Friday, July 27, 2007

Basement Songs- "Ana Ng" by They Might Be Giants




If you should find yourself in North Olmsted, Ohio with a few extra minutes, you can drive past the North Olmsted high school. There, if you know where to look, you can see a brown brick, perfectly centered between two windows on the way to the soccer practice field at the back of the school. Because it is brown, this brick blends in nicely with the rest of the orange and tan skin of the school. That layer of burnt umber, oil based paint was applied to the wall on a humid, scorching afternoon in August 1990. At the tail end of my time working on the North Olmsted Board of Education summer maintenance crew, I decided to leave my mark on the school in which I grew up and started the path to adulthood.

For three years, I worked alongside a group of college guys my age and a group of men in their 40’s and 50’s (“lifers” as we called them) who were the full time maintenance men for the school system. Each year, our summers were spent sweating our asses off in the Ohio heat, primarily painting classrooms and the exterior trim of the schools. My friend, Jeff Dillon, landed me the job and I convinced him to persuade Mike Clancy, the head of the maintenance department, to hire Steve, too. Like I said, I matured during that period. I learned how to be a better friend, an okay boyfriend (which would provide me with the lessons to be a good husband someday) and a halfway decent painter. Those laborious days were full of “Diner”-esque conversations; lazy, introspective moments; and a lot of good music playing from my Emerson dual cassette boom box. Although there were many songs I grew to love during that time, many of those tunes hold only nostalgic value to me these days. However, one song remains a favorite basement song and it is one I would include in my personal top ten: They Might Be Giant’s “Ana Ng”.

In 1988, having graduated from high school, I anxiously awaited the fall and what Bowling Green State University had in store for me. I hoped to learn everything I needed to know about becoming a better writer and a filmmaker. I knew the road was going to be long and tough, and that’s where my anxiety came from. Was I up to this challenge? What if everything I tried to do was shit? What if I failed and wound up back in Ohio the rest of my life. At that age, there was nothing worse, to me, than failing and winding up living with my parents. On top of all of this, I was still heartbroken from my high school sweetheart moving away and the feeble attempt at making a long distance relationship work crumbling miserably. To paraphrase Crash Davis, I was “dealing with a lot of shit, there.” Luckily, Steve, my best friend and the one guy I looked up to more than my brother, was returning from his freshman year at UNC. I was able to tap into his knowledge and listen to his stories of what to expect: Girls, parties, long nights theorizing and drinking, hard classes, dickhead teachers, if you’re lucky, a solid roommate and some new, good friends. There was also independence and freedom. And of course, there was the music.

College radio was in its heyday, featuring the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Inxs, the Minutemen, the ‘Mats and so many more there isn’t enough space (you should all check out the exemplary Rhino collection, “Left of the Dial” which is 4 cd’s of outstanding “underground” music from the 80’s). One of the albums Steve was hooked on was “Lincoln”, by a couple of guys named John who hailed from New York. John Flansburgh and John Linnell write quirky, off beat songs that fit into no particular style. At that point, in the 80’s they still played all of the instruments on their songs, which ranged from accordion to saxophone to guitar. I had never heard They Might Be Giants (TMBG) before that summer, but Steve’s enthusiasm for “Lincoln” was infectious. The moment the guitar and drum machine of “Ana Ng” charged into my ears, my life changed. There is something so hypnotic about the driving music; it makes you want to bounce up and down, bobbing your head like one of the characters on the “Peanuts” cartoons. And Flansburgh’s nasally delivery carries a hint of sadness that this woman, Ana, is not his. Either he’s lost her love, or it was never his to begin with, that's a question left for us to decide.

I’ll be honest; to this day I barely have a clue what the hell they are talking about. “Make a hole in a gun perpendicular/To the name of this town in a desk-top globe”. Huh? Still, it’s the delivery. The passion. Whatever the hell these guys are talking about; their sincerity moves me every time I hear the song. The highlight of the song comes at the bridge.

“When I was driving once I saw this painted on a bridge
I don’t want the world, I just want your half.”

The bitterness of that line, delivered coolly by a woman’s voice, always affects me. What happened to this couple? And how do I avoid that happening to me (I would soon learn that you can’t avoid unhappy endings to relationships that were never meant to be).

Knowing that it was a drum machine should have turned off the drummer in me. But learning that these two New York guys had played all the instruments and programmed the drum machine (well) intrigued me. Their D.I.Y. approach inspired me and does so to this day. I thought, “If these two guys can produce a melancholic masterpiece (as well as an album that still stands up after twenty years), imagine what I might achieve some day”. That thinking helped me get through the making of King’s Highway” and just about any script I write. And that was, perhaps, one of the most important lessons I learned over the course of those three summers: The possibilities of the future are endless.

Each summer I was on the paint crew, and each subsequent summer after that, I have returned to this song. It is the only appropriate way I know how to kick off the month of June. Even after the release of TMBG’s breakthrough album, “Flood”, in 1990, if I didn’t hear “Ana Ng” at least 70-100 times, I felt incomplete. The song became an anthem for three of the best years of my young adulthood. My life would be empty without the time I spent wasting away those days in North Olmsted. Most important, my friendship with Steve grew into brotherhood over that time and if only for that, I am grateful. I believe that is why I chose to paint the brick that summer. In 1991, Steve would graduate and I would be on an internship in California. 1990 was our last summer of seeing each other every morning, calling one another in the afternoon and just getting together to do nothing but shoot hoops or cruise the valley. As we’ve gotten older, there are no more days like that, which makes visits like the one Steve bestowed upon us this spring all the more special.

There were actually three bricks painted that summer, one at each school we worked at, Chestnut Elementary, the middle school and the high school. I have no clue where the other two brown bricks are located. I believe they are high up, near the roof, and hidden from sight. The day we decided to paint the high school brick was a typical afternoon. Sweltering, dripping heat. I’m sure our clothes stank of sweat, alcohol from the night before, grime from not showering, and paint fumes. Steve and I were separated from the rest of the crew, on a scaffold. We were in the wide open, yet we couldn’t have been more alone. With no one around, it suddenly struck me to paint that brick. "We should paint one here", I must have said. Steve, ever the cautious one likely replied with an unsure, "Okay." The two of us shared a look, each one daring the other to be the first one to deface the school property. Mind you, we had defaced a lot of property in one way or another, but this was right out in the open. There would be no denying what we had done if caught by one of the lifers.

I was younger, more ballsy back then and I took my brush and painted half the brick. Steve had no choice but to finish the work. After he was done, being a perfectionist, I decided to add a second coat of paint, to make sure it looked good. We were careful, making sure that none of the burnt umber bled on to the mortar between the bricks. Time had stopped. We stepped back and admired each other's handiwork. So consumed were we by this moment, we didn't hear the department pickup truck approaching down the driveway. Steve was the first to notice and exclaimed,
“Someone’s coming!” Mike Clancy, our boss, drove by, his arm hanging out the window and his seat back to accommodate his big belly. With his dark glasses and his finely trimmed mustache, he looked directly at us, my paint brush dangling by my side. Were we caught? He waved and drove on, not noticing, or, maybe, he just didn’t care. Steve and I looked at each other. He gave me his “Can you believe that?” look and I laughed. Then, we stepped back and admired the handiwork.

If you should find yourself in North Olmsted, Ohio with a few extra minutes, you can drive past the North Olmsted high school. There, if you know where to look, you can see that brown brick, perfectly centered between two windows on the way to the soccer practice field at the back of the school. That brown brick is a testament to my love and friendship with Steve. It is a reminder of the people in my past who have left this earth, including my friend, Jeff Dillon, who fought and supported me for many years. If you pause to admire the brick, listen hard enough and the echoed laughter of young men ready to take on the world will blow by you with a summer gush of wind. Close your eyes and wait a little longer and I’m sure you will hear the far off strains of “Ana Ng” playing somewhere in the distance.

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