Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I'm Back!

It's been a blurry few days, as I readjust to the world of Portland. I got back Saturday night, and now I start the process of rebuilding my life in town. I need to find a new job and eventually a permanent place to stay, all things I don't relish. But after two months of being away, I relish the stability.

Overall, I thought my trip was good. There were definitely bad times as recounted on this blog, and I always stress out about my money situation, but there's always enough good. If there wasn't, I wouldn't be going on crazy two-month trips all the time, would I?

And as said earlier, I don't know how much I will update this thing. But I will be writing more, don't worry. There will be a zine eventually, don't you worry! I will let you know on this blog when it's available.

But this means...the Urban Adventure League is back! Check out that blog now!

Woohoo!

Thanks for reading,
Shawn

Monday, October 17, 2005

Winding Down...

Urgh, not writing as much as I should! Sorry, sorry. To be truthful, as this trip is winding down so is my energy levels in general. I just haven't been that motivated to write lately. And there are still plenty of holes in this travelogue that need to be filled. I'll be plugging in a little more here and there, but I'm doubtful that I'll do it all...for the web-version at least.

Yes, since I am a zinester it means I will be making a zine of this trip. I'll be using some of the posts found on this blog, though I'll definitely be doing some rewriting and editing. And plenty of extras will be filled in, including the holes I've been talking about. Keep posted for more details.

So where am I now? I'm currently in Vancouver, BC where it's being nice and rainy. I left Massachusetts on Sunday October 9 and traveled three days to get here. It was long. And I had a crap experience crossing into Canada. But Vancouver has been good, though I haven't been doing much. I attended CanZine West yesterday, what a blast! It was packed, and I was busy for six hours selling Microcosm goods. Well worth the trip.

I stay in town until Wednesday night, head to Seattle for two days, and I'll be home in Portland on Friday.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Trimming down the trip

Northampton marks the point furthest east on this trip. Originally (if you read back far enough) I had intended to also stop in Boston, and then head north through Eastern Canada--Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Moncton NB, and finally Halifax. But that's not happening, and now I will head back west from here.

Why am I shortening this over-ambitious trip? Well, I half-answered the question in the question. This trip was over-ambitious. I knew in the back of my head that I didn't have enough money to pull it all off, but I figured I would try as best as I could. I knew I would be making some dough on the road, so I aimed high. Fortunately, I got all the way to New England, and I have enough dough to get back home. Just enough.

And the trip is starting to grow long. I've been on the road for six weeks now, and when it's all done, it will be a full two months of trippin'. If I did my whole Eastern Canada segment, I wouldn't get back to Portland until the second week of November or so. I'm starting to lose energy, which isn't fun when you're constantly moving around. That's partially why I spent over a week in Connecticut, and am spending four days in Northampton. My lack of energy is starting to show. I haven't been "the life of the party" hanging out with Anne, and that sucks when it's someone you haven't seen for over two years.

To drive the point home, there are some important things I need to deal with in Portland by the end of October. Yes, real world responsibilities are creeping up. It will be good to get back to town and get back in the mix.

But the trip isn't totally over. I head back west, but go to Vancouver first for the weekend of the 15th. Canzine Vancouver is happening, a big-up zine show, and I will be representin' myself and the Microcosm. So what if I started my big trip there? I like the town, and like the people in the town. And it's still the Northwest (I'm missing the big trees big time). I'll also stop in Seattle, and be back in Portland around the 21st.

I am disappointed that I won't be going to Montreal, Toronto, or Halifax. I love the first two and looked forward to checking out the last one. But what can I do?

Of Five Colleges.

I'm now in Northampton, Massachussets (or to be more technical, Florence, the town to the west) where I'll be through Sunday. I got up Tuesday night, and boy what an adventure that was, but more on that later. I'm chilling with longtime friend Anne at her nice house. I haven't been doing much yet. I've been riding around town a bit, drinking coffee, and drawing--all pretty standard at this point of the trip. Last night I went with Anne to her etching class, and watched students futz with sharp implements and acid (nice!) Tonight I will be "instructing" a workshop at Flywheel in Easthampton, hopefully that will go well. The rest of the weekend is wide open, and then I start heading west...

Friday, September 30, 2005

Thee Elm City




New Haven, Connecticut is where I now find myself. When most people ask where I'm from, I usually say New Haven. I honestly have never lived within the city limits, but Ansonia (where I'm really from) is 10 miles northwest of the Elm City. Besides, how many people are going to know where Ansonia is? Hell, people who have lived within spitting distance of Ansonia still don't know where it is!

I have always liked New Haven, and though it might be cool to say the place sucks, I still like New Haven. For a city of only 125,000 it has culture, no doubt helped by its most prominent landmark Yale University (where I am now typing this--don't tell anyone!) The joke in these parts goes: New Haven would be just like Bridgeport if not for Yale. (Bridgeport, 20 miles west, is Connecticut's largest city (yet mostly unknown by those outside of the state) and a textbook case of post-Industrial burnout.)

New Haven was the place that my dad brought me to when we wanted to go to "a city". My dad (and his parents) grew up in the city, so it was natural to gravitate to here. My favorite place to go to was Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, filled with displays of dinosaur skeletons. Come on, I was a kid! The now vacant Coliseum is where we went to see concerts (Motley Crue in '90, dude! Tommy Lee fell on his head!) and the Green always held a festival or something every weekend in the summer.

I've been immersing myself in All Things Elm City since I've been here. I've eaten quite a bit of pizza (a city specialty), hung out in the coffee shops (which are open later than in Portland), and rode my bike around this crazy town. It's always fun to visit and hang out with old friends, but I don't think I'll ever return to live here.

While New Haven has stuff going on, it always felt a bit stifling, the big fish in small pond syndrome. The music scene has never gotten much respect (though that may change since the Mates of State, yes the Mates of State are based here) We've either had the "almost made its" (Spring Heeled Jack, Miracle Legion) or the "do we really want to admit they're from heres?" (Carpenters, and ugh, Michael Bolton). Due to the city's crippling inferiority complex, many bands or artists that want to "make it" move to either Boston or New York. It doesn't help that Beantown and the Big Apple are 125 miles and 80 miles from here, respectively. And New Haven is an easy two hour train ride to Grand Central via Metro North. New Haven will always be in New York's shadow. The Elm City's pervasive cynicism and jadeness pushed me to the West Coast in order to spread my wings. And I've been thriving ever since.

But there's been signs of positive change over the 5 years that I've left the area. While some of my cherished landmarks of old are now a memory (Tune Inn, York Square Cinemas), there have been things happening that I would never have imagined back then. For one, the city has its own zine library (housed in the basement of the Free Library, no less!) A community-oriented all ages music space opened in Hamden, the town to the north. And, surprise of surprises, New Haven has a burgeoning bicycle community, with a rad bike shop, a killer listserve, and a jumping Critical Mass (which be tonight), that numbers over 100 in the summer months. 100 is great for a city this size!

*****
Since last night, I've been crashing at my old friend Jesse's pad in West Haven, a quick 20 minute bicycle ride to downtown New Haven. (West Haven is um, west of, er, New Haven). I've known him for 10 years, when he was in Sgt. Scagnetti, the infamous ska band that I eventually became "merch guy" for. Jesse has become a local celebrity since he is the producer and a featured personality on Connecticut's number-one morning drive time radio show. It's weird because both my parents listen to the show and always talk to me about him. ("I heard on the radio that Jesse just bought a condo.")

And yep, I'm chilling at that condo right now. We took a trip down old memory lane and talked about old times, the band, the ska scene of the mid to late 90's in CT, the friends and acquaintances. Recounting old stories reminds me of why I stuck around the place for so long. The scene was hoppin' between 1995 and 2000 and I was thick in it. I made some good friends and saw plenty of great shows. It was only when everything fell apart did I finally have the cojones to leave my native lands and try out a new life. I miss some of the things from "back in the day", but that's all in the past. Memory has the tendency to retain the good and drop the bad, and believe me, there was plenty of bad to fill in the gaps. Might as well press on...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Family.

I just finished a four-day stint staying at my mom's place in Ansonia, CT. I will say that I love my mom, but I'm glad it's over. My mom still lives in the tiny apartment that I grew up in, and now it's cramped since my aunt and her boyfriend currently occupy the bedroom that was once mine. Guess where I had to sleep?

As the years go by, I realize how much I have grown apart from my family--both my mom's side and my dad's side. It doesn't help that I don't tell them everything that goes on in my life. That's mainly because I don't really know how to relate the life I live to them. Any time that I try to it's met with confusion and amazement. ("You rode your bike between Minneapolis and Milwaukee? Why?")

After all I live in Portland, the vegan-hippie mecca where everyone rides bikes and hates Wal-Mart. (Well, maybe not everyone, but at least amongst my people.) While I'm from blue-collar roots (and did work in a factory for awhile) I hang out with artsy types that went to places like Oberlin, Hampshire, or Evergreen State. And I sure could use some more money, but don't always worry about it.

The closest thing to a career that I've had is my art. The folks ask me each time I return "How is your art doing?" and I tell them "Fine." I know they want to hear that I'm making good money off of it, a living if you will. While I am getting more freelance illustration gigs these days (the secret: learn how to draw bicycles) I know they really want me to be drawing Garfield or something. Something that can be licensed and seen on Hallmark Cards. That's where the money is.

How can I relate to them that I don't want to draw Garfield? That commercialized comics done for the sole reason of making money nauseates me? But people relate to money more than they can to artistic vision, my parents are no different. And I know they mean no malice, they want me to do well, better than they had. They know that the life of a "bohemian" means lots of rice and beans and no health care (and dental care, you should take a look at my teeth. Actually, you really shouldn't.)

How can I express to them that I like the non-standard life that I lead? Yes, I could use some more dough, to pay off debts, get teeth fixed, put some money into the bank. (When I get back to PDX, you better believe I'm going to be working a lot!) But money doesn't provide me happiness. I'm happy volunteering at non-profit spaces, participating in community-based projects, drawing my li'l comix, riding my bike, and hanging out with freaks. I don't want to own a car or have a house in the suburbs. I don't want to watch TV every night.

The family is expanding and contracting at the same time. Both of my grandmothers have passed away over the last two years, leaving only Grandpa Granton (my other Grandpa died back in 1981, drinking himself to death to cope with working two full time jobs--two full time jobs--most of his life) as my sole grandparent. Yet my stepsisters keep on popping out the babies (up to four). I was surprise to learn that Darcy, my stepsister closest to me in age, just had a kid this year. (She also just got her masters, which is even more surprising to me than her motherhood!) And these are nieces and nephews that I'll never get to know, since my contact with my step-siblings is nonexistent.

I visited my dad on Wednesday night. He picked me up and drove me to his house in Watertown (about 20 miles north). It's a nice little cottage overlooking a lake, and it's the only house he's ever owned. After working his whole life and going in and out of debt, he finally got a house at 55. And getting closer and closer to retirement age, he worries about how he's going to pay off that mortgage.

As for my mom, I can say with certainty she will never own a house. First, she's not the type, and second, barring an inheritance or lottery jackpot, will never have the money. She'll be living where she is now until she's forced to move.

Probably the weirdest thing now when I go make my infrequent visits to Connecticut is seeing how my parents age. It's gotten quite noticeable. What can be said for two people approaching 60? I wonder how much I'll look like them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Of Fires and Floods: Ansonia CT 06401


I've traveled thousands of miles over the span of a month to reach "home", or to be more accurate, where I'm from. Ansonia, Connecticut 06401. A small decaying factory town located in the Lower Naugatuck Valley, in southwestern New Haven County, population 18,554. "The city, settled in 1840 and named in honor of the merchant and philanthropist, Anson Green Phelps (1781-1853), was originally a part of the township of Derby; it was chartered as a borough in 1864 and as a city in 1893, when the township of Ansonia, which had been incorporated in 1889, and the city were consolidated." (from Wikipedia) It's about 3,000 miles from what is currently my home, Portland, Oregon, and feels like a world apart.

I've been in town since Sunday, staying at mom's, and will be around through the weekend. It's been the longest stay that I've had in the state since 2000, and on one hand it feels good to be back in native territory, on the other hand, it's pretty strange. Even though I spent about 24 years of my life in the Nutmeg State, and almost 15 of it in Ansonia, the place feels alien. I ride my bike around town and I see things I've seen forever, and I have all the memories attached with those places ("This is where I went to school. This is the library that I spent so much time in. That's where the comic book store used to be"). But it all feels so dead.

It doesn't help that Ansonia, and the other communities that make up the Lower Naugatuck Valley (Derby, Shelton, Seymour, Beacon Falls, and yes even Oxford) are pretty much dead. This is the part of Connecticut that doesn't fit the stereotypical idea that most outsiders have of "the richest state in the Union". It isn't like the Gold Coast, the tony coastal towns of Fairfield County, where executives commute to Manhattan in the morning and come back to their manicured homes at night. It isn't the more New England-y areas to the north and west, with tree covered hills and white churches in village centers. It's the Rustbelt, Northeast style.

I survey downtown from the top of Tremont Street and see the progression of the deconstruction of a once-vital city, previously filled with thousands of manufacturing jobs and the social and economic support structures that come with. The old American Brass mill at Bridge and West Main, which became Latex Foam products, burned to the ground in 2001. I wasn't around for that, but heard the stories: a several acre site burning up with latex, black acrid smoke to be seen for miles. South of Tremont is the current site of Big Y Supermarket surrounded by acres of parking. Before that was the failed Ansonia Mall, hangout of my early youth, a 70's attempt at attracting shopping back to downtown that never lived up to it's potential. You can't just throw a suburban style shopping plaza into the center of a town. Before all that was an actual neighborhood, streets layed out in a grid, filled up with small businesses and multi-family houses for the workers of the various factories. It all got cleared out in the name of urban renewal.

Destruction was a part of my growing up. I saw some "good" fires back in the 80's, whether it be a couple houses that lit up in the neighborhood (the substandard rowhouse on South Cliff Street was a particular doozy), or the old hardware store on Main that went up in '98, or Hull Dye on the Housatonic in Derby back around '82. The most vivid one was when River Restaurant exploded in Derby in December of 1985. I was only a couple blocks from it when it happened, and remember leaving my dad's house and looking down the street to see a big plume of smoke. When I got to the site, what was once a three-story brick building was just a pile of burning rubble. Only part of one wall was left standing. The cause: natural gas buildup due to shoddy line work by the utility company (who had been working along the street all week), ignited when the pizzeria ignited the ovens for the night. Total dead: 6.

The granddaddy disaster of the Valley was the Flood of 1955, a dramatic flash flood caused by rain from two hurricanes. It destroyed much of downtown Ansonia. While the Valley was already showing the signs of decline before the flood due to the rapid suburbanization of the nation, the flood exacerbated the situation, and Ansonia never recovered.

While in town, I've been doing some research on the Great Flood in the Local History Room. The librarians are a bit puzzled, since I'm not old enough to be around during the flood nor am I doing the work for school. (I think the librarians here are generally confused when people use the library for anything other than internet, reading the paper in the main room, or checking out best sellers). I've been copying photos from the flood, showing an Ansonia I'll never know.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A lack of planning means you have to think on your feet, or "Transfer at Bridgeport".

Early Sunday morning, September 25th. At 1:30am I depart SPX to catch the Metro Red Line to Union Station, where I catch the 3am departure to New York's Penn Station. Mull about the empty train station until boarding, then find a seat and try to get a little sleep.

6:30am and I awake pulling out of Newark. The sun was rising, coming up from behind the now visible Manhattan skyline. Within 15 minutes I'm in the bowels of Manhattan, train disgorging me into Pennsylvania Station. I'm tired and in no mood to deal with much of anything. On cue, New York acts the stereotypical asshole part, the one made famous in movies like the Out-Of-Towners. I'm confronted by a crazy guy with spit in the corners of his mouth who really wants to use the stall I'm going to use, and I end up somehow paying three dollars for coffee and a donut at Dunkin' Donuts (a good dollar over what it should be.) Thanks, Big Apple.

I was a bit grumpier than usual because I had to make a change of plans. Originally, the reason I was getting off in New York was because I was going to stay in New York for a few days. But all my options for crash spaces turned up negative. I knew that things were uncertain when I booked the tickets, but I figured I'd somehow wing it. Hey, I've been winging it for great portions of this trip, why stop? And I figured I would run into people at SPX who lived in NYC, whom I could crash with. Well, guess what? That didn't work out either. My friends weren't directly running back to the city, and fuck, I was expecting a lot for the last minute.

So at the 11th hour I regrouped and decided I would go straight to Connecticut and stay with my mom. I was planning on getting up there around Wednesday, now I would be there a few days earlier. I would come back down to New York next week.

I thought about getting my ticket adjusted so I would get off in New Haven instead, but there was a glitch: Because I knew I wouldn't be using my bicycle while I was in DC, I had it checked to New York from Champaign. So I had to get my bike, which I easily retrieved. But now how to get to Ansonia, Connecticut, where my mom lived?

The answer: Take Metro-North. Metro-North is the commuter rail service running north from the City into the Hudson Valley and into southwestern CT. It meant I had to ride over to Grand Central Terminal, a fifteen-minute bike ride north. New York's streets were eerily quiet, I guess the city does actually sleep at 7am on a Sunday. I was expecting "the big hassle" at Grand Central since I had a bike, but it was actually no problem. The conductor put me (and a couple other bicyclists) in the deserted bar car, and I tried to get a li'l shuteye on the way to the Valley.

When I opened my eyes, I realized I was back in my home state of Connecticut, as the corporate towers of Stamford whizzed by. Ah, Connecticut, the place I spent almost 25 years of my life, the place that made me who I am. I wasn't really feeling it, maybe because it was too early, maybe because of the month on the road.

At Bridgeport I got off the "New Haven Line" train and transferred to the "Waterbury Branch" which would bring me to Ansonia. The New Haven Line trains do the job, but they're a bit dingy, being maybe 25 years old and overworked on mainline service. And if the New Haven cars are dingy, the Waterbury cars are downright disgusting. But the Waterbury Branch is a lightly used line, lucky to still have service. I know the state has made threats of cutting funding, which would end the over 150 years of continuous passenger service on the old Naugatuck Railroad. Gotta be lucky with what we have, because we sure aren't Europe or Japan, where people wouldn't let shit like that happen.

The train ambled along the Housatonic River, and the landmarks we passed were all too familiar, burned in my head forever. We soon entered the comfortable confines of the Lower Naugatuck Valley, and within minutes I was dropped off with my bike in downtown Ansonia, the panorama one that I could probably draw from memory. It was 10am so I dialed mom and asked what was for breakfast, hoping for something good.

Too many damn comix.

Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24 were spent pretty much in the confines of the Holiday Inn Select of Bethesda, Maryland for SPX, short for Small Press Expo, one of the largest alternative comix events in the country. I first visited SPX in Sept 1997 with my friend Mike, and we drove down from New Haven with a bunch of our own comix (I had the first issue of TEN FOOT RULE, just two months old, plus TFR 1 1/2, the ultra-rare convention special--scour eBay for it!) and a fistful of money. That first event was inspiring, making me more excited about this stuff and causing me to "get serious about comics". SPX, along with the cross-country trip to visit APE (Alternative Press Expo) in San Jose, California in February of 1998, were the events that jump-started my life from the doldrums of the mid-90s. They've drove my life in the direction it's been headed over the last eight years. I doubt I would be where I'm at now, living on the West Coast, taking crazy road trips, being involved as I am in "alternative culture" (for want of a better term), without SPX.

Unfortunately SPX today doesn't do the same thing it did for my 22-year old self. Maybe it's my jadeness, or maybe it's rejection, or maybe it's my failure to make the great American comic book, I don't know. While there's plenty of cool and inspiring comix to be found, I end up getting more discouraged than encouraged. There is so much great stuff out there nowadays I can't keep up, even if I spent both days looking at every table. And looking at all this stuff feeds my inferiority complex. I think to myself, "There's no way I can compete. I can never reach that level of quality. My stuff sucks."

It was a funny space to be in. After the two week bike tour I was on a high, feeling fearless, like I could do anything. I survived a 300 plus trip through unknown territory on my own power, with no one else. At SPX, however, I was on a low. I feel like a do-nothing at SPX, a faker. The last comic I put out was almost a year and a half ago. One of my long-time supporters reviewed it and commented that "it didn't seem like I was trying as hard anymore". Ouch. At SPX I was surrounded by people who slept, breathed, and ate comix. People who would work 10 hours a day on their craft. I'm lucky if I do 10 hours of comix over three months these days. What happened to me? Is it that I'm so busy with all these other projects that comics take the backseat? Is it because I have more fun drawing illustrations these days than comix? Is it because I feel that the next thing I do has to be "important" and I've got stage fright? It's probably a combo of all three.

Nevertheless, there's always a bright side to these things. I get to hang out with people I don't see otherwise. I sell a couple more comix and pick up a few more good ones. I get drunk with all the other alcoholic cartoonists (does it make me an alcoholic to admit drinking during the day at SPX helps make the day go smoother?) and the escapades might get mentioned in the Comics Journal, or at least in the Ignatz Awards ceremony (thanks, Keith!)

Saturday night found me in the hotel room party with too many people, too much beer (kept cold in the bathtub with ice), and a too loud stereo. At 1am the party gets shut down by hotel security. No sweat for me, I have to catch a train.

A trainful of progressives means the Gardenburgers will run out first.

So, here I am, back "home" in New Haven, Connecticut, typing this from the bowels of Yale University. It's Tuesday, but in typical "gotta catch up" fashion, we'll go all the way back to last Thursday, September 22:

I got up too-fucking-early in Champaign, Illinois in order to get to the train station, pack up my bike, and board the City of New Orleans Amtrak service to Chicago. Despite being not-really-awake, I packed up the bike without trouble, boarded said train a little after 6am, and got into the Windy City around 9am.

Not much to write about the eight hours to kill in Chi-town. I drank some coffee, went to the library, made some copies, wrote some postcards, and got some supplies for the day long train trip into Washington, D.C.

Waiting for the 5:35pm (CDT) Capitol Limited to depart from Union Station, I noticed that some of the folks waiting in line had homemade signs. Inspecting them, I remembered the flyers I saw around town: a big anti-Bush/anti-war rally and march was going to be held in DC on Saturday. And this would be the appropriate train at the appropriate time for all those enviro-conscious progressives from Chicagoland to catch the event.

And boy, the train was crowded! While I doubt that everyone on board was going to the march, there was definitely a good contingency. I spotted folks with guitar cases heading to the lounge car, to participate in, as one passenger referred to, "a hootenany".

Maybe the forces of Bush were conspiring against us, or maybe it's just CSX (the freight railroad who owns the tracks) in their incompetence, but by Friday morning we were 4 hours late. Supposedly the t-storms around Toledo delayed the train there for hours, the power being out on the signals and switches. On the plus side, this meant I was going to see much of the Appalachian Mountain crossing during daylight. On the negative side, I wouldn't be pulling into DC at noon, but sometime after four.

Since I was planning on eating lunch in DC, I didn't bring enough food for one on the train, so I had to hoof it to the lounge car for their selection of overpriced and unappetizing comestibles. Being vegetarian, the choices are limited, but I can at least count on that ol' standby the Gardenburger to be their. Unfortunately, they had already ran out, leaving me with a bagel with creme cheese in consolation. Dang progressives and their non meat-eating ways!

While I was in the lounge, I had a convo with a girl going to the protests. She was under 20 and showed signs of immaturity, but we tried to talk about common interests for a bit until she got bored with me. Oh well.

It was after 4 and we were clearly in metro DC. My big plan for the day was to go to the Smithsonian, but clearly it was being thwarted by the late train. Dang. Every time I go to DC, I plan on going to at least the Air and Space Museum or something, but it never ever works out. Someday...I ran into Bill, owner of Copacetic Comics, a really cool store in Pittsburgh, on the train, and he was getting off the train at Rockville, the station before downtown DC. From there he would take the Metro (subway) Red Line to Bethesda. This would bring him directly to SPX, the comix-con while avoiding downtown and crowded subway trains at rush hour. Good idea, I thought, so I hopped off the train with him.