Monday, February 23, 2009

A Marquette of the Mind

Every roadtrip* hits its peak. You don't know when or where it's going to come or what's going to happen, but worry and care vanish, inhibitions cease to inhibit, and a clearer path appears. It's the point where vacating and creating truly synthesize, where obstacles are overcome. After a long night of catharsis, life starts anew.

These events--grand and unplanned--happen only in places where we have no business being, places we know nothing about. The entire mind-clearing event must be shared by all roadtrip participants and must be a series of perfectly aligned happenstances. Everything is left to chance, and chance delivers. You have to have enough buildup, the right number of drinks, and you have to be in the right place. It also helps if you don't have to be anywhere the next morning.

On the Upper Peninsula trip, catharsis came in Marquette. At almost 20,000 people, Marquette is the largest city up there. All Dan and I knew going in was that it had an ore dock (saw a postcard photo of it in Ishpeming), an electronics store (told by a 35mm news photographer in Houghton), and a regional university. We spent an entire dark and cold June day working our way east from Houghton--where our legendary stripper encounter the night before could almost have been the highlight of the trip.

We arrived in Marquette just before the weak presummer sun set on the trail of shit towns destroyed during the long wane of Michigan's copper empire. The city's outskirts, seen from a state highway dotted by regional chains that faintly resembled their national competitors, looked like a sprawling nowhere, a perfectly Lynchian Lumberton. Both the people and the landscape communicated a delicate balance of hospitality and terror.

Downtown, Marquette looked and felt like a Canadian Maritime city, like a half-sized version of Saint John, a place where honoring expensive architectural traditions once symbolized the industrial importance of the region.

We drove right through downtown to Lake Superior. The giant ore dock, where trains had once dumped millions of tons of iron ore pellets into waiting ships, turned out to be abandoned. This was heartbreaking. Worse, the immense trestle over downtown, which had carried the trains over city streets, had been completely removed. Even in America's smaller cities, industry and functionality are now hidden from everyday view.

Dan and I decided to work with the fading light and try to get some decent shots, even though we knew that every tourist who arrives in Marquette probably does the same thing. Dan disappeared on the other side of the dock. I walked out on an adjoining pier where the locals had their boats tied up. As I shot, a dude approached me from behind and stopped to talk to me.

"What boat are you on? I've never seen you down here before." The dude looked like a younger version of my Uncle Lenny, mid 40s, white and gray polo, curly Italian hair.

I didn't understand his question, so I asked him to repeat it. He meant: which boat did I own? In as few words as possible, I tried to explain that no, sir, we don't have a boat and we don't belong on this dock, we are two guys from New York who as continuously as possible roam the continent with cameras in hand, attempting to find meaning in America as well as in our own lives.

"You guys have a tent?" he asked.

Yes, I told him. We bought it in suburban Milwaukee but we hadn't used it yet.

"Don't stay in a motel. Head on up to Tourist Park. You can get a camping permit for fifteen bucks and take a cab right downtown from your tent."

This sounded great. I told him how disappointed we were to find the ore dock abandoned. No problem, he said, there's a working one about four miles up the shore. Up there they were "dropping pellets pretty regular."

Before we left, he asked where we planned to eat dinner. The North Woods Supper Club, I told him. A good friend recommended it. He made a wincing gesture and shook his head.

"No, you want to eat at the Vierling, great microbrewery. V-i-e-r-l-i-n-g. Right there on Front Street. You can park anywhere on the street...or you can take a cab from your tent."

Intrigued by this notion of taxi-camping, I reconvened with Dan and we headed up the shore of Lake Superior to the massive, working ore dock, which we found easily. There were no ships there, but we photographed it anyway, shooting the many mineral red ore chutes illuminated by the setting sun.

We found Tourist Park in the woods north of downtown, and we were checked into a riverside, "rustic campsite" by two shaggy, teenage dudes who occupied a little office. A few cars were already on-site, scattered among the trees, and a pitched tent accompanied each car. Dan and I opened the package that our tent came in and neurotically read the assembly directions.

The park workers, and the sun, were gone by the time we were set up. I 411'd a cab. The operator asked me if I wanted Checker Cab or Apple Cab. Checker, I said. I heard a faint click and the sound of ringing.

"GUY FAULKENAGEN CHECKER CAB HOW MAY I HELP YOU?" said the phone. I explained my situation, which took some effort, hung up, and cracked a Red Bull. I wanted to drink drastically. We had seen and shot a lot. We were as far from work and the East Coast as we were going to get. Now was the time for drinking.

20 minutes later, a yellow minivan pulled up. Inside was an utter giant of a man, who barely regarded us as we entered the vehicle. As Dan and I got in, his cellphone rang. "GUY FAULKENAGEN CHECKER CAB HOW MAY I HELP YOU?" said the dude. Dan and I looked at each other. The one-man taxi operation--suddenly reminiscent of Lawrence**! Ghost of expurgation past! Dan pulled a Red Bull from his coat and cracked it. At the PSSST! of the can opening, Guy Faulkenagen turned his tremendous head towards us and hit us both at the same time with a look of utter contempt. It's just Red Bull! I said. His face relaxed a bit, and his throbbing neck muscles rotated the massive head back to face the direction the cab was going.

Guy was a character. Dan wrote a song about him. He had played for Baltimore, back when Baltimore was Baltimore. He had some interesting fares lately, including a lady photographer who was shooting Special Olympics stuff for ESPN. He dropped us off downtown and told us to call him when we wanted to go back to the tent.

The Vierling was okay. I had prime rib with horseradish--why not? The high point of my meal was the giant shit I took between the salad and the main course, Peter Griffin style. I don't remember what kind of beer we had, but it was alright, too.


Then we are walking around. It's chilly outside, and there are no people in the streets. We get money from a drive-through ATM on foot. We hear live music around the block. There are not that many blocks, but we have to walk down some alleys to figure out that the sound is coming from above us. Suddenly we are walking up lots of stairs. The buzz has set in. We are at a townie bar, on the third floor of a loft building. The cover band is timid, seemingly unaware that anyone and everyone downtown can hear them. They have a songsheet going around, almost all 90s and classic rock. CRACKERMAN!!!, Dan and I start shouting when songs end. We drink cheap beer upon cheap beer, bottles of stuff like Miller Lite. The place is mostly dudes, and no one looks at us except when they are taking our money. We talk about what we'll one day do with the thousands of images we're creating on these trips. The band plays the requested STP tune, and Dan and I love it. We leave. We are wasted.

Out in the street, we hear more music. This time, the music is coming from below us. Close to the abandoned ore dock, there is a cavernous brick club. We decide to enter. The bouncers tell us $2. What the fuck, I say, let's get out of here. Where I'm from, $2 doesn't even buy a slice of pizza, but the thought of paying that much to walk into this show deeply offends me.

We stand on the sidewalk. We are about to call Guy Faulkenagen, but for the first time we hear the music. It's heavy, heavy soul, with crazy harmonica and saxophone overlays. Marquette is delivering--delivering the last thing we'd expect to hear in the land of the pasty. We go back through the door and pay our two dollars each.

What happens next is what Dan tells me happens next. The band continues to lay on extremely thick and not-fake soul. I apparently dance with or hit on every woman at the estabilshment, from the patrons to the female band members. My notes indicate that I speak to the common-seeming "girl with camera" but also to more flavorful characters like the "MILF nurse from Escanaba" and "decent-looking human systems major" wearing a retro Pistons shirt. I sit down with the band at the bar, between sets, and find out that they are up from Atlanta, booked for a two-night stint in Marquette. The backing players are all white soul nerds like myself, and we talk about gear and how bands form and the gas mileage that their van gets. Thousands of thoughts about music and songwriting and equipment rush through my head.

I don't see Dan for this much of this episode. I think he may have his Vivitar on him...I certainly carry no camera.

Toward the end of the show Dan reappears and starts screaming at me to do bad things with the girl in the Pistons shirt, but I suddenly want to sleep and walk out. We pass the Pistons girl as we leave, and she looks confused. One of us uses the business card we got off of GUY FAULKENAGEN to summon him back to a downtown intersection. He's much more jovial with us this time, but he keeps getting in cellphone arguments with NMU students trying to get a ride home from a party ("HOW CAN I PICK YOU UP IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHERE YOU ARE?").

The next thing I remember is waking up midmorning to the sound of the river rushing by the tent, and the sound of an empty ore train rolling downgrade back to the mines.

Is this really all about a night of drinking in Northern Michigan? Of course not. It's about how you become your own person. It's about how you work to end up unspeakably different from the way you were raised, and once in a while have a chance to check on your own progress. It's about how you live in America--all of America. The more trips you do, the more you get out of them. You have to do them for yourself, not your job, not to satisfy grant or scholarship requirements, not for a one-time thrill. The road teaches you not to conform, not to accept the security of a thrill-free life. The road is out there, but you have to work hard for the opportunity to experience it on your own terms.

Racing eastward out of Marquette toward the 1 p.m. departure of the Munising shipwreck tour, we passed by the working ore dock and saw that a ship had come in that morning. We studied it and photographed it, gorgeous in the almost-summer sun. Thousands of tons of ore pellets made a whooshing sound as they fell into the ship, soon to be headed east to what was left of the Rust Belt. The night before felt like nothing but a bad hangover, but we soon realized that a lot more had happened then and there. The two neurotic, ex-Catholic boys from Queens had once again escaped their backgrounds and experienced a night of total freedom.

*By roadtrip, I mean an exploratory pilgrimage to a selected region--not driving through somewhere in order to get somewhere else, and not going somewhere as a business traveler.
**Lawrence, Kansas was the Marquette of the KC Siege, Summer 2007. I still haven't processed, written about, or posted any photos from Lawrence.
And, with that, the UP photos will be starting back up...100 to go!

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

UP #182: Weeping Pasty, Negaunee, Mich.

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UP #181: Gramma T's Pasties and Subs (Subs No Longer Sold), Negaunee, Mich.

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UP #180: The Incumbent Pasty Defeats the National Fad of the Submarine Sandwich

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UP #179: Destroyed Pasty Mosaic, Negaunee, Mich.

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UP #178: Superior Auto Parts, Negaunee, Mich.

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UP #177: Stop Hammer Time, Ishpeming or Negaunee, Mich.

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UP #176: Oshkosh Plow Tractor, Ishpeming DPW, Ishpeming, Mich.

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UP #175: Ford Dump Truck, Ishpeming DWP Streets Div., Ishpeming, Mich.

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UP #174: Ishpeming Police No. 1, Ishpeming, Mich.

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UP #173: Dan vs. Big Gus, Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, Ishpeming, Mich.

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UP #172: Big Gus, Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, Ishpeming, Mich.

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UP #171: Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, Ishpeming, Mich.


Images from 9-day art trip, June 2008.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

UP #170: Republic State Bank/Eagle's Nest Bar (Abandoned), Republic, Mich.

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UP #169: Abandoned Mine, Republic, Mich.

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UP #168: Abandoned Mine, Republic, Mich.

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UP #167: Higley's Saloon (Abandoned), Champion, Mich.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

UP #166: Higley's Saloon (Abandoned), Champion, Mich.

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UP #165: Champion, Mich.

Much of the town is in this shot.

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UP #164: Abandoned Motel on Highway 41

Possibly in Three Lakes, Mich.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

UP #163/Dignity Hunt XX: Pothole Repair, L'Anse, Mich.

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UP #162: Hiring 10 Smiling Faces, L'Anse, Mich.

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UP #161: Abandoned Baler, L'Anse, Mich.

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UP #160: Abandoned Baler, L'Anse, Mich.

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UP #159: Abandoned Baler, L'Anse, Mich.

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Return to the U.P.

We're only about halfway the photographic tale of the journey to the Upper Peninsula, dear readers. Even though half a year has passed since the trip concluded, I must honor my promise to post every "good" photo from the journey both here and on Flickr.

I'm starting back up with five photos from the tiny town of L'Anse, Michigan. There's a ceiling tile plant, the Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest, and a trainyard from which logs are sent out to be processed. That's about it.

There was one little event that took place in L'Anse that neither Dan nor I documented: that of the L'Anse pizza. We ordered a medium pie in a just-opened restaurant at the edge of downtown. The shop seemed to be run by some twenty-something local women and their big pizza oven. They made our pie to order and sliced it very bizzarrely, cutting it across and down. It tasted deliciously un-New Yorkian, in a Pizza-Hutty kind of way. It was delicious and perfect and powered us toward a hell of a night in Marquette.

You'll read about that soon.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

UP #154: UP Rails, L'Anse, Mich.

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UP #153: Houghton Motor Transit, Houghton, Mich.

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UP #152/Dignity Hunt XX: Workers on Scaffolding, Downtown Houghton, Mich.

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UP #151: My Mother, Your Mother (Downtown Houghton, Mich.)

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UP #150: Lode Theater, Houghton, Mich.

There was copper here...

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Prostitute Removal

Note, 12/6: I have now gotten to the point in the Photographic Tale of the Upper Peninsula at which we arrive back in Houghton. This means that I get to rewrite "Prostitute Removal," about one of the locals whom we met during our stay. Enjoy.

EXTREME CONTENT WARNING! Don't read this if it will hurt you. Scroll down to the post about the alcoholic fishermen.

I could tell something was wrong when she walked into the bar and sat down next to us.

It was our unplanned second night in Houghton, Michigan, a nice little college town at the base of the desolate Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw is the northernmost finger of the Upper Peninsula, dotted with abandoned copper mines and almost-ghost towns. We had driven and shot photos all day and were completely exhausted. So we returned to Houghton's straight-from-the-1960s Downtowner Motel and checked back into the same little two-bed room where we had slept the night before. After escaping the very kind owner and his allergy-inducing cats, we stopped back into the bar at the foot of the bridge for a nightcap.

The scene was quieter than the night before--no softball teams this time, just several small groups of friends. We didn't even order a pitcher. We'd have a pint of Oberon, go to bed, get up early.

And then she walked in. She was about our age, wearing a gigantic Adidas sweatshirt and black dress pants, and was actually kind of cute. She had pretty, insane brown eyes. She asked if the seat next to us was taken and then she started talking.

First, she worked in the Best Western up the block but it stressed her out when she had to talk to people so she was trying to quit. Before that she had gone to Michigan State, "looking to get knocked up by some fine-ass f***ing n****r." Continuing her oration on being obsessed with males of African descent, she claimed she was waiting to party with a Guyanese grad student from Michigan Tech whom she had met the night before at the very bar at which we sat. When it became clear that she was being stood up, she began exchanging angry text messages with her would-be beau:

Stripper/Prostitute: u must be f**king some chick
Dude: f**king some chick wtf?!
[repeat, many times]

As the night wore on, she revealed her true occupation: she had stripped all over Michigan. Flint had the best strip clubs in all of Downstate, and I think that was the city where she had been sleeping with the club owner(s). She related the infectious dangers of grinding on people all day, but pointed out that in most clubs, you could let a man finish on or with your chest for an extra $25. This was a way to make "good money on the side," but the men had to wear prophylactics, which sent her home "smelling like condoms" much of the time. The conversation became particularly inaudible here, due to an influx of patrons, but I think I got the gist of it.

As Dan and I attempted to ignore Angel, which is what she called herself most frequently, the minute hand on the bar's big wallclock revolved again and again. Our dreams of rest and of an early start the next day vanished over the next two hours as we listened to tales of gradually worsening depravity.

After she asked us if we were dating each other--because our pint glasses were, she said, unusually close to each other--it was time to play the "Guess how many abortions I've had!" game, introduced by Angel herself. I guessed five. Dan guessed three. I was "warmer;" the answer was seven. I secretly wished I could hand her a pamphlet about the Jesus and leave. Yet something was so uncomfortable and wrong about the situation that we couldn't just walk out, yet.

Suddenly Angel decided to sleep with Dan. I know this because she turned to me and said, "I'm going to f**k your friend now." She climbed on top of Dan, who was facing away from the bar on his stool, backwards. She lay on top of him and refused to remove herself. Dan's eyes were a picture of paralyzing panic. I could see his mind working to disprove the theory that viruses could be transferred through clothing.

"Your girlfriend is not going to like this," I said very loudly.

"You have a girlfriend?!" the stripper asked. "I bet she's the kind of girl who wears ninety-dollar patterned dresses, picks flowers, and doesn't like sucking dick."

Dan neither agreed nor disagreed. (Side note: that is an exact quote.)

Dan stared into the distance uncomfortably and he did not speak. At some point, Angel got off of him. He later revealed that he wasn't sure if I had been hitting on the stripper (Dan, I still want to punch you in the stomach for that). Around closing time, which is later in Houghton, Michigan than it is in Boston, we just walked out of the bar. The lonely stripper followed us to our hotel room. "Can I watch your HBO?" No. "Can I piss in your bowl?" Fine. When she emerged from the bathroom she seemed more messed up than before.

"I KNOW you guys are FUCKING with me. I know I've met you both before. TELL ME where you met me. What are you, like secret agents or something?" We said nothing and looked at the carpet. She pulled someone's prescription bottle from her purse. "You guys want some Xannies?" she asked. She took a few. Then she looked at my photographic equipment, and said very soberly, "Don't forget to charge your camera battery for tomorrow." I had forgotten. I thanked her.

A staring contest started and continued for a few minutes--with Dan between the beds, the UProstitute in the doorway, and yours truly in between and providing the aggression. "We really need to sleep," I said.

"You guys are no fun," she said, and finally walked out the screen door and across the street to her car, a full three hours after she sat down next to us. An engine began to purr out on the street and then receded in the direction of the bridge. Dan and I double locked the door and drifted off into a pleasant, hard-earned, and STD-free slumber.

Originally posted 6/28/08 at 12:09 a.m.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

UP #149: Dredge, Torch Lake, Mich.

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UP #148: Dredge, Torch Lake, Mich.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

UP #147: Dredge, Torch Lake, Mich.

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UP #146: Welcome to Torch Lake, Mich./DPW Payloarder

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UP #145: Torch Lake, Mich. DPW Pickup

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UP #144: Laurium, Mich. Police Station

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UP #143/Dignity Hunt XX: Boy Outside Laurium, Mich. Police Station

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Monday, December 01, 2008

UP #142: Langdon's Fresh Northland Pasties (Abandoned), Kearsarge, Mich.

Reposting, in sequence.

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UP #141: Langdon's Fresh Northland Pasties (Abandoned), Kearsarge, Mich.

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UP #140: Machine Shop Ruins

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UP #139: Machine Shop Ruins

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UP #138: Machine Shop Ruins

Upper Peninsula pictures are just going to keep showing up until all the good ones are posted.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

UP #137: Industrial Decay Accelerator

Note the bucket over the exhaust pipe.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

UP #136: Dan amid Factory Ruins

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UP #135: Base of Smokestack at Factory Ruins

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

UP #134: Abandoned Cabins Near Ojibway, Mich.

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UP #133: Abandoned Cabins Near Ojibway, Mich.

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UP #132: Abandoned Cabins Near Ojibway, Mich.

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UP #131: Abandoned Cabins Near Ojibway, Mich.

We now return to serial blogging of the Upper Peninsula.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

UP #130: Keweenaw County Snowfall Indicator, Near Phoenix, Mich.

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UP #129: Fresh Oil on Brockway Mountain Drive

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