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Issue #9, Autumn / Winter 1996
Sooner or later it comes back to most of us. In sleep or memory we return to a time in our lives we were afraid would last forever. Once again we wander among the pea-green walls of a high school from which we will never graduate, or sweat over the exam we never seem to complete. Once more we are trapped in the tyranny of childhood, wrestling with a crucible of family emotions. A dead-end job extends its stretch of bleak and wasted days as far as the mind can imagine. A manuscript that will never be finished on time overflows the desk. Our hopes seem frozen in the dead of a winter that will never end. Once again, we have returned to the "self-same spot," a dark cul-de-sac from which we fear we will never find an exit.
It was the winter of 1979 in Minneapolis, and my plan for becoming a great playwright was running like clockwork. Unfortunately the clockwork had a creaky, gothic quality, closely resembling the machinery behind Poe's slowly encroaching walls of The Pit and the Pendulum. January had trapped me in a pest-ridden studio apartment not far from Hennepin Avenue. The ice on the inside of the window sill was an inch thick, and the average temperature outside was 40 below. Almost no one would read my plays, and no one at all would produce them. Nobody in this icy Nordic urbanscape cared about the brilliant stuff I had written. The bed hidden in the old couch hurt my back, so I slept on a mattress on the floor. At night, large insects ran over my stomach and over the dusty typewritten manuscripts stacked at my feet.
To satisfy the rent demon I worked for dreadful wages at a nursing home some miles distant. To get there I had to take several buses in the terrible cold. I worked in the disturbed ward. In the first hour and a half of my shift, it was my job to awaken, dress, roll, walk or carry fourteen men, some larger than myself, to the room where they were served breakfast. Oblivious to the fact that the number had swelled from nine to fourteen during my period of employment, the staff sometimes complained that I was slow.
On each of the last ten or eleven journeys, I would have to run a gauntlet of a queries from an agitated older gentleman who sat strapped in his wheel chair by the dining room door, the meal-serving arm of his rolling prison fastened across his lap. "Doctor, doctor!" he would cry after my white-jacketed form, which was often lightly spattered with excrement. "When do we land in Rochester?"
Hard to say, I thought. When would we ever land in Rochester? I had never experienced Rochester, but from the tone of his eternal question I envisioned comfortable homes with roaring fires, pokers of polished brass, humidors bulging with fragrant cigars, refrigerators full of rare roast beef, cheese and three kinds of expensive beer. Pool tables with swards of green felt, and outside the insulated windows, a fine car in the driveway and long sweeps of yard covered with white virgin snow.
After work and a shower I'd head for my night job, as stage manager for a strange play by a local theater entitled, Make Room for Dada. I'd gotten the job by going to see the producer, himself, at the old warehouse where the productions took place. I'd seen a good production of Curse of the Starving Class in the same theater, and was anxious to work there. Jack showed little enthusiasm for my quest for theatrical employment until I mentioned that I had once lived in Guatemala. "Guatemala!" he cried gleefully. "I once studied the three-toed sloth in Guatemala!" Not far, it turned out, from a mountainous region where I had once run a small errand for the Canadian Consulate following the quake of '76. "I like your vibes," he declared, and although it paid only a couple of hundred dollars, I accepted the job. In fact I was elated. Finally, I had found a theater that would actually pay me! Jack promised to read my plays, and he meant well, but I later learned the theater had a dusty closet full of them that had been collecting for years.