My relationship to NASCAR is a mite complicated, as is any southern expat’s, but it essentially fits the following parameters:
1. I don’t usually much care for NASCAR fans, unless they’re related to me.
2. I was raised on a steady diet of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but when Earnhardt died I was a long way from Calvary Baptist in Charlotte, NC, and I was mostly laughing at news of the regional television coverage his service received (delivered via a fitful, sobbing telephone call from my redneck brother).
3. Chili goes well with it.
4. Beer too.
Mid-February and the first race of the season, the grand Daytona 500, came on quick this year, but I met it in plenty of time to call over a few of my friends for our inaugural end-of-Speedweek hangout at my place: plenty of chili, plenty of beer, and Erk, a nonfan, as it goes, but a man with a large beard and who shares the name of the famed Georgia-bred football coach (formerly of the GA junkyard dawgs’ defense and lately of GA Southern Uni) Erk Russell and whose mind is evermore open to pretty much anything, really, and particularly the idea that a latent homosexuality pervades much of men’s professional sports and its enthusiasts, an idea very hard to discount at any moment — Erk makes a hell of an argument. And Henry David Cocteau, whom we call HD, also a nonfan but from NC, which makes us brothers, of a sort, in Chicago — his attraction to NASCAR is all regional nostalgia, boyhood memories of sitting with Pop by the gas fireplace talking Earnhardt bump-steer and old Richard Petty lore. And, finally, Mort’s a new-NASCAR enthusiast if I’ve ever seen one, wears an earring and everything with his DeWalt cap — his enthusiasm for Matt Kenseth seems to spring from his loyalty to DeWalt tools, not that he ever uses them, of course (he does live in Chicago, city of big service, and works in a bar far — metaphysically, if not geographically — from any garage).
We were primed. Or at least I was. My brother, however, was ecstatic. He lives for this shit. Good ol’ boy Dale Jarrett, among the “old guard” of drivers, had won the “shootout” pole position-determining race of the previous week and thus was starting the main event right up front and my brother had been calling me daily in the week preceding the race with news from South Carolina and the near-psychotic fandom that resides somewhere in his left brain. He “couldn’t fucking wait” for the beginning, when Jarrett would by all means necessary whip the living shit outta every other driver there. Yes, to hear the boy talk you’d have thought that DJ was already a shoe-in for victory. When race time arrived, chili beginning its fourth and final hour of simmering, beer on the back porch cooling naturally in the Chicago winter, after a viewing of the unfortunate singing of none other than former beauty/porn queen Vanessa Williams and countless other hapless losers, Me and Mort — HD and Erk hadn’t yet arrived — watched Jarrett promptly lose near 20 of his spots due to a quickly failing engine or other auto component. My brother called and was cursing, over the phone. Mort invoked the great Dale Earnhardt when I passed him the receiver, my brother in mid-curse, as he said, “That’s racin’.”
I listened to the attendant yowl, Mort painfully pulling the receiver away from his ear, with equal parts glee and empathetic consternation, for the NASCAR fan is like his favorite driver and competitive to a fault, but likewise ever mindful of the always present possibility of death. My brother hung up when he finally realized Mort had put the phone on the floor, where my girlfriend’s cat had proceeded to sniff at it and then to screech a little at the boy’s voice blasting forth. And he wouldn’t call back again, not even when Jarrett was charging through the racing field toward the front at the end of the race, when it looked like Jarrett might actually contend for this one. It was a shame, too, cause had he called to gloat it likely would’ve blown up in his face just like Jarrett’s chances for victory: I never lose an opportunity to get one up on my brother, and in being a racing fan it was too easy. The highly partisan fan suffers with his driver. I was relatively nonpartisan, if occasionally I pulled (along with the rest of my small crew here except for Erk, who didn’t give a shit either way) for Mark Martin, another old guard veteran who we were partial to on account of the tragedy of his main corporate sponsor, Viagra. It’s not something we’ll even much talk about, you know, until Martin creeps into the top five, maybe, or say it’s getting late in the race and the little ticker that goes perpetually across the top of your television screen might be telling you, lap by lap, that the old man’s creeping up toward the front and then, with maybe 50 laps left in whatever race, you might feel compelled to put all shame aside and raise a toast for the victims of erectile dysfunction the world over, to raise a toast for the blue #6 Viagra Ford of Mark Martin, native of Batesville, Arkansas.
Yes, the old boy Dale Jarrett finished 15th after creeping into the top ten and I imagine my brother was none too pleased. But Martin, well, let’s just say that me and HD and Mort spent the last twenty laps of this year’s Speedweek silent as elves, our eyes and minds locked on the events at hand. Martin was shifted back and forth between second and third and fourth places in the final laps, before a wreck back in the field and ensuing caution period, after which point the youthful power trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and last year’s championship winner Kurt Busch fought it out to a Gordon victory. The driver of the Viagra car finished sixth in his last ever Daytona 500 (he’d announced his impending retirement earlier in the year), but it wasn’t such a bad showing. Me and Mort and HD were all down, a little, though the drinks probably had something to do with it. Erk was beaming, always a joke at arm’s length, if not at hand. “Martin blew his load, didn’t he? Or maybe he just couldn’t get it up,” Erk said. We all scowled at him and went out back for a smoke.
Take the day onward, we figured in our sudden dysfunctional camaraderie. Young and defeated all. On to the Rainbo, a bar close by where we knew some people, even if we had to take the traitor namesake of the great Georgia football coach. Erk came out onto my porch as we all lit up our second cigarettes and invited himself along, but it didn’t much matter. At the bar, Erk even joined in on a toast to Martin’s failure, likewise our own. If we ever grew up and got married and started careers and all that, God help us. I wouldn’t remember much after said toast, anyhow. Hell of a way to start the season.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams was on the radio the other day promoting her memoir, Dear Senator, about her life as the illegitimate African-American daughter of the U.S.’s most notorious “former,” as the words go, segregationist. A picture of myself and said segregationist — he must’ve been in his 70s at the time, I was perhaps three — sits atop the mantle above the fake fireplace in my Chicago apartment. The old man looks happy enough, I guess, seemingly without a thought in his mind about the justification for his past (which interpretation I would assume again and again, in my teenage years, meeting him repeatedly at various functions and being presented with the unfortunate opportunity to shake his limp, liver-spotted hand), but in the old picture I am engaged in a habit that would follow me into adulthood, a nervous fidgeting of my hands. Strom Thurmond holds my little three-year-old body high, blank-faced, as it were, and I’m doing my best, goddamnit, just to avert my eyes, I think, my little baby hands poised in front of me, fingers half interlocked in nervousness with nothing to hold on to but the old man’s face, but God help me if I reached out for that.
I leave the picture on the mantle to remind me of the bigoted enemy out there. Visitors to my apartment get a kick out of it, too.
Today I smoke. A lot. I like having something in my hands. If happen they’re empty, and I find myself in a situation where things are expected of me — say I’m on a job, and editors are asking questions about something I was supposed to do (and maybe I did, maybe I didn’t) — my first instinct (thankfully I don’t always follow said instinct) is to roll and light a cigarette and blow the smoke into the interlocutor’s face. Essie Mae’s much more deferential personality manifested itself on the radio program, and I’m assuming in the book, through a reflex action to apologize for the formerly segregationist senator. Again, I wouldn’t have been so charitable. I walked out to work that day fuming a little, laughing all the while, at the preposterous history of the century-old man, to happen upon every window in my car shattered and a note scrawled on the back of a Spanish leaflet for a local grocery, whose edges fluttered in the slight winter breeze and which read, “motherfucker my chair bitch I know u.”
Chickens coming home to roost, I guess. Karma. I’d been on something of a crusade in my free time. It had snowed recently — it had snowed an avalanche on the city’s streets and buildings and homeless people — and in the time-honored American tradition of the citizens’ total lack of participation in anything resembling a community or society, the denizens of my neighborhood were using old lawn chairs and bits of board and other urban detritus to reserve “their” parking spaces in the public way. If you were a hypocritical president of a nation, you might call the reflex action evidence of the denizens’ willingness to participate in an “ownership society.” Even more frustrating, as ever this practice was being accepted, even respected, by fellow motorists. I refused to engage such bigotry. At first, at least. The public way is, above all, yes, the public way. I would do my part — lead by upright example, if you will — but after digging out four or five different spots and then seeing two of said spots now quite presumptively claimed by a set of someone’s ragged chairs, I began to take corrective action. For three nights, I went out at 3AM and angrily, however methodically, moved every chair or old bucket or even ironing board, depositing each in the alley off my side of the street. I sat in my apartment in the dark and watched the street further into the wee hours in hopes of catching the looks on the faces of men and women, seeing their parking spaces taken and their chairs suddenly disappeared. My real hope in this, you see, was that they’d beam happy faces into the cosmos, seeing the ultimate error of their ways, and chalk their losses up to experience. Such, though, was not the case. I never actually caught anyone. And each following day, miraculously, different chairs would be pulled out and used on different parking spaces and the cycle would repeat itself, like I said, three nights on.
On the fourth night, I came home extremely late, after a small get-together with a fellow South Carolinian friend who brought up the subject of our late senator’s daughter. My friend thought it all quite laughable, really, and he convinced me for the moment. My spirits were thus extremely high upon arrival home, let us say, so high that a measly wooden chair was not about to get in the way of my path toward the glee of destruction.
There was nowhere to park, you see, excepting a space six inches deep in snow and in the middle of which was placed, absurdly, its legs deep in the unshoveled snowdrift, a red wooden chair. I wasted no time in backing in, tipping and then shattering the chair into a myriad pieces. I panicked a bit — the cracking of the wood had been extremely loud — and pulled out and down the street to find another space (luckily only a half block from my apartment). So I’m assuming the chair’s owner saw me, plus there’s a big red splotch on my bumper from the contact, prime evidence, I guess.
Retribution is sweet release, I thought, standing on the street looking through the empty space where my windshield once was, the dashboard littered with small shards of glass. I wondered if the culprit might be watching me now from the upper window of any of the three-flats lining the block. I looked around and pondered what to do, deciding ultimately to call off work, after which I visited an auto glass shop out on Western Avenue (driving the few blocks with no windshield in the fifteen-degree cold), and I spent a heinous amount of money for the replacements.
So we pay for our actions, dearly. Most of us do, anyway. Strom Thurmond, with respect to his illegitimate daughter, may have gotten off the hook entirely. Essie Mae Washington-Williams tells stories to the press of traveling yearly to Atlanta from her various northern and/or west-coast homes to meet a representative of the senator, who would hand off envelopes of cash meant, it can only be assumed, to keep her quiet. She doesn’t see it that way. She interprets this as “his way” of caring for his estranged daughter, though Thurmond never actually made the delivery himself, nor did he ever come clean about his siring Essie Mae (who, it must be noted, was now in her 70s and no longer any kind of “child” you could imagine). In the senator’s last days — you remember those times, full of mocking news reports of his exploits in the U.S. Senate, the man clearly around adolescence on the path to reverting back to infancy as he flirted with young Capitol interns, even going so far as to grab an ass or two, also using the old epithet for the African-American men and women around him — he saw fit to send only a single birthday card personally to Essie Mae in his last years, which was signed, “Affectionately, Strom Thurmond…” on Senate office letterhead, maybe. I can’t remember — the newscaster interviewing Essie really wanted to make a big deal of this, though I couldn’t see that it was, considering the old man couldn’t hardly even put a sentence together during the entirety of his last term, much less a pen to paper. The interviewer must have asked the same question of Essie Mae four or five times in slightly different phrasing, trying to get a rise out of her, get her to lay all the hate out on the table. She wasn’t going for it — the old lady was just promoting a memoir, I was then again aware: her personal investment in the ordeal was little at this point; she’d take the money and get out, as she’d done all her life. This was somehow admirable.
My car fixed, I wrote my own note on a piece of hefty cardboard — “Happy, motherfucker?” it read — “we live in a society here.” I even signed it “Affectionately, Strom Thurmond,” just for kicks, and camped in my apartment to await the curious window breaker, the inevitable “return to the scene of the crime” of urban lore and television cop shows. I sat all afternoon and into the night in my third-floor front window behind thinly cracked blinds, right above my strategically placed car. Lots of people walked by — lots of people read the very large piece of cardboard stuck under the windshield wipers — but none of them had the look of a window smasher, and none lingered very long. I fell asleep at an uncertain point propped in the window. This was to be a short, surgical war, but more importantly, a war of shadows, a murky war of words.
Western Avenue contains mysteries. The road, purportedly the longest straight one of its kind in the nation, bisects my small street perhaps a block and three quarters to the east of my apartment. Coming home late from parts south, from a joint where I occasionally work the door, I have become acquainted for instance with the wonder of an old gentleman who stands at the red light I always catch at Lake Streeet, who washes the windows of passersby — a gentle wave of the hand is all it takes to call him off, no need to get angry.
But it’s what follows that is the ultimate discovery. Try it sometime. When the Lake Street red light turns green and your vehicle lurches forward down the nearly empty Avenue, Western ceases her normally teasing ways and opens wide, each traffic light you come upon springing from red to green just in time for your arrival, so that it’s possible to end the mile or two north to your apartment at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, if you like, while breaking only one traffic law. I rarely take it much above 50, though, and even that’s beyond the limit. I figure Chicago cops at 3AM have more important things on their minds. Donuts. Drug dealers.
I wonder if Strom Thurmond ever had the pleasure of a drive north on Western at 3AM. Certainly my nemesis has never heard of the old man. That next morning, I woke still propped in the front window, my gaze instinctively drawn down to the specter of my car, whose windows had been spray-painted over in black. Again, there was a note. “hey storm fuck u,” it read. I shelled out more cash to have the windows stripped of the paint, filed a police report with the Chicago PD (who never called back), and left my own note then in further retaliation, scrawled on a piece of cardboard and secured under the painted-over and nearly destroyed windshield wipers — by then they weren’t even needed, though, as the weather had improved to the point that the street was almost completely devoid of snow. The note read, “What do you look like? Sincerely, Strom Thurmond.”
The reply came promptly the next morning. “i have brown hair”, without this time any retaliatory damage or invective. A dialogue ensued, then, myself the interrogator, my nemesis, the detainee. “Are you fat? Sincerely, Strom Thurmond.”
And the answer, in the trademark all lower-case letters: “yes very.”
“Do you enjoy breaking chairs over your knee like, say, Hulk Hogan or the Nature Boy Ric Flair?”
How quickly simple communication renders warring parties curiously reconciled. I spent my spare time now on the streets of my neighborhood, looking for a pro-wrestling, fat, brown-haired man or woman, even, all the while leaving messages and receiving answers, he/she Essie Mae to my Strom Thurmond, for the following two weeks until the final reply came, with an attendant blow to the body of the car. The hood was dented in, and the note, in answer to my question, “Why do you continue to live? Affectionately, Strom Thurmond,” was “i love motherfucker”. And that was it. Every further question went unanswered, and the tide had turned. The Thurmond identity I could no longer claim with any wit or confidence, maybe? I don’t know, I got down a little and took a walk south down Western all the way to the freeway, by the projects where boys threw rocks at me — I thought all the while of mystery, of the quality of mystery we can expect to engage in these piddling little lives we lead. I smoked a pack’s worth of hand-rolled cigarettes on that walk, my fingers freezing in the cold wind where I rolled the last one, on the bridge over the freeway, the cars streaming by below, wind blowing in great gusts to the west. The cigarette smoked, I tossed it finally into the traffic. I wrung my hands in the loud silence.