Little Aleppo’s second educational facility was a one-room schoolhouse; its first was a half-room schoolhouse that shared space with an opium den. Even in 18–, people could see that wasn’t optimal, so the one-room schoolhouse was built next to the opium den. Much better. The students ranged in age from five-year-olds learning their letters to 28-year-olds working on their dissertations. Sometimes, opium addicts would audit a lesson, but they were usually quiet.
But the neighborhood was growing, spurred first by the wealth being chipped out of the Turnaway Lode, and then by the trade coming in from the newly-built Salt Wharf; the one-room schoolhouse needed to expand. First, the Chinese who ran the opium den next door were murdered and their building converted and connected. Then an addition was built, and teachers were brought in from back East. More than one teacher, though, requires a principal, so one was hired, but a principal needs a secretary and so a secretary was also hired, and at this point you’ve got to have a guidance counselor, and as long as you’re doing that, you might as well go whole hog and get a gym teacher and a lunch lady; before Little Aleppo knew what was happening, it had a full-fledged Board of Education on its hands.
Power is just leverage, and all the different power bases in the neighborhood had different leverages. There were the Town Fathers, who had the law. And the cops, who had force. The large gentlemen had violence, business owners had money. The mob out on the Main Drag had chaos and fire as its leverage, but the Board of Education had Little Aleppo’s children. “Whaddya gonna do? Homeschool ’em?” the Board of Ed would threaten, and their budget would be passed the next day.
There are three schools in the neighborhood now: Lyndon LaRouche Elementary and Paul Bunyan High were built in the 20’s out of brick by skinny men in overalls; they look like schools, cannot be mistaken for anything but, could not be anything else; they are sturdy and sweaty and held together by the institutional knowledge of the maintenance staff. (LaRouche was originally named after President Taft and rechristened in the 80’s after someone double-dared the Town Fathers.) Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School was built in the 70’s out of glass and sheet metal and linoleum. It looks like a building where dentists work, or maybe podiatrists, or both.
Paul Bunyan High’s motto was “Disciplinati hominis est longeque periculosissima hominis.” The school was heavily influenced by the nearby Harper College–most of its teachers came from there–and was given to wild pedagogical experiments. There was a romance with John Dewey’s progressive theories, where the students choose their own topics of study; that didn’t work, as it turned out that the students chose topics such as “titties,” and “going home.” After that, the pendulum swung to regressive schooling, in which the children were beaten all day. This, too, failed to turn out model citizens. There were experiments (one year, gym class was taught in Cantonese) and ideological struggles (algebra was briefly outlawed for being counter-revolutionary), but Thursday was always pizza day in the cafeteria.
First grade til twelfth, and then on to college, all in the neighborhood. Small batch education, Little Aleppo boasted, and a good percentage of the residents were products of the system. The Poet Laureate once wondered out loud if a good deal of the local weirdness was not caused by the weirdness of the local education. People had better things to do than listen to the Poet Laureate.
But they were still schools and couldn’t get away from the basics. Reading, writing, teen pregnancy. And chemistry, which is only taught in high schools because the parents of the students had to sit through it and they’ll be damned if their brat kids didn’t have to, as well. Julio Montez did not understand chemistry. He got that everything was made out of basic components, and that these components were called elements. Sure, okay, fine. But then it turns out there’s math. Coefficients, Julio thought. Bad enough I don’t understand that shit in math class, but I have to be confused here, too? He wished there was some paper he could sign, something official, saying that he’d never engage in chemistry–he’d leave it to the professionals–so he could be excused from this protracted humiliation. Julio hated the stupid experiments, and he hated that potassium’s symbol was K, and he hated the eyewash station that reminded him that not only was he tanking the class, but he was also in danger of being scalded with acid at any moment. He did like the goggles.
“What is she talking about?”
“Ions,” Buzzy Verno answered.
“What are those?”
“I got no idea. Small things.”
They were sitting in the back of the class; Julio gravitated to the back of the class in most instances, but he insisted on it for chemistry. He had known Buzzy since childhood–Little Aleppo was not a big place–but they had not become friends until they bonded over their mutual befuddlement in Mrs. Larkspur’s chemistry class. Confusion brought them together.
“Like a molecule?”
“I think? Maybe it’s part of a molecule,” Buzzy said.
“How many fucking parts does a molecule have?”
“At least three, dude.”
“Yeah, there’s the nucleus. And the, uh, mitochondria. There’s a flagellum somewhere in there. The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.”
“I don’t think that’s chemistry.”
“Oh, yeah? Who’s getting the C minus?”
“And who’s got the D plus?”
“That is I.”
“So, who’s right?’
“I apologize for challenging your great brain.”
Buzzy Verno had taken to weed. Armonk had gotten him high for the first time at his house–Buzzy wasn’t even sure if Armonk had parents–on the scratchy green couch in the basement. There was an Iron Maiden poster held to the paneled walls with three thumbtacks and one piece of tape. (Armonk ran out of thumbtacks.) The pipe was el-shaped and made of brass fittings; the shaft was a few inches of bare screw, and Buzzy was nervous he would drop it when Armonk handed it to him and then lit it for him and when he inhaled…oh, when he inhaled…Buzzy was wearing a Blue Oxen baseball cap; he could feel it tighten and clasp on like a circular spider and the music…oh, the music…he didn’t know what Armonk was playing, something heavier than Buzzy preferred, but now the instruments were separating, individualizing, swanning apart only to coalesce again in harmony. The ting! The ting! of the high-hat, where had that been until now? He had never heard it: was it new or something he’d just realized that existed and if the high-hat had been there all along WHAT ELSE could be lying right under his nose (or his ears, as the case goes) that he hadn’t noticed? This required attention. This required research. Within a week, Buzzy had bought a quarter-pound and was selling eighths so he could smoke for free. Buzzy Verno took to weed.
Julio tried to pay attention, he really did.
“What does covalent mean?”
“It means, like, when you got two things? Both of them are valent.”
“Oh, okay. You explained it.”
“I got this shit on lockdown. I could teach this class.”
“If you’d like to teach this class, Mr. Verno, come right up and do it,” Mrs. Larkspur said without turning around from the blackboard.
“You got it,” Buzzy said cheerfully, pushed his chair back, got up.
She still didn’t turn away from the equation she was writing.
“Sit down, Mr. Verno.”
“You are very fickle today, ma’am,” he said as he sat back down.
Julio admired Buzzy, in a way. He could talk to anyone like an equal. No fear or stutter or hesitation, even if he was high as a kite. Maybe because he’s high as a kite, Julio thought, and then he thought that kites didn’t actually go all that high. Saying should be high as a cloud, or a jet. Hell, birds went higher than kites, and you wouldn’t say you were “high as a bird.” People would think you were high.
Language made no sense, chemistry made no sense, work never made any damned sense. Julio had grown up smack in the middle of the Downside of Little Aleppo, so he was used to oddness, and ghosts, and riots, and the occasional hiccup in reality, but The Tahitian was high-test weird; he felt vaguely guilty for enjoying it so much, but Julio was a Catholic and so he felt guilty when he enjoyed anything.
Manager, though. Julio smiled, and then he looked at the incomprehensible blackboard and stopped smiling, but then he did again. Manager. He thought that would impress Romy Schott, and when he saw her at lunch in three hours and seven CLICK six minutes, he would tell her; he was already picturing her face. He thought he should think up something cool to say. “Ever kissed a manager before?” No, that was terrible. Don’t say that, he told himself. But he could see her face, mouth a little too small and eyes a little too big, and he could see how it would light up when he told her. I’ll tell her I love her in the cafeteria, Julio thought. Maybe by the freezer where they kept the ice cream sandwiches.
Then he wanted an ice cream sandwich, but he looked at the clock and saw that it was still not nine in the morning, which means it was certainly not ice cream sandwich time. Julio felt guilty again, and admired Buzzy again, in a way. Buzzy would eat an ice cream sandwich no matter what some clock told him. Julio looked at Buzzy, who was leaned over in his chair with his forearms on his thighs. He hocked a loogie, a thick and creamy one that did not detach from his mouth, and it drooled down towards his green Chuck Taylor sneakers one foot two foot almost snapping and SHWIP he slurped it back up; it sounded like a Japanese guy with 95 lips eating ramen, and Julio’s admiration for Buzzy cooled a bit.
Julio didn’t do drugs. His father did, if he was still alive. Julio didn’t do drugs.
Three hours and five minutes, and he could already smell her breath against his lips.
“What a show, cats and kittens. Maybe too much dillying, little bit heavy on the dallying? Yeah, sure. Okay. But, you know what the man says: all progress and no digress makes for a straight arrow. Ain’t no straight arrows in Little Aleppo. This neighborhood’s like a quiver left out in the rain.
“Or maybe we just transgress. That will happen every now and again.
“Progress, digress, transgress, regress, congress. Maybe we should all just gress for a little bit. Drop the pretense of prefix. Get down and get gress with it right here on the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–Hey!–on your radio dial.
“Let’s talk about it. Progress. For who? That’s what I’m asking. Who does progress serve? If it ain’t serving us, then we’re serving it. Everybody got someone they answer to. Maybe we’re just along on progress’ ride, that’s what I think, and furthermore I do not even believe we’re sitting shotgun. No! We’re in the backseat, cats and kittens’ we could even be sitting bitch.
“Stuff‘s better. Oh, yeah: stuff is better World’s smaller. All this progress made the world a whole lot smaller.
“Made you happier? Smarter, more capable? Has humanity’s progress kept pace with society’s? With the mad ascension of our toys? Or have we deified our gadgets at the neglect of our mortal souls?
“That sweet soul music…
“World gets faster, faster, faster. Do you? Nah. More and more information, coming from everywhere until you’re not sure which way to turn, and lemme ask you: do you get more hours in the day? More years, or do you still get your three score and ten? Where’s your memory upgrade, baby?
“You don’t gotta go along to get along, y’know. Give it all up. Move to the island, the mountain, the farm. You can unplug. Hell, you can rip out the damn socket. Somewhere away from the crowd, that madding crowd, and where there’s nothing in between you and the sunrise. No hassles negotiations compromises politics friction it’s just you–maybe your beloved, maybe your family–and you’re out there. You’re OUT THERE, man, where the Frankie Nickels show does not reach and neither does the law, long as its arms may be, and on a real cloudy day even God can’t keep His eye on you.
“Oh, I’m sure that’ll make you happy.
“Victims of circumstance, cats and kittens, that’s what we are. Softened and decadent, made weak by luxury. Polluted by politesse. We got different kind of problems these days.
“Cast your mind back. I know it’s early in the morning, but I think you got in it you.
“Little Aleppo’s got a pretty stark division between the old days and now. California had missions all up and down her spine, right? You got your Californios, and you got your native folks. We’re talking the 1800’s here. And the thing is: there weren’t all that many Californios. Ten thousand, twenty? Whole state, ten or twenty thousand. They clustered around those missions, and there wasn’t no damn mission in Little Aleppo. Just the Pulaski, and it was a pain-in-the-butt getting over the Hills.
“So it was just the Pulaski. Until the gold.
“And then the whites came. Gold, then white: ain’t that always the way? Ha ha ha.
“Now, forget about Manifest Destiny. Forget about history and don’t think about all the blood. Don’t think about Andrew Jackson and don’t think about the reservations and don’t think about the Verdance. Don’t think about history, just lemme tell you a story.
“How’d the whites come? The first ones here back in the 1850’s? That was something called the California Trail, cats and kittens, and I can think of several folks who are descended from these early arrivals. Not gonna mention any names, now.
“Wagon trail. Wagon ain’t a carriage; wagon ain’t a stagecoach: wagon’s a wagon. It’s not for riding in. Stuff goes in it, your whole life goes in it and walk next to it. Oxen pull the wagon because they can live on scrub. Can’t ride an ox. You’re walking, baby. Wife’s pregnant, someone’s sick? They get to ride in the wagon, but that ain’t no treat! No suspension. Straight axle. You gonna feel every bump.
“Imagine that, cats and kittens. That walking across the continent is the most comfortable option.
“So you set off from Independence, Missouri in April. You gotta leave in April because if you don’t, you won’t be out of the mountains when the snows start. Six months from Back East to Out West. When was the last time you went someplace it took six months to get to?
“Never, that’s when.
“You still casting your mind back with Frankie Nickels? Good. Now, a trail ain’t a road but it ain’t wilderness, neither. First part of the California Trail is what is referred to in the literature as the Oregon Trail. First bit is through Kansas, though it wasn’t Kansas at the time, and up into Nebraska. Then you know what that trail does? Do you know?
“It goes all the way across Nebraska.
“My Lord. You’ve driven I-80. Just grass and nothing and no hills and nothing. About 200 miles in, you’ve stopped at a liquor store. I know it’s wrong to drink and drive, but it’s also wrong for a state to be so monotonous.
“And that’s at 80 miles an hour, cats and kittens. The great-great-great-grandfather of someone you know–maybe you–did it at the blistering pace of three miles an hour.
“All of Nebraska at three miles an hour. Storms out there, yeah. Big. See ’em coming and there ain’t nothing you can do and you got nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide because the Omaha had burned all the elephant grass. Just you out there in the middle of America. No trees, no scrub, nothing, so you cook your food with buffalo chips. Get sick of that real quick, but I don’t know if what’s next is any better.
“I like to go hiking up in Christy Canyon, but man is it a workout. Hits your glutes, and you know that’s good for your social life, but those Segovian Hills of ours don’t have anything on the Rockies. Your whole route was about the Rockies. There’s only so many places to cross, especially if you’re humping oxen and wagons. Gotta go to Wyoming! Gotta find that South Pass! Can’t miss it: ten miles past Fort Laramie and take a left.
“Better not miss it.
“That’s the Continental Divide right there, you just passed it without thinking. You been walking for three months now. Probably buried a couple people in your party. Keep going, keep walking. Try not to drink the bad water, try not to break your leg. Hope the ox doesn’t break his.
“Then you go south. If you were going to Oregon, you’d go north, but you go south into Utah. Watch out for Mormons, and follow the river. The valley is green, and maybe the weather’s nice. Sometimes, the weather’s nice. There’s a line of wagons ahead of you; one behind you, too. Dust everywhere, gets in your clothes, hair, nose. You only got two sets of clothes.
“Five months since you left America for the West. You haven’t even taken the Sabbath off, have you? Heathen. Walking towards California, slowly towards your future. If you make it. Might not. Might not make it across the 40 Mile Desert, which is not named in an exaggerated fashion. Sandy there. Wagon wheels slip and slide. Get out and push, baby.
“You know you got another mountain range, right?
“Sierra Nevadas, cats and kittens: one last bit of hell. Got decisions to make. Carson trail? Maybe you should take the Truckee route? How about the Walker trail? Gotta choose carefully. Getting late in the year, air’s getting a bit of bite to it in the mornings and you are gaining in elevation every step. Rather not get stuck. It happened to a party on the Hastings trail. Spent the winter in the mountains. Bad time.
“When was the last time your commute was a life-and-death decision?
“And then: Balboa. Imagine that. Six months on the trail, wearing out boot after boot, stinking and riddled with scurvy and lice, and now look at this: the Pacific. Even bluer than advertised. Balboa on the shore.
“That’s your great-great-great-great grandfather, maybe. That’s who settled the West. Little scraggly guys with rotting gums and rifles. Just ask the Pulaski if you don’t believe old Frankie Nickels. You know where to find ’em.
“How about some music?
“How about some music?
“How about some music?”
She played an oldie, but it was a goodie, one everyone knew by heart and sang along with without realizing; it crackled from the radios strapped to the food trucks lines up by the Verdance, and it sirened out from cars speeding by on the Main Drag. From an open second floor window on Robin Street, the sound of the guitars mixed with the sound of two women fucking while half-asleep; in the Paul Bunyan High parking lot, Buzzy Verno and his buddy Geech hotboxed his station wagon with the radio tuned to KHAY, which was the local station in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.