Misanthropes on the Road...and at Home
Alice Marie

My brother, an otherwise adventurous person, has not traveled beyond the Chicago city limits in over ten years. He chooses to stay at home because, as he says, everyone is an asshole, assholes are everywhere, and there is no point is making a special trip to visit them in their own environment. In 1995, after a weekend trip to Wisconsin, he decided that it would probably be best to remain indefinitely at home and deal only with known quantities of assholes.

I generally respect my brother's opinions, but his conclusions about the merits of travel might have been a bit premature. That's not to say his conclusions are necessarily wrong. After all, there are those who have traveled widely and extensively, and with an element of wisdom and insight into the collective soul of humanity, rejected travel as an inherently foolish and wasteful pastime. One of these people is my former landlord, Dick, an eighty-year old man who has traversed the globe from Buenos Aires to the Arctic Circle, and from Glasgow to the Sahara Desert.

I first became acquainted with Dick when I rented an inexpensive apartment from him. The apartment in question took up the entire second floor of a mid-nineteenth century brick farmhouse on the north side of Ann Arbor. Dick lived directly below me, in an excessively cluttered apartment that extended, one ramshackle addition after the next, into a sea of thorn bushes behind the house. Immediately behind the house was a detached garage that had become, over the course of several decades, the resting place of countless rusting bikes, heaps of slowly rotting furniture stored and then abandoned by former tenants, and stacks of molding newspapers that, in 2003, provided an erratic record of the ugly century that had just passed.

As I discovered shortly after moving into his house, Dick is a genuine misanthrope of the variety rarely encountered during daylight hours. As his upstairs tenant, I was often subject to Dick's misanthropic behavior in its most nerve-jangling and sleep-disturbing forms. Coming home at odd hours of the night, too often in some inebriated state, I would usually find Dick shuffling across his porch or circling the chain-link fence surrounding his property, considering the next step of some bizarrely timed and ill-conceived home-improvement project. One time, at 3:30 a.m., I found him wading through the weeds behind his house, guided only by the feeble light of a dying flashlight. He was muttering to himself and trying to tie back the branches of a blackberry bush with ragged strings of recycled twine, all in a vain attempt to clear a path to his garage. Another time, only one hour before sunrise, I found him dismantling a box spring, piece by piece, and placing its metal coils into obsessively aligned rows at the edge of his gravel driveway. I had just come home from a going-away party and was holding my head, trying to control the pounding of an incipient hangover. By the time I staggered up to Dick, he had nearly disassembled the entire box spring, using only his bare hands and a small pair of rusty pliers. Upon seeing me, he immediately launched into an explanatory tirade about the "god-damn assholes at City Hall" who had threatened to fine him for leaving furniture (the box spring) on his curb for more than one week. By that point, I'd lived above Dick for at least two months. Following an established protocol, I listened to his monologue until its merciful end, one punctuated with the familiar phrase, "fucking morons." Then, after concurring with Dick that "idiots and assholes rule the state of Michigan," I wished my landlord good night and made my way to the bottle of aspirin at my bedside.

I never spoke to Dick about his unusual nocturnal activities until early one Wednesday morning, when the sounds of wild cursing and the grind and splutter of an uncooperative lawnmower jolted me out of bed. It was 3:09 a.m. and well before sunrise, but a full autumn moon was still shining above the horizon. When I crawled to my bedroom window and peered down at the driveway below, I could see Dick crouched beside the hulking mass of a dying engine. He was growling loudly in an attempt to clear his throat of gasoline fumes and the stench of rotting grass. Up and down the street, yellow squares of light had begun to appear in windows and doorways. More importantly, I had begun to discern several voices, rising and falling in distinctly threatening tones, in repetitions of the phrase "going to call the police, asshole."

If the Ann Arbor police are worse than useless in nearly every respect, they are undeniably efficient in responding to noise complaints, and so with some haste, I pulled a bathrobe around my shoulders and made my way down to the driveway. Call me a co-dependent or enabler or whatever the term is, but I wanted to warn Dick of the impending arrival of local law enforcement officials. For reasons not entirely explicable, I had taken a liking to my temperamental and reclusive landlord. Dick, for his part, had decided that I was tolerable, or at least worth engaging in countless rambling conversations about "that fucking jackass in the White House." In any case, the arrival of the police would only have prolonged the agony of another sleepless night.

Dick didn't seem in the slightest bit surprised by my appearance on his driveway. Nor was he in the slightest bit concerned with the eruption of his neighbors' long-suppressed frustration. As doors started slamming in the near distance, I desperately wracked my brain for some means of averting a potentially violent conflict with an irate mob. Having once noted an Anglophilic streak (or rather an unusual level of tolerance for things English) in my landlord during a conversation about the movie, Gosford Park, I invited Dick to join me for a cup of tea and some cookies I'd recently brought back from London. Much to my relief, he seemed mildly agreeable to tea and cookies, and dropping his pliers on the driveway, he followed me inside.

Over tea, I cautiously alluded to the fact that perhaps certain neighbors had become somewhat uncomfortable with certain levels of noise connected to certain home improvement projects. After assuring Dick that I was also a "late-night person," I suggested the possibility that our neighbors, not sharing our vampiric lifestyles, had become somewhat irritated by some of the louder nocturnal gardening projects in our backyard. Dick nodded silently. For a moment, I began to feel guilty and anxious about the possibility that I had upset him. Dick, after all, had been known to plunge suddenly into fits of incapacitating depression that lasted for several days.

"You know," he said suddenly, "I stay up as late as I can at night so that I'll be able to sleep through the day. That way, I can minimize contact with other people."

I nodded sympathetically. Taking encouragement, Dick launched into a lengthy speech about the "dumb fucking jackasses" who had moved into town since "god-damn Money Magazine, or whatever it is, gave Ann Arbor its fucking imprimatur as one of the nicest places to raise some kids." When he had finished his speech, he added "god-damn morons" for good measure, placed his tea cup in my sink, and shuffled downstairs to read the latest newsletter from the Airedale Rescue Society, the only charitable organization to which Dick has or ever will donate money.

Whatever his minor failings, Dick is one of the most decent misanthropes one could ever hope to meet. Among other things, he is a staunch opponent of Ann Arbor slumlordism, renting far below the market price as a kind gesture to struggling students. He has, if nothing else, a deep sympathy for those living the financially precarious life of the mind. Before reaching the age of fifty, Dick obtained no less than six Master's degrees in a variety of subjects, opting relatively late in life for his current job as a group counselor at a small prison in Adrian, Michigan.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, before he settled into a life of counseling three-strike pot smokers, petty larcenists and second-degree assailants, Dick taught at a number of secondary schools attached to American embassies and military bases throughout Europe and Asia. Each summer, he scraped together what was left of his annual salary and traveled as far as his money would take him. His preferred mode of travel was a used motorcycle he purchased in Germany in 1964. However, shortly before returning to the United States for good, Dick sold his motorcycle and, in a rare and almost inexplicable fit of sociability, signed up for a guided bus tour of the sites of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This tour ultimately convinced Dick that, once he found himself a comfortable house in a small Midwestern town, he would never venture forth to "see the world" again.

The tour bus that carried Dick and over fifty "nattering" middle-aged Middle Americans stopped at the Egyptian Pyramids, the only structures that remain of the Seven Wonders. It also made hundreds of stops in the marketplaces of congested cities, and in the centers of impoverished towns withering alongside the roads connecting the sites of long-vanished glories such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. At each stop, my somewhat world-weary and jaded landlord witnessed what seemed like an endless repetition of the same scene. In countless villages - kept alive only by the regular appearance of doughy, camera-laden tourists - desperate hawkers ran beside the open windows of the bus, holding silver chains and stringed beads aloft on spindly fingers. On the narrow streets of bustling cities, the driver, undoubtedly on the payroll of politicians hoping to boost the tourist trade at local markets, slowly navigated past limping dogs, wildly gesturing merchants, and old women sitting in dusty doorways and staring into the distance through sunken eyes. The scene always ended with the predictable clicks of camera shutters and increasingly wan statements about how "gorgeous" and "fantastic" it all was, and about how "jealous everyone back home would be."

What eventually broke Dick's will to travel was not the actual bus tour, but rather its lingering aftermath and, specifically, the seemingly unshakeable presence of two participants who dogged Dick for days after the tour concluded at the (site of) the Temple of Artemis. Dick is fond of very little, but he is very fond of telling the story of his repeated and entirely coincidental encounters with mind-numbing married couple during his post-tour sojourn through Greece. After visiting the Temple of Artemis, Dick had several chance encounters with this couple, and in detailing each of them, he typically dwells most on one that took place at the Acropolis. If one were to approximate Dick's manner of telling, one befitting an elderly and innately crotchety man who has seen much and been impressed by very little, one would do it in the following way:

So I'd just survived that awful tour of what some moron guide claimed (cough) were the locations of the Seven Ancient Wonders, and what a load of shit it all was. (Dick throws a slipper at a brazen ant zigzagging its way across his kitchen floor.) So there I was, after all that Third World bullshit, standing on the Hill of the Acropolis, just outside of Athens, thinking to myself that I'd finally made it back to civilization. (cough/wheeze). I mean, here was this absolutely spectacular view. (cough) On one side, the Aegean Sea, and on the other, this fantastic monument to Athena. Then below, the entire city of Athens stretching into the distance. (Phone rings and an answering machine begins broadcasting a pre-recorded appeal for money, prompting a short tirade about those "jackasses down at Party Headquarters looking for a god-damn donation, even through they disgraced themselves in the Congressional elections.")

Anyway, I felt like I'd finally come back to Western Civilization. The Acropolis just looked so damn familiar. It was (cough) like something I'd seen before, like something I knew. It looked exactly like you'd expect the seat of democracy to look. (A car peels out, and Dick cranes his neck to look through his kitchen window, muttering about the "god-damn drug dealers across the street" - he happens to be right.)

Anyway, after the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and all that bullshit, I finally felt alright about things. And then, if you can believe it, the same blue-haired bimbette from Nebraska and her awful husband came around in their god-damn polyester jackass golf pants and lime green knit suits. Just fucking awful. It was like they couldn't let go of the Eisenhower years, and they were waddling up the hill, right at me, if you can believe it, waving stupidly and grinning from ear to fucking ear. Then, they put a coin into one of the telescopes on the viewing platform and started making complete spectacles of themselves. (cough) The part that really killed me, and get a load of this, is that this blue-haired geriatric bimbo started screeching out that she could see the Hilton Hotel they're staying at. (Dick is coughing and convulsing in a paroxysm of rage that the memory of this couple still inspires.) Then, if you can believe it, these two morons spent the rest of the time left on the telescope staring like idiots at the Athens Hilton and talking about how pleasant it all was, and about how they'd never stayed in such a lovely hotel. That idiot of a husband was standing there, right next to the fucking Aegean Sea and talking about the tiled pool at the Hilton Hotel. God-damn morons.

The first time I heard this story, I remained silent until the last expletive had left Dick's lips. Then, after Dick stopped fuming I ventured that maybe, in their own strange way, this couple had expanded their horizons during their visit to Greece. After all, it was 1972, and they were from Omaha, Nebraska. From their perspective, the Hilton, with its terraced gardens, gurgling fountains, and inlaid pool might have been as "foreign" as the Acropolis.

Dick was in no mood to listen to such shit. As he ends most conversations, he ended this one by standing up, putting his tea cup into the sink, and muttering something about the imbecility of people. In this case, he muttered something about the "god-damn jackasses overrunning Europe these days." When he said "these days," he was, of course, thinking of 1972. Dick hasn't gotten out much since then.