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March 27, 2021

Jerry & Axl

Tom McAllister

We’re out in a friend’s back yard and talking about I don’t know what when I feel compelled to interject with a story about Matt, this guy I used to work with most weekends at the famous cheesesteak shop. He had two lifelong dreams: to see Guns N’ Roses in concert, and to attend a live taping of Jerry Springer. This was a long time ago, when both those goals were more achievable than they are now. This was back when Jerry Springer was at the peak of his fame, back when Chinese Democracy still seemed like it would never be finished. I liked Matt; he didn’t care about the job, just like I didn’t, and we looked out for each other. In the five years I worked there, he and I never got in argument during the dinner rush. I drove him home sometimes after his license got suspended; he held his unlit cigarette out the window the whole ride and lit it the second I pulled up in front of his place. I had no idea who he lived with. He and I had different goals, both short-term and long-term, but he treated people pretty well, and I appreciated his enthusiasm for Springer and GN’R. One Monday—remember, I’m telling this story to some friends who didn’t ask for it, so this is the part where you have to imagine me holding a can of beer and just fucking expounding without any encouragement—Matt comes into work so excited because he’s lined up plans to check both goals off the list in the same week. He got tickets for GN’R in Philly and  the next day he and his buddy Ivan are renting a car and driving out to Chicago for the Springer show. I ask him if he’s afraid he’ll have nothing to live for after this week, and he laughs that stoned laugh of his and says Tom you’re fucking crazy, man. But Axl never shows up for the Philly concert and the crowd riots instead. Matt gets a black eye in the melee but otherwise comes out okay. The morning after, the rental car breaks down about a hundred miles from home, so he and Ivan rent a hotel room off the PA turnpike and smoke through their whole supply of pot and watch kung fu movies instead. It just wasn’t meant to be, he told me, which I repeat to the friends in the backyard, expecting laughter that never comes. The friends have a lot of questions I can’t answer, and they’re remembering Jerry Springer episodes they’ve seen, and they’re looking at their phones, and the story has gone a little sideways. There’s no punchline, and I don’t know why I started telling it in the first place. I’ve had a couple glasses of wine and some keyword caused a spark in my hippocampus. These anecdotes leap out of my mouth and they die unceremonious deaths in front of us all. My friends ask what Matt is up to now. Before I quit, he turned down a good job with benefits at the post office because he didn’t want to stop smoking pot long enough to pass the drug test. I vaguely recall a secondhand story about Ivan being arrested for stabbing someone, or maybe he was the one who got stabbed. I met Ivan once, at a party in an abandoned auto shop, where some guy named Detwiler tried to fight me because he didn’t like the way I pronounced his name—he thought I made it sound too fancy—but everything cooled down when he passed out on top of some old tires. My only currency in social situations is a deep reservoir of stories like this, of weirdos and screwups I’ve briefly known. My stories flatten these people into comic archetypes so that I can survive conversational pauses. I don’t have anything else to offer. In the silence following my story, I am blasted by a rush of sadness for my old co-worker and his failed dreams. I hope he has set at least one new goal since then. I hope, too, that Ivan recovered from the stabbing (or got out of jail, whichever applies). I think of the dreams I’ve abandoned, the ones I’ve been too afraid to even voice let alone pursue, and I think: at least he got those tickets. At least he made it 100 miles closer to Chicago. What have I ever done?