I meet Jim at Sandy’s, a diner on University Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He said he would get off work at 6:00 and meet me after. He’s there when I arrive. He has a pot belly, and a salt and pepper beard. He works in an auto shop, and wears the uniform shirt and the black vinyl mesh hat with its logo.
“I figure we get a bite, then I take you up to the end of town,” Jim says.
I’ve known Jim about 10 months, as long as I’ve been meeting him online Tuesday nights through Google Hangouts. With a group of other men.
But we’re alone now, just us. We have plans to visit the place he used to live when he was at his worst.
We sit in a booth. When ordering he tells the waitress, “You know what, can I just get that to go?” He is eager to go. He hasn’t been on that block, in that neighborhood, for eight years, even though it is close to where he lives now. So I take my iced tea to go and after a short spell filled with idle chatter, we take his turkey and Swiss melt and fries and get in his truck. He doesn’t dig in right away though. He drives us down to Richfield.
“Richfield ain’t rich, I can tell you that. That’s the funny part about it,” Jim says. He adds that he and Jenny, his ex-wife, were “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” financially.
“We weren’t well-to-do, if you know what I mean. Anyway, there’s worse parts of Minneapolis, but it’s kind of down and out,” he says.
We ride by a Subway, then a park, some car washes. Cafés with guys in black t-shirts smoking outside the entrance.
“Okay, here we go,” Jim says, turning left on 58th Street. We had been going south on Lyndale Avenue. On Aldrich, he stops partway down the block. “OK, there it is,” he says, pointing to green single-story with vinyl siding, a storm door, a driveway that runs beside it to the garage at the back. It looks like the kind of place that you could pick up for $135K around the time Jim bought it.
Jim shuts the engine off and sits back.
“I haven’t been back here since the last time I came, to take away the last of my stuff… the lawn mower it would have been.” One thing I’ve noticed about Jim from listening to him the past ten months: he tends to drill into detail, sometimes senseless detail, during the most fraught stories. The ones that trouble him the most.
Jenny no longer lives at the house—otherwise, Jim says, he would not be parking here. “She’d be out in five seconds, with a mouthful.”
He scratches his brow under the brim of his cap, glances for a second at the back of his hand at what looks like a deep bruise.
“So, that was our master bedroom right there on the end,” Jim says, pointing to the far end of the house.
I ask him what he thinks about seeing it now.
“I look at that room now, and I just think of coming into it late at night. Jenny’s already in bed, and I’ve been up, out in the living room with my laptop. Or later, once Wi-Fi came around…”
Jim explains that there is a small screened porch on the back of the house, and this was where he’d be late at night, after Jenny went to bed, once they were off dial-up and on a wireless router.
“I’d be out there with my iPhone. You know how it is. The smart phone is a hell of a thing. Everything you want right there in your hand. Everything you shouldn’t have that easily.”
I knew Jim had come a long way since his divorce, that this darkness was a life that was well behind him. He had good habits, was scrupulously honest and devoted to our online meetings. He knew the literature by heart, too, and quoted it perhaps in a prideful way that still showed a lot of integrity. He could be stubborn and he knew it, but he usually stopped himself being cocky after a minute; he would then call it “my addict acting up.”
Jim, like many men I spoke with, saw himself through a schema of multiple identities, often a basic Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy.
While I change the camera battery, Jim takes the Styrofoam container from the back seat where he left it and begins eating. He has agreed to let me film him. I said it might appear on a website called “True Untrue dot com.”
“I don’t know about that name, Holmes,” Jim said. Holmes is a nickname for a bro; it’s from the dark ages, the 1990s.
Jim has been attending men’s meetings for many years, both “in person” and online, long before I met him; with many strong practices, and eight years sobriety under his belt, he is a man of few illusions. Despite some initial twitchiness during the first leg of our drive, he seems comfortable now sitting outside his former home looking back on “the worst of times,” as he calls them.
Joking dryly about his former excesses is something he often slips in after any negative talk. He is not somber about any of his past hardships. You might even say he has a relentlessly positive attitude, and now abhors the hateful person he once was.
“A lot of the time I spent out back there.” Jim points up the driveway to the garage. “I had a little workbench, and I’d do my oil, brakes, whatever. Just because so much of the time, we weren’t getting along. You know, and the way I felt about things, about myself, I couldn’t keep my temper down. So I’d drink. I’d isolate.”
Jim dabs his chin with a napkin. He is working slowly at the sandwich, with calm, and not in a slovenly way, like you might expect from looking at him, his mechanic’s hat, his pot belly and stick legs.
“She’d flick the garage lights off and on from the house when she wanted me to come in. I’d just ignore it. She stopped eventually. One of the steps in the program is basically to admit that we’re insane. Well, the thing that really tells you how crazy I was: I took this guy Ryan’s Jeep and redid his brake lines, no charge. I didn’t even like the guy! Later, I bondo’d his rear quarterpanel out of my own pocket! Why? Well, for one doing that shit kept me out of the house. And I could get Wi-Fi out there too, so what’s the difference to me? This is perfect. This is everything I need.”
We are quiet a while. Some cars pass. It is warm and smells of pine trees in the cab of Jim’s F150.
“I had this weird thing where I had to accomplish all kinds of things, make up for the time that was lost to me, out of my control. You know what I mean?”
I say that I do.
Some more cars drive down the street, and Jim inspects the people passing. He waves half-heartedly at one neighbor, but the person doesn’t seem to recognize Jim. He tells me at length about the people who lived in the other houses. I ask him what else this house reminds him of, about Jenny, about those times.
“It was just total…” he says, gesturing with a fistful of French fries. “It was just total annihilation.”
I ask him what he means by that. This is the kind of footage I knew I would get. It is the kind of footage I’d basically described in the grant proposal which had won me the funds to conduct these video interviews.
Jim laughs uneasily and drains his soda. He closes the Styrofoam lid on his takeout container, and thoughtfully sets the remainder on the back seat. His truck is an F150 Lariat, with the leather and sound package. It is well kept. “I’m done with that for now,” he says. “Annihilation. Killing time. Just blowing up days. Burning the love in your life.” He drops a few clichés about flames. Films with Dakota Fanning.
I ask him to be more direct, to not speak in parables.
“I’ve got the whole rest of my life to rebuild all that I tore down,” Jim says. He speaks dreamily, just as I’d hoped he would, and I capture it with perfect silence, holding the camera still. Gold for the suffering. My mixed motives.
“There was a time I did nothing in moderation,” Jim says, starting the truck. “Terribly bad for my health. I don’t miss it at all. But there are times I wish to return to that. And that wish will always be with me. At this point, I wouldn’t trust it if it got away. I wouldn’t trust that wish out there on its own. I keep it close.”
We drove for a while, chewing on that. I shot b-roll out the window. At first I was listless about it, uninspired. There was nothing good, just houses at dusk, curbs and street signs. I wondered if the authorities would revoke my grant funding.
We were headed back to Sandy’s, the diner in Dinky Town, where we’d left my car. We passed a tattoo parlor, and I knew this was my chance. I asked Jim what he’d learned since I first met him.
Jim said, “I don’t know how to put it, Paul. I mean, I can’t put it in words the way you could.” He seemed to be picking up on my surging pride. I’d always dodged and not responded to any intimations of flattery from Jim; but secretly I took pleasure in it. I urged him to give me an example of something he’d learned.
“Say, with the groceries” Jim began, putting some thought into, as he draped his arm over the steering wheel. “Say we go grocery shopping one day, and the next day I have lunch, and later Jenny goes to make herself a sandwich, finds the deli meats diminished, and whines, ‘Jim, half the turkey’s gone already!’ I’m like, Yeah, it sure is. I made a sandwich. That’s what we bought it for, and I was hungry, and it was delicious. There’s plenty left for you, I’d say.”
“It’s like she expects me to let it sit there and go to waste. It’s asinine, and if we had that conversation once, we had it one hundred times. I’m lifting tires and turning wrenches all day, sliding under rigs. I need fuel. What does she think this is, The Great Depression?”
“So what about it?” I asked. Jim was right to be proud of his ability to pontificate on matters in his own life; his attention to himself, after all, was what earned him his life back. But he did need steerage at times, the lumbering rig of his mind on the open road most of the time.
“Right, well,” Jim, said, “what I’ve learned is that the first thing to say in a moment like this with a woman is, Okay, you’re right, honey. I’m sorry.”
Jim shrugged his shoulders violently—threw them back and twisted his neck as if stricken. It was one of those moments when a realization came down on him, one he’d had before, and it settled hard into his body with renewed vigor.
His voice softened considerably now in saying, “Did I use up a lot of the turkey? Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll get you some more, don’t worry.”
I smiled at him, kept the camera steady. He looked rather tough and sensitive in his posture now and the light was in his eyes, which was perfect!
I was silent, just waiting for him to go on. He took the bait.
“That’s all it takes to defuse a woman who doesn’t trust you and has good reason not to. Just apologize. It works every time, I’ve seen it happen. Not with Jenny. I’m with another woman now.”
We rode some additional blocks and sat out an entire red light at 4th Street before he went on.
“It’s just you listening and recognizing what she’s saying. Couldn’t be simpler, and the fact is, with the things I had occupying my mind, the needs I had grown into with my behaviors… Well, before, I couldn’t apologize any sooner than I could tie my dick in a knot. I had to be right about everything. I was on the defensive more often than not. I already felt judged. I knew in some sense that these things, the turkey, wasn’t a big deal to her, not really. She was just pointing it out, like, Hey, you big fat pig. She’s just joshing me, just teasing. I could hear that, but there wasn’t anything I could do. Now I know otherwise.”
Finally, I offered something generic (I could edit it out), such as, “Well, you know, women can be difficult.”
We were moving once again when Jim said, “Really, the gist of the thing was, if she saw it as being selfish about the turkey, then the next thing she would probably say, ‘By the way, what were you doing at three in the morning last night? Why didn’t you come to bed?’”
At the next intersection, the sun pieced under Jim’s visor, above the treetops across the road. He said, “I was on the computer the whole time. The whole time! Drinking beer, watching videos.”
Golden footage. I was happy.