The stories of our life
On your plate are some varying slices of the rich cake that is our shared human experience.
Has it all been written?
Consider something as short as a single tweet: 280 characters to express your most surreal, plain, intrusive or wholesome thoughts. Now take the 137,374 defined Unicode characters and permutate them with Twitter’s strict character limit and you get … well, a seemingly infinite number of possible tweets. That number would approach the point where conventional mathematical language becomes pointless and “bazillion” is the best delineation. But the thing is, it is a number. It has some end.
Now, of course someone isn’t going to tweet out all the combinations that could be made with the spiderweb emoji, an inverted question mark and the letter Æ, so the number of possible tweets can be cut by, let’s say, half. Still, that leaves a lot of room to stretch one’s creative legs. But, has all that creative potential been exploited? Is Twitter approaching a critical mass at which every good tweet will start to be recycled? Are none of us original?
This thought didn’t cripple my comedy until I stumbled into an inane joke while texting a friend: If David Attenborough made a documentary about Grindr, it would be called Planet Girth. Yet searching “planet girth” on Twitter before I was about to post my own thoughts yielded dozens of similar search results, all of which arrived at the same conclusion assumingly independent of each other.
Maybe the question is not if Twitter had exhausted all possible combinations of usable characters and words and if every imaginable tweet will soon be sent, but we should instead consider if we have exhausted every idiosyncratic thought. In a song that served as the inspiration for the above title, Brandon Flowers of The Killers sings “Has every ship gone sailing? Has every heart gone blue?”
All of these questions racing through my mind made me wonder if the common bonds connecting our individual lives and experiences are stronger and more similar than we think. So, I set out to compile this collection of micro-stories from the happenings of my own life and the accounts of others, blurring actuality and speculation. Unless specifically identified for an interview, no person mentioned (and their respective pronouns) necessarily has a real life analogue. Call it true flash fiction, if you will.
With all that in order, let us embark on this shared journey through memories, through Ann Arbor cultural institutions, through artistic escapades, through life.
The smell of freshly made waffle cones was a heavenly distraction waiting on the long, low bench. While divine, Blank Slate Creamery doesn’t particularly remind me of the simple shops I patronized throughout my childhood and the gallons of ice cream consumed from them. It’s a bit too neat, too bohemian to conjure images of the hometown lunch counters where I got my fix, those that doubled as ice cream parlors after school ended and entertained with simple treats and pinball machines. Yet to some seven-year-old in 2018, this is their childhood, what they’ll yearn for when liquid nitrogen balls and rolled ice cream become the new standard.
Lana Hinojosa, an employee at Blank Slate and recent University graduate, seemed to share a similar nostalgia, reminiscing of “being carefree,” “ignorance is bliss,” “no problems” when I asked her what she missed about being a kid. Oh, and “lots of PBJs.” Like most of us, her palate has refined over the years, now preferring the seasonal gingerbread flavor exclusive to Blank Slate over the “artificial ones like Superman and Bubble Gum.” While Hinojosa has never been fond of anything strawberry-flavored, we both shared that same youthful love of those visually appealing and disgusting flavors, unholy mixes of red, yellow and blue we ordered purely because it looked cool.
Wrapping up our very brief chat, I asked her to share her saddest story involving ice cream. “When I was little, I stepped on the (block ‘M’ in the middle of The Diag) and dropped my ice cream immediately after,” Hinojosa remembered. “It actually is bad luck!” On the way out, I didn’t see any toddler spoil the floor with their heaping cones and wondered if it was due to their good luck or mine.
One day a year
The inside-out pajamas did the trick. The neighborhood-wide flushing of ice cubes down the toilet was so ridiculous it actually worked: These Southern rugrats finally saw snow for the first time in their short lives. Seeing their district listed on the wobbly image of CRT television was a sight they wouldn’t see again for some time after, so they cherished it as best they could. When the snowmen finally melted, they all returned home for mom’s special cup of Swiss Miss and retreated to their rooms to spend more time with the Littlest Pet Shop toys or the copy of “Super Mario Galaxy” they got for Christmas a few odd weeks ago.
The kids in the North trudged onto the bus, stomping the snow off their boots before they got to their seats and turning the walkway into a slippery, slushy slice of rubber. It had snowed for the past two weeks, and here they were braving the arctic tundra to get to school. Half-assing their homework, they were not placated when they saw news reports from the kitchen table of entire states shutting down thanks to a half-inch of snow. They went to bed peeved, and while they slept, the buses could not start. Their mothers could let them sleep in the next morning.
Nowadays, the Internet is the school’s last line of defense and homework still comes, and that one winter snow day they used to look forward to the whole year isn’t fun anymore.
Heresy, in glorious Technicolor
“I think the world was cooler without cellphones,” Curtis Sullivan, co-owner and self-proclaimed “counter watcher” at Main Street’s Vault of Midnight, said, laughing as he added, “That’s an old man thing to say.” The Vault is a carefully curated love letter to the times when “you didn’t have your face buried in (that) stupid thing,” Sullivan explained. When “you would, like, ride bikes and shit.”
The walls and shelves of the Vault are lined with books and baubles we would excitedly stuff into our backpacks before biking down to our best friend’s house to show it off. There’s comics about Conan the Barbarian, the Teen Titans and Sonic the Hedgehog, the favorite heroes of a young Sullivan, surrounded by “The Art of Wes Anderson” hardbacks, Gudetama the Lazy Egg figures and puzzles showing scenes from “Super Mario Odyssey.”
It’s all the stuff for which we would beg our parents and hold out until our birthdays, a trip down memory lane for dorks of all kinds, even self-proclaimed super-dorks like Sullivan who “did model rockets, flew kites (and) had model railroads.”
With some intense trumpet instrumental playing in the background, Sullivan casually drops the fact that he worships Satan only 10 seconds into our conversation, and I’m relieved he’s just as weird as me, two nerds separated by scant decades.
“Just kidding,” he clarified. “That’s what people used to say back in 1982 if you played Dungeons and Dragons.”
I think of how nervous I was when my grade school friend’s Catholic mom took his Pokémon cards away from him, fearing my mom would do the same, sliding my Tyranitar collector’s tin under my bed as soon as I got home.
Up until that point, he was stranded exactly twice in his life. Both were caused by a failure to understand but solved by the ability to communicate. Had he not had the cellphone his dad somehow got for 25 bucks at the local hardware store, he probably would’ve had to resort to busking, drifting throughout life relying on his only bankable skill — his forced knowledge of the saxophone.
Luckily, each time he was able to call one of his parents and dictate where he thought he was in that foreign country. It took always took a bit, but he was located nonetheless, both times the parent accompanied by a family friend. Strange, looking back on it.
Now he wishes his parents, or even their friends, were on speed dial, but it would take them hours to drive to this faraway state. The irony: He has the world at his fingertips, but to try and touch it would cut those selfsame fingertips since he broke it in the commotion of his first college party. In the short time it took to find the smartphone in the bedlam of spastic, disparate feet, those few others seen arriving with him were nowhere to be seen. Hopefully he could tipsily remember the confusing way back to his dorm. Hopefully he’d make it back, stretcher or not. Hopefully his parents would never ask what the police reported he was in possession of.
No one wants to die in California
The first thing they really did together was see “Lady Bird,” a gamble on her part because she knew not of his tastes, only of his girlfriend. Still, he accepted; they entered as friends, they laughed as friends, they cried as friends, they got ice cream afterward as friends. He says it’s the most he’s ever related to a female protagonist in his moviegoing life, while she responds saying the movie might as well be her life.
“I didn’t know you lived in California,” he interjects.
“I’ve moved around, from East to West and everywhere in between, so to make it easy I just say I’m from Grand Rapids,” she states plainly, reciting a speech she has said a thousand times before.
“That’s really awesome,” he responds, a hint of genuine interest emerges. “I’ve moved around a lot because of my dad’s job. What about you?”
“Oh, you know, kind of the same, really. That, and family.”
She was hiding something, something she had left behind in that wretched state, something he would come to learn because he stuck around.
The two also slowly learned the other didn’t really want to be alive, and while they weren’t exactly the best for each other, they did help, and both lived to tell the tale of the other to exes of future past.
Years later, she finds herself in the big city, attending a special screening of the classic “Lady Bird” in a small theater. The audience made up of mostly first-time viewers, they laugh at all the wrong moments and she feels the greater need to conceal her crying. She can’t believe they laugh when it’s Lady Bird’s birthday and her dad presents her with a meager cupcake. She thinks of her dad and the special cupcakes he made for her special day, both of which have become one with the hard California ground.
I didn’t know what song was playing when I stepped into Underground Sounds but I know, for a fact, that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” by Paul and Linda McCartney was playing when I was talking with owner Matthew Bradish about guilty pleasures, a term we mutually concluded doesn’t really mean anything.
“For some people, The Doors and The Monkees are guilty pleasures, but I don’t feel that guilty about it anymore,” he said with a smile.
Earlier, I had watched Bradish select the McCartney song and have it instantly play over the speaker system. It was “the song (he) remember(s) the earliest.” He told me “it makes (him) think of (his) mother and her ’71 Green Chevelle.”
Bradish certainly had the musical leg up on me, as I failed to identify Viva Hate as Morrissey’s first solo album after mentioning I had been listening to a lot of The Smiths recently (which is never a good sign). When I asked Bradish about a special memory he had with physical music as a kid, he mentioned “a cassette tape that (he) made from records: One side was Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill and the other side was Smash Hits by Jimi Hendrix.” His passion for the music that literally surrounds him every day working at Underground Sounds is evident; he noted his “music taste has gotten a fair bit broader,” but “still not that much into what a lot of people would call noise.”
Before I had approached him for an interview, Bradish asked two leaving customers if they had voted, trying to entice them with a small discount to buy some of the records they had been flipping through for minutes. In a strong Manchester accent, one of them explained they weren’t exactly from here, and a chuckle was had by both parties. I pass hundreds of people a day walking through the Ann Arbor streets but would never think to stop and ask someone where they are going, and where they’ve been.
We’re often told to dance like nobody’s watching, but the problem is we dance better in our heads. However, they can’t help but move as the parking garage elevator descends. They feel about to combust after coming out to their whole nuclear family, which, unsurprisingly, was marked by confusion and an untimely exit on their part, fueled by the primal human desire to flee when we no longer feel safe. And there they are, eyes closed, shoes shuffling, waiting for the robotic voice to declare “GROUND FLOOR.” They make their way to the exit and in the direction of the scheduled refuge of their friend’s apartment. They hate that they can no longer rely on their family, but they remain thankful for the new family they’ve found.
The sidewalks were mostly empty, so, with Ariel Pink’s “Kitchen Witch” playing in their earphones, they took a spirit form, transcending to an ethereal plain as they whirled robotic and pirouetted naturally. It’s just them and their music. The concrete is their stage and passersby make up the audience (but they aren’t really watching), so their legs freestyle with the intention of coming off as smooth as Childish Gambino. Don’t tell them they’re as stilted as a poor YouTube imitation because they don’t care. It’s their story, and you’re just an extra.
The saddest moment of her life finds her surrounded by rose petals and tea lights, arranged by someone she wishes she could love. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she has nothing to say, and when they finally make more than a second of tenuous eye contact, the gaze she receives tells her “you should just go.” It’s a cold walk back, and she feels a waste, someone who couldn’t even put aside the shoddy state of the relationship and tell someone she appreciates them for once. I mean, you loved her, didn’t you? Well, you certainly said it to her more than once.
In recounting the story to her roommate she is reassured that her soon-to-be ex-girlfriend wasn’t the best person in the world either, but while she is shamefully offering the details, it comes together like a movie scene. If viewed through the door, one would see her, seated, back facing the camera, struggling to keep herself together while also keeping quiet, as her once-lover blows out the candles and picks up the floral scatter.
She begins to think of almost everything she does through the lens of the movie camera, from the close-ups of the facial features she makes in future fights to her walks under the apricot sky. We never get to know if she makes it to Hollywood and makes it big, but we should take this moment to stop and consider whether or not our lives would make for distinctive adaptations on the silver screen, and if we’d be the most reliable person to tell it.
You’re only everything once
I was supposed to interview someone at the State Theatre for this piece, but despite sitting in its lobby on two separate occasions I couldn’t bring myself to ask one of the workers for an interview. The fear I had developed while operating under this brand of Gonzo journalism was one of rejection, a fear that I would either not secure an interview in the first place or that I would get answers I couldn’t work with. I mean, yeah, everyone remembers their first job, but would they really give me something insightful if I asked what they spent their first paycheck on? The first R-rated movie they saw? The movie that always makes them cry?
I found myself unable to escape this notion I had developed in the introductory story, that none of us are really original, that whatever answers I would hear have been already said. Hell, are my own answers to those questions even that special? This all led to a textbook mini panic attack, the kind during which social anxiety kicks in and makes you aware of everyone staring at you, freaking out over the terrible things they could be thinking.
With the help of some food in my body and a brisk walk back to my building, I was able to calm down, partly because no one even realized any of this interior struggle. No one in the atrium of the State noticed my loitering presence, so what’s to say the people I were eyeing to interview aren’t going through something similar? We all have our own troubles, big or small, that we ultimately have to solve on our own. And a lot of the times, we keep it in, to fit in, to be normal. To not be realized when we’re minding our daily business, to be just another face in the crowd. Here I was freaking out over other people’s perceptions of me while also having an existential crisis because I feel we’re all blending together into some sort of unintelligible mess. Everybody wants to rule the world, but nobody wants to know who makes it up.
A couple weeks ago, after a movie night with my friends, one of them polled the room about whether they should make a push for Rick’s American Cafe. When it came my turn to cast my vote, I said “you’re only 21 on Oct. 19 one time in your life.” She took this as a fair point, and I went to the bathroom shortly after and reworked what I said into the title of this specific story, seeing some potential poignance. “You’re only everything once.” What does this even mean? I haven’t the slightest clue, but I feel through gathering information, interviewing others and observing randoms for this piece, I might be a little closer to answering that.
At this moment in time, you are the sum of so many distinct experiences, not only with yourself, but with others, with people you’ve never met, with culture, with the internet. Yet evaluate yourself a day later and you may find yourself the sum of even more, just by the nature of you continuing to live. We are continuously everything we’ve been through and everything that surrounds us, but this everything approaches infinity as time goes on. There’s no limit on this everything, unlike the case of the Twitter, and under this definition, the idea that we are all permutations of the same thing falters. We all make up a complex mosaic, constantly moving, living, breathing; I have a renewed optimism thinking about this after going out in search of the heart of Ann Arbor and intertwining myself with the stories of others.
So go ahead, post that unoriginal tweet, go to Rick’s, put yourself out there. If we remain stagnant, we will never have stories to tell. Without stories, how can life go on?