“The strange lovechild of David Sedaris and Joan Didion …”
Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere is a collection of articles and I essays I wrote between 1992 and 2003, as box-store America rumbled into the new century. It includes pieces from when I worked at the (late, great) Albuquerque Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman, and a lot of stuff I’ve written for the Washington Post.
All along, I’ve tried to find stories about places, people and events that others might consider mundane or unappealing. I like storage units, 7-Elevens, forgotten buildings, discarded furniture, old shopping malls (and new ones), freeway interchanges, condo developments, big-box stores—places that never cease to freak me out a little or make me laugh.
I like talking to people whose lives play out in that homogeneous consumer world, which is most of America. It’s always about the intersection of popular culture and real life. Anything that upsets New Urbanists or public-radio tote bag holders very often tantalizes the reporter in me. Charles Kuralt and I would have made awful road-trip companions: he’d be looking for harvest festivals and folksy charm on the farm roads, while I’d want to stop at the outlet mall off the freeway. He’d want fresh-baked pie; I’d vote Arby’s.
The 26 pieces in Off Ramp appear almost exactly as they originally ran in newspapers, and what still surprises me is how much space I got for some of them. An account of a young couple’s wedding in Albuquerque’s North Valley (which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1993) ran 9,000 words. The story of a family who ran a discount funeral home in an Austin strip mall was almost as long. My ruminative journey into Wilmington, Delaware’s credit-card industry hit about 7,000 words. (They’re not all long. Some are 1,000 words or so.)
I open the book with a new essay about the vast space I came to refer to as the “American Elsewhere,” chronicling the lives of not-quite-everyday people that I found by hanging out in convention centers, chain hotels, Best Buy, megachurches, waterbed stores, Kampgrounds of America, old roller rinks, Chili’s, Kmart, the Miss America pageant, and the like. I think the geography of nowhere (as they say) extends into the popular culture we consume, and so there are stories in a section called “Invisible Airplane” that are about Wonder Woman, Jesus Christ Superstar, pathetic Gary Coleman as he stunt-campaigns for California governor, Survivor, the man who invented Josie and the Pussycats, and the anxiety around the release of the first Star Wars prequel.
I don’t think a story is finished until something in it has made you wince or cracked you up—or both. Also it should pull at your heart a little. Although Off Ramp is sometimes shelved in the humor section of big bookstores, I would like to point out the “Heartache” in the subtitle: These are stories about the emotional side of the American Elsewhere, a place of 9/11 vibes, a missing woman, a space shuttle crash in Texas, and a personal story (also a Pulitzer finalist, in 1996) about Oklahoma City, my hometown, after Tim McVeigh blew up the federal building.
The description above—“the strange lovechild of David Sedaris and Joan Didion”—came from someone at Henry Holt, the book’s publisher, when trying to describe my work. I look back at some of these stories and see a lonely young man, driving in his car, working very hard to connect with the epically voracious, occasionally shabby, credit-crazy world in front of him. He’s still puzzled and delighted, even now.