Published November 3rd, 2018
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Ahh…hoopty doopty, humpty dumpty and a hide-ee hide-ee ho to y’all! Yes, it’s really me, Michael Phillips, and this is really THIS IS NOT A TEST, as you may have suspected and anticipated. Or at least expected. Hey, midterm elections are in a few days, so don’t forget to vote! I’m not voting, but you should. We can’t let the bastards win, right? Sure. But what if they’re all bastards? Ah, there’s the rub, bub. So no politics talk here today. Have your election, good on ya, just don’t send me an E-vite. Not until there’s a party that believes all governments are illegal. When that party is on the ballot, I’ll go vote.
I used to vote. The first time I voted I was 18 years old, and I lived in an apartment on the corner of 7th and St. Peter streets in the bustling metropolis of downtown St. Paul. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned that factoid before, that tidbit of information, that I lived alone in an apartment when I was a mere kid, I may have mentioned that about a thousand times before, and I may have mentioned that now, in my old age, I firmly believe that no teenager should have their own apartment. No good can come of it. But I know there are always exceptions, and I suppose I was one of those exceptions. I was working right across the street, and I had been patiently waiting to escape my family for as long as I could remember. So one day, on a work break, I walked out of the Hamm building and looked at the apartment building on the other side of 7th street, and thought, well, there you go then.
I mean, that’s probably not exactly how it went down. I think the building was still being renovated when I started my job across the street, so it wouldn’t have been an option anyway. And I also think a friend of mine may have moved in there first? And I seem to recall thinking, if he can do it, I can do it. Or I can kind of do it, since even though I was working full time, I still needed a roommate. His name was Scott, or I should say his name is Scott, and we lived together in a one bedroom apartment, and I’m not sure now, in retrospect, how that worked, but there we were. Scott moved out after a while, but I held on to the place for years, until I left St. Paul for good. Yep, I only lived in one apartment before I left for California. Which is probably one of the reasons I left for California – because I was feeling stale and boxed in there in St. Paul, on the corner of 7th and St. Peter.
Anyway, I was 18 I was making about $600 a month running printing presses, and I seem to recall that the rent was $400, so I was never exactly rolling in dough, especially after the roommate left. I think most of the money I had left after rent went to Torps music store to pay off the latest guitar or amp I’d bought. We all romanticize being young and broke, don’t we. Ah, we were so free! Everything was so simple! Yeah, I do that too, but it’s bullshit, isn’t it. Being young is great, sure, what with the fresh, well-lubricated, flexible body and all, but being broke is never great, no matter your age. And being young is only good in certain ways. It certainly isn’t good where discretion or wisdom come into play or are required. No, youth isn’t ideal in those cases. But you can’t tell that to a young person. A young person is supposed to believe that they know everything, and that they’re the first to discover the new things that they do accidentally learn.
And see, this is what I mean, adding an apartment to that mix, when you’re still basically a child who thinks they know everything, and suddenly you’re left to your own devices, unsupervised and unpoliced – except by, you know, the actual police – no, see, it’s just no good. Which is probably why most of my friends still lived with their parents. But now, think back to when you lived with your parents as a teenager – what better place would there be than a friend’s apartment, with no adults around? Well, there was no better place, so my apartment became the official meeting place of my small circle of friends. They respected my sacred space, for the most part, until I got drunk enough for them to bust up my shit up without me noticing or caring.
Yes, I said drunk enough, because every moment that I wasn’t working I was holding onto a bottle of beer, eagerly pouring its contents down my tender young gullet in big, sloppy gulps. There was always beer around in the 1970s, and while – according to Minnesota law anyway – you had to be 19 to drink it, I don’t ever recall having a problem getting as much as I wanted from the time I was 15 or so. There was no Internet to hypnotize us, so we’d hypnotize ourselves with beer. Beer, beer, beer, and sometimes someone would have a bottle of Jack Daniels. But teenagers love beer, I loved beer, and when I got that apartment, beer and I began our serious, long-term relationship. I found that if I called the liquor store around the corner on Wabasha Street and ordered a big delivery – which for me was typically two cases of Budweiser and two cases of Michelob – the guy who wheeled it up to the apartment didn’t ask any questions, he just took the cash and split. Because, I suppose, if you have an apartment, you must be old enough to drink beer. Except when you’re not.
So, consequently, everything that happened in and around that apartment for many years happened through the burpy golden haze of many beers. Beer, beer, beer, and did you ever wonder how much of an idiot a teenage boy can become when full of beer? Well, that’s a rhetorical question, of course. Everyone knows the answer. Realistically, the beer probably wasn’t as much of a problem as the Jack Daniels was. You have to drink a lot of beer to get really profoundly stupid, but half a tumbler of Jack Daniels – or a full tumbler, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious – and you’re way more stupid way more quicker…ly. And if you can lay that Jack down on top of a comfortable cushion of a few beers – well, lordy, aren’t you just in seventh heaven.
So maybe beer or whiskey was the problem, or maybe, as Homer Simpson once wisely said, they were the problem and the solution to the problem. Being young and careless and angry and foolish was probably the bigger problem. I never know, when I think about some of the things that happened back then, whether beer was involved, or whether it was just a kind of standard, generic stupidity. I have to assume that beer played a part because it always seemed to play a part in everything.
This would be a great place for me to completely switch gears and turn this into some weepy Alcoholics Anonymous story, wouldn’t it? Like, “It was then, at my lowest point, that I decided to let go and let God…” How many more TV shows are they going to make that revolve around AA? I caught a few minutes of the first episode of some show and the scene I happened to see took place in a record store and they were arguing about music and I thought, oh, I’d watch that, so I recorded the first season. But when I watched it, it was a god damned AA show, not a record store show. Alcoholics Anonymous is a load of shit. I know a lot of people believe their lives are better because of it, maybe you do too, but there are people who feel the same way about their George Foreman grills, so use your own discretion and, you know, proceed at your own risk. In any event, this story isn’t that. I declare now, and firmly believe, that alcohol is a gift from God. So let go and let God pour you a tall one, and enjoy the good lord’s holy gift to you. So let it be written. So let it be done. Amen.
Right. As I was saying…there was always someone around, and the apartment couldn’t always contain us, so we would wander out into the deserted streets, usually making our way toward the banks of the mighty, muddy Mississippi. Sometimes we’d end up sitting on top of the concrete arches that spanned the Robert street bridge, our legs just dangling there, sassily, over the edge, the river 60 feet below. Or we’d walk the path that ran alongside the river, where the barges were tied off, dodging the cat-sized rats, stumbling and cursing, going nowhere.
We were going nowhere because we weren’t really looking for anything. We didn’t think there was anything out there to find. We were just searching for cracks in the facade of the city, or diversions or something, anything other than sitting around listening to Funhouse for the thousandth time and staring at each other over a mound of empty White Castle boxes. When you look for cracks, you find them, and we found some good ones. Or they seemed good at the time, anyway.
Like the railroad bridge that crossed the river just under the arches of the Robert Street bridge. We didn’t discover it, it was there in plain sight for anyone to see. For 70 years or so. So a few people must have noticed it. But how many of them had walked across it? There was a crack, there was something to do. It was a lift bridge for the Union Pacific railroad. The towers on either side of the lift were more than a hundred feet tall, and the section of the bridge that lifted would raise about 40 feet to let tall boats pass under it on the river. Or is it ships? Are they called ships on a river? I don’t know, I’ll have to consult a maritime dictionary or something and find out. Whatever they were called, there must have been more of them than there were trains, because the liftable section of the bridge was almost always raised. At least at night, which was when we were usually down there assessing its scalabilty.
The Mississippi was only 5 or 6 blocks from my apartment, but to get to the railroad bridge we had to go to Lowertown. A lot of actual artists lived in actual crumbling lofts with no running water or other such luxuries there in Lowertown. Lowertown was populated by actual working artists because everything downtown was still cheap. It was the late 70s and the only reason any normal people went downtown was to work, so after five o’clock, and all weekend, the place was deserted. Well, deserted by normal people I mean. The 24/7 population were the few people who voluntarily lived downtown, like myself, the shady types that hung around outside the bars peddling drugs and women, and the artists and musicians in the Lowertown lofts. It was a little bit like that HBO show, The Deuce, only without the garbage all over the streets, because it was still Minnesota, after all.
Well, the night that we decided to actually cross the bridge instead of just talking about crossing the bridge, we made our way to Lowertown, go onto the train tracks and headed toward the bridge. “We” being Scott, a couple other dudes, probably Mike Reiter and maybe John Kass, who were both referred to by their last names. Come to think of it everyone called Scott by his last name too. But I’ll be damned if I can remember what they called me. I don’t remember anyone calling me “Phillips,” but then who knows what people call you when you’re not around. Brad could have been there too. We called him Brad. Later that night some other players would be around, but I don’t remember who they were, and anyway, that’s later, so who cares.
Okay. The lift section of the bridge was raised, as usual, so we looked around for a place to climb up so we could cross. Funny thing, you’d think when a section of a bridge raises, some kind of stop would spring up into place or something to keep you from just stepping off the tracks into the river, but there wasn’t anything like that. The tracks just ended, and continued on 40 feet up in the air. I wondered how many times a train had come down that track not knowing the bridge was up, and chugged right into the river. Probably never, since there are a lot of rules that trains have to follow.
We finally found a narrow metal ladder that ran up the towers, and we started climbing. 100 feet straight up is a pretty good climb, even for youngsters. As a bonus, the ladder was black with railroad soot and general Mississippi grime, so it was a slippery climb. The ladder ran parallel to a lot of thick cables, as you might expect on a section of bridge that raises and lowers, and there were massive counterweights somewhere nearby. As we got to the top of the ladder it became clear that the crossing would be more complicated than we’d anticipated, because there was a huge wheel at the top that the lifting cables ran through, and a good number of other cables and bars and various machinery standing between us and the track.
I believe it’s safe to say that we hadn’t really thought about getting down the other side, which would be pretty much the same as what we had to go through to get up, only in reverse. It was a lot of trouble, any way you looked at it, and standing there at the top, the wise move would have been to go back down the way we’d just come up and just forget about the whole thing. But there was no reverse gear on most of us, especially after a few beers, so we continued forward. I surveyed the situation at the top and stepped over a cable next to the giant flywheel, then onto a little catwalk and on to another, smaller ladder that dropped down to the track level.
The cable I stepped over was strung at a height of probably two feet, and since everything was so dirty, I was careful not to drop my crotch on it, or let it scrape my already filthy jeans. Everyone else followed, and eventually we were all standing on the tracks on the raised platform. There was a small shack on the bridge, where the railroad employee who performed the actual raising and lowering of the bridge sat around reading magazines and eating sandwiches. We didn’t really know or concern ourselves with whether anyone would really be in there, so I guess we weren’t quite as quiet as we should have been. As it turned out there was indeed a guy in the shack, and when he heard us he jumped out waving a flashlight, yelling, “Who’s out there?!”
There wasn’t anywhere to run, so we yelled back, “Just some guys!” I don’t know what we expected, maybe that whoever sat up there alone all night would shrug and say, “oh, okay,” and just ignore us? Who knows. Like I said, there wasn’t much we could do since there was no quick getaway. It turned out that the shack man, or the shackman, wasn’t going to ignore us though. But he was a young guy, maybe mid-20s, and after getting over the shock of seeing a bunch of idiots on the bridge, something he probably didn’t get to see too often, he turned out to be very friendly and said, “You want to come in and check it out?” We did. So we did.
The shack was probably only 10 by 12 feet or so, the size of a small bedroom, and most of the floor was missing because the space inside was almost completely taken up by a cluster of huge, greasy gears. The shack, it turned out, just covered the top half of the gears, hence the lack of floor. And when I say “huge” gears, I mean…imagine a gear the size of, I don’t know, a few of those little Smart cars. Those kinds of huge gears. It was an impressive sight, and my respect for the guy who was in charge of that shit increased immediately. He was no shackman, he was a – a gearmaster.
As I’d suspected, the gearmaster didn’t get many visitors, so he talked a lot. About the gears, the boats or ships or whatever, the trains, working overnights, baseball, you name it. But we didn’t have anywhere to go, so we all stood in the little sliver of space not taken up by gears and talked to him. After 10 or 15 minutes we were getting antsy to move on, but then the gearmaster’s radio crackled and someone said something that you’d have to be a gearmaster to understand, and he answered back, put down the radio and looked at us. He was smiling. “Want see it move?” Did we want to ride the bridge as it lowered? That was, indeed, a very silly question.
The radio message was letting him know that a train was on the way, and it was time to lower the bridge. The gearmaster got to his gear mastering, I don’t remember exactly what he did, but there was a loud kind of groan and then a lot of creaking and we watched as the gigantic gears turned, slowly lowering the tons of steel. Now, if you’ve heard THIS IS NOT A TEST before it might not surprise you when I say I am a jaded old fucker. But I’ll let you in on a secret: I was a pretty jaded young fucker too. It took a lot to impress me. Or I should say that it took a lot for me to show that I was impressed. And as far as some gears turning – I worked around machines every day, so, big deal, right? But it was a big deal. It was an awesome sight, and I loved it, and it made me wonder what I had to do to steal the gearmaster’s job. It was ideal for me: mechanical and solitary. Right up my alley.
About five minutes later a long freight train rattled past us, no more than three feet from where we stood, heading toward West St. Paul. Fun fact: West St. Paul is actually directly south of downtown St. Paul. I never understood that, but there were a lot of things I never understood about St. Paul. The train was long, it must have taken five minutes to pass, and after it did we were ready to get out of the cramped little shack and keep moving. We said goodbye to our new friend, and he went outside the shack with us and suddenly looked confused. “I was going to ask if you guys came all the way from the other side of the river, but the bridge was up, so…how did you get up here?”
I said, “We came from downtown.” Then he looked even more confused. “Are you shitting me?” he said, “You came from this side? You climbed the ladder?!” “Yeah.” He said, “You didn’t just…I can’t…look, look up here,” he said, and he pointed his flashlight at the cable that we’d passed over at the top of the bridge. “You telling me you guys climbed over that?” “Yeah.” “Jesus Christ! Fuck! No!” he said, and he was kind of pacing around. He appeared to be very upset. “That’s a live electrical cable! There’s…eighty million volts – or something like that, some large, fatal number of volts – There’s eighty million volts running through that thing! If you had touched it you’d be dead! You all stepped over that?!”
We had. And he was really upset, I could see that, and I knew what “dead” meant. But somehow we’d all made it over the cable without touching it, so I didn’t see what the big deal was. We were lucky that night, I guess. But the gearmaster was pissed, and I got the feeling he was no longer our friend. He said, “I have to raise the bridge now, I’m on a schedule. You stupid fuckers have to get out of here.” He shined his flashlight on the tracks and waved it toward the West St. Paul side and said, “Move. Now. Get off the fucking bridge. If any of you get hurt or killed I’m going to tell the cops I never saw you. Fuck! Go! Get out of here!”
We walked the rest of the bridge to West St. Paul without any of us being injured or killed. But after we made our way back downtown over the comparatively safe Robert Street bridge, for some reason we started walking on the railroad tracks again, and Scott tripped and took a railroad tie to the chin. That bleeds about as much as you might imagine it would, so it was a bit of a horror show. We took his t-shirt and tied it around his head, like in the old movies when they tied a huge bandage around someone’s head as a toothache remedy. That’s what Scott looked like, as we made our way up Wabasha toward the apartment.
When we got back we stuck a band-aid over Scott’s wound and administered whiskey to his stomach, which seemed to be a perfectly reasonable treatment for an open chin, and, of course, for those of us who hadn’t suffered any cuts or abrasions.
I probably shouldn’t talk about what happened next. It doesn’t “reflect well on me,” you might say. Maybe some other time. Then again, do any of these things reflect well on me, probably not. But I have to draw the line somewhere. Don’t I?
Ah, fuck it – haul and pull up, selecta! REWIND!
Okay, we tended to Scott’s chin, and the next thing I knew – and I say that not as a cliche or some kind of literary device, but because it’s literally the next thing I remember from that night – the next thing I knew, we were down on the street again, in front of the apartment building, there on 7th Street, and for some reason I was wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off Levis shorts. Also for some reason, there was a pile of cinder blocks at the corner of 7th and Wabasha. The big ones that you use to build the foundation of a house or a solid fence between you and your neighbors. Also for some reason – and I cannot explain or justify this, and I’m certainly not proud of it, but for some reason I was picking up one of those cinder blocks every time I saw a car coming, and flinging the blocks at the cars as they passed through the intersection.
That’s right, I was a severely drunk, barefoot, nearly naked teenager, on the streets of downtown St. Paul, throwing cinder blocks at passing cars. Why? You might ask, as you have every right to. And I have to answer that I have no fucking idea. I was kind of mad then, like crazy mad, not angry, though I was angry too. At everything and everyone, and I guess that included anyone who happened to be driving through downtown St. Paul that night. Which, thankfully, wasn’t very many people. Because, like I said, the place was pretty deserted. And if you are wondering, no, I did not manage to land any of my tossed blocks onto a car. If I had, there probably would have been carnage of another kind. Like someone beating some sense into me, because I was way too drunk and stupid to have run away from the scene if I had actually landed a block.
Another thing at the corner of 7th and Wabasha was a chain music store called Musicland. It was nice having a record store half a block from the front door of my apartment building, I liked it. It was beneficial to me. One of the great things about living downtown. But – when I failed to land a block on a car, I chose a target that I knew I could hit. One of the floor to ceiling Musicland windows. So I tossed a block and predictably, the glass shattered. Some guys, I don’t remember who they were, but I think they were with us, immediately ran through the space where the window had just been, and gathered up as many nearby LPs and tapes as they could hold and ran back out with their arms loaded. I just walked toward the apartment door, unlocked it and went up to my place.
Scott and maybe a couple of the other guys from the bridge were up there with me, I really don’t know. But I don’t think the record thieves were up in my apartment. I always wondered what they got out of the store, just grabbing random shit like that. Probably a bunch of Carpenters albums, and a dozen K-Tel 8 Tracks. I wasn’t interested in stealing anything, I was only in it for the destruction. It didn’t matter what it was: your car, a store window, a bale of hay out behind your house – whatever you had, I wanted to destroy it. Like I said, there was something wrong with me.
The last thing I remember about that night was drinking more Jack Daniels while I picked bits of broken glass out of my feet. The end. There is no moral to the story. Wait, yes there is – the moral to the story is: don’t ever let your kids move out of your house. That probably won’t be an effective way to keep them out of trouble, I got into plenty of trouble when I lived with my parents, but it will make them more creative in finding ways to get into trouble. Okay, here’s an idea: come around next time for more THIS IS NOT A TEST. I promise to behave. See ya.