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Styro-City Chapter 1 - Paul Knot's Dream

September 14, 2009

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See, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamt about having my own desert island. A big lush jungle in the middle of the pacific, fresh coconuts and lobster, a sweet bungalow on the beach. I suppose most kids dream of similar stuff, not the lobster and coconuts (I’ve always been into the food) but the concept of escape. It’s why we build tree forts and explore tunnels. It’s why we watch cartoons and have imaginary friends. Me personally, I took it a little more seriously.

 

I read all the books I could find that involved that sort of subject. I can’t remember most of them now, a lot of people can read a book and remember every character's name and the descriptions of all the rooms until they go senile with age. I on the other hand often have to make a cheat sheet of character names just to keep track of what I’m reading. That doesn’t stop me though; I am and always have been a voracious devourer of literature, especially as a kid. I remember reading the first thirty “Wizard of Oz’ books in one summer.

 

I do remember a few crucial tomes concerning islands, “Robinson Crusoe” was a favorite; even if was hard to read. Pirate stories were endlessly fascinating to me, life on the high seas, buried treasure, parrots that talked smack. Somehow all the islands always came with fresh water streams and wild pigs that were good for eating. Even after I read “Lord of the Flies” I still thought it would be awesome. The island was ideal, it was simply societal pressure that fouled that up. Just keep the other kids off the island, right?

 

I would always try to find the plot holes though. The fatal mistake that was made, the survival knowledge the protagonist should have had. There is always something thrown in there that screws up the scene. And I would invariably get angry when I found it. It didn’t really increase my enjoyment of the literature all that much; in fact, my inability to really suspend my disbelief and cynicism definitely took away from the satisfaction of simply reading. Which was funny, because I wasn’t a particularly bright kid, clever maybe but not bright.

 

Anyways, in my little fantasy, I would come up with all sorts of scenarios in which I ended up happily ever after in my own little paradise. But even in my fantasies, my brain kept finding problems with the plan. At first, I figured I’d just hijack and then crash a boat into an island. That way instead of washing up on an island with nothing, I could bring a few supplies with me; books and matches and a hammer and rope and the like. I remember ketchup being an important commodity in my mind. Ketchup and Kool-aid. In the heady days of adolescence it all sounded like a blast. Pirating and adventure on the high seas! Even crashing the boat sounded like fun. Like I said, I wasn’t a very bright kid.

 

As I got older, I realized the importance of having a working boat once I was on the island. I enjoy a lot of modern things, I need new books to read, I want a mountain dew now and then, fresh batteries and ice. Oh, sweet ice. My obsession with ice is no small matter, but for now lets just say I had grown too accustomed to modern conveniences to commit to living like a savage. At the same time I had this sadly American realization, I suppose I had finally grown up enough to admit some greater truths along with my addiction to consumerism, I also begrudgingly realized the improbability of ever finding a decent island to claim as my own. The movies and books make the ocean sound wide and uncharted. But that’s not how it is, all the islands have been discovered and populated. Bought up by spoiled movie stars or nuked into inhabitability. Dammit.

 

My dreams never really faded, but grew bitter sweet. I continued to be fascinated by the idea of escape. Soon my literary preferences turned from fantasy to science fiction. I finally, childishly, came to the conclusion that to achieve my childhood goal I would indeed have to invent a time machine. I enrolled in an amateur electronics course at the community college. I figured I would build a time machine and then go back to a time when the Pacific was more or less free of any shipping or passenger traffic, and then I would simply get a boat and then find an island to “kind of” crash into. That’s a hell of a lot of work for a kid of twelve years to take on just to be alone on an island. But it was a project, my parents supported my enthusiasm in electronics, and I had secret goals, which provided me with ample motivation.

 

But the course ended before we got to the theoretical physics chapter, and the real school year began. It was the first year of junior high, a stressful enough time for a kid, and then I discovered masturbation.. However, I rushed to finish my design, cut a few corners, and later that September my time machine caught our garage on fire. I was grounded six weeks for that one.The plan was then soon forgotten.

 

And as I grew even older, I realized I probably wouldn’t really want to be that alone. I had made friends, discovered girls, my family had finally stopped moving long enough for real relationships to grow and I suddenly saw how important it was for other people to see how great of a time you’re having. That may sound shallow, and it is. But it is also true. No one really wants to admit it, but other people are needed, if only to observe how really great of a time you are having. Or how great you are being.  You can describe the great time you’re having, or how awesome you were to someone later, but you may as well be lying. It’s just a story without a witness.

 

My dream finally seemed broken. My time machine had failed, pirating was punishable by death, and regardless, I could never convince anyone to abandon everything just so they could crash a boat into an island with me, even if they got to watch me have a great time.

 

I considered what it would take to do something similar in the woods, the mountains, by a lake, self sustained communities hidden away from the madness of modern society. I had lived in Colorado a few times, and had done some hiking as a kid. The mountain air was delicious, the lakes full of fish it seemed. There was a book I had read as a kid, Hatchet, I think. Some kid ends up alone by some lake in the Yukon, crashed a plane, no no, was in a plane that crashed. Yeah, that’s it. It’s been a while. I remember he ate turtle eggs. But the Yukon gets cold, a hell of a lot colder than I enjoy, and for a hell of alot longer. Plus, communes involve a lot of people. Ugh, people. Remember that scene from Easy Rider where they end up in some dirty hippy camp? That isn’t part of my dream. Damn hippies.

 

Somewhere around sophomore year of high school, I kinda lost faith in people… not everyone, not individually, but definitely the whole commune idea. People are not made to exist happily together. We’re more chimp than bonobo, angry and aggressive, power hungry and jealous. Any collection of people will eventually lead to gossip, exclusion and treachery. The lot of us are backstabbing, lying, cheating bastards.  At least that was my conclusion.  Surely being in high school didn’t help; only weirdoes enjoy that kind of peer pressure and humiliation.

 

But this was an obvious oversimplification. There had to be a way, a system of organization that prevents that kind of mental stagnation that so often leads to boredom and invented dramas. There had to be, because, even though I was close, I still pursued my dream. The only solution left to me then reached up and slapped my face.  If there’s no way to make time travel work, and there’s no available islands left for me to conquer, then dammit, I figured I’d make my own.

 

Obviously, there were (and are) some major obstacles to overcome. What to build with? How to get money for it? Where would I build this thing? I wasn’t ever actually that serious about it, or serious at all, but would think about it now and then as a sort of intellectual side game. After all a floating island is just a big boat without propulsion.  Options, did however, come and go.  Ideas popped up and were shot down, things would get silly for a while, training dolphins and whales to pull the island, hijacking a submarine and having it be our bodyguard, things of the “fun to talk about but not even remotely possible” category. It wasn’t until Konrad mentioned the huge back-stock of banned Styrofoam packaging clogging up the shipping docks where he was working that an actual conceivable plan started to form in my mind.

 

This too probably would have passed as an afterthought, but through a trick of fate I happened to be in one of those weird relationship places where I often thought of picking up and moving on down the road. I was in my mid twenties by now, and had spent the last seven years roaming around America, moving from one destination spot to the next, a backpack and a skateboard my only consistent possessions.

 

Time currently found me living in Seattle,and I liked it, and Seattle liked me. I had finally gotten a chef job in a place where I was appreciated and given the freedom I needed to be happy, and I still enjoyed my job even after a year and a half. I had a nice house, rented of course, but in a good spot.  And I had my ping pong table. I even had a good roommate, Konrad Curtis. Konrad and I had been friends for going on ten years now, we had met in high school and had kept in touch over the years. We hit it off quickly when we first met because we were both the new kids in class, both read too many books and both could quote every line from the three amigos. He moved a lot as well, although we didn’t have anywhere in common to talk about. He had been raised in a religious setting, and though I had been raised Catholic I was about as atheistic as you could get, and this made for some rousing debates.

 

He had moved to Seattle about six months prior, returning to the States after a somewhat mysterious tour in Europe. He was still pretty guarded about the whole thing and I never pushed too hard, we were good roomies and respected each other enough not to push too hard on sore subjects. Plus, he was great at ping pong,  and being such had earned my respect, so he didn’t need to explain a damn thing.

 

Konrad was actually a very talented dude, the guy could sell condoms at the convent, could take apart an engine and put it back together on a lunch break, even make eggs over easy in a pinch. He had moved to Seattle looking for a mechanic position somewhere, but in the rush to gain employment he had settled for one of his lesser skills, that of shipping and receiving. The port of Seattle saw a lot of cargo coming and going, and while there were good jobs to be found in the “hard work” sector, most unemployed Seattleites were holding out for a tech job at Boeing or Microsoft. Luckily for Konrad, the diminished labor pool was further frustrated by a union dispute between the dockworkers union and the recession. Konrad had no qualms about being a scab.

 

Konrad had mentioned the packaging problem a few times. Seattle had banned styrofoam packaging a few years earlier, but occasionally cargo containers still ended up on the dock full of disposable cups and packing peanuts, solid blocks, boxes and pellets of polyurethane. Konrad’s job was to receive shipments and direct the containers to their proper zones. What was frustrating him was the huge zone reserved for orphaned Styrofoam, stagnant because it was not worth enough to ship back and entirely lacking demand in the local economy.

 

By another trick of fate, this particular night he and I were fishing off the east side of Lake Union. As usual, we had caught nothing but a buzz. The fish may not be biting, but the bottle of Jack we passed between us was, and the Rainier tall cans were backing it up with the second part of a one-two punch.

 

As we cracked jokes back and forth, telling stories and sharing lies, I gazed blankly at the water in front of me. My eyes glaze over pretty easily, the thousand-yard stare, a sure sign that some part of my brain is dominating my thought processes. Konrad was describing a shipment of Japanese condoms that had come in the day before, something about the whole container glowing in the dark, when something he had said an hour before finally finished it’s cycle through my convoluted brain works. My vision came into focus, and I finally saw what I had been staring at, what had triggered the sixty minute old comment to come back into my current thought sphere.

 

There was a piece of Styrofoam dock, a brick size chunk, floating ten feet in front of me. It was bobbing gently on the small waves, riding them, twisting smoothly in the lake. My need to move on, ditching my girl problems, my long lost dream of having my own island, Konrad’s packaging surplus… it all came together. Kind of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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