True Tales From Humboldt
A few years ago I took a job in a small town called Humboldt. The paper, called the Daily Register, was as horrible as the town. Looking back I would rank the idea somewhere between "kissing the girl with the unibrow in high school" and "choosing the SA nickname 'pantsfish'" on my bad decision scale.
That said, a lot of crazy stuff happened in my year there. So much that I sat down to write this article and came out with 15 pages when I was done. Since that's too long for the front page I split it into a two-parter. You, the lucky bastard that you are, get to read the first part right now! Aren't you excited? If not I really don't care. Why? Because I'm an Internet celebrity. Chew on that phrase while you read these stories.
My first few months in Humboldt I lived in an apartment about eight miles out of town. The building was actually an old house but the ownership had split it into four apartments. I had half of the basement. All in all it was one of those “it would have been nice if” houses, except in retrospect I would “if” everything but the fact that it looked very flammable.
The day I moved in I met my upstairs neighbor, Shirtless Tony. For those of you lacking deductive powers, I call him this because his name was Tony and I never saw him wearing a shirt. Seriously. My biggest goal in this article is not to exaggerate anything, so I need to make it clear that in the six months I lived in that cancerous boil of a building I never once saw Tony wearing anything but a pair of jeans and a hat. He also had the worst body odor of any human being I've had the misfortune of smelling. His sides were stained yellow from nicotine and armpit sweat. Given his swollen, red face, tall frame, and gaunt figure, he strongly resembled a stop sign wearing a blond wig. His teeth were rounded down and incredibly dirty. They looked like rotten baby corn.
If Tony had any luck in his life it was that he managed to find a wife uglier than him. She was ghastly. She, too, was trailed by a certain odor, but this one seemed to originate further south than her armpits. It smelled like a combination of chalk and wet cat food. To top this off, she had frequent bouts of Bell's Palsy. I'm not one to make fun of a person's handicaps, but it must have been pretty terrible to have a face that resembled a pug's balloon tie and have half of it frozen in place besides. Because of this she constantly looked like half her face was smirking and winking at the same time. Her giant beak nose drooped so low it almost touched her lips, amplifying the effect. Finally, the whole palsy thing made her talk pretty much exactly how children talk when they make fun of retards. She was no prize, even if the contest was a date auction for blind and deaf men.
Being horrible mole-people aside aside Tony and his wife were pretty nice people. For instance, the second I'd moved the last heavy item down the 20-some stairs to my apartment, they emerged from theirs and told me, at great length, all the bad things going on in the neighborhood. A few I can remember off the top of my head are:
- The mysterious black mold growing in both the basement apartments. His wife (I think her name was Linda) told me she heard it was the kind of black mold that can kill people, and not to put my clothes in the closet because it would get on them and seep into my skin. This would explain why, in my two or three visits to their place, every article of clothing they owned seemed to be on the living room floor.
- The horrible smell, which they chalked up to at least two meth labs in the apartment houses beside ours. Please note that they did not say meth itself was terrible. This makes sense, since I often heard the sounds of vacuuming (then arguing, then screwing) coming from their apartment in the wee hours of the morning.
- The pedophile in the apartment house across the lot. Tony had a child from a previous marriage who visited once a month, so Linda hopped a bus to the Library to get on the Internet and check out the Indiana Sex Offender Registry. When they found out a bona fide child molester lived a stone's throw away, they took the little girl (who was around 3 at the time) to his doorstep, slapped her wrist, and said “no”. Anyone who thinks you can't train children the same way you train dogs needs to talk to Tony, because, in his words, “she ain't been over there yet”.
Needless to say my youthful enthusiasm for having my own place died that morning. I had never really been afraid for my personal belongings or my life, two things I started to hold very dear about the time Tony passed out drunk in the stairwell with his dick hanging out of his pants a few nights later. I ignored that small transgression, however. Then I ignored it again when he did the same thing in the parking lot about a month after that.
In the end, Tony ended up saving me from the one intruder my happy home ever saw. This leads me to my next story:
Shirtless Tony and the Gerbil
One night I was feeling particularly brave and decided to invite some friends over to my place. Precisely one of them accepted my invitation, and it was someone I didn't like very much anyway. Bored, lonely, and looking for human contact that didn't involve walking upstairs and chasing meth heads away from the quarters in my car's ashtray, I had him out anyway.
The thing about Humboldt was it only had two under-21 social hubs: McDonald's and Wal-Mart. They both closed around midnight. After that the town's youth (all of whom had a '96 Thunderbird with half-working ground effects and sound systems so loud they shook the paperclips holding their back bumpers up) reverted to “doing laps”. Since I didn't feel like “doing laps” in my “exhaust-spewing Topaz that honked really loud when I turned right too hard”, we had a bite to eat, rented a movie, and called it a night.
My apartment was terrifying in broad daylight. At night it turned into a place of stink and shadow, a horrible perversion of God's plan to have cockroaches evolve into humans. We walked down the pitch-dark stairwell and into my apartment. I heard a rustling in the back. My friend, who by his account had been in approximately 16,000 fistfights in his lifetime (I saw only one of those; he got beat up so bad we thought we might have to take him to the hospital) grabbed a knife off the kitchen counter. I grabbed a broom. We walked into my bedroom, flipped on the light. A gerbil was sitting on my bed.
Most males would say they weren't scared to see such a thing. They'd talk about calmly snagging the critter and smashing its face in with their sheer manliness. Well, reader, let me get one thing clear with you right now: I was (and continue to be) a gigantic pussy when it comes to animals. I walked up to the gerbil with an empty office trash can. It ran out from under the lid before I could secure it and I squealed like a woman. My friend tried to grab it and uttered a similar squeal when it laid into his finger. He spiked it on the floor like a deflated volleyball. It sat there, stunned, for maybe three seconds. Then it ran into the kitchen and behind my refrigerator.
Back to Tony: Generations of selective inbreeding had granted him a number of advantages over the normal human body. One of these was his excellent sense of hearing. The second I so much as farted too loud in my apartment he would rush downstairs, but not to complain. He just always thought I was having a party and didn't invite him. In this instance, maybe three minutes after my squeal, he was downstairs banging on my door. I answered and, after I explained the situation, he was practically begging to help. Thinking he might put the thing to use by skinning it and putting the pelt over his wife's face, I thanked him and told him yes, we could use some assistance. He ran upstairs to his apartment to grab some things.
The problem with Tony, however, was that his brain didn't function like a normal human being's. A normal person would come back with some poison, or maybe some food to lure it out. Tony came back with two very different things: an empty pot and his dog. He was ready to kill.
In his defense he put them to good use. After single-handedly moving my fridge out of the way (he told us he used to lift them over his head and put them on semi beds for a living), he found the critter cowering in the corner, nibbling on an old piece of cereal that was there far before I ever moved in. He looked at it. It looked at him. It was war.
The first attempt to kill the intruder failed miserably. Tony goaded his dog (I want to think its name was “Linda”, too – maybe “Prettier Linda”) into going in the corner and snapping at the gerbil. It promptly responded by latching onto his nose and biting down until it drew blood. After leaving a healthy puddle of urine in the kitchen floor the dog retreated to the living room, where it left a healthier puddle of urine on the carpet. Tony was outraged. He drew his trusty pot and slammed it down on the critter's head. It was dead. We had won.
Or maybe not. Even as Tony – again, no exaggeration – raised his weapon over his head and let loose a shrill battle cry, the gerbil stirred. He hit it again. It stirred again. We went through this about five times until the thing finally lay still. Finally, sure it was dead, Tony invited us up to his apartment to drink a beer. We politely declined and thanked him as he tracked his dog's urine through the house and up the stairwell. Not wanting to keep a dead animal in my house, I took the thing upstairs and dropped it in the dumpster by the parking lot.
To this day I have no idea where the gerbil came from. Tony was the only person in the complex with a kid or a pet, and he said it wasn't his. A few days later I walked up the steps to go to work and saw the same gerbil laying beside a rust-eaten hole in the corner of the dumpster. It may have been mean, and it may have been violent, but man did that little bastard want to stay alive. In that, I really think I respect it more than anyone else I met in Humboldt. Things were just that bad there.
Noah and Jan
Like I said above, I moved to Humboldt in the first place to take a job at the town newspaper. It was a small daily. The pay was decent enough and I had a good amount of responsibility. If it wasn't situated in Humboldt I'd likely still be there.
As with most papers there was a silent war between the editorial and circulation departments at the Humboldt Daily Register. As an editorial employee I answered to a guy named Charlie, who was easily the biggest idiot I ever met. More on that Sunday. On the other end of the spectrum was Noah. Noah looked like God decided to play a joke and proportion a guy like a midget, then make him 5'6. He was skinny but he still looked bloated, like he slept with a running garden hose shoved up his ass. His forehead bulged about two inches ahead of his smooshy little face, and his teeth just kind of stuck out at whatever angle they damn well pleased.
He was also gay. Like, really, really gay. The old cliché says “as gay as the day is long”, but that didn't work for Noah. No span of mortal time could accurately convey how homosexual he was. The high point of his day involved busting in the office like Kramer and discussing celebrity gossip with the intern. The one Christmas I was there he forced everyone to come by one night to see the gigantic inflatable Santa he purchased for his front yard. By all accounts he did this every year. He made constant passes at every male who didn't threaten to aerate his jugular with an ink pen, and the prominent decoration in his office was a Laserjet printout of a “sexy firefighter” with “never forget our heroes” emblazoned on the bottom in Comic Sans.
Everyone in editorial hated Noah because he thought he knew what would sell papers. Any time a subscriber called in saying they had a picture of their dog wearing a hat or a watermelon they grew that looked like Jesus, he'd promise them we'd put it on the front page. Then we wouldn't, and he'd cry. Like, seriously cry. Close-his-office-door-and-wail-until-someone-came-in-and-comforted-him cry. His major comforter was a morbidly obese secretary named Jan. I chalked it up to her wanting to live a real-life “Will and Grace” except all the characters were Humboldt mutants instead of attractive twentysomethings so I wrote her affection off. Little did I know the horror I would find.
One morning after a particularly bad crying session, I came into the office to see a newspaper on my desk. It was marked with red ink. Most of the “suggestions” were telling me I misspelled words that were spelled right. The other one said something like “Murf Gloo Fwah Gwaum”. At least I think that's what it said. It was smudged by a large, chocolatey fingerprint.
Of course, I knew who the culprit was. I walked up to the circulation desk and asked Jan why she did it. She told me she just decided to fix some problems, which struck me as odd since she openly admitted that she never read the newspaper. You know, the one she worked for. As I started to walk off, Jan said “maybe we should let Noah have a little more say in what goes on” so “things might improve”.
This, of course, enraged me to the point I almost cared, and I responded by going to my desk and pointedly taking a nap. Four p.m. rolled around shortly after that. I grabbed my stuff and headed home. As some of you may have gathered, Humboldt was a one-horse town. The problem was the horse died in the 1800s and they used its veins to wire the city stoplights. After an eight-mile trip that took me about 45 minutes, I was home. I unlocked the door, got settled in, took another nap. Then, hours later, I realized I left my cell phone at the office.
The rush back to work is a beautiful, hectic thing. Every minute – every second – spent returning to a work setting without pay is hell on the employee. I dodged through traffic. I ran lights. I taligated an old man so hard I nearly rear ended him (I remember this because he shook his fist out the window at me). Finally, I pulled an Ace Ventura sliding double park in the parking lot and ran to the door, watching my precious free time melt like chocolate in the canyonlike grooves of Jan's fingerprints.
Along with being a sissy when it comes to animals I have a bladder the size of a shelled BB. I grabbed my phone of the desk and the urge hit me. Fearing I'd have to return home with a jacket tied 'round mah waist, I hit the bathroom before leaving. That's when I heard the squeaking.
I don't know what possessed me to check out the press room when I got done peeing. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was loyalty to my employer. Whatever the case, if I had a time machine, I'd go back and cut my own brakes so I would have rear-ended that old man. Paying for a new car or two is a vacation compared to what I saw.
Let me explain: Jan and Noah were in the press room together. And they were fucking. Not “making love” or “having sex” – I caught them in the middle of a snorting, grunting, squealing round of genital-mashing so fierce most BBW lovers could only dream of emptying their sock drawers to it. And they were doing it on the wall. Jan was “on the bottom”, so to speak, using the massive rolls of flesh on her back as a lint-covered, stretchmarked mattress. Noah was up front, his sharp little goblin teeth glinting in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lighting. He used one arm to squeeze her hamhock of a leg up against his waist. He propped the other one against the wall, right near her head. He thrust his waist in short, manic little spurts. His tiny little pants were balled up around his ankles.
Only then, in this traumatic moment, did an epiphany strike: He was so gay and so in-tune to her female emotions he didn't mind railing her to make her feel better about herself. I couldn't imagine getting an erection within 50 yards of her, personally, so I had to commend him there.
If there was a fortunate moment to this whole event it was that neither Noah nor Jan saw me. I got out of the office, shut the door as quiet as I could, and got the hell on out of there. A few days later rumors started floating around that the manager found a condom wrapper in the press room, and a few days after that someone filled me in that everyone thought it was me and the intern. She was pretty hot so I didn't mind. We had a laugh about it, but I never told her my secret. That was between me and God. That was the way it had to be.
Me vs. Marty
My last few months at Humboldt I started getting these weird “critique” emails from someone named “Sandy”. Sometimes they'd critique two or three local stories. Usually it was every in-house produced piece that ran. These weren't two-line reviews, either; the full-paper ones had to take hours to write up. They were incredibly condescending and ended in letter grades. Later ones even gave “GPA” stats. Some of the girls in the office had mentions of where they went to high school or how “Sandy” had seen them in town somewhere. Humboldt was a really small town so this wasn't as disconcerting as it should have been.
Being the mature person I am, I took the high road when my frustration got the best of me. I linked “Sandy” to “my site” for further criticism after a particularly harsh email. This leads me to maybe the most important advice I can ever offer aspiring young journalists:
EVAN WADE'S JOURNALISM HINTS AND TIPS:
- Don't link crazy people to Goatse.
After the incident “Sandy” made me her top target. Every day I'd get a 2000-or-more word email outlining what was wrong with me. And it wasn't all writing-related: She'd say stuff like “I stopped by to pick up a paper Wednesday and you weren't dressed very professionally” or “You need to wash your car”. Obviously I was pretty spazzed out over the whole ordeal. We called the cops, who basically told us to block the email address. We did and the harassment stopped for a while.
Things slowed down until my 21st birthday. As an aspiring young professional I did was right and burned all of my banked vacation in order to spend a week binging on gambling and alcohol at a riverboat across the state. This leads me to two separate points: The first is that I'm an incredibly classy person. The second is that I forgot to forward my voicemail, which left me quite a surprise when I returned to work.
After a solid week of tequila and video poker (I won a week's worth of pay but spent double that on alcohol) I'd forgotten all about “Sandy” and her repeated, abrasive emails. Besides a few letters sent to our editor from a similar-sounding account name using a similar-sounding tone, we didn't hear much from her. She hadn't forgotten about me. I walked in the office at 4 a.m. to design pages and sat down at my desk. My voice mail light was blinking. I picked it up, expecting a few messages from county officials or whatever. Instead, the computerized voice on the other end told me my mailbox was full. I had reached my 50-message cap.
I checked the first message. Silence. The second. Silence again. The third. Some muttering in the background, but nothing I could really make out. Then I checked the fourth. Silence, some muttering, then...
“happy birthday evan wade I'M GONNA KILL YOU”
Obviously, this wasn't the best way to herald my hung-over return to the office. I checked through the voice mails. More of the same. By the twentieth or so I realized most of it was a guy muttering into the phone and playing a recording of the drill instruction from “Full Metal Jacket”. This isn't to say they were all uninspired threats. Among others I had a message that said “better get home and check on your dog” (thankfully I had left it with family), “I hope you enjoy your 21st year like it's your last”, and “I'd say that girl that comes by your house would look better after I put a few of those awful newspapers inside her”.
I had to get the paper done but I was scared. Justifiably so, I think: If this person knew so much about my house he probably knew I was in the office by myself from 4 until about 7 a.m. I grabbed the one knife I could find in the employee kitchen and started putting pictures of dogs wearing hats and Jesus watermelons on the front page. It was going to be a long morning.
People started rolling in around 7 a.m. just like usual. They asked how the birthday was, how much money I spent, how I felt, and so on. I obviously wasn't in much of a talking mood. As soon as the publisher came in I made a beeline to his office and shut the door behind me. He listened to the first few messages and called the police. I will never forget what the publisher, a sixty-some year old man who couldn't look more like a grandfather if he tried, told me after he hung up: “We're going to nail this motherfucker to a wall.” It was like seeing Santa Claus bending Mrs. Claus over a stack of cardboard boxes, only maybe a little more satisfying. Maybe.
While the police investigated the emails started back up again. This time they went to everyone in editorial, but they were far less personal. Digging on our writing, our looks, the cars we drove – in short, nothing he didn't know before the voice mails started. A few weeks passed (in which I slept in my living room with a large kitchen knife under the couch) before the police came back to us. It turns out the calls came from an apartment near mine, rented by a guy named Marty. He was 30-some years old and worked at the local hardware store.
One of our editorial workers, Beth, had lived in Humboldt her whole life, and by coincidence one of her kids graduated with this Marty character. She remembered he got suspended from high school on graduation day when he cracked a joke about a kid who came to school with a gun “going to the wrong classrooms” during his exit speech. After that (according to local gossip) he flunked out of college and returned to Humboldt. According to Beth he'd been intermittently emailing the paper similar, if less snarky, letters for years. To her knowledge he'd never called an aspiring young genius and threatened to stuff newspapers up his girlfriend's vagina, so I guess I held the record there.
The police tracked the guy down and he confessed to doing everything. In a normal town this would be the end of the story. This was not a normal town. This was Humboldt. To the police “procedure” was something their daughters did with a hot coat hanger after blacking out during a date. For some reason, maybe to get us to drop charges, Marty wanted to come to the office and apologize. After the publisher agreed to meet with him, the police allowed him to do this. Granted, it was with an escort, but given that it took the police in the town three weeks to shut down a meth lab in the woods behind their station, it was a “screen door in a submarine” situation. Or maybe a “less effective Barney Fife guarding a man who threatened my life, my dog, and my girlfriend no less than 50 times in a three hour situation” one. Whatever. I'm not one to split hairs.
When the police brought Marty in I refused to speak to him. It was mostly because I'd likely end up in jail on obscenity charges if I got the chance to speak my mind, but I was also a little scared. Thankfully, a certain foul-mouthed, grandfatherly person was more than willing to do the screaming for me.
In general the Daily Register's office was a bland place, but the meeting room was actually really pretty. It was essentially a large glass box in the middle of the building, with retractable blinds circling it. On more than one occasion I walked directly into the box when the blinds were up. It was far from ergonomic. When Barney Fife brought Marty in, the publisher walked up and shook the cop's hand. Marty extended his. The publisher shot him the meanest look I think I've ever seen. For those few seconds Marty's arm was essentially a level controlling the tightness in his scrotum. By the time it went back to his waist I'm sure it was on “wet fingertip”.
In an all-new level of ineptitude the cop granted the publisher's request to “have a few minutes alone” with Marty. Then, figuring his eyesight wasn't good enough to see through a glass pane two inches away from his face, the cop went out to, and I quote, “have a smoke” while “those boys settled their problems”. I never got the cop's name to file any kind of report, but I'm assuming it was something like “Corporal Potential Lawsuit”. I didn't want to ruffle any feathers anyway, since Chief Lets His Children Play With His Gun was being so accommodating.
I was not privy to what was said in the meeting room. I can only assume it was pretty bad, since the publisher looked furious and Marty was staring at the table so hard I expected him to email it about how it wasn't properly sanded in its upper left corner. What I do know is all the blinds were up. This is where I got to show my real maturity, namely by pulling my pants down and pressing my bare ass against the glass wall Marty was facing.
In Marty's defense he never narced me out, at least to my knowledge. He had to have seen it. That glass was cold, and it was up there for at least ten seconds. Finally responsibility got the better of me so I pulled my pants up and turned around. The two or three people in the office who saw me were laughing hysterically. I was on a roll. I stared through the glass until Marty looked up, then extended my middle fingers and pressed them against the glass as well. I know he saw those, because as soon as we made eye contact I followed up with a couple of “suck it” gestures and wrapped things up by mouthing “you're screwed" at him. The whole scene became something of a legend around the office, and I know it got back around to the publisher. I'm equally as sure he didn't care. Something tells me he would have done it himself if he hadn't have been so old and grandfatherly.
In the end, however, Marty didn't get screwed near as hard as I would have liked. We ended up getting a restraining order against him, but the case didn't go through until far after I moved. I told the paper and their lawyer that I'd gladly come back to testify, but somehow a case that involved me getting death threats didn't need any personal testimony. Maybe the police station ran the courthouse. Who knows. I guess he ended up getting six month's probation and some community service out of the ordeal, which wasn't enough for all the stress he put me through, but I'm a long way away from there now. I was thinking about linking goatse here just in case he happened to be reading this, but I'll be the more mature person for once.
Actually, maturity has played a lot in my life since the ordeal. The Humboldt Daily Register taught me how to work and how to get things done on deadline. I'm happier now knowing I've done actual work and not just mooched college money off the government. That said, looking back at that glass wall, with the impressions of my ass cheeks and middle fingers there on the glass, it's hard not to laugh. It looked like a reindeer. A morbidly obese reindeer with two pipe cleaners for antlers. Hey, if Jan ended up having a kid with Noah it'd be like her child already had a portrait in the office. Talk about efficiency.