Escalators! (AAG 2018 Recap, Part III)

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What would any self-respecting AAG recap be without an entry inspired by a conversation I had with a Finnish-German (or, German-Finnish, not sure which direction that goes) friend over breakfast in the Louis Armstrong Airport on the way home Saturday morning? Why, it would be stuck on the first floor, literally and figuratively.

Lauri Turpeinin and I happened to be on the same flight from New Orleans to Atlanta, so we met at the airport and grabbed breakfast: beignets for him (his first of the trip) and an andouille egg sandwich for me (my favorite sausage, challenging to procure the further you move away from the Gulf). Mixed within a disconcerting yet fascinating conversation about the ongoing, wasp-like presence of Neo-Nazis in the Eastern European hardcore/punk/metal world, Lauri mentioned that his line of research often incorporates scholarship prone to thick description. This includes, for example, three-volume tomes about the social and cultural “meaning” of escalators. At first, we both laughed it off as the type of academic psychobabble somewhat stereotypical of academe. Within a few seconds, though, I realized that escalators carry a ton of baggage culturally and geographically. I’m sure Andrea Mihm (author of, loosely translated, The escalator – cultural studies about a mechanically developed in-between-space) would have a lot more to say about it, but let’s go to the (mental) tape:

  • When I was a kid, it made me happy to see an escalator; a vast majority of opportunities to ride them happened in the context of some leisure activity like mall-shopping or pavilion-carousing, far from home. To this day, whenever I see some kid (or someone with the maturity level of a kid) running the wrong way down or up an escalator, I try to reserve judgment because I spent most of ages 6-15 wanting to do it but never conjuring the courage.
  • With the rise of the 24-hour news cycle in the United States, escalators became a surprisingly common object of demonization, an evil mechanized foot-shredder, preying on absent-minded shoppers in thong sandals and (in some rare, extra horrifying scenarios) barefoot pedestrians whenever outlets needed a fresh, hot fear injection on slow news days.
  • Likely influenced by the sensationalizing of escalators as bringers of humanity’s downfall, The Simpsons tackled the machines via an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon on “The Front” (9F16) in 1993. Though it wasn’t my favorite gag from that episode, it was definitely memorable, and it provided a lynch pin for the plot about Bart and Lisa submitting I&S scripts under Grandpa Simpson’s name. That episode, to my knowledge, was also where America found out that Grandpa’s name was Abraham.
  • Escalators played a pivotal role in my mobility when I lived in DC. I interacted with one of the DC Metro’s notoriously long and temperamental escalators almost every day, including the legendary ones at Bethesda and Woodley Park. I never had the pleasure of riding their record-holding counterpart at Forest Glen Metro, but I heard legends of it throughout the DMV. On a few unfortunate occasions, I had to hike all the way up the broken escalator at Dupont Circle. On others, one of the two platform escalators was broken, closing whichever one went down and forcing me and hordes of other yuppies to wait in line for the elevator, missing our train and delaying our ride home by a solid half hour at least. It sounds sensationalized, but like anyone who’s experienced the DC Metro anytime in the twenty-first century can attest, I WAS THERE, MAN. Of course, next year’s AAG meeting will take place around the Woodley Park Metro station… any geographers not satiated by the zoo (a walking distance from the conference hotels, in Cleveland Park) will have the pleasure of taking that escalator down into the bowels of the Earth, wondering if it will ever reach its destination.
  • Mitch Hedberg, one of the truly great stand-up comedians of the modern era, had a classic joke about escalators that I can’t imagine anyone else surpassing. Sorry for the convenience.
  • In August 2015, I lugged the heaviest suitcase imaginable from Paris to Brussels to meet up with my friends Ruth and Casey. I navigated the Brussels Metro to the station closest to our AirBnB. I believe it was Sainte-Catherine. Anyway, my insurmountably heavy suitcase had a bum wheel; I had purchased it for 30 Euro at the Porte de Montreuil flea market, and I got what I paid for. I righted the caster just enough to slow-roll it up to a street escalator. Something was wrong with this escalator, though…it was sitting still. I looked around to see if anyone in a uniform could help me, but that area of the station was desolate. This was strange for such a busy Metro station in the middle of the day. I lugged the broken suitcase over to the escalator on the opposite end of the station… which was also not running. I was on the verge of tears. It was the middle of summer, and I was sweaty and exhausted. I began to wonder if it was even a good idea for me to be in Brussels when a young man walked by me, onto the entrance of the escalator… and [CHKVROOOOOOM] it started moving. I felt like an idiot. Paris, DC, Madrid, and anywhere else applicable had not thought of installing sensors that activated their escalators whenever a rider stepped on, thereby saving unimaginable amounts of electricity. I was mostly frustrated because it hadn’t even occurred to me to try stepping onto the escalator. If I had, I would have spent about seven fewer minutes underground and enjoying the cobblestone street over which I had to drag my gigantic (what may as well have been a) back-of-bricks. Those smart escalators in the Brussels Metro probably made me look, to any potential observers for a brief moment, stupid. I still imagine a group of Belgian security guards watching me through CCTV and wondering what’s wrong with me.
  • Another note on the escalators in the DC Metro (or, for that matter, in any city not known for its warmth and compassion): People who stood on the left side of escalators going either direction placed themselves directly in the cross-hairs of raging commuters. Sometimes, these interactions grew ugly. I’ll never forget being stuck on the right (standing=acceptable) side of the escalator up to the 7th and F exit of Metro Center when the left (standing=unacceptable) side came to a halt. A woman yelled quite authoritatively “please move to the right if you’re going to stand!” Someone about 6 or 7 people up yelled back “there’s a blind person up here!” I can’t describe how quickly and diametrically the women’s countenance shifted from angry to embarrassed as she yelled back, “oh, I’m so sorry!”
  • Perhaps we will never come to an effective agreement on whether it is ever appropriate for somebody to stand still or to aggressively climb on an escalator. Just ask Krist Novoselic.
  • Finally, and perhaps most pertinent to this conversation, I must discuss the busted escalators at the Sheraton Hotel during this year’s AAG conference. Though three hotels had been outlined for the sessions, the Marriott and Sheraton were doing the heavy lifting across Canal Street from one another. Understandably, the Sheraton did not widely publicize a particularly gruesome accident that happened to a contractor less than two weeks before AAG registration opened. I wonder if this slowed progress on fixing the escalators between floors two and four. I’m also still highly skeptical that the floor-by-request button-less elevator system that many conference hotels have adopted is at all effective. Either way, having to run up poorly marked stairwells in order to make sessions on time was not ideal. I also doubt that the handful of geographers understood my reference when I yelled “rock n’ roll!” in a British accent while searching for the proper door to the 4th floor, but that one’s on me. Thankfully, the downward escalators were working, so it was possible to ride down and decompress for a couple flights before inevitably getting AAG’d in the lobby. [EDIT: I managed to forget this segment when I wrote the original entry, despite Lauri and I having talked about it at length that morning in the airport. I just added it in; thanks to Sarah Gelbard for calling out my omission].

And that is just what I thought up in the span of two minutes of conversation. To be fair, I did embellish this list slightly while compiling it, but I stand behind what a crucial role escalators play in the urban (and even suburban) landscape. The next time your knee-jerk reaction is to scoff at a case study or topic, think twice and realize how Clifford Geertz was onto something when it called it “thick description.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start compiling data for a research project on the apocryphal Florida Man (based on another conversation I had at AAG). Here’s a music video featuring both escalators and Gary Numan. And they said it couldn’t be done!

 

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Heavy New Year from the Metal Parking Lot

Happy 2014, long lost readers! I do apologize for allowing to happen to my website what traditionally happens to websites for people involved in academia over the end of the year and holidays. I won’t let it happen for at least eleven more months.

This semester and year will be bringing a handful of great conferences (including the UTK Geography Research Symposium in February, the AAG in Tampa in April, and a few others I’ll be announcing as they’re confirmed) and projects, so get excited. Before I tackle any of that, though, I need to venture into the world of cult video on this week’s “episode” of Sonic Geography.

It’s no secret that, as D. Travis “Trav S.D.” Stewart wrote (2005)

“new technology actually encourages and facilitates the study of the past… in the centuries after the printing press was invented, recently rediscovered plays from the ancient world began to be disseminated throughout Europe, helping to spark an explosion of theater in the Renaissance. Similarly, by the 1980s, video- and audiotape technology, combined with the multifarious choices offered by cable television, combined to expose a generation of young people to a flood of “new” entertainment from the first half of the twentieth century” (p. 291).

(wikipedia)

So, of course, we should not be surprised whenever contemporary internet instant-archivist technology aids and abets the renaissance of certain cultural traces stamped by that aforementioned video- and audiotape technology. One of my personal favorite examples of this has been the reconceptualization and rise of Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s completely unwitting 1986 verité masterpiece Heavy Metal Parking Lot over the past decade. HMPL has become something of a starting point in the conversation of “found video,” despite never truly being lost as it was disregarded for over a decade. By the early 90s, multi-generation VHS dubs of HMPL had made it into the hands of various cultural taste-makers, including, notoriously, Kurt Cobain. The internet made it possible for millions more regrettable-culture-fixated consumers to see the documentary.

For those of you who are uninitiated, the film is accessible online and only 17 minutes long, so if you haven’t seen it yet, I would recommend going to watch it right now, then come back here to continue reading.

I’ll wait.

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Now, wasn’t that ridiculous? People once dressed like that and acted like that. In front of cameras. HMPL has grown into its role as prototypical evidence that open-access, streaming video has directly impacted human behavior nearly world-wide. In 1986, if a pair of unaffiliated nerds walked up to a drunk/high you with a video camera, your instinct would likely be to perform rather than worry that your parents, boss, or millions of people would ever see this video one day. The geography of media access and approach has changed more in these past fifteen years than it had in the prior 100, and it has changed more in the past century than it had in the previous 10,000 years. At any rate, the drunken metal fans immortalized on that day in Landover, MD had little reason to suspect they would ever be…immortalized… as anything, especially not an image embedded to the right of this paragraph.

John Heyn and Jeff Krulik today (decibelmagazine)

Admittedly, I never saw this until a few years ago, well into my life in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, certain connections allowed me to strike up a friendship with one half of the tandem responsible for HMPL’s existence, Jeff Krulik. I always ran into him at cultural events around the DC Metro, and he always had some great news about his past and current projects popping up in places he never expected. As you’ll read from him below, the biggest surprise in his decades-long dynasty of public-access and all-purpose A/V dorkdom is that he’s still talking about these productions nearly thirty years after he and John Heyn decided to take some cameras and mics to the parking lot of a Judas Priest concert to see what would happen.

In light of Jeff’s latest locally focused rockumentary Led Zeppelin Played Here, I decided to drop him a line to say hello and ask him a few questions. The topic of media geographies came up often in my seminar on Public Memory, so I thought I would get some insight directly from the man whose ascent to cult icon status has been anything but linear.

First and foremost, WHY was there such a mystery whether or not Led Zeppelin, one of the most celebrated and popular bands in rock history, played the Wheaton, MD show in 1969? Were accounts that contradictory and was there no photo/video evidence? And why not (if not)?

(weta.org)

Led Zeppelin had just landed in the states not even a month earlier. Their first US concert was December 26 in Denver. They then just crisscrossed the country—some gigs were set up in advance, some in haste. Weeks earlier on this first tour–which concluded mid-February 1969–was the apocryphal January 20 concert at the Wheaton Youth Center outside of Washington, DC, but there is no documentation to verify that show, and the promoter only says there were 50 people watching Led Zeppelin perform in the youth center gymnasium. It’s hard for people today to get their head wrapped around this notion, of a failed Led Zeppelin concert in a small, modest location, without any documentation to back it up—no posters, advertisements, reviews, ticket stubs, etc. All we have are  eyewitness testimony, or the many doubting skeptics, to tell this tale, and I’ve gathered a lot of this storytelling in a nearly 90-minute feature length documentary.  

January 20 was the Wheaton Youth Center concert in suburban Maryland. Right now, the official Led Zeppelin website has the date listed as ‘rumoured.’ That same day also happened to be the Presidential Inauguration of Richard Nixon. It was only Led Zeppelin’s 26th day in the United States, and the first album had only been released eight days earlier on January 12. So nobody really knew who they were, and there are many factors that contribute to this event being a tantalizing mystery, almost a ghost concert, and that’s why I like it. 

Do you think this Led Zeppelin-mystery could have originated from anywhere but the Washington DC area? What was it about DC that created this legend?  

I think this Led Zeppelin-mystery could indeed be from anywhere, and indeed there are a few other unconfirmed concert dates on that first tour, but I think what helps with my story is Richard Nixon and inaugural events, although it’s not really germane to the story, just a tasty happenstance. My goal for the documentary was to really be about the emergence of the rock concert industry, focusing on the mid-Atlantic and MD/DC/VA area specifically, and I think that’s largely been achieved by the response from our screenings. The concert industry was basically being invented at that time, and everything that we now take for granted—ticketing, promotion, security, safety, large venues, booking agents—had very humble origins. And what was happening at the Wheaton Youth Center was in many instances being replicated all over the country.
I know I may have asked you similar questions on the podcast, but how has the internet-shrunken world affected the way you approach film-making today rather than back in the day?

I honestly haven’t changed my approach behind a camera when I’m shooting, or concocting what to film or how to film—but distributing  my work is another matter entirely. Internet online video has revolutionized  all facets of bringing eyeballs to your work. When I was starting out, you couldn’t even project video in theaters (which is why Heavy Metal Parking Lot developed such a life by VHS tape trading), much less blast it out in moments to a potential global universe. Unfortunately, everyone else is doing the same thing, so to say there’s a glut of content out there is a huge understatement. But honestly, it took a lot of work back then, and it takes a lot of work now. And it was always competitive trying to generate an audience. And as much as film festivals, and especially the big name ones, carry great cachet, it’s incredibly difficult to secure a slot. So getting notice can come from other ways, most notably the internet. But often times the shelf life can be cruelly short, as another video, or hundreds more, are immediately ready to garner attention. 

What’s the most surprising thing about the Heavy Metal Parking lot bootleg diaspora/dissemination (so to speak) that made it back to you? Location? Person (Nirvana notwithstanding)?

I think the most surprising thing about Heavy Metal Parking Lot is that I’m still talking about it almost thirty years later. But that’s a good thing. No complaints, just a nice surprise. John Heyn and I will always be grateful for the ride, and hope it will continue indefinitely. I’m also always thrilled to hear from our ever expanding on-screen alumni, the Heavy Metal Parking Lot family. I dream of having a bona-fide reunion one day, and film it, but until then you have to settle for stuff like this and this.

Do you think Public Access had a heyday in the 1980s or any time else?

To be honest, I can still flip cable channels and stop dead in my tracks on a public access channel and watch, often bemused, or at least curious enough to try and Google some background particulars. But I think the only reason you could consider it something akin to a heyday is because there were few other options to watch really far out, weird, and eccentric content on television. Nowadays, it’s everywhere on your computer, and conventional TV watching as we knew it has been turned on its head. I will say that the public access community television from my perspective is still happening and viable, and if people want an outlet to expressive themselves, I can think of no better way. 

For more information on Jeff, consult his IMDB or follow him on Twitter.

I interviewed Jeff in 2010 for a podcast I was working on at the time called The Big Takeover Radio Show (no relation to the magazine), but I’m having difficulty finding that recording on my old hard drive. If anybody reading this may still have their digital hands on a copy of Season 5, Episode 15 of that and could email me at sonicgeography (at) gmail, I would be forever grateful. My radio archives have been down for over a year now since I blew up my old website, but they still exist and are available upon request. Hopefully more will be uploaded and made available via the iTunes store or just directly from SonicGeography.
And if anybody has access to the 1997 Krulik gem Ernest Borgnine on the Bus, please do share.
Sources Cited

Stewart, D. (2005). No Applause – Just Throw Money, or The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.