be kind of a big deal—like a commitment. Mat wasn’t sure he was up for that. He said, “Why don’t you let me know when you’re looking to get rid of it and I’ll tell you then.”
Mat stepped off the train with the crazy train guy’s words ringing in his ears. “Hit the road, Jack!” He took it personal which bugged him. Mat trudged toward the theater thinking, “Hit the road? What the fuck, man?” He realized he was still holding his copy of ‘On the Road.’ He was squeezing it as tightly as he could, pissed off at the train guy but pissed at something else too—pissed off at the theater, at his parents, at his friends back at Bard and pissed at himself for still being in Denver.
Mat looked down at his book. “God dammit,’ Mat muttered. He stopped and shoved the book into his bag next to The Library of America’s Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor. The night before, Mat had read O’Connor’s story ‘Greenleaf.’ Flannery was vicious, Mat thought. She brutally murdered most of her characters—killed them by rolling their car, or running them over with a tractor, or in the case of Mrs. May in ‘Greenleaf’ goring them with a bull. Each of these was supposed to be some kind of revelation—a final confrontation with grace, violently delivered at the sharp end of a charging bull’s horns.
If Mat didn’t know it before Denver, he thought, he knew it now. There was no revelation, no rapturous climax revealing some final truth, no pearl that would be handed to you. There was no secret we’re all busting to find out. There was just going along to get along and that was that. “Whether you got along at Bard College or got along in Denver, it didn’t matter,” thought Mat, “All is vanity. Nothing new under the sun.”
Mat clocked in at work. He took a wizz and said “hey” to everyone and checked the schedule to see where he was working. Thankfully he was in the box office with Ned for the shift. As Mat entered the box, Ned bowed dramatically, greeting him. “Your throne, Sir Matthew,” he said, gesturing toward the row of high stools near the registers. They weren’t allowed to sit down in the box office but they could prop themselves on the edge of a stool if there were no guests around. Corporate bullshit.
“Hey, Nedward,” said Mat. Mat and Ned chatted idly about movies, books, politics, and theater gossip. They complained about guests and the “passholes” who crowded one side of the theater, there with free passes for a showing arranged by some scammy website trying to generate heat around a new film. When their managers weren’t looking, they threw popcorn at each other, trying to catch kernels in their mouth.
During a lull in conversation, Mat found himself thinking about the guy on the train earlier that day and said out loud, “Fuck it.”
“What,” said Ned.
“I’ll buy your moped, Ned,” said Mat, cringing at the rhyme.
Ned laughed at him, “Yeah?” he asked.
“You want it tonight?” asked Ned.
“How will you get home?”
“One of the bar guys will take me,” said Ned. “I don’t work the next couple of nights and I should have that car by Friday.”
Mat stepped into the back and breathlessly fumbled with his phone to send Ned the money. Ned entered the box after his break and flipped a key to Mat. Mat caught it and squinted down at the keychain. “You can have it,” said Ned, “It’s a bull. My friend’s not so clever play on Pitbull, I guess. I call him Ferdinand.”
“Cool, Thanks,” said Mat, pocketing the key and the small, chrome bull.
After they closed, Mat added the scooter keychain to the rest of his keys and headed for the door. Ned stood by the bar with a small group planning to head to the Irish place down the block. As Mat touched the door he heard Ned shout, “Gas up your scooter and ride, Matthew!”
Mat could hear his mom telling him to be careful as he puttered down the highway, but it was late and there wasn’t much traffic. He rode with a bid stupid grin on his face. When the Light Rail passed him he joyfully raised a middle finger at the train. Mat rode around like that for an hour or two—speeding by the city—ignoring it in a way you couldn’t when you mostly walked everywhere you went.
Mat threw off his clothes when he got home, asleep before he fell into bed.
The next morning Mat woke with a start. He grabbed his phone to check the time. “Shit,” he said. He’d never make the train in time to be on time at work. Hastily, Mat threw on some clothes and a jacket, stuffing his work clothes into his bag. Then Mat grabbed his keys and remembered the scooter. He sighed with relief and prayed a special ‘thank you’ to Ned.
On his way to the main drag that would take him to work, Mat was forced to stop at a Light Rail crossing. As the RTD train rumbled by, Mat glanced down at his keys in the ignition. He saw the bull hanging down by its chain. The light caught it and shined in his eye.
Mat squinted at the light and a vision met him. He saw himself: himself on the southbound train, himself sitting at the Light Rail crossing, himself at home, and at Bard, and in his shitbox DU apartment, himself on the scooter going somewhere, going nowhere.
The crossing guard began to rise in front of him. Mat looked up in a daze and twisted the handlebar, revving the engine. “Hit the road, Jack,” he whispered. A car behind Mat honked and he gunned it.