Out of the Nineties

I entered the Nineties without a father, and with an unbound sense of hope. My mother was divorcing a man I’d been forced to call Dad for eleven years, and I was just getting to know the guy who had left her after getting her pregnant, remarried, and now, fifteen years later, wanted to be my friend. I had no past. There was only possibility.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I was saved. In the born again, radical, Midwest fundamentalist Christian way. I went to summer youth camp to get away from my mother and Greg Proctor’s messy divorce, and there, at an altar call after a full day of Bible quizzes, swimming, and pestering from my cabin counselor, I found the Father I’d always imagined—caring, powerful, and a safe distance away. I came home from camp and changed our answering machine message to say, “Jesus loves you.” My mother was mortified, as she was just starting to get calls from potential suitors.

One of my mother’s post-divorce suitors was my Uncle Buster, Wayne Martin’s best friend. I didn’t know at the time they were dating, only that Buster began regularly changing the fluids on my Chevette and watching Kansas basketball with me my senior year. We regularly argued about the latter, as I’d become a fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks.  My reasoning was simple: I’d decided I was going to go to the University of Arkansas. As an attempt at finding any of my family outside the one I knew, I’d connected with my cousins Nicki and Becky, daughters of my Aunt Joyce who were roughly my age and lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I regularly visited them as well as my other family on Petit Jean Mountain nearer to Fayetteville with my Grandma Ruby, my mother’s mother and Joyce’s sister. Uncle Buster broke up with my mother before the end of my senior year, and I didn’t go to the University of Arkansas.

I thoroughly wasted my senior year of high school reforming myself in the image of Christ. I burned all my tapes, from hair metal to the Steve Miller Band, and listened only to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM)™. The girls I used to be infatuated with I now dreamed of bringing to salvation. Those girls used to merely ignore me, but now they consciously avoided me. I preached to my mother about the evils of abortion. In the midst of one particularly heated conversation my mother began sobbing. She told me the next day that she’d had two abortions after I was born, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

For the high school football end-of-season banquet, my mother made me invite Greg Proctor, whom I hadn’t talked to since he'd beaten her unconscious with a chair and she'd initiated divorce proceedings. She was still as confused as I was about whom I should think of as my father—the man she was married to for eleven years whose name I had, or the man who’d left her fifteen years ago and whom she’d just seen again after I’d discovered him. Greg Proctor came gladly, wearing a black leather flight jacket with a sheep’s wool collar. He must have been trying to tell my mother that he was fashion-conscious, but it embarrassed the hell out of me to have to sit with two stylistically challenged parents who so disliked each other. I introduced Rob Coleman, the black offensive lineman whose sister was married to Wayne Martin, to Greg Proctor as Uncle Rob. Greg Proctor looked at him rigidly and said, “This guy is not your uncle.” My mother never asked me to invite him to anything again.

I had two jobs my senior year. One was working at the Red Hot Garage, the Chicago-style grill across New Hampshire Street from Wayne Martin’s furniture store and next door to the Bottleneck, the main music venue for KU students. The sound guy always came into Red Hot for lunch, and in recompense for the free Chicago dogs he let me sit in with him during the shows at night. I had just burnt all my cassette tapes of secular music and only had my recordings of bland CCM, so I was a blank slate. I took everything in—reggae, punk, power pop, folkies—but stubbornly refused to buy their records or commit their names to memory. But then there were the aftershows at the Outhouse—literally an outhouse on the old gravel road that 15th Street turned into east of town, where the skinheads, anarchists, goths, and stoners all went to mosh until night became morning. I had no parental supervision so I came home at daybreak sweaty, took a shower, and repressed all memory of the glorious, bruising night, then went to my morning bible study.

My second job was at the local publisher Allen Press, cleaning the bathrooms. My favorite part of this job was the weekends, when they were closed and I could steal books from the stock shelves and mailroom in the basement. In that basement I first read Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with his illustrations. I swiped it thinking it was a religious tract, similar to the Chick Publications pamphlets I collected. Reading the Proverbs of Hell in that dim, solitary basement, with the pigeons in the ventilation shafts piping like siphons of Hades, terrified me more than watching the world end on The Day After in grade school, and for far different reasons. The seeds of doubt—in my goodness, in my salvation, in the benevolence of the world—were sown in the underworld of Allen Press.

After meeting Wayne Martin I also discovered my half brothers, who also went to my high school. Both of them were gifted athletically—one was a star player on the junior varsity football team as a freshman, and the other was already winning varsity track races as a sophomore. By then I’d solidified my reputation as one of the top five worst players ever to attempt the game of football at Lawrence High School. But three months before I was to graduate, the track coach heard I was related to a great runner and made me run once around the track as fast as I could. I ran it in 55 seconds, which would make me a solid backup on the 1600-meter relay team. So I joined the track team, and I won my first race. The rest of the team was as astonished as I was, especially when I ducked to avoid the tape at the finish line.

Hope is always strongest when plans are weakest. I knew, having survived childhood and high school, I was destined for something great. So the summer of my graduation, I enrolled at a private Mennonite college in southeastern Kansas. Then I enlisted with the Marines. And I started working at the plastic factory. I had options. When the registrar at the Mennonite college called me and asked how I was going to pay my outstanding balance of $12,000 before registering, I hung up. When I found out that the other recruits cussed and had sex and weren’t terribly impressed with my religious sensibility or my ability to run faster than them, I stopped answering my Staff Sergeant’s calls. And after 27 straight nights of the midnight shift sorting Cool Whip containers and sippy cups, I called my cousin Monica to ask her about the community college she’d attended before becoming a dental assistant. I enrolled at Highland Community College three days after classes had started, and begged the coach there to let me run for the track team.

In total, I lived in 17 different apartments and dorm rooms in the Nineties. One roommate, in 1997, postulated a connection between this and the fact that I went to seven different schools in the Eighties. She told me I had no home.

For my first two years of college, my sole social connections were members of the track and cross country teams. My first girlfriend, a devout Christian dairy farmer, was the star distance runner my freshman year. She broke up with me right before the end of the school year, writing me a letter saying she was worried I had lost my faith and couldn’t foresee being married to me. My second girlfriend beat out my first girlfriend as the number one runner on the team, then dropped out of school when her other boyfriend picked her up and took her back to Oklahoma City.

In the fall of my sophomore year in college, I took a photography class to fulfill a gen ed requirement. I photographed fenceposts, country roads, and coeds, but my professor never gave me above a C. He said I lacked focus, and had a tendency to lose the subject in the background.

When I tell people now that I was once an evangelical Christian, most don’t believe it. Many times I tell them it’s a phase every kid in Kansas goes through, and remind them that this was the state that twice elected a school board that forced teachers to teach creationism alongside evolution in science class. I like to say that the more I learned, the less blind faith I placed in fundamentalist Christian doctrine. This is only true to a point—the full truth is that I simply supplanted my mythologies, mostly through the music I listened to. I segued out of CCM into the music it was aping—heartland rock like Bruce and U2, “spiritually conscious” hip-hop like PM Dawn and Arrested Development, loopy power pop like the Breeders and Throwing Muses. But mostly, I listened to Dylan. I started with his late-70s Christian phase, then plunged right into his ’62-’69 heyday. What I loved most about him wasn’t his nasally voice, but the persona he created. Robert Zimmerman left his Midwestern home, moved to New York City, absorbed the world of American folk and pop culture, and remade himself as Bob Dylan. And everyone believed him.

My mother remarried when I was in college. When she moved in with her new husband, I had to sort through and consolidate what was left of my childhood in her basement. The item I excavated that I cherished most, whose attached memories were most pure, was a huge chest of Transformers from the Eighties, most of which I’d shoplifted. I found that of the toy robots I’d kept, the ones I loved most were the subsets that combined Voltron-like into one master robot. Constructicons, Protectobots, Predacons, Aerialbots, Stunticons, Technobots, Combaticons, Terrorcons—every set of five to six individual pieces, each with its own self-contained personality and story, combined to attain a power and complexity none of the individual parts could attain on their own. These were the only pieces of my childhood I kept.

After switching from sprinting to middle distance and improving consistently until I was a solidly mediocre runner, I rode the coattails of my best friend, another distance runner at my junior college, into a shared full-ride athletic scholarship at Murray State University in southwest Kentucky. To this day, when I tell people where I went to college, they mention the basketball team then ask, “So who was Murray anyway?” (It’s named after the town it’s in.)

During my first year at Murray State, our equipment manager hung himself in the equipment room, deep in the sweaty bowels of the football stadium. One of the trainers found him in the morning, naked with a beet-red penis. Later that year I became friends with a cheerleader who was in two of my English classes. She was the only cheerleader I’ve ever been friends with. Right before Spring Break, she left a scribbled note in my locker saying, “Help! Daughaday’s class is kicking my butt!” Over Spring Break, on the way to the national cheerleading competition, the left front tire on the team van blew out. The van flipped five to seven times, throwing half the team and rolling over my cheerleading friend’s head. I’ve come to think that these deaths are thematically related, but I still haven’t figured out how.

I walked, ran, or rode a bike through my first two years of college. The only car I owned was an ’85 Buick Skylark I bought the summer of my junior year for $1,500 on a payment plan from Greg Proctor. It served as both a means of flight and a last shackle around my ankle. On my first road trip from Murray to Louisville I found that the car was a lemon, leaking both coolant and brake fluid, needing new wiring, and costing me more in repairs than I made that summer at my job as a camp counselor. Soon I began deliberately missing payments. He sent me letters threatening to sue. Wayne Martin offered to pay him for the car, but Greg Proctor wouldn’t accept payment from him. I drove the car back to Kansas at the end of the summer, and didn’t own a car again until the end of the Nineties.

In my post-Christian college days, I frequently drank shots of Everclear and Coke until I woke up with sore cheeks and gums. I got a wing tattooed on my ankle by a guy next to his motorcycle on Spring Break in Daytona. I ran out of money halfway through more than one semester, and had to eat ramen and work midnight shift cleaning the student union. I read a lot. I got in debt that I’m still paying off.

Throughout and after college, I read record guides cover to cover. Allmusic, Rolling Stone, but especially Trouser Press—I memorized all the people and bands I’d spent those nights with at the Bottleneck and the Outhouse. I had to know every name, all of them.

When I was in Kentucky, my first time to live away from my home in Kansas, I began creating a timeline. I plugged into this timeline every memory, every event in my life, in chronological order by year, month, and if possible even the day. This was my first literary framing device, giving my life a sense of linearity and narrative progression.

Whenever I went back to Lawrence through much of the Nineties I volunteered at Adventure Bookstore on Massachusetts Street. Perhaps I did this out of guilt for shoplifting so many books there in the Eighties. They paid me in books, so I like to think I was just going legit with them, the same way Wayne Martin moved from selling drugs to selling discount furniture. The ends might have been the same—I still got my books, Wayne Martin still got people to pay him for things they didn’t necessarily want—but at least we were both now operating above-board. My volunteer work and Wayne Martin’s prime downtown location came tumbling down in one fell swoop when Borders came to town. They bought the entire block of New Hampshire Street that the Kansas Furniture Factory Outlet shared with other local businesses, and Wayne Martin moved his business further away from downtown and closer to the railroad tracks. Then the whole block was razed and Borders opened in November of 1996, at the advent of the Christmas selling season when independent booksellers typically make at least half their yearly profits and get out of the red for the year. Adventure and three other downtown bookstores closed by the spring.

By my senior year of college I was a consistently barely-above-average middle distance runner that my coach always said could be a much, much better runner than I was. I took this as a compliment. For some reason, I decided I wanted to be on the 1600-meter relay team even though I was no longer a sprinter. I inserted myself into the sprinters’ workouts, beating every one of them in practice until one of them threw me against a wall mid-stride and another threatened to kill my white ass, but the sprint coach had no choice but to concede and put me on the relay. My performance at my own event suffered as I single-mindedly focused on an event for which I was ill-suited on a relay team that didn't want me. I think now I did this because every time I called Wayne Martin to tell him how I was running he would say, “That’s great! Did you hear about Brian?” My half brother Brian had gone on to become a state champion at Lawrence High and an All-American at the University of Kansas. His race was the 400, and he anchored the university’s 1600-meter relay team.

As my collegiate track career wound down, the faculty head of the English Department asked me if I’d like to be a Graduate Assistant. I told him I wasn’t a graduate. He said he knew, but I could start my Master of Arts degree in my last semester and be done by the end of 1998. I asked if my friend Tony, a gay philosophy student, could do it as well. “He already is,” he replied, “And he recommended I ask you.” And for the second time, I was the second half of a 2-for-1 deal for Murray State.

I wrote my first eulogy in the spring of 1997, when my Grandpa Light, my mother’s father, died. I wrote my second eulogy two months later, when Jeff Buckley died at the advent of summer. And I wrote my third two months after that, when William S. Burroughs died in early August. The girl I was with at the time watched my apartment when I went back to Kansas to bury my grandfather, then wept with me when Buckley rolled up on the shores of the Wolf River near Beale Street, and was trying to teach me Latin when Burroughs, the last and oldest of the Beats, expired. That summer, writing about the deaths of some of my closest mentors and friends while learning Latin with this girl so we would have a language we could share only with each other, was the most alive I’d felt in my life. We broke up by the end of the summer.

Through the Nineties, I developed the theory that long distance running is comparable to life, in that both are roughly 95% boredom and pain punctuated by moments of transcendence. By the end of the Nineties I had refined this theory with the following postulates:

  • The more moments of transcendence one accumulates, the less agonizing is the pain, the less dull the boredom, if only for the knowledge that neither the transcendence nor the boredom or the pain lasts forever.
  • The more one runs (or lives) the more the transcendence fuses with the boredom and pain, so that repetitive acts—the endless, monotonous progression of one foot in front of the other—become transcendent acts in themselves.

During my final year of graduate school, I shared the ground floor of a Georgian house on the outskirts of campus with my friend Andrew and a revolving crowd of artists, writers, actors, and assorted local cognoscenti of southwest Kentucky. We had all-night parties that prompted letters from our landlord about “reports of loud music and guests hanging from the trees,” making out with whatever boy and/or girl we were with, having 3AM conversations in the dark night of the soul while dressed in each other’s clothes, and starting the next night with the optimistic wonder at whom we would end up with by the end of that night. We all felt we knew each other better than anyone had known anyone else in the history of the world. It was the closest I’ve ever come to hedonism, and it saved me from my inborn nihilism. Whenever one of us left another, we said, “I love you.”

I spent January of 1999 finishing and defending my graduate thesis on William S. Burroughs and doing my oral comprehensive exams for my MA. My work was interrupted when my friend Tony’s jilted ex-boyfriend snuck into his house, got into the bed they used to share, put his mother’s pistol in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. All of our friends were devastated and dramatic, but Tony seemed strangely indifferent. The next month, I moved to a loft apartment in Louisville with twenty dollars in my pocket and no lease. My new life there was interrupted when my brother Brian called to tell me our ten-year-old brother J.P. had hung himself from his bed by a sheet. He was ostensibly trying to do a wrestling maneuver he’d seen on TV. Everyone in the family was mortified when the Lawrence Journal-World, in the obituary, described it as a suicide. Ten-year-olds don’t kill themselves, do they?

By the end of the Nineties, the timeline I’d created seemed more and more inept at capturing the life I wanted to live and to write about. Every time I thought I’d traced some sort of progression, I changed directions; every identity I created bored me. As my plans became my life, I no longer wanted to write about them. Every choice I made killed a little bit of possibility, a little bit of the mystery and the hope I saw in the world outside myself.

I ended the Nineties the same way I entered them—with unbound hope and unformed plans. Like Dylan, I was moving to New York City to find myself and to find the world. I had an apartment set up in Sunnyside, Queens with some friends from grad school, and $200 in savings. I spent my last New Year’s Eve of the Nineties in Louisville with my friends Andrew and Todd and three girls we’d picked up at a karaoke bar. Andrew sang “What a Wonderful World,” I sang “Closing Time.” The six of us counted down with Dick Clark until—until what? Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Anything could happen.