Oct 10, 2014, 06:16AM

Burning Through Lawrence, Kansas

This isn’t for the squeamish.

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Lawrence, Kansas appeared fine on the outside, especially coming from New York City in 2005. I had a longing for 1959, so did Daisy, and Lawrence looked like an echo of the most enlightened aspects of that year, a chance to get to Mayberry or Gunsmoke’s Dodge City, maybe a sweet little Ray Bradbury town from a benign Twilight Zone episode. Daisy’s new employer had mentioned connections to James Grauerholz, William S. Burroughs’ secretary and a truly fine man I’d had a good correspondence with in the early 1980s, so I thought I might be able to reconnect with him toward some mutual benefit. Burroughs was my first adult inspiration as a writer. He’d finished his days in Lawrence, so the place had to be okay. I neglected to consider that Passaic, New Jersey might be acceptable on methadone.

Looking back, it’s clear we were completely insane, suffering from some kind of naive covertly racist assumption that immersing ourselves in a cultural/economic demographic replicating the ones we both grew up in would somehow evoke and manifest the community spirit of the post-WW2 era and the straight-up Frank Capra glory of America in the 1950s. Sentimentality and nostalgia are the roots of fascism. Nostalgia is a lie. It’s always about a return to some imaginary Golden Age where everything was just dandy. We wanted a safe world, a world where locks were rarely actually locked.

That world is gone, if it ever really existed. It took me eight hard weeks to figure that out once and for all. Sentimentality and nostalgia fail miserably in the absence of a paycheck. I did manage to have some fun there, though. Not much, but some. It wasn’t clean wholesome 1950s fun, not at all.

We took occupancy on Friday, July 1st, 2005. It was a passable modern two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath apartment with a practical kitchen in one of those sprawling two-to-three story corporate cookie-cutter monstrosities you see on the outskirts of every town in America. The information required to get into this $950/month Motel 6 was stunning in its breadth and scope. I don’t even give my Social Security number to anyone but the government or my employer. That’s my right and policy, and this tight brittle flared-nostril ice queen corporate fascist anti-Christ gorgon in a Hillary Clinton suit wanted my whole goddamned employment/family/financial history. We argued briefly. I won. I always do. I collect. I am here to collect.

On Saturday morning, I took Daisy to breakfast at The Bank, Lawrence’s version of a swank restaurant, located right at the head of the main drag, Massachusetts St. The Bank is named The Bank because it used to be one. That’s how clever they are out there. Breakfast sucked, nowhere near Waffle House or even IHOP, slightly below par for a Vegas buffet, and about half again the price to cover the pretension. We strolled Massachusetts St. for a while, dipping into the little shops and bars, all very quaint, then picked up some beers and headed home.

That evening, a ferocious thunderstorm rolled in. There are huge air-raid-style sirens out there that sound a public alert when a tornado might be imminent. They were howling. We had big windows in that place, and sat down with a joint and a couple of drinks to enjoy the storm. Our enjoyment was short-lived: the leaks began as drops, progressed to trickles, and proceeded to the outright flooding of the bedroom we were going to use as an office, as well as the stairwell. No tornado, but a thoroughly soaked wall and carpet and puddles of water creating a sort of swamp effect.

First thing Monday morning, I marched down to the management office and informed the manager that we needed to be relocated. Naturally, she resisted. I invited her over to inspect the damage, and that settled the argument. The place was clearly uninhabitable, already sprouting a bright pink mold on the freshly painted walls. I remarked that New Yorkers tend to call lawyers the way that farmers reach for shotguns. A week later, we moved into a nearly identical apartment a few doors down. Same basic layout, with a patio infested by a thriving colony of large and very menacing brown recluse spiders.

We had two cats that we loved above all else: Scooter, a large gray insanely intelligent Maine Coon partial to thievery and elaborate pranks, and Buster, a gorgeous orange and white Manx with a tail like a rabbit and the sweet loving disposition of an angel. They adored each other. They’d handled the move admirably, and were delighted with the carpeted stairs. They’d never had stairs before, and they took to chasing each other up and down, tumbling and rolling, hiding and springing, joyous as children at Christmas.

I was pounding the pavements of Lawrence looking for work. Daisy’s salary was meager by comparison with what she’d made at the Waldorf School in New York. It seemed okay. This was a brand new school and enrollment was limited to a handful of families willing to make a bold leap into an as-yet unformed educational environment. Some of the parents had helped us with the move from Swampland to Spiderland. They seemed like nice folks: sincere, intelligent, and adventurous. The school’s founder came over, a likable and charming trustafarian whose father had owned a small chain of department stores. I didn’t pick up on his slightly creepy Scientology vibe. I didn’t really get that about Waldorf Education in general until much later.

Every morning I’d get up with her, drive her to work, and get a copy of the Lawrence Journal-World, colloquially known by the locals as the Lawrence Urinal-World. I’d scan the employment ads, which were scrawny and not promising. I couldn’t see myself stocking shelves in a grocery store on the graveyard shift for nine dollars an hour. I’m not suicidal in any way, but that would certainly push me over some kind of edge into an abyss too horrible to contemplate. Lawrence has a well-deserved reputation for hosting hot new rock ‘n’ roll bands, but there was really only one venue, and the crew positions there were locked up. Whatever other live entertainment present were proprietary leisure services of the overrated college. There was a collection agency hiring, and that’s always been my fallback position when I can’t get more suitable work. It’s a good space for frustrated artistic/writer types to vent their hostility. I am the Master Of Ass-Clenching Fear when it comes to debt recovery.

I perceived a couple of interesting patterns in my daily perusal of the stunningly mediocre local newspaper. The biggest one was the invocation of William Quantrill’s memory every time a fire broke out somewhere in town. If a trashcan caught fire in a dorm room at the college, Quantrill was mentioned in the story. If kids were caught playing with matches in a vacant lot, it was all about Quantrill. He was consistently promoted as the Fire God of Lawrence. As a budding pyromaniac serial murderer as a child, thwarted only by the interventions of art and LSD, I naturally took an interest in this William Quantrill.

He was a weird mutant combination of rock star and cult leader during the early years of the Civil War, much like his nemesis, the abolitionist John Brown. Lawrence was John Brown’s turf, a hotbed of abolitionism. Quantrill was not CSA; he was what we call these days a “military contractor” or freelancer, perhaps a “warlord” if he happened to be of Afghan descent. Essentially, he had a 200-300 man militia willing not only to defend the nascent Confederacy, but also aggress heavily upon its perceived enemies and rob as many banks as possible in the process. Two legendary bankrobbing gangs came out of Quantrill’s Raiders: the James Gang, headed by Jesse James, and the Younger Gang, headed by Cole Younger.

Hairy old Bible-thumping John Brown had no time for women and probably didn’t bathe that often, but handsome Billy Quantrill was well-groomed and the darling of the ladies everywhere he went. When he and his private militia rode down any street in Missouri, the women were there, throwing handkerchiefs and swooning in the streets as he rode by.

Apparently the abolitionists in Lawrence reasoned it would be a good idea to abduct some of the women from Quantrill’s party, and keep them prisoners in a building that everyone knew was utterly decrepit, on the brink of collapse. Predictably, it collapsed, killing the women. Quantrill went berserk. He led his Raiders in and burned most of the town to the ground, murdering nearly all the male inhabitants. Lawrence has never quite recovered from this infantile trauma.

I learned to love Handsome Billy Quantrill in Lawrence. I came to dream of an incarnation where I rode with him.

Daisy needed a car. She wanted to get to and fro without depending on me. We both figured I’d get some kind of work eventually. In violation of every protocol regarding the handling of nuclear weapons within and over the USA, a bomber carried six fully-armed and ready to drop nuclear weapons from Minot, North Dakota, to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. It arrived with five. Cheney’s nuke, I figured. The other shoe finally drops.

I arranged an interview with the collection agency. Daisy scanned craigslist looking for a car. We witnessed a Twin Peaks moment when an old guy wearing a tie got out of a clearly marked university van late one night and retrieved a briefcase from the dumpster in the parking lot. Daisy asked me what it was about. I said, “Meth.” Despite my best chemical warfare efforts, the brown recluse spider colony persisted on the patio. Buster gazed at butterflies on the windows with wonder, and Scooter stole Daisy’s watch, because it was the last thing she put on in the morning before leaving the house, and he didn’t want her to go. Neither of them understood why the patio was closed all the time.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, preempting Cheney’s nuke.

The school building that Daisy was working in was some kind of retired public facility in the middle of an open field on the outskirts of town near a pond, directly across the street from a clearly labeled experimental GMO cornfield and an abandoned brick house under a huge old tree that was one of the most blatantly haunted places I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of haunted places. The field around it was full of copperheads, and the Waldorf School was host to a truly terrifying quantity of brown recluse spiders nesting beneath a small stage.

Daisy located what appeared to be a good deal on a cute little 1988 Volvo station wagon. I went to my interview with the local collection agency. The guy wanted a tie. Right away, that’s a bad sign. It’s a phone job, who the fuck sees me? What’s the tie about, you want me to wear a goddamned leash for nine dollars an hour? I did it. I needed a job, any job. Stacking cans on shelves in the middle of the night under fluorescent lights listening to the Muzak version of “I Am the Walrus” and contemplating mass murder just had no appeal whatsoever, so I put on my monkey suit and went.

The collection agency was across the street from a church. It was hot as hell that day. The receptionist treated me like a convicted pedophile and had me fill out a bunch of forms, including the single stupidest attempt at a personality inventory I’ve ever completed. I gave her my rather extensive and impressive collections resume. He kept me waiting for 15 minutes past our appointed time. He looked like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in a cheap suit. His agency worked unresolved checks, average balance maybe $300, tops. I’d risen to manage the American Express desk for the largest collection agency in the world in San Francisco, in the roaring 1980s, average balance about $5000. I was confident and arrogant, everything you want in a collector. I figured I had it knocked when I walked out.

I got home to find Daisy sobbing in the stairwell. She’d handed over $1800 cash for that Volvo, only to find that it had no brakes and that the braking system was beyond repair. I called the cops, an unusual move for me. They actually came by, very much service-oriented, and told me very sympathetically that we were on our own. I immediately called Denise, the evil cunt behind this scam, and demanded the money back. She laughed and hung up. Not the best move.

I ran a $50 background check on her over the Internet. I got everything—her addresses, ex-husband’s name, phone number, her kid’s name and where he went to school, and the ownership of her house. Her husband worked for a uniform supply outfit in L.A. I called him at three a.m. L.A. time, using *67 to mask my number. A woman picked up, clearly groggy with sleep. I just said, “Denise is DEAD” and hung up. Within an hour, Denise was pleading with me on the phone to take the money back and leave her alone. She’d called the cops complaining about death threats and telephone harassment, but I’d called the cops first, and that made all the difference. I made the arrangements for the transfer of the dead Volvo for the cash.

The collection agency sent me a condescending and scrupulously polite letter informing me that I did not meet their qualifications to sit in a fluorescent-lit room wearing uncomfortable clothes collecting small-balance debts for clients not remotely worthy of cutting into my drinking time. I hired a private investigator to accompany Daisy to her exchange with Denise, knowing that I’d grab the bitch by her neck and slam her head to the floor if I met her.

The management office of our apartment complex got raided by the cops. Apparently the ice queen was a meth head, dealing meth and engaging in serious and fairly stupid identity theft. Daisy and I recovered her money on the Volvo, thanks to the able assistance of a good and very Federal-looking PI. Two tweakers got busted for fucking in the middle of the street in front of that church by the collection agency at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Some ghastly wet floppy-footed thing started haunting the Waldorf School, an eldritch migrant from the old brick home across the street or the pond nearby, some H.P. Lovecraft shit. No one wanted to be there after dark.

I told Daisy that Lawrence was over. I said we were going to Plan B: Las Vegas. They were begging for schoolteachers there, and I could get a job almost immediately.

She said yes, and I went ahead to stake out a place. She’d deal with the movers and ride with the cats. Seeing that sign that read, “You are now leaving Kansas” was one of the happiest moments of my life. I never got to see Grauerholz. Burroughs was dead and had been for years. It was closing time, as the song goes: every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Vegas is always out there, always awake, always glittering, like a big shiny chunk of pyrite.


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