Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Following My Heart (Or At Least My Pacemaker)

An edited version of the following piece was originally published in my hometown daily newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, in a column called "First Person" in 2007.  "First Person" was (and still is) an attempt by The Dispatch at participatory journalism.  Readers send in 700-1000 essays on a topic of their choosing that they think will be interesting to fellow Columbus readers.  At my most forgiving, I find it a nice, inclusive gesture on the part of the newspaper.  At my most cynical, I consider it a really cheap way for the editors to fill up column inches without having to pay an actual columnist.
After perusing the first couple of months of "First Person" – which largely featured stories about people’s beloved pets or what they considered amusing anecdotes about their children – I decided that if I couldn’t contribute anything better I had no business criticizing the submissions.  Once I got involved in the process I discovered that The Dispatch was highly editing and, in some cases, largely rewriting the submissions they received from readers.  They flattened out the prose, I suppose to conform to some eighth-grade reading level they aspired (despired?) to.  (I will say, though, somehow they wound up not taking out my three best one-liners.)  The whole experience left me wanting to apologize to all the previous "First Person" authors, for thinking they were unimaginative white-bread writers, when in reality all along The Dispatch was watering us all down from the same editorial fountain.
The following is my original version.....
I’m writing this in a Cheesecake Factory restaurant in an upscale suburban Washington D.C. mall.  It’s a Sunday evening and I’m surrounded by well-to-do families.  I’m wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and clearly do not belong here.  Where I belong is Columbus, Ohio, working a warehouse job and dreading the upcoming work week.

I’ve worked a lot of warehouse jobs in my life – Service Merchandise, Buckeye Mart, Gold Circle, K-Mart, Ross Laboratories, to name a few.  Some of them were temp positions, most were full-time 40-hour-a-week jobs.  The Service Merchandise job alone accounted for 16 years of my life.

I liked those jobs. I had completed three years of college before I ever set foot in a warehouse and I think for a time I believed it was a short-term thing.  I played guitar and I was headed for the big time.  (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)  Maybe I fancied myself like that character Tom in A Streetcar Named Desire, writing poetry on boxes.  After 20 years of unloading trucks, stocking, receiving, and shipping merchandise, it occurred to me that this might not be such a temporary existence.

My father worked in warehouses.  I think that might have been another reason I thought of warehouse work as sort of a romantic way of life.  I looked up to my father.  He taught me everything I know about work and life.  He grew up in Chicago during the Depression and left school after the eighth grade to start working full time.  He was the supervisor of a Columbia Gas of Ohio warehouse in 1970 when he died of a heart attack at age 56.  I was 17 years old.  He had always wanted to travel.  He never got the chance.

By January 2000 Service Merchandise had gone out of business and I was working for a (now defunct) record store chain, Camelot Music.  One Thursday night I was lying on my couch reading when a voice came very clearly into my head, "Hey, check your pulse."  My pulse was 38 beats per minute.  A couple of weeks later, following a lot of tests and after various monitors had been applied to my person, a cardiologist informed me that my heart was stopping entirely for 5 or 10 seconds at a time while I was sleeping.  To make a long story short, by the end of that week I’d had a cardiac pacemaker implanted.

Awhile before that I had opened a show for a rock & roll act out of New York City named Hamell On Trial (aka Ed Hamell).  We hit it off and I would tag along when Ed played gigs around Ohio, pretending to be a guitar tech, but always returning to Camelot Music for the day shift.  In fact, two days before the pacemaker surgery was performed my soon-to-be wife Debbie and my cardiologist barred me from working a Hamell show in Bowling Green, Ohio, because they were both convinced I would have a fainting spell while driving home and be killed.

Three weeks later, after winding around the south and through Texas, Hamell finished that tour with a date in Cincinnati.  I drove down for the show.  It was my first big outing after the surgery and recuperation.  I walked into the club and said proudly, "Wanna see my incision?"

That night Ed told me he’d just been booked as Ani Difranco’s opening act for a two-week tour of California.  He told me the tour was in three weeks, asked if I could I get off work to go along. I have always been the kind of person to play it safe, to protect myself, to not color outside the lines, to work in warehouses.  Against all odds I said, "When do we leave?"

I’m writing this in a nice restaurant in an upscale mall outside Washington, D.C., because it becomes much easier to make decisions once your chest has been sliced open.  Over the past seven years as a roadie I have seen this country, from sea to shining sea as it were.  We started one tour in Atlanta, Georgia, and traversed the entire nation in a rented Ford to wind up in San Francisco, California, by way of New Orleans, Austin, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas, among others.  Everywhere we visited I pointed out sights to my dad that I think he would have liked, if he'd ever had the chance to travel.

When I was a child I believed I would never leave the state of Ohio, ever, in my life.  By the grace of God and rock & roll I have.  I will someday die of a heart attack, as did my beloved father. But not before I saw America, and not today.

(c) 2012 Ricki C.

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