Last night, MDC was playing. A band that I’ve been reading about since I was about 14. I never had any of their records, but I knew of them and I always meant to get around to listening to them. Apparently, the name stands for Millions of Dead Cops which was incredibly cool-sounding to a high school punk kid. It was something I would’ve liked on a shirt. But I never bought the record. I never asked someone to make me a tape. I never even heard MDC.
Nearly 20 years after I’d first heard of MDC, I was living in Thailand, teaching English classes at a provincial university with a government program when one day, online, I noticed something.
“Hey,” I called out from the living room, which was really just a table that had been there when we’d moved in and a mattress we’d put on the floor to simulate a couch.
“What?” Gina answered from the other mattress in the bedroom. It was so hot in that place that, often, you found yourself having to go lie down in the middle of the day to keep from passing out. Also, we took a lot of cold showers. I say cold, but the water was only cold for the first five seconds then it warmed up, almost like the heat from your body had traveled up the flow, into the showerhead, down into the tank and heated the water. It was so hot it felt like that could happen.
“There’s this new venue in Arcata. Looks like they put on some good shows.” I yelled from my place on the floor mattress. Arcata was where we met and where Gina was born. For years she’d been trying to get me to move back there, but I could never quite convince myself that there was anything worth moving back for. I liked Arcata, but it was small and largely dominated by the university that makes up nearly the whole eastern side of the town. We’d lived there once before and I’d worked at an industrial-output level flower farm. For a few months, it had been alright, but it wasn’t something I wanted to spend any significant amount of time doing. The way I saw it, there just weren’t many options in a place like Arcata. Not much for jobs, you could work a minimum wage, part-time job or go to the university. Other than a movie theater, nothing much for entertainment and a couple of mediocre taco trucks was all the place could boast of for food. Still, Gina kept me in the loop as to any new developments, knowing from experience that my opinions were, by no means, permanent.
“I told you about that place already,” she yelled from the bedroom.
I knew she probably had. Even in Thailand, nothing happened in Arcata without Gina knowing via the Lost Coast Outpost, an online paper that she read religiously, even when she was living in places like Thailand or Paraguay. Lately, I had been trying to get her to be interested in some other place. The mountains, the desert, somewhere back east, I wanted her to feel at home when we went back to the States, but I wanted to find my own home, a place that would be ours. I studied maps and job postings, but the best thing I could come up with was Monterey, which looked:
A: expensive, not San Francisco expensive, but still expensive and
B: touristy. I wanted to go find the Monterey beyond Cannery Row, which I’d been to a few times already to visit the aquarium. When I learned there was another town, away from the Row with its taffy shops and chain seafood restaurants, I wanted to see it. The bay looked incredible, kelp forests, seals and water calm enough to get into and snorkel around once in a while (with a wetsuit). I’d tried to convince Gina that Monterey would be worth moving to. I talked about the place so much, she finally had to agree. It wasn’t a battle easily won, but finally she’d agreed to check it out when we got back. And now, here I was, sabotaging myself, expressing interest in this new venue in Arcata. But, reading about the place, I couldn’t help but to think about the quiet, easily walkable town surrounded by all kinds of natural splendor. Maybe, with the addition of this venue, it wouldn’t be so bad to live there after all. Living in a place like Thailand where the daytime temperature never dropped below 87, certainly made the temperate Pacific climate seem more desirable.
When we came back to the States, we juggled the options of San Francisco, Monterey and the areas in between before deciding to move to Seattle. We flew into San Francisco, just because it was the place we’d left from a year earlier and the pull of inertia was too strong to ignore. We stayed in the area a few days before heading north. The plan was to stay with Gina’s folks in Arcata for a few days, collect our stuff and continue north to Seattle, but, after a few days in Arcata, I no longer felt like going anywhere. I couldn’t imagine doing better than Arcata. The little college town was peaceful and, because I’d been there so many times, it felt familiar. In the early morning, I’d make coffee and ride my bike to the beach. In the late afternoon, I’d walk back into the forest, or down to the marshland by the bay. It was as anodyne as you could get after the noise and heat of urban Southeast Asia.
There was also more to do now. One of the theaters downtown was under new management and now played more independent and foreign films and there was the new venue I’d noticed that day on the internet. The place seemed to have a show almost every night with interesting-sounding bands. I envisioned myself going there about once a week and getting to know everyone, making friends.
After a week in Arcata, I went back to San Francisco for a job fair. All the California Community Colleges were hiring English teachers for the next academic year. I’d been applying online for all these positions. I figured I’d get a job anywhere I could and that acceptance of the place I lived would follow. I didn’t want to live in a suburban area, but all the places that were hiring seemed to be just beyond the pale of urban settlement. There were schools near Napa, San Jose, San Diego and Palm Springs. I applied for them all, thinking I’d increase my chances that way.
We left Arcata around noon, which, given that it takes about 5-6 hours to reach San Francisco is the worst time to leave. We cruised through the redwoods for a few hours, almost completely alone on the highway, but, as we neared Ukiah, the traffic began to increase. We didn’t even make it to Santa Rosa before we were bumper to bumper. We crawled into the city, through a haze of red taillights. It took a few hours and, by the time we went over the 580 bridge, I had to pee like crazy. In the East Bay, we hit more traffic and it looked like it stretched all the way down to San Jose. I looked out the window in a kind of wild desperation and saw, on the looks of my fellow commuters: the most bland type of utter resignation. Everyone looked like workers before computer screens in an office under sputtering florescent lights. I’d had to contend with the traffic of the Bay Area before as a delivery driver, but I’d never been so irritated by it then. After spending days walking along the quiet streets of Arcata, the excess of humanity, packing itself in, was not something I found exciting. It was an irritant and nothing more, which happens when you have to pee as bad as I did.
Sunday morning, I woke up, put on my suit jacket, combed my hair, picked up the folder with my resumes and made my way to the BART Station. Early in the morning, there was no one around and the train was almost empty. I watched a damp morning Hayward drift past the windows. Every area along the tracks that wasn’t a crowded neighborhood, was filled with tents or a construction site. People were living everywhere and they were still packing them in. Even this far from the City, one-bedroom apartments were renting for 4,000.00 a month, hence the tents which, in a sense, were free.
I got off at Colosseum and waited for the shuttle to the hotel hosting the job fair. Another enterprising woman was waiting with me in a suit that looked tailored. We both looked a little desperate: Sunday morning on San Leandro St. constantly looking south for an arriving bus. We used the situation to have the empty, practicing talk one has with fellow job-seekers before an interview, both of us using the opportunity to sound ourselves out, to tune our voices to professional amicability, not listening. It was exactly the kind of conversation you expect two people in suits on Sunday morning to be having.
The morning fog burned off and the day warmed up. I checked in at the hotel and got my name tag. I was surprised to see it had a barcode on it. I hadn’t expected to need a barcode for anything. Inside the conference center, lines of tables were set up, each with a different banner on a board behind it and a pile of free pens or mints. I went to each one advertising for an English or ESL position, thinking maybe I’d gain some insight as to why we were all there. Obviously, these colleges had plenty of applicants. There were many more people in the room by nine o’clock than there were jobs being offered. Why did they need to have this job fair? No one I met actually worked in these departments, in fact their jobs were just to promote their college at these job fairs, they knew very little about the jobs they promoted. I thought I’d have an edge given that I’d already applied for the jobs online. That way, I thought, I’d look serious and no one could brush me off by telling me to go home and apply. But, when I approached each booth, introducing myself and saying I’d already applied for the position I only received bland encouragements and free pens and then they’d pull out the scanner to get my barcode, never asking my name. I’d hoped to meet relevant people and make connections, but I was only having more of the type of conversation I’d had at the bus stop; empty, full of false encouragement. We were all looking for a way in, but the room was full of petitioners, no gatekeepers. It was like a Kafka story; we walked around the dim room, asking if anyone had seen the key, but there was no door, let alone a key to open it. When I left, the sun was shining and the day had grown warm. I took of my jacket and had a conversation with a fellow job-seeker about our Peace Corps experiences. It was a real conversation and by far the most poignant thing I took away from the experience.
That afternoon, driving back to Arcata I felt like I was escaping a palpable cloud of indifference. Moving north, as the population thinned and the rents went down, the sense of competition decreased. The spaces between buildings grew until the buildings themselves became unimportant and scuttled by under the immensity of the landscape. The first time I’d made the drive from SF to Arcata, it had been the opposite, the immensity of the landscape unnerved me. The trees and the hills seemed to swell with desolation, moving north, I felt more and more despondent. When I reached Arcata, I felt lonesome enough to cry. It was summer and the town was quiet, almost ghostly compared to SF. I parked by the marsh and walked a few blocks, watching my feet, hardly looking around. I was full of sighs. I left after an hour or so and felt relief to be returning to the city. Now the situation was nearly reversed.
When I came back after my vocational sortie down to the Bay Area, I felt the familiarity of returning to the place in which one lives. I wasn’t just in another place, I was back where I lived. Exiting the highway and driving down the quiet streets that had once so greatly alienated me, I now felt at home. The feeling didn’t really surprise me; I guess I’d been expecting it.
About a month later, we found a nice apartment where the town fades into the ocean, broken up by diary farms and large, flat parcels of land. I took a job working as a delivery driver for a bakery while I looked for teaching work. I was able to wrestle a part-time position from the university’s International English Language Institute just before it was closed down to accommodate budget cuts. The hours at the bakery were mercifully flexible and I stayed on, working the weekends. My weekdays were mellow. I woke up early, drank coffee, watched the clouds pull back from the mountains in the weak morning sun. I went to teach my class and then stayed half the day planning the next lesson. Sometimes in the evening, we’d bike out to the ocean and watch the sunset. A few times we tried to go out to do something in the evening, but the best I could do was a movie. The fatigue from waking up early would start to swell under my eyes and pop in my joints by about 10. On the weekends, I was getting up much earlier to drive the bakery delivery truck. My alarm went off at 3:30 and even though I got home no later than 1, I was usually inept for the rest of the day. I couldn’t nap, but I looked forward to bed with the vigor of a man who is functioning at half-capacity and wants to restart the day, hoping for something better. It was under these circumstances that MDC came to town.
I’d been working at the bakery for a few months. The brief job at the university was coming to an end. I had a little more free time and didn’t feel so pressured. Of course, the show was on a Sunday night. One of the disadvantages of living in a remote place is that you know the band is stopping over between SF and Portland. The shows are always on odd days, Sundays, Wednesdays, Mondays. I had to work early on Monday, but I’d let this serve as my excuse too many times before. Looking at the MDC flyer outside the co-op, I told myself, when the time came, I was going to go. Thirty-five wasn’t too old. Only a year or two before, I’d been out closing the bars, howling at the moon. Maybe I wouldn’t stay out all night, but I could certainly make it to the show. It started at 6:30. It’d probably be over before 10. There wold be no good reason not to go.
After working for a few days at the bakery, I woke up early Sunday morning. I started to make coffee in the kitchen, but watching the sunlight spread out from its perch at the top of the mountains, I decided to wake Gina and to get outside. When I’m working a lot, it’s hard not to be aware of the stopwatch ticking along beneath the quiet of a Sunday morning.
We walked down 11th street to the bagel shop, where we squinted into the sun and drank steaming coffee. It was only us and the workers at the bagel shop. The rest of the town gradually woke up and stumbled down the hill in the same slouching way we had. Soon the patio was nearly full of other patrons drinking their own steaming coffees, but most of them having been smart enough to bring sun glasses.
The coffee began to kick in and as the patio got crowded, we walked up the hill just to take a walk somewhere. At the top, I stopped and looked back toward the bay. “I’m going to go to that show, I think.” I told Gina and myself, in case there’d been any doubt. With her hand over her brow, shielding her eyes from the sun, she looked at me and asked “What show?”
I reminded her about the MDC show. She said it was great if I wanted to go, but I could tell by the way she said it she had her doubts I’d be able to maintain my dedication all day. I responded shaking my head, as we walked back home. No, it wouldn’t be hard to do. Instead of winding down with a book at 5:30, I’d put on my jacket and walk the 7 or 8 blocks down to the venue. When I got there, the opening bands would be starting and maybe I’d even go over to that pizza place and get a beer. There wasn’t anything difficult about this, but just to be sure, when we got back home, I made some more coffee and stretched out on the couch with the newspaper comics, reasoning that the relaxation and caffeine might keep up my motivation.
After lying around and reading for a while, I got up and we took a walk around the neighborhood. Despite the coffee, I was already starting to feel tired, but I was relaxed. We walked past the farmyards with pens full of languorous calves and returned their mooning looks. We stood by the fence long enough to cause some of the more inquisitive to take a few steps toward us, but none would come up to the shock of sweet green grass that Gina held out coaxingly. The sun was coming down to the horizon and the light was dampening with the hulks of wet-looking clouds coming down from the mountains. Insects and frogs were beginning to chirp and the distant sound of traffic in town was fading as the grocery store parkinglots gradually emptied out and the cars returned home with Sunday-evening groceries consisting mostly of snacks, as no one wants to cook on Sunday evening. The lights came up in the houses we passed, as boxes of pita chips and sleeves of cookies were opened and cardboard lids were peeled back from clingy pints of ice cream. The blue flame of television sprang up in otherwise dark windows up and down the blocks, burning through the cotton fog of the evening.
Our shoes scuffed on the damp tufts of grass sprouting from the broken panels of sidewalk as we drifted back home, leg-sore after too long a walk, but content to have spent the late afternoon in a meaningful way. The need for a washing machine had been reintroduced into the conversation. It was a topic that had been frequently revisited, but with no result other than the nagging feeling that, at some point, I was going to need to go and buy a washing machine, an activity that still seemed so impossibly adult to me. I had a difficult time believing I’d be able to pull it off. I imagined going to a department store and wheeling the thing up to the counter.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“I’d like to buy this.”
“First I’ll need to see your ID.” Confused, I’d hand the clerk my ID, thinking maybe you needed ID for large purchases only to be told: “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll have to ask a sales associate to return the washing machine. K-Mart has a strict 37-and-up policy for all adult appliances such as ovens, dishwashers and, sadly, washing machines. I’ll have to ask you to leave it there.”
I knew I could buy booze, rent cars, buy plane tickets and fly around the world unaccompanied, but somehow, buying a washing machine just didn’t seem like something I’d be allowed to do, perhaps just because it never would’ve occurred to me to do it.
We’d been talking about buying a washing machine for weeks, but I was finding it really easy to put off. ‘I’ll have to measure the door,’ I’d say, making an excuse for why we couldn’t just go buy the damn thing. I hate making any kind of large purchase, not necessarily because I’m cheap, but because I always feel like I’m going to get the one that’s broken and then I’m going to have a 400-dollar mess on my hands and still no way to wash anything at home.
We batted these thoughts back and forth as we walked home in the rarefied light of a clear and breezy evening. The wind had picked up out in the ocean and seemed to be blowing a halloween-orange light across the sky, back toward the mountains, pasted against the sky like a cardboard cutout.
“I guess I’m not going to the MDC show,” I sighed as we turned onto our street. As I said it, I felt relieved. I’d been so worried about copping out, I hadn’t spent much time wondering if I really felt like going. I realized now I didn’t have much desire to walk over to the venue and wait for the show to start, trading commonplaces with whoever happened to be standing next to me. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found it very difficult to strike up meaningful conversations at those things. There’s too much focus on the stage. Even before the bands come out, everyone’s just waiting and people get nervous and fidgety when they have to wait. At least I do.
Back in the house, I kicked off my shoes, tumbled onto the couch and listened to competing internal voices of relief and disappointment. I knew I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t quite forgive myself for it. I’d known this was going to happen and still I couldn’t avoid it. I was also thinking about how I needed to get around to buying this washing machine. Here I was, Sunday night, neither enjoying myself nor accomplishing anything, just sitting on the couch feeling tired as I so often seemed to do.
“The hell with this,” I suddenly announced, getting to my feet. “Let’s go get this damn washing machine.” I went over to the closet and grabbed the tape measure that had been there all along. “31 inches,” I said measuring the door. “We can’t get anything over 31 inches wide. Let’s go.” I threw the tape measure on the couch.
So, Sunday at the end of April, 2018, instead of going to see Millions of Dead Cops play just down the street from my house, I found myself standing in the K-Mart appliance department, talking to the sales clerk—who was probably a good 10 years younger than me—about washing machine warranties. He didn’t seem to know if there was a warranty or not so, at some point, I shifted my line of inquiry, asking instead if we bought it, if he’d help us put it in the car. This he was able to agree to. “Good enough,” I announced, feeling like a millionaire on a spree. “We’ll take it.”
The clerk went and got a dolly and helped up wheel the thing to the front of the store. The place was nearly empty, like, I suppose, most K-Marts these days, but there was a Mexican couple, walking around with their smartphone on a video call. As they waved the phone around, I could see a face watching intently from a dim room, presumably in Mexico.
“Mira este,” the man exclaimed holding the phone to a stuffed animal. “Un osito; ocho dolares.”
“Ay!” his wife yelled grabbing the phone and bringing it over to a display of jewelry. Que lindo, verdad? Veinte-cinco-cinquenta.” Gradually the couple and their satellite guest moved deeper into the store, all the while, pointing at things and saying how much they cost. Mostly. They went for the high-profile end-rack items, the blue-light specials of yesteryear, but occasionally, they’d reach into an aisle and pluck something out to coo over and say the price of the item like some kind of incantation necessary for owning it. Watching their excitement over retail, over K-mart fer God’s sake, I felt better about throwing my money away on the washing machine. “We’d spend more than this in a year of going to the laundromat.” I announced to myself and let the clerk wheel the washing machine into the check-out line.
No one asked for my ID. No one even seemed to be interested in our enormous purchase. We paid and led the clerk out to the car, where he and I stuffed the box into the hatchback. The wind had died down and the orange haze was spreading out over the sky, extinguishing in the cold mass of violet clouds scudding in the from the east. I started the car and thought of the Mexican couple, by now they’d probably made it to the back of the store where all the appliances were. They were probably holding their phone up to the floor model of the washing machine I’d bought and exclaiming the price. Somehow, this thought gave me the confidence to drive away and take the thing home.
There are few things as anticlimactic as removing the blank white, metal cube of a washing machine from its box. I’d like to tell you that I put on an MDC record as I unwrapped my adulthood, but the idea never even occurred to me. By the time I got home and got the thing in the door, it was already late and I still had to get up in the morning. I pushed the washing machine against a wall and tossed the shreds of cardboard out of the way. Just down the street, kids were flailing around and slamming into each other through the opening acts of a show they’d remember for the rest of their lives and I was going to bed.