Vanishing Point: Middle West, Citizenship

by Ander Monson

From Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, which will be published by Graywolf Press on March 31, 2010.

The midwest, which is to say the debate about what the midwest is or contains (Missouri? North dakota? Pennsylvania? Nebraska?), which is to say part of the section between the coasts, the middle before you get to the west, is about transit. It is transitional. We know this caught in mile-long streams of traffic and trucks queueing up behind and beside another, three wide at times, to transport materials or goods from one place to another, through the middle of the country. Though this space, this horizontality, would appear to be static, with the small towns where little seems to change, or so television tells us, and everyone moves slowly and drinks at the same bars day in and out—what appears to be a static equilibrium, a balanced equation—is still all about transition, from one place to another. It is for us at this moment, driving from small college to small college in our rented ford escape, escaping from little, escaping to little, incapable of any real sort of escape, if we wanted to attempt it, having no skills to speak of, and loving the world enough to continue wanting all of it, hungry hungry hippo style, coveting it in all its glory and variety. We are in the metal exoskeleton of the car, ipod playing familiar music through the speakers (and the world accordingly transforming itself cartoonlike as in a number of television commercials for mp3 players—the world can be made over, our experience transformed, as easy as this via soundtrack), climate control set to keep us at a temperature we are used to, electric seating system positioned for the idea of comfort: we are as at home as is possible in a rental, transitional car. Normally we have our sirius satellite radio, which allows us to bypass the horror of local programming for a glistening network of channels beamed down to us from space, no less. But this time the ipod is deployed, projecting our own soundtrack for our trip, our life, the we in wepod (the collective consciousness of music lists and listeners), everywhere around us, even in the air. We have the gps plugged in, too, so there’s no need for maps, and the whole idea of being lost is now entirely quaint (which is a sadness because we like the darkness of the unexplored map, but we are practical: we also want to get there and back quickly, and besides we can see the world passing by in real time as we drive via gps, the names of roads and rivers and golf courses; wecould almost drive with the gps only and not pay attention to the actual world around us, but technology hasn’t got us there quite yet). We are self-sufficient. Located. In command. An american dream. An orgasm on the move. It is really fucking great.

We are driving back from the world’s biggest ball of paint where we painted coat #21406 a nice cerulean sort of Sherwin-Williams blue. We donated to the cause and received a couple chips that had been shaved off the ball that demonstrate hundreds of paint layers, concentric circles originally, until gravity and sloppy paint jobs and individuality distorted its shape (it’s surely more vertical than horizontal now). Sherwin-Williams sponsors it and (we believe this is what the proprietors said) built the barn in which the ball is now housed, dangling from an industrial looking set of steel beams and cable from the ceiling. Sherwin-williams also donates all the paint. In return the corporate logo is displayed behind the ball (“Sherwin-Williams: cover the earth!”). In this way mike and glenda carmichael, creators and tenders of the ball, have put the town on the map.

Alexandria might have been in danger of vanishing otherwise. We drove by a lot of abandoned buildings, including some huge complexes where things were once warehoused, refined, produced, or packaged, with the requisite shattered windows, graffiti, rusting machinery, plant life returning through all that space. We have no doubt that in a generation it will be subsumed entirely. It will be gone, and the memory of it will have to persist since it will be out of view, postapocalyptic. We don’t know if the ball is an example of mike and glenda substantially engaging with the world, or if our visiting it is a substantial engagement (something to which we aspire as a reader and explorer), or if both are a fiction, a regression from that kind of engagement. The ball is beautiful. Mike and glenda are proud. They also seem a little tired (glenda has done 9,000+ of the coats herself). We worked up a sweat painting it (it’s now become very large), so we can only imagine.

The ball is the reverse of vanishing. It grows larger everyday. We helped to enlarge it, took part, became citizens of the ball. It has inspired, or coincided with, other balls. Another Alexandrian, andy carmichael, is in the process of making what he hopes will eventually become the world’s largest biggest ball of plastic wrap. And a few years back, Alexandria was in the news for pulling a 400-pound hairball out of the sewer. It has since dissolved, but the town built a replica, which is featured in the town’s annual christmas parade.

Oddly, the department of homeland security has reportedly identified the ball of paint as a “distinguished heritage site,” which requires funds for terror defense.

A couple filmmakers made a documentary about the ball four years ago but it was never distributed or released, though there’s a slick website. Mike is miffed that the filmmakers never showed the film in Alexandria, or even to the two of them, though it premiered, apparently, in Boston. And ended there. One imagines the film did not depict the ball or the town or the denizens of it all that kindly.

If you go to see the ball (or at least on the website you can see it by proxy, like 493,146 of your fellow internetters), drive east along washington street on your way back out of alexandria. See if you can see the ruins or if they are now gone. Stop in at JW’s, a tiny bar that serves domestic bottles on fridays for a buck (their selection is, as you’d imagine, limited). They also have tacos. The front window looks across at the ruins. No one in the bar is going anywhere anytime soon. But you are. You are driving through to see the ball, to sign the guest book, have your picture taken, touch a legend, paint the ball, become part of history, say that you’ve done that, and then you’re gone on to something else, the world’s biggest pecan, maybe, in Missouri, or the world’s biggest crucifix, in Michigan. But they are there. And the ball—and the building and the thinking that contains the ball (as if anything could really contain the ball!) Will be tended gracefully. And it continues to expand. Because of you. And you. Because of all of us.

Ander Monson is the author of a host of paraphernalia including a decoder wheel, several chapbooks and limited edition letterpress collaborations, a website <>, and five books, most recently The Available World (poetry, Sarabande, 2010) and Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (nonfiction, Graywolf, 2010).  He lives and teaches in Tucson, Arizona, where he edits the magazine DIAGRAM <> and the New Michigan Press.