Monday, October 5, 2015
artist Nathan pearce “Midwest Dirt”
writer eric Hazen “Bury Your Head”
A free bi-monthly photography and creative writing publication
It all started with the bolt cutters. We found them hanging from a nail in Dave’s garage after his dad caught us smoking pot in the garden shed and put a padlock on the door. I’d started staying with Dave that summer to avoid, I don’t know, pretty much everything. It was our first summer after high school and it seemed like everyone thought we should have it all figured out. And maybe some people did. Sam did. When Sam and I first started dating we only turned the stereo in my car up loud during our favorite parts of our favorite songs—The Misfits and Rancid and Against All Authority. We’d scream the lyrics and drive out to the hill behind our high school and watch for UFOs. Sam wanted to be abducted. But otherwise the stereo was down low. Low enough that we could talk. Low enough that I could hear her laugh at my dumb jokes. Low enough that I could listen to her plans. Come September she’d take off for Ann Arbor and a chemistry degree from the University of Michigan. She’d never look back at the junked out pick-up trucks and “Reelect President George W. Bush!” signs that filled most yards in Nunica, Michigan. 10 years later, working in a small university lab, she will discover a new, efficient way to recharge zinc-air batteries—the batteries used in hearing aids. In another 7 years, her batteries will be powering 70% of the vehicles on American roads. Their only byproduct will be zinc-oxide, the main ingredient in sun screen. Sam will be a millionaire. Sam had it all worked out. She was smart and she had a plan. Not me. I didn’t know what to do. I had a shit job at a pet store that I hated. I couldn’t stand school. I’d spent almost all of school in these stupid special ed. classes because of this dyslexia stuff that totally wasn’t a big deal, but my parents and teachers made a huge thing of it. Like I was too dumb for regular classes or something. But even before school was over Sam kept trying to get me to send in all these college applications. She’d
print them and drop them off at my house. “Just fill them out and I’ll even mail them for you,” she’d say. I wasn’t even sure I could get into college and there was no way my parents could help me afford something like that. But she kept pushing it and every time I didn’t hand over the completed applications my car’s stereo got louder and louder, filling the empty space. So I just hung out at Dave’s getting stoned with him and Ian and avoiding Sam and the blank spaces for GPA and achievements and extracurricular activities and especially the checkbox that asked, “Do you require any special learning assistance?” Dave and Ian didn’t have plans. They didn’t want them. “What’s the point of that?” Dave would ask, “We’ve got everything we need right here.” I assumed he was talking about the ounce, bong, and Cheetos sitting on the low table in front of him and not the rakes, mower, and lawn chemicals that filled the garden shed. “I mean, really,” Ian said, “What else is there to worry about?” Dave’s parents were rich and I guess he was just going to wait for them to die. I think that was Ian’s best bet too. So I grabbed a box of my shit and crashed in a corner of Dave’s basement. Ian grabbed the opposite corner. We’d smoke all night or maybe drink if we could find someone to buy us beer. Sometimes we’d break out Dave’s N64 and Mario Kart. Once in a while we’d get glued to the couch and Animal Planet. Other times we’d head for the field at the back of his folk’s property and blow up fireworks. No one seemed to care at all what we did and that made it easy not to think about Sam and all her plans. Everything was perfect until Dave’s dad caught us in the shed. Dave had just taken a huge rip from our bong when the heavy double doors swung open and his dad stood in the opening, silhouetted against the dark sky. Dave
threw the bong behind a mower and his dad stared at us suspiciously. “What are you doing out here?” he said. Dave didn’t say anything. He was holding that bong hit way down in his lungs. “You know, just hanging, Mr. Vanderwater,” Ian said. Mr. Vanderwater ignored him. “David?” he said, staring at his son. David was practically turning blue. His chest convulsed and tears ran from his eyes and all that smoke came pouring out his face in one giant choking gasp, right into his Dad’s face. Mr. Vanderwater chased us out of there and dragged Dave into the house. The next day there was a padlock on the door to the shed. It wouldn’t have been that big a deal, there were plenty of places to get fucked up, but our bong and our entire stash were in there. So when Dave’s folks left for work, we set about getting through that door. We figured the best way to go about it was to just remove the hinges. They were on the outside of the shed and with a drill it wouldn’t be too hard to just take them off. But we couldn’t find a drill in Dave’s garage. I thought about going to my older brother Joe’s house and grabbing one. He’d have one for sure. He was the kind of guy who had every tool you could imagine. He’d kinda been my best friend before his wife got pregnant and I started hanging out with Dave and Ian so much. But I hadn’t seen him in weeks and what would I tell him I needed a drill for? We were about to give up when I saw them hanging from that nail on the wall: the bolt cutters. Dirt and oil staining the rubber grips, the first jagged smears of rust creeping across the metal. To anyone else they probably would have looked like any other tool, you know, useful and everything. But to us, three 18-year-old kids trapped in a tiny town without any plans or prospects, they didn’t look like any mere tool.
Those bolt cutters looked like freedom. And that’s pretty much how the three of us ended up standing in front of the ostrich enclosure after the zoo was closed. Whenever we talk about scary animals everyone thinks of snakes and tigers and tarantulas and rabid grizzly bears. Maybe they’ll bring up goblin sharks or that fish that specializes in swimming up urethras. It’s all wolves and bats and barracudas. You know which animal no one ever mentions? The Common Ostrich. But when me and my friends Dave and Ian approached the ostrich enclosure at the John Ball Zoological Gardens and saw those oil black eyes shimmering in the darkness, in that moment we would know that this animal—the ostrich—is composed of pure evil. “Are we like, sure about this?” I asked. I said we were stoned, right? Stoned when we pulled into the zoo’s parking lot. Stoned when we piled out of Ian’s shitty Rav4, which would have been a kind of forest- vomit green color if it wasn’t completely covered in stickers. The other thing you should probably know about us was that we kind of looked like we had just walked off the set of Road Warrior. Liberty spikes and mohawks the color hair turns when you dye it too many colors at once, all held up by Elmer’s glue and spit, piercings our friends had done, and a tattoo on my right bicep that was done by some girl at a party that was eating French fries and looked like either a flaming glob of snot or a very elaborate bruise. We’d all been introduced to punk rock when we were freshman by Joe and his college girlfriend. And while we had at first fallen in love with her and the way we felt a little twinge of guilt—or something—looking at the skin beneath her fishnets, we eventually fell in love with the music too. And the thing about punk rock was that it came
with all of these politics and messages and esoteric causes that we had never even thought about before. When we weren’t busy turning our hair baby-shit green, we were adopting every anti- cause we could find. Anti-colonial, anti-corporate, anti-war, and antipeace. Check. Anti-racism, anti- fascism, and antiauthority. Of course. Anti-capitalism, antiallergenic, antibiotic, and antidisestablishmentarianism. Why the hell not? We were completely wrapped up in so many different causes and forms of rebellion that we didn’t even notice when they were in direct opposition to each other. We’d accidentally show up to Meat Is Murder protests with McDonald’s double cheeseburgers on our breath and signs for labor reform. And that isn’t to say that we didn’t believe in anything. We just kind of believed in everything. We were young and maybe a little bit confused on some of the issues, but we knew that if we pushed back against everything that our parents stood for, everything that had lead them to lives filled with 9 to 5s and 401Ks and cookie cutter homes in a cesspool of small town mediocrity via conformity, we could like, save the world. And when we hopped that fence at the zoo and started down a dirt path that wasn’t open to the public, that’s exactly what we believed we were doing. We were saving the world. At least that’s what we told ourselves. It made sitting around doing nothing a lot easier when you could claim to be actively not participating in the system instead of lazy, confused, or scared to death of actually caring about something and failing. I don’t know if you have ever been in a small zoo when it is closed and dark and not filled with screaming kids and concession stands, but it is one of the scariest places you can probably imagine. There are weird noises and smells and movements in the dark and the constant awareness that somewhere in the area are actual, physical lions and tigers and bears. Also, we’d been watching all those cryptozoology shows on Animal Planet, and I was convinced that the zookeepers replaced the regular animals at night. Convinced they replaced the zebras and elephants and masturbating monkeys with more exotic, less photogenic animals that nobody wanted on the front of their gift shop t-shirt. I was sure that, at any moment, we were going to come face to face with like, a chupacabra or a man-eating honey badger or one of those giant black birds that abducted all those kids in the 70’s. Dave led us around a curve in the path and then stopped and turned around. “You guys remember the plan if the cops show up, right?” he whispered. Ian and I nodded. “Of course, dude,” I said. The plan was to drop to the ground, completely immobile, and chant the lyrics to our favorite Anti-Flag song, “Fuck police, fuck police, fuck police brutality.” We’d seen a tape of some of the World Trade Organization protesters doing the same thing in Seattle, except the lyrics part. That was our own touch and we were pretty proud of it. “You guys ready?” Dave asked. We nodded. He stepped toward the door with the bolt cutters. The lock on the ostrich enclosure was pretty intense. He wrapped the blades around the bolt, hunched up his shoulders, and tried to squeeze the handles together. It wouldn’t budge. “One of you guys get on the other handle and push toward me,” he said. Ian grabbed it and they started a kind of reverse tug of war. One of the owls in the predatory bird exhibit across from the ostriches gave out one of those low, creepy calls. It seemed like the noise around us was picking up. Little sounds were everywhere, sticks breaking, hooves shuffling on hard-packed dirt, more of those unidentifiable animal noises. Maybe, I thought, they all knew what we were up to and were giving their approval. Maybe we should release them all. It wouldn’t be right to release one and leave the rest behind. We’d be setting up a pattern of inequality. Or something like that. “Alright, on the count of three, we both throw all of our weight into it,” Dave said. “One. Two. Three.” They both heaved and the lock snapped crookedly and Dave
and Ian’s heads came together with a crunch. They both fell to the sidewalk. The chain-link and pressure treated lumber door swung slowly open. The ostrich immediately stood up. It was fifty feet away from us and in the moonlight, it looked taller and far more frightening than I could have ever imagined. We had decided on the ostrich as our target for the fact that it seemed like the least dangerous animal at the zoo. Sure, there were goats, but goats have horns. There were the geese and ducks, too, but they can be fucking vicious. Monkeys, we’d decided were far too clever and might, somehow or another, manage to lock us in their cage after we’d helped them escape as revenge against their white, male oppressors. Not that we would have blamed them. We settled on the ostriches because we were poorly educated on the attributes of the largest living bird species. First, we didn’t know they were the largest living bird species. We had no idea that they can weigh as much 330 pounds and stand as tall as 6’ 7”. We were unaware of their excellent visual acuity, the long, sharp nail on each foot, or the fact that they can cover almost 17 feet in a single stride. Basically, we didn’t realize that ostriches are a slightly toned-down version of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. We also didn’t realize that male ostriches guard the nest at night, which is exactly what this male had been doing. All we knew was that they were big birds that couldn’t fly. At least Dave and I knew they couldn’t fly, anyway. Ian and Dave stood up. Dave rubbed at a fast rising lump on the top of his head and Ian spit on his hand and tried to spike his hair back up where it had crumpled. They looked up at the same time and the ostrich hissed at us. It stared right at us with those greasy, black eyes and it hissed. It fucking hissed at us. The ostrich took three long, slow strides in our direction, making a different, horrifying sound with each step. First the hiss, then a sharp, gravelly grunt, then some kind of screech-scream combination that made all the veins in my arms stand up. Fifteen feet from where we stood at the open gate, the ostrich stopped. It kicked once at the dry, cracked dirt of its enclosure and then it just stood there, staring at us with those black eyes. The three of us stared back, hardly breathing, still not moving. “Maybe it doesn’t want freedom,” Ian said. The ostrich charged. It lowered its tiny head on that long neck, swung its wings out wide in a flare of dark brown feathers, it screamed again and it charged at us, moving faster than seemed possible. We sprinted down the wide walkway through the center of the zoo, crashing through splashes of yellow light cast by lamps along the walk. That long nail on the ostrich’s foot clicked on the concrete behind us, getting closer and closer as we neared the front gate of the park. The animals were going nuts as we whipped past their enclosures. The monkeys hollered and hooted and shook tree branches. We made it to the plaza right before the gate, filled with empty concession stands and a darkened gift shop. Ian couldn’t run any further. He stopped and leaned against a pretzel cart, gasping. “I can’t hear it anymore,” he said, wheezing. “I think we lost it.” Ian was right, the ostrich didn’t seem to have followed us into the plaza. The three of us sat down, leaning our backs against the pretzel cart, and tried to catch our breath. “What do you think it will do now that it’s out?” I asked through heavy breaths. “You’re the smart one,” Ian said, “You tell us.” I looked up at him. All those years of sped classes, no one had ever called me “the smart one.” “We saw the applications,” Dave said, looking around for any sign of the feathered beast. “What applications?” “The college applications in your stuff.” “You were going through my shit?” “Sort of,” Dave said. “We were looking for weed when it was all locked in the shed. We saw your test scores and grades and stuff. Fucking hell, dude.”
I’d almost forgotten about the applications after I stuffed them in the box I brought to Dave’s with me. “You gonna go?” Ian asked. “I dunno,” I said, avoiding looking at either of them. “I just...you know?” “Yeah,” Dave said, hanging his head between his knees and just starting to regain his breath, “I know.” “Hey,” a deep, gruff voice yelled from across the plaza, “What are you kids doing in here?” The security guard’s flashlight lit us up against the pretzel stand. We held our hands up to stop the light from blinding us. We didn’t run. The guard was already pulling a radio from his belt. He’d call more security and they would call the police. In an hour we’d all be sitting in some shitty police station lobby, trying to explain this whole thing to our parents. We were caught. We were just starting to stand up when the security guard’s light jumped off of us and over to the other side of the plaza. “What the hell?” he said and sent his light searching across the bushes and then behind the dumpsters and around the slush puppy stand and finally back to us. “Just stay right there,” he said, holding the light on us for a second before sending it in the other direction again. That was about when we heard it. The clicking. The same clicking that had chased us all the way across the zoo. The security guard swept his light over to the middle of the main walkway leading into the park. Holding the light in place, he began walking slowly toward it. In one of those massive 17-foot strides, the ostrich stepped into the light. The security guard let out a weak yelp and dropped his flashlight. The ostrich disappeared in the darkness. The three of us bolted. The only thing scarier than an angry male ostrich is an angry male ostrich that you can’t see coming at you. The security guard was right behind us. At first I thought he was chasing us down, but a glance over my shoulder and a quick look at his face was all I needed to know that he had no other plan than getting as far away from that ostrich as possible. He sprinted past us to a golf cart sitting in front of the gift shop. He almost ran us over as he peeled out of the plaza. I didn’t look back again until we made it out of the front gate and back to Ian’s car. The ostrich didn’t seem to be behind us. We sat there in the car for a long time, a lot longer than we should have, considering that the police had probably been called by now. I kept expecting to see the ostrich’s beak smashing through the rear window at any
moment. It’s easy to look back and call Operation Ostrich Liberation misguided. But even if it was mostly just mayhem, at least we were pretending to care about something. When I first moved to Chicago I would visit the ostriches at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I would focus on the birds as hard as I could until I couldn’t see the cages at the edge of my vision and I’d start making a list of the reasons the 18-year-old me would hate the 28-year-old me. My haircut ranks high on the list, so does the way I wear long-sleeved shirts to job interviews to cover my tattoos. The 18-year-old me would hate my conformist, mass-produced Ikea furniture and he’d hate how often I find myself at Target, debating the pros and cons of silicon coated vs. bamboo cooking utensils. “You bourgeois fuck,” he’d say, though he’d mispronounce the word and slur a little bit because he’d been huffing glue. “But I’m an MFA student,” I’d say to him, “I’m trying to make it on my art!” I wouldn’t tell him about my secret fear/backup plan of middle-management at Target. 17-year-old me would want to know why I didn’t take the bolt cutters to the cage they put Chelsea Manning in. He would want to know where I was on Aaron Shwarz and PussyRiot and Ferguson and Eric Garner. He would want to know why I voted for Obama when he’s blowing people up with robots and reading our emails. “It’s complicated,” I want to say, “So much more complicated than I ever imagined,” but he doesn’t want to hear about my lack of health insurance or résumé strategies and the realities of the job market. He wants to know why I gave up so easily. And I want to ask him: How am I supposed to live authentically, slipping through the wealth gap with my values and beliefs intact as I attack all the injustice in this world when the rent is due and the electrical bill is turning pink and then red and I really need a new pair of work shoes and that next student loan payment isn’t getting any smaller? When Ian finally started the car and pulled out on the highway headed away from the zoo, no one said anything for a long time. An old mix Dave had made was playing. It was on a Rancid song, and each time Tim Armstrong slurred, a busted speaker in the backseat hissed static and vibrated like it might work again. Dave sat up and flicked the volume down. The dead speaker stopped vibrating. “You should go,” he said without looking at me, and then turned the volume back up as loud as it would go.
Nathan Pearce (born 1986) is a photographer based in Southern Illinois. He also works in an auto body repair shop. In addition to making photographs, he makes photobooks and zines. He is the co-founder of Same Coin Press, an independent photobook and zine publishing collective. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally and is in several public and private collections. www.nathanpearcephoto.com Eric Hazen is a company member at 2nd Story, where he tells stories, produces a podcast and plays with sound. He holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago and works for the awardwinning art and design blog Colossal. LDOC is a free photography and creative writing publication distributed every first and third Monday at the following Red Line stops: Loyola Ave, Belmont Ave, Chicago Ave, Lake St, 69th St, and 95th St. LDOC features a new local artist and writer each month, creating an accessible installment-based art experience for the Chicago commuter.
LDOC is currently fully funded by the 2015 Crusade Engagement Grant from Crusade for Art. www.crusadeforart.org
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