The Great American Wasteland, Chapter 1
Part One: Broken Chains, Dreams, & Minds
Another week, another swirly adventure Down the Pipes. We have a bunch of new readers from my guest post on Liz Plank’s Airplane Mode (welcome!), one of my favorite Substacks by a favorite human who has done more for my understanding of the masculine psyche than 30+ years in this meatsack of a testosterone factory. Her book For the Love of Men is a must read for all guys and the people who love us, do check it out.
For the uninitiated, this is a semi-private, mostly random weekly blog for all the good people I know (and the good people those good people know, aka all of you). If you like it, share it with the good people in your life.
Last week was intense. This week is intense. I hope you’ll all find a march to join on Saturday, it’s important. I’m distraught, but I’m also hopeful that this is motivating a level of attention and action that we haven’t seen in a year we expected to have low voter turnout. This is not a blog about that though, despite the amount of mindshare it’s taking up for me right now.
I’m committed to keeping this publication a smattering of all different things at different times, and I promised my longtime followers some unreleased writing from the last decade plus of my digital silence. So this week, I’m sharing the first chapter of the book I’ve been working on for the last 7 years (lol, still unfinished of course), The Great American Wasteland.
Keep in mind, I started this in 2015, a time when I was rudderless and ruinous post-Gawker, and notably, a time before the Trump fire flickered to life. It was actually Trump who made me mostly abandon this project, it felt both too on the nose and a little too unserious considering just how dark things would eventually get.
Maybe I’ll publish more here as the weeks and months tick by, a kind of private/public publication for y’all as I find the nerve to share more of it. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll just have to wait and find out. Until next time.
Chapter 1: Broken Chains, Dreams, & Minds - Part 1
It’s 10:16am on Monday, July 6th, 2015.
My day started as lots of them do, jolting out of a vivid dream about the utter destruction of Manhattan, though during the chaos my attention was focused mainly on a lovely woman who was showing an exaggerated interest in my storybook heroism. The whole scene was completely cartoonish, like a Frank Miller graphic novel adapted by Robert Rodriguez in IMAX. The woman was a powerful cross between Lana from Archer and Grace Jones from that James Bond film with Christopher Walken, and the two of us were kicking serious ass as the financial district burned to the ground. We were about to get to the fun stuff when a shrill T-Mobile jingle yanked me back to lucidity with almost comical timing. This is also why I seldom use an alarm.
Today is exceptionally different than other days though, because today is what some might cheekily call “the first day of the rest of my life.” See, after 8 years of masquerading around the country as a Media Advertising Executive with an expense account and no bottom limit of my willingness to shill for your shitty corporation’s ad agency, I have broken free from the trappings of corporate America and intend to remain this way for as long as possible. No job, no problem...or so I tell myself.
That is the American Dream, after all, isn’t it? Chase the money until you never have to chase it again. Work until you don’t *need* to work another day for the rest of your life. That’s not to say you’ll stop working forever, but your work will be entirely for you, not some rich fucker who may or may not know your name (and even if he or she does, it’s almost assured that he or she doesn’t care). Pull yourself out of the suffocating grip of credit card debt, mortgage or rent payments, and the cold-stare of your weak ass 401k balance, if you even have that kind of thing. Do what you want, where you want, when you want, because you have everything you want. It’s a lie the capitalist titans tell you is attainable through hard work, the lottery, game shows, and the hope of an 8% annual return on your portfolio investments. Most of us buy it wholesale. So when that kind of freedom from the rat race is even fleetingly attainable, you are obligated to take a crack at it. It’s a crack for all the people who dream of a day when they (or perhaps at best, their kids) get their shot at such a life...if it ever comes which--let’s be real--it probably won’t. Not these days.
I’ll explain how I got to this envious point at twenty eight over the course of this adventure we’re embarking on together, but I think it’s prudent to first tell you a little bit about my trip before I do anything else. Over the next 3 months (hopefully more, depending on how things go), I’ll be on a bit of an aggressive jaunt through various corners of North and Central America, visiting cities and towns large and small. Aggressive in the places I go, the people I meet, the experiences that I agree to, and the situations I find myself in. This is not anything new for me, but it may feel foreign to you. Know now that my intention is not to offend or shock you at any point, though you may feel both at times. If it’s any consolation, know that I probably felt mildly shocked myself. Behavior like this should not be encouraged, let alone published, but I firmly believe that to properly show the ugliness in the world, we need to get a little ugly ourselves.
In order to keep you, the reader, in suspense, I won’t say exactly where I’m going until it’s time for me to be there. After all, most plans are subject to change at any point and, to be completely honest, I haven’t fully considered my entire itinerary myself just yet.
But this morning, I blew up some stray firecrackers I found under my luggage in my rental car, returned said rental car, smoked half a joint behind a suburban laundromat, and proceeded to eat breakfast at the International House of Pancakes. IHOP, as the adopted corporate name and ticker symbol insist. This somehow felt like the most fitting place to start an aggressively weird journey into the American Dream (or lack thereof, as I intend to uncover).
There is nothing International or House-like at IHOP. There ARE delicious pancakes and high-fructose flavored syrup (fact: the “Strawberry” flavor has never once been in contact with an actual strawberry, it’s just a wild concoction of chemicals created in New Jersey to convince you you’re eating fruit, like most “natural flavors” we experience in processed food). And while IHOP may lack any kind of worldly intelligence beyond the dozen or so outdated flags adorning the ceiling, it is a grim snapshot of what I’ll just refer to as The Great American Wasteland.
I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic when I say that, btw. Those who know me know I am a fervent patriot who knows the preamble by heart and proudly pledges allegiance to these united states. The Great American Wasteland, however, is a dark, chunky slice of our country’s existence, one that is seldom reported on properly and is frankly so drab and depressing that it’s a wonder you’ve even bothered to give enough of a shit to read about it in the first place. It occurs to me that IHOP is a bleak embodiment of our current American spirit, filled with watered down coffee, the cracked lacquer of cartoonish international diversity, an overworked, underpaid, minority-filled waitstaff, the battered customers who look like they all work similarly crusty jobs, and the saddest version of breakfast for under $10 you can get outside of a QSR.
I also don’t mean to sound glib or dismissive of this state. I started my career 10 years earlier in a place just like IHOP about a mile down the road at Chicken Holiday, “A Holiday From Home Cooking!” This subject is a serious and important matter that I am taking the time to write about because I care about the people trapped here, and we owe it to ourselves to examine how a place like this could continue to bring pain, punishment, and pancakes to all who find themselves entering their flimsy doors. How did we get here? How did I get here?
I’m shown to my table by a young teenage girl who strikes me as the “face” of the restaurant. Her shirt is a different color than everyone else’s on staff, she’s the most obnoxiously friendly person on the clock, and she may be the only white woman under 60 working there. Definitely the youngest employee, probably still in high school. I don’t know this for sure as I haven’t met the entire staff, but the only other white woman I saw working was a dead ringer for a skinny but less-limber Betty White. Considering age, race, and gender, everyone working at this IHOP is considered a workplace minority, which is great for representation until you realize we’re talking about making minimum restaurant wage at south shore Long Island IHOP. The teenager seats me, smiles, and goes back to her podium to text her friends, likely about which beach they’re meeting at when she gets off at 1pm. This is probably her summer gig; she couldn’t give a fuck about this place because her parents almost certainly make enough money to give her a path out of there when she wants it. She may be one of the only employees who doesn’t absolutely *need* this job. It’s no wonder she’s so goddamn bubbly compared to everyone else.
Once she’s left me with the laminated menu and Summer Promotional Deals card, I survey the room. I’m only a little bit paranoid, wondering if the suitcase I left up front with the recently extinguished roach in the front pocket is catching the olfactory attention of the staff. It won’t, of course, they’re far too occupied to smell my luggage. And even if they did, they’re definitely too busy to deal with it. Me and my dank stench are no threat to them, but a false accusation that gets shouty or lengthy interaction with the Nassau County Police Department could fuck up their day royally. It isn’t worth it, I think to myself. The paranoia retreats and I’m left to continue taking stock of the wretched cafeteria I’ve brought myself to, wrapped in all the warm privilege a large, decently dressed white man carries in places like this.
Across the room from me is a young, unattractive couple that looks more miserable than I thought was publicly possible. Their lifeless eyes are staring down at their plates, broken only by a few moments of murmured conversation. I can only imagine what they are bumbling to each other about. “Danny and Michelle broke up.” “I know, you told me yesterday.” “Oh.” “Yeah.” “...” “Can you pass the syrup?” “Sure, which?” “I don’t care.” And then they’re back to the hollow silence of dashed dreams and the unforeseen disappointment of having settled on one another. I’ve been in bad relationships before, I’ve had those tired conversations before, and I’ve given that defeated look before. But never at such an extreme level and in such a grievous place as an IHOP on a Monday morning. I find myself struggling to look at literally anything else, but their energy is soul-crushingly magnetic.
Elsewhere around the restaurant, which is surprisingly busy for a Monday morning, there are multiple variations on this theme. The couples all range in age from mid-20’s to late 70’s, but they share the same visage as our miserable couple; beaten down and fresh out of fucks. Some have young children with them, their misery is supplanted by exhaustion. Their eyes scream “how did my life become this” but they are too occupied trying to keep junior from creating a scene to say anything of that sort. I have fond memories of my parents taking me to IHOP back in 1990 or so, but in those post-Reagan years the corporate stranglehold on everyday Americans had yet to fully squeeze the life out of everyone involved. There was still hope then, but what fools we all were.
At this point, I’ve decided that for $8.99, I’d like to try the “Classic Breakfast Crepes” which, stunningly, aren’t classic. Or crepes, really. They’re hardly breakfast. The description lists an “egg, cheese and ham filled crepe with melted cheddar cheese and bacon on top.” The photo next to it looks like someone furiously wanked on and in a rolled up pancake and then threw Baco Bits at it in disgust.
As a glutton for all things...well, gluttonous...I order the coronary disaster from the frenetic waitress who can’t even make small talk without seeming rushed. It’s as if she’s doing the handbook-mandated absolute minimum to seem accommodating, and anyone with even half an ounce of empathy would see she’s about one short stack away from flipping off the portly manager and peeling out of the parking lot. But she can’t. So she won’t.
It’s hard not to feel at least a little guilty at this point. Here I am, stoned before noon on a Monday and about to embark on a summer of international adventure, while this poor woman (most literally) has to smile and pretend to give a damn about me just long enough so her fat fuck boss doesn’t give her hell for being brusque with the customers. I catch a few errant details from her brief conversation with the family of 4 sitting next to me; they appear to be regulars and they look just as fed up as the waitress. According to my eavesdropping, she’s on her 9th day straight, not sure where her teenager is, and just got over a summer cold that she was forced to work through. There’s a strained timbre under everyone’s voice in the conversation, a kind of audible shrug in every sentence uttered. After about 30 seconds of small talk there’s some mention from the waitress of having to “go away to clean up” for a few weeks, a line of inquiry that sounds endlessly fascinating and could maybe even be at the core of the darkness in this place, but before I can ruminate on it further a busboy tosses my meal on the table with about as much fanfare as one might throw a suitcase in a trunk. It looks terrible.
The “crepe” is simply a normal pancake rolled up, but I dare not mention that to anyone. I assume that the majority of people in that IHOP have never actually seen a real crepe, but I’m not here to insult this room’s worldly experience. The scrambled eggs are like the eggs one might find in an Aramark breakfast buffet on campus: congealed into a dense rectangle of brainy yellow rubber. I won’t even start on the dozens of perfectly uniform ham cubes inside or the cheddar-flavored lard that was smeared over the top, but needless to say, this breakfast is a perfect goodbye to the US for a month.
I eat as much as I can, which is impressively about half, pay the $12 check with what I assume will be considered a generous $8 tip, and roll my luggage the fuck out of there. The train to the airport is coming in 10 minutes, and if I miss it I’ll be stuck waiting for 30 minutes at the Massapequa Park LIRR station, a completely different but similar kind of hell.
Unwilling to sprint across Sunrise Highway, I missed my train by about 30 seconds.
Chapter 1, Part 2 is now available below: