My uncle has skulls that start at one wrist, wrap up one arm, around his back, down the other arm to the other wrist. It’s like a necklace of skulls except it’d be the biggest necklace in the world that melted onto his body. When I was a kid I used to pinch the skinless mouth of one of those skull tats and make it talk: “Please Uncle Paul, please release me from your arm! Why did you make me? I could have been beautiful but you wanted me screaming and on fire! How could you put me in this arm-hell?” He’d swat my hand away.

On my uncle’s back is a whole graveyard display. Ghosts coming out of a cemetery like they’re on a mission to assassinate the sky. I can’t really remember what it looks like exactly ’cause he doesn’t take his shirt off that much, but that’s what I thought tats were for—people who don’t like shirts. Your tats become your shirt. But not him. Maybe he doesn’t like it though. Hell on his back. Hell on his arms. My uncle used to be a heroin addict. Now he’s a methadone addict. I don’t know why, but I thought I’d tell you that. Maybe then you’ll understand the graveyard better. Understand the skulls.

His son, my cousin, has skull tats too. And he’s got one of a girl with big boobs burning in hell trapped inside a mouth that’s about to shut its jaws down on her. He’s married. It must be weird when his wife looks at that tat. He’s got other tats too. I think a Ted Nugent Fred Bear one and a Rolling Stones lips one if I remember, but those go ignored when you’ve got that girl burning in the depths of hell. He’s got cerebral palsy too.

This one hot—and I mean hot—girl who was in Prague when I was there when I got a scholarship to write about the international homeless situation, she wanted me to get a tattoo with her. We did spin-the-bottle. It was like eight girls and one guy. I’m not homophobic, but I didn’t want to kiss a dude either, especially not the guy who was part of that spin-the-bottle game because he looked like an alcoholic poet’s electrocuted son and he had given tattoos to himself and I never trust anyone who tattoos himself. But I risked it, figuring that if it landed on both of us (low odds), I’d bow out to moans and groans and in the meantime I’d see how many girls I got to kiss. And I swear to God, when it landed on me, every single time the bottle then pointed to the hot girl I liked, Ashland. She had a name like a goddess. And the bottle—every time. Like God loved me and only me that day. Three times I got to kiss her and it was like suddenly landing in a heavy metal video where everything’s perfect, because she was all Goth and amazing—someone whom usually I couldn’t get to even think to consider to wonder about looking at me. So every kiss was just this wave of absinthe. (I’d gotten drunk off absinthe in Prague and it was the deepest drunk of my life, where the table started moving, like hallucinating drunk. Pretty cool.) Anyway, she wanted me to get a tattoo with her at a shop, but it was Prague and I was worried about the needle and I had no idea what I’d get and if I’m going to get a tattoo with a girl I’d better be engaged to her and she better be pregnant, because tats last longer than marriages and wars.

This girl I hooked up with in Waltham even though my roommate told me not to, she was tatted. My roomie said she was schizophrenic and he didn’t want her coming over to the house. Keep in mind that my roommate had a rule where he cut his hair only once every year and it had to be on New Year, so he was flirting with schizophrenia a bit himself. So I ignored him and we were in my room with the mattress on the floor and the road construction going on outside the window and she took her shirt off and her back had these big (and I mean big) devilish angel wings and it kind of freaked me out. It felt sort of like she wasn’t fully human, like I started wondering if maybe she was actually part demonic-angel and so I didn’t fully sleep with her, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to get into sex, because that’s not cool—to kiss-and-tell or fuck-and-tell or kiss-and-fuck or whatever. But I miss her angel-devil wings sometimes. I think it’s the weird things about people that make them unforgettable. I’m freakishly tall, like so tall that every day I either get stared at, pointed at, or asked how tall I am, so I don’t really have to work for circus freak status. It comes with my body. It’s central to my life.

When I was in the military, my bunkmates got some cartoon penguin tattooed on all their asses. They did it as a drunk joke. I forget the name of the penguin. It was famous at the time. A really famous cartoon penguin. I think it was called Opus if I remember. One day this girl on base asked if she could sleep with me and I said no. I was a virgin at the time and that just seemed odd, to just say sure and then screw her. It seemed like a waste. If I waited that long, I wanted at least one of us to be in love. She went and married one of the penguin butt tattoo guys, a guy who poured beer in my orange juice for no reason other than he was a dick. I was curious if she still wanted to sleep with me, so before I left to go to another base I asked her if she wanted to and she said no.

When I taught in prison, this one prisoner had his entire head tattooed. It was pretty intimidating. Especially the colors. His head was all orange and yellow so he looked kind of sick, like his head was ill. Maybe it was. He looked like what I always thought LSD would make a head look like. I tried to get him to write non-fiction, because he always wrote about guys flying around on dragons and fucking women and I told him he had more important things to say than that. He asked what I wanted him to write about. I said to just be simple and honest. Write about prison. People in the real world don’t have any idea of what prison is really like, just the bullshit they see on TV and film. I told him to write what it’s like when no cameras are around, because cameras change everything. He said he didn’t want to write about prison, which I could understand. If you were in prison, why think about it all day by writing about it too? So I told him to write about what it was like before he was in prison, to write about what it was like when he was out in the free world, what was his family like, what was he like before he ever did any crime? He said he didn’t know. I asked what he meant and he said that he didn’t remember his childhood except for prison. And I said there had to be a time he remembered in his entire life when he wasn’t in jail and he got angry and said that when he was really young he started doing drugs, like really, really young and like really heavy drugs, so he was always fucked up and he got put in prison at a young age and he actually did not have, honestly, one single clear memory of not being behind bars, because he’d lost so much of his memory from the drugs and he stormed out and he never came back to the writing class again. He had hundreds and hundreds of those pages of guys riding dragons. And paper is hard to get in prison.

In high school, I went to a bonfire with my cousin who hung out with all the Thai kickboxers from where I’m from. This kid at the party had a swastika tattoo on his forehead. We started making fun of him, laughing really hard, because doing something like that guarantees the rest of your life is fucked and we thought that was about as funny as anything. The kid came up and started talking to us and said he used to be in the KKK and we didn’t really talk to him much after that. None of us were really interested in learning about the KKK, at least not from someone who was once in it. It would be like talking with a devil worshipper; you’d be kind of worried it’d rub off on you or something. Like Satanic osmosis.

I wrote about that KKK kid and my uncle’s tats in a novel of mine I was working on for a creative writing workshop and this German girl in the class asked me if I had any tattoos and when I said no she got upset and said only people with tattoos should write about tattoos and I asked her if she had any and she had one and she showed me it and it was like this little tiny wimpy thing that I wouldn’t even call a tattoo. It was like a microscopic dolphin that was so small you’d need a telescope to be able to tell it was a fish at all. It was like a birthmark she was pretending was a tattoo.

This kid at a school where I got an MFA gave himself a tattoo of a chicken. It looked like a connect-the-dots chicken that never got finished. It looked like he got it on the back of a moving lumber truck. It was easily the shittiest tattoo I’ve seen. I told you about anyone who gives themselves tattoos. I can’t hang out with you. That simple.

In Detroit one time, when I was working for VH1 for I Love New York if you remember that show, all these contestant wannabes were in line waiting for the casting agents to look at them. I just kept everyone in line, which was easy to do because there was a rope that did a better job than I ever could. These were all hard core Detroit guys and, bored, they started comparing tats and then one guy noticed a bullet hole on one of the dudes and pointed it out and this other guy said he had a bullet hole and then all the guys in line started pulling down their socks and loosening their belts and pulling up their shirts and sharing and counting bullet holes. I asked if any of them were in a gang and they all started laughing.

I had a roommate in Kalamazoo who got a Jesus fish tattoo on the bottom of his foot. He went to the beach and walked around all day and wore the tattoo off. I asked him if it was one of those scratch-on tattoos, but he said no it was the real thing. Apparently if you get a tat on the bottom of your foot, those are temporary, if you don’t wear shoes.

The best tat ever though is Phil Anselmo from Pantera. UNSCARRED across his stomach. When me and my cousin saw that, we died laughing, but we also respected it. At least I did.

Once, I tried out for that standup reality show that was on TV forever. I forget the name. The one that Josh Blue won. I got snuck into the auditions at Zanies in Chicago and the judges were two writers for The Tonight Show. I said, “Instead of Thuglife, Tupac should have got a tattoo that said Huglife. And started cuddling with little puppies. That would have been cool.” The fat grumpy of the two judges said, “That all you got?” Then I told them, “I don’t see what’s so hard about being a hostage, I could do that blindfolded. With two hands tied behind my back. In fact, that would make it even easier.” But they didn’t like that one either, so they booted me off the stage.

I don’t have any tattoos, if you’re wondering. My cousin said I should get a bunch of face tattoos. I’m 6’6″ and he said that if I got my face covered with tats I would look insane and scare everyone. He actually sounded all Tony Robbins motivational telling me this, as if looking insane and scaring everyone would be the best thing in the world. I don’t know. I’m not dead yet. We’ll see.

Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and Foreword Book of the Year finalist) His plays include All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater, Chicago Theater Beat Award nomination for Best Actress for Elizabeth Bagby), Dandelion Cottage (Lake Superior Theater, published by the Center for U.P. Studies), and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson equity production, published by Smith & Kraus).

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Shanghai is so beautiful. A global disaster waiting to happen. But so beautiful.

We walk by the fat man statue. So many fat man statues here. Why? The residents are so thin. Anorexic thin. Even the ones fat in the face seem anorexic thin. Rice thin. Communist poverty thin. No ass. The Chinese lost their ass with Communism. Communism takes asses. Even the fat man statue has no ass. I looked. You can’t own an ass, draw an ass, or sculpt an ass here. Pornography is seized at the border. In the French concessions, everyday, they whisper to me, “Cocaineheroin,” “Cocainemarijuana.” They string the words together as if it’s one drug. Apparently, you can get cocaine, heroin, and marijuana here, but not ass. And there are prostitutes. Plenty of prostitutes. Boatloads of prostitutes. A pride of prostitutes. A crash of prostitutes. A gaggle of prostitutes. But no ass on the prostitutes.

We’re drunk.

We’re Westerners.

We’re hated. I know because twice someone has yelled, “No America! Go home!” and “No English! Go home!” Two different people, opposite ends of the city, both punctuating with “Go home!”

In two weeks, I go home.

I am excited to go home.

China is a place to come to die. I feel that. I looked up death statistics for the world. Just for fun. Bored. China would not let me look up anything about Tibet. It blocks any web sites about Tiananmen Square. You can’t look up anything about the Dalai Lama, even though ten percent of the people here look exactly like the Dalai Lama. I actually turned my head one time, said, “Is that the Dalai Lama?” The person I was walking with didn’t even answer. Of course not. But it looked just like him.

Of the top four deadliest natural disasters of all time, three of them were in China—the 1931 China floods, the 1887 Yellow River flood, the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake. Since 1900, the top two deadliest disasters have both been in China. Two of the top three deadliest earthquakes in China. The top two deadliest famines, both in China. The top five deadliest floods, all in China.

I’m in China.


Thirty million people. Thirty million. The largest city in the world, if you don’t count suburbia. City proper. Thirty million. I know. They bump into me everyday. In China, you can bump into someone and it won’t start a fight. In the U.S., that’s rude. That might lead to a confrontation. Here, it’s expected. There’s no room. People don’t even try to get out of the way. They walk right into you. No “excuse me,” no “sorry,” just collision-and-move-on. Their purse smacks against your patella and they disappear. They walk smack into you and then go around.

It’s Spring Festival. The collisions have increased.

The Year of the Snake now. It’s New Year in February, not January, which doesn’t make sense to me because I believe they shifted the calendar in January, but they celebrate in February. But sense and China do not go together. Let me prove my point. Yesterday a man outside my building stood in the middle of Kangding Road and shot off fireworks. Now, the type of fireworks you can buy on the street here are the type that your city buys for its Fourth of July fireworks displays—massive. In fact, fireworks illegal in the States are legal here. A Korean director friend of mine in the U.S. said, “They don’t even sell you the real fireworks. The States never gets the real stuff. The Chinese keep the real thing for themselves. You’ll see.”

This man in the middle of Kangding begins firing off massive exploding weeping willow fireworks at the skyscraper across from where I live, a residential skyscraper. And these explosions look like the hairdo of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons. And they’re ricocheting off the side of a skyscraper. And what made it more dramatic was the reflection of all the building’s windows, so that it looked like two mirror image explosions where you were unsure which one was the real one.

That was yesterday. Now today we’re walking south of Anyuan Road, a road where you go to die. An HIV road. A road where all of your stolen trash ends up. A road where I have seen the most crippled people in my life. It’s also the road of the monastery. This monstrous monastery and then littered all around it this visualization of all of the failures of China, the debts of Shanghai, the bulldozed remnants of Anyuan.

Slayer sings about south of heaven.

South of hell.

We’re south of Anyuan.

And the noise of Spring Festival, I’ve had explained to me, is to keep the demons away. The louder the firecrackers, the more fearful the demons will be and they will stay away from your wedding or funeral or prostitution street. Although it seems to me that demons would go towards the sound of explosions. But, anyway, that’s the thought process.

I’ve also had it explained that it’s making the gods of wealth happy, that the louder you are, the more the gods of wealth smile. And I guess it’s good if the gods of wealth smile.

I’ve also had it explained that the Chinese are showing off their war prowess, that they invented gunpowder and are telling the world to beware.

We walk by a homemade sign that says NO FIRES, CRACKER! This is not far from a business with a sign reading DONE MUCH THINK, which is for a restaurant. And also not far from another restaurant called OwnGod’shave and another called Literally Eat Shanghai Cuisine.

I’m walking with Jeremy, who said to me one time, “I’m glad to be out of the States. You get sick of all the tension.” He’s black. “It’s good to be away from white people. I get sick of being around white people.” He tells me this. I’m white. He’s hanging around with white people as he says it.

Nigga. You hear that everyday in China. Every single day. At least twenty times. But more like fifty. Sometimes the Chinese even say nigga-nigga-nigga-nigga-nigga when they’re thinking about something. It’s sort of like their um. It really means this. Or that. I get the two confused. One’s nigga and the other’s jigga. Like Jay-Z’s jigga. Sort of like the Fresh Prince’s “get jiggy with it.”

I can’t say nigga. I skip that word when I’m speaking my horrible Chinese. I feel too self-conscious.

To make it worse, they say too-eh for right. Or however you spell too-eh. That’s not how you spell nigga either, just exactly what it sounds like. But you hear too-eh nigga and nigga too-eh here a lot.

Shanghai is mostly French and Chinese. In fact, I’ve spoken more French here than Chinese. The French have a ton of businesses. Lots of makeup and perfume and hair product connections. Chinese women love makeup and France loves to sell Chinese women makeup. But too-eh nigga in French means, “Kill the black person.” And that’s what you hear everyday here. Do they mean that? No. They’re saying something else. But the Chinese talk very aggressively. You might think two neighbors are arguing when they could actually merely be discussing the weather. But when you hear too-eh nigga at a flower shop, it can come across as grinding to the ears unless you keep in mind that they’re really just saying, “Yes, I would like to purchase that beautiful rose.”

Right, that.

Now Chinese men can look hardened. Yemen hardened. Sudan hardened. Afghanistan hardened. It’s in the eyes. Especially the older ones. In fact, really only the older ones. The ones who knew Communism. They look so different from the innocent, spoiled, one-child-in-the-family kids of China. There are no more beautiful babies than the babies of China. And there are perhaps no more uglier senior citizens than the senior citizens of China. They look clouded over by Communism, coffined by Communism, enveloped by Communism. Tired and haggard and couch-torn. Prison-drunk. Death-weary.

And now, south of Anyuan, this old man, this death-eyed old man, alone—and Jeremy points out that, in the U.S., fireworks are about family, barbecue, youngsters—but this old man is by himself and hungry and he’s lighting off massive explosions in the middle of a dead street.

“I’ve never been directly below them before,” Jeremy says.

And we watch.

It’s not as exciting as I thought it would be, to be directly below. There’s something missing. Horizon. Horizon is missing. Angle is missing. The cinematography of distance. It’s less interesting. More dangerous, but less picturesque. More uncomfortable on the neck, looking directly upwards. I walk away. I’ve seen enough.

The old man has no other audience, at least that he knows of, that he sees. To up the ante, he kicks one of them over. Now, this isn’t tiny U.S. firecrackers or sparklers or even M-80s. This is a full-out New York City-style mushroom-creating red-and-yellow brilliance of fire. And he shoots the next one off so that it zips down the road, not across the sky, straight at a building and a car across the street.

I’m sure he’s going to aim one at us next, so I pick up my pace. Jeremy follows. He puts a surgical mask over his face.

“Where did you get that?”

“The pharmacy.”

“How much?”


The air is thick with smoke, sick with smoke. Dying air.

“Did you hear,” Jeremy says over the booms, “Beijing just set the record for the worst air quality ever!”


“Of all time!”

“No way!”

He nods. It’s tough to talk—the noise, the smell, the future.

I put my jacket over my nose. It hurts the eyes, the air.

This is happening everywhere in the city. Every other street. It feels, sounds like a war zone. Our shadows keep appearing, disappearing. Something falls near us. Something from the sky.

Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and Foreword Book of the Year finalist) His plays include All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater, Chicago Theater Beat Award nomination for Best Actress for Elizabeth Bagby), Dandelion Cottage (Lake Superior Theater, published by the Center for U.P. Studies), and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson equity production, published by Smith & Kraus).

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The Garbage of China

When I used to go to open mic nights and comedy showcases in Chicago, I had trouble with walking by the homeless and then doing comedy.

Other comics seemed fine with it, even incorporating bits about the homeless in their acts. I remember one angry comic saying he used to be homeless as a kid when he’d go on vacation. He’d yell at the crowd, “It’s called ‘camping’!”

Wherever I’ve lived, I have always been poverty hypersensitive. It’s so in-your-face, but for many the poor seem to just become an invisible part of the city. But I have been able to ignore the homeless that form a moat around the wall surrounding Harvard University, the plantation architecture and fully black janitorial staff and largely white student population of Auburn University, and the intensity of garbage rummaging in China.

If you’re going to do research on the latter, you wouldn’t think to start with James Bond, but casually reading Jeffrey Deaver’s trashy beach read Carte Blanche—on the toilet, no less—I came upon the Jekyll-and-Hyde-like villain Severan Hydt making the statement, “But pound for pound computers and phones are the most deadly waste on earth. In China, they just bury or burn them. They’re killing their population by doing that.”

I stopped reading and thought about garbage.

In America, rummaging through dumpsters tends to be a solitary endeavor. When I lived in Whittier, east of Los Angeles, the garbage rummagers were systematic and dedicated and always solo. I’d watch them in the alleys in the morning. They would go down an alley, go up a block, go down another alley, go up a block, go down another alley, so that they went through every single dumpster. Often, they’d have a stick or sometimes even a pinch-style pick-up tool. Each garbage can would take anywhere from a second to minutes, depending on if they got the sense there was something worthwhile. It seemed almost instinctual. Often, their carts appeared to have the most useless materials. And they would be heaped high, tied with cords. Strange mounds of things carted up and down alleyways.

In my apartment complex in Kalamazoo, I saw a couple going from can to can, the wife (I’m assuming) driving and the husband walking alongside, tossing into the back of the truck anything of value.

But there was always individualism to this process in the U.S.—either a sole person or perhaps a family.

In China, it all felt different. For one thing, dumpster diving is much more thorough. It seemed like 2% of garbage gets extracted in the U.S. In China, it’s more like 75%. And it wasn’t a once a day, this garbage picking. It wasn’t just reserved for morning as it seems to be in America. In Shanghai, I could put out something in the trash, go back to my apartment room, see something I forgot to throw out, head back to the trash, and by the time I returned the original thing I threw out would be gone. It’s a continual process in China, an endless rummage.

The trash cans in Shanghai, throughout the city, are frequent, but much smaller than in the U.S. I’ve stood watching a sole trash can and within a couple minutes have seen four or five people go through it. At noon.

Even more fascinating, on Anyuan in Shanghai, a street I routinely walked, I would see crowds of ten or twenty people encircling garbage bags, the garbage laid out and divided into something resembling a store on a sidewalk. Everything, including food, laid out on the ground. And this is China, where the sidewalks are breeding grounds for disease. The Chinese spit often and loudly. The foot traffic is remarkable. In America, we have road rage; in China, I have actually seen instances of sidewalk rage, the pushing and shoving for space during peak times turning violent. And the children urinate and defecate in the street. And various stains of oils and gasoline are splattered about. The sidewalks have a dirt that would shock one in comparison to, say, Toronto’s comparatively pristine walkways. But what was most revelatory was how much this Chinese dedication to garbage had been transformed into an entire market, a full-out bartering system where it felt like this was people’s careers, that they had become professionals at this.

According to 60 Minutes‘ piece “The Wasteland,” this garbage industry has been corporatized at the mass level and is now seen as so lucrative that gangsters have broadened out to form what are basically larger illegal corporations of waste collection. The 60 Minutes episode won the George Polk Award for Television Reporting. It opens with the following: “Tonight we’re going to take you to one of the most toxic places on Earth, a place that government officials and gangsters don’t want you to see. It’s a town in China where you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead. It’s worth risking a visit because much of this poison is coming out of the homes, schools, and offices of America. This is a story about recycling, about how your best intentions to be green can be channeled into an underground sewer that flows out of the United States and into the wasteland.”

The shock of the piece, for me, was the U.S. link, showing how a recycling business in Denver is illegally shipping lead-filled cathode ray tubes to Hong Kong, which then makes its way to Guiyi, a city that now has the highest levels of cancer-causing toxins in the world.

Shanghai’s Huangpu River, when seen with the brilliant multi-colored lights of the city at night, appears beautiful, even a touch magical. Seeing the river up close during the day proved more difficult; the walls were high to make it very difficult to see the river. I found a spot under a bridge where I could climb up and get a look. The sight was sickening. The water looked thick. Its color had nothing natural about it. Things floated in it I couldn’t decipher. Later, when someone asked me to describe it, I said, “It was the type of water where if you saw a head floating, you wouldn’t be surprised.” News reports soon after my viewing of the river proved I wasn’t far off at all—sixteen thousand diseased pig carcasses were discovered to have been tossed into tributaries of the Huangpu, polluting the water supply, even though The Guardian reported that “Shanghai’s municipal water department maintains that the water meets the national standard.” Seeing the morbid death of a river, I got down from the wall and felt sick. And, as far as being sick, I’d gotten four food poisonings in a few short months in China—at least one of those poisonings from drinking the water.

I couldn’t wait to return to the States.

When I did, there was a water boil ban in the city in Florida where I returned. The trailer park complex had previously passed out pamphlets warning us that we should not drink the water. The information was in tiny fine print, listing the cancer-causing agents, much too small lettering for most of the senior citizens who live in the complex to be able to read.

I bought bottled water.

Someone on Facebook posted a warning that since 1973 there have been thirteen outbreaks of acute gastrointestinal illness caused from contaminations in bottled water, the majority of the outbreaks happening since 2000.

I kept drinking the bottled water. It was safer than the tap water where I lived in Florida.

I realized the Chinese-American link, both countries’ dedication to pollution.

Even now, considering the next thing to write, I’m staring at my computer, this collection of lead and cadmium. What keeps me using it is simply my adjunct faculty poverty. The inability to afford an updated version. If I were wealthier, I probably would upgrade and I’d contribute to the Guiyi pileup. Nearby is a cell phone. The same goes for it. It’s only my inability to purchase new, updated models that forces me to be content with what I have, rather than doing what marketing tells us to do, which is to toss out what we currently own and go for something better. Or the same, but newer.

At the time, when I was in China, I was working for a marketing firm that was dedicated to that very principle. It was a mix of several Chinese, a few Americans, and people from all over Asia (India, Indonesia, Thailand), all working to feed the “buy more, buy now” mindset. We would have meetings with incredibly wealthy Chinese. We would drive by very poor sections of town to get to those meetings. In those meetings, it seemed like we were force-feeding the same, repetitive bright-lights red-carpet imagery to the masses, using our educations to try to push skin whiteners on Asian women, to push whiskey addictions on Asian men. I can’t go into detail about the exact process of how we came up with these marketing schemes, but I can say that teenagers were interviewed to tap into their hopes and dreams to be used in cigarette advertising. I started to not be able to sleep at night. I asked colleagues, “How do you do this? How does this not affect you?”

“Don’t think about it,” I was told by the sole white American male co-worker at the company.

In Chicago, there is a major clash between rich and poor. On Lakeshore Drive, those whose apartments can view the water need to have incredible wealth. Those massive apartments of the rich block the smaller apartments only a few blocks away from the water, where the poverty rate can skyrocket. In Rogers Park, I’d see a woman in a fur coat walking her daintily trimmed white designer poodle, both stepping by a homeless man, as if he were a ghost, non-existent. In Shanghai, the wealth and poverty are magnified. The rich in China love vulgar displays of wealth, ridiculous racing-style cars and excessively expensive clothing that, comically, resembles what you’d wear to a funeral. As if their very fashion represents the death of their soul. And that paired against a poverty where people just look exploited. The only parallel I can think of is being in a vet clinic post-Gulf War, where the blast injuries have given such devastating bodily injury that the teenagers look non-human. That’s what the poor Chinese look like, as if they have been war-ravaged by the rich. I’ve seen beggars there who look like they have fallen into machine parts. Several beggars like this. And I’ve seen them embrace a shattered computer as if it were the Golden Ticket to the chocolate factory.

Except, when I lived in Forest Park, west of Chicago, one day I got to go inside Ferrara Pan, the $300 million+ revenue candy company. Ever since the Roald Dahl days of my youth, I always wanted to see the inside of a candy factory. What I was met with wasn’t Oompa Loompas and upbeat songs; instead the factory contained the typical sorrow of exhausted workers, as if joy had never taken a step inside the building.

I went to an open mic shortly after that, the blue line close by. These were the days where I’d share the same stage on the same night with the likes of Kyle Kinane and T.J. Miller, Pete Holmes and Kumail Nanjiani. All unknowns then. And unknowns now if you’re not a fan of comedy. I’d get up onstage and sometimes lie on the ground, sometimes read right off the piece of paper, say something like, “I’m skinny, because I’m poor. So how is it that all those women that live in trailer parks are fat? It’s like magic.”

And then I’d take the blue line home. I’d stare out the window and look at how ugly the city was. The scrap heaps. The abandoned fields. The dead grass of Cicero. And I’d try to think of jokes.

Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and Foreword Book of the Year finalist) His plays include All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater, Chicago Theater Beat Award nomination for Best Actress for Elizabeth Bagby), Dandelion Cottage (Lake Superior Theater, published by the Center for U.P. Studies), and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson equity production, published by Smith & Kraus).

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Once Upon a Time in the Land of Iggy Pop

My cousin Jimmy is one of the great experts of the Michigan music scene. He doesn’t look it, sitting on his couch, crutches, a faded South Park T-shirt, his head furiously working towards baldness. Or maybe he does look it.

Maybe someone who’s spent his life addicted to Detroit area music would look over-medicated and exhausted, the way that aging musicians look beat to a pulp.

I’m going to change the opening sentence:

My cousin Jimmy is the greatest expert on the history of Michigan’s music scene.

“Stooges, Fun House,” he spits at me as if it’s the most annoying question in the world (i.e. what’s the best Michigan album?). Of course it is, he says with his tone. Talking with Jimmy is like talking with Johnny Rotten. Or your son. If your son hates you. He’s going to throw you off-guard to make sure you’re not sleeping, to make sure you’re not asking boring questions, to make sure you’re not getting all George Orwell 1984 brain-dead moronic on him. He’s got a tough guy tone, a punk rock tone, hits his ks hard, the English language as abrasive, not skinhead-manic, but someone who’s sick of hypocrisy, that wants to choke the next sellout he sees. “My favorite,” he continues, “Don’t you think?”

But why is Fun House the best Michigan album of all time?

He knows I want to “interview him,” to record his answers, so his usual rat-a-tat-tat of obscure facts has slowed. Instead it’s all punk rock fuck-off. He gets up, paces, even though he’s just had hip surgery yesterday, the reason I thought I’d interview him, that he’d be stuck to his chair, not able to escape.

I looked at my cousin as a genius growing up, the level of information he could recite about the Rolling Stones, an entire biography unraveling before your ears where you’d be won over that they were the greatest band in the world, ever, period, don’t even try to dispute it. And he’d list off Great Lakes connections to the Stones until you’d swear they were from the Midwest. He could do the same with the Beatles. New York, Chicago, Detroit—these are meccas. Undeniable musical meccas.

When he talks about Michigan, he turns shitty D-Town into a shining palace, makes you feel proud of the city, a craving to lie and say you were born there, that you grew up in the center of the Renaissance Center.

“‘Cause it’s my personal favorite, cut live in the studio. Stooges in their prime. Lead singer on acid every fucking day. Brilliant,” he says. His sentences chopped, him slicing the word “cut” as if you can feel the knife of those late night studio sessions. Iggy Pop influences the way he sits in that chair, the way he looks at me, the way he talks on a phone. His mom—and he’ll kill me for saying this—even looks a bit like Iggy Pop. That’s how much of an Iggy fanatic he is.

Jimmy’s lived in some of the worst apartments in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, where he’s been a paying-his-dues writer for years. Years and years and years. Mount Pleasant, if you’ve never been to it, has no “mount.” It’s as flat as a corpse’s heartbeat. And the “pleasant” is debatable. It’s a university town, Central Michigan U. And a casino town, one that’s been growing like a prime example of how much gambling is incredibly carcinogenic, malignant. And it’s outskirts—Alma, Shepherd, the outreaches and outcasts of Mt. Pleasant, are often tattooed, purple-haired, biker bar proletariats and lumpen-proletariats. They feel like family to me, family that you argue with uncontrollably.

“I like ‘Dirt.’ The rest of it’s rock and ‘Dirt’ is kind of a ballad, a doom-laced ballad. It’s brilliant. I got a book on it. It was cut live in LA, May of ’70. Stooges had worked months and months and months on the road. Nothing sounds like it. It’s its own masterpiece. It’s Chris Cornell’s favorite album, Henry Rollins’ favorite album. Beautiful. Nothing sounds like it. Nothing.”

I want him to play me something from it, but his roommate is sleeping. His roommate doesn’t look like an aging musician; he is one. “Incredible on guitar,” Jimmy says of his roommate and laughs. He punches the word “incredible.”

Jimmy wanted to be a Tiger. The game comes on later. He couldn’t care less about the NBA playoffs, the Pistons the worst team in the league now in his opinion. (“You can’t compete with LA money.”) A hip injury stopped Jimmy’s dreams, a pitching talent who suddenly took the shift of a Frederick Exley or a Jack Kerouac, went from sports hero to embracing words, sounds, music. For a brief time, Jimmy was in a band. I saw them do a gig. They were incredible, to use Jimmy’s word. Snot-nosed, honest, real hard rock. Good stuff. And they broke up and Jimmy went from pitcher to singer to ex-singer to devouring rock bios and ensuring his apartments always had the best CDs cranked at the perfect volume to feel like you were entering a party in the heart of Ypsilanti even when it was just him in south Mount Pleasant, east Mount Pleasant, west Mount Pleasant.

I want to know the second best Michigan album of all time.

“MC5. Back in the USA. No, make it High Time,” he says.

It’s May. A beautiful day. The windows are all closed, the shades closed. Jimmy used to tape his windows black, even paint them black, back in his pot days. He used to turn the house into a bong. Smoke on Friday and it was so sealed up that the entire house was smoke-filled until Sunday so that you never had to light up anything, just live and be high all weekend simply by breathing. I went over there once when I had a Religion paper due for a class called Goddesses, with Dr. Hough, a friend of the feminist radical Mary Daly, and I wrote it, not realizing I was high from second-hand smoke. When I got the paper back, I read the opening sentence I wrote, which was something along the lines of “Once upon a time in the land of snagglepusses.” The essay just got stranger from there, had nothing to do with the assignment. Dr. Hough gave me a B.

“‘Cause it’s their best album. It’s their third album and their best album. The second one was with Jon Landau who was a writer for Rolling Stone at the time. The third was kinda jazzy. They didn’t survive another year. Drugs.”

I ask which drugs.


I ask the best song on the album.

“I like ‘Poison.’ ‘Dirt’ and ‘Poison,'” Jimmy laughs. His laugh has so much fuck in it, so much scoffing at society. I can complain of a complete moron EMT instructor of mine and he’ll say fuck him with such intensity that it’s like the guy gets cleared from my life, a perfect tabula rasa delivered in two words.

If he wasn’t such a hermit, I could see one of the tatted purple-haired girls in Alma or Shepherd just getting googly over him, pure bad boy, except Jimmy is as asexual as Morrissey, rebellious to society in a way that makes homosexuality look mundane, just an utter lack of respect for the institution of marriage or the institution of institutions. He’s all self-sufficiency, working class fuck-off find-a-hole-and-make-yourself-comfortable.

“Wayne Kramer wrote it. Musically, it’s brilliant. Lyrically, it’s brilliant.”

I ask what makes it brilliant.

“Just how it is—just a great piece of fucking music. Lyrically, it’s brilliant and then you add really great music to it. It’s great.” He’s not being as ugly-eloquent as normal. Typically he’d have thrown an inappropriate slur at me by now, would have used a curse word much harsher than the F-word, would have hit me with some fact that would have made me want to learn more about the band, but he’s on major painkillers, softened by analgesics. The only problem is I’ve heard him spout out memorized Rolling Stones liner notes when he was higher than the gas prices. So I don’t know what the problem is today—maybe it’s just a drug he’s not used to, maybe it’s me furiously scribbling down every word.

He continues, “Check the lyrics out on that. What Rob Tyner’s talking about. Read and you’d understand. It’s kind of like a protest, angry.”

I want to hear, but the roommate’s sleeping. It’s not Jimmy’s house. The guitarist genius in the other room is asleep, divorced, needing money so taking on a roommate cured that, Jimmy the cure. It’s all rock and roll here. A forty-something and a fifty-something with stereo booming or else TV showing some amazing rock doc—Jimmy, the day before, insists I sit down and watch Searching for Sugar Man. I do. I cry. For joy. Seeing an obscure Detroit musician go from construction job hell to South African rock icon heaven, it hit me, this craving that we all have, to be heard, to succeed on our own terms. And the shots of Detroit alone—turning it into the beauty of Prague, the history of Paris. The director took the city’s snow and loss and made it into an Emily Dickinson poem, a Terrence Malick cinematographic ode. I felt proud again of Michigan. What Jimmy always seems to do for me. Even with the reality of my poverty-wage freelancing, my seemingly useless Central Michigan and Western Michigan degrees, my connections to the mines and not to academia, the inability to see how fucked we are, or maybe actually see how fucked we are but not to care, to say “that’s Detroit,” that’s the history of where we come from, to be fucked, and to just turn your house into a bong and turn yourself slowly into a rock encyclopedia that maybe means nothing to most of the world but when you get to understand Jimmy it really starts to take on this meaning of significance in that what he’s doing is yelling “Where I’m from is fucking important.”

He gives me one more. Third place. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. By Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. Top three Michigan albums ever and it’s a group I’ve never heard of.

He knows his roommate is asleep, but can’t resist, puts on “Sweet Nothin'” on YouTube, and plays it loud. I’m amazed his computer has that much volume. It’s a catchy riff, guitar as center, the drums kick in, a very Ramones feel to the vocals, but more Detroit than NYC, more sloppy and loose and angsty and that whole feel of the Debt-riot of Detroit.

“Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith,” Jimmy says and the name sounds like a U.S. President, a Nobel Prize winner, a God. “Pound for pound heavyweight champs of the world. Box set. They don’t have an album. They’re the best bar band ever. MC5 guitarist Fred Smith, the Rationals’ guitarist Scott Morgan, Gary Rasmussen from the Ann Arbor band Up on bass, and Scott Ashton from The Stooges as drummer.” Jimmy laughs again, this time because he’s basically named four of the best Michigan bands ever and he finds it hilarious that they could all be playing as one unit, dumbfounded at the beauty of that, and maybe even more so that no one has heard of them, that one of the best bands of all time is unknown. “In the vein of the Stooges and MC5. They played the local bowling alley,” Jimmy laughs again. “Google ‘em. They were good. It’s kind of like the Ann Arbor all-stars. MC5, the Rationals, Up, Stooges. The Up was the first band before any of the other ones came along. They were the trailblazers.”

We listen. It’s plain and simply real rock and roll. Nothing hammered together by a marketing team and shoved down your throat. This isn’t the painfully boring construction of the all-show no-substance simulacrum that is Lady Gaga. It’s vomiting up The Monkees and Justin Bieber, all of the handcrafted publicity, the lies of celebrities, shredding that to pieces and just being in it for the music. Raw power.

“It’s rock. Rock and roll, man.” Jimmy’s matter-of-fact.

Growing up outside of Detroit, you can see, feel, hear how important these people were, how central music is to a culture’s identity, especially when that culture is on the point of collapse, when the auto industry and the autoerotic asphyxiation industry are the centers of your economy, the brutality of car-making and the Velvet Touch, the mining industry and “71 listings of ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ in Detroit.”

His favorite song? “City Slang” or “Dangerous” or “Clock With No Hands” or “Sweet Nothin'” or [he lists several more]. There are too many good ones to pick just one.

“Sweet Nothin'” stands out though, its meaning, a Buddhistic embracing of absence, of lack, of emptiness, of poverty, of Detroit-icity. Zero as sweet.

“It’s just great. It’s got everything. The guitar’s great. That’s the drive in rock and roll. Driving rock and roll, man.” In his chair, legs propped, Jimmy puts his hands in steering wheel position, and you can see him speeding Hunter S. Thompson-style, drugged, Thanatos-driven, this whole different perspective from Thompson though, where the car really plays that much more of a role, the convertible as character, city-connected, made in the U.S.A. It’s not about the drugs in the trunk. It’s the trunk. The engine. The road.

OK, and it’s the drugs too.

“By the time this band came in ’77, they’d all crashed and burned. They’d all signed to major label contracts and been through drugs, and been burned on both, so they said let’s just form a garage band and let’s go and they did and it’s brilliant. Fred Smith, vocals.”

The YouTube video is of WDPR’s pirate radio (the D of the radio station in Tiger baseball logo Olde English). There’s no video to the video, just that station name, blackness around it. The music.

“Fred, he’s a bad motherfuckin’ guitarist. You know who he ended up marrying? Patti Smith. Not Patty Smyth, not ‘I Am the Warrior,’ no, not that one. Patti Smith.” And he says the name “Patti Smith” as if it’s the epitome of cool. “It’s an Ann Arbor all-star band. Luckily someone recorded a whole lot of their performances.”

The song ends. The Golf Channel is on the TV, Jimmy flicking through the channels and it landing on there, ignored. It’s like good and evil, heaven and hell, this golf and punk pairing.

I ask if Jimmy likes Michigan’s music, a high softball lob question.

“Fuck yeah, Michigan’s great. Motown, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, Stooges, MC5, Question Mark & the Mysterians with ’96 Tears,’ White Stripes.” Jimmy’s feeling like his old self now. The list of bands becomes a barrage. I can imagine someone in a bar saying the best bands come out of California. Or Texas. Or Ohio. OK, maybe not Ohio. But then again maybe. People get delusional about where they come from. They like to pretend Louisville is LA, that Cheyenne is Chicago. But Detroit can back everything up. You start that conversation with Jimmy and you better realize how armed he is. How scholarly he can be, a sort of punk Russell Brand except more monosyllabic, more this-is-how-it-is rather than comic non sequitur and rambling. And I think it’s a mission for Jimmy, him wanting to broadcast Michigan’s importance because it’s been one of the worst states in the country for unemployment, wanting to say, “Yes, but, we’ve done this anyway. We’ve survived anyway. We’ve contributed anyway.”

“You know who Question Mark is?” Jimmy asks me.


“Do you know where he lives?”


“Question Mark lives in a van down by the river. Literally.”

There’s something about the failures of these bands, the grace of their obscurity, the way that they’re undiscovered and only those initiated have the in on the subculture. I wonder if Jimmy would not like this article, about announcing who these great obscure Michigan bands are, if they should consistently be kept secret instead, but I think Jimmy would feel that the lazy wouldn’t know what they’re being offered, only those cool enough to mark down Question Mark in their memory and then check it out deserve to know about him.

“They’re another great story,” Jimmy says, acknowledging that there are a hundred Sugar Men in Detroit, a hundred acts that deserve Oscar-winning documentaries, blues men who’ve paid dues, garage bands treated like garbage.

“My roommate, he opened for Nugent,” Jimmy says, motioning to the wall, the human sleeping on the other side of it. That’s how close these stories are. In Michigan, they’re in the other room. They’re nameless and asleep. They’re tired and divorced. They have Ted Nugent tales.

Jimmy’s on a role now, inspired, ready, flowing, without the provocation of questions. “Motown, you got obviously. You got oddities like Funkadelic, George Clinton, Parliament.”

He knows the Motown sound is massive, is a whole other monstrous discussion, is something he keeps in his back pocket if anyone really wants to get into an argument with him. It’s the big guns.

“But to me that Michigan sound is hard driving rock and roll. Ted Nugent, Stooges, MC5. That’s Michigan rock and roll. Think about it—what’s going on in LA at the time? Jefferson Airplane hippie-dippy bullshit. In New York, you have Velvet Underground, but Detroit trumped them all. Because the music was better in my mind. I’m biased, ’cause I’m from Michigan. I grew up listening to this stuff. But there were hundreds of them, all the bands who played back then, those are unsung heroes. Like Question Mark. No one knows who he is, but he’s brilliant. Up. Wilson Mower Pursuit. Popcorn Blizzard. The Whiz Kids. The Frost. Dick Wagner—played with Lou Reed, Alice Cooper—one of the greatest guitarists ever. Grand Funk Railroad. Frijid Pink. There’s a web site to former Michigan bands, five hundred on that list with little bios.”

What I’ve heard my cousin do with rock and roll in Michigan, I’ve heard DJ SirReal (Best Club DJ, the Metro Times) do with hip-hop, creating a new Detroit, a city where punk originated, where techno originated, where house originated, where shock rock originated, where the white MC originated, where jungle originated, where Motown originated, this mythological place of Nelson Algren and Jeffrey Eugenides and Elmore Leonard and Mitch Albom and Neil LaBute and Sam Raimi and Elvis Mitchell and Marge Piercy and Philip Levine, where you feel—even unemployed, even with no job prospects, even with shitty mine connections and living in an apartment that smells like old cat piss—something can happen to you, to where you can shift like magic from Malcolm Little to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, where James Newell Osterberg Jr. can become Iggy, where you can transform too.

Jimmy struggles to stand. “I feel sore as hell today. My body’s just aching, from the surgery and chemicals and shit.” I leave him alone to watch the Tigers do a come-from-behind victory against the Houston Astros. That’s how all victories happen in Detroit.

Jimmy’s Top Ten Michigan Albums

1) The Stooges. Fun House.

2) MC5. High Time.

3) Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. Self-titled box set.

4) Alice Cooper. Love It to Death. “Great album. 1971.”

5) Funkadelic. Maggot Brain.

6) Marvin Gaye. What’s Going On? “You gotta put some Motown in there, right?”

7) White Stripes. Icky Thump.

8) Mitch Ryder. “I don’t know any names of his albums.”

9) The Rationals. “They’re a rock band. An Ann Arbor band.”

10) Bob Seger. “I like his early stuff. I like his band The Last Heard. Early Seger. Lucifer, that’s the album.” (He laughs at the album name.) “Michigan’s got some rich musical tradition. It’s beautiful.”

Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and Foreword Book of the Year finalist) His plays include All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater, Chicago Theater Beat Award nomination for Best Actress for Elizabeth Bagby), Dandelion Cottage (Lake Superior Theater, published by the Center for U.P. Studies), and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson equity production, published by Smith & Kraus).

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Welcome to the Bijou

Sometimes the creepiest places are old.
There’s a smell to them of stale nicotine
and rancid oil.

The denizens are often as ancient
as the peeling wallpaper.
The plaster cracks mirror
the wrinkles on their faces,
stale faces with
down dropped corners.

Layer upon layer of age
ground in   dirt-flecked, peppered
boxes and scaffolding
sucked dry by time, tasteless;
their visual appeal long gone
to celluloid.

The walls don’t talk
and few ask the opinions
of the bone sacks
wandering in and out.

The untold and asked for stories
hide like ghosts, shimmering
in the ancient incandescent lights
liver spots on the skin,
fish hooks in the eye            floating
and powerless like flies in amber.

There are those who have always been
            mesmerized by age

absorbing filmed content
            wallowers in time’s leftover scraps,
those who bring their own infusion.
They are the catalyst of forward motion
pendulum pushers, who spew curiosity
into the dark corners
            for those who follow this path
            there is beauty, most certainly,
in the crinkled planes.

Deborah Guzzi was born in the USA, educated at the University of Connecticut. She travels for inspiration: China, Nepal (during the civil war), Japan, Egypt (two weeks before the Arab Spring), and most recently, Peru. She has spent years examining the foundations of belief in higher power. Much of her writing explores the topic of imbalance, whether internal or external.

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New Zodiac

The Goat is a veteran from a forgotten war
The Water Bearer is a mother with an autistic child

The Ram is a cashier who can’t afford to retire
The Lion is a scientist whose invention was stolen

The Scorpion is a shut-in scared of his shadow
The Bull is a divorcee with a knife in her heart

The Archer is a painter recovering from alcohol
The Scales are a playboy with prostate cancer

The Virgin is a hoarder who only loves cats
The Twins are a playwright burdened by doubt

The Crab is a doctor addicted to prostitutes
And the Fish is a poet hearing the stars weep

Richard Schnap is a poet, songwriter, and collagist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poems have most recently appeared locally, nationally and overseas in a variety of print and online publications.

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Horse Cadaver

(after the etching from The War by Otto Dix)

The first to die
legs cut off at their knees
machine guns
aiming low
the horses fall
fodder for bullets
groaning anthems of defeat
in the desolation
of the battlefield

like buzzard-feed
we eat the carcasses
of our friends
who carried us
on saddlebacks
to certain victory
and now to stay alive.

Neil Ellman, a poet from New Jersey, has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and the Rhysling Award. Almost 1,000 of his poems, most of which are ekphrastic and written in response to works of modern and contemporary art, appear in print and online journals, anthologies and chapbooks throughout the world.

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