I knew I would die if my dreams did, but that came later. First, I was a janitor at Wal-Mart. I did almost nothing, was paid almost nothing. I’d take my big push-broom and walk around the store with it until the managers saw me, then I’d stash my broom and read books in the family restroom, the only room in the whole place that locked other than the cash office.
In that bathroom, I read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amy Hempel, Milan Kundera, Zadie Smith, Alice Munro, Barry Hannah, and on and on.
I spent dozens of hours sitting on a floor opposite a toilet and reading the entire Rabbit series by John Updike. Over the course of four novels and a novella, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom goes from a high school basketball star to a corpse. Fifty years: a dead daughter, a separation from a wife, a dead lover, a return to the wife, a coke-head son, a Toyota dealership, a heart disease, another lover, a funeral, an everyman sort of life spent grinding through the American dream and the American reality, finding the parts that bridge one to the other.
When I realized, years later, that my job had changed, that it was no longer simply a conduit for creating downtime in which to read, to do the thing I did when I wasn’t immersed in the creative process at home, was when the Rabbit books changed for me, when an even bigger picture began to appear: too late is a time that exists.
The songs on Police Teeth’s second record, 2007’s Real Size Monster Series, are the product of a very particular set of mid-20s anxieties. There’s a lyric that goes “We don’t get along like we used to / maybe if you listened to them you’d hear them say / to hell with the years we spent / to hell with trying to pay the rent.” They got their name from a message board and that’s kind of what they sound like: guys whose time trickled down accordingly from their inclinations towards weird punk rock that bridged the 70’s to the 80’s and then got angular in the 90’s.
When I first heard the record, the good enough days of being a janitor were over. It’d be months until it began to explain itself to me, but I was already concerned with its big ideas, with me and people both like and unlike me being too fucked up to change anything for the better, with dreams clashing against responsibilities.
The word “serendipitous” doesn’t have a proper opposite because there are two parts to it—the accidental and the beneficial. I’ll spare you the complications in trying to unpack it all, but it’ll do both of us good to remember that everything is either a wonderful coincidence or something much, much worse.
The way Wal-Mart worked at the level I was on—the bottom rung of the ladder used to climb up and see the hole where there might someday be a totem pole—was part pyramid scheme, part misplaced pride, and part Stockholm Syndrome. It was sort of like telling a child that if they eat the big plate of sauerkraut you cooked that you’ll buy them a nice, shiny bucket to throw up in.
I ended up with a walkie-talkie strapped to my hip, on call to do odd jobs when I wasn’t pushing carts, stocking beer, unloading trucks. I wasn’t proud of the work I was barely doing, so it became an odd sort of stress that led to me first refusing to do work that wasn’t my job and then insisting upon myself that I do it to a particular standard.
An assistant manager who came from the world of construction and thereby had the worst qualities of both middle management and someone who hangs drywall had me working as if I were three or four people. I worried that one of them would be him and none of them would be me.
On the occasions where I thought I’d had enough, I was countered by this assistant manager with an adult version of the sort of stern talking-to a third grader might get for murdering the neighbor-boy, the kind that says, I know you don’t know you’ve done something very wrong, but everything is different now.
The last track on Real Size Monster Series is called “There’s a Big Heap of Trash at the End of the Rainbow.” Bassist/vocalist Chris Rasmussen’s opening line is a mission statement for the clinically fucked: “Your dreams have come and gone / you waited far too long to mean that much to anyone.”
The song has no narrative, really. It reads like a frustrated musician ran their journal through a paper shredder and then gave someone three minutes to transcribe it. You maybe peaked at 23. You paid your dues but it didn’t matter. Your parents and ex-flames kept track of all the time and money you wasted. The world doesn’t need another graphic designer or sound engineer and it needs another musician even less. You’re washed up by 26.
You keep one guitar and one small amp so you can play “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Margaritaville” at a sports bar on Tuesdays nights. You use that money to buy sensible shoes for sensible jobs.
Most people live to tell the tale, but most tales aren’t worth telling.
My college roommate, Christopher, found out he had a two-month-old son the week before he graduated college. He’d met the mother once at a party, not knowing she would go on to carry their child, that she would have pregnancy denial, that she would make it through almost the entire pregnancy before realizing it was a baby and not a tumor or an odd shifting of her organs.
I myself graduated with no children. I also had no job, girlfriend, or real life qualifications. I dropped off an application at Domino’s Pizza, the same year they tied Chuck E. Cheese’s for dead last in a nationwide survey ranking chain restaurants. They didn’t call me back.
Nobody would touch me. Christopher had an economics degree and a wonderful job and a house. He let me live with him and started me a tab for $200 a month. I couldn’t get hired to spray deodorizer into bowling shoes. It was a peaceful sort of thoughtlessness. It was lonely, charmless irresponsibility.
After seven months of unemployment, Christopher’s mother got me a maintenance job at Wal-Mart. I found out quickly that they have their own rhetoric. I wasn’t an employee because I was an associate, and the company itself was pro-associate instead of anti-union. “Maintenance” was the name for the person who cleaned the bathrooms, swept the floors, mopped up the spills.
Before Christopher found out about his son, he’d wanted to see the world so he could size it up, as if for a bar fight or a tuxedo. He was and still is incredible, still full of empathy and curiosity, but at that point, his life was already on a different timeline. He was already a father. When I told him that I got the job, he bounced his son up and down in his lap. I wondered how long I had been a janitor before I knew it.
Real Size Monster Series opens with the same yelling that closes it, except the sentiments have been reversed. “I Made Out With You Before You Were Cool” is like being thrown into the middle of the bad old times when right away guitarist/vocalist James Burns yells out, “The year 2002 / Nervous breakdown number three / People who have never been in love are telling me how the fuck to feel.”
When I met the one girlfriend I briefly had during my time at Wal-Mart, a busty, bilingual redhead named Holly who had seen lots of movies and wanted me to eat more vegetables, I thought I was a poet. It’s the only thing worse than actually being a poet.
Between poetry and Holly, nothing I wanted ended up being accurate. We broke up after three months, when she was in Chile. We’d had an argument and then the next time we talked was a week later, when we ended things. Two weeks after that she had permed her hair and started dating a Chilean man who owned several horses. I got the impression she was frustrated.
Holly now does I-don’t-know-what. When I think of her, it’s not necessarily the bad old times of “I Made Out With You Before You Were Cool.” I’d inserted the idea of loving another human being into a list of daily tasks where it was prioritized alongside and attempted with the vigor of shampooing the couch. There’s plenty of vitriol in the song, but I don’t have a right to any of it.
One day, a couple assistant managers called me into their office because they said they wanted to show their appreciation for my hard work. I was expecting a raise or a bonus or a free lunch or some candy, something that existed outside of Wal-Mart.
They gave me a lapel pin of a broom pushing the word MAINTENANCE, the job I was barely able to do because of my added responsibilities. Proof, I guess, that the world needed to keep working, and so did I.
Instead of my poetry getting better, instead of getting off work every day to write, instead of making my own music, instead of putting on records and trying to play along, blasting through AC/DC and Thin Lizzy and anything else that was big and dumb and felt good, what if I married Holly?
She told me she loved me two weeks after we started dating. I pretended to be asleep.
What if we had children? What if our lives had progressed together as naturally as it could have for two people who don’t like each other very much. So lies the fear of the song “Psychedelic Vasectomy,” a fear that asks, If I trade my dreams for someone else’s happiness and they end up miserable, were my dreams ever any good?
If you were possibly thinking at any point during this that the system simply reversed the roles on me, put a lazy youngish person to work after they abused the privilege of having a job in the first place, I get it. But consider this: I was Associate of the Month twice.
Not while I was working hard, mind you, pulling apart entire milk coolers and scrubbing weeks of crusted dairy from every corner or picking up trash along the hillside with a nail on a stick like a fucking convict, but when I was gingerly sweeping up an aisle or cleaning out a break room fridge in my downtime from reading in the bathroom.
They were happy with what I was doing even though I mostly wasn’t doing it. Nobody was doing it. It’s not that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. There was simply no emperor.
So: our staff slowly shrunk, a single person hired as a replacement for every two or three that quit or were fired. I was told multiple times that I would do whatever is asked of me or I would be fired. I even had to go one manager’s house and help him move.
The hours between work became the hours between work. I created less and less until the next level of desire I was striving towards collapsed. The book I was writing spanned ten years of a young man’s life. I was working on the second half, about some years I was yet to live. I wrote slowly, hoping to create a lifeline and not a premonition.
“Northern California” was the first song I noticed on Real Size Monster Series. It’s a simple guitar melody that’s somewhere between a Guided By Voices line and a major chord exercise you might teach a student in their fifth or sixth week of lessons. Lyrically, it’s weirdly fun, just a song about being on tour and doing the things I assumed would be done on tour: smoke somebody else’s joints, go to a record store, search the van for the Kraftwerk tape.
Police Teeth have lots of songs about touring or playing shows, and they don’t all get the happy ending of getting high, getting drunk, and cranking Bathory in northern California. It’s not a fluffy song, but it doesn’t go dark and deep like the others. It’s almost an embarrassing bit of catharsis, really, as if this goofy tune about partying and driving around playing music with buddies had to happen so the band didn’t die of rage.
When I first heard “Northern California” explode, it was a different kind of explosion than I’d been hearing on that record or elsewhere in my life. The bands I’d been in did everything as a failsafe to make sure we had an excuse for not doing more or better. They were bands that played ten-minute instrumental songs about Robocop or played too loud or never played out of town. When these bands broke up, everything was fine but not fine, like how, if your grandmother dies, your life is different but the coffee maker still turns itself on the next morning.
I wasn’t in bands that failed to live up to their potential. It was worse than that: I was in bands that failed to realize they had already lived up to their potential. There was a possibility that my writing might do the same thing.
“Northern California” wasn’t a classic rock road trope, the pages that turn or the long cold highways on which we run on empty. There was no talk of crowds bad or good, amps heavy or light, chords hit hard or clammed. It wasn’t a song about my actual past or present, but I recognized the sentiment, how the art that resonates with us is about an opportunity to feel good despite life being one giant, unwieldy moment.
I don’t know why I want to write stories and songs. And giving them to the world-at-small is a financial drain that takes a lot of time. I can’t explain the idea of “want” at all, but hearing “Northern California” made it clear that there needed to come a point in my life where I had a mercy-killing of all the reasons not to do something, all the reasons not to do nothing.
My philosophy professor in college loved to ponder the specifics of Van Halen’s origin story, as if it was a thriller, the horror of an alternate timeline in which Van Halen doesn’t exist lurking behind a blown fuse in the borrowed PA head or an unreturned phone call from one person to another.
What I think he’s getting is that a world without Van Halen is inconceivable. They resonate as part of pop culture and his personal history with rock and roll. They’re music for the neck up and lyrics for the waist down and together they sound like a Neanderthal trying to love the whole world at once. Their songs tread a weird sense of pathos across topics like cars and fucking and fucking in cars. Their story matters because of social consciousness and longevity and the animal part of out brains never really going away.
The story of how Police Teeth came to exist or how they came to the find the sound for Real Size Monster Series or even how it’ll be a miracle for them to be—like most bands, brilliant or otherwise—anything other than an afterthought doesn’t matter at all. They’re on an indefinite hiatus and it’s not out of line to predict that they will be mostly forgotten, that, unlike Van Halen, it’ll only be me and a few dozen other people mourning their absence in an alternate timeline as we move two or three decades away from the release of their first record.
There is no social consciousness, a negligibly small “our brains” to sort through.
The songs on Real Size Monster Series say, “Let me get mine, motherfucker.” The best parts for me are notoriously selfish, sadly enough. Of course, there’s a wonderfully soft underbelly to both these terrible times of Real Size Monster Series and a person’s mid-20s: the possibility that, once I get mine, I can help you get yours.
At some point, I realized that happiness is a straight line, but it’s about six inches wide and no one rides for free. I started my own press to put out the book I wrote and then set up a tour to go 2000 miles across the country and then back, reading that book to strangers every day.
I asked my manager what I had to do to quit. All I had to do was put a note on her desk that said I was quitting. Name, date, formalities.
I didn’t need to be what I had assumed I’d always been. I’d spent years saying that it was okay to be a janitor. And it was. It is. Somebody has to do it if you or I don’t want to, and while there’s no shame in it, I wanted something different. It just took awhile to convince myself that something different wouldn’t just be another poetry, another Holly, another Wal-Mart.
Not that I was convinced of any of that when I quit. I just knew I couldn’t keep not caring about whether or not youth really is wasted on the young, couldn’t just not get married or not have a career or not just write the goddamn story or play the goddamn guitar.
On the way home from my last day working at Wal-Mart, I listened to Police Teeth. The song “Bob Stinson Will Have His Revenge On Ferndale.”
Do you remember that spreadsheet that you wrote up way back in 1993
Nobody ever says ‘That changed my life’
Nobody ever says ‘That inspired me’
I’m happy to make a living but there’s one thing my boss will never know
There’s a mountain of difference between a good day at work and a record or a show.
There’s something I forgot to mention about “There’s A Big Heap of Trash At the End of the Rainbow.” There’s a glockenspiel that comes in during the bridge. If you don’t know what a glockenspiel is, it’s a mallet instrument kind of like a little xylophone. It’s what the melody of “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter is played on and it’s one of the sounds buried in the mix of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by The Ramones.
“There’s a Big Heap of Trash At the End of the Rainbow” exists somewhere between those two songs, the height of fantasy and the reality of plain desire. It’s still overwhelmingly negative, of course, a reminder that the refinement and improvement of talent and perspective that come with growing older doesn’t really compare to simply being young, having energy and fire and the promise of potential, but that glockenspiel is like looking up at the sky and realizing that there’s still so much blue between the clouds.
I wrecked my car. It was the day David Bowie died, which is no excuse for stopping at a red light and then going through as if I was at a stop sign. I got t-boned by a minivan driven by a guy I know named Ken, because this is the Midwest and that’s just how things work out most of the time.
The insurance company gave me about $2300 for the Mitsubishi I sold the majority of my CD collection to afford years ago. The only car that had 40,000 fewer miles than everything else on the lot in my price range was a PT Cruiser, which I bought even though it looks like a drawing a kid who needs glasses might do of Darth Vader’s helmet.
Later that week, I cleared my old car out in the parking lot of the salvage yard, tossing books and guitar cables and CD cases and empty cans of iced tea into a laundry basket I’d sort through later. I’d been listening to Real Size Monster Series again while driving around, preparing to write this essay. I didn’t necessarily need it like I did when I worked at Wal-Mart. I could barely remember what it was like before I had my big plan to tour and live off what money I could while cleaning a bar or working odd jobs, an idea that lasted about a month before I ended up randomly getting offered and randomly accepting a job to cook at a preschool. I figured I could still tour in the summer for a couple weeks, do the occasional long weekend, and still be happy. I figured my life would keep going and I wasn’t wrong.
It was about two weeks after my car had been turned into a cube when I realized that my copy of Real Size Monster Series was still in the CD player.
No artist ever truly wins the battle with their dreams. I know that. There’s always the next story to write, the next song to sing, art constantly aspiring to be greater than the feelings it comes from.
My copy of that Police Teeth album died in the car I drove to work every day, the place where I listened to it the most and thought about what a difficult process dreams can be. Cars, CDs, push-brooms, redheads, tours, dreams—whatever—just aren’t built for distance sometimes. If we’re talking about lives or rainbows, it’s the middle that counts.
Here’s an end for a middle: I didn’t die, and neither did my dreams.