Poplife: Issue #42

Fri, November 29th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

SNEAK

POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

I took a flashlight and a screwdriver or two, just in case. A long flathead and a shorter, utility Philips. I took my phone, wallet, keys, all that crap, out of my pockets. Ben came too, eager as I to break and enter. We went out through the back door of our office, into the common hallway shared by the other tenants of our building. Around the corner, up the stairs, through the door into the old hotel. This space was where everyone in my class had their senior show-fifteen or sixteen art school kids modified this abandoned hotel, put up drywall, and built a strange kind of art motel up here. There were sculptures, installations, flatwork and film loops. Now you can't tell that anyone has been up here in twenty years.

Giant porcelain tubs, clawed feet and strange stains, sit like giant carcasses here and there. Old and rusted radiators in what used to be room corners. They look like rib cages.

Through the hallway that split the motel and out of an access door that's now just a sheet of plywood closed by a latch. Onto the common rooftop between the two buildings. Short hop down. Maybe there used to be a small set of stairs here, but now you have to jump.

It's about thirty feet long, maybe ten feet wide. Four boarded-up windows. Three on the opposite face, one on the northern short-face. All of the screws on all of the windows are in tact except for one, which is held shut on one side by only one screw.

Out comes the screwdriver. I start unscrewing it and it makes rusted squeaks of protests. Up until now, I think, we could talk our way out of what we were doing as good-natured if dumb-assed curiosity. Pulling this screw out of the window frame is a pretty tacit confession of breaking and entering. Kick of adrenaline, spark of the unfamiliar. Oh boy-- we might get caught.

I set the screw into the corner of the window frame. I pull the plywood back, now held in only on one side of the frame, and it reveals a window. Ben yanks it up to no avail. He takes the flathead and works it in-between the window-frame and window, working at the lock. That thought again: can't talk your way out of this one. The lock is on top of the frame, though, and you can't just slip something in and over to open it. Hm. Ben looks at it and yanks up hard. The window gives.

So, I say, That was just stuck.

Yeah, says Ben.

We didn't just jimmy open a lock at all, right?

Nope, says Ben, it was just stuck.

He opens the window. It slams down shut. He opens it again; I hold it up as he squeezes through. Bracing the plywood with my shoulder and holding the window open with the other, I slip inside. The plywood slams shut, the window slams down, and there we are.

Flashlights on. We're inside the old motel.

The first thing you notice is the uniform symmetry. There are maybe six rooms on either side of the motel, with a wrapping T shape at either end that allows for five more rooms. You can't tell how the rooms are numbered, one side is twenties, one side is thirties, and when those run out whatever's left get numbers in the fifties. Or maybe you were superimposing a pattern on what was just chaos. It was a halfway home, a flophouse, a brothel and a bad part of town all on its own. So who cares that it was laid out in a system? Everything else is utterly random and torn apart within the system, which makes it all so sad. Something this derelict and shattered doesn't deserve the politeness of organization.

The second thing you notice is the crunching. And until you look down at what's crunching, you think that it's dirt or mud or bits of drywall crumbled down that you feel underfoot.

Shine the flashlight down. Pigeon shit.

You're walking on a giant shell of pigeon shit, easily half an inch thick. Shine the light into the corner, over by the makeshift closet rack-- there's a mountain underneath it, knee deep easily. Wonder about your lungs and if you are in fact coming down with something, is this really the kind of place you need to be, the kind of air you need to breathe.

You hear a chirping noise from below; the adrenaline in your chest gets kickstartedfast again. You think that this is precisely the kind of place you need to be.

Walk through the halls. Look for the room with your lucky number on it; laugh because it's the one room without a number. Hear the chirp again, freeze.

Look at Ben, frozen too. Shine your lights down the stairwell that leads into the lobby. The lobby, which leads into the basement. The basement, where the old car sits under wraps.

Debate the chirp:

A rat? A bird? Not a bird. Too cold. A rusted floor, squeaking underfoot? Shine the lights up to the hallway wall. Old fire alarms, two fluorescent bulbs on either side. The batteries dying inside but still active. Chirp. Another one down the hall: chirp.

How long have these things been abandoned and calling out to someone, anyone, to fix them?

You wanna go downstairs, asks Ben.

Yes. You want to go downstairs.

Old hotel-information signs still on the walls, some printed and others written by hand. MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR STOLEN ARTICLES. LOCK YOUR DOORS. In the stairwell leading down, or what's left of it. One wall completely gone, the other skeletal remains of studs and drywall. The stairs have been demolished, so be careful. The wood bows like a trampoline underfoot. There's a door at the bottom, hanging on one hinge. It opens in a rhomboid arc as you push it. You're in the lobby, and you're not sure that you could make it back up the stairs in a sprint if you had to. No way out but back up, and back up slowly. Keep moving, down, around the corner.

Oh, no, says Ben. Someone stripped it.

The space still feels like a lobby but the majority of fixtures and the like have been salvaged and scrapped. Tile floors. Maybe not marble, but some kind of heavy something. Black and white checkerboards. Shine the lights around.

The front desk is still kind of there, but it's more just scrap piled against a wall. You can feel the history and the decay of the space's intentions wash over you. From high-scale to bombed-out in thirty years, a miniature model of the city itself and its own dumb history. And now a couple of kids are standing in the wreckage thinking what if.

There's an ancient coke machine in the corner, and you're wondering if there's anything in it. Maybe even in glass bottles. It doesn't look so hard go get to, does it? You start to move. Another chirp. Loud, this time. Shine your light across the wall, over to the front door and see it.

There's an alarm. Little red light and everything. Right by the door. How did you miss it? Look over at Ben and nod-- get out now.

Up the stairs too fast, slip, catch yourself against a stud and keep moving. Into the hall again, you can't move silently because the bird shit crunching underneath you. Bargain against circumstance as you go. It can't be a motion detector, you say. All the pigeons would set it off, right? Right?

Down the hall, back to the room you entered. Hold open the window, push the plywood out. The window slams loud behind you. You're back out in daylight. Cover your tracks, put the screw back in. Scrape the filth off of your boots. Go back to work.

Even though you missed getting to the car, and whatever mystery might be inside of its trunk, you feel good.

If you don't hear sirens you'll go back.

Wednesday at the Airport:

Look: mistakes were made. I have no problem admitting to that. Kel doesn't either. We both admit that mistakes were made. We overslept a little. I was puzzled by the alarm clock; I think I thought that it was some sort of alien puzzle for me to figure out, the challenge being to learn how the damned thing shut off. I was a quick learner. Neither here nor there at this point. It was early and it was cold and we didn't pack everything the night before. We needed to get gas: no use parking the car and leaving it if you couldn't restart the fucker when you got home. The biggest snare was long-term parking. Usually I'd park in the daily garage and suck up the stupid cost, but Kel always seems to appeal to the better angels of my nature and I agreed to do things the right way, the normal way, the inexpensive here's-how-normal-humans-do-it way. Which meant parking in long-term parking.

Apparently, the "long-term" in "long-term parking" means that the time you spend in said lot as the slow-ass shuttle snakes its way at 4 mph up and down empty parking rows will be "long-term"-instead of, you know, here's the lot where you keep your car for a while. Because we were on that fucking bus for half an hour, and by the time we got to the ticket counter, still a fat ten minutes before our flight left, they'd cut off boarding. Long story short I had, for the first time in my traveling life, missed a flight.

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm in an airport and it's six-fifty in the goddamn morning!

Kel is handling things well, as she's missed flights before and is more than willing to place her faith in the stand-by list we're on. I'm just kinda fidgety. Not as fidgety as the pissed off lady sitting on the bench next to us. She's screaming and yelling at anyone that will answer the phone at this obscene hour about Sharice, some friend of hers that left her high and dry by taking a flight while Angry Lady missed hers. She's alternating between bolts of convulsive rage-literally, the whole bench is shaking-and weeping apologies. "I give and I give and I always get fucked," she shout-sobs.

So, Sharice, wherever you are, watch out because your roommate is super-pissed off.

A few hours later and we're on our flight. Inexplicably, to my estimation. Stand-By works sometimes too.

And speaking of the inexplicable to my estimation, THE ANNOTATED MANTOOTH! was solicited in PREVIEWS a while back. I wrote it, Andy Kuhn drew it, and Timmy Fisher toned it. It's 96 pages of Rex Mantooth Comics Stylee, and is available for advanced reorder now with the following magic number: OCT022287. It's $12.95, and will make me fabulously wealthy and very very famous.

SPECIAL BONUS FOR EARLY HOLIDAY SHOPPERS: Order twenty copies from your local retailer. Give them to friends you don't really like as gifts. Shopping done.

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