T for Tom

I Will Not Miss These Things

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on April 29, 2015

As you reach the halfway point on the North Franklin Mountain trail, heading southward during an ascent from Mundy’s Gap, just as the ridgeline trail meets the summit trail, there looking westward you can see the canyon below and the city further beyond. At your feet there, and for miles in each direction along the eastward side of the summit, is an unexplained number of unexploded ordnances from the years spent blasting rockets, artillery, rifles, missiles, and canons of all kind into the mountain for testing, or something. You can take the trail up to the summit from this point, but there’s only a single trail leading down, a single stretch cleared out of the side of the mountain where otherwise you might find a Vietnam-era mine waiting for you. I know this because there was a day, the second time I tried to summit the north peak, that I reached this area, my furthest point yet. I hadn’t really tried to summit the peak before and ran out of daylight each time, but I’ve never gone past this spot. There’s a giant sign in the ground and a long chain of fence keeping the hikers from descending improperly, lest they blow the fuck up. I didn’t get higher because I spent maybe thirty to forty minutes staring at it and thinking, what have we done?, or, what hasn’t been done to clean it up? and why not? I lost daylight thinking about it, and I haven’t gone back to try the summit again. I will not miss the opportunity for the loss.

I will not miss the mountains, in their empty and uninspiring way, for being so corrupted by the city below. When my wife came back for the second time we had a discussion about this place makes it so difficult to breathe. I’ve been confused for some time why a place that is situated in a river pass between two small mountain ranges could be so filled with grief, and in some time I knew the answer – from any perspective near or far, I couldn’t see the mountains for the city below. The first time I drove into the city, the first time I came down from the Sierra Blanca ridge, that day when the sun bore through the clouds and lit the valley below and the sight line stretched for a hundred miles and right there in the middle you could pick out an entire thunderstorm that looked merely cartoonish and singular in the space around it, the rain banding downward like a showerhead and in an hour I’d be covered with rain. Driving in that day I was bewildered at the sight of the mountains. But never since. I will not miss the city below.

The city is among the dirtiest I have known, and not from the sand and rocks and dirt that soak its atmosphere. It is littered with trash. From my porch I can look up the short hill behind the parking lot and see ten twenty thirty bushes with something stuck in it; plastic bags, bottles, potato chip sacks, papers of all kinds. What the wind doesn’t blow out, the rest is thrown on the ground by the people of the city. I will not miss the people of this city.

Driving home there’s a new billboard posted. It’s in the spot where just after the downtown there are two highways running parallel. Primarily the interstate, but just southward and below is Highway 85. Highway 85 is, for about three miles, the literal border. If you drive southward on Highway 85 from Sunland Park, the concrete shoulder of the highway is the fence. Well, it is the fence insofar as it has on top of the concrete walls a 10-foot high, 3-foot thick copper and brass fence that even a bird couldn’t pass through. This fence starts here and follows the city for the populace’s entirety, and continues on each direction. In certain high-traffic areas there are two such fences running parallel, a distance of about 100-feet between them. They are lit on all sides by a series of halogen lights, each light pole only 10-feet apart, running for 24-hours a day for maximum visibility in all conditions. The border patrol places a manned Chevrolet Tahoe every quarter-mile in these high-traffic areas. They rove the space between, a quarter-mile at a time. And, in what I guess is the most trafficked area, the fence even has inverted lips along the top, sometimes barbed wire. I will not miss the fence.

The effect of the fence, the effect of the people who transition daily from side to side, the final causality of El Paso is that it is stripped of any culture. The displaced people who come here in the military refer to this as Mexico, because it is clearly not Texas. But tellingly, it is neither Mexican. Those who got across at a time when there wasn’t a fence and those who come here daily for work or recreation, they come here to get away from Mexico. And they’ve brought none of it with them. They’ve replaced whatever culture they had (and wanted to leave behind) with what is the assumed American identity – where we lack for taco trucks, communal and religious events, colorful homes, and tight communities, we make up for in Red Lobsters, Olive Gardens, JC Penney’s, PF Chang’s, movie theaters, car dealerships, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Starbucks, Whataburgers, shopping malls, Best Buys, Wal-Marts, gas stations, Subways, Taco Bells (no, seriously), Barnes & Nobles (there’s only two, but they represent the entirety of booksellers in El Paso), and car washes. I didn’t understand at first why there were so many car washes until I spent two weeks here. But more than the dust, I am disgusted by how difficult it is to find a local foodstuff. The best, and really only, genuine burrito I’ve found comes from a converted gas station by a business founded in Juarez. Its ingredients are all slow-grilled in large vats, and their tortillas are handmade each morning. The place is called Burritos Crisostomo, and it has two locations. Everyone I talk to says it pales in comparison to El Taco Tote. El Taco Tote is an El Paso foundation, and is best compared to Chipotle food, stuffed into a Dairy Queen building. I do not eat at El Taco Tote. I will not miss El Taco Tote.

Looking for any other kind of independent foodstuff, local or otherwise, can be counted on a two hands. There’s two pizza places, (Nona’s and Ardovino’s), an extension of Austin’s County Line Barbeque (here called State Line Barbeque), the aforementioned Burritos Crisostomo, Kiki’s Mexican (the oldest and most original Mexican restaurant in town that no one goes to), La Malinche (the only menudo to be found in a citizenship once famous for it), and Casa Pizza (which is actually a Greek sandwich shop that makes the best salami subs). This rest is a smattering of Denny’s, IHOPs (WHO THE FUCK STILL EATS IHOP), Olive Gardens, Chili’s, Applebee’s, TGIF’s, etc. These places all have the longest lines and numerous locations. This wouldn’t be surprising if it were a burgeoning frontier township striving for capital growth. But El Paso alone, excluding Juarez, is the country’s 14th largest municipality and has nearly a million people. They all eat at Red Lobster.

The reason for this, again, is the desire to seem American. The sad triviality of this is the cyclical and non-expansive nature of El Paso’s population. Outsiders do not come here, El Pasoans do not leave. The University of Texas at El Paso boasts a student body over 25,000, but I assure you that most come from the city itself. They graduate and return to the workforce in El Paso as the few who do not labor. Because of this the education system remains mired in a spiral, teaching its students to grow up and teach its future students, and for their lack of broad and divisive course study, they do not burden their current and future students with any thought of improvement, change, deference. El Paso is as it was and as it will continue to be: a city of poverty, labor, low-income, and poor man’s education. It bleeds into every facet of character both visual and visceral and cannot be misunderstood by anyone who spends more than a day here. Because if you spend any time more than a day, you will see that anything that was sacred in El Paso is no longer. And that can only be allowed by an entirely uneducated population.

There are of course the mountains that will never be cleared of explosives, but there is also the ghost town comprising El Paso’s former downtown. The brochures attempt to sell you on the historic nature of the Plaza Theater, the multiple Kress Buildings once running the famous Kress Department Stores, the Oregon Street shopping district. It is, I say assuredly, a photographer’s paradise. The kind of empty, decrepit relics of postwar booming American cities – neon signs that haven’t lit in decades, candy-striped barber poles, hand-painted advertisements, handcrafted aluminum signs and banners, individually numbered curbsides, aluminum awnings and full corner glassworks, red brick walls with giant painted Coca-Cola logos. It’s the kind of scene straight from Bogdonavich’s “The Last Picture Show,” and it encompasses every corner of downtown. In one notoriously jaded lower floor, there’s a stretch of windows plastered with make-believe images of stores that could be housed in the empty storefronts, emblazed with the words “this store could be you!” I doubt if there’s been a store in any of these buildings since the 80s, and I wonder if ever there will be again.

This is remarkable but entirely credible because the city is constructed of a commuter’s world. From its farther westward point to its furthest eastward point, El Paso stretches from 36-miles. My own commute to work is 26 miles. It stretches from the west side of the North Franklin peak all the way down to the pass, and then east and southward along the border until just after San Elizario. San Elizario represents the end of the municipality as well as the only remaining bit of culture. San Elizario is famous for being the only jail that Billy The Kid escaped from, which is the dubious variety of fame, but nonetheless. Pat Garrett was here the sheriff, and you know this from the films. Each of the first Fridays here in San Elizario is an event called Art Fridays where the well-maintained adobe hut buildings that comprise the downtown square open up with art galleries, wine, sidewalk projection shows, and live music. The only people who go are the ones who operate the event. The other 900,000 people all miss it, and I will not miss them.

Because everyday I drive home and one of these 900,000 people nearly take my life on the highway. [Ed. Note: the following few paragraphs will contain statements seemingly derived of hyperbole, but I assure you they are not an exaggeration]. Driving home is a dangerous activity here. If not for the poorly constructed weave of highways, or the central traffic funneling that is the interstate, or the endless construction zones throughout the city, then mostly for the people using the roads. A few bad drivers are blemishes to the record, but a city that experiences a dozen wrecks in a single rush hour has an endemic problem. This, the traffic and its inefficacy, is the largest and singular proof of the city’s problems and cultural clashes. Because there are two types of people on the roads here, split in unequal numbers; there are the native, uneducated poor who drive well below the speed limit from I assume is a great fear of death, police, and a cost they cannot afford, and there is the non-native, uneducated poor in the military who through brazen ignorance treat the world like a playground and only drive as fast as possible. There are no less than 10 cars abandoned on the side of the highway during my commute, every day. There are no less than 1-in-10 cars driving on spare tires. This is a big one for me, because it is the sad evidence of two terrible ways of life: the first, that the driver got in some accident to lose a tire; the second, that they have not the income or budget skills to replace the spare. The types of vehicle that make up the roads are the types of vehicle that you sold to a dealership ten years ago. Here there are ten trucks for every car, and not because we need trucks in El Paso. El Pasoans drive trucks because they are old, cheap, and can be purchased easily. When it breaks down, I assume they replace it with another 1997 Dodge Ram, as most have and are. Just the other day I tried to park in the garage of the University Medical Center, but it took fifteen minutes just to navigate to the fourth floor, because the trucks trying to drive and park in there were too big and driven by people who couldn’t handle the size of a dually, 2500 series hauling truck. It’s not because they need a truck – it’s because they need a vehicle they can purchase in cash, in whole, and for cheap. That vehicle will be driven until it cannot, and then it will be replaced. Whether by falling behind on maintenance or by totaling the truck in a wreck doesn’t matter.

And they wreck so frequently. Often, and by my own experience driving in Europe, I’ve learned that we teach our drivers in America to drive defensively to a fault, instead of driving aggressively. The intent of the adjective aggressive is not to provoke stupidity, but to instigate vigilance – the vigilance to be aware and cognizant of a vehicle’s surroundings. But by fearing aggressive driving for misunderstanding it as fast and dangerous, we default to defensive driving for sake of safety and isolation from fault. The thinking goes that if I don’t do anything wrong, nothing can happen to me. This is manifested mostly in the failure to obey any right-of-way or fast-lane designations, and primarily occurs in wrecks where entrance ramps enter the highway. Never once does a vehicle on the highway allow another vehicle to enter. To compound the situation, the vehicles entering the highway often decelerate out of fear to find an open space, rather than accelerate. And in the many cases where this results in a wreck, the immediate response is a shaking motion of the hands and the phrase “no police, no police.” I’ve seen this many times, and expect it many times more. But it is not their fault for fearing police involvement. It is our fault for creating this place. It is our fault for putting up a fence, divesting half the workforce, separating families, stifling the already poor, and enforcing it through force. It is our fault for creating a world that has yet to open its boundaries. It is our fault for being patriotic to a written document instead of to the human race. It is our fault for filling this city with problems and leaving it to rot. I will not miss the rot.

This city came to these problems the same way any other has. But only because it started in the muck, it buries itself even further with the added contemporary problems of a mortgage-crisis, low-unemployment, and border security. There is here like there is in all the world, a growing population driven by consumer interest. But where a city like New York or Tokyo or Paris might have the standard quality of life to allow its citizens the luxury of a new smartphone, El Paso cripples itself by choosing to buy the iPhone 6 even when household income cannot support it. At every stop light, the lead car is slow to accelerate because the driver is staring downward into a smartphone. This is not an exaggeration. It is doubly worse on Fort Bliss. Without failure, every car that I see swerving and driving with inconsistent speed is driven by a person that is looking at a smartphone. Just last week it was only my horn-honking that saved the Jeep in front of me from smashing into the highway barrier instead of curving with the road. It wouldn’t be so endemically true except that the places of highest congestion occur where there are shopping malls. I live near one. On every weekend, the roads there back up through all intersections. These people do not go hiking, do not go downtown, do not go out, they go shopping. They spend what little money they have on things, just things, and do nothing to improve their way of life. The city’s parks are not parks, they are dead-grass fields with a few lights. There is no entertainment in El Paso because the people wouldn’t go. There are no arts districts, there are no independent shops or bakeries or clothing stores, there are no live events. There are only shopping malls. I will not miss the shopping malls.

It is not their fault. We have created an education system that teaches us to want things, and to work for the money to have things. We do not teach our children to work for ideas or fulfillment. We do not teach them to work for life-enriching experiences, nor emotional stability. We teach them to work for money, and money buys things. Our status and fulfillment is derived from our possessions, our visual manifestation of who-we-are-cum-what-we-have. This is a problem everywhere, but it is a depressing reality in a city that should not afford its luxury. This is a city that should be building and cleaning and developing a better future. This is a future full of people that wanted to be better, but they stopped improving just after crossing the fence. We’ve taught people on both sides of the fence that over here it’s better because we have things, and access to things. If only we could get the things, our life would be better. And the people already on this side of the fence, we won’t let them over anymore to take the things we already possess. But we have so little things, and each of them are unimportant. If the people here could understand that. If only they could see all the things blowing here in the wind, the things litering the sides of the road, filling up the trash containers, and sitting around wasting in the desert sun. These were things that were bought on Saturday but were useless by Monday, and were thrown out. Not thrown anywhere particular, just out. Out onto the ground, into the desert, out of the room and no longer their problem. There is a special kind of laziness that only a poor education can create that allows this type of ignorance, this deference to nature and humanity. It is an education derived of living for, possessing, and needing things.

Things. They are just things.

I will not miss the things.

The same education that made this possible made the war that made the job I have possible. But this education infects the other 400-million people of this country as well. I will not miss serving in this capacity. It worked for me insofar as its benefits to my own life outweighed the negative effects incurred. For so long as it paid me a substantial amount o erase my student loan debt, I could suffer it. For so long as it subsidized my life in Europe, I could suffer it. For so long as it emboldened my experiences and placed within me within an environment of curiosity and wonder, I could suffer it. But it does none of these things any longer, and I will not miss it. I will not miss the city that it brought me to, or the people that continue to suffer it. I will not miss the handshakes I receiving for defending a country that shouldn’t be defended, and I will not miss the uniform that places me within a peculiar and isolated portion of society. I have done good things while in the military, but many of them are a result ancillary. The places I have gone, the things I have learned, the people I have met and the woman I have love, these are all indirect benefits of a system that now exists only to ruin my mind and further my depression, and I will not miss it.

I will not miss filling my days with data and facts and figures that amount to war. I will not miss knowing that my work, when even its fullest contribution and development still only totals 1/400,000th of the Army’s power, comprises 1/400,000th of this nation’s power for war. I will not miss hearing phrases like “combat power” and “force strength” and “shoot, maneuver, kill” and “strike the enemy” at simple board meetings and welcoming conferences, as if these phrases were as common as “brand synergy” and “competitive value” and “marketing power.” I will not miss being told to “impact soldiers” when there is no way for me to have an impact – if I present myself wholly, truly, and genuinely for the person I am, I am met with derision; I am not like these people, I read, I wonder, I think, I believe in peace, and I speak clearly. In order to make an impact, to have influence, I have to become, and have become, one of them. I will not miss being one of them. I miss being inspired, I miss being creative, I miss believing that everything is possible. And to get that back I have to be free of this, and I’ve errantly found a way. As has happened numerous times before, I’ve found another way to return to nature, return to searching, return to freshness. I’ve found another way to screw up, and I miss the feeling it gives me. I can do anything again. The end is here, but the beginning is coming up right behind.

No matter how the end comes, it is here and I will not miss it. Everyone I know repeats the same phrase unprovoked – I never belonged in the Army. I contend that there were moments when I did belong. There were moments, moments sitting along the Salzach river or the Italian beaches of Porto Ferro, moments drinking oak-barrel scotch from the frozen Finnish pubs, moments sipping mulled-wine next to a fire on Christmas listening to the village folk band play traditional hymns in a 10-piece brass band, moments when listening to my new Czech friends DJ their latest set at an underground club in Prague, moments running from the bulls in Spain, moments lying in the snow of the rolling farmlands of the German hinterland, moments when I felt at home that I could belong in the Army. In these moments I belong because the Army made those moments possible. But it no longer makes those moments possible and I am irreparably depressed for it, and I will not miss it.

The strongest, most lasting thing I learned is that I have lived overseas, and it is not so hard to do again. It seemed so foreign when I did it the first time, but I’ve physically done it now – I can physically do it again. The means are not important because I have the desire, the will, and the knowledge now. It is a skill gained, like any other skill of bootcrafting, sport, musical, or otherwise. It’s been done, and I know a little bit now of how to do it again. If everyone could get this just once, they might do it again. But until then, they are doomed to comfort and security. Doomed to a home in one place.

But the world is one place. The earth is one home.

…..

I was pilfering through old photos a friend of mine had posted online, a good large collection of pictures of people I grew up with and all the things they had done. I remember all of these moments too, days in junior high and days in high school, in and around my hometown. All the people I had grown up with in a small town where everyone knew everyone, all the people were there. There were the heartbreaking photos of the many friends I had that are now deceased, the moments we shared. There were poor fashion choices and high school pep rallies and pictures taken during an innocuous lunch on a random school-day afternoon. In each of these moments were precious memories, but I wasn’t in a single photograph. I wasn’t snapped or taken or involved. If I asked this person or these people to recount the details of our collective childhood, I have a place in all of them, and yet I’m not represented in the pictographic evidence even once. I always there for everyone, always on the border, but never really inside these circles.

I always felt like I didn’t belong or wouldn’t get in with this people, and I can remember a lot of these moments exactly as I’m viewing them now in the pictures – from just out of frame. There but not really. And I wonder why, until I realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t belong. I just didn’t get in there.

I didn’t really care to get in there. I think I have this shared, collective experience with almost everyone I grew up. Always considered a part of the group, but never inside the closest circle and not a part of any one’s life any longer, not worth holding onto. The geeks, the band nerds, the athletes, the popular kids, the outcasts. Everyone called me a friend, but I’m not a part of any one’s most cherished memory. In the end, I just didn’t really care to belong to any of these groups. When everyone cut their hair, I grew mine out. When everyone wore polos and stripes, I wore tees and solid colors. When everyone listened to hip hop I wen to the rock’n’roll show. I did it on purpose because I didn’t want to fit in. I relished it, even when I thought it would help get me in. But I know now, that I what I truly wanted was to be different. I know this now.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find a group, and I probably won’t. My beliefs have always been too broad, too strong, too universal, to enriched and empowering. The kind of beliefs that others find offensive, because it belittles their insignificant problems and worries. Maybe this is why my newest best friend is mother nature.   Unimportant.

What’s important is that I need to stop trying to belong. I’ve forgotten how to not belong.

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One Response

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  1. Steve said, on April 29, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    Tom –
    I get the feeling from reading this post that things are about to change again for you.
    You are always in my thoughts and memories when I read your writings.
    Don’t ever give this up.
    It is what makes you so unique – being in a small group isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be – you know that.
    But you ARE in one group. The “human” group, that’s why you feel more at home or “belonging” when you’re in nature.
    Nature is something we all share. Yet many take it for granted, don’t respect it, and don’t even think about it much – until we no longer have access to it.
    Hang on to your ideals.
    Keep strong.
    Keep writing.
    – Steve


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