From Traindancing: The life cycle of the mall, how the ducks get plucked.

“Oh, the huge Manatees! Oh, the huge Manatees!” I hear that sometimes, in the chuffa-chuffa rhythms of the train. What started as a tiny minority of very fat people – mainly very old, very fat people – has become a stout plurality of the middle aged. And the out-waisting of the Western world includes almost all of us, not just the folks who have already broken the bathroom scale. It is rare at the mall to see anyone older than a teenager who is not continuously outgirthing his clothes, and it is not at all rare to see two- and three-year-old incipient Manatees.

“Oh, the huge Manatees! Oh, the huge Manatees!” I hear that sometimes, in the chuffa-chuffa rhythms of the train. What started as a tiny minority of very fat people – mainly very old, very fat people – has become a stout plurality of the middle aged. And the out-waisting of the Western world includes almost all of us, not just the folks who have already broken the bathroom scale. It is rare at the mall to see anyone older than a teenager who is not continuously outgirthing his clothes, and it is not at all rare to see two- and three-year-old incipient Manatees.

Just for fun, here’s slab of red meat from Traindancing, a book of Willie stories I’m working on about the choo-choo train at the mall.

This is ha-ha fun stuff, but it’s also a fun way for me to wrestle with the canons of art: How tiny a stage can I use to enact all the universe? That much is humor for one, I guess, but without humor for one there would be no Willie stories.

This bit is extracted from Like Holden Caulfield – the second time as farce: Turning the mirror on Loco Willie:

More grotesque than the Grotesques at the mall, for all of me, are too many of the Normals.

First we have the sheer weight of these creatures, with the outrageous corpulence of Americans being a recent, and, we can hope, a temporary phenomenon. I called all of the morbidly obese mall patrons Manatees, at first, but I’ve since developed gradations of gluttony: Turnips are almost normal-sized at the head and ankles, but they bulb out like, well, turnips, in-between. Manatees are wide everywhere, even at the face, and they look like big rounded boxes from the shoulders down. Double-Wides are even-huger Manatees, and there are even some Triple-Wides out there, still able to lumber along on feet all-but-enveloped by their own ankle-fat.

All of these folks are big front-to-back, as well as side-to-side, so they seem to sail slowly through the mall like so many (so very many!) ungainly yachts. And while it may (more…)

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Some days the train robs you: Desperados waiting for the hearse.

“Some days you rob the train, some days the train robs you.”Photo by: Syuzo Tsushima

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The saddest questions are the ones you already know the answers to, without having to ask.

“Awb oar!” the little boy said – all aboard! – but he was too big to speak that small. Except of course he wasn’t.

“His name is Christian.” Joe said that to me, a few months ago. He was speaking of his great-grandson, who was flailing his way onto the Coal Tender car of the Arrowhead mall choo-choo train, the open car just behind the faux locomotive.

I nodded. “And so is yours.”

I met Joe and Christian and Martha, Joe’s wife, just after New Year’s Day, the very first Saturday of a brand new year. I had just started driving the train, but they were old hands, and Christian has been a train fanatic forever.

How long is forever? That’s one of the questions I don’t ask. At a guess, I’d say Christian is eight years old, but I’m an easy sell on six or ten.

I haven’t asked what’s wrong with him, either, but it’s a lot: Random and unreliable muscle control coupled with a significant mental disability. Christian can want as well as any Toddler, and as stridently. He can intend for his muscles, but they will not cooperate for him, not well and not for long. He does almost everything he can do with help from Martha. He can verbalize, again like a Toddler – making sounds that are less than abstract ideas but still more than mere grunts – but he cannot conceptualize, as far as I’ve seen, and it’s plausible to me that he never will.

And I haven’t asked what Christian’s deal is, either, but this is what I know for sure: Christian’s deal is Joe and Martha. Your kid’s kid’s kid is your kin, and even if no one else stepped up to take care of Christian, Joe and Martha did.

And that’s saying something, because they’re no kids themselves. Joe was an Army Chaplain in Vietnam, and he has (more…)

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Finding visibility, absolution and closure at the choo-choo train at the mall on New Year’s Eve.



A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 31, 2015

When I got back with the train, the Lonely Guy was still sitting there on the bench across the way, his elbows on his knees, his palms supporting his chin.

I had one passenger, a three-year-old girlchild in a red velvet gown, her platinum-blonde hair done up in dainty little curls. As I helped her out of the little red caboose, I said, “Wow, this is going to be a big year for you. In this New Year, you’re going to double in size and quadruple in brain-power!” To her mother I added, “You might make a smartphone video today, so the two of you can watch it this time next year. She’ll be amazed, by then, by how much she will have changed.”

To this the mom replied nothing, but the little girl gave me a tiny wave as they walked away, saying “Tankyew!” over her shoulder.

I smiled. “Happy New Year, sugar.”

I looked back over at the Lonely Guy, to let him know I was watching him. He cocked his head with a silent “Yo,” the way men have of letting each other know that they have seen each other, and that was that – for then.

I had three rambunctious brothers to deal with, each of whom wanted to ride in – perchance to disassemble – his own train car.

And, yes, Uncle Willie is driving the choo-choo train at the mall this holiday season. It’s a carney job, my favorite kind: Few-questions-asked. And it’s technically a sales job, even though the train, brightly painted in the colors of Lego blocks, sells itself.

“Nothing sells the train like the train,” I say to exasperated parents as their little darlings climb into the train cars on their own, waiting for me to drive them on their five-minute circuit around my corner of the mall. And the chuffa-chuffa choo-choo sound effects, augmented with the high white whine of the woo-woo wail, draw those little darlings to my kiosk in droves.

To the Brothers Rambunctious, I said, “Gentlemen. Remember that you have to stay seated. Do you know (more…)

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Want to be a better, more-perfect version of yourself? Master something difficult this year.

You weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity.Mait Jüriado / / CC BY-NC-SA

I always love to read about the outrageously nefarious bad guys who are doing all the things we hate. Doesn’t matter who “we” are, since the bad guys afflicting every “we” are always blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil.

I guess it’s useful to exaggerate your opposition, but here’s the thing:

Everyone I remember from school was a fuck-up.

Start with a good solid two-thirds compliant drones, dutifully going through whatever motions seemed to be required. Maybe half of the rest were glib and lazy. Even the straight-A apple-polishers were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade from the glib-and-lazy grown-up teaching the class.

Am I misrepresenting the world of education? Is there anything you can think of that you did in school that you’re truly proud of now. Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life that you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?

Was there any class that you took — ever — where you had to bust ass every day or risk get hopelessly lost? And when you got to that class, was that the end of your forward progress in that discipline?

The kids from the hard side of the quad — the maths, the sciences — know what I’m talking about. The kids from the soft side of the quad — the arts, the social sciences — may be recalling a graceless exit from the maths and sciences.

But the truth is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents. Partly this is our fault: Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy fuck-ups. But mostly it was the fault of our teachers — and their teachers.

Were they outrageously nefarious bad guys, hell-bent on depriving us of a decent education? Were they blindingly brilliant, amazingly competent masterminds of evil, conspiring to enslave us in a state of (more…)

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How to slay dragons.

CandlesForMyDeadA Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

And now I am a man-killer.

We live with the consequences of our choices, and we cannot fail to live with all the consequences of all our choices. Sic semper nobis, sic etiam mihi. Thus always to us, thus even to me.

Your money? Or your life? Your mind – the means of your life? Or your life – the end of your mind’s devising? Lie or die? Can any such choice be made? And if it can’t – what then?

What if you choose neither?

What then?

I got mugged, that’s what happened. Or almost mugged, anyway. On New Year’s Eve of all days, the very last day of the bloodiest century in human history.

I live on the edge of a world you barely know about, that place you read about in the newspaper, that fetid cavern that seems to house everything that is vicious and venomous and vile. I’m not interested in vice except as the object of derision, which is why I’m on the edge of that world. But I know the price of living where you do instead, and I choose not to pay it.

So I was out on New Year’s Eve. Not out partying, not out driving drunk, not out shooting off fireworks or shooting off my mouth. I was out because that’s where I am almost all of the time, out walking the empty streets.

“How to slay dragons” as read by The Critical G.

Since before Thanksgiving I had been wandering within a mile or so of a big-city shopping mall. Not for any reason, but simply because I lacked the reason to go somewhere else. I see your story in what you do, in how you behave. If your story interests me I will stick around to watch you. Until I understand you. Or until I think I do. Or until I get bored.

This is a fact, and it might be news to you: Stray dogs don’t stray far. The population of vagrants who infest the neighborhood around a big-city shopping mall is pretty stable. Homeless people, winos, addicts, runaways – you think they come and (more…)

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Courtney at the speed of life.

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

“Lord-a-mercy!” I said in my thickest southern drawl. “Somebody tell god to take the rest of the week off. He has made perfection, and there ain’t no topping that!”

The beautiful blonde woman scowled and blushed at the same time. It made her look seventeen again.

“Where is your charming husband? I can’t believe he’d ever dare to leave your side.”

She shook her head gravely, and maybe that was my cue to lay off. Or maybe not…

“Well, tell me what your boyfriend looks like, then. So I’ll know who to run from.”

She chuckled. “No boyfriend.”

“Well, then, the next man that asks, you tell him I’m sprouting gray hairs in patches and I carry a little paunch. I’m half-a-step slower than I never was. I’m ugly as sin, and I stink something awful toward the end of the day. You tell him that’s my description.”

She drew a finger across her eyebrow, the hair so fine it was almost white. Her eyes were blue and deeper than a quarry lake, alive with the light of mischief. “Am I to take that as an offer?”

I nodded gravely. “What fool could pass on perfection?”

She smiled a wistful little half-smile. A woman with a secret, a woman with a story to tell. “I think it was you…”

I wanted to stay and talk but somebody pulled me away. It was a New Year’s Eve party at my sister’s house. I was the guest of honor, the prodigal son returned, and I hadn’t seen some of the revelers for twenty years. I kept getting bounced around the room, passed like the torch of sobriety from one drunk to the next. But my eyes always sought her out, sought her supple perfection amidst all that was chaotic and deformed. She moved like liquid glass, like a cat, like a leopard. Her hands preceded her always, and she caressed everything with long, slender fingers. It was as though she had the power of vision in her fingertips, and she saw more than you or I will ever see with mere eyes.

She moved, and she graced the universe with (more…)

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To El Caballero Jean Valjean: Merry Christmas from a fellow loco engineer.

C’est moi – Loco Willie – the second time as pomo farce.

C’est moi – Loco Willie – the second time as pomo farce.

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 22, 2016

“How old were you when your sister was born?” I asked.


“That’s a tough time to find out you’re not an only child.”

“The worst.”

“No,” I said. “Two-years-old is the worst time. You start to wake up to the idea that you’re something special and at just that instant you’re pushed off the stage by a gooey little bruise who can’t do anything but poop and squall.”

The boy smiled at that. “You might be right.”

“I did it to my sister, twenty-months-old and so precocious. And then there I was, snapping at her heels and robbing her of all the attention. It warped her for life, I’m sure of it.” I was smiling, too, but I really do feel that way.

I was talking to Jean Valjean – the second time as farce – from my station at the choo-choo train kiosk at the Arrowhead Mall. I didn’t actually know to call him ‘Jean Valjean’ until we got around to the end of this story, and what I’ve called him all along, for the whole little while I’ve known him, is simply ‘Caballerito’ – little gentleman.

He’s an Hispanic tweenager – second- or third-generation Peoria Mexican would be my guess, but that’s just a guess. He’s a demi-immigrant, much like my mother’s father was at his age, one foot in the old world, one foot in the new.

He was dressed like a schlub like every other schlub at the mall, but like a MexiKid schlub: Scuffed Chuck Taylor hi-tops on his feet, a faded navy-blue polo shirt that may have made more than one trip through the thrift store and sturdy Wrangler blue jeans that are still too big after four months of school – but will be all-but-too-small by Memorial Day.

It’s not rare to see bigger MexiKids leading their younger siblings around at the mall – and not just at Christmas. But I’ve never seen Jean Valjean and his sister any other way. I see them at the playground, and she rides the train (more…)

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