Friday, March 11, 2016

Most Likely To Take Over The World

I was voted Most Likely To Take Over The World by the Class of ‘97. Check out the senior superlative section of that year’s South Williamsport Mountaineer yearbook. There I am, with my female counterpart, arms crossed and lording over a dusty world globe that sadly saw more action as a photo prop than as a learning tool.

Thinking back all those years ago it occurs to me that the senior class of ’97 had some astronomical expectations for yours truly. TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!! A tall order, indeed. At least the other superlative categories were realistic. Tallest Senior? Okay, the tallest is the tallest. All the tallest senior must do is exist. Most Likely To Succeed In Business? To be the most successful in business requires some skill and determination. However, our class graduated less than 100 and someone had to be the most successful in business, regardless of who was voted the most likely to do so. It’s just a math problem, really. I bet whoever actually became the most successful in business could easily figure the exact percentages. Best Eyes? Subjective, but perception is reality. An enchanting set of peepers can pay dividends. Frankly, I should’ve owned this category.

Apparently, the chances I’d somehow seize control of the whole world were too great for my classmates to ignore, striking hazel eyes be damned.

Another category exists I am proud to have not “won”: Most Likely To Destroy The World. Had I been voted most likely to destroy over the world I would’ve inwardly considered the distinction a testament to clumsiness or witlessness. I would’ve assumed my classmates reckoned me to be the most likely to stumble over my own shoelaces and careen headlong into the big red button, or drunkenly flip off the wrong cracked warmonger with an itchy trigger finger.

“We wouldn’t all be on fire if Bower kept his stupid goddamn mouth shut.”

No disrespect to the two voted most likely to destroy the world, but it seems significantly more challenging to take over the world than destroy it. For instance, to destroy the world by design one must simply acquire control of a super-massive WMD stockpile, and then employ said WMD in grand fashion. Come to think of it, perhaps he who is most likely to take over the world is the same guy who is most likely to destroy it. It’s just a matter of knowing when to stop.

Moreover, we were all destroying the world inch-by-inch. In the yearbook under the headline Most Likely To Destroy the World should’ve been a class photo.

To be fair I did tell my classmates that I'd take over the world someday. In fact, world domination became priority the instant Principal Anderson placed my diploma into my eager palm. My first attempt of fulfilling said senior superlative prophesy came immediately after the valedictorian’s speech when, along with my classmates, I launched my cap like a ninja star skyward  in hopes of shredding a hole in the fabric of time-space directly above South Williamsport Area High School. Instead, my cap landed at the feet of he who was voted Most Likely To Find A Cap At His Feet Seconds After High School Graduation Ceremonies Conclude. At least someone felt accomplished.

Shockingly, at 18 years of age I hadn't yet formulated a viable plan to take over the world. I just said I did. I figured I’d come up with something, someday. However, I hadn't completely lacked vision. When I daydreamed about my impending global dominance in Mr. Meixal’s Art In The Dark class I imaged I’d someday author a text so compelling that harebrained eccentrics would discard Catcher In The Rye from their book bags and replace it with my magnum opus. Perhaps God would allow me to float 20 feet into the air before tearin' into an air guitar solo so fucking epic that throngs of flabbergasted onlookers would deem me as nothing less than an agent of the Second Coming. Or maybe the agent of the First Coming. Chics would toss their hotel room keys. World leaders would toss their blessings and their bloodlines. 

Frankly, I didn’t have the first goddamn clue about navigating an adult life, let alone achieving global dominance. Hell, I couldn't identify a home equity loan or 401k among a lineup of further grown-up concepts.

What the hell do you want? I was 18 years old, an age when anyone imprudently boasts a hearty clutch on life’s Adam’s apple.

I never wrote that magnum opus. And I ceased believing in God long before I knew that a home equity loan was, in fact, a second mortgage that allows one to borrow money using one’s home as collateral.

Though high school guidance counselors and literature for goody two-shoe programs like D.A.R.E. pronounce college to be to a wise-up, buckle-down, and play-it-straight stretch of young adulthood, it’s really just a time to consume tons of Pabst Blue Ribbon and generally fuck up the launch into life’s most consequential years. Although taking over the world remained an honest goal upon entrance into my so-called *freshman experience, I’d managed several leaps backwards within nearly three years into my pursuit of an English degree.

*Don't pledge a fraternity. Well, I shouldn't have pledged a fraternity. (Greek life? Fraternity bros memorize the Greek alphabet to foster a shadow solidarity among members, and wear bed sheets as togas when the Chi Mu sisters schlep over for a mixer. That's about as Greek as it gets. Oh, and the frat house looks like Greek ruins every morning after…) Greek life wasn't for me. But after a fairly boring first college semester, the allure of free beer and house parties offered by Kappa Delta Rho was potent. Next thing I know I'm halfway through my junior year and all I have to show for myself is mediocre grades and sneakers that stick to linoleum floors because of the quarter inch of dried stale jungle juice on the soles.

Without veering into a tangent about the pitfalls of the Greek life I'll exit this portion of the essay by asserting that fraternities, and their group mind archetype, make apt training grounds for a future in the emergent Heaven's Gate II.

I'd never been further from taking over the world as when I excommunicated myself from the damn fraternity. I gradually reconditioned myself for a grand homecoming into the life cycle as…well…myself. Subsequently, I assumed a clear path to world domination would gradually present itself. Throughout my final three semesters my grades soared, as did my penchant for mischief. However lame the self-justification, I felt as though I owed myself the sovereignty which I'd deprived myself the (Greek) years prior. So I compensated by getting away with highly mature exploits. For instance, a newfangled hobby became venturing into local bars and snatching the cue balls from pool tables amid a game among strangers. The payoff was watching the spectacular fallout. "What the fuck?! Where's the fuckin' cue ball. Gary, you seen the cue ball, bro? What the fuck?!" 

I docketed each ball I swiped via Sharpie with date and location. My satchel of pilfered cue balls was my favorite collegiate trophy. I graduate cue laude magna.

The two years following graduation I'd devised an academic method to take over the world. I decided I'd devote two years to film school and earn a Master's Degree. But I had sights on only the most prestigious prize—New York University, in Greenwich Village. No lesser institution would suffice. I'd applied and awaited a response. While doing so, I crashed in my childhood bedroom, partied too frequently, worked 40+ hours a week between gigs at Kmart and as a home health aide, floundered my way through my first serious relationship, and partied too frequently.  The rejection letter came on a gorgeous shitty May morning. In a tirade of sheer pretentiousness I made several copies of the rejection letter, signed them, and passed them out to friends. "Hold on to this," I'd say. "You'll sell for small fortunes on EBAY someday." 

What a fuckin' schmuck I was!

Rebuffing rejection, I decided to broaden my graduate school options. Months later I was accepted into the film program at Chapman University, in Los Angeles. Finally, I foresaw a legitimate opportunity to DO IT. But as the time to accept the invite neared, I rethought my pending foray into the great unknown. LA was a savage behemoth three thousand miles from home. Wide-eyed throngs go there with the same aspirations as the misguided dreamer with the satchel of poached cue balls under his bed. I opted against the structure of further schooling (and the extraordinary probability of being chewed and shit out by the aforementioned behemoth) in exchange for the proverbial blank slate.

I saved up a few bucks during the remainder of my time bumming free board and meals at the parental Bower estate. Nearly two years to the day I received my degree I played a solo game of pin the thumbtack on a AAA map of the East Coast. I pinned Pittsburgh. A Google search of “cheap-Pittsburgh-apartments” revealed a 255 square foot one-room efficiency in the Greenfield neighborhood, about three miles from downtown. I called McQuarters Realty. The conversation went like this:

Me: You still got one of those one-room places available at the Velma Court complex?
McQuarters: Yes. We got one.
Me: Good. I’ll sign the lease ASAP.
McQuarters: Don’t you want to see it first?
Me: No.

A week later I arrived at Velma Courts and pulled into my allotted parking sport, A-20. My life savings was safeguarded by my Velcro wallet—a M&T Bank check in the amount of two grand and change. In the trunk of my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was a folding poker table from Value City, a robust collection of Pink Floyd studio albums (I kept my prized bootlegs at home in a Rubbermaid 18 gallon tote), a few plastic bags of Hanes pocket tees, and assorted whatnots.

Armed with an already two-year-old English degree and an inventory of Salvation Store personal items, I challenged myself to cobble together something resembling a real life. Of course, visions of taking over the world still abounded. However, at this stage of my existence I understood the impending journey to be a slog which now began at a black-and-white Kansas, rather than a wind sprint from the vibrant poppy fields, to Oz. 

Along the way, I also hoped to acquire a tolerable yet secure-enough 9-5 job, a few friends, and taste for NHL hockey.

Okay. Here comes the part where I veer from the story. (Although this isn’t really a story, is it?)

I never took over the world. (Duh) Well, at least not upon writing this quasi-memoir as a 37 year-old who wears the same (beautifully stained and holey) Hanes pocket tees he arrived with at Velma Court apartments 13 years ago. But now I rotate collared poplin shirts and Van Heusen ties in the wardrobe line-up. It’s called a friggin’ dress code, people…the cost of maintaining a government pension.

I don’t lament not taking over the world. I’ve built a tiny clichéd empire that anyone of right mind would consider a decent life. For one, I acquired that full-time “real” job—that damn thing that educators perpetually told you, without, you’d eventually devolve into an aging crack-addicted boxcar hobo. My gig is at the local Court of Common Pleas. I spend at least 25 minutes per day in a semi-coherent delirium, rocking back and forth in my Corporate Express desk chair and babbling random fragments of custody case law toward my Bic pen collection while Danse Macabre plays on auto-repeat in my head.

Hey, I had a baby. I suppose having a baby, in-and-of-itself, isn't too impressive of a feat. Anyone can have a baby—just fuck someone. I’m raising a son. (Yeah, that sounds better). You can get a grip on his birth here. And I married a chic whose ability to somehow mostly tolerate my stupid shit continues to amaze me, yet whose mothering skills trump her ability to somehow mostly tolerate my stupid shit. She’s got dynamite gams to boot.

What else I've amassed since my life reboot, and long before, is simply a collection of moments. That's all life really is, right? Life is a series of moments. Some moments have been disappointments. More moments have been rousing successes, at least by my suspect standards. But anyone can say the same about his own life. If life is a series of moments, which it is, particular moments serve as mile markers. I'm not talking about the "successes" necessarily. For me, the most notable moments are those when something unforeseen and bonkers happens, and you're suddenly reminded you're fucking alive.

Here are three recent examples:

1. I was walking by a bus shelter in Shadyside. Two old ladies were boisterously chatting and laughing back and forth as though they were two longtime friends who hadn't had a chance to swab stories since the Carter administration. Seconds before I stepped out of earshot one lady said to the other "By the way, my name is Sylvia. What's yours?"

2. I was walking along Second Ave en route to my drab cubicle at the courthouse. Two others walked ahead of me. A white station wagon slowly approached. The driver appeared to wave at the first pedestrian. As the car passed the second pedestrian the driver appeared to wave again, but something seemed amiss about the gesture. I readied myself to get a good look at the fellow behind the wheel as he rolled past me. The driver was a tiny old man in a cabbie hat. And wouldn't you know it? That old mutha' flipped me the bird like it was nobody's business...all while he continued to stare straight ahead at the road. Apparently, this unflappable geezer makes it his morning mission to simply drive about the city and extend a hearty yet matter-of-fact "fuck you" to whoever happens to be in his periphery.

This man is totally dope. My respect for him knows no bounds.

3. I was the final storyteller at the Moth GrandSLAM, an annual storytelling event. To the 500 people in attendance, I recounted the first time my wife and I attempted to take our son to the Monroeville Mall. I rear-ended a van at the Greenfield on-ramp at the Parkway East. I described my somewhat contentious encounter with the van's driver, a tall lady with long brown dreadlocks. 

After the MC concluded the evening and allowed each storyteller to take a final bow, someone called my name as I exited the stage. I turned and was confronted by an all-too-familiar tall lady with long brown dreadlocks. 

"I'm happy to hear your son is okay," she said.    


If being a husband and parent is two thirds of adulthood, being a homeowner surely makes the pie chart one solid color. The lovely Bower family owns a house on the hill. The house itself is fairly nondescript—a three bedroom colonial, now topped with a 27 gauge burnished slate metal roof. Huzzah! The backyard overlooks downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, the college district.

As I'm perched on the spec of world for which I pay property taxes I'm sometimes empowered when gazing downward at the mass of skyscrapers. I may not have taken over the world, but I have taken over Parcel ID: 0055-G-00056-0000-00 of the 15th Ward of Pittsburgh. That's what Allegheny County has on record as being my world

I don't possess a throne. I got a rickety wooden bench that the previous owner left on a backyard patch of mulch. From that vantage point the hemlock trees frame the city that I blindly pinned on a map years ago

I peer through a peephole at a nucleus of millions. I can see them all, but they can't see me. 

From here I sometimes feel as though I've taken over the world after all. (Typically, a few imperial IPA’s help shape this sentiment.) I'm immersed in an imagined explosion of moments that transcend any perks world ownership might allow...

I’m not leaning back in my old man backyard bench, scrolling through dimwitted Facebook memes  on my IPhone and counting how many red sedans pass the adjacent houses. Instead, I’m leaning forward to steer a kayak that’s become unwieldy from the rapids. Each passing boulder taunts me by displaying my embossed name and death date like Ebenezer Scrooge’s tombstone. I’m not engaged in sexual congress in the missionary position atop a Macy's bed spread adorned with floral patterns while a muted Republican debate pollutes the television screen. Instead, my legs ache from shagging in a position the Kama Sutra strongly warns against. We've ignored the No Trespassing sign to slip into a dilapidated rail car lit by the powder blue moonlight that flickers among the scurrying cirrus clouds of a late-June predawn. I’m not gulping the remaining suds of my Dogfish Head 60 Minute as I break between my third and fourth slices of plain cheese pizza. It’s Tuesday, and Tuesday is Rialto's Pizza night. Instead, my throat burns like hell from another shot of Knob Creek whiskey and I’m seeking conditions so weird that a sober mind would flee in panic. I’m not partaking in one of my favorite rainy day boredom cures—smirking at a Cornerstone TeleVision preacher on Channel 7 who offers the ultimatum: find God or make hell your hot tub. Instead, I’m clutching the jagged severed neck of the whiskey bottle I smashed on the back alley lamp post. Yes sir. I’m going to find God tonight, alright, and I’m going to ask Him just who the hell He thinks He is. He should know the whole wide world belongs to me.

But then my son knocks on the dining room window to draw Dada's attention. My imagination snaps back like a manic dog run out of leash. Here I am again, on Parcel ID: 0055-G-00056-0000-00. 

It’s quite cozy here.

I should’ve been voted Best Eyes.

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