m closing in on the second year of living fully off Youtube. The first year was novel. I remember standing in my kitchen smugly looking out at the cars commuting in the morning cold of last year. Suckers, all of you, I thought. I get to stay home and make videos and write. Yes, this is civilized living.
Now it's one year later and I miss that chilly winter morning. More than that, I miss my old coworkers. I miss the gang. The folks you work with are your family, even if you hate them half the time. I'm out of all loops. I'm lonesomely free.
Some days, I don't even speak. Some days I blurt out
"Get out of my brain!"
because my stupid gray matter dug into VHS archives to replay old surveillance tapes of I and me doing stupid stuff.
"Remember that time you dumped Tabasco sauce on Pete's fries senior year and he punched you in the mouth through his own hamburger?"
"Yeah, let's watch that ten times."
I drove the Vagabond Falcon to Kutztown University today. I parked on Main Street and walked up to campus, remembering when I was a student here. I sat in the Student Union building's coffee shop, happy to be around other people, even if I am 10 years older than everybody else here. They did school work on laptops, made weekend plans, greeted their friends as they entered and exited the building, hugging through winter coats. Black girls wore white fedoras and denim jackets dressed at the height of fashion. White girls with straight brown hair and army surplus coats and Chuck Taylor shoes.
Friday, December 9th, Schuylkill Racket and Fitness.
I joke that this place is an old man gym, but it's really not. It only is at the hours I go.
My gym has a bar in it, some of you have seen it. This whole building is a 1970's time capsule and it's one of my favorite places in the world. Wood panel walls. Ethan Allen furniture. Bubble gum machines. Short shorts and wallyball. Clanging metal lockers and gang showers. There's even some CRT TVs still in use here. But in these rural Pennsylvanian communities wanders the end result of social isolation that I fear:
The lonely old man.
These old men hobble into public spaces, mouths open and staring. Snapback baseball caps with slogans like these: America, State Farm Insurance, Paul's Excavating, Ocean City. Some have canes, most don't. Their white sneakers scrape on asphalt parking lots. Button down shirts under grey sweat shirts forever coming untucked. Some are married, some aren't, or their wives have passed on. If they're still working, they get a lot of time off to navigate the Dollar General.
There's this one guy who shows up now and then to my gym. He's a Ben Franklin looking type, like a smaller version of him. He wanders around with his mouth permanently open, as if he has trouble breathing with his nose. He does a lot of low commitment working out. He'll get on a elliptical machine maybe, but his favorite machine is the recumbent bicycle. He'll sit there and lazily pedal, sometimes he'll get onto the back extension machine, do about three reps and then just sit. He chooses any machine that has a chair built into it.
I asked some of the employees who he was, because he always showed up at the odd times. 8 in the morning, or sometimes 10 at night. Never talking to anybody. He doesn't have work out clothes. He works out in dark jeans and what looks like a buttoned down Dickey's work shirt. The employees who worked there said there were a number of complaints about this man. He would come up to girls and ask them flatly:
"Will you be my girlfriend?"
The few times he talked to me I couldn't make out much of what he was saying. It was as if he started in the middle of the conversation when he came up to me. He didn't say hi. He would say things like:
"and then there's this happening over here with the air conditioning..."
It's odd because it's winter time and the air conditioning isn't running. How starved he must be for human contact. Clerks trapped behind counters are his best friends. They have to talk to him.
One old man occasionally floated in and out of Bruce Hen's garage. I never learned his name. He walked with a cane and sat a lot. He would shuffle in to the shop's open door. He'd ask:
"What are we working on today?"
And he'd find an old chair or a wheeled stool, take it without asking, pull it over to whomever was closest (and that usually was Tony's work station), and he would sit and watch. He wouldn't help or even pass tools. He would just sit, and sit, and sit, and sit. And he'd talk.
"What are you working on this car for?"
"Where's Bruce? When's he coming back?"
"I got laid off."
"Now what are you doing?"
"Where are you going?"
"Okay, I'll keep watch until you come back."
I kept to myself on the Falcon and the old man sat there in his chair with his cane, and then a curious thing started happening. He started talking like he was on a CB radio. He was talking to no one.
"Break one-nine break one-nine. Trucker looking for anybody out there."
"Break one-nine break one-nine. Anybody out there.
And I didn't say anything. And then I heard him say softly:
"Someone please talk to me."
I see lonely old men more now, now that I'm horribly free. And like them. I see them driving Buick Centuries, Regals, Encores. Maybe mouthing dog-turd cigars bought for thirty dollars a bag.
December 12th, Grateful Roast Cafe, in the Greater Wilkes-Barre area.
Wilkes-Barre: Where beer cans grow in the grass by the side of the road.
I'm on an OkCupid date near Lesern community college. Thankfully we have mutual social awkwardness. She was nice. She endured me.
There were frightening gaps in the conversation which grew larger when I ran out of non-car things to talk about. The cafe used to be a tattoo shop. The chairs were cold metal. The floor was hard tile and a sharp draft flowed low around my ankles. The building stood alone in an industrial parking lot close to an old folks home and the community college.
My date told me that because her job with the department of social security is designated essential federal staff she would have had to report to work even though no one was getting paid during the government shut down a few years ago.
"That really sucks,"
I said. I wasn't sure what the right response to that would be.
Acting normal is like holding a plank for me. A plank is a half a push up, its an exercise done for about a minute. Its the abdominal equivalent of holding a gallon of milk at arms length. You can't do it forever. And with me, eventually, I say something that I think is funny.
"Theeeese paaaiiintings remind me of my childhooood!"
And I forget that the other person is a normal human. With a job. And a paycheck. And Facebook groups and community potluck dinners and Netflix and Redbox and dogs and automatic transmission and extended families checking in.
I wonder how comedians date. Do they have a PG set list they recite for first dates like pilot scripts written to delight and satiate Midwestern test audiences vacationing in Vegas where most shows are tested? I have a test script. Sometimes I stretch it into the fourth date before the messy "me" floats to the top.
"Cuddle me like a samoyed."
Tuesday, December 13th.
My parents house is a warehouse of deceased furniture and belongings. Condensed novel sets from the 1920s in identical black hardbound books. Religious self-help books with titles such as Sacred Contracts, Where God Was Born, The Acts of the Apostles, Stress Less by David Colbert M.D., The Humble Approach, Scientists Discover God, Love Out Loud by Joyce Meyer, Discovering the Laws of Life.
In a deeper basement room hold stacks of clear plastic tote bins filled with photo albums, stacks of letters rubber-banded together, and unlined stationary with lists. Drapery at $260. Yards lining at $80. Labor $360 per panel. 13 panels at $350. Extra charges when the job is complete. $120.20 paid in full October 17th, 1962. Jewelry boxes with tiny keys on strings. Rolled up teal carpets. Bank statements, at least 80 of them in this pile. Heaven forbid the past disappears.
A red leather bound organizer holds musty air and 16 loose blank pages of tracing paper and two unused envelopes with a flower pattern on the inner linings. A full unused matchbook from Penn Harris Convention Center. The matchbook will stay in that rinsed out pickle jar along with used birthday cake candles until the earth consumes this house.
I think about how back in Kutztown Pennsylvania there's a bus station that fires diesel coaches to Port Authority every hour. The Jalopnik offices are a thitry minute walk from the Port Authority terminal if you hustle. That means I could be in Manhattan, hanging out with the Jalopnik gang within five hours of any moment.
And yet, I stay in the coffin familiar coal hills of Pennsylvania. I don't know what I would do to keep the conversation going at the Jalopnik offices, apart from the introductory
"Hi, how's it going? Good to see you, what have you been up to?"
I'd rather let other people talk and hang back curling up in my clipboard where I don't have to be on.
The Jalopnik gang sounds like they're having a lot of fun. Raff is learning how to ride motorcycles, Patrick George is the new boss, Steph is racing her 944. And none of them are alone. They're never alone. They have each other. And they weave in and out of other circles too. Like the smoking tire and any press junk offering free sandwiches.
I want to be a part of that world. I want to be a part of that world of smiles and back slapping and laughter.
At least as a spectator.