Dallas Clayton Book Tour: Driving/Dying to Reno

An amber sign up ahead announces from the darkness, “CHAINS REQUIRED NEXT 30 MILES.”   It’s the end of May, where everywhere else in the world is luxuriating in the throws of early summer.  But Reno, special place that it is, is having a fucking snowstorm.

Micky is behind the wheel when we pull over to the side of the road after being waved over by a man wearing a waterproof-looking suit and heavy rubber boots.  Law abiding citizen that I am, I immediately think these guys work for the government in some capacity.  As it turns out, they’re just capitalizing on the sign a mile back.  After two minutes into a window-side conversation with him, we figure out he’s part of a crew selling and installing chains to the tune of $90.  It’s highway robbery…literally.

We ask the man if we can please have a moment to discuss the issue and wind up the window to debate whether or not this is a total scam or its actually worth forking out the cash just so we don’t die early on into the book tour.  After deciding that this little roadside setup is 3 parts scam and 1 part legitimate necessity, we err on the side of cheap badasses and decide we’re going to carry on sans chains.

The first mile back on the road seems safe enough; there is snow on the side of the road but nothing our little mini van can’t handle.  Soon enough, however, the snow begins to coat all lanes in a thick layer of white.  Another amber alert sign up ahead reminds us “CHAINS REQUIRED.”  My blood pressure escalates.

Micky and Rubin have switched sides.  Rubin is from Kansas.  I make a joke about snow in his hometown in regards to his experience driving in it.  He assures me he’s had plenty of practice.  For some reason, most likely The Wizard of Oz being my only reference point for the state, I didn’t even know it snowed in Kansas.  I never even thought about it geographically and connected the dots.  His confidence in his driving abilities – in combination with a medium-grade, pervasive neuroses similar to my own – makes me happy he’s behind the wheel.

Dallas turns on the florescent reading lights and commences the sixth round of Trivial Pursuit, which I’ve discovered is a game that just asks ridiculous questions like “What is the subgenre of this subgenre?” or “What type of grandstand music did Lyndon B. Johnson listen to while in the Lincoln Bedroom?”  Two times out of ten the answer in the musical category is either a repeat of the question it just asked or “Celine Dion.”  I can’t tell if I’m stupid or the game is.  I’ll be generous and surmise to guess it’s a little bit of both.

The snow gets thicker as we twenty-five-mile-per-hour our way up the hill, getting passed by gigantic angry semi-trucks and cars with chains.  My stomach turns and I know myself well enough to just call a neurotic spade a neurotic spade and put myself to sleep like I do on airplanes.  I can’t have panic attacks when I’m sleeping; it’s pretty much the same principle by which anxiety medications work upon – you can’t be anxious when you’re numb to the world.  I make the decision between naptime or a heart attack.  I take the former.

I close my eyes, leaving the boys with their Trivial Pursuit cards, fall asleep, and wake up in Reno…alive.  Imagine that.


Welcoming a New York Summer

They warned me about it.  They told me I wouldn’t want to stick around.  Rumors about New York summers abound, but one thing cannot be denied, the weather coming in through my window right now f’ing sucks.  As I look upon the future of my life with this city, the next few months will be fraught with dehydration, irritation, and, if I’m lucky, possibly nocturnal heat stroke.

Now, I’m not unfamiliar with New York summer heat.  I’ve been here before.  But my previous experiences always had an expiration date – a magical number on a calendar that meant I could get the hell out of dodge before I passed out or killed someone.

I arrived for my first semester of NYU on the last week of August, just at the tail end of the summer heat.  My dorm, while on the notoriously luxurious 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village, had maintained its century-long stance on no air conditioning.  If Mark Twain could do it – a reported resident of the former hotel – then the children of academia sure as hell could.

While the building itself offered more charm than its sterile, blue-linoleumed counterparts, it did lack the creature comforts generally provided for by buildings of a newer era.  Take, for instance, multiple windows and cross-ventilation, something I had, up until this point, taken largely for granted.

When I arrived to my assigned room on the fifth floor, I opened the door onto the green-carpeted palace I would call home for the next nine months and my eyes went immediately to the lone and narrow window looking out onto the “courtyard.”  Do not be fooled; a New York courtyard does not bear any similarity to a courtyard by any other name.  There are neither lush palm trees, nor Mexican pavers.  No out of work actor lazes about pretending to read scripts.  Oh, no.  My “courtyard” was simply the gray space in between multiple buildings jutting up against one another.  The lack of visually stimulating landscape outside of my window forced me to later create a handmade sign titled “A Room With (out) a View.”  Personally, I found it to be quite clever.

On that first day, quick as a whip I snapped up the bed closest to that precious sliver of glass offering views to the inside of the outside world.  Like a temperamental flower, I longed to crane my neck towards an ever-evasive sun that never seemed to want to hang around for more than two minutes before slipping away to shed light on the rooftop gardens of Greenwich millionaires.  I’m sure Sarah Jessica Parker and Mathew Broderick got their fair share of sunshine.

As I mentioned before, my dorm room lacked any real method for circulating fresh oxygen.  With no exit strategy, air would simply look at my open window and debate combing inside.  It sat there, stagnant and pensive, waiting to be sucked through by an open door, an open window, something, anything.  But not until the second semester did a savior for my precious fresh air come, when my neighbors across the hall decided to coordinate by leaving both of our doors open, allowing air to rush in from 10th Street and grace me with its presence.

Those first two weeks of school were a test of my California mettle.  At night I lay away, sleeping on top of my cobalt blue sheets, listening to the not-so-subtle sound of someone else’s air conditioning turbines turn on.  At first, not realizing what an air conditioning turbine was, I was terrified.  However, once I discovered what the raucous waking me up every hour on the hour was, I simply resigned to overt jealousy.  Bastards and their 72-degree bedrooms.  One day I’ll show you!  One day when I’m a successful something-or-other with one hundred thousand dollars worth of student loans to repay.  Then I’ll have my own apartment, with my own air conditioning!  And then you’ll be sorry!  I mean, maybe you’ll be sorry!  [Insert dehydration-induced delirious laugh here]

Summer eventually gave way to fall, that painfully short-lived month and a half between “hot as hell” and “cold as shit.”  Winter chapped my lips and made my nose run, making me forget about the humidity and the sweating immediately after exiting a cold shower.  Compared to winter, summer’s a breeze, I thought.  Ha!

Tonight, as I sit in my bedroom, watching my feeble white fan from Kmart move around hot air, I contemplate breaking down and getting one of those hideous window unit air conditioners.  For two months I will vow to put aside my aesthetic neuroses, quiet that bothersome “Can Do” attitude that makes me think I can survive a New York summer without AC, and just accept the fact that the form of my bedroom must be temporarily compromised for the function of me not drowning in my own sweat by July.  And then I look out my gigantic window and realize…it’s too f’ing big to fit one of those ugly things anyway.

Here’s to inhaling my neighbor’s cigarette smoke hot night after hot night after hot night.


The Dallas Clayton Awesome Book Tour – Day 1

The outside of the school is shockingly quiet.  Purple leaves of a fruitless plum tree rustle in the breeze.  A pink plastic headband lays abandoned on concrete.  Three of my future travel companions round the corner: Dallas with a box of books in hand, Micky holding a guitar, and Audio, Dallas’ son, wearing a shirt with neon dinosaurs.  And so the adventure begins.

We sign in and are given giant yellow stickers to distinguish us as visitors although the fact is apparent enough as it is.  Just to the left is a library where the reading will be held.  Dallas wrote a book and tours the country reading to children; I’m just along for the ride.

Temporary metal bookshelves brought in for last book fair of the school year stand arranged in a circle.  Clunky gray metal.  Gigantic, easily read titles.  Until this moment I have completely forgotten about book fairs and how much I loved them.  Taking ten or fifteen of my parents’ dollars and buying stories about bunnies or adventures on a river.  I loved to read.  You forget what you were like as a kid.  You forget that you once did things simply because you liked them.  You forget that you just didn’t think so much.  You forget how that life was good.

Audio turns seven in a week.  His face is sweet and perfect; his little nose sprinkled with freckles.  Trying to make friends, I ask him what his favorite dinosaur on his shirt is; he points at a place on his elbow where there are no dinosaurs at all.  This kid is thinking in the abstract before he even understands what “abstract” means.  I love him already.  Kids rip your heart out that way sometimes.  You just want to give it over to them carte blanche.

He runs towards a pile of black fabric in the corner, knowing with a childlike instinct that it’s a soft heap of beanbags.  He tucks himself under a shelf and sits there for as long as he wants, looking out over the carpeted room lined with books.  I’m so far removed from my youth that I would never have even thought to just launch right into them the way he did.  Instead, I start thinking about why they are there, what they are filled with, if they’re made with canvas or tarp or heavy-duty cotton.  Useless thoughts.  Audio just goes.  There’s trust in youth – trust and adventure and fun.  Now I am spending my adult life trying to replicate this mentality, this passion for life and living.  Not just in brief, treacherously fleeting moments, but permanently…all of the time…now…tomorrow…always.  That’s why I flew across the country to go on a children’s book tour with three virtual strangers.  This is living.

The first group of children is ushered inside.  They are from the kindergarten class.  A librarian with graying strawberry blonde hair and reading glasses asks her charges to politely keep their book fair money tucked in their pockets and to not play with it while Dallas is reading.  In my estimation, kindergarteners are in that adorable-primate phase.  Their brains are still mushy and they get distracted easily.

Dallas asks if anyone would like to help him pass out books.  In the next few days I will see how Dallas manages to flatter children by constantly requesting their involvement, asking questions, listening.  Wherever we go, children eagerly shoot up their hands in hopes of having the chance to just get involved.  Two children are chosen and they pass around hyper-green books to their classmates.

“This book is for Audio, the most awesome person I know.”

They sit on their knees, cross-legged, attentive.  Little bodies with little hands and little feet wearing little shoes.  They are dressed in clothes their parents picked out for them.  They are all miniature versions of what their parents think they should be.  The class quiets down and Dallas begins with his son standing alongside him.

“There are places in the world where people do not dream…”

The children flip past rocket-powered unicorns and musical baboons.  The thick pages make gentle cardboard noises as they turn.  “This smells new,” one child says while pressing his nose into the folds of his book.  Everyone follows suit, giggling in agreement.

At the end of the reading, the kids automatically turn their books into Dallas in a pile at his feet.  They know the drill.  Organized chaos.  You forget what it’s like, being so little and trainable and wild and bubbly.  It’s almost impossible to imagine.  “Criss cross apple sauce!” hoots the librarian, sending all of the children into a seated position on the floor.

Another group comes in after they leave, this time from the first grade.  It’s amazing to see how rapidly children grow and what difference a year makes.  They are physically larger, sharper, more alert and engaged.

At the end of their reading Dallas has a question and answer segment, something he does after every reading.  There are always some lighter questions like “How do you make the cover of the book?” or “Where do you get that gold sticker from?”  But there’s always a question or an answer that illuminates some simple yet profound truth.

“What happens when a good writer makes a mistake?” asks a seated child.

Dallas suggests that Audio respond.  And then Audio, at just six years old, says, “Turn it into something new!”  The answer is true and malleable and accepting of our mistakes and in possession of such understanding on how the world works and how to deal with our expectations of ourselves.  The statement is so important for children to learn and adults to remember.  I nearly cry.

The tour will be filled with many of these small moments.


Music Review: Public Image Limited

My friend Griffin invites me to see Public Image Limited – a British 80s punk band I have only recently heard about from a friend that described their recent Coachella performance as “fucking ridiculous”.  Of course, I was left with no other choice but to go.

The Music Hall of Williamsburg’s grandiose title strikes me as a bit misleading.  As I walked ten minutes in the wrong direction and the subsequent fifteen-minute correction, I nursed visions of a restored antique theater with walls of gold leaf and various gilding-of-the-lilies.  As Griffin walks towards me, ticket in hand, I take one look at the 90s glass cubes embedded in the MHW’s walls and realize this is no Grand Ole Opry.

We walk the dark stairs lined with harsh blue fluorescents.  The air is hot and music pumps into the hallway from doors on each level.  When we arrive at the upper level, I check my surroundings.  I feel like I’m on the set of 90210 circa 1993.  The décor is so garish it doesn’t strike me as real; everything looks like a stage prop.  I look around in hopes of finding Luke Perry sulking in some dark corner.

Griffin and I stand behind the DJ booth, a vantage point that offers a full view of an aging punk rock crowd – a predominately male group sporting black t-shirts and shaved heads.  It takes me about thirty five seconds to realize I know this lead singer from somewhere.  He turns in profile, and although gravity has dragged his face down a bit since I last some him last, it all comes flooding back: Johnny Rotten.

Johnny Rotten is a character from my MTV viewing days of yore, back when they used to run decent music videos and Kurt Loder was the pop culture voice of God.  Mr. Rotten was a fixture in many infamous interviews in which he told some poor sod given the excruciating task of attempting to carry on a conversation with this notorious, hostile lunatic to “fuck off” and other such unsolicited advisories.  I never really knew the music; I knew the man.

Well, it appears that Johnny hasn’t changed.  After their opening song, a punk rock version of a love ballad, Johnny grabs a towel, wipes his face, and yells into the crowd something like, “If you fucking spit in my face one more fucking time I will jump into that crowd and macerate your fucking face.”  Point noted.

Aging celebrities are an interesting breed.  Despite our collective awareness that all humans are but mere mortals, the pedestal we’ve placed these people on is so impossibly high that we expect them to remain eternally youthful, exuberant, beautiful.  We want celebrities to be everything we can’t be because they already sort of are.  But no one can cheat death, not even David Bowie.  Not even Johnny Rotten

Johnny wears a black ensemble six straps away from a straight jacket.  His pants hang generously from hip to hemline; the billowy and forgiving nature of his outfit makes me think that he simply rolled out of his coffin this evening and went to work in his pajamas.  At one point I am sure I see drawstrings indicating my hunch is correct.  Johnny’s hair stands up from the top of his head like an island of blonde daggers.  He looks like a Bruce Willis Chia Pet.  Behind him stands his bassist, wearing a PIL shirt and a plaid kilt.

Their songs are excruciatingly long; the type of length I had previously assumed was reserved for jam bands like OAR and Phish.  It feels as though each song is a journey of a band getting progressively more wasted and keeping the recorder going just because they’re too fucked up to shut it off and move on.  My interest wanes after about minute 4:30 of each track, but that could just be that my limited attention span is simply a product of the ADD culture I live in.  Who am I to expect variety and musical arcs in every song I listen to?  Then again, nine minutes of grating baseline and lyrics about birds – a subject that Johnny Rotten seems quite fond of – is enough to rattle even the most stalwart of concertgoers.

The dance moves of Johnny Rotten are a strange combination of mummy meets monkey.  He raises his arms shoulder height, creating a hunchbacked jig that reminds me of a vaguely sinister “Monster Mash.”  These moves do accompany the band’s general theme: everyday is Halloween if you are dark enough to want it to be.

Johnny is like the ambassador of walking contradictions.  He speaks about “our nation” as though he is American, venturing into a brief riff about Sarah Palin then moving into other political topics.  In the middle of an impromptu monologue about the value of friendship, Johnny looks at the back of the room and screams, “Turn down those lights you fucking idiot.”  From there, he seamlessly transitions into a dissertation on forgiveness.

Towards the end of their two-hour set, Public Image Limited gets increasingly liberal with the bass.  Johnny calls out for more with the repeated demand “WaaaaaalllttttttttEERRRRR!!!!  Can we have mORREE bbbbAASSSS??!!”  I put my fingers in my ears and experience the strange sensation of having my heart rattle within my chest.  It’s like an audio defibrillator.  My spinal column hums and Griffin points at the floor at a bottle of water, its contents experiencing a similar sensation to my own, percolating with vibration to a near boil.  When it all ends Griffin accurately compares the resulting body-feel to skateboarding over gravel for a couple hours.


Dia Beacon: Part II

The train pulls out of darkness and traverses the ugly periphery of New York City.  These are always ugly places, these outskirts.  Paris, New York, London.  They’re all the same drab, graffiti-covered dumping grounds for the everythings people don’t want to look at.  Trash heaps travel on barges.  Dirty school buses parked in their concrete metal farms.  Tall brick projects jut into the sky, stacking one unwanted person after another after another after another.  And as soon as it comes, it is gone.

Concrete gives way to greenery and the water, though still a sallow brown, seems more hospitable to wildlife and less so a refuge for Styrofoam cups and forgotten cigarette butts.  Above the river and the cliffs hugging its banks hang stacks of clouds so puffed and still, they look more like 3D renderings in a cardboard diorama designed by Michel Gondry.

The river’s banks are lined with rusting telephone poles and the broken and bleached out boughs of trees.  Much of the natural vegetation has been razed for industry or recreation.  Manicured baseball diamonds and restaurants for tourists stand in the place of acres of trees.  In a long-abandoned parking lot, natural grasses creep through ever-expanding cracks in asphalt and the cherry trees blossom in an unruly and liberated fashion.

My view along the Hudson continues like so until we arrive at Beacon station.  I nudge Tommy awake and we walk five minutes away from the water following signs for “Dia.”

From the outside, the Dia is misleading.  Its façade does not relay the vast nature of the building, which spans an endless 300,000 square feet.  Built in 1929, the building was originally home to a Nabisco box printing facility.  The Dia was gifted the property by its most current owner, International Paper, back in 1999 – much to the benefit of contemporary art – and the museum opened its doors in 2004.*

We walk through a tiny and unassuming lobby and into a vast expanse of white.  The sheer scale of the building is intimidating and the conversion of this formal industrial space into a gallery is art unto itself.  Small slats of yellowed birch wood line the floors, hammered down with the visible flattened heads of silver nails.  It reminds me very much of a bowling alley of seemingly infinite length.  Light pours through skylights of tempered glass and the view to the outside is often the blurred mess of a Seurat-inspired landscape.

All I want to do here is roller skate like Steve Martin in LA Story.




Endless amounts of it all.

Row upon row of large-scale works of art.  Pencil scrawlings on drywall.  Richard Serra and his iron snail shell labyrinths.  Mirrors submerged in dirt.  A graveyard of wooden boxes of varied nature.  It keeps going.

In the basement, if you could call something so large a basement, is an area Jon dubs creepy in a “bring your hand lotion” kind of way.  The lights are down and the first piece of art is a quartet of neon signs blinking quietly: white death, red murder…things like that.  To the right is a hallway, at the end of which is another neon work, this one of a man in the action of being hung from a rope – the result of his death being what is perhaps a rigamortis-induced erection.  Strange.

An entire room is dedicated to projection of green-tinted footage of various creepy basements.  A speaker in the corner tells stories via equally disturbing room sounds mixed with the occasional moan of a woman who is either being murdered or satisfied, I’m not sure which.

As we walk the darkened halls I express my desire to be invited to parties decorated in a similar theme – something extravagant in its morbidity and skeeve factor.  Jon, like a true and traveled New Yorker, comes back with, “I’m pretty sure I’ve been to parties like this in Brooklyn before.  They were just dirtier and smelled worse.”  In my estimation, this is probably true.

We wander the museum until we have had our fill, exiting through the same small doors we entered and walking back through the verdant and thoughtfully designed parking lot – a parking lot where each individual spot is allotted a corresponding tree.  The entire experience gives me hope for the ability of this planet to elevate above its current state of shameless industry and the ugly bi-products of unconscious consumption.  If something this moving and beautiful can be made of a former factory, anything is possible.



Dia Beacon: Part I

Jon calls me on the phone.  He’s giggling and still drunk from last night.  I express frustration that I might not be able to find my camera in time so I can document our trip to the Dia Beacon museum today.  He makes a joke about how it might be under my entertainment center.  I counter, assuring him that it isn’t, but that I wish something else was.  I don’t think he gets my joke, but whatever he uses as filler in his head is funny enough: he erupts into peals of laughter.  “See you at eleven.”

I take the subway to Grand Central Station and walk through the main concourse to purchase a ticket to Beacon, ignoring the teal fresco ceiling and the plaster relief sculptures, walking between people staring thoughtfully at train schedules or taking ill-composed photographs of their children.

One ticket to Beacon, please.

Jon arrives with Tommy and his sister in tow.  Tommy’s got a nice tan from his short-lived migration to Florida.  I haven’t seen him since 2007 and his hair has grown.  “I’m starving,” Jon growls like a hungry bear.  We walk down to Eata Pita and I note that their couscous looks like enriched uranium and not at all like couscous.  Their “Shawafel” – a clever combo of shawarma and falafel – does not appeal and I am feeling finicky.   I buy a pack of gum and eat a Lara bar because I have assumed the sad and harmless life of a hunter-gatherer.

Without cause to sit down with a knife and fork to eat my “food”, I set off in search of the perfect train car.  This proves to be quite difficult.  The first one I walk into smells distinctly of a battle between bacteria and an anti-septic spray.  There must be a bathroom here, I think.  Car after car after car is filled with this same nausea-inducing smell.  After nine cars, I stumble upon an ideal setup: chairs facing the direction we are headed so that no one gets sick, minimal smell, and few passengers.  Jackpot.  My neuroses prove useful once again.

The four of us sit down, each opting to lounge on our own private vinyl bench.  In the darkness of the station few redeeming features are illuminated under the artificial and harsh fluorescents lining the ceiling.  I look around.  “Who ever thought this color scheme was a good idea?” I say, referring to the dried-blood-red and ocean blue of the seats combined with the faux-wood laminate side panels and sour cream plastic.  “American Airlines,” offers Tommy.  Touché.

Within minutes I am already in stitches.  Between Jon’s drunk/hung-over statements about not talking to him “in his condition” and Tommy’s dry humor relayed with the hint of a Louisiana drawl, I’m nearly on the grime-laden floor laughing.

A girl walks past.  “She looks smelly…” Tommy muses, “… a smell that is not easily identifiable… She probably has dandruff.  Dermatitis.  Halitosis.”  The statement is made with no invitation for commentary; it just sits there, hanging in the air like the anti-septic spray until something else comes along.

Jon looks at me, holding a small plastic container filled with giant slices of raw red onions, soggy parsley flakes, and seven garbanzo beans.  “Why did I get two sides?” he moans.  I feel as though he should be more concerned he just paid four dollars for a portable onion and not something more substantial.  Another row of florescent lights turns on and Jon groans about it being too bright inside and lies down on his bench, disappearing from view.

“He’s not coming back up,” says Tommy, shaking his head and taking bites of a sandwich on whole wheat bread.

The train moves and Jon gets back up, smelling his plaid shirt that reminds me of summer.  Something provokes a bad “That’s what she said!” joke, which Jon quickly follows with “I’m going to shut up right now.”

A man comes through wearing a light blue button-up with white pinstripes that is similar to the one my dad wears at his machine shop.  On his head is a conductor’s cap; something I didn’t even know was still in production these days.  But that’s what’s so nice about trains: the time warp.  As the man walks around, collecting and stamping our tickets by hand, I feel like I’m a part of something old and real.

Jon turns around.  Behind his glasses, his eyes twinkle with excitement and a smile presses his cheeks north bound.  “His name is Giuseppe!  Giuseppe S.!”

Giggles ensue.


Field Trip: Put Some Pants on It

Check out my post on mini ho-hos on the Flip today.