SPIN magazine remains a publication that spurred my mind when I was younger, but has since become a curio. I still see it - a pitiable object on the shelf - looking waxed up and shiny for sunlight and curiosity to reflect off its cover. For one issue a few summers ago, it returned to that estimable position of bent-back spine clenched in my hands. I was at Indigo Books and Music on McGill College Avenue in downtown Montreal, noticing among the string of music magazine covers the face of Axel Rose. The cover read, "Where's Axl?"
Inside was an article about the disappearance of one of the biggest icons in music's last fifteen years. I could really give a damn about him, but I can't say the same thing for the millions and millions of people worldwide who bought G'N'R albums, t-shirts, concert tickets, and red bandannas. Whenever I visit my hometown, I am as sure to see a deer strapped to the roof of a car as I am to see one of their fucking t-shirts. Sometimes simultaneously. But I too wondered, what the hell happened to Axl Rose?
I bought a pack of cigarettes today and unwrapping them, remembered a picture I once saw of Jack Kerouac leaning up against an East Village tenement having a smoke. Back in my SPIN-reading days I considered Jack's the only way to smoke, and swore off cigarettes for life less I could be as cool doing it. I don't consider myself a smoker's smoker, have never smoked a pack in under a month, but do occasionally buy them to remind myself why I shouldn't. The picture below is a primer on how to smoke a cigarette.
There is only one other way: the cigarette smokes you. This is how 97% of us smoke. It burns, dangles, takes over the front of the face and renders you a parasite to nicotine and its frail weight in dumb fingers. I should know, because this is how I smoke. 2.9999% of smokers smoke like Jack. My old roommate Kevin Matha smokes like this. He would hoist the garbage bag out of the can in the kitchen, throw it over his shoulder, and bite down on the cigarette as he flung open the door. He'd leave it in his lip till the trash was on the curb of Claremont Avenue, and leave it still when he removed his Red Sox hat and wiped the sweat caused by the exertion off his brow. Red faced and dizzy, he could still smoke like Jack.
Then there's that other .0001%.
Mike Middleton was an acquaintance my last year of high school. I shared lunch with this character and a sea of vague caracatures. I don't know if I consciously pursued his genius or accidentally stumbled across it, but it was there; I recognized it the first time I visited his bedroom. He lived in a one-room suburban flophouse on Skid Row Drive. The closest thing to a homeless shelter you could find in Queensbury, NY.
Mike slept on the floor in a New Kids On the Block sleeping bag, kept cheap porn mags fanned across his bedroom floor. Beer cans full of piss on the book shelf. Drawers open, contents emptied onto the floor. Chip wrappers, cereal boxes, a convenience store held up for its high fructose corn syrup, a wrapper factory fallen on hard times. Just beyond, his parents owned a four-bedroom two-bath cedar-sided house with an inground pool. He was a black sheep relative who moved in after a string of bad luck and never left. I can't imagine his younger sister's face every time she stumbled into his room.
He wore six t-shirts at one time, always, rotating them from inner to outer, once a day. His fashion sense begged: If one t-shirt is visible and one is touching your skin, which shirt are you actually wearing? With his underwear no queries need be posed; he wore the same pair of boxers for months on end. His record; two and half months without changing them.
Extremes of personal hygiene have never fascinated me entirely. Filth is filth, a one dimensional subject with which one can write a few meager sentences. Excess however is a good start... to live vicariously through someone else's excess is to begin a search for the character traits of a genuine individual.
Middleton always had his drunkeness to fall back on, whether at the liquor store stocking shelves part-time (he'd have done it for free) or down by the "Shanty.' His Shanty was his home away from home. A half-room shack in the middle of the woods - too small to drink in but a great place to drink next to - to share a drink with the woods. At parties he would piss himself for free beers. I once saw him funnel half a bottle of gin, only to throw it up and forge on with another half bottle of Goldschlager. Throw in two packs of Camel Wides and we're getting somewhere.
Filth, excess, and the desire to provoke outrage. The latter is not teeing off and skirting the fairway. You have to be nuanced; you have to know your audience and proceed delicately.
Mike would announce every day in the middle of lunch that he was going to the bathroom across the hall to masturbate. He would leave and come back 15-20 minutes later, no explanation of his absence save a lazy smile. To this day he holds the dubious honor of concocting the most outrageous method of self-satisfaction. He claimed that lying on your back in an empty bathtub, listening to a recording of yourself reading Penthouse Forum in a cowboy accent was "making love to yourself." In his school bag for months he kept a ziplock with what he claimed was a vaginal secretion from his junior prom date. I would never admit to making such a thing up; Middleton's disheveled appearance alone put all claims under suspicion. One day he asked her to come over to our lunch table and showing her what looked like a small, stale booger, she confirmed it. "Yeah. Weirdest thing. Mike wouldn't let me throw it out."
Despite these details one pervades. He was incredibly charming. His girlfriend (not the one mentioned above) was two years older and a former prom queen. The extent of his filth offended no-one, and his desires to provoke were not met with outrage but with gentle prodding. When Mike asked a girl named Michelle to come over to our table to touch his crotch, and confirm for all within earshot the size of his penis, she curiously obliged. Her impressed surprise mixed with his triumphant expression was a delicate situation handled flawlessly. It could've gone horribly.
I remember stopping by his house one afternoon and finding him a victim to one of his own gags; "There's three plane tickets to Orlando on the kitchen table." It turns out his parents arranged a trip to Disney World and found the best way to break it to Mike that he wasn't invited was to just leave the tickets on the table. They left for a week over Thanksgiving Break, leaving him $50 for the week's groceries, expenses, etc. If they'd left him more he'd have turned up dead. As it was, Mike got a bottle of cheap gin and a carton of cigarettes, first thing. Then he brought his sleeping bag down to the living room.
I last saw him, a little heavy-eyed and six beers the wrong side of sober sometime in the fall of 1999. He was talking about the relationship between rockets and candy, his appearance was a bit more managed, and he was taking classes at a local college. His potential seemed a little less infinite than before, but it could've been just a long day. I haven't thought about him much since, but today, smoking cigarettes, his style of smoking came to me.
As if every inhale was a matter of preserving life, Middleton smoked as asthmatics hit inhalers. First he'd fill his throat with a drag, then expand his chest cavity a harder gasp. Hold it in for a few second's pause, then force out the smoke. The cigarette would last less than a minute, and the filter would usually put the cigarette out. When you see heroine addicts stick their arms above their heads in the movies, well, it was a little like that. And although his tobacco inflations were always memorable, one question still pervades.
Where the hell is Mike Middleton?
I could propose a lot of theories. He could be this guy.
And I'd like to believe that almost as much as I'd like to have a cup of coffee with him and hear about how the last half-decade's been.
The best I can figure, Middleton runs a bait shop, specializing in blood worms and silver minnows in a small dockside shack on Lake Okeechobee, Florida. This is of course, only a front. For a full-time job he's a swing voter. And on election day Mike will stroll down to a touch-screen voting booth and decide who will be President. But something will go terribly wroing, his brain so waterlogged with poll results and debate footage, pundit rants and half-blurred 'Nam-era documents clouding the clouded functions of his cerebral cortex, and his mental breakdown will cause first state-wide and then nation-wide voting machine failures. Blindly he will keypad-write-in (can you even do that?) the first name that comes to mind. A lot of votes will be cast in Florida for men like Kush and Berry, Glinton, Kore, Buchanan, McCarthy, etc; but Middleton's write-in choice will be weighted as 51 million votes, and his choice will be the next President of the United States (and you read it here first): Axl Rose.
Middleton will have the last laugh. While we stand idly by and wait for tragedy to unfold, Al Qaeda will harness mother nature's indifferent wrath and assassinate first lady Stephanie Seymour with a cold November Rain.