The Long Walk

I’m walking out to my truck after the shift is over, starting the surreal post-work trek. Now it’s dark, about 2:30am, and the city has changed. Neon lights dominate the nightscape, but it definitely isn’t as tourist-friendly or fun any longer. The hot spots that were bustling seven hours ago are now all locked up and dark. Homeless people have set up their cardboard boxes and blankets in the doorways, trying to stay warm and unmolested until sunrise.

I walk past empty parking spaces and notice the bits of broken glass on the sidewalk. Somebody had their window shattered and their car broken into, a sadly common occurrence. I see new glass on the ground just about every night. I always advise people to not leave anything that somebody might consider worth money visible in their vehicle. Nothing, not even a phone charger or a compact disc. People cruise around on bicycles casing vehicles, looking for something you left on your seat or the floor that they could sell or trade for drugs.

When I see the little bits of blue-green broken safety glass, I know that someone’s night was ruined by thievery or simple vandalism. After having a fun evening downtown, they find their window broken out and their personal belongings gone. I’ve had my vehicle broken into twice prior to working in the service industry in bars and clubs, and a third time recently after working a shift downtown. It’s a devastating feeling that makes you lose faith in humans. Glass beer bottles don’t shatter the same way as car window safety glass does. All the broken bits of cubed glass pieces are about the same size. It reminds me of the worthless plastic emerald baubles that my daughter plays with. Glittering prizes on the concrete. Uniform treasure chest gems. It’s as if some demented child had a bag of blue raspberry jolly rancher candies that they didn’t like, crushed them all up, and left the pieces all over the sidewalk. They do make a satisfying crunch under my boots as I walk over them, shaking my head. Occasionally I’ll see black cubes of broken glass on the sidewalk.  These are from a tinted privacy window, and look like pieces of obsidian.

Over time, these pieces of broken car window glass gather in the straight cut lines of the sidewalk. The ones you avoided stepping on as a kid lest you break your Mother’s back. I assume they get pushed to the crack by people’s feet, bicycle tires, wind and rain, perhaps even some sidewalk fairie magic. However it happens, the sidewalk cracks end up filled with these little sparkly glass bits. Lined up perfectly straight as they are, it almost appears intentional. It also reminds me of a line of ants walking along the kitchen floorboards in my home. Those industrious little bastards that find one crumb of food, then within minutes invade your house, set up communication lines, trade routes, and a governmental infrastructure. Marching ants, broken glass. The street lights bathe the tiny glass chunks in artificial nocturnal light, making them glimmer and twinkle like overgrown nanobot electro-ants.

The streets are relatively empty and quiet now. The entertainment hub of the city is still. The rapid pace of downtown has finally slowed, as if sedated. It feels like the city itself is on heroin. Occasional emergency vehicles race by on their way to a crisis. People walking around downtown after 3am are typically up to no good. Most normal people are home already. Bars and clubs stop serving around 2am and close by 2:30am. People are usually where they are going to end up staying the night by now.  The daywalkers are asleep. The hours of 3am to 6am are primarily filled with homeless people switching locations or scavenging for food in restaurant garbage bins. Mentally ill people wander around yelling and cussing at people who aren’t there. Tweakers coming down from their high, desperately looking for more. Thieves casing cars or stores for valuables. And the occasional lycanthrope or vampire looking for blood sustenance.

Sometimes I will walk the extra long route to my truck, or just walk around in an ever-widening circle. Often I’ll just walk, destination unknown. I’ll decompress, listen to the sounds of the city, and watch for anybody who’s up to no good. I continue doing my job of keeping people safe even after I’m off work. I can’t turn it off. Am I looking for trouble, or just trying to expand the ring of safety around my job? I’ve followed people looking sketchy/tweaking, walked people to their car, helped with medical situations, and called the police on criminal activities. I helped catch two people vandalizing buildings. On two occasions I’ve chased men out of parking garages who were about to break car windows with a metal pipe. Filming them with my smart phone is usually an effective deterrent. I watch for drunk women stumbling to find their car. Or more precisely, I’m watching for other men who are taking an interest in them as targets. Always watching.

The seedy underbelly of any major city is the same. I feel a bit like Charles Bronson in the 1974 vigilante film Death Wish. Except I’m not walking around with rolls of quarters rolled up in a sock. Nor am I riding the subway with a pistol waiting for a mugger to attack me. But the general idea is there. I’m putting myself out there and waiting to see if something happens. I’m no superhero, but maybe I can at least ensure that this small little square on the map is going to be safe tonight. Just this small 3 block by 3 block grid is mine, and nobody is getting raped, mugged, or killed here. Instead of just getting in my truck and driving home, I’m purposely walking around downtown Portland at 3am seeing what I can find. Or who I can help. I just don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone on my watch. And apparently my watch bleeds over with no discrete ending point. My personal end of watch might be when I finally get in my truck and drive home.

I walk past a metal stop sign with just the frame of a bicycle still locked to it. Last night it was a full and complete bicycle with wheels and a seat. Chains, pedals, and a basket. All of these part are now gone, and the remaining frame lies on the sidewalk as if it fell there.  The white bike frame looks like the skeleton of an animal that has been picked clean by scavenging vultures. Completely stripped. Brittle bones on concrete, a dismembered steel corpse.

A road flare still shines bright red like an arc-welding torch on the road. Evidence of some previous car wreck earlier tonight, these road flares never get cleaned up. They continue to burn and smoke and turn to ash, even in the rain. Long after the cars are towed away, reports filed, and people taken to the hospital, the burning road flares advertise the previous trauma that happened here. They remind me of a lightsaber from Star Wars, broken and sputtering on the ground after being damaged in battle. Not all three feet of a functioning light saber, just a centimeter of plasma extending from the hilt. The flare itself looks like a stick of TNT, or in this case, the hilt of a Sith weapon. The other neon sign colors reflect off of the wet asphalt. The street surface itself winks reflections of color on and off, on and off. But that red road flare is the brightest light of the night, cutting through everything like a beacon of despair.

I often refer to the denizens of the night as zombies. This is more accurate than you might think. The homeless population and mentally ill people obviously wear cheap clothing that is purely functional. It can be unclean, tattered, and torn up. Psychotropic medications can certainly affect one’s gait, presenting in the shuffling lurching walking that we see in George Romero’s zombie films. Various psychiatric conditions can affect movement and coordination. Neurological disorders can affect balance, cause loss of sensation or dizziness, and trigger seizures. Tweakers also have their own twitchy agitated mannerisms. These can include obsessive behaviors like pacing or repeating the same activity or statements over and over. You’ll see scratching, swatting, manic babbling, and various other repeated tics. The phenomenon of ‘meth mouth’ is the terrible condition of someone’s decayed and missing teeth after prolonged methamphetamine abuse. This looks exactly like the gaping zombie mouths in ‘The Walking Dead’. Hard drug use, malnutrition, and general perils of living on the street can cause skin sores and bleeding. You can understand how at 3am, through tired eyes, the people skulking around the streets would literally appear to be zombies.

I’m pretty much at DEFCON 1 when I’m walking around after work. I’m wide awake and vigilant. I’ve already worked a long challenging shift. I’ve dealt with drunk, entitled, and irritating people all night, and my patience is at its lowest point. I think that this is when it happens for most people. Exhausted, they have let down their guard. They just aren’t paying attention. Their attention is elsewhere and their hands are full. Messaging on their smart phone, digging in their pockets for keys, or carrying a to-go box full of food. They are texting people about hooking up or heading home. They make the mistake of thinking that they are safe. And that is when they get you.

There are moments where one or two people are walking towards me on the sidewalk. The first thing I do is look at their hands to see if they have anything in them that could be used as a weapon. If they have their hands in their hoodie pockets then I assume that they have something I won’t like in there. I’m usually acutely aware of anyone behind me, but I’ll look in the reflections of store windows to verify. Then I make a mental note of their clothing, hight, build, and features in case I need to describe it later for the Police report. Then I make eye contact with them and do not look away. I’ll slow down and pull my hands out of my pockets. I’ve already planned on what to use around me if necessary. The concrete wall, the parking meter, the parked car. All are valid unyielding and painful objects to throw someone onto.

I never listen to music when walking around at night for obvious safety reasons. But I’m a huge music fan, and a song usually makes its way into my brain. In this instance I channeled this Marilyn Manson song from Antichrist Superstar called “Kinderfeld.” Glaring at the approaching men and gritting my teeth, these lyrics empowered me:

This is what you should fear
You are what you should fear
This is what you should fear
You are what you should fear

If any of them starts talking to me or asks any questions, I’m ready to move into the street where I can’t be backed up against a wall. There is no valid conversation that needs to happen between us at this time. I usually ignore them or shake my head and say things like, “Move on” or “I can’t help you.” What I really want to say is something more like this: “If you aggress towards me in any way I will put you down on the concrete. Hard. If you fire one shot at me I will call in an air strike and drop napalm. Your jungles will burn. Broken Arrow. Scorched earth. Keep. Walking. Motherfucker.”

But this isn’t a movie and I’m not Charles Bronson. The men walk around me and even move further away, giving me a wide berth. My hands relax a bit and I listen to their footsteps get quieter as they walk away. Now I just hear the sound of my breath. In and out. Inhale, exhale. Right now there is nothing else in the world except the calming sound of my own breathing.

The agitated mentally ill street person walking toward me is yelling and cussing, “Motherfucker! Goddammed cocksucker! I’ll kill you!” He is flinging his hands around like he is swatting at an enemy who isn’t there. Throwing punches at ghosts. I keep my eyes locked on him and walk slower, taking my hands out of my pockets. Paranoid schizophrenics need clinical supervision and medication management, not a solo 3am walkabout. He doesn’t even see me. I don’t register to him at all. I am certain that whatever phantom person he sees is in crisp focus, while I am a blurry shadow moving by in the background. His hallucination nemesis is more real to him than I am. And he would rather fight with him than me anyway.

These are the dark thoughts that orbit around me as I walk the long walk. These little moons that I’ve named paranoia, fear, defense, and anger. Perhaps someday a catastrophic event will occur on the planet of me that will knock these satellites out of their orbit. But until then….my eyes are wide open and my fists are clenched.  And I’m finally going home now; I’m done walking for tonight.

The final line of one of my favorite films resonates strongly with me. At the end of the 1995 film SE7EN, Morgan Freeman’s weary voice leaves us with this:

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”  
I agree with the second part.

 

 

 

 

 

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Homeless thoughts

I encounter a lot of homeless people in my job as security staff. Some I see so often that I know their names and their basic story, and where they like to sit to ask for money. When possible I’ll bring out some extra pizza that wasn’t purchased and is about to be thrown away. I’ll give it to the homeless people outside. Everybody deserves to eat. It’s truly staggering how much perfectly good food is thrown away every night.

On my way to my truck after I’m off work, I always walk past numerous homeless people sleeping in doorways, or bolstering their bed with blankets, tarps, or cardboard. It’s going to be cold tonight. If they are asleep I usually look and listen long enough to determine signs of life. This would be their exhaled breath in the cold air, snoring, or just their chest moving as they breathe. If they are awake and we make awkward eye contact, I’ll nod at them and smile. I am no threat to you, friend. I recall the scene in THE EXORCIST where the homeless man sits in filth and asks Damien Karras, “Can you help an old altar boy, Father?” If they aren’t already hunkered down in their temporary fort against the elements, they are traveling around like nomads carrying their gear in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Some have a sleeping bag wrapped around them. Others have multiple backpacks and shopping bags hanging from their arms. Some push shopping carts around. Some carry large pieces of wooden pallets or cardboard boxes over their heads to build a sleep structure with. They look like river explorers portaging their canoe over land. Hell, I think I might have seen a homeless person actually carrying part of a broken canoe once.

Using the pallet as a floor, they can sleep on that and not get soaked by the rain. Or, worst case scenario, soaked by spilled cheap beer or vomit. Tarps become walls and roofs. Cardboard boxes become walls, and wind and rain shields. If they can acquire an actual tent, it’s like they’ve won the lottery. Body heat is retained inside, rain and wind is deflected, and you even have a small modicum of privacy. There is definitely safety in numbers, so clumping 5-6 tents together is smart and very common. Some people like to complain about the homeless tent camps blocking sidewalks and being unsightly and unsafe. I’m pretty sure that at 3:30am the people complaining about that are home safe in their beds. I’m the one out walking around at that hour, and I’m happy to step around the tents. These same people are probably also deathly afraid of a raging gang of homeless people crouched together inside these tents, laying in wait to ambush the next pedestrian so that they can rape, kidnap, and murder them. And if this scenario has ever actually happened anywhere, I’ll eat that tarp. Homeless people are trying to stay warm and sleep, not assault a passerby. And until those huge churches that preach ‘love thy brother’ actually open up their doors at night and operate as a homeless shelter, they can all shut their sanctimonious and judgmental pieholes.

I love seeing dogs with homeless people. That might sound odd, but I just love dogs more than I do most people. Also I had it explained to me once how the life of a dog living with a homeless person might not be that bad comparatively. In fact, it could be better if you look at it through this lens. A dog who lives with a homeless person is never without their owner. Our dogs are so domesticated and reliant on us that they really just want to be with their owners all the time. You can walk out your front door, forget something, and come right back in the house and your dog will start wiggling its entire body it is so happy to see you. They greet you like you’ve been gone for two weeks when it’s really only been two minutes. Do any humans react that way each and every time they see you?

Most of us leave the house for long periods for our jobs, school, and other activities. So we aren’t there all day. Our house dogs are either alone for those long stretches, or we have to board them at doggie day care. That can be fun but it’s a lot of canine stimulation, and they still aren’t with their owner. Some dogs get bored and howl and bark all day. Or they destroy things around the house waiting for us to return. Things like shoes, dog kennels, banisters, chess boards, bed frames, doors, piano legs. I might know this from personal experience. A dog living with a homeless person is always with them feeling important and needed. They are keeping their human safe. If I was sleeping in a tent at night alone, I would sleep ten times better with a dog in there with me to growl at any approaching danger. And it is positive touch and companionship.

Further, it reminds me of studies showing that having a pet benefits older people by giving them a reason outside of themselves to get up each morning and feed/exercise the dog. Some other creature is relying on you to get up and take care of them. This can counter apathy, loneliness, and depression. Especially involving empty-nest syndrome when all of the kids and grandkids have left the house. People live longer if they have pets to care for.  The mere act of stroking a dog’s fur has been shown to lower blood pressure and calm anxiety. Homeless people certainly struggle with loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety. Some people probably do not get touched at all for the entire day. They receive no physical human contact like we all take for granted. No handshakes, fist bumps, hi-fives, hugs, holding hands, kisses. I couldn’t even guess how many of these I get daily. Multiple dozens probably. I guarantee that the only touch some of these people ever get is from their dog licking their face.

Some people don’t want to give a homeless person money for fear that they would spend it on drugs or Old English 800 malt liquor. Then some animal lovers carry around dog food in their car for the sole purpose of giving it to dogs that are with homeless humans. Or they’ll run into the store and come out with some dog food and a deli sandwich for them. I never see starving dogs with homeless people. The dogs are sometimes better fed than their 2-legged companions are. Lots of dogs aren’t allowed to sleep in the bedroom, or sometimes even the house. They are relegated to the garage, basement, or even a dog house in the yard. Dogs that live with homeless people are with them all day long, and then as a bonus they get to sleep curled up right next to their humans. No worries about tracking some dirt in from the yard, or getting dog fur on the brand new comforter. So bless these homeless dogs, I’m so happy to see you here with your people.

For a time I volunteered with the Portland Burrito Project. This is a national DIY group that feeds homemade burritos to the homeless population. Any city can start their own branch, as I understand it. In Portland we would collect donated food from Santa Fe Taqueria Mexican restaurant on Sunday morning. We would then take the food to an area Hostel and set up a food assembly line, making 100 veggie burritos. We then wrapped them all up, loaded up our warming bags, and drove downtown. We spent a few hours walking around looking for homeless people to feed. This was a great way to give back to the community and help out the homeless population, who are always struggling to acquire healthy food. I would often bring along some of the kids I worked with as a mentor, teaching them about community service. It would also open up conversations with the older kids about mental illness, running away from sexual abuse, and financial instability. We all got accustomed to scanning the street for homeless people to give food to, and what streets and onramps that they would typically camp near. If we found a homeless person asleep on the sidewalk with their backpack as a pillow, we would just leave a nice warm burrito wrapped in foil by their head. Hopefully they would wake up to the smell of a burrito and enjoy the magical gift of food from a stranger.

Of course, some people present as homeless when they are not. Or their chosen aesthetic of clothing attire resembles the disheveled bundled-up look of a homeless person. If you research the term “Homeless chic” you will see pictures of fashion models actually pushing shopping carts down the runway with oversized bags, wearing bland layered clothing. Highly paid fashion models are dressing like homeless people to sell overpriced clothes. I really don’t have the proper words for that nonsense.

I certainly cannot guess a person’s socio-economic status in the seconds I have while I approach them. Although we were attempting to help feed the homeless, there’s no solid way to actually be sure. There isn’t an ID card that proves you are homeless, nor would we actually refuse to give a person food who wanted some (unless they were aggressive or threatening us in some way). So we defaulted to giving just about anybody a burrito that seemed interested or hungry. A whole lot of people can appear homeless that aren’t.
But in my head I would play the game of ‘Who is about to get a free burrito?’

A) A truly homeless person.
B) A mentally ill person.
C) A street kid.
D) A low-income housing resident.
E) A tweaker actively on drugs.
F) Buskers/musicians/actors.
G) A desperately broke college student.
H) A resident of a treatment/recovery center on a smoke break.
I) People who just intentionally dress like they are homeless.
J) People who think that they are Marilyn Manson, Al Jorgensen, or Rob Zombie.

We quickly learned to avoid those people suffering from mental illness that are cussing to themselves and punching at the air. Same with drunk or high people. Some people would gratefully take the burrito, but then start telling me all of their problems. Or ask me to help them with some money, or a bus ticket to somewhere. I love to help people, but I have firm boundaries. I refuse to get sucked into anybody’s drama when doing this. I’m literally just here to give out burritos and walk away. I would think, “Put this in your mouth and stop talking to me.” And in an effort not to offend anyone that looks homeless who isn’t, we would explain ourselves in a generic way. Instead of saying, “We’re handing out free burritos to the homeless”, we would just say, “We’re delivering free food to anyone who is hungry.” People always asked us if we were a church group. Nope, just altruistic liberal hippie types who don’t want people to go hungry. Food is love.

Most people live in a false world of perceived security where they think nothing bad is ever going to happen to them. I am acutely aware that I am about two paychecks away from being homeless myself. With a few exceptions, most of my friends and co-workers would also become homeless if their paychecks stopped coming. I have a few friends who make 6 figures, but they are the minority. Most of us don’t have a savings account with anything in it for emergencies. We live from paycheck to paycheck, which still really is the norm. Virtually all of my friends have college degrees. Some have several. But that wouldn’t prevent any of us from becoming homeless if things went South. Once you stop paying your bills and your rent or mortgage, utilities get shut off and you get evicted or foreclosed on. The world owes you no guarantees. None of the people you see on the street planned or expected to be there, either. This sidewalk was not their goal.

If some severe medical injury happens requiring an ambulance or hospital stay, that could be it. A huge bill that you never recover from. Overwhelming debt with no ability to work and no money coming in. The #1 reason people declare bankruptcy in America is medical bills. What other huge life events could push someone into poverty and homelessness? Unemployment, a very bad divorce, gambling, domestic violence, being disowned by parents, rape, a public scandal, PTSD, mental health issues, a family crisis,  substance abuse, not being able to afford your medications, etc. If your paychecks stopped today, how long would it take you to exhaust your savings and any accrued vacation time? What about cashing out your retirement or selling your belongings to get money? Lord knows most of us don’t have jobs that would give us any sort of severance pay. Would I sell my car or plan on living in it? Which friends would let me couch-surf and for how long? These are my thoughts at 3am, walking past dozens of homeless people, wondering what particular sequence of events brought them to this sidewalk.

I’ve worked for social service non-profit organizations, or in the service industry, for the last 25 years. I’ve loved all of the jobs I’ve worked, but they certainly haven’t ever paid me well. Non-profits are funny like that. I am blessed with a robust network of friends and family that would intervene before I actually became homeless. I know that and am very grateful. But the point remains that nobody that I know is immune to the threat. We could all be homeless far quicker than we think. I still worry that I will be the guy in the line for a free meal at the Portland Rescue Mission, and sleeping under cardboard boxes in a doorway wondering why I went to college.

I feel so dejected when I see human beings sleeping outside on a sidewalk. We aren’t meant to sleep outside in the elements on concrete lit up by streetlights. I consider our homeless population to be the true streetlight people that Journey sings about. It makes me so sad and empty that this storefront doorway is actually someone’s bed tonight. It shouldn’t be this way. Mahatma Ghandi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” And by that metric, we fail miserably. Homeless people are sneered at, feared, ignored. They are the outsider, the non-person, a null value, they do not count. They are ridiculed, terrorized, and beaten. We owe them better than this. And we all could be among them tomorrow.

With my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my hoodie, I walk solemnly by each homeless person and say a silent blessing in my head.
Sleep in safety. Sleep in safety. Sleep in safety.

Each homeless person was once somebody’s baby boy or baby girl, an amazing and unique creation.

Your parents probably had all the hopes and dreams and optimistic expectations for you. They agonized over what to name you. You had your favorite foods and special toys. Physical features that you shared with each parent were pointed out and celebrated. Family members bought you presents and fed you on holidays. Perhaps, like me, you made forts out of cardboard boxes in your living room. Decades later you’re sleeping in a doorway with cardboard boxes for walls. When you were a child, people who loved you sung you to sleep at night to keep the bad dreams away. I wish that I could sing you to sleep tonight.

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don’t try to wake me in the morning
‘Cause I will be gone
Don’t feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
Sing to me
Sing to me
I don’t want to wake up
On my own anymore
There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
-The Smiths, “Asleep”

Van Halen – Diver Down (1982)

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Van Halen. Van-Fucking-Halen. This rock band took me from being a little boy to being a young man. For others that band was Led Zeppelin or Kiss. But for me, Van Halen did it all. Diluted down to its most basic truth, early Van Halen is classic, raw, original, massively influential, and timeless. Later-era Van Halen is uninspired, cheesy, ballad-heavy crap. In my humble opinion, the departure of front-man David Lee Roth took the band from being in the rock genre to being demoted to the pop genre.

Those first six Van Halen records rock harder than most current rock acts. They show more musical proficiency and virtuoso soloing than any band currently on the radio. This albums are: VAN HALEN (1978), VAN HALEN II (1979), WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST (1980), FAIR WARNING (1981), DIVER DOWN (1982), and 1984 (1984). It was a perfect combo of the showmanship of David Lee Roth, the trend-setting guitar wizardry of Edward Van Halen, the impressive polyrhythmic poundings of Alex Van Halen, and the mediocre-at-best bass lines of Michael Anthony. Ok, you can’t have everything.

As with most young males who grew up in the 70’s, the first time that I heard “Eruption” changed my life. Eddie Van Halen redefined rock guitar solos with this 1:42 minute blistering assault. I had been listening to the big hits of the day on the radio. These were disco songs from Abba, The Bee Gees, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. But then this one short song by a new rock band took us all by the balls. Eddie introduced us to the notion of tapping on the guitar frets with both hands, playing with incredible speed without sacrificing melody, pick-rakes, pick-scrapes, and mastery of guitar tone and distortion. Thousands of young air guitar artists practiced along to this song, as did hordes of real guitarists as well.

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I was but a wee young lad when Van Halen’s debut album was released in 1978. I have vivid memories of standing up on the wooden box of my waterbed air-guitaring along to “Eruption.” If I was really feeling it, I would jump on the waterbed itself, starting a small tsunami wave in the bed, then jump off onto the orange shag carpet at the song’s conclusion. It’s amazing that waterbed survived. Of course, I was still too young to understand all of the sexual lyrical content in their songs. I actually thought that “Ice Cream Man” was simply about David Lee Roth’s summer job. But I do recall thinking that sex must be pretty great since this band was obsessed with singing about it. I would wager that 90% of the songs on the first six Van Halen albums are about sex or some permutation thereof. Who can forget the blond babes in the video for “Hot for Teacher?” We could discuss how Van Halen videos initiated many a boy into the world of masturbation, but some things don’t need to be dredged up.

The year I that I really got into Van Halen was 1982 with the release of their album DIVER DOWN. I had recently seen the music video for the song “Hear About it Later” from their album FAIR WARNING (1981). I was basically in love with that song. The video is a live performance that’s different from the album version. It’s a simple live video of them playing in front of towers of amps onstage. Don’t be distracted by David Lee Roth’s package in white spandex. I loved how the song was slightly unconventional and Eddie added lots of tasty guitar flourishes not on the recorded version. This probably surprised me at first and introduced me to the idea of songs morphing and expanding when played live. The whole song pretty much stops and changes for the amazing guitar solo break. It’s a perfect melding of vocal melody, guitar phrasing, and feel-good rock and roll. “Hear About it Later” is an underrated masterpiece.

Here is the video if you want to give it a watch:
Hear About it Later video

 

Then DIVER DOWN came out and I was completely hooked. This album was unusual because not every song was a radio cut that fit with all of the other songs. This is definitely their most diverse record. They put on five cover songs, which is quite unusual and goes against musical industry wisdom. I can’t think of another album with more than two cover songs on it. Not only is the album unique for having five covers, but it also has two instrumentals and an amusing a cappella outro of the classic cowboy song “Happy Trails.” Their hard rock versions of “Pretty Woman” and “Dancing in the Street” were quite successful, and I will always associate them with being a pre-teen and beginning my love of rock music. I really like the weird bubbly Pac-Man sounds in “Dancing in the Street.”

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There are some heavy rock songs like “Hang ‘Em High” and “The Full Bug.” I loved Clint Eastwood westerns so “Hang ‘Em High” connected western films and rock music.  Catchy pop tunes like the opening track, the Kinks cover “Where Have all the Good Times Gone?” And a groovy, laid-back summer song in “Secrets.” But for me the apex of the album is “Little Guitars.” The acoustic guitar intro from Eddie is gorgeous and leads into the actual song perfectly. The staccato guitar verses, quiet mellow interlude, optimistic lyrics, and sing-along chorus makes this one a distinctive and catchy-as-hell rocker. The inclusion of the ragtime cover song “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) was a bold choice. I am sure that most die-hard heshers skip this song consistently. An interesting note is that their father Jan Van Halen plays the clarinet on this track. The beautiful instrumental “Cathedral” is just Eddie, a delay, and his volume knob, but he makes his guitar sound like a classical synthesizer. The other instrumental, “Intruder”, is wonderful tension-filled noise blending into the Roy Orbison cover.

When I bought the DIVER DOWN record on vinyl I immediately came home and recorded it onto a cassette tape so I could go mobile with it. Prior to the record being released, I just had to have a blank tape ready in the stereo and cued up waiting for that new Van Halen song to come on. Then cursing the DJ for talking over the song. I would have to listen to his lame attempts to sound cool every time I played the song. I brought my boom box out into my driveway and played it as loud as it could go. My little skateboarding buddies and I would practice skateboarding in my driveway as “Intruder” blasted my quiet Eugene, Oregon neighborhood. We were so little that why driveway seemed lie a huge and very dangerous hill. If we rode down my driveway, across the street, and up the neighbor’s driveway we felt like we conquered the half-pipe.

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The famous Van Halen triangle logo with the wings coming off of it decorated all of my school binders through middle school and high school. A Van Halen pin was properly positioned on my Levis jean jacket as well. I loved this album so much that I went to a scuba diving store to buy a bumper sticker of the red and white diagonal stripe that was used for the album cover. It is, of course, the loge that scuba divers used. But I put it on the back bumper of my 1976 Chevy Impala to show the world how much that Van Halen album meant to me. When the clerk asked me if I was a scuba diver I said, “Nope. Not once. But have you heard of Van Halen?”

As a young boy, I took dance classes at my parent’s suggestion. At first I thought it was cool because there was loud music on a great stereo system, I got to run around, and there were girls there. I was the only boy. Since I refused to participate in sports, dance was my exercise activity. But once I hit puberty, I got into rock music and realized this whole dance scene was not for me. I used to dread that anyone from my school might actually see me dancing at a recital around town. I didn’t tell anyone that I danced. While we danced to Broadway tunes, The Pointer Sisters, and Michael Jackson, I wore a Van Halen shirt with the baby smoking a cigarette from their album 1984. Sometimes I wore a Judas Priest shirt, just to throw in the question of heavy metal Satanism. It was my small way of revolution. Telling the world that I wasn’t really into this and that there was somewhere else I would rather be. Waiting for a dance recital to begin, sitting by myself with my geeky glasses on, I would hum to myself the Phil Collins song. “I’ve got better things to do with my time. I don’t care anymore. No more. No more.” Small as it was, those little Van Halen and Judas Priest rebellions got me through. I quit dance lessons soon thereafter and started taking drum lessons instead.

Flash forward to 1986. The new Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar was about to be played on the radio for the first time. I had my blank cassette tap all ready to record. I’d been a pretty big fan of Hagar’s solo stuff like STANDING HAMPTON and THREE LOCK BOX, so I was beyond excited that he would be joining up with the great Van Halen. “Three Lock Box”, “Bad. Motor Scooter”, “Heavy Metal”, and “Inside Lookin’ In” were great songs. I thought it would be a perfect match. But when I first heard the synthesizer intro to “Why Can’t This Be Love” I grew uneasy. My brow furrowed. There weren’t any guitars. Years later I had a similar reaction when I first heard Metallica’s ballad, “Nothing Else Matters.” I kept recording the broadcast of the 5150 album, but my spirits were a little crushed. I knew that an era was over. Van Halen pop had arrived.

I continued to see Van Halen live in concert, knowing that they would always put on a kick ass show and always play the old classics. I saw them headline the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988 with Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, and Kingdom Come. Alex Van Halen does an incredible drum solo live. And, of course, Eddie rules. They still were very entertaining performers onstage, but they missed that certain something without Diamond Dave. I’m truly sad that I never got to see them with that classic line-up.

Their studio albums became progressively more top 40 and ballad-oriented, with predictable sophomore lyrics and simplistic song arrangements. They just didn’t have that unique spice that David Lee Roth clearly brought to the band. Even the album titles show the decline. OU812 and F.U.C.K. are the worst examples. These are album titles of cheesy juvenile sex-oriented high school bands, not the great and powerful Van Halen. It got to the point where I stopped buying their albums, which I never thought would happen. I didn’t even give phase 3 a chance. This was where they kicked out Sammy Hagar and replaced him with the lead singer of Extreme. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

But the great thing about music is that it lives on forever, and you can always relive your initial engagement and excitement with the songs. I have the first 6 Van Halen albums on vinyl from when I was a kid, and also on CD from later. DIVER DOWN went 4X Platinum, selling over four million copies. If somehow you haven’t heard this album you must check it out. I’m listening to it as I write this piece with headphones on. The power of music is truly amazing. As “Intruder” comes on I am transported to my driveway in Eugene 36 years ago. I can remember the goofy stickers on the underside of my skateboard. The sun is shining and I’m full of dreams of where rock music can take me. All of my great accomplishments are still ahead of me. I haven’t even kissed a girl yet. Nostalgia is a helluva drug.

A funny thing happened on the way to Mars

It’s all one huge conspiracy

The mission was a sham. The murders were real.
-Tagline from Capricorn One

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For me there’s nothing quite like a conspiracy theory film made in the 70’s. If you’ve read my other film pieces, or spoken to me in person about movies at all, you know that I consider the 70’s to be the best decade for all genres of film. Films in the 70’s finally addressed the malaise and distrust of our government after the fall of President Nixon, the failure of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and countless political assassinations. Camelot was no more. The MPAA was created, and various film codes changed, allowing more realistic language, violence, and nudity in films. Add in subject matter that was previously taboo. Independent young filmmakers were able to do things they never could do before, and could work outside of the Hollywood studio system. But this is honestly a topic for another piece.

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite conspiracy films of the 70’s, Peter Hyam’s CAPRICORN ONE. This film came out in 1978 and concerns NASA deciding to fake a Mars landing with the three astronauts scheduled to fly the actual mission. In order to retain funding for NASA by not admitting to a fatal mistake in the onboard life-support system, administrators plan to fake a Mars landing and broadcast it to the world. They threaten the three astronaut’s wives in order to ensure their cooperation. Once the unmanned ship is returning to earth another error involving the heat shield makes the ship burn up in the atmosphere. The astronauts figure out that now they are expendable and a liability and will need to be eliminated. They escape from their isolated desert base and hijack a small plane, but they crash-land when the plane runs out of fuel. They separate and make desperate run for civilization to alert the media and the world to the hoax before they are killed. A reporter catches on to the hoax and investigates, at much risk to his own life. The three astronauts try their best, but government helicopters are searching for them and the adventure pushes towards an exciting climax.

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I don’t think my parents took me to see this one in the theater, but I saw it on TV countless times, and rented the VHS tape repeatedly once that technology surfaced. If they would have made action figures of the 3 astronauts along with a jet plane playset, you best believe that I would have asked my parents to buy it for me. It would have been mixed in with my Star Wars action figures and toys. I would have had the astronauts from Capricorn One being ambushed by Tusken Raiders and Jawas in the desert. The James Brolin action figure would have climbed onto a land speeder instead of a biplane to escape on Tatooine. What young boy isn’t fascinated with space exploration and astronauts? I certainly was. I even tracked down the movie novelization by Ron Goulart and read that, searching for further details that the film didn’t show. I was honestly probably a little young to appreciate all of the sinister governmental machinations at the time, and I just liked the sci-fi action elements. But I feel that this film certainly started a life-long interest in conspiracies, secret government actions, black ops, cover-ups, and mysteries. I certainly thought of this movie in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

My core list of great conspiracy films of the 70’s includes THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), THE CONVERSATION (1974), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), CAPRICORN ONE (1978), THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979), and WINTER KILLS (1979). You could also make a good argument for classics like CHINATOWN (1974), MARATHON MAN (1976), and NETWORK (1976) counting as conspiracy films of the 70’s. And all of these followed in the daunting footsteps of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1969). One of my all-time favorite is Brian De Palma’s 1981 film BLOW OUT, but I can’t put it on this list because it was released in 1981. Not surprisingly, most of these movies appear of my best of lists, and I continue to rewatch them to this day. Some are actually more relevant and less fantastical in today’s unbelievably bizarro political climate.

The music and the cast make the movie

One factor that elevates this film above others is the truly energizing soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. He did so many soundtracks in the 70’s and 80’s. Some great ones include CHINATOWN, THE OMEN, ALIEN, FIRST BLOOD, PLANET OF THE APES, PAPILLON, PATTON, POLTERGEIST, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, OUTLAND,  L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and literally dozens and dozens of other films you’ve seen. He was prolific and uniquely talented. His soundtrack to CAPRICORN ONE is stunningly good. So good that back in the day, as a young boy, I held up my boombox to the TV and recorded the theme song onto a cassette tape. The music is almost of a fanfare style. It is muscular in its feel. There are lots of tympani drums and bass horns. Later trumpets and strings come in to add tension. It communicates urgency and excitement. Listening to this song feels like I’m about to go on an adventure. There is a strong similarity to the Basil Poledouris soundtrack to John Milius’ fantasy epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). There is very similar instrumentation, percussion, and excitement in both. A brief love theme even breaks up the dramatic music in both songs. Please listen to ‘Anvil of Crom’ from CONAN back to back with ‘Main Title’ from CAPRICORN ONE. You will hear how similar they are, almost interchangeable even. And talk about masculine music, this defines it. Today I own a CD of two of Goldsmith’s best soundtracks, and coincidentally two of my favorite films. CAPRICORN ONE and OUTLAND. I recommend this soundtrack music to everyone. I’m listening to it as I write this piece and I can’t type as fast as I am driven to by this music.

Peter Hyams put together an all-star ensemble cast for this one and it reads like a who’s who of 1970’s actors. Hal Holbrook, Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Karen Black, Telly Savalas, Sam Waterston, Brenda Vaccaro, and OJ Simpson. Let’s address that for a moment. It is indeed hard to watch his role and not be reminded of the grisly 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. But it really isn’t that odd that he was cast in a major motion picture in 1978. Burt Reynolds was another football player-turned actor. He gave a stellar performance in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE (1972) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974), and had just starred in one of the biggest films of the 70’s, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977). All of these were box-office hits, as were WHITE LIGHTNING, SHAMUS, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING (all 1973), and GATOR (1976). So the idea of casting a rugged football player in movies probably seemed like a decent idea at the time. Much like Reynolds, Simpson had been acting in TV series in the 60’s. He has moved to film in the 70’s and had starred in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974),  THE KLANSMAN (1974), THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976), and THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES (1976). He starred with Telly Savalas in THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES and CAPRICORN ONE. But in CAPRICORN ONE Simpson honestly isn’t given too much screen time or lines, but I thought he did a decent job in his role. Certainly that character could have been played by any other actor, but what an interesting piece of pop-culture casting we are given here.

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And look for two other small parts played by great character actors in this one. David Huddleston stars as congressmen Hollis Peaker. He has one of the best exchanges in the film with the Vice President.

Vice President Price: Hollis, there are a number of people who feel that we have problems right here on Earth that merit our attention before we spend billions on outer space.

Congressman Hollis Peaker: There are a number of people who feel that there are no more pressing problems than our declining position in world leadership.

You will likely recognize David Huddleston from his most memorable role 20 years after CAPRICORN ONE. He starred in 1998’s classic Coen Brothers film THE BIG LEBOWSKI. He plays The Big Lebowski. While watching CAPRICORN ONE I really wanted his character to blurt out something like, “Are you employed, sir?” Or “Strong men also cry….strong men also cry.”

The other small part played by a recognizable actor is David Doyle. He has only a brief two scenes in CAPRICORN ONE, but they are both memorable and surprisingly funny. Doyle starred in pretty much every television series in the 60’s and 70’s. But I remember him as John Bosley, the boss of the female agents in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS show on network TV from 1976 to 1981. In CAPRICORN ONE he is the newspaper editor that Elliot Gould works for, and he perfectly embodies the jaded, impatient, snarky and sarcastic ass that is finished tolerating Gould’s lack of results. His character basically just gets to be a complete asshole to Elliot Gould’s character, which allows for some much-needed levity during this dark story.

Walter Loughlin: Listen to me and listen good. I don’t like you, Caulfield. You’re ambitious. You think the way to get ahead is to come up with the scoop of the century. Woodward and Bernstein were good reporters, that’s how they did it. Not by telling me they’ve located Patty Hearst three times like you did, or that brilliant piece of investigative journalism you pulled off by finding an eye-witness to the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination. The small fact that the man had been in a mental institution at the time never deterred you, not ‘scoop’ Caulfield.

Interesting how this one humorous line references not one, but two of history’s greatest conspiracies. The two Watergate incident reporters that unseated President Richard Nixon, and the lone gunman theory of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Speeches and my favorite scenes

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the NASA official Dr. Kelloway explains the situation to the three astronauts. Kelloway is played by the great actor Hal Holbrook and given the longest monologue in the film. Yet another thing that I love about 70’s films is that the pacing is slower, and the directors often would let the actors act out a scene without many (or any) cuts. Seeing actors actually act off of each other’s reactions and performances is much more preferable to me. Rather than a cut every three seconds to show the reaction shot, the line delivery, the reaction shot, etc.

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So this scene needs to convince us of the outlandish scenario and why a huge corporation would even attempt a cover-up of this magnitude. Holbrook is perfect at playing the everyman. I had only seen him in the Dirty Harry sequel MAGNUM FORCE, and as the infamous character Deep Throat in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. He has played Abraham Lincoln possibly more times than any other actor, therefore his gravitas is well used in any movie. He gets a four-minute long monologue where he tries to convince the astronauts, and probably himself, that this is the best thing to do. He desperately tries to use his history of his friendship with Brubaker (James Brolin) to gain their trust and convince them to go along. He talks about the waning interest in the space program, the money involved, and their bonding over big life moments like Brubaker’s getting married, having a son, and watching the moon landing together.

Kelloway: And then suddenly everybody started talking about how much everything cost. Was it really worth twenty billion to go to another planet? What about cancer? What about the slums? How much does it cost? How much does any dream cost? Since when is there an accountant for ideas?

I love when characters debate a problem like real people in actual stressful situations. I think of William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in THE WILD BUNCH debating the value of giving your word and who you give it to. Mark Walhberg and Ben Foster debating what to do with the captured Afghani goat farmers in LONE SURVIVOR. Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel arguing about motivations and reactions to the bank heist in RESERVOIR DOGS. Tom Hanks and his squad arguing about the reasoning behind risking all of their lives for just one soldier in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. In CAPRICORN ONE we have a riveting debate about going along with a lie and being true to yourself. They move into the sound stage with the fake lander on a fake surface of red Mars. Huge stage lights illuminate this tableau. The lights are so hot that they are sputtering and smoking, making a popping bonfire sound in the background.
The following exchange has always stuck with me:

Brubaker: This is really wonderful. If we go along with you and lie our asses off, the world of truth and ideals is, er, protected. But if we don’t want to take part in some giant rip-off of yours then somehow or other we’re managing to ruin the country. You’re pretty good, Jim. I’ll give you that.

Kelloway: No, no, no. You’re twisting my words.

Brubaker: Don’t sell yourself short.

Kelloway: Don’t sell the program short.

Brubaker: Don’t oversell it. I’m not so sure that canceling a flight, or cutting off appropriations means that America folds up.

Kelloway: It’s not as simple as that and you know it. 

Brubaker: I don’t know it.
If the only way to keep something alive is to become everything I hate….
I don’t know if it’s worth keeping it alive.

As the conversation gets more heated Kelloway mentions their families and they react strongly. In one long shot James Brolin moves to Hal Holbrook and grabs him by his shirt.  The camera ever so slowly zooms into the two men, much like Coppola does in his Godfather films and The Conversation. There are no cuts at all in this scene as the threat to their wives is outlined specifically for them. This is the “You have to help” speech.

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Kelloway: Your families.

Brubaker: What about our families?

Kelloway: Please, you have to help.

Brubaker: What about our families?

Kelloway: You *have* to help. Shit, this thing is outta my hands. You think it’s all a couple of looney scientists, it’s not. It’s bigger. There are people out there, *forces* out there, who have a lot to lose. They’re grown ups. It’s gotten too big, it’s in the hands of grown ups.

Brubaker: What about our families?

Kelloway: They’re flying back from the Cape to Houston, they’re all together on the plane.

Brubaker: No…you’re not serious.

Kelloway: Please. Bru…don’t make me.

Brubaker: You son of a bitch, tell me!

Kelloway: They’re on the plane together, goddammit! You want it in writing? There’s a device, it’s on the plane too. There’s some people, if I don’t give them the all clear signal they’ll explode it. Don’t you understand? It doesn’t have to be like this. You have to help. It’s gotten out of control. It’s too big.

Brubaker: You wouldn’t. Tell me you wouldn’t.

Kelloway: I can’t tell you that, Bru.

My other favorite scene was used in one of the trailers of the film. Once we have learned about the forced cover-up, and the three astronauts have agreed (under duress) to fake scenes of a Mars landing, they film the integral landing on the sound stage. The astronauts plant the American flag, just like we did when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. The scene starts with a close-up of one of the astronaut’s helmets as we listen to the pre-recorded Presidential address to the crew. The images of the lander and the other astronaut can be seen in the reflection on the plexiglass faceplate, curved and distorted. The camera slowly pulls away from the astronauts for over a minute, showing us more of the scene with every moment. A classic pull-back shot reveal.

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We see the two astronauts standing on the surface of Mars with the lander behind them, the American flag proudly planted in the ground. A small camera that the astronauts placed on a tripod stands among the rocks. We pull back to see that the Mars sky looks like a painted backdrop, because it is. We see the exposed set’s ceiling and work lights high above. We see huge stage lights with orange gels in front of them aimed at our actors. We see television studio technicians and directors standing around watching the scene unfold. We are witness to the huge fakery of this live broadcast. The mis-en-scene of this is perfect. The scene begins with the astronaut seeing Mars through the lens of his faceplate. It moves back to what the television audience would see through the lens of the tripod camera. It moves back further to show what only the secret cabal of crew members would see. And we, the viewer, see the theater of it all.

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The ironic Presidential message about hope and pride and truth lands false and makes us question every other thing our government and television studios and news sources have ever fed us. Like the astronauts being forced to sell a lie to the eager public, we feel empty and defeated watching this scene. How many moments in history were distorted, fudged, obfuscated, reframed, or flat-out faked? False flag operations are when countries organize attacks on themselves and make the attacks appear to be by enemy nations or terrorists, thus giving the nation that was supposedly attacked a pretext for domestic repression and foreign military aggression. The possibilities are endless. Thoughts of patriotism, great achievements, sacrifices, deception, lies, and what men will do to prevent those lies from ever surfacing. It is a brilliant scene bringing us through numerous emotions. This is a perfect rendition of a political speech meant to unite a country. But hearing it in this context of corruption, cover-ups, deception, and impending murders blackens our souls.

The President: We will never be the same. For this moment more than any moment in our history, has made all of the people in the world realize that we are part of the planet, that is part of the system, that is part of the universe. We are a small energetic species, capable of pettiness, yet capable of brilliance. We know how bad we can be. Now you, the men of Capricorn One, have shown us how wonderful we can be. By showing us how high we can reach. You have crossed the last great frontier and you have shown us what we are: people. Of different colors and religions and ideologies. However, a single people. You are the basic truth in us. You are the reality. We will never let you down. And we will always be grateful.

The desert run

“A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes.”
-Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro, CASINO

The second half of the film ramps up the excitement as the astronauts realize that they must be killed for the story to work and the secret to be kept. So they escape from the base by stealing an airplane, but they soon crash-land when it runs out of fuel. The rest of their story takes place in the desert.

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The three men split up and start walking across the punishing desert with barely any supplies. The only dialogue is of the characters muttering to themselves or telling themselves jokes. They become deydrated and must survive the elements, animal threats, and govenrment agents trying to eliminate them. I am reminded of the first 45 minutes of PLANET OF THE APES as the astronauts travel across an empty post-apocalyptic desert terrain. Coincidentally, Jerry Goldsmith did the music for both films.

Meanwhile, government agents are hunting them in two helicopters. Peter Hyams made a sly directorial choice with these helicopters scenes. He never shows you the pilots inside the cabins and we never hear them talk. The helicopters have huge plexiglass windows that appear like insect eyes. We don’t hear the pilots talk to each other on the radio, or respond to calls from Kelloway. The helicopters are shot as if they are large metal dragonflies. In several scenes, they actually turn to face each other as if communicating. I’m not a pilot, but I would imagine that helicopter pilots would not need to turn the vehicles nose to nose to communicate. They could glance over at each other through the huge windows, and would simply communicate over radio headsets. But Hyams has the helicopters hover, turn to face each other, and then turn and fly away.  In one scene he cuts between Kelloway asking them questions about the crashed plane, and the hovering helicopters. When the shot focuses on the helicopters we expect to hear the pilots answering him, but all we hear are the rotors. We just hear half of the conversation. It’s a great personification technique. We start to see the helicopters as their own autonomous insectoid creatures hunting our heroes. The machines face each other in silence as they suss out what to do and then agree on what direction to travel next. Even in the one brief scene where we do see the helicopter pilots, they are outside of the vehicles walking around. And they are wearing their huge helmets with visors covering their faces, making them appear robotic and bug-like. In one scene a character is dehydrated and hallucinating that he sees vultures flying above. The vultures turn into the two helicopters that have found him. To this day I still get anxious when I see helicopters….

 

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The film races to the climax involving the two helicopters chasing several characters in a biplane. Machine gun fire and dramatic evasive flying techniques make this a riveting scene even today. In fact, this scene was used in several TV shows. I remember watching The Fall Guy and seeing the exact footage from this aerial chase edited in to their episode. It worked because it’s hard to see the faces of the characters in the biplane, so it could be the characters in any story, as long as you involve 2 helicopters and a biplane.

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Capricorn One is a fun movie that makes you think. It isn’t perfect, I can list numerous plot holes and things that needed more work. But with a little suspension of disbelief it will entertain you and get you thinking about issues that have become more relevant over time. It has one of the best soundtracks and best casts of that decade. It is a great example of 70’s conspiracy theory cinema. And hell, maybe Stanley Kubrick did actually film the moon landing.

Burnside Street is memory lane

Driving downtown to work on Burnside Street is like a short tour of Portland’s most famous icons. It really does look like it does in the postcards and travel websites. When I drive to work it is still light out, and if I’m lucky the sun might still be shining. The skyline of downtown Portland is impressive. I moved here in 1996 and never thought I would ever work downtown, but here I am.

I head out from SE Portland and drive across the Burnside Bridge. Underneath the bridge is the famous Burnside skatepark, immortalized in the Tony Hawks video game. As I cross the Burnside bridge I see big pink looming ahead of me. This is the tallest building that Portland has to offer so far. It’s 30 stories tall with the equally famous Portland City Grill restaurant on the top floor. It’s called ‘big pink’ because of the pink hue of the panels. It’s like the monolith from 2001 upsized and made of shiny salmon fillet. That beast of building just needs some lemon juice on it, and I’m ready to feast.

Off to the right is the big Portland Oregon White Stag sign. This has been here forever and recently became a historical landmark. There is the outline of the state of Oregon, the words, PORTLAND OREGON OLD TOWN on it, and a white stag. Around Christmastime the white stag gets a glowing red nose. I often see models doing a photo shoot right on the side of the bridge with this sign in the background. The Suicide Girls movement also began right here in Portland, Oregon. So sexy alterna-models seem about as frequent as stop signs. Pale-skinned divas with brightly colored dyed hair prance around the bridges and loading docks with their photographers. Piercings, tattoos, and body modifications are the norm, the de rigueur of downtown. Now you are actually unusual and original if you DON’T have any of these things. I know about labret piercings, nasallang, septum piercings, Marilyn piercings, venom bites and snake bites just becaue I live in Portland. And from a few girlfriends. Remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta asks Eric Stoltz which one is his wife?

“Which one’s Trudi? The one with all the shit in her face?”
“No, that’s Jody. That’s my wife.”

Jody totally moved to Portland and invited all of her friends.

I often joke that every single person in Portland is 1) in a band, 2) writing a book, or
3) a stripper. And yes, I know several who are all three. The near-constant rain and gloom here makes all of these trades very understandable and logical. I’m guilty of 2 out of 3 myself. Oh, I almost forgot about being a DJ. EVERYBODY in Portland is a DJ. It doesn’t even need to go on the list because it just is. If I had to add to that list of most common Portland professions I would say 4) barista, 5) tattoo artist, and 6) IT person. Computer technology specialists seems to actually be how people make the big money here, while trying to make those other artistic jobs work. I know that when I was a kid I always dreamed of being a social media influencer. Just about as much as I dreamed of being a bouncer, I suppose.

On the right I drive by the Portland Rescue Mission. This is a soup kitchen that offers free cafeteria-style meals to anyone who shows up. There is always a large group of hangry homeless people congregated outside. And mentally ill people. And junkies. And just hungry people who need a free meal. When I worked as a mentor to at-risk youth, we would take the teenagers here for community service to show them the pride of giving back. We would all be behind the food line serving up portions of hot food to everybody coming through. The best message came from a man in line for food who seemed pretty healthy and normal looking. When he learned that we were mentors and the kids were our mentees he laid this wisdom on us. “Hey kids, be sure that you do what you can to always stay on that side of the food line. I have two masters degrees and I’m here regardless, because sometimes things just fall apart. I never planned on being here. We all need to eat. There are no assurances in life.”

Just a few blocks away is the original Voodoo Doughnuts. I remember when they first opened in 2003. It was pretty much a closet that served doughnuts. Doughnuts with breakfast cereal on them. Doughnuts with a slice of bacon on them. I would sometimes show up in the afternoon to find them closed with a hand-written sign saying, “We ran out of dough. Will reopen tomorrow.” Hard to imagine that ever happening, especially now that they are open 24 hours with lines down the block. They used to have musicians perform up on what I would call a shelf just feet above us. Usually acoustic or electric with a small amp. You waited in line and were literally in danger of a guitarist falling on you. They also did weddings of the small variety. Shelf weddings, if you will. Now they have expanded to several other locations in Oregon and other states. I’m happy for them, but I honestly never thought that they would be anything more than a tiny Portland doughnut shop. Their marketing plan truly helped catapult them to something special. Wooden coffins full of a hundred donuts, coffee mugs, pink boxes, sassy t-shirts, weddings, special memorial doughnuts for famous people who pass away. It’s all helped make them a world-wide phenomenon. I’ve heard stories of the elite flying their personal jet from New York to Portland, grabbing two dozen Voodoo Doughnuts, and flying back to New York. I can’t confirm if this is true, and that sort of behavior seems beyond wasteful, entitled, and just old-fashioned stupid. Again, they are just doughnuts with all kinds of shit on them. Much like Jody with all the shit in her face. Maybe there is a pattern here.

Around the corner from Voodoo is Kit Kat Club. This is one of the better strip clubs in Portland with lots of space and big stages. It used to be an amazing music venue called Berbati’s Pan. I have great memories of going to shows here. The best show I saw at Berbati’s was Queens of the Stone Age in June of 2002, just before they blew up. Dave Grohl was their drummer. Berbati’s probably only held 250 people, and just a few years later QOTSA would be playing the Rose Garden, which has a capacity of 20,000. Stoner rock band Kyuss is my favorite rock band, and QOTSA was the band created by Josh Homme in the ashes of Kyuss’ breakup. I do miss Berbati’s, but Voodoo Doughnuts bought their kitchen space so they were able to expand beyond their closet space. And then the main space of Berbati’s became the Kit Kat Club, so all is well with the world. Grizzled rock musicians now replaced by naked women. You used to be able to drive down Ankeny Street right by these locations. Now the street is permanently blocked off and just open to pedestrians.

Right across the street from Voodoo is Dante’s, one of my favorite live rock clubs. I’ve performed there many times and seen many great national bands there. This is where I first saw Storm Large and the Balls perform. They had a weekly gig there before she made it big. They showed me that you totally can play altered versions of famous cover songs and still be entertaining. She would do lyrical mash-ups of loungy, jazzy versions of famous pop or metal songs. Most people don’t know that prior to becoming Dante’s in 2000, it was a great buffet restaurant called Chang’s Mongolian Grill. I ate there numerous times in the 90’s when I first moved here. Other Chang’s locations still exist, but the one on Burnside was the first one from 1985-1999. You would choose thinly sliced meats and vegetables from the deli line, add noodles and sauces, and give the bowls to the cooks who would dump your food onto a huge griddle to be flash-cooked. The mythology is that ancient Mongols would use a huge metal shield over a fire to cook all sorts of food for their traveling warriors. The griddle represents the warrior’s shield of old. The small fire table in the back corner of Dante’s is a remnant of the griddle that so much food was cooked on back in the day. I am still obsessed with hoisin sauce (plum sauce) from my frequent trips to Chang’s in the 90’s. Every time I go to Dante’s for a live rock show I look back at the fire table and feel wistful. And my mouth waters a little bit.

On the right as I drive through the intersection of 4th and Burnside looms the Chinatown Gate entrance. Two massive concrete Chinese Foo Dogs stand guard on either side. I often look around for Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose and whisper to myself, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Off to the left we have Mary’s Club, which is Portland’s oldest strip club. It’s a family owned place where the dancers choose their own songs from a jukebox onstage. It’s been a popular strip club since the 50’s. It may not be as flashy or fast-paced as some other strip clubs in Portland, but dammit it’s got history and personality. And in a city that can claim to have the most strip clubs per capita than any other city, you definitely want a place with style and charm. This is the club were the dancer will lay down at the edge of the rack and have an actual conversation with you.

Sometimes you will hear the sound of distant bagpipes and see a flicker of fire. Then you hear the unique sound of the Imperial March from Star Wars being played on bagpipes. You look closer and see a man riding a unicycle as he plays this music on his bagpipes. Further, he is wearing a Darth Vader helmet and cape, and has somehow rigged the tenor drones of the bagpipe with a flame unit. So little poofs of fire are actually shooting out of those tubes on the top of the bagpipes. And he is wearing a kilt. This would be the Unipiper, a staple of downtown Portland. He has also appeared on tv shows and made appearances at sporting events. I do love Star Wars and fire. Working the door downtown somewhere I’ll hear the bagpipe music and watch the tourists get all excited and get their cameras ready. I’ve never spoken to the guy but I commend him for taking something so odd and making himself a Portland celebrity out of it. The force is strong with this one.

I remember the clubs that aren’t there anymore as I drive down Burnside Street. The Ash Street Saloon closed while I was working there, after a 24 year run. I wrote a lengthy piece about that called Farewell to Ash Street. The X-Ray Cafe was a successful underground club that allowed all ages. Only around from 1990 to 1994, it left a huge mark on the Portland music community. The small gated entrance is still there, it’s the backstage entrance to the Paris Theater now. Satyricon was also nearby and was a fun, albeit seedy, punk and alternative venue. Everybody from the Northwest played there early in their career. Rumor has it that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love met there. Satyricon was open from 1984 until 2010. There was an adjacent restaurant called Fellini’s that I frequented a lot. My college band in the early 90’s would drive up from Eugene to play shows at both Satyricon and Ash Street. We even had our cassette release party gig at Satyricon. When Satyricon closed in 2010 people were rightfully devastated. When it was bulldozed to rubble on 2011 people came by to grab a brick from the pile as a souvenir. Music fans want to preserve a piece of musical history, and their experience with it. I’m sure that I have a few friends with a Satyricon brick on their mantle at home. Perhaps they used the brick as a weapon to throw at riot cops during a violent protest downtown. That would actually be a perfectly fitting use of a piece of Satyricon’s punk history. But most people probably just display the Satyricon brick near their vinyl record collection. A person’s relationship with a band, a song, or a just song lyric can be as important and meaningful as a relationship with a person. I can chart important moments on my life’s timeline with the release of certain albums. The songs are permanently burned into my brain. Those albums become totemic markers along the shore of the river of your life.

And, of course, Portland’s most beloved literary attraction is Powell’s Books. This behemoth of a bookstore takes up an entire city block and is four stories tall. I have been coming here since the mid-80’s. I lived in Eugene at the time and would drive up to Portland for concerts. I would stop in early at Powell’s and buy a dozen used books before going to the show. Then I moved here in 1996 and would come hang out at Powell’s on a weekly basis. I’ve attended some pretty amazing author readings here. I have spent hours delving into the graphic novels, memoirs, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy sections. I loved the detective work of researching books on my lists, tracking them down, and buying them here. This was before the internet and Amazon.com existed, so finding obscure or out-of-print books was harder and more fun. More recently I’ve We bring our kids here and I spend time in a section previously never explored…the young readers section. I can only imagine the thousands of dollars I have spent here over the last 30+ years. And it was probably the best money that I’ve ever spent.

If you’ve seen the comedy show Portlandia you probably already know most of these landmarks, and something about Portland. They show some of these in the introduction to the show. The Burnside skatepark, Powell’s Books, Mary’s Club, and even McMenamins Crystal Ballroom and Ringler’s Pub are visible in the intro. I currently work there. The Burnside Bridge drawbridge closing is the final image of the intro. I think it’s hilarious when coffee shops intentionally play the song used in the Portlandia intro. It’s by chillwave artist Washed Out and it’s called “Feel It All Around.” You’ve heard it. It’s like those snarky hipster Portland baristas are being ironic and trying to make you feel like you are in actually an episode of Portlandia. People who have lived here for years have a love-hate relationship with that show. Personally, I found every season to be hilarious and a spot-on parody of some of the silliness that does indeed go on here. But also, I understand how it probably caused a lot of people to move here under exaggerated expectations. Thereby altering our population, straining our infrastructure, and raising rent and increasing real estate prices. Us locals who have called this our home for decades can barely afford to live here now. Between the skyrocketing cost of living, terrible traffic and gridlock, and housing overdevelopment, Portland is becoming Los Angeles. And don’t even get me started on the gentrification of this city. Please everybody, stop moving to Portland. We’re full up here, thanks. And if you are from California and consider yourself a ‘real estate developer’ please just fuck the hell off.

There are definitely many ghosts of the Portland spots no longer with us on my drive to work. It’s just 14 blocks from the Burnside Bridge to the Crystal Ballroom, where I currently work. But lots of memories flash by in those 14 blocks. I do miss the city that I remember from the 90’s. Every big city evolves and changes and grows larger. I just don’t have to like it. Portland often feels like an ex-girlfriend that I still live with because both of us are too lazy to move on. She broke my heart and isn’t the same person anymore, but I kind of like how the house still smells like her.

Times have changed in so many ways since I arrived in Portland. I was in my 20’s when I moved here and was full of optimism and naive expectations. Nobody had cell phones and the internet was a new and mysterious thing that not everybody had. This was before 9/11 so fear and security measures were different. Smoking had not yet been banned in every bar/restaurant/venue, so clubs were a haze of cigarette smoke. Two decades later, 5 rock bands later, 5 jobs later, numerous girlfriends later, 25 more pounds later, quite a few gray hairs in my beard later, here I am. Now I’m happy and settled with a wife and kids and dogs. In the 90’s I went to every live concert I could for fun. Now I go to live concerts for work every night. I miss Portland. I love Portland still. And I still live for music. I’m headed out to a concert tonight as a patron instead of a bouncer.

I am reminded of a scene from the Sam Peckinpah western PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

“It feels like…times have changed.”

“Times maybe. Not me.”

Short man and Blondie

I was working downtown at a dive bar that books rock bands seven nights a week. I stepped outside to check on the patrons drinking and smoking outside. There’s always some tables to buss, or some people who need to be told to stop smoking pot. There was a couple waiting in line to get in that drew my attention.

One thing that you don’t want to do is draw the attention of the bouncers before you even enter the venue. Things we look for include extremely loud voice tones, manic (read drug-induced) laughter, excessive movements or touching others, repeated dropping of items. These actions will bring us to you for a small conversation. I deny entry quite often just for being a loud, drunk ass in line. If we can stop the problem early at the door by denying entry to a visibly intoxicated person, we diminish the likelihood of having to solve another larger problem later inside. You could call this assholery mitigation.

And that is what happened tonight. I spotted a couple in line that already seemed to be drunk and was pseudo-bickering. I was busy listening to some regulars tell me a story while I bussed tables, but I was also watching this couple and listening as best I could to their interaction. It’s difficult to differentiate between simple happy exuberance at seeing friends at a music event, and sloppy intoxicated liability. I know many people who are very loud and physically affectionate in public. They aren’t intoxicated, that’s just their manner. But I didn’t like how the man was relating to his girlfriend/wife. They were both Caucasian and relatively normal looking, but he was substantially shorter than she was. She had big blond hair, reminiscent of the singer Blondie. I thought I saw him stagger a little bit also, but in the group of people it was hard to be sure. They were both a bit too loud, arguing, and he was pretty touchy with her. By that I mean he kept touching her too often, and usually when he was disagreeing with her.  After she would make a comment that he disagreed with he would kind of pat her arm or her hips and say, “Come on now, that’s a load of shit.” From a distance it looked like he was bullying her and being too physical. Repeated slapping or tapping of anybody is going to draw attention, even when done in play or even if the person is accepting of it. It was irritating and disrespectful at the very least and physically abusive at the most. But some people have that kind of relationship in public, sad as that is. I’m going to refer to them as ‘Short Man and Blondie.”

I returned inside to deliver the dishes and intercept this couple at the door. Sometimes a quick conversation with the people will confirm or disprove my query. But the line moved way faster than I thought and my co-worker was already checking their IDs. I got close to him so he would see me in his periphery and know I was assessing someone in line. This couple was still bickering in line and the man kept tapping her in disapproval. He did even trip a little bit on the mat at the door. My coworker looked over at me and I shook my head ‘no’ and made a concerned face. I even made the universal symbol for ‘cut off’ by moving my hand in front of my neck as if I were cutting my throat. He waved me over.

The couple saw me trying to give the door guy these nonverbal cues that he shouldn’t let them in. Short man started saying, “Come on, man. We’re ok.” I leaned over to my coworker and said, “He seems wasted to me, and they’ve been arguing and staggering outside. I wouldn’t let them in.” The door guy was wearing a flannel shirt and baseball cap, not really even looking like security. While I was wearing all black and a hoodie with the word SECURITY on the front and back. I probably looked like I had more authority here, or was the ‘hit-man’ of the night. That’s what I call the guy that comes in to deal with the big problems before disappearing back into the crowd. But in actuality I had only been working there part-time for 6 months, while the door guy of the night had been there full-time for years. He looked at the couple for a moment and told me, “I think I’ll give them a chance and let them in.” He wasn’t pulling a power trip at all. And saying that in front of the couple in question lets them know that they are being given a second chance. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s a tactic we all use. I’m happy to be bad cop and he can be good cop tonight. So I deferred to his decision here and we let the couple in.

Each place I’ve worked at is slightly different. Some places would prefer to stop a potential problem outside and just deny the people entry. Other places prefer to deal with any problems after the fact inside the venue. It’s pre-emptive versus reactive. I can pro-actively attempt to stop a problem early, or wait until it happens and react to it then (saying “I called that one” in my head). In this case, it probably also had something to do with wanting to collect the cover charge so the bands get paid. Everybody who works there is also in at least one band. So we all get the grind, and are sympathetic to bands struggling for every dollar. If we tell this couple that they aren’t coming in tonight, that’s $16 that the bands don’t get, and potentially more money that the bar doesn’t get in alcohol and food sales.

So the night went on and the bands played. Patrons rocked out, drank terrible cheap beer, and ate greasy deep-fried bar food. Sure enough, I spot my favorite couple being loud and getting heated by a bar in the middle of the room. I saw plastic cups in their hands, which was bad news since that means they’re drinking hard liquor drinks. Short man was still being loud and rude to Blondie, continuously tapping her with his hands and being too physical. I started moving towards them, putting myself in the vicinity of them so I was ready in case I needed to jump in. Just standing there watching them and listening to them.

Most bouncers are there to keep everybody safe. Most bouncers also have a particular distaste for men being too physical or abusive to women. Lots of bouncers end up working in strip clubs where they are essentially protecting pretty girls from jerk men. Remember the 1997 movie L.A. Confidential? Russell Crowe plays a detective that has a real problem with men who hurt women. So much so that he will hurt them far worse. He flies off the handle and beats any man that he finds hurting or exploiting a woman. He’s got a penchant for punishing wife-beaters. You can call it the knight in shining armor savior complex. Or you can call it just doing the right thing. I can admit that seeing this type of thing gets me really angry fast as well. I would imagine many guys saw their Moms get screamed at and beaten up by some boyfriend, stepfather, or their own biological Dad. They grow up and want to prevent that scenario from happening to any woman. Psychologically, we’re now talking about transference.

So short man continues to yell at Blondie, and keeps nudging her elbows and goading her. I move slowly closer, as watching this interaction is making me uncomfortable. I’m gently tapping people’s elbows and saying ‘excuse me’ so they will move out of my way as I part the crowd to get in range of this couple. There is a long bar in the middle of the bar portion of the venue. But it’s just a structural divider with some beams going up into the ceiling. There’s no bartender or drinks available at this bar, it’s just for people to lean on and set their drinks and eat their food. I’m on one side of this dividing bar and the couple is on the other side arguing. People around them are starting to cringe and move away from the couple.

As I’m about to interject and speak to the couple about them causing a disturbance, it blows up. Short man loses all patience with Blondie and grabs her shirt collar. She yells, “Let go of me!” and tries to back away from him. He doesn’t let go. This only took a few seconds. That’s it. There is a line that he just crossed by grabbing her in anger. I summon my loudest man-voice and yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF HER!” I reach over the bar and grab his arm with both hands and smash it down onto the bar hard. I had squeezed his wrist so hard that his fingers released her shirt instantly. Now the entire length of his arm is pinned to the wooden bar. All three joints were immobilized: wrist, elbow, and shoulder. His head was tilted at an angle just off the bar. His face reminded me of a startled turtle with its head trapped in a baby gate. It happened so fast I don’t really think he put together how his body got aligned with the surface of this wooden bar top. I am certain that he will have bruises tomorrow on his biceps and wrists that are shaped exactly like my fingers. But how about you don’t man-handle a woman in anger in a bar, asshole?

Of course, if you’ve pictured this dividing bar in your head you can see the problem that I have now deeply planted myself in. Because I was compelled to act quickly and blinded by the need to stop him from grabbing her in anger, I put myself in a stupid situation. With his entire arm pinned to the bar, I can’t do anything further or protect myself from anything else. Like the woman trying to defend her man, or even the guy himself from trying to hurt me. His other arm was free, so he could have potentially swung on me with his free arm. Or tried to choke me or gouge my eyes. Or, if he drunkenly thought he was Bruce Lee, he could have tried jumping on or over the bar to where I was. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone about it quite this way. But if I can make good decisions in crisis scenarios at least 80% of the time, I’m actually doing pretty good.

I suppose that, had he tried to fight or struggle, I could have raised his arm up to block his other arm. I did have complete control of his arm. Or with my adrenaline raging, and him not being the biggest guy I’ve ever restrained, I probably could have brought him over the bar to my side and put him down on the beer-stained floor. Luckily, I didn’t need to consider any of these options too long. I’m part of a solid team here that is always looking out for each other. My boss saw me grab the guy and was already on his way over. But when I release short man’s arm it’s going to then put my boss at some risk because short man may want to fight him.

My boss came over and grabbed short man’s other arm and wrapped him up as I released his other arm. I was now separated from the situation and couldn’t help until I got around the bar. The crowd was, of course, watching this whole thing go down. I had to get around the bar and through them to help. A one-on-one physical escort is difficult and risky. It’s much safer for everyone if two bouncers each control an arm and walk the guy out together. I moved into the crowd and yelled very loud, “MOVE! MOVE! GET OUT OF THE WAY!” I realized that I had said the exact words spoken by Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. I’ve seen that film so damned many times that parts of the dialogue are permanently ingrained into my psyche. When Rick Deckard is chasing replicant Zhora through the bustling crowd of street people he says this line before he shoots her. And whether anybody in that crowd has seen that movie or not, it worked like a charm. People got the hell out of my way and I grabbed short man’s other arm. My boss and I now each had an arm and walked him very quickly and forcefully out the front door.

We released short man on the sidewalk and waited to see if he came at us. Wisely, he did not. We told him he needed to leave the property immediately. Blondie followed us out and started yelling at him for embarrassing her like that. They wandered off down the sidewalk together. I can only imagine the talk they might have on the way home. Or maybe they won’t. Domestic violence patterns often show the victim remaining with, or even covering for, their abuser. If he was that physical with her in public I can only guess how bad he is at home. I can’t think about that anymore tonight though. I’ve got more work to do. All we can do is try to keep people safe while they are here with us. Tomorrow is on you.

As we walked back inside, the door guy waved me over and said, “You were right on that one. I shouldn’t have let them in.”
I smirked at him and nodded and said, “Yup.”

 

Just trying to get home

Driving home after a long challenging shift can be its own unique experience. Sometimes I won’t even get home until 2-3 hours after I clock out. Not because I’m out drinking with coworkers, because I keep finding situations that need responding to.

Sitting in my truck is usually the first time all night that other people can’t talk to me, ask me for help, or recruit me to solve a problem. It’s my little decompression sanctuary from the night’s lunacy. I’ll usually just sit there and breathe for a long moment before I turn the ignition. I usually reek of a distinctive combo of sweat (my own and other people’s), fog machine juice, cigarette smoke, and beer. All I want to do is get home and take a shower or a bath. But home seems so very far from here. Even though my drive home usually only takes 15 minutes, it can feel like I’m 2,000 light years from home.

Sometimes I’ll listen to music on the drive home, but more often than not I won’t. I’ve already been listening to music at the venue all night and I’m done with it. The silence is a welcome change. I’ll go over events of the night in my head, sometimes even talking to myself a little bit. I’ll think about situations I could have handled better, or just actually handled wrong. Nobody always makes the perfect decision in the heat of a stressful moment, and I’ve made my share of bad calls. I agonize over bad decisions I made more than I should.

Driving home in silence I see the night people of the city on their various missions, skittering around like insomniac bugs. I spot potential drug deals, homeless people moving camps, mentally ill people cussing at people who aren’t there, prostitutes with garish makeup peering into my truck window to see if I’m a customer. And of course the first responders of police, ambulances, and fire trucks always rushing somewhere with their candy-lights glittering in the dark. Red and blue flashes of color are reflected off of my bleary and red eyes every night. There’s always someone in peril or facing death. But with our busy lives and self-centered scope, we become inured to it.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite films, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro plays loner Travis Bickle, driving around in his cab all night long to deal with his insomnia. He sees the worst of people driving graveyard shift in New York City. Disenfranchised, jaded by the filthy humanity he sees, isolated and in his own world of depression he forges ahead. He finds obsession, a cause to champion, and then much violence.

“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.

“I am God’s lonely man.”

THURSDAY

Some nights I can’t even get to my truck before the nonsense-responder mode kicks in. Moments after I clock out and say goodnight to some coworkers I step outside and find two people crouched down leaning against the wall. It’s a man and woman who I recognize from the event upstairs. The woman appeared kind of wobbly and drunk up there and sure enough, now she is vomiting on the sidewalk with her boyfriend taking care of her. Much as I wanted to just keep walking, I ask them if they needed anything. I offer her water and ask if they have a safe way home. Ended up getting them some bottled water and a free slice of pizza from the restaurant inside. Notified a manager that they were outside just in case they needed more help.

Now as I’m about to cross the street to get to my truck, I see a dog starting to run across the busy four-lane street intersection. I am not about to see a dog run over by a car tonight, so I immediately pull out my tactical flashlight and shine it at the approaching cars in front of me and behind me. I jump out in the street and start talking baby-talk to the panicking dog. Somehow over the honking horns and vehicles squealing to a stop, the dog heard me and came running over to me. I walked it over to its owner on the corner of the sidewalk and got a big hug from the woman who owned it. A group of people who saw this or tried to help all gathered about the dog to pet it. I asked her about getting a leash or a rope to prevent this from ever happening again. My heart was beating pretty hard. I rubbed the dog’s fur and we looked in each other’s eyes for a moment. I said goodnight to everybody and walked across the street.

I went to the mini mart nearby to get some necessities. For decades I refused to ever even go inside of a 7-11 or a AM/PM Mini Market. Almost every single thing in there is bad for you and overpriced. But now that I work in bars as a bouncer, what other store is open at 3am? It’s a necessary evil sometimes. Every time I go in there I recall the scene from Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro’s character is in a store buying chocolate milk and Ding-Dongs and somebody comes in with a gun to rob the cashier. He ends up shooting the thief dead. The store owner covers it up by taking DeNiro’s unregistered gun and then bashing the corpse with a pipe. This was long before every mini mart had surveillance cameras.

Tonight I noticed three white teenagers all wearing backpacks grouped together in the corner of the store while the middle-aged woman cashier eyeballed them. I immediately walked over to them and stood right behind them like I wanted to see something in the case in front of them. I said, “Excuse me, fellas” and opened the case to grab some water. They undoubtedly saw my security shirt and earpiece still clipped to my collar. I looked at all of their hands to see if they were trying to shoplift something. The cashier came over and asked the boys to leave since they weren’t buying anything and weren’t supposed to bring in huge backpacks. They left the store quickly and she thanked me for helping out with that potential shoplifting situation.

Minutes later, I’m standing in line with my bag of chips and water, and a mentally ill homeless man comes in. He brought in some fast food and started putting it in the market’s microwave to heat it up. The clerk yells over to him, “Hey you can’t use our microwave. That’s for food that you buy here.” The guy starts yelling and cussing, slamming the microwave door shut and knocking over various items on the counter. Everyone in the place is now staring at this nutball. Acting on autopilot I say to him, “You need to leave NOW.” Then he focuses on me and makes a crazy face while he yells, “You gonna kick my ass with that bag of chips, motherfucker?” I started walking towards him and he runs out of the store, leaving his stale cheeseburgers in the microwave. I return to line to buy my chips and the clerk thanks me again. I said, ‘Crazy night, huh?” She replied, “Oh it’s just an average Thursday.”

As I’m finally driving home thinking about dogs and Travis Bickle, I see a fire on the side of the road. It’s a tent completely engulfed in flames right by the street. It’s part of a makeshift homeless camp in a small park-like area of trees and bushes near an overpass. I pull over immediately and call the police. The operator asks me what my emergency is and I tell them that there is a homeless person’s tent on fire at the location. The flames were reaching up several feet in the air and about to catch the leaves of the tree directly above it on fire. Several trees around that one were touching it and would then also catch fire. He asked me very calmly, “Do you see any bodies in the burning tent?” I answered that it was just the tent and the items inside it burning. Pretty sure I would have mentioned that on the call, after running over to try to pull the bodies out of the tent. Strange conversations at 3am. I was pleased to see 3 other cars pull over behind me to call in the fire as well. One guy was a security patrol driver and he got out and headed towards the burning tent. I yelled to him that I’d called it in and a fire truck was on its way. There is a community of us out there that will always help out in the wee hours.

In the colder months, some homeless people do die in their tents trying to keep warm. They use sterno cooking fuel to heat the inside of their tents, and to cook food. Some burn hand sanitizer gel in a pop can as a make-shift stove. Sometimes this catches papers, hair, clothing, etc on fire or gets knocked over. It usually isn’t that they are doing drugs or cooking drugs in the tent. A person might fall asleep and accidentally knock over the flame, starting a fire. Some of the cheaper tents obviously are not flame-proof, as evidenced by this maelstrom of a tent fire. This particular tent wasn’t anywhere near the rest of the group of tents on the grass though, it was right on the edge of the street, on the sidewalk. Most people don’t set their tent up that close to traffic or blocking a sidewalk when there was ample space back among the others. Seemed to me that it was placed there intentionally to be done away with. And placing it directly under the leafy tree feel like an intentional act to catch the tree on fire. I wonder if there was some sort of revenge amongst the homeless people and somebody got ousted. Or maybe the owner of that tent passed away or went to prison and their friends burned their stuff in a strange honoring-the-departed ritual. I’ll never know.

FRIDAY

I got out of work late tonight after the bar closed. It was quite a night full of kicking out drunk people, taking care of people who had medical incidents, catching crowd surfers during the concert, and babysitting lingering band members. After a minute or two of sitting in my truck to calm down, I headed home. Sure enough, I see a woman laying askew on the sidewalk too close to traffic slowly flailing and reaching up with her hands. I say out loud to myself, “I’m off work.” But then I pull over and park to go investigate.

She was conscious and attempting to stand up after a fall. I asked her if I could help her stand up and get away from the street. She said yes and as I pulled her up I leaned in close to see if I could smell any alcohol on her. I didn’t. A bike pizza delivery guy was nearby and half-assedly trying to talk to her and help. He told me he saw her fall and pulled over but couldn’t get her on her feet. He asked if I could take care of this since he had deliveries to make. I didn’t see any injuries on her, but she was definitely unstable and had other challenges.

She started trying to talk to me and I recognized the all-too-familiar confused speech of someone with Schizophrenia. She was trying to link ideas and words together that didn’t go together, what psychologists call a ‘word-salad,’ She was also very confused about why the busses weren’t running at 3:15am. Typical paranoid fears of things happening to her that aren’t even possible. I tried to get her to tell me if she lived nearby in a residential home or something, or where she was coming from. It was very cold outside and she did fall on the sidewalk according to the pizza delivery bicyclist.

I called the non-emergency police line and told them I was with a woman who seemed to have fallen, but that it might be more of a mental health response needed. An ambulance showed up in moments and they ran her vitals and interviewed her. I hung back and watched for a while out of curiosity. I heard them talk to her about getting somewhere warm tonight, and offered her a ride to Hooper Detox. She was probably off her meds and needed stabilization/medication management. Nothing warranted a psych hold or admitting to a hospital though. The woman refused any rides or help from the EMTs. They offered her a ride to a homeless shelter as well, but she refused. There was nothing any of us could do. I waved to the paramedics as they boarded their van again. And the woman picked up her bags and waddled away down the sidewalk. She looked like she just finished a shopping trip at the mall carrying her department store bags like she was. I silently wished her well, and thanked the EMTs in my head.

Driving home again I see a very odd sight just blocks from where the woman was found. I saw a SWAT truck with riot police troops standing all along the sides of it, ready to deploy. This is an unusual sight any time of the day, but now it’s creeping up on 4am. No political protests happen at 4am. Naturally, I drove around the block again to get another look and see if I could figure out what was about to happen.

Then I realized what was happening as I drove past a particular notorious club. There is a certain club that will remain unnamed that is a magnet for violence and fights. Bro-dude rapists who want to fight are drawn here by the dozens. Worse even than the unsavory clientele is the asinine way they run their business hours. Every bar in Oregon has to stop selling alcohol by 2:30am. So usually clubs announce last call at 2:15 and they don’t serve drinks after that. Then at 2:30 the ugly lights come on and everybody scrambles out to drive home. Or more accurately to see who is sober enough to drive to Taco Bell, and THEN home. This particular club stops serving alcohol at 2:30am, in accordance with the law, but then they remain open as a hang-out spot until 4am. This is a recipe for disaster. This is when drunk people with no reason to leave stay and start trouble. Predatory bottom-feeder dudes looking for the drunkest woman showing the most skin. Women with more fake breasts and lips and makeup than class or sense. In this bizarre gonzo scene they actually deserve each other. I guarantee it’s 90% testosterone and whiskey-fueled macho dick-measuring bullshit. “You looked at my girl too long”, “You knocked into my table”, or “Hey asshole, wanna fight?”

I used to work the door at a club very near this place. It became a regular thing that we would see numerous police cars there every night to respond to fights. The record was 12 police cars all with their lights and sirens on screaming to the club and blocking all lanes of traffic. We were instructed to close and lock the doors of our establishment when that would happen, so any fights or drama wouldn’t move into our bar. The most famous fracas there was when multiple fights broke out between different groups in the bar and security staff, and it spilled out into the street. There were several stabbings. I watched bleeding men being put into ambulances on stretchers, still yelling at their enemy in the other ambulance.

After that they added more bouncers and big metal detectors outside the club. But it still is a sketchy shady place that I wouldn’t ever go to, and no woman should ever go there. Trust me. So I think this was the city’s response to this club’s history for violence. The time between 2:30am and 4am is what I would call ‘bullshit time’ at this club. So they posted an emergency response SWAT team outside in the parking lot all decked out in their tactical gear and armor with mace, tazers, stun grenades, and assault rifles. It’s an effective and intimidating show-of-force tactic. I think if you walk into a club and see that outside, you might consider not acting a fool that night. And if you do start a fight in that club tonight, may your god have mercy on your stupid soul.

Almost home now, I see my tank is empty and decide to fill up tonight rather than deal with it tomorrow before driving back to work. Gas stations with markets are epicenters for ridiculous nonsense in the middle of the night. As I’m waiting for my tank to fill and commiserating with the gas jockey who has to be there until 8am, I see an African-American woman wandering around the parking lot yelling. But she’s not just yelling at people who aren’t there, she’s actually screaming at patrons in their cars. She was screaming at innocent and very tired people about using their phone to call the police to get her kids back. I don’t feed into stuff like this at all, so when she looked at me I just said, “I can’t help you, move on.”

The gas attendant said he already locked the front door to the market and told her to leave the premises. He was here all by himself trying to run the mini mart, pump everybody’s gas, and deal with this crazy woman. So since she has been told to leave and hasn’t, she is now trespassing. Also harassing and borderline menacing customers. I saw her at the window of a car screaming top-volume at a scared-looking young woman inside. This poor woman looked trapped like a dog in the animal control truck. Crazy woman was still harping about using someone’s phone to call the police to get her kids back. She screamed at the woman in the car, “HELP ME, WHITE BITCH!”

At this point the attendant and I both started yelling at her. I called the police and got out of my truck to start moving towards her. I’m way bigger than she was, so as soon as she saw two men moving towards her she moved away from the woman’s car. She did start screaming at us, calling the gas attendance racist and me a thug. She also implied we were somehow involved in her losing her kids. I described the woman to the 911 operator loudly so the woman would hear me describing her to police. The gas jockey said if she didn’t stop screaming and calling us names he was going to punch her in the face. I was ready to drop my phone and tackle this woman to the ground if I had to. Luckily she ended up running away, still screaming about getting her kids back. I told the officer what direction she went and hung up. I waved at the scared woman in the car and she mouthed the words “Thank you.” I shook the gas jockey’s hand and we both rolled our eyes at the insanity, and I drove away homeward.

Back to Taxi Driver wisdom, Peter Boyle’s character Wizard says this:

Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job – I mean, like that – That becomes what he is. You know, like – You do a thing and that’s what you are.

This resonates so strongly with me. Since I’ve worked as a bouncer I feel like I’m always a bouncer wherever I am. Does all this nonsense just find me? Or am I seeking it out? Do I see it more than a regular person because I am attuned to it? I feel like I often work a full shift at the venue bar, then I work a second short shift after I clock out just trying to get home. I can’t turn it off. My parents say that I’ve always been a helper since I was a little boy. That’s essentially what I’m doing now as an adult. Helping others. In that way this is a perfect profession for me. No matter how long I actually work in this industry, I’ll always retain this security mindset.

All I want is to enter my house justified

This is a famous quote from the 1962 Sam Peckinpah western, Ride the High Country. I think of this line often when I finally get home and open the door of my house.

I enter the house as quietly as I can and put down my bags. I go to my bedroom first and gently touch my wife’s leg, whispering that I’m home. She usually wakes up just enough to say that she loves me or that she’s glad I’m back home safe. Then I peek into each of the kids rooms to check on them. I usually grab the girl’s glitter-covered foot and say goodnight, and then softly tousle the boy’s shaggy hair. Both dogs are asleep, one snoring pretty loudly. My clan is collected. My family is safe. My tribe is protected.

It’s the middle of the night and I’m wide awake in a house full of sleepers.
I’ve got nobody to tell all these stories to, except maybe you.

If I were a smoker I would have a cigarette. If I were a drinker I would crack open a beer.
Instead I go out on my back porch and sit on the deck. I can feel the moisture in the air and see it sparkling on the grass. The sky is starting its transition from black as night to a familiar blue glow. The stars start to fade away as the sky lightens. It has just changed from night to morning. It’s not my time anymore, I need to get to sleep like a vampire prior to daybreak.

But I guess I’ll just sit here alone and watch the sun rise.